Asking the Right Questions…

“Who am I?” We’ve all asked ourselves that question at one time or another. It is a question of identity. Another question we all wrestle with in at some point in life is “What do I want to be when I grow up?” It’s a question of purpose, and we usually don’t ask it that way. We more often ask it, “What am I here for?” So, two existential questions of life are “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”

The questions get complicated really quickly, though. Let me illustrate. Who is Lynn Malone? Well, you would likely say, “He is the pastor of The House Church Movement, or Vice President for Business Development at Peoples Bank.” That is a correct if incomplete answer to the questions. It only answers the second question (“What am I here for?”). The original question is still unanswered. I asked who he is, but our tendency is to answer what he does. See the difference? Tricky, right?

It’s About Relationships

We can’t answer the “who” question without talking about relationships. To understand who Lynn Malone is, you would have to tell me about his parents, siblings, wife, and children. Then I would have a context for his relationships and would understand to whom he belongs. This belonging would help me more clearly understand who he is. This helps me understand his identity better than simply knowing what he does.

And while we’re talking about his relationships, here’s another important one to consider—his relationship with Jesus. Telling me about his earthly relationships only answers half of the “who is he” question. I also need to know about his relationship with Jesus to fully understand his identity because when Jesus enters the picture, everything changes. Literally—everything changes. This is what the Apostle Paul is telling the Ephesians in the second half of chapter 4 of his letter to the church.

Paul shares the tangible and practical aspect of the believer’s new identity which has been changed from what it was to what it is, and that change comes as a result of the believer’s relationship with Jesus Christ.

New Clothes

An Old Coat

Paul illustrates this change by using an analogy of taking off an old coat and putting on a new one. I’ve still got an old coat from a former life hanging in my closet. I wore that old coat (it’s nearly forty years old) when I was a sheriff’s deputy in Jackson Parish. It’s an old coat, but it still fits pretty darn good. But, Paul says it represents the old man, and in Jesus, we take off the old man.

I’m a bit of a fashion conscious guy. So, I go out to the mall a few months ago and I walk through the entrance and I see this red coat hanging there. I like color. I like bright colors. So, I see this red coat and I think, “I’ve gotta’ have it.” It is my newest coat. Paul says the believer puts on a new coat. He says we are changed!

As a matter of fact, were we to read back up in Chapter 4:17, we’d hear Paul tell them, “Live no longer as the Gentiles do!” Actually, that’s a little strange because most of the Ephesian Christians were Gentiles. So, Paul is saying that’s the old coat you’ve taken off. It’s not where your primary identity lies anymore. It’s NOT who you are. Now, you are in Christ, and because you are in Christ, you are changed.

Do we understand the implication for us today? Rather than finding our identity in tribes or groups, we find our identity in Christ. We are no longer oppressor nor oppressed. Our relationship with Jesus powerfully influences our identities because in Jesus we are new! Not reformed, refurbished, nor remodeled—we are simply and totally new! 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT) says, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

In our old lives, we thought and acted a particular way and belonged (spiritually) to a particular entity. But when Jesus entered the picture, we became new. So as a result, we began to think and act a new way, and we belong to a new person—God. 

The New Questions

This means when Jesus enters our lives, He changes the answers to our two questions. In fact, we need this new set of questions to explore our new identities:

  • Who am I in Christ?
  • Who is Christ in me?

Our truest and most powerful identity is hidden in the answers to these questions. Who I am is now framed most strongly by the One to whom I belong. I am no longer who I was. I am now who He says I am. The more I understand Jesus, the more I understand me.

But that’s not all. When I ask who Christ is in me, I discover all Jesus has done to set me up for the strongest contribution to the world. Jesus not only radically alters my belonging, but His power and presence in me now physically affect what I am capable of. His presence awakens spiritual gifts that give me a strong contributing edge I never had before. His passion for people awakens my passions, which give me fuel to pursue what matters to Him.

What is it that matters to Him? That’s what Paul lays out in one of the lists that he likes to make. He talks about sin, and they were sins that the first century Ephesians were dealing with. I don’t have time to go into all of them, and even if I did, we’d be focusing on the wrong thing. As Paul unpacks the nature of the 1st century world, he saw people who sinned and didn’t care. Their hearts were hardened to the sin they were in. He saw people who were shameless in the living of their lives. They did what they wanted to do and they didn’t care who it affected. It was the epitome of self-centeredness. I will say, however, that Paul’s take on 1st century Ephesus sounds eerily similar to 21st century western culture. Let that be warning enough for us.

The Christian life is not checking off lists of do’s and don’ts. It is about being changed by the power of God in our lives through His Holy Spirit. What matters to God is sexual purity, and if it matters to God, it ought to matter to us. Truth, generosity, compassion, love and forgiveness. All these matter to God and so they become guiding principles in our lives. They become part and parcel of who we are. They answer the question—“Who am I in Christ?”

Yes, we’ve put on a new coat, but just because we’ve put on a new coat doesn’t mean the temptation isn’t there to grab the old one and put it back on. Actually, that old one can be comfortable. Oh, and it still fits by the way! It’s easier to put the old coat on, too. Putting on the new coat is a conscious choice we must make every day. We put on the new coat every day by faith, by choosing to believe that we are who He says we are.

Sanctifying Grace

The Christian life is not a static life. It’s not a thermostat. Those are wonderful creations that we set it and forget it. Keeps things at a cool 68 degrees or a toasty 72 degrees. The Christian life is more like tending a fireplace. When I was growing up, my brothers and I tended to our grandfather, who was bedfast with arthritis. Every night in the late fall and winter, we had to stoke the fireplace with wood so it would keep the room warm during the night. In a fireplace you have to keep wood on the fire all day. That’s the Christian life. You have to keep working on it to keep the fire going. 

This is what I love about Wesleyan theology. Wesley understood that the Christian life is not static. That’s what sanctifying grace is all about—going on to perfection—moving further along the road of faith today than I was yesterday—growing more like Christ every day.

We must put on that new coat every day, and through prayer, bible study, fasting, fellowship, worship, meditation, communion, solitude…whenever we practice the spiritual disciplines we open ourselves to the power of God that is within each of us. Everything God wants us to be we already are on the inside in the person of Jesus Christ.

Augustine of Hippo

One of the great saints of the church, Augustine, grew up in a Christian home, but by his own admission, rejected the values of his godly mother and lived a sinful life. One of the many sinful pleasures in which he indulged was sexual sin. Augustine lived with a prostitute before his conversion, and legend has it that after his conversion he was walking down the street and this prostitute saw him. She shouted his name and he kept walking. He saw her, but kept his eyes straightforward and walked. She continued crying after him and ran after him. Finally, she said, “Augustine, it is I.” 

Augustine replied, “I know, but it is no longer I.” 

We are changed. It’s who we are in Jesus Christ, but we only know that if we ask the right questions.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Jesus IS the Answer…

I was just a kid in the early 1970’s, but I remember vividly the music of Andre Crouch and The Disciples. I remember his music because I was part of a youth choir that often sang songs he wrote. One song in particular that I’ve been singing over and over lately is one entitled Jesus is the Answer. I’ve been singing it because I believe the Jesus IS the answer for the world today.

I also vividly remember many people who mocked Andre Crouch and the title to that song. Mockers asked, “If Jesus is the answer, what is the question?” I don’t know if there was a specific question Crouch was asking back in the 1970’s, but I know there is a specific question folks are asking today (and I’m asking it myself, too). With the racial and political brokenness facing us in this monster year 2020, the question is “How do we heal the division among us?”

Is it necessary for me to point out those areas of division? Probably not, but just in case you haven’t noticed, here are a few:

  • Ideologically–Capitalist vs. Socialists/Communists
  • Racially–White vs. Black, et. al.
  • Politically–Democrat vs. Republican, Trump vs. Never-Trump
  • Religiously–Traditionalist vs. Progressive

The list could go on. The divisions are tearing at the very fabric of our humanity. I am concerned about where the divisions will lead us unless we do the hard work of reconciling our differences, and learning again how to live with our diversity as a people and as a nation.

Of course, we aren’t the first generation to deal with divisions. The Apostle Paul’s generation had one, too. He writes about it to the church in Ephesus as an illustration—and a vivid one it is! In Ephesians 2, he calls it “dividing wall.” The wall to which Paul referred was a 3 1/2 foot high stone wall in the Temple that separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Jews, and on that stone wall were signs that basically read, “Any foreigner who enters beyond this point is responsible for their ensuing death.” Paul uses the image to tell the church that in Christ that wall has been torn down. The division that existed between Jew and Gentile prior to Christ no longer existed. Through Jesus Christ, the two people are made one. They are united in Christ. That was their new identity.

Try to imagine what it must have been like for the first disciples, steeped as they were in 2000 years of history as God’s chosen people, to be told that they were to treat Gentiles the same as they would other Jews. It’s hard for us to imagine because we don’t have any real equivalent today. Here they were, a tiny, insignificant nation, and yet God had chosen them and revealed himself to them. They had Moses and the Prophets. God said they were a holy  nation, set apart for his service.

They actually had a somewhat arrogant view of their calling. William Barclay wrote that, “The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell.” He would also write, “It was not even lawful to render help to a Gentile mother [at childbirth], for that would simply bring another Gentile into the world.” It was such that if a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, or a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy, the family had the funeral for the boy or the girl right then. No, Jews and Gentiles were not friends, and the Temple had a vivid image to remind them of that fact.

The chosen people had erected a wall, and Paul tells the Ephesians that the wall was the law, but Jesus abolished the wall through his death on the cross, and reconciled everything by the power of his blood to God, the Father. Now, everyone—Jew and Gentile—comes to God on the basis of faith in His Son. There is a key word there–reconciled.

So, what does Paul say is the result of this reconciliation in Christ? First, the Gentiles are no longer aliens and strangers, visitors without any legal rights, but rather citizens of God’s kingdom. They now enjoy all the privileges of being part of God’s people.

We are embroiled in a debate over the immigration laws in our nation, and I’m not going to give commentary one way or the other about that, but think for a moment the risks so many of those immigrants are willing to take to come to America. The benefits of being an American citizen are worth going to any lengths to obtain.

If being a citizen of America is so good, what about being a citizen of the Kingdom of God? But, it’s even better than that. Paul extends the analogy. He says, “You’ve now become members of God’s household.” You’re part of the family. Being part of a Kingdom is one thing, but being part of family of the King, is another. It means, in the context of this passage, that we’re now brothers and sisters of one another. No matter what our background, we’ve been brought into a new relationship of care, affection and support that may not characterize our earthly family, but does characterize the ideal family, the family of God.

Paul doesn’t leave the analogy there, though. He says Christ destroyed one thing to build another. He tore down a wall so he could build a house. He’s building a house on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with himself as the cornerstone. 

I’m reminded of the story of the Tower of Babel, where people tried to build a great tower to reach heaven, and God came down and confused their speech so they couldn’t communicate with each other. They all went off to their own parts of the earth. That was the beginning of the alienation of the races. But in Jesus, we see the process reversed. In Jesus, we see a new humanity, a new community being formed in unity with Christ as its foundation. As this new community is formed, it becomes the place where God dwells and where his people come together to worship him.

Don’t miss how important the corporate nature of the church is here. If we are ever tempted to have an individualistic view of Christianity, to think that God simply comes to dwell in each one of us as individuals and the church is just an add-on, think about what Paul says here. As we’re built together we become a dwelling in which God lives by his spirit. As we’re united in Christ we become the new Temple of God, God’s dwelling place.

It’s important to note that Paul says we’re becoming a holy temple. That’s means we haven’t made it yet. God is still working to on us…individually and corporately. That’s part of Wesleyan theology…this whole idea that we are moving on toward perfection. It is part of the struggle we disciples have as we grapple with one another in this shifting culture. Where does God speak into the situations that divide us, and how does God speak into them?

Honestly, we start with what the Bible says. That’s what it means to be built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  They’re the human authors of most of the Bible. In other words, the church is built on God’s Word. That’s why we take it so seriously, and it’s why we don’t tamper with it. We know how dangerous it is to tamper with a building’s foundation. That’s why we should prick up our ears whenever we hear someone undermining the authority of God’s word, or questioning its authenticity. I’m certain the conversation won’t end there, but it at least must start there.

So, how are we to be united? I think there are implications for us personally and corporately. There is one word that I believe is key for our unity is Christ, and that word is forgiveness. Personally, we must begin to tear down the divisions we’ve built between ourselves and others by seeking and extending forgiveness as freely as God has extended it to us through Jesus Christ.

One of the ways we can do that is to acknowledge the person I’m listening to may know something I don’t know. Jordan Peterson has written a fantastic book entitled Twelve Rules for Life. Rule number nine says, “Assume the person you are listening to knows something you don’t.” When we listen to others, we can begin to find places where reconciliation may come, and then we’ll discover our unity in Christ.

Corporately, there’s nothing that happens in the Church that should cause a breakdown in relationships…nothing! The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. How can we invite others into a reconciled relationship with Jesus Christ if we’re not reconciled to one another?

Internal harmony is one of the things architects look for when they’re sizing up the aesthetics of a building. But the harmony we’re talking about here is more than just aesthetic. We’re talking about a harmony where all the parts work together to bring the building to completion. We overcome this division, too, by seeking and extending forgiveness.

We are united in Christ. That which divides us fades into insignificance when we acknowledge ourselves as God’s sons and daughters. The worth of people different from ourselves can only be judged from God’s point of view. The color of our skin, the sound of our accent, the language we speak with most comfort have nothing to do with it. What matters is that Jesus Christ died to reconcile us to the father and to each other.

So, yes, I believe Jesus is the answer to the divisions in our culture. Unfortunately, the culture is turning further and further away from Jesus, but that’s an entirely different blog.

Until next time, keep looking up…

It’s Harvest Time (or, Starting with “Why?”, Part 4)…

Let’s be frank. House church (organic church, simple church) is countercultural for us folks in the United States (most of the west, really). I’m okay with that, though, because if there was ever a time the Church needed to be countercultural, it is now.

Since I’m being frank, let me also say that if you should attend a house church, you’re not likely to find the music to be excellent (although if you come to the House Church Movement, you’ll find my daughter leading us with excellence), the preaching and/or teaching may not be as polished as one is accustomed to, and the youth/children’s program will be unspectacular.

These reasons (and probably a few more) are why there isn’t more house church focused church planting movements in the west. We like our high-energy music, our polished preaching and those youth/children’s ministries that are going to do for children what parents are so unwilling (or unable) to do for themselves. House church for too many people will lack the glitz and glamour that will reach a consumer culture.

That fact notwithstanding, I believe the house church model of church planting is perfectly poised to reach new fields that are ripe for harvest. The house church planting model is designed to be “close to the ground,” as in, rooted in relationships with neighbors and co-workers, high on interpersonal relationships, ingrained in the rhythm of the community, not restricted by money or funding and is simple in its administration.

Additionally, Covid-19 has changed the landscape of traditional church. By all accounts, most traditional churches are averaging 30 – 50% of pre-Covid attendance. Those churches that see a higher percentage are outliers. Based on what I’ve read, and conversations I’ve had with pastors, those percentages are not likely to change drastically for the foreseeable future. That’s because half the people believe the church shouldn’t be meeting yet, and the other half of the people believe the church should have never stopped.

The opportunity that exists for the house church in this environment is that the church can be where the people are. The new context is simply more conducive to the house church. The house church can meet in closed communities. The house church can meet in large apartment complexes. The house church can meet in dense urban areas where the cost of living (and the cost of property) is expensive. The house church can meet in college dorms. The house church can meet in places where the government has restricted public worship gatherings (it sure feels strange to write that sentence as I sit in the United States!). The house church can meet wherever there is a home and a facilitator.

For all these reasons, the house church model can revive an evangelistic zeal in the Kingdom of God for the west. Consider for a moment the rapid growth of the early church. Between Pentecost and 70 AD the church experienced the most phenomenal growth in its history, spreading from a mere handful of believers in Judea throughout the Mediterranean world. Most scholars agree that this growth was accomplished using private homes as the primary meeting place.

Consider, also, the following mathematical potential for a ministry such as The House Church Movement. Beginning with a single home congregation with an average membership of twelve people, allow for that one group to reproduce itself in the form of a second group after two years. Then, allow for each of those groups to reproduce during the next two years—and so on. Allowing for growth and loss within each group, yet maintaining the group average of only twelve members (a conservative estimate of group size), after 6 years, The House Church Movement would have 96 members. After 12 years, The Movement would have 768 members. After 15 years, it would consist of 2,304 members. After 18 years, 6,912 members. After 20 years, the overall membership of The House Church Movement would be 13,824!

Please understand, I hold no illusion that The House Church Movement will ever boast a membership of nearly 14,000 people. I simply offer these projections as a way of showing that this philosophy of ministry and evangelism has potential equal to, if not greater than more traditional models.

Please don’t think I’m trying to sell everyone on the house church model or The House Church Movement. I’ll admit that it’s even hard for me to move away from the traditional church model of ministry, but I feel called to this model and to this Movement because I believe that house churches take place where harvest happens–in the neighborhoods, in the work places and in the homes of both those who believe and those who do not.

Until next time, keep looking up…

No Needy Among Them (Or, Starting with “Why?”, Part 3)…

I love what Luke writes in Acts 4: 32-35–

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Can you imagine what that must have looked like?

As I began praying about a new church plant, I sensed the Holy Spirit calling me toward planting a “house” church. Initially, I interpreted the vision to be open to growing into a more traditional expression of the church—building, pews, administration, etc. As I’ve lived with and prayed over the vision the past two months, I’ve gained greater clarity as to where the Lord may be leading us as a new church plant. I am grateful to a group of 21 people who have consistently prayed for clarity in this unfolding work of the Holy Spirit.

It is not unusual for a new church to begin by meeting in a home. A small group of only ten or twenty people does not need a larger meeting place, and the costs involved in procuring any sort of space is often prohibitive. In this regard, a “house church” is understandable to many. But if they learn that it was the intention to continue meeting in homes no matter how large it grows, eyebrows will begin to rise.

The idea of the house church does not easily fit into the tradition of American discipleship. For generations, the idea of the church has been almost universally associated with a central meeting place—a church building. Even though the biblically informed disciple knows that the church is people, it remains almost impossible for some to escape the association between a particular local church and the building in which that church gathers.

When a society has grown up with an idea—a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation—a departure from that tradition can seem strange or even wrong. I will not fault anyone who questions the practice shared in this vision, or any who are not convinced of its benefits, nor is this unfolding vision a condemnation of the longstanding tradition of churches meeting in large central buildings. Too many examples of excellence within that tradition, both historically and currently, can be mentioned in its defense. My intent is simply to offer another reason why The House Church Movement will continue meeting in homes, and to demonstrate that not only is the practice biblically sound, but it is a great model for meeting peoples needs.

A NATURAL SETTING FOR FELLOWSHIP

During a House Church Movement meeting, we will enjoy facing one another in a warm, familiar environment, rather than sitting in rows looking at the back of someone’s head while most of the activity takes place on a stage. We may also enjoy eating a meal together every week, sampling friends’ cooking, or sometimes bringing in pizza. We might enjoy drinking coffee or tea after a Movement Meeting while sitting comfortably around the living room, sharing in each other’s lives. We could stay late, discussing personal or church matters and doctrinal issues. Sometimes, advice or counsel may sought by one, and given in return by another, or even several. Sometimes, two or three may find a quiet place to pray together. It could be like a family reunion every week.

While this type of fellowship can take place in a sanctuary setting, in the home it is natural. And, even as The House Church Movement grows large in numbers, it never has to lose the familiarity and intimacy that can be experienced in a home’s setting. Instead, new congregations can be formed—teaching others how to experience this same rich Christian fellowship. There is little doubt in a hurting world that people are longing for fellowship and intimacy that a house church setting could provide.

A DESIGN FOR BIBLICAL INSTRUCTION

When the New Testament authors gave written instructions to the church, they were writing in light of what they knew the church to be—small assemblies meeting in homes. Consider: If the church were later transformed into something that had never been seen or anticipated by the authors of the New Testament, the instructions they gave to the early church might not be as readily applicable to the new form. As an example, consider this principle in light of all of the “one anothers” in the New Testament—the commands to know, love, guard, and care for our brothers and sisters in Christ (i. e. John 13:34-35; Romans 12:10; Galatians 6:1,10; Colossians 3:12-16; 1 John 3:16-17).

Certainly these are kept faithfully in many larger congregations, but one can hardly overlook the fact that increased size means increased difficulty in keeping them consistently. There exists the increased potential that some will fall through the cracks. It is evident that in order to keep the commands to love and care for one another, larger bodies need added structures and programs which, in turn, necessitate additional burdens of administration. I could multiply examples, but suffice it to say that in at least this one case, the instructions are much easier to follow consistently in a smaller gathering. I might even suggest that these instructions were designed for small gatherings.

Because no one falls through the cracks, needs are more readily known and easily met. I’m not sure there is a greater “why” for the house church, but there are still two more we’ll explore in coming weeks:

  • House churches take place where harvest happens, and
  • House churches raise up disciples to embrace the ministry to which they’ve been called.

Until next time, keep looking up…

G.O.R.P….

I am not a hiker, but I have been hiking. So, I know very little about hiking except what I’ve read. I mention hiking, though, because hiking comes to mind when I think about God’s sanctifying grace (yeah, I know, you can’t figure out how my mind works–sometimes I can’t either).

SANCTIFICATION

I am thinking about God’s sanctifying grace because I’ve been studying again the core beliefs of the Evangelical Methodist Church. Here’s what the Church says about sanctification and living a holy life: “We believe in entire sanctification following regeneration, whereby the believer is cleansed from the pollution of sin, saved from its power, and enabled through grace, to love God with all his/her heart,” and “We believe that every Christian is expected to live a holy life, one that is truly Christian.”

Regeneration. Sanctification. Those are three dollar theological words that mean “a new life” and “a holy life” respectively. New life (regeneration) comes when we accept Jesus Christ, and a holy life (sanctification) is what grows out of following Christ. Now, you’re probably wondering, “What does any of that have to do with hiking?” I’m glad you asked.

Do you know what G.O.R.P is? G.O.R.P. is an acronym that stands for granola, oats, raisins and peanuts, or as others have said, “Good old raisins and peanuts.” For a hiker on a journey, gorp is a snack designed to keep the hiker from crashing on an extended trip. It’s hard to pack a lot of food on an extended hike, and g.o.r.p. is sufficient in calories to keep the hiker from experiencing what is known in the hiking world as the “bonk.” A bonk is when a hiker doesn’t take in enough calories and energy and capacity deteriorates, thus preventing one completing the journey. Good old raisins and peanuts is meant to sustain the traveler through the journey, to help the person stay fueled to finish the hike.

That, in a nutshell (no pun intended), is the essence of God’s sanctifying grace. Life is a journey, and all along the way God’s grace is available to us, in different ways at different stages of the journey. It is God’s sanctifying grace that sustains us over the long haul of life. It is His grace made real in the challenging times, when energy and capacity wane…when life happens.

Sanctifying grace is God at work in us through the Holy Spirit to transform us. Our journey, our spiritual journey, is a journey toward transformation. When we come to Jesus Christ and he forgives our sin and gives us a new start, that’s not the end of the journey. In that moment, Jesus does something for us. If justifying grace is God doing something for us, sanctifying grace is God doing something in us. The something He desires to do is make us holy. We hear that word “holy” and we think, “Who me? Holy? No way.” Yet, that is the life Christ call us to.

HOLINESS

Understand, living a holy life is not living a holier-than-thou life. None of us will likely ever live a perfect life, at least that’s been my experience—but that could just be me. But, John Wesley taught that not only does Christ deliver us from the consequence and penalty of sin, he also delivers us from the power of sin. The Apostle Paul does a masterful job in Romans 6 explaining this idea.

(c) John Wesleys House & The Museum of Methodism; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John’s brother, Charles Wesley, also does a masterful job capturing John’s teaching with this verse from Charles’ great hymn, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing:

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
  He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;
  His blood availed for me.

As we journey through this life, there will always be temptations to sin. There will be challenges to our faith. There will be crises that cause us to doubt. We will deal with death. We will deal with disease. We will deal with difficult people. We will deal with anger. We will deal with frustration. That is the life. In those times, we need grace, and God gives us grace so that we need not surrender to the baser insticnts of our fallen nature. Christ has given us new life. Christ gives us hope. It is Christ who sustains us through life.

The holiness Christ call us to is different than sinlessness. As Wesley taught it, and we understand it, holiness is nothing more…but also nothing less…than love for God and love for neighbor. It is to love as God loves. Jesus gave us two great commandments. We find them in Mark 12: 29 – 31: “The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.

The spiritual journey of life is about growing up in love. It is growth, and growth is a process. We don’t miraculously love as God loves. Oh, that it would be so simple. Growth is a process, and holiness is a process. Yes, there is, in one sense, where we are made holy by the work of Christ on the cross, but holiness that is lived out occurs over time. Don’t be surprised if you didn’t wake up the day after you accepted Christ living a holy life. But also, don’t be surprised if he begins a work in you, too.

C. S. Lewis, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, explains it this way. When he was a child, he often had a toothache, and he knew that if he went to his mother, she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let him get to sleep. But, Lewis said, he did not go to his mother–at least not till the pain became very bad. And the reason he did not go was this: He did not doubt she would give him the aspirin; but he knew she would also do something else. He knew she would take him to the dentist the next morning. He could not get what he wanted out of her without getting something more, which he didn’t want. He wanted relief from his pain; but he couldn’t get it without having his teeth set permanently right. And he knew those dentists; he knew they would start fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. Our Lord, says Lewis, is like the dentists. Lots of people go to him to be cured of some particular sin. Well, he will cure it all right, but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if you once call him in, he will give you the full treatment.

Sure, most of us don’t wrestle with big sins…even the day after accepting Christ. You know, like murder and stealing and lying. No, what we deal with are much more subtle sins…like selfishness, jealousy, greed and envy. Those sins need transforming, too, and when we struggle with those along our journey, when they sap us of our energy and capacity to love, it’s then we need grace, and the promise of the Gospel is that God gives us His grace—His sanctifying grace—to give us strength, to give us energy, to give us hope in the face of the struggle so that we move closer to the place…closer to the destination…closer to the trailhead…closer to holiness.

What is our G. O. R. P.? What sustains us so that we make it to the end? What makes us holy? I remind us again of the disciplines of the spiritual life—prayer, solitude, fasting, accountability. We know about bible study, too. Another is submission. All of these are the disciple’s G. O. R. P. They strengthen us and grow us in holiness.

There is another one, too. It is the sacrament of Holy Communion. There is strength here. There is grace here. At the Lord’s table, we are reminded of love, and we’re reminded to love. And, we’re reminded that love is sacrifice. It is sacrifice that the Apostle Paul calls us to in Romans 12: 1 – 2—the surrender of ourselves to Christ:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

We recall Christ’s sacrifice for us, and we see in it his sacrifice, and we acknowledge he calls us to the same sacrificial life. At the Lord’s table, we find strength for the journey. Here we are enabled to keep moving forward.

The Australian coat of arms pictures two animals—the emu, a flightless bird, and the kangaroo. The animals were chosen because they share a characteristic that appealed to the Australian citizens. Both the emu and kangaroo can move only forward, not back. The emu’s three-toed foot causes it to fall if it tries to go backwards, and the kangaroo is prevented from moving in reverse by its large tail. In the following of Jesus, G. O. R. P. helps us be like the emu and kangaroo, moving only forward, never back…becoming more like Jesus everyday–that is holiness…that is sanctification.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Simply Jesus…

It really is all about Jesus! It being, of course, the Christian faith. I remember a parishoner named Mr. Joe who, as he departed every Sunday, would simply say, “Just give ’em Jesus.” I think that phrase sums up what the Evangelical Methodist Church means when it states “We believe each person must acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ and be born again before he/she is a true Christian.”

A Matter of Grace

We can search the depths of theology and philosophy and discover one verse which, in its essence, sums up all God offers His creation, and we find it in a late night conversation Jesus had with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Of course, it’s John 3: 16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in him would not perish but have everlasting life.” Let us be careful not to let the familiarity of the words lessen their power.

We are nothing apart from faith in Jesus Christ, and it is faith in Jesus Christ that gives us new life, that transforms us from what we were (a sinner), to what He intends for us to be (a sinner saved by grace). I am reminded that a relationship with Jesus Christ is all about grace–God’s grace.

We Wesleyans walk the Wesleyan way of salvation. Along that Wesleyan way are several “movements” of God’s grace. One of those movements is of justifying grace. It is this justifying grace of God at work in that moment that one comes to faith in Jesus Christ. The theological term for that moment is regeneration.

John Newton, in his famous hymn Amazing Grace, wrote of this moment of regeneration:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed.

Newton wrote his classic hymn on a slave ship bound for England on March 10, 1748, as he endured a raging storm on the high seas. That evening, Newton cried out to God, and his life was forever changed. He wrote of that evening, “I cried to the Lord with a cry like that of the ravens which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear. And I remembered Jesus whom I had so often derided.”

Regeneration

Justifying grace (regeneration) is that moment in time when we realize that God accepts us just as we are, and we say “yes” to his offer of salvation, and our eyes are opened to the love and companionship of God. Justifying grace (regeneration) is about saying “yes” to God.

The problem is that we need help when it comes to a restored and right relationship with God. The Good News is that God wants to help. God didn’t come to offer us things (like money or power or success or possessions) that we think will make life full, or us happy. God sent His Son Jesus Christ to offer us a relationship that is a relationship of love that flows out of His self-giving nature.

Regeneration happens in that moment when we accept the relationship God offers in his Son, Jesus Christ. We are justified in that very moment. This moment of acceptance is commonly referred to as conversion. It is what happens inwardly at that moment when most people would say, “I’ve been saved!” But the phrase “I’ve been saved” does not mean that conversion is ended. Rather it means we have begun a more adventurous portion of the journey that is God’s salvation.

We can just as easily say, “I am saved,” or “I am being saved,” for conversion continues when we find new ways of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Like when we come to a better understanding of ourselves, and when we come to a better understanding of the claim God is placing on our lives, but more about that in a later blog.

A Gift

Here is where it gets sticky and we have difficulty accepting God’s offer of salvation. Let me explain why. We have been taught all our lives that America is the place where hard work and determination meet opportunity to produce wealth and success. While there are exceptions we all could point to, we realize the American dream is fueled by hard work and determination. Gary Player, the legendary golfer and a South African, understood this attitude. He said, “The harder you work the luckier you get.”

The American attitude is an up-by-the-boot-strap mentality, and that attitude is what has made America great. Isn’t it ironic, then, the American attitude, that up-from-the-boot-strap mentality, is a major stumbling block in our acceptance of God’s offer of salvation. We know that hard work and determination are what make the measure of success, so we find it totally unreasonable that God would offer us salvation at no cost. Surely we have to do something to earn this salvation. We can’t do anything. But God does not give us something for nothing, and our salvation has come at great cost. It cost Jesus Christ his life.

All we can do is accept God’s offer or reject it. It is totally a free gift to us, and our acceptance of that offer is an act of faith. It is not our work, nor is there any work we can do to deserve or earn it.  This work is what Jesus Christ has done for us in the grand plan of God’s salvation. Listen to how the Apostle Paul describes it:

But now God has shown us a different way of being made right in his sight–not by obeying the law but by the way promised in the Scriptures long ago. We are made right in God’s sight when we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, no matter who we are or what we have done. For all have sinned: all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins. For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us. God was being entirely fair and just when he did not punish those who sinned in former times. And he is entirely fair and just in this present time when he declares sinners to be right in his sight because they believe in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26).

The faith that responds to this offer is an act of trust and self-abandonment by which we no longer rely on our own strength but commit ourselves to the power and guiding word of him in whom we believe.  Gratitude becomes the motivation for the life that follows the acceptance of this great gift.

God has given us the freedom to accept or reject his offer. He doesn’t interfere with that decision (that’s what makes a Methodist), but he does appeal to our intellect. Faith is not an unreasonable endeavor. When we engage our minds in the pursuit of God it is God engaging us, for how can we even begin to comprehend what does not exist. When we recall the testimony of countless saints who have gone before, it is God engaging our minds. God has given us the capacity for reasonable reflection. He engages our intellect as we make our decision.

God also touches our emotions. Gratitude and appreciation, love and compassion, joy and relief are all ways we respond with great enthusiasm, but we do not depend on those feelings for the foundation of our faith, for feelings wane. With each passing event of life we ride a roller coaster of emotions, but our faith in Christ is sure in the midst of life, and God touches our emotions to aid in accepting God’s great offer of salvation.

God makes this offer because He loves us. He loves us unconditionally. He doesn’t love us because we’re perfect. He loves us in spite of the fact we’re not perfect. If I might quote another old hymn of the church:

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me.
And that Thou biddst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

“But I can’t change,” you say. That’s what John Newton thought, too, until he experienced the grace that caused him to write:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed.

Accept God’s offer of grace, justifying grace, and His grace will continue to work through you and in you, taking you to the next step on the journey to full salvation.

Regeneration–it is simply Jesus!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Figuring God…

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

A PUZZLE

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

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

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

JESUS SAID…

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

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

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

THE EARLY CHURCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Corrie replied.

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

“Yes,” Corrie responded.

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…

Always Start with the Word…

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

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

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

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

STARTING IN THE WRONG PLACE

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

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

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

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

INTERNAL EVIDENCE

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

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

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

EXTERNAL VALIDATION

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

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

A MATTER OF FAITH

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

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

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

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

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

I count it all blessing to be an Evangelical Methodist.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Trying to Make Sense…

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

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

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

CULTURAL DEBATES

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

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

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

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

SHADES OF GRAY

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

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

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

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

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

THE CORINTHIAN EXPERIENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

LEGAL VS. ETHICAL

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

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

The Ethic of Love

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethic of Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…

Finding My Way Home…

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

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

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

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

A Detour

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

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

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

A Journey of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Destination

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s All Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…