Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Colbert’

“Change my desires so that I desire you alone”

October 15, 2018

For the past six months or so—thanks to my daughter’s influence and example—I have been journaling in my Bible. (They make Bibles for exactly this purpose, and this is the one that I use.) For me, who likes to write, this experience has been deeply fruitful. I’m currently journaling my way through the Proverbs. What follows is my reflection on Proverbs 15:15-17, mostly in the form of a prayer. (I am literally transcribing from my handwritten notes.)

See Psalm 37:4; Matthew 6:33. From Solomon’s perspective, there is a kind of cheerfulness of heart that is immune to external circumstances. These verses make a point very similar to Jesus and the rest of God’s Word: We find genuine happiness in God alone. I’ve experienced enough of this happiness to know it’s true. But I need more!

Lord, can I dare to ask you to give me more? I confess that too often my heart is NOT cheerful (v. 15). I confess that too often I find my treasure in so many other people, places, and things. I need you to melt my heart! Change my desires so that I desire you alone—and the things that belong to you. I’m not even asking you to “work with me,” synergistically, the way we Wesleyan-Arminians so often want you to work. I’m not asking that you would COOPERATE with my free will. I’m asking you—I’m pleading with you!—TAKE CONTROL! Give me grace that obliterates my stubborn, sinful heart. Override my free will. I won’t mind, I promise! Only give me a joy that finds complete satisfaction in you! O God, I want that so badly!

Teach me, God, that “a little with fear of the Lord” is greater than the greatest treasure. If you have to afflict me (I say this with fear and trembling) with a  “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), as you did with my brother Paul, please do so. Give me this severe mercy if that’s what I require to find my treasure in you!

In my pastoral prayer yesterday, I prayed for victims and survivors of this most recent, devastating hurricane, which has nearly wiped whole towns off the map (like Mexico Beach, FL). I said in my prayer that many of your children are enduring a “severe trial.” I chose those words with care: For some of your children—not all and likely not many, but for some—this “fiery trial” (1 Peter 4:12) will be their greatest blessing. Why? Because, like me, they have found their treasure in something or someone other than you. And now, possessing very little, this experience will lead them to repentance—sweet repentance!

Like comedian Stephen Colbert, who told an interviewer in 2015 that coming to grips with the death of his father and two of his brothers at age 10 was the equivalent of “learning to love the bomb,” some of these victims and survivors will, by God’s grace, be able to say, “I love the thing I most wish had not happened”—because, in losing their treasure in houses, possessions, and even family or friends, they will find their true treasure in you. (Needless to say, your children who died in the hurricane are experiencing your grace and love in a way that those who are left behind are unable to experience: They have found their treasure in a way that we, on this side of eternity, can only dream! “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Phil. 1:21).

Sermon 09-06-15: “Fight Songs, Part 1: Our Shepherd”

September 11, 2015

Fight Songs

Psalm 23, among the most beloved passages of scripture, is also one of the most misunderstood. While the imagery of sheep and shepherd seems peaceful and bucolic, the poem is set in the context of danger and death. After all, within the shadows of the canyon are dangerous predators who want to destroy the sheep. Their shepherd is their only protection. What does this say about those of us who follow the Lord our Shepherd? Will he protect and provide for us even when we find ourselves in the “valley of the shadow of death”? 

Sermon Text: Psalm 23:1-6

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

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Marine Lance Cpl. Jarrod Haschert is one lucky man! Over social media last week, Haschert invited Ronda Rousey on a date. He asked her to accompany him to the annual Marine Birthday Ball at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. And Rousey, the undefeated mixed martial arts champion, the woman that Sports Illustrated called the “world’s most dominant athlete” in any sport, said yes. Even though she hadn’t yet met or even spoken to the the marine, she said “yes”—as a show of support for our troops.

marine

Maybe you’ve never heard of Ronda Rousey, but it’s fair to say that at least millions of guys around the world consider Rousey “hot,” and most of them would dream of going on a date with Rousey… Although few of them would have the guts to do what Haschert did!

Ronda-RouseySo Rousey is going to go to this dance, and she’ll be wearing a formal gown, and she’ll be beautiful, of course. But don’t judge by outward appearances. Because even though she’s not a large woman, by any stretch, she could easily kill most men with her bare hands, I’m sure. Honestly. She’s tough, strong, quick, agile… and did I say tough?

But you wouldn’t know this by looking at her! Looks can be deceiving.

And when it comes to Psalm 23, this most beloved psalm, looks can also be deceiving. I mean, when we think of this image of the shepherd leading his sheep to lie down and rest beside “still waters,” doesn’t it seem like one of the most peaceful, calm, restful word pictures in all of scripture? Read the rest of this entry »

“Learning to love the bomb” of our past failures

September 1, 2015

Searching_for_bobby_fischerIn my sermon on Sunday, I made reference to a movie from 1993 called Searching for Bobby Fischer. It’s about a child chess prodigy named Josh Waitzkin. I see from Wikipedia that Waitzkin is a real person, so the movie is based on his young life. Bobby Fischer, whose legacy casts a tall shadow over the characters in the movie, even makes appearances throughout the film in grainy stock footage.

In the film, Waitzkin is so good that his opponents only need to make a few moves before he tells them, “You just lost the match.” He was able to anticipate his opponents’ next dozen or so moves, and his own counter-moves, and foresee that his opponent would lose.

I made the point in my sermon that God’s foreknowledge is like that—except he can see in advance all the moves that we will make in our lives—good moves, bad moves, smart moves, dumb moves. And he can see all the moves that he will make in response to us. Except, instead of looking at us and saying, “You lose.” He can say, to those of us who trust in his Son Jesus: “You win. I’m going to make sure that you win!”

As I said on Sunday, I find this idea immensely reassuring because, among other things, it means that our lives can never spin so far out of control that God can’t rescue them and bring them back under control. Then, in God’s providential care, even the mistakes, the foolish decisions, the monumental errors in judgment—indeed, the vilest sins—can be redeemed by God, such that we can look back on them, and the attendant suffering in their wake, and be grateful even for them.

Or can’t we? Am I wrong?

No, I believe we can.

In that recent Stephen Colbert interview that touched me so deeply, he described making peace with the childhood loss of his father and two of his brothers as “learning to love the bomb.” He said, “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it… That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

What profound words! Who besides Colbert has the nerve to speak them out loud? Yet I believe they’re true—and deeply Christian. I would add that we should also learn to love the person who was created, in part, through these things that we most wish hadn’t happened.

I was meeting recently with some friends, one of whom is considering breaking up with his girlfriend of seven years. As you can imagine, he’s feeling pressure from all quarters to fish or cut bait. He said, “I need to figure this out. Because if I decide I need to break up, I’ll already have wasted seven years of my life!”

My friend isn’t a Christian, nor would he have welcomed at that moment a deep theological treatise from me on God’s providence, but I did say, “Well, those years haven’t been wasted.”

Or, I should have said, they don’t need to have been wasted. We have a choice whether to assimilate our past experiences into our present life in a healthy way. And if we have faith in the God revealed in Christ, we have so much incentive to do so! “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

But all of us, whether we’re Christians or not, can see how our past makes us into the people we are today. For example, I mostly like who I am today—and God knows it took everything in my past to make me this way. I can be grateful, not bitter or angry. I can learn to love the bomb. And learn to love myself more in the process.

Sermon 08-23-15: “The Glitch in our Program”

August 31, 2015

Disney Summer Drive-In

In the movie “Wreck-It Ralph,” Ralph mistakenly believes that winning a shiny gold medal will prove his worth, and his quest for a medal inadvertently causes a lot of harm. Are we “real life” humans so different from Ralph? Where does our worth and value come from? What “shiny gold medals” do we think we need to be happy? How does the gospel of Jesus Christ speak to this need?

Sermon Text: Mark 2:13-17

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

wir

In the opening clip, Ralph introduces himself at a “Bad Anon” meeting for video-game villains. He confesses to the group that he no longer wants to be a bad guy, over the protests of other villains who say that Ralph must learn to accept his role. As Zangief, the villain from “Street Fighter II” tells him: “Just because you’re a bad guy doesn’t mean that you’re a bad guy.”

The unhappiest I’ve been in life is when I’ve felt like I’m stuck in circumstances over which I have little control. For example, early in my high school career—the summer between my eighth and ninth-grade years—I pulled out my high school yearbook, and I looked at the senior class from that year—including the “senior superlative” section: you know, here is the young man and woman most likely to succeed, or most intelligent, or funniest, or best looking, or most athletic. And I thought, “I’ll never be any of those things.” I mean, already, having just been in high school for one year as an eighth grader—a sub-freshman, they called us—I saw how things were shaping up, and it wasn’t looking great for me. I could make a change here or there, but mostly I was stuck with the body that I had—the brain that I had, the social skills that I had, the athletic ability that I had. And when I thought about these successful seniors in this yearbook—they had so much more going for them. I thought, “I’ll never measure up to them.” Read the rest of this entry »

“What punishments of God are not gifts?”

August 24, 2015
Colbert-Report-Bart-Ehrman-Stephen-Colbert

Bart Ehrman and Stephen Colbert

As a longtime Letterman fan, I was pleased with CBS’s selection of Stephen Colbert to succeed him. First, Colbert has been one of the sharpest wits on TV—original and fearless. He’s also proven to be a first-rate interviewer. Colbert will ensure that in the area of interviews, at least, there will be continuity between his show and Letterman’s old show—at a time when other late-night comedy shows, such as Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, seemingly deemphasize them.

Second, I’ve appreciated that Colbert, a Catholic, has never hidden or downplayed his Christian faith. What other TV personality, on Ash Wednesday, appears on air with ashes on his forehead? I also appreciate that he makes skeptics like Bart Ehrman squirm.

Sgt. Calhoun is "programmed with the most tragic backstory ever."

Sgt. Calhoun is “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

In yesterday morning’s sermon, I used clips from the Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph to illustrate biblical truths. In one clip, for example, we learn that video game character Sgt. Calhoun was “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

I then described Colbert’s recent interview in GQ magazine, in which he talked about his own “tragic backstory”: losing his father and his two closest brothers in a plane crash when he was only 10.

In the interview, Colbert described the time that J.R.R. Tolkien received a letter from a priest complaining that his novels and short stories weren’t theologically correct because they treated death as a gift, rather than a punishment for sin after the Fall:

“Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.”

While we may prefer to speak of the “disciplines of God,” rather than the “punishments,” the fact remains—and scripture loudly affirms—that God uses our tragic backstories for good, to mold us and shape us into the people that he wants us to be.

If this weren’t the case, how do we make sense of Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5? “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Recently, however, I analyzed a sermon by a fellow United Methodist pastor who obviously would disagree.

What do you think? Do you agree with Stephen Colbert? Does God turn our “tragic backstories” into gifts?

Bart Ehrman’s bad arguments

April 22, 2014

I spent about fifteen minutes of my sermon on Sunday reviewing some evidence for believing in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While I could have said much more, for my purposes it’s enough to know that plenty of scholars have said much more, and that what I did say was backed up by good scholarship.

My purpose wasn’t to “prove” the resurrection—we can’t prove it any more than we can prove that Caesar crossed the Rubicon or other events of ancient history that we take for granted. Rather, I wanted to remind and encourage Christians that the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on solid historical evidence.

The best reason, I suppose, for not believing in the resurrection event to which the evidence points is that of course resurrections aren’t the kind of things that happen. And how do skeptics know that resurrections don’t happen? Because of the lack of evidence, they would say. Except in the case of Jesus we have evidence, right? And the resurrection has only happened once. So there’s some circularity to their argument.

Regardless, if we Christian pastors never engage in apologetics, who will? There are fine apologists out there, but these scholars don’t make the cover of Time or Newsweek, nor do they have columns in the Huffington Post, nor are they usually interviewed on cable or network talk shows.

Leave that sort of notoriety to skeptical scholars like Bart Ehrman. He has a new book out, How Jesus Became God. To the credit of his publisher (thank you, Rupert Murdoch?), HarperCollins has also simultaneously published a Christian response, How God Became Jesus, by a team of evangelical scholars.

You can get a sense of the Ehrman book from this Huffington Post column by Ehrman. Before I criticize it, let’s appreciate what Ehrman, a former fundamentalist Christian-turned-agnostic, is willing to concede. He says that as he was researching his book he was surprised that, contrary to what he previously believed, the disciples of Jesus believed that Jesus was God from the time they became convinced he was resurrected. In other words, he doesn’t think that the belief that Jesus was God emerged decades after Jesus’ death.

And by believing this, Ehrman rules out at least three competing theories: the “pious legend” theory—that the resurrection idea emerged long after Jesus’ death; the conspiracy theory—that the original disciples knew that Jesus hadn’t been resurrected, but they invented the story; and the “swoon theory”—that Jesus only appeared to die on the cross, regained consciousness after burial, and emerged from the tomb.

As a critique of what he does believe, there’s much to be said, and I’m sure that the evangelicals scholars who wrote their book-length response cover it nicely. Nevertheless, I’d like to respond to the last few paragraphs of his column, in which he writes the following:

The followers of Jesus came to think he had been raised because some of them (probably not all of them) had visions of him afterwards. Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus’ followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them. Non-Christians would say that (several of ) the disciples had hallucinations. Hallucinations happen all the time. Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events). Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.

Once the disciples claimed Jesus was alive again but was (obviously) no longer here with them, they came to think that he had been taken up to heaven (where else could he be?). In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus. After that a set of evolutionary forces took over, in which the followers of Jesus began saying more and more exalted things about him – that he had been made the son of God at his resurrection; no, it was at his baptism; no, it was at his birth; no, it was before he came into the world; no – he had never been made the son of God, he had always been the Son of God; in fact, he had always been God; more than that, he had created the world; and yet more, he was an eternal being equal with God Almighty.

It’s a fascinating set of developments. It is highly important. And it matters not just for those who believe that the followers of Jesus got it right, but for anyone who cares about the factors that shaped the world we live in today.

Ehrman writes: “Both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree that it was visions of Jesus that made some of Jesus’ followers convinced that he was no longer dead. Christians would say that the disciples had these visions because Jesus really appeared to them.” (My responses are indented.)

Not quite: Christians would say that the disciples experienced not merely “visions,” but a fully embodied person. The Gospels go out of their way to portray that Jesus is a physical being, capable of eating and drinking, touching and being touched.

Why am I being picky? Because there are plenty of words to describe an immaterial “vision” of Jesus. These eyewitnesses didn’t use those words. They said that Jesus had been resurrected, which has a very specific, physical meaning within a Jewish context. And as I argued in my sermon on Sunday, nothing would tempt pious Jews such as the Twelve disciples, James the half-brother of Jesus, and the apostle Paul to apply the word “resurrection” to what they had experienced unless they were convinced that Jesus had appeared to them physically.

Also, as I said on Sunday, Jesus also appeared to groups of disciples, as one resurrection eyewitness, St. Paul, says in 1 Corinthians 15. People don’t experience hallucinations of the exact same thing at the same time. Paul could have been wrong, of course, but he does challenge skeptics to prove him wrong by saying that most of these “more than 500” eyewitnesses are still alive. He was convinced that there were hundreds of people who, like him, could back up his story. Was Paul mistaken? Did these hundreds of people not exist? Or were they also completely wrong about experiencing the resurrected Lord?

“Hallucinations happen all the time,” Ehrman writes. “Especially of deceased loved ones (your grandmother who turns up in your bedroom) and of significant religious figures (the Blessed Virgin Mary, who appears regularly in extraordinarily well-documented events).”

If hallucinations “happen all the time,” they probably happened “all the time” back in Jesus’ day, too. Yet people rarely claimed that these hallucinations meant their loved ones had returned from the dead. Isn’t it likely that before these apostles went around the Roman Empire suffering persecution, torture, and death, they would be convinced that Jesus’ resurrection was something very different from any old hallucination—which, as Ehrman says, happens all the time? They would also know the difference between a spiritual experience of the Lord versus the physical experience that they claimed.

Or think of it like this: When your deceased grandmother “turns up in your bedroom,” do you therefore believe that she’s no longer dead? Do you believe not that she’s a figment of you imagination or even a real ghost, but a living, breathing person who has risen from the dead? Does this “hallucination” convince you to drop whatever else you’re doing and tell everyone that your grandmother is no longer dead? Are you so convinced that she’s come back to life that you’re willing to die for that belief?

Do Catholics who believe they’ve seen the Blessed Virgin Mary believe that they’ve seen her as a fully embodied person, every bit as alive on this earth as any other living person? Based on what I know, they believe they’ve had a spiritual experience—through weeping or talking statues or paintings, etc.

“Jesus was both a lost loved one and an important religious leader. As bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers, the disciples were prime candidates for such visionary experiences.”

As I said in my sermon, there were dozens of documented would-be messiahs in first-century Palestine. Why did none of these other “bereaved, heartbroken, and guilt-ridden followers” claim that their leader had been resurrected? Were they not also “prime candidates” for such “visionary experiences”?

“In ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish thinking, a person exalted to the heavenly realm was divinized – himself made divine. That’s what the earliest Christians thought about Jesus.”

Well, no… Ancient Jews never claimed that Enoch or Elijah were God! Is Ehrman just being sloppy with words? The whole point of his book is to say that Christians believed something radically different about Jesus. Jesus’ disciples were ancient Jews. While they believed that Enoch and Elijah had been taken up into heaven before death, they clearly thought something very different happened to Jesus.

Greeks and Romans believed that some people had been “exalted to the heavenly realm,” but they never believed that they had first been resurrected! Again, resurrection has a very specific meaning: it implies that someone returns to life in a bodily form—not as a ghost or vision or anything else. Greeks and Romans in general found the idea of resurrection offensive: the body was a prison from which the soul longed to escape. Read Acts 17:22-33. In Paul’s presentation of the gospel, when do things go badly? When he mentions the resurrection! Being exalted to the heavenly realm was just fine in Greco-Roman thought. Resurrection, by contrast, was offensive.

Bart Ehrman has appeared on The Colbert Report at least a couple of times. Colbert’s responses to Ehrman’s skepticism are perfect.

Colbert-Report-Bart-Ehrman-Stephen-Colbert

 

Good Friday 2014 sermon: “What’s So Good About Good Friday?”

April 21, 2014
Possible location of Golgotha, "the Place of the Skull," where Jesus was crucified.

Possible location of Golgotha, “the Place of the Skull,” where Jesus was crucified. The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem.

Sermon Text: Matthew 27:11-56

I delivered this sermon at Hampton United Methodist Church in Hampton, Georgia, on Good Friday evening, April 18, 2014. The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Some of you have watched the show How I Met Your Mother. The series just recently ended, but a regular guest star during this final season was an actor named William Zabka, who was playing himself on the show. You probably don’t know his name. But if you’re around my age or my generation, you have certainly seen him in the movies before—or at least you’ve seen him in one particular movie, The Karate Kid. The Karate Kid was a Rocky-like movie of an underdog weakling named Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio, who ends up winning a martial arts competition against the school bully, a karate champion named Johnny Lawrence, played by Zabka.

Johnny, played by William Zabka, threatens Ralph Macchio's character in The Karate Kid.

Johnny, played by William Zabka, threatens Ralph Macchio’s character in The Karate Kid.

Zabka’s character, of course, was the villain of The Karate Kid. Everyone knows that…Everyone except Barney, the character on How I Met Your Mother played by Neal Patrick Harris. To his friends’amazement and disbelief, Barney actually thought that Zabka’s character was the real hero of The Karate Kid. So Barney’s friends arranged to have Zabka the actor meet Barney, and that’s why he was on the show.

My point is, you have to really turn things upside down in order to see Johnny Lawrence as the “good guy”of The Karate Kid. You have to have the ability to see the good in the midst of something—or someonethat everyone sees as bad.

And in my mind, that’s the challenge we all face when it comes to this holiday we call Good Friday. I guess for some people—people who don’t even necessarily practice the Christian faith—Good Friday might be good because it means a day off work—or whatever. But, assuming the Church wasn’t being ironic when they named this day Good Friday, there must be something “good”at the heart of this holy day, right? Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 01-12-14: “This Means War!”

January 21, 2014
Flemish painter Simon Bening depicts the first of Jesus' three temptations.

Flemish painter Simon Bening depicts the first of Jesus’ three temptations.

Do you believe in the devil? Jesus did—which is our best for believing in him as well. That we face an Adversary who is constantly working against the good that we try to do certainly makes better sense of our struggles in life. This sermon is about the deadly threat that Satan poses to us. I also talk about the parallel that the evangelist Luke draws between the temptation of Jesus, the second Adam, and the temptation of the first Adam. The nature of the temptation was the same: the outcome couldn’t have been more different. We Christians share in the victory Christ won over Satan.

Sermon Text: Luke 4:1-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Many of us watched the BCS national championship game last Monday, and whether or not our team won, it was a great game! One of the story lines in the game was that Florida State had won all of its games this year so easily, and by such a wide margin, that they had never really faced adversity. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around in the first 13 games they played, they were always so far ahead that they could rest their starters and put in their second- and third-string players. So all the sports analysts were saying that FSU had never been tested.

By contrast, their opponent, Auburn, had been tested repeatedly. They had faced adversity. They knew how to come from behind to beat heavily favored teams, and they knew how to come from behind to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This kind of experience would give them an advantage.

What if Auburn could force FSU to play a full four quarters of football? Would FSU be able handle the adversity? Would they be able to rise to the challenge? Would they be able to pass the test?

And I guess the answer is yesBut just barely!

My point is, being tested helps us. Facing adversity helps us. These things can toughen us up and instill within us the confidence we need to overcome greater challenges later on. That’s the main thing going on in today’s scripture. God was preparing Jesus for what he would face later on. Read the rest of this entry »