You can pick your friends …

In the book of John, beginning at chapter 13, there is an interesting shift in how Jesus deals with the people he calls “friend.” First, he does this radical thing where he gets down on his knees and washes their feet. He wants to serve them and model for them what humility in the context of friendship looks like. With that image in mind, he tells them about the cross, his death, and God’s design.

The point, Jesus tells them, is connection. Not casual relationship, but deep connection. “Abide in me as I abide in you” (In the margin of an old Bible, I wrote, “Hang out with me as I hang out with you”). Jesus calls his friends to deep and abiding love, the kind that sees not obligation but the joy of serving, of being, of vulnerable-but-safe connection.

The best word for what Jesus describes in word and deed in that scene is the Hebrew word ahava. Often translated as “love,” it literally means, “I give,” or “to give of yourself.” Jesus’ brand of friendship is ahava friendship — a sacrificial, transparent transaction. It draws from the very nature of God, who is at his core a giver. When we draw on that kind of love in our vertical relationship and put it to work in our horizontal relationships, we are drawing down the very power of God. When that power flows in both directions, it is synergistic.

Jesus was known — not favorably (see Matthew 11:18-19) — for being a friend of sinners and people with bad reputations. Further, Jesus recommended that the community of faith become a place where all kinds of people could feel safe. Jesus didn’t excuse sin; he made room for transformation within the context of community.

Likewise, the church is meant to be a place where sinners and outsiders find ahava friendship … but here’s what I’ve noticed. I have noticed that many of us tend to compartmentalize our relationships. We have our family in one compartment, our “real friends” in another, our co-workers in still another.

All our relationships … all in their little compartments.

And then there are the church folk we sit with on Sundays and maybe even study the Bible with during the week … good people but not our friends. Not in the ahava sense of that term. Not in the “let’s eat and drink and laugh together so much that people think we’re drunk” sense of that term.

In fact, often — not always but often — our relationships with church folk tend to be more on the level of taking. We betray ourselves by the language we use. We “church-shop.” And not for a place we can pour in and invest, but for a place we can “be fed.” This is a taker’s attitude and we announce it from the outset as if it is a perfectly acceptable way to ferret out a good church: “I’m looking for a place where I can be fed.”

Brothers and sisters, this is a dangerous mentality for followers of Jesus. It simply is not biblical. 

(Confession: Last week, I was talking to a church group in another town and heard myself say — completely unrehearsed — that anyone who says they aren’t being fed by a church should be shot on the spot. “Do that two or three times,” I pronounced passionately, even as my more loving self tried to stop me, “and everyone else will get the message.” Probably that wasn’t my best moment, but you get the point, right?)

Here’s what many church people do. We come, we sit, we receive … and when we get mad, we leave. In our desire to “be fed,” we become takers and in that process, we distort the mission of the Body of Christ on earth.

In the very place where we learn ahava love, we don’t have a habit of practicing it. Meanwhile, Jesus gets busted for eating and drinking with sinners.

Following Jesus is not just a willingness but an enthusiasm (a passion) for giving, serving, loving, making room at a dinner table for sinners. Based on that scene in John 13, it seems to me that at all the tables where Jesus shows up, there are two brands of people: sinners and servants. And because the community of faith is the place where I can best practice that, then my commitment to a church is to either repent of my sin, or serve others at the table.

Or both. As far as I can tell, those are the only two options we’re given, and neither of them presupposed a “taker’s” posture.

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The Methodist Middle or the Global Center?

On any given Sunday, United Methodist churches gather to worship God in nearly 60 nations around the globe. Across multiple time zones, languages and cultures, our tribe attempts to be a witness to Christ in a hurting world. The one entity – and the only entity — that speaks for that international witness is the General Conference, a global body. It is smack dab in the center of what it means to be United Methodist.

Regrettably, that body — and our United Methodist Church — is in a season of crisis. The Greek word krisis means “to separate, distinguish, judge,” and can apply to both positive and negative experiences. A crisis can be an opportunity to shake loose the needless and redeem the needful. I am convinced that all of us in the UM Church, no matter what theological position we take, are hoping for a positive end to a crisis-heavy season.

A group of clergy within our denomination have recently organized themselves under the banner of the Methodist Middle. For those of us supportive of the global Methodist center, we welcome these voices. This is a big denomination and everyone should have an opportunity to be heard.

It is charitably fair to assume that the Methodist Middle was not looking for a crisis. Who would? While they’ve been more hopeful, progressives and conservatives (or traditionalists or orthodox believers), have felt the pressure of a growing tension. Truth be told, those in the Middle have felt it, too, though in a different way. They’ve struggled to hold the tensions together in one hand and may even consider themselves the voice of tempered reason in a world of extremes. It must be frustrating to find themselves now — after years of asking us not to take sides — creating a “side.” As the Middle organizes and communicates with the average layperson, allow me to make a few observations and one appeal.

Unity can’t be the goal. 

First, it seems as if the Middle is asking the people in the pews to make theology less important than unity. To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the Middle wants the entire global denomination to adopt and/or accept a liberal position on human sexuality. In exchange, it seems, United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, the Middle seems to be reducing the crisis down to one issue — 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. It is damaging to everyone and to the work we take so seriously if we minimize all the theological differences and decide instead that for the sake of unity, we should reduce ourselves to a few simplistic and practical ideas.

Whether you are progressive, middle or conservative, what you believe matters. What you teach matters. Those things should not be minimized. This is the essence of our faith.

Whose Bible is it?

Second, my friends in the Middle are missing the opportunity to challenge the average layperson to really think about how they read the Bible. For instance, the Upper New York Annual Conference floated a resolution this year* condemning the work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (of which I’m a member). Whatever their motivation, the statement they produced was actually very helpful in drawing the distinctions that exist among us. In their document they noted: “progressives/ liberals/ reconciling United Methodists use a faith paradigm that utilizes historical-critical biblical analysis, recognizes the Bible and the gospels as human products that are the result of historical processes, views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning (a surplus of meaning) and looks to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate … ” Many progressives would go further to say that God’s revelation is not fixed but “progressive” — still unfolding and not bound by the tenets of scripture.

Upper New York had a point to make in their disapproval of the WCA, but let’s be clear: their take on the Bible does not speak for United Methodists worshipping in 60 nations around the globe. Their voice should not be dismissed; to the contrary, it needs to be placed in context. The Upper New York clergy who signed that statement have invested themselves into a fundamentally different perspective from an orthodox understanding of Scripture which views all of Scripture as true, using a variety of literary styles to convey that truth. We believe the Bible includes an historic account of God’s work in the world (conservatives use “faithful” to characterize our reading, rather than “literal”), and that it is Living Word and contains all that is needed for faith and life. The current crisis in the UM Church is an opportunity to deeply examine how we read the Bible, how we understand what it calls us toward, the power it has to guide us.

And central to that reading is what we do with Jesus.

Which Jesus do we follow?

“All intersections point to Jesus. We don’t know about His personal life – I believe that Jesus was Queer, Black and Poor.” That was the declaration of a United Methodist youth pastor at a “Gather at the River” conference hosted by a progressive group within the UM Church.

Although my Methodist Middle friends would cringe at the use of such an extreme example, please hear me out. This statement exposes the gravity of difference between two world views. To minimize these differences or to assume we can duct-tape them together with polity is to miss the mark and disrespect those who give their lives for precisely these kinds of beliefs.

The man who made this statement calls himself Methodist. So do I. But our understanding of Jesus (and Methodism, I’m guessing) couldn’t be further apart if we tried. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a New Testament scholar anywhere on the spectrum who would define Jesus as Queer, Black and Poor. Actually, Jesus was a middle-eastern Jewish man, born into a specific context at a specific time in history. Orthodox believers assert that he came in order to do battle with the spiritual forces that created our fallenness. He is not a metaphor for all the good in the world. He was and is flesh-and-blood, mysteriously fully God and fully man. The resurrected and ascended Jesus — Son of the Living God — sits at the right hand of God the Father. He died and rose for the sake of breaking the power of sin and death. Sinless himself, he is on the side of the sinner – queer, straight, black, white, poor, rich. He has compassion for the one who is oppressed. He has a preference for the poor, but he is not some nebulous idea or Transformer toy who becomes who we need him to be, even when those needs are contradictory from person to person.

If we refuse to acknowledge these vast differences in belief, we are actually refusing to hear each other. We are the like the co-dependent mother who refuses to believe any of her children might do anything wrong. It simply isn’t healthy. The Middle may mean well, but good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that this crisis 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.

Whose fault is it? 

There is a misconception that the conservative wing is fixated on preserving the past but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that the past has been institutionalized and even petrified. Conservatives and progressives alike are hungry to move forward. It is which direction forward we’re debating. As we have come to realize, there is a tremendously important distinction between the global center of Methodism and the progressive-leaning Methodist Middle found regionally in the U.S.

So … do we change to accommodate a world no longer in step with many American United Methodists or with the American culture at large? Or do we commit to holding a theological line at our global center, refusing to cross over into territory not in keeping with historic Christianity, the theological principles of the Book of Discipline as they stand, or global, orthodox Christianity?

These questions shape our current crisis and are forcing us out of stagnation. It makes me wonder if God himself is the author of this crisis; if so, we ought not to avoid it.

But it seems so simple … 

Many will hear the voice of the Methodist Middle with a sigh of relief. It seems to make the issue so clear and simple. “Yes! Can’t we just agree to disagree on this one issue and still live together?” Those with that hope will gather in the Middle and wait for the storm to pass.

What those hopeful souls are missing is that their choice to place their confidence in this group will eventually lump them together with the vast majority of progressives in the United States who will also embrace the ethos of the Middle. The average Methodist who just wants their church to stay the same won’t see how their choice may send them over the edge into a progressive world they didn’t sign on for.

And this is my appeal to my friends in the Methodist Middle. It is a plea for full disclosure. In your conversations with local congregations, please don’t hold back from telling the whole story. Please don’t reduce our current crisis to something akin to a paper cut needing a bandaid when it is more like a canyon-sized gap. By minimizing the differences, we may stifle a crisis that is actually our opportunity — if we’re bold enough to accept change as a good thing — to give clearly unique theological positions a chance to live with more integrity and to prove themselves by their fruit.

According to the Scripture, after the ascension of Jesus, the disciples began to preach boldly this good news about the Messiah and it enraged the Pharisees. They decided they would stifle it by killing Jesus’ followers. They might have succeeded early on, but Gamaliel appealed to their higher nature. He reminded them of others who had popped up with innovative ideas, only to see them eventually fizzle out. Given those experiences, Gamaliel urged his colleagues to let the theology do its work. “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail,” he said. “But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38b-39).

My friends in the Methodist Middle, let the theology do its work. Let’s be honest about the diverse collection of differences we now share and consider the way forward that best preserves both the integrity of United Methodism and the freedom of those who no longer fit comfortably within this tradition.

Again I say, let the Holy Spirit do His work.

 

*An earlier version of this post stated that this resolution passed. That is my error. I understand it was narrowly defeated, replaced by a revised resolution denouncing schism. The point stands: there is a segment of United Methodist leaders who believe in the statement mentioned enough to promote it to their conference. Their resolve further illuminates the theological diversity.

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Before you serve communion today …

I was one of six kids, so I ate dinner every night at a table that sat eight people very tightly. To make matters more uncomfortable for me, I was the only left-handed person in our family. There was no seat at the table that didn’t earn scorn and derision. Most of the time I ate with my elbows drawn in, so as not to be picked on by the brood. It was an awkward way to eat. Add to that the fact that I have almost no eye-hand coordination (I can’t catch a baseball with a satellite dish). Between being left-handed at a crowded table and clumsy on my best days, I had probably a fifty-fifty chance on any given night of knocking over either my tea or someone else’s.

Bless my dad’s heart. He hated dinner being interrupted by spilled drinks. He’d get frustrated by it. He’d say, “Can’t we eat a single meal without someone spilling something?

Well, no. Evidently not, Daddy, because you had five right-handed children and one left-handed one and because of that equation, spilling was mostly inevitable. That’s how our family was made. The only way to avoid the spill would have been to seat me at a separate table. But wouldn’t that be strange and even a bit cruel? After all, I was still part of the family and we all instinctively knew, even if I spilled more often than not, that there was a place at the table for me. 

My family dinner experience inspires two thoughts about the Family Table of the Lord:

First, the Lord’s table is not meant for a party of one. Communion has a deep and fundamental meaning for Christians. The best image for it is the Table, where we come together to share in the body and blood of Jesus. When we take the elements set at this table, we commune, and not just with God. When we take these elements, we admit our participation in the Body of Christ. We are that body. Since the ascension, we who commune around the table of the Lord are the Body of Christ.

So while the act of taking communion can be deeply personal, it was never designed to be an independent act. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence supporting the idea that the Lord’s table should ever be reserved for a party of one. Communion is a sharing — a sharing in the suffering of Jesus and a sharing in the body of Christ on earth. The table connects us.

Second, people who sit at the table of the Lord are prone to spill (and as it happens, our Father is okay with that). It is how his children are made. At the table of the Lord, spilling is a good thing! This table not only connects us, but sends us out to spill over onto others as we share our stories, invite others into this communion, offer them a place at this table.

This meal is worth sharing and the DNA of this family makes us prone to want to share. People who sit at this table have a predisposition toward spilling over onto other people because we believe that we all belong to each other.

Pastors, before you serve communion today, make sure you’re on board with what the sacrament is meant to do in the life of your community. It is not primarily a ritual. It is not primarily a way for people prone toward introspection to curl in toward themselves and away from the community around them. It is a gathering of the family. And when you serve, make sure your people understand that when they share in this meal, they are committing to the expectations of this family table: people who eat at this table have to learn how to spill.

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The insanity of pluralism

There is an old tale about four blind men and an elephant (this is not a politically correct tale, just an old one). As the story goes, each man is stationed around an elephant, their experience of him limited by what is within their grasp. The man standing by the leg decides this must be a tree. The man holding the tail declares it to be a rope. The trunk is determined to be a snake. The massive side of the elephant must be a wall.

Each of them interprets their “elephant” according to their own experience and the moral of the story is that none of us has the full range of truth. We each have our corner of it and our unique perspectives color our understanding of the whole. In other words, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians each have just a corner of the truth, though we are gathered around the same God.

And that, brothers and sisters, is just plain bad theology. For starters, it is an insult to every religion. To say all of them are equally right is to ignore the obvious and opposing differences. No serious Hindu can lay claim to one god, exclusive of all others. No faithful Muslim will embrace the Trinity (and in fact, considers that doctrine heretical). Jews are still waiting for their Messiah, while Christians cannot imagine a God without Jesus. To say these varied theologies are simply parts of the same “elephant” is to willfully deny their distinctives.

In a recent article, James Heidinger walks out the logic behind the theological liberalism of the 20th century that highjacked most mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church among them. The dismantling of orthodox theology began with the character of God (“Perhaps this is not an elephant after all”), its trickle-down effect impacting everything from our view of humanity to our understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. Heidinger writes:

“Liberalism believed that just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively and not absolutely or substantively, neither does Christianity differ from other religions. It is just one, perhaps one of the most important, among the world’s various religions, all of which stem from the same basic source. Thus, the church’s missionary effort should not aim to convert but rather to promote a cross-fertilization of ideas for mutual dialogue and enrichment. The Christian faith is neither unique nor intended to be universal. Thus, the church’s worldwide missionary mandate was denied.”

This is the elephant redefined as chameleon. It will be what we need it to be, abolishing the need for absolute truth. It sounds gracious and accepting, doesn’t it? Except that it further diminishes the integrity of not one religion but all of them.

To say that somehow, we’ve all grabbed our own corner of the elephant is to say that the elephant itself is a donkey on one end and a peacock on the other. To call either an elephant is to misdefine the thing. In the story of the elephant and the blind men, no one is right. This elephant isn’t a snake or a tree or a rope or a wall. It is an elephant! The blind men can all be equally wrong, but they can’t be equally right.

Truth is not relative. 

There is a later version of this old story that includes another character. A king in possession of his sight eventually shows up to tell the blind men they have got it wrong. Their experience has deceived them. This is, in fact, an elephant.

And so it is with Christianity. Someone from beyond has come to reveal to the world the heart of God. He has seen what we cannot see and has come to tell us what truth is. Or more precisely, who truth is. Truth is a person, and his name is Jesus. To believe in him alone for salvation is to be a Christian. Nothing else counts.

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

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

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

1. Have you faith in Christ?

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

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

2. Are you going on to perfection?

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

C. S. Lewis wrote,

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

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

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

4. Are you earnestly striving after it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Will you keep them?

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

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

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

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

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

10. Will you preach and maintain them?

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

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

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

12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?

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

13. Will you support and maintain them?

See above.

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

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

15. Will you visit from house to house?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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I am hungry for more.

I am hungry to see the power of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

Hungry.

I’m not talking about so much that passes these days for Spirit-filled experiences. We have defaulted to bragging; we tell too many “big fish stories.” We talk of “huge moves of God” that are not quantified by fruit. We call our good feelings “moves of the Spirit.” My concern is that we sometimes misrepresent the Spirit by assigning to him feats easily accomplished in the natural; and we sometimes misrepresent Him by making more of what happens in our corporate gatherings than is actually there.

We have overplayed our hand and have become too accustomed to calling any emotional response a great move of God. Meanwhile, we are completely short-changing what must surely be a much more awesome and beautiful power than fleeting experiences that result in no lasting transformation.

What is most disturbing is that we cling to stories of Holy Spirit power in other places at other times, as if having heard the stories only we can somehow claim participation. While I certainly celebrate with followers of Jesus in other countries who report awesome healings and even resurrections (and believe these to be true), I am not content to let what is happening in other places suffice for my own experience of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

I am hungry for the power of the Holy Spirit to fall on ushere. We, too, are responsible for learning not just the lingo and culture of Spirit-filled living but the actual work of the Spirit in our churches, our families, our own lives.

Aren’t you hungry for more?

I am starving for it and have decided to lean in and get more intentional about watching for what the Holy Spirit is actually doing right here, right now. I am praying for the kind of personal and corporate renewal that can only be attributed to the power of God. I’m no longer content to be encouraged by “a good word” nor titillated by emotionally charged moments. I want to be changed by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and I want that for my people. I want that for you.

Luke 9 and 10 tell me that followers of Jesus have power and authority to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. That is a far cry from what we are experiencing in most churches today. Until we get honest about that, I’m not sure we’ll be able to move past the weak substitutes for which we’ve settled. How many of us are willing to stop calling it the power of God when we leave church feeling good about ourselves? How many of us are willing to lean in and start crying out for the real thing?

Don’t American Christians also deserve* to see the power of God, to become conversant in the real and powerful work of the Holy Spirit? Aren’t we as their leaders responsible for properly defining that power and calling our people to that hunger?

The one thing of which I’ve become most convinced is that for us to have any hope of breaking through to something deeper, we must get honest. Until we stop calling every warm experience a genuine move of God, we won’t find the deeper well. It is as if we’ve found a stagnant pond in the desert and have camped there when an oasis of sweet, pure water is just ahead.

I am hungry for more, and tired by less. If you are actually experiencing it, I want to hear your stories — your first-person, real-life, recent, authentic stories of the power of God at work in your own life or in your community. I want to hear healing stories that have resulted in works that glorify God. I want to hear stories that have resulted in spiritual fruit, that have advanced the Kingdom of God on earth.

I want to hear proof of the authentic, awesome power of God working in our churches, in our lives.

Paul’s words resonate deeply with me: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:10-11).

I am pressing in and I invite you to join me. I want to know the power that resurrects people from the dead. I want more than just “good church.”

Don’t you?

 

*I use the word “deserve” here not in the sense that we have earned our right to anything, but in the sense that I doubt the Holy Spirit is giving Americans a pass on deeper things. We have a plethora of excuses for the absence of depth in our culture, but surely he means for us to experience the fullness of the Spirit, too?

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What you believe matters.

I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding is now our critical need.

I was reminded of this a while back while working out at the gym. I was on a machine watching television but without the sound on … just reading closed captioning. The story being typed onto the screen word by word was some news piece about Pope Francis. And somewhere in the story, this phrase crossed the screen: “a message from Bob.”

From the context, I could tell they meant to type, “a message from God” but God never got the credit for whatever that message was. That strikes me as significant. How many people in the world are getting their messages from “Bob” (any popular speaker/ writer/ influencer) while God goes unnoticed?

When the movie, The Passion, first came out, a big group from our church went to see it together. Afterward, we adjourned to my living room to discuss what we’d seen. In the midst of the dialogue, someone asked some kind of technical question about the way God works and a guy who happens to have been in professional ministry had this response: “Frankly, I don’t have much use for theology. I just want to know who God is and what his heart is.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that pretty much the point of theology?

“I don’t have much use for theology.” Really? I bet that guy would have cared about my theology if we had been worshiping cows in my living room. I bet he would have cared if we were all there to discuss the message of Bob rather than the message of God. It must be fun to sound like a renegade in a group of people talking about religion, but it can also be theologically dangerous.

What you believe matters. And this is why I hold that biblical literacy and theological grounding are the critical need today. Otherwise we won’t have the compass to discern the direction of those who seek our endorsement. Those of us who trust in Christ have a poor record of talking theologically in public, with integrity (we do it, but not well). But to have a Kingdom-shaped influence in the marketplace, as Dr. Gregg Okesson says, we must learn to talk theologically in public about issues of public interest.

Theology matters. True, it has no life without the stirring of the Holy Spirit but nothing can be said about the nature of life, God or ultimate meaning without talking theologically. Indeed, nothing of any importance can be said of sports, politics, family systems, sexuality, or buying habits unless we learn to think and talk theologically. It would be like learning to play the piano without learning music theory. Without theory, it is just notes.

Nor can we discuss with respect the differences between religions or properly respect contrasting belief systems. Without theological grounding, how do we discuss the fact that the Mormon Jesus leaves significant questions about the nature of the Trinity, or that the Muslim Jesus is respected and revered but not crucified? How do we talk about Wesley’s systemic teaching on grace or Calvin’s take on God’s sovereignty?

Without deep theological reflection, how do missionaries learn to share the whole gospel without adding a layer of cultural bondage to the top? How do pastors influence culture and change systems?

When we’ve not grounded ourselves theologically, it is remarkably easy to get drunk on tweetable lines. It becomes far too tempting to redefine Christianity based on the trajectory of culture. We ask questions like, “Who are you to decide what orthodoxy/ Wesleyanism/ holiness/ Christianity means?” As if any of those are decided by vote.

On the other hand, it is tempting to blame thinking Christians for the suppression of the Holy Spirit. Experience has made us book-shy. Far too many wanna-be pastors have marched off to seminary while their friends at home warn, “Don’t let school ruin you!”

Spiritual thinking ought not rob us of our energy for the full gospel. To the contrary, to think theologically — to reason out a very distinctive set of beliefs — is to honor the depth and glory of God. Theology trumps experience every time and leads us toward the Holy Spirit, not away from Him.

As I listen to the fodder of news shows and sort through the various discussions that surface among well-meaning people within the church and online, I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding is now our critical need. We’re allowing pop icons and an unanchored culture to do for us what thoughtful, Spirit-inspired study should be doing. The Kingdom won’t be ushered in on tweetable lines or emotional appeals. It will come when the good news of Jesus Christ is unapologetically learned, preached and practiced in all its power.

To hell with the message of Bob. The world is starving for something more.

 

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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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