Packing a Heart of Love…

It’s time to pack our bags for St. Louis. The special called session of General Conference of the United Methodist Church is set to begin this Saturday, February 23rd with a day of prayer, and will continue through Tuesday, February 27th. One thing is certain–everything will be different in the United Methodist Church on February 28th. No one knows what that “different” will look like, but no matter what happens, I predict everything will be different. I dare not speculate on what the difference will be. Heaven knows! There’s been enough speculation already to last a lifetime.

There’s one thing I hope all the 864 delegates, alternates and observers pack as they prepare for departure. That one thing is a heart of love.

We have just celebrated the day of love—Valentine’s Day. According to the National Retail Federation, people spent $20.7 billion on Valentine’s Day in celebration of love. Valentine’s Day is the second largest Hallmark holiday, and it has, unfortunately, become the world’s definition of love—emotional, romantic and sometimes (judging from the Facebook memes), downright corny.

The Bible talks a lot about love, too, but it’s not the type of love the world talks about or that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. It’s a different kind of love, a love that requires more from us than romantic love or even brotherly love. It’s the different kind of love Jesus talked about as he taught his disciples about living the ethic of Kingdom of God. It’s an upside-down kind of love. It’s a willful, self-sacrificial love that is best reflected in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Listen to how Jesus describes how this love acts in Luke 6:

27 “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.30 Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. 31 Do to others as you would like them to do to you.

As Jesus flips the world upside-down for those first disciples, I wonder if they had as much difficulty understanding what he meant as we do. I wonder if they had as much difficulty living them as we do. It’s one thing to understand. It’s another thing to translate that understanding into action.

Loving our enemies goes against our natural inclinations. Love our friends? Naturally. Love those who love us? Easy-peasy! Love our enemies? Why would I even want to do that?

It’s a clear call from Jesus for his disciples to swim upstream, to go against the flow, to be (in a word) different. We think Jesus wants to make us better. You know how it is, right? Come to Jesus and be a better person, be a better parent, a better spouse, a better employer/employee, a better citizen. Jesus’ words remind me that being a disciple is not about being better, it’s about being different–different from the world. Yes, being different will make us better, but better comes as a by-product of living a different ethic.

Jesus’ words are hard words to hear. It’s not really the message we want to hear in a sermon. We’d rather hear “How to Have Your Best Life Now,” or “Three Steps to a Better Parenting.” Yeah! Those are sermons that will really help us be better disciples! The sermon Jesus preached this day reminds me there is a vast difference between what I want to hear and what I need to hear. And, I need to hear these words as I pack my bags for St. Louis.

I need to hear these words as I pack because there have been a few times in the past two and a half years that I haven’t had a heart of love. We in the church can be really mean. Oh, not to those outside the body of Christ, but to one another. I’ve spent a lot of time since 2016 reading many articles and blogs and Facebook posts concerning the issues before GC 2019, and I have read a lot of very mean and hurtful things–I’ve probably written, or said, or thought a lot of mean and hurtful things myself somewhere along the way. For those times that I did (knowingly or unknowingly), I repent and ask forgiveness.

Here’s a side-bar: Just don’t read the comments! Comments get argumentative, and the internet and social media give us just enough cover to allow us to write hurtful and demeaning words that we would likely never say to a person face-to-face. Just don’t read the comments!

Frustration or anger (or grief) are no justifications to act unlovingly. No, that’s the way of the world. Jesus said, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.” That’s a very different reaction, indeed. It’s a different kind of love, too. It’s not what I want to hear, but it is what I need to hear.

I need to be reminded that the “great reward” that Jesus promises to those who live this different kind of love doesn’t have to do with big houses or full pockets, but it has to do with who we become–disciples.  There is much grace and transformation needed for us to live out the radical faith Jesus demands, and there is no greater reward than to live and act the way Jesus does. Jesus knows that we will never love our enemies without the amazing grace that transforms us and makes us different than we are. What changes us and allows us to love is God’s grace; a grace that is greater than all our sin.

I’m not speaking for anyone else, nor am I accusing anyone else who may be headed to St. Louis. I’m simply making my own confession that I have not always lived this ethic, or loved in the way Jesus demands. I’m not saying everyone going to St. Louis needs to pack a heart of love. I’m saying I do. If someone else happens to overhear the conversation Jesus and I have been having over the past week and are convicted by it, well, that’s lagniappe.

So, along with my toothbrush and changes of underwear, I’ll pack a heart of love. I pray that all the 864 delegates, the alternates and observers do, as well.

Until next time, keep looking up…

This Fruit is Always in Season…

I’ve been teaching from A Firm Foundation: Hope and Vision for a New Methodist Future on Wednesday evenings. The book is a collection of essays designed to cast a compelling vision for a renewed Methodist movement, specifically in light of the current debate within the United Methodist Church.

I bring the book up only because of the chapter I read/taught last week–“When the Holy Spirit Comes with Fire.” I won’t unpack the chapter here for you, but reading the chapter and preparing to lead the Wednesday night group caused me to dig deeper on the Holy Spirit. My digging reminded me of much I had forgotten (okay, not forgotten, but taken for granted) about the work and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

My digging deeper took me specifically to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians. In Galatians 5, Paul instructs the Galatians on living the Spirit-filled life (read the whole chapter here), and in that context he offers his list of he calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” You know the list, right?

22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

I’ll confess my own conviction as I read that list again (I’ve probably read it one thousand times before). I was convicted because there was one noticeable fruit that I can acknowledge has been absent from my life, and I believe the fact that I’ve been consumed with General Conference 2019 has put me in this place. The missing fruit, you ask? Joy!

We are, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, supposed to be joy-filled people.  One of my favorite stories about a person with a grumpy personality begins with a man going into the doctor’s office.  As he walked in, he was met by the receptionist.  He told her that he had a sore on his chin that he wanted the doctor to examine.

She said to him, “Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

“But ma’am,” he said, “it’s just a sore on my chin. I don’t think all that is necessary.”

She repeated, “Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

“But ma’am,” he said.

“Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

So he went down the hall, took the first door to the right, walked in and saw another man already sitting there in his boxer shorts, shivering. He said to him, “Boy, that receptionist is really something, isn’t she? I just have a little sore on my chin and she told me to come down here, go through this door and take off my clothes.”

The man in the boxer shorts said, “You think that’s bad? I’m the UPS delivery man.”

There a lot of days recently that I felt like that nurse. But, joy is supposed to be one of the fruits that is always in season in the Christian.

What is this fruit of joy? The Greek word is chara, meaning “cheerfulness, calm delight.”  Unfortunately, I confuse joy with happiness. If I’m happy, then I am joy-filled, and if I’m joy-filled then I’m happy. That is incorrect. Joy is not happiness, and happiness is not joy. Actually, I can be happy and full of joy, but I can be unhappy and still be full of joy. Happiness is external. Joy, in the biblical sense, is internal. Happiness is based on chance. Joy is based on choice. Happiness is based on circumstances. Joy is based on Christ. Happiness is too often conditioned on what is “happening” to me. If people treat me well, and things are going good around me, then I am happy, but if things go wrong then my happiness is likely to be as fleeting as my circumstances.

Joy, however, goes beyond my circumstances. Joy throbs throughout Scripture as a profound, compelling quality of life that transcends the events and disasters which may dog God’s people. Joy is a divine dimension of living that is not shackled by circumstances. The Hebrew word means, “to leap or spin around with pleasure.”  Listen to the Psalmist:

16 But as for me, I will sing about your power.
    Each morning I will sing with joy about your unfailing love.
For you have been my refuge,
    a place of safety when I am in distress. Psalm 59: 16

The Apostle Paul understood this, too. He wrote to the Corinthian Christians: Our hearts ache, but we always have joy (2 Cor. 6:10). Joy should never be dependent on what is happening around us. Too often, unsatisfied expectations, unresolved conflict (like we have in the UMC right now), or unconfessed sin can serve to steal our joy from life. These are just three reasons that joy seems such an elusive fruit.

But there’s hope!  And that hope is spelled J-O-Y! I was reminded of this pattern on a church sign not far from my house. I think it’s really what solidified the message I’ve reflected on over the past couple of weeks. It is Jesus, Others, and You. Joy starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus is the source of our joy, and Jesus is the example of our joy. If we don’t know Jesus, we don’t know joy. If we know Jesus, we should know joy.

Then, others. If we’re serious about desiring to bear the fruit of joy, we must make sure we are doing OK on the horizontal dimension of life by living in biblical community with others. We will never know joy apart from others.

Finally, you. You have the challenge, and here it is: Go to church, get connected to Jesus and serve others. You’ll find joy in great abundance, and you’ll discover that the  fruit of joy is always in season.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Conversation Starters…

Five conversations…

That’s how many I had last week simply because I attached a little red and white sticker with the number 78 emblazoned on it to my lapel. That little red and white sticker opened the door for me to invite five people to worship with me last week. Actually, the little sticker prompted more conversations than five, but five were legitimate opportunities to say, “Would you like to join me at First United Methodist Church in Monroe on Sunday?”

The practice of wearing a little red and white sticker originated in a staff meeting when the conversation turned to evangelism. The statement was made that “78% of people who attend a church for the first time do so because someone invites them.” Depending upon which survey you read the numbers run between 75 and 90%, but you get the picture–first time guests come to worship the first time because someone invited them…overwhelmingly.

I believe one reason church attendance is declining in America is because we’ve stopped inviting others to join us in worship. I’m smart enough to know it’s not the only reason, but it is ONE of the reasons. There are a number of reasons we don’t invite others:

  • We’ve already invited all our friends
  • We believe church is for Christians
  • We don’t know any non-Christians
  • We don’t think our friends would like it
  • We don’t really like our church (or pastor, or music, or…)
  • We don’t know how to ask

Shame on us pastors for that last one (but, none of us are perfect). If we do nothing else, we should be helping people know how to invite others to worship. It’s such an easy thing. So, a little red and white sticker with the number 78 on it becomes a conversation starter. That little sticker becomes the open door to invite someone to worship.

Here’s how a typical conversation goes: I walk up to a counter in a store or the coffee shop. The attendant looks at my 78% sticker and asks, “Mind if I ask what 78% represents?”

I reply, “It’s represents the number of people who attend a church the first time because someone invited them. May I invite you to worship with me at First United Methodist Church Monroe?”

I’ll get responses like:

  • “I attend __________ church” (to which I reply, “Great! Have you invited someone to attend with you?”).
  • “Where is that at?”
  • “I can’t this Sunday, but I might another time.”
  • “Oh, that’s cool!”

It’s not really the response that matters. What matters is that I’ve had an opportunity to have a conversation I would otherwise never have had, and I can’t tell you about a couple of responses because they were private in nature (it’s surprising what people tell you when they know you’re open to a conversation about faith).

Evangelism is central to growing the Kingdom of God, and evangelism is central to seeing lives transformed by the power of God. Yes, I know that inviting someone to church is not technically evangelism, but it is a first step in introducing someone to the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. Evangelism is foundational to becoming people of Christ (#becomingpeopleofChrist).

Many of the reasons we don’t evangelize are the same reasons we don’t invite others to worship, but another reason is fear. Certainly, there is fear of rejection. None of us like rejection (I certainly don’t!), so rather than face the rejection we simply don’t share the gospel.

Another reason is we fear not having all the answers. Guess what? I don’t have all the answers, either! And, I’m a pastor! I can’t anticipate every question a person has ahead of time, and neither can you. Here’s the thing, though: Jesus never said, “Go into all the world and have your answers ready.” The Bible never suggests we should have all the answers prepared before we share the gospel.

I might also add that it’s not our answers that draw anyone to Jesus. That’s the Holy Spirit’s work. All we need to know is the story of Jesus, and the story of what Jesus is doing in our life. The Gospel is power enough (Romans 1: 16).

Besides, if you’re a believer, let me ask you, “Did you have all your questions answered before you believed?” No, I didn’t think so! Others won’t either. We should not let the fear of not having all the answers keep us from inviting others to experience Jesus.

So, a little sticker can be a great conversation starter. All the Holy Spirit needs to change a life is a conversation. You never know…the life that gets changed might be your own.

Until next time, keep looking up…