Once the Dust Settles…

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

Here are my ruminations on #gc2019:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…

This Fruit is Always in Season…

I’ve been teaching from A Firm Foundation: Hope and Vision for a New Methodist Future on Wednesday evenings. The book is a collection of essays designed to cast a compelling vision for a renewed Methodist movement, specifically in light of the current debate within the United Methodist Church.

I bring the book up only because of the chapter I read/taught last week–“When the Holy Spirit Comes with Fire.” I won’t unpack the chapter here for you, but reading the chapter and preparing to lead the Wednesday night group caused me to dig deeper on the Holy Spirit. My digging reminded me of much I had forgotten (okay, not forgotten, but taken for granted) about the work and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

My digging deeper took me specifically to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians. In Galatians 5, Paul instructs the Galatians on living the Spirit-filled life (read the whole chapter here), and in that context he offers his list of he calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” You know the list, right?

22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

I’ll confess my own conviction as I read that list again (I’ve probably read it one thousand times before). I was convicted because there was one noticeable fruit that I can acknowledge has been absent from my life, and I believe the fact that I’ve been consumed with General Conference 2019 has put me in this place. The missing fruit, you ask? Joy!

We are, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, supposed to be joy-filled people.  One of my favorite stories about a person with a grumpy personality begins with a man going into the doctor’s office.  As he walked in, he was met by the receptionist.  He told her that he had a sore on his chin that he wanted the doctor to examine.

She said to him, “Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

“But ma’am,” he said, “it’s just a sore on my chin. I don’t think all that is necessary.”

She repeated, “Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

“But ma’am,” he said.

“Down the hall, first door to the right, and take off your clothes.”

So he went down the hall, took the first door to the right, walked in and saw another man already sitting there in his boxer shorts, shivering. He said to him, “Boy, that receptionist is really something, isn’t she? I just have a little sore on my chin and she told me to come down here, go through this door and take off my clothes.”

The man in the boxer shorts said, “You think that’s bad? I’m the UPS delivery man.”

There a lot of days recently that I felt like that nurse. But, joy is supposed to be one of the fruits that is always in season in the Christian.

What is this fruit of joy? The Greek word is chara, meaning “cheerfulness, calm delight.”  Unfortunately, I confuse joy with happiness. If I’m happy, then I am joy-filled, and if I’m joy-filled then I’m happy. That is incorrect. Joy is not happiness, and happiness is not joy. Actually, I can be happy and full of joy, but I can be unhappy and still be full of joy. Happiness is external. Joy, in the biblical sense, is internal. Happiness is based on chance. Joy is based on choice. Happiness is based on circumstances. Joy is based on Christ. Happiness is too often conditioned on what is “happening” to me. If people treat me well, and things are going good around me, then I am happy, but if things go wrong then my happiness is likely to be as fleeting as my circumstances.

Joy, however, goes beyond my circumstances. Joy throbs throughout Scripture as a profound, compelling quality of life that transcends the events and disasters which may dog God’s people. Joy is a divine dimension of living that is not shackled by circumstances. The Hebrew word means, “to leap or spin around with pleasure.”  Listen to the Psalmist:

16 But as for me, I will sing about your power.
    Each morning I will sing with joy about your unfailing love.
For you have been my refuge,
    a place of safety when I am in distress. Psalm 59: 16

The Apostle Paul understood this, too. He wrote to the Corinthian Christians: Our hearts ache, but we always have joy (2 Cor. 6:10). Joy should never be dependent on what is happening around us. Too often, unsatisfied expectations, unresolved conflict (like we have in the UMC right now), or unconfessed sin can serve to steal our joy from life. These are just three reasons that joy seems such an elusive fruit.

But there’s hope!  And that hope is spelled J-O-Y! I was reminded of this pattern on a church sign not far from my house. I think it’s really what solidified the message I’ve reflected on over the past couple of weeks. It is Jesus, Others, and You. Joy starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus is the source of our joy, and Jesus is the example of our joy. If we don’t know Jesus, we don’t know joy. If we know Jesus, we should know joy.

Then, others. If we’re serious about desiring to bear the fruit of joy, we must make sure we are doing OK on the horizontal dimension of life by living in biblical community with others. We will never know joy apart from others.

Finally, you. You have the challenge, and here it is: Go to church, get connected to Jesus and serve others. You’ll find joy in great abundance, and you’ll discover that the  fruit of joy is always in season.

Until next time, keep looking up…

What to Do When Your Job Stinks!

new-orleans-saints-wallpapersI’m a Saints fan, and sometimes I like to turn down the sound on the TV and turn up the sound on the radio, and listen to the radio broadcast from the Saints broadcasting network. It makes for a much more fan friendly broadcast to listen to the “home” team announcers on game day. I mention that, not because it has anything to do with this blog, but because I love one of the advertisers on game day. It’s River Parish Disposal Company. There’s nothing special about the company, I just love their motto. The motto of River Parish Disposal Company is “Business stinks. But, it’s picking up!”

That motto sums up the ministry of Jesus as we read it in John 11, at least on this day in question. Setting up the scene, Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died. He’s been challenged by his co-workers and the two sisters of his friend, Lazarus. Let’s face it. It’s never a fun day to go to a funeral, and this was after the Jewish leaders had tried to stone him and arrest him. This was a day when Jesus’ job really did stink, and as we read in the text, it didn’t just stink figuratively, it stunk literally. So, what did Jesus do when his job stank? He cried! Sounds like what we do when our job stinks, too. Sounds like what we do when life stinks!

We think tears are something to be avoided. Johnson’s Baby Shampoo even has a “no more tears” formula. Our culture tells us “real men don’t cry,” and our music tells us that “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” But all of us do cry at some point in our lives. We cry at the graveside of a loved one, or at the loss of a job. We cry with a broken heart when a relationship goes bad, or we cry over a sin that overwhelms us. We cry (or we should) when we hurt someone we love, or when someone we loves hurts. As long as we live in this broken world we will experience tears.

Tears are good for us, though. Tears are a way for the body to release harmful bio-chemicals. Biochemist William Frey found in one study that emotional tears–those formed in distress or grief–contained more toxic byproducts than tears of irritation (think onion peeling). Tears remove toxins from our body that build up courtesy of stress. Tears are like a natural therapy or massage session, but they cost a lot less! Additionally, tears release a natural soporific that acts as a tranquilizer to the body. That’s why we’re often tired after a good cry. Any way you look at it, tears are healthy. And, on this day, we get a good look at the fullness of Jesus’ humanity.

We know why we cry, but why did Jesus cry, especially since we know what he was about to do? One reason is simply the deep compassion that Jesus felt for those who were suffering. It is true that Jesus let Lazarus die. He delayed coming. His reasons were good and merciful and glorious, but this didn’t mean Jesus took the suffering it caused lightly. Even though Jesus always chooses what will ultimately bring his Father the most glory—and sometimes, as in Lazarus’ case, it requires affliction and grief—he does not take delight in the affliction and grief itself. Jesus is sympathetic, and as “the image of the invisible God,” in Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus we catch a glimpse of how the Father feels over the affliction and grief we experience.

Another reason Jesus wept was over the power of sin. As God the Son who had come into the world to destroy evil, Jesus was about to deliver death its deathblow. But sin grieves God deeply and so do the wages of sin: death (Romans 6:23). And ever since the fall of Adam and Eve he had endured sin’s horrific destruction. Death had consumed almost every human being he had created. It had taken Lazarus, and it would take him again before it was all over. Tears of anger and longing were mixed with Jesus’ tears of grief.

Another reason was the cost that he was about to pay to purchase not only Lazarus’ short-term resurrection, but his everlasting life. The cross was just days away and no one really knew the inner distress Jesus was experiencing. Lazarus’ resurrection would look and be experienced by Lazarus and everyone else as a gift of grace. But, it was not free. For as much as we see Jesus humanity in this passage, we also see the fullness of his divinity. As a matter of fact, chapter 11 is the turning point in John’s Gospel in the life of Jesus. From this point, Jesus is headed to Jerusalem to die a horrific death. Jesus, who had never known sin, was about to become Lazarus’ sin, and the sin of all who would believe in him, so that in him they would become the righteousness of God. As the writer of Hebrews says, Jesus was looking to the joy that was set before him, but the reality of what lay between was weighing heavily, and it brought tears.

This might also indicate yet another reason Jesus wept—raising Lazarus from the dead would actually set in motion the events that would lead to his own death. Calling Lazarus out of the tomb would have taken a different kind of resolve for Jesus than we might have imagined. Giving Lazarus life was sealing Jesus’ own death.

As I reflect on this encounter in Jesus’ life, there are a few lessons I learn. First, Jesus is angry at the power of sin in our lives. He’s not angry with us—that would be counter to the gospel of grace. He is, however angry with the power that sin holds over us, and that anger is reflected in the words of our text today.

A second lesson I learn is that Jesus is moved by our tears. He cries when we cry. He hurts when we hurt. He suffers when we suffer, and he does so because it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Sin brings suffering. That’s the result of the fall of humanity. Yes, Jesus still gets charged with not doing something about all the suffering. He got charged with it that day, too. He doesn’t set aside our tragedies or sorrows, but he is with us in the midst of the tragedies and sorrows. He walks with us, and brings us comfort.

A third lesson I learn is that tears don’t last forever. Again, our music reminds us that “It Only Hurts for a Little While.” How many oceans could be filled with the tears shed by humanity through all the centuries? And, we stand at the graveside of a loved one and we ask, “Will it always be this way?” We ask, “Is this all there is?” The writer of Ecclesiastes basically says life is suffering, death and then we’re forgotten. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. The Psalmist reminds us “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5), and when that morning comes, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4). After all, it was Jesus, on this same day he wept that he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live” (John 11:25).

Jesus asked Martha if she believed that. He asks us, too. Do we believe that?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Questions with No Answers (Four Lessons on Trials)…

Dr. James Dobson wrote a book in 1997 entitled When God Doesn’t Make Sense. The book was written for anyone struggling with trials and heartaches—the death of a loved one, disease, divorce, rejection—in the hopes of understanding the meaning of suffering in the world. He takes the reader through eleven chapters until he reaches his conclusion. It’s the conclusion we’re all looking for when it comes to hardships, trials and heartaches in this life. You know his conclusion? “I don’t know.” Eleven chapters, and he finally gets to point—I don’t know.questions and answers

It’s the same answer I give when I’m asked any of the following questions:

  • Why do we go through trials?
  • Why do we face hardships?
  • Why is there suffering in the world?
  • Why does God allow evil?

With all my theological training, the best answer I can give is, “I don’t know.” There is a verse of scripture that is often quoted when trials come. It’s Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (NKJV). Too often, we do with that verse what we do with so many other verses. We take a single verse and form a deep theological answer to a complex issue. Oh, that it were so easy. It leads us to a shaky theology that fails us in times of hardships and difficulties. Scripture is like real estate. In real estate, three things are important: location, location and location. Well, in scripture, three things are important: context, context and context. If we want to understand “all things work together for good,” we have to understand all of what Paul was saying.

If we want to know what Paul meant when he wrote “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purposes,” we have to understand the verses around it, and we have to understand where it fits in the entirety of the letter he wrote to the Romans. I just would like to know, “Is God working in all this mess of a life of mine?”

The answer, for Paul and for us, is, “Yes.” Paul was no stranger to suffering; his several near-death experiences, beatings, imprisonments, and persecutions were enough to eradicate any “pie-in-the-sky” attitude that might have lurked in his heart. In the immediate context, Paul lists some qualifiers for the good to take place: “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28, NET Bible). Paul is not giving this promise to all people, but only to those “who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

But what does this mean? Those who love God are, in this context, Christians, because they are called according to God’s purpose. We have to be careful to not say, “As long as you love God, things work out; but whenever you are not loving God, things do not work out for your good.” That’s bad theology. No, if we have faith in Christ, then all means all. Immediately after, Paul speaks of our conformity to Christ, our glorification, as the inevitable outcome of those who love God. And that is not dependent on how much we love God but on the finished work of Christ on the cross. Paul concludes this chapter by making explicit that nothing can separate us from the love of God (vv. 38-39), and by implication, that would include even our temporary lapses in our love for the Savior.

What, then, is the good? The good is conformity to Christ! Ultimately, Paul says, all things work together to bring each of us into conformity to Christ, to bring each of us to glory. Not only is Paul talking about all circumstances, but he’s also talking about all those who believe in Christ. Paul does not say “some of those” or even “most of those” when describing each stage of the salvation journey. From calling to glorification, no one who loves God misses the boat.

Great theology, preacher, but I need practicality. How do these trials and hardships work for good? Okay, here are four lessons to remember about trials.

  1. Trials are a short term reality. I love the theology of the unlettered maid who was great in the kitchen and an immaculate housekeeper, but her main strength was that she was never ruffled by anything. She was always calm and in control. When asked about her secret, she quoted a verse in the Bible: “It came to pass.” When told that this was not the complete verse she replied, “It is for me. It means that whatever comes, comes to pass. It doesn’t come to stay.” We may have short-term pain, but it’s working out a long-term gain. It’s like when we’re sick. We go to the doctor because we trust the doctor knows what he/she is doing. The doctor prescribes the treatment, and it’s painful or unpleasant, but it’s necessary for our ultimate healing. We have to endure a little more pain before we’re better. As followers of Jesus Christ, the better for us is God’s glory, and this short-term pain is working toward a long-term gain.
  1. Trials give us proper perspective. If we never had bad experiences, how would we know to appreciate the good experiences? Our problem is we interpret everything from our human, materialistic perspective. The good is not our comfort or wealth, or even our good health. The good is God’s glory. Part of my daily routine is a short devotional called Our Daily Bread. It recently had a neat prayer that read, “Lord, it is easy to let my circumstances change how I understand You. Help me to remember that You are good and faithful, even though I can’t see everything and may not understand how You are working.
  2. Trials keep us forward-focused. We may see nothing good come of misery and disaster in this world, but this world is not all of reality. There is an ‘until’; there is a place beyond the horizon of what our senses can apprehend, and it is more real and more lasting than what we experience in this life. God is using the present, even the miserable present, to conform us to the image of his Son. If we define the good as only what we can see in this life, then we have missed the whole point of this text. For, as Paul said earlier in this same chapter, “For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18, NET). For Western Christians (especially American Christians), we are prone to think if our lives are comfortable, if we have wealth, good health, that is fine and well. But that is not the good that Paul had in mind, and it is not the goal of the Christian life. The famous preacher D.L. Moody told about a Christian woman who was always bright, cheerful, and optimistic, even though she was confined to her room because of illness. She lived in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of an old, rundown building. A friend decided to visit her one day and brought along another woman—a person of great wealth. Since there was no elevator, the two ladies began the long climb upward. When they reached the second floor, the well-to-do woman commented, “What a dark and filthy place!” Her friend replied, “It’s better higher up.” When they arrived at the third landing, the remark was made, “Things look even worse here.” Again the reply, “It’s better higher up.” The two women finally reached the attic level, where they found the bedridden saint of God. A smile on her face radiated the joy that filled her heart. Although the room was clean and flowers were on the window sill, the wealthy visitor could not get over the stark surroundings in which this woman lived. She blurted out, “It must be very difficult for you to be here like this!” Without a moment’s hesitation the shut-in responded, “It’s better higher up.” She was not looking at temporal things. With the eye of faith fixed on the eternal, she had found the secret of true satisfaction and contentment.
  1. Trials help us experience God’s presence. Again, Paul gives us the practical over the theological when he reminds us in 8:26: “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.” As long as we trust, there are times we go through circumstances we don’t know how we got through them. We might say a person had a strong will or a strong character, but it was really the Holy Spirit interceding for them when they couldn’t pray, or didn’t know what to pray. And, God’s grace was provided in just the right measure at just the right time to meet the need. The Psalmist proclaimed, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…” (Psalm 23).

“Well, pastor, you haven’t given me my spiritual ‘happy pill’ this morning.” No, sorry, I haven’t, but Romans 8:28 was never meant to be that—although it has been used as such. “So, give me a little hope, please. After all, I don’t want to be like the young man who went to the fortune-teller. She looked at his palm and said, ‘You’ll be poor and very unhappy until you’re 37 years old’.”

“What’ll happen then,” the young man asked? “Will I be rich and happy?”

“No,” the fortune-teller replied, “you’ll still be poor, but you’ll be used to it by then.”

Where do we find hope in the midst of the pain? Paul answers that, too. Paul closes this most beautiful passage of scripture with these words:

37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

All our hope is in Jesus Christ. All our life is in Jesus Christ. All our glory is found in trusting Jesus Christ. For Paul, all means all. Theologically, I can’t explain it, but practically, I can face all things because of the One who gave it all for me.

Until next time, keep looking up…