Archive for June, 2019

“My success in ministry depends on people praying for me”: meditation on Psalm 72:15

June 28, 2019

Psalm 72:15: “May he live long! May gold from Sheba be given to him. May prayer be offered for him continually, and may he be blessed all day long.” (CSB)

Psalm 72 is a prayer written by Solomon for the king of Israel—for himself and for all future kings. It’s also a psalm that points toward the Messiah.

In verse 15, Solomon makes a connection between prayers offered for him and the blessings he will receive. While the apostle Paul is no king, he makes a similar point in Philippians 1:19. Paul is in prison, yet he is confident that God’s purposes will be fulfilled through him, whether through life or death: “for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” Through your prayers and the help of the Spirit… Paul will be successful, he says, not merely through his own prayers and the “help of the Spirit,” but the prayers of others for him.

If this is true for Paul in his ministry, how is it not true for me in my own?

I am confident in my new season of ministry that the Spirit is going to work powerfully through me. Yet I haven’t considered until now how much my success will depend on others… especially their prayers! I rarely even think to ask for prayer. Why? Am I too proud?

If so, I repent! I will fail as a pastor if my flock doesn’t pray for me. So, please, pray!

“What does God want to make possible”: meditation on Matthew 14:28-30

June 24, 2019

Matthew 14:28-30And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”

Some recent Christian interpreters criticize Peter in this scripture for being impulsive and foolhardy. Jesus, they say, disapproves of Peter’s actions—even though Peter is literally doing what Jesus commands him to do.

Personally, I refuse to criticize Peter for risking his life to obey Jesus.

Besides, I wonder if these commentators who criticize Peter aren’t doing so for another reason: a lack of faith. They simply don’t believe we should ask Jesus for anything that requires a miracle on God’s part to fulfill! If it takes a supernatural event for God to answer our request, then we’re asking too much! We should instead be like the other eleven disciples and remain in the boat: “It’s safer here. It’s more comfortable. Besides, look the wind! Look at those powerful waves! We’ll drown if we leave this boat! I mean, sure… Jesus is telling us it’s O.K., but what are we supposed to do? Take him at his word? Believe what he tells us? Or trust ourselves—because, after all, we know more than he does?” 

I’m preaching to myself. When confronted with a problem, I usually ask, “What is possible given this set of circumstances?” (Never mind that “with God all things are possible”!)

Dear God, give me faith to look at a problem and say, “What does God want to make possible?”

“No man can prevent God from blessing you”: meditation on Genesis 25:23

June 19, 2019

Genesis 25:23And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”

The story arc that begins with this verse and continues through chapter 33 describes many unlikely ways in which God blesses and prospers Jacob—often in spite of himself! For instance, according to the ancient law of primogeniture, Esau, Jacob’s firstborn twin brother, should receive the birthright and blessing of his father, Isaac. But God has another plan, which the wily Jacob is more than eager to implement, however unwittingly.

Since God chose Jacob rather than Esau to carry forward his covenant promises through Abraham (see Genesis 12:2-3), why doesn’t God simply enable Jacob to be born first? Wouldn’t that have been far less trouble for everyone involved? Yes, but since when does our Father seem interested in sparing us, his chosen ones, from trouble? Moreover, how often do we look back on this trouble and think, “While I hated it at the time, I now see that it was good for me”?

One of the most harmful sins I commit is comparing myself with others—in my case often fellow ordained clergy, including district superintendents and bishops—and believing that I’m not getting what I need from them. Or, indeed, that they are standing in the way of something I need. Success is a zero sum game, I fear, and there’s only so much of it to go around. (Again, I’m not proud of this; it’s a sin to feel this way!)

To say the least, this scripture says otherwise. If God wants me to have something, he will ensure that I have it. No one and nothing—not the will of man or even powerful institutions—can impede God’s sovereign choices. And because I am in Christ, I can be sure that what God chooses for me will always be in my best interest.

So God is saying to me, through today’s scripture, “Trust me, Brent! Don’t be afraid that I’m giving you anything other than what is best for you at this and every other moment! No one and nothing can stand in the way of the blessing with which I want to bless you. No one and nothing can prevent you from receiving my very best for you!”

“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 »