In the wake of General Conference: An examination of conscience in the midst of hard things

For United Methodists whose attentions have been turned this week to our called General Conference, I’d like to suggest an ancient practice. An examination of conscience is a powerful exercise in clarifying one’s place before God. Especially in the wake of this week’s proceedings, an examination of conscience might help some of us get honest about those places where we haven’t fully honored Kingdom values. An examination that sinks even to the level of how we think and love, not just externally but internally, can help us to recenter on the heart of God.

Wholeheartedness is a huge theme in the story of God. I notice lately that for myself, this practice of examining my heart for signs of division is especially helpful before I walk into a roomful of people whose hearts I may not yet know. When I have taken time to examine my own heart and recommit to the kind of transparent wholeheartedness prescribed in the Bible, I discover that I can move and relate with more integrity. Conversely, when I enter a room or conversation with distrust, anger or a need to be right (concerned more about what others are thinking/ feeling/ experiencing than what is in me) or with an unspoken agenda, I fall short of God’s best and rob the room or those conversations of progress.

Taking a cue from my friends in recovery who remind me that the only person I can change is myself, I woke up this morning with an overwhelming draw to examine my conscience. Many in my “tribe” will be making decisions in coming days as they process what happened this week. I want to make choices for myself and our church that reflect a wholehearted love for Christ and his good news. I want to make choices that reflect my deepest values — both theologically and relationally. I want to do for others what I would have them do for me. I want to hold people with an open hand and strike a note of grace even in the deepest parts of my being — not just when I’m talking, but when I’m not. And I want to walk in grace toward all that is unsolved in my heart (to borrow the spirit of Rilke’s poem), and in repentance toward all in me that is broken — even the parts I don’t know about. Maybe especially those.

I know that somewhere inside lurks a knee-jerk desire to run. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Nobody likes conflict. I appreciate Paul’s advice to “stand” but deep down, I’d rather just unhitch from the hard things. I need God to purify my motives so that whether I stand or move on, I am doing so under the cover of his care and not from a rebellious, wounded or fearful place. That pull to run can be rooted in shallow soil.

As I examine my own conscience, I’ve discovered a few wrong reasons to avoid pressing in to the hard things:

  • Losing relationships or ties with friends, colleagues or institutions — Any lifelong, itinerating Methodist knows the real friendships journey with us. And anyone who has ditched an addiction will tell you that when you get sober, you find out who your real friends are. I expect my good friends to remain good friends, whether we are on the same side of an issue or on opposing sides. Those friendships depend on us seeing each other as people, not opinions. And those friendships deepen as we discover that our love for one another spans the gap. As I examine myself, I am praying that I will prove true to those who want to call me friend.
  • Fear of criticism or judgment — Criticism and judgment happen … no matter what. Unless of course, you choose to be lukewarm about everything (spoiler alert: Jesus is not fond of lukewarm people). That, too, needs an honest examination. Denial, my recovery friends tell me, leads to spiritual dis-ease. Unless we are honest about all the parts of us and allow others to be honest with us, too, we will remain spiritually and relationally stunted. I must let myself become open to the honest evaluations of others so my heart doesn’t grow hard.
  • Fear of influencing (or losing trust with) those in my spiritual care — Whether it is my family, my church, or the larger community to which I’m tethered, I realize that I am an influence. We all are. Our lack of conviction influences just as surely as our strong convictions do. In fact, a lack of conviction may well be a stronger influence than we realize, and not in a way we’d prefer. An examination of conscience helps us clarify what matters most so we can voice those convictions not defensively (or even offensively) but courageously.

Maybe the hardest prayer to pray, when I am in the midst of a hard thing, is this one: “Lord, I surrender myself to you. If my heart is not as your heart, please change me.” To pray that prayer with all the conviction and energy with which I hold my current theologies, ideas and opinions is risky business. And yet, I suspect it is the most faithful and trusting prayer I can pray. In fact, the only reason I can think of to remain committed to my current, stated position is the conviction that by doing so, I’m being obedient to the call and Word of God. And even then, I must do so with a spirit of humility, recognizing that folks with whom I disagree are also clinging to their convictions out of what they believe to be obedience.

At the end of my own examination of conscience, I hope I can say that I have witnessed these days of deliberation from an honest and transparent place, free of anger, fear, condemnation or worst of all, lethargy. I also hope that in the days ahead, Christ himself will minister into my spirit and into those of my friends, healing what is wounded. We want whole hearts as we confess the faith.

I know in whom I believe, and I believe he has given me a charge to keep. My prayer now is that I will keep that charge in love, with a whole heart.

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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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A Layperson’s Primer (part three): A Gracious Exit

These posts are written especially for laypersons and those coming late to the conversation currently stirring within the UMC. Part one focuses on the heart of our current debate: connection. Part two is an overview of the four plans being considered at the called General Conference that begins this weekend. This post is about the grace that needs to be part of whatever decision is made, so that people who have invested heavily in their local ministries can continue their work whatever the outcome of GC2019. Portions of this post were published by the Religion News Service on February 22, 2019. 

For forty years, the United Methodist Church has developed its waiting muscles. We’ve been waiting for decades for a decision around issues of human sexuality to stick — a decision that will release us to move on from this conversation. The last three years have been an especially intense time of waiting. With General Conference now upon us, I sense that none of us has any certainty about how this will shake out. There seems to be a split opinion around three outcomes — either one of the two more likely plans up for consideration will succeed (One Church or Traditional), or no decision will be reached at all due to a bureaucratic logjam (please, Lord, deliver us from this fate!).

My deep hope — more than which plan wins the day — is that an exit ramp will become part of any plan approved. Right now, only one of the three plans proposed provides for an “exit ramp” — a way out for pastors and churches that does not punish them for their choice to leave the “connection” with property and position intact. A “gracious exit” was recommended for all plans by the commission that proposed the three options up for debate; but with one exception, the exit ramp option has been removed (and even that one is so narrow as to be unhelpful). That is discouraging. I so want our tribe to do this differently than others who have gone before us. There is no winning if we are all biting and devouring each other on the other side of this. No one, regardless of their theological position, should be held hostage by a system they cannot live in wholeheartedly.

A gracious exit would allow local churches who find themselves unable to support United Methodist teaching and polity to leave the denomination with all their property and assets in tact. Rather than removing our theological center for the sake of preserving the institution, I want the delegation to remove the restrictions that bind unwilling churches to a system they can no longer in good conscience support.

Why should laypersons insist on a gracious exit provision?

This seems just. How is it possible to change the rules then penalize those who disagree with that change by asking them to surrender assets they’ve poured so much into?

This seems like the spirit of the freedom we espouse as followers of Jesus. The role of the denomination should be to guard and promote its theological task, not control assets. Freedom suggests we can disagree in love, and hold one another with an open hand. Freedom suggests we can hear one another and hold one another as treasures, not hostages.

This seems like the best way to witness positively to a watching world. By providing a gracious exit, we support viable ministry and prove ourselves gracious by refusing to bite and devour one another in the wake of whatever choice is made. This offers a solid public witness while maintaining a clear theological center.

This seems like grace. And grace is what Wesleyans do best. Let’s trust God with how a divestiture might affect the resulting institution(s) while we keep the main thing the main thing.

There are a lot of questions we cannot yet answer because General Conference contains the very unpredictable variable of human emotion (not to mention the winds of the Holy Spirit). It is impossible to know (and probably unhealthy to prognosticate) where we’ll end up. I know we are all more than ready for the process to play itself out and are praying for those we’ve voted in as delegates to get the job done.

Delegates, hear us: we want you to decide something. Many of us would consider it both demoralizing and spiritually disastrous to find we could not lead ourselves out of this crisis.

While we wait, these are my personal prayers:

  • that God will “pluck the brand from the fire.” In other words, that God will do such a miraculous thing in the UMC that we become a revived and renewed evangelical movement as a result of our holy conferencing.
  • that God will turn hearts and enlighten minds.
  • that God will move powerfully at GC2019, speaking healing grace and peace over our leaders.

I hope you will join me in these prayers. I also encourage you — before the closing prayer on Tuesday — to answer this question for yourself: What connects me to the United Methodist Church — institutional loyalty, or a passionate commitment to our theological task? Your answer to that question will go a long way toward helping you know how to personally respond once a decision has been handed down.

Between now and the closing prayer of GC2019, be encouraged not to allow the pressure of the moment to craft your convictions for you. Spend time on your knees, in prayer. Search the scriptures. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where the lines have been pleasantly drawn so you don’t default to what is most convenient, and so you don’t find yourself blown about by every wind of doctrine.

Finally, I encourage you not to allow the spirit of fear to whisper threats or doom into your spirit. My friends, we have been given a spirit of power, love and sound judgment, and now is exactly the time we ought to call on that higher nature. On the other side of this denominational crisis, Christ will still be King. The Kingdom of God will still be forcefully coming. All over the globe, people will still be drawn to the good news about Jesus. We may not know how General Conference ends but we most certainly know how The Story ends.

Jesus wins.

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A Layperson’s Primer (part two): The Choice

These posts are written especially for laypersons and those coming late to the conversation currently stirring within the UMC. Part one focuses on the heart of our current debate: connection. Is it the institutional values and structure that connect us, or is it our theological task? With that question in mind, this post reviews the four plans considered.

Three years ago, the United Methodist General Conference met in Portland, Oregon for its regularly scheduled quadrennial meeting. At that conference, our Bishops called into being a Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) to corporately study and debate our official position on human sexuality. Last summer, the COWF completed its work and made recommendations to the Council of Bishops and General Conference for how a deeply divided denomination might move forward. After a good bit of political wrangling and an internal judicial review, versions of three plans will be deliberated February 23-26 at a special session of General Conference.

A couple of things to note:

  • There are actually four plans being promoted by various groups and concerns within the UMC. Keep reading.
  • A provision for a gracious exit is currently attached to only one “official” plan, and that provision is so narrowly defined as to be unhelpful to those who want to move on after the vote.
  • Consequently, other petitions have been submitted asking the Conference to consider some kind of workable provision for a gracious exit for those who cannot abide whatever decision is made at General Conference.
  • Three of the four plans have been reviewed by the United Methodist Judicial Council (the fourth plan was not reviewed because it was not part of the Commission’s recommendation), which means we can hope a vote taken at General Conference will not be overturned.

As mentioned, three plans were recommended by the Commission on a Way Forward. A fourth plan, The Simple Plan, has also been submitted as a petition to be considered. Here’s a snapshot of each plan:

The One Church Plan removes language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, leaving it to churches to determine their own guidelines on issues like membership, marriage of same-sex couples, or ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan.

The Connectional Conference Plan divides United Methodists into three main “camps” — traditionalist, centrist and progressive. These three camps would share affiliated services while being otherwise autonomous though governed by one Council of Bishops. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan.

The Traditionalist Plan (now modified after action by the Judicial Council) maintains language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, calls for greater accountability, and provides a gracious (but narrowly defined) exit for those who cannot in good conscience abide by that language.

The Simple Plan — not crafted by the COWF but petitioned by United Methodists for the Simple Plan — removes all language from the Book of Discipline pertaining to human sexuality and gender, clearing the way for same-sex marriage ceremonies, the ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons, and their inclusion at every level in the life of the church.

Filter these four plans through the question posed in the opening paragraph of this post: What connects us — institutional values and structure, or our theological task? Both the One Church and Connectional Conference Plans focus more on institutional preservation at the expense of theological clarity. They call for United Methodists to set aside personal values for the sake of institutional unity, making our shared structure the foundation of our connection.

Ironically, the plans on either end of the spectrum have much in common in terms of what they represent. Both the Traditional and Simple Plans are crafted around the idea that what matters to a United Methodist is what we believe. Both plans emphasize a particular (though opposing) biblical interpretation. Both provide theological clarity on the other side of a vote. While I disagree with the theology around the Simple Plan, I have to respect the integrity of those who are committed to a clear theological position.

So I ask again: What connects us — institutional values and structure, or our theological task? I am convinced that it is our theological task that binds us together. Methodism’s great contribution to the world is our brand of systematic theology — our approach to grace, the spiritual disciplines, our classical interpretation of scripture, our gathering of souls into sanctifying communities (promoting the process of sanctification all the way through to being made perfect in love in this life), our insistence on personal and social holiness. This is our distinctive. This is what makes all the rest of it worth it.

What’s more, I believe theological clarity around this historical expression of faith can breed revival. This is not hopeful emotionalism. Look around the world. In those places where clarity of conviction has been demanded of those who follow Jesus, Christianity is growing. We praise God for the explosive growth of Methodism in Africa, for example. Meanwhile, in those places where moral relativism and pluralism are the prevailing culture, Christianity withers.

I am praying that at the end of the day, our General Conference body will hear that global resonance and choose a resounding and renewed commitment to our theological task. Those who cannot abide this task as it stands should be free to find or establish another tribe, so we can get back to the work of welcoming and advancing the Kingdom of God.

The world is waiting for a clear and fair account of the gospel, my friends. Let’s give the world nothing less.

(Part three of this series of blogs deals with the grace that needs to be attached to whatever decision is made at GC2019.)

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A Layperson’s Primer for 2019 General Conference (part one): The Connection

If you are a United Methodist coming late to our current conversation, you may not be aware of how our structure fits together. Here is a brief UMC primer on how we are connected, from your local United Methodist church to this month’s gathering in St. Louis.

The local church is the heart and soul of Methodism and the basic unit of our structure. We are not a “congregational” tradition like, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention. We are connected to each other and our decisions impact one another.

Every United Methodist church is part of a district. Districts gather three or four times a year and are presided over by District Superintendents, who function as an extension of the Bishop’s office.

Every district is part of an Annual Conference, a term representing both a geographical area and an annual gathering. An Annual Conference gathering is made up of equal parts laity and clergy who vote on matters important to their connection. Both the gathering and the geographical area are presided over by a Bishop.

Every Annual Conference belongs to a jurisdiction. A jurisdiction is a larger geographical area that encompasses a number of annual conferences. Jurisdictional conferences meet every four years. The most important thing jurisdictional conferences do is elect bishops. There are also what is known as Central Conferences, areas beyond the U.S., including Africa, Europe and the Philippines (don’t ask me about South America; it’s complicated).

The Central and Jurisdictional Conferences, along with a host of boards and agencies, together make up the General Conference. Every four years, delegates from every conference area come together to discuss the structure, doctrine and missional focus of the UMC. The General Conference is presided over by a Council of Bishops but decisions are made by the body itself, not by the bishops. Our last regular General Conference was held in 2016. Our next regular conference will be in 2020. The one held this year is a “special session of the General Conference.” This has only happened one other time since the UMC formed in 1968.

Ours is a global connection. Remember that we’ve said that the local church is the basic unit of our structure. “Connection” ends up being an important term for how all our churches and conferences relate. Being connectional means that none of us who lead in the UMC can up and make decisions in a vacuum. We belong to a global family held together by a covenantal structure. As with families, denominations (and churches, and businesses, and pretty much anything else that involves people) have huge disagreements and personality conflicts. And like families, no one really understands yours except the ones who are in it. Our connection is deep and personal.

What makes a family is that connection. It is that intangible you can’t quite define but when it is there, you know it. The United Methodist Church was designed to be like that. When we talk about the places where we disagree and what is on the table at this year’s General Conference, that question of connection is beneath all the other questions.

Are we connected? If we are not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way. If we are not connected, at least one of the plans (ironically called “The One Church Plan”) makes sense. It fits a congregational structure. But if we are connected then whether we end up agreeing or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside a set of expectations. If we can’t do so, then the right step is to step out.

That question of connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC.  The most volatile issue to be discussed (and has been for forty years) is human sexuality and its connection to marriage and ordination. We have reached an impasse but more than an impasse, actually. Those who disagree with our current statements on human sexuality have already chosen to ignore our Book of Discipline. Others have long since set aside orthodox tenets like the exclusive nature of Jesus as the Messiah and the global nature of the gospel. These are not secrets. People speak openly about their disagreement with big chunks of our core theology. That certainly calls into question the integrity of continuing on as if we are connected theologically when in fact, we are not.

In order to maintain our connection, we must restate our covenant. After decades of discussion, the issues that divide us must be finally, peacefully decided so we can move on. The disruption to ministry and souls demands a decision this time around.

Are we connected … or not? In other words, are we accountable to one another or not? The answer to that question determines how we define the local church, the global church and what exactly makes us Methodist.

Part two focuses on the four plans being considered at GC2019.

Part three focuses on the grace that needs to be part of whatever decision is made.

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The War is won in the General’s tent.

Some time ago, I was in the place of prayer and heard this word: “The war is won in the tent.”

As I heard this word I saw an army tent, far back from the lines, buzzing with the activity of strategic thinkers studying maps, positioning troops, sending out orders. The General was there, taking in the big picture, gauging the trajectory of the enemy’s movement, weighing strengths and weaknesses of the warring sides.

The tent was where the war was being won … or lost.

Before that word and that vision, I’d never given that guy or that tent a thought, but the principle I heard is authentic. In warfare, the saying goes, “The war is won in the General’s tent.” The point is that wars are won on strategy, not brute force. Planning makes all the difference in the outcome of a battle. The General may never see the front lines but his strategic mind determines the win.

In a very busy time, this came as a prophetic word. It was a warning not to neglect the place of strategic prayer. It was a call not to work harder but to pray smarter, to spend more time in the tent.

In spiritual terms, what is the “tent”?

The place of prayer: Someone somewhere has discovered that when electrons are observed they behave differently. Just the fact of their being watched changes how they act. This tells me that even down to the smallest particle, the world is designed to act according to the light-and-dark principle of John 3, where Jesus teaches that things in the dark remain under the influence of the enemy of our souls while things brought into the light come under the influence of Christ. In other words …

Behavior changes when brought under the gaze of God.

This isn’t a guilt thing. This is a law of the universe, proven at the scientific level. We are changed simply by being in the presence of God, aware of ourselves under his gaze. This makes “tent-praying” all the more strategic. When we submit to sitting in the presence of God, it changes our perspective. We think differently about our circumstances and consequently, go away from that place acting differently toward them.

The place of intimacy: I’m thinking about the tent Moses used to take outside the camp, when he was traveling with the Israelites through the desert. He’d go out there and get deeply personal with God, sharing intimately about how he felt and what he needed. In one conversation, Moses asked God (Exodus 33:12-14) to teach him His ways. Moses wanted to know how to lead these people like God would lead these people. He wanted to hear God say, “Okay, Moses. Here’s how you do it. Step one … ” But that’s not how God responded.

Moses asked for direction and God responded with presence.

Wow.

“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” God promised. This is the promise of intimacy. When we let God lead, whether it is into a desert or into battle, we will experience a kind of restfulness that only the Holy Spirit can produce. In that tent, a kind of confidence breeds that changes how we return to the front lines. We may not comprehend the whole plan, but we can rest in the One who executes it.

The place of spiritual warfare: I remember years ago, praying for my husband when he was going through yet another season of depression. His worst days of depression were absolutely a kind of spiritual war for us. We’d tried everything and nothing was working, so finally — out of desperation, I assure you, and not out of some heightened sense of spiritual maturity — I decided I would pray for him for twenty minutes every day. Every day, Jesus and I would spend time on the subject of Steve. For a while, I used the time to tell God everything I thought about our situation. After a week or so, I ran out of words. After that, God and I would sit there together and — in the Spirit — stare at Steve. I now know this was “tent time.” This was Jesus and me staring at a map, waiting on a strategy to emerge. Eventually, one did. Through the Holy Spirit, I saw a way forward that brought hope into our situation. It wasn’t a cure, but it was a strategy. I’m so grateful for that time in the tent and for the relief it gave in that season.

The war is won in the General’s tent.

Do you need to rethink your strategy? Maybe you’ve been on the front lines, battling an enemy for so long you’ve lost all perspective. You’re lobbing one grenade after another with no plan or purpose … just frustration. What if the better next step is not to lob another grenade but to find your way back to the General’s tent, where you can regain a sense of the big picture and get God’s perspective?

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Women of Worth: Calling out the Best in People

Do you remember how, in the movie called The Help, Abilene would speak to the little girl she took care of? She would say, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Abilene was brilliant. She understood that women are better to themselves and the world around them when they know their worth.

I learned this through a decade of struggling to understand my place as a pastor and leader. After years of struggling against my own wounds I found healing, and find myself now energetically interested in helping other women find their worth. To that end, Mosaic Church has created a project called Women of Worth. We are pairing women who are ready to pay it forward together with those who are ready to move forward with their lives, so we can encourage women with the confidence that they are smart, they are worth it, and their future is more important than their past.

Take Heather, for instance. Heather was an addict for decades who finally ended up doing 18 months in prison. She emerged from that experience as a transformed person, ready to take responsibility for her life. But no one was giving a job to a felon, so eventually we hired her part-time and watched her succeed. Because Heather is smart, and kind. She is a great worker. She quickly moved from part-time to full time, and then from full-time to a director’s position. She got an associate’s degree, then with a lot of coaching and encouragement from women who believe in her, she applied for a Master’s degree at a first-rate institution that would exempt her from completing a Bachelors. They give just a few spots to qualified applicants every year, and Heather was awarded one of those spots. This week she began her Master’s program! She is succeeding because a few women in her life helped her believe her future is more important than her past.

Toni is our poster girl for Women of Worth. She has a couple of felonies, a GED, and a three-year old boy. She is determined to make life happen without public assistance so she landed a job in the kitchen of an upscale chain restaurant. Toni is sharp, with a ton of potential, and her managers saw that in her. They placed her on their leadership development track, but that’s when her felony record made it to the corporate office. The prevailing policy would have required her to leave her job. Because Toni’s life up to that point had taught her things don’t turn out well for her, she was ready to walk away. What Toni needed was not someone to advocate for her, but someone who could encourage her to advocate for herself. She went back in there and asked managers who believed in her to go to bat for her. It worked. She not only kept her job but is still on track for a management position. Toni just needed someone to believe with her that her future is more important than her past.

When life circumstances steal that message, what an opportunity we have to help women hear again that they are smart, they are worth it, that their future is more important than their past. That’s what Women of Worth is about. We invite women in our community to partner with us to empower others by pairing those who have experience and can pay it forward together with those who are ready to make the most of their future. Women of Worth offers training, coaching and mentoring … by women for women.

If you know someone, or are someone, who could use some encouragement and coaching to take it to the next level, we’re here. Let’s get started.

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Do I believe every life matters and that life has worth as it was designed?

Clearly, there is a war on life in our world and it is most certainly a spiritual war. We devalue health in favor of immediate gratification. We devalue lives based on appearance, IQ, gender, power, or even difference of opinion. I think our penchant toward death — which is a manifestation of our bent toward the negative — pervades every thought. Do I think someone who doesn’t vote like me or believe like me is as valuable as I am? Do I see the person in line in front of me at Kroger as a person of value, whose life deserves my respect? Do I get it, that when someone in Venezuela or India is devalued by their government, then all of humanity is depleted? That I have a vested interest in preserving the value of life … all life?

Our bent toward death has been with us almost from the beginning. Christians trace it to a story rooted in Genesis 3, when humans chose to listen to a voice other than the God of life. By the time the people of God were consigned to slavery in Egypt, the culture of death had permeated the earth. Dennis Prager has written on the Egyptian preoccupation with death. Their bible was called the Book of the Dead. Their greatest monuments were pyramids, which were basically over-sized caskets. Even the pagan priests were preoccupied with death. As pagans, the Egyptians were everything the Kingdom of God was not. A preoccupation with death made their decisions for them. When God brought the Israelite people up out of slavery from Egypt, he had to totally reorient their thinking. “Everything you learned there, everything that enslaved you, was wrong. It is not all about death. Creation is about life.”

Hundreds of years of wrong theology had to be reoriented. The people of Israel had to understand God as life-giving before they could stop living to die and start living for God. The work in the desert — the story of which is told in the book of Exodus — was the work of learning to live. That meant constantly rejecting Egypt and pressing toward God’s promises. God’s training on this mindshift is detailed (and by detailed, I mean detailed) in the book of Leviticus. All those odd rules we read there are a rejection of a culture of death. Moses shows his people that while there may seem to be countless options, there are really only these two choices: life or death. And then, almost like a battery of visual aids, Moses shows us that everything else — what we eat, what we wear and watch and get entertained by, who we choose for intimacy — all those options eventually boil down to life or death.

If this is true, that everything — every single thing in your life — leads to either life or death, then that means, fallen creature, that there are likely things in your life that lead to death. They carry the veneer of death. And I’m not even thinking about the obvious stuff. A thousand times a day, Leviticus teaches us, we are confronted by pockets of death. It becomes remarkably tempting to choose death simply because it is easier. And yet, the story of God teaches us that God’s preference is always for life. His value is life, and his desire is to see us live … really live.

This is God’s great design. All life is sacred, and a person who engages in life-creating behavior enters into a sacred process. We are not given license to pick and choose how life happens or which children come into the world. That was never our charge. The alternative, then, is to receive life as a gift in whatever way it happens.

For me, that means throwing baby showers for single women more often than I’d like and toeing the line on what holiness means in unmarried relationships. It means honoring the questions, too, and the suffering caused by shattered dreams. It also means that when I look at you — in all your messiness — I am challenged to see you as your Maker does. I am expected to develop eyes that see what God sees when he looks on his children.

This is what it means to choose life. And to choose grace. And to choose love.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live … (Deuteronomy 30:19)

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