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?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Go to Israel!

OK, so I have been slacking on the blog lately. But in my defense, Easter just finished a few weeks ago, and I have had a lot going on. One of those things that went on was an amazing trip to the Holy Land. Back in February, I went to Israel with a group of 40 from my home church, Myers Park UMC in Charlotte. The group was led by my role model in ministry, Dr. James Howell. Dr. Howell holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, and really knows his stuff. It was was a once-in-a-lifetime treat to sit at his proverbial feet and listen to his wisdom on Scripture, archaeology, and the ministry. On top of that, it was great to meet and spend time with some wonderful disciples of Christ, including my parents (who I don't get to see very often).

Instead of giving you a boring travelogue, I thought I would share some of my favorite pics (I apologize that they are a little out of order from the chronology of our itinerary). My short message is "go". Don't listen to the news- the Muslims were the nicest people I encountered there and the only fight I saw was between two Jews (another story for another time). To place yourself in the very geographical context of Scripture will open your mind, heart, and soul in fresh and life-giving ways. Enjoy!

 Our group at the top of the Mount of Olives, near Bethany, looking into the Old City of Jerusalem
 A monument to the Hebrew vowels in Tiberias, where they were created. This is only important to biblical language nerds (guilty).
 Me by the waterfall in Banias/Panias. Was this the place the author of Psalm 42 had in mind?
 Caesarea Philippi, a center of Greek and Roman worship. This is also where Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?"
 A view of Mount Hermon, the northernmost point of Israel, covered in snow
 The site of Herod's palace, which once jutted out into the Mediterranean Sea, in Caesarea Maritima
 The Mona Lisa of the Galilee tile in Sepphoris, where Jesus and his father may have worked
 A view of the Jezreel Valley from the Mount of the Precipice
 Modern-day Nazareth from the Mount of the Precipice
 The library cave at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found (again, only nerds are interested)
 A view of the Dead Sea from Masada
 The Church of the Beatitudes on the supposed site of the Sermon on the Mount
 Me floating in the Dead Sea with the ashen cross on my head
 A typical street in Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter
 Looking over Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem's Old City
 A Franciscan friar tending to the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane
 Rev. George Ragsdale and I presiding over a communion service in the Garden of Gethsemane
 The Pool of Bethesda inside of Jerusalem's city walls. This is where Jesus healed the lame man in John 5 and told him,  "Take up your mat and walk!"
 A Coptic shrine around Jesus' tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
 Joseph of Arimathea's tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. This tomb is unadorned and gives us a better idea of what Jesus' tomb would have looked like in the first century.
 The "Jesus Boat" in a museum by the Sea of Galilee
 Our group taking communion on the supposed site where Jesus fed the 5,000
 The second synagogue in Capernaum, the city in which Jesus spent most of his ministry. The temple during Jesus' time likely lies beneath this structure.
 The city gates at Bethsaida, hometown to some of Jesus' disciples. Can you spot the bull-like god/idol in the middle of the frame? Somehow it has lasted in this location approximately 2,800-3,000 years.
 Me at the archaeological site of Hazor, a city conquered by Joshua
 The site of Jereboam's altar at Dan. If you climb up the steps in the background, you can look into both Lebanon and Syria. As we were approaching this site, we heard several rounds of gunfire coming from the direction of Syria (where their inhumane civil war is still going on).
The Canaanite city gate to Dan. This site dates to about 1,800 BC and it is reported in Genesis 17 that Abraham entered this gate to look for Lot.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Joel Osteen

While I was on vacation last week, I saw a commercial on TV for OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. The spot showed a clip from Oprah's forthcoming interview with Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, TX and perpetual punching bag for theological snobs like me. When Oprah asked questions in the clip regarding Osteen's wealth and preaching of the "prosperity gospel", I thought to myself, "OK, this is one Oprah interview I might actually watch."

So I made sure that I DVR'd the episode and I finally got around to watching it. While I was pleasantly surprised at some of his answers, I mostly heard what I expected.

I was shocked to hear that Osteen does not take a salary from his church. Osteen's income, according to him, comes from his book sales. While that does seem very admirable, Osteen's house (as shown in the interview) is baller. There was a huge grand piano behind him, he and Oprah were lounging on plush couches, and the houses in his neighborhood that you could see outside his window were anything but paltry in size. Osteen overtly does not apologize for his lifestyle, repeatedly referring to it as "a blessing". Well, it's a blessing for him, I guess; not so much for the kid in urban Houston who would do anything just to eat a grilled cheese sandwich tonight. I do think Jesus had something to say about a camel and a needle, as well as something in the Sermon on the Mount about the poor and blessings. Oh, and I think Paul may have had a lot to say about humility too. I can't remember exactly.

Also, I was intrigued by his approach towards ultimate salvation in other faiths. Upon Oprah asking him if Jesus is the only way to heaven (citing John 14:6), Osteen replied that people of different faiths may see Jesus in different ways. It was not the hard-line fundamentalist stance of exclusivism that I expected. While Osteen seemed to beat around the question for a while before he got to that answer, and though it is not the answer I would have given myself, it seems that Osteen may in fact have a brain and think through theological issues rationally (overturning some of my preconceived notions about him).

In my final point about surprises, Osteen seems very much on guard against the slickness of his televangelist predecessors. He is upfront about it in the interview. He knows the tradition in which he stands (seems strange to use "tradition" in a sentence about Osteen). He knows the stories of all of the Jim Bakkers that have gone before him. He desires to be authentic and true to his people. Props to him there. In fact, he may be trying to hard. In his benedictions he will throw in a few "ya'lls" and in his interview he almost seems to go out of his way to utter "Gosh, Oprah" and bashfully avert his gaze for someone who is a dynamic public speaker (ask any speech professional and they will tell you that, despite his theology, Osteen is a master at public speaking). But it is not my place to ultimately say whether or not he is genuine. That is between him, his congregation, and God.

All of this said, my ultimate beef with Osteen is in his general theological approach. Osteen is less a preacher of the Word of God than he is a self-help guru. His sermons are all about the individual and how one can better oneself. While there is a place for this in preaching, the ultimate crux of Christian theology is the Good News about God, not us. Intrinsic to any good theology is the basic notion that we humans are made in the image of God, yet there is, in the words of Karl Barth, an "infinite qualitative distinction" between us and God. In short, there is sin. Furthermore, we are encouraged in our struggle for holiness, not by our bootstraps, but by the community of faith. For a guy who is the pastor of the largest church in the US, he seems to have no ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). In the sermons of his that I have heard, Lakewood is approached as a collection of individuals rather than a community of those called out to bear with one another and serve in God's mission as the Body of Christ. Although it doesn't come through well in our translations (sadly), most of the exhortations in the Bible are in the second-person plural. In other words, Osteen might be best served to remember the deeper communal significance of one of his favorite words: "y'all".

Click here to see a clip from the interview.