Posts Tagged ‘Paul Zahl’

Allow me to reintroduce myself…

April 15, 2019

Good news! At the end of June I’m being appointed as the senior pastor of Taccoa First United Methodist Church. Also, beginning May 1, I’m serving for several weeks as interim pastor at Lavonia UMC. If my blog stats are any indication, more than a few new people are interested in learning about me.

With that in mind, I’d like to re-post the following from June of last year… Enjoy!

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 my 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. But 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.)

It’s O.K. to pursue personal happiness in God. In fact it’s required

December 5, 2018

I know I’m late to the party, but I am persuaded that John Piper is right about so-called “Christian hedonism”: that God is most glorified in us (n.b. we exist to glorify God) when we are most satisfied in him.”

Only Piper, perhaps, had the audacity to give this biblical truth a name—an intentionally provocative one at that—but it’s not like I haven’t read or heard about the concept in the work of others. For instance, on PZ’s Podcast, whenever my hero Paul Zahl compares God’s love to the songs by Journey (“the greatest rock band”), he’s really talking about Christian hedonism. We ought to find our greatest joy in Jesus Christ. 

Did you hear that, Brent? You ought to find the greatest joy in Jesus Christ. Being a Christian is supposed to make you happy. Full stop. For as long as God gives you life in this world, he intends for you to be fully satisfied in him. And then get heaven when you die!

But, but, but… This sounds like self-interest. Yes, it does. Because it is. And that’s O.K.

We Christians are like the Prodigal Son. Why does he return home? Is it because, more than anything, he feels sorry for the emotional and financial harm he caused his father and brother and wants to make it up to them as best he can? Hardly! While his sorrow may have played a secondary role in his repentance, the primary reason he repents and returns home is that he’s starving. “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17)

We are also like the Samaritan woman at the well. When you consider her impact on her town, she might be the most successful evangelist in history:

So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him…

Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:29-30, 39-42).

What motivates her to serve Jesus in this way—if “serve” is even the right word? (Note by contrast our reluctance to speak a word of witness about our faith!) It is nothing other than joy, which results from her having found in Christ a “spring of water welling up to eternal life,” such that she will “never be thirsty again” (John 4:14).

To say the least, her joy—her happiness, her satisfaction in Christ—comes first. Before she “left her water jar and went away into town” (John 4:28), she experienced joy.

We present-day Christians often get it backwards. The message we often hear from pulpits and best-selling Christian authors is, in so many words, first, “leave your water jar and go into town” and then you’ll find your happiness. Or worse: Maybe you won’t find happiness at all, but that’s tough. Living the Christian life is about gritting your teeth and getting to work.

This is why “serving” Jesus should not be the primary metaphor for the good work we do for Jesus. Before anything else, as Piper likes to say, the gospel is not a “help wanted” sign; it’s a “help available” sign. And everyone needs that help at all times.

I often hear Christians say that they’re “blessed to be a blessing,” and I might agree with the sentiment, depending on what they mean. Do they mean, “God fills me first with such joy and satisfaction in his Son Jesus that it’s my pleasure to go out and bless others. Indeed, when I do bless others, I experience even more of Jesus, so that makes me even happier”? In which case I agree!

Or do they mean, “God has equipped me with these blessings in life—like money, health, and time—as a means to an end: in order to give myself away in service to others, such that pursuing my own personal happiness in life is misguided, sinful, and selfish.”  If that’s what they mean by “blessed to be a blessing,” I can’t agree.

Because in my experience, “being a blessing” in this way—as an end in itself—can never fill up my tank. I don’t want to do “service” in that way. Besides, when I do, I’ll only be filled with resentment. Don’t get me wrong: I can “white-knuckle” my way through service to Jesus with the best of them; I can fake people out; but Jesus, as always, sees my heart. I’m never faking him out.

Surely there’s a better way!

And there is! Whatever good work I do, I do because it makes me happy. Because Jesus makes me happy. Because drinking from his living water and eating from his “bread of life” satisfies my deepest longing. He intends for it to do so.

Jesus himself points to this truth in John 4:32 and 34, after his disciples wonder why Jesus suddenly isn’t hungry, even though it’s long past dinner time, and he hasn’t eaten yet: “But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ … My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”

Let’s imagine that this “food” to which Jesus refers is food that he wants to eat. It’s steak, in other words—not broccoli or Brussels sprouts. Is Jesus not helping himself (because who doesn’t want steak when you’re hungry) as he is also, at the same time, accomplishing God’s will?

Imagine being so happy in our heavenly Father—so nourished spiritually—that you can be completely satisfied in God even with a growling stomach! Jesus reminded us earlier that “man doesn’t live by bread alone”; here he lives it out.

Please don’t misunderstand: Notice I said above that being a blessing “as an end in itself” is a problem for me. Like the Samaritan woman, it isn’t a desire to “serve” or “be a blessing” that motivated her to witness to her fellow townspeople. It was the satisfaction of her soul’s deepest longing that she finds in Christ. Apart from this—if my experience as a failed evangelist is any guide—it’s unlikely that she’d find the courage or energy to do what she does. (After all, I can safely say that for the vast majority of us Christians, whatever currently motivates us to “witness using words” isn’t working. Right? Imagine doing it, first, because it makes us happy.)

This morning I was reading Zechariah, who prophesied in the time of the exiles’ return from Babylon, when the temple in Jerusalem was being rebuilt. In this passage of hope, the prophet writes the following:

But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, declares the Lord of hosts. For there shall be a sowing of peace. The vine shall give its fruit, and the ground shall give its produce, and the heavens shall give their dew. And I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. And as you have been a byword of cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so will I save you, and you shall be a blessing. Fear not, but let your hands be strong (Zechariah 8:11-13).

“You shall be a blessing,” he writes, by which he’s referring to the blessing of salvation for the world that God promised to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3. God’s people Israel, he says, will now resume their role in the mission for which God created this nation in the first place: to bear witness to God and point to the forgiveness of sin that’s available through Israel’s Messiah Jesus. We are continuing this mission as the church—the Great Commission—although we do so now with the full revelation of God’s Son and his gospel.

But before we get to the mission… The vine shall give its fruit, and the ground shall give its produce, and the heavens shall give their dew. And I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things.” As I wrote in my journaling Bible this morning:

However these blessings from God manifest themselves in our lives today—as God’s people today—they are the wellspring from which mission flows. This was certainly true of the Samaritan woman at the well; surely it’s true for us! Our “blessing” of others—our mission to others—springs from a heart that finds its ultimate satisfaction in Jesus. We are blessed… then we bless others. The blessing comes first. If we try to reverse the order, we will find that living a Christian life is exhausting.

The “calisthenic” of the Sermon on the Mount: why Paul doesn’t contradict Jesus

November 26, 2018

I preached a sermon yesterday called “Do Not Be Anxious” on Matthew 6:25-34. Since I no longer preach from a manuscript, I’ll transcribe and post the sermon later this week, God willing.

As I was preparing this sermon, I read the following words from Frederick Dale Bruner on the relationship between faith and works implicit within Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Bruner is a kindred spirit; whenever I get to preach Matthew (or John), I reach first for his very helpful “theological commentary” on this gospel. Bruner’s insights help alleviate the nagging fear of a convinced Protestant like myself that I might be in danger of—say it isn’t so!—overemphasizing the doctrine of Sola Fide—that we are justified entirely by faith in Christ, and our good works play no role in saving us beyond confirming the authenticity of our faith.

The Jesus revealed in Matthew’s gospel, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, emphasizes doing. So are we sure that we’re justified by faith alone?

Obviously, Bruner feels this tension as well:

For the Christian who comes to the Sermon on the Mount from the literature of Paul (as I, in my Christian history, do) there is a difficulty with this emphasis on doing. Paul’s theology of grace has shaken the foundations of all confidence in deeds (or “doings”), even in the best of deeds, namely, the deeds done in obedience to God’s teaching, called “the works of the law” (erga nomou). Paul contrasts trust in our “doing” with trust in Jesus Christ and his doing, for example, in the great third chapter of Galatians (Gal 3:2 and 5 especially). Paul’s gospel of salvation by Christ’s faith-eliciting work alone, received apart from even our best human doing, has more than once reformed and blessed the church and seems to be what the Christian gospel at its core is all about. What then are we to do with the Sermon on the Mount that asks us above all to do the good works of the commands of Jesus if we wish to be safe?[1]

Bruner reminds his readers of what he’s said about the Inaugural Beatitudes, with their emphasis on spiritual poverty before God (“blessed are the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”). Jesus begins his sermon, in other words, addressing people who recognize their need for God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness before anything else. We must remember, Bruner says, that these Beatitudes, “which can best be interpreted as Jesus’ gifts of grace,” precede the Commands and enable them.

Then the Commands themselves are so hard, so high, so total that they cannot be kept without a swift flight back to the Lord of the Beatitudes for mercy and help. No one who has tried to keep Jesus’ demands can, I think, deny this flight. Then the Commands are followed and backed up by the sixth chapter’s long call to faith. (Faith is especially the point of the Lord’s Prayer at the heart of Matt. 6).

This is all to say that the Commands to do in the Sermon on the Mount are preceded (in the Beatitudes) and followed (in the Lord’s Prayer) by gifts (especially the gifts of forgiveness: “forgive us our failures”; the following “as” does not cancel, it confirms). The fifth chapter’s Beatitudes and You Ares and the sixth chapter’s faith and prayer are all gifts to the seeking, yes, the trying people of God. I do not see how a single line of the sermon can be read without feeling summoned to one’s knees before God—that is, to what Paul calls faith. And yet the summons to our knees is never an end in itself; the calisthenic of this sermon is to move repeatedly from kneeling to walking. The direction of the Sermon on the Mount is to the deed—but it is equally from the gift. It is toward the neighbor through the Father.

Where Paul carefully separates faith from deeds in order to give all glory to God’s mercy, Matthew’s Jesus commands such high-quality deeds that we are driven to faith in God’s mercy. The dynamics are different but complementary. The height of the deeds to which Jesus calls in this sermon can only be approached by people walking on their knees.[2]

I can heartily say “Amen” to this, but not before saying more about how the Commands are “so hard, so high, so total that they cannot be kept without a swift flight back to the Lord of the Beatitudes for mercy and help.” This is, perhaps, an understatement.

At the risk of being a full-on Lutheran, I like the way the Very Rev. Paul Zahl, a retired Episcopalian minister, puts it a series of talks he gave on the Sermon on the Mount called “The Merciful Impasse”:

This is the power of the Sermon on the Mount: Christ pitches it high. People think because I talk about grace that I’m lowering the demand of the Law – quite to the contrary. I’m increasing the bar; I’m lifting the bar of the demand so you can earlier begin to say, “I cannot do it” …I’m telling you that the demand actually is higher than you know, and that allows you to go on your knees more quickly.

Deep down, we’re so incredibly consumed with anxieties and fears. And so the point of the Sermon on the Mount is simply to express the truth of human life – that the truth of human life is an inward conflict between what I ought to be and what I am, and this causes enormous anxiety, fear, trouble, guilt, and anger, just to name a few. When I talk about this, people think I’m saying that He’s attacking you. But all He’s doing is exposing the fact that before the Law, or the standard of God, the only possible response is humility…

The moment that I recognize that I, by my own efforts to atone, or to expiate, or to do better, or to fly right, or to do more, or to work harder, or to be nicer, are doomed to perdition – at that moment there is a release. And the release spells joy, power, significance, exuberance, happiness, creativity, love, and – come to find out – holiness.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 368.

2. Ibid., 368-9.

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.)

Devotional Podcast #17: “Healing Our Past”

February 27, 2018

Another jumbo-sized podcast episode!

This one is all about the necessity of healing our past, without which our future won’t be as good as we want it to be. Why? Because the past has a way of continuing to exert a harmful influence over our present and future. To help us find healing from our past, I reflect on some helpful resources related to forgiveness and providence from God’s Word.

Devotional Text: Philippians 3:8b-14

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Tuesday, February 27, and this is Devotional Podcast number 17.

You’re listening to Pete Townshend’s song “Somebody Saved Me,” from his 1982 album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. In the song, the singer is looking back on his life. And he sees that there were times in his life when he was rescued from decisions that he made—decisions that, ultimately, would have brought him great harm—if not killed him outright. Not that he saw it that way at the time—when he didn’t get what he wanted, when his plans fell through. No, he was often dragged kicking and screaming away from paths that would have led to his destruction. “But somebody saved me,” he sings. “It happened again/ Somebody saved me/ I thank you, my friend.”

He doesn’t know who this mysterious “friend” is. A guardian angel, perhaps? But notice it’s somebody, not some thing; it’s not an impersonal force; it’s not fate; it’s not luck; it’s a person. And of course we know that person’s name, even if Townshend doesn’t: his name is Jesus.

Townshend sings, “All I know is that I’ve been making it/ And there’ve been times that I didn’t deserve to.”

Who hasn’t been there? Who can’t relate to that?

For the last several weeks, I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. I’ve benefited greatly from reading Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew. In fact, every time I teach or preach anything from Matthew’s gospel, I benefit greatly from reading Bruner. Here’s what he had to say about the final three petitions in the Lord’s Prayer—what he calls the “Second Table” of the prayer. He writes:

In the Second Table of the Lord’s Prayer, we may say in summary so far, the petition for bread was a prayer for the present (“give us this day”), the petition for forgiveness was a prayer for the removal of a bad past, and now the prayer for leading is a prayer for the future. This petition follows naturally from the preceding prayer for forgiveness. For when we ask for forgiveness we almost instinctively ask also to be kept from the temptations and evil that made our prayer for forgiveness necessary at all. So the Sixth Petition follows the Fifth like wanting to be good follows sorrow for failing to be.[1]

I like that! I’ve never thought of these petitions in terms of past, present, and future.

In today’s podcast, I want to focus on the fifth petition: “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” I’m reluctant to say that any of these three petitions is more or less important or necessary. But I will say this: the “prayer for the removal of a bad past,” as Bruner puts it, must be granted by God before the “prayer for the future” has any hope of coming to pass.

Why do I say that? Because the past has a way of haunting the present—and influencing the future. And if we haven’t made peace with the past, its influence can be harmful.

Stop and consider how many times even today you’ve ruminated over something in your past. Maybe it’s from your recent past: like some offhanded comment that someone made about you yesterday—“What did he mean by that? Was he criticizing me?” Or that witty riposte you wish you had said to your boss last week when she challenged the quality of your work. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 11-19-17: “That I May Gain Christ”

November 29, 2017

In today’s scripture Paul considers everything he’s lost as a result of following Christ. From the world’s point of view, it’s substantial. Yet Paul says he counts it all as loss in comparison to what he’s gained in Christ. Too often, I can think of many things in my own life that don’t seem like “rubbish” in comparison to Christ. What about you? How can we learn to treasure Jesus the way Paul does?

Sermon Text: Philippians 3:2-14

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Sadly, each passing week seems to bring new allegations against celebrities who have used their power to sexually abuse, harass, or rape people. In the case of Harvey Weinstein—one of the most powerful and influential Hollywood producers over the past 30 years—friends and associates like Ben Affleck and director Quentin Tarantino have apologized publicly because they knew this stuff was going on and they never said anything or did anything to stop it. They didn’t even confront their friend about it. And the truth is, there were dozens or even hundreds of powerful people in Hollywood who also knew about Weinstein’s behavior, and none of them did anything about it. Weinstein’s behavior was, in one report I read, Hollywood’s “worst-kept secret.”

Why the silence—not on the part of Weinstein’s victims—I totally get that—but on the part of his many powerful friends and associates? Why didn’t they do anything or say anything to him? Why didn’t they hold him accountable? Because Harvey Weinstein had the power to make or break their careers in Hollywood. He had the power to do great harm to their careers, or contribute to their success—as actors or filmmakers. He had the power to make their Hollywood dreams come true or prevent them from coming true. Because of their connection to Weinstein, many people won Academy Awards who otherwise wouldn’t have won them!

So these friends and associates decided that they had too much to lose. And they weren’t willing to risk losing it—even for the sake doing the right thing, telling the truth, being people of integrity.

How very different, by contrast, is the apostle Paul, as we see in today’s scripture! He was willing to lose everything that the world placed a high value on—everything that made him “somebody” in the eyes of the world. Why was he willing to do that? That’s what this sermon is all about. Read the rest of this entry »

Why this Methodist believes in meticulous providence (Part 5)

October 16, 2017

An earthquake disrupted Game 3 of the 1989 World Series.

[To read earlier posts in this series, click here.]

“If you want to find God, you have to go back to where you lost him.”

I told you a couple of years ago how this quote from a medieval theologian named Meister Eckhart, alongside Paul Zahl’s incisive podcast about it, shook me up. Zahl put into words something that I had experienced myself: I lost God! It happened in the late-’80s, some time during my sophomore year of college. I told you a little about my experience in this blog post.

At that point in my life, in 1989, the Baptist church of which I was a member had recently called a new pastor. I’ll call him Steve. He had been a New Testament professor at a Southern Baptist seminary. He was an intellectual, which appealed to me. He was evangelistic, like me. In fact, I took the Baptist equivalent of the Evangelism Explosion course with him.

But Steve was also a self-identified “moderate” in the so-called “holy war” within the Southern Baptist Convention. The “moderates,” like my pastor, lost. Theological conservatives, whom Steve always disparaged as “fundamentalists,” took over the denomination’s institutions and leadership posts. Out of this conflict a relatively small new Baptist denomination, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, was born. My church joined it, and until I became United Methodist several years later I was a member of CBF churches.

I loved Steve. He was a good preacher whose preaching style has surely influenced my own to this day. He was kind, funny, and down to earth. He brought a jolt of new energy to the church, and for a while the church was growing under his leadership. On balance, however, his influence in my life, as I see now, was harmful: Most importantly, he sowed seeds of doubt within me about the authority and  trustworthiness of scripture. He helped form within me an “us versus them” mentality toward many of my fellow Christians—”God, I thank you that I am not like other men… even like this theologically conservative evangelical.” (Please note: Now I am a theologically conservative evangelical.)

Not coincidentally, it was around this time that I started becoming the “angry young man” whose anger dominated and defined the next 20 years of my life. I’m not exactly blaming Steve for this—God knows that there were many deep-seated reasons for my anger, which I’ve spent years sorting out (with the help of paid professionals!). But Steve, a Christian leader whom I greatly admired, was angry, too. He had been hurt, professionally and personally, by fellow Christians. And he had a chip on his shoulder about it.

Through his influence, in part, I came to believe that anger is a justifiable emotion—rather than a deeply destructive one.

Also around this time, I fell in love with the music of The Clash. In one of their songs, they sang the following: “Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power/ You know that we can use it.” Maybe they can use that anger; I can’t, as I now realize. It overpowers me. I end up hurting myself and others.

I recount my experience, I hope, without anger. Along with the apostle Paul, I say, “By his grace I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10)—itself a statement of God’s sovereignty and providence the 19-year-old version of myself would have denied.

My point is, it was within this context that I heard a news report on a Christian radio station about Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989. This was the “World Series earthquake,” which interrupted Game 3 between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s. During this news report, the drive-time morning host said, “I have friends in the Bay Area. I just got in touch with them, and I thank God that they’re safe!”

I thought, “Hold on a minute! You don’t get to thank God for sparing the lives of your friends if you don’t, at the same time, blame God for failing to keep hundreds of others safe.”

This seemed to me like the most obvious fact imaginable. Why didn’t anyone else point this out to him?

Those dumb evangelical Christians, I thought. Thank God I’m not like them!

It was around this time—if not this very moment—that I lost God.

When I say I “lost” him, I only mean it figuratively. God never lost me. I don’t believe that I lost my salvation during this time. And it’s not like I completely abandoned God. I remained a faithful churchgoer, if not a faithful Bible reader, pray-er, or Christian witness for many years to come.

But something changed within me. I fell out of love with God. I stopped trusting him. I couldn’t see how God was in control of the world, and our lives within it. I stopped believing God had a “plan” for my life. I was angry at God.

How desperately I needed a hard-nosed, credible, intellectual Christian pastor to knock some sense into me!

In fact, I would have benefited from a pastor like John Piper, who described putting his daughter to bed on the same evening that the 35W Bridge collapsed near his church in Minneapolis:

We prayed during our family devotions. Talitha (11 years old) and Noël and I prayed earnestly for the families affected by the calamity and for the others in our city. Talitha prayed “Please don’t let anyone blame God for this but give thanks that they were saved.” When I sat on her bed and tucked her in and blessed her and sang over her a few minutes ago, I said, “You know, Talitha, that was a good prayer, because when people ‘blame’ God for something, they are angry with him, and they are saying that he has done something wrong. That’s what “blame” means — accuse somebody of wrongdoing. But you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand.” Talitha said, “With his pinky.” “Yes,” I said, “with his pinky. Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”

Piper’s words are true! We don’t “blame” God for earthquakes and other natural disasters because blame implies that God has done something wrong. God would only have done something wrong if the people who died in the 35W Bridge disaster or the Loma Prieta earthquake were entitled to more life in this world. They are not. None of us is. Every moment of time we have is a gift from God. Every heartbeat is a gift. Every breath is a gift. Each one of us will die some day—assuming the Lord doesn’t return first. And this will happen not merely through illness, or accident, or an act of violence—but through God’s will: “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

All death is ultimately God’s judgment against sin (Genesis 2:17; 3:19). When God decides to bring our life to its appointed end, we sinners will have no right to complain. Yet because God loves us, and he is perfectly good, we can trust that he will have done so according to his good purposes.

Until then, we can praise him that he graciously lets us continue to live—for however long he does so.

I made a similar point in my sermon on October 8, preached in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre:

Honestly, every time there’s a national tragedy like Las Vegas, some people will use that as an excuse to shake their fist at God and say, “How could you let this happen? How could you let these people die like this?” But this question gets it exactly backwards: The question is not “How could a loving God let these people die,” the question is “How could a just God let the rest of us sinners continue to live? How could a just God allow us sinners to live day after day, hour after hour, moment after moment, in open rebellion against him and his loving rule?” When we hear about someone committing treason against the United States, many of us say, “They ought to still be brought before a firing squad and shot!” We heard that kind of thing about Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted his post in Afghanistan and was suspected of being a traitor. “He should be shot!” some say. But what about us? Who do we think we are? When we hear about a tragedy like Las Vegas, why not fall on our knees and thank God that he has let us live for another day—because none of us deserves this life! How merciful God must be—that he keeps on giving us one opportunity after another to repent. Yet most of the time, most people, in most parts of the world, say no.

Why then does God let us continue to live? So that we will be saved. We are living in a season of mercy. But it won’t last forever.

The words of Piper’s daughter point to this truth: “Maybe he let [the bridge] fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “I am sure that is one of the reasons God let the bridge fall.”

God wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.

Undoubtedly true. This is one reason—one of a hundred, one of a thousand, one of a million reasons—that God let this bridge collapse. Does that seem harsh?

It’s not nearly as harsh as an eternity in hell! And if God used this bridge’s collapse to wake people up to the reality of heaven and hell, and the opportunity that they have right now to repent of their sins and receive God’s gift of saving grace, then God was only merciful to do so.

If you think I’m wrong, or that I’ve misrepresented God’s Word, please tell me how in the comments section. Thanks!

“Christ the bridegroom takes a wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His”

August 30, 2017

This past Sunday, to begin our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, I preached the first part of a new series on the Reformation’s five core convictions, often called the “Five Solas.” Part One was on Sola Fide, justification by faith alone. While I didn’t use the word “imputation,” I described it. But here’s a nice description of it from one of my favorite Christian thinkers (and pastors), Paul Zahl, from a 1991 article in First Things.

Moreover, the atonement has to be substitutionary, to use the classic language, or I fail to see how it can ensure the being forgiven. We need God’s substituting Himself into our frail, contingent world of judged living. We require a substitute, the deepest form of empathy, the “I’ll go in your place” quality of advocacy. The metaphor of God’s substitution is the only one of the familiar theories of atonement that provides for the full failed weight of human aspiration.

Moreover, substitutionary atonement has to be imputed. Imputation means the regarding as righteous of one who is not intrinsically righteous at all. It covers over the conflicted ambivalent character of human personality with a seamless robe, and gives us authentic security in the encounter with God.

Imputation is described tersely and truly by an English historian of the Reformation, Patrick Collinson: “[It is] a transaction somewhat like a marriage, in which Christ the bridegroom takes to himself an impoverished and wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His . . . . Therefore, the justified Christian man, in himself and of his own nature a sinner but not seen as a sinner by God, brings forth those good works which consist in the love of God and neighbor, not slavishly to win any reward but gladly, that service which is perfect freedom.” Imputation as an experienced principle is poignantly needful for a striving world.

The temptation to “go from house to house”

June 15, 2017

My friend Leslie got ordained last night. I met her on my first day of class at Emory in 2004. She often elbowed me awake in John Hayes’s 8:00 a.m. OT class.

Last night at Annual Conference, our bishop, Sue Haupert-Johnson, preached a message to our conference’s newly ordained, commissioned, and licensed pastors and deacons. Her text was Luke 10:1-12, where Jesus commissions 72 disciples to proclaim the gospel and heal the sick in the towns around Galilee. The bishop related Jesus’ instructions to these disciples to our role as clergy.

Prior to her sermon, I’d never thought about the meaning of verse 7: “And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house.”

Do not go from house to house.

In other words, Jesus says, when the disciples come into a town, and someone offers them a place stay, they should avoid the temptation to seek more comfortable, more spacious lodging in someone else’s home, even if it’s offered to them. Stay where you are and be content, Jesus says. Don’t look for something better.

It’s easy to see how this applies to us United Methodist pastors, who are itinerant. Each year the bishop either reappoints us to our present church or sends us to a new church (or churches). In theory, we go where we’re sent; it isn’t up to us. Whether we “like” our appointment is beside the point.

The danger, the bishop said, is restlessness: we clergy will be so anxious for our next appointment that we’ll fail to appreciate, enjoy, or learn from our present one. This restlessness becomes worse, of course, when we look over our shoulders at our clergy colleagues and compare ourselves to them and their appointments. “How do I rate? Am I falling behind? Am I moving ahead?”

As a naturally ambitious person, I can relate—and maybe you can, too. My temptation to compare myself to others has brought me nothing but misery.

Besides, we should avoid “going from house to house” for a deeper reason: Ultimately we’re appointed not by any bishop or district superintendent; we’re appointed by God.

In fact, wherever you are, whoever you are, you are there because God wants you to be there. You have an appointment. 

But what if you say, “I don’t like where God has appointed me”? Or, as the Talking Heads sang:

You may ask yourself, “Where is that large automobile?”
And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful house”
And you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful wife”

Okay… As pastor and theologian Paul Zahl says: Blame God. He can take it.

But as you do so, remember this: We are “slaves of God” (1 Peter 2:16). Our life doesn’t belong to us. Our personal happiness isn’t the point of life. We are owned by the One who paid for us by the precious blood of his beloved Son. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, we live for one reason only: to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Wherever God has appointed us, he has done so for his glory. The question all of us must ask is this: “Is living for God’s glory enough for me?”

Why this Methodist preacher loves John Piper

May 24, 2017

In last Sunday’s sermon on 1 Peter 1:22-2:3, I talked about Peter’s quotation of Isaiah 40:6, 8, which compares the experience of Israel in exile in Babylon with the kind of “exile” that Christians experience in this world (1 Peter 1:1). Why, I wondered aloud, do we set our hearts on things that are passing away instead of the “living and abiding word of God”?

As an illustration, I quoted a famous sermon that John Piper delivered to college students at a Passion Conference in 2000. He was describing a couple of older Christian women in his church—both around 80 years of age—who were serving as medical missionaries in Cameroon, on the western coast of Africa. A few weeks earlier, he said, these two women died. They were on a bus on a steep mountain road. The bus’s brakes gave out. They went over a cliff. They were killed instantly. Piper said:

I asked my people: was that a tragedy? Two lives, driven by one great vision, spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ — two decades after almost all their American counterparts have retired to throw their lives away on trifles in Florida or New Mexico.

No. That is not a tragedy. That is a glory.

I tell you what a tragedy is. [And Piper pulled out an article he clipped from Reader’s Digest, which he acknowledged that none of the young people in his audience ever read. He said:] I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest what a tragedy is. “Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.”

That’s a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream. And I get forty minutes to plead with you: don’t buy it. With all my heart I plead with you: don’t buy that dream. The American Dream: a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of what you did: “Here it is Lord — my shell collection! And I’ve got a nice swing. And look at my boat!”

Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.

Nearly every time I hear Piper speak, I’m reminded why he’s among his generation’s most gifted preachers. My 17-year-old daughter, who also heard this, was blown away.

I think I know why Piper is one of the best—and if you disagree that he’s one of the best, watch the video and judge for yourself!

But I think I know why—or one important reason. It’s because he preaches as if Christianity were really true—all of it.

Or is that saying too little of Piper’s gifts? After all, shouldn’t all of us preachers preach as if Christianity were really true?

You’d think so, yet so few of us do. I haven’t always, myself.

A couple of years ago, in one of the Paul Zahl’s wonderful podcasts, the theologically conservative Zahl, a retired Episcopal theologian and minister (don’t call him a “priest,” please; he’s Protestant!), was complaining about an Episcopal worship service he had recently attended. Zahl says:

I was hearing someone who was describing… a lovely priest in the Episcopal Church… was describing the nature of baptism and the new birth. And this priest said, “The Holy Spirit descends, as it were, through baptism.” And I was just struck by the expression “as it were.”

Does it or doesn’t it? Does she, does he, does it descend really in such a way that it could be considered a real and empirically verifiable, or ascertainable, or visible, observable experience—or is it as it were? Is it simply a form of words?

And so the character of fakery in the liberal mainstream, it’s a kind of cutting off or cutting short or just sort of assuming that. An ellipsis—that religion is true, but let’s get to the real meat of it: it’s what you do outside of religious concerns which you share with any number of cause-oriented people today in this world. And that strikes me as completely unhelpful to the needy suffering person who’s there to get some kind of stability in a chaotic, suffering, and often very negative world in which he or she is drowning.

Where’s the “like” button? Where’s the heart sign to click on? I love this so much!

Of course, Zahl is talking about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, but he could be talking about any number of other Christian doctrines, which, if they are true, cannot leave us unaffected—to say the least. Piper is effective as a preacher in part because he lets himself be affected. How could he not?

He doesn’t preach using humorous anecdotes; he doesn’t tell jokes. He preaches as if his message is too urgent for that. Yet his sermons are never dry or cerebral; they strike the right balance between head and heart—which is to say, they lead with his heart.

I hope I’ve learned from him, or am learning, how to “lead with my heart.”