How to act in church

Just as new trees bear new fruit, new churches make new disciples. It is glorious to watch folks come into the Kingdom, and new churches offer a lot of opportunity for that.

While justification is a thrill, however, sanctification is hard work. Many who come to Christ through a new work have had either no experience of church or a bad experience of church, in which case they may not know how to act. I’m not talking about how to behave in church; I’m talking about how to be the church. Many have never experienced what it means to live in a healthy community — to be the church, not just go to church.

In Galatians 6:1-10, Paul gives a great recipe for how to act in church. As you gather souls, I recommend some version of this teaching as a way of instilling the DNA of community into your congregation.

By Paul’s definition, what does it mean to be the church?

1. Have one another’s back (Galatians 6:1).
This is about making sure everyone in the room recognizes that community is about cooperation, not competition. For some who have been raised in dysfunctional or conflicted congregations, this may be a new thought. Paul charges us to have the spirit of gentleness, to avoid the temptation of judgment in favor of the grace of bearing with one another.

2. Keep your eyes on your own progress through life (Galatians 6:3-5).
Paul encourages us to spend less time externalizing our discomforts (blaming them on others’ behavior) and more time investing in our own connection with God. Imagine the freedom we’d all find in church if we were all committed to working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

3. Show up for the sake of others, not just for yourself (Galatians 6:6-8).
The contemporary posture of church-going is pretty self-centered. We go to “get fed,” or to satisfy our own music or worship tastes. Community, however, is built on the principle of other-centeredness. We show up for church not just for ourselves, but for the sake of others. We show up in small groups not just for our own edification, but so we can build others up, because we who are committed to community get it that sometimes we need them and sometimes they need us.

4. Do the things you are capable of doing so others don’t have to (Galatians 6:9).
Those who are called to lead may need to be challenged to step up and take authority, so others who are less ready are not placed in those positions before their time.

5. Recognize that you don’t know everything there is to know about another person’s story (Galatians 6:3-4).
Having acknowledged #4 above, we also must recognize that not every person is called to serve in every season. There are also seasons of sabbath — for healing, for restoration. In those cases, what folks most need is someone who will understand and not make them feel guilty for not meeting all the other needs when they can hardly meet their own.

6. Hang in there with one another (Galatians 6:9).
One of our greatest strengths in my church community is the ability we seem to have to hang onto people. Especially in a community where folks don’t yet know “how to act in church,” patience may be the best gift we can give while sanctification does its work, recognizing that holiness is a process, not an event.

7. Honor differences by allowing for them (Galatians 6:6).
It is okay if we each do things differently. You won’t approach life or Christ the way I do, and I need to be okay with that. In fact, Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) that this is how the community of the King is designed to work.

8. Tend to each other’s practical needs (Galatians 6:10).
Maybe the best way for non-believers and new believers to experience the value of community is when we meet them at the point of their deepest needs. I’m not talking about the kind of co-dependence that tries too hard to be everyone’s everything. But through a healthy small group system, the community as a whole (not the pastor) can respond to needs, including the meals sent after surgery or a funeral, or by being there to pray or just be present when someone is dealing with depression or divorce. In the community of Christ, we don’t consider private lives private so much as personal, so that we become accustomed to responding in personal ways to personal needs.

9. Pray for each other (Galatians 6:2).
This is key. When prayer is at the center of community, then connections are stronger (“a cord of three strands is not easily broken”). This is what it means, at its root, to bear one another’s burdens. Be challenged to teach your folks to go deeper than adding names to a prayer list. Teach them to labor for one another in prayer, to bear one another’s burdens to the One who loved them first and loves them most.

This is how the community of Christ ought to act in church. It isn’t simply about going to church, or getting people to come to church. That is a habit we probably all ought to break. Instead, let’s teach our people to be the church, so that in our life together we are bearing Christ to the world.

(This post first appeared on Seedbed’s Church Planter Collective.)

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You are chosen (a prophetic word for New Room 2018).

This word was given me to share with those attending the closing service of New Room 2018. I share it here in an abbreviated form so that if you were there, you’ll have this word to remind you in the dark places of who you are: You are chosen. 

I fell apart last year. I think I can now say with some confidence that I was on a spiritual threshold, and those can be so painful. In that moment of birthing from one spiritual room to another, it can feel like insanity. It feels dark. I was there last year for several months, waiting for relief. I was seeing a counselor who kept me duct-taped together. He asked me one day to make a list of “I am” statements. He wanted me to be grounded in my identity while I was reeling emotionally, so he told me to just start writing. “I am _____.” Fill in the blank, he said, and keep doing it. He was looking for about 2000 “I am” statements.

The first hundred or so sounded like my personal PR campaign. They were all positive statements, if shallow, about myself. Somewhere around three or four-hundred I got honest. I began to say things I’d never admitted out loud (or on paper) before. Things like: I am embarrassed by failure. I am competitive. I am envious of others’ success.

On one particularly dark day, I wrote, “I am suspicious of God.”

On another day, just as the light was beginning to dawn in my life again, I wrote, “I am an artist.” That was one of the most profound realizations, and resonated as most true. I am not an engineer. No wonder most church growth books don’t work for me (and no wonder I’m no good at systems). I am an artist, and I approach ministry and life from that place. What freedom!

The statement that held all the other statements together was this one: I am a mixed bag. We all are. Most of us are a mixture of strong and weak, good and trying, sinful and saved. And in that way, we are in good company. Jesus seemed partial to mixed bags. Peter was among his favorites. Peter, who presented as a fisherman, fell to his knees at the miraculous catch of fish Jesus orchestrated and exhaled, “I am a sinful man!” From that place of humility, he was able to see Jesus as he was when Jesus asked, “Who do people say I am?” To which Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus answered, “And you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” From sinful to faithful … and then just a few paragraphs later, to satanic.

What can hold all those seeming inconsistencies together? Only Jesus. Only when our “I am” is connected to his “I am” can we have any hope of knowing ourselves as we truly are.

It makes sense, then, that having learned this lesson through his own season of sanctification, Peter could now tell others who they are. In 1 Peter 2:1-10, the apostle tells his first-century audience and then all of us who follow Jesus that we are all a mix of chosen and rejected, precious and peculiar, disobedient and destined. Ours is to find our place in those tensions by connecting to Christ.

You are chosen by God, rejected by humans.

Not long ago, I found myself in a children’s classroom listening to a lesson on the free gift of salvation. The teacher was doing a good job of explaining an abstract concept. She even had a neat little visual aid to go with it. In that class, there was a little boy who is powerfully bright and resilient, who absorbs everything, who lets very little get past him. He was listening to this teacher explain how we can’t add anything to our salvation, that we can’t work our way to heaven. And this little guy was listening and trying hard not to interrupt, until he just couldn’t help himself. Eventually, he broke in to say, “Yeah, its free … but you have to take it.” Which is Wesleyan free will perfectly expressed in eight words. But that was lost on his teacher, whose point was that you can’t add anything. So she said, “ Riiiighhhht … but its free.”

“But you have to take it.”

“But you can’t add anything to it,” the teacher insisted.

“But you have to take it.”

“But its free,” she said, now a bit more desperately.

“But you have to take it,” he said, more forcefully.

I don’t blame him for being unwilling to let go. His point was worth the fight. This is how John Wesley explained our chosenness:

“By the free love and almighty power of God taken out of, separated from, the world … Election, in the scripture sense, is God’s doing anything that our merit or power have no part in. The true predestination, or fore-appointment of God is, 1. He that believes shall be saved from the guilt and power of sin. 2. He that endures to the end shall be saved eternally. 3. They who receive the precious gift of faith, thereby become the sons of God; and, being sons, they shall receive the Spirit of holiness to walk as Christ also walked. Throughout every part of this appointment of God, promise and duty go hand in hand. All is free gift; and yet such is the gift, that the final issue depends on our future obedience to the heavenly call.” (italics mine)

In other words, “It is free, but you have to take it!”

We are chosen, and we choose. The gospel is full of biblical tensions like this. If you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to find life, you have to lose the one you’ve got. If you want freedom, you must surrender. So Peter, who is both a sinful man and a rock in the Church of Jesus Christ, chooses this refrain in his letter to the early church to tell us who we are. We are both chosen and rejected, precious and peculiar, disobedient and destined.

Chosen by God but rejected by men, Peter says. And every day we have to decide which one wins. Which one of me will show up today? Chosen me or rejected me? Peter has a word for us. Reject the spirit of rejection. Choose your chosenness. Chosenness is your gift, but you have to take it. Choose your chosenness.

You are precious, my friend. But you are also peculiar.

If you carry the spirit of Christ, how could you not be precious? When the Holy Spirit is deposited into us, we become tabernacles of God. We connect to that identity by faith, also a gift from God. These are gifts to be guarded, held as holy … to be honored even when they put us at odds with the world around us.

In the NIV, 1 Peter 2:9 translates as, “chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s special people.” The KJV gets right to the point: “You are a peculiar people.” When we do it right, it will be uncomfortable. We will seem peculiar, out of step with the status quo. When we do it right, we’ll look a little funny to the folks around us.

You are disobedient … but you are destined.

One of the best movie lines ever is the line from the old movie, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The move is half animation, half real people. Eddie Valiant is the real-life detective and Jessica Rabbit is this animated version of voluptuousness. One day they are together and she is telling him how hard it is to be her — how misunderstood she is — and in a sultry-and-sinful voice she explains, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

Which is a brilliant line, because she is actually an animated cartoon figure. But the line is also theologically profound (which I’m sure is exactly what they were going for). This is the human condition. We are drawn that way — toward disobedience. Never get too far from acknowledging that you are saved by grace, that on your own you are a “sinful man.” You are a mixed bag, a mess … but you are God’s mess. You are a person with a destiny, a purpose. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, created to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Scot McKnight asks a profound question: Who is capable of this calling? No one. Not on our strength. We are holy only by association. Our identity must be in Christ.

You are chosen and rejected … precious and peculiar … disobedient and destined.

You are a mixed bag, and so am I. And as we are, we are chosen. Chosen. As you go, remember that you are chosen. Remember who you are and whose you are and remember, too, that your chosenness only works when your “I am” is tethered to his “I am.”

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Waiting in the Valley of Perseverance

Three days ago, I’d never heard of a rover called Opportunity or the Valley of Perseverance. I first heard about it from the Holy Spirit himself. I’m in one of those seasons right now. It isn’t darkness, exactly, but it is dimmer than usual. There is a subtle resistance in my spirit, a sense that I’m having to work just to keep moving, having to press through when I’d rather lay low. We all have those times when it feels more like walking through mud than walking on water, and I’m in one of those. I wouldn’t classify it as depression or doubt or fear or even anxiety. Nor is this a time when God seems silent. To the contrary, he seems remarkably close. My times in his presence are rich. I can hear his voice. That makes me suspect there is more to this season than a bad mood.

But what to call it, then? When I asked the Lord about it — “Lord, am I sliding backward? Am I spiraling down into an old familiar darkness?” — here’s what I heard: “This is the Valley of Perseverance.” I’d never heard of such a valley. I assumed it was in the Bible somewhere, but I couldn’t recall where so I looked it up.

It isn’t in there.

The Valley of Perseverance is a place on Mars, and I’m just finding out about it though it happens to be in the news right now. Earlier this year the rover named Opportunity got stuck there. Somewhere in mid-June, a dust storm kicked up, a big one that has since grown to epic proportions. Because Opportunity is powered by solar energy, the severe dust is keeping the rover’s solar panels from being able to absorb light. So now, two months into this storm, there sits Opportunity surrounded by dust and grounded, unable to charge its batteries for the lack of light.

Researchers monitoring the situation are hopeful for two things to happen. Eventually, the dust storm will settle, they assume, though that won’t be the end of Opportunity’s challenges. When the dust settles, it will inevitably settle on the rover’s solar panels, solving nothing. The second hope after the dust settles is that a wind will blow through and clear the panels of dust. This is a quote from a NASA report on the situation (but doesn’t it sound like something out of Isaiah?): “The sun breaks through the haze over the Valley of Perseverance, and soon the light there should be enough to allow Opportunity to charge its batteries.”

But for now, the only option open is to wait it out. 

I’m stunned by this revelation, taken by it. That God would draw from this story to speak to my inner angst is powerful. It reminds me that he is not just my friend, or even the God whose got the whole world in his hands. He is the God of the universe, and certainly big enough to hold me in the valleys.

In this word, he has shown me that not all down days (or weeks, or seasons) are generic. Some of them are specific and require a specific response. This one I’m in? This is the “dust” of a flurry of projects and responsibilities running concurrently. Most of them are not storms of my own making. They are moments and circumstances and situations with expiration dates that require my patient endurance as they play out. Weighty though they are, most are best conquered with waiting. Doing nothing, even.  Sometimes circumstances beyond our control will necessitate our sitting in the Valley of Perseverance for a season. Nothing to do but wait it out.

But the waiting proves us. And shapes us.

In Paul’s encouragement to first-century Christians dealing with pressures of faith, he writes that “suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2b-4). Perseverance in Paul’s use of it is about handling pressure with grace. It is a solid biblical word that gives one the sense of a floor beneath the feet in confusing times. It is a prescription for allowing tough seasons to build character.

So I hear you, Holy Spirit: Hang in there. Wait. Don’t force things. This storm will pass. The dust will settle. The wind will blow. The light will shine. The batteries will recharge.  As with Opportunity, who sits on a far planet also under Your gaze, the call is to persevere, and to use this waiting to build character.

It is a good word, and a gift. I hear it. Give me courage and wisdom enough to let it form me.

Lord, give us wisdom and patience to wait out the storms, the dust, and the confusion. Give us grace to endure seasons in the Valley of Perseverance, so we can again draw strength from your light and move beyond this place.

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Churches are Not McDonalds Any More

In the world before denominations began to disintegrate (and they are, but that’s not the real point of this post), people largely chose their churches based on the label. I am United Methodist (or Presbyterian, or Primitive Baptist), so that’s the label I’m looking for. To a much greater degree, we could count on a church with a given label to look like all the other churches with that label. Sort of like McDonalds, which (at least in the U.S.) serves the same hamburger, no matter which state you buy it in.

That was then. This is now.

In this post-denominational culture, two churches with the same label can be radically different in style and theology. With the promotion of the One Church plan within the UMC, this becomes more likely still. While we may grieve the decline of a more predictable world, this might actually be a good thing.

What if the trend in this post-denominational world actually frees us up to think theologically again?

Chances are, when all the shakin’ going on in the denominational world settles down, Christians will gather more intentionally around theology. We won’t be able to trust the labels any more, so we will find ourselves engaging more intentionally, evaluating not just style but what is taught and lived. This could well lead to a revival among those who think, believe and live with a Wesleyan mindset.

Dr. Joe Dongell, one of my all-time favorite professors at Asbury Theological Seminary, has assembled what he calls twelve essential features of a Wesleyan mind. After making this list, Dongell concluded that he’d still missed what Wesley himself might call the defining mark of a Methodist: love of God and people (both neighbor and enemy).

Acknowledging that love is the prize, I offer his list here for those who want to better understand what it means to live with an emphasis on holiness of heart and life:

  1. Wesley was a man of one book. He called himself at one point a Bible bigot (someone focused upon and devoted to the Bible). For Wesley, the Bible was the touchstone of all truth. In contemporary circles, the Bible has been devalued to the point of being called “a valued resource.”
  2. Wesley did value reason, tradition and experience, but scripture has final authority.
  3. Wesley was Arminian, which means he was convinced we were created with a measure of free will.
  4. Wesley viewed the process of salvation optimistically. God can do amazing things, and can do them in you and me. God’s grace is so vibrant, so rich, that we can be changed in very real ways.
  5. Wesley viewed the human being as perfectible in certain ways.
  6. Wesley was convinced that all progress in the spiritual life comes through the means of grace. God has revealed pathways in which we walk, so we confidently embrace these paths. And possibly at the pinnacle of these means is the Lord’s Supper.
  7. Wesley believed all progress in the Christian life comes within the company of believers. We progress within the crucible of accountability and community.
  8. Wesley was convinced that every human being is desired by God to be saved, and God is constantly at work pursuing every human being. God is at work reconciling the world to himself.
  9. Wesley insisted that poor and marginalized people be cared for and that their suffering be relieved in both body and soul.
  10. Wesley was convinced that God desired to ensure our trust in our salvation. We can know we belong to him, not only through rational confirmation but also through the Spirit bearing witness to our spirit.
  11. Wesley knew that the transforming grace of God works at the deepest level of my being — beneath intellect and choice to the place of our affections (the deepest set of inclinations we have). God has the power to affect us and reorient us at a deeper level than our will, at the level of our core. Can I come to love holiness and be sickened by unholiness? Can I discover a delight in the deeper things of God?
  12. Wesley believed we must always embrace a catholic spirit. “If your heart is with me, give me your hand.” We must find ways to cooperate meaningfully even with those with whom we disagree.

Of course, I’m unashamedly biased about all these things. I happen to think highly of this way of looking at God and the world. When it was preached in its purest form, this worldview spread like wildfire across the early American landscape. Judging by the number of twenty-somethings at Seedbed’s annual New Room Conference, I am greatly encouraged to see that this way is still just as engaging today.

If you’re looking for a place to worship and call home, I can’t do better than to offer the above thoughts as a litmus test as you discern.

Because these days, the label doesn’t count like it used to.

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Let’s take the world by force

Jesus never moves far from the topic of the Kingdom of God.  He is always trying to get us to see it, grasp it, embrace it.  It is like a seed, like soil, like leaven, like something valuable buried in a field. Something ordinary, sometimes hidden, that possesses an unexpected strength.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus uses a word that reveals yet another surprising thing about the Kingdom.  He says, ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12).  Another version phrases it this way:  “The Kingdom has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force.”

The Greek word used here is biazetai.  Depending on how you use it in a sentence, it can have either of the meanings noted above (“suffering violence” or “forcefully advancing”), though they are markedly different.

So which is it?

Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?  Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is it suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes.*  The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark, of a kind of deafness to the sound of holiness.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If John (and we) wants to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, tell him this: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

That’s why John was asking questions. Because this isn’t what he expected. He (and we) want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, God’s Kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like average people talking over coffee, telling stories of transformation. “This is how Jesus changed my life.”  

It looks like someone taking a box of food to single mom simply for the privilege of praying with her for better days. It looks like groups of people quietly gathering in buildings to bind up broken hearts and proclaim freedom to captives. It is people praying it forward, praying hopefully toward the day when there is no more pain, no more tears, no more racism, no more adultery, murder, divorce, anger, unrighteous judgment.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of ordinary souls to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so no one is left behind. It is seeds, leaven, oil, a cup of water, time, patience, stories.

That’s the force of it and for a lot of people that’s an offense.  It simply isn’t what we expect.

But that, Jesus seems to say, is how it is done.

 

* Some years ago, I heard Dr. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, preach on this verse and his remarks have stayed with me.

 

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Ten myths about suffering

While it is true, technically speaking, that “everything happens for a reason,” the truer fact is that not all reasons are justifiable. Some reasons stink. There was a reason behind the Holocaust, but it was an evil reason. There was a reason behind 9/11, but again, not a good one. There is a reason why people murder people and why people die unexpectedly, but the reason may not have anything to do with why or how much we suffer. And the reason certainly may not have been a God-inspired one.

All suffering is not good or of God, but the great news of the Bible is that God can redeem anything. Here are ten truths about suffering to build hope into your life:

1. Myth:  Suffering is caused by my sin (it is always my fault).
Truth:  Disaster, other people’s sinfulness and the state of the fallen world are all causes of suffering, and none of that is my fault.  

Do you remember that scene in The Sound of Music when Maria and the Captain confess their love for each other? She sings this line to explain her current good fortune: “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good” (fyi: unless you’re Hindu, that’s not sound theology). Most of us, when it comes to our pain and suffering, tend to sing the same tune with different words. “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something bad.” Somewhere, I screwed up and now God is after me. Philip Yancey reminds us in his book — Where is God When It Hurts? — that “the book of Job (in the Old Testament) should nail a coffin lid over the idea that every time we suffer it is because God is punishing us or trying to tell us something.”

2. Myth:  Suffering is caused by your sin (it is never my fault). 
Truth:  At least some of my suffering is the result of my own poor choices, my decision to act against God’s law.  

It is a very human thing to encounter suffering and ask, “Who started it?” But even if it isn’t always our fault, to say that our suffering is never our fault is not biblical, either. At least some of our suffering is the result of our own poor choices. Think “texting and driving,” for instance.

3. Myth:  Not all suffering is the result of sin (sometimes, as the old bumper sticker says, stuff just happens).
Truth:  All suffering is the result of sin – either mine, yours, or Adam and Eve’s (the fallen world).  
If it isn’t always my fault and it isn’t always your fault, sometimes it must be no one’s fault, right? Wrong. Directly or indirectly, all suffering is the result of sin — either mine, yours, Satan’s, or Adam and Eve’s (the fallen world). Suffering is not part of God’s original design. It is an effect of the fallen world. We know this intuitively, because we don’t believe we will suffer in Heaven. We know it biblically, because everything in the Garden was good.

4. Myth:  All suffering is good (God loves to see us suffer, because it makes us better people).
Truth: “Suffering is never good in itself, but God is able to use it for good in a number of different ways.”

We suffer from too many bad cliches about suffering. God does not need another angel. Everything does not happen for a good reason. And even if God will give us strength to handle anything, we don’t always want to be strong. Side note for those wanting to comfort a friend who is suffering: Sometimes words are not the best help; sometimes just being there is.

5. Myth:  All suffering is bad (God wants us to avoid it at all costs).
Truth:  God can use suffering to draw us to Christ, bring us to Christian maturity, and make our lives more fruitful.

God has a knack for redeeming the most unlikely things. C. S. Lewis says, “Pain is God’s megaphone.”

6. Myth:  All my suffering is God’s fault (I’ve done so much wrong that God has rejected me).
Truth: God’s grace separates us from our sin.

Gods’ grace is always greater than our sin.  Period.

7.  Myth:  All my suffering is Satan’s fault (I am a threat to Satan and he’s trying to ruin my life).
Truth: While all suffering is caused by sin and all sin is the property of Satan, it is not wise to avoid personal responsibility for what happens in our lives

My guess is that the enemy of our souls spends his energy on the ones who are a threat to his kingdom.  The rest of us, he just watches for entertainment.

8.  Myth:  If I pray enough, I won’t suffer.
Truth:  If I pray enough, I can expect to suffer (see truth #7, sentence #1).

James 1:2 says, “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you face trials of many kinds.” Notice that James did not say, “if you face trials” but, “when you face trials.” Whether we are the Lord’s or not, we will suffer.

9.  Myth:  If I suffer, I must be a great Christian.
Truth:  Nice try (see truth #2 and truth #7).

While not all suffering is holy, God is not afraid of suffering. He is not afraid of pain. He will allow us to live in it until we finally come to the end of ourselves and take hold of his love. How amazing to think, as Corrie ten Boom once said, that “there is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

10. Myth: All Christians suffer greatly on earth.
Truth: All people suffer, and that should prompt us to pray for the Kingdom to come. 

Everyone struggles. Everyone has bad days, everyone grieves, everyone sins, everyone makes mistakes. In the final analysis, it isn’t whether or not we will suffer, but what we do with it that counts. That’s the mark of Christlikeness. What we do with our suffering proves what we really believe about Christ’s ability to make good out of anything.

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Let your longings work for you.

(Today’s post comes with deep gratitude to the Holy Spirit for the spiritual spadework that has placed me in a much better frame of mind and spirit than when I wrote this fourteen months ago. Thank God for progress.)

I’ve been in a season.

The worst of it is that this season seems typical of people like me — middle-aged, empty-nested, hard-working. It looks like I’m just unfulfilled and cranky.

Nothing could be further from the truth (well, maybe cranky … but certainly not unfulfilled). I love my family, my work, this stage of life. I love Jesus and am motivated to plumb the depths of following him. I love my people, and have no desire to escape them. Mine is not a mid-life crisis, though it does look like a yearning for something more. Or different. Something.

The yearning has frustrated me. I’ve flailed about looking for the cause, blaming it on my own lack of progress in my main area of ministry. That is usually my dafault setting. If things don’t “feel” right, ministry must be to blame. I seem to live in a chronic state of discontent with what can be but isn’t. Sometimes the discontent motivates me to try harder; most of the time, I allow those frustrations to push me right down into a pit of discouragement.

A friend who lovingly listened to my angst said she suspects I’ve been misdiagnosing my longings. She has heard me sing this song before. Hearing the same tune again, my friend asked a profound question: “What if you let the longing work for you, and not against you?”

She went on to poke around in my spirit and we discovered that yes … my deepest desires are vertical, not horizontal. I do want to know the heart of God. Far more than temporary successes, I hunger for deeper encounters with the Holy Spirit. I long for eternal things. My spirit resonates deeply with Paul’s: “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). I am grateful to know the Holy Spirit groans with me when I don’t have words to express my own deep yearnings (Romans 8:26).

Yet, the frustrations and unidentified aggravations that mark life have been trained by time and repetition to roll down into some undefined rut of unfulfillment — manifesting as empty complaints, causing me to search for cures in the wrong places. Work harder, my frustrations urge. Or look for an escape hatch. Netflix. Mindless surfing. Words with Friends. Anything to divert me from transcendence.

But what if our longings are not for things we can consume, but for something else entirely — something deeper, more legitimate, like Heaven, or the Kingdom to come or for deeper, more intimate communion with God? What if they are for worship or for the souls of lost people waiting to be found? Surely this would be a better target for my longings. Is it possible it is also the right target? Is it possible that what feels like frustration over the horizontal is actually our whole spirit groaning for the eternal? For transcendence, because that is how we’re made?

Misdiagnosing causes us to lean out, to allow our lack of spiritual imagination to steal all the good and eternal out of what ought to be holy longings. Misdiagnosis saps us of spiritual productivity. On the wrong trajectory, our groans work against us. No wonder so many middle-aged people buy Harleys. We’ve lost our ability to interpret the wordless yearnings of the Spirit.

How would a fresh diagnosis of your own deep longings change your next choice? How would it alter your prayer life, your work life, your church life, your next conversation with God, with someone in the waiting room with you? Are you leaning out, when you should be leaning in?

Go to the limits of your longing, the poet advises. Flare up like a flame. Don’t let your last emotion get the last word. Rise above. Get in touch again with the Holy Spirit. Let your longings take you toward the Kingdom, which is home for you.

 

*I’m grateful to Ruth Burgner who deserves so much credit for asking life-giving questions.

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The character of a Methodist

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

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

What does it mean to be Methodist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to use your pastor

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

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

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

Love them (but don’t idolize them).

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

Expect holiness (from both of you).

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

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

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

Do your part.

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

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

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

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The Mystery and Glory of Communion with God

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

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

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

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

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

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