Friday, April 29, 2005

WIR: Generous Orthodoxy

WIR stands for "What I'm Reading." I'm reading this book --

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Wow. McClaren is interesting. I personally think he is on the leading edge of conservative postmodern ministers. I think he is doing some good work in ministry, and making a lot of mistakes and learning a great deal. I think a more sophisticated postmodern ministry model will develop out of his great work. Very helpful and influential book. This is not really a book review, but just an update -- it's what is interesting to me now. As a conservative postmodern Christian, I like much of what he said. I'm not with him in his conclusions, but his method mirrors mine closely and for that reason alone, it is worth your time and effort, but there are great gems in this book beyond the method waiting for a diligent reader. But, I would suggest reading with a partner.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Found myself again

I found my picture here on the website of St. Luke's Hospital in St. Louis, MO. I used to be a chaplain resident there. I am pictured with other residents with whom I became quite close. It was good to see that picture again. I sure do miss those folks.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

How Could Anyone Believe the Bible These Days?

The Bible makes some outrageous claims.[1] I guess that’s why it is controversial. But I find it interesting that people doubt the Bible for different reasons. There are some who completely discount the Bible. They don’t read it, don’t want to, don’t care. We might call these folks secular.[2] A second group of folks see a value in the Bible, but understand it to be an ancient document, written for ancient times. It is a collection of great literature with some “golden nuggets” of wisdom and insight that has been passed down through the ages. We would be wise to glean from its pages. We might call these folks Liberal Christians.[3] A third group of people claim to follow the Bible “religiously.” They tell us the Bible is authoritative and infallible. It is God’s Word to mankind. We might call these folks Conservative Christians.[4] However, I want to make the case that none of these people believes the Bible, really.

Secular people look at the Bible and they don’t believe it can be true. They read about a man being swallowed by a fish and living (Jonah). They read about floating ax-heads (2 Kings 6), and the sun standing still (Joshua 10). They just can’t believe it, so they discount the entire Bible. Of course, we recognize that their unbelief is not simply intellectual; it is from experiential and existential reasons as well. I don’t think anyone is confused about secular people distrusting the Bible.

Liberal Christians look at the Bible and they like some of what they see. They are inspired by the story of David overcoming incredible odds by defeating the giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17). They are attracted to the message of the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). They love the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers…; Love your enemies and pray for [them]...; Do not judge or you too will be judged...” (Matthew 5-7). Here we find the wisdom and counsel of God himself, they think.

But Liberal Christians don’t believe it is all true. For example, they shudder to hear that God punished Achan and his whole family for a singular act of stealing by stoning them all to death (Joshua 7). They read that Jesus told his disciples that he will cast some people into utter darkness, into eternal punishment (Matthew 25). They read about the wrath of God being poured out onto all mankind (Romans 1). They just can’t believe it, so they discount those parts. And just with the secular folks, their reasoning is not just intellectual, it is experiential as well.

Liberal Christians commonly struggle (or at least ought to) with elitism. One can hardly get more arrogant than to suggest that he can determine which parts of the Bible are divinely inspired and which are not. This kind of understanding would require an amazing understanding of God prior to coming to the Bible. This discernment is usually attributed to hearing a “ring of truth.” Where does this “ring of truth” come from if not from inside a person? One must have an awfully high view of himself to determine what God said. I don’t think I could do that with my wife! Additionally, Liberal Christians are required to discount the (nearly) unanimous opinions of most of church history, which accepted the Bible as completely true, without reservation. However, I don’t think there is much confusion about whether Liberal Christians completely trust the Bible or not – mostly because they do not claim the Bible as completely authoritative.

Conservative Christians, on the other hand claim that they take the Bible as authoritative and infallible. I don’t believe them. Conservative Christians resonate with the story of Creation where God is sovereign over all things (Genesis 1). They tell and retell the story of the Exodus when God brings the Israelites out of the evil land of Egypt (Exodus 13-14). They love the practical teachings of the Apostle Paul such as “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers,” (2 Corinthians 6:14); “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes,” (Ephesians 6:11); “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful,” (Colossians 4:2); and “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent,” (1 Timothy 2:12).

But Conservative Christians don’t believe it is all true even though they say they do. Unlike Secular people, they typically have no problem believing that the sun stood still, and an ax-head floated. Unlike Liberal Christians, they are typically comfortable with the punishment of Achan and the wrath of God being poured out on all mankind. But the Bible’s hardest statements to believe are not in these categories. Conservative Christians have trouble believing that God loves them.

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:7-8

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:10

[Jesus said,] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Isaiah 55:1-2

This is just a tiny sample of what the Bible says about two things – humankind is in desperate need and God alone is ready, willing and able to meet that need. If you are a Conservative Christian, like me, you might be thinking, “I believe those things.” Do you? Really? If I really believed that God loved me completely and unconditionally, what would that do to me?

I remember as a little child, my parents took me to a children’s amusement park. Among other attractions there was a jungle of big thick nets spread among a network of short telephone poles. There were little nooks and cranies and places you could explore and hide and be generally adventurous. These nets had holes big enough for me to put my arm or leg completely through, but not big enough for my head to fit. I remember exploring with my dad, my brother and sister. We climbed all over the little “jungle” until I remember finding myself standing on a platform. I looked down and saw several nets underneath the one I was about to jump onto. The ground was far away, and I could see the tops of people’s heads through the various nets. As I looked at the net I was about to put my faith in, my faith started to doubt. My father was there laying on his back, looking up at me. He saw the fear in my eyes. He tried to reassure me. It’s ok. The net will hold. Look, it’s holding me! I said, Yes, but just barely – if I get on, it will break, and we will plunge to the ground. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I was convinced.

What would happen if I were totally convinced that the net would not break? I would not think about it at all. I would jump right onto it and keep exploring and enjoying the great adventure with my father. But my lack of faith held me on the platform.

What would happen if I were totally convinced that God’s love for me was infinite, eternal and unchangeable, as the Bible tells me it is? I would jump right into life and explore and enjoy the great adventure it has to offer. But my lack of faith holds me on the platform, still.

I am gripped by fear. There are times I fantasize about some dreadful thing happening, and the horrible consequences that would unfold. I think about being shamed, or losing my job, or embarrassed in front of my friends, or rejected by my wife. This motivates me to change my behavior to avoid any pain or suffering. I change my life based on my fears. If I were totally convinced that God’s love for me is infinite, eternal and unchangeable, things would be different. What can shame do to me if God has given me the glory of Christ Jesus? If God loves me, perhaps a loss of my job would take me in a wonderful direction. With the complete approval of God, why would I feel the need to gain approval from friends? If God has totally accepted me, I can easily abandon myself and give freely to my wife with no personal need to feel accepted by her.[5]

Multiple other examples could be given, and might be the subject for another day. My point here is this . . . the Bible says some unbelievable things. Even those who profess to believe the Bible entirely struggle on their best days to believe. Perhaps Conservative Christians ought to say, with the father who brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus,

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! Mark 9:24

[1] The reader should be warned that this article is not about religion per se, but about the Bible and people’s use (and abuse) of it.
[2] I hesitate to use this word, but I can’t think of a better one. I think this word is very emotionally charged, and I ask the reader to please forgive my lack of vocabulary. In debates such as these, most labels take on all sorts of nuanced meanings that cannot be thrown away easily.
[3] I’m using the term “Christian” here because it is my background. I would guess, though I am not really sure, that similar connections could be made in Judaism. I would be very interesting to learn from my Jewish brothers and sisters on this matter.
[4] I understand how this 3-tiered scheme of “Bible believers” is an extremely broad brush with many people left out of the picture. There are people who are “in between” tiers and many others. However, this scheme will serve to make my point, which is mainly toward the end of the article.
[5] Of course, this will free her from the pressure to perform well for me. Her freedom will help her to think of herself less and give herself more completely to me. The same could be said for all sorts of relationships in life – friendships, co-workers, parents, children, etc. This is one way God’s love for me “rubs off” on others and helps to make them more Godly. Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:24.

Friday, April 15, 2005

My Challenge with slush_puppy

I'm a senior member at which is a health and fitness site. For those who knew me before Miami, this might be surprising to you. I was mildly interested in fitness in St. Louis and Texas, but now, I have the means, the time, the education, the ability, the opportunity to really apply myself. I've lost 17 pounds since coming to Miami, and increased my cardiovascular fitness and strength significantly.

Anyway, I've started a "challenge" with one of my friends there, slush_puppy. He's a computer guy from Carolina. We area almost 2 weeks into a 3 month challenge. I'm trying to get to 12% BF (from 21% at the start). He's more experienced than me and trying to get down to 9% I think (from 15%, I think). Anyway. It's fun and we post pictures every 2 weeks. You can find new pictures of me early next week and see all my stat if you are so inclined.

You can find it here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Anonymous Funeral Sermon

Why would I put this here? I don't know. For the morbid people, or maybe for some of the young seminarians or newly ordained folk I know. Maybe this might be interesting. Facts are extremely loosely based on a real funeral I did, but there's no way you could know who it is, so don't even start to guess.

It is an honor for me to be here tonight with all of you. I did not know [x] while he was alive. But I have spoken with several of you, and I know that though he has died, he lives on. Jesus said, I am the Resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. He said this to his good friend Martha just after her brother and his friend had died. His name was Lazarus.

In fact, Martha and her sister Mary and their brother Lazarus were all close friends of Jesus. He used to go to their house for dinner quite often. Jesus came to their house that day knowing that his friend had died. Martha came outside to meet him and she said, “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” That’s when Jesus said to her, I am the Resurrection and the life. She replied simply, “I believe.” A few minutes later, Mary found Jesus and she said the same thing Martha had said. And Jesus cried and wept with them both.

Then, Jesus went to the tomb, to the cave where Lazarus was buried. He asked the attendants to roll away the stone. They were reluctant to do this because it had been several days and the body had surely begun to deteriorate. However, they complied with Jesus’ request. Jesus then yelled, “Lazarus, Come!” And what a great miracle, Lazarus walked out of his grave. He lived for many more years.

I think it is curious the order in which Jesus did things. He had told his disciples before he went to the house of Mary and Martha that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. So, even though he knew that there was going to be a happy ending, Jesus cried with Mary and Martha and mourned the loss of their brother. Why?

Well, I think, in part, that the reason that Jesus cried with Mary and Martha was this – he was known as a Man of Sorrows. That is, he was always very sympathetic to those who were suffering and mourning. That was just who he was, and it is who he is. He knows the pain of those who suffer and he shares it with them. He was always attracted to the weak, the broken, the handicapped, the sick, the dying, the outcasts, the vulnerable, the children, the abused.

And you know, that reminds me of [X]. [X] loved dogs. Not just any dogs, he was involved in the Guardian Angel Great Dane Rescue, and he had adopted Angel and Gary. He was their guardian angel. He saw two dogs that were outcasts, nobody cared for them, they had no home, he gave them a home, and good place to stay and he loved them very much. I’m told he used to take them to the firing range. Angel usually got scared, but Gary didn’t mind the guns. They were not his first dogs. In fact, he kept Sandy’s ashes until the day he died. He loved dogs very much. Especially dogs that needed a home, dogs that needed respect, dogs that needed love. He gave them all that and more.

In this way, [X] reminds me of how Jesus treats us. When we are abandoned, feeling all alone, when we mourn such as tonight, Jesus comes close to us and comforts us, he is attracted to us and lets us know that he understands that this world is a hard place to live in at times, and it’s just not fair. He takes us into his family and calls us his own.

When I spoke with Amelia, she told me that he was like her big brother. Amelia told me that [X] didn’t show up at work, and he didn’t call in on that fateful day. She was concerned about him because he was always so faithful. She told me about how he kept his word, when he said something, you could count on it. So it was just not like him to skip a day and not tell anyone. No, he was loyal. Not only a faithful employee, but a loyal friend. He did not have many friends, but his commitment to his friends was deep, and strong. And that reminds me of Jesus, too. You see, Jesus is committed to us for life. And death.

He is attracted to the weak and the vulnerable and those who don’t understand. And for those of us who call out to him in our time of need, he makes a commitment to us that he never breaks. Not in life, not in death. If Jesus never suffered, if he never mourned, if he was never vulnerable, if he was never weak, it would be hard for him to make a commitment to be with us in our weakness. But we know that he suffered tremendously, he mourned the loss of his friend Lazarus, and many others. He knows. He is with us. Someone might ask how?

Jesus is not here with us, where is he? The Bible talks about the church – that is, the community of believers – as the “body of Christ.” So, while he is not here with us physically, he is with us in Spirit. When a close friend cries with you, and allows you to vent, and share your hurts, and your memories, and how you miss [X] – they are the tangible reality of Jesus to you at that moment. When someone calls you on the phone at just the right time with a word of comfort, “I’m thinking about you, how are you doing?” that is the Spirit of Jesus.

I would guess that many of you are feeling a mix of emotions now. You wish [X] was still with us. Perhaps you remember his faithfulness and his compassion as I have mentioned here. Perhaps his memory brings to you happy thoughts and feelings. I would guess that his memory also brings sad thoughts and feelings. [X] was not a perfect person, none of us are. For all of his compassion, he could be abrasive as well. Some of us, perhaps, wish we could have done some things differently. If we had to do it all over again, there might be some changes. We never expected to be here, now, grieving over the loss of such a young man. How can these feelings be resolved? Well, not quickly, for sure. But I would encourage you to take your mixed-up feelings and thoughts to God and to those you trust. Don’t keep them bottled up inside.

May God help us to call out to him in our time of need, and also to look for opportunities to share the Spirit of Jesus with those in need, even as [X] saw needy dogs and shared himself with them.

Be Merciful to Me, O God

I gave this homily in the chapel of Baptist Hospital on October 4, 2004. First the scripture text, then my homily --

Psalm 57:1-5
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. He will send from heaven and save me; he will put to shame him who tramples on me. God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness! My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts – the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!

I just moved to Miami from St. Louis, MO about two weeks ago. So, Jeanne was my first hurricane. My wife and I got food and water, batteries for our flashlights, cash; we got duct tape to put up on our windows. Then, we waited, watching our TV, for the storm. For newly transplanted Midwesterners, Jeanne was a big disappointment; we got a sprinkle and breeze. I don’t wish for another Andrew or for any damage at all, and I have been greatly moved by the destruction and devastation in other parts of Florida this year. However, we braced for something big, and nothing really happened.

For most of you, you’re really tired of hurricanes, and that makes perfect sense, this is a record-setting year and everyone is talking about hurricane-fatigue. So, perhaps you know better how to relate to our Old Testament reading when it says, “In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.” This image is of a baby bird, taking refuge under the wing of his mother of father during a great storm, perhaps a hurricane.
Jeanne is past us now, when will the next one come? We’ve had four already, will there be another? Of course, the only question is, when? Sooner? Or Later? This year? Or next year? Eventually, another storm will come.

What other storm are you going through now? Cancer? Heart disease? Financial troubles? Hospice? A wheelchair? Divorce? A Child who’s lost her way? Do you feel like life is pushing you to the edge? Like you can’t take much more? This Psalm is for you. If you are not in a storm right now, be sure that one is coming. Maybe this year, maybe next year, but one is coming. This Psalm is for you.

I love the honesty of the Bible. I want you to notice something. This Psalm (like the rest of the Bible) is not rosy – it doesn’t say that everything will be happy and wonderful and easy. That’s not life, life is hard. On the other hand, neither does it say that we are on our own, that destruction and death will have the final word, no. Look what it says. “In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.” It does not say that God will take away the storm, though he could and he might. But neither does it say that we are on our own to tough out the storm. The text goes on further, “he will put to shame him who tramples on me.” Does God keep you from being trampled? Not always. But there is justice in the end. Look further, “My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts.” What an image. Maybe I can put it in more contemporary language. I enjoy a relaxing day at the beach during a hurricane. What is he saying? Not that God wants you to do stupid things like lie down in a den of lions or try to get a nice tan during a hurricane. But rather, that God’s presence does not take away the storm; it makes the storm more bearable.

When I was very little, my family lived in Piscataway, NJ while my father worked on his Ph.D. in research entomology at Rutgers University. He was studying greenhead horseflies, Tabanus nigrovatada. There were no greenhead horse flies in northern NJ, so one summer he had to go down to south Jersey to the salt marshes to study them. He left every Monday and returned every Friday during that summer; I was about 6 years old. I had a hard time letting my dad go each Monday, and mom and I would count down the days until he returned. One day, he took me with him to go see where he had been spending all his time – he gave me a little pair of hip-wader boots, and we went out into the marsh together and he showed me his flies. Well, while we were out in the marsh, one of the flies bit me. If you’ve never been bitten by a horsefly, you should know that it hurts badly. When that happened, dad was not very near to me, and heard me screaming, he came running back to me as fast as he could through the marsh, but it was not fast enough for me. I was in so much pain. When he got to me, he picked me up, wiped off the bite, and held me in his arms. My arm still hurt badly, but it was more bearable. Why? Because my dad was with me. He was taking care of me. He did not immediately heal me, the storm was still there, but I knew that he would take care of me. I could bear the storm if he was with me.

Dear friends, God is not in the business of calming every storm that comes upon you. Rather, he is in the business of calming you in the midst of the storm. How does he do this? He says to us, I am here, I will not leave you. He gives friends and family who care; they are his ambassadors to us, reminding us of his love for us. They are his arms to hug us, his voice to encourage us, his strength to defend us, and his hands to help us. What should you do? Look at the very beginning of the reading, “Be merciful to me, O God.” Cry out for mercy. If you cry out for mercy, God will give it to you. He will walk with you, in the midst of your storm.