Depression is hell.

For some, it looks like gathering clouds. For others, a black hole. For some, it feels like dread or fear or hopelessness. For others, it feels more like guilt — the kind that won’t go away. It may feel like shame, or like anxiety that never eases up. It can leave one unable to function, and another unable to sleep. Some ease the pain by eating; others by not eating. In some people, it masks itself as physical pain. Other people mask it with anger; many medicate with substances that seem to help at first, but end up enslaving in a deeper darkness. It saps some or all their energy; it makes others nervously busy. Some become manic; others become numb.

Depression is hell.

And there are as many faces of it as there are people who live with it. Statistics say one in ten adults will deal with it in some form at least once in their lives. They tell us more women than men suffer from it, but that may be more a difference in how we talk about it. We know this much for sure: A depressed person cannot talk himself out of it or will it away, nor can the people around him. And the pain of it can affect us spiritually, causing us to question God and even our own existence.

As spiritual people, how do we cope when the clouds gather? What stories help us understand how God works when we are in darkness?

The obvious choice would be Job, I guess, but I’d like to draw some thoughts from an unlikely character in the Bible — Moses, a great man whose obedience changed the world. Consider his story. Moses spent literally decades, sitting in his own cloud of unknowing, waiting for God to show up. Then, when God did show up, Moses could not have responded more unenthusiastically if he’d tried. He responded to God in fear. He was a man who tended to leave things half-done (remember the argument with his wife?). He caused his family no end in grief. His meetings with the Pharaoh created suffering for a cityful of people. If ever there was a man with a right to feel depressed, Moses would be it.

Eventually, he had it out with God (I love him for this). He explodes in frustration. “God, why have you mistreated your people like this? Why did you send me? You have not even begun to rescue them. Where are you, God? Have you forsaken us forever? Where are you? Where are you?” (Exodus 5:22-23)

When the low-hanging emotional clouds hover like a weight of fog over your life, it is hard to hear the voice of God over our pain. “Why are my finances in such trouble? Why is my job so miserable? Why is my home life so unappealing? Why is my marriage loveless? Why do my children suffer with illness or disability or emotional pain? Why, God, have you mistreated your people like this?” For some of us, the questions far outweigh the answers and it leaves us depressed, broken, fearful … feeling guilty for the way we feel about it.

One of the angriest times I’ve had in my life came after my mother died. I hurt. The grief was heavy; the pain worse than what I’d known before. I remember a pastor telling me I needed to keep praying. I responded by telling him I had no more prayers. I was so angry. I didn’t understand the suffering she went through or the grief with which we were left. Folks around us meant well (they always do), but no amount of words, food, flowers or care seemed to penetrate the darkness.

Then I got a card from a friend that seemed to touch at the point of my deepest need. In the card, she quoted a French poet named Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”

That thought seemed more relevant than any well-intentioned encouragement others offered. It went right to the heart. I couldn’t talk myself out of how I felt. There were no answers to make it all make sense and it helped greatly to be told I didn’t have to have answers. It helped to know I didn’t have to depend on cheap clichés to soothe deep pain. Making peace with the questions made more sense. It was certainly more do-able.

I suspect that God understands that. Maybe that’s why he answered Moses the way he did when Moses got to the end of his rope. God didn’t get mad at him or fire him. He didn’t make him feel guilty for being frustrated. He didn’t punish him for the emotional outburst. In fact, I can almost hear him saying, “Finally … now we’re getting somewhere.” In the midst of Moses’ honesty, God showed up compassionately and met him at the very point of his questioning. God acknowledged his frustration and raised him above it not with cheap clichés that would ease the immediate pain but with the eternal truth of God’s power and promises.

Hear this: The best thing God has to offer us is not answers to our questions, but the truth of Himself. God said to Moses, “I know it doesn’t look great for you right now and while that’s not something I will change, I am One you can trust as you walk through it. You can count on me to do what I’ve promised.”

God comforts Moses by showing him who He is. In other words, God says, “I have not changed. Even though your moods may swing and the clouds hang low and your perspective may shift and your faith may waiver and your circumstances may alter, I AM. I am the same yesterday, today and forever. What I have promised, I will deliver. I am still the same powerful and loving God who cares for you and wants to bring you into your destiny. I Am Who I Say I Am.”

And while that may not do one thing today to ease your depression, maybe it will provide for you a solid truth to lean on while you walk through your valley. God’s character is eternal, his promises are safe, his nature is to love and his plans for us are good.

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God is enough (or, why sovereignty matters).

Every time we say the words “Jesus Christ,” we are proclaiming a King who has a Kingdom. The Bible refers to it alternately as the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. Christ’s Kingdom is the rule and reign of a holy God, an “anointed one.” He is not just King of my heart or even King of the world. He is King of the universe. There is a cosmic reality far greater than us over which Christ rules.

His rule is complete.

The Kingdom of Heaven has an army. The Hebrew term usually translated as “hosts” in the Bible (as in, “Lord of Hosts”) more accurately means “army.” Ours is a warrior King who fights for us in the supernatural realm.

The one who is in charge of our army, who is fighting for our territory, who has dominion over our Kingdom, is a God of love, justice, mercy and peace. He can be trusted even in the battle because God is on the side of people. God loves people.

The King who is for us is with us.

He is a sovereign King. What does it mean when we say God is sovereign? We are saying, basically, that God is God. King of Kings! Lord of Lords! God Almighty. He is enough.

Here’s what the fact of God’s sovereignty means for you and me:

  • God has the power to do what he wants, where he wants, when he wants.
  • God has given himself one limit: he has chosen to let us come to him freely. Our Father has chosen to make our relationship with him a free choice. Free will is a mark of God’s sovereignty, not God’s limits.
  • God is not a bully. His decisions are compelled by love, not power (which means we are saved by love, not power). At the cross, we (humans) experienced the full extent of God’s love. Satan experienced the full extent of God’s power.
  • God does not control us; he empowers us. What he asks of us, he empowers us to do. That’s the point of the Holy Spirit. This is precisely why we seek the filling of the Holy Spirit.
  • God gives us the right to make decisions and our decisions matter. In fact, they have eternal consequences.

This is God’s sovereignty at work: God is compelled by love to exercise his power. Because he loves us, he uses his power to overcome every obstacle that threatens to keep his children from the Kingdom. He uses his power to fight for us and in the end, we are assured that this love — the love of a merciful, just God — wins.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, our Father is enough. All by himself, he is enough.

Hallelujah.

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ELCA: foreshadowing a UMC future?

In the United Methodist Church these days, it is all about “the plans.” Three have been recommended by the Commission on a Way Forward. I note them here for reference, with reflections beneath about another denomination’s experience with their version of the One Church Plan:

The Traditionalist Plan: This plan maintains language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, and provides a gracious (but as-yet undefined) exit for those who cannot in good conscience abide by that language. Those who support this plan are often accused of being schismatic for their unwillingness to bend on what they would call core theological convictions — convictions written into the Book of Discipline and which traditionalists and progressives alike committed to at their ordination.

The One Church Plan: This plan removes language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, leaving it to churches to determine what their guidelines will be on issues like membership, marriage of same-sex couples, or ordination of LGBTQ persons. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan, presumably because it allows churches, members and pastors to choose their theology. The lack of a gracious exit reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to have deeply held convictions about the Bible, holiness, marriage and the nature of discipleship. It requires those convictions to submit to the cause of institutional preservation.

The Connectional Conference Plan: This plan corrals United Methodists into three main “camps” — traditionalist, centrist and progressive. These three camps would share affiliated services while being otherwise autonomous though governed by one Council of Bishops. There is no gracious exist attached to this plan, though it also requires a fundamental shift in understanding about what it means to hold core theological convictions. What the One Church Plan requires of laypersons and clergy, the Connectional Conference Plan requires of bishops, requiring them to set aside personal conviction for the sake of institutional preservation.

The One Church and Connectional Conference Plans — by their lack of exit ramp and the assumption that preservation trumps personal conviction — reveal the depth of our divide in the United Methodist Church, a divide that ought to be respected because it refuses to be minimized. Other denominations have proven the power of this kind of theological divide.

A colleague and friend, Reverend Dave Keener, witnessed this firsthand during the similar crisis in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Reflecting on the eventual division in the ELCA and its similarities to the current crisis in the UMC, Reverend Keener notes that something similar to the One Church Plan (OCP) was adopted by the ELCA in 2009. “The term they used was ‘bound conscience,’” he writes. “The assembly was assured that the theological and biblical positions of traditionalists and progressives alike would be respected. This did not happen.”

Soon after the vote it became clear to the traditionalists that there was in reality only one acceptable position and it wasn’t theirs. Since the the decisions of 2009 the ELCA has intentionally become more progressive and the traditionalists who remain in that denomination have been marginalized (most exited at the height of the crisis, forming the North American Lutheran Church, or NALC).

It may be helpful to take note of what happened within the ELCA in the aftermath of their adoption of a plan similar to the OCP. These reflections come from my Lutheran colleague:

  • Massive loss in membership. In the seven years after the decision to go against the historic teaching of the church the ELCA lost over one million members. They continue to decline but have not released numbers since 2016.
  • Massive loss of income. In the first few years after the vote the ELCA was forced to lay off hundreds of workers and experienced significant decreases in all areas of funding. Their current income for denominational expenses is less than it was in 1987, the year it was organized.
  • Global impact. Many churches in other parts of the world broke off formal ties with the ELCA — especially in Africa and the East.
  • Loss of confessional identity and loyalty.  It was no longer possible for local pastors to recommend that members who were relocating find an ELCA congregation since there was no longer unity in biblical teaching.
  • Theological education. Since the vote the ELCA has slowly purged itself of orthodox seminary professors. They have had to merge two of their seminaries for financial reasons and have removed one seminary president at the urging of progressive advocacy groups.
  • Diversity. One of the battle cries for the ELCA in making their decision was diversity, inclusion and welcoming. Ironically, according to a Pew research study last year the ELCA is now the second least diverse and multicultural denomination in the USA (96% white). The least diverse is the National Baptist Convention which is 99% African American.
  • Theological drift because of lack of accountability. Since the 2009 decision the denomination has continued to drift. With it’s decision the ELCA lost its ability to speak credibly to any issue. In saying that it doesn’t really matter what the Bible clearly states they reduce it to one resource among many and not God’s revelation to His people. Everything becomes a matter of opinion and soon the scripture has no authority for life. Congregations preaching various forms of universalism are becoming more and more common.
  • Generational impact. This article explains how quickly theology can drift in just one generation, once the theological core of a tribe has been removed.
  • Evangelism and discipleship. See point #1 for stats on loss of membership and attendance. As my friend notes, “Once biblical authority and historical teachings are removed, universalism and cheap grace are not far behind” … and neither breeds evangelistic urgency.

We owe it to ourselves and the thirteen million who call themselves United Methodist to learn from our brothers and sisters in other tribes who have may have tried too hard to hold together what isn’t theologically compatible. May God give us both grace and humility to go where he leads and to refuse the spirit of fear.

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Encouragement for a spiritually dry Monday: You are not abandoned.

I’ve hovered in the doorway of doubt more times than I can count.

As a pastor, as a Christian, as a human, I’ve experienced horrifying moments of unexpected doubt. It happens while I’m driving down the road or standing in line at Kroger or sometimes even as I’m standing up to preach. I hear an unwelcome voice, whispering, “What if this isn’t real? What if I’m just a keeper of the myth?” I appeal silently to God but struggle to find him in the cloud.

As Steve Harper says, “Spiritual dryness is a condition that makes prayer feel as if we are talking in the dark.”

Even the most faithful of us can find ourselves swimming in doubt — impatient with God, spiritually dry. Where there used to be rivers of living water, now there is dust. Faith that once was flowing has now ebbed. In fact, the tide has gone out so far it is beyond the horizon.

How discouraging. Especially for a pastor.

It helps me to know that it happens to others whose work I respect. It happened to Mother Teresa. It happened to Thomas and to Peter, and probably most if not all the others (even if their stories — mercifully — weren’t as widely publicized. Imagine having your worst spiritual moment published in the most popular book of all time).

It happened to John Wesley, who once wrote something to this effect to his brother: “I don’t know if I believe in God, and I don’t know if I ever have.” While that sounds like spiritual disaster coming from the pen of a spiritual master, it was very likely the opposite — not a moment of spiritual failure but of deep, longing honesty.

But maybe you’re the rare exception. You’ve never had a clear moment, much less a long season, of spiritual dryness. You’ve never once felt as if your faith was on life-support. If so, read this so you’ll have some inkling of how the rest of us feel; then, forward this to the person you’re thinking about as you read. They need to know they aren’t alone and your witness won’t be much of a comfort to them.

If you’re the rest of us — if your spiritual life sometimes feels like week-old bread or a stagnant pond, if your personal circumstances seem toxic and you’re in need of some signs of hope and life — then my prayer is that you’ll find encouragement not in a three-point “get fixed quick” blog but in the thought that maybe you’re not alone. And that maybe God even uses seasons of dryness to help us exercise our obedience muscles. Because sometimes we do this out of obedience rather than feeling. Sometimes we do this because the long story is that we’re not who we used to be, even if we’re not who we want to be right now.

There are nine clear stories in the Bible of people being raised from the dead and that doesn’t include what sounds like thousands who came back to life after Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection of Christ is the culmination of a thread in God’s story that ought to teach us something fundamental about his nature. He specializes in bringing hope into hopeless situations.

The story of the prophet Elijah is a strong case in point. He was among those Old Testament prophets who predicted famine in the land during days of poor leadership. In the midst of the famine, Elijah is provided for in miraculous ways as he camps out beside a stream. Ravens bring bread and meat twice a day. He has the provision of this stream. He is happy to stay here in this place and feed on this supernatural provision while he waits out the famine.

Sometimes faith comes like that. We get the parking space by the door and the check in the mail and the job we weren’t qualified for and the peace that passes understanding. And we’ve done nothing to deserve it. We’re not even consciously connected, or don’t feel as if we are.

Sometimes faith comes that way and in those seasons we have nothing to do but be humbly grateful.

Then sometimes, the brook dries up. The blessings stop coming. Sometimes the brook dries up because of our own disconnection, but sometimes it dries up because someone (not God) built a dam upstream. And in those times, it takes great faith to cling to Jesus while others wreak havoc in our lives.

In Elijah’s story, it is the dried-up brook that moves him into the flow of the Spirit. The brook dries up and Elijah — if he’s going to survive — must move on. It seems an unmercifully abrupt end to a good thing but it is in the very “moving on” that this prophet meets with his higher calling. In the process he befriends a widow who provides food while setting him in the path of God’s purposes. Here is where Elijah’s story puts him into the flow of God’s resurrection power.

Here’s the thing: sometimes dried-up brooks are moments to be weathered or voices to be ignored. But sometimes, God dries up the brook so we’ll be motivated to move on from the brook to the river. Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said (John 12:24): “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

What creates a resurrection atmosphere? What moves God to bring dead things back to life? And how can we tap into that understanding so we can bring to life what’s dead in us?

Maybe it happens when we allow ourselves to see beyond the brook to what God is doing elsewhere. Sometimes the brooks dry up and the seeds die so we’ll be motivated to move on.

Is it possible that your spiritual dryness is connected to an unwillingness to let God do a new thing?

This song was written as a response to a message given several years ago at the New Room Conference. I am so very blessed by this song, and share it here for those who need a fresh word of encouragement. Even when you don’t feel it, he is here. You are not abandoned was written by Joel Mooneyhan. Find more about him here.

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How to act in church

Just as new trees bear new fruit, new churches make new disciples. It is glorious to watch folks come into the Kingdom, and new churches offer a lot of opportunity for that.

While justification is a thrill, however, sanctification is hard work. Many who come to Christ through a new work have had either no experience of church or a bad experience of church, in which case they may not know how to act. I’m not talking about how to behave in church; I’m talking about how to be the church. Many have never experienced what it means to live in a healthy community — to be the church, not just go to church.

In Galatians 6:1-10, Paul gives a great recipe for how to act in church. As you gather souls, I recommend some version of this teaching as a way of instilling the DNA of community into your congregation.

By Paul’s definition, what does it mean to be the church?

1. Have one another’s back (Galatians 6:1).
This is about making sure everyone in the room recognizes that community is about cooperation, not competition. For some who have been raised in dysfunctional or conflicted congregations, this may be a new thought. Paul charges us to have the spirit of gentleness, to avoid the temptation of judgment in favor of the grace of bearing with one another.

2. Keep your eyes on your own progress through life (Galatians 6:3-5).
Paul encourages us to spend less time externalizing our discomforts (blaming them on others’ behavior) and more time investing in our own connection with God. Imagine the freedom we’d all find in church if we were all committed to working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

3. Show up for the sake of others, not just for yourself (Galatians 6:6-8).
The contemporary posture of church-going is pretty self-centered. We go to “get fed,” or to satisfy our own music or worship tastes. Community, however, is built on the principle of other-centeredness. We show up for church not just for ourselves, but for the sake of others. We show up in small groups not just for our own edification, but so we can build others up, because we who are committed to community get it that sometimes we need them and sometimes they need us.

4. Do the things you are capable of doing so others don’t have to (Galatians 6:9).
Those who are called to lead may need to be challenged to step up and take authority, so others who are less ready are not placed in those positions before their time.

5. Recognize that you don’t know everything there is to know about another person’s story (Galatians 6:3-4).
Having acknowledged #4 above, we also must recognize that not every person is called to serve in every season. There are also seasons of sabbath — for healing, for restoration. In those cases, what folks most need is someone who will understand and not make them feel guilty for not meeting all the other needs when they can hardly meet their own.

6. Hang in there with one another (Galatians 6:9).
One of our greatest strengths in my church community is the ability we seem to have to hang onto people. Especially in a community where folks don’t yet know “how to act in church,” patience may be the best gift we can give while sanctification does its work, recognizing that holiness is a process, not an event.

7. Honor differences by allowing for them (Galatians 6:6).
It is okay if we each do things differently. You won’t approach life or Christ the way I do, and I need to be okay with that. In fact, Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) that this is how the community of the King is designed to work.

8. Tend to each other’s practical needs (Galatians 6:10).
Maybe the best way for non-believers and new believers to experience the value of community is when we meet them at the point of their deepest needs. I’m not talking about the kind of co-dependence that tries too hard to be everyone’s everything. But through a healthy small group system, the community as a whole (not the pastor) can respond to needs, including the meals sent after surgery or a funeral, or by being there to pray or just be present when someone is dealing with depression or divorce. In the community of Christ, we don’t consider private lives private so much as personal, so that we become accustomed to responding in personal ways to personal needs.

9. Pray for each other (Galatians 6:2).
This is key. When prayer is at the center of community, then connections are stronger (“a cord of three strands is not easily broken”). This is what it means, at its root, to bear one another’s burdens. Be challenged to teach your folks to go deeper than adding names to a prayer list. Teach them to labor for one another in prayer, to bear one another’s burdens to the One who loved them first and loves them most.

This is how the community of Christ ought to act in church. It isn’t simply about going to church, or getting people to come to church. That is a habit we probably all ought to break. Instead, let’s teach our people to be the church, so that in our life together we are bearing Christ to the world.

(This post first appeared on Seedbed’s Church Planter Collective.)

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You are chosen (a prophetic word for New Room 2018).

This word was given me to share with those attending the closing service of New Room 2018. I share it here in an abbreviated form so that if you were there, you’ll have this word to remind you in the dark places of who you are: You are chosen. 

I fell apart last year. I think I can now say with some confidence that I was on a spiritual threshold, and those can be so painful. In that moment of birthing from one spiritual room to another, it can feel like insanity. It feels dark. I was there last year for several months, waiting for relief. I was seeing a counselor who kept me duct-taped together. He asked me one day to make a list of “I am” statements. He wanted me to be grounded in my identity while I was reeling emotionally, so he told me to just start writing. “I am _____.” Fill in the blank, he said, and keep doing it. He was looking for about 2000 “I am” statements.

The first hundred or so sounded like my personal PR campaign. They were all positive statements, if shallow, about myself. Somewhere around three or four-hundred I got honest. I began to say things I’d never admitted out loud (or on paper) before. Things like: I am embarrassed by failure. I am competitive. I am envious of others’ success.

On one particularly dark day, I wrote, “I am suspicious of God.”

On another day, just as the light was beginning to dawn in my life again, I wrote, “I am an artist.” That was one of the most profound realizations, and resonated as most true. I am not an engineer. No wonder most church growth books don’t work for me (and no wonder I’m no good at systems). I am an artist, and I approach ministry and life from that place. What freedom!

The statement that held all the other statements together was this one: I am a mixed bag. We all are. Most of us are a mixture of strong and weak, good and trying, sinful and saved. And in that way, we are in good company. Jesus seemed partial to mixed bags. Peter was among his favorites. Peter, who presented as a fisherman, fell to his knees at the miraculous catch of fish Jesus orchestrated and exhaled, “I am a sinful man!” From that place of humility, he was able to see Jesus as he was when Jesus asked, “Who do people say I am?” To which Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus answered, “And you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” From sinful to faithful … and then just a few paragraphs later, to satanic.

What can hold all those seeming inconsistencies together? Only Jesus. Only when our “I am” is connected to his “I am” can we have any hope of knowing ourselves as we truly are.

It makes sense, then, that having learned this lesson through his own season of sanctification, Peter could now tell others who they are. In 1 Peter 2:1-10, the apostle tells his first-century audience and then all of us who follow Jesus that we are all a mix of chosen and rejected, precious and peculiar, disobedient and destined. Ours is to find our place in those tensions by connecting to Christ.

You are chosen by God, rejected by humans.

Not long ago, I found myself in a children’s classroom listening to a lesson on the free gift of salvation. The teacher was doing a good job of explaining an abstract concept. She even had a neat little visual aid to go with it. In that class, there was a little boy who is powerfully bright and resilient, who absorbs everything, who lets very little get past him. He was listening to this teacher explain how we can’t add anything to our salvation, that we can’t work our way to heaven. And this little guy was listening and trying hard not to interrupt, until he just couldn’t help himself. Eventually, he broke in to say, “Yeah, its free … but you have to take it.” Which is Wesleyan free will perfectly expressed in eight words. But that was lost on his teacher, whose point was that you can’t add anything. So she said, “ Riiiighhhht … but its free.”

“But you have to take it.”

“But you can’t add anything to it,” the teacher insisted.

“But you have to take it.”

“But its free,” she said, now a bit more desperately.

“But you have to take it,” he said, more forcefully.

I don’t blame him for being unwilling to let go. His point was worth the fight. This is how John Wesley explained our chosenness:

“By the free love and almighty power of God taken out of, separated from, the world … Election, in the scripture sense, is God’s doing anything that our merit or power have no part in. The true predestination, or fore-appointment of God is, 1. He that believes shall be saved from the guilt and power of sin. 2. He that endures to the end shall be saved eternally. 3. They who receive the precious gift of faith, thereby become the sons of God; and, being sons, they shall receive the Spirit of holiness to walk as Christ also walked. Throughout every part of this appointment of God, promise and duty go hand in hand. All is free gift; and yet such is the gift, that the final issue depends on our future obedience to the heavenly call.” (italics mine)

In other words, “It is free, but you have to take it!”

We are chosen, and we choose. The gospel is full of biblical tensions like this. If you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to find life, you have to lose the one you’ve got. If you want freedom, you must surrender. So Peter, who is both a sinful man and a rock in the Church of Jesus Christ, chooses this refrain in his letter to the early church to tell us who we are. We are both chosen and rejected, precious and peculiar, disobedient and destined.

Chosen by God but rejected by men, Peter says. And every day we have to decide which one wins. Which one of me will show up today? Chosen me or rejected me? Peter has a word for us. Reject the spirit of rejection. Choose your chosenness. Chosenness is your gift, but you have to take it. Choose your chosenness.

You are precious, my friend. But you are also peculiar.

If you carry the spirit of Christ, how could you not be precious? When the Holy Spirit is deposited into us, we become tabernacles of God. We connect to that identity by faith, also a gift from God. These are gifts to be guarded, held as holy … to be honored even when they put us at odds with the world around us.

In the NIV, 1 Peter 2:9 translates as, “chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s special people.” The KJV gets right to the point: “You are a peculiar people.” When we do it right, it will be uncomfortable. We will seem peculiar, out of step with the status quo. When we do it right, we’ll look a little funny to the folks around us.

You are disobedient … but you are destined.

One of the best movie lines ever is the line from the old movie, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The move is half animation, half real people. Eddie Valiant is the real-life detective and Jessica Rabbit is this animated version of voluptuousness. One day they are together and she is telling him how hard it is to be her — how misunderstood she is — and in a sultry-and-sinful voice she explains, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

Which is a brilliant line, because she is actually an animated cartoon figure. But the line is also theologically profound (which I’m sure is exactly what they were going for). This is the human condition. We are drawn that way — toward disobedience. Never get too far from acknowledging that you are saved by grace, that on your own you are a “sinful man.” You are a mixed bag, a mess … but you are God’s mess. You are a person with a destiny, a purpose. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, created to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Scot McKnight asks a profound question: Who is capable of this calling? No one. Not on our strength. We are holy only by association. Our identity must be in Christ.

You are chosen and rejected … precious and peculiar … disobedient and destined.

You are a mixed bag, and so am I. And as we are, we are chosen. Chosen. As you go, remember that you are chosen. Remember who you are and whose you are and remember, too, that your chosenness only works when your “I am” is tethered to his “I am.”

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Waiting in the Valley of Perseverance

Three days ago, I’d never heard of a rover called Opportunity or the Valley of Perseverance. I first heard about it from the Holy Spirit himself. I’m in one of those seasons right now. It isn’t darkness, exactly, but it is dimmer than usual. There is a subtle resistance in my spirit, a sense that I’m having to work just to keep moving, having to press through when I’d rather lay low. We all have those times when it feels more like walking through mud than walking on water, and I’m in one of those. I wouldn’t classify it as depression or doubt or fear or even anxiety. Nor is this a time when God seems silent. To the contrary, he seems remarkably close. My times in his presence are rich. I can hear his voice. That makes me suspect there is more to this season than a bad mood.

But what to call it, then? When I asked the Lord about it — “Lord, am I sliding backward? Am I spiraling down into an old familiar darkness?” — here’s what I heard: “This is the Valley of Perseverance.” I’d never heard of such a valley. I assumed it was in the Bible somewhere, but I couldn’t recall where so I looked it up.

It isn’t in there.

The Valley of Perseverance is a place on Mars, and I’m just finding out about it though it happens to be in the news right now. Earlier this year the rover named Opportunity got stuck there. Somewhere in mid-June, a dust storm kicked up, a big one that has since grown to epic proportions. Because Opportunity is powered by solar energy, the severe dust is keeping the rover’s solar panels from being able to absorb light. So now, two months into this storm, there sits Opportunity surrounded by dust and grounded, unable to charge its batteries for the lack of light.

Researchers monitoring the situation are hopeful for two things to happen. Eventually, the dust storm will settle, they assume, though that won’t be the end of Opportunity’s challenges. When the dust settles, it will inevitably settle on the rover’s solar panels, solving nothing. The second hope after the dust settles is that a wind will blow through and clear the panels of dust. This is a quote from a NASA report on the situation (but doesn’t it sound like something out of Isaiah?): “The sun breaks through the haze over the Valley of Perseverance, and soon the light there should be enough to allow Opportunity to charge its batteries.”

But for now, the only option open is to wait it out. 

I’m stunned by this revelation, taken by it. That God would draw from this story to speak to my inner angst is powerful. It reminds me that he is not just my friend, or even the God whose got the whole world in his hands. He is the God of the universe, and certainly big enough to hold me in the valleys.

In this word, he has shown me that not all down days (or weeks, or seasons) are generic. Some of them are specific and require a specific response. This one I’m in? This is the “dust” of a flurry of projects and responsibilities running concurrently. Most of them are not storms of my own making. They are moments and circumstances and situations with expiration dates that require my patient endurance as they play out. Weighty though they are, most are best conquered with waiting. Doing nothing, even.  Sometimes circumstances beyond our control will necessitate our sitting in the Valley of Perseverance for a season. Nothing to do but wait it out.

But the waiting proves us. And shapes us.

In Paul’s encouragement to first-century Christians dealing with pressures of faith, he writes that “suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2b-4). Perseverance in Paul’s use of it is about handling pressure with grace. It is a solid biblical word that gives one the sense of a floor beneath the feet in confusing times. It is a prescription for allowing tough seasons to build character.

So I hear you, Holy Spirit: Hang in there. Wait. Don’t force things. This storm will pass. The dust will settle. The wind will blow. The light will shine. The batteries will recharge.  As with Opportunity, who sits on a far planet also under Your gaze, the call is to persevere, and to use this waiting to build character.

It is a good word, and a gift. I hear it. Give me courage and wisdom enough to let it form me.

Lord, give us wisdom and patience to wait out the storms, the dust, and the confusion. Give us grace to endure seasons in the Valley of Perseverance, so we can again draw strength from your light and move beyond this place.

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Churches are Not McDonalds Any More

In the world before denominations began to disintegrate (and they are, but that’s not the real point of this post), people largely chose their churches based on the label. I am United Methodist (or Presbyterian, or Primitive Baptist), so that’s the label I’m looking for. To a much greater degree, we could count on a church with a given label to look like all the other churches with that label. Sort of like McDonalds, which (at least in the U.S.) serves the same hamburger, no matter which state you buy it in.

That was then. This is now.

In this post-denominational culture, two churches with the same label can be radically different in style and theology. With the promotion of the One Church plan within the UMC, this becomes more likely still. While we may grieve the decline of a more predictable world, this might actually be a good thing.

What if the trend in this post-denominational world actually frees us up to think theologically again?

Chances are, when all the shakin’ going on in the denominational world settles down, Christians will gather more intentionally around theology. We won’t be able to trust the labels any more, so we will find ourselves engaging more intentionally, evaluating not just style but what is taught and lived. This could well lead to a revival among those who think, believe and live with a Wesleyan mindset.

Dr. Joe Dongell, one of my all-time favorite professors at Asbury Theological Seminary, has assembled what he calls twelve essential features of a Wesleyan mind. After making this list, Dongell concluded that he’d still missed what Wesley himself might call the defining mark of a Methodist: love of God and people (both neighbor and enemy).

Acknowledging that love is the prize, I offer his list here for those who want to better understand what it means to live with an emphasis on holiness of heart and life:

  1. Wesley was a man of one book. He called himself at one point a Bible bigot (someone focused upon and devoted to the Bible). For Wesley, the Bible was the touchstone of all truth. In contemporary circles, the Bible has been devalued to the point of being called “a valued resource.”
  2. Wesley did value reason, tradition and experience, but scripture has final authority.
  3. Wesley was Arminian, which means he was convinced we were created with a measure of free will.
  4. Wesley viewed the process of salvation optimistically. God can do amazing things, and can do them in you and me. God’s grace is so vibrant, so rich, that we can be changed in very real ways.
  5. Wesley viewed the human being as perfectible in certain ways.
  6. Wesley was convinced that all progress in the spiritual life comes through the means of grace. God has revealed pathways in which we walk, so we confidently embrace these paths. And possibly at the pinnacle of these means is the Lord’s Supper.
  7. Wesley believed all progress in the Christian life comes within the company of believers. We progress within the crucible of accountability and community.
  8. Wesley was convinced that every human being is desired by God to be saved, and God is constantly at work pursuing every human being. God is at work reconciling the world to himself.
  9. Wesley insisted that poor and marginalized people be cared for and that their suffering be relieved in both body and soul.
  10. Wesley was convinced that God desired to ensure our trust in our salvation. We can know we belong to him, not only through rational confirmation but also through the Spirit bearing witness to our spirit.
  11. Wesley knew that the transforming grace of God works at the deepest level of my being — beneath intellect and choice to the place of our affections (the deepest set of inclinations we have). God has the power to affect us and reorient us at a deeper level than our will, at the level of our core. Can I come to love holiness and be sickened by unholiness? Can I discover a delight in the deeper things of God?
  12. Wesley believed we must always embrace a catholic spirit. “If your heart is with me, give me your hand.” We must find ways to cooperate meaningfully even with those with whom we disagree.

Of course, I’m unashamedly biased about all these things. I happen to think highly of this way of looking at God and the world. When it was preached in its purest form, this worldview spread like wildfire across the early American landscape. Judging by the number of twenty-somethings at Seedbed’s annual New Room Conference, I am greatly encouraged to see that this way is still just as engaging today.

If you’re looking for a place to worship and call home, I can’t do better than to offer the above thoughts as a litmus test as you discern.

Because these days, the label doesn’t count like it used to.

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The character of a Methodist

Much is being made these days in my (admittedly very narrow) slice of the world about what it means to be a United Methodist. Wesley himself once wrote a tract called “The Character of a Methodist.” By his definition a Methodist is happy, full of love, prayerful, pure in heart, servant-minded, known by his fruit. (I want to meet those Methodists. They sound so attractive, don’t they?)

In this season, it seems important to articulate further the distinctives that make us Methodist. In my own study, I discovered this strong reflection on the character of a Wesleyan written more than a decade ago by Kent Hill, then president of Eastern Nazarene College. His thoughts resonate, so I share them as a starting point for your own formation of a definition of what it means to be Methodist (with apologies to Dr. Hill for using substituting the term “Methodist” for “Wesleyan” in this excerpt).

What does it mean to be Methodist?

First, to be Methodist means to recognize the primacy of Scriptural authority. John Wesley never left any doubt as to his convictions in this area. In a letter in 1739, he unequivocally stated: “I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures….” Wesley was so serious about Scripture playing the primary role in what he thought and how he lived, that his sermons and letters are infused with Scriptural phrases. It became part of his very language.

Second, to be Methodist means to be consciously and proudly part of the broad, ancient tradition of the Christian faith. We do not belong to a religious sect that came into existence in the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1777, at the founding of City Road Chapel in London, Wesley described the movement of Methodism this way: “Methodism, so called, is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive Church, the religion of the Church of England. This old religion…is no other than love, the love of God and all mankind.” If we are true to our Wesleyan heritage, we not only may, but are obligated to, draw broadly from Christian tradition.

Third, to be Methodist not only allows, but requires, that we be ecumenical. Though John Wesley believed strongly in his theological convictions, he never lost sight of the fact that the Body of Christ is much bigger than any one tradition or theological perspective. He neither swept under the rug important theological divisions that existed, nor allowed those differences to cloud the larger reality that what we hold in common through the creeds is of primary importance. In Wesley’s ecumenism, there was a commitment to a common humanity in Christ.

Fourth, to be Methodist means to affirm the cardinal doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Salvation is grounded in the merits of Christ’s righteousness and is appropriated by faith, which is a gift of God’s grace. Wesley insisted that we must respond to God’s gift through acts of obedience that flow out of faith. Wesley believed that humans can never do enough to merit salvation; still he taught that God in his sovereignty grants us a measure of freedom to respond to his transforming grace, and if we refuse to respond, then we will neither be saved or transformed.

Fifth, to be Methodist means to recognize the grace of God as “transforming,” as well as “pardoning.” This lies at the crux of what can be called the central theological distinctive of John Wesley’s thought – the quest, by God’s grace, for holiness or sanctification. Grace is more than the “creative grace” that has formed all things. It is even more than the “pardoning” grace that forgives us of our sins. It is the “transforming” grace which, through the work of the Holy Spirit, enables us to conform ever more to the image of Jesus Christ.

Sixth, to be Methodist means to be effective apologists of the Christian faith. John Wesley’s life and ministry reflects a compelling response to the command recorded in I Peter 3:15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience….” (NIV) If we reflect a Wesleyan perspective, we will cultivate opportunities to use Scripture, broad Christian tradition, reason and experience in defense of the faith. And we will do it in a way that shows restraint and love in the face of criticism.

Seventh, to be Methodist requires commitment to discipleship and accountability. Specifically, it requires of us a commitment to the importance of structured Christian discipleship. In June 1779, Wesley wrote in his journal: “This very day I heard many excellent truths delivered in the kirk (church). But, as there was no application, it was likely to do as much good as the singing of a lark.” In addition to participation in small accountability groups, Wesley insisted on the importance of private devotions, participation in larger church meetings, the taking of the sacraments, and acts of mercy.

Eighth, to be Methodist means to be involved in compassionate ministries. John Wesley always believed that it was imperative that a follower of Jesus Christ be simultaneously committed to the essential vertical relationship with his or her Creator, and to the necessary and redemptive relationship to the rest of God’s Creation. If the latter is not present, Wesley insisted that there is something fundamentally wrong with the former. No position could be more clearly rooted in Christ, who stated in Matthew 25 that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (NIV)

In our own day, may we see a revival of Methodism with such a strength and character that it regains its ability to welcome and advance the Kingdom of God. 

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Do you know the General Rules of our Church?

This post is excerpted from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The 19 explores the 19 questions asked of those intending to preach in the Methodist Church since its earliest days. This post features #6: “Do you know the General Rules of our Church?” The General Rules are three simple statements meant to guide life in community among those seeking to grow in faith together.

Three simple rules:

Do no harm.

This seems on the surface like an unnecessary word. Surely, grown adults don’t have to be told to not harm each other … right? Except that we do it all the time. Not in obvious ways, of course. Most of us don’t kill people or do boldly illegal things. We don’t play around with evil on purpose and we try to stay on the right side of the ten commandments. We know how to avoid the more conspicuous harmful things. But it turns out that some of the worst damage is inflicted not by the obvious things but by more subtle forms of unkindness. Greed causes Christians to do harm by making us stingy when we ought to be generous. Fear causes us to be unkind by fostering a lack of trust. Living an undisciplined life can wreak havoc on all our relationships. When we can’t follow through on commitments because we’ve over-committed, and when we don’t honor others’ time because we’re disorganized and unprepared, we frazzle other people and fray our relationships around the edges.

Think honestly about this. Do you use people for your own ambitious ends? Do you stretch yourself to your emotional limits, so that others have to contend with your mood swings? Do you tend to the state of your heart not just for your own sake, but for the sake of doing no harm to others?

Be clear on this: doing no harm does not mean “never disagree.” To the contrary, I’d say that sometimes a refusal to call someone out on their foolishness is the most harmful thing you can do to them, not to mention plain unkind. Who wants to be left to sit in their sin while others use politeness to avoid confrontation?

In the issues being debated in the UMC these days, there is a premium placed on tolerance. Yet, our core value as Christians is not tolerance but holiness. God commanded, “You are to be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16). Holiness informs my response to the culture around me. My opinions must be rooted in the values of holiness as I find them in the Bible. I don’t interpret the Bible in light of how the world turns. I interpret the world in light of the Bible, even when it means I will look a little crazy by the world’s standards.

Holiness does not give me a pass on practicing a whole host of other character-defining traits — patience, humility, gentleness, endurance, bearing with one another in love. When followers of Jesus take this call to holiness seriously then eventually, they will look less like the world and more like the Kingdom of Heaven in the ways they live life. I pray like crazy that as I live the art of holiness, I will “do no harm,” as Wesley counseled…

Do good.

If doing no harm is the “being” side of community-building, then doing good is the “doing” side. Authentic communities of Christ are doing communities…  It’s not that we work our way to heaven, but without works, there is no proof of what we believe. This is our divine design. Our faith is connected to what we do, and what we do connects us to each other…

Attend to the ordinances of God.

The ordinances of God are what we might call spiritual disciplines or means of grace — things like public worship, ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence, meeting together, and caring for the poor. The means of grace are the things I do that lead me more directly under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This rule, then, is a challenge toward spiritual transformation. It is an inspiration to grow more deeply into holiness…

When Wesley asks if we know the General Rules, I suspect he is really asking if we have owned them. When we own them, these rules are not really rules at all. They are our ticket to getting a Kingdom perspective and making a Kingdom investment for the sake of a Kingdom impact. It is one thing to know what is right. It is another thing completely to be committed to it. Am I concerned only for my immediate surroundings — my family, my workplace, my church — or do I have the mindset of a Kingdom Christian? Is my heart yet broken for the whole community of faith? Am I so committed to loving the other that I will hold myself accountable to holy practices that strengthen my own soul and by extension the fabric of the community of Christ?

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