A Layperson’s Primer (part three): A Gracious Exit

These posts are written especially for laypersons and those coming late to the conversation currently stirring within the UMC. Part one focuses on the heart of our current debate: connection. Part two is an overview of the four plans being considered at the called General Conference that begins this weekend. This post is about the grace that needs to be part of whatever decision is made, so that people who have invested heavily in their local ministries can continue their work whatever the outcome of GC2019. Portions of this post were published by the Religion News Service on February 22, 2019. 

For forty years, the United Methodist Church has developed its waiting muscles. We’ve been waiting for decades for a decision around issues of human sexuality to stick — a decision that will release us to move on from this conversation. The last three years have been an especially intense time of waiting. With General Conference now upon us, I sense that none of us has any certainty about how this will shake out. There seems to be a split opinion around three outcomes — either one of the two more likely plans up for consideration will succeed (One Church or Traditional), or no decision will be reached at all due to a bureaucratic logjam (please, Lord, deliver us from this fate!).

My deep hope — more than which plan wins the day — is that an exit ramp will become part of any plan approved. Right now, only one of the three plans proposed provides for an “exit ramp” — a way out for pastors and churches that does not punish them for their choice to leave the “connection” with property and position intact. A “gracious exit” was recommended for all plans by the commission that proposed the three options up for debate; but with one exception, the exit ramp option has been removed (and even that one is so narrow as to be unhelpful). That is discouraging. I so want our tribe to do this differently than others who have gone before us. There is no winning if we are all biting and devouring each other on the other side of this. No one, regardless of their theological position, should be held hostage by a system they cannot live in wholeheartedly.

A gracious exit would allow local churches who find themselves unable to support United Methodist teaching and polity to leave the denomination with all their property and assets in tact. Rather than removing our theological center for the sake of preserving the institution, I want the delegation to remove the restrictions that bind unwilling churches to a system they can no longer in good conscience support.

Why should laypersons insist on a gracious exit provision?

This seems just. How is it possible to change the rules then penalize those who disagree with that change by asking them to surrender assets they’ve poured so much into?

This seems like the spirit of the freedom we espouse as followers of Jesus. The role of the denomination should be to guard and promote its theological task, not control assets. Freedom suggests we can disagree in love, and hold one another with an open hand. Freedom suggests we can hear one another and hold one another as treasures, not hostages.

This seems like the best way to witness positively to a watching world. By providing a gracious exit, we support viable ministry and prove ourselves gracious by refusing to bite and devour one another in the wake of whatever choice is made. This offers a solid public witness while maintaining a clear theological center.

This seems like grace. And grace is what Wesleyans do best. Let’s trust God with how a divestiture might affect the resulting institution(s) while we keep the main thing the main thing.

There are a lot of questions we cannot yet answer because General Conference contains the very unpredictable variable of human emotion (not to mention the winds of the Holy Spirit). It is impossible to know (and probably unhealthy to prognosticate) where we’ll end up. I know we are all more than ready for the process to play itself out and are praying for those we’ve voted in as delegates to get the job done.

Delegates, hear us: we want you to decide something. Many of us would consider it both demoralizing and spiritually disastrous to find we could not lead ourselves out of this crisis.

While we wait, these are my personal prayers:

  • that God will “pluck the brand from the fire.” In other words, that God will do such a miraculous thing in the UMC that we become a revived and renewed evangelical movement as a result of our holy conferencing.
  • that God will turn hearts and enlighten minds.
  • that God will move powerfully at GC2019, speaking healing grace and peace over our leaders.

I hope you will join me in these prayers. I also encourage you — before the closing prayer on Tuesday — to answer this question for yourself: What connects me to the United Methodist Church — institutional loyalty, or a passionate commitment to our theological task? Your answer to that question will go a long way toward helping you know how to personally respond once a decision has been handed down.

Between now and the closing prayer of GC2019, be encouraged not to allow the pressure of the moment to craft your convictions for you. Spend time on your knees, in prayer. Search the scriptures. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where the lines have been pleasantly drawn so you don’t default to what is most convenient, and so you don’t find yourself blown about by every wind of doctrine.

Finally, I encourage you not to allow the spirit of fear to whisper threats or doom into your spirit. My friends, we have been given a spirit of power, love and sound judgment, and now is exactly the time we ought to call on that higher nature. On the other side of this denominational crisis, Christ will still be King. The Kingdom of God will still be forcefully coming. All over the globe, people will still be drawn to the good news about Jesus. We may not know how General Conference ends but we most certainly know how The Story ends.

Jesus wins.

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

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

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

A couple of things to note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Layperson’s Primer for 2019 General Conference (part one): The Connection

If you are a United Methodist coming late to our current conversation, you may not be aware of how our structure fits together. Here is a brief UMC primer on how we are connected, from your local United Methodist church to this month’s gathering in St. Louis.

The local church is the heart and soul of Methodism and the basic unit of our structure. We are not a “congregational” tradition like, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention. We are connected to each other and our decisions impact one another.

Every United Methodist church is part of a district. Districts gather three or four times a year and are presided over by District Superintendents, who function as an extension of the Bishop’s office.

Every district is part of an Annual Conference, a term representing both a geographical area and an annual gathering. An Annual Conference gathering is made up of equal parts laity and clergy who vote on matters important to their connection. Both the gathering and the geographical area are presided over by a Bishop.

Every Annual Conference belongs to a jurisdiction. A jurisdiction is a larger geographical area that encompasses a number of annual conferences. Jurisdictional conferences meet every four years. The most important thing jurisdictional conferences do is elect bishops. There are also what is known as Central Conferences, areas beyond the U.S., including Africa, Europe and the Philippines (don’t ask me about South America; it’s complicated).

The Central and Jurisdictional Conferences, along with a host of boards and agencies, together make up the General Conference. Every four years, delegates from every conference area come together to discuss the structure, doctrine and missional focus of the UMC. The General Conference is presided over by a Council of Bishops but decisions are made by the body itself, not by the bishops. Our last regular General Conference was held in 2016. Our next regular conference will be in 2020. The one held this year is a “special session of the General Conference.” This has only happened one other time since the UMC formed in 1968.

Ours is a global connection. Remember that we’ve said that the local church is the basic unit of our structure. “Connection” ends up being an important term for how all our churches and conferences relate. Being connectional means that none of us who lead in the UMC can up and make decisions in a vacuum. We belong to a global family held together by a covenantal structure. As with families, denominations (and churches, and businesses, and pretty much anything else that involves people) have huge disagreements and personality conflicts. And like families, no one really understands yours except the ones who are in it. Our connection is deep and personal.

What makes a family is that connection. It is that intangible you can’t quite define but when it is there, you know it. The United Methodist Church was designed to be like that. When we talk about the places where we disagree and what is on the table at this year’s General Conference, that question of connection is beneath all the other questions.

Are we connected? If we are not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way. If we are not connected, at least one of the plans (ironically called “The One Church Plan”) makes sense. It fits a congregational structure. But if we are connected then whether we end up agreeing or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside a set of expectations. If we can’t do so, then the right step is to step out.

That question of connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC.  The most volatile issue to be discussed (and has been for forty years) is human sexuality and its connection to marriage and ordination. We have reached an impasse but more than an impasse, actually. Those who disagree with our current statements on human sexuality have already chosen to ignore our Book of Discipline. Others have long since set aside orthodox tenets like the exclusive nature of Jesus as the Messiah and the global nature of the gospel. These are not secrets. People speak openly about their disagreement with big chunks of our core theology. That certainly calls into question the integrity of continuing on as if we are connected theologically when in fact, we are not.

In order to maintain our connection, we must restate our covenant. After decades of discussion, the issues that divide us must be finally, peacefully decided so we can move on. The disruption to ministry and souls demands a decision this time around.

Are we connected … or not? In other words, are we accountable to one another or not? The answer to that question determines how we define the local church, the global church and what exactly makes us Methodist.

Part two focuses on the four plans being considered at GC2019.

Part three focuses on the grace that needs to be part of whatever decision is made.

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Do I believe every life matters and that life has worth as it was designed?

Clearly, there is a war on life in our world and it is most certainly a spiritual war. We devalue health in favor of immediate gratification. We devalue lives based on appearance, IQ, gender, power, or even difference of opinion. I think our penchant toward death — which is a manifestation of our bent toward the negative — pervades every thought. Do I think someone who doesn’t vote like me or believe like me is as valuable as I am? Do I see the person in line in front of me at Kroger as a person of value, whose life deserves my respect? Do I get it, that when someone in Venezuela or India is devalued by their government, then all of humanity is depleted? That I have a vested interest in preserving the value of life … all life?

Our bent toward death has been with us almost from the beginning. Christians trace it to a story rooted in Genesis 3, when humans chose to listen to a voice other than the God of life. By the time the people of God were consigned to slavery in Egypt, the culture of death had permeated the earth. Dennis Prager has written on the Egyptian preoccupation with death. Their bible was called the Book of the Dead. Their greatest monuments were pyramids, which were basically over-sized caskets. Even the pagan priests were preoccupied with death. As pagans, the Egyptians were everything the Kingdom of God was not. A preoccupation with death made their decisions for them. When God brought the Israelite people up out of slavery from Egypt, he had to totally reorient their thinking. “Everything you learned there, everything that enslaved you, was wrong. It is not all about death. Creation is about life.”

Hundreds of years of wrong theology had to be reoriented. The people of Israel had to understand God as life-giving before they could stop living to die and start living for God. The work in the desert — the story of which is told in the book of Exodus — was the work of learning to live. That meant constantly rejecting Egypt and pressing toward God’s promises. God’s training on this mindshift is detailed (and by detailed, I mean detailed) in the book of Leviticus. All those odd rules we read there are a rejection of a culture of death. Moses shows his people that while there may seem to be countless options, there are really only these two choices: life or death. And then, almost like a battery of visual aids, Moses shows us that everything else — what we eat, what we wear and watch and get entertained by, who we choose for intimacy — all those options eventually boil down to life or death.

If this is true, that everything — every single thing in your life — leads to either life or death, then that means, fallen creature, that there are likely things in your life that lead to death. They carry the veneer of death. And I’m not even thinking about the obvious stuff. A thousand times a day, Leviticus teaches us, we are confronted by pockets of death. It becomes remarkably tempting to choose death simply because it is easier. And yet, the story of God teaches us that God’s preference is always for life. His value is life, and his desire is to see us live … really live.

This is God’s great design. All life is sacred, and a person who engages in life-creating behavior enters into a sacred process. We are not given license to pick and choose how life happens or which children come into the world. That was never our charge. The alternative, then, is to receive life as a gift in whatever way it happens.

For me, that means throwing baby showers for single women more often than I’d like and toeing the line on what holiness means in unmarried relationships. It means honoring the questions, too, and the suffering caused by shattered dreams. It also means that when I look at you — in all your messiness — I am challenged to see you as your Maker does. I am expected to develop eyes that see what God sees when he looks on his children.

This is what it means to choose life. And to choose grace. And to choose love.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live … (Deuteronomy 30:19)

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Stop listening to the demon of regret (part two).

In a previous post, we explored the damage caused by the demon of regret. We noted that the mindset of regret can steal our peace by casting illusions, then making us believe we missed them. This fear of missing out is not of God, and the demon of regret is just that … a demon. Its sole purpose is discontent. It makes its living by speaking empty possibilities into our minds that don’t actually exist in reality, to paralyze us or at least keep us in a discontented space. This demon uses the tactic of comparison to distort what is real by comparing reality with something that doesn’t exist. Worse still, it creates a victim mentality by convincing us that circumstances beyond our control have stolen our ideal. It keeps us from owning our choices and embracing them, not as our plan B but as the reality we live in — a reality that a good and creative God can still make the most of.

Listen: When we fail to own our choices and live them out positively in partnership with the Holy Spirit, we not only miss out on the illusions we conjure up, but also on seeing God make the most of our reality. Regret keeps me from giving my whole heart, by tempting me to hold out hope for something that doesn’t actually exist as a possibility. What damage we can do to ourselves and our relationships when we refuse to live a wholehearted life!

Want to tackle the demon of regret? Think honestly about how you view your life choices now, and where you’re giving in to regret rather than owning your reality in partnership with God:

Don’t let the numbers fool you. One of the ways the enemy tempts us toward regret is by using numbers to taunt us. We look at our age and wonder, “How did I get here?” We feel time slipping by and wonder if we missed it on marriage, on children, on career, on health, on … name your time-bound regret. It makes sense that this would be the voice of the enemy and not the voice of God because while God is eternal, the enemy feels the rush of time. He knows that for him and all who follow him the end is coming. Eventually, he will be obliterated and Jesus wins (this is good news, folks!).

The enemy has a vested interest in convincing humans to feel that rush of time — to experience life not as heading toward the Kingdom but of slipping away and being lost. In the practical outworking of your life and thinking, the enemy of your soul wants you to deny the power and promise of eternal life. Toward that end, he will feed your anxiety over all you’ve “lost” by inviting you to give full expression to your doubts in a hopeful and endless future.

Listen: The antidote to regret is to remember it has not all passed us by. To the contrary, we just got started. We who follow Jesus have endless opportunities before us. If you want to stifle the voice of regret in your life, start practicing hope in an endless and joyful future, most of which will be lived out in the unhindered presence of Pure Love.

Don’t give in to shoulds and oughts. Naming possibilities is not always a bad thing. When we’re making big decisions, it is wise to pray through the possibilities to discern which options are most viable. What will lead us to God’s best? That question takes us down a very different path than regret. It feeds possibilities, not “shoulds” and “oughts.” Allowing the tyranny of “shoulds” and “oughts” to breed guilt for all we didn’t choose, or ought to choose (but don’t) will only breed regret, insecurity, fear and frustration.

Consider this: You are doing exactly what you’re capable of doing right now. If you could do more, you would. I’m not speaking to the sins in your life (because you can do better than drinking yourself to death, my friend). I’m talking about your honest efforts at parenting/working/living. You may not be happy about your pace/progress/proficiency — there may be room for growth in any of those areas — but given your reality, you’re doing what you can and God is aware of that fact. You can stop feeling guilty for not being perfect. Isn’t that a glorious freedom?

Consider the possibility that the best you can do is good enough. What we have is what we actually have, and what we choose is what we are capable of choosing. To the extent that we live under the illusion that we have access to some other reality or to an ideal we are being denied, we will live with regret and never embrace what we actually have or better yet, what God can make of it.

Let me say again that this doesn’t mean that our bad choices and sins are the best we can do. We’re all about sanctification — going on to perfection. What I’m saying is that the best way to make progress is not by passively regretting all the opportunities we missed or fretting about worst-case scenarios.

This life is not all one big test. Jesus told us he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. That promise was not predicated on getting every choice perfectly right. That promise was and is predicated on grace. Jesus came to cover the gap between the best we can do and God’s best for us. His purpose for us is love, joy, peace and all the other signs of the Spirit. His desire for us is freedom from guilt, shame, and sin.

Which is all to say that God is not some cosmic hall monitor in the sky, taking names and handing them over to the demons that make us unhappy. God is not there to punish but to save and set free (he said so himself). God loves you. God desires greatness for you. And God is capable of taking the best you can do and making it beautiful.

My friends, please don’t feed the demon of regret. Conquer it, and then give yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord of Life and the Prince of Peace.

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Is this a test or a temptation?

In seasons like this (political, social, racial, denominational … you name it), it is easy to get confused about who is responsible for our personal and corporate pain. Our tendency is to externalize. “This is their problem. If they would straighten up, we would be fine. ”

Of course, not everything that happens to us is everyone else’s fault, even if we’d like to say so. And not everything is the fault of the enemy of our soul. I’ve ranted before about that awful line: “Everything happens for a reason.” Sure. Everything does happen for a reason, but some reasons stink. Racism stinks. Cancer stinks. Financial crises stink. Some things just are — because of human fallenness or my own bad choices or a myriad of factors that may or may not have anything to do with God’s best.

And then there are things that are actually initiated in the spiritual realm. Some hard things come to us from God and other things from the enemy of our soul. Depending on their source, they are designed to either build us up or tear us down.

How can we tell the difference? When we’re in the midst of a difficult season, it can be unnerving. We’re prone to “think” with our emotions (which don’t actually think), rather than our spirit or mind. It is too easy to react rather than respond.

Wouldn’t it be worth it to learn a little about the difference between a test and a temptation so that next time a bump surfaces in the road, you’re better able to diagnose and negotiate it?  Here are a few differences I can think of:

Satan tempts. God tests. That may be oversimplifying it a bit. God can do what God wants to do, so I don’t want to limit him. But my experience is that because God deals in truth, he’s not in the habit of setting us up to fail.

Tests refine faith. Temptations destroy faith. God will never place anything in your life or mine meant to tear our faith down (after all, he is the one who gave it to us; he wants us to have and enjoy strong faith). The enemy, on the other hand, will never do anything to build our faith up. At least, not our faith in God. The enemy of our soul doesn’t care what we believe in, so long as it isn’t God.

Tests reveal graces. Temptations reveal sinfulness. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul teaches, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” In other words, God will always provide the grace to walk through a test. He wants to see us succeed. Satan only provides dead-ends and wants to see us fail.

Tests set us up to succeed. Temptations set us up to fail. If you’ve ever dealt with an addiction and tried to recover, you get this. Every temptation is an opportunity to relapse. A test, by contrast, is an opportunity to move forward. Tests release creativity. They inspire us to something more than we thought we could be. Temptations release frustration and when we give in, they make us feel like failures.

Tests prove strength. Temptations prove weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul is describing his conversation with God in the midst of a test, and God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say that it is when he is weak that he is actually strongest. When we rely on God to pull us through, we’re strengthened by his strength.

A test will often prove whether or not we can withstand the weight of God’s call. This was the reason for the test of Abraham and Isaac (see Genesis 22). It was to see if they were able to stand up to the weight of God’s call. It was the last hurdle before God unleashed an incredible vision into Abraham’s life. God doesn’t test us just for fun. He isn’t playing with us. He isn’t against us; he is for us. He tests us to see if we’re ready to move on to greater spiritual effectiveness.

So how do we master both tests and temptations? The answer is faith. Which seems way too simplistic, but that is the key. What Abraham instilled into the people of God is a quality of faith that is God-focused, not people-focused. Mature faith is our inheritance and birthright as children in the spiritual line of Abraham.

Mature faith leads us to better responses. Whether I caused it, God caused it, or satan caused it, a holy response will lead me closer to God and closer to my created design. Whether test or temptation, we lay it up on the altar of God and let him tell us whether it is to be destroyed or redeemed.

Here’s the thing: This thing (whether its racial, political, denominational … whatever) isn’t only valuable because of where it came from. Ultimately, it is about your response. Its usefulness to the Kingdom of God is determined by your response.

What if God wants to use this very thing to channel his glory through you? And all he is asking from you is faith enough to stay with him while he works?

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A Year for the UMC

You’ve heard the old saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” For the UMC, this maxim has proven sadly too true. As 2019 opens, we stand on the verge of a called General Conference that promises (threatens? hopes? fears?) to bring to a head forty years of debate on the foundational theology of our tribe. We have been here before, multiple times. We have made these decisions multiple times.But here we are, grasping for some way forward that manages to avoid the implosion of a 13 million member institution. On the way here, we’ve called for commissions and holy conferencing and have done our level best to enter this year with some plan that brings peaceful resolution to our deep divide. As it turns out, no matter how we have tried to spin this or resolve it, wherever we go, there we are. We are stuck.

So now what? February’s historic called General Conference will convene in St. Louis to discuss various proposals for restructuring. Given the options, it is likely no one will leave that gathering with a sense of resolution. If the way forward stalls, we will all be disappointed. The prayer for us who are watching with interest should be first of all for deliverance from a bureaucratic quagmire. I genuinely hope we are all just fed up enough to stretch for a decision that allows us truly to move on from where we are.

It must begin with Jesus (and nothing less). I will never get past this point. Until we deal with Jesus, nothing else matters. A colleague writing to me in response to something he’d seen online said we’d probably preach similar messages about what Jesus does, but when pressed about who Jesus is, he’d have to say, “I don’t know. It just seems out of character with the God I’ve come to know … to insist upon the use of particular doctrines or names as an admission ticket …”

I respect this difference, and see it as just that. He and I don’t agree on the very fundamental nature of Jesus and what it means to express faith in him. I will say yet again that long before we part ways on lesser issues, we are deeply divided on the nature and role of Jesus. If we spent our General Conference talking about nothing else other than Jesus, I suspect we’d be closer to final schism than we are now. I am convinced that this is the most fundamental dividing line in the United Methodist Church. Long before we part ways on issues of human sexuality, we are already deeply and tragically divided at the point of Wesley’s first question to ordinands: “Have you faith in Christ?” Some among us want to claim a form of Christ that is more ethereal and situational, while others are committed to Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. That distinction matters, because both things cannot be equally true. Either Jesus is Christ for the whole world, or he is Christ for none of it. Our conversations about the substance of mutual ministry must begin here.

It is okay to acknowledge differences (and we can do that without castigating each other). But hear me: it is not okay to minimize what someone else calls a drastic difference. This seems to be the strategic course of those who embrace the One Church Plan. It is to persistently insist that our differences don’t matter but to many of us, they do. By minimizing the differences, we deny clearly unique theological positions the chance to prove their viability. Good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that our current dialogue is more than just a struggle to agree on one issue or get along like children in the back seat of a car. They deserve a clear explanation of the deep theological differences so they can claim an educated spot on the spectrum and not just an emotional one. To offer them anything less would be, in my estimation, irresponsible discipleship.

Theology creates unity (though perhaps not the unity you were hoping for). To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the One Church Plan would reduce the whole of our internal division to one issue. If it were to pass, it seems that United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, we could make a mistake that would take us backward by several decades. This kind of proposal turns a blind eye to the widening and pervasive theological gap that has been developing over decades. To say that orthodox believers only want to “win” on this one issue is to vastly over-simplify a long history of the erosion of our values. Likewise, to say that progressives are defined by this one issue alone is to ignore the depth and breadth of progressive theology — a worldview that influences how one views the Bible, humanity and even Divinity Itself, especially the divinity of Jesus as it pertains to his birth, death, resurrection and ascension. For theologians — and all pastors are theologians — these distinctions matter, and not just to conservatives. They matter to anyone who has given their life and vocation to the work of caring for souls. Our differences should not be minimized for the sake of pragmatism.

Let the theology do its work. For years, our tagline in the UMC has been: “Open hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” Wouldn’t it be something if this year, we led with, “Open Hands.” As in, holding the institution with an open hand as we also hold tenderly those with whom we disagree. Perhaps with a looser grip on the false god of unity-at-all-costs, we can find a way forward that holds our differing theologies with greater integrity and compassion.

My deepest prayer is that we will treat with Spirit-saturated grace anyone who can no longer abide the climate we legislate in February. A second prayer is that we manage to legislate something. This is our year, UMC, to move on from where we are. May we hold grace and courage enough to do so.

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Wesley’s Christmas Question: Have you faith in Christ?

(Today’s post is excerpted from The 19: Questions to Kindle a Wesleyan Spirit.)

Have you faith in Christ?

Well, do you?

What a bold question! This was the first question John Wesley asked of all ordinands in the early Methodist movement. It is an especially bold introductory question when you consider that his nineteen questions for those planning to give themselves to vocational ministry were designed as gatekeepers for potential preachers. Even with leaders in the movement, Wesley began with the most fundamental question of salvation: Have you faith in Christ?

I suspect Wesley knew human nature. He knew that even the best among us can fake it in ministry and do a lot of damage in the process. As much as we’d like to trust that every person who expresses a call to ministry is full of faith and passion for Jesus, experience tells us there are far too many stories of burned out pastors drowning in crises of their own making years into their ministry. Faith in Christ is not a “gimme” for men and women who preach it; and without it, ministry is nothing more than clanging cymbals or a noisy gong.

Read the question again: Have you faith in Christ?

There are two operative words here: faith and Christ. Let’s look closely at both of these.

Faith

Faith is not the absence of doubt; it is the presence of trust. Faith says that whether or not I understand all the details, whether or not I can comprehend all the theology, I will begin to follow and let assurance come as it will. In that way, faith is self-giving. It is an expression of love toward the object of my faith that takes me beyond myself.

Faith binds us. The story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac is known in Judaism as the Akedah, a Hebrew word that means “binding.” The word comes from Abraham’s act of binding Isaac before placing him on the altar. There is an immense display of trust and obedience in this scene. A man goes beyond reason and lays down on an altar what he loves most, while a son trusts his father beyond what he can see. This is the essence of faith. It is a different kind of knowing. Some things only make sense if the path from A to B comes off the page and makes contact with the character of God. If this is true, it means there is another dimension of seeing that makes our world make sense. I want to call that dimension the dimension of faith, and I believe it is a higher form of knowing.

In Christ

But of course, Wesley is not asking us to have a generic faith with no concern for its target. “Have you faith in Christ?” he asks. This is the mark of a Methodist: Faith is the life of Christ living itself out in me. To trust in Christ is to believe who he himself claimed to be: the way, the truth and the life. He claimed to be the singular path to the heart of the Father and did not give us another option. To be Methodist is to believe in Jesus as redeemer of the world. Jesus, who we believe to be the Son of God, gave up His place as God to become a man and lived a sinless human life. He was and is all God, all human, fulfilling hundreds of prophecies written hundreds of years before he came. Isaiah 53 says it was the will of the Lord to crush him. Isaiah 61 tells us the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives, and to open the prisons of those who are bound. As Isaiah prophesied, Jesus healed sick people, gave sight to blind people, raised a few dead people, and fed a lot of hungry people.

Jesus ate with sinners. United Methodists were the first ones to add that line to the liturgy of our Eucharist. It matters to us that Jesus was that kind of Messiah. He lived a thoroughly compassionate life and the whole time, he talked about the Kingdom of God and about how in the Kingdom we are forgiven our sins and made holy. Then Jesus became the sinless sacrifice that makes us holy. Because he’d lived this sinless life, he became what they called in the Old Testament system of sacrifices a spotless lamb. Jesus gave himself to this. He allowed a group of men who were against everything he stood for to arrest him. They accused him of blasphemy because he claimed to be God.

Have you faith in that Christ?

Tweaking or transformation

In the world of meth users, tweaking is a thing. That’s the term users use for the frantic and compulsive behaviors that tend to surface when you’re strung out on meth. Tweaking is obsession with an activity — any activity — like cleaning or searching through drawers or picking the skin off your face or cleaning tools in a toolbox. A user will become obsessed with making some thing perfect, which is insane since even if he gets it perfect he is still a meth addict.

We all tweak, often as a way of avoiding big projects. My house never gets so clean as when I have a writing project to finish. Maybe you can relate.

It makes me think of the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well, the one who tried to press him into a discussion about where real worship happens. “On this mountain or that one?” she asked, to which he replied (in effect), “I’m not sure it matters for you. Until you deal with the fact that you’ve been married five times and are living with a guy now, what’s it matter where worship happens?”

That was one of those days Jesus answered a question with a question.

And I can hear him now, in a season frantic with to-do lists that leaves us  exhausted on this side of it. “What does it matter if the food was perfectly prepared or the gifts were perfectly wrapped, if your heart is not abandoned fully and exclusively to Christ?” What does it matter how we presented ourselves if our hearts weren’t generous toward others?

In other words, until you have faith in Christ, everything else is tweaking.

Have you faith in Christ? Because your answer to that question matters long before you answer any others.

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How to bring a Sabbath spirit into your life

The problem with the Israelites was that even long after their bodies were out of Egypt, their minds were still enslaved. In that way, they were sort of like a dry drunk. Have you heard the term? That is someone who has managed to stop drinking and even stay sober over time, but who still has the mentality of an alcoholic or addict. They may be sober but they have the mind of a drunk with all its old emotions, old cravings, old behaviors.

As it turns out, to be taken out of slavery doesn’t automatically make a person free. Listen: I can be in the desert with Egypt behind me and still have the mind of a slave. Freedom is a transformation we have to choose, and Sabbath-keeping is one way we can reject an enslaved mentality. Sabbath is a call to rest. Rest is the biblical corrective to our inclination toward escape. It is the habit of a free person, so God gave the Israelites (and everyone since) a weekly invitation to practice our freedom. Every day, we can bring a little Sabbath spirit into our lives as a way of rejecting the culture of Egypt. Here’s how:

Take a little time every day for a conversation with God. Every day, God invites us into a personal inventory, so we can examine our lives and realign ourselves with God’s design. I love how The Message version phrases this in Psalm 139. David writes (Psalm 139:23):

“Investigate my life, O God, find out everything about me; cross-examine and test me, get a clear picture of what I’m about; See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong— then guide me on the road to eternal life.”

This is the recipe for a rich inner conversation with the Holy Spirit. It is about slowing down enough to weigh our motives and repent of those that are self-centered, unholy, unhelpful. And I have to tell you: as much as we love multi-tasking, this isn’t that. This kind of examination doesn’t happen behind a steering wheel on the way to work. For this, we must learn how to be still and know God.

Take a little more time every week to restore your factory settings. When your computer freezes up and you don’t know why, what do you do? Reboot. Think of a weekly Sabbath as a day when you turn everything off so you can reboot. Sabbath-keeping is about getting back to the other side of Genesis 3, to remind ourselves we are not slaves. It is about loving God and loving others, about laying our head on God’s chest and listening to his heart.

When it comes to Sabbath-keeping, I am probably more closely akin to a spiritually dry drunk than to a sober saint. To be honest, I’m not even always dry. My Sabbath is Saturday. In theory. I seem to take some kind of secret pleasure in the thought that I work even when I am not supposed to. It is one of those efficiency and productivity lies I bought into years ago. It took far too long to occur to me that by buying the lie I might be working against God’s plan for my life. Somehow I guess I expected God to cover for me and for all my significant relationships while I played the efficiency and productivity game. But there is nothing biblical about that mindset. Sabbath is not just about getting a day off. It is about getting our lives back in line with God’s design. It is about faithfulness. It is about relationship.

Take a little more time every once in a while to renew your life’s vision. This was the advice of God to his people in Leviticus 25. He gave them a recipe for occasional sabbaticals that not only gave people an extended rest, but gave the land a rest. Every once in a while, you just need to give it rest for a season, to replenish the soil before it gets completely depleted. It is yet one more way to restore things to their original purpose.

I can think of all kinds of reasons why we need a whole season every once in a while. We need it because sometimes it takes more than a day to readjust our speed. We need it because sometimes it takes more than a week to change a habit. We need it so we can put a period at the end of one season before starting another one. I’m thinking right now of the need for some folks to stop doing good things for a season, so their spirit can fill back up. I believe the most successful lives are shaped intentionally by this kind of time to rest and refocus.

Take a regular inventory of those whose debts need to be forgiven by you. We also hear this message in Leviticus 25, in the description of the Jubilee year when slaves are returned to their original owners and land is restored to the families that first settled there. The Jubilee year isn’t so much about ceasing work as it is restoration of right relationships. I believe Sabbath-keeping can include time to sort through relationships and make amends where necessary. This, too, is a kind of rest.

Spiritual transformation is not just behavior change. It is heart-level change, relational change, spiritual change … even change in the way we approach our future. It is the kind of change that makes what is ahead more important than what is behind. It is ultimately the pathway to freedom, the mark of which is the ability to rest in God.

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Why should we care about Sabbath-keeping?

The notion of “sabbath” is mentioned 172 times in the Bible, and 60 of those occurrences are in the New Testament. Why do you suppose that of all the 613 laws, Sabbath-keeping gets so much attention? Here is my theory. I believe Sabbath matters to God because it is like a stake in the ground for people freed from slavery. Sabbath is a call to rest, and rest is not the right of a slave. It is the habit of a free person. After being freed from slavery in Egypt, Sabbath became an every-week opportunity for an Israelite to proclaim his freedom. It was also how God’s people got in rhythm with God’s heart for the least, the last and the lost.

Should we still care about Sabbath-keeping today? Not as legalists … no. But as beings made in the image of God, Sabbath is  central to our design and worth our attention.

Sabbath-keeping restores us to our factory settings. Remember that Sabbath-keeping is the fourth of the ten commandments. When God gives the Israelites the ten commandments the first time, he pairs it with creation. “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rests on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” Sabbath-keeping reconnects us with the rhythm of creation and God’s creative nature. It aligns us with holy work. Remember that work was part of the Garden of Eden before the fall. In the same way that God worked to build creation, we were given creative work to fill our days and give us purpose. Work at creation was good, and rest wasn’t required. It was designed. A good, perfect and loving God designed rest as a mark of completion in the work of creation. At the conclusion of creation God rested, and we lived inside his completion. Rest for God was completion, not weariness. And when we rest, we are putting faith in God’s ability to finish the work and make it holy.

Sabbath-keeping is an act of worship (love God). Notice this, in Genesis 2:3. “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it, he rested.” This is the first time the word “holy” is used in the Bible. Holiness — to be whole — is first used in the Bible to talk about rest. That teaches me something about what it means to be whole. It means being at rest, at peace. It turns out that holiness means we have the right to put our work down and rest, because God — not our work — is what makes us whole.

There are two other Hebrew words that strike me as being related to the notion of Sabbath. Shalom means peace, or wholeness. When Jews are approaching Sabbath day, they say, “Shabbat Shalom.” The common meaning is “Have a peaceful Sabbath.” But the deeper meaning is something more like, “May you find wholeness as you cease your work.” This is what happened with God in creation. When he finished, he rested.

The other Hebrew term is shema, the Hebrew word for “hear.” It is the first word of the greatest commandment: “Hear O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema is the first and last word of a Jewish Sabbath.

Now, go with me on this for a minute. The last thing God created before he rested was us. Which means our first day on earth was God’s Sabbath. Which means the first thing we did as creatures was to take a day off with God! Not because he was tired (or us), but because that’s what he called whole, holy and good.

As I contemplate this profound idea of Sabbath being the first whole day of humanity, the image that comes to my mind is of the birth of my own child. When our baby was born, the doctor lifted her from my body and handed her directly into my arms. I immediately laid her on my chest, so that the first thing my child heard (shema) was her mama’s heartbeat and her mama’s voice. And her whole job in that moment — the whole job of a newborn child — was to listen, rest and attach. Which is to say that on our first day on earth when God ceased his work — Shabbat shalom — our whole job was to listen (shema), rest and attach.

And that is still our sabbath work today. My, how beautiful is this gift of Sabbath (and we thought we were just getting a day off)!

Sabbath-keeping teaches us not to “harvest to the margins” (love others). This idea seems woven into the fabric of Leviticus. It begins as a habit of the harvest. The Israelites are told not to harvest their fields to the edges (Leviticus 23:22), so there would be food enough left for the poor to come along behind and glean. Leave room at the edges of your field so people who don’t have can eat, too. In Leviticus chapter 25, where we get a more detailed description of Sabbath years and Jubilee years, all through is sprinkled a reminder to take care of the poor. This, I believe, is what distinguishes someone who just wants a day off (or who doesn’t even want a day off and resents the time they have to take for others) from someone who has laid his head next to the Father’s heart — who has heard God’s heartbeat for the least, the last and the lost. It is that there is room in their lives for others.

Hear this: When we harvest to the margins, we have no energy left for the poor and the ones who require extra grace. When we harvest to the margins, it is hard to be present to the people in front of us. When we harvest to the margins, there is no patience left, no bandwidth for the things that break God’s heart. Jesus himself said it is okay to do good on the Sabbath, but we can only do good when we have room left at the margins when those moments for mercy emerge. Sabbath gives room to be present to people.

Sabbath-keeping is an invitation to resist the culture of Egypt. The ten commandments are listed twice in the Old Testament, and the one about Sabbath is the only one with an explanation attached — both times (almost like, “Okay, we know why we shouldn’t kill people, but we’re not really sure why we need a day off”). The first time, the Sabbath is explained as part of creation and the second time it is explained as a freedom principle. God tells his people they must not do any work on the seventh day. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Sabbath by this definition is a memorial and a mark of freedom. We get a Sabbath because we are not slaves. The daily grind is not what we were created for. It is a call not just to cease working, but to take on the mindset of a free person — not just the behavior of Sabbath-keeping but the spirit of it.

Sabbath-keeping is how we practice Heaven. While our human tendency is to want to escape, the Kingdom call is an invitation to rest. In other words, rest is the biblical corrective to our inclination toward escape. Paul told the Colossians that sabbath is a shadow, a vague glimpse, of what is ahead for us in the Kingdom of God. Which means that when we practice it well, we are practicing heaven. By practicing Sabbath we find what is most real … namely Christ. And when we practice Sabbath, we are proclaiming what is most real to us … namely Christ. It is the practice of becoming whole … the practice of listening to the heart of God … the practice of freedom.

 

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