Viruses, politics, and our besetting sins

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7

This is our primary text for Sunday’s message (we’re talking about how to pray in a pandemic) but it has become much more than that for me lately. Paul’s word has become a challenge. Do not be anxious about anything, he says.

Anything.

I don’t know about you, but I feel a little like my nerves have been held together by duct tape for a while now. I think if I were to accomplish that one line of scripture, my brain might collapse. Or I might sleep for a month. I’m not even sure what would happen. Right now, I’m trying to think of a time I didn’t have some low-level anxiety brewing beneath the surface. Have I ever been completely non-anxious? Like … completely? Have you?

I wonder what would happen to my faith if I took that one line from Paul seriously, if I went after it with everything in me. For starters, I suspect my faith would mushroom and my confidence in God’s leadership would go through the roof. All my niggling little health issues would disappear. Surely my relationships would improve. I wonder what would occupy my brain (would I rejoice in the Lord always?)?

Do not be anxious about anything. Lord, pick me for that project.

The promise on the other side of that, according to Paul is a kind of peace that doesn’t require all the dots to line up according to the comforts of my feeble brain (or yours). We get a peace that is okay with questions and ambiguities. We get a peace that trusts God’s wisdom and truth even if that means admitting he’s smarter than us. Non-anxious living by Kingdom standards requires me to rest in a higher knowing that doesn’t abide by the rules of human logic.

Do not be anxious about anything.

These days, that’s quite a leap. Listening to all the voices, most of them with competing claims and recommendations, has made leadership nothing if not anxious. Just this week, it all seems to have ramped up. Our President made a statement on Friday all but demanding that churches reopen this weekend. Meanwhile, at least in my denomination, the guidelines don’t allow for that. Leaders reiterated their recommendation that churches remain closed until June 22. On social media this morning, everyone is weighing in. Lots of anxiety-stirring comments. Add that to all the articles we’ve read, conversations we’ve had with medical professionals and documentaries we’ve watched, and whew! Its a lot.

Do not be anxious about anything. Does that even include pandemics, Paul? And politics? Or the politics of pandemics?

The answer is yes, though it is a hard “yes” to accept, because it requires so much more healing and hearing than most of us have energy for. It requires us to dig down beneath comments and people and politics and circumstances and all our feelings and opinions about all those things to some deeper soil beneath where anxiety as a besetting sin is rooted.

I’ll wait while you read that last sentence again.

And even while we’re digging down to the root of our anxious nature, Paul teaches us that the critical second half of wholeness doesn’t end with rooting out our own root causes but also learning the voice of God, so we’re listening to a higher wisdom than the cultural noise around us. That takes time and practice. But that, Paul says, is where the real peace lies. It is in the ability to rest our hearts and minds in the care of Christ even while we read and research, so we’e not tossed around like so much salad by all we hear.

Learning to listen to the Spirit? That’s hard work. What we’d rather do (because its easier) is find some external thing or person to which we can point and say, “If that or they would just stop-change-fix-be-different, then I’d be fine!” We want the world to adjust so we can be at peace. Or we want answers to all our unanswered questions, believing that reasonable answers will give us peace. And the confusing thing is, answers do give some sense of peace just often enough for us to believe they have that power every time.

But they don’t. If answers could give peace, then answers would be god. Or the other person whose behavior you want to fix becomes a potential god. Or the changed circumstance becomes god. Or worse, we become god. If peace can only happen when the world orients around me and my needs, now I’m god. Is that what we want?

This kind of anxiety Paul is talking about is not circumstantially rooted. It is not anxiety about this thing or that thing but anxiety as a default setting of our fallen nature.

Healing a besetting sin requires us to begin with seriously and deeply questioning our own brokenness. What causes anxiety to rise up in me? Is it my own trust issues? Where does that come from? Why don’t I trust others? Why don’t I trust God? Why do I need to be able to trust a person in order to be at peace in my own spirit or in that relationship? Where did all this begin in my life?

(Side note: don’t stop there, with that last question, because besetting sins go deeper than childhood junk; getting at them means rooting out my motivations, not just my memories.)

Is it possible that I don’t trust people or God because I don’t trust myself? Am I always honest with myself? Or am I not always honest in my dealings? What unholy or selfish agendas am I operating out of? Is this about my need to control circumstances or people? Do I become anxious when people don’t do it (whatever “it” is) the way I want them to? Do I lose sleep over things I can’t control?

Is my anxiety a product of my desire to be god?

Even while we’re digging down to the root motivations beneath our anxious nature, Paul teaches us that the critical second half of wholeness is learning the voice of God. It isn’t enough to stop the “anxious.” Jesus taught us that delivering the demon out of the house without replacing it is a dangerous thing. Nature abhors a vacuum. The other half of stifling anxious voices is turning up the volume on the voice of God. That takes time and practice. And patience. It is a long obedience but the payoff is huge. The benefit is the ability to hear and accept a wisdom that is higher than our understanding. That, Paul says, is where the real peace lies. It is in the ability to give our hearts and minds over to Jesus, to let him guard them, so that both feelings and thoughts are safely resting in the care of Christ even as we sift through all that comes our way.

In the midst of another conversation, Paul finished a thought with this: “I think I too have the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 7:40). I don’t think this was Paul proclaiming himself god by saying he had the right answer. I’m not even convinced he needed an answer to bring peace to the situation they were debating. Actually, I think that line was his way of saying, “You might disagree with me, and I can hear you, but I’m not willing to give up years of honing the practice of the presence and voice of God in my life in order to validate your opinion. And I will not minimize this long practice by minimizing what comes out of it. I need to give honor to my own spiritual discernment honed by years of listening and communing with the Holy Spirit by voicing what I’ve heard.”

In other words, there comes a time when in humility we take authority over what we’ve been given as a gift from God — namely, the ability to commune and converse with him.

In still other words, in matters of discernment the Holy Spirit gets a voice, too. But to invoke that voice, we must root out the competing voices even as we practice his presence and learn his voice. And this is not a quick fix but a long obedience.

This week, that seems like a good word. In weighty matters, the Holy Spirit gets a voice, too. As we listen to the official and unofficial voices swirling around the internet — all stirring the political waters as we debate the trajectory of this virus and how that plays out in church — I want to urge you to listen deeper than the debate. Listen to what those voices are doing within your spirit. Are you hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, or are you mostly just hearing the swell of anxiety? Does the voice bring peace that passes understanding? Or does it demand that you to lose patience and pick a side so you can have an answer? If the latter voice is louder, if anxiety is what stirs up in you, then hear that as a symptom of something that needs spiritual attention. Go looking for the besetting sin (the underlying cause) and dig down so you can pull that thing up by the root.

Because listen: that thing is your problem. Not the opinion of the President or the opinion of whoever made the latest video you’ve watched or the opinion of your uncle who knows someone who knows someone who has dabbled in infectious disease research. Nope. That thing in you that keeps you from placing your whole trust in God, that makes you crazy when you can’t control what other people do/say/think, that makes you hyper-critical of the world around you and hypo-reflective about your ability to hear from God — that’s where you need to start.

Because friends, if we come out of this thing more anxious, less trusting, more partisan, less dependent on the Holy Spirit, then we will all have been sickened by this virus in ways that strike much deeper than flesh.

Do not be anxious about anything.

Be challenged by that word. And be changed.

Read More

Use Your Roar.

Today, I’m sharing space with Angie Suich, director of The Mosaic Center in Evans, Georgia. She combines good history with good biblical memory to give good wisdom for such a time as this.

Talk about despair!

In 1940, Europe was all but finished. Hitler and his troops occupied Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, and even the Channel Islands, a British territory.

England was the next to surrender, until a chubby, stoop-shouldered man with a speech impediment took a new job. Winston Churchill was probably the farthest person from who Britain had in mind to take command of this incredibly perilous situation, having been written off as a crackpot and political has-been.

Like Jesus appointing his team of crackpot disciples (explanation to follow), the appointment of Churchill to Prime Minister in 1940 by King George VI changed the landscape of history.

Two weeks after Churchill came into power, France was entirely knocked out of the war and 340,000 British troops furiously tried to escape over the beaches at Dunkirk.

It was finished: the Germans had absolute control of all of Europe. It seemed impossible that Britain, let alone Europe, coud survive.

Britain was desperate. They had no hope. No faith. No peace. They were rightly terrified of a Nazi invasion and needed someone to assuage their fears.

Enter Churchill onto the main stage to give this rousing and now famous speech to his nation:

We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Later, when asked about this speech, Churchill explained, “It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”

What’s the point of this history lesson? As Christians in a time of darkness when we feel powerless, alone, scared, restless, and anxious, we can be emboldened by Christ Himself because He gave us the power of the Roar. We have been uniquely called to help calm an anxious and scared nation and we have something more powerful than the Royal Air Force. We have the power of prayer that can be deployed anywhere and anytime – when we are at home, in our car, on our walk, in the field, on the beach, in the hills, on the streets. We have His Word to provide immediate peace and guidance.

And be comforted that just like Churchill, a man who wasn’t taken seriously before WWII but who saved Western Civilization, the Lord has appointed us – US! – to dispatch His Word, prayer, and love – the Roar – during this time.

Never think that you aren’t equipped to roar for the Lord. Do not underestimate who you are. Shy? Impatient? Cynical? Moody? Speech-impediment? Who cares?! The Holy Spirit dwells and lives in you! You are exactly who God wants to do His bidding during this perilous time our community, nation, and world finds itself in.

In Peter Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, he says the following about the disciples (remember – they were hand-picked by Jesus Himself!):

Remember, Jesus formed a community with a small group from Galilee, a backward province in Palestine. They were neither spiritually nor emotionally mature. Peter, the point leader, had a big problem with his mouth and was a bundle of contradictions. Andrew, his brother, was quiet and behind the scenes.

James and John were given the name “sons of thunder” because they were aggressive, hotheaded, ambitious and intolerant. Philip was skeptical and negative. He had limited vision. “We can’t do that,” summed up his faith when confronted by the problem of feeding the five thousand. 

Nathaniel Bartholomew was prejudiced and opinionated. Matthew was the most hated person in Capernaum, working in a profession that abused innocent people.

 Thomas was melancholy, mildly depressive, and pessimistic. James, son of Alphaeus and Jude, son of James, were nobodies – the Bible says nothing about them. Simon the Zealot was freedom fighter and terrorist in his day. Judas, the treasurer, was a thief and a loner. He pretended to be loyal to Jesus before finally betraying him.

Most of them, however, did have one great quality, they were willing.  That is all God asks of us.

Friends! This is fantastic news! In a restless and unsettled world, be encouraged. We, yes, we, were called, hand-picked, by the King of Kings, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to unleash His Roar; to calm the nations, spread peace through Him, and love others as only He can.

Read More

Hope Travels.

Did you know that Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman of Sarai and Abram, is the only person in the Old Testament to assign a name to God — a name God honored?

Usually, it is God who tells us both who we are and who he is. He gives names to people as a way of telling us what he plans through us. And he gives himself names as a way of helping us know who he is for us. But in the story told in Genesis 16, Hagar is the one who names God. He is El Roi — The God Who Sees Me. Adrian Rogers says El Roi is the God of sympathy, this beautiful, grace-filled God Who Sees Us in our plight and sits with us in our pain.

Hagar’s story reminds us that God does not always or even usually change our circumstances. He isn’t a “fixer.” Her story teaches us, too, that God won’t tell us lies to make us feel better. He tells Hagar her son will be a “wild donkey of a man,” a fighter. He also tells her she’ll have to go back into the dysfunctional household she’d just fled. There would be no running away from her problems. There is no “It’ll be okay,” in her story, no glossing over the hard parts or skipping to the happy ending.

What Hagar gets instead is God, a fact that becomes its own kind of miracle. She gets a glimpse into who he is for her, who he will be whatever else happens. And somehow by naming God and discovering in his character that she was not invisible to him — that the things on her heart were on his, too — she discovered his Enoughness. He was Enough. And that fact was enough, or more than, to know this God Who Sees, Who Knows, Who Will Sit With Us In Our Pain.

To discover God revealed as El Roi was miraculously enough to birth hope into the soul of a desperate woman sitting in a barren desert. And the hope Hagar found in that desert traveled back with her into very imperfect circumstances, into a very hard relationship with a master who would lash out again and eventually send her packing … again. But for that day, somehow against all logic, Hagar could return to her life bearing hope. Which is to say that hope was not found in her circumstances. Hope was found in a Person.

Hope was — is — the property of the God Who Sees Us.

Hear that again: hope is not found in our circumstances. Hope is found in a Person. And for us who live on this side of the resurrection, hope is found in Jesus, who knows our pain, who has carried our diseases, who sees us …

What if the same hope Hagar bore back into Abram’s house became the hope that sustained him while he waited for his elderly wife to become miraculously pregnant? Is it possible that the hope Abram (who would become Abraham) found was actually birthed out there in the desert in a lonely moment when a young woman discovered that God sees … that God knows … that God had not abandoned her? It is possible that Abraham’s hope was incubated in a person who chose to focus not on her pain but on the One who is Lord over it?

Is it possible that when Paul wrote so eloquently about Abraham’s hope, he was actually writing about a second-hand hope that was first owned by Hagar?

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb. Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. Romans 4:18-21, NLT

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham hoped. And what if? Just what if he was infected by Hagar, the hope-carrier?

Which means hope travels. Which means you and I can become hope-carriers, too. In our own hard season, when we are living in some kind of virus-inspired desert, we can gaze less on this crisis we’re in and more on the God Who Sees Us, and find our hope there just as surely as Hagar did. And like her, we can walk into our circumstances with no guarantee except that God sees, God knows, God will not abandon us. And like her, we can place our hope there and let it carry us just as surely as we carry it.

May you be blessed this week to become a hope-carrier. May you breed hope in your home, in your conversations, in your own spirit. May you infect others with hope enough to keep them moving beyond the moment and toward God’s purposes. And may you pray hope into our world, believing with other great hope-carriers that if God sees and God knows and God is with us, then that is enough.

Friends, hope travels. May it travel with you this week.

Read More

A little mid-winter encouragement

Cloudy skies and rain for weeks. Trump/ Biden/ Bernie. Coronavirus. Stock prices. Tornadoes. Seasonal affective disorder. The season of higher rates of death for older adults. UMC death throes. It is a lot to absorb.

I notice this — that when we are all wound tight and anxious, we go looking for someone to blame. We carry a low-grade irritation toward others that burns away all the grace.

When you see that bubbling up, resist it. That may well be the enemy of your soul, baiting you with the spirit of offense. Don’t take the bait. The spirit of offense is one of the enemy’s go-to demons. It is mean and graceless, and demands its own way. It is the antithesis of 1 Corinthians 13. It is impatient, unkind, quick to anger, light on love. It tells you it wants to stick up for you and not let you get run over by people, but that’s a lie. It actually cares nothing for your soul, or for justice, or for your relationships. Its whole purpose in the world is to separate you from love, mercy and grace.

Fight back: Answer frustration with patience, and irritation with kindness. Find someone this week to encourage. If that seems too trite a solution for you, then get serious about the state of your own soul. Pray like crazy for God to kill the spirit of offense that breeds in you. Pray earnestly for that. Don’t let it take root.

We’re all weary of rain and illness and all the rest of it these days. We are all in the same boat, all just trying to find spring … and it WILL come! While we wait, let’s create some of our own, by bringing a little “blue sky” into the world.

The one thing we can control is how we respond so friends, be gentle with each other. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35

Read More

The difference between spiritual friendship and friendly conversation

Today, I give this space to Rev. Christopher Goss, who serves on our team at Mosaic as the Pastor of Worship Arts, Youth, and Young Adults. I can personally attest to Chris’s passion and pursuit of spiritual friendship. His words here are good wisdom for group and ministry leaders about the challenge to “go deep.”

A while back I saw a cute, satirical video called “Shallow Small Group.” It was a group of people gathered in someone’s home for what looked like a typical suburban church small group. As you would expect, the conversation was not very deep and there seemed to be a much greater focus on the presence of the cheese dip than the presence of the Lord. The tagline of the video is “Shallow Small Group, because when people go too deep they drown.” 

As a student and young adult pastor, I have been given the privilege of helping many young and mostly single people develop community in the church. I frequently think about the question, “What should make friendships in the church different and deeper than any other friendships?” Although there are many “right” answers to this question, the most fundamental answer must be that spiritual friendships are friendships that are, in the words of Paul, “in Christ.” 

This might be obvious, but it’s worth stating that spiritual friendships, in a Christian context, will most deeply flourish between Spirit-filled people. What seems to often go overlooked, however, is how developing your personal spiritual life gives you the opportunity to develop an incredibly rich social, spiritual life. Knowing that, how do we so often miss it?

Far too often we use what could be called an “external use of scripture.” For example, imagine you and I are in a small group that is doing a study on the Book of Romans. I skim through the study just enough to discuss what the author wrote.  Then I show up and make comments about what Paul actually meant by the word “predestination.” I like discussing theology so I would personally enjoy this conversation. If I’m not careful, however, I could learn a lot about predestination and virtually nothing about your personal spiritual life. Furthermore, by talking about “predestination” I could keep you from knowing much about my spiritual life. Worst of all, I could actually use a theological conversation to keep you from knowing that I truthfully don’t have much of a personal spiritual life. Is this spiritual friendship or a book study with some intellectual stimulation?

After our study, we might hang around and socialize a bit, but now its cool to talk about “whatever.” I’m from Georgia, so talking about “whatever” means its time to talk about UGA football. Suddenly I discover that I have a “connection” with some of the guys in the room that I did not have before. Please understand that I love football and enjoy a good conversation about the Dawgs, but this is not spiritual friendship. At this moment, I am having the same type of conversation in church that I could just as easily be having at a sports bar. 

(Not so) Side note: Tim Keller says, “Idols aren’t necessarily bad things. They can be good things that we make into ultimate things.” An idol is whatever we look to, other than God, to provide a sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment in our lives. What is almost always true, however, is that I will either get my sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment from God or I will inevitably search for it in another direction. That means I will either seek after God or I will seek after idols. There is no “neutral” gear in the spiritual life. 

What does that have to do with spiritual friendship? I might tell you, “I wish I had more time to spend in the word and in prayer.” But what I won’t tell you is that I would have that time if I spent less time on my ESPN app. Or that our conversation about the Dawgs might simply be encouraging our mutual idolatry. This unfortunately builds a friendship more rooted in a particular idolatry than “in Christ.” It is deceptive; because it happens in a church context it passes for “Christian fellowship” while sadly missing the mark of true discipleship. Does that mean we ought never talk about football at church? Nope. Just that I can spend a lot of time deflecting so I don’t have to confront my shallow faith or faltering disciplines. In other words, more time on cheese dip than the presence of the Lord.

So how does one build true spiritual friendships that give us the powerful intimacy for which we so deeply long? Here are a few thoughts:

Friendships that are “in Christ” are rooted in solid theology. That’s right, good friendships need good theology. Biblical friendship flows from the cross of Christ. That first and foremost proclaims we are all sinners in need of a savior. Biblical friendship believes “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and therefore it is ok to be honest about the fact that I am not ok. We need a theology that says conviction is a good thing because where there is no conviction there is no sanctification … that I’m still on the road to Christian perfection, but I am made right through the righteousness of Christ alone.

Mature, spiritual friendships are rooted in a theology that says we are beloved children of God. To be a child of God means we primarily get our spiritual “life” — love, joy, peace, and fulfillment — from God our Father. That means I am responsible for seeking out life-giving encounters with God — encounters that throughout church history have most reliably come through searching the scriptures and spending time in prayer. These encounters create a rich personal spiritual life that now make it possible to have an incredibly rich social spiritual life. 

Spiritual friendship requires a theology that says, “I’m not only saved from sin, I’m saved to a body of believers.” Like organs in the physical body, we are responsible for receiving life and then sending it on to others. We encourage our young adults to BYOSL (bring your own spiritual life). Bringing your own spiritual life means we seek God on our own and then share the fruits of that seeking with the community. We must be aware, however, that if we are not receiving our life from God, it is possible we are instead passing on the toxicity of our idolatry to those around us. 

By God’s grace, I pray you will build spiritual friendships, where you fearlessly talk about both your need for God’s redemptive grace and how God is powerfully providing that grace through the “means of grace.” As you bring your own spiritual life to your small group I believe you will have conversations that will be deep, intimate, and mature, and that will encourage you and others to grow in the art of holiness.  

Read More

Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

I wrote this blog some time ago, after a friend emailed to share her grief over a family member’s loss to suicide. In the wake of recent stories, it seems appropriate to share this piece again, with the hope that it might bring some balm to those who struggle to make sense of such hard loss:

Some time ago, a friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw. This is how I responded to my friend’s question. Maybe my answer to her will help someone plagued with grief, pain and questions in the wake of such loss:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways — much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s a profound insight…

In your question, I hear the trails of guilt. I wonder if that is an inevitable side effect of suicide. Feelings of guilt among survivors seem to be common. With all the love, respect and grace we can give to those who lose their battle with depression, we must also acknowledge that suicide leaves a huge burden for the living to carry. God, your sister’s circle of friends, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I’ve praying about what is truth in your situation since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were — or more of what she needed — in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. “If only we had known…” And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it? In much the same way that a cancer victim’s illness can be beyond their ability to survive it …

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that. I hope the family in that picture can look around them and see reason for hope in their love and care for each other.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we cannot begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Be at peace. Rest in the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, and as Ranier Maria Rilke once powerfully wrote, “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart.” God will, in his time, make all things new.

Peace to you — Carolyn

Read More

Supernatural Ministry in the UMC

This article ran this week on the WCA website. I’m reposting it here in its entirety for those who may not travel in UMC circles with the prayer that the Holy Spirit might spark a theological revival rooted in the supernatural in our day.

Thomas Jefferson once took a penknife and cut most of the miracle stories out of the Bible, leaving only the teachings of Jesus. He included the tomb but cut out the resurrection. What was left, mostly the teachings of Jesus, Jefferson entitled, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.”

What Jefferson did to the Bible with a penknife, many contemporary Christians unwittingly do with their lives. Especially in the U.S., much of Christian culture has managed to surgically remove the supernatural from the experience of Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve fallen out of the habit of talking publicly and passionately about how to transform lives. We will talk about decline in church attendance, the cultural shift away from Christendom and the declining morals of our society, but we have neither the vocabulary nor the comfort for talking about the spiritual realm. And yet, according to Jesus himself, the work of God’s people is to expose the Kingdom through the supernatural work of casting out demons, curing disease, healing sickness and seeing people transformed by truth.

In fact, this is the prescription offered by Jesus himself when he sent his followers out on their first evangelistic mission. We find the charge in the first verses of Luke 9: “One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2, NIV).

I am fascinated by the contrast between what I read in these verses and what I see in the current western culture. What he sends these followers to do carries the power of real transformation. This supernatural sending exposes the Kingdom of God in a way much contemporary ministry does not. In this season of change in our denomination’s life, how can we recover this charge? What does it look like for Wesleyans? I suspect it begins with a commitment to a Kingdom-down worldview.

In an earlier Outlook article, Walter Fenton referenced a post by Dr. Wes Allen, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology. In his diagnosis of our current UM conflict, Dr. Allen offers an insight about the starting points of those on either end of the theological spectrum. “Traditionalists emphasize the vertical relationship characterized in the command to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. In traditional evangelical vocabulary, this is often expressed in terms of the importance placed on individuals having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ… Progressives (and to a great extent, moderates)… start with the horizontal relationship. In this view, the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is seen as the primary (perhaps even synonymous) expression of loving God with our whole being…”

“There is much overlap,” Allen says, “between these two positions (obviously conservatives care about social ethics and progressives care about individual morality). But with the different emphases, the depth and width of the chasm between these vertical and horizontal starting points has become so significant that at times the different UM camps seem to be practicing two different religions or Christianities…”

I agree with this diagnosis. The root of our current impasse is in what leads. Is Christianity primarily a belief system emphasizing social justice, or is it primarily an encounter with the One, True God that emphasizes — even insists on — ongoing supernatural transformation? I am convinced that authentic Christianity is a Kingdom-down proposition. If we want to see the Kingdom come, it will happen as we openly, boldly acknowledge that Jesus was and is not just a great cultural stabilizer but also a supernatural God whose resurrection leads those who follow him directly into the supernatural realm. Our call is to receive the power and authority offered us by Christ himself — and on the resurrection side of this story, that includes the Holy Spirit — and then to go out as he sends to drive out death and expose the Kingdom of God.

This is our call. Friends, we are not sent out with an eyedropper full of Holy Spirit so we can run a friendly non-profit. If we are going to give the world a better definition of “church,” then we need the infilling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit so we can live out a bold charge to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. I believe the Lord longs to see his Church acting as if he is a supernatural God and ours is supernatural power. I’m advocating for a renewed Methodism that is a partnership with a supernatural God who does supernatural things. Surely Jesus means for Methodists to have the Holy Spirit, too!

After all, miracles are the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Without miracles, we lose the divinity of Jesus. Without the virgin birth, Jesus is just another kid born to an unwed mother. He begins to look more like Buddha or Mohammed and less like a God in the flesh. Without miracles, we lose hope. If Jesus didn’t supernaturally conquer death, we have no assurance of an afterlife nor any reason to assume that the cross has power to cancel sin.

Without miracles, we lose touch with the essential character of God. Through the epic miracles of Scripture (the parting of the Red Sea, the miraculous catch of fish, the woman whose oil lasted through a famine, the drowning of a legion of demons), we are drawn into the realm of God’s Kingdom and influence. Miracles are a foretaste of coming attractions, when every tribe and tongue is standing before the throne, crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God!”

This, I believe, is exactly what Jesus means to do when he sends his followers out with power and authority to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. He is calling them to look for signs of the anti-Kingdom, directing them, “Wherever you see them — demons, disease, sickness — take the authority invested in you to cast out darkness and proclaim the victory of the Kingdom of God.”

With all due respect to President Jefferson, this is what it means to be a Christian, and I hope this is what it looks like when Wesleyans embrace supernatural ministry. It is to declare the one, true God and his supernatural revelation through Jesus Christ, as we are sent out with power and authority to fulfill this bold charge: Cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick.

Read More

Fetching Grace

Mephibosheth.  Sound that one out, then imagine yourself with the burden of that name hanging around the neck of your life.

Mephibosheth was Jonathan’s son. David found him when he went looking for a way to make good on a promise he’d made to Jonathan years before. It was a vow to honor Jonathan’s family — any time, any place. One day long into his reign as king, he goes to the palace staff and asks (2 Samuel 9:1), “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” At the question, someone remembers Mephibosheth.

His name, by the way, means “shameful thing.”

Mephibosheth had bad feet. When he was five years old, a nursemaid dropped him or let him fall and somehow his feet were damaged. So now, here is a boy named Shameful with feet that don’t allow him to play with the other kids or follow in his warrior-father’s footsteps. After his father’s death, they did with him what they often did with kids like him. They sent him off to someone willing to keep him as a servant for the cost of room and board.

So a guy named Shameful who is labeled as Lame gets shipped off to a place called Lo Debar, which means “place of no pasture,” or sometimes, “place of no word.” No word.  No blessing.  No intelligence.  No honor.  This is where Mephibosheth lived.

Then, completely out of the blue, King David sends for him. The Hebrew word used here literally means something like “fetch.” Someone has called this act of David fetching grace. Don’t you love that? It reminds me of Jesus’ word to his followers: “You did not choose me, but I chose you …”

When Mephibosheth was presented to David, the king said, “Don’t be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father. And I will restore the land that belongs to your family.” The story ends with Mephibosheth living in Jerusalem, eating at the King’s table.

And this is the place in this Old Testament story where Jesus shows up. As I consider Mephibosheth coming to live with David, I realize there is no miraculous healing. David doesn’t hire great doctors to fix him up. Mephibosheth comes as he is and as he is he is welcome at the table of the King.

Welcomed, not as a servant but as a friend.

In that scene, Jesus says to us also, “You don’t have to be different than you are to sit at the table and be part of the things I have for you. We are not all sitting around waiting for you to be better, different, healed. You have been chosen as you are, loved as you are.”

Transformation will come in the nourishing, of course (we are Methodists, after all, who believe sanctification is the other half of salvation). But transformation begins with an invitation to the table. Come as you are.

And right here, right now, I want to thank Jesus for that word. Isn’t that exactly what he did for me? For you? After the resurrection, he showed up to this woman who would have been an outcast in her world, once crippled by demons. He showed up to her and her circle, and to those guys walking down a road toward their house in Emmaus. The story says, “He was known in the breaking of the bread.” He was known at the table, in the conversation, in the moment.

Jesus came bearing the inestimable power of friendship. He comes bearing a rare kindness, for the sake of the Father, saying things like, ““Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. ”“I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you.”

Friendship is the gift of the Kingdom. Jesus came to us as friend, and invites us to befriend people in authentic ways. This is how the gospel gets rooted. It gets rooted in the soil of community and it bears the fruit of friendship.

(This story is also part of the Encounter Jesus study, available at seedbed.com)

Read More

Who gets to be Lord?

I was called by God to preach when I was thirteen. Forty-three years ago in Georgia, that was a strange thing to claim. I struggled to hold on to this call. In fact, by the time I reached college, I’d watered it down. I would go into Christian education since that would be more socially acceptable for someone like me. The only two problems with that were: 1) I’m terrible in a roomful of children; and 2) it wasn’t God’s call.

I tried anyway. And failed miserably.  Then walked away from my call completely.

I didn’t realize then that the call is intricately connected to faith. To abandon my calling was to play fast and loose with my relationship with God. I became an easy target for the enemy of my soul who tied my hands, kicked me down the street and threw me into the prison of alcoholism. Somewhere in there, I finished college, got married and began a career outside the church.

In fact, I quit church altogether for about ten years but let me be clear on this: I didn’t stop going to church because the church wasn’t relevant or didn’t meet my needs. I quit going because the enemy came and snatched me up and threw me into a prison that I was then unable to get out of on my own.

It would take twelve years for me to finally, fully come home to Jesus. It happened by mistake. A friend roped me into attending a Bible study and over time I got interested and involved. One day, the leader of this study invited me onto the leadership team, but told me in no uncertain terms that to accept the invitation I’d have to quit drinking.

I said, “I’ll get back to you.” Which was code for, “When hell freezes over.”

I had no intention of giving up drinking, but that invitation was the hook. Someone leading a Bible study had the guts to invite me to consider a different life and I took the bait. One day soon after, I realized the depth of the choice I’d been given: quit drinking and lead a Bible study, or keep the status quo and allow my life to continue floating without purpose.

That choice wasn’t ultimately a choice about leadership. It was a choice about lordship. The real question in front of me in that season was this: Who gets to be Lord of my life?

I had my last drink 27 years ago and that choice to quit was one of the best choices of my life.

This is the question every great story of transformation answers: Who gets to be Lord? Until you answer that question, nothing else matters. When you answer that question, everything gets redeemed.

Everything.

Read More

The Danger of Distraction (and how to find your holy “yes”)

I wonder if there has ever been a climate so ripe for distraction. So much information coming at us from every possible lit-up screen. We are distracted by social media, by our phones, by unwelcome relationships, by our phones, by intruding thoughts and lusts and wants and needs, by our phones … we are distracted.

Listening to a message by Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), I learned something about that word — distraction. In medieval times, there was a barbaric torture tactic called “drawing and quartering.” Each of a person’s four limbs were tied to four ropes, and each of those ropes was tied to four horses, who were then commanded to run in four different directions. It was a horrible practice.

Do you know what the French called it? Distraction.

When I saw that image and heard that term, I thought, “That’s it!” By making us rush to catch up, by keeping us in mental chaos, by luring us away from life-giving habits like what Methodists call the means of grace, by making us say yes to things we ought never say yes to, distractions rob us of rest and keep us from being formed into the likeness of Christ. No wonder one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-discipline. It is discipline that pulls the distracted parts of us back together.

We want to believe that the means of grace — or what you may know as spiritual disciplines — are for people who have too much time on their hands. Nothing could be further from the truth. Disciplines are precisely for people who have too much on their plate.

Listen: Who needs discipline when you’ve got nothing but time? Disciplines are not for people who have too much time; they for people who have too many distractions.

Let me say that again: Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions.

Disciplines bring the pulled-apart, conflicting parts of us back together again. They help us to live inside our limits so we don’t end up without enough energy to take a shower much less spend time resting in the Lord. They help us become mindful of our day-to-day decisions and how they feed into our spiritual goals. They encourage us to create life-giving habits.

Which of these disciplines sounds completely foreign to you? Which ones might be a source of life and restoration for you? (

  • Bible reading
  • prayer
  • meditation
  • worship
  • community life (including accountability)

These are classic disciplines that shape our thoughts and set the tone of our day. They give us courage to say “no” more often so we can say a holy “yes” to things that feed our life in Christ. After all, God calls us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, right? The means of grace are ways we can examine ourselves to see if we’re on that track. We know our lives are being shaped into the likeness of Christ when our conversation begins to be transformed by love and our reactions are filtered through the Holy Spirit. We know it is happening when our calendars aren’t so far beyond our limits that we can’t rest in the comfort that God’s got it.

Disciplines make busy people slow down enough to let their souls sink into Jesus. That’s where the real spiritual work is done — in the secret place, where deep calls to deep. Disciplines don’t promise to make our lives easier, but I can attest to this: they result in a kind of rest that pulls all the distracted, chaotic, directionless pieces of our lives together.

  • What are you sure of, and what doubts are creating spiritual anxiety?
  • What is pulling at you, and what distractions are keeping you from spiritual formation?
  • What does your calendar say about your life … and about how much you trust God?
  • How willing are you to make changes to your life not just for the sake of your own spiritual formation, but for the sake of others?

Read More