Marriage and the Means of Grace

I’ve been married for thirty years to a man I absolutely adore. When my husband and I met, we were not practicing Christians. We shared an interest in the faith and a history of it, but spiritually we were far from home. It wasn’t until we’d dated three years and were married for four that spiritual fires were kindled in our marriage.

Since then, we’ve made every possible mistake, some of which should have been the death of us. But God, in his mercy, has not only preserved our covenant but has given us beauty for ashes, the oil of joy and the garment of praise.

For all the mistakes, there are three things we’ve done intentionally that I believe have made all the difference in the health and duration of our marriage: tithing, prayer and Sabbath-keeping.

Tithing taught us to approach life as givers. It helped us make the mental shift from consumption to generosity and that has taken the fire out of any money-based arguments we might have had. We approach our finances, our investments and our possessions as givers.

That sounds like something a pastor would say, right? But I’m convinced that this shift in our approach to family finances has made all the difference in the world in how we talk about money (which, statistically, is the most divisive topic in a marriage). Rather than talking about what we make and what we want, our most animated discussions are about what we give and to whom. It has made us more appreciative of the work of others and sort of stunned by the fact that the funds never seem to run out. There is a lot to be said for approaching life as a giver.

The second thing we’ve done has to do with prayer. They say that about 50% of all marriages in the U.S. fail, and that statistic holds whether a couple is “Christian” or not. Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t improve the odds. But in marriages where two people who call themselves Christian pray daily together, they say that the odds of success are dramatically improved (a study I read years ago said that only one in a thousand ends in divorce, when couples pray daily together). If those stats are even close to right, then it really is true that the family that prays together, stays together.

The ability and comfort we have in praying together daily is such a gift in our marriage. Praying together does two things in a marriage. First, because it is such a real and intimate thing, it is a place where you really get to hear the other person’s heart. People tend to be more honest, more transparent when they pray. Second, because it is a prayer, God hears it. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered together, he is right there with them. So if you want to make that triangle thing happen in your marriage, prayer will do it for you. Prayer is like a zipline that takes you immediately into God’s presence.

So we tithe and we pray together daily. And the third thing we’ve done intentionally to build our marriage is to observe a Sabbath.
In other words, we pay, we pray, and we play!

Sabbath. Every major figure in the Bible talked about this habit. Jesus himself was faithful to practice it. The Bible in both testaments claims it as the key to healthy living — spiritually, mentally and physically. And yet, we rarely discuss it and seldom take it seriously. It runs consistently through the Bible, but it’s the one thing I’ve consistently and dangerously neglected in my own life.

When we first came to Augusta to plant a church, I was really wrapped up in the work. I got so wrapped up in it, in fact, that I began to neglect not only my family but my own spiritual life. And I was a pastor! Somewhere along the way, we decided that the only way for us to restore some kind of rhythm to our lives was to begin practicing a day of rest every week — one day when we could cease work and worry and just be with each other. It is a day we rest, play and sleep. In other words, we try to just enjoy life.

Sabbath gives a holy rhythm to the practice of our faith, and it has been the one thing in our home that has the power to calm the storms.

Because I’m a pastor and work on Sunday, my Sabbath is 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 p.m. Saturday. My husband usually takes the whole day on Saturday as his Sabbath. We’re not legalistic about it. There are plenty of Saturdays taken up by mission projects at the church and by paperwork that needs to be caught up on. And laundry. But there are also naps and slow lunches, second cups of coffee and plenty of time to talk. We don’t do the Sabbath perfectly every week but we do make it our goal because this is one way we get our lives back in line with God’s design.

Here’s what we’ve learned after thirty years of giving this our best shot: You will never make enough money to make yourself happy, and you will never have enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Tithing, prayer and Sabbath are ways of trusting God and for us, they have been the means of grace that have made this union a treasure.

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Healthy Communication and the Kingdom of Heaven

Healthy communication is the key to growing a healthy, mature community.  Good communication is also the best weapon against the enemy of our souls.

As a leader, then, it becomes a high priority for me to develop a habit of communicating in ways that foster grace, sensitivity and understanding.  If I learn to do this, those around me will not only respond with good will but will hopefully adopt those habits and pass them along in their circles.

If I want to make the practice of healthy communication a priority this year in my church, home or organization, here’s where I’d start:

Say more.  By some strange quirk of fate I,  as a southerner, do not drink sweet tea. I only make it when family comes to my house, and then I make it poorly because my idea of “sweet” and their idea of “sweet” are worlds apart. “Good tea” by southern standards means adding more sugar than any human could conceivably consume.

What works for sweet tea works for communication. What we think of as “over-communicating” is likely the amount needed for someone to get it.  Never mind what you think they need; start with what they actually need.

Affirm more. This is the pattern Paul teaches in his letters: start every conversation with affirmation. Doing this well will right-size your expectations, so you’re not constantly noticing the gap between what people are doing and what you think they ought to be doing.  We can all learn to do as my mother taught and find something nice to say. In fact, we must learn to do that before we can say anything at all that will be heard.

Blast less. Blast people enough and they will stop trusting what you say. Send enough email bombs and you’ll produce someone who cringes when they see your name pop up on the screen. Yell enough and you’ll produce kids with a defensive crouch.

If you’re prone to sending angry emails or venting on social media, find a way to stop yourself. Get a system that checks your intentions. Here’s the decision I’ve made where corporate communication is concerned:  I will not send any emotion by email/ text/ Facebook message/ twitter that isn’t positive and affirming and I will not communicate negativity in public (which includes Facebook and twitter). It just doesn’t seem like a mature or healthy way to get a message across. If I have serious words to share, I will always do that in person. And always covered in prayer.

Ask more questions.  This ends up being a Kingdom-building habit. Far too late in life, I’ve learned that most of my frustration and miscommunication is a product of not asking enough questions before jumping to conclusions. Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings, but on God and His Kingdom. When I invest the time it takes to ask clarifying questions, seeking not so much “to be understood as to understand” (a prayer of St. Francis), I am reaching for God’s vision, God’s perspective, God’s Kingdom.

Finally, assume the best. In the absence of information, most folks assume the worst. That’s human nature. The nature of Christ, however, is to assume the best in others. In the absence of information, assume that those in your circles are doing the best they can, that they are not out to offend you, that they are working out their salvation daily just as you are. Give the people around you the benefit of the doubt and you’ll discover that the grace you give flows both ways.

By saying more, affirming more, blasting less and asking more questions before making assumptions, we develop a Kingdom perspective. I am convinced that healthy churches and organizations are built on a foundation of healthy communication. In a season when so much communication is destructive and negative, I challenge you to make it a priority to build an intentionally healthy system of communication that models grace, sensitivity and understanding.

 

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Blessed are the offensive, for they are like Jesus.

Maybe Jesus really is the One.  If he is, John the Baptist needs to know.

Sitting in prison (see Luke 7), it became John’s driving question.  Is this guy the one?  Either he is and is worth dying for, or he is a lunatic in which case we need to keep looking. Maybe find someone who ticks off fewer people.  John sends a few of his students to Jesus to ask the question.  Before anyone gets further down the road, they need fresh assurances.

Those disciples of John find Jesus and ask him who exactly he is and he says, “You tell John this. You tell him the blind see, the lame walk, people are hearing good news about the Kingdom of God for a change, and it is downright scandalous. And God bless the ones who are not offended by that.”

I love Jesus for that response. There he was, standing in the middle of a marketplace healing people and talking to people and loving people. And the whole time, he gets it that healing and preaching and doing the work of the Kingdom is probably offending more people than it is attracting. Jesus gets the irrationality of that. He gets the danger of it. Jesus gets the weirdness of it. Of how easy it is to heal someone and offend someone in the same breath. Maybe even the same person.

Jesus gets that sometimes people will do their very best and will give their all and will pour out their hearts and will still offend someone. Will offend someone they had no idea they were offending. Will offend someone they don’t even know … period. Because good news isn’t good for those who would rather not be whole.

Jesus gets it that in this life, there will be offense taken and hot air blown and houses battered. There will be battles fought in spiritual places and mean spirits coming after us, who plan to huff and puff and blow us down. You’d better have a strong foundation, Jesus says. You’d better make sure you dig down deep and build your house on the rock. Otherwise, you’ll be blown away by all those offended spirits.

Blessed is the one who is not offended by that. The odd one. The rare one. The crazy one.

And I want to thank Jesus for all the ways he so beautifully speaks directly into my life, just by the way he lived his. I want to thank him for all the things he gives me permission to feel and say and live. Thank you, Jesus, for telling me before I needed to know it that sometimes I will offend people just like you did. And that it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m offensive … at least not every time. It might simply mean that — like you — I unlatched a Kingdom gate when someone wasn’t ready to walk through it.

Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Blessed is Jesus. What a friend.

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From ego to awe

Developmentally, we are designed to move from ego to awe.

In our most immature state, our task is to figure out who we are as separate beings from our mothers. Our mental time is spent understanding our autonomy, which makes us highly self-conscious. As we develop, we move from self-consciousness to simple self-awareness — understanding our place within the context around us. From there we move to awareness, thinking less of self and more of our surroundings. At our most mature, we are self-forgetful as we practice the gift of awe — seeing the holy in and around every situation. From this place of awe — of worship — we have the most to offer the world.*

This is a map of spiritual maturity. This process of moving from self-consciousness to awareness of the world around us to a holy awareness of God’s presence is what Methodists might call sanctification. It is the process of “holy-fying” our thoughts and of becoming more intimately connected to God as we see him exposed in the world. He becomes our focus.

Of course, we don’t move in clean lines from immaturity to maturity. We all know adults who still relate to the world from a very self-conscious place — constantly self-referencing in conversations and tagging every moment with an internal question: “What’s in it for me?” This is the consumer’s question. “Where is God?” is the question of a giver — one who is other-focused. To advance from self-consciousness to worship requires to us to move from “What’s in it for me?” to “Where is God?” And this is a move many of us desperately need to make.

Our culture has trained us to be consumers. We tend to look at everything, even worship, as a “what’s in it for me?” proposition. The lie of this world is that we can consume our way to significance, but the truth is that material consumption only creates more emptiness. That question, “What’s in it for me?” only makes us want more.

Meanwhile, worship (or holy awe) leads to fulfillment. When we go vertical, we find life, even abundant life, according to Jesus (John 10:10). Tish Warren references the “abundant economy of worship.” It is the idea that worship is the one thing that never runs out. Start with everything else, and worship will get our leftovers. Start with worship and it will overflow and fill everything else with meaning and significance.

Worship asks one thing of us: It asks us to move from ego to awe. The pay-off for that shift is a life of abundance, a life overflowing in fullness and fruitfulness. When I make this shift from ego to awe — and only when I make this shift — I am rightly postured for the work of witnessing. David paints this poetically in Psalm 96. He begins this majestic hymn with worship: “Sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord, praise his name! Proclaim his salvation from day to day!”

David begins with worship before calling the reader in verse three to declare God’s glory — the same glory we’ve just personally experienced — to the nations. David teaches us that if we want to find God’s heart for the lost, we must begin by developing our own holy awe. We must see the glory for ourselves first. He calls us upward, inviting us to become so overwhelmed by the things of God that we can’t help but want to proclaim them among the nations.

When we cultivate a holy awe, our witness will flow out of our worship.

Steven Cole quotes John Piper, who begins one of his books on missions by saying, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man … The goal of missions is the gladness of the people in the greatness of God.”

Cole says worship is not just the goal of missions, but the basis for it. He says, “If we are not fervent worshipers of God, we have nothing to tell the nations. If we do not exude joy in God and His wonderful salvation, why should lost people be interested in what we have to say? So worship is both the goal of missions and the foundation for missions. If we’re not worshipers, we will be lousy witnesses.”

The rhythm of Psalm 96 moves us between worship and witness. Our worship propels us out “to the nations,” to places hungering to worship the one, true God. When we get there, we proclaim His glory and our witness inspires others to worship our God. And the rhythm continues. Worship leads to witness leads to worship. Holy rhythm.

All this is to say: Missions and evangelism are not a function of self-fulfillment or empathy. They don’t exist to satisfy our own deep longings (“What’s in it for me?”) or because we have connected with the suffering of others (“What is around me?”).

Missions and evangelism exist as the overflow of hearts engaged in the holy awe of a glorious God who is worthy to be praised.

What if you spent today practicing holy awe, forgetful of self and searching in every situation for the glory of God?

 

*I learned this from Dr. Marilyn Elliott, Vice-President of Community Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.

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You get what you look for (a primer on spiritual signs)

The gate of heaven is everywhere. – Thomas Merton

The story of God in the book of Mark ends with a one-liner that sums up the entire the book of Acts:  “They went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs” (Mk 16:20).

This in a nutshell is the story of the first-century church. People who believed in Jesus talked about him while Jesus worked on the people who believed, and God confirmed what was happening with signs that signaled the presence and direction in which he was headed.

It is a glorious dance. Witness. Sanctification. Signs. This is the pattern of productive discipleship.

What I learn from our first-century ancestors is that signs put us into the flow of God’s plan. The signs were not the message. They signaled the presence and direction of God and pointed people toward Kingdom work. They set followers on a course to do the will of the Father.

Signs, prophetic visions and dreams are ways God reveals his already-here presence.

Signs are not meant to tickle our spiritual fancy. They are not a conjuring up of God or even a way to change reality (though our openness to them certainly affects our direction). Signs show up where God is already at work. Their purpose is to extend faith, extend truth, or extend reach. As Henry Blackaby might say, signs are about looking for where God is at work so we can join him, about seeing past the temporal to something greater.

Are signs only for really spiritual people and messiahs? Not all all.

God shows things to people he loves and God loves us; therefore, he is likely to show us things so we will be encouraged to move more intentionally into the flow of his will. “Repent and believe, for the kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus said (Mk 1:15). “Do you have eyes but fail to see or ears but fail to hear?” (Mk 8:18)

In other words, if you are blind to signs of God’s presence, the problem is on the user-end of the equation. Signs of God’s in-breaking Kingdom are all around us, though most of us don’t bother developing the kind of eyes that see them. People who have no room for the supernatural in their lives may even be offended by the thought that God reveals himself in the world. But signs are not meant to offend and prophetic sight is not a fringe notion for the “weird ones.” It is central to the work of God. This is about getting a different way of looking at the world — a way that sees beyond the temporal into the eternal.

It is about seeing the world from the Kingdom down, rather than from the ground up. The kingdom is near; the gate of heaven is everywhere. Elisha discovered it on a hill as the angels surrounded the army that surrounded him. Jacob discovered it on a ladder climbed by angels.

“It is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach,” Moses told the people of Israel (Dt 30:11-14). “It is not up in Heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend to Heaven and get it for us? Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea and get it and proclaim it to us to we may obey it?’ No,” Moses writes, “the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” Or as Jesus said (Luke 17:21), “The Kingdom of God is not something to go searching for. It is in your midst” (or within you, or among you).

In Luke, chapter nine, there is a line that grabs my imagination and stirs me to look for that gate. Jesus has just been talking with his followers about the connection between his glory and our faith, and now he is heading up a mountain to pray with Peter, James and John. As he is praying, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appear in glorious splendor to talk with Jesus. They talk about his departure from this earth, among other things. Peter, James and John are sleepy but the story says that “when they became fully awake, they saw his glory” (Lk 9:32).

When they became fully awake, they saw his glory.”

I am both exposed and educated by that line. I recognize myself in the state of Jesus’ disciples. What must I be missing, because I am not fully awake? If I am not seeing God’s glory — if I am not seeing signs of in-breaking glory — is it because God’s glory is absent, or is it because (spiritually speaking) I am trodding through life half asleep?

Do you spend a lot of time doing a lot of really good things that may not at all be related to your God-given purpose? Are you so busy that you can’t see the eternal for the clutter of the good? Perhaps the answer is in praying for eyes to see what God has placed right in front of you.

The gate of heaven is everywhere. Ours is to live as if that is true.

 

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How to Read the Bible

The year I quit drinking, I got involved a Bible study. Not long into the experience, I was doing the daily assignment at my kitchen table and had an encounter with the Holy Spirit. One moment, I was reading a book and the next moment, the words seemed 3-D. The message was alive and I was being changed by it. That night, Jesus became the answer to my biggest questions, and the Bible became my Book.

St. Jerome has said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” I can attest to that. It was the scripture that led me into the presence of Jesus, and it was scripture that inspired me to take up faith enough to believe. Over these years of exploring it, studying it, preaching and teaching from it and being shaped by it, I have discovered a few key truths that have helped define and sharpen my relationship with God’s Word.

Remember that the Bible was created under the inspiration of the most creative being in the universe. Everything God creates has life in it, and everything he creates is truth (“In him, there is no darkness at all.”).  This means the Bible has a remarkable power to be present as truth in any situation.And because it is Living Word, it is the one book in the universe that has the ability to have a conversation with us.  It can speak a fresh word into my life wherever I am and it can be relevant, over and over again. That’s the power of Living Word and that power deserves my respect.

Consider every line of the Bible in light of the whole. Our worst mistake is treating lines and verses of scripture the way we treat fortune cookies. We like to grab onto catchy phrases and lines and apply them to our immediate circumstances without any thought for context (then post that catchy line on Facebook with a kitten in the background).

As Ben Witherington says, “A text without a context is a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” Understanding the overarching themes of the Bible and the settings in which portions were written is essential for right interpretation and application.  Taking the time to know this doesn’t lessen the power of the Bible for us; it deepens it.

The Bible is all true, but it isn’t whatever I want truth to be today so I can feel better about things.  An encounter the Living Word requires a more mature reading.

We can never say, honestly, that we’ve read the Bible. It would be like saying that because I have been to the beach, I’ve swum in the ocean. Or because I’ve googled a few things, I’ve done the Internet.  Maybe I’ve done a tiny bit of it, but I haven’t mastered the ocean or come to the end of the Internet. And in fact, can’t.

More and more, I’m convinced none of us has ever really read the Bible. We’ve read layers of it; we’ve absorbed bits of it. But the Bible as a whole is far deeper than one lifetime can absorb — far richer, far wiser, far more powerful than you or I could possibly imagine.

And yet, most of us have actually, literally never read the Bible. We say we believe it, but many of us treat it like the terms and conditions we agree to before we can access a website.  We click “yes” and we trust we’ve not signed on for anything preposterous, but we don’t know because we didn’t actually read anything.  For access to a website, that might be a risk worth taking but for a worldview and salvation, wouldn’t reading be worth the effort?

The richness of this Living Word, the wisdom of it, the glory of it, deserves not just my respect but my attention. And that’s why — like every year for the last twenty-five — I keep signing up for group life. I study the Bible with a few other folks who are hungry because in the presence of the Word of God, I am humbled. And as in every other year for the last twenty-five, I will come face to face once more with how little I know of this life and the world, and how desperate I am for truth.

The Bible is a grace and I thank God for it.

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Are you going on to perfection? (and other strange questions I said yes to)

Every United Methodist pastor since 1773 has answered nineteen historic questions as a way of agreeing to how we will live into this ministry life. I looked at these questions for the first time since ordination about this time last year and was deeply helped and encouraged by seeing them in light of nearly twenty years of ministry.

Maybe an annual evaluation of ministry in light of the questions I agreed to on day one is a good idea. Here is my take on what these questions mean for service in the Kingdom of God through the United Methodist Church:

1. Have you faith in Christ?

Faith in Christ is to believe who he himself claimed to be: the way, the truth and the life. He claimed to be the singular path to the heart of the Father and did not give us another option.

Methodists are not universalists. No one answering this question in the affirmative has a right to soften its meaning for convenience’ or conscience’ sake. Which is not to say a person doesn’t have a right to believe a universalist theology; they just don’t have a right to believe that and call themselves Methodist.

2. Are you going on to perfection?

Only inasmuch as Jesus has asked it of all of who follow him on the narrow road. This call to Christian perfection is a cry to be something more — more love, more joy, more peace, more Presence, more perfect. Not in the sense of gaining perfection on our own strength, but in the sense that in the fullness of the Holy Spirit we can find abundant life.

C. S. Lewis wrote,

“The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. [God] is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. … He meant what he said. Those who put themselves in His hands will become perfect, as He is perfect — perfect in love, wisdom, joy, beauty, and immortality.”

3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?

Methodists believe entire sanctification is the trajectory of authentic discipleship. The question is not whether we have reached it or even if we can. The question is, are our lives pointed in that direction? Sanctification is costly; it is, simply put, a call to die to self. But this question is also an invitation to freedom — freedom from mediocrity and the tyranny of tolerable. It is an invitation into the good life in its most vivid and faithful form.

4. Are you earnestly striving after it?

The repetition of this theme makes it all the more meaningful for Methodists, whose contribution to the Body of Christ is their commitment to sanctification. When you say you are going on to perfection, is this your intention? Will you be ruthlessly opposed to stagnation in your life with Christ, in your ministry, in your care of the Church?

This commitment to sanctification is ultimately a call to defeat the spirit of fear. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?

There is no such thing as “part-time” in church work (can I get an “amen”?). The work of Jesus isn’t meant to be carried out with our leftover time or leftover money. Jesus never gave us that option. He calls those who follow earnestly to take up crosses, to die to self.

6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church?

This question is particularly meaningful for this season in the UMC. It is good to be reminded that we follow a Book of Discipline, a set of standards that guide our life together. When we enter into connectional ministry, we stand before our peers and make a commitment to living by those standards. We need to be reminded that we were adults when we answered these questions. Living them out is a holy responsibility. Otherwise, what connects us?

7. Will you keep them?

Connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC. If, at our ordination, we answer this question in the affirmative, then are we not accountable for that? If not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way (and we ought to drop the question from the list). If we are, then whether we agree with every point or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside an agreed-upon set of expectations. And when we can’t, we have an obligation to find another tribe that more closely aligns with our values.

8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?

It has been erroneously said that the UMC is not a “creedal church.” How one could reach that conclusion after reading the Articles of Religion that introduce our Book of Discipline is beyond me. Here is our doctrine, clearly spelled out in twenty-five statements. Combined with our social principles, Wesley’s sermons and notes, and a denominational commitment to both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, we are far more doctrinal than not. Our uniqueness is in our emphasis on social holiness; doctrine without community and compassion is dead.

9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?

A world of people disagree with our Wesleyan theology on issues like predestination, the exclusive nature of Christ, the authority of the scripture, the leadership of women — just to name a few. Within our own tribe, there is quite the controversy over the interpretation of scripture where human sexuality is concerned. This question calls us to transparently examine our own minds and consciences and ask ourselves what we most deeply hold true before we commit to this tribe. Otherwise, we find ourselves too quickly frustrated with every disagreement on lesser things. The product of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is an anxious spirit. That doesn’t have to be.

10. Will you preach and maintain them?

Wesley called the church not merely to the letter of the law but to the spirit of it. “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? he wrote. “May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?

They don’t call us Methodist for nothin’. Our structure is designed to create community and it has done a remarkable job for 244 years. Bearing the weight of the world’s second largest mainline denomination proves its brilliance. This structure stood our church well from its fiery days of revival in early America to its current global membership of 12.5 million. I am not at all convinced, however, that our historic structure is designed to withstand our current diversity. It may well be that the lack of understanding of this structure has only exacerbated the strain. What we are sure of is that is was not built to withstand the pressure of pluralism.

12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?

Wesley’s practice of repetition in these questions reveals his understanding of human nature. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he dealt often ministers who were weak in the spiritual discipline of letting their yes be yes and their no be no. How much confusion is caused by well-meaning people who have not counted the cost before building the house?

13. Will you support and maintain them?

See above.

14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?

This is a commitment to the next generation. In every decision, in every investment of time and resources, is the spiritual care of the next generation being considered? Or merely the comfort of the present one?

15. Will you visit from house to house?

Will you know people personally? Will you do more than use them as volunteers? Will you die to self as you care for the souls of your people, counting them as precious (not just as “present”)? Will you set your phone down and sit and listen? Will you hear their failures through the filter of their stories? If you love Jesus, will you feed his sheep?

16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?

If you at any point in your life solemnly and publicly agreed to these nineteen questions and the principles beneath them, I challenge you to stop here and deeply consider whether or not you have kept faith with question #16. Have you? And if not, why?

Maybe Wesley chose to single out this spiritual discipline because it represents the deep end of a healthy list of practices he firmly believed would draw down the grace of God. Those who know how to fast will find the rest of our recommended works of piety and works of mercy much more do-able.

17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?

Wesley said, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing!”

18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?

When these questions are asked of ordinands in the opening pastor’s session of Annual Conference, this one always evokes a wave of titters throughout the audience. I suspect that is because many of us, years into ministry, continue to carry stressful debt in the form of student loans. We feel the tension between our tithes and our desires for comfort. We are all too aware that financial stress depletes us and keeps us from wholeheartedly going where Jesus sends. Those who fit that description would do well to heed Dave Ramsey’s challenge to go after a debt-free life with gazelle-like intensity. Nothing purifies motives like a life free from care for money.

19. Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

These are weighty commitments. They remind us that we are no longer our own. Our responsibility is to a community and our personal discipline breeds trust in that community.

Discipline breeds results. It is the foundation of effective ministry which is what we who serve this Church must hunger after.

In the most freeing of ways, Jesus knows us. He hears our hearts. We are passionate about the work of ministry, but our fierce loves and anxious thoughts and wounded hearts are only useful for the Kingdom as they are bridled and broken. Running rampant — no discipline, no boundaries, no direction, no limit, no guiding edges — we only hurt ourselves and others and lose all effectiveness as followers of Jesus.

So Lord, bridle us. For the sake of the Kingdom of God, bridle these servant-leaders in the UMC who long to lead the Body of Christ into the unhindered presence of Christ.

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I am small and God is big.

I am Adam’s child.

I am always stopped by the line in Genesis spoken by Adam when he is caught in his sin. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree and I ate.”  This is the creation-story equivalent of a child pointing to a sibling when a vase is broken.  Adam chooses, surely against better judgment, to deflect his own weakness by blaming his wife.  Like God wouldn’t notice the discrepancy here.  Like God won’t hold Adam accountable.  “Oh, well then … never mind.” 

Really, it is a profound line. It shows me, because I am Adam’s child, just how small I can be. How limited. How little I see of God’s presence and power. His plan.

And then there is that line in 1 Kings 15: 5. It is actually the second time mention is made in this book about David being a faithful man. But this time, the writer takes it to a level of laughability. He says, “David did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.”

Did you see that?

Except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.  It is said almost as an aside, a footnote, a detail. The rest of that story, of course, is that David killed Uriah the Hittite.  To hide the fact that he slept with Uriah’s wife.

Except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

What?

I’m stunned by this sentence. If Adam’s foolishness makes me realize how small I am, David’s foolishness makes me realize how big God is. Because David’s sin is real. It is big. The deal with Uriah the Hittite is at least twenty percent of the Big Ten, and that’s if we’re being generous. There is no doubt about David’s offense to the holiness of God.

And yet, buried deep in the history of God’s people is this revelation that causes me to come face to face with God’s perspective. God’s purposes will not be compromised; God’s grace is more profound still. God is big.

I am small and God is big.

And yet God cares what I do with my life.

Hallelujah.

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The rise of Methodism and fruit that lasts

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about how the Holy Spirit actually shows up. As I said in this post, I suspect much of what we attribute to the Holy Spirit is simply not within his character. Or we allow ourselves to be content with reports of the Spirit’s movement in other places, without doing the spiritual work to participate in what he is doing right here … right now. I cannot believe that all God’s mighty works are for other places and people. Can you?

In the midst of thinking and praying about this — asking the Lord to teach me more about how he actually moves — I discovered something about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, that strikes me as profound. In an article on the rise of Methodism Andrew Thompson writes,

“Ask your average Methodist what the turning point was in the history of the Methodist movement, and you’ll likely get the response that it was John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1738. It was there that Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and received the assurance of his salvation. Methodism couldn’t have grown and expanded in the years following had it not been for Wesley’s own encounter with Christ that fateful evening, right?”

Right … but

When Wesley himself reflected on what made his work so remarkably fruitful, Aldersgate is not what he referenced. Wesley remembered instead what he called “three rises” of Methodism. In writing about this, Thompson quotes Wesley’s own journal:

“On Monday, May 1, [1738,] our little society began in London. But it may be observed, the first rise of Methodism (so-called) was in November 1729, when four of us met together at Oxford: the second was at Savannah, in April 1736, when twenty or thirty persons met at my house: the last, was at London, on this day, when forty or fifty of us agreed to meet together every Wednesday evening, in order to a free conversation, begun and ended with singing and prayer. In all our steps we were greatly assisted by the advice and exhortations of Peter Boehler, an excellent young man, belonging to the society commonly called Moravians.”

The great revival that swept England then America was not rooted in a moment like Aldersgate, nor in the thousands who gathered in fields to hear him preach. No, Wesley credits the rise of Methodism with three meetings that gathered in homes over the course fifty years to press into the spiritual disciplines and pursue the heart of God.

Let that sink in.

A movement that shaped the face of contemporary Christianity began when a few men quietly began to meet together to hold one another accountable for the living out of their faith. The heart of those meetings was a series of questions that required participants to be honest about the state of their souls.

This was transparency before transparency was cool. 

The experiment in spiritual accountability was repeated over time in Wesley’s own life; then was replicated in living rooms, church houses and assembly halls across two continents. The upshot? By 1850 one in three American Christians was Methodist, and hundreds of thousands of people had come to Christ. Today, 900 million Pentecostals can trace their theological roots to Wesley’s Holy Club, along with another 70 million in various strains of Methodism.

THAT’S the fruit I’m looking for. I am looking for the kind of fruit that can’t be explained any other way than the power of God. In our churches and in The Church, I’m looking for fruit that will last. I am ready for those of us who follow Jesus faithfully to begin refusing anything less. If we are going to become hungry for genuine moves of the Spirit, we must stop feeding on snack food. We must stop calling warm moments and well-attended services what they are not, until we become so hungry that nothing short of the authentic will suffice.

And I suspect the greatest moves of the Holy Spirit are just as Jesus said they were — like mustard seeds or a little yeast. They begin in unassuming places, are fertilized by faith and discipline, and grow (perhaps quietly, perhaps not) into mighty movements that change people, change cultures, change the world. They are known by fruit that lasts and by fruit that far outstrips the effort. Maybe they are only known by the fruit they bear over time, even over generations. But they ARE known by their fruit.

That’s the point. Spirit-filled movements bear fruit that lasts. The Church of Jesus Christ must refuse anything less.

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When the Church Hurts (part three)

This post is part three in a three-part series of thoughts about dealing with conflict in the church.  In our first post, we looked at biblical stories that model healthy and redemptive responses to conflict. The second post began addressing practical ways to maturely deal with unresolved anger and conflict from a biblical place. In this post, we continue exploring ways to respond redemptively to conflict. Find the first three points in the second post

People come and go from churches, jobs and even their own homes for as many reasons as there are people. Some reasons are valid — a geographical move, or a family circumstance — but not all reasons are created equal. Some people simply misunderstand the nature of community or the work of the Body of Christ. Some of us are self-seeking and some of us are broken. We are easily wounded, easily distracted. Many of our decisions come not from what we know about ourselves, but from what we don’t know about ourselves.

The Church of Jesus Christ has a high bar to reach in its mission. It is here among us to offer the truth of Jesus Christ, freedom from sin and the fear of death, healing of wounds, and an authentic, loving, supportive community in which our new lives can be redeemed, healed, and shaped for significance.

Only in community can we become whole and healthy, everything we were designed to be. Christianity isn’t self-serving, nor can it happen in a vacuum. Community is essential, but communities are made of people — broken, wounded, in-process people — and because of that, conflict is inevitable. Hurt people hurt people. When that happens, the best recourse is repentance and reconciliation. The only way to learn how to live in healthy community is to live through the hard times.

But what about when leaving seems the healthiest option? In our last post, I offered three places to begin. Here are three more:

4. Offer peace.  “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Bitterness chokes the Holy Spirit’s ability to move, both in individuals and in the church. No matter what the cost to our pride, schedule or plans, we are called to make peace with anyone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt. If we explore every creative opportunity that might lead to healing, God will surely bless us.

Sometimes going back is the best way to move forward. If we are still angry with someone at another church, then perhaps God is calling us go back, offer forgiveness and get closure. Even if we don’t go back to stay, it is both wise and biblical to go back and make peace. In making amends, we discover that we don’t have to keep talking about the past because we’ve made peace with it. Take the challenge to make this step for the sake of the Body of Christ. Visit during the week or call. In some positive way, let the pastor and others know you are at peace so they can move on. Paul said this was the ministry of Jesus: “He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to you who were near, for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).

5. Write a note of blessing. After Paul split from Barnabas, he took time in another letter to defend the work of his brother in ministry. What a positive and grace-filled act! A written word of blessing can be such healing medicine. It can remind someone we’ve loved of the good times and of the ways they contributed to our faith. When we offer grace-filled and hopeful words in an email, text or note, we create open doors for future opportunities. After all, they may need us again one day … or we may need them!

Once we’ve learned to speak positively about the congregations we leave behind, we’ve prayed through our disappointments, we’ve offered forgiveness where it was needed and extended the hand of peace, now – and only now! – we are ready to commit fully to the ministry of a new congregation.

6. Make a solid commitment to your new church. Partial or uncommitted attendance in church is not healthy or helpful.

Let me say that again: Partial or uncommitted attendance in church is not healthy or helpful. It misses the point of authentic community, which is what the Body of Christ is designed to be. Simply put, you can’t be part of a community you’re not part of.

Likewise, bouncing between churches can send negative signals and create unneeded tension. Doing so implies that my feelings are the ones that matter most and that simply isn’t part of a healthy Christian worldview. We find healing in stepping outside ourselves and becoming fully a part of the work going on around us.

So dig in. Invest in the time it takes to understand the vision of a new community of faith. Every church is unique and has a unique place in the community. We recognize that what worked in another church may not be right for this new mission. God delights in doing new things, so we want to be open to new ideas and to discovering new spiritual gifts. We must bloom where we are planted. Then when we are given a place to serve, we can support that work wholeheartedly — with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness.

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