God’s grace in 4 stick figure drawings

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

Looking Back on 2012: April-May

In March, I fasted from blogging for Lent. April and May of 2012 were dominated by thoughts about our United Methodist General Conference. There was also a series of violent tornadoes that John Piper decided to interpret as God’s wrath against America for homosexuality or abortion (I can’t remember which one). Since homosexuality dominated the conversation around General Conference, I wrote a few pieces about it, striving to be both faithful to scripture and faithful to people I love who are gay. I also preached a sermon comparing and contrasting the uniformity and top-down vision of the Tower of Babel with the chaos of Pentecost. So here are the 10 from April and May. Continue reading

Garden Walls (a reappropriated love song about prevenient grace)

In 1999, I wrote a sonnet while sitting on a couch at a party watching the girl I had a crush on make out with another guy about 5 feet away. I turned it into a song with the same chord pattern as U2’s “With Or Without You” a couple years later and it became the opening song on the only album of my short-lived rock band the Junior Varsity Superheroes who broke up after our CD release party in 2006. About three years ago, I started to get the sense that Jesus feels the same way that I felt at that party every time He sees us make out with idols. And today He told me to record it. I added some interspersed Biblical narrative to the original song. Tell me what you think. It was recorded by my iPhone on my favorite piano in the world in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School at about 1:50 pm on Monday, October 15th, 2012.

What prevenient grace is and isn’t

“We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all –– that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Yesterday, the United Methodist Church General Conference added this statement to the preamble of our social principles by a vote of 532 to 414. The blogosphere lit up with incredulity that 414 GC delegates had apparently rejected our Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace. But the tweets that came out during that vote revealed a difference of opinion over what the General Conference statement actually means. There are important nuances to the doctrine of prevenient grace that are worth considering. Continue reading

Why God-reliance and self-reliance are utterly incompatible

I know that I got under some people’s skin for beefing with Dave Ramsey on Red Letter Christians. I’ve never been in debt. If I had and some guy’s videos helped me out of it, I would be hurt if some random cocky young blogger was hating on my hero. So I wanted to try to explain where I’m coming from and why I felt compelled to speak out. Continue reading

Dave Ramsey: great debt advice, not so great theology

Today I watched Dave Ramsey’s Great Recovery video. I think I feel something akin to what the Calvinist bloggers felt when they saw the trailer for Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I’m physically sick at my stomach. Whenever I’ve ranted about the self-worship of American middle-class evangelicalism in the past, I always thought in the back of my head that I was attacking a straw man. Well I met the straw man today; and he’s a real person and very much in the mainstream of evangelical thought. Continue reading

God’s not at work unless I’m in charge

I’m continuing my travelogue through Willie Jennings’ Christian Imagination as a way of coping with the tedium of Virginia’s Annual Conference. Chapter two of Jennings’ book is called “Acosta’s Laugh.” It concerns the perspective of 16th Jesuit theologian Jose Acosta who was one of the first Europeans to develop theology within the context of the New World, in Acosta’s case Peru. Continue reading

On the Cross but Never Abandoned

Walking in the Valley Lenten Series #4, 4/3/2011
Text: Psalm 22

When I was young and stupid, I used to argue with my wife about whether or not it was okay to leave my son in the car and run into a gas station to use the restroom. My wife would say this constitutes abandoning your child, even if the kid is taking a nap, even if you need to go to the bathroom really bad, even though there are five different buckles on the car-seat and there’s no sanitary place to put your sleeping child down in the bathroom. I never left my kids in the car, mostly because I worried some cop would bust me. So for better or worse, I’ve never abandoned my sons. Now our difficult sermon topic for today is: Did God abandon His Son?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? What do we do with these words that Jesus says on the cross? What kind of father would let his son die on a cross? What kind of father would demand that his son die on a cross? Perhaps these are irreverent questions to ask, but we need to have something to say to non-believers who feel that the cross makes God look like a bloodthirsty mob boss who cares more about getting paid back for the world’s sin than the life of His own son. I wrote my pastor four years ago to ask him if it was okay for me to go to seminary if I was struggling with the cross. He wrote back and told me that he was still struggling with it too. So let’s struggle together with this question: did God abandon His Son on the cross?

One of the main sources of our struggle with this question is a basic misconception of God that has developed in modern times. We picture God as a human being just like we are with arms and legs and a long white beard on a cloud somewhere. Since Genesis says that we are created in God’s image, we assume that God looks like us. When we hear Jesus call God “Father,” we picture a human body – maybe an enormous body that’s invisible and moves at the speed of light, but nevertheless a body that is either standing with us here or far away out there somewhere.

To some degree, the Italian painter Michelangelo did us a real disservice by painting God on the Sistine Chapel as a man with a beard in a cloud. That image has stuck. God tried to protect us against this confusion through the second commandment He gave the Israelites not to represent Him with any graven image. There are all kinds of metaphors used for God in the Bible – He’s referred to as a lion, an eagle, a whirlwind, and a still, small voice – but every time the Hebrew writers compared God to an aspect of His creation, they knew that they weren’t capturing God’s essence. They recognized that our Creator’s invisible qualities can only be described indirectly through analogies in His creation. God’s nature is indeed reflected through the humans made in His image, and Jesus was man and God at the same time, but that doesn’t make God a human.

So how does this change the question of whether God abandoned Jesus? If we imagine God with a human body, then we can picture Him walking away from Jesus, turning His back, or doing things that bodies do. But if God has no physical body and He’s instead the Creator from whom, through whom, and for whom all things exist, as we read in Romans 11:36, then God could not abandon anything in creation without it ceasing to exist.

God is infinitely intimately involved in every microscopic aspect of the universe. Every time two hydrogen atoms combine with one oxygen to form water, God is part of that process. Or at least that’s what it means to believe in a God through whom all things exist. Many atheists don’t believe in God because they object to the Disney cartoon God who sits on a cloud with a lightning bolt. Well, I don’t believe in that kind of God either. The point is that if God really is who the Bible claims Him to be, then He can never abandon anything in Creation. And here’s why that matters: when it feels like God is absent, it’s not because He’s abandoned us, but because we’ve lost our connection to Him.

We don’t have to believe that God is at work in every molecule. We can believe that what we see around us is the product of chaos or a loving Creator; either way, it’s a profession of faith – faith in chaos or faith in God. You can call a sunset nothing more than light photons refracted through atmospherical impurities, or you can see a beautiful work of art made by a loving Father who gets giddy about making moments that take our breath away. We can choose whether or not to see God in His Creation. Of course, if life were all sunsets and Sistine chapel ceilings, then it would be a lot easier to see God’s love all around us.

But our lives aren’t that way, at least not in Fairfax County. We feel poured out like water with our bones out of joint. Our hearts are like melted wax, and our tongues stick to our jaws. About 8 years ago, I couldn’t feel God at all in my life so I tried something called centering prayer. I sat in front of a candle, saying to God over and over again, “Lord, please clear a space for yourself in my heart.” I said it maybe 200 times in a row. I did this for several evenings without feeling much of anything. It took years for me to realize that the prayer had worked.

When you don’t feel God’s presence, that’s the perfect time to worship Him. Worship is the flashlight God gives us to find Him in the darkness. God has never abandoned us, but our spiritual eyes must be trained to see Him. He’s like a radio signal always broadcasting His love through the air around us. If our radios are turned off, that doesn’t mean He’s gone. If we can’t hear Him through the static, that means we’re not tuned into His frequency. Worship is how we tune in. We praise God not just because of our blessings; we praise Him so that we can see His blessings in what we had previously considered the ugliness and boringness of our lives. People who worship God are more grateful than people who don’t not because they’re healthier, richer, or more successful, but because their worship has helped them to see a God who never abandons them in every aspect of a world whose riches mean nothing when they don’t reflect the love of their Creator.

Now here’s how all this connects to Jesus’ words on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? First of all, these aren’t just Jesus’ words. They’re the first line of a psalm that Jesus probably learned as a kid. The Jewish people recited this psalm as a way of worshiping God. It might seem strange to us to call such a confrontational question “worship,” but the way that Christians today equate worship with pretending to be peppy and upbeat and pleasant all the time would be bizarre to ancient Israel. True worship means being real with God, bringing our fears and our demons up to the altar to demand and receive God’s deliverance by faith. Though Jesus was the divine Son of God, the cross made Him feel enough out of tune with His Father that He had to cry out for God to tune Him back in.

So how does naming this about Jesus’ words on the cross make God’s perceived absence more bearable? Let me just say this. If Jesus had never showed His humanity on the cross, then the African slaves who wrote the spirituals that are the foundation for blues, gospel, rock, jazz, and every other genre of spiritual or secular music indigenous to America would have had no reason to sing to God as they worked the fields. Their churchgoing masters beat them, but they knew that Jesus was their brother and he’d suffered just like they did. And though their lives were often brutal, short, and tragic, it did not occur to them to question God’s existence because they needed to be His children. They needed to be reminded that they were humans when they were treated like animals. Worshiping God was the only thing they had in life to give them dignity and hope.

So let’s follow the example of those slaves who wrote the best praise music that’s ever been written. If your life has been ugly enough that you can’t see God anywhere, then worship Him anyway and defy the forces of darkness that are trying to keep you down whether it’s your job, an illness, family drama, or the state of our fallen world. If you ask God the very real and legitimate question that Jesus cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” and you keep on asking that question until you get an answer, demanding an audience with the One who seems like He’s not even there, then one day God is going to show you how He’s been there all along and that moment will feel like a resurrection.

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.

Greed: Where do you draw the line?

Deadly Sin Sermon Series, 5 out of 7 — 11/13/2010
Text: Mark 10:17-22

We all recognize greed, right? It usually involves a stout old man wearing a top hat and smoking a cigar. Or it’s the Grinch who stole Christmas. Or Mr. Burns. My favorite is this cartoon of a man stuffing his face with money itself. It’s pretty easy to determine who’s greedy: it’s anyone who has more than I do.

If I have a waterski boat, then I judge people with yachts for being greedy. If I have a cabin in the Shenandoah, then I judge people with cabins in Aspen. If I have a townhouse, then people with McMansions are greedy. If I have a McMansion, then people with McMansions who live in gated communities are greedy. And of course, to people in refugee camps, all of us are greedy.

But to confront the sin of greed in our own lives, we need to dig deeper. Having money is not a bad thing; true greed is an attitude of seeing the world as a hostile, brutally competitive place in which my only duty is to take care of myself and my family. This attitude is captured perfectly in the character of Gordon Gecko, the corporate raider who is the chief villain of the 1987 movie Wall Street.

Let’s look at what I would call the gospel of Gordon Gecko: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed… will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

Gordon Gecko’s gospel is basically a form of “survival of the fittest.” He believes in “the invisible hand of the market” – that the greed of investors like him provides for the common good through innovation that creates jobs and advances the species. The problem is that if the world is a greedy place in which you can’t trust anybody, there’s no reason to engage in trustworthy practices yourself. Gecko makes his millions not by coming up with new ideas that create jobs for people but through insider trading and hostile corporate takeovers where he sucks profits out of companies by selling off their assets and firing their employees.

If this cut-throat, dog-eat-dog culture is just the way the world is supposed to work, then Gecko’s gospel is right – greed is good. If there’s no benevolent God intervening graciously in human life at every step, opening doors for us and creating social harmony between us, then it’s appropriate to assume that nobody else will look out for me so I have to look out for myself and my family.

Thankfully there is an alternative to Gecko’s gospel. Jesus invites us to leave the dog-eat-dog world behind and enter into a kingdom of people who put their trust in Him. Jesus’ invitation is presented the most radically in his encounter with the rich young man in Mark 10:17-27. Read with me:

 “As Jesus he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ 20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

So who’s ready to go to the bank, liquidate your entire account in 10’s and 20’s, then go outside and throw them up in the air so you can make a cardboard sign that says “Following Jesus. Please help” and find a place to sit and beg? Well, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is asking us to do. It would be a lot easier if Jesus came in his tunic and sandals to save us from our cubicle prisons and take us to a hippie commune in the desert. But Jesus’ invitation to the rich man is not about flinging off the complexities and responsibilities of the modern world. Some are called to leave the world for a monastery, and we would all do well to downshift our lives for less money and more time for our families and God. But that’s not the fault line between the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of Gordon Gecko.

What makes us un-greedy is not how frugally we spend our money, how little fun we have, and how bland our food tastes. The opposite of being greedy is to put all of our trust in Jesus Christ and to give Him absolute Lordship over our lives, renouncing forever the pursuit of self-interest around which our society, the world of Gordon Gecko, is defined. The young rich man is willing to do what it takes to get the trophy of salvation. What he doesn’t understand is that salvation is not a trophy; it’s not a reward that God bestows on us for getting through confirmation class, saying all the right things and doing all the right things, or even praying Jesus into our hearts. Salvation is what happens when God rescues us from the race for trophies. And that can only happen when we put ourselves under the Lordship of Jesus, which is the one thing the rich young man was not willing to do.

It’s not that Jesus has a big ego and likes bossing other people around. Jesus wants us to make Him Lord over our lives because that’s the only way we will be rescued from the permanent nightmare of our greed. Without an all-loving Lord to serve, we have two choices: fight for the trophies of the world or get trampled by the surrounding mob of people who want them. If we give ourselves to Jesus and renounce the desperate battle of greed, we might get kicked around by the greed of others, but that will not be what defines us. Instead we will be able to name whatever suffering we face as something we have suffered with Christ, who was so the opposite of greedy that He let Himself get crucified so that we could form a body of people whose trust in Him has saved us from the hopeless race of greed.

Now that sounds fine and everything, but what does it mean in practical terms if you’re not a rich stockbroker but just a hard-working middle-class suburbanite in Northern Virginia? If you’ve been around church for a while, then you’re probably familiar with the word “stewardship.” Every church has an annual stewardship campaign in which we delicately remind people to put your money in the offering plate! But stewardship is about so much more than fundraising. Stewardship is the lifestyle of people who see the world not as the ferocious jungle that Gordon Gecko lives in, but as a harmonious kingdom in which all of our opportunities and resources have been given to us by a benevolent Creator for a purpose that can give our lives true meaning.

Stewardship means acknowledging that what we have is really not our property but God’s. If we recognize that God is the one who has worked through the people we’ve met and opportunities we’ve encountered to give us every blessing that we have, then we can do better than giving God one hour a week and putting our 10% in the offering plate. The rich young man was happy to give his tithe and do his weekly thing at the Temple; I’m sure he would have been happy to play “positive and encouraging family friendly Christian radio” as the soundtrack for his self-centered journey; what he was not willing to do was to order his whole life – money and time – according to God’s will. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once preached: “There is no employment of our time, no action or conversation that is purely indifferent. All is good or bad, because all our time, as everything we have, is not our own. All these are… the property… of God, our Creator…. [They] either are or are not employed according to his will.”

That may sound brutal and Puritan, but Jesus’ yoke is much lighter than the yoke of greed. I can be a much more ruthless slave-master for myself than Jesus ever would be if every waking moment of my life is devoted to making sure that I get my piece of the pie and sufficiently hyper-programming my kids to get theirs. Jesus is calling us away from the self-torturing, high-stress lifestyle that greed creates into a restful, peaceful life – a daily rhythm of worship in which we seek to belong more to God rather than focusing our energy on what belongs to us.

Freedom from greed comes through living in faithful stewardship of God’s blessings. When we’re deciding where to go for dinner, how many sports camps to sign up our kids for, or how much to spend for paintings to hang on our walls, the question we should be asking is how each thing that we do fits into God’s plan for our lives. Are we doing what we do to compete with other people and elbow our way to a slice of the American dream? Or is our resting, eating, exercising, playing, studying, worshiping, and praying all done out of faithful stewardship of God’s gifts for the purpose of making us the people who God created us to be? Leave the nightmare world of greed behind; come further in the kingdom of a God who loves you and who never will stop sharing all that He has with you.