Archive for June, 2016

If Satan is real (and he is), why not exorcism?

June 11, 2016

satans_downfallMany years ago, theologian Roger Olson was instrumental in my own “conversion” to what he calls Satanic realism: the belief that spiritual warfare is real, and that the Satanic realm poses a real threat to us and our world. Granted, I shouldn’t have needed Olson to wake me up to this reality—I have the Bible, after all—but what can I say? I went to a seminary, Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where most of the faculty believed that Satan was merely a symbol for evil, not an active force (along with his minions) working against God’s purposes in the world.

At the time, Dr. Olson recommended a couple of books that I read on the subject: Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (out of print, from Eerdmans) and M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. Both of them had a profound impact on my ministry and theology.

At the time, I also talked to a trusted clergy friend who had done street ministry among junkies, prostitutes, and homeless people. With conviction and credibility, he described supernatural experiences that could only be understood in light of the demonic realm. I believed him.

Add to his personal testimony the testimonies of N.T. Wright, an intellectual hero of mine, and Olson, and I was convicted: the church in the West—Protestant or Catholic—has badly failed us when it comes to spiritual warfare. Christians in the Global South, by contrast, have rightly perceived the threat.

All that to say, I read Olson’s recent blog post, “Should Western Christians Rediscover Exorcism?” with great interest.

I am well aware of how shocked some of my readers will be by my asking the question. Am I not a modern/postmodern, enlightened Christian? Well, I ask myself that, too. But somehow I can’t avoid at least raising the issue and I’ll explain why.

What do I mean by “Western Christians?” Exorcism is not at all unknown even in mainline Christianity in much of the Global South and that is where Christianity is most vital. Most Christians in those parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America where evangelical Christianity is exploding (mostly varieties of Pentecostalism) believe strongly in the presence and power of the demonic. While exorcism might not be an everyday occurrence, it is widely believed in and often practiced.

In Europe and North America, however, evangelical Christians—to say nothing of so-called “mainline Protestants”—have by-and-large abandoned exorcism and even talk of the demonic. We smile half-knowingly in amusement when we read or hear about Luther throwing his ink well at a “devil” who attempted to distract him from translating the Bible into German. We may read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Lettersand for a moment or two pay lip service to Satan and his minions. But rarely do we take it all seriously—as if it really mattered for us.

And yet…there is no escaping the fact that the New Testament is full of it. Full of what? Satan, demons, demon possession and exorcism. So-called “mainline Protestants” typically dismiss all that as primitive description of mental illness, epilepsy and Jesus’s therapeutic powers. Officially, Catholics are still supposed to believe in the reality of Satan and demons. There are certain priests who are trained and recognized as exorcists. Evangelical Protestants in Europe and North America (and I assume Australia) typically will not deny the reality of Satan, demons, demonic possession, and exorcism, but we typically relegate all that to “New Testament times” and “the mission fields.” For the most part, we don’t think it’s real “here.”

Are we Western evangelical Christians simply over reacting to extremes and succumbing to cultural accommodation by virtually ignoring the demonic powers and exorcism? Can/should we rediscover this New Testament reality without extremism? Is it possible to rediscover it without falling into extremism? (By “extremism” I mean blowing it out of proportion and going beyond anything biblical.) I don’t have any answers, just questions. I think it’s a conversation contemporary evangelical Christians in the West need to have.

I think the answer to each of these questions is a resounding yes. What do you think?

Sermon 06-05-16: “Stairway to Heaven”

June 10, 2016

Opening the Scriptures graphic

Jacob is nobody’s idea of an obvious candidate for the many blessings that God bestows upon him. But God still chooses him. Why? Because of grace—not because Jacob does anything to deserve these blessings. This sermon explores the meaning of grace and how a God of perfect justice can give us grace so liberally. Hint: This is where we see Jesus in today’s scripture!

Sermon Text: Genesis 28:10-22

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Since I became an adult, I have been afflicted with recurring bad dreams. They’re almost always related to school. In one of these dreams, I get a call one day—out of the blue—from the principal of my high school. I’m sure Mr. Burns has long since retired now—and, besides, my high school is no longer a high school; it’s a middle school.

But in my dream it’s still a high school, and Mr. Burns is still the principal.

He informs me that there was a mistake in the record-keeping back in 1988 when I graduated, and, as it happens, I’m going to have to go back to high school in order to receive all the necessary credits I need to earn my diploma. And, oh, by the way… If I don’t go back to high school, they’re going to call Georgia Tech and Emory University and tell them to take away the three degrees that I earned between those two schools.

I’m pretty sure my old high school didn’t have the authority to do that, but in my dream it did!

In another dream, I’m back at Georgia Tech, except I’m the age I am now—taking classes I took twenty years ago. Except this time I have no idea what’s going on. And I have no idea why I’m taking these classes again, since I already have my degree… Which I’m not using anymore anyway. It doesn’t make sense. And that’s what finally causes me to wake up: I think, “I don’t have to take these engineering classes. I’m a pastor now. What am I doing?”

So I wake up as if in a cold sweat. Nervous! Then I feel a great sense of relief—after a few moments pass when I realize that it was only a dream! “Thank God, it was only a dream!”

If only I had more happy dreams—dreams that are so gloriously good that I’m disappointed to wake up! “AwwThat was only a dream! Too bad it wasn’t real.”

Jacob’s dream, in today’s scripture, was obviously one of the good kind of dreams—the best kind, in fact. Because when Jacob woke up, he didn’t wonder whether it was real or not. He knew it was real. He knew that God was really in that place, that God was really speaking to him, that God was promising to bless him beyond his wildest dreams! Read the rest of this entry »

Blog rewind: “Dear future Brent: in case you forget, God is in charge”

June 10, 2016

Three Ramblin' Wrecks from Georgia Tech who are also United Methodist ministers. We were at the Wesleyan Renewal Movement breakfast in Athens on Tuesday.

Three Ramblin’ Wrecks from Georgia Tech who are also United Methodist ministers. We were at the Wesleyan Renewal Movement breakfast in Athens on Tuesday.

This week I was in Athens, Georgia, for the North Georgia Annual Conference, alongside a couple thousand United Methodist pastors and laypeople. I’m pleased to confirm that this blog post, which I wrote in 2012 in the wake of another Annual Conference, remains applicable today.

The iconic Methodist circuit rider. It was safer to read on horseback than in a car! (This statue is from the Oregon state capitol in Salem.)

Last week, when a parishioner found out that Annual Conference was this week, he asked me if there would be any surprises. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Don’t you find out whether you’ll be moving at Annual Conference?”

In case you’re not Methodist, you may not know that we ordained elders are itinerant. This means that we serve our churches or other ministries on a year-by-year basis. Each year, we are appointed (or reappointed) to a church or other ministry. That appointment or reappointment officially takes place at Annual Conference. In the early days of Methodism in America, circuit-riding preachers would often find out at Annual Conference where they would be serving in the upcoming year and ride off to their new appointment.

Things have changed since then. We pastors usually know weeks in advance of Annual Conference where we’ll be serving. We may be surprised, but the surprise occurs long before Conference. As I told my parishioner, there would be no surprises this year. I have been reappointed as an associate pastor at Alpharetta First—and happily so.

I love this church. I love my ministry with the Vinebranch community. I love the people I work with. And I have a lot of work that I still want to accomplish here.

That being said, I’m well aware that itinerating can be painful for my colleagues in Methodist ministry—as it will be for me some day. So consider this post a letter to my future self—when it’s my time for me to move to a place I don’t want to go to.

God is in charge, not me. Did you hear that, Brent? God is in charge—of my life, my family, my marriage, my home, and, of course, my pastoral ministry. God is in charge of the place I’ll be sent to next, and the place after that, and the place after that. In fact, even though the bishop is the one who calls my name and tells me where I’m going, God is the one who does the sending, not him or her. I don’t even have to like it. But God is still in charge.

There is a theological word that describes God’s being in charge. And it’s a word to which some of my colleagues in Methodist ministry are allergic: sovereignty. God is sovereign. We Methodists don’t like to use this word because we fear that it means we’re only a few inches away from believing that God predestines some people to hell—or whatever. It’s ridiculous. Or maybe we think that believing that God calls the shots in our ministry means that we forfeit the right to complain about it.

No. Complain all you want, I say. Complaining to God is downright biblical. But God is still in charge.

Wesley believed in God’s sovereignty in a way that might shock our modern Methodist sensibilities. He even adapted and prayed the following words for our covenant prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.

So, Brent, when you are tempted to complain about a future appointment; when you feel entitled to a more prestigious, more lucrative, more geographically attractive appointment; when you feel like you’re being treated unfairly by the system; when you feel like less-deserving colleagues are being appointed ahead of you, please ask yourself: what part of “let me be… laid aside for thee…” and “let me be empty” do you not understand?

Who knows? By kicking against the goads of an itinerant system that you signed up for when you chose to become a Methodist pastor, you risk missing out on the blessing that God has for you in your new appointment. Maybe, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, it will be a severe blessing, but a blessing nonetheless. God has his reasons for sending you there. Trust in him—not in the United Methodist Church or the bishop or the itinerant system. Trust in God. God is in charge.

Sermon 05-29-16: “Isaac and the Sacrifice of Christ”

June 8, 2016

Opening the Scriptures graphic

Abraham had been tested by God many times over his 40 years of following God’s call. Yet in Genesis 22, he faces his biggest test of all: Will he still be faithful to God if God takes away everything he’d spent the past 40 years working for? The test, in other words, is this: If Abraham lost everything except God, would God be enough for him? Of course, Abraham’s words and actions answer this question with a resounding “yes.” But don’t we Christians face this same test—on a much smaller scale—nearly all the time? Is God enough for you and me?

Sermon Text: Genesis 22:1-19

Sadly, no video this week. But listen to the audio by clicking on the playhead above or right-click on this link to download an MP3.

The following is my original sermon manuscript. It may vary slightly from the sermon that I delivered.

bob_dylan_bassMy favorite musician of all time turned 75 last week. Bob Dylan. And Dylan wrote a famous song—Jimi Hendrix also does a version of it—that begins with a re-telling of today’s scripture: “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’/ Abe said, “Man, you must be putting me on’/ God said, ‘No’/ Abe said, ‘What?’/ God said, ‘You can do what you want to but/ The next time you see me coming you’d better run.’ ” That last line always makes me chuckle… but it’s not accurate. God doesn’t coerce Abraham into offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice. That would defeat the purpose. The test is to see whether Abraham will perform this sacrifice, not because Abraham’s being blackmailed by God, or because he feels like his life is at stake. Besides, I’m sure Abraham would gladly give his own life to save his son’s. No, God wants Abraham to obey him simply because God says so.

And certainly not because God’s word to Abraham made any sense to him!

And this is the part of today’s scripture that the Dylan song gets exactly right: “You must be putting me on?” What God was asking Abraham to do didn’t make any sense! Read the rest of this entry »

God will not be put off by human stupidity

June 4, 2016

The commentary says it’s “for everyone,” but, judging by the cover, it’s only for beautiful people. I bought it anyway. 😉

We human beings don’t like grace very much. We like to see wrongdoing punished and good works rewarded—so long as we don’t reflect on our own actions very much. When we do, of course, we’re all about grace, grace, grace! The response of approximately 246 million zoological and parenting experts who have weighed in this week on the event at the Cincinnati Zoo is a case in point: We are not, in general, a gracious people.

All of which makes God’s response to Jacob in Genesis 28:10-22 all the more startling, as John Goldingay’s commentary makes clear. (Please note, Goldingay’s refers to angels as God’s “aides.”)

What God does in Jacob’s dream is open his eyes to something that is happening all the time; the scene parallels one where Elisha prays for his servant to be able to see the supernatural forces that protect them when they are in danger (2 Kings 6). It is continually the case that God is involved in the world and sending aides on missions. You cannot see them, but they are at work. Jacob has every reason to be apprehensive about his situation. He has lied to his father, taken God’s name in vain, cheated his father, made Esau want to kill him, and had to set out on his way out of the promised land. God steps in to give him reassurance that all this does not mean God’s purpose will be frustrated. God’s aides are still at work not because Jacob deserves to have God active in his life but because God will not be put off from acting just by Rebekah and Jacob’s stupidity. Not only does God enable him to see the aides who are continually  active in God’s work in the world, but God personally shows up in the dream, without electrocuting Jacob, to give him a special message of encouragement.[†]

To Goldingay’s list of charges against Jacob, I would add that even after being given this gracious word from the Lord, Jacob’s “conversion” remains far from complete. God gives Jacob some unconditional promises; Jacob responds with conditions: “If you do this, I’ll do that.”

“That Jacob!” we say. “Why is he such a sinner? Why is he such a screw-up? Why isn’t he more faithful?”

Faithful. You know… Like we’re faithful.

John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part Two (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 87.

Ask Dr. Olson a question? You bet I will!

June 2, 2016

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you probably know how much I admire Roger Olson, a historical theologian at Baylor (not to mention an Arminian Baptist), and his blog. He has a new post this week, “Ask a Theologian a Question,” in which he’s fielding questions from readers.

My question was of a nagging apologetic concern that I’ve had. Dr. Olson was gracious enough to answer. The key, I believe, is that God doesn’t merely want us to know that he exists. Mere knowledge hardly produces love, or self-sacrifice, or worship. Doesn’t it seem likely that many convinced atheists wouldn’t submit to the kind of loving, trusting relationship that God wants us to have with him, even if they had more tangible proof? Both the late writer Christopher Hitchens and English actor Stephen Fry, among others, have said they wouldn’t want the Christian God to exist, and if he did, they wouldn’t bow down to them.

Besides, as James says, even demons know that God exists—and shudder. As I imply in my question, I agree with Olson: Believing that God exists is our natural state of affairs. Evidence from history, not to mention scripture, bears this out.

(Click on graphic to expand.)


Are Methodists Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura, and what’s the difference?

June 1, 2016

I’ve read more than a few Methodists recently who have sought to distinguish what Methodists believe about the Bible from what Martin Luther and the other Reformers believed about the Bible. These Methodists say that we hold to the doctrine of Prima Scriptura (“scripture first”) rather than Sola Scriptura (“scripture alone”).

Is this true? And what is the difference?

First, let me apologize for not knowing these answers already. I went to Candler, after all. I’m always playing catchup.

I suspect that when a Methodist says that we are Prima Scriptura, what he means is that we also hold in high regard other authorities for guiding our Christian lives—for example, tradition, reason, and (ugh!) experience, even as these authorities mustn’t contradict what God’s Word plainly reveals. If a Methodist insists that he’s Prima Scriptura, then he is likely basing it on Wesleyan scholar Albert Outler’s misbegotten or badly misconstrued Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a formulation that he himself lived to regret.

But what Protestant doesn’t at least believe that tradition and reason aren’t important or necessary in guiding our theology and behavior?

O.K., I know there are a few, at least in theory. Congregations within the Church of Christ tradition, for example, refuse to use instruments in worship because the Bible, or at least the New Testament, makes no explicit reference to instruments in worship. The New Testament’s silence on the subject, instead of permitting us the opportunity to think it through, must mean prohibition. That represents an extreme edge of “scripture alone,” but only insofar as we disregard the Old Testament.

Another example: The Church of England had an ongoing debate with Puritan nonconformists over the issue of iconoclasm, which is why, even today, a typical Presbyterian church sanctuary is less ornate than most other churches. Puritans believed that the Bible’s silence on many traditional elements in Anglican (not to mention Roman Catholic) worship prohibited these elements. Again, while this Puritan view represents an extreme interpretation of Sola Scriptura, it’s a small minority opinion within Christendom, and it wouldn’t have been shared by most of the Reformers, all of whom (to my knowledge) affirmed Sola Scriptura.

I know for certain that Luther, who believed in Sola Scriptura, also accepted tradition and reason. So why do some Methodists insist that we are, contra the Reformers, Prima Scriptura?

I have my suspicions, but at least a part of me is sincerely curious: What’s the difference between Prima and Sola Scriptura?