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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The rise of Methodism and fruit that lasts

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about how the Holy Spirit actually shows up. As I said in this post, I suspect much of what we attribute to the Holy Spirit is simply not within his character. Or we allow ourselves to be content with reports of the Spirit’s movement in other places, without doing the spiritual work to participate in what he is doing right here … right now. I cannot believe that all God’s mighty works are for other places and people. Can you?

In the midst of thinking and praying about this — asking the Lord to teach me more about how he actually moves — I discovered something about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, that strikes me as profound. In an article on the rise of Methodism Andrew Thompson writes,

“Ask your average Methodist what the turning point was in the history of the Methodist movement, and you’ll likely get the response that it was John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1738. It was there that Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and received the assurance of his salvation. Methodism couldn’t have grown and expanded in the years following had it not been for Wesley’s own encounter with Christ that fateful evening, right?”

Right … but

When Wesley himself reflected on what made his work so remarkably fruitful, Aldersgate is not what he referenced. Wesley remembered instead what he called “three rises” of Methodism. In writing about this, Thompson quotes Wesley’s own journal:

“On Monday, May 1, [1738,] our little society began in London. But it may be observed, the first rise of Methodism (so-called) was in November 1729, when four of us met together at Oxford: the second was at Savannah, in April 1736, when twenty or thirty persons met at my house: the last, was at London, on this day, when forty or fifty of us agreed to meet together every Wednesday evening, in order to a free conversation, begun and ended with singing and prayer. In all our steps we were greatly assisted by the advice and exhortations of Peter Boehler, an excellent young man, belonging to the society commonly called Moravians.”

The great revival that swept England then America was not rooted in a moment like Aldersgate, nor in the thousands who gathered in fields to hear him preach. No, Wesley credits the rise of Methodism with three meetings that gathered in homes over the course fifty years to press into the spiritual disciplines and pursue the heart of God.

Let that sink in.

A movement that shaped the face of contemporary Christianity began when a few men quietly began to meet together to hold one another accountable for the living out of their faith. The heart of those meetings was a series of questions that required participants to be honest about the state of their souls.

This was transparency before transparency was cool. 

The experiment in spiritual accountability was repeated over time in Wesley’s own life; then was replicated in living rooms, church houses and assembly halls across two continents. The upshot? By 1850 one in three American Christians was Methodist, and hundreds of thousands of people had come to Christ. Today, 900 million Pentecostals can trace their theological roots to Wesley’s Holy Club, along with another 70 million in various strains of Methodism.

THAT’S the fruit I’m looking for. I am looking for the kind of fruit that can’t be explained any other way than the power of God. In our churches and in The Church, I’m looking for fruit that will last. I am ready for those of us who follow Jesus faithfully to begin refusing anything less. If we are going to become hungry for genuine moves of the Spirit, we must stop feeding on snack food. We must stop calling warm moments and well-attended services what they are not, until we become so hungry that nothing short of the authentic will suffice.

And I suspect the greatest moves of the Holy Spirit are just as Jesus said they were — like mustard seeds or a little yeast. They begin in unassuming places, are fertilized by faith and discipline, and grow (perhaps quietly, perhaps not) into mighty movements that change people, change cultures, change the world. They are known by fruit that lasts and by fruit that far outstrips the effort. Maybe they are only known by the fruit they bear over time, even over generations. But they ARE known by their fruit.

That’s the point. Spirit-filled movements bear fruit that lasts. The Church of Jesus Christ must refuse anything less.

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(Not) just another week in the UMC

Come, Lord Jesus.

It was the prayer of the early church as they strained toward the Kingdom against tides of conflict and persecution. “Come, Lord Jesus!” This week, I find myself praying that prayer with fresh energy as we in my tribe brace for a judicial ruling concerning a bishop elected to the western jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

To be clear, I do not believe the bishop in question is within biblical bounds, nor am I in step with those who believe the best course of action at this point is to simply disregard the structures and covenants of the UMC in order to get where they’d like to go. More important still, I don’t think the issue that will have our attention this week is the core issue that divides us.

I remain convinced that the real issue at stake in the United Methodist Church (as with most mainline denominations today) is what we do with the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of the Bible. What has energetically driven Methodists apart for decades is an inability to unite around John 14:6. Many who serve as United Methodist pastors consider Jesus as a way, but not the way. This is neither suspicion nor recent trend. Pluralism has been seeping into Methodism since the early twentieth century, and is ultimately responsible for all our talk about tolerance and unity. If ours is a one-issue conflict, then it is about how Jesus and the Bible influence all our other choices.

Progressive theology would have us focus 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.

Let’s be clear on this: holiness reminds me that my primary call is to lead people to Jesus, not get them to “act right.” Jesus, not behavior, is the key to salvation; until a person knows Jesus, nothing else matters. I don’t get to “save” anybody (Jesus already has that job), but my behavior will determine another person’s openness to Jesus. Holiness demands — among a 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.

But I admit frustration. As our debates over issues surrounding human sexuality continue to boil, I find myself praying the prayer of the frustrated: “How long, O Lord, how long?” I wonder why we haven’t made more before now of our differing views on the nature of Jesus. I become discouraged when I hear the conversation lean toward tolerance and unity as our key values, rather than holiness and respect. I hope we have not made an idol of “big tent” structures when God may be up to something else entirely. What if a return to theological integrity is the better move for us all?

So … what to do with the events of this week when our collective eyes will be focused on an issue, a person and a situation that so obviously obscures our bigger fissures? The world is watching and our collective response will be noted. I am praying for a response among United Methodists that proves our commitment to the values of Christ. I am praying for the values of holiness to prevail. I am also praying for gracious commentary. I am praying for the spirit of Jesus to descend and give us a better answer than the ones we’ve fashioned. I’m praying that we will all commit to a posture of humility. After all, whatever our separate views we are still responsible for treating one another with holy love. The Bible doesn’t give us an option on that.

For me, the spiritual association of eleven million people is worth the time and effort it takes to stay in the conversation and stay in prayer. It is tempting to check out, but I believe orthodox Wesleyan theology is worth the fight. Whatever the ruling this week, there is much else in our church that desperately needs our attention. The biggest irony is that most lay people (and not a few clergy) have no idea what is happening to our beloved tribe. Most don’t realize how close we’ve already come to a full-fledged split, or how likely we are to end there. That is a conversation every Methodist ought to be having, and the conversation must move beyond symptoms to root causes. The Body of Christ deserves our utmost. It is the great gift of Jesus to his people, and I intend to do all I can on this earth to make his Bride ready.

Come, Lord Jesus. May your Kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.

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How I almost quit (and why you shouldn’t)

Today, I quit being a Christian.

That was the leading line in a Miami Herald article by Annie Rice, author of The Vampire Chronicles. Annie was a self-proclaimed atheist who eventually returned to the Church.* Now she has decided Jesus is okay but the Church is not. In the article, Annie says, “I remain committed to Christ as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

I assume there are a world of people like out there like Annie. You may be among them — one of those people who likes Jesus but the church … not so much. If you are attached to my denomination that may be compounded by a sense of frustration that borders on hopeless.

Maybe you’ve decided you have no room in your life for that kind of hassle. It is easier to stay home and be angry than to contend with a broken system. I get that. If Jesus weren’t real, I’d find easier ways to spend my Sunday mornings and my work life. But let me share why I think the Church — and your church — is worth the hassle and your allegiance.

It is simple, really: Jesus is head of the Church. He is the founding pastor. He cast a vision for it after his resurrection, then set it in motion at his ascension. In fact, a lot of the New Testament is Paul working out his theology of Church in the context of first-generation churches. They are, he concludes, in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

Let me say that again: We who follow Jesus are in some mysterious but real way the body of Christ on earth.

How do you quit that, exactly?  I’m not sure you can, and still call yourself a follower of Jesus. This isn’t about a particular tribe or flavor. What I’m talking about here is the life of Christ on earth, signified by the community he has called together.

What do we do, if we don’t like what we’ve got, but don’t have permission to quit?

1. Repent for your own short-sightedness. This is where God has had me in the time since our United Methodist General Conference in 2016. For years, I’d been in an internal “quit” mode where the UMC is concerned. A long time ago, I lost my patience for what we have and was looking for an exit door.

I wanted to quit.

I expected to find a “door out” at last year’s General Conference but then something happened, something no one expected. It seems as if God had decided to do a new thing. And I didn’t see it coming.

More explicitly, I didn’t believe God was big enough to change the tide of a denomination … or that he cared. I write that now with such heavy contrition. I under-estimated His capacity to make a way in the desert, to cut streams through the wasteland. God moved in a surprising, redemptive way last year in our denomination and I almost missed him. That is cause for repentance, for course correction, for humility in the face of all I may not have eyes to see. I don’t know where God is taking us, but He has given me a new heart for the 11 million people called Methodist, and I want to be respond to that gift faithfully.

2. Pray and live prophetically for the future of the Church. Prophets learn to hear the voice of God, to see where he is working. Then they put that into language that edifies the body of Christ and instructs the surrounding culture. The Church in the U.S. is starving for people willing to pray and speak boldly into both church and culture. We starve for prophets unafraid of being a peculiar people — holy, chosen, strange in the sense of being … well …

Strange. Different. A light in the darkness.

I’m talking about people with faith enough to say, “I see something beyond the obvious here, something that ought to change your sense of reality.” We need prophets who keep us focused on the big picture. We need folks who understand the ramifications of our leadership choices.

3. Actively practice your gifts. Whatever your gift, practice it (note: complaining is not a valid spiritual gift). Become a valuable contributor to God’s work on earth. This is how the Kingdom comes. Besides, if you don’t lead, who will?

4. Don’t quit. As we cultivate the gift of prophecy, we begin to see with clarity that God is indeed working. It may not be obvious to the naked eye but He has not given up on this world, nor has he given up on the Church.

Jesus has not quit. Not you. Not the Church. Not the world.

Which is to say that the world is not the problem. The world is the prize.

 

*Church with a capital “C” refers to the Church in general, wherever it exists around the world. “Church” with a small “c” refers to a particular church, like your Baptist church or my Methodist one.

 

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What men can do to 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. 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.

The news inside the Church is no more encouraging. Bill Hybels, long-time pastor of Willow Creek Church in Chicago, reflects on the trajectory of women in church leadership:

“Somewhere in the middle 90’s, I think, I said I don’t have to carry that flag anymore. Because the whole church gets it; we are done with that. We’ve crossed over. In the last ten years, I am embarrassed to say, it’s gone the other way. There is a generation of leaders coming up now who are back in the old school of limiting the potential of what women can do; limiting where women can serve; limiting their potential service in the church.”²

Hybel’s sense of a decline in women’s leadership within the church is affirmed statistically. 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.

And we thought Wesleyans were making progress …

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 man and woman against each other in an antagonistic or hierarchical relationship, the intended purpose at creation is for man and woman 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 choice? 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 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 in the same way you’d pour into men. 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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Carriers of the Gospel or Keepers of the Myth?

Lazarus has just died.

This is a blow to everyone in Jesus’ circle. This is someone they all loved. A friend of Jesus. As his sisters, Mary and Martha are stricken, not just by the loss but by Jesus’ response. Jesus loves these people, but when they send word that Lazarus is sick Jesus doesn’t go running. In fact, he waits two days before heading over to Judea to check in. By the time he gets there, Lazarus is as dead as a doorknob (as they say) and Martha is mad as a hornet (as they also say). “If you had come sooner, my brother wouldn’t be dead today,” she says … and the clear tone of her comment is that they deserve something more than this treatment. Jesus understands, but what he really wants to know is this: Does she believe in his divinity, whether or not he acts as she’d prefer?

Do you believe, Martha, when it is inconvenient?

In Martha’s bold proclamation of the truth, we hear the very power of the gospel:  “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

And then Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. It is stunning, an affirmation that this indeed is the very power of God in their midst. But not everyone is moved. A group of religious leaders who get wind of this news are completely put off by a resurrection miracle. This has profound implications for their temple. If this man continues to display such signs and wonders, the crowds may shift their allegiance. What then? The priests could lose their temple, not to mention their jobs, their way of life and the culture of honor to which they’ve grown accustomed.

Their solution? Kill the man. Kill Lazarus, too. Don’t just destroy the miracle-maker; destroy the miracle.

At this point, the story begins to sound familiar. It is not hard to draw a line from the religious leaders of Jesus’ day to the religious spirit of ours. In an upcoming book by James Heidinger (soon to be published by Seedbed), I’ve been learning about the roots of the slow, steady decline of the United Methodist Church. The current crisis, Heidinger says, has been in the making for decades and isn’t the sole property of the UMC. The downfall of mainline American protestantism began early in the 20th century when its theologians began to question the supernatural nature of Jesus. Do we really have to believe in the virgin birth in order to accept the divinity of Jesus? Once we crossed that line, it was a brief slide down to questioning the resurrection and from there, it seemed only natural to doubt the validity of the miracles themselves.

When we began to question the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection and the miracle-making power of Jesus, we lost — literally — the power of the gospel. Sap all the supernatural out of Jesus, and what have we got? A good man and a few moral platitudes, but nothing worth our worship.

I once heard someone say that too many ministers are less “carriers of the gospel” and more “keepers of the myth.” How painful to think there are men and women who accept a paycheck as carriers of the gospel but who do not themselves believe deep-down in the whole gospel of Jesus Christ — the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the miracles, the deliverance from evil. How many who call themselves Christian today would struggle to honor and celebrate the raising of a Lazarus in their midst? How many pastors preach the stories for their morals only, having long since lost any sense of the power of the gospel?

Brothers and sisters, I suspect that history is repeating itself. We have become so concerned for the temple that we’ve lost our wonder in the supernatural power of Jesus Christ. What if the crowds shift their allegiance? We could lose our pensions and property, not to mention the culture to which we’ve grown accustomed. For fear of losing relevance, we’ve traded the gospel for a powerless message.

How did we get here, to this place where we disdain the power of God? And how do we get out of this hole?

Perhaps Martha’s lesson is a word for our day. Even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable, our only hope is in the proclamation of the whole gospel. “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” For United Methodists, such a proclamation would not be a new thing but a much-needed refocus on our doctrinal foundation.

We believe in Jesus …

The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

We believe in the resurrection of Jesus …

Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sits until he return to judge all men at the last day.

We believe in the Holy Spirit …

The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

We believe in the power of God to create fresh and real miracles in our day …

… to bring good news to the poor;
… to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God … (Isaiah 61:1-3)

Let it begin with us, Lord Jesus. Let it begin here. Preachers, I challenge you to be a carrier of the Gospel today. Unashamedly preach the power of Jesus Christ. People, I challenge you to believe in and embrace the supernatural power of God in your worship and work, and I challenge you to refuse as your pastor anyone who is merely a keeper of the myth. The gospel of Jesus Christ deserves much more.

Yes, Lord … I believe you are the Christ, the one and only Son of God, who is coming into the world in all your power and glory!

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Five Things You Should Know About the WCA

Since August of last year, some 1,200 clergy and laypersons have become invested in a renewal organization within the United Methodist Church called the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The WCA garnered some notice because of the timing of its unveiling, though actually it has been in the works for several years. The inaugural event in Chicago last October galvanized two thousand people around the prospect of “the next Methodism” and that idea has captured our collective imagination.

The obvious fact is that the UMC is in crisis but we all know that for imaginative people, a crisis is an opportunity in disguise. What opportunity does this crisis provide our faith tradition? What kind of renewal could rise from the ashes? If the UMC is heading for a significant change anyway (and it is), what would we want to emerge on the other side?

Those are the kinds of questions being asked in gatherings and conversations around the country. With such energy, we have the opportunity to shape the next Methodism. This is the very hope fueling the formation of the WCA. If you are new to the table, what five things might help you get into the conversation?

Our first love is Jesus. Every person at the WCA table is there because they believe the Church is the hope of the world. However, as faithful as we want to be to the United Methodist expression of that Church, I don’t know of a person centrally involved in the WCA who is clinging to institutional salvation. We all care a lot about the UMC — enough to invest in this work — but the glue that holds us together is Jesus. Our confidence is in Christ. Our covenant within the United Methodist Church is founded on its Articles of Religion, which profess an orthodox understanding of this gospel. Those foundational articles are grounded in Christ as the exclusive savior of the world. Those who remain connected must insist on a relationship built on integrity and true accountability around the confession of Jesus as the center of our gospel and foundation of our faith (Articles II and III). Likewise, we trust the authority of Scripture, which “contains all things necessary for salvation” (Articles V and VI).

Our goal is to breed confidence for the future. Last year’s General Conference set in motion a process designed to give the UMC a way forward. We want to trust both that process and God’s timing. We urge churches, clergy and laypersons to let the system do its work. Hang in there. Stay focused in this “already and not yet” season on the good work of your local church. We can be honest about what we suspect. There will likely come a day in the UMC when we all have to make a mature and hard choice, peacefully admitting that we are better off heading our separate ways. But timing is everything. Let’s let the system do its work so we can say on the other side of this that we stayed the course as faithfully and as transparently as we knew how. Meanwhile, the WCA exists as a good landing place, an advocate, and a supportive partner that is allowing hope to have its power. We are leaning into what can be.

We love people.  Every person at the WCA table is there because we believe the Church is the hope of the world and every one of us has a heart for the eleven million people who call themselves United Methodist (not to mention the seven billion who call themselves human). God so loved the world and we are motivated by that love. We are in this because we genuinely care about connecting people with the heart of Jesus and we believe solid, orthodox Wesleyan theology is the best conduit for making that connection. That’s what made us Methodists in the first place; that passion hasn’t changed.

We believe that for the gospel to be true, it must be global. Methodists are incarnational and global in our approach to evangelism. We seek partnership with those within the Wesleyan tradition around the globe, not just as people on the receiving end of mission activities but as fully invested members of this expression of faith. The WCA has had remarkable support from leaders in other countries, and we have invited representatives from each Central Conference to join our Council. We reject any revision of our structure that separates our connection geographically because we believe in the global nature of the gospel and the Great Commission.

We are here for the long haul. The existence of the WCA does not hinge on one vote at one General Conference. Folks, our issues are far deeper, our institutional divisions far wider, our concerns far more grave than the substance of one vote. Our intention is to build a bridge from what we have to what can be. That kind of vision will take years to live out but we are committed for the long haul. The WCA is here to stay.

When new things get started, getting off the ground can be a little bumpy. Since our first gathering of the WCA last October, it has been like drinking water from a fire hose. To build a thing that stands the test of time takes a tremendous amount of effort — developing systems, making budgets, writing (and re-writing) by-laws, making hiring decisions, talking theology, creating communication systems. And prayer … a lot of prayer. This is not a short-term fix.

As we’ve said often in these early conversations, let’s not waste a crisis. The UMC is in need of renewal. No one on any side of the equation should be in this to “win” on one issue so we can all go back to business as usual. Let’s shoot for something more noble, more grand — to see the Kingdom of God manifest within the Body of Christ on earth for the sake of the redemption of the world.

When that happens, we can all go home to the unhindered presence of Christ. And oh, what a glory that will be.

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Abortion, Ethics and the Church

(This post was first published on this site a little more than a year ago. I am reposting today in recognition of Planned Parenthood’s 100th anniversary earlier this month, and in recognition that many are weighing the ethics of abortion as they make voting choices on November 8th.)

I once listened and prayed as a woman whose father was pressuring her to have an abortion weighed her options. She was young, unmarried and dating a man of another race. I encouraged her to choose life. She went on, despite her father’s protests, to give birth to a child with severe deformities. That child died within months of birth. Was my opinion justified?

In other conversations, I have listened as women who have had abortions suffer, years later, with guilt and shame. I’ve listened as couples talk about how spiritual and emotional wounds inflicted by a past abortion affect every aspect of marriage. I’ve never been asked to counsel the women who had no post-traumatic stress from the effects of an abortion but I’ve counseled plenty who did.

Getting beyond the emotions beneath the issue of abortion is a challenge. But beyond the stories and beyond biblical arguments, what are the issues beneath the abortion debate?

Morality and the sanctity of human life: The fundamental issue has to do with the nature of life itself. Pro-life supporters believe life begins at conception, in which case abortion is murder. Pro-choice supporters see abortion as basically the same as any other form of birth control, with an emphasis on the right of women to make their own choices. While the core issue is often framed in the form of the question, “When does life begin?” those who support the right of a woman to choose don’t count that unborn life as having a vote while it is still part of a woman’s body.

Separation of Church and State:  Is abortion a religious issue or a legal issue?  The answer to this question determines whether or not the State can be involved in its legalization and funding.  The question has resurfaced in recent years as companies like Hobby Lobby and The Little Sisters of the Poor protest the federal mandate requiring that they provide birth control, abortion and sterilization services as part of their insurance packages.

Dangers of illegal abortions: Before abortion was made legal, there were countless stories of women who suffered and died from illegal abortions. That’s no longer the case, at least in the United States. Ironically, in countries like India where abortion is not only available but encouraged as a gender selection tool (this is the case in many countries that favor boys over girls), countless women are physically damaged by legal abortion procedures.

Effectiveness of restrictions: Because abortions have always happened whether they were legal or not, many acknowledge that even if it were made illegal, people will still do what people will do. That argument, however, largely rides on a culture of shame. For instance, being single and pregnant in America in 1950 is wildly different from being single and pregnant in 2016.

Tactics: This part of the debate has to do with how the two sides — especially the radical activists on each end of the spectrum — seek to make their points. When clinics are bombed and doctors are killed or when the rhetoric becomes hateful, threatening or bullying, no one is helped.

Women’s Rights: For pro-choice activists, this is about women having the right to do with their bodies as they see fit. For pro-lifers, the issue is about making the kinds of choices that are just and that help to build a stronger, more loving society.

What does the Church say about abortion?
Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists may well be the most outspoken opponents of abortion. Both groups believe and teach that human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception and that a human being has all the rights of a person even before birth, whatever the circumstances of conception.

The United Methodist statement on abortion reads:  “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers … a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.”

I strongly disagree with the United Methodist statement on abortion. Abortion is not an ethical choice and I cannot conceive of a “tragic conflict of life with life” that would justify it. All life is sacred, and a person who engages in life-creating behavior enters into a sacred process. We are not given license to pick and choose which children come into the world. That was never our charge.

The alternative, then, is to receive life as a gift in whatever way it happens. It means throwing baby showers for single women far more often than I’d like, and toeing the line on what holiness means in unmarried relationships.  It means honoring the questions, too, and the suffering caused by shattered dreams.

Moses had a habit of railing against God when he got frustrated with the children of Israel.  Once or twice, God offered to wipe them off the face of the earth and start over. Those offers always brought Moses back to hopefulness.  “Aren’t these your children?” he would plead with God. At the end of the day, no matter how much suffering was involved, Moses settled on the side of life. And maybe that’s why, in his final days, he pleaded with God’s children to weigh blessings against curses, death against life. Moses cry is surely from the heart of God: “Oh, that you would choose life!”

Oh, that those who support and even profit from the abortion industry would hear Moses’ cry to choose life and in so doing, recover their own.

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If your heart is as my heart … (my video message at WCA)

The inaugural event of the Wesleyan Covenant Association was thick with the Spirit, by all accounts. I was there by video only, due to speaking commitments made long before the Chicago event was scheduled. I kept up throughout the day via Facebook and Twitter. It was stunning to see the crowd, feel the buzz and hear some of the speakers. A beautiful start to something we may not yet have vocabulary to define.

It was a pleasure to share a slice of our story as part of this event. The church I lead is not large or well-resourced by most standards, but we are doing our very best to be faithful to God’s call on our community. We are committed to keeping Jesus at the center, valuing all people and making community an essential part of the process of sanctification. These values have led us down eventful paths and into powerful stories of transformation. I share one such story here.

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A Statement from the WCA to our Council of Bishops

What is building in Chicago is something special. Methodists from around the country are making their way to that city, where holy conferencing in its truest sense will commence on Friday. The gathering will include speakers from a wide swath of Methodism — American and African, male and female, active and retired clergy. Lay persons have been active in the organization of this meeting. Bishop Mike Lowry will bring a meditation and then he and Bishop Bob Hayes will lead the closing worship service.

Among the work of the day, the following statement will be presented for approval by those in attendance before it is presented to the Council of Bishops.

Chicago Statement to the Bishops’ Commission on A Way Forward

Meeting in Chicago, Illinois, on Friday, October 7, 2016, over 1,700 people affirmed and approved the creation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association

The association is a coalition of congregations, clergy, and laity from across The United Methodist Church, committed to promoting ministry that combines a high view of Scripture, Wesleyan vitality, orthodox theology, and Holy Spirit empowerment. We have come together to support, network, and encourage one another as the uncertain future of The United Methodist Church comes into clearer focus.

We have heard from many concerned United Methodists who believe that the church’s current situation is untenable. Some of our members are leaving their local churches or suspending their giving. Some local churches are suspending or redirecting the payment of apportionments, while other congregations are preparing to leave the denomination. Therefore, we call upon the Council of Bishops to:

  • Swiftly name the members of the commission and expedite their gathering to begin working together, and
  • Approve the call for a special General Conference in early 2018 to enable resolution of the conflict that divides us before further harm is done to United Methodist members, congregations, conferences, and ministries.

As faithful United Methodists, we will fervently pray for the bishops’ Commission on A Way Forward. And while we patiently wait for it to complete its work, we call upon its members to:

  • Work deliberately and expeditiously as it prepares a recommendation for a called General Conference scheduled for early 2018;
  • Regularly update the people of the church regarding its progress, or lack thereof, and,
  • Bring forth a recommendation that would definitively resolve our debate over The United Methodist Church’s sexual ethics and its understanding of marriage.

We deeply regret the acts of covenant breaking that have accelerated in frequency and in seriousness since the 2016 General Conference. Therefore, we join with the Southeastern College of Bishops in viewing such actions as “divisive and disruptive.”

  • The proposed “pause for prayer and discernment” from the Council of Bishops that was adopted by the General Conference has been ignored by many progressives, leaving us to wonder if we have good faith partners who are willing to work toward a common future for The United Methodist Church.
  • Despite the pledge of the Council of Bishops to uphold and enforce the Book of Discipline, some bishops are now routinely settling complaints against clergy who violate the Discipline with no consequences. This gives us reason to believe they will continue to break faith with the general church, despite what the special commission proposes.
  • At least nine boards of ordained ministry or annual conferences and two jurisdictional conferences have pledged not to conform or comply with the requirements of the Discipline. Despite some rulings nullifying those actions, we have no confidence that a covenant that depends upon voluntary compliance can hold in the face of such defiance.
  • The election of a person in a same-sex marriage to the office of bishop, in blatant contradiction to the requirements of the Discipline, has undermined the very structure of our global church to the point that its future survival is in question.

We believe it is imperative for the commission to propose a plan that calls for accountability and integrity to our covenant, and restores the good order of our church’s polity. If the commission determines no such a plan is possible, then we believe it should prepare a plan of separation that honors the consciences of all the people of the church and allows them to go forward in peace and good will. A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and understanding of Scripture, including any form of the “local option” around ordination and marriage, will not be acceptable to the members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, stands little chance of passing General Conference, would not definitively resolve our conflict, and would, in fact, lead to the fracturing of the church.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association wants what is best for United Methodist laity and clergy, and we are convinced a speedy resolution of our present crisis is now essential and imperative for the church’s future viability.

May God bless our bishops as they select the members of the commission, and may He lead and guide those who are chosen for this important task.

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