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.

Introducing Our New Youth Pastor


I am beyond proud to introduce the church family to our new youth pastor — and my middle daughter! As you may all know, we’ve been without a youth staff person since Eva Englert-Jessen left us last Easter. To be honest, we’ve had a dearth of applications and interested persons since then.

Then Chloe showed some interest, and I encouraged her to submit her resume. Since the Staff-Parish Relations Committee made its decision a few weeks ago, Chloe has started making plans.

Here’s a brief introduction to Chloe in her own words:

Hello! My name is Chloe Magruder. I am currently studying at the University of Texas at Arlington for a degree in English and I will be graduating this May with a teaching certificate.

I am looking forward to helping the youth of the church grow in their faith and leadership in the community. Growing up, I was a member of two very amazing youth groups, with leaders and students who helped me understand myself and my faith. All of my middle and high school years, I spent a week at Bridgeport Camp and Conference Center worshipping and creating friendships that will last me a lifetime. I am now a volunteer every year and have gained countless skills to lead a small group of humans that want to further their relationship with God.

Being a part of a youth group was such a large part of my teenage years and I want to be able to give our youth the same opportunities that I was blessed with, and more.

While I serve as the youth pastor, I would like to focus on the individual development of each youth in who they are before they are sent off into the world post-graduation. I am looking forward to getting to know every single person in this church even more and working to make our youth feel at home at Kessler Park UMC.

To reach Chloe Magruder, you can contact her at chloe@kpumc.org.

The Religious Preferences of Our Parish

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I’m still combing through the results of the demographic study provided by MissionInsite for United Methodist churches in the North Texas Conference.

Last week, I wrote about some of the stark numbers and facts about the people living around us. But this week, I would like to muse on what the study discovered about our neighbors’ thoughts about religion and church. (Remember, the study looked at the people who live within a 1.5 mile radius of our church.)

Regarding involvement in church, the percentage of people who consider themselves part of a faith community stands at 35.3%, which is higher than I expected. However, that number has dropped over 12 percentage points in the last ten years. That means over 47% of the population were involved in a church in 2007. That’s a huge drop in a short amount of time.

The only two categories of faith community which have grown considerably in those ten years are the “Nones,” or those who say they have no affiliation with any faith community, who make up 27.3% of the population, and those in non-denominational or independent churches, which make up 6.6%. The biggest declines were amassed by the Catholics, who are still the largest single denomination in our area, and the Baptists, the second largest. We United Methodists mostly held our own during this time, declining by only .6% in that time period.

When people who are not part of any church are asked why they don’t participate, here are their top five reasons:
    1. Religious people are too judgmental
    2. Don’t trust organized religion
    3. Religion too focused on money
    4. Disillusionment with religion
    5. Don’t trust religious leaders

Let’s stop right there and think about the implications of these findings. This tells me that there are a lot of people out there who have been hurt by church, who have been abused, manipulated, or denigrated by people claiming to be Christians. Our neighbors have some deeply-felt pain, and much of it is our fault.

As I said several times in my sermon on Sunday, our Bible has been hijacked. It has become a weapon in the hands of some, and the consequences are that some people have been beaten up, wounded, and bruised.

This should be a wake-up call for us. Fifty years ago, the culture around us was sympathetic to the church. Pastors were seen as civic leaders; Sunday mornings were sacred time, as well as Wednesday evenings; and people kept up a veneer of religiosity in the community. But that’s not the way it is anymore.

The study recommended, in a context such as ours, the following top five ministry or program preferences:
    1. Warm and friendly encounters
    2. Quality of sermons
    3. Adult social activities
    4. Opportunities for volunteering in the community
    5. Holiday programs and activities

Another interesting discovery was that traditional worship ranked #7 in this list, higher than contemporary worship, which came in at #17.

Looking carefully at this list, I believe that KPUMC is uniquely positioned to prosper in this community. Though I can’t speak to #2, I think we do quite well on these top five priorities, with the exception of #3. We still lack in the number of quality adult social activities that we offer, but I believe the Vision Task Force has given us a way to improve in this area.

Ultimately, however, the study fails to identify what is most important about a church, and what a church represents. One of the categories ranked “Life Concerns” for people in our community. Answers included such concerns as “losing weight/diet issues,” “day-to-day financial matters,” and “being successful.” Nowhere did I see the choice, “becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

The one thing that KPUMC has to offer that makes us different from other organizations, non-profits, and institutions is that we help people become disciples of Jesus. We are in the business of transformation, of change, of life formation, of training in the art of becoming like Jesus.

Admittedly, not many people out there would articulate this as a life-goal. I would suggest that’s because they don’t know much about Jesus yet. They must not know about Jesus' sacrificial love, his fierce justice, his courageous opposition to the powers-that-be, his compassionate concern for the marginalized.

Let’s change that, shall we?