Cheap Kings, Fake Lords and the Crucifixion

We were made for God. In our unfallen state, it is a perfect fit. Somewhere early on in the history of the world, however, we decided we’d rather be our own masters. We rebelled against, pushed against, rejected the plans of (design of) the God who loves us, and began making our own gods.

Humanity has had this propensity nearly as long as we’ve existed. By the time the Ten Commandments were delivered, idol worship was enough of a problem to deserve a prime spot in the list. Commandment #1: You shall have no other gods before me. You don’t have to say things like that to people who never choose other gods. By its presence and prominence, we can assume this was an issue, has always been an issue, is still an issue. Our preference given our fallen tendencies is to choose gods of our own making. Tim Keller writes some terrific stuff about this (look up Counterfeit Gods).

The very act of the crucifixion says so much about this conflicted relationship we have with God, how far God will go to prove his love and Lordship, and how far humans will go to avoid surrendering to that love and Lordship. We have a spiritual problem that we chronically attempt to fix with a physical solution. We think, “If I can just be my own master, then I can find my own fix.”

The great irony is that we put God on a cross but keep our sins to ourself. And yet, the cross is such a beautiful invitation to believe that God on the cross is God for us (Keller says until we believe that, we won’t have courage to deal with our idols). It is an invitation, as Oswald Chambers has said, to press into the crucified flesh of Jesus everything that breeds death with the assurance that Jesus will carry those things we give him in a way that doesn’t breed shame or loss but freedom and life.

Write this question down and deal with it: What things in my life need to be pressed into the death of Jesus? What parts of me have more in common with death than life? What inferior gods and nagging demons, what things that need to die, am I dragging around when the best thing I could do for myself is press them into the crucifixion? Because “this Jesus whom we crucified” has power even while he is on the cross and this Jesus whom we crucified offers to take our place at the point of death. Because you see, while sin-carrying is death for us, it is victory in the flesh of Jesus.

Hear this: Christ alone has power over the things that breed death in us.

Resurrection invites us to stand up again (the Greek word literally means “to stand up again”). The principle of resurrection says that if I will press the things that breed death into the flesh of the crucified Jesus then when he is resurrected, when he stands up again, I can stand up again, too. I can be resurrected, too, even if I’ve found myself in a valley again, spiritually poor again, stuck again, idolizing again, going around that same tired mountain again, living that insanity of doing the same things again and again … looking for a physical fix for a spiritual problem. Even if I am there again, the crucifixion invites me to press my tired, dead “again” into the cross of Jesus, so I can stand up again inside the resurrection of Jesus.

Earlier this year, I broke through into another spiritual place. Before it happened, sensing a breakthrough but not there yet was a painful place to be. I hoped I was right. I trusted God. But man, that pressure when you’re right up against that moment of spiritual breakthrough can be pretty intense. You may have felt it before yourself, even if you didn’t know what to call it.

On a Monday morning, I got my breakthrough. I was on my knees, actually, and I heard the Lord ask me to stand up again, just like resurrection. I heard the Lord inviting me to place a part of myself under his care. I heard him invite me into healing. He showed me how I’d been protecting that broken piece of me, trying to accommodate it while I lived my life. And I could see how trying to run my life on two tracks at once, just how impossible that is. I needed to hand some broken part of me over to Jesus and let him be Lord. Such freedom!

In that moment, Jesus had just invited me to press into his crucified flesh something that was breeding death, with the assurance that Jesus will carry the things we give him in a way that doesn’t breed shame or loss, but freedom and life.

My friend, you now have that same power to stand up again even if you’ve been knocked down. You now have the power to tell your idols, all those cheap kings and fake lords, to submit to the one Power who wants to bring you from death to life and can bring you from death to life. Because Jesus is Lord, you now have the power God has to break through barriers and begin again.

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How to live like Jesus is Lord

So much of what we teach is all the don’t’s of Christianity. You know, “Don’t drink, don’t chew, don’t dance with the girls who do.” But Jesus didn’t come for the don’t’s. Christ isn’t just a fast from sin; he is a feast of truth and grace.

The Messiah has come and his coming is like the coming of a bridegroom to a wedding feast. This longing we have for something more is a longing for a wedding feast, for new wine, for a new beginning. It is a longing for what we’re made for. It is a longing for truth … for life.

The story is true, my friends! Jesus is worthy! The cross is glorious! The good news is worth believing! The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance and the resurrection is proof. Are you living as if all this is true? Are you living as if Jesus really is Lord?

How to live like Jesus is Lord:

Let the dead things die. Toss the old habits that are not working for you any more. Toss the old, dead rituals. Some of us are still waiting for 1953 to roll around again so we can get back to a more comfortable religion. Some of us actually crave dead religion. We want to be okay with sitting in a church building once a week and calling that Christian. But folks, Jesus is doing a new thing! He is moving in power all over the world right now. He is revealing himself to non-believers, and creating miracles in spiritually dry places. It is time to join him. It is time to toss the things you keep wanting to come back that are never coming back, both in your spiritual life and in the rest of your life. Let the things that have no life for you die so you can begin to live like Jesus is Lord.

Learn to feast. Psalm 22 and 23 are some of my favorite places in scripture. These two psalms contain the essence of the Good News of the New Testament. Psalm 22 contains the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. This is the scene of Jesus taking on our sin and dying our death. This is Good Friday.

Then Psalm 23 takes us through Saturday, that dark time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. It walks us through the valley of shadows, the valley of death. But it points us toward a rise on the other side of that valley where there is a table set by God himself: “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” This is about how to walk through trouble with a feast mentality. This is a song of death and resurrection.

I remember reading this line one evening years ago. It happened while I was sitting in the chapel of our church. Every Wednesday we offered communion there. I was the pastor who served communion for those services. Steve usually came and I specifically remember one week when he came to take communion. It had been a hard week for him. He is a teacher, and it seemed like that week he was struggling more than usual with classroom discipline. Like that semester he had every demon in Morgan County taking history from him. It was a rough time.

So as he walked up to the altar, I was reading this very line from Psalm 23 about God preparing our table in the presence of our enemies. I looked up from that line to see my husband kneeling at the altar, his hands out to receive the elements, all his enemies weighing heavily on him — the students, the work, the tests to be graded. I thought to myself, “Here it is, being lived out right in front of me!” God had invited Steve to a feast. In the face of so many enemies, he was invited by the Lord of the Universe to come to the table, to get his cup refilled, to receive God’s goodness and mercy, and to remember that even with so many demons hanging on, God was with him. God was on his side. God is on his side, and on yours and mine.

This is the feast being set before us. It is a feast of truth and grace. And this is what it means to get a feast mentality: It is to set your face toward that table while you’re still in the valley and trust that the story is true even when life is hard.

Get a resurrection mindset. Resurrection is the center of the good news about Jesus Christ. And now, with that power firmly established in the Kingdom of God and with Jesus as our bridge God is able to confidently say to all humanity, “It is finished! He has done it! You now have the power I have to break through barriers and begin again.” And that message is not exclusively for Easter. That message is for us. This is our story now. Because the resurrection is true, we now have access to this same infinite power that is stronger than even death itself. When we talk about “begin again” religion, which is what Jesus preached, we’re talking about the kind of life that goes through death. We’re talking about transformation. We now have the power to bring everything out into the light and then put everything that isn’t eternal to death … so we can really live.

This is the good news! Those who are in Jesus never die. This is what it means to be “in Christ.” It is to proclaim with Peter: “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” And to believe that by claiming that, I am tethering myself to a power greater than sin, greater than death, greater than darkness.

A resurrection mindset can change the world, and can certainly change your world. I’m praying for you as you enter this season beyond Easter Sunday, that you will embrace the resurrection of Jesus Christ as your permission to live wholeheartedly into the life he has designed just for you.

Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Hallelujah!

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The More Excellent Way

Following is an excerpt from John Wesley’s sermon, “The More Excellent Way.” This excerpt is included in a series of selections from sermons of twelve spiritual fathers, that can be found (free of charge) on Seedbed’s website. I post this today as a word of encouragement for those considering the role of money in life as Tax Day approaches. No one understood Matthew 6:20 (“Store up your treasures in heaven”) better than Wesley. What if Wesley (and Jesus) were actually right about money?

Giving money

There is one point that still needs to be considered, that is, the use of money. Specifically, we must ask ourselves, what is the way that Christians generally tend to use money? And is there not a more excellent way?

Generally, Christians tend to set apart something yearly for charitable uses perhaps a tenth or even one-eighth of a part of their yearly income or salary. I have known very few people who, like Zaccheus, have said, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. O, how pleased God would be to see an increase in such friends of humankind, such benefactors!

In addition to those who have set a standard amount of giving, there are thousands who give large sums of money to the poor, especially when a compelling and heart-moving story or situation arises before them.

I praise God for all of you who do this. May you never grow tired of doing such good! May God restore in your heart seven times more than all that you have given! However, let me still show you a more excellent way.

Blessed to be a blessing

God is the owner and giver of all things in heaven and earth. You may consider yourself as someone to whom God has given some of his goods, that you might give those goods away according to his direction. His direction is this — that you should see yourself as one of a certain number of needy persons who are to be provided for, and you should do it out of only a portion of the goods he has given you. You have two advantages over everyone else: one, that it is more blessed to give than to receive; two, that you are able to serve yourself first and then others. This is the light with which you are to see yourself and others. To be more precise, if you have no family, after you have provided for yourself, give away everything else that remains so that each Christmas your accounts may clear, and wind your bottom round the year.

A living example

This was the practice of all those at Oxford who were called Methodists. For example, one of them had thirty pounds a year. He lived on twenty-eight and gave away the other two. The next year, when he received sixty pounds, he still lived on twenty-eight and gave away the other thirty-two. The third year he received ninety pounds and gave away sixty-two. The fourth year he received a hundred and twenty pounds. Still, he lived on only twenty-eight pounds and gave away ninety-two pounds to the poor. Was this not a more excellent way?

Treasures on earth, treasures in heaven

If you do have a family, seriously consider before God how much each member needs for life and godliness. In general, do not allow them less and do not allow them more than you allow yourself. This being done, make it your purpose to gain no more. I charge you in the name of God, do not increase your standard of living! As it comes daily or yearly, allow the extra to go. Otherwise you lay up treasures upon earth. Our Lord forbids this as flatly as he forbids murder and adultery. By storing up such treasures, you would be storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.

But what if it was not forbidden? How can you, on the basis of reason, spend your money in a way that God may possibly forgive, instead of spending it in a way that he will certainly reward? You will have no reward in heaven for what you lay up. You will have a reward for what you lay out. Every pound you put into the earthly bank is sunk. It brings no heavenly interest. But every pound you give to the poor is put into the bank of heaven, and it will bring glorious interest. Indeed, it will accumulate for all eternity.

Who then is the wise person, and who among you is endowed with wisdom? With the Lord’s assistance, let that person resolve on this day, in this hour, in this moment to choose from what is stated above the more excellent way. Let that person steadily keep to the way with regard to sleep, prayer, work, food, conversation, and amusement. And may it especially be true in regard to the employment of that important item, money. Let your heart answer to the call of God: From this moment, with God as my help, I will lay up no more treasures on earth. This one thing I will do, I will lay up treasure in heaven. I will give to God the things that are God’s. I will give him all my goods and all my heart.

— John Wesley

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Why should we care about Sabbath-keeping?

The notion of “sabbath” is mentioned 172 times in the Bible, and 60 of those occurrences are in the New Testament. Why do you suppose that of all the 613 laws, Sabbath-keeping gets so much attention? Here is my theory. I believe Sabbath matters to God because it is like a stake in the ground for people freed from slavery. Sabbath is a call to rest, and rest is not the right of a slave. It is the habit of a free person. After being freed from slavery in Egypt, Sabbath became an every-week opportunity for an Israelite to proclaim his freedom. It was also how God’s people got in rhythm with God’s heart for the least, the last and the lost.

Should we still care about Sabbath-keeping today? Not as legalists … no. But as beings made in the image of God, Sabbath is  central to our design and worth our attention.

Sabbath-keeping restores us to our factory settings. Remember that Sabbath-keeping is the fourth of the ten commandments. When God gives the Israelites the ten commandments the first time, he pairs it with creation. “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rests on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” Sabbath-keeping reconnects us with the rhythm of creation and God’s creative nature. It aligns us with holy work. Remember that work was part of the Garden of Eden before the fall. In the same way that God worked to build creation, we were given creative work to fill our days and give us purpose. Work at creation was good, and rest wasn’t required. It was designed. A good, perfect and loving God designed rest as a mark of completion in the work of creation. At the conclusion of creation God rested, and we lived inside his completion. Rest for God was completion, not weariness. And when we rest, we are putting faith in God’s ability to finish the work and make it holy.

Sabbath-keeping is an act of worship (love God). Notice this, in Genesis 2:3. “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it, he rested.” This is the first time the word “holy” is used in the Bible. Holiness — to be whole — is first used in the Bible to talk about rest. That teaches me something about what it means to be whole. It means being at rest, at peace. It turns out that holiness means we have the right to put our work down and rest, because God — not our work — is what makes us whole.

There are two other Hebrew words that strike me as being related to the notion of Sabbath. Shalom means peace, or wholeness. When Jews are approaching Sabbath day, they say, “Shabbat Shalom.” The common meaning is “Have a peaceful Sabbath.” But the deeper meaning is something more like, “May you find wholeness as you cease your work.” This is what happened with God in creation. When he finished, he rested.

The other Hebrew term is shema, the Hebrew word for “hear.” It is the first word of the greatest commandment: “Hear O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema is the first and last word of a Jewish Sabbath.

Now, go with me on this for a minute. The last thing God created before he rested was us. Which means our first day on earth was God’s Sabbath. Which means the first thing we did as creatures was to take a day off with God! Not because he was tired (or us), but because that’s what he called whole, holy and good.

As I contemplate this profound idea of Sabbath being the first whole day of humanity, the image that comes to my mind is of the birth of my own child. When our baby was born, the doctor lifted her from my body and handed her directly into my arms. I immediately laid her on my chest, so that the first thing my child heard (shema) was her mama’s heartbeat and her mama’s voice. And her whole job in that moment — the whole job of a newborn child — was to listen, rest and attach. Which is to say that on our first day on earth when God ceased his work — Shabbat shalom — our whole job was to listen (shema), rest and attach.

And that is still our sabbath work today. My, how beautiful is this gift of Sabbath (and we thought we were just getting a day off)!

Sabbath-keeping teaches us not to “harvest to the margins” (love others). This idea seems woven into the fabric of Leviticus. It begins as a habit of the harvest. The Israelites are told not to harvest their fields to the edges (Leviticus 23:22), so there would be food enough left for the poor to come along behind and glean. Leave room at the edges of your field so people who don’t have can eat, too. In Leviticus chapter 25, where we get a more detailed description of Sabbath years and Jubilee years, all through is sprinkled a reminder to take care of the poor. This, I believe, is what distinguishes someone who just wants a day off (or who doesn’t even want a day off and resents the time they have to take for others) from someone who has laid his head next to the Father’s heart — who has heard God’s heartbeat for the least, the last and the lost. It is that there is room in their lives for others.

Hear this: When we harvest to the margins, we have no energy left for the poor and the ones who require extra grace. When we harvest to the margins, it is hard to be present to the people in front of us. When we harvest to the margins, there is no patience left, no bandwidth for the things that break God’s heart. Jesus himself said it is okay to do good on the Sabbath, but we can only do good when we have room left at the margins when those moments for mercy emerge. Sabbath gives room to be present to people.

Sabbath-keeping is an invitation to resist the culture of Egypt. The ten commandments are listed twice in the Old Testament, and the one about Sabbath is the only one with an explanation attached — both times (almost like, “Okay, we know why we shouldn’t kill people, but we’re not really sure why we need a day off”). The first time, the Sabbath is explained as part of creation and the second time it is explained as a freedom principle. God tells his people they must not do any work on the seventh day. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Sabbath by this definition is a memorial and a mark of freedom. We get a Sabbath because we are not slaves. The daily grind is not what we were created for. It is a call not just to cease working, but to take on the mindset of a free person — not just the behavior of Sabbath-keeping but the spirit of it.

Sabbath-keeping is how we practice Heaven. While our human tendency is to want to escape, the Kingdom call is an invitation to rest. In other words, rest is the biblical corrective to our inclination toward escape. Paul told the Colossians that sabbath is a shadow, a vague glimpse, of what is ahead for us in the Kingdom of God. Which means that when we practice it well, we are practicing heaven. By practicing Sabbath we find what is most real … namely Christ. And when we practice Sabbath, we are proclaiming what is most real to us … namely Christ. It is the practice of becoming whole … the practice of listening to the heart of God … the practice of freedom.

 

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The character of a Methodist

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

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

What does it mean to be Methodist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Division Within

There is a line in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that grabs me. Paul is teaching this young church about the nature of Jesus and what this Messiah has accomplished on the spiritual plane. He tells them that Jesus has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility. He is talking in the moment about the wall that stood between Jews and Gentiles. Jesus is the one who by his sacrifice brings the Gentiles inside the wall. This lesson is about two kinds of people who have been made one by Christ.

Let me emphasize what Paul is teaching and what he isn’t. Paul isn’t teaching that the Israelites were to abandon their principles or that the Gentiles were to remain unchanged. This is not about everybody just getting along. Paul’s teaching here is deeper. This is about a spiritual reality. He is telling his audience — and us — that the ground beneath the cross is level.

What grabs me is that phrase — “the dividing wall of hostility.” This isn’t just about groups but about me. Many of us live with this dividing wall of hostility that runs right down the middle of us. That wall keeps us from being one, whole person. There are parts of us that want everything to line up in perfect little bullet points. We don’t want God to get too close. We just want him to give us a list of things to do so we can check the boxes and claim ourselves “good enough.”

“I’m a good person. Isn’t that enough?”

“I believe in God. Isn’t that enough?”

“I go to church. I pay my taxes. Isn’t that enough?”

That’s one side of the wall. The other side of the wall knows the truth. That person we want to be? We’re not that person. On our own, we can never be good enough, right enough … enough. The war rages inside of us as these two sides duke it out and that fight bubbles over, showing up as impatience in our work, distrust in our relationships, unreasonableness in our expectations, anger even at God.

This is the human condition. We are all fighting against our fallen human nature, all battling manifestations of selfish desire. To the extent that we nurture this division within, we breed dysfunction and depress authenticity. Even if we don’t admit it to anyone else, we know about this division. Parker Palmer says,

“I pay a steep price when I live a divided life – feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am denying my own selfhood. The people around me pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness. How can I affirm another’s identity when I deny my own? How can I trust another’s integrity when I defy my own?”

So what to do about that wall? David Whyte is a full-time poet now but for years, he worked other jobs while he wrote in the margins of his life. It exhausted him. He had a friend, a monk named Brother David Steindl-Rast, who came to visit. Whyte told Brother David about his life and his unfulfilled dreams and his exhaustion over trying to hold it together, and he asked his friend what the cure is for exhaustion. Brother David replied, “The cure for exhaustion isn’t rest. It’s wholeheartedness.”

Sit in this truth a moment: The cure for exhaustion isn’t rest. It’s wholeheartedness.

We know this is true, because this is both Old and New Testament-tested. The great Jewish truth is this: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus brought this into the New Covenant as a command. “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).

John Wesley drew on that truth in his questions to those planning to preach the Methodist way. He asked, “Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work?” Not half-heartedly. Not with your spare change and spare time. Not only as far as your comforts will take you. Not fearfully, but wholly to God and his work? Without that kind of vulnerable, wholehearted faith, it is impossible to please God.

To the extent that you nurse a “dividing wall of hostility,” the effort to be all in will exhaust you. But (hear the good news) the stuff in your life that is exhausting you — the frenzied activity, the scattered schedule, the divided life — can actually be the source of your healing. It happens as you hold your exhaustion before God, confess the dividedness in every area where it exists and make mature choices about what has to go so the wall can come down. Because here’s the thing: that wall that you have put up to keep you safe is the same wall that is keeping you from experiencing the power of God.

Wholehearted living releases us into miraculous faith. What needs to give so you can live a wholehearted 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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Five Things You Should Know About the WCA

Since August of last year, some 1,200 clergy and laypersons have become invested in a renewal organization within the United Methodist Church called the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The WCA garnered some notice because of the timing of its unveiling, though actually it has been in the works for several years. The inaugural event in Chicago last October galvanized two thousand people around the prospect of “the next Methodism” and that idea has captured our collective imagination.

The obvious fact is that the UMC is in crisis but we all know that for imaginative people, a crisis is an opportunity in disguise. What opportunity does this crisis provide our faith tradition? What kind of renewal could rise from the ashes? If the UMC is heading for a significant change anyway (and it is), what would we want to emerge on the other side?

Those are the kinds of questions being asked in gatherings and conversations around the country. With such energy, we have the opportunity to shape the next Methodism. This is the very hope fueling the formation of the WCA. If you are new to the table, what five things might help you get into the conversation?

Our first love is Jesus. Every person at the WCA table is there because they believe the Church is the hope of the world. However, as faithful as we want to be to the United Methodist expression of that Church, I don’t know of a person centrally involved in the WCA who is clinging to institutional salvation. We all care a lot about the UMC — enough to invest in this work — but the glue that holds us together is Jesus. Our confidence is in Christ. Our covenant within the United Methodist Church is founded on its Articles of Religion, which profess an orthodox understanding of this gospel. Those foundational articles are grounded in Christ as the exclusive savior of the world. Those who remain connected must insist on a relationship built on integrity and true accountability around the confession of Jesus as the center of our gospel and foundation of our faith (Articles II and III). Likewise, we trust the authority of Scripture, which “contains all things necessary for salvation” (Articles V and VI).

Our goal is to breed confidence for the future. Last year’s General Conference set in motion a process designed to give the UMC a way forward. We want to trust both that process and God’s timing. We urge churches, clergy and laypersons to let the system do its work. Hang in there. Stay focused in this “already and not yet” season on the good work of your local church. We can be honest about what we suspect. There will likely come a day in the UMC when we all have to make a mature and hard choice, peacefully admitting that we are better off heading our separate ways. But timing is everything. Let’s let the system do its work so we can say on the other side of this that we stayed the course as faithfully and as transparently as we knew how. Meanwhile, the WCA exists as a good landing place, an advocate, and a supportive partner that is allowing hope to have its power. We are leaning into what can be.

We love people.  Every person at the WCA table is there because we believe the Church is the hope of the world and every one of us has a heart for the eleven million people who call themselves United Methodist (not to mention the seven billion who call themselves human). God so loved the world and we are motivated by that love. We are in this because we genuinely care about connecting people with the heart of Jesus and we believe solid, orthodox Wesleyan theology is the best conduit for making that connection. That’s what made us Methodists in the first place; that passion hasn’t changed.

We believe that for the gospel to be true, it must be global. Methodists are incarnational and global in our approach to evangelism. We seek partnership with those within the Wesleyan tradition around the globe, not just as people on the receiving end of mission activities but as fully invested members of this expression of faith. The WCA has had remarkable support from leaders in other countries, and we have invited representatives from each Central Conference to join our Council. We reject any revision of our structure that separates our connection geographically because we believe in the global nature of the gospel and the Great Commission.

We are here for the long haul. The existence of the WCA does not hinge on one vote at one General Conference. Folks, our issues are far deeper, our institutional divisions far wider, our concerns far more grave than the substance of one vote. Our intention is to build a bridge from what we have to what can be. That kind of vision will take years to live out but we are committed for the long haul. The WCA is here to stay.

When new things get started, getting off the ground can be a little bumpy. Since our first gathering of the WCA last October, it has been like drinking water from a fire hose. To build a thing that stands the test of time takes a tremendous amount of effort — developing systems, making budgets, writing (and re-writing) by-laws, making hiring decisions, talking theology, creating communication systems. And prayer … a lot of prayer. This is not a short-term fix.

As we’ve said often in these early conversations, let’s not waste a crisis. The UMC is in need of renewal. No one on any side of the equation should be in this to “win” on one issue so we can all go back to business as usual. Let’s shoot for something more noble, more grand — to see the Kingdom of God manifest within the Body of Christ on earth for the sake of the redemption of the world.

When that happens, we can all go home to the unhindered presence of Christ. And oh, what a glory that will be.

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A Big Week for United Methodists

Some days, it is just good to be Methodist. This Friday will be one of those days.

In my (admittedly narrow) world, this is a big week. About 1,700 pastors and assorted others will gather in Chicago this Friday for the inaugural gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. This group has been in formation for about a year. Other groups preceded it but failed to gain momentum. The WCA seems to be the right response at the right time and it has gathered steam quickly since the announcement of its existence in mid-summer.

What most excites me about the WCA is that the leadership seems genuinely to be what it is — a diverse group of people transparently seeking a strong Spirit-infused movement within the Methodist tradition. I am part of that movement but I come to this rather late in the game. Many in the room have been working toward UMC renewal for years. I was mostly looking for a door out until General Conference this year convinced me I should be doing otherwise.

I like that our process has been thoughtful, prayerful and theological. We have not allowed ourselves to be “blown about by winds of doctrine,” nor have we succumbed to rash emotion. Our tenor in conversation has been gracious but firm; our by-laws are the product of much deliberation among pastors, theologians and elders in the UMC. Our singular purpose is the emergence of a more vibrant, warm-hearted, global, biblically-rooted Methodism that honors God and the traditions of the centuries.

Mostly, we want to see our denomination go someplace spiritually because if it doesn’t, what would make us any different than any other non-profit? I hear echoes of Moses’ question to the Lord in Exodus 33: “Is it not in your going with us … that we are distinct from all the other people on earth?”

Indeed, unless God is with us, none of this will matter. If he is, then what happens on Friday may well be history-making. Some have wanted a more solid prediction of just how all this will unfold as we go forward. The answer with the most integrity is: we don’t know. It would be unwise to prescribe a future with so many variables in play. This group hasn’t even met yet; we sure don’t want to get ahead of God by making predictions prematurely. Think of this as a more organic, less political process.

And of course, no one can predict what will happen with the Commission on a Way Forward but waiting for that group to convene is the right thing to do. We are grateful to hear that the appointments are being made to that group and a plan is in motion for them to begin deliberating. Praise God for progress. While we wait, the WCA will provide a voice and a place to land for faithful United Methodists. Friday’s gathering will be the beginning, and those who attend will help to shape its future.

What we know now is this: this is not a gathering of politicians, warriors or angry protestors.  This is a groundswell of genuine concern for the direction our church is taking. It is a strong but grace-filled response to the call of General Conference to think together about our best way forward. All of us who call ourselves Methodist should be praying this week that Friday’s gathering honors the very best in the Church of Jesus Christ.

I’m proud of those who are making this step together. It represents strength and leadership. In fact, I would say this gathering represents the best face of  Wesleyan orthodoxy. This Wesleyan Covenant is the kind of religion James talked about — faith married to action. It is a passion for serving others without letting the world get the best of us. It is about doing ministry and doing it better and doing it in ways that highlight our brand of theology, because that’s what we have to offer the Body of Christ.

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Four questions and a cup of coffee (a simple way to make spiritual progress)

What if a few Christians got together once a week to share in an intentionally spiritual conversation that challenged each of them to reflect on their growth and challenges as followers of Jesus?

This was the principle beneath Wesley’s Methodism. He believed sanctification happened in community, in conversation, and he and his Holy Club met regularly to challenge one another deeply.

With questions.

For the last few weeks, we’ve been having this experiment in Christian conversation on Thursday afternoons (Panera Bread, Evans GA, 4;30p). Our conversation is guided by four questions developed by Mosaic’s discipleship team and inspired by Wesley’s accountability questions. These questions introduce four main theological themes being taught throughout the life of our church in the coming year:

  • Love God.
  • Learn his story.
  • Live for him.
  • Build the Kingdom.

Here are our four questions. If they resonate, use them to change the spiritual atmosphere where you are.

1. How am I intentionally spending time with God and the Bible?

This is a question of spiritual connection with God and the quality of that relationship. In our Wesleyan tradition, we believe the touchpoint of an authentic relationship with God is grace. Wesley systematized grace to show that its effect is not just “fire insurance” (salvation) but sanctification. In fact, an emphasis on sanctification is the one of the greater contributions Wesleyan theology makes to the Body of Christ and sanctification is a partnership. God transforms us as we enter into the means of grace. As Kevin Watson says in The Class Meeting, “If you are serious about participating in God’s work of renewal in your life, you will commit to do the things that disciples of Jesus Christ do: read scripture regularly, spend time in prayer by yourself and with others, worship with others who are seeking to follow Christ, receive the Lord’s Supper (which Wesley referred to as the ‘grand channel’ of God’s grace), give generously of your time and money, and serve others.” The key word in our first question is “intentional.” Spiritual discipline doesn’t happen accidentally or coincidentally; it is sought after, like a hungry person looks for food.

2. What is Jesus teaching me and how is it changing my story? If the first question is about the externals (the means of grace, spiritual disciplines), this one is about the internals. The means of grace are the things I do that lead me more directly into the influence of the Holy Spirit. This question then asks how that influence is transforming me. The questions asked of the members of Wesley’s “Holy Club” reflected that sincere desire to grow more deeply into holiness:

1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
2. What temptations have you met with?
3. How were you delivered?
4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
5. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?

Jesus says we are known by our fruit and this includes spiritual fruit. Am I going someplace spiritually? Am I further along today than I was six months ago, a year ago, five years ago? There are no stagnant ponds in the Kingdom of God

3. How is the Holy Spirit impacting the world through me? This question moves us from internal fruit-bearing to external fruit-bearing. This is about being on mission with Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the comfort of his gifts. How are my decisions and relationships being impacted by the presence of God and the means of grace in my life? When I am being changed by Christ, the world around me is being changed, too.

4. How am I helping to make disciples who build the Kingdom? This is about getting a Kingdom perspective and making a Kingdom investment for the sake of a Kingdom impact. It is one thing to be concerned for my immediate surroundings — my family, my workplace, my church — but do I yet have the mindset of a Kingdom Christian? Is my heart yet broken for the whole world? “It is too light a thing,” God says in Isaiah 49, “that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” God has planted us in this field that his salvation might be known among every tongue and tribe. He has called us to holy and global response. How are you participating in that Kingdom vision?

I wonder how it might change the spiritual atmosphere of your home, your church, your ministry if you began a regular practice of asking yourself a few solid, spiritual questions? How might it change your connection to the Body of Christ if you got together with a few others over coffee to ask those questions of each other? Could this practice move you more intentionally into the will of God?

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