Having Preacher for Lunch

My best sermon illustrations come to me on the Sunday afternoon or Monday morning AFTER I’ve preached the sermon to which they would have been wonderfully attached. Last Monday morning, after preaching on heaven from John 14:1-7, I was reading Tim Keller’s King’s Cross. One of the points in my sermon was that it is not seeing old friends or loved ones which will give heaven its greatest joy, though I cannot deny that hope. That which will give heaven it’s greatest joy is that we will see Jesus.

Keller makes a similar point and draws our attention to Joni Erickson, a quadriplegic. Joni as we would imagine does anticipate the freedom to run and jump which will be for her one of the joys of heaven. What we do NOT think about is that as a quadriplegic one of her desires, denied in this life, is to kneel. She is unable to join others in that posture of submission in worship. And so she says, quoted here by Keller,

Sitting there, I was reminded that in heaven I will be free to jump up, dance, kick, and do aerobics. And….sometime before the guests are called to the banquet table at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, the first thing I plan to do on resurrected legs is to drop on grateful, glorified knees. I will quietly kneel at the feet of Jesus. (page 223)

I would have used that in a heartbeat! But I came upon it too late. So it goes.

On other occasions, I have material that I just cannot fit into a message. John 14:8-14, which I preached on this past Sunday, raises the subject of prayer. Jesus tells his disciples that he will do whatever they ask him to do in his name. Normally, we intellectual Presbyterian types want to make sure we adequately qualify Jesus’ statement here. To others, qualifications be damned, this gives license to name and claim one’s blessing.

My point was that Jesus’ intent is not captured by either camp, but rather by the one who sees God as a heavenly father whom we approach as children. And children never hesitate to ask their father for anything and everything.

The message was an encouragement then to pray, which as well is this book, Prayer by George A. Buttrick. (A book which is the only useable one from my grandfather’s library to have filtered its way down to me. The Reverend Rudolph Leslie Budd was a Methodist Minister who died when I was four, a few years before I determined to become a minister myself.) Buttrick is very quotable. In his introduction, he says this:

“Our world, as I write, is under grievous threats which are symptoms of worse threats. There is the threat of armed aggression. But that itself is a sign of disease—the multitudinous unrest of poverty-stricken masses….

“Even that unrest is symptomatic: the sign of spiritual debility. Our obsessed exploitation of the planet’s resources, our scramble for gain, and latterly our scientific skepticism have left us blind toward God.”

We should find those comments very contemporary. Curiously, they were penned on August 25, 1941, three months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

He goes on to say that we may address certain of these problems, but all such efforts would be in vain without a ‘revival of faith’.

“That revival is the deepest need. It will not come by tongue-lashings from politicians or preachers, nor by organizations, nor by new additions to our embarrassing store of facts. All of these are little pipings in the dark.

“Revival of faith can never come from us. It must come from God, in and through us. It must come by prayer….

“Those who pray are the real light-bearers in any age. Perhaps by these pages some may be added to their bright company.”

(pages 9, 10)

Apparently there were tongue lashing politicians and preachers then, too.

Lost illustrations and edited material are not my greatest regrets. Of far greater concern are the times on a Monday in replaying a sermon in my mind I realize ways in which I might have miscommunicated.

The application of the message Sunday was to pray – to just pray and ask God for stuff. God will change our desires over time, for sure, but we should just be those who love to ask and ask and ask, knowing that even in our asking, in our dependence, he is glorified.

As appropriate as that was, and as much as I needed to hear that, my fear is that people who already feel their inadequacy in prayer would have walked away feeling no comfort or encouragement but only guilt. I fear that I might not have adequately spoken comfort to them. But it is too late now. One can’t go back. (Unless he has a blog…)

Some people joke about having preacher for Sunday lunch. I understand. I have preacher for lunch and supper on Sunday and every meal thereafter well into the following week.

Longing

Some background is necessary to understanding this post.

First, we have been traveling on a difficult journey with the family of a seven year old boy, a close friend of my son, who is, to all appearances, losing his battle against leukemia. His name is Joseph and he has spent the better part of the past two months in the hospital. Today is Joseph’s birthday, and that he lives to celebrate it with his family and friends is a wonderful thing. We will help him celebrate.

Secondly, my son and I have become enamored with an odd British sci-fi series called Dr. Who. (Watch the 2005 episode 1 and you’ll be hooked, too.) Dr. Who is a time traveler who travels in what looks like a phone booth but which is really a time-traveling spaceship called a ‘TARDIS‘.

Yesterday, he and I went to the hospital to see Joseph. In the hospital elevator, I said to him, “Hey, this is like a TARDIS. So, where do you want to go?”

Without a pause or a moment’s reflection, he said, “To a dimension where Joseph is not sick.”

A child’s longing is our own.

A longing fulfilled by our gospel hope.

Come, Lord Jesus.

God, Gays, Heaven, and the End of the World

Some say that there is no such thing as bad publicity. If that is so, then, it has been a good few weeks for the Bible.

But maybe not.

First, except for those living off the grid in a cabin deep in the Montana wilderness, we all know that certainly (probably? maybe?) the beginning of the end comes this Saturday, at 6:00 PM, New Zealand time. Harold Camping has often been wrong and never in doubt. But he always hedges his bets. His earlier prediction was detailed in a book 1994? with its carefully placed and distinctly ambiguous mark of punctuation. Now he ratchets up his precision (though some in his ‘camp’ say his math could be wrong – there always seems to be an ‘out’). The Bible, his followers say, is always right, and so we wait.

Then, recently, the Presbyterian Church (USA) reached a milestone as the tally of those presbyteries supporting a change in the church’s constitution which would allow actively gay clergy reached the total necessary for approval. This was not unexpected and generated much media conversation about what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality. The religion editor for the Orlando Sentinel quoted a scholar who, while having the integrity not to try to deny the Bible’s opposition to homosexual sex, nevertheless dismisses such opposition as hopelessly colored by the primitive times in which those prohibitions were written.

Finally, Stephen Hawking has declared that heaven is no more than a fairy tale for those who are afraid of death. In the wake of that claim, which should come as no news to anyone, media has been all over actor Kirk Cameron’s Facebook response and relatively silent on the response of Bishop N. T. Wright (a fairly smart man in his own right) which was respectful and reasoned.

The media loves a tussle, because we love a tussle. But if we are not careful in all of this, there will be serious collateral intellectual damage. The great temptation for any of us once we get hold of a book which possesses authority is that we will want that book to say what we want it to say. If WE believe that communism is right, or capitalism, or whatever, we will want the Book to side with us and we will begin to read it that way.

And for others, hearing people argue passionately opposite sides while claiming the same authority will cause many to determine the book itself has no value. If the book can be made to say whatever its handlers want it to say, then it says nothing at all. If you can prove anything from the bible, then you can prove nothing, and the book is worthless.

As a pastor all of this makes me very cautious in my approach to scripture. We all need to come to the text with deep humility, aware of our own biases and weaknesses and of the ease with which we could slip into error. My prayer, and the prayer that I hope others pray for me and for other pastors, is that when I speak with the Bible as my authority, that I will do so with care, speaking clearly that upon which the Bible itself is clear, and with restraint upon every other thing.

Census Bureau: Heaven and Hell Division

Every discussion of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins seems to include the idea that the position of historic Christianity is that heaven will be enjoyed by a select few. (My previous posts here and here include quotes containing that language.)

I am not scholarly enough to know what the majority opinion of Christianity has been. I do know that some infer from this passage that heaven is populated like Yellowstone and hell like Manhattan:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

That is a rather questionable inference from a passage not intended to address that subject at all.

I draw my heavenly census data from two related but distant passages of scripture. The first is the promise to Abraham:

And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5)

God saw fit to second that motion:

“I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.” (Genesis 22:17)

Of course, the New Testament (e.g. Romans 4) shows that these promises are intended to apply to those sharing Abraham’s faith, not his blood.

I’m of the distinct opinion that we will find heaven crowded. Very crowded. I think Abraham would have believed so. And John the apostle as well. His vision was so vast that it staggared his mind.

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:11-12)

Against this backdrop, I think both John and Abraham would have scoffed at any who would have suggested that only “a select few Christians will spend forever in heaven”. Don’t you?

More on Hell

Of all the talk that Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has generated, the most curious to me is the charge that those of us committed to historic Christianity have had so little to do with the doctrine of hell that we have thrown the door wide open for erroneous and heretical views. A Facebook friend posted this position:

The hubbub about Rob Bell is our fault. If evangelicals were not embarrassed about hell, we would not have this problem.

And with wider distribution was this on the Justin Taylor blog, Between Two Worlds, where Mr. Taylor posted with approval a longer post by Tony Payne. In this post, after deserved praise for Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (which, sadly, many may think is the only topic Edwards ever addressed because of its ubiquity, a fault Mr. Taylor corrects), Mr. Payne seems to confirm that there is a dearth of Hell preaching. Taylor suggests we are made uncomfortable by it.

This disappearance of hell is noted as well by John Wilson in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal:

Something strange has happened in evangelical churches over the past generation. Not in every congregation, but in the main, sermons devoted to the grim prospect of hell have become rare, and even talk of heaven is muted.

I, for one, have no way to measure a) how much preaching on hell there is and b) how much is ‘just right’ in the broader culture. I do measure a) how much my sheep need to hear and b) how they can best hear and c) how any doctrine they hear is to be balanced against other aspects of gospel doctrine. And though an occasional reminder regarding my responsibility to preach the ‘whole counsel of God’ and what that looks like can be healthy, generally the appeals I hear are aimed at skewing my preaching in one direction or another depending upon the controversy du jour or the narrow focus of the complainant.

But the logic that an evangelical embarrassment and neglect has opened the door for a ‘heretical’ corrective makes no sense. Corrective to what?

IF the doctrine of hell has been systematically ignored in Christian churches, how does if follow that anyone would want to write a book dismantling a doctrine that has been ignored anyway? And how then could a book challenging a neglected subject capture a best selling audience? (It is now #3 at Amazon, ‘sandwiched’ between two diet books.)

I really think the opposite is probably true. It is an OVERemphasis and a misrepresentation of hell that has created the market and environment for Bell’s book and position to fly. Hell has been so gracelessly presented over the past generations that the preaching of conservative Christianity is equated with ‘hellfire and brimstone’. There is a discomfort regarding the doctrine not because it has been ignored, but because it has been mishandled. People are not turned off to hell because it has been silenced; they are turned off because we have allowed it to become severed from the full story of grace.

Richard Mouw, quoted in Geoff Henderson’s blog, reveals the unfortunate bent attached to so much teaching on hell when he asks

Why don’t folks who criticize Rob Bell for wanting to let too many people in also go after people…who want to keep too many people out? Why are we rougher on salvific generosity than on salvific stinginess?

Rob Bell is nothing if not a guide to sensing what a broad swath of American culture is feeling. And to this we should listen.

Some would have us respond by speaking more and more about hell. If we do it well, good could come. But I fear we will only perpetuate the caricature and harden, not soften, hearts. But we need not follow the lead of others like Rob Bell in recasting the doctrine in a way that makes it unrecognizable to the historic Christian soil it is such a rich part of.

The response should be for preachers to continue to preach carefully and faithfully a Christianity that is full of grace and truth, and for congregants to stick closely to faithful shepherds who evidence those twin passions. The shepherds should know what their sheep need to hear, and the sheep should trust their shepherds.

Bell’s Hell

The buzz in theological culture has been about Pastor Rob Bell‘s take on the future in his recently published Love Wins.

But it seems that the buzz in the broader culture has been Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo’s take on the future titled Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.

Judging from his released promotional video, Pastor Bell’s concern is hell. Judging from the title, Pastor Burpo’s concern is heaven. So far, according Amazon.com stats, heaven is winning. It is #1 in sales by the online service. Hell is lagging behind at #4, but is no doubt creeping slowly upwards.

I have read neither book, and tend to avoid investing precious reading time in books that prove, when the dust settles, to have been fads. In this regard, Rob Bell will prove to be the least faddish. His following is tremendous and his influence substantial.

But apart from the similarity in content, I wonder if both books are drawing their communicative power from caricature. Caricature sells better than truth.

Heaven Is for Real is the account of a little boy who recovers from surgery with stories of having been to heaven. The family claims that he emerged with details of family members of which he should have had no knowledge, proving to them that he had really met these people in heaven. (How did they know, by the way, that it was heaven? Perhaps “Purgatory Is for Real”.)

According to the publisher’s blurb,

“He describes the horse that only Jesus could ride, about how ‘reaaally big’ God and his chair are, and how the Holy Spirit ‘shoots down power’ from heaven to help us….[the insights show that] Jesus really loves children, and be ready, there is a coming last battle.”

Caricature? Sure. Whether the little boy simply projected onto his memory palette the imagery from his Sunday school classes infused with a vivid imagination or not we cannot say. But it is curious that what he sees corresponds to popular religious imagination.

The popularity of this suggests that for many of us, the revelation of Scripture, with its breadth and depth and, yes, ambiguity regarding the future is insufficient. My experience as a pastor tells me that there are those, perhaps many, who read such books to confirm their stereotype of the future and are then unable to hear a more nuanced and carefully constructed vision taken from the pages of Scripture and rooted in solid theological tradition.

We often prefer caricature to truth.

And that may explain the popularity of Rob Bell’s presentation. Bell has been charged with challenging the historic Christian teachings on hell and judgment and eternity. He has been accused of universalism, a charge he has denied. I can’t interact with the charges, not having read the book, though Martin Bashir of MSNBC does a standout job of challenging him to be specific about what he believes.

In Bell’s online promotional video of his book, he raises intriguing questions, beginning with this one:

“Will only a few select people make it to heaven and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?”

He presents the question in such a way that we are led to imagine that he is indeed presenting the orthodox, historic, Christian position. If that is what he means, it is a caricature. And caricatures are easy to deflate and overcome.

Just as there are those who promote the simple view of heaven ‘seen’ by Pastor Burpo’s son, there are Christians who teach that the central Christian message is that God sends people to hell. There are Christians who insist that heaven will be populated by only a few, rather than a number greater than the sands on the sea shore or the stars in the sky.

Such caricatures are to be lamented, confronted, and corrected.

I understand Bell’s desire as a pastor to present a message that can be heard and comprehended in a culture which seriously questions Christianity. This past Sunday I preached on a subject which required me to address the subjects of sin and wrath and judgment and hell. We had a number of visitors. I have wondered since, “Is there another way I could have said what I said which would have communicated to the unbeliever or to the jaded in a more effective way.” And I have wondered whether those who were there would be back and, if not, if the specific message preached would keep them from returning. But I have not been asking whether the message I was communicating needed to be re-imagined.

The jury is out as to whether I’ll pick up Bell’s book and read it. I probably will. But one question he asks in the promotional video is one that I can endorse enthusiastically and with great passion:

“What we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about what God is and what God is like.”

That is precisely what makes these questions so critical, and makes any misrepresentation or caricature, whether innocently by four year old boys or knowingly by fifty year old pastors, so troubling.

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

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The picture above is of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ welcoming Rays batter Reid Brignac ‘home’ after his game winning home run late Monday night.

Can the reception of God’s redeemed people be anything less when He calls us home?

I’m moved by the thought.