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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You can pick your friends …

In the book of John, beginning at chapter 13, there is an interesting shift in how Jesus deals with the people he calls “friend.” First, he does this radical thing where he gets down on his knees and washes their feet. He wants to serve them and model for them what humility in the context of friendship looks like. With that image in mind, he tells them about the cross, his death, and God’s design.

The point, Jesus tells them, is connection. Not casual relationship, but deep connection. “Abide in me as I abide in you” (In the margin of an old Bible, I wrote, “Hang out with me as I hang out with you”). Jesus calls his friends to deep and abiding love, the kind that sees not obligation but the joy of serving, of being, of vulnerable-but-safe connection.

The best word for what Jesus describes in word and deed in that scene is the Hebrew word ahava. Often translated as “love,” it literally means, “I give,” or “to give of yourself.” Jesus’ brand of friendship is ahava friendship — a sacrificial, transparent transaction. It draws from the very nature of God, who is at his core a giver. When we draw on that kind of love in our vertical relationship and put it to work in our horizontal relationships, we are drawing down the very power of God. When that power flows in both directions, it is synergistic.

Jesus was known — not favorably (see Matthew 11:18-19) — for being a friend of sinners and people with bad reputations. Further, Jesus recommended that the community of faith become a place where all kinds of people could feel safe. Jesus didn’t excuse sin; he made room for transformation within the context of community.

Likewise, the church is meant to be a place where sinners and outsiders find ahava friendship … but here’s what I’ve noticed. I have noticed that many of us tend to compartmentalize our relationships. We have our family in one compartment, our “real friends” in another, our co-workers in still another.

All our relationships … all in their little compartments.

And then there are the church folk we sit with on Sundays and maybe even study the Bible with during the week … good people but not our friends. Not in the ahava sense of that term. Not in the “let’s eat and drink and laugh together so much that people think we’re drunk” sense of that term.

In fact, often — not always but often — our relationships with church folk tend to be more on the level of taking. We betray ourselves by the language we use. We “church-shop.” And not for a place we can pour in and invest, but for a place we can “be fed.” This is a taker’s attitude and we announce it from the outset as if it is a perfectly acceptable way to ferret out a good church: “I’m looking for a place where I can be fed.”

Brothers and sisters, this is a dangerous mentality for followers of Jesus. It simply is not biblical. 

(Confession: Last week, I was talking to a church group in another town and heard myself say — completely unrehearsed — that anyone who says they aren’t being fed by a church should be shot on the spot. “Do that two or three times,” I pronounced passionately, even as my more loving self tried to stop me, “and everyone else will get the message.” Probably that wasn’t my best moment, but you get the point, right?)

Here’s what many church people do. We come, we sit, we receive … and when we get mad, we leave. In our desire to “be fed,” we become takers and in that process, we distort the mission of the Body of Christ on earth.

In the very place where we learn ahava love, we don’t have a habit of practicing it. Meanwhile, Jesus gets busted for eating and drinking with sinners.

Following Jesus is not just a willingness but an enthusiasm (a passion) for giving, serving, loving, making room at a dinner table for sinners. Based on that scene in John 13, it seems to me that at all the tables where Jesus shows up, there are two brands of people: sinners and servants. And because the community of faith is the place where I can best practice that, then my commitment to a church is to either repent of my sin, or serve others at the table.

Or both. As far as I can tell, those are the only two options we’re given, and neither of them presupposed a “taker’s” posture.

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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.

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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

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How I almost quit (and why you shouldn’t)

Today, I quit being a Christian.

That was the leading line in a Miami Herald article by Annie Rice, author of The Vampire Chronicles. Annie was a self-proclaimed atheist who eventually returned to the Church.* Now she has decided Jesus is okay but the Church is not. In the article, Annie says, “I remain committed to Christ as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

I assume there are a world of people like out there like Annie. You may be among them — one of those people who likes Jesus but the church … not so much. If you are attached to my denomination that may be compounded by a sense of frustration that borders on hopeless.

Maybe you’ve decided you have no room in your life for that kind of hassle. It is easier to stay home and be angry than to contend with a broken system. I get that. If Jesus weren’t real, I’d find easier ways to spend my Sunday mornings and my work life. But let me share why I think the Church — and your church — is worth the hassle and your allegiance.

It is simple, really: Jesus is head of the Church. He is the founding pastor. He cast a vision for it after his resurrection, then set it in motion at his ascension. In fact, a lot of the New Testament is Paul working out his theology of Church in the context of first-generation churches. They are, he concludes, in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

Let me say that again: We who follow Jesus are in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

How do you quit that, exactly?  I’m not sure you can, and still call yourself a follower of Jesus. This isn’t about a particular tribe or flavor. What I’m talking about here is the life of Christ on earth, signified by the community he has called together.

What do we do, if we don’t like what we’ve got, but don’t have permission to quit?

1. Repent for your own short-sightedness. This is where God has had me in the time since our United Methodist General Conference in 2016. For years, I’d been in an internal “quit” mode where the UMC is concerned. A long time ago, I lost my patience for what we have and was looking for an exit door.

I wanted to quit.

I expected to find a “door out” at last year’s General Conference but then something happened, something no one expected. It seems as if God had decided to do a new thing. And I didn’t see it coming.

More explicitly, I didn’t believe God was big enough to change the tide of a denomination … or that he cared. I write that now with such heavy contrition. I under-estimated His capacity to make a way in the desert, to cut streams through the wasteland. God moved in a surprising, redemptive way last year in our denomination and I almost missed him. That is cause for repentance, for course correction, for humility in the face of all I may not have eyes to see. I don’t know where God is taking us, but He has given me a new heart for the 11 million people called Methodist, and I want to be respond to that gift faithfully.

2. Pray and live prophetically for the future of the Church. Prophets learn to hear the voice of God, to see where he is working. Then they put that into language that edifies the body of Christ and instructs the surrounding culture. The Church in the U.S. is starving for people willing to pray and speak boldly into both church and culture. We starve for prophets unafraid of being a peculiar people — holy, chosen, strange in the sense of being … well …

Strange. Different. A light in the darkness.

I’m talking about people with faith enough to say, “I see something beyond the obvious here, something that ought to change your sense of reality.” We need prophets who keep us focused on the big picture. We need folks who understand the ramifications of our leadership choices.

3. Actively practice your gifts. Whatever your gift, practice it (note: complaining is not a valid spiritual gift). Become a valuable contributor to God’s work on earth. This is how the Kingdom comes. Besides, if you don’t lead, who will?

4. Don’t quit. As we cultivate the gift of prophecy, we begin to see with clarity that God is indeed working. It may not be obvious to the naked eye but He has not given up on this world, nor has he given up on the Church.

Jesus has not quit. Not you. Not the Church. Not the world.

Which is to say that the world is not the problem. The world is the prize.

 

*Church with a capital “C” refers to the Church in general, wherever it exists around the world. “Church” with a small “c” refers to a particular church, like your Baptist church or my Methodist one.

 

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A Big Week for United Methodists

Some days, it is just good to be Methodist. This Friday will be one of those days.

In my (admittedly narrow) world, this is a big week. About 1,700 pastors and assorted others will gather in Chicago this Friday for the inaugural gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. This group has been in formation for about a year. Other groups preceded it but failed to gain momentum. The WCA seems to be the right response at the right time and it has gathered steam quickly since the announcement of its existence in mid-summer.

What most excites me about the WCA is that the leadership seems genuinely to be what it is — a diverse group of people transparently seeking a strong Spirit-infused movement within the Methodist tradition. I am part of that movement but I come to this rather late in the game. Many in the room have been working toward UMC renewal for years. I was mostly looking for a door out until General Conference this year convinced me I should be doing otherwise.

I like that our process has been thoughtful, prayerful and theological. We have not allowed ourselves to be “blown about by winds of doctrine,” nor have we succumbed to rash emotion. Our tenor in conversation has been gracious but firm; our by-laws are the product of much deliberation among pastors, theologians and elders in the UMC. Our singular purpose is the emergence of a more vibrant, warm-hearted, global, biblically-rooted Methodism that honors God and the traditions of the centuries.

Mostly, we want to see our denomination go someplace spiritually because if it doesn’t, what would make us any different than any other non-profit? I hear echoes of Moses’ question to the Lord in Exodus 33: “Is it not in your going with us … that we are distinct from all the other people on earth?”

Indeed, unless God is with us, none of this will matter. If he is, then what happens on Friday may well be history-making. Some have wanted a more solid prediction of just how all this will unfold as we go forward. The answer with the most integrity is: we don’t know. It would be unwise to prescribe a future with so many variables in play. This group hasn’t even met yet; we sure don’t want to get ahead of God by making predictions prematurely. Think of this as a more organic, less political process.

And of course, no one can predict what will happen with the Commission on a Way Forward but waiting for that group to convene is the right thing to do. We are grateful to hear that the appointments are being made to that group and a plan is in motion for them to begin deliberating. Praise God for progress. While we wait, the WCA will provide a voice and a place to land for faithful United Methodists. Friday’s gathering will be the beginning, and those who attend will help to shape its future.

What we know now is this: this is not a gathering of politicians, warriors or angry protestors.  This is a groundswell of genuine concern for the direction our church is taking. It is a strong but grace-filled response to the call of General Conference to think together about our best way forward. All of us who call ourselves Methodist should be praying this week that Friday’s gathering honors the very best in the Church of Jesus Christ.

I’m proud of those who are making this step together. It represents strength and leadership. In fact, I would say this gathering represents the best face of  Wesleyan orthodoxy. This Wesleyan Covenant is the kind of religion James talked about — faith married to action. It is a passion for serving others without letting the world get the best of us. It is about doing ministry and doing it better and doing it in ways that highlight our brand of theology, because that’s what we have to offer the Body of Christ.

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