The difference between spiritual friendship and friendly conversation

Today, I give this space to Rev. Christopher Goss, who serves on our team at Mosaic as the Pastor of Worship Arts, Youth, and Young Adults. I can personally attest to Chris’s passion and pursuit of spiritual friendship. His words here are good wisdom for group and ministry leaders about the challenge to “go deep.”

A while back I saw a cute, satirical video called “Shallow Small Group.” It was a group of people gathered in someone’s home for what looked like a typical suburban church small group. As you would expect, the conversation was not very deep and there seemed to be a much greater focus on the presence of the cheese dip than the presence of the Lord. The tagline of the video is “Shallow Small Group, because when people go too deep they drown.” 

As a student and young adult pastor, I have been given the privilege of helping many young and mostly single people develop community in the church. I frequently think about the question, “What should make friendships in the church different and deeper than any other friendships?” Although there are many “right” answers to this question, the most fundamental answer must be that spiritual friendships are friendships that are, in the words of Paul, “in Christ.” 

This might be obvious, but it’s worth stating that spiritual friendships, in a Christian context, will most deeply flourish between Spirit-filled people. What seems to often go overlooked, however, is how developing your personal spiritual life gives you the opportunity to develop an incredibly rich social, spiritual life. Knowing that, how do we so often miss it?

Far too often we use what could be called an “external use of scripture.” For example, imagine you and I are in a small group that is doing a study on the Book of Romans. I skim through the study just enough to discuss what the author wrote.  Then I show up and make comments about what Paul actually meant by the word “predestination.” I like discussing theology so I would personally enjoy this conversation. If I’m not careful, however, I could learn a lot about predestination and virtually nothing about your personal spiritual life. Furthermore, by talking about “predestination” I could keep you from knowing much about my spiritual life. Worst of all, I could actually use a theological conversation to keep you from knowing that I truthfully don’t have much of a personal spiritual life. Is this spiritual friendship or a book study with some intellectual stimulation?

After our study, we might hang around and socialize a bit, but now its cool to talk about “whatever.” I’m from Georgia, so talking about “whatever” means its time to talk about UGA football. Suddenly I discover that I have a “connection” with some of the guys in the room that I did not have before. Please understand that I love football and enjoy a good conversation about the Dawgs, but this is not spiritual friendship. At this moment, I am having the same type of conversation in church that I could just as easily be having at a sports bar. 

(Not so) Side note: Tim Keller says, “Idols aren’t necessarily bad things. They can be good things that we make into ultimate things.” An idol is whatever we look to, other than God, to provide a sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment in our lives. What is almost always true, however, is that I will either get my sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment from God or I will inevitably search for it in another direction. That means I will either seek after God or I will seek after idols. There is no “neutral” gear in the spiritual life. 

What does that have to do with spiritual friendship? I might tell you, “I wish I had more time to spend in the word and in prayer.” But what I won’t tell you is that I would have that time if I spent less time on my ESPN app. Or that our conversation about the Dawgs might simply be encouraging our mutual idolatry. This unfortunately builds a friendship more rooted in a particular idolatry than “in Christ.” It is deceptive; because it happens in a church context it passes for “Christian fellowship” while sadly missing the mark of true discipleship. Does that mean we ought never talk about football at church? Nope. Just that I can spend a lot of time deflecting so I don’t have to confront my shallow faith or faltering disciplines. In other words, more time on cheese dip than the presence of the Lord.

So how does one build true spiritual friendships that give us the powerful intimacy for which we so deeply long? Here are a few thoughts:

Friendships that are “in Christ” are rooted in solid theology. That’s right, good friendships need good theology. Biblical friendship flows from the cross of Christ. That first and foremost proclaims we are all sinners in need of a savior. Biblical friendship believes “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and therefore it is ok to be honest about the fact that I am not ok. We need a theology that says conviction is a good thing because where there is no conviction there is no sanctification … that I’m still on the road to Christian perfection, but I am made right through the righteousness of Christ alone.

Mature, spiritual friendships are rooted in a theology that says we are beloved children of God. To be a child of God means we primarily get our spiritual “life” — love, joy, peace, and fulfillment — from God our Father. That means I am responsible for seeking out life-giving encounters with God — encounters that throughout church history have most reliably come through searching the scriptures and spending time in prayer. These encounters create a rich personal spiritual life that now make it possible to have an incredibly rich social spiritual life. 

Spiritual friendship requires a theology that says, “I’m not only saved from sin, I’m saved to a body of believers.” Like organs in the physical body, we are responsible for receiving life and then sending it on to others. We encourage our young adults to BYOSL (bring your own spiritual life). Bringing your own spiritual life means we seek God on our own and then share the fruits of that seeking with the community. We must be aware, however, that if we are not receiving our life from God, it is possible we are instead passing on the toxicity of our idolatry to those around us. 

By God’s grace, I pray you will build spiritual friendships, where you fearlessly talk about both your need for God’s redemptive grace and how God is powerfully providing that grace through the “means of grace.” As you bring your own spiritual life to your small group I believe you will have conversations that will be deep, intimate, and mature, and that will encourage you and others to grow in the art of holiness.  

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Praying Against the Spirit of Offense

I’m thinking about a dog we used to have. Opie had a serious vet phobia. Consequently, when it dawned on him that this “awesome trip in the car” was actually a “catastrophic trip to the vet,” his world collapsed. He always made it worse than it had to be. He’d have panic attacks and become hostile. Frankly, he made the experience a little embarrassing for the rest of us.

One time, the vet told me that my dog’s dramatics were likely for my benefit, to get my sympathy and convince me to flee the wrath to come. She suggested that maybe if I wasn’t with him he might not act like that. So the next time we went to the vet I handed him over as soon as we walked in the door. They took him back to some room where he was to be examined alone, without his mama.

Here’s what happened. I sat in the  waiting room with half a dozen strangers and their pets, listening to the closest thing I’ve ever heard to a scream coming out of a dog’s mouth. Over and over. Screaming. It sounded like something out of an African jungle or a horror movie. Because I knew that voice, had heard it on the way to lots of things Opie was averse to, I knew he wasn’t being tortured but the others didn’t know. I felt especially sad for the animals in the room who surely wondered what this meant for them when it was their turn. Everyone listened anxiously while I flipped through magazines pretending I had no clue whose poor animal it was.

Then the vet came out and said, “Mrs. Moore, here’s the thing. We haven’t actually been able to touch your dog yet.” All that screaming, and he hadn’t yet even been examined. Bless him.

My friends, can I say with all gentleness and respect that some of us have an inner Opie who is so sensitive, so overcome by the spirit of fear, that offense is the only operating principle inside of us? We feel attacked ten minutes before anything actually happens. We feel attacked even when we’re not being attacked.

The spirit of offense is a master at making mountains out of molehills, and will then convince us we are justified when we insist on climbing the mountain we’ve made. There is a shopping term for this: “post-purchase rationalization.” It is what happens when we buy things impulsively (think “Black Friday”) and then for the rest of the day justify the purchase to friends and family. “This case of 100 flyswatters at 75% off was the best deal ever!” We justify even when it is irrational. Or maybe particularly then. Which is why the very act of justification around issues of anger or offense ought to be a trigger for us to go looking for our truest motives.

Maybe its not them. Or not all them. Maybe it is us.

On this point, I am a chiefest of sinners. I justify my behavior even as I storm around, deeply offended by every sleight and even every rumor of a sleight. So I’m not alone in my offended state, I will even stir others up. I’m the master at spreading my anxiety around. I consistently neglect my own counsel: in the absence of information, assume others’ good intentions.

I don’t want to imply that nothing is ever what it seems. Some people have genuinely done us wrong. Some people have messed with us beyond good sense. Some people in our lives require good boundaries, not just for our sake but for theirs.

But sometimes we allow that spirit of offense to rally our inner Opie — this thing in us that is wounded and scared and believing the worst and who wants to convince us of lies that will keep us mired in offense. Meanwhile, the clear slant of scripture is always toward forgiveness, always toward grace. Walking in forgiveness by obedience over feeling will require us to silence the voice of our inner Opie. It will require a sober submission to Paul’s advice. “Inasmuch as it is up to you, live in peace.”

And sometimes, restoration begins not with two or three external witnesses but with the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. In his presence, we are invited to call out the spirit of offense and mute it so it no longer has power to speak its lie and spread its anxiety. In prayer, it is just that straightforward: “Jesus, please call out the spirit of offense that is wreaking havoc on my soul. Remove it from my life and take away all its power. Deal with me on this issue and help me place this moment into a Kingdom frame so that in my heart and behavior, I’m not jerked around by the enemy of my soul who is whispering in my ear what he’d rather me believe. Amen.”

If you’re anxious or dealing with anger today, make this prayer your first priority. Chances are, things are not what they seem. You will not die, even if there is pain involved in what’s ahead. And maybe, just maybe, there will be far less pain than the negative voices predict.

Listen: No one is helped by an Opie attitude that generates fear and dread when its only a trip to the vet.

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Due Diligence in the UMC: Not just to be understood, but to understand

Not long ago, I sat in on a discussion between two seminary professors who presented opposing views on the biblical interpretation of marriage. The discussion was hosted by an Atlanta church (you can watch it here) and was attended by hundreds. Earlier in this season, I attended another event held in the Atlanta area hosted by a progressive coalition. We heard stories of those who have found their home in the LGBT community when it wasn’t available to them inside the church. A third experience has been more personal. A queer, married pastor in the UMC has reached out for conversation with the mutual understanding that neither of us will change the mind of the other. We trade texts, compare news stories with what we know to be more true, and try to listen.

I’ve appreciated these opportunities. Beyond these, I’ve also been reading the research, because I know I need more understanding. We need to learn how to hear each other not in order to “win” or persuade or even find common ground but so we can genuinely understand the depth of our differences on key issues like human sexuality, Christology, ecclesiology and biblical interpretation.

Can I say that again? We need less lecturing and more listening so we can actually understand the depth of conviction most of us hold around the crucial theological issues that divide us. In the gentle work of hearing and understanding, I believe we’ll discover not how alike we are but how much we ought to respect the differences. And how wise it will be for us to create space for those differences to prove themselves.

A huge part of understanding for me has been intentional exposure both to events and research especially around human sexuality and gender identity. This is a kairos moment for pastors, an opportunity to teach people in our care what we believe so we can guide them into deeper theological waters. Folks in our care deserve not only a fair account of the gospel but a clear and educated understanding of where the leadership of their church stands. How else can they make an informed choice about their spiritual care?

In the list that follows, I offer a few resources that have helped me begin to get acclimated toward greater understanding where issues of human sexuality are concerned. I’ve learned from these teachers how to more sensitively articulate both my position and how it contrasts with other worldviews. I’ve also learned how to better pastor my people, particularly youth and young adults who desperately need an orthodox, Wesleyan vocabulary. I encourage you to explore this list (and share it) and get started on your own journey toward greater understanding:

Mark Yarhouse — Understanding Sexual Identity. This book is written especially for youth leaders, offering an exceptional teaching on how identity forms in young people. I lead off with this book because I believe today’s youth pastors have an incredibly challenging call and need a whole new vocabulary for meeting students where they are. Every youth leader ought to read this book. Yarhouse has authored a second book to equip parents for the conversation: Homosexuality and the Christian: A guide for parents, pastors and friends.

David Bennett — A War of Loves. Bennett tells his own compelling story of navigating the church world as a gay teen. He eventually makes his way into the classroom of N. T. Wright, where he finds a context for his circumstances that is life-giving. He spends the second half of this book making recommendations of reform to the Christian church in light of national conversations about human sexuality. Bennett has helped me understand just how we idolize sex, even inside the church. Exceptional read.

Mark Ongley — Into the Light: Healing Sexuality in Today’s Church. What I love about Ongley’s contribution to the conversation is that he widens the net to include a wide range of sexual wounds — “infidelity, sexual abuse, incest, emotional adultery, and sexual addiction, to name a few.” Ongley reminds us (as do critics of the conservative position, and rightly so) that sexual brokenness is not the property of one group of people. The church desperately needs an openness to addressing the whole range of unholy behaviors we bend toward to feed our cravings.

Preston Sprinkle — A People to Be Loved. Sprinkle is a theologian and solid Bible scholar who deals in depth with every Bible verse (and every word of every verse) up for debate in the human sexuality discussion. He is very upfront about his desire to engage the scriptures objectively with fresh eyes and vulnerability. His work answers too many decades of insensitive exegesis. From my perspective, he treats the scriptures, the issues, and people affected by the conversation with great sensitivity. If you have not done your own complete and objective exegesis of the passages under debate, this should be required reading. Sprinkle’s website contains all kinds of articles and resources on the topic. Start here.

Wesley Hill — Spiritual Friendship. Hill has written and spoken extensively on issues related to human sexuality and has produced a lot of solid resources. Personally, I’d have you start with Spiritual Friendship simply because I believe Hill champions an important topic for the Church. Until we reclaim the value of spiritual friendship and begin to emphasize the importance of biblical communities, we will miss our opportunity to minister in compassionate ways to those who choose celibacy as a holy response to same-sex attraction. Hill’s book on spiritual friendship should be required reading for every person joining a church. He also gives a brief overview of his thesis in a talk at Biola University. Well worth the half-hour it takes to listen. Hill’s Washed and Waiting is a classic defense of celibacy in singleness (you can hear an overview of it here).

Grant Hartley — Redeeming Queer Culture: An Adventure. Hartley gave this (somewhat controversial) talk at a ReVoice conference to both educate his audience on some of the more recent history of the LGBT movement in America and also pose some evangelistic possibilities. I believe the themes of this talk if taken seriously could help us shape a whole new way of treasuring community life, and for that reason I think the talk is worth your time. In general, we all need a more robust theology surrounding what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth. For Christians, community is essential.

Jackie Perry — Gay Girl, Good God. Perry is a rap artist turned preacher and spoken word artist who tells her own story of transformation. She writes with remarkable authority on issues of human sexuality from a biblically orthodox perspective. You’ll find a lot of other good material from Jackie on YouTube. Start here.

Ryan Anderson – When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Anderson was widely criticized for undertaking this study of gender dysphoria and gender identity in the U.S., but his work is well researched and presented with great compassion. This book will give you a starkly different view of gender-identity issues than what you’ll find in media stories.

Pope John Paul II — The Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage (Theology of the Body). Pope John Paul’s seminal work building a comprehensive theology of the body ought to be required reading for every seminary student, and the good news is that you can read it here for free. Dr. Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, has taken the themes of Pope John Paul’s work, and turned them into both chapel talks and blog posts. His series of articles reflecting on those themes can be found here. I found Dr. Tennent’s work to be accessible and helpful as I developed my own sermon series around these same themes.

Ravi Zacharias — Years ago when I was just returning to the faith, I happened across Dr. Zacharias’ radio show and distinctly remember being amazed to hear a Christian talking intelligently on such a wide range of issues. He is both bold and loving in his apologetic. Listen to his well-reasoned defense of an orthodox view of human sexuality here.

N.T. Wright — As a theologian, Wright stands in the company of such contemporary greats as C. S. Lewis. Listen to his position on same-sex attraction here.

Let me offer these brief articles as one more resource for those attempting to shape a pastoral approach to these delicate issues. Centered-set thinking was a concept first formed on the mission field, and I’ve found it useful in framing discussions about controversial theological issues. I discuss it in two blog posts, here and here. Centered-set thinking has been most helpful in shaping a theologically rooted ecclesiology in a pluralistic world.

Finally, let me acknowledge the obvious. This list is both incomplete and unapologetically biased. I realize it omits a progressive perspective, but that returns us to my initial point. I have deeply held convictions from which I teach and preach and those are the positions I champion. As a pastor, it is not my charge to remain neutral (Jesus had strong warnings against settling with “lukewarm”). If your view contrasts with mine, please compile and share your resources. You’ll be better informed than I at creating such a list. I hope you’re helped by my list; I’m sure I’ll be helped by yours.

Let’s encourage understanding. I believe our path through may just be not in minimizing theological and ecclesiological differences but in understanding and respecting just how real they are.

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Chosen: Julian’s Story

Julian Hutcheson shares the treasure of his salvation after living most of his life as a functional agnostic. For spouses praying for spouses, let this story be a word of hope.

I had some connection with Christ in my early teen years, but drifted away – for about 35 years. I could describe myself as being a semi-believer in God, but mostly was tangled up in objections to faith, on the sidelines with a very weak and strained experience of spirituality of any kind. Then I experienced a transforming time of reawakening, renewal, and regaining a connection with God.

For a couple of years I had been attending Mosaic occasionally just to pacify my wife and “support” her attendance. I attended the day she joined the church and I found that to be unexpectedly moving for me. Somewhere around that time I began to feel some deep emotional stirrings during the services. There were several times I thought I would cry during the singing. I clearly felt that my soul was kind of reaching up and pushing aside the entanglements, so I could connect with worship. I realized I needed to worship my God. It became clear to me that praising God is affirming the connection, just like saying “I love you” to another person. A powerful experience also came when one of my sons was baptized. I went out to our van afterwards and wept.

I met with Carolyn and told her what I had been experiencing, and she helped me understand this was the Holy Spirit working, kind of opening the “pores” of my spiritual membrane. She asked me if I would be willing to listen to the Holy Spirit and follow where God was leading me, and I said I was, not really knowing what that might mean. I was feeling more connected to God, but not yet a follower of Christ. That came a few months later.

Again taking the cue from my deeper self, I realized one day that my rational hesitations about being a Christian had essentially disappeared. I felt free to move toward Jesus, to include him. The transformation then went to another level as I opened up my heart to Christ. I had several more moving experiences that made it clear to me that I was a believer in Christ.

I met again with Carolyn, and after that joined the church and was baptized. I have increased my involvement in Mosaic, joining the worship team and attending the Men’s accountability group. I now see the fruit of many seeds planted from Sunday messages. One of the strongest themes that helped me was that God knows my real self, loves me for who I really am and is willing to meet me where I am. The worship music also played a strong role, almost as if the worship leader was reaching a hand out, pulling me up spiritually from the hole I was trapped in.

My wife Judy is continually doing a double-take. To hear me talk about my Bible readings or to see me moved to tears in worship and to proclaim my Christianity, this is all coming from a context of 29 years of marriage in which I have been a non-believer. My transformation is of course a great answer to her prayers. I am also comprehending, in stages, how much of a burden I was on Judy in pursuing her faith. I have had several powerful moments of repenting and asking her forgiveness and God’s, for so many years of turning away from Him, and so many years of being an obstacle for Judy’s relationship with God and in recent years, with Mosaic. I was lost for so many years! I now know what cleansing repentance is.

As for the worship team, it is an honor to be a part of it — learning these powerful songs and helping with the guitar playing. I sang the song “What can I do” for a Christmas eve service and was moved to tears several times when rehearsing it at home. “What can I do but give my life to you – Hallelujah!” Connecting with worship and helping others to connect with worship is a privilege. I have a lot to learn and a lot of catching up to do. I’m laying down my life for God’s service. What that means is not entirely clear but I will take it one step at a time.

I’ve reached a comfort level at Mosaic – comfortable being vulnerable in spiritual growth, knowing I’m surrounded by people who are striving for their own unique relationships with Christ. I’m continuing on the journey and I when I have challenges that pull me off track, I take them one at a time. I don’t want to go back. I want to keep going forward with Christ.

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Prayer and the Ministry of the Word

When I was five years old, my family changed churches. We were a family of eight, but my mother, sister and I were the only ones who went to church with any regularity. To be honest, I don’t know what was behind the decision to move. But for whatever reason, we left St. Mark’s and went to the big church on the hill. Funny, what memories stick with you. I remember the car ride on that first Sunday we went to the new church. My mother called to me in the back seat and said, “Carolyn, now this is a big, fancy church, and we have to be very quiet during the service. You can not talk during church.” I didn’t remember talking during church before, but I can tell you, I was very quiet at the new, fancy church.

We must have liked it there because we stayed and you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just like at the other church, we were still among the last to leave every Sunday because my mother would not go home until she had spoken to everyone.

Maybe that’s why I liked communion Sundays so much. It gave me something to do while I waited for my mom. After church on communion Sundays, while my mother talked, I’d go up to the altar and play with all the little cups that were left there. Now, remember – I was five years old. Five year olds eat dirt at home, so church germs were certainly not a threat.

You know how there is always a little bit of grape juice left in the bottom of those little cups? Well, I could take the leavings from two or three little cups and just about fill up another one. And I could usually down three or four shots before my mother caught sight of me. “You cannot play with the little cups!” she’d say, as she drug me off by my arm.

So I find it ironic all these years later that I make my living talking during church and playing with those little cups (though now, they are big cups).

It is a good thing, too, because I didn’t have a lot of other options. I am not particularly musical, not athletic, not brilliant, artistic or technical. I know a little bit about a few things, but not a lot about anything. But I do have one passion. I love the church. I love it! I love the Lord. He is the reason I live. But I am a pastor because I love the church. It fascinates me that Almighty God, in all his wisdom, chose this organism as his medium for sharing His revelation of Jesus Christ. And my passion is for seeing that organism, the Church, work in the way God intended when he passed the Body of Christ from the person of Jesus to the people of God. I don’t claim to know God’s whole vision for that kind of church, but I do believe he is looking for more than just somebody to talk on Sundays who occasionally plays with those little cups. In fact, I believe he is crying out for the people of God to be the body of Christ.

The apostles themselves laid it out. Instead of allowing circumstances to take their eyes off what was most important, the apostles figured out what makes the church powerful. And they defined it with profound simplicity. “Prayer and the ministry of the word,” they said, “are the center of what we do. Nothing should stand in the way of that mission. And secondly, the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation” (Acts 6:1-7, my take).

Folks, that is powerful. This was long before Paul wrote those amazing analogies about the Body of Christ. There were no consultants, no books to read. But the disciples saw not only God’s vision, but the immense danger of taking their eyes off that vision because of some pressure by some group or another to fill some need.

“Prayer and the ministry of the word are the center of what we do. And the ministries of compassion belong to the congregation.”

That’s the Body of Christ. That’s the Church being the Church – not just talking on Sundays and playing with the little cups – but all of us together bearing the good news of Jesus Christ to a world hungry for a clear vision and the honest-to-goodness gospel truth.

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Who gets to be Lord?

I was called by God to preach when I was thirteen. Forty-three years ago in Georgia, that was a strange thing to claim. I struggled to hold on to this call. In fact, by the time I reached college, I’d watered it down. I would go into Christian education since that would be more socially acceptable for someone like me. The only two problems with that were: 1) I’m terrible in a roomful of children; and 2) it wasn’t God’s call.

I tried anyway. And failed miserably.  Then walked away from my call completely.

I didn’t realize then that the call is intricately connected to faith. To abandon my calling was to play fast and loose with my relationship with God. I became an easy target for the enemy of my soul who tied my hands, kicked me down the street and threw me into the prison of alcoholism. Somewhere in there, I finished college, got married and began a career outside the church.

In fact, I quit church altogether for about ten years but let me be clear on this: I didn’t stop going to church because the church wasn’t relevant or didn’t meet my needs. I quit going because the enemy came and snatched me up and threw me into a prison that I was then unable to get out of on my own.

It would take twelve years for me to finally, fully come home to Jesus. It happened by mistake. A friend roped me into attending a Bible study and over time I got interested and involved. One day, the leader of this study invited me onto the leadership team, but told me in no uncertain terms that to accept the invitation I’d have to quit drinking.

I said, “I’ll get back to you.” Which was code for, “When hell freezes over.”

I had no intention of giving up drinking, but that invitation was the hook. Someone leading a Bible study had the guts to invite me to consider a different life and I took the bait. One day soon after, I realized the depth of the choice I’d been given: quit drinking and lead a Bible study, or keep the status quo and allow my life to continue floating without purpose.

That choice wasn’t ultimately a choice about leadership. It was a choice about lordship. The real question in front of me in that season was this: Who gets to be Lord of my life?

I had my last drink 27 years ago and that choice to quit was one of the best choices of my life.

This is the question every great story of transformation answers: Who gets to be Lord? Until you answer that question, nothing else matters. When you answer that question, everything gets redeemed.

Everything.

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Pray that we will be kind.

I’ve been the pastor of Mosaic Church for more than fifteen years, so my relationship with many in our community is deep. We are a small but healthy church, with a core (but certainly not a majority) of people who care about the direction of the UMC. After the 2016 General Conference, we began holding listening sessions to help folks make sense of what was happening. In those conversations, we affirmed that we are a diverse group, as most any American congregation would be. We had solid, honest discussions together and many deep one-on-one conversations over coffee.

All this is to say that long before this year’s General Conference, those in our congregation who were interested or invested in the discussion had their chance to work out their own thoughts and our mutual relationships. I’ve been so gratified by our ability to work through differences with kindness and respect.

Placing my own theological leanings within the framework of a “centered-set model” seems to have helped us. Centered-set thinking allows us all to understand how we fit together. As appointed leader of our congregation, I teach an orthodox Wesleyan theology, understanding that others are on a journey, too, that may or may not put us in complete agreement. We all understand, however, that there is a set of beliefs at our center from which we can work. Even among newcomers, centered-set thinking has offered a comfort level for stepping into our community. Guests are welcomed as they are and where they are and don’t have to have it all figured out for us to love and respect one another.

As a church, we pray for the UMC and care deeply about the Body of Christ. Some of us grieved over the bedlam of St. Louis, but we haven’t allowed this crisis to define or control us. Not by a long shot. In fact, Mosaic has experienced a 20% increase in attendance since this time last year. Most of that growth is due to on-going vital ministries that invite new believers, non-believers and frustrated wanderers into a conversation about what they believe about the world and God.

These days, my prayers for our tribe are focused on theological revival. I believe the coming revival will be theological. If this year’s General Conference has taught us anything, it is that what you believe matters.  Spiritual awakening will happen as folks get serious about understanding what they believe and what makes us Methodist. Methodism is not defined by institutional unity. It is not our affinity for each other that binds us, though that is certainly a gift (I love my colleagues in ministry deeply). It is not our commitment to an institution, though I owe a great deal to the United Methodist Church for helping me live out my call. It is not even our commitment to serving folks, though the United Methodist Church has a marvelous missional arm that serves globally among poor and marginalized people.

What makes us Methodist is what we believe about the nature and role of Jesus Christ, the authority of scripture, our understanding of God’s grace, and particularly the role of sanctification in the life of a believer. This is what connects and distinguishes us. While I don’t believe progressive and orthodox United Methodists can remain in the same tribe due the wide theological gap between us (nor should we; it holds no integrity), I am praying with many others that our separation can look more like multiplication than division and that we can honor one another in the process. I am praying that our separation provides a witness that our staying together can’t. I’m praying that we can be gracious toward one another, finding ways to bless one another (as a colleague has so eloquently said) as we work through the details of a separation.

I pray that we will be kind. I hope you will pray that prayer with me.

I certainly hope this season can birth something new (and soon) that allows us all to move on in ministry with integrity, no longer biting and devouring one another but loving deeply, from the heart. Wouldn’t it be something if this separation/ multiplication actually exposes the Kingdom of Heaven in the process of its birthing? Wouldn’t it be something if we even saw the glory of God?

Wouldn’t that be just like our Redeemer? Beauty from ashes, the oil of gladness poured over our mourning, the spirit of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of things to note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The DNA of the Church

In the final verses of Exodus, of all places, we find the first hints of Pentecost. The people have just pulled together all their resources to build a tabernacle for the Lord. They have detailed instructions for crafting this most holy of places, which would become a sign of God’s presence among them. The tabernacle would also be their launching pad, a place from which they would move out of the desert and into the promised land.

When this tabernacle was complete, the final verses of Exodus tell us that “a cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. … Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it. But if the cloud did not rise, they remained where they were until it lifted” (Exodus 40:34,36-37, NLT).

Depending on the translation, the word for “tabernacle” can mean a place to meet or a place that moves. That tells us that from the very beginning there has always been a relationship between the presence of God and the journey of faith. It also teaches us that God never meant for his tabernacle to get stuck in one place. It was built to move when God moves, always in the direction of his promises.

That scene from Exodus is our backdrop for Pentecost. The book of Acts begins with the resurrected Jesus telling his followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8, NLT). What God did first with the tabernacle in Exodus He is about to do with all believers, placing the laws and commandments of Moses into the person of Jesus Christ. Those who receive Christ into their hearts become God’s tabernacle. On that first Pentecost, this plan was confirmed with cloud and fire, just as with the Exodus tabernacle. And just like the first tabernacle, when he moves, we are invited to move with him.

Movement has been in the Church’s DNA from the beginning. The Kingdom of God is designed to move. It goes where God goes. He has no desire to make us comfortable out there in the desert. Nor does he intend to leave us to fend for ourselves.

Acts 1:8 promises power. “When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will receive power”—the same power the Israelites had who fought with enemies twice their size and won, who found food enough to feed hundreds of thousands of people, who received miracle after miracle of God’s provision. The power they had, we now have. When we accept the Holy Spirit into our lives we are no longer victims but people with power to move out of our bad circumstances and into better ones.

Of course, in Exodus it was not a person but a community that built the tabernacle and moved out of bondage and toward the promises of God. In Nehemiah it was a community that rebuilt the temple and restored the wall. In Acts, it was a community that received the Holy Spirit, then flowed out into the streets building that community from a couple-dozen to a few thousand in one day.

Clearly, the filling of the Holy Spirit is not first of all an individual, emotional experience but something given the community to strengthen and empower us for the work of the Kingdom. Paul asks the Corinthians, “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, NLT). He says to the Ephesians, “Together, we are his house … carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord” (Ephesians 2:20-21, NLT).

The tabernacle is where God meets us and how we know when to move. As William Temple says, no one who is filled with the Spirit of God can keep that Spirit to himself. “Where the Spirit is, he flows forth. And where there is no flowing forth, he is not there.”

Is there a flowing forth in your life? Are you going someplace spiritually? Are you closer to God’s promises for your life than you were a year ago? Five years ago? Or are you still out there in the desert of indecision, waiting for one more sign? 

Meanwhile, God is calling us forward and His design for His children is not to make us comfortable but to make us great. May you be filled with the Holy Spirit and placed in the path of his promises.

 

This post first appeared as a Seedbed article on June 12, 2012. It has since been published in Encounter the Spirit, a Bible study for individuals and groups (find it at seedbed.com).

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