Holiness and the Billy Graham Rule

The issue is rarely the issue. Usually the issue is a symptom of the real issue beneath it. Which brings us to this week’s conversations about Mike Pence and the Billy Graham Rule. The discussion gives us a great reason to discuss the issue beneath the issue.

For the uninitiated, the Billy Graham Rule was coined after Graham made the public commitment to never meet alone (in a car, restaurant, hotel or office) with a woman other than his wife. His was a high-road choice to avoid the rumors swirling around other national leaders of his generation. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy both battled their own demons where sex and women were concerned.

I commend Billy Graham for making a strong statement about his personal boundaries. For him, that was the right choice. He was a target and his public declaration put the world on notice. Since his “rule” became famous, scores of Christian leaders have taken the same tack as Graham. Many have accepted it as a clear and easy way to avoid temptation or even the appearance of it. For some, it is the right choice, given their personal challenges (either internal or external). But is it the right choice in every instance, just because it was the right choice for one high-profile man?

A Washington Post editorial by Laura Turner spells out the nuances for both men and women of invoking this rule:

The impulse that led to the Billy Graham Rule — which was actually a solidification of principles guarding against several kinds of temptation — is a good and honorable one: to remain faithful to one’s spouse and to avoid the kind of behavior (or rumors of behavior) that have destroyed the careers of church leaders. Evangelical pastors having affairs is so common as to almost be cliche, and damages the integrity of the church.

But good intentions do not always produce helpful consequences. In this case, the Billy Graham Rule risks reducing women to sexual temptations, objects, things to be avoided. It perpetuates an old boys’ club mentality, excluding women from important work and career conversations simply by virtue of their sex.

The question is one of how both men and women leaders can live irreproachable lives while raising up those in their spiritual care. What is the right balance to strike? And what is the real issue beneath the Billy Graham Rule?

In a word, holiness. How we live out our lives before Christ so they bear fruit for the Kingdom is the real issue. When we pursue our own holiness, address our own brokenness, and face our own fears, then and only then can we effectively live out our own call to raise up others.

Lead us not into temptation. Jesus knew what he was teaching us when he taught us to pray against temptation. He knew temptations would come. That’s not an “if” but a “when.” He knew any effective follower of Christ would come face to face with the darkness. It is not ours to avoid temptation, but to learn how to not to cross the line when we’re faced with it. Paul said as much. “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

What is the “way out”? Is it to limit access to other people, or is it to increase access to the Holy Spirit? Jesus’ and Paul are both teaching the same message: Don’t expect to handle temptation on your own; find victory by taking it to God. Use the temptations that inevitably come our way (don’t go generating them!) as an opportunity to evaluate spiritual health and an invitation to become more healthy. This will be a process, not an event, but the goal is internal transformation.

Fear bleeds. When our choices concerning spiritual leadership are born out of our own fears and insecurities, we not only self-limit our potential, we end up bleeding on those around us. We expect others to adjust to accommodate our fears.

Listen: I am responsible for my own brain, and those with whom I relate are responsible for theirs. When either of us are in a place spiritually or emotionally where we are unable to take every thought captive (remember: it is not the thought that comes into your head that is the problem; it is what you do with it that matters), then we have our own work to do. The right answer is not to place an “invisible burqa” on someone else. The right answer is to get the personal and spiritual healing I need so I can be the adult in the room and fulfill my calling, which is to raise up those around me called into spiritual leadership.

Go and make disciples. In their study of the challenges faced by women in leadership (published in the Harvard Business Review), Robin Ely and Deborah Rhode note that women often have difficulty accessing the same information as their male colleagues. Men in general have greater access to inner circles of support. But if women who lead don’t have access to other successful leaders who are ahead of them on the journey, how will they become better leaders?

We do not in this day and time have the leisure to consign one-half of the human race to “the women’s room” when it comes to leadership development. Shepherds are responsible for shaping the lives of the sheep in their care. All the sheep. Please don’t relegate gifted, driven, faithful women to the B-team because of fears, temptations or a lack of motivation toward holiness. Men of God, be holy as your Father in Heaven is holy. And out of your own holiness and call to lead, mentor those in your care. Raise up the men and women around you who will effectively make disciples, so that together we can welcome and advance the Kingdom of God.

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Make me.

In a season of confession, I discovered  a bit of poetry embedded in a journaled prayer. I share it here, thankful for the cleansing the Holy Spirit is working in my life these days. Confession and repentance are good things.

Make Me.

I am undone by you, Jesus.

Exposed.

I am judgment. I am opinion. I am condemnation and criticism.

I am chaos and I am confusion.

I am selfish, small minded, false in every way. I am impure motives.

I am lost.

I am a woman of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.

And now I am undone, my insides are spilling out.

I am control. I am manipulation. I am soul-sickness.

I am veneer. I am empty of identity and full of posturing.

I do not know how to be still.

Repent me, for I cannot repent myself.

I cannot turn myself around, as if this is a child’s game.

This change is not my choice.

Repent me. Turn me. Change me. Make me new. Make all things new.

Be still, my soul. And know.

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Trust God (and other things I learned from a penny).

Maybe you have heard me tell the story of my pennies. About six years ago I started finding them everywhere. The first time it happened was just about the time we found out that the cost of our first warehouse renovation would be more than we could afford. One morning I was out walking and talking to God about the situation. I remember saying, “Lord, I don’t see how this is going to happen. I don’t see how we’ll ever get the funds together to get into this building.” And just as I said that, I looked down and saw a penny in the road.

Now, I’m never one to see coins on the ground. I’m a big picture person; I don’t see details. But there it was — a penny shining in the early-morning dark — so I picked it up and laughed to myself. “Okay, God, so is this your contribution to the project?” Then it hit me that maybe this was God’s way of reminding me that he will provide. Not in the ways I expect and not on my timeline, but he will provide.

Be skeptical if you must, but I decided to take that penny as that kind of message from God.

After that, I started seeing pennies everywhere. It got to be a joke almost, like someone was planting them in my path. And almost like the punchline, one day just I pulled into a parking place a woman on the sidewalk stepped toward my car and started picking up change by the driver’s-side door. She looked up at me and said, “Look at all these pennies!” I had to laugh! I let her pick them up but I was thinking, “Lady, those are my pennies.”

Years have passed since that moment, and the penny phenomenon waned … until recently. We’re in the middle of another building renovation and campaign and again I found myself wondering if God will provide. These seasons can be complicated — keeping all hearts and minds moving in the same direction, helping the late adopters get there. One day in my office, I heard myself whining about something building-related. The person I was unloading on had the wisdom to suggest we pray and when I bowed my head there it was.

Right there on the floor staring back up at me was a penny.

I don’t believe God is walking before me tossing pennies in my path like some kind of cosmic flower girl. Not at all. But I do have to wonder if he uses the occasion of a penny on the ground to remind me not that He will provide all the funds we need but that He can be trusted.  After all, God wants us to trust him and every single penny carries that message: “In God we trust.”

Whether with pennies or unsure moments or invitations to jump, what if God is constantly trying to start a conversation with us about trust? Maybe pennies or critical moments or small decisions we make every day are a way Jesus is training us to trust him in the small things so we can trust him with more. Maybe this is why the “micro” matters. If we’re going to accomplish the macro, we have to be able to see where he is working right now … to accept the gift being held before us now.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. In this word, Jesus is hoping to convince us to lean on God for our needs because Jesus gets it that we don’t lean on God for our needs. When we choose anxiety and whining over trust, we expose our deepest fear — that God is not a giver, that God will not provide, that God can not be trusted. We won’t ever say this out loud but in the ways we over-protect, over-plan, over-defend, in the ways we guard our hearts and control our circumstances, we expose what we really believe.

Our actions betray us. They expose to the world our deep fear that God will take us only so far, that God can be trusted but not completely. That if we want something, we’d better go get it ourselves.

So what is that thing you don’t want to trust God for? Maybe you will trust him for a lot of things, but not for that thing. What is that thing? And how will you practice trusting him today in the small things, so you can build up strength to trust him for that thing?

Listen: God is the ultimate Giver and self-giving is at his very heart. Trust him … and then live for him.

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I’m not bad (I’m just drawn that way).

One of the best movie lines ever is the line from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The movie is animated, but with some real people sprinkled in. Eddie Valiant is the real-life detective and Jessica Rabbit is the animated character, telling Valiant how hard it is to be her and how misunderstood she is. As she exits the room, she says, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” It is a brilliant line (because she is animated, after all), but it is also interesting theologically.

Are we bad? Or are we just drawn that way?

The answer is yes. We are born broken. We are born with the mark of Adam – the stain of fallen humanity. Except for God’s continual pursuit of us, we would be lost in that sin. Permanently scarred. We find the same idea in one of the best hymn lines of all time: Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. We are prone to wander. It is in our DNA to rebel.

The movie writer and the hymn writer are saying the same thing: we are drawn that way. We are caught up in this spiritual battle for control of our souls. It is like a spiritual under-tow. We are trying to get to the shore but there is this constant force pulling us away from the direction we know we should be moving in. We are drawn toward sin … prone to wander. This is what Paul means when he tells us (Ephesians 6:12) our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, authorities and powers of the dark world and against the forces of evil in the spiritual realm.

In his lesson about prayer, Jesus teaches us to fight this battle not with behavior management but with Jesus himself. Begin in the presence of God and seek the power of God to overcome the temptations and evils that bend our will.

Temptation  in the Greek can mean an enticement to sin but it can also mean a “trial or testing.” Not all temptation is created equal.

1. There are bad temptations. A temptation is a nudge toward the darkness. It is the snake in the garden pointing Eve toward the apple. Her sin was in eating the apple. The nudge and conversation were not the problem but with each step in that direction, she increased the danger.

Hear that: It isn’t the thought that comes into our head that is the problem. The problem is what we do with it once it gets there.

2. There are “good” temptations (with bad timing). There are those temptations that come from outside of us, but there are also temptations designed to throw us off track that may seem like good ideas. Brothers and sisters in Christ, the most dangerous belief you can hold as a follower of Jesus is the belief that you are past the point of temptation. You can destroy a marriage by believing that. Or a ministry. Victory happens not when we get cocky, but when we cling to Jesus like desperate people hanging from the side of a cliff. Because sometimes the enemy will strike while we’re in the middle of doing good things. Even on our good days, we are “prone to wander.”

3. And then there are legitimate tests. Bill Johnson says, “God never sets us up to fail.” God tests. The enemy tempts. What is the difference? The enemy tempts us in order to destroy us. The enemy only has one plan. It is the plan of a desperate, defensive, defeated person: Steal, kill and destroy everything in his path — everything he can get his hands on — before Jesus comes back. When God tests, however, it is so he can refine us. The tests of God are designed not to push us over the edge but to both shape our character and prove it.

The trick, then, is learning which trails to follow and which to avoid. Paul says it this way when he writes to the Galatians (Galatians 5:13): “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love.: In other words, “Take my thoughts captive, God, so I’m not constantly having to battle every choice. Give me some holy boundaries out of which I can operate so I’m not always having to choose between what I want and what I can give … so I’m not always having to wrestle between my shallowness and Your depth …”

This is a prayer for holiness to invade us. This is a prayer for Christ himself to invade us, in all his redemptive power. 

Jesus came to fight our battles for us. Which means that even if we are “drawn that way,” that doesn’t have to be the last word over our lives. We can legitimately, effectively fight the urges that come our way. We can claim victory over darkness. Jesus invites us to bring our battles into his presence where his power can draw us out of darkness and into his glorious light.

(Portions of this post are reprinted from Encounter Jesus, a seven-week study about the nature and work of Jesus that you can find at seedbed.com.)

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Rolling stops and resurrections

You know what a rolling stop is, right? It is what less responsible (or more distracted or in-a-hurry) drivers do when we get to an intersection. We sort of stop, but not really. We pull up to a stop sign, glance around, then start to pull off before the car fully stops. But then, just about the time the hood of the car is in the center of the intersection, we see the cop sitting there just behind a tree, looking for people like us who roll through intersections without actually stopping. We see him and there we are, sitting in the middle of the intersection. We put the brakes on to stop completely. Then we pray for mercy. Then we start again.

And as we drive on through, we hope.

As with driving, so with life. That complete stop is the step many of us miss. There we are, speeding along with our bad habits and dysfunctions, hoping we don’t get caught. Then something happens to get our attention. We realize we probably ought to stop but instead of bringing everything to a complete halt, we tend to roll through the intersection.

We don’t really want to stop the old behavior. We don’t really want to submit to holiness, the life Jesus calls us to. We just want to slow down and make sure we’re not about to kill or be killed.  Then we roll on through.

That may be our pattern, but that is not the pattern of the resurrected life. For resurrection to happen, the body has to stop. In a real resurrection, there is a period of darkness, of battle, of facing the enemy of our souls, of facing the lies head-on and speaking truth over them so they lose their sting.

Resurrection isn’t about rolling through the intersection. It is about killing the old life so something completely new can exist.

Bud McCord says, “The language of the New Testament is not change language. It is begin-again language. It is leaving the Kingdom of darkness and going into the Kingdom of Light. It is leaving death and entering life. It is being crucified with Christ to begin living in Christ.”

Think of resurrection as re-creation, and of faith in the power of resurrection as creative faith — the kind of faith that calls us out of the old and into the new.

That decision to roll through the intersection seems harmless most of the time. Maybe even more efficient. No one is around, we think.  What’s the harm in it? Where’s the harm in me holding onto this one habit, this one grudge, this one offense? Can’t I just roll on through and hope for the best?

Here’s the hard fact: that choice to roll on through doesn’t lead to the power of the resurrection. Maybe that’s why Paul said about himself, “by any means possible.” He said, “So that by any means possible, I may attain the resurrection.”

That means everything is on the table, nothing held back. I will do whatever it takes, by any means possible, to experience life in all its richness.

Because “whatever it takes” is the difference between a rolling stop and a resurrection.

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How I almost quit (and why you shouldn’t)

Today, I quit being a Christian.

That was the leading line in a Miami Herald article by Annie Rice, author of The Vampire Chronicles. Annie was a self-proclaimed atheist who eventually returned to the Church.* Now she has decided Jesus is okay but the Church is not. In the article, Annie says, “I remain committed to Christ as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

I assume there are a world of people like out there like Annie. You may be among them — one of those people who likes Jesus but the church … not so much. If you are attached to my denomination that may be compounded by a sense of frustration that borders on hopeless.

Maybe you’ve decided you have no room in your life for that kind of hassle. It is easier to stay home and be angry than to contend with a broken system. I get that. If Jesus weren’t real, I’d find easier ways to spend my Sunday mornings and my work life. But let me share why I think the Church — and your church — is worth the hassle and your allegiance.

It is simple, really: Jesus is head of the Church. He is the founding pastor. He cast a vision for it after his resurrection, then set it in motion at his ascension. In fact, a lot of the New Testament is Paul working out his theology of Church in the context of first-generation churches. They are, he concludes, in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

Let me say that again: We who follow Jesus are in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

How do you quit that, exactly?  I’m not sure you can, and still call yourself a follower of Jesus. This isn’t about a particular tribe or flavor. What I’m talking about here is the life of Christ on earth, signified by the community he has called together.

What do we do, if we don’t like what we’ve got, but don’t have permission to quit?

1. Repent for your own short-sightedness. This is where God has had me in the time since our United Methodist General Conference in 2016. For years, I’d been in an internal “quit” mode where the UMC is concerned. A long time ago, I lost my patience for what we have and was looking for an exit door.

I wanted to quit.

I expected to find a “door out” at last year’s General Conference but then something happened, something no one expected. It seems as if God had decided to do a new thing. And I didn’t see it coming.

More explicitly, I didn’t believe God was big enough to change the tide of a denomination … or that he cared. I write that now with such heavy contrition. I under-estimated His capacity to make a way in the desert, to cut streams through the wasteland. God moved in a surprising, redemptive way last year in our denomination and I almost missed him. That is cause for repentance, for course correction, for humility in the face of all I may not have eyes to see. I don’t know where God is taking us, but He has given me a new heart for the 11 million people called Methodist, and I want to be respond to that gift faithfully.

2. Pray and live prophetically for the future of the Church. Prophets learn to hear the voice of God, to see where he is working. Then they put that into language that edifies the body of Christ and instructs the surrounding culture. The Church in the U.S. is starving for people willing to pray and speak boldly into both church and culture. We starve for prophets unafraid of being a peculiar people — holy, chosen, strange in the sense of being … well …

Strange. Different. A light in the darkness.

I’m talking about people with faith enough to say, “I see something beyond the obvious here, something that ought to change your sense of reality.” We need prophets who keep us focused on the big picture. We need folks who understand the ramifications of our leadership choices.

3. Actively practice your gifts. Whatever your gift, practice it (note: complaining is not a valid spiritual gift). Become a valuable contributor to God’s work on earth. This is how the Kingdom comes. Besides, if you don’t lead, who will?

4. Don’t quit. As we cultivate the gift of prophecy, we begin to see with clarity that God is indeed working. It may not be obvious to the naked eye but He has not given up on this world, nor has he given up on the Church.

Jesus has not quit. Not you. Not the Church. Not the world.

Which is to say that the world is not the problem. The world is the prize.

 

*Church with a capital “C” refers to the Church in general, wherever it exists around the world. “Church” with a small “c” refers to a particular church, like your Baptist church or my Methodist one.

 

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An invitation into the wild

Can you even begin to imagine what it must have been like when the Spirit of the Lord passed through Egypt and in every house someone died? Can you imagine the grief? Not just for days but for weeks or months, there must have been the high-pitched cry of wailing parents always in the air, after the Lord called for the slaughter of all the first-born among the Egyptians.

And while the Egyptians cried, the Israelites picked up everything they could carry and started walking. People unused to taking control of their own lives, not naturally gifted with faith, picked up their very lives and walked out into the desert.

If you didn’t know the Egyptians had been oppressing the Israelites for generations, if you didn’t know their hearts had grown so hard they’d forgotten how to feel, if you didn’t know the one, true God had chosen slaves to be his people, none of it would make sense.

That’s why the remembering became so important. And that’s why — out there in the desert, in the wild, as they turned to look at each other and wonder “what next?” — God taught his people to remember.

God taught them to remember because without the story, nothing else made sense. Until they learned to remember, learned to reinterpret their story so that God was at the center, they’d miss the great moves of God.

Until we learn to rightly remember, we will miss the great moves of God.

The great moves of God work by a familiar pattern. They often begin with slavery – to oppression, to things that harden hearts, to things that choke out freedom, with people orbiting around their own egos. The great moves begin with slaves entrenched for so long in mediocrity that they forget how oppressed they are.

Then comes the rescue, the invitation to go with God, to step out of slavery and into freedom. This is an invitation into the wild places of transformation, where the people learn that the story doesn’t in fact orbit around them but around the Lord of the Universe.

Rescue is most often a process, not an event. It is a desert to cross, a cross to bear. Out there in the grief over all that must be left behind, the children of God learn how their small stories fit into His Big Story. They learn to reorient; they discover their place outside the center. They learn the daily process of surrender and they learn to worship something bigger than themselves.

This pattern moves the people of God out of slavery, through the desert, and into the promises of God. In the story of God, you find this pattern employed over and over – slavery, rescue, desert, promises. This is the broad view of the Bible itself. Jesus tells us this is how the Kingdom comes: repent and start walking.

Out in the desert, in the wild, remembering is the first order of business. In the feasts and high holy days of the Old Testament, God’s people were disciplined to stop and remember, to tell the story, to draw up from their past so their future would rest on a higher plain. When Jesus reinterpreted those feasts so he became the center of the Story, he charged his followers: “From now on, every time you eat this bread or drink this cup, remember me.”

Remembering, we learn, is part of resurrection. Rightly interpreting the great moves is how we move on — not just for our sakes but for our children, also. In Exodus, chapter 12, God tells the people, “Eventually, you’ll have kids who won’t know The Story. They won’t move forward unless you show them where you’ve been.”

Even today, when Passover is celebrated by Jewish people, the youngest person in the room has the privilege of asking this question to invoke the telling of The Story: “What makes this day different from all other days?” God told the Israelites, “When the children ask, you tell them, ‘We do this because God is great. He brought us up out of our slavery into a desert so He could kill anything in us that wasn’t His. God stopped at nothing to make sure we became free people as He moved us across our desert and into His promises.’” When the Israelites heard it told this way, they bowed in worship.

A redemption story well remembered creates an atmosphere of awe.

Remembering is a key to transformation. Have you taken the time to rightly remember your story so that it becomes a dynamic force that focuses you beyond yourself and sends you out into the desert of transformation? Have you verbalized the great moves of God in your life? Have you confessed those things that have enslaved you? Have you soaked in the patterns, so you can recognize them and take authority as your future unfolds?

Have you learned to tell your story so it points in the direction of the divine wild and provokes worship?

 

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The shoulders on which I stand

Some of history’s more interesting Christian movements have been initiated by women. Consider these ten women, some from within the Methodist movement and some from beyond it.

Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) was the founder of the Four Square movement. Myrtle Dorthea Beall (1894-1979) started Bethesda Temple in Detroit. According to the Victoria United Methodist Church website, Barbara Heck (1734-1804) was the designer of John Street Methodist Church in New York and a planter who established congregations in both New York and Canada.

Margaret Fell (1614-1702) opened her home to many traveling evangelists, including George Fox, whom she later married and joined as a partner in developing the Quaker tradition. Because she would not take the “oath of obedience” to the King of England, Fell was imprisoned twice. During her first incarceration, she wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All Such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus And How Women Were the First That Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and Were Sent by Christ’s Own Command Before He Ascended to the Father (John 20:17).”

Hannah More (1745-1833), far ahead of her time in her social activism on behalf of girls, was a playwright who taught Methodism and started new schools for the education of girls. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) began a social justice movement that spanned the globe, leaving four-thousand sisters as her legacy upon death, along with hundreds of others who served as monks, Fathers, lay missionaries and volunteers.

Several husband-wife teams birthed significant movements. Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), Catherine Booth (1829-1890) and Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911) all capitalized on exceptional partnerships with their husbands. Palmer and Booth were both Methodists who defected from that movement to start their own. Catherine Booth was the co-founder with her husband William of the Salvation Army. Palmer is known as the Mother of the Holiness movement, having started a prayer gathering in her home that spawned gatherings like it around the country. Palmer was also the founder of New York’s Five Points Mission. Smith and her husband were prominent leaders in an interdenominational movement, though she was definitely the more well recognized and received of the two. Hannah Whitall Smith went on to become a writer, her most widely read book being The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life, which sold two million copies initially and is still in publication today.

John Wesley found himself conflicted by the direction his movement should take. Officially, he asked women not to preach or lead men. Unofficially, however, he encouraged them to organize class meetings, teach in those meetings and conduct evangelism. Raised by a strong and outspoken mother, Wesley was never able to embrace a complete ban of women from the pulpit. He would say they ought not preach except by “an extraordinary impulse of the Holy Spirit.’’ Nonetheless, Methodist women found it difficult to be constrained. Long before the more recent vote in the Methodist Church to ordain women as pastors (According to the United Methodist Church website, the Methodist Church gave full clergy rights to women in 1956, when Maud Keister Jensen was ordained an elder), women were actively preaching the gospel and extending the movement called Methodism. In 1787, Wesley would bless Sarah Mallet (1764-1846) to preach as long as “she proclaimed the doctrines and adhered to the disciplines that all Methodist preachers were expected to accept” (UMC website).

My favorite? This one: in 1866, Helenor Alter Davisson (1823-1876) became the first woman to be ordained a deacon in the Methodist Protestant Church in America. Her journey toward ordination began in 1863 when she was recommended — over some objection — to the Indiana Conference as a candidate for ministry, at which time she was considered fit to preach the gospel “or at least a small work.” Ordained or not, Davisson had already proven herself capable of bearing fruit for the Kingdom. Together with her father, the Reverend John Alter, she traveled by horseback as a circuit rider through Indiana, planting a Methodist Protestant congregation in Alter’s Grove (Shoemaker 6). A second congregation was planted in the Barkley Township, making the first woman to be ordained in the American Methodist Church also the first woman to plant a church.

Be encouraged, my sisters. It is in the DNA of Methodist women to do a new thing.

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Ghosting and the Prince of Peace

Ghosting is a thing. ghosting2

Though the term wasn’t around in my dating days, the concept certainly was. Ghosting is the word for what happens when the person you’ve been seeing simply disappears. One day, you’re enjoying dinner together, hopeful this relationship is going someplace; the next day it is as if the person has fallen off the face of the earth. They have entered some other zone you can’t crack. You text to say you enjoyed time with them and you get crickets in return. You call and get voice mail. You check in on Facebook and discover you’ve been unfriended.

No conversation, no closing arguments, no “Dear John/Jessica” text. It is as if they have disappeared, leaving you without closure. The lack of “why” is maddening. Peace-sapping.

In Adele’s hit song, “Hello,” this is the storyline. It is a heartbroken woman having a conversation with a man who won’t answer the phone. The resonance of that song with this culture is startling. It won the distinction in 2016 of being number one on Billboard’s chart for longer than any other song by a female vocalist.

That ghosting is now an actual word says a lot about how relationships are evolving in a hyper-connected world. Because so much of our communication now happens in snippets and emojis rather than real conversations, there is a certain tacit permission to distance ourselves emotionally. It has long been a fact that folks are bolder when they are two steps removed from personal contact. We say things by email we’d never say face to face. We drop hints on Facebook rather than picking up the phone to have an honest conversation.

Once-removed communication is fanning the flames of passive aggression in our culture. It is passe to say that we’ve never been more connected and less authentically relational. I find in my own work as a pastor that I have to almost beg folks to pick up the phone and call. We seem to have lost the art of conversation. Or the heart for it.

I’ve also discovered that ghosting is a thing in the one place where it ought not exist at all. The Church is supposed to be a model for what real community looks like — real, honest, messy, vulnerable community. Walking away without a word is absolutely antithetical to the notion of grace; it shows a disastrous lack of understanding of what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.

Can you imagine Jesus giving someone the silent treatment? I’ll admit there are times when I feel like God is not present or audible but I can guarantee you that those times are more my fault than God’s. If anyone is ghosting anyone, I’m the one who is likely to ghost him.

The whole point of his promise to be with us always is to prove his love for us. No matter how wrong we’ve been, no matter how far from him we go, he will not leave us. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). That’s the mirror opposite of ghosting. It is the promise of eternal presence, no matter how badly I behave.

ghosting1When I check out of relationships without maturely resolving issues, with no concern for offering the ministry of reconciliation, I commit a grave sin — the sin of denying the work of Christ in my own life.

Claiming Christ is a self-limiting act. It is a conscious decision to no longer allow my wounds to take the lead in my decision-making.

Hear that: My wounds don’t get to make my decisions.

When I claim Christ, I submit myself to the leading of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who has called me to the ministry of reconciliation.

Paul and Barnabas are a great example. The story of their conflict in the book of Acts is a testament to how grace works. How they worked through that conflict made all the difference in how God used them to impact the world for Christ. Acts 15:40 says that as they parted company, they commended one another to the service of the Lord.

I am concerned for how we who follow Jesus function in our relationships with one another. We have allowed the culture to inform our responses; yet as Christians, we are given the ministry of reconciliation by Jesus Christ himself, who came expressly for that purpose.

It is right, just and gracious to offer peace in every circumstance. “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

We who claim Christ do not have the option of ghosting, not in our personal relationships nor in our relationship to the Body of Christ.

Why? Because shutting off our emotions will shut down our hearts. No matter what the cost to our pride, schedule or plans, we are called to make peace with anyone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt so that our hearts remain open to the love of God.

Yes, ghosting is a thing, but it is also a sin. It may be culturally acceptable, but it is not the way of the Cross nor the language of the Prince of Peace.

Are there unresolved relationships in your life waiting for the ministry of reconciliation? Who do you need to call so you can offer the gift of peace?

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Let’s take the world by force

Jesus never moves far from the topic of the Kingdom of God.  He is always trying to get us to see it, grasp it, embrace it.  It is like a seed, like soil, like leaven, like something valuable buried in a field. Something ordinary, sometimes hidden, that possesses an unexpected strength.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus uses a word that reveals yet another surprising thing about the Kingdom.  He says, ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12).  Another version phrases it this way:  “The Kingdom has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force.”

The Greek word used here is biazetai.  Depending on how you use it in a sentence, it can have either of the meanings noted above (“suffering violence” or “forcefully advancing”), though they are markedly different.

So which is it?

Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?  Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is it suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes.*  The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark, of a kind of deafness to the sound of holiness.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If John (and we) wants to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, tell him this: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

That’s why John was asking questions. Because this isn’t what he expected. He (and we) want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, God’s Kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like average people talking over coffee, telling stories of transformation. “This is how Jesus changed my life.”  

It looks like someone taking a box of food to single mom simply for the privilege of praying with her for better days. It looks like groups of people quietly gathering in buildings to bind up broken hearts and proclaim freedom to captives. It is people praying it forward, praying hopefully toward the day when there is no more pain, no more tears, no more racism, no more adultery, murder, divorce, anger, unrighteous judgment.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of ordinary souls to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so no one is left behind. It is seeds, leaven, oil, a cup of water, time, patience, stories.

That’s the force of it and for a lot of people that’s an offense.  It simply isn’t what we expect.

But that, Jesus seems to say, is how it is done.

 

* Some years ago, I heard Dr. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, preach on this verse and his remarks have stayed with me.

 

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