Stay in it (part two)

I’ve been thinking about how Luke used Elizabeth to change Mary’s perspective, so take five minutes and think about it with me.

When the angel visited Mary and told her she was going to have a baby, that had to be a lonely and confusing moment. She didn’t exactly have a decision to make but how she would receive this, and how she would live into it must’ve been baffling. She’d have to choose how she would live with what she was given, and this was a girl in her teen years without much experience to draw on.

So here’s what Luke does with this story. Before he ever gets to the story of Mary and the angel, he tells the story of Elizabeth, a relative of Mary’s with a little more life experience who also gets pregnant. Her pregnancy is also somewhat miraculous, coming years after she should be able to conceive. Elizabeth is surprised by her news, too, but excited. Relieved, even.

Luke tells Elizabeth’s story of getting pregnant, then drops in Mary’s conversation with the angel and in that part of the story Mary is obviously confused — “troubled” is how Luke describes her. She’s asking questions, trying to figure out how this works. And somewhere in the conversation, the angel brings up Elizabeth, that Elizabeth is pregnant, too, and that she’s going to have a child she didn’t expect to have, either. The next sentence has Mary relieved and the sentence after that has her going to visit Elizabeth. When she gets there, this thing happens between them. It is like deep calling to deep. Elizabeth’s baby — six months old inside the womb — leaps at the presence of Mary’s baby. And in the moment, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41).

Now they are all standing there together steeping this profound knowing. If you count the Holy Spirit, there are five of them in this circle: the two little guys in the womb, the two women, and the Holy Spirit. And this is when Elizabeth draws on a prophetic knowing. She doesn’t soothe Mary’s emotional state or offer up a few hopeful platitudes. Instead, she speaks spiritually, deeply, prophetically over Mary, helping her reinterpret her experience. “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her” (Luke 1:45). Elizabeth speaks that word over a very confused young woman and the very next sentence has Mary singing praise, like it all makes sense to her now. Her song and this scene end with this: “Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home” (Luke 1:56).

Elizabeth’s prophetic voice, the profound knowing of John and Jesus, and the presence of the Holy Spirit all combine to create an atmosphere ripe for transformation. So here’s my question: What if Luke wrapped Elizabeth’ story around Mary’s story to show us how spiritual conversation and close community brought Mary’s heart into the call of God? Think about it: The angel is the one who gave her the news, but it was another human with whom she could identify who made it good news. And it was the Holy Spirit who ignited that conversation and gave power and binding to all those relationships.

This is the bond that held together a woman’s call and gave Mary courage to birth into the world its Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, with disciples who followed him in messy, faithful, passionate style. When Mary found the combination of circumstances that allowed her to step into God’s purposes with passion, she chose to stay in it, to steep in it. And what Mary did at the beginning of Luke is exactly what Jesus prescribed for his followers at the end of Luke. In Luke 24:49, his followers are told by the resurrected Christ to “stay in the city” until they’ve been clothed with power from on high. The word stay draws a straight line from chapter 1 to chapter 24.

Here’s the secret: It is the staying power of the Holy Spirit.

“Stay here,” the disciples are told, “until you receive power,” because without that power you will fall headlong into disappointment. And so they stayed. They stayed while Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit descended, and then they were shot out into the world to prepare it for the second coming of Christ, not to help people escape from the world but to give them a transformed worldview rooted in the phenomenon of Jesus. Without the wind of the Spirit at their backs, those first followers of Jesus would not have had the momentum to share the good news with a waiting world.

The Holy Spirit makes the rest of the story of God make sense. He makes my story make sense. He reveals truth and makes it accessible to those who pursue it. He ignites the spiritual fires. He gives the process of spiritual formation its power. And I’m convinced that without the power of the Holy Spirit, any attempt at ministry is frustrating at best and possibly even detrimental to the cause of the Kingdom.

So be filled. Now. Here. Ask, Luke tells us, and believe when you stand up from this place that God has filled you with his Holy Spirit because God wants this for you. And then walk in that authority and do the work to which you’re called so we can all go home.

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Has the Church lost its prophetic voice?

Sandra Richter, Craig Keener and others teach about the triad of leadership found in the Old Testament. Three distinct voices spoke into the Israelite community. The king was a civic leader who shaped society by establishing civil order. The priest kept the temple and represented the people to God. The prophet represented God to the people. Keener says the prophet was the one person who could step into the court of the King and call him out and not get killed.

Being a prophet wasn’t all fun and games (read Hosea for proof) but it had its perks.

Where the Church has lost its voice in the world, I suspect it is because the Church has handed its prophetic voice over to the “king.” We have placed too much power and expectation at the feet of elected leaders and secular voices. We want them to be king, priest and prophet, all rolled into one. In that bargain, we strip the priest and prophet of their role in building up the community.

Who today is speaking prophetically into our culture? Not just pontificating or opinionating, but representing with authority the Kingdom of God? Where we are expecting that voice to come from a political source, we disconnect the voice of the Church from its proper role within culture.

Have we lost our prophetic edge? Are we still willing to bear the cost of confronting culture in redemptive ways, not by standing on soapboxes but by confronting sin face to face in loving and redemptive ways?

The real value of a prophetic voice is that it exposes the stark contrast between the Kingdom of God and the culture of a world that wants its laws to fix all its problems. Can the Church recover this voice? To do so, it will first need to recover a biblical definition for the gift of prophecy.

Prophecy connects us to the heart of God. Prophecy is the word of God for the people of God. Deuteronomy 18:18 says, “I will raise up a prophet and I will put my words in his mouth.” Prophecy reveals God’s heart and connects us with biblical truth. The prophetic voice isn’t a sin-o-meter; to the contrary, it begins with a broken heart. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14 that when an unbeliever enters that atmosphere, he is laid bare. The secrets of his heart are disclosed and falling on his face, he worships.

Prophecy is an encouragement. Paul says that prophets speak to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. That doesn’t mean it will always sound like a fortune cookie (“You will make a change and your life will improve”), but it does mean that the prophetic word has the best of others in mind, knowing that sometimes upbuilding and encouragement means stopping someone before they walk off a cliff.

Prophecy builds up the Church. Paul tells us this is the real gift of prophecy. It builds the Church. That’s why I believe the best leaders aren’t just talented people who want to be fed or do things they enjoy. The best leaders are prophetic because prophetic voices build the Church. This was the heart of Solomon, who sought the gift of wisdom so he could govern the people better. Prophetic leadership is the great need of Christ’s Church.

Practicing the gift of prophecy matures our thinking. A prophetic word is not on the same playing field with scripture. Scripture is the ultimate benchmark by which all other words are tested. But as we practice the prophetic voice and test it against scripture, we discover that our thinking matures. This is the whole point. The practice of prophecy sanctifies us. It reveals things we can’t know by ourselves.

Prophecy makes worshippers. Sanctified people are attractive to unsanctified people. People are drawn to wise, faithful, truthful, mature, encouraging people but much more than that, when someone comes into contact with the prophetic voice they are drawn, not to a particular political party or ideology, but to God.

Scot McKnight says, “If Jesus was prophetic then the church that follows him is prophetic. If Jesus was a prophet, then the followers of Jesus are to embody a prophetic message in how they live.”

If we who follow Jesus are going to recover our right to speak into this culture with authority and in redemptive ways, we will need to find, not a stronger opinion, but our prophetic voice.

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How I almost quit (and why you shouldn’t)

Today, I quit being a Christian.

That was the leading line in a Miami Herald article by Annie Rice, author of The Vampire Chronicles. Annie was a self-proclaimed atheist who eventually returned to the Church.* Now she has decided Jesus is okay but the Church is not. In the article, Annie says, “I remain committed to Christ as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

I assume there are a world of people like out there like Annie. You may be among them — one of those people who likes Jesus but the church … not so much. If you are attached to my denomination that may be compounded by a sense of frustration that borders on hopeless.

Maybe you’ve decided you have no room in your life for that kind of hassle. It is easier to stay home and be angry than to contend with a broken system. I get that. If Jesus weren’t real, I’d find easier ways to spend my Sunday mornings and my work life. But let me share why I think the Church — and your church — is worth the hassle and your allegiance.

It is simple, really: Jesus is head of the Church. He is the founding pastor. He cast a vision for it after his resurrection, then set it in motion at his ascension. In fact, a lot of the New Testament is Paul working out his theology of Church in the context of first-generation churches. They are, he concludes, in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

Let me say that again: We who follow Jesus are in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

How do you quit that, exactly?  I’m not sure you can, and still call yourself a follower of Jesus. This isn’t about a particular tribe or flavor. What I’m talking about here is the life of Christ on earth, signified by the community he has called together.

What do we do, if we don’t like what we’ve got, but don’t have permission to quit?

1. Repent for your own short-sightedness. This is where God has had me in the time since our United Methodist General Conference in 2016. For years, I’d been in an internal “quit” mode where the UMC is concerned. A long time ago, I lost my patience for what we have and was looking for an exit door.

I wanted to quit.

I expected to find a “door out” at last year’s General Conference but then something happened, something no one expected. It seems as if God had decided to do a new thing. And I didn’t see it coming.

More explicitly, I didn’t believe God was big enough to change the tide of a denomination … or that he cared. I write that now with such heavy contrition. I under-estimated His capacity to make a way in the desert, to cut streams through the wasteland. God moved in a surprising, redemptive way last year in our denomination and I almost missed him. That is cause for repentance, for course correction, for humility in the face of all I may not have eyes to see. I don’t know where God is taking us, but He has given me a new heart for the 11 million people called Methodist, and I want to be respond to that gift faithfully.

2. Pray and live prophetically for the future of the Church. Prophets learn to hear the voice of God, to see where he is working. Then they put that into language that edifies the body of Christ and instructs the surrounding culture. The Church in the U.S. is starving for people willing to pray and speak boldly into both church and culture. We starve for prophets unafraid of being a peculiar people — holy, chosen, strange in the sense of being … well …

Strange. Different. A light in the darkness.

I’m talking about people with faith enough to say, “I see something beyond the obvious here, something that ought to change your sense of reality.” We need prophets who keep us focused on the big picture. We need folks who understand the ramifications of our leadership choices.

3. Actively practice your gifts. Whatever your gift, practice it (note: complaining is not a valid spiritual gift). Become a valuable contributor to God’s work on earth. This is how the Kingdom comes. Besides, if you don’t lead, who will?

4. Don’t quit. As we cultivate the gift of prophecy, we begin to see with clarity that God is indeed working. It may not be obvious to the naked eye but He has not given up on this world, nor has he given up on the Church.

Jesus has not quit. Not you. Not the Church. Not the world.

Which is to say that the world is not the problem. The world is the prize.

 

*Church with a capital “C” refers to the Church in general, wherever it exists around the world. “Church” with a small “c” refers to a particular church, like your Baptist church or my Methodist one.

 

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