Gotta’ Start Building Bridges…

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

Religion

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

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

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

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

Building Bridges

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual but Not Religious

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

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

Capturing Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps a parable can communicate it better than I:

A Parable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will you pray with me?

Until next time, keep looking up…

Too Stressed from Rest…

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

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

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

Psalm 23

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

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

Man in a Hurry

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

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

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

Rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Stillness

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…

Deferred Maintenance…

The countryside is dotted with churches in disrepair. I’ve seen them. As a District Superintendent for the United Methodist Church, I saw several churches that were abandoned and left to deteriorate. I also visited lots of churches that weren’t kept very well. What brings this to my mind is the fact that we’re dealing with many issues of maintenance that need attention where I serve as pastor. But, I’ve visited others where the building was falling down around the congregation and no one noticed. The congregation is so accustomed to the peeling paint and dirty carpet that they no longer notice it. They haven’t taken the time to fix the faucet in the bathroom, and the Sunday school literature, well it’s only twelve years old, but it’s still useable, so…

We just don’t take care of our buildings the way we should. What’s that got to do with Lent? Shouldn’t we be talking about repentance and prayer and other spiritual disciplines? Yes, we should, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The description of those run-down buildings gives us a good idea of the state of the Temple in Jerusalem when the prophet Joel was young man. Centuries of misuse and disuse had caused Solomon’s once magnificent structure to look more like a building in the slums than in the upscale section of Jerusalem. As Joel grew, there was a turnaround. Later, this dilapidated building was cleaned up and refurbished. After the remodeling, the offerings and sacrifices were restored and Temple life returned to normal. Well, almost.

The prophet Joel wrote the words of his prophecy because there was still a problem. The turnaround in the nation wasn’t complete. Everything looked good on the outside, but there really hadn’t been much of an internal change with these people. God wasn’t looking for an outer change as much as he was looking for an inner one.

It’s the same for us as we seek to observe a holy Lent. God is looking for repentance from us. He doesn’t just want us to say all the right words, and he doesn’t want to simply give us a list of duties to work on, or as we walk this 40 day journey. Outward actions are nice, but if there is no inward change, it’s really all for naught. Jesus says as much in Matthew’s Gospel.

That neglected building, that church that no one is taking much care of, is me. If I take an honest look at my life, here’s what I see?  I can’t say there’s been more good than bad. I can’t say that during this past year, I have been more interested in the things of God vs. the things of this world. In just this past week, I can’t honestly say that the Lord has always taken first place in my heart, but he has slipped through the cracks as other priorities crowded him out? Work, spending time with friends, the television and the computer, even simply “me” time have all taken priority. I am good at scheduling things that bring me happiness…and making sure that I keep those appointments.

But, have I been so busy taking care of the other matters of life that I neglected the church inside of me? Is that building strong, well-kept, and beautiful? Or, is there deferred maintenance that needs attending too? Sometimes, we lock the doors of our hearts, and just expect that our faith will remain intact, and so we can take a little vacation from working hard on our Christian lives, and when we come back, everything will be fine. If we don’t keep up the maintenance, the spiritual building will begin to fall down around us–metaphorically speaking…

Lent is a perfect time to begin that deferred maintenance in our heart. Joel’s prophecy has one word that serves as the beginning of the work–“Return!” If we’ve been away from the Lord for a while, or if we haven’t followed him as vigorously as we know we should, God is holding out an invitation to us: “Return! I want you back!”

God tells us how he wants us to return to him. The Lord says, “Rend your heart and not your garments.” In Biblical times, if a person were really upset over something, they would tear their clothes as a sign of sadness. But many people played a little game with God. When they were confronted with their sin by God’s priests and prophets, they would tear their clothes, they would put ashes on their heads. They’d do everything that made them look sad, and then they would go back to those same sins. The problem was they were trying to cure cancer with a band-aid.

The outward signs of Lent—putting ashes on our forehead, confessing our sins, singing sad songs—are all nice things to do, but they mean absolutely nothing if we are playing the crying game with God, telling him how sorry we are, but returning home to the same life we have been leading when Lent is over.

Joel helps us get into the proper mindset when he prophesies, “return to me with all your heart.” Returning is repenting, but repenting is not simply being sorry for what we’ve done. Repenting is turning from what we’ve done. Repentance includes not doing it again, and repentance starts in the heart. Missionary Gypsy Smith shares the story of the time he spent in South Africa. On one occasion, a handsome Dutchman came into his revival service, and God laid His hand on the Dutchman and convicted him of his sin. The next morning he went to the home of another Dutchman and said to the homeowner, “Do you recognize this old watch?”

“Why, yes,” answered the homeowner. “Those are my initials; that is my watch. I lost it eight years ago. How did you get it, and how long have you had it?”

“I stole it,” was the Dutchman’s reply.

“What made you bring it back now?”

“I was converted last night,” was the answer, “and I have brought it back first thing this morning. If you had been up, I would have brought it last night.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever read through the 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, but the first of those theses reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is a process that is repeated over and over throughout our life.

During Lent, as we stress our desperate need for repentance, there is a silver lining. There is time for us to come back to God. The prophet says “even now,” with our rebellious past, the Lord still wants us. We talk about doing deferred maintenance, having genuine from-the-heart repentance, and God does something awesome when we come to him on his terms. The sinner repents, and the Lord relents.

Here’s Joel 2: 13: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” We are hopelessly guilty, and we know it. We look around and see the peeling paint of our hearts. We smell the old, dirty carpet. We see the burned-out light bulbs. It’s all around us. That’s exactly why we need Lent. We come to repent because we know He is a God who relents.

Lent is a  journey toward the cross of Jesus. The cross is where we learn how God can afford to relent. Our deferred maintenance begins on Ash Wednesday, but it finds its full restoration at the foot of the cross.

It’s popular thing to give up something for Lent. Considering ourselves to be more spiritual than someone who isn’t giving up something for Lent is not an appropriate start to the journey, nor is supposing that giving up something puts us in better standing with God. The proper way of beginning is to remember that Jesus gave up everything for us, so out of gratitude we give up something we love for him. It’s an offering of sorts. But, avoiding chocolate or not watching our favorite TV show for 40 days isn’t going to make us more spiritual unless we fill the time with the Word of God and prayer.

God doesn’t command that we give up something for Lent, but if we choose to do so, here is a way that will be a spiritual benefit to us—think of something you really enjoy doing: maybe it’s eating a particular food or drinking a certain beverage. Maybe it’s an activity like shopping or exercising. Maybe it’s staring at the television or computer screen for hours on end. If you chose to give something up for Jesus, then be sure to replace it with prayer, and Bible study. Maybe instead of spending 2 hours watching a basketball game, you go into your room, and read through the Bible, slowly digesting every word, considering how God is talking to you, praying that the Lord speaks to you and makes you a better disciple. Joel ends verse 14 with these words, “I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully.”

We repent, God relents. And when we go into his Word, God opens his storehouse of spiritual treasures to us and gives us gift after gift. The Lord wants to replace the trivial things in our life with real gifts. Gifts like peace in our hearts that can deal with any problem. Gifts like a greater willingness and ability to serve Jesus in our life.

So, let’s start those maintenance projects. Our lives resemble a building that needs some upkeep, and Lent is the time to get to work. Jesus won the ultimate struggle for us. He has fixed us up, and He is fixing us up to make us a glistening, beautiful building in which we will dwell forever. God has made us into a building like that, and now with the Spirit’s help, strive to keep that building up! Let’s not be satisfied with mere cosmetic improvements, but let us plead with the Lord to use His Word to change our hearts to make us a more repentant, more useful servant in God’s kingdom.

Until next time, keep looking up…

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…

Packing a Heart of Love…

It’s time to pack our bags for St. Louis. The special called session of General Conference of the United Methodist Church is set to begin this Saturday, February 23rd with a day of prayer, and will continue through Tuesday, February 27th. One thing is certain–everything will be different in the United Methodist Church on February 28th. No one knows what that “different” will look like, but no matter what happens, I predict everything will be different. I dare not speculate on what the difference will be. Heaven knows! There’s been enough speculation already to last a lifetime.

There’s one thing I hope all the 864 delegates, alternates and observers pack as they prepare for departure. That one thing is a heart of love.

We have just celebrated the day of love—Valentine’s Day. According to the National Retail Federation, people spent $20.7 billion on Valentine’s Day in celebration of love. Valentine’s Day is the second largest Hallmark holiday, and it has, unfortunately, become the world’s definition of love—emotional, romantic and sometimes (judging from the Facebook memes), downright corny.

The Bible talks a lot about love, too, but it’s not the type of love the world talks about or that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. It’s a different kind of love, a love that requires more from us than romantic love or even brotherly love. It’s the different kind of love Jesus talked about as he taught his disciples about living the ethic of Kingdom of God. It’s an upside-down kind of love. It’s a willful, self-sacrificial love that is best reflected in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Listen to how Jesus describes how this love acts in Luke 6:

27 “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.30 Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. 31 Do to others as you would like them to do to you.

As Jesus flips the world upside-down for those first disciples, I wonder if they had as much difficulty understanding what he meant as we do. I wonder if they had as much difficulty living them as we do. It’s one thing to understand. It’s another thing to translate that understanding into action.

Loving our enemies goes against our natural inclinations. Love our friends? Naturally. Love those who love us? Easy-peasy! Love our enemies? Why would I even want to do that?

It’s a clear call from Jesus for his disciples to swim upstream, to go against the flow, to be (in a word) different. We think Jesus wants to make us better. You know how it is, right? Come to Jesus and be a better person, be a better parent, a better spouse, a better employer/employee, a better citizen. Jesus’ words remind me that being a disciple is not about being better, it’s about being different–different from the world. Yes, being different will make us better, but better comes as a by-product of living a different ethic.

Jesus’ words are hard words to hear. It’s not really the message we want to hear in a sermon. We’d rather hear “How to Have Your Best Life Now,” or “Three Steps to a Better Parenting.” Yeah! Those are sermons that will really help us be better disciples! The sermon Jesus preached this day reminds me there is a vast difference between what I want to hear and what I need to hear. And, I need to hear these words as I pack my bags for St. Louis.

I need to hear these words as I pack because there have been a few times in the past two and a half years that I haven’t had a heart of love. We in the church can be really mean. Oh, not to those outside the body of Christ, but to one another. I’ve spent a lot of time since 2016 reading many articles and blogs and Facebook posts concerning the issues before GC 2019, and I have read a lot of very mean and hurtful things–I’ve probably written, or said, or thought a lot of mean and hurtful things myself somewhere along the way. For those times that I did (knowingly or unknowingly), I repent and ask forgiveness.

Here’s a side-bar: Just don’t read the comments! Comments get argumentative, and the internet and social media give us just enough cover to allow us to write hurtful and demeaning words that we would likely never say to a person face-to-face. Just don’t read the comments!

Frustration or anger (or grief) are no justifications to act unlovingly. No, that’s the way of the world. Jesus said, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.” That’s a very different reaction, indeed. It’s a different kind of love, too. It’s not what I want to hear, but it is what I need to hear.

I need to be reminded that the “great reward” that Jesus promises to those who live this different kind of love doesn’t have to do with big houses or full pockets, but it has to do with who we become–disciples.  There is much grace and transformation needed for us to live out the radical faith Jesus demands, and there is no greater reward than to live and act the way Jesus does. Jesus knows that we will never love our enemies without the amazing grace that transforms us and makes us different than we are. What changes us and allows us to love is God’s grace; a grace that is greater than all our sin.

I’m not speaking for anyone else, nor am I accusing anyone else who may be headed to St. Louis. I’m simply making my own confession that I have not always lived this ethic, or loved in the way Jesus demands. I’m not saying everyone going to St. Louis needs to pack a heart of love. I’m saying I do. If someone else happens to overhear the conversation Jesus and I have been having over the past week and are convicted by it, well, that’s lagniappe.

So, along with my toothbrush and changes of underwear, I’ll pack a heart of love. I pray that all the 864 delegates, the alternates and observers do, as well.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Conversation Starters…

Five conversations…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll get responses like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Injustice of it All…

The Power of Sports

Okay, so last week’s blog is officially the most read blog I’ve ever written…and it dealt with football! I’m going to forget for a moment what that might say about our passion for football (is football our idol? <–click the link to the left to hear David Platt‘s take on the matter) and focus on the issue of injustice since we all seem to be concerned with how unjustly the Saints were treated.

I find it interesting that the week after the Saints lose the game in such an unjust manner that I was scheduled to preach a sermon on the question, “Why does life seem so unfair?” God’s sense of humor continues to amaze me.

You may recall that one of the points of last week’s blog was that life is simply not fair, we just need to deal with it. I shared about Paul’s unjust treatment at the hands of the Philippians, but an even more compelling example is the life of Job in the Old Testament. Talk about injustice!

Job

You remember Job? (click here to read the summary of Job’s story) The Bible calls him a good, rich man–blameless and full of integrity who had ten children, land and livestock. In Job’s story, the curtain of eternity is peeled back and we overhear a conversation between God and Satan. God actually brings Job into the supernatural conversation. God, in bringing up Job, shows His trust in Job to choose rightly. This conversation reveals the inherent nature of humanity to choose the path we will walk through this life—this is God’s revelation of humanity’s free will.

Were we to read Job’s story (you can read the whole story here), we’d discover in the supernatural battle between good and evil, Job gets put in the middle, loses his family, land and livestock and becomes painfully ill. It’s a long story, but you get the point–Job is treated unjustly…and it appears to be God’s fault!

God chose humanity to be participants in the redemption of creation. The Bible opens in paradise and it ends with a restoration of paradise in the Book of Revelation. It’s the in-between that throws us the curve balls of life. In between, we see the entrance of sin and its destructiveness on God’s good creation. Literally, from cover to cover, the Bible is about God restoring His creation, and God chose humanity to be participants in that restoration. We participate by faith. The story of Job illustrates the difference faith makes in both the physical and eternal realms.

As God’s chosen participants in the redemption of His creation, God created humanity with the freedom for making moral choices. The result of that freedom is sometimes bad choices. A person chooses to drink to excess and then drive a car. That person wrecks and kills other people. Bad decision, bad circumstances. One of people’s favorite saying is, “Everything happens for a reason.” Yes, and sometimes that reason is people are dumb and make dumb decisions. I must be careful to never blame God for my own stupidity!

But, what of innocent suffering? When a child is stricken with cancer, or the forces of nature take their toll on families and communities and nations. What of those times? The same rule applies. Return to the Garden of Eden and the curse of original sin. That one event began an unraveling of God’s creation that has caused pain and sickness, and unleashed the power of the forces of nature for destruction, and we are left to deal with the consequences. Yet, God wants to use the suffering of this world to accomplish His purpose of redeeming and reconciling the creation to Himself.

The Source of Our Hope

Romans 8: 28 is one of the most overused verses in the Bible: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them,” but it holds out the hope that God is still on the throne even when evil has the world in its grip. God sent His son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. God entered the world, limiting Himself to time and space, and when He did, He played by the same rules we play by. He suffered and died. It was in his suffering and death that the world finds its redemption, and it is in his suffering and death that we are called to be participants by faith in God’s eternal plan.

God doesn’t answer us for two reasons, I think. First, knowing the answer would not make the burden any less hard to bear. Second, God doesn’t answer because we are incapable of comprehending the answer.

We cannot see how God uses the ordinary circumstances of our daily lives to bring redemption, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t doing it. It’s been compared to making a cake. Raw flour by itself does not taste so good. Certainly, raw eggs are not something we include in our daily diet because they taste good—unless we’re Rocky Balboa. Bitter chocolate, baking powder and shortening are not good alone, but when we combine all the ingredients we get a wonderfully delicious cake.

God is faithful to trust us in the fight between good and evil. We fight by faith: faith in the One who has won the battle already, and we bear our pain and suffering knowing that, like Job, our faith matters. In the here and now, we make a difference by faith. In eternity, we make a difference by faith.

Yeah, I know that doesn’t answer the question for all time, but it is the best I can do for now. And, I bet this blog post won’t get nearly as many views as last week’s. I guess I should write more about sports!

Until next time, keep looking up…