Let the Gospel Lead.

Is it just me, or are we all just plain worn out? Most of us who are working from home are discovering (as my friend, Jorge Acevedo says) parts of our brain we haven’t used in years, or maybe ever. Sort of like discovering muscles when we exercise that we didn’t even know we had. We’re having to connect facts differently, and we’re all having to innovate.

Pastors are having to figure out things on the fly that we’ve never considered before. Every pastor worth their salt wants to see their community fall forward, but the sheer barrage of new challenges, shifting facts, new ideas … well, it can be exhausting. This week, I realized I needed something deeper than, “hey! that’s cool!” as a barometer for how I vet the plethora of decisions facing us daily. Through prayer, I developed a few thoughts that can become for us a decision-making filter as we move forward. I’ve shared these thoughts with our vision and staff teams.

My guiding principle is this: Let the Gospel lead. It is the gospel, not culture, that must take the lead in forming our choices and changes. Under that banner, I’ve shaped six filters to help us stay in our theological lane as we make wise choices for your community:

1. Holy conferencing is how Christians connect. This is a distinctly Methodist term for the way we pursue discipleship in community. Andrew Thompson writes that holy (or Christian) conferencing is “about believers coming together to focus on their faith: to pray, to share their experience of God, to seek advice and to offer counsel, and even to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness” (Means of Grace, p. 90). This odd time we are in opens up a real opportunity to emphasize holy conferencing both in the home and in discipling groups. In crisis times, we certainly want folks to sense they are remembered, treasured and connected and care plans that make sure everyone gets a call are useful. But group life should always be the front line of pastoral care and spiritual formation. Teaching families how to care for each other spiritually in the home and encouraging folks toward online groups are both ways we can practice healthy community. Are we developing and emphasizing spiritual formation systems that will hold us for the long haul (and that don’t foster the dis-eases of individualism and consumerism)?

2. Prophetic presence is our worship posture. Our work is to authentically proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ. I believe the Church of Jesus Christ will benefit from our collective shift to an online presence. That move should be permanent. But the temptation in that realm is to work harder at the presentation than the content. And those without the appropriate theological grounding will tempt us toward unholy fire as we try to appease everyone’s individual tastes. As we innovate online worship services, our emphasis must always be connecting people with the Presence, power, and truth of God. Are we sowing DNA into our online worship that emphasizes presence over performance?

3. Prayer is the work. This season has given us all the great gift of a unified cry: God, have mercy and heal your land! The season is ripe for calling people to pray, and for teaching them how to cry out. Prayer is how we join the armies of angels who are right now doing battle with the powers and principalities on our behalf. It is also how we become sensitized to the will of God, and encouraged and strengthened to live it out. I’m praying daily for doctors and researchers and legislators who can bring this crisis to an end, but I’m under no illusions that they hold the power. Nope. The real power is in the prayers of God’s people. Are we using this moment to teach families how to pray together for more than a blessing over meals? Are we modeling for our people a holy hunger for the work of prayer as a way of deepening faith, and broadening our understanding of the character and will of God?

4. Holiness is practical, but not necessarily pragmatic. Holiness is always useful, which is to say that it actually works in real life. Holiness is practical; it will always meet the moment, but it will not be dumbed down. This is why we must be careful in our reverence for things like holy communion — not becoming so pragmatic in our approach that we “eat or drink judgment.” Decisions about worship, sacraments, and even the ways we share our needs should always be filtered through the lens of holiness, with the long view in mind. Are we designing our spiritual practices so that they expose us most fully to the heart of a good, loving and creative God … and so that we don’t feed the “cool factor” at the expense of deeper pursuits?

5. Wisdom moves at the rate of the Gospel. Let me say that more plainly: Every idea you see on social media isn’t an idea your church has to do in order to be relevant. Oh, how I wish I’d learned this lesson early on in my days as a church planter. When I was desperate to keep a fledgling church alive, I followed too many shiny objects down dead-end streets when I should have been discerning the Holy Spirit’s leading for my unique community. I feel the tug toward those old tendencies in this current crisis, but I’m trying to remember lessons learned (side note: someone has said that forgetting can be its own kind of idolatry. Amen all by myself). I would rather move slowly, with reverence toward the gospel, than rush ahead to do as others have done. In every decision, are we allowing the gospel — not finances or fear — to lead?

5. Life matters. Jesus taught that good shepherds are bold in their risk-taking. They’ll walk away from a whole flock to care for one sheep that has wandered off. These days, we are trusting that truth as we delay community worship for the sake of those who could become fatally ill by our large gatherings. This is not to say, however, that we are “forsaking the assembly” (see #1 above). To the contrary, this is our time to flex other parts of our corporate brain — to emphasize spiritual formation in smaller units. To emphasize the family altar and the development of small-group discipleship as vital to sanctification. I also believe there is great potential in this season to go after those who might not walk into a church building, but who might have comfort and curiosity enough to find us online. And I also believe this moment can call our country to consider life without churches … without worship … without Christian witness. This Spirit-led life is life in all its fullness. I am praying for a holy hunger to develop for the things of God in this season while we fast from meeting together in large gatherings because yes, physical life is precious, but eternal life is the real treasure. Are we using this time to do more than simply keep everyone physically healthy and emotionally heard? Are we emphasizing spiritual health and growth for each person in our care?

If you have the humbling privilege of spiritual leadership in this season, may these thoughts help you to root your decisions more deeply in Kingdom soil. And remember: while we haven’t ever been here before, God has. He has seen this world through wars, famines, plagues, floods and other desolations. He knows what creation is made of and This God Who Knows can be trusted to walk us through this into a future that still holds hope.

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Hope Travels.

Did you know that Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman of Sarai and Abram, is the only person in the Old Testament to assign a name to God — a name God honored?

Usually, it is God who tells us both who we are and who he is. He gives names to people as a way of telling us what he plans through us. And he gives himself names as a way of helping us know who he is for us. But in the story told in Genesis 16, Hagar is the one who names God. He is El Roi — The God Who Sees Me. Adrian Rogers says El Roi is the God of sympathy, this beautiful, grace-filled God Who Sees Us in our plight and sits with us in our pain.

Hagar’s story reminds us that God does not always or even usually change our circumstances. He isn’t a “fixer.” Her story teaches us, too, that God won’t tell us lies to make us feel better. He tells Hagar her son will be a “wild donkey of a man,” a fighter. He also tells her she’ll have to go back into the dysfunctional household she’d just fled. There would be no running away from her problems. There is no “It’ll be okay,” in her story, no glossing over the hard parts or skipping to the happy ending.

What Hagar gets instead is God, a fact that becomes its own kind of miracle. She gets a glimpse into who he is for her, who he will be whatever else happens. And somehow by naming God and discovering in his character that she was not invisible to him — that the things on her heart were on his, too — she discovered his Enoughness. He was Enough. And that fact was enough, or more than, to know this God Who Sees, Who Knows, Who Will Sit With Us In Our Pain.

To discover God revealed as El Roi was miraculously enough to birth hope into the soul of a desperate woman sitting in a barren desert. And the hope Hagar found in that desert traveled back with her into very imperfect circumstances, into a very hard relationship with a master who would lash out again and eventually send her packing … again. But for that day, somehow against all logic, Hagar could return to her life bearing hope. Which is to say that hope was not found in her circumstances. Hope was found in a Person.

Hope was — is — the property of the God Who Sees Us.

Hear that again: hope is not found in our circumstances. Hope is found in a Person. And for us who live on this side of the resurrection, hope is found in Jesus, who knows our pain, who has carried our diseases, who sees us …

What if the same hope Hagar bore back into Abram’s house became the hope that sustained him while he waited for his elderly wife to become miraculously pregnant? Is it possible that the hope Abram (who would become Abraham) found was actually birthed out there in the desert in a lonely moment when a young woman discovered that God sees … that God knows … that God had not abandoned her? It is possible that Abraham’s hope was incubated in a person who chose to focus not on her pain but on the One who is Lord over it?

Is it possible that when Paul wrote so eloquently about Abraham’s hope, he was actually writing about a second-hand hope that was first owned by Hagar?

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb. Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. Romans 4:18-21, NLT

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham hoped. And what if? Just what if he was infected by Hagar, the hope-carrier?

Which means hope travels. Which means you and I can become hope-carriers, too. In our own hard season, when we are living in some kind of virus-inspired desert, we can gaze less on this crisis we’re in and more on the God Who Sees Us, and find our hope there just as surely as Hagar did. And like her, we can walk into our circumstances with no guarantee except that God sees, God knows, God will not abandon us. And like her, we can place our hope there and let it carry us just as surely as we carry it.

May you be blessed this week to become a hope-carrier. May you breed hope in your home, in your conversations, in your own spirit. May you infect others with hope enough to keep them moving beyond the moment and toward God’s purposes. And may you pray hope into our world, believing with other great hope-carriers that if God sees and God knows and God is with us, then that is enough.

Friends, hope travels. May it travel with you this week.

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The Pain (and Opportunity) of “Simple”

What a change to our personal worlds, and way too fast. One week ago today, I was not assuming we wouldn’t see each other in person, maybe for weeks. A week ago, you were not figuring out how to homeschool or juggle unimagined work-parenting challenges. And none of us have ever cared this much about toilet paper!

We are all being forced by a fallen world to pare down to what is most essential so we can weather this crisis. We’re being asked to remember how to do “simple.” All of us. Which means all of us are probably a little edgy, a little discouraged, a little skeptical, a little tense. Add up all those “littles” and it makes a lot.

Friends, our essentials were made for times like this. We believe community is essential, and our ministry team is doing all we can to keep you meaningfully (and spiritually) connected to a few others. If I could give you one word of wisdom today, it would be this: make connection essential. Meet with your group virtually. Call someone who might need support. Connection is how we will all stay spiritually healthy, how we’ll stay emotionally positive, and how we’ll stay together as a faith community.

Connection is how we’ll keep all those “littles” from adding up to “overwhelm.”

These are values we can lean into right now that will help us have bandwidth for connection:

K.I.S.S. That old acronym (keep it simple, stupid.) has never been more relevant. Conference calls with group members don’t have to be complicated. Worship doesn’t have to be complicated. A cup of coffee and half an hour of prayer and Bible reading may be the most life-giving thing you can do today.

Simple.

Pursue intimacy with God and one another. Intimacy with God is foundational to everything else! Reaching out to others doesn’t have to have a plan behind it. See point #1 above: simple is good! A simple call, a simple meal, a simple walk … these things breed sanity and compassion.

Trust the essential value of community. Have I mentioned this one yet? Because it is essential. When we pare down to survival, it is tempting to leave off anyone who isn’t essential to surviving at home or work. But friends, the Body of Christ is essential. It was built for times like this. Lean in.

Remember that you’re part of a family. The church is family, and healthy families are what make a healthy church. Who in the spiritual family can you reach out to? How can we together keep this family spiritually alive?

Walk in the Spirit, moment by moment. Listen, I get it. Staying in conversation with Jesus right now is hard. But hear me: how we live in this season is so important, and Jesus is our anchor. Join our prayer calls every afternoon at 5p (see my personal facebook page for current info; I’m trying different platforms to gather the largest prayer army possible, so go there for the latest info). Pray. Confess. Read your Bible. Be in a group. The means of grace matter. They’ve been tested over generations. Trust them and lean in.

Honor spontaneity. Pop-up small groups — even online — during the week will help us stay connected and will build a more organic community. Pick three people and ask them to join you online for an afternoon conversation. If you have an iPhone, this is very easy to do. And right now, it seems plans were made to change, so favor the spontaneous nudge.

Remember that we serve a supernatural God. Let’s believe together that God will do a miraculous work to heal our world. Believe, friends, that God will create a miracle in the midst of this mess!

Pray missionally. Our prayers must be for more than us and ours. Let’s fervently pray that we can become the answer to Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come … on earth as in Heaven.”

Participate in the community. Everyone has something to contribute. Call someone. Help with online worship. Participate in prayer calls. Open your computer and set up a small group meeting. Run an errand for someone who isn’t able to get out.

Listen to Jesus. Not the hype, but Jesus. Trust this truth: “We who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary.”

Lead by example. Mature leadership in crisis will model wisdom, compassion, and courage. We are all figuring this out as we go, so patience is critical. I’m amazed at how quickly real leadership exposes itself, and am grateful to see such leadership emerging among us. I encourage you to channel that leadership potential in yourself. Your church needs you!

Emphasize the creative. We serve the most creative being in the universe. Let him inspire you to serve, lead and care in new ways.

Friends, let’s step into this crisis with bold and simple confidence, and trust God to see us through. Things may get hard. They may get really hard. But we will survive, and the world will right itself. How we respond now will shape our future.

Anything … anything at all! I’m here, and I’m for you. Better yet, I’m for us. Best of all, God is with us!

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Lord, what do we do now?

The following was shared with our Mosaic community. I share it here for pastors who might be helped with what to say, and for anyone who is ready to join us in prayer over this current crisis we are in. Read on:

These are strange days, aren’t they? When pro sports are cancelled for a whole season, and colleges are sending students home for the rest of the semester, we know we are in uncharted territory. We’re all wondering: what exactly are we to do?

The conflicting reports concerning the global viral outbreak seem to prove that no one knows exactly how to navigate this most unusual season (they definitely didn’t teach us how to handle things like this in seminary!). But even so, we are a strong and faithful community and I am confident of our character. We will figure this out together.

Let me share two kinds of thoughts — one practical and one spiritual. I hope you’ll stay with me to the end, so you can get to the good stuff about how you can actively participate in ending this crisis.

First, some practical thoughts: Like you, I continue to read about best practices, and also listen to our local professionals. The basic protections are in place at Mosaic:

  • Hand sanitizer is available throughout our facility. Frequent hand-washing is still the best way to stay healthy in any season.
  • Kids will wash hands upon entering KidCity. Their usual health guidelines will be in place (parents should have received those guidelines by email earlier this week).
  • Surfaces will be cleaned with bleach frequently.
  • Greeting one another, as disappointing as it is for a congregation that loves well, should be limited to loving smiles. We will continue to hold off on greeting each other in the service, so that folks don’t have to worry about spreading germs.
  • We encourage anyone who is not feeling well, or those who are anxious about being around others, to stay home and rest.
  • Since we hold communion about once per month, we will not be serving it again for several weeks, and will make a decision then about the best way to offer the sacrament.

There has not yet been a case of COVID-19 in our area (as of Thursday evening), but we are prepared to suspend services when that is called for. If it seems best to you to stay home on Sunday, I strongly encourage you to listen to our podcast so you can still engage the message and participate in that way. Messages are posted by Monday afternoon. I also humbly ask that you continue to give electronically in this season through Realm, our website, or by texting GiveMo to 73256.

What happens if church gatherings must be cancelled?

We encourage you to download the Zoom app now, so you’re ready should we need to livestream our service on a Sunday morning. That will be the platform we use, should we decide to livestream Sunday worship.

And now, a spiritual word:

In an article about the coronavirus outbreak in Singapore, pastors reflected on their experience and one pastor offered this word: “The biggest lesson for me has been navigating the road between fear and wisdom. It is especially tough as fear often has a way to masquerade itself as wisdom. How many precautionary measures are actually sound judgment and how many are too much, such that they teeter over into irrational fear and anxiety? It is a tough road to navigate, as we had to both convey safety to our members—by way of implementing recommended health measures—and yet not succumb to the cultural climate of fear, anxiety, and self-preservation. We do so in all our notices by ensuring that we are not just communicating measures but also casting a vision for how to be the people of God in this time.”

What a great word for all of us. How can we be the people of God in this time?

We can strike a wise and compassionate posture. I am discovering the importance of acknowledging the very real anxieties of so many, and also the importance of not feeding fear. In a time of corporate high anxiety, I believe it is both compassionate and wise for Christians to respond as those who trust in a sovereign God and an eternal realm. We can acknowledge the seriousness of this tough season and care for one another’s concerns without stoking unhealthy fears.

On facebook and in conversation, think “wise, compassionate and courageous.” That seems to be the right posture for one who has faith in Jesus.

We can pray. In fact, I would challenge you to manage your time so that you’re spending more time in prayer than in fact-gathering. Nothing we do can make more of a difference than prayer. How should we pray?

  • Call on the Lord boldly to defeat this crisis. Start there. Ask God moment by moment to kill this virus and defeat the enemy that is spreading it.
  • Pray against the politicization of this virus.
  • Pray especially for older adults (the average age of those who have died is 80), and for those in fragile health.
  • Pray for healthcare workers.
  • Pray for small businesses, churches, schools and their leaders. Making good choices is a challenge when we are all in uncharted waters.

Let’s pray TOGETHER!

On Friday afternoon (3/13) at 5:00 p.m., we will host half an hour of prayer specifically targeting this global crisis. “Zoom” is an app you can download that will allow you to participate in this conference call. You can access it by phone or computer (link below). We’ll take thirty minutes by phone to pray together over the current state of things and to seek God’s provision, healing and wisdom. Let’s use this time to build our faith in the power of prayer.

Join our Zoom prayer call on your phone by dialing 646 558 8656, and use this Meeting ID when you call in: 286 156 120#.

Feel free to spread the word about our prayer call! We can host up to 150 people on a call. Let’s storm the gates of Heaven on behalf of our world and God’s people, and seek his power to end this madness!

We need one another’s compassion and patience as we figure out how to truly be the people of God in a hard time. Keep the faith, friends. God is HERE. We are not alone.

Much, much love,
Carolyn

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A little mid-winter encouragement

Cloudy skies and rain for weeks. Trump/ Biden/ Bernie. Coronavirus. Stock prices. Tornadoes. Seasonal affective disorder. The season of higher rates of death for older adults. UMC death throes. It is a lot to absorb.

I notice this — that when we are all wound tight and anxious, we go looking for someone to blame. We carry a low-grade irritation toward others that burns away all the grace.

When you see that bubbling up, resist it. That may well be the enemy of your soul, baiting you with the spirit of offense. Don’t take the bait. The spirit of offense is one of the enemy’s go-to demons. It is mean and graceless, and demands its own way. It is the antithesis of 1 Corinthians 13. It is impatient, unkind, quick to anger, light on love. It tells you it wants to stick up for you and not let you get run over by people, but that’s a lie. It actually cares nothing for your soul, or for justice, or for your relationships. Its whole purpose in the world is to separate you from love, mercy and grace.

Fight back: Answer frustration with patience, and irritation with kindness. Find someone this week to encourage. If that seems too trite a solution for you, then get serious about the state of your own soul. Pray like crazy for God to kill the spirit of offense that breeds in you. Pray earnestly for that. Don’t let it take root.

We’re all weary of rain and illness and all the rest of it these days. We are all in the same boat, all just trying to find spring … and it WILL come! While we wait, let’s create some of our own, by bringing a little “blue sky” into the world.

The one thing we can control is how we respond so friends, be gentle with each other. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35

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Don’t quit.

Do you remember the story of Lot and Abraham and how out there in the desert their two families got to be so big and unwieldy that they had a hard time living in the same valley? Abraham told Lot (because the herdsmen couldn’t be at peace with each other) that for the sake of the family they ought to part ways. Abraham was the bigger man in this conversation, more faithful, so he invited Lot to choose his property. Lot could go in whichever direction he wanted to go in. If he wanted the land on the left, Abraham would go right. If he wanted to go right, Abraham would go left.

Lot makes his choice and it tells us what kind of guy he is. He is the kind of guy who cannot see what he cannot see. You know those people? The late adopters? They are the last ones who get on board with your building campaign or with any new idea — the last ones to see what God might be up to. They are Lot’s people. They cannot see what they cannot see.

Lot takes what is right in front of him and Abraham takes the land further off, over the horizon, which happens to be where the promises of God are. My friend, Ed Dickens, calls it “over-the-horizon faith.” Don’t you love that? That’s the kind of faith I want. Over-the-horizon faith.

In John Wesley’s notes on this story, he talks about how to “trust God farther than you can see.”

Man, I want that kind of faith. I want to trust God farther than I can see. You ought to write that question down and take it with you today and let it change you. Use it in your confessions and conversations.

Do you trust God farther than you can see?

Because here’s the thing: God is doing things out there. Things we won’t see right off, things that aren’t obvious. But this is our promise: He is at work! Isaiah says, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19-21).

My UMC friends, do you have the vision to see beyond this current desert we’re in? Do you have a vision for what can be, just over the horizon? Have you lifted your gaze above the current crisis to what can be on the other side of 2020?

I am embarrassed to admit, actually, just how recently it has occurred to me that I ought to be praying for my own faith, for the character of it and the density of it and the life of it. It just hadn’t occurred to me for far too much of my walk with Christ that if faith is all that connects me to Jesus and if faith is the only thing of any value I bring into my work, my parenting, my ministry, and if I can’t conjure it up on my own because even my faith is a gift from God, then I had better start praying for it. I had better get to shaking the gates of heaven on behalf of my own faith, praying for God to give me more of it, to increase my heart for him and to have more of him in my heart. To be able to trust farther than I can see.

Isn’t that all any of us really wants to know? How do I get Jesus deeper into my heart? How do I burn like I did at first? How do I find my first love?
Brothers and sisters in ministry, if we are going to make it through our present reality in the UMC, we’re going to need a faith that trusts farther than what we can see.

Ray Jackson, my friend and partner Haitian missions says, “I have often thought that the miracles of Jesus were to validate his Sonship or divinity. But now, I also believe they have been preserved for all time to validate his unlimited power to make all things new.”

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up … It arises!

Listen: None of us knows exactly how it will all turn out (and you can fill in the blank here with just about any question that’s on your mind) but chances are, Lot and Abraham will go their separate ways. One of them will settle in a land close by, one they can see, one that requires little imagination or faith. The other will be given a good land over the horizon and more offspring than can be counted. I hope I have sense enough to be in that latter camp.

Meanwhile, we wait, and here’s how I suggest we spend our time while we wait:

Repent for your own short-sightedness. Repent for being among the widows who cried over Tabitha’s death, rather than being the disciple who had the nerve to stand in the middle of the room, ask a dead thing to stand up, and expect it to happen.

Pray and live prophetically for future of the Church. The Church in the U.S. is starving for people willing to pray and speak boldly into both church and culture. We starve for prophets unafraid of being a peculiar people — holy, chosen, strange in the sense of being … well … strange. People with faith enough to say, “I see something beyond the obvious here, something that ought to change your sense of reality.” We need prophets who keep us focused on life beyond the horizon …

Actively practice your gifts. Every day between now and May 15 (and then every day after that), get up and go look for lost people. Every day, get up and lean into the means of grace that make us Methodist. Every day, pray like crazy for faith to manage the hard conversations that will surely come in the days ahead. Every day, use only the best ingredients to build your ministry. Don’t let your palate become de-sensitized to the delicacy of this fine gospel we serve.

Don’t quit. Because Jesus has not quit on us. He is still drawing this world back to the other side of Genesis three, because for Jesus, the world is not the problem. The world is the prize.

We have not yet succeeded, but we keep striving to win the prize for which Christ Jesus has already won us. Stay in it and keep your eyes on the horizon. Good things are coming!

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