Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Good Friday Reading

Why the cross? Of course, there are myriads of ways to answer this question. But I have not found a more articulate response to my own feelings on the subject than this article by Anglican theologian Charles Hefling. I hope it challenges and frees you as you approach the thought of God bearing the cross this week.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Veggie Tale

Early in my appointment at Trinity, an elderly woman came up to me after worship and (quite randomly) asked me, "Why do we have to kill to eat?" Usually, I have some kind of packaged answer for theological questions posed to me by laity. But I had no answer for this one. First, it caught me off guard because the question seemed out of context to the worship service we just had. But second, as a Christian pacifist and lover of meat, I had no packaged answer for this one. In fact, I had no answer at all.

So I asked a lot of my preacher and div school friends. Many of them were stumped as well. Even those who are vegetarian told me they were simply protesting the inhumane manner with which animals are slaughtered. The best answer, however, came from one of my div school roommates who, oddly enough, is no longer a Christian. He told me that the early church fathers, and later Augustine, said the answer to that question was that killing animals for food was an act necessary only after the Fall of Genesis 3. 

Now I know the naturalist answers: we were born with incisors, the need for protein and iron, and the simple fact that these animals are born and raised for our consumption. But none of that from a Christian perspective means that meat-consuming was part of God's intention for humankind. And, don't get me wrong: I love meat. I fancy myself a connoisseur of North Carolina barbecue. When someone else is paying, I always go for the New York strip. And, after my doctor predictably told me that my cholesterol was too high, chicken became a staple of the dinner table at my house. But my love for meat, like most things I "love", is trumped by my love for Christ and willingness to explore other routes of growth in Christ.

So I have given up meat for Lent in order to live into my exploration of this question posed to me years ago. What I have found is that I do not miss meat nearly as much as I thought I would. I have found excellent substitutes that people always told me were excellent substitutes, but I never believed them (come on, certainly a Big Mac and tofu are not in the same league). But I have learned that I can survive quite well on pasta, grits, portobellos, and greens. I have even enjoyed odd foods like quinoa and polenta. The experiment has been a bigger success than I suggested. In fact, I worry that my Lenten devotion has been easier on me than it should be. After all, I have not understood the temptation and suffering that I am supposed to know during this season of repentance. But, well, it's too late to go back now and do something more painful, right?!

One of my vegetarian pastor friends said, "It seems ridiculous to me that we feel like we need meat with every meal." At first, I thought it was just "hippie talk", but now I get it. In our super-sized nation, we can afford to keep our meals a little leaner. Plus, we are fortunate people in our world today. For most of the history of the world, and even in several places today, meat has been, and is, considered a luxury item on the  menu. If anything, this Lenten devotion has placed me in slight solidarity (they didn't have access to the fancy meat substitutes I do) with those who have gone before me, and I understand a little bit more about the resilience of God's creation without the comforts of the Western world. But, like most people who try a Lenten devotional practice, I realize I have a long way to go to fully understand these things. Thanks be to the perfect God of grace, who guides us as we grow to understand God's love for all of creation.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On Weddings

It seems that I have either recently officiated or will soon officiate several weddings, so I've been thinking a lot about what it means to get married, especially in the church. Here are a few thoughts I have compiled.

  • If you are a religious person, get married in a church, temple, synagogue, etc. I understand that it is cute and fun to get married on a beach, in a park, or in a baseball stadium, but the ceremony of marriage is a religious ceremony. If the ceremony occurs in a sanctuary of some sort, you will be surrounded by religious symbolism that will set the ceremony, and the ensuing marriage, in the proper context. I know I write this at the risk of sounding like an old fogey traditionalist, but believe it or not, there is oftentimes a good reason that a certain tradition forms.
  • Since the wedding ceremony and marriage are religious acts, don't get married if you aren't religious. Somehow, what was once considered religious and sacred has bled over into the secular and state world, as the media propounds marriage as a simple fact of life that is needed if you don't want to be lonely and since the government has decided to get into the marriage business. These are only recent inventions to commandeer the religious for other reasons (see next bullet point) and, if you aren't religious, there are certainly more convenient and cheaper ways to show your commitment to your partner.
  • Weddings are big business. According to Wikipedia (a reliable source, I know), the wedding industry reaps $40 billion a year. Your wedding is not that special to your florist, caterer, photographer, etc. They do not care if you will have enough money to eat dinner your first week of marriage. You are a big source of revenue to them and they will try to upsell you on everything possible (I'm speaking in generalities here). And this is only a recent phenomenon. For example, the idea of the engagement ring has only been around about 100 years or so (Thanks, Cecil Rhodes). What is supposed to be a meaningful celebration of God's gift of marriage has been grossly bastardized into brides obsessing over the most extravagant bridesmaid dresses, grooms tearing up friendships over who will be the best man, and stressing over what party favor to give guests. This is not what God had in mind.
  • Marriage is not for everyone. Movies, novels, and the sentiment at the country club may indicate that your life is nothing without marriage. If you don't get married, then you must be useless and undesirable. But both Jesus and Paul were very cautious about marriage (cf. Luke 20:34-38 and 1 Cor. 7:38... not exactly passages you will hear proclaimed at the next Royal Wedding). The Bible does not see marriage as some fairy tale come true, but as a serious union with serious ramifications.
  • Marriage is a serious deal in the church because, well for one, Jesus definitely wasn't a fan of divorce (Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:7-9, and parallels). This is not because Jesus was looking for a way to punish us. Instead, he was concerned to create a community in which God's people would not see the brokenness of divorce unfold. Your marriage is not a vacuum and it greatly affects parents, friends, and children, whether we want to admit it or not. We pastors, as leaders of faith communities, do our best to make sure that divorce does not result from a marriage. We usually try to spend several hours in counseling with couples on the front end to make sure that couples know the seriousness of marriage. This, in my opinion, constitutes a good reason (and one that I think is more important that getting married in a church building) to be married by a serious clergyperson who has your spiritual interests in mind.
  • How much should you pay your pastor? This question always comes up when I officiate a wedding. Our pay is somewhat arbitrary for officiating a ceremony and, sometimes, we pastors are too sweet and sugary to be firm in saying how much our time is worth. The standard for our church is $200. If that seems high, consider how much you pay for the dress, caterer, florist, honeymoon, etc. You can have your wedding without them. You cannot have your wedding without a pastor. And your pastor's time away from her or his family is worth something. Also, don't underestimate the amount of time your pastor spends in preparing for premarital counseling, the ceremony, and the homily. And also, unlike these vendors, your pastor has an enormous workday ahead of him tomorrow.
  • If any of this sounds bitter, then I apologize for the tone. Every couple I have married has done come to the altar with the intent to grow in their faith together and has understood my fairly strict interpretation of the ceremony and marriage. But I do cringe every time I see an ad on TV for a jewelry store, a "wedding episode" of a TV show, or a thick bridal magazine on the grocery store rack without a single word of God. God deserves better than this and, frankly, you do too.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


I realize that (once again) I haven't posted anything for a while. I have been busy with church work, finishing my paperwork to be ordained, and have been working on a required chaplaincy unit for the North Alabama Conference. But the biggest new intrusion into my time has also been the most joyful. On August 16th, my wife and I welcomed our son, Samuel Robert, into the world.

For my entire life until that day, I had been able to conceive of God as Father. That has been possible because I have a wonderful father and grandfather, who have both been extremely influential to my life of faith. But now I am faced with being in the role of a father myself. And the experience has been far different than I expected. The consequences, as far as how I now conceive of God, have been interesting as well.

In anticipation of Sam's arrival and his first few days on this earth, I was stoked. I dreamed of teaching him German, Hebrew, and Greek. I had fantasies of throwing the football with him in the park. I imagined myself playing guitar and singing beautiful ballads to him, with him clinging expectantly to every note. In short, he was going to be the little brother I never had (in fact, my nickname for him is "Mr. Buddy").

But reality, as I feared, has set in. He has only recently begun to be able to interact with me, and that usually comes in incoherent streams of babble. He has no qualms about screaming bloody murder in the middle of watching a football game with me to tell me he is hungry or has pooped his diaper. And he definitely disregards my need for alone time or sleep. He demands my attention in every way, and has stripped me of the freedoms I used to enjoy. I was so tired of hearing this from other parents, but the cliche is true that my life has changed forever.

What this has made me realize about God is something I find very pertinent this time of year. This world, both Israel and the nations, was in desperate need of a savior. But God was not under any obligation to give us salvation. God did not need to be swayed by the cries of the disenfranchised and powerless of this world. God could have easily been a deadbeat dad by creating us and letting us be.God still would have been God. But God became the Parent of the world by sending his own Son to address that need for salvation.

In that light, the needs of my own son are not really to be feared after all. Yes, there are times when what I do for him feels like drudgery and raw obligation. But to be called out of the comfortable world in which I once lived to deliver aid to a hungry mouth and a needy heart is really the call that God gives to the church because God once did it for the world. There is truly a profound sense of faith in parenting that is found first in the faith of God. Of course, we cannot fully know the depths of God and God's love, but the glimpse of it that we find in parenting is a treasure. Thanks be to God for allowing us to participate in both the gift of new life and the provision of new life. And thanks be to God for first showing us the way of that gift and provision in Christ.

P.S.- Right after Sam was born (September 2nd), I preached a sermon at Trinity that talks a little bit about my experience as a father in light of the gospel. Here is the link to listen and, as always, I invite your feedback.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Friends and Unbelief

A few weekends ago, I took a Sunday off to attend the wedding of a close friend in Tennessee. One of the reasons he is such a close friend is because of some conversations we had a few years ago when he was enduring a crisis of faith. He grew up nominally Christian in an Episcopal church. When I met him during my freshman year of college, I thought he exhibited a very clean, perhaps one could say Christian, lifestyle. He always refrained from alcohol, drugs, and sex. But he was also very unhappy and confused about faith. He was extremely closed off and shy, gave short answers to every question, and rarely smiled. Whenever I brought up religion, he would often say that he could not believe in God without "proof" (he is an engineer, so that should give you a hint as to why this would be a hangup for him). Long story short, his life changed dramatically when he met the girl he married. He started attending an evangelical congregation with her every Sunday, he was happier than I had ever seen him, and he would call me once a month, asking questions about faith. I was pleased to see this transformation that God had wrought in him (even if I did urge him to try other denominations!). I am humbled to have been a small part of it and am excited that we have become closer friends as a result.

I tell my friend's story because he and I share three other friends who are not Christian. They are great guys and mean a lot to me, but I find myself anxious at their unbelief. At the wedding, one of them talked openly about how he and his wife are "agnostics". His unbelief stems largely from his training as a scientist. The other two are well-read in philosophy and consider themselves Nietzschean. I struggle with this because they are already good friends to me. There is not much I would change about them. But yet, I strongly desire for them to know God the way I do.

All of this has made me question myself about why I want them to believe: Is it because of my own southern, evangelical bent? Am I genuinely worried about their eternal souls? Or do I just want them to be more like me? And going further, are these even legitimate concerns? If they are good guys, does it really matter whether or not they make a faith commitment to Christ?

In the end, I have decided that I can't control their faith commitments. I can only control how I love them and how my faith bears fruit in their presence. Yet, because these guys are old, close friends, I'm afraid that I rarely exhibit such behavior. When I am around them, I tend to relapse into my old irreverent, immature, sophomoric version of myself from age 20. And, in many ways, they have shown better Christian love to me than I have to them. For instance, after a particularly rough time in my life, this group of guys gave up their senior year spring break to visit and comfort me for a week. For me, it was a real-life example of the righteousness of the Pharisees being exceeded.

While I still pray for my friends, I also pray for myself. I pray that I may witness to them in a way shaped by the cross, a way that only faith in Jesus Christ can form. Maybe then they will know by my witness. Maybe they will know by someone else's. Maybe they will never know. But I do trust that God is working on them and me in a way that I cannot surmise on my own. After all, I believe he has brought us together, different as we are, in friendship. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Gospel and Mental Illness

I will begin this post with a confession: I struggle with anxiety and depression. There, I said it. The guy who stands up in front of a thousand-plus people almost every Sunday to talk about the good news of God regularly sees a shrink and takes crazy pills. Hypocrite... right?

Well, in many other ways, yes. But in this instance, I'm not so sure. Since I was about sixteen or so, I have suffered from anxiety and depression. I have wrestled with dark thoughts, moodiness, social anxiety, and, in my teenage years, suicidal thoughts. These symptoms have not been constant, but rather have come in year-long-or-so waves over the past twelve years. And in the midst of all of this, I have been highly functional- or at least good at hiding my symptoms from others. For a long time, this has been my dark secret that I did not want others to know about. It was a huge stumbling block in answering my call to ministry. I thought that there was no way a person who leads others in their journey away from the slavery of angst and into the glory of God could suffer from a mental illness. Something must be terribly wrong with my faith. But I have found this to be just the opposite.

I have confessed my illness to several preachers and, to my surprise, many have replied, "I struggle with it too." Recently, I read this excellent interview with a pastor of a large African-American church, who has struggled holding together his leadership in the church and his depression. In fact, one of the things I have learned from the more experienced pastors who struggle with mental illness is to share and be open with our congregation about mental illness and all of our weaknesses. Doing so allows us to be, as Henri Nouwen once fleshed out in his classic book, "wounded healers". It enables us to point to the enormous grace of God when we sing, "You are my strength when I am weak." It illuminates that old adage that the church truly is a "hospital for sinners"- even for its leadership (after all, physicians are not immune to disease). It gives us the ability to sit alongside those in the congregation who struggle, to empathize with them, and to be fellow-sharers with our flock as we all grow together into holiness. In short, I think sharing and openness protect all of us in the church from the truest illness, self-righteousness.

Someone once told me that upwards of 35-40% of Americans have some sort of mental illness. I have not checked my facts and I don't know if that's true. If it is, you can point to societal issues and personal "attitudes", and you can rightly assert that something is wrong with our world. Perhaps these are major causes of mental illness. Given that mental illness runs strongly in one side of my family, I am tempted to say that it is both these factors and a biological/genetic issue. I am no psychiatrist and I don't know for sure. But as a preacher, I can say, let's no longer chastise those with mental illnesses, fight the powers that are at its root, whatever those powers may be, and submit our weaknesses to God together in order to see how great and wonderful is his grace.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Church Growth and Anxiety

Check out this post by Sarah Howell, daughter of the pastor from my home church and a very promising young preacher in her own right. In this article, Sarah cautions the church from becoming overly anxious about growth strategies, because, after all, God is in charge. Her article prompts several questions about evangelism for the reader: How does the church share the good news without spreading itself thin? How do we as Christians walk the fine line between our duty/calling from God and our rest in God? What is evangelism anyway?