The curse of the gap

Dr. Kitty Harris of Texas Tech University teaches that in order to mature emotionally and feel “normal,” people need these basic needs met:

  • Physical safety – I need to know I’m safe.
  • Emotional security – I need to know I’m heard.
  • Identity – I need to know who I am.
  • Competence – I need to know I’m capable.
  • Belonging – I need to know I have a place.
  • Mission – I need to know I have a purpose.

All these things are found in the Garden of Eden. Place. Purpose. People. All there.

We, of course, live east of Eden (way east), on the fallen side of things. That means any of us looking at the above list will discover gaps or barriers between our “real” and our “ideal.”

Something is missing. I struggle to feel safe. Or I struggle to feel like I’m heard. I don’t really know who I am. I don’t feel competent. I never quite feel like I belong. I don’t know my purpose. These are all fallen feelings. And that gap between where we are and where God made us to be – the gap between real and ideal – can create all kinds of pain and frustration.

That gap led to the original sin. The enemy of our souls got Eve to notice the gap that exists between imperfect people and a perfect God. Then, once she was focused on the gap rather than God, he said, “Isn’t that gap … painful?” And while it hadn’t been in the moment prior, it became so the moment she began to focus on it.

That’s the curse of the gap. The more we look at it, the bigger it seems. We become more and more aware of this nagging sense that something is missing. We develop a compulsion to focus on that feeling. To make the feeling go away, or to “feel normal” as Kitty Harris would say, we work too much, become needy in our relationships, get addicted to things that ease the pain (which then create more pain) or do other compulsive things we hope will “fix” it. None of these things will span that gap but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Well-meaning Christians tell us “Jesus fixes the gap.” And in one sense, yes, he does. In the most basic sense of providing a path back to God, Jesus is our bridge. But slogans like “Just give me Jesus” don’t change our circumstances, don’t take the pain away, don’t erase our compulsions. Jesus doesn’t magically fix gaps. Reducing the power and presence of Jesus to a bumper sticker makes most of us feel less normal, more shamed.

Jesus does not offer instant pain relief, gratification or escape from bad circumstances. He does offer another way of seeing the world. Jesus introduces grace into the conversation about gaps and he challenges us to learn the difference between mercy and sacrifice. He offers holiness as a pathway to “normal” as God has designed it. He calls us away from our self-centered focus on the gap so we’re able again to focus on the power and provision of a mighty, loving, good God.

In other words, Jesus doesn’t make the ideal happen, but he makes the real safe again.

Hallelujah.

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God Heals Dis-grace.

I love the way Chonda Pierce teaches the creation story. She talks about how, in the story of Adam and Eve — before they sinned or ever talked to that serpent — the Bible says they were naked and unashamed. There was no sense of judgment or condemnation. No fear of rejection. No shame. Then came the temptation of Satan to be something they were not, and then that terrible fall from grace. That’s the moment a human first saw himself — herself — as somehow not good enough. That’s why they put clothes on. Shame compelled them to hide behind something.

It must have broken the Father’s heart to see his beautiful children experience such shame.

Dis-grace.

God came looking for them and since they were covered, he asked, “Where are you?” They answered, “We were afraid because we were naked, and so we hid ourselves.” God said (and you can just hear the grief in the question), “Who told you that you were naked? Who told you that you had something to be ashamed of? Who spoke that word into your life? Because that word is a lie.”

Don’t move too quickly past this truth: shame causes us to hide things. Shame sends us to dark places.

Shame is a lie.

Shame is the very word our Jesus has come to heal. He came to heal that word of dis-grace, thatdisgrace-and-grace2 lie that someone along the way has spoken into our lives to make us feel ashamed. The lie that because you are childless you are second-class or because you are broke, you’re worthless. It is the lie that makes us make a lot of money when it doesn’t come naturally to us to do so. It is the lie that leaves us tethered to jobs we don’t like, and relationships that aren’t healthy, and addictions that choke the life out of us. It is the lie that makes us expect too much of our kids, while we shrink back when we look in the mirror because we’re not who we think we ought to be.

Dis-grace.

God came to heal that. When John the Baptist’s father doubted God’s ability to give him a child, an angel indignantly struck him mute for a few months. “Take time to think about what you’re saying, Priest,” the angel seemed to say. So Zechariah did. In that season of silence, he contemplated the nature of a God who would both send a Redeemer and strike a man mute. When his son was finally born and Zechariah directed them to name him John — “God is full of grace” — he got his voice back.

Grace is the word that gives us our voice. It is the assurance that it is God’s work, not ours. God’s work, God’s word, God’s redemption, God’s plan, God’s grace.

In Christ, God has come to heal our dis-grace, and in him there is no shame at all. Hallelujah.

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We are the Amen.

Did you know the word “Amen” is never used in the Bible to finish a prayer? Or a song? Not once.

The posture of prayer in biblical times was not usually what we tend toward today.  People likely prayed with their eyes open, hands extended. From a strictly practical perspective, no one needed a “code word” to know when the prayer was finished. Hands would drop, eyes would notice, almost like a conversation.

Which is not to say that “amen” is not found in the Bible.  It most certainly is. Sometimes it is used to seal a covenant and then it means something like, “I promise.” Other times, it is used to confirm or agree with something someone says — a way of affirming the good things being said about how God works, like a fist-pumping “yes!”

To me, the most powerful use of “amen” is when the word describes God himself.  Ours is the “God of Amen” — the one who speaks and things happen. The eternal YES. The God of So Be It. This calls forth the deeper meaning of “amen” as the Greek equivalent translates literally as “so be it.”  And that word derives from the Hebrew, meaning “to build up or support.”

Which brings us to our own moments of worship and into the very presence of God.  This is our call, to become the very Body of Christ, lifting one another up as we lift up Christ and proclaim (So be it!) his truth. When we worship together and lift voices and hands, we build up the Body and become an embodiment — a living prayer — of the “amen chorus.”

In other words, we become the human “yes” to God’s divine “yes.”

Your “yes” matters.  Your worship matters. You are the Amen.

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What’s true in the world

Are these things true?

This was the question asked of Stephen, one of the followers of Jesus who served the first century church. Those who asked were antagonistic toward the movement and had seized Stephen because he was one of the more outspoken of the believers.

saint-stephen-the-martyrStephen, knowing the danger of the situation, answered by telling them everything he knew to be true about Jesus.

His answer was beautiful, a perfectly worded account of the gospel from Genesis to John.

And his answer got him stoned to death. Christians now commemorate his martyrdom in the days just after Christmas.

When we interview for staff positions at Mosaic –whether it is for a childcare worker or a ministry director — we ask candidates to share the good news with us in about three minutes. I am surprised at the number of people applying for work in a church who can’t do it. I think I know why.

It is because most folks have never had to. Most of us have never been required to articulate in our own words what it is we say we believe in.

Brothers and sisters, the gospel deserves our attention — first of all, because we claim to believe it, and second, because one day we may find ourselves having to answer the question, “Are these things true?” Lives hang in the answer to that question. Families in Nigeria are being displaced from their homes because of how they answered that question. Asia Bibi and Imran Ghafur have been in jail in Pakistan for seven years, awaiting trial for “crimes against Islam,” because of how they answer that question. Christians are leaving their homes in Iraq and Syria because of how they answer that question. Families are being torn in two because of how they answer that question. Surely we owe it if not to ourselves then to those people who stand their ground when asked how they answer that question to have a reasonable answer of our own.

Are these things true?

Do you remember the dramatic rescue of thirty-three men who were trapped in a mine in Chile a few years ago? For seventeen days, it was believed that all thirty-three were dead, until somehow they got word to the surface that they were all alive. Not just some, but all.

For the next fifty-two days, that little group of men became an international fixation as the world watched their survival and rescue. They were coached in the art of survival, taught how to discipline their days so they could maintain sanity while they waited for those on the surface to figure out a rescue plan.

Eventually, a plan was devised and the rescues commenced. Do you remember how it was for us on the watching end? Every miner pulled up from beneath was celebrated. All thirty-three. Many of them dropped to their knees upon reaching the surface to thank God for their life.Mario-the-miner

Mario was #9.

I can’t imagine Mario coming up out of that shaft feeling so good about his own rescue that he forgets to care about the twenty-four still down in the mine. I cannot imagine the people of Chile losing interest after the first few rescues, shrugging their shoulders and leaving the scene for the boredom of it. That’s not how great rescue stories work.

And in the same way, I cannot imagine a follower of Jesus coming up out of the darkness and shrugging his or her shoulders over those who are still down there, who will die down there if no one goes in after them. I cannot imagine a person with the spirit of Christ saying the others don’t matter.

I can’t imagine not having a reasonable answer to that question: Are these things true?

The gospel deserves our attention because there is a world full of people out there who haven’t been rescued yet, and no follower of Jesus should feel complacent or comfortable as long as there are people waiting for a fair account of the gospel.

Are these things true?

How you answer that question is critically important. The Kingdom of Heaven is coming and only those who see Jesus in the answer will participate in it.

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Is your spiritual life a system or a pile of parts?

Confession: My life and ministry have suffered greatly for lack of working systems. My problem is not laziness or lack of passion. Pretty much, I like just about every idea I come across. I don’t miss opportunities for lack of desire. I miss out for lack of knowing how to take good ideas (and more critically, “God ideas”) and design systems that move those ideas forward.

Why do systems matter? Think of it like a pile of bicycle parts. That pile, theoretically, is a bicycle. Everything is there to make a bicycle. Of course, in the form of a disconnected pile, it isn’t going anywhere.

There is no system to a pile of parts.

Now suppose I know something about bicycle construction (which I don’t but suppose I did). Suppose I know enough to be able to look at a pile and know it has the makings of a bike. In fact, I could call that pile my bike, and even be very proud of my pile of parts. “Look at that pile!” I’d say. “There’s one heck of a bike in that pile!”

Now suppose I find in my bike pile a rusty bolt. This bolt won’t do, I think to myself. I become angry about this one bolt and return it to the people who gave me the pile. I yell at them for giving me this bolt. “Self-respecting people don’t use rusty bolts!” I exclaim. In an attempt to placate me and keep my business the bike people sheepishly replace the bolt with one more to my liking.

Which I then throw onto the pile.

Which still isn’t moving.

Now I have a better bolt but I’m no closer to riding a bike. Why? Because while my pile of parts is a bike in theory, it is not a bike in reality. Until the parts are connected so they make a system that moves me forward, I don’t actually have a bike … just a pile. And a pile without a system won’t take me anyplace.

Let me say that again: A pile without a system won’t take you anyplace.

And here is the challenge for far too many folks who follow Jesus. What we call a spiritual life is for most of us no more than a pile of disconnected parts. We attend a worship service, maybe check in at a small group, pray before meals, and read a devotional book over breakfast or coffee.

We have the parts, but no system.

Then, when we discover a piece of the pile that isn’t to our liking — a small group that isn’t fun enough or a worship service that doesn’t “feed us” or music that doesn’t fit our taste — we pull that part out and hold it up to the person responsible so we can complain. “This piece is rusty! No self-respecting person wants a piece like this!” And maybe the person to whom we complain adjusts to keep us happy. They give us a better part. Or we go someplace where that part is more available. Then what do we have? All we have, really, is a shinier part to toss back onto the pile. Which is taking us no place, because we have no system.

Brothers and sisters, this is an oppressive way to live the Christian life. It is life-sucking and fun-sucking, both for us and those around us. Who wants to carry around a heavy and oppressive pile of parts that are actually designed to fit together into a system that carries us and takes us someplace spiritually?

This is the point of the means of grace — prayer, Bible reading, worship, journaling, fasting, group accountability. These parts are meant to fit together into a cohesive system that takes us closer to Christ. They are meant to be fashioned into something that serves us spiritually, so we can become all we were created to become.

Do you have a system designed to take you someplace spiritually? Or do you have a pile of parts? Are the activities connected to your faith in God oppressive or life-giving? Do they leave you frustrated and angry, burdened and tired? Or are they moving you forward?

Hear this: The system on which you build your life determines not only your growth in grace but also the quality of your joy.

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Holiness and the African UMC: An open letter to the U.S. Church

I have stated in other posts (here and here) that it has taken me a while to understand exactly how to posture myself within the current United Methodist Church. While at times I’ve been more content to wait for an exit door, in this season God and global Methodism have been drawing me toward the UMC, not away from it.

The hook is the global church. I am convinced that a globally connected church leads to a more faithful expression of the gospel. Early on, John Wesley displayed his commitment to the heart of a missionary God by traveling from England to Georgia for the cause of spreading the gospel.

It is in our DNA. Methodists are incarnational and global in our approach to evangelism. Today, we seek partnership with those within the Wesleyan tradition around the world, not just as people on the receiving end of mission activities but as fully invested members of this expression of faith.

Given that commitment, I am grateful for the following word from UMC Africa Initiative. Their expression of bold faith at General Conference inspired us and their continued engagement in this season is prophetic and wise. Disagree with their theology if you must, but have an appropriate respect for their right to reflect back into the UMC the very faith carried to them through Methodist missionaries.

Keep in mind: African United Methodists don’t have to engage our American problems. Their jurisdiction is sufficiently removed, both geographically and politically, that they could easily extract themselves and move on independently with little reverberation. They have enough of their own tensions and complicating issues to deal with without having to take on ours. And yet they stay connected, passionately defending orthodoxy and the covenant we all accepted. Their commitment inspires me to do the same.

This letter from UMC representatives in Africa deserves our attention. I share it with the hope that it will help the reader better understand and honor their perspective and even more, that it will inspire you to pray for a more globally focused, Kingdom-oriented approach to the gospel and the Body of Christ.

A MESSAGE TO GLOBAL UMC FROM UMC AFRICA INITIATIVE

5th August 2016

Over the past weeks we have been following the events and activities of the five jurisdictions of The United Methodist Church with mixed emotions and serious concerns about the future of our beloved church. We have read of actions taken by some in gross disobedience to the Bible and our Book of Discipline, and of others who have written to express their disagreements. We are deeply concerned. However, we are praying for God’s intervention as we discern God’s plans for the future of our church.

It is shockingly amazing that in the communication of “Love Prevails” to the Council of Bishops there was no mention of a specific reference to any passage of the Holy Scripture, our primary authority for doctrine, faith, and Christian living as the Church of Jesus Christ, to support any of its claims, arguments, and demands and justifications for the actions it has taken in recent times. This attitude and behavior has the propensity to embarrass, ridicule, and blur the message of the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone has the power to save and transform society.

In light of the commitment we (African delegates to the 2016 General Conference) made to the request of the Council of Bishops by our support to have them set up a special Commission to inquire into all human sexuality issues contained in our Book of Discipline, many of us are deeply saddened by the actions of some of our brothers and sisters to attempt to derail the unity of global Methodism. Their actions to grossly disrespect our Bishops and disobey our global decision at the recent 2016 General Conference are incompatible with fostering unity within global Methodism.

Furthermore, their actions seem to confirm the fears of our founding father, John Wesley. About five years before his demise, John Wesley had expressed his fears about the future of our church in regards to its continued commitment and submission to the Scripture and discipline that govern us. He said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America [in Africa and the rest of the world]. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both to the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which they first set out”. When we abandon the clear teaching of Scripture in favor of some philosophies and ideologies of contemporary society, we cease to exist within God’s parameter of grace.

We are left to wonder, why are we not identified as Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus, etc., but Christians? It is because every religious faith has a doctrine and a religious code of conduct that distinguishes it from all other religion. In the case of Christianity, it is the Bible, the Holy Word of God, as the Quran is for the Muslims. One’s religious identity is not found in the most appealing cultural or political system of the day, for that is fleeting. Loyalty, obedience, and submission to the teachings of these “divine writings” of the faith to which one belongs defines, distinguishes, and truly identifies adherents. One cannot claim to truly be a member of any of the world’s religions and live in gross disobedience to its teachings. (John14:15; Psalm 119:9-11,105; 19:7-11). Let the church be the church; and let not the culture of the day define the global Christian community called United Methodist, but the Bible (Joshua 1:8; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Christian Church, bought and birthed with the blood of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 53:1-13; Matthew 27: 32-61; John 10:10-11; Hebrews 10:1-39) is not and cannot be a social club; it cannot be directed by any form of political activism that contradicts the teachings of Scripture. And it is not a social or political system based on humanism or secular ideologies and philosophies (2 John 2;15-16; Colossians 2: 8-15;1 Samuel 8) that seeks endorsement for a kind of “human rights” to the detriment of human existence as God our Creator has designed it. Instead, the Church of Jesus Christ is a global community redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, who lives in loving relationship with their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. They are a people called out from the world and yet sent into the world (John 16:7-11; Acts 1:8; Genesis 6:5-9; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 28; Judges 2:10-13; 17:6) to share the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit in order that persons might come to faith in Christ and become disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We cannot in any way be “bad news” by our decisions, actions, and attitudes, and yet attempt to proclaim the good news.

It is time to return to the faith of our fathers and mothers (the Holy Scriptures) and be the church. In spite all that is going on, there is hope for the continued growth and development of the Church of Jesus Christ because Jesus is still the LORD of His Church. We will remain committed and determined to live in loyalty and obedience to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, and to our Book of Discipline. We will also remain supportive of the unity of the global United Methodist Community as long as the Bible remains our primary authority for faith and Christian living. We shall remain loving of members of the UM Church who have chosen to tread the cultural path of contemporary society that is inimical to the teaching of Scripture, in the hope that we will reconcile our differences and submit to the Lordship of Christ. They are our brothers and sisters for whom Christ also gave his life. However, we shall not compromise our Christian faith on the altar of what seems to the minds of some to be “socially acceptable and politically correct” cultures and practices of contemporary society.

We are confident that God is in sovereign control of His Church. He promises to continually build it until He returns to receive us unto Himself, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18b). We need to only be still, yet vigorously prayerful and discerning in such a time as this, and we will see the deliverance of the Lord.

We must admit that global United Methodist Church is at the crossroads (Jeremiah 6:16). We have choices to make. On one hand, we can choose to obey God and His word, and thereby repent of the sin of gross disobedience and abandon the quest to be like the rest of the world. On the other hand, we can choose to continue in pursuit of what the cultural practices of the day dictate that denies God’s sovereignty over God’s creation and accepts what feels good, what seems politically acceptable to society, etc. The choice is ours.

But as Joshua, at the close of his ministry in Shechem, said to all of the Israelites, and by implication to all United Methodist at the crossroads today, we wish to challenge all born again believers in Jesus Christ (John 3:3-5), in the words of this great general of God’s people, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness…But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household (the UM Community in Africa, in particular, and all faithful Christians everywhere who are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the undiluted Word of God for belief and practice), we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14-15). Together, we shall make it for God’s glory (Joshua 2:17-18; 2 Samuel 10:9-12). God has wonderful plans for the prosperity of His Church on earth (Jeremiah 29:11). Let us be firmed and very courageous in prayer and in discerning God’s will for the future of our church, always abounding in the Word of the Lord; for we know our labor in the Lord is not in vain (Joshua 1:4-6; 1 Corinthians 15:58). May God bless the people called United Methodist.

For His Glory,
Rev. Dr. Jerry P. Kulah
Central Conference Coordinator
UMC Africa Initiative on behalf of the UMC Africa Initiative
Liberia Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church
13th Street, Sinkor
Tel.: +231(0) 88 652 0399
Email: jerry.kulah@gmail.com

(Find this letter here.)

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Who wouldn’t want to be a universalist? (and why I’m not)

Who wouldn’t want to believe everybody wins — that in the end, God doesn’t have the heart to leave anyone behind?

That my non-believing uncle who drank himself to death and my friend who worships the sun god and even my neighbor who believes in nothing but who’s really nice and serves at the soup kitchen every Thursday … who wouldn’t want to believe that all of them will end up in Heaven one day?

It would make life simpler, wouldn’t it?

Universalism cloaks itself in love and acceptance, accusing those who don’t agree with it of being narrow, rigid, angry, unloving. “Love wins,” it urges. “Can’t we all just get along?”

We ought to be all for it. It would be a whole lot easier on all of us if we could skip that part about truth being absolute, basing our choices instead on moment and mood. It would free up a lot of time in my week. Church is fun, but not that fun. Coffee and a good newsfeed in yoga pants is also fun; so is sleeping late.

I was ordained alongside someone who called himself a universalist and was stunned that no one had a problem with that. He also considered himself a Christian (a Christian pastor, at that) but didn’t believe Jesus cared what choice we make about truth. That’s the thing about universalism. It is predestination’s odd other half. Jesus will send you to heaven whether you want to go or not. Choice is out the window just as surely as if your salvation was determined before your birth. As a theology it isn’t Christian.

Which means it isn’t Wesleyan. Methodists are not universalists.

Which is not to say that a person doesn’t have a right to believe an “all dogs go to heaven” theology. They just don’t have a right to believe that and call themselves Christian. To do so is to offend the tenets of both worldviews. In fact, one who claims all religions lead to the same God offends all of us. No self-respecting Muslim wants to be lumped together in the same theological basket with a Hindu or Christian. The belief systems are entirely different. We prove ourselves both ignorant and disrespectful when we minimize the differences.

Far from being a better brand of good news, universalism leaves us without any gospel at all. It is the opposite of truth, making truth itself a relative state, which makes it an extremely dangerous ideology.

Universalism is a theological anarchy that leaves us without purpose. Without choice. Without life.

Here’s the choice on the table: Either Jesus was right and he is our Messiah or he was wrong and (as Paul said) we are silliest looking people in the world.

That’s the choice.

C. S. Lewis said, “Either this [Jesus] was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

On the issue of salvation and ultimate truth, Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus defined his terms clearly: the way of the cross is the way of salvation.

So what do we do with that? Because after all, I’m still left with a sorry uncle, a flighty friend, a charitable-but-athiestic neighbor. What happens to them? We don’t much like thinking of the Father’s house without everyone we love in it. How do we make peace with the alternative?

First, it is important to remember something I’ve said in another recent post: Those of us who are committed to absolute truth (and that Jesus is truth) also believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are NOT the authors of our faith.

The author of our faith is Jesus Christ.

We have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith.

Second, the fact that we love people who believe differently than us should be our trigger to pray for them more fervently. In his answer to the question, “How can I be happy in Heaven if someone I loved deeply on Earth doesn’t make it to Heaven?” Peter Kreeft said this:

The simplest and most important answer to this question is this: If there is someone you love and identify with so deeply that you cannot imagine being happy in eternity without him or her, and that someone seems now to be in peril of being unsaved, then use the relationship that God’s providence has ordained for you. Tell God that he has to arrange for this person’s salvation as he has arranged for yours, because this person is a real part of you, and for you as a whole to be saved, this person has to come along, just as your own body and emotions have to come along. It need not be a wheedling or blackmail prayer; it can be a simple presentation of the facts, like [when Mary said to Jesus at a wedding], “They have no more wine.” Let God do his thing: it is always more loving, more gracious and more effective than our thing, more than we can ever imagine or desire. Trust him to use your earthly love as a channel, supernatural and/or natural, of grace and salvation for your friend. Your very question, your very problem, is the clue to its answer. God put that burden on your heart for a reason: for you to fulfill.

Grace, truth and love meet in this place. When we let God do his thing — not minimizing it but trusting it — he will always do a better job than us. When we trust that God loves people every bit as much as us (more, in fact), we will gladly beat a path to his door on behalf of those we love.

Don’t take away the truth. Instead, allow it to do its work.

That is how love wins.

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Abrahamic faith and the UMC

This message was delivered this week at the organizational meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group poised to advocate for a strong, orthodox, Spirit-led, global movement of United Methodists. I post this here as an invitation for you to join us in Chicago on October 7th.

Abraham and Isaac stun me. Because I’m a parent.

I have one daughter, and I am fairly convinced she is the one who hung the moon. If you’re a parent, you get this. Parents have a kind of insanity when it comes to our kids. We will take a bullet for them without thinking twice. And will do it again the next time. We will walk into the thick of a Hell’s Angel gathering to snatch our child up and take him home without breaking a sweat. We’ll go without food if it means she will get a better education.

Our children can make the worst possible mistake, but the next time they cuddle up next to us on the sofa and tell us they’d rather spend an evening with us than their friends, parental amnesia sets in. The slate wipes clean. In a way, it is like being possessed. A parent’s love is different. It is fierce. So when Abraham chooses to obey God and take his son up a mountain to make a sacrifice out of him … well, there is no other story in the whole story of God that shows more profoundly what real faith looks like.

No other story more vividly paints what God is asking of us when he asks us to have no other gods before him. No other story makes so plain what God means when he tells us to love him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength. Because Abraham is possessed. He is a hundred-year-old man who finally has a boy of his own. He has parental insanity. And knowing that … knowing what he is asking of this man … God comes to Abraham and says, “I am going to make you into something great. You will be the father of many people. What you have in this boy, you will have in more children than you can count. But to get there, you and I have to walk through a valley together and to you it may feel like the darkest kind of valley. That valley will lead you to the point of laying down your deepest earthly loves so there is nothing left between us, so I can pour all my hopes for the world through your family line.

“Abraham,” God seems to say, “This is what faith means. It is a decision to believe when it doesn’t make sense, accompanied by a love so fierce that nothing can compromise it.”

Can I say that again? Faith is a decision to believe when it doesn’t make sense, accompanied by a love so fierce that nothing can compromise it. 

This is the brand of faith God is asking of Abraham when he tells him to kill his son and burn the boy’s body. And after you’re given those kinds of instructions, there isn’t a whole lot left to be said. Abraham takes his son and a couple of servants and begins climbing that mountain. For three days they walk together.

Can you imagine what that walk must have felt like for a man who waited decades for a boy of his own? Who would take a bullet for his son? Who would have gladly taken his son’s place in that moment?

Can you imagine?

Brothers and sisters, this is what it means to make an affirmation of faith. This is a far, far cry from, “Please stand and turn in your hymnals to #881…” This is different. This faith has the quality of gold in fire. This is the quality of faith on which God wants to build a people. Isaac wonders just where the sacrifice is coming from and Abraham, with the full weight of mature, history-shaping faith on his shoulders, stands between Isaac and God and proclaims: “The Lord himself will provide.”

The Lord will provide.

With that line, Abraham shows us the difference between a people-centered faith and a Person-centered faith. Abraham walks with his son, but he trusts in God.

Brothers and sisters, I have to confess that it has taken me a while to be able to stand among my peers and say to you that I want to walk with you while I trust in God. And I have to confess this because a few of you know where my heart has been. Somewhere along the way (I am pretty sure it was the Tampa General Conference) I misplaced my heart for the United Methodist Church. That General Conference was the first time I’d heard the proposal that maybe American Methodists ought to separate from the rest of the world for the sake of better accommodating the culture. I could not fathom not being part of a global church, so I decided that the day the U.S. broke off from the global church I would cease to be a United Methodist. That was my line in the sand.

Isn’t it ironic that the enemy of the global church is universalism? Which I suspect is the root of all our other issues.

The global church was my line and so for four years I have been looking for an exit door. I was pretty sure I’d find it at this year’s General Conference but then that thing happened that no one expected.

God showed up at General Conference, and it was the global church that exposed Him.

On the Sunday after General Conference was over — as I began to synthesize the pieces of that historic gathering — it dawned me with a heavy contrition that God might actually care about the global Body of Christ and God might even care about the place of the United Methodist Church within the Body of Christ. And most humbling of all, it dawned on me that God might have done a new thing in that Body and I didn’t see it coming.

I am confessing that I didn’t believe God was big enough to change the tide of a denomination. I under-estimated His capacity to make a way in the desert. It never occurred to me that there might be a ram in the bush. I had to repent and I had to lay my exit door up on the altar. Instead of looking for a door out, I had to look for where the gap is in my own faith that has kept me from being able to see the great moves of God.

Now, I am not blind to the things that have happened since General Conference but I have come to suspect that maybe God’s heart breaks for things I’m not even praying about yet. And maybe this is why God has me walking up that mountain with Abraham. It is to remind me that God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. I won’t get to the mind of Christ with people-centered faith.

Those of us who work for renewal within our denomination do so because we believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are NOT the authors of our faith.

The author of our faith is Jesus Christ.

We have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith.

Hear me: we love people! We are passionate about the things that break God’s heart and people in need of mercy break God’s heart. But to have anything at all of value to offer to people — any people — we have to go through the heart of God. Otherwise, we’ll land short of the Kingdom.

This is the brilliance of Abraham’s brand of faith. He is unwilling, even for the suffering required, to stop short of the call of God. He isn’t willing to make choices rooted in emotion, comfort or convenience. There is no “spare sheep” in his backpack, no “contingency ram” in the trunk of his car. If he wants to get to the ram in the bush, he has to walk all the way up that mountain with his boy.

At the top of that mountain Abraham and Isaac build the altar together. We all know Isaac is a young man at this point (not a little boy) and his father is at least 120. Isaac could have muscled his way out of this if he’d wanted to. But Isaac is his father’s boy. He has his father’s spiritual DNA coursing through his veins. He is the second generation of a breed of people whose faith is centered on the person of God and not on personal tastes.

Isaac is not about to let go. He is in this until God shows up, walking with his father but trusting God.

That’s the sacrifice. What Abraham and Isaac lay up on that altar is their glorious faith. It is their faith they are about to set on fire! And I don’t know what would have happened if it had gone up in flames, but it didn’t. In the last moment, just as Abraham raises his knife against his own child, God calls to him. “Abraham, I see your faith,” God cries out. “I see your faith! I see that you fear God, that you’ve withheld nothing from me. All I ask is that you worship me with all your heart!”

And so they do. Abraham and Isaac together pull a ram from its place in a thicket and they offer it to the Lord, calling upon his name: Jehovah Jireh. The Lord Provides. And Abraham declares: “On the mount of the Lord, it shall be provided.”

And that, brothers and sisters, is how it goes in the Kingdom of God. Nothing is what it seems. To get life, we have to lay it down. To be first, we have to be willing to be last. To love people we have to love God more. To save anything, we have to be willing to lay it up on the altar.

And this summer, since General Conference and living in community with my people, this is where God has had me. He has had me steeping in questions inspired by the father of our faith. These questions seem like a good place to begin as we consider the future — where God is taking us as a church, as pastors, as followers of Jesus, as the people of God:

Is your faith Person-centered or people-centered? Do you need to repent at any level for practicing people-centered faith?

What about the quality of your faith? Do you have ram-in-the-bush faith? Do you have faith enough to see the great moves of God?

What are the deepest earthly concerns you need to lay down so there is nothing left between you and Jesus?

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