Don’t quit.

Do you remember the story of Lot and Abraham and how out there in the desert their two families got to be so big and unwieldy that they had a hard time living in the same valley? Abraham told Lot (because the herdsmen couldn’t be at peace with each other) that for the sake of the family they ought to part ways. Abraham was the bigger man in this conversation, more faithful, so he invited Lot to choose his property. Lot could go in whichever direction he wanted to go in. If he wanted the land on the left, Abraham would go right. If he wanted to go right, Abraham would go left.

Lot makes his choice and it tells us what kind of guy he is. He is the kind of guy who cannot see what he cannot see. You know those people? The late adopters? They are the last ones who get on board with your building campaign or with any new idea — the last ones to see what God might be up to. They are Lot’s people. They cannot see what they cannot see.

Lot takes what is right in front of him and Abraham takes the land further off, over the horizon, which happens to be where the promises of God are. My friend, Ed Dickens, calls it “over-the-horizon faith.” Don’t you love that? That’s the kind of faith I want. Over-the-horizon faith.

In John Wesley’s notes on this story, he talks about how to “trust God farther than you can see.”

Man, I want that kind of faith. I want to trust God farther than I can see. You ought to write that question down and take it with you today and let it change you. Use it in your confessions and conversations.

Do you trust God farther than you can see?

Because here’s the thing: God is doing things out there. Things we won’t see right off, things that aren’t obvious. But this is our promise: He is at work! Isaiah says, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19-21).

My UMC friends, do you have the vision to see beyond this current desert we’re in? Do you have a vision for what can be, just over the horizon? Have you lifted your gaze above the current crisis to what can be on the other side of 2020?

I am embarrassed to admit, actually, just how recently it has occurred to me that I ought to be praying for my own faith, for the character of it and the density of it and the life of it. It just hadn’t occurred to me for far too much of my walk with Christ that if faith is all that connects me to Jesus and if faith is the only thing of any value I bring into my work, my parenting, my ministry, and if I can’t conjure it up on my own because even my faith is a gift from God, then I had better start praying for it. I had better get to shaking the gates of heaven on behalf of my own faith, praying for God to give me more of it, to increase my heart for him and to have more of him in my heart. To be able to trust farther than I can see.

Isn’t that all any of us really wants to know? How do I get Jesus deeper into my heart? How do I burn like I did at first? How do I find my first love?
Brothers and sisters in ministry, if we are going to make it through our present reality in the UMC, we’re going to need a faith that trusts farther than what we can see.

Ray Jackson, my friend and partner Haitian missions says, “I have often thought that the miracles of Jesus were to validate his Sonship or divinity. But now, I also believe they have been preserved for all time to validate his unlimited power to make all things new.”

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up … It arises!

Listen: None of us knows exactly how it will all turn out (and you can fill in the blank here with just about any question that’s on your mind) but chances are, Lot and Abraham will go their separate ways. One of them will settle in a land close by, one they can see, one that requires little imagination or faith. The other will be given a good land over the horizon and more offspring than can be counted. I hope I have sense enough to be in that latter camp.

Meanwhile, we wait, and here’s how I suggest we spend our time while we wait:

Repent for your own short-sightedness. Repent for being among the widows who cried over Tabitha’s death, rather than being the disciple who had the nerve to stand in the middle of the room, ask a dead thing to stand up, and expect it to happen.

Pray and live prophetically for future of the Church. 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. 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 life beyond the horizon …

Actively practice your gifts. Every day between now and May 15 (and then every day after that), get up and go look for lost people. Every day, get up and lean into the means of grace that make us Methodist. Every day, pray like crazy for faith to manage the hard conversations that will surely come in the days ahead. Every day, use only the best ingredients to build your ministry. Don’t let your palate become de-sensitized to the delicacy of this fine gospel we serve.

Don’t quit. Because Jesus has not quit on us. He is still drawing this world back to the other side of Genesis three, because for Jesus, the world is not the problem. The world is the prize.

We have not yet succeeded, but we keep striving to win the prize for which Christ Jesus has already won us. Stay in it and keep your eyes on the horizon. Good things are coming!

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Soldiering through …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until all worship,
Carolyn

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

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Thoughts on the way to Annual Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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A Layperson’s Guide to General Conference 2016

Today, our quadrennial United Methodist General Conference convenes in Portland, Oregon. You may not be able to muster a thimbleful of concern about this, but I can assure you that Methodist leaders will be glued to the proceedings these next two weeks.

For those of you who don’t really get how it all works, here is a brief UMC primer to help you understand how our structure fits together — from your local United Methodist church to this month’s gathering in Portland.

The local church is the heart and soul of Methodism and the basic unit of our structure. We are not a “congregational” tradition, however; we are connected to each other.

Every United Methodist church is part of a district. Districts gather three or four times a year and are presided over by District Superintendents. District Superintendents are part advocate, part arbitrator, part administrator and part appointer. They connect churches and pastors to the larger Annual Conference.

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 and is presided over by a Bishop.

Every Annual Conference belongs to a jurisdiction. Jurisdictional conferences meet every four years. The most important thing jurisdictions do is elect bishops. There are also what is known as Central Conferences, which comprise areas beyond the United States, 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 (864 this year) 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.

Ours is a global connection. “Connection” ends up being an important term in our structure. 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. Like 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. The 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, then whether we end up agreeing or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside a set of expectations. That question of connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC.

Because this is a critical piece of our structure, it bears repeating: A connectional church has an agreed-upon set of expectations.

Of course those expectations can change if enough people think they should. At General Conference, there are issues up for debate that could fundamentally change the ethos of our denomination. The most volatile issue to be discussed (and has been for forty years) is human sexuality and its connection to marriage and ordination. As David Watson, a professor at a UMC seminary puts it, we have reached an impasse on matters related to “self-avowed, practicing homosexual” people.

The Book of Discipline currently reads this way: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all.” The position goes on to affirm our strong commitment to a loving, grace-filled approach to all relationships. This position is in line with orthodox, historical Christian teaching. In most areas of the world it is the acceptable norm, though in Europe and the United States, the culture around homosexuality has changed dramatically.

At this year’s General Conference, there will be dozens of proposals on the table that promote some version of a change to that position. There will be protests and demonstrations by those who want to see the Discipline changed. It will not be a comfortable place to be, no matter what your position.

If the position as it is currently stated in the Discipline changes, it will most certainly be newsworthy. If you’re a Methodist, don’t be be taken off guard. What you’re seeing is what happens when families — really big families — disagree.

Chances are, when the gavel falls again at the end of this General Conference, the wording of the Book of Discipline will not have changed. But not so with the UMC. Why? Because our core value is connection and the connection is unraveling. That is already a fact and no matter what decisions are made at General Conference the connection as we know it will continue to deteriorate. The United Methodist Church will likely change in fundamental ways, sooner rather than later.

Are we connected … or not? In other words, are we accountable to one another or not?

How we answer that question determines how we answer all the other questions in Portland in the days ahead.

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