I Wish My Dear Friend Good Sailing: A Tribute to Alan Culpepper

By Molly T. Marshall, President of Central Seminary

mollymarshallUpon the occasion of his retirement as Dean, I join many others in celebrating the good work R. Alan Culpepper has conducted at the McAfee School of Theology. He has accomplished what venerable seminary president David Tiede observes as most important: “getting out of the job alive.” Because of his extraordinary capacity to balance extensive interests—and he has many—Alan leaves the legacy of a remarkable school, yet has robust energy to add to his life’s work.

I hold Alan Culpepper in the highest regard, having observed his life for forty years. Scholar, administrator, colleague, and friend, Alan has set a worthy standard for the rest of us in theological education. Treasured for his wisdom, he has kept on imagining how preparation for ministry might better be accomplished. I have gained greatly from his perceptive insight.

I had the good fortune of spending a semester at Cambridge University in 1980 while Alan and his family were devoting a sabbatical year there. Not only did I get to know his dear family, I was able to witness the immense respect significant scholars of the New Testament accorded him. It was during that time that he wrote the groundbreaking Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel.

In more recent years, Alan has offered leadership in Jewish-Christian relations. As one who has wrestled with the contested testimony of John’s Gospel, it is only fitting that he bring his formidable scholarship to bear on this urgent agenda. Indeed, he has proven himself a skilled interlocutor with rabbinic colleagues and helps craft a new rhetorical landscape for Jews and Christians to traverse.

The decades of the Southern diaspora have seen key leaders such as Bill Leonard and David Garland and Alan Culpepper go to new schools (or, in my case, an old one) offering their splendid gifts in the service of the church through shaping ministers. Alan has remained a steady helmsman, and reminds us of the myriad ways God has preserved our vocations and called forth our best when “not our choice the wind’s direction.”

I can only wish my dear friend good sailing in these coming years. I thank God for his faithful life.

Making a New Beginning: Ezra 3:8-13

Sermon by Dean Alan Culpepper at McAfee’s 2015 Commissioning Service

Graduates, tonight we commission you to lay a new foundation and make a new beginning, so let me speak to you first. We challenge you, like those brave souls in Ezra’s day, two and a half millennia ago, to go out and lead the people in rebuilding the place where they have met God. Hear their story again.

  1. Hear the Call to Make a New Beginning

When Judah fell to the Babylonians in 588 B.C., Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and the leaders of the people were deported to Babylon. There the cry was heard, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” But over time they settled into their new surroundings and raised families. Fifty years passed. Any Israeli sociologist in the year 540 B.C. would have had serious doubts that Judaism would survive, at least in Palestine.

But then God intervened in a surprising way. Cyrus the Persian came to power and decreed that the Jews could go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple and the city walls. Some did not want to leave Babylon. Others heard the call, packed up their families, and made the long trek back to the land that had been given to their ancestors, to be part of this new beginning—to build a new temple!

Graduates, the church today is not in ruins, but it is severely challenged. I can’t remember a time in my lifetime when the church was in greater need of dedicated, educated, capable and compassionate spiritual leaders. Lavish buildings, built to serve churches in their heyday, forty, fifty, or sixty years ago, no longer fit the needs of the church today, and in many instances just keeping up the church buildings takes a disproportionate share of the church’s resources. Many churches have a majority of older members, perhaps with some young adults in their twenties and thirties, but not many leaders in their forties and fifties. Changing social patterns, more sports events on Sunday, other ways to find community through the internet and leisure activities, and disaffection with organized religion have greatly impacted church attendance in America. Just this week, Pew Research published findings that show a marked decline in church attendance and a rise in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation since 2007. One out of four adults in America did not go to church even once last year. Many others attend irregularly.   As a result, the church is in decline. Bill Wilson, at the Center for Healthy Churches, said recently that every church in America that is forty years old or older and has less than 1,000 members is in decline. There may be exceptions, but the pattern is there.

Many churches are under stress, therefore, looking for ways to stay afloat and reach out to their communities. Some are finding new energy in going back to their roots, others are becoming centers for community ministries, and others are finding growth through offering distinctive worship experiences. There is no one key to success. Each church is different and each success story is different, so it is a time that calls for the best in new leadership.

Tonight, we challenge you, graduates, like the Jews in Babylon centuries ago, hear the call to rebuild the community of faith. Will you take on that arduous challenge? It will almost certainly require personal sacrifice. You will be frustrated at times by the church’s lack of vision, commitment, and support, but I can think of nothing more urgent, more fulfilling, or more important that you can do with your life than step out in faith to be one of a new generation of builders wherever God leads you.

  1. Call a New Generation of Levites

The first temple had been built by King Solomon, and it was magnificent. The temple was built with stone that was finished at the quarry, so the building took place in silence—no hammer, ax, or chisel was heard on the temple mount while the temple was being built. The interior walls were lined with ornately carved cedar panels. The inner sanctuary housed the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets of stone that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. It was inlaid with pure gold. The altar also was overlaid with pure gold. Solomon put two giant cherubim in the inner sanctuary, with wing spans that reached from one wall to the center and touched the wing of the other cherub, so that together their wings spanned the sanctuary and made a covering over the ark. They too were overlaid with gold. The floor was gold, and the doors were olive wood, carved with more cherubim, palm trees, and flowers. You can read more of the details of its ornaments in I Kings 6—enough to say that it looked, well, it looked for all in the world like heaven. The covenant with King David had been fulfilled, and God’s presence dwelt with Israel. Could there ever again be such a magnificent temple?

Here is where the passage I just read from Ezra 3 picks up the story. In the second year after their return, it says, Zerubbabel “made a beginning.” The people who had returned from Babylon, apparently together with some of those who had been left in Jerusalem, the priests, and the Levites gathered, and they did a remarkable thing: they appointed the Levites “from twenty years old and upward, to have oversight of the work on the house of the Lord” (Ezra 3:8). They did not just tell them to carry wood and set stones – they appointed the young Levites to be overseers of the work! Apparently they lowered the age for Levites perhaps because they needed more overseers. Before that, Levites had to be thirty in order to serve (e.g., 1 Chron 23:3).

Now let me speak not to the graduates but to the rest of us who have gathered to celebrate their accomplishments. The returning exiles were able to make a new beginning because they made a place for a new generation of leaders. We have been excited to see more churches calling younger ministers and female ministers this year. Doors are opening, and here is where you can make a difference. Trust in the commitment and the abilities of these graduates and their peers in seminaries around the country. We need their leadership now more than ever. It is time to hand over leadership to a new generation with fresh energy and vision, capable young leaders who can make a new beginning. If the church today suffers from a lack of leadership, it is not because there are no leaders but because the church is unwilling to give them a chance. I challenge you to be part of this new beginning. When you are looking for someone to lead your church, be an associate minister, or lead one of your ministries or mission efforts, call a young minister—or call a female minister. The challenges we face are too urgent for us to go on denying female ministers an opportunity to serve, and refusing to give younger ministers a chance to rise to the challenge.

III. Sing a New Song

Now let me speak to all of us. When the foundation was laid, Ezra tells us, they held a great celebration. The priests blew their trumpets, and the musicians clashed their bronze cymbals. There was a great shout from the people because the foundation of the house of the Lord had been laid, but not everyone was excited. Many of the priests and old people who had seen Solomon’s temple fifty years earlier wept. Haggai 2:3 may help us understand their response. The prophet says, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” The foundation was not nearly as grand as that of Solomon’s temple. Many of the older people could remember how it was fifty years earlier, and this new temple was not at all like the old one.

Maybe they were also put off because the celebration was different too. Instead of the ram’s horn, the shofar that had traditionally been blown, the priests’ trumpets were long, thin, silver instruments, and they were sounding cymbals—cymbals!—which only appear in the temple liturgy after the return from Babylon. Perhaps the music was too brassy for those who remembered the dignity of Solomon’s temple. Still, Ezra is careful to tell us that they followed the direction of King David. They sang Psalm 118, the same psalm the Levites had sung when Solomon brought the ark to the temple (2 Chron 5:13). And then there was the tension between those who had returned from exile and those who had been left in Judea. Eventually, Ezra and Nehemiah forbade the returnees to marry any of the local population (Ezra 10; Neh 13).

So, while some shouted for joy, others wept. They sang a new song, but their shouts were mixed with the cries of those who wept, and the noise was so great that even those at some distance away from the temple could hear them. Here, at the end of the chapter, we meet a new group: those who were not part of the rebuilding of the House of God, those who lived in the area and watched what was happening at the temple.

Do I need to draw out the parallels between this passage in Ezra and what is happening all around us? Last year an old friend in Arkansas—who is 84 now—called me and asked, “Do you know that these younger ministers are different? They see and do things differently than we used to!” In some churches we have an eighty-thirty split, and the older generation weeps because the new beginnings do not look anything like the church the way it was in their younger days. The younger generation is leading in non-traditional directions, singing a new song, and breaking down social barriers that have stood for too long. But both generations are deeply committed to the church. Both shouts of celebration and tears of distress arise not from indifference but from deep commitment. The church is negotiating what to keep and what to build new, where to follow tradition—the psalms of David—and how to sing new songs—with trumpets and cymbals. Both the old wisdom and the new voices are important, and those who live around us are watching to see what will happen. Can we find a way to work together, and build on old foundations but build new structures? Can we make a new place where we and those who live around us can meet God in our own time?

I believe we can. Tonight we start a journey to make a new beginning. We commission a new generation of leaders for the church and join in singing a new song. The church is waiting. The world is watching. Let’s go! We have work to do!

——

This sermon was written for and delivered at McAfee School of Theology’s 2015 Commissioning Service at Smoke Rise Baptist Church and is published by persission.

Something Deeper is Lacking in Churches than Information

By J. Barrett Owen

There is no lack of information in a Christian land; something else is lacking, and this is something which the one man cannot directly communicate to the other. – Soren Kierkegaard

Our job as pastors is to create space for people to interact with God. We get paid to help them glimpse the divine. This calling takes seriously the need for transformation, but our church mediums stop short by only transferring information. Here’s what I mean:

We arrive on Sunday sharing pleasantries around the coffee pot. We talk about our week, doctor’s appointments, and last night’s game. We go to Sunday school to read a biblical text and listen to the teacher speak its history. Our worship is dominated by announcements and a 45-minute sermon that is filled with information.

If we come back during the week, it is no different. Ministers gather in staff meetings. Class options are subject-driven. Committees gather to re-write policies on policies. The church Twitter feed is flooded with quotes from last week’s sermon. The weekly news is the place setting at Wednesday dinner.

None of these mediums are bad, but they stop short of transformation.

In academia, there is something known as the Null Curriculum. Over time what you do not teach is equal in the learning environment as what you do teach. Unfortunately for the church, what we relegate to the shadows is that which transforms us. We are knowledgeable enough, but as Kierkegaard says, “something else is lacking.”

Our culture craves information. The first things we do in the morning are read emails and scan Facebook News Feeds. We watch the 24-hour news cycle during breakfast, and listen to NPR on the way to work. Our day is interrupted with CNN updates, Tweets, Instagram photos, and video clips from last night’s Daily Show. We talk about sports and the Marvel Universe over lunch after we “check-in” on Facebook to share with the world information about our day.

This rhythm conditions us to value the consumption of information over the joy of transformation. And for good reason.

Information makes us feel informed and empowered. We like being in the know. We like logging on to our computer and being connected to the world. But this rhythm makes for a stale church.

Who would willingly admit they are looking for a church community that believes God’s dream for humankind is to gather, sit, and exchange information? Yet, each week we expose our family to this environment.

I had a frustrated church member recently say, “How many Bible studies do we have to attend to realize God wants us to get up and do something?” He’s absolutely right, and these words have haunted me.

What is transformational about our church?

Is there a scripture passage that says, “Salvation is found in doctrinal distinctions”? Is there a biblical character whose testimony is laced with “I found Jesus to be pleasantly informative”?

The power of the gospel is that Jesus transforms us. The power of the church is that it bears the capacity for us to interact with the presence of God. We bump up against the divine every day, but our mediums fail to offer the needed space to discern, enjoy, and participate in it with friends.

We design church as a place where information is not only preferred but considered holy.

What if church were about something deeper? What if in the transferring of information we experienced a depth in worship that moved us to transformation? What if on our church websites we changed our “What We Believe” page to “What We Do” and included testimonials? Isn’t this the intent of church?

Forming a church around the transferring of information is irresponsible in terms of how we participate in God’s work in the world. It creates an atmosphere of shared information instead of shared transformation.

We have some work to do.

This article was written for and published by Baptist News Global and used by permission. 

Are you a church millennial?

By Brett Younger

Many think a millennial is any young adult born after 1980, but if you go to church you know that millennials are defined by more than their age. Their church experience is different. This scientific quiz will help you understand how “church millennial” you are. According to my best guesses, these questions will reveal whether you share the values, attitudes, and behaviors of a typical church millennial.

  1. Did your parents take you to church when you were a child?
    1. It depends on which parent I was with that weekend.
    2. Sometimes.
    3. Every Sunday, even though they didn’t want to go either.
  1. Where is your Bible?
    1. On my phone
    2. God’s Word is all around us
    3. On my nightstand, next to my reading glasses
  1. What is the primary purpose of the church?
    1. Care for God’s children
    2. Christian formation
    3. To stay bigger than the Methodist church
  1. How often do you attend church?
    1. Not as much as my parents think
    2. Every Sunday
    3. Sunday, Wednesday, and twice a month for committee meetings
  1. When you visit a church how do people welcome you?
    1. “I’m sorry we don’t have a class for your age group.”
    2. “We love young people.”
    3. “Here’s a quarterly.”
  1. Has your phone ever rung during worship?
    1. Yes, but it was during a drum solo.
    2. No, I keep it on vibrate.
    3. How would I know? I’m at church.
  1. Has your church established Twitter hashtags for your services to encourage people to share sermon quotes?
    1. #yescaptainobvious
    2. #interestingidea
    3. #huh?
  1. When you hear something in a sermon that you want to remember what do you do?
    1. Make a note on my ipad.
    2. Make a note on my bulletin.
    3. Tell my wife.
  1. Would it be appropriate to take a selfie during a baptism?
    1. Yes, baptism is a milestone that would be beautifully commemorated with a photo.
    2. No, baptism is a sacred event that should be treated as such.
    3. Wouldn’t the water ruin your camera?
  1. What kind of bread do you eat at the Lord’s Supper?
    1. Gluten free
    2. Hawaiian
    3. Styrofoam chiclets
  1. What do you think twentysomethings want in worship?
    1. A sense of purpose
    2. A casual atmosphere
    3. Expensive lattes
  1. Does your church have a Facebook page?
    1. Yes, it makes the old people happy.
    2. Yes, that’s how I found the church.
    3. Yes, we’re doing it to reach out to millenials.
  1. Does your church website include online giving?
    1. Yes. Of course.
    2. We’re working on it.
    3. No, but we recently updated the picture of our church on the offering envelopes.
  1. How many of your friends go to church?
    1. I don’t know.
    2. Most of them do.
    3. The only friend I have who doesn’t go to church is the mailman.
  1. If you want to invite people to a church event what do you do?
    1. Tweet a clever encouragement to attend.
    2. Send an e-vite.
    3. Hand a batch of invitations to my pagan mailman.
  1. Which of these spiritual practices do you find most meaningful?
    1. Walking a labyrinth
    2. Chanting ancient songs
    3. Bible drills
  1. What Christian tattoos do you have?
    1. Charis, the Greek word for grace
    2. the cross
    3. Semper Fi
  1. Do you think evangelical Christianity is too political, too exclusive, and hostile to LGBTs?
    1. Exactly
    2. In some ways
    3. What does the T stand for?
  1. Do you think churches focus too much on sex?
    1. Yes. It seems to be the only issue.
    2. The church has a responsibility to speak to fidelity.
    3. We will quit talking about it when they quit doing it.
  1. Is Christianity too focused on rules?
    1. Yes. Churches are too legalistic.
    2. We need law and grace.
    3. These kids today need to straighten up and fly right. And get off my lawn.

Grading your quiz

This quiz can give 442,368 (or so) different combinations of answers. Compare your responses with what you imagine might be the responses of thousands of millennial wannabes nationwide. Weigh each answer and make up the score that represents your resemblance to the typical Church Millennial.

  • 75-100 – You are a real live ridonks church millennial.
  • 50-74 –You appear to have some millennial tendencies, but it likely embarrasses people when you rap the scripture
  • 25-49 – You may know some people at church in their twenties.
  • 0-24 – Someone younger than you are showed you this quiz.

What about Those Who Do Not Receive a Miracle?

By Haley M. Cawthon

In the late 1960s, an eight-year-old girl was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that attacks healthy organs. For the next three decades, numerous people—family, friends, and strangers—repeatedly offered prayers for some sort of miracle, but a miracle never came. As each year passed, her family and friends watched as her body shut down and succumbed to the disease. The prayers for a miracle healing were never fulfilled.

In my lifetime, I have heard numerous sermons that speak on miracles, but attention is often not given to those who never receive their miracles. This fact is true: not everyone is saved or healed from disease or horrific events.

How do we respond to that fact?

What about the people who were detained in concentration camps that had prayed for freedom and experienced the death chamber instead?

What about those whose cancer never goes into remission and ultimately claims their lives?

What about the men in Bali who have been on death row and are encountering execution?

What about those died in the earthquake in Nepal, did people not pray for their lives?

Sermons that only focus on praising miracles are hurtful to those whose miracle(s) never happened. It is hurtful to hear a sermon that praises miracles when my miracle never happened and I watched my aunt die from lupus.

How can we celebrate the unexplainable healings and events that happen in a way that is not hurtful for those whose miracle never happened?

I am not denying that unexplained healings and events take place all over the world. People with advanced cancer, do go into remission; people walk away from a car crash with no injuries; a premature baby that is not expected to live, survives and thrives. These unexplainable events are recognized as miracles, but what about those who are not healed or saved?

An argument that I have heard throughout my life on the provision of God is based on Matthew 7:7-11, that if you ask for it then you shall receive it. People argue that if God loves us, God will provide for us and that God will heal us. That if we pray enough then God will answer our prayers, but what does that say about those whose prayers go unanswered? Are they not loved by God? Has God refused to answer their pleas? How do we reconcile the promise of God’s provision with the knowledge that not everyone gets his or her miracle?

As people in ministry, we need to be aware of the fact that not everyone receives their miracle.

When we teach or preach, we need to acknowledge that sometimes miracles do not happen. Sermons that celebrate modern day miracles need to take into consideration that not everyone receives their miracle. Parading those miracles that have happened, without addressing that miracles sometimes do not happen, is hurtful to those who have prayed for a miracle and received nothing but disappointment and grief.

I do not have an answer as to why some people experience miracles and others do not. What I am suggesting is that we need to talk about unexplainable healings and events in a way that is not hurtful for those whose miracle never happened. Preaching about miracles needs to address both sides of the spectrum: those who receive their miracle and those who do not. It does not need to be an entire sermon praising the miracles that have happened. We need to be mindful of what we preach or teach in all areas, including miracles.

———

Haley M. Cawthon is a graduate of Piedmont College in Demorest, GA, is a second year student at McAfee School of Theology, and a member of Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta. On the Academic Research track at McAfee, Haley’s area of concentration is the Hebrew Bible and the role of women within the biblical text. In her free time, Haley enjoys reading, playing the guitar, video games, puzzles, and spending quality time with her friends and family.

Imagining a God Who Makes All Things New

By Dean Alan Culpepper (McAfee Chapel sermon on April 21, 2015)

Revelation 7:1-5; 21:1-5

Did you hear the announcement last week about Nik Wallenda? His family have been tightrope walkers for generations, and several years ago he walked a tightrope over Niagra Falls. Now he is going to walk on the top of a spinning Ferris wheel 400 feet off the ground! The image caught my imagination. Let me suggest that the journey of faith that we talk about so much here at McAfee can often feel like walking a tightrope crossing a great expanse while working hard to keep your balance. (I really wouldn’t know—I have never walked a tightrope.)

John Bunyan had a similar view when he published the timeless classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, in 1678. “Christian” sets out for the heavenly city, but he is often deterred by his traveling companions, Pliable and Obstinate. Along the way, he has to navigate hazards like the Slough of Despond and the Wicket Gate. The pilgrim’s journey, for Bunyan, is a series of trials. Taking a cue from Bunyan, I want to at least point out to you, fellow pilgrims, three challenges to imagining God that you may face along the 21st-century pilgrims’ path.

  • The First Gate: Biblical Criticism

The passage I read from Revelation describes the scene of the culmination of all things, the coming of the new heaven and the new earth. The first challenge that may arise from reading the Bible—and especially the book of Revelation—in a seminary context is the question of just what we should make of it. Is it, as many have believed throughout Christian history, and still today believe, a divinely inspired picture of the end of earthly history that is metaphorically, if not literally, true? Or is it just a typical example of ancient apocalyptic literature, offering a mythical hope to the oppressed and downtrodden victims of Roman imperial oppression—fascinating ancient literature, but nothing more?

The first wicket gate many seminarians encounter is the gate of biblical criticism. The church through the centuries has held the Bible to be God’s inspired revelation for humankind, and in the last century, from the modernist–fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s through the Southern Baptist controversy of the 1980s, Christians debated the nature of the Bible’s inspiration and authority. Some hold it to be literally true in everything that it affirms. Others hold that it is a reliable guide in matters of faith and doctrine.

But now you learn about the historical conditioning of the biblical writings, the patriarchalism it perpetuates, the historical discrepancies it contains, and its theological and ethical tensions. How in the world can we make such a collection of ancient writings normative for the church of the 21st century?

Understandably, most theological students react in one of two ways. They either reject what they read and hear from their professors and hold fast to the beliefs they brought with them, or they throw the whole thing over, dismiss the relevance of scripture and any real sense of its authority, and move on to search for truth in more contemporary ethicists, philosophers, musicians, and poets.

How do we walk the tightrope in the midst of such adverse and tricky winds? Obstinate pulls one way, and Pliable the other. Fundamentalism, or at least traditionalism, pulls on one side and skepticism and secular humanism on the other.

Narrow is the way that leads to a second naivete and a second criticality, and few there are that find it.

How do you find that balance point where you can be obstinate in response to skepticism and pliant in response to tradition?

Walking the tightrope requires that you be open to new truth while holding fast to the wisdom and values of traditional faith. In regard to the Bible, it challenges you to see the value of a historical understanding of Israel and the early church and the scriptures they produced. At the same time, it calls you to hear God’s word to us in our scriptures, appreciate their rich tradition, and live more deeply into the truth they express: God’s redemptive love and abundant grace. Such a posture is actually liberating. Paradoxically, it frees us to pursue the truth, while being sure of the faith that has sustained and nurtured us. Still, each step you take requires the balance of a tightrope walker.

  • The Second Wicket Gate: Religious Pluralism

In another of its several scenes of the end, the Seer of Revelation says,

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9-10)

He has just listed the twelve thousand from each of the tribes of Israel, so these are non-Israelites. The question comes, who are all these people, and how did they get to the throne of God? Here we encounter the second wicket gate: religious pluralism. The traditional Christian answer is that they are those who have come to faith in Christ in all the nations across the face of the earth, but we live in a new era when for the first time in history people are so mobile that communities of faith from virtually every religion on earth can be found here in Atlanta. How can we maintain that salvation requires a professed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? But if we can’t maintain Christianity as the exclusive way to salvation, what do we have to offer to others, and why should it have any claim on our lives?

On the one side is traditional Christian exclusivism—Christ is the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by him (John 14:6). On the other side is a spineless relativism that says that all religions lead to God, just as all roads lead to Rome. Is there any room here to be obstinate in response to relativism and pliable in response to exclusivism?   This is one of the great challenges facing 21st century Christians.

Here again the gate is narrow. There is nothing like the love of God as revealed in the death of Jesus in any other religion, and the power of the gospel still transforms lives in dramatic ways. Yes, we have a gospel to tell to the nations. When we gather at the table of shared witness, we have a story and a message of love the world needs to hear.

I am reminded of the story of the great missionary E. Stanley Jones, who was approached by a man in an Ashram in India who grabbed his lapels and challenged him, “Tell me what you know about God!”

On the other hand, do others have nothing to tell us? Has not the God who seeks to be known by every human person worked in other cultures and traditions also, and are there not devout believers from other religious traditions, whose lives bear the marks of a transforming knowledge of the love and grace of God?

Tread carefully here. I for one will live to my last breath knowing that my life has been molded by the love of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, and his teachings.

At the same time, I have found fellow travelers on my spiritual pilgrimage who are Jews and Muslims, and my appreciation for scripture, Sabbath, prayer, the community of faith, the religious quest, and—yes—God has been enriched by walking a pace with them. Salvation is more a relationship than a transaction or a legal verdict. Sadly, some who say, “Lord, Lord,” give little evidence in their lives of such a relationship, while some who are not part of a Christian community live out of a profound fellowship with the grace and love of God. I expect—at least I fervently hope—that they too will be among that throng around the throne from every nation, tribe, and people.

  • The Third Wicket Gate: The Evolution of Life

Revelation depicts the culmination of history as the gathering of the people of God and the coming of a new heaven and a new earth. History is a drama, an ongoing conflict between good and evil, chaos and redemption, but in the end God will vanquish evil and extend sovereign control over all things. The drama that began with creation has purpose and direction. Here we encounter the third wicket gate: the challenge of modern science.

Ancient Israelites could look at the world around them, with its distinct life forms, and see that they had each been created by God, who pronounced them good. They had no concept of cosmic time, natural causation, or the evolution of the species. How things have changed! We now know that the universe is 13.8 billion years old—a number we cannot wrap our minds around.

A couple of years ago, John Haught, in the Ginn lectures he delivered at McAfee, suggested that we can imagine the history of the universe written in thirty 450-page volumes, each covering 450 million years. Each page would cover one million years. The Big Bang occurred on page one. The earth was not formed until volume 21 (4.54 billion years ago); life appears suddenly in volume 22 (3.8 billion years ago); the Cambrian explosion of primitive life forms in volume 29; and dinosaurs in volume 30, page 385. Human beings do not appear until the last page and a half of the last volume, and do not develop the capacity for figurative speech until the last few lines of the last page, around 100 thousand years ago.

Some scientists see no evidence of a purposeful creation, claiming that random chance, mutations, adaptation, and natural selection working over the extent of cosmic time produced life as we know, and there are countless other planets like ours that could sustain completely different forms of life.

Once again our fellow travelers, Obstinate and Pliable, pull in different directions. Obstinate rejects modern science, maintaining a literal understanding of the biblical story of creation. Pliable abandons not only the biblical account of creation but theism itself: there is no God guiding the course of history.

Once again the journey of faith calls us to deeper discernment. Can we find a way to be obstinate in our faith in a creator God who is drawing all history toward a purposeful end, while being pliable in our understanding of the biblical account of the origin and end of life? I believe we can.

The Bible tells stories and paints pictures; it is not a book of science. It tells us who God is, who we are, and how we are to live, not how God created the world. On the other hand, the claims of the naturalists are as fanciful and hard to believe as a literal, six-day creation. Is it really plausible that the universe has moved—by purely natural processes—inexorably through the emergence of a series of ever more complex states that could not have been anticipated by what went before them, until life emerged—once and never again from inorganic matter!—and then evolved to the point that it could appreciate goodness and beauty, love, and respond to God’s Spirit among us?

I believe a theistic faith in a divine Creator and a scientific understanding of the processes of creation, taken together, offer a far more satisfying understanding of life than either one taken to the exclusion of the other.

  • “God Is”

No doubt there are wicket gates ahead that we have not yet encountered, so I want to challenge you to be open to new truths while you hold fast to the core convictions of our faith. Biblical criticism, religious pluralism, and modern science need not undermine your faith. Wrestling with them will actually deepen and enrich your faith, but you need to develop the determination of a pilgrim and the balance of a tightrope walker.

In 1987 my father suffered a heart attack that required bypass surgery, when that was still a fairly new and potentially life-threatening procedure. The afternoon before his bypass surgery, I sat at my father’s bedside and listened to him reflect on his life and faith. He too was a theology professor and had a special interest in eschatology. He had written his dissertation on Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life, and had read all the theologians on death and resurrection. In that moment, however, facing the possibility that he would not survive the surgery the next day, he said, “In the end, if God is, that is the God revealed to us in Jesus, then it doesn’t really matter how it will all come about. If God is, then we have nothing to fear.”

Here is genuine simplicity the other side of complexity—words we can life by. God is! Thanks be to God!

Benediction

Go now in the sure love of Jesus Christ, and as you go, walk together with the determination of pilgrims and the balance of tightrope walkers, and live in the transforming knowledge that God is. Amen.

——

This sermon is was delivered on April 21, 2015 at McAfee School of Theology and is the last chapel service with Alan Culpepper as dean. 

Risky Love

By Rachel Freeny

Nothing will make you contemplate your mortality quite like a turbulent plane ride. I’ve been on two such plane rides in the last year. The first time, the plane truly felt like it was falling out of the sky.

My friend Lydia and I were sitting next to each other when we felt our stomachs leap as the great metal bird dipped up and down at an alarming rate. Without thinking, we held hands so tightly our knuckles turned white. My mind raced as I wondered who I hadn’t said “I love you” to lately.

The plane made it safely to its destination. We later learned the strong turbulence was caused by air pockets over the mountains that formed the border between the South Asian countries we were flying between. This explains why no one else on the plane reacted to the dipping and shaking.

People talk about how near-death experiences change them, and for the first time I understood those stories. I wrote in my journal on the plane that all I wanted was everyone I love to be at the airport when we landed. I wanted to hug them tightly and never let them go.

My life didn’t flash before my eyes when I thought we were going to die. My people flashed before them. I wasn’t thinking about all the things I wanted to accomplish with my life. I thought about all the people I wouldn’t get to tell goodbye.

….

A few weeks ago, Dean Culpepper read a quote from Dr. William L. Self at the beginning of chapel. Dr. Self talks about the risk of loving other people. Sometimes the people we love let us down or hurt us, and we might decide to shut ourselves off to love. The decision to protect ourselves from the pain of love is a tragic one, Dr. Self says.

“We humans are never given a choice between pain and no pain, but rather between the pain of loving and the pain of not loving. Either way you go, there is a risk, but down one road there lies nothing but loneliness and cut-offness; down the other, for all its fateful possibilities, there is at least a chance of genuine fulfillment. I repeat, are not good odds better than no odds at all?”

Writing someone into your story, loving them, is dangerous. You are vulnerable and open to being hurt. There’s a chance you may not want to read those pages of your life one day, but the story is pretty boring if you never let anyone into it. The story is lonely.

….

Jesus is the best example we have of risky love. He loved knowing full well the people he loved would nail him to a cross. He loved the disciples even though they let him down when he needed them most. He loved, and his love changed the world.

I’ll be the first to admit that being vulnerable to love is difficult. I have some hermit-like tendencies that occasionally fool me into thinking I can breeze through life alone. God has softened my heart since that plane ride and shown me just how delusional I am.

Alone I am afraid. Alone I lose perspective and overthink everything. Alone my heart grows cold, and the love it is capable of goes to waste.

We can all be delusional at times, convinced we’re better on our own. Love makes better persons, better Christians, of us all. We need love.

Love isn’t all sunshine and roses. People will let us down. We will let people down. There’s a lot of trust involved in love. As Donald Miller says in his new book Scary Close,

“In the end, we have to hope the person we’re giving our heart to won’t break it, and be willing to forgive them when they do, even as they will forgive us. Love is an ever-changing, complicated, choose-your-own adventure narrative that offers the world but guarantees nothing.”

Love takes courage, but love is one of the few things every single person on this earth wants and needs. Call me an idealist or naïve, but love can change the world. Love is why we go into ministry. Love is why we preach, write and teach. Love is why we protest injustice and feed starving people. Love binds us together in good times and bad.

Love is a paradox of joy and pain, but love will never leave us alone. That’s a risk I’m willing to take. Are you?

Unexpected Miracles

By Joshua Scott, sermon delivered for the Claypool Preaching Award

jscott“How did that happen?”

“I’m shocked.”

“I’m speechless!”

“That can’t be.”

“It is no way possible that could happen.”

These are the responses of people who have witnessed or heard about miracles taking place.  How is it that a mother can pick up a car that was attempting to crush her child?  How is it that a man is in a tragic car accident, where the car is completely totaled, yet he walks away with only a cut on his wrist?  How is it that a woman who recently lost her job, and has no way to feed her family finds a full thanksgiving day dinner outside her front door?  How is it that Kewon Foster who once had a 1.2 grade point average in high school some way some how graduates from high school, goes on to graduate from McAfee School of Theology, and is now the pastor of Liberty Baptist Church?

These situations seem inconceivable.  These situations perplex us.  These situations lie outside of our thoughtful jurisdiction.  We can’t fathom it.  We can’t conceive it.  Truth be told sometimes we struggle to believe it.  However, in the midst of our unbelief God continues to provide miraculous blessings daily.

When God’s heavenly plans manifest in our natural, and carnal lives this is what is known as a miracle. When we throw in the towel.  When our faith becomes seemingly obsolete.  When we believe that we have taken all that we can bear.  When we view a person as unqualified, and unjustified.  God could be orchestrating a miracle right before our very own eyes.

I stopped by for a brief moment to submit and suggest to you that God performs miracles when we least expect it.

The Bible shows us this thought in Mark 16:1-8.  This passage of scripture is better than any movie you see inside a theatre.  This passage of scripture has a huge miracle, with an ounce of unbelief, mixed with a bit of confrontation, and topped off with a charge at the end.  This story begins with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bringing spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus.

These women have witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, and the dead body of Jesus being placed in a borrowed tomb.  They’ve witnessed Joseph rolling a huge stone against the door of the tomb.  After witnessing these catastrophic, and seemingly ending of life events these women are coming to anoint, and clean the body of Jesus.  These three women are expecting a dead body, yet before they get halfway to the tomb they begin to ask among each other, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance of the tomb?”  They continue to walk in belief that Jesus is dead, and the body of Jesus remains inside this tomb.

When they get closer they notice the stone has been rolled away conveniently for them.  The three women proceed inside the tomb, and when they do a young man in a white robe who says, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, He has been raised; he is not here.  Look, there is the place he laid.”

These three women are confronted by a miracle that they find amazing, astonishing, and leaves them in a state of awe.  They expected a dead body; they expected a bruised body; they expected a body with open wombs; they came to clean the body and anoint the body.  They believed Jesus was dead.  These women witnessed this horrible death; Where is the body of Jesus?

I can imagine the looks of bewilderment, perplexity, and confusion on the face of these three women.  Can’t you see the women looking back and forth at each other, then to the messenger, and then to the empty tomb in a clockwise fashion?  I can see these women struggling to conceive this thought, which is bigger than their minds can conceive.  They have to be thinking this just doesn’t add up.  This cannot be happening.  Someone must have taken His body.

As the women struggle among themselves to conceive this miracle that has taken place the young messenger reveals a charge to the three women saying, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  The women hear the retelling of this prophetic statement and are submerged with fear and astonishment, as they run frantically from the tomb not telling anyone of the miracle that has taken place.  Although these three women are astonished at this hard to believe action that has taken place one indisputable, yet undeniable fact is that an unexpected miracle has occurred.

II

I remember on October 20, 2014 receiving a telephone call, which would change my life forever.  My uncle Ronald Wilkins called saying he could not physically remove himself from his bed.  My mother and I rushed to the house noticing that he was in excruciating pain.  We called 911 who sent an ambulance and the emergency medical technicians picked him up from the bed, and immediately drove him to Northside hospital.

After hours of waiting, blood work, other health tests, a biopsy, and a physical we received the alarming news that my uncle had stage four prostate cancer.  The cancer had spread to the distant parts of his body, bones, and caused his kidneys to shut down.  The doctor revealed to us, that they would do their best to treat this disease.  But more than likely the doctor recommended that we begin the end of life preparation.

My entire family became troubled, distressed, and distraught.  How could this happen to such a loving, caring guy who has been the glue to keep our family together?  How could this happen right now?  After the many questions, and countless tears we did our best to prepare for my uncle’s death.  Uncle Ronald, continued to proceed with the different treatments, and hormone procedures recommended for the treatment of his cancer.

On November 3, 2014 he started physical therapy, which increased the strength in his bones.  On December 1, 2014 Ronald Wilkins began to walk again.  Everyone was tremendously amazed at his progress, but the mind-blowing news came on December 24, 2014 when my uncle went in for a routine check up.  Two doctors came in to check his body, and bones and one said, “Ronald Wilkins you are the walking dead.  The cancer in your body has decreased tremendously.  You no longer have stage four prostate cancer, but the stage has decreased to stage two.”  My uncle began to cry tears of joy when another doctor grabbed his hand said, “You are an unexpected miracle crafted by God.”

III.

God has provided an unexpected miracle in the life of my uncle Ronald, by allowing him to walk and continue living.  The doctor thought his life was over.  My family believed his life was over, but God used our unbelief to craft an unexpected miracle.  God has not only provided a miracle in the life of Ronald Wilkins, but God has built a Christological unexpected miracle in the life of Jesus as well.

After experiencing being rejected and despised by many; After being ridiculed, mocked, and well acquainted with grief; After being wounded for our transgressions; After being bruised for our iniquities, in order to heal us from sin.  After having nails driven in his hands, and feet, and hung on a cross to suffer; after dying on an old rugged cross, the two Mary’s and Salome witnessed Jesus being placed in a tomb and a stone rolled in front of the entrance of the tomb.  Now all of a sudden Jesus isn’t there?

Some scholars suggest the body of Jesus was stolen.  Some refuse to speak about this matter, because it seems unbelievable, inconceivable, and or unreasonable.  I’d like to submit and suggest to you that it’s just an unexpected miracle. God has raised Jesus from the dead allowing Jesus to conquer death, hell, and the grave that’s simply an unexpected miracle. Don’t get me wrong I’m sure we have all worn the mantle of the three women in this narrative, where we have bathed in disbelief and rolled around in doubt. But the endeavors of God should not be confined to the comprehension level of God’s children.  Unexpected miracles saved us from sin, where we would have been trapped in a hell with no end.

Unexpected miracles keep us from the danger, or that bullet that could have ended our life.  Unexpected miracles allow people to be amazed at the work of God, for God to be glorified, for the people of God to be edified, and for the devil to be left horrified.  Unexpected miracles shape our focus to the God that is bigger than anything our minuscule brains can conceive.  Unexpected miracles happen when we least expect it.  Unexpected miracles happen right before we throw in the towel.

God birthed an unexpected miracle in the resurrection of Jesus, and God continues to go in labor each and everyday.  God created, creation when many of us act as though it occurred through the Big bang theory.  God created a purpose and will for our lives when some of us act as if we have achieved everything singlehandedly.  God birthed assurance out of defeat.  God provides rain, sunshine, snow, and sleet all for the nourishment of the world.  God is providing victories to the downtrodden.  God loves us.  God is surrounding us daily with unexpected miracles. Unexpected miracles are like a breath of fresh air on a summer evening.  Unexpected miracles are like a cup of water in the middle of a desert, and arrive when we need them the most. God continues to place extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people, and it continues to leave us in amazement. Whether we choose to conceive it or not miracles happen when we least expect it.

Today I urge you to take God out of the box, and realize that God cannot be confined, simply defined, so let us refine the definition of God.  As God the one who produces unexpected miracles in the lives of us all!

“The Cup”

By Kali Freels, sermon delivered for the 2015 Claypool Preaching Award

I became a Christian at a young age, 9 or 10, about to start 4th grade. I didn’t know much about Jesus then; I knew that He was friendly, I knew that He was nice, and I knew that the sweet old lady sitting next to me in the pew told me that He wanted to be my friend. So, on a summer day in rural North Carolina, I became Jesus’ friend.

Shortly after that experience, I found my first Bible, the Bible my parents gave me on my 6th birthday. I read this book cover to cover. I loved the stories and illustrations; they made God come alive. I especially liked the stories about Jesus. He did so many great things and helped so many people; He quickly became someone who I wanted to model my life after. But then… I got to this page (picture of cartoon crucifix pg 453). They took this man, this sweet, kind man, and they nailed him to a cross. I wasn’t fair! He did nothing but nice things for people and they killed him! As a child, that was an injustice I could not understand.

As I got older, different mentors and peers elaborated on why Jesus had to die on the cross. They told me that Jesus died because He loves me. They explained to me that no one could have a relationship with God had it not been for the sacrifice on the cross. They told me that Jesus’ death freed us from the bondage of sin so that we could spend eternity in heaven. They told me Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb, the atonement for our sins.[1] They recited John 3:16 to me, saying that, “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son…,” using it as evidence for the necessity of the death of Christ. These points explained a little, but not everything.

Then, I heard evangelists and pastors try to explain the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ. They said that no other religions’ deities did what Jesus did, which is what makes Christianity special and true. These Christians put so much emphasis on the death of Jesus that they almost forgot that Jesus lived.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve wrestled more with my beliefs about the death of Christ. One of the first things I realized is that the death and resurrection of Christ does not make Christianity special or different from other religions. In the Ancient Near-Eastern religions in the times of the Old Testament, we see deities that are killed and resurrected every year; in a Canaanite mythology, Mot, the god of death, drags Baal to the underworld, where he remains dead until his sister, Anat, brings him back to the world of the living.[2] We also see these kinds of stories in the Greek and Roman mythologies we know existed during the time of the New Testament; Hades holds Persephone hostage in the underworld for half of the year, only allowing her to be resurrected to the land of the living for the other half.[3] These stories are how many people groups explained the coming and going of the seasons, both stories showing how the absence of the deities meant winter had come and the plants had died.[4] Their resurrection meant the return of life to the people’s farmlands.[5] Countless stories of death and resurrection existed in ancient religions and exist in other religions today. So if the physical acts of Jesus dying and being resurrected don’t set Christianity apart from other religions, what does? What makes the death of Jesus so special?

Obviously, Jesus Himself was special; He was a gift to the world, a present for humanity. Jesus came and modeled for us what a life committed to honoring God should look like:  love, forgiveness, compassion. His life is one still taught today, His teachings the foundation of our faith. He radically showed the world that love is the way to God. But even when we look at verses like John 3:16, we don’t see anything foreshadowing the death of Christ; we just see more evidence that Jesus is the son of God, given to the world to show us how to live, not how to die.

As I continue to read and study the life of Jesus, there is only one conclusion I can come to:  Jesus didn’t have to die.

Sure, this is an idea with which we are familiar. We know that Jesus is God, that Jesus had all of the angels at his command, that he could have called them down to save Him. Sure, we know that Jesus could have simply descended from the cross if He wanted. But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is Jesus did not have to die for us to be reconciled to God.

At this point, I know I sound like a heretic. Many of you are probably reciting countless verses in your heads about Jesus’ sacrifice, that Jesus is the lamb of God, that the veil was torn when Jesus died, creating a way for us to commune with God. “Kali, how can you believe that Jesus didn’t have to die for our sins? Oh gracious, this girl went to seminary and lost her faith!” But please, let me go just a little farther. I’m not saying that the death of Jesus isn’t important. I am saying, however, that when we say that the only way for God to save us from our sins was to send Jesus to die, we are saying that sin has authority over God to dictate how God interacts in the world. We are saying that the power of sin, not God, decided that Jesus had to die. I don’t know about you, but as someone who believes that God is all-powerful, this makes me uncomfortable. Nothing, especially sin, controls my God.

If Jesus didn’t have to die, what other options did God have? Let’s explore this for a moment. Our God is the creator of the universe, the creator of everything. Just look at the sunsets, the waterfalls, the spring flowers. If our God is so creative and imaginative, don’t you think God could have done so many other things to reconcile us to Him? God could have removed our desire to sin. God could have forgiven us anyways, with no sacrifice. God could have created hundreds of different ways for us to be redeemed, but I can only think of a handful because I am nowhere nearly as creative as God is. And even with all of these options, God chose the hardest thing, the only thing God could not do from heaven:  God chose to experience life as a human.

Think about that for a moment. God chose to undergo the painful process of being born. God chose to learn how to relate to biological brothers and sisters. God chose to learn how to become a carpenter; the creator chose to learn how to build. God chose to experience grief, love, anger, joy. God chose to experience life as a human in order to show deep compassion and understanding for us. God did not simply meet us where we were; God lived where we were, which is something God did not have to do and something we don’t see in any other religion. And God committed to do it holistically; God committed to experience all of human life, even unto death. Even unto the cross.

Jesus knew that He didn’t have to do this act. In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, we see Jesus in the garden praying, “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” We see Jesus experience fear and anxiety, asking if there is another way. But Jesus knew why He committed to this way:  God knows why God put on human flesh and descended from heaven’s throne, so He said, “Not my will, but your will.” Not my fleshly fear, but my divine understanding.

Then, it starts. Jesus, our God, is mocked, scorned, betrayed, experiences pain beyond our comprehension. They break Him, mutilate His skin, and nail Him to a cross, watching as He dies a slow, painful death. But there’s still time. God can get off the cross if He wants; all He has to do is will it into being; all He has to do is step down from the cross. But God chooses to stay, to hang there, to let life slowly ebb from His limbs.

Then, we see two of the most beautiful, profound words in the Gospel:  I thirst. Here we see Jesus accept, with open arms, the cup he so desperately wanted to be rid of in the garden. Jesus, God in the flesh, accepts the task of dying as a human. God willingly chooses to die like one of us in order to experience the entire spectrum of human life. When Jesus says, “It is finished,” He is saying that His task is done,[6] that He died a human in order to understand humanity.

Now, the barrier is gone. Now, we serve a God who gives us the example of how to live and understands the challenges we face. Now, we serve a God who corrects us in our missteps and empathizes with our struggles. We serve a God who can keep us accountable because He’s been through the same things, too. Our God is a counselor we can look to for help and He replies, “I understand.” This is an act of love we see nowhere else in the history of humanity. And it is beautiful.

The cross was an act of love, not because Jesus had to do it, but because Jesus chose to do it. If Jesus had had no choice in the matter, then He would have died in submission to obligation and fear. Because He chose to die, it was an act of genuine love, an intimate act to bring us back to Him. This is what makes the death of Jesus special:  He chose to do it, even though He had infinitely easier options available to Him, and He did it out of love, not in submission to any kind of obligation.

So… how do we respond to a concept such as this? How do we respond to the idea that Jesus didn’t have to die on the cross in order for us to have communion with God? Better yet, how do we respond to the fact that God chose to do it this way regardless? Initially, my mind goes back to something Jesus said earlier in the Gospel of John:  “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Greater love has no one than to commit to each other fully. Greater love has no one than to commit to God wholly.

But that sounds so lofty and unattainable. How can we apply this concept, this intimate love, to our everyday lives? If we set the bar that high, to fully commit our lives to each and every person we hold dear, to lay down our lives for each and every person who needs love in this world, we will fall miserably short every single time. How do we model this love that Christ modeled for us?

Through presence.

God chose to be present on this very earth when He came as the Christ child. Christ chose to be present with each disciple He called and each tax collector with whom He broke bread. He chose to be present with those he healed. He chose to be present on the cross, present to the suffering He did not have to endure. Even when it would have been easier to stay in heaven, even when it would have been easier to stay distant from the sinners, even when it would have been easier to ascend to heaven without experiencing the pain of death, God chose to be present among us, at our best and at our worst. That is the love Christ modeled for us through the cross:  to be present during the times it would be easier to run, easier to ignore, or easier to say a half-hearted “It will be okay.”

We all know the desire to be on the receiving end of that kind of love, a love that sits with us during the good times and the hard times. My junior year of college was a time I needed that love desperately. I was in the middle of a depression that was overwhelming; it took the most mammoth of efforts to get out of bed, to eat, or to go to class. I had relapsed into some self-destructive habits, habits that made several of my friends uncomfortable and worried. But, even in the midst of my debilitating sadness, a handful of close friends, including my roommate and some of my hall mates, committed to be present with me. They checked on me; they did homework with me; they sat with me in silence as I struggled for words to express what I was feeling. They did life with me in a season when it was hard for me to be around people, a season when it would have been easier for them to leave me be. That sacrificial, present love got me through that season. In those friends, I saw the love of Christ, the same love Christ demonstrated on the cross.

As we remember the cross, let us remember that it not simply as a graphic sacrifice done to satisfy a wrathful God’s appetite or even to wash us whiter than snow,[7] but an invitation from an empathetic God to join in relationship and to drink together the cup of our salvation. Let us remember that with all the choices God had, Jesus chose the option that literally brought us closer and present to Him. Let us remember that God became like us: vulnerable, mortal. Let us remember that Jesus committed to see this act of love through to the very end; He drank the cup to show His love. Will you drink yours?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beasley-Murray, George R. John. Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.

Culpepper, R. Alan. The Gospel and Letters of John. Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1998.

Culpepper, R. Alan. “Reading Johannine Irony.” In Exploring the Gospel of John:  In Honor of D. Moody Smith. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

Haenchen, Ernst. John 2 Hermeneia:  A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1980.

Migliore, David L. Faith Seeking Understanding:  An Introduction to Christian Theology. Cambridge:  Wm. D. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.

Niditch, Susan. Ancient Israelite Religion, New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997.

[1] All atonement theories researched in David L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding:  An Introduction to Christian Theology Third Ed. (Cambridge:  Wm. D. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 168-98.

[2] Susan Niditch, Ancient Israelite Religion (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997), 63.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] George R. Beasley-Murray, John Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 352; Ernst Haenchen, John 2 Hermeneia:  A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1980), 193-4; Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John, 234-5.

[7] Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 168-98.

God Doesn’t Need Us

By Rachel Freeny

The worn notebook balanced precariously on my knees as my pen raced across the page. My hand moved as quickly as possible, desperately trying to catch every word coming from the pastor’s mouth. My ears strained to catch his voice above the noise of rickshaws and neighbors filtering in through the window.

When God speaks, you work extra hard not to miss a word. God was speaking through this Indian pastor sitting directly across from me, arms crossed and resting on his rounded stomach.

“If the Christian people aren’t doing, God will turn to other people because they are His too. They just don’t know it,” Pastor Singh* said. “God uses all types of people.”

We were talking about the different groups that do humanitarian work in his neighborhood. Pastor Singh’s church is small, and they do what they can to minister to the slum where the church is located. They are not the only ones meeting needs of the community, which suffers from hunger and illness, among other things.

While Pastor Singh sees the church as God’s primary avenue for reaching out to the community, he acknowledges that often the church fails to answer God’s call to care for the poor and marginalized.

“God gives [these tasks] to the church first,” he said, “But [Christians] are saying, ‘Oh I do not have money, I do not have this, I do not have that.’ God says, ‘I have lots of money. I will provide, you just do.'”

When the church makes excuses and ignores God calling to care for others, God finds other ways to care for God’s people. Pastor Singh reminded me of Mordecai in the book of Esther.

Esther was young Jewish woman who married the Persian king, Xerxes. When Haman, the king’s right-hand man, got the king to decree that all Jews be put to death, Esther was tasked with convincing the king not to do so.

When her first attempts are unsuccessful, Mordecai urges her to keep trying, saying,”if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter” (Esther 4:14a).

Mordecai had faith that God’s love for God’s people was so big that God would stop at nothing to rescue them. Pastor Singh believed this too.

God doesn’t have to use the church to carry out God’s work in the world. God doesn’t need Christians to show God’s people they are loved. God chooses to do so. God chooses to use the church, and we should take seriously this divine calling.

We take God’s calling seriously when we participate in peacemaking efforts instead of war. We take it seriously when we advocate for restorative justice instead of the death penalty. We take it seriously when we work to end poverty or racism or human trafficking. We take it seriously when we love our families and friends with all of our hearts.

God chooses to use the church, but God does not limit God’s work to the church. God’s love for every human God created is bigger than our failure to act and our limited resources.

Let us mourn the times we fail to take God’s calling seriously, but let us rejoice in bigness of God’s rescuing and redeeming love. It’s never too late to grab hold of grace and live into the works of love that God empowers each of us to do. Let’s not miss our chance to be a part of God’s kingdom work here on earth.

*Names changed for security reasons

When Mercy Gets Messy

By Rachel Freeny

I’ve had Kelly on my mind a lot the past few weeks, and I’m not the only one. Her story is incredible, and the events surrounding her scheduled execution are a picture of the body of Christ at its best. Thousands of people came together across the country to protest and pray for merciful justice that would give life instead of death.

Kelly Gissendaner was supposed to die, but she didn’t. Complications with the lethal drug concoction forced officials to halt her execution for the second time in the space of a week. Protestors have lobbied for her execution to be cancelled altogether, and now we wait for the Supreme Court to decide her fate.

Protesting on Kelly’s behalf is easy for me because she is a changed woman. While in prison, she took part in a theology training program, sought redemption and forgiveness, and became an incredible force for good in her prison.

Kelly touched the lives of the people who taught her, those who were in prison with her, and the thousands of us who never met her. Through God’s grace, she now enjoys a restored relationship with her children, the ones who have the most cause to hate her or want her dead.

Kelly’s is a story we all like to hear. She changed teams and is now on the side of good. Surely this Kelly, a different Kelly from the Kelly who murdered her husband, deserves to live. Out of every murderer on death row, surely this repentant one deserves a second chance.

But what if this story was different? What if Kelly wasn’t repentant? What then? Would we still cry out for mercy for her?

Mercy is messy. There’s no getting around it. As followers of Jesus, we believe that Christ died for all people that all people may live. No one is beyond redemption. Many a preacher has espoused this gospel truth from the pulpit, but in supporting the death penalty we, as Christians, say it isn’t actually true. When we support execution, we declare that the person strapped to the table is a lost cause.

If we truly believe that no one is beyond hope, then we must abolish the death penalty not just for the Kelly’s on death row but for countless others awaiting execution. We do this knowing full well they may never say they are sorry.

We fight for their precious lives knowing their stories may never look like Kelly’s, but we still want them to have a chance to live a different, redeemed story.

In Kingdom Ethics, Glen Stassen reminds us that “followers of Jesus are not people who seek retaliation by taking life for life, but instead they seek ways of deliverance from such vicious cycles of adding more killing to killing.” Stassen invokes Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies, a teaching that is as difficult as it is noble.

Fighting to end the death penalty requires us to get messy and deal with the more difficult questions within ourselves. I, for one, get exhausted just thinking about all of the time, energy, and emotion that goes into speaking out for what we believe to be right. I am intimidated by the amount of personal investment that goes into caring enough about someone’s life to fight for it. Especially when it involves wading into the middle of a polarizing issue.

Then I remember how many times Jesus entered into the messiness of life and called us to follow in his footsteps. He took up for the woman about to be stoned for adultery, knowing her guilt but seeing a precious daughter worthy of a second chance. Redemption is for everyone, and redeemed people seek redemption in every aspect of life. Even the messy and complicated ones. 

Learning Ministry

By Rachel Freeny

We have a favorite quote around here at McAfee, one that serves as an unofficial motto. Professors say it at preview conference, we use it as a prayer and a rallying cry. We like it so much we printed it on the backs of royal blue t-shirts.

When Jesse Mercer first uttered “Lord, save us from an ignorant ministry,” I wonder if he knew how important his words would be for the hundreds of students that would one day study at a little seminary in Atlanta?

These words have been important for me in my seminary journey thus far, though their meaning changes with each semester. As a curious college senior who stumbled into preview day, those words confirmed my call and desire to go to seminary.

As a first semester student, they became a goal to pursue as I waded through hours of class and endless assignments. My second semester, Mercer’s quote was an unofficial commission as I boarded a plane to spend the summer in South Asia.

It wasn’t until this second year of seminary that Mercer’s words took on a life outside of the classroom. I figured avoiding an ignorant ministry meant learning all there was to know about ministry and theology from books and brilliant professors. I assumed the more internships and part-time jobs I got, the better to learn how to do ministry.

Then in the space of eight months I watched as multiple things in my life outside of school fell apart. A beloved family member’s tragic death. A loss of personal denominational identity. Losing sight of my once sure calling.  A break up.

As I raged against whatever forces in the universe were conspiring to bring about so much pain, I learned more to save me from an ignorant ministry than any book had taught me. For the first time in my life, I let the people closest to me see the messiest parts of what I was going through. I learned how to be ministered to, which for someone who is usually on the ministering end of things was a powerful experience.

My community of family and friends surrounded me and let me have more questions than answers. No one tried to fix me. One dear friend showed me the power of presence by lovingly answering the phone and letting me sob, when I had no words left.

Another friend encouraged me, “let yourself be broken. It’s okay to be broken.” As an image conscious perfectionist, I initially reeled against those words. But she gave me permission to be broken and didn’t walk away when I was. Other friends made plans and filled my calendar. They made me laugh and let me cry.  Every note, call, prayer, and text over the last few months showed me Jesus in ways I had only heard about secondhand.

Maybe today you find yourself in a similar position. You came to seminary expecting your education and experience to go one way, but nothing is as you expected. Rejoice! Because this is exactly how seminary is supposed to go. Every experience in and out of the classroom is an opportunity for God to shape us for God’s work in the world. We learn how to listen, how to speak, how to ask for help and how to give it.

Frederick Buechner says it best when he reminds us: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

All moments are key moments, opening our eyes to the depths of God’s heart and what it means to live as a redeemed people. All moments are key moments, even when we don’t expect them.

I knew seminary would prepare me to be a better minister, but I thought that everything I needed to know could be found in a book or through an internship. I never expected that my most influential ministerial education would come from being ministered to. That I would learn how to serve and love broken people by being broken myself. That God would save me from an ignorant ministry by redeeming the pain that opened my eyes.

I Am a Man

By Bryan Kidd

I like to wear mustard colored pants.

I like nice shoes.

I have a large collection of scarves (I only wear about half of them).

My belts have to match my shoes.

I love my brown jacket. I have a lot of jackets. I actually enjoy getting dressed up in a suit.

I enjoy wearing cowboy boots.

I look good in glasses (you can guess which pairs are real).

I like my new gold bracelet from Forever 21.

I like to run, but I don’t do it enough. I only go to the gym if a friend goes with me.

I played one year of tee-ball when I was five. I haven’t played an organized sport since. I really actually don’t like sports. I can barely throw a football, and I have never played a game of golf.

I had my hunting license when I was a teenager, but I have never gone hunting (and I’ve still not decided if I would ever want to).

There are a lot of things that I do that would be labeled as “feminine.”

I enjoy crafting.

I plan weddings.

I like to put thought and effort into dressing nice and looking presentable.

I had a science teacher in high school once who called me out in class and used me as an example as a feminine male. It didn’t bother me at the time, because I thought I knew what she meant, but the more I thought about it, the less I am ok with the term “feminine male.”

To say that I am a “feminine male” is saying I am a “different” type of male than what is perceived as the “normal” male. If I was a normal male than there would be no need for the word “feminine” to be used to describe me.

The opposite of a “feminine male” is a “masculine male.” What does that even mean? The Urban dictionary partly defines masculine as no signs “of emotion, no flamboyance, no hugging or even looking at other men, must be interested in sports and physical/violent activity.”[1]

So if I’m understanding correctly, in order to be a “real” man, you must love playing and watching football, enjoy wrestling (because that is violent), and never ever are you allowed to cry.

I have a female friend who fits this description pretty well. Does that make her a “masculine male?”

When did the color pink become exclusively appropriate for girls only, and blue the defining color for boys? I like blue alright, but I enjoy green and orange a whole lot more! I don’t like sports because I think they are pretty boring; however, when I apply myself I am fairly athletic. I enjoy sewing and building things with my hands, while another guy may find these activities mind-numbing.

I have a problem with the term “feminine male” because by using it, you are putting me into a category of what you think a “feminine male” is. You are telling me that my actions are more like the actions of a girl than a guy. This is impossible because I biologically, being a male, cannot physically do “female” things. My actions are strictly male because I am a male.

I’m offended by being called a “feminine male” not because I fear being associated with anything “girly,” but because I am, and deserve to be called, male. I am a man whether I wear flowered print shoes or work boots. I am a man whether I work with children or I am a senior pastor. I am a man whether I decide to cry or I hold back my tears.

I have the power to name myself, and I choose to remove the labels that have been placed on me by other people. I am not feminine. I am not weak. I am not less-than because I don’t have a powerful presence.

I am Bryan.

I am good enough (though I can be better).

I am powerful.

I am a man.

[1] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=masculine

Leaving Fred Craddock’s Funeral

I was early to Fred Craddock’s funeral. Cherry Log Christian Church is less than two hours from Atlanta, but a trip to Appalachia seems farther so I gave myself way too much time. I had been told to eat at the Pink Pig barbecue restaurant, but it’s only open Thursday to Sunday. I had, however, brought an autographed book to read as we waited for the service to begin.Craddock Stories is a collection of Fred’s greatest hits. Preaching aficionados identify the stories with a phrase, “the church voted 234-2,” “playing hide and seek,” “the lady in the grocery store who thinks he’s hitting on her,” “poor as Job’s turkey” and “Jesus winning the Georgia football game.”

Fred Craddock changed preaching. He grew up with preachers who filled sanctuaries with three points, multiple subpoints and a poem to encapsulate the boredom. These preachers told us what they were going to tell us, told us, and then recapped what they had told us without noticing that we stopped listening after the first summary. Fred realized that what keeps most of us from living for Jesus is not a lack of information. He invited preachers to stop teaching the lessons of Scripture and start telling the stories of faith. These stories, he argued, do not illustrate the point, because they are the point.

When he was 20 Craddock went to hear Albert Schweitzer. His plan was to criticize Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus, but before he had a chance Schweitzer invited him to go with him to help the dying in Africa. Fred said, “I learned, again, what it means to be Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.”

Craddock’s first pastorate was near Oak Ridge, Tenn. When the little town boomed the church voted not to follow Fred’s recommendation that they reach out to the new residents. Years later, after telling his wife that painful story, they went to see the little church. They were surprised to find the parking lot full. A great big sign said, “Barbecue, all you can eat.” Fred said to Nettie, “It’s a good thing this is not still a church, otherwise these people couldn’t be here.”

When Craddock was a young pastor, one church told him he had an emergency fund with $100 in it. He could give the money to anybody who is in need that is not the result of “laziness, drunkenness or poor management.” Fred asked, “What else is there?” He figured they still have the money.

Fred told some stories you wish you had not heard. He was teaching at Phillips Theological Seminary when a woman brought her dying brother to be healed. Craddock said, “I can pray for him, but I do not have the gift of healing.” She responded, “Then what in the world do you do?” Fred said, “What I did that afternoon was study, stare at my books and try to forget what she said.”

A woman a few pews in front of me had come to the funeral with the same book of stories and the same idea. It is easier to cry before the service begins, because no one is paying attention.

We sang “Soon we’ll reach the shining river.” Fred’s daughter Laura spoke with deep affection of waiting with dread for her father to mention her in a sermon. “O God, what is he going to say?” His son John, who is much bigger than Fred, said he liked it when his father called him “a block off the old chip.”

We heard Paul’s promise that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Tom Long preached, imagining Loyd Bentsen saying, “I served with Fred Craddock. I knew Fred Craddock. Fred Craddock was a friend of mine. You are no Fred Craddock.” But Tom made us think about Fred and the God who holds us all. We closed the beautiful, modest service with an Appalachian folk hymn, “And when from death I’m free I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.”

Fred Craddock wrote, “When I was in my late teens, I wanted to be a preacher. When I was in my late twenties, I wanted to be a good preacher. Now that I am older, I want more than anything else to be a Christian. To live simply, to love generously, to speak truthfully, to serve faithfully, and to leave everything else to God.”

I left Fred Craddock’s funeral wanting to be a Christian.

——

This article was originally written for and published by Baptist News Global and is used by permission.

Photo: Vimeo/Peachtree Christian Church

The Itawamba County Times: The Only Newspaper in the World That Cares Anything about Itawamba County!

If I had to choose between The New York Times and The Itawamba County Times, I would pick my parents’ weekly newspaper.  Before we visit Mantachie, Mississippi, my mother starts saving The Times.  If I am there on a Wednesday, we have a quiet competition to see who will get the ICT out of the mailbox.

The New York Times consistently fails to report stories The Itawamba County Times covers.  The ICT does a superior job with births, birthdays, school awards, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, retirements, church news, and local mischief.

The NYT is not as good with high school basketball.  In the ICT, Sam Farris wrote about the buzzer beater in the Mantachie Lady Mustangs’ thrilling 56-55 over the Mooreville Troopers.  (Full disclosure: my cousin Jan’s husband Jeff is mayor of Mantachie.)

Wagster caught the pass in stride and took three dribbles and in an act of heroism had the presence of mind not to go try for a layup but to stop, pull up, and take the three.  The ball left the junior forward’s hand and in mid-trip the horn sounded throughout the building, but all eyes were on the ball that was seemingly hanging in the air.  Wagster’s shot fell and the roof nearly blew off of the Mustang Corral.  Players were jumping up and down, fans were cheering, and one very proud mother was beaming with pride as tears of joy fell at what her daughter had just done.

Anna’s mom cried again when she cut out the story for the scrapbook.

Mrs. Sumner’s “Charleston Place News” keeps readers informed on the goings on at the assisted living residence.  Jo Ann writes, “The main problem with most at our facility is one of the residents referred to as Mr. Arthur.”  I assume she means arthritis.  If there actually is a Mr. Arthur I hope no one reads her column to him.

Mrs. Dobbs writes the “Mantachie Talker,” which shares the good deeds of citizens like the group from Tombigbee Baptist Church “bringing two months of wood for my fireplace” and Eddy “picking up my medicine at Walmart.”  Edna has been through a lot.  She suggests, “Use a different caregiver after each stroke so as not to overdo one child.”  Maybe she needs to use a different doctor to keep her from having another stroke.

In a small town paper your classified ads cannot lie.  Under “House for Rent” the description is, “House is very nice.”  Bobby knows that if he writes “Exceptional house with exquisite master bedroom overlooking lake” his friends will laugh at him.

The “Church Page” lists the starting times for Sunday school, worship, and Wednesday night services for 123 congregations—64 of which are Baptist—along with a devotional and Bible Trivia.

The winning entries in the Annual Coloring Contest are printed in full color. Madi Daugherty of Fulton won the four and under category.  Her work is suspiciously good for a four-year-old.

Terry Allen and Brandon Isbell were arrested for breaking in to Gum Church of Christ.  They allegedly took sound equipment, heaters, televisions, a coffee pot, and toilet paper.  If they had realized it would be listed in the paper they might have skipped that last item.

The ICT’s “Law Enforcement Reports” are addictive even to an outsider.  Each entry is a chapter title in a mystery—though you need someone from Itawamba to tell you the stories behind these entries:

These three, for instance, leave questions unanswered: “Suspicious activity, Hwy. 178 West,” “Disturbance, Sunset Dr.” “Scam, Shiloh Rd.”

This could be an embarrassing 911 call to make:

“Vehicle stuck in field, Dobbs Rd.”

Should this be against the law?

“Contributing to a minor, Ryan Rd.”

What does this mean?

“Secure landing zone, Sandy Springs Rd.”

You might think this could be cleared up before the police arrive: “Livestock in the road, Estes Morrow Rd.”

You hope this call was from a police officer’s spouse:  “Request to speak with officer, Van Buren Rd.”

Big city newspapers are landing on fewer driveways each day, but the press is thriving in small towns.  While the daily papers are closing up shop, 8,000 weekly newspapers are going strong.  23,434 people live in Itawamba County.  The ICT has 28,685 readers.

Sandra Newton, the office manager, says the difference between her paper and the big daily newspapers is that, “We know the people we’re writing about.”  Weekly newspapers are part of the community they serve.  They tell the stories of people whose stories are not going to be told anywhere else.  The ICT proclaims, “Your story is our story.”

Churches should remember this.  People love to predict that mega churches will soon swallow up small local churches, but rather than compete to have the biggest, most entertaining church, local churches should tell the story of the people who live next door.  The church is there to care for those who are not going to be cared for anywhere else.  Our churches need to say, “Your story is our story.”

—–

This article was originally published by Baptists Today and used by persmission.

Your Guide to Ethical Gifting This Christmas

This Christmas, I wanted to do something a little different when it came to gift giving. I wanted to give gifts that changed lives or empowered the makers. I wanted to support small businesses and fair-trade, slave-free organizations.

As I researched my options, the sheer number of companies and organizations to choose from overwhelmed me. This gift guide is meant to make things easier on you by offering a few suggestions in one handy list.

Here are 10 incredible ways to give ethical gifts this year:

Happy Giving!

 

  1. Compassion International  Give everything from bicycles and goats to healthcare and school supplies to children and families in Compassion’s sponsorship programs. Consider sponsoring a child while you’re at it!
  1. Land of a Thousand Hills  Give the coffee lover (or seminary student) in your life the gift of delicious, ethically sourced coffee. Land of a Thousand Hills exists to stimulate economic growth in Rwanda through fair-wage, fair-trade coffee farms.
  1. International Justice Mission  Each gift makes a difference in the fight against human trafficking. Gifts range from meeting survivor’s medical needs to supporting legal aid and aftercare programs for survivors.
  1. Noonday Collection Noonday offers a variety of beautiful jewelry, handbags and scarves made by artisans in Africa, Central America, and India. Artisans are paid fair wages and ensured safe working conditions, and child labor is prohibited.
  1. Kiva  Microloans help alleviate poverty by allowing borrowers to start or grow their small businesses. Through Kiva, choose an international borrower, give them a loan, get progress reports as their business grows, get repaid, start again!
  1. Refugee Beads  This Atlanta-based jewelry company supports the local refugee women who make each piece by hand.
  1. Thistle Farms  Through your purchase of candles, soaps, teas, and more, you support women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction.
  1. The Home T  Show your state pride and support Multiple Sclerosis research by purchasing one of these t-shirts.
  1. Sevenly  Sevenly offers clothing for a cause, donating $7 of each purchase to the cause of the week.
  1. Amazon Smile  Let’s be honest, we’re all going to buy something from Amazon at some point, so why not give back in the process? Choose a charity to support, and Amazon Smile donates a portion of each purchase you make to your charity of choice.

 

…………………………………….

Rachel Freeny is a graduate of Samford University with a degree in Journalism/Mass Communication. Originally from Nashville, she is a second year student on the Global Christianity track at McAfee. Rachel is excited to be a part of the Tableaux team because she loves to tell stories that matter. When she’s not studying, she enjoys exploring and eating her way through the South.

Voices from Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology

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