“MORE” Reality…

I resolved to make 2019 the “Year of More.” In all the resolutions I made…

  • More stillness
  • More service
  • More exercise
  • More writing
  • More love
  • More sleep

…there’s one very important “more” that I overlooked, and that is to be more Christ-like. Isn’t that the “more” that matters most? I must confess there are many days I fall far short of the goal, yet I am reminded of Jesus’ own words to his disciples:

13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. 14 And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. 16 I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. 17 Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them. (John 13: 13 – 17 NLT)

The Apostle Paul’s words also remind me that my calling (please read this as “our” calling) is to become like Jesus:

29 For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8: 29 NLT)

How might I become “more” Christ-like in 2019?

MORE CENTERED

Jesus centered his life in Scripture. He answered the temptations of Satan by the power of Scripture, and he began his earthly ministry moving out of Galilee into Capernaum in fulfillment of Scripture. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus life and words pointed to the fulfillment of Scripture.

Scripture is at the heart of spiritual growth. If we desire to hear God’s voice clearest and loudest, it will be through God’s Word, the Bible. We can live a more centered in Scripture as we worship, participate in group Bible studies, and spend personal devotional time with the Bible.

Of course, being more centered will cause me to be still more, which was my first resolution, so maybe I’m on the right track after all.

MORE CHANGED

Jesus began his earthly ministry with a call to repentance. Repentance is a call to change our minds about sin—literally to do a 180. I’m not sure my greatest sin is pride, but it’s up there on the list. Probably topping the list is selfishness. Every other challenge to my desire to be more Christ-like flows out of that innate proclivity for wanting my own way.

Repentance that is meaningful repentance is more than a changed mind. I think it is a changed mind that leads to changed actions. I also think it not a one-time thing. Repentance is an on-going process…at least it is in my life.

MORE CONNECTED

Jesus invited his first disciples to be connected to him, and to one another. We are connected to Christ most fully when we are connected to his body, the Church. And, we become more Christ-like the more we are connected to his body.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for pastors to make friends in the body. Ron Edmondson has written about that here. It doesn’t change the fact that I need more connection.

MORE COMMITTED

I think about Jesus’ first disciples who, when called by Jesus, left their nets and their tax-collecting table immediately and followed him. Am I as committed as those first disciples? Am I willing to drop everything…even the pastorate (the source of my livelihood)…to follow his calling?

Seriously, what would I do if Jesus walked into my office today and said, “Come, follow me”? I’d probably say, “I thought I was following you.” Just the idea of that conversation frightens me and causes me to reflect on my commitment of Jesus.

One of the most challenging books I’ve read recently (or ever) is Francis Chan’s Letters to the Church. Here’s a video describing the book’s premise. Chan’s book caused me to question so many assumptions about “church,” but it also helped renew my commitment to it…and to Jesus.

MORE CONSECRATED

To be consecrated is to be “set apart for special service.” Jesus consecrated his life for preaching, teaching and healing knowing that it would lead ultimately to the cross. His consecration led to his sacrifice. How is my life set apart for greater sacrifice? What sacrifice is God calling me to in order to be more consecrated to his purpose?

I earnestly desire to be more Christ-like, but this “Year of More” is looking MORE difficult by the day. Perhaps I should have been LESS bold in proclaiming it so.

Where is God challenging you to be more Christ-like? I’d love to hear your comments below.

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Call to Prayer…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Lost Grace…

CHRISTIAN CONFERENCE

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

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

GRACE LOST

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

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

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

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

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

REDISCOVERING GRACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…

 

What About Us, Jesus?

Of all the names/titles given to Jesus, i.e., Lord, Savior etc., this name “Healer” is perhaps the most challenging for us in the 21st century. What do we mean when we say “Jesus is Healer?”jesus-is-2

We survey the ministry of Jesus and depending on how one classifies the event, there are between 30 and 40 healing events in the four Gospels alone. We read a passage like Luke 4:40 that says, “As the sun went down that evening, people throughout the village brought sick family members to Jesus. No matter what their diseases were, the touch of his hand healed every one.

So, what gives? After all, we pray for healing all the time, but far too often, the healing we seek never comes. If Jesus is Healer, where do we see this healing happening in our world today?

Who needs Obamacare? There certainly wasn’t much of a problem with healthcare with Jesus around. The folks in 1st century Israel called their health care plan Jesuscare! Got a backache? Go see Jesus! Got the flu? Go see Jesus. Surgery? Who needs surgery? Just go see Jesus! One touch is all you need. Must have been nice, and no increase in premiums. It sure would have been nice to get in on some of those healings. Makes us want to ask: When did Jesus go out of the healing business? Don’t we rate as much as the folks back then? What about my friend with cancer? What about us, Jesus?

FAITH HEALING

I’m going to challenge us for one moment to take all the pre-conceived ideas of “faith-healing” out of our minds. Don’t think about Benny Hinn, and let your memories of Kathryn Kuhlman and Oral Roberts fade. But still it leaves us to wonder why we don’t just go down to the local hospitals and clear the places out in Jesus name.

Boy, I wish I had the power to heal! There are folks in the world who say that I simply don’t have enough faith, or that those who are sick don’t have enough faith to be healed. Just believe a little more—faith of a mustard seed and all that, right? Hey? That’s the kind of faith four friends had one day when they brought their friend to Jesus (see Luke 5: 17 – 26).

Luke tells us when Jesus saw “their faith,” his healing power went into action. Notice, Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the paralyzed man’s faith. Perhaps he had no faith at all, certainly none that was expressed in this episode. Yes, faith is often present when it comes to healing, but whose faith is most important?

Or more, the same people who would say today that I don’t have enough faith would also say the problem must be un-confessed sin. That’s part of the issue on the day Jesus was healing this paralyzed man. Jesus knew the Pharisees and scribes, who were a sect in Judaism who had a strong belief in the idea that if someone was sick or blind, there must be some sin in their life that caused it, were watching. Paralyzed? What did you do to deserve that? Confess your sin and perhaps you can get well. That was their attitude.

I wonder if that’s why Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “Young man, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus didn’t address the physical ailment first. He first addressed the spiritual reality, and man, that set the Pharisees off. “Who but God can forgive sins?” The Pharisees question and Jesus’ response might help us understand what was happening then, and what is happening now.

Jesus looked at the Pharisees and said, “Just so you know, I’ve got authority to forgive sins on earth, I’ll say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’.” At Jesus’ word, the young man jumped up, took his bed and ran out of the house. Jesus’ healing power was a sign.

Here’s an important point to understand those 30 – 40 healing accounts in the Gospels—the healings were signs designed to point to the eternal blessings Jesus was bringing, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus was bringing to earth. These healings pointed ahead to the ultimate healing that Jesus was in the process of accomplishing, and that ultimate healing was not limited to the folks back then. No, it is for all of us, too. Yes, every one of us here today–Jesus loves you and me as much as he loved those folks back then. We are at no disadvantage to the people who were healed in his ministry.

So, here’s the deal, as I see it—Jesus is still in the healing business, just not necessarily in the same manner now as then. What do I mean?

MIRACLES AND MORE

First, let me acknowledge that sometimes, for unexplained reasons, God chooses to miraculously heal someone. A tumor is present on one visit to the doctor, and the next scan shows no trace of a tumor. Poof! Just like that, and there’s no other explanation for it but that God did it. All we can say is God surprises us with His mercy, and in those times all we can say is, “Praise the Lord!”

Second, let’s also acknowledge the healing power of medicine. Advances in health care are astounding compared to the first century. There were physicians in the first century. Luke, the Gospel writer, was one. People who were sick sought out physicians for their maladies. Recall the woman with the flow of blood. Luke tells her story, too (chapter 8). She’d spend twelve years going to doctors, but none of them could heal her. The health care advances of just the last 25 years would likely have led to her healing. The Lord uses doctors and medicines to promote healing today in ways never known before. Medical care is a great gift that promotes healing, and we are right to view it that way.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, knew the importance of health care. He even penned a volume that was required reading for his assistants. Wesley’s Primitive Physick was the equivalent of a New York Times bestseller. It went through twenty-three printings and was used well into the 1880’s, decades after Wesley’s death. In that volume, Wesley encouraged the use of doctors, and even promoted the idea that his preachers should offer health care to those in their charge, thus his volume of remedies and advice on health and healing.

For all that healthcare does for our healing, we still face the question, “Why not everyone?” I remind us that Jesus did heal this paralyzed man, and he would heal many others, too, but I also remind us that every one of these persons he healed would later die. Their physical healing was only temporary. Was Jesus’ faith not strong enough? There must be an expiration date on miracles!

ULTIMATE HEALING

We come to Jesus seeking a cure for what ails us, and there is no cure for death…there is only healing. When we proclaim Jesus is Healer, it is a statement that reaches beyond the physical. We go beyond the temporal to acknowledge, even as Jesus did, that healing is first a spiritual process before it is a physical one. Curing the body is a physical process. Healing the soul is a spiritual one. Curing the body is temporal, but healing the soul is eternal. We come to Jesus as healer seeking a cure for something physical. What Jesus as healer offers is something eternal.

Jesus gains the ultimate healing for us, the eternal healing, by dealing with the root problem of sin. Sin. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a particular disease or illness can be traced to a particular sin. That would be simplistic and wrong. There are a lot of unrepentant sinners who are perfectly healthy, and there are a lot of good, faithful Christians who are afflicted with chronic illness and pain.

I’m speaking, rather, of the general sinful condition that pervades this fallen world, ever since the time of Adam, and the sinful nature that we all inherit from Adam and pass down to our children is the root problem that results in all the damage and disease and misery that afflicts the human family. And to fix this, Jesus had to get to the bottom of it.

And, Jesus did so by carrying our sins in his body to the cross. When Jesus sheds his blood for the sins of the world, that my friends, is big medicine! As Isaiah 53:4-5 says,

“Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
 But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.”

Do we know that? Do we know that it was our sins for which Jesus died? Yes, our sins–of not loving God, of not hearing and heeding his Word. Our sins of wanting to be our own god, to make our own decisions about what is right and wrong. Our sins of lack of love for our neighbor. Of being jealous of our neighbor’s success. Of grumbling about those the Lord has placed in our life. Of gossip and greed. Of selfishness and un-forgiveness. Yes, those are our sins that Jesus is bearing, bleeding on the cross.

The fact that Jesus is bearing our sins, that Jesus is shedding his blood for them–Jesus on the cross is purchasing our healing. Sins forgiven means curse lifted. Resurrection ahead. Healing ahead. For you. For me. Forever. It’s as good as Christ’s own resurrection from the dead. It’s ours, through faith in him. He shares his gifts with us.

Don’t misunderstand–death is not the ultimate healing as some have proclaimed. Resurrection is! Resurrection is the gift of healing that Christ offers us all.

How does this gift get delivered to our door, with our name on it? Two words—Word and Sacrament. The ongoing ministry of the church is God’s means of delivering the gift Christ won for you and me on the cross. Word and Sacrament are not clichés. They are God’s delivery system for life and salvation, for healing of the soul, and, yes, healing of the body, too.

God is not just interested in saving our soul. He has also promised to redeem our body. God is committed to restoring creation, and that includes our bodies. God is going to raise up our bodies on the last day. We believe in exactly what God has promised: the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

In the Word preached, the Gospel is heard with our ears and taken into the heart with gladness. In baptism, water is applied to these physical bodies, and in communion, the bread and wine represent the body and blood, and we receive the elements—we eat, we drink—and in so doing we receive Christ. Physical elements for physical people, yet working out an eternal healing that redeems both body and soul because Jesus is Healer. And, because Jesus is Healer, we pray—we pray for healing in the body and in the soul.

Until next time, keep looking up…

True Love: You Think This Happens Every Day?

valentines-dayWhoever thought love could be such a lucrative business? Retailers, that’s who! According to the National Retail Federation, the average amount spent on Valentine’s Day is $136/person this year, with a total spent for the holiday of $18.2 billion dollars. That number is actually down from 2016, but it is still a big number for the nation’s second largest Hallmark holiday.

Unfortunately, Valentine’s Day has become the world’s definition of love—emotional, romantic, (dare I say?) erotic, and sometimes, downright corny. You can’t think corny without thinking about The Princess Bride and Westley’s pursuit of true love. You can watch it here:

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. Actually, the Bible says that love is the greatest characteristic we can exhibit as those who seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

We find the Bible’s most compelling explanation of love in what is called the “Love” chapter of 1 Corinthians 13. We hear this passage recited at weddings, when man and woman stand before God to pledge their love to one another, as though this passage is speaking of some emotional, romantic feeling that we have at weddings. Listen to the passage as the Apostle Paul writes it to the Corinthian Christians:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever!

13 Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.

Love can be so confusing. That’s because love is such an interchangeable word. We love our car. We love our job. We love our family. We love our church. We love going to the beach. We love our new hairstyle. We say things like, “Oh, I love how that new dress looks on you!” Or, “I just love how the light brings out the color of that painting.” The long and short of it is that we love everything, and in reality, we end up not loving very much at all.

Apparently, the Corinthian Christians were confused, too. That’s why Paul was writing—to correct their misunderstanding of what it means to love. Of course, much of Paul’s letter is spent correcting their understanding of a lot of issues. Throughout this letter, Paul addresses sex and marriage, lawsuits, incest, food sacrificed to idols, and worship in the church. Then, he turns his attention to love.

The Corinthians knew what love was. They had a couple of different words they used regularly to communicate the idea of love. First, there was the word they used to communicate romantic love. There’s a little town where I served my first full-time appointment as a pastor. The name of the town is Eros, and every year, thousands of people send their Valentine’s Day cards to Eros, LA to be postmarked to their sweetheart. That’s because Eros is the Greek word that indicates erotic or romantic love.

Another word they would be familiar with communicated the idea of “brotherly” love—rather like a fond affection. That’s why Philadelphia is called the city of brotherly love.

Paul uses a different word when he writes of love. He uses a new word for a new idea, and it’s a word not used outside the New Testament. The Corinthians didn’t quite get it. Sometimes, I think we don’t either. The word Paul uses is αγαραώ, and the shades of meaning that lie behind the word are sacrificial, self-denial, and unconditional.

For Paul, the word “love” was seated in the will, not in the emotions. This love was not a “feel good” kind of love, but rather a sacrificial, self-denying love. It’s not the kind of love the world is very familiar with.

The world says love is up to us, that love is strictly about a relationship between human beings. We sing about it in our songs. The Beatles classic

tells us it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, or what you’ve done, all you need is love. Love makes everything right. And, Dionne Warwick sang What the World Needs Now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing there’s just too little of. Both seem to indicate if we just love each other enough, if we just “feel good” about everybody, then everything will be alright.

The Bible teaches that love is other-worldly. 1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” Love as Jesus and Paul proclaimed in the New Testament is rooted in the nature and character of God. It’s more than a touchy feely, emotional affection. It is deeply sacrificial and fully self-denying. That’s the love that transforms the world, and it’s the love that will transform us. The world will never be a better place without the love of God. When we experience God’s love then we learn how to love others, for this love is a fruit of the Spirit.

The world also says, “We fall into and out of love.” Again, our music reflects this philosophy. Taylor Swift is good at writing these kinds of songs with You Belong with Me, or Begin Again. Elvis sang I Can’t Help Falling in Love, and the Righteous Brothers sang You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.

Man! I’m showing my age, aren’t I? There are a lot of songs today we call “love” songs. They’re really not. They’re “lust” songs. They’re all about the romantic, or the erotic—all about the physical. In contrast, the Bible says, “Love perseveres, is patient, and it grows.”

The world tells us love is getting what we need in a relationship. The Bible says love is self-denying. John 15:13 says, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That’s the love Jesus Christ showed to us on the cross. It was the ultimate love—the ultimate sacrifice—the ultimate self-denial.

St. Valentine knew this kind of love. May I remind you of his story? As legend tells the story, Valentinus was a Roman in the 3rd Century who protected Christians from persecution during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius II. Valentinus was arrested for breaking Christians out of prison.

He converted to Christianity while in prison and was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs, stoned and finally beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate on February 14, 269. After his death, this gate was known as Porta Valentini. While he was in prison he sent messages to his friends saying, “Remember your Valentine!” and “I love you.”

On the night before he was executed, he sent a note to the jailer’s daughter, whom he had especially befriended, and he signed that note, “From your Valentine!” Valentine gave himself in sacrifice for others. He demonstrated the greatest characteristic—love in the biblical sense. What a shame that Hallmark and Hollywood have co-opted the concept of love, and we’ve come to accept it as something totally other than it was ever meant to be.

So, here’s the challenge. Find ways to show biblical love this Valentine’s Day. Word of warning: Guys, go ahead and buy the roses and the candy. You’ll be sorry if you don’t, but what way can you live more sacrificially toward your spouse? What time can you give up to serve in your community or in your church?

Remember, it isn’t love until it costs us something. When love is costly, when love is about giving something up, when love is about surrendering our will to that of another, then we can sing with John, Paul, Ringo and George, All You Need is Love, and there’ll be meaning and transformation. What will you do? It’s up to you!

Until next time, keep looking up…

On Moons, Passion and Worship…

We are a month into 2017 today and most of our new year’s resolutions have already gone by the wayside. We began the year with the best intentions, but intentions are rarely enough to sustain us when life happens…and I’ve learned that life always happens. Heck! Some days I can’t even remember what my resolutions were. January 1st seems like such a long time ago.

blue-moon-treeRather than making more resolutions, I think I’ll discover a new passion. Some people are passionate about running. I used to be. I thought I wanted to run a marathon. I thought that would be my new passion, but when I reached the nine-mile mark, I decided that I didn’t really want to run a marathon, I just didn’t want to gain weight. I thought a marathon was the goal, but the real goal was simply to not be fat. I can’t really be passionate about that.

Then, I thought I would play more golf. That’s something I could be passionate about. I started to play more. I like golf. I’m not any good at it, and the only way to get good at it is to play more. But, I don’t LOVE golf. As much as I want to be, I’m not passionate about it, and I would have to be passionate about it to play more. Golf wasn’t going to become my new passion.

I could add any number of activities to the list: hunting, fishing, scuba diving, reading, traveling…eating, etc. You could make your own list, too. I also discovered as I sought out those new passions that it’s a fine line between passion and worship. The thing we’re passionate about can soon become the thing we worship. Then, I thought, “Well, why not make Jesus my passion?”

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “You’re a preacher! Isn’t Jesus supposed to be your passion?” Well, yes, but like I’ve said before: “There’s a reason my blog is entitled ‘Not the Perfect Pastor’.” Actually, for all us (preachers and non-preachers alike) who call ourselves disciples, Jesus is supposed to be our passion.

As a preacher, I’ve even been passionate about preaching. But, being passionate about preaching is not the same as being passionate about the One we preach about. We can be passionate about preaching for the accolades. We can be passionate about preaching for the adrenaline rush it brings while doing it. There are any number of reasons we can be passionate about preaching, and most of them have little to do with the subject of our preaching. My prayer is I’ll be passionate about Jesus. It may not do much for my preaching, but it ought to do much for my life.

I figure if I make Jesus my passion, I won’t have to worry about that fine line that exists between passion and worship. Oh, I can still participate in those activities I find enjoyable. I just won’t pour my life into them. I’ll pour my life into Christ. He’ll become the priority of my life. He’ll become the One I worship.

Worship. Passion. Not far between the two. We cross the line because we’re created to worship. We will worship something. Worship is as natural as eating or breathing, and the Enemy of our soul (yes, the Devil…or Satan… or,) knows this, and he will take advantage of that fact to defeat us. He’ll turn our attention away from Christ and focus it on all the wonderfully enjoyable activities of life. It’s then he’s won the victory.

The devil is sly enough to know that not many of us will sell our soul to him. We’re not that bold, nor brave. He doesn’t actually want us to sell our soul to him. He doesn’t even necessarily want us to worship him. He simply wants us to worship anything but Jesus. So, he takes our passion and twists it to side-track us from that for which we were created. Yes, the devil is a sly one.

He tried the same thing with Jesus, too. Read the story in Matthew 4. The devil tempted Jesus with the same things you and I are tempted with, but the last temptation was the temptation to distract Jesus from that for which he was created. “Hey,” the Devil said, “just do things my way. Worship me!” He knew Jesus had the capacity to win the hearts of the people, so he tried to put it in Jesus’ heart to discover another passion. He does the same thing to us. We fall for that temptation too many times.

Jesus was passionate about His Father. He would not be distracted from that one thing throughout his earthly life. He enjoyed a good night out on the town (with sinners and tax collectors even!). He enjoyed telling stories. He obviously enjoyed traveling (he was always on the move). He was content to enjoy much that life had to offer, but he would not be distracted from his single, solitary passion–his Father. He was in love with his Father, and everyone could see it.

When we fall in love, people see it. We want to spend time with the one we love. We want to hang out with them. We want to get to know them. We want to discover what makes them happy. That’s the nature of worship, too. When we fall in love with Jesus, people see it. That’s because love is reflected.

Take the moon for example. I’m not sure where I first heard the illustration, but it provides a beautiful image of how love is reflected. The moon is a dark place filled only with craters, dust and rocks. Based on the explorations of Neil Armstrong and others, we know there is no life and no light on the moon. But, when we look up into a clear night sky, we can see the moon and we’ll even sometimes exclaim, “That’s a beautiful moon tonight!”

We see light from that dark, dusty, rocky place, but the light isn’t coming from the moon. It’s simply being reflected from the sun. When we fall in love with Jesus, when he becomes the source of our worship, when he becomes our passion, then we reflect the light and glory that comes from him. Jesus is the sun and we are the moon. When he becomes our passion the world looks at our lives and sees, not the dark, dusty emptiness of our lives, but the light of the One who loves us supremely. Now, there’s something to be passionate about.

I’ll confess. I’m still learning how to make Jesus my passion. This much I know. It starts with worship.

Until next time, keep looking up…

What to Do When Your Job Stinks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep looking up…

Better, or New?

This past weekend has been incredible. Incredible in the sense that I’ve had three days with John Ed Mathison. I invited John Ed in January to come to FUMC, Monroe, to work with our leadership in discerning a vision for God’s future in our community. John Ed led our Church Council and staff in a retreat on Saturday, preached in worship on Sunday, and led the staff in a retreat on Monday (albeit shortened due to the storms). For me, the best part was having three days to pick his brain concerning life, ministry and the United Methodist Church. Anyone who spends even a day with John Ed quickly understands why he has been so effective and fruitful over 50+ years of ministry.

john ed mathisonJohn Ed never offers platitudes or complex strategies. He offers simple advice and direction. When he says something so strikingly simple, you’re like, “Duh! How could I not have known that?” The weekend was filled with those moments for me.

One such moment came Saturday morning during the Council retreat. One simple statement has resounded over and over in these three days following: “Jesus didn’t come to make us better, he came to make us new.” That, my friends, summarizes the idea of transformation. We’re not meant to be better people as followers of Jesus Christ, we’re meant to be different people. I suppose that single phrase struck me so deeply because I heard it in light of my preparation for Bible study this week. I’m reflecting over Paul’s letter to the Romans, and we deal specifically this week with the powerful transitional passage in Romans 12: 1 – 2:

12 And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. 

I love Paul’s great transition from the theological to the practical in his letter to the Romans. I like it precisely because it moves from the abstract realm to the practical, and after all, the Christian life is meant to be lived practically in community. It would be great to know the mind of Paul as he wrote to the Romans, but I get the sense as I read his letter that perhaps he felt at the end of the day if the theology didn’t become practical it wasn’t much good at all. Paul’s message in Romans 12: 1-2 is as simple as John Ed’s reminder that we are meant to be different people, not simply better people.

Paul, never lacking in boldness (after all, he did tell the Corinthians “imitate me”), shares specifics concerning what this transformation ought to look like (Paul also liked lists!). It is in reflecting on Paul’s specifics that I find myself most convicted. I might even call his counsel in the verses following his call for transformation another set of “be” attitudes. Here’s what I see:

  • “Be” honest with myself (12:3)
  • “Be” in ministry to others (12:4-8)
  • “Be” loving (12:9, 13:8-10)
  • “Be” ethical (12:9, 12:21, 13:11-13)
  • “Be” grateful (12:12)
  • “Be” patient (12:12) (Seriously, he had to add this one?)
  • “Be” prayerful (12:12)
  • “Be” hospitable (12:13)
  • “Be” ‘other’-focused (12:14-15)
  • “Be” peaceable (12:17-18)
  • “Be” a good citizen (13:1-7) (Uh, huh! How many of you find this a hard one?)

As I reflect on Paul’s instruction, I’m compelled (again!) to surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit. I hear Paul saying (again!) that life is a daily surrender of all of who I am to all of who Christ is. Isn’t that what Paul meant when he said, “Give your body to God?” The old KJV renders the passage this way: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”

The term Paul uses for “service” carried the understanding of a worker offering him/herself to an employer. Paul is saying, “Make this transformation thing your life’s work. Make a living out of living for Christ.” In the same sense that I get up and go to work as a pastor, I should get up giving myself to Christ. In the same sense that a person gets up and goes to work as an attorney, or a doctor, or a teacher, or bus driver, or a (well, fill in your own blank), each of us should get up giving ourselves to the one who gave himself for us. As we do, the Holy Spirit will do God’s transforming work in our lives. Transformation is not a one-time proposition. It’s a lifetime affair. Yes, we’ll likely be better people, too, but more importantly, we’ll be new people.

Until next time, keep looking up…