It would have been enough (or, How Jews worship by remembering)

This evening marks the beginning of Passover. I pray blessing over my Jewish neighbors who will celebrate this high holy feast and remember together God’s faithfulness.

In the course of the Passover Seder, Jews sing a song called “Dayenu.” Translated, it literally means, “It would have been enough.” The fifteen stanzas of the song are designed to walk the singer through the story of the Exodus. Five stanzas celebrate freedom from slavery, five tell the story of the miracles God did for his people, and five sing about closeness or intimacy with God. The great treasure of the Israelites’ journey through the desert was God with them in every moment — leading, guiding, covering.

Dayenu. “It would have been enough.”

The song speaks to all the minimal ways God could have acted to accomplish his purposes; yet, he went beyond and acted lavishly out of his great love. Deeply rooted in the concept of Dayenu is the sense of God’s sufficiency — of his position for us, not against us. Of his closeness.

He is the God who sees us.

“It would have been enough.” Dayenu inspires me to sing my own worship for all the ways God has gone incomprehensibly beyond what I could have asked or imagined.

It would have been enough for God to deliver me from an addiction without me killing anyone or being killed. But then he gave me a calling, a beautiful church community and a great passion for preaching and writing.

It would have been enough for God to give me a good husband for this journey, but he has given me so much more. In Steve, I have a man who supports this call selflessly and lovingly, who provides for our family marvelously, who shows such strength and grace as a father and leader. Who has a great sense of humor.

It would have been enough for God to give me a child, and yet he has given me the incredible and humbling privilege of raising up a daughter who stuns and amazes me daily. Who has a rare gift of discernment and a boldness in speaking life into others.

It would have been enough to have a daughter, but now he has given me a remarkable and gifted man of faith for a son. Who loves Jesus wildly. Who lives his faith fearlessly. Who inspires us.

It would have been enough to have been given the sheer pleasure of life. But I have been given so much more. My Father, who knows me better than I know myself, has written a much better story for my life than I could ever have written for myself.

On this Friday of Passover, what Dayenu will you sing to the God of your life, who has given far more than you could have imagined for yourself?

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Take a little wine for your stomach (or, how to live well in a stressful world)

You definitely get the sense in Paul’s two letters to Timothy that he is writing a young and anxious pastor who is hanging by a thread. You can hear the anxiety and depression in Paul’s advice: “Take some wine for your stomach,” he tells Timothy. “Remember that if you’re suffering for the gospel, you’re not the first to do that, and you won’t be the last.”

This is Paul encouraging a young leader who is beginning to question his call because frankly, this is hard. Bearing other people’s burdens will give you stomach problems.* Watching them slide backward after you’ve done so much to move them forward can make a person downright depressed.

And all the pastors said, “Amen.”

Timothy is frustrated. It seems almost like the folks with whom he lives have gone deaf. The message he has for them seems to have no effect. Maybe they’d rather believe comfortable things than uncomfortable things. “Maybe Jesus was more like a ghost than a flesh-and-blood man,” they say, because that is an easier answer to grab onto than the idea of a man who is fully human and fully divine all at once.

Battling heresy can wear a person out.

Some of you are right there with him. Just tired. Tired of weekly reports of terrorist attacks. Tired of the day-in, day-out stresses. Tired of a political scene that only reveals our corporate insanity. Tired of conflict and misunderstandings. Tired of physical issues and mental issues and marital issues. Tired of the battle.

The question seems inevitable: Why bother? 

William Blake once wrote, “You ought to know that what is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men.” Whether he meant to or not, Blake is paraphrasing Paul, who told the Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Both the apostle and the poet are saying the same thing: God uses foolish things, foolish people, ordinary people, obscure people, nobodies, everybody to accomplish his purposes. And in fact, God refuses to accomplish his purposes without those partnerships, no matter how obscure or foolish.

In that word, I hear a word for Timothy and all of us who dare to listen: Hang in there, because what you do with your life matters.

What sets us apart who serve this gospel is not sheer force of will nor sheer enjoyment. What separates us from “crazy” is the character of the one in whom we place our faith, which is proven by the character he brings out in us.

It is not crazy to stand for truth, to live by a moral code, to trust that there is more to life than just fallen people. It is not crazy to make your life count for something more than a bank account balance (after all, the one with the most toys still dies).

It is not crazy to look beyond a job to a vocation. In fact, it is perhaps the most courageous possible choice. Maybe you will work hard and sleep less and endure criticism or worse yet obscurity; which is to say, we’re not the point even of our own calling. And that ends up being quite the point.

We don’t always (or maybe even ever) get the results we think we deserve. But here’s what we do get. We get the one thing that makes all the rest of it worth it: We get Jesus.

On this day, may that be encouragement enough to help you begin again.

 

* Just for clarity’s sake, I’m not proposing that we deal with stress by buying a bottle of wine. Been there, done that and by God’s immense grace, I enjoy a beautifully sober life. The point is that life can be hard but Jesus is good. And Jesus is worth it.

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A Few “What ifs” for the United Methodist Church

Conversations these days about the future of the United Methodist Church tend to go something like this:

“What do you think is going to happen at General Conference?”

“I have no idea.”

“But what do you think is going to happen?”

“There is no way of knowing. A lot of proposals are being floated … countless blog posts … white papers often entitled some hopeful version of “A Way Forward” … an undisclosed number of secret and not-so-secret conference calls. At the end of the day, no one can really predict the future.”

“Of course not. But … what do you think … ?”

I will tell you what I think. I suspect that unless a Holy Spirit-infused “way forward” surfaces between now and May 20th (when General Conference ends) the UMC will slowly bleed to death, though at a faster rate than it is currently. According to an article on the UMC website, The General Council on Finance and Administration reported last year that worship attendance in the UMC has decreased by more than 52,000 annually in the last ten years. Economist Don House notes that “between 1974 and 2012, the U.S. church lost 18 percent in worship attendance. During the same period … the number of U.S. churches shrank by 16 percent, the number of conferences by 19 percent and the number of districts by 21 percent.”*

The UMC is already bleeding to death. What happens next will be more like the dam breaking, and dams generally break after they are already cracked and leaking.

Even with such bleak statistics, at the end of the day no one can be sure of what happens next.  The best we can do is wait and listen. Perhaps in the waiting we will find if not a better set of answers then at least a better set of questions that will allow us to think more creatively and less desperately about our future. Here are a few that come to mind:

What if the trend in this post-denominational world actually frees us up to think theologically again? Chances are, when all the shakin’ going on in the denominational world settles down, Christians will gather more intentionally around theology. Rather than trusting the brand to be exactly what we expect (like at McDonalds), we will engage each individual church culture discerningly, evaluating not just style but what is taught and lived. This could well lead to a revival among those who think, believe and live with a Wesleyan mindset.

What if a return to theological integrity is a good move for all of us? By all of us, I mean all of us — those who love and trust orthodox Wesleyan theology as well as those who have moved in a more progressive direction. What if those inside as well as those outside our denomination are better served by a clearer witness and more reflective approach? Rather than selling a brand, what if we talk honestly about the beliefs that particular groups, churches and individuals espouse, then each live by those beliefs unapologetically and with integrity?

What if a split means we’ve outgrown a historic structure? A designer of skyscrapers will tell you that the foundation and structure of a five-story building is very different than that of a fifty-story building. In similar fashion, the foundation of a newly designed 18th-century movement is surely different than that of a complex 21st-century organization. In designing our structure, Wesley couldn’t possibly have predicted the needs of a 12-million member, global denomination. What if our current strain is the effect of an over-burdened structure?

What if this is an opportunity to show the world what grace looks like? We may well end up splitting or splintering over deep and difficult theological issues and it may be that nothing we do prevents that. If it happens, are we willing to at least demonstrate the kind of grace toward one another that we preach to the world? Can we at least learn from those denominations that have already dismantled and do our best to shed grace broadly?

What if this isn’t such a bad thing? What if this crisis we’re in isn’t failure but growth — if not numerically then spiritually? Yes, the theological differences are significant. Wherever one falls on the spectrum of belief, I assume we are all grieving the very real possibility that what has been familiar, even comfortable, is coming to an end. But what if God is actually true to his word and what if he really will work all things together for good? What if somehow, on the other side of this valley, there is a feast?

Christians have developed a high tolerance for the tension between the “already” and “not yet,” so this season of waiting for what is next may end up being a season for which we are uniquely prepared. I hope we use it to our advantage — to pray, listen, pray some more, and acknowledge that this may not end as we hope … and that may not be all bad.

 

*Heather Hahn, “Economist: Church in Crisis but Hope Remains.” UMC website, May 20, 2015. http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/economist-united-methodist-church-in-crisis

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Cast out demons and cure disease (or, what it means to be the Church)

We are the tabernacle of God.

The Bible tells me that when I take Christ into my life, I have the same resources available to me that the Israelites had and the Acts community had. Like them, I have the power of God. I don’t do this on my own steam. When I am filled with the Holy Spirit I receive power (Acts 1:8) —  the same power the Israelites had who fought with enemies twice their size and won, who found food enough to feed hundreds of thousands of people, who received miracle after miracle of God’s provision.

I have those same resources.

We who follow Jesus have the same resources as the followers of Jesus in Luke and Acts, who healed sick people and cured diseases and cast out demons and preached good news to the poor.

So why don’t we act like it? Why don’t I?

When the disciples came back from their first mission trip — having been sent out by Jesus to cure disease, cast out demons and proclaim the Kingdom — they complained to Jesus about a guy they’d seen who was also casting out demons. They wanted Jesus to tell this guy to stop; after all, he wasn’t one of them. You can feel the sense of competition in their comments. They also complained about some religious leaders and had the audacity to suggest that Jesus rain fire down on a few heads.

That’s when Jesus decided maybe it was time to recast the vision.

We find it in a line that isn’t actually there. Or at least it isn’t part of the earliest manuscripts. Somewhere along the way, some scribe felt the need to add a line between Luke 9:55 and Luke 9:56. Scholars give it about an average chance of being an actual word from Jesus and since it doesn’t show up in the earliest manuscripts, you won’t find it in most Bibles, but if your Bible has study notes, they probably mention this line.

As I said, it comes at a point in the story when the disciples are being sort of arrogant about the people who are not in their circle. Most Bibles say, “Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

That’s the official version.

But some manuscripts insert another sentence so that the passage reads, “But Jesus turned and rebuked them and he said, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.’ Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

What a powerful commentary! Even if Jesus didn’t say it here, he said it often, that we don’t follow Jesus not because we don’t know who to follow but because we don’t know who we are. As believers, we do not know what we’re made of. We’ve bought some lie that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of rules and condemnation and guilt, so maybe that’s why we don’t embrace the Spirit. But it turns out — and this is good news! — the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives but to save them.

This is great news! The spirit of Jesus is a spirit of redemption!

This means that if you have received that glorious release from shame and guilt, then it becomes yours to give to the next person. You have that spirit. If you’ve been healed, then you are healed to become a healer. If you’ve been set free by knowing the truth, then you are free to share it. If that place inside of you that’s been dead for years is being brought to life again or if that relationship that was left for dead is being restored then you have received this as a gift. And the Word says, what we have freely received, we freely give.

We don’t even have a clue what kind of spirit we have, what kind of power we have to go out and change the culture, change the community, change people, change the world — to give what we’ve been given so that by the authority of Christ and under the power of the Holy Spirit the very spirit of Christ overflows from us.

We have forgotten that this good news is not ours.

This is ours to share.

 

(The image used at the head of this blog is the artwork of He Qi)

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