Archive for June, 2019

“Suffering is a part of the plan”: meditation on Genesis 25:22

June 17, 2019

Genesis 25:22: “The children struggled together within her, and she said, ‘If it is thus, why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord.”

“Why is this happening to me?” Like the rest of us, Rebekah believes that answering God’s call and fulfilling his plan for her life is supposed to be easy—or at least easier than any alternative—if we are doing it right. Indeed, this seductive idea is at the root of Satan’s question to Jesus in the wilderness: “If you are the Son of God, you are entitled to a far easier life than this! Surely your Father doesn’t want you to starve out here! Use your power to transform these stones into bread.” (See Matthew 4:3)

We who are adopted as “sons” (both men and women) of God through faith should expect no better treatment from Satan. When we suffer, his temptations will be along the same lines: “You are a ‘son’ of God, adopted into God’s family, made holy with Christ’s holiness, as highly favored as God’s only begotten Son, and loved by your Father exactly as much. Why is this happening to you? You deserve better. Or maybe you’re not who you think you are. Maybe God doesn’t love you as much as you think.” And resentment and fear soon follow.

Don’t listen to the devil!

Suffering is a part of God’s plan for our lives. Rebekah should have said—not, “If it is thus, why is this happening”—but, “Because it is thus, here’s why it’s happening.” “Because I am answering God’s call, this is one reason why life is incredibly difficult right now. Because I am doing his will, this is one reason why life is a struggle.”

Here comes the hard part: Trusting that God, who is big and powerful enough to prevent suffering, is also big and powerful enough to allow it for reasons we finite, sinful humans can’t understand. Trusting that God has a better blessing than we can imagine on the other side of suffering. And trusting that he has perfectly equipped us through his Spirit to handle it.

“And the Lord granted his prayer”: a reflection on Genesis 25:21 and #ngac19

June 13, 2019

Genesis 25:21: “And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived.”

Rebekah, like Sarah before her, seemed unable to have children. Her husband, Isaac, didn’t presume that because he was God’s chosen one, God would automatically solve this problem—at least apart from Isaac’s own prayers. So Isaac prayed, expecting the Lord to respond. Why not? Isaac’s very name (Hebrew: “He Laughs”) bears witness to the miracle of his own conception and birth. As God asked Isaac’s father, who “fell on his face and laughed” when he heard about Isaac’s imminent birth (Genesis 17:17), “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14)

What about me? Strange as it is to say, I am not, biblically speaking, less called and less chosen than Isaac. In my case, God has called me to be a pastor. He has given me a purpose. I am fulfilling his plan.

If I’m so much like Isaac, however, why do I often presume that I will be successful apart from prayer?

See, I’m convinced that I’ve hardly seen what God can do in my life and ministry—what God wants to do—through prayer! After all, when I’m confronted by the seemingly impossible, I usually give up. Or I pray by rote—heedless that the “great spirit I so lightly invoked” (C.S. Lewis) could move mountains if he wanted to (Matthew 17:20).

But have pity on me! I’m mostly doing what I’ve been shown.

For example, I’m currently at the North Georgia Annual Conference, a gathering of United Methodist church leaders from throughout north Georgia. I sometimes believe that gatherings like these exist to convince us of what we can do apart from God—relying, for example, on the best business and marketing practices that the corporate world has to offer. “Do you want to grow your church? Apply these seven principles. Implement these five practices. Employ these four strategies! They work!” Jesus, by contrast, recommends prayer above all else: “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:38).

Not that we Methodists don’t pray, and not that we don’t have the best of intentions. But in my experience prayer is much harder than principles, practices, and strategies. Yet we treat the really hard thing like an afterthought.

Even today, our bishop prayed (sincerely!) for missionaries on stage to be “anointed with the Holy Spirit”—an excellent petition, especially on the heels of Pentecost Sunday! Yet did any of us in the audience (forgive me for calling us that) wonder whether an actual anointing of the Spirit took place?

And if it did… can I have one, too? Please! 

Speaking of which, is there any problem facing our United Methodist Church, much less our North Georgia Annual Conference, that wouldn’t be solved by a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Why don’t we gather tomorrow on the conference room floor and pray for that? Don’t we believe that a supernatural event like that could happen to us?

Or do we believe that this prayer for anointing was merely one item on the agenda among others—something to check off before lunch break?

And I can anticipate one objection to these words: “Brent, the problem is with you. Your heart’s not in the right place. At the moment that this petition for anointing was being prayed, after all, you were on your phone, reading predictions for tonight’s Warriors-Raptors game!”

Well, that’s true… And I am the problem. I am Romans 7:15 personified!

But isn’t that the point of this post? If I have to depend on myself—in this case, on my ability to “get my heart right”—in order to have an anointing of the Holy Spirit or to experience any other good thing in life or ministry, then I’m doomed! God help me, I can’t make that happen! Through years of bitter experience, I know I can’t! But isn’t the very nature of grace that God will do what we cannot do on our own? “For when I am weak, then I am strong”?

One obstacle in my life and ministry is depending on myself to get things done, rather than trusting in the One who has the power to do even the impossible.

So I’m writing this post to say that I recognize the problem, and I’m going to change—or at least I want to! What about you?

“As with rich and fat food”: meditation on Psalm 63:5

June 10, 2019

Psalm 63:5: “My soul will be satisfied, as with rich and fat food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips.

It’s not as if David were talking about bare subsistence here: “rich and fat food” is an extravagance. If this kind of feasting is available to me right now, and every day, I would be foolish to turn it down. Seeking God through his Word is not mostly a “discipline,” or at least it shouldn’t be. If “fat and rich food” is being served, and I’m hungry, I shouldn’t need to be “argued into” eating. There’s no competing desire that will need to be suppressed in order to go to the table.

Still, I am a sinner. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Teach me, Lord, to satisfy my deepest cravings on what’s best for me. The good news, according to this scripture, is that “what’s best for me” is also what happens to taste best.

Podcast Episode #32: “When I Hear the Praises Start”

June 5, 2019

I’m back with a new podcast episode, my first in many months! It’s one that’s been “brewing” for a while, though. It’s about the classic Reformation doctrine of imputation, which has often been underemphasized or neglected in contemporary Methodism. But it is life-giving for me. It makes my heart sing. Maybe it will help you, too.

This podcast features the Keith Green song, “When I Hear the Praises Start,” from the album For Him Who Has Ears to Hear. Here he is performing it live in 1982. Listen to his introduction: He speaks to some of the same concerns I raise in this episode!

Speaking of Green, I mention in the podcast that the 12-year-old appeared in 1965 on the game show I’ve Got a Secret. Thanks to YouTube, you can watch it here.

You can listen to my podcast on your phone or tablet by subscribing in iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher.

Here is the transcript:

Hi, this is Brent White, and podcast episode number 32. And you are listening to the late-great Keith Green and his brilliant, beautiful, theologically rich song “When I Hear the Praises Start.” 

I was born in 1970, and I had two older sisters who listened to a Top 40 radio station in Atlanta called WZGC, Z-93. It’s now a sports-talk station. But back in the ’70s and early ’80s it was Top 40 all the way, which meant, for example, every Sunday morning at 10:00 and running until 1:00 or so, Casey Kasem counted down the hits on American Top 40. 

We went to church on most Sundays; we were not the most faithful churchgoers growing up; but when we did go to church, if we timed it right, we would be driving home from the Morrison’s Cafeteria at just around time Casey was nearing the number one song in the nation. What fun! This was a magical part of my childhood.

Anyway, what does all that have to do with Keith Green? Only this: Keith Green was so talented, and such a good singer and songwriter, there’s no reason he wouldn’t have blended right in on the radio with so many other singer-songwriters of the ’70s… especially the piano-based guys that were popular at the time, certainly Elton John and Billy Joel. But back then there were plenty of other singer-songwriters of that mold… Leo Sayer! “When I Need You.” What a perfect ballad! Or how about Rupert Holmes: “Escape (Piña Colada Song).” Or… Andrew Gold, whose song “Thank You for Being a Friend” later became the theme song of the TV show Golden Girls. He also had that depressing hit song, “Lonely Boy,” with an unforgettable piano riff that reminds me of Keith Green.

My point is, by rights, the world shoulda-woulda-coulda heard Keith Green on the radio back in the ’70s. He was more than good enough! And the world probably would have… if Jesus hadn’t intervened first.

The late, great Keith Green

See, Green actually got a head start in the music industry long before he became the pioneering Christian rock performer we know him as today. He got a record deal with Decca Records when he was—I’m not making this up—twelve years old. They were trying to fashion him into a teen idol. In fact, I’ll put a link in the show notes to a YouTube video of 12-year-old Keith Green on the game show I’ve Got a Secret in 1965. It’s unbelievable. He performs one of his teenybopper songs.

During the late-’60s/early-’70s revival known as the Jesus Movement, which started on the West Coast with the Vineyard Church and Calvary Chapel, Keith Green, like many other hippies at the time, found Jesus. He got a record deal around 1977 with a Christian label called Sparrow. And this song, “When I Hear the Praises Start,” comes from his debut album, For Him Who Has Ears to Hear.

This album is so good. In 1979, no less a luminary than future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan named it as his favorite album. And during Dylan’s own gospel period, he befriended Green and played harmonica on the song “I Pledge My Head to Heaven.” Read the rest of this entry »