Church and Contagious Disease

The New York Times is reporting on church attendance and COVID-19. This headline is well written and grabs your attention: “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are Confronting Coronavirus Cases.” The subheading: “The virus has infiltrated Sunday services, church meetings and youth camps. More than 650 cases have been linked to religious facilities during the pandemic.”

Whoa! Sounds scary.

[Aside: Does the virus have agency? Infiltration is something I associate with government intelligence organizations and mischievous young people, the first in something like a Mission Impossible film, the second in a story like Ladybugs.]

Silliness at The Times

Back to the Times. Read the opening two paragraphs:

PENDLETON, Ore. — Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.

The virus has infiltrated Sunday sermons, meetings of ministers and Christian youth camps in Colorado and Missouri. It has struck churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers.

The virus is surging. Infiltrating. It has struck. Churches have reopened apparently because of the president’s demands rather than because of convictions that predated Trump by millennia. While there have been some who have reopened cautiously, others have “defied” lockdowns and “refused” government orders.

Terry Mattingly of Get Religion writes that The Times misses the point, and that the story should focus on how religious leaders have responded to the pandemic and the effects the virus has had on religious congregations. Mattingly offers this analysis of the storyline:

Part I: It was perfectly valid to cover the relatively small number of religious groups — most of them totally independent Pentecostal and evangelical congregations — that were rebelling against government COVID-19 safety laws and recommendations (even when local officials were treating religious groups the same way they were treating stores, bars and other public institutions).

Part II: The bigger story was the cooperation that the leaders of most major religious institutions — from Catholic bishops to Southern Baptist megachurch leaders — were showing. In recent months, many of these religious groups have cautiously opened their doors to small groups of worships, once again following state and local guidelines.

The Times is reporting on a story, and the above themes are relevant and present. This is a disturbing trend. So what’s wrong with The Gray Lady’s reporting? Mattingly writes:

How does “650 cases” over several weeks that are said to be linked to services and events compare, statistically, with the overarching trends that are seeing COVID-19 cases rising rapidly. A week ago, Axios noted that new case numbers had hit 50,000 in one day. Might there be some other settings that are more important than churches in this surge, just looking at the numbers? Oh, wait. Might this have something to do with news templates linked to Donald Trump, white evangelicals and “religious liberty” and all that?

The problem is that The Times has written a politics story masquerading as a religion story, rather than a religion story with a relevant political parallel.

Silliness in the Pews

While I’m on this story, I want to draw out one more quote from the article in The Times. The report closes with the following:

Mr. Satterwhite, the pastor in Oregon [mentioned earlier in the article], said that scrutiny had fallen unfairly on churches, while businesses with outbreaks did not face the same backlash. “I think that there is an effort on the part of some to use things like this to try to shut churches down,” he said, adding that he appreciated Mr. Trump’s supportive remarks about churches being essential.

When weighing his responsibility as a faith leader, Mr. Satterwhite said, he returned to his beliefs. “My personal belief is, I have faith in God,” he said. “If God wants me to get Covid, I’ll get Covid. And if God doesn’t want me to get Covid, I won’t.”

My response to Pastor Satterwhite is twofold.

First, even if a church ceases public gatherings for worship for a period of time, there are other ways to remain together as the body, ministering to the needs of congregants, praying for one another, shepherding one another, teaching, and drawing together resources financial and otherwise in puruit of shared mission. A government order cannot shut down a church. It can create challenges. It may result in disbanding. But not necessarily.

I know some Christians view Sunday worship as a divine command, an extension of the Sabbath principle applied to Sunday, the day upon which Jesus was raised from the dead. But I don’t think it is that simple. I think weekly worship is wise and meant to be edifying, and that Christians should continue meeting together regularly as instructed in Hebrews 10:25. I think that the marks of the church include what is described in Acts 2:42-47: worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism, and stewarship. I think gathering together is a spiritual discipline, creating occasions where the people of the church can exercise obedience to the “one another” commands of the New Testament. But I also think that in the midst of a crisis like the one we face at the present moment, the church can discern other avenues of continued connection and faithfulness, and respond with wisdom.

Second, the dramatic flourish with which Satterwhite closes, read charitably, is meant to reflect a strong confidence in the sovereignty of God. It seems to echo the sentiment of “faith over fear” that I have heard so often in these past days. But faith and fear are not our only biblical and theological categories. The only fear we should maintain should be fear of the Lord. That is the beginning of wisdom. And if fear of the Lord leads us to desire to be the best possible steward of our lives and the lives of others, we will not ignore the best medical and scientific insights that might help us from spreading this disease.

While it may be true that God holds the power of life and death, I will not put the Lord to the test by asking those who have been infected to breath on me, nor will I brazenly breath on others if I am a carrier of the contagion. I’ll distance, where a mask, and love my neighbor as myself.

Muddling Free Speech

Free speech is in the news. What is being debated is whether it is a good thing. I believe it is.

The reason for the debate is because of something referred to as “cancel culture,” instances were a social media outcry bubbles up over current or past transgression or a problematic stance, followed by the demand that a person, show, movie, book, any artifact, individual, or institution, be tossed to the curb. Someone said the wrong thing, took the wrong position, liked the wrong person’s tweet, or expressed something that someone somewhere found unsavory, and now that because that position or idea is repudiated according to contemporary moral standards of propriety, out they must go. Cancel culture is often explained by way of example. You’re probably thinking of one now. I’m thinking of this controversy.

Last week, the left-leaning intellectual magazine Harper’s issued “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter begins:

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.

The letter further states, “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” The signatories claim that this is taking place on the left and the right, that both extremes in American political discourse are eliminating anything that might resemble what has classically been described as the public square, a space designated for open and free debate. The letter concludes with the following appeal:

The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

What has followed has been controversy. Some have asked about the subtext of this statement. The New York Times wrote about the publication of the letter and the varied reactions to it. The letter, signed by Margaret Atwood, David Brooks, David Frum, Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Haidt, Atul Gawande, and Malcolm Gladwell, among others, should not be controversial. Some found it to be so not because of the substance of the ideas themselves, but because of associations with select individuals who signed. The timing of the letter was questioned by Mary McNamara, but I wonder when would have been a good time for such a statement.

McNamara makes other, more significant points, including the fact that cancel culture isn’t new and that public debate is always messy. If you think cancel culture is new, just replace the concept with the word boycott, and think of instances when you thought boycotts were good and helpful vehicles for social change, and when you found them to be just downright silly.

But there is a difference between messy public debate and healthy public debate. While all public debates may be messy, not all public debates are healthy. Some discourses are reasoned, others are fanatical. To simply say, “cancel culture is fine because it isn’t new” does not preclude that this current iteration we are now seeing in our discourse isn’t somehow insidious or particularly destructive toward the free exchange of thought. Kevin Williamson, writing for the conservative opinion journal National Review, states:

Cancel culture is not discourse but antidiscourse, a genre of speech intended not to facilitate the exchange of views and ideas but to prevent such an exchange. It is free speech in the sense that shouting down a speaker is free speech.

One obvious response to the defenders of cancel culture as simply more speech is that criticism of cancel culture is speech, too, as is criticism of criticism of cancel culture, as is criticism of criticism of criticism of cancel culture — you can follow that recursive loop as far out as you like, traveling a great distance without going anywhere.

But the more important thing to understand is that critics of cancel culture oppose the sanctions that are being advocated and imposed for political and social nonconformism, not the ability of rage-addled morons to engage in such advocacy as a matter of formal rights.

Williamson simply suggests that advocates of cancel culture who are driving our discourse aren’t being honest. And I agree. There are those who are saying they are in favor of free speech while simultaneously claiming that we are in need of censoring, and the plain fact is that those two claims are mutually exclusive. Alan Jacobs cites Freddie deBoer, who says it well:

So how can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech. That is the most obvious political fact imaginable today. Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe out political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion?

You want to argue that free speech is bad, fine. You want to adopt a dominance politics that (you imagine) will result in you being the censor, fine. But just do that. Own that. Can we stop with this charade? Can we stop pretending? Can we just proceed by acknowledging what literally everyone quietly knows, which is that the dominant majority of progressive people simply don’t believe in the value of free speech anymore? Please. Let’s grow up and speak plainly, please. Let’s just grow up.

Count me among those who believe we need more speech, not less. People should be free to think and say things I find offensive and wrongheaded, to express those views publicly and in print, and to make arguments for their position.

Likewise, I should be free to disagree with any position I believe to be wrong, to do so publicly and in print, and to make counterarguments not only in seeking to demonstrate those positions are false, but to persuade others concerning what I believe to be right.

My commitment to these values are not only guided by my admiration for the United States Constitution. These commitments are also rooted in my Baptist convictions, reflective of bedrock principles of my religious faith. I believe in free inquiry, free thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom from it, free association and free expression first because of my Christian convictions, and second as an American.

You may recall that the Bible includes an extensive and well developed wisdom tradition, texts that offer examples and sayings that can guide and uphold a healthy, well-ordered, and functioning society. You also will recall that the Bible also includes a prophetic tradition, a record of those within those societies who spoke with boldness and clarity concerning injustices and oppression that took place. Healthy discourses make space for both the sage and the prophet, and healthy societies seek to preserve the past while also discerning when and where to break from it.

For free speech to be possible, we will need to cultivate and uphold a constellation of the virtues and values that make such a discourse possible. We need values like freedom, liberty, dignity, love, mercy, justice, humility…I could go on. It is not easy being free. We need a larger story within which to frame free speech, one that allows free expression, but also imparts a way of understanding the world by which speech can be judged good or bad and a means of reasoning together that allows for such evaluations to be established politically, as part of a way of life.

The establishment of a healthy public discourse has never been easy, and even when conditions have been at their best, there have always been instances of injustice and oppression that have been ignored, suppressed, and marginalized in favor of preferences and privileges of the powerful. A healthy society has the humility and the wisdom to acknowledge that power differentials always result from politics, and that the work of justice is ongoing.

America has experienced fractious moments in the past, and our present moment is another instance where we are divided. There are those among us who are determined to widen that divide.

Who among us will seek to heal it?

Sermon: “Come to Me”

This sermon was delivered to the people of the First Baptist Church, Valley Mills, Texas, on Sunday, July 5, 2020.

Introductory Remarks

Good morning.

If you would, please open your Bibles to Matthew 11:16-30. We’ll be reading out text in just a moment, and as we do so, I think it would be wise if as we hear these words we would also read these words together, so that we may think carefully about them as God’s people.

As you turn, let me say that it’s good to be with you, and it is an honor that your pastor, John Wheatley, invited me to join you today in worship. John is my friend by way of our shared work at Truett Seminary. John has also always spoken highly of you, this congregation. It is good to be with you this morning.

You may have heard or seen that my job at Truett has a long title: I serve as the Assistant Director of Spiritual Formation at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. One of my friends asked, “Does that fit on your business card?” What does that mean? It means that I educate, inspire, and assist others in growing to become more like Jesus Christ in their inmost being, so that they might best serve his kingdom and purposes.

John said I could speak this morning about anything that I wanted to. Usually, when someone tells me that, I talk about professional wrestling. But instead, today I thought I’d talk about the work of spiritual formation. At Truett, when we engage with seminarians in our work to “become more like Jesus,” we can only hope that that work is already well underway, having begun in the context of the local church. The local church is the most vital, the most critical, and the most important setting within which people come to see Jesus, know Jesus, trust Jesus, follow Jesus, serve Jesus, and grow to become like Jesus until the day in which we are called home to be with Jesus in eternity.

Never forget that this shared work, as part of this people, in this local congregation, as part of this community, is interwoven and indispensable to the outworking of God’s redemptive purposes in history. God is working right here, among this people within whom Christ dwells. We are part of the body of Christ.

In order to function as the body of Christ we must listen to and heed the Word of God. Let’s hear these words from the Gospel of Matthew 11:16-30.

Reading: Matthew 11:16-30

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “‘We played the pipe for you,

    and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

    and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This is God’s Word.

Outline

What does our Scripture reading have to teach us today? What is God saying to us, today, in this text?

How does this passage help us to grow in becoming more like Jesus? And how does it call us to change, to respond, to think differently, to feel differently, to speak differently, to act differently, in light of God’s character, God’s person, and God’s grace?

Let’s consider four broad movements found in this passage which we will examine together today:

  1. The Way is Not Plain to Everyone (9)
  2. The Way is Not Taken by All (8)
  3. The Way is a Path That’s Revealed (9)
  4. The Way is a Person, Who Calls (8)

The Way is Not Plain to Everyone

Imagine if you will for a moment you are the owner of a gas station along a main highway which runs through the center of a fairly well developed town. You’ve lived in the community for years, and you know every curve, bump, and byway like the back of your hand. You’ve been along the main roads and the backroads, the side streets and the alleyways. You’ve seen people come and go, houses built up and torn down, businesses launch and close down. You’ve seen it, and you know the place.

One day a stranger comes into your store and they ask you how to get to the Johnson place. The Johnsons live on the outskirts of town, five turns from your station. You quickly tell the stranger, “Head north, turn right on Maple, drive three quarters of a mile and take a left hand turn on a small, unmarked drive just past a metal sculpture built from old mufflers outside of the pizza place there, then catch FM 1695 eastbound until you pass a barn with a faded Texas flag painted on the rooftop, after which you’ll see CR 529. Turn right there, and another two miles down the way, you’ll come to the Johnson place. The Johnson’s have a green mailbox with a small John Deere tractor on the top, which hides slightly behind an old hackberry tree, so keep your eyes open.”

The stranger may say, “Come again?”

Now, it’s not that they couldn’t get there. It’s not that you didn’t do a good job describing the way. But it is nevertheless true that the more familiar you become with something–with a place, with a way of life, with a manner of speaking, with a set of beliefs or a way of seeing the world–the more you forget what it was like for you to discover these things yourself. It took time, experience. And when a new person comes along, an outsider who doesn’t share the same knowledge and experience, sometimes we assume they should just “get it.”

In our passage today, Jesus doesn’t address people who are trying to get to the Johnson place. Rather, Jesus is addressing people who are trying to determine if he is the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the one who was anticipated and hoped for, the one who would usher in God’s kingdom and bring salvation and deliverance and peace.

If we look at the broader context, we see that Jesus is addressing “the crowd” when we begin our reading, and he is speaking to them specifically about John the Baptist. Jesus identifies John as a prophet, and more than a prophet: the Elijah who was to come, the one who would “prepare the way” for the Messiah. 

Nevertheless, there are those in the crowd who have refused to see John as the Messiah’s forerunner and to heed John’s direction, his “pointing the way,” if you will. When Jesus compares this generation to children saying, “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn,” he is saying, this is a generation that cannot be satisfied, a generation that will always find a reason to say, “Nope, not that one.”

Jesus makes this plain for us when he says that John was rejected because he was too rigid, too strict, “neither eating nor drinking.” But when Jesus comes feasting, he is counted as being too loose. Tainted. Wild.

As readers today, and as those who are very familiar with the story of Jesus and where it goes, we think we wouldn’t have made the same mistake. We think, “Yes, we recognize Jesus. But outsiders, those in the crowd, they don’t. Why don’t they get it?”

But the irony here is that Matthew 11 begins with John the Baptist sending a word to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replies, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

You see insiders and outsiders can get it wrong. They can miss Jesus because they expect the wrong things of Jesus. We can expect the wrong things of Jesus. Rather than seeing Jesus as the Way, they miss it. We miss it. The church, dare I say, has at times missed Jesus when he has been standing here and in our midst. We’ve said, “Nope, not that one.”

Followers of Jesus, myself included, should always be marked by a tremendous humility. We should demonstrate deep knowledge that the Way of Jesus, the Person of Jesus, the invitation of Jesus, is not plain to everyone, and it once wasn’t plain to us. And if it is plain to us–that’s a sign of God’s grace. And we should constantly humble ourselves, seeking after God, saying, “Lord, light my way.”

The Way is Not Taken By All

In addition to the way not being plain to everyone, our text today shows us that the way is not taken by all.

Jesus speaks harsh words, hard words for us to hear today, for we like to think of God as a God of mercy and love rather than as a God of justice and judgment. The truth is God is both. That is the testimony of the Scriptures. 

When Jesus says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe, Bethsaida! Woe, Capernaum!” we are given a warning. We would not want Jesus to say, “Woe to you, Austin! Woe, Waco! Woe, Woodway (where I live)! Woe, Valley Mills!” No, we do not want that.

Jesus speaks of the miracles performed in these places, the signs and wonders that had been performed in those places testifying to God’s power, to the inbreaking kingdom, and to Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. Yet, not all accepted him.

And while we may say, “If I were there, I would have believed,” we cannot be so sure. They saw miracles. 

But, we have been given testimony to an even greater miracle. We have heard the witness of those who saw something greater than anything which took place in Chorazin or Bethsaida or Capernaum. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Paul writes:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

On the third day, the tomb was empty. Christ is risen. Do we believe in this testimony, and thereby, believe in Christ? If we have not accepted Jesus as the Risen One, we have not accepted his way.

The Way is a Path That’s Revealed

If we have not accepted Jesus, if we have not chosen to walk after him and to follow his way, perhaps it is because we have not yet seen. Earlier I spoke of the humility that should be characteristic of a Christian person. Why should a Christian person be humble? Because salvation is no accomplishment or work of our own. It is an act of God’s grace.

Notice that after Jesus finishes pronouncing woes, he transitions to offering praise. Jesus says, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.”

Jesus then announces that “all things” have been entrusted to him by the Father, and that for those who trust Jesus, they too will know the Father. The Son reveals the Father. The Son, according to Hebrews 1:3, “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” In John 14:9, Jesus tells Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

Christians worship and proclaim God as Trinity–three persons; one God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each as unique divine persons, yet as One God. In Jesus Christ, we have been united to this God through the gift of faith. When Jesus says, “No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” he is telling us that he is the way to God.

In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In John 14:7, Jesus adds, “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

The way to God is a path that is revealed. It is revealed by a person: the Son.

The Way is a Person, the Son

If we’ve learned anything today from our constellation of texts, as we have brought other passages of Scripture to bear on our primary reading, we will have seen that Jesus not only reveals the way and leads the way, but he himself is the Way.

Jesus’ great invitation in our passage this morning is this: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Those words have provided comfort to many for generations. They have provided comfort to me. Jesus looks upon the crowds, those who surround him, knowing that there are both those who reject him and those who desire to trust him, and he says these words, “Come to me.”

He speaks to the weary and the burdened. He offers rest. He uses an agrarian image, that of the yoke, bringing to our mind an image of the mature, well trained ox being paired together with a young, inexperienced steer. Jesus does not place himself behind the plow, urging us along, or ahead of the plow, showing the way. Rather, he places himself under the yoke, walking with, bearing up, experiencing alongside, and teaching, teaching, always teaching.

Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. He says that he is gentle and humble in heart. Philosopher, theologian, and ordained Baptist preacher Dallas Willard once stated that discipleship to Jesus is “the way of the easy yoke,” not because following Jesus does not involve hardship or sacrifice, but because Jesus’ way truly is best. There is no other person, no other figure in human history, who can put us in touch with reality in such a way that we grow to be fully human, which is what God intended for us prior to the human race’s captivity to sin. 

Christ is the only one who can restore us, who can lead us into true rest. In fact, he has done it. Jesus bore our deepest burden and the greatest source of our weariness, the burden of sin, upon the cross, and there he put it to death. He is risen and now reigns, and his invitation still stands: “Come to me.” We are invited into his rest. It is freely given: a grace. We are invited to freely receive it.

The great salvation of Jesus is that not only does he redeem you from sin, not only does he reconcile you to God, but he remakes you, renews you, and reforms you so that you may faithfully serve as a representative of  Jesus Christ and his kingdom. He teaches you his way. He is the Way.

In John 17:3, Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” In Matthew 11:28, Jesus says, “Come to me.” That’s the great invitation. Not, “be a better person.” But, “Come to me.” Trust in him. He will give you rest.

Will you do it? Will you come to Jesus?

Let us pray.

Methodist Friends: Come Study at Truett

Portraits, Faculty, Perkins School of Theology, Abraham, William, Perkins Chapel

William J. Abraham is coming to Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

From the press release:

Following extended conversations with and consultation of seminary faculty, alumni and friends, Dean Todd D. Still, Ph.D., announced today, with strong support from university administration, the formation of a Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. In conjunction, he announced that Dr. William J. Abraham, a theologian, philosopher, author and minister, will serve as the founding director of this strategic initiative.

In this role, Abraham will ensure that students attending Truett from Wesleyan traditions are nurtured and networked for the ministries into which they are being called. Additionally, Abraham, who will regularly teach courses at Truett pertaining to Wesleyan thought and practice, will collaborate with individuals, congregations and organizations in the Wesleyan tradition in the recruiting, training and placing of students and in supporting and educating ministers who are already engaged in gospel service.

“From its inception in 1994, Baylor’s Truett Seminary — an orthodox, evangelical school in the historic Baptist tradition embedded into a major research university — has been blessed to train ministerial students primarily, though not exclusively, from baptistic congregations,” said Still, The Charles J. and Eleanor McLerran Delancey Dean and The William M. Hinson Professor of Christian Scriptures. “In recent years, however, Wesleyan students and churches have begun to turn increasingly to Truett as a desirable destination location for theological education. We have, in turn, warmly welcomed these Christian friends into our seminary community, which exists to train God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. The establishment of The Wesley House of Studies at Baylor’s Truett Seminary strengthens further this ongoing practice and places Truett on a trajectory to become an increasingly multidenominational school while holding steadfast and true to its doctrinal and ecclesial commitments.”

A gifted teacher, sought-after lecturer, prolific author and ordained elder in the Methodist Church, Abraham holds degrees from The Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland (BA); Asbury Theological Seminary (M.Div.); and Oxford University, Regent’s Park College (D.Phil.), and has taught at Seattle Pacific University, Harvard Divinity School and Southern Methodist University.

“We are on the cusp of a new day for the future of the Wesleyan network of families across the world,” Abraham said regarding the creation of The Wesley House of Studies at Truett Seminary and his appointment to serve as its founding director. “In order to fulfill the promise in store for us, we urgently need fresh ways of providing the spiritual, practical and intellectual resources that are essential for the work up ahead.

“Baylor University is a world-class institution, and the creation of a Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary is a landmark development,” he said. “I can think of no better place to be home to a vibrant Wesley House. I am thrilled to play my part in making it a stellar center of excellence that the Holy Spirit can use for reform, renewal and awakening on a global scale.”

I know I have Methodist friends out there who are discerning a call to theological education. There’s a place for you at Truett. As a bonus, I’ll get to see you, too.

Women in Church Leadership: Yes!

Photo by Tabitha Mort on Pexels.com

David and I stopped in for a haircut at Champions Salon & Barber on Friday, and my stylist mentioned women in church leadership. She apologized for bringing up something that is divisive, so we talked about wearing masks instead.

Molly and I have been married for seventeen years, and even before we begun dating I had moved from complementarianism to egalitarianism regarding women in church leadership. In no way did I look past biblical texts which appear to prohibit women in leadership roles. Rather, I simply found complementarian interpretations of these texts to be less persuasive and the overall redemptive arc of the Bible’s narrative toward women in leadership to be more compelling.

I continue to read on this topic, and have only deepened in my conviction that men and women uniquely and together best serve the church when each, irrespective of gender, is honored in light of both calling and giftings. Experientially, I have continue to benefit greatly from the leadership and ministry of women, as I have done in the past, not only in children’s Sunday school, but in various other aspects of congregational life.

I suspect that over the course of my lifetime these questions will continue to be debated. The hermeunitcal questions are challenging. But among evangelical Christians, it appears that attitudes may be changing. Based on his research findings, Ryan Burge reports: “The results of a recent survey once again indicate that most evangelical Protestants are in favor of seeing women take on more prominent positions in the church.”

Burge and colleagues found:

In a survey I fielded along with political scientists Paul Djupe and Hannah Smothers back in March, 8 in 10 self-identified evangelicals said they agree with women teaching Sunday school, leading worship at church services, and preaching during women’s conferences or retreats.

Slightly fewer endorsed women preaching during church services, but 7 in 10 were in favor, according to the research, conducted by a team of political scientists in March 2020.

One detail that surprised me in Burge’s findings: support for women pastors was significant among Southern Baptist respondents.

It’s no surprise most evangelical Christians were most comfortable with women leading in Sunday school classes and when women are speaking to women. Yet despite a slight drop in favorability, there was still strong support for women preachers on Sundays, in congregational worship.

Burge’s group also uncovered interesting data pertaining to age demographics and theology. Evangelicals 65 and older are more likely to disagree with women preaching, while respondents 55 to 64 are more open. Younger evangelicals between 18 and 35 are more likely to align with the oldest demographic. The most surprisingly theological correlation: “When the sample is restricted to just those who believe that the Bible is literally true, three-quarters of those who attend services multiple times a week agree with women preaching during weekend services.” Those attending church most often also demonstrated the highest levels of support for women in the pulpit.

Just because something is popular does not make it true, and vice versa. Convictions should always be held on the basis of sound biblical hermeneutics and reason. Otherwise, sentiments will only be based on the direction of the wind.

Nevertheless, I take this as an encouraging sign. When women are given the space to lead according to calling and gifts, the church is blessed.

The Key to Freedom

If nations are to be understood by what they love supremely, then freedom is and always has been the key to America. But the question facing America is, what is the key to freedom? The present clash is not between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, urban and rural, heartlanders and coastals, or even globalists and nationalists, important though those differences are. The deepest division crosscuts these other differences at several points. At the core, the deepest division is rooted in the differences between two world-changing and opposing revolutions, the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, and their rival views of freedom and the nature of the American experiment.

[ . . . ]

There is no escaping the coming showdown, for Americans are fast approaching their Rubicon. Is 1776 to be restored (with its flaws acknowledged and remedied) or is it to be replaced by 1789 (and its current progressive heirs)? The outcome will favor one view of freedom or the other, or perhaps the abolition of freedom altogether. For the two main rival views are far more contradictory than many realize, and with their scorched-earth attitudes and policies, they cannot live with each other forever. The middle ground is disappearing. A clean sweep of the cultural landscape is what each wants, and neither will talk of compromise or allow anything to stand in its way. Either the classical liberalism of the republic will prevail and 1776 will defeat 1789, or the Left/liberalism o f 1789 will defeat 1776, and the republic will fail and become a republic in name only. The American republic divided in this way cannot stand. The United States can no more continue half committed to one view of freedom and half committed to the other than it could live half slave and half free in the 1860s.

[ . . . ]

Needless to say, the issues between the different sides are for Americans to debate and resolve. But such are the stakes for all humanity, particularly when the debate turns to the future, that perhaps an outsider may raise some questions. What is freedom, and what are the terms of the American experiment? Which of the two rival views of freedom best serves the interests of human flourishing? Which of the two grounds the vision of a free and just society for all citizens, based on the dignity of every human person and allowing for disagreement and opposition? Which view allows a free people to sustain their freedom under the challenging conditions of the advanced modern world and the global era? How will the American experiment survive in the world of posthumanism? Statements about freedom are often deceptively simple, though profoundly consequential, yet they are the issues at the crux of the American crisis. The outcome of the struggle will determine the future of the American republic. It may also determine the future of humanity itself.

Os Guinness, Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become its Greatest Threat, p. 3-5

Is Os Guinness right?

Last Call for Liberty was published in 2018, and at that time I thought his rhetoric was provocative and bombastic, exaggerated to make a point. I agreed with Guinness about the nature of freedom, how difficult freedom is to sustain, how a constellation of commonly held ideas about freedom are absolutely critical for the overall well being of a nation, and how institutions must be healthy and well-functioning if a people are to flourish and thrive. I agreed with him about the uniqueness of the American experiment and the importance of knowing America’s history. I also agreed that America contained within her Constitution and her history mechanisms and systems for reform and refinement toward “a more perfect union,” and while flawed, that America was and is a good place to live.

The debate that Guinness foresaw is now here. Now is a time of testing, not only for individuals, but for communities. Guinness writes, “The personal and the interpersonal precede the political.” While most of us think of America firstly as a democracy, Guinness argues for its standing as a covenantal or constitutional republic whose well being depends on the health of our formal ties in marriages, families, schools, churches, and other voluntary associations. While many of us look to the national debates and the news media as a barometer for our societal health, that might just be the wrong place to look. We might be wiser to look to our city governments, churches, neighborhood associations, and civic life as a means of determining where we’re getting it right and where change needs to be enacted.

And as we engage, we need to do so as informed citizens, as people who are familiar with both our national triumphs and our national sins. To deny either would be naive. But we must also be clear on the ideas about freedom and liberty by which we would like to shaped, where they come from, and where they may lead us. As Guinness clearly states, no less than the future is at stake.

iPhone Addiction

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I’d rather be addicted to this than addicted to a phone. But sadly I’m showing the signs.

What are the symptoms of phone addiction? Read:

  • Using your cell phone for longer than initially intended
  • Spending a great deal of time using and recovering from excess cell phone use
  • Inability to cut down or control cell phone use despite trying to do so
  • Urges or “cravings” to be on your cell phone
  • Using your cell phone in situations that make it physically hazardous, such as texting while driving
  • Continued cell phone use despite adverse physical or psychological consequences of use
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using your cell phones, such as restlessness, anxiety, and anger
  • Feelings of panic or anxiety about losing your cell phone
  • Feelings of irritability, anxiety, stress, and other mood changes when unable to respond to or receive messages
  • Checking your cell phone obsessively for emails, calls, and texts
  • Using your cell phone in inappropriate places like church or the restroom
  • Missing out on social opportunities and face-to-face interactions so you can use your cell phone
  • Loss of interest in favorite or long-held hobbies and activities
  • Frequent and constant checking of a phone within very brief periods of time
  • Using your cell phone frequently to achieve satisfaction and relaxation, or to counteract negative moods
  • Thinking you may have heard your cell phone ring or felt it vibrate when it hasn’t

I carry my phone everywhere, check it too often, use it to cope with boredom, and fall down too many rabbit holes. It’s my camera, my radio, my encyclopedia, my news source, and my direct line to friends (and strangers).

Here’s a few fun stats:

– The typical cell phone user touches his or her phone 2,617 times every day. 2,617 times!

– Most people, on average, spend 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phones each day.

– Half of all phone pickups happen within 3 minutes of a previous one.

Joshua Becker, Seven Proven Ways to Break Your Cell Phone Addiction

I was reading John Mark Comer’s book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and he mentioned in passing that setting your phone to grayscale could help you break the addictive habit of checking it impulsively, so I’ve given it a run. This Wired article tells you how to do it.

I also deleted Instagram from my phone after installing it shortly after the start of the pandemic, and I’ve kept to my rule of having no more than one screen with which to interact (no swiping). My main application use is for listening to podcasts, tracking nutrition, staying disciplined with fasting, and for phone and text. I haven’t had an email app on my phone in years. I keep notifications off. That decision made me a happier person. Most of the time my phone is in “do not disturb” mode.

So much of life is being present, aware, and focused. Cell phones are energy-takers. Social media applications are designed to consume more and more of your time. And most of what I can do on a phone I can do on my browser, at a computer, when I sit down to work.

Thus far, the change is working. But I still have more paring down to do. The goal is a simpler life. Less stress. More room for the expansiveness of thought, creativity, and soul.

Get Lighter

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Changes are more often by necessity than by choice. Circumstance, context, or crisis dictates our doing something different. Adjustments and alternate ways of being are adopted according to the needs of the moment, rather than as an extension of a grand design.

Our global pandemic–this moment of humanity’s shared plight–has created just such a circumstance where changes are not so much chosen as they are simply required.

The range of options has narrowed. A recent walk around the neighborhood gave me time to reflect on this reality, on how the past few months have reduced my commitments and have opened up space. I’ve spent less time in the office and much less time in the car. I’ve spent less time involved with youth sports (soccer season was cancelled, as was coach pitch) and more time in the presence of my family. I’ve spent little time at the church building but more time in study and in reflection. There has been less money spent at restaurants and more intention directed toward what I eat (or don’t) while at home. I’ve spent less time in a gym and more time biking, hiking, walking, and exercising with equipment I own.

The pandemic has given me the opportunity to get lighter. Some responsibilities were naturally released or discontinued; others were paused. The lack of mobility has led to deepened presence, and greater awareness, directed toward one place: my life. Energy reserves that were previously consumed by other commitments and interactions have been released for other endeavors. Margin, which I did not actively choose, was opened. I’ve been free to evaluate systems, assess gifts, reflect, and to look forward. Deaccumulation, which I did actively chose, has become a discipline of freedom. Closets and drawers now have more space, piles have disappeared.

A life, like a good story, has arcs and spirals, peaks and valleys, ascents and descents, triumphs and defeats, in-breakings of light and unforeseen moments of enveloping darknesses. The journey metaphor, though overdone, remains useful. The passage of time and the traversing of distance often result in us picking up a thing or two. Some mementos are tangible and physical, others are ephemeral or emotional. All carry weight.

Moments like these allow us to reflect and decide that which we will continue to carry and that which we will choose to lay down. Some of us find that our lives are evenly weighted; we bear exactly those things that are ours to bear. Others find that responsibilities are now before them they must take up, that now is the moment of maturity and growth and expansion. Lastly, and finally, there are those of us who will discover that they are weary, that the load must be lightened, that strength must be gathered, and preparations must be made for the work and the walk that remains ahead.

Getting lighter does not mean seeking after the life that is easiest, but rather seeking the life that is best. Jesus, after all, described his way as the taking up of the easy yoke and his burden as being light, not because it was not a burden, but because in the bearing of it consistently and over time with him, one discovers what it means to be fully human while living in full communion with God.