Wednesday, March 23, 2011


During Lent this year at University, we are inviting the congregation on all three campuses to join together in spiritual disciplines. This week's discipline is solitude. Everybody was challenged to spend one hour a day alone or take a half day during the week alone. In the south sanctuary, I invited the congregation to use that time to listen for the will of God in their lives. As I expected, I got a number of responses. Some people told me about what that already looks like in their lives and thanked me for the invitation. Others responded as though I had asked them to have some sort of unnecessary elective surgery. There is some truth to the idea that we are all wired a little different. Some of us naturally enjoy solitude. Others see it as punishment.

I can actually see why some might see it as punishment. I don't know about you, but when I got in trouble as a child, what did my parents tell me to do? Go to my room. Alone. "And don't make a sound." What my parents didn't realize was that, even as a child, I was an introvert. These two things aren't always connected but I also realized later when I became a Christian that I am a contemplative. So, my parents never realized it but, that punishment was not at all punishment to me. I loved and still love being by myself. As an introvert, time alone recharges my social batteries. As a contemplative, it is how I best connect with God.

When I was single with no children finding solitude was exceptionally easy. Now that I am married and have two children in my house, it has become a discipline for me. So my time of solitude comes early in the morning. I awake between 5 and 5:30 almost every day (even my days off) for a time of quiet, scripture reading and contemplation. Around 6:30 the time is comes to a natural end by the need to feed a baby or get a little boy dressed for school. These days, other than vacation and retreats, that is all I get, but it is enough for now.

So how about you? Are you engaging in the discipline of solitude this week? Or, is it already part of your life? Post a comment below and let us know what this looks like for you.



Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My non-review of Rob Bell’s Book

I have decided not to review Rob Bell’s latest Love Wins, A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Which means that this should be a short post. But it is not. My reason for not reviewing it might not be what you expect. It is not because I think Bell is a heretic or a false prophet or anything like that. Actually there are two reasons. One, it is because this is likely one of the most reviewed religious releases since The Shack. (I know that I will get an angry email for calling The Shack a religious release or lumping it in with Rob Bell or even mentioning it. So, go ahead. Just be gentle, I am prone to cry while under attack.) Second, there are some people who are angry about Bell's book. So angry that they are attacking, not just Bell, but any reviewer that has anything nice to say about him or his book. (Again, I tend to cry when under attack.)

If you want an in-depth analysis of Bell’s theology, how it stands alongside or against orthodox Christian doctrine, help yourself, you will find plenty. If you need a place to start head over to the website Jesus Creed: They look at some reviews from every angle.

So, instead of a review, I just have a few thoughts. There has been a lot of controversy about this book. But let me say, if you are a United Methodist, you have nothing to be afraid of reading this book. Some of my UM colleagues could disagree with me, but I would think you would be hard pressed to prove that Bell falls outside the flaps of the tent that we call United Methodist doctrine. (Pretty good for an author who is not a United Methodist.) This is to say that you don’t have to agree with everything he writes but it would probably be a stretch to label him a heretic. If you did, you would likely want to add some more reading to your list and offer the same tag to some United Methodist pastors, authors and theologians. Besides this, Bell is not asking anyone to agree with every point he makes. He is doing what he does well, starting conversations, opening up dialogue, especially with people who feel that Christianity has nothing left to say. He has been doing this for a while, so this is nothing new. With this said, if you don't agree with what he writes, you are also in good company. There are a number of United Methodists who will disagree with the theology represented in the book. That is fine. It is not the point of this post to engage Bell's theology. It is to say that it is okay to debate theology. We don't have to label one a heretic or label a book dangerous because we disagree with it. We can use it to continue a theological discussion that has been going on for 2000 years.

Okay, something that I didn’t find in many of the reviews that I read. The author does a great job of talking about atonement. A little review: atonement (or at-one-ment) – that thing that happens in the death of Jesus on the cross the restores us into right relationship with God. Okay, that is what it is, but how does it work? I think Rob Bell does a decent job of getting the idea across that any theory of how the atonement works is just that: a theory. They are all just ways of trying to explain the unexplainable, ways of using what we do understand to try to explain what is beyond our understanding. He writes,

For these first Christians, something massive and universe-changing had happened through the cross, and they set out to communicate the significance and power of it to their audiences in language their audiences would understand. And so they looked at the world around them, identifying examples, pictures, experiences, and metaphors that their listeners and readers would have already been familiar with, and then they essentially said:

What happened on the cross is like . . . a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again, an enemy being loved.

This is the same sort of thing I share in a lot of my classes (though Bell does it better) - that most Christians have one viewpoint for looking at the atonement. That is fine if that view helps them begin to understand what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The problem arises when they try to share that view with someone for whom it isn't helpful. It is good to be able to look at the unexplainable from a number of different viewpoints, to be able to help others begin to see what God has done and is doing.

One other thing. There have been a number of comments in the twitterverse and blogosphere accusing Bell of being controversial just to sell books. I cannot know Bell's heart but there is another possibility. Rob Bell and I share the view that a lot of people that God loves have been left behind by the church. Especially here in America, it isn't that people have not heard the Gospel proclaimed. It is that they have heard it or think they have heard it and said "no thanks." Bell has a relentless desire to share the Gospel message in a way that people can hear. This is not to be confused with changing the Gospel message to make it more palatable. This is explaining the unchanging universal truths in ways that speak the ever changing culture. Sometimes when people think they already know what you are going to say, you have to shout a little louder.



Friday, March 11, 2011


Yes, I have been writing about worship more than discipleship lately. Fortunately, worship is part of the journey of discipleship. But don't worry, I am working on some posts about systematic discipleship. Stay tuned.

Today I am writing about pulpits. I am writing specifically about the pulpit I will be standing in Sunday. I preached from the pulpit on Ash Wednesday and decided to leave it out for a while. I normally preach from the chancel right in front of The Lord's Table. To talk about the "why," I need to talk about the theological and liturgical significance of the pulpit. The pulpit is not just a fancy lectern. The pulpit is a piece of liturgical furniture that represents something more than its function. We have a baptismal font that is more than just a place to keep water. It is a permanent part of our worship space to remind us that baptism is at the center of our life as Christians and the entry point into the community of faith. Ours is fairly significant but some churches have giant, permanent water features to allow for submersion and to keep the sacrament even more visible. We have an altar-table, The Lord's Table, a place to set the elements of Holy Communion but also to remind us of the centrality of that family meal we share as Christians.

We have an odd relationship with these pieces of furniture. They are just things. But they are things that we have set apart. When we use the world holy, we usually mean just that, set apart. These are things that we have set apart for the worship of the Lord. Which brings me to the last thing, the pulpit. We believe that Christ himself, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is present to us in the reading and proclaiming of the Holy Scriptures. It doesn't take a special place for that to happen, however "if the reading and preaching of God's word is understood as a fresh theophany each time the people of God gather, then we need physical testimony to that belief in the form of a pulpit." (James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, Nashville: Abingdon, 2000, p. 88) In other words, if this is important, it should be visibly important.

Often people think the pulpit to be about the preacher, but the pulpit is about the Word of God. The reason pulpits became so ornate (and often high off the ground) was to elevate, not the preacher, but the word of God, a central part of our worship and life of faith.

However, not everyone likes the use of the pulpit. I have heard countless stories of people who connected with a preacher "because he came out of the pulpit." Sometimes we feel a better connection with a preacher when she or he comes closer, when an apparent barrier is removed. I think connecting with the Word is important as well. I think we often need to connect with the preacher in order to connect with the Word. However, we always need to remember that it is about the Word.

This is sort of a liturgical experiment. Especially if you worship with us on the south campus, I would love to hear your thoughts on the use of the pulpit. Let me be so bold as to direct the comments. I am less interested in the "I like it" and the "I don't like it" and more interested in the "why?" Given the background of why we would use a pulpit in the first place, how does it enhance or detract from the hearing of God's Word to us?



Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Little Adjustment

I shared last month in the post Preaching is like riding a bike... on the transition back to preaching full time. I thought it might be time for an update. The transition has been both joyful and nearly overwhelming. Joyful in that I love preaching. I love preparing. I love thinking and praying towards preaching again. The congregation has been extremely graceful. I am having a blast. Overwhelming simply in a workload sort of way. I have added, at minimum, ten hours to an already tough workload. But I am adjusting. Temporarily, it is cutting into blogging time, reading time and thinking time. But, that too will change as everything adjusts.

So, keep your eye on the blog. More to come.