Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

On April 28, 2017, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church issued its ruling regarding the July 2016 election and consecration of Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as Bishop in the United Methodist Church. Almost everyone I know (from a Methodist perspective anyway) was waiting for this ruling, and many of them have asked me what I thought of the ruling. My answer has been: “I think it’s better than it could have been and worse than it should have been.”

BETTER THAN IT COULD HAVE BEEN

It’s better than it could have been because the Judicial Council could have decided it didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter. That is, in essence, what they ruled in part of the case. The Council concluded it did not have jurisdiction over the nomination, election and assignment as Bishop (you can read the entire decision here), but that it did have jurisdiction over the consecration of a homosexual bishop, and in that matter, the Western Jurisdiction violated church law. The decision goes on to say that any clergy who participated in the consecration are subject to a “chargeable offense.”

I’m not going to comment on the intricate details of the case because I’m not an attorney steeped in church law, but I will say that any intelligent person could read The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church and conclude that the consecration of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is a violation of church law. No matter how one parses the words, they say what they say, and no matter a person’s gifts and graces for ministry, the words say what they say. If we don’t like what the words say, then the words should be changed, but every four years for forty plus years, the wording has been reaffirmed by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

So, the ruling is better than it could have been. The Western Jurisdiction violated church law when it consecrated Rev. Dr. Oliveto bishop (although Oliveto was not specifically named in the petition). I believe it was the correct decision, and it helped to bring some clarity to the current debates within the United Methodist Church around human sexuality.

WORSE THAN IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN

But, the decision is worse than it should have been. I know many will disagree with that statement, and that’s perfectly okay with me (this is me assenting to your right to dissent–so please keep the nasty and snarky comments to a minimum). The decision left Oliveto in “good standing” in the office of Bishop, and remanded the case back to the Western Jurisdiction for what is called an “administrative process.”

Yes, others have asked what that means, too. Let me see if I can explain it briefly. Just like in the secular world, a person has a right to “due process,” so in the church a clergy person has the right to “due process” before any action can be taken against him/her (this is a good thing), so the ruling sends it back to the Western Jurisdiction for the process to play itself out.

So, while that’s good, it’s bad because the Western Jurisdiction is the entity that elected  and consecrated Oliveto in the first place, so I anticipate that nothing of substance will be done through the process, and when all is said and done, Oliveto will still be a Bishop in the United Methodist Church, and those of us who hold to the traditional biblical understanding of marriage will continue to be frustrated with the politics of it all (I’m speaking purely of church politics here). It’s also bad because it will continue to be a distraction from the mission of the church, and will continue to drain time, energy and resources away from the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.

WHAT NOW?

So, what do we do now? We wait…just like we’ve been doing. We’ll wait to see how the administrative process works itself out in the Western Jurisdiction. We’ll also continue to wait and see what the Commission on a Way Forward recommends when it completes its work, and we’ll wait to see what the special called session of General Conference does with that information when it meets in February of 2019, in St. Louis, MO.

In our waiting, we might discover that the Holy Spirit is prepared to do a new work with these people called United Methodist. The Holy Spirit could, in fact, be giving birth to a new Methodist movement. If we react now with frustration and anger (no matter which “side” of the debate we take), we might just miss the greatest move of the Holy Spirit in Methodism since John Wesley‘s heart was strangely warmed at a meeting on Aldersgate Street. Let’s all remain faithful with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness (those are the vows every person takes when she/he joins the United Methodist Church).

There is one thing we can do in the waiting, and that is to pray. We must pray for unity…but not unity for an institution…we must pray for unity in the body of Christ that goes far beyond any human institution. We must also pray for unity in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must also pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us with fire so that our singular purpose will be a people who have nothing to do but save souls.

More than waiting, though, is the necessity of work…the work of the Kingdom. We must continue to be in ministry to the least, the last and the lost. There are homeless people to feed. There are foster children to care for. There are churches to build. There are souls to save (there’s my evangelical bent coming through). There are people to love, there’s a God to worship and adore and there’s Jesus to follow. Nothing any Council (Judicial or otherwise) could ever do will change the commandment Jesus gave us to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 18-20 NLT).

So, I’ll wait, and pray and work. May I invite you to join me in that endeavor.

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Call to Prayer…

It’s time to pray. Of course, as disciples of Jesus Christ, it’s always time to pray, but that sentiment is never more true than now for those of us called United Methodist. The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church begins its semi-annual meeting in Newark, New Jersey April 25th, and one of the main issues on its docket is the legality of the election and consecration of a homosexual clergy person to the office of Bishop in the United Methodist Church.

Members of the 2016-2020 Judicial Council. (From left) Front: Ruben T. Reyes, N. Oswald Tweh Sr., the Rev. Luan-Vu Tran. Back row: Deanell Reece Tacha, Lídia Romão Gulele, the Rev.Øyvind Helliesen, the Rev. Dennis Blackwell, and the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko. (Not pictured, Beth Capen)

In July 2016, the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church elected Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as the first openly gay bishop. As Bishop Oliveto was being elected, the South Central Jurisdiction was still in session, and upon the announcement of Dr. Oliveto’s election, delegates of the South Central Jurisdiction passed a resolution asking the Judicial Council to rule on a specific set of questions regarding the legality of the election.

Oral arguments in the matter are expected to be heard on April 25th, and the expectation is the Judicial Council will issue its ruling soon afterward. There are several possible outcomes in the case. For a review of those possibilities and more docket information, you can click on these links:

https://juicyecumenism.com/2017/04/20/preview-umc-judicial-councils-april-2017-cases/

http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/finance-and-administration/lgbtq-united-methodist-allies-prepare-for-judicial-council-s_1/

For me, this week is a watershed moment for United Methodism. In the interest of full disclosure, I was at the South Central Jurisdiction in July 2016 as a delegate, and I voted in support (as did 56% of the delegates) of the request to the Judicial Council. How the Council rules (or fails to rule) may well determine the future of our denomination. I have had persons tell me they were preparing to leave our church if the ruling went one way, and I’ve had people tell me they were prepared to leave our church if the ruling went another way. That’s a no-win either way you look at it. The ruling will likely impact mission, membership and money, and in a cultural environment that is increasingly hostile to the Gospel, it is an unfortunate witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

Additionally, no one really knows how a ruling may impact the work of the Commission on a Way Forward.  The Commission has been working for several months now to discern a unified way to move forward in the face of the diversity that exists, both within the Church and within culture. It will also be unfortunate that the General Conference has invested such resources to render the work moot.

Please don’t read any of this blog as anything more than a simple call to prayer for our United Methodist Church. Mine is simply another in a litany of such calls. You can read one here. I have a number of sentiments I could share here, but a colleague, Rev. Shane Bishop, has done a masterful job here, so I share his thoughts, not as my own, but as a summation of where I am personally and professionally.

So, please join me in prayer this week. Pray for:

  • Wisdom and discernment from the Holy Spirit for the Judicial Council
  • Grace for those who will present oral arguments
  • Peace among the “opposing” sides in the continuing debate
  • Strength for our bishops as they lead us amidst the chaos
  • Unity in our denomination as we face the uncertainty of the decisions and their consequences, both intended and unintended
  • Bishop Oliveto
  • Our pastors who lead congregations that hold a diversity of opinions
  • Our laity who desire to serve Christ through their local congregations

It’s time to pray folks! If you’ve never prayed for your United Methodist Church before (well, shame on you if you haven’t!), please do so now. While you’re praying, keep in mind that whatever happens, we are an Easter people. Things may not be the same after this week, but each day provides an opportunity for new life. The Lord is not done with the United Methodist Church yet. It just remains to be seen what the Lord might do with us next.

Until next time, keep looking up…(and, pray while you’re doing it!)

 

The Golden Grace…

Silence is golden! It reminds me of the Psalmists words from Psalm 46:10, where he wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God!” Silence makes us uncomfortable, though, and if you find yourself uncomfortable sitting in silence for 30 seconds, you might need to develop the habit of solitude.

Solitude and silence are two sides of the same coin, for they are both about quietness—inward quietness and outward quietness. We can remove people from our lives but still fill the void with noise, and we can be in a great crowd of people and remain empty and lonely. The habit of solitude is a means of grace that brings inner fulfillment.

What do I mean when I talk about the habit of solitude? If fasting is the abstaining from something (primarily food) for spiritual purposes, then solitude is withdrawing to privacy for spiritual purposes. It is a “going away,” or “getting away” for the purpose of listening for the voice of God. We should note, however, that solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a particular place. We don’t necessarily have to go away to get away. We can possess inward solitude that can set us free from loneliness and fear no matter where we are.

LONELINESS AND FEAR

Let’s talk about that for a moment because it is loneliness that keeps many of us from developing this habit of solitude. I have over the years had the opportunity to go on a few silent retreats—most of them at Catholic abbeys. I remember the first one I attended. I was a first year “resident in ministry.” That means I was fresh out of seminary, beginning the “provisional” process toward ordination and the Conference begins that process by the practice of silence and solitude. I will confess I was scared to death. I’d never been on one before, and this was going to be for three days. I had four children and a spouse. I had just completed three years in seminary with friends and colleagues. I was appointed to a new church with people I needed to get to know. I’m a people person! What in the world was I going to do on a silent retreat for three days? I was going to go crazy, that’s what! But, when it was over, I couldn’t wait for the next one!

Loneliness is inner emptiness—so says Richard Foster. For some of us, we don’t like to be alone because we don’t much like our own company, or because our personality is so shaped by the people around us, we don’t even know who we are when we are alone. It may have to do with whether we are an introvert or an extrovert – introverts gain their energy from within, and are drained by exterior stimulation. Extroverts, on the other hand, gain their energy from exterior stimulation and are drained by interior work. Whether we’re an introvert or an extrovert, whether we don’t like our own company, or whether we don’t know who we are when we’re alone, we need to cultivate this habit because as a means of grace it strengthens our soul.

JESUS’ HABIT

Jesus knew the power of solitude and he practiced it often. Mark’s Gospel records a time when Jesus and his disciples had been busy doing miracles and ministry across Galilee. There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and the disciples didn’t even have time to eat. In this span of ministry, Jesus has been rejected in his hometown, commissioned his disciples for a ministry tour and received the tragic news that his cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded. He’s literally “had it up to here,” and so he says to his disciples, “Come on! Let’s get away to a quiet place and rest.” He knew that the clamor of busy-ness will sap even the greatest person’s strength.

Mark’s account wasn’t the only time scripture records Jesus getting away. Jesus began his earthly ministry by spending forty days alone in the wilderness (Matt. 4). With three disciples He sought out the silence of a lonely mountain as the stage for the transfiguration (Mt. 17:1—9). We could go on, but you get the picture that seeking out a solitary place was a habit for Jesus. So it should be for us, too.

GET REAL

What grace comes from solitude? What benefits? Let me mention only two. First, solitude provides an opportunity to get real with God. Charles Caleb Colton once said “Character is who you are when no one else is looking.” If we are going to be real with God, we need to get alone with God. In the quiet of solitude, all pretensions can be stripped away, all the things in life that are trying to mold us in their image are removed, all the requirements of the world disappear, and we can stand before God “just as I am” as the song says.

This is scary for some, but it is in solitude that we am reminded that above all else our identity is caught up in the fact that we are God’s chosen child. If we are not really sure of what God thinks about us, being alone with him might be pretty scary! If we’re not so sure that God loves us, get alone with him, listen to his voice – the first thing that the Holy Spirit teaches our spirit is how to say “Abba, Father” If we can get alone in silence with God, the first thing we will hear is the Spirit whispering in our ear “you are God’s adopted child – he chose you, he loves you.”

Dallas Willard, who wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines, said that the discipline of solitude is for strengthening. You may remember the story of Elijah from the Old Testament. Elijah was God’s prophet to the nation of Israel at a time of great apostasy under King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel. There was one instance when Elijah challenged 450 false prophets of the god Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah even did so mockingly, and he called fire down from heaven that destroyed all 450 prophets of Baal and the surrounding altar and their sacrifice. It was a victory of monumental proportions. Immediately after the victory, though, Elijah flees because he’s afraid for his life. Weary and worn out, it’s on a mountain in the Sinai desert that Elijah encounters God, not in a windstorm, not in an earthquake, not even in the fire, but in a still small voice. It was after Elijah encountered God on that mountain that he was able to complete his calling. He poured out his heart to God, he got real with God, and God strengthened him.

When you and I get alone with God, we’ll hear him say he loves us, and we’ll find strength to face life whatever challenge it might bring our way.

GET CENTERED

Second, solitude provides an opportunity to get centered. Jesus sought out solitude before he made big decisions in his life and ministry. Before he chose the twelve who would be his closest disciples, Luke tells us Jesus spent the entire night alone in the wilderness. Following the healing of a leper Jesus “withdrew to the wilderness and prayed” (Lk. 5:16). As he prepared for His highest and most holy work, Jesus sought the solitude of the garden of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36—46).

Billy Graham, in his autobiography Just as I Am, recounts the period in his life when he was being pressured by Charles Templeton to give up his belief in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. Graham took some time in solitude and he realized that intellect alone would not solve his problem – that it was an issue of faith. So he placed his Bible on a stump in the middle of the woods, and knelt down and said, “Oh God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Templeton is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.” And through that time of solitude Billy Graham was shaped into the man the world came to know as the greatest evangelist of the 20th century. We get perspective when we get centered, and we only get centered when we get alone with God.

PRACTICAL STEPS

Solitude is as much a state of mind and heart as it is a place, but even so, we can’t forget that habits are actions, whether inward or outward. We can be pious and talk about the solitude we practice in our hearts, but if that doesn’t issue itself in how we act, we missed it altogether. We need to take it from theory and put it into real life. How do we do that?

Why not start simply? Start with those first few moments as we awaken each morning. Rather than thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to get up,” why not think, “God, you love me and I love you”? My daily solitude comes with that first cup of coffee in the morning. Nothing but my Lord, my coffee and myself. No computer. No television. No telephone. Just silence…well, and the ticking of the clock. Silence is often hard to achieve.

Could you try silence and solitude while you’re driving? Turn the radio off for a time. Sure, you’ll hear road noise and passing cars, but you also might just hear God’s voice. Could you, instead of saying a blessing as your family gathers at the table, simply bow and sit in silence for a minute? Parents, why don’t you challenge your children when you’re on that long vacation road trip to a game of silence? See who can be silent the longest. It may only last five minutes, but those will be blessed minutes. We might do something as simple as slip outside for five minutes before bed to taste the silence of the night. We can redeem the time in many, many ways. Grab little moments that help us reorient ourselves to who we are and whose we are.

There are other more intentional and intense things we can do. We might not want to immediately through ourselves into a three-day silent retreat, but we can be intentional about designating a place to be quiet. My place is my couch early in the morning. It’s comfortable. It’s quiet. It’s cozy. Perhaps some of you have heard of Joel Hemphill. He’s a Christian singer and songwriter. Vanessa and I visited with him and his wife when they were building their new home in Nashville a few years ago, and the pride he had to show us was the room he had specially built to be his “quiet place.” Why can’t we find a room, or designate a space in our home to be quiet? Maybe your space needs to be a park, or by a stream. Wherever it is…find it…and use it!

Here’s another idea: Try to live one entire day without words. Spouses, please tell your significant other if you chose to do this! Otherwise, they might just think you’re mad at them, and that won’t do anyone any good.

Others have suggested three or four times a year, take three or four hours to get away and reflect on your life’s goals. You can stay late at the office, or you can go sit by the river. Better yet, use it as an excuse to go to the beach. Take a journal and write it all down. God may just surprise us with some new alternatives we never considered.

Then again, you might just want to try that three days of silence in a retreat. Here’s a way to make that happen.

The fruit this habit will bear in our lives is a more acute awareness of the voice of God. That’s grace to us. But, it will also bear an increased sensitivity and compassion for others. Like Jesus, we must go away from people so that we can be truly present when we are with people. There is a new attentiveness to their needs and a new responsiveness to their needs, and that becomes grace to them. Solitude is the habit that can be grace for everyone, and that is just perfect!

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Most Difficult Grace…

Easter is fast upon us. In two weeks, disciples of Jesus Christ will gather in places across the globe to celebrate the pivotal event in the life of our faith—the resurrection. Yes, we’re headed to Easter and new life—new life is the promise, not the old life redone. We experience this new life through Jesus Christ and the grace he offers us in practicing habits in our lives that bring transformation—habits such as prayer, fasting and bible study. There is one habit that sits at the heart of new life, at the heart of Easter itself. It is the habit that most reflects the life of Jesus, and it is the habit that should most reflect the heart of his disciples. It is the habit of submission.

SUBMISSION

Mention the word submission these days and minds run in a thousand directions both positively and negatively. As Richard Foster says, “Nothing can put people into bondage like religion, and noting in religion has done more to manipulate and destroy people than a deficient teaching on submission.” Foster’s statement demonstrates the power of sin to take the best teaching and turn it upside down. For this reason, it is with trepidation that I take up the task of exploring this spiritual discipline, for this is meant to be life-giving, not life-taking. If it is life-giving, it can be life-changing, and I remind us, we are headed toward Easter.

There are a ton of passages we could refer to this morning, but Ephesians 5: 20 – 21, captures the essence of “how” the habit is formed and lived out. We get stumped by the passages that follow Ephesians 5:21, but the verses that precede it actually set the context. The Apostle Paul tells us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” What follows is perhaps the most misappropriated and misapplied passage in the Bible. The passage has been used for centuries to subject women, in many cases, to forced servitude, and to limit the status and role of women in leadership in the church. I believe it’s a terrible reading of Paul’s otherwise radical first-century teaching. That’s all I’m going to say about that matter because what is important to our understanding of submission is found in what precedes the verses we read this morning, and we find Paul’s opening imperative in verse two, where Paul says, “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ.” And what was his example? One of a life fully submitted to the Father—submitted even unto death.

The cross is a symbol of death. It is the symbol of Good Friday. It is the symbol of the totality of Jesus’ submission. But, may I suggest it is also the symbol of life because Jesus was as submitted to the Father’s will in life as he was in death. Jesus died as he lived. He rejected power and position, telling his disciples not to let anyone call them Rabbi or teacher (Matt. 23:8-10). He lived his submission as he took women seriously and met with little children. He lived his submission as he took a towel and basin and washed his disciples feet, and then he said, “I have given you an example, that you should do as I’ve done to you” (John 13:15). Jesus’ life and teaching were revolutionary because it turned the cultural values of the day upside-down, and ushered in a new model of leadership—servant leadership.

FREEDOM

Servant leadership undermines power and self-interest because it is rooted in self-denial. Self-denial lies at the heart of submission. Remember when Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34)? But do not confuse self-denial with either self-contempt or self-hatred. It is neither. Self-denial frees us to understand we don’t have to have our own way. It frees us to surrender our need to be right, or our need to win every argument. Self-denial frees us to realize that most things in life are not nearly as important as we think they are. Self-denial frees me to accept that, thank God, I’m not the center of the universe.

And, we need to know that submission is freedom for us because it is a choice. If self-denial is the foundation of submission, then we understand that submission is choosing to place ourselves under the authority of another. Forced submission is slavery. Chosen submission is sacrifice. There’s a big difference.

In the verses that follow Ephesians 5:21, Paul shares an example of how this idea of submission could be lived out. People like illustrations in the sermons I preach. Illustrations make abstract ideas a little more concrete for us. My hearers may not always remember the big idea of my sermon, but they most always remember a story if I tell one. So, to illustrate everything he’d been writing to the church in Ephesus, he uses the household relationships of husband and wife, parent and children and master slave. Read it today and the passage seems strange to us in the 21st century. It sounds oppressive, even. It’s not quite so strange or oppressive when we connect it to the concept of mutual submission—submission as a means of grace. Paul is simply laying out an illustration of how submission works in those relationships, and not just those relationships, but submission is meant to extend to EVERY relationship.

It’s a little easier to understand what submission is—choosing to place ourselves under the authority of another, to give the right of way to another, to put their needs ahead of our needs. It’s a bit more difficult to grasp the “how” of submission. What does submission look like? How do we practice this discipline so that it becomes a habit that opens us to God’s grace? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes, it’s easy to determine what it needs to look like. Other times, it’s extremely hard to define. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit. Then again, if we had a book of rules for every circumstance, we’d be Pharisees, and we wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit. Let me just say, though, that submission looks a lot like service.

SEVEN AREAS OF SUBMISSION

Richard Foster, in his seminal work Celebration of Discipline, notes seven distinct acts of submission for a follower of Jesus Christ. First is our submission to the Triune God. The beginning of every day should begin with a simple prayer of submission. It can be as simple as the one prayed by E. Stanley Jones: “Lord, take me over and make me over.” A daily submission in body mind and spirit into the hands of God for His purposes can become a habit of submission, and it will be grace.

Second is a submission to Scripture. We submit ourselves to hear the Word, to receive the Word and to obey the Word, trusting the Holy Spirit who inspired the Word to interpret and apply it to our lives.

Third is our submission to our family. Freely and graciously we make allowances for each other. We give ourselves to one another, and that means surrendering our rights to the other. We also acknowledge the home is the primary incubator for developing this habit in our lives. What a transformation could take place in our world if husbands and wives could surrender themselves to this solitary discipline so that it becomes habit. It would be grace, indeed!

Fourth is our submission to our neighbors and those we meet in the course of our day. Random acts of kindness become the norm for us. No task is too small, for with each task, we have an opportunity to live in submission.

Fifth is our submission to the believing community—the body of Christ. There are opportunities to service to the body of Christ and service through the body of Christ. Submission is acknowledging that though I cannot do everything, I can do something.

Sixth is our submission to the broken and despised. In every culture there are people who are helpless and defenseless. We have a responsibility to be among them, to know them, and to do all we can to help them. Here is where we find self-denial most meaningful and transforming.

Seventh is our submission to the world. Our submission is a determination to live as a responsible member of an increasingly irresponsible world.

A story that captures the essence of practicing the habit of submission is told by author Stephen Beck. Beck tells of driving down a country road and coming to a narrow one-lane bridge. In front of the bridge, a sign was posted: “YIELD.” Seeing no oncoming cars, he continued across the bridge to his destination. On the way back, he came to the same bridge from the other direction. To his surprise, he saw another YIELD sign posted. He thought, “I’m sure there was one posted on the other side.” When he reached the other side of the bridge he looked back. Sure enough, yield signs had been placed at both ends of the bridge. Drivers from both directions were asked to give right of way. It was a reasonable and gracious way of preventing a head-on collision. When we practice submission it is a reasonable and gracious way to let the other have the right of way and to experience the life-changing grace of God in our lives and in the world.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Lost Grace…

CHRISTIAN CONFERENCE

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, in his writings and teachings noted what he called the “means of grace.” By “means of grace,” Wesley meant those practices whereby the disciple of Jesus Christ could experience the grace of God in life-transforming ways. Wesley would say, “Do these practices on a regular basis, and watch the work of the Holy Spirit change you.” That’s the popular Lynn Malone paraphrase but you get the idea. Wesley would distinguish between what he termed the “instituted” means and the “ordinary” means by allowing that the “instituted” means were those given to the body of Christ directly by Jesus himself. Among those “instituted” means of grace were prayer, fasting, searching the Scriptures (we’d call that Bible study) and the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion), but he also lists a fifth that we’ve lost sight of in the 21st century. He called it “Christian conference.”

We hear “Christian conference,” and we think about going to a big gathering of Christians to hear preaching and teaching, worship and the like—think Promise Keeper’s or Women of Faith. Or, if we’re a good Methodist, we think about going to Annual Conference, which is the yearly gathering of Methodists from across the state where we worship and fellowship and conduct the business of the “Annual Conference,” which (for those of you not familiar with the Methodist tradition) is an institution in and of itself. None of those thoughts were on Wesley’s mind as he taught the practice of “Christian conference.” For Wesley, Christian Conference was honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness.

GRACE LOST

Why don’t we practice this habit more often, or at all? One reason is that we desire comfort and seek to avoid conflict. Confrontation is awkward, messy, and hard, so few do it. Additionally, churches and spiritual communities are intentional about creating a sense of peace, encouragement, happiness, and joy even if it’s a façade. Identifying sin, exposing immorality, admitting the truth, uncovering corruption, and acknowledging failure contradict the image many churches are trying to portray. Following Jesus was never meant to be comfortable or easy. To live a holy life requires accountability.

In a society obsessed with self-gratification, pleasure, and comfort, churches too easily succumb to an attitude of appeasement instead of responsibility and intervention. Unchecked sin causes havoc and devastation. And while accountability can be misused, not using it at all can cause widespread harm. Accountability goes both ways and isn’t exclusively meant for pastors or those in leadership to punish those “beneath” them. Everyone is responsible. Often it’s those in leadership who need accountability the most.

Another reason we don’t develop the habit of accountability is because we live in a culture of unlimited options and choices. The next sentence is going to hurt me more than it hurts you, but it is going to hurt, so prepare yourself. Churches (and pastors) emphasize comfort because discomfort causes people to leave congregations. There, I said it! In a world inundated with options, where endless venues vie to satisfy our every need, churches are no different, and if Christians become uncomfortable, upset or discouraged, they can simply pack up and go someplace else, and many of them do. It’s easier for a church to make everyone feel good, but it often comes at the cost of spiritual maturity.

Jesus faced the same problem, too. John’s Gospel records an incident in chapter six. Jesus had fed five thousand and walked on water. The next day, the crowds clamored to be around him. Jesus figured it was time for a little accountability, so he told them, “You just wanted me for what I could do for you. Don’t worry so much about what I can provide for you, but focus on the eternal matters of life” (John 6: 26 – 27). It turned out to be one of the most difficult conversations Jesus had with those who followed him as he tried to explain that He was the bread of life. The people began arguing among themselves, and when all was said and done, we find a revealing little passage in John 6:66—“At this point, many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” Difficult conversations cause discomfort, and with so many options, we choose not to be uncomfortable.

There is a danger in developing the habit of accountability, though, and that danger is another reason we don’t practice it much anymore. The danger is legalism. Sadly, many churches, both past and present, have wrongly implemented “accountability” to serve their own agendas. There are numerous accounts of using guilt, shame, fear, embarrassment, and terror to manipulate, abuse, control, hurt, and destroy the lives of countless victims. Church history has been stained by varying degrees of legalism, and today’s churches will do anything to avoid such labels, even if it means abandoning the practice of accountability altogether. It is sad that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

REDISCOVERING GRACE

The Apostle Paul encouraged the Galatian church to hold each other accountable, and reminded them of how to do it. Paul said that we should “gently” help a fellow traveler back on the path so that we don’t fall into the same ditch. The loss of accountability can lead to believers who are susceptible to self-righteousness and spiritual immaturity. Ironically, it can also result in Christians who are more judgmental towards those outside the faith. Instead of holding ourselves accountable, it’s much easier to point the finger at the rest of society, and to be the accuser instead of the accused. To avoid our own sins, we often distract ourselves by focusing on the sins of others.

Our challenge is to responsibly develop the habit of accountability without abusing it, to gracefully and lovingly help people grow in their faith without being legalistic or abusive or accusatory, to challenge and inspire people through relational support and encouragement instead of abandoning and isolating them. The grace of accountability is about building up, not tearing down. The grace in accountability is about encouragement, not discouragement. The grace in accountability is for prayer together and prayer for one another—it is, as Paul reminds the Galatians, about bearing one another’s burdens.

John Wesley would agree. In what are called Wesley’s “Large Minutes,” he writes in reference to Christian Conference: “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? It is always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?” For Wesley, it was always about building up the body—to help each other live holy lives.

Living holy lives is the end game. It’s not about church growth, it’s about spiritual growth. The church is the place we learn to practice the habits that promote spiritual growth that we can then take back to work, to school, home and to our communities so that God’s transformation takes place, not only in us, but in the world around us.

How do I begin to develop this habit, and discover its grace? It’s all about relationship! Transformation takes place in relationship—a relationship with Jesus Christ and a relationship with others who walk the journey. The imagery Paul uses in Galatians 6 of another believer being “overcome” by some sin, the language literally is of one who has slipped—like on an icy sidewalk, or on an uneven path. No one plans to slip on an icy sidewalk. No one plans a misstep on that path, but it happens, even when we’re being careful. Yes, we can many times pick ourselves up, but when someone else is there to help us, it makes it easier. Yes, it’s embarrassing to slip on that icy patch. We look around to see if anyone saw us, and we even try to resist the efforts of others who come along to help us. Paul’s point is we need someone to help us when we stumble over sin in our lives.

Wesley’s genius was his organization of converts into societies, classes and bands. Think congregation, small group, smaller group here. For early Methodists, these accountable relationships happened in the class meetings. Classes were groups of 10-12 persons who met weekly and focused on the details of individual’s lives, where they were experiencing God and growing in faith and holiness, and where they were not experiencing God or failing to grow in faith and holiness. They asked one simple question: “How is your life in God?” It was, in all its facets, a means of developing the habit of accountability, and for Wesley, it was grace.

Accountability can be grace to us, too, when we find a group, or even a person where we can ask and be asked the question, “How is your life in God?”

Don’t have a group? Ask your pastor. Or, ask me. I’ll be glad to help.

Until next time, keep looking up…

 

Keep it Simple…(Stupid?)

The Malones are HGTV junkies. From Island Life to Fixer Upper, from Property Brothers to House Hunters, you can find us many nights as the evening winds down sitting in front of the television decompressing in front of one of HGTV’s offerings. One of the lessons we’ve learned from HGTV is that when you’re trying to sell your home you have to de-clutter. De-cluttering is getting all the non-essential stuff out of the house so it presents better to potential buyers.

Developing the habit of simplicity is about de-cluttering. It is about practicing the art of letting go of the “things” that too possess us rather than us possessing them. When I say “things,” I’m not only talking about material possessions. I’m also talking about some spiritual issues that impact our lives in negative ways. We live cluttered lives not only materially, but emotionally and spiritually. Our homes are cluttered, our calendars are cluttered and our hearts are cluttered. We live in a cluttered age, and simplicity is a means of grace God gives us to free ourselves of all that hinders us from the holy lives He calls us to.

SIMPLY NOT!

I want us to understand, first, what simplicity is not. Simplicity is not getting rid of all our stuff, quitting everything we’re involved in and living the ascetic’s life. Ascetics are those who have renounced material possessions as evil. That’s not simplicity, at all! God desires that all His children should have adequate provision. A simple lack of provision in many places in this world creates great misery, and forced poverty (where it exists) should be denounced as evil. The bible is consistent that creation is good, and that we are to enjoy it. Developing the habit of simplicity does not denounce possessions. It sets them in proper perspective.

Richard Foster, to whom I’m greatly indebted for the foundation of this blog, says that simplicity is the only thing that reorients our lives so that we can graciously enjoy possessions so they don’t destroy us. It is the habit of simplicity that keeps us from “buying into” the culture’s values of owning, but it also keeps us from a form of legalism that says you shouldn’t buy “that” car, or own “that” house.

A “RICH FOOL”

Jesus addressed some of the underlying issues that keep us from living in simplicity. One of those occasions was an encounter in Luke 12. A man comes to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, please tell my brother to divide my father’s estate with me.” Seems like a fair request to us. We know how family squabbles can be after the death of a parent, don’t we? Jesus, as he often does, doesn’t answer the question directly. Rather he tells a story about a rich fool. “Rich fool” sounds like an oxymoron to us, sort of like “jumbo shrimp,” or “clearly confused.” Those words just don’t work together, but the story indicates that Jesus is saying the rich man was a fool for focusing his life on the wrong things. The point, too, would have been clear to the man who made the request.

Jesus was not addressing the issue of wealth with this story. Wealth is amoral. The person possessing the wealth defines its morality. The Bible is full of godly people who possessed wealth—Abraham, David, Job, et.al. Jesus was addressing the condition of the man’s heart. Simplicity is first and foremost a matter of the heart, and simplicity starts in a right relationship with God.

The spiritual discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style. The inward reality will always impact how we live. Sure, we can go sell all our stuff, pare down to the bare essentials, but unless the reason to do it comes from the heart, it will simply lead to legalism, and rather than becoming holy, we’ll become “holier-than-thou.” We first have to de-clutter our hearts. There are two places we need to start. There are probably more, but I note only two.

DE-CLUTTERING OUR HEARTS

First, we need de-clutter greed. That was the real issue behind the man’s initial request. The ancient law said the eldest son received 2/3 of a father’s estate, and 1/3 was divided among the rest. We don’t know how many siblings were involved in this estate. It doesn’t matter. The man making the request felt that whatever amount, it was unfair. He wanted more, even if the more was his just due.

Second, we need to de-clutter fear. Perhaps we should see that fear is what leads to covetousness. The rich fool in Jesus’ story was afraid…afraid he’d lose his abundance. He was afraid his barns weren’t big enough. His affluence made him anxious. Tell me something: What’s the difference in worrying about our possessions if we have an abundance and worrying because we don’t? Fear is fear, regardless.

Contemporary culture would leave us trapped in a maze of competing attachments. We fill our homes with “stuff” because we have the resources to do so. Advertisers tell us we need the latest, the best, the brightest, the newest. Culture tells us we need the latest fashions. Last year’s fashions simply won’t do. Oh, I’ve got 50,000 miles on my car. I need a new one.

We fill our calendars with activities, too. We run from event to event, afraid we might miss being seen in the right circles, with the right people. We’re afraid we might miss the one life-changing experience that’s waiting in the next conference, or the next job, or the next relationship. Or, we crowd our children’s schedules with activities because we’re afraid they won’t have every experience necessary to help them succeed in such a competitive world. Richard Foster says, “It’s time to awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.”

ONE LOVE

How do we break the cycle? How do we begin to live into this inward grace of simplicity? Jesus gives us the clue. Immediately after he told the story of the rich fool, he turns to his disciples and unpacks the dangers of fear and worry. He talks about ravens and flowers and God’s care for them. He talks about worry and its effect on life, and then he gives a summary statement in 12: 31—Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need.

Simplicity starts when the heart focuses on one thing alone—the Kingdom of God. everything hinges on maintaining the first priority of life. Nothing can come before the Kingdom of God. Not spouse, not children, not job, not recreation…not even the desire to live a simple life. Even that can become an idol. We’ve got to be like Cane’s Chicken—we must have “one love,” and that one love is God and God’s Kingdom. The rich fool never once mentioned God. Ten times he made a personal reference to himself, but never once thought of God.

THE RIGHT ATTITUDE

The inward reality of simplicity is reflected in three inner attitudes. First, to see everything we possess as a gift from God. Yes, we work, but God provides. We live by grace when it comes to air, water and sun. When we are tempted to think that what we own is the result of our personal efforts, the first drought or little accident shows us how utterly dependent we are for everything.

The second attitude that reflects inward simplicity is to know that it is God’s business to care for what He’s entrusted to us. God is able to protect what we possess. Yes, we put locks on the doors, but even then we are able to acknowledge that locks are for honest people. Precautions are necessary, but if we believe the precaution itself will protect us or our belongings, we will live in fear.

The third attitude that reflects inward simplicity is to have our possessions available to others. This is generosity. If we’re unwilling to make our resources available to the community when it is right and good, then Foster says we’re dealing in stolen goods. The rich fool was worried about tomorrow, so he thought he could build bigger barns. He never, ever considered giving the excess away.

Jesus lived and told this story in a fairly simple agrarian culture. If Jesus warned of the duplicity of the heart in such a simple time, how much more do we need to hear and heed his message in our complex culture?

MAKE IT REAL

I want to offer some practical ways we can begin to practice outwardly what God is doing inwardly. Remember, though, every attempt to give specific application to simplicity runs the risk of taking us from holy to “holier-than-thou.” It is a risk we must take, otherwise it all stays theoretical, and theory is great, but we need practical. Let me offer us five ways.

First, buy things for the usefulness, not their status. The question to ask is not, “Why am I buying a new car?” The question should be “Why am I buying THAT new car? Friends, we don’t need more clothes. Never buy new clothes without first getting rid of some older ones, or consider that last year’s styles are okay. John Wesley wrote, “As for apparel, I buy the most lasting and , in general, the plainest I can. I buy no furniture but what is necessary and cheap.” Buy for usefulness, not status.

Second, develop a habit of giving things away. Hey, if there’s something we’ve become desperately attached to, we need to seriously consider giving it away to someone who needs it. Have a yard sale, but not to take the proceeds and go buy more stuff. Take the proceeds and send them to a missionary, or give them to a project at the church. Generosity is at the heart of simplicity.

Third, resist the latest and greatest gadgets. Do we really need to run out and buy the iPhone 8 when our iPhone 7 still functions adequately?

Fourth, avoid as much credit as possible. Credit deepens our bondage. We know most people can’t save enough to buy a house, but we can save enough for a good down payment. Follow the Dave Ramsey philosophy of paying off debt as quickly as possible, and then building wealth so you can live generously. In the Dave Ramsey world, the paid-off home mortgage is the status symbol of choice.

Finally, shun anything that distracts us from the seeking first the Kingdom of God. The pursuit of good things can distract us from pursuit of great things, and pursuit of better things can distract us from the pursuit of the best thing. Jobs, position, status, family, security—these things, while all good, can too quickly become the center of our attention.

May God give us the courage, wisdom and strength to seek first His Kingdom—to keep the main thing the main thing. That is the essence of the habit of simplicity, and it is grace. By developing this habit of grace, may we grow in the likeness of Jesus Christ, and in so doing, become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Amen!

Until next time, keep looking up…

What About Us, Jesus?

Of all the names/titles given to Jesus, i.e., Lord, Savior etc., this name “Healer” is perhaps the most challenging for us in the 21st century. What do we mean when we say “Jesus is Healer?”jesus-is-2

We survey the ministry of Jesus and depending on how one classifies the event, there are between 30 and 40 healing events in the four Gospels alone. We read a passage like Luke 4:40 that says, “As the sun went down that evening, people throughout the village brought sick family members to Jesus. No matter what their diseases were, the touch of his hand healed every one.

So, what gives? After all, we pray for healing all the time, but far too often, the healing we seek never comes. If Jesus is Healer, where do we see this healing happening in our world today?

Who needs Obamacare? There certainly wasn’t much of a problem with healthcare with Jesus around. The folks in 1st century Israel called their health care plan Jesuscare! Got a backache? Go see Jesus! Got the flu? Go see Jesus. Surgery? Who needs surgery? Just go see Jesus! One touch is all you need. Must have been nice, and no increase in premiums. It sure would have been nice to get in on some of those healings. Makes us want to ask: When did Jesus go out of the healing business? Don’t we rate as much as the folks back then? What about my friend with cancer? What about us, Jesus?

FAITH HEALING

I’m going to challenge us for one moment to take all the pre-conceived ideas of “faith-healing” out of our minds. Don’t think about Benny Hinn, and let your memories of Kathryn Kuhlman and Oral Roberts fade. But still it leaves us to wonder why we don’t just go down to the local hospitals and clear the places out in Jesus name.

Boy, I wish I had the power to heal! There are folks in the world who say that I simply don’t have enough faith, or that those who are sick don’t have enough faith to be healed. Just believe a little more—faith of a mustard seed and all that, right? Hey? That’s the kind of faith four friends had one day when they brought their friend to Jesus (see Luke 5: 17 – 26).

Luke tells us when Jesus saw “their faith,” his healing power went into action. Notice, Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the paralyzed man’s faith. Perhaps he had no faith at all, certainly none that was expressed in this episode. Yes, faith is often present when it comes to healing, but whose faith is most important?

Or more, the same people who would say today that I don’t have enough faith would also say the problem must be un-confessed sin. That’s part of the issue on the day Jesus was healing this paralyzed man. Jesus knew the Pharisees and scribes, who were a sect in Judaism who had a strong belief in the idea that if someone was sick or blind, there must be some sin in their life that caused it, were watching. Paralyzed? What did you do to deserve that? Confess your sin and perhaps you can get well. That was their attitude.

I wonder if that’s why Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “Young man, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus didn’t address the physical ailment first. He first addressed the spiritual reality, and man, that set the Pharisees off. “Who but God can forgive sins?” The Pharisees question and Jesus’ response might help us understand what was happening then, and what is happening now.

Jesus looked at the Pharisees and said, “Just so you know, I’ve got authority to forgive sins on earth, I’ll say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’.” At Jesus’ word, the young man jumped up, took his bed and ran out of the house. Jesus’ healing power was a sign.

Here’s an important point to understand those 30 – 40 healing accounts in the Gospels—the healings were signs designed to point to the eternal blessings Jesus was bringing, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus was bringing to earth. These healings pointed ahead to the ultimate healing that Jesus was in the process of accomplishing, and that ultimate healing was not limited to the folks back then. No, it is for all of us, too. Yes, every one of us here today–Jesus loves you and me as much as he loved those folks back then. We are at no disadvantage to the people who were healed in his ministry.

So, here’s the deal, as I see it—Jesus is still in the healing business, just not necessarily in the same manner now as then. What do I mean?

MIRACLES AND MORE

First, let me acknowledge that sometimes, for unexplained reasons, God chooses to miraculously heal someone. A tumor is present on one visit to the doctor, and the next scan shows no trace of a tumor. Poof! Just like that, and there’s no other explanation for it but that God did it. All we can say is God surprises us with His mercy, and in those times all we can say is, “Praise the Lord!”

Second, let’s also acknowledge the healing power of medicine. Advances in health care are astounding compared to the first century. There were physicians in the first century. Luke, the Gospel writer, was one. People who were sick sought out physicians for their maladies. Recall the woman with the flow of blood. Luke tells her story, too (chapter 8). She’d spend twelve years going to doctors, but none of them could heal her. The health care advances of just the last 25 years would likely have led to her healing. The Lord uses doctors and medicines to promote healing today in ways never known before. Medical care is a great gift that promotes healing, and we are right to view it that way.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, knew the importance of health care. He even penned a volume that was required reading for his assistants. Wesley’s Primitive Physick was the equivalent of a New York Times bestseller. It went through twenty-three printings and was used well into the 1880’s, decades after Wesley’s death. In that volume, Wesley encouraged the use of doctors, and even promoted the idea that his preachers should offer health care to those in their charge, thus his volume of remedies and advice on health and healing.

For all that healthcare does for our healing, we still face the question, “Why not everyone?” I remind us that Jesus did heal this paralyzed man, and he would heal many others, too, but I also remind us that every one of these persons he healed would later die. Their physical healing was only temporary. Was Jesus’ faith not strong enough? There must be an expiration date on miracles!

ULTIMATE HEALING

We come to Jesus seeking a cure for what ails us, and there is no cure for death…there is only healing. When we proclaim Jesus is Healer, it is a statement that reaches beyond the physical. We go beyond the temporal to acknowledge, even as Jesus did, that healing is first a spiritual process before it is a physical one. Curing the body is a physical process. Healing the soul is a spiritual one. Curing the body is temporal, but healing the soul is eternal. We come to Jesus as healer seeking a cure for something physical. What Jesus as healer offers is something eternal.

Jesus gains the ultimate healing for us, the eternal healing, by dealing with the root problem of sin. Sin. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a particular disease or illness can be traced to a particular sin. That would be simplistic and wrong. There are a lot of unrepentant sinners who are perfectly healthy, and there are a lot of good, faithful Christians who are afflicted with chronic illness and pain.

I’m speaking, rather, of the general sinful condition that pervades this fallen world, ever since the time of Adam, and the sinful nature that we all inherit from Adam and pass down to our children is the root problem that results in all the damage and disease and misery that afflicts the human family. And to fix this, Jesus had to get to the bottom of it.

And, Jesus did so by carrying our sins in his body to the cross. When Jesus sheds his blood for the sins of the world, that my friends, is big medicine! As Isaiah 53:4-5 says,

“Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
 But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.”

Do we know that? Do we know that it was our sins for which Jesus died? Yes, our sins–of not loving God, of not hearing and heeding his Word. Our sins of wanting to be our own god, to make our own decisions about what is right and wrong. Our sins of lack of love for our neighbor. Of being jealous of our neighbor’s success. Of grumbling about those the Lord has placed in our life. Of gossip and greed. Of selfishness and un-forgiveness. Yes, those are our sins that Jesus is bearing, bleeding on the cross.

The fact that Jesus is bearing our sins, that Jesus is shedding his blood for them–Jesus on the cross is purchasing our healing. Sins forgiven means curse lifted. Resurrection ahead. Healing ahead. For you. For me. Forever. It’s as good as Christ’s own resurrection from the dead. It’s ours, through faith in him. He shares his gifts with us.

Don’t misunderstand–death is not the ultimate healing as some have proclaimed. Resurrection is! Resurrection is the gift of healing that Christ offers us all.

How does this gift get delivered to our door, with our name on it? Two words—Word and Sacrament. The ongoing ministry of the church is God’s means of delivering the gift Christ won for you and me on the cross. Word and Sacrament are not clichés. They are God’s delivery system for life and salvation, for healing of the soul, and, yes, healing of the body, too.

God is not just interested in saving our soul. He has also promised to redeem our body. God is committed to restoring creation, and that includes our bodies. God is going to raise up our bodies on the last day. We believe in exactly what God has promised: the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

In the Word preached, the Gospel is heard with our ears and taken into the heart with gladness. In baptism, water is applied to these physical bodies, and in communion, the bread and wine represent the body and blood, and we receive the elements—we eat, we drink—and in so doing we receive Christ. Physical elements for physical people, yet working out an eternal healing that redeems both body and soul because Jesus is Healer. And, because Jesus is Healer, we pray—we pray for healing in the body and in the soul.

Until next time, keep looking up…