The Bible Tells Me So (or, I’m Starting with “Why?” Part 2)…

I remember as a teenager hearing about this mysterious entity called a “house church.” I learned there were actually these small groups of Christ-followers who met weekly in homes and called themselves a church. I thought it rather strange, and I was not discouraged in that thinking from those in the more “traditional” church in which I grew up.

Courtesy of The Toledo Blade

People can be very passionate when it comes to the discussion of house churches (or simple churches or organic churches–the terms are interchangeable). Some will argue, “It’s the only way to ‘really’ do church. After all, it is how the New Testament church functioned.” Still others will, with equal passion, argue that house churches are generally made up of disgruntled members from more traditional congregations, or of theologically quirky folks who are considered, well…just, odd. Add in the fact that house churches are not very prevalent in Western culture, and one has a recipe for misunderstanding.

So, here I am to try to help with any misunderstanding my current path and calling may cause. In part 1 of this series (click here to read), I shared about God’s call as the underlying “why” of this journey, but the why goes beyond God’s call (though that would be enough in itself). The second “why” that motivates me to move in this direction is because I believe the house church is biblical.

What? You don’t think so? If one thinks the house church movement is not biblical, that one must be compelled to discount the first one hundred years of church history. Here’s a brief survey of relevant Scripture:

44 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. 46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2: 44 – 47)

42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 5:42)

Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized. (Act 18:7)

20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. (Acts 20:20)

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. (Romans 16: 3-5)

19 The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house. (1 Corinthians 16:19)

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: (Philemon 1: 1-2)

I think you get the picture. The early church was a church that met primarily in the homes of believers. They didn’t have church buildings to meet in, so homes became the default location. Yes, believers met in the Temple and in synagogues, but not as an organization–those early believers were part of another institution. Following the biblical model in this transitional period in Western culture opens the door to a fresh move of the Holy Spirit. My favorite way to say it is “House Church–Church in the new, old-fashioned way!”

Please let me clarify something, though. The house church is not the only legitimate model for church. I would never argue that point. The Holy Spirit has used various expressions throughout history to advance the Kingdom of God around the world. The “institutional” church is in a time of seismic shifting, and it will continue to meet and worship and serve. Campuses have and will continue to re-open. Congregations have and will continue to pivot. Hooray!

I am not anti-institutional church. The institutional church has been incredibly good to me and my family. I am deeply grateful for the love, care and nurture I’ve received in the institutional church, and I cherish the friendships those years have developed. And, I’m still a part of the institutional church–the Evangelical Methodist Church is a denomination, after all! But, I am grateful that the EMC is committed to church planting, and to do so in new, fresh, creative ways.

It would have been very easy to simply drop all denominational affiliations…to say that denominations are an abomination (some theologically odd people might agree!), but I don’t believe that to be the case. It is important for me to be a part of the “institution” because it affords me a covering or authority and accountability. I need both. I reflect my submission to Christ through my submission to the District Superintendent and the General Superintendent of the EMC, and I am held accountable for the work of ministry by them, and others who serve the general church.

The House Church Movement is a ministry of the Evangelical Methodist Church, and though I begin as its pastor, we will serve under the Book of Discipline of the Evangelical Methodist Church. We will be accountable to them. We will report to them (but, they do not now, nor will they ever, own my house, or any other property the church might meet).

So, you see, this is not an anti-institutional backlash. This is a genuine attempt to reclaim a biblical model for doing ministry as the church. I pray you’ll join us on the journey.

There are three more “why’s” to follow:

  • House churches meet people’s needs.
  • House churches take place where harvest happens.
  • House churches reflect the priesthood of all believers.

I’ll unpack these in coming blog posts, but in the meantime, don’t forget to pray for The House Church Movement as we launch Thursday, September 17th at 6:30 p.m. Plan to join us if you’re in the north Louisiana area. Check out our Facebook page for more information.

Until next time, keep looking up…

I’m Starting with “Why?”

Sorry, I know the title of this blog is a rip-off of Simon Sinek‘s TEDTalk, and subsequent book entitled Start with Why, but if you’ll bear with me, maybe you will understand why I borrowed the phrase. The premise of Sinek’s book is people who change the world work from the inside-out rather than the outside-in. Using what he called the “golden circle,”most people always start by asking “What?”, move to “How?” before making it to “Why?” The difference makers always start with “Why?” So, let me.

I’m going to start with the “Why” of The House Church Movement and attempt to work from the inside out to explain why I feel compelled to launch this “new” movement. It’s not actually new. House churches have been around as long as there has been a church. The first churches were house churches. Perhaps a better way to state it is The House Church Movement is church in the new, old-fashioned way.

I don’t want to spend too much energy defining the term “house church” for you. I’m going to make a major assumption that you’ll surmise a house church is a church that meets in a person’s house. That’s the stripped down definition, but it suffices for our purposes here. House churches have also been referred to as “simple” churches and “organic” churches. Those terms are often used interchangeably when referring to the idea. No matter the term used, The House Church Movement is a movement whose purpose is to establish churches in the homes of followers of Jesus Christ. I hear you asking the question, “Why?” I’m glad you asked!

There are actually five reasons why my wife, Vanessa, and I are launching The House Church Movement. I’ll take the next five blog posts to unpack each of the five reasons, and as I unpack each one, will delve a little more deeply in the philosophy and theology that underlies the movement (and I believe it is a true movement of the Holy Spirit).

The first “Why?” is because we feel called to launch this movement.

I have made no secret of the anxiety I encountered in vocational ministry over the last two years I served professionally. There was a part of me that was totally unsettled with my inability to develop fruitful followers of Jesus Christ. I don’t blame the people (Lord! No!). I blame myself, but I also blame the institution of the Church. The Church as institution was concerned less with making disciples than it was with survival. The processes and procedures in place far more promoted institutional survival than they did spiritual formation and growth in Christlikeness.

I watched (over 28 years in ministry) as the “Church as Business Model” grew, and pastors were trained as C.E.O’s instead of shepherds. The Church Growth Movement had much (though not all) to do with this transition. It wasn’t long until pastors were pursuing MBA’s in order to lead multi-million dollar mega churches, and developing large staffs to handle ministry, and building more and bigger facilities to handle the ever-increasing crowds. It looked great on the bottom line in terms of nickels and noses, but it did little to enhance the spiritual well-being of the disciples as more and more people became consumers of religion. Witness the continuing decline of faith participation as a percentage of the population even as mega churches continue to grow at the expense of smaller congregations.

For as many as four years, I wrestled with my place in that system. I also know that the dissension within my former denomination added to my anxiety, rendering my capacity and desire to lead the church greatly diminished. I was heart-broken. I was confused. I was tired. I didn’t know much else, but I did know that what I was doing as a pastor was not what God called me to in 1990. After a season of prayer, Vanessa and I discerned it was time to step away from vocational ministry (read that here).

We stepped away from vocational ministry not believing God would call us back to the pastorate. We knew we needed a season of rest. We knew we needed a season to simply worship together. We knew we needed a season to pray. We knew we needed a season to discern further God’s calling on our lives. We are grateful for that season!

During that season, we wrestled with the question, “Does the God who calls us into ministry call us out?” I first thought the answer was yes, but we discerned the answer is no. God doesn’t call us out of ministry. He calls us to different seasons of ministry and different places of ministry. I believe Vanessa and I have arrived at a new season and a new place of ministry. We are entering a church planting season.

The changing landscape of western culture, and primarily the culture of the United States, necessitates new methods and new models for doing ministry and mission in the 21st century. Church planting will be ever more critical to the future of church. Covid-19 has altered the landscape for the traditional church (and I don’t mean traditional in the theological) going forward. No one knows who or how many may return to congregations when society returns to “normal.” The culture will be filled with both un-churched and de-churched people who will be longing for a spiritual connection, spiritual grounding and a spiritual home. Church planting will be the primary means of meeting this need.

So, again, why the house church? Because we feel called to it, just like I felt called to the pastorate in 1990. The calling never left, it simply transitioned in God’s timing. I am like the Apostle Paul as translated by Peterson in The Message:

Still, I want it made clear that I’ve never gotten anything out of this for myself, and that I’m not writing now to get something. I’d rather die than give anyone ammunition to discredit me or impugn my motives. If I proclaim the Message, it’s not to get something out of it for myself. I’m compelled to do it, and doomed if I don’t! If this was my own idea of just another way to make a living, I’d expect some pay. But since it’s not my idea but something solemnly entrusted to me, why would I expect to get paid? So am I getting anything out of it? Yes, as a matter of fact: the pleasure of proclaiming the Message at no cost to you. You don’t even have to pay my expenses! (1 Corinthians 9: 19 MSG)

Who knows? It may all come to naught, or it may reap a harvest ten-fold of anything we’ve ever known. We only know that it’s in the Lord’s hands, and we’re deeply appreciative of the Evangelical Methodist Church for giving us a place to call home as we answer this call.

If you’re interested in knowing more about The House Church Movement, reach out and we’ll chat, or if you’re in the north Louisiana area and desire to join us for our initial gathering, please put September 17th at 6:30 p.m. on your calendar. You’ll find particulars concerning the place of the gathering on our Facebook page.

Until next time, keep looking up…

G.O.R.P….

I am not a hiker, but I have been hiking. So, I know very little about hiking except what I’ve read. I mention hiking, though, because hiking comes to mind when I think about God’s sanctifying grace (yeah, I know, you can’t figure out how my mind works–sometimes I can’t either).

SANCTIFICATION

I am thinking about God’s sanctifying grace because I’ve been studying again the core beliefs of the Evangelical Methodist Church. Here’s what the Church says about sanctification and living a holy life: “We believe in entire sanctification following regeneration, whereby the believer is cleansed from the pollution of sin, saved from its power, and enabled through grace, to love God with all his/her heart,” and “We believe that every Christian is expected to live a holy life, one that is truly Christian.”

Regeneration. Sanctification. Those are three dollar theological words that mean “a new life” and “a holy life” respectively. New life (regeneration) comes when we accept Jesus Christ, and a holy life (sanctification) is what grows out of following Christ. Now, you’re probably wondering, “What does any of that have to do with hiking?” I’m glad you asked.

Do you know what G.O.R.P is? G.O.R.P. is an acronym that stands for granola, oats, raisins and peanuts, or as others have said, “Good old raisins and peanuts.” For a hiker on a journey, gorp is a snack designed to keep the hiker from crashing on an extended trip. It’s hard to pack a lot of food on an extended hike, and g.o.r.p. is sufficient in calories to keep the hiker from experiencing what is known in the hiking world as the “bonk.” A bonk is when a hiker doesn’t take in enough calories and energy and capacity deteriorates, thus preventing one completing the journey. Good old raisins and peanuts is meant to sustain the traveler through the journey, to help the person stay fueled to finish the hike.

That, in a nutshell (no pun intended), is the essence of God’s sanctifying grace. Life is a journey, and all along the way God’s grace is available to us, in different ways at different stages of the journey. It is God’s sanctifying grace that sustains us over the long haul of life. It is His grace made real in the challenging times, when energy and capacity wane…when life happens.

Sanctifying grace is God at work in us through the Holy Spirit to transform us. Our journey, our spiritual journey, is a journey toward transformation. When we come to Jesus Christ and he forgives our sin and gives us a new start, that’s not the end of the journey. In that moment, Jesus does something for us. If justifying grace is God doing something for us, sanctifying grace is God doing something in us. The something He desires to do is make us holy. We hear that word “holy” and we think, “Who me? Holy? No way.” Yet, that is the life Christ call us to.

HOLINESS

Understand, living a holy life is not living a holier-than-thou life. None of us will likely ever live a perfect life, at least that’s been my experience—but that could just be me. But, John Wesley taught that not only does Christ deliver us from the consequence and penalty of sin, he also delivers us from the power of sin. The Apostle Paul does a masterful job in Romans 6 explaining this idea.

(c) John Wesleys House & The Museum of Methodism; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John’s brother, Charles Wesley, also does a masterful job capturing John’s teaching with this verse from Charles’ great hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing:

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
  He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;
  His blood availed for me.

As we journey through this life, there will always be temptations to sin. There will be challenges to our faith. There will be crises that cause us to doubt. We will deal with death. We will deal with disease. We will deal with difficult people. We will deal with anger. We will deal with frustration. That is the life. In those times, we need grace, and God gives us grace so that we need not surrender to the baser insticnts of our fallen nature. Christ has given us new life. Christ gives us hope. It is Christ who sustains us through life.

The holiness Christ call us to is different than sinlessness. As Wesley taught it, and we understand it, holiness is nothing more…but also nothing less…than love for God and love for neighbor. It is to love as God loves. Jesus gave us two great commandments. We find them in Mark 12: 29 – 31: “The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘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 mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.

The spiritual journey of life is about growing up in love. It is growth, and growth is a process. We don’t miraculously love as God loves. Oh, that it would be so simple. Growth is a process, and holiness is a process. Yes, there is, in one sense, where we are made holy by the work of Christ on the cross, but holiness that is lived out occurs over time. Don’t be surprised if you didn’t wake up the day after you accepted Christ living a holy life. But also, don’t be surprised if he begins a work in you, too.

C. S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, explains it this way. When he was a child, he often had a toothache, and he knew that if he went to his mother, she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let him get to sleep. But, Lewis said, he did not go to his mother–at least not till the pain became very bad. And the reason he did not go was this: He did not doubt she would give him the aspirin; but he knew she would also do something else. He knew she would take him to the dentist the next morning. He could not get what he wanted out of her without getting something more, which he didn’t want. He wanted relief from his pain; but he couldn’t get it without having his teeth set permanently right. And he knew those dentists; he knew they would start fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. Our Lord, says Lewis, is like the dentists. Lots of people go to him to be cured of some particular sin. Well, he will cure it all right, but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if you once call him in, he will give you the full treatment.

Sure, most of us don’t wrestle with big sins…even the day after accepting Christ. You know, like murder and stealing and lying. No, what we deal with are much more subtle sins…like selfishness, jealousy, greed and envy. Those sins need transforming, too, and when we struggle with those along our journey, when they sap us of our energy and capacity to love, it’s then we need grace, and the promise of the Gospel is that God gives us His grace—His sanctifying grace—to give us strength, to give us energy, to give us hope in the face of the struggle so that we move closer to the place…closer to the destination…closer to the trailhead…closer to holiness.

What is our G. O. R. P.? What sustains us so that we make it to the end? What makes us holy? I remind us again of the disciplines of the spiritual life—prayer, solitude, fasting, accountability. We know about bible study, too. Another is submission. All of these are the disciple’s G. O. R. P. They strengthen us and grow us in holiness.

There is another one, too. It is the sacrament of Holy Communion. There is strength here. There is grace here. At the Lord’s table, we are reminded of love, and we’re reminded to love. And, we’re reminded that love is sacrifice. It is sacrifice that the Apostle Paul calls us to in Romans 12: 1 – 2—the surrender of ourselves to Christ:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

We recall Christ’s sacrifice for us, and we see in it his sacrifice, and we acknowledge he calls us to the same sacrificial life. At the Lord’s table, we find strength for the journey. Here we are enabled to keep moving forward.

The Australian coat of arms pictures two animals—the emu, a flightless bird, and the kangaroo. The animals were chosen because they share a characteristic that appealed to the Australian citizens. Both the emu and kangaroo can move only forward, not back. The emu’s three-toed foot causes it to fall if it tries to go backwards, and the kangaroo is prevented from moving in reverse by its large tail. In the following of Jesus, G. O. R. P. helps us be like the emu and kangaroo, moving only forward, never back…becoming more like Jesus everyday–that is holiness…that is sanctification.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Simply Jesus…

It really is all about Jesus! It being, of course, the Christian faith. I remember a parishoner named Mr. Joe who, as he departed every Sunday, would simply say, “Just give ’em Jesus.” I think that phrase sums up what the Evangelical Methodist Church means when it states “We believe each person must acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ and be born again before he/she is a true Christian.”

A Matter of Grace

We can search the depths of theology and philosophy and discover one verse which, in its essence, sums up all God offers His creation, and we find it in a late night conversation Jesus had with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Of course, it’s John 3: 16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in him would not perish but have everlasting life.” Let us be careful not to let the familiarity of the words lessen their power.

We are nothing apart from faith in Jesus Christ, and it is faith in Jesus Christ that gives us new life, that transforms us from what we were (a sinner), to what He intends for us to be (a sinner saved by grace). I am reminded that a relationship with Jesus Christ is all about grace–God’s grace.

We Wesleyans walk the Wesleyan way of salvation. Along that Wesleyan way are several “movements” of God’s grace. One of those movements is of justifying grace. It is this justifying grace of God at work in that moment that one comes to faith in Jesus Christ. The theological term for that moment is regeneration.

John Newton, in his famous hymn Amazing Grace, wrote of this moment of regeneration:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed.

Newton wrote his classic hymn on a slave ship bound for England on March 10, 1748, as he endured a raging storm on the high seas. That evening, Newton cried out to God, and his life was forever changed. He wrote of that evening, “I cried to the Lord with a cry like that of the ravens which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear. And I remembered Jesus whom I had so often derided.”

Regeneration

Justifying grace (regeneration) is that moment in time when we realize that God accepts us just as we are, and we say “yes” to his offer of salvation, and our eyes are opened to the love and companionship of God. Justifying grace (regeneration) is about saying “yes” to God.

The problem is that we need help when it comes to a restored and right relationship with God. The Good News is that God wants to help. God didn’t come to offer us things (like money or power or success or possessions) that we think will make life full, or us happy. God sent His Son Jesus Christ to offer us a relationship that is a relationship of love that flows out of His self-giving nature.

Regeneration happens in that moment when we accept the relationship God offers in his Son, Jesus Christ. We are justified in that very moment. This moment of acceptance is commonly referred to as conversion. It is what happens inwardly at that moment when most people would say, “I’ve been saved!” But the phrase “I’ve been saved” does not mean that conversion is ended. Rather it means we have begun a more adventurous portion of the journey that is God’s salvation.

We can just as easily say, “I am saved,” or “I am being saved,” for conversion continues when we find new ways of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Like when we come to a better understanding of ourselves, and when we come to a better understanding of the claim God is placing on our lives, but more about that in a later blog.

A Gift

Here is where it gets sticky and we have difficulty accepting God’s offer of salvation. Let me explain why. We have been taught all our lives that America is the place where hard work and determination meet opportunity to produce wealth and success. While there are exceptions we all could point to, we realize the American dream is fueled by hard work and determination. Gary Player, the legendary golfer and a South African, understood this attitude. He said, “The harder you work the luckier you get.”

The American attitude is an up-by-the-boot-strap mentality, and that attitude is what has made America great. Isn’t it ironic, then, the American attitude, that up-from-the-boot-strap mentality, is a major stumbling block in our acceptance of God’s offer of salvation. We know that hard work and determination are what make the measure of success, so we find it totally unreasonable that God would offer us salvation at no cost. Surely we have to do something to earn this salvation. We can’t do anything. But God does not give us something for nothing, and our salvation has come at great cost. It cost Jesus Christ his life.

All we can do is accept God’s offer or reject it. It is totally a free gift to us, and our acceptance of that offer is an act of faith. It is not our work, nor is there any work we can do to deserve or earn it.  This work is what Jesus Christ has done for us in the grand plan of God’s salvation. Listen to how the Apostle Paul describes it:

But now God has shown us a different way of being made right in his sight–not by obeying the law but by the way promised in the Scriptures long ago. We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done. For all have sinned: all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins. For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us. God was being entirely fair and just when he did not punish those who sinned in former times. And he is entirely fair and just in this present time when he declares sinners to be right in his sight because they believe in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26).

The faith that responds to this offer is an act of trust and self-abandonment by which we no longer rely on our own strength but commit ourselves to the power and guiding word of him in whom we believe.  Gratitude becomes the motivation for the life that follows the acceptance of this great gift.

God has given us the freedom to accept or reject his offer. He doesn’t interfere with that decision (that’s what makes a Methodist), but he does appeal to our intellect. Faith is not an unreasonable endeavor. When we engage our minds in the pursuit of God it is God engaging us, for how can we even begin to comprehend what does not exist. When we recall the testimony of countless saints who have gone before, it is God engaging our minds. God has given us the capacity for reasonable reflection. He engages our intellect as we make our decision.

God also touches our emotions. Gratitude and appreciation, love and compassion, joy and relief are all ways we respond with great enthusiasm, but we do not depend on those feelings for the foundation of our faith, for feelings wane. With each passing event of life we ride a roller coaster of emotions, but our faith in Christ is sure in the midst of life, and God touches our emotions to aid in accepting God’s great offer of salvation.

God makes this offer because He loves us. He loves us unconditionally. He doesn’t love us because we’re perfect. He loves us in spite of the fact we’re not perfect. If I might quote another old hymn of the church:

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me.
And that Thou biddst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

“But I can’t change,” you say. That’s what John Newton thought, too, until he experienced the grace that caused him to write:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed.

Accept God’s offer of grace, justifying grace, and His grace will continue to work through you and in you, taking you to the next step on the journey to full salvation.

Regeneration–it is simply Jesus!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Fill ‘er Up…

I hope I’m not being presumptuous in writing about the beliefs of a denomination I’ve only been a part of for two months. Who am I to presume I know what the Evangelical Methodist Church believes? I can only know what I read, and I read that “We believe in the Holy Spirit who illuminates the Word of God, reveals Christ to the world and empowers believers to serve God.” While illumination and revelation are integral parts of the work of the Holy Spirit, I want to focus on the task of empowering believers to serve God.

As believers in the Wesleyan lineage, we believe that God empowers us for living a holy life, and the Holy Spirit is the agent in our lives that leads us into holiness. The Holy Spirit is almost the forgotten person of the Trinity (Father, Son & Spirit). We don’t often hear much about the Holy Spirit because we (if we’re honest) just don’t know what to do with the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit gave birth to the Church when the promised Spirit descended on a small group of believers gathered in a upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 2). There was an explosion of power that day which propelled that small group of believers in Jesus Christ to go out into the streets and preach the good news that Jesus was alive. It was the fulfillment of the promise Jesus made to the same disciples when he gathered them together in the days preceding his crucifixion. He said, “It’s good that I go away, so I can send the Holy Spirit. And, the Spirit will guide you into all truth.” That’s the Lynn translation. Find his entire discourse here.

The church has been guided by the Holy Spirit ever since. The Spirit was promised, not only to those early disciples, but to us, too. All who believe in Jesus Christ are called to live the Spirit-filled life. Don’t let the phrase “Spirit-filled” scare you. We’re not talking about dancing around in a frenzy and speaking in unknown tongues…although that’s exactly what happened on the day the Holy Spirit fell upon the believers in Jerusalem. They went out into the streets and testified of the things of God so that everyone who heard, heard in their own languages. That’s one of the things we need to understand about the gift of tongues, and I believe it’s a true gift of the Spirit. Speaking in tongues is like every other gift of the Spirit…it is given to one for the benefit of others. But, I digress. I don’t mean to talk about the gifts of the Spirit, but rather the gift that is the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a gift—to the church and to individual believers. Jesus said the Spirit will serve several purposes in our lives. The Spirit will convict the world of sin, and of God’s righteousness and of judgment (John 16: 13), and in Romans 8, Paul says the Spirit will help us in our weakness and pray for us when we don’t know what to pray. There we see the work of illumination and revelation, but there is more work to be done.

Ephesians–Be Filled

The Apostle Paul encourages the believers in Ephesus to “be filled with the Holy Spirit,” yet he does it in an interesting context. In Ephesians 5, Paul cautions believers regarding their behavior, reminding them that a relationship with Christ changed them. So, he says in verse 15: “Be careful how you live.” He says, “Don’t be foolish, but rather be wise. Take advantage of every opportunity.” Then, in verse 18 he cautions them to not “be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life.

We read verse 18 and our first reaction is that Paul is making a case against believers drinking. Is Paul telling Christians not to drink? Not really. Paul wasn’t a tea-totaler, and he would instruct his protégé, Timothy, to take a little wine for his stomach. Wine was a common beverage in the first century, and Jesus himself drank wine. Don’t forget that Jesus even turned water into wine at a wedding (the best wine). This passage is not a case against drinking wine (nor is this blog an endorsement). It is a case against getting drunk. More particularly, it’s a case against getting drunk as a religious activity.

There was in Ephesus a great following of the god Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The worship of Dionysus included drinking, drinking and more drinking with lots of frenetic dancing thrown in. Think “frat party” here and you’ll have a good idea of their religious service. Followers would drink and dance until they were drunk. The belief was that if they could get totally wasted they could then open themselves to the fullness of the god, Dionysus. That’s the culture these new followers of Christ were coming out of, and Paul says, “You don’t have to do that!”

Paul knew (and we know) that life is challenging. Here’s the reality: between the time we come to trust Christ and the time we enter heaven, life happens. Life doesn’t go swimmingly just because we come to Christ. The problems we had before are likely the same problems we have after. The same temptations we had before are probably the same temptations we have after. The temptation is that when we face the challenges that life presents us, we’re want to reach back into the old life and deal with those challenges in the old way. Paul is saying, “Don’t do that!” He’s telling the Ephesians they don’t have to reach back into their old life because in this new life there is a new way to be filled with the power of God. This new way is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Paul says that rather than be filled with wine, be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are some who believe this filling by the Holy Spirit is one in which we get carried away in a frenzy. Paul isn’t talking about running up and down aisles, jumping pews or speaking in tongues. The verb he uses helps us understand what he means. He uses a word that means to be “under the influence.” To be filled with the Spirit is to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we’re prompted to ask “How do we come under the influence of the Holy Spirit?” Paul’s use of the verb helps us understand that, too.

First, the verb is an imperative. That means it’s a command. It’s not an option. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not something reserved for pastors and worship leaders. It’s something that’s intended for every believer. Every believer is given the Holy Spirit as a seal when we come to faith in Christ, and so it is God’s desire that each believer live under the Spirit’s influence. Rather than being under the influence of some alcoholic beverage, or the influence of some other outside source, live under the Spirit’s influence.

Secondly, though, the verb is in the present tense, which speaks of a continuous action. It’s not a one and done thing. Filling is meant to be an on-going process—an on-going experience. A lot of people have had mountain-top moments on their journey of faith. A mountaintop moment is like Peter, James and John had when they went with Jesus up Mount Tabor and saw him transfigured. They wanted to stay there. In that moment, they were just so close to God. But, mountaintop moments fade because life is lived in the valley. This filling Paul talks about is meant to be an everyday kind of filling that sustains us through life in the valley. It’s meant to influence us every day. We can’t fill our cars up with gas once. We have to fill them up continually.

Thirdly, the verb is in the passive voice. It means this filling is something that is done to us. We can’t fill ourselves. We can only put ourselves in a place where God can fill us. How do we do that?

The Filling Stations

First, we ask. Have we ever asked God to fill us with His Spirit? Every day we can ask God to fill us.

“Fill me as I go to work today, Lord.”

“Fill me with your Spirit, Lord, as my spouse and I deal with this issue.”

“Fill me as I face my boss today.”

“Fill me as I deal with this health issue.”

If we’re not under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we’re going to want to revert to old, and even self-destructive ways, to face the challenges of life. Simply ask. Jesus said in Luke 11:13: 13 “So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Second, we worship. Worship puts us in the place where we can experience the Holy Spirit. Paul says “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts.” Regular worship is part and parcel to being continuously filled with the Spirit. We experience God and are drawn closer to Him.

Third is fellowship—connecting with other believers. Paul stresses that fact throughout his letter to the Ephesians. He says, “Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). The Christian life is not a “one-person show.” We need each other. We cannot, and we will not, be filled with the Spirit unless we connect with the body of Christ and other believers.

Finally, we connect with God’s word—the Bible (for illumination and revelation). When we open the pages of the Bible, the Holy Spirit feeds our souls. Simply reading the words opens us to experience God in new and life-changing ways.

I hear some of you saying, “Well, I just don’t get much out of it when I read the Bible. I can’t feel anything we I read it.” Trust me. Just the act of reading the Word opens us—even if we don’t feel it. Look, we’re not always going to “feel” God doing His work. Just because we don’t feel it, doesn’t mean He’s not doing it. God is faithful and He will fill us. We just have to put ourselves in the place where we can be filled.

To be filled is to be empowered by the Holy Spirit–empowered to live the holy life.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Only Question that Matters…

The Evangelical Methodist Church says: “We believe in Jesus Christ, who is both God and man; His virgin birth, His sinless life, His substitionary and redeeming death, and His physical resurrection.” Again, this statement is the concise communication of Article II of the Articles of Religion that guide the doctrine of the EMC. As with the doctrine of God, the Father Almighty, the doctrine of Jesus Christ the Son is equally difficult to parse in one blog post.

But, I’m always up for a challenge, so…

Did you know Jesus took the first public opinion poll? In Matthew 16: 13 – 20, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say I am?” The interesting thing is, pollsters have been asking that same question ever since. The disciples gave varying responses: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or another prophet.

Today, we might find responses like “God among men,” or “human but divinely called,” or “a good, moral teacher.” There are others, but now as then, the answers are varied. Does it matter who we think Jesus to be?  Well, it mattered to Jesus.  So much so that he asked his disciples the question. For them and for us, it’s really the only question that matters. All else in our lives revolves around how we answer that question. How do we answer?

Jesus

Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew Yeshua, which means, “God is Savior.”  Joseph and Mary gave him the name in obedience to the command given by the angel Gabriel when Gabriel announced Jesus’ conception.  God was working in Jesus to bring salvation to His creation.  We believe Jesus is our salvation.  Through Jesus, we have fellowship with the Father, we are redeemed from the bondage to sin, and we know we have security in heaven with him.  But there is more.

Christ

Jesus is also the Christ.  This is the title Peter gave to Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.  Christ in the Greek literally means “anointed one.”  It, too, is a transliteration of the Hebrew word  “Messiah”, which means “anointed one.”  Christ is not Jesus’ last name.  It is a title given because of who he is and the role he fills.

Jesus understood his role as Messiah.  He is/was the divinely anointed king sent to usher in God’s kingdom on earth.  Not, however, the Kingdom the Jewish nation was looking for. The Jewish nation was looking for a king who would deliver them from the political bondage they were in, and would establish a political kingdom ruled from Jerusalem by God. Not much different than what we see in much of the Middle East still today. Jesus understood the Kingdom of God was not established by physical force and violence, but through love, humility, and service.

Too often, we’re looking for the wrong Jesus. We’re looking for the one who will save us from our circumstances. We make bad decisions, then go running to Jesus crying, “Save me!” That’s not the real Jesus. He didn’t die to change our circumstances. He died to change us. He died to reconcile us to the Father through himself. Sin is that which separates us from God. He died to forgive our sins, and rose to give us new life, eternal life, which is not necessarily length of life, but quality of life.

When Jesus began his earthly ministry, he walked into the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.  He took the scroll of the day, opened it, and read these words:

Luke 4:18-21

    “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

        for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor.

    He has sent me to proclaim

        that captives will be released,

        that the blind will see,

        that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors,

        [19] and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

        [20] He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. Everyone in the synagogue stared at him intently. [21] Then he said, “This Scripture has come true today before your very eyes!”

We believe, as Evangelical Methodists, that Jesus is both “Savior” and “Messiah.” Like the people in the Nazareth synagogue, there are many in the world today who don’t know quite what to make of Jesus.  Let us not be so timid. We know who Jesus is. Yet there is still more to unpack in this powerful doctrine.

Lord

Jesus is Lord.  When we proclaim “Jesus is Lord,” it can fix your life, but it will sure mess up your day! “Jesus is Lord” was the confession of the early church, and it is the confession that continues with us today. What does it mean for Jesus to be Lord?  For the early Christians, it meant that he was sovereign over their lives, that their lives had become subservient to his.  It literally meant their lives were no longer their own.

Guess what?  It means the same thing for us today.  It means that we have surrendered our lives to his.  He is sovereign over us.  It means we have been to the cross and left ourselves there.  We walked away from the cross, and we were no longer the same.  Our lives were no longer our own, but they belong to Jesus. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Dietrich BonhoefferThe Cost of Discipleship Our fears, our doubts, our pride, our selfishness, our lust, our greed, our wants, our desires, our very will, are all left at the cross when we acknowledge Jesus is Lord.

Jesus acknowledged his place as Lord in John 13:13: “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because it is true.”  The angels announcing Jesus’ birth proclaimed him Lord: Luke 2:11 “The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born tonight in Bethlehem, the city of David!”  Thomas, on seeing the nail-scarred hands of Jesus after the resurrection proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”  Paul and his colleagues also declared that Jesus was Lord when they were dragged before in Acts 17.

The biblical understanding of Jesus as Lord goes far beyond our simple confession.  Its affect reaches God’s entire creation.  The Bible speaks of a time coming when “Because of this, God raised him up to the heights of heaven and gave him a name that is above every other name, 10) so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11) and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philip. 2:9-11).

I believe the day is ever closer that we in the United States may have a cost to bear when proclaiming “Jesus is Lord.” It is easy enough to gather in like-minded crowds on Sunday morning to make that proclamation, but to now do so in the public square could be costly. And, it may become even more costly. I am concerned by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to refuse to hear an emergency appeal from a Nevada church challenging the constitutionality of their governor’s order capping worship gatherings at 50 people, while allowing casinos to operate at 50% capacity. It is a sign that religious freedom is waning. Will we be up to the task in the western church? I wonder?

A Unique Birth

If Jesus is Lord, then we must accept, as a matter of faith, the unique circumstances of his birth.  We accept that he was mysteriously conceived by the Holy Spirit.  This simple statement reveals the true divine nature of Jesus.  He was born of God, and he was born God.  He is fully divine.  He is not some highly exalted person, but God in human flesh.  He was “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.”  Yet he was at the same time born of the virgin Mary, thus revealing his human nature.  He was the God-man, fully divine, yet fully human.  Through his birth, Jesus brought divinity and humanity together once and for all.

Has the mystery of the virgin birth been debated, even by Christians?  Yes, it has.  To deny either his mysterious conception and unique birth is to deny the very foundation  of the orthodox Christian faith.  To deny the virgin birth divorces us from the foundation of the past, and leaves us nothing but rubble for the future.  Jesus understood his unique relationship, and he communicated that relationship to his disciples.

A Unique Death

We accept his death, too, as the full final payment for the sins of the world.  The mention of Pontius Pilate locates Jesus in the historic record of humanity.  It sets in context the events surrounding his life and identifies the circumstances surrounding his life and death.

Jesus paid our sin debt, but also the sin debt for every person, but his work did not end there.  His resurrection is the one event that singularly defines the unique nature of Jesus Christ.  The resurrection is what makes Jesus special.  No other religious leader or founder ever made claim to the resurrection.  The empty tomb stands as proof that Jesus was who he claimed to be.  We believe he was taken away into heaven as witnesses watched, and later recorded the events they saw.  And if he is who he claimed to be, he sits today at the right hand of power of God the Father, pleading our case before the throne of grace.  And he will come again.

We have this assurance because Jesus is Lord.  It is all captured right there.  For Jesus to be Lord at all, he must be Lord of all.  C. S. Lewis captures, in his book Mere Christianity, the essence of our confession concerning Jesus Christ.  Lewis writes:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic on the level with a man who says he’s a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell; you must take your choice.  Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a mad man or something worse.  You can shut him up for a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God.  But don’t come up with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great moral teacher.  He hasn’t left that alternative open to us.  He didn’t intend to.”

Who do you say that Jesus is? Isn’t that the only question that matters? Not perhaps, as much as your answer.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Who’s Your Daddy?

I thought the title might grab your attention. Perhaps it is a bit crass when you consider that I’m writing about God, who is the Father…you know, as in Father, Son and Holy Spirit…the Trinity.

God as Father is a core belief of the Evangelical Methodist Church. Their website says, “We believe in God the Father Almighty, revealed to mankind as an awesome God of Grace, love, might, mercy, justice and holiness.” That’s an overwhelming statement when you consider God who is full of grace, love, might, mercy, justice and holiness. Each of those adjectives deserves its own blog to even halfway understand, so I’ll just stick with God, the Father for now.

When I say I believe in God, the Father, I offend some people. Well, that’s nothing new because everyone lives to be offended these days. People are offended by calling God Father because they claim it is not inclusive, or that God is neither male nor female. This post is not written to demean those who get offended by my use of God, the Father. It is written for me to share my core beliefs, and I hope, the core doctrines of the EMC. So, if you’re already offended, there’s an easy fix. Stop reading. Problem solved.

THE APOSTLE’S CREED

For those not offended by God the Father, the statement of the EMC echoes the historic document of the Christian faith–the Apostle’s Creed. The Apostle’s Creed contains only the essential, Biblical elements necessary for a strong Christian faith. Its brevity is its beauty. The Creed is not weighted down with confusing verbiage. The Creed is historically rooted, and it is widely accepted across many denominations as the most concise expression of our historic faith.

The Creed begins “I believe in God the Father Almighty…” The most elementary aspect of our faith is in God, who has revealed Himself to us as Father and Creator. The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The Bible reveals God as Creator, but it also goes on to reveal God as Father. He is God the Father Almighty.

How do we unpack that phrase? How do we unpack the infinite with the finite? The truth is that God is unknowable unless God chooses to make Himself known. Isn’t that true of any person, though? People remain a mystery to his/her companions as long as they are silent. As soon as one speaks, though, others catch a glimpse of that person’s character, intentions, and personality.

GOD SPOKE

God is knowable to us because God spoke to us. He has spoken in His creation, and He has spoken to us as Father through His son, Jesus Christ. The revelation of God in the Bible, through His Son Jesus reveals God who is righteous and merciful. In Jesus, we see the heart of a loving God reaching out to his creation that is longing to be reconciled to its creator.

To believe in God, the Father Almighty is to confess that we believe in this one God, and no other. For all that God is, God is supremely Father and Creator. If God is Father, then we are his children. When we embrace God as Father, suddenly all of creation becomes our family home. That should certainly change our perspective about creation, and about how we deal with it.

While it’s true we could seek to explore the depths to which God is Almighty, and all that Almighty means, but in so doing, we might miss the fact that this God who is beyond our description and comprehension is supremely interested in a personal relationship with each one of us.

GOD’S IDEA

We did not invent the idea of God as Father. God did. It was the relationship with Jesus that shows us the way to the Father’s heart. In Luke’s Gospel, we encounter Jesus as just a lad, left in Jerusalem by an unsuspecting family. Their search finds Jesus at the Temple speaking with the teachers gathered there, and Jesus’ reply to Mary and Joseph is, “Didn’t you know I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:41-52). While Jesus was dying on the cross, it was to his Father that he committed his spirit, and when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to say, “Our Father.”

To embrace God as Father takes the abstract notion of philosophers of an impersonal, first cause or prime mover, and reveals to us that God is a personal God, who seeks a relationship with us. God as Father becomes more than some exalted being who thunders from a mountaintop, and whose face could not be looked upon, and reveals God to be one who is filled with love and grace.

God as Father makes God as one who is approachable, and who longs to embrace us as much as we long to embrace God. As God’s children, we are welcomed into a family that is more extensive than even the purest bloodlines. From God, who is Father, our being and blessings descend, and to God, we can turn our minds and hearts in love and gratitude. When we become God’s children, we enter a relationship that showers us with love, intimacy and care. And we respond with faith.

ALL ABOUT TRUST

That type of relationship is exemplified best in our children. Their trust is such that they can ask God anything. Perhaps you’ve heard some of these letters to God children have written. Perhaps your own child has written a letter like these, and you were touched by the intimacy contained in their child-like faith:

  • Dear God, If You watch me in church on Sunday, I’ll show you my new shoes.—Mickey
  • Dear God, I read the Bible. What does “begat” mean? No one will tell me. Love, Alison
  • Dear God, I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that okay?—Neil
  • Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.—Joyce
  • Dear God, My brother told me about being born but it doesn’t sound right. They’re just kidding aren’t they?—Marsha
  • Dear God, We read Thomas Edison made light. But in Sunday school they said You did it. So I bet he stole your idea.—Sincerely, Donna
  • Dear God, I didn’t think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset You made on Tuesday. That was cool.—Eugene

The trust and intimacy these children, and almost all children, place in God is the kind of relationship God desires with us. It can be ours when we respond to God’s call to us in Jesus Christ.

So, that’s what I mean when I say “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” There’s a whole lot more to unpack in that almighty part, but it all starts with God as my Father.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Figuring God…

Let’s continue to reflect on the core doctrine of the Evangelical Methodist Church. The EMC says, “We believe in the Godhead, the Holy Trinity, in which there are three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

A PUZZLE

That’s the Reader’s Digest version of Article 1 of the Articles of Religion going all the way back to Wesley’s Sunday Services. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most complex, difficult-to-grasp doctrines of our faith, yet it is the most central to all of orthodox Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity causes us problems because we like to figure things out. Especially us guys. Our wives present us with a problem, and our first inclination is to figure out a solution. Problem, solution. That is way life is supposed to work. Right?

Our natural proclivity is to do the same with God. We think we have to figure God out before we can trust him. This doctrine of the Holy Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—is a mystery that theologians have pondered for centuries. We can’t quite figure out how there can be one God eternally existent in three persons. It just doesn’t quite make sense, but we think about it, we look at it from different angles, we try different illustrations to explain it, but we just can’t quite understand it.

Nowhere in the Bible is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity explicit. We will not find a chapter and verse that references the doctrine, but when we hear the words of Jesus, we know that the idea of God in Three Persons is implicit in his life and teaching. We know that God relates to His creation in the manner of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet He is not three gods but one God.

JESUS SAID…

One passage of Scripture demonstrates somewhat of the mystery that exists, but also relates Jesus’ understanding of the inter-relatedness of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John 16: 12 – 15 says:

[12]”Oh, there is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. [13] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not be presenting his own ideas; he will be telling you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. [14] He will bring me glory by revealing to you whatever he receives from me. [15] All that the Father has is mine; this is what I mean when I say that the Spirit will reveal to you whatever he receives from me.

So where did this doctrine of the Holy Trinity come from? The doctrine developed as a means to describe how the One God in whom we believe relates to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it was formed (wouldn’t you know it?) out of argument.

THE EARLY CHURCH

A fellow named Marcion in the second century taught that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were two different gods. God, in the Old Testament, was harsh, cruel, and full of wrath and judgment. Jesus, on the other hand, was kind, gentle and loving. Therefore, we should reject the God of the Old Testament and believe in Jesus Christ.

Another guy named Arius taught that Jesus was not really god, but rather a demigod created by God the Father to be a mediator between heaven and earth. Then there was a group called Enthusiasts who believed the coming of the Holy Spirit replaced God the Father and God the Son. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was formulated by the early church to describe the basic belief in God in three persons, each co-equal, co-eternal, one in essence and substance.

The debate rages still in the church among Christians and among denominations even. There are some denominations who baptize in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Isn’t that what Jesus commanded? Look at Matthew 28:19:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Another denomination baptize in the name of Jesus only. There are still other denominations who have started baptizing in the name of “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” That is the politically correct way of saying Father, Son and Holy Spirit, lest we offend anyone anyone by the male gender usage of the original formulation. These are all contemporary debates, and they grow out of our incessant desire to figure God out.

The first temptation the serpent offered to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was the temptation to “be like God, knowing everything.” Guess what? That temptation is still with us today. We like to nail everything down, put everything into neat little boxes. That way we can control every situation.

The quest for knowledge is a good thing. In Genesis, it was God who gave humanity the directive to till the soil, and to name the animals. God was laying the foundation for the scientific enterprise, and the exploration of God’s creation helps us to fulfill the task appointed to us by God Himself.

The great mistake we make is to make God a part of His creation. God is not a part of the creation. God is wholly other, and therefore, God can never be the subject of scientific investigation. God is not some riddle or mind puzzle that can be solved with enough thought and reflection. God is a mystery, and mystery that is solved ceases to be a mystery. God is a mystery to be adored rather than a riddle to be explained. All we can ever know about God is what God chooses to reveal to us. Beyond that, God will always remain a mystery.

The mysteriousness of God is the whole point behind the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine does not define God, but it does describe what God has allowed us to know of Himself. It will always remain a mystery because God will always be a mystery—at least in this life anyway. I am reminded of the words of Paul writing to the Christians at Corinth:

Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now. ( Corinthians 13:12)

There is coming a day when we will understand all things completely, but until that time we live in the mystery of this life. Jesus told his disciples “there is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now.” I think what Jesus means is pretty clear. If we knew all things and had full knowledge, it would be completely unbearable for us. We think it would give us freedom, but it would really serve to enslave us. The spontaneity of life would be eliminated, and grace would be a formula of cause and effect. Life would be reduced to a mathematical equation.

We simply cannot bear all truth just yet, but Jesus promised his disciples, and he promises us, that the Spirit of truth will guide us into all truth. Not suddenly and instantaneously, but slowly and gradually, in a measure appropriate to our ability to receive it.

I am reminded of the story Corrie Ten Boom told of her father’s illustration of faith. Corrie was lamenting the persecution endured by the Jews at the hands of the Gestapo in Nazi Germany. Fearing the time might come for her to endure such persecution, she was adamant to her father that she could never endure such suffering, that her faith would surely falter. Her father sought to reassure her that trusting God was the key. Still she persisted in her concern. Finally, her father said, “Corrie, do you remember when we used to take the train?”

“Yes,” Corrie replied.

“Do you remember when I would give you the ticket to board the train?” Dad asked.

“Yes,” Corrie responded.

“Yes, I gave it to you when you were ready to board the train,” Dad said. “So it is with faith, Corrie. God gives it to us when we need it. Not before, not after, but as we need it. To give it early may cause us to lose it. To give it too late does us no good.”

So what are we to do with this doctrine of the Holy Trinity? Perhaps we do well to remember the Good News is not that we have God all figured out, but that God has us figured out, and He loves us anyway, and he forgives our sins in spite of everything he knows about us.

We might also need to be reminded that our journey of life is not one in which all the mysteries will be solved, but one in which we know that God is behind us, ahead of us, and beside us leading us to that day in heaven when all the mysteries will be revealed, and all the doctrines of the church will be meaningless in the presence of God Himself. But, that’s another doctrine for another day.

Let’s suffice it to say that as an Evangelical Methodist I “believe in the Godhead, the Holy Trinity, in which there are three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Until next time, keep looking up…

Always Start with the Word…

As many of you know, I was recently ordained an elder in the Evangelical Methodist Church. Many of you have also asked about the beliefs of the EMC, so I thought this might be a good way to share the basic tenets of belief of the EMC. Though a blog is not the best place to do a deep dive into theological issues, I will take several weeks to offer my reflections on the core beliefs of my new faith family. I pray you stick around for the journey.

I’ll begin with the Word of God–the Bible. The EMC says, “We accept and believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We receive it as the revealed will and way of God for our daily life.”

Article V of the Articles of Religion of the EMC also states, in part: “The Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

Article V is the same Article V embraced (ostensibly) by the United Methodist Church originating from John Wesley’s The Sunday Service of the Methodists (1784). We Methodists have a long history of trust in the Bible as God’s Holy Word. Sadly, we live in an age when the validity and truth of the Bible is consistently called into question. I, for one, will continue to trust God’s Word over the changing tide of culture.

STARTING IN THE WRONG PLACE

A poll by George Barna found that 52% (yes, over half) of Christians believe the Bible teaches the self-reliant notion that “God helps those who help themselves.” Self-reliance is a false theological cornerstone that finds its roots in thinking we (humanity) and subsequently I (individually) am at the center of the universe.

We are not the center of the universe. The world does not revolve around our lives, our problems, our desires, or our needs. This inherent selfishness (caused by sin) drives our need to look at the Bible and see the things that are wrong with it. One traditional saying puts it this way; “Men don’t reject the Bible because it contradicts itself, but because it contradicts them.”

Trusting the Bible lies first in understanding what the Bible is. The Bible tells God’s story–the story of God’s creating and redeeming acts, and where we (humanity) and I (individually) fit into God’s story. It is the story of Paradise lost in Genesis, and of Paradise restored in Revelation. In between, we find the character of God as God moves in steadfast love to reconcile humanity and the creation to Himself.

The steadfast love of God is revealed through His Son, Jesus Christ, and made real to us through the Holy Spirit. The truth of the Bible is communicated through the story, and to leave out part of the story is to omit part of the truth, and the search for truth and understanding is garbled and confusing. Our trust in the Bible is confused if we fail to see that the Bible is God’s story, not our story.

INTERNAL EVIDENCE

Not only do we trust the Bible because it is God’s story, but the words of the Bible itself give us confidence in its contents. I am reminded of what the Apostle Paul wrote to a young Timothy in 2 Timothy 3: 16–All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.

We can find the Bible trustworthy because it comes from God to give us direction for our lives as God reveals where we fit into His story. Jesus himself quoted the Old Testament when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Jesus used the Scriptures to refute the Pharisees and other opponents of his ministry. The Scriptures strengthened Jesus when he was on the cross as he cried out to God the Father, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” And Jesus referred his disciples to the Scriptures that must be fulfilled concerning his death and resurrection.

You may be thinking, “We can’t trust the Bible because the Bible says we can. That is circular reasoning, and logical arguments cannot be sustained by circular reasoning.” Okay. I’ll just point out some external evidence that points to the trustworthiness of the Bible.

EXTERNAL VALIDATION

Bible means book. But, it is not just a book, but a book of books; sixty-six books altogether. The Bible is a book compiled over a period of approximately 1,500 years, over 40 different generations. Over 40 authors wrote it from all walks of life on three different continents, in different moods, and in three different languages. Think of a servant, a king, a military general, a doctor, a fisherman, a tent maker, a poet, a farmer, and a tax collector all writing from places such as a prison, a dungeon, a pastoral hillside, a palace, and a ship during times of war and of peace. Yet they all tell the same story–the story of God’s activity in redeeming humanity.

Factor in the evidence that there are over 5,300 pieces of preserved text from the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and over 10,000 from the Latin Vulgate, and at least 9,300 other early versions of the Bible, and we have more external evidence for the trustworthiness of the Bible than any ancient writings. More than Homer, more than Aristotle or Plato, more than William Shakespeare himself. Yet we do not question the validity of their writings.

A MATTER OF FAITH

Honestly, though, we will not trust in the Bible through documentary evidence preserved through history, and debated by historians, theologians, and philosophers. We will not even trust the Bible because we see it as God’s story. We will trust the Bible because we accept it as God’s story, and how do we accept it? By faith.

Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of faith, and God gives us the faith to trust His word for the salvation of our souls, and the redemption of creation. Our faith is confirmed by the experiences of our lives, and the experiences of our lives confirm the truthfulness and validity of the Scriptures. The impact the Word has had on countless saints through the ages stands as a testimony to its truthfulness and dependability in leading and directing each person on our journey of faith.

Phillips Brooks said it this way, “The Bible is like a telescope. If a man looks through his telescope he sees worlds beyond; but if he looks at his telescope, he does not see anything but that. The Bible is a thing to be looked through to see that which is beyond; but most people only look at it and so they see only the dead letter.”

The Bible is something to see life through. If we focus on the book itself, rather than what it reveals about the nature of God and the nature of humanity, we will only see its faults and foibles. We will miss the joy of finding God’s will for the redemption of humanity, and we will miss the blessing of knowing God’s will for our lives.

Then again, it’s not about us. It is about God, but we find meaning, purpose and joy for the journey that is life when we understand where our story fits with His story. Our story fits with His story through Jesus Christ. In the power of the Holy Spirit, “we accept and believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We receive it as the revealed will and way of God for our daily life.”

I count it all blessing to be an Evangelical Methodist.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Trying to Make Sense…

I’ve been reading the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church devotionally that past week or so, and honestly, I’m just trying to make sense of it all, just like I’m trying to make some sense out of everything that has been happening in our nation since March 16, 2020.

Between reading 1 Corinthians, watching the evening news and reading Facebook and Twitter, there are some days (warning: confession ahead) I just don’t feel very much like a Christian. I really want to try and make sense of that, too.

Staying off social media might help, but for better or worse, more and more people are getting their news from social media than traditional means, so I suppose that just makes me normal. If I’m normal, then I suspect there may be a few of you trying to make sense of everything that is happening in our world, too.

CULTURAL DEBATES

I remember when the cultural debates among Christians centered around what movies it was appropriate to attend, or whether Christians should drink alcohol. Debates used to be about whether Christians should acknowledge Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, or whether it is appropriate to observe Halloween.

The morals and mores of our nation are in a tectonic shift. I almost hesitate to address the issues being debated today because it’s impossible to do the subjects justice in a single blog post, and besides the fact I’m likely to say something to offend someone and that will get me banned from WordPress. Then, others have said, “Silence is violence,” so what’s a person supposed to do?

Less than twenty years ago, same-sex marriage was only a blip on the cultural radar. Now, it’s the law of the land, and it’s front and center in the church, as well-meaning and socially concerned Christians attempt to formulate a response to that cultural shift. The issue has already split several denominations, and is on the verge of splitting the United Methodist Church. I’ve been trying to figure that one out for 20 years.

Likewise, the debate over the legalization of illicit drugs, namely marijuana, was relegated to the fringe of culture. There were a few proponents, but they were greatly in the minority, and no one, a mere 10 years ago could foresee the dramatic shift in that debate. Oh, that we should long for debates about the Easter Bunny!

SHADES OF GRAY

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world that was black and white? I’m not speaking racially, of course (I almost can’t even use the analogy today–someone will call me out for it), but I’m talking about a world where all the questions have yes or no answers—a world where something is either right or wrong. Sure would make life simpler.

We tend to think the Bible is really good at black and white answers, but that all depends on how one reads the Bible. We see God’s Ten Commandments, and they’re reasonably black and white: murder, covetousness, stealing, adultery, etc. All wrong.

The Bible is pretty clear on things that are right, too–like honoring God, honoring our parents, honoring the Sabbath. The shift in the cultural landscape has left us with situations and circumstances that are not quite so black and white. We’re left to try and make sense out of them, and live faithfully to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that’s no easy task.

Most of the debates for Christians rise or fall on how one reads the Bible. Some will argue that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, or same-sex relationships. I would argue that he said a lot about it, all the way back in Genesis 2 (remember Jesus was present at creation), and in Matthew 5 and 19. And, it’s impossible to separate Jesus from his apostles, and what was Paul?

Others will argue differently. Whose Ph.D trumps (<– no political reference) whose? The point is there are a lot of issues not specifically addressed in Scripture for various reasons, yet we still have a responsibility to love God and love our neighbor, and we are often left with our own conscience to guide us. That’s another reason it’s so important to know what I (and by I, I mean you) believe.

THE CORINTHIAN EXPERIENCE

In reading 1 Corinthians, I learn the Apostle Paul dealt with similar problems in the first century. In a church in the city of Corinth, new believers were learning to live faithfully in a culture as diverse as our own. Paul was confronted with several questions which grew out of the pagan influence upon these early Christians. One such question focused on the question of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Chapter 8). We’re not too worried in the 21st century about eating meat sacrificed to idols, but seeing how Paul addresses the issue helps me as I’m trying to make sense of living the disciple’s life today.

Here’s the issue: Most of the meat that was sold in the town market in Corinth came from sacrificial animals which were slaughtered at ceremonies in the local temples of pagan deities. Part of the meat of each animal was burned on the temple altar, part was eaten in temple ceremonies, and part was sold in the Corinthian marketplace for consumption at home. The question at hand was this: “Did these rituals somehow automatically taint the food with some weird spiritual voodoo? Could Christians eat meat that had been offered to idols?”

Some Corinthian Christians embraced the idea of liberty they obtained through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul founded this church, and he undoubtedly shared with them the same philosophy he taught the church he established at Galatia: “For freedom Christ has set us free;” (Galatians 5:1).

What wonderful knowledge to possess! But that was just the problem. Certain Corinthian Christians possessed this knowledge and they flaunted it, and they appealed to Paul to prove that it really didn’t matter if they ate meat offered to idols. They had a point to prove to those who said they shouldn’t eat the meat, and they felt they were superior because they had this special knowledge.

Paul said to the Corinthians who embraced their liberty, “You’re right! It doesn’t matter if you eat the meat because you and I know that there is really only one God, and those other gods are no gods at all, so in reality, the meat has not been offered to anyone or anything” (the Lynn Translation). Then, he said, “Before you get all puffed up, not everyone understands this reality. Some people still believe those idols are real, and to them, to eat that meat is the same as worshiping idols, and they are convicted in their own hearts because they are weak, and by your liberty, you could cause one of them to stumble.”

Paul would clarify. He said, “Look, here’s what happens. You get an invitation to a wedding down at the temple of Aphrodite. You know Aphrodite is not real so you see no problem with going to the ceremony and sharing in the reception. But someone who is weak in their faith sees you at the temple doing what they think is wrong, and they say, ‘Oh, well, he is doing it so it must be okay,’ and they eat, but later they are convicted in their own hearts because they ate. They get confused, and their confusion can destroy their faith. And, don’t forget Christ died for them just like he died for you. So don’t use your knowledge concerning your freedom to allow anything like that to happen. Instead, give up ever eating meat if eating meat might cause one for whom Christ died to be destroyed.”

LEGAL VS. ETHICAL

So, Paul really says this is not a legal question, but it’s an ethical one. That’s where it comes down for each of us concerning all the questions in the swelling cultural shift. They’re not so much legal issues as they are ethical issues.

Therein lies the problem. If it’s a legal issue, there’s got to be a law, and the law can settle the issue. Simple enough. But, ethics goes beyond the law. The Jim Crow laws reflect this reality. It’s the ethics that trip me up and keep me from making sense of all of it. It’s the ethics that make me think on some days, I’m just not very Christian.

The Ethic of Love

I note two principles Paul uses in counseling the Corinthians concerning this gray area. They are instructive to me as I seek to live faithfully to the Gospel. First, Paul says let love be your guide. In verse 8:1, Paul offers, “while knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church.” Pride gets in the way of our love. We think we have all the answers, that we know all there is to know. I like to call it “holier than thou.” Paul said it was that type of attitude that would destroy the church. Love is what really builds up the church.

Love is the principle that sets boundaries around my liberty. The moral decay we see in our culture hasn’t happened because we allowed gambling, or because we went to the movies, or because we played cards, or smoked cigarettes, or because some Christian somewhere made a questionable value judgment in a gray area of life. Moral decay has come because we embraced the right to liberty without simultaneously embracing the responsibility to love. Rights without responsibility quickly devolve into selfishness.

Paul reminds us in chapter 13 of this same letter that “love is patient and kind,” that love is not “boastful or proud, or rude.” Paul says, “Love does not demand its own way.” That means I don’t use my freedom quite as freely because I have a responsibility to someone else to help care for his or her soul. Love takes the mind that was in Jesus Christ, who chose to humble himself through the obedience that carried him all the way to the cross.

We build up the body of Christ, and those who are weaker in their faith when we show the love of Christ to them, and put their interests ahead of our own. I am reminded that sometimes love asks more than I’m prepared to give, and love often requires more than I’m willing to do. Those are the times I don’t feel very Christian.

But, the love Paul speaks of is sacrificial love. We want to say love is unconditional, but it is not. The condition is sacrifice, and it is the second principle that should guide me in living in these confusing times.

The Ethic of Sacrifice

Paul said, “If what I eat is going to make another Christian sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live…” (v. 13). Paul was willing to give up his freedom if it meant building up someone who was weaker. He did not demand or cling to his right, but embraced his responsibility to his brother/sister.

We ask ourselves a simple question when confronted with those sticky issues that hang out in the gray areas of life: “Am I willing to stop what I’m doing if I find out it is causing another person to question it?” If I can answer that question in the affirmative, then I am observing the principle of sacrifice, which, by the way, is what Christ did for you and me. Remember, he did not cling to his own rights as God. He made himself nothing for humanity. It is Christ’s example. May it be ours, too? Why? Because what we do matters.

Our lives are contagious. Leslie Flynn points out in her book, Your Influence is Showing, that the Italian word for influence is influenza. The word influenza was introduced into English in the mid-1700’s, apparently coming from the Italian phrase that attributed the origin of this malady to an influenza de fredo (influence of the cold). Our example spreads to others as easily as the flu. Does our influence destroy or does it build up?

I’ve come to discover in my own life that while God does care about how good I am, He cares as much about how good I am to others. And, while God cares about my liberty, he cares more about my life. With love and sacrifice as my guiding principles, maybe I can begin to make a little sense out of this confusing culture.

Here’s the truth behind the truth: Love and sacrifice are nothing without the power of the Holy Spirit, for I cannot love fully as Christ loved in my own strength, and I cannot offer myself as a sacrifice for the sake of others by the force of my own will. Only when I surrender to the Spirit’s power does my love become sacrificial. Only when I give myself to the Holy Spirit does He take this confusion and transform it into something rational, wise and, dare I say, holy.

That’s the truth our culture needs as much as I need it.

Until next time, keep looking up…