Figuring God…

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

A PUZZLE

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

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

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

JESUS SAID…

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

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

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

THE EARLY CHURCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Corrie replied.

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

“Yes,” Corrie responded.

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…

Always Start with the Word…

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

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

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

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

STARTING IN THE WRONG PLACE

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

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

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

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

INTERNAL EVIDENCE

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

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

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

EXTERNAL VALIDATION

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

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

A MATTER OF FAITH

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

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

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

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

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

I count it all blessing to be an Evangelical Methodist.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Trying to Make Sense…

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

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

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

CULTURAL DEBATES

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

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

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

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

SHADES OF GRAY

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

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

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

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

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

THE CORINTHIAN EXPERIENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

LEGAL VS. ETHICAL

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

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

The Ethic of Love

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethic of Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…

Finding My Way Home…

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

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

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

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

A Detour

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

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

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

A Journey of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Destination

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s All Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…

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…