Do you get how profound that is? God knows everything. Your worst moment, your weakest decision, your blackest thought. God knows, and he still loves you.
To say that God knows is not the same as saying he dictates your every decision or causes your every moment. He is not a cosmic Santa Claus keeping a list and holding every grievance against you. It is simply to say that God — author and creator of our world, who lives outside of time — knows.
And what does God expect of us for all that knowing? Shame? Fear? Regret? Hiding?
Nope. Faith. Enough of it to believe in a deeper reality than what we’ve done. Enough to believe “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Paul Tillich says, “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance.”
Meaning? Faith is a code that unlocks the acceptance of Jesus’ acceptance of me. It is my admission that Jesus knows my whole life story, every skeleton in my closet, every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty, degradedness darkening my past, and he accepts me in that light.
God knows what I did in college and what I do on depressed days. He knows my excuses and all the ways I externalize my foolishness so I don’t have to own it and get better.
God knows I’m not there yet.
Right now he knows my shallow faith, my feeble prayer life, my inconsistent discipleship, and he comes beside me and he says, “I dare you to trust. I dare you to believe that I love you, just as you are and not as you should be.”
Because frankly, you’re never going to be as you should be. Not on your own steam. It just won’t happen, and that fact is true whether you believe in Jesus or accept his acceptance of you or not.
But somehow, knowing that God knows is its own comfort. God knows and God cares, and that’s enough.
“The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
This is the mission of United Methodists — to make disciples, as Dr. Robert Mulholland would say, “for the sake of others.” To make disciples is more than getting people saved, though that is obviously a critical beginning. The heart of Methodism is not social justice or creation care, though those things matter. It is much more than hosting attractive worship experiences. Our mission is to care for the spiritual formation of people at the deepest levels, so that their personal transformation results in the transformation of the world.
Spiritual formation is intentional transformation. It is God’s intent that we grow. Spiritual formation is growth that happens on purpose. Do Methodists today understand that our theological bent calls us to go someplace spiritually, to be formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ? Do we understand that we are making disciples of Jesus? Are we fostering spiritual hunger for Christ alone?
Spiritual formation is a matter of the heart. The place where the shaping or forming happens is the heart. In the Bible, we hear these almost bizarre (for our contemporary ears) statements about God wanting to circumcise our hearts. The point is that God wants to change the shape of us. He wants to conform us into the image of Jesus — to make us more loving, more gentle, more joyful, more peaceful, more gracious, more faithful, more trusting … more disciplined. At its core, Methodism is about using spiritual discipline to be shaped into the character of Christ. Do we preach as if that’s so? Are we people of one Book, a book designed to shape us into Kingdom-minded people?
Spiritual formation happens for the sake of others. Methodism is designed to be both evangelistic and global. We do not apologize for our belief in the radical notion that our brand of faith has power to change the world. Further, God’s intent is not just to form each of us spiritually, but to make us partners in the work of transforming the world. Nothing less, nothing else. Do our people have a global vision, or are we stuck on our own cultural values, unable to see how God is moving in other parts of the world? Do we truly believe ourselves to be globally connected to each other by the power of the Holy Spirit?
Spiritual formation is fueled by spiritual discipline. As I’ve said already, Methodists major on the disciplines. It is our contribution to the Body of Christ — this idea that through very practical habits, we can form an intimate relationship with Christ even as he forms us into his likeness. The means of grace are not the basis of our salvation (don’t mistake them for works righteousness), but they are a gift of God that allows us to participate in the process of our ongoing spiritual growth. In our chaotic and distracted world, spiritual disciplines like fasting and prayer may seem arcane; we want to discount them because we are already too busy doing things for Jesus. But are we busy enough doing things that place us in the presence of Jesus? Are we learning to hear his voice? Are we practicing that art daily, so that hearing from God becomes more and more part of our cultural distinctive?
As it turns out, disciplines are not for people who have too much time on their hands, but for people exactly like us. Busy, distracted people. Do Methodists understand that it is in our DNA to be deeply, intimately, passionately connected to Christ, and that our spiritual practices are designed to help us hear the voice of God?
I suspect that the political discussions within the UMC have distracted the corporate body and kept us from being on mission. I suspect they have distracted us personally (note: hand-wringing is not a spiritual discipline). For the proliferation of politics within our tribe, we have lost sight of what is most central to our existence: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
I want to call Methodists to return to the fundamentals. I want to see Methodists passionate again about centering on Jesus and on the disciplines that keep us grounded, particularly steeping ourselves in prayer and the scriptures. I want to see a move of the Holy Spirit in our day that transcends cultural conversations and revives our corporate/global spirit. I envision a move of personal prayer, fasting, scripture study and corporate accountability that restores our hunger for our mission. Yes, I want to see us loving our neighbors well, but I want to see those acts of love and kindness rooted in our passion for what breaks God’s heart, not as an escape from it.
I pray for a great move of the Holy Spirit to sweep among us as we get serious again about working out our salvation with fear and trembling. I pray that by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the mission of Methodists would be advanced toward its completion on the power of its people’s faith, so that one day we can all stand together in his unhindered presence with nothing left to do but worship.
If we are going to fulfill our mission as Methodists — to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — our greatest work is that of taking our spiritual formation seriously, not just for the sake of our own souls but for the sake of others … that the world might know that Jesus Christ is Lord.
A few days ago I visited a mercy ministry in another town as part of our preparation and planning for building a capacity-building ministry in our community. Talking with the director of the ministry I visited, I was reminded again of just how many beautiful souls there are in the world. I keep running into people who care deeply about dignifying life, and who sacrifice for that cause.
Toward the end of my visit, my host invited me to step into the foyer where folks had begun to gather, both volunteers and clients, just after the doors of the ministry opened for the day. Their tradition is to gather that first crowd into a circle to pray over everything ahead.
The guy leading the prayer time asked if anyone had any prayer needs. There was silence for a moment, then a woman piped up. “The world,” she said. “Pray for the world.” A few knowing nods acknowledged what was on her heart. Yes, this is a hard world to live in and those in that circle felt the sharp edges of this world more acutely. We ought to pray for a kinder, gentler option.
More silence, then someone motioned toward a young man near the door. “Dylan just lost his home in a fire. Pray for him.” We all sighed toward Dylan. What a heavy thing to handle. We ought to pray for this man, who looked pretty lost.
A bit more silence, and the guy in charge said, “Okay then … we’ll pray for Dylan and the world.”
Dylan … and the world.
“Dylan and the world” make me mindful that changing the world begins with the person standing in front of me. “Dylan and the world” are the mustard seed and the mountain. They are Jesus telling us to be faithful with a little before we can be faithful with more. They are one woman telling Jesus that even the dogs get the crumbs, and Jesus using crumbs to feed thousands of people.
This is how it is in the Kingdom of God. There is a tension in God’s economy between the one and the many — a tension God himself seems able to hold together. God cares about Dylan, and He also cares about the millions of “Dylans” who have lost their homes this year to the evils of war, communist dictatorships, natural disasters and angry mobs. Eleven million Syrians have left their homes since 2011; Syrian refugee camps stretch on as far as the eye can see. Venezuelans have taken to the streets by the scores to protest their chronic economic crisis (inflation is expected to drive toward 2000% in 2018; try to wrap your mind around that).
The world can be a harsh place. Jesus says (Matthew 24:6-8), “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” This sounds too familiar. The world is a hard place.
At the end of Fiddler on the Roof, a poor tailor asks the rabbi as they are being forced out of their town, “Wouldn’t now be a good time for the Messiah to return?” In the Kingdom of God, this is how the tension is resolved … in Jesus. Jesus is the common denominator between the person in front of us and a worldful of need. And if that is so, then maybe the best prayer we can pray for “Dylan and the world” is the prayer of the early Church: Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus. It was the prayer of the first followers of Jesus as they strained toward the Kingdom against tides of conflict and persecution. First-century Christians earnestly watched and prayed for his return, even as they spread the word about the Messiah. They believed passionately that in him is the one, enduring answer to burned-down houses, down-and-out men, failing economies, homelessness, and a world chock-full of hard edges.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Much of what Paul wrote was to stir up a hunger for an answer to that prayer. “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen… ” “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
I don’t think we ought to use a cry for Jesus’ return as an escape from being part of the solution. After all, Dylan deserves the whole gospel; the world deserves the best of Kingdom work. Our hearts must be broken for what is happening all around us. But I do believe that developing a hunger for the final answer to a fallen world will help us have faith enough to stand in that tension between the troubles in front of us and a world spiraling out of control.
Come, Lord Jesus. We are hungry to see you in all your glory, and to be delivered from the darkness.
Lee Strobel’s masterful book, The Case For Christmas, tells of his journey from atheism to Christianity while investigating the claims of Christ.
He tells the story of interviewing a guy named Louis Lapides, a Jew who had almost no exposure to Christianity. In fact, the only thing he “knew” (or thought he knew) about Christians was that they didn’t like Jews. That distorted belief didn’t endear him to our scriptures.
When Louis was seventeen his parents divorced, and for him the God who was already distant became pretty much non-existent. He went to Viet Nam, got into drugs, got depressed. He ended up one day on a sidewalk in California arguing with a group of Christians about the existence of God and the reality of Jesus. When all his other arguments failed, he told them he couldn’t believe in Jesus because he was Jewish.
One of them asked him, “Do you know of the prophecies about the Messiah?” Louis had never heard about the prophecies — the ones in our Old Testament, his Jewish scriptures — that pointed to Jesus as Messiah. That was astonishing information to him. This was the first he’d heard that there might be a connection between his Jewish faith and this Jesus. The guy on the sidewalk offered him a Bible and said, “Read the Old Testament and ask the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God of Israel – to show you if Jesus is the Messiah. Because he is your Messiah. He came to the Jewish people initially, and then he was also the Savior of the world.”
Louis said, “Fine, I’ll read the Old Testament part, but I won’t open up the New Testament.”
He went home and started with Genesis. To his amazement, as he read he found one prophecy after the next (more than four dozen major ones) pointing to a prophet who was greater than Moses. Strobel says Louis was stopped cold at Isaiah 53, a prophecy written more than 700 years before Jesus.
There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected – a man of sorrows, acquainted with the bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him, and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped, and we were healed! All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the guilt and sins of us all.
This was the Jesus those sidewalk prophets had been talking about! This revelation left Louis with the only conclusion he considered reasonable: Christians must have altered the Old Testament to make all those prophecies sound like Jesus!
Louis knew how to verify his suspicion. He called his grandmother and asked her to send him a copy of her Jewish Scripture. When he read it and found that it matched the Christian scriptures … well, that’s when he started running out of arguments.
And that’s when he decided to turn the last page of the Old Testament and read the first page of the New Testament. For the first time in his life he read the first words of Matthew:
“A record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham.”
The more he read the more it all fit together. He realized this was a conspiracy; it was a story about Jewish people for Jewish people. “I couldn’t put it down, Louis said. “I read through the rest of the gospels, and I realized this was not a handbook for the American Nazi party; it was an interaction between Jesus and the Jewish community.”
A few days later, before his life was all cleaned up, he told God, “I have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is the Messiah. I need to know that you, as the God of Israel, want me to believe this.” Louis says that in the next moment, somehow, experientially, God convinced him that he exists and Louis became a follower of Jesus. God didn’t give Louis one more answer. He gave him himself.
Reputable organizational developers agree on this: trust breeds organizational health; without it, an organization has nothing on which to build. Trust is the foundation on which sustainable strategies are built and the link to meaningful connection.
Trust begins with transparency. A colleague at 12Stone Church in Atlanta once said, “Trust requires shortcomings without secrets. You can’t be on the team and hide things.” This is why spiritual formation in community is so important. We learn to normalize conversations about the state of our souls. Put these conversations in the “wise as serpents” category. By spending time on relational connection and by challenging one another to accountability, we not only to grow spiritually but keep dysfunction from stunting Kingdom-minded initiatives and burning out good people.
Building dynamic, strategic teams and communities begins with trust and transparency. Time spent making sure this happens is never wasted time.
Sometime back, I was with someone who told me he was just “not feeling it” lately where his connection to his faith community is concerned. He has felt disengaged spiritually from his faith community. I listened for a while, then asked a couple of strategic discipleship questions. I asked about his sin, and also about his spiritual disciplines. Turns out, he is dealing with chronic unresolved sin, and is not disciplined in his personal prayer and scripture time. He wanted to externalize his sense of disconnection, making it a church issue. It isn’t. His issue is on him. And because he is a ministry leader, his choices affect the health of his community. His sin isn’t really just his; it affects everything he is connected to.
Sin is always systemic. And sin always means to erode our trust in God and each other. And because trust requires healthy boundaries and mutual accountability, it is necessarily connected to freedom. This is counterintuitive but true: If trust requires accountability, then accountability breeds freedom.
In his book, Culture of Honor, Danny Silk writes, “At the heart of [a] culture [of honor] is a value for freedom. We don’t allow people to use this freedom to create chaos. We have boundaries, but we use these boundaries to make room for a level of personal expression that brings what is really inside of people to the surface. When people are given choices, it reveals the level of freedom they are prepared to handle.”
It is just so easy to forget we have a choice. This is an important principle to internalize. When both leaders and community members acknowledge that we are not victims, nor manipulators, we begin to make better decisions and hold more mature conversations.
Healthy, God-honoring cultures provide the kind of accountability that refuses room for a victim mentality.
We are not victims — in our work, in our relationships, in our choices. Isn’t that a glorious truth? We have the freedom and power to refuse shame, be honest, and make changes. As we learn the art of making holy choices, we become trustworthy people. As we build trust, we build community.
Ministry leaders, how are you building a culture of trust, honor, accountability and mature choice among your teams? It begins with you. How are you progressing spiritually? Which of your issues — that you are complaining about and blaming others for — are actually on you? As a leader in the church, you are expected to acknowledge that and make progress by dealing with sin and leaning into discipline.
If your frustrations are primarily rooted in your ministry, how are you actively addressing that? Is your face set enthusiastically and faithfully toward the work for which you’re paid? Where are you passively disappointed or frustrated? Remember: our work is not to “get things done.” Our work is to put people in position to get their lives transformed. Is your posture toward your people both trusting and trustworthy?
Sowing seeds of trust and freedom into our communities will produce a great harvest of Kingdom-minded churches and mature followers of Jesus. And because this is the desperate need of the world today, it worth our earnest pursuit.
There is a quirky little documentary on Netflix called Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
It is about the life of this 90-year-old man who is considered the finest sushi master in the world. He owns a small restaurant in Tokyo that seats ten people. The wait for a reservation is about a year. He takes incredible care in the seating of the guests and the experience they have, but according to food critics who have been there it isn’t exactly a comfortable experience. He serves one piece of sushi at a time and then watches you eat it.
Those same critics would say it is the best sushi they’ve ever had. And every visit is better than the last.
It is a vocational hazard of preachers to look for sermons in movies (it ruins a lot of movies) and I am no exception. In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I found not one sermon but two.
Jiro must be a good bit on the compulsive and perfectionist side; he is radically committed to discipline. In fact, he credits that as the secret of his success. He is almost machine-like in his work ethic. He never misses a day at the restaurant, even when there are deaths and disasters. Every day, get up and make sushi. Every day, perfect the process. Every day, be obedient to this duty to do this thing.
Jiro would make a great Methodist. Our contribution to the Body of Christ is our emphasis on sanctification through the spiritual disciplines.
In My Utmost for His Highest (which my husband calls “My Forehead for His Two-by-four”), Oswald Chambers affirms the importance of the disciplines in a life of faith. He would call it routine; I would call it discipline. He writes, “Routine is God’s way of saving us between our times of inspiration.” I would say,“Discipline is God’s way of saving us between our times of inspiration … Do not expect God always to give you his thrilling minutes, but learn to live in the domain of discipline [Chambers calls it drudgery] by the power of God.”
This is how Jiro journeyed from an abandoned childhood to the distinction of being called the best sushi master in the world. It didn’t happen by accident or luck or even sheer talent. Jiro discovered this great secret: Discipline breeds results.
The documentary spent time exploring the great care Jiro takes in choosing the ingredients he uses. He is relentless in his pursuit of quality — only the best tuna, the perfecting of every element and ingredient.
Even in his own meals, Jiro only uses the finest ingredients. He allows himself only gourmet food, is determined to taste only the best of the best. By limiting himself to the finest, he says, he is developing a sensitivity to anything less. In his comments about a French chef he particularly respects, he notes with some envy, “If my palate was as sensitive as his I’d make even better sushi.”
I am struck by that idea of a more sensitive palate. It occurs to me that maybe this is exactly what I’ve been asking for in this season of seeking a richer quality of faith in my life.
I am embarrassed to admit, actually, just how recently it has occurred to me that I ought to be praying for my own faith — for the character of it and the density of it and the life of it. It just hadn’t occurred to me for far too much of my walk with Christ that if faith is all that connects me to Jesus and if faith is the only thing of any value I bring into my work, my parenting, my ministry, and if I can’t conjure it up on my own because even my faith is a gift from God, then I had better start praying for it. I had better get to shaking the gates of heaven on behalf of my own faith, praying for God to give me more of it, to increase my heart for him and to have more of him in my heart.
Think of it like you’re hanging over the edge of a cliff, and the only thing between you and a 500-foot drop is a piece of rope you’re hanging onto. Don’t you think, if that was your situation, you’d become very interested in the quality of that rope? Don’t you think you’d be really grateful for the guy who was really good at rope-making and for the quality assurance manager who inspected that rope for flaws? If that rope is all there is between you and death, don’t you think you’d be praying like crazy for that rope to hold?
If I want to see beyond my present circumstances, if I want to detect the great moves of God, if I want to be able to trust what I cannot see, then I’m going to need a faith that will hold me between the high points.
I need a more delicate spiritual palate. This is my confession and my prayer.
Why? Because Isaiah tells me God is doing new things all the time. God is making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. But if I can’t sense it — can’t taste and see that the Lord is good — then I will miss out on the delicacies of the Kingdom of God.