How I learned to talk about goats

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

For many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14)

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

I found myself using a line in my sermon last Sunday that has been lingering with me. In the midst of my sermon, I said to my two congregations that I did not want them to end up as goats, and from there I reminded them of the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 25:31-46.

I have to confess this: Ten years ago, I would never have taken that kind of sermonic detour. Indeed, had I been in a pew hearing that, I might have bristled at it.

You see, I came to Christ from secular America and through theological liberalism. Talk of the supernatural and eternal judgment of humanity was alien to me — even a bit laughable, perhaps even contemptible.

There is a line in the TV show House that comes to mind. The atheistic Dr. Greg House is talking with another doctor about what happens after death or does not happen. House’s counterpart asks incredulously whether he believes this is all there is, to which House replies: “I find it more comforting to believe that all *this* isn’t simply a test.”

This is the way we often react to talk of the judgment of God, the coming wrath, eternal reward and eternal punishment. We act indignant that God would cheapen the meaning of life by reducing it to a never-ending test to judge our fitness for heaven and hell.

I get all that.

So why the warning to my congregations about sheep and goats?

The short answer to this is that I’ve spent the last 8 years reading John Wesley and the Bible. I’d read none of Wesley and scarcely any of the Bible before I was baptized in 2001. It was nearly pure experience that got me to the baptismal font and very little in the way of Scripture or Tradition. And it was gentle but powerful experiences of the grace of Jesus Christ that deepened my faith before I got my call to ministry several years after my baptism.

Once I sensed that call, I decided I had better start learning about Methodism and the Bible. And it was this study that helped me name my experiences of grace. Before this, I had only some spiritual experiences that, without the language of Christianity, were nearly impossible to articulate. The Bible and Wesley helped me to understand what had happened to me and what was happening in me. And they gave me the framework of belief that helped me see that this day-to-day life is much more than just a weary grind for a few decades before our bones dry out and we pass into forgotten memory. We are called to be children of God. We are called to that now. We are called to it forever.

Is life more than a test? Yes. Of course. But there is a test. And, as a pastor, I grow more convinced that I do the people in my congregations real harm if I shade that reality or hide it from them. The truth is this. We will stand before God. There will be a final exam. The good news is this. Jesus has already shown us the test. We know the questions and the answers. No one has to fail, but many will.

All this talk is crazy to atheists and those who have grown so wise that they find Jesus’ words in need of updating. It used to be crazy talk to me. As a pastor, though, I dare not treat it that way when given the awesome responsibility of teaching and preaching the Word of God to the people who come to hear it. How can I claim to love them if I act as if our purpose in life is to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?

Learning at Daniel’s feet

Brent White shares his testimony of his conversion to being a strong conviction about the truthfulness of the Bible.

Included in the post are comments on a British podcast by a Christian apologist and Oxford mathematician. The full transcript of his lecture explaining how the Book of Daniel is a perfect book for Christians trying to figure out how to live in the 21st century. The speaker, John Lennox, speaks specifically of Great Britain, but I think many of his observations apply to us — or will in the coming years. This is how he frames the story of Daniel.

So, we have a young man who has been brought up to believe in God and he’s suddenly without warning precipitated into a completely alien culture. He’s moved physically. Now we haven’t been moved physically in this country, but in recent years and with increasing acceleration, we’ve been shifted from a culture that has been broadly monotheistic, in a culture that is increasingly relativistic, that’s increasingly atheistic, and that’s increasingly marginalising the capacity of the possibility of articulating faith in God in public….

To maintain your faith in God and your public witness in that kind of a situation is not easy. My view is that if we can gain anything from looking at this book that will help us to unpack the secret of Daniel’s stability and his conviction and his power and understanding, then it is worth doing.

If you prefer to listen, the lecture audio is here.

What God Has Joined | Christianity Today

A biblical argument about the grounds for divorce.

Does this strike you as sound, or is it fitting the argument to the conclusion?

The lepers of Samaria

I was reading in 2 Kings last night when I came across a story I had forgotten from previous journeys through this book. In 2 Kings 7:3-20, we learn the story of the lepers of Samaria.

The background is this. The city of Samaria, the capital of the divided kingdom of Israel, is under siege and conditions have gotten bad. People are eating anything they can find, including their own children. (2 Kings 6:24-29). In the midst of the famine, the prophet Elisha declared that within 24 hours, wasting and famine would be replaced by abundance and plenty. The officials of Samaria did not believe such a thing was possible.

The story turns then to four men with leprosy who sat at the gate of the city. They were desperate. They decided together to go over to the enemy camp of the besieging army. If the enemy took them in, they would not starve. If the enemy killed them, they would no longer be suffering and dying.

When they got to the enemy camp, though, they discovered it empty of people but full of food and treasure. The Lord had set the enemy to flight. They had fled in panic leaving behind all their provisions and treasures. Alone in the midst of this bounty, the lepers went from tent to tent, feasting and gathering up treasures, until a thought struck them.

“Then they said to each other, ‘What we’re doing is not right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report to this to the royal palace.’” (2 Kings 7:9)

It is a fascinating story, and I have left many interesting bits out. Go read it yourself if you like. Here are a few stray thoughts that it stirred up in me.

First, the lepers played a crucial role in the revelation of the hidden good news. These men were outcasts and desperate. There really is nothing noble in what they did, but in the midst of their desperation, they were the only ones to venture across to the hostile camp where good news was waiting for them. There is a truth here about us. When we are at the edge life or death, we can be driven to discover good news that was waiting for us all along.

Second, those inside the city were trapped by their fear, the false security of their walls, and their unbelief in the providence of God. Even after the lepers reported what they had found, the leaders were terrified of a trap and slow to hear the good news.

Third, good news must be shared. If the lepers had feasted and reveled alone while the starving city close by suffered on, they would have been fit for punishment. Holding on to the good news for our own joy and need is wrong. This is a tale about the necessity of evangelism, perhaps?

I’m sure there is more treasure in this story than I have unearthed, but reading it last night was one of those moments where the joy of reading the Bible came to me again. Read your Bible prayerfully. Ask God to teach and shape your life by the Word. You will discover good news lying hidden there in its pages.

Trying to figure out how to think about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner

I fear opening up a firestorm here, but I am at a loss.

I’ve seen all the coverage of Bruce Jenner deciding he should be called Caitlyn Jenner and how far Jenner has gone to cut, slice, and reshape his body. According to one story, Jenner has had facial surgery, surgery to reduce his Adam’s apple, and breast augmentation but has not had surgery on his genitals.

From a non-Christian stance, I don’t understand why this is seen as a reasonable thing to do rather than as a form of mental illness. This 2004 article about why John Hopkins stopped doing sex re-assignment surgery comes down on the side of mental illness. This 2014 piece in the Wall Street Journal by the same author — the former head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins — cites research studies and argues that people such as Jenner should be getting treatment rather than surgery.

I know there are whole fields of social science and social theory dedicated to the proposition that sex and gender are socially constructed ideas, and advocates of these theories reject the kinds of arguments made by the psychiatrist above. (Here is one example of such a rebuttal.)

Shifting back to Christian concerns, I know as well that the theory of the social construction of knowledge is based on the theories of atheist philosophers such as Karl Marx and Michel Foucault and rejects the idea that their is any truth beyond what humans agree is truth. In other words, the theories of gender at the base of most of culture’s conversation about sex and sexuality are at their foundation antithetical to the idea God exists and that God’s truth might be something beyond and above our comprehension. Those foundations make me resist the counsel of such theories.

I’m only beginning to try to grapple with this. The Bible appears to me to be pretty clear in its view that male and female are categories of creation. I don’t see any support for the notion that we can choose what we are. So even as the entire culture celebrates and applauds, I have a hard time avoiding the conclusion that Jenner’s suffering requires something other than a scalpel, a lifetime of hormone injections, and a new TV show.

What do you think?

Q: Should these two things define the church?

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. (Mark 3:13-15)

If we in the church are an extension of the original apostolic ministry, then shouldn’t the core of our mission be defined by the tasks originally set out by Jesus? In this passage those tasks are preaching and driving out demons.

To this point in the gospel, the content of Jesus’ preaching has been the original proclamation of Mark 1:15. The kingdom has come near. Repent, and believe the good news. I have zero reason to believe the apostles were sent out to preach anything different. Is it fair to say that preaching the kingdom is the first task of those who see their ministry as in a line with the apostles?

Also to this point in the gospel, we have seen Jesus drive out demons. Here he gives the apostles the authority to do the same thing. Has the authority passed down to us today? If so, why do so few mainline United Methodists speak of such things, much less do them?

What do you think?