Five ways to win the next generation to Christ

David Platt says the family has responsibility for children in the home, but church is responsible for the Great Commission. And the Great Commission teaches us to make disciples. Here are five ways you can increase your opportunity to make disciples of the next generation:

Pray. Pray for your child, with your child and over your child. Pray for Christian friends. Pray for God to remove bad influences. Pray blessings over your child. Contend for the children in your life in prayer. Cry out for them. And make sure your child hears you pray. It doesn’t have to just be your child you pray for. Pray for other kids, too, all the kids in your life who desperately need the prayers of the righteous poured over them.

Side note: Any theology that doesn’t acknowledge the spiritual battle is dangerous, because the enemy doesn’t do his best work when we fear him or even when we entertain him. He does his best work when we ignore him. He’d like nothing more than for us to believe he is not there, or that he is no threat. We know better. The evidence is all around us. Paul said to the Ephesians (Ephesians 6:12). He said our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. And how do you fight battles with spiritual forces? With spiritual weapons like prayer.

Don’t argue. Witness. Tell your story to a young person. Actually, it is the only thing of real worth you have to give. This is a treasure we have … this encounter with faith in God. So tell someone what your life was like before Jesus, what happened to change that and what your life is like now. Talk about Jesus at home like he’s real. I’ve discovered that people get turned off by evangelistic formulas but they really love to talk to other people who have had genuine encounters with Jesus. And kids are looking for answers to the same questions we wrestle with — things like why bad things happen to good people and why Jesus is the only way to God. I’m reading a non-Christian book right now with a young person just so we can talk about what happens when the world ends. Be courageous with your faith, be creative with your approach, and be prepared with an answer.

Show respect. Demonstrate love. No one likes a lecture. Respect someone enough to sit down and have a real conversation with them, one that honors their questions, rewards their curiosity, and loves them well enough to speak destiny into them. Remember: the only person who can save another person from hell is Jesus. You can’t save your child or any other kid, but you can point them toward truth and redemption and you can make them hungry for Heaven. You can also respect their journey, recognizing that most people are on one. There are many more processes  in the work of sanctification than there are events.

Know your Bible. The real power is in the Story. It is in the glorious news that Christ has died; Christ is risen; and Christ will come again. Get a habit of reading your Bible every day. You don’t have to drag out a lot of commentaries or learn Greek. Just read your Bible. Read it every day, even if you never talk to a kid. Read it, and let the Holy Spirit make it live in you. Few things are more attractive to a young person than an adult who actually knows and lives the Bible.

Here’s what is probably the best wisdom I know to give: Don’t hold them back. This is what I hear Paul saying to Timothy and this is such great wisdom. Encourage kids to go after it. Flat-out say to a young person, “Go hard after Jesus. Don’t let up. Don’t slack off. Go hard after Him because Jesus wants your heart, and Jesus is where the real adventure is.” Say that to your kid and to other kids. Say that often. Don’t hold them back by neglecting to call them out to the radical edge.

And don’t hold back the gospel. That stuff we’ve tried, when we said we didn’t want to be “pushy” with our faith? That didn’t work. Statistics teach me that each successive generation in the U.S. is becoming less spiritually aware. I place at least some blame on the Church that has dumbed down the gospel for the sake of being more culturally comfortable. Go hard after your own faith, then share it. The next generation deserves a fair account of the gospel.

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Cast out demons and cure disease (or, what it means to be the Church)

We are the tabernacle of God.

The Bible tells me that when I take Christ into my life, I have the same resources available to me that the Israelites had and the Acts community had. Like them, I have the power of God. I don’t do this on my own steam. When I am filled with the Holy Spirit I receive power (Acts 1:8) —  the same power the Israelites had who fought with enemies twice their size and won, who found food enough to feed hundreds of thousands of people, who received miracle after miracle of God’s provision.

I have those same resources.

We who follow Jesus have the same resources as the followers of Jesus in Luke and Acts, who healed sick people and cured diseases and cast out demons and preached good news to the poor.

So why don’t we act like it? Why don’t I?

When the disciples came back from their first mission trip — having been sent out by Jesus to cure disease, cast out demons and proclaim the Kingdom — they complained to Jesus about a guy they’d seen who was also casting out demons. They wanted Jesus to tell this guy to stop; after all, he wasn’t one of them. You can feel the sense of competition in their comments. They also complained about some religious leaders and had the audacity to suggest that Jesus rain fire down on a few heads.

That’s when Jesus decided maybe it was time to recast the vision.

We find it in a line that isn’t actually there. Or at least it isn’t part of the earliest manuscripts. Somewhere along the way, some scribe felt the need to add a line between Luke 9:55 and Luke 9:56. Scholars give it about an average chance of being an actual word from Jesus and since it doesn’t show up in the earliest manuscripts, you won’t find it in most Bibles, but if your Bible has study notes, they probably mention this line.

As I said, it comes at a point in the story when the disciples are being sort of arrogant about the people who are not in their circle. Most Bibles say, “Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

That’s the official version.

But some manuscripts insert another sentence so that the passage reads, “But Jesus turned and rebuked them and he said, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.’ Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

What a powerful commentary! Even if Jesus didn’t say it here, he said it often, that we don’t follow Jesus not because we don’t know who to follow but because we don’t know who we are. As believers, we do not know what we’re made of. We’ve bought some lie that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of rules and condemnation and guilt, so maybe that’s why we don’t embrace the Spirit. But it turns out — and this is good news! — the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives but to save them.

This is great news! The spirit of Jesus is a spirit of redemption!

This means that if you have received that glorious release from shame and guilt, then it becomes yours to give to the next person. You have that spirit. If you’ve been healed, then you are healed to become a healer. If you’ve been set free by knowing the truth, then you are free to share it. If that place inside of you that’s been dead for years is being brought to life again or if that relationship that was left for dead is being restored then you have received this as a gift. And the Word says, what we have freely received, we freely give.

We don’t even have a clue what kind of spirit we have, what kind of power we have to go out and change the culture, change the community, change people, change the world — to give what we’ve been given so that by the authority of Christ and under the power of the Holy Spirit the very spirit of Christ overflows from us.

We have forgotten that this good news is not ours.

This is ours to share.

 

(The image used at the head of this blog is the artwork of He Qi)

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In the wake of General Conference: An examination of conscience in the midst of hard things

For United Methodists whose attentions have been turned this week to our called General Conference, I’d like to suggest an ancient practice. An examination of conscience is a powerful exercise in clarifying one’s place before God. Especially in the wake of this week’s proceedings, an examination of conscience might help some of us get honest about those places where we haven’t fully honored Kingdom values. An examination that sinks even to the level of how we think and love, not just externally but internally, can help us to recenter on the heart of God.

Wholeheartedness is a huge theme in the story of God. I notice lately that for myself, this practice of examining my heart for signs of division is especially helpful before I walk into a roomful of people whose hearts I may not yet know. When I have taken time to examine my own heart and recommit to the kind of transparent wholeheartedness prescribed in the Bible, I discover that I can move and relate with more integrity. Conversely, when I enter a room or conversation with distrust, anger or a need to be right (concerned more about what others are thinking/ feeling/ experiencing than what is in me) or with an unspoken agenda, I fall short of God’s best and rob the room or those conversations of progress.

Taking a cue from my friends in recovery who remind me that the only person I can change is myself, I woke up this morning with an overwhelming draw to examine my conscience. Many in my “tribe” will be making decisions in coming days as they process what happened this week. I want to make choices for myself and our church that reflect a wholehearted love for Christ and his good news. I want to make choices that reflect my deepest values — both theologically and relationally. I want to do for others what I would have them do for me. I want to hold people with an open hand and strike a note of grace even in the deepest parts of my being — not just when I’m talking, but when I’m not. And I want to walk in grace toward all that is unsolved in my heart (to borrow the spirit of Rilke’s poem), and in repentance toward all in me that is broken — even the parts I don’t know about. Maybe especially those.

I know that somewhere inside lurks a knee-jerk desire to run. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Nobody likes conflict. I appreciate Paul’s advice to “stand” but deep down, I’d rather just unhitch from the hard things. I need God to purify my motives so that whether I stand or move on, I am doing so under the cover of his care and not from a rebellious, wounded or fearful place. That pull to run can be rooted in shallow soil.

As I examine my own conscience, I’ve discovered a few wrong reasons to avoid pressing in to the hard things:

  • Losing relationships or ties with friends, colleagues or institutions — Any lifelong, itinerating Methodist knows the real friendships journey with us. And anyone who has ditched an addiction will tell you that when you get sober, you find out who your real friends are. I expect my good friends to remain good friends, whether we are on the same side of an issue or on opposing sides. Those friendships depend on us seeing each other as people, not opinions. And those friendships deepen as we discover that our love for one another spans the gap. As I examine myself, I am praying that I will prove true to those who want to call me friend.
  • Fear of criticism or judgment — Criticism and judgment happen … no matter what. Unless of course, you choose to be lukewarm about everything (spoiler alert: Jesus is not fond of lukewarm people). That, too, needs an honest examination. Denial, my recovery friends tell me, leads to spiritual dis-ease. Unless we are honest about all the parts of us and allow others to be honest with us, too, we will remain spiritually and relationally stunted. I must let myself become open to the honest evaluations of others so my heart doesn’t grow hard.
  • Fear of influencing (or losing trust with) those in my spiritual care — Whether it is my family, my church, or the larger community to which I’m tethered, I realize that I am an influence. We all are. Our lack of conviction influences just as surely as our strong convictions do. In fact, a lack of conviction may well be a stronger influence than we realize, and not in a way we’d prefer. An examination of conscience helps us clarify what matters most so we can voice those convictions not defensively (or even offensively) but courageously.

Maybe the hardest prayer to pray, when I am in the midst of a hard thing, is this one: “Lord, I surrender myself to you. If my heart is not as your heart, please change me.” To pray that prayer with all the conviction and energy with which I hold my current theologies, ideas and opinions is risky business. And yet, I suspect it is the most faithful and trusting prayer I can pray. In fact, the only reason I can think of to remain committed to my current, stated position is the conviction that by doing so, I’m being obedient to the call and Word of God. And even then, I must do so with a spirit of humility, recognizing that folks with whom I disagree are also clinging to their convictions out of what they believe to be obedience.

At the end of my own examination of conscience, I hope I can say that I have witnessed these days of deliberation from an honest and transparent place, free of anger, fear, condemnation or worst of all, lethargy. I also hope that in the days ahead, Christ himself will minister into my spirit and into those of my friends, healing what is wounded. We want whole hearts as we confess the faith.

I know in whom I believe, and I believe he has given me a charge to keep. My prayer now is that I will keep that charge in love, with a whole heart.

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A Layperson’s Primer (part three): A Gracious Exit

These posts are written especially for laypersons and those coming late to the conversation currently stirring within the UMC. Part one focuses on the heart of our current debate: connection. Part two is an overview of the four plans being considered at the called General Conference that begins this weekend. This post is about the grace that needs to be part of whatever decision is made, so that people who have invested heavily in their local ministries can continue their work whatever the outcome of GC2019. Portions of this post were published by the Religion News Service on February 22, 2019. 

For forty years, the United Methodist Church has developed its waiting muscles. We’ve been waiting for decades for a decision around issues of human sexuality to stick — a decision that will release us to move on from this conversation. The last three years have been an especially intense time of waiting. With General Conference now upon us, I sense that none of us has any certainty about how this will shake out. There seems to be a split opinion around three outcomes — either one of the two more likely plans up for consideration will succeed (One Church or Traditional), or no decision will be reached at all due to a bureaucratic logjam (please, Lord, deliver us from this fate!).

My deep hope — more than which plan wins the day — is that an exit ramp will become part of any plan approved. Right now, only one of the three plans proposed provides for an “exit ramp” — a way out for pastors and churches that does not punish them for their choice to leave the “connection” with property and position intact. A “gracious exit” was recommended for all plans by the commission that proposed the three options up for debate; but with one exception, the exit ramp option has been removed (and even that one is so narrow as to be unhelpful). That is discouraging. I so want our tribe to do this differently than others who have gone before us. There is no winning if we are all biting and devouring each other on the other side of this. No one, regardless of their theological position, should be held hostage by a system they cannot live in wholeheartedly.

A gracious exit would allow local churches who find themselves unable to support United Methodist teaching and polity to leave the denomination with all their property and assets in tact. Rather than removing our theological center for the sake of preserving the institution, I want the delegation to remove the restrictions that bind unwilling churches to a system they can no longer in good conscience support.

Why should laypersons insist on a gracious exit provision?

This seems just. How is it possible to change the rules then penalize those who disagree with that change by asking them to surrender assets they’ve poured so much into?

This seems like the spirit of the freedom we espouse as followers of Jesus. The role of the denomination should be to guard and promote its theological task, not control assets. Freedom suggests we can disagree in love, and hold one another with an open hand. Freedom suggests we can hear one another and hold one another as treasures, not hostages.

This seems like the best way to witness positively to a watching world. By providing a gracious exit, we support viable ministry and prove ourselves gracious by refusing to bite and devour one another in the wake of whatever choice is made. This offers a solid public witness while maintaining a clear theological center.

This seems like grace. And grace is what Wesleyans do best. Let’s trust God with how a divestiture might affect the resulting institution(s) while we keep the main thing the main thing.

There are a lot of questions we cannot yet answer because General Conference contains the very unpredictable variable of human emotion (not to mention the winds of the Holy Spirit). It is impossible to know (and probably unhealthy to prognosticate) where we’ll end up. I know we are all more than ready for the process to play itself out and are praying for those we’ve voted in as delegates to get the job done.

Delegates, hear us: we want you to decide something. Many of us would consider it both demoralizing and spiritually disastrous to find we could not lead ourselves out of this crisis.

While we wait, these are my personal prayers:

  • that God will “pluck the brand from the fire.” In other words, that God will do such a miraculous thing in the UMC that we become a revived and renewed evangelical movement as a result of our holy conferencing.
  • that God will turn hearts and enlighten minds.
  • that God will move powerfully at GC2019, speaking healing grace and peace over our leaders.

I hope you will join me in these prayers. I also encourage you — before the closing prayer on Tuesday — to answer this question for yourself: What connects me to the United Methodist Church — institutional loyalty, or a passionate commitment to our theological task? Your answer to that question will go a long way toward helping you know how to personally respond once a decision has been handed down.

Between now and the closing prayer of GC2019, be encouraged not to allow the pressure of the moment to craft your convictions for you. Spend time on your knees, in prayer. Search the scriptures. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where the lines have been pleasantly drawn so you don’t default to what is most convenient, and so you don’t find yourself blown about by every wind of doctrine.

Finally, I encourage you not to allow the spirit of fear to whisper threats or doom into your spirit. My friends, we have been given a spirit of power, love and sound judgment, and now is exactly the time we ought to call on that higher nature. On the other side of this denominational crisis, Christ will still be King. The Kingdom of God will still be forcefully coming. All over the globe, people will still be drawn to the good news about Jesus. We may not know how General Conference ends but we most certainly know how The Story ends.

Jesus wins.

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A Layperson’s Primer (part two): The Choice

These posts are written especially for laypersons and those coming late to the conversation currently stirring within the UMC. Part one focuses on the heart of our current debate: connection. Is it the institutional values and structure that connect us, or is it our theological task? With that question in mind, this post reviews the four plans considered.

Three years ago, the United Methodist General Conference met in Portland, Oregon for its regularly scheduled quadrennial meeting. At that conference, our Bishops called into being a Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) to corporately study and debate our official position on human sexuality. Last summer, the COWF completed its work and made recommendations to the Council of Bishops and General Conference for how a deeply divided denomination might move forward. After a good bit of political wrangling and an internal judicial review, versions of three plans will be deliberated February 23-26 at a special session of General Conference.

A couple of things to note:

  • There are actually four plans being promoted by various groups and concerns within the UMC. Keep reading.
  • A provision for a gracious exit is currently attached to only one “official” plan, and that provision is so narrowly defined as to be unhelpful to those who want to move on after the vote.
  • Consequently, other petitions have been submitted asking the Conference to consider some kind of workable provision for a gracious exit for those who cannot abide whatever decision is made at General Conference.
  • Three of the four plans have been reviewed by the United Methodist Judicial Council (the fourth plan was not reviewed because it was not part of the Commission’s recommendation), which means we can hope a vote taken at General Conference will not be overturned.

As mentioned, three plans were recommended by the Commission on a Way Forward. A fourth plan, The Simple Plan, has also been submitted as a petition to be considered. Here’s a snapshot of each plan:

The One Church Plan removes language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, leaving it to churches to determine their own guidelines on issues like membership, marriage of same-sex couples, or ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan.

The Connectional Conference Plan divides United Methodists into three main “camps” — traditionalist, centrist and progressive. These three camps would share affiliated services while being otherwise autonomous though governed by one Council of Bishops. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan.

The Traditionalist Plan (now modified after action by the Judicial Council) maintains language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, calls for greater accountability, and provides a gracious (but narrowly defined) exit for those who cannot in good conscience abide by that language.

The Simple Plan — not crafted by the COWF but petitioned by United Methodists for the Simple Plan — removes all language from the Book of Discipline pertaining to human sexuality and gender, clearing the way for same-sex marriage ceremonies, the ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons, and their inclusion at every level in the life of the church.

Filter these four plans through the question posed in the opening paragraph of this post: What connects us — institutional values and structure, or our theological task? Both the One Church and Connectional Conference Plans focus more on institutional preservation at the expense of theological clarity. They call for United Methodists to set aside personal values for the sake of institutional unity, making our shared structure the foundation of our connection.

Ironically, the plans on either end of the spectrum have much in common in terms of what they represent. Both the Traditional and Simple Plans are crafted around the idea that what matters to a United Methodist is what we believe. Both plans emphasize a particular (though opposing) biblical interpretation. Both provide theological clarity on the other side of a vote. While I disagree with the theology around the Simple Plan, I have to respect the integrity of those who are committed to a clear theological position.

So I ask again: What connects us — institutional values and structure, or our theological task? I am convinced that it is our theological task that binds us together. Methodism’s great contribution to the world is our brand of systematic theology — our approach to grace, the spiritual disciplines, our classical interpretation of scripture, our gathering of souls into sanctifying communities (promoting the process of sanctification all the way through to being made perfect in love in this life), our insistence on personal and social holiness. This is our distinctive. This is what makes all the rest of it worth it.

What’s more, I believe theological clarity around this historical expression of faith can breed revival. This is not hopeful emotionalism. Look around the world. In those places where clarity of conviction has been demanded of those who follow Jesus, Christianity is growing. We praise God for the explosive growth of Methodism in Africa, for example. Meanwhile, in those places where moral relativism and pluralism are the prevailing culture, Christianity withers.

I am praying that at the end of the day, our General Conference body will hear that global resonance and choose a resounding and renewed commitment to our theological task. Those who cannot abide this task as it stands should be free to find or establish another tribe, so we can get back to the work of welcoming and advancing the Kingdom of God.

The world is waiting for a clear and fair account of the gospel, my friends. Let’s give the world nothing less.

(Part three of this series of blogs deals with the grace that needs to be attached to whatever decision is made at GC2019.)

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A Layperson’s Primer for 2019 General Conference (part one): The Connection

If you are a United Methodist coming late to our current conversation, you may not be aware of how our structure fits together. Here is a brief UMC primer on how we are connected, from your local United Methodist church to this month’s gathering in St. Louis.

The local church is the heart and soul of Methodism and the basic unit of our structure. We are not a “congregational” tradition like, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention. We are connected to each other and our decisions impact one another.

Every United Methodist church is part of a district. Districts gather three or four times a year and are presided over by District Superintendents, who function as an extension of the Bishop’s office.

Every district is part of an Annual Conference, a term representing both a geographical area and an annual gathering. An Annual Conference gathering is made up of equal parts laity and clergy who vote on matters important to their connection. Both the gathering and the geographical area are presided over by a Bishop.

Every Annual Conference belongs to a jurisdiction. A jurisdiction is a larger geographical area that encompasses a number of annual conferences. Jurisdictional conferences meet every four years. The most important thing jurisdictional conferences do is elect bishops. There are also what is known as Central Conferences, areas beyond the U.S., including Africa, Europe and the Philippines (don’t ask me about South America; it’s complicated).

The Central and Jurisdictional Conferences, along with a host of boards and agencies, together make up the General Conference. Every four years, delegates from every conference area come together to discuss the structure, doctrine and missional focus of the UMC. The General Conference is presided over by a Council of Bishops but decisions are made by the body itself, not by the bishops. Our last regular General Conference was held in 2016. Our next regular conference will be in 2020. The one held this year is a “special session of the General Conference.” This has only happened one other time since the UMC formed in 1968.

Ours is a global connection. Remember that we’ve said that the local church is the basic unit of our structure. “Connection” ends up being an important term for how all our churches and conferences relate. Being connectional means that none of us who lead in the UMC can up and make decisions in a vacuum. We belong to a global family held together by a covenantal structure. As with families, denominations (and churches, and businesses, and pretty much anything else that involves people) have huge disagreements and personality conflicts. And like families, no one really understands yours except the ones who are in it. Our connection is deep and personal.

What makes a family is that connection. It is that intangible you can’t quite define but when it is there, you know it. The United Methodist Church was designed to be like that. When we talk about the places where we disagree and what is on the table at this year’s General Conference, that question of connection is beneath all the other questions.

Are we connected? If we are not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way. If we are not connected, at least one of the plans (ironically called “The One Church Plan”) makes sense. It fits a congregational structure. But if we are connected then whether we end up agreeing or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside a set of expectations. If we can’t do so, then the right step is to step out.

That question of connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC.  The most volatile issue to be discussed (and has been for forty years) is human sexuality and its connection to marriage and ordination. We have reached an impasse but more than an impasse, actually. Those who disagree with our current statements on human sexuality have already chosen to ignore our Book of Discipline. Others have long since set aside orthodox tenets like the exclusive nature of Jesus as the Messiah and the global nature of the gospel. These are not secrets. People speak openly about their disagreement with big chunks of our core theology. That certainly calls into question the integrity of continuing on as if we are connected theologically when in fact, we are not.

In order to maintain our connection, we must restate our covenant. After decades of discussion, the issues that divide us must be finally, peacefully decided so we can move on. The disruption to ministry and souls demands a decision this time around.

Are we connected … or not? In other words, are we accountable to one another or not? The answer to that question determines how we define the local church, the global church and what exactly makes us Methodist.

Part two focuses on the four plans being considered at GC2019.

Part three focuses on the grace that needs to be part of whatever decision is made.

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Women of Worth: Calling out the Best in People

Do you remember how, in the movie called The Help, Abilene would speak to the little girl she took care of? She would say, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Abilene was brilliant. She understood that women are better to themselves and the world around them when they know their worth.

I learned this through a decade of struggling to understand my place as a pastor and leader. After years of struggling against my own wounds I found healing, and find myself now energetically interested in helping other women find their worth. To that end, Mosaic Church has created a project called Women of Worth. We are pairing women who are ready to pay it forward together with those who are ready to move forward with their lives, so we can encourage women with the confidence that they are smart, they are worth it, and their future is more important than their past.

Take Heather, for instance. Heather was an addict for decades who finally ended up doing 18 months in prison. She emerged from that experience as a transformed person, ready to take responsibility for her life. But no one was giving a job to a felon, so eventually we hired her part-time and watched her succeed. Because Heather is smart, and kind. She is a great worker. She quickly moved from part-time to full time, and then from full-time to a director’s position. She got an associate’s degree, then with a lot of coaching and encouragement from women who believe in her, she applied for a Master’s degree at a first-rate institution that would exempt her from completing a Bachelors. They give just a few spots to qualified applicants every year, and Heather was awarded one of those spots. This week she began her Master’s program! She is succeeding because a few women in her life helped her believe her future is more important than her past.

Toni is our poster girl for Women of Worth. She has a couple of felonies, a GED, and a three-year old boy. She is determined to make life happen without public assistance so she landed a job in the kitchen of an upscale chain restaurant. Toni is sharp, with a ton of potential, and her managers saw that in her. They placed her on their leadership development track, but that’s when her felony record made it to the corporate office. The prevailing policy would have required her to leave her job. Because Toni’s life up to that point had taught her things don’t turn out well for her, she was ready to walk away. What Toni needed was not someone to advocate for her, but someone who could encourage her to advocate for herself. She went back in there and asked managers who believed in her to go to bat for her. It worked. She not only kept her job but is still on track for a management position. Toni just needed someone to believe with her that her future is more important than her past.

When life circumstances steal that message, what an opportunity we have to help women hear again that they are smart, they are worth it, that their future is more important than their past. That’s what Women of Worth is about. We invite women in our community to partner with us to empower others by pairing those who have experience and can pay it forward together with those who are ready to make the most of their future. Women of Worth offers training, coaching and mentoring … by women for women.

If you know someone, or are someone, who could use some encouragement and coaching to take it to the next level, we’re here. Let’s get started.

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Do I believe every life matters and that life has worth as it was designed?

Clearly, there is a war on life in our world and it is most certainly a spiritual war. We devalue health in favor of immediate gratification. We devalue lives based on appearance, IQ, gender, power, or even difference of opinion. I think our penchant toward death — which is a manifestation of our bent toward the negative — pervades every thought. Do I think someone who doesn’t vote like me or believe like me is as valuable as I am? Do I see the person in line in front of me at Kroger as a person of value, whose life deserves my respect? Do I get it, that when someone in Venezuela or India is devalued by their government, then all of humanity is depleted? That I have a vested interest in preserving the value of life … all life?

Our bent toward death has been with us almost from the beginning. Christians trace it to a story rooted in Genesis 3, when humans chose to listen to a voice other than the God of life. By the time the people of God were consigned to slavery in Egypt, the culture of death had permeated the earth. Dennis Prager has written on the Egyptian preoccupation with death. Their bible was called the Book of the Dead. Their greatest monuments were pyramids, which were basically over-sized caskets. Even the pagan priests were preoccupied with death. As pagans, the Egyptians were everything the Kingdom of God was not. A preoccupation with death made their decisions for them. When God brought the Israelite people up out of slavery from Egypt, he had to totally reorient their thinking. “Everything you learned there, everything that enslaved you, was wrong. It is not all about death. Creation is about life.”

Hundreds of years of wrong theology had to be reoriented. The people of Israel had to understand God as life-giving before they could stop living to die and start living for God. The work in the desert — the story of which is told in the book of Exodus — was the work of learning to live. That meant constantly rejecting Egypt and pressing toward God’s promises. God’s training on this mindshift is detailed (and by detailed, I mean detailed) in the book of Leviticus. All those odd rules we read there are a rejection of a culture of death. Moses shows his people that while there may seem to be countless options, there are really only these two choices: life or death. And then, almost like a battery of visual aids, Moses shows us that everything else — what we eat, what we wear and watch and get entertained by, who we choose for intimacy — all those options eventually boil down to life or death.

If this is true, that everything — every single thing in your life — leads to either life or death, then that means, fallen creature, that there are likely things in your life that lead to death. They carry the veneer of death. And I’m not even thinking about the obvious stuff. A thousand times a day, Leviticus teaches us, we are confronted by pockets of death. It becomes remarkably tempting to choose death simply because it is easier. And yet, the story of God teaches us that God’s preference is always for life. His value is life, and his desire is to see us live … really live.

This is God’s great design. 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 how life happens or 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.

For me, that means throwing baby showers for single women 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. It also means that when I look at you — in all your messiness — I am challenged to see you as your Maker does. I am expected to develop eyes that see what God sees when he looks on his children.

This is what it means to choose life. And to choose grace. And to choose love.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live … (Deuteronomy 30:19)

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A Year for the UMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you faith in Christ?

Well, do you?

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

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

Read the question again: Have you faith in Christ?

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

Faith

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

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

In Christ

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

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

Have you faith in that Christ?

Tweaking or transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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