A friend of mine who recently had a major shift in his theology wrote the following comment on his Facebook page in response to the Boston Marathon tragedy:
Tragedies like the one in Boston seem to divide people into two camps. One clings to the “natural goodness” in humanity and swoons over the stories of heroism and chivalry while the other sees this as further evidence that our hearts are desperately wicked and in need of a Redeemer. I was once a believer in the first camp but no longer. I know the evil I am capable of all too well. I never stopped to consider that if humanity is so good, what need is there of a Savior? Boasting in our random acts of human kindness has a tendency of blinding us to our real need for Christ. God resists the proud, but gives grace and mercy to the humble.
I’m not going to use my friend’s name because I love him and this is not about shaming him, but this kind of commentary happens often enough that we need to ask whether it’s appropriate to speak this way about other peoples’ tragedies. Continue reading →
I was invited to share an occasion when I was surprised by mercy. It was August 2002. I had just rushed my ex-girlfriend to the emergency room because she slit her wrists in a bathtub. I was a severely depressed, chain-smoking mess. And I discovered the gospel of mercy that I proclaim today when I opened Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved in a small group gathering where everyone other than me was a lesbian. I only remember Tanya and Pat by name, but if that group of lesbians had not been spiritual mothers who embraced and nurtured me in a time of crisis, I would not be a pastor today. I realize that talking about this will probably cause my Board of Ordained Ministry to have some questions for me, but God has commanded me to testify about the train wreck experience by which I discovered the true gospel. Because it was only in the fellowship of the despised that I could learn mercy the way God wanted me to understand it. Continue reading →
You know the stereotype about the cheapskate Sunday lunch church crowd who shortchange servers on their tips? Well, one pastor in St. Louis decided to try her best to live into this stereotype. She was mad that her church group got a mandatory gratuity charge for their gathering so she wrote on her receipt, “I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?” And then the server put the receipt up on the atheism page on reddit. Nice witness!!! Well I thought I would share some choice words from John Wesley for that pastor and any other Ebenezer Scrooges out there in the church Sunday lunch crowd. ***UPDATE: The pastor was identified; she complained to Applebee’s and got the server fired. Please pray that the server will be able to get a new job and that the pastor will be sanctified by this experience and not harassed by strangers. Continue reading →
We had the first session of our new member class today. During the first class, we do introductions and give a primer on Methodist theology. We had the fortunate problem of having too many people in the class so our introductions took up all but 15 minutes. I didn’t want us to leave having only done introductions, so I tried to explain in 15 minutes and 4 stick figure drawings the three kinds of grace we talk about in Methodism: prevenient, sanctifying, and justification, along with the Christian perfection that God’s grace draws us toward. The way I’ve illustrated it is a bit individualistic (which of course I would have criticized if someone else had done it ). I’m interested in hearing your feedback and suggestions for improvement. Continue reading →
I‘m not going to argue whether or not you should forgive Lance Armstrong or not for taking steroids and lying about it. To me, it’s a farce of the age of celebrity that we would even be asking ourselves that question anyway. It’s comical to read the online comments from people who are angry enough to use ALL-CAPS at some guy they will never know for doing things that had nothing to do with them. Because I’m a pastor, I am going to take this opportunity to say something about grace because Armstrong’s apology and the cynical reaction to it in the media really do illustrate why we need a human community that is grounded in forgiveness. Continue reading →
This weekend, I preached on Mary’s Magnificat (audio, Luke 1:46-55) at our church in the wake of the school shooting in Connecticut. The title of my sermon was “His mercy is for those who fear Him,” which is a line in the middle of Mary’s song. The reason that we live in an unsafe world is because people don’t fear God. There are a lot of other systemic and cultural factors at play to be sure, but I still think that fundamental theological statement holds true. Now I mean something very specific by “fearing God,” as those of you who have been following my trail are aware. It is not that we ought to be afraid of God, because when dread is the motivation for behavior, people do good only begrudgingly and with mediocrity. It is rather the fear that is awe and wonder at God’s majesty that builds sanctuaries of people who can speak the truth in love to one another and thus live in safety. And it is when we live in this awe and wonder that we discover the depths of God’s mercy and make it our lives’ work to help spread the reign of this mercy. That is how I interpret Mary’s statement that His mercy is for those who fear Him. Mary’s Magnificat shows us the path into the holy fear that discovers mercy. Here are the points I made in my sermon as my interpretation of the clues in Mary’s words. Continue reading →
One of the struggles I have with the word “covenant” is that it seems to be used to describe two entities which are quite different: God’s unconditional, unilateral promise to Abraham and the elaborate set of rules and practices given to the Israelites in the Torah. In Romans 4, Paul pits these two “covenants” against each other in order to radically redefine what it means to be God’s people. Paul argues that God’s people are more essentially those who share the faith of Abraham than those who follow the law of Moses. If we understand righteousness to mean trusting in God’s unconditional generosity rather than following rules flawlessly, this means replacing an ethos of retribution with an ethos of mercy. I think that the reason evangelicals so egregiously misinterpret Romans is because we don’t want Paul to be replacing contractual rules with trust, since that means giving up both retribution and our autonomy; we would rather make “faith” into a new rule that we get punished for not following, so that we can continue to deny our dependence on God and judge others, which completely sabotages Paul’s entire point.
I have always had a particular attraction to Philippians 2:12, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” partly because it creates a crisis for evangelicals with a formulaic “decision for Christ” account of salvation. I do believe that justification by faith is a core part of our salvation, but I also think that δικάιοω (justify) means “make just” more than “declare just” in a way that the English language screws up with the word “justification.” Though we need to have Christ’s justification declared to us to wrest us free from self-justification, it is a means to the end of the Holy Spirit’s sanctification by which we are made just. And God doesn’t need to have the results of an act that He authored “declared” back to Him through some contrived performance of feigned ignorance. You can call the trust that God instills in us a “decision” if you need to, but it’s a decision that must be remade over and over again, and furthermore it’s a surrender, not the product of dispassionate rational deliberation (sorry Bill Bright!). In any case, I was reading Psalm 2 in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament this past Monday. It may have been what Paul had in his head in writing Philippians 2:12 because it talks about “fear” and “trembling” and how they relate to the refuge that God offers to humanity. Continue reading →
“I struggled with it for a long time, but then I came to realize that life is a gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.” That’s the quote from Richard Mourdock that lit the blogosphere on fire. So what’s going on here? Is it misogyny, poor taste, or bad theology, or some combination of all three? It really depends upon how we define misogyny. I don’t think this quote proves that Richard Mourdock hates women; I have no reason to think he isn’t a perfectly humble and compassionate gentleman to all the women in his life. But I do think that his bad theology caused him to think in abstract, ideological terms about a delicate issue with the result that he said something in extremely poor taste that does real emotional violence to the rape victims who read it. And since I’m a theologian, I’m going to focus on the theology. Continue reading →
I had a bit of a creative explosion this week while I was attending the Duke Divinity Convocation so I wanted to share the fruit. Basically I wrote two raps and one praise song from Sunday evening to Tuesday afternoon. Then I played hookey from several of the lectures at the Convocation to sit down at my favorite piano in the world in Goodson Chapel and record these three songs and seven others with my iPhone propped on the music stand. The sound quality is actually not too bad. Because of time constraints, I did almost everything on the first take, mistakes and all, unless I completely shut down. So almost all the songs have two or three mistakes. Anyway I’m sharing them below. Some of them might sting a little bit because God is giving me a prophetic word to call out some things about the American church right now. As there’s always a mix of flesh and spirit, some of my cynicism and arrogance may have found its way in. That’s where I depend on you to call me out so I can refine this and make it more glorifying to God. So please critique and offer suggestions!!! (And don’t laugh too hard at the goofy expressions on my face on this page.) Continue reading →