The best gift anyone has ever given me

June 27, 2018

Last week was an emotionally heavy week, for several reasons. I’ll talk about one of those reasons in today’s post.

I’m an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and this year it was my turn to move. I said goodbye to beloved brothers and sisters in Christ—and friends—to whom I’ve given much of life over these past five years. After I preached my farewell sermon, on Acts 20:17-27, the church presented the following video tribute as a parting gift to me. It’s the best gift anyone has ever given me!

In addition to heartfelt tributes from many of my parishioners, two of my heroes in the faith—genuine heroes—contributed to the video: N.T. Wright and Paul Zahl.

As longtime readers of the blog may guess, Wright, more than any living person, is responsible for what I’ve called my “evangelical re-conversion,” an experience that began around the time I started this blog in 2009 (even if it took another year or so to complete).

Wright, a retired bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is a world-renowned New Testament scholar—not to mention, for what it’s worth, the most famous. How many Bible scholars, after all, were able to match wits with Stephen Colbert on his old Comedy Central show, for instance?

But it was Wright’s massive book The Resurrection of the Son of God that turned my life around. Here was Wright, an evangelical who has spent his long career within the world of mainline, critical scholarship—a world in which I was immersed for three years in seminary—offering an energetic defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, along with the scriptures that bear witness to it. His writing gave me a greater confidence in the authority of scripture at a time in my life when I needed it. He also helped me understand how seamlessly the gospel fits within the story of Israel and the Old Testament.

His writing affirmed for me classic doctrines of faith that were minimized or neglected in seminary—such as penal substitutionary atonement, Final Judgment and hell, a literal Second Coming, and the infallibility of scripture—if not without much nuance and qualification. Still, Wright’s qualifications never come from a place of skepticism about the reliability of scripture, only his effort to be more faithful to it. How can I not respect that?

So I love Wright and owe him a debt of gratitude. God used him to make me a more faithful follower of Jesus today—which is to say, a happier, more joy-filled person. And here he is, from his home near St. Andrews in Scotland, congratulating me on my new appointment!

My other hero of faith in the video is Paul Zahl, a retired Episcopal minister and theologian. For the past four years, the Very Rev. Dr. Zahl has been “living in my head” through his preaching, his writing, and (especially) his podcasts. More than anything, Zahl helped me fall in love with Jesus again. (As you hear in the video, this has been a theme of my recent preaching—not a coincidence.) He did so by enabling me to reconnect with a part of myself I lost too many years ago: that gawky 15-year-old who once wore the cover off his 1984 NIV Study Bible. “To find God,” Zahl said—paraphrasing Meister Eckhart—“you have to go back to where you lost him.” Or, put another way, to make sense of your life, you have to go back to that point in time—for me, around age 19 or 20—at which life stopped making sense. Truer words! And his reflections on those words in one of his podcasts—drawing on both Citizen Kane and the great Burton Cummings of the Guess Who—changed my life! Only Zahl could say, without irony, that if you want to understand what God’s love is like, “You need to listen to more Journey.” Indeed!

That these two men—who’ve helped shape me into the pastor and person that I am today—were part of this tribute moved me deeply!

And for good measure, because of my abiding and long-suffering affection for my alma mater, Georgia Tech, and my beloved Yellow Jackets, head basketball coach Josh Pastner offers his well-wishes.

(Special thanks to my friend and brother Matthew Chitwood for reaching out to all these people and putting this video together.)

3 Responses to “The best gift anyone has ever given me”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Wow! What a tribute! And I consider you quite deserving of it!

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    Now that is SPECIAL!! If you ever had any reason to wonder if you were “getting through” to your flock, I know this must warm your heart. I believe the LORD would add, “well done good and faithful servant”. And, may God go with you in the next chapter of your journey.


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