You are chosen (a prophetic word for New Room 2018).

This word was given me to share with those attending the closing service of New Room 2018. I share it here in an abbreviated form so that if you were there, you’ll have this word to remind you in the dark places of who you are: You are chosen. 

I fell apart last year. I think I can now say with some confidence that I was on a spiritual threshold, and those can be so painful. In that moment of birthing from one spiritual room to another, it can feel like insanity. It feels dark. I was there last year for several months, waiting for relief. I was seeing a counselor who kept me duct-taped together. He asked me one day to make a list of
“I am” statements. He wanted me to be grounded in my identity while I was reeling emotionally, so he told me to just start writing. “I am _____.” Fill in the blank, he said, and keep doing it. He was looking for about 2000 “I am” statements.

The first hundred or so sounded like my personal PR campaign. They were all positive statements, if shallow, about myself. Somewhere around three or four-hundred I got honest. I began to say things about myself I’d never admitted out loud (or on paper) before. Things like: I am embarrassed by failure. I am competitive. I am envious of others’ success.

On one particularly dark day, I wrote, “I am suspicious of God.”

On another day, just as the light was beginning to dawn in my life again, I wrote, “I am an artist.” That was one of the most profound realizations, and resonated as most true. I am not an engineer. No wonder most church growth books don’t work for me (and no wonder I’m no good at systems!). I am an artist, and I approach ministry and life from that place. What freedom!

Probably the statement that holds all the other statements together is this one: I am a mixed bag. We all are. Most of us are a mixture of strong and weak, good and trying, sinful and saved. And in that way, we are in good company. Jesus seemed partial to mixed bags. Peter was among his favorite. Peter, who presented as a fisherman who fell to his knees at the miraculous catch of fish Jesus orchestrated. “I am a sinful man!” And from that place of humility, he was able to see Jesus as he was when Jesus asked, “Who do people say I am?” To which Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus answered, “And you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” From sinful to faithful … and then just a few paragraphs later, to satanic.

What can hold all those seeming inconsistencies together? Only Jesus. Only when our “I am” is connected to his “I am.”

It makes sense, then, that having learned this lesson through his own season of sanctification, Peter could now tell others who they are, in the light of Jesus Christ. In 1 Peter 2:1-10, the apostle tells his first-century audience and then all of us who follow Jesus that we are all a mix of chosen and rejected, precious and peculiar, disobedient and destined. And ours is to find our place in those tensions by connecting to Christ.

You are chosen by God, rejected by humans.

Not long ago, I found myself in a children’s classroom listening to a lesson on the free gift of salvation. The teacher was doing a good job of explaining an abstract concept, and she even had a neat little visual aid to go with it. In that class, there was a little boy who is powerfully bright and resilient, who absorbs everything, and who lets very little get past him. He was listening to this teacher explain how we can’t add anything to our salvation, that we can’t work our way to heaven. And this little guy was listening and trying hard not to interrupt, until he just couldn’t help himself. Eventually, he broke in to say, “Yeah, its free … but you have to take it.” Which is Wesleyan free will perfectly expressed in eight words. But that was lost on his teacher, whose point was that you can’t add anything. So she said, “ Riiiighhhht … but its free.”

“But you have to take it.”

“But you can’t add anything to it,” the teacher insisted.

“But you have to take it.”

“But its free,” she said, now a bit more desperately.

“But you have to take it,” he said, more forcefully.

I don’t blame him for being unwilling to let go. His point was worth the fight. This is how John Wesley explained our chosenness:

“By the free love and almighty power of God taken out of, separated from, the world … Election, in the scripture sense, is God’s doing anything that our merit or power have no part in. The true predestination, or fore-appointment of God is, 1. He that believes shall be saved from the guilt and power of sin. 2. He that endures to the end shall be saved eternally. 3. They who receive the precious gift of faith, thereby become the sons of God; and, being sons, they shall receive the Spirit of holiness to walk as Christ also walked. Throughout every part of this appointment of God, promise and duty go hand in hand. All is free gift; and yet such is the gift, that the final issue depends on our future obedience to the heavenly call.”

Or to put it another way, “It is free, but you have to take it!”

We are chosen, and we choose. The gospel is full of biblical tensions like this. If you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to find life, you have to lose the one you’ve got. If you want freedom, you must surrender. So Peter, who is both a sinful man and a rock in the Church of Jesus Christ, chooses this refrain to tell us who we are. We are both chosen and rejected, precious and peculiar, disobedient and destined.

Chosen by God but rejected by men, Peter says. And every day we have to decide which one wins. Which one of me will show up today? Chosen me or rejected me? Peter has a word for us. Reject the spirit of rejection. Choose your chosenness. Chosenness is your gift, but you have to take it. Choose your chosenness.

You are precious, my friend. But you are also peculiar.

If you carry the spirit of Christ, how could you not be precious? When the Holy Spirit is deposited into us, we become tabernacles of God. We connect to that identity by faith, also a gift from God. These are gifts to be guarded, held as holy … to be honored even when they put us at odds with the world around us.

In the NIV, 1 Peter 2:9 translates as, “chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s special people.” The KJV gets right to the point: “You are a peculiar people.” When we do it right, it will be uncomfortable. When we do it right, we’ll look a little funny to the folks around us.

You are disobedient … but you are destined.

One of the best movie lines ever is the line from very old movie, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The move is half animation, half real people. Eddie Valiant is the real-life detective and Jessica Rabbit is this animated version of voluptuousness. One day they are together and she is telling him how hard it is to be her — how misunderstood she is — and in a sultry-and-sinful voice says, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” Which is a brilliant line, because she is actually an animated cartoon figure. But the line is also theologically profound (which I’m sure is exactly what they were going for). This is the human condition. We are drawn that way — toward disobedience. Never get too far from acknowledging that you are saved by grace, that on your own you are a “sinful man.” You are a mess … but you are God’s mess. You are a person with a destiny, a purpose. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, created to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Scot McKnight asks a profound question: Who is capable of this calling? No one. Not on our strength. We are holy only by association. Our identity must be in Christ.

You are chosen and rejected … precious and peculiar … disobedient and destined.

You are a mixed bag, and so am I. And as we are, we are chosen. Chosen. As you go, remember that you are chosen. Remember who you are and whose you are, and remember, too, that it only works when your “I am” connects with his “I am.”

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Waiting in the Valley of Perseverance

Three days ago, I’d never heard of a rover called Opportunity or the Valley of Perseverance. I first heard about it from the Holy Spirit himself. I’m in one of those seasons right now. It isn’t darkness, exactly, but it is dimmer than usual. There is a subtle resistance in my spirit, a sense that I’m having to work just to keep moving, having to press through when I’d rather lay low. We all have those times when it feels more like walking through mud than walking on water, and I’m in one of those. I wouldn’t classify it as depression or doubt or fear or even anxiety. Nor is this a time when God seems silent. To the contrary, he seems remarkably close. My times in his presence are rich. I can hear his voice. That makes me suspect there is more to this season than a bad mood.

But what to call it, then? When I asked the Lord about it — “Lord, am I sliding backward? Am I spiraling down into an old familiar darkness?” — here’s what I heard: “This is the Valley of Perseverance.” I’d never heard of such a valley. I assumed it was in the Bible somewhere, but I couldn’t recall where so I looked it up.

It isn’t in there.

The Valley of Perseverance is a place on Mars, and I’m just finding out about it though it happens to be in the news right now. Earlier this year the rover named Opportunity got stuck there. Somewhere in mid-June, a dust storm kicked up, a big one that has since grown to epic proportions. Because Opportunity is powered by solar energy, the severe dust is keeping the rover’s solar panels from being able to absorb light. So now, two months into this storm, there sits Opportunity surrounded by dust and grounded, unable to charge its batteries for the lack of light.

Researchers monitoring the situation are hopeful for two things to happen. Eventually, the dust storm will settle, they assume, though that won’t be the end of Opportunity’s challenges. When the dust settles, it will inevitably settle on the rover’s solar panels, solving nothing. The second hope after the dust settles is that a wind will blow through and clear the panels of dust. This is a quote from a NASA report on the situation (but doesn’t it sound like something out of Isaiah?): “The sun breaks through the haze over the Valley of Perseverance, and soon the light there should be enough to allow Opportunity to charge its batteries.”

But for now, the only option open is to wait it out. 

I’m stunned by this revelation, taken by it. That God would draw from this story to speak to my inner angst is powerful. It reminds me that he is not just my friend, or even the God whose got the whole world in his hands. He is the God of the universe, and certainly big enough to hold me in the valleys.

In this word, he has shown me that not all down days (or weeks, or seasons) are generic. Some of them are specific and require a specific response. This one I’m in? This is the “dust” of a flurry of projects and responsibilities running concurrently. Most of them are not storms of my own making. They are moments and circumstances and situations with expiration dates that require my patient endurance as they play out. Weighty though they are, most are best conquered with waiting. Doing nothing, even.  Sometimes circumstances beyond our control will necessitate our sitting in the Valley of Perseverance for a season. Nothing to do but wait it out.

But the waiting proves us. And shapes us.

In Paul’s encouragement to first-century Christians dealing with pressures of faith, he writes that “suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2b-4). Perseverance in Paul’s use of it is about handling pressure with grace. It is a solid biblical word that gives one the sense of a floor beneath the feet in confusing times. It is a prescription for allowing tough seasons to build character.

So I hear you, Holy Spirit: Hang in there. Wait. Don’t force things. This storm will pass. The dust will settle. The wind will blow. The light will shine. The batteries will recharge.  As with Opportunity, who sits on a far planet also under Your gaze, the call is to persevere, and to use this waiting to build character.

It is a good word, and a gift. I hear it. Give me courage and wisdom enough to let it form me.

Lord, give us wisdom and patience to wait out the storms, the dust, and the confusion. Give us grace to endure seasons in the Valley of Perseverance, so we can again draw strength from your light and move beyond this place.

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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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Do you know the General Rules of our Church?

This post is excerpted from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The 19 explores the 19 questions asked of those intending to preach in the Methodist Church since its earliest days. This post features #6: “Do you know the General Rules of our Church?” The General Rules are three simple statements meant to guide life in community among those seeking to grow in faith together.

Three simple rules:

Do no harm.

This seems on the surface like an unnecessary word. Surely, grown adults don’t have to be told to not harm each other … right? Except that we do it all the time. Not in obvious ways, of course. Most of us don’t kill people or do boldly illegal things. We don’t play around with evil on purpose and we try to stay on the right side of the ten commandments. We know how to avoid the more conspicuous harmful things. But it turns out that some of the worst damage is inflicted not by the obvious things but by more subtle forms of unkindness. Greed causes Christians to do harm by making us stingy when we ought to be generous. Fear causes us to be unkind by fostering a lack of trust. Living an undisciplined life can wreak havoc on all our relationships. When we can’t follow through on commitments because we’ve over-committed, and when we don’t honor others’ time because we’re disorganized and unprepared, we frazzle other people and fray our relationships around the edges.

Think honestly about this. Do you use people for your own ambitious ends? Do you stretch yourself to your emotional limits, so that others have to contend with your mood swings? Do you tend to the state of your heart not just for your own sake, but for the sake of doing no harm to others?

Be clear on this: doing no harm does not mean “never disagree.” To the contrary, I’d say that sometimes a refusal to call someone out on their foolishness is the most harmful thing you can do to them, not to mention plain unkind. Who wants to be left to sit in their sin while others use politeness to avoid confrontation?

In the issues being debated in the UMC these days, there is a premium placed on tolerance. Yet, our core value as Christians is not tolerance but holiness. God commanded, “You are to be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16). Holiness informs my response to the culture around me. My opinions must be rooted in the values of holiness as I find them in the Bible. I don’t interpret the Bible in light of how the world turns. I interpret the world in light of the Bible, even when it means I will look a little crazy by the world’s standards.

Holiness does not give me a pass on practicing a whole host of other character-defining traits — patience, humility, gentleness, endurance, bearing with one another in love. When followers of Jesus take this call to holiness seriously then eventually, they will look less like the world and more like the Kingdom of Heaven in the ways they live life. I pray like crazy that as I live the art of holiness, I will “do no harm,” as Wesley counseled…

Do good.

If doing no harm is the “being” side of community-building, then doing good is the “doing” side. Authentic communities of Christ are doing communities…  It’s not that we work our way to heaven, but without works, there is no proof of what we believe. This is our divine design. Our faith is connected to what we do, and what we do connects us to each other…

Attend to the ordinances of God.

The ordinances of God are what we might call spiritual disciplines or means of grace — things like public worship, ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence, meeting together, and caring for the poor. The means of grace are the things I do that lead me more directly under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This rule, then, is a challenge toward spiritual transformation. It is an inspiration to grow more deeply into holiness…

When Wesley asks if we know the General Rules, I suspect he is really asking if we have owned them. When we own them, these rules are not really rules at all. They are our ticket to getting a Kingdom perspective and making a Kingdom investment for the sake of a Kingdom impact. It is one thing to know what is right. It is another thing completely to be committed to it. Am I concerned only for my immediate surroundings — my family, my workplace, my church — or do I have the mindset of a Kingdom Christian? Is my heart yet broken for the whole community of faith? Am I so committed to loving the other that I will hold myself accountable to holy practices that strengthen my own soul and by extension the fabric of the community of Christ?

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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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The Church is the Hope of the World (because Jesus is).

God likes churches, which all by itself says a lot about the unfathomable patience of God. Church people have a bit of a reputation for challenging the limits of good sense. Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay, did a Twitter poll a few years ago asking pastors to share their best stories of things church people fight over. He posted his favorites from the literally hundreds he received.

Some arguments we can almost imagine, like the discussion over the appropriate length of the worship pastor’s beard or whether or not he ought to wear shoes on stage. I’m not saying these are legitimate arguments, but that I can imagine people airing strong opinions. The comments I get about clothing and hair never cease to amaze.

Other arguments seem ridiculous even for church people. Some church members left their church because one church member hid the vacuum cleaner from them. And there was an argument over the type of filing cabinet to purchase and another over the type of green beans the church should serve. Two different churches reported fights over the type of coffee. In one, they moved from Folgers to a stronger Starbucks brand; in the other, they simply moved to a stronger blend. In both cases, people left the church over this. Then there was the disagreement over using the term “potluck” instead of “pot blessing.” And (my personal favorite) whether the church should allow deviled eggs at the church meal.

And this is what God has chosen as his primary vehicle for saturating the world with the gospel. In fact, he calls it his bride. God doesn’t just like the Church; he loves the Church. He married us. He isn’t just putting up with us. He wants us. Stunning, isn’t it? So when Jesus ascended into Heaven after his resurrection, he sent the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit’s work is to build the Church on earth. By revealing Jesus Christ as Messiah of the world, the Holy Spirit builds churches. Why? Because God has chosen the Church as his primary vehicle for saturating the world with the gospel, which is why in much of the world, the church is a very dangerous idea.

The 2018 World Watch List from Open Doors estimates that one in twelve Christians live where their faith is “illegal, forbidden, or punished.”

  • So far this year, 3,066 Christians have been killed, 1,252 abducted, 1,020 raped or sexually harassed, and 793 churches have been attacked.
  • North Korea is at the top of the list for persecution. “It is illegal to be a Christian in North Korea and Christians are often sent to labor camps or killed if they are discovered,”
  • Afghanistan ranks number two on the number of persecutions.
  • Six countries are on the World Watch list because of dictatorial paranoia. Five made the list for religious nationalism.
  • Communist and post-Communist oppression caused four nations to make the watch list, and organized crime and corruption put two others in the top fifty.
  • Pakistan recorded the most violence against Christians last year and was the worst in terms of church attacks, abductions, and forced marriages.

In so many other places in the world, church folks are not arguing over why the youth group used the crock pot to make cheese dip (true story). In most places in the world, church folks are waking up every day prepared to die. And yet, no other religion is growing at the rate of Christianity. In fact, countries seeing the greatest rate of growth in Christian conversions are also ranked highest in their rate of persecuting Christians.

The Church is the hope of the world, because  Jesus is.

It is, as a pastor in Hong Kong has said, “the most influential, counter-cultural and enduring organization that has ever existed in all of history.” There are more than 2 billion members worldwide — a third of the world’s population, up 300% in the last 100 years. As an entity, it is the biggest organization on the planet, twice as big as Facebook (which, by the way, is on the decline).

Meanwhile, the global growth of evangelical Protestants since 1940 has increased at three times the world’s population rate.  Compare that with atheism, the only belief system that has declined. Despite what it must feel like in our own culture some days, the Church is holding her own.

My friends, God is at work all around us — in ways we cannot imagine, don’t even know to look for. And the Church is where the Lord God does his best work. Maybe not in your church, mind you — which ought to make you think (and act) — but in and through The Church, Jesus is proving himself Lord … over and over again.

The Church is God’s home on earth — his Bride, his people — so we’d better fall in love with the Church. She is how God has chosen to organize his slow-burning but ever-advancing global revolution … one life at a time.

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Seeking higher ground: Conversations in the UMC

As conversations around the future of the UMC heat up in this Annual Conference season, I hold a prayer that we will elevate our discourse above the level of emotion. Here are a few things I’d like to hear in discussions around what comes next:

Let’s talk Christologically. Does the conversation about the future of the UMC begin with Jesus? If my experience is any indication, then the Lordship of Jesus–the exclusive nature of Jesus–is where we in the United Methodist Church part ways long before we ever get to the topic of sexual ethics. In the UMC, there is a great divergence around the nature and role of Jesus Christ; yet, we spend all our energy on other things. We rarely acknowledge what is. What is, for those of us who embrace an orthodox understanding of faith and truth, is that Jesus is the most true being. Those of us who are committed to absolute truth (and that Jesus alone embodies that Truth) also believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are not the authors of our faith. The author of our faith is Jesus Christ. In other words, we have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith. Our conversations must reflect this “Kingdom down” perspective while resisting the urge of a “humanity up” perspective. If we start with Jesus Christ, I suspect we will find plenty to discuss and (grievously) much on which we fundamentally disagree.

Let’s talk biblically. Are our debates rooted in scripture? We all live under the same blue sky. Anyone who is practicing faith in Christ with love and integrity is in relationship with people … all kinds of people. We are all navigating all kinds of relationships and stories and we want God’s best for people we love. We who are pastors contend for souls daily. However, theological tents are not built on a foundation of who we know, love and want included. If we are going to talk about the future of the UMC, let’s talk biblically and not just anecdotally. When the Minnesota Annual Conference chooses to substitute the name for God in the Apostle’s Creed, that provides plenty of fodder for discussion. Does an official United Methodist entity have the right to change something as fundamental as the biblical terms of our creed? After all, Methodism is a defined theology. There are lines we can not cross while remaining true to our tradition.

Let’s talk globally. Do our discussions about unity take into account the global nature of the UMC? Let’s talk about John 3:16. Jesus told us that God so loved the world that he gave his Son. The world, not just our corner of it. Let’s discuss the values of the typical follower of Jesus anywhere on the African continent, or in the Philippines, or South America. Do we understand that a call to unity that doesn’t include them is not a call to unity at all in a global connection? Please understand that a decision to wrap ourselves around an American cultural ethic will alienate us from an African UMC. An American church that has separated from our global connection is far more detrimental to our personality and theology as a denomination than any decision to uphold our Book of Discipline as it stands. You and I are not the only ones deciding whether we stay or go. There are a world of people making that choice … literally. In fact, they are contending in ways we cannot fathom. One African brother told me, “I wake up every morning prepared to die.” I thank God we are a global connection and that my friend’s drive to wake up daily contending for the faith is part of who we are. But as I’ve said myself, anecdotes won’t win the day so let’s talk about Revelation 7:9. That’s how we’ll guard against cultural drift. If you want to talk about unity, make certain we include the global connection in that conversation.

Let’s talk systemically. Are we thinking centered sets or bounded sets? This would make for great conversation in this season. The concept of “centered sets” and “bounded sets” emerges from the mission field (you can read about it here or here), and it describes what happens when communities choose “bounded set,” “fuzzy set,” or “open set” thinking over “centered set” thinking. Bounded sets draw a line between the world and the congregation. Open sets have no boundaries at all. Fuzzy sets thrive on a lack of clarity. But centered sets cast a clear vision for a community’s values, then invite folks to orient toward those values.

Centered-set thinking reminds me that the responsibility for a person’s orientation toward the truth is theirs, not mine. Likewise, it is not for me to widen the tent pegs to make sure everyone is inside, never mind the direction they are pointed. I am responsible for pointing toward the center of my set; so are you. How far I am from that center is not the issue so much as whether I am pointed toward or away from the agreed-upon center. Centered-set communities allow adults to take responsibility for their choices as well as their spiritual progress. What it does not allow for is changing the center to suit your tastes. Be where you are, but don’t ask others to change direction so you don’t have to.

Let’s talk eschatologically. Do our discussions rest on the assurance that the Church of Jesus Christ will continue undeterred from its mission, whatever is decided by this denomination? Let’s talk about how our ecclesiology can be better rooted in our eschatology. Remember that the Church extends nearly 2000 years further back than the fifty-year history of the UMC. The next iteration of our tribe (whether it is some altered version of the UMC or something else) will be robust and hopeful. We know this, because we know how the story ends. Jesus wins. His Church (the Body of Christ on earth) can’t be killed. We may be rearranging chairs on a deck, but we are not on the Titanic. Methodist theology will continue (there are 80 million Methodists of varying flavors in the world and 279 million Pentecostals; our tribe is not going anywhere and in fact, is growing in other places). I am committed to the process of The Commission on a Way Forward and certainly to our brand of theology; but if our denomination makes a fundamental shift away from the values of historic Christianity, I am not fearful of what comes next. The gospel of Jesus Christ will keep right on rolling toward His second coming and I’ll do my best to keep pace because I  don’t want to get left behind.

Let’s talk health … not just survival. Being unequivocal about our beliefs and values is simply good relational work. We must all decide in these days where our boundaries are; to have none is simply not Methodist. Nor is it healthy. This is the fundamental problem with the “one church” proposal. It may support survival, but for all the reasons above it isn’t healthy. I contend it isn’t even Methodist. My friends in Christ, sound theology is worth the fight. Setting clear values and making a firm statement about what they are does not mean giving up; it means we care. What progress we could make if we choose to elevate our conversations to the level of theology over institutionalism or emotionalism, respecting each other even as we expect folks who commit to a covenant to keep it. Without that expectation, there can be no health.

As I head to Annual Conference this week, I’m looking forward to robust conversations and pray that we will all seek higher ground.

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Do the Hokey Pokey (and other messages that will screw up your life).

The day they decided to make “The Hokey Pokey” into a staple in roller skating rinks was the day our country went downhill. Who thought it was a good idea to put wheels on the feet of a circled-up group of six-year-olds, then tell them to pick one foot up and shake it all about?

That person who thought of that was a special kind of demented.

Nonetheless, here’s what the hokey pokey gets right. When you’re putting your left foot in and taking your left foot out, you’re going to end up going around in circles. You’re unstable. It is exhausting to have yourself in two different places at once and almost impossible to keep your balance. When you’re putting your whole self in but then turning around and taking your whole self out, that’s not productive, either. That’s tough, not just on you but everyone around you.

When “Hokey Pokey” living is your default mode — “I’ll do this halfway, on one foot” or “I’ll be in until I’m not comfortable” — you never get beyond a two-foot radius of yourself and you create chaos for everyone else (I still have nightmares of being at someone’s skating-rink birthday party, standing too close to someone who fell while doing the Hokey Pokey).

Hokey-pokey postures are not for followers of Jesus. Our call requires us to be all in. Surely this was beneath the question John Wesley asked of ordinands: Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work? In other words, are you all in This is a question about wholeheartedness. Wesley wants to know of those signing up to spread the gospel if they are willing to give themselves completely to this work. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly? In your study and worship and fellowship and serving and in the truth you share, are you passionately committed to the pursuit of wholeness so you can be in passionate pursuit of the presence of Christ?

Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work?

This is like the anti-hokey pokey question. When Wesley asked this question of his pastors, he wanted to know if the people who resolve to be church leaders are all in or if they plan to put their left foot in then take it out when things get rough. Folks who can’t be all in not only exhaust themselves; they exhaust us.

What does it mean to become whole, by biblical standards? Surely it begins with Paul’s advice to work out your own salvation daily with fear and trembling. Stay in it, Paul advises, and wrestle with what it looks like in your life. Wholeheartedness begins with a commitment to spiritual/emotional/relational healing. Let the daily wrestling expose the cracks and wounds. Deal with the unholy fears that paralyze you, leaving you stranded out there in the desert, unable to make the journey into the promises of God. Acknowledge your doubts, and dare to believe God can handle them. Become accountable to someone else who will ask the tough questions.

To become wholehearted, we must deal with our wounds and hesitations, fears and doubts even as we develop eyes to see what God sees. Then pursue the Holy Spirit. Allow the voice of the Spirit to teach you the values of God so they sink in and become part of you. Pursue the art of holiness, which goes so much deeper than good behavior.

Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly? Not half-heartedly. Not with your spare change and spare time. Not only as far as your comforts will take you. Not fearfully, but wholly to God and his work? This is the natural end of wholeheartedness: it is to be whole, holy and all in. Without that kind of vulnerable, wholehearted faith, it is impossible to please God.

(Portions of this blog are taken from my book recently published by Abingdon Press. You can find The 19 here.)

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How men can support women leaders

The story is often told of a time when Bill Gates was speaking to a group of Saudi Arabian businessmen and political leaders. Most in the room were men; any women present were veiled and sat in a separate section according to custom. After his speech, Gates took questions, during which time an audience member commented on the rank of Saudi Arabia in the field of technology, asking what Gates thought might lift his country into the top ten globally.

“Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates responded, noting the paucity of females present, “you’re not going to get too close to the top ten.”¹

It is not news that women lag behind men in leading in both secular and sacred arenas. What may not be so obvious is that the progress of women toward narrowing that gap has slowed and in some cases stalled in recent years. This is just as true in the business sector as in the religious sector. Consider the results of these studies:

  • According to the 2013 Catalyst Census conducted by Fortune Magazine, there was no increase in the number of women in executive positions, with women holding less than fifteen percent of executive roles.
  • According to The National Congregations Study conducted by Duke University, pastors in America are becoming more diverse and older but since 1998 they have not become more female.
  • Dawn Wiggins Hare with the Commission on the Status and Role of Women reports that the number of women clergy in the United Methodist Church has not increased since 2009.
  • A National Congregations Study reports, “Despite large percentages of female seminarians and increased numbers of female clergy in some denominations, women lead only a small minority of American congregations. Moreover, we do not detect any increase since 1998 in the overall percentage of congregations led by women.”³

Here’s the real irony: in a field dominated by men, it is male spiritual leaders who have the most opportunity to influence the next generation of women called into leadership. What can men do to affirm and encourage women called and gifted to lead in ministry? Here are a few places to begin:

Root your decisions about leadership in a Wesleyan understanding of scripture. Having a well-researched, well-prayed-over egalitarian theology will help you make more confident choices about giving both women and men leadership responsibilities. An egalitarian view says that while the Fall (Genesis 3) is responsible for setting men and women against each other in an antagonistic or hierarchical relationship, the intended purpose at creation (Genesis 1 and 2) was for men and women to stand together as equal partners. If this is true (and I believe it is), then we want to operate and make decisions that support a pre-fall view of human design. In other words, we value people based on gifts and call and do not exclude them because of gender.

Commit to making decisions that reflect the values and spiritual maturity of an elder in the New Testament Church of Jesus Christ. What motivates your leadership choices? Are you so spiritually formed that you can maturely mentor, hire and encourage women without fear or intimidation? Have you done the spiritual spadework needed to develop strong mental and physical boundaries? This ends up being an important piece of the puzzle. Unless we are emotionally and spiritually mature, our discomfort with the other gender will keep us from confidently leading. Remember that the gospel clearly calls us to take responsibility for our own minds and bodies, not to ask others to bear that weight.

Give women who are called and gifted access to every level of leadership. Are there places in your church where women are excluded? Are there tables to which they are not invited? Please understand that a lifetime of experiencing subtle biases has given most women a sensitivity to those places where we are excluded. That may be something we have to deal with and heal from but nonetheless, we know when we’re not welcome and it makes a difference in how we live out our potential and contribute to the coming Kingdom.

Pray for God to give you an urgency to welcome and advance the Kingdom of God on earth. As God answers that prayer, you will become more attuned to those he has placed in your community who are ready, willing and qualified to lead along with you. When you find them, take authority over your role as apostle and pastor by pouring into them as leaders, whether they are men or women. Genuinely qualified women leaders are starving for solid, qualified, Kingdom-minded mentors and coaches who care so much about Kingdom priorities that they will do whatever it takes to make sure that cause is advanced.

 

1. Dale, Felicity, et al. The Black Swan Effect: A Response to Gender Hierarchy in the
Church. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007, kindle loc 882.

2. Leach, Tara Beth. “Dear Bill Hybels and Other Men Who Affirm Women in Ministry.”
MissioAlliance. August 10, 2015.

3. National Congregations Study. “Religious Congregations in 21st Century America.” http:/
www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSIII_report_final.pdf

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

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

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

1. Have you faith in Christ?

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

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

2. Are you going on to perfection?

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

C. S. Lewis wrote,

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

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

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

4. Are you earnestly striving after it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Will you keep them?

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

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

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

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

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

10. Will you preach and maintain them?

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

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

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

12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?

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

13. Will you support and maintain them?

See above.

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

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

15. Will you visit from house to house?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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