An Open Letter to Women Who Lead

A while back, a colleague reached out with deep frustration over some incident or another that caused her gender to bump up against her calling. I felt her pain. It is amazing how quickly a moment like that can set us back. Because I’ve felt her story and heard it from too many others, I suspect that my response to her may resonate with others who find themselves frustrated by life in a fallen world.

Friend,

I suspect you already know the stuff we all know: that we live in a fallen world; that we will struggle to make partnerships out of hierarchies on this side of Genesis 3; that “standing” in the Ephesians 6 sense of that word is hard as heck but still the best option we have in a fallen world.

Given all that, this would be my advice to you in a sentence: After you’ve done all you can do, stand. That is your call. Stand.

And I get it … standing can be tiring. And holding an uncomfortable position can be uncomfortable. An yes, it can get old and after enough of it we would rather just do our small work and grow old and bitter than keep rubbing against the grain. That is our choice, of course. But that is not the call.

The call is to stand. After we’ve done all we can do, stand.

So when hard things happen, go ahead and blow off steam and be angry and sound off, but then get back at it. Get back to making your stand for Christ. Learn winsome ways to make your point and stay in the game. The call doesn’t disappear and I can assure you that it is so much more frustrating to avoid a call than to deal with the pressures that incubate inside of one.

Stay in it. Stand.

Be angry at injustice and at the enemy of our souls who has found a foothold in gender inequity, but don’t assume we can win that argument and defeat something nearly as old as humanity, that somehow if we just say it right the thing will go away. This is human fallenness we are battling! It is in our DNA. Be angry about what the enemy has done to humanity, but don’t settle for the cheap way out by blaming Hollywood or government or worse yet, men in general. Don’t give room to defensiveness. Make sure your arguments are biblical, theologically sound, practical and most of all, that they come from a whole and holy place.

Because this thing we deal with is a fact of the fall (have I said that yet?). I assume it will be here until Jesus comes back. Our challenge is to learn how to navigate past it so we can do the things we’re called to. How do we as women support each other without competing or belittling or forgetting, or worse, stoking unholy fires by projecting? How do we raise up men by encouraging them to love and respect us as partners in the work of lifting up Christ, without competing with or belittling them?

Ed Stetzer says church planters are 400% times more likely to succeed if they know what they are up against. The Small Business Administration says much the same thing about entrepreneurs. Realism is an ally. So on the point of women as leaders, here’s what you’re up against:

  • Sometimes you will experience condescending attitudes from men who have no idea they are being condescending.
  • Sometimes you will experience the jealousy or competitiveness of women who have no idea they are broken in that way.
  • Sometimes you will experience subtle and even overt sexual advances by men who know what they are doing and by men who got broken as boys.
  • Sometimes you will be passed over by churches because you are female, because they are gripped by the spirit of fear.
  • Sometimes you will be invited to speak/ sit on the platform/ write/ participate for no other reason that that you are female (take it … every time, take it and be grateful; never mind their motives).
  • Sometimes you will experience lack of success because you are female, and sometimes because you’re not that great of a leader. And it will be hard to know which is which.
  • Sometimes you will feel crazy because when you verbalize your experience of any of the above, others will deny or minimize what you’re feeling. They’ll tell you you’re doing “just fine.” And you will feel crazy because what you know to be true is not validated.

All those things will happen to a woman who chooses the path of leadership. And we’re not just talking about Christian leadership, but leadership in general. Hundreds of studies in multiple fields bear out the fact that you will have these things in your life. Which is not to say men have no challenges of their own. Men have other things to deal with and we ought to be careful to hear them, too.

But friend, these are our things and they are not necessarily because you are not good enough, though it is possible you have placed yourself into something you’re not ready for. Your pain is not necessarily because you are not called or gifted, but please be sure that you are. The call of God is not for the faint of heart.

If you are called and gifted, then hear me: sometimes this call will be hard, Some things just are, because we live on this side of Genesis 3. As Paul said, we’re not battling flesh and blood but powers and principalities that want to take us down.

So now you know, which means you are 400% more likely to succeed because you can be in this with eyes wide open. You are more likely to succeed if you will seek your own healing, stop apologizing your way into rooms, and trust that if you’ve been invited to a table then you belong there. You are more likely to succeed if you will take responsibility for your own gifts and hone them so you’re making the most of the moment.

And listen: You can’t lose if you will spend your energy lifting up Jesus. Let him take care of your reputation. Your job is to stand. Witness to your creation-call by being good at it. And if you sense you’ve been given a prophetic voice to speak into this arena more boldly, then pray desperately for humility enough to stay under the Lordship of Christ so the unholy fires don’t burn up your message.

If my thoughts don’t settle well with you, then do your own research, find your own message … but either way, keep pursuing healing because the Kingdom is starving for warriors like Deborah — both women and men who are whole and holy, courageous and ready. And keep pursuing healing for your own wounds because healing is freedom. Whatever has happened to us, Jesus can return our souls to a place of peace. It has been liberating, after too many years of being fearful and defensive, to simply be at peace as a woman who loves Jesus and finds joy in leadership within His church. Praise God for the healing grace of Jesus that brought me this far and please, God! Heal me some more because I’m not nearly who You’ve designed me to be. Not yet. But I’m a Methodist, so I absolutely believe I’m getting there. And so are you, my friend. So are you. 

In all things may Jesus be praised! 

— Carolyn

Read More

Don’t Sit Alone in Church (and other thoughts on corporate worship).

Here’s a lesson worth learning (for the story inspiring this thought, read here): God cares how we approach him in worship.

Meanwhile, a lot of what we American Christians spend our time thinking and worrying about  is first-world stuff. My friend in Nigeria tells me that Christians in his country wake up every day prepared to die while many in my country wake up frustrated by how slow the line at Starbucks is. We tend to judge churches by the quality of their donuts rather than the depth of their spirituality. Maybe this isn’t you … but you get my point.

Americans are truly graced by the options we have for worshiping together freely and without fear. It is a privilege we ought not take lightly. In that spirit, I want to challenge you to consider how you show up for worship and how you lean into it once you get there. Here are ten ways to lean in on Sunday mornings, so you’re all in as a full partner in building community among your people:

  1. Community is essential. Be in worship because we are not created to do this alone. And be a full participant when you get there because community is essential for discipleship and for rich and vibrant corporate worship. I believe the oncoming revival of the American Church will be its emphasis on partnership over presentation, each of us acting more like owners than renters of the space we take up in church.
  2. Leaning into community is a kindness toward your pastor. Everyone in the room participates more actively when every person participates. That means not sitting on the back row (which means leaving your rebellious spirit at the door). It means finding a few others to sit with so there is a sense of love and energy in the room. It means bringing your Bible and something to write on, and leaving your phone alone during worship (you know whether you’r actually looking at a Bible app or your facebook page …). All this is a kindness toward the one who has labored over a message, and who will stand up and look out on a crowd of people who speak volumes by their posture about the state of their hearts.
  3. Leaning in is a kindness toward your worship leaders. The mostly volunteer team that leads fully half of a worship service has worked hard to develop a set of songs to lead us into the presence of God. These folks give of themselves week after week, and through the discipline of leading worship they grow in their own spiritual lives. They want that for you, too. Get close enough to that fire to be warmed by it.
  4. Be a visual aid to newcomers. Show them what you want them to believe about your church, namely that you love each other. Don’t be under any illusion that where you sit doesn’t matter to a newcomer. I remember visiting a church some years ago, and thinking to myself as I walked in, “These people are angry with each other.” It was a large sanctuary, only half-full of people. As the congregation had dwindled, those who remained kept their usual seats. The effect was about five small pockets of people with huge gaps between them. I found out they were not at war with each other, but my first impression was that they were.
  5. Create energy. It is a fact that people sitting in close proximity to one another will create more energy than people sitting apart. For some reason, this is an uncomfortable barrier to cross when folks walk into a room, but if you can get people to sit together it creates great energy. And this is a way every single person in a church can participate in changing the spiritual atmosphere in worship. Just make it a point to sit with others. What could be simpler?
  6. Mess with the enemy’s plans. He’d rather you sit as far from each other as possible. If you can judge each other, even better. Separate the coals so the fire cools more quickly. May I also say very lovingly that if you are stubborn about it, that resistance may well be a gift to the enemy who loves a rebellious spirit.
  7. Don’t leave a single person lonely. Our church serves quite a few single adults, so I’m aware of their lifestyle challenges. Some have shared just how old it gets having to go places alone. Many confess chronic loneliness. It is hard going places alone, and even harder when you get there to sit awkwardly by yourself while others enjoy talking and catching up. A great gift you can give to another single person (whether you are single or married) is to sit next to someone sitting by themselves. Then get to know them.
  8. Be the Christian in the room. Christians love beyond good sense. Christians believe in the power of community. Christians show care and concern for those around them and for those on stage. Christians get outside themselves and think more of others than of themselves. Christians take time to know others and find out their needs. If you walk into a room, sit by yourself, and passively receive through the entire worship service, how will anyone know you’re a Christian?
  9. Be there for someone else, believing that one day they’ll be there for you. Sometimes we go to church for ourselves, and sometimes we show up for others. There are days I’d rather not go … and I’m the pastor! But I know that if I don’t show up, others will miss me.
  10. They call it corporate worship for a reason. Worship together, and let your praise be your witness.

Read More

The difference between spiritual friendship and friendly conversation

Today, I give this space to Rev. Christopher Goss, who serves on our team at Mosaic as the Pastor of Worship Arts, Youth, and Young Adults. I can personally attest to Chris’s passion and pursuit of spiritual friendship. His words here are good wisdom for group and ministry leaders about the challenge to “go deep.”

A while back I saw a cute, satirical video called “Shallow Small Group.” It was a group of people gathered in someone’s home for what looked like a typical suburban church small group. As you would expect, the conversation was not very deep and there seemed to be a much greater focus on the presence of the cheese dip than the presence of the Lord. The tagline of the video is “Shallow Small Group, because when people go too deep they drown.” 

As a student and young adult pastor, I have been given the privilege of helping many young and mostly single people develop community in the church. I frequently think about the question, “What should make friendships in the church different and deeper than any other friendships?” Although there are many “right” answers to this question, the most fundamental answer must be that spiritual friendships are friendships that are, in the words of Paul, “in Christ.” 

This might be obvious, but it’s worth stating that spiritual friendships, in a Christian context, will most deeply flourish between Spirit-filled people. What seems to often go overlooked, however, is how developing your personal spiritual life gives you the opportunity to develop an incredibly rich social, spiritual life. Knowing that, how do we so often miss it?

Far too often we use what could be called an “external use of scripture.” For example, imagine you and I are in a small group that is doing a study on the Book of Romans. I skim through the study just enough to discuss what the author wrote.  Then I show up and make comments about what Paul actually meant by the word “predestination.” I like discussing theology so I would personally enjoy this conversation. If I’m not careful, however, I could learn a lot about predestination and virtually nothing about your personal spiritual life. Furthermore, by talking about “predestination” I could keep you from knowing much about my spiritual life. Worst of all, I could actually use a theological conversation to keep you from knowing that I truthfully don’t have much of a personal spiritual life. Is this spiritual friendship or a book study with some intellectual stimulation?

After our study, we might hang around and socialize a bit, but now its cool to talk about “whatever.” I’m from Georgia, so talking about “whatever” means its time to talk about UGA football. Suddenly I discover that I have a “connection” with some of the guys in the room that I did not have before. Please understand that I love football and enjoy a good conversation about the Dawgs, but this is not spiritual friendship. At this moment, I am having the same type of conversation in church that I could just as easily be having at a sports bar. 

(Not so) Side note: Tim Keller says, “Idols aren’t necessarily bad things. They can be good things that we make into ultimate things.” An idol is whatever we look to, other than God, to provide a sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment in our lives. What is almost always true, however, is that I will either get my sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment from God or I will inevitably search for it in another direction. That means I will either seek after God or I will seek after idols. There is no “neutral” gear in the spiritual life. 

What does that have to do with spiritual friendship? I might tell you, “I wish I had more time to spend in the word and in prayer.” But what I won’t tell you is that I would have that time if I spent less time on my ESPN app. Or that our conversation about the Dawgs might simply be encouraging our mutual idolatry. This unfortunately builds a friendship more rooted in a particular idolatry than “in Christ.” It is deceptive; because it happens in a church context it passes for “Christian fellowship” while sadly missing the mark of true discipleship. Does that mean we ought never talk about football at church? Nope. Just that I can spend a lot of time deflecting so I don’t have to confront my shallow faith or faltering disciplines. In other words, more time on cheese dip than the presence of the Lord.

So how does one build true spiritual friendships that give us the powerful intimacy for which we so deeply long? Here are a few thoughts:

Friendships that are “in Christ” are rooted in solid theology. That’s right, good friendships need good theology. Biblical friendship flows from the cross of Christ. That first and foremost proclaims we are all sinners in need of a savior. Biblical friendship believes “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and therefore it is ok to be honest about the fact that I am not ok. We need a theology that says conviction is a good thing because where there is no conviction there is no sanctification … that I’m still on the road to Christian perfection, but I am made right through the righteousness of Christ alone.

Mature, spiritual friendships are rooted in a theology that says we are beloved children of God. To be a child of God means we primarily get our spiritual “life” — love, joy, peace, and fulfillment — from God our Father. That means I am responsible for seeking out life-giving encounters with God — encounters that throughout church history have most reliably come through searching the scriptures and spending time in prayer. These encounters create a rich personal spiritual life that now make it possible to have an incredibly rich social spiritual life. 

Spiritual friendship requires a theology that says, “I’m not only saved from sin, I’m saved to a body of believers.” Like organs in the physical body, we are responsible for receiving life and then sending it on to others. We encourage our young adults to BYOSL (bring your own spiritual life). Bringing your own spiritual life means we seek God on our own and then share the fruits of that seeking with the community. We must be aware, however, that if we are not receiving our life from God, it is possible we are instead passing on the toxicity of our idolatry to those around us. 

By God’s grace, I pray you will build spiritual friendships, where you fearlessly talk about both your need for God’s redemptive grace and how God is powerfully providing that grace through the “means of grace.” As you bring your own spiritual life to your small group I believe you will have conversations that will be deep, intimate, and mature, and that will encourage you and others to grow in the art of holiness.  

Read More

Praying Against the Spirit of Offense

I’m thinking about a dog we used to have. Opie had a serious vet phobia. Consequently, when it dawned on him that this “awesome trip in the car” was actually a “catastrophic trip to the vet,” his world collapsed. He always made it worse than it had to be. He’d have panic attacks and become hostile. Frankly, he made the experience a little embarrassing for the rest of us.

One time, the vet told me that my dog’s dramatics were likely for my benefit, to get my sympathy and convince me to flee the wrath to come. She suggested that maybe if I wasn’t with him he might not act like that. So the next time we went to the vet I handed him over as soon as we walked in the door. They took him back to some room where he was to be examined alone, without his mama.

Here’s what happened. I sat in the  waiting room with half a dozen strangers and their pets, listening to the closest thing I’ve ever heard to a scream coming out of a dog’s mouth. Over and over. Screaming. It sounded like something out of an African jungle or a horror movie. Because I knew that voice, had heard it on the way to lots of things Opie was averse to, I knew he wasn’t being tortured but the others didn’t know. I felt especially sad for the animals in the room who surely wondered what this meant for them when it was their turn. Everyone listened anxiously while I flipped through magazines pretending I had no clue whose poor animal it was.

Then the vet came out and said, “Mrs. Moore, here’s the thing. We haven’t actually been able to touch your dog yet.” All that screaming, and he hadn’t yet even been examined. Bless him.

My friends, can I say with all gentleness and respect that some of us have an inner Opie who is so sensitive, so overcome by the spirit of fear, that offense is the only operating principle inside of us? We feel attacked ten minutes before anything actually happens. We feel attacked even when we’re not being attacked.

The spirit of offense is a master at making mountains out of molehills, and will then convince us we are justified when we insist on climbing the mountain we’ve made. There is a shopping term for this: “post-purchase rationalization.” It is what happens when we buy things impulsively (think “Black Friday”) and then for the rest of the day justify the purchase to friends and family. “This case of 100 flyswatters at 75% off was the best deal ever!” We justify even when it is irrational. Or maybe particularly then. Which is why the very act of justification around issues of anger or offense ought to be a trigger for us to go looking for our truest motives.

Maybe its not them. Or not all them. Maybe it is us.

On this point, I am a chiefest of sinners. I justify my behavior even as I storm around, deeply offended by every sleight and even every rumor of a sleight. So I’m not alone in my offended state, I will even stir others up. I’m the master at spreading my anxiety around. I consistently neglect my own counsel: in the absence of information, assume others’ good intentions.

I don’t want to imply that nothing is ever what it seems. Some people have genuinely done us wrong. Some people have messed with us beyond good sense. Some people in our lives require good boundaries, not just for our sake but for theirs.

But sometimes we allow that spirit of offense to rally our inner Opie — this thing in us that is wounded and scared and believing the worst and who wants to convince us of lies that will keep us mired in offense. Meanwhile, the clear slant of scripture is always toward forgiveness, always toward grace. Walking in forgiveness by obedience over feeling will require us to silence the voice of our inner Opie. It will require a sober submission to Paul’s advice. “Inasmuch as it is up to you, live in peace.”

And sometimes, restoration begins not with two or three external witnesses but with the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. In his presence, we are invited to call out the spirit of offense and mute it so it no longer has power to speak its lie and spread its anxiety. In prayer, it is just that straightforward: “Jesus, please call out the spirit of offense that is wreaking havoc on my soul. Remove it from my life and take away all its power. Deal with me on this issue and help me place this moment into a Kingdom frame so that in my heart and behavior, I’m not jerked around by the enemy of my soul who is whispering in my ear what he’d rather me believe. Amen.”

If you’re anxious or dealing with anger today, make this prayer your first priority. Chances are, things are not what they seem. You will not die, even if there is pain involved in what’s ahead. And maybe, just maybe, there will be far less pain than the negative voices predict.

Listen: No one is helped by an Opie attitude that generates fear and dread when its only a trip to the vet.

Read More

Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

I wrote this blog some time ago, after a friend emailed to share her grief over a family member’s loss to suicide. In the wake of recent stories, it seems appropriate to share this piece again, with the hope that it might bring some balm to those who struggle to make sense of such hard loss:

Some time ago, a friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw. This is how I responded to my friend’s question. Maybe my answer to her will help someone plagued with grief, pain and questions in the wake of such loss:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways — much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s a profound insight…

In your question, I hear the trails of guilt. I wonder if that is an inevitable side effect of suicide. Feelings of guilt among survivors seem to be common. With all the love, respect and grace we can give to those who lose their battle with depression, we must also acknowledge that suicide leaves a huge burden for the living to carry. God, your sister’s circle of friends, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I’ve praying about what is truth in your situation since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were — or more of what she needed — in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. “If only we had known…” And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it? In much the same way that a cancer victim’s illness can be beyond their ability to survive it …

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that. I hope the family in that picture can look around them and see reason for hope in their love and care for each other.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we cannot begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Be at peace. Rest in the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, and as Ranier Maria Rilke once powerfully wrote, “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart.” God will, in his time, make all things new.

Peace to you — Carolyn

Read More

Due Diligence in the UMC: Not just to be understood, but to understand

Not long ago, I sat in on a discussion between two seminary professors who presented opposing views on the biblical interpretation of marriage. The discussion was hosted by an Atlanta church (you can watch it here) and was attended by hundreds. Earlier in this season, I attended another event held in the Atlanta area hosted by a progressive coalition. We heard stories of those who have found their home in the LGBT community when it wasn’t available to them inside the church. A third experience has been more personal. A queer, married pastor in the UMC has reached out for conversation with the mutual understanding that neither of us will change the mind of the other. We trade texts, compare news stories with what we know to be more true, and try to listen.

I’ve appreciated these opportunities. Beyond these, I’ve also been reading the research, because I know I need more understanding. We need to learn how to hear each other not in order to “win” or persuade or even find common ground but so we can genuinely understand the depth of our differences on key issues like human sexuality, Christology, ecclesiology and biblical interpretation.

Can I say that again? We need less lecturing and more listening so we can actually understand the depth of conviction most of us hold around the crucial theological issues that divide us. In the gentle work of hearing and understanding, I believe we’ll discover not how alike we are but how much we ought to respect the differences. And how wise it will be for us to create space for those differences to prove themselves.

A huge part of understanding for me has been intentional exposure both to events and research especially around human sexuality and gender identity. This is a kairos moment for pastors, an opportunity to teach people in our care what we believe so we can guide them into deeper theological waters. Folks in our care deserve not only a fair account of the gospel but a clear and educated understanding of where the leadership of their church stands. How else can they make an informed choice about their spiritual care?

In the list that follows, I offer a few resources that have helped me begin to get acclimated toward greater understanding where issues of human sexuality are concerned. I’ve learned from these teachers how to more sensitively articulate both my position and how it contrasts with other worldviews. I’ve also learned how to better pastor my people, particularly youth and young adults who desperately need an orthodox, Wesleyan vocabulary. I encourage you to explore this list (and share it) and get started on your own journey toward greater understanding:

Mark Yarhouse — Understanding Sexual Identity. This book is written especially for youth leaders, offering an exceptional teaching on how identity forms in young people. I lead off with this book because I believe today’s youth pastors have an incredibly challenging call and need a whole new vocabulary for meeting students where they are. Every youth leader ought to read this book. Yarhouse has authored a second book to equip parents for the conversation: Homosexuality and the Christian: A guide for parents, pastors and friends.

David Bennett — A War of Loves. Bennett tells his own compelling story of navigating the church world as a gay teen. He eventually makes his way into the classroom of N. T. Wright, where he finds a context for his circumstances that is life-giving. He spends the second half of this book making recommendations of reform to the Christian church in light of national conversations about human sexuality. Bennett has helped me understand just how we idolize sex, even inside the church. Exceptional read.

Mark Ongley — Into the Light: Healing Sexuality in Today’s Church. What I love about Ongley’s contribution to the conversation is that he widens the net to include a wide range of sexual wounds — “infidelity, sexual abuse, incest, emotional adultery, and sexual addiction, to name a few.” Ongley reminds us (as do critics of the conservative position, and rightly so) that sexual brokenness is not the property of one group of people. The church desperately needs an openness to addressing the whole range of unholy behaviors we bend toward to feed our cravings.

Preston Sprinkle — A People to Be Loved. Sprinkle is a theologian and solid Bible scholar who deals in depth with every Bible verse (and every word of every verse) up for debate in the human sexuality discussion. He is very upfront about his desire to engage the scriptures objectively with fresh eyes and vulnerability. His work answers too many decades of insensitive exegesis. From my perspective, he treats the scriptures, the issues, and people affected by the conversation with great sensitivity. If you have not done your own complete and objective exegesis of the passages under debate, this should be required reading. Sprinkle’s website contains all kinds of articles and resources on the topic. Start here.

Wesley Hill — Spiritual Friendship. Hill has written and spoken extensively on issues related to human sexuality and has produced a lot of solid resources. Personally, I’d have you start with Spiritual Friendship simply because I believe Hill champions an important topic for the Church. Until we reclaim the value of spiritual friendship and begin to emphasize the importance of biblical communities, we will miss our opportunity to minister in compassionate ways to those who choose celibacy as a holy response to same-sex attraction. Hill’s book on spiritual friendship should be required reading for every person joining a church. He also gives a brief overview of his thesis in a talk at Biola University. Well worth the half-hour it takes to listen. Hill’s Washed and Waiting is a classic defense of celibacy in singleness (you can hear an overview of it here).

Grant Hartley — Redeeming Queer Culture: An Adventure. Hartley gave this (somewhat controversial) talk at a ReVoice conference to both educate his audience on some of the more recent history of the LGBT movement in America and also pose some evangelistic possibilities. I believe the themes of this talk if taken seriously could help us shape a whole new way of treasuring community life, and for that reason I think the talk is worth your time. In general, we all need a more robust theology surrounding what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth. For Christians, community is essential.

Jackie Perry — Gay Girl, Good God. Perry is a rap artist turned preacher and spoken word artist who tells her own story of transformation. She writes with remarkable authority on issues of human sexuality from a biblically orthodox perspective. You’ll find a lot of other good material from Jackie on YouTube. Start here.

Ryan Anderson – When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Anderson was widely criticized for undertaking this study of gender dysphoria and gender identity in the U.S., but his work is well researched and presented with great compassion. This book will give you a starkly different view of gender-identity issues than what you’ll find in media stories.

Pope John Paul II — The Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage (Theology of the Body). Pope John Paul’s seminal work building a comprehensive theology of the body ought to be required reading for every seminary student, and the good news is that you can read it here for free. Dr. Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, has taken the themes of Pope John Paul’s work, and turned them into both chapel talks and blog posts. His series of articles reflecting on those themes can be found here. I found Dr. Tennent’s work to be accessible and helpful as I developed my own sermon series around these same themes.

Ravi Zacharias — Years ago when I was just returning to the faith, I happened across Dr. Zacharias’ radio show and distinctly remember being amazed to hear a Christian talking intelligently on such a wide range of issues. He is both bold and loving in his apologetic. Listen to his well-reasoned defense of an orthodox view of human sexuality here.

N.T. Wright — As a theologian, Wright stands in the company of such contemporary greats as C. S. Lewis. Listen to his position on same-sex attraction here.

Let me offer these brief articles as one more resource for those attempting to shape a pastoral approach to these delicate issues. Centered-set thinking was a concept first formed on the mission field, and I’ve found it useful in framing discussions about controversial theological issues. I discuss it in two blog posts, here and here. Centered-set thinking has been most helpful in shaping a theologically rooted ecclesiology in a pluralistic world.

Finally, let me acknowledge the obvious. This list is both incomplete and unapologetically biased. I realize it omits a progressive perspective, but that returns us to my initial point. I have deeply held convictions from which I teach and preach and those are the positions I champion. As a pastor, it is not my charge to remain neutral (Jesus had strong warnings against settling with “lukewarm”). If your view contrasts with mine, please compile and share your resources. You’ll be better informed than I at creating such a list. I hope you’re helped by my list; I’m sure I’ll be helped by yours.

Let’s encourage understanding. I believe our path through may just be not in minimizing theological and ecclesiological differences but in understanding and respecting just how real they are.

Read More

Pure Grace: Wesley’s take on supernatural ministry

I’ve become convinced that Jesus’ anointing and commission in Luke 9:1-2 is a key passage for understanding Jesus’ intentions for the Body of Christ on earth. This commission to take authority to cast out all demons, cure diseases, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick became the marching orders for a movement that would welcome and advance the Kingdom of God across the globe and across the ages. It would become the answer to Jesus’ own prayer — “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Once God’s Messiah and Holy Spirit were introduced into the world, the expectation was an impartation of power and authority to accomplish supernatural ministry. Anything less might be good social engagement but would be distinct from Spirit-infused transformational ministry.

The call of every Christian is to Spirit-infused transformational ministry. 

Fresh Kingdom movements seem to be characterized by a fresh wrestling with what engagement with supernatural ministry looks like. John Wesley, founder of our Methodist movement, wrestled as much as anyone with the mixing of supernatural ministry with the daily working out of sanctification through the means of grace. Out of his own experience of supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit, Wesley wrote: 

The danger was to regard extraordinary circumstances too much, such as outcries, convulsions, visions, trances; as if these were essential to the inward work, so that it could not go on without them. Perhaps the danger is, to regard them too little; to condemn them altogether; to imagine they had nothing of God in them, and were a hindrance to his work.

Whereas the truth is —
1) God suddenly and strongly convinced many that they were lost sinners; the natural consequence whereof were sudden outcries and strong bodily convulsions;
2) to strengthen and encourage them that believed, and to make His work more apparent, He favored several of them with divine dreams, others with trances and visions;
3) in some of these instances, after a time, nature mixed with grace;
4) Satan likewise mimicked this work of God in order to discredit the whole work; and yet it is not wise to give up this part any more than to give up the whole.

At first, it was, doubtless, wholly from God. It is partly so at this day; and He will enable us to discern how far, in every case, the work is pure and where it mixes or degenerates … (Journal, Sunday, November 25, 1759)

“Nature mixed with grace” is a powerful insight. It reminds me how quickly the enemy of our souls (or our own timid reactions) can contaminate good ministry. When God is on the move we often invite nature in either by our own arrogance (“look what God is doing through me!”) or by fear of the messiness introduced by other-worldly things. We are more comfortable with what we can control and we can control nature. Nature alone will send us out to care for the sick and visit those in prison and mercy alone will cause us to stick with folks long past good sense. When the grace of the Holy Spirit descends, however, our right response is surrender and submission. 

Be emboldened, friends. American Christians also deserve to see the power of God, to become conversant in the real and powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual leaders are responsible for properly defining that power and calling our people to that hunger. We will know we are making progress when we see regular evidence of the authentic, awesome power of God working in our churches and in our lives. Not elsewhere but here at home. 

Paul’s words resonate deeply: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:10-11).

I’m with Paul. I want to know pure grace, to be in the presence of the power that resurrects people from the dead. I want to see everything Jesus sends us out to see — demons cast out, diseases cured, the Kingdom proclaimed, lives transformed.

Pure grace. Pure power. Pure religion. 

Read More

Thoughts on the way to Annual Conference

I practice ministry as a theologically conservative and socially engaged Methodist. I preach that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the universe — the way, the truth and the life, the exclusive path to God our Father. I believe these are the headwaters of orthodoxy and that unless we Methodists agree on that bedrock truth, subsequent conversations about the nature of salvation or holiness — or denominational unity, for that matter — are pointless. To proclaim the Kingdom is to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Wesleyan theology gave me a framework for loving God and others that is life-giving. Being settled in that theology has allowed me to practice this faith joyfully among the people God has sent into my spiritual care. Denominationally, however, holding a socially engaged, theologically conservative line inside the UMC has been a strain. Even if I am committed to grace-infused, love-filled ministry alongside the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, my position still seems intolerant or unkind to some. To maintain these doctrines in the face of others’ suffering draws up arguments about what love is and what justice means. I sense the tension. No genuinely loving person could avoid it. But I have settled in my own heart how loving God and loving others fits together in a theologically orthodox construct.

I remember talking years ago to someone who was once married to a rather grating celebrity, a person who created a lot of controversy. Over the years she’d heard all the disparaging comments and had become used to the kind of response I gave when she told me who she’d once been married to. I flinched. She’d obviously seen that flinch before because she was ready for it. She said, “I am not asking you to understand why I married him … but he was my husband, and I loved him.”

I was humbled by that. You don’t know another person’s story. You never know why people dedicate themselves as they do to their positions, long past what others would tolerate. In the case of conflicts within the UMC, we don’t know all there is to know about how any of us comes at social issues and Wesleyan theology. While we are called to listen and respect one another, we are not required to be without our own deeply held convictions.

This much I know: I (like all my United Methodist colleagues) have publicly and formally committed to preach and maintain a specific set of stated doctrines. Methodism is not an institutional brand, like McDonald’s (no offense to McDonald’s, which actually does a much better job of providing a consistent product). We are not defined by a logo or tagline. We are defined by our theological task. In other words, I don’t get to decide what it means to be Methodist. That has already been decided, and my part as an ordained clergy person is to embrace and live it out. Some have decided that for them, this isn’t possible any more; yet, they remain in our covenantal tribe. This is the rub.

Early on in this denominational debate, it was considered treasonous to express a hope for creative separation along theological lines. Some of us have privately expressed that hope for years. We believe that given our circumstances, it holds integrity to set folks free to explore their beliefs without angrily imposing undue financial burdens on those who simply cannot in good conscience remain in the UMC as it stands — conflicted, chaotic, theologically disconnected.

Today, we not only must take that hope seriously but must actively work toward it. At this point, to angrily persist in a “one church” spirit that is in no way loving or respectful of irreconcilable beliefs seems the least loving option of all. It is certainly the least faithful posture toward a free-will theology that is invitational at its core.

That said, these facts ought to guide every influential conversation between now and General Conference 2020:

  • Some believe deeply and unshakably in an orthodox interpretation of the Bible that encompasses both a high Christology and a traditional view of marriage and sexuality. Doing so does not necessarily imply a lack of love for people —ALL people — or a desire (and ability) to serve people where they are.
  • Some believe LGBTQ+ persons — even those actively engaged in same-sex relationships — are called by God to both marriage and ordained leadership and that the Church should be affirming of their position. Some in this camp (not all) also espouse a more progressive approach to salvation and holiness. Doing so does not necessarily imply a lack of love for the Bible or Jesus.
  • Some can sit in the tension between progressive, affirming-but-evangelical, and orthodox theologies and be completely at peace with asking even those who disagree to live under one banner. Doing so does not necessarily imply deafness toward the depth of conviction possessed by those on various sides.

I want to suggest that respecting these distinct positions as both realities (these camps exist) and radically distinct ecclesiologies (these camps are not compatible) is the only position that holds integrity at this point. Allowing these three positions space and definition to be lived out fully — with an open hand, under the gaze of God, without punitive punishment — is our only way beyond this impasse. It means separation, or division, or multiplication; call it what you will. But when all is said and done it means grieving the loss of the United Methodist Church as we currently know it. It means holding people with an open hand, which means trusting God more than ever before.

Ultimately, it means freeing the adherents of these radically different, theologically irreconcilable camps of Methodism to turn their backs on the denominational battlefield, to beat their verbal swords into ploughshares, TO GO THEIR SEPARATE WAYS IN PEACE, to return to the harvest fields of local and global ministry –and as the Spirit leads — to form new combinations and connections with theologically compatible partners.

Friends, as you pray toward, vote toward and live toward General Conference 2020, please give these opposing positions respect enough to set them free to prove themselves.

Allow me to return to my own confession as an encouragement to you: I am committed to preaching and maintaining a socially engaged, theologically conservative, spiritually vibrant Methodism. This is where my heart is. When I stand in this place — compassionate toward people and committed to orthodoxy — my internals match my externals. I wouldn’t want anything less for anyone, whether they agree or disagree with me. Any other option smacks of the politics of control. Surely we can do better than that.

My friends, I encourage you to find that place for yourself where your internals match your externals so you can preach the Word with passion and maintain the doctrines you’ve promised before God to maintain. It is time to put an end to these many years of painful strife within the UMC. It is time to part. Let’s bless each other to do so.

Read More

Chosen: Julian’s Story

Julian Hutcheson shares the treasure of his salvation after living most of his life as a functional agnostic. For spouses praying for spouses, let this story be a word of hope.

I had some connection with Christ in my early teen years, but drifted away – for about 35 years. I could describe myself as being a semi-believer in God, but mostly was tangled up in objections to faith, on the sidelines with a very weak and strained experience of spirituality of any kind. Then I experienced a transforming time of reawakening, renewal, and regaining a connection with God.

For a couple of years I had been attending Mosaic occasionally just to pacify my wife and “support” her attendance. I attended the day she joined the church and I found that to be unexpectedly moving for me. Somewhere around that time I began to feel some deep emotional stirrings during the services. There were several times I thought I would cry during the singing. I clearly felt that my soul was kind of reaching up and pushing aside the entanglements, so I could connect with worship. I realized I needed to worship my God. It became clear to me that praising God is affirming the connection, just like saying “I love you” to another person. A powerful experience also came when one of my sons was baptized. I went out to our van afterwards and wept.

I met with Carolyn and told her what I had been experiencing, and she helped me understand this was the Holy Spirit working, kind of opening the “pores” of my spiritual membrane. She asked me if I would be willing to listen to the Holy Spirit and follow where God was leading me, and I said I was, not really knowing what that might mean. I was feeling more connected to God, but not yet a follower of Christ. That came a few months later.

Again taking the cue from my deeper self, I realized one day that my rational hesitations about being a Christian had essentially disappeared. I felt free to move toward Jesus, to include him. The transformation then went to another level as I opened up my heart to Christ. I had several more moving experiences that made it clear to me that I was a believer in Christ.

I met again with Carolyn, and after that joined the church and was baptized. I have increased my involvement in Mosaic, joining the worship team and attending the Men’s accountability group. I now see the fruit of many seeds planted from Sunday messages. One of the strongest themes that helped me was that God knows my real self, loves me for who I really am and is willing to meet me where I am. The worship music also played a strong role, almost as if the worship leader was reaching a hand out, pulling me up spiritually from the hole I was trapped in.

My wife Judy is continually doing a double-take. To hear me talk about my Bible readings or to see me moved to tears in worship and to proclaim my Christianity, this is all coming from a context of 29 years of marriage in which I have been a non-believer. My transformation is of course a great answer to her prayers. I am also comprehending, in stages, how much of a burden I was on Judy in pursuing her faith. I have had several powerful moments of repenting and asking her forgiveness and God’s, for so many years of turning away from Him, and so many years of being an obstacle for Judy’s relationship with God and in recent years, with Mosaic. I was lost for so many years! I now know what cleansing repentance is.

As for the worship team, it is an honor to be a part of it — learning these powerful songs and helping with the guitar playing. I sang the song “What can I do” for a Christmas eve service and was moved to tears several times when rehearsing it at home. “What can I do but give my life to you – Hallelujah!” Connecting with worship and helping others to connect with worship is a privilege. I have a lot to learn and a lot of catching up to do. I’m laying down my life for God’s service. What that means is not entirely clear but I will take it one step at a time.

I’ve reached a comfort level at Mosaic – comfortable being vulnerable in spiritual growth, knowing I’m surrounded by people who are striving for their own unique relationships with Christ. I’m continuing on the journey and I when I have challenges that pull me off track, I take them one at a time. I don’t want to go back. I want to keep going forward with Christ.

Read More

Prayer and the Ministry of the Word

When I was five years old, my family changed churches. We were a family of eight, but my mother, sister and I were the only ones who went to church with any regularity. To be honest, I don’t know what was behind the decision to move. But for whatever reason, we left St. Mark’s and went to the big church on the hill. Funny, what memories stick with you. I remember the car ride on that first Sunday we went to the new church. My mother called to me in the back seat and said, “Carolyn, now this is a big, fancy church, and we have to be very quiet during the service. You can not talk during church.” I didn’t remember talking during church before, but I can tell you, I was very quiet at the new, fancy church.

We must have liked it there because we stayed and you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like at the other church, we were still among the last to leave every Sunday because my mother would not go home until she had spoken to everyone.

Maybe that’s why I liked communion Sundays so much. It gave me something to do while I waited for my mom. After church on communion Sundays, while my mother talked, I’d go up to the altar and play with all the little cups that were left there. Now, remember – I was five years old. Five year olds eat dirt at home, so church germs were certainly not a threat.

You know how there is always a little bit of grape juice left in the bottom of those little cups? Well, I could take the leavings from two or three little cups and just about fill up another one. And I could usually down three or four shots before my mother caught sight of me. “You cannot play with the little cups!” she’d say, as she drug me off by my arm.

So I find it ironic all these years later that I make my living talking during church and playing with those little cups (though now, they are big cups).

It is a good thing, too, because I didn’t have a lot of other options. I am not particularly musical, not athletic, not brilliant, artistic or technical. I know a little bit about a few things, but not a lot about anything. But I do have one passion. I love the church. I love it! I love the Lord. He is the reason I live. But I am a pastor because I love the church. It fascinates me that Almighty God, in all his wisdom, chose this organism as his medium for sharing His revelation of Jesus Christ. And my passion is for seeing that organism, the Church, work in the way God intended when he passed the Body of Christ from the person of Jesus to the people of God. I don’t claim to know God’s whole vision for that kind of church, but I do believe he is looking for more than just somebody to talk on Sundays who occasionally plays with those little cups. In fact, I believe he is crying out for the people of God to be the body of Christ.

The apostles themselves laid it out. Instead of allowing circumstances to take their eyes off what was most important, the apostles figured out what makes the church powerful. And they defined it with profound simplicity. “Prayer and the ministry of the word,” they said, “are the center of what we do. Nothing should stand in the way of that mission. And secondly, the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation” (Acts 6:1-7, my take).

Folks, that is powerful. This was long before Paul wrote those amazing analogies about the Body of Christ. There were no consultants, no books to read. But the disciples saw not only God’s vision, but the immense danger of taking their eyes off that vision because of some pressure by some group or another to fill some need.

“Prayer and the ministry of the word are the center of what we do. And the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation.”

That’s the Body of Christ. That’s the Church being the Church – not just talking on Sundays and playing with the little cups – but all of us together bearing the good news of Jesus Christ to a world hungry for a clear vision and the honest-to-goodness gospel truth.

Read More