God Has No Point System


The opening scene of the pilot episode of one of my current fave TV shows finds Eleanor (Kristen Bell) sitting on a couch in a waiting room staring at the words “Welcome! Everything is fine” painted on the wall opposite her.

A door to an inner office opens and a man in a blazer (Ted Danson) invites her in. They sit across a desk from each other, and he introduces himself as Michael. She responds by asking, “Where am I?”

Michael says that she is dead. “Your life on earth has ended, and you are now in the next phase of your existence in the universe.”

Eleanor answers, “Cool, cool. I have some questions … Am I … (pointing upwards) or is this … (pointing downwards)?”

“It’s not the heaven-or-hell idea that you were raised on,” Michael says. “But generally speaking, in the afterlife, there’s a Good Place and there’s a Bad Place. You’re … in the Good Place.”

Did I mention this is a comedy?

It doesn’t take long before the show’s central conflict reveals itself — Eleanor shouldn’t have been sent to the Good Place; she was actually a pretty terrible person on earth, and the only way to get to the Good Place is by accumulating a net positive amount of points. She is the first to realize this problem, and tries her hardest to keep from being “outed.”

What plays out over the next three years of NBC’s “The Good Place” is a hearty dose of ethics, smart metaphysical humor, and a sassy robot girl named Janet. Except she’s not really a robot, but … it’s complicated.

One of my favorite scenes is the orientation video produced for new arrivals to the Good Place. You can watch it above. I’m especially fascinated by the point system that the Good and Bad Places are based upon.

In the video, Michael explains:

During your time on earth, every one of your actions had a positive or a negative value depending on how much good or bad that action put into the universe. Every sandwich you ate, every time you bought a magazine, every single thing you did had an effect that rippled out over time and ultimately created some amount of good or bad … When your time on earth has ended, we calculate the total value of your life using our perfectly accurate measuring system. Only the people with the very highest scores, the true cream of the crop, get to come here, to the Good Place.

In “The Good Place,” going to heaven or hell depends on one’s final “score.” That might sound amusing, but it absolutely amazes me how many people live their real lives according to this reasoning. This kind of moral reckoning likely makes sense to lots of people. In fact, I would guess that a large percentage of Americans believe in heaven and hell, and most of them probably believe that the way to get to heaven is to accumulate more good actions than bad.

What shocks me even more is that so many Christians live this way, too. Throughout my career as a pastor, I have visited more than one person on their deathbed who has said to me, “I’m not worried about going to heaven. I know I’ve been a good person.”

I want to say to them, though I usually don’t say it as bluntly as this, that BEING A GOOD PERSON HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HEAVEN OR HELL.

In fact, that’s the exact opposite of the good news of Jesus Christ. The core gospel message is that God loves us — period. We are all sinners, all flawed and broken, but God forgives us anyway, and not because of anything we have done, but on the merit of Jesus Christ’s advocacy on our behalf.

This was the central theological point of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther protested the clergymen who were traveling the countryside selling “good points” to folks to boost their chances of gaining heaven. Luther insisted that God didn’t work this way; we couldn’t earn our way to heaven, but could only rely on grace to get us there.

In other words, God has no point system.

Paul put it like this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:8-10).

The good news is that we are saved by grace, not by good works, but that we are created to be people who do good works. The good works are not a means to an end; they are the end themselves. They are what constitute a meaningful, purposeful life.

You are already loved, already saved, already held in the arms of God. Nothing can tear you from God’s arms, nothing can separate you from God’s love. You are secure.

You will be in the Good Place one day, along with everyone else.

But until then, let’s do everything in our power to make this planet, this earth, this nation, this neighborhood, God’s Good Place.

Join us at our next Faith on Tap session, Feb. 12, 7 pm at 723 Ft Worth Ave, as we take a deeper dive into “The Good Place” and what it means to be good.

What Churches Can Learn From Dying Newspapers


I’ve finally done something I was determined not to do, something that sounded so outrageous as to be almost blasphemous. I thought I would never change my principles, but everything came crashing down in my world a few weeks ago —

I cancelled my subscription to the Dallas Morning News.

Before you pick up that stone, please give me a chance to explain myself. I am a child of print journalism. I helped start the newspaper at Allen High School years ago, then I worked summers at the local rag, Allen American. For a period during college, I was the sports editor for that twice-weekly publication.

I chose to study broadcast journalism in college, which eventually morphed into an interest in film production, but I have never lost my appreciation and passion for the newspaper. In fact, during seminary, I was a regular contributor to the DMN’s Religion section, which was a weekly section of 6-8 pages once upon a time.

Furthermore, I, too, am someone who likes to read the paper in the morning with a cup of coffee. But those days are long gone. Lately, I’m lucky if it takes me half a cup of joe to get through the whole thing. Face it — the paper is pretty thin these days.

It started a good number of years ago, when I began to notice that many of the stories on the front page were written by the legendary reporter, “From Wire Reports.” Less and less of the copy was written by people with names who live and work in Dallas.

Then I started to recognize much of the paper’s content because I had read it the day before, online from another source! For the first time, the day’s paper started to feel like old news.

Not to mention the fact that I found the DMN to have far too little coverage of film, TV and music, and far too many recipes, gardening tips, and health-related info-ads. Unfortunately, I’ve never been interested in the comics page either.

Still, I held on. For one thing, the DMN was the best place to get local news, though maybe not as incisive and investigative as Jim Schutze and the Dallas Observer folks. And you couldn’t beat the Sports page either, unless you listened to The Ticket or The Fan, or kept up with any number of sports blogs or online sites.

The last straw came a few weeks ago, when the paper slashed its staff — again — and then promptly trimmed a few more pages from their daily product — again! The editorial and opinion section, which held down the last two inside pages of the front section, was reduced to one measly page. The only entertainment writer I liked (Chris Vognar) was sent packing, and so was sportswriter Eddie Sefko.

And I decided I was done.

This is not a proud moment for me, but the Morning News has done nothing to keep me around. I would like to support local print journalism, which I think plays a vital role in keeping government accountable, citizens engaged, and communities united. But sadly the paper no longer does those things well.

Print journalism can blame the internet or television or social media, but the truth is that certain journalism outlets have thrived in the new environment. They have adjusted with the times, and adapted to new mediums, new subscription models, and new ways of attracting talent.

I’m just sad that the Dallas Morning News has not been one of them. I still want great journalism, but I get it elsewhere now. That’s the way capitalism works — for better or for worse.

Now, let me challenge you to switch mental gears. Just as there are lots of people now canceling their subscriptions to printed newspapers, there are even more people out there who are no longer going to church. The reasons are similar.

They may have grown up going to church, and appreciating church, and having rich experiences with church. But over time, they noticed that the church was no longer meeting their spiritual and social needs. They wanted to support their local churches, which they think should play a vital role in fostering encounters with God, explaining and interpreting the Bible, and building fellowship. But sadly they have come to the conclusion that the church no longer does those things well.

Over time, people began to sense that there were more authentic ways to experience God, interact with Scripture, and enjoy Christian community. As the modern millennial might put it, “I still want spirituality, but I get Jesus elsewhere now.”

Churches can blame the internet or television or social media, but the truth is that certain congregations have thrived in the new environment. They have adjusted with the times, and adapted to new mediums, new models of ministry, and new ways of paying the bills.

As the special General Conference in St. Louis nears, the question looms large before us: Will the United Methodist Church go the way of the Dallas Morning News and print journalism, or will it find ways to thrive in the new world?

What about Kessler Park UMC?

Ungrateful? No, Inappropriate.


A friend on Facebook posted the meme above today. It shows a child bending down to drink from a muddy and murky river. The caption reads, “Lord, if I’m ever ungrateful, forgive me.”

But something bothers me about the photo and caption.

I get why he posted it. He’s attempting to make a point about gratitude on this Thanksgiving week.

In one sense, I agree with the sentiment. Those of us who have plenty ought to be fully aware of the fact that there are millions of people in the world who are deprived of basic needs, including clean water. And we ought to be thankful that we don’t struggle to make ends meet.

Gratitude is about appreciating what one has, rather than lamenting what one doesn’t have. We are especially called to give thanks when we gather to celebrate with our families and friends this week.

Yet there is something fundamentally twisted and corrupt about this picture.

First of all, I am uncomfortable with the fact that there is a real human child in this photo. There is no way to know anything about where the picture was taken, who took it, and who the child is. If it’s a staged picture, then I am disturbed that somebody has faked the shot in order to make a point.

But if it’s a real-life situation, I’m bothered that a photographer took a picture of what is a truly desperate and dangerous moment. I want to know if the photographer approached the child after taking the picture and offered him or her a drink of clean water. I want to know if the photographer asked his or her permission to share the image with others. I want to know if the photographer profited in any way from the picture. If so, did the photographer share the profits with the child?

I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I have to refer to the child as only that — a child. I don’t know his or her name. The photo completely objectifies a precious human being, for the sake of making a point.

And what is the point being made?

That we should be grateful that we’re NOT LIKE THAT CHILD.

That’s what bothers me most. The caption tells us to give thanks to God that we have it better than others. And it attempts to shame us into this position of thankfulness by pointing out that there are people worse off than us.

Throughout my life, I’ve heard lots of people come back from mission trips and say things like, “I’m so glad I went to Far-Away-Third-World-Country because I realized how good I have it here at home, and I recognize that I need to be thankful for what I have and where I live.”

This line of talk has always bothered me. Because it makes mission about us, about “me.” I want to say in reply, “But what about them? In what way did you give hope to someone in despair? How did you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, comfort the hurting? Did you give anyone a reason to be thankful for YOU?”

Another thing that bothers me about the picture is the fact that it’s a black child. I recognize that the fact that the child is black doesn’t necessarily mean the picture was taken on the continent of Africa, but it seems clear that this is what is implied. The image plays on a stereotyped idea of Africa as a continent of great poverty, need, and deprivation — and ends up confirming the stereotype.

However, we should never forget that the problem of clean drinking water is NOT merely a Third World problem; look at Flint, Michigan, where water supplies only became safe a few months ago, after several years of dangerous lead levels.

The worst thing about this picture? I can’t imagine Jesus would have responded with platitudes about being thankful.

No, if Jesus saw a picture like this, I believe his response would be something closer to this:

“What’s wrong with you people? Why don’t you make sure every child of mine has clean water to drink? How can you enjoy your Thanksgiving meal when kids are drinking disease?”

I know that’s not what any of us want to hear on Thanksgiving, but it’s the truth of the world we live in.

And the only way to live faithfully in this world is to maintain an attitude of gratitude while, at the same time, working to relieve the suffering of the world’s poor.

But let’s not attempt to make ourselves feel better by saying, “There’s always someone worse off than me — thank you, God!”