Does doctrine inspire love? (more fallout from @renovatuspastor’s sermon)

Well I got into a twitter argument with a young Calvinist named John following his response to some of my retweets of Jonathan Martin’s sermon “Playing God” this past Sunday. It was one of those petty affairs where I was nitpicking his “objections,” which I could have at least partly agreed with if I were listening charitably, because of my need to hear him concede a point to me without qualification. He said something that I trashed at the time which I wanted to consider more thoughtfully now: “If your doctrine is sound, you will love deeply.” So interrogating this statement is the focus of my second riff on morality, truth, Biblical interpretation, etc, in light of Genesis 3’s provocative claim that the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is paradoxically the poisonous foundation for human sin. Continue reading

How in charge is God when tragedy strikes?

piper tweet re oklahoma

I knew it was coming: the Piper tweet, this time quoting Job in response to the Oklahoma tornado. As the dean of the neo-Calvinist movement, John Piper likes to push the envelope with his commentary on God’s role in natural disasters. He did it about a year ago when tornadoes hit the midwest. In 2007 after the Minneapolis bridge collapsed, he wrote that he and his daughter discussed how God must have done it so the people of Minneapolis would fear Him because our sin against God is “an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge.” Piper would say that he’s just being Biblical and that it shouldn’t be surprising that speaking Biblically would make people feel uncomfortable. So how do we talk about God’s role in tragedies?

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Is America 53% Pelagian?

As the pastor of a politically “purple” congregation, I need to tread lightly on the controversy surrounding Mitt Romney’s remarks about 47% of Americans not paying income tax. I am trying my best to transcend the superficial “issue” level of our increasingly absurd political conversation so that I can yank out the theological roots of the bad weeds that we find in our commonly held assumptions. I really believe that America’s problem is fundamentally theological (and it’s utterly bipartisan). One dimension of it is the impoverished understanding of “individual rights” that Ross Douthat and others have linked to the corrosive impact of secularism (which John Milbank correctly categorizes in Theology and Social Thought as a self-disavowing sect of Christian-rooted thought that has gone atheist). Paul Ryan was right to observe that our “rights” have become dangerously stripped of their bark if there is no longer an assumption that we are “endowed by our Creator” with them (and not by whichever majority of Americans happens to be in power). But the irony is that many of the very people who cheer when they hear lines like, “Our rights come from God and nature, not from government,” actually embrace secularism when the question is framed differently. To say that we are a society of “makers” and “takers” is a profession of disbelief in the relevance of the one true Maker. If I believe that everything I have and everything I have used to gain what I have is a gift from God, then He is the only Maker and we are all takers with one Father who commands us to care for each other as brothers and sisters. Continue reading

God built it; we didn’t

I used to build enormous towers out of blocks when I was four years old. My mom’s fridge still has a picture of me standing next to one of my towers beaming with pride. I built it. It’s a phrase that embodies the essence of human pride. Building something permanent was the ancient pagan form of immortality — to leave a legacy, hopefully with an engraving or a statue, so that no one would ever forget you. This is why the people of Babel decided to build their tower: “so that we may make a name for ourselves (Gen 11:4). For the ancient pagans, pride was a virtue, because pride was the anchor upon which good social behavior was built. To some degree, this is still the case today; people who want to be known as respectable try not to behave unseemly because of their pride. However, there is also a very pernicious side to pride. It can very easily mutate from dignified self-confidence into a neurotic neediness that makes us unsympathetic to others and dishonest about our flaws. Pride becomes a very lonely prison in which our ambitious agenda of self-promotion keeps us from having authentic, vulnerable relationships with other people. That is why one of the greatest gifts God gives us is to teach us to say, “God built it; we didn’t.” Continue reading

“If you’re not rich, blame yourself” (Herman Cain vs. John Wesley)

“If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” Thus says Herman Cain to the unemployed Wall Street protestors. I understand why he said it. He wants to live in a world where the American Dream works, where being optimistic and entrepreneurial and hard-working guarantees success. Cain wants for blame to be something that is distributed neatly and perfectly between individual people. This could be described as an ethic of individual responsibility. Continue reading

What you meant for evil, God used for good (Joseph’s story)

Sermon preached 8/21/2011 at Burke UMC
Text: Genesis 45:1-15

How long does it take for the past to become water under the bridge? How do we handle bumping into people from our past who did things that still bother us today? I’ve been thinking about this question lately as I’m preparing to go to my fifteenth high school reunion. There will be some people there who treated me poorly once upon a time. Now the great thing about high school reunions for nerdy kids like me is that we tend to be more successful than the cool kids who bullied us. There’s an art to rubbing it in when you’ve got a pretty wife and a good job and you’re talking to a former bully whose life hasn’t turned out quite as well. Continue reading

A New Song

Sermon for 1/15-16/2011
Text: Psalm 40:1-11

We live in a world of competing narratives. Nothing just happens anymore. Every event that gets reported in our news is either evidence of why our society is going down the drain or a model of hope that should make us all proud to be Americans. And what every blogger, columnist, and pundit wants is for their version of the story to be the story that “wins” the most believers. Last weekend’s shooting in Arizona has generated the latest example of this fierce battle of narratives. The left-wing pundits want the shooting to say one thing about American society and the right-wing pundits want it to say something different. We probably won’t ever know the “real story” of Jared Loughner. I think the only thing that’s safe to say is that kid didn’t know how much God loves him because he wouldn’t have done what he did if he knew.

Just like pundits and bloggers are locked in a struggle to come up with the winning story for every major event, God and Satan are fighting to tell the winning story for what has happened in our lives. We can look at the same hardships, advantages, challenges, and achievements that make up our lives and interpret them one way according to Satan’s story and another way according to God’s story. Our scripture reading for today, Psalm 40, is a model for how people talk about their lives when God’s version of the story is the story that wins their trust. This psalm is not just a testimony of God’s deliverance; it is also about how those who have been delivered cannot keep quiet when they realize what God has done for them; it’s about the “new song” that God puts in our hearts for us to sing to everyone around us until they start singing it too.

If this psalm is what God’s story for our lives sounds like, then what does Satan’s story sound like? First, I should say that the word “Satan” in its original Hebrew was not so much the name of a specific person as a description of a type of person. In its verb form, the word means to accuse or taunt. Thus, a proper translation of Satan into modern-day English would be “the heckler,” or to use teenage slag, “the hater.” I don’t know about you, but there’s a part of me that has a cynical explanation for everything I see, and it tempts me to live in cynicism rather than in trustful obedience to God. I feel like this part of me is the presence of Satan in my life.

Satan is the voice that tries to keep us from being moved by God. This voice denigrates and ridicules our attempts to see God’s love in our lives. It prods us to take personal credit for everything God has done for us and to act as though we earned every undeserved blessing we have received. Satan also helps us find a way to blame every setback we have had on somebody else. Satan doesn’t want us to recognize the pits that we fall into and the mud that we get stuck in, because ultimately Satan’s goal is to keep us in the pit.

Now the pit that the psalm describes doesn’t have to be a deep, dark, and smelly pit. It’s actually a lot easier to know you need God’s help if the pit you’ve fallen in is dramatic and devastating enough. It’s trickier when the pit where we’re stuck is simply the way that our lives have fallen into very comfortable routines we don’t recognize our need to break out of. In this case, Satan’s story wins as long as we stay comfortable and don’t allow ourselves to be challenged or exposed to any experience that might get us too excited about Jesus. It’s okay with Satan for us to go to church every week as long as it remains a routine that we don’t give too much thought. Because if we get excited, then we might get other people excited about Jesus and before long our church will be so filled with excitement that the people who come here will take their excitement to the streets.

Our greatest defense against Satan’s attempts to hold us down in a pit with his false story about our lives is to read and listen to the testimony of people who share what God has done in their lives, because the testimony of others teaches us how to recognize and tell the story of what God is doing for us. This is actually what we are doing when we read the Bible, because the Bible is not primary a book of rules; it is primarily a book of testimony. Some of them were ancient Israelites; some were Jesus’ disciples; they all had lives with ups and downs just like ours, but the Holy Spirit inspired them to see God’s story in what they lived through.

If we read this testimony long enough and relate it to the events in our lives, then we will reach a moment when we say along with the psalmist, “Here I am; in the scroll of this book it is written of me.” When God’s story becomes our story, we are transformed from reasonably consistent churchgoers into fired-up disciples of Jesus Christ who have a new song within our hearts. We become witnesses who testify just as the psalmist testifies, and God adds our testimony to the many stories He has used throughout time to bring in new believers and build up the church. God’s story, told through a host of faithful witnesses throughout the centuries, is the thread that holds the fabric of the church together.

Now I want to look at an important distinction that Psalm 40 makes. It says, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire— but my ears you have opened.” The way we become part of God’s family is not simply by engaging in a set of rituals or even sacrificing a certain portion of our time or resources. As long as our ears remain unopened to God’s story, no amount of time we spend doing church-work and no amount of money that we put in the offering plate will make us disciples of Jesus Christ. What matters is whether our ears have been truly opened to God through the act of “putting our trust” in God’s story. When we do put our trust in the Lord, then it changes our perspective so that the same events that have always happened in our lives become “wondrous deeds” of God that we didn’t notice before, which start to “multiply” the more our eyes are opened, and quickly grow to be “more than can be counted.” When our ears have been opened to God’s story, then giving our time, our skills, and our resources to God’s mission is not just something we feel like we ought to do but what God inspires us to do as a natural expression of the “new song” that God has put into our hearts.

This brings us to the topic we have been discussing as a church these past couple of weekends. Stewardship is not about sacrifice; it’s about trust. Sacrifice is what you do when you want to keep on living your life on your own terms instead of God’s. You say, God, I will give you this amount of money and time each Sunday morning, if you promise not to bother me with anything else. God isn’t one of those phone solicitors who keeps on calling until we cave and write a check; He’s not a Mafioso who goes around to all the local shopkeepers to collect a fee for “divine protection.” God’s a whole lot more deeply involved in our lives than that.

God is the source of every good thing that has ever happened to us. Everything our parents ever taught us, every chance we ever got, every kind word that ever encouraged us are all part of how God has been reaching out to us in love since the day we were born. Now we can attribute all these things to luck, hard work, having good genes, being born into the right family – there are many ways to tell our story. But the only way to hear the “new song” that God has put into our hearts is to tell our story the way that Psalm 40 does – understanding that God has been there to help every time we fall into a pit and every time that we see ourselves standing on solid ground again, it is because God delivered us. And if our lives have involved more muddy pits than solid ground, then the best way to make it and keep our hope alive is to sing the song of God’s deliverance anyway.

If I truly believe that God has delivered me, then I’m not going to “hide that saving help within my heart.” I’m going to “tell the glad news of my deliverance in the great congregation” that is the world. I’m going to give all that I am and all that I have to the cause of making God’s story the story that wins the hearts of everyone. I’m going to sing God’s song in a life of gratitude and love for others so that “many will see” and be left in that state of awesome wonder that the Bible calls “fear,” which will cause them to “put their trust in the Lord.”

Let this be the year when your heart sings a new song. Ask God what you can do and what you can give to make God’s song heard throughout the world. Let this be our response to the story Satan tries to tell about how the world is a dark and hopeless place that there’s no point in trying to change. God’s story will win; let your story be part of the victory.