Tuesday, November 18, 2008


This is Henry, adopted by our family this summer from a local shelter (and boy did it upset the pink princess). I wish I could explain why we have two dogs now instead of just one, as I was fine with our being a one dog household. Alas, knowing I was outvoted and that Henry, found abandoned in a local parking lot, needed a good home, I relented. My advice--never let your family go to an animal shelter just to 'look'. You will end up with a pet (or 2).

Monday, November 17, 2008

Greed: A Sin After All

[Jesus] said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.” Luke 12:15, NLT

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, the character Gordon Gekko says, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” It is clear after reading the verse above that Jesus does not agree with Gekko’s assessment of greed. As the fallout from the financial crisis continues, it seems that one cause of the problem was people who, like this movie character, believed that greed is good. Unmitigated greed is the only explanation that makes sense when we try to understand how corporate executives made millions of dollars while at the same time their companies were going bankrupt. While I’m not sure that I understand derivatives and other financial instruments that seem to have caused the current crisis, I do understand our human tendency to sin. As much as we might like to throw stones at CEO’s and others for their greediness, perhaps these times call us all to examine our own tendencies toward greed.

The official dictionary definition of greed is: 1.excessive desire to acquire or possess more (especially more material wealth) than one needs or deserves 2.reprehensible acquisitiveness; insatiable desire for wealth. Perhaps what I understand the most about greed is the term ‘reprehensible acquisitiveness’. One way to illustrate: even though I have a perfectly good iPod, I have the ‘excessive desire to acquire or possess’ a new and improved iPod touch (of course, you can feel free to substitute something you really want in place of iPods—this example works with lots of different items). Too many times we mistakenly identify what are most certainly wants as desperate needs, when our true needs are few but our wants can be unlimited. This should be called greed.

In 1974 an economist studying the relationship between wealth and happiness discovered what is now known as the Easterlin paradox, which states that once people have their basic needs met, they don’t become happier as they become richer. Jesus said this, though in a different form—“a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God” (Luke 15:21, NLT). The most effective way for us to defeat our own tendencies to be greedy is to give. When we give to others, whether in time, money, or goods, we defeat greed and remind ourselves of the truth of Jesus’ assertion that “life is not measured by how much you own” (Luke 12:21 NLT).

Many have lost material wealth in this financial crisis. Retirement and investments are worth less, homes values are less, sales and profits are down, and things are bound to get tight financially. In the midst of the tumult, perhaps we will learn that greed is not good but giving is. May we be thankful for the intangibles God has given us that can’t be measured by Wall Street—our health, our families, our church, and most of all lets be thankful for our God, the greatest giver of all.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Too Scary!

When my son Noah was much younger, one of his favorite sayings was “Too scary!” There was much in his world that was new and unknown, often causing him fear and anxiety. We don’t have to look very far these days to find things to be afraid about. The current financial crisis has many on edge, wondering about their shrinking investments and retirement savings. Some are concerned about the possible loss of their jobs while others are unemployed in a tough job market. In addition, the upcoming presidential election has generated anxiety and fears what a new president and administration will bring. Add to these concerns about the wars, nuclear weapons, hunger, poverty, the hurricanes and other natural disasters, and it is a wonder we all get out of bed!

We need to recognize that some fear is healthy. It (hopefully) keeps us from touching hot stoves, feeding bears in the Smokies and crossing the street without looking both ways. Fear can also be unhealthy and cause us to behave irrationally. One acronym for fear is False Evidence Appearing Real. It is wise to thoroughly investigate that which we fear. We may find out our fears are based on false evidence. Paul writes, “God did not give us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline" (I Timothy 2:7 NLT).

Let’s unpack this. We are told God has given us a spirit of power even when external conditions work to make us feel powerless. We have this spirit because we know, as the old hymn says, “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” This power comes not from within ourselves but instead from our faith in God, who loves us and will sustain us (Matthew 6:25-34). Paul also writes that we are to have a spirit of love. Fear and anxiety can lead us away from love toward hostility or even outright hatred. In times of crisis we continue to respond with love--loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength while also loving our neighbors as ourselves. We remember to share not only God’s love but also our worldly resources—James reminds us Jesus’ command was not either/or but both/and (James 2:15-16). Finally, we exhibit a spirit of self-discipline. Self-discipline means that we maintain control of ourselves and our reactions. Our faith in God keeps us from reacting in fear when we hear “the sky is falling” and see others panicking. Self-discipline means our faith in God steadies us and keeps us working, praying, and giving for the spread of God’s kingdom--in both good economic times and bad, both when disasters strike and when the skies are sunny and clear, both when things look bleak and when things look hopeful.

A search of the biblical word ‘fear’ reveals that most often it is used in the context “fear of God.” The intent of the biblical writers was not to portray God as “too scary!” but to remind us of the importance of maintaining a healthy level of respect for the Lord. One way to manage our fears is to keep praising God, knowing that ultimately all things work together for good (Romans 8:28). Many of the psalms end with praise, even when a complaint has been lifted up to God. Remember the example of the tea kettle that, although up to its neck in hot water, continues to sing! So lets sing praise to God, knowing that, “…as we live in God, our love grows more perfect [and] such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear” (I John 4:17-18).

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ben Stein's "Expelled"

Writer, author, and actor Ben Stein always surprises me whenever I read his commentaries on current events (most of which you can find here). I was pleased to learn that he has a new movie coming out next month, titled "Expelled". The movie apparently demonstrates how scientists who advocate intelligent design have been continually discriminated against in academia--the very place where one might expect to find a great deal of freedom when it comes to the exchange of ideas. It looks like this movie will shine light on something that I have observed for a long time. Many of those who call themselves liberals, especially those who are also proponents of atheism, are as dismissive and intolerant of differing viewpoints as religious fundamentalists. I continue to be amazed at how the paradigms and arguments used by both the far left and the far right are so similar. Click here to see previews and other information about the movie. I can't wait to see it!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Literal, Metaphorical, or Irrelevant?

My sister called me yesterday to let me know that a former neighbor of ours had recently died. In the course of our conversation, she relayed to me a recent experience from her Bible study group. She attends a large United Methodist church in her county seat town. Recently she signed up for Disciple Bible Study, a video based study of scripture that is extremely popular and has the reputation of being a life changing experience for the participants. The man who is leading her class had given her a tape of a lecture done by Ken Ham, who promotes "young earth creationism."  This belief basically holds that the creation story in Genesis is literally true, coming to the conclusion from this that the earth is really only 6000 years old (check out the website here).  My sister was curious as to what I thought about what Mr. Ham was proposing. 

My problem with Mr. Ham is not so much with his negative view of science but instead the way he understands and interprets the Bible. He feels the strong need to 'prove' that the Bible can be taken absolutely literally when it describes creation in Genesis.  This need for proof leads him to propose theories such as the idea that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, which is of course directly opposite of current scientific thought. There are those who argue against Ham who propose a different creationist perspective, stating that you can believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis without giving up scientific conclusions about how life began. The web site for this other view of creationist thought can be found here

My view is that the Bible was not written for nor intended to be used to instruct us in science, but instead is a narrative that describes the ongoing relationship between humanity and a God who revealed himself first to a band of people known as the Israelites and later in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The central idea we need to learn from Genesis is that God created the world (how creation happened or exactly how long it took, I have no idea--I think what is important is to understand that God is the creator). Debates over whether science proves or disproves scripture are useless and counterproductive. We cannot approach scripture unless we are willing to struggle with it.  Some people seek definitive answers and struggling with the text, which usually brings up even more questions, might seem somehow blasphemous. But the Hebrew and Christian traditions are full of men and women debating, questioning, and interpreting the scriptures. That's one reason Jesus was so gifted at answering questions with more questions--it comes from the Jewish tradition he was raised in.

In the book Struggling With Scripture three authors (all top notch scholars in my view) remind us that to truly understand scripture we must wrestle with the texts each and every time we approach them. It is important, the book says, not to confuse biblical authority with biblical infallibility. Just because the Bible is a product of fallible human beings does not mean that it cannot and does not have much to authoritatively say to us about God, the world he created, and our place in that world. My sister related the difficulty she was having in understanding how God could authorize the wholesale slaughter of nations as described in some of the readings she is studying. The truth is that the Bible in both testaments contain passages that are difficult to understand, hard to interpret, and cause some people to simply give up the struggle, writing the Bible off as irrelevant. I believe their is much to be gained in struggling with scripture and in not asking it to do what it was not written to do.

I encouraged my sister to continue her study of the Bible, suggesting both Rob Bell's Everything is Spiritual and Jacob's The Year of Living Biblically to give her some different perspectives on approaching creation and other issues. I find that when we have the courage to wrestle with the texts, we may find ourselves much like Jacob. You will remember in Genesis 32 when he wrestled with the man/angel. Jacob ended up permanently changed by his experience, and I suggest the same will happen to us when we really struggle with the texts. That is one reason why Disciple Bible Study has become so popular, because it helps in the struggle. What I know for certain is that, like the story about Jacob, it seems that to grab hold of the ancient texts and hang on will always lead to a blessing from God. If we will not let go!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Catching Up

WOW! Has it really been September since I last posted to this blog? Shame on me. It's not that I haven't had things to write about, instead it has been finding the time to write.
So here are some 'catch-up' entries as well as a resolution to post more often in '08.

Sports, church, and God:
In November, thanks to a gift from some friends, Kim and I had the dubious pleasure of attending our very first regular season Titans game. This particular game began at noon which caused me the same conflict that I guess others who are churchgoers and football fans have--do I attend church or the game on Sunday? Admittedly there are many churchgoing folks who do not seem to feel these pangs of conscience and must be OK with simply missing church on home game Sundays. I tried to resolve my own dilemma by preaching our first worship service that day and enlisting a guest speaker for the second, enabling us to make it to the game near starting time. Unfortunately this move did not help absolve my guilty conscience.
More disheartening than even the poor play of the Titans offense was seeing up close and personal the huge amount of money that is generated by professional sports teams. Looking around at the number of companies who no doubt paid mega bucks to have their name posted or announced ("its another 'Amsouth' first down!" "the Titans make a 'Kroger' sack") as well as the face amount cost of our tickets, the exorbitant prices of concessions, parking costs ($14 to park and ride), etc. was staggering. I calculated that our 'free tickets' ended up costing us about $80. Kim and I agreed that it was more fun to watch the game at home, where there is never a line at the restroom!
I am a huge sports fan. I love to watch baseball, football, college basketball, and sometimes even hockey. Yet I wonder about our society, in which lots and lots of money is spent on our enjoyment of athletic contests (did I mention the number of people who were wearing Titans jerseys or other Titans apparel? It keeps adding up.) As a minister it has bothered me when sporting events from youth soccer to pro football keep people from attending church on Sunday. I find myself strangely conflicted about my own love of sports and wonder if I'm doing enough to keep it in check, especially when it conflicts with the exercise of my faith.
Recently I found out this is not a new problem for the church. One of Augustine's Advent sermons from the third century notes that the bishop and church father lamented the lack of attendance at worship because of the December gladiatorial games schedule! He speaks to the paltry crowd saying, "The rest of you must be in the amphitheater, looking more for entertainment than salvation" (Augustine, "Sermons to the People", p. 4). I feel his pain echoed across the centuries, but have no easy answers.
What I am seeking is a way to enjoy sports without sports becoming idolatrous in my life. Is there a way to be a sports fan and a follower of Christ? Or are they mutually exclusive?

Sports, church, and God pt. 2:
My daughter Hannah completely shocked us this year and went out for cheerleading...and made the squad. Which of course means that I have attended lots of high school basketball games in support of her this past few months.

(An aside: Merrol Hyde Magnet, where Hannah attends, is destined to become the Vanderbilt of Sumner county athletics, meaning that a high emphasis on academics doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with athletic prowess. A bonus is that Merrol Hyde does not have enough interested students to field a football team, making my life as a cheerleading parent relatively easy with only indoor basketball games to attend. It also keeps a lot of young men from having the devastating experience of losing nearly every football game they play. The private high school I attended went 0 and 11 in football when I was a freshman starter at defensive end. Trust me, losing every game might build character but it does nothing for your self esteem.)

Two observations from this experience:
First, I embarrass people at games (mainly those who are related to me) with my enthusiasm and passion, especially as it relates to poor calls by the referees. At one point in a very close game (remember, our teams don't win often!) I was so frustrated I stood up, took off my glasses, and loudly offered them to a ref who made (IMHO!) a terrible call.
Hey, I know that I can not justify my behavior on any grounds. High school referees are to be pitied--anyone who would take any money to be a referee is crazy. I used to ref youth soccer for 6 year olds and left the field one Saturday feeling much like the Clintons--imagining maniacal persecutors bent on my destruction around every corner. As Kim keeps reminding me, it is a high school basketball game and ONLY a high school basketball game. There are a lot more things in the world deserving of my passion and energy. A lesson in there somewhere, to be sure.

Second, is that not only my own conduct but the conduct of fans in general leaves much to be desired. Perhaps our shouting at referees for 'bad calls' reflects the frustrations of adult life, in which 'bad calls' are an everyday occurrence. Perhaps we are really frustrated at the fact that life overall is just not fair and shouting at referees makes us feel we are somehow working toward helping life become fair. What I am learning is that not everyone feels a need to act out this way.
One concrete example might be helpful. Usually when the opposing team is taking a foul shot, everyone in the bleachers rooting for the home team will scream, yell, taunt, stomp the bleachers, etc. in hope that the distraction will somehow keep the shooter from making the shot. This happens with regularity by the fans on both sides. However, at one game I noticed that the opposing fans were dead silent during foul shots--whether it was their team or ours that was shooting at the time.
It became so overwhelming to fans on our side that as the game went on, I noticed that the usual noise during opposing foul shots began to dampen a bit. Proof positive that a good example speaks louder (or in this case softer) than words?

What does this incident have to do with God? Well, the 'silent during foul shots' school was a Christian academy. Perhaps they were just following the instructions of Paul, believing that by doing good to an enemy team they were heaping coals of fire upon their heads (Romans 12:20). I choose to believe they were consciously exercising Christlike behavior through following the golden rule. Their silence was embarrassingly deafening. Maybe good sportsmanship, much like the good exercise of Jesus' command for us to love our neighbor as ourself, is not dead after all.

Homecoming attendant:
A pleasant surprise was to learn that our daughter Hannah was elected as freshman attendant to the homecoming court. It was both disconcerting and somehow also pleasing to witness her beauty that night, all decked out in a long evening dress and escorted by a nice young man. See for yourself:

Needless to say, Mom and Dad are very proud of her inner beauty as much as her outer beauty as she continues to grow up to become a fine young woman.

Science, God, and the Bible:
My ever inquisitive eleven year old son Noah continues to push the boundaries of my thinking with his constant questions. Recently, the budding scientist (oops, robotic engineer, he wants to be a robotics engineer) has been noting that there seem to be some inconsistencies between the biblical account of creation in Genesis and the scientific account of creation which seems to him to make more logical sense. Thankfully my friend and co-pastor Pat Smith recently passed along a copy of Rob Bell's video "Everything is Spiritual". Noah and I watched part of it one night while the girls were at an away basketball game.
Rob strikes me as a post-modern and pre-modern teacher with a terrific gift of making ancient biblical wisdom accessible to people of our time. You can read more about the DVD and order it here. I was fortunate to see Rob teach this material live in Nashville. While I am no physicist I happen to know an extremely intelligent physics teacher, the one and only Luke Diamond who teaches physics at Pope John Paul II high school. His comment after seeing this material presented live was that he could use some of Rob's material for an introductory physics course! Very interesting stuff.
In addition my fellow explorer of theological topics and blogger JD Dittes writes about similar ideas in a related post which you can find here. Some amazing work is being done in relating two subjects (science and theology) that typically when mixed together cause purists from either side to get antsy. Rob and JD show us no such cause for alarm is necessary and we are thankful for their insights.

Reflections on Making a Difference:
Each and every New Year's Day for the past several years has found me spending some time reflecting over the year gone by and the new one ahead. I remind myself of all the things I have to be thankful for and ponder what needs to be changed, dropped, or added to my own life in order for me to have a greater impact. I was literally stopped in my tracks in the midst of this as I came across this article by Ryan Norbauer titled "Death and Underachievement." Reading the post caused some serious back and forth thought about what God might really want from me in the year 2008. Does God need me to make an 'impact' or would God rather me become closer to him by following Jesus more closely as a disciple? A lot of the gospel, upon my reflection of late, seems much less about self actualization and much more about self denial. Maybe I have been too caught up in the sin of overestimating my own importance-- and perhaps the greatest impact I could have on the world in 2008 would be to look back on the year and gladly realize I was further along the path of discipleship than when the year began.

Added to this thought was a post I read but has since been lost (originally written for computer programmers but applicable for clergy and others) on how productivity decreases as the amount of hours worked over 40 increases, with a significant decline in productivity seen in all the hours worked above 50 in a week. Many clergy, of which I am no exception, often will work excessive hours to the neglect of their marriage, their family, and their personal well being. Some of this is no doubt related to our unhealthy need to be needed and the incredible rush that comes from always being available for people in crisis. I have learned by experience that this hyper-availability only multiplies the sense some people have (often not discouraged by clergy) that we somehow are the only people who could ever, ever give them the pastoral care
they need. God suddenly gets shifted out of the entire picture, causing pastor-idolatry of the worst kind. Not to mention that the Fourth Commandment gets conveniently ignored while clergy burn themselves out trying to meet unreasonable expectations, whether their own or their congregation's. Yikes.
This was certainly not what I expected to mull over during my reflections on the past and coming year, but seems to be a subject God keeps placing before me. More to come later.

Nothing But Nets:
Feeling called by God during Advent to call our church away from the cultural Christmas celebration and toward a Christ celebration, we joined the Advent Challenge which encouraged us all to spend less, worship more, give more, and love all. As a part of the challenge, we encouraged our church members to give $10 this season to Nothing But Nets (more here), a charity sponsored by the UM church. Their goal is to place treated mosquito nets in the hands of people at risk of mosquito borne malaria in hopes of minimizing the disease. I am so proud (in a humble way, ha) of our church at Rehoboth, which ended up donating over $1550 to the campaign, over and above my wildest expectations. Some of my family and friends responded to the call and donated as well for which I am thankful!
Unfortunately my own family's attempt at spending less didn't work out very well. But we did agree to give away, dollar for dollar, the amount we spent on each other for Christmas. It was a blast for us to decide where and who that money was given to, and it sure made Christmas seem less about what we got and a lot more about sharing the gift of Christ to the world.

Move to the Top of Your Reading List:
An absolute must read is The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. I have been slowly reading this book since before Christmas and think it should be required reading for all Christians, especially those of us passionate about the Bible and evangelism. Jacobs, basically a non-practicing Jew, attempts to obey the commands of the Bible literally for one full year. The book clearly and often humorously illustrates our naivete when well meaning Christians imagine that if we just follow the Bible everything will be OK. Jacobs reminds us that it's not so easy to put the biblical commands into practice, as he mulls over how to keep the commands against gossip, as one example. While the author of course finds out that it is much tougher to live out the commands of the Bible than it might seem, 'living biblically' has some value for us all. We are reminded that keeping biblical commandments might bring for us, as it does for Jacobs, some unexpected peace and joy. Buy this book, or borrow it, or get it from the library. My hunch is that it will astound you to be reminded of the many places in scripture we as Christians conveniently ignore (rather than truly struggle with, as the author does) as well as the delightful blessings that come from following commands such as the keeping of Sabbath. Read it soon!