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…

Fill ‘er Up…

I hope I’m not being presumptuous in writing about the beliefs of a denomination I’ve only been a part of for two months. Who am I to presume I know what the Evangelical Methodist Church believes? I can only know what I read, and I read that “We believe in the Holy Spirit who illuminates the Word of God, reveals Christ to the world and empowers believers to serve God.” While illumination and revelation are integral parts of the work of the Holy Spirit, I want to focus on the task of empowering believers to serve God.

As believers in the Wesleyan lineage, we believe that God empowers us for living a holy life, and the Holy Spirit is the agent in our lives that leads us into holiness. The Holy Spirit is almost the forgotten person of the Trinity (Father, Son & Spirit). We don’t often hear much about the Holy Spirit because we (if we’re honest) just don’t know what to do with the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit gave birth to the Church when the promised Spirit descended on a small group of believers gathered in a upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 2). There was an explosion of power that day which propelled that small group of believers in Jesus Christ to go out into the streets and preach the good news that Jesus was alive. It was the fulfillment of the promise Jesus made to the same disciples when he gathered them together in the days preceding his crucifixion. He said, “It’s good that I go away, so I can send the Holy Spirit. And, the Spirit will guide you into all truth.” That’s the Lynn translation. Find his entire discourse here.

The church has been guided by the Holy Spirit ever since. The Spirit was promised, not only to those early disciples, but to us, too. All who believe in Jesus Christ are called to live the Spirit-filled life. Don’t let the phrase “Spirit-filled” scare you. We’re not talking about dancing around in a frenzy and speaking in unknown tongues…although that’s exactly what happened on the day the Holy Spirit fell upon the believers in Jerusalem. They went out into the streets and testified of the things of God so that everyone who heard, heard in their own languages. That’s one of the things we need to understand about the gift of tongues, and I believe it’s a true gift of the Spirit. Speaking in tongues is like every other gift of the Spirit…it is given to one for the benefit of others. But, I digress. I don’t mean to talk about the gifts of the Spirit, but rather the gift that is the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is a gift—to the church and to individual believers. Jesus said the Spirit will serve several purposes in our lives. The Spirit will convict the world of sin, and of God’s righteousness and of judgment (John 16: 13), and in Romans 8, Paul says the Spirit will help us in our weakness and pray for us when we don’t know what to pray. There we see the work of illumination and revelation, but there is more work to be done.

Ephesians–Be Filled

The Apostle Paul encourages the believers in Ephesus to “be filled with the Holy Spirit,” yet he does it in an interesting context. In Ephesians 5, Paul cautions believers regarding their behavior, reminding them that a relationship with Christ changed them. So, he says in verse 15: “Be careful how you live.” He says, “Don’t be foolish, but rather be wise. Take advantage of every opportunity.” Then, in verse 18 he cautions them to not “be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life.

We read verse 18 and our first reaction is that Paul is making a case against believers drinking. Is Paul telling Christians not to drink? Not really. Paul wasn’t a tea-totaler, and he would instruct his protégé, Timothy, to take a little wine for his stomach. Wine was a common beverage in the first century, and Jesus himself drank wine. Don’t forget that Jesus even turned water into wine at a wedding (the best wine). This passage is not a case against drinking wine (nor is this blog an endorsement). It is a case against getting drunk. More particularly, it’s a case against getting drunk as a religious activity.

There was in Ephesus a great following of the god Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. The worship of Dionysus included drinking, drinking and more drinking with lots of frenetic dancing thrown in. Think “frat party” here and you’ll have a good idea of their religious service. Followers would drink and dance until they were drunk. The belief was that if they could get totally wasted they could then open themselves to the fullness of the god, Dionysus. That’s the culture these new followers of Christ were coming out of, and Paul says, “You don’t have to do that!”

Paul knew (and we know) that life is challenging. Here’s the reality: between the time we come to trust Christ and the time we enter heaven, life happens. Life doesn’t go swimmingly just because we come to Christ. The problems we had before are likely the same problems we have after. The same temptations we had before are probably the same temptations we have after. The temptation is that when we face the challenges that life presents us, we’re want to reach back into the old life and deal with those challenges in the old way. Paul is saying, “Don’t do that!” He’s telling the Ephesians they don’t have to reach back into their old life because in this new life there is a new way to be filled with the power of God. This new way is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Paul says that rather than be filled with wine, be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are some who believe this filling by the Holy Spirit is one in which we get carried away in a frenzy. Paul isn’t talking about running up and down aisles, jumping pews or speaking in tongues. The verb he uses helps us understand what he means. He uses a word that means to be “under the influence.” To be filled with the Spirit is to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we’re prompted to ask “How do we come under the influence of the Holy Spirit?” Paul’s use of the verb helps us understand that, too.

First, the verb is an imperative. That means it’s a command. It’s not an option. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is not something reserved for pastors and worship leaders. It’s something that’s intended for every believer. Every believer is given the Holy Spirit as a seal when we come to faith in Christ, and so it is God’s desire that each believer live under the Spirit’s influence. Rather than being under the influence of some alcoholic beverage, or the influence of some other outside source, live under the Spirit’s influence.

Secondly, though, the verb is in the present tense, which speaks of a continuous action. It’s not a one and done thing. Filling is meant to be an on-going process—an on-going experience. A lot of people have had mountain-top moments on their journey of faith. A mountaintop moment is like Peter, James and John had when they went with Jesus up Mount Tabor and saw him transfigured. They wanted to stay there. In that moment, they were just so close to God. But, mountaintop moments fade because life is lived in the valley. This filling Paul talks about is meant to be an everyday kind of filling that sustains us through life in the valley. It’s meant to influence us every day. We can’t fill our cars up with gas once. We have to fill them up continually.

Thirdly, the verb is in the passive voice. It means this filling is something that is done to us. We can’t fill ourselves. We can only put ourselves in a place where God can fill us. How do we do that?

The Filling Stations

First, we ask. Have we ever asked God to fill us with His Spirit? Every day we can ask God to fill us.

“Fill me as I go to work today, Lord.”

“Fill me with your Spirit, Lord, as my spouse and I deal with this issue.”

“Fill me as I face my boss today.”

“Fill me as I deal with this health issue.”

If we’re not under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we’re going to want to revert to old, and even self-destructive ways, to face the challenges of life. Simply ask. Jesus said in Luke 11:13: 13 “So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

Second, we worship. Worship puts us in the place where we can experience the Holy Spirit. Paul says “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts.” Regular worship is part and parcel to being continuously filled with the Spirit. We experience God and are drawn closer to Him.

Third is fellowship—connecting with other believers. Paul stresses that fact throughout his letter to the Ephesians. He says, “Submit one to another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). The Christian life is not a “one-person show.” We need each other. We cannot, and we will not, be filled with the Spirit unless we connect with the body of Christ and other believers.

Finally, we connect with God’s word—the Bible (for illumination and revelation). When we open the pages of the Bible, the Holy Spirit feeds our souls. Simply reading the words opens us to experience God in new and life-changing ways.

I hear some of you saying, “Well, I just don’t get much out of it when I read the Bible. I can’t feel anything we I read it.” Trust me. Just the act of reading the Word opens us—even if we don’t feel it. Look, we’re not always going to “feel” God doing His work. Just because we don’t feel it, doesn’t mean He’s not doing it. God is faithful and He will fill us. We just have to put ourselves in the place where we can be filled.

To be filled is to be empowered by the Holy Spirit–empowered to live the holy life.

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…

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…

#gc2019–The Monster Trucks Arrived Early…

…or at least, that’s what it felt like. It felt like everyone had been run over by a truck when General Conference 2019 ended yesterday. No one was celebrating. There was nothing to celebrate. Everyone was tired. Everyone was emotional. Everyone was grieving. Everyone!

I’ll only give a brief recap of what happened. For a fuller recap, you can click here, and here and here. Professionals do a much better job of recapping than I do.

Here’s a summary as I understand it:

  • The Traditional Plan (which retains the current language of the Discipline & attempts to strengthen enforcement) passed the General Conference.
  • A “Disaffiliation” petition (basically a “gracious exit” plan) passed the General Conference.
  • Addressed some pension issues requested by the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits in case clergy or churches leave the denomination.

That’s pretty much it, and all it took was four days, and all it cost was nearly $4 million dollars. We got our money’s worth in weariness and brokenness.

Of course, everything that was done was referred to the Judicial Council for review, so it remains to be seen if anything at all was accomplished. Some parts will be ruled constitutional. Others will not. Only after the Judicial Council rules will we know for sure. In a nutshell, what was done may end up being purely symbolic with nothing practical (except the pension resolutions) resulting.

Was the symbolism worth it? Probably not, except to quantify on record the divisions that exist within the UMC. That division could have been quantified at General Conference 2016, but the General Conference chose to delay it.

My heart hurts this morning for the United Methodist Church. My heart hurts for those in the LGBTQI+ community who feel threatened or harmed by the actions of the General Conference. My heart hurts for the clergy and lay persons who are in ministry to the entire hurting church, who themselves are hurting. My heart hurts for the many, many long-time relationships that seem so horribly broken in this moment. My heart hurts for these leaders in the UMC that now return to their local congregations and must interpret what happened while focusing on the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. My heart hurts that we are not of one mind as the body of Christ.

All week long, and in the week’s leading up to the gathering in St. Louis, we heard a lot about the Holy Spirit doing a new thing among the people called Methodist. The different groups within the UMC continued to call upon one another to listen for the Holy Spirit, surely it would be the Spirit who would unite us. We prayed. We fasted. We worshiped. We prayed some more. Yet, nobody moved. The percentages were pretty much the same as they were in 2016.

Were none of us attentive to the Holy Spirit? Perhaps the Holy Spirit really is wanting to do a new thing among people called Methodist. Perhaps nobody heard the Holy Spirit because we were praying for the wrong thing. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was trying to tell us all along that the unity we were seeking goes far beyond a denominational label…that the unity we seek is found in Jesus Christ alone…and that unity goes far beyond the denominational boundary of United Methodism. Perhaps, all along the Holy Spirit was trying to tell us that it’s time for a new birth of the Wesleyan movement, and the only way that can occur is through death and resurrection. Well, it is for certain that you do have to have a death before you can have a resurrection.

Please don’t take that sentiment as advocacy for a denominational split, but it is an admission that something new may be given life out of this desperate brokenness. Already, there are some in the UMC who are calling for a new expression of Methodism that is open and inclusive. Perhaps that’s what the Holy Spirit was after all along, and we had to come to the end of ourselves before we could realize the fact. It’s only when we’ve come to the end of ourselves that we’re able to meet Jesus. It’s only when we’ve come to the end of ourselves that Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is able to transform us into His likeness.

I was up early this morning, praying and drinking coffee (those two go together, by the way). In my reflections this morning, I attempted to recall an experience that I disliked more than I disliked this General Conference. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was not the worst experience of my life, but it is close. The time in St. Louis was emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting (and I am a supporter of the Traditional Plan). I can only imagine how supporters of the other plans must feel.

I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck. I know I’m not the only one. If you happen to be in the St. Louis airport this morning and you see a bunch of people with tread marks on their clothes, they’re United Methodists. Those monster trucks that were supposed to follow us in the Dome at America’s Center, well…they apparently arrived early.

Until next time, keep looking up…

 

#GC2019–Praying from the Cheap Seats, Part 2

The Dome at America’s Center set up for #gc2019.

Saturday was a day of prayer, but so was Sunday. When I tell you we’re in the cheap seats, I mean we’re a long way from the delegates on the floor, and an even longer way from the stage upon which the Council of Bishops sit and lead the General Conference. The Dome at America’s Center was designed and built for the St. Louis Rams (don’t get me started about the Rams!), so it’s designed to hold over 66,000 people. Believe me when I say it feels a bit cavernous with only a few thousand Methodists present.

I going out on a limb here to say the distance between the cheap seats and the stage where the Bishops preside might just be a metaphor. It might be a metaphor for how far removed our Council of Bishops seems to be from the “mainstream” of United Methodism. How so, you ask?

Much of yesterday was spent assigning priority to the legislation that would come before the GC. Delegates voted on each “batch” of petitions, assigning either a “high” priority or a “low” priority. The process was designed to help the delegates do the work that needs doing in such a short period of time. The vote was basically a way to rank the order in which petitions would be handled.

The results of the “ranking” were interesting (and I think telling). The Council of Bishops “overwhelmingly” support the One Church Plan, but in the General Conference, the OCP only garnered 48% of delegates who voted it “high priority.” Conversely, the Traditional Plan (which only received a passing nod from the Commission on a Way Forward) received over 55% of the delegates voting it “high priority.” Additionally, two plans for “disaffiliation” received more “high” priority votes than the OCP. At first glance…and this is only a first glance…it appears that the OCP will have a difficult time passing this General Conference.

Thanks to Rev. Chris Ritter for the photo of the ranking results.

You can read more about the process here.

There is still much to anticipate. Again, this vote was only a first glance. Legislative work continues today on the plans, and there will be opportunities to amend, substitute and table petitions. I suspect the supporters of the OCP have spent most of last night devising a strategy to advance their favored position, and I expect the parliamentary gymnastics will begin in earnest. It will be interesting, informative and educational to watch.

Here’s a video recap of the day produced by the LA Annual Conference:

Until next time, keep looking up…

#GC2019–Today is a Day of New Beginnings…

Though Saturday was a “Day of Prayer and Preparation” for #GC2019, the Conference doesn’t officially start until this morning at 7:30 a.m., which is a change that was made after arrival in St. Louis as the Conference was originally scheduled to open with worship at 8:00 a.m. I haven’t heard why the change, but things…they are a changin’ already.

You can read a recap of the Day of Prayer and Preparation here.

Another development yesterday was a request for a declaratory decision by the Council of Bishops in reference to two petitions regarding the Modified Traditional Plan. I would provide a link to the request, but for some reason that page has been taken down. You can see for yourself here. I wonder…oh, never mind.

Anyway, the Judicial Council did rule both petitions were unconstitutional. You can read more on the decision here. I’ll reserve judgment on the ruling, though I do think it was designed to encourage delegates to assign a “low priority” to the MTP legislation as that work begins later today. Speaking of which, the GC will assign either a “high priority” or a “low priority” to all legislation today. The ranking will determine the order in which legislation is dealt with in legislative committee (I think that’s how it works).

Please continue to pray for the Conference and the delegations as the work officially begins.

You can follow the events live here.

You can get updates from United Methodist News Service here.

You can find regular updates here.

I’ll post as time allows and offer (in most cases) my running commentary, so check back periodically.

Until next time, keep looking up…

The Final Nail in the Mainline Coffin?

Let me say–“I am a traditionalist.” There. Now that’s out of the way. You know where I stand.

I have been reluctant to comment on the current state of affairs in the United Methodist Church as we head into the special called session of General Conference scheduled for St. Louis, February 23 – 26, 2019. The special session was called by the Council of Bishops after the 2016 General Conference for the purpose of dealing (definitively?) with the issue of “full inclusion” of LGBTQI+ individuals in the life of the church. The debate centers primarily on the issues of same-gender marriage and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.

There are several reasons I have not commented (at least not very publicly). For one, I serve a diverse congregation, and discretion being the better part of valor, I want to be able to be a pastor to everyone no matter where they lie along the spectrum from traditional to progressive.

Another reason I’ve been reluctant to comment is my own acknowledgement that I could be wrong. After all, I’m “Not the Perfect Pastor,” so my imperfections do tend to get in my way.

My prayer for 20+ years has been, “Lord, change my heart if I’m wrong.” Being the traditionalist I am, I believe God actually hears and answers prayer, so I continue to pray, but as of this writing, the Lord has not answered this prayer (at least in relation to the presenting issue facing the UMC). I also know that there is still more for me to learn. I take to heart the advice Jordan Peterson offers in his book 12 Rules for Life. Rule # 9 states, “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” If I offered too many comments, I might have to walk some of them back, and being of the male species, I don’t like to walk statements back.

Yet one more reason I’ve been reluctant to comment is the fact that there really hasn’t been enough information to have an informed conversation on the matters before us. Prior to July 8th about all one could say is “We really don’t know what the possibilities are at this point.” Everything until that point was pure speculation (although there is still much speculating to be done), and I figured why confuse the conversation or risk upsetting people dear to me if I couldn’t have an informed conversation. Besides, I have numerous colleagues with whom I disagree on the issue of same-gender marriage and the ordination of homosexuals, and I dearly love them. I have no desire to have our relationships broken because a speculative conversation devolved in to name-calling and accusations. Not worth it!

Then, of course, there is the issue of giving my focus to the work of the congregation I serve. As an alternate delegate to General Conference, it is very easy to get distracted by all the information, blogs, speculation and social media posts concerning the future of United Methodism. Yes, we are a connectional church, but at the end of the day, I’m appointed to a local congregation, and the mission of the United Methodist Church (to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world) gets carried out in the local congregation. People’s lives will be transformed in and through the local church. That is my primary focus.

Now that sufficient information has been made available and petitions filed with General Conference, it’s time for me to weigh in on the situation we United Methodists find ourselves in. Many people have asked my thoughts over the past few months, so I figured this medium is the best way to communicate to the broadest number of people.

I know a post such as this will get feedback, both positively and negatively, and I’ll probably get called a few names if I don’t take the position that someone thinks is the correct one. But, I suppose I will take that chance. February will soon be upon us and the conversation can no longer be avoided.

The Commission on the Way Forward

The Commission on the Way Forward

The Commission on a Way Forward was appointed by the Bishops subsequent to the 2016 General Conference to “do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.” The Commission completed its work and submitted its report to be translated for General Conference. The report includes three possible ways forward for the UMC. The Traditional Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan and the One Church Plan. I’ll unpack each later in the post.

The Council of Bishops has recommended adoption of the One Church Plan. That is their preferred future for the UMC. Initially, the bishops sought to direct the debate of General Conference, but after a challenge before the Judicial Council, the Judicial Council ruled that any United Methodist with standing could submit legislation to General Conference. That means, obviously, there will be a plethora of legislation presented to General Conference. As a side note, the bishop’s recommendation was moved to a footnote in the report.

General Conference, 2019

The General Conference is slated to last four days. With a plethora (I’ve used that word twice!) of legislation, the work will be daunting, and the reality is it may not get done at all. Historically, the work of the General Conference begins with adopting the rules of order. There may be a four-day fight on the rules and the Conference may never get around to doing the actual work. Can you imagine having two years of conversations and meetings, and spending millions of dollars to accomplish nothing? That’s exactly what could happen.

Other than a significant waste of time and money, nothing happening would not be the worst thing to happen (in my humble opinion). The status quo would remain, which means the Discipline would not change (of course, neither would the current lack of enforcement). The proverbial can would get kicked down the road to General Conference 2020. Speculation? There will be some laity, clergy and congregations who depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. It would also break my heart.

One thing that could happen even before February is the Judicial Council could rule one, two or all three plans included in the report as unconstitutional. The Council of Bishops has asked for a declaratory decision on the constitutionality of the three plans. If all three plans are declared unconstitutional, there would be no work for the Conference to complete. I suppose it would be cancelled, still costing an unknown amount of money and kicking the can down the road. There will be some laity, clergy and congregations who depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. It would also break my heart.

The Three Plans

The Traditional Plan

The Traditional Plan retains the current language in the Book of Discipline that states all persons are “of sacred worth, created in the image of God” and also states that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Traditional Plan dramatically enhances accountability to the church’s requirements and closes many of the loopholes currently being used to avoid accountability by those who, in practicing “biblical disobedience,” conduct same-gender weddings and ordain “self-avowed, practicing” homosexuals. At the same time, the Plan offers a gracious exit for annual conferences, congregations, bishops, and clergy who cannot in good conscience abide by the church’s historic standards. 

This plan has the best possibility of passing General Conference (again, in my humble opinion) simply based on the votes of previous General Conferences in similar matters.  It will likely be supported by evangelicals, southern delegates and the delegations from the Central Conferences (outside the U. S.). The groups together constitute a majority. I won’t bore you with every single detail of the Traditional Plan. For a more comprehensive treatment, my colleague Thomas Lambrecht has an article here, or you can read the legislation by clicking here.

I am a supporter of the Traditional plan because it maintains our current position which I believe is grace-filled even if it doesn’t sound like it in this 21st Century shifting culture. I believe it remains faithful to the biblical witness and to 2,000 years of church history and tradition. It also remains faithful to almost every cultural understanding in the world of marriage as being between one man and one woman.

There will likely be some people who depart the United Methodist Church should the Traditional Plan pass, but they would likely be fewer in number. Many of the most progressive leaders in our denomination have stated they will not depart under any circumstances. Of course, that means acts of disobedience would continue, so it is a realistic possibility that the Plan would ultimately be ineffective, in which case, laity, clergy and congregations would depart out of sheer frustration, and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. That would break my heart.

The Connectional Conference Plan

The Connectional Conference Plan is perhaps the most confusing of the three. The plan as proposed would do away with our current five jurisdictions and replace them with three “Conferences” aligned along theological perspectives. There would be a traditional Conference (maintaining the current Disciplinary language), a progressive Conference (ordaining homosexual clergy and performing same-gender marriage) and a centrist Conference (each did what was right in their own eyes).

Each of the three conferences would continue to operate under the umbrella of the United Methodist Church, and as I understand the legislation, each Annual Conference would choose to align with one of the Conferences. Each would continue to share some doctrinal standards, missions work globally and administrative infrastructure (think General Boards and Agencies here).

If a local church did not want to affiliate with the Connectional Conference chosen by its Annual Conference, it could vote to become a member of one of the other Conferences. Clergy would have the same option, but would be obligated to abide by the standards of the chosen Conference. If I understand the legislation correctly, the Bishop and Cabinet of the Annual Conference will still control the appointive process. I’m not sure how that would work, but that’s what it says. Consideration for re-affiliation would be provided every four years.

As for bishops, the current Council of Bishops would be retained with each Connectional Conference having a College of Bishops composed of those bishops who chose to affiliate with each Conference. They would continue to lead in ecumenical relationships and in oversight of the administrative agencies of the Church. Funding for bishops inside the U. S. would be provided by each bishop’s respective Connectional Conference, and bishops outside the U. S. would be supported by the umbrella organization. Confusing, huh?

Each Connectional Conference would adopt its own Book of Discipline starting with the Articles of Religion, Doctrinal Standards, Confessions of Faith and General Rules. Everything else would be contextual to the particular Connectional Conference. Still confusing, huh?

Again, for the full plan you can click here and read the enabling legislation for yourself. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a legal nerd.

I believe this is the most impossible plan offered. It would take up to six years to implement and the passage of five constitutional amendments. Does anyone realize how hard it is to pass a constitutional amendment in the United Methodist Church? Each amendment requires a two-thirds vote of the General Conference and a two-thirds vote of the aggregate members of each of the Annual Conferences voting. What it really means is this plan isn’t likely to gain any traction in 2019 (assuming that GC 2019 gets around to voting on any plan).

The confusion created should this plan be adopted would likely lead to many laity, clergy and congregations departing out of sheer frustration and the United Methodist Church would be weakened. Heart-breaking, no?

The One Church Plan

The One Church Plan as proposed would remove the “restrictive” language (some have called it “hurtful” language) in the Discipline as it refers to the practice of homosexuality, and would change the definition of marriage from “between one man and one woman” to being between “two adults.” Additionally, each Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry would be allowed to determine its own ordination standards as it relates to human sexuality.

Okay, this is where it gets sticky. Some have referred to this as the “local option” plan because individual clergy would not be compelled to violate conscience if he/she was opposed to same-gender marriage. The clergy would not be required to perform weddings in celebration of the aforementioned, nor would local congregations be compelled to host same-gender weddings in violation of its collective conscience. (Here’s why I don’t believe this plan would ever work.)

Likewise, bishops are not required to ordain or license homosexual persons in violation of their conscience, but it does make provision if the Annual Conference has opted to ordain, for another bishop to ordain the individual in that bishop’s stead. It does not, however, protect a bishop from having to appoint a clergy person that he/she believes to be unfit for ministry. The Plan does include provisions that prevent a bishop or District Superintendent from retaliating against a clergy who refuses to violate her/his conscience.

I’ll not go into greater detail about the One Church Plan. I’ve linked to the entire plan in a couple of different places already. Read it at your leisure (or at your peril!). I will tell you why I think this plan is untenable.

The Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church

Proponents of the One Church Plan (including the Council of Bishops–though not every Bishop agrees) believe it is possible for those who disagree on issues of human sexuality to peacefully coexist in one denomination. I think nearly 50 years of continuous debate over the issue proves that theory incorrect. Proponents of the plan see human sexuality as a non-essential. Opponents of the plan disagree greatly, and based on the conversations I’ve had, are not likely to change that understanding.

Adopting the One Church plan will accomplish one thing: It will remove the debate from the General Church level. What it will do, in the alternative, is take it down to the local church level where each local congregation will have to determine and debate its own understanding of human sexuality, thus increasing the conflict in the denomination rather than lessening it.

The One Church Plan would also weaken the understanding of what it means to be United Methodist. Well, it would just set up a situation where neighboring UM churches could have differing standards–UM churches in the same town…on the same street, for heaven’s sake! Talk about brand confusion (forgive the secular marketing reference, but…)! We can call it the One Church Plan, but it does, by default, create two (or more?) churches with its implementation. It is, at best, a false unity.

The One Church Plan makes me ask the question, “If we can choose our standards on human sexuality, why can’t each local congregation (or clergy) choose their own standards on baptism or communion?” Seems to me to be only one of the Pandora’s boxes we open with the passage of the One Church Plan.

Additionally, as a former District Superintendent, I can see the nightmare the appointive process would become under such a plan. It was difficult enough to connect clergy and congregations in a fruitful way without the One Church Plan, and for Annual Conferences with a shortage of clergy, the issue would be multiplied even more. I also envision a time in the not too distant future when bishops and cabinets would say, “Sexual preference is not a consideration in the appointment-making process.”

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this Plan disregards the historic, biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality, and puts the United Methodist Church firmly outside the broader global community of the body of Christ on the issues of marriage and human sexuality. Do we really want to do that?

If the One Church Plan passes GC 2019, it will precipitate the departure of many evangelical, traditional members (both lay and clergy) and congregations for whom the issue of human sexuality is a non-negotiable. Their departure will weaken the United Methodist Church, and that breaks my heart.

Other Considerations

This has become a long blog (I apologize), so I will only briefly mention a few other considerations involved in the debate. Bishop Bruce Ough has rightly discerned, “Let’s be clear, if we divide, nearly all our essential unifying institutional activities would be lost or severely diminished.” Our UM institutions will be harmed, and the future of many will be uncertain–some will, in fact, cease to exist. Our global mission partnerships will end or be financially limited. Pension obligations may go unmet (especially pre-1982 pensions [Methodist nerds will know what that is]), and that would be devastating to countless faithful clergy. Property fights would ensue, diverting precious resources away from the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I contend that each of those things will happen regardless of which plan is passed. Perhaps not on the scale of a full-blown dissolution, but harm will come nonetheless.

The Final Nail in the Mainline Coffin?

The decline of the mainline church in North America is well documented, and while our denomination is growing globally, membership and attendance continues to decline in the U. S., and has since I entered vocational ministry in 1991. Ed Stetzer wrote a piece in 2017 noting that unless something happen, mainline Protestantism has a mere 23 Easters left. My heart aches as I consider the possibility that General Conference 2019 will hasten that decline, and will serve as the final nail in the mainline coffin (at least in the U. S.).

United Methodism is still the largest of the remaining “mainline” Protestant denominations, and the singular one which has not yet embraced the ordination of LGBTQI+ persons or same-gender marriage. Only the Traditional Plan will (ostensibly) prevent this from happening, but even if it passes, the UMC is likely to come out bruised and weakened. Regardless of what happens February 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis, everything will be different in the UMC on February 27th. At least, that’s my speculation.

Alarmist, you say? Negativity? Hyperbole? Divisive? Well, I prefer the term realistic.  I don’t want our church divided. I don’t want to see our congregations diminished. I don’t want the United Methodist name to be tarnished. I don’t want to break fellowship with sisters and brothers with whom I’ve traversed the highway of ministry. Each of those possibilities break my heart.

Yet, I am not one who is without hope. I do believe in miracles, and I am praying for a miracle to happen in St. Louis. I believe God has the power to work a miracle among the people called United Methodist. The problem doesn’t lie with God’s ability, but rather with our openness to the move of the Holy Spirit among us as the work is done. So, I pray that all our hearts will be open to what the Holy Spirit desires to accomplish in us and through us during that time.

In the meantime, I’m going to focus as much effort as I’m able to reach the lost in the community around me. I’m going to look to the future with plans for continuing ministry to the broken among us. I’m going to do all I can do to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That mission hasn’t changed.

Even still, I’m not without hope. Should February 2019 drive the final nail in the mainline coffin, I am certain the work of the Kingdom will continue. God is in the resurrection business, and we all know there has to be a death before there can be a resurrection.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions…

On April 28, 2017, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church issued its ruling regarding the July 2016 election and consecration of Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto as Bishop in the United Methodist Church. Almost everyone I know (from a Methodist perspective anyway) was waiting for this ruling, and many of them have asked me what I thought of the ruling. My answer has been: “I think it’s better than it could have been and worse than it should have been.”

BETTER THAN IT COULD HAVE BEEN

It’s better than it could have been because the Judicial Council could have decided it didn’t have jurisdiction over the matter. That is, in essence, what they ruled in part of the case. The Council concluded it did not have jurisdiction over the nomination, election and assignment as Bishop (you can read the entire decision here), but that it did have jurisdiction over the consecration of a homosexual bishop, and in that matter, the Western Jurisdiction violated church law. The decision goes on to say that any clergy who participated in the consecration are subject to a “chargeable offense.”

I’m not going to comment on the intricate details of the case because I’m not an attorney steeped in church law, but I will say that any intelligent person could read The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church and conclude that the consecration of a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” is a violation of church law. No matter how one parses the words, they say what they say, and no matter a person’s gifts and graces for ministry, the words say what they say. If we don’t like what the words say, then the words should be changed, but every four years for forty plus years, the wording has been reaffirmed by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

So, the ruling is better than it could have been. The Western Jurisdiction violated church law when it consecrated Rev. Dr. Oliveto bishop (although Oliveto was not specifically named in the petition). I believe it was the correct decision, and it helped to bring some clarity to the current debates within the United Methodist Church around human sexuality.

WORSE THAN IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN

But, the decision is worse than it should have been. I know many will disagree with that statement, and that’s perfectly okay with me (this is me assenting to your right to dissent–so please keep the nasty and snarky comments to a minimum). The decision left Oliveto in “good standing” in the office of Bishop, and remanded the case back to the Western Jurisdiction for what is called an “administrative process.”

Yes, others have asked what that means, too. Let me see if I can explain it briefly. Just like in the secular world, a person has a right to “due process,” so in the church a clergy person has the right to “due process” before any action can be taken against him/her (this is a good thing), so the ruling sends it back to the Western Jurisdiction for the process to play itself out.

So, while that’s good, it’s bad because the Western Jurisdiction is the entity that elected  and consecrated Oliveto in the first place, so I anticipate that nothing of substance will be done through the process, and when all is said and done, Oliveto will still be a Bishop in the United Methodist Church, and those of us who hold to the traditional biblical understanding of marriage will continue to be frustrated with the politics of it all (I’m speaking purely of church politics here). It’s also bad because it will continue to be a distraction from the mission of the church, and will continue to drain time, energy and resources away from the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world.

WHAT NOW?

So, what do we do now? We wait…just like we’ve been doing. We’ll wait to see how the administrative process works itself out in the Western Jurisdiction. We’ll also continue to wait and see what the Commission on a Way Forward recommends when it completes its work, and we’ll wait to see what the special called session of General Conference does with that information when it meets in February of 2019, in St. Louis, MO.

In our waiting, we might discover that the Holy Spirit is prepared to do a new work with these people called United Methodist. The Holy Spirit could, in fact, be giving birth to a new Methodist movement. If we react now with frustration and anger (no matter which “side” of the debate we take), we might just miss the greatest move of the Holy Spirit in Methodism since John Wesley‘s heart was strangely warmed at a meeting on Aldersgate Street. Let’s all remain faithful with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness (those are the vows every person takes when she/he joins the United Methodist Church).

There is one thing we can do in the waiting, and that is to pray. We must pray for unity…but not unity for an institution…we must pray for unity in the body of Christ that goes far beyond any human institution. We must also pray for unity in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must also pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us with fire so that our singular purpose will be a people who have nothing to do but save souls.

More than waiting, though, is the necessity of work…the work of the Kingdom. We must continue to be in ministry to the least, the last and the lost. There are homeless people to feed. There are foster children to care for. There are churches to build. There are souls to save (there’s my evangelical bent coming through). There are people to love, there’s a God to worship and adore and there’s Jesus to follow. Nothing any Council (Judicial or otherwise) could ever do will change the commandment Jesus gave us to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 18-20 NLT).

So, I’ll wait, and pray and work. May I invite you to join me in that endeavor.

Until next time, keep looking up…