Posts Tagged ‘Emory University’

“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.

Sermon 02-21-16: “In Spirit and Truth”

March 1, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

In his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, Jesus exposes the woman’s sexual sin—an uncomfortable topic that she would rather avoid. So she changes the subject: Where is the correct place to worship God? Why does Jesus let her do this? In this sermon, I argue that it’s because Jesus recognizes the connection between worship and sin: In a way, sin is “worshiping wrongly.” Straightening out our “worship problem,” therefore, helps us straighten our our “sin problem.”

Sermon Text: John 4:16-30

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

I’ll never forget my first day on Emory’s campus when I started seminary. One of the main things I had to do on that first day on campus was go to the Financial Aid department and check on the status of my scholarships and loans. Now, I know from my experience at a large public university like Georgia Tech that dealing with the bureaucracy of Financial Aid means waiting in long lines, putting up with employees who don’t seem happy with their jobs, and who seem to enjoy telling people “no”—all of which is enough to make me want to gouge my eyeballs out. Needless to say, I was expecting the worst when I went to the Financial Aid office at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.

But Emory is not a large public university. I walked into the Financial Aid office of the theology school. I looked around. There was no line. Before I had a chance to introduce myself, I was ushered into the office of the director, who said, “Hello, Mr. White, how may I help you?” And I looked at my shirt to see if I was wearing a name tag or something. I wasn’t. And I’m thinking, “How does she know me?” And all I can figure is that she had names and photos of new theology students who were financial aid recipients. And she had been studying it to match faces with names. I had no other explanation… How did she know me?

And of course, the Samaritan woman at the well must have wondered the same thing after she tells Jesus that she has no husband. And Jesus responds: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” And she’s never met Jesus before in her life! How does he know me? she must have thought. Read the rest of this entry »

The “terrible paralysis” from believing “it’s all up to us”

January 23, 2015

Lord_teach_usAs you may know, I’m currently preaching a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. I preached a similar series five years ago—a lot of water under the bridge since then—and used a book on the Lord’s Prayer called Lord, Teach Us, by Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, as one resource. As I’ve revisited this book—on the other side of my “evangelical reawakening”—I find that I’m far less sympathetic than I once was with both the book’s tone and its substance.

For example, I’m now a convinced “just warrior” who believes that violence can be good and necessary under some circumstances. I oppose Christian pacifism. I believe strongly in the police’s role in maintaining law and order, even through violence (as perhaps even Hauerwas now does—the big softie!). I deeply love my country, warts and all—and I don’t believe I’m kowtowing to “empire,” or the world’s “domination systems,” or whatever, by doing so. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a few classes at a mainline Protestant seminary.)

Don’t get me wrong: Like the good Candler graduate that I am, I believe that the gospel should liberate people in the here and now, not just in the sweet by and by, and that the Church should take the lead to make the world a more just place, as it has for two millennia. But even if the most oppressive nations on earth were suddenly as egalitarian as, say, Sweden, these nations would still need Jesus to save them from their sins. The Swedes still need Jesus!

Nevertheless, while I was tempted to throw the book out the window after re-reading their chapter on “Your kingdom come,” their chapter on the next clause, “Your will be done, on earth as in heaven,” is strong. I especially like the part in which they relate this petition to the story of Joseph and his brothers at the end of Genesis. As part of a discussion about the “amazing resilience of God’s purposes,” which “cannot be stumped by our plans,” they write:

We modern American people are so accustomed to thinking life as a choice or chance. Life is what I do and decide or else life is a roulette wheel of sheer luck. Is that why we often feel so helpless and hopeless? If life is all up to us, then we know enough about ourselves and our brothers and sisters to know we are doomed. A terrible paralysis comes from thinking that it’s all up to us. If the fate of the world, the outcome of the future is solely of my doing, or even yours, then—a good freshman course in the history of Western civilization should convince us that we are without hope. No wonder we feel frail and fearful before the bomb, AIDS, the ecological crisis, thinning ozone, or even the department of motor vehicles—it’s all choice or chance.

William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 63.

An unlikely ally for UMC traditionalists

June 26, 2014

In the rarefied world of mainline theological scholarship, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic, is something of a superstar—at least the most popular and widely quoted professor at my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. In the comments section of a post earlier this week, a friend offered an excerpt from a Commonweal article that Dr. Johnson wrote in 2007.

I wrote a lengthy response, which you can read here. Johnson is arguing that we have biblical warrant for disregarding scripture’s clear teaching against homosexual practice in light of what the Holy Spirit is showing us through the lives of thousands of (practicing) gay and lesbian Christians. He uses the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 as evidence. As I wrote in my comment,

It’s ironic that Johnson uses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as part of his argument: while the council “reinterpreted Scripture in light of the experience of God,” they reaffirmed the proscription against porneia (sexual immorality), which the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would have understood (without controversy) to include homosexual practice (alongside adultery, incest, and bestiality).

He refers to vv. 20-21 as a “compromise” made for the sake of Jewish Christians, but he can’t mean that, can he? He surely isn’t saying that the proscription against porneia, however one interprets it, isn’t a crucial aspect of holy Christian living!

By all means, the Jerusalem church is seeing that some parts of Old Testament law have fulfilled the purpose for which they were given; that they’re no longer binding on people who are now part of Christ Jesus. Interestingly, one part of the law that is still binding is that part that deals with sexual immorality—which, again, in context would have included homosexual practice.

He cites other examples from the New Testament of the early church revising its understanding of Old Testament law in light of what Jesus or the Holy Spirit was revealing in people’s lives. His point is this: because the early church did it, we can do it, too.

As I said in my comment:

Regardless—and this is my most important point about Johnson’s argument—all of this fresh reinterpretation or revisionism in light of what God is now revealing in people’s lives is revealed to us—where?

In scripture!

So we have a choice: we can, along with Johnson, view this work of reinterpretation as an ongoing project, which risks relativizing the Bible to the authority of personal experience. Or we can say that whatever help we needed in reading the Old Testament in light of the revelation of God in Christ the Word, the Holy Spirit has provided for us in God’s written Word.

Even my fellow United Methodists who seek to change our church’s traditional doctrine on human sexuality should be wary of enlisting Johnson as an ally. We are Protestants, after all (not to mention evangelicals at our roots). No argument that contradicts the plain meaning of scripture, properly exegeted and interpreted, should persuade us. Even according to our so-called “Wesleyan quadrilateral,” personal experience doesn’t get a veto over the Bible. Scripture is our primary authority.

Still, people on my side of this debate ought to enlist Johnson as an ally—a hostile witness. Why? Because in this article he says what people on my side been saying all along: all hermeneutical gymnastics to the contrary, the Bible is clear about what it teaches on homosexual practice.

I admire his integrity. He writes:

The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy—that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.

I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.