Category Archives: Theology and Ethics

Fleeing From Hell or Running to God?

Today, I had a good, practical question about my sermon on Hell this past Sunday (September 26, 2021). The question boiled down to this: if Hell only means destruction, if the consequence of Hell is not eternal torment, but rather simply that one ceases to exist, what reason is there to turn to God? What follows are short versions of my two best answers.

First, most people want to continue to exist. Sometimes, on hectic days, I think ceasing to exist wouldn’t be so bad—it would really free up my schedule—but most of the time, I fall into the human default position of wanting to continue being. When the early Methodists talked about “fleeing the wrath to come,” they were probably referring to eternal torment. However, for me, annihilation would still fall under the category of “the wrath to come.”

Second, while both fleeing Hell and moving toward God point you in the same general direction, your motivation can make a big difference. For example, would you want to marry someone who only wanted to get out of a bad situation, or would you prefer to marry someone who loved you and wanted to be with you? I think God will take us either way, but I can’t help but think that God would rather we come because God’s love pulls us in than that we come because the fear of Hell is pushing us away. Either way, we will be welcomed home, but our motivation makes a difference in the nature of our journey.

A Hedge of Protection?

Until a few years ago, I had never heard anyone ask God for a “hedge of protection.” I’ve heard it a lot since then, often in reference to Covid-19. The reference would appear to be to the way thorny hedges were used to protect livestock during biblical times. I liked the idea but I have noticed that most of the time it’s invoked, it’s requested by people who have otherwise declined to do their part to look after themselves and those in their care, much less their neighbor at large.

I believe in asking for God’s help, but to ask for God’s help while at the same time refusing to take advantage of other forms of help that God has placed close at hand is something difficult for me to bear. I wanted to write a pastoral blog post advising folks not to do this. The first step was to look up where in the Bible the phrase “hedge of protection” comes from. That first step turned out to be a doozy.

I looked up the phrase in the King James Version. There is no use of the term “hedge of protection,” but the word “hedge” is used nine times. You may disagree, but to me the most likely verse to be a candidate for the origin of the term “hedge of protection” is Job 1:10. There we read “Hast not thou made a hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land” (KJV). 

My first thought was that the people who started using this phrase apparently did so without reading the rest of the book of Job. Under no circumstances do I want my life story to follow Job’s narrative arc. But there’s more, these words are not spoken by God, or the devout Job, or the narrator, but by Satan. To me that’s more than enough reason to avoid using the phrase.

If someone can find another biblical reference where someone like the author of the Psalms invokes a hedge of protection, I’ll be happy to take the phrase back up, it has a nice ring to it. Until then I’m going to suggest that we stop using it. If you’re looking for a replacement, might I suggest that you ask God to extend God’s wings over you (e.g. Psalms 36:7 and 91:4). As near as I can tell, the Devil never invokes this image, but Jesus does (Matthew 23:27 and Luke 13:34).

Finally, as you invoke God’s protection, take up and use every means God has given you to protect yourself and others.

The Bible as a Model for U.S. History

This past Sunday (July 4, 2021), I talked about the fact that we as a country are blessed by the fact that we can (and do) admit our mistakes, repent, and seek to do better. That involves being truthful about our history and not omitting our mistakes as a nation. Here’s an article by Mark George asserting that to do so is to follow the example found in the Bible.

“As a Bible scholar, I am struck by the ways the Bible tells both the good and bad of ancient Israel’s history – even when the narratives conflict. Instead of only celebrating moments of glory or tragedy, the Bible recounts both together. This approach to history – treating narratives as one rather than cherry-picking the bits that fit a certain point of view – offers an example of how we can reframe the debate about how the U.S. tells its own history.” — Mark K. George

You can read the whole article at https://bit.ly/3yxGr6L.

Known But to God

I woke up this morning to a Memorial Day that was cold, grey, rainy, and thus dreary. I’ve always felt that days like this are oddly appropriate for graveside services. It seems appropriate for observing Memorial Day as well. I wanted to share the picture below of a cross-shaped tombstone reading, “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” “Known but to God.” It’s enough for that soldier, and it’s enough for us as well. When we feel small and insignificant, we can find comfort in knowing that we are known to God. In time we will know fully, even as we are now fully known. (See 1 Corinthians 13:12.)

Photo by Nathan Gibbs — Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) — https://www.flickr.com

A Crisis Reveals What Is In Our Hearts

Pope Francis has published a moving editorial about the pandemic in the New York Times. He writes of how moments of crisis like these reveal what is in our hearts. The best line: “If we are to come out of this crisis less selfish than when we went in, we have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain.”

It’s not brief, it’s not entertaining, but I encourage you to take the time time to read it.

Link: https://nyti.ms/39jfRoy

A More Christian Love Of Country

Note: 2019-2020 has been a difficult year for the United States, but I still love America as an adult child loves a parent. For that reason I’m reposting these thoughts from 2015.

Warning: what follows is a post in the vein of the Old Testament prophets. You may want to skip it and for that I do not blame you, but I feel compelled to write it.

I have heard our love of country compared to our love of our parents. When we are children, we love our parents as only children can. We love them without being aware of their flaws and shortcomings.* As adults, we recognize that our parents are fallen human beings, and yet we love them still. (This is Christ-like in that it is also the nature of God’s love for us.) I believe that the love we have for our country should be like the love of an adult child for his or her parents. This means that we have to acknowledge that our country, however much we love it, is not perfect.

To that end, I want to share two links. The first is a historic address by Frederick Douglas titled The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. The following passage is considered one of Douglas’ most moving:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

The second is a contemporary blog post by a Native American titled The Dilemma of the Fourth of July. It’s author, Mark Charles, highlights the reference to Native Americans as savages in The Declaration of Independence and then writes:

“This is the dilemma that Native ‘Americans’ face every day. The foundations of the United States of America are blatantly unjust. This land was stolen. Native peoples, Africans and many other minority communities have long been recipients of systemic racism. And the roots of it are right there for the entire world to see, printed in many of our founding documents; like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and United States Supreme Court case rulings.”

My hope is that by confessing the sins of our nation’s past, we might move forward to a better, holier future.** Like the hymn America the Beautiful, I want to extol our nation’s virtues and ask God to “mend [our] every flaw.” Mark Charles feels the same way, writing:

“You can still light your fireworks and eat your BBQ, but please remember God’s incredible mercy upon our violent and unjust nation. And at the end of the day, I humbly ask you to conclude your celebrations with the following prayer.

‘May God have mercy on the United States of America and give us the courage necessary to create a common memory.'”

I understand “common memory” to mean an accurate understanding of our past that is shared by enough people that it helps to shape a more just future. I will pray that prayer.

Links:
The Meaning of the Fourth for the Negroto.pbs.org/1M1bUQv
The Dilemma of the Fourth of Julybit.ly/1C9J93Q

*My apologies to my own parents for the use of this comparison. I should note that my mother has very few shortcomings, and I share all my father’s flaws.
**Credit where credit is due: In 2009 Sam Brownback helped lead a successful effort to get a formal apology to Native Americans approved by Congress and signed by the President. Sadly, he could not get it passed as a stand-alone bill and it had to be slipped into an appropriations measure.

A Devotion from Rev. Rick Saylor

A few days ago in the Great Plains Conference daily email there was a devotion from your former pastor, Rick Saylor. With his permission I’m sharing it here.

Being troubled has taken on a life of its own in these pandemic times. It creates various intense emotions and disturbances. Mental preoccupations and confusion as well as a general sense of unsettledness. Everyone is living with being troubled in one way or another. It’s a new global normal! And we struggle with managing our “troubles” and our inner reactions to them like never before.
 
Our Judeao-Christian Biblical tradition often addresses human troubles, fears and anxieties with realism yet hope. A familiar verse of the Gospels addressing human difficulty records Jesus saying “let not your hearts be troubled.” Note he addresses our hearts not our minds. Troubles will always create stress and conflict in our thinking. It’s the way of things. But Jesus points to our hearts – the core of our being and the essence of who we are. He seems to be saying do not let your God given self, your identity, your spirit be “troubled” – Greek word “tapassestho” – which translated may mean don’t let the essence of who you are (your heart) be “stirred up, disturbed, unsettled or thrown into confusion.”
 
Jesus is appealing to our higher nature – our better angels if you will – to rise above being troubled – by being “trustful.” “Believe in God, believe in me” are the next words of the verse. Jesus says believe in me, believe beyond you, in times of overwhelming difficulties that a power of love and benevolence holds me, holds you, holds the world. Even now in this global COVID-19 pandemic. So, choose trust not troubles as your inner default. A trust that affirms who you are and who’s you are, that is a reality beyond any troubles and any experience of “being troubled.”

The Stockdale Paradox

Recently, I learned that Kansas State University Research and Extension has extended its ban on face-to-face 4-H meetings and events through July 4, 2020. [1] This more than any other bit of news has brought home to me the fact that we are in this for the long haul.

Because we’re in it for the long haul (whether we want to be or not), I would recommend an article by Jim Collins (no relation) on what he calls the Stockdale Paradox. Said paradox is named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest-ranking military officer held at the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. Go read it here. I’ll wait.

Boiled down to it’s essentials (just in case you didn’t go read the article), the Stockdale paradox is that we have to have faith that we will prevail, and even that we will come out stronger on the other side, without denying the hard fact that we are in for a long, difficult time of it. [2]

Those of us who claim Christ as our Risen Savior know that one way or another, we will come out of this crisis stronger than we went in. Our faith tells us that in Jesus Christ—who conquered evil, sin, and death in his suffering, death, and resurrection—we will prevail. While we can do this, we must also acknowledge that this is going to be hard, and it’s going to take longer than any of us want it to. Jesus, the most faithful, fully-human being to ever walk the face of the earth, suffered. There is no reason to believe we can avoid doing likewise. But the Christ’s suffering and death were not the end of the story. This difficult time need not be the end of our story, either.


[1] “K-State Research and Extension Has Extended Its Ban on All Face-to-Face Extension Programs, Meetings and Events through July 4, 2020.,” K-State Research and Extension, accessed April 19, 2020, https://bit.ly/3eLkvMu.

[2] Jim Collins, “The Stockdale Paradox,” JimCollins.com, accessed April 19, 2020, https://bit.ly/2Y1Ouda.

Christ Is Risen

To be honest, I didn’t know how I would feel this Easter morning without the prospect of gathering together in the sanctuary to celebrate. But as I woke up and realized what day I was waking up to the words that came to mind were from the hymn “Christ is Risen” by Brian Wren:

“Christ is risen! Shout Hosanna! Celebrate this day of days.” [1]

That’s the way I’m feeling. Thank God for Jesus Christ, thank God for Easter, thank God for the power of the Holy Spirit to make all things new.


[1] The full text of the hymn can be found as number 307 in The United Methodist Hymnal.

The Full Weight of Evil, Sin, and Death

As a Christian, I believe that, on the cross, Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, took upon himself the full weight of all the evil, sin and death in the world. This year, it seems to me, that burden is even weightier than ever. But I still believe that Christ was, is, and will be triumphant. My wish for each of you this Good Friday is that you may know the presence of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of your sins, and the hope of the resurrection.