“More” Controversy…

Apparently, I should have chosen to be “more” controversial during my self-proclaimed “Year of More.” One of the neat things about writing a blog is metrics. WordPress tells me how many people have viewed my blog, what pages they’ve clicked on, what countries they viewed from, and so on. It’s really pretty cool.

Here’s the metric I find most interesting: the blogs with the most views and the most clicks are ones that deal with more controversial topics. The more controversial the topic, or at least if I can come up with a “click bait” headline, the more views the blog receives. I’ll be anxious to see the number of clicks the headline to this blog generates.

There are certainly plenty of topics to write about when it comes to controversy. Our world is becoming more polarized (well, at least in the good ole’ US of A), and this polarization makes every subject controversial. I bet you (if I was a betting man) that my article on controversy has the potential of being controversial.

Seriously, people have sparked controversy by saying or doing something that when the person said or did whatever it was, had no intention of sparking controversy. Yet, someone got offended by what the person said or did, so controversy arose. Civil discourse has ground to a halt in our culture. Oh! There’s discourse. It’s just that none of it is very civil.

There is controversy in the political realm. If I wanted to create a firestorm of controversy, I would say that I voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. I might have to close my comments section and delete the post from Facebook because of the responses I would likely receive. The problem is that I could conversely say that I voted for Hillary Clinton and get the same vitriolic response, except those responses would come from different people. No, I’m not going to tell you who I voted for in 2016. Suffice it to say that I held my nose while I voted, and that’s as controversial as I’ll get in that regard.

There is controversy in the cultural realm. Let’s see…I could do a Google search of the most controversial topics for 2019 and find abortion topping the list. I’m pro-life, just so you know (and that’ll stir no little amount of controversy, I’m sure). Of course, even Google has become somewhat controversial as there have been recent concerns about privacy issues (Google is now “Big Brother”), spying, censorship, tax avoidance, sexism and racism. I suppose I should stay off Google, but really, how does anyone stay off Google?

Other topics on the “controversial” list are gay marriage, gender identity, LGBT (I know, I’m leaving out some letters, which in and of itself is controversial) adoption rights, Planned Parenthood funding, women in combat, the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, and the death penalty. I could go on, but you get the picture—our culture abounds with controversy, and following the debate on any issue on Youtube is like falling in a deep, dark hole (be careful…Youtube is owned by Google!).

The debates in larger culture have made their way into the church, too. Controversy in the church? Oh! My! Our denomination (the United Methodist Church) is currently embroiled in a debate concerning same-gender marriage and the ordination of homosexuals. We are divided (almost as equally as the broader culture) on these issues (read my position here), and the debates have been ugly at times. These ugly debates have taken place amidst calls for “unity,” which interestingly enough, has become its own controversial topic.

Unity. That’s an interesting concept. How do you define it? Do we even know it when we see it? Can there ever be genuine unity? After all, opinions, someone said, are like armpits. Everyone has them and most of them stink. I have my own ideas about unity…and unity in the body of Christ…but I’ll save those for another controversial blog…perhaps one entitled “More Unity.”

There is one place, though, where I will choose to be ardently controversial—the power of Jesus Christ to change a life. I will continue to proclaim that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. Yes, even those simple proclamations are controversial and I may have to close my comments, but so be it. I really don’t mean to be controversial. I really don’t mean to offend. But, if believing Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, then call me controversial. I only ask that you do it in a civil way.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Final Nail in the Mainline Coffin?

Let me say–“I am a traditionalist.” There. Now that’s out of the way. You know where I stand.

I have been reluctant to comment on the current state of affairs in the United Methodist Church as we head into the special called session of General Conference scheduled for St. Louis, February 23 – 26, 2019. The special session was called by the Council of Bishops after the 2016 General Conference for the purpose of dealing (definitively?) with the issue of “full inclusion” of LGBTQI+ individuals in the life of the church. The debate centers primarily on the issues of same-gender marriage and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.

There are several reasons I have not commented (at least not very publicly). For one, I serve a diverse congregation, and discretion being the better part of valor, I want to be able to be a pastor to everyone no matter where they lie along the spectrum from traditional to progressive.

Another reason I’ve been reluctant to comment is my own acknowledgement that I could be wrong. After all, I’m “Not the Perfect Pastor,” so my imperfections do tend to get in my way.

My prayer for 20+ years has been, “Lord, change my heart if I’m wrong.” Being the traditionalist I am, I believe God actually hears and answers prayer, so I continue to pray, but as of this writing, the Lord has not answered this prayer (at least in relation to the presenting issue facing the UMC). I also know that there is still more for me to learn. I take to heart the advice Jordan Peterson offers in his book 12 Rules for Life. Rule # 9 states, “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” If I offered too many comments, I might have to walk some of them back, and being of the male species, I don’t like to walk statements back.

Yet one more reason I’ve been reluctant to comment is the fact that there really hasn’t been enough information to have an informed conversation on the matters before us. Prior to July 8th about all one could say is “We really don’t know what the possibilities are at this point.” Everything until that point was pure speculation (although there is still much speculating to be done), and I figured why confuse the conversation or risk upsetting people dear to me if I couldn’t have an informed conversation. Besides, I have numerous colleagues with whom I disagree on the issue of same-gender marriage and the ordination of homosexuals, and I dearly love them. I have no desire to have our relationships broken because a speculative conversation devolved in to name-calling and accusations. Not worth it!

Then, of course, there is the issue of giving my focus to the work of the congregation I serve. As an alternate delegate to General Conference, it is very easy to get distracted by all the information, blogs, speculation and social media posts concerning the future of United Methodism. Yes, we are a connectional church, but at the end of the day, I’m appointed to a local congregation, and the mission of the United Methodist Church (to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world) gets carried out in the local congregation. People’s lives will be transformed in and through the local church. That is my primary focus.

Now that sufficient information has been made available and petitions filed with General Conference, it’s time for me to weigh in on the situation we United Methodists find ourselves in. Many people have asked my thoughts over the past few months, so I figured this medium is the best way to communicate to the broadest number of people.

I know a post such as this will get feedback, both positively and negatively, and I’ll probably get called a few names if I don’t take the position that someone thinks is the correct one. But, I suppose I will take that chance. February will soon be upon us and the conversation can no longer be avoided.

The Commission on the Way Forward

The Commission on the Way Forward

The Commission on a Way Forward was appointed by the Bishops subsequent to the 2016 General Conference to “do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.” The Commission completed its work and submitted its report to be translated for General Conference. The report includes three possible ways forward for the UMC. The Traditional Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan and the One Church Plan. I’ll unpack each later in the post.

The Council of Bishops has recommended adoption of the One Church Plan. That is their preferred future for the UMC. Initially, the bishops sought to direct the debate of General Conference, but after a challenge before the Judicial Council, the Judicial Council ruled that any United Methodist with standing could submit legislation to General Conference. That means, obviously, there will be a plethora of legislation presented to General Conference. As a side note, the bishop’s recommendation was moved to a footnote in the report.

General Conference, 2019

The General Conference is slated to last four days. With a plethora (I’ve used that word twice!) of legislation, the work will be daunting, and the reality is it may not get done at all. Historically, the work of the General Conference begins with adopting the rules of order. There may be a four-day fight on the rules and the Conference may never get around to doing the actual work. Can you imagine having two years of conversations and meetings, and spending millions of dollars to accomplish nothing? That’s exactly what could happen.

Other than a significant waste of time and money, nothing happening would not be the worst thing to happen (in my humble opinion). The status quo would remain, which means the Discipline would not change (of course, neither would the current lack of enforcement). The proverbial can would get kicked down the road to General Conference 2020. Speculation? There will be some laity, clergy and congregations who depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. It would also break my heart.

One thing that could happen even before February is the Judicial Council could rule one, two or all three plans included in the report as unconstitutional. The Council of Bishops has asked for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the three plans. If all three plans are declared unconstitutional, there would be no work for the Conference to complete. I suppose it would be cancelled, still costing an unknown amount of money and kicking the can down the road. There will be some laity, clergy and congregations who depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. It would also break my heart.

The Three Plans

The Traditional Plan

The Traditional Plan retains the current language in the Book of Discipline that states all persons are “of sacred worth, created in the image of God” and also states that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Traditional Plan dramatically enhances accountability to the church’s requirements and closes many of the loopholes currently being used to avoid accountability by those who, in practicing “biblical disobedience,” conduct same-gender weddings and ordain “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. At the same time, the Plan offers a gracious exit for annual conferences, congregations, bishops, and clergy who cannot in good conscience abide by the church’s historic standards. 

This plan has the best possibility of passing General Conference (again, in my humble opinion) simply based on the votes of previous General Conferences in similar matters.  It will likely be supported by evangelicals, southern delegates and the delegations from the Central Conferences (outside the U. S.). The groups together constitute a majority. I won’t bore you with every single detail of the Traditional Plan. For a more comprehensive treatment, my colleague Thomas Lambrecht has an article here, or you can read the legislation by clicking here.

I am a supporter of the Traditional plan because it maintains our current position which I believe is grace-filled even if it doesn’t sound like it in this 21st Century shifting culture. I believe it remains faithful to the biblical witness and to 2,000 years of church history and tradition. It also remains faithful to almost every cultural understanding in the world of marriage as being between one man and one woman.

There will likely be some people who depart the United Methodist Church should the Traditional Plan pass, but they would likely be fewer in number. Many of the most progressive leaders in our denomination have stated they will not depart under any circumstances. Of course, that means acts of disobedience would continue, so it is a realistic possibility that the Plan would ultimately be ineffective, in which case, laity, clergy and congregations would depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. That would break my heart.

The Connectional Conference Plan

The Connectional Conference Plan is perhaps the most confusing of the three. The plan as proposed would do away with our current five jurisdictions and replace them with three “Conferences” aligned along theological perspectives. There would be a traditional Conference (maintaining the current Disciplinary language), a progressive Conference (ordaining homosexual clergy and performing same-gender marriage) and a centrist Conference (each did what was right in their own eyes).

Each of the three conferences would continue to operate under the umbrella of the United Methodist Church, and as I understand the legislation, each Annual Conference would choose to align with one of the Conferences. Each would continue to share some doctrinal standards, missions work globally and administrative infrastructure (think General Boards and Agencies here).

If a local church did not want to affiliate with the Connectional Conference chosen by its Annual Conference, it could vote to become a member of one of the other Conferences. Clergy would have the same option, but would be obligated to abide by the standards of the chosen Conference. If I understand the legislation correctly, the Bishop and Cabinet of the Annual Conference will still control the appointive process. I’m not sure how that would work, but that’s what it says. Consideration for re-affiliation would be provided every four years.

As for bishops, the current Council of Bishops would be retained with each Connectional Conference having a College of Bishops composed of those bishops who chose to affiliate with each Conference. They would continue to lead in ecumenical relationships and in oversight of the administrative agencies of the Church. Funding for bishops inside the U. S. would be provided by each bishop’s respective Connectional Conference, and bishops outside the U. S. would be supported by the umbrella organization. Confusing, huh?

Each Connectional Conference would adopt its own Book of Discipline starting with the Articles of Religion, Doctrinal Standards, Confessions of Faith and General Rules. Everything else would be contextual to the particular Connectional Conference. Still confusing, huh?

Again, for the full plan you can click here and read the enabling legislation for yourself. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a legal nerd.

I believe this is the most impossible plan offered. It would take up to six years to implement and the passage of five constitutional amendments. Does anyone realize how hard it is to pass a constitutional amendment in the United Methodist Church? Each amendment requires a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a two-thirds vote of the aggregate members of each of the Annual Conferences voting. What it really means is this plan isn’t likely to gain any traction in 2019 (assuming that GC 2019 gets around to voting on any plan).

The confusion created should this plan be adopted would likely lead to many laity, clergy and congregations departing out of sheer frustration and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. Heart-breaking, no?

The One Church Plan

The One Church Plan as proposed would remove the “restrictive” language (some have called it “hurtful” language) in the Discipline as it refers to the practice of homosexuality, and would change the definition of marriage from “between one man and one woman” to being between “two adults.” Additionally, each Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry would be allowed to determine its own ordination standards as it relates to human sexuality.

Okay, this is where it gets sticky. Some have referred to this as the “local option” plan because individual clergy would not be compelled to violate conscience if he/she was opposed to same-gender marriage. The clergy would not be required to perform weddings in celebration of the aforementioned, nor would local congregations be compelled to host same-gender weddings in violation of its collective conscience. (Here’s why I don’t believe this plan would ever work.)

Likewise, bishops are not required to ordain or license homosexual persons in violation of their conscience, but it does make provision if the Annual Conference has opted to ordain, for another bishop to ordain the individual in that bishop’s stead. It does not, however, protect a bishop from having to appoint a clergy person that he/she believes to be unfit for ministry. The Plan does include provisions that prevent a bishop or District Superintendent from retaliating against a clergy who refuses to violate her/his conscience.

I’ll not go into greater detail about the One Church Plan. I’ve linked to the entire plan in a couple of different places already. Read it at your leisure (or at your peril!). I will tell you why I think this plan is untenable.

The Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church

Proponents of the One Church Plan (including the Council of Bishops–though not every Bishop agrees) believe it is possible for those who disagree on issues of human sexuality to peacefully coexist in one denomination. I think nearly 50 years of continuous debate over the issue proves that theory incorrect. Proponents of the plan see human sexuality as a non-essential. Opponents of the plan disagree greatly, and based on the conversations I’ve had, are not likely to change that understanding.

Adopting the One Church plan will accomplish one thing: It will remove the debate from the General Church level. What it will do, in the alternative, is take it down to the local church level where each local congregation will have to determine and debate its own understanding of human sexuality, thus increasing the conflict in the denomination rather than lessening it.

The One Church Plan would also weaken the understanding of what it means to be United Methodist. Well, it would just set up a situation where neighboring UM churches could have differing standards–UM churches in the same town…on the same street, for heaven’s sake! Talk about brand confusion (forgive the secular marketing reference, but…)! We can call it the One Church Plan, but it does, by default, create two (or more?) churches with its implementation. It is, at best, a false unity.

The One Church Plan makes me ask the question, “If we can choose our standards on human sexuality, why can’t each local congregation (or clergy) choose their own standards on baptism or communion?” Seems to me to be only one of the Pandora’s boxes we open with the passage of the One Church Plan.

Additionally, as a former District Superintendent, I can see the nightmare the appointive process would become under such a plan. It was difficult enough to connect clergy and congregations in a fruitful way without the One Church Plan, and for Annual Conferences with a shortage of clergy, the issue would be multiplied even more. I also envision a time in the not too distant future when bishops and cabinets would say, “Sexual preference is not a consideration in the appointment-making process.”

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this Plan disregards the historic, biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality, and puts the United Methodist Church firmly outside the broader global community of the body of Christ on the issues of marriage and human sexuality. Do we really want to do that?

If the One Church Plan passes GC 2019, it will precipitate the departure of many evangelical, traditional members (both lay and clergy) and congregations for whom the issue of human sexuality is a non-negotiable. Their departure will weaken the United Methodist Church, and that breaks my heart.

Other Considerations

This has become a long blog (I apologize), so I will only briefly mention a few other considerations involved in the debate. Bishop Bruce Ough has rightly discerned, “Let’s be clear, if we divide, nearly all our essential unifying institutional activities would be lost or severely diminished.” Our UM institutions will be harmed, and the future of many will be uncertain–some will, in fact, cease to exist. Our global mission partnerships will end or be financially limited. Pension obligations may go unmet (especially pre-1982 pensions [Methodist nerds will know what that is]), and that would be devastating to countless faithful clergy. Property fights would ensue, diverting precious resources away from the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I contend that each of those things will happen regardless of which plan is passed. Perhaps not on the scale of a full-blown dissolution, but harm will come nonetheless.

The Final Nail in the Mainline Coffin?

The decline of the mainline church in North America is well documented, and while our denomination is growing globally, membership and attendance continues to decline in the U. S., and has since I entered vocational ministry in 1991. Ed Stetzer wrote a piece in 2017 noting that unless something happen, mainline Protestantism has a mere 23 Easters left. My heart aches as I consider the possibility that General Conference 2019 will hasten that decline, and will serve as the final nail in the mainline coffin (at least in the U. S.).

United Methodism is still the largest of the remaining “mainline” Protestant denominations, and the singular one which has not yet embraced the ordination of LGBTQI+ persons or same-gender marriage. Only the Traditional Plan will (ostensibly) prevent this from happening, but even if it passes, the UMC is likely to come out bruised and weakened. Regardless of what happens February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, everything will be different in the UMC on February 27th. At least, that’s my speculation.

Alarmist, you say? Negativity? Hyperbole? Divisive? Well, I prefer the term realistic.  I don’t want our church divided. I don’t want to see our congregations diminished. I don’t want the United Methodist name to be tarnished. I don’t want to break fellowship with sisters and brothers with whom I’ve traversed the highway of ministry. Each of those possibilities break my heart.

Yet, I am not one who is without hope. I do believe in miracles, and I am praying for a miracle to happen in St. Louis. I believe God has the power to work a miracle among the people called United Methodist. The problem doesn’t lie with God’s ability, but rather with our openness to the move of the Holy Spirit among us as the work is done. So, I pray that all our hearts will be open to what the Holy Spirit desires to accomplish in us and through us during that time.

In the meantime, I’m going to focus as much effort as I’m able to reach the lost in the community around me. I’m going to look to the future with plans for continuing ministry to the broken among us. I’m going to do all I can do to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That mission hasn’t changed.

Even still, I’m not without hope. Should February 2019 drive the final nail in the mainline coffin, I am certain the work of the Kingdom will continue. God is in the resurrection business, and we all know there has to be a death before there can be a resurrection.

Until next time, keep looking up…

True Love: You Think This Happens Every Day?

valentines-dayWhoever thought love could be such a lucrative business? Retailers, that’s who! According to the National Retail Federation, the average amount spent on Valentine’s Day is $136/person this year, with a total spent for the holiday of $18.2 billion dollars. That number is actually down from 2016, but it is still a big number for the nation’s second largest Hallmark holiday.

Unfortunately, Valentine’s Day has become the world’s definition of love—emotional, romantic, (dare I say?) erotic, and sometimes, downright corny. You can’t think corny without thinking about The Princess Bride and Westley’s pursuit of true love. You can watch it here:

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. Actually, the Bible says that love is the greatest characteristic we can exhibit as those who seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

We find the Bible’s most compelling explanation of love in what is called the “Love” chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. We hear this passage recited at weddings, when man and woman stand before God to pledge their love to one another, as though this passage is speaking of some emotional, romantic feeling that we have at weddings. Listen to the passage as the Apostle Paul writes it to the Corinthian Christians:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever!

13 Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.

Love can be so confusing. That’s because love is such an interchangeable word. We love our car. We love our job. We love our family. We love our church. We love going to the beach. We love our new hairstyle. We say things like, “Oh, I love how that new dress looks on you!” Or, “I just love how the light brings out the color of that painting.” The long and short of it is that we love everything, and in reality, we end up not loving very much at all.

Apparently, the Corinthian Christians were confused, too. That’s why Paul was writing—to correct their misunderstanding of what it means to love. Of course, much of Paul’s letter is spent correcting their understanding of a lot of issues. Throughout this letter, Paul addresses sex and marriage, lawsuits, incest, food sacrificed to idols, and worship in the church. Then, he turns his attention to love.

The Corinthians knew what love was. They had a couple of different words they used regularly to communicate the idea of love. First, there was the word they used to communicate romantic love. There’s a little town where I served my first full-time appointment as a pastor. The name of the town is Eros, and every year, thousands of people send their Valentine’s Day cards to Eros, LA to be postmarked to their sweetheart. That’s because Eros is the Greek word that indicates erotic or romantic love.

Another word they would be familiar with communicated the idea of “brotherly” love—rather like a fond affection. That’s why Philadelphia is called the city of brotherly love.

Paul uses a different word when he writes of love. He uses a new word for a new idea, and it’s a word not used outside the New Testament. The Corinthians didn’t quite get it. Sometimes, I think we don’t either. The word Paul uses is αγαραώ, and the shades of meaning that lie behind the word are sacrificial, self-denial, and unconditional.

For Paul, the word “love” was seated in the will, not in the emotions. This love was not a “feel good” kind of love, but rather a sacrificial, self-denying love. It’s not the kind of love the world is very familiar with.

The world says love is up to us, that love is strictly about a relationship between human beings. We sing about it in our songs. The Beatles classic

tells us it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, or what you’ve done, all you need is love. Love makes everything right. And, Dionne Warwick sang What the World Needs Now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing there’s just too little of. Both seem to indicate if we just love each other enough, if we just “feel good” about everybody, then everything will be alright.

The Bible teaches that love is other-worldly. 1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” Love as Jesus and Paul proclaimed in the New Testament is rooted in the nature and character of God. It’s more than a touchy feely, emotional affection. It is deeply sacrificial and fully self-denying. That’s the love that transforms the world, and it’s the love that will transform us. The world will never be a better place without the love of God. When we experience God’s love then we learn how to love others, for this love is a fruit of the Spirit.

The world also says, “We fall into and out of love.” Again, our music reflects this philosophy. Taylor Swift is good at writing these kinds of songs with You Belong with Me, or Begin Again. Elvis sang I Can’t Help Falling in Love, and the Righteous Brothers sang You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.

Man! I’m showing my age, aren’t I? There are a lot of songs today we call “love” songs. They’re really not. They’re “lust” songs. They’re all about the romantic, or the erotic—all about the physical. In contrast, the Bible says, “Love perseveres, is patient, and it grows.”

The world tells us love is getting what we need in a relationship. The Bible says love is self-denying. John 15:13 says, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That’s the love Jesus Christ showed to us on the cross. It was the ultimate love—the ultimate sacrifice—the ultimate self-denial.

St. Valentine knew this kind of love. May I remind you of his story? As legend tells the story, Valentinus was a Roman in the 3rd Century who protected Christians from persecution during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius II. Valentinus was arrested for breaking Christians out of prison.

He converted to Christianity while in prison and was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs, stoned and finally beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate on February 14, 269. After his death, this gate was known as Porta Valentini. While he was in prison he sent messages to his friends saying, “Remember your Valentine!” and “I love you.”

On the night before he was executed, he sent a note to the jailer’s daughter, whom he had especially befriended, and he signed that note, “From your Valentine!” Valentine gave himself in sacrifice for others. He demonstrated the greatest characteristic—love in the biblical sense. What a shame that Hallmark and Hollywood have co-opted the concept of love, and we’ve come to accept it as something totally other than it was ever meant to be.

So, here’s the challenge. Find ways to show biblical love this Valentine’s Day. Word of warning: Guys, go ahead and buy the roses and the candy. You’ll be sorry if you don’t, but what way can you live more sacrificially toward your spouse? What time can you give up to serve in your community or in your church?

Remember, it isn’t love until it costs us something. When love is costly, when love is about giving something up, when love is about surrendering our will to that of another, then we can sing with John, Paul, Ringo and George, All You Need is Love, and there’ll be meaning and transformation. What will you do? It’s up to you!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Renewing Resolutions…

resolutions-150x150I find myself every year not making new resolutions for the New Year, but simply renewing ones I’ve made in the past. I’m not sure what that says (it says I’m no good at keeping resolutions!), but I know I still want to be a better person, and somehow I think even renewing past resolutions will help me accomplish the goal. What I’ve discovered is to be a better person, something about me has to change. What I’ve also discovered is I’m a person who is in love with the idea of change if not necessarily the process of change.

What I’ve discovered through the years of renewing old resolutions is that I can’t change. I don’t have enough will-power. I’m sorry. I don’t. There! Confession over! Though I can’t change, I can be changed. When I open myself to the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit can do His work in me and I can experience the life-changing power of God. I really believe that’s part of the whole “born-again” thing that Jesus talks about in John 3. Through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus changes me from the inside out, not just once, but constantly as I open myself to His guidance. Though I can’t change myself (as much as I’d like to), I can put myself in a place where the Spirit can do His work.

One of the ways I can open myself to the Spirit is through prayer. I suppose that’s the first resolution I need to renew for 2017–I renew my commitment to pray. I probably need to learn how to do it better. I’m one who always feels like my prayer life should be better, and I lament how weak my prayer life may actually be. Unfortunately, I’m like most folks–I lament the issue, but actually do little to change it. Life always seems to get in the way.

Here’s how it happens for me: I see an announcement for a prayer retreat. It piques my interest and I think, “I really need to go to that.” It’s a free event, it’s only three hours long and they even provide food. I’ll have to drive 30 minutes, but I really need to open myself to learning how to pray better. I put the event on my calendar and think, “You’re doing well, friend, on keeping that resolution. You’ll learn and you’ll grow closer to Christ.” Nothing quite like patting yourself on the back. Then, life happens.

The prayer retreat draws closer. It’s a few days before the event and I get a call from a friend. “Hey, Lynn. I’ve got tickets to the LSU game on Saturday and I can’t go. You can have them if you want them.” In the back of my mind, I know I’ve scheduled this prayer retreat, but the idea of free tickets to Tiger Stadium overwhelms (well, momentarily anyway) the desire to improve my prayer life. I say, “Sure I’ll take them. You sure you don’t mind?” “No problem,” he says, “and I’ve even got a parking pass, too!” I get off the phone and immediately I remember the prayer retreat. “Oh, well! There’ll be other retreats on other days. After all, this is LSU and Tiger Stadium.”

I really shouldn’t be too hard on myself, I suppose. In the 21st century, if we were to put 100 disciples in a room and challenge them all with the question, “Who would like to deepen their prayer life?” I bet 100 hands would go up. Offer that some 100 disciples the opportunity to attend a three-hour prayer retreat, and ten would show up. On the other hand, walk into a room of 100 disciples and offer them free tickets and a parking pass to their favorite team, and probably 80 of them will accept the tickets, change their plans and go to the game. Not only will we change our plans and go to the game, we’ll gladly spend more money to drive four hours, perhaps even get a hotel room and eat out in a fancy restaurant (after all, the tickets were free, right?). In the meantime, I’ll continue to lament that I wish my prayer life were better. I really wish I could change. And, so it goes…

So, I’m not going to renew my resolution to change. I’m going to make a new resolution. I’m going to resolve to be changed. Holy Spirit come! I’m yours! Please, change me! The rub for me will come when life happens and I have choices to make. Stay tuned! We’ll see what happens.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Christmas Stinks!

grinchChristmas stinks! Or, so would say the Grinch who stole Christmas. You remember the Grinch? The slinky, green ogre of a character created by Dr. Seuss whose heart was too small to love and appreciate Christmas? We know the story. All the Who’s down in Whoville make the Grinch cringe with all their joy and happiness, and so the Grinch does his best to literally steal the joy of the holiday.

Click here to watch the original version of Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

There was probably not much the Grinch was right about, but I will say that Christmas stinks. Before you call me the Grinch, I ask you to think about this with me for a moment. In your mind’s eye, see if you can go back a little over 2,000 years to a tiny village in the Judean wilderness. We have such a quaint picture in our minds of what that first Christmas was like. Most of our greeting cards and nativity scenes are populated with colorful flowing robes and pristine figures so it fools us into believing that it was a quaint, pristine time. Well, folks, it stunk! Remember that Christmas came in a barn.

There were basically two ways people kept their livestock in those days. First, there was the inner room of the home. On the interior of the home was a large room full of straw, mangers and other necessities for keeping the animals. Most people weren’t rich, and their homes were very modest, and they didn’t own much livestock anyway. You might be interested to know the Paschal Lamb (the lamb used for the Passover meal) was actually a family pet that had been raised IN the home. People didn’t own barns, so their homes were constructed so that their animals were kept on the very interior of the home, and the living quarters ringed the stable. I’m not sure if you know it or not, but sheep stink!

The other type of stable was generally a cave, and this is most likely where those who came to Bethlehem on that first Christmas would find Joseph and Mary. They had gone to the innkeeper to find a room, but all he had to offer was a stable, probably behind the inn or down the street, or even on the edge of town. A cave–dark, damp, and musty. Add to the damp, musty smell of the cave some really smelly sheep, a few lowing cattle, and who knows, a few chickens (there probably weren’t any pigs—they were Jews, you know?) and you have all the makings for a really stinky place to have a baby. Yeah, let’s not even talk about the smell of that! We must not forget, either, that there was a cast of characters who came to the cave that night who were quite smelly in their own right—the shepherds. Keeping smelly sheep out in the fields of Palestine was not conducive to bathing on a regular basis. It’s highly unlikely these shepherds would have stopped by the local bathhouse before making their way to the grotto that day. Put all these elements together and we have a recipe for one malodorous mixture. Let’s just say, this was not your mother’s Jean Nate.

What an image! What a breathtakingly beautiful image! Beautiful because we know it was God entering this world. It was God taking on human flesh. It was God coming to show us what He looks like, and when God showed up, He showed up in the smelliest, lowliest place on earth. It was the most beautifully rancid place on earth, and it changed the world. The presence of Jesus transformed the dank, dark, smelly confines of a cave into a place of light, and life and love. That’s what Christmas did. That’s what Christmas does.

Christmas means God is with us—Immanuel! God is still invading this smelly old world of ours. We know that God has come in Jesus to transform our dark hearts made rancid by the stink of sin in our lives. We need transformation—all of us—all the time. I am reminded of Scottish pastor Alexander Whyte. He faithfully served his congregation in the Scottish countryside for over 40 years, and was known by all in the community as a saintly man. One day a parishioner came to Rev. Whyte and exclaimed, “Oh, Rev. Whyte, we’re so blessed to have you as our pastor. You’re such a saint!”

Rev. Whyte looked at the parishioner and replied, “Madam, if you could see my heart you’d spit in my face.”

None of us is exempt from the stinkiness that is sin in our lives. Hatred, greed, pride, arrogance, apathy and jealousy are just a few of the sins that we battle almost daily, and let’s not even get into some of those “gray” areas that we like to debate these days. Yes, it stinks, I tell you, but Christmas reminds me that the Christ who was born in a stinky barn desires to be born in me, and the same Christ who transformed that stinky old cave can transform stinky old me.

I am reminded, too, that the stink of sin, while even being transformed in me still captures much of this world. It stinks that we live in a world where war continues to take innocent lives and force refugees to flee homes and families and livelihoods. It stinks that there are children this night who will go to bed hungry, and that in a world where there is such abundance that anyone should starve. Some starve because there aren’t resources to feed them, and others starve because people withhold resources as a show of power, or as punitive action against a rival. It stinks that we live in a political climate that is so deeply divided that the good that could be done so rarely gets done because of personal agendas and desire for control. It stinks that we live in a world where our children are no longer safe from predators who would rob them of their innocence. It stinks that we live in a world where young women are kidnapped and forced into the slavery of the sex trafficking business that will be flourishing over the next several weeks as playoffs and national championships and Super Bowls will be going full blast. It stinks that in the next twelve months there will be 40 million abortions worldwide. It stinks that over the next twelve months it is projected that substance abuse and other addictive behaviors will have over a 600 BILLION dollar impact on the economy, not to mention the destruction to families, the loss of jobs, the failures in school, the domestic violence and child abuse. It stinks, I tell you, but Christmas reminds me that God is still with us, and that He seeks to be born in us to transform the darkness and the dankness and the smelliness of this broken world. Yes, those are stinky places, but if we will take the time to get out of our comfortable little worlds, we just might discover that God is there because Christmas reminds us that God is born in the stinky places of this world, born to bring light and life and love. As Christ is born in us, we can bring the sweet aroma of his presence into those terribly smelly places.

It’s certainly not in the way the Grinch meant, but yes, Christmas stinks. But isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it sweet? Isn’t it good?

Merry Christmas!

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Miracle in a Lunchable…

Someone asked me recently what is it about being at the beach that draws me in, and I answered that it was a spiritual experience to sit along the shore, especially at night, and listen to the waves crashing against the shore beholding the vastness of the universe above. Not only is it a spiritual experience, but it is humbling, too.

Actually, life is filled with humbling experiences. I pat myself on the back for being a regular at the Monroe Athletic Center, working out, doing cardio, trying to stay healthy. That’s great, and I feel real good about myself until I turn on the TV and the Bowflex guy comes on the commercial with his six-pack abs (yes, those abs he got in only twenty minutes three times a week on the Bowflex), then I look at mine and I’m humbled (and embarrassed!).

Life can be humbling. That’s the context in which we have to view John’s account of the story of the loaves and fishes. That’s okay because it is in the humility of life that we discover the stuff of miracles.

This story, the feeding of the five thousand, is the only miracle Jesus preformed that is recorded in all four Gospels. John’s version of the story of the feeding of the five thousand (or the loaves and fishes, however you chose to reference the encounter) is distinctive in that John’s is the only account that tells us about the little boy. Can we identify with that little boy? Think with me for a moment what it feels like to be a child in a large crowd. It’s intimidating. It’s scary. It’s challenging. It might even be humbling. Here’s this little boy in the middle of a crowd of Pharisees, Sadducees, big burly fishermen, rich people, poor people—5,000 men, John tells us and that doesn’t include the women. Heck, this little boy is not even significant enough to be counted. He is insignificant…almost as if he doesn’t even exist. Is that a humbling experience?

lunchableHe’s not just a little boy, but he’s poor, too. John tells us the loaves were barley loaves. Barley was the grain of the poor because it was the cheapest grain. And, the fish, well, they were sardines. Two little fish and a few slices of pita bread. This was the little boy’s Lunchable. This is what his mother had packed for him when he left home. He is a poor little boy with the worst sort of bread and a couple of sardines. When we understand this, we begin to see the power of the miracle.

The little boy was probably from a nearby village. He might have been out working in the fields or playing with friends when Jesus came by with this large crowd following him. Jesus comes along and the little boy gets caught up in the crowd. It gets late in the day and the crowd starts to stir. Some man (Andrew) comes along and asks for his lunch, “Jesus needs your lunch!” At first, he’s scared, but fear soon turns to pride—this teacher is asking for my lunch. Then, the pride turns to embarrassment as he says, “All I’ve got is my Lunchable—barley loaves and sardines.” It didn’t matter. Jesus took the barley loaves and fish and feed the crowd—maybe ten thousand people in all—and had plenty to spare.

I wonder why John makes mention of the little boy? I’m not sure why he mentions him, but I know the little boy teaches us that even the most insignificant among us possess the stuff of miracles. It was out of what the little boy had that Jesus found the building blocks of a miracle. Jesus desires to use whatever we bring. How many miracles in the world are denied because we won’t offer what we have to Jesus? We have time. We have skills. We have financial resources. We have expertise. We have so much to offer no matter how insignificant we believe ourselves to be.

Offering her little, a lady named Rosa made a difference. The story takes place in hell—Hell’s Kitchen, that is. Hell’s Kitchen is the most dangerous part of New York City. After her conversion, a Puerto Rican woman named Rosa wanted to serve. She didn’t speak a word of English. Through an interpreter, she pleaded with her pastor, Bill Wilson, “I want to do something for God, please!”

“I don’t know what you can do,” he said.

“Please just let me do something for God,” Rosa persisted.

“Okay,” Pastor Wilson said, “I’ll put you on a bus. Ride a different bus every week and just love the kids!”

That’s exactly what Rosa did. That’s how she offered to God the little she had in her own way, and as she had opportunity. In all, she rode 50 different church busses. She would find the saddest looking kid on the bus, sit down, put him or her on her knee, and whisper the only words she knew in English: “I love you, and Jesus loves you!”

After several months, she became particularly attached to one little boy. Because of him, she decided to ride just that one bus so she could be with him on the way to and from Sunday School. The little boy went every week with his sister, but he never said a word. All the way there, Rosa whispered over and over again, “I love you and Jesus loves you!”

The little boy never responded. One day, the bus stopped to let the little boy off at his stop. Before he got off, to Rosa’s amazement, he hugged her and stammered, “I, I, I love you, too!”

That was 2:30 PM. At 6:30 PM that same day, the little boy’s body was found stuffed into a garbage bag and placed under a fire escape ladder. His mother had beaten him to death. The story is unbearably tragic except in knowing that some of the last words he heard was the stuff of miracles. If he knew nothing else, he knew for sure he was loved by at least two people: Jesus and Rosa! Rosa offered her little bit of English, and what do we know that it made an eternal difference in that little boy’s tragic life.

We’re tempted to believe we can’t make a difference in the world. We’re tempted to believe that in the grand scheme of things, we’re just insignificant. We have nothing to offer. We’re not heroes. We don’t draw crowds. We don’t get press. But, here, too, God uses the insignificant, the overlooked, the little.

Jesus points out in the story, “not enough” is never the final answer. Because, when placed in the hands of Jesus, our human weakness becomes more than enough! Do we believe this? An African proverb says, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try spending the night in a closed room with a mosquito.”

It is truly miraculous, when we allow God to work through us. We should never get in the way of God’s work, by trying to take things into our own hands and saying, “There is not enough to go around!”

What do you have to bring to Christ today? You may feel like you don’t have anything significant, or that you’re not significant. You may be like the little boy who only had his Lunchable, but Christ will take that Lunchable and transform it into an all-you-can-eat buffet. When I bring my meager fare, and you bring yours, God through the Holy Spirit does the work, and it is truly miraculous!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Just Answer the Phone…

Perhaps you’ve heard of the book Diffusion of Innovations that describes how new ideas and technologies spread in different cultures. The model describes the adoption or acceptance of a new product or innovation by grouping how different people come to accept the innovation or technology. The first persons to use a new product or technology are called “innovators,” followed by those who are referred to as “early adopters.” Next come the early and late majority, and the last group to eventually adopt a product are called “laggards.” I must admit, when text messaging first came onto the scene, I was a laggard. When it comes to technology, I generally considered myself an early adopter or at least an early majority kind of person, but texting was different. Seriously! Just pick up the phone and call me.

txtSomething changed my mind, though. Want to know what it was? It was my desire to communicate with my daughters. My daughter’s preferred method of communication…their preferred method of staying connected is via text messaging. I would call them and they wouldn’t answer their phones. That was quite irritating, especially when I was paying the bill. Yet, they were constantly on their phones. I soon learned that if I texted them, they’d respond almost immediately. I could call…no answer. Text…boom! Answer right away. It’s how they communicated. Really, though…you’ve got the phone in your hand. Why can’t you just answer the silly thing? That was my reasoning. The only problem is my reasoning didn’t work with them. If I wanted to communicate with my daughters, I was going to have to communicate by their chosen means. I had to become part of the majority, even though I wanted desperately to be a laggard.

Sometimes the church can be a laggard when it comes to the diffusion of innovations. Actually, it doesn’t even have to be an innovation. It may have nothing to do with technology. It may simply be the method in which we communicate the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Jesus gave the church a fairly specific command to connect with people. He called us to connect with people so that they would become his disciples. It’s called the Great Commission, and we find it in Matthew 28: 18 – 20:

18 Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

You’re aware of the seismic shifts that are occurring in culture. Certainly with technology and our attempts at staying connected. The entire Christian faith is about being connected. To be disciples of Jesus Christ we must be connected—first, to Jesus Christ, but then, to his body, the church. We need the fellowship of believers, yet in this culture where connection seems to be so easy, the church lags behind in making disciples.

It might first be helpful to understand discipleship a little better. The word Jesus uses in issuing the Great Commission means “a follower.” It doesn’t simply mean being a student. Someone said a student learns what the teacher knows, but a disciple (a follower) becomes what the teacher is. I wonder (and it’s only wondering) if we’re having such a hard time making disciples because we haven’t become disciples ourselves? We’ve spent a lot of time learning what the Bible has to say, but how much time do we actually spend becoming what Jesus is? I’m preaching to myself, people. Jesus give us a directive to follow. It’s what he did while he was here. It’s pretty simple: go, baptize, teach. There’s an appropriate order, too. It begins with going.

I believe going is the most significant part of the Great Commission. “Go and make disciples…” “Going” to tell others the Good News is not simply shouting “turn or burn” to one outside a relationship with Jesus Christ. It is living life in such a way that others see something different in us. It is to live a life of grace…a life of compassion…a life of hope…a life of forgiveness…a life of reconciliation.

The old cliché is never truer than in matters of faith: People don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care. When we show concern and compassion for others it opens the door for a relationship. Relationship is where transformation takes place. We can never underestimate the power of relationship in the making of disciples. The relationships begin “out there” in the world…in the work place…in the marketplace…on the golf course…in the places where we encounter the people we know.

Each of us has a story to share of what God has done, and is doing in our lives. We must be ready to tell our story…even when we feel our story is insignificant. There is no insignificant story in the Kingdom of God. Not one.

I think I’ve shared with you before why I call Starbucks my satellite office. It’s because I can encounter more unchurched people in an hour at Starbucks than I can by spending forty hours a week in the office. I don’t have many unchurched people stopping by the office to chit-chat. We must go where the people are, and believe you me, there are people at Starbucks. I can’t believe so many people pay so much for coffee! I have my own Starbucks Gold Card, by the way!

If we would connect with people, we must connect with them where they are. We’ve spent far too long expecting people to come to church. Come check us out. Come see what we have going on. Come to worship. The first part of the Great Commission was “go.” Go where they are! This is one place the church plays the part of the laggard. We still want people to come, when all the Lord ever asked us to do was go. I might add that in the future there will be more church happening “out there” where people are than “in here” where we gather each week.

One other place the church plays the laggard, if I may? We lag behind the world in the way we communicate the message. Hear me clearly: the message never changes. The method in which the message is delivered is constantly changing, and unless we change our delivery method, we’ll fail to be effective and fruitful in connecting to others.

Remember, the message I wanted to communicate with my daughters didn’t change. I still told them the same things I was always telling them. I simply had to adopt the method of communication to which they became accustomed. Message the same. Method different.

One of the ways I’ve had to adapt in the church? Shorter sermons. I know! There are some Sundays it doesn’t feel that way, but truly, attention spans have decreased with the innovation of technology. People need a shorter sermon. That means for me to be effective, I have to preach shorter messages.

The message Christ has entrusted to us is a message of forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ. It is a message of hope and life. It is a message of repentance and reconciliation. It is a message of encouragement and grace. That hasn’t changed in over 2,000 years. With technology rising, and church attendance sagging, the method of communicating that message must change, too.

Let us commit to connect with God, with each other, and with others who are searching for meaning and purpose. Let us commit to be open to connecting with them whenever and wherever they are. Let us commit to connect with them in whatever means is necessary, even if it means sending them a text.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Not Enough Hours in the Day (And Other Rambling Thoughts)…

clergy burnoutI belong to a private Facebook group for clergy, and one of my colleagues posted a question about work hours to the group. The person pastors a growing church and was concerned about the number of hours worked in a typical week. The person was asking the members of the group to respond with their own typical hours. It made for some interesting responses, and prompted me to consider (or reconsider) “work” hours for myself and others.

First, a disclaimer: I write as one who went through a period of clergy burnout, so my responses may be colored by that fact. Don’t hold it against me, please. Here’s a helpful list of resources dealing with clergy burnout.

The person made the statement that he/she was working 48 – 60 hours per week, and wanted to know from others in the group is this was normal. My response? Uh…YEAH! Especially if the church you pastor is experiencing any growth. Of course, this raises the question of overwork for pastors (keep the lazy preacher jokes to yourself–and also the jokes about only working one day per week).

Here are my thoughts on pastoral work hours, and only a little rationale underlying why I think what I think. Please be gracious with any responses. Pastors have feelings, too!

I begin each week with the expectation that I’m going to “work” 50 hours per week. I also begin each week knowing the week is unpredictable, and there is no legitimate way to know how many hours I may work. I do anticipate that 50 will be the minimum. If there is a funeral or a wedding (or two, or three funerals…), then that number will stretch to nearer 60. This is my own expectation, not one anyone has placed upon me. Actually, if you look in the United Methodist Book of Discipline at the “job description” of a clergy, it would take closer to 90 hours a week, but that’s another discussion. Dr. Thom Rainer found that if you add up all the hours  for the congregational expectations for the various tasks clergy perform in a week, it would total 110 hours per week.

Here’s my rationale for my 50-hour work week. My average congregational member will work a 40-hour week. Then, I (as a pastor) expect the most committed member to offer ministry and participation to the local congregation, and if that most committed member offers 8 hours per week (including worship attendance, Sunday school, bible study, servant leadership, etc.), then that person has “worked” 48 hours per week. Why in the world would I ask any member to do more than I am willing to do myself? Aren’t we to lead by example? A subsequent question I ask is: Where does my “vocation” as a pastor end, and my calling as a “disciple” begin? There is a fine (very fine), gray line between the two.

Here’s a typical week for me:

  • Office hours 20 hours/week
  • Sermon preparation 12 – 20 hours/week (depending upon whether I’ve preached a particular passage before)
  • Hospital visitation 2 hours/week
  • Committee and Administrative meetings 4 hours/week
  • Denominational meetings and expectations 2 hours/week
  • Worship 4 hours/week (yes, leading worship is work! Try it sometime and see!)
  • Bible Study preparation (seasonal) 4 – 12 hours/week (depending on the resources utilized in prepartion)

Yes, I know the list totals more than 50 hours, but not every week includes everything on the list. There are some weeks when there are no denominational meetings or expectations, but then there are weeks when those expectations demand far more than two hours per week. The same with administrative meetings at the church, and also with hospital visitations. Throw in a single funeral, and we can add 6 – 8 hours of additional preparation time.

Please don’t misunderstand me. None of this is complaining! In one regard, I’m trying to figure out how my colleagues in ministry can possibly work less than 40 hours a week, or even limit ministry to 40 hours a week. They must be better at time management than I am! Of course, I’m the first to admit that I’m no good at time management.clergy chill

The real question for me (and this is a matter of boundaries, I suppose) is this: How much of what I do, do I do because I’m a pastor, and how much do I do because I’m a disciple? Therein lies the struggle for me. How much of what I do as a pastor would I do because I’m a disciple first? Yes, I know. There would be no sermon prep nor office hours, but I would be doing office hours somewhere, and I would be putting together projects or making sales calls, or doing whatever my chosen profession expected of me to be successful, so it would all balance out. I just figure if I haven’t invested 50 hours a week I probably haven’t done as much as my most committed member. I should do as much as my most committed member.

One of the great benefits of being a pastor is flexibility in scheduling work. With the exception of Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, we can flex our schedules relatively easily. That is definitely a benefit. This week might demand 60 hours, but next week might demand only 45, and I can greatly influence how I order those 45. There may even be the odd week that offers me the freedom to work less than 40 (those are rare, but they do happen) hours. God usually sends those at just the right time.

None of this is to say that overwork can’t be a problem. We should always observe a Sabbath. Sabbath rest is a biblical principle, and as congregational leaders (and disciples) we should lead by example. Since my burnout in 2008 I have pretty much honored my Sabbath. Yes, sometimes, funerals, special events, and unforeseen circumstances prevent it, but that’s where flexibility of scheduling becomes the benefit. We must take our Sabbath rest…must! The greatest problem many of us clergy have is getting past our own need to be needed. Take the Sabbath rest. The work will still be there when we get back. Perhaps we need the Sabbath rest to wrestle with the question, “Why do I need to be needed?” The greatest lesson I’ve learned as a pastor (a little hyperbole, folks) is that if something happens to me, there’ll be another pastor right behind me to take my place (especially in our United Methodist system of appointment). That’s also a humbling lesson. I’m not indispensable.

There’s much more I could write on this subject, but the simple fact is that I’ve already invested too much time this morning writing this blog, and I didn’t include writing this blog in figuring my hourly work load, so I’ve totally messed up my week. But, is this blog work, or is it discipleship, or is it for fun? I wonder? See how gray the line gets?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Pondering Life…

Psalm139_1316I’m up early this morning, and I’m pondering life. Two reasons, actually. First, I preached on the 139th Psalm this past Sunday. It’s my favorite Psalm. It’s my favorite Psalm because the psalmist David reveals God to be personal, present and pursuing…and that was long before Jesus appeared to be Immanuel–God with us. The second reason I’m pondering life this morning are the new allegations against Planned Parenthood selling baby parts from aborted children, and that these revelations would come as I’ve spent a week praying over and planning a message around Psalm 139. Yes, I’m pondering life this morning.

A disclaimer: This post may be out of character, as I am not prone to outrage or indignation. A further disclaimer: I am adamantly pro-life, so these allegations against Planned Parenthood have touched a nerve in a deep, deep place. So you will know, I am adamantly pro-life at the beginning as well as at the end of life. Life is a precious gift from God, and it is not to be taken lightly. I also write this morning fully aware that I am likely to offend some. That’s okay. We’ll be offended together because frankly, I’m offended that we watch idly as over 1 million infants per year are aborted.

The disclaimers continue: I am fully aware that we live in a culture that thrives on “shock value,” and that the allegations are made with shock value in mind–and they are quite shocking! I’m also aware that Planned Parenthood has vehemently denied the allegations. The very fact that such shocking allegations can be made must be investigated, and if, in any way found true, every effort must be made to end the practice, and those responsible must be punished. I think it’s also imperative that Christians speak out to denounce, in the strongest way possible, the actions of Planned Parenthood, if proven to be true.

The words I ponder from the 139th Psalm this morning are these:

13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
    and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
    Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
15 You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
    as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
16 You saw me before I was born.
    Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
    before a single day had passed.

17 How precious are your thoughts about me, O God.
    They cannot be numbered!

I am reminded of a quote I came across as I was preparing my sermon. It comes from a University of Washington genetic engineer named John Medina. Here’s what Medina had to say in a 1995 lecture at Multnomah Bible College:

“The average human heart pumps over 1,000 gallons a day, over 55 million gallons in a lifetime. This is enough to fill 13 super tankers. It never sleeps, beating 2.5 billion times in a lifetime. The lungs contain 1,000 miles of capillaries. The process of exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide is so complicated, that it is more difficult to exchange 02 for C02 than for a man shot out of a cannon to carve the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin as he passes by. DNA contains about 2,000 genes per chromosome — 1.8 meters [nearly 6 feet] of DNA are folded into each cell nucleus. A nucleus is 6 microns [one millionth of a meter] long. This is like putting 30 miles of fishing line into a cherry pit. And it isn’t simply stuffed in. It is folded in. If folded one way, the cell becomes a skin cell. If another way, a liver cell, and so forth. To write out the information in one cell would take 300 volumes, each volume 500 pages thick. The human body contains enough DNA that if it were stretched out, it would circle the sun 260 times. The body uses energy efficiently. If an average adult rides a bike for 1 hour at 10 mph, it uses the amount of energy contained in 3 ounces of carbohydrate. If a car were this efficient with gasoline, it would get 900 miles to the gallon.”

We are, all of us, fearfully and wonderfully made. I believe God has intricately and intimately woven each person together, and that God knows us from the moment of conception. The Psalmist communicated a deep truth, one which we are quickly losing in our culture, if we haven’t lost it altogether. Children (even those in the womb) share the common humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we must stand for justice on their behalf, especially those who have no voice. I’ve also been pondering the fact that though a child in the early stages of pregnancy may be called a “fetus,” or a “lump of tissuse,” that I looked exactly like that lump of tissue at that age.

No, I didn’t go in this direction with my message on Sunday (you can hear it here). Perhaps I should have. The thoughts have not been far from my mind, even as these further revelations were made.

I’ll probably get a lot of comments on today’s post…many that disagree with me. That’s okay, too. This isn’t a deep theological argument for the pro-life position. It’s my blog, and my attempt to make sense of a senseless situation.

So, what’s a person to do? I don’t know about you, but here’s what I’m going to do:

  • Pray. I’m going to pray for the women who are contemplating having an abortion. I know they are struggling, and most of them don’t take the decision lightly. I’m going to pray that the resources and support network will help them make a decision that is life-affirming, and that they will find grace in that decision. I’m also going to pray for those with whom I differ, and that in spite of our differences, we can work together to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with those who face the prospect of abortion. I’m going to pray that the allegations against Planned Parenthood will be investigated fully, and that a just resolution will be reached as a result of the investigation. Finally, I’m going to pray for the children, and trust that every child, both born and unborn, will continue to be held in the grip of God’s grace.
  • I’m going to be more vocal in my pro-life commitment.
  • I’m going to work more diligently with those agencies that offer meaningful alternatives to abortion.

There’s probably more I could (and should) do, but at least it’s a start.

Gee! I sure hope I haven’t drug you down. Perhaps now is a good time to say

Until next time, keep looking up…

Long Songs and Love Affairs…

Don McLean’s 1971 hit American Pie is a long song. It goes on for over 8 ½ minutes telling the story of “the day the music died.” 

Let’s call American Pie one of the longest songs to become a hit and receive regular airplay on U. S. radio stations, because generally, we don’t sit still for long songs. American Pie pales in comparison to the length of some other songs, though. Pink Floyd is known for some rather lengthy songs: Dark Side of the Moon runs almost 43 minutes, and Echoes coming in at just under 24 minutes are but two. Neither of those compare with Longplayer, though. Longplayer is a one thousand year long musical composition. It began playing at midnight on the 31st of December 1999, and will continue to play without repetition until the last moment of 2999, at which point it will complete its cycle and begin again. Conceived and composed by Jem Finer, it was originally produced as an Artangel commission, and is now in the care of the Longplayer Trust. Longplayer can be heard in the lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf, London, where it has been playing since it began. It can also be heard at several other listening posts around the world, and globally via a live stream on the Internet.[1] I’ve listened to it. It’s actually very weird! But, I suppose a 1,000 year-long song should be weird.

I mention these long songs because of Psalm 119. Psalm 119 goes for 176 verses, making it the longest chapter in the entire bible. Here’s what’s interesting about the 119th Psalm: There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. There are 22 stanzas to the 119th Psalm. Each stanza of this song coincides with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, the first stanza represents the letter aleph, and all eight verses of the first stanza begin with the Hebrew letter aleph. Likewise, the second letter beth begins the second stanza, and all eight verses of the second stanza begin with the Hebrew letter beth. That pattern continues through all twenty-two stanzas.

heart wordsOh, that the English language could capture the pain-staking labor of love that is the 119th Psalm! It truly expresses the love affair the author has with God’s word. In these 176 verses, the author (whom many commentators believe to be David) magnifies God’s word, praises God’s word, thanks God for it, describes it and asks God to continue to use it in his life. The Psalm is also a testimony to the knowledge the author has of God’s word. We’ve said the best songs are those written out of the writer’s own experience. Luke Bryan, reigning Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, recently said, “I like to hunt, fish, ride around on my farm, build a big bonfire and drink some beers — and that’s what I sing about. It’s what I know.” Well, that may be what Luke Bryan knows, but the Psalmist knows God’s word, and the advice he offers was not wishful thinking on his part. He had lived it, believed it, practiced it and had seen the benefits throughout his life. He was simply trying to communicate that value to others, and he chose to do it through the longest song in the Hebrew hymnbook.

So, what is the value in having a love affair with God’s word? If we took the time to survey the entire Psalm we would hear the Psalmist tell us there is no more rewarding endeavor, and no exercise pays greater spiritual dividends than reading, and dare I say, memorizing God’s word. Here’s what we’d find through these 176 verses:

  • Our prayer life strengthened,
  • Our ability to share our faith sharper and more effective,
  • People would seek us out for advice,
  • Our attitude and our outlook would be transformed,
  • Our mind would be more alert and observant (might cure a little of our ADHD),
  • Our confidence and assurance would be enhanced, and most of all
  • Our faith would be solidified.

Every one of these traits of the spiritual life are addressed by the Psalmist, but I especially like verses 9 – 16:

How can a young person stay pure?
    By obeying your word.
10 I have tried hard to find you—
    don’t let me wander from your commands.
11 I have hidden your word in my heart,
    that I might not sin against you.
12 I praise you, O Lord;
    teach me your decrees.
13 I have recited aloud
    all the regulations you have given us.
14 I have rejoiced in your laws
    as much as in riches.
15 I will study your commandments
    and reflect on your ways.
16 I will delight in your decrees
    and not forget your word.

Verse 11 is especially telling: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” Knowing God’s word can keep us from falling to temptation. What do I mean?

Jesus is our example. Matthew records after Jesus’ baptism, he went into the wilderness for forty days, and during those forty days, Satan came to tempt Jesus on three different occasions. Once, he came when Jesus was hungry and said, “Turn these stones to bread.” Jesus replied by quoting Deuteronomy 4:3: “No! People need more than bread for life; they must feed on every word of God.” Jesus quoted scripture when facing temptation. Another time, Satan came and challenged Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. Satan even quoted scripture in an attempt to deceive Jesus (Yes! There’s a correct way and an incorrect way to interpret scripture), but Jesus responded with his own quotation of scripture, again from Deuteronomy 6:16: “The Scriptures also say, ‘Do not tempt the Lord your God’.” In the third instance, Satan took Jesus to the top of a high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the earth, and said “I’ll give you all these if you will bow down and worship me.” Once more, Jesus answered from Deuteronomy 6:13: “Get out of here, Satan. For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God; serve him only’.” Jesus was prepared to meet every temptation because he had “hidden” God’s word in his heart. When temptation came, he went to the Word.

Notice, though that hiding God’s word in our hearts is more than simple Bible memorization. Hiding God’s word in our hearts means to have his word live within us and transform us in the process. The written word becomes the living word, and it breathes life into our weak mortal bodies. The Holy Spirit works through the written word to transform it into the living word as he moves in our old, dead spirit, and the word becomes a source of life and strength.

Many years ago in a Moscow theater, matinee idol Alexander Rostovzev was converted while playing the role of Jesus in a sacrilegious play entitled Christ in a Tuxedo. He was supposed to read two verses from the Sermon on the Mount, remove his gown, and cry out, “Give me my tuxedo and top hat!” But as he read the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” he began to tremble. Instead of following the script, he kept reading from Matthew 5, ignoring the coughs, calls, and foot-stamping of his fellow actors. Finally, recalling a verse he had learned in his childhood in a Russian Orthodox church, he cried, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom!” (Luke 23:42). Before the curtain could be lowered, Rostovzev had trusted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior.[2] The written word had become the living word in Rostovzev’s life, and so it may in ours, as well.

So, here are some simple ways to begin to hide God’s word in our hearts.

  • Read the Bible every day, even if it’s only one verse.It’s better to learn a little bit perfectly than to learn a lot poorly. The New Living Translation is one I’ve found that is easier to read.
  • Join a Bible study group.
  • Start memorizing verses.

Isn’t it time to begin a love affair with God’s word? Can we hide God’s word deep in our hearts, and let the Holy Spirit breathe into our spirit so it becomes the living word so that we can live the kind of life God is calling us to lead—a life of holiness, even when we face temptation. I remind us that God is not calling us to lead a happy life. God is calling us to lead a holy life. Perhaps then, our lives will reflect the deep, abiding love affair about which the Psalmist sang.

Until next time, keep looking up…

[1] http://www.funtrivia.com/askft/Question108744.html

[2] https://bible.org/illustration/romans-1017