Soldiering through …

The following is written primarily for the people of Mosaic Church, whom I am honored to serve. I post it here as an encouragement to others who may be looking for words to share with their congregation in the wake of recent developments within the United Methodist Church (UMC). If these words help, feel free to use them.

Friends,
I am grateful for your good spirit. That you are reading this tells me you care about our community. Some of you have been aware of the UMC crisis for a while, but for those just now learning about it, thank you for taking a few minutes now to get acclimated. After reading this, don’t hesitate to call me if you’re left with questions. And remember our prayer gathering on Sunday, January 12 at 6:00 p.m. in the worship space. After a time of prayer, I’ll be glad to talk with anyone who has questions.

The news we received last week (you can read about it here, here, or here) about a new agreement for a denominational separation along theological lines comes to me as a deep relief. Having worked as a small part of a much larger group for several years toward some kind of resolution, I realize just how much time, energy, prayer, and even compromise — poured out on all sides of our current divide — it took to get here. Without context, the headlines in the national media might seem harsh and this plan to separate may come as a surprise. But for many who have been on this journey for years, this represents a significant and hopeful step forward.

Most headlines last week led with the idea that the crux of the crisis is a disagreement over the status and role of LGBT persons in the leadership of the church. I want to emphasize that in my experience, the crisis in the UMC doesn’t rest on one issue. Others would agree. David French, writer for the blog “The French Press” shares accurately in his post entitled, “The Sad, Necessary Division of the United Methodist Church”:

The secular media will cast the divide primarily in the terms it understands—as focused on “LGBT issues”—but that’s incomplete. The true fracturing point between Mainline and Evangelical churches is over the authority and interpretation of scripture. The debate over LGBT issues is a consequence of the underlying dispute, not its primary cause…there is a strain of Protestant Christianity that views the Bible as valuable but not infallible or inerrant. Evangelical Christians, by contrast, strongly dissent from that view.

That seems an accurate statement to me. Our divide has been forming for years over multiple issues that are very real and very deep. They strike at the fundamentals of historical Christian orthodoxy. How we interpret scripture and relate to the person and work of Jesus Christ is at the headwaters of this crisis, but it is also important to note that our inability to hold one another accountable where we disagree only exacerbates the problem. With no one willing to do the hard work of walking out decisions made by our General Conference, the result is a kind of anarchy that is excruciating.

In this rapidly changing denominational culture, we have all now come to the conclusion that the only way forward that holds integrity is to bless and send each other out — to separate. Toward that end, a high-level conversation led to the agreement or protocol that made the news last week. For what it is worth, I am on the executive council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association — a group formed within the UMC three years ago to represent a traditional, Wesleyan theological position — and in that role have had some access to this process of hammering out an agreement. I am as pleased with the agreement that has been reached as one can be, given the inevitable compromises. There are still many miles to go before General Conference approves that agreement in May (and many more miles afterward to flesh it out) but many of us believe there is enough agreement around the table to support this plan. I hope it will pass.

The United Methodist Church is my tribe, and I’ll be sad to separate from it. But before I’m a United Methodist I am a follower of Jesus. I will preach the faith of our fathers — a faith that billions have lived and died for. I will not step back from that gospel. It is life to me. It is life to us. It is our hope and our peace. Rest assured that our take on Christianity is not the minority report — though in our corner of the world it may seem that way. The vast majority of the global Christian Church embraces the historical position of the Christian faith.

Please pray for our UMC. These are hard days for many people. I sense the anxiety among my clergy colleagues and can’t imagine the stress our bishops must be carrying. There are so many more questions than answers for how this will play out structurally, and they have great responsibilities on their shoulders. If we can manage this well, however, our effort will be historic. We are all praying for a better witness than what we’ve had.

Mosaic’s Vision Team has been talking about the crisis in the UMC for several years. We have had multiple church-wide informational meetings. I’ve so appreciated your honest sharing through those conversations. It ought to come as a blessed relief that with approval of this agreement, we will be able to keep our assets, including our building. Having worked so hard for so long to buy and build this building and develop ministries with this space in mind, that’s something you deserve and I’m pleased it is now a realistic outcome. We will continue to pray and seek Jesus while we walk out the process of this proposed separation. And as soon as we at Mosaic are able to separate from the current UMC and become part of a new Wesleyan movement, I hope and pray we will do so enthusiastically. Remember: we have nothing to do but to save souls. Let’s spend and be spent in that work.

I think I can speak for our Vision Team and staff team today in saying that we grieve the pain of so many in the UMC who really don’t want any kind of separation. We also hear the words of Jesus who said of divorce in general that Moses allowed it only because of the hardness of our hearts. “But this wasn’t so from the beginning,” he said. If you’ve ever been divorced, you understand that sometimes the thing we want least is also the only option left. And sometimes that thing represents hardness. So we grieve the public witness of irreconcilable differences, even while we grieve a Church that has abandoned the historic faith. And I grieve my own shortcomings and the things I don’t even know that I don’t know. It seems right to approach anything like this with deep humility, understanding the impact it can have on a lost and hurting world.

One last word: For some within our church, this turn of events may not be good news. If that’s you, I hope you’ll hear that in our “house” we will always let the Holy Spirit lead as we pursue truth. We will always let grace shape our conversations, and we will always remember that the Christian life is a journey, not a moment. Where there are disagreements, may we give each other room to walk this out. Not one of us came clean to the Christian experience, and not one of us is finished yet.

I am so honored to serve as your pastor, and in these days especially, your faith and commitment to the gospel inspire me. Let’s be about our “one thing” and trust God!

Until all worship,
Carolyn

P.S. — More than 1500 churches and well over 100,000 people are being represented by the WCA. Our church is among its members. If you’d like to join personally, you can do so here. You’ll also find more information there about what is to come.

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Learning to Live with Loss

Loss is a normal part of life. On this side of Genesis 3, everyone has bad days, everyone grieves, everyone sins, everyone makes mistakes. In the final analysis, it isn’t if we will suffer, but what we do with it that counts. Healthy grief is an expression of the value of life — how much we treasure it, how much goodness and love we find in this life. When we grieve, we are fighting toward goodness and love. Here are a few ways that might help you in that fight:

First, find a way of praying that fits you for this season. Don’t worry about how anyone else prays, or even how you prayed on your good days. Find a way of talking to God that works for you now.

I discovered when my mother died that what used to work for me in my prayer life didn’t work for me in that valley. When she was most sick, I simply could not pray my own words. I remember telling my pastor I was out of prayers. But in my grief, I discovered the Psalms. I remember sitting in bed at night reading the Psalms and thinking how they said everything I could ever have wanted to say to God … and more. I fed on them. I hadn’t been a big fan before that but for the first time in my life, the Psalms really meant something to me.

Because the Psalms were written for people in pain, they might be a good starting place if you’re having a hard time praying right now. YouVersion has some great reading plans through the Psalms. One I’ve looked at that might work for you is called Journal Psalms. The last line of the first day is a keeper: “I don’t need to know why as long as I know the One who knows why.” Find a way of praying that fits you.

Let others pray for you. I actually think that’s what Paul was talking about when he said in Romans 8:26-27 that the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. He says there will be times, “We don’t even know what we should pray for, or how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads over us in harmony with God’s own will.”

There will be times when you won’t know what to pray. There may be times when the best you’ve got is groaning. When those times hit, be at peace. You’re in good company. Sometimes the Holy Spirit groans, too. In those times, don’t try too hard but do reach out. Ask others to pray for you, to hold hope for you. And ask the Holy Spirit to pray for you, too.

Be honest with God about your feelings. Curling up in a fetal position for the month of December, cussing out the cashier at Walmart, or checking out on folks who may just want to get you outside yourself for a few hours might all sound like good ideas right now, but they may not be your best options. When things feel desperate, remember that it is no shame to grieve and that while others may not get that, God does. It is okay to be honest with Him about your feelings, even if they aren’t sanctified. Psalm 23 tells us our shepherd will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes that valley is spiritual and that shadow is doubt, but the word promises that even when we walk through the valley of death, he is close.

It is okay to be happy. I hope you have good days in this season. I hope you find reasons to laugh, to relax, to feel even for a few hours like things will be okay. When those moments strike, soak in them. It is okay to be happy, to remember the good things. The one you’re missing would surely want you to have good days and big smiles along the way.

So maybe you haven’t had losses this year but folks around you have. How can you best be with them in a season when you may not be in the same emotional spot? Here is one thought for you (or maybe a thought you can share with someone who is trying to help you in your grief): Try to understand, rather than fix. Clichés are not helpful, especially ones that have no basis in scripture. God does not need another angel (and if he does he can make one). Everything does not happen for a good reason. And even if God will give us strength to handle anything, we don’t always want to be strong. Those aren’t usually the best encouragements for someone who is grieving but being there is. Just being present may be the difference between depression and joy for someone who feels lonely. Why not call and ask a grieving friend to lunch or a movie or a walk or coffee. And if they decline, that’s okay. Reach out again in a week or so. Grief is funny: what we don’t want today (or just don’t have energy for) is exactly what we need next week). Be patient with those swings.

In Psalm 23, David paints for us a picture of a table laden with a feast, to which we are invited. Not only are we invited, but the psalm tells us our enemies have to watch while we eat. They don’t get to be there with us. Imagine that! There you are, at a table filled with good things, and all your griefs, sorrows and disappointments are not invited. You get to feast but your grief is not fed. Jesus invites you to feast, but your suffering and pain are not invited. Your spirit is being nourished at this table, while all that breeds death is being starved.

Imagine yourself there now, at this feasting table with Jesus. Will you thank him for this feast? Will you thank him for giving you a place at the table? Thank him for the feast of grace and righteousness that leads to life. Thank him for being your shepherd, your provider, your protector, your savior. Thank him for praying over you in groans when you grieve, and for not letting you stay in the valley but walking you through.

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Seven hopeful words for grieving souls

As the holidays ramp up, here are seven things we can know that speak hope to grieving or stressed-out souls:

God is good. C. S. Lewis was one of the top two or three theologians of the 20th century. He lost his wife after a late-life marriage and he dealt with that loss by writing a lot about grief. He would say of God, “God is not safe, but he is good.” I don’t know if that truth hits you like it hits me when I’m down, but when I am down that becomes a critical piece for me. My mom died while I was in seminary (I was 34) and I remember my professor asking in class one day to name the most fundamental truth about God. I answered immediately that God is good. He told me that no, the most fundamental statement is that God is love. Which I know but I remember thinking that day, “Nope. Not for me. Today, in order for me to trust God at all while I drive eight hours back and forth every weekend to see my dying mother, what matters most that God is good.” Whatever the end-game, I need to know that even if I don’t understand all that happens, the God over it is good.

God is alive. Visit a country that believes in ancestor worship or idol worship and you’ll see the stark difference between our brand of hope and theirs. Rows and rows of idols representing ancestors who have died (with rocks piled on them, which are the prayers of family members) and rows and rows of trees with wishes tied to their branches. Rocks praying to stones. Paper praying to wood. Meanwhile, we profess this radical truth, that Jesus in the flesh is seated at the right hand of God the Father. Hebrews 9:11 calls him the high priest of good things to come (Jesus is the high priest of hope!). Everything we believe hinges on this truth: “Because I live, you shall live also” (John 14:!9).

Death does not get the last word. Which is not at all the same as saying death doesn’t matter. It does. Your loss matters and your sorrow in the face of it is perfectly legitimate. It is okay to be sad and even to hold gratitude and grief in the same hand. One doesn’t cancel out the other. I read the story somewhere of this indigenous village in Australia. When someone in that village dies, everyone else in the village moves a piece of furniture from their house out into their front yard. So the next morning when the person who has lost someone wakes up and looks outside their house, all over the neighborhood there is furniture in the yard. The compassionate message being sent to the grieving one is that yes, the world has changed. It does not go on as if nothing has happened. We can acknowledge that things may never “get back to normal” without ditching all hope. We can learn to walk in gratitude toward all we have even while we carry our loss. Friend, your loss is noticed, it matters, and it might not be fixable. But it doesn’t get the last word. An empty tomb promises us that.

I can survive death … both now and when my own life is over. The Old Testament feasts teach us the power of remembering. They were given by God to help the Israelites act out and remember their story. In Exodus 12, God tells the people, “Eventually, you’ll have kids who won’t remember what we’ve been through, and they won’t be able move forward if you don’t show them where you’ve been.” Even today, when Passover is celebrated by Jewish people, the youngest person in the room has the privilege of asking this question to invoke the telling of the story of the Jewish people being delivered from slavery: “What makes this day different from all other days?” God told the Israelites, “When the children ask, you tell them, ‘We do this because God is great, because He brought us up out of our slavery into a desert and toward his promises.” Sometimes the way forward is best charted by remembering where we’ve been and who brought us through. Remembering, we learn, is part of resurrection. And sometimes remembering is how we get courage to keep going. Perhaps a good way to begin this season is by choosing something to remember and celebrate. Or ask a friend to sit with you so you can share memories together. The Bible teaches us that we survive not by distraction but by remembering.

I can know why, even if I can’t know why right now. Maybe the hardest part of grief is the mystery of it. We are so sure that if we could just know the “why” we’d feel so much better. Not knowing the “why” is hard. Why did I have to lose someone I loved so much? Why is my marriage loveless? Why do my children suffer with illness or disability? Why so much loss and emotional pain? The questions that don’t have answers can be so frustrating but as it turns out, truth is not a set of principles we can logic through to find relief. Truth is a person. Which means the answer to your “why” is “Who.” It is Jesus being willing to be with me in my grief, without words, unjealously, unswervingly, peacefully there. And it is Jesus who teaches me to be a friend to those around me. In the face of our own pain, God may not give us all the answers we’re hoping for but he gives us himself, which is so much better in the long run than the temporary fix of cheap advice. I can know why, but maybe not now and maybe not even in this lifetime. But as it turns out, knowing Who is enough.

I can hope without being disappointedif my ultimate hope is attached to the Infinite. God has been talking to me lately about the difference between fantasies and hope. I am a master at wanting things I can’t have. Not stuff, so much. But I’ll get some crazy idea about what success looks like and then I get so frustrated when that thing I dreamed up doesn’t happen. What I’m beginning to learn is that things I dream up and then desperately want have no substance. They never were true, are not true now and never will be true. Since there is no substance to an impossible idea, its only function is to frustrate. Meanwhile real hope — biblical hope, hope with substance to it — is rooted in Jesus and his Kingdom. The Bible actually puts it just that way: hope is the substance of things not yet seen (Hebrews 11:1). That means real hope — though it is still unseen by us — exists substantially in God’s Kingdom. For those who grieve, this is both challenge and good news. We may have to put to death our frustrated fantasies — the “if onlys” that feed our disappointment and discouragement — but we can hope again, if we are willing to hope away from those fantasies and toward Jesus and his Kingdom.

Life is worth the fight. This world and our place in it is worth fighting for. Even if we have suffered, we live in a world created by a good God who lives, and who invites us to live also. We live in a world being reclaimed day by day by a Savior who loves us and who invites us to the other side of sin, suffering, hopelessness, pain and death. We live in a world in need of what we bring to the table. A worship song I lean on (10,000 Reasons, by Matt Redman) has this verse about learning to praise God all the way through, in this life and in the life to come:

And on that day, When my strength is failing, The end draws near, and my time has come … Still my soul will sing Your praise unending, ten thousand years and then forevermore.

In a stressful and often lonely season, my you find so many good reasons to praise our good God and trust what he is doing … even if you don’t have all the answers.

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Church.

This message, preached at Mosaic a couple of weeks ago, is one I’d love for you to listen to. I love the Church, and I love talking about it, and I’m particularly grateful to serve where we practice being the Church every day, for the sake of sharing the gospel with a lost and hurting world. When you get time, listen:

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The difference between spiritual friendship and friendly conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Praying Against the Spirit of Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Due Diligence in the UMC: Not just to be understood, but to understand

Not long ago, I sat in on a discussion between two seminary professors who presented opposing views on the biblical interpretation of marriage. The discussion was hosted by an Atlanta church (you can watch it here) and was attended by hundreds. Earlier in this season, I attended another event held in the Atlanta area hosted by a progressive coalition. We heard stories of those who have found their home in the LGBT community when it wasn’t available to them inside the church. A third experience has been more personal. A queer, married pastor in the UMC has reached out for conversation with the mutual understanding that neither of us will change the mind of the other. We trade texts, compare news stories with what we know to be more true, and try to listen.

I’ve appreciated these opportunities. Beyond these, I’ve also been reading the research, because I know I need more understanding. We need to learn how to hear each other not in order to “win” or persuade or even find common ground but so we can genuinely understand the depth of our differences on key issues like human sexuality, Christology, ecclesiology and biblical interpretation.

Can I say that again? We need less lecturing and more listening so we can actually understand the depth of conviction most of us hold around the crucial theological issues that divide us. In the gentle work of hearing and understanding, I believe we’ll discover not how alike we are but how much we ought to respect the differences. And how wise it will be for us to create space for those differences to prove themselves.

A huge part of understanding for me has been intentional exposure both to events and research especially around human sexuality and gender identity. This is a kairos moment for pastors, an opportunity to teach people in our care what we believe so we can guide them into deeper theological waters. Folks in our care deserve not only a fair account of the gospel but a clear and educated understanding of where the leadership of their church stands. How else can they make an informed choice about their spiritual care?

In the list that follows, I offer a few resources that have helped me begin to get acclimated toward greater understanding where issues of human sexuality are concerned. I’ve learned from these teachers how to more sensitively articulate both my position and how it contrasts with other worldviews. I’ve also learned how to better pastor my people, particularly youth and young adults who desperately need an orthodox, Wesleyan vocabulary. I encourage you to explore this list (and share it) and get started on your own journey toward greater understanding:

Mark Yarhouse — Understanding Sexual Identity. This book is written especially for youth leaders, offering an exceptional teaching on how identity forms in young people. I lead off with this book because I believe today’s youth pastors have an incredibly challenging call and need a whole new vocabulary for meeting students where they are. Every youth leader ought to read this book. Yarhouse has authored a second book to equip parents for the conversation: Homosexuality and the Christian: A guide for parents, pastors and friends.

David Bennett — A War of Loves. Bennett tells his own compelling story of navigating the church world as a gay teen. He eventually makes his way into the classroom of N. T. Wright, where he finds a context for his circumstances that is life-giving. He spends the second half of this book making recommendations of reform to the Christian church in light of national conversations about human sexuality. Bennett has helped me understand just how we idolize sex, even inside the church. Exceptional read.

Mark Ongley — Into the Light: Healing Sexuality in Today’s Church. What I love about Ongley’s contribution to the conversation is that he widens the net to include a wide range of sexual wounds — “infidelity, sexual abuse, incest, emotional adultery, and sexual addiction, to name a few.” Ongley reminds us (as do critics of the conservative position, and rightly so) that sexual brokenness is not the property of one group of people. The church desperately needs an openness to addressing the whole range of unholy behaviors we bend toward to feed our cravings.

Preston Sprinkle — A People to Be Loved. Sprinkle is a theologian and solid Bible scholar who deals in depth with every Bible verse (and every word of every verse) up for debate in the human sexuality discussion. He is very upfront about his desire to engage the scriptures objectively with fresh eyes and vulnerability. His work answers too many decades of insensitive exegesis. From my perspective, he treats the scriptures, the issues, and people affected by the conversation with great sensitivity. If you have not done your own complete and objective exegesis of the passages under debate, this should be required reading. Sprinkle’s website contains all kinds of articles and resources on the topic. Start here.

Wesley Hill — Spiritual Friendship. Hill has written and spoken extensively on issues related to human sexuality and has produced a lot of solid resources. Personally, I’d have you start with Spiritual Friendship simply because I believe Hill champions an important topic for the Church. Until we reclaim the value of spiritual friendship and begin to emphasize the importance of biblical communities, we will miss our opportunity to minister in compassionate ways to those who choose celibacy as a holy response to same-sex attraction. Hill’s book on spiritual friendship should be required reading for every person joining a church. He also gives a brief overview of his thesis in a talk at Biola University. Well worth the half-hour it takes to listen. Hill’s Washed and Waiting is a classic defense of celibacy in singleness (you can hear an overview of it here).

Grant Hartley — Redeeming Queer Culture: An Adventure. Hartley gave this (somewhat controversial) talk at a ReVoice conference to both educate his audience on some of the more recent history of the LGBT movement in America and also pose some evangelistic possibilities. I believe the themes of this talk if taken seriously could help us shape a whole new way of treasuring community life, and for that reason I think the talk is worth your time. In general, we all need a more robust theology surrounding what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth. For Christians, community is essential.

Jackie Perry — Gay Girl, Good God. Perry is a rap artist turned preacher and spoken word artist who tells her own story of transformation. She writes with remarkable authority on issues of human sexuality from a biblically orthodox perspective. You’ll find a lot of other good material from Jackie on YouTube. Start here.

Ryan Anderson – When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Anderson was widely criticized for undertaking this study of gender dysphoria and gender identity in the U.S., but his work is well researched and presented with great compassion. This book will give you a starkly different view of gender-identity issues than what you’ll find in media stories.

Pope John Paul II — The Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage (Theology of the Body). Pope John Paul’s seminal work building a comprehensive theology of the body ought to be required reading for every seminary student, and the good news is that you can read it here for free. Dr. Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, has taken the themes of Pope John Paul’s work, and turned them into both chapel talks and blog posts. His series of articles reflecting on those themes can be found here. I found Dr. Tennent’s work to be accessible and helpful as I developed my own sermon series around these same themes.

Ravi Zacharias — Years ago when I was just returning to the faith, I happened across Dr. Zacharias’ radio show and distinctly remember being amazed to hear a Christian talking intelligently on such a wide range of issues. He is both bold and loving in his apologetic. Listen to his well-reasoned defense of an orthodox view of human sexuality here.

N.T. Wright — As a theologian, Wright stands in the company of such contemporary greats as C. S. Lewis. Listen to his position on same-sex attraction here.

Let me offer these brief articles as one more resource for those attempting to shape a pastoral approach to these delicate issues. Centered-set thinking was a concept first formed on the mission field, and I’ve found it useful in framing discussions about controversial theological issues. I discuss it in two blog posts, here and here. Centered-set thinking has been most helpful in shaping a theologically rooted ecclesiology in a pluralistic world.

Finally, let me acknowledge the obvious. This list is both incomplete and unapologetically biased. I realize it omits a progressive perspective, but that returns us to my initial point. I have deeply held convictions from which I teach and preach and those are the positions I champion. As a pastor, it is not my charge to remain neutral (Jesus had strong warnings against settling with “lukewarm”). If your view contrasts with mine, please compile and share your resources. You’ll be better informed than I at creating such a list. I hope you’re helped by my list; I’m sure I’ll be helped by yours.

Let’s encourage understanding. I believe our path through may just be not in minimizing theological and ecclesiological differences but in understanding and respecting just how real they are.

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Thoughts on the way to Annual Conference

I practice ministry as a theologically conservative and socially engaged Methodist. I preach that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the universe — the way, the truth and the life, the exclusive path to God our Father. I believe these are the headwaters of orthodoxy and that unless we Methodists agree on that bedrock truth, subsequent conversations about the nature of salvation or holiness — or denominational unity, for that matter — are pointless. To proclaim the Kingdom is to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Wesleyan theology gave me a framework for loving God and others that is life-giving. Being settled in that theology has allowed me to practice this faith joyfully among the people God has sent into my spiritual care. Denominationally, however, holding a socially engaged, theologically conservative line inside the UMC has been a strain. Even if I am committed to grace-infused, love-filled ministry alongside the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, my position still seems intolerant or unkind to some. To maintain these doctrines in the face of others’ suffering draws up arguments about what love is and what justice means. I sense the tension. No genuinely loving person could avoid it. But I have settled in my own heart how loving God and loving others fits together in a theologically orthodox construct.

I remember talking years ago to someone who was once married to a rather grating celebrity, a person who created a lot of controversy. Over the years she’d heard all the disparaging comments and had become used to the kind of response I gave when she told me who she’d once been married to. I flinched. She’d obviously seen that flinch before because she was ready for it. She said, “I am not asking you to understand why I married him … but he was my husband, and I loved him.”

I was humbled by that. You don’t know another person’s story. You never know why people dedicate themselves as they do to their positions, long past what others would tolerate. In the case of conflicts within the UMC, we don’t know all there is to know about how any of us comes at social issues and Wesleyan theology. While we are called to listen and respect one another, we are not required to be without our own deeply held convictions.

This much I know: I (like all my United Methodist colleagues) have publicly and formally committed to preach and maintain a specific set of stated doctrines. Methodism is not an institutional brand, like McDonald’s (no offense to McDonald’s, which actually does a much better job of providing a consistent product). We are not defined by a logo or tagline. We are defined by our theological task. In other words, I don’t get to decide what it means to be Methodist. That has already been decided, and my part as an ordained clergy person is to embrace and live it out. Some have decided that for them, this isn’t possible any more; yet, they remain in our covenantal tribe. This is the rub.

Early on in this denominational debate, it was considered treasonous to express a hope for creative separation along theological lines. Some of us have privately expressed that hope for years. We believe that given our circumstances, it holds integrity to set folks free to explore their beliefs without angrily imposing undue financial burdens on those who simply cannot in good conscience remain in the UMC as it stands — conflicted, chaotic, theologically disconnected.

Today, we not only must take that hope seriously but must actively work toward it. At this point, to angrily persist in a “one church” spirit that is in no way loving or respectful of irreconcilable beliefs seems the least loving option of all. It is certainly the least faithful posture toward a free-will theology that is invitational at its core.

That said, these facts ought to guide every influential conversation between now and General Conference 2020:

  • Some believe deeply and unshakably in an orthodox interpretation of the Bible that encompasses both a high Christology and a traditional view of marriage and sexuality. Doing so does not necessarily imply a lack of love for people —ALL people — or a desire (and ability) to serve people where they are.
  • Some believe LGBTQ+ persons — even those actively engaged in same-sex relationships — are called by God to both marriage and ordained leadership and that the Church should be affirming of their position. Some in this camp (not all) also espouse a more progressive approach to salvation and holiness. Doing so does not necessarily imply a lack of love for the Bible or Jesus.
  • Some can sit in the tension between progressive, affirming-but-evangelical, and orthodox theologies and be completely at peace with asking even those who disagree to live under one banner. Doing so does not necessarily imply deafness toward the depth of conviction possessed by those on various sides.

I want to suggest that respecting these distinct positions as both realities (these camps exist) and radically distinct ecclesiologies (these camps are not compatible) is the only position that holds integrity at this point. Allowing these three positions space and definition to be lived out fully — with an open hand, under the gaze of God, without punitive punishment — is our only way beyond this impasse. It means separation, or division, or multiplication; call it what you will. But when all is said and done it means grieving the loss of the United Methodist Church as we currently know it. It means holding people with an open hand, which means trusting God more than ever before.

Ultimately, it means freeing the adherents of these radically different, theologically irreconcilable camps of Methodism to turn their backs on the denominational battlefield, to beat their verbal swords into ploughshares, TO GO THEIR SEPARATE WAYS IN PEACE, to return to the harvest fields of local and global ministry –and as the Spirit leads — to form new combinations and connections with theologically compatible partners.

Friends, as you pray toward, vote toward and live toward General Conference 2020, please give these opposing positions respect enough to set them free to prove themselves.

Allow me to return to my own confession as an encouragement to you: I am committed to preaching and maintaining a socially engaged, theologically conservative, spiritually vibrant Methodism. This is where my heart is. When I stand in this place — compassionate toward people and committed to orthodoxy — my internals match my externals. I wouldn’t want anything less for anyone, whether they agree or disagree with me. Any other option smacks of the politics of control. Surely we can do better than that.

My friends, I encourage you to find that place for yourself where your internals match your externals so you can preach the Word with passion and maintain the doctrines you’ve promised before God to maintain. It is time to put an end to these many years of painful strife within the UMC. It is time to part. Let’s bless each other to do so.

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Chosen: Julian’s Story

Julian Hutcheson shares the treasure of his salvation after living most of his life as a functional agnostic. For spouses praying for spouses, let this story be a word of hope.

I had some connection with Christ in my early teen years, but drifted away – for about 35 years. I could describe myself as being a semi-believer in God, but mostly was tangled up in objections to faith, on the sidelines with a very weak and strained experience of spirituality of any kind. Then I experienced a transforming time of reawakening, renewal, and regaining a connection with God.

For a couple of years I had been attending Mosaic occasionally just to pacify my wife and “support” her attendance. I attended the day she joined the church and I found that to be unexpectedly moving for me. Somewhere around that time I began to feel some deep emotional stirrings during the services. There were several times I thought I would cry during the singing. I clearly felt that my soul was kind of reaching up and pushing aside the entanglements, so I could connect with worship. I realized I needed to worship my God. It became clear to me that praising God is affirming the connection, just like saying “I love you” to another person. A powerful experience also came when one of my sons was baptized. I went out to our van afterwards and wept.

I met with Carolyn and told her what I had been experiencing, and she helped me understand this was the Holy Spirit working, kind of opening the “pores” of my spiritual membrane. She asked me if I would be willing to listen to the Holy Spirit and follow where God was leading me, and I said I was, not really knowing what that might mean. I was feeling more connected to God, but not yet a follower of Christ. That came a few months later.

Again taking the cue from my deeper self, I realized one day that my rational hesitations about being a Christian had essentially disappeared. I felt free to move toward Jesus, to include him. The transformation then went to another level as I opened up my heart to Christ. I had several more moving experiences that made it clear to me that I was a believer in Christ.

I met again with Carolyn, and after that joined the church and was baptized. I have increased my involvement in Mosaic, joining the worship team and attending the Men’s accountability group. I now see the fruit of many seeds planted from Sunday messages. One of the strongest themes that helped me was that God knows my real self, loves me for who I really am and is willing to meet me where I am. The worship music also played a strong role, almost as if the worship leader was reaching a hand out, pulling me up spiritually from the hole I was trapped in.

My wife Judy is continually doing a double-take. To hear me talk about my Bible readings or to see me moved to tears in worship and to proclaim my Christianity, this is all coming from a context of 29 years of marriage in which I have been a non-believer. My transformation is of course a great answer to her prayers. I am also comprehending, in stages, how much of a burden I was on Judy in pursuing her faith. I have had several powerful moments of repenting and asking her forgiveness and God’s, for so many years of turning away from Him, and so many years of being an obstacle for Judy’s relationship with God and in recent years, with Mosaic. I was lost for so many years! I now know what cleansing repentance is.

As for the worship team, it is an honor to be a part of it — learning these powerful songs and helping with the guitar playing. I sang the song “What can I do” for a Christmas eve service and was moved to tears several times when rehearsing it at home. “What can I do but give my life to you – Hallelujah!” Connecting with worship and helping others to connect with worship is a privilege. I have a lot to learn and a lot of catching up to do. I’m laying down my life for God’s service. What that means is not entirely clear but I will take it one step at a time.

I’ve reached a comfort level at Mosaic – comfortable being vulnerable in spiritual growth, knowing I’m surrounded by people who are striving for their own unique relationships with Christ. I’m continuing on the journey and I when I have challenges that pull me off track, I take them one at a time. I don’t want to go back. I want to keep going forward with Christ.

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Prayer and the Ministry of the Word

When I was five years old, my family changed churches. We were a family of eight, but my mother, sister and I were the only ones who went to church with any regularity. To be honest, I don’t know what was behind the decision to move. But for whatever reason, we left St. Mark’s and went to the big church on the hill. Funny, what memories stick with you. I remember the car ride on that first Sunday we went to the new church. My mother called to me in the back seat and said, “Carolyn, now this is a big, fancy church, and we have to be very quiet during the service. You can not talk during church.” I didn’t remember talking during church before, but I can tell you, I was very quiet at the new, fancy church.

We must have liked it there because we stayed and you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like at the other church, we were still among the last to leave every Sunday because my mother would not go home until she had spoken to everyone.

Maybe that’s why I liked communion Sundays so much. It gave me something to do while I waited for my mom. After church on communion Sundays, while my mother talked, I’d go up to the altar and play with all the little cups that were left there. Now, remember – I was five years old. Five year olds eat dirt at home, so church germs were certainly not a threat.

You know how there is always a little bit of grape juice left in the bottom of those little cups? Well, I could take the leavings from two or three little cups and just about fill up another one. And I could usually down three or four shots before my mother caught sight of me. “You cannot play with the little cups!” she’d say, as she drug me off by my arm.

So I find it ironic all these years later that I make my living talking during church and playing with those little cups (though now, they are big cups).

It is a good thing, too, because I didn’t have a lot of other options. I am not particularly musical, not athletic, not brilliant, artistic or technical. I know a little bit about a few things, but not a lot about anything. But I do have one passion. I love the church. I love it! I love the Lord. He is the reason I live. But I am a pastor because I love the church. It fascinates me that Almighty God, in all his wisdom, chose this organism as his medium for sharing His revelation of Jesus Christ. And my passion is for seeing that organism, the Church, work in the way God intended when he passed the Body of Christ from the person of Jesus to the people of God. I don’t claim to know God’s whole vision for that kind of church, but I do believe he is looking for more than just somebody to talk on Sundays who occasionally plays with those little cups. In fact, I believe he is crying out for the people of God to be the body of Christ.

The apostles themselves laid it out. Instead of allowing circumstances to take their eyes off what was most important, the apostles figured out what makes the church powerful. And they defined it with profound simplicity. “Prayer and the ministry of the word,” they said, “are the center of what we do. Nothing should stand in the way of that mission. And secondly, the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation” (Acts 6:1-7, my take).

Folks, that is powerful. This was long before Paul wrote those amazing analogies about the Body of Christ. There were no consultants, no books to read. But the disciples saw not only God’s vision, but the immense danger of taking their eyes off that vision because of some pressure by some group or another to fill some need.

“Prayer and the ministry of the word are the center of what we do. And the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation.”

That’s the Body of Christ. That’s the Church being the Church – not just talking on Sundays and playing with the little cups – but all of us together bearing the good news of Jesus Christ to a world hungry for a clear vision and the honest-to-goodness gospel truth.

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