The character of a Methodist

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

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

What does it mean to be Methodist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to use your pastor

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

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

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

Love them (but don’t idolize them).

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

Expect holiness (from both of you).

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

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

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

Do your part.

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

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

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

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The Mystery and Glory of Communion with God

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

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

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

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

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

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Do you know the General Rules of our Church?

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

Three simple rules:

Do no harm.

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

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

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

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

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

Do good.

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

Attend to the ordinances of God.

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

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

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Approving polity: Questions for United Methodists in a Pensive Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Division Within

There is a line in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that grabs me. Paul is teaching this young church about the nature of Jesus and what this Messiah has accomplished on the spiritual plane. He tells them that Jesus has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility. He is talking in the moment about the wall that stood between Jews and Gentiles. Jesus is the one who by his sacrifice brings the Gentiles inside the wall. This lesson is about two kinds of people who have been made one by Christ.

Let me emphasize what Paul is teaching and what he isn’t. Paul isn’t teaching that the Israelites were to abandon their principles or that the Gentiles were to remain unchanged. This is not about everybody just getting along. Paul’s teaching here is deeper. This is about a spiritual reality. He is telling his audience — and us — that the ground beneath the cross is level.

What grabs me is that phrase — “the dividing wall of hostility.” This isn’t just about groups but about me. Many of us live with this dividing wall of hostility that runs right down the middle of us. That wall keeps us from being one, whole person. There are parts of us that want everything to line up in perfect little bullet points. We don’t want God to get too close. We just want him to give us a list of things to do so we can check the boxes and claim ourselves “good enough.”

“I’m a good person. Isn’t that enough?”

“I believe in God. Isn’t that enough?”

“I go to church. I pay my taxes. Isn’t that enough?”

That’s one side of the wall. The other side of the wall knows the truth. That person we want to be? We’re not that person. On our own, we can never be good enough, right enough … enough. The war rages inside of us as these two sides duke it out and that fight bubbles over, showing up as impatience in our work, distrust in our relationships, unreasonableness in our expectations, anger even at God.

This is the human condition. We are all fighting against our fallen human nature, all battling manifestations of selfish desire. To the extent that we nurture this division within, we breed dysfunction and depress authenticity. Even if we don’t admit it to anyone else, we know about this division. Parker Palmer says,

“I pay a steep price when I live a divided life – feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am denying my own selfhood. The people around me pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness. How can I affirm another’s identity when I deny my own? How can I trust another’s integrity when I defy my own?”

So what to do about that wall? David Whyte is a full-time poet now but for years, he worked other jobs while he wrote in the margins of his life. It exhausted him. He had a friend, a monk named Brother David Steindl-Rast, who came to visit. Whyte told Brother David about his life and his unfulfilled dreams and his exhaustion over trying to hold it together, and he asked his friend what the cure is for exhaustion. Brother David replied, “The cure for exhaustion isn’t rest. It’s wholeheartedness.”

Sit in this truth a moment: The cure for exhaustion isn’t rest. It’s wholeheartedness.

We know this is true, because this is both Old and New Testament-tested. The great Jewish truth is this: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus brought this into the New Covenant as a command. “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).

John Wesley drew on that truth in his questions to those planning to preach the Methodist way. He asked, “Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work?” Not half-heartedly. Not with your spare change and spare time. Not only as far as your comforts will take you. Not fearfully, but wholly to God and his work? Without that kind of vulnerable, wholehearted faith, it is impossible to please God.

To the extent that you nurse a “dividing wall of hostility,” the effort to be all in will exhaust you. But (hear the good news) the stuff in your life that is exhausting you — the frenzied activity, the scattered schedule, the divided life — can actually be the source of your healing. It happens as you hold your exhaustion before God, confess the dividedness in every area where it exists and make mature choices about what has to go so the wall can come down. Because here’s the thing: that wall that you have put up to keep you safe is the same wall that is keeping you from experiencing the power of God.

Wholehearted living releases us into miraculous faith. What needs to give so you can live a wholehearted life?

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Baptism and the Holy Spirit

One summer, the women of our church hosted an in-town mission trip. Every day, we visited a different mission location and served in whatever way we could. The last day, we worked in the home of an elderly woman who lives in some of the worst oppression I’ve experienced. She lives alone. It was evident that she was dealing with some mental illness, but she had a beautiful, sweet spirit and a great strength that allowed her to keep pressing on. She didn’t walk, so spent most of her time in a wheelchair. That understandably limited what she could do around the house.

The house was condemnable. It needed more work than we could possibly have offered in a day. Piles and piles of clothes and junk. Piles and piles of trash. Roaches everywhere  … even inside the refrigerator. We went there, we thought, to wash her dishes and clean her stove and do what we could to fix up her kitchen. But by the end of the day, it was clear to all of us that we weren’t really there to clean a kitchen.

We were there to encounter the Spirit.

One of our team members, a nurse, decided to clean the bathtub and offer this woman a bath. The woman said it had been a long time since she’d had one, so she was thrilled by the offer. We lowered her gently down into the tub and gave her time for a long soak.

Clearly, it was medicine for her soul. I’ve never heard such beautiful singing as I did from that bathroom while she was in there. It had to be one of the most stunning images of the Kingdom of God: Here was a group of women in the kitchen, wiping dead bugs out of the stove while this woman in a bath sang, “Near the cross, near the cross, be my glory ever …”

And while we dragged trash out of the home of this forgotten woman we heard, “Jesus loves me, this I know …”

When the team helped her out of the tub and back into her chair, I have never heard such great laughter. It came from deep within her; it was glorious. It had been so long since she’d had a bath that she forgot how good it could be. She reveled in this experience. At the end of the day, we prayed together and when she prayed, I felt the unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit. We were bathed in it.

This is what Jesus does. He takes ordinary things and he makes them holy.

And this thing that Jesus does in the course of a day, he does with the waters of baptism. He makes it more than just water and words. Baptism is a clothing, an identity. We who are baptized — whether as infants or adults — are to live it, walk in it, claim it, wear it.

Here that again: We who are baptized are to live out our baptism, to walk in it, to wear it.

Kris Vallotton says, “Baptism isn’t done as a symbolic act of obedience to scripture. It’s a prophetic declaration of your death and resurrection in Christ Jesus.”

And baptism in the Holy Spirit is about everything that baptism with water is about. It is about cleansing and restoring and getting our lives in line with our created purpose. It is about walking in the blessing of God who says to us when he redeems us, “You are my son, my daughter, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

To be baptized in the Holy Spirit is to swim in the blessing of God, the Father. It is to claim our place in God’s Kingdom and to let the Holy Spirit make our ordinary lives holy.

Being baptized – immersed, washed, clothed – in the Holy Spirit is a glorious gift. Jesus himself said, “Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it is not possible to enter God’s kingdom” (John 3:5-6, The Message)

I wonder: how long has it been, spiritually speaking, since you’ve had the kind of bath that declares your death and resurrection? How long has it been since you’ve been bathed in God’s blessing?

Maybe you’ve never let yourself go there. Maybe, like Adam and Eve, you’ve spent all your energy trying to cover for yourself instead of letting the Father cover for you. Maybe you’ve been sitting alone in your own shame for so long that you’ve forgotten there are options. Have you forgotten that the same Holy Spirit who poured out rivers of blessing over Jesus as he bathed in the Jordan stands ready to pour out rivers of blessing over you?

Be baptized in the Holy Spirit — bathed, clothed, marked, resurrected — and then walk in the Spirit so you can live your salvation story with power and authority … which is the only way it ought ever to be lived.

 

(the story of the in-town mission trip is excerpted from Encounter the Spirit, a video-based Bible study and workbook found at Seedbed.com)

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Remembering in the Wild

Can you begin to imagine what it must have been like when the spirit of the Lord passed through Egypt and in every house someone died? Can you imagine the grief?

Not just for days, but for weeks or months, there must have been the sound of wailing, the high-pitched cry of heart-stricken people always in the air, after the Lord called for the slaughter of all the first-born among the Egyptians.

And while the Egyptians cried, the Israelites picked up everything they could carry and started walking. People unused to taking control of their own lives, not naturally gifted with faith, picked up their very lives and walked out into the desert.

If you didn’t know the Egyptians had been oppressing the Israelites for generations, if you didn’t know their hearts had grown so hard they’d forgotten how to feel, if you didn’t know the one, true God had chosen slaves to be his people, none of it would make sense.

That’s why the remembering became so important. And that’s why — out there in the desert, in the wild, as they turned to look at each other and wonder “what next?” — God taught his people to remember.

God taught them to remember because without the story, nothing else made sense. Until they learned to remember, learned to reinterpret their story so that God was at the center, they’d miss the great moves of God.

What God taught them becomes our lesson, too: until we learn to rightly remember, we will miss the great moves of God.

The great moves of God work by a familiar pattern. It tends to begin with people in slavery – to oppression, to things that harden hearts, to things that choke out freedom. It begins with people orbiting around their own egos. It begins with slaves entrenched for so long in mediocrity that they forget how oppressed they are.

Then comes the rescue, the invitation to go with God, to step out of slavery and into freedom. This is an invitation into the wild places of transformation, where the people learn that the story doesn’t in fact orbit around them but around the Lord of the Universe.

Rescue is most often a process, not an event. It is a desert to cross, a cross to bear. Out there in the grief over all that must be left behind, the children of God learn how their small stories fit into His Big Story. They learn to reorient; they discover their place outside the center. They learn the daily process of surrender and they learn to worship something bigger than themselves.

This pattern moves the people of God out of slavery, through the desert, and into the promises of God. In the story of God, you find this pattern employed over and over – slavery, desert, promises. This is the broad view of the Bible itself. Jesus tells us this is how the Kingdom comes: repent and start walking.

Out in the desert, in the wild, remembering is the first order of business. In the feasts and high holy days of the Old Testament, God’s people were disciplined to stop and remember, to tell the story, to draw up from their past so their future would rest on a higher plain. When Jesus reinterpreted those feasts so he became the center of the Story, he charged his followers: “From now on, every time you eat this bread or drink this cup, remember me.”

Remembering, we learn, is part of resurrection. Rightly interpreting the great moves is how we move on — not just for our sakes but for our children, also. In Exodus, chapter 12, God tells the people, “Eventually, you’ll have kids who won’t know The Story. They won’t move forward unless you show them where you’ve been.”

Even today, when Passover is celebrated by Jewish people, the youngest person in the room has the privilege of asking this question to invoke the telling of The Story: “What makes this day different from all other days?” God told the Israelites, “When the children ask, you tell them, ‘We do this because God is great. He brought us up out of our slavery into a desert so He could kill anything in us that wasn’t His. God stopped at nothing to make sure we became free people as He moved us across our desert and into His promises.’” When the Israelites heard it told this way, they bowed in worship.

A redemption story well remembered creates an atmosphere of awe.

Remembering is a key to transformation. Have you taken the time to rightly remember your story so that it becomes a dynamic force that focuses you beyond yourself and sends you out into the desert of transformation? Have you verbalized the great moves of God in your life? Have you confessed those things that have enslaved you? Have you soaked in the patterns, so you can recognize them and take authority as your future unfolds?

Have you learned to tell your story so it points in the direction of the Divine Wild and provokes worship?

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Friendship is a choice (or, how the church teaches me to love)

What would you give your life for?

Your kids? Your spouse? Your family?

Would you give your life for people you don’t know? People forced into prostitution in Bangalore, or unborn babies?

Would you give your life for the Church? Paul tells us Jesus gave his life for just this thing. Jesus gave his life for the Church.

More precisely, Jesus gave his life for people, who are the flesh and blood of the Church. I can’t even begin to comprehend the motives of God. Why does he care about people who are imperfect, selfish, unkind, unthinking, unloving? How was it that Moses and God could find such frustration in fickle people, yet be fully on their side at the end of each day? That reveals a depth of patience and a quality of love I can’t fathom.

God has a vested interest in us and the cross is proof. Further, he has partnered with us through the Holy Spirit. He offers a brand of intimacy and belonging that nothing else can approach. God has literally given his life to us.

But I’m a pastor. Subtly and not so subtly, pastors are taught to detach from personal relationships for the sake of building the Body of Christ. We are taught the psychology of being in community without getting tangled up in it. Books upon books indoctrinate us in the art of boundary-making as a mark of good leadership. And maybe this is especially true of itinerating pastors.

Jesus, meanwhile, says things like, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Jesus is teaching me something radically different here. Jesus is teaching me that it is not just okay but a mark of holiness to discover the place of friendship not beyond but in the midst of ministry. Not beyond but in the midst of community.

When Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends,” he is teaching something radical about community. Find your friends here, he says. And when Jesus says (John 15:16), “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you,” he is challenging us to do something radical. We rejected him, but he still chooses us.

Love is a choice.

Which means I am now free to love even in the face of rejection. We are free to give our hearts to others, to community, because Jesus has chosen to live out his character in us.

In conversations with a few single friends, I have discovered there is a hunger out there for genuine friendships that don’t suffer from the fear of sexual expectation. It seems that our culture has us all so afraid of each other that we default to a defensive posture, keeping ourselves at a distance, unwilling to develop healthy, vulnerable relationships.

This doesn’t have to be.

Jesus had friends … not just disciples, but friends. John 11:5 says, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” This is the one personal friendship the Bible mentions for Jesus and it includes women.

I would be lost without precious friends — male and female — who add such value to my life. Being a pastor, most of my colleagues are men (and since Steve is a teacher, most of his colleagues are women). We don’t shy away from friendship with the people God has placed in our lives. We know who we are and are able to act as responsible adults when we are with others. Our lives are enriched by this choice. Here are a few things that make our friendships work:

Transparency — Any healthy friendship requires a lack of anything resembling secrecy, especially when it is with a friend of another gender. There should be no shadow of dishonesty, nor of politics. Too often, pastors erect political boundaries that keep us from real conversations and real influence. We’ve chosen correctness over kindness. Who says we can’t be genuinely in relationship with the people in our communities? We can decide to do this without abusing relationships, simply by being honest with people about who we are. And we can do so maturely without violating the standards of holiness.

Boundaries — I control my own boundaries. I get to choose the nature of my relationships. I am not a victim of other people’s feelings nor of my own, and my reactions are a choice. All of us who follow Jesus should aspire to that level of maturity. “Grow up in every way,” Paul counseled. Surely he meant it for our relationships, too. This means I can decide how and when I can be present to others and it means I can choose to love others without fear of their responses because I know who I am.

Hear me clearly: I am responsible for my own brain, and my friends are responsible for theirs. When we practice healthy boundaries and take responsibility for our side of the fence, we open ourselves up to the blessing of good community life.

Accountability — Friends hold each other accountable for their actions. They respect and accept each other, yet they are not afraid to confront each other when the need arises. Friends depend on one another for support in times of crisis, whether emotional or material. Friendship is a relationship of trust, confidence, and intimacy. It is not southern kindness, but something deeper — a willingness to speak truth in love.

Learning to live vulnerably and maturely in relationship with others — learning to be a real friend — is a gift on the way to real life and it is the work of the Church for which Jesus died.

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This is not that: Glide and the UMC

To my friends beyond the United Methodist Church, thanks for your patience while I dig a little today into an issue currently circulating in my denomination. This post falls into that category of “UMC insider news.”

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church is a high-profile congregation and non-profit ministry in San Francisco. From what I gather it has a creative structure that allows the church maximum exposure to the community through a non-profit side that has operated since the 1960s. That side of their ministry doesn’t seem to be part of the present debate. The issue seems to be with Glide as a UM church. Recent communication between Bishop Minerva Carcaño and Glide representatives indicate a growing concern over ministry practices that Carcaño believes fall outside the purview of mainline Methodism. Representatives of Glide have responded to her concerns by questioning its future with the UMC.

My intention here is not to weigh in on this debate but to draw some broader conclusions that surface because of this story. It raises lessons and cautions as the whole church continues to wrestle with whether there is a way forward that keeps all local churches in the denomination.

Methodists are not universalists. This has been a recurring theme for me, so I’m interested to note that this is where Bishop Carcaño’s concern is focused. She has said that Glide’s Sunday celebrations are not United Methodist services. She cites the varied faiths represented in their Sunday celebrations (Hindu, Buddhist, etc), and notes that this theological diversity has gone beyond hospitality to theological pluralism. Meanwhile, representatives from Glide have made much of the day they took the cross out of their sanctuary.

To welcome folks from any faith into our worship services is commendable; to exclude Christ for the sake of including everyone else does not support our stated mission. This is precisely why I have contended that the future of the UMC begins not with human sexuality but with Jesus. What we do with the nature of Jesus Christ — this is the headwaters of our current conflict. If we differ on the nature of Jesus and the means of salvation, we might as well end our conversation there. The classic, orthodox understanding of Jesus, supported by our United Methodist Articles of Religion and the historic creeds, is that Jesus is the exclusive way to the Father. From our own Articles of Religion: “The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone” (Article XX). Our mission as United Methodists is to preach the gospel given us by eye-witness disciples of Christ himself.

Incarnational ministry is not the same as contextualization. My concern lately has been the misuse of the term “contextualization,” especially in the service of the proposed One Church Model. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Now, let me say clearly that I’m all about contextualizing the message so it connects with the people, but contextualizing is not the same as “gutting” the message, any more than changing the wrapping paper is the same as changing the gift inside. When some use the term contextualization as the argument, they would have us believe the only way forward is to minimize basic beliefs. In other words, we’re being asked not just to change the wrapping paper, but to remove the gift inside, allowing for outright contradictions to exist among us for the sake of being all things to all people. This misuse of the term will only serve to remove the theological  center of our tradition in the name of preserving the institution.

In the world of missions and evangelism, this is not what contextualization means at all. We might benefit from remembering a few definitions:

Syncretism is the attempt to blend different religions or world views together. Think “melting pot.” That is often the “feel” of universalism, and it sounds very much like Bishop Carcaño’s concern with Glide. Pluralism is about coexistence of principles or groups in a common space. Think “quilt.” Methodists are not syncretists, pluralists or universalists. This isn’t just an assumption; in 1972, we added the word “pluralism” to our Book of Discipline. In 1988 we removed it, having endured years a failed experiment.

Contextualization is the expression of a message in ways that make sense to the local culture using appropriate cultural forms. Think “parable.” Incarnation is about the posture of the person who takes a message into a cultural context in a way that serves both the message and the people hearing it. Think “Jesus.”

Contextualization in the missional sense of the term means making the good news about Jesus Christ accessible. It does not mean changing the message to make it more palatable. As a friend in the mission world says, “Contextualism without the centrality of Christ and the authority of Scripture dissolves into plain relativism and your truth is as good as mine.”

In other words, contextualization without incarnation will not produce transformation. In our conversations about the way forward, we must be careful about our use of terms so as not to make the idea of a watered-down gospel more appealing for the sake of institutional preservation. In that equation, no one wins — certainly not the one waiting to open a gift of good news.

A gracious exit is not the same as giving up. I have read Glide’s recent public letters and sympathize with the struggle of their leadership. They are asking good questions. Are they still United Methodist in their approach to ministry? Is this partnership still productive for them? Glide President and CEO Karen Hanrahan says, “The reality is that over the past decades, we’ve evolved so that about 95 percent of what we do is programs and services and about five percent is as a church.” And now, they have to ask themselves, “Does the five percent actually inform, in any meaningful way, the other 95 percent?” From what I’ve read, I would think not. So what they need are options that don’t destroy what they’ve built and truly invested themselves in.

And this is where their situation intersects with an important piece of our denominational debate. How do we provide a gracious way out for those who simply cannot abide the prevalent values of the UMC? Friends, an exit ramp is important … for all of us. After months of discussion within the Commission on a Way Forward, this was clearly their conclusion. Without an exit ramp, we will inevitably hold some section of our denomination hostage. And for what?

An exit ramp 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, let’s remove the restrictions that bind unwilling churches to a system they can no longer, in good conscience, support. This is the spirit of the freedom we espouse as followers of Jesus. The role of the denomination should be to guard and promote its mission, not control the assets of local churches. We are not in the real estate business, nor are we designed for vindictiveness or control. By providing a gracious exit, we support viable ministry and offer a solid witness while maintaining a clear theological center. This, folks, is how love wins.

I hope and trust Bishop Carcaño and the people of Glide Memorial set an example for all of us in this contentious and uncertain season. If necessary, let us give congregations the grace and space to honestly and prayerfully discern whether they can continue to walk forward with the United Methodist Church. If they cannot, let us wish them well as they attempt to discern what God is doing in their midst.

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