Posts Tagged ‘Paul Zahl’

“The only thing you can do anything about is your past”

March 13, 2017

I just started reading Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. The following excerpt may help explain why, in my own teaching and preaching ministry over the past few years, I’ve emphasized themes of sin, Law, judgment, repentance, the Cross, and substitutionary atonement more than sanctification—or the strategies for self-improvement that disguise themselves as such.

In my own life, I need healing for my ever-present past more than help for my future (which is mostly out of my hands). Don’t you? Fortunately, more than anything else, that’s what Christ came to heal. “The past resolved gives the present its only chance. The future is the Spirit’s job.”

In light of the law, all that men and women can do, declares Christ, is to repent (Matthew 3:2, concerning John the Baptist; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3). Repentance is not the same thing as restitution or a changed hart. Repentance is felt sorrow, sorrow in your very marrow, for what you have been and done. Repentance not only covers shame at what you have done but also includes shame at who you are, as in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Repentance is not a disposition in relation to the future. It is disposition in relation to your personal past.

Not long ago I read a newspaper article about an executive at Boeing. The reporter asked him to name the secret of his success, and he said, “There is nothing you can do about the past. The only thing you can do anything about is the future.” Christ saw life differently. For Christ, the only thing you can do anything about is your past. God alone can deal with your future. If you have repented of your past, if you have taken an inventory of the full extent of hurt, victimhood, malice, and self-service that describe your achieved life, if you have said the one single needful word, “sorry,” then that is all. There is nothing more. The future, which Paul would later call the “fruit of the Spirit,” flows totally from the “sorry.” The past resolved gives the present its only chance. The future is the Spirit’s job.[†]

Paul F.M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 11.

Remember: When angry, direct your anger toward God

January 28, 2017

mockingbird_devotionalI realize I’m going to the well of The Mockingbird Devotional twice in one week, but there’s a reason this book was my go-to gift this past Christmas. It’s good!

In today’s devotional, Paul Zahl reflects on Exodus 17:2, which describes the Israelites’ anger at Moses shortly after being delivered from the Egyptians:

Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

Notice that Moses rightly understands that the people’s anger was misdirected: Despite their words and actions, they weren’t angry at Moses; they were angry at God. “Why do you test the Lord?” He was the One who was ultimately responsible for their being in this predicament—on the verge of dying of thirst—not Moses. And that’s true for all of us who are facing any kind of hardship.

After all, even if God didn’t cause it, God certainly had the power to prevent it. Why didn’t he?

Of course, you might say that we shouldn’t get angry at all, and I’m sure that’s true. Anger is almost always destructive. And don’t resort to saying, “Yes, but Jesus was angry when he overturned the money-changers’ tables.”

Do I need to point out that we’re not Jesus?

No, by all means we should trust that, despite the fact that our lives aren’t going according to our plans, they are going according to God’s—and that God’s plans are always better than our own.

I don’t deny that we ought to feel that way. But when we don’t, which—let’s face facts—is most of the time, here’s some good news: we can do something productive with our anger: we can blame God!

One recurring theme of my blog over the past few years is my affirmation of God’s sovereignty and providence, which is another way of saying that God is, indeed, “pulling the strings.” That being the case, when we find ourselves angry, at whom ought we to be angry? As Zahl says in his devotional, nothing good comes from being angry at people. God, however, is big enough to absorb our anger. Let’s be angry at him.

Try it. For a second, stop blaming the “SOB” ruining your life, and instead blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings. It will be for your good to have done so, though I don’t expect anyone to pickup on that until… “Afterward” (Edith Wharton).[†]

Paul Zahl, “January 28” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 57-8.

Do people still believe that the “wages of sin” deserves death?

January 11, 2017

Paul Zahl

As I wrote yesterday, God rescued me from the precipice of hell not too many years ago—long after I was a professing Christian. I have wondered myself if I had died during that time of temporary “lostness,” would I still have been saved? I think I would have been—maybe—but God’s judgment would have been severe. I can only speculate.

Here’s what I do know, based on my experience and the teaching of scripture: I deserve hell. And so do you. That sounds so ugly to say, doesn’t it? Yet it is without a doubt the unanimous teaching of classic Christianity.

I wonder, however, when I preach this message—as I did even last Sunday—if it still communicates to other, more virtuous, people than I am. In my defense, our cultural imperative to accept everyone just as they are, without moral judgment, kicks against the goads of this core Christian conviction.

In his short systematic theology, Paul Zahl, who—as my family knows—has become a hero to me, responds to the objection that penal substitution, with its requirement for Christ’s atoning death in place of our own, is more than our problem with sin requires. In other words, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). This means that the judgment of God is capital. That is not too extreme a statement of the case. If you were to take the sum of any one person’s life—her or his thoughts, conscious and unconscious; the dreams, both day dreams and night dreams; the sum of his or her concrete actions, both covert and open to public scrutiny; the motives and intentions; the “body language”—if you were to take the whole sum of a person’s life and show it to that person within a moment in time, the person would have a heart attack or a stroke, right on the spot. There are no exceptions to this postulate, certainly not in the Bible. Our inner fears of exposure confirm it absolutely.[†]

† Paul F.M. Zahl, A Short Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 65.

“Blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings”

August 22, 2016

Pity us Methodist pastors!

We are simply not well-equipped to handle questions of God’s sovereignty. We rarely if ever use the word, in part because we know that Calvinists use the word a lot—and we’re certain we’re not Calvinists. We might be Arminian, but we can’t say for sure: we studied Arminianism in seminary even less than we studied Greek or Hebrew, which is saying something.

Here’s yet another blog post by yet another UMC pastor complaining about the expression “Everything happens for a reason.” Read it alongside his response to a commenter. I wrote the following:

Jason, I understand why your previous commenter was confused. You begin by talking about our need to be in control, when (of course) we’re not in control. That’s true enough. Then you conclude by saying we need to “live in trust,” presumably to God our Father, just as Jesus did.

If we’re going to live in trust, what are we trusting in if not the fact that God is in some sense “in control”?

The moment we concede that God can and will, even occasionally, grant our prayer petitions, then we run into a problem: What about those many times when God doesn’t? Unless God’s answering our prayers is arbitrary, then we must conclude that “God has a reason” for not answering them.

At this point, it’s just a matter of tracing the logic toward its conclusion: everything does happen for a reason in God’s providential plan. I’ve done it many times on this blog—here, for example.

But if I’m right, here’s some good news: If you don’t like a situation in which you find yourself, you have someone (or Someone) to blame other than yourself—however much such blame will be warranted. You can blame God. You can even be angry with God. In fact, God is probably the only target toward whom it’s safe to express anger without falling into sin.

Paul Zahl makes this point in the January 28 entry of the Mockingbird Devotional:

I recommend we express our anger at God. He can take it. He is in the “business” of absorbing it. “No one does it better.” Jeremiah expressed his anger at God. Paul expressed it in a plaint concerning his “thorn in the flesh.” Jesus almost did it—but not quite. Rather, Christ expressed his dereliction to the Father. The psalmist seems often on the verge of expressing anger at God. Oh, and Studdert-Kennedy did it, that old “Woodbine Willie,” in his immortal spiritual poems from World War One.

Try it. For a second, stop blaming the “SOB” ruining your life, and instead blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings. It will be for your good to have done so, even though I don’t expect anyone to pick up on that until… “Afterward” (Edith Wharton).[†]

Paul Zahl, “January 28” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 57-8.

Sermon 03-06-16: “Believing the Word”

March 11, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic
As hard as it is to believe, when we find ourselves in a place of utter helplessness—when we’ve reach the end of our ropes and realize that there’s nothing else we can do to help ourselves—this is often, surprisingly, an amazing place to be! Because this is the place where God’s grace meets us! This sermon explores this idea and more. Enjoy!

Sermon Text: John 4:43-54

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

Growing up, my friend Andy had a street sign hanging on his bedroom wall. It identified a street near where we lived; I don’t know how he got it or where he got it. But the sign hung on his wall, right next to the Christie Brinkley swimsuit poster. It was awesome—and the street sign was pretty cool too!

But I’m sure the people from the county who put the sign up originally didn’t want my friend to have it—in part because the county paid for it, and they had to replace it with a new one. And besides, the purpose of a sign isn’t to be displayed on the wall as a piece of art, as part of the decor of a teenage boy’s bedroom; the purpose of a sign is to point to something, to identify something, to give information about something. If you hang the sign on your wall because you like the way it looks, you’ve missed the point of the sign.

And that’s what these Galileans in today’s scripture have done. They’ve missed the point of Jesus’ “signs,” which is John’s name for the miracles that Jesus performs. So of course, as verse 45 says, the Galileans “welcome” Jesus; they roll out the red carpet for him; throw a parade for him when he returns home to Galilee. Why wouldn’t they welcome him like this? The local boy has made them proud; he’s done well. After all, did you see what he did a couple of weeks ago at the Passover festival in Jerusalem? Unbelievable… All those miracles he performed! And the way he drove away those merchants and money changers in the Temple! But especially the miracles! Everyone’s talking about the miracles! And he’s one of us! He’s a hometown boy!

Read the rest of this entry »

The scholarly nonsense surrounding John 8 and Romans 7

October 27, 2015

Years ago, when I was in theology school at Emory, a professor wrote a critique in the margins of one of my essays that began with these sympathetic words: “For those of us who live in our heads…” And I thought, “Oh, right! I guess I do tend to live in my head!” What can a I say? It’s a blessing and curse.

It was a curse recently, for example, when I ruminated over this margin note on John 7:53-8:11 in the otherwise conservative ESV Study Bible:

There is considerable doubt that this story is part of John’s original Gospel, for it is absent from all of the oldest manuscripts. But there is nothing in it unworthy of sound doctrine. It seems best to view the story as something that probably happened during Jesus’ ministry but that was not originally part of what John wrote in his Gospel. Therefore it should not be considered as part of Scripture and should not be used as the basis for building any point of doctrine unless confirmed in Scripture.

Should not be considered part of Scripture? It’s one of the greatest passages in the gospels! Oh my goodness!

My own theory is that, regardless how it got there, the Holy Spirit put it in our Bibles because God wanted it to be there: whether it belongs in this particular context in John or somewhere else, it belongs in the Bible! I have preached this passage and will continue to do so.

So I was ruminating over this margin note when, providentially, I listened to Paul Zahl’s latest podcast, in which he discusses this very passage, and the controversy surrounding it. He apparently has even less patience for Bible scholars who say it doesn’t belong. Transcribing the fast-talking Zahl, with his endearing Newhart-like stammer, is a challenge, but here goes:

I remember in Tübingen reporting that all sorts of New Testament so-called “scholars” would be saying that the long ending of John 8, with the woman taken in adultery, was unquestionably an insertion from a later text, and it couldn’t possibly be… you know, it was an insertion. And I kept always thinking, you know, “This is the core of the entire religion—is what he says: ‘Go and sin no more,’ but ‘neither do I condemn thee.’” I mean, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” This is the core of the Christian insight about the universality of human fallenness, human suffering, brokenness, waywardness, and the forgiveness of Christ—mammothly the core. And isn’t this the classic case of the Satanic mechanic hypnotizing a collective scholarly consciousness to somehow believe this doesn’t even belong there?

But he’s not finished! Next he attacks the idea—prominently featured in N.T. Wright, among others—that Paul, in Romans 7, is speaking hypothetically about a non-Christian—rather than from his own present experience as a believer—when he says, for example, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”:

I mean the one thing… it’s like when people used to say that Romans 8—Romans 7, I should say—was not really a Christian. It was a so-called pre-Christian, or it was some kind of… Paul trying to get into the head of some putative pre- or non-Christian to relate to this. Whereas obviously anybody—you know, “I don’t do the things I want to do, and I do the things I don’t want to do. Who will deliver me from this body of death?” It’s everybody. It’s the unity of all people. It’s a Christian. It’s a non-Christian. It’s a pre-Christian. It’s a post-Christian. It’s a pagan. It’s a non-pagan. It’s a dualist. It’s a secularist. It’s a nun. It’s a Jew. It’s a Christian. It’s a Protestant. It’s a Presbyterian—my golly. It’s Charles Simeon and it’s Pope John Pall II. It is utterly true to life—Romans 7.

And then when I also related to Herr Moltmann that they had also decided that Romans 7 was not what it was obviously about. And he just shook his head and said, “Isn’t it amazing [says something in German] can actually believe this?” It’s so obvious this is true from experience. Anybody reading it—of any shape, size, form—understands that Romans 7 is about him- or herself…

What cerebral place of total non-existence are we bringing to these things? It’s a devilish thing!

I love when Zahl gets carried away! I love his passion.

“To find God, go back to where you lost him”

October 1, 2015

I was in college, my first time around, back in the olden days of the internet—before the web, before blogs, before social media. The only access I had to the internet was through a mainframe terminal in one particular building on campus. I used to rush there in between classes in order to participate in the latest “flame war” that was happening on a couple of Usenet groups I read religiously at the time. Usenet was an early “bulletin board” system, which consisted of newsgroups sorted into thousands of different categories, allowing users to have online conversations with people around the world who shared their interests.

The group on which I was most active was called “,” dedicated to contemporary Christian music, or “Christian rock.” For at least a few years, between about 1990 and 1994, was an important part of my life.

This week I was reminded of my participation in this newsgroup. I saw a blog post by a name I recognized from those days—not to mention recognizing his style and wit. I confirmed he was the same person. He was a frequent ally in the flame wars in which I participated. He shared many of my musical tastes, my political opinions, and my anger. Indeed, his blog post this week was a broadside against conservative evangelicals who are more faithful to a political party than to Jesus.

Second verse, same as the first. I thought: “Wasn’t he”—weren’t we—”writing this same stuff 25 years ago?”

To my horror, there’s actually a way to check. Google has archived at least some of these posts. I couldn’t see any posts earlier than 1993, but still… There’s enough evidence there, not only by my erstwhile flame-war ally, but by yours truly, to remind me of two facts: First: I was a pretty good writer, even back then. Second: I was very angry.

Don’t get me wrong: I still struggle with anger, but I’ve been in “recovery” for several years.

Needless to say, in re-reading these old posts, I didn’t like that aspect of the person I had become, even by 1993—and I’d already been nursing anger for a few years by then.

What happened to me back then that made me like that?  Read the rest of this entry »

Is your Christian faith real, or is it “as it were” or “as if”?

September 25, 2015

When I was preparing my “Disney Summer Drive-In” sermon series both last year and this year I found excellent resources at a “Christianity and popular culture” website called Mockingbird. From there I was introduced to the Mockingbird-affiliated podcast of Paul Zahl, a retired (I think) Episcopal pastor and theologian, and a former dean of a traditionalist-oriented seminary. (As best I can tell, he was on the losing side of his denomination’s culture war and was sent into exile.)

When I heard his podcast, I knew immediately we were simpatico. This happens to me fairly often: I sense that I’m on the same wavelength as a musician, author, filmmaker, pastor, or thinker I admire, and I feel a deep sympathy and connection with him or her. In fact, among my favorite musical artists, this is always the case. They speak my heart’s secret language.

I introduced a friend of mine to this podcast, however, and Zahl did not speak his heart’s language, so be forewarned.

The format of his podcast, called “PZ’s Podcast” (which you can find on iTunes) is unusual: Each begins and ends with a complete song, usually a popular one from the ’60s or ’70s—but, like me, his musical interests are wide-ranging. He’ll connect the song to the theme he’s exploring in that particular episode, which will usually relate to Christianity in some way. In one episode, for example, he connects the ABBA song “Take a Chance on Me” to the risky steps of faith we must take as disciples of Jesus. He also makes frequent references to obscure B-movies and second-tier novels and novelists. Like me, he takes pop culture very seriously.

He’s a great raconteur, like all successful radio or podcast hosts. He speaks quickly, with a stammer, as if his thoughts get away from him quickly, and he’s constantly running to catch up with them. He’s easy to listen to but difficult to transcribe—as I’ve done below.

Still, I hope it’s worth the effort.

In this most recent podcast, he wants to get down to what’s real. Because, in his experience, Christians of all theological stripes often fail to live as if their faith is real. As he says in this excerpt:

Coming from an experience as I think I’ve told you of attending just so many dead, desultory church services in the mainline of late—the Protestant mainline of my own denomination—in which either there’s no religion—it’s all social justice—and the entire purpose of the church as we hear the sermon and the announcements is to be a mission statement for various social concerns… It is assumed that there’s a religious basis for these works of social justice and causes but you never really get into it. Or if you get into it, it’s sort of implicit. There’s a tremendous sense of implicit.

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.

And then, on the other hand, you get fakery in the whole world of the evangelicals, which is simply to say, “We talk as if we believe something real is happening. We talk as if it’s the real thing. But then when we actually encounter real life, well, you and I know it has nothing to do with real life, right?” I can talk about the Lord a million times, unless he has to do with something that actually matters, and then it’s a mile away…

He gives the example of one of his parishioners, an evangelical, whose faith was exposed as not real, despite the parishioner’s many words to the contrary. He continues with a recent example from the evangelical world, Billy Graham’s grandson, pastor Tullian Tchividjian, who resigned under pressure from his church after admitting to an affair.

Or the current situation with Tullian Tchividjian. Whatever we think about what Tullian says on Twitter, or what Tullian says on Facebook, or how he’s quoted in interviews today, the appalling, the outrageous compartmentalization of the way it was reported that his parish accepted his confession of wrongdoing! Unbelievable! 

“God,” they’ll say, “he is with you at your deepest, worst distress. You cannot go far… so far from God. The worst you can do, he is still there, he is still… That’s where he is most present. Behold!”

But when you actually get there—when Tullian or anybody actually gets to that dark place? [God] is not there, let me tell you! From the standpoint of the people who are there, they do not see God there. Then the Law comes in, the laws of this world, self-protection, all the various things, and [makes exploding sound].

You sort of want to say to these people, “Then why did you say all that about what you said in those sermons and those talks and your acceptance that this is the great message of grace. Were you kidding? Because the actual way it came out—when push came to shove—is that there was not an iota of that message—not an iota!

So what this says is that it’s totally… it’s not the real thing. It never was the real thing…

Is your faith the real thing? Is mine? And if it is the real thing, why does it often seem as if it isn’t?

This thought creeps into my head when we, as a church—any church in my Baptist and Methodist experience in the Bible Belt of the U.S.—prays.

After all, we pray all the time in church—in worship services, in Sunday school classes, in Bible studies, in youth gatherings, in committee meetings, before every meal. But these prayers—let’s face it—often seem perfunctory. When we pray, do we really believe that God is going to do something in response to our prayers that God wouldn’t otherwise do if we didn’t pray? Or are we merely praying, as Zahl would say, as it were?

For example, for eleven years of ministry I’ve sat through one finance committee meeting after another in which we wring our hands—and I’m speaking of myself here, too—about the financial giving (or lack thereof) on the part of the congregation. “What can we do about it?” “What stewardship plan or program or initiative can we introduce to entice our members to greater faithfulness in this area of their lives?”

And we speak and behave as if the answer lies outside of ourselves: with the church down the street that followed this plan; with an expert who wrote this book; with the pastor who implemented this program.

I’m not against plans and books and programs. But our first priority must be God, right? Do we believe that God will provide for us all the money that we need, or don’t we? Is our faith in God as it were? Does God have so little connection with the “real things” of this world?

If not, why is prayer is often our last resort, after we’ve tried everything else?

Granted, better late than never, but still…

I’ve blogged about this before, but when I was in Kenya, the United Methodist pastors I met and ministered with there didn’t pray like that. They didn’t treat God like that! Watch this video, if you don’t believe me. There’s a holy desperation to their prayers! Perhaps it’s because when you have so little, materially speaking, you can’t afford the illusion of self-sufficiency. They know they can’t succeed or even survive without God, and they pray like it!

I feel like crying when I consider, by contrast, what a phony I often am! Am I the only one?

Recently, before getting on my knees to pray—because as often as I can, I now pray on my knees—I’ve told myself, “It’s time to change the world,” or at least my little corner of the world. I need this reminder—that my prayers will make a difference.

Otherwise, why bother? Otherwise, I’m asking God to do something as it were.

I’m done with those kinds of prayers. I hope!

What about you? When you pray, do you believe that through God’s grace, your prayers make a difference?