Conversation Starters…

Five conversations…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll get responses like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…

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…

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

On April 28, 2017, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church issued its ruling regarding the July 2016 election and consecration of Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as Bishop in the United Methodist Church. Almost everyone I know (from a Methodist perspective anyway) was waiting for this ruling, and many of them have asked me what I thought of the ruling. My answer has been: “I think it’s better than it could have been and worse than it should have been.”

BETTER THAN IT COULD HAVE BEEN

It’s better than it could have been because the Judicial Council could have decided it didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter. That is, in essence, what they ruled in part of the case. The Council concluded it did not have jurisdiction over the nomination, election and assignment as Bishop (you can read the entire decision here), but that it did have jurisdiction over the consecration of a homosexual bishop, and in that matter, the Western Jurisdiction violated church law. The decision goes on to say that any clergy who participated in the consecration are subject to a “chargeable offense.”

I’m not going to comment on the intricate details of the case because I’m not an attorney steeped in church law, but I will say that any intelligent person could read The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church and conclude that the consecration of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is a violation of church law. No matter how one parses the words, they say what they say, and no matter a person’s gifts and graces for ministry, the words say what they say. If we don’t like what the words say, then the words should be changed, but every four years for forty plus years, the wording has been reaffirmed by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

So, the ruling is better than it could have been. The Western Jurisdiction violated church law when it consecrated Rev. Dr. Oliveto bishop (although Oliveto was not specifically named in the petition). I believe it was the correct decision, and it helped to bring some clarity to the current debates within the United Methodist Church around human sexuality.

WORSE THAN IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN

But, the decision is worse than it should have been. I know many will disagree with that statement, and that’s perfectly okay with me (this is me assenting to your right to dissent–so please keep the nasty and snarky comments to a minimum). The decision left Oliveto in “good standing” in the office of Bishop, and remanded the case back to the Western Jurisdiction for what is called an “administrative process.”

Yes, others have asked what that means, too. Let me see if I can explain it briefly. Just like in the secular world, a person has a right to “due process,” so in the church a clergy person has the right to “due process” before any action can be taken against him/her (this is a good thing), so the ruling sends it back to the Western Jurisdiction for the process to play itself out.

So, while that’s good, it’s bad because the Western Jurisdiction is the entity that elected  and consecrated Oliveto in the first place, so I anticipate that nothing of substance will be done through the process, and when all is said and done, Oliveto will still be a Bishop in the United Methodist Church, and those of us who hold to the traditional biblical understanding of marriage will continue to be frustrated with the politics of it all (I’m speaking purely of church politics here). It’s also bad because it will continue to be a distraction from the mission of the church, and will continue to drain time, energy and resources away from the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.

WHAT NOW?

So, what do we do now? We wait…just like we’ve been doing. We’ll wait to see how the administrative process works itself out in the Western Jurisdiction. We’ll also continue to wait and see what the Commission on a Way Forward recommends when it completes its work, and we’ll wait to see what the special called session of General Conference does with that information when it meets in February of 2019, in St. Louis, MO.

In our waiting, we might discover that the Holy Spirit is prepared to do a new work with these people called United Methodist. The Holy Spirit could, in fact, be giving birth to a new Methodist movement. If we react now with frustration and anger (no matter which “side” of the debate we take), we might just miss the greatest move of the Holy Spirit in Methodism since John Wesley‘s heart was strangely warmed at a meeting on Aldersgate Street. Let’s all remain faithful with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness (those are the vows every person takes when she/he joins the United Methodist Church).

There is one thing we can do in the waiting, and that is to pray. We must pray for unity…but not unity for an institution…we must pray for unity in the body of Christ that goes far beyond any human institution. We must also pray for unity in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must also pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us with fire so that our singular purpose will be a people who have nothing to do but save souls.

More than waiting, though, is the necessity of work…the work of the Kingdom. We must continue to be in ministry to the least, the last and the lost. There are homeless people to feed. There are foster children to care for. There are churches to build. There are souls to save (there’s my evangelical bent coming through). There are people to love, there’s a God to worship and adore and there’s Jesus to follow. Nothing any Council (Judicial or otherwise) could ever do will change the commandment Jesus gave us to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  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” (Matthew 28: 18-20 NLT).

So, I’ll wait, and pray and work. May I invite you to join me in that endeavor.

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Call to Prayer…

It’s time to pray. Of course, as disciples of Jesus Christ, it’s always time to pray, but that sentiment is never more true than now for those of us called United Methodist. The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church begins its semi-annual meeting in Newark, New Jersey April 25th, and one of the main issues on its docket is the legality of the election and consecration of a homosexual clergy person to the office of Bishop in the United Methodist Church.

Members of the 2016-2020 Judicial Council. (From left) Front: Ruben T. Reyes, N. Oswald Tweh Sr., the Rev. Luan-Vu Tran. Back row: Deanell Reece Tacha, Lídia Romão Gulele, the Rev.Øyvind Helliesen, the Rev. Dennis Blackwell, and the Rev. J. Kabamba Kiboko. (Not pictured, Beth Capen)

In July 2016, the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church elected Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as the first openly gay bishop. As Bishop Oliveto was being elected, the South Central Jurisdiction was still in session, and upon the announcement of Dr. Oliveto’s election, delegates of the South Central Jurisdiction passed a resolution asking the Judicial Council to rule on a specific set of questions regarding the legality of the election.

Oral arguments in the matter are expected to be heard on April 25th, and the expectation is the Judicial Council will issue its ruling soon afterward. There are several possible outcomes in the case. For a review of those possibilities and more docket information, you can click on these links:

https://juicyecumenism.com/2017/04/20/preview-umc-judicial-councils-april-2017-cases/

http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/finance-and-administration/lgbtq-united-methodist-allies-prepare-for-judicial-council-s_1/

For me, this week is a watershed moment for United Methodism. In the interest of full disclosure, I was at the South Central Jurisdiction in July 2016 as a delegate, and I voted in support (as did 56% of the delegates) of the request to the Judicial Council. How the Council rules (or fails to rule) may well determine the future of our denomination. I have had persons tell me they were preparing to leave our church if the ruling went one way, and I’ve had people tell me they were prepared to leave our church if the ruling went another way. That’s a no-win either way you look at it. The ruling will likely impact mission, membership and money, and in a cultural environment that is increasingly hostile to the Gospel, it is an unfortunate witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ.

Additionally, no one really knows how a ruling may impact the work of the Commission on a Way Forward.  The Commission has been working for several months now to discern a unified way to move forward in the face of the diversity that exists, both within the Church and within culture. It will also be unfortunate that the General Conference has invested such resources to render the work moot.

Please don’t read any of this blog as anything more than a simple call to prayer for our United Methodist Church. Mine is simply another in a litany of such calls. You can read one here. I have a number of sentiments I could share here, but a colleague, Rev. Shane Bishop, has done a masterful job here, so I share his thoughts, not as my own, but as a summation of where I am personally and professionally.

So, please join me in prayer this week. Pray for:

  • Wisdom and discernment from the Holy Spirit for the Judicial Council
  • Grace for those who will present oral arguments
  • Peace among the “opposing” sides in the continuing debate
  • Strength for our bishops as they lead us amidst the chaos
  • Unity in our denomination as we face the uncertainty of the decisions and their consequences, both intended and unintended
  • Bishop Oliveto
  • Our pastors who lead congregations that hold a diversity of opinions
  • Our laity who desire to serve Christ through their local congregations

It’s time to pray folks! If you’ve never prayed for your United Methodist Church before (well, shame on you if you haven’t!), please do so now. While you’re praying, keep in mind that whatever happens, we are an Easter people. Things may not be the same after this week, but each day provides an opportunity for new life. The Lord is not done with the United Methodist Church yet. It just remains to be seen what the Lord might do with us next.

Until next time, keep looking up…(and, pray while you’re doing it!)

 

A Most Difficult Grace…

Easter is fast upon us. In two weeks, disciples of Jesus Christ will gather in places across the globe to celebrate the pivotal event in the life of our faith—the resurrection. Yes, we’re headed to Easter and new life—new life is the promise, not the old life redone. We experience this new life through Jesus Christ and the grace he offers us in practicing habits in our lives that bring transformation—habits such as prayer, fasting and bible study. There is one habit that sits at the heart of new life, at the heart of Easter itself. It is the habit that most reflects the life of Jesus, and it is the habit that should most reflect the heart of his disciples. It is the habit of submission.

SUBMISSION

Mention the word submission these days and minds run in a thousand directions both positively and negatively. As Richard Foster says, “Nothing can put people into bondage like religion, and noting in religion has done more to manipulate and destroy people than a deficient teaching on submission.” Foster’s statement demonstrates the power of sin to take the best teaching and turn it upside down. For this reason, it is with trepidation that I take up the task of exploring this spiritual discipline, for this is meant to be life-giving, not life-taking. If it is life-giving, it can be life-changing, and I remind us, we are headed toward Easter.

There are a ton of passages we could refer to this morning, but Ephesians 5: 20 – 21, captures the essence of “how” the habit is formed and lived out. We get stumped by the passages that follow Ephesians 5:21, but the verses that precede it actually set the context. The Apostle Paul tells us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” What follows is perhaps the most misappropriated and misapplied passage in the Bible. The passage has been used for centuries to subject women, in many cases, to forced servitude, and to limit the status and role of women in leadership in the church. I believe it’s a terrible reading of Paul’s otherwise radical first-century teaching. That’s all I’m going to say about that matter because what is important to our understanding of submission is found in what precedes the verses we read this morning, and we find Paul’s opening imperative in verse two, where Paul says, “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ.” And what was his example? One of a life fully submitted to the Father—submitted even unto death.

The cross is a symbol of death. It is the symbol of Good Friday. It is the symbol of the totality of Jesus’ submission. But, may I suggest it is also the symbol of life because Jesus was as submitted to the Father’s will in life as he was in death. Jesus died as he lived. He rejected power and position, telling his disciples not to let anyone call them Rabbi or teacher (Matt. 23:8-10). He lived his submission as he took women seriously and met with little children. He lived his submission as he took a towel and basin and washed his disciples feet, and then he said, “I have given you an example, that you should do as I’ve done to you” (John 13:15). Jesus’ life and teaching were revolutionary because it turned the cultural values of the day upside-down, and ushered in a new model of leadership—servant leadership.

FREEDOM

Servant leadership undermines power and self-interest because it is rooted in self-denial. Self-denial lies at the heart of submission. Remember when Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34)? But do not confuse self-denial with either self-contempt or self-hatred. It is neither. Self-denial frees us to understand we don’t have to have our own way. It frees us to surrender our need to be right, or our need to win every argument. Self-denial frees us to realize that most things in life are not nearly as important as we think they are. Self-denial frees me to accept that, thank God, I’m not the center of the universe.

And, we need to know that submission is freedom for us because it is a choice. If self-denial is the foundation of submission, then we understand that submission is choosing to place ourselves under the authority of another. Forced submission is slavery. Chosen submission is sacrifice. There’s a big difference.

In the verses that follow Ephesians 5:21, Paul shares an example of how this idea of submission could be lived out. People like illustrations in the sermons I preach. Illustrations make abstract ideas a little more concrete for us. My hearers may not always remember the big idea of my sermon, but they most always remember a story if I tell one. So, to illustrate everything he’d been writing to the church in Ephesus, he uses the household relationships of husband and wife, parent and children and master slave. Read it today and the passage seems strange to us in the 21st century. It sounds oppressive, even. It’s not quite so strange or oppressive when we connect it to the concept of mutual submission—submission as a means of grace. Paul is simply laying out an illustration of how submission works in those relationships, and not just those relationships, but submission is meant to extend to EVERY relationship.

It’s a little easier to understand what submission is—choosing to place ourselves under the authority of another, to give the right of way to another, to put their needs ahead of our needs. It’s a bit more difficult to grasp the “how” of submission. What does submission look like? How do we practice this discipline so that it becomes a habit that opens us to God’s grace? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes, it’s easy to determine what it needs to look like. Other times, it’s extremely hard to define. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit. Then again, if we had a book of rules for every circumstance, we’d be Pharisees, and we wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit. Let me just say, though, that submission looks a lot like service.

SEVEN AREAS OF SUBMISSION

Richard Foster, in his seminal work Celebration of Discipline, notes seven distinct acts of submission for a follower of Jesus Christ. First is our submission to the Triune God. The beginning of every day should begin with a simple prayer of submission. It can be as simple as the one prayed by E. Stanley Jones: “Lord, take me over and make me over.” A daily submission in body mind and spirit into the hands of God for His purposes can become a habit of submission, and it will be grace.

Second is a submission to Scripture. We submit ourselves to hear the Word, to receive the Word and to obey the Word, trusting the Holy Spirit who inspired the Word to interpret and apply it to our lives.

Third is our submission to our family. Freely and graciously we make allowances for each other. We give ourselves to one another, and that means surrendering our rights to the other. We also acknowledge the home is the primary incubator for developing this habit in our lives. What a transformation could take place in our world if husbands and wives could surrender themselves to this solitary discipline so that it becomes habit. It would be grace, indeed!

Fourth is our submission to our neighbors and those we meet in the course of our day. Random acts of kindness become the norm for us. No task is too small, for with each task, we have an opportunity to live in submission.

Fifth is our submission to the believing community—the body of Christ. There are opportunities to service to the body of Christ and service through the body of Christ. Submission is acknowledging that though I cannot do everything, I can do something.

Sixth is our submission to the broken and despised. In every culture there are people who are helpless and defenseless. We have a responsibility to be among them, to know them, and to do all we can to help them. Here is where we find self-denial most meaningful and transforming.

Seventh is our submission to the world. Our submission is a determination to live as a responsible member of an increasingly irresponsible world.

A story that captures the essence of practicing the habit of submission is told by author Stephen Beck. Beck tells of driving down a country road and coming to a narrow one-lane bridge. In front of the bridge, a sign was posted: “YIELD.” Seeing no oncoming cars, he continued across the bridge to his destination. On the way back, he came to the same bridge from the other direction. To his surprise, he saw another YIELD sign posted. He thought, “I’m sure there was one posted on the other side.” When he reached the other side of the bridge he looked back. Sure enough, yield signs had been placed at both ends of the bridge. Drivers from both directions were asked to give right of way. It was a reasonable and gracious way of preventing a head-on collision. When we practice submission it is a reasonable and gracious way to let the other have the right of way and to experience the life-changing grace of God in our lives and in the world.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Lost Grace…

CHRISTIAN CONFERENCE

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, in his writings and teachings noted what he called the “means of grace.” By “means of grace,” Wesley meant those practices whereby the disciple of Jesus Christ could experience the grace of God in life-transforming ways. Wesley would say, “Do these practices on a regular basis, and watch the work of the Holy Spirit change you.” That’s the popular Lynn Malone paraphrase but you get the idea. Wesley would distinguish between what he termed the “instituted” means and the “ordinary” means by allowing that the “instituted” means were those given to the body of Christ directly by Jesus himself. Among those “instituted” means of grace were prayer, fasting, searching the Scriptures (we’d call that Bible study) and the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion), but he also lists a fifth that we’ve lost sight of in the 21st century. He called it “Christian conference.”

We hear “Christian conference,” and we think about going to a big gathering of Christians to hear preaching and teaching, worship and the like—think Promise Keeper’s or Women of Faith. Or, if we’re a good Methodist, we think about going to Annual Conference, which is the yearly gathering of Methodists from across the state where we worship and fellowship and conduct the business of the “Annual Conference,” which (for those of you not familiar with the Methodist tradition) is an institution in and of itself. None of those thoughts were on Wesley’s mind as he taught the practice of “Christian conference.” For Wesley, Christian Conference was honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness.

GRACE LOST

Why don’t we practice this habit more often, or at all? One reason is that we desire comfort and seek to avoid conflict. Confrontation is awkward, messy, and hard, so few do it. Additionally, churches and spiritual communities are intentional about creating a sense of peace, encouragement, happiness, and joy even if it’s a façade. Identifying sin, exposing immorality, admitting the truth, uncovering corruption, and acknowledging failure contradict the image many churches are trying to portray. Following Jesus was never meant to be comfortable or easy. To live a holy life requires accountability.

In a society obsessed with self-gratification, pleasure, and comfort, churches too easily succumb to an attitude of appeasement instead of responsibility and intervention. Unchecked sin causes havoc and devastation. And while accountability can be misused, not using it at all can cause widespread harm. Accountability goes both ways and isn’t exclusively meant for pastors or those in leadership to punish those “beneath” them. Everyone is responsible. Often it’s those in leadership who need accountability the most.

Another reason we don’t develop the habit of accountability is because we live in a culture of unlimited options and choices. The next sentence is going to hurt me more than it hurts you, but it is going to hurt, so prepare yourself. Churches (and pastors) emphasize comfort because discomfort causes people to leave congregations. There, I said it! In a world inundated with options, where endless venues vie to satisfy our every need, churches are no different, and if Christians become uncomfortable, upset or discouraged, they can simply pack up and go someplace else, and many of them do. It’s easier for a church to make everyone feel good, but it often comes at the cost of spiritual maturity.

Jesus faced the same problem, too. John’s Gospel records an incident in chapter six. Jesus had fed five thousand and walked on water. The next day, the crowds clamored to be around him. Jesus figured it was time for a little accountability, so he told them, “You just wanted me for what I could do for you. Don’t worry so much about what I can provide for you, but focus on the eternal matters of life” (John 6: 26 – 27). It turned out to be one of the most difficult conversations Jesus had with those who followed him as he tried to explain that He was the bread of life. The people began arguing among themselves, and when all was said and done, we find a revealing little passage in John 6:66—“At this point, many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” Difficult conversations cause discomfort, and with so many options, we choose not to be uncomfortable.

There is a danger in developing the habit of accountability, though, and that danger is another reason we don’t practice it much anymore. The danger is legalism. Sadly, many churches, both past and present, have wrongly implemented “accountability” to serve their own agendas. There are numerous accounts of using guilt, shame, fear, embarrassment, and terror to manipulate, abuse, control, hurt, and destroy the lives of countless victims. Church history has been stained by varying degrees of legalism, and today’s churches will do anything to avoid such labels, even if it means abandoning the practice of accountability altogether. It is sad that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

REDISCOVERING GRACE

The Apostle Paul encouraged the Galatian church to hold each other accountable, and reminded them of how to do it. Paul said that we should “gently” help a fellow traveler back on the path so that we don’t fall into the same ditch. The loss of accountability can lead to believers who are susceptible to self-righteousness and spiritual immaturity. Ironically, it can also result in Christians who are more judgmental towards those outside the faith. Instead of holding ourselves accountable, it’s much easier to point the finger at the rest of society, and to be the accuser instead of the accused. To avoid our own sins, we often distract ourselves by focusing on the sins of others.

Our challenge is to responsibly develop the habit of accountability without abusing it, to gracefully and lovingly help people grow in their faith without being legalistic or abusive or accusatory, to challenge and inspire people through relational support and encouragement instead of abandoning and isolating them. The grace of accountability is about building up, not tearing down. The grace in accountability is about encouragement, not discouragement. The grace in accountability is for prayer together and prayer for one another—it is, as Paul reminds the Galatians, about bearing one another’s burdens.

John Wesley would agree. In what are called Wesley’s “Large Minutes,” he writes in reference to Christian Conference: “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? It is always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?” For Wesley, it was always about building up the body—to help each other live holy lives.

Living holy lives is the end game. It’s not about church growth, it’s about spiritual growth. The church is the place we learn to practice the habits that promote spiritual growth that we can then take back to work, to school, home and to our communities so that God’s transformation takes place, not only in us, but in the world around us.

How do I begin to develop this habit, and discover its grace? It’s all about relationship! Transformation takes place in relationship—a relationship with Jesus Christ and a relationship with others who walk the journey. The imagery Paul uses in Galatians 6 of another believer being “overcome” by some sin, the language literally is of one who has slipped—like on an icy sidewalk, or on an uneven path. No one plans to slip on an icy sidewalk. No one plans a misstep on that path, but it happens, even when we’re being careful. Yes, we can many times pick ourselves up, but when someone else is there to help us, it makes it easier. Yes, it’s embarrassing to slip on that icy patch. We look around to see if anyone saw us, and we even try to resist the efforts of others who come along to help us. Paul’s point is we need someone to help us when we stumble over sin in our lives.

Wesley’s genius was his organization of converts into societies, classes and bands. Think congregation, small group, smaller group here. For early Methodists, these accountable relationships happened in the class meetings. Classes were groups of 10-12 persons who met weekly and focused on the details of individual’s lives, where they were experiencing God and growing in faith and holiness, and where they were not experiencing God or failing to grow in faith and holiness. They asked one simple question: “How is your life in God?” It was, in all its facets, a means of developing the habit of accountability, and for Wesley, it was grace.

Accountability can be grace to us, too, when we find a group, or even a person where we can ask and be asked the question, “How is your life in God?”

Don’t have a group? Ask your pastor. Or, ask me. I’ll be glad to help.

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…

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

Who Said Church is Dying?

This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. For those from non-liturgical traditions, Pentecost Sunday is the day we acknowledge the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples 50 days after Jesus resurrection. Luke records events in Acts 2 that occurred that day. Let’s call it the birthday of the Church, and it was one of the most awesome displays of God’s power recorded in the Bible.

pentecostUnfortunately, in many circles today the Holy Spirit is either neglected, forgotten, or misunderstood. The Holy Spirit was given to unite the body of Christ, but the Spirit has become the center of controversy. Sometimes I wonder if we lack unity because we’ve quenched the power of the Holy Spirit in our churches, and in our personal lives. I wonder if we could actually have worship without a bulletin on Sunday morning. Dr. A. W. Tozer, author and pastor, said, “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.” He said that prior to 1963. I wonder what he would say in 2015?

The first Pentecost was a demonstration of God’s power that changed the world forever. God’s power brought transformation. That’s what God’s power does. Not only was this past Sunday Pentecost, but it was historically significant for those of us who call ourselves Methodists. We Methodists call May 24th, Aldersgate Sunday. It was May 24th, 1738 that Wesley recorded these events in his journal:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death…     After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.”

John Wesley had an experience with God’s power, and it too, changed the world. It was Wesley’s Methodist movement that is credited with reforming England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Historians have suggested that England didn’t go the way of France in the 18th century because of John Wesley. It was Wesley’s Methodist movement that swept across North America when, by the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest Protestant denomination in America. One in five Americans called themselves Methodist. Today, 80 million people worldwide find their religious roots in Wesley’s Methodism. That’s what happens when the power of God explodes on His people. The same power that was present on that first Pentecost is the same power that was present with John Wesley on Aldersgate Street in London, and it’s the same power that’s available to you and me today, and it’s the same power that fuels the church.

The recent Pew Research Center study on religion in America reveals some interesting findings about the faith of American Christians. As one who has served as a denominational official, and has studied the decline of our own denomination, the research only confirms what we already knew. I am blessed to serve a mainline church that is bucking the trend, but the truth is that mainline Protestantism has been in decline since the high-water mark of 1955. Someone said, “If 1955 ever comes again, the mainline church will be poised for explosive growth.”

While we may lament the decline of the Church in North America (and other places in western culture), the church is a long way from dying. The power of God revealed in the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost is still active today, and it is just as transformative as it ever was. The Washington Post ran a recent article sharing some of the amazing and encouraging facts about the growth of Christianity around the world. Here are a few facts worth noting:

  • Africa’s Christian population stands at 500 million today. Roughly one in four Africans are Christian.
  • Christianity in Asia grew at twice the rate of the population on the continent. In the next ten years, it’s projected that 110 million more people will convert to Christianity on the Asian continent.
  • Demographers estimate that more Christian believers are found worshipping in China on any given Sunday than in the United States.

As United Methodist, I’m particularly encouraged by what’s taking place in Africa. Today, there are nearly 5 million African Methodists, with an average of 220,000 more being added each year. Within ten years there will be more African United Methodists than in the United States. The Philippines is also seeing an explosion of Methodism. There, nearly one million people are  being reached through the 24 Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church.

There are other statistics I could point to that affirm the fact that Pentecost is still happening. People are being touched by the power of the Holy Spirit, and their lives are being changed. Though we lament the direction of the church in America (which says a whole lot more about us than it does the power of the Holy Spirit), it is a bit like Mark Twain said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” No, the church is not dead. It’s not even dying. It’s more alive today than ever before. If we would be the Church, and see the power of God revealed then we must, once again, open ourselves to the mind-blowing, life-changing, and as John Wesley wrote, the heart-warming Holy Spirit.

Let the fire fall, O God! Let the fire fall!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Some days are like that…

I can’t remember where I heard the saying, but as a preacher, I appreciate the sentiment: “It’s better to have something to say than to have to say something.” That’s the way I felt Sunday–I had a lot more to say than I had time to say it. It was communion Sunday, and it was All Saints Sunday, so that meant time for the sermon was limited (yes, there are those who wish time for the sermon was limited every week–but, that’s another blog!). I’m currently preaching a sermon series entitled Crossings: Facing the Challenge of Change, and Sunday’s message was “Overcoming Obstacles,” from Joshua 6. I really felt like I didn’t have enough time to do the passage or the story justice. To use another old cliche, I felt like I left too much meat on the bone.

Of course, I shouldn’t be too bummed about it, though. One of my old preaching professors taught us not to use all our material in one sermon. We will have to preach again someday. I don’t know if others find this to be the case, but it’s harder for me to write a short sermon than it is to write a longer one. And, I never know if I’m leaving out the right stuff or including the wrong stuff in the sermon when I shorten it. I suppose that’s why the Holy Spirit is so important in preaching, huh?

I also believe the power of the Holy Spirit makes it impossible to preach the same sermon twice. Yes, I might use the same manuscript, but something has changed. I notice it every Sunday morning. We have three worship hours at FUMC, MONROE every Sunday morning, and the same manuscript doesn’t preach the same way at any of the three. There are three participants in every sermon: The Holy Spirit, the preacher and the audience. If the preacher has prepared appropriately, the Holy Spirit has been active throughout the process, and He is certainly active in the moment of the preaching. I can preach the same manuscript, but the work of the Holy Spirit determines what the congregation hears, what they respond to, what touches their heart, and I’ve discovered every group will respond to different parts of the message. I just find that fact interesting, and I just laugh when I hear a preacher say they never preach the same sermon twice. I’m of the considered opinion that if a sermon was good once, it can only get better with use. But, I ramble…

So? What did I leave out? I’m glad you asked! Click on the link “Overcoming Obstacles” above to hear the sermon, so I won’t rehash it here, but I left out (at least for me) one major point: Obstacles in life present an opportunity to learn patience. I know patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit, but this is one area where the Spirit continues to challenge and convict me. I’ve often said I’ve quit praying for patience because the Lord doesn’t give me patience. He gives me opportunities to learn patience, and that becomes very frustrating.

I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for the nation of Israel to march around the city of Jericho every day. Day one–walk around the city, and wait. Day two–walk around the city, and wait. Day three–well, you get the picture. The city was only 8 – 12 acres (depending on the commentator consulted), so it couldn’t have taken more than an hour to walk around it. Suffice it to say, there was a whole lot more sitting and waiting than there was marching. I’m thinking that got old after the first couple of days, but this was more about doing God’s work God’s way than it was about the conquest itself. Sometimes, there are days we have to wait for God’s plan to unfold. As frustrating as it can be for us in our digital, get-it-now world, waiting (ergo, patience) is a spiritual discipline–and one we desperately need to practice these days.

traffic lightI’ve learned I need to count to three when the traffic light in front of me changes from red to green. If I don’t, I’m likely to get run over. It’s because fewer people pay attention to red lights anymore. I was sitting at an intersection near the church I serve last week. I was stopped because my light was red. My light changed to green. I counted to three. As I started to move, this lady in her nice SUV turned in front of me, either oblivious to the fact she just ran a red light, or not caring that she ran a red light. I would like to pass it off to inattentiveness on her part, but I’ve witnessed too many people, not hastening through caution lights, but blatantly running red lights. A person can get killed these days!

What’s the lesson, you ask? Beyond “Don’t run red lights,” you mean? Try this:

I think too many of us see red lights as obstacles that keep us from where we want to go, where we NEED to be (as though where we need to be is any more important than where anyone else needs to be, but that, too, is another blog). Rather than seeing red lights as obstacles, why not view them as opportunities to learn patience, to use red lights as a spiritual discipline? Why not use the time sitting at red lights to give thanks to God for my vehicle? Why not use the time sitting at red lights to pray for my family, or my co-workers, or friends? Why not use the time sitting at red lights to pray for the person in the car next to me? Why can’t I see that red light as an opportunity to be patient? Honestly, it generally takes more than one prayer to see the hand of God move. Every circuit around the city of Jericho was an opportunity to pray for the hand of God to move through the nation of Israel. Every red light can be an opportunity to pray for the hand of God to move in our lives, or the lives of someone else.

God’s timing is always right. Sometimes, we have to do some marching around to see what God can do. Now, here’s my confession…I blew my horn at the lady in the SUV! Whew! I feel better now.

Until next time, keep looking up…