Don’t Sit Alone in Church (and other thoughts on corporate worship).

Here’s a lesson worth learning (for the story inspiring this thought, read here): God cares how we approach him in worship.

Meanwhile, a lot of what we American Christians spend our time thinking and worrying about  is first-world stuff. My friend in Nigeria tells me that Christians in his country wake up every day prepared to die while many in my country wake up frustrated by how slow the line at Starbucks is. We tend to judge churches by the quality of their donuts rather than the depth of their spirituality. Maybe this isn’t you … but you get my point.

Americans are truly graced by the options we have for worshiping together freely and without fear. It is a privilege we ought not take lightly. In that spirit, I want to challenge you to consider how you show up for worship and how you lean into it once you get there. Here are ten ways to lean in on Sunday mornings, so you’re all in as a full partner in building community among your people:

  1. Community is essential. Be in worship because we are not created to do this alone. And be a full participant when you get there because community is essential for discipleship and for rich and vibrant corporate worship. I believe the oncoming revival of the American Church will be its emphasis on partnership over presentation, each of us acting more like owners than renters of the space we take up in church.
  2. Leaning into community is a kindness toward your pastor. Everyone in the room participates more actively when every person participates. That means not sitting on the back row (which means leaving your rebellious spirit at the door). It means finding a few others to sit with so there is a sense of love and energy in the room. It means bringing your Bible and something to write on, and leaving your phone alone during worship (you know whether you’r actually looking at a Bible app or your facebook page …). All this is a kindness toward the one who has labored over a message, and who will stand up and look out on a crowd of people who speak volumes by their posture about the state of their hearts.
  3. Leaning in is a kindness toward your worship leaders. The mostly volunteer team that leads fully half of a worship service has worked hard to develop a set of songs to lead us into the presence of God. These folks give of themselves week after week, and through the discipline of leading worship they grow in their own spiritual lives. They want that for you, too. Get close enough to that fire to be warmed by it.
  4. Be a visual aid to newcomers. Show them what you want them to believe about your church, namely that you love each other. Don’t be under any illusion that where you sit doesn’t matter to a newcomer. I remember visiting a church some years ago, and thinking to myself as I walked in, “These people are angry with each other.” It was a large sanctuary, only half-full of people. As the congregation had dwindled, those who remained kept their usual seats. The effect was about five small pockets of people with huge gaps between them. I found out they were not at war with each other, but my first impression was that they were.
  5. Create energy. It is a fact that people sitting in close proximity to one another will create more energy than people sitting apart. For some reason, this is an uncomfortable barrier to cross when folks walk into a room, but if you can get people to sit together it creates great energy. And this is a way every single person in a church can participate in changing the spiritual atmosphere in worship. Just make it a point to sit with others. What could be simpler?
  6. Mess with the enemy’s plans. He’d rather you sit as far from each other as possible. If you can judge each other, even better. Separate the coals so the fire cools more quickly. May I also say very lovingly that if you are stubborn about it, that resistance may well be a gift to the enemy who loves a rebellious spirit.
  7. Don’t leave a single person lonely. Our church serves quite a few single adults, so I’m aware of their lifestyle challenges. Some have shared just how old it gets having to go places alone. Many confess chronic loneliness. It is hard going places alone, and even harder when you get there to sit awkwardly by yourself while others enjoy talking and catching up. A great gift you can give to another single person (whether you are single or married) is to sit next to someone sitting by themselves. Then get to know them.
  8. Be the Christian in the room. Christians love beyond good sense. Christians believe in the power of community. Christians show care and concern for those around them and for those on stage. Christians get outside themselves and think more of others than of themselves. Christians take time to know others and find out their needs. If you walk into a room, sit by yourself, and passively receive through the entire worship service, how will anyone know you’re a Christian?
  9. Be there for someone else, believing that one day they’ll be there for you. Sometimes we go to church for ourselves, and sometimes we show up for others. There are days I’d rather not go … and I’m the pastor! But I know that if I don’t show up, others will miss me.
  10. They call it corporate worship for a reason. Worship together, and let your praise be your witness.

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The difference between spiritual friendship and friendly conversation

Today, I give this space to Rev. Christopher Goss, who serves on our team at Mosaic as the Pastor of Worship Arts, Youth, and Young Adults. I can personally attest to Chris’s passion and pursuit of spiritual friendship. His words here are good wisdom for group and ministry leaders about the challenge to “go deep.”

A while back I saw a cute, satirical video called “Shallow Small Group.” It was a group of people gathered in someone’s home for what looked like a typical suburban church small group. As you would expect, the conversation was not very deep and there seemed to be a much greater focus on the presence of the cheese dip than the presence of the Lord. The tagline of the video is “Shallow Small Group, because when people go too deep they drown.” 

As a student and young adult pastor, I have been given the privilege of helping many young and mostly single people develop community in the church. I frequently think about the question, “What should make friendships in the church different and deeper than any other friendships?” Although there are many “right” answers to this question, the most fundamental answer must be that spiritual friendships are friendships that are, in the words of Paul, “in Christ.” 

This might be obvious, but it’s worth stating that spiritual friendships, in a Christian context, will most deeply flourish between Spirit-filled people. What seems to often go overlooked, however, is how developing your personal spiritual life gives you the opportunity to develop an incredibly rich social, spiritual life. Knowing that, how do we so often miss it?

Far too often we use what could be called an “external use of scripture.” For example, imagine you and I are in a small group that is doing a study on the Book of Romans. I skim through the study just enough to discuss what the author wrote.  Then I show up and make comments about what Paul actually meant by the word “predestination.” I like discussing theology so I would personally enjoy this conversation. If I’m not careful, however, I could learn a lot about predestination and virtually nothing about your personal spiritual life. Furthermore, by talking about “predestination” I could keep you from knowing much about my spiritual life. Worst of all, I could actually use a theological conversation to keep you from knowing that I truthfully don’t have much of a personal spiritual life. Is this spiritual friendship or a book study with some intellectual stimulation?

After our study, we might hang around and socialize a bit, but now its cool to talk about “whatever.” I’m from Georgia, so talking about “whatever” means its time to talk about UGA football. Suddenly I discover that I have a “connection” with some of the guys in the room that I did not have before. Please understand that I love football and enjoy a good conversation about the Dawgs, but this is not spiritual friendship. At this moment, I am having the same type of conversation in church that I could just as easily be having at a sports bar. 

(Not so) Side note: Tim Keller says, “Idols aren’t necessarily bad things. They can be good things that we make into ultimate things.” An idol is whatever we look to, other than God, to provide a sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment in our lives. What is almost always true, however, is that I will either get my sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment from God or I will inevitably search for it in another direction. That means I will either seek after God or I will seek after idols. There is no “neutral” gear in the spiritual life. 

What does that have to do with spiritual friendship? I might tell you, “I wish I had more time to spend in the word and in prayer.” But what I won’t tell you is that I would have that time if I spent less time on my ESPN app. Or that our conversation about the Dawgs might simply be encouraging our mutual idolatry. This unfortunately builds a friendship more rooted in a particular idolatry than “in Christ.” It is deceptive; because it happens in a church context it passes for “Christian fellowship” while sadly missing the mark of true discipleship. Does that mean we ought never talk about football at church? Nope. Just that I can spend a lot of time deflecting so I don’t have to confront my shallow faith or faltering disciplines. In other words, more time on cheese dip than the presence of the Lord.

So how does one build true spiritual friendships that give us the powerful intimacy for which we so deeply long? Here are a few thoughts:

Friendships that are “in Christ” are rooted in solid theology. That’s right, good friendships need good theology. Biblical friendship flows from the cross of Christ. That first and foremost proclaims we are all sinners in need of a savior. Biblical friendship believes “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and therefore it is ok to be honest about the fact that I am not ok. We need a theology that says conviction is a good thing because where there is no conviction there is no sanctification … that I’m still on the road to Christian perfection, but I am made right through the righteousness of Christ alone.

Mature, spiritual friendships are rooted in a theology that says we are beloved children of God. To be a child of God means we primarily get our spiritual “life” — love, joy, peace, and fulfillment — from God our Father. That means I am responsible for seeking out life-giving encounters with God — encounters that throughout church history have most reliably come through searching the scriptures and spending time in prayer. These encounters create a rich personal spiritual life that now make it possible to have an incredibly rich social spiritual life. 

Spiritual friendship requires a theology that says, “I’m not only saved from sin, I’m saved to a body of believers.” Like organs in the physical body, we are responsible for receiving life and then sending it on to others. We encourage our young adults to BYOSL (bring your own spiritual life). Bringing your own spiritual life means we seek God on our own and then share the fruits of that seeking with the community. We must be aware, however, that if we are not receiving our life from God, it is possible we are instead passing on the toxicity of our idolatry to those around us. 

By God’s grace, I pray you will build spiritual friendships, where you fearlessly talk about both your need for God’s redemptive grace and how God is powerfully providing that grace through the “means of grace.” As you bring your own spiritual life to your small group I believe you will have conversations that will be deep, intimate, and mature, and that will encourage you and others to grow in the art of holiness.  

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Praying Against the Spirit of Offense

I’m thinking about a dog we used to have. Opie had a serious vet phobia. Consequently, when it dawned on him that this “awesome trip in the car” was actually a “catastrophic trip to the vet,” his world collapsed. He always made it worse than it had to be. He’d have panic attacks and become hostile. Frankly, he made the experience a little embarrassing for the rest of us.

One time, the vet told me that my dog’s dramatics were likely for my benefit, to get my sympathy and convince me to flee the wrath to come. She suggested that maybe if I wasn’t with him he might not act like that. So the next time we went to the vet I handed him over as soon as we walked in the door. They took him back to some room where he was to be examined alone, without his mama.

Here’s what happened. I sat in the  waiting room with half a dozen strangers and their pets, listening to the closest thing I’ve ever heard to a scream coming out of a dog’s mouth. Over and over. Screaming. It sounded like something out of an African jungle or a horror movie. Because I knew that voice, had heard it on the way to lots of things Opie was averse to, I knew he wasn’t being tortured but the others didn’t know. I felt especially sad for the animals in the room who surely wondered what this meant for them when it was their turn. Everyone listened anxiously while I flipped through magazines pretending I had no clue whose poor animal it was.

Then the vet came out and said, “Mrs. Moore, here’s the thing. We haven’t actually been able to touch your dog yet.” All that screaming, and he hadn’t yet even been examined. Bless him.

My friends, can I say with all gentleness and respect that some of us have an inner Opie who is so sensitive, so overcome by the spirit of fear, that offense is the only operating principle inside of us? We feel attacked ten minutes before anything actually happens. We feel attacked even when we’re not being attacked.

The spirit of offense is a master at making mountains out of molehills, and will then convince us we are justified when we insist on climbing the mountain we’ve made. There is a shopping term for this: “post-purchase rationalization.” It is what happens when we buy things impulsively (think “Black Friday”) and then for the rest of the day justify the purchase to friends and family. “This case of 100 flyswatters at 75% off was the best deal ever!” We justify even when it is irrational. Or maybe particularly then. Which is why the very act of justification around issues of anger or offense ought to be a trigger for us to go looking for our truest motives.

Maybe its not them. Or not all them. Maybe it is us.

On this point, I am a chiefest of sinners. I justify my behavior even as I storm around, deeply offended by every sleight and even every rumor of a sleight. So I’m not alone in my offended state, I will even stir others up. I’m the master at spreading my anxiety around. I consistently neglect my own counsel: in the absence of information, assume others’ good intentions.

I don’t want to imply that nothing is ever what it seems. Some people have genuinely done us wrong. Some people have messed with us beyond good sense. Some people in our lives require good boundaries, not just for our sake but for theirs.

But sometimes we allow that spirit of offense to rally our inner Opie — this thing in us that is wounded and scared and believing the worst and who wants to convince us of lies that will keep us mired in offense. Meanwhile, the clear slant of scripture is always toward forgiveness, always toward grace. Walking in forgiveness by obedience over feeling will require us to silence the voice of our inner Opie. It will require a sober submission to Paul’s advice. “Inasmuch as it is up to you, live in peace.”

And sometimes, restoration begins not with two or three external witnesses but with the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. In his presence, we are invited to call out the spirit of offense and mute it so it no longer has power to speak its lie and spread its anxiety. In prayer, it is just that straightforward: “Jesus, please call out the spirit of offense that is wreaking havoc on my soul. Remove it from my life and take away all its power. Deal with me on this issue and help me place this moment into a Kingdom frame so that in my heart and behavior, I’m not jerked around by the enemy of my soul who is whispering in my ear what he’d rather me believe. Amen.”

If you’re anxious or dealing with anger today, make this prayer your first priority. Chances are, things are not what they seem. You will not die, even if there is pain involved in what’s ahead. And maybe, just maybe, there will be far less pain than the negative voices predict.

Listen: No one is helped by an Opie attitude that generates fear and dread when its only a trip to the vet.

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The Danger of Distraction (and how to find your holy “yes”)

I wonder if there has ever been a climate so ripe for distraction. So much information coming at us from every possible lit-up screen. We are distracted by social media, by our phones, by unwelcome relationships, by our phones, by intruding thoughts and lusts and wants and needs, by our phones … we are distracted.

Listening to a message by Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), I learned something about that word — distraction. In medieval times, there was a barbaric torture tactic called “drawing and quartering.” Each of a person’s four limbs were tied to four ropes, and each of those ropes was tied to four horses, who were then commanded to run in four different directions. It was a horrible practice.

Do you know what the French called it? Distraction.

When I saw that image and heard that term, I thought, “That’s it!” By making us rush to catch up, by keeping us in mental chaos, by luring us away from life-giving habits like what Methodists call the means of grace, by making us say yes to things we ought never say yes to, distractions rob us of rest and keep us from being formed into the likeness of Christ. No wonder one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-discipline. It is discipline that pulls the distracted parts of us back together.

We want to believe that the means of grace — or what you may know as spiritual disciplines — are for people who have too much time on their hands. Nothing could be further from the truth. Disciplines are precisely for people who have too much on their plate.

Listen: Who needs discipline when you’ve got nothing but time? Disciplines are not for people who have too much time; they for people who have too many distractions.

Let me say that again: Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions.

Disciplines bring the pulled-apart, conflicting parts of us back together again. They help us to live inside our limits so we don’t end up without enough energy to take a shower much less spend time resting in the Lord. They help us become mindful of our day-to-day decisions and how they feed into our spiritual goals. They encourage us to create life-giving habits.

Which of these disciplines sounds completely foreign to you? Which ones might be a source of life and restoration for you? (

  • Bible reading
  • prayer
  • meditation
  • worship
  • community life (including accountability)

These are classic disciplines that shape our thoughts and set the tone of our day. They give us courage to say “no” more often so we can say a holy “yes” to things that feed our life in Christ. After all, God calls us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, right? The means of grace are ways we can examine ourselves to see if we’re on that track. We know our lives are being shaped into the likeness of Christ when our conversation begins to be transformed by love and our reactions are filtered through the Holy Spirit. We know it is happening when our calendars aren’t so far beyond our limits that we can’t rest in the comfort that God’s got it.

Disciplines make busy people slow down enough to let their souls sink into Jesus. That’s where the real spiritual work is done — in the secret place, where deep calls to deep. Disciplines don’t promise to make our lives easier, but I can attest to this: they result in a kind of rest that pulls all the distracted, chaotic, directionless pieces of our lives together.

  • What are you sure of, and what doubts are creating spiritual anxiety?
  • What is pulling at you, and what distractions are keeping you from spiritual formation?
  • What does your calendar say about your life … and about how much you trust God?
  • How willing are you to make changes to your life not just for the sake of your own spiritual formation, but for the sake of others?

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Stop listening to the demon of regret (part two).

In a previous post, we explored the damage caused by the demon of regret. We noted that the mindset of regret can steal our peace by casting illusions, then making us believe we missed them. This fear of missing out is not of God, and the demon of regret is just that … a demon. Its sole purpose is discontent. It makes its living by speaking empty possibilities into our minds that don’t actually exist in reality, to paralyze us or at least keep us in a discontented space. This demon uses the tactic of comparison to distort what is real by comparing reality with something that doesn’t exist. Worse still, it creates a victim mentality by convincing us that circumstances beyond our control have stolen our ideal. It keeps us from owning our choices and embracing them, not as our plan B but as the reality we live in — a reality that a good and creative God can still make the most of.

Listen: When we fail to own our choices and live them out positively in partnership with the Holy Spirit, we not only miss out on the illusions we conjure up, but also on seeing God make the most of our reality. Regret keeps me from giving my whole heart, by tempting me to hold out hope for something that doesn’t actually exist as a possibility. What damage we can do to ourselves and our relationships when we refuse to live a wholehearted life!

Want to tackle the demon of regret? Think honestly about how you view your life choices now, and where you’re giving in to regret rather than owning your reality in partnership with God:

Don’t let the numbers fool you. One of the ways the enemy tempts us toward regret is by using numbers to taunt us. We look at our age and wonder, “How did I get here?” We feel time slipping by and wonder if we missed it on marriage, on children, on career, on health, on … name your time-bound regret. It makes sense that this would be the voice of the enemy and not the voice of God because while God is eternal, the enemy feels the rush of time. He knows that for him and all who follow him the end is coming. Eventually, he will be obliterated and Jesus wins (this is good news, folks!).

The enemy has a vested interest in convincing humans to feel that rush of time — to experience life not as heading toward the Kingdom but of slipping away and being lost. In the practical outworking of your life and thinking, the enemy of your soul wants you to deny the power and promise of eternal life. Toward that end, he will feed your anxiety over all you’ve “lost” by inviting you to give full expression to your doubts in a hopeful and endless future.

Listen: The antidote to regret is to remember it has not all passed us by. To the contrary, we just got started. We who follow Jesus have endless opportunities before us. If you want to stifle the voice of regret in your life, start practicing hope in an endless and joyful future, most of which will be lived out in the unhindered presence of Pure Love.

Don’t give in to shoulds and oughts. Naming possibilities is not always a bad thing. When we’re making big decisions, it is wise to pray through the possibilities to discern which options are most viable. What will lead us to God’s best? That question takes us down a very different path than regret. It feeds possibilities, not “shoulds” and “oughts.” Allowing the tyranny of “shoulds” and “oughts” to breed guilt for all we didn’t choose, or ought to choose (but don’t) will only breed regret, insecurity, fear and frustration.

Consider this: You are doing exactly what you’re capable of doing right now. If you could do more, you would. I’m not speaking to the sins in your life (because you can do better than drinking yourself to death, my friend). I’m talking about your honest efforts at parenting/working/living. You may not be happy about your pace/progress/proficiency — there may be room for growth in any of those areas — but given your reality, you’re doing what you can and God is aware of that fact. You can stop feeling guilty for not being perfect. Isn’t that a glorious freedom?

Consider the possibility that the best you can do is good enough. What we have is what we actually have, and what we choose is what we are capable of choosing. To the extent that we live under the illusion that we have access to some other reality or to an ideal we are being denied, we will live with regret and never embrace what we actually have or better yet, what God can make of it.

Let me say again that this doesn’t mean that our bad choices and sins are the best we can do. We’re all about sanctification — going on to perfection. What I’m saying is that the best way to make progress is not by passively regretting all the opportunities we missed or fretting about worst-case scenarios.

This life is not all one big test. Jesus told us he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. That promise was not predicated on getting every choice perfectly right. That promise was and is predicated on grace. Jesus came to cover the gap between the best we can do and God’s best for us. His purpose for us is love, joy, peace and all the other signs of the Spirit. His desire for us is freedom from guilt, shame, and sin.

Which is all to say that God is not some cosmic hall monitor in the sky, taking names and handing them over to the demons that make us unhappy. God is not there to punish but to save and set free (he said so himself). God loves you. God desires greatness for you. And God is capable of taking the best you can do and making it beautiful.

My friends, please don’t feed the demon of regret. Conquer it, and then give yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord of Life and the Prince of Peace.

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Stop listening to the demon of regret (part one).

FoMO is a social media-induced acronym that popped up a few years ago. A Time article defines FoMO (fear of missing out) as ‘‘the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out – that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.’’ Social media has amped up this anxiety disorder by giving us constant exposure to everyone else’s “best life now.” We become anxious by reading everyone else’s awesomeness. We give in to the fear that somehow we’ve missed it (or will) if we don’t get on the stick.

FoMO is a more recent label for an ancient soul-sickness: regret. Regret cultivates a perspective that views our current reality or history from a disappointed place. Or worse, it distorts our view of the future, so that as we gaze down the road we are already disappointed or fearful of being disappointed before we even step out. That way of thinking depends on believing other options or better options exist, when in fact they don’t. Do you see how damaging that is? I’m not talking about a fatalistic worldview that prescribes a life out of our control. I’m talking about a mindset that frustrates us by constantly churning up options we never had access to in the first place. I’m talking about a mindset that makes the best we could do not good enough. And that makes us feel like victims.

In a Psychology Today article, the author writes,

The truth is, there’s no reality existing somewhere else that says, “Darn, you’re not going to get to join us over here in the happy life, where you could have ended up if you had made the right choice and picked the other path.” That other, imagined happy life is and has always been just a thought. The particular reality that would have come, had we made the other choice, never was and never will be our reality. 

Can you hear how the mindset of regret can steal our peace by casting illusions, then making us believe we missed them? The fear of missing out is not of God, and the demon of regret is just that … a demon. Its sole purpose is discontent. It makes its living by speaking empty possibilities into our minds that don’t actually exist in reality, to paralyze us or at least keep us in a discontented space. This demon uses the tactic of comparison to distort what is real by comparing reality with something that doesn’t exist. Worse still, it creates a victim mentality by convincing us that circumstances beyond our control have stolen our ideal. It keeps us from owning our choices and embracing them, not as our plan B but as the reality we live in — a reality that a good and creative God can still make the most of.

Listen: When we fail to own our choices and live them out positively in partnership with the Holy Spirit, we not only miss out on the illusions we conjure up, but also on seeing God make the most of our reality.

And as I think of all the ways regret can steal my joy, here’s what really breaks me: Regret keeps me from giving my whole heart. To the extent that I live with regret or the fear of it, I will hold my heart and my hopes out for an imaginary “better.” I will  externalize my discontent (“I never got what I deserve.”), feed my self-pity, and cause folks around me to also feel the frustration of never quite measuring up (after all, they live inside my world of regret).

The demon of regret has one goal: to get me to hold back from wholehearted love, surrender, devotion, commitment. And that’s why I’m convinced that a pattern of regret is not of God. It is a mindset that needs healing. If you find yourself wasting mental energy on the things that could have been, or on the better choices you could have made but didn’t (keep in mind that I’m not talking about willful sin here, but about your honest, best, if imperfect efforts), or on all the reasons this path you’re on is unsatisfying, I want to encourage you to consider that maybe you’re feeding into a demon intent on your discouragement. Journal your thoughts. Seek God’s healing. Ask him to open your mind to possibilities over regrets. Confess regret as a brokenness you’re living out of and ask God to transform your mind. Ask him to help you own your reality, so you can stop living in regret over your past or your future.

Regret is a lie. Meanwhile, the most creative Being in the universe stands ready to offer you an abundant life that doesn’t depend on your circumstances, but on His presence in the midst of them.

In the next post, we will look at three common areas where we tend to let regret have a voice in our lives.

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Transformation: when Jesus gets hold of us

Today’s post is a celebration of lives transformed, as we at Mosaic also celebrate the opening of a new building and the expansion of several key ministries, including The Mosaic Center, which focuses on employment, education and empowerment of those who live with disability. Thanks for supporting us as we figure out together what it means to BE the Church. Watch, and be inspired.

 

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The Mission of a Methodist: Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World

“The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This is the mission of United Methodists — to make disciples, as Dr. Robert Mulholland would say, “for the sake of others.” To make disciples is more than getting people saved, though that is obviously a critical beginning. The heart of Methodism is not social justice or creation care, though those things matter. It is much more than hosting attractive worship experiences. Our mission is to care for the spiritual formation of people at the deepest levels, so that their personal transformation results in the transformation of the world.

Spiritual formation is intentional transformation. It is God’s intent that we grow. Spiritual formation is growth that happens on purpose. Do Methodists today understand that our theological bent calls us to go someplace spiritually, to be formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ? Do we understand that we are making disciples of Jesus? Are we fostering spiritual hunger for Christ alone?

Spiritual formation is a matter of the heart. The place where the shaping or forming happens is the heart. In the Bible, we hear these almost bizarre (for our contemporary ears) statements about God wanting to circumcise our hearts. The point is that God wants to change the shape of us. He wants to conform us into the image of Jesus — to make us more loving, more gentle, more joyful, more peaceful, more gracious, more faithful, more trusting … more disciplined. At its core, Methodism is about using spiritual discipline to be shaped into the character of Christ. Do we preach as if that’s so? Are we people of one Book, a book designed to shape us into Kingdom-minded people?

Spiritual formation happens for the sake of others. Methodism is designed to be both evangelistic and global. We do not apologize for our belief in the radical notion that our brand of faith has power to change the world. Further, God’s intent is not just to form each of us spiritually, but to make us partners in the work of transforming the world. Nothing less, nothing else. Do our people have a global vision, or are we stuck on our own cultural values, unable to see how God is moving in other parts of the world? Do we truly believe ourselves to be globally connected to each other by the power of the Holy Spirit?

Spiritual formation is fueled by spiritual discipline. As I’ve said already, Methodists major on the disciplines. It is our contribution to the Body of Christ — this idea that through very practical habits, we can form an intimate relationship with Christ even as he forms us into his likeness. The means of grace are not the basis of our salvation (don’t mistake them for works righteousness), but they are a gift of God that allows us to participate in the process of our ongoing spiritual growth. In our chaotic and distracted world, spiritual disciplines like fasting and prayer may seem arcane; we want to discount them because we are already too busy doing things for Jesus. But are we busy enough doing things that place us in the presence of Jesus? Are we learning to hear his voice? Are we practicing that art daily, so that hearing from God becomes more and more part of our cultural distinctive?

As it turns out, disciplines are not for people who have too much time on their hands, but for people exactly like us. Busy, distracted people. Do Methodists understand that it is in our DNA to be deeply, intimately, passionately connected to Christ, and that our spiritual practices are designed to help us hear the voice of God?

I suspect that the political discussions within the UMC have distracted the corporate body and kept us from being on mission. I suspect they have distracted us personally (note: hand-wringing is not a spiritual discipline). For the proliferation of politics within our tribe, we have lost sight of what is most central to our existence: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I want to call Methodists to return to the fundamentals. I want to see Methodists passionate again about centering on Jesus and on the disciplines that keep us grounded, particularly steeping ourselves in prayer and the scriptures. I want to see a move of the Holy Spirit in our day that transcends cultural conversations and revives our corporate/global spirit. I envision a move of personal prayer, fasting, scripture study and corporate accountability that restores our hunger for our mission. Yes, I want to see us loving our neighbors well, but I want to see those acts of love and kindness rooted in our passion for what breaks God’s heart, not as an escape from it.

I pray for a great move of the Holy Spirit to sweep among us as we get serious again about working out our salvation with fear and trembling. I pray that by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the mission of Methodists would be advanced toward its completion on the power of its people’s faith, so that one day we can all stand together in his unhindered presence with nothing left to do but worship.

If we are going to fulfill our mission as Methodists — to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — our greatest work is that of taking our spiritual formation seriously, not just for the sake of our own souls but for the sake of others … that the world might know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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What Wesleyans believe about “once saved always saved”

“We who have believed enter that rest.” — Hebrews 4:3

You never know when you might need to defend your position on the theology around the phrase, “once saved, always saved.” It happened to me a week or so ago while I was purchasing a couple of things from a small-town boutique. The woman behind the counter shared that her mother was a preacher, that for years she preached in a holiness church until becoming a Baptist. She changed theological streams because she couldn’t make herself believe in the Wesleyan doctrine of free will to the extent that it allows us to actually lose touch with our salvation.

Since I live in the birthplace of the Southern Baptist Convention, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation. I’ve come to suspect there is a gross misunderstanding of how Wesleyans approach free will and salvation. Often, it is made to sound as if it is God’s choice to drop us whenever he feels like it. “Mess up on Facebook? You’re fired!” “Yell at your dog? You’re not saved any more.”

That take on the gift of free will misses the mark by a wide margin. Free will is not God’s prerogative to exercise; it is ours. We are the ones who place ourselves in jeopardy of moving beyond His presence, though even that isn’t as easy to do as we make it sound.

Think of it like a parent holding a child’s hand as they walk across a busy street. The parent’s whole desire in that moment is to get her child safely across that street. That parent isn’t making decisions while they walk about whether or not she really likes that child, or whether this parenting thing is worth it. No! All that parent is thinking is, “Let me keep my child safe.”

Now, suppose this parent has a particularly strong-willed and active kid who is easily distracted. Is she going to hold on more loosely or more tightly to that little one? More tightly, of course! But suppose that active and strong-willed child sees a quarter laying in the street just up the way, something shiny enough to get his attention and valuable enough to make him want it. The child begs his mother to let him go after that shiny thing, but she says no. She realizes the danger of loitering too long in traffic. She knows the destination is the other side — not shiny, distracting things. Her sole intent is to get them both safely across; she is not about to let him go.

The child, however, is relentless. The more he watches the shiny thing, the more sure he is that it is worth the escape so when he sees a split-second of opportunity, he wrenches his hand out of his mother’s and darts into traffic. Now he is out from under the cover of his parent’s care, not by her choice but his.

Did the mama let him go? Did she want him to do that? Did she cause him to do that? Absolutely not. The intention of the parent at every point was to get her child through the traffic safely. The intention of the child when they stepped off the curb together and headed into traffic was to go where his mother led him. But that desire only took him so far. Having held onto a predisposition toward shiny things for too long into the journey has kept him from being completely surrendered to his parent’s plan.

And that is how Wesleyans view salvation. God gives it, but we have to accept it. By the same token, God walks us through the journey of salvation, inviting us to work it out daily with fear and trembling, but at every point on the way we must make the choice to keep our hand in His. This is the responsibility we bear for the gift of free will.

So what about that “blessed assurance” we always sing about? Is it so blessed after all? Is there really any assurance? Absolutely! Assurance is not the promise that once you say yes to God, you’ve got it easy. That promise is given to no one, believer or not. Assurance is the promise that with your submission and surrender, God will get you safely through the traffic to the other side. Our decision to simply rest our hand in His — to submit to His will. That is all that’s required, and that is only a struggle if we choose it to be.

And that, brothers and sisters, ought to create a deep well of rest within your soul and mine. Because if I believe God is good, God is for me, and God will see me through to the other side, then the rest is details.

Listen: The biblical meaning of rest is not a cure for exhaustion but a pathway to assurance.* When we are in sync with God, assured of his character and presence, willing to let him carry us safely across the chasm, we rest.

Blessed assurance, indeed.

 

*I recently heard it put this way: The cure for exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness (Brother Rast). I think we’re saying the same thing. When your whole heart is for God, when you are undivided in your devotion, you will be able to rest completely in his care and cover.

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Real Prayers for Real People

I didn’t immediately fall in love with the psalms. I found them to be hard to understand and a little dusty. Then some hard things happened in my life and I landed on a few psalms that became prayers when I didn’t know what to pray. When my mother died, Psalm 42 became my lifeline. Psalm 116 was my testimony in a season when things got bad then got better. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to find the profound assurances embedded in Psalm 23.

The psalms challenge us to pray as if God is real. These ancient prayers give us a fresh vocabulary for prayer. In the library we call the Bible, The Book of Psalms is the prayer book and as examples of how faithful people have prayed through the ages, they can help us all find a better prayer life. Here, we find the all-too-human wrestlings of David (who wrote many, but not all, the psalms), a man after God’s heart. We hear honest cries for help and deep, worshipful devotion. We get the full spectrum of emotions, not the least of which is anger. I’ve never had the guts to ask God to kill someone else’s child, but it is in there — an assurance that God can handle it even when we are broken, raging or irrational.

What we don’t hear in David’s conversations with God is anything remotely rote. No recitations. No empty wish lists. No shallow musings. No generalized litanies of what we vaguely hope for the world. David Thomas, in his teaching on travailing prayer, writes, “The Bible seems utterly unfamiliar with casual prayer, prayer of the mouth and not of the heart.” In this, the psalms resonate.

The psalms are real prayers for real people. They challenge us to think deeply and honestly and give us permission to cry out, to feel, to get close, to give our whole heart, to be rough around the edges, and even to be wrong-headed and stubborn.

But real. Always real.

In Lynn Anderson’s book, They Smell Like Sheep, the author offers several practical tips for those who want to learn how pray the Psalms.

  • Choose a psalm to focus on. If you don’t know where to start, try googling your feelings — i,e, “psalm for anger” or “psalm for discouragement.” The psalms are so well researched and commented on that you’ll likely find several articles or references that send you to a starting point. Don’t get sidetracked with the article; go to the psalm.
  • Read it through aloud — slowly and thoughtfully — to get its sense. Make it interactive. Reading scripture aloud can make a huge difference in how you hear it.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the first person (as your own prayer for yourself). Don’t hurry. Wallow in it. Savor it. Mean it. Feel free to stop here and journal what is revealed, or make notes in the margins.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the second person, as an intercessory prayer on behalf of some other person.
  • Stay there until God shows up. I realize this isn’t great theology. Of course, it isn’t God who doesn’t show up, but us. But from an experiential place, we can admit that when we don’t have patience for the waiting it can feel as if God is nowhere to be found. It isn’t that he doesn’t show up, but that we refuse him entry by rushing too quickly past the moment.
  • Don’t end your prayer when the psalm ends. Let this psalm springboard you into the rest of your day’s prayers for current issues and persons that the psalm has brought to your heart. Let the psalm shape the day’s prayer list.

Even if it isn’t theologically accurate to say it this way, I stand by this good advice: Stay there until God shows up. If he doesn’t show up immediately, he will show up eventually. How do I know? He promised!

Stay in the place of prayer. Jesus himself said the fruit of an abundant life is in the abiding. May you find your stride, your purpose, your anchoring and your fruitfulness in that place of abiding, travailing, real prayer.

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