Dealing with the unsaved parts of your life

A friend who counsels through healing prayer shared a story a while back of working with a middle-aged woman who had a form of dissociation (we used to call it multiple personality disorder). Significant dissociation is an effect of significant childhood trauma. In simple (and probably inadequate) terms, it happens when the part of the brain that is wounded sequesters itself, creating a separate personality and resulting in  something like another person inside your head.

This woman being treated by my friend had a six-year-old child living in her head who had been hiding there for decades, ever since the trauma occurred in her life. My friend said that as he prayed with this woman, the six-year-old would come in and out. It was as if he was talking to two different people. This wasn’t a demon; this was a dissociated or fractured part of this person’s personality.

In the course of the prayer, a problem surfaced. As it turns out, the adult had come to Christ in recent years but because that happened after she was six, the child didn’t know Jesus. This was a point of contention. The adult would tell the child, “You need to find Jesus so we can get together.” That sounded reasonable enough to an adult mind but not to a wounded child. The six-year-old was afraid; there had already been so much hurt and distrust. Even between the adult and child living in the same body there were hurt feelings and resentments.

What eventually broke the stalemate? The adult decided to act like an adult. Instead of telling the child, “You need to go meet Jesus,” the adult embraced the child and the two of them walked toward Jesus together. My friend says it was like watching a six year old girl get saved. When she accepted Jesus, he spontaneously integrated them. But to get there, the more mature side of this person had to go after the healing.

Good healing starts with a decision to go after it. It starts with a choice to act like an adult and walk the unredeemed parts of myself out of the darkness and toward Jesus.

I wonder if there are some parts of you that need to challenge other parts of you to get up and go after God? Is there is a conversation inside of you waiting to happen so you can move through the broken places to the next rise?

A while back, I wrote the following in my journal on a day when I was challenging myself on the shallowness of my personal Bible reading. I wrote: “It is tempting to read the Bible only for what it might reveal to me today about myself or my circumstances. I begin looking for nuggets of hope or support. I read into the lives of the Israelites — harassed by the Babylonians — slivers of truth for my middle-class life today. I compare apples with automobiles, bowing to the tempting belief that some of the most profound moments in history are really just bits of advice for my day. The Word of God becomes a fortune cookie, and my part is to believe that whatever snappy phrase I can uncover is my destiny.

“But what if that isn’t God’s best for my relationship with him? What if, instead, I’m to be looking for the life of God rather than my own?

“Lord, forgive me for treating your Word like a fortune cookie and for allowing it to suffice only for how it can improve my immediate circumstances. And Lord, pour through me today your cleansing and renewing power. While I’m praying for folks and listening to stories, I need your power to cleanse me. Make me kinder, gentler, more loving, forgiving, pleasing to you. Bend my character toward your will. Kill all the unsaved parts of me. Jesus … circumcise my heart.”

This is what it means to seek after the life of God, and to bring it into my life so that my faith becomes an expression of Jesus being lived out in me. It means seeking out and embracing the unsaved parts of me, so I can walk them into the redemption of Jesus.

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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

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

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

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

Lord, have mercy.

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

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Evaluate your list and improve your discipling system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ten Marks of Wise Living

Solomon didn’t sugar-coat human existence. Often called “the wisest man who ever lived,” Solomon wrestled with the meaning of life. In his diary of that wrestling (the Book of Ecclesiastes), he begins with that seems to be the case — that life seems meaningless. People work; they have kids. The wind blows; rivers run into the sea. All this movement … for what? Because we can be rich, smart, fixed for life, with every move perfectly calibrated, and still be miserable. We can be incredibly busy and organized and put miles on our pedometers and odometers and still go nowhere.

After examining all the options, Solomon came to this conclusion: Life cannot be its own good. The circumstances of it don’t generate the kind of fulfillment for which humanity longs. There has to be more to life than simply living it. Solomon’s wrestling offers alternatives to the drudgery of simply existing so we can live as we are designed.

Here are ten suggestions from a very wise man:

1. A positive approach is half the battle. 

The starting point for finding meaning in a seemingly dead-end existence is to change our perspective. A simple decision to see life as hopeful is a good first step toward wisdom. The smart ones are not the ones who can criticize everything; they are the ones who can see through to creative solutions. In our current culture, it is no small thing to choose positivity over criticism.

2. Evaluate your values.

Our church has set three simple values for ourselves to help us decide what to say yes to and what to say no to. Those three values have changed us. They took away all the hesitation and need to please. Instead, we are now more focused, more determined, and our decisions have more integrity. Take time to figure out what matters to you, so you can begin to make choices based on values rather than the moment.

3. Timing is everything (but not everything is up to us).

Singing the words of Ecclesiastes 3, The Byrds informed a generation that there is a time for everything. There will be times when we must restore something that looks for all the world like dead, and also times when we have to tear everything up that we thought we cared about in order to be on the side of right.  Knowing which time is which is the real trick and if it were all up to our always getting it exactly right, we’d be sunk. Timing is everything, but God’s sovereignty is able to work God’s design into our choices. Are you being stepping up when the time is right, trusting God to place the floor beneath your feet?

4. Embrace the power of partnerships.

In his book, Bowling Alone, Steve Robert Putnam theorizes that since the 1960s our nation has dramatically decreased its ability to foster friendships. Along with a decrease in social interaction has been an increase in panic attacks, paranoia and other fears; intolerance of noise; difficulty with concentration; and an increase in aggressive fantasies. Why? Because we have lost touch with the divine design. We threaten our own quality of life when we put self above others. Healthy partnerships are the cure. They require vulnerability, accountability and honesty. Pursue partnerships that honor God and add value to your life and work.

5. Learn to trust by becoming trustworthy.

God is not as committed to our happiness as he is to our character. Becoming trustworthy is what happens as we become holy. So how can we improve our trust factor? For starters, we can learn to listen first before we form opinions. The fact is, we probably know less than we think we do about any situation. Lean in and learn to trust others’ good intentions rather than assuming the worst in the absence of information.

6. Practice grace (it is the key to healthy relationships).

Grace is not for wimps. Solomon’s version of grace looks a lot like accountability (Ecclesiastes 7:5): “It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools.” We need people who love us enough to speak the truth in love. Grace is not only unmerited forgiveness; it is that willingness to lean in and stick together, no matter what.

7. Pursue joy, and not just happiness.

If we’re waiting for all the clouds to break and for everything to become clear this side of death, we will be sorely disappointed. And anxious. What if, instead, we just decide to enjoy the rescue, instead of rebelling against it? What if, as Hugh Halter has so wonderfully counseled, we decide to “enjoy life, and live like a missionary”?

8. Live for the long haul (and not for the moment).

Soren Kierkegaard was a Christian philosopher in the 20th century. He once said that to make progress, we should define life backwards, then live it forwards. In other words,  instead of just getting up every morning and putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that it all leads someplace, we should start with a goal, then work back from there. What do you value? What do you want to accomplish? Start there, then plan backwards toward your present.

9. Weigh your words.

Somehow, we’ve managed to create an atmosphere where you can say just about anything and even get applause for it. In the right atmosphere and for the right reasons, transparency can be a marvelous freedom. Undisciplined opinionating, on the other hand, is the surest way to expose your own foolishness. In fact, I am now convinced that discipline is not only the key to spiritual maturity and effective fruit-bearing, but also the root of all joy.

10. Fear God (it is the beginning of wisdom).

This is where Solomon concludes his quest for the meaning of life. He counsels his reader to learn how to fear God, not in the guilt-generating sense of thinking God is out to get us but in the humbling sense of recognizing there may be more to this than we can understand. It is the stark realization that in order to love this life, we have to love God more. And that in the process of loving God more than our own lives, we will find ultimate freedom, wisdom and joy.

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When Calvinism Becomes Dangerous

I have great respect for many colleagues in ministry who espouse a reformed or Calvinist view of the world. That said, it should be no surprise to those who read and listen to me regularly that I am enthusiastically and unapologetically Arminian (really interested? Read this book). I am far too deeply committed to the notion of God’s pure love exercised in his gift of human free will to appreciate most of what reformed theologians teach us. I can manage about two  and a half letters of the TULIP; the rest of it does not convince me.

I suspect that at least some of our theological differences are just a matter of how our brains work but there are concepts that cross a line into dangerous territory. Here are three Calvinist ideas I’ve heard voiced in real conversations that cause real damage when spoken into a secular culture:

Misconception #1: God has my days numbered and nothing I do can change that. This line was shared (verbatim) while someone I love was animatedly sharing his participation in some fun but risky behavior. He said, “Listen, I know where I’m going when I die and God knows exactly when that is going to happen and nothing I do can change that.” His point was that since God has already ordained the day of his death, his choices have no power to change his future.

What?

Calvin not only taught that God’s grace is irresistible but that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. And in fact, he took this idea a step further. He believed every detail happens according to the will of God, that even evil people are operating under God’s power so that no matter what a person does, God has caused it.

Maybe on my weak days, I wish this were true. I sometimes wish God would just override my will. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been with people who struggle to believe; in those moments I’d give anything if God would just save them from themselves.

Make them believe, Jesus! Because they’re killing me!

But that isn’t how it works. People come to Christ every day and every day people resist the grace of God. Not only that, but every day people make horrible choices against the will of God that limit the length or joy of their lives.

Our behavior matters. If I smoke two packs of cigarettes  a day, it will affect the length and joy of my life. To persist in such behavior isn’t God’s will, and our behavior matters to God. As Moses said to the Israelites, we have two choices before us — blessings and curses, life and death. “Choose life, that you might live.”

Misconception #2: Everything happens for a reason and all reasons are ordained by God (even the evil ones). I most recently heard this one at the funeral of a young adult who overdosed. How such a hollow statement could have provided comfort to a family dealing with such a tragedy is beyond me. Is even an overdose ordained by God? I can’t imagine the thought of having to endure such a tragedy believing that God had done this to my loved one … or at least blessed it.

Paul’s word to the Romans was that God can work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. There is a ton of solid theology in that one line; it assures me that God can make good out of even my worst mistakes. What it doesn’t tell me is that God causes my mistakes. He can work redemption into a circumstance without causing it.

The fact of God’s sovereignty does not have to mean that God has made toys to play with. People are not puppets. To the contrary, he has made free humans with heads, hearts and wills, “just a little lower than the angels.” I can have  tremendous trust in who God is, in his great love for us and in his power to redeem anything without having to believe that he causes even my worst mistakes and sins.

Misconception #3: Jesus died for the ones he came to save, but not for everyone.
This is how many people deal with the fact that many in the world have never heard and will never hear the name of Jesus. It is because Jesus didn’t die for them. The “L” in TULIP means God’s atonement is limited. A Calvinist would say, “It is not my salvation to get and it is not my salvation to lose. It is Christ’s salvation of me.”

An Arminian would agree. God’s salvation is his gift to us, and nothing we do can generate it. But everyone is offered the gift. Every person on this earth has both the right and the opportunity to have their chains broken, their guilt removed and their value restored. There is no one beyond the reach of his mercy. To think otherwise is to judge someone before Christ himself has had the opportunity to do so.

Salvation is a free gift for everyone. Not everyone will accept that gift, but everyone is offered it. Otherwise, what was the cross for?

This is the strength of His grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so that when we awaken to him, he will be there. Grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days, even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others we feel. God is there through all of it. That is what it means to be sovereign. God has been there the whole time, watching and in his strength, waiting.

And God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once given up on you, not even once.

 

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Haters gonna hate.

Let’s talk about hate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t the way of Christ.

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

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

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God knows.

God knows.

Do you get how profound that is? God knows everything.  Your worst moment, your weakest decision, your blackest thought. God knows, and he still loves you.

To say that God knows is not the same as saying he dictates your every decision or causes your every moment. He is not a cosmic Santa Claus keeping a list and holding every grievance against you. It is simply to say that God — author and creator of our world, who lives outside of time — knows.

And what does God expect of us for all that knowing?  Shame?  Fear?  Regret?  Hiding?

Nope.  Faith.  Enough of it to believe in a deeper reality than what we’ve done.  Enough to believe “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Paul Tillich says, “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance.”

Meaning? Faith is a code that unlocks the acceptance of Jesus’ acceptance of me. It is my admission that Jesus knows my whole life story, every skeleton in my closet, every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty, degradedness darkening my past, and he accepts me in that light.

God knows what I did in college and what I do on depressed days. He knows my excuses and all the ways I externalize my foolishness so I don’t have to own it and get better.

God knows I’m not there yet.

Right now he knows my shallow faith, my feeble prayer life, my inconsistent discipleship, and he comes beside me and he says, “I dare you to trust. I dare you to believe that I love you, just as you are and not as you should be.”

Because frankly, you’re never going to be as you should be. Not on your own steam. It just won’t happen, and that fact is true whether you believe in Jesus or accept his acceptance of you or not.

But somehow, knowing that God knows is its own comfort. God knows and God cares, and that’s enough.

Hallelujah.

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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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How to kill the thing that is killing you

Here’s a truth: Jesus doesn’t save people from sinning. He saves us as sinners. So in the Apostles’ Creed, when we say we believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are effectively placing ourselves in that category of people whose lives need forgiveness and whose status when Jesus found us was “sinner.”

We believe in the forgiveness of sins because we needed it but much more, we believe in it because it works.

It is bizarre, what we do with sin. Most of us work so hard to protect our sins while they work so hard to kill us. We deny our sin and defer blame and — as E. Stanley Jones once said — “attempt to live against the nature of reality and get away with it.” We make it all about other people, and we deny our part and make excuses. We lie in both directions by lying to one another while we lie to ourselves.

To win at the sin game, the enemy needs us to learn the language of lying. He needs us to become fluent in deceit and denial. He needs us to hide things, hide truth, hide fear, hide our sin because as long as we’re hiding things, he’s in control. Always remember that the enemy of your soul would rather you lie. He’d rather you hide things, because everything in the dark belongs to the enemy while everything in the light belongs to Jesus.

The last weapon the enemy has once a person makes a move toward light and truth is to speak shame into your spirit. He will be like that desperate child who has just gotten in trouble at WalMart, pitifully bargaining on the way out the door to his punishment. He will tell you everything you want to hear and when that doesn’t work, he’ll throw shame at you, making you feel bad not just for what you’ve done but for who you are.

This is why the truth that there is no shame in Christ is so critical. Until we really believe there is no shame in Christ, we will work like crazy to protect our sin. But when we really believe it — that truth sets us free, that there is no shame in Jesus, that living in the light is better than banging around in the darkness — then things begin to make peace. We take confession for what it is: a freedom and a gift. As we bring our junk into the light, the two warring sides that live inside of us pull together. When it comes to admitting our crap, it is critical to remember that truth is not shame-producing but freedom-producing.

Confession — adding truth into the sin equation — is an amazing thing. Confession is how I begin to walk out this fundamental belief that Jesus at his core is for me. Confession is how I join the ranks of those who don’t just say they believe in the forgiveness of sins, but actually participate in it.

Maybe the most powerful step in the 12 steps is step four, where we’re asked to make a searching and fearless moral inventory. A moral inventory is a list of all those memories we have of hurting others and of being hurt. To take a moral inventory, we take time to engage our past and our guilt and our hurts. We sit down with pen and paper and honestly write out everything we can remember about our life that hurts. This step isn’t a one-cup-of-coffee process. It may take weeks. Or even years. Doesn’t matter. The point is to get started.

“Fearless” is a key word in the process. Fearless means I believe in the forgiveness of sins. It means I trust that if I show God my sin, he won’t toss shame in my face. Fearless means I want to learn the language of heaven. Fearless means I’m tired of defending the very sins that have been trying to destroy me.

What have I felt guilty about? What have I regretted? Who has hurt me, and who have I hurt? What are the broken relationships in my life that need to be acknowledged? Who do I need to forgive? These are the kinds of questions we work through when we engage in a fearless, moral inventory. And we do it in writing because it helps us untangle the memories and think realistically about the people and events in our past. When we take a moral inventory, we go beyond waving a hand over our whole life with a general statement like, “God, I’ve been bad. Forgive me” (or worse yet, “God, if I’ve done anything wrong, I’m sorry …”). Taking written stock causes us to name the demons, to acknowledge the pain, to pinpoint the issues that need to be dealt with. And to do it in the language of Jesus (confession), not the language of the enemy of our soul (denial and deception). It isn’t easy or pretty, but it is good.

Listen: Either dark wins, or light wins. Confession is the weapon that fights the darkness. Confession is freedom. Confession proves we believe in the forgiveness of sins.

My friends, don’t work so hard to protect your sin. Kill it, before it kills you.

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Relapse and recovery (or, how to get back up when you fall)

Recovery is characterized by relapse.

I wish someone had told me this a long time ago, before I lost patience with people who desperately need my patience. Relapse is what happens when people give up a powerfully magnetic addiction only to find themselves at some point giving into the temptation to try it again.

It happens.

Relapse doesn’t mean a person has failed at recovery, that recovery isn’t happening or that recovery has failed. It means that person is human, still recovering, and learning from both successes and failures how to be whole.

What it means is that we are sunk without grace.

Think of it this way: You’re one of twenty people racing around a track. The gun goes off and allrecovery-and-relapse2 twenty of you set off running. Somewhere around the turn, you fall down. Do the usual rules of a race demand that you go back to the beginning and start over because you fell? Nope. You don’t limp off the track and quit, either. To the contrary, the unofficial rule for any competitive runner is that whatever else happens you finish the race. You stand up, shake it off and start running again even if it looks as if you’ll finish dead last.

Falling down isn’t the point; finishing is. And one day you’ll find you can make it around the track without falling at all.

Paul talks about spiritual relapse in his letter to the Romans. He writes (Romans 7:15-20), “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

This is the language of relapse and the anatomy of human nature. Inside every person, there are two sides that war with each other, and sometimes the side that works against our design wins a battle and we do things we don’t mean to do. God gets that. He gets that sometimes we’re going to relapse and do the things we hate and promise ourselves we’ll never do the thing again. We tell God, “Never again,” and then something happens and there we are, doing the very thing we hate … again. Because we fear death or fear pain or fear failure or fear being seen as a failure …

Paul teaches us that we are all in recovery, all of us recovering from “self addiction.” We are all struggling to conquer a weak nature. We are all prone to wander and we all have triggers that set off the war within.

So what is that thing for you? What is it that you battle against, that turns your head and keeps you from confidently moving forward? Is it lying or lust? Food or alcohol? Some other substance? Is it the way you treat people? Do you have anger issues, or childhood wounds that have created adult dysfunctions you can’t seem to shake?

For Abraham it was the habit of self-protective lying. He told Pharaoh that his wife was his sister in order to protect himself. It wasn’t exactly a lie (his wife was his father’s child), but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. His motive was purely selfish. Abraham allowed fear to make his decisions for him, not once but twice (he said the same thing to Abimelech, and it didn’t go well then, either).

Abraham’s lie morphed from an event to a habit. His habit compromised his influence. His lack of integrity destroyed trust.

And that is the problem with our addiction, whatever it is:

  • The practice of it makes a habit.
  • The habit of it ruins your influence.
  • The persistence of it destroys trust.

And it all begins with letting fear make our decisions for us.

So … where are you allowing fear (a self-defensive posture) to breed an addiction or send you backward into spiritual relapse? Or physical relapse?

If yesterday was the day you fell apart, don’t limp off the track and quit. Make today the day you stand back up again and finish the race.

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