Archive for February, 2018

Devotional Podcast #14: “How Great Thou Art”

February 15, 2018

In this episode, I ruminate on answered prayer and something that a Pentecostal Christian told me one time.

Devotional Text: Luke 11:1-13

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

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Thursday, February 15, and this is Devotional Podcast number 14.

You’re listening to Elvis Presley, of course, and his recording of “How Great Thou Art.” He originally recorded this song in 1966 for his Grammy-winning gospel of the same name. But in 2015, the song was remixed with a new orchestral arrangement, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. So this version is taken from the 2015 album, on vinyl, If I Can Dream. And it sounds amazing, as I hope you can hear.

I want to talk today, briefly, about Pentecostal Christians. Elvis himself grew up Pentecostal, in the Assemblies of God Church. Pentecostalism, if you don’t know, is that branch of Protestant Christianity that places a strong emphasis on the more conspicuous spiritual gifts—like speaking in tongues, prophecy, and physical healing. In principle, I have no problem with the idea that the Holy Spirit may give these gifts and do powerful things through people; I’m not what’s called a cessationist—in other words, I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit stopped giving these gifts to Christians after the age of the apostles. I see no biblical warrant for believing that. Are there excesses in Pentecostalism? Are there abuses? Are there charlatans who take advantage of their credulous flocks? Of course! Pentecostals, no less than the rest of us, need to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God,”[1] that’s for sure.

And I strongly disagree, theologically, with the widespread Pentecostal belief that receiving the Holy Spirit, or being baptized by the Spirit, is something that happens, only to some Christians, at some point after a person is born again. I also don’t believe that the evidence of having received the Holy Spirit is this one particular gift of speaking in tongues. No, I believe we all receive the Spirit at the moment of conversion.

But I don’t mean to be overly critical. in my own life I tend to love people who love Jesus—and seek to build their lives on the foundation of God’s Word. And that describes most Pentecostal Christians that I’ve known—so they have my love and respect!

Plus, there are things that we non-Pentecostals can learn from Pentecostals—like the fact that when Pentecostals go to church, they mean business! They expect the Holy Spirit to do something… powerful!

For example, I drive by a couple of Pentecostal churches between my church and my house. I know nothing about them beyond their church signs—but I like their church signs! One of the churches is called “Perfecting the Saints Church International.” I like that! They go to that church on Sunday morning expecting the Holy Spirit to perfect them. When we show up at church on Sunday morning, what do we expect the Holy Spirit to do? I pass another church on the way home called—get this!—“One-Way Inner Action Church.” I-N-N-E-R Action Church. When they go to that church, they expect that the Holy Spirit is going to do something active, inside their hearts!

I like that! I also like the way many Pentecostals pray. In my experience, they pray with this same expectation that God is going to respond to them in a powerful way—even if it means working a miracle.

I knew a Pentecostal back in high school. Her name was Christine. We were talking one day, and she said something to me back then that has stuck with me to this day. I was Baptist back then, but it’s not hard to imagine that she said back then could have applied equally to us Methodists—and most other modern Christians in the West!

She said, “I have a lot of admiration and respect for you Baptists.” And I said, “Really? Why?” And she said, “Well, you just really believe in Jesus… you have a lot of faith… in spite of the fact that you never see any miracles… you never expect anything supernatural to happen.”

You never expect anything supernatural to happen. Is that true? Was that true for me then? Is it true for me now?

Maybe so! Let me give you an example. Last September, our church finance committee was making year-end projections for our budget, and we were looking at what we feared might be a substantial shortfall. So I challenged the church leadership to pray. And I prayed. Within a week of that meeting, we received a substantial offering check, a portion of which we could use for our operating budget. Basically, this money eliminated the budget problem in one fell swoop. We would no longer be sweating it out the last few months of the year—the way our church usually does at the end of each year. No begging or pleading on my part. No big campaign to raise the money. I was relieved!

But… I promise you, if I could have written down my first thought, upon receiving that check, it would have sounded something like this: “What a relief! We’re going to be just fine. We don’t need that miracle after all!”

Do you see the problem?

All I can say in my defense is, this money didn’t feel like any kind of miracle at the time—it felt like normal, every day event. Nothing too far outside of the ordinary. Surprising, yes, but not supernatural. So at first, I failed to see that this was God intervening in a powerful way to answer my prayers—and the prayers of others.

It’s as if God’s handiwork was hidden from me. I couldn’t see his fingerprints on this particular gift—even though they were all over them.

But isn’t that usually the way God’s providence works? When God does something, it rarely looks like a miracle. It rarely looks supernatural. It rarely looks like anything out of the ordinary.

Isn’t it instructive, therefore, that the portion of the Lord’s Prayer that has to do with asking God to give us things is this humble petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Because from our human perspective, our daily bread—at least for those of us living in wealthy industrialized countries—is one thing we don’t believe we need God to provide. “We’ve got that taken care of, Lord. We’ve got a freezer full of it. Our pantry is well-stocked.” we think. So we don’t need God’s help with daily bread. Physical healing? Yes, by all means! Financial aid for college? You bet! A promotion for work? Yes, please. But daily bread…?

And yet Jesus tells us that our daily bread—insignificant, humble bread—is itself a gift from God. It’s our problem that we have the luxury of taking it for granted. It still comes from God. And if even bread comes from God, well, tell me what doesn’t?

So… getting back to my Pentecostal friend’s observation—“You believe in Jesus without expecting him to do anything supernatural.” She may be right. And if so, I repent.

But let’s not underestimate God’s activity in our lives: if we only expect God to act supernaturally, or miraculously, then we may fail to appreciate that God is always doing stuff for us—always giving us exactly what we need, always working in every part of our lives and our world—even when he’s not doing anything supernatural!

If we can live our lives with that perspective, then we will live lives of gratitude to God for his faithfulness to us. Amen?

1. 1 John 4:1

Devotional Podcast #13: “To Obey Is Better than Sacrifice”

February 9, 2018

In today’s devotional, I reflect briefly on the life of Keith Green, who, along with two of his young children, died in a plane crash in 1982—doing the work of his ministry, naturally. Green’s life, as much as anyone’s, was characterized by the title of his second album, No Compromise.

As I argue in this podcast, Jesus teaches all of us to live lives of “no compromise.”

Devotional Text: Philippians 3:8-11

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

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Thursday, February 8, and this is Devotional Podcast number 13.

One of the highlights of my convalescence from the flu this past week was listening to Keith Green’s 1978 album, No Compromise. You’re listening to one song from that album that moved me deeply. It’s called “To Obey Is Better than Sacrifice.” I was reading the liner notes to the album, in which Green offered “special thanks” to various contributors to the album. To his wife, Melody, he included this poignant detail:

Special thanks to… Melody, my wife, (for encouragement, rebuking in love, and having our baby, Josiah David)

This was late 1978. In July 1982, that baby, Josiah, now three, would be dead—along with his little sister Bethany and his father. They were killed in a private plane crash—while Green was conducting business related to his ministry. Keith Green was 28. And just like that, the life of this incredibly talented singer-songwriter—a musician whose first album Bob Dylan hailed as his “all-time favorite”—was snuffed out, along with the lives of his two young children.


In the song I played on Tuesday, “Make My Life a Prayer to You,” which comes from this same album, Green sang the following:

I wanna die and let you give
Your life to me so I might live
And share the hope you gave to me
The love that set me free

Of course, when he sang those lyrics he meant that he wanted to die to his old self—the “old man” that was crucified with Christ, as Paul says in Romans 6.[1] He meant he wanted to lose his life for Christ’s sake so that he might find new, eternal, and abundant life.

In a way, his deepest desire came true in July 1982. He and his two children—and everyone else who died in that plane crash—are at this moment experiencing a kind of life that we can only dream of—a life that’s waiting for all of us who are in Christ on the other side of heaven.

C.S. Lewis once said every deathbed is a monument to a petition that wasn’t granted. What he meant was that nearly every time someone dies, there’s someone else—a family member, a friend, a spouse—praying that that person would be healed, that that person would live.

And I get his point: Unless the Second Coming happens first, God will always answer that prayer by saying “no.” As much as I love Lewis—and no one would accuse me of not loving C.S. Lewis—he doesn’t get it quite right. God only says “no” so that he can say an infinitely deeper “yes,” an eternal “yes”: “You want healing. You’ve got it.” “You want life. You’ll have it more abundantly than ever.” “You want me… Let me hold you in my arms, son… Let me hold you in my arms, daughter. You’re safe now.” This is why Paul says that we Christians “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”[2]

When I preach funerals these days for people who I know were believers, I often ask the congregation to imagine what that person would say to us if he or she were here with us now. And I often point out that I make a living talking God, talking about his Son Jesus, talking about his grace, his love, his glory… It’s what I do. I’m a pastor. But whatever I think I know right now about these things… [scoffs] it’s baby talk compared to what this person who now lives directly in God’s presence knows… It’s baby talk by comparison!

From my perspective, it’s so obvious what our departed loved ones would say… isn’t it? They would say, “Don’t waste your life on lesser things. Dedicate your life—give everything—sacrifice everything if necessary—to pursuing and loving and pleasing and glorifying God and following his Son Jesus wherever he leads. Be willing to say, with the apostle Paul, “For Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[3]

Would we follow Christ with that kind of dedication if, as with our brother Keith Green, it meant our death within a few short years?

Or do we put heroes of the faith like Green in a special category—his example is too lofty for us. But we don’t get it… There’s just one category in which all of us Christians belong. If we are Christians at all, that means we sign our death warrant; it means we carry our cross—that instrument of torture and death—even if it leads us up that hill to Golgotha—for no servant is greater than his master.

And even if it kills us—physically—we are supposed to be O.K. with that—if that’s what Jesus wants for us.

Is that too extreme? Is that asking too much? If so, maybe being a Christian isn’t for us—because Jesus asks his followers for nothing less!

Green sings: “To obey is better than sacrifice/ I want more than Sundays and Wednesday nights/ Because if you won’t come to me every day/ Don’t bother coming at all.”

I used to think, “Where’s the grace?” Isn’t that so perfectly Methodist of me… to ask that question? Where’s the grace?

How about, instead of asking, “Where’s the grace?” we sinful Christians instead ask ourselves, “Where’s the contrition? Where’s the confession of sin? Where’s the repentance? Lord Jesus, forgive me for failing to give you everything… for failing to come to you every day.”

When we confess our sins and repent, by all means, God’s grace will be there. Why should we expect it a moment before that?

Brothers and sisters, Jesus wants everything that we have. Do we believe that if we give everything, it will be worth it? If not, why not? If so, what’s stopping us?

Devotional Podcast #12: “Did God Give Me the Flu?”

February 6, 2018

Short answer: yes. But listen to (or read the transcript of) this podcast for the long answer.

Devotional Text: Psalm 38:1-3, 8-11

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

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Tuesday, February 6, and this is Devotional Podcast number 12. I’m still homebound with the flu, which you can probably hear in my voice.

You’re listening to a song from 1979 called “Daytime, Nighttime Suffering,” written and sung by Paul McCartney and performed with his band Wings. This is the B-side of his single “Goodnight Tonight.” By the way, if you asked me to compile a list of favorite McCartney songs, including his work with that other famous group he was in, this would be in my Top Five.

Just by chance—or so it seemed—my devotional reading last Friday—when I was in the throes of influenza—included Psalm 38. Let me read verses 1 to 3 and 8 to 11 now:

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath!
For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.
There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin…
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.
My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,
and my nearest kin stand far off.

I love that last verse: “My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague.” That’s the truth! The flu feels a lot like a plague, and my cat, Peanut, was my only companion the first couple of days, as I was quarantined to my room. Could there have been a more appropriate scripture to read for when you have the flu?

Well, that depends, you might say. David was attributing his flu-like symptoms to God: God, he said, was punishing him, or disciplining him, because of some particular, unspecified sin or sins. Do I really believe that God would do that today—to me?

To which I say, “Of course I do!” For one thing, God foreknows everything that’s going to happen in the world, including the fact that I would be exposed to the flu virus when George coughed last Monday without covering his mouth. Now, simply being exposed to the virus doesn’t mean I’ll get the flu. Suppose, on that very morning, I prayed that God would keep me healthy through this severe flu season. Then I can assume, when this invading, viral enemy penetrated by immune system and gave me the flu, that God answered my prayer with a resounding “no.” God chose not to keep me safe.

Why did God do that?

After all, Jesus teaches us that prayer changes the world—that our Father is happy to give us what his children pray for—if he can do so in a way that’s consistent with his will. Which means, if he doesn’t give us what we pray for, he must have good reasons—whether we know what they are or not!

I simply can’t comprehend the resistance, especially among my fellow Methodists, to the idea that “everything happens for a reason.” By all means, it’s a cliché, but it’s still true! Read Psalm 139, a powerful psalm about God’s sovereignty, and tell me that everything doesn’t happen for a God-ordained reason! Verses 4-5:

Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.

How can that great promise of Romans 8:28 be true—“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good”—if “all things” doesn’t also include something like the flu? I hate to be a wimp, but the flu is kind of a big deal! How is God using the flu to help me right now? How is he using it for good? So of course he allowed or arranged for me to get the flu for a reason!

In fact, I completely concur with C.S. Lewis, who wrote the following:

I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.[1]

That’s exactly right. The Bible teaches repeatedly that God tests us when we suffer. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4. “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” Hebrews 12:6-7. There are many similar verses.

When it became clear, Friday morning, that I had the flu, I responded to the bad news in a way that I never have before. Normally, thoughts such as these would cross my mind: “Well, there goes the weekend! There goes my Sunday sermon! There goes my ability to see my son play basketball, or to go running, or to go to that party Saturday night! This is going to put me way behind!” But I didn’t respond that way.

Instead, I said, “Thank you, Father. I know you’ve got some good reasons for giving me this flu. Let it do its good work.” In fact, even just slowing down and being still has been a great blessing.

Over these past few days, for instance, I’ve had some sweet prayer and Bible-reading time. I’ve been reminded of how utterly dependent I am on God for everything I have and am. I’ve been reminded of people in my life who love and care for me. On Sunday morning, I happened to listen to a Keith Green album that I purchased off eBay recently—and God used it to convict me of sin and as a means of worship.

That’s all good! Thank you, Jesus!

So did God give me this flu? Of course he did! Thank God!

1. C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.

Devotional Podcast #11: “If Grace Is Cheap, It’s Too Expensive”

February 3, 2018

How can we be confident that all of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven? For starters, by not being confused about justification and sanctification. That’s what this special “flu-length” episode is all about. Enjoy!

Devotional Text: Genesis 18:22-33

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

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Saturday, February 3, and this is Devotional Podcast number 11. It’s a very special flu edition of the podcast, which means it’s an extra long version. In fact, you might even say it’s a sermon-sized podcast. Lucky you! Yes, I intended to record this for Friday, per my usual schedule—but I have been wiped out with the flu since Thursday. Anyway, while my temperature is down and the headache has subsided and ibuprofen works its wonders, here we go…

You’re listening to Keith Green and a song called “Make My Life a Prayer to You,” written by his wife and frequent collaborator, Melody. This comes from Green’s 1978 album, No Compromise, which could easily be a motto for his entire ministry. He is famous for not compromising—even going so far as to give his records away for free to anyone who couldn’t afford them.

I like the line in the song, “I guess I’ll have to trust and just believe what you say.” So honest! Isn’t that the hard part of being a Christian—that it actually takes faith to believe what Jesus said. If you’re a Christian, you sometimes say, “I guess I’ll have to!”

After today’s podcast, I hope you’ll trust and believe what Jesus says about forgiveness and grace.

Years ago, I was reading theologian Phillip Cary’s excellent commentary on Jonah. In the book’s introduction, he wrote something that literally changed the way I read the Old Testament—which is to say, it changed my life. He wrote:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[1]

Did you hear that? Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.

This was exactly opposite what I’d learned in the liberal mainline Protestant seminary I attended. I’ve blogged about this before. It’s not that I didn’t learn a lot of useful things in seminary—I did! But I was spiritually unprepared for it. I was unprepared for the spiritual warfare—by which I mean attacks by a literal Satan—that inevitably accompany one’s decision to uproot one’s life and family, to leave a relatively prosperous career, to go to an expensive school, and to devote oneself to serving the Lord as a pastor. I was a sitting duck for the devil! And it didn’t help that few if any of my professors in seminary even believed in the devil!

Regardless, it was all for the good. I was tested. I failed miserably. But emerged on the other side a much better person for it. Thank God!

Anyway, we were taught in seminary that the Old Testament—which of course shouldn’t even be called the Old Testament, because that sounds pejorative, but rather, it should be called the “Hebrew Bible”… We should call it the “Hebrew Bible” because, by doing so, we recognize that this is a book that doesn’t even belong to us Christians. At best, when we read the Hebrew Bible, we are eavesdropping on someone else’s scripture. We certainly shouldn’t read Jesus into the Old Testament. He doesn’t belong there! It’s disrespectful to our Jewish friends. Or so the propaganda said…

I hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me now.

Of course Cary is right: the whole Bible, including every book of the Old Testament, is about Jesus… Jesus and the New Testament authors certainly thought so. I shouldn’t have needed someone like Cary to tell me this, but there you are…

My point is, I can now find Jesus on nearly every page of the Old Testament! Read the rest of this entry »