Assume nothing.

When my daughter was seven or eight years old, I asked, “Claire Marie, why do you believe in Jesus?” She said, “Because you and daddy do.” I said, “Do you think that one day you’ll believe in Jesus all by yourself?” She said, “Maybe. When I’m forty.”

I thought that was profound.*

How many forty, fifty, sixty year olds are sitting in our churches, still waiting to have a faith of their own, who don’t even know what they don’t know?

I visited once with an elderly man dealing with depression. He was living in an assisted living home and so the folks there called and asked if I’d come visit. They told me when I got there that he wasn’t really excited about the visit, that he was a self-professing atheist. And actually, he was depressed because he thought he might die any day and he didn’t know what to think about that.

I went into his room and began to listen. He had questions, he said. He took me all the way to the beginning of time and to the end of the universe. He talked physics and biology. He was quite an intelligent man and very sharp at 91 years old. An hour into his rant, he ended up in Genesis with some obscure question about the creation story that he felt disproved everything. He wanted to know what I thought about that but by then I was out of politeness and patience.  “You don’t really want to know the answer to that question,” I said. “I suppose I could give you an adequate answer, but it won’t solve anything for you. You are 91 years old. You are going to die sooner than later. What is it you really want to know?”

And at that, this old man who claimed to be an atheist, who was angry and depressed, who had answers for everything except his own life, who had very few days left on this earth, said to me, “What do I want to know? What do I want know?” With tears in his eyes, he answered his own question. “I want to know how to get Jesus into my heart.”

Isn’t that what everyone wants to know? In all my years, I have never met anyone who didn’t want to know how to get Jesus into their heart. Maybe they don’t have the vocabulary or worldview to express it just that way, but beneath it all, that’s their hunger.

I want to know how to get Jesus into my heart. 

I want to know how to find joy and rest. I want an answer for my stress level and anxious spirit. I want the Jesus who answers the questions that keep me up at night. I want a better answer than the lies I’ve been living since childhood.

I know someone whose life has been dramatically altered by a childhood experience. She told me that more and more she’s realizing just how many of the decisions of her life have been filtered through that memory of a man whose sickness intersected with her life. Surely that guy was not following the Jesus? Maybe some of us have attached to ideas about Jesus that aren’t what Jesus himself said or believed or taught.

As preachers, the warning is well considered: assume nothing of those in your care. They may not have been given a fair account of the gospel.

As seekers of something better than what you have, this advice is sincerely offered: don’t assume the version of Jesus to which you’ve been exposed is the one Jesus himself would choose for you. Seek him for yourself.

 

*For the record, my daughter claimed her own faith far earlier than forty. Now in her twenties, she is an amazing woman of God whose faith inspires me.

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Transformation: when Jesus gets hold of us

Today’s post is a celebration of lives transformed, as we at Mosaic also celebrate the opening of a new building and the expansion of several key ministries, including The Mosaic Center, which focuses on employment, education and empowerment of those who live with disability. Thanks for supporting us as we figure out together what it means to BE the Church. Watch, and be inspired.

 

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A Year for the UMC

You’ve heard the old saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” For the UMC, this maxim has proven sadly too true. As 2019 opens, we stand on the verge of a called General Conference that promises (threatens? hopes? fears?) to bring to a head forty years of debate on the foundational theology of our tribe. We have been here before, multiple times. We have made these decisions multiple times.But here we are, grasping for some way forward that manages to avoid the implosion of a 13 million member institution. On the way here, we’ve called for commissions and holy conferencing and have done our level best to enter this year with some plan that brings peaceful resolution to our deep divide. As it turns out, no matter how we have tried to spin this or resolve it, wherever we go, there we are. We are stuck.

So now what? February’s historic called General Conference will convene in St. Louis to discuss various proposals for restructuring. Given the options, it is likely no one will leave that gathering with a sense of resolution. If the way forward stalls, we will all be disappointed. The prayer for us who are watching with interest should be first of all for deliverance from a bureaucratic quagmire. I genuinely hope we are all just fed up enough to stretch for a decision that allows us truly to move on from where we are.

It must begin with Jesus (and nothing less). I will never get past this point. Until we deal with Jesus, nothing else matters. A colleague writing to me in response to something he’d seen online said we’d probably preach similar messages about what Jesus does, but when pressed about who Jesus is, he’d have to say, “I don’t know. It just seems out of character with the God I’ve come to know … to insist upon the use of particular doctrines or names as an admission ticket …”

I respect this difference, and see it as just that. He and I don’t agree on the very fundamental nature of Jesus and what it means to express faith in him. I will say yet again that long before we part ways on lesser issues, we are deeply divided on the nature and role of Jesus. If we spent our General Conference talking about nothing else other than Jesus, I suspect we’d be closer to final schism than we are now. I am convinced that this is the most fundamental dividing line in the United Methodist Church. Long before we part ways on issues of human sexuality, we are already deeply and tragically divided at the point of Wesley’s first question to ordinands: “Have you faith in Christ?” Some among us want to claim a form of Christ that is more ethereal and situational, while others are committed to Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. That distinction matters, because both things cannot be equally true. Either Jesus is Christ for the whole world, or he is Christ for none of it. Our conversations about the substance of mutual ministry must begin here.

It is okay to acknowledge differences (and we can do that without castigating each other). But hear me: it is not okay to minimize what someone else calls a drastic difference. This seems to be the strategic course of those who embrace the One Church Plan. It is to persistently insist that our differences don’t matter but to many of us, they do. By minimizing the differences, we deny clearly unique theological positions the chance to prove their viability. Good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that our current dialogue 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.

Theology creates unity (though perhaps not the unity you were hoping for). To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the One Church Plan would reduce the whole of our internal division to one issue. If it were to pass, it seems that United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, we could make 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. Our differences should not be minimized for the sake of pragmatism.

Let the theology do its work. For years, our tagline in the UMC has been: “Open hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” Wouldn’t it be something if this year, we led with, “Open Hands.” As in, holding the institution with an open hand as we also hold tenderly those with whom we disagree. Perhaps with a looser grip on the false god of unity-at-all-costs, we can find a way forward that holds our differing theologies with greater integrity and compassion.

My deepest prayer is that we will treat with Spirit-saturated grace anyone who can no longer abide the climate we legislate in February. A second prayer is that we manage to legislate something. This is our year, UMC, to move on from where we are. May we hold grace and courage enough to do so.

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Stop being who you were.

Think about it: If Mary had been engaged to a guy with a drinking problem and a couple of failed marriages, we probably wouldn’t be reading about her or her husband today. Joseph was chosen for the role of custodial parent just as surely as Mary was chosen for the role of Christ-bearer because he was a righteous man. He, too, was a virgin (not just Mary), a guy with integrity who chose a holy woman to be his wife and who treated her with respect even when she presented him with more questions than answers.

Overnight, Joseph went from being a small-town businessman with a fiancee and what I assume was a solid family home to being a refugee and a scandal who spent years outrunning a corrupt ruler who wanted his son dead. Joseph teaches me that if I want to be part of a story bigger than myself, I have to stop being who I was (even if who I was, was perfectly respectable) so I can go with God.

I am always asking the Lord to raise up men of God in our community with the heart of Joseph — men willing step into a bigger story. I guess what I’m really praying for is men willing to stop being who they were, so they can become who God intends. How does one do that, exactly … whether you are a man or a woman?

Here are a few thoughts on how to stop being who you were:

Stop listening to the wrong voices (and start listening to the right ones).

If you are not already clear on how God speaks into your life, stop everything and figure that out. Remember that Joseph was able to walk out the early days of Jesus’ life and keep that child alive because of his ability to hear from God. And my suspicion is that those prophetic dreams — to marry the pregnant girl, to escape to Egypt — were not his first. Knowing what I know about how God works, I suspect Joseph already had a habit of hearing through dreams and God already knew he had Joseph’s ear when he spoke in that way. Deeply faithful people tend to know the voice of God, and have practiced listening over years. If you don’t already know how God gets your attention, that is worth figuring out; otherwise, you will be sidetracked too often by the wrong voices.

Stop wasting time (and start reading your Bible).

Where are you spending your time? It doesn’t make sense to spend hours and hours online, reading or listening to political commentary, while you go for days, weeks or months without opening your Bible. At least, it doesn’t make sense to do that and then wonder why you don’t sense God’s presence in your life. I read this someplace and it really resonated: You can’t create and consume at the same time. If what you’re wanting to create is a deeper relationship with Jesus and a more disciplined prayer and scripture life, you won’t get there with a habit of wasting time surfing everything except the Bible. We all need a little downtime, but we could all also stand to be a little more honest about where the bulk of our time goes. I can tell you this from personal experience: my prayer life improved dramatically the day I took all social media apps off my phone. In 2019, stop wasting time on everyone else’s daily life and start being intentional about yours.

Stop fighting the wrong battles (and start fighting the right ones).

Paul reminds us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil. To the extent that I focus on the wrong enemies, I will waste time and energy and can even play into the real enemy’s hands. To put it another way, our real enemies almost never have skin on.

Think about Joseph’s choices. He moved his family to Egypt to protect his son while untold numbers of children were killed. It took serious faith to stay the course, knowing others would be hurt by Herod’s evil actions. Joseph didn’t get sidetracked by a broken man’s foolishness. He kept his focus on spiritual realities and God’s plan. His job was to bring Jesus safely into adulthood. Knowing his call kept him from being distracted by other battles.

(Side note: Our job, also, is to bring Jesus into adulthood … our adulthood.)

Stop imitating others (and start imitating Jesus).

Joseph and Mary were the first followers of Jesus. They were the first to let him change their lives. They believed he was God’s redeemer for a lost and hurting world, and they went to great lengths to make sure the world knew that. In a very real sense, it wasn’t Jesus who became like his custodial dad, but Joseph who became like his son. He is a great example to us of what can happen when a person stops being who they were so God can write them into a bigger story.

If that is your heart for 2019, may you have courage to stop being who you were so you can become all God intends you to be.

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