Gotta’ Start Building Bridges…

I find myself praying more lately. I can’t think of a reason that’s not a good thing. The problem I’m having, though, is that my prayers usually lead me to questions, and I don’t like questions that don’t have answers. One of the questions my prayers have caused me to wrestle with is this: “Is the Lord calling me to plant a church?” As I’ve prayed about the answer to that question, it gives rise to another question: “Why do we need ANOTHER church?” I mean, really!

Religion

Search Google for “world religion” and you get 935 million hits. There are 21 major world religions, and countless more minor ones (though I suspect their adherents would argue their “minor” status). Gone are the days when everyone in our neighborhood and in our town are Christians. In my former neighborhood, I had a Hindu two doors down and Buddhists across the street. Such is our world today.

Then, I consider the confusion that exists in our own Christian world. Some estimates have the number of Christian denominations at 43,000. Actually, there are really only about 40 distinct “denominations” within the Christian family. The vast majority of the rest of them are offshoots of one of the 40 or so, but still, that’s a lot of divisions, right?

The digital age has provided easy access to the philosophies of the world’s religions. The proliferation of publishing houses and bookstores has made it easy to feast off the “faith buffet.” Search Books-a-Million’s website and you’ll discover 6,407 titles in the spirituality section. Inside the church, we’re no different. We feast off the same “faith buffet,” choosing books and authors that have little to do with doctrine consistent with our tradition, and more with the popularity of the subject matter. As a culture, we make our way down the buffet line, picking up a little Wesleyan doctrine, some Baptist theology to go with it, a little Pentecostal understanding for flavor, a smidgen of Lutheran understanding, and then put a little New Age mysticism on the side to sort of balance things out.

It gets really confusing for me, and I’ve been to school for all this stuff. I can only imagine how confusing it gets in the real world. Who’s right? What’s right? What’s a person to do with all this confusing information? How do we make sense out of a diverse religious landscape, and remain faithful to our own understanding of God as revealed in Jesus Christ? And, why do we need one more church in the middle of it? I think I can learn a lesson from the Apostle Paul.

Building Bridges

In Acts 17: 22 – 31, Paul is in the city of Athens, Greece. When Paul arrived in Athens he found himself in one of the most famous centers of philosophy, religion, art and architecture the ancient world had ever known. It was an incredibly diverse place. Certainly, it was as religiously diverse as our own day and time. The Greek historian Pausanias says that there were more idols in Athens than in all the rest of Greece combined. Paul could see them wherever he looked, and Paul was called to share the Gospel in that religiously diverse culture.

Athens was famous for its philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, Zeno and Epicures. People sat around and discussed the greater philosophies of life. Paul was presenting the good news of the Gospel to the literary capital of the ancient world, the most cultured city on earth. This was the city where even Romans came to finish their education. Athens was the home of philosophers, orators, sculptors, painters and poets, and a great university where thousands gathered for study.

This was the environment into which Paul preached about Jesus and  the resurrection. It was unique. It was novel. It was challenging. Understand, for Paul to teach about Jesus and the resurrection was to put him in danger of being arrested like he had been in Philippi. Paul was taken to the Areopagus so he could present his views to the Council.

Areopagus is the Greek term for Mars’ Hill (verse 22). It was a place of assembly. There the supreme court of Athens met. The court was made up of 30 city officials. There the courts that sat concerning religious matters convened. The associations had something to do (probably) with Paul being taken here to speak, though the meeting was informal and not official. The hill is about fifty feet high, and was then surrounded by the most glorious works of art in Athens with the historic Parthenon in the background. It was in harmony with the spirit of the city that he should be called on to speak to gratify the curiosity of people seeking new thoughts.In this city, on this occasion, Paul sought to build a bridge so that he might share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Building a bridge–that’s the lesson for I feel called to navigate through my prayers right now. How did Paul build a bridge in Athens?

Spiritual but Not Religious

First, Paul affirmed their spiritual nature. Paul noted their idolatry, but he didn’t attack them for it. As we read Paul’s writings, we find that he reserved his harshest words for believers in Jesus Christ, not for pre-Christian people. That’s instructive for me. I discover that affirmation builds up while attack tears down. Paul could affirm their religious nature, and in so doing, could find common ground upon which to have a conversation. Beginning a conversation with a non-Christian by telling them they are wrong only raises their defenses and closes their ears.  Acknowledging our common search for knowledge of the Divine is a great starting point if we hope to build bridges with those with whom we hope to share the Gospel.

The popular catch-phrase these days is “spiritual but not religious.” It is used increasingly to describe the “nones.” “Nones” are persons who do not identify with any specific faith tradition. They will often self-identify as people who are spiritual, but not religious. Spirituality and religion go hand-in-hand. That we have a spirituality at all makes us religious people, and it reveals the nature of our creation. I love how the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it in 3:11: Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. We are spiritual beings. Paul sought to build a bridge to share the Gospel by affirming his listener’s spiritual nature.

Capturing Culture

Another way Paul sought to build a bridge was by using the culture to communicate Christ. Paul said, “You’ve got a lot of altars, but there’s one to the ‘unknown God’ I want to talk to you about.” Paul took the familiar and connected it to Christ. The culture (no matter how “un-Christian we believe it to be) is not the enemy. The culture is the culture. It can become a tool we use in sharing Christ with the world. THIS is the culture we’re called to live faithful lives in. God isn’t calling us to be faithful in 1968. He’s calling us to be faithful in 2020 and beyond.

So, we today, with the embrace of digital technology, must speak the language of culture if we are to be faithful in sharing the Gospel. One of the most encouraging developments coming from the COVID pandemic is the church’s transition to the digital age. We are in a digital culture, so the church must use digital language to communicate the Gospel. To be contemporary, to be relevant means to understand the culture. Understanding the culture affords us the opportunity to communicate effectively.

Affirming humanity’s common spiritual nature and understanding culture does not mean we can’t maintain integrity to the Gospel. Paul did so effectively. Paul preached Christ and him resurrected. That was a unique message, and it piqued the interest of those in the culture. But, Paul also preached God’s judgment, but in a not-so-judgmental way. Let me try to explain.

We are living between two ages. That’s perhaps why life seems so confusing. We are living in the shift between the “modern” and “post-modern” age. For the modern mind, there are many more absolutes. For the post-modern mind, things are much more relative. Take sin, for instance. For the modern mind, sin is a violation of God’s moral law, thus Jesus can easily be accepted as the atonement for that violation. Repent and trust Jesus, and all is forgiven. We can accept that and live faithful lives until we die and go to heaven.

To the post-modern mind, though, sin is not so easily seen as a violation of God’s law because morality, like everything else, is relative. The Apostle Paul does a masterful job of addressing the root issue of sin from this perspective—even way back in the first century. Paul addressed the issue of idolatry, calling attention to the idols everywhere in Athens. For Paul, the biblical definition of sin was idolatry. For instance, if we make a moral statement about adultery, which to the modern mind is classified as a violation of the moral law, then a post-modern would simply say, “You’ve got your morality and I’ve got mine.” That ends the discussion. If I were to tell them they were going to hell if they didn’t change, all I’ve done is make them turn a deaf ear to the Gospel. If, however, I tell them they are sinning because they are looking to the romances or relationships to give their lives meaning, or to give them what they are looking for, or should be looking for from God, then I have cast the conversation in a different light and hopefully can engage them in a deeper conversation concerning the power of the Gospel. After all, idolatry is putting anything in God’s place, and that causes anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, resentment, jealousy, etc. Then, Christ and his salvation can be presented as the hope for freedom.

Stated a much simpler way, the modern mind embraces the Gospel as the way to forgiveness. The post-modern mind embraces the Gospel as the way to freedom. Both are correct. Both open the door for the transforming work of God in Jesus Christ. That is the Gospel. Paul sought to build a bridge by affirming the common spiritual nature, and by connecting with them culturally while maintaining integrity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s our task in this religiously diverse age.

Perhaps a parable can communicate it better than I:

A Parable

Once upon a time two brothers lived on adjoining farms. For forty years, they farmed side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed. Then, their long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding that grew into a major difference before finally exploding into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning there was a knock on the elder brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days’ work”, he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there I could help with?”

“Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. He did that to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence – – an 8-foot fence –so I won’t need to see his place or his face anymore.”

The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post-hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”

The older brother had to go to town, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing.

About sunset the farmer returned to find the carpenter just finishing his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. He didn’t find a fence. He found a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other. It was a fine piece of work, and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched. “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.”

The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother.

“I’d love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but, I have many more bridges to build.”

I really don’t know that I’ve answered the question of why another church, but I know that there are more bridges to build. Maybe another church would help to build some of those bridges? Maybe not. Guess I’ll keep praying.

Will you pray with me?

Until next time, keep looking up…

In This (Together?)…

the-scripture.co.uk

A Facebook friend conducted a (very unscientific) poll and asked the question, “What’s your least favorite term out of this whole COVID-19 thing?” My immediate thought was the phrase was “a new normal.” There is nothing about this new that should be considered normal by an reasonable person, and there are very few life adaptations that we should want to get accustomed too.

There were other responses that ran the gamut from amusing to sarcastic:

  • “Flatten the curve…”
  • “This mess…”
  • “Mandatory…”
  • “Cancelled vacation…”
  • “Social distancing…”
  • “Herd immunity…”
  • “Essential businesses…”
  • “Shelter in place…” (which really should be “shelter at home”)
  • “Together alone…” (Really? Is that even possible?)

Hardly Together

Well, you get the picture. Quite an interesting array of phrases used to capture our current climate. As I reflected on all the responses, “new normal” may be my least favorite, but the most overused (and incorrect) phrase is “We’re all in this together.” It only takes a cursory scroll of any social media, or three minutes into the latest newscast to discern that yes, we are all in this, but we are definitely not together!

Watch President Trump’s daily press briefings and tell me we’re in this together.

Watch CNN, and then watch FOX News and tell me we’re in this together.

Talk to the introvert who still has a job and earns a paycheck while working from home in flip flops and shorts while sipping cocktails, and then talk to the grocery clerk who MUST go to work and stand all day just to pay the rent and tell me we’re in this together.

Listen to the myriad “experts” who say we must not ease the “lockdown” restrictions too quickly, and then listen to the myriad “experts” who say we must open the economy immediately and tell me we’re in this together.

Talk to the person who has received the “stimulus” check, and then talk to the person who hasn’t and tell me we’re in this together.

Talk to the small business owner whose business has been declared “non-essential,” and then talk to the chairman of Home Depot and tell me we’re all in this together.

Talk to the person who lost a spouse or a parent to COVID-19, and then talk to the person who doesn’t know anyone with the disease and tell me we’re in this together.

I say again–We’re in it, but we’re definitely not together.

Where we sit determines our perspective. Even as I write that sentence, I’m remembering an encounter Jesus had one day with two very different people looking at life from two very different perspectives, yet their lives converged around Jesus, and because they did, they were both changed forever.

Perspective Matters

The encounter is recorded in Mark 5. Mark’s gospel characterizes Jesus as a person always on the move–on an incredible journey, if you will. But, it was a journey fraught with detours. On this detour, Jesus encounters two very different people:

  • He’s a rich man, she’s a poor woman
  • We know the man’s name, but the woman remains nameless
  • He’s an honored Jew, she’s simply a unclean, ostracized woman
  • He approaches Jesus from the front, but she slips up to Jesus from the back
  • He’s had twelve years of joyful life with a wonderful daughter, she’s had 12 years of miserable, incurable pain

The contrast of these two could not be more profound, yet they were in the same condition—utterly helpless. Sometimes, that’s the best place to be. Martin Luther gives us an example. Luther made the statement that his greatest insight into God’s grace came to him while he was “on the toilet.” That sounds crass to us in the 21st Century, but when we understand the phrase “on the toilet” was a common metaphor for being in a state of utter helplessness, it throws Luther’s statement into a different light. Jairus and the unnamed woman were right where Martin Luther was when he discovered God’s grace.

A Rich Man

Jairus was helpless because of his daughter’s condition. She was on her deathbed, and this father, knowing nothing else could help,  reached out to the only hope left open to him. As a leader of the synagogue, Jairus was obviously a man of some means. Well-respected in the community, he was a man who was “clean” as far as the law was concerned. But, his money, his position, his place in the community were all worthless in this helpless situation. In an act of sheer desperation, He reached out to this radical rabbi who has been making waves around the countryside.

Jairus had done all, and in that moment the only thing that mattered was his daughter. Not his position, not his place in the community, not his money. Clean, un-clean, sinners or no, Jesus was his last best hope to bring healing for his daughter.

There’s a great lesson for me here: No one is above needing Jesus.

A Poor Woman

The poor sick, nameless woman is a stark contrast to Jairus. For twelve years, she had been unable to go to synagogue, possibly the one Jairus now led. For her to be in the crowd at all was a monumental statement on her part, and it demonstrates her utter helplessness. Not only was she unclean, but she was dead broke. Mark says she has spent all her money and the problem was actually worse. She was broke physically, spiritually and financially. She was as broke as a person could get. Clean or unclean, crowd or no crowd, Jesus was her last best hope for healing.

Two incredibly different people in the very same situation, but the only thing they were together on was Jesus. I wonder if Jairus thought as Jesus stopped to help the woman, “Jesus, why waste such precious time on this unclean woman? My daughter is dying!” Jesus’ response teaches me that, just as no one is above needing Jesus, so no one is insignificant to Jesus.

Jesus came for the up and out, and Jesus came for the down and out. The only thing these two people had in common was a need for Jesus. Two distinctively different people from two distinctively different worlds bound together by a deep need for healing and wholeness. Their utter helplessness found them both, as Mark says, falling “at the feet” of Jesus. This encounter reminds me of the old saying, “the ground is level at Calvary.”

It is said that after the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee, a devout Christian, visited a church in Washington, D.C. During the Communion service, he was seen kneeling beside a black man. (Turn your virtue signals off!) Later, when someone asked how he could do that, Lee replied, “My friend, all ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

Our Common Need

What makes that ground so level? The awfulness of our sins, the terrible price Jesus paid to forgive them, and the love He has for all people. We can all kneel together at the foot of the cross. In God’s economy, nobodies are somebodies and somebodies are nobodies. Life is not fair to the upwardly mobile or the down and out. One thing we need to remember is that bad times are bad times no matter who we are. The only thing we may truly be together in is our need for grace. Jesus loves us all, and is as ready to offer his grace to one as another. What matters is our openness to receive his grace.

Hope said they could find help in an encounter with Jesus. Hope brought faith, and faith is the key to surviving the bad times, or at least surviving them without bitterness and blame. To the woman, Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, you’ve been healed.”

Then, friends of Jairus came and said, “You’re daughter is dead. Don’t bother him any longer.” Jesus only looked at Jairus and said, “Don’t be afraid. Just trust me.” Jairus had a choice to make: Trust Jesus, or trust the other voices around him.

Jairus chose to listen to Jesus. He acted on his faith, just like the unnamed woman, and he saw the life-changing, life-giving power of God revealed in Jesus Christ. There’s another lesson for me: Faith makes all the difference. Faith is believing something so that our actions are changed as a result. Belief about Jesus does not bring healing, wholeness or salvation. Following Jesus does!

Do we have faith in Jesus? Our actions should reflect that fact. I am reminded of the Roman officer who came to Jesus asking him to heal his servant boy. Jesus said, “I’ll come with you,” but the officer said, “No, I understand authority. I tell a soldier to do this and he does it. You just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus said, “I haven’t seen such faith in all Israel! Go, your servant is healed.”

If we have faith, we’ll hear Jesus and we’ll obey Jesus. Like, when he said, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth, therefore, go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, son and holy spirit, and teach them all things I have taught you. And, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

I suppose we are more together than I give us credit for. The pandemic has left us all at the mercy of something totally beyond our control. In that regard, we’re pretty much helpless.

We also live in a world left helpless by the power of sin. How we see that sin depends on our perspective, but no matter our perspective, our need for Jesus remains the same. Church, do you think we can at least be together in that?

Until next time, keep looking up…

I Have My Doubts…

I think we’re in a bit of a double bind. You know what a double bind is, right? A double bind is a situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action. Our double bind comes because we’re being told we must “listen to the experts.” Well, which experts would that be? The ones who tell us we must remain in lock down due to the Coronavirus, or those who tell us we have to open the economy to prevent the collapse of our economy? I suspect which expert we chose to listen to has much to do with which side of the political aisle we occupy. I’ll confess that I have my doubts about the experts on either side, but that’s probably just a result of my natural cynicism.

Doubting Thomas

Of course, I’m not the first person to play the cynic and express my doubts. I’m remembering the Apostle Thomas this week after Easter. John relates the story in his gospel (John 20: 24 – 29) that Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, but Thomas wasn’t present. The disciples told Thomas about the encounter, but Thomas said, “I’ll believe it when I see it” (the Lynn paraphrase). Thomas had his doubts, too. I’m feeling like I’m in pretty good company.

We just don’t expect dead people to live again. Why do we suspect it was any different in the 1st century? Doubting Thomas? Surely it would be doubting Lynn, too, if I were in Thomas’s shoes. I think Thomas has been the scapegoat for the church and everyone else who ever said doubt was wrong, or that it is somehow unfaithful to need a sign, or a vision, or a personal encounter.

Why can’t we ask the hard questions without being labeled a cynic, a skeptic, or worse, a hater? Are questions bad? Is there something wrong with admitting we don’t understand everything? Is it wrong to ask God to clarify a few things? I hope not! Think about Job. Job had questions. And the Psalms are full of questions, uncertainties, and not a few complaints. Even Jesus, hanging on the cross, asked the question of the ages, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Thomas is just the next in a long line of faithful folks who raised their voices to ask God hard questions.

Faith is Hard

Thomas’ undeserved reputation notwithstanding, I learn two important lessons from his encounter. Lesson one: Doubt is a testimony to the difficulty of faith. It’s just hard to believe. Faith takes work, and honestly, sometimes I’m just too lazy to believe. Faith takes work because it puts us in uncomfortable places and begs us to ask tough questions. Genuine faith says it is okay for us to ask questions of God.

Faith is when we are willing to embrace the doubts, ask the questions, and face the answers. Jesus knew faith in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there he was willing to say, “If…” And, on the cross, too. The Apostle Paul knew faith on the Damascus Road and in a Roman prison. They knew, and I learn, that faith is believing something that is totally beyond my comprehension, but being unafraid to try to believe it anyway. Jesus could say from the cross, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Paul could say, “Your grace is sufficient for me.”

The Christian faith is not some cut-and-dried faith. Faith in Jesus Christ cannot be reduced to a set of rules, where everything fits, where everything makes sense, where all we have to do is connect the dots. That’s what the Pharisees tried to do. They had to explain everything in a formula; to make all life so that it could be answered by a set of rules, and if it didn’t fit within that hard and fast set of rules, it was rejected as heresy or blasphemy. Well, Jesus didn’t fit within their set of rules, and look what happened to him. Consequently, their eyes and their hearts were closed to the very thing God was doing in their midst. They were blind to the miracle standing right in front of them.

Sometimes, our faith will ask us to look outside the box; to color outside the lines, and believe some things that the rest of the world says are ridiculous. Some things like believing a virgin could have a baby (I believe that!), or that God and man could live in one person (I believe that, too!), or that Jesus would die for the sins of the world (and I believe that one, too!), or that Jesus could actually rise from the dead (we all better believe that one). Our faith may ask us to do things that the world says are pointless, and that will be hard work, indeed. That work will raise a few doubts, but the doubts will testify that faith is no easy thing.

Faith is an Encounter

Lesson two: Faith begins with an encounter. Like Thomas, until we see the risen Lord ourselves we can’t believe. Until we see Christ, the resurrection is about as silly as seeing Elvis at the convenience store, but a personal encounter with Jesus changes all that. When we encounter Jesus personally, the lines of our lives get blurry. The line between believing and not believing, and the line between life and death are suddenly crossed. Those lines once seemed so absolute. When I meet Jesus…not so much, anymore.

Thomas’ story is ultimately a miracle of faith. His mind was opened and his heart swelled with the words, “My Lord and my God!” All because he had a personal encounter with Jesus. Without the personal encounter with the risen Lord, Thomas would have continued to wallow around in his own doubt. At best, he would have been stuck in a world where the rules cling only to those things which are possible.

Do you know the difference in Thomas and the other disciples? Thomas was a week late, that’s all. The other disciples needed a personal encounter with Jesus as much as Thomas did. Remember, they were hiding in a locked room, cowering in fear of the Jewish leaders when Jesus first appeared to them. They were just as afraid and doubtful as Thomas ever was. Faith and understanding began only after Jesus made himself personally known to them.

That’s true for us, too. We remain in our own cynical, skeptical little world until Jesus breaks through the door of our locked hearts. There’s the miracle in all this: Jesus searches us out and finds us, even when we don’t want to be found. We can lock ourselves away from the world, we can lock out the Good News, but Jesus, if he wants us, breaks through that door. We Wesleyans like to call that prevenient grace.

No Second-hand Jesus

If a stone couldn’t keep Jesus in a tomb, I don’t think a wooden door was going to keep him from getting to the disciples with the Good News of his resurrection. We all need a personal encounter with Jesus Christ before we can declare, “My Lord and my God!” A second-hand Jesus just won’t do.

Encountering Christ was simple enough for Thomas. Jesus was right there. He’s right here, too. Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon those first disciples. He breathes the Holy Spirit on us, too. The Holy Spirit makes Jesus present with us today. The Holy Spirit is present in our worship. The Bible says God inhabits the praise of His people. When we praise God, He is present and we encounter Him. Through music, through the Bible, through study and prayer, we encounter the One who was raised from the dead because he has given us His Spirit to know He is here. And, we encounter Him every time we receive the Lord’s Supper or participate in the sacrament of baptism.

If others are to encounter Jesus they will encounter him through us. That’s why evangelism is so important. We have to leave our locked little worlds and share the story of the resurrected Christ with others. The world will have their doubts, but others will not know Jesus apart from us. They will encounter Jesus when they  see him alive in us, when they see the way he loves them through us, when they see the way we respond to those in need, when they see the way we care for all that God has entrusted to the church. We give others a first-hand encounter of the risen Lord, and that is where faith begins.

I will probably continue to have my doubts about all these experts and the Coronavirus, and I’ll just be skeptical and continue to ask questions, but one thing I’ll never doubt is Jesus, and His love for me. That’s one doubt we all need to reconcile.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Cost of Crisis…

Working from home (mostly) has given me much too much time to think, and I’ve been thinking about the depth of what’s been called the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a public health crisis, yes, but it has the potential of becoming so much more. Here are just a few of my thoughts:

Financial

It has the potential of becoming a financial crisis. We’re obviously in a financial slowdown as a result of COVID-19, but should the “stay-at-home” orders last much longer, we run the risk of creating a full-blown financial meltdown of the US and subsequently the world economy. Entire industries will be gone, and the recovery may last as long (if not longer) as the Great Depression. What’s more, the financial crisis will lead to more health issues, thus exacerbating the public health crisis. This is preventable!

Mental Health

It has the potential of becoming a mental health crisis. Fear has driven much of the panic surrounding COVID-19. Fear of death, first of all. We Christians, of all people, should have a better theology of death because many Christians have led the fear parade. Way back on March 23rd, R. R. Reno of First Things wrote a piece reminding us that we are not to fear death (we don’t desire to hasten it, but neither should we fear it). Never in my life have I seen so many followers of Christ shouting down other followers of Christ in such a public way–rooted (I believe) in two things–fear and self-righteousness. We are not being very good examples of Christ to a world that is hurting and searching for answers to tough questions. This, too is preventable!

The longer people are quarantined the more susceptible we become to loneliness and depression. As Genesis teaches, it is not good for people to be alone. We are created for community. For a society that was already struggling with depression, we don’t need any help to make it worse. Not to mention, and this is only somewhat related to mental health issues, but there is the increase in substance abuse and domestic violence.

I have a deep concern (and I pray daily) for those who struggle with substance abuse. The necessity of working a 12-Step program, of attending meetings and staying connected to accountability measures, is taken away in this time. Virtual meetings are no substitute to physically going to a meeting and encountering others on the journey face-to-face. I wonder if anyone has “modeled” the financial cost to our health care system (not to mention families) when many addicts relapse because they were forced into isolation? 

Culture

This shut-down has the potential to become a cultural crisis. This may, in fact, be the final nail in the Judeo-Christian western cultural coffin. There will be many who will not be bothered by that, but I am not one of them. The very foundation of the American experiment lies in the Judeo-Christian worldview. This pandemic forces us to the precipice of rejecting the very values that underlie our nation. We are, in the name of sacrifice, rejecting the true nature of sacrifice. Don’t tell the countless millions who have sacrificed their very lives that self-preservation is the essence of our existence.

Part of the cultural crisis is that faced by churches and houses of worship during this pandemic. They will never be the same, and the influence they once enjoyed in the culture will continue to diminish. There is some good that can come out of that. First, the church has been forced to re-tool. Second, the church has been forced to reassess its understanding of discipleship and evangelism. Third, the church has been forced to reflect upon its history and ask itself the question: “Is what we are what we were meant to be?” Already, some positive signs are emerging (which is hopeful), but I suspect that the landscape, both urban, suburban and rural will be dotted with empty, deteriorating buildings left by congregations unable to survive the financial impact of COVID-19. It doesn’t have to be so.

Constitutional

There is the potential that this becomes a constitutional crisis. This potential goes hand-in-hand with the cultural crisis mentioned above. I am still amazed by how quickly we, the people, surrendered our freedom to an over-reaching government.

The very fabric of our nation changed in the blink of an eye. The constitutional protections we have long enjoyed, which have been eroding for several generations, were, in one fell swoop, washed away, and I fear (there’s that word) we will never be able to reclaim them. Our freedom of assembly? Gone. The government said we shouldn’t gather in groups of 100 or more, then it was 50 or more, then it was 10 or more…then, it was stay at home. Yes, it was for a very noble cause–the health of “others.” Don’t do it for yourself. Do it for others. Noble, indeed.

There’s a fork in the road ahead when we will have to ask what’s more important, the survival of the other, or the survival of the whole? Stanford University School of Medicine professor John Ioannidis offers an interesting perspective on the subject that bears hearing. Which will we choose? Fear should not compel us to choose wrongly, but we’ll be aided by those who deeply desire to change the heart of who we are as Americans.

Political

All these measures were done without the U. S. Congress’ approval. Entire states and local communities were shuttered without a single legislative vote of any legislature or city council. Not one duly elected representative body gave assent to these measures. Actually, the legislators all went home, thus abandoning their responsibility to represent “We the people.” We, the people, are left to be led by executive mandate, whether federal, state or local. I’m sorry, but that sounds a lot like dictatorship or monarchy. If we’re not careful, and if those legislators who are the elected representatives of the people do not step up and begin to question what is happening, then this public health crisis will become a political crisis. No, what it may become is a revolutionary moment. 

Some may call me an alarmist (and I may be), but when I sit around too much, these are the things I think about. I suppose I should quit sitting around so much! I think I’ll go check my tomatoes in the garden (it’s a good thing I don’t live in Michigan!). That should take my mind off of the cost this crisis will ultimately have on all of us.

Even so,

Until next time, keep looking up…

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…

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…

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…