The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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Evaluate your list and improve your discipling system.

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” – Revelation 3:15-16

Funny that we humans tend to fear failure when “lukewarm” is the real danger, according to the risen Jesus. The Holy Spirit brought this verse to mind recently, challenging me to survey my life and get honest about the places where I’m practicing lukewarm living. There are obvious places, of course. I’m never going to get that early morning devotional hour consistently “right” in the way I think “right” should look. I stink at fasting, though I have never sensed God releasing me from the need to press in to it.

Then there are the not-so-obvious places, like list-keeping. As I explore ways to “warm up” the way I relate to others as a pastor, I am discovering that the lists I keep are a way I can treasure people. In fact, I hear the Holy Spirit teaching me that lists are a key to both treasuring and mobilizing lay people.

Simply put, a good list sparked by the fuel of the Holy Spirit can start a fire. If our lists are not current, accurate and hopeful, how can we expect the people in our communities to know what we’re doing, what is needed and what is effectively drawing down the Kingdom into our midst?

With that in mind, here are a few questions to help you get started on the path toward building a better list of people:

Is your list current? Does your list include everyone who is involved at any level right now in your ministry? Is your leadership list up to date? Is your participant list up to date? Does it include the latest information on every person? Do you have a clear and easy system, so the information can be accessed quickly when the need arises?

And are you sensitive in the ways you communicate, both to those just joining and those who have asked to step away?

A few months ago, I found myself on one Board too many. I asked to be removed from a Board on which I was serving. I sent a nicely worded email explaining my decision to be removed. I heard nothing.  Meanwhile, group emails for this Board continued to include me so I had no idea whether or not they’d gotten my notice.  I emailed again. No response. I called. No return call … and still, the group emails kept coming. Finally, I got a response and not that I needed it, but I noticed that the last communication I received included no “thanks for serving” or even a word of understanding. They just dropped me.

Meanwhile, I noticed recently just how well another Board on which I have served honors those who step down. They held a dinner, gave a gift and said nice things about those people who were leaving. It was a great way to honor people who had given time and gifts to that organization.

Keeping a current list helps you honor people (see, hear and treasure them) as they come and go. I have learned, too, that when families move to other churches the kindest thing I can do is offer my blessing. I’ll admit: it is hard. I hate seeing people move on. But if I can’t trust God with their hearts and bless them on their way, I’ll have no opportunity to be there when they need someone down the road.

(Side note: If I could instill a four-word caution into every pastor who serves well, it would be these four words: Pick up the phone and call. When people are hurting, when life changes happen, when you know something is up … call. It makes a ton of difference, and I believe it proves emotional maturity.)

Is your list accurate? Does it include all contact info (phone, email, Facebook, street address, work number, birthdate … anything that might connect you meaningfully to others)? Does your list reflect life changes? People notice when they are still listed with a spouse after a divorce, for instance. You may not have made that mental shift yet, but they certainly have. Caring for that informational change shows respect and sensitivity.

Every Monday morning, our staff passes around a list of names of every person in our orbit. We put hundreds of names into the hands of every leader each week and ask them to mark off three with whom they will be in personal touch before the week is out. We tend to choose folks we haven’t talked to in a while. We send notes, make coffee appointments, text, email and call … whatever it takes to be intentionally in touch in a way that makes them know not just that they are remembered, but that we care about their spiritual progress.

(Side note: the most asked question at Mosaic is, “How is it with your soul?”)

Is your list hopeful? Does your list include not only current volunteers/leaders/participants, but also emerging volunteers/leaders/participants? I’m thinking about the person who might be on the verge of a new level of involvement, the person who isn’t stepping up now but could be. One leader on our staff team developed a list of current leaders, a list of potential leaders and another list of “potential-potential” leaders. This list was one of his discipleship tools. It was also a way to be intentional about speaking prophetically into people’s lives, calling out what we see that they don’t.

An active list helps us cultivate the potential in others, leading them from “lukewarm” to “on fire.” Who needs to be on your list, so they can begin to receive more regular communication from you, so they can begin to get acclimated to the next level of involvement? Lists that focus on emerging leaders are a great tool for intentionally mobilizing laity.

Most of all, is your list being used? Healthy, consistent communication requires a list and a list helps us to consistently, effectively communicate.

Are people on your teams and in your orbit hearing from you regularly, beyond the time they take to walk into the building? Are they receiving regular, constructive (and spiritual) communication from you mid-week? Back in my marketing days, we used to say, “If you want your list to work, then work your list.” Its true. If we want to flatten the power structure in our churches, if we want to involve more and more volunteers in ministry, if we want to see every member engaged and using their gifts, we have to immerse them in the culture of our community. And that happens with healthy, consistent communication — communicating the needs, inviting participation, building the relationships, strengthening the connections. And picking up the phone to have solid spiritual conversations.

Bottom line: A current, accurate and hopeful list is a way to treasure people. It keeps the fires of the Holy Spirit stoked. It communicates, “You are part of the family and your life matters.” It tends to souls and puts us in line with our mission, which is not primarily to build attendance but to make disciples. Tend to this, and everything else will be fall in line.

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Three Core Values That Shape Ministry Culture

For years, our church made decisions based on someone’s willingness to follow through. If you were willing to take the lead, we were happy to make your project part of our purpose. The upshot of that way of doing church was that we ended up, missionally, being a mile wide and an inch deep.

Then we decided to put some values on paper. We called together a small group of leaders to think, pray and talk about what is most important to us as followers of Jesus and as a community of faith. From the dozens of conversations, post-it pages and bullet points, we distilled three core values that drive our life together. We sensed we were already living these values intuitively, but having them on paper has given us a kind of authority and freedom we didn’t anticipate.

These are simple values but for us, profound. To make our values memorable, we call them JAC:

Jesus is at the center of everything we do. As a church, we have the best answer to the deepest question anyone will ever ask: “How do I get saved … from my crisis, my darkness, my pain?” We have the one answer with power to offer real hope: Jesus.  Our core value, greatest strength and biggest contribution to our community is the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and at Mosaic, we are hungry to share a fair account of that good news with everyone with whom we come in contact. If our hunger meets the world’s deep need, then why would we spend our limited time, energy and resources on anything that doesn’t have Jesus at the center? If Jesus isn’t in it, we’re not interested.

All people matter. Jesus said he came to preach good news to the poor, freedom for the captives and healing for those who are oppressed (Luke 4). He sent his followers out to heal the sick, cast out demons and cure disease (Luke 9). But here’s the thing:  In order to cast out demons, you have to get within spitting-distance of demon-possessed people (many of whom spit …). To heal disease you have to get up close and personal with all manner of sick people. To proclaim freedom to captives in any kind of meaningful way, you have to have enough of a relationship to understand what oppresses them. Jesus modeled that kind of ministry. He spent most of his time with people in the margins. He demonstrated love and honor toward those who didn’t fit into the usual molds. Since those were his people, those are our people, too. We have intentionally cultivated a welcoming spirit that helps people feel safe enough when they come so they will stay long enough to get honest about the things that oppress them.

Community is essential. At Mosaic, we often say there are no lone rangers. We promote small groups, recovery groups, mission and ministry teams, because we believe healing, mission, spiritual formation and leadership development best happen in the context of community … but not just any community. Ours is a community rooted in Christ. We as a church are bold enough to proclaim that we literally share the life of Jesus Christ by being in community. Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Christianity means community in Jesus Christ and through Jesus Christ …  We belong to each other only through and in Jesus Christ.” It is Jesus who binds us together, and Jesus who gives our life together a purpose bigger than the combined total of “us.” We also believe passionately that healing happens in community, so we have no logical reason to offer anything to anyone that doesn’t include an encouragement to join us.

I believe that any church that shapes ministry around these simple values will begin to feel more like a first-century community and less like an over-burdened institution. These values call out mission and make the most of the fruit of the Spirit. At Mosaic, they are helping us love God and love others with more integrity.

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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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Haters gonna hate.

Let’s talk about hate.

In the first few verses of the Bible, we meet our God in his trinitarian wholeness. The Father creates, the Son speaks, the Spirit hovers. This Trinitarian God partners within himself in the work of creation. You can sense his single-mindedness — the energy flowing within Himself creating goodness. There is no sense of hierarchy here. In fact, a hierarchy within the Trinity would tear at the fabric of unity and prove our faith in one God to be a lie.

God is love, and within himself he is in complete unity and complete partnership. This is the substance and character of our God.

Humans were created in the likeness of this loving God, so the first two chapters of Genesis tell the story of humans being created as partners in the work of stewarding God’s creation. Side by side, male and female were to tend the land, govern the animals and be intimately unified. There was a creative energy and goodness between them. As with the one, true God, a hierarchy among humans would tear at the fabric of created design.

And yet, this is precisely what happened at the Fall. In Genesis 3, we learn that the enemy of God turned what was created as a partnership into a hierarchy. Ever since, humans have battled for control. This battle rages across genders, races, languages (in some countries, hierarchies are established by what language you know), nations … you name it. On this side of Genesis 3, fallen humanity is conditioned for division. If we can pit things against each other, we will. It is our ungodly inclination to compete, compare and control. This inclination is an incubator for hatred.

If God is love, then the enemy of God is hatred incarnate and that hatred has become the primary driver of unholy hierarchies. Whether we sense it dramatically or subliminally, it is this pull toward hierarchy that causes us to rank one another in order to justify our own value.

Let me state the obvious and say that hierarchy and hate are at the root of white supremacy and pretty much all the other hate-filled expressions of protest that surface not just in our country but around the world. Haters are obsessed with creating the kind of hierarchies that rank everyone not like them as “lesser than.” Most of us are appalled by the extremes to which the “real” haters will go. The “real” ones make the news. They have become so hardened by their own proclivities that they will shamelessly stand in the public square and spew their hate without the slightest sense of their absurdity.

The real haters are enemies of God, and what they do deserves our immediate and direct condemnation. There is never an option for a follower of Jesus to hate people. Never. What we so often see in the public square is simply not reflective of the heart of Christ. Our constant pull as Christians must always be against hate and toward genuine love.

Christians never have the option to hate other people or to act in hateful ways. 

This does not mean I will always agree with you, or you with me. There are things worth our righteous anger and sharp opposition. It does mean we are required by the law of Christ to treat one another as human beings, to treat with decency even those whose values are in direct opposition to ours. This is a sticking point for those of us who follow Jesus, many of whom have confused holiness with hierarchy. We cannot allow our pursuit of holiness to devalue others. Not politically, racially, or in any other of a million different ways we compete, compare, control.

This isn’t the way of Christ.

Somehow we have to learn how to talk in the public square about the things on which we disagree — and even acknowledge our disagreements as uncompromising — without labeling everything that doesn’t look like us as hate-generating or worse, as “less than.” After all, the ground beneath the cross is level.

Brothers and sisters, somehow we have to learn how to fight fair again, to engage in public debate so that honest differences can be acknowledged in mature and loving ways without devaluing one another. Because as long as we live on this side of Genesis 3, haters are going to hate but Christians simply can’t. It is not how we are designed, and it is not how we honor a loving God.

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The Methodist Middle or the Global Center?

On any given Sunday, United Methodist churches gather to worship God in nearly 60 nations around the globe. Across multiple time zones, languages and cultures, our tribe attempts to be a witness to Christ in a hurting world. The one entity – and the only entity — that speaks for that international witness is the General Conference, a global body. It is smack dab in the center of what it means to be United Methodist.

Regrettably, that body — and our United Methodist Church — is in a season of crisis. The Greek word krisis means “to separate, distinguish, judge,” and can apply to both positive and negative experiences. A crisis can be an opportunity to shake loose the needless and redeem the needful. I am convinced that all of us in the UM Church, no matter what theological position we take, are hoping for a positive end to a crisis-heavy season.

A group of clergy within our denomination have recently organized themselves under the banner of the Methodist Middle. For those of us supportive of the global Methodist center, we welcome these voices. This is a big denomination and everyone should have an opportunity to be heard.

It is charitably fair to assume that the Methodist Middle was not looking for a crisis. Who would? While they’ve been more hopeful, progressives and conservatives (or traditionalists or orthodox believers), have felt the pressure of a growing tension. Truth be told, those in the Middle have felt it, too, though in a different way. They’ve struggled to hold the tensions together in one hand and may even consider themselves the voice of tempered reason in a world of extremes. It must be frustrating to find themselves now — after years of asking us not to take sides — creating a “side.” As the Middle organizes and communicates with the average layperson, allow me to make a few observations and one appeal.

Unity can’t be the goal. 

First, it seems as if the Middle is asking the people in the pews to make theology less important than unity. To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the Middle wants the entire global denomination to adopt and/or accept a liberal position on human sexuality. In exchange, it seems, United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, the Middle seems to be reducing the crisis down to one issue — a mistake that would take us backward by several decades.

This kind of proposal turns a blind eye to the widening and pervasive theological gap that has been developing over decades. To say that orthodox believers only want to “win” on this one issue is to vastly over-simplify a long history of the erosion of our values. Likewise, to say that progressives are defined by this one issue alone is to ignore the depth and breadth of progressive theology — a worldview that influences how one views the Bible, humanity and even Divinity Itself, especially the divinity of Jesus as it pertains to his birth, death, resurrection and ascension.

For theologians — and all pastors are theologians — these distinctions matter, and not just to conservatives. They matter to anyone who has given their life and vocation to the work of caring for souls. It is damaging to everyone and to the work we take so seriously if we minimize all the theological differences and decide instead that for the sake of unity, we should reduce ourselves to a few simplistic and practical ideas.

Whether you are progressive, middle or conservative, what you believe matters. What you teach matters. Those things should not be minimized. This is the essence of our faith.

Whose Bible is it?

Second, my friends in the Middle are missing the opportunity to challenge the average layperson to really think about how they read the Bible. For instance, the Upper New York Annual Conference floated a resolution this year* condemning the work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (of which I’m a member). Whatever their motivation, the statement they produced was actually very helpful in drawing the distinctions that exist among us. In their document they noted: “progressives/ liberals/ reconciling United Methodists use a faith paradigm that utilizes historical-critical biblical analysis, recognizes the Bible and the gospels as human products that are the result of historical processes, views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning (a surplus of meaning) and looks to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate … ” Many progressives would go further to say that God’s revelation is not fixed but “progressive” — still unfolding and not bound by the tenets of scripture.

Upper New York had a point to make in their disapproval of the WCA, but let’s be clear: their take on the Bible does not speak for United Methodists worshipping in 60 nations around the globe. Their voice should not be dismissed; to the contrary, it needs to be placed in context. The Upper New York clergy who signed that statement have invested themselves into a fundamentally different perspective from an orthodox understanding of Scripture which views all of Scripture as true, using a variety of literary styles to convey that truth. We believe the Bible includes an historic account of God’s work in the world (conservatives use “faithful” to characterize our reading, rather than “literal”), and that it is Living Word and contains all that is needed for faith and life. The current crisis in the UM Church is an opportunity to deeply examine how we read the Bible, how we understand what it calls us toward, the power it has to guide us.

And central to that reading is what we do with Jesus.

Which Jesus do we follow?

“All intersections point to Jesus. We don’t know about His personal life – I believe that Jesus was Queer, Black and Poor.” That was the declaration of a United Methodist youth pastor at a “Gather at the River” conference hosted by a progressive group within the UM Church.

Although my Methodist Middle friends would cringe at the use of such an extreme example, please hear me out. This statement exposes the gravity of difference between two world views. To minimize these differences or to assume we can duct-tape them together with polity is to miss the mark and disrespect those who give their lives for precisely these kinds of beliefs.

The man who made this statement calls himself Methodist. So do I. But our understanding of Jesus (and Methodism, I’m guessing) couldn’t be further apart if we tried. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a New Testament scholar anywhere on the spectrum who would define Jesus as Queer, Black and Poor. Actually, Jesus was a middle-eastern Jewish man, born into a specific context at a specific time in history. Orthodox believers assert that he came in order to do battle with the spiritual forces that created our fallenness. He is not a metaphor for all the good in the world. He was and is flesh-and-blood, mysteriously fully God and fully man. The resurrected and ascended Jesus — Son of the Living God — sits at the right hand of God the Father. He died and rose for the sake of breaking the power of sin and death. Sinless himself, he is on the side of the sinner – queer, straight, black, white, poor, rich. He has compassion for the one who is oppressed. He has a preference for the poor, but he is not some nebulous idea or Transformer toy who becomes who we need him to be, even when those needs are contradictory from person to person.

If we refuse to acknowledge these vast differences in belief, we are actually refusing to hear each other. We are the like the co-dependent mother who refuses to believe any of her children might do anything wrong. It simply isn’t healthy. The Middle may mean well, but good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that this crisis is more than just a struggle to agree on one issue or get along like children in the back seat of a car. They deserve a clear explanation of the deep theological differences so they can claim an educated spot on the spectrum and not just an emotional one.

To offer them anything less would be, in my estimation, irresponsible discipleship.

Whose fault is it? 

There is a misconception that the conservative wing is fixated on preserving the past but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that the past has been institutionalized and even petrified. Conservatives and progressives alike are hungry to move forward. It is which direction forward we’re debating. As we have come to realize, there is a tremendously important distinction between the global center of Methodism and the progressive-leaning Methodist Middle found regionally in the U.S.

So … do we change to accommodate a world no longer in step with many American United Methodists or with the American culture at large? Or do we commit to holding a theological line at our global center, refusing to cross over into territory not in keeping with historic Christianity, the theological principles of the Book of Discipline as they stand, or global, orthodox Christianity?

These questions shape our current crisis and are forcing us out of stagnation. It makes me wonder if God himself is the author of this crisis; if so, we ought not to avoid it.

But it seems so simple … 

Many will hear the voice of the Methodist Middle with a sigh of relief. It seems to make the issue so clear and simple. “Yes! Can’t we just agree to disagree on this one issue and still live together?” Those with that hope will gather in the Middle and wait for the storm to pass.

What those hopeful souls are missing is that their choice to place their confidence in this group will eventually lump them together with the vast majority of progressives in the United States who will also embrace the ethos of the Middle. The average Methodist who just wants their church to stay the same won’t see how their choice may send them over the edge into a progressive world they didn’t sign on for.

And this is my appeal to my friends in the Methodist Middle. It is a plea for full disclosure. In your conversations with local congregations, please don’t hold back from telling the whole story. Please don’t reduce our current crisis to something akin to a paper cut needing a bandaid when it is more like a canyon-sized gap. By minimizing the differences, we may stifle a crisis that is actually our opportunity — if we’re bold enough to accept change as a good thing — to give clearly unique theological positions a chance to live with more integrity and to prove themselves by their fruit.

According to the Scripture, after the ascension of Jesus, the disciples began to preach boldly this good news about the Messiah and it enraged the Pharisees. They decided they would stifle it by killing Jesus’ followers. They might have succeeded early on, but Gamaliel appealed to their higher nature. He reminded them of others who had popped up with innovative ideas, only to see them eventually fizzle out. Given those experiences, Gamaliel urged his colleagues to let the theology do its work. “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail,” he said. “But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38b-39).

My friends in the Methodist Middle, let the theology do its work. Let’s be honest about the diverse collection of differences we now share and consider the way forward that best preserves both the integrity of United Methodism and the freedom of those who no longer fit comfortably within this tradition.

Again I say, let the Holy Spirit do His work.

 

*An earlier version of this post stated that this resolution passed. That is my error. I understand it was narrowly defeated, replaced by a revised resolution denouncing schism. The point stands: there is a segment of United Methodist leaders who believe in the statement mentioned enough to promote it to their conference. Their resolve further illuminates the theological diversity.

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

What would you give your life for?

Your kids? Your spouse? Your family?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love is a choice.

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

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

This doesn’t have to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jesus is the case.

I’m thinking about what it must have been like to be a friend of Jesus, traveling with him from town to town.

What was it like on those evenings after a whole group of his followers descended on a new town, talked and argued all day with both religious and by-standers, only to find themselves at nightfall worn out and without a plan? What happened when Judas announced to the group that there wasn’t money enough — again — for a room? What was it like to wander out beyond the edge of town, find a level place under the stars, set a fire going, pass the bread, and do battle with doubts brought on by tiredness?

What was it like?

Did Matthew and Judas talk economics? Were Peter and John chronically competitive? Did they compare notes at the end of the day? How did they discuss the miracles? Did they ask Jesus to explain how it works when a blind man suddenly sees, or how Jesus knows when to call out their sins as he heals their bodies?

What about the ones we never hear much about — Bartholomew and Thaddeus and Philip? What place did they take in Jesus’ orbit? What was their contribution to the group? What did he know about their mothers, their aptitudes, their failures? Was the flesh-and-blood Jesus the kind of guy you’d want to sit near on a long night when there was nothing to do but shoot the breeze?

I’m thinking about how his friends must have stretched to understand most of what he said, how the paradigm shift had to wear them out some days. Most of a conversation with Jesus must have been like Jesus lassoing the moon and bringing it down to their level. Here, among simple men and women was Truth itself, changing every word and thought by his mere presence.

What was that like, to talk to Jesus?

You know how it is, when sometimes it is just easier to agree or say nothing than to get into it with someone? Jesus wasn’t that guy. He was not the kind to back off. Matthew Kelly, a Catholic theologian, says Jesus “didn’t have a casual relationship with the truth.” What surely marked a conversation with Jesus was his distinct lack of defensiveness. He was a person so completely self-aware and yet self-forgetful that he had no need to argue as one trying to prove his worth. He knew who he was.

Jesus never had to build a case, because Jesus was the case.

As I write that, it stops me in my spiritual tracks: Jesus was the case. Jesus, the radical expression of the image and nature of God, sat among mortal men talking about the weather or how miracles worked or about some guy in the square whose life got shaken alive that day … and all the while in his skin, in his being, he was proving God.

And those poor souls who didn’t have funds enough for a proper room, who sat by a fire outside of town and shot the breeze late into the night … they got it. And because they got it, I can.

Praise be to God.

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Before you serve communion today …

I was one of six kids, so I ate dinner every night at a table that sat eight people very tightly. To make matters more uncomfortable for me, I was the only left-handed person in our family. There was no seat at the table that didn’t earn scorn and derision. Most of the time I ate with my elbows drawn in, so as not to be picked on by the brood. It was an awkward way to eat. Add to that the fact that I have almost no eye-hand coordination (I can’t catch a baseball with a satellite dish). Between being left-handed at a crowded table and clumsy on my best days, I had probably a fifty-fifty chance on any given night of knocking over either my tea or someone else’s.

Bless my dad’s heart. He hated dinner being interrupted by spilled drinks. He’d get frustrated by it. He’d say, “Can’t we eat a single meal without someone spilling something?

Well, no. Evidently not, Daddy, because you had five right-handed children and one left-handed one and because of that equation, spilling was mostly inevitable. That’s how our family was made. The only way to avoid the spill would have been to seat me at a separate table. But wouldn’t that be strange and even a bit cruel? After all, I was still part of the family and we all instinctively knew, even if I spilled more often than not, that there was a place at the table for me. 

My family dinner experience inspires two thoughts about the Family Table of the Lord:

First, the Lord’s table is not meant for a party of one. Communion has a deep and fundamental meaning for Christians. The best image for it is the Table, where we come together to share in the body and blood of Jesus. When we take the elements set at this table, we commune, and not just with God. When we take these elements, we admit our participation in the Body of Christ. We are that body. Since the ascension, we who commune around the table of the Lord are the Body of Christ.

So while the act of taking communion can be deeply personal, it was never designed to be an independent act. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence supporting the idea that the Lord’s table should ever be reserved for a party of one. Communion is a sharing — a sharing in the suffering of Jesus and a sharing in the body of Christ on earth. The table connects us.

Second, people who sit at the table of the Lord are prone to spill (and as it happens, our Father is okay with that). It is how his children are made. At the table of the Lord, spilling is a good thing! This table not only connects us, but sends us out to spill over onto others as we share our stories, invite others into this communion, offer them a place at this table.

This meal is worth sharing and the DNA of this family makes us prone to want to share. People who sit at this table have a predisposition toward spilling over onto other people because we believe that we all belong to each other.

Pastors, before you serve communion today, make sure you’re on board with what the sacrament is meant to do in the life of your community. It is not primarily a ritual. It is not primarily a way for people prone toward introspection to curl in toward themselves and away from the community around them. It is a gathering of the family. And when you serve, make sure your people understand that when they share in this meal, they are committing to the expectations of this family table: people who eat at this table have to learn how to spill.

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God is a poet (and other thoughts from my time in Israel)

Our very wise guide told us, “Let the Bible be your tour guide.” With that wisdom, we made our pilgrimage through Israel, marking the sites in a Bible and listening as it told us the backstory of this rich and holy land.

Israel for the pilgrim is not a vacation. It is an education. Tour buses are on the road by 7a, and don’t usually return until dinnertime. Days are filled with stop after stop at site after site where Bible stories actually (or more often, likely) happened. Not everything is certain. I’ve now visited both places where Jesus was buried. Some things, you just have to take with a grain of salt.

Meanwhile, other encounters were more moving than I expected. Just driving into Jerusalem had me close to tears. Seeing the replica of the scroll of Isaiah found at Qumran (not the real one, but the cast of it), was a spiritual encounter. Catching a glimpse from the bus window of the cave where the scrolls were found was surprisingly moving. I imagine everyone who goes has their moments.

Along with too many overpriced meals and souvenirs, I bring home a thousand insights, these among them:

God is a poet. Israel reveals just how intricately layered and beautiful the story of God is. He is not a mechanic who simply made a thing that works. Our Father is an artist and a brilliant story-teller. In Israel, things stack up on top of things and make connections I didn’t realize existed. For instance, it is stunning to stand in the place where Joshua and the people of Israel first crossed over the Jordan into their promised land, and to realize that Jesus was likely baptized in that same region (maybe even the same spot?) of the river. Two stories — about fifteen hundred years apart — in which the future of God’s people was decisively changed happened in the same place. It is revelatory to see that while the Jews walked across into the land of Jordan, Jesus came up out of the water and turned back toward the Mount of Temptation, back toward the land the Israelites chose the first time they missed their moment of promise. Seeing the geography, one can only wonder how faithless they had to be to make that choice.

Did you know that on Mt. Zion (God’s “hill of holiness” is a remarkably small piece of property) David’s death is marked in the same area where Jesus hosted the Last Supper? The tourist site has them in the same building. And we can make a case for Pentecost and the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Thomas at the same site. It is all just next to Caiaphas’ house where Jesus was first accused and where he was likely held in an underground cell. The first church council of Jerusalem also happened on Mt. Zion, as did (tradition holds) Mary’s death. The top of one small hill binds together all these stories of birth and death, and the layers aren’t just geographical. The Talmud places David’s birth and death on the same date on the calendar (though a millennium apart) as Pentecost. What poetry.

These connections remind me of our Creator’s immense capacity for design. I’m also more convinced that there are far fewer coincidences in the world and far more poetic nuances than I notice. I hear the Elisha’s prayer for Gehazi: “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.”

I’m a faker. On my way to Israel, I had a dozen or more people tell me, “You’ll never read the Bible the same again.” I hoped they were right but had no clue what they meant. I suspect I went there sort of like a parent going to the hospital to have a first child. I thought I knew my Bible pretty well going into our pilgrimage but I had no clue. I may have a grasp of theology, but I am profoundly aware on this side of our trip just how many gaps need filling. I lack the broad historical framework that strings the biblical stories together and provides the real glue between Old and New Testaments. I am also aware of how much richer the story is when one understands the geography. To have in my head the size of the Sea of Galilee, the view from the Mount of Olives, the slope from the pool of Siloam to the temple, the landscape of what the Bible calls wilderness (the opposite of an American wilderness) — those images transform my understanding of the biblical stories. Israel makes me hungry for the bigger picture; I’m also humbled by how much more there is to learn.

Community is essential. This lesson wasn’t learned so much from the biblical sites as from Israel’s — and more specifically Jerusalem’s — current climate. That this nation exists at all is nothing short of a miracle. In the midst of daily tensions and — all too often — life-threatening conflicts, the citizens of Jerusalem manage to make life work in the city, sometimes more tolerant of one another than within their own groups. Note the current conflict among Jews about the Western Wall. Or how Christians manage their holy sites. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is cohabited by five Christian groups — Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Arminian, Coptic and Ethiopian. These groups live under the same roof but hold separate worship services and even separate Easter celebrations on separate days, not as a matter of respect but as a matter of avoidance. Their internal relationships are so fraught with conflict that they can’t trust one another even to hold the key to the building. Two Muslim families keep the key to this holiest of Christian sites, unlocking the door early every morning. While coexistence happens in Jerusalem, community is much more complicated.

And more rare. Jewish tradition holds that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through the Old City’s Eastern Gates, but to thwart the fulfillment of that prophesy, Muslims long ago bricked up the gates and turned the road just beyond into a cemetery (an “unclean” obstacle) to block the Messiah’s entry. In other words, coexistence is an ideal often mentioned in Jerusalem but coexistence isn’t the same as community. Yet, the biblical ideal is community. It is essential for healing and for the transformation of hearts. It is a recurring theme among the prophets.

Many groups are calling for the building of the third temple in Jerusalem with the hope that this will hasten the next coming of the Messiah. My admittedly uneducated suspicion is that the temple with power to draw the Messiah in is not a building but a people with a peculiar kind of heart. Paul prophesied as much when he wrote to the Ephesians (2:19-22): “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of the household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

This is the trajectory of the biblical story and the hope of this holy land. It is the excavation and renovation of hearts by the Prince of Peace. And so today, I am more committed on this side of our pilgrimage to do as the psalmist instructs:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

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