Somewhere Between Holiness and Hell…

We are in the season of Lent. Lent is that 40 day period (okay 46–but Sundays don’t count) between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday that began historically as a time of spiritual preparation as early converts were prepared for membership in the body of Christ. It was also a time when those who had separated themselves from the body of Christ were reconciled through confession and repentance.

I’m struggling with what it means to “observe a holy Lent,” which we Methodists are invited to do on Ash Wednesday.

I can’t say that I like Lent. I don’t like Lent because I am convicted by how un-holy I can be.  I am convicted because Lent calls me to reflect on the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, and as I consider his response to temptation, I realize my own failure in places that I’d rather not reveal here.

Confession

This time of reflection necessarily leads me to this whole idea of confessing my sins in the face of all those failures. Oh, I’ve got lots to confess, too.  I am reminded of a story I heard of four pastors who often met for a friendly gathering. During the conversation one preacher said, “Our people come to us and pour out their hearts, confess their sins and needs. Let’s do the same. Confession is good for the soul.”

In due time all agreed. One confessed he liked to go to movies and would sneak off when away from his church. The second confessed to enjoying cigars and the third confessed to enjoying card playing. When it came to the fourth one, he wouldn’t confess. The others pressed him saying, “Come on now, we confessed ours. What’s your confession?” Finally he answered, “It’s gossiping and I can hardly wait to get out of here.”  I really don’t like Lent because it causes me to reflect and confess, and that’s just awfully painful.

And then, there’s just the whole idea of self-denial.  I actually have to give something up?  Come on, now!  You can’t be serious?  I enjoy my coffee, or my diet coke, or my red meat, or my…well, you have to fill in the blank, because I have too many of my own blanks to fill in (whoops! There’s another confession!), but you get the idea.  I just don’t see the need for self-denial, after all.  God has blessed me greatly, and doesn’t God want me to enjoy these blessings?  But because I’m a company man, and I want to at least appear holy, I acquiesce and I practice the Lenten observance by reflecting and praying and confessing and giving up.

A Land Between Holiness and Hell

What I come to discover through the observance of Lent is that I live life in a land somewhere between holiness and hell. I long desperately for holiness, but hell is so much easier.  I discover that one who is truly holy cannot help but enjoy the blessings of God—blessings like love, joy, peace and contentment.  I discover God’s grace poured out in a thousand ways in the most unnoticeable places, and I learn to say, “Praise the Lord!”

The observance of Lent reveals to me that what I counted as blessings (material possessions, health, good success) are more fruits of my own labors than they are God’s blessings, and the reality that any and all of those “blessings” are transient in nature—here today and gone tomorrow.  It causes me to wonder if there were no material possessions, no good health, no great success, would it affect my trust of Him?

I realize just how hollow I can be, and somehow, by some mysterious means in this realization, I am drawn closer to Christ (isn’t grace amazing?), and I don’t seem quite as hollow as before, somehow perhaps even a little more holy.  Forget that I was drug kicking and screaming to the observance. The Spirit has done His work—somewhat akin to the terrible tasting medicine we received when we were children.  We hated it, but it worked.

So, I invite you to observe a holy Lent.  Pray more deeply, reflect more seriously, confess more faithfully, and deny the comforts that shape us. Do so kicking and screaming, if you must, but be prepared to see the Spirit work and draw you closer to Christ. That is what Lent is about, you know.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Deferred Maintenance…

The countryside is dotted with churches in disrepair. I’ve seen them. As a District Superintendent for the United Methodist Church, I saw several churches that were abandoned and left to deteriorate. I also visited lots of churches that weren’t kept very well. What brings this to my mind is the fact that we’re dealing with many issues of maintenance that need attention where I serve as pastor. But, I’ve visited others where the building was falling down around the congregation and no one noticed. The congregation is so accustomed to the peeling paint and dirty carpet that they no longer notice it. They haven’t taken the time to fix the faucet in the bathroom, and the Sunday school literature, well it’s only twelve years old, but it’s still useable, so…

We just don’t take care of our buildings the way we should. What’s that got to do with Lent? Shouldn’t we be talking about repentance and prayer and other spiritual disciplines? Yes, we should, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The description of those run-down buildings gives us a good idea of the state of the Temple in Jerusalem when the prophet Joel was young man. Centuries of misuse and disuse had caused Solomon’s once magnificent structure to look more like a building in the slums than in the upscale section of Jerusalem. As Joel grew, there was a turnaround. Later, this dilapidated building was cleaned up and refurbished. After the remodeling, the offerings and sacrifices were restored and Temple life returned to normal. Well, almost.

The prophet Joel wrote the words of his prophecy because there was still a problem. The turnaround in the nation wasn’t complete. Everything looked good on the outside, but there really hadn’t been much of an internal change with these people. God wasn’t looking for an outer change as much as he was looking for an inner one.

It’s the same for us as we seek to observe a holy Lent. God is looking for repentance from us. He doesn’t just want us to say all the right words, and he doesn’t want to simply give us a list of duties to work on, or as we walk this 40 day journey. Outward actions are nice, but if there is no inward change, it’s really all for naught. Jesus says as much in Matthew’s Gospel.

That neglected building, that church that no one is taking much care of, is me. If I take an honest look at my life, here’s what I see?  I can’t say there’s been more good than bad. I can’t say that during this past year, I have been more interested in the things of God vs. the things of this world. In just this past week, I can’t honestly say that the Lord has always taken first place in my heart, but he has slipped through the cracks as other priorities crowded him out? Work, spending time with friends, the television and the computer, even simply “me” time have all taken priority. I am good at scheduling things that bring me happiness…and making sure that I keep those appointments.

But, have I been so busy taking care of the other matters of life that I neglected the church inside of me? Is that building strong, well-kept, and beautiful? Or, is there deferred maintenance that needs attending too? Sometimes, we lock the doors of our hearts, and just expect that our faith will remain intact, and so we can take a little vacation from working hard on our Christian lives, and when we come back, everything will be fine. If we don’t keep up the maintenance, the spiritual building will begin to fall down around us–metaphorically speaking…

Lent is a perfect time to begin that deferred maintenance in our heart. Joel’s prophecy has one word that serves as the beginning of the work–“Return!” If we’ve been away from the Lord for a while, or if we haven’t followed him as vigorously as we know we should, God is holding out an invitation to us: “Return! I want you back!”

God tells us how he wants us to return to him. The Lord says, “Rend your heart and not your garments.” In Biblical times, if a person were really upset over something, they would tear their clothes as a sign of sadness. But many people played a little game with God. When they were confronted with their sin by God’s priests and prophets, they would tear their clothes, they would put ashes on their heads. They’d do everything that made them look sad, and then they would go back to those same sins. The problem was they were trying to cure cancer with a band-aid.

The outward signs of Lent—putting ashes on our forehead, confessing our sins, singing sad songs—are all nice things to do, but they mean absolutely nothing if we are playing the crying game with God, telling him how sorry we are, but returning home to the same life we have been leading when Lent is over.

Joel helps us get into the proper mindset when he prophesies, “return to me with all your heart.” Returning is repenting, but repenting is not simply being sorry for what we’ve done. Repenting is turning from what we’ve done. Repentance includes not doing it again, and repentance starts in the heart. Missionary Gypsy Smith shares the story of the time he spent in South Africa. On one occasion, a handsome Dutchman came into his revival service, and God laid His hand on the Dutchman and convicted him of his sin. The next morning he went to the home of another Dutchman and said to the homeowner, “Do you recognize this old watch?”

“Why, yes,” answered the homeowner. “Those are my initials; that is my watch. I lost it eight years ago. How did you get it, and how long have you had it?”

“I stole it,” was the Dutchman’s reply.

“What made you bring it back now?”

“I was converted last night,” was the answer, “and I have brought it back first thing this morning. If you had been up, I would have brought it last night.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever read through the 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, but the first of those theses reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is a process that is repeated over and over throughout our life.

During Lent, as we stress our desperate need for repentance, there is a silver lining. There is time for us to come back to God. The prophet says “even now,” with our rebellious past, the Lord still wants us. We talk about doing deferred maintenance, having genuine from-the-heart repentance, and God does something awesome when we come to him on his terms. The sinner repents, and the Lord relents.

Here’s Joel 2: 13: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” We are hopelessly guilty, and we know it. We look around and see the peeling paint of our hearts. We smell the old, dirty carpet. We see the burned-out light bulbs. It’s all around us. That’s exactly why we need Lent. We come to repent because we know He is a God who relents.

Lent is a  journey toward the cross of Jesus. The cross is where we learn how God can afford to relent. Our deferred maintenance begins on Ash Wednesday, but it finds its full restoration at the foot of the cross.

It’s popular thing to give up something for Lent. Considering ourselves to be more spiritual than someone who isn’t giving up something for Lent is not an appropriate start to the journey, nor is supposing that giving up something puts us in better standing with God. The proper way of beginning is to remember that Jesus gave up everything for us, so out of gratitude we give up something we love for him. It’s an offering of sorts. But, avoiding chocolate or not watching our favorite TV show for 40 days isn’t going to make us more spiritual unless we fill the time with the Word of God and prayer.

God doesn’t command that we give up something for Lent, but if we choose to do so, here is a way that will be a spiritual benefit to us—think of something you really enjoy doing: maybe it’s eating a particular food or drinking a certain beverage. Maybe it’s an activity like shopping or exercising. Maybe it’s staring at the television or computer screen for hours on end. If you chose to give something up for Jesus, then be sure to replace it with prayer, and Bible study. Maybe instead of spending 2 hours watching a basketball game, you go into your room, and read through the Bible, slowly digesting every word, considering how God is talking to you, praying that the Lord speaks to you and makes you a better disciple. Joel ends verse 14 with these words, “I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully.”

We repent, God relents. And when we go into his Word, God opens his storehouse of spiritual treasures to us and gives us gift after gift. The Lord wants to replace the trivial things in our life with real gifts. Gifts like peace in our hearts that can deal with any problem. Gifts like a greater willingness and ability to serve Jesus in our life.

So, let’s start those maintenance projects. Our lives resemble a building that needs some upkeep, and Lent is the time to get to work. Jesus won the ultimate struggle for us. He has fixed us up, and He is fixing us up to make us a glistening, beautiful building in which we will dwell forever. God has made us into a building like that, and now with the Spirit’s help, strive to keep that building up! Let’s not be satisfied with mere cosmetic improvements, but let us plead with the Lord to use His Word to change our hearts to make us a more repentant, more useful servant in God’s kingdom.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Once the Dust Settles…

Now that the dust has settled on #gc2019, I thought I’d make one last post as a means of processing my reflections on the whole debacle in St. Louis. Honestly, the dust hasn’t settled on #gc2019. If you follow any social media at all, or anything remotely connected to the United Methodist Church, you are well aware that emotions are still high–I’m wondering if the dust will ever settle. Additionally, the Judicial Council will review the “Traditional Plan” in April and I suspect many of these same emotions will show up again…assuming, of course, that the dust has settled.

Here are my ruminations on #gc2019:

I can’t imagine the people who gathered in 1968 could ever envision a General Conference like the one in St. Louis. Surely they could never forsee a denomination birthed in the unifying of two parts of the body of Christ which produced a “big tent theology” could devolve into what the world witnessed in St. Louis. It was not a show of unity in the body of Christ. If anything, the gathering showed just how broken is this denomination called United Methodist.

Notice that I did not say “congregations.” I intentionally wrote “denomination.” Our denomination is broken. I’m grateful to David F. Watson for admitting that here. In spite of the denomination’s brokenness, there are many, many local congregations that are healthy and even growing. For that I am also grateful. It just proves the point that all church is local church. The local congregation is where disciples are made. The local congregation must be the focus of energy for the people called United Methodist now that the dust has settled.

The Traditionalist Plan prevailed at #gc2019. Notice I did not say it won. Nobody won. The Traditionalist Plan received the most votes by roughly a 6% margin. It didn’t matter which plan prevailed in voting there would be an emotional response by the other side. It wasn’t a matter of “if” someone was going to be upset, it was only a question of “who” was going to be upset. We should have seen that fact before we ever got to St. Louis. Our first clue should have been when the Commission on “a” Way Forward finished its work with “three” ways forward. If a group of 32 couldn’t agree on a single proposal, it was fairly certain a group of 864 wouldn’t find one either.

The results of #gc2019 sets up the denomination for more of the same once the dust settles. Some of our leaders have said as much–you can view that here. Some of our bishops will continue to enforce the Discipline. Others will not. Some of our clergy will continue to uphold the Discipline. Others will not. Some of our congregations will continue to welcome and celebrate same-sex marriages. Others will not. And, everyone will feel justified in the actions they take. Perhaps this fact indicates the obsolete nature of our polity in the United Methodist Church. Perhaps it is an indication that restructuring our polity needs to be the topic of conversation when the General Conference next meets in May of 2020 in Minneapolis, MN. It won’t be, but perhaps it should.

I believe that #gc2019 lost the one chance it had to provide a legitimate way forward. The Connectional Conference Plan was perhaps that vehicle. It would have provided space for all of us to stand firm in our convictions while maintaining some sense of missional unity. It is abundantly clear that we United Methodists are not functioning practically as one denomination. Very few (including myself) gave it much consideration. On legislative day, only 12.44% of the delegates voting gave it “high priority” status. The potential of passing all the constitutional amendments necessary to enact the plan was just too daunting for many to give it serious consideration. We may wish we would have reconsidered once the dust settles.

After witnessing #gc2019, I wonder who in their right mind would offer themselves to serve as a delegate in 2020? I know some Annual Conferences sent newly elected delegations to St. Louis, but most will return to their Annual Conference gatherings this spring and summer to elect new delegates for GC 2020.  Will there be any who offer themselves? Sure there will be. Will I be one of them? Probably.

Perhaps desiring to return to GC 2020 is like watching a train wreck. You want to look away, but you just can’t. My prayer is that those delegation elections don’t become a reflection of what happened at #gc2019. Hopefully, the relationships we’ve built with one another through years of ministry together will prevail once the dust settles, and we’ll elect strong, faithful leaders who will listen to one another, pray with one another and trust one another enough to move the United Methodist ship forward.

These ruminations notwithstanding, it’s time for me to refocus my energy on the local congregation I serve. There is enough mission and ministry right here to occupy my time. This is where we’ll make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I’m going to engage my passion for seeing the world connect to Jesus Christ. I’m going to engage my passion for growing with one another in Jesus Christ, and I’m going to engage my passion for being a local congregation positioned to serve the world for Jesus Christ. Once the dust settles, isn’t that what life in the church is all about?

I’m moving on now from #gc2019. I’ll not write anymore blogs about it (which only means there won’t be as many people reading it). I’ve committed to one more conversation in our congregation concerning it, but that won’t happen until after Easter. Otherwise, I’m moving on.

It’s time to observe a holy Lent. It’s time for me to repent of my own sin, not only as it regards the brokenness of our church, but also as it regards the brokenness of my own life. It’s time to ask God to forgive me, and it’s probably time to ask a few others to forgive me, too. It’s time to focus on the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and it’s time to focus on how I can be more like him and less like myself.

So, I’m moving on now. General Conference has spoken (for better or worse). Who’ll join me?

Until next time, keep looking up…

#GC2019–Praying from the Cheap Seats, Part 2

The Dome at America’s Center set up for #gc2019.

Saturday was a day of prayer, but so was Sunday. When I tell you we’re in the cheap seats, I mean we’re a long way from the delegates on the floor, and an even longer way from the stage upon which the Council of Bishops sit and lead the General Conference. The Dome at America’s Center was designed and built for the St. Louis Rams (don’t get me started about the Rams!), so it’s designed to hold over 66,000 people. Believe me when I say it feels a bit cavernous with only a few thousand Methodists present.

I going out on a limb here to say the distance between the cheap seats and the stage where the Bishops preside might just be a metaphor. It might be a metaphor for how far removed our Council of Bishops seems to be from the “mainstream” of United Methodism. How so, you ask?

Much of yesterday was spent assigning priority to the legislation that would come before the GC. Delegates voted on each “batch” of petitions, assigning either a “high” priority or a “low” priority. The process was designed to help the delegates do the work that needs doing in such a short period of time. The vote was basically a way to rank the order in which petitions would be handled.

The results of the “ranking” were interesting (and I think telling). The Council of Bishops “overwhelmingly” support the One Church Plan, but in the General Conference, the OCP only garnered 48% of delegates who voted it “high priority.” Conversely, the Traditional Plan (which only received a passing nod from the Commission on a Way Forward) received over 55% of the delegates voting it “high priority.” Additionally, two plans for “disaffiliation” received more “high” priority votes than the OCP. At first glance…and this is only a first glance…it appears that the OCP will have a difficult time passing this General Conference.

Thanks to Rev. Chris Ritter for the photo of the ranking results.

You can read more about the process here.

There is still much to anticipate. Again, this vote was only a first glance. Legislative work continues today on the plans, and there will be opportunities to amend, substitute and table petitions. I suspect the supporters of the OCP have spent most of last night devising a strategy to advance their favored position, and I expect the parliamentary gymnastics will begin in earnest. It will be interesting, informative and educational to watch.

Here’s a video recap of the day produced by the LA Annual Conference:

Until next time, keep looking up…

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…