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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Hungering for the prophetic gift

Let’s talk about lobster eyes.

Lobsters see the world significantly differently than the rest of us. Our eyes process images by absorbing basically a thousand points of refracted light, then sending those images to the brain where they are synthesized into a single image. X-rays work in a similar way, but because x-ray waves don’t bend (unlike light waves) it takes a lot of waves hitting an object from different directions to get a full image. Hence, the size of airport x-ray machines.

Lobster eyes are a different animal altogether (slight pun intended).

Lobsters live at the bottom of the sea, in an almost complete absence of light. It would make more sense, actually, for them to be blind and dependent on other senses but they aren’t. Their eyes are designed to see directly into an object, focusing on a single point then directly interpreting the information gathered through dozens of tiny channels in their eyes. In other words, multiple bits of information aren’t outsourced to the brain, collated and re-introduced as a cohesive image; instead, the eyes have it.

Literally.

And how lobsters see is literally changing the face of optical sciences.

You know that feeling of listening to someone and thinking they are foolish and irrelevant right up to the point where you suddenly realize they are brilliant and their insight is genius? I had that moment listening to a scientist talk about his life-consuming research of lobster eyes. Listening to his story, I thought (short-sightedly), “What a waste of a man’s time. Why isn’t he doing something to change the world, instead?”

And then, as if on cue, he said that what he was learning about how lobsters see the world is actually changing the way the world works. Studying lobster eyes, scientists have now developed an x-ray machine the size of a flashlight that can see, absorb and interpret an entire image with a single ray. This new technology can even “see” through three-foot walls, which means less radiation, less health risk, less cost.

Imagine what smaller, more portable machines might mean for global health. For airport security. For … all kinds of things.

And I had no mind for the implications of that guy’s research until I heard him make the leap.

I’m stunned by people with the creative vision to see one thing and somehow make the leap to something else much bigger and seemingly unrelated.

In this case, lobster eyes are both the story and the metaphor. How might my life change if I had that ability to see in the dark, to see a circumstance in my life not just for what it is but for what it can be? What if I had a better developed ability to look at current conditions and ride them out to Kingdom-oriented conclusions?

In Kingdom language, this is what we’d call the prophetic gift. Having it is a mark of maturity, and one I want to develop.

Why?

Because decisions determine destiny. Our voting choices, our moral choices, our parenting choices, our spiritual choices, our health habits … all those decisions we make daily have potential to shape not just our lives but the world in which we live. Our decisions have the capacity to lead us toward or away from the Kingdom of God. They have the potential to lead us into the answers to Jesus’ prayer (“Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”) or away from it.

Preachers should be longing for, praying for, hungering after that prophetic gift. That is what any preacher worth his or her salt ought to want. Eyes to see what the Spirit sees.

Most every week, I begin preaching with a prayer that we will have eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart to receive what God has for us. I had no idea until I learned about lobster eyes that I was praying for revelatory eyesight — for eyes with the capacity for spiritual vision. I didn’t realize I was praying for an ability to see in the darkness, for an ability to see a situation head-on and not backwards, for an ability to understand current reality in light of future consequences.

May God give us — especially those of us who preach — the gift of Spirit-led eyes to see not just what is but what can be. May the God of Kingdom vision teach us a better way of interpreting our reality so our choices and messages lead to life, not death.

Lord, give us prophetic vision. Nothing else, and nothing less.

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Four (and a half) thoughts on hearing from God

What is it God might be asking you to do – what totally illogical, foolish-looking, unpredicted thing might he be calling you to?  And if you’re hearing it, how do you know its God (and not just last night’s Mexican food)?

We don’t all hear God with equal accuracy. I’ve had folks tell me they’ve heard God tell them to do things that have no basis in what I know of the Bible. I’ve also learned from my own mistakes a few lessons about how to know when it is God speaking and when it probably isn’t.

1. Test everything by the Word of God. If I can’t find what I’ve heard in the Bible then I ought to be very slow to move forward. The wise men who first sought the Messiah didn’t actually begin with a star. They began with Jewish prophecies written in the scriptures about the Messiah. In Herod’s office, they quoted scripture as their motivator.  Test everything by the word of God. If you can’t find it there, wait.

2. Listen with a heart for obedience.  Because God is usually not just doing it to hear the sound of his voice. He speaks when he is either ready for us to respond or when he is ready for us to prepare for a response down the road. Either way, when God speaks he is doing more than just making small talk. He is bringing in the Kingdom and plans to do so through us. That ought to provide a point of great humility, and also a point of readiness.

3. Be ready for glory (God’s, not yours). God does not usually (or maybe ever) call us to things or places or works that glorify us. He usually calls us to things that glorify him. When we are following well, either the work itself or our testimony of God at work in us will point back to God.

Side note: One of the best lines I’ve ever heard on the subject of hearing from God comes from my friend, Dr. Bob Tuttle, who says he knows it is God’s voice when what he hears is smarter than what he could have thought of himself.

4. Be ready to surrender your reputation. God will often call us to do things that don’t seem logical and may even make us look foolish. If so, we’re in good company. Read Hosea’s story. Imagine what it was like to be Noah — building a huge boat on a sunny day. Consider the change of reputation that happened in Paul’s life the day he accepted Christ as Lord.  This may well be why Paul said (1 Corinthians 3:18), “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.”

How profound it can be when people get up and do things for and in cooperation with the Kingdom of Heaven! And how incredibly important it is to learn the voice of the Father so we don’t end up on the wrong road in our enthusiasm to get there.

So I come back to my opening question: What is it God might be asking you to do – what totally illogical, foolish-looking, unpredicted thing might he be calling you to? What friend is he asking you to make of an enemy, what marriage is he asking you to repair, what humility is he asking you to reach for, what job is he calling you to do, what story is he asking you to tell?

In what way is God calling you to be obedient, to point back to him, to proclaim him by taking up a cross and carrying it?  And what if that move ends up wrecking you for this world while it prepares you for Kingdom greatness?

In other words, if God decides to make a spectacle of you, are you ready to provide?

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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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When you see a turtle on a fence post…

(This is one I posted a couple of years ago, when I was going through what I can now see was a cyclical pattern of emotional ups and downs in ministry. This year, the Lord has seen fit to bring healing so I’m in a better place spiritually and emotionally, but I thank God for good souls who have been such an encouragement along the way, like my DS.)

Everybody goes through seasons of spiritual “stuckness,”  days or weeks or sometimes even months when you just can’t seem to get out of your spiritual bad mood. If you’ve had that experience or are there now, you’re not alone. This is a normal part of the spiritual journey. It is not a sign of weakness; to the contrary, it may well be a sign that God is about to launch you into a new season.

I’ve been spiritually stuck for a while, dreadfully stuck. Even though I know it is a normal part of the journey, when I’m in the middle of it I’m not usually able to think rationally about it. I whine. I complain. I rail against God.

I was in the middle of that valley last week when I met with my district superintendent for an evaluation. I appreciated being able to share honestly. I wanted him to tell me what I’m doing wrong, what I’ve done to get myself  here and how to get out of this. “I just feel like I’m stuck,” I complained. “Like I’m sitting on a fence.”

With that, my DS reached into his backpack, pulled out a stuffed turtle and dropped it on the table between us. One has to wonder what kind of person just happens to have a turtle in his backpack, but that’s another story for another day.

“You know what they say about a turtle on a fencepost, right?” he asked. “If you see a turtle on a fencepost, you know he didn’t get there by himself.”turtle-on-a-fence-post

Wait … what? Are you saying that God put me here?

My gut reaction wasn’t healthy. Mean children put turtles on fenceposts to watch them suffer. So is God a mean child who enjoys watching me suffer? If that is my view, then my understanding of the nature of God is severely impacted. If God is out to get me, then I’d better approach all of life from a self-protective place.

On the other hand, if God is good then my self-protective posture betrays what I know to be true. Am I preaching God’s goodness while I function as if he is against me?

If you see a turtle on a fencepost, you know he didn’t get there by himself.

If God is good and God has a hand in putting me in this place (even an uncomfortable place), then why? What if God has me here to prepare me for something deeper? What if this is not a stuck place but a spiritual incubator, a season of preparation much like what John the Baptist prophesied? “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight paths for his coming.” Maybe if I’m in a spot, God put me there not to be mean but because he loves me and sees in me what I don’t see in myself.

What if God sometimes puts us up on fenceposts to save us from ourselves, or to keep us from running out into the road (you know, I’ve never seen a turtle outrun a car)? What if God has us up there to keep us from running … period? What if he has us up there to wear us out, so that when we get our feet on the ground again, we’ll be willing to rest trustingly just where we’ve been placed?

What if trusting a good and merciful God means rooting ourselves in that goodness rather than our circumstances, believing that even fence-post seasons can be fruitful?

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

What would you give your life for?

Your kids? Your spouse? Your family?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love is a choice.

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

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

This doesn’t have to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The number one sin of the Church in America

Followers are funny.

When the first followers of Jesus were sent out into the surrounding villages and towns to practice what they’d been modeled by Jesus himself, they were full of enthusiasm, not to mention a little unrighteous judgment. While they were out there, they saw a guy driving out demons and they asked Jesus to put a stop to it. When they got a little pushback from the religious leaders in Jerusalem, they had the nerve to actually ask Jesus if they could rain fire down on a few heads.

That’s when Jesus decided it was time to revisit the vision.

You find it in a line that isn’t actually there. Or at least it isn’t part of the earliest manuscripts. Somewhere along the way, some scribe felt the need to add a line between verses 55 and 56 of Luke 9. Scholars give it about an average chance of being an actual word from Jesus and since it doesn’t show up in the earliest manuscripts, you won’t find it in most Bibles.

Nonetheless, there is an interesting exchange between Jesus and his followers when they return from their missionary work. The usual version you’ll get in Luke 9:55-56 is this: “Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

That’s the official version, but some manuscripts include another sentence so that the passage reads:

But Jesus turned and rebuked them and he said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.” Then he and his disciples went to another village.

What a powerful commentary. Even if Jesus didn’t say it here, he said it often. We don’t follow Jesus not because we don’t know who to follow but because we don’t know who we are. We don’t even know what we’re made of. We don’t even have a clue what kind of spirit we have, what kind of power we have to go out and change the culture, change the community, change people. We’ve bought some lie that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of rules and condemnation and guilt, while it turns out that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of redemption. And we have been invited to give what we’ve been given so that by the authority of Christ and under the power of the Holy Spirit the Kingdom of God is multiplied to overflowing.

What Jesus was after in sending out those first twelve (and then 72), and what Jesus is still after today, is people who understand what it means to harvest souls. Jesus is looking for people whose hearts are in the harvest, whose energy is for giving people the good news that the half-life they have isn’t the last word over their lives.

The Son of Man didn’t come to destroy lives but to save them.

Mark Buchanan talks about visiting the famous Tuesday night prayer meeting at Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York. Thousands of people have been gathering there every Tuesday night for years. Buchanan calls it “3,500 God-hungry people storming heaven for two hours.” On the Tuesday he went, he had dinner with Jim Cymbala, the pastor. “In the course of the meal, Jim turned to me and said, ‘Mark, do you know what the number one sin of the church in America is? … It’s not the plague of internet pornography that is consuming our men. It’s not that the divorce rate in the church is roughly the same as society at large. … The number one sin of the church in America,’ he said, ‘is that its pastors and leaders are not on their knees crying out to God, “Bring us the drug-addicted, bring us the prostitutes, bring us the destitute, bring us the gang leaders, bring us those with AIDS, bring us the people nobody else wants, whom only you can heal, and let us love them in your name until they are whole.”’”

Mark Buchanan said that in the face of such a statement he had no response because he’d never prayed like that. So that night, he went home, repented, and began to cry out for those nobody wants.

There is no shortage of those people; the fields are full of them, Jesus says. There are fields full of people who desperately need someone who will claim the power of Christ over their broken lives, fields full of people whose salvation story has not yet been told. There are people still out there — in our own country — who haven’t been reached, who more than anything need a fair account of the gospel and a generous dose of grace. And we have lost touch with our heart for them because we have forgotten who we are.

It is time for American Christians to remember the Spirit we have and our call to the Harvest. It is time to cry out, to get on our knees and cry out for a neighbor or co-worker, for a brother or son-in-law … or I don’t know … maybe for your own soul. It is time to cry out for the people we tend to judge most and to seek God’s heart for them. It is time for us to set down our unrighteous judgment and begin crying out for the ones Jesus came to save.

Who is God asking you to cry out for? The poor? The broken-hearted? The prisoners? Whose salvation story has not yet been told? Here’s the thing: if you are a Christian you are made for the work of the harvest. That’s who you are. In this coming season of ministry, I’m casting my lot for the ones Jesus came to save and I am asking you to join me and to remember whose Spirit you are of.

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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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Who owns you? (or, “Its not about the money … but it is.”)

How do you make decisions? What role does money play in that process? I asked this question of some Facebook friends a while back and got great answers:

  • “I have a friend who complains she is so broke that money rules her home and keeps her from having a relationship with her family. She actually shared that it has ruined her relationship with her teenage daughter.”
  • “Thankfully, I grew up in a home where good management of money was a priority and I have been able to make ends meet even when I was a single parent/school teacher working on my masters degree. But what about my (church) family? How many are living in – or close to – the financial survival mode? How do our stories, our experiences affect our (corporate) spirit? Are we operating in a spirit of poverty?”
  • “What decisions does money make for me? Mostly the big ones, the ones I’ve never really cared about before now. Before now, I didn’t care about my future. I didn’t really want one. I believed I would die young and my parents would take care of my children.  I know better now. God has plans for me, and I am responsible to and for my children.  My money makes decisions for them, too.”
  • “I hate that I am concerned about money.  But I don’t really have much choice.  Jesus isn’t dropping a life savings in my lap.  I have to earn it.”

The crazy thing with money is this: we can’t own it. Precisely at the point that we try to make “ownership” our posture toward money, it begins to own us. It begins to make our decisions for us.

Kingdom wisdom is counter-intuitive.

The whole thing is counter-intuitive. What feels like ownership is really our money owning us. Jesus talks about this in his story about the unethical manager (Luke 16:1-10). John Wesley is the one who put into words what is probably the most profound and fundamental statement ever made outside the Bible on the use of money. He said this is the key to maximizing both financial and spiritual potential: Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.

Earn all you can.
Honestly earning and working diligently at God’s purposes gets us past victim status to the place where we can spot potential and opportunity as it comes our way. Jesus’ parable of the unethical manager is all about this. It is really a story about unleashing creativity so we’re thinking beyond greed to a place of rewarding generosity. It is about stretching vision toward Kingdom ideals.  Earn all you can so you can (as Richard Foster says) “conquer it and use it to advance the kingdom of God.”

The caution is about how having money can change our posture. Money tends to inflate the ego. JD Walt says, “Making plans is good. Making money is good. Making yourself the captain of your own ship . . . . not so much. At least this is not the way for the followers of Jesus. The “world” will be the world. We can predict it and expect it, we just can’t imitate it. Our options are arrogance or humility, and there’s nothing worse than arrogance.”

Save all you can.
Mark Rutland defines it this way. He says that saving means “setting limits on my lifestyle in order that more might be made available to the kingdom of God and not go up in the smoke of mere consumerism.”

Let me state that again so it sinks in. Saving means “setting limits on my lifestyle.” This is not the same as hoarding or becoming possessive about our possessions. This is about voluntarily limiting myself so that more is available for the kingdom of God. It is a choice about the direction of my investments. Because remember, we’re not earning just for the sake of having or saving for the sake of security. We’re saving for a vision.

Give all you can.
Without this one, the others don’t matter. If we miss out on the first two, we minimize our influence. If we miss out on this third one, we negate our influence completely. The goal is Kingdom influence.

The ownership of money is counter-intuitive for those of us who follow Jesus. We don’t believe humans own money. We can manage it but we can’t own it. In fact, any attempt to own it actually creates the opposite effect. The more we try to own it money, the more it owns us.

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