A Year for the UMC

You’ve heard the old saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” For the UMC, this maxim has proven sadly too true. As 2019 opens, we stand on the verge of a called General Conference that promises (threatens? hopes? fears?) to bring to a head forty years of debate on the foundational theology of our tribe. We have been here before, multiple times. We have made these decisions multiple times.But here we are, grasping for some way forward that manages to avoid the implosion of a 13 million member institution. On the way here, we’ve called for commissions and holy conferencing and have done our level best to enter this year with some plan that brings peaceful resolution to our deep divide. As it turns out, no matter how we have tried to spin this or resolve it, wherever we go, there we are. We are stuck.

So now what? February’s historic called General Conference will convene in St. Louis to discuss various proposals for restructuring. Given the options, it is likely no one will leave that gathering with a sense of resolution. If the way forward stalls, we will all be disappointed. The prayer for us who are watching with interest should be first of all for deliverance from a bureaucratic quagmire. I genuinely hope we are all just fed up enough to stretch for a decision that allows us truly to move on from where we are.

It must begin with Jesus (and nothing less). I will never get past this point. Until we deal with Jesus, nothing else matters. A colleague writing to me in response to something he’d seen online said we’d probably preach similar messages about what Jesus does, but when pressed about who Jesus is, he’d have to say, “I don’t know. It just seems out of character with the God I’ve come to know … to insist upon the use of particular doctrines or names as an admission ticket …”

I respect this difference, and see it as just that. He and I don’t agree on the very fundamental nature of Jesus and what it means to express faith in him. I will say yet again that long before we part ways on lesser issues, we are deeply divided on the nature and role of Jesus. If we spent our General Conference talking about nothing else other than Jesus, I suspect we’d be closer to final schism than we are now. I am convinced that this is the most fundamental dividing line in the United Methodist Church. Long before we part ways on issues of human sexuality, we are already deeply and tragically divided at the point of Wesley’s first question to ordinands: “Have you faith in Christ?” Some among us want to claim a form of Christ that is more ethereal and situational, while others are committed to Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. That distinction matters, because both things cannot be equally true. Either Jesus is Christ for the whole world, or he is Christ for none of it. Our conversations about the substance of mutual ministry must begin here.

It is okay to acknowledge differences (and we can do that without castigating each other). But hear me: it is not okay to minimize what someone else calls a drastic difference. This seems to be the strategic course of those who embrace the One Church Plan. It is to persistently insist that our differences don’t matter but to many of us, they do. By minimizing the differences, we deny clearly unique theological positions the chance to prove their viability. Good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that our current dialogue is more than just a struggle to agree on one issue or get along like children in the back seat of a car. They deserve a clear explanation of the deep theological differences so they can claim an educated spot on the spectrum and not just an emotional one. To offer them anything less would be, in my estimation, irresponsible discipleship.

Theology creates unity (though perhaps not the unity you were hoping for). To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the One Church Plan would reduce the whole of our internal division to one issue. If it were to pass, it seems that United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, we could make a mistake that would take us backward by several decades. This kind of proposal turns a blind eye to the widening and pervasive theological gap that has been developing over decades. To say that orthodox believers only want to “win” on this one issue is to vastly over-simplify a long history of the erosion of our values. Likewise, to say that progressives are defined by this one issue alone is to ignore the depth and breadth of progressive theology — a worldview that influences how one views the Bible, humanity and even Divinity Itself, especially the divinity of Jesus as it pertains to his birth, death, resurrection and ascension. For theologians — and all pastors are theologians — these distinctions matter, and not just to conservatives. They matter to anyone who has given their life and vocation to the work of caring for souls. Our differences should not be minimized for the sake of pragmatism.

Let the theology do its work. For years, our tagline in the UMC has been: “Open hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” Wouldn’t it be something if this year, we led with, “Open Hands.” As in, holding the institution with an open hand as we also hold tenderly those with whom we disagree. Perhaps with a looser grip on the false god of unity-at-all-costs, we can find a way forward that holds our differing theologies with greater integrity and compassion.

My deepest prayer is that we will treat with Spirit-saturated grace anyone who can no longer abide the climate we legislate in February. A second prayer is that we manage to legislate something. This is our year, UMC, to move on from where we are. May we hold grace and courage enough to do so.

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Wesley’s Christmas Question: Have you faith in Christ?

(Today’s post is excerpted from The 19: Questions to Kindle a Wesleyan Spirit.)

Have you faith in Christ?

Well, do you?

What a bold question! This was the first question John Wesley asked of all ordinands in the early Methodist movement. It is an especially bold introductory question when you consider that his nineteen questions for those planning to give themselves to vocational ministry were designed as gatekeepers for potential preachers. Even with leaders in the movement, Wesley began with the most fundamental question of salvation: Have you faith in Christ?

I suspect Wesley knew human nature. He knew that even the best among us can fake it in ministry and do a lot of damage in the process. As much as we’d like to trust that every person who expresses a call to ministry is full of faith and passion for Jesus, experience tells us there are far too many stories of burned out pastors drowning in crises of their own making years into their ministry. Faith in Christ is not a “gimme” for men and women who preach it; and without it, ministry is nothing more than clanging cymbals or a noisy gong.

Read the question again: Have you faith in Christ?

There are two operative words here: faith and Christ. Let’s look closely at both of these.

Faith

Faith is not the absence of doubt; it is the presence of trust. Faith says that whether or not I understand all the details, whether or not I can comprehend all the theology, I will begin to follow and let assurance come as it will. In that way, faith is self-giving. It is an expression of love toward the object of my faith that takes me beyond myself.

Faith binds us. The story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac is known in Judaism as the Akedah, a Hebrew word that means “binding.” The word comes from Abraham’s act of binding Isaac before placing him on the altar. There is an immense display of trust and obedience in this scene. A man goes beyond reason and lays down on an altar what he loves most, while a son trusts his father beyond what he can see. This is the essence of faith. It is a different kind of knowing. Some things only make sense if the path from A to B comes off the page and makes contact with the character of God. If this is true, it means there is another dimension of seeing that makes our world make sense. I want to call that dimension the dimension of faith, and I believe it is a higher form of knowing.

In Christ

But of course, Wesley is not asking us to have a generic faith with no concern for its target. “Have you faith in Christ?” he asks. This is the mark of a Methodist: Faith is the life of Christ living itself out in me. To trust in Christ is to believe who he himself claimed to be: the way, the truth and the life. He claimed to be the singular path to the heart of the Father and did not give us another option. To be Methodist is to believe in Jesus as redeemer of the world. Jesus, who we believe to be the Son of God, gave up His place as God to become a man and lived a sinless human life. He was and is all God, all human, fulfilling hundreds of prophecies written hundreds of years before he came. Isaiah 53 says it was the will of the Lord to crush him. Isaiah 61 tells us the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives, and to open the prisons of those who are bound. As Isaiah prophesied, Jesus healed sick people, gave sight to blind people, raised a few dead people, and fed a lot of hungry people.

Jesus ate with sinners. United Methodists were the first ones to add that line to the liturgy of our Eucharist. It matters to us that Jesus was that kind of Messiah. He lived a thoroughly compassionate life and the whole time, he talked about the Kingdom of God and about how in the Kingdom we are forgiven our sins and made holy. Then Jesus became the sinless sacrifice that makes us holy. Because he’d lived this sinless life, he became what they called in the Old Testament system of sacrifices a spotless lamb. Jesus gave himself to this. He allowed a group of men who were against everything he stood for to arrest him. They accused him of blasphemy because he claimed to be God.

Have you faith in that Christ?

Tweaking or transformation

In the world of meth users, tweaking is a thing. That’s the term users use for the frantic and compulsive behaviors that tend to surface when you’re strung out on meth. Tweaking is obsession with an activity — any activity — like cleaning or searching through drawers or picking the skin off your face or cleaning tools in a toolbox. A user will become obsessed with making some thing perfect, which is insane since even if he gets it perfect he is still a meth addict.

We all tweak, often as a way of avoiding big projects. My house never gets so clean as when I have a writing project to finish. Maybe you can relate.

It makes me think of the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well, the one who tried to press him into a discussion about where real worship happens. “On this mountain or that one?” she asked, to which he replied (in effect), “I’m not sure it matters for you. Until you deal with the fact that you’ve been married five times and are living with a guy now, what’s it matter where worship happens?”

That was one of those days Jesus answered a question with a question.

And I can hear him now, in a season frantic with to-do lists that leaves us  exhausted on this side of it. “What does it matter if the food was perfectly prepared or the gifts were perfectly wrapped, if your heart is not abandoned fully and exclusively to Christ?” What does it matter how we presented ourselves if our hearts weren’t generous toward others?

In other words, until you have faith in Christ, everything else is tweaking.

Have you faith in Christ? Because your answer to that question matters long before you answer any others.

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What makes life worth living?

Life doesn’t justify living, but eternity does.

Stephen was the first to be martyred among those who knew the apostles. Polycarp was the last. He was 86 years old when they came for him; he met them at the door and fed them a meal, then asked for time to pray. As they were carrying him to the arena to kill him, he heard a voice that said, “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.”

When they urged him to recant the gospel, Polycarp said, “Eighty-six years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” They threatened him with wild animals and then with fire, and still he refused to back down from the gospel.

A first-hand account of his death records the following:

“Then the fire was lit, and the flame blazed furiously. We who were privileged to witness it saw a great miracle, and this is why we have been preserved, to tell the story. The fire shaped itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, and formed a circle around the body of the martyr. Inside it, he looked not like flesh that is burnt, but like bread that is baked, or gold and silver glowing in a furnace. And we smelt a sweet scent, like frankincense or some such precious spices.”

Polycarp teaches me that there are far worse things in the world that sacrificing my values for the sake of self-preservation. It is ironic that both the sheer act of existing and life abundant are both considered living, when in fact one is the very opposite of that.

I’ve never been a fan of the kind of Christianity that focuses all its energy on where you go when you die, as if that is all that makes faith in Christ worth the time. Salvation is so much more than a ticket to heaven. I have even less patience for the kind of Christianity that makes it all about “your best life now.” I am confident Christianity is supposed to be more than a lifestyle choice that offers prosperity in the here-and-now.

But to live a life so anchored in truth and power and prayer, so anchored in the assurance that there is more to this life than simply surviving it, so anchored in grace that nothing rocks the boat …

Well, that is worth living for.

And with deepest humility and gratitude in the face of such courageous faith, I say “thank you” to all those who have stood bravely for the faith — joyfully even, at the prospect of a violent death — recognizing that Jesus is worth it. Thank you for allowing us to stand on your shoulders. And today, I pray for those who wake up every morning prepared to die for the cause of Christ. May my witness where I am strengthen your stand where you are.

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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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