Everybody Needs a Study

There’s a person in my life that keeps me honest. One of the ways that he does it is to ask, “What have you been reading lately?” It doesn’t necessarily get me on a reading frenzy, but it does make me think about how and with what I have been feeding my soul. Too often I find myself flitting frenetically from one situation to another without the quality intake that I need to face the so-called “tyranny of the urgent.” Pastors are blessed in that it is expected that we read. Our offices are often called a “Study,” as if to drive home the point.

There’s no better book to read than the Bible, of course. Reading it prayerfully through careful listening to God’s heart is sublime. I really appreciate devotional books that offer more transformation than information. I especially like anything by Chris Tiegreen. He’s my go-to devotional guy. This is soul-reading at its best. Another such book for any potters out there is one that resonates with me: The Soulwork of Clay by Marjory Bankson. Good stuff.

I also like to re-read Rev. William C. Martin’s insights from his book The Art of Pastoring. His breath-prayers from his other book, The Way of the Word, give me a day-long focus that sticks with me. Listen and hear with me one of Martin’s observations to pastors from The Art of Pastoring:

“You are a minister of the Word but not of words. The Word was in the beginning before words and beyond words. And whether they weave sophisticated patterns of intellectual magic, or they strike with passion at the heart of the people’s emotions, words are not Word for the Word is inexhaustible. One can only stand in wonder and point.” Wow. Will I stand in wonder and point to Jesus today or limit God either by my poor inadequate words or an overzealous appreciation of my own voice? I want to let Jesus the Logos speak!

So there are books that are read for diversion and those that inspire transformation. For escape, I prefer historical fiction, a mixture of mystery and history. Since I like to be surprised, I don’t checkout best-seller lists. Finding a good book is more of a serendipitous discovery that is often aided by wise and helpful mentors. Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s family systems primer, Generation to Generation was suggested by a good friend and has been seminal in my understanding of society, church, and interpersonal relationships. It has actually brought me healing! The Starfish and The Spider and business books by Malcolm Gladwell come to mind as important, but anything by N.T. Wright is even more appreciated. His How God Became King gave me more insight into Jesus than seminary.

One of my favorite things to do is to take a mixture of books to Mt. Mitchell or the New River and read for a week. My traveling library will include escapism stuff by James Patterson, Baldacci, Cussler, Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, and anything with a hint of the Knights Templar. Throw in a few “business” genre books, capped off by N.T. Wright’s latest or Migliore for theology, and I’m set. I do love Clark Pinnock and John Sanders on Process Theology, too, and Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons are exquisite reading. It also does me well to reread Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings every couple of years while listening to the “Best of the Moody Blues.” It is bliss to know that Frodo lives even after the fires of Mordor! I can hear the hoof beats with the Moody Blues playing on my buds. I will often take with me The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. They are a walk back in time, but they are timeless in their wit and insight.

The point of all this isn’t to declare myself as a nerdy bibliophile. To the contrary, I mix it up between the serious, practical, sacred, and mundane. The real deal for me is to take time, Sabbath, and let words enrich me. They transport me to another time, place, context, and give me what I need most: perspective. They provide a creative pause in the rush of life’s crises. Please read more than this blog today! If we don’t take the time to read, we will burn out quicker than a match on a windy day. Let me ask you my friend’s question, “What have you been reading lately?” Everybody needs a study!

Pastors_Study

Jesus is Better than a Band Aid!

The Power of Love versus the Love of Power is the perennial problem of our world, as stated by British Bishop N.T. Wright of the Anglican Church. He is an excellent author whose book Simply Good News just came out. It is amazing. Its message is similar to his book How God became King. Both books are so accessible and add such clarity in a world that sees more gray than black and white. His premise is that Jesus has been made King through the power of love, not the love of power.

He makes salient points about the contrast between the split-world understanding of creation by neo-Deists who want to promote the relegation of a powerless God to the nether regions of some far-off heaven, and the “Sweet Jesus” theocrats who not only want Jesus on the throne of their hearts, but in every sphere of life as well. The former group is so earthly minded that God is left out of all decision-making, while the latter group is so focused on having Jesus in their hearts and getting to heaven that they’re so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good!

Tom Wright wants us to see Jesus and his Kingdom as a present reality that is truly Good News, not just the pabulum most churches offer through “good advice.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ turns the kingdoms of this world on their heads, defeats evil, death, and oppression, and asks all Christ-followers to join this grand project of deliverance in the here and now. Secularists are more than willing to believe in progress even though anyone with good sense knows that we’re heading in the opposite direction.

“Gress” is the Latin word for “step,” so “progress” means to “step forward,” “digress” means to “side step,” or go in at least two directions, “regress” means to step backwards, and, interestingly enough, “congress” means to “step together.” How’s that working for the US Congress? The US congress hardly ever steps together on any one issue. Our red state vs. blue state world pits people against people, along with religions, ideologies, theologies, and about every other divisive matter.

Tom Wright writes in a most pithy way about the bifurcation that we all experience in this world of opposing opinions. Two perspectives are central in our world conflicts. One either claims God has “left the building,” or one is only interested in the things of earth enough so that we’ll get our ticket punched for heaven. Wright splits the difference between these opposites, and proclaims a Jesus who radically alters our current lives for his Kingdom here. Certainly, he doesn’t give up on the Biblical claim of an after-life, but declares that real “Good News,” the kind of Good news that forever changed the course of human history, did so not because of its otherworldly focus but precisely because it lived the real power of Jesus’ love in the mire and muck of humanity’s existence!

Listen to his statement that says it much better than I can attempt, “Part of the good news in our own culture is that this split-level world doesn’t have the last word. There is an integrated world-view, and it’s available right now. The trouble is that both the secularists and fundamentalists are committed to not noticing it. The secularist lives downstairs and has locked the door at the bottom of the stairs (to keep God out). The fundamentalist live upstairs, though he constantly shouts down the stairs to tell people they should be coming up to join him.” Oh, too accurate!

Jesus, the God who has become King, is not dependent on human progress. So-called human progress gave us two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and more efficient ways to communicate our disdain for each other. Videos of beheadings and fiery deaths remind us that we humans cannot solve our own problems. We can make advances in medical science and educational instruction, but one cannot root out our core problem through progress. If we expect the Lord’s Prayer to come true, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” then we need to confess and believe this extraordinary news: His kingdom has come. At least it has been inaugurated until its ultimate and complete fulfillment. In the mean time we cannot think that being civilized people will save us from self-destruction. Using good advice is helpful, but who believes that “playing nice” will bring justice for all and make the world “a better place?” No, we believe that Jesus alone conquered sin and death and that reality redirects, sets right, transforms, and redeems the people and institutions of this world. Through Jesus the whole creation finds an answer for its groans.

The question raised by N.T. Wright’s Simply Good News is whether we will be a church that offers good advice to people on how to live, behave, and get along or whether we will embrace the sheer glory of Jesus Christ, our only Savior, and not only ours but the Savior of the world. If we do the latter we will experience the birth pains of God’s kingdom, the already and not yet, his mighty will done on earth. The church hands out good advice all the time like a band aid on a gaping mortal wound when it is high time for it to proclaim GOOD NEWS: Jesus wins! Not this side, that side, progressive or traditional, red state or blue. Until this planet reflects Isaiah 11:1-10 and trumpets Psalm 96 we will flounder after this and that “solution” to what ails us when the Good News has already dwelt among us. Let him who has an ear, hear! Good news that depends on us and what we do or think is neither good nor news. It has been tried before and found wanting. I think that it’s time to believe and live the statement, “Jesus Christ is Lord!” Jesus is better than a band aid!

Jesus Heals

Kingdom Come at Augusta National!

Well, I just read that Augusta National Golf Club admitted its first two female members: Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore. It’s about time! I don’t know the former Secretary of State, but I do know Darla Moore. I stayed with her parents while I was visiting Lake City United Methodist Church years ago. Darla’s mother, Lorraine, was LCUMC’s church secretary for 26+ years and her late father, Gene, was devoted to public education and a Hall-of-Famer sportsman. Their friendship with my in-laws, Guy and Dixie Godwin, was a joy to behold.

It’s also a joy to behold when the church actually outpaces society on key issues. Recognition of female leadership is one of those issues. In the Old Testament you have female leaders like Moses’ mother, Miriam his sister, Deborah the Judge, Naomi, and Ruth. Abigail and Hannah come to mind like Rahab and the victimized Bathsheba, and I’m sure that there are others, too. In the New Testament you have Mary the mother of Jesus, the other Mary who along with Mary Magdalene and Joanna who were the first witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. Anna in Luke’s Birth Narrative is called a “prophetess.” There were many significant women who led the early church. Phillip had 5 daughters called “prophetesses” (Acts 21:9). Gosh, the list is enormous. Phoebe in Romans 16:1 is called a “deacon.” Lydia, the seller of purple goods in Acts 16:14 is the first European convert to Christianity. Where would the church be without women? When I think about the influence of the Christian women in my life compared to the men, there is no question which gender has been more influential.  For instance, like Timothy of 2 Timothy 1:5, my mother and grandmother were supreme models of the faith. There are so many others!

So it’s about time Augusta National catches up to the church! United Methodists were slow enough, but at least we’ve been ordaining women since 1956! My daughter, Narcie, is one of the finest Elders in the UMC that I know. Sure, I’m prejudiced, but I think she can back it up! I applaud the actions of Augusta National. Now what can we do about other inequities? What about salary differences between men and women. In this matter we even have a long way to go in the church. The “stained glass ceiling” of women disproportionately serving smaller less-salaried places is an affront to the Gospel. Equal pay for equal work is a moral issue that must be enforced if we are to look like the Kingdom of God!

I have been reading Tom Wright’s book, How God Became King, and I think it underscores how Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension inaugurated a whole new world here and now, plus hereafter. We’re not some utopic but impractical post-millennialists who think that the world will keep getting better then Jesus will come back and say, “Way to go!” Nice thought but our hankering after war and meanness tells me that this is a pipe-dream and a sly way of giving humans the credit for the Second Coming. I’m no pre-millennialist, either, thinking Jesus wants the world to keep going to hell in a hand basket then He’s going to swoop in and save us. This line of thinking actually promotes a laissez-faire attitude toward the ills of the world. It promotes a weird hope that things will get bad enough so Jesus comes back.

No, I think amillennialism best reflects the optimistic but realistic theology of the United Methodist Church. N.T. Wright is on board, too. Read How God Became King. We’re in the millennium now! Jesus is how God became King! Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”  Why ask us to pray it if it weren’t possible? This is the kingdom of God now and to more fully come. We need to act like it for God to use us in this grand adventure. So, three cheers to Augusta National, but there’s more work to be done – a lot more.