Don’t drown in the shallow end.

Friends, I want to encourage you this week with a word God gave me a few days ago: Don’t drown in the shallow end. Let me explain what that means.

Right about now, we are all feeling this pandemic life a little more deeply. We’re weary (yes, we were tired already but somehow this week, for many of us it seems worse). I told someone one day last week at lunchtime, “I’m just tired. Nine weeks ago, this was the middle of the day. Today, this is the middle of the night.” From my conversations with you, it sounds like I’m not alone.

What I’m realizing is that in those first weeks of quarantine, we were able to muscle our way through on adrenaline and sheer self-will. We were chalking each other’s driveways, taking each other meals, checking in with each other often. (Remember those days? In corona-time that was ten years ago.)

But now? Now we’re just tired and what we need now requires a different set of muscles.

Do you know how muscles build? They build by tearing. When we do things like lift weights, we cause small tears in our muscles called micro-tears. It is the body’s repair or healing of those micro-tears that makes the muscle stronger.

That’s how muscles build — by tearing! Who knew?!

In these last ten weeks or so, we have experienced the spiritual and emotional equivalent of a thousand micro-tears. We have had to work a set of muscles we didn’t even know existed and in the working of them, we’ve felt the tears. We have had to flex and pivot in ways that were uncomfortable. From home-schooling, to work-at-home orders, to unemployment, to online worship and zoom-work, to mask-wearing in public … whew! That’s a lot of flexing and pivoting.

Every pivot has meant working muscles we weren’t used to moving, which means more tearing. And that hurts, but oh my! What muscles we’ll have when this all finally settles down! We will be the spiritual equvalent of an Arnold Schwarzenegger!

“But what if I don’t make it? What if I’m just too tired-discouraged-lonely-burned-out right now to go on?”

I hear you.

But this too is good news. Because the Bible teaches us that God does his best work when we come to the end of ourselves! We may feel like we’re reaching the end of our resources, but this is exactly the place God wants us to be. The wise focus in this season is not on the pain but on the skills we have learned, the opportunities for personal growth we’ve uncovered, and the chance to depend on God more than ever before.

Listen: What if the best stuff doesn’t kick in until we get to the end of “us” and have nothing left to cling to but God? What if all this tearing and pivoting is has the effect of strengthening us for God’s preferred future?

If that’s so (and I believe it is), then my encouragement for you who are weary is this: Lean in. Don’t drown in the shallow end. You may feel these days like you’re out of gas or at the end of your rope, but the good news is that this is precisely where God does his best work.

In a section of the book of James that is all about wisdom (James 3:13-18), James ends by talking about peace and peacemakers. For five verses he describes the difference between real wisdom and its counterfeit and then he ends with a line about peace. He writes, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18).

What strikes me about this section of James is that the writer draws a straight line between wisdom and peace. That tells me that peace and wisdom are intimately attached. Which means that real peace, like real wisdom, isn’t generated on our own strength. The peace we are looking for — real peace, supernatural peace, the kind we cannot generate ourselves, the kind that will let us sleep at night, that will keep us from drowning in the shallow end — comes from a vertical pivot that requires its own spiritual muscle.

So here’s the life hack: If you want peace, pray for wisdom. Wisdom is what will keep your head above the waves when the water feels deep and you’re too tired to tread.

That’s my word for you: Pray for wisdom. Don’t drown in the shallow end.

And remember: every day we’re in this is one day closer to a healed and whole world. And that fact is true even without a pandemic. We know how this story ends: Jesus wins.

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Hope Travels.

Did you know that Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman of Sarai and Abram, is the only person in the Old Testament to assign a name to God — a name God honored?

Usually, it is God who tells us both who we are and who he is. He gives names to people as a way of telling us what he plans through us. And he gives himself names as a way of helping us know who he is for us. But in the story told in Genesis 16, Hagar is the one who names God. He is El Roi — The God Who Sees Me. Adrian Rogers says El Roi is the God of sympathy, this beautiful, grace-filled God Who Sees Us in our plight and sits with us in our pain.

Hagar’s story reminds us that God does not always or even usually change our circumstances. He isn’t a “fixer.” Her story teaches us, too, that God won’t tell us lies to make us feel better. He tells Hagar her son will be a “wild donkey of a man,” a fighter. He also tells her she’ll have to go back into the dysfunctional household she’d just fled. There would be no running away from her problems. There is no “It’ll be okay,” in her story, no glossing over the hard parts or skipping to the happy ending.

What Hagar gets instead is God, a fact that becomes its own kind of miracle. She gets a glimpse into who he is for her, who he will be whatever else happens. And somehow by naming God and discovering in his character that she was not invisible to him — that the things on her heart were on his, too — she discovered his Enoughness. He was Enough. And that fact was enough, or more than, to know this God Who Sees, Who Knows, Who Will Sit With Us In Our Pain.

To discover God revealed as El Roi was miraculously enough to birth hope into the soul of a desperate woman sitting in a barren desert. And the hope Hagar found in that desert traveled back with her into very imperfect circumstances, into a very hard relationship with a master who would lash out again and eventually send her packing … again. But for that day, somehow against all logic, Hagar could return to her life bearing hope. Which is to say that hope was not found in her circumstances. Hope was found in a Person.

Hope was — is — the property of the God Who Sees Us.

Hear that again: hope is not found in our circumstances. Hope is found in a Person. And for us who live on this side of the resurrection, hope is found in Jesus, who knows our pain, who has carried our diseases, who sees us …

What if the same hope Hagar bore back into Abram’s house became the hope that sustained him while he waited for his elderly wife to become miraculously pregnant? Is it possible that the hope Abram (who would become Abraham) found was actually birthed out there in the desert in a lonely moment when a young woman discovered that God sees … that God knows … that God had not abandoned her? It is possible that Abraham’s hope was incubated in a person who chose to focus not on her pain but on the One who is Lord over it?

Is it possible that when Paul wrote so eloquently about Abraham’s hope, he was actually writing about a second-hand hope that was first owned by Hagar?

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb. Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. Romans 4:18-21, NLT

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham hoped. And what if? Just what if he was infected by Hagar, the hope-carrier?

Which means hope travels. Which means you and I can become hope-carriers, too. In our own hard season, when we are living in some kind of virus-inspired desert, we can gaze less on this crisis we’re in and more on the God Who Sees Us, and find our hope there just as surely as Hagar did. And like her, we can walk into our circumstances with no guarantee except that God sees, God knows, God will not abandon us. And like her, we can place our hope there and let it carry us just as surely as we carry it.

May you be blessed this week to become a hope-carrier. May you breed hope in your home, in your conversations, in your own spirit. May you infect others with hope enough to keep them moving beyond the moment and toward God’s purposes. And may you pray hope into our world, believing with other great hope-carriers that if God sees and God knows and God is with us, then that is enough.

Friends, hope travels. May it travel with you this week.

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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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Five Reasons Why You Ought to Join the WCA Now

Since General Conference 2019, multiple conversations have produced multiple proposals for multiple ways through our current crisis. Negotiations have produced several significant legislative proposals to be considered at General Conference 2020. The “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation”seems to have generated more blogs, tweets, resolutions and comments than there are United Methodists. This waiting game has been a brutal exercise in patience for all of us.

And yet … we wait. Is there any constructive action to take — something we can do — while we all hang out in this “already and not yet” season? Yes, actually. I’ll give you a great action step: Join.

Friends, now is the time — if your heart is as ours — to join the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Here is why you should join and why you should join now:

1. You can help shape the next Methodism. There are two ways to build a house: one is to stand on the street and yell instructions toward the guy with the hammer. The other is pick up a hammer yourself and ask for a bucket of nails. The guy with the hammer and nails is the one who gets the house built.

Those who join the WCA have the chance to help build the house. We are working on multiple levels to craft a landing place for those who cannot in good faith continue in the UMC after GC2020. Those who are invested can help shape what comes next. Your voice matters, but it matters a lot more if you’re holding a hammer.

2. You can make a positive statement about what you believe. Sadly, the current culture of the UMC leans heavily toward critique over conviction. In other words, we’ve developed a habit of criticizing from a safe distance (yelling at the builder) rather than positively stating what we believe. By joining the WCA, you make a simple statement about what you believe. As a denomination, we’ve probably met our quota of critique and skepticism. We don’t need more critique; what we’re lacking these days are folks who can winsomely, courageously, positively state what they believe. We need a few folks to do the Luther thing: “Here I stand.” And joining the WCA is one way to do that.

3. Your stand will give your congregation clarity. This moment in the UMC has the potential to become a strong discipleship opportunity in your congregation. Use your membership in the WCA to discuss with your folks what you believe as a United Methodist pastor. Share with them the various groups forming around our current divide so they can more thoughtfully weigh what they believe. Give them access to the things you read and have discussions about what it means to be a Methodist. This is such a healthy way to help your folks think theologically.

4. Your stand will help your congregation make its choice for what’s next. At some point, it becomes a kind of theological malpractice to leave your congregation in the dark. By joining the WCA, you commit to your position and give your folks permission to do the same without wondering how that will settle with you.

Even if the WCA isn’t your thing, I can’t tell you just how good it is to take a season with your folks to talk about what is. Talk openly, honestly, without anxiety about what you believe and invite others in your congregation to examine both their hearts and what it means to be a Methodist. I talk with so many pastors who are downright fearful. So much anxiety. I have discovered that open, honest sharing is the best antidote. Find your stand, and share winsomely with your folks from that place.

5. You’ll be better prepared for GC2020. Why wait until the vote to take your stand? By doing so now, you not only settle your own heart, but will be better prepared to take the next step once GC2020 has passed its plan for our collective future. That day is quickly approaching. Friends, I am praying for you as you find your stand, lose your fear, and join a great move of God.

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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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Supernatural Ministry in the UMC

This article ran this week on the WCA website. I’m reposting it here in its entirety for those who may not travel in UMC circles with the prayer that the Holy Spirit might spark a theological revival rooted in the supernatural in our day.

Thomas Jefferson once took a penknife and cut most of the miracle stories out of the Bible, leaving only the teachings of Jesus. He included the tomb but cut out the resurrection. What was left, mostly the teachings of Jesus, Jefferson entitled, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.”

What Jefferson did to the Bible with a penknife, many contemporary Christians unwittingly do with their lives. Especially in the U.S., much of Christian culture has managed to surgically remove the supernatural from the experience of Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve fallen out of the habit of talking publicly and passionately about how to transform lives. We will talk about decline in church attendance, the cultural shift away from Christendom and the declining morals of our society, but we have neither the vocabulary nor the comfort for talking about the spiritual realm. And yet, according to Jesus himself, the work of God’s people is to expose the Kingdom through the supernatural work of casting out demons, curing disease, healing sickness and seeing people transformed by truth.

In fact, this is the prescription offered by Jesus himself when he sent his followers out on their first evangelistic mission. We find the charge in the first verses of Luke 9: “One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2, NIV).

I am fascinated by the contrast between what I read in these verses and what I see in the current western culture. What he sends these followers to do carries the power of real transformation. This supernatural sending exposes the Kingdom of God in a way much contemporary ministry does not. In this season of change in our denomination’s life, how can we recover this charge? What does it look like for Wesleyans? I suspect it begins with a commitment to a Kingdom-down worldview.

In an earlier Outlook article, Walter Fenton referenced a post by Dr. Wes Allen, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology. In his diagnosis of our current UM conflict, Dr. Allen offers an insight about the starting points of those on either end of the theological spectrum. “Traditionalists emphasize the vertical relationship characterized in the command to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. In traditional evangelical vocabulary, this is often expressed in terms of the importance placed on individuals having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ… Progressives (and to a great extent, moderates)… start with the horizontal relationship. In this view, the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is seen as the primary (perhaps even synonymous) expression of loving God with our whole being…”

“There is much overlap,” Allen says, “between these two positions (obviously conservatives care about social ethics and progressives care about individual morality). But with the different emphases, the depth and width of the chasm between these vertical and horizontal starting points has become so significant that at times the different UM camps seem to be practicing two different religions or Christianities…”

I agree with this diagnosis. The root of our current impasse is in what leads. Is Christianity primarily a belief system emphasizing social justice, or is it primarily an encounter with the One, True God that emphasizes — even insists on — ongoing supernatural transformation? I am convinced that authentic Christianity is a Kingdom-down proposition. If we want to see the Kingdom come, it will happen as we openly, boldly acknowledge that Jesus was and is not just a great cultural stabilizer but also a supernatural God whose resurrection leads those who follow him directly into the supernatural realm. Our call is to receive the power and authority offered us by Christ himself — and on the resurrection side of this story, that includes the Holy Spirit — and then to go out as he sends to drive out death and expose the Kingdom of God.

This is our call. Friends, we are not sent out with an eyedropper full of Holy Spirit so we can run a friendly non-profit. If we are going to give the world a better definition of “church,” then we need the infilling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit so we can live out a bold charge to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. I believe the Lord longs to see his Church acting as if he is a supernatural God and ours is supernatural power. I’m advocating for a renewed Methodism that is a partnership with a supernatural God who does supernatural things. Surely Jesus means for Methodists to have the Holy Spirit, too!

After all, miracles are the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Without miracles, we lose the divinity of Jesus. Without the virgin birth, Jesus is just another kid born to an unwed mother. He begins to look more like Buddha or Mohammed and less like a God in the flesh. Without miracles, we lose hope. If Jesus didn’t supernaturally conquer death, we have no assurance of an afterlife nor any reason to assume that the cross has power to cancel sin.

Without miracles, we lose touch with the essential character of God. Through the epic miracles of Scripture (the parting of the Red Sea, the miraculous catch of fish, the woman whose oil lasted through a famine, the drowning of a legion of demons), we are drawn into the realm of God’s Kingdom and influence. Miracles are a foretaste of coming attractions, when every tribe and tongue is standing before the throne, crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God!”

This, I believe, is exactly what Jesus means to do when he sends his followers out with power and authority to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. He is calling them to look for signs of the anti-Kingdom, directing them, “Wherever you see them — demons, disease, sickness — take the authority invested in you to cast out darkness and proclaim the victory of the Kingdom of God.”

With all due respect to President Jefferson, this is what it means to be a Christian, and I hope this is what it looks like when Wesleyans embrace supernatural ministry. It is to declare the one, true God and his supernatural revelation through Jesus Christ, as we are sent out with power and authority to fulfill this bold charge: Cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick.

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

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

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

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A Statement from the WCA to our Council of Bishops

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

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

Chicago Statement to the Bishops’ Commission on A Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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