Haters gonna hate.

Let’s talk about hate.

In the first few verses of the Bible, we meet our God in his trinitarian wholeness. The Father creates, the Son speaks, the Spirit hovers. This Trinitarian God partners within himself in the work of creation. You can sense his single-mindedness — the energy flowing within Himself creating goodness. There is no sense of hierarchy here. In fact, a hierarchy within the Trinity would tear at the fabric of unity and prove our faith in one God to be a lie.

God is love, and within himself he is in complete unity and complete partnership. This is the substance and character of our God.

Humans were created in the likeness of this loving God, so the first two chapters of Genesis tell the story of humans being created as partners in the work of stewarding God’s creation. Side by side, male and female were to tend the land, govern the animals and be intimately unified. There was a creative energy and goodness between them. As with the one, true God, a hierarchy among humans would tear at the fabric of created design.

And yet, this is precisely what happened at the Fall. In Genesis 3, we learn that the enemy of God turned what was created as a partnership into a hierarchy. Ever since, humans have battled for control. This battle rages across genders, races, languages (in some countries, hierarchies are established by what language you know), nations … you name it. On this side of Genesis 3, fallen humanity is conditioned for division. If we can pit things against each other, we will. It is our ungodly inclination to compete, compare and control. This inclination is an incubator for hatred.

If God is love, then the enemy of God is hatred incarnate and that hatred has become the primary driver of unholy hierarchies. Whether we sense it dramatically or subliminally, it is this pull toward hierarchy that causes us to rank one another in order to justify our own value.

Let me state the obvious and say that hierarchy and hate are at the root of white supremacy and pretty much all the other hate-filled expressions of protest that surface not just in our country but around the world. Haters are obsessed with creating the kind of hierarchies that rank everyone not like them as “lesser than.” Most of us are appalled by the extremes to which the “real” haters will go. The “real” ones make the news. They have become so hardened by their own proclivities that they will shamelessly stand in the public square and spew their hate without the slightest sense of their absurdity.

The real haters are enemies of God, and what they do deserves our immediate and direct condemnation. There is never an option for a follower of Jesus to hate people. Never. What we so often see in the public square is simply not reflective of the heart of Christ. Our constant pull as Christians must always be against hate and toward genuine love.

Christians never have the option to hate other people or to act in hateful ways. 

This does not mean I will always agree with you, or you with me. There are things worth our righteous anger and sharp opposition. It does mean we are required by the law of Christ to treat one another as human beings, to treat with decency even those whose values are in direct opposition to ours. This is a sticking point for those of us who follow Jesus, many of whom have confused holiness with hierarchy. We cannot allow our pursuit of holiness to devalue others. Not politically, racially, or in any other of a million different ways we compete, compare, control.

This isn’t the way of Christ.

Somehow we have to learn how to talk in the public square about the things on which we disagree — and even acknowledge our disagreements as uncompromising — without labeling everything that doesn’t look like us as hate-generating or worse, as “less than.” After all, the ground beneath the cross is level.

Brothers and sisters, somehow we have to learn how to fight fair again, to engage in public debate so that honest differences can be acknowledged in mature and loving ways without devaluing one another. Because as long as we live on this side of Genesis 3, haters are going to hate but Christians simply can’t. It is not how we are designed, and it is not how we honor a loving God.

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Hungering for the prophetic gift

Let’s talk about lobster eyes.

Lobsters see the world significantly differently than the rest of us. Our eyes process images by absorbing basically a thousand points of refracted light, then sending those images to the brain where they are synthesized into a single image. X-rays work in a similar way, but because x-ray waves don’t bend (unlike light waves) it takes a lot of waves hitting an object from different directions to get a full image. Hence, the size of airport x-ray machines.

Lobster eyes are a different animal altogether (slight pun intended).

Lobsters live at the bottom of the sea, in an almost complete absence of light. It would make more sense, actually, for them to be blind and dependent on other senses but they aren’t. Their eyes are designed to see directly into an object, focusing on a single point then directly interpreting the information gathered through dozens of tiny channels in their eyes. In other words, multiple bits of information aren’t outsourced to the brain, collated and re-introduced as a cohesive image; instead, the eyes have it.

Literally.

And how lobsters see is literally changing the face of optical sciences.

You know that feeling of listening to someone and thinking they are foolish and irrelevant right up to the point where you suddenly realize they are brilliant and their insight is genius? I had that moment listening to a scientist talk about his life-consuming research of lobster eyes. Listening to his story, I thought (short-sightedly), “What a waste of a man’s time. Why isn’t he doing something to change the world, instead?”

And then, as if on cue, he said that what he was learning about how lobsters see the world is actually changing the way the world works. Studying lobster eyes, scientists have now developed an x-ray machine the size of a flashlight that can see, absorb and interpret an entire image with a single ray. This new technology can even “see” through three-foot walls, which means less radiation, less health risk, less cost.

Imagine what smaller, more portable machines might mean for global health. For airport security. For … all kinds of things.

And I had no mind for the implications of that guy’s research until I heard him make the leap.

I’m stunned by people with the creative vision to see one thing and somehow make the leap to something else much bigger and seemingly unrelated.

In this case, lobster eyes are both the story and the metaphor. How might my life change if I had that ability to see in the dark, to see a circumstance in my life not just for what it is but for what it can be? What if I had a better developed ability to look at current conditions and ride them out to Kingdom-oriented conclusions?

In Kingdom language, this is what we’d call the prophetic gift. Having it is a mark of maturity, and one I want to develop.

Why?

Because decisions determine destiny. Our voting choices, our moral choices, our parenting choices, our spiritual choices, our health habits … all those decisions we make daily have potential to shape not just our lives but the world in which we live. Our decisions have the capacity to lead us toward or away from the Kingdom of God. They have the potential to lead us into the answers to Jesus’ prayer (“Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”) or away from it.

Preachers should be longing for, praying for, hungering after that prophetic gift. That is what any preacher worth his or her salt ought to want. Eyes to see what the Spirit sees.

Most every week, I begin preaching with a prayer that we will have eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart to receive what God has for us. I had no idea until I learned about lobster eyes that I was praying for revelatory eyesight — for eyes with the capacity for spiritual vision. I didn’t realize I was praying for an ability to see in the darkness, for an ability to see a situation head-on and not backwards, for an ability to understand current reality in light of future consequences.

May God give us — especially those of us who preach — the gift of Spirit-led eyes to see not just what is but what can be. May the God of Kingdom vision teach us a better way of interpreting our reality so our choices and messages lead to life, not death.

Lord, give us prophetic vision. Nothing else, and nothing less.

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Four (and a half) thoughts on hearing from God

What is it God might be asking you to do – what totally illogical, foolish-looking, unpredicted thing might he be calling you to?  And if you’re hearing it, how do you know its God (and not just last night’s Mexican food)?

We don’t all hear God with equal accuracy. I’ve had folks tell me they’ve heard God tell them to do things that have no basis in what I know of the Bible. I’ve also learned from my own mistakes a few lessons about how to know when it is God speaking and when it probably isn’t.

1. Test everything by the Word of God. If I can’t find what I’ve heard in the Bible then I ought to be very slow to move forward. The wise men who first sought the Messiah didn’t actually begin with a star. They began with Jewish prophecies written in the scriptures about the Messiah. In Herod’s office, they quoted scripture as their motivator.  Test everything by the word of God. If you can’t find it there, wait.

2. Listen with a heart for obedience.  Because God is usually not just doing it to hear the sound of his voice. He speaks when he is either ready for us to respond or when he is ready for us to prepare for a response down the road. Either way, when God speaks he is doing more than just making small talk. He is bringing in the Kingdom and plans to do so through us. That ought to provide a point of great humility, and also a point of readiness.

3. Be ready for glory (God’s, not yours). God does not usually (or maybe ever) call us to things or places or works that glorify us. He usually calls us to things that glorify him. When we are following well, either the work itself or our testimony of God at work in us will point back to God.

Side note: One of the best lines I’ve ever heard on the subject of hearing from God comes from my friend, Dr. Bob Tuttle, who says he knows it is God’s voice when what he hears is smarter than what he could have thought of himself.

4. Be ready to surrender your reputation. God will often call us to do things that don’t seem logical and may even make us look foolish. If so, we’re in good company. Read Hosea’s story. Imagine what it was like to be Noah — building a huge boat on a sunny day. Consider the change of reputation that happened in Paul’s life the day he accepted Christ as Lord.  This may well be why Paul said (1 Corinthians 3:18), “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.”

How profound it can be when people get up and do things for and in cooperation with the Kingdom of Heaven! And how incredibly important it is to learn the voice of the Father so we don’t end up on the wrong road in our enthusiasm to get there.

So I come back to my opening question: What is it God might be asking you to do – what totally illogical, foolish-looking, unpredicted thing might he be calling you to? What friend is he asking you to make of an enemy, what marriage is he asking you to repair, what humility is he asking you to reach for, what job is he calling you to do, what story is he asking you to tell?

In what way is God calling you to be obedient, to point back to him, to proclaim him by taking up a cross and carrying it?  And what if that move ends up wrecking you for this world while it prepares you for Kingdom greatness?

In other words, if God decides to make a spectacle of you, are you ready to provide?

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God knows.

God knows.

Do you get how profound that is? God knows everything.  Your worst moment, your weakest decision, your blackest thought. God knows, and he still loves you.

To say that God knows is not the same as saying he dictates your every decision or causes your every moment. He is not a cosmic Santa Claus keeping a list and holding every grievance against you. It is simply to say that God — author and creator of our world, who lives outside of time — knows.

And what does God expect of us for all that knowing?  Shame?  Fear?  Regret?  Hiding?

Nope.  Faith.  Enough of it to believe in a deeper reality than what we’ve done.  Enough to believe “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Paul Tillich says, “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance.”

Meaning? Faith is a code that unlocks the acceptance of Jesus’ acceptance of me. It is my admission that Jesus knows my whole life story, every skeleton in my closet, every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty, degradedness darkening my past, and he accepts me in that light.

God knows what I did in college and what I do on depressed days. He knows my excuses and all the ways I externalize my foolishness so I don’t have to own it and get better.

God knows I’m not there yet.

Right now he knows my shallow faith, my feeble prayer life, my inconsistent discipleship, and he comes beside me and he says, “I dare you to trust. I dare you to believe that I love you, just as you are and not as you should be.”

Because frankly, you’re never going to be as you should be. Not on your own steam. It just won’t happen, and that fact is true whether you believe in Jesus or accept his acceptance of you or not.

But somehow, knowing that God knows is its own comfort. God knows and God cares, and that’s enough.

Hallelujah.

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The Methodist Middle or the Global Center?

On any given Sunday, United Methodist churches gather to worship God in nearly 60 nations around the globe. Across multiple time zones, languages and cultures, our tribe attempts to be a witness to Christ in a hurting world. The one entity – and the only entity — that speaks for that international witness is the General Conference, a global body. It is smack dab in the center of what it means to be United Methodist.

Regrettably, that body — and our United Methodist Church — is in a season of crisis. The Greek word krisis means “to separate, distinguish, judge,” and can apply to both positive and negative experiences. A crisis can be an opportunity to shake loose the needless and redeem the needful. I am convinced that all of us in the UM Church, no matter what theological position we take, are hoping for a positive end to a crisis-heavy season.

A group of clergy within our denomination have recently organized themselves under the banner of the Methodist Middle. For those of us supportive of the global Methodist center, we welcome these voices. This is a big denomination and everyone should have an opportunity to be heard.

It is charitably fair to assume that the Methodist Middle was not looking for a crisis. Who would? While they’ve been more hopeful, progressives and conservatives (or traditionalists or orthodox believers), have felt the pressure of a growing tension. Truth be told, those in the Middle have felt it, too, though in a different way. They’ve struggled to hold the tensions together in one hand and may even consider themselves the voice of tempered reason in a world of extremes. It must be frustrating to find themselves now — after years of asking us not to take sides — creating a “side.” As the Middle organizes and communicates with the average layperson, allow me to make a few observations and one appeal.

Unity can’t be the goal. 

First, it seems as if the Middle is asking the people in the pews to make theology less important than unity. To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the Middle wants the entire global denomination to adopt and/or accept a liberal position on human sexuality. In exchange, it seems, United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, the Middle seems to be reducing the crisis down to one issue — a mistake that would take us backward by several decades.

This kind of proposal turns a blind eye to the widening and pervasive theological gap that has been developing over decades. To say that orthodox believers only want to “win” on this one issue is to vastly over-simplify a long history of the erosion of our values. Likewise, to say that progressives are defined by this one issue alone is to ignore the depth and breadth of progressive theology — a worldview that influences how one views the Bible, humanity and even Divinity Itself, especially the divinity of Jesus as it pertains to his birth, death, resurrection and ascension.

For theologians — and all pastors are theologians — these distinctions matter, and not just to conservatives. They matter to anyone who has given their life and vocation to the work of caring for souls. It is damaging to everyone and to the work we take so seriously if we minimize all the theological differences and decide instead that for the sake of unity, we should reduce ourselves to a few simplistic and practical ideas.

Whether you are progressive, middle or conservative, what you believe matters. What you teach matters. Those things should not be minimized. This is the essence of our faith.

Whose Bible is it?

Second, my friends in the Middle are missing the opportunity to challenge the average layperson to really think about how they read the Bible. For instance, the Upper New York Annual Conference floated a resolution this year* condemning the work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (of which I’m a member). Whatever their motivation, the statement they produced was actually very helpful in drawing the distinctions that exist among us. In their document they noted: “progressives/ liberals/ reconciling United Methodists use a faith paradigm that utilizes historical-critical biblical analysis, recognizes the Bible and the gospels as human products that are the result of historical processes, views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning (a surplus of meaning) and looks to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate … ” Many progressives would go further to say that God’s revelation is not fixed but “progressive” — still unfolding and not bound by the tenets of scripture.

Upper New York had a point to make in their disapproval of the WCA, but let’s be clear: their take on the Bible does not speak for United Methodists worshipping in 60 nations around the globe. Their voice should not be dismissed; to the contrary, it needs to be placed in context. The Upper New York clergy who signed that statement have invested themselves into a fundamentally different perspective from an orthodox understanding of Scripture which views all of Scripture as true, using a variety of literary styles to convey that truth. We believe the Bible includes an historic account of God’s work in the world (conservatives use “faithful” to characterize our reading, rather than “literal”), and that it is Living Word and contains all that is needed for faith and life. The current crisis in the UM Church is an opportunity to deeply examine how we read the Bible, how we understand what it calls us toward, the power it has to guide us.

And central to that reading is what we do with Jesus.

Which Jesus do we follow?

“All intersections point to Jesus. We don’t know about His personal life – I believe that Jesus was Queer, Black and Poor.” That was the declaration of a United Methodist youth pastor at a “Gather at the River” conference hosted by a progressive group within the UM Church.

Although my Methodist Middle friends would cringe at the use of such an extreme example, please hear me out. This statement exposes the gravity of difference between two world views. To minimize these differences or to assume we can duct-tape them together with polity is to miss the mark and disrespect those who give their lives for precisely these kinds of beliefs.

The man who made this statement calls himself Methodist. So do I. But our understanding of Jesus (and Methodism, I’m guessing) couldn’t be further apart if we tried. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a New Testament scholar anywhere on the spectrum who would define Jesus as Queer, Black and Poor. Actually, Jesus was a middle-eastern Jewish man, born into a specific context at a specific time in history. Orthodox believers assert that he came in order to do battle with the spiritual forces that created our fallenness. He is not a metaphor for all the good in the world. He was and is flesh-and-blood, mysteriously fully God and fully man. The resurrected and ascended Jesus — Son of the Living God — sits at the right hand of God the Father. He died and rose for the sake of breaking the power of sin and death. Sinless himself, he is on the side of the sinner – queer, straight, black, white, poor, rich. He has compassion for the one who is oppressed. He has a preference for the poor, but he is not some nebulous idea or Transformer toy who becomes who we need him to be, even when those needs are contradictory from person to person.

If we refuse to acknowledge these vast differences in belief, we are actually refusing to hear each other. We are the like the co-dependent mother who refuses to believe any of her children might do anything wrong. It simply isn’t healthy. The Middle may mean well, but good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that this crisis is more than just a struggle to agree on one issue or get along like children in the back seat of a car. They deserve a clear explanation of the deep theological differences so they can claim an educated spot on the spectrum and not just an emotional one.

To offer them anything less would be, in my estimation, irresponsible discipleship.

Whose fault is it? 

There is a misconception that the conservative wing is fixated on preserving the past but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that the past has been institutionalized and even petrified. Conservatives and progressives alike are hungry to move forward. It is which direction forward we’re debating. As we have come to realize, there is a tremendously important distinction between the global center of Methodism and the progressive-leaning Methodist Middle found regionally in the U.S.

So … do we change to accommodate a world no longer in step with many American United Methodists or with the American culture at large? Or do we commit to holding a theological line at our global center, refusing to cross over into territory not in keeping with historic Christianity, the theological principles of the Book of Discipline as they stand, or global, orthodox Christianity?

These questions shape our current crisis and are forcing us out of stagnation. It makes me wonder if God himself is the author of this crisis; if so, we ought not to avoid it.

But it seems so simple … 

Many will hear the voice of the Methodist Middle with a sigh of relief. It seems to make the issue so clear and simple. “Yes! Can’t we just agree to disagree on this one issue and still live together?” Those with that hope will gather in the Middle and wait for the storm to pass.

What those hopeful souls are missing is that their choice to place their confidence in this group will eventually lump them together with the vast majority of progressives in the United States who will also embrace the ethos of the Middle. The average Methodist who just wants their church to stay the same won’t see how their choice may send them over the edge into a progressive world they didn’t sign on for.

And this is my appeal to my friends in the Methodist Middle. It is a plea for full disclosure. In your conversations with local congregations, please don’t hold back from telling the whole story. Please don’t reduce our current crisis to something akin to a paper cut needing a bandaid when it is more like a canyon-sized gap. By minimizing the differences, we may stifle a crisis that is actually our opportunity — if we’re bold enough to accept change as a good thing — to give clearly unique theological positions a chance to live with more integrity and to prove themselves by their fruit.

According to the Scripture, after the ascension of Jesus, the disciples began to preach boldly this good news about the Messiah and it enraged the Pharisees. They decided they would stifle it by killing Jesus’ followers. They might have succeeded early on, but Gamaliel appealed to their higher nature. He reminded them of others who had popped up with innovative ideas, only to see them eventually fizzle out. Given those experiences, Gamaliel urged his colleagues to let the theology do its work. “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail,” he said. “But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38b-39).

My friends in the Methodist Middle, let the theology do its work. Let’s be honest about the diverse collection of differences we now share and consider the way forward that best preserves both the integrity of United Methodism and the freedom of those who no longer fit comfortably within this tradition.

Again I say, let the Holy Spirit do His work.

 

*An earlier version of this post stated that this resolution passed. That is my error. I understand it was narrowly defeated, replaced by a revised resolution denouncing schism. The point stands: there is a segment of United Methodist leaders who believe in the statement mentioned enough to promote it to their conference. Their resolve further illuminates the theological diversity.

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