“Angels unawares”: my gratitude for a stranger who helped to rescue my soul

January 5, 2019

I’m currently enjoying a Christmas gift: Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s latest Bootleg Series album, a collection of outtakes from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, perhaps his best album—which is to say, it’s among the best collection of songs ever committed to tape. These sparsely arranged, previously unreleased “alternate” versions—featuring only Dylan, his guitar, and, occasionally, a sympathetic bass guitar played by Tony Brown—may even be better.

It’s about as good as music gets, in my opinion.

But that’s not the point of this post. I’m merely pointing this out to say that this album has put me in an introspective mood. If you know the album, you know it has the power to do that.

For the past few weeks, I have felt profound gratitude for someone whose name I can’t even remember. If you recall, he was the retired NASA engineer and amateur astronomer whom I referred to in this recent Advent devotional. (Please read it to refresh your memory.) I don’t know if he’s still alive. He wasn’t a member of the church I was serving at the time, Alpharetta First United Methodist. But he called our church looking specifically for a pastor who could visit him during a long convalescence from an illness. There were two other pastors on staff at the church, but I happened to get the call, thank God!

I ended up visiting him several times, including at least a couple of times at Emory University Hospital, after he had surgery. But the visit I described in my Advent devotional was one of the most formative events of my life, which I’ve only recently come to appreciate.

Why was it so important? Because I was living at the time through a long season of doubt and despair in my Christian faith. I had recently graduated from a mainline Protestant seminary, the Candler School of Theology, and was commissioned as a “probationary elder.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’ve been very critical of my education and experience at Candler: By all means, most of my trouble was self-inflicted. I was ill-prepared to fight the spiritual warfare that inevitably comes the way of anyone who answers God’s call into pastoral ministry. That’s my fault, not Candler’s.

But Candler didn’t help, to say the least.

For example, consider this experience from 2006: I took a popular elective taught by a theology professor who was himself an ordained Anglican minister from India. (His name is unimportant for this post; if you went to Candler, you’ll know whom I’m talking about. He’s retired now.) Like many professors at Candler, he embraced universalism and syncretism of different religions—because, in his mind, they all (or many of them, at least) ultimately reveal the same God.

As troubling as you may find this teaching, which is commonplace in liberal mainline seminaries, I’m far more troubled by an event in which I, alongside dozens of my future fellow UMC ordinands, participated. The professor took our class on a field trip to a Hindu temple, located south of the Atlanta airport in Riverdale, where he had us take turns—I’m not making this up—offering a “sacrifice” (of bananas and grapes, as I recall) to a literal idol, which stood above an altar in the sanctuary of this temple.

We handed our offering to a HIndu priest who then rang a bell (or something like that) as a way of indicating that the god accepted our sacrifice.

From the professor’s point of view, our behavior wasn’t sinful because the god to whom we were sacrificing was the same God in which Christians believe.

I’ll let you be the judge. If you’re a regular reader of this blog and share my convictions about scripture, you know better. What did Martin Luther say? “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it”—or, I would add, even a popular and highly credentialed doctor of the church! Not to mention fools like me who should have known better, yet blindly followed.

Am I wrong? Did we not commit literal idolatry in a pagan temple as part of our coursework at an allegedly Christian and United Methodist-affiliated seminary?

Moreover, how many thousands of future UMC clergy (like myself) took part in this same idolatrous exercise? And what kind of spiritual or demonic harm can come from this behavior?

Am I overstating the case? Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 that while idols are nothing, we must avoid them because demons work through them to our great harm. “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.”

I have repented. I cling to the promise of 1 John 1:9, concerning this and all other sins I’ve committed and commit: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). I know our Lord has forgiven me of all my sins through his precious blood shed on the cross. Moreover, I know that my “old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6). I know that on the cross an exchange took place: “For our sake”—including for my sake—God “made him”—Jesus—”to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we”—including even me—”might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We Protestants rightly say that Christ imputed his righteousness to us as a free gift, whereby we already stand before God as holy and perfect—even as the Holy Spirit empowers us to overcome sin in our lives.

Nevertheless, I urge my fellow United Methodist clergy who participated in this idolatry to likewise repent. Because make no mistake: You and I committed the gravest sin of all: we broke the first two of the ten commandments like it was nothing at all… without giving it a second thought. How is that possible? How did we have so little fear of God?

Now, the following is strictly hypothetical, because God knew, even as I was wandering in a wilderness of sin and waywardness, how he would transform experiences like these and use them for my good. (Thank you, Jesus!) But consider this: Wesleyan Christians, including even we watered-down United Methodists, are supposed to believe in the possibility of backsliding—literally losing our salvation, which can happen through willful, unrepentant sinning.

Suppose, around the time I bent my knee to that idol, without remorse, on that terrible spring afternoon so long ago—suppose I had died in a car crash on my way home to Forsyth, Georgia, where I was (poorly) serving a church as a licensed lay pastor? Would I have even been saved?

I don’t know. I can’t say with any confidence I would have been. I didn’t fear God. I disdained his holy word. I was lost. But thank God he had mercy on me! Thank God he let me live long enough to repent!

Thank God he appointed me to visit that wonderful amateur astronomer in the fall of 2008, who had been studying the Bible, astronomy journals, and star charts, trying to discern what it was the magi saw when they stared into the Babylonian night sky around 6 or 5 B.C.

It doesn’t matter whether this man was correct in his conclusions. What matters is that this brilliant man with a Ph.D. from Harvard believed that God did something, either supernaturally or providentially, to move these pagan astrologers seven hundred miles southwest to see the newborn king of the Jews. Did this man know my heart? Did he know that I had come to believe, alongside many of my professors at Candler, that the story of the magi—along with the Virgin Birth—wasn’t historical fact but “pious fiction,” meant only to communicate something theological about Jesus?

Did he imagine that he was planting a small seed of faith within me, which would help bring me back to my senses (Luke 15:17 NIV)?

When I left his house that day, this thought crossed my mind: “What if he’s right? He’s smarter than I am, after all… What if he’s right?

God used other people and events to bring me to repentance, but thank God he used that man! He was an angel—at least figuratively.

But who knows…?

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

I love you, Jesus! Use me to save others the way you used this man to save me. Amen.

7 Responses to ““Angels unawares”: my gratitude for a stranger who helped to rescue my soul”

  1. Domini Re-Darling Says:

    Have enjoyed reading your posts this year.  always thought provoking and a path for building on my faith.Blessings to you and your family in 2019!domini

  2. abobdude@gmail.com Says:

    Yeah there’s a whole video about this and I will get the name for you. This guy was a lawyer I think but I will check for sure. But he went crazy with research and found that the “star” was a planet. I think that back then sky-people didn’t understand that the “planets” (word actually means “wanderers”) were not stars in the sense we mean it now and were stars that wandered about the heavens. He makes a convincing case that indeed it was the planets, the wanderers that led the magi. It is pretty cool. He is totally self-taught about all that astronomy stuff.

    Anyway happy new year! Rev B!!!

  3. Vivian Fowler Says:

    I have enjoyed your posts this past year and I know that you are forgiven for this trespass. However, I truly believe that if you are saved you cannot lose your salvation.Trying to keep it would be your works. God said no one can take us from His hand. Yes we must repent but if we die before we will answer for unrepentace at the Mercy Seat but we will still be saved. We can lose our rewards but not our salvation because that belongs to God.
    Looking forward to your posts in 2019. Member and Bible Study teacher at AFUMC.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Hey, Vivian! Thanks! Yes, as my friend Tom well knows, I hold very loosely to the Methodist doctrine of “backsliding.” I can see both sides of the dispute. Hebrews 6:4-6, for instance, is one troubling passage. I’m about 52-48% for the possibility of losing one’s salvation. To be safe, however, we ought to live as if backsliding were possible and never presume upon God’s grace.

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    I cannot believe what Candler did to so many minds. Universalism?
    “No one comes to the Father, except by Me.”

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