The insanity of pluralism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth is not relative. 

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

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

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From ego to awe

Developmentally, we are designed to move from ego to awe.

In our most immature state, our task is to figure out who we are as separate beings from our mothers. Our mental time is spent understanding our autonomy, which makes us highly self-conscious. As we develop, we move from self-consciousness to simple self-awareness — understanding our place within the context around us. From there we move to awareness, thinking less of self and more of our surroundings. At our most mature, we are self-forgetful as we practice the gift of awe — seeing the holy in and around every situation. From this place of awe — of worship — we have the most to offer the world.*

This is a map of spiritual maturity. This process of moving from self-consciousness to awareness of the world around us to a holy awareness of God’s presence is what Methodists might call sanctification. It is the process of “holy-fying” our thoughts and of becoming more intimately connected to God as we see him exposed in the world. He becomes our focus.

Of course, we don’t move in clean lines from immaturity to maturity. We all know adults who still relate to the world from a very self-conscious place — constantly self-referencing in conversations and tagging every moment with an internal question: “What’s in it for me?” This is the consumer’s question. “Where is God?” is the question of a giver — one who is other-focused. To advance from self-consciousness to worship requires to us to move from “What’s in it for me?” to “Where is God?” And this is a move many of us desperately need to make.

Our culture has trained us to be consumers. We tend to look at everything, even worship, as a “what’s in it for me?” proposition. The lie of this world is that we can consume our way to significance, but the truth is that material consumption only creates more emptiness. That question, “What’s in it for me?” only makes us want more.

Meanwhile, worship (or holy awe) leads to fulfillment. When we go vertical, we find life, even abundant life, according to Jesus (John 10:10). Tish Warren references the “abundant economy of worship.” It is the idea that worship is the one thing that never runs out. Start with everything else, and worship will get our leftovers. Start with worship and it will overflow and fill everything else with meaning and significance.

Worship asks one thing of us: It asks us to move from ego to awe. The pay-off for that shift is a life of abundance, a life overflowing in fullness and fruitfulness. When I make this shift from ego to awe — and only when I make this shift — I am rightly postured for the work of witnessing. David paints this poetically in Psalm 96. He begins this majestic hymn with worship: “Sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord, praise his name! Proclaim his salvation from day to day!”

David begins with worship before calling the reader in verse three to declare God’s glory — the same glory we’ve just personally experienced — to the nations. David teaches us that if we want to find God’s heart for the lost, we must begin by developing our own holy awe. We must see the glory for ourselves first. He calls us upward, inviting us to become so overwhelmed by the things of God that we can’t help but want to proclaim them among the nations.

When we cultivate a holy awe, our witness will flow out of our worship.

Steven Cole quotes John Piper, who begins one of his books on missions by saying, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man … The goal of missions is the gladness of the people in the greatness of God.”

Cole says worship is not just the goal of missions, but the basis for it. He says, “If we are not fervent worshipers of God, we have nothing to tell the nations. If we do not exude joy in God and His wonderful salvation, why should lost people be interested in what we have to say? So worship is both the goal of missions and the foundation for missions. If we’re not worshipers, we will be lousy witnesses.”

The rhythm of Psalm 96 moves us between worship and witness. Our worship propels us out “to the nations,” to places hungering to worship the one, true God. When we get there, we proclaim His glory and our witness inspires others to worship our God. And the rhythm continues. Worship leads to witness leads to worship. Holy rhythm.

All this is to say: Missions and evangelism are not a function of self-fulfillment or empathy. They don’t exist to satisfy our own deep longings (“What’s in it for me?”) or because we have connected with the suffering of others (“What is around me?”).

Missions and evangelism exist as the overflow of hearts engaged in the holy awe of a glorious God who is worthy to be praised.

What if you spent today practicing holy awe, forgetful of self and searching in every situation for the glory of God?

 

*I learned this from Dr. Marilyn Elliott, Vice-President of Community Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.

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The rise of Methodism and fruit that lasts

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about how the Holy Spirit actually shows up. As I said in this post, I suspect much of what we attribute to the Holy Spirit is simply not within his character. Or we allow ourselves to be content with reports of the Spirit’s movement in other places, without doing the spiritual work to participate in what he is doing right here … right now. I cannot believe that all God’s mighty works are for other places and people. Can you?

In the midst of thinking and praying about this — asking the Lord to teach me more about how he actually moves — I discovered something about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, that strikes me as profound. In an article on the rise of Methodism Andrew Thompson writes,

“Ask your average Methodist what the turning point was in the history of the Methodist movement, and you’ll likely get the response that it was John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1738. It was there that Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and received the assurance of his salvation. Methodism couldn’t have grown and expanded in the years following had it not been for Wesley’s own encounter with Christ that fateful evening, right?”

Right … but

When Wesley himself reflected on what made his work so remarkably fruitful, Aldersgate is not what he referenced. Wesley remembered instead what he called “three rises” of Methodism. In writing about this, Thompson quotes Wesley’s own journal:

“On Monday, May 1, [1738,] our little society began in London. But it may be observed, the first rise of Methodism (so-called) was in November 1729, when four of us met together at Oxford: the second was at Savannah, in April 1736, when twenty or thirty persons met at my house: the last, was at London, on this day, when forty or fifty of us agreed to meet together every Wednesday evening, in order to a free conversation, begun and ended with singing and prayer. In all our steps we were greatly assisted by the advice and exhortations of Peter Boehler, an excellent young man, belonging to the society commonly called Moravians.”

The great revival that swept England then America was not rooted in a moment like Aldersgate, nor in the thousands who gathered in fields to hear him preach. No, Wesley credits the rise of Methodism with three meetings that gathered in homes over the course fifty years to press into the spiritual disciplines and pursue the heart of God.

Let that sink in.

A movement that shaped the face of contemporary Christianity began when a few men quietly began to meet together to hold one another accountable for the living out of their faith. The heart of those meetings was a series of questions that required participants to be honest about the state of their souls.

This was transparency before transparency was cool. 

The experiment in spiritual accountability was repeated over time in Wesley’s own life; then was replicated in living rooms, church houses and assembly halls across two continents. The upshot? By 1850 one in three American Christians was Methodist, and hundreds of thousands of people had come to Christ. Today, 900 million Pentecostals can trace their theological roots to Wesley’s Holy Club, along with another 70 million in various strains of Methodism.

THAT’S the fruit I’m looking for. I am looking for the kind of fruit that can’t be explained any other way than the power of God. In our churches and in The Church, I’m looking for fruit that will last. I am ready for those of us who follow Jesus faithfully to begin refusing anything less. If we are going to become hungry for genuine moves of the Spirit, we must stop feeding on snack food. We must stop calling warm moments and well-attended services what they are not, until we become so hungry that nothing short of the authentic will suffice.

And I suspect the greatest moves of the Holy Spirit are just as Jesus said they were — like mustard seeds or a little yeast. They begin in unassuming places, are fertilized by faith and discipline, and grow (perhaps quietly, perhaps not) into mighty movements that change people, change cultures, change the world. They are known by fruit that lasts and by fruit that far outstrips the effort. Maybe they are only known by the fruit they bear over time, even over generations. But they ARE known by their fruit.

That’s the point. Spirit-filled movements bear fruit that lasts. The Church of Jesus Christ must refuse anything less.

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What you believe matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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(Not) just another week in the UMC

Come, Lord Jesus.

It was the prayer of the early church as they strained toward the Kingdom against tides of conflict and persecution. “Come, Lord Jesus!” This week, I find myself praying that prayer with fresh energy as we in my tribe brace for a judicial ruling concerning a bishop elected to the western jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

To be clear, I do not believe the bishop in question is within biblical bounds, nor am I in step with those who believe the best course of action at this point is to simply disregard the structures and covenants of the UMC in order to get where they’d like to go. More important still, I don’t think the issue that will have our attention this week is the core issue that divides us.

I remain convinced that the real issue at stake in the United Methodist Church (as with most mainline denominations today) is what we do with the Lordship of Jesus and the authority of the Bible. What has energetically driven Methodists apart for decades is an inability to unite around John 14:6. Many who serve as United Methodist pastors consider Jesus as a way, but not the way. This is neither suspicion nor recent trend. Pluralism has been seeping into Methodism since the early twentieth century, and is ultimately responsible for all our talk about tolerance and unity. If ours is a one-issue conflict, then it is about how Jesus and the Bible influence all our other choices.

Progressive theology would have us focus on tolerance; yet, our core value as Christians is not tolerance but holiness. God commanded, “You are to be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16). Holiness informs my response to the culture around me. My opinions must be rooted in the values of holiness as I find them in the Bible. I don’t interpret the Bible in light of how the world turns. I interpret the world in light of the Bible, even when it means I will look a little crazy by the world’s standards.

Let’s be clear on this: holiness reminds me that my primary call is to lead people to Jesus, not get them to “act right.” Jesus, not behavior, is the key to salvation; until a person knows Jesus, nothing else matters. I don’t get to “save” anybody (Jesus already has that job), but my behavior will determine another person’s openness to Jesus. Holiness demands — among a host of other character-defining traits — patience, humility, gentleness, endurance, bearing with one another in love. When followers of Jesus take this call to holiness seriously then eventually, they will look less like the world and more like the Kingdom of Heaven in the ways they live life. I pray like crazy that as I live the art of holiness, I will “do no harm,” as Wesley counseled.

But I admit frustration. As our debates over issues surrounding human sexuality continue to boil, I find myself praying the prayer of the frustrated: “How long, O Lord, how long?” I wonder why we haven’t made more before now of our differing views on the nature of Jesus. I become discouraged when I hear the conversation lean toward tolerance and unity as our key values, rather than holiness and respect. I hope we have not made an idol of “big tent” structures when God may be up to something else entirely. What if a return to theological integrity is the better move for us all?

So … what to do with the events of this week when our collective eyes will be focused on an issue, a person and a situation that so obviously obscures our bigger fissures? The world is watching and our collective response will be noted. I am praying for a response among United Methodists that proves our commitment to the values of Christ. I am praying for the values of holiness to prevail. I am also praying for gracious commentary. I am praying for the spirit of Jesus to descend and give us a better answer than the ones we’ve fashioned. I’m praying that we will all commit to a posture of humility. After all, whatever our separate views we are still responsible for treating one another with holy love. The Bible doesn’t give us an option on that.

For me, the spiritual association of eleven million people is worth the time and effort it takes to stay in the conversation and stay in prayer. It is tempting to check out, but I believe orthodox Wesleyan theology is worth the fight. Whatever the ruling this week, there is much else in our church that desperately needs our attention. The biggest irony is that most lay people (and not a few clergy) have no idea what is happening to our beloved tribe. Most don’t realize how close we’ve already come to a full-fledged split, or how likely we are to end there. That is a conversation every Methodist ought to be having, and the conversation must move beyond symptoms to root causes. The Body of Christ deserves our utmost. It is the great gift of Jesus to his people, and I intend to do all I can on this earth to make his Bride ready.

Come, Lord Jesus. May your Kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.

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Let’s take the world by force

Jesus never moves far from the topic of the Kingdom of God.  He is always trying to get us to see it, grasp it, embrace it.  It is like a seed, like soil, like leaven, like something valuable buried in a field. Something ordinary, sometimes hidden, that possesses an unexpected strength.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus uses a word that reveals yet another surprising thing about the Kingdom.  He says, ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12).  Another version phrases it this way:  “The Kingdom has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force.”

The Greek word used here is biazetai.  Depending on how you use it in a sentence, it can have either of the meanings noted above (“suffering violence” or “forcefully advancing”), though they are markedly different.

So which is it?

Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?  Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is it suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes.*  The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark, of a kind of deafness to the sound of holiness.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If John (and we) wants to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, tell him this: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

That’s why John was asking questions. Because this isn’t what he expected. He (and we) want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, God’s Kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like average people talking over coffee, telling stories of transformation. “This is how Jesus changed my life.”  

It looks like someone taking a box of food to single mom simply for the privilege of praying with her for better days. It looks like groups of people quietly gathering in buildings to bind up broken hearts and proclaim freedom to captives. It is people praying it forward, praying hopefully toward the day when there is no more pain, no more tears, no more racism, no more adultery, murder, divorce, anger, unrighteous judgment.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of ordinary souls to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so no one is left behind. It is seeds, leaven, oil, a cup of water, time, patience, stories.

That’s the force of it and for a lot of people that’s an offense.  It simply isn’t what we expect.

But that, Jesus seems to say, is how it is done.

 

* Some years ago, I heard Dr. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, preach on this verse and his remarks have stayed with me.

 

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What men can do to support women leaders

The story is often told of a time when Bill Gates was speaking to a group of Saudi Arabian businessmen and political leaders. Most in the room were men; any women present were veiled and sat in a separate section according to custom. After his speech, Gates took questions, during which time an audience member commented on the rank of Saudi Arabia in the field of technology, asking what Gates thought might lift his country into the top ten globally.

“Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates responded, noting the paucity of females present, “you’re not going to get too close to the top ten.”¹

It is not news that women lag behind men in leading in both secular and sacred arenas. What may not be so obvious is that the progress of women toward narrowing that gap has slowed and in some cases stalled in recent years. This is just as true in the business sector as in the religious sector. According to the 2013 Catalyst Census conducted by Fortune Magazine, there was no increase in the number of women in executive positions, with women holding less than fifteen percent of executive roles.

The news inside the Church is no more encouraging. Bill Hybels, long-time pastor of Willow Creek Church in Chicago, reflects on the trajectory of women in church leadership:

“Somewhere in the middle 90’s, I think, I said I don’t have to carry that flag anymore. Because the whole church gets it; we are done with that. We’ve crossed over. In the last ten years, I am embarrassed to say, it’s gone the other way. There is a generation of leaders coming up now who are back in the old school of limiting the potential of what women can do; limiting where women can serve; limiting their potential service in the church.”²

Hybel’s sense of a decline in women’s leadership within the church is affirmed statistically. According to The National Congregations Study conducted by Duke University, pastors in America are becoming more diverse and older but since 1998 they have not become more female. Dawn Wiggins Hare with the Commission on the Status and Role of Women reports that the number of women clergy in the United Methodist Church has not increased since 2009.

And we thought Wesleyans were making progress …

A National Congregations Study reports, “Despite large percentages of female seminarians and increased numbers of female clergy in some denominations, women lead only a small minority of American congregations. Moreover, we do not detect any increase since 1998 in the overall percentage of congregations led by women.”³

Here’s the real irony: in a field dominated by men, it is male spiritual leaders who have the most opportunity to influence the next generation of women called into leadership. What can men do to affirm and encourage women called and gifted to lead in ministry? Here are a few places to begin:

Root your decisions about leadership in a Wesleyan understanding of scripture. Having a well-researched, well-prayed-over egalitarian theology will help you make more confident choices about giving both women and men leadership responsibilities. An egalitarian view says that while the Fall (Genesis 3) is responsible for setting man and woman against each other in an antagonistic or hierarchical relationship, the intended purpose at creation is for man and woman to stand together as equal partners. If this is true (and I believe it is), then we want to operate and make decisions that support a pre-fall view of human design. In other words, we value people based on gifts and call and do not exclude them because of gender.

Commit to making decisions that reflect the values and spiritual maturity of an elder in the New Testament Church of Jesus Christ. What motivates your leadership choice? Are you so spiritually formed that you can maturely mentor, hire and encourage women without fear or intimidation? Have you done the spiritual spadework needed to develop strong mental and physical boundaries? This ends up being an important piece of the puzzle. Unless we are emotionally and spiritually mature, our discomfort with the other gender will keep us from confidently leading. Remember that the gospel clearly calls us to take responsibility for our own minds and bodies, not to ask others to bear that weight.

Give women who are called and gifted access to every level of leadership. Are there places in your church where women are excluded? Are there tables to which they are not invited? Please understand that a lifetime of experiencing subtle biases has given most women a sensitivity to those places where we are excluded. That may be something we have to deal with but nonetheless, we know when we’re not welcome and it makes a difference in how we live out our potential and contribute to the coming Kingdom.

Pray for God to give you an urgency to welcome and advance the Kingdom of God on earth. As God answers that prayer, you will become more attuned to those he has placed in your community who are ready, willing and qualified to lead along with you. When you find them, take authority over your role as apostle and pastor by pouring into them as leaders in the same way you’d pour into men. Genuinely qualified women leaders are starving for solid, qualified, Kingdom-minded mentors and coaches who care so much about Kingdom priorities that they will do whatever it takes to make sure that cause is advanced.

 

1. Dale, Felicity, et al. The Black Swan Effect: A Response to Gender Hierarchy in the
Church. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007, kindle loc 882.

2. Leach, Tara Beth. “Dear Bill Hybels and Other Men Who Affirm Women in Ministry.”
MissioAlliance. August 10, 2015.

3. National Congregations Study. “Religious Congregations in 21st Century America.” http:/
www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSIII_report_final.pdf

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Fetching Grace

Mephibosheth.  Sound that one out, then imagine yourself with the burden of that name hanging around the neck of your life.

Mephibosheth was Jonathan’s son. David found him when he went looking for a way to make good on a promise he’d made to Jonathan years before. It was a vow to honor Jonathan’s family — any time, any place. One day long into his reign as king, he goes to the palace staff and asks (2 Samuel 9:1), “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” At the question, someone remembers Mephibosheth.

His name, by the way, means “shameful thing.”

Mephibosheth had bad feet. When he was five years old, a nursemaid dropped him or let him fall and somehow his feet were damaged. So now, here is a boy named Shameful with feet that don’t allow him to play with the other kids or follow in his warrior-father’s footsteps. After his father’s death, they did with him what they often did with kids like him. They sent him off to someone willing to keep him as a servant for the cost of room and board.

So a guy named Shameful who is labeled as Lame gets shipped off to a place called Lo Debar, which means “place of no pasture,” or sometimes, “place of no word.” No word.  No blessing.  No intelligence.  No honor.  This is where Mephibosheth lived.

Then, completely out of the blue, David sent for him. The Hebrew word used here literally means something like “fetch.” Someone has called this act of David fetching grace. Don’t you love that? It reminds me of Jesus’ word to his followers: “You did not choose me, but I chose you …”

When Mephibosheth was presented to David, the king said to him, “Don’t be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father. And I will restore the land that belongs to your family.” The story ends with Mephibosheth living in Jerusalem, eating at the King’s table.

And this is the place where Jesus shows up. As I consider Mephibosheth coming to live with David, I realize there is no miraculous healing. David doesn’t hire great doctors to fix him up. Mephibosheth comes as he is, and as he is he is welcome at the table of the King.

In that scene, Jesus says to me, “You don’t have to be different than you are to sit at the table and be part of the things I have for you. We are not all sitting around waiting for you to be better, different, healed. You have been chosen as you are.”

And right here, right now, I want to thank Jesus for that word. For showing up with Mephibosheth to give me courage.

What a sweet life this life with Jesus is.

 

(This story is also part of the Encounter Jesus study, available at seedbed.com)

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Carriers of the Gospel or Keepers of the Myth?

Lazarus has just died.

This is a blow to everyone in Jesus’ circle. This is someone they all loved. A friend of Jesus. As his sisters, Mary and Martha are stricken, not just by the loss but by Jesus’ response. Jesus loves these people, but when they send word that Lazarus is sick Jesus doesn’t go running. In fact, he waits two days before heading over to Judea to check in. By the time he gets there, Lazarus is as dead as a doorknob (as they say) and Martha is mad as a hornet (as they also say). “If you had come sooner, my brother wouldn’t be dead today,” she says … and the clear tone of her comment is that they deserve something more than this treatment. Jesus understands, but what he really wants to know is this: Does she believe in his divinity, whether or not he acts as she’d prefer?

Do you believe, Martha, when it is inconvenient?

In Martha’s bold proclamation of the truth, we hear the very power of the gospel:  “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

And then Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. It is stunning, an affirmation that this indeed is the very power of God in their midst. But not everyone is moved. A group of religious leaders who get wind of this news are completely put off by a resurrection miracle. This has profound implications for their temple. If this man continues to display such signs and wonders, the crowds may shift their allegiance. What then? The priests could lose their temple, not to mention their jobs, their way of life and the culture of honor to which they’ve grown accustomed.

Their solution? Kill the man. Kill Lazarus, too. Don’t just destroy the miracle-maker; destroy the miracle.

At this point, the story begins to sound familiar. It is not hard to draw a line from the religious leaders of Jesus’ day to the religious spirit of ours. In an upcoming book by James Heidinger (soon to be published by Seedbed), I’ve been learning about the roots of the slow, steady decline of the United Methodist Church. The current crisis, Heidinger says, has been in the making for decades and isn’t the sole property of the UMC. The downfall of mainline American protestantism began early in the 20th century when its theologians began to question the supernatural nature of Jesus. Do we really have to believe in the virgin birth in order to accept the divinity of Jesus? Once we crossed that line, it was a brief slide down to questioning the resurrection and from there, it seemed only natural to doubt the validity of the miracles themselves.

When we began to question the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection and the miracle-making power of Jesus, we lost — literally — the power of the gospel. Sap all the supernatural out of Jesus, and what have we got? A good man and a few moral platitudes, but nothing worth our worship.

I once heard someone say that too many ministers are less “carriers of the gospel” and more “keepers of the myth.” How painful to think there are men and women who accept a paycheck as carriers of the gospel but who do not themselves believe deep-down in the whole gospel of Jesus Christ — the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the miracles, the deliverance from evil. How many who call themselves Christian today would struggle to honor and celebrate the raising of a Lazarus in their midst? How many pastors preach the stories for their morals only, having long since lost any sense of the power of the gospel?

Brothers and sisters, I suspect that history is repeating itself. We have become so concerned for the temple that we’ve lost our wonder in the supernatural power of Jesus Christ. What if the crowds shift their allegiance? We could lose our pensions and property, not to mention the culture to which we’ve grown accustomed. For fear of losing relevance, we’ve traded the gospel for a powerless message.

How did we get here, to this place where we disdain the power of God? And how do we get out of this hole?

Perhaps Martha’s lesson is a word for our day. Even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable, our only hope is in the proclamation of the whole gospel. “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” For United Methodists, such a proclamation would not be a new thing but a much-needed refocus on our doctrinal foundation.

We believe in Jesus …

The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

We believe in the resurrection of Jesus …

Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sits until he return to judge all men at the last day.

We believe in the Holy Spirit …

The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

We believe in the power of God to create fresh and real miracles in our day …

… to bring good news to the poor;
… to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God … (Isaiah 61:1-3)

Let it begin with us, Lord Jesus. Let it begin here. Preachers, I challenge you to be a carrier of the Gospel today. Unashamedly preach the power of Jesus Christ. People, I challenge you to believe in and embrace the supernatural power of God in your worship and work, and I challenge you to refuse as your pastor anyone who is merely a keeper of the myth. The gospel of Jesus Christ deserves much more.

Yes, Lord … I believe you are the Christ, the one and only Son of God, who is coming into the world in all your power and glory!

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A Conversation with Millennials about Sex and Culture

I was inspired by a recent blog about why millennials have dropped out of church, and was equally inspired by the conversation generated on a friend’s Facebook page after he re-posted this blog. The blog listed twelve “theses,” in the spirit of the ninety-five Luther nailed to the church door. The ninth thesis was this: “People in their 20s and 30s are making the biggest decisions of their entire lives: career, education, relationships, marriage, sex, finances, children, purpose, chemicals, body image. We need someone consistently speaking truth into every single one of those areas.”

Amen and yes. Even if I don’t know all the language for this, I absolutely agree. We need people speaking truth into the most sensitive areas of life. A comment thread on Facebook produced these comments: “(This) hits home with me,” one young adult writes, “especially about sex, relationships, marriage, and a few ‘taboo’ things I feel like some churches don’t talk enough about that destroy people and families.” His friend replies, “Yes it does. I just wish we could talk about things like that … like it’s important ya know. We all have those pressures of life that get to us. Just wish we could understand that we as young adults (and church families) deal with this on a daily basis.”

That this generation is starving for more transparent conversation is great news. I would so much rather influence a generation around their sex/relationships/marriage choices than sit and toss stones at the culture. Because here’s a fact: We are not who the culture says we are. The culture tells us that “church” is moral but that our bodies are biological, and that the disconnect between the two is final and irreconcilable. But that is simply not true. God’s sexual ethics are not primarily moral; they are theological (meaning that they originate from spiritual realities). And human sexuality is not primarily biological. We are so much more than our biology. We are theologies … which means that quite to the contrary of being a disconnect, there is a marvelously harmonious “connect” between design and desire.

A careful reading of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians puts all this on the same playing field. In 1 Corinthians 6:16, Paul does something kind of brilliant. He uses a pretty extreme example — sleeping with a prostitute — to connect us back to the creation story and what happens when we get physical with each other. Quoting Genesis 2 (“The two shall become one flesh.”), he focuses on the Greek word for “joined.” This is the word we use when we talk about the union of men and women in marriage (becoming one flesh) but in the Hebrew, this word isn’t like using a paperclip to keep two pieces of paper together. This word is more like the word for what happens with crazy glue. This is being stuck together in a way that doesn’t disconnect without someone getting torn or damaged in the process.

This is more than physical union; this is about the joining of intangibles because we are not just biologies; we are theologies. Our substance is something deep and spiritual. We are designed for a kind of living that encompasses all of us — mind, body and spirit — which is why so much of our teaching on our created design is dead wrong. It is because so much cultural teaching tends to reduce human sexuality to either morality or biology (then pitting them against each other), when we are clearly more than that.

Neither morality nor biology gets at the heart of our sexual giftedness. Morality plays off fear and shame. Its message is, “It is bad. Don’t do it.” Out of our own fears, we tend to use morality to scare our kids away from treasuring their own bodies. No wonder the enemy of your soul and mine spoke that word “shame” into the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 3). No wonder the enemy enticed the first humans to fear their own nakedness or to believe that if they were going to get their needs met they’d have to take them into their own hands.

We’ve been fed a lie.

Likewise, to reduce our sexuality to biology is to sap it of all its intangible rewards. Biology focuses on physical and emotional feelings and attractions. The message is, “If it feels good, do it.” This is the message of moral relativity. For teens, the second-tier message is, “Protect yourself,” and that just further separates body from soul. For those who deal with sexual dysfunction, biology forces us into mind-control rather than encouraging us to explore the spiritual and emotional roots of our wounds.

Theology, by contrast, offers us the most holistic view of our bodies and the most chance for living fully into our created design. The point of our sexuality is first of all to be fruitful, but it is a fruitfulness rooted in covenantal relationship that bears the intangible fruit of biblical joy, the freedom of acceptance, and spiritual rest. To see our sexuality theologically — not just morally or biologically — is to free ourselves for true intimacy. It is to couch our most intimate relationships in trust and to reject the lie of shame.

In his great affirmation of our created design, Paul declared, “Glorify God in your body.” I can think of no better word of advice for a young adult navigating this culture.

Glorify God in your body. This is not just so much theological fluff. It is the best possible strategy for cultivating a rich and fulfilling future.

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