Depression is hell.

For some, it looks like gathering clouds. For others, a black hole. For some, it feels like dread or fear or hopelessness. For others, it feels more like guilt — the kind that won’t go away. It may feel like shame, or like anxiety that never eases up. It can leave one unable to function, and another unable to sleep. Some ease the pain by eating; others by not eating. In some people, it masks itself as physical pain. Other people mask it with anger; many medicate with substances that seem to help at first, but end up enslaving in a deeper darkness. It saps some or all their energy; it makes others nervously busy. Some become manic; others become numb.

Depression is hell.

And there are as many faces of it as there are people who live with it. Statistics say one in ten adults will deal with it in some form at least once in their lives. They tell us more women than men suffer from it, but that may be more a difference in how we talk about it. We know this much for sure: A depressed person cannot talk himself out of it or will it away, nor can the people around him. And the pain of it can affect us spiritually, causing us to question God and even our own existence.

As spiritual people, how do we cope when the clouds gather? What stories help us understand how God works when we are in darkness?

The obvious choice would be Job, I guess, but I’d like to draw some thoughts from an unlikely character in the Bible — Moses, a great man whose obedience changed the world. Consider his story. Moses spent literally decades, sitting in his own cloud of unknowing, waiting for God to show up. Then, when God did show up, Moses could not have responded more unenthusiastically if he’d tried. He responded to God in fear. He was a man who tended to leave things half-done (remember the argument with his wife?). He caused his family no end in grief. His meetings with the Pharaoh created suffering for a cityful of people. If ever there was a man with a right to feel depressed, Moses would be it.

Eventually, he had it out with God (I love him for this). He explodes in frustration. “God, why have you mistreated your people like this? Why did you send me? You have not even begun to rescue them. Where are you, God? Have you forsaken us forever? Where are you? Where are you?” (Exodus 5:22-23)

When the low-hanging emotional clouds hover like a weight of fog over your life, it is hard to hear the voice of God over our pain. “Why are my finances in such trouble? Why is my job so miserable? Why is my home life so unappealing? Why is my marriage loveless? Why do my children suffer with illness or disability or emotional pain? Why, God, have you mistreated your people like this?” For some of us, the questions far outweigh the answers and it leaves us depressed, broken, fearful … feeling guilty for the way we feel about it.

One of the angriest times I’ve had in my life came after my mother died. I hurt. The grief was heavy; the pain worse than what I’d known before. I remember a pastor telling me I needed to keep praying. I responded by telling him I had no more prayers. I was so angry. I didn’t understand the suffering she went through or the grief with which we were left. Folks around us meant well (they always do), but no amount of words, food, flowers or care seemed to penetrate the darkness.

Then I got a card from a friend that seemed to touch at the point of my deepest need. In the card, she quoted a French poet named Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”

That thought seemed more relevant than any well-intentioned encouragement others offered. It went right to the heart. I couldn’t talk myself out of how I felt. There were no answers to make it all make sense and it helped greatly to be told I didn’t have to have answers. It helped to know I didn’t have to depend on cheap clichés to soothe deep pain. Making peace with the questions made more sense. It was certainly more do-able.

I suspect that God understands that. Maybe that’s why he answered Moses the way he did when Moses got to the end of his rope. God didn’t get mad at him or fire him. He didn’t make him feel guilty for being frustrated. He didn’t punish him for the emotional outburst. In fact, I can almost hear him saying, “Finally … now we’re getting somewhere.” In the midst of Moses’ honesty, God showed up compassionately and met him at the very point of his questioning. God acknowledged his frustration and raised him above it not with cheap clichés that would ease the immediate pain but with the eternal truth of God’s power and promises.

Hear this: The best thing God has to offer us is not answers to our questions, but the truth of Himself. God said to Moses, “I know it doesn’t look great for you right now and while that’s not something I will change, I am One you can trust as you walk through it. You can count on me to do what I’ve promised.”

God comforts Moses by showing him who He is. In other words, God says, “I have not changed. Even though your moods may swing and the clouds hang low and your perspective may shift and your faith may waiver and your circumstances may alter, I AM. I am the same yesterday, today and forever. What I have promised, I will deliver. I am still the same powerful and loving God who cares for you and wants to bring you into your destiny. I Am Who I Say I Am.”

And while that may not do one thing today to ease your depression, maybe it will provide for you a solid truth to lean on while you walk through your valley. God’s character is eternal, his promises are safe, his nature is to love and his plans for us are good.

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You are chosen (a prophetic word for New Room 2018).

This word was given me to share with those attending the closing service of New Room 2018. I share it here in an abbreviated form so that if you were there, you’ll have this word to remind you in the dark places of who you are: You are chosen. 

I fell apart last year. I think I can now say with some confidence that I was on a spiritual threshold, and those can be so painful. In that moment of birthing from one spiritual room to another, it can feel like insanity. It feels dark. I was there last year for several months, waiting for relief. I was seeing a counselor who kept me duct-taped together. He asked me one day to make a list of “I am” statements. He wanted me to be grounded in my identity while I was reeling emotionally, so he told me to just start writing. “I am _____.” Fill in the blank, he said, and keep doing it. He was looking for about 2000 “I am” statements.

The first hundred or so sounded like my personal PR campaign. They were all positive statements, if shallow, about myself. Somewhere around three or four-hundred I got honest. I began to say things I’d never admitted out loud (or on paper) before. Things like: I am embarrassed by failure. I am competitive. I am envious of others’ success.

On one particularly dark day, I wrote, “I am suspicious of God.”

On another day, just as the light was beginning to dawn in my life again, I wrote, “I am an artist.” That was one of the most profound realizations, and resonated as most true. I am not an engineer. No wonder most church growth books don’t work for me (and no wonder I’m no good at systems). I am an artist, and I approach ministry and life from that place. What freedom!

The statement that held all the other statements together was this one: I am a mixed bag. We all are. Most of us are a mixture of strong and weak, good and trying, sinful and saved. And in that way, we are in good company. Jesus seemed partial to mixed bags. Peter was among his favorites. Peter, who presented as a fisherman, fell to his knees at the miraculous catch of fish Jesus orchestrated and exhaled, “I am a sinful man!” From that place of humility, he was able to see Jesus as he was when Jesus asked, “Who do people say I am?” To which Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus answered, “And you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” From sinful to faithful … and then just a few paragraphs later, to satanic.

What can hold all those seeming inconsistencies together? Only Jesus. Only when our “I am” is connected to his “I am” can we have any hope of knowing ourselves as we truly are.

It makes sense, then, that having learned this lesson through his own season of sanctification, Peter could now tell others who they are. In 1 Peter 2:1-10, the apostle tells his first-century audience and then all of us who follow Jesus that we are all a mix of chosen and rejected, precious and peculiar, disobedient and destined. Ours is to find our place in those tensions by connecting to Christ.

You are chosen by God, rejected by humans.

Not long ago, I found myself in a children’s classroom listening to a lesson on the free gift of salvation. The teacher was doing a good job of explaining an abstract concept. She even had a neat little visual aid to go with it. In that class, there was a little boy who is powerfully bright and resilient, who absorbs everything, who lets very little get past him. He was listening to this teacher explain how we can’t add anything to our salvation, that we can’t work our way to heaven. And this little guy was listening and trying hard not to interrupt, until he just couldn’t help himself. Eventually, he broke in to say, “Yeah, its free … but you have to take it.” Which is Wesleyan free will perfectly expressed in eight words. But that was lost on his teacher, whose point was that you can’t add anything. So she said, “ Riiiighhhht … but its free.”

“But you have to take it.”

“But you can’t add anything to it,” the teacher insisted.

“But you have to take it.”

“But its free,” she said, now a bit more desperately.

“But you have to take it,” he said, more forcefully.

I don’t blame him for being unwilling to let go. His point was worth the fight. This is how John Wesley explained our chosenness:

“By the free love and almighty power of God taken out of, separated from, the world … Election, in the scripture sense, is God’s doing anything that our merit or power have no part in. The true predestination, or fore-appointment of God is, 1. He that believes shall be saved from the guilt and power of sin. 2. He that endures to the end shall be saved eternally. 3. They who receive the precious gift of faith, thereby become the sons of God; and, being sons, they shall receive the Spirit of holiness to walk as Christ also walked. Throughout every part of this appointment of God, promise and duty go hand in hand. All is free gift; and yet such is the gift, that the final issue depends on our future obedience to the heavenly call.” (italics mine)

In other words, “It is free, but you have to take it!”

We are chosen, and we choose. The gospel is full of biblical tensions like this. If you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to find life, you have to lose the one you’ve got. If you want freedom, you must surrender. So Peter, who is both a sinful man and a rock in the Church of Jesus Christ, chooses this refrain in his letter to the early church to tell us who we are. We are both chosen and rejected, precious and peculiar, disobedient and destined.

Chosen by God but rejected by men, Peter says. And every day we have to decide which one wins. Which one of me will show up today? Chosen me or rejected me? Peter has a word for us. Reject the spirit of rejection. Choose your chosenness. Chosenness is your gift, but you have to take it. Choose your chosenness.

You are precious, my friend. But you are also peculiar.

If you carry the spirit of Christ, how could you not be precious? When the Holy Spirit is deposited into us, we become tabernacles of God. We connect to that identity by faith, also a gift from God. These are gifts to be guarded, held as holy … to be honored even when they put us at odds with the world around us.

In the NIV, 1 Peter 2:9 translates as, “chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation, God’s special people.” The KJV gets right to the point: “You are a peculiar people.” When we do it right, it will be uncomfortable. We will seem peculiar, out of step with the status quo. When we do it right, we’ll look a little funny to the folks around us.

You are disobedient … but you are destined.

One of the best movie lines ever is the line from the old movie, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The move is half animation, half real people. Eddie Valiant is the real-life detective and Jessica Rabbit is this animated version of voluptuousness. One day they are together and she is telling him how hard it is to be her — how misunderstood she is — and in a sultry-and-sinful voice she explains, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

Which is a brilliant line, because she is actually an animated cartoon figure. But the line is also theologically profound (which I’m sure is exactly what they were going for). This is the human condition. We are drawn that way — toward disobedience. Never get too far from acknowledging that you are saved by grace, that on your own you are a “sinful man.” You are a mixed bag, a mess … but you are God’s mess. You are a person with a destiny, a purpose. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, created to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Scot McKnight asks a profound question: Who is capable of this calling? No one. Not on our strength. We are holy only by association. Our identity must be in Christ.

You are chosen and rejected … precious and peculiar … disobedient and destined.

You are a mixed bag, and so am I. And as we are, we are chosen. Chosen. As you go, remember that you are chosen. Remember who you are and whose you are and remember, too, that your chosenness only works when your “I am” is tethered to his “I am.”

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Waiting in the Valley of Perseverance

Three days ago, I’d never heard of a rover called Opportunity or the Valley of Perseverance. I first heard about it from the Holy Spirit himself. I’m in one of those seasons right now. It isn’t darkness, exactly, but it is dimmer than usual. There is a subtle resistance in my spirit, a sense that I’m having to work just to keep moving, having to press through when I’d rather lay low. We all have those times when it feels more like walking through mud than walking on water, and I’m in one of those. I wouldn’t classify it as depression or doubt or fear or even anxiety. Nor is this a time when God seems silent. To the contrary, he seems remarkably close. My times in his presence are rich. I can hear his voice. That makes me suspect there is more to this season than a bad mood.

But what to call it, then? When I asked the Lord about it — “Lord, am I sliding backward? Am I spiraling down into an old familiar darkness?” — here’s what I heard: “This is the Valley of Perseverance.” I’d never heard of such a valley. I assumed it was in the Bible somewhere, but I couldn’t recall where so I looked it up.

It isn’t in there.

The Valley of Perseverance is a place on Mars, and I’m just finding out about it though it happens to be in the news right now. Earlier this year the rover named Opportunity got stuck there. Somewhere in mid-June, a dust storm kicked up, a big one that has since grown to epic proportions. Because Opportunity is powered by solar energy, the severe dust is keeping the rover’s solar panels from being able to absorb light. So now, two months into this storm, there sits Opportunity surrounded by dust and grounded, unable to charge its batteries for the lack of light.

Researchers monitoring the situation are hopeful for two things to happen. Eventually, the dust storm will settle, they assume, though that won’t be the end of Opportunity’s challenges. When the dust settles, it will inevitably settle on the rover’s solar panels, solving nothing. The second hope after the dust settles is that a wind will blow through and clear the panels of dust. This is a quote from a NASA report on the situation (but doesn’t it sound like something out of Isaiah?): “The sun breaks through the haze over the Valley of Perseverance, and soon the light there should be enough to allow Opportunity to charge its batteries.”

But for now, the only option open is to wait it out. 

I’m stunned by this revelation, taken by it. That God would draw from this story to speak to my inner angst is powerful. It reminds me that he is not just my friend, or even the God whose got the whole world in his hands. He is the God of the universe, and certainly big enough to hold me in the valleys.

In this word, he has shown me that not all down days (or weeks, or seasons) are generic. Some of them are specific and require a specific response. This one I’m in? This is the “dust” of a flurry of projects and responsibilities running concurrently. Most of them are not storms of my own making. They are moments and circumstances and situations with expiration dates that require my patient endurance as they play out. Weighty though they are, most are best conquered with waiting. Doing nothing, even.  Sometimes circumstances beyond our control will necessitate our sitting in the Valley of Perseverance for a season. Nothing to do but wait it out.

But the waiting proves us. And shapes us.

In Paul’s encouragement to first-century Christians dealing with pressures of faith, he writes that “suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2b-4). Perseverance in Paul’s use of it is about handling pressure with grace. It is a solid biblical word that gives one the sense of a floor beneath the feet in confusing times. It is a prescription for allowing tough seasons to build character.

So I hear you, Holy Spirit: Hang in there. Wait. Don’t force things. This storm will pass. The dust will settle. The wind will blow. The light will shine. The batteries will recharge.  As with Opportunity, who sits on a far planet also under Your gaze, the call is to persevere, and to use this waiting to build character.

It is a good word, and a gift. I hear it. Give me courage and wisdom enough to let it form me.

Lord, give us wisdom and patience to wait out the storms, the dust, and the confusion. Give us grace to endure seasons in the Valley of Perseverance, so we can again draw strength from your light and move beyond this place.

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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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Approving polity: Questions for United Methodists in a Pensive Season

(Following is an excerpt from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The book addresses each of the nineteen questions asked of United Methodist ordinands since the days of John Wesley. This reflection is based on question #12: “Do you approve our Church government and polity?”)

Hannah Whitehall Smith says it is our nature to rebel against laws that are outside of us, but we embrace that which springs up from within. And it is true, isn’t it? We always like our own ideas better than other people’s ideas. God knows this about us, so his way of working in us is to get possession of us so he can make his ideas our ideas. This is why Paul could say with confidence, “Christ in you is the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27, italics mine). Without the indwelling Christ, we are just another human being who knows the rules.

That difference between head-level rules and heart-level rules is the difference between life and death in ministry. Just as knowing the law but not owning it was death for the Israelites, so too it is death for us. We are designed for a “religion of the heart” (Wesley, Thoughts Upon Methodism). There is something to be said for signing on at the heart level, for embracing first our theology, then our polity, and allowing them to shape us from the inside out. We may not approve of every “jot and tittle,” but we can affirm the spirit of our tribe. In fact we should affirm this spirit, if we are going to be part of this connection.

Let’s be honest. No job is everything we love and nothing we don’t. Every job has its plusses and minuses. I didn’t come into United Methodist ministry because I fell in love with its discipline and polity. I came into the ministry because I love Jesus, and I sense that within the UMC’s system of connection and covenant I can serve him well. I complain with the best of them about Charge Conference and end-of-year reporting, but I manage to accomplish those tasks because they are part of a bigger ministry life I love dearly. I love healing prayer and preaching and the stunning miracle of seeing someone embrace Christ. I love seeing people get filled with the Holy Spirit. I love the countless hours spent listening and praying, and I love thinking strategically about how to extend this work as far as possible. At its best, United Methodist polity and discipline serves these other causes well. I am well aware that polity is not a matter of salvation, but I know that supporting and maintaining it is the only way our connection and covenant will function. If we all pick and choose which parts we like and which we don’t, it won’t work. Anarchy ensues.

Wesley’s practice of repetition in these [19] questions reveals his understanding of human nature. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he dealt often with ministers who were weak in the spiritual discipline of letting their yes be yes and their no be no. How much confusion is caused by well-meaning people who have not counted the cost before building the house, who have signed on without letting the spirit of our tribe sink into their bones? Can I say this with complete respect and love? You don’t get to decide what it means to be United Methodist. That has already been determined. Any decision to change that must go through proper channels, covered with massive amounts of prayer. Do you approve that? Can you approve the spirit of our discipline and polity while maintaining a generous heart?

Obviously, I made it out of seminary with a degree because here I am as a pastor. To my absolute surprise, I found myself back in school a few years ago completing a doctorate. In our first session together, my doctoral cohort tackled a ropes course. One of our challenges was a two-wire exercise. The wires, about three feet above ground, were stretched between two trees. As they traveled from one tree to the other, they gradually spread apart from each other. One person balanced on one wire and a partner balanced on the other wire. Our task was to lean into one another while we slowly scooted down the wires, even as they spread further and further apart. The trick was to lean equally on each other (remember that) as counter-weights to hold each other up. It won’t work if one leans and the other doesn’t, so we both had to lean in and surrender all our weight.

We discovered through trial and error that the best way for two people to scoot down the wire was to listen to each other. We would ask, “What do you need? What does this look like from your perspective? How can I help?” Without verbalizing it, it was hard to know the other person’s challenge in that moment. Our teammates on the ground were also there to tell us what we couldn’t see. They would say things like, “Straighten up! Push in!” And I’d think, “I AM pushing in!” when evidently I wasn’t. It was almost impossible when I was wobbling on that wire to know my own position. It took all of us working together to get two of us from one tree to the other.

The moral of the story, of course, is that we need each other. This is the point of our connectional system. It is designed for people who trust each other enough to lean in. But it only works if everyone leans in. It won’t work if one leans and another doesn’t. The key to the whole system is vulnerability. It is in keeping my heart soft toward the people God places in my path so that they become the priority rather than the institution. The clearest way I’ve seen to maintain vulnerability is to speak honestly out of my own experience — even my own brokenness. The guy who said, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” got a mention in the most-read book of all time (John 9:25). The guy who said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” is my favorite unnamed person in the Bible (Mark 9:24). Both displayed the heart of flesh necessary for spiritual connection to happen.

As you make your own personal inventory of what you believe about our polity and discipline, ask yourself if you are sufficiently healed and whole to lean in — to give yourself wholeheartedly to a connection of Christ-followers who are bent on spreading “scriptural holiness over the land” (Wesley, Large Minutes). This is the great need. It is for people ready to partner in both covenant and connection for the sake of a lost and hurting world.

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Why I’m not obsessed with end-times theology

When it is all over, then what?

The study of that question is called eschatology, which is the study of the end of time and also — ironically — the study of something no one has ever experienced. How does one study something about which one can prove almost nothing?

For all its abstraction, eschatology is important to those who follow Jesus because it turns out that what we think about the future and especially about the end determines how we live now. In other words, a study of the end times is really a two-part study: what we believe about “the end” shapes our understanding of God and his long-term plan, which in turn shapes how we live out our faithclock1 today.

What, then, is a reasonable approach for a Wesleyan to this question of the end?

While some traditions within the Christian camp place a great deal of emphasis on what happens when we die, Wesleyans place more emphasis on how we ought to be living now. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the end of time. It just means we don’t see that discussion as central to our understanding of salvation; nor do we believe it is the most productive way to spend our time while we wait.

As a good Methodist, my most honest answer to the question of when the end will come or what it will look like is, “I don’t know.” Don’t confuse that answer with a lack of concern. I care. I absolutely care. One of my most active prayers is, “Come, Lord Jesus!” I anticipate his second coming with great spiritual hunger. I love that he taught us to pray for the coming Kingdom. It means he is serious about it. I just don’t see an infatuation with pinning all the details down as useful to the daily working out of my faith.

That said, there are a few things relative to the second coming of Christ in which I place great faith:

I believe God is redeeming the earth. As someone has said, “The world is not the problem; the world is the prize.” The world is the crowning creation of a good and perfect God. The story in Genesis reminds us that what he made was good. It doesn’t seem to me as if He intends to blast it to smithereens. It seems more likely that he is slowly restoring this world back to its created order, in which case we will not go to meet Jesus. Jesus will come to meet us.

Jesus will return to earth. Rather than some kind of mystical absorption of people into Heaven, there will be a bold return of Christ to this world for the work of final, full redemption. That picture fits with passages that talk about Jesus coming on the clouds and with those that talk about a new heaven and a new earth. Scholars like Ben Witherington and John Stott would agree with this biblical interpretation.

When he comes, the dead who are in Christ will join him. In the end no one who trusts in Jesus will ever have to be separated from him or from his pure love. John Stott writes: “The Christian hope … is more than the expectation that the King is coming; it is also the belief that when he comes, the Christian dead will come with him and the Christian living will join them. For it is the separation which death causes (or seems to cause) which is so painful  …”* No more death, no more pain, no more separation.

No one knows the day or the time. Jesus said as much. Why we persist in calculating  something we’ve been told we can’t know is beyond me. Why we bait one another with comments like, “I believe we’re in the last days. Look at the signs,” when clearly we’ve been told that signs are just the beginning is also beyond me. What part of “no one knows the day or time” can’t we seem to absorb? Prognosticating seems a poor use of time when there are things Jesus has specifically asked us to focus on, like visiting those who are sick and in prison, caring for the least and the lost, and being a good neighbor to those he puts in our path. When we stand before Christ, this will be the basis of his judgment: we will be known by our fruit. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

God is good, and God is in control. And on both counts, we are not. Our world is distorted by sin and so is our eschatological vision. I suspect we persist in guessing anyway because we are so desperately in search of something we can control in a world that feels very much out of control.

And yet, we are called to trust. We know how this story ends. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it pleases your Father to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32). That ends up being the only thing we really need to know. It is God’s divine pleasure to usher us into his Kingdom on the day when Jesus’ own prayer is finally, fully answered and realized on earth.

Until then, how should we live? Not anxiously, but hopefully. Not predictively, but prayerfully.

Come, Lord Jesus! Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

* From The Message of Thessalonians: The Gospel & the End of Time by John R.W. Stott (Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, 1994) 97.

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Grow Up, People.

” … speaking the truth in love,
we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …” – Ephesians 4:15

This line in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus should come with sound effects, like a siren or an alarm. Something to warn you it’s coming so you can duck. This line is a revolution in twenty-one words. A trumpet blast announcing the charge on my immaturity and yours.

Speak truth in love, Paul says, like anyone even knows what that means any more. We’ve become so used to spin, which is incredibly detrimental to real community. We’ve learned to couch everything for personal gain, so that the norm for public discourse is much more argument than advocacy. More about my own provision and protection than the common good.

So much public discourse in this season is flatly immature and appeals to the most childish side of us. It appeals to our fears and encourages emotional reaction. It goads us into personal attacks and stifles the prophetic voice. Meanwhile, real truth wrapped in real love requires real trust and real maturity. Does Paul not get that?

Do I?

Grow up in every way, he presses. Every way. Not just the convenient ways — the places where it is more fun to be of age than not — but in every way. In speech and silence, in public and private, in submission and responsibility. In love, power and self-discipline. Maybe especially self-discipline.

In other words, Paul counsels, act like adults. Which flies in the face of so much that comes at us from every other direction. We’re encouraged to pander to our inner child, to coddle his or her pain beyond good sense, to keep putting Spiderman band-aids on gaping childhood wounds so we never actually have to heal. We are encouraged to a state of arrested development, spending far more time accommodating the child we used to be than encouraging the adult we can become.

It is time to grow up, Paul says. Heal. Move on. We will never get to the richness that is the good life if we never challenge ourselves to maturity.

In Peter Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, he talks about how common it is to find immaturity in leadership, so that we’ve learned to accept that:

  • You can be a dynamic gifted speaker for God in public and be an unloving spouse and parent at home.
  • You can function as a church council member or pastor and be unreachable, insecure, and defensive.
  • You can memorize entire books of the New Testament and still be unaware of your depression and anger, even displacing it on other people.
  • You can fast and pray a half-day each week, for years as a spiritual discipline and constantly be critical of others, justifying it as a discernment.
  • You can lead hundreds of people in a Christian ministry while driven by a deep personal need to compensate for a nagging sense of failure.
  • You can be outwardly cooperative at church but unconsciously try to undercut or defeat your supervisor by coming habitually late, constantly forgetting meetings, withdrawing and becoming apathetic, or ignoring the real issue behind why you are hurt and angry.

Scazzero says we’ve come to expect these things in the community of Jesus. We’ve normalized the unhealthy. In fact, in his rants about spiritual leadership in the first century, Jesus himself called these very behaviors roadblocks to God’s Kingdom (see Matthew 23:13).

That’s quite a charge. A roadblock that stops my growth is bad enough, but roadblocks are not discerning. What I’ve done to block my own growth may end up blocking the spiritual maturing of others. My refusal to grow up in every way into Him, who is my Head, can actually stunt or stop the growth of the people around me. Which is no small matter. How selfish would I have to be in order to allow that?

Don’t glide too quickly past this truth: When I refuse growth in myself, I deny growth in others. This may well be a key not only to unlocking your own way forward, but also to finding more wholesome, productive place within the community of faith.

Who knew that growing up could be such a revolutionary act?

What evidence do the people closest to you have that there is actually an adult living in your adult-sized body? What evidence do your Facebook friends have that you’re a mature follower of Jesus? What would you have to relinquish in order to grow up in every way into Him, who is your Head?

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Youth is an idol (and other dangerous things to say in this day and age).

Maybe you heard the story about a gang of teenage elephants who went on a killing spree. The elephants were all male, all orphaned, transferred to a game park with no adult elephants in residence. Without adults in the mix, the teenage elephants  matured sexually far too soon. They became hostile, especially toward other species. Wardens found dead rhinos on the reserve and suspected the elephants. When a game warden went after one of them, he was killed. Desperate for a solution, someone suggested placing an adult elephant in the park — an elephant over 40. It worked. Literally overnight, the killing stopped.

The moral of the story? Sometimes you need an old guy in the mix to restore sanity. 

Our culture places a premium on youth, but what if the culture has it wrong? What if God has designed the generations, not to compete or to place a preference on youth, but to need each other? What if the value of one age depends on what is poured in by the generation before?

A blog posted earlier this year by Sam Eaton quotes these statistics:

  • Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile (an all-time low).
  • 59 percent of millennials raised in a church have dropped out.
  • 35 percent of millennials have an anti-church stance, believing the church does more harm than good.
  • Millennials are the least likely age group of anyone to attend church (by far).

Eaton goes on to list nine reasons why he believes these statistics are our reality and perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t touch on the notion that church isn’t “relevant” enough. Instead, he challenges the church toward more authentic leadership and relationship, and less companyspeak. His ninth reason sums it up: “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.”

In other words, from the pen of a millennial, the elephants have it right. Eaton goes on,

“Millennials crave relationship, to have someone walking beside them through the muck. We are the generation with the highest ever percentage of fatherless homes. We’re looking for mentors who are authentically invested in our lives and our future. If we don’t have real people who actually care about us, why not just listen to a sermon from [on] the couch (with the ecstasy of donuts and sweatpants)?”

The message I get from this word is that the key to vibrant, life-giving ministries is not a preference for youth but an investment in intergenerational relationships. If you want your church to have the vitality and influence of young minds, young faith, young energy, and young joy, then invest spiritually mature adults with a passion for pouring into young lives. Give spiritually mature adults a vision for seeing their age as a calling. In fact, I’d argue that this is the greatest gift of eldership: it is in shepherding the next generation. Elders must learn to listen and shape and young adults must be bold in seeking out older adults who can shape them.

Christopher Goss (student pastor at Mosaic and a millennial himself) says that while the culture tends to idolize youth, the Kingdom values generational thinking. Here is his advice to adults and students alike:

“Choose a life path that allows growing old to be synonymous to growing wise. Taking your discipleship seriously every day is like filling your heart with more and more treasure that you are able to give away. Jesus talked about teachers of the law who had come into the kingdom were like owners of a house who bring out treasures that are old as well as new. If this is your focus there can be a joy in growing older, instead of a fear of losing your physical beauty or losing the “good ol days.”

That advice is supported in the scriptures. After King David died — whose lineage brought God’s Messiah to earth — his son Solomon took over the throne of Israel, married an Egyptian woman and began to rule. One day, God appeared to Solomon and said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon answered by telling God how good he’d been to his family, and how humbled he was at the prospect of being king. And then he said, “But I’m only a child and do not know how to do this. You’ve given me a huge job, so give me wisdom to match. Teach me how to judge between right and wrong; otherwise, how can I do this big thing?” And God was pleased with what Solomon asked for. He said, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, possessions and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.”

And with that request, a young king became wise and a nation became great.

Don’t pray for God to make you young again, or healthy or wealthy or beautiful or safe. Pray for God to make you wise. Because the pursuit of youth just for youth’s sake … well, that is an idol.

 

Statistical quotes are from: Eaton, Sam. “59 Percent of Millennials Raised in a Church Have Dropped Out—And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why.” Web: FaithIt. Posted on April 4, 2018

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Seeking higher ground: Conversations in the UMC

As conversations around the future of the UMC heat up in this Annual Conference season, I hold a prayer that we will elevate our discourse above the level of emotion. Here are a few things I’d like to hear in discussions around what comes next:

Let’s talk Christologically. Does the conversation about the future of the UMC begin with Jesus? If my experience is any indication, then the Lordship of Jesus–the exclusive nature of Jesus–is where we in the United Methodist Church part ways long before we ever get to the topic of sexual ethics. In the UMC, there is a great divergence around the nature and role of Jesus Christ; yet, we spend all our energy on other things. We rarely acknowledge what is. What is, for those of us who embrace an orthodox understanding of faith and truth, is that Jesus is the most true being. Those of us who are committed to absolute truth (and that Jesus alone embodies that Truth) also believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are not the authors of our faith. The author of our faith is Jesus Christ. In other words, we have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith. Our conversations must reflect this “Kingdom down” perspective while resisting the urge of a “humanity up” perspective. If we start with Jesus Christ, I suspect we will find plenty to discuss and (grievously) much on which we fundamentally disagree.

Let’s talk biblically. Are our debates rooted in scripture? We all live under the same blue sky. Anyone who is practicing faith in Christ with love and integrity is in relationship with people … all kinds of people. We are all navigating all kinds of relationships and stories and we want God’s best for people we love. We who are pastors contend for souls daily. However, theological tents are not built on a foundation of who we know, love and want included. If we are going to talk about the future of the UMC, let’s talk biblically and not just anecdotally. When the Minnesota Annual Conference chooses to substitute the name for God in the Apostle’s Creed, that provides plenty of fodder for discussion. Does an official United Methodist entity have the right to change something as fundamental as the biblical terms of our creed? After all, Methodism is a defined theology. There are lines we can not cross while remaining true to our tradition.

Let’s talk globally. Do our discussions about unity take into account the global nature of the UMC? Let’s talk about John 3:16. Jesus told us that God so loved the world that he gave his Son. The world, not just our corner of it. Let’s discuss the values of the typical follower of Jesus anywhere on the African continent, or in the Philippines, or South America. Do we understand that a call to unity that doesn’t include them is not a call to unity at all in a global connection? Please understand that a decision to wrap ourselves around an American cultural ethic will alienate us from an African UMC. An American church that has separated from our global connection is far more detrimental to our personality and theology as a denomination than any decision to uphold our Book of Discipline as it stands. You and I are not the only ones deciding whether we stay or go. There are a world of people making that choice … literally. In fact, they are contending in ways we cannot fathom. One African brother told me, “I wake up every morning prepared to die.” I thank God we are a global connection and that my friend’s drive to wake up daily contending for the faith is part of who we are. But as I’ve said myself, anecdotes won’t win the day so let’s talk about Revelation 7:9. That’s how we’ll guard against cultural drift. If you want to talk about unity, make certain we include the global connection in that conversation.

Let’s talk systemically. Are we thinking centered sets or bounded sets? This would make for great conversation in this season. The concept of “centered sets” and “bounded sets” emerges from the mission field (you can read about it here or here), and it describes what happens when communities choose “bounded set,” “fuzzy set,” or “open set” thinking over “centered set” thinking. Bounded sets draw a line between the world and the congregation. Open sets have no boundaries at all. Fuzzy sets thrive on a lack of clarity. But centered sets cast a clear vision for a community’s values, then invite folks to orient toward those values.

Centered-set thinking reminds me that the responsibility for a person’s orientation toward the truth is theirs, not mine. Likewise, it is not for me to widen the tent pegs to make sure everyone is inside, never mind the direction they are pointed. I am responsible for pointing toward the center of my set; so are you. How far I am from that center is not the issue so much as whether I am pointed toward or away from the agreed-upon center. Centered-set communities allow adults to take responsibility for their choices as well as their spiritual progress. What it does not allow for is changing the center to suit your tastes. Be where you are, but don’t ask others to change direction so you don’t have to.

Let’s talk eschatologically. Do our discussions rest on the assurance that the Church of Jesus Christ will continue undeterred from its mission, whatever is decided by this denomination? Let’s talk about how our ecclesiology can be better rooted in our eschatology. Remember that the Church extends nearly 2000 years further back than the fifty-year history of the UMC. The next iteration of our tribe (whether it is some altered version of the UMC or something else) will be robust and hopeful. We know this, because we know how the story ends. Jesus wins. His Church (the Body of Christ on earth) can’t be killed. We may be rearranging chairs on a deck, but we are not on the Titanic. Methodist theology will continue (there are 80 million Methodists of varying flavors in the world and 279 million Pentecostals; our tribe is not going anywhere and in fact, is growing in other places). I am committed to the process of The Commission on a Way Forward and certainly to our brand of theology; but if our denomination makes a fundamental shift away from the values of historic Christianity, I am not fearful of what comes next. The gospel of Jesus Christ will keep right on rolling toward His second coming and I’ll do my best to keep pace because I  don’t want to get left behind.

Let’s talk health … not just survival. Being unequivocal about our beliefs and values is simply good relational work. We must all decide in these days where our boundaries are; to have none is simply not Methodist. Nor is it healthy. This is the fundamental problem with the “one church” proposal. It may support survival, but for all the reasons above it isn’t healthy. I contend it isn’t even Methodist. My friends in Christ, sound theology is worth the fight. Setting clear values and making a firm statement about what they are does not mean giving up; it means we care. What progress we could make if we choose to elevate our conversations to the level of theology over institutionalism or emotionalism, respecting each other even as we expect folks who commit to a covenant to keep it. Without that expectation, there can be no health.

As I head to Annual Conference this week, I’m looking forward to robust conversations and pray that we will all seek higher ground.

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Do the Hokey Pokey (and other messages that will screw up your life).

The day they decided to make “The Hokey Pokey” into a staple in roller skating rinks was the day our country went downhill. Who thought it was a good idea to put wheels on the feet of a circled-up group of six-year-olds, then tell them to pick one foot up and shake it all about?

That person who thought of that was a special kind of demented.

Nonetheless, here’s what the hokey pokey gets right. When you’re putting your left foot in and taking your left foot out, you’re going to end up going around in circles. You’re unstable. It is exhausting to have yourself in two different places at once and almost impossible to keep your balance. When you’re putting your whole self in but then turning around and taking your whole self out, that’s not productive, either. That’s tough, not just on you but everyone around you.

When “Hokey Pokey” living is your default mode — “I’ll do this halfway, on one foot” or “I’ll be in until I’m not comfortable” — you never get beyond a two-foot radius of yourself and you create chaos for everyone else (I still have nightmares of being at someone’s skating-rink birthday party, standing too close to someone who fell while doing the Hokey Pokey).

Hokey-pokey postures are not for followers of Jesus. Our call requires us to be all in. Surely this was beneath the question John Wesley asked of ordinands: Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work? In other words, are you all in This is a question about wholeheartedness. Wesley wants to know of those signing up to spread the gospel if they are willing to give themselves completely to this work. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly? In your study and worship and fellowship and serving and in the truth you share, are you passionately committed to the pursuit of wholeness so you can be in passionate pursuit of the presence of Christ?

Are you resolved to devote yourselves wholly to God and his work?

This is like the anti-hokey pokey question. When Wesley asked this question of his pastors, he wanted to know if the people who resolve to be church leaders are all in or if they plan to put their left foot in then take it out when things get rough. Folks who can’t be all in not only exhaust themselves; they exhaust us.

What does it mean to become whole, by biblical standards? Surely it begins with Paul’s advice to work out your own salvation daily with fear and trembling. Stay in it, Paul advises, and wrestle with what it looks like in your life. Wholeheartedness begins with a commitment to spiritual/emotional/relational healing. Let the daily wrestling expose the cracks and wounds. Deal with the unholy fears that paralyze you, leaving you stranded out there in the desert, unable to make the journey into the promises of God. Acknowledge your doubts, and dare to believe God can handle them. Become accountable to someone else who will ask the tough questions.

To become wholehearted, we must deal with our wounds and hesitations, fears and doubts even as we develop eyes to see what God sees. Then pursue the Holy Spirit. Allow the voice of the Spirit to teach you the values of God so they sink in and become part of you. Pursue the art of holiness, which goes so much deeper than good behavior.

Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly? Not half-heartedly. Not with your spare change and spare time. Not only as far as your comforts will take you. Not fearfully, but wholly to God and his work? This is the natural end of wholeheartedness: it is to be whole, holy and all in. Without that kind of vulnerable, wholehearted faith, it is impossible to please God.

(Portions of this blog are taken from my book recently published by Abingdon Press. You can find The 19 here.)

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