The Art of Holiness is now a podcast, too.

Maybe eight or ten months ago (time rolls by so unevenly these days), my son-in-law called. “Hey, I have an idea for a podcast, and I want to do it with you.” Within five minutes I was sold — Pierce has that affect on me — and we began to map out an idea for creating conversations around things that matter to us. Things like how Wesleyans engage in supernatural ministry and what holiness looks like when it is lived out in the real world.

Underlying every conversation would be our relationship — a 57-year old woman and a 31-year old man who have become much more than in-laws to each other. Pierce and I are friends. We genuinely enjoy each other’s company. The first time my daughter brought him to meet us, we discovered we’d read all the same books (only he’d read them by the time he was 25 …). We are both passionate about ministry, Methodism, and Jesus. And of course, my daughter. We both really like her, too. We are family in the most blessed, generous sense of that term. I’m proud to call Pierce Drake one of us.

Pierce is bold, and an insatiable learner. He won’t think twice about emailing an author or speaker to seek out a conversation about whatever they know that can make him a better pastor. He is also deeply faithful. What he wanted from this podcast was a chance to learn together with me what God is up to in the world … in our world. He also wanted to hear our conversations through the filter of my experience as a pastor of 22 years and from the generation ahead of him. I was interested to hear from new voices and old friends through the filter of his generation. The combination of perspectives and the strong voices of our guests was enjoyable and enriching for us. In fact, that was one of our non-negotiables going in. We would only do this if we could have fun with it. So far, we have.

We are particularly honored to be featured as a New Room Network podcast, the first in what we hope will be a fine collection of voices across the orthodox Wesleyan world. The first season of The Art of Holiness is twelve episodes, dropping once a week beginning now. While every person in this season is a rock star, that wasn’t what we were after. We intentionally went looking for folks who are consistently (and sometimes quietly) bearing good fruit in the communities they serve.

Petey Bellini’s episode leads off the season with a beautiful and deep conversation about prophetic informed intercession. We loved talking with Cheryl Johns Bridges, who shares out of a Wesleyan-textured Pentecostal spirituality that inspires me. Chris Backert and Jorge Acevedo will help us understand Kingdom-minded innovation in the church with an eye toward missional community-building. We’ll talk with JD Walt and Matt Scott about the call to awakening, and what it looks like when Wesleyans do supernatural ministry.

Demetra Barrios and Helen Musick speak eloquently about holiness, recovery, and ministry in the city. Jack Deere and Bob Beckwith draw us into the deep with conversations about prophecy and prayer. Madeline Henners shares her research into strategies for finding intimacy with God, and then we get a great conversation with Scot McKnight that dips into discipleship and includes a discussion of his fabulous book, The King Jesus Gospel. Most of these conversations were recorded in the months prior to COVID-19, which means you’ll get to hear something that isn’t virus-related. We hope that comes as a relief to you.

Pierce and I invite you to come swim with us in the waters of Wesleyan spirituality. We pray you will find in these conversations enough of a spark to get a little personal revival going. That’s what we’re after. We aren’t so much interested in giving you tips for the ministry trade as an encounter with the Holy Spirit at the experiential level. We hope to inspire you (and maybe even our whole tribe) toward an awakening that draws us all toward the Kingdom of God.

Please let us know if you listen. We want your feedback and ideas for future podcasts. Mostly, we want to share with you our joy for Jesus and his Church. Find us on Google, iTunes, and Spotify.

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Use Your Roar.

Today, I’m sharing space with Angie Suich, director of The Mosaic Center in Evans, Georgia. She combines good history with good biblical memory to give good wisdom for such a time as this.

Talk about despair!

In 1940, Europe was all but finished. Hitler and his troops occupied Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, and even the Channel Islands, a British territory.

England was the next to surrender, until a chubby, stoop-shouldered man with a speech impediment took a new job. Winston Churchill was probably the farthest person from who Britain had in mind to take command of this incredibly perilous situation, having been written off as a crackpot and political has-been.

Like Jesus appointing his team of crackpot disciples (explanation to follow), the appointment of Churchill to Prime Minister in 1940 by King George VI changed the landscape of history.

Two weeks after Churchill came into power, France was entirely knocked out of the war and 340,000 British troops furiously tried to escape over the beaches at Dunkirk.

It was finished: the Germans had absolute control of all of Europe. It seemed impossible that Britain, let alone Europe, coud survive.

Britain was desperate. They had no hope. No faith. No peace. They were rightly terrified of a Nazi invasion and needed someone to assuage their fears.

Enter Churchill onto the main stage to give this rousing and now famous speech to his nation:

We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Later, when asked about this speech, Churchill explained, “It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”

What’s the point of this history lesson? As Christians in a time of darkness when we feel powerless, alone, scared, restless, and anxious, we can be emboldened by Christ Himself because He gave us the power of the Roar. We have been uniquely called to help calm an anxious and scared nation and we have something more powerful than the Royal Air Force. We have the power of prayer that can be deployed anywhere and anytime – when we are at home, in our car, on our walk, in the field, on the beach, in the hills, on the streets. We have His Word to provide immediate peace and guidance.

And be comforted that just like Churchill, a man who wasn’t taken seriously before WWII but who saved Western Civilization, the Lord has appointed us – US! – to dispatch His Word, prayer, and love – the Roar – during this time.

Never think that you aren’t equipped to roar for the Lord. Do not underestimate who you are. Shy? Impatient? Cynical? Moody? Speech-impediment? Who cares?! The Holy Spirit dwells and lives in you! You are exactly who God wants to do His bidding during this perilous time our community, nation, and world finds itself in.

In Peter Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, he says the following about the disciples (remember – they were hand-picked by Jesus Himself!):

Remember, Jesus formed a community with a small group from Galilee, a backward province in Palestine. They were neither spiritually nor emotionally mature. Peter, the point leader, had a big problem with his mouth and was a bundle of contradictions. Andrew, his brother, was quiet and behind the scenes.

James and John were given the name “sons of thunder” because they were aggressive, hotheaded, ambitious and intolerant. Philip was skeptical and negative. He had limited vision. “We can’t do that,” summed up his faith when confronted by the problem of feeding the five thousand. 

Nathaniel Bartholomew was prejudiced and opinionated. Matthew was the most hated person in Capernaum, working in a profession that abused innocent people.

 Thomas was melancholy, mildly depressive, and pessimistic. James, son of Alphaeus and Jude, son of James, were nobodies – the Bible says nothing about them. Simon the Zealot was freedom fighter and terrorist in his day. Judas, the treasurer, was a thief and a loner. He pretended to be loyal to Jesus before finally betraying him.

Most of them, however, did have one great quality, they were willing.  That is all God asks of us.

Friends! This is fantastic news! In a restless and unsettled world, be encouraged. We, yes, we, were called, hand-picked, by the King of Kings, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to unleash His Roar; to calm the nations, spread peace through Him, and love others as only He can.

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How to live like Jesus is Lord

So much of what we teach is all the don’t’s of Christianity. You know, “Don’t drink, don’t chew, don’t dance with the girls who do.” But Jesus didn’t come for the don’t’s. Christ isn’t just a fast from sin; he is a feast of truth and grace.

The Messiah has come and his coming is like the coming of a bridegroom to a wedding feast. This longing we have for something more is a longing for a wedding feast, for new wine, for a new beginning. It is a longing for what we’re made for. It is a longing for truth … for life.

The story is true, my friends! Jesus is worthy! The cross is glorious! The good news is worth believing! The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance and the resurrection is proof. Are you living as if all this is true? Are you living as if Jesus really is Lord?

How to live like Jesus is Lord:

Let the dead things die. Toss the old habits that are not working for you any more. Toss the old, dead rituals. Some of us are waiting for our old “normal” to roll around again so we can get back to a more comfortable religion, but what a shame it would be if all we get out of this crisis is a hunger for sitting in a church building once a week. Folks, Jesus is doing a new thing! He is moving in power all over the world right now. He is revealing himself to non-believers, and creating miracles in spiritually dry places. It is time to join him. It is time to toss the things you keep wanting to come back that don’t need to come back, both in your spiritual life and in the rest of your life. Let the things that have no life for you die so you can begin to live like Jesus is Lord.

Learn to feast. Psalm 22 and 23 are some of my favorite places in scripture. These two psalms contain the essence of the Good News of the New Testament. Psalm 22 contains the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. This is the scene of Jesus taking on our sin and dying our death. This is Good Friday.

Then Psalm 23 takes us through Saturday, that dark time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. It walks us through the valley of shadows, the valley of death. But it points us toward a rise on the other side of that valley where there is a table set by God himself: “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” This is about how to walk through trouble with a feast mentality. This is a song of death and resurrection. In the face of so many enemies, we are invited by the Lord of the Universe to come to his table, to receive God’s goodness and mercy, and to remember that the God of Angel Armies is on our side.

This is the feast being set before us. It is a feast of truth and grace. And this is what it means to get a feast mentality: It is to set your face toward that table while you’re still in the valley and trust that the story is true even when life is hard.

Get a resurrection mindset. Resurrection is the center of the good news about Jesus Christ. And now, with that power firmly established in the Kingdom of God and with Jesus as our bridge God is able to confidently say to all humanity, “It is finished! He has done it! You now have the power I have to break through barriers and begin again.” And that message is not exclusively for Easter. That message is for us. This is our story now. Because the resurrection is true, we now have access to this same infinite power that is stronger than even death itself. When we talk about “begin again” religion, which is what Jesus preached, we’re talking about the kind of life that goes through death. We’re talking about transformation. We now have the power to bring everything out into the light and then put everything that isn’t eternal to death … so we can really live.

This is the good news! Those who are in Jesus never die. This is what it means to be “in Christ.” It is to proclaim with Peter: “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” And to believe that by claiming that, I am tethering myself to a power greater than sin, greater than death, greater than darkness.

A resurrection mindset can change the world, and can certainly change your world. I’m praying for you as you enter this season beyond Easter Sunday, that you will embrace the resurrection of Jesus Christ as your permission to live wholeheartedly into the life he has designed just for you.

Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Hallelujah!

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Let the Gospel Lead.

Is it just me, or are we all just plain worn out? Most of us who are working from home are discovering (as my friend, Jorge Acevedo says) parts of our brain we haven’t used in years, or maybe ever. Sort of like discovering muscles when we exercise that we didn’t even know we had. We’re having to connect facts differently, and we’re all having to innovate.

Pastors are having to figure out things on the fly that we’ve never considered before. Every pastor worth their salt wants to see their community fall forward, but the sheer barrage of new challenges, shifting facts, new ideas … well, it can be exhausting. This week, I realized I needed something deeper than, “hey! that’s cool!” as a barometer for how I vet the plethora of decisions facing us daily. Through prayer, I developed a few thoughts that can become for us a decision-making filter as we move forward. I’ve shared these thoughts with our vision and staff teams.

My guiding principle is this: Let the Gospel lead. It is the gospel, not culture, that must take the lead in forming our choices and changes. Under that banner, I’ve shaped six filters to help us stay in our theological lane as we make wise choices for your community:

1. Holy conferencing is how Christians connect. This is a distinctly Methodist term for the way we pursue discipleship in community. Andrew Thompson writes that holy (or Christian) conferencing is “about believers coming together to focus on their faith: to pray, to share their experience of God, to seek advice and to offer counsel, and even to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness” (Means of Grace, p. 90). This odd time we are in opens up a real opportunity to emphasize holy conferencing both in the home and in discipling groups. In crisis times, we certainly want folks to sense they are remembered, treasured and connected and care plans that make sure everyone gets a call are useful. But group life should always be the front line of pastoral care and spiritual formation. Teaching families how to care for each other spiritually in the home and encouraging folks toward online groups are both ways we can practice healthy community. Are we developing and emphasizing spiritual formation systems that will hold us for the long haul (and that don’t foster the dis-eases of individualism and consumerism)?

2. Prophetic presence is our worship posture. Our work is to authentically proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ. I believe the Church of Jesus Christ will benefit from our collective shift to an online presence. That move should be permanent. But the temptation in that realm is to work harder at the presentation than the content. And those without the appropriate theological grounding will tempt us toward unholy fire as we try to appease everyone’s individual tastes. As we innovate online worship services, our emphasis must always be connecting people with the Presence, power, and truth of God. Are we sowing DNA into our online worship that emphasizes presence over performance?

3. Prayer is the work. This season has given us all the great gift of a unified cry: God, have mercy and heal your land! The season is ripe for calling people to pray, and for teaching them how to cry out. Prayer is how we join the armies of angels who are right now doing battle with the powers and principalities on our behalf. It is also how we become sensitized to the will of God, and encouraged and strengthened to live it out. I’m praying daily for doctors and researchers and legislators who can bring this crisis to an end, but I’m under no illusions that they hold the power. Nope. The real power is in the prayers of God’s people. Are we using this moment to teach families how to pray together for more than a blessing over meals? Are we modeling for our people a holy hunger for the work of prayer as a way of deepening faith, and broadening our understanding of the character and will of God?

4. Holiness is practical, but not necessarily pragmatic. Holiness is always useful, which is to say that it actually works in real life. Holiness is practical; it will always meet the moment, but it will not be dumbed down. This is why we must be careful in our reverence for things like holy communion — not becoming so pragmatic in our approach that we “eat or drink judgment.” Decisions about worship, sacraments, and even the ways we share our needs should always be filtered through the lens of holiness, with the long view in mind. Are we designing our spiritual practices so that they expose us most fully to the heart of a good, loving and creative God … and so that we don’t feed the “cool factor” at the expense of deeper pursuits?

5. Wisdom moves at the rate of the Gospel. Let me say that more plainly: Every idea you see on social media isn’t an idea your church has to do in order to be relevant. Oh, how I wish I’d learned this lesson early on in my days as a church planter. When I was desperate to keep a fledgling church alive, I followed too many shiny objects down dead-end streets when I should have been discerning the Holy Spirit’s leading for my unique community. I feel the tug toward those old tendencies in this current crisis, but I’m trying to remember lessons learned (side note: someone has said that forgetting can be its own kind of idolatry. Amen all by myself). I would rather move slowly, with reverence toward the gospel, than rush ahead to do as others have done. In every decision, are we allowing the gospel — not finances or fear — to lead?

5. Life matters. Jesus taught that good shepherds are bold in their risk-taking. They’ll walk away from a whole flock to care for one sheep that has wandered off. These days, we are trusting that truth as we delay community worship for the sake of those who could become fatally ill by our large gatherings. This is not to say, however, that we are “forsaking the assembly” (see #1 above). To the contrary, this is our time to flex other parts of our corporate brain — to emphasize spiritual formation in smaller units. To emphasize the family altar and the development of small-group discipleship as vital to sanctification. I also believe there is great potential in this season to go after those who might not walk into a church building, but who might have comfort and curiosity enough to find us online. And I also believe this moment can call our country to consider life without churches … without worship … without Christian witness. This Spirit-led life is life in all its fullness. I am praying for a holy hunger to develop for the things of God in this season while we fast from meeting together in large gatherings because yes, physical life is precious, but eternal life is the real treasure. Are we using this time to do more than simply keep everyone physically healthy and emotionally heard? Are we emphasizing spiritual health and growth for each person in our care?

If you have the humbling privilege of spiritual leadership in this season, may these thoughts help you to root your decisions more deeply in Kingdom soil. And remember: while we haven’t ever been here before, God has. He has seen this world through wars, famines, plagues, floods and other desolations. He knows what creation is made of and This God Who Knows can be trusted to walk us through this into a future that still holds hope.

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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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Learning to Live with Loss

Loss is a normal part of life. On this side of Genesis 3, everyone has bad days, everyone grieves, everyone sins, everyone makes mistakes. In the final analysis, it isn’t if we will suffer, but what we do with it that counts. Healthy grief is an expression of the value of life — how much we treasure it, how much goodness and love we find in this life. When we grieve, we are fighting toward goodness and love. Here are a few ways that might help you in that fight:

First, find a way of praying that fits you for this season. Don’t worry about how anyone else prays, or even how you prayed on your good days. Find a way of talking to God that works for you now.

I discovered when my mother died that what used to work for me in my prayer life didn’t work for me in that valley. When she was most sick, I simply could not pray my own words. I remember telling my pastor I was out of prayers. But in my grief, I discovered the Psalms. I remember sitting in bed at night reading the Psalms and thinking how they said everything I could ever have wanted to say to God … and more. I fed on them. I hadn’t been a big fan before that but for the first time in my life, the Psalms really meant something to me.

Because the Psalms were written for people in pain, they might be a good starting place if you’re having a hard time praying right now. YouVersion has some great reading plans through the Psalms. One I’ve looked at that might work for you is called Journal Psalms. The last line of the first day is a keeper: “I don’t need to know why as long as I know the One who knows why.” Find a way of praying that fits you.

Let others pray for you. I actually think that’s what Paul was talking about when he said in Romans 8:26-27 that the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. He says there will be times, “We don’t even know what we should pray for, or how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads over us in harmony with God’s own will.”

There will be times when you won’t know what to pray. There may be times when the best you’ve got is groaning. When those times hit, be at peace. You’re in good company. Sometimes the Holy Spirit groans, too. In those times, don’t try too hard but do reach out. Ask others to pray for you, to hold hope for you. And ask the Holy Spirit to pray for you, too.

Be honest with God about your feelings. Curling up in a fetal position for the month of December, cussing out the cashier at Walmart, or checking out on folks who may just want to get you outside yourself for a few hours might all sound like good ideas right now, but they may not be your best options. When things feel desperate, remember that it is no shame to grieve and that while others may not get that, God does. It is okay to be honest with Him about your feelings, even if they aren’t sanctified. Psalm 23 tells us our shepherd will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes that valley is spiritual and that shadow is doubt, but the word promises that even when we walk through the valley of death, he is close.

It is okay to be happy. I hope you have good days in this season. I hope you find reasons to laugh, to relax, to feel even for a few hours like things will be okay. When those moments strike, soak in them. It is okay to be happy, to remember the good things. The one you’re missing would surely want you to have good days and big smiles along the way.

So maybe you haven’t had losses this year but folks around you have. How can you best be with them in a season when you may not be in the same emotional spot? Here is one thought for you (or maybe a thought you can share with someone who is trying to help you in your grief): Try to understand, rather than fix. Clichés are not helpful, especially ones that have no basis in scripture. God does not need another angel (and if he does he can make one). Everything does not happen for a good reason. And even if God will give us strength to handle anything, we don’t always want to be strong. Those aren’t usually the best encouragements for someone who is grieving but being there is. Just being present may be the difference between depression and joy for someone who feels lonely. Why not call and ask a grieving friend to lunch or a movie or a walk or coffee. And if they decline, that’s okay. Reach out again in a week or so. Grief is funny: what we don’t want today (or just don’t have energy for) is exactly what we need next week). Be patient with those swings.

In Psalm 23, David paints for us a picture of a table laden with a feast, to which we are invited. Not only are we invited, but the psalm tells us our enemies have to watch while we eat. They don’t get to be there with us. Imagine that! There you are, at a table filled with good things, and all your griefs, sorrows and disappointments are not invited. You get to feast but your grief is not fed. Jesus invites you to feast, but your suffering and pain are not invited. Your spirit is being nourished at this table, while all that breeds death is being starved.

Imagine yourself there now, at this feasting table with Jesus. Will you thank him for this feast? Will you thank him for giving you a place at the table? Thank him for the feast of grace and righteousness that leads to life. Thank him for being your shepherd, your provider, your protector, your savior. Thank him for praying over you in groans when you grieve, and for not letting you stay in the valley but walking you through.

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Seven hopeful words for grieving souls

As the holidays ramp up, here are seven things we can know that speak hope to grieving or stressed-out souls:

God is good. C. S. Lewis was one of the top two or three theologians of the 20th century. He lost his wife after a late-life marriage and he dealt with that loss by writing a lot about grief. He would say of God, “God is not safe, but he is good.” I don’t know if that truth hits you like it hits me when I’m down, but when I am down that becomes a critical piece for me. My mom died while I was in seminary (I was 34) and I remember my professor asking in class one day to name the most fundamental truth about God. I answered immediately that God is good. He told me that no, the most fundamental statement is that God is love. Which I know but I remember thinking that day, “Nope. Not for me. Today, in order for me to trust God at all while I drive eight hours back and forth every weekend to see my dying mother, what matters most that God is good.” Whatever the end-game, I need to know that even if I don’t understand all that happens, the God over it is good.

God is alive. Visit a country that believes in ancestor worship or idol worship and you’ll see the stark difference between our brand of hope and theirs. Rows and rows of idols representing ancestors who have died (with rocks piled on them, which are the prayers of family members) and rows and rows of trees with wishes tied to their branches. Rocks praying to stones. Paper praying to wood. Meanwhile, we profess this radical truth, that Jesus in the flesh is seated at the right hand of God the Father. Hebrews 9:11 calls him the high priest of good things to come (Jesus is the high priest of hope!). Everything we believe hinges on this truth: “Because I live, you shall live also” (John 14:!9).

Death does not get the last word. Which is not at all the same as saying death doesn’t matter. It does. Your loss matters and your sorrow in the face of it is perfectly legitimate. It is okay to be sad and even to hold gratitude and grief in the same hand. One doesn’t cancel out the other. I read the story somewhere of this indigenous village in Australia. When someone in that village dies, everyone else in the village moves a piece of furniture from their house out into their front yard. So the next morning when the person who has lost someone wakes up and looks outside their house, all over the neighborhood there is furniture in the yard. The compassionate message being sent to the grieving one is that yes, the world has changed. It does not go on as if nothing has happened. We can acknowledge that things may never “get back to normal” without ditching all hope. We can learn to walk in gratitude toward all we have even while we carry our loss. Friend, your loss is noticed, it matters, and it might not be fixable. But it doesn’t get the last word. An empty tomb promises us that.

I can survive death … both now and when my own life is over. The Old Testament feasts teach us the power of remembering. They were given by God to help the Israelites act out and remember their story. In Exodus 12, God tells the people, “Eventually, you’ll have kids who won’t remember what we’ve been through, and they won’t be able move forward if you don’t show them where you’ve been.” Even today, when Passover is celebrated by Jewish people, the youngest person in the room has the privilege of asking this question to invoke the telling of the story of the Jewish people being delivered from slavery: “What makes this day different from all other days?” God told the Israelites, “When the children ask, you tell them, ‘We do this because God is great, because He brought us up out of our slavery into a desert and toward his promises.” Sometimes the way forward is best charted by remembering where we’ve been and who brought us through. Remembering, we learn, is part of resurrection. And sometimes remembering is how we get courage to keep going. Perhaps a good way to begin this season is by choosing something to remember and celebrate. Or ask a friend to sit with you so you can share memories together. The Bible teaches us that we survive not by distraction but by remembering.

I can know why, even if I can’t know why right now. Maybe the hardest part of grief is the mystery of it. We are so sure that if we could just know the “why” we’d feel so much better. Not knowing the “why” is hard. Why did I have to lose someone I loved so much? Why is my marriage loveless? Why do my children suffer with illness or disability? Why so much loss and emotional pain? The questions that don’t have answers can be so frustrating but as it turns out, truth is not a set of principles we can logic through to find relief. Truth is a person. Which means the answer to your “why” is “Who.” It is Jesus being willing to be with me in my grief, without words, unjealously, unswervingly, peacefully there. And it is Jesus who teaches me to be a friend to those around me. In the face of our own pain, God may not give us all the answers we’re hoping for but he gives us himself, which is so much better in the long run than the temporary fix of cheap advice. I can know why, but maybe not now and maybe not even in this lifetime. But as it turns out, knowing Who is enough.

I can hope without being disappointedif my ultimate hope is attached to the Infinite. God has been talking to me lately about the difference between fantasies and hope. I am a master at wanting things I can’t have. Not stuff, so much. But I’ll get some crazy idea about what success looks like and then I get so frustrated when that thing I dreamed up doesn’t happen. What I’m beginning to learn is that things I dream up and then desperately want have no substance. They never were true, are not true now and never will be true. Since there is no substance to an impossible idea, its only function is to frustrate. Meanwhile real hope — biblical hope, hope with substance to it — is rooted in Jesus and his Kingdom. The Bible actually puts it just that way: hope is the substance of things not yet seen (Hebrews 11:1). That means real hope — though it is still unseen by us — exists substantially in God’s Kingdom. For those who grieve, this is both challenge and good news. We may have to put to death our frustrated fantasies — the “if onlys” that feed our disappointment and discouragement — but we can hope again, if we are willing to hope away from those fantasies and toward Jesus and his Kingdom.

Life is worth the fight. This world and our place in it is worth fighting for. Even if we have suffered, we live in a world created by a good God who lives, and who invites us to live also. We live in a world being reclaimed day by day by a Savior who loves us and who invites us to the other side of sin, suffering, hopelessness, pain and death. We live in a world in need of what we bring to the table. A worship song I lean on (10,000 Reasons, by Matt Redman) has this verse about learning to praise God all the way through, in this life and in the life to come:

And on that day, When my strength is failing, The end draws near, and my time has come … Still my soul will sing Your praise unending, ten thousand years and then forevermore.

In a stressful and often lonely season, my you find so many good reasons to praise our good God and trust what he is doing … even if you don’t have all the answers.

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An Open Letter to Women Who Lead

A while back, a colleague reached out with deep frustration over some incident or another that caused her gender to bump up against her calling. I felt her pain. It is amazing how quickly a moment like that can set us back. Because I’ve felt her story and heard it from too many others, I suspect that my response to her may resonate with others who find themselves frustrated by life in a fallen world.

Friend,

I suspect you already know the stuff we all know: that we live in a fallen world; that we will struggle to make partnerships out of hierarchies on this side of Genesis 3; that “standing” in the Ephesians 6 sense of that word is hard as heck but still the best option we have in a fallen world.

Given all that, this would be my advice to you in a sentence: After you’ve done all you can do, stand. That is your call. Stand.

And I get it … standing can be tiring. And holding an uncomfortable position can be uncomfortable. An yes, it can get old and after enough of it we would rather just do our small work and grow old and bitter than keep rubbing against the grain. That is our choice, of course. But that is not the call.

The call is to stand. After we’ve done all we can do, stand.

So when hard things happen, go ahead and blow off steam and be angry and sound off, but then get back at it. Get back to making your stand for Christ. Learn winsome ways to make your point and stay in the game. The call doesn’t disappear and I can assure you that it is so much more frustrating to avoid a call than to deal with the pressures that incubate inside of one.

Stay in it. Stand.

Be angry at injustice and at the enemy of our souls who has found a foothold in gender inequity, but don’t assume we can win that argument and defeat something nearly as old as humanity, that somehow if we just say it right the thing will go away. This is human fallenness we are battling! It is in our DNA. Be angry about what the enemy has done to humanity, but don’t settle for the cheap way out by blaming Hollywood or government or worse yet, men in general. Don’t give room to defensiveness. Make sure your arguments are biblical, theologically sound, practical and most of all, that they come from a whole and holy place.

Because this thing we deal with is a fact of the fall (have I said that yet?). I assume it will be here until Jesus comes back. Our challenge is to learn how to navigate past it so we can do the things we’re called to. How do we as women support each other without competing or belittling or forgetting, or worse, stoking unholy fires by projecting? How do we raise up men by encouraging them to love and respect us as partners in the work of lifting up Christ, without competing with or belittling them?

Ed Stetzer says church planters are 400% times more likely to succeed if they know what they are up against. The Small Business Administration says much the same thing about entrepreneurs. Realism is an ally. So on the point of women as leaders, here’s what you’re up against:

  • Sometimes you will experience condescending attitudes from men who have no idea they are being condescending.
  • Sometimes you will experience the jealousy or competitiveness of women who have no idea they are broken in that way.
  • Sometimes you will experience subtle and even overt sexual advances by men who know what they are doing and by men who got broken as boys.
  • Sometimes you will be passed over by churches because you are female, because they are gripped by the spirit of fear.
  • Sometimes you will be invited to speak/ sit on the platform/ write/ participate for no other reason than that you are female (take it … every time, take it and be grateful; never mind their motives).
  • Sometimes you will experience lack of success because you are female, and sometimes because you’re not that great of a leader. And it will be hard to know which is which.
  • Sometimes you will feel crazy because when you verbalize your experience of any of the above, others will deny or minimize what you’re feeling. They’ll tell you you’re doing “just fine.” And you will feel crazy because what you know to be true is not validated.

All those things will happen to a woman who chooses the path of leadership. And we’re not just talking about Christian leadership, but leadership in general. Hundreds of studies in multiple fields bear out the fact that you will have these things in your life. Which is not to say men have no challenges of their own. Men have other things to deal with and we ought to be careful to hear them, too.

But friend, these are our things and they are not necessarily because you are not good enough, though it is possible you have placed yourself into something you’re not ready for. Your pain is not necessarily because you are not called or gifted, but please be sure that you are. The call of God is not for the faint of heart.

If you are called and gifted, then hear me: sometimes this call will be hard, Some things just are, because we live on this side of Genesis 3. As Paul said, we’re not battling flesh and blood but powers and principalities that want to take us down.

So now you know, which means you are 400% more likely to succeed because you can be in this with eyes wide open. You are more likely to succeed if you will seek your own healing, stop apologizing your way into rooms, and trust that if you’ve been invited to a table then you belong there. You are more likely to succeed if you will take responsibility for your own gifts and hone them so you’re making the most of the moment.

And listen: You can’t lose if you will spend your energy lifting up Jesus. Let him take care of your reputation. Your job is to stand. Witness to your creation-call by being good at it. And if you sense you’ve been given a prophetic voice to speak into this arena more boldly, then pray desperately for humility enough to stay under the Lordship of Christ so the unholy fires don’t burn up your message.

If my thoughts don’t settle well with you, then do your own research, find your own message … but either way, keep pursuing healing because the Kingdom is starving for warriors like Deborah — both women and men who are whole and holy, courageous and ready. And keep pursuing healing for your own wounds because healing is freedom. Whatever has happened to us, Jesus can return our souls to a place of peace. It has been liberating, after too many years of being fearful and defensive, to simply be at peace as a woman who loves Jesus and finds joy in leadership within His church. Praise God for the healing grace of Jesus that brought me this far and please, God! Heal me some more because I’m not nearly who You’ve designed me to be. Not yet. But I’m a Methodist, so I absolutely believe I’m getting there. And so are you, my friend. So are you. 

In all things may Jesus be praised! 

— Carolyn

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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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