Archive for January, 2018

Devotional Podcast #5: “The Lord Is Your Portion”

January 19, 2018

Many times in the Bible, the writer says that the Lord is his “portion.” What does that mean and how is it relevant for us?

Devotional Text: Psalm 16:1-11

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Friday, January 19, and this is podcast number five in my new series of devotional podcasts. I post new episodes in this series every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I also post my Sunday sermons here, as I did yesterday when I posted my January 7 sermon. Look for my January 14 sermon soon!

You’re listening to a song by one of the original British invasion bands, The Zombies. This comes from their 1968 album, Odessey and Oracle—one of the greatest albums ever made, I promise. You need to hear it!

One of my absolute favorite memories of my three kids is related to this song, “A Rose for Emily.” It happened when they were young—between the ages of 5 and 10. They were riding in the backseat of my car. And this song came on the car stereo. And all three of them, all at once, without any prompting from me, began singing every word. I didn’t even know that they knew the song—you know? I mean, I knew they’d heard it, but I didn’t know they were paying attention to it—enough to memorize all the words and know it so well. And here they were, singing every note.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that those voices from the back seat were probably the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard! Just a moment of pure joy—for them, for me!

Joy has been on my mind this week. It snowed this week in Atlanta, and my kids have enjoyed three days off school. Three “snow days”… Is there anything better than a snow day? When I was a kid, snow days rivaled only Christmas for the happiest times of my life.

Today’s scripture, from Psalm 16, is about deep happiness and joy. Listen to verses 2, 5 and 6, and 11: “I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you… The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance… You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

The Bible speaks often about the Lord being our “portion,” including David in today’s scripture. What does that mean? The earliest reference is in Numbers 18:20. God is talking to Aaron: “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.” Aaron and the rest of his tribe, the Levites, weren’t entitled to inherit land—so for them, their “inheritance,” their wealth, their “portion”—what they received in place of material prosperity—was nothing less than the Lord himself. The Lord was supposed to enough for them. The Lord was supposed to satisfy them.

Later, David and the other psalmists, along with Jeremiah in Lamentations, applied this principle to all of us believers, regardless of whatever else we have or don’t have. If the Lord is our portion, we will always have enough, we will always be satisfied, we will always be wealthy in the only way that counts! If the Lord is our portion, we can experience the “fullness of joy” in God’s presence.

Fullness of joy.

I can’t read today’s scripture—along with many other psalms and many other passages of scripture, including Jesus’ own words—without concluding that being a Christian is supposed to make us happy. Deeply, genuinely happy. With a happiness that is mostly invulnerable to external circumstances—joy, in other words. In the sermon I posted on this channel yesterday and on my blog, I talked about the rewards that Jesus promises us when we pray in the right way, for instance. Those rewards are not simply in the sweet by-and-by. They are for right now, too.

And you say, “Then why are Christians so often unhappy?” And if you knew me well enough, you might ask, “Brent, why are you so often unhappy? Why have you been so unhappy?”

Let me tell you: Because I have a lifetime of experience trying to find my “portion” in things other than God—and it’s as if God has spent these past 47 years showing me, through painful personal experience, that, “No, Brent, your portion is not found in career success or ambition. Look somewhere else. No, Brent, your portion is not found in relationships. Look somewhere else. No, Brent, your portion is not found in money. Look somewhere else. No, Brent, your portion is not found in recognition and praise from others. Look somewhere else.”

Honestly. It’s as if through the process of elimination, God has made me miserable enough with each of these things I’ve desired to teach me that if I want to be happy, my portion cannot be anything other than the Lord!

And I promise the message is getting through! I preach differently now! My sermons have taken a different tone. It’s because I’m learning that the Lord is my portion. He’s everything I need!

Do you remember that popular singer-songwriter Paul Williams? You would know him if you saw him. When I was a kid, he was all over TV—he guest-starred on shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. He was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. He was on game shows all the time. And he was all over the radio, at least indirectly—he wrote three hits, including “We’ve Only Just Begun,” for the Carpenters. He wrote hit songs for Three Dog Night, Barbra Streisand, and even Kermit the Frog—he wrote “Rainbow Connection.”

And you might be wondering, “What happened to him? Didn’t he die, like, in the ’80s or something.” One filmmaker, Stephen Kessler, who, like me, grew up seeing Paul Williams everywhere on TV was surprised to discover that, in fact, Paul Williams didn’t die. So this filmmaker made a documentary about Williams a few years ago called, appropriately enough, Still Alive. I watched it recently. It’s not very good…

Why? Because Williams, who by the late-’80s nearly killed himself with drugs and alcohol and reckless living, checked himself into rehab in the early ’90s. And he’s been clean and sober ever since. He’s become a stable family man. And he’s done it all outside of the public spotlight.

But the question Kessler kept asking, in one way or another, was, “How can you be happy with so little after having so much? How can you be happy playing concerts for dozens or hundreds, when you used to play for thousands—or millions on TV?” And Kessler seemed disappointed that there was no juicy story here. See, the story he wanted to tell was, “Isn’t it tragic how Williams lost everything?” But from Williams’s prospective, the tragedy was the family that he ruined and the people that he hurt—back then, in the throes of his addiction and self-destructiveness, at the height of his fame! He was miserable back then… when he had it all. Now he’s happy. The story isn’t “look what I lost.” The story is “look what I’ve gained!”

At one point, Williams said, “I’ve sorry I’ve ruined your movie by how O.K. I am with my life now.” In other words, Williams wasn’t supposed to happy without the fame, the money, the women, the adoration of millions.

I have no idea whether Williams is a Christian. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was. He’s seen wearing a cross in the movie. He’s worked the twelve steps. The question of his faith, if it was discussed at all, was left on the cutting room floor.

But it doesn’t matter: his story resonates with me because it’s ultimately a story of trying to find one’s “portion” in people, possessions, and things that can never truly satisfy. On a much, much smaller scale, I’ve chased after some of those things, too. And I know they bring heartache and misery. Thank God he’s shown me that!

Thank God there’s a better way! Find your “portion” in the Lord!

Sermon 01-07-18: “Rewarding Prayer”

January 18, 2018

This is the first of a new six-part sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. In this sermon, I talk about Jesus’ promise of a reward for praying the way that he teaches. I suspect many of us haven’t experienced prayer as “rewarding”—at least as much as God wants us to! I want that to change! I also talk about the privilege that we have in calling God “our Father.”

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:5-9

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Many of you have seen the funny meme that has circulated this past week, in the wake of the `Bulldogs’ overtime victory over Oklahoma. It looks like this: [show meme on screen] “If you made any promises in overtime, service starts at 9:30 or 11:15 this Sunday morning.”  And so we could change ours to 9:00 or 11:00, but same difference. The point is, many Georgia fans were praying during that game last Monday—and chances are that some of them made promises to God: “I will go to church, Lord, if only you’ll let the Bulldogs win.”

This is funny. I like it. But by the end of the sermon, I hope you’ll see why, according to Jesus, this is terrible theology.

But this meme is about prayer, and today at HUMC we’re beginning a six-part sermon series on prayer—specifically, the Lord’s Prayer. We sort of began last week by looking at a parable about prayer—the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18. As we saw last week, Jesus told that parable to encourage us disciples to pray always and not to lose heart.

A natural follow-up question to last week’s sermon is, “O.K., I get it, Pastor Brent. I need to pray a lot more than I do now. Tell me something I don’t know! But how do I do it?”

And to answer that question, Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew chapter 6. We’re going to look at just the very beginning of the prayer today—“Our Father”—and the four verses leading up to it. The four verses leading up to the Lord’s Prayer tell us how not to pray.

The first way not to pray, Jesus says, is to do it for the sake of any audience other than God: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #4: “Thank God for Unanswered Prayer”

January 17, 2018

As someone who’s interested in Christian apologetics, I used to think that unanswered prayer posed a bigger “challenge” to Christianity than I do today. I explain why in this podcast. The gist is this: I know my own heart to some extent. I often don’t know what’s good for me. And I often want things that ultimately cause me harm. Our Father, by contrast, only wants to give us “good things,” as Jesus says. So we can trust him.

Devotional Text: Matthew 7:7-11

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 17, and this is the fourth podcast of my new series of devotional podcasts. I’m posting new podcasts in this series every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I’ll also post my Sunday sermons whenever I get around to it. So stay tuned.

You’re listening to the song “Beautiful One,” by the band Daniel Amos, sometimes known as DA, from their 1986 album Fearful Symmetry. It’s hard not to hear echoes of the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe.”

Years ago—eleven, to be exact—I attended a debate in Atlanta between Christopher Hitchens, a well-known British political commentator, author, and journalist, and Timothy Jackson, one of my professors at the Candler School of Theology. At the time, the late Mr. Hitchens was staging debates with religious people as part of a publicity tour for his new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens was a quick wit and a famously fierce debater, and, although you wouldn’t know it from the boisterous reactions of Hitchens partisans in the audience—it was his book tour, after all—my guy, Dr. Jackson, won the debate… handily. In fact, the debate sparked my interest in Christian apologetics—the art of defending the Christian faith—that remains to this day. It’s hard to remember this now, but I started my blog in 2009 in part to address skeptical questions about the Christian faith.

One such question is the challenge posed by unanswered prayer. How do we square the fact of unanswered prayer with Jesus’ own words on the subject—for example, Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Or John 14:13: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

There are many good answers to this question, but I like this analogy from science: Chaos theory teaches us that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could be “magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific.”[1] So even a seemingly small event like a butterfly flapping its wings can change the course of history in ways that we can’t predict. Now think about our prayer petitions: the things we ask God to do for us will likely be far more significant than a butterfly flapping its wings; and only God can foresee whether the consequences of granting our petition will ultimately be good for us, for everyone else, and for the rest of Creation.

My point is, if God doesn’t grant our petition, we can trust that he knows best; we certainly don’t. As pastor Tim Keller puts it, “God gives us what we would have asked for, if we knew everything that God knows.”

I like that answer… I do! But it’s still a little academic.

How about this answer: Often God doesn’t give us—his children—what we ask for because God wants us to be happy—I mean, deeply happy; with a lasting kind of happiness, an invulnerable kind of joy. And we simply don’t know what we need in order to achieve that kind of happiness. But God does.

In that same passage from Matthew chapter 7 that I referred to a moment ago, Jesus says, “[W]hich one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”[2]

Notice Jesus says that our Father will give us “good things.” I hate to say it, but I’m not convinced I want good things much of the time!

Don’t get me wrong: I want things! For example, I desperately want recognition… I want people to praise me… I want people to appreciate me… I want people to show me how much they love me.

And you might say, “What do you want? A medal?” Yes! That’s a good start!

And if I don’t get a medal, I’d be willing to settle for lots of money! I’m not hard to please!

My point is, the things I want… even if I got them, they would never be enough. I would never be satisfied. God knows that!

So thank God for unanswered prayer! I mean that literally… Thank God! Our Father only wants to give his children good things. See, I’m the one asking for stones, and my Father gives me bread instead. I’m the one asking for a serpent, and my Father gives me a fish instead. Or, from Luke’s gospel, I’m the one asking for a scorpion, and my Father gives me an egg instead. Thank God!

God wants us to be happy… Our problem is our willingness to settle for something far less than happiness. Listen to the way C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain:

George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.[3]

“O God, I’m weary from hunger. I don’t want to starve any longer. Give me your bread of life. Give me your Son Jesus! Give me Jesus, and I’ll be satisfied. Amen.”

That’s a prayer that God will answer every time!

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.

2. Matthew 7:9-10 ESV

3. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.

Devotional Podcast #3: “Good News! Prayer Is Not ‘Listening'”

January 15, 2018

It’s become a truism among many Christians that “listening for God” in prayer is at least as important as “talking to God” in prayer. But what if that’s not true? What if prayer doesn’t involve “listening” at all? If that’s the case, then prayer suddenly seems much easier, doesn’t it?

Of course listening to God speak to us is incredibly important, but the way we do that is not through prayer but through reading God’s Word.

Devotional Text: Matthew 6:9-13

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Monday, January 15, and this is the third of my new series of devotional podcasts. My plan is to release new podcasts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—in addition to my sermons, which I’ll also post here. Speaking of which, I realize I’m already a week behind! It’s been a busy week! 

You’re listening to Elvis Presley, and his version of the Andraé Crouch song, “I’ve Got Confidence,” from his 1972 gospel album, He Touched Me.

I chose this song because I want us to have greater confidence when we pray. In fact, the theme of these first three podcasts is that prayer shouldn’t be nearly as difficult as we make it seem. As I’ve preached in my last two Sunday sermons, Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer—the model prayer which is meant to guide our own praying—in part to show us how easy prayer is meant to be! Listen to today’s scripture, Matthew 6:9-13:

Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

For one thing, the Lord’s Prayer is short. That should reassure us that our prayers—even good prayers that follow the Lord’s prayer as a model—don’t need to be long prayers. What does Jesus say in Matthew 6:7-8? “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Among other things, Jesus is giving us permission to pray short prayers, as necessary.

Notice something else: Prayer, according to Jesus’ model prayer, is verbal communication that moves in one direction—from our hearts to God. It is one-way communication from us to God.

I emphasize this because it’s become almost a truism among many Christians to say that prayer is two-way communication; that prayer involves both our speaking and our listening. Haven’t you heard this before? I’m sure I’ve heard many times over the years from Christian teachers and preachers that our “listening” for God to speak to us is at least as important as our “talking” to God. Of course, these same teachers will tell us that we shouldn’t expect God to speak to us in an audible voice. God’s “voice” will seem more like an intuition—a thought, a warm feeling.

Haven’t you heard something like this? Where does this idea come from?

Yesterday morning, I asked on Facebook where in the Bible we get the idea that prayer involves “listening”? A seminary classmate of mine, who is now an Episcopal priest, quoted 1 Samuel 3:9: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

And that sounds great, until you look at that verse in context. In context, Samuel is so convinced that he’s heard an audible voice that three times he walks over to his mentor, Eli, the priest, and asks, “Here I am. You called me. What do you need?” And three times Eli tells him, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t call you.” Only then does it become clear that this voice—which sounds like an audible voice to Samuel—is the voice of God. And at that point, Samuel says to God, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

What do I conclude from this? As much as I would like for God to speak so directly to me—as much as I would like to hear God in an unmistakably audible voice, the way Samuel did—I don’t expect that to happen, and besides, this is light years removed from the subtle kinds of intuitions, thoughts, impressions, and feelings through which the modern-day mystics tell us we should expect to hear God.

Besides, we don’t need to hear God speak to us in this direct sort of way. Why? Because God has already spoken… in God’s infallible Word… in holy scripture. In fact, we have about 750,00 words that God has given us. If we want to listen for God to speak to us, we need to start there… by reading the Bible. Haven’t we all had the experience of facing some challenge in our life. And then we read something in the Bible that is exactly what we need to hear to help us with whatever we’re dealing with! That’s the main way God speaks to us!

Of course, some Christians would say that the only way God speaks to us today is through scripture; I’m not even willing to go that far. If God is sovereign, which he is, then that means he’s sovereign over our thoughts and feelings, and he may use them, providentially, to guide us. He may guide us through dreams and visions. He may guide us through the advice or prophetic word of other people. He may guide us through circumstances. I’m thinking, for instance, of Acts 16:6-7, in which Luke tells us that the Paul and Silas were prohibited by the Holy Spirit from preaching the gospel in two different regions. How exactly did the Spirit prohibit them? We’re not told, but it was likely through external circumstances. We usually call this providence. But this revelation or illumination or providential guidance on God’s part—call it whatever you want to—is not prayer, even though it may be God’s response to our prayer.

Regardless, whatever we believe God is telling us in these various ways does not rise to the same level of authority as God’s Word, nor should this message be considered nearly as trustworthy. So scripture is still by far the main way through which we “listen” for God to speak to us. And listening to God speak in this way is not prayer.

Why does it matter so much that prayer does not involve listening for God to speak? Why am I getting worked up about it? Because I am a frustrated pray-er, in part because I believed that for years, decades even, that prayer was partly or even mostly about “listening.” So for years when I prayed, I thought I was supposed to wait until I heard something from God, or felt an intuition, or got an impression, or experienced some warm sense of God’s presence inside me—and unless or until I did, I hadn’t prayed properly. I would get discouraged with prayer! “It isn’t working,” I’d tell myself. “I’m not doing it right!” It just made me want to give up—or at least not do it as often as I should. I would think, “I’m not spiritual enough to pray properly.”

Don’t be like me! Jesus is telling the truth! Prayer is not hard!

Besides, maybe all this “listening” for God to speak to us is just a way of reassuring ourselves that we’ve really been heard. As if we’re waiting for a sign from God that he’s listening. Why? Because we don’t really believe Jesus when he tells us what prayer consists of. Because we don’t believe how simple it really is. Because it’s not enough to simply talk to our Father and trust that he’s listening and he’ll respond. No, we need to hear back from him—to make sure he’s really listening; to make sure that he really cares; to make sure that he’s really there.

So maybe all this listening is disguising our own lack of faith? Hmm.

If so, I repent.

Devotional Podcast #2: “Does God Care About Football?”

January 12, 2018

Devotional Text: Romans 8:28

You can subscribe to this and all future podcasts in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Friday, January 12, and this is the second of my new series of devotional podcasts, which I’m calling “Still Life.” My plan is to release new podcasts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—in addition to my sermons, which I’ll continue to post on this channel. You’re listening to Leslie Phillips, and her song, “No One but You,” from her 1988 compilation album, Recollection. By the way, Leslie later changed her stage name to “Sam,” her nickname, and the music of Sam Phillips was featured each week on the wonderful TV show Gilmore Girls.

So last Monday was the college football national championship game between the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama, and it was about as exciting a game as you’ll ever see. It ended in an overtime victory for Alabama. One interesting wrinkle in the game was that Alabama’s head coach, Nick Saban, put in his second-string quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, at the beginning of the second half—after Jalen Hurts, the starting quarterback, struggled in the first half.

More than a few observers perceived this to be a desperation move on Saban’s part, but you don’t win five national championships in nine years unless you know what you’re doing! Saban’s decision was vindicated, and Tagovailoa, a true freshman who had seen little playing time this year, was nothing short of electrifying.

But as a Christian, what impressed me nearly as much as his performance were his comments after the game. At least twice, in postgame interviews, when reporters asked the freshman quarterback questions about the game, he said something like, “First, let me give all thanks and praise to my Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.” These reporters wanted to revel in this athlete’s glory; he wanted to remind the world of the One to whom all glory belongs.

Tagovailoa seemed eager to steer the conversation away from himself to Christ. What did John the Baptist say? “He must become greater; I must become less.”[1] I don’t know… When I see living examples of this, it moves me deeply.

I have two thoughts I want to share about Tagovailoa’s example:

First, while it’s likely that God will never give you or me so large a platform to bear witness to Christ as he gave to Tagovailoa, he will give us a platform; chances are that God will place people in our lives this week who are lost in their sins and in need of the Good News of his Son Jesus. I’m not saying it’s our job to conduct a full-on Billy Graham Crusade with people, but… each one of us has been commissioned by our Lord to be witnesses for him.

You say, “I don’t know how to do that.” But I disagree! If you’re already a Christian, that means you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; you have personal experience with Christ; Christ has done good things for you. What has he done? Can you say? Christ has made a tangible difference in your life. How is your life better because of Christ? Can you answer that? If so, then you know how to witness.

As Christians, since we have experienced Christ as good news, we should be willing and able to share this good news with others. And even if we don’t know what to say, shouldn’t we be just as eager as Tagovailoa for people to know Christ the way we do? Shouldn’t we be just as eager for people to repent of their sins and be saved? Of course we should! Nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance, after all!

At the very least, we should pray, daily, for opportunities to witness—pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the right words to speak at the right time. Witnessing starts with prayer!

O.K., here’s my second thought about Tagovailoa’s interview: As a recovering cynic myself, I imagine that there are cynical people—even among us believers—who hear athletes thank God after a big victory and think, “Well, that’s easy for you to say! After all, you won. Your team won! Would you be as eager to thank the Lord if you lost?”

I can’t speak for Tagovailoa; I don’t know this young man, obviously… But I hope the answer would be, “Yes.” Yes…

If we believe that God is sovereign, and that the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 8:28 are true—“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”—then how could the answer not be yes?

Last Monday on Facebook, someone joked about praying desperately for his team’s victory. Then he wrote: “As if God cares about a football game! LOL.” And many friends chimed in their agreement: “Of course God doesn’t care about something so trivial as a football game!”

And I thought, “Really? What do you mean God doesn’t care about a football game?” God cares passionately about football games! How could he not?

Does he not care deeply about every player on both teams? Does he not care about both teams’ coaches and trainers and equipment managers; about team doctors and chaplains and cheerleaders? Does he not care about referees? Think about everyone whose livelihoods are tied up in football games—from network executives and university presidents on down! Does God not care about them? Does God not care about us and our careers? Or what about all the teams’ fans? If they’re overjoyed or they’re heartbroken, does God not care?

Of course he cares!

We make God seem very small and very weak, if we believe otherwise—a god who does not care about football is hardly the God revealed by Jesus who tells us that every hair on our head is numbered and that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without the Father caring.[2]

If we don’t think God cares about the so-called “little stuff,” well… we obviously don’t think God cares much about us—since our lives consist mostly of “little stuff.” I was talking about the challenge of prayer in the last podcast. Needless to say, if we don’t think God cares about the “little stuff” of life, it’s no wonder we struggle to pray!

No… thank God that he cares about the little things in life, including me and you and everything that we’re going through. Thank God that he’s working for the good of his children through every tiny detail of our lives!

Chances are, some of this “small stuff” is troubling you today. Will you take time to talk to your heavenly Father about it?

Devotional Podcast #1: “Pour Out Your Heart like Water”

January 10, 2018

Devotional Text: Lamentations 2:19

You can subscribe to this and all future podcasts in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 10, and today begins my new series of devotional podcasts, which I hope to bring to you two or three times each week. You’re listening to Phil Keaggy’s song, “Let Everything Else Go,” from his 1981 album, Town to Town.

During the final year of my father’s life, in 1995, when Dad was dying of terminal cancer, he experienced—praise God!—a reawakening of his Christian faith. For the first time in his life, perhaps, he was reading the Bible daily and was praying often. Or at least he was trying to pray often; he didn’t always accomplish it. He told me that because of all the medication he was on, he found it very difficult to concentrate. He said, “I begin to pray, and I lose focus. My mind wanders. What I do about that?”

I wasn’t a pastor at the time, but I reassured him with Paul’s words in Romans chapter 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

If no less a saint, I said, than the apostle Paul himself admitted that he didn’t know how to pray properly, then, well… it’s no wonder prayer can be hard… for all of us—even for those of us whose brains aren’t foggy from chemotherapy and other cancer-related drugs!

I find prayer difficult most of the time. And you probably do too.

I was listening to a sermon by a favorite pastor of mine whose church is very large and whose sermons are more intellectually demanding than my own. Unlike me, this preacher seems happily indifferent to using humor, or being “relevant,” or entertaining his audience in any way in his sermons—he just dives right into scripture week after week. So, rightly or wrongly, I perceive that his church must be more advanced in prayer and Bible study than the typical Methodist churches of which I’ve been part.

I was surprised, then, when he said that his church had recently conducted a survey on prayer in his congregation. Over half the congregation, he said, admitted that they did not pray regularly—all his theologically rich sermons on the subject notwithstanding.

The pastor said that when he read the results of the survey, he was tempted to resign on the spot.

I’m sympathetic. But prayer, as I know from painful experience, is hard. Of course, if you run in the same Christian circles that I run in, you may not know it’s hard. In my particular circles, for example, I have clergy colleagues and others who talk about praying almost all the time. They frequently post about their prayer lives on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… One clergy colleague, when addressing the challenges facing by my particular denomination said that she recently prayed for hours about our denomination’s problems—in anguish, in tears… And I thought, hours? How do you do that? It would take me months or more to accumulate “hours” of prayer about problems facing the institution known as the United Methodist Church.

Besides, why pray for hours about it when you can just be angry and bitter about it—like me?

But seriously, I get discouraged when I compare any aspect of my life to the lives of friends and acquaintances on social media—my prayer life included. Everyone puts their best foot forward online; everyone presents themselves in the most favorable light possible. What did someone say? On social media, we compare our insides to everyone else’s outside. It’s not a fair comparison. So let’s not do that. Let’s not worry about how we “measure up” to others when it comes to prayer. We only have one judge to worry about, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 4:4. Let’s just worry about ourselves only, and see if we can’t become more faithful pray-ers than we are today.

And to that end, I want to share with you something that has helped me recently: Lamentations 2:19. The prophet Jeremiah is urging his fellow Jews, who have watched the Babylonians destroy their capital city, their temple, their way of life, to repent and pray to God. He says,

Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street.

I find the 19th-century British preacher Charles Spurgeon’s words on this verse very helpful here. He writes:

[W]e cannot pray too simply. Just hear how Jeremiah put it: “Pour out your heart like water before the Lord’s presence.” How does water pour out? The quickest way it can—that’s all; it never thinks much about how it runs. That is the way the Lord loves to have our prayers pour out before him.[1]

Pour out your heart like water.

Prayer—at least Christian prayer—is always a matter of the heart. When prayer becomes disconnected from our heart, that’s when it becomes boring and routine. It becomes a duty we have to perform. It becomes an empty ritual. It becomes drudgery—something to check off our list each day.

Has that happened to you?

If so, reengage your heart. Do what Jeremiah says: Pour your heart out like water.

Consider this: You’ve got something on your heart right now that is waiting to be poured out. What is it? Start your prayers today with that… And maybe you think, “Yes, but God doesn’t want to hear this trivial stuff—or this petty stuff—or this sinful stuff.” Are you kidding? He already knows all about everything that you’re thinking and feeling. Better than you do! Don’t censor yourself. Like Spurgeon says, “Water never thinks much about how it runs.”

So tell God what’s on your heart: What is worrying you today? What is making you feel afraid today? Who or what is angering you today? Why are you hurting? Who or what is causing the pain? What temptations are you facing? What sins are you struggling with? What’s making you feel guilty?

Whatever is in your heart, pour it out like water!

And then ask God for help.

Start there. Start with what’s on your heart! Our heavenly Father wants to hear from you. He wants you to pray today more than he wants you to do so “correctly,” by following a proper form or pattern of prayer.

Will you pour out your heart to him like water this week?

Almighty God, please make it so. Amen.

1. Charles Spurgeon, The Spurgeon Study Bible CSB (Nashville: Holman, 2017), 1073.

Sermon 12-31-17: “Pray Always and Do Not Lose Heart”

January 4, 2018

Today’s scripture, the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8, is about more than the need to be persistent in prayer. It’s also about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ—and how we can be ready for it.

Sermon Text: Luke 18:1-8

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In our Wesleyan tradition, on New Year’s Eve in fact, is something called a “Watch Night” service. Methodist churches rarely have them anymore, but the idea is that, instead of ringing in the new year, you spend the night in prayer—literally “keeping watch.” And what are you watching for? The Second Coming of Jesus Christ. As Jesus says in many places, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour”[1]—of his return.

God’s Word tells us repeatedly—through Jesus in the gospels and in Revelation,[2] through Paul in 1 Thessalonians,[3] and through Peter in 2 Peter[4]—that the Second Coming will occur like a “thief in the night.” This image implies two important truths—and I confess that, for most of my life, when I contemplated the image of a “thief in the night,” I only considered one aspect of the image: that Jesus’ return will be unexpected. Jesus said, “But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”

The Second Coming will be unexpected—at least for the vast majority of people living in the world. Many of us have security systems in our homes, not for the sake of people breaking in during broad daylight but in the middle of the night, when we’re asleep. So the alarms can go off and we can be alerted to the danger. So, when I’ve considered the “thief in the night” image in the past, I’ve always considered the “in the night” part more than the “thief” part. But… let’s turn our attention to the “thief” part: How will Jesus, in his Second Coming, be like a thief. Have you ever thought about that? I mean, that’s kind of a negative image for Jesus, isn’t it? How will Jesus be like a thief?

He’ll be like a thief for those people who find their treasure in anything other than God and his kingdom and his glory; for anyone who treasures earthly things above heavenly things; or temporal things above eternal things. Why? Because everything that isn’t of God, everything that isn’t of his kingdom, everything that isn’t for his glory in the end will be “destroyed by fire,” Peter says.[5] It is passing away. It is being consumed by moths and rust, Jesus says. Read the rest of this entry »

Christmas Eve Sermon 2017: “Peace Among Those with Whom God Is Pleased”

January 4, 2018

Of all the amazing that God does throughout the events of the Christmas story, the most amazing thing—indeed, the most difficult—is that God provided a way for all of humanity to be saved through faith in Christ. As I say in this sermon, Jesus was born so that he could die.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

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In this morning’s sermon I talked about the magi, who lived most likely in Babylon, in the Persian Gulf region. The magi lived about 700 miles east of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. How did God get these men to travel such a great distance to find Jesus? If the star was a miraculous astronomical event, God created it out of nothing. If it was a natural event, God designed the universe in such a way that at just the right moment in history this natural astronomical event would appear in the night sky, get the attention of the magi, and inspire them to travel those 700 miles to see the newborn king of the Jews.

In my sermon I said, “Just think: For the sake of saving a few lost, superstitious, idolatrous, pagan, polytheistic men, God literally moved heaven and earth to lead these men to salvation through Christ!” Like it was nothing at all! Isn’t that amazing! God is amazing!

Similarly, in Luke chapter 2, God does something equally powerful, equally amazing: You see, Micah chapter 5, verse 2, tells us that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.

The scribes and the high priests—the Bible scholars of the day—knew that Bethlehem was the place where the Messiah was to be born. One small problem… The Messiah’s mother, Mary, was going to be having a her child very soon, and she’s 80 miles north of Bethlehem in Nazareth. If you’re God, how will you get her from point A to point B? You will put it in the mind of the most powerful ruler the world had ever seen to take a census of his empire—and require that everyone must return to their ancestral homeland. And voila! Problem solved. Crisis averted. The Messiah was born in Bethlehem, just as the Old Testament said he would be. One pastor points out that God doesn’t do things “efficiently”—whether it’s moving heaven and earth for the sake of a few astrologers, or moving tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people around an empire like pieces on a chessboard—all for the sake of moving two of the world’s more “insignificant” people—Mary and Joseph—from Nazareth to Bethlehem, so that prophecy can be fulfilled.

It’s almost like God is showing off—the way he does things! This is not hard for God. God is amazing.

For my sermon tonight, I want to focus on some amazing words—surely some of the most amazing words ever uttered—the words of the angel in verse 11: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” In fact, I want to focus tonight’s message mostly on one word in this one verse: and the word is Savior. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 12-24-17: “We Saw His Star When It Rose”

January 4, 2018

Today’s sermon investigates three different responses to the news of the newborn king: from King Herod, from the scribes and chief priests, and from the magi. At different times, our own responses to Christ our king may be similar to each of these. How can we become more like the magi?

Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12

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“We three kings of orient are/ Bearing gifts we traverse afar/ Field and fountain, moor and mountain/ Following yonder star.”

Literally one of my favorite Christmas hymns. Just a beautiful melody. Yet it’s wrong in nearly every detail!

First, these magi worked for a king—they were courtiers; they were not kings themselves. They believed that the movement of the stars foretold important events happening on earth; likewise, when something important was happening on earth, they believed that it would be reflected in some way in the stars. So their job was to study the night sky, discern what important events might be happening here on earth—or might be about to happen—and report to their king what the “latest news” was. Also, we have no idea how many of them there were—probably more than three. The “three” comes from the number of gifts they gave to Jesus, but that doesn’t indicate how many of them there were. And they weren’t from the Orient; they were from the Middle East—likely Babylon, or the Persian Gulf area. So there probably weren’t three; they weren’t kings; and they weren’t from the Orient. But besides that it’s a great song!

Notice verse 2: They came to Jerusalem seeking the newborn “king of the Jews” because they saw his star rising. We don’t know what this star was—it might have been a natural astronomical event or a miraculous event created by God to lead these men to Jesus. We don’t need to get hung up on what the star was. It sounds to me like the star that led them from Babylon to Jerusalem might have been a completely natural event—highly unusual but scientifically explainable, which the wise men, because they were the world’s leading experts on the movement of stars and planets, were able to see.

But then, in verses 9 and 10, when the star moves and comes to rest over the place where Jesus is, it sounds like that is a supernatural event.

Does it matter? Not at all! If it was a natural event—which astronomers today can study and explain scientifically—it was a natural event designed by God before the Creation of the world to appear at this particular time and place in order to lead these wise men to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Just think: God is so powerful, so sovereign, so in control of this universe that he doesn’t even need to work a miracle that defies the laws of physics in order to be active in the world: he can work through natural events. God is always working at every moment in every event and through every person to accomplish his will in the world! This is called the doctrine of God’s providence, which means that we can know that everything that happens in the universe happens according to God’s plan and purpose! By the logic of providence, God is constantly intervening in the world, so, in a way, “miracles” happen all the time—even when modern science can explain why something happens. A scientific explanation is merely the most superficial reason; there’s always a deeper reason. And God is always behind it. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 12-17-17: “My Soul Magnifies the Lord”

January 4, 2018

In today’s scripture, Mary visits her relative Elizabeth and finds her pregnant, thus confirming the angel Gabriel’s message to her in last Sunday’s scripture. She exclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In the same way, we need to teach our soul to “magnify the Lord.” Too often, however, we Christians magnify our problems instead. As I point out in this sermon, our God is so much bigger than any problem we’re facing.

Sermon Text: Luke 1:39-56

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“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” What does this mean for us today, and how do we do it? That’s mostly what this sermon is about.

The last verse of the scripture I preached on last week was Luke 1:38, which immediately precedes today’s text. After the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s going to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to the God’s Son Jesus, Mary courageously responds with some of the most beautiful words ever spoken: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Let us hear now the next sentence of that verse: “And the angel departed from her.”

And the angel departed from her.

Mary, undoubtedly, has dozens of questions at this point: “Is this really happening to me? Am I dreaming? Am I hallucinating? How will I tell Joseph? When should I tell Joseph? Will Joseph believe me? Will we still get married? What will our families think? What will our friends think? How am I supposed be the mother to God’s own Son? Am I smart enough? Am I wise enough?”

Mary could not google the answers to any of these questions. And even if smartphones existed in the first century, it doesn’t seem like Gabriel would be the type to say, “Just message me if you have any further questions.” He is not Aladdin, and Mary does not have a lamp. Gabriel has left Mary to face a frightening, uncertain future all by herself—without the benefit of any further angelic appearances. Remember: even the angels who visit the shepherds on Christmas night don’t show up at the manger. The shepherds report that event—secondhand—to Mary and Joseph.

My point is, in verse 38, Mary has submitted herself to God’s will, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t scared. Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not also terrified. And being faithful doesn’t mean you don’t have any doubt.

Or else, Gabriel’s words to Mary in verse 36 would make no sense: “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” Why does Gabriel tell her this? To give her a sign—a way of reassuring her and confirming for her that everything that he told her will come to pass. Mary knows that Elizabeth is unable to have children. And in verse 24, Luke tells us that Elizabeth has kept her pregnancy a secret. So Mary would have no way of knowing that her cousin is pregnant. So if she shows up at Elizabeth’s house and finds her pregnant, well, that’s a pretty good sign that the angel was telling the truth! Read the rest of this entry »