Waiting in the Valley of Perseverance

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

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

It isn’t in there.

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

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

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

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

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

But the waiting proves us. And shapes us.

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

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

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

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

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Let’s take the world by force

Jesus never moves far from the topic of the Kingdom of God.  He is always trying to get us to see it, grasp it, embrace it.  It is like a seed, like soil, like leaven, like something valuable buried in a field. Something ordinary, sometimes hidden, that possesses an unexpected strength.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus uses a word that reveals yet another surprising thing about the Kingdom.  He says, ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12).  Another version phrases it this way:  “The Kingdom has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force.”

The Greek word used here is biazetai.  Depending on how you use it in a sentence, it can have either of the meanings noted above (“suffering violence” or “forcefully advancing”), though they are markedly different.

So which is it?

Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?  Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is it suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes.*  The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark, of a kind of deafness to the sound of holiness.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If John (and we) wants to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, tell him this: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

That’s why John was asking questions. Because this isn’t what he expected. He (and we) want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, God’s Kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like average people talking over coffee, telling stories of transformation. “This is how Jesus changed my life.”  

It looks like someone taking a box of food to single mom simply for the privilege of praying with her for better days. It looks like groups of people quietly gathering in buildings to bind up broken hearts and proclaim freedom to captives. It is people praying it forward, praying hopefully toward the day when there is no more pain, no more tears, no more racism, no more adultery, murder, divorce, anger, unrighteous judgment.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of ordinary souls to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so no one is left behind. It is seeds, leaven, oil, a cup of water, time, patience, stories.

That’s the force of it and for a lot of people that’s an offense.  It simply isn’t what we expect.

But that, Jesus seems to say, is how it is done.

 

* Some years ago, I heard Dr. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, preach on this verse and his remarks have stayed with me.

 

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Let your longings work for you.

(Today’s post comes with deep gratitude to the Holy Spirit for the spiritual spadework that has placed me in a much better frame of mind and spirit than when I wrote this fourteen months ago. Thank God for progress.)

I’ve been in a season.

The worst of it is that this season seems typical of people like me — middle-aged, empty-nested, hard-working. It looks like I’m just unfulfilled and cranky.

Nothing could be further from the truth (well, maybe cranky … but certainly not unfulfilled). I love my family, my work, this stage of life. I love Jesus and am motivated to plumb the depths of following him. I love my people, and have no desire to escape them. Mine is not a mid-life crisis, though it does look like a yearning for something more. Or different. Something.

The yearning has frustrated me. I’ve flailed about looking for the cause, blaming it on my own lack of progress in my main area of ministry. That is usually my dafault setting. If things don’t “feel” right, ministry must be to blame. I seem to live in a chronic state of discontent with what can be but isn’t. Sometimes the discontent motivates me to try harder; most of the time, I allow those frustrations to push me right down into a pit of discouragement.

A friend who lovingly listened to my angst said she suspects I’ve been misdiagnosing my longings. She has heard me sing this song before. Hearing the same tune again, my friend asked a profound question: “What if you let the longing work for you, and not against you?”

She went on to poke around in my spirit and we discovered that yes … my deepest desires are vertical, not horizontal. I do want to know the heart of God. Far more than temporary successes, I hunger for deeper encounters with the Holy Spirit. I long for eternal things. My spirit resonates deeply with Paul’s: “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). I am grateful to know the Holy Spirit groans with me when I don’t have words to express my own deep yearnings (Romans 8:26).

Yet, the frustrations and unidentified aggravations that mark life have been trained by time and repetition to roll down into some undefined rut of unfulfillment — manifesting as empty complaints, causing me to search for cures in the wrong places. Work harder, my frustrations urge. Or look for an escape hatch. Netflix. Mindless surfing. Words with Friends. Anything to divert me from transcendence.

But what if our longings are not for things we can consume, but for something else entirely — something deeper, more legitimate, like Heaven, or the Kingdom to come or for deeper, more intimate communion with God? What if they are for worship or for the souls of lost people waiting to be found? Surely this would be a better target for my longings. Is it possible it is also the right target? Is it possible that what feels like frustration over the horizontal is actually our whole spirit groaning for the eternal? For transcendence, because that is how we’re made?

Misdiagnosing causes us to lean out, to allow our lack of spiritual imagination to steal all the good and eternal out of what ought to be holy longings. Misdiagnosis saps us of spiritual productivity. On the wrong trajectory, our groans work against us. No wonder so many middle-aged people buy Harleys. We’ve lost our ability to interpret the wordless yearnings of the Spirit.

How would a fresh diagnosis of your own deep longings change your next choice? How would it alter your prayer life, your work life, your church life, your next conversation with God, with someone in the waiting room with you? Are you leaning out, when you should be leaning in?

Go to the limits of your longing, the poet advises. Flare up like a flame. Don’t let your last emotion get the last word. Rise above. Get in touch again with the Holy Spirit. Let your longings take you toward the Kingdom, which is home for you.

 

*I’m grateful to Ruth Burgner who deserves so much credit for asking life-giving questions.

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Baptism and the Holy Spirit

One summer, the women of our church hosted an in-town mission trip. Every day, we visited a different mission location and served in whatever way we could. The last day, we worked in the home of an elderly woman who lives in some of the worst oppression I’ve experienced. She lives alone. It was evident that she was dealing with some mental illness, but she had a beautiful, sweet spirit and a great strength that allowed her to keep pressing on. She didn’t walk, so spent most of her time in a wheelchair. That understandably limited what she could do around the house.

The house was condemnable. It needed more work than we could possibly have offered in a day. Piles and piles of clothes and junk. Piles and piles of trash. Roaches everywhere  … even inside the refrigerator. We went there, we thought, to wash her dishes and clean her stove and do what we could to fix up her kitchen. But by the end of the day, it was clear to all of us that we weren’t really there to clean a kitchen.

We were there to encounter the Spirit.

One of our team members, a nurse, decided to clean the bathtub and offer this woman a bath. The woman said it had been a long time since she’d had one, so she was thrilled by the offer. We lowered her gently down into the tub and gave her time for a long soak.

Clearly, it was medicine for her soul. I’ve never heard such beautiful singing as I did from that bathroom while she was in there. It had to be one of the most stunning images of the Kingdom of God: Here was a group of women in the kitchen, wiping dead bugs out of the stove while this woman in a bath sang, “Near the cross, near the cross, be my glory ever …”

And while we dragged trash out of the home of this forgotten woman we heard, “Jesus loves me, this I know …”

When the team helped her out of the tub and back into her chair, I have never heard such great laughter. It came from deep within her; it was glorious. It had been so long since she’d had a bath that she forgot how good it could be. She reveled in this experience. At the end of the day, we prayed together and when she prayed, I felt the unmistakable presence of the Holy Spirit. We were bathed in it.

This is what Jesus does. He takes ordinary things and he makes them holy.

And this thing that Jesus does in the course of a day, he does with the waters of baptism. He makes it more than just water and words. Baptism is a clothing, an identity. We who are baptized — whether as infants or adults — are to live it, walk in it, claim it, wear it.

Here that again: We who are baptized are to live out our baptism, to walk in it, to wear it.

Kris Vallotton says, “Baptism isn’t done as a symbolic act of obedience to scripture. It’s a prophetic declaration of your death and resurrection in Christ Jesus.”

And baptism in the Holy Spirit is about everything that baptism with water is about. It is about cleansing and restoring and getting our lives in line with our created purpose. It is about walking in the blessing of God who says to us when he redeems us, “You are my son, my daughter, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”

To be baptized in the Holy Spirit is to swim in the blessing of God, the Father. It is to claim our place in God’s Kingdom and to let the Holy Spirit make our ordinary lives holy.

Being baptized – immersed, washed, clothed – in the Holy Spirit is a glorious gift. Jesus himself said, “Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it is not possible to enter God’s kingdom” (John 3:5-6, The Message)

I wonder: how long has it been, spiritually speaking, since you’ve had the kind of bath that declares your death and resurrection? How long has it been since you’ve been bathed in God’s blessing?

Maybe you’ve never let yourself go there. Maybe, like Adam and Eve, you’ve spent all your energy trying to cover for yourself instead of letting the Father cover for you. Maybe you’ve been sitting alone in your own shame for so long that you’ve forgotten there are options. Have you forgotten that the same Holy Spirit who poured out rivers of blessing over Jesus as he bathed in the Jordan stands ready to pour out rivers of blessing over you?

Be baptized in the Holy Spirit — bathed, clothed, marked, resurrected — and then walk in the Spirit so you can live your salvation story with power and authority … which is the only way it ought ever to be lived.

 

(the story of the in-town mission trip is excerpted from Encounter the Spirit, a video-based Bible study and workbook found at Seedbed.com)

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The Church is the Hope of the World (because Jesus is).

God likes churches, which all by itself says a lot about the unfathomable patience of God. Church people have a bit of a reputation for challenging the limits of good sense. Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay, did a Twitter poll a few years ago asking pastors to share their best stories of things church people fight over. He posted his favorites from the literally hundreds he received.

Some arguments we can almost imagine, like the discussion over the appropriate length of the worship pastor’s beard or whether or not he ought to wear shoes on stage. I’m not saying these are legitimate arguments, but that I can imagine people airing strong opinions. The comments I get about clothing and hair never cease to amaze.

Other arguments seem ridiculous even for church people. Some church members left their church because one church member hid the vacuum cleaner from them. And there was an argument over the type of filing cabinet to purchase and another over the type of green beans the church should serve. Two different churches reported fights over the type of coffee. In one, they moved from Folgers to a stronger Starbucks brand; in the other, they simply moved to a stronger blend. In both cases, people left the church over this. Then there was the disagreement over using the term “potluck” instead of “pot blessing.” And (my personal favorite) whether the church should allow deviled eggs at the church meal.

And this is what God has chosen as his primary vehicle for saturating the world with the gospel. In fact, he calls it his bride. God doesn’t just like the Church; he loves the Church. He married us. He isn’t just putting up with us. He wants us. Stunning, isn’t it? So when Jesus ascended into Heaven after his resurrection, he sent the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit’s work is to build the Church on earth. By revealing Jesus Christ as Messiah of the world, the Holy Spirit builds churches. Why? Because God has chosen the Church as his primary vehicle for saturating the world with the gospel, which is why in much of the world, the church is a very dangerous idea.

The 2018 World Watch List from Open Doors estimates that one in twelve Christians live where their faith is “illegal, forbidden, or punished.”

  • So far this year, 3,066 Christians have been killed, 1,252 abducted, 1,020 raped or sexually harassed, and 793 churches have been attacked.
  • North Korea is at the top of the list for persecution. “It is illegal to be a Christian in North Korea and Christians are often sent to labor camps or killed if they are discovered,”
  • Afghanistan ranks number two on the number of persecutions.
  • Six countries are on the World Watch list because of dictatorial paranoia. Five made the list for religious nationalism.
  • Communist and post-Communist oppression caused four nations to make the watch list, and organized crime and corruption put two others in the top fifty.
  • Pakistan recorded the most violence against Christians last year and was the worst in terms of church attacks, abductions, and forced marriages.

In so many other places in the world, church folks are not arguing over why the youth group used the crock pot to make cheese dip (true story). In most places in the world, church folks are waking up every day prepared to die. And yet, no other religion is growing at the rate of Christianity. In fact, countries seeing the greatest rate of growth in Christian conversions are also ranked highest in their rate of persecuting Christians.

The Church is the hope of the world, because  Jesus is.

It is, as a pastor in Hong Kong has said, “the most influential, counter-cultural and enduring organization that has ever existed in all of history.” There are more than 2 billion members worldwide — a third of the world’s population, up 300% in the last 100 years. As an entity, it is the biggest organization on the planet, twice as big as Facebook (which, by the way, is on the decline).

Meanwhile, the global growth of evangelical Protestants since 1940 has increased at three times the world’s population rate.  Compare that with atheism, the only belief system that has declined. Despite what it must feel like in our own culture some days, the Church is holding her own.

My friends, God is at work all around us — in ways we cannot imagine, don’t even know to look for. And the Church is where the Lord God does his best work. Maybe not in your church, mind you — which ought to make you think (and act) — but in and through The Church, Jesus is proving himself Lord … over and over again.

The Church is God’s home on earth — his Bride, his people — so we’d better fall in love with the Church. She is how God has chosen to organize his slow-burning but ever-advancing global revolution … one life at a time.

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Why I’m not obsessed with end-times theology

When it is all over, then what?

The study of that question is called eschatology, which is the study of the end of time and also — ironically — the study of something no one has ever experienced. How does one study something about which one can prove almost nothing?

For all its abstraction, eschatology is important to those who follow Jesus because it turns out that what we think about the future and especially about the end determines how we live now. In other words, a study of the end times is really a two-part study: what we believe about “the end” shapes our understanding of God and his long-term plan, which in turn shapes how we live out our faithclock1 today.

What, then, is a reasonable approach for a Wesleyan to this question of the end?

While some traditions within the Christian camp place a great deal of emphasis on what happens when we die, Wesleyans place more emphasis on how we ought to be living now. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the end of time. It just means we don’t see that discussion as central to our understanding of salvation; nor do we believe it is the most productive way to spend our time while we wait.

As a good Methodist, my most honest answer to the question of when the end will come or what it will look like is, “I don’t know.” Don’t confuse that answer with a lack of concern. I care. I absolutely care. One of my most active prayers is, “Come, Lord Jesus!” I anticipate his second coming with great spiritual hunger. I love that he taught us to pray for the coming Kingdom. It means he is serious about it. I just don’t see an infatuation with pinning all the details down as useful to the daily working out of my faith.

That said, there are a few things relative to the second coming of Christ in which I place great faith:

I believe God is redeeming the earth. As someone has said, “The world is not the problem; the world is the prize.” The world is the crowning creation of a good and perfect God. The story in Genesis reminds us that what he made was good. It doesn’t seem to me as if He intends to blast it to smithereens. It seems more likely that he is slowly restoring this world back to its created order, in which case we will not go to meet Jesus. Jesus will come to meet us.

Jesus will return to earth. Rather than some kind of mystical absorption of people into Heaven, there will be a bold return of Christ to this world for the work of final, full redemption. That picture fits with passages that talk about Jesus coming on the clouds and with those that talk about a new heaven and a new earth. Scholars like Ben Witherington and John Stott would agree with this biblical interpretation.

When he comes, the dead who are in Christ will join him. In the end no one who trusts in Jesus will ever have to be separated from him or from his pure love. John Stott writes: “The Christian hope … is more than the expectation that the King is coming; it is also the belief that when he comes, the Christian dead will come with him and the Christian living will join them. For it is the separation which death causes (or seems to cause) which is so painful  …”* No more death, no more pain, no more separation.

No one knows the day or the time. Jesus said as much. Why we persist in calculating  something we’ve been told we can’t know is beyond me. Why we bait one another with comments like, “I believe we’re in the last days. Look at the signs,” when clearly we’ve been told that signs are just the beginning is also beyond me. What part of “no one knows the day or time” can’t we seem to absorb? Prognosticating seems a poor use of time when there are things Jesus has specifically asked us to focus on, like visiting those who are sick and in prison, caring for the least and the lost, and being a good neighbor to those he puts in our path. When we stand before Christ, this will be the basis of his judgment: we will be known by our fruit. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

God is good, and God is in control. And on both counts, we are not. Our world is distorted by sin and so is our eschatological vision. I suspect we persist in guessing anyway because we are so desperately in search of something we can control in a world that feels very much out of control.

And yet, we are called to trust. We know how this story ends. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it pleases your Father to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32). That ends up being the only thing we really need to know. It is God’s divine pleasure to usher us into his Kingdom on the day when Jesus’ own prayer is finally, fully answered and realized on earth.

Until then, how should we live? Not anxiously, but hopefully. Not predictively, but prayerfully.

Come, Lord Jesus! Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

* From The Message of Thessalonians: The Gospel & the End of Time by John R.W. Stott (Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, 1994) 97.

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What no one told us about our bodies

No one told us we’d need a solid theology of the body if we’re going to live a bold and fearless life.

No one told us how important it would be to understand how the physical attaches to the spiritual. Mostly we have been taught how the physical works against us. When we were kids, we were given all the guilt-producing reasons why our bodies could hurt our relationship with Jesus. It was that Sunday school teacher or that parent or that youth pastor who told us how our bodies work in ways that create shame. Some of us were raised by functional Gnostics and their message screwed us up.

No one told us that God loves our bodies and that bodies matter in the Kingdom of God; that understanding them might actually change the way we approach every single other area of our lives.

That is why Paul the Apostle stuns me … yet again. In the course of coming to know and trust Jesus and in the course of an incredibly oppressive ministry, Paul absorbed the remarkable gift and grace of God’s design for the human body. Seeing the world from the Kingdom down, Paul wrote a theology that helps us understand what God intends for our bodies now and for eternity.

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Paul asks. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). And this, from a man whose own body suffered every violence. In the middle of being beaten and stoned and shipwrecked and left for dead, Paul figured out that God was actually using his body to prove the Gospel. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul describes all he has been through. He has been hungry, thirsty, in every possible kind of danger. He has been flogged and exposed to death, not to mention chronically stressed by the intensity of his work.

He shares all this anguishing pain, then somehow moves seamlessly into the story of an intense, personal experience with Heaven. Paul writes (in third-person language, so humbled is he by the revelation) that he has been transported to the “third heaven.” Overcome, he can’t be sure where his body was in the process, but you get the sense that he suspects he was all there, body and soul. And now, compared to this experience everything else pales. The sufferings are redefined, the “surpassing great revelations” are worth it all.

And then, as if drawing a giant bell curve from the physical to the spiritual and back to the physical, Paul transitions his narrative back to earth, announcing that God has given him a “thorn in the flesh.” This weakness (whatever it is) serves as a kind of anchor, keeping him rooted in his physical reality after such a stunning encounter with the unhindered Kingdom of God.

Paul’s story flows from suffering to glory to weakness, mapping out a spirituality that affirms the physical, weaving it together with the spiritual to make a created whole. Because he has seen the eternal while still existing in the physical, Paul can say with confidence that the potential for resurrection is built into the very fabric of creation. Because Jesus has erased the dividing line and conquered death, the seeds of resurrection are embedded into everything. Everything we touch, everything we experience, every choice, every relationship bears the seeds of resurrection. And this life we live now is not counter to the life we will have in eternity; it is just the beginning. Redemptive continuity draws an unbroken line from prevenient grace, through justification and sanctification to glorification. We don’t “jump tracks” to enter eternity. All we have now draws us toward what we will have then.

Josh McDowell says that how we understand the resurrection of the body impacts all our decisions, and indeed the trajectory of our lives. It impacts our choices. We discover that our bodies matter. What we do with them matters, whether we are talking about health or sexuality or suffering. Our bodies bear the seeds of resurrection and are daily being redeemed by the resurrected Christ. To the extent that we ignore those seeds, they will lay dormant and bear no fruit. To the extent that we feed and water them, they will grow and bear the fruit of a resurrected life.

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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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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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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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