Monthly Archives: August 2011


Natural disasters and discerning the motives of God

No comments yet

Categories: News, Opinion, Tags: , , , ,

The first part of this article was previously published as John Piper, a tornado and discerning the motives of God, August 21, 2009, at

Early Wednesday afternoon, around 1:50 local time, a sudden tornado traveled from south Minneapolis into the city damaging the Convention Center, a Lutheran church and a music shop. Dozens of homes and trees were damaged in the early touching down, while a different tornado crushed the roof of a North Branch middle school about 50 miles away, bringing doubts as to whether that school might open on time. The tornados were described as “weak” as the Weather Service gave both wind funnels a rating of EF0, the lowest on the scale.

Perhaps it was the “weak” designation that prompted popular Minneapolis pastor, John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church, to wonder on his blog whether God was giving a gentle warning to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who were about to debate the ordination of practicing homosexuals into the ranks of their ministry. Piper wrote of seeing the cloud from distance, posted a picture of the damaged steeple of the Central Lutheran Church where the ELCA attendees were meeting and divined that the purpose of the tornado was related to the ELCA’s decision, writing, “The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction.” Not the possibility of one of the damaged houses being a crack den, or the school being a poor use of money or the music store having the name “Electric Fetus,” which, had I been God, would have received a lightning strike in addition to wind damage.

I have no trouble at all ascribing responsibility for the storm to God (even insurance companies did so for decades, though some now opt to term them “natural disasters”). Not only do the writers of scripture give Him responsibility for storms (Psalm 83:14, Nahum 1:3), they also attribute to God deliverance from them (Psalm 107:29, Isaiah 4:6), but God Himself takes responsibility for destruction (Isaiah 14:23, Jeremiah 4:6). The problem is not that Piper attributed responsibility for the tornado to God, but that he attributed motive. And that, as they say, is a whole different ball game entirely.

Piper uses a series of scriptures linked together to come to his conclusion. In fact, it is like reading a geometry proof or a problem in logic. The problem with applying the science of logic to God, though, is that He lies outside its bounds. It is akin to trying to order an artificial heart from a Chilton’s manual. It simply has limitations. For instance, Piper uses the disciples reaction to the storm on the Sea of Galilee, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the waves obey Him” (Mark 4:41) as a link in his proof. The context, however, is different and in the case of the disciples the motive is crystal clear: to save their lives and to demonstrate God’s power. There was no collateral damage, no loss of property, no power outages. One could argue just as effectively that the entire tornadic episode was to provide overtime income to the power company workers. I, for one, am not saying that Piper is wrong. I am saying that there is no way for either John Piper or the rest of us to know if he is right.

While some readers may feel that I am being lighthearted, that is most definitely not the case. I’m simply demonstrating the danger and seriousness with which those who claim in some capacity to speak for God, better be sure when assigning motives to Him. Ezekiel and Jeremiah are replete with warnings about speaking for God when God has been silent (“I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.” Jeremiah 23:21). These types of attributions (including the wild claims of Pat Robertson over the years) open the doors for skeptics to point out the rightful contradictions in the way that we interpret events (“If a tornado bloweth upon the Lutherans, it is God; but, if a tree falleth on our house, it is an attack of Satan”). This inconsistency is a greater tool of the Evil One than any believer would care to admit.

I would implore believers to take great care with how we interpret the events around us to a watching world. Perhaps, because we live in a fallen, broken world where calamity is part of our existence, we should focus on being agents who provide grace, truth and rescue and let God explain His motivations when He gets good and ready.
End original article.

So here we are, again, 2 years later having just witnessed two “natural” disasters almost back to back, an earthquake and a flood both in the eastern part of the country. And, just like clockwork, Christians have begun the discerning the motives of God. Most notably has been GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann who wondered (perhaps jokingly) whether it was God’s judgment for a congress that has driven the economy into the ground. Others speculate that it was New York’s approval of gay marriage or Vermont’s approval of gay marriage or God knows what else. Below is a photo of the recent flooding in Vermont:

2011 Flooding in Londonderry, Vermont

The next picture is from the Vermont flood of 1927. Says one historical record, “The Vermont flood of 1927 was the worst in Vermont history. Torrential rains from a tropical storm caused widespread flooding destroying bridges, farm lands, houses and other buildings.” In other words, almost the same scenario as Hurricane Irene by the time she rolled over Vermont.

Remnants of Roy Bro's Mills and a million and a half feet of sawed lumber.

Now, the juxtaposition of these pictures is to illustrate the question: If God was judging Vermont for gay marriage this weekend, what was going on in 1927 to deserve the same thing? Many of the same people who are quick to attribute the judgment of God to anything and everything they can imagine are the same ones to say God removed His hand from the United States in 1963 when government sponsored prayer was removed from school. But how does one explain the 1927 flood in Vermont, the 2011 Texas wildfires, the flooding in North Dakota in June of this year, the Alaska earthquake of 1964, flooding in Atlanta two years ago, and on and on I could go. To hold that position means you are accusing God of arbitrariness, and God is not arbitrary.

I’ll repeat for emphasis: I am not saying that any of these specific ideas is wrong. I am saying that there is no way for any of us to know whether any of them are right. It is speculation of the lowest order. It’s harmful and it is not an answer of the hope that lies within us. It is better to let the Judge be the judge and His children be what we have been called to be: witnesses to His faithfulness in the midst of any storm.


Memories of Ernie Johnson, Sr.

1 comment

Categories: Blog

Former Braves player and announcer, Ernie Johnson, Sr.

An integral part of my childhood faded away last night when retired, long-time Atlanta Braves player and broadcaster, Ernie Johnson, Sr., died at the age of 87. It wouldn’t be possible to count the number of hours his voice filled my ears either from radio or TV, usually channel 17 (WTCG before it was WTBS). With little to work with on the field for so many years, it was entertaining to listen to he and his on air partner, Skip Caray, keep themselves and the rest of us entertained.

There are three broadcast moments that come to my mind, two I heard live and the third was recounted by Caray (I think). None are earth shattering like Jim McKay’s turn during the Munich Olympics; they were just ordinary moments in otherwise dull games. Perhaps none will seem funny to you, but they still cheer my memory.

The first occurred as Johnson and Caray were discussing a no-hitter that had just happened in another game, perhaps the night before.
Johnson: “Y’know, I had a no-hitter going once.”
Caray: “Oh, yeah?”
Johnson: “Yeah…then a guy singled off of me in the top of the second.”

The second isn’t really even funny. It just struck me as funny and I remember laughing and laughing in the car as I was driving. I swear, I think this happened as I was listening to the Braves game on the way home from church on a Wednesday night. This was when the Braves were really bad.
Johnson: [as the crowd is really booing] “Well, the boo-birds are really out tonight. [Pause] BOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”

I’m not sure whether it was just the way he sounded or that he was imitating the boo-birds, but I laugh even today when I think about hearing that.

The third took place at a moment during the broadcast when Caray was doing the play-by-play. Phillies great, Mike Schmidt, has come to bat. Unfortunately, when Caray introduced him, he mispronounced his last name as “Sh-t.” Knowing his own mistake, he immediately launched into a long, long soliloquy to draw attention away from what he had said. Finally, after getting well beyond his original error, he finished.

With perfect comedic timing, Ernie says, “What did you say his name was again?”

The truck had to cut off their mics due to the laughter.

I haven’t kept up with the Braves in years, really. Maybe even longer than a decade. I’m also not really one big on nastalgia. But, we’ll miss you Ernie. I already did.

Feel free to add your favorite Ernieism or memory as a comment.


How long is too long when preaching a sermon?


Categories: Blog, Devotional, Opinion, Tags: , , ,

A recent post by pastor Brian Croft asks, “How long should my sermons be when I preach?” He listed three criteria: 1) Based on where your people are, not where you think they should be, 2) Based on how good and seasoned a preacher you are, and 3) To leave your people longing for more, not less.

A reader of his blog, Curt, suggested this humorous methodology he borrowed from another pastor:

1. The minister should rate themselves on a scale of 1 – 10 (with 10 being excellent).
2. Subtract one from that number (because most ministers/preachers have an inflated view of how good they really are).
3. Multiply that number by 5 (that’s the number of minutes a sermon should be).
Example: Rate myself a 7 – 1 = 6 x 5 = 30 minutes

I still like and would agree with that – but I’m also almost to the point that I think we should subtract 2 from the original number because it seems like the guys I listen to think they’re a lot better than they really are.

How long a pastor should preach is a pretty important subject for church goers. I’ve suffered along with many of you while attempting to listen to someone who has little to say but doesn’t seem to realize it. (There are probably some who would say the same of me.) I believe preachers/teachers are given time by their congregation as a trust, and it is a trust that should be respected. It’s an insult to a congregation and an abuse of my trust from God, to act as if people should listen just because I am talking.

Brian’s post got me to thinking about the subject of preaching, with which I have some experience. I’ll add these thoughts for your consideration.

1) Actually study enough to have something to say. Going into the pulpit (or onto the stage) week after week without being prepared is truly a sin. To preach God’s word is, as it always has been, a sacred trust to be taken with the utmost of seriousness.

2) Commit to only preach/speak as long as the Holy Spirit is using you in that moment. Simply because a pastor feels comfortable with the sermon he has prepared does not mean God intends to use all of it, most of it, or any of it.

3) Stop when you are done even if you have more notes. Sometimes it just isn’t happening. I believe it is better to be respectful of your people’s time. If you will stop when you have nothing to say, they will stay with you when you have more to say than normal.

4) Be willing to preach/teach the best you can do even if you “aren’t feeling it.” Some of the greatest affirmation I’ve ever received was after delivering a message I was sure had bombed. God’s Word is what has power. You’ve always been an instrument. Don’t live as if it depends primarily on your exceptionable abilities.

5) Don’t fake it. There is nothing wrong with saying to your congregation occasionally, “I had a very hectic week and did not have as much time a usual to prepare. I realize this will be much to your chagrin, but the message will only be about 20 minutes or so this morning.” Nobody ever leaves early from a 20 minute sermon. (It should be noted that recurring hectic weeks that interfere with sermon preparation indicate a need to create a different schedule.)

6) If you know the message will be longer than normal, let your people know at the beginning. “You all know that I try not to preach just to hear myself talk. After studying this week, I know this message will be a little longer than normal. If you’ll try and hang with it, I think you’ll be glad you did in the end.” When people begin to think, “I wonder if he knows how long he’s been talking?” you’ve quenched the Holy Spirit all by yourself.

7) If you are actively reaching lost, unchurched and de-churched people, you cannot only evaluate a sermons length based on the spiritual maturity of the believers. Some consideration must be given to whether you can connect with a newcomer after their butt has gone to sleep.

8) Be honest about your abilities as a communicator (from Brian’s #2 above). Some people are not gifted speakers, and, although it is a skill that can be honed and improved, care should be taken to accurately recognize one’s gift. If you are slowly developing or have reached a limit, then preach to that point and not further until your skills increase. God can use a short, Biblical, prayer drenched sermon on one or two verses just as good as He can use a 90 minute oration over a paragraph in the original languages.

The most vivid example of knowing giftedness came from a pastor I heard in Brazil. After preaching a powerful messsage, he reached the invitation portion and stopped. He then turned over the entire invitation/response to his associate pastor, who was obviously gifted to present the gospel. I’ve never seen any other pastor, in any church or continent stop a message at the beginning of the invitation and turn it over to another pastor. But this was his practice because his associate was gifted in this way.

9) Don’t chase rabbits; shoot’em.

10) Only use new, fresh illustrations at least 99.9% of the time. If your people have been saved any length of time at all, they’ve heard all the preacher stories. Using old worn out stories–especially theological urban legends–is a sure way to kill the power of the message. If you must use an oldie but goodie, let your congregation know that you know it: “I know this is an old illustration, but it perfectly shows the point.” Even then, make them a rarity. As soon as your listeners think, “He said this last Sunday/month/year” you’ve lost them.