Is God Angry?

Is God Angry? 

The billboard would have been hard to miss. It was strategically placed along a busy section of the Interstate. The white words popped out against a solid black background announcing, “God is not angry.” My first thought was, “Really?”

On one hand, I appreciated a creative attempt to counter the negative images of God that permeate a biblically illiterate culture with a surprising witness to God’s love and grace. The billboard wasn’t cheap. There was something downright Wesleyan about the evangelistic passion behind it. It reminded me of the way John Wesley said, “I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation.”  We United Methodists could use some of that passion.

But my second response led to some hard questions.

  • Is God the passionless “Unmoved Mover” of Aristotle’s metaphysics who looks on the world from a distance but is never engaged in or enraged by what goes on in it?
  • Are they describing the disconnected Deism of “Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence who sets “Nature’s Laws” in motion but does not actively intervene in them?
  • Are they affirming the weary idea that the Old Testament reveals a God of wrath while the New Testament reveals a God of love and grace? (That kind of rejection of the Old Testament was rejected as heresy in the teaching of Marcion in 140 AD.)
  • Haven’t they read the Bible?
  • Aren’t there things in this world about which we want God to be angry?

The God revealed in scripture loves this world so deeply and cares about it so passionately that God laughs at our human arrogance (Psalm 2:4), dances with us in our times of joy (Jeremiah 31:13), weeps with us beside the grave (John 11:35), cries over our inability to make peace (Luke 19:41), is angered by our acts of injustice (Luke 19:45-46) and is broken-hearted by the way we reject his love (Hosea 10:8).

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews pointed toward the passionate heart of God in saying, “Our God really is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). He was reclaiming words from the Old Testament: “The Lord your God is an all-consuming fire. He is a passionate God.” (Deuteronomy 4:23-24)

I take it as good news that God is not a passive observer of the injustice, suffering and pain of a sin-infected, violence-addicted world. God cares passionately about this world. God hurts with the hungry. God is angry when children are abused or neglected. God is passionate about injustice. God is broken-hearted by our rebellion and sin.

I want a God who cares enough about an unarmed Black man who is killed in Ferguson to be angry about the often subtle forms of  racial prejudice and injustice that continue to tear us part from our neighbors.

I want a God who weeps with families whose homes are destroyed and whose lives are uprooted by violence in Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq and Syria.

I want a God whose heart burns with the fire of infinite love for the helpless suffering of fellow Methodists in Liberia who are facing the Ebola epidemic.

I want the passionate God of the bible, not a nice, polite, convenient god who watches from a distance but is unengaged in the real, messy stuff of our messed up world.

To believe in the incarnation — that God became flesh in Jesus Christ – is to know that the infinite God has entered into the finite hurts and hopes, weakness and strength, light and the darkness, joy and the sorrow, sin and death that are a part of our lives in this broken and imperfect creation. That’s why the writer of Hebrews could say, “We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, The Message)  Praise God!

The challenge comes when I shout at God, “Why don’t you do something about this?”  All too often,  God answers by asking me the same question.

Where God Hangs Out in the Summer 

We’re just back from Lake Junaluska in the mountains of North Carolina, the place were Methodists believe God hangs out in the summer.  We reconnected with old friends and I had the opportunity to share in launching “A Disciple’s Path” as a congregation-wide emphasis at Long’s Chapel United Methodist Church.  I continue to be amazed by the way the Spirit is using this resource to lead people to deeper and more energetic commitment to Christ.  It continues to be Hyde Park’s gift to the whole church.

During the time away, I completed work on “A Disciple’s Heart.”  It’s the follow-up resource that will lead people to the next step in their discipleship by focusing on John Wesley’s understanding of “Christian perfection,” the process by which the Holy Spirit continues to be at work in our lives all the way to Heaven.  It will be released early next year.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

The Day My Father Died

The Day My Father Died

It was a Sunday morning like this one, thirty-five years ago today. As the sun rose over the Western Pennsylvania town where he had grown up and raised his family, my father’s battle with cancer came to an end and he was raised to new life in the Risen Christ.

Dad was only 59.  It seemed older to me then than it does now!  He grew up on a little farm where my grandparents somehow raised six children in a four room house. Their first-born, Harold, had died as an infant in the flu epidemic of 1918, the consequence of what was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.”

Dad dreamed of going to college, but instead he and his three brothers went to war.  I’m named for the one who didn’t come home. Like the rest of “the greatest generation,” he came back and went to work, raising a family and building an auto parts business out of nothing. The summer before I went to college, the store burned down and he had to rebuild it.

A Simple Man with Unshakable Commitments

Although he had many opinions – a genetic flaw that runs rampant in the DNA of our family — Dad’s life was built on a few unshakable commitments to his family, his business and his faith. There were times when we questioned whether the business took priority over the family, but there was no question about the priority he placed on his faith. Everyone who knew Ves (short for Sylvester), knew that he was a Christian, a Methodist and a tea-totaller in that order.

Dad would go to the store to get a part a mechanic at the local service station (that’s what we called gas stations when they actually provided service) on Sunday, but only after he had been to Sunday School and worship.

He was the guy people called on to give a prayer before dinner because they knew that he knew how to pray.

He taught us to give the first 10% of whatever we earned to the church because it belongs to God.  It’s called the “tithe.”

When he died, we heard the untold stories from people he had helped when they were down and out across the years.

He never hesitated to share his faith as a lay speaker and a representative of the Methodist Men. His witness goes on with the words that are carved into his gravestone: “I commend my Savior to you.”  Those words also appear on a statue of Charles Wesley in Bristol, England.  Evidently Dad had heard that somewhere along the way and claimed them for his own.

My father lived long enough to see his three sons graduate from college and to watch two of us be ordained as Methodist preachers. He loved the women Jack and I married and adored the four grandchildren who arrived before he died. His love reaches beyond the grave to his third daughter-in-law, his fifth grandchild, and the seven great-grandchildren who are heirs to a fortune not of wealth but of love, loyalty and faith.

The Family Goes On

I’ve sometimes compared my grandparents to Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” with her unbending determination that against all obstacles, the family will go on. And so, our family goes on.

Yesterday I performed the wedding for my nephew, Chris., in Ohio. At 93, my mother couldn’t go along.  But Aunt Sarah, my father’s only remaining sibling, was there to give her blessing.  Uncle Frank died last year.  We talked about how painful it was for her to come to the wedding without him.  But she said, “I have to go on.”  She looked at her children and grandchildren who were around the reception table and said, “I have so much to live for.”   She said, “Sometimes I feel like he is right here beside me.”  We agreed that because we believe in ”the communion of saints,” they were all there.  The family goes on.

So, I offer my thanks for parents who passed on the gifts of life, love and faith to us and pray that those same gifts will be passed on from generation to generation. That would make my father proud.

A Wise Word from Ferguson

My friend and fellow pastor, Matt Miofsky, is a life-long resident of St. Louis.  He shares a wise witness from the midst of the racial tension that is gripping his community here. It’s well worth reading.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

The Foolishness of Preaching

To Preach the Word 

In the liturgical calendar, August 8 is the day to remember St. Dominic (1170-1221) who founded the Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominicans. The prayer for the day asks for “an urgent longing to share the Gospel.”

It reminded me of the 1970 session of the Florida Annual Conference when I placed my hands on the bible and Bishop James Henley, in a raspy, Southern voice that sounded ancient to me at the time, said the traditional words, “Take thou authority to read the Holy Scriptures in the church of God and to preach the Word.”

I’ve always felt that I was called to be a preacher. The ministry has also included being a pastor, teacher, and church leader, but my first calling was to “preach the Word.” The good news is that it’s been a calling that matched my gifts, passions and interests with the need of the church.  Although I often said that for preachers, Sundays come around with disturbing regularity, the challenge of connecting the truth of scripture with the people of the congregation never ceased to demand everything I could give to it.

What Preachers and Lawyers Have in Common 

It goes without saying (which has never stopped me from saying something anyway!) that the title “preacher” often takes a well-deserved beating in our culture. There are more than enough corrupt, self-righteous, judgmental, greedy, manipulative, shoddy and downright heretical preachers to give anyone who is called to this work good reason to be cautious about using the term.

I figure that preachers have a lot in common with lawyers on this one.  Lawyers have to endure all of the bad examples and bad jokes about their work. I never told mother-in-law jokes because I had such a great one and I never told lawyer jokes because I knew so many good ones.  People love to criticize or make fun of lawyers until they need one. Suddenly, their attorney becomes one of the most important people in their lives.

My experience as a preacher — and now, as an ordinary worshipper in the pew — is that faithful, creative, down-to-earth preaching still matters. The ways we do it continue to change, but it is still through “the foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21) in the life of a warm-hearted, welcoming congregation that people experience the reality of the gospel and are encouraged along the way of their discipleship.

But effective preaching doesn’t just happen. It is the result of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the preacher and congregation through a lot of hard work on the part of the preacher.   Very few people have any idea of just how much time and effort it takes to do this job well or the critically important role of the congregation in the ministry of preaching.

As I prepared to retire from pastoral ministry, I sensed that a part of God’s continuing call in my life was to do whatever I could to encourage, support, and equip other preachers. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that through the Institute of Preaching.  We’re beginning our ninth year of working with preachers and their congregations to help each participate to become the best preacher he or she is capable of being. The experience continues to convince me that it really matters.

I think St. Dominic would be pleased.

For the Next Generation 

I received word this week that donations and commitments have reached the basic goal of establishing a scholarship in my name at Duke Divinity School.  I’m humbled by and grateful for the response.  The team is now aiming toward the second goal of designating the scholarship for United Methodist students from Florida.  If you or someone you know would be interested in participating in it, you can find more information here.  Thanks for your support for the next generation of men and women who will “preach the Word.”

Grace and peace,

Jim

A Matter of Means and Ends

Where Do You Think You Are Going? 

Our destination was the  Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass. The question was how to get there.

My eyes were focused on the Google Map on my iPhone. Lisa was driving, having spent the summer in the Berkshires for many years. My wife Marsha  (a.k.a. Martha, but that’s another story) had the tourist map in her hands. I kept saying we’d never get there if we kept going the way we were. My wife kept insisting that it was straight ahead.

As is usually the case, she was correct. But I wasn’t a total doofus. Google had picked up an address for the Village in Lanesboro (we still don’t know what that was about) which was in exactly the opposite direction. We would have gotten somewhere, but it wouldn’t have been the place we wanted to be!

A Matter of Means and Ends

The point is that it’s not enough to simply know your destination. How you get there really matters. It’s what Martin Luther King, Jr., was talking about when he said:

“Ends are not cut off from means, because the means represents the ideal in the making…ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.”   (“A Testament of Hope,” p. 255)

The end toward which the Shakers were going was a marvelous vision of peace, harmony and total equality between men and women. Unfortunately, the means they chose to reach that goal included celibacy, which turned out to be neither an effective means of evangelism or longevity. The last Hancock Shaker moved out in the ‘60’s and died not long after. The means they chose undermined the end they sought.

Confusing means and ends can often have tragic consequences.

  • The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report was released this week. It confirmed what we already knew, namely, that the Bush/Cheney administration did, in fact, approve the use of torture under the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation.” They believed that the end or goal of national security justified using any means to accomplish it.
  • Acknowledging the complexity of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, it appears that both sides have one thing in common. They both believe that the end they seek justifies any means to accomplish it, even if, given the imbalance of power, it means the destruction of homes, schools, mosques and hospitals in Gaza and the death of over 1,500 (at latest count) Palestinians.

It’s important to know where you are going, but how you choose to get there makes a difference. That principle is just as true in our spiritual growth.

Going On To Perfection

For followers of Christ in the Methodist tradition, the end toward which we are moving is what Wesley called “Christian perfection.” It’s a life in which, by the grace of God, we become people who really love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength and love others the way we have been loved by God.  There was nothing new about that goal.  What made the early Methodist unique was the methodical way in which they practiced the essential disciplines that make that life possible.

The means toward that end are the time-tested spiritual disciplines which we described in “A Disciple’s Path.”  The response to that resource has been beyond all of our expectations.  It’s already been used in over 4,000 congregations.  As a result,  we’re headed toward a February publication of “A Disciple’s Heart” which focuses on Wesley’s idea of Christian perfection. If that’s the destination, I need to get back to work on the means by which we get there!

Grace and peace

Jim