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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Is it possible to be a Christian without telling anyone?

The playwright Murray Watts tells the story of a young man who was convinced of the truth of Christianity, but was paralyzed with fear at the very thought of having to admit to being a Christian. The idea of telling anyone about his faith and being called a religious nutcase scared him to death.

For weeks he tried to run from these new thoughts of God, but it was no use. It was like once he got a taste of it, he saw it everywhere and heard it in every sound. It was Jesus repeating over and over again: “Follow me.”

Finally, he couldn’t take it any longer. He went to a very old man who had been a Christian for a very long time. He told him of this terrible burden of hearing the voice of Christ calling him to be a witness and how the very thought of having to talk about Jesus to someone else stopped him from becoming a Christian.

The old man just shook his head. “This is a matter between you and Christ,” he said, “Why bring all these other people into it? Go home,” said the old man. “Go into your bedroom alone. Forget the world. Forget your family. Forget these ideas of what you think it is going to do to you, how you think it will compromise your quality of life, and make it a secret between you and God.”

The young man couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You mean, I don’t have to tell anyone?”

“No,” said the old man.

“No one at all?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

No one had ever given the young man that choice before. “Are you sure? Can this be right?”

And the old man said, “It is right for you.”

So the young man went home, knelt in prayer and completely surrendered himself to Christ, after which he immediately (filled with such joy) ran down the stairs, into the kitchen, and exclaimed to his wife, father and three friends, “Do you realize it is possible to be a Christian without telling anyone?”

And the moral of the story is: No, it is not possible. How can a person be hit with the transformational power of Jesus without wanting to talk about it? Jesus himself said that when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, our first response will be to witness to his power (Acts 1:8).

When Jews write out the first sentence of the shema (the most important verse of the Jewish scriptures, which begins, “Hear, O Israel ..”), they make two letters bigger than the rest: the first letter of the first word and the first letter of the last word. Put those two letters together and you get the Hebrew word for “witness.”

Let that sink in.

What do witnesses do? They tell the story. Embedded in the shema is the logical follow-through to hearing. What you’ve heard, what you embrace, you give witness to. And then we’re told how. We do it by absorbing this truth, making it part of us — so much a part of us that we naturally, normally talk about it. We teach it to our kids. We talk about God at home and on the road. God becomes so much a part of us that it is like he is tattooed on our foreheads and posted on our doors so that whether we’re talking or not, people around us hear it coming out of our lives.

When we have been transformed, our lives speak.

The shema teaches us God’s story, the story that transforms us. Until we own our own stories of search-and-rescue, of rescue and redemption, it will sound fake and unnatural when we try to talk about it. When we own our own story, we won’t be able to restrain ourselves. It just comes out.

Does your life speak? Not just in the way you treat the waitress in a restaurant, but more obviously … in the ways your love for God naturally flows into your conversations? This is an important question because it has always been God’s design for his story to spread through the simple act of one person talking about God with another person. That’s how the Kingdom comes.

Let me say that again: It has always been God’s design for his story to spread through the simple act of one person talking about God with another person.

How do the people around you experience your faith in Christ? Do you care about what happens to them when they die? I know that sounds so … you know … Baptist … but what if Baptists are onto something here? What if authentic faith is supposed to manifest as a compulsion of caring for others’ eternity? Have you yet developed a natural habit of talking about God? Maybe these tips will get you started toward sharing your story, once you’ve owned it:

1. If you feel uncomfortable, you can say so. You just tell a person, “It isn’t always easy for me to put my faith into words, but I do it because nothing has changed me more.” And then just tell them how. Tell them who you were before you knew Jesus, what happened to make the change, and who you are now that you follow Jesus. It is that simple.

2. You can use your own words. You don’t have to know all the right biblical terms or have all the right answers. In fact, one of the most powerful things you can say to someone is “I don’t know.” It lets them know you’re real.

3. You can leave the results to God. My friend Bob Tuttle says it takes about 25 different witnesses before a real encounter with God takes place. If you are numbers 1 through 24, you are just as important as number 25 because until you give your witness, the next person can’t give theirs. Learn to see yourself as part of the bigger picture, and learn to do your part.

Brothers and sisters, learn to tell your story of following Jesus in a normal, honest way and let God be concerned with the results.

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Healthy Communication and the Kingdom of Heaven

Healthy communication is the key to growing a healthy, mature community.  Good communication is also the best weapon against the enemy of our souls.

As a leader, then, it becomes a high priority for me to develop a habit of communicating in ways that foster grace, sensitivity and understanding.  If I learn to do this, those around me will not only respond with good will but will hopefully adopt those habits and pass them along in their circles.

If I want to make the practice of healthy communication a priority this year in my church, home or organization, here’s where I’d start:

Say more.  By some strange quirk of fate I,  as a southerner, do not drink sweet tea. I only make it when family comes to my house, and then I make it poorly because my idea of “sweet” and their idea of “sweet” are worlds apart. “Good tea” by southern standards means adding more sugar than any human could conceivably consume.

What works for sweet tea works for communication. What we think of as “over-communicating” is likely the amount needed for someone to get it.  Never mind what you think they need; start with what they actually need.

Affirm more. This is the pattern Paul teaches in his letters: start every conversation with affirmation. Doing this well will right-size your expectations, so you’re not constantly noticing the gap between what people are doing and what you think they ought to be doing.  We can all learn to do as my mother taught and find something nice to say. In fact, we must learn to do that before we can say anything at all that will be heard.

Blast less. Blast people enough and they will stop trusting what you say. Send enough email bombs and you’ll produce someone who cringes when they see your name pop up on the screen. Yell enough and you’ll produce kids with a defensive crouch.

If you’re prone to sending angry emails or venting on social media, find a way to stop yourself. Get a system that checks your intentions. Here’s the decision I’ve made where corporate communication is concerned:  I will not send any emotion by email/ text/ Facebook message/ twitter that isn’t positive and affirming and I will not communicate negativity in public (which includes Facebook and twitter). It just doesn’t seem like a mature or healthy way to get a message across. If I have serious words to share, I will always do that in person. And always covered in prayer.

Ask more questions.  This ends up being a Kingdom-building habit. Far too late in life, I’ve learned that most of my frustration and miscommunication is a product of not asking enough questions before jumping to conclusions. Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings, but on God and His Kingdom. When I invest the time it takes to ask clarifying questions, seeking not so much “to be understood as to understand” (a prayer of St. Francis), I am reaching for God’s vision, God’s perspective, God’s Kingdom.

Finally, assume the best. In the absence of information, most folks assume the worst. That’s human nature. The nature of Christ, however, is to assume the best in others. In the absence of information, assume that those in your circles are doing the best they can, that they are not out to offend you, that they are working out their salvation daily just as you are. Give the people around you the benefit of the doubt and you’ll discover that the grace you give flows both ways.

By saying more, affirming more, blasting less and asking more questions before making assumptions, we develop a Kingdom perspective. I am convinced that healthy churches and organizations are built on a foundation of healthy communication. In a season when so much communication is destructive and negative, I challenge you to make it a priority to build an intentionally healthy system of communication that models grace, sensitivity and understanding.

 

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Five Marks of Great Accountability (or, Who is your Nathan?)

David was what we might call a high-functioning sinner. Tons of talent. A mighty warrior. Obviously charismatic (he attracted thousands of people). God’s choice to lead Israel.

And also (by the way) an adulterer and a murderer.

Nathan, David’s priest, got word of his sin. In an act of sheer brilliance and strength, he decided to let David walk gently into guilt by telling him a story. He said, “Once there were two men. One was rich and one was poor. One had flocks and herds of animals. The other one had one little lamb. Just one. Because it was all he had, this man loved his little lamb. He let it live in the house and eat from his table. He held that little lamb in his arms and rocked it like a child. He counted it as a child, one of his own.

“Meanwhile, the rich man sat in his wealth. When a traveler came to visit, the rich man decided that — rather than kill one of his own animals (of which there seemed no end) — he’d have a servant go after the poor man’s precious lamb. To feed his guests and enjoy a meal, he killed another man’s lamb.

“And then devoured it. Without the slightest remorse.”

As Nathan told his story, David began to seethe. How dare this monster? Furious at the injustice, David stormed, “The man who did this deserves to die! And he owes that poor man four lambs for the one he took, because he showed no pity!”

David walked right up to his own sin and somehow missed seeing himself there. Nathan said, “You’re that man, King David. Rich beyond words. King of Israel. Lands, people, power. The Lord has given you everything, and yet you take from a soldier a wife he loved rather than enjoying your own.

“And then, to make matters, worse, you kill him to cover for yourself.”

To be exposed is both horrible and holy. None of us likes to come face to face with our own depravity, to see it for what it is after soaking in our own delusions. The mark of one after God’s heart is the humility — when faced with our sin — to call it what it is. “I have sinned against the Lord,” David admitted. To which Nathan replied, in the very next breath, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You won’t die.”

We could make a message out of any one of those words in that brief exchange. There is David’s humility and the mark of healthy repentance. There is Nathan’s courageous, prophetic voice. There is the demonstration of God’s grace, poured out instantaneously in response to repentance. David’s admission and Nathan’s response bring to mind the scene in the parable of the prodigal son, when the son returns in contrition and the father runs to meet him. Something of God’s character is revealed. God is for us, not against us. God’s heart is always ready to run in our direction.

Nathan is a sign of God’s grace. Without someone with guts enough to show David his sin, he might have remained in it until his dying day. A life steeped in unrepentant sin turns sour over time. Without Nathan, David may well have ruined his place as the ancestor of God’s Messiah. Nathan’s truth-telling had a history-altering ripple effect.

Nathan is the real hero in this story, which prompts me to want a Nathan for all of us who lead. Who is your Nathan? Who in your life is wise enough, gentle enough, courageous enough to speak truth to you? Who is holding you accountable for spiritual growth? “Nathans” don’t usually just show up, uninvited, to invest in your life. Nathans are prayed for, sought after, developed.

If you’re looking for a Nathan to hold you accountable, look for:

  1. Someone who will be consistent: They can’t help if they aren’t there. Look for someone who tends to follow through, whose yes is yes.
  2. Someone whose only agenda is spiritual growth: The worst kind of accountability is someone who feels the need to “fix” you. Look for someone who genuinely respects you as a leader, and who is invested in your life and ministry. Someone who is leaning in, not leaning out.
  3. Someone who wants a relationship: The best kind of accountability is a two-way street. Look for someone who is both teachable and a teacher, who is open to both give and take in the discipline of accountability.
  4. Someone whose life and walk you respect: In order for someone to speak into my life, I need to know they are living out a disciplined faith in theirs. Look for someone who walks the walk, whose life is bearing fruit.
  5. Someone who considers this a sacred trust: What is said in any accountability conversation ought to stay with the two of you, and that ought to be an automatic assumption that never needs to be repeated. In my own community, there is nothing I wouldn’t share with my whole church, but my whole church doesn’t need to hear it all. And when it is told, it ought to be me telling it. Anyone who shares prayer and accountability with a leader needs to respect both the leader and those s/he leads.

As a leader, here’s what I need most. I need people in my life who love me enough to tell me the truth. I need straight-shooters who can cut to the point and trust me to handle it. I need adults in my life who are more devoted to Jesus and his Kingdom than to the kinds of southern politeness that leave me stuck in a bad place.

The Kingdom starves for prophetic voices like that.

And so do I.

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I am hungry for more.

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

Hungry.

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

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

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

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

Aren’t you hungry for more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t you?

 

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

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