Tuesday, July 29, 2008

nothing can separate us (romans 8)

A couple of weeks ago all four of us, my wife, our two college age daughters and I were in the car together. This rarely happens. We were through the mountains of Western North Carolina to Atlanta. We were going to see the Braves. They lost, but it was still a great day. As we passed through Franklin my wife and I recalled an experience that had happened years ago.

When our children were small we would make our way into the mountains, about this time of year, and we would go gem-mining. I want to suggest that reading the 8th chapter of Romans is like ascending a mountain peak, and reflecting on Paul’s words can be like discovering gems. As we sift through this passage of scripture, I want to lift up a few of these gems for us this morning. Each is worthy of our attention.

First: the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought. From Paul, a mature Christian, writing at the end of his life, a veteran missionary, evangelist, apostle, this has to be wonderful news for us. Most of us, if we were honest, would have to concur with him: we do not know how to pray as we ought.

We struggle with this basic Christian activity: prayer. Do you remember the television show I Dream of Genie? Sometimes we come to prayer that way. That if we do something or want something, and posture toward God in some way, if we feel the right way, or speak in the appropriate tone of voice, it will happen and our request will be granted! A friend’s little boy was headed to bed one night and before leaving the den he said to the others in his family, “I’m going to bed! I’m going to say my prayers! Anybody want anything?”

We do not know how to pray as we ought. Sometimes we are distracted. Sometimes we are selfish. Sometimes we don’t see the point. Sometimes we think we could be doing something more useful. Sometimes we imagine that there are other, more spiritual people who pray. We do not know how to pray as we ought. Thomas Merton, the mystic and spiritual writer of the last century said once that we are all beginners at prayer. The wonderful news is that the spirit helps us in our weakness…the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words…God searches the heart…

God is at work in our prayers, even beyond our words, God intercedes, God helps us to pray. I love the translation of The Message: If we don’t know what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our prayer in and for us…He knows us far better than we know ourselves.

The good news is that God is with us, as close to us as a Father (Abba) and a mother (the Spirit in Hebrew and in Aramaic, which Jesus spoke, was female). We don’t always know what we want, what we should pray for, and that’s okay. God knows us far better than we know ourselves.

And so we come honestly, without pretense, to God in prayer. The best training for this kind of prayer is the Book of Psalms. I spent a week in June at a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota. The Benedictines have around for about fifteen hundred years. They pray four times a day (in some communities seven times a day, tracing the practice back to Psalm 119).

How do they pray? They pray the psalms. In a month’s time they have worked through the Book of Psalms (there are 150 Psalms, and about thirty days in a month; here ends the math lesson!). Later in the summer I was looking through something and came across an interview with Billy Graham. How does he pray? He reads five psalms a day. In this way he reads through all of the psalms in a month. If we don’t know how to pray, here is simple way to get started: to read and pray through the psalms each day.

Why might this be a good spiritual path for us? In the Psalms we find fear, uncertainty, anger, but also joy, happiness, and thanksgiving…there is a Psalm for wherever we are in life, on any particular day. We do not know how to pray as we ought…but the spirit helps us in our weakness.

A second gem: All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (8. 28). This is a word of assurance, and it has brought enormous comfort to Christians across the centuries. It reminds us of the purpose and providence of God.

But this verse of scripture can also be perplexing. All things work together for good? Illnesses, deaths, losses? All things work together for good? Floods, psumanis, earthquakes? All things work together for good? We may want to believe this about God, and yet it does not always fit our human experience.

There was a belief, especially in the Old Testament, that if you were good and righteous, God would bless you. And if you were bad and evil, God would curse you. People formed judgments about others. The friends of Job saw his suffering and said to him, “Job, it must have been your sin”. In the 9th chapter of John a man was born blind and someone asked Jesus, “Who sinned? This man or his parents?”

And so, back to Romans 8. 28. If all things don’t seem to be working for the good…maybe we don’t really love God enough, maybe we aren’t called according to his purpose? Romans 8. 28 can be comforting, and it can be challenging. It depends on where you are in life when you hear it.

Again The Message is helpful: We can be sure that every detail of our lives of love for God is worked into something good. We often sense this reality most powerfully as we look back at our lives. I have shared an ancient Chinese parable with you before, but like most good stories it is worth repeating:

A man owned a horse. One day the horse ran away. The man’s friend said, “So sorry about your horse”. The man said, “Bad news. Good news. Who knows?” A few days later the horse came back with a herd of wild horses. The man’s friend said, “wonderful”. The man said, “Good news. Bad news. Who knows?” The next day one of the wild horses threw the man’s son and broke both of his legs. The man’s friend said, “how awful” The man said, “Bad news. Good news. Who knows?” Later the village men were all called into war, but the son with the broken legs was excused. “Good news. Bad news. Who knows?”

I look back over my life and what seemed like bad news at the time is now good news. In college I wanted to be a biologist, and I studied hard, and I was, at best a mediocre student. I was never going to be a biologist. Bad news. Good news. Who knows? When I was finishing seminary I interviewed at two or three places to be an associate minister. I really wanted to go to a place that was up in the mountains. I ended up in a different place, actually at my third choice of three places. The senior minister turned out to be one of my most important mentors. “Good news. Bad news. Who knows?”

A door closes. Another door opens. Bad news. Good news. Who knows? The fact is that we don’t know. But we trust. Everything that happens to us will be woven into God’s purpose for our lives. In the moment, the purpose is not clear. But we persevere, and we trust that “the God who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it” (Philippians 1).

That “good news-bad news-who knows” parable reminds me of the challenge of figuring out what in our lives is bad news and what is good news. Romans 8. 28 can help us: God is at work, and in God’s own time, and within God’s own purpose, all things will work together for good. It is not that all things are good. All things are not good. But all things work together for good with those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.

A third and last gem: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. At the beginning of the Gospel we hear this good news: His name shall be called Emmanuel which means God is with us. At the conclusion of the Gospel we also hear this good news: I am with you always, the Risen Lord says, even until the end of the age.

This passage, Romans 8. 35-39, is one of best known portions of the Bible. It is often read at memorial services. We read this passage on Tuesday, in the memorial service for our friend Harry Smith. I would hope that my family would choose this passage at my memorial service. Having said this, I want us to know that this passage is about much more than death. It is the promise that, in this life, nothing can separate us. Not our personal sin, nor the principalities and powers of structural sin. This is the good news of the book of Romans.

Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Our great good fortune is that through all of the conditions of life…some of them are listed in verse 35---hardship, distress, persecution, famine, peril, sword, nakedness (which I take to mean that we do not have the resources to buy clothing)----God stands beside us, intercedes for us. Indeed, Paul says, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

In Romans 1, we were introduced to the good news of a power that could salvage human life, even the abuses of pride and ego, even the ravages of shame and guilt. And in Romans 3 we came face to face with the truth: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are not just talking about other people. We have met the enemy and she is us! In Romans 5, we were reminded of this good news, because we do have a tendency to forget: we are justified by faith, which is a gift, and in this faith we have peace with God, because of the cross of Jesus Christ. And then, in Romans 6, we struggled with some of the implications of all of this---if it is all a gift, does it really matter what I do, or how I respond? If my works do not save me, can I live any way that I wish?

Well, no. When our lives are salvaged, we want to be conformed to the image of Christ, who loves us, who is in the process of restoring us; we are all in a sense like that piece of furniture that I found beside the road. We want to become the new creation that God has promised. Along the way, we will have questions: how do I communicate with (pray to) this God? How do I make sense of the bewildering things that happen along the way? Why do I sometimes feel like I am all alone?

On those summer days in the mountains we would dig our hands into the mud, and sift through it, and we would uncover these gems. They were there all of the time. Some of them we still have. Reading the book of Romans is like that. These insights are not obvious, but they are always there, waiting to be rediscovered, like treasures hidden in a field, words about prayer, purpose, relationship.

It all builds to this climax. One biblical scholar (N.T. Wright) has noted that the end of Romans 8 summarizes the last four chapters (5-8) and it is like a symphony that is entering its final moments, full of sustained excitement, getting faster and faster toward the end, with phrases taken from earlier parts of the music and being twirled together in triumph. If God is for us, who can be against us? The implied answer—no one. Who will bring any charge against God’s people? The implied answer—no one. Who is in a position to condemn? The implied answer—no one. What can separate us from the love of God? The implied answer—nothing!

As Paul reminds us, if God is for us, who can be against us? This, brothers and sisters, is the good news!

Sources: New Interpreter’s Bible, “Romans” , N.T. Wright. Hal Brady, Keeping The Faith of Our Christian Heritage. Douglas J. Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans. The Message, translated by Eugene Peterson. Paul For Everyone, N.T. Wright. Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of The Gospel.

Monday, July 28, 2008

the tao of willie

"Honestly, I don't read music that well. Or I don't read well enough to hurt my playing."

Willie Nelson, in conversation with Wynton Marsalis and Newsweek (7.18.08).

Friday, July 25, 2008

a day off

It was a nice day off. I awoke to learn that Jacques is still in Miami, having missed his flight to Cap Haitien (:-(...and so we worked out a solution, which involved going to a couple of banks, which I was glad to do. Jacques, I hope you get there soon! I exercised at the Y, where I saw a couple of church members and a pastor-friend in the district. Then I went to Borders, where I browsed for awhile, finally using a coupon to purchase a Wilco cd, the one with "Jesus, etc." on it. Then home, where I read the midday office ---I REALLY like Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours pocket edition; then lunch at one of my three favorite Charlotte mexican restaurants (this one prepares all of their food with no trans-fats, if you can believe it). Then I began reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. One gem early on: "You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget" (12). I love depressing movies and books, so I think I will really enjoy The Road; if you saw No Country For Old Men you will understand. Pam is in Haiti for a few days, checking out a school that we may enter into a partnership with, so it is just me and our younger daughter. Last night we had gone to see Get Smart. I had heard lukewarm reports about it, but I liked it. But then again, I like Steve Carell (as an aside, it was ironic that a clip on diversity from The Office was played at General Conference, since the whole point of The Office was how cheesy that sort of thing usually is...but that is another story. Note: Diversity is not cheesy; the mainline bureaucratic portrayals often are.). Back to the movie: Get Smart is about discovering your true vocation in life, as Agent 86 pursues his dream, and it is about finding that special person with whom to share this life's journey, in this case Agent 99. Again, I liked it. But then my wife would say that I like not only depressing movies but also stupid ones. Anyway, late in the afternoon I grilled, cheeseburgers and corn on the cob, all on the grill, using a technology I have come to really love that does not involve gas or lighter fluid, but a chimney type device that heats the brickets very quickly and efficiently. The food was excellent. Then my daughter and I watched an episode of Scrubs---which I have decided is all about daydreaming on the job. This evening the first Monk episode of the season airs, and I am ready for it. A totally mindless day, and tomorrow I will look forward to getting back into Romans 8. 26-39, which is the Sunday text, for those who are living by the lectionary.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

three opportunities for spiritual growth

Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is,
and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.

Jeremiah 6. 16 (NIV)


I hope you are having a good summer. I want to make you aware of three opportunities that will take place in the fall, and to invite you to prayerfully take part in one or more of them, particularly if you live in the Charlotte area.

I believe there is a spiritual hunger in our world, and that Christianity provides the meaning and purpose that many people are seeking. I have taught Disciple for several years and am totally committed to it as the very best Bible Study that is available. Having said that, there are many other good ways of approaching the scriptures, and our church offers a number of these options. It is all good!

In the fall, I will be leading (or co-leading, in a couple of instances), studies that are grounded in scripture but take the adventure of the Christian life to a slightly different place. I want to let you know about the schedule, and, again, I ask that you consider taking part.

1. On Wednesday evenings in the fall, Robb Webb, a member of Providence UMC, a probationary deacon in our annual conference and a staff member of the Duke Endowment, and I will lead a study based on the book by N.T. Wright entitled "Simply Christian". N.T. Wright is one of the foremost biblical scholars in the world; he is also very engaged with the culture (he was recently on the Colbert Report:
http://www.comedycentral.com/colbertreport/videos.jhtml?videoId=174352). The sessions will begin with Holy Communion at 6:15, and the teaching component, which includes a video, will begin at 6:30-7:30. We are especially inviting young adults, and hope to have a group each week that goes out for a meal afterward. The dates are September 17-November 19. In the series Wright makes strong connections between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit and justice, spirituality, beauty, and relationships.

2. Also in the fall, Bill Jeffries and I will join the two rabbis at Temple Israel, Murray Ezring and Faith Cantor, in four evenings of Bible Study on the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The dates are October 19 and 28, and November 11 and 18. This is a prelude to a interfaith study of the Book of Genesis that the four of us will lead in the winter of 2009. This interfaith study will be limited to twenty-five persons from Providence and twenty-five persons from the Temple. It will take place on Tuesday evenings, the exact dates to be determined. Sue Nealy (
snealy@providenceumc.org) is already compiling the list for the interfaith study.

3. The third offering will be four Wednesday mornings, September 10, October 8, November 12 and December 10, from 11:00-12:00 noon. Our topic will be daily (morning and evening) prayer, and this will be a practice, spiritual exercise-based group. To put it simply, you will learn a method of praying that will work for you! Our text will be a really wonderful new book by Robert Benson entitled "In Constant Prayer". It is published by Thomas Nelson and is available through Amazon or Cokesbury.

All of these classes are open to all, so please share this with interested friends. To sign up for group # 1 (Simply Christian/Wednesday nights) or group #3 (daily prayer), please write to Carol Grinham (cgrinham@providenceumc.org). She will keep the list.

Again, I hope you can take part in one of these groups. And I am hoping that you are having a good summer.

The peace of the Lord,


Monday, July 21, 2008


"Pastors who insist on recognition become narcissists."

Eugene Peterson
Collegeville Institute
19 June 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

jurisdictional conference: final thoughts

The Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference has come and gone. We elected an excellent person as a bishop, Paul Leeland, and he will serve in Alabama-West Florida, a fine annual conference. Our annual conference, Western North Carolina, will receive Larry Goodpaster. I (and everyone with whom I have spoken) could not be happier.

The SEJ conference really focuses on these two tasks, the election and assignment of bishops. There is also the election of persons to general boards and agencies (I will serve a second four year term on the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry), and some business related to the ministries of the southeast region. In each case these are "shrinking pies": with the growth of the global church, there are fewer roles for folks in the U.S. (see my blogging after General Conference in May), and most annual conferences are doing youth ministry at a fairly high level of sophistication (for example, Floridians are not motivated to drive many hundreds of miles to have high quality youth events). And so we spent some time dividing up all of this---as I said in Fort Worth, the subtext of most of the deliberation is "ourselves in relation to each other".

When the proceedings got too tedious, I began reading a work by Bartholomew, the ecumenical patriarch of Orthodoxy (he is the spiritual leader of 200 million orthodox Christians, and is often referred to as the "Green Patriarch"). I commend his work Encountering The Mystery, and spending some time with it helped me to put some of the conference in perspective.

I did enjoy seeing many friends from other conferences, most of whom I rarely have the opportunity to encounter---Charles Smith, Paul Stallsworth and Carl Frazier of North Carolina, Karl Stegall of Alabama West Florida, John Culp, Carolyn Briscoe, James Salley and Smoke Kanipe of South Carolina, Randy Cooper ( a candidate for the episcopacy) from Memphis, Wiley Stephens, David Jones and Ed Tomlinson from North Ga, Hal Brady from South Ga, Jim Harnish of Florida, Clarence Smith and Beth Downs of Virginia. I also came to love the people from our own delegation, having shared very close quarters over many hours with them in Texas and at Lake Junaluska. It was good to chat briefly with a few of the bishops (Tim Whitaker about orthodox theology, Ray Chamberlain about a church he had started in Lynchburg, Va, and Jack Meadors, about the memorial service for his wife four years ago). I did not get to talk with Will Willimon, which was too bad, although he led us pleasantly through a portion of the business. We had another retirement party for our bishop (Lawrence McCleskey). A couple of folks told me they were regular readers of this blog (thank you!).

This conference was shaped by a series of teaching sessions related to the United Methodist way. At their best, they reminded us of important characteristics of our tradition (here Randy Maddox stands out); at less helpful times, they seemed like lectures already prepared for divinity school classroom settings, with little flexibility to adapt to the circumstances or the audience (thus how does a presenter condense a lecture from an hour to forty minutes, and thus improve it?). And yet, all in all, the conference was improved by the teaching sessions, even if they did take some of the time usually devoted to conferencing between delegates. Learning is a good thing.

All things culminated in a remarkable concert of music by a group of youth from the Virginia Conference, followed by more music from the Lake Junaluska Singers (to be honest, and imho, a little of their music goes a long way for me; forgive me for saying that). Then all the bishops came out on stage with their spouses. Given the luck of the draw, the WNC delegation sat right in front, so I had a great view (as opposed to the last two general conferences in which our delegation was seated in the adjacent county). All of the bishops were assigned. Larry Goodpaster is coming our way, and I think this will be a great time for the church of Jesus Christ, and especially the people called Methodists, in western North Carolina.

And now, I am happy to be back home, and look forward tomorrow to worshipping GOD tomorrow with the people of Providence UMC in Charlotte. If you are in the neighborhood, join us at 8:30 or 11:00.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

jurisdictional conference

I am sitting in Stuart Auditorium, in the midst of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. We began with interviews of candidates for the office of Bishop yesterday, had Holy Communion this morning, and began voting just prior to lunch. After four ballots, Paul Leeland of the North Carolina Conference has just over two hundred votes; three hundred are needed for election. I am receiving a very small handful of votes each time, although I am not an official candidate (and I promise that I am not voting for myself!).

Randy Maddox spoke earlier today about the Methodist or the Wesleyan way, and this evening three other Duke Divinity School faculty are making presentations. It has been very hot here in the auditorium at times, but at the moment it is cooling off. I believe that we will have one more ballot tonight, and we will have worked for more than twelve hours.

At the end of the week, after a Bishop has been elected, all of the Bishops will be assigned, and then we will return home:-)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


Our annual mid-summer respite in the mountains of western North Carolina. I have been reading alot. I highly recommend Greg Garrett's memoir, Crossing Myself, and Rodney Clapp's Johnny Cash and The Great American Contradiction. I am intentionally trying not to think about work, or the local church, and this primarily because I enjoy the church and the people I serve so much, and find that the year goes much better if I have had some detachment from it, even if for a couple of weeks of doing nothing. So I am walking around Lake Junaluska, most days twice, which would be five miles; I am watching very little television and have spent, I would guess, fifteen minutes in front of the computer the past seven days. I have prayed some, enjoyed breakfast today at a favorite pancake house in Maggie Valley (Joey's), taken a few naps, cleaned the gutters of our mountain cabin, saw Hancock (would you believe the movie matinee price in Waynesville is three bucks?), reconnected with a few neighbors here, run into a couple of bishops and a couple of bishop candidates (all of that happens, by the way, next week), and...I could go on. I love the summer, but I also eagerly look forward to returning to the pastoral work soon. But not yet...

By the way, I have a post at the Christian Century's blog, Theolog, which can be accessed in the links to the right.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

the 4th, odds and ends

We spent the 4th at Lake Junaluska, the assembly for United Methodists in the mountains of western North Carolina. The day included a quirky parade, a gathering that centered around barbecue and bluegrass music, then a nap, and then, that evening, fireworks by the lake, with friends. While waiting for the fireworks I ran into an old friend from Greensboro, Chip Hagan, whose wife is running for the U.S. Senate. Her name is Kay Hagan, and she is an exceptional human being. I have been reading alot, especially Geoffrey Wainwright's Embracing Purpose and a collection of essays by David Halberstam, the splendid sportswriter. And the weather in the mountains has been nothing short of miraculous--on two mornings the low was 49 degrees. I have been listening to Terence Blanchard's A Tale of God's Will (Requiem for Katrina) and a collection of Louvin Brothers songs entitled Living, Loving, Losing (among the contributors are Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Vince Gill, and Rodney Crowell). And today, the Braves picked up a needed win against the Astros in seventeen innings--the longest game in Turner Field history. We had seen them play on July 1 (they lost to the Phillies, but it was still great). Two days later fan favorite and right fielder Jeff Francouer was sent to the minor leagues. The move made front page news in the Atlanta newspaper. It has been a rough week for the Braves in several respects. Perhaps Jeff will find his swing in Mississippi, and the Braves will do well on their road trip to LA, as they face the Dodgers and former teammate Andrew Jones. The projected high tomorrow in the Asheville area is 82 degrees.