What no one told us about our bodies

No one told us we’d need a solid theology of the body if we’re going to live a bold and fearless life.

No one told us how important it would be to understand how the physical attaches to the spiritual. Mostly we have been taught how the physical works against us. When we were kids, we were given all the guilt-producing reasons why our bodies could hurt our relationship with Jesus. It was that Sunday school teacher or that parent or that youth pastor who told us how our bodies work in ways that create shame. Some of us were raised by functional Gnostics and their message screwed us up.

No one told us that God loves our bodies and that bodies matter in the Kingdom of God; that understanding them might actually change the way we approach every single other area of our lives.

That is why Paul the Apostle stuns me … yet again. In the course of coming to know and trust Jesus and in the course of an incredibly oppressive ministry, Paul absorbed the remarkable gift and grace of God’s design for the human body. Seeing the world from the Kingdom down, Paul wrote a theology that helps us understand what God intends for our bodies now and for eternity.

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Paul asks. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). And this, from a man whose own body suffered every violence. In the middle of being beaten and stoned and shipwrecked and left for dead, Paul figured out that God was actually using his body to prove the Gospel. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul describes all he has been through. He has been hungry, thirsty, in every possible kind of danger. He has been flogged and exposed to death, not to mention chronically stressed by the intensity of his work.

He shares all this anguishing pain, then somehow moves seamlessly into the story of an intense, personal experience with Heaven. Paul writes (in third-person language, so humbled is he by the revelation) that he has been transported to the “third heaven.” Overcome, he can’t be sure where his body was in the process, but you get the sense that he suspects he was all there, body and soul. And now, compared to this experience everything else pales. The sufferings are redefined, the “surpassing great revelations” are worth it all.

And then, as if drawing a giant bell curve from the physical to the spiritual and back to the physical, Paul transitions his narrative back to earth, announcing that God has given him a “thorn in the flesh.” This weakness (whatever it is) serves as a kind of anchor, keeping him rooted in his physical reality after such a stunning encounter with the unhindered Kingdom of God.

Paul’s story flows from suffering to glory to weakness, mapping out a spirituality that affirms the physical, weaving it together with the spiritual to make a created whole. Because he has seen the eternal while still existing in the physical, Paul can say with confidence that the potential for resurrection is built into the very fabric of creation. Because Jesus has erased the dividing line and conquered death, the seeds of resurrection are embedded into everything. Everything we touch, everything we experience, every choice, every relationship bears the seeds of resurrection. And this life we live now is not counter to the life we will have in eternity; it is just the beginning. Redemptive continuity draws an unbroken line from prevenient grace, through justification and sanctification to glorification. We don’t “jump tracks” to enter eternity. All we have now draws us toward what we will have then.

Josh McDowell says that how we understand the resurrection of the body impacts all our decisions, and indeed the trajectory of our lives. It impacts our choices. We discover that our bodies matter. What we do with them matters, whether we are talking about health or sexuality or suffering. Our bodies bear the seeds of resurrection and are daily being redeemed by the resurrected Christ. To the extent that we ignore those seeds, they will lay dormant and bear no fruit. To the extent that we feed and water them, they will grow and bear the fruit of a resurrected life.

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Seeking higher ground: Conversations in the UMC

As conversations around the future of the UMC heat up in this Annual Conference season, I hold a prayer that we will elevate our discourse above the level of emotion. Here are a few things I’d like to hear in discussions around what comes next:

Let’s talk Christologically. Does the conversation about the future of the UMC begin with Jesus? If my experience is any indication, then the Lordship of Jesus–the exclusive nature of Jesus–is where we in the United Methodist Church part ways long before we ever get to the topic of sexual ethics. In the UMC, there is a great divergence around the nature and role of Jesus Christ; yet, we spend all our energy on other things. We rarely acknowledge what is. What is, for those of us who embrace an orthodox understanding of faith and truth, is that Jesus is the most true being. Those of us who are committed to absolute truth (and that Jesus alone embodies that Truth) also believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are not the authors of our faith. The author of our faith is Jesus Christ. In other words, we have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith. Our conversations must reflect this “Kingdom down” perspective while resisting the urge of a “humanity up” perspective. If we start with Jesus Christ, I suspect we will find plenty to discuss and (grievously) much on which we fundamentally disagree.

Let’s talk biblically. Are our debates rooted in scripture? We all live under the same blue sky. Anyone who is practicing faith in Christ with love and integrity is in relationship with people … all kinds of people. We are all navigating all kinds of relationships and stories and we want God’s best for people we love. We who are pastors contend for souls daily. However, theological tents are not built on a foundation of who we know, love and want included. If we are going to talk about the future of the UMC, let’s talk biblically and not just anecdotally. When the Minnesota Annual Conference chooses to substitute the name for God in the Apostle’s Creed, that provides plenty of fodder for discussion. Does an official United Methodist entity have the right to change something as fundamental as the biblical terms of our creed? After all, Methodism is a defined theology. There are lines we can not cross while remaining true to our tradition.

Let’s talk globally. Do our discussions about unity take into account the global nature of the UMC? Let’s talk about John 3:16. Jesus told us that God so loved the world that he gave his Son. The world, not just our corner of it. Let’s discuss the values of the typical follower of Jesus anywhere on the African continent, or in the Philippines, or South America. Do we understand that a call to unity that doesn’t include them is not a call to unity at all in a global connection? Please understand that a decision to wrap ourselves around an American cultural ethic will alienate us from an African UMC. An American church that has separated from our global connection is far more detrimental to our personality and theology as a denomination than any decision to uphold our Book of Discipline as it stands. You and I are not the only ones deciding whether we stay or go. There are a world of people making that choice … literally. In fact, they are contending in ways we cannot fathom. One African brother told me, “I wake up every morning prepared to die.” I thank God we are a global connection and that my friend’s drive to wake up daily contending for the faith is part of who we are. But as I’ve said myself, anecdotes won’t win the day so let’s talk about Revelation 7:9. That’s how we’ll guard against cultural drift. If you want to talk about unity, make certain we include the global connection in that conversation.

Let’s talk systemically. Are we thinking centered sets or bounded sets? This would make for great conversation in this season. The concept of “centered sets” and “bounded sets” emerges from the mission field (you can read about it here or here), and it describes what happens when communities choose “bounded set,” “fuzzy set,” or “open set” thinking over “centered set” thinking. Bounded sets draw a line between the world and the congregation. Open sets have no boundaries at all. Fuzzy sets thrive on a lack of clarity. But centered sets cast a clear vision for a community’s values, then invite folks to orient toward those values.

Centered-set thinking reminds me that the responsibility for a person’s orientation toward the truth is theirs, not mine. Likewise, it is not for me to widen the tent pegs to make sure everyone is inside, never mind the direction they are pointed. I am responsible for pointing toward the center of my set; so are you. How far I am from that center is not the issue so much as whether I am pointed toward or away from the agreed-upon center. Centered-set communities allow adults to take responsibility for their choices as well as their spiritual progress. What it does not allow for is changing the center to suit your tastes. Be where you are, but don’t ask others to change direction so you don’t have to.

Let’s talk eschatologically. Do our discussions rest on the assurance that the Church of Jesus Christ will continue undeterred from its mission, whatever is decided by this denomination? Let’s talk about how our ecclesiology can be better rooted in our eschatology. Remember that the Church extends nearly 2000 years further back than the fifty-year history of the UMC. The next iteration of our tribe (whether it is some altered version of the UMC or something else) will be robust and hopeful. We know this, because we know how the story ends. Jesus wins. His Church (the Body of Christ on earth) can’t be killed. We may be rearranging chairs on a deck, but we are not on the Titanic. Methodist theology will continue (there are 80 million Methodists of varying flavors in the world and 279 million Pentecostals; our tribe is not going anywhere and in fact, is growing in other places). I am committed to the process of The Commission on a Way Forward and certainly to our brand of theology; but if our denomination makes a fundamental shift away from the values of historic Christianity, I am not fearful of what comes next. The gospel of Jesus Christ will keep right on rolling toward His second coming and I’ll do my best to keep pace because I  don’t want to get left behind.

Let’s talk health … not just survival. Being unequivocal about our beliefs and values is simply good relational work. We must all decide in these days where our boundaries are; to have none is simply not Methodist. Nor is it healthy. This is the fundamental problem with the “one church” proposal. It may support survival, but for all the reasons above it isn’t healthy. I contend it isn’t even Methodist. My friends in Christ, sound theology is worth the fight. Setting clear values and making a firm statement about what they are does not mean giving up; it means we care. What progress we could make if we choose to elevate our conversations to the level of theology over institutionalism or emotionalism, respecting each other even as we expect folks who commit to a covenant to keep it. Without that expectation, there can be no health.

As I head to Annual Conference this week, I’m looking forward to robust conversations and pray that we will all seek higher ground.

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Do the Hokey Pokey (and other messages that will screw up your life).

The day they decided to make “The Hokey Pokey” into a staple in roller skating rinks was the day our country went downhill. Who thought it was a good idea to put wheels on the feet of a circled-up group of six-year-olds, then tell them to pick one foot up and shake it all about?

That person who thought of that was a special kind of demented.

Nonetheless, here’s what the hokey pokey gets right. When you’re putting your left foot in and taking your left foot out, you’re going to end up going around in circles. You’re unstable. It is exhausting to have yourself in two different places at once and almost impossible to keep your balance. When you’re putting your whole self in but then turning around and taking your whole self out, that’s not productive, either. That’s tough, not just on you but everyone around you.

When “Hokey Pokey” living is your default mode — “I’ll do this halfway, on one foot” or “I’ll be in until I’m not comfortable” — you never get beyond a two-foot radius of yourself and you create chaos for everyone else (I still have nightmares of being at someone’s skating-rink birthday party, standing too close to someone who fell while doing the Hokey Pokey).

Hokey-pokey postures are not for followers of Jesus. Our call requires us to be all in. Surely this was beneath the question John Wesley asked of ordinands: Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work? In other words, are you all in This is a question about wholeheartedness. Wesley wants to know of those signing up to spread the gospel if they are willing to give themselves completely to this work. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly? In your study and worship and fellowship and serving and in the truth you share, are you passionately committed to the pursuit of wholeness so you can be in passionate pursuit of the presence of Christ?

Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work?

This is like the anti-hokey pokey question. When Wesley asked this question of his pastors, he wanted to know if the people who resolve to be church leaders are all in or if they plan to put their left foot in then take it out when things get rough. Folks who can’t be all in not only exhaust themselves; they exhaust us.

What does it mean to become whole, by biblical standards? Surely it begins with Paul’s advice to work out your own salvation daily with fear and trembling. Stay in it, Paul advises, and wrestle with what it looks like in your life. Wholeheartedness begins with a commitment to spiritual/emotional/relational healing. Let the daily wrestling expose the cracks and wounds. Deal with the unholy fears that paralyze you, leaving you stranded out there in the desert, unable to make the journey into the promises of God. Acknowledge your doubts, and dare to believe God can handle them. Become accountable to someone else who will ask the tough questions.

To become wholehearted, we must deal with our wounds and hesitations, fears and doubts even as we develop eyes to see what God sees. Then pursue the Holy Spirit. Allow the voice of the Spirit to teach you the values of God so they sink in and become part of you. Pursue the art of holiness, which goes so much deeper than good behavior.

Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly? 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? This is the natural end of wholeheartedness: it is to be whole, holy and all in. Without that kind of vulnerable, wholehearted faith, it is impossible to please God.

(Portions of this blog are taken from my book recently published by Abingdon Press. You can find The 19 here.)

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One thing God said was not good

Over the last 75 years, researchers at Harvard have tracked the lives of 724 men.* These men were children when the study began. For 75 years, they’ve been tracking these lives to record the state of their home life, work, health, outlook.

Some men in the study became rich and famous. One became President of the United States. Others fared poorly. Boiling all this time, life and data down to its most basic lesson, this is what Robert Waldinger (current director of the study) labels the clearest message to emerge from this effort: “The message has nothing to do with fame or wealth or working harder. The real lesson from these lives is this: ‘Good relationships keep us happier and healthier … Over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.”

It took 75 years and 724 men to prove Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  

Seven times in the creation story, God makes things and calls them good. The seas are good. The sun and moon are good. The plants and fish and animals are good. People are good. But then after seven scenes of goodness, God finds a flaw — one thing that isn’t quite right.

It is not good that the man should be alone.

This isn’t God adjusting a piece of furniture to get the right effect. This is God instilling in the pinnacle of his creation his most essential quality. He is a God who loves, even within himself.

God has infused his creation with his own personality. Creation will not be defined by independence. It will not be one toddler saying to the universe, “I can do it myself.” Creation will be defined by the same love that defines the Trinity. The first creation story in Genesis emphasizes the partnership between a man and a woman. The second creation story emphasizes the man’s need for relationship.

God’s brand of love only happens in community. It is the pre-fall answer to the sin of autonomous solitude — the state of believing I am all I need. Solitude is not good when solitude leads us to believe that one person alone — without community — can somehow image the God who created us.This is not good.

We are not islands unto ourselves.

This is why we join churches and go to movie theaters and happily pay $4 at Starbucks for coffee that costs less than ten cents to make at home. It is because we are designed for relationship. We are made for community, because we are made in the image of God.

And this is why the enemy of our souls would like to attract us into solitude with things like porn and video games. The enemy of our souls is working against our design. Likewise, the enemy would prefer that we view marriage as a tool primarily for fulfilling our own needs. This popular view saps the glory out of it. It fails to point to something beyond itself. Marriage is not designed primarily to get my sexual needs fulfilled. When we reduce it to a mechanical solution that meets a primal need, we miss it … completely.

Here is the real shame of what our culture has done to marriage. It isn’t that we’ve made it disposable or that we’ve made too much of the wedding and not enough of the relationship.  The real shame for the Church is that we’ve failed to teach the rich and relationship-rooting theology beneath it. We have focused more on mechanics or “chain of command” than on submission to something bigger than us. A covenantal marriage paints a picture of the love between Christ and his Church and of the covenant between God and his people. Marriage tells the Easter story — Jesus lays down his life for us — and marriage points to the glorious conclusion of the creation story, when all things will find their fulfillment not in getting our needs met cheaply but in the rich-beyond-measure love, cover and hope of a good and faithful God.

 

* “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness” is a TED talk. Watch here.

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Act like who you are (a charge to graduates).

This week in worship, we let the last words of David to his son, Solomon in 1 Kings 2:1-12, inspire a charge to our graduates. Following is the heart of that charge to those stepping into new seasons after reaching milestones:

Graduates, this is our charge to you. It is a charge to step up to the front line and to act like who you are. You have been designed with a high calling, to glorify God with your life. This is who you are: You are a child of the Most High God. You are not an orphan, nor are you an island unto yourself. You are a child of the King; you are not your own. You were bought with a price, designed to glorify God.

You are a child of the Most High God, and you will impact future generations. The question isn’t whether or not you will influence others, but how. Too many of our decisions come from our near-sightedness. “I want to make things right for my home, my marriage, my family” … but at what cost? You may win the moment but lose the next generation. Too many people in the world  compromise the future tense for the sake of a more comfortable present tense. That brings us back to this: you will be an influence. Your decisions determine what kind of influence you will be.

Your influence is determined by who influences you so follow Jesus. If you are a follower of Jesus, you live under the shadow of the cross, and the cross changes us. Hear this and internalize it. If you are a follower of Jesus, you live under the shadow of the cross and the cross changes us. It will make us counter-cultural. It will set us apart, but too much evidence teaches me that excellence trumps culture every time. You don’t have to live like everyone else in order to make a difference. You just have to live excellently for Jesus.

Learn to make the hard calls. This was David’s lesson to his son, Solomon, at his death. It was a charge to bend toward justice, to slay the giants and not just offend them. The good news in this hard call is that God will never leave us to fight our battles alone. When my heart is right and I’m on the front line, God is right there with me, fighting the battle, beating back the enemies. He never leaves us to fight our battles alone. God is with us.

Think farther than you can see. Think beyond your own retirement. I challenge you to move from a financial mindset to an eternity mindset. Let your finances line up beneath eternity, rather than asking eternity to take a back seat to your finances. Think beyond your immediate needs. Think even beyond your own household. Isaiah’s prophetic word to the Israelites in Isaiah 49 is for us, too. “It is too light a thing that you should care only about the tribes of Judah and the people of Israel. You have been called to be a light to the nations, that my salvation might reach the ends of the earth.” This is a caution for us about small living. It is not enough to think only about us and ours. Our charge is to take on the mind of Christ — to think globally and generationally.

If you are heading into a new season, this is my charge to you: Act like who you are: 

You are a child of the most high God, a follower of Jesus Christ, a treasure hidden in a field. You are an overcomer, a sinner saved by grace, a member of the household of God. You are the Church, a tabernacle for the Spirit of God … salt and light. You are designed to shine like stars in a dark and perverse generation, to be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation might reach the ends of the earth. You are the answer to Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

That is who you are. Nothing else. Nothing less, so go out there and act like who you are.

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What God looks like

Let’s talk about the nature of God.

Elohim is the name used for God in Genesis 1:1, making his very name our earliest glimpse of the nature of God in scripture.

This Hebrew term is plural; because we believe every word of the Bible is inspired, we trust this is not a coincidence. From the very first words of God’s story, He shows up as Trinity. And in that first scene of creation, He is all there: the Father creates; the Spirit hovers; the Word speaks.

Elohim.

The Hebrew letter that represents Elohim is shin, the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (see the image above). Meditate on that image for a moment. Take it in. What do you see?

Isn’t it interesting that in this one letter, representing the earliest name for God, we find this three-pronged image on a single foundation? It is as if the letter itself calls us toward Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. — a three-in-one wholeness and complex simplicity. Such a beautiful symbol for our three-person God! Some have even seen the floating dot above the third prong as a dove, suggesting the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, or as the fire of Pentecost. Because I believe God is just that creative, I am prone to believe he hand-picked this image.

Here in this symbol and name, we encounter God as community. He exists in three parts and demonstrates within Himself the very nature of complete sanctification—pure love encountered without flaw within community. The essence of the Trinity is deeply embedded in the story of God and the love of God is deeply rooted in the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in perfect harmony, perfectly loving within the Godhead. Our Father is both big and bighearted! This is what the Trinity (the tri-unity) teaches us about God. At His core, our Father is loving and that ought to change everything. When we hear that he is for us, we can believe it fully. His motives are holy, pure, self-giving.

Truly, our God is an awesome God. He is Elohim. All we need. Hallelujah!

Has your teaching on the nature of God given you a balance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If not, which understanding is weakest? Confess that aloud, and ask God to help you know Him in His fullness even as He knows you fully.

 

(This excerpt was taken from a six-week Bible study called Encounter the Father, published by Seedbed and found here.)

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The Mission of a Methodist: Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World

“The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This is the mission of United Methodists — to make disciples, as Dr. Robert Mulholland would say, “for the sake of others.” To make disciples is more than getting people saved, though that is obviously a critical beginning. The heart of Methodism is not social justice or creation care, though those things matter. It is much more than hosting attractive worship experiences. Our mission is to care for the spiritual formation of people at the deepest levels, so that their personal transformation results in the transformation of the world.

Spiritual formation is intentional transformation. It is God’s intent that we grow. Spiritual formation is growth that happens on purpose. Do Methodists today understand that our theological bent calls us to go someplace spiritually, to be formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ? Do we understand that we are making disciples of Jesus? Are we fostering spiritual hunger for Christ alone?

Spiritual formation is a matter of the heart. The place where the shaping or forming happens is the heart. In the Bible, we hear these almost bizarre (for our contemporary ears) statements about God wanting to circumcise our hearts. The point is that God wants to change the shape of us. He wants to conform us into the image of Jesus — to make us more loving, more gentle, more joyful, more peaceful, more gracious, more faithful, more trusting … more disciplined. At its core, Methodism is about using spiritual discipline to be shaped into the character of Christ. Do we preach as if that’s so? Are we people of one Book, a book designed to shape us into Kingdom-minded people?

Spiritual formation happens for the sake of others. Methodism is designed to be both evangelistic and global. We do not apologize for our belief in the radical notion that our brand of faith has power to change the world. Further, God’s intent is not just to form each of us spiritually, but to make us partners in the work of transforming the world. Nothing less, nothing else. Do our people have a global vision, or are we stuck on our own cultural values, unable to see how God is moving in other parts of the world? Do we truly believe ourselves to be globally connected to each other by the power of the Holy Spirit?

Spiritual formation is fueled by spiritual discipline. As I’ve said already, Methodists major on the disciplines. It is our contribution to the Body of Christ — this idea that through very practical habits, we can form an intimate relationship with Christ even as he forms us into his likeness. The means of grace are not the basis of our salvation (don’t mistake them for works righteousness), but they are a gift of God that allows us to participate in the process of our ongoing spiritual growth. In our chaotic and distracted world, spiritual disciplines like fasting and prayer may seem arcane; we want to discount them because we are already too busy doing things for Jesus. But are we busy enough doing things that place us in the presence of Jesus? Are we learning to hear his voice? Are we practicing that art daily, so that hearing from God becomes more and more part of our cultural distinctive?

As it turns out, disciplines are not for people who have too much time on their hands, but for people exactly like us. Busy, distracted people. Do Methodists understand that it is in our DNA to be deeply, intimately, passionately connected to Christ, and that our spiritual practices are designed to help us hear the voice of God?

I suspect that the political discussions within the UMC have distracted the corporate body and kept us from being on mission. I suspect they have distracted us personally (note: hand-wringing is not a spiritual discipline). For the proliferation of politics within our tribe, we have lost sight of what is most central to our existence: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I want to call Methodists to return to the fundamentals. I want to see Methodists passionate again about centering on Jesus and on the disciplines that keep us grounded, particularly steeping ourselves in prayer and the scriptures. I want to see a move of the Holy Spirit in our day that transcends cultural conversations and revives our corporate/global spirit. I envision a move of personal prayer, fasting, scripture study and corporate accountability that restores our hunger for our mission. Yes, I want to see us loving our neighbors well, but I want to see those acts of love and kindness rooted in our passion for what breaks God’s heart, not as an escape from it.

I pray for a great move of the Holy Spirit to sweep among us as we get serious again about working out our salvation with fear and trembling. I pray that by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the mission of Methodists would be advanced toward its completion on the power of its people’s faith, so that one day we can all stand together in his unhindered presence with nothing left to do but worship.

If we are going to fulfill our mission as Methodists — to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — our greatest work is that of taking our spiritual formation seriously, not just for the sake of our own souls but for the sake of others … that the world might know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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What Wesleyans believe about “once saved always saved”

“We who have believed enter that rest.” — Hebrews 4:3

You never know when you might need to defend your position on the theology around the phrase, “once saved, always saved.” It happened to me a week or so ago while I was purchasing a couple of things from a small-town boutique. The woman behind the counter shared that her mother was a preacher, that for years she preached in a holiness church until becoming a Baptist. She changed theological streams because she couldn’t make herself believe in the Wesleyan doctrine of free will to the extent that it allows us to actually lose touch with our salvation.

Since I live in the birthplace of the Southern Baptist Convention, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation. I’ve come to suspect there is a gross misunderstanding of how Wesleyans approach free will and salvation. Often, it is made to sound as if it is God’s choice to drop us whenever he feels like it. “Mess up on Facebook? You’re fired!” “Yell at your dog? You’re not saved any more.”

That take on the gift of free will misses the mark by a wide margin. Free will is not God’s prerogative to exercise; it is ours. We are the ones who place ourselves in jeopardy of moving beyond His presence, though even that isn’t as easy to do as we make it sound.

Think of it like a parent holding a child’s hand as they walk across a busy street. The parent’s whole desire in that moment is to get her child safely across that street. That parent isn’t making decisions while they walk about whether or not she really likes that child, or whether this parenting thing is worth it. No! All that parent is thinking is, “Let me keep my child safe.”

Now, suppose this parent has a particularly strong-willed and active kid who is easily distracted. Is she going to hold on more loosely or more tightly to that little one? More tightly, of course! But suppose that active and strong-willed child sees a quarter laying in the street just up the way, something shiny enough to get his attention and valuable enough to make him want it. The child begs his mother to let him go after that shiny thing, but she says no. She realizes the danger of loitering too long in traffic. She knows the destination is the other side — not shiny, distracting things. Her sole intent is to get them both safely across; she is not about to let him go.

The child, however, is relentless. The more he watches the shiny thing, the more sure he is that it is worth the escape so when he sees a split-second of opportunity, he wrenches his hand out of his mother’s and darts into traffic. Now he is out from under the cover of his parent’s care, not by her choice but his.

Did the mama let him go? Did she want him to do that? Did she cause him to do that? Absolutely not. The intention of the parent at every point was to get her child through the traffic safely. The intention of the child when they stepped off the curb together and headed into traffic was to go where his mother led him. But that desire only took him so far. Having held onto a predisposition toward shiny things for too long into the journey has kept him from being completely surrendered to his parent’s plan.

And that is how Wesleyans view salvation. God gives it, but we have to accept it. By the same token, God walks us through the journey of salvation, inviting us to work it out daily with fear and trembling, but at every point on the way we must make the choice to keep our hand in His. This is the responsibility we bear for the gift of free will.

So what about that “blessed assurance” we always sing about? Is it so blessed after all? Is there really any assurance? Absolutely! Assurance is not the promise that once you say yes to God, you’ve got it easy. That promise is given to no one, believer or not. Assurance is the promise that with your submission and surrender, God will get you safely through the traffic to the other side. Our decision to simply rest our hand in His — to submit to His will. That is all that’s required, and that is only a struggle if we choose it to be.

And that, brothers and sisters, ought to create a deep well of rest within your soul and mine. Because if I believe God is good, God is for me, and God will see me through to the other side, then the rest is details.

Listen: The biblical meaning of rest is not a cure for exhaustion but a pathway to assurance.* When we are in sync with God, assured of his character and presence, willing to let him carry us safely across the chasm, we rest.

Blessed assurance, indeed.

 

*I recently heard it put this way: The cure for exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness (Brother Rast). I think we’re saying the same thing. When your whole heart is for God, when you are undivided in your devotion, you will be able to rest completely in his care and cover.

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Can women plant churches?

Women lead, and women pastor. To a much lesser extent, women also plant churches, but I believe God is calling the global Church in the 21st century to take note of the potential present in women gifted and called to do a new thing. I say this not because I’m an activist for women but because I’m passionate about the Kingdom of God. By giving planters and leaders alike relevant information and tools, we can reframe the planting experience as it relates to women and release untold potential. We can also create positive, life-giving opportunities for women called to plant new works, and raise up a generation of excellent role models who inspire still other potential planters. By leaning in and caring actively for the role of women in church planting, we prove ourselves Wesleyan. We collectively determine that we will not be so pragmatic in our pursuit of church development that we leave women behind, effectively cutting ourselves off at the knees.

To make room for women at the church-planting table, we must be honest about what I call natural barriers facing women church planters (barriers faced by all women, regardless of giftedness or potential), addressing them with a generous spirit, rejecting both naiveté and defensiveness so we can help gifted and called women to lead successfully past those barriers.

How do we help women lead past the natural barriers so they can successfully plant churches and contribute in this way to the coming Kingdom? I have discerned at least four barriers in my own experience as a planter, which I believe we must honestly acknowledge and negotiate:

Leadership as a theological issue. Because 50% of Christians (statistically speaking) don’t hold our theological position on women as leaders of churches, the pool of potential church members is smaller for us from the outset.  The pool of potential leaders is smaller, too. This is a unique dynamic for planters, because we are attracting people who don’t already have an emotional attachment to our church.  They don’t have a history with this church that holds them in place while they acclimate to female leadership.  There are people I will never meet simply because I am a woman pastor with whom they disagree theologically.

Leadership as a cultural issue. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have leadership biases. Most of them live in some foggy place in the back of our minds as a vague, unverbalized feeling.  We want our leaders to look and act in ways that are familiar to us. We may not have reasoned through these feelings, but they are there and some of those biases have to do with the place of women in leadership. I believe, in fact, that this cultural bias is a global issue, even an issue of human fallenness and our discomforts (even subconscious discomforts) must be acknowledged honestly. How do we want women in leadership positions to act? How do we want mothers in leadership positions to act? Are we willing to allow for differences or will we cling to unspoken biases?

Leadership as a resource issue. Resources to equip women church planters are still very much in the developmental stage. Training opportunities are often geared toward a male audience. Women may find few mentors and coaches equipped to help negotiate the cultural biases influencing the communities within which we serve. In fact, we may identify few if any role models in our local context. Faced with these and other more typical lifestyle pressures, women church planters are challenged to succeed in an area of ministry that is difficult for even the best trained among pastors. Resources for church planting in general are limited, causing boards and agencies to make gender-biased choices. A clergywoman reports being told by a denominational official, “There is little evidence supporting the idea that women can successfully plant churches, so we’re not willing to put any resources into it.” That’s a mindset that must change.

Leadership as a denominational issue. For all the above reasons, I maintain that growth for a female-pastored church plant may be different than growth for a male-pastored church plant. This isn’t an issue of failure but pace. Much of the conversation in the church-planting world these days focuses on rapid growth, but women may not be able to meet that standard. Benchmarks should be carefully, sensitively calibrated so success has a chance to happen because as we’ve already said, we’re drawing from a smaller pool and pushing against culture.

We are challenged to hear Jesus as he tells Mary, “Go and tell the others,” and to trust that he is speaking that word to women still today. In fact, he is. He is raising up women leaders all over the world, many of whom are being equipped to plant churches, many of whom are leading tremendous moves of the Spirit.

In order for us to be most useful to a new generation of planters, we must be eyes-wide-open and honest about these barriers to growth in churches planted by women, even as we think soberly about ways to maneuver past them.

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How men can support women leaders

The story is often told of a time when Bill Gates was speaking to a group of Saudi Arabian businessmen and political leaders. Most in the room were men; any women present were veiled and sat in a separate section according to custom. After his speech, Gates took questions, during which time an audience member commented on the rank of Saudi Arabia in the field of technology, asking what Gates thought might lift his country into the top ten globally.

“Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates responded, noting the paucity of females present, “you’re not going to get too close to the top ten.”¹

It is not news that women lag behind men in leading in both secular and sacred arenas. What may not be so obvious is that the progress of women toward narrowing that gap has slowed and in some cases stalled in recent years. This is just as true in the business sector as in the religious sector. Consider the results of these studies:

  • According to the 2013 Catalyst Census conducted by Fortune Magazine, there was no increase in the number of women in executive positions, with women holding less than fifteen percent of executive roles.
  • According to The National Congregations Study conducted by Duke University, pastors in America are becoming more diverse and older but since 1998 they have not become more female.
  • Dawn Wiggins Hare with the Commission on the Status and Role of Women reports that the number of women clergy in the United Methodist Church has not increased since 2009.
  • A National Congregations Study reports, “Despite large percentages of female seminarians and increased numbers of female clergy in some denominations, women lead only a small minority of American congregations. Moreover, we do not detect any increase since 1998 in the overall percentage of congregations led by women.”³

Here’s the real irony: in a field dominated by men, it is male spiritual leaders who have the most opportunity to influence the next generation of women called into leadership. What can men do to affirm and encourage women called and gifted to lead in ministry? Here are a few places to begin:

Root your decisions about leadership in a Wesleyan understanding of scripture. Having a well-researched, well-prayed-over egalitarian theology will help you make more confident choices about giving both women and men leadership responsibilities. An egalitarian view says that while the Fall (Genesis 3) is responsible for setting men and women against each other in an antagonistic or hierarchical relationship, the intended purpose at creation (Genesis 1 and 2) was for men and women to stand together as equal partners. If this is true (and I believe it is), then we want to operate and make decisions that support a pre-fall view of human design. In other words, we value people based on gifts and call and do not exclude them because of gender.

Commit to making decisions that reflect the values and spiritual maturity of an elder in the New Testament Church of Jesus Christ. What motivates your leadership choices? Are you so spiritually formed that you can maturely mentor, hire and encourage women without fear or intimidation? Have you done the spiritual spadework needed to develop strong mental and physical boundaries? This ends up being an important piece of the puzzle. Unless we are emotionally and spiritually mature, our discomfort with the other gender will keep us from confidently leading. Remember that the gospel clearly calls us to take responsibility for our own minds and bodies, not to ask others to bear that weight.

Give women who are called and gifted access to every level of leadership. Are there places in your church where women are excluded? Are there tables to which they are not invited? Please understand that a lifetime of experiencing subtle biases has given most women a sensitivity to those places where we are excluded. That may be something we have to deal with and heal from but nonetheless, we know when we’re not welcome and it makes a difference in how we live out our potential and contribute to the coming Kingdom.

Pray for God to give you an urgency to welcome and advance the Kingdom of God on earth. As God answers that prayer, you will become more attuned to those he has placed in your community who are ready, willing and qualified to lead along with you. When you find them, take authority over your role as apostle and pastor by pouring into them as leaders, whether they are men or women. Genuinely qualified women leaders are starving for solid, qualified, Kingdom-minded mentors and coaches who care so much about Kingdom priorities that they will do whatever it takes to make sure that cause is advanced.

 

1. Dale, Felicity, et al. The Black Swan Effect: A Response to Gender Hierarchy in the
Church. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007, kindle loc 882.

2. Leach, Tara Beth. “Dear Bill Hybels and Other Men Who Affirm Women in Ministry.”
MissioAlliance. August 10, 2015.

3. National Congregations Study. “Religious Congregations in 21st Century America.” http:/
www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSIII_report_final.pdf

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