Triggers, Urge-surfing and the God Who Heals Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ELCA: foreshadowing a UMC future?

In the United Methodist Church these days, it is all about “the plans.” Three have been recommended by the Commission on a Way Forward. I note them here for reference, with reflections beneath about another denomination’s experience with their version of the One Church Plan:

The Traditionalist Plan: This plan maintains language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, and provides a gracious (but as-yet undefined) exit for those who cannot in good conscience abide by that language. Those who support this plan are often accused of being schismatic for their unwillingness to bend on what they would call core theological convictions — convictions written into the Book of Discipline and which traditionalists and progressives alike committed to at their ordination.

The One Church Plan: This plan removes language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, leaving it to churches to determine what their guidelines will be on issues like membership, marriage of same-sex couples, or ordination of LGBTQ persons. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan, presumably because it allows churches, members and pastors to choose their theology. The lack of a gracious exit reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to have deeply held convictions about the Bible, holiness, marriage and the nature of discipleship. It requires those convictions to submit to the cause of institutional preservation.

The Connectional Conference Plan: This plan corrals United Methodists into three main “camps” — traditionalist, centrist and progressive. These three camps would share affiliated services while being otherwise autonomous though governed by one Council of Bishops. There is no gracious exist attached to this plan, though it also requires a fundamental shift in understanding about what it means to hold core theological convictions. What the One Church Plan requires of laypersons and clergy, the Connectional Conference Plan requires of bishops, requiring them to set aside personal conviction for the sake of institutional preservation.

The One Church and Connectional Conference Plans — by their lack of exit ramp and the assumption that preservation trumps personal conviction — reveal the depth of our divide in the United Methodist Church, a divide that ought to be respected because it refuses to be minimized. Other denominations have proven the power of this kind of theological divide.

A colleague and friend, Reverend Dave Keener, witnessed this firsthand during the similar crisis in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Reflecting on the eventual division in the ELCA and its similarities to the current crisis in the UMC, Reverend Keener notes that something similar to the One Church Plan (OCP) was adopted by the ELCA in 2009. “The term they used was ‘bound conscience,’” he writes. “The assembly was assured that the theological and biblical positions of traditionalists and progressives alike would be respected. This did not happen.”

Soon after the vote it became clear to the traditionalists that there was in reality only one acceptable position and it wasn’t theirs. Since the the decisions of 2009 the ELCA has intentionally become more progressive and the traditionalists who remain in that denomination have been marginalized (most exited at the height of the crisis, forming the North American Lutheran Church, or NALC).

It may be helpful to take note of what happened within the ELCA in the aftermath of their adoption of a plan similar to the OCP. These reflections come from my Lutheran colleague:

  • Massive loss in membership. In the seven years after the decision to go against the historic teaching of the church the ELCA lost over one million members. They continue to decline but have not released numbers since 2016.
  • Massive loss of income. In the first few years after the vote the ELCA was forced to lay off hundreds of workers and experienced significant decreases in all areas of funding. Their current income for denominational expenses is less than it was in 1987, the year it was organized.
  • Global impact. Many churches in other parts of the world broke off formal ties with the ELCA — especially in Africa and the East.
  • Loss of confessional identity and loyalty.  It was no longer possible for local pastors to recommend that members who were relocating find an ELCA congregation since there was no longer unity in biblical teaching.
  • Theological education. Since the vote the ELCA has slowly purged itself of orthodox seminary professors. They have had to merge two of their seminaries for financial reasons and have removed one seminary president at the urging of progressive advocacy groups.
  • Diversity. One of the battle cries for the ELCA in making their decision was diversity, inclusion and welcoming. Ironically, according to a Pew research study last year the ELCA is now the second least diverse and multicultural denomination in the USA (96% white). The least diverse is the National Baptist Convention which is 99% African American.
  • Theological drift because of lack of accountability. Since the 2009 decision the denomination has continued to drift. With it’s decision the ELCA lost its ability to speak credibly to any issue. In saying that it doesn’t really matter what the Bible clearly states they reduce it to one resource among many and not God’s revelation to His people. Everything becomes a matter of opinion and soon the scripture has no authority for life. Congregations preaching various forms of universalism are becoming more and more common.
  • Generational impact. This article explains how quickly theology can drift in just one generation, once the theological core of a tribe has been removed.
  • Evangelism and discipleship. See point #1 for stats on loss of membership and attendance. As my friend notes, “Once biblical authority and historical teachings are removed, universalism and cheap grace are not far behind” … and neither breeds evangelistic urgency.

We owe it to ourselves and the thirteen million who call themselves United Methodist to learn from our brothers and sisters in other tribes who have may have tried too hard to hold together what isn’t theologically compatible. May God give us both grace and humility to go where he leads and to refuse the spirit of fear.

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The character of a Methodist

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

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

What does it mean to be Methodist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Approving polity: Questions for United Methodists in a Pensive Season

(Following is an excerpt from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The book addresses each of the nineteen questions asked of United Methodist ordinands since the days of John Wesley. This reflection is based on question #12: “Do you approve our Church government and polity?”)

Hannah Whitehall Smith says it is our nature to rebel against laws that are outside of us, but we embrace that which springs up from within. And it is true, isn’t it? We always like our own ideas better than other people’s ideas. God knows this about us, so his way of working in us is to get possession of us so he can make his ideas our ideas. This is why Paul could say with confidence, “Christ in you is the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27, italics mine). Without the indwelling Christ, we are just another human being who knows the rules.

That difference between head-level rules and heart-level rules is the difference between life and death in ministry. Just as knowing the law but not owning it was death for the Israelites, so too it is death for us. We are designed for a “religion of the heart” (Wesley, Thoughts Upon Methodism). There is something to be said for signing on at the heart level, for embracing first our theology, then our polity, and allowing them to shape us from the inside out. We may not approve of every “jot and tittle,” but we can affirm the spirit of our tribe. In fact we should affirm this spirit, if we are going to be part of this connection.

Let’s be honest. No job is everything we love and nothing we don’t. Every job has its plusses and minuses. I didn’t come into United Methodist ministry because I fell in love with its discipline and polity. I came into the ministry because I love Jesus, and I sense that within the UMC’s system of connection and covenant I can serve him well. I complain with the best of them about Charge Conference and end-of-year reporting, but I manage to accomplish those tasks because they are part of a bigger ministry life I love dearly. I love healing prayer and preaching and the stunning miracle of seeing someone embrace Christ. I love seeing people get filled with the Holy Spirit. I love the countless hours spent listening and praying, and I love thinking strategically about how to extend this work as far as possible. At its best, United Methodist polity and discipline serves these other causes well. I am well aware that polity is not a matter of salvation, but I know that supporting and maintaining it is the only way our connection and covenant will function. If we all pick and choose which parts we like and which we don’t, it won’t work. Anarchy ensues.

Wesley’s practice of repetition in these [19] questions reveals his understanding of human nature. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he dealt often with 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, who have signed on without letting the spirit of our tribe sink into their bones? Can I say this with complete respect and love? You don’t get to decide what it means to be United Methodist. That has already been determined. Any decision to change that must go through proper channels, covered with massive amounts of prayer. Do you approve that? Can you approve the spirit of our discipline and polity while maintaining a generous heart?

Obviously, I made it out of seminary with a degree because here I am as a pastor. To my absolute surprise, I found myself back in school a few years ago completing a doctorate. In our first session together, my doctoral cohort tackled a ropes course. One of our challenges was a two-wire exercise. The wires, about three feet above ground, were stretched between two trees. As they traveled from one tree to the other, they gradually spread apart from each other. One person balanced on one wire and a partner balanced on the other wire. Our task was to lean into one another while we slowly scooted down the wires, even as they spread further and further apart. The trick was to lean equally on each other (remember that) as counter-weights to hold each other up. It won’t work if one leans and the other doesn’t, so we both had to lean in and surrender all our weight.

We discovered through trial and error that the best way for two people to scoot down the wire was to listen to each other. We would ask, “What do you need? What does this look like from your perspective? How can I help?” Without verbalizing it, it was hard to know the other person’s challenge in that moment. Our teammates on the ground were also there to tell us what we couldn’t see. They would say things like, “Straighten up! Push in!” And I’d think, “I AM pushing in!” when evidently I wasn’t. It was almost impossible when I was wobbling on that wire to know my own position. It took all of us working together to get two of us from one tree to the other.

The moral of the story, of course, is that we need each other. This is the point of our connectional system. It is designed for people who trust each other enough to lean in. But it only works if everyone leans in. It won’t work if one leans and another doesn’t. The key to the whole system is vulnerability. It is in keeping my heart soft toward the people God places in my path so that they become the priority rather than the institution. The clearest way I’ve seen to maintain vulnerability is to speak honestly out of my own experience — even my own brokenness. The guy who said, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” got a mention in the most-read book of all time (John 9:25). The guy who said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” is my favorite unnamed person in the Bible (Mark 9:24). Both displayed the heart of flesh necessary for spiritual connection to happen.

As you make your own personal inventory of what you believe about our polity and discipline, ask yourself if you are sufficiently healed and whole to lean in — to give yourself wholeheartedly to a connection of Christ-followers who are bent on spreading “scriptural holiness over the land” (Wesley, Large Minutes). This is the great need. It is for people ready to partner in both covenant and connection for the sake of a lost and hurting world.

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Youth is an idol (and other dangerous things to say in this day and age).

Maybe you heard the story about a gang of teenage elephants who went on a killing spree. The elephants were all male, all orphaned, transferred to a game park with no adult elephants in residence. Without adults in the mix, the teenage elephants  matured sexually far too soon. They became hostile, especially toward other species. Wardens found dead rhinos on the reserve and suspected the elephants. When a game warden went after one of them, he was killed. Desperate for a solution, someone suggested placing an adult elephant in the park — an elephant over 40. It worked. Literally overnight, the killing stopped.

The moral of the story? Sometimes you need an old guy in the mix to restore sanity. 

Our culture places a premium on youth, but what if the culture has it wrong? What if God has designed the generations, not to compete or to place a preference on youth, but to need each other? What if the value of one age depends on what is poured in by the generation before?

A blog posted earlier this year by Sam Eaton quotes these statistics:

  • Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile (an all-time low).
  • 59 percent of millennials raised in a church have dropped out.
  • 35 percent of millennials have an anti-church stance, believing the church does more harm than good.
  • Millennials are the least likely age group of anyone to attend church (by far).

Eaton goes on to list nine reasons why he believes these statistics are our reality and perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t touch on the notion that church isn’t “relevant” enough. Instead, he challenges the church toward more authentic leadership and relationship, and less companyspeak. His ninth reason sums it up: “People in their 20s and 30s are making the biggest decisions of their entire lives: career, education, relationships, marriage, sex, finances, children, purpose, chemicals, body image. We need someone consistently speaking truth into every single one of those areas.”

In other words, from the pen of a millennial, the elephants have it right. Eaton goes on,

“Millennials crave relationship, to have someone walking beside them through the muck. We are the generation with the highest ever percentage of fatherless homes. We’re looking for mentors who are authentically invested in our lives and our future. If we don’t have real people who actually care about us, why not just listen to a sermon from [on] the couch (with the ecstasy of donuts and sweatpants)?”

The message I get from this word is that the key to vibrant, life-giving ministries is not a preference for youth but an investment in intergenerational relationships. If you want your church to have the vitality and influence of young minds, young faith, young energy, and young joy, then invest spiritually mature adults with a passion for pouring into young lives. Give spiritually mature adults a vision for seeing their age as a calling. In fact, I’d argue that this is the greatest gift of eldership: it is in shepherding the next generation. Elders must learn to listen and shape and young adults must be bold in seeking out older adults who can shape them.

Christopher Goss (student pastor at Mosaic and a millennial himself) says that while the culture tends to idolize youth, the Kingdom values generational thinking. Here is his advice to adults and students alike:

“Choose a life path that allows growing old to be synonymous to growing wise. Taking your discipleship seriously every day is like filling your heart with more and more treasure that you are able to give away. Jesus talked about teachers of the law who had come into the kingdom were like owners of a house who bring out treasures that are old as well as new. If this is your focus there can be a joy in growing older, instead of a fear of losing your physical beauty or losing the “good ol days.”

That advice is supported in the scriptures. After King David died — whose lineage brought God’s Messiah to earth — his son Solomon took over the throne of Israel, married an Egyptian woman and began to rule. One day, God appeared to Solomon and said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon answered by telling God how good he’d been to his family, and how humbled he was at the prospect of being king. And then he said, “But I’m only a child and do not know how to do this. You’ve given me a huge job, so give me wisdom to match. Teach me how to judge between right and wrong; otherwise, how can I do this big thing?” And God was pleased with what Solomon asked for. He said, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, possessions and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.”

And with that request, a young king became wise and a nation became great.

Don’t pray for God to make you young again, or healthy or wealthy or beautiful or safe. Pray for God to make you wise. Because the pursuit of youth just for youth’s sake … well, that is an idol.

 

Statistical quotes are from: Eaton, Sam. “59 Percent of Millennials Raised in a Church Have Dropped Out—And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why.” Web: FaithIt. Posted on April 4, 2018

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What you believe matters.

I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding is now our critical need.

I was reminded of this a while back while working out at the gym. I was on a machine watching television but without the sound on … just reading closed captioning. The story being typed onto the screen word by word was some news piece about Pope Francis. And somewhere in the story, this phrase crossed the screen: “a message from Bob.”

From the context, I could tell they meant to type, “a message from God” but God never got the credit for whatever that message was. That strikes me as significant. How many people in the world are getting their messages from “Bob” (any popular speaker/ writer/ influencer) while God goes unnoticed?

When the movie, The Passion, first came out, a big group from our church went to see it together. Afterward, we adjourned to my living room to discuss what we’d seen. In the midst of the dialogue, someone asked some kind of technical question about the way God works and a guy who happens to have been in professional ministry had this response: “Frankly, I don’t have much use for theology. I just want to know who God is and what his heart is.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that pretty much the point of theology?

“I don’t have much use for theology.” Really? I bet that guy would have cared about my theology if we had been worshiping cows in my living room. I bet he would have cared if we were all there to discuss the message of Bob rather than the message of God. It must be fun to sound like a renegade in a group of people talking about religion, but it can also be theologically dangerous.

What you believe matters. And this is why I hold that biblical literacy and theological grounding are the critical need today. Otherwise we won’t have the compass to discern the direction of those who seek our endorsement. Those of us who trust in Christ have a poor record of talking theologically in public, with integrity (we do it, but not well). But to have a Kingdom-shaped influence in the marketplace, as Dr. Gregg Okesson says, we must learn to talk theologically in public about issues of public interest.

Theology matters. True, it has no life without the stirring of the Holy Spirit but nothing can be said about the nature of life, God or ultimate meaning without talking theologically. Indeed, nothing of any importance can be said of sports, politics, family systems, sexuality, or buying habits unless we learn to think and talk theologically. It would be like learning to play the piano without learning music theory. Without theory, it is just notes.

Nor can we discuss with respect the differences between religions or properly respect contrasting belief systems. Without theological grounding, how do we discuss the fact that the Mormon Jesus leaves significant questions about the nature of the Trinity, or that the Muslim Jesus is respected and revered but not crucified? How do we talk about Wesley’s systemic teaching on grace or Calvin’s take on God’s sovereignty?

Without deep theological reflection, how do missionaries learn to share the whole gospel without adding a layer of cultural bondage to the top? How do pastors influence culture and change systems?

When we’ve not grounded ourselves theologically, it is remarkably easy to get drunk on tweetable lines. It becomes far too tempting to redefine Christianity based on the trajectory of culture. We ask questions like, “Who are you to decide what orthodoxy/ Wesleyanism/ holiness/ Christianity means?” As if any of those are decided by vote.

On the other hand, it is tempting to blame thinking Christians for the suppression of the Holy Spirit. Experience has made us book-shy. Far too many wanna-be pastors have marched off to seminary while their friends at home warn, “Don’t let school ruin you!”

Spiritual thinking ought not rob us of our energy for the full gospel. To the contrary, to think theologically — to reason out a very distinctive set of beliefs — is to honor the depth and glory of God. Theology trumps experience every time and leads us toward the Holy Spirit, not away from Him.

As I listen to the fodder of news shows and sort through the various discussions that surface among well-meaning people within the church and online, I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding are our critical need in this season of the Church’s life. We’re allowing pop icons and an unanchored culture to do for us what thoughtful, Spirit-inspired study should be doing. The Kingdom won’t be ushered in on tweetable lines or emotional appeals. It will come when the good news of Jesus Christ is unapologetically learned, preached and practiced in all its power.

To hell with the message of Bob. The world is starving for something more.

 

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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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Haters gonna hate.

Let’s talk about hate.

In the first few verses of the Bible, we meet our God in his trinitarian wholeness. The Father creates, the Son speaks, the Spirit hovers. This Trinitarian God partners within himself in the work of creation. You can sense his single-mindedness — the energy flowing within Himself creating goodness. There is no sense of hierarchy here. In fact, a hierarchy within the Trinity would tear at the fabric of unity and prove our faith in one God to be a lie.

God is love, and within himself he is in complete unity and complete partnership. This is the substance and character of our God.

Humans were created in the likeness of this loving God, so the first two chapters of Genesis tell the story of humans being created as partners in the work of stewarding God’s creation. Side by side, male and female were to tend the land, govern the animals and be intimately unified. There was a creative energy and goodness between them. As with the one, true God, a hierarchy among humans would tear at the fabric of created design.

And yet, this is precisely what happened at the Fall. In Genesis 3, we learn that the enemy of God turned what was created as a partnership into a hierarchy. Ever since, humans have battled for control. This battle rages across genders, races, languages (in some countries, hierarchies are established by what language you know), nations … you name it. On this side of Genesis 3, fallen humanity is conditioned for division. If we can pit things against each other, we will. It is our ungodly inclination to compete, compare and control. This inclination is an incubator for hatred.

If God is love, then the enemy of God is hatred incarnate and that hatred has become the primary driver of unholy hierarchies. Whether we sense it dramatically or subliminally, it is this pull toward hierarchy that causes us to rank one another in order to justify our own value.

Let me state the obvious and say that hierarchy and hate are at the root of white supremacy and pretty much all the other hate-filled expressions of protest that surface not just in our country but around the world. Haters are obsessed with creating the kind of hierarchies that rank everyone not like them as “lesser than.” Most of us are appalled by the extremes to which the “real” haters will go. The “real” ones make the news. They have become so hardened by their own proclivities that they will shamelessly stand in the public square and spew their hate without the slightest sense of their absurdity.

The real haters are enemies of God, and what they do deserves our immediate and direct condemnation. There is never an option for a follower of Jesus to hate people. Never. What we so often see in the public square is simply not reflective of the heart of Christ. Our constant pull as Christians must always be against hate and toward genuine love.

Christians never have the option to hate other people or to act in hateful ways. 

This does not mean I will always agree with you, or you with me. There are things worth our righteous anger and sharp opposition. It does mean we are required by the law of Christ to treat one another as human beings, to treat with decency even those whose values are in direct opposition to ours. This is a sticking point for those of us who follow Jesus, many of whom have confused holiness with hierarchy. We cannot allow our pursuit of holiness to devalue others. Not politically, racially, or in any other of a million different ways we compete, compare, control.

This isn’t the way of Christ.

Somehow we have to learn how to talk in the public square about the things on which we disagree — and even acknowledge our disagreements as uncompromising — without labeling everything that doesn’t look like us as hate-generating or worse, as “less than.” After all, the ground beneath the cross is level.

Brothers and sisters, somehow we have to learn how to fight fair again, to engage in public debate so that honest differences can be acknowledged in mature and loving ways without devaluing one another. Because as long as we live on this side of Genesis 3, haters are going to hate but Christians simply can’t. It is not how we are designed, and it is not how we honor a loving God.

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God is a poet (and other thoughts from my time in Israel)

Our very wise guide told us, “Let the Bible be your tour guide.” With that wisdom, we made our pilgrimage through Israel, marking the sites in a Bible and listening as it told us the backstory of this rich and holy land.

Israel for the pilgrim is not a vacation. It is an education. Tour buses are on the road by 7a, and don’t usually return until dinnertime. Days are filled with stop after stop at site after site where Bible stories actually (or more often, likely) happened. Not everything is certain. I’ve now visited both places where Jesus was buried. Some things, you just have to take with a grain of salt.

Meanwhile, other encounters were more moving than I expected. Just driving into Jerusalem had me close to tears. Seeing the replica of the scroll of Isaiah found at Qumran (not the real one, but the cast of it), was a spiritual encounter. Catching a glimpse from the bus window of the cave where the scrolls were found was surprisingly moving. I imagine everyone who goes has their moments.

Along with too many overpriced meals and souvenirs, I bring home a thousand insights, these among them:

God is a poet. Israel reveals just how intricately layered and beautiful the story of God is. He is not a mechanic who simply made a thing that works. Our Father is an artist and a brilliant story-teller. In Israel, things stack up on top of things and make connections I didn’t realize existed. For instance, it is stunning to stand in the place where Joshua and the people of Israel first crossed over the Jordan into their promised land, and to realize that Jesus was likely baptized in that same region (maybe even the same spot?) of the river. Two stories — about fifteen hundred years apart — in which the future of God’s people was decisively changed happened in the same place. It is revelatory to see that while the Jews walked across into the land of Jordan, Jesus came up out of the water and turned back toward the Mount of Temptation, back toward the land the Israelites chose the first time they missed their moment of promise. Seeing the geography, one can only wonder how faithless they had to be to make that choice.

Did you know that on Mt. Zion (God’s “hill of holiness” is a remarkably small piece of property) David’s death is marked in the same area where Jesus hosted the Last Supper? The tourist site has them in the same building. And we can make a case for Pentecost and the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Thomas at the same site. It is all just next to Caiaphas’ house where Jesus was first accused and where he was likely held in an underground cell. The first church council of Jerusalem also happened on Mt. Zion, as did (tradition holds) Mary’s death. The top of one small hill binds together all these stories of birth and death, and the layers aren’t just geographical. The Talmud places David’s birth and death on the same date on the calendar (though a millennium apart) as Pentecost. What poetry.

These connections remind me of our Creator’s immense capacity for design. I’m also more convinced that there are far fewer coincidences in the world and far more poetic nuances than I notice. I hear the Elisha’s prayer for Gehazi: “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.”

I’m a faker. On my way to Israel, I had a dozen or more people tell me, “You’ll never read the Bible the same again.” I hoped they were right but had no clue what they meant. I suspect I went there sort of like a parent going to the hospital to have a first child. I thought I knew my Bible pretty well going into our pilgrimage but I had no clue. I may have a grasp of theology, but I am profoundly aware on this side of our trip just how many gaps need filling. I lack the broad historical framework that strings the biblical stories together and provides the real glue between Old and New Testaments. I am also aware of how much richer the story is when one understands the geography. To have in my head the size of the Sea of Galilee, the view from the Mount of Olives, the slope from the pool of Siloam to the temple, the landscape of what the Bible calls wilderness (the opposite of an American wilderness) — those images transform my understanding of the biblical stories. Israel makes me hungry for the bigger picture; I’m also humbled by how much more there is to learn.

Community is essential. This lesson wasn’t learned so much from the biblical sites as from Israel’s — and more specifically Jerusalem’s — current climate. That this nation exists at all is nothing short of a miracle. In the midst of daily tensions and — all too often — life-threatening conflicts, the citizens of Jerusalem manage to make life work in the city, sometimes more tolerant of one another than within their own groups. Note the current conflict among Jews about the Western Wall. Or how Christians manage their holy sites. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is cohabited by five Christian groups — Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Arminian, Coptic and Ethiopian. These groups live under the same roof but hold separate worship services and even separate Easter celebrations on separate days, not as a matter of respect but as a matter of avoidance. Their internal relationships are so fraught with conflict that they can’t trust one another even to hold the key to the building. Two Muslim families keep the key to this holiest of Christian sites, unlocking the door early every morning. While coexistence happens in Jerusalem, community is much more complicated.

And more rare. Jewish tradition holds that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through the Old City’s Eastern Gates, but to thwart the fulfillment of that prophesy, Muslims long ago bricked up the gates and turned the road just beyond into a cemetery (an “unclean” obstacle) to block the Messiah’s entry. In other words, coexistence is an ideal often mentioned in Jerusalem but coexistence isn’t the same as community. Yet, the biblical ideal is community. It is essential for healing and for the transformation of hearts. It is a recurring theme among the prophets.

Many groups are calling for the building of the third temple in Jerusalem with the hope that this will hasten the next coming of the Messiah. My admittedly uneducated suspicion is that the temple with power to draw the Messiah in is not a building but a people with a peculiar kind of heart. Paul prophesied as much when he wrote to the Ephesians (2:19-22): “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of the household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

This is the trajectory of the biblical story and the hope of this holy land. It is the excavation and renovation of hearts by the Prince of Peace. And so today, I am more committed on this side of our pilgrimage to do as the psalmist instructs:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

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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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