Approving polity: Questions for United Methodists in a Pensive Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Division Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Baptism and the Holy Spirit

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

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

We were there to encounter the Spirit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Remembering in the Wild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A redemption story well remembered creates an atmosphere of awe.

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

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

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

What would you give your life for?

Your kids? Your spouse? Your family?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love is a choice.

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

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

This doesn’t have to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is not that: Glide and the UMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An exit ramp would allow local churches who find themselves unable to support United Methodist teaching and polity to leave the denomination with all their property and assets in tact. Rather than removing our theological center for the sake of preserving the institution, let’s remove the restrictions that bind unwilling churches to a system they can no longer, in good conscience, support. This is the spirit of the freedom we espouse as followers of Jesus. The role of the denomination should be to guard and promote its mission, not control the assets of local churches. We are not in the real estate business, nor are we designed for vindictiveness or control. By providing a gracious exit, we support viable ministry and offer a solid witness while maintaining a clear theological center. This, folks, is how love wins.

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

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The Church is the Hope of the World (because Jesus is).

God likes churches, which all by itself says a lot about the unfathomable patience of God. Church people have a bit of a reputation for challenging the limits of good sense. Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay, did a Twitter poll a few years ago asking pastors to share their best stories of things church people fight over. He posted his favorites from the literally hundreds he received.

Some arguments we can almost imagine, like the discussion over the appropriate length of the worship pastor’s beard or whether or not he ought to wear shoes on stage. I’m not saying these are legitimate arguments, but that I can imagine people airing strong opinions. The comments I get about clothing and hair never cease to amaze.

Other arguments seem ridiculous even for church people. Some church members left their church because one church member hid the vacuum cleaner from them. And there was an argument over the type of filing cabinet to purchase and another over the type of green beans the church should serve. Two different churches reported fights over the type of coffee. In one, they moved from Folgers to a stronger Starbucks brand; in the other, they simply moved to a stronger blend. In both cases, people left the church over this. Then there was the disagreement over using the term “potluck” instead of “pot blessing.” And (my personal favorite) whether the church should allow deviled eggs at the church meal.

And this is what God has chosen as his primary vehicle for saturating the world with the gospel. In fact, he calls it his bride. God doesn’t just like the Church; he loves the Church. He married us. He isn’t just putting up with us. He wants us. Stunning, isn’t it? So when Jesus ascended into Heaven after his resurrection, he sent the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit’s work is to build the Church on earth. By revealing Jesus Christ as Messiah of the world, the Holy Spirit builds churches. Why? Because God has chosen the Church as his primary vehicle for saturating the world with the gospel, which is why in much of the world, the church is a very dangerous idea.

The 2018 World Watch List from Open Doors estimates that one in twelve Christians live where their faith is “illegal, forbidden, or punished.”

  • So far this year, 3,066 Christians have been killed, 1,252 abducted, 1,020 raped or sexually harassed, and 793 churches have been attacked.
  • North Korea is at the top of the list for persecution. “It is illegal to be a Christian in North Korea and Christians are often sent to labor camps or killed if they are discovered,”
  • Afghanistan ranks number two on the number of persecutions.
  • Six countries are on the World Watch list because of dictatorial paranoia. Five made the list for religious nationalism.
  • Communist and post-Communist oppression caused four nations to make the watch list, and organized crime and corruption put two others in the top fifty.
  • Pakistan recorded the most violence against Christians last year and was the worst in terms of church attacks, abductions, and forced marriages.

In so many other places in the world, church folks are not arguing over why the youth group used the crock pot to make cheese dip (true story). In most places in the world, church folks are waking up every day prepared to die. And yet, no other religion is growing at the rate of Christianity. In fact, countries seeing the greatest rate of growth in Christian conversions are also ranked highest in their rate of persecuting Christians.

The Church is the hope of the world, because  Jesus is.

It is, as a pastor in Hong Kong has said, “the most influential, counter-cultural and enduring organization that has ever existed in all of history.” There are more than 2 billion members worldwide — a third of the world’s population, up 300% in the last 100 years. As an entity, it is the biggest organization on the planet, twice as big as Facebook (which, by the way, is on the decline).

Meanwhile, the global growth of evangelical Protestants since 1940 has increased at three times the world’s population rate.  Compare that with atheism, the only belief system that has declined. Despite what it must feel like in our own culture some days, the Church is holding her own.

My friends, God is at work all around us — in ways we cannot imagine, don’t even know to look for. And the Church is where the Lord God does his best work. Maybe not in your church, mind you — which ought to make you think (and act) — but in and through The Church, Jesus is proving himself Lord … over and over again.

The Church is God’s home on earth — his Bride, his people — so we’d better fall in love with the Church. She is how God has chosen to organize his slow-burning but ever-advancing global revolution … one life at a time.

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Why I’m not obsessed with end-times theology

When it is all over, then what?

The study of that question is called eschatology, which is the study of the end of time and also — ironically — the study of something no one has ever experienced. How does one study something about which one can prove almost nothing?

For all its abstraction, eschatology is important to those who follow Jesus because it turns out that what we think about the future and especially about the end determines how we live now. In other words, a study of the end times is really a two-part study: what we believe about “the end” shapes our understanding of God and his long-term plan, which in turn shapes how we live out our faithclock1 today.

What, then, is a reasonable approach for a Wesleyan to this question of the end?

While some traditions within the Christian camp place a great deal of emphasis on what happens when we die, Wesleyans place more emphasis on how we ought to be living now. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the end of time. It just means we don’t see that discussion as central to our understanding of salvation; nor do we believe it is the most productive way to spend our time while we wait.

As a good Methodist, my most honest answer to the question of when the end will come or what it will look like is, “I don’t know.” Don’t confuse that answer with a lack of concern. I care. I absolutely care. One of my most active prayers is, “Come, Lord Jesus!” I anticipate his second coming with great spiritual hunger. I love that he taught us to pray for the coming Kingdom. It means he is serious about it. I just don’t see an infatuation with pinning all the details down as useful to the daily working out of my faith.

That said, there are a few things relative to the second coming of Christ in which I place great faith:

I believe God is redeeming the earth. As someone has said, “The world is not the problem; the world is the prize.” The world is the crowning creation of a good and perfect God. The story in Genesis reminds us that what he made was good. It doesn’t seem to me as if He intends to blast it to smithereens. It seems more likely that he is slowly restoring this world back to its created order, in which case we will not go to meet Jesus. Jesus will come to meet us.

Jesus will return to earth. Rather than some kind of mystical absorption of people into Heaven, there will be a bold return of Christ to this world for the work of final, full redemption. That picture fits with passages that talk about Jesus coming on the clouds and with those that talk about a new heaven and a new earth. Scholars like Ben Witherington and John Stott would agree with this biblical interpretation.

When he comes, the dead who are in Christ will join him. In the end no one who trusts in Jesus will ever have to be separated from him or from his pure love. John Stott writes: “The Christian hope … is more than the expectation that the King is coming; it is also the belief that when he comes, the Christian dead will come with him and the Christian living will join them. For it is the separation which death causes (or seems to cause) which is so painful  …”* No more death, no more pain, no more separation.

No one knows the day or the time. Jesus said as much. Why we persist in calculating  something we’ve been told we can’t know is beyond me. Why we bait one another with comments like, “I believe we’re in the last days. Look at the signs,” when clearly we’ve been told that signs are just the beginning is also beyond me. What part of “no one knows the day or time” can’t we seem to absorb? Prognosticating seems a poor use of time when there are things Jesus has specifically asked us to focus on, like visiting those who are sick and in prison, caring for the least and the lost, and being a good neighbor to those he puts in our path. When we stand before Christ, this will be the basis of his judgment: we will be known by our fruit. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

God is good, and God is in control. And on both counts, we are not. Our world is distorted by sin and so is our eschatological vision. I suspect we persist in guessing anyway because we are so desperately in search of something we can control in a world that feels very much out of control.

And yet, we are called to trust. We know how this story ends. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it pleases your Father to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32). That ends up being the only thing we really need to know. It is God’s divine pleasure to usher us into his Kingdom on the day when Jesus’ own prayer is finally, fully answered and realized on earth.

Until then, how should we live? Not anxiously, but hopefully. Not predictively, but prayerfully.

Come, Lord Jesus! Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

* From The Message of Thessalonians: The Gospel & the End of Time by John R.W. Stott (Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, 1994) 97.

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Grow Up, People.

” … speaking the truth in love,
we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …” – Ephesians 4:15

This line in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus should come with sound effects, like a siren or an alarm. Something to warn you it’s coming so you can duck. This line is a revolution in twenty-one words. A trumpet blast announcing the charge on my immaturity and yours.

Speak truth in love, Paul says, like anyone even knows what that means any more. We’ve become so used to spin, which is incredibly detrimental to real community. We’ve learned to couch everything for personal gain, so that the norm for public discourse is much more argument than advocacy. More about my own provision and protection than the common good.

So much public discourse in this season is flatly immature and appeals to the most childish side of us. It appeals to our fears and encourages emotional reaction. It goads us into personal attacks and stifles the prophetic voice. Meanwhile, real truth wrapped in real love requires real trust and real maturity. Does Paul not get that?

Do I?

Grow up in every way, he presses. Every way. Not just the convenient ways — the places where it is more fun to be of age than not — but in every way. In speech and silence, in public and private, in submission and responsibility. In love, power and self-discipline. Maybe especially self-discipline.

In other words, Paul counsels, act like adults. Which flies in the face of so much that comes at us from every other direction. We’re encouraged to pander to our inner child, to coddle his or her pain beyond good sense, to keep putting Spiderman band-aids on gaping childhood wounds so we never actually have to heal. We are encouraged to a state of arrested development, spending far more time accommodating the child we used to be than encouraging the adult we can become.

It is time to grow up, Paul says. Heal. Move on. We will never get to the richness that is the good life if we never challenge ourselves to maturity.

In Peter Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, he talks about how common it is to find immaturity in leadership, so that we’ve learned to accept that:

  • You can be a dynamic gifted speaker for God in public and be an unloving spouse and parent at home.
  • You can function as a church council member or pastor and be unreachable, insecure, and defensive.
  • You can memorize entire books of the New Testament and still be unaware of your depression and anger, even displacing it on other people.
  • You can fast and pray a half-day each week, for years as a spiritual discipline and constantly be critical of others, justifying it as a discernment.
  • You can lead hundreds of people in a Christian ministry while driven by a deep personal need to compensate for a nagging sense of failure.
  • You can be outwardly cooperative at church but unconsciously try to undercut or defeat your supervisor by coming habitually late, constantly forgetting meetings, withdrawing and becoming apathetic, or ignoring the real issue behind why you are hurt and angry.

Scazzero says we’ve come to expect these things in the community of Jesus. We’ve normalized the unhealthy. In fact, in his rants about spiritual leadership in the first century, Jesus himself called these very behaviors roadblocks to God’s Kingdom (see Matthew 23:13).

That’s quite a charge. A roadblock that stops my growth is bad enough, but roadblocks are not discerning. What I’ve done to block my own growth may end up blocking the spiritual maturing of others. My refusal to grow up in every way into Him, who is my Head, can actually stunt or stop the growth of the people around me. Which is no small matter. How selfish would I have to be in order to allow that?

Don’t glide too quickly past this truth: When I refuse growth in myself, I deny growth in others. This may well be a key not only to unlocking your own way forward, but also to finding more wholesome, productive place within the community of faith.

Who knew that growing up could be such a revolutionary act?

What evidence do the people closest to you have that there is actually an adult living in your adult-sized body? What evidence do your Facebook friends have that you’re a mature follower of Jesus? What would you have to relinquish in order to grow up in every way into Him, who is your Head?

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How to make better decisions

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked. Whatever one sows, that will he also reap.  — Galatians 6:7

This little gem of a verse isn’t brain surgery. Paul isn’t explaining some great mystery or even proclaiming a new law to live by. He is simply reminding us how reality works. We reap what we sow. We won’t get figs from an apple tree or chicken sandwiches from a cow. Put tomato seeds in the ground and expect tomatoes, not corn.

We reap what we sow.

The ability to look at conditions and ride them out to conclusions is a mark of maturity. That’s why we train children by giving them consequences when they misbehave. They are not naturally wired yet to think down the road so they must be trained in that discipline. A child’s thought life is very much present-tense. A friend’s child proved this recently when he snuck out of bed late one night and ate a tube of toothpaste. Clearly, his “if-then” function was not operating at a high level. Let’s just say it didn’t work out well for him.

We reap what we sow.

This principle becomes incredibly relevant in a year when many reading this blog are making personal choices about the future of our denomination. In the coming season, each of us will be faced with a choice about how we will lead or where we will continue to worship based on what we value. Keep in mind as you listen, pray, lead and love that we reap what we sow. A decision to passively go with the flow may find you surprised and disappointed when things don’t turn out as you’d hoped.

Our decisions have consequences. Our theological choices, our moral choices, our parenting choices, our spiritual choices, even our eating choices all have consequences and most of those choices have the potential to shape not just our lives but our world.

Decisions determine destiny. My decisions determine the direction my life takes and my decisions make an impact on other lives and destinies, too. So learning to make a better brand of decision becomes an important thing.

John Maxwell puts it this way: “Sow a thought reap an action, sow an action reap a habit, sow a habit reap a destiny.”

A friend said, “My many and most colossal mistakes were those using the best information available but missing the element of God’s wisdom and blessing (italics mine). I guess I always assumed he would see my brilliance and validate the choice.” I don’t think he is alone in that experience. I suspect lots of us tend to make decisions as if they are an assignment to be graded. We make them, we turn them in, and then hope for the best. But this isn’t God’s best for us and isn’t how we’re taught to make choices. We’re not taught to sow then hope for the best but to learn to sow well so we can be confident about the harvest. We are certainly not taught to put our heads in the sand and hope the storm blows past us.

Here’s what I want for you, my friend. I want your decisions to incubate in something deeper than self-preservation. I don’t want them to start with self-interest or childish bias. I want your decisions to reflect the mind of Christ. Whether you are choosing a theological position, leading a congregation through a crisis, or making a personal choice around spiritual disciplines, I want your choices to rise above the level of emotion to the place where deep calls to Deep.

1. Start with the harvest. What does yours look like?

Have you taken time to dream God’s dreams for your life? Do you have a vision and a goal that is bigger than what’s for supper? What do you want to contribute to the world? What are your gifts? What breaks your heart? Look down the road toward the end game and get a vision for that first. Then back up from that point and ask yourself if what you’re doing now is heading you in that direction.

2. Will what you’re sowing now get you to the harvest you’re hoping for?

Picture what your harvest looks like, then back up from there and ask yourself: Are the things I’m doing now setting up for the harvest I’m hoping for? If I’ve always wanted to read the Bible all the way through but I’ve never actually opened one, I’m probably not going to get there. If I’ve always sensed a call to teach children, then what am I doing right now to point me in that direction? If I want to lead a movement that makes healthy, committed disciples, have I chosen a path that will lead to that end?

3. Are you sowing from the past or for the future?

We’ve all felt the desperation of “If only” thinking. If only I’d gone to college … If only I’d married later in life … If only I’d taken better care of my body …  We can drown in ‘if-onlys,” but there comes a time when we have to decide how much we believe in the grace that doesn’t live in the past but challenges us to stand up and start from here. That goes for our personal lives as well as big institutions. We can waste a lot of time discussing what ought to have happened, or we can stand up from here and become part of what happens next.

I want your decisions to incubate in and be born out of two things: a vision for the harvest and the voice of the Holy Spirit. This is where wise choices are born. Wise decisions are incubated in and born out of a vision for the harvest and the voice of the Holy Spirit. Learning to start from this place will change the way you see and affect the world around you.

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