Babies and Bathwater: a conversation with Cheryl Bridges Johns

This week on The Art of Holiness podcast, we hear the heart of a deeply informed, deeply faithful woman of God, who also happens to be one of the coolest women I’ve met in a while. Cheryl Bridges Johns serves in the Robert E. Fisher Chair of Spiritual Renewal. She is past President of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. She makes a profession out of bridging the gap between tribes and speaks deeply into many front-line world Christians.

In our conversation, I felt such a sense that Cheryl was taking issue by issue — from gender issues, to social justice, to Pentecostalism, to spiritual disciplines — and shaking the proverbial baby from the bathwater. She has a great gift for shaking off the cultural perversions to expose what is good about things we’ve covered over with agenda. The church could use more pure voices like hers to help us recover what is beautiful about our faith.

Cheryl has a gift for encouraging women and men, and she has great wisdom to share around the concept of spiritual eldership. Her definition of an authentic elder, by the way, is this: “When they walk into the room, they make you feel safe.” Lord, send us more leaders who look like that!

As an elder in the Church, Cheryl offers her latest book: Seven Transforming Gifts of Menopause. It reflects her spirit in general — full of grace, searching for blessing even in the unlikely places, boldly gentle, always teaching. This is the kind of book you need on your shelf so that others browsing through your books will find it and discover a grace they need.

I hope you’ll listen this week. You can find us wherever you listen:

Apple: https://apple.co/36xVnFl

Spotify: https://spoti.fi/2B4m7Sb

Google: https://bit.ly/2THtw07

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Viruses, politics, and our besetting sins

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7

This is our primary text for Sunday’s message (we’re talking about how to pray in a pandemic) but it has become much more than that for me lately. Paul’s word has become a challenge. Do not be anxious about anything, he says.

Anything.

I don’t know about you, but I feel a little like my nerves have been held together by duct tape for a while now. I think if I were to accomplish that one line of scripture, my brain might collapse. Or I might sleep for a month. I’m not even sure what would happen. Right now, I’m trying to think of a time I didn’t have some low-level anxiety brewing beneath the surface. Have I ever been completely non-anxious? Like … completely? Have you?

I wonder what would happen to my faith if I took that one line from Paul seriously, if I went after it with everything in me. For starters, I suspect my faith would mushroom and my confidence in God’s leadership would go through the roof. All my niggling little health issues would disappear. Surely my relationships would improve. I wonder what would occupy my brain (would I rejoice in the Lord always?)?

Do not be anxious about anything. Lord, pick me for that project.

The promise on the other side of that, according to Paul is a kind of peace that doesn’t require all the dots to line up according to the comforts of my feeble brain (or yours). We get a peace that is okay with questions and ambiguities. We get a peace that trusts God’s wisdom and truth even if that means admitting he’s smarter than us. Non-anxious living by Kingdom standards requires me to rest in a higher knowing that doesn’t abide by the rules of human logic.

Do not be anxious about anything.

These days, that’s quite a leap. Listening to all the voices, most of them with competing claims and recommendations, has made leadership nothing if not anxious. Just this week, it all seems to have ramped up. Our President made a statement on Friday all but demanding that churches reopen this weekend. Meanwhile, at least in my denomination, the guidelines don’t allow for that. Leaders reiterated their recommendation that churches remain closed until June 22. On social media this morning, everyone is weighing in. Lots of anxiety-stirring comments. Add that to all the articles we’ve read, conversations we’ve had with medical professionals and documentaries we’ve watched, and whew! Its a lot.

Do not be anxious about anything. Does that even include pandemics, Paul? And politics? Or the politics of pandemics?

The answer is yes, though it is a hard “yes” to accept, because it requires so much more healing and hearing than most of us have energy for. It requires us to dig down beneath comments and people and politics and circumstances and all our feelings and opinions about all those things to some deeper soil beneath where anxiety as a besetting sin is rooted.

I’ll wait while you read that last sentence again.

And even while we’re digging down to the root of our anxious nature, Paul teaches us that the critical second half of wholeness doesn’t end with rooting out our own root causes but also learning the voice of God, so we’re listening to a higher wisdom than the cultural noise around us. That takes time and practice. But that, Paul says, is where the real peace lies. It is in the ability to rest our hearts and minds in the care of Christ even while we read and research, so we’e not tossed around like so much salad by all we hear.

Learning to listen to the Spirit? That’s hard work. What we’d rather do (because its easier) is find some external thing or person to which we can point and say, “If that or they would just stop-change-fix-be-different, then I’d be fine!” We want the world to adjust so we can be at peace. Or we want answers to all our unanswered questions, believing that reasonable answers will give us peace. And the confusing thing is, answers do give some sense of peace just often enough for us to believe they have that power every time.

But they don’t. If answers could give peace, then answers would be god. Or the other person whose behavior you want to fix becomes a potential god. Or the changed circumstance becomes god. Or worse, we become god. If peace can only happen when the world orients around me and my needs, now I’m god. Is that what we want?

This kind of anxiety Paul is talking about is not circumstantially rooted. It is not anxiety about this thing or that thing but anxiety as a default setting of our fallen nature.

Healing a besetting sin requires us to begin with seriously and deeply questioning our own brokenness. What causes anxiety to rise up in me? Is it my own trust issues? Where does that come from? Why don’t I trust others? Why don’t I trust God? Why do I need to be able to trust a person in order to be at peace in my own spirit or in that relationship? Where did all this begin in my life?

(Side note: don’t stop there, with that last question, because besetting sins go deeper than childhood junk; getting at them means rooting out my motivations, not just my memories.)

Is it possible that I don’t trust people or God because I don’t trust myself? Am I always honest with myself? Or am I not always honest in my dealings? What unholy or selfish agendas am I operating out of? Is this about my need to control circumstances or people? Do I become anxious when people don’t do it (whatever “it” is) the way I want them to? Do I lose sleep over things I can’t control?

Is my anxiety a product of my desire to be god?

Even while we’re digging down to the root motivations beneath our anxious nature, Paul teaches us that the critical second half of wholeness is learning the voice of God. It isn’t enough to stop the “anxious.” Jesus taught us that delivering the demon out of the house without replacing it is a dangerous thing. Nature abhors a vacuum. The other half of stifling anxious voices is turning up the volume on the voice of God. That takes time and practice. And patience. It is a long obedience but the payoff is huge. The benefit is the ability to hear and accept a wisdom that is higher than our understanding. That, Paul says, is where the real peace lies. It is in the ability to give our hearts and minds over to Jesus, to let him guard them, so that both feelings and thoughts are safely resting in the care of Christ even as we sift through all that comes our way.

In the midst of another conversation, Paul finished a thought with this: “I think I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 7:40). I don’t think this was Paul proclaiming himself god by saying he had the right answer. I’m not even convinced he needed an answer to bring peace to the situation they were debating. Actually, I think that line was his way of saying, “You might disagree with me, and I can hear you, but I’m not willing to give up years of honing the practice of the presence and voice of God in my life in order to validate your opinion. And I will not minimize this long practice by minimizing what comes out of it. I need to give honor to my own spiritual discernment honed by years of listening and communing with the Holy Spirit by voicing what I’ve heard.”

In other words, there comes a time when in humility we take authority over what we’ve been given as a gift from God — namely, the ability to commune and converse with him.

In still other words, in matters of discernment the Holy Spirit gets a voice, too. But to invoke that voice, we must root out the competing voices even as we practice his presence and learn his voice. And this is not a quick fix but a long obedience.

This week, that seems like a good word. In weighty matters, the Holy Spirit gets a voice, too. As we listen to the official and unofficial voices swirling around the internet — all stirring the political waters as we debate the trajectory of this virus and how that plays out in church — I want to urge you to listen deeper than the debate. Listen to what those voices are doing within your spirit. Are you hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, or are you mostly just hearing the swell of anxiety? Does the voice bring peace that passes understanding? Or does it demand that you to lose patience and pick a side so you can have an answer? If the latter voice is louder, if anxiety is what stirs up in you, then hear that as a symptom of something that needs spiritual attention. Go looking for the besetting sin (the underlying cause) and dig down so you can pull that thing up by the root.

Because listen: that thing is your problem. Not the opinion of the President or the opinion of whoever made the latest video you’ve watched or the opinion of your uncle who knows someone who knows someone who has dabbled in infectious disease research. Nope. That thing in you that keeps you from placing your whole trust in God, that makes you crazy when you can’t control what other people do/say/think, that makes you hyper-critical of the world around you and hypo-reflective about your ability to hear from God — that’s where you need to start.

Because friends, if we come out of this thing more anxious, less trusting, more partisan, less dependent on the Holy Spirit, then we will all have been sickened by this virus in ways that strike much deeper than flesh.

Do not be anxious about anything.

Be challenged by that word. And be changed.

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The Art of Holiness is now a podcast, too.

Maybe eight or ten months ago (time rolls by so unevenly these days), my son-in-law called. “Hey, I have an idea for a podcast, and I want to do it with you.” Within five minutes I was sold — Pierce has that affect on me — and we began to map out an idea for creating conversations around things that matter to us. Things like how Wesleyans engage in supernatural ministry and what holiness looks like when it is lived out in the real world.

Underlying every conversation would be our relationship — a 57-year old woman and a 31-year old man who have become much more than in-laws to each other. Pierce and I are friends. We genuinely enjoy each other’s company. The first time my daughter brought him to meet us, we discovered we’d read all the same books (only he’d read them by the time he was 25 …). We are both passionate about ministry, Methodism, and Jesus. And of course, my daughter. We both really like her, too. We are family in the most blessed, generous sense of that term. I’m proud to call Pierce Drake one of us.

Pierce is bold, and an insatiable learner. He won’t think twice about emailing an author or speaker to seek out a conversation about whatever they know that can make him a better pastor. He is also deeply faithful. What he wanted from this podcast was a chance to learn together with me what God is up to in the world … in our world. He also wanted to hear our conversations through the filter of my experience as a pastor of 22 years and from the generation ahead of him. I was interested to hear from new voices and old friends through the filter of his generation. The combination of perspectives and the strong voices of our guests was enjoyable and enriching for us. In fact, that was one of our non-negotiables going in. We would only do this if we could have fun with it. So far, we have.

We are particularly honored to be featured as a New Room Network podcast, the first in what we hope will be a fine collection of voices across the orthodox Wesleyan world. The first season of The Art of Holiness is twelve episodes, dropping once a week beginning now. While every person in this season is a rock star, that wasn’t what we were after. We intentionally went looking for folks who are consistently (and sometimes quietly) bearing good fruit in the communities they serve.

Petey Bellini’s episode leads off the season with a beautiful and deep conversation about prophetic informed intercession. We loved talking with Cheryl Johns Bridges, who shares out of a Wesleyan-textured Pentecostal spirituality that inspires me. Chris Backert and Jorge Acevedo will help us understand Kingdom-minded innovation in the church with an eye toward missional community-building. We’ll talk with JD Walt and Matt Scott about the call to awakening, and what it looks like when Wesleyans do supernatural ministry.

Demetra Barrios and Helen Musick speak eloquently about holiness, recovery, and ministry in the city. Jack Deere and Bob Beckwith draw us into the deep with conversations about prophecy and prayer. Madeline Henners shares her research into strategies for finding intimacy with God, and then we get a great conversation with Scot McKnight that dips into discipleship and includes a discussion of his fabulous book, The King Jesus Gospel. Most of these conversations were recorded in the months prior to COVID-19, which means you’ll get to hear something that isn’t virus-related. We hope that comes as a relief to you.

Pierce and I invite you to come swim with us in the waters of Wesleyan spirituality. We pray you will find in these conversations enough of a spark to get a little personal revival going. That’s what we’re after. We aren’t so much interested in giving you tips for the ministry trade as an encounter with the Holy Spirit at the experiential level. We hope to inspire you (and maybe even our whole tribe) toward an awakening that draws us all toward the Kingdom of God.

Please let us know if you listen. We want your feedback and ideas for future podcasts. Mostly, we want to share with you our joy for Jesus and his Church. Find us on Google, iTunes, and Spotify.

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Don’t drown in the shallow end.

Friends, I want to encourage you this week with a word God gave me a few days ago: Don’t drown in the shallow end. Let me explain what that means.

Right about now, we are all feeling this pandemic life a little more deeply. We’re weary (yes, we were tired already but somehow this week, for many of us it seems worse). I told someone one day last week at lunchtime, “I’m just tired. Nine weeks ago, this was the middle of the day. Today, this is the middle of the night.” From my conversations with you, it sounds like I’m not alone.

What I’m realizing is that in those first weeks of quarantine, we were able to muscle our way through on adrenaline and sheer self-will. We were chalking each other’s driveways, taking each other meals, checking in with each other often. (Remember those days? In corona-time that was ten years ago.)

But now? Now we’re just tired and what we need now requires a different set of muscles.

Do you know how muscles build? They build by tearing. When we do things like lift weights, we cause small tears in our muscles called micro-tears. It is the body’s repair or healing of those micro-tears that makes the muscle stronger.

That’s how muscles build — by tearing! Who knew?!

In these last ten weeks or so, we have experienced the spiritual and emotional equivalent of a thousand micro-tears. We have had to work a set of muscles we didn’t even know existed and in the working of them, we’ve felt the tears. We have had to flex and pivot in ways that were uncomfortable. From home-schooling, to work-at-home orders, to unemployment, to online worship and zoom-work, to mask-wearing in public … whew! That’s a lot of flexing and pivoting.

Every pivot has meant working muscles we weren’t used to moving, which means more tearing. And that hurts, but oh my! What muscles we’ll have when this all finally settles down! We will be the spiritual equvalent of an Arnold Schwarzenegger!

“But what if I don’t make it? What if I’m just too tired-discouraged-lonely-burned-out right now to go on?”

I hear you.

But this too is good news. Because the Bible teaches us that God does his best work when we come to the end of ourselves! We may feel like we’re reaching the end of our resources, but this is exactly the place God wants us to be. The wise focus in this season is not on the pain but on the skills we have learned, the opportunities for personal growth we’ve uncovered, and the chance to depend on God more than ever before.

Listen: What if the best stuff doesn’t kick in until we get to the end of “us” and have nothing left to cling to but God? What if all this tearing and pivoting is has the effect of strengthening us for God’s preferred future?

If that’s so (and I believe it is), then my encouragement for you who are weary is this: Lean in. Don’t drown in the shallow end. You may feel these days like you’re out of gas or at the end of your rope, but the good news is that this is precisely where God does his best work.

In a section of the book of James that is all about wisdom (James 3:13-18), James ends by talking about peace and peacemakers. For five verses he describes the difference between real wisdom and its counterfeit and then he ends with a line about peace. He writes, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18).

What strikes me about this section of James is that the writer draws a straight line between wisdom and peace. That tells me that peace and wisdom are intimately attached. Which means that real peace, like real wisdom, isn’t generated on our own strength. The peace we are looking for — real peace, supernatural peace, the kind we cannot generate ourselves, the kind that will let us sleep at night, that will keep us from drowning in the shallow end — comes from a vertical pivot that requires its own spiritual muscle.

So here’s the life hack: If you want peace, pray for wisdom. Wisdom is what will keep your head above the waves when the water feels deep and you’re too tired to tread.

That’s my word for you: Pray for wisdom. Don’t drown in the shallow end.

And remember: every day we’re in this is one day closer to a healed and whole world. And that fact is true even without a pandemic. We know how this story ends: Jesus wins.

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