Seeking higher ground: Conversations in the UMC

As conversations around the future of the UMC heat up in this Annual Conference season, I hold a prayer that we will elevate our discourse above the level of emotion. Here are a few things I’d like to hear in discussions around what comes next:

Let’s talk Christologically. Does the conversation about the future of the UMC begin with Jesus? If my experience is any indication, then the Lordship of Jesus–the exclusive nature of Jesus–is where we in the United Methodist Church part ways long before we ever get to the topic of sexual ethics. In the UMC, there is a great divergence around the nature and role of Jesus Christ; yet, we spend all our energy on other things. We rarely acknowledge what is. What is, for those of us who embrace an orthodox understanding of faith and truth, is that Jesus is the most true being. Those of us who are committed to absolute truth (and that Jesus alone embodies that Truth) also believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are not the authors of our faith. The author of our faith is Jesus Christ. In other words, we have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith. Our conversations must reflect this “Kingdom down” perspective while resisting the urge of a “humanity up” perspective. If we start with Jesus Christ, I suspect we will find plenty to discuss and (grievously) much on which we fundamentally disagree.

Let’s talk biblically. Are our debates rooted in scripture? We all live under the same blue sky. Anyone who is practicing faith in Christ with love and integrity is in relationship with people … all kinds of people. We are all navigating all kinds of relationships and stories and we want God’s best for people we love. We who are pastors contend for souls daily. However, theological tents are not built on a foundation of who we know, love and want included. If we are going to talk about the future of the UMC, let’s talk biblically and not just anecdotally. When the Minnesota Annual Conference chooses to substitute the name for God in the Apostle’s Creed, that provides plenty of fodder for discussion. Does an official United Methodist entity have the right to change something as fundamental as the biblical terms of our creed? After all, Methodism is a defined theology. There are lines we can not cross while remaining true to our tradition.

Let’s talk globally. Do our discussions about unity take into account the global nature of the UMC? Let’s talk about John 3:16. Jesus told us that God so loved the world that he gave his Son. The world, not just our corner of it. Let’s discuss the values of the typical follower of Jesus anywhere on the African continent, or in the Philippines, or South America. Do we understand that a call to unity that doesn’t include them is not a call to unity at all in a global connection? Please understand that a decision to wrap ourselves around an American cultural ethic will alienate us from an African UMC. An American church that has separated from our global connection is far more detrimental to our personality and theology as a denomination than any decision to uphold our Book of Discipline as it stands. You and I are not the only ones deciding whether we stay or go. There are a world of people making that choice … literally. In fact, they are contending in ways we cannot fathom. One African brother told me, “I wake up every morning prepared to die.” I thank God we are a global connection and that my friend’s drive to wake up daily contending for the faith is part of who we are. But as I’ve said myself, anecdotes won’t win the day so let’s talk about Revelation 7:9. That’s how we’ll guard against cultural drift. If you want to talk about unity, make certain we include the global connection in that conversation.

Let’s talk systemically. Are we thinking centered sets or bounded sets? This would make for great conversation in this season. The concept of “centered sets” and “bounded sets” emerges from the mission field (you can read about it here or here), and it describes what happens when communities choose “bounded set,” “fuzzy set,” or “open set” thinking over “centered set” thinking. Bounded sets draw a line between the world and the congregation. Open sets have no boundaries at all. Fuzzy sets thrive on a lack of clarity. But centered sets cast a clear vision for a community’s values, then invite folks to orient toward those values.

Centered-set thinking reminds me that the responsibility for a person’s orientation toward the truth is theirs, not mine. Likewise, it is not for me to widen the tent pegs to make sure everyone is inside, never mind the direction they are pointed. I am responsible for pointing toward the center of my set; so are you. How far I am from that center is not the issue so much as whether I am pointed toward or away from the agreed-upon center. Centered-set communities allow adults to take responsibility for their choices as well as their spiritual progress. What it does not allow for is changing the center to suit your tastes. Be where you are, but don’t ask others to change direction so you don’t have to.

Let’s talk eschatologically. Do our discussions rest on the assurance that the Church of Jesus Christ will continue undeterred from its mission, whatever is decided by this denomination? Let’s talk about how our ecclesiology can be better rooted in our eschatology. Remember that the Church extends nearly 2000 years further back than the fifty-year history of the UMC. The next iteration of our tribe (whether it is some altered version of the UMC or something else) will be robust and hopeful. We know this, because we know how the story ends. Jesus wins. His Church (the Body of Christ on earth) can’t be killed. We may be rearranging chairs on a deck, but we are not on the Titanic. Methodist theology will continue (there are 80 million Methodists of varying flavors in the world and 279 million Pentecostals; our tribe is not going anywhere and in fact, is growing in other places). I am committed to the process of The Commission on a Way Forward and certainly to our brand of theology; but if our denomination makes a fundamental shift away from the values of historic Christianity, I am not fearful of what comes next. The gospel of Jesus Christ will keep right on rolling toward His second coming and I’ll do my best to keep pace because I  don’t want to get left behind.

Let’s talk health … not just survival. Being unequivocal about our beliefs and values is simply good relational work. We must all decide in these days where our boundaries are; to have none is simply not Methodist. Nor is it healthy. This is the fundamental problem with the “one church” proposal. It may support survival, but for all the reasons above it isn’t healthy. I contend it isn’t even Methodist. My friends in Christ, sound theology is worth the fight. Setting clear values and making a firm statement about what they are does not mean giving up; it means we care. What progress we could make if we choose to elevate our conversations to the level of theology over institutionalism or emotionalism, respecting each other even as we expect folks who commit to a covenant to keep it. Without that expectation, there can be no health.

As I head to Annual Conference this week, I’m looking forward to robust conversations and pray that we will all seek higher ground.

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Do the Hokey Pokey (and other messages that will screw up your life).

The day they decided to make “The Hokey Pokey” into a staple in roller skating rinks was the day our country went downhill. Who thought it was a good idea to put wheels on the feet of a circled-up group of six-year-olds, then tell them to pick one foot up and shake it all about?

That person who thought of that was a special kind of demented.

Nonetheless, here’s what the hokey pokey gets right. When you’re putting your left foot in and taking your left foot out, you’re going to end up going around in circles. You’re unstable. It is exhausting to have yourself in two different places at once and almost impossible to keep your balance. When you’re putting your whole self in but then turning around and taking your whole self out, that’s not productive, either. That’s tough, not just on you but everyone around you.

When “Hokey Pokey” living is your default mode — “I’ll do this halfway, on one foot” or “I’ll be in until I’m not comfortable” — you never get beyond a two-foot radius of yourself and you create chaos for everyone else (I still have nightmares of being at someone’s skating-rink birthday party, standing too close to someone who fell while doing the Hokey Pokey).

Hokey-pokey postures are not for followers of Jesus. Our call requires us to be all in. Surely this was beneath the question John Wesley asked of ordinands: Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work? In other words, are you all in This is a question about wholeheartedness. Wesley wants to know of those signing up to spread the gospel if they are willing to give themselves completely to this work. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly? In your study and worship and fellowship and serving and in the truth you share, are you passionately committed to the pursuit of wholeness so you can be in passionate pursuit of the presence of Christ?

Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work?

This is like the anti-hokey pokey question. When Wesley asked this question of his pastors, he wanted to know if the people who resolve to be church leaders are all in or if they plan to put their left foot in then take it out when things get rough. Folks who can’t be all in not only exhaust themselves; they exhaust us.

What does it mean to become whole, by biblical standards? Surely it begins with Paul’s advice to work out your own salvation daily with fear and trembling. Stay in it, Paul advises, and wrestle with what it looks like in your life. Wholeheartedness begins with a commitment to spiritual/emotional/relational healing. Let the daily wrestling expose the cracks and wounds. Deal with the unholy fears that paralyze you, leaving you stranded out there in the desert, unable to make the journey into the promises of God. Acknowledge your doubts, and dare to believe God can handle them. Become accountable to someone else who will ask the tough questions.

To become wholehearted, we must deal with our wounds and hesitations, fears and doubts even as we develop eyes to see what God sees. Then pursue the Holy Spirit. Allow the voice of the Spirit to teach you the values of God so they sink in and become part of you. Pursue the art of holiness, which goes so much deeper than good behavior.

Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly? Not half-heartedly. Not with your spare change and spare time. Not only as far as your comforts will take you. Not fearfully, but wholly to God and his work? This is the natural end of wholeheartedness: it is to be whole, holy and all in. Without that kind of vulnerable, wholehearted faith, it is impossible to please God.

(Portions of this blog are taken from my book recently published by Abingdon Press. You can find The 19 here.)

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One thing God said was not good

Over the last 75 years, researchers at Harvard have tracked the lives of 724 men.* These men were children when the study began. For 75 years, they’ve been tracking these lives to record the state of their home life, work, health, outlook.

Some men in the study became rich and famous. One became President of the United States. Others fared poorly. Boiling all this time, life and data down to its most basic lesson, this is what Robert Waldinger (current director of the study) labels the clearest message to emerge from this effort: “The message has nothing to do with fame or wealth or working harder. The real lesson from these lives is this: ‘Good relationships keep us happier and healthier … Over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.”

It took 75 years and 724 men to prove Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  

Seven times in the creation story, God makes things and calls them good. The seas are good. The sun and moon are good. The plants and fish and animals are good. People are good. But then after seven scenes of goodness, God finds a flaw — one thing that isn’t quite right.

It is not good that the man should be alone.

This isn’t God adjusting a piece of furniture to get the right effect. This is God instilling in the pinnacle of his creation his most essential quality. He is a God who loves, even within himself.

God has infused his creation with his own personality. Creation will not be defined by independence. It will not be one toddler saying to the universe, “I can do it myself.” Creation will be defined by the same love that defines the Trinity. The first creation story in Genesis emphasizes the partnership between a man and a woman. The second creation story emphasizes the man’s need for relationship.

God’s brand of love only happens in community. It is the pre-fall answer to the sin of autonomous solitude — the state of believing I am all I need. Solitude is not good when solitude leads us to believe that one person alone — without community — can somehow image the God who created us.This is not good.

We are not islands unto ourselves.

This is why we join churches and go to movie theaters and happily pay $4 at Starbucks for coffee that costs less than ten cents to make at home. It is because we are designed for relationship. We are made for community, because we are made in the image of God.

And this is why the enemy of our souls would like to attract us into solitude with things like porn and video games. The enemy of our souls is working against our design. Likewise, the enemy would prefer that we view marriage as a tool primarily for fulfilling our own needs. This popular view saps the glory out of it. It fails to point to something beyond itself. Marriage is not designed primarily to get my sexual needs fulfilled. When we reduce it to a mechanical solution that meets a primal need, we miss it … completely.

Here is the real shame of what our culture has done to marriage. It isn’t that we’ve made it disposable or that we’ve made too much of the wedding and not enough of the relationship.  The real shame for the Church is that we’ve failed to teach the rich and relationship-rooting theology beneath it. We have focused more on mechanics or “chain of command” than on submission to something bigger than us. A covenantal marriage paints a picture of the love between Christ and his Church and of the covenant between God and his people. Marriage tells the Easter story — Jesus lays down his life for us — and marriage points to the glorious conclusion of the creation story, when all things will find their fulfillment not in getting our needs met cheaply but in the rich-beyond-measure love, cover and hope of a good and faithful God.

 

* “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness” is a TED talk. Watch here.

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Act like who you are (a charge to graduates).

This week in worship, we let the last words of David to his son, Solomon in 1 Kings 2:1-12, inspire a charge to our graduates. Following is the heart of that charge to those stepping into new seasons after reaching milestones:

Graduates, this is our charge to you. It is a charge to step up to the front line and to act like who you are. You have been designed with a high calling, to glorify God with your life. This is who you are: You are a child of the Most High God. You are not an orphan, nor are you an island unto yourself. You are a child of the King; you are not your own. You were bought with a price, designed to glorify God.

You are a child of the Most High God, and you will impact future generations. The question isn’t whether or not you will influence others, but how. Too many of our decisions come from our near-sightedness. “I want to make things right for my home, my marriage, my family” … but at what cost? You may win the moment but lose the next generation. Too many people in the world  compromise the future tense for the sake of a more comfortable present tense. That brings us back to this: you will be an influence. Your decisions determine what kind of influence you will be.

Your influence is determined by who influences you so follow Jesus. If you are a follower of Jesus, you live under the shadow of the cross, and the cross changes us. Hear this and internalize it. If you are a follower of Jesus, you live under the shadow of the cross and the cross changes us. It will make us counter-cultural. It will set us apart, but too much evidence teaches me that excellence trumps culture every time. You don’t have to live like everyone else in order to make a difference. You just have to live excellently for Jesus.

Learn to make the hard calls. This was David’s lesson to his son, Solomon, at his death. It was a charge to bend toward justice, to slay the giants and not just offend them. The good news in this hard call is that God will never leave us to fight our battles alone. When my heart is right and I’m on the front line, God is right there with me, fighting the battle, beating back the enemies. He never leaves us to fight our battles alone. God is with us.

Think farther than you can see. Think beyond your own retirement. I challenge you to move from a financial mindset to an eternity mindset. Let your finances line up beneath eternity, rather than asking eternity to take a back seat to your finances. Think beyond your immediate needs. Think even beyond your own household. Isaiah’s prophetic word to the Israelites in Isaiah 49 is for us, too. “It is too light a thing that you should care only about the tribes of Judah and the people of Israel. You have been called to be a light to the nations, that my salvation might reach the ends of the earth.” This is a caution for us about small living. It is not enough to think only about us and ours. Our charge is to take on the mind of Christ — to think globally and generationally.

If you are heading into a new season, this is my charge to you: Act like who you are: 

You are a child of the most high God, a follower of Jesus Christ, a treasure hidden in a field. You are an overcomer, a sinner saved by grace, a member of the household of God. You are the Church, a tabernacle for the Spirit of God … salt and light. You are designed to shine like stars in a dark and perverse generation, to be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation might reach the ends of the earth. You are the answer to Jesus’ own prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

That is who you are. Nothing else. Nothing less, so go out there and act like who you are.

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What God looks like

Let’s talk about the nature of God.

Elohim is the name used for God in Genesis 1:1, making his very name our earliest glimpse of the nature of God in scripture.

This Hebrew term is plural; because we believe every word of the Bible is inspired, we trust this is not a coincidence. From the very first words of God’s story, He shows up as Trinity. And in that first scene of creation, He is all there: the Father creates; the Spirit hovers; the Word speaks.

Elohim.

The Hebrew letter that represents Elohim is shin, the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (see the image above). Meditate on that image for a moment. Take it in. What do you see?

Isn’t it interesting that in this one letter, representing the earliest name for God, we find this three-pronged image on a single foundation? It is as if the letter itself calls us toward Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. — a three-in-one wholeness and complex simplicity. Such a beautiful symbol for our three-person God! Some have even seen the floating dot above the third prong as a dove, suggesting the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, or as the fire of Pentecost. Because I believe God is just that creative, I am prone to believe he hand-picked this image.

Here in this symbol and name, we encounter God as community. He exists in three parts and demonstrates within Himself the very nature of complete sanctification—pure love encountered without flaw within community. The essence of the Trinity is deeply embedded in the story of God and the love of God is deeply rooted in the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in perfect harmony, perfectly loving within the Godhead. Our Father is both big and bighearted! This is what the Trinity (the tri-unity) teaches us about God. At His core, our Father is loving and that ought to change everything. When we hear that he is for us, we can believe it fully. His motives are holy, pure, self-giving.

Truly, our God is an awesome God. He is Elohim. All we need. Hallelujah!

Has your teaching on the nature of God given you a balance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If not, which understanding is weakest? Confess that aloud, and ask God to help you know Him in His fullness even as He knows you fully.

 

(This excerpt was taken from a six-week Bible study called Encounter the Father, published by Seedbed and found here.)

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What Wesleyans believe about “once saved always saved”

“We who have believed enter that rest.” — Hebrews 4:3

You never know when you might need to defend your position on the theology around the phrase, “once saved, always saved.” It happened to me a week or so ago while I was purchasing a couple of things from a small-town boutique. The woman behind the counter shared that her mother was a preacher, that for years she preached in a holiness church until becoming a Baptist. She changed theological streams because she couldn’t make herself believe in the Wesleyan doctrine of free will to the extent that it allows us to actually lose touch with our salvation.

Since I live in the birthplace of the Southern Baptist Convention, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation. I’ve come to suspect there is a gross misunderstanding of how Wesleyans approach free will and salvation. Often, it is made to sound as if it is God’s choice to drop us whenever he feels like it. “Mess up on Facebook? You’re fired!” “Yell at your dog? You’re not saved any more.”

That take on the gift of free will misses the mark by a wide margin. Free will is not God’s prerogative to exercise; it is ours. We are the ones who place ourselves in jeopardy of moving beyond His presence, though even that isn’t as easy to do as we make it sound.

Think of it like a parent holding a child’s hand as they walk across a busy street. The parent’s whole desire in that moment is to get her child safely across that street. That parent isn’t making decisions while they walk about whether or not she really likes that child, or whether this parenting thing is worth it. No! All that parent is thinking is, “Let me keep my child safe.”

Now, suppose this parent has a particularly strong-willed and active kid who is easily distracted. Is she going to hold on more loosely or more tightly to that little one? More tightly, of course! But suppose that active and strong-willed child sees a quarter laying in the street just up the way, something shiny enough to get his attention and valuable enough to make him want it. The child begs his mother to let him go after that shiny thing, but she says no. She realizes the danger of loitering too long in traffic. She knows the destination is the other side — not shiny, distracting things. Her sole intent is to get them both safely across; she is not about to let him go.

The child, however, is relentless. The more he watches the shiny thing, the more sure he is that it is worth the escape so when he sees a split-second of opportunity, he wrenches his hand out of his mother’s and darts into traffic. Now he is out from under the cover of his parent’s care, not by her choice but his.

Did the mama let him go? Did she want him to do that? Did she cause him to do that? Absolutely not. The intention of the parent at every point was to get her child through the traffic safely. The intention of the child when they stepped off the curb together and headed into traffic was to go where his mother led him. But that desire only took him so far. Having held onto a predisposition toward shiny things for too long into the journey has kept him from being completely surrendered to his parent’s plan.

And that is how Wesleyans view salvation. God gives it, but we have to accept it. By the same token, God walks us through the journey of salvation, inviting us to work it out daily with fear and trembling, but at every point on the way we must make the choice to keep our hand in His. This is the responsibility we bear for the gift of free will.

So what about that “blessed assurance” we always sing about? Is it so blessed after all? Is there really any assurance? Absolutely! Assurance is not the promise that once you say yes to God, you’ve got it easy. That promise is given to no one, believer or not. Assurance is the promise that with your submission and surrender, God will get you safely through the traffic to the other side. Our decision to simply rest our hand in His — to submit to His will. That is all that’s required, and that is only a struggle if we choose it to be.

And that, brothers and sisters, ought to create a deep well of rest within your soul and mine. Because if I believe God is good, God is for me, and God will see me through to the other side, then the rest is details.

Listen: The biblical meaning of rest is not a cure for exhaustion but a pathway to assurance.* When we are in sync with God, assured of his character and presence, willing to let him carry us safely across the chasm, we rest.

Blessed assurance, indeed.

 

*I recently heard it put this way: The cure for exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness (Brother Rast). I think we’re saying the same thing. When your whole heart is for God, when you are undivided in your devotion, you will be able to rest completely in his care and cover.

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How men can support women leaders

The story is often told of a time when Bill Gates was speaking to a group of Saudi Arabian businessmen and political leaders. Most in the room were men; any women present were veiled and sat in a separate section according to custom. After his speech, Gates took questions, during which time an audience member commented on the rank of Saudi Arabia in the field of technology, asking what Gates thought might lift his country into the top ten globally.

“Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates responded, noting the paucity of females present, “you’re not going to get too close to the top ten.”¹

It is not news that women lag behind men in leading in both secular and sacred arenas. What may not be so obvious is that the progress of women toward narrowing that gap has slowed and in some cases stalled in recent years. This is just as true in the business sector as in the religious sector. Consider the results of these studies:

  • According to the 2013 Catalyst Census conducted by Fortune Magazine, there was no increase in the number of women in executive positions, with women holding less than fifteen percent of executive roles.
  • According to The National Congregations Study conducted by Duke University, pastors in America are becoming more diverse and older but since 1998 they have not become more female.
  • Dawn Wiggins Hare with the Commission on the Status and Role of Women reports that the number of women clergy in the United Methodist Church has not increased since 2009.
  • A National Congregations Study reports, “Despite large percentages of female seminarians and increased numbers of female clergy in some denominations, women lead only a small minority of American congregations. Moreover, we do not detect any increase since 1998 in the overall percentage of congregations led by women.”³

Here’s the real irony: in a field dominated by men, it is male spiritual leaders who have the most opportunity to influence the next generation of women called into leadership. What can men do to affirm and encourage women called and gifted to lead in ministry? Here are a few places to begin:

Root your decisions about leadership in a Wesleyan understanding of scripture. Having a well-researched, well-prayed-over egalitarian theology will help you make more confident choices about giving both women and men leadership responsibilities. An egalitarian view says that while the Fall (Genesis 3) is responsible for setting men and women against each other in an antagonistic or hierarchical relationship, the intended purpose at creation (Genesis 1 and 2) was for men and women to stand together as equal partners. If this is true (and I believe it is), then we want to operate and make decisions that support a pre-fall view of human design. In other words, we value people based on gifts and call and do not exclude them because of gender.

Commit to making decisions that reflect the values and spiritual maturity of an elder in the New Testament Church of Jesus Christ. What motivates your leadership choices? Are you so spiritually formed that you can maturely mentor, hire and encourage women without fear or intimidation? Have you done the spiritual spadework needed to develop strong mental and physical boundaries? This ends up being an important piece of the puzzle. Unless we are emotionally and spiritually mature, our discomfort with the other gender will keep us from confidently leading. Remember that the gospel clearly calls us to take responsibility for our own minds and bodies, not to ask others to bear that weight.

Give women who are called and gifted access to every level of leadership. Are there places in your church where women are excluded? Are there tables to which they are not invited? Please understand that a lifetime of experiencing subtle biases has given most women a sensitivity to those places where we are excluded. That may be something we have to deal with and heal from but nonetheless, we know when we’re not welcome and it makes a difference in how we live out our potential and contribute to the coming Kingdom.

Pray for God to give you an urgency to welcome and advance the Kingdom of God on earth. As God answers that prayer, you will become more attuned to those he has placed in your community who are ready, willing and qualified to lead along with you. When you find them, take authority over your role as apostle and pastor by pouring into them as leaders, whether they are men or women. Genuinely qualified women leaders are starving for solid, qualified, Kingdom-minded mentors and coaches who care so much about Kingdom priorities that they will do whatever it takes to make sure that cause is advanced.

 

1. Dale, Felicity, et al. The Black Swan Effect: A Response to Gender Hierarchy in the
Church. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007, kindle loc 882.

2. Leach, Tara Beth. “Dear Bill Hybels and Other Men Who Affirm Women in Ministry.”
MissioAlliance. August 10, 2015.

3. National Congregations Study. “Religious Congregations in 21st Century America.” http:/
www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSIII_report_final.pdf

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The shoulders on which we stand

Some of history’s more interesting Christian movements have been initiated by women. Consider these ten women, some from within the Methodist movement and some from beyond it.

Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) was the founder of the Four Square movement. Myrtle Dorthea Beall (1894-1979) started Bethesda Temple in Detroit. According to the Victoria United Methodist Church website, Barbara Heck (1734-1804) was the designer of John Street Methodist Church in New York and a planter who established congregations in both New York and Canada.

Margaret Fell (1614-1702) opened her home to many traveling evangelists, including George Fox, whom she later married and joined as a partner in developing the Quaker tradition. Because she would not take the “oath of obedience” to the King of England, Fell was imprisoned twice. During her first incarceration, she wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All Such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus And How Women Were the First That Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and Were Sent by Christ’s Own Command Before He Ascended to the Father (John 20:17).”

Hannah More (1745-1833), far ahead of her time in her social activism on behalf of girls, was a playwright who taught Methodism and started new schools for the education of girls. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) began a social justice movement that spanned the globe, leaving four-thousand sisters as her legacy upon death, along with hundreds of others who served as monks, Fathers, lay missionaries and volunteers.

Several husband-wife teams birthed significant movements. Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), Catherine Booth (1829-1890) and Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911) all capitalized on exceptional partnerships with their husbands. Palmer and Booth were both Methodists who defected from that movement to start their own. Catherine Booth was the co-founder with her husband William of the Salvation Army. Palmer is known as the Mother of the Holiness movement, having started a prayer gathering in her home that spawned gatherings like it around the country. Palmer was also the founder of New York’s Five Points Mission. Smith and her husband were prominent leaders in an interdenominational movement, though she was definitely the more well recognized and received of the two. Hannah Whitall Smith went on to become a writer, her most widely read book being The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life, which sold two million copies initially and is still in publication today.

John Wesley found himself conflicted by the direction his movement should take. Officially, he asked women not to preach or lead men. Unofficially, however, he encouraged them to organize class meetings, teach in those meetings and conduct evangelism. Raised by a strong and outspoken mother, Wesley was never able to embrace a complete ban of women from the pulpit. He would say they ought not preach except by “an extraordinary impulse of the Holy Spirit.’’ Nonetheless, Methodist women found it difficult to be constrained. In 1787, Wesley would bless Sarah Mallet (1764-1846) to preach as long as “she proclaimed the doctrines and adhered to the disciplines that all Methodist preachers were expected to accept” (UMC website). Long before the more recent vote in the Methodist Church to ordain women as pastors (According to the United Methodist Church website, the Methodist Church gave full clergy rights to women in 1956, when Maud Keister Jensen was ordained an elder), women were actively preaching the gospel and extending the movement called Methodism.

My favorite? This one: in 1866, Helenor Alter Davisson (1823-1876) became the first woman to be ordained a deacon in the Methodist Protestant Church in America. Her journey toward ordination began in 1863 when she was recommended — over some objection — to the Indiana Conference as a candidate for ministry, at which time she was considered fit to preach the gospel “or at least a small work.” Ordained or not, Davisson had already proven herself capable of bearing fruit for the Kingdom. Together with her father, the Reverend John Alter, she traveled by horseback as a circuit rider through Indiana, planting a Methodist Protestant congregation in Alter’s Grove. A second congregation was planted in the Barkley Township, making the first woman to be ordained in the American Methodist Church also the first woman to plant a church.

Be encouraged (and at peace), my sisters. It is in the DNA of Methodism to raise up women who preach the Word.

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Is there anything left to be done (or are we sunk)?

I am not a victim.

There are plenty of things in this world I can control. Whether I want to admit it or not, I can make all kinds of things happen that will improve my life. I can will myself to exercise, diet, save money, do Bible study. Heck, I can even make myself cook every day if I want it badly enough (clearly, I don’t).

There are things I can will into existence and things I can’t. There are character flaws, sinful inclinations, health issues and broken relationships I cannot control no matter how hard I try.

In fact, sometimes trying seems to make it worse.

Followers of Jesus discovered this principle in a marketplace one day when they were asked to heal a woman’s child. They tried all the techniques shown them by Jesus himself. They put their faith on the line and called on God to act.

Nothing happened.

Try as they might, they got only frustration. Then Jesus showed up and with a gesture, accomplished the healing. Later in a private conversation, they asked him why they couldn’t make this thing happen. Jesus said, “Some things only come out by prayer and fasting.”

But they had prayed. Clearly, calling on God to heal someone is prayer, right? What did fasting add that prayer didn’t?

Fasting is the deep water of the spiritual life. There is a mystery to it that defies definition. There is a discipline to it, also. Nothing will cut through our impure motives and unhealthy agendas quicker than this spiritual discipline.

What makes fasting so effective?

Bill Bright, the man who founded Campus Crusade for Christ, says fasting is “a biblical way to truly humble yourself in the sight of God (Psalm 35:13; Ezra 8:21).” King David said, “I humble myself through fasting.” Not a prophet or king, Nehemiah was an average guy who loved the Lord and loved his people. When he heard that the wall of Jerusalem had been destroyed, he was crushed. He sat down and wept and for days he mourned, fasted, and prayed to God. He repented on behalf of a nation. It was a wake-up call for him. His people had allowed their inheritance to slip through their fingers.

In that season of fasting and prayer, Nehemiah gained a vision for rebuilding the walls, a vision that rode in on the wind of humility.

Fasting humbles us. It is an act of obedience. It is proof that discipline matters to God.

Bright says fasting “enables the Holy Spirit to reveal your true spiritual condition, resulting in brokenness, repentance, and a transformed life.” And as we begin to cut through the agendas and see truth more clearly and as we honestly begin to repent of unconfessed sin, we experience more blessings from God.

Fasting will transform your prayer life. But let me state the obvious: fasting is tough.

No healthy person likes missing a meal (in fact, if you’re someone who misses a lot of meals due to unhealthy body image issues, you probably shouldn’t fast). Combine that with the fact that fasting will put you in touch with your truest motives and it is no wonder we avoid it so religiously (pun intended).

The fact is, nine out of ten of my motives stink and painful as it can be, fasting and prayer together help me face up to that fact in a way that opens me to a higher knowing. When my motives are more pure, my worship of God is more real and my prayers are more effective. No wonder the enemy of our souls would rather we find a reason not to fast. It keeps us from wholeheartedness, which is the whole point of sanctification.

What if now is the time for all United Methodists around the globe to fast and pray? Not waiting until 2019, when the big meetings happen … but now? What if, as Maxie Dunnam says, there are some things God cannot do or will not do until or unless we pray? Spiritual fathers through the ages assure us that God honors this kind of sacrifice. What if prayer is the best offense we have as we move into these intense days of discernment about our best next step?

What if fasting is how our tribe moves from spiritual sloth to a great awakening? Fasting and prayer are not about forcing God’s hand but finding where he is at work so we can join him. God said, “When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you” (Jeremiah 29:13, 14). When a person sets aside something important to concentrate on the work of praying, they are demonstrating that they mean business, that they are seeking God with all their heart.

This is not a call to a specific day and time, but to a posture and purpose. I’m calling on those who follow Jesus to start taking him at his word. Are we hungry enough yet to see God do a new thing that we’ll miss a meal, humble ourselves and pray? Folks, this is an anxious season but we are not sunk. We will not “melt in fear” as the Israelites did over and over. We are not victims. We are people ready for revival, with access to the power that raised Lazarus from the dead. Some are tired of hearing Christians say, “All I know to do is pray.” What if that is exactly what God is waiting for? What if a torrent of prayer is not our last hope, but our best hope?

Fast and pray. Seek God’s face. And may God richly bless all of us who seek to serve Him in the world.

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The horror of giving up control (or, how I learned the gift of surrender, part two)

My last post ended with this question: In what area of your life do you need to loosen up and let go of control?

To answer that question, we first have to ask ourselves what it is we want to control. In general, my suspicion is that we want to control it all (or at least everything we can get away with). Our natural inclination (the state of human fallenness) is to “medicate” fear with control, so we exercise control:

  • with our children, our spouses, our employees, employers, the guy in the line in front of us at Kroger. We want to control people.
  • in our circumstances. We’re conditioned by our anxieties to want to be on top of everything. That way, bad stuff can’t sneak up on us.
  • with God. What we do with people and circumstances, we think we can do with God. We may not say it this way, but secretly we want to control God. That’s what bargaining is. “God, if you’ll pay this bill/ fix this relationship/ get me a better job … I’ll do better by you. I will never do this thing this way again.” That’s a control tactic.

Basically, we want to control everything, and we try with both our emotions and with our behavior. We’ve learned by conditioning how to let people know what we want with nonverbal cues — the silent treatment, lack of eye contact, the hug you lean away from. And sometimes we skip the emotional on-ramp and impose control with less passive and more aggressive in the mix. We yell. We praise. We reward and punish. We manipulate to control the ways others respond.

Unhealthy control is me trying to control your behavior. And just so we are clear, this is not our redeemed nature but our fallen nature at work. Why do we habitually act like this? I can think of a few reasons why we work so hard to take control of people, circumstances and the universe in general:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Things we are afraid of
  • Things that make us nervous
  • Worry
  • We believe lies the enemy tells us
  • And did I mention fear?

Did you catch a pattern there? I’ll give you a hint: fear. Fear is a devil that convinces us we can control stuff, when the reality is that we can control much less than we’d like to think. The spirit of fear opposes the things of God, because fear and anxiety are rooted in distrust and ultimately lead us to distrust God himself. The antidote to anxiety is surrender rooted in trust (and not just any trust, but trust in God). 

The basic lesson of recovery is that the only thing we actually can control is ourselves and interestingly, every biblical prescription for control is about self-control. In other words, the only things the Bible tells us we can control (and even should control) are focused on our own behavior. Things like:

  • Our thoughts. Paul teaches us to take every thought captive (2 Cor. 10:5), recognizing that it isn’t what goes into our minds that is the problem, but what we do with those thoughts once they get there.
  • Our bodies. Romans 12:1 tells us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. This means surrendering our bodies to the care and control of a holy God.
  • The pace of our decisions. Jesus teaches us to count the cost before we build the house (Luke 14:28). In other words, make fewer knee-jerk, fear-based decisions and more prayerful ones.
  • Our finances. Jesus tells us store up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Mt. 6:20). In other words, spend with eternity in mind.
  • Our passions. James talks about the fights and battles within us that come from our unbridled passions (James 4:1).
  • Our emotions. Paul tells us to be angry but do not sin. (Ephesians 4;26).

While unhealthy control is manipulation of others, healthy control is about surrendering myself to the discipline of Christ. Healthy control is called self-discipline. It is about the self-limiting behaviors that send us toward our created design. Healthy control leads to freedom. When we choose surrender over control we discover what is most important. We will deal with our trust issues. We will be messier and be okay with it. We will experience spiritual freedom because real freedom is in surrender.

So let me ask again: In what area of your life do you need to loosen up and let go of control? Pick something. One thing. You don’t have to pick everything you’re wound up about. Just pick something you’re trying too hard at and lay it out there for Jesus. Think of something that makes you anxious, something you’re living with right now that is a cause for anxiety. What thing has a “but first” in front it? I’ll do this thing for Jesus … but first … Pick that, and take it to God in prayer. Say to him, “All I can see right now is this anxious thing but what I want to see is your glory, Lord, so in this situation, please get me past my fear and expose your glory.”

There is such freedom in surrender to God’s more perfect will. Give yourself to it, and it will transform you.

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