Get mad and do something

August 15, 2014 — 1 Comment

Ferguson police shooting

A wise friend–John Inazu–who teaches criminal law at Washington University in St. Louis has written an insightful piece about race and criminal law in St. Louis. I encourage you to pick up and read and consider how you might do likewise where you are:

John D. Inazu

“You spent too much time talking about race in this class.” Of all the student evaluations I’ve received over the years, this one rankled me the most. I teach criminal law. In St. Louis. It’s not possible to talk too much about race in that context.

In past years, our class discussions on race have centered on Trayvon Martin, or before that, on the kids shot up by Bernie Goetz on a New York City subway. From now on, the example will come from much closer to home.

In the coming weeks, we will have much to say about the tragedy, chaos and anger surrounding the death of Michael Brown. Among the most important issues will be the connection between law enforcement and race. That is not to say that all police officers are evil or that all black youths are innocent. But it is to insist that criminal justice and racial injustice are intrinsically linked in this city and its surrounding communities. And the injustices that manifest in handcuffs and bullets flow out of the injustices of neighborhoods, schools and shopping malls — all linked to issues of race that nobody in this city likes to talk about.

Read the rest here.

The church is, by definition, a community of broken people (in every sense of the word) gathered around a broken savior–a savior whose lifeblood was poured out to undo the effects of sin in the world.

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I am Robin Williams

August 13, 2014 — 25 Comments

There’s been no shortage of opinion about the suicide death of Robin Williams at the tender age of 63. Many have pointed out Williams’ immense talent both in comedic acting and also in more serious ventures (like his amazing performances in “Dead Poets’ Society” and “Good Will Hunting”).

Many have pointed to his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. Some have remarked–with a surprise that continues, frankly, to both surprise and perplex me–that they cannot believe someone so successful could be so downcast. 

I found news of 11-04Williams’ suicide hard to take. Perhaps you’re wondering why. It’s not because I’m a super-devoted member of his fan club.

It’s not because Google’s number three search term for Williams is–sickeningly–“Robin Williams net worth.”

It’s simply because I am Robin Williams. 

I first experienced depression in seminary. I thought I was losing my mind. In a sense, I was.

My brain was, it seems, doing strange things chemically and despite my best efforts I couldn’t bring it under my control.

That was sixteen years ago and I haven’t had another depressive episode as severe again. That’s possibly because I’ve also taken antidepressant medication since then.

I suppose depending on your view of the clergy, of the Christian life, or of the ways in which God works in the world, I am either a normal human being or someone whose faith and strength is somehow faulty.

In reality, to be a normal person is to be someone whose faith and strength is faulty. There’s little point in the Good News–the Gospel–if this isn’ t the case.

So much of our modern American self-image assumes the sovereignty of the will–if you can will it, you can do it. You can pick up on this notion in Matt Walsh’s somewhat frustrating blog post. He posits that Williams simply chose to kill himself. On one level, he did. So did the people who threw themselves from the World Trade Center.They chose to kill themselves but we typically don’t excoriate them for selfishness. Collectively we tend to pity those poor souls. We’re less forgiving with those who make a similar choice in different situations.

I’m not suggesting that suicide is an acceptable option for those struggling with mental health issues–may it never be! What I am suggesting is that those who have never traversed the long, dark valley of depression should be careful to avoid suggesting that the will is something over which any of us has total control. The will and the brain are mysteriously connected–messing with the chemistry of the latter affects the former. As a result the choices we all make on a daily basis–getting out of the bed, washing–often become labored for those with depression.

So as we reflect on the loss of Robin Williams, let’s ask God to soften our hearts toward those who suffer.

Tongue in cheek!

Tongue in cheek!

This post contains a thought experiment. In it, I’ll take a piece of writing from a progressive PC(USA) pastor, which represents views that are at odds with Scripture and the Confessions of the church and then transform them into something that comports with the true Christian religion.

Here goes:

In calling God “Father,” Jesus tried to teach us about the nurturing nature of this god. In saying that he and the “Father” were one he was trying to teach us about how we are all one in this god-thing that is larger than us. In telling us that in loving other people (everyone) we were loving God, he was trying to teach us about the connectedness of us all being created in the image of God.

 

I am a Christian because Jesus, for me, is the teacher who best helps me understand this god-thing.

 

When he worshiped, he worshiped that same god.

He did not worship himself.

 

Jesus never called himself God.

 

Source: Mark Sandlin [PC(USA) Minister and member of my former presbytery] Read online.

In calling God “Father,” Jesus tried to teach us about the nurturing nature of God–a God who, in Christ, has chosen a people for himself, called them to himself, has justified them, has united them to Christ so that they are the adopted sons and daughters of God and Jesus is their elder brother. Who has sealed them with his Holy Spirit working in them growth in holiness.

 

In saying that he and the “Father” were one–in addition to affirming his oneness with the Father– he was trying to teach us that God is trinity. He was enabling his listeners to view God from the inside out–to see the interrelationship of Father, Son, and Spirit–rather than simply viewing the externality of God as seen in the Old Testament where God’s fundamental unity is affirmed.

 

In telling us that in loving other people (everyone) we were loving God, he was trying to teach us about the connectedness of us all being created in the image of God. 

 

I am a Christian because: “…those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

 

What do you think?

 

 

 

Hymns and Songs That Inspire: Amazing Grace
I Timothy 1:15-16
You can listen to audio of the sermon here; a devotional guide is available here.

Introduction

We’re continuing our sermon series on hymns and songs that both inspire and teach. This week we come to what may be the most beloved of all hymns, “Amazing Grace.”

Perhaps you, like me, have noticed as we’ve made our way through this series that there’s been a theme common to many of the songs that we’ve looked at: most of them were written either during a crisis or in response to a great work of God.

Amazing Grace is no different. It’s a hymn that reflects on that most glorious of realities, salvation.

The greatest work of God in our lives is his work of giving us new life through faith in Christ and bringing us from darkness, as the New Testament puts it, into the kingdom of his light (1 Pet. 2:9; Eph. 5:8).

Our Scripture this morning contains the words of the elderly apostle Paul to his young ministerial apprentice Timothy found in 1 Timothy 5:15-16:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.

 

The grass withers and the flowers all will fade, but the Word of the Lord abides forever. This is the word that is preached to you. Amen.

Cody [Pastor for Executive Duties] mentioned last week that not every conversion is particularly spectacular. And it’s true. Yet, both in our Scripture passage and in “Amazing Grace,” we see that regardless of how it happens, when it happens, or even how we remember it, all those who have come to faith in Christ have (consciously or unconsciously) followed the pattern found in the conversion of St. Paul—that’s why he refers to himself as “the foremost” example of God’s long-lasting patience—the primary example of Christian conversion.

You may ask: how can you say that? My conversion wasn’t loud or radical like Paul—there was no blindness involved?

My response is: What does a sinner look like? Are they alone sinners who live a life that is outwardly and publicly scandalous or defiant toward God?

Imagine the scene, two children in a living room playing with Lego. It’s time to get ready for school.

The father announces, “It’s time to go to school. Please put up your Lego.”

One child responds, “No! I don’t want to go to school! I hate school!” The other quietly ignores the father and continues to play. Which one is disobedient?

Each of us favors one or another of the children prior to our conversion and carries some of those characteristics with us after conversion. Some of us kick and scream against God; others of us politely ignore him. We all-left to our own devices—sin and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

John Newton was—as was St. Paul—a screamer. Paul was a religious screamer—he fought against God on the basis of his received Jewish theology; Newton was an irreligious screamer—he fought God so that he could indulge his appetites as he saw fit.

Christ transforms us regardless of whether the external appearance is dramatic or mundane.

Disruptive Grace

Being made right with God is always the result of God’s grace (Eph. 2:9-10): we are made right because has acted in Christ to save us. We often associate the word “grace” with what we might call, “God’s softer side.” And indeed God is very often gentle with us, treating us like a bruised reed or smoldering flax, caring for us and strengthening us in the faith. This is how God is to us when we are his children.

Yet as God draws us to himself we can, like John Newton, discover that God’s grace can be as hard as a diamond. The second stanza of Amazing Grace contains a line that can easily be overlooked: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,/and grace my fears relieved.” God’s grace can be—indeed it often is—profoundly disruptive. It alters our life, permanently. Grace has to bring us to the place of recognizing our need for God—fearing—before it can bring us across the threshold into the loving arms of Christ where his tenderness to us has no limits.

Disruptive grace entered Newton’s life as his ship made its way across the North Atlantic. A strong squall arose and battered the ship. Newton watched with horror as a wave rose above the deck and washed away a shipmate who was standing where he himself had stood only a few minutes earlier dragging the man to an anonymous watery grave.

The ship fought the storm for hours. Newton alone is said to have steered for eleven hours. In the midst of the crisis, he cried out: “Mercy!”

And the change was begun. Unlike other crises in his life, this one began—or sped up—the change in Newton’s life.

Have you experienced God’s disruptive grace? What did it look like?

Perhaps, like the prodigal son in Luke 15, you had to descend to the depth of desperation before realizing that it would be better to live as a servant in your father’s house than to continue the living with the pigs.

Newton and his battered ship landed in Ireland several days later where he reflected on the storm as well as a book he had been reading, Thomas a Kempis’ classic The Imitation of Christ—a late Medieval devotional that’s still popular today. He began to wonder whether he was really redeemable: he had not only neglected his faith, but had directly opposed it. With St. Paul in our text he professed himself, “the chief of sinners.”

The chief of sinners

Paul’s words to Timothy here encapsulate the message of the Christianity–the Gospel or “good news”—into a single sentence that all Christians should own: “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.”

Paul writes that this statement is “trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance” (1:15)—a saying that is found only in the pastoral letters and which scholarship suggests meant that this saying was known and used in the churches of the day.[1]

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief. Is that a summary of the Christian message that you can lend your support to? Does the label “sinner”—wrongdoer, transgressor—feel like an accurate description?

Many of us hear the word sinner and immediately someone we know and dislike comes to mind. Others hear the word and momentarily see themselves before shrugging it off or assuring themselves that, in the big picture, they’re really quite good people. In truth, no one believes himself a sinner except through God’s work in his or her life.

The difference between these responses and those offered by Paul and by John Newton is the absence of conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself tells us that the chief work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is the conviction of sin. In John 16 Jesus says that he is sending the Spirit to: “…[C]onvict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment…” (16:9a). If you’re able to honestly look at your life and say, I am a sinner it is because of the work of the Holy Spirit awakening you to a reality that was there all along, the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3:23). You are a sinner. I am a sinner.

According to Paul, because we are sinners we are the reason that Christ Jesus came into the world! God the Son, perfect and holy, became a man and lived a life of perfect obedience to the Law of God (he did not sin) so that he could die for us, becoming sin in our place so that we could be made right with God: “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

You cannot be united to Christ in salvation unless and until God’s amazing grace has first interrupted your life, gotten your attention, taught you to fear, convicted you of your sin and need for a savior, and brought you to the place where you acknowledge your need for Jesus and cry out with Newton: “mercy!”

Then—grace!

God in Christ binds up your wounds, rescues you from the guilt of sin, restores you to unbroken fellowship with him that was shattered at the fall. He delivers you from sin and misery through Christ. Our redeemer’s grace is sufficient for you and for me.

 Amen.

[1] Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles. Rev. Ed. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 75.