The character of a Methodist

Much is being made these days in my (admittedly very narrow) slice of the world about what it means to be a United Methodist. Wesley himself once wrote a tract called “The Character of a Methodist.” By his definition a Methodist is happy, full of love, prayerful, pure in heart, servant-minded, known by his fruit. (I want to meet those Methodists. They sound so attractive, don’t they?)

In this season, it seems important to articulate further the distinctives that make us Methodist. In my own study, I discovered this strong reflection on the character of a Wesleyan written more than a decade ago by Kent Hill, then president of Eastern Nazarene College. His thoughts resonate, so I share them as a starting point for your own formation of a definition of what it means to be Methodist (with apologies to Dr. Hill for using substituting the term “Methodist” for “Wesleyan” in this excerpt).

What does it mean to be Methodist?

First, to be Methodist means to recognize the primacy of Scriptural authority. John Wesley never left any doubt as to his convictions in this area. In a letter in 1739, he unequivocally stated: “I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures….” Wesley was so serious about Scripture playing the primary role in what he thought and how he lived, that his sermons and letters are infused with Scriptural phrases. It became part of his very language.

Second, to be Methodist means to be consciously and proudly part of the broad, ancient tradition of the Christian faith. We do not belong to a religious sect that came into existence in the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1777, at the founding of City Road Chapel in London, Wesley described the movement of Methodism this way: “Methodism, so called, is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive Church, the religion of the Church of England. This old religion…is no other than love, the love of God and all mankind.” If we are true to our Wesleyan heritage, we not only may, but are obligated to, draw broadly from Christian tradition.

Third, to be Methodist not only allows, but requires, that we be ecumenical. Though John Wesley believed strongly in his theological convictions, he never lost sight of the fact that the Body of Christ is much bigger than any one tradition or theological perspective. He neither swept under the rug important theological divisions that existed, nor allowed those differences to cloud the larger reality that what we hold in common through the creeds is of primary importance. In Wesley’s ecumenism, there was a commitment to a common humanity in Christ.

Fourth, to be Methodist means to affirm the cardinal doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Salvation is grounded in the merits of Christ’s righteousness and is appropriated by faith, which is a gift of God’s grace. Wesley insisted that we must respond to God’s gift through acts of obedience that flow out of faith. Wesley believed that humans can never do enough to merit salvation; still he taught that God in his sovereignty grants us a measure of freedom to respond to his transforming grace, and if we refuse to respond, then we will neither be saved or transformed.

Fifth, to be Methodist means to recognize the grace of God as “transforming,” as well as “pardoning.” This lies at the crux of what can be called the central theological distinctive of John Wesley’s thought – the quest, by God’s grace, for holiness or sanctification. Grace is more than the “creative grace” that has formed all things. It is even more than the “pardoning” grace that forgives us of our sins. It is the “transforming” grace which, through the work of the Holy Spirit, enables us to conform ever more to the image of Jesus Christ.

Sixth, to be Methodist means to be effective apologists of the Christian faith. John Wesley’s life and ministry reflects a compelling response to the command recorded in I Peter 3:15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience….” (NIV) If we reflect a Wesleyan perspective, we will cultivate opportunities to use Scripture, broad Christian tradition, reason and experience in defense of the faith. And we will do it in a way that shows restraint and love in the face of criticism.

Seventh, to be Methodist requires commitment to discipleship and accountability. Specifically, it requires of us a commitment to the importance of structured Christian discipleship. In June 1779, Wesley wrote in his journal: “This very day I heard many excellent truths delivered in the kirk (church). But, as there was no application, it was likely to do as much good as the singing of a lark.” In addition to participation in small accountability groups, Wesley insisted on the importance of private devotions, participation in larger church meetings, the taking of the sacraments, and acts of mercy.

Eighth, to be Methodist means to be involved in compassionate ministries. John Wesley always believed that it was imperative that a follower of Jesus Christ be simultaneously committed to the essential vertical relationship with his or her Creator, and to the necessary and redemptive relationship to the rest of God’s Creation. If the latter is not present, Wesley insisted that there is something fundamentally wrong with the former. No position could be more clearly rooted in Christ, who stated in Matthew 25 that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (NIV)

In our own day, may we see a revival of Methodism with such a strength and character that it regains its ability to welcome and advance the Kingdom of God. 

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How to use your pastor

Can I let you in on something most pastors won’t tell you? We cry over you … often. We spend nights awake for you when you’re going through rough things, and we grieve some of your choices. We worry when we see you worried and we don’t take it lightly when you’re not in a good space. We pray … my goodness, we pray for you.

A pastor’s heart is not meant to be “professional” — not in the strict sense of that term. We are not like your pest control guy or hair dresser (although I think my hair dresser would probably shed tears for me). This is not just a job for most of us; it is a gifting of the Spirit. Those called to the work of shepherding are given a burden for people. In fact, sometimes it feels like “all burden, no power.” When pastoring is done well, it carries no manipulation or control, but does carry the weight of love for people. Good pastors are in this for your sake, not theirs, and so very many sleepless nights and tears bear witness to that fact.

That relationship between pastor and parishioner is meant to be a life-giving relationship — a true give-and-take. Done well, it ought to be a partnership with the Kingdom as everyone’s goal. There are ways you can support your pastor so they can be in this for the long haul (and will be there for you when you need them). So what does a healthy partnership with a pastor look like?

Love them (but don’t idolize them).

Pastors committed to community life want the relationships within that community to go both ways. Just as they love you, they want you to love them. But please … don’t idolize your pastor. That man or woman is a fallen human being (just like you) trying to be faithful to God in an often-taxing and usually low-paying position. Making too much of their abilities will only make it harder on both of you when their disabilities are exposed. Make sure the grace flows both ways.

Expect holiness (from both of you).

A pastor is a fallen human being (just like you) trying to be faithful to God. In order to be whole and holy, they need the accountability of a community every bit as much as you do. A pastor who is not living a holy life should not be leading others spiritually. Period. Partnership means having both courage and compassion enough not to leave someone in the dark.

Give your heart (and expect them to give theirs).

Let me say it again: Good community life is a two-way street. Don’t let your pastor get by with simply doing a good job. They are not there to fill a professional role only; that’s not the nature of the Body of Christ. We are all in it to expose the deep love of God and advance the Kingdom. These are high stakes that demand our all. Expect your pastor to give not just time and talent, but their heart. Likewise, you must be willing to give yours.

Do your part.

Maybe there was a day when the expectation was for church people to show up for church on Sundays and make sure the bills got paid. Those days are over (and probably never should have happened). Good church is so much more than showing up for a sermon. It requires our investment at every level: time, talent, gifts, service and witness. Ask yourself:

  • How am I actively participating in building our sense of community — actively participating in a small group, praying for those who are sick and in crisis, even choosing my seat on Sunday so I encourage a sense of community?
  • Do I carry a sense of “welcome” into my community? Do I speak to newcomers before and after worship? Am I a better listener than talker? Do I engage people as people?
  • Am I allowing my heart to be broken for the things that break God’s heart?
  • How am I personally invested — as a volunteer, as a giver, as a prayer warrior, as a worshipper? (Side note: uninvested people should not be making decisions for invested people.)
  • Am I committed to the biblical standard of tithing?
  • Do I serve in the place where I’m gifted?
  • Am I leaning in — participating wholeheartedly?
  • How am I growing spiritually? Am I in the Bible daily? Do I have a habit of prayer that cultivates my ability to hear from God?
  • Am I going after my own healing? Am I seeking out spiritual direction?

I assure you: this is the kind of partnership your pastor craves, because this is how the Kingdom of God advances. Peter teaches me that our chosenness is collective. In other words, we’re all in this together. We determine the health and effectiveness of our faith communities as we fully partner with those who lead and take responsibility for our part. I challenge you to lean in and love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength … and love your pastor well by investing yourself in the building of a healthy spiritual house.

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The Mystery and Glory of Communion with God

My sister, after years away from the faith, came home to Christ in the Lutheran church. The transition back into the church world, while it was welcomed, still had its moments. She’d dealt with a lot in her life and carried a lot of shame. As a Lutheran she took communion every Sunday but she noticed that communion just made her feel more guilty. She often thought as she’d go to the altar, “I’m not worthy.” But Lutherans take communion every week, so every week she had to deal with what it means to be invited to the table as a person with a past.

Then one Sunday, something shifted. She was at the railing to receive the elements, but the person with the wine was moving slowly so she’d gotten the wafer but had to hold it in her mouth while she waited for the wine. Kneeling there with that wafer melting in her mouth, a memory floated forward. It was a moment she’d had with our father when he was in his last days on earth. He was home with hospice care and she’d been with him for days but was about to go back home to another state. This was the last time she would see him alive and they both knew it. They told each other good-bye and she left crying but before she could get out of the driveway, someone waved her back into the house. Daddy had asked for her again. He wanted her to bring him two pieces of ice. My father hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for days so this was sort of an odd request. My sister went and got the ice and took it to him and he took one piece and told her to keep the other one. And he said, “Now, you go on home but when you leave I want you to put your piece of ice in your mouth and I’ll put my piece in my mouth.”

That was it. He didn’t say any more than that but as my sister left the house with that ice in her mouth, she said, “I knew exactly what he meant. He meant that even if we were separated, if we were doing the same thing at the same time then we were still connected.” So it seemed to my sister that her daddy was saying, “Here’s something tangible to hold on to, and when you do this I will meet you in this act.”

That whole memory came to my sister while she knelt there at the communion rail with the body of Christ melting into the roof of her mouth., “That’s when I got it,” she told me. “Because if I’m holding this in my mouth right now, then Jesus must be saying to me that he’s here and I’m here in the very same space. The real Jesus. I’m in his presence and he is in mine. He’s saying, ‘I’m not leaving you. It might look like I’m leaving, but I’m not leaving. This is not the end.’”

Ever since, my sister tells me, she revels in the opportunity to take communion. Because she so wants to see Jesus.

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Do you know the General Rules of our Church?

This post is excerpted from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The 19 explores the 19 questions asked of those intending to preach in the Methodist Church since its earliest days. This post features #6: “Do you know the General Rules of our Church?” The General Rules are three simple statements meant to guide life in community among those seeking to grow in faith together.

Three simple rules:

Do no harm.

This seems on the surface like an unnecessary word. Surely, grown adults don’t have to be told to not harm each other … right? Except that we do it all the time. Not in obvious ways, of course. Most of us don’t kill people or do boldly illegal things. We don’t play around with evil on purpose and we try to stay on the right side of the ten commandments. We know how to avoid the more conspicuous harmful things. But it turns out that some of the worst damage is inflicted not by the obvious things but by more subtle forms of unkindness. Greed causes Christians to do harm by making us stingy when we ought to be generous. Fear causes us to be unkind by fostering a lack of trust. Living an undisciplined life can wreak havoc on all our relationships. When we can’t follow through on commitments because we’ve over-committed, and when we don’t honor others’ time because we’re disorganized and unprepared, we frazzle other people and fray our relationships around the edges.

Think honestly about this. Do you use people for your own ambitious ends? Do you stretch yourself to your emotional limits, so that others have to contend with your mood swings? Do you tend to the state of your heart not just for your own sake, but for the sake of doing no harm to others?

Be clear on this: doing no harm does not mean “never disagree.” To the contrary, I’d say that sometimes a refusal to call someone out on their foolishness is the most harmful thing you can do to them, not to mention plain unkind. Who wants to be left to sit in their sin while others use politeness to avoid confrontation?

In the issues being debated in the UMC these days, there is a premium placed on tolerance. Yet, our core value as Christians is not tolerance but holiness. God commanded, “You are to be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16). Holiness informs my response to the culture around me. My opinions must be rooted in the values of holiness as I find them in the Bible. I don’t interpret the Bible in light of how the world turns. I interpret the world in light of the Bible, even when it means I will look a little crazy by the world’s standards.

Holiness does not give me a pass on practicing a whole host of other character-defining traits — patience, humility, gentleness, endurance, bearing with one another in love. When followers of Jesus take this call to holiness seriously then eventually, they will look less like the world and more like the Kingdom of Heaven in the ways they live life. I pray like crazy that as I live the art of holiness, I will “do no harm,” as Wesley counseled…

Do good.

If doing no harm is the “being” side of community-building, then doing good is the “doing” side. Authentic communities of Christ are doing communities…  It’s not that we work our way to heaven, but without works, there is no proof of what we believe. This is our divine design. Our faith is connected to what we do, and what we do connects us to each other…

Attend to the ordinances of God.

The ordinances of God are what we might call spiritual disciplines or means of grace — things like public worship, ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence, meeting together, and caring for the poor. The means of grace are the things I do that lead me more directly under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This rule, then, is a challenge toward spiritual transformation. It is an inspiration to grow more deeply into holiness…

When Wesley asks if we know the General Rules, I suspect he is really asking if we have owned them. When we own them, these rules are not really rules at all. They are our ticket to getting a Kingdom perspective and making a Kingdom investment for the sake of a Kingdom impact. It is one thing to know what is right. It is another thing completely to be committed to it. Am I concerned only for my immediate surroundings — my family, my workplace, my church — or do I have the mindset of a Kingdom Christian? Is my heart yet broken for the whole community of faith? Am I so committed to loving the other that I will hold myself accountable to holy practices that strengthen my own soul and by extension the fabric of the community of Christ?

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Approving polity: Questions for United Methodists in a Pensive Season

(Following is an excerpt from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The book addresses each of the nineteen questions asked of United Methodist ordinands since the days of John Wesley. This reflection is based on question #12: “Do you approve our Church government and polity?”)

Hannah Whitehall Smith says it is our nature to rebel against laws that are outside of us, but we embrace that which springs up from within. And it is true, isn’t it? We always like our own ideas better than other people’s ideas. God knows this about us, so his way of working in us is to get possession of us so he can make his ideas our ideas. This is why Paul could say with confidence, “Christ in you is the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27, italics mine). Without the indwelling Christ, we are just another human being who knows the rules.

That difference between head-level rules and heart-level rules is the difference between life and death in ministry. Just as knowing the law but not owning it was death for the Israelites, so too it is death for us. We are designed for a “religion of the heart” (Wesley, Thoughts Upon Methodism). There is something to be said for signing on at the heart level, for embracing first our theology, then our polity, and allowing them to shape us from the inside out. We may not approve of every “jot and tittle,” but we can affirm the spirit of our tribe. In fact we should affirm this spirit, if we are going to be part of this connection.

Let’s be honest. No job is everything we love and nothing we don’t. Every job has its plusses and minuses. I didn’t come into United Methodist ministry because I fell in love with its discipline and polity. I came into the ministry because I love Jesus, and I sense that within the UMC’s system of connection and covenant I can serve him well. I complain with the best of them about Charge Conference and end-of-year reporting, but I manage to accomplish those tasks because they are part of a bigger ministry life I love dearly. I love healing prayer and preaching and the stunning miracle of seeing someone embrace Christ. I love seeing people get filled with the Holy Spirit. I love the countless hours spent listening and praying, and I love thinking strategically about how to extend this work as far as possible. At its best, United Methodist polity and discipline serves these other causes well. I am well aware that polity is not a matter of salvation, but I know that supporting and maintaining it is the only way our connection and covenant will function. If we all pick and choose which parts we like and which we don’t, it won’t work. Anarchy ensues.

Wesley’s practice of repetition in these [19] questions reveals his understanding of human nature. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he dealt often with ministers who were weak in the spiritual discipline of letting their yes be yes and their no be no. How much confusion is caused by well-meaning people who have not counted the cost before building the house, who have signed on without letting the spirit of our tribe sink into their bones? Can I say this with complete respect and love? You don’t get to decide what it means to be United Methodist. That has already been determined. Any decision to change that must go through proper channels, covered with massive amounts of prayer. Do you approve that? Can you approve the spirit of our discipline and polity while maintaining a generous heart?

Obviously, I made it out of seminary with a degree because here I am as a pastor. To my absolute surprise, I found myself back in school a few years ago completing a doctorate. In our first session together, my doctoral cohort tackled a ropes course. One of our challenges was a two-wire exercise. The wires, about three feet above ground, were stretched between two trees. As they traveled from one tree to the other, they gradually spread apart from each other. One person balanced on one wire and a partner balanced on the other wire. Our task was to lean into one another while we slowly scooted down the wires, even as they spread further and further apart. The trick was to lean equally on each other (remember that) as counter-weights to hold each other up. It won’t work if one leans and the other doesn’t, so we both had to lean in and surrender all our weight.

We discovered through trial and error that the best way for two people to scoot down the wire was to listen to each other. We would ask, “What do you need? What does this look like from your perspective? How can I help?” Without verbalizing it, it was hard to know the other person’s challenge in that moment. Our teammates on the ground were also there to tell us what we couldn’t see. They would say things like, “Straighten up! Push in!” And I’d think, “I AM pushing in!” when evidently I wasn’t. It was almost impossible when I was wobbling on that wire to know my own position. It took all of us working together to get two of us from one tree to the other.

The moral of the story, of course, is that we need each other. This is the point of our connectional system. It is designed for people who trust each other enough to lean in. But it only works if everyone leans in. It won’t work if one leans and another doesn’t. The key to the whole system is vulnerability. It is in keeping my heart soft toward the people God places in my path so that they become the priority rather than the institution. The clearest way I’ve seen to maintain vulnerability is to speak honestly out of my own experience — even my own brokenness. The guy who said, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” got a mention in the most-read book of all time (John 9:25). The guy who said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” is my favorite unnamed person in the Bible (Mark 9:24). Both displayed the heart of flesh necessary for spiritual connection to happen.

As you make your own personal inventory of what you believe about our polity and discipline, ask yourself if you are sufficiently healed and whole to lean in — to give yourself wholeheartedly to a connection of Christ-followers who are bent on spreading “scriptural holiness over the land” (Wesley, Large Minutes). This is the great need. It is for people ready to partner in both covenant and connection for the sake of a lost and hurting world.

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