A Prayer for Ash Wednesday

ash[from The Book of Common Prayer]

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became for them the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth by the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

[Silence is kept for a time, all kneeling.]

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Going Silent for Lent

solitudeTomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which for Roman Catholic and Protestant churches marks the beginning of the season of Lent. (The Eastern Orthodox observance of Lent began on Sunday.) Lent is traditionally marked by fasting, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines of self denial for the purpose of drawing near to God. Many evangelicals who have not traditionally observed Lent have, in recent years, been rediscovering the ancient practices of this season and incorporating them into their lives.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of Lent, and how and why it can be beneficial, take a look at this series of short articles by Mark Roberts.

As part of my observance of Lent this year, I have decided to go silent with respect to UBFriends. From tomorrow until Easter Sunday, I will refrain from reading or posting anything on this website.

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Critique My Sermon on Wrath


(a sermon based loosely on Romans 1:18-32, delivered at Hyde Park on 9/22/13)

The topic for today is wrath. More specifically, the role of God’s punishment in understanding the gospel. This is a topical message, and I hope that you will bear with my ramblings, listen critically, and judge for yourselves whether or not I am being faithful to the witness of Scripture.

The gospel is summarized by John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16) The gospel is good news of love and life. But there’s a flipside to that in certain gospel presentations, that if you reject the good news, there will be “hell to pay.” Sometimes that flipside becomes the main story. As in that famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which depicts the non-believer dangling over a pit of hellfire, held up by only a spider’s web which can break at God’s whim. The message is that, unless and until we believe in Jesus, we are the objects of God’s wrath. ”For God was so ticked off at the world that he gave his one and only Son…” Now some people will say that the Church has gotten too soft, that we have become morally lax and ineffective in our witness because we’ve stopped confronting people with their sin and no longer warn them about God’s wrath. And others will say that we should stop up talking about wrath altogether, because it gives an ineffective and misleading picture of what the gospel is about.

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American Evangelicalism: A Decadent Culture?

decadentWhen you hear the phrase “decadent culture,” what characteristics come to mind? Eroding morals? Licentiousness and fornication? Gluttony and drunkenness? Collapse of family values? All of the above?

The literal meaning of decadent is “a state of decline or decay.” It seems to me that, if we strip away all the mental baggage of hedonism and go back to that simple definition, then it’s accurate to say that American evangelicalism is a decadent culture.

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Critique My Ephesians Sermon


Based on Ephesians 2:11-22

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians makes me feel like an ant. Here I am, walking around on the earth, dealing with the countless pressures of my everyday life. Projects at work that are running late. Debts that need to be paid. Things around the house that need to be fixed. Paying attention to how my wife and children are doing. Worries about our aging parents. Worries about this church, managing the building and wanting this congregation to prosper. I’m like an ant in  rainstorm, getting pelted with huge raindrops. My little ant-world is flooding; I’m up to my neck in water, and I’m about to get swept away. When I try to pray, the only words that come to mind are:

God, what am I supposed to do?

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Junk Food from the Pulpit

donutsIn 1960, approximately 14% of adults in the United States could be classified as obese. By 2008, the prevalence of obesity had risen to one-third. Public-health researchers have estimated that, if the current trends continue, more than half of the American population will be obese in 2030.

Why have our waistlines been expanding so dramatically? Experts agree that there is no single reason; drivers of the obesity epidemic are multifactorial and complex. But one of the crucial factors is our increased consumption of foods that are energy-dense and nutrient-poor. Energy-dense, nutrient-poor is the technical descriptor for what we commonly call junk food: fare that delivers large amounts of calories (mainly from carbohydrates and fats) but little protein, fiber, vitamins and other nourishing substances that our bodies need to stay healthy. Examples of these foods include pizza, french fries, and the classic American donut.

We crave these foods because they taste good. They bring instant gratification to our mouths and stomachs. But over the long term, an energy-dense, nutrient-poor diet leaves us paunchy, sluggish and malnourished. If we want to live long, prosperous and healthy lives, we would do well to limit our consumption of these things in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains.

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Is Psalm 119 a Love Poem About the Bible? (Part 2)

studyingMy job requires that I leave my home in Pennsylvania to spend part of each week in the Washington metropolitan area. While away from home, I miss my wife. We stay in touch through phone calls, text messages and email. But on the long drive home each Thursday, my greatest desire is to be physically present with her again. Now imagine this. (Disclaimer: The following scene is purely fictitious.) On Thursday night, I walk through the back door into our house. The frantic barking and jumping of our dog has announced my arrival, so Sharon knows that I am there. But she barely acknowledges my presence. She stays seated on the sofa, staring at her iPad, studying a short email message that I had sent her that morning. She is poring over my every word, trying to guess all the thoughts and intentions behind my message. In her creative imaginings, she projects her own thoughts into my words and conjures up some hidden meanings that I never intended to convey. She starts to craft a lengthy, detailed written response that will probably take her several hours to complete before she emails it to me the following morning. I’m thinking, “What the heck is she doing? She’s stressed out and tired, but she still looks incredibly beautiful. Why won’t she stand up and give me a hug? Why won’t she look at me? Why won’t she talk to me?” And she keeps looking down, her eyes glued to that darned iPad…

Some centuries after Psalm 119 was composed, Yahweh burst through our back door. He entered our world to physically insert himself into our history and experience. Our understanding of Psalm 119 will be sub-Christian unless we hold in the forefront of our minds the fact that it was penned in the B.C. era. That was before the shockwave named Jesus started reverberating through the cosmos. That was before anyone could imagine that someone would write (Hebrews 1:1-3):

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Is Psalm 119 a Love Poem About the Bible? (Part 1)

psalmsYour word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path (Ps 119:109).

Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, has two prominent features. First, it is an acrostic poem. It has 22 stanzas corresponding to the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, and each verse within a stanza begins with the appropriate character. Second, nearly every verse of this psalm contains a reference to Torah. The psalmist refers to Torah by various terms which, depending on the English translation, are rendered as God’s word(s), his law(s), precepts, commands, statutes, decrees and promises.

Among conservative evangelical Christians, Psalm 119 has two common and related interpretations. This psalm, together with other passages such as 2 Timothy 3:16 (“All Scripture is God-breathed…”), Isaiah 55:11 (“…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire…”) and Psalm 19:7 (“The law of the Lord is perfect…”), are often used as proof-texts to establish doctrines of the Bible’s divine inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy. Second, this psalm is often used by pastors and teachers to exhort people to read, study, memorize and meditate on the Bible. The psalmist is held up as a positive role model for us to follow in our attitude and approach to Scripture. Psalm 119 is seen as a Christian love poem about the Bible.

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Midweek Question: Message Do’s and Don’ts

A lively discussion has begun on this website over whether it is constructive to post reviews and ratings of specific messages delivered at UBF Sunday worship services. There are plenty of arguments that could be made for and against.

My personal opinion is this. Careful review and critique, if done in the right place and in the right way, can drastically improve the finished product. But having one’s own words scrutinized is painful and gut wrenching, even when great care is taken to keep the process fair, impartial and kind.

I have published many articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In most cases, those articles have gone through “blind review,” meaning that the authors’ identities have been hidden from the referees. Nevertheless, when I submit an article and then get the editor’s report, I hesitate to open the report because a feeling of dread washes over my body. My eyes don’t want to look at it, because I am afraid of what I will see. Although I keep saying to myself, “Don’t take it personally,” I cannot stop taking it personally. Because, after all, I am a person. And my work is important to me. Even when the process is carefully managed and highly professional, the criticism can sting. And if the reviews were not anonymous, then it would be impossible not to feel resentment toward a reviewer who pans and rejects my work. And if the reviewer who criticized my work happened to be someone whom I knew well, someone whom I had been in close contact with and had strong differences of opinion and conflicts with in the past, then that would make it much, much worse. As a protective strategy, I would try to convince myself that the critic wasn’t being fair, that his assessment of my work was clouded by our personal history, and I would not take the criticism seriously.

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UBF at the Crossroads

crossroadsUBF is in a crisis.

Many will disagree with me. “Stop exaggerating,” they’ll say. “Don’t worry, have faith! Focus on the positive. Remember what God has done. Great things happened at the ISBC. Many people accepted Christ. If even one lost sheep repents, there is great rejoicing in heaven.”

But for those who are willing to look, the situation looks grim. One major piece of evidence is that the attendance at the recent ISBC dropped by about 20% from Purdue ’08. UBF leaders have always assumed that their numbers would go up. They believed that if they just worked hard enough and prayed enough times and kept going and stayed with the program, then God would bless their faithfulness and the ministry would grow. But this time, the numbers went down, and they did so dramatically.

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