Posted in sermons & addresses

Gospel glaucoma: Luke 4:16-30

This sermon was preached at the Norwin Church of the Nazarene in Irwin, PA, on Sunday, 9/25/22. All Scripture references are from the New International Version, as accessed at


Yesterday, I had an eye exam. All the tests that the optometrist put me through to check my vision were high tech and impressive. I’m glad that my eyes are still strong and have no ailments that she could detect, other than my ongoing farsightedness, which requires me to wear glasses to read. The experience got me thinking about what ailments can affect our sight. One condition is glaucoma. According to my optometrist, glaucoma is tunnel vision. Little by little, and usually with a person not even noticing, peripheral vision – everything off to the left and right – begins to disappear. Soon, vision deteriorates until all a person can see is limited to a narrow band in front of them.


In Luke 4, Jesus met a group of people who suffered from gospel glaucoma. They lived in the very town where Jesus grew up, the town of Nazareth. This was a tiny farming village, perched high on a hill, with probably only 200-400 people living there. It’s little wonder that when Philip told Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael replied: “Can any good thing come of out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). As descendants of Abraham, they were confident that God’s blessings were for them, but didn’t seem to realize that their spiritual outlook had become too narrow. Jesus was determined to help them understand that they were suffering from tunnel vision. To help focus our thoughts, let’s answer three questions raised by the story of our Lord’s rejection at Nazareth:

  1. What is the gospel?
  2. Who is the gospel for?
  3. How can we broaden our spiritual vision?
Continue reading “Gospel glaucoma: Luke 4:16-30”
Posted in Christian ethics, Christlike justice, pastoral care, reflections

A people of hope: Nazarenes on abortion

Environmental_day_specialAbortion legislation is coming fast-and-furious in the U.S. setting.  Multiple state legislatures  have been emboldened to pass restrictions, since the compositon of the U.S. Supreme seems to have recently shifted in a conservative direction, calling into question whether the landmark 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, will be overturned. At such a time, it’s helpful to review what our Nazarene Manual (2017-2021) has to say about abortion.

[Note: For those not part of the denomination, a bit of context is in order. Every four years, the Church of the Nazarene around the world sends delegates to a General Assembly. At the GA, decisions are made that govern the church. These decisions are codified in the Manual, the current version being for 2017-2021. The Manual also contains statements on social issues.]

Here’s the relevant section, from Manual 30.1, under the larger heading of “The Sanctity of Human Life”:

30.1. Induced Abortion. The Church of the Nazarene affirms the sanctity of human life as established by God the Creator and believes that such sanctity extends to the child not yet born. Life is a gift from God. All human life, including life developing in the womb, is created by God in His image and is, therefore, to be nurtured, supported, and protected. From the moment of conception, a child is a human being with all of the developing characteristics of human life, and this life is dependent on the mother for its continued development. Therefore, we believe that human life must be respected and protected from the moment of conception. We oppose induced abortion by any means, when used for either personal convenience or population control. We oppose laws that allow abortion. Realizing that there are rare, but real medical conditions wherein the mother or the unborn child, or both, could not survive the pregnancy, termination of the pregnancy should only be made after sound medical and Christian counseling.

Responsible opposition to abortion requires our commitment to the initiation and support of programs designed to provide care for mothers and children. The crisis of an unwanted pregnancy calls for the community of believers (represented only by those for whom knowledge of the crisis is appropriate) to provide a context of love, prayer, and counsel. In such instances, support can take the form of counseling centers, homes for expectant mothers, and the creation or utilization of Christian adoption services.

The Church of the Nazarene recognizes that consideration of abortion as a means of ending an unwanted pregnancy often occurs because Christian standards of sexual responsibility have been ignored. Therefore the church calls for persons to practice the ethic of the New Testament as it bears upon human sexuality and to deal with the issue of abortion by placing it within the larger framework of biblical principles that provide guidance for moral decision making.

(Genesis 2:7, 9:6; Exodus 20:13; 21:12-16, 22-25; Leviticus 18:21; Job 31:15; Psalms 22:9; 139:3-16; Isaiah 44:2, 24; 49:5; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:15, 23-25, 36-45; Acts 17:25; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:16; 7:1ff.; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6)

The Church of the Nazarene also recognizes that many have been affected by the tragedy of abortion. Each local congregation and individual believer is urged to offer the message of forgiveness by God for each person who has experienced abortion. Our local congregations are to be communities of redemption and hope to all who suffer physical, emotional, and spiritual pain as a result of the willful termination of a pregnancy.

(Romans 3:22-24; Galatians 6:1)

Continue reading “A people of hope: Nazarenes on abortion”

Posted in reflections

When sin grows wings and claws

This leopard stopped long enough for me to take his picture at the Nairobi (Kenya) safari walk.
This leopard stopped long enough for me to take his picture at the Nairobi (Kenya) safari walk.

It’s a moving scene from the film, “Amazing Grace.” William Wilberforce is desperate to make the horror of the slave trade concrete for those who have the power to abolish it but remain unconvinced. So he hosts an outing for selected members of the aristocracy, a short boat tour up the river Thames. What they don’t know is his real motive. As violins play, the boat steers alongside the Madagascar, a filthy slave ship just returned from the West Indies. Dramatically, Wilberforce calls out from the deck of the putrid vessel, inviting the aristocrats to breathe in deeply, to take in the stench that is slavery. Instinctively, women cover their noses with their handkerchief, shielding themselves. “Take away that handkerchief!” Wilberforce commands. “Breathe in the foul smell of slavery.”

In recent days, there have been two moments when we – like those aristocratic women – were tempted to shield ourselves from the foul smell of twin evils. The first was the hidden-camera videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of body parts harvested from abortions. Instinctively, media put up the “handkerchief” of diversion, focusing on other health services the group provides for the poor. “Don’t look at that, look over here instead!” was their plea. But it was too late. The public knows a putrid smell when it accosts our collective olfactory sense, and the damage was already done and will continue as more videos are released in coming weeks. Estimates are that 55 million unborn have been aborted since 1973, the year that Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in all 50 states. Some stenches are not easily covered up.

The second story that smelled foul was the baiting and slaying of Cecil, a majestic 13-year-old lion in Zimbabwe. Reports are that he was lured outside of the wildlife reserve where he lived by the use of a dead animal. Subsequently, he was skinned and his head severed. Whether laws were broken is still being determined, but the public is seething. Uproar continues as the media focuses on the story, and the American dentist who has admitted his involvement in the trophy hunt has gone into hiding.

As I look at the two stories, I’m reminded of a quote from Walter Rauschenbush in his 1917 A Theology for the Social Gospel:

When fed with money, sin grows wings and claws.

In both cases – the Planned Parenthood trading in body parts of aborted babies and the slaying of Cecil the lion – money has played a role. In a video featured at, Dr. Mary Gatter, President of Planned Parenthood’s Medical Director’s Council, discusses the price of fetal parts. She later jokes about “wanting a Lamborghini” in exchange for body parts. Some have argued that the videos have been cleverly edited for effect, but this has not stopped promises by members of Congress to investigate. Likewise, reports are that the American dentist who shot Cecil with his bow and arrow paid $ 55,000.00 to local hunters to assist him in the hunt, this despite the fact that there are now only 34,000 lions left in the wild in Africa.

The Apostle Paul appears to be on the same page with Walter Rauschenbusch. Writing to his young protégé, Timothy, he observed:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:19, NIV).

Admittedly, it’s hard to get past hand-wringing to workable solutions. As long as there is a financial incentive for selling parts of aborted babies, trafficking of this sort will continue. If convicted of having broken existing laws, Planned Parenthood should be fined massively so that any past profit will be mitigated. Closer regulation and monitoring should be put in place. Likewise, trophy hunting – to be curtailed – must take away the bragging rights of such hunters. The simplest way would be to deprive them of their trophy, and already Emirates Airlines has announced it will no longer transport trophy carcasses, with pressure mounting on other airlines to do the same.

The Psalmist affirms:

The LORD is good to all. He has compassion on all he has made (Psalm 145:9, NIV).

The love of money always has the tendency to undercut our compassion, whether toward human beings in utero or the rest of God’s good creation. We don’t need Lamborghinis and we don’t need animal trophies. Like Paul, let us be content if we have food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8). In the end, the only answer to greed and the vices it spawns is not more laws but a willingness to celebrate what God has already given us, the daily bread for which Jesus taught us to pray (Matthew 6:11). Only contentment – as individuals and as peoples – can prevent our sin from growing wings and claws.


UPDATE: This article from does a decent job of answering some of Planned Parenthood’s critics. It seems to me that any money given in exchange for fetal parts is too much. And – of course – it begs the question of what other abortion providers make profit from the trade, even if whether Planned Parenthood profits from this is still to be determined.

Posted in book reviews

The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Review

Professor James H. Cone

WARNING: This essay contains graphic language and images.

James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2011; Kindle edition) was a difficult read, at times excruciating for an American child of upper-middle class white privilege like myself. Yet if healing is ever to come – if we are ever to live as one race, the human race, for whom skin color is no more important than a dozen other interesting but secondary characteristics – then we must return to the scene of the crime. Reconciliation begins there.

For Americans, the crime scene spanned at least sixty years, from 1880-1940. Over that period, nearly 5,000 black Americans died at the hands of white lynch mobs (Cone, 3). The victims included a handful of women but were mostly men strung up on trees, castrated, pulled behind automobiles, flayed into unconsciousness and burned alive.

Lynching on 9 August 1930, in Marion, Indiana
Lynching on 9 August 1930, in Marion, Indiana

No due process of law was given to these black men often accused of raping white women. In many instances, white anger was provoked by consensual sexual intercourse between a black man and a white female (Cone, 127).

The Marion, Indiana lynching (pictured above) inspired Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allen) to pen the poem, “Strange Fruit,” later recorded by blues singer, Billy Holiday (cited by Cone, 120):

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree.

Continue reading “The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Review”

Posted in Bible

Jesus and the argument from silence

800px-Empty_bookThe headline caught my eye: “Here’s what Jesus had to say about (topic x).”  Underneath was an open book, with blank pages.

Clever, right? But is it a valid argument?

Let’s take the issue of cutting down trees. I might say:

Here’s what Jesus said about deforestation: ”          “

If felling trees and planting nothing in their place were wrong, one might assume that the Son of God would have uttered words against such an evil practice. In fact, we search Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in vain for a single word from Jesus on the subject. Accordingly, are we justified in clear-cutting the Amazon forest?

Another “hot-button” topic is abortion. Did Jesus have anything precise to say about it? No. Some might ask: “If it were so wrong, wouldn’t Jesus have spoken against it?”

The argument from silence makes conclusions based not on what Jesus said, but on what he didn’t say. But is it right to isolate Jesus’ teachings from the larger message of God’s revelation as contained in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments? The Lord responded to the pressing issues of his day, not all the pressing issues of our day. Still,  we can find principles about caring for the earth in the same Old Testament that Jesus recognized as God’s revelation. Psalm 104 praises the Creator and the beauty and splendor of creation. To mar that creation through deforestation is like taking a masterpiece by Rembrandt and slicing the canvas with scissors. In the same way, human beings – born and unborn – are God’s masterpiece. David affirms that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14, NIV). Deforestation and abortion alike are sins against both creation and Creator.

Apart from the Old Testament kings and prophets – the giants on whose shoulders Jesus stood – the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers fill in some of the gaps. A good example is slavery. Jesus is mute about it, yet Paul radically affirmed:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28, NIV

If one were intent on accepting only Jesus’ words (or lack thereof) as our guide, one could say:

Here’s what Jesus had to say about slavery: ”             “

Yet we don’t accept that argument, because we understand that God’s view of the issue must be more broadly considered, taking into account not just the words of Christ in the Gospels, but all of the Bible. And when we do that, we see that God had lots to say about it. Yes, we can argue over the meaning of verses addressing slavery – and slave owners and abolitionists in 19th century America did so in spades! –  but at least we’d be debating the significance of words and not the verbal vacuum of the argumentum ex silencio.

The next time someone references Jesus’ silence on an issue, don’t let it be the close of the discussion. Instead, let it spur you to dig deeper in the broader mine of Scripture, to unearth closely related principles from God that can guide us. The Church and our world deserve nothing less.


Image credit: Wikkipedia commons

Posted in reflections

James Dobson’s strange theology of Sandy Hook

James Dobson, Ph.D., well-known child psychologist
James Dobson, Ph.D., well-known child psychologist

On December 14, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. After a shooting rampage, 26 lay dead, among them mostly children.

Inevitably, there was a single question that arose in the face of such a tragedy: Why?

Many answers have been offered to that question, but one of the most ill-advised was that of Dr. James Dobson. In a December 27, 2012 radio broadcast (click here to listen), Dobson spent the first ten minutes or so reading a letter he had produced thirty years earlier, lamenting the breakdown of the family. Here he was on solid footing, clearly commenting within the area of his own professional expertise. Though Dobson has chafed in the past when critics have wrongly called him a preacher or evangelist, this did not prevent him from speculating about how God fits into the picture, comments picked-up and critiqued in multiple media outlets:

I am saying that something has gone wrong in America. We have turned our back on God. Millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist or He’s irrelevant to us. And we have killed 54 million babies…I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and upon God Almighty, and I think He has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.

Like James Dobson, I lament the 54 million unborn babies lost to abortion since the legalizing of Roe v. Wade in 1973. However, there are multiple problems theologically with Dobson’s statement. Here are some of the questions that arise:

1. Would God retaliate for 54 million abortions by allowing the killing of elementary school children?

These are not Dobson’s words as such, but in context, it is his clear implication. God allowed – on Dobson’s reading – “judgment” to fall on America. Apparently, the gunman was the instrument of that wrath. Yet did not Jesus say: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9b, NIV)? If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Our Savior is the one who took little children on his lap, hugged them, laughed with them, and told us that if we want to enter the Kingdom, we must become like them (Matt. 18:3). What a picture of unconditional love! God is not let off the hook by Dobson’s insertion of the word “allowed,” as if making God a bystander somehow lessens the offense. Child protection agencies recognize that child abuse is not the only way children are harmed; child neglect can be equally harmful to a child’s well-being. By Dobson’s logic, by allowing the gunman to go on his rampage, God neglected those children that day, supposedly to allow God’s “judgment” to fall. If Dobson is correct,  how could we worship such a God?

2. Is there an “evil streak” in God?

We serve a God who is just. God cares deeply about sin, and constantly warns us against its negative effects (Galatians 6:7, Romans 6:23). But James Dobson’s comments go beyond the image of a God of justice, painting instead an evil God.

I’m reminded of a story of a old golfer with salty language. One day, his pastor invited him out to golf. On the first hole, the old man stepped up to the tee, swung at the ball and totally failed to connect. “Darn’t!” he cried. “I missed.” Surprised, the preacher warned him: “You need to watch your language. God doesn’t like it when we talk that way,” to which he replied: “Nah, it’s no big deal.” On the second hole, the same scenario repeated itself – another swing, another miss. “Darn’t, I missed” he swore. “I told you on the last hole, God doesn’t appreciate that kind of talk” the pastor warned. Again, the old man shrugged it off. Finally, on the third hole, he swung like before and totally whiffed. Yet again, he griped: “Darn’t! I missed.” Suddenly, the skies opened up and a bolt of lightning descended, striking the pastor dead. Then came a booming voice from heaven: “Darn’t! I missed!”

If the killing of 26 at Sandy Hook was truly a demonstration of God’s judgment, we must admit that God had lousy aim, punishing the wrong individuals. In Ezekiel 18, God affirms that each of us bear the weight of our own sin, that judgment comes upon the guilty party and not upon the innocent. To say that God allowed a gunman to mow down school children in a hail of bullets is to make God the de facto executioner . In this way, shall we passively attribute to our just and loving God such a callous and wicked act? To do so would be to project upon God a darkness that is foreign to the divine nature. John affirms:

God is light. In him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5, NIV).

A dark cloud, an evil presence, invaded Sandy Hook on that day. A Hindu could believe that God – like the Force in Star Wars – has a “dark side” and a “light side,” but Christians dare not tolerate such a foreign idea in our theology. Shall we claim that God had anything to do – even passively – with that dark presence at Sandy Hook? How does that begin to fit with what we know about the character of God as revealed in Christ?

3. Are God and humans the only actors on the stage?

A final concern with James Dobson’s comments touch upon who exactly are moral agents with the power of free will. In theologies that over-accentuate the sovereignty of God – a God who controls all events in the minutest of detail – one is obligated to try to discern God’s plan in every circumstance, even the most egregious acts. Either God directly caused it or – to use Dobson’s language – “allowed” it. On the other hand, Gregory Boyd in God at War argued that God is not all powerful in so far as others also have volition that God has freely granted to them.

Who are these others?

These include human beings but also faithful angels and rebellious angels, including the devil and his demons. Since the Fall in Eden, Boyd argues that earth has become a battlefield. On such dangerous terrain, innocents are sometimes caught in the cross-fire. They may be injured, even killed. Through the Christ event – his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension – God has won a decisive battle, but the war will not end until the return of Christ in triumph. Meanwhile, we live in the precarious parentheses when the reign of Christ has been inaugurated but awaits final consummation. In this “already/not yet” of human history, terrible things still happen, yet we put our trust in a God who ultimately will defeat the forces of evil.

This acknowledgement of multiple actors on the stage frees us up to imagine other possibilities. I don’t for one minute believe that God had anything to do with the massacre at Sandy Hook, either actively or passively. What was God doing that day? God was surely seen in the heroic, selfless acts of administrators and teachers who laid down their lives for their students. God was there in the great calm granted to other teachers as they comforted their students, leading them hand-in-hand to havens of safety outside. God was there as reflected in the quick thinking of some teachers who hid their children in classroom closets and cupboards, and God was there in the warm embrace of first responders and churches who brought solace to the grieving. Evil showed up at Sandy Hook that day, but it was hardly a sign of God’s judgment. Rather, in the face of that evil our active and loving God was on the job as always, using people as divine instruments to bind up the wounds of the traumatized and the brokenhearted.


Dr. Dobson has earned the respect of many for giving sound advice on the family across the years, but in this instance, I think he misspoke, for the reasons I’ve outlined. Of course, this happens to all of us now and then. Hopefully he can revisit the issue in a later broadcast and clarify his remarks.


Photo credit: Mark Davis

Posted in Christian ethics

Abortion and the optimism of grace

african_amer_dad_kiss_babyI remember the moment when I first heard the word “abortion.” It was 1979 in Mrs. Ruch’s 10th grade English class and it was student debate day. In a twist on “show and tell,” my female classmate arguing against abortion brought pictures. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. From that day forward, I knew that abortion was to be avoided.

Theologians speak of the “optimism of grace.” But what does it have to contribute to the topic of abortion? The grace described in Scripture extends to all individuals. There is no nook or cranny of God’s creation where God’s seeking grace is not actively present! It reaches to the condemned prisoner on death row, to the woman unhappily pregnant, and to the developing child in her womb. The Psalmist’s words celebrate this pervasive presence of God:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

 For you created my inmost being;
 you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

– Psalm 139:7-16 (NIV, bolding added)

The Christmas story recounts how God used a baby to answer the cries of the downtrodden, people suffering under the crushing dual burden of oppression and sin. The incarnation – God taking on flesh – was a rescue plan. Jesus was Immanuel, literally “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The LORD saw a dilemma and devised a solution. To solve problems, God uses people. In the case of Mary, God used an unwed mother in shameful circumstances to change the course of human history.

Environmentalists speak eloquently of deforestation as the destruction of cures for diseases known and yet unknown. When we clear-cut rain forest, we are destroying forever undiscovered medicines that one day could have cured cancer or a hundred other ailments.

Why is it what we understand about the earth’s natural resources we are blind to when it comes to human resources? In the United States, among the 55 million unborn children aborted since Roe v. Wade became law in January 1973, it is sobering to think of the immense lost potential. Yes, some would have become criminals; let’s not be naive. That is the human condition in a fallen world. Yet others would have been painters, sculptors, teachers, inventors, nurses, plumbers, and carpenters. Perhaps a half-dozen Nobel Prize winners never saw the light of day, the “smoldering wicks” (Isaiah 42:3) that God intended to fan into bright and blazing fires. How many intractable problems persist because the solutions we so long prayed for – creative solutions that God was sending our way in the form of babies – were short-circuited in the womb?

The optimism of grace is really the optimism of love. It says that no matter what mistakes any of us have made – including abandoning our responsibility as would-be dads and moms – there is a place of beginning again! None of us is so broken that Jesus can’t bind up our wounds. And as Jesus brings healing and forgiveness, each of us is part of his restoration team. Are we willing to put an arm of comfort around those who mourn poor choices? Are we willing to be practical support for each other in community solidarity? As Reuben Welch used to preach, “We really do need each other.”

Abortion is the tragic failure of imagination. Together, we can do better.


Photo credit: Smart Beginnings

Posted in Christian ethics

Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 4 of 4

“You can be committed to the Church but not committed to Christ, but you cannot be committed to Christ and not committed to the Church.” So said Joel Osteen.

Exactly why the church is important is unclear from Pastor Osteen’s quote. Such is not the case for Stanley Hauerwas. Like Osteen, he sees a large place for the church, but Hauerwas ties it directly to how we develop Christian ethics, particularly the ethic of non-violence.

In previous posts, we examined ideas from Chapters 1-6 of Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, 1983). In this final essay, we turn to two ideas gleaned from Chapters 7-8, namely, the role of the Church in forging a Christian ethic and the “grace of doing one thing.”

Christian community and moral convictions

In earlier chapters, Stanley Hauerwas insisted that the Peaceable Kingdom was not about just any ethic, but the Christian ethic. The Christian ethic – in distinction from ethics that could be formed in other communities – is hammered out in a community with a unique story. The Christian community was brought into being by reflecting upon the story of Israel (Old Testament) and the life of Christ (New Testament) and continues to embody the ramifications of those stories. This narrative element is crucial in understanding Hauerwas’ methodology. The Christian ethic is modeled in positive ways by the life of the community, through the actions of individuals in the context of the group.  As an example, Hauerwas introduces the topic of abortion, observing about the positive modeling of community (p. 119):

…you learn about the value of life, and in particular human life that comes in the form of our children, because your community and your parents acting on behalf of your community, do not practice abortion. Therefore the negative prohibitions of a community though they often appear to apply to anyone because of their minimal character (e.g., do not murder) in fact gain their intelligibility from that community’s more substantive and positive practices. Prohibitions are the markers for the outer limits of the communal self-understandings. In short, they tell us that if we do this or no longer disapprove of that, we will no longer be living out the tradition that originally formed us.

Continue reading “Stanley Hauerwas and The Peaceable Kingdom: Part 4 of 4”