Fill ‘er Up…

I hope I’m not being presumptuous in writing about the beliefs of a denomination I’ve only been a part of for two months. Who am I to presume I know what the Evangelical Methodist Church believes? I can only know what I read, and I read that “We believe in the Holy Spirit who illuminates the Word of God, reveals Christ to the world and empowers believers to serve God.” While illumination and revelation are integral parts of the work of the Holy Spirit, I want to focus on the task of empowering believers to serve God.

As believers in the Wesleyan lineage, we believe that God empowers us for living a holy life, and the Holy Spirit is the agent in our lives that leads us into holiness. The Holy Spirit is almost the forgotten person of the Trinity (Father, Son & Spirit). We don’t often hear much about the Holy Spirit because we (if we’re honest) just don’t know what to do with the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit gave birth to the Church when the promised Spirit descended on a small group of believers gathered in a upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 2). There was an explosion of power that day which propelled that small group of believers in Jesus Christ to go out into the streets and preach the good news that Jesus was alive. It was the fulfillment of the promise Jesus made to the same disciples when he gathered them together in the days preceding his crucifixion. He said, “It’s good that I go away, so I can send the Holy Spirit. And, the Spirit will guide you into all truth.” That’s the Lynn translation. Find his entire discourse here.

The church has been guided by the Holy Spirit ever since. The Spirit was promised, not only to those early disciples, but to us, too. All who believe in Jesus Christ are called to live the Spirit-filled life. Don’t let the phrase “Spirit-filled” scare you. We’re not talking about dancing around in a frenzy and speaking in unknown tongues…although that’s exactly what happened on the day the Holy Spirit fell upon the believers in Jerusalem. They went out into the streets and testified of the things of God so that everyone who heard, heard in their own languages. That’s one of the things we need to understand about the gift of tongues, and I believe it’s a true gift of the Spirit. Speaking in tongues is like every other gift of the Spirit…it is given to one for the benefit of others. But, I digress. I don’t mean to talk about the gifts of the Spirit, but rather the gift that is the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a gift—to the church and to individual believers. Jesus said the Spirit will serve several purposes in our lives. The Spirit will convict the world of sin, and of God’s righteousness and of judgment (John 16: 13), and in Romans 8, Paul says the Spirit will help us in our weakness and pray for us when we don’t know what to pray. There we see the work of illumination and revelation, but there is more work to be done.

Ephesians–Be Filled

The Apostle Paul encourages the believers in Ephesus to “be filled with the Holy Spirit,” yet he does it in an interesting context. In Ephesians 5, Paul cautions believers regarding their behavior, reminding them that a relationship with Christ changed them. So, he says in verse 15: “Be careful how you live.” He says, “Don’t be foolish, but rather be wise. Take advantage of every opportunity.” Then, in verse 18 he cautions them to not “be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life.

We read verse 18 and our first reaction is that Paul is making a case against believers drinking. Is Paul telling Christians not to drink? Not really. Paul wasn’t a tea-totaler, and he would instruct his protégé, Timothy, to take a little wine for his stomach. Wine was a common beverage in the first century, and Jesus himself drank wine. Don’t forget that Jesus even turned water into wine at a wedding (the best wine). This passage is not a case against drinking wine (nor is this blog an endorsement). It is a case against getting drunk. More particularly, it’s a case against getting drunk as a religious activity.

There was in Ephesus a great following of the god Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The worship of Dionysus included drinking, drinking and more drinking with lots of frenetic dancing thrown in. Think “frat party” here and you’ll have a good idea of their religious service. Followers would drink and dance until they were drunk. The belief was that if they could get totally wasted they could then open themselves to the fullness of the god, Dionysus. That’s the culture these new followers of Christ were coming out of, and Paul says, “You don’t have to do that!”

Paul knew (and we know) that life is challenging. Here’s the reality: between the time we come to trust Christ and the time we enter heaven, life happens. Life doesn’t go swimmingly just because we come to Christ. The problems we had before are likely the same problems we have after. The same temptations we had before are probably the same temptations we have after. The temptation is that when we face the challenges that life presents us, we’re want to reach back into the old life and deal with those challenges in the old way. Paul is saying, “Don’t do that!” He’s telling the Ephesians they don’t have to reach back into their old life because in this new life there is a new way to be filled with the power of God. This new way is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Paul says that rather than be filled with wine, be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are some who believe this filling by the Holy Spirit is one in which we get carried away in a frenzy. Paul isn’t talking about running up and down aisles, jumping pews or speaking in tongues. The verb he uses helps us understand what he means. He uses a word that means to be “under the influence.” To be filled with the Spirit is to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we’re prompted to ask “How do we come under the influence of the Holy Spirit?” Paul’s use of the verb helps us understand that, too.

First, the verb is an imperative. That means it’s a command. It’s not an option. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not something reserved for pastors and worship leaders. It’s something that’s intended for every believer. Every believer is given the Holy Spirit as a seal when we come to faith in Christ, and so it is God’s desire that each believer live under the Spirit’s influence. Rather than being under the influence of some alcoholic beverage, or the influence of some other outside source, live under the Spirit’s influence.

Secondly, though, the verb is in the present tense, which speaks of a continuous action. It’s not a one and done thing. Filling is meant to be an on-going process—an on-going experience. A lot of people have had mountain-top moments on their journey of faith. A mountaintop moment is like Peter, James and John had when they went with Jesus up Mount Tabor and saw him transfigured. They wanted to stay there. In that moment, they were just so close to God. But, mountaintop moments fade because life is lived in the valley. This filling Paul talks about is meant to be an everyday kind of filling that sustains us through life in the valley. It’s meant to influence us every day. We can’t fill our cars up with gas once. We have to fill them up continually.

Thirdly, the verb is in the passive voice. It means this filling is something that is done to us. We can’t fill ourselves. We can only put ourselves in a place where God can fill us. How do we do that?

The Filling Stations

First, we ask. Have we ever asked God to fill us with His Spirit? Every day we can ask God to fill us.

“Fill me as I go to work today, Lord.”

“Fill me with your Spirit, Lord, as my spouse and I deal with this issue.”

“Fill me as I face my boss today.”

“Fill me as I deal with this health issue.”

If we’re not under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we’re going to want to revert to old, and even self-destructive ways, to face the challenges of life. Simply ask. Jesus said in Luke 11:13: 13 “So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Second, we worship. Worship puts us in the place where we can experience the Holy Spirit. Paul says “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts.” Regular worship is part and parcel to being continuously filled with the Spirit. We experience God and are drawn closer to Him.

Third is fellowship—connecting with other believers. Paul stresses that fact throughout his letter to the Ephesians. He says, “Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). The Christian life is not a “one-person show.” We need each other. We cannot, and we will not, be filled with the Spirit unless we connect with the body of Christ and other believers.

Finally, we connect with God’s word—the Bible (for illumination and revelation). When we open the pages of the Bible, the Holy Spirit feeds our souls. Simply reading the words opens us to experience God in new and life-changing ways.

I hear some of you saying, “Well, I just don’t get much out of it when I read the Bible. I can’t feel anything we I read it.” Trust me. Just the act of reading the Word opens us—even if we don’t feel it. Look, we’re not always going to “feel” God doing His work. Just because we don’t feel it, doesn’t mean He’s not doing it. God is faithful and He will fill us. We just have to put ourselves in the place where we can be filled.

To be filled is to be empowered by the Holy Spirit–empowered to live the holy life.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Figuring God…

Let’s continue to reflect on the core doctrine of the Evangelical Methodist Church. The EMC says, “We believe in the Godhead, the Holy Trinity, in which there are three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

A PUZZLE

That’s the Reader’s Digest version of Article 1 of the Articles of Religion going all the way back to Wesley’s Sunday Services. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most complex, difficult-to-grasp doctrines of our faith, yet it is the most central to all of orthodox Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity causes us problems because we like to figure things out. Especially us guys. Our wives present us with a problem, and our first inclination is to figure out a solution. Problem, solution. That is way life is supposed to work. Right?

Our natural proclivity is to do the same with God. We think we have to figure God out before we can trust him. This doctrine of the Holy Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—is a mystery that theologians have pondered for centuries. We can’t quite figure out how there can be one God eternally existent in three persons. It just doesn’t quite make sense, but we think about it, we look at it from different angles, we try different illustrations to explain it, but we just can’t quite understand it.

Nowhere in the Bible is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity explicit. We will not find a chapter and verse that references the doctrine, but when we hear the words of Jesus, we know that the idea of God in Three Persons is implicit in his life and teaching. We know that God relates to His creation in the manner of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet He is not three gods but one God.

JESUS SAID…

One passage of Scripture demonstrates somewhat of the mystery that exists, but also relates Jesus’ understanding of the inter-relatedness of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John 16: 12 – 15 says:

[12]”Oh, there is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. [13] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not be presenting his own ideas; he will be telling you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. [14] He will bring me glory by revealing to you whatever he receives from me. [15] All that the Father has is mine; this is what I mean when I say that the Spirit will reveal to you whatever he receives from me.

So where did this doctrine of the Holy Trinity come from? The doctrine developed as a means to describe how the One God in whom we believe relates to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it was formed (wouldn’t you know it?) out of argument.

THE EARLY CHURCH

A fellow named Marcion in the second century taught that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were two different gods. God, in the Old Testament, was harsh, cruel, and full of wrath and judgment. Jesus, on the other hand, was kind, gentle and loving. Therefore, we should reject the God of the Old Testament and believe in Jesus Christ.

Another guy named Arius taught that Jesus was not really god, but rather a demigod created by God the Father to be a mediator between heaven and earth. Then there was a group called Enthusiasts who believed the coming of the Holy Spirit replaced God the Father and God the Son. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was formulated by the early church to describe the basic belief in God in three persons, each co-equal, co-eternal, one in essence and substance.

The debate rages still in the church among Christians and among denominations even. There are some denominations who baptize in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Isn’t that what Jesus commanded? Look at Matthew 28:19:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Another denomination baptize in the name of Jesus only. There are still other denominations who have started baptizing in the name of “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” That is the politically correct way of saying Father, Son and Holy Spirit, lest we offend anyone anyone by the male gender usage of the original formulation. These are all contemporary debates, and they grow out of our incessant desire to figure God out.

The first temptation the serpent offered to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was the temptation to “be like God, knowing everything.” Guess what? That temptation is still with us today. We like to nail everything down, put everything into neat little boxes. That way we can control every situation.

The quest for knowledge is a good thing. In Genesis, it was God who gave humanity the directive to till the soil, and to name the animals. God was laying the foundation for the scientific enterprise, and the exploration of God’s creation helps us to fulfill the task appointed to us by God Himself.

The great mistake we make is to make God a part of His creation. God is not a part of the creation. God is wholly other, and therefore, God can never be the subject of scientific investigation. God is not some riddle or mind puzzle that can be solved with enough thought and reflection. God is a mystery, and mystery that is solved ceases to be a mystery. God is a mystery to be adored rather than a riddle to be explained. All we can ever know about God is what God chooses to reveal to us. Beyond that, God will always remain a mystery.

The mysteriousness of God is the whole point behind the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine does not define God, but it does describe what God has allowed us to know of Himself. It will always remain a mystery because God will always be a mystery—at least in this life anyway. I am reminded of the words of Paul writing to the Christians at Corinth:

Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now. ( Corinthians 13:12)

There is coming a day when we will understand all things completely, but until that time we live in the mystery of this life. Jesus told his disciples “there is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now.” I think what Jesus means is pretty clear. If we knew all things and had full knowledge, it would be completely unbearable for us. We think it would give us freedom, but it would really serve to enslave us. The spontaneity of life would be eliminated, and grace would be a formula of cause and effect. Life would be reduced to a mathematical equation.

We simply cannot bear all truth just yet, but Jesus promised his disciples, and he promises us, that the Spirit of truth will guide us into all truth. Not suddenly and instantaneously, but slowly and gradually, in a measure appropriate to our ability to receive it.

I am reminded of the story Corrie Ten Boom told of her father’s illustration of faith. Corrie was lamenting the persecution endured by the Jews at the hands of the Gestapo in Nazi Germany. Fearing the time might come for her to endure such persecution, she was adamant to her father that she could never endure such suffering, that her faith would surely falter. Her father sought to reassure her that trusting God was the key. Still she persisted in her concern. Finally, her father said, “Corrie, do you remember when we used to take the train?”

“Yes,” Corrie replied.

“Do you remember when I would give you the ticket to board the train?” Dad asked.

“Yes,” Corrie responded.

“Yes, I gave it to you when you were ready to board the train,” Dad said. “So it is with faith, Corrie. God gives it to us when we need it. Not before, not after, but as we need it. To give it early may cause us to lose it. To give it too late does us no good.”

So what are we to do with this doctrine of the Holy Trinity? Perhaps we do well to remember the Good News is not that we have God all figured out, but that God has us figured out, and He loves us anyway, and he forgives our sins in spite of everything he knows about us.

We might also need to be reminded that our journey of life is not one in which all the mysteries will be solved, but one in which we know that God is behind us, ahead of us, and beside us leading us to that day in heaven when all the mysteries will be revealed, and all the doctrines of the church will be meaningless in the presence of God Himself. But, that’s another doctrine for another day.

Let’s suffice it to say that as an Evangelical Methodist I “believe in the Godhead, the Holy Trinity, in which there are three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Until next time, keep looking up…

Always Start with the Word…

As many of you know, I was recently ordained an elder in the Evangelical Methodist Church. Many of you have also asked about the beliefs of the EMC, so I thought this might be a good way to share the basic tenets of belief of the EMC. Though a blog is not the best place to do a deep dive into theological issues, I will take several weeks to offer my reflections on the core beliefs of my new faith family. I pray you stick around for the journey.

I’ll begin with the Word of God–the Bible. The EMC says, “We accept and believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We receive it as the revealed will and way of God for our daily life.”

Article V of the Articles of Religion of the EMC also states, in part: “The Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

Article V is the same Article V embraced (ostensibly) by the United Methodist Church originating from John Wesley’s The Sunday Service of the Methodists (1784). We Methodists have a long history of trust in the Bible as God’s Holy Word. Sadly, we live in an age when the validity and truth of the Bible is consistently called into question. I, for one, will continue to trust God’s Word over the changing tide of culture.

STARTING IN THE WRONG PLACE

A poll by George Barna found that 52% (yes, over half) of Christians believe the Bible teaches the self-reliant notion that “God helps those who help themselves.” Self-reliance is a false theological cornerstone that finds its roots in thinking we (humanity) and subsequently I (individually) am at the center of the universe.

We are not the center of the universe. The world does not revolve around our lives, our problems, our desires, or our needs. This inherent selfishness (caused by sin) drives our need to look at the Bible and see the things that are wrong with it. One traditional saying puts it this way; “Men don’t reject the Bible because it contradicts itself, but because it contradicts them.”

Trusting the Bible lies first in understanding what the Bible is. The Bible tells God’s story–the story of God’s creating and redeeming acts, and where we (humanity) and I (individually) fit into God’s story. It is the story of Paradise lost in Genesis, and of Paradise restored in Revelation. In between, we find the character of God as God moves in steadfast love to reconcile humanity and the creation to Himself.

The steadfast love of God is revealed through His Son, Jesus Christ, and made real to us through the Holy Spirit. The truth of the Bible is communicated through the story, and to leave out part of the story is to omit part of the truth, and the search for truth and understanding is garbled and confusing. Our trust in the Bible is confused if we fail to see that the Bible is God’s story, not our story.

INTERNAL EVIDENCE

Not only do we trust the Bible because it is God’s story, but the words of the Bible itself give us confidence in its contents. I am reminded of what the Apostle Paul wrote to a young Timothy in 2 Timothy 3: 16–All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.

We can find the Bible trustworthy because it comes from God to give us direction for our lives as God reveals where we fit into His story. Jesus himself quoted the Old Testament when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Jesus used the Scriptures to refute the Pharisees and other opponents of his ministry. The Scriptures strengthened Jesus when he was on the cross as he cried out to God the Father, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” And Jesus referred his disciples to the Scriptures that must be fulfilled concerning his death and resurrection.

You may be thinking, “We can’t trust the Bible because the Bible says we can. That is circular reasoning, and logical arguments cannot be sustained by circular reasoning.” Okay. I’ll just point out some external evidence that points to the trustworthiness of the Bible.

EXTERNAL VALIDATION

Bible means book. But, it is not just a book, but a book of books; sixty-six books altogether. The Bible is a book compiled over a period of approximately 1,500 years, over 40 different generations. Over 40 authors wrote it from all walks of life on three different continents, in different moods, and in three different languages. Think of a servant, a king, a military general, a doctor, a fisherman, a tent maker, a poet, a farmer, and a tax collector all writing from places such as a prison, a dungeon, a pastoral hillside, a palace, and a ship during times of war and of peace. Yet they all tell the same story–the story of God’s activity in redeeming humanity.

Factor in the evidence that there are over 5,300 pieces of preserved text from the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and over 10,000 from the Latin Vulgate, and at least 9,300 other early versions of the Bible, and we have more external evidence for the trustworthiness of the Bible than any ancient writings. More than Homer, more than Aristotle or Plato, more than William Shakespeare himself. Yet we do not question the validity of their writings.

A MATTER OF FAITH

Honestly, though, we will not trust in the Bible through documentary evidence preserved through history, and debated by historians, theologians, and philosophers. We will not even trust the Bible because we see it as God’s story. We will trust the Bible because we accept it as God’s story, and how do we accept it? By faith.

Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of faith, and God gives us the faith to trust His word for the salvation of our souls, and the redemption of creation. Our faith is confirmed by the experiences of our lives, and the experiences of our lives confirm the truthfulness and validity of the Scriptures. The impact the Word has had on countless saints through the ages stands as a testimony to its truthfulness and dependability in leading and directing each person on our journey of faith.

Phillips Brooks said it this way, “The Bible is like a telescope. If a man looks through his telescope he sees worlds beyond; but if he looks at his telescope, he does not see anything but that. The Bible is a thing to be looked through to see that which is beyond; but most people only look at it and so they see only the dead letter.”

The Bible is something to see life through. If we focus on the book itself, rather than what it reveals about the nature of God and the nature of humanity, we will only see its faults and foibles. We will miss the joy of finding God’s will for the redemption of humanity, and we will miss the blessing of knowing God’s will for our lives.

Then again, it’s not about us. It is about God, but we find meaning, purpose and joy for the journey that is life when we understand where our story fits with His story. Our story fits with His story through Jesus Christ. In the power of the Holy Spirit, “we accept and believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We receive it as the revealed will and way of God for our daily life.”

I count it all blessing to be an Evangelical Methodist.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Trying to Make Sense…

I’ve been reading the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church devotionally that past week or so, and honestly, I’m just trying to make sense of it all, just like I’m trying to make some sense out of everything that has been happening in our nation since March 16, 2020.

Between reading 1 Corinthians, watching the evening news and reading Facebook and Twitter, there are some days (warning: confession ahead) I just don’t feel very much like a Christian. I really want to try and make sense of that, too.

Staying off social media might help, but for better or worse, more and more people are getting their news from social media than traditional means, so I suppose that just makes me normal. If I’m normal, then I suspect there may be a few of you trying to make sense of everything that is happening in our world, too.

CULTURAL DEBATES

I remember when the cultural debates among Christians centered around what movies it was appropriate to attend, or whether Christians should drink alcohol. Debates used to be about whether Christians should acknowledge Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, or whether it is appropriate to observe Halloween.

The morals and mores of our nation are in a tectonic shift. I almost hesitate to address the issues being debated today because it’s impossible to do the subjects justice in a single blog post, and besides the fact I’m likely to say something to offend someone and that will get me banned from WordPress. Then, others have said, “Silence is violence,” so what’s a person supposed to do?

Less than twenty years ago, same-sex marriage was only a blip on the cultural radar. Now, it’s the law of the land, and it’s front and center in the church, as well-meaning and socially concerned Christians attempt to formulate a response to that cultural shift. The issue has already split several denominations, and is on the verge of splitting the United Methodist Church. I’ve been trying to figure that one out for 20 years.

Likewise, the debate over the legalization of illicit drugs, namely marijuana, was relegated to the fringe of culture. There were a few proponents, but they were greatly in the minority, and no one, a mere 10 years ago could foresee the dramatic shift in that debate. Oh, that we should long for debates about the Easter Bunny!

SHADES OF GRAY

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world that was black and white? I’m not speaking racially, of course (I almost can’t even use the analogy today–someone will call me out for it), but I’m talking about a world where all the questions have yes or no answers—a world where something is either right or wrong. Sure would make life simpler.

We tend to think the Bible is really good at black and white answers, but that all depends on how one reads the Bible. We see God’s Ten Commandments, and they’re reasonably black and white: murder, covetousness, stealing, adultery, etc. All wrong.

The Bible is pretty clear on things that are right, too–like honoring God, honoring our parents, honoring the Sabbath. The shift in the cultural landscape has left us with situations and circumstances that are not quite so black and white. We’re left to try and make sense out of them, and live faithfully to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that’s no easy task.

Most of the debates for Christians rise or fall on how one reads the Bible. Some will argue that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, or same-sex relationships. I would argue that he said a lot about it, all the way back in Genesis 2 (remember Jesus was present at creation), and in Matthew 5 and 19. And, it’s impossible to separate Jesus from his apostles, and what was Paul?

Others will argue differently. Whose Ph.D trumps (<– no political reference) whose? The point is there are a lot of issues not specifically addressed in Scripture for various reasons, yet we still have a responsibility to love God and love our neighbor, and we are often left with our own conscience to guide us. That’s another reason it’s so important to know what I (and by I, I mean you) believe.

THE CORINTHIAN EXPERIENCE

In reading 1 Corinthians, I learn the Apostle Paul dealt with similar problems in the first century. In a church in the city of Corinth, new believers were learning to live faithfully in a culture as diverse as our own. Paul was confronted with several questions which grew out of the pagan influence upon these early Christians. One such question focused on the question of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols (Chapter 8). We’re not too worried in the 21st century about eating meat sacrificed to idols, but seeing how Paul addresses the issue helps me as I’m trying to make sense of living the disciple’s life today.

Here’s the issue: Most of the meat that was sold in the town market in Corinth came from sacrificial animals which were slaughtered at ceremonies in the local temples of pagan deities. Part of the meat of each animal was burned on the temple altar, part was eaten in temple ceremonies, and part was sold in the Corinthian marketplace for consumption at home. The question at hand was this: “Did these rituals somehow automatically taint the food with some weird spiritual voodoo? Could Christians eat meat that had been offered to idols?”

Some Corinthian Christians embraced the idea of liberty they obtained through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul founded this church, and he undoubtedly shared with them the same philosophy he taught the church he established at Galatia: “For freedom Christ has set us free;” (Galatians 5:1).

What wonderful knowledge to possess! But that was just the problem. Certain Corinthian Christians possessed this knowledge and they flaunted it, and they appealed to Paul to prove that it really didn’t matter if they ate meat offered to idols. They had a point to prove to those who said they shouldn’t eat the meat, and they felt they were superior because they had this special knowledge.

Paul said to the Corinthians who embraced their liberty, “You’re right! It doesn’t matter if you eat the meat because you and I know that there is really only one God, and those other gods are no gods at all, so in reality, the meat has not been offered to anyone or anything” (the Lynn Translation). Then, he said, “Before you get all puffed up, not everyone understands this reality. Some people still believe those idols are real, and to them, to eat that meat is the same as worshiping idols, and they are convicted in their own hearts because they are weak, and by your liberty, you could cause one of them to stumble.”

Paul would clarify. He said, “Look, here’s what happens. You get an invitation to a wedding down at the temple of Aphrodite. You know Aphrodite is not real so you see no problem with going to the ceremony and sharing in the reception. But someone who is weak in their faith sees you at the temple doing what they think is wrong, and they say, ‘Oh, well, he is doing it so it must be okay,’ and they eat, but later they are convicted in their own hearts because they ate. They get confused, and their confusion can destroy their faith. And, don’t forget Christ died for them just like he died for you. So don’t use your knowledge concerning your freedom to allow anything like that to happen. Instead, give up ever eating meat if eating meat might cause one for whom Christ died to be destroyed.”

LEGAL VS. ETHICAL

So, Paul really says this is not a legal question, but it’s an ethical one. That’s where it comes down for each of us concerning all the questions in the swelling cultural shift. They’re not so much legal issues as they are ethical issues.

Therein lies the problem. If it’s a legal issue, there’s got to be a law, and the law can settle the issue. Simple enough. But, ethics goes beyond the law. The Jim Crow laws reflect this reality. It’s the ethics that trip me up and keep me from making sense of all of it. It’s the ethics that make me think on some days, I’m just not very Christian.

The Ethic of Love

I note two principles Paul uses in counseling the Corinthians concerning this gray area. They are instructive to me as I seek to live faithfully to the Gospel. First, Paul says let love be your guide. In verse 8:1, Paul offers, “while knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church.” Pride gets in the way of our love. We think we have all the answers, that we know all there is to know. I like to call it “holier than thou.” Paul said it was that type of attitude that would destroy the church. Love is what really builds up the church.

Love is the principle that sets boundaries around my liberty. The moral decay we see in our culture hasn’t happened because we allowed gambling, or because we went to the movies, or because we played cards, or smoked cigarettes, or because some Christian somewhere made a questionable value judgment in a gray area of life. Moral decay has come because we embraced the right to liberty without simultaneously embracing the responsibility to love. Rights without responsibility quickly devolve into selfishness.

Paul reminds us in chapter 13 of this same letter that “love is patient and kind,” that love is not “boastful or proud, or rude.” Paul says, “Love does not demand its own way.” That means I don’t use my freedom quite as freely because I have a responsibility to someone else to help care for his or her soul. Love takes the mind that was in Jesus Christ, who chose to humble himself through the obedience that carried him all the way to the cross.

We build up the body of Christ, and those who are weaker in their faith when we show the love of Christ to them, and put their interests ahead of our own. I am reminded that sometimes love asks more than I’m prepared to give, and love often requires more than I’m willing to do. Those are the times I don’t feel very Christian.

But, the love Paul speaks of is sacrificial love. We want to say love is unconditional, but it is not. The condition is sacrifice, and it is the second principle that should guide me in living in these confusing times.

The Ethic of Sacrifice

Paul said, “If what I eat is going to make another Christian sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live…” (v. 13). Paul was willing to give up his freedom if it meant building up someone who was weaker. He did not demand or cling to his right, but embraced his responsibility to his brother/sister.

We ask ourselves a simple question when confronted with those sticky issues that hang out in the gray areas of life: “Am I willing to stop what I’m doing if I find out it is causing another person to question it?” If I can answer that question in the affirmative, then I am observing the principle of sacrifice, which, by the way, is what Christ did for you and me. Remember, he did not cling to his own rights as God. He made himself nothing for humanity. It is Christ’s example. May it be ours, too? Why? Because what we do matters.

Our lives are contagious. Leslie Flynn points out in her book, Your Influence is Showing, that the Italian word for influence is influenza. The word influenza was introduced into English in the mid-1700’s, apparently coming from the Italian phrase that attributed the origin of this malady to an influenza de fredo (influence of the cold). Our example spreads to others as easily as the flu. Does our influence destroy or does it build up?

I’ve come to discover in my own life that while God does care about how good I am, He cares as much about how good I am to others. And, while God cares about my liberty, he cares more about my life. With love and sacrifice as my guiding principles, maybe I can begin to make a little sense out of this confusing culture.

Here’s the truth behind the truth: Love and sacrifice are nothing without the power of the Holy Spirit, for I cannot love fully as Christ loved in my own strength, and I cannot offer myself as a sacrifice for the sake of others by the force of my own will. Only when I surrender to the Spirit’s power does my love become sacrificial. Only when I give myself to the Holy Spirit does He take this confusion and transform it into something rational, wise and, dare I say, holy.

That’s the truth our culture needs as much as I need it.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Finding My Way Home…

Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with the phrase “Life is a journey, not a destination.” It’s a great quote, but it can’t actually be found in any of Emerson’s works. The first place it is found is from a prominent Methodist pastor named Lynn H. Hough. Perhaps Dr. Hough understood the essence of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians so long before—life is a journey…life…this life…is not the destination, but as those who follow Jesus Christ, we believe this life is leading us somewhere. Paul reminded them (and he reminds us): “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior” (Philippians 3: 20 NLT).

Paul only echoes what other early disciples wrote, too. Peter writes:

Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see” (1 Peter 1: 3b – 5 NLT).

Also, the writer to the Hebrews wrote: “For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come” (Hebrews 13:14 NLT).

A Detour

I feel like I’ve been on a detour for the past two years. Well, not so much a detour, but rather lost, and you know how men can be, right? When we’re on a journey and take a wrong turn, we prefer to wander around just knowing we can find our way back on course. That’s what I feel like I’ve been doing the past two years–wandering around looking to get back on course. I felt as though I lost my spiritual home. I was a wanderer. But, that’s okay. Wandering is often part of the journey.

After two years, I finally feel like I’m back on course. Why so? On June 2nd, I met with and was interviewed by the Board of Ministerial Relations of the Evangelical Methodist Church. As a result of that interview I was elected into membership in full connection as an Elder in the Evangelical Methodist Church.

What does that mean? It means that I am ordained clergy once again in a denomination that has it’s roots in John Wesley’s theology, and it’s a place I can feel at home as I continue the journey.

A Journey of Grace

Yes, life is a journey, and the journey we are on through this life is a journey toward salvation—God’s full salvation. I say “full salvation” because we tend to think in terms of salvation as that moment we came to trust Christ, but I remind us that’s just part of the journey as we understand it as those who follow the Wesleyan way.

We don’t like to use the word salvation much anymore. We don’t like to talk about people getting “saved.” It reminds us too much of preachers hitting us over the head with their Bibles and trying to guilt us into the kingdom of God. Salvation is not about any one particular place and time as much as it is about a journey that is made up of many places and many times along the way.

Our journey is a journey of grace. The Wesleyan journey speaks of prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace and glorifying grace. These are not four different kinds of grace, but rather the singular grace of God as it intersects our lives at different points along the journey. God’s grace comes to us as we are and where we are, and that’s why we are able to speak of it in different terms. But grace is neither imposed nor irresistible; we must respond to it and interact with it—and that’s the journey!

Prevenient grace means that God is working in us even when we are unaware of it and are unable or unwilling to acknowledge his presence. Prevenient grace is one way we encounter God’s salvation. It is God pursuing a continuing love relationship with us.

Then there is that when we experience God’s grace, and we begin to understand who and what it is He is calling us to. In that moment, one person may walk the aisle and make a public profession of faith, or another person may come to be baptized as an adult. It may be that moment when a young person goes through confirmation and embraces the faith of their parents as they are introduced to Jesus Christ through confirmation. It may be that time when the drunken, homeless drug addict realizes that Christ is the only answer, and that person calls out to Jesus to save them from the brokenness and pain of a wasted life, all the while kneeling and trembling in the cold of winter on a deserted street corner. That moment is the “justifying” grace of God, and it, too is an encounter of God’s salvation. It is a very important encounter, but it is not the singular defining experience of salvation.

The journey continues beyond that moment because God still seeks a continuing relationship with Himself for us. We grow in grace as we learn and live in Christ-like ways. This growing to become ever more like Christ we know as God’s “sanctifying” grace at work in our lives.

A Destination

As with every journey, though, this journey is carrying us toward something, a destination. No, the Evangelical Methodist Church is not the destination for me, It’s another part of the journey. All our lives are moving toward something, and for those of us who trust in Jesus Christ, we are moving toward that time when all things will be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.

We look forward to that day when these perishable bodies, so broken by sin and disease, will put on bodies that shall never dim or die. It is that time when the fullness of God’s salvation, not only in our lives, but in all His creation will become real. We are moving toward heaven! There’s our destination. As we survey the landscape of our culture today, it sometimes seems like we’re going in the wrong direction, but, like Paul, we go on toward perfection.

We Wesleyans have a term for that, you know? The moment we are fully redeemed in heaven with Christ is a moment of “glorifying” grace. The Apostle John gives us a glimpse of this time in The Revelation:

“I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, the home of God is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. [4] He will remove all of their sorrows, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. For the old world and its evils are gone forever.”

[5] And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making all things new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” [6] And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give the springs of the water of life without charge! [7] All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children” (Rev. 21:3-7 NLT).

We don’t talk about heaven too often. When someone dies we turn our thoughts in that direction. I’ve often said when we get to heaven we’ll likely be surprised by two things: One, who we’ll not see there, and two, who we will see there. If I’m honest, I really don’t think those will be the surprises for us, though. I don’t think I’ll be surprised or shocked by the glory of God, or even the splendor of the place. I don’t even think I’ll be shocked or surprised by the fact that I see Jesus. I think the biggest surprise will be the fact that I’m there!

It’s All Grace

I think we’ll be eternally overwhelmed with wonder at the reality of the grace that allows us to be there. We certainly rejoice in the grace of God that calls us, and we rejoice in that grace of God that justifies us. We rejoice, too, in that grace that sanctifies us and gifts us and enables us to serve and grow. But I don’t think our rejoicing in those things even comes close to the rejoicing that we will experience when we see what glorifying grace gives us…and it will be grace. I think the stunning reality of heaven will definitely be that I’m there.

I don’t know how we’ll think in our glorified condition, but if there is any vestige of Lynn Malone from this journey, the first thing is going to be shock and awe with the immediate thought, “How in the world did someone like me ever end up here?” The answer is grace—God’s grace.

Fix our hope completely on God’s grace through Jesus Christ, made real by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is that grace which chose us, that grace which called us, that grace which justified us, that grace which sanctified us, and it is that grace which will glorify us. It is all grace, grace, nothing but grace from eternity past to eternity future in the glorious presence of God. It is grace.

That’s the prize Paul is pressing toward. It’s the prize we’re pressing toward. We look forward to that grace in the future. Our hope looks to that next great explosion, that final culminating grace that will never be improved upon because it is, as Paul says, perfection.

When we know what awaits us at the end of the journey we can live with joy and expectation. It makes life exciting. It makes the journey enjoyable, and it helps us anticipate the end. We can take the journey knowing it’s not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a well-preserved body, but we’ll slide in sideways, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, “Wow! What a ride!”

Finding my way home is about finding God’s full salvation. I am grateful for every part of my journey so far, and also grateful there is a new segment. I’m anxious to see how God will continue to work out His salvation through this part of the journey. As with every part of the journey, I will rely upon the Holy Spirit to guide.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Too Stressed from Rest…

Confession time once again…I’m ready for this “Stay-at-Home” order to be lifted. I think I’m suffering from what “experts” (ugh! THAT word!) are calling “quarantine fatigue.” Basically, that just means one is tired of staying home. I’m tired of staying home and I work in an “essential” business and go to the office almost every day. But, I just want to go to the Mexican restaurant and have chips and salsa. I want to go to the movie. I want to go see my grandchildren play spring sports. I want to go to Dillard’s and buy my wife a Mother’s Day gift.

That’s a lot of “I” statements, and I’m sure there are some of you teeing up to pounce on me for my selfishness, but according to research done using cell phone data, I’m not the only one who has quarantine fatigue. More and more people are venturing out to beaches, parks and other places to break the monotony of quarantine. It’s interesting that the pandemic created one crisis. Now the quarantine is creating another. Apparently, people who are quarantined get bored, lonely and restless. Makes me wonder: Are we stressed from all this rest?

I’m not a simpleton. I know there are countless reasons we are stressed during this time. Many elderly are stressed because of the overwhelming impact the Coronavirus has on their demographic. Many small business owners are stressed by the potential loss of their livelihood. Many others are stressed from their lay-off from work, and many others are stressed by the financial impact the pandemic is having on their lives. But, stressed from rest, now that’s interesting.

Psalm 23

Quarantine fatigue puts me to pondering the 23rd Psalm. Psalm 23 must be the most-loved, most read and most quoted of all the Psalms. This psalm is called the Shepherd”s Psalm because it portrays God as a good Shepherd, who cares for and looks after his flock. The Psalm is attributed to King David. If anyone was qualified to describe God in this manner, it was David who had been a shepherd before he became a king. How often David must have gazed up at the heavens on a star-filled night whilst watching over his father’s sheep and pondered the very nature of God! Surely he must have pondered how much God was just like a shepherd. His years of shepherding had taught him a few things, and as he contemplated the shepherd’s work, he found a fitting description of what God does for his people.

There are a number of things David notes in this Psalm. The opening sentence really says all that needs to be said: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The NIV says, “I shall not be in want,” and the NLT says, “I have everything I need.” Everything that comes after the first sentence is unpacking what the Psalmist means by having everything he needs. Because we’re in the midst of a quarantine, and folks are even stressing from resting, my mind is captured by one idea David centers on—rest.

Man in a Hurry

We don’t often rest well in the 24/7/365 culture we were living in pre-pandemic. Rest is almost a forgotten art, but rest is integral to our human existence. We can’t wind the rubber band tighter and tighter. The tension has to be released, or sooner or later the rubber band will snap. When it snaps it will lead us to a mental failure, a moral failure or severe chronic health conditions. We’re seeing the same thing happen with quarantine fatigue.

I used to use a lot of Andy Griffith illustrations in my sermons. There’s one episode of the Andy Griffith Show that illustrates how we live most of our lives. The episode is entitled “Man in a Hurry,” and it’s about a business man from Raleigh (Mr. Tucker, I think is his name) whose car breaks down on Sunday. Of course, Wally, the owner of the filling station, isn’t available on Sunday, so Mr. Tucker convinces Gomer to try to fix the car. The man finds it imperative to get to Charlotte. No amount of coaxing will encourage the man to rest, relax, take it easy until Monday morning when Wally will be back and willing to fix his car.

He’s a man in a hurry. At one point, Mr. Tucker says, “You people are living in another world. This is the 20th century. Don’t you realize that? The whole world is living in a desperate space age. Men are orbiting the earth. International television has been developed, and here, a whole town is standing still because two old women’s feet fall asleep!” Barney just looks at Andy and asks, “I wonder what causes that?” That desperate need to be on the run was broadcast in 1963—that’s the year I was born, folks. Things have only gotten worse since.

Rest

We need rest, and the Psalmist says that’s exactly what the shepherd offers his sheep. “He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.” You know how it is, right? Living life with all these balls juggling in the air—you’ve got the work ball, the family ball, the church ball, the society ball. We run frantically around trying to keep all the balls juggling at the same time.

Take a look at one of those balls—the work ball. The average American works 47 hours per week. We can’t wait to get to the weekend, right? But then, we don’t rest because we have to keep the family ball in the air. There’s laundry to be done. The yard needs mowing. The hedges need trimming. The roof needs fixing. The kids have ball games. Juggle, juggle, juggle. Then, on March 17th, all that stopped. We were  forced to stop juggling the balls–to put them down, as it were. And now, we’re stressed about that, too. Ain’t life funny?

If we’re not resting, it might be a good indication we’re not following the Shepherd.  Even when we’ve been given the gift of time to rest, and the rest is stressing us, it’s a good indication we’re not following because the Shepherd makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. HE does it. He does it because rest is part of God’s nature. God worked for six days and He rested. God looked on the seventh day and saw that it was “very good.” The work was complete. And God built that rhythm into life. God didn’t need to rest because He was weary from the work. God rested because the creation was complete. It was whole.

Yeah, we had to go and mess it up. But, we can rest because we are complete in the Shepherd. We find wholeness in our relationship with the shepherd, and I remind us that wholeness is really the definition behind this little thing we call salvation.

Rest comes as a result of contentment. Sheep rest when they are content. Phillip Keller in his great book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, says there are four things that create discontent in sheep: 1) fear, 2) friction, 3) parasites, and 4) hunger. The sheep are able to rest when the shepherd addresses each one of those circumstances.

So, what are we afraid of? We can acknowledge there is much that promotes fear in the pandemic. Let’s name those fears. Where are the places of friction in our lives? All the memes on social media about home-schooling and drunk teachers are funny for a reason. Is it in a relationship? No doubt, the quarantine has caused a number of couples to deal with issues that have long been buried. What are the parasites that are drawing the life out of us? What are we hungry for (besides Mexican food)?  We find meaning, purpose and value in life when we depend on the Shepherd, not when we depend upon ourselves–even in a quarantine.

Finding Stillness

Rest doesn’t come easily or automatically for us. We must cultivate the art. May I offer some suggestions to aid cultivation?

  1. Block out time–even with an abundance on the calendar–to rest. Hopefully, you’ve established a routine even for the quarantine. Include intentional times of disconnect from the routine to stop and connect with the Shepherd.
  2. Don’t take yourself (or others) too seriously. There are things that are serious, but they are far fewer in number than we imagine.
  3. Laugh out loud every day at something. I didn’t say laugh at someone. That can be destructive. But, the wisdom writer of Proverbs says, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine” (Proverbs 17:22).
  4. Embrace the gift God is giving us to change the things in our lives that need changing. God is giving us the opportunity to reassess our priorities by learning what we can live without.

Rest is part of God’s provision for our lives. In the midst of quarantine fatigue, it seems a good time to be reminded that rest is part of the “all I need” the Good Shepherd provides. Perhaps that’s our greatest need. Maybe it’s why that’s where David started his greatest song.

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 Controllables…

nintendo controlLooks like we’re in this thing for the long haul (or at least until April 30th) so I suppose we just have to settle in and adjust to the “new normal.” I’ve heard and read that phrase many times since March 13th when President Trump issued the national emergency in light of the Coronavirus. I must say that I don’t like that phrase because there is nothing normal about the situation in our nation and in the world. I think it is an acquiescence to the fear that is in us to accept this “new” normal. What we are living in is abnormal, and I, for one, will be fighting with all that is in me to get things back to normal when we finally “flatten the curve” on this virus.

But, what do we do in the meantime? For as many times as I’ve heard or read “new normal,” I’ve also heard or read some pundit or article giving advice about living in the meantime. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered during this pandemic, it’s that everyone fancies him/herself an expert. I’ve seen or read a lot of non-medical personnel offering “expert” advice on medical issues. I’ve seen or heard a lot of non-financial folks giving financial advice. I’ve gotten a ton of emails and seen a boatload of promoted posts on social media from “life coaches” trolling for new clients offering their services in the face of the pandemic–they’re all experts, too!

Well, I figured that I’m an expert in my opinion, so that should qualify me as an expert. With that in mind, let me offer my expert opinion on how we live in the meantime. It’s really simple advice, but I’ve found it incredibly helpful to me personally. The advice is simply this–focus on the things you can control.

There are so many things that are out of our control during this time. Rather than spend time focusing on those things, why not focus on that which we can control? Just makes sense to me. It was best expressed in a meme I saw on Facebook:Important Control

I’ve decided that I’m focusing my time and effort on the important things that I can control, and as the meme points out, that’s a rather small area. So, what are those important things that I can control?

Control My Inputs

First, I can control my inputs. One thing we can’t control is the amount of time we have to spend at home. What I can control is how much time I spend in front of the television streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime. Certainly, streaming services have changed the way we watch television, but there’s no mandate that we have to sit and binge watch the entire series of Tiger King, Ozark or Narcos Mexico. After watching the entire season 2 of Narcos Mexico in the first week of the “stay-at-home” order, I discovered my mind becoming mush.

I can also control how much news I watch. Let’s not forget, folks, that CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are more opinion than news these days, and each has its own pundits who are driven more by agendas than basic facts. They’re also driven by advertising dollars, and they’ll do whatever they can to gain viewers. Fear sells, friends, and I can’t help but wonder if we’re buying too much of what they are selling, and it’s destroying us from the inside out. Rather than spending six hours watching news channels, why not watch President Trump’s press conference, your governor’s press conference and your local news, then make up your own mind about the facts?

Control My Attitude

Second, I can control my attitude. I can’t control the fact that “experts” base their models on “worst case” scenarios, and those scenarios are what get reported (see fear selling above) in the media, but I don’t have to succumb to the fear those reports often generate. I can choose to be fearful, or I can choose to be hopeful. After all, aren’t we who follow Jesus Christ, supposed to be the most hopeful of people? What does it say to a fearful world when the world see us reflecting the same fear?

I can choose anxiety, or I can choose peace. Part of my family was gathered last Sunday (we had already been around each other, so don’t judge!), and in our time together I shared a passage from John’s Gospel:

32 “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.

33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16: 32- 33 (NIV)

I wanted my family to know that though we may be separated for a time that we are never alone, and that should bring us peace. So, I’ll choose peace because I can control that choice.

Control My Actions

Finally, I can control my actions. I can’t control when someone treats me rudely in the grocery store for getting too close to them, but I can control how I respond when they do act rudely. Of course, it helps to remind myself that when someone lashes out because I violated the six foot rule or didn’t wear a mask, that they are reacting in fear, and that their actions are a reflection of their character, not mine. What I can control is whether I respond rudely or with an apology. I pray my character would lead me to respond with an apology, and to be more aware of others around me.

I also can’t control what someone posts on social media, but I’ve come to learn that I don’t have to respond to every idiot on social media. It breaks my heart that followers of Jesus are often so blatant in calling one another out on social media. Have a different opinion than another sister or brother in Christ? Fine. Rather than offer your alternative opinion in an often condescending way, why not simply post your own thoughts in a separate post without mentioning names? And, if the disagreement is sufficiently pronounced, why not message the person directly, or better yet, pick up the phone and call them. It is not a helpful witness to the world for them to see us fighting among ourselves.

So, I’m just going to focus on the controllables in my life. I don’t think “controllables” is a word, but it sounds good to me. I can control my inputs, my attitude and my actions. They’re all incredibly important, and can make the difference in how I endure the uncontrollable nature of the coronavirus.

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…