How to Read the Bible

The year I quit drinking, I got involved a Bible study. Not long into the experience, I was doing the daily assignment at my kitchen table and had an encounter with the Holy Spirit. One moment, I was reading a book and the next moment, the words seemed 3-D. The message was alive and I was being changed by it. That night, Jesus became the answer to my biggest questions, and the Bible became my Book.

St. Jerome has said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” I can attest to that. It was the scripture that led me into the presence of Jesus, and it was scripture that inspired me to take up faith enough to believe. Over these years of exploring it, studying it, preaching and teaching from it and being shaped by it, I have discovered a few key truths that have helped define and sharpen my relationship with God’s Word.

Remember that the Bible was created under the inspiration of the most creative being in the universe. Everything God creates has life in it, and everything he creates is truth (“In him, there is no darkness at all.”).  This means the Bible has a remarkable power to be present as truth in any situation.And because it is Living Word, it is the one book in the universe that has the ability to have a conversation with us.  It can speak a fresh word into my life wherever I am and it can be relevant, over and over again. That’s the power of Living Word and that power deserves my respect.

Consider every line of the Bible in light of the whole. Our worst mistake is treating lines and verses of scripture the way we treat fortune cookies. We like to grab onto catchy phrases and lines and apply them to our immediate circumstances without any thought for context (then post that catchy line on Facebook with a kitten in the background).

As Ben Witherington says, “A text without a context is a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” Understanding the overarching themes of the Bible and the settings in which portions were written is essential for right interpretation and application.  Taking the time to know this doesn’t lessen the power of the Bible for us; it deepens it.

The Bible is all true, but it isn’t whatever I want truth to be today so I can feel better about things.  An encounter the Living Word requires a more mature reading.

We can never say, honestly, that we’ve read the Bible. It would be like saying that because I have been to the beach, I’ve swum in the ocean. Or because I’ve googled a few things, I’ve done the Internet.  Maybe I’ve done a tiny bit of it, but I haven’t mastered the ocean or come to the end of the Internet. And in fact, can’t.

More and more, I’m convinced none of us has ever really read the Bible. We’ve read layers of it; we’ve absorbed bits of it. But the Bible as a whole is far deeper than one lifetime can absorb — far richer, far wiser, far more powerful than you or I could possibly imagine.

And yet, most of us have actually, literally never read the Bible. We say we believe it, but many of us treat it like the terms and conditions we agree to before we can access a website.  We click “yes” and we trust we’ve not signed on for anything preposterous, but we don’t know because we didn’t actually read anything.  For access to a website, that might be a risk worth taking but for a worldview and salvation, wouldn’t reading be worth the effort?

The richness of this Living Word, the wisdom of it, the glory of it, deserves not just my respect but my attention. And that’s why — like every year for the last twenty-five — I keep signing up for group life. I study the Bible with a few other folks who are hungry because in the presence of the Word of God, I am humbled. And as in every other year for the last twenty-five, I will come face to face once more with how little I know of this life and the world, and how desperate I am for truth.

The Bible is a grace and I thank God for it.

Read More

Are you going on to perfection? (and other strange questions I said yes to)

Every United Methodist pastor since 1773 has answered nineteen historic questions as a way of agreeing to how we will live into this ministry life. I looked at these questions for the first time since ordination about this time last year and was deeply helped and encouraged by seeing them in light of nearly twenty years of ministry.

Maybe an annual evaluation of ministry in light of the questions I agreed to on day one is a good idea. Here is my take on what these questions mean for service in the Kingdom of God through the United Methodist Church:

1. Have you faith in Christ?

Faith in Christ is to believe who he himself claimed to be: the way, the truth and the life. He claimed to be the singular path to the heart of the Father and did not give us another option.

Methodists are not universalists. No one answering this question in the affirmative has a right to soften its meaning for convenience’ or conscience’ sake. Which is not to say a person doesn’t have a right to believe a universalist theology; they just don’t have a right to believe that and call themselves Methodist.

2. Are you going on to perfection?

Only inasmuch as Jesus has asked it of all of who follow him on the narrow road. This call to Christian perfection is a cry to be something more — more love, more joy, more peace, more Presence, more perfect. Not in the sense of gaining perfection on our own strength, but in the sense that in the fullness of the Holy Spirit we can find abundant life.

C. S. Lewis wrote,

“The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. [God] is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. … He meant what he said. Those who put themselves in His hands will become perfect, as He is perfect — perfect in love, wisdom, joy, beauty, and immortality.”

3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?

Methodists believe entire sanctification is the trajectory of authentic discipleship. The question is not whether we have reached it or even if we can. The question is, are our lives pointed in that direction? Sanctification is costly; it is, simply put, a call to die to self. But this question is also an invitation to freedom — freedom from mediocrity and the tyranny of tolerable. It is an invitation into the good life in its most vivid and faithful form.

4. Are you earnestly striving after it?

The repetition of this theme makes it all the more meaningful for Methodists, whose contribution to the Body of Christ is their commitment to sanctification. When you say you are going on to perfection, is this your intention? Will you be ruthlessly opposed to stagnation in your life with Christ, in your ministry, in your care of the Church?

This commitment to sanctification is ultimately a call to defeat the spirit of fear. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?

There is no such thing as “part-time” in church work (can I get an “amen”?). The work of Jesus isn’t meant to be carried out with our leftover time or leftover money. Jesus never gave us that option. He calls those who follow earnestly to take up crosses, to die to self.

6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church?

This question is particularly meaningful for this season in the UMC. It is good to be reminded that we follow a Book of Discipline, a set of standards that guide our life together. When we enter into connectional ministry, we stand before our peers and make a commitment to living by those standards. We need to be reminded that we were adults when we answered these questions. Living them out is a holy responsibility. Otherwise, what connects us?

7. Will you keep them?

Connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC. If, at our ordination, we answer this question in the affirmative, then are we not accountable for that? If not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way (and we ought to drop the question from the list). If we are, then whether we agree with every point or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside an agreed-upon set of expectations. And when we can’t, we have an obligation to find another tribe that more closely aligns with our values.

8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?

It has been erroneously said that the UMC is not a “creedal church.” How one could reach that conclusion after reading the Articles of Religion that introduce our Book of Discipline is beyond me. Here is our doctrine, clearly spelled out in twenty-five statements. Combined with our social principles, Wesley’s sermons and notes, and a denominational commitment to both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, we are far more doctrinal than not. Our uniqueness is in our emphasis on social holiness; doctrine without community and compassion is dead.

9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?

A world of people disagree with our Wesleyan theology on issues like predestination, the exclusive nature of Christ, the authority of the scripture, the leadership of women — just to name a few. Within our own tribe, there is quite the controversy over the interpretation of scripture where human sexuality is concerned. This question calls us to transparently examine our own minds and consciences and ask ourselves what we most deeply hold true before we commit to this tribe. Otherwise, we find ourselves too quickly frustrated with every disagreement on lesser things. The product of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is an anxious spirit. That doesn’t have to be.

10. Will you preach and maintain them?

Wesley called the church not merely to the letter of the law but to the spirit of it. “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? he wrote. “May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?

They don’t call us Methodist for nothin’. Our structure is designed to create community and it has done a remarkable job for 244 years. Bearing the weight of the world’s second largest mainline denomination proves its brilliance. This structure stood our church well from its fiery days of revival in early America to its current global membership of 12.5 million. I am not at all convinced, however, that our historic structure is designed to withstand our current diversity. It may well be that the lack of understanding of this structure has only exacerbated the strain. What we are sure of is that is was not built to withstand the pressure of pluralism.

12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?

Wesley’s practice of repetition in these questions reveals his understanding of human nature. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he dealt often 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?

13. Will you support and maintain them?

See above.

14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?

This is a commitment to the next generation. In every decision, in every investment of time and resources, is the spiritual care of the next generation being considered? Or merely the comfort of the present one?

15. Will you visit from house to house?

Will you know people personally? Will you do more than use them as volunteers? Will you die to self as you care for the souls of your people, counting them as precious (not just as “present”)? Will you set your phone down and sit and listen? Will you hear their failures through the filter of their stories? If you love Jesus, will you feed his sheep?

16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?

If you at any point in your life solemnly and publicly agreed to these nineteen questions and the principles beneath them, I challenge you to stop here and deeply consider whether or not you have kept faith with question #16. Have you? And if not, why?

Maybe Wesley chose to single out this spiritual discipline because it represents the deep end of a healthy list of practices he firmly believed would draw down the grace of God. Those who know how to fast will find the rest of our recommended works of piety and works of mercy much more do-able.

17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?

Wesley said, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing!”

18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?

When these questions are asked of ordinands in the opening pastor’s session of Annual Conference, this one always evokes a wave of titters throughout the audience. I suspect that is because many of us, years into ministry, continue to carry stressful debt in the form of student loans. We feel the tension between our tithes and our desires for comfort. We are all too aware that financial stress depletes us and keeps us from wholeheartedly going where Jesus sends. Those who fit that description would do well to heed Dave Ramsey’s challenge to go after a debt-free life with gazelle-like intensity. Nothing purifies motives like a life free from care for money.

19. Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

These are weighty commitments. They remind us that we are no longer our own. Our responsibility is to a community and our personal discipline breeds trust in that community.

Discipline breeds results. It is the foundation of effective ministry which is what we who serve this Church must hunger after.

In the most freeing of ways, Jesus knows us. He hears our hearts. We are passionate about the work of ministry, but our fierce loves and anxious thoughts and wounded hearts are only useful for the Kingdom as they are bridled and broken. Running rampant — no discipline, no boundaries, no direction, no limit, no guiding edges — we only hurt ourselves and others and lose all effectiveness as followers of Jesus.

So Lord, bridle us. For the sake of the Kingdom of God, bridle these servant-leaders in the UMC who long to lead the Body of Christ into the unhindered presence of Christ.

Read More

I am small and God is big.

I am Adam’s child.

I am always stopped by the line in Genesis spoken by Adam when he is caught in his sin. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree and I ate.”  This is the creation-story equivalent of a child pointing to a sibling when a vase is broken.  Adam chooses, surely against better judgment, to deflect his own weakness by blaming his wife.  Like God wouldn’t notice the discrepancy here.  Like God won’t hold Adam accountable.  “Oh, well then … never mind.” 

Really, it is a profound line. It shows me, because I am Adam’s child, just how small I can be. How limited. How little I see of God’s presence and power. His plan.

And then there is that line in 1 Kings 15: 5. It is actually the second time mention is made in this book about David being a faithful man. But this time, the writer takes it to a level of laughability. He says, “David did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.”

Did you see that?

Except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.  It is said almost as an aside, a footnote, a detail. The rest of that story, of course, is that David killed Uriah the Hittite.  To hide the fact that he slept with Uriah’s wife.

Except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

What?

I’m stunned by this sentence. If Adam’s foolishness makes me realize how small I am, David’s foolishness makes me realize how big God is. Because David’s sin is real. It is big. The deal with Uriah the Hittite is at least twenty percent of the Big Ten, and that’s if we’re being generous. There is no doubt about David’s offense to the holiness of God.

And yet, buried deep in the history of God’s people is this revelation that causes me to come face to face with God’s perspective. God’s purposes will not be compromised; God’s grace is more profound still. God is big.

I am small and God is big.

And yet God cares what I do with my life.

Hallelujah.

Read More

The rise of Methodism and fruit that lasts

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about how the Holy Spirit actually shows up. As I said in this post, I suspect much of what we attribute to the Holy Spirit is simply not within his character. Or we allow ourselves to be content with reports of the Spirit’s movement in other places, without doing the spiritual work to participate in what he is doing right here … right now. I cannot believe that all God’s mighty works are for other places and people. Can you?

In the midst of thinking and praying about this — asking the Lord to teach me more about how he actually moves — I discovered something about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, that strikes me as profound. In an article on the rise of Methodism Andrew Thompson writes,

“Ask your average Methodist what the turning point was in the history of the Methodist movement, and you’ll likely get the response that it was John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1738. It was there that Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and received the assurance of his salvation. Methodism couldn’t have grown and expanded in the years following had it not been for Wesley’s own encounter with Christ that fateful evening, right?”

Right … but

When Wesley himself reflected on what made his work so remarkably fruitful, Aldersgate is not what he referenced. Wesley remembered instead what he called “three rises” of Methodism. In writing about this, Thompson quotes Wesley’s own journal:

“On Monday, May 1, [1738,] our little society began in London. But it may be observed, the first rise of Methodism (so-called) was in November 1729, when four of us met together at Oxford: the second was at Savannah, in April 1736, when twenty or thirty persons met at my house: the last, was at London, on this day, when forty or fifty of us agreed to meet together every Wednesday evening, in order to a free conversation, begun and ended with singing and prayer. In all our steps we were greatly assisted by the advice and exhortations of Peter Boehler, an excellent young man, belonging to the society commonly called Moravians.”

The great revival that swept England then America was not rooted in a moment like Aldersgate, nor in the thousands who gathered in fields to hear him preach. No, Wesley credits the rise of Methodism with three meetings that gathered in homes over the course fifty years to press into the spiritual disciplines and pursue the heart of God.

Let that sink in.

A movement that shaped the face of contemporary Christianity began when a few men quietly began to meet together to hold one another accountable for the living out of their faith. The heart of those meetings was a series of questions that required participants to be honest about the state of their souls.

This was transparency before transparency was cool. 

The experiment in spiritual accountability was repeated over time in Wesley’s own life; then was replicated in living rooms, church houses and assembly halls across two continents. The upshot? By 1850 one in three American Christians was Methodist, and hundreds of thousands of people had come to Christ. Today, 900 million Pentecostals can trace their theological roots to Wesley’s Holy Club, along with another 70 million in various strains of Methodism.

THAT’S the fruit I’m looking for. I am looking for the kind of fruit that can’t be explained any other way than the power of God. In our churches and in The Church, I’m looking for fruit that will last. I am ready for those of us who follow Jesus faithfully to begin refusing anything less. If we are going to become hungry for genuine moves of the Spirit, we must stop feeding on snack food. We must stop calling warm moments and well-attended services what they are not, until we become so hungry that nothing short of the authentic will suffice.

And I suspect the greatest moves of the Holy Spirit are just as Jesus said they were — like mustard seeds or a little yeast. They begin in unassuming places, are fertilized by faith and discipline, and grow (perhaps quietly, perhaps not) into mighty movements that change people, change cultures, change the world. They are known by fruit that lasts and by fruit that far outstrips the effort. Maybe they are only known by the fruit they bear over time, even over generations. But they ARE known by their fruit.

That’s the point. Spirit-filled movements bear fruit that lasts. The Church of Jesus Christ must refuse anything less.

Read More

I am hungry for more.

I am hungry to see the power of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

Hungry.

I’m not talking about so much that passes these days for Spirit-filled experiences. We have defaulted to bragging; we tell too many “big fish stories.” We talk of “huge moves of God” that are not quantified by fruit. We call our good feelings “moves of the Spirit.” My concern is that we sometimes misrepresent the Spirit by assigning to him feats easily accomplished in the natural; and we sometimes misrepresent Him by making more of what happens in our corporate gatherings than is actually there.

We have overplayed our hand and have become too accustomed to calling any emotional response a great move of God. Meanwhile, we are completely short-changing what must surely be a much more awesome and beautiful power than fleeting experiences that result in no lasting transformation.

What is most disturbing is that we cling to stories of Holy Spirit power in other places at other times, as if having heard the stories only we can somehow claim participation. While I certainly celebrate with followers of Jesus in other countries who report awesome healings and even resurrections (and believe these to be true), I am not content to let what is happening in other places suffice for my own experience of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

I am hungry for the power of the Holy Spirit to fall on ushere. We, too, are responsible for learning not just the lingo and culture of Spirit-filled living but the actual work of the Spirit in our churches, our families, our own lives.

Aren’t you hungry for more?

I am starving for it and have decided to lean in and get more intentional about watching for what the Holy Spirit is actually doing right here, right now. I am praying for the kind of personal and corporate renewal that can only be attributed to the power of God. I’m no longer content to be encouraged by “a good word” nor titillated by emotionally charged moments. I want to be changed by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and I want that for my people. I want that for you.

Luke 9 and 10 tell me that followers of Jesus have power and authority to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. That is a far cry from what we are experiencing in most churches today. Until we get honest about that, I’m not sure we’ll be able to move past the weak substitutes for which we’ve settled. How many of us are willing to stop calling it the power of God when we leave church feeling good about ourselves? How many of us are willing to lean in and start crying out for the real thing?

Don’t American Christians also deserve* to see the power of God, to become conversant in the real and powerful work of the Holy Spirit? Aren’t we as their leaders responsible for properly defining that power and calling our people to that hunger?

The one thing of which I’ve become most convinced is that for us to have any hope of breaking through to something deeper, we must get honest. Until we stop calling every warm experience a genuine move of God, we won’t find the deeper well. It is as if we’ve found a stagnant pond in the desert and have camped there when an oasis of sweet, pure water is just ahead.

I am hungry for more, and tired by less. If you are actually experiencing it, I want to hear your stories — your first-person, real-life, recent, authentic stories of the power of God at work in your own life or in your community. I want to hear healing stories that have resulted in works that glorify God. I want to hear stories that have resulted in spiritual fruit, that have advanced the Kingdom of God on earth.

I want to hear proof of the authentic, awesome power of God working in our churches, in our lives.

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

I am pressing in and I invite you to join me. I want to know the power that resurrects people from the dead. I want more than just “good church.”

Don’t you?

 

*I use the word “deserve” here not in the sense that we have earned our right to anything, but in the sense that I doubt the Holy Spirit is giving Americans a pass on deeper things. We have a plethora of excuses for the absence of depth in our culture, but surely he means for us to experience the fullness of the Spirit, too?

Read More

When the Church Hurts (part three)

This post is part three in a three-part series of thoughts about dealing with conflict in the church.  In our first post, we looked at biblical stories that model healthy and redemptive responses to conflict. The second post began addressing practical ways to maturely deal with unresolved anger and conflict from a biblical place. In this post, we continue exploring ways to respond redemptively to conflict. Find the first three points in the second post

People come and go from churches, jobs and even their own homes for as many reasons as there are people. Some reasons are valid — a geographical move, or a family circumstance — but not all reasons are created equal. Some people simply misunderstand the nature of community or the work of the Body of Christ. Some of us are self-seeking and some of us are broken. We are easily wounded, easily distracted. Many of our decisions come not from what we know about ourselves, but from what we don’t know about ourselves.

The Church of Jesus Christ has a high bar to reach in its mission. It is here among us to offer the truth of Jesus Christ, freedom from sin and the fear of death, healing of wounds, and an authentic, loving, supportive community in which our new lives can be redeemed, healed, and shaped for significance.

Only in community can we become whole and healthy, everything we were designed to be. Christianity isn’t self-serving, nor can it happen in a vacuum. Community is essential, but communities are made of people — broken, wounded, in-process people — and because of that, conflict is inevitable. Hurt people hurt people. When that happens, the best recourse is repentance and reconciliation. The only way to learn how to live in healthy community is to live through the hard times.

But what about when leaving seems the healthiest option? In our last post, I offered three places to begin. Here are three more:

4. Offer peace.  “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Bitterness chokes the Holy Spirit’s ability to move, both in individuals and in the church. No matter what the cost to our pride, schedule or plans, we are called to make peace with anyone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt. If we explore every creative opportunity that might lead to healing, God will surely bless us.

Sometimes going back is the best way to move forward. If we are still angry with someone at another church, then perhaps God is calling us go back, offer forgiveness and get closure. Even if we don’t go back to stay, it is both wise and biblical to go back and make peace. In making amends, we discover that we don’t have to keep talking about the past because we’ve made peace with it. Take the challenge to make this step for the sake of the Body of Christ. Visit during the week or call. In some positive way, let the pastor and others know you are at peace so they can move on. Paul said this was the ministry of Jesus: “He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to you who were near, for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).

5. Write a note of blessing. After Paul split from Barnabas, he took time in another letter to defend the work of his brother in ministry. What a positive and grace-filled act! A written word of blessing can be such healing medicine. It can remind someone we’ve loved of the good times and of the ways they contributed to our faith. When we offer grace-filled and hopeful words in an email, text or note, we create open doors for future opportunities. After all, they may need us again one day … or we may need them!

Once we’ve learned to speak positively about the congregations we leave behind, we’ve prayed through our disappointments, we’ve offered forgiveness where it was needed and extended the hand of peace, now – and only now! – we are ready to commit fully to the ministry of a new congregation.

6. Make a solid commitment to your new church. Partial or uncommitted attendance in church is not healthy or helpful.

Let me say that again: Partial or uncommitted attendance in church is not healthy or helpful. It misses the point of authentic community, which is what the Body of Christ is designed to be. Simply put, you can’t be part of a community you’re not part of.

Likewise, bouncing between churches can send negative signals and create unneeded tension. Doing so implies that my feelings are the ones that matter most and that simply isn’t part of a healthy Christian worldview. We find healing in stepping outside ourselves and becoming fully a part of the work going on around us.

So dig in. Invest in the time it takes to understand the vision of a new community of faith. Every church is unique and has a unique place in the community. We recognize that what worked in another church may not be right for this new mission. God delights in doing new things, so we want to be open to new ideas and to discovering new spiritual gifts. We must bloom where we are planted. Then when we are given a place to serve, we can support that work wholeheartedly — with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness.

Read More

When the Church Hurts (part two)

This post is part two in a three-part series of thoughts about dealing with conflict in the church.  In our last post, we looked at biblical stories that model healthy and redemptive responses to conflict.  In this post, we address some practical ways we, too, can respond redemptively to conflict.

Back in my college days, I had a professor who was convinced that the concept of community was at the root of all other philosophical discussions around building healthy societies. When I was in seminary, I visited The Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. and heard Gordon Cosby talk eloquently about the the central role of community in all Kingdom-advancing work. Those two voices in my life have deeply shaped what I believe about the nature and role of the Church. I believe the Church plays a key role in the reclamation of the world. By promoting healthy, committed communities that follow Jesus faithfully, we model his life and become an answer to his prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth …”

Modeling healthy communities depends on mastering healthy conflict. Until a community of faith learns to deal constructively (redemptively, graciously, maturely) with its differences, it will not be able to move forward with spiritual and emotional maturity. The first option ought always to be for those with issues to lean in and work it out. In this post, we will think practically about how Jesus’ people ought to act when working it out doesn’t work.

What happens when it is time to leave?

1. If you can’t say something nice …  The first step toward reconciliation is learning how to speak graciously. We serve no positive purpose by talking negatively about another church – even those of which we’ve been part. Our negative comments about the Body of Christ can hurt others. 

If the conflict in a previous church is significant, then many folks who are still there are still hurting. Some of them are also innocent by-standers – people who did nothing to cause conflict. When we make negative comments about their church we can cause great harm.

Likewise, we must be sensitive to those in our present Christian circles. We must be sensitive especially to the members of our new church family by not involving them in the conflict of another church. Strongly resist sharing negative stories or comparing churches. To do so only plants seeds of bitterness in a fresh field. What our mothers said really is true: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. 

Better yet, find something nice to say. Kindness is a wonderful antidote to bitterness.  As Paul said to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable, whatever is pure and pleasing, if there is anything of excellence or anything worthy of praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

2. Keep praying. Pray, and pray some more. Nothing else will do more to create a healing environment in your soul. Keep the prayer lines open but understand that reconciliation is a process, not an event. Healing doesn’t happen overnight.  In fact, you may need to talk not just to God but to a human being in order to heal. If that is the case, then seek out the listening ear and prayer support of a trusted friend who can help to process the thoughts. Be honest with them and ask them to walk with you spiritually through this time. Ask them to pray for you and hold you accountable until you reach a place of peace and reconciliation with all parties involved.

3. If you can’t say something nice (part two) … “Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

While it is always better to stay quiet if we can’t say something nice, God will usually challenge us to go a step further. After all, even if we manage to keep quiet about our pain and anger, our inability to think positively about the church we’ve left likely indicates a deeper brokenness that needs to be acknowledged and explored. If we can’t seem to think kind thoughts or say nice things about the people of another church or group, then why is that? What is the real source of that anger, that pain? 

To answer that question for yourself, set aside time to be with the Lord. Ask for his insight.  Rarely if ever will God allow us to simply bury our pain and move on. When we seek him in prayer and ask for the mind of Christ, he will show us where we have failed as well as where we have been wounded by others. When we ask, he will show us a path to forgiveness that likely includes praying God’s best over those with whom we are in conflict. Journaling may help in that process. Again, the help of a trusted friend and a strong prayer partner is invaluable. The pastor or perhaps even an outside counselor may be a good step at this point.

Churches are made of people, and wounded people can do painful things to one another. Our responses to others’ brokenness says a lot more about us than them. Learning to respond to pain with grace is a gift to the Church and a strike against the darkness.

Find part three in this series of posts here

Read More

When the Church Hurts (part one)

“Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result?” said Abner to Joab, as the sun went down. (from the battlefield at Gibeon, 2 Samuel 2:26)

We are people. And people, by definition, are broken. If we are followers of Jesus, we are saved by grace but we are broken, just the same.

The church, then, is nothing more than a collection of broken-but-redeemed people. Many of us come through the door of the church hurting, not yet sanctified. We bump into one another and create friction. It seems almost inevitable that in the church, just as in the world, there is conflict. As they say, hurt people hurt people.

Since the very beginning, conflict in the church has been part of the Christian experience. Surely God would prefer if it wasn’t that way, but that fact doesn’t erase reality. The early church understood this fact all too well. The letter Paul wrote to the people of Corinth was sent to one of the most divided, dysfunctional churches of the first century. Even Paul himself was not immune. When Paul and Barnabas made plans to go out on a second missionary journey (Acts 15), Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along. Paul was bitterly opposed. John Mark was the one who deserted them in Pamphylia on the first trip; if he was not able to withstand the pressures of real ministry, why rely on him again? Barnabas wanted to extend grace, but Paul dug his feet in. By the time their conflict reached its peak, they’d split. Barnabas and Mark set off in one direction, while Paul and his team went off in another.

How they worked through that conflict made all the difference in how God used them to impact the world for Christ. Acts 15:40 says that as they parted company, they commended one another to the service of the Lord.

Later on in another letter Paul would speak in defense of Barnabas (1 Corinthians 9:6) and he would work again with John Mark (2 Timothy 4:11). As a result (Acts 16:5), “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.”

Because they were willing to handle conflict creatively and gracefully, God was able to continue to work through them. It is likely that if Paul and Barnabas had separated bitterly and continued to backbite and harbor anger toward one another, neither of them would have been much use for God’s kingdom. But as it was, they were able to double their effectiveness while presenting a positive and mature approach to conflict within community.

What about us? Many of us have moved from one community of faith to another. For some, this was an easy move and healing came quickly. For others of us, though, hurts from the past will take time (even years) to heal. And it might be easy to believe there is nothing to be done about that.

Yet as Christians, we are given the ministry of reconciliation by Jesus Christ himself, who came expressly for that purpose. Maybe conflict in church is inevitable (remember – we are all broken), but healing can happen when we react creatively and graciously. In fact, as we saw with Paul and Barnabas, God can use both conflict and healing to further the Kingdom.

There are Christ-centered ways to deal with brokenness in all its forms. We can participate with Christ in healing after conflict. What practical steps can we take to find peace with the church we’ve left so we can bring a healthy spirit to the church we are ready to serve? A few ideas taken from my own experience as a pastor will follow in the next two posts.

Meanwhile, maybe these questions will help you process your own experience. Learning to process conflict is ultimately about building a healthy church culture. How are you participating in that process?

  • Have you ever had a negative church experience? Are there any unresolved hurts from that experience that need to be acknowledged?
  • Are you at peace with everyone in your church? How about with everyone in the church you left? Do you need to extend a gesture of grace to anyone?
  • What are you doing in your current church or small group to promote mature, loving relationships?

This post is one of three in a series about how to navigate church relationships in the midst of conflict and change. Find part two here.

Read More

Just how angry are you?

The Institute for Ethics at Duke University conducted an online survey of about 1,500 people as part of a project designed to measure the morality quotient of Americans. They asked people to rate how likely they’d be to do certain morally questionable things like, for instance, kicking a dog in the head. As it turns out (happily), seven of eight respondents would refuse to do that and in fact, would turn down any amount of money up to $1 million to kick Fido in the noggin.

However, half of the participants said they could be motivated to throw a rotten tomato at a politician they dislike. For free.

Would you be among them?

There is no denying it: we have a maddening political climate. We also have anger issues. Anger is not a secular issue; we who follow Jesus are not immune. Just check your Facebook page. In fact, more and more, anger is becoming part of our caricature. Angela, the token Christian on The Office is an angry, tight-lipped, buttoned-up woman. In most cartoons and commentaries, we’re known as the ones who sling condemnation.

So really … are we that angry?

(You’ve heard the old joke– right? — about the shipwreck survivor they discovered on an uncharted island. The ship that spotted him sent a rescue team to shore and found the man alone among three huts. They asked what the three huts were for, since there was no one else around. The survivor explained, “Well, I live in one and go to church in another.” “What about the third hut, then?” asked a rescue team member. “Oh, that,” growled the man. “That’s where I used to go to church.” It is funny only because it is familiar.)

Face it. Christians have something of a reputation and it is only getting worse. I suspect we’re operating out of fear. We’ve pitted our values against a permissive culture and it has left us feeling powerless. In the comparison we’re accused of being angry, condemnation-tossing haters. And to some extent, we deserve the criticism. We who follow Jesus too easily pander to the reputation of being known for what we’re against more than what we’re for.

Wouldn’t it be exciting for Christians to be known more for the infectiousness of their faith than the accuracy of their tomato-tossing?

George Barna is a researcher who does ethnographic research on churches, and one study he did showed that only 4% of adults make their decisions based on the Bible. In his book, Think Like Jesus, he says, “the primary reason that people do not act like Jesus is because they do not think like Jesus … We’re often more concerned with survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.”

Hear that again: We are often more concerned about survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.

“Survival amidst chaos” hits close to home, doesn’t it? These last couple of years have been hard on our country. I hope we are on the healing edge of a long season of chaos, and chaos has not brought out the best in us. We are not thinking like Jesus. We have become so focused on what is in front of us that we’ve forgotten what is beyond the horizon. We’ve engaged emotionally with difficult issues but have failed to speak with integrity, offering emotional responses that are more defensive than intelligent. Our go-to response is more fear than faith.

But you say, “A person can’t sit idly by and let the world roll over them.” Or more personally, “You don’t know my circumstance — how hard I’ve had it and how much it hurts. I can’t lose this war, too.”

To that, Jesus would say, “It doesn’t matter. The ground of our forgiveness is not our circumstances. The ground of our grace is not emotion.” Jesus told a whole story to make this very point (Matthew 18:23-35) saying that grace is a mark of the Kingdom.

Here’s the thing: If it all depends on circumstance, we are right to be desperate. Circumstances can seem hopeless but circumstances do not control my capacity for joy. We who know the end of the story should be responding to life and news and “rumors of wars” with a faith that proclaims something greater than our immediate circumstances. In other words, I don’t have to wait for folks to act right so I can have peace; I can live there now, by faith.

What I am responsible for is the character of my responses to life, and what those responses reveal about the character of Christ in me.

Brothers and sisters, whatever the current circumstance, we know how the story ends. We know what is beyond the horizon.

Let’s live and speak as if Jesus is who he says he is.

Read More

What you believe matters.

I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding is now our critical need.

I was reminded of this a while back while working out at the gym. I was on a machine watching television but without the sound on … just reading closed captioning. The story being typed onto the screen word by word was some news piece about Pope Francis. And somewhere in the story, this phrase crossed the screen: “a message from Bob.”

From the context, I could tell they meant to type, “a message from God” but God never got the credit for whatever that message was. That strikes me as significant. How many people in the world are getting their messages from “Bob” (any popular speaker/ writer/ influencer) while God goes unnoticed?

When the movie, The Passion, first came out, a big group from our church went to see it together. Afterward, we adjourned to my living room to discuss what we’d seen. In the midst of the dialogue, someone asked some kind of technical question about the way God works and a guy who happens to have been in professional ministry had this response: “Frankly, I don’t have much use for theology. I just want to know who God is and what his heart is.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that pretty much the point of theology?

“I don’t have much use for theology.” Really? I bet that guy would have cared about my theology if we had been worshiping cows in my living room. I bet he would have cared if we were all there to discuss the message of Bob rather than the message of God. It must be fun to sound like a renegade in a group of people talking about religion, but it can also be theologically dangerous.

What you believe matters. And this is why I hold that biblical literacy and theological grounding are the critical need today. Otherwise we won’t have the compass to discern the direction of those who seek our endorsement. Those of us who trust in Christ have a poor record of talking theologically in public, with integrity (we do it, but not well). But to have a Kingdom-shaped influence in the marketplace, as Dr. Gregg Okesson says, we must learn to talk theologically in public about issues of public interest.

Theology matters. True, it has no life without the stirring of the Holy Spirit but nothing can be said about the nature of life, God or ultimate meaning without talking theologically. Indeed, nothing of any importance can be said of sports, politics, family systems, sexuality, or buying habits unless we learn to think and talk theologically. It would be like learning to play the piano without learning music theory. Without theory, it is just notes.

Nor can we discuss with respect the differences between religions or properly respect contrasting belief systems. Without theological grounding, how do we discuss the fact that the Mormon Jesus leaves significant questions about the nature of the Trinity, or that the Muslim Jesus is respected and revered but not crucified? How do we talk about Wesley’s systemic teaching on grace or Calvin’s take on God’s sovereignty?

Without deep theological reflection, how do missionaries learn to share the whole gospel without adding a layer of cultural bondage to the top? How do pastors influence culture and change systems?

When we’ve not grounded ourselves theologically, it is remarkably easy to get drunk on tweetable lines. It becomes far too tempting to redefine Christianity based on the trajectory of culture. We ask questions like, “Who are you to decide what orthodoxy/ Wesleyanism/ holiness/ Christianity means?” As if any of those are decided by vote.

On the other hand, it is tempting to blame thinking Christians for the suppression of the Holy Spirit. Experience has made us book-shy. Far too many wanna-be pastors have marched off to seminary while their friends at home warn, “Don’t let school ruin you!”

Spiritual thinking ought not rob us of our energy for the full gospel. To the contrary, to think theologically — to reason out a very distinctive set of beliefs — is to honor the depth and glory of God. Theology trumps experience every time and leads us toward the Holy Spirit, not away from Him.

As I listen to the fodder of news shows and sort through the various discussions that surface among well-meaning people within the church and online, I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding is now our critical need. We’re allowing pop icons and an unanchored culture to do for us what thoughtful, Spirit-inspired study should be doing. The Kingdom won’t be ushered in on tweetable lines or emotional appeals. It will come when the good news of Jesus Christ is unapologetically learned, preached and practiced in all its power.

To hell with the message of Bob. The world is starving for something more.

 

Read More