A Year for the UMC

You’ve heard the old saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” For the UMC, this maxim has proven sadly too true. As 2019 opens, we stand on the verge of a called General Conference that promises (threatens? hopes? fears?) to bring to a head forty years of debate on the foundational theology of our tribe. We have been here before, multiple times. We have made these decisions multiple times.But here we are, grasping for some way forward that manages to avoid the implosion of a 13 million member institution. On the way here, we’ve called for commissions and holy conferencing and have done our level best to enter this year with some plan that brings peaceful resolution to our deep divide. As it turns out, no matter how we have tried to spin this or resolve it, wherever we go, there we are. We are stuck.

So now what? February’s historic called General Conference will convene in St. Louis to discuss various proposals for restructuring. Given the options, it is likely no one will leave that gathering with a sense of resolution. If the way forward stalls, we will all be disappointed. The prayer for us who are watching with interest should be first of all for deliverance from a bureaucratic quagmire. I genuinely hope we are all just fed up enough to stretch for a decision that allows us truly to move on from where we are.

It must begin with Jesus (and nothing less). I will never get past this point. Until we deal with Jesus, nothing else matters. A colleague writing to me in response to something he’d seen online said we’d probably preach similar messages about what Jesus does, but when pressed about who Jesus is, he’d have to say, “I don’t know. It just seems out of character with the God I’ve come to know … to insist upon the use of particular doctrines or names as an admission ticket …”

I respect this difference, and see it as just that. He and I don’t agree on the very fundamental nature of Jesus and what it means to express faith in him. I will say yet again that long before we part ways on lesser issues, we are deeply divided on the nature and role of Jesus. If we spent our General Conference talking about nothing else other than Jesus, I suspect we’d be closer to final schism than we are now. I am convinced that this is the most fundamental dividing line in the United Methodist Church. Long before we part ways on issues of human sexuality, we are already deeply and tragically divided at the point of Wesley’s first question to ordinands: “Have you faith in Christ?” Some among us want to claim a form of Christ that is more ethereal and situational, while others are committed to Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. That distinction matters, because both things cannot be equally true. Either Jesus is Christ for the whole world, or he is Christ for none of it. Our conversations about the substance of mutual ministry must begin here.

It is okay to acknowledge differences (and we can do that without castigating each other). But hear me: it is not okay to minimize what someone else calls a drastic difference. This seems to be the strategic course of those who embrace the One Church Plan. It is to persistently insist that our differences don’t matter but to many of us, they do. By minimizing the differences, we deny clearly unique theological positions the chance to prove their viability. Good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that our current dialogue is more than just a struggle to agree on one issue or get along like children in the back seat of a car. They deserve a clear explanation of the deep theological differences so they can claim an educated spot on the spectrum and not just an emotional one. To offer them anything less would be, in my estimation, irresponsible discipleship.

Theology creates unity (though perhaps not the unity you were hoping for). To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the One Church Plan would reduce the whole of our internal division to one issue. If it were to pass, it seems that United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, we could make a mistake that would take us backward by several decades. This kind of proposal turns a blind eye to the widening and pervasive theological gap that has been developing over decades. To say that orthodox believers only want to “win” on this one issue is to vastly over-simplify a long history of the erosion of our values. Likewise, to say that progressives are defined by this one issue alone is to ignore the depth and breadth of progressive theology — a worldview that influences how one views the Bible, humanity and even Divinity Itself, especially the divinity of Jesus as it pertains to his birth, death, resurrection and ascension. For theologians — and all pastors are theologians — these distinctions matter, and not just to conservatives. They matter to anyone who has given their life and vocation to the work of caring for souls. Our differences should not be minimized for the sake of pragmatism.

Let the theology do its work. For years, our tagline in the UMC has been: “Open hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” Wouldn’t it be something if this year, we led with, “Open Hands.” As in, holding the institution with an open hand as we also hold tenderly those with whom we disagree. Perhaps with a looser grip on the false god of unity-at-all-costs, we can find a way forward that holds our differing theologies with greater integrity and compassion.

My deepest prayer is that we will treat with Spirit-saturated grace anyone who can no longer abide the climate we legislate in February. A second prayer is that we manage to legislate something. This is our year, UMC, to move on from where we are. May we hold grace and courage enough to do so.

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How to start a revolution

In Jesus’ day, according to N.T. Wright, a man talking about building kingdoms was a man stirring up a revolution. Having endured political upheaval and oppressive rulers more than once, Israel would experience Jesus’ call for a new kingdom as quite the revolutionary act.

In fact, it was, though not political.  Jesus’ revolution began within the heart. His call was for people to overthrow the oppressive and self-seeking kings who ruled over their minds and hearts, usurping the place of God at the center. He called on people to rise up with the subversive act of repentance.

“Repent and believe,” he proclaimed, “for the Kingdom of God is near.”

Knowing that all repression and oppression have sin at their core, Jesus promoted societal transformation through personal transformation. Repentance was a call to turn from self-centered, power-hungry behavior toward the life oriented around the values of a loving, good God.

Real repentance is a revolutionary act. It calls for death to self, It is what Jesus meant when he said, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” To build God’s Kingdom, we must be willing to die to self.

Of course, we’d rather receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut. Even Jesus asked on the night before he died if it could be done any other way. The answer was no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something had to die. There is no shortcut to fruitfulness. The path always runs through repentance, and repentance always calls for the death of anything that stands between us and God’s best.

Repentance is freedom-producing. There is such freedom when I finally, fully speak aloud my own truth and discover God’s response is not condemnation but grace. To speak your worst out loud and find that God has not wiped you off the face of the earth, but instead picks you up and carries you into the presence of Grace is the greatest freedom.

Repentance is the opposite of shame. Have you learned how to repent without humiliating yourself? Does your habit of repentance reveal a healthy understanding of the character of a loving God? After all, there is no shame in Christ. He is not afraid of our sin or our suffering. He wants to deliver us from it because he loves us. The more transparent we are with ourselves and Christ, the more likely we are to find healing in his wings.

Repentance is an act of honesty. Real repentance is the most truthful act we can enter into. It is not self-flagellation or self-hatred but the simple proclamation that my only way forward runs through a God who is both grace and truth.

Repentance does not generate self-hatred. To the contrary, it is recognizing that until I am honest about my own weaknesses, I can’t be honest about my strengths. Some of us have lived in denial for so long we’ve forgotten what is true. Or if we are addicted, we swim in outright lies (this is a fundamental truth: active addicts lie). Our dishonesty creates a barrier to change.

Repentance creates change. It is not at all simply saying we’re sorry. It is a personal decision to do things differently from this point forward. Repentance doesn’t require me to have a complete roadmap out of this pit I’ve dug, but it does require me to want to get out of it.

Repentance is not the same as confession. It is the completion of it. Plenty of people have confessed to things they aren’t sorry for. How many parents have forced unrepentant children to say “I’m sorry”? We’re conditioned for this. But repentance is not God forcing me to say I’m sorry. It is my honest, transparent, humble recognition of sin as sin, followed by my desire to turn from it and move in a different direction.

I have discovered in my own prayers that there are plenty of things in my life that I can name, that I know ought to be different than they are … but I can’t seem to change my direction. I lack the will or the “want to.” In those cases, I have learned a new prayer: “Lord, repent me, for I cannot repent myself.  I cannot turn myself around. Only you can do that, Lord, when your Spirit chooses. Repent me, and make me new.”  

Revolutions begin, not with being able to name all the sins, but with being able to name my sin.

This is where personal revolutions begin, according to Jesus: Repent and believe. A new Kingdom is near.

 

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Triggers, Urge-surfing and the God Who Heals Us

I have triggers. When I hear an ice cream truck, something in me immediately goes back to 1205 Eisenhower Drive, my childhood home. When I smell popcorn, I’m in National Hills Theater and in my happy place. The picture of a margarita will send me a craving. I haven’t had a drink in 25 years, but the picture of a margarita still sends me back. What are your triggers?

Think of an emotional trigger like a little internal tether. It links us emotionally to something behind us. Sometimes that thing is good (like the smell of coffee in the morning) and sometimes it is not so good.

I often equate triggers with the struggle of the Israelites out in the desert, with Egypt on one side and the promised land on the other. They seemed to live in a constant internal tension, trying to press forward while Egypt called them backward. That seems to be the human condition. We tell ourselves little lies all the time that head us back toward Egypt. We romanticize slavery. That other life was simpler, less stressful. Or maybe it wasn’t so fun, but at least we didn’t have to work as hard. And those tiny internal justifications stir us to head back toward things that enslave us.

Once in the midst of Israelite complaints, God did a miracle. He turned bitter water sweet and then gave them this revelation: “I am the LORD who heals you.’” They named that place “Marah.” It became the place in their story where God spoke the kind of healing that turns bitter things sweet.

That makes Marah an important place on the spiritual map. It is the place we pass through that is hard, like the bitterness that settles in after the initial shock of divorce or the loneliness that follows rejection. Or the emptiness that follows loss. It is that place after a blow or temptation when we don’t quite know what to do next. When we aren’t aware of what is going on inside, we will struggle to press forward. We’ll long for Egypt, for old familiar territory. Virginia Satyr says that most people prefer the certainty of misery than the misery of uncertainty. We’d rather head back to Egypt than learn to live as healthy people, but Egypt is diseased while “I AM the God Who Heals You.”

Out in the desert, God explains to the Israelites what they are dealing with. “When you begin to do holy, you will tempted to go backward but there is no healing for you in Egypt. And there is no healing for you in the place you’re headed if all you do is drag your enslaved mentality with you to that new place. Freedom is in the God who heals you” (see Lev. 18). The trick, God seems to tell them, is to understand their triggers so they can get control of them. 

Learn your triggers. Folks who have dealt with addictions and messy lives find they are much more successful in recovery when they learn what their triggers are. Heather Hill, once an addict and now free from that life, gives some powerful advice about triggers:

Being triggered does not make me a bad Christian. It doesn’t mean I lack faith or that I am somehow less than. And the moment I start believing it does, I am that much closer to giving in to it. Triggers are simply remnants of my old self hanging on for dear life, because the old me doesn’t want to die. They are my thorn, reminding me of who I once was and reminding me how much I will always need God. My triggers are not in control. They don’t drive the bus. The most dangerous thing about a trigger is the urge that follows. And it’s tough, because it usually includes a physical reaction I cannot control.

The urge that follows my trigger only last about three minute. It used to last longer. I have found that the harder I fight the urge, the longer it lasts. When I rail against it in anger or disgust (because I believe the above point), I am thinking about it harder than I ought. When I am triggered to the point of an urge, the best thing to do is absolutely nothing. Pray it out. Wait it out. Don’t DO anything. Focus on God and pray until it is over. In rehab, we called it “urge surfing.” Because it comes in like a wave, peaks, and rolls out again.

There are practical ways to avoid my triggers. There are the obvious ways, like avoiding people, places and things. But when that isn’t possible (like when my family member is a trigger), the best way to overcome them is to understand them. Understanding why someone or something triggers me is the best way to move towards healing.Understanding removes the aspect of fear and confusion from the equation. And it gives me a point of focus for my prayers. I am triggered because I am a broken human being who needs healing.

Understanding my triggers helps me understand my brokenness. My best defense against triggers has always been gratitude. Remembering what God has done for me, how far he has carried me, all he has redeemed in my life, keeps me moving forward.

Healthy, life-giving relationships are key to recovery. We may always experience triggers, but we never have to face them alone. We are surrounded by a community of people who love us and want to see us healed. God is for us. His people are for us.

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Ten Marks of Spiritual Leaders

Leadership is both a privilege and a choice. To participate at the highest levels in God’s mission of redemption is a high and humbling honor. It is also a choice freely made by those who sense a call from the Lord to step forward; it should never be forced. These ten principles have helped us at Mosaic set a standard for healthy spiritual leadership:

  • A personal, living relationship with Jesus Christ. This goes beyond a mental assent to a set of principles. This is about a personal connection with God that is transformational and liberating. Without this kind of faith, we would be setting people up for failure at best, spiritual attack at worst.
  • A fervent commitment to prayer. Intercede regularly for the ministry, people and leaders. Spiritual leaders are not afraid to lead in prayer, and would not consider starting a meeting or leading a ministry without saturating it in prayer. Spiritual leaders understand and engage in spiritual warfare.
  • An enthusiastic commitment to being here. Spiritual leadership requires a commitment to the vision throughout the life of the church, not just in your ministry area. This includes a commitment to small group membership, as well as attendance at any leadership gathering or important meeting of the church.
  • A joyful commitment to giving. The Christian life stresses the importance of investing in the community that feeds you. Solid Christian leadership also stresses the importance of good modeling. People want to know that if you’re standing before them as a leader, you are invested in the life of the church in the same way they are. They should not be expected to trust the leadership of someone who is not sacrificing in the same ways they are, nor should they be expected to allow you to make decisions on their behalf if you are not invested.
  • A humble commitment to serving. This means not only serving where you are appointed, but making time to serve where you are called by the gospel to join in — particularly service to the poor.
  • A radical commitment to the Great Commission.  This means a willingness not only to see the church winning people to Christ, but a personal desire to share your faith story and invite people into a saving relationship with Jesus.
  • A healthy commitment to practicing emotional intelligence. This means open, direct and honest communication; a willingness to ask clarifying questions and accept constructive coaching; an absolute commitment to grace; and a refusal to feed any spirit of offense. It means being willing to deal honestly with your own brokenness. It means being willing to approach people immediately when conflict arises, placing a high value on reconciliation and an absolute trust in the principles of Matthew 18:15-20.
  • A transparent commitment to loyalty. In both speech and action. Leadership is for those who are committed to both the vision and the team. If you’re not, then my question would not only be, “Why are you in leadership?” but also, “Why have you chosen this place for your spiritual care and feeding?” Because life is too short to serve someplace where you’re not all in.
  • An educated commitment to an orthodox, evangelical expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Understand our theology so you can support our message and care well for those exploring the faith.
  • An unwavering commitment to excellence. No one person comes into leadership fully equipped. A continual commitment to education and training is critical for the leadership of a growing community. If we are going to stay on the leading edge of God’s movement, we need leaders who understand what God is doing in the world today and who are enthusiastic about joining Him in that work.

This is our list. What is yours? What matters to you in a leader? Having a clear vision and standards for healthy leadership is a prime way we can battle against the usual accusations about what it means to be “church.” Shoot for excellence so the Holy Spirit has room to work.

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Depression is hell.

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

Depression is hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to act in church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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