A Dynamite Church for a Powerless World

As Pentecost approaches on May 24, I am reminded that each Christian is gifted by the Holy Spirit. As much as we like talking about our Trinitarian beliefs, the Holy Spirit often gets short shrift in both theology and practice. It is the Spirit, however, that unites us as a body made of different parts and supernatural abilities (I Corinthians 12). Sometimes our natural abilities and aptitudes are exactly synonymous by the Holy Spirit’s unique gifting of us, but sometimes not. Rather than digressing into the question of how you can tell which, I think that it is better to affirm the Biblical truth that every Christian has unique “gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:4b).” Whether one feels like they have something to offer is irrelevant because we all do!

The Holy Spirit’s presence was let loose by God on an unsuspecting populace in Jerusalem and the world was turned upside down by an explosion of spiritual power. As I read the Pew Research Center’s newest religious poll of America’s faith habits this morning I was dismayed that the “none’s” with no religious affiliation are growing while those professing Christ are declining. I cannot help but wonder if it’s because we resemble the words of 2 Timothy 3:1-5a, “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power.” Sounds quite descriptive of us, doesn’t it? A form of godliness but denying its power.

The power that supplies godliness is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the dunamis, “power” in NT Greek, from whence we get our word “dynamite.” The early church saw miracles and exploded with growth. The Wesleyan Movement saw the same effects and England, America, and most of the rest of the world have witnessed the unleashing of God’s Spirit through our church. Lately, however, we have become too domesticated. Where is the power of the Gospel in our midst? The Holy Spirit is our dynamite!

An interesting article was written several years ago in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.) Starr concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live.

  • It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
  • There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation.

  • And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.
  • “Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t know anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote an editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”
  • Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”
  • Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implications…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

What I meant by saying that we should remember the particulars of the three authors is that other people, from very disparate viewpoints, think there is something that Methodism still has to offer. In reality, the genius of Methodism isn’t a thing, but a Who – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Living Christ, the embodiment of the Father’s great love for all humankind.  The question is whether or not we are full of the Holy Spirit, or full of ourselves? A tree is known by its fruit. Pray for a new Pentecost, and I know it needs to begin in me!

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My Mother’s Train

I stopped Sunday afternoon at a Hallmark store to purchase a Mother’s Day card for Cindy. There was plenty of time to peruse them because I was between preaching, visiting a clergyperson in the hospital, and the last event of the day which was our District Pre-Annual Conference Orientation. After selecting an appropriate card I found myself looking at other items that might be an appropriate Mother’s Day gift for her.

Before it dawned on me that whatever I bought would just be another thing to pack for our upcoming move I noticed some rather odd items. The most unique and troubling gift was a mug with this phrase emblazoned on it: “If I were a Mormon fundamentalist I would want you as my sister wife.” I know that official Mormons have done away with the practice of having multiple wives, but I’ve seen too many ads for weird television shows about guys and their plural marriages to think that the phenomenon has disappeared.

It’s interesting that none of these shows are about women with multiple husbands, but that’s for sociologists to figure out. There’s a lot that I don’t know, but one thing for sure is that a mug with this “sister wife” stuff on it would NOT be a good idea for a Mother’s Day gift. As the saying goes, “My Mamma didn’t raise no fool!” and Cindy has been doing a pretty good job of shaping me ever since!

My mother was a great person. She taught me right from wrong, how to value every person no matter their faults, how to be accepting, and exhibit unconditional love. She wasn’t perfect. Who is? She came close, though. She was a spit-fire who didn’t mince words. She was fun and had the best laugh. She had wounds that she mostly kept hidden. She loved her family immensely. Her integrity was impeccable. What you saw is what you got and I am grateful for her constant and consistent example of being a Christ-follower.

Integrity is a powerful word and is sorely needed in our mixed up world. “Integrity” comes from French for “in touch,” literally meaning that a person with integrity has a solid core around which their entire lives revolve. They’re not two-faced. You can take what they say to the bank. They may have many spokes on the wheel of their life but there is a hub that is unshakeable.

Wow, am I thankful for a Mother with integrity! In this wishy-washy world of jello-like values, we need more people who know right from wrong and do what’s right. There’s part of the rub and takes me back to the weird mug at Hallmark. It’s hard to figure out what’s right and wrong nowadays. I think I would be better able to fend off the temptation to loosen my values if I asked whether my Mom would approve or not. I’m thinking that “W.W.J.D.?” and “W.W.M.D.?” (Jesus and Mother) are pretty synonymous for me.

I try to use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to help me discern right from wrong as well: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. The Bible is God’s inspired Word and definitely primary. Tradition is what the church has taught over the centuries. Experience is both personal and corporate in nature. Reason is self-explanatory though most of us have seen so-called logic used to prop up the irrational. Frankly, Scripture and Tradition are most reliable for me personally, and if making life choices was analogous to a train then the engine would be the Bible followed by Tradition with Experience and Reason following next. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that Experience ought to be the caboose and come dead last.

Elevating Experience over Scripture is an awful hermeneutic! Our culture puts Experience first. God help us if the Church does the same. When I use Experience as the highest bar of what’s acceptable and right it usually results in self-centered failure. Our culture’s promotion of Experience as the rule of behavior is like the excesses of the Roman Empire, and we know what happened to it. When I promote Experience over the other three of the Quadrilateral I know that I am not doing what my Mother would do.

So, this Mother’s Day I am grateful for a Mother with integrity whose values were on solid footing. Her train had the cars in order. The Bible was first. Christian Tradition was second through a good church and family. Reason was honed in the milieu of a good Methodist school. Experience was put in rightful perspective as the last arbiter of right from wrong. As we anticipate Mother’s Day let’s answer very carefully, “What Would Mother Do?”

Neo-Calvinism and The God Who Risks!

Two connecting coincidences occurred today. One is that I have just been asked to read a soon-to-be-published book by a friend and offer a back-cover endorsement. Second is that another friend asked me for a book list on theology in general, plus Liberation Theology, Process Theology, Wesleyan Theology, and differences between denominations. So after my morning devotional I have spent time perusing my library and noting which books have been most formative in my faith journey. I’m about to turn to reading my other friend’s manuscript, but first I have to work through my personal theological grounding. It’s something I need to do every day.

Why do we believe what we believe? That’s a hugely important question even for those who say believing in Jesus is all that counts. I spent 10 years on the Board of Ordained Ministry’s Doctrine and Theology Committee and know it’s important for our new clergy to articulate more than a cursory undeliberated faith. Too often clergy and laity alike are guided by the embedded theology of our culture and times. Our culture, unfortunately, has been inundated for several decades by a neo-Calvinism (Rick Warren) mixed with Dispensationalist’s premillennial understanding of eschatology (Tim LaHaye). United Methodists have had to work overtime to lift up the alternatives of Wesleyan Process Theology and amillennialism. For the former and latter perspectives I would recommend John Sanders’, The God Who Risks and N.T. Wright’s, How Became King.

The favorite two questions that I asked repeatedly in the Doctrine and Theology Committee were: “If you are close to heresy, how so and why?” and “Using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, why isn’t foot washing a sacrament?” Both questions provided an assessment of a candidate’s ability to do theology. Rather than spout rote answers via whoever put the biggest funnel in the person’s head, these questions gave people a chance to work out a theological perspective on the fly. Isn’t that what most of us have to do anyway? We’re caught in a hospital hallway and someone wants to know why bad things happen to good people. Our theodicy is quickly exposed. All the trite and unhelpful words of non-comfort like, “It was meant to be…” “God has a purpose/reason for your tragedy…” are antithetical to a God who risks submission to human whims and vagaries, even unto death.

If you haven’t been through the fire yet, you will. If economic disaster, natural calamity, ill health, tragedy, and crud haven’t come your way then watch out! They’re on the way – duck and run – to God! God doesn’t cause any of this stuff. What God does is meet us in the fiery furnace and stay with us through it all. God’s gracious act in Jesus Christ is proof that God enters our pain and redeems it, not through some escapist trick like the hymn “Farther Along,” or self-deprecating platitudes in the ilk of Job’s so-called friends, “What did you do to deserve this?” God’s response to our questions doesn’t provide an answer as much as a Presence.

Why do bad things happen? Reason One: my choices. Reason two: the choices of others. Reason three: the general decay that’s in the world that causes everything to fall apart. Reason four: evil (John 10:10). The Scriptures are clear that God is the author of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17), therefore when I ponder the big question, “Why?” I am not going to blame God, but claim God. God does not jerk us around like puppets on strings. It does me no good to think that God is somehow the Mastermind pre-engineering everything, both good and bad, in my life. I am comforted and heartened more by the truth that Jesus knows my every weakness and sorrow for He was a man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), and tempted every way like us (Hebrews 4:15-16), yet conquered the grave and death through painful obedience. This isn’t cheap grace, but hard-won incarnational hope.

So what difference does this make on a Tuesday morning? I am going to do the very best that I can through the grace of God to avoid evil, personal defeat, and the vicissitudes of reckless people around me. I am going to pray the prayer that we all have prayed so much and try to really mean it, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” If everything that happens is God’s will, then why in the world should we pray for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? So, there you have it, right there in the Lord’s Prayer – what we need to do when life hits us with a sucker punch. Pray – pray hard, and even when the answers don’t come, God does come, and it is prayer that lets us know God’s supreme love, not enmity, towards us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Protect us, Lord, this day and every day, and give us grace to endure as your Son endured. Amen.

Relative Change or Real Change for the UMC?

In teaching Wesleyan theology I have come to describe justifying grace as the point at which we experience relative change, a straightening out of our relationship to God through Christ. I have described sanctifying grace as real change when we actually become like Christ. Our faith matrix as Wesleyans is best described as a house. Prevenient grace is the steps to the house. Repentance is the porch of the house. The doorway into the house is justifying grace. The whole house is sanctifying grace. We’re not people who want others or ourselves to stay on the steps, the porch, or at the doorway. For Wesley and our denomination we want people to experience the grand house of holiness – personal and social holiness that transforms the world and us.

As we ponder the Call to Action we need to remember our theology no matter if we’re liberal, moderate, or conservative. Pardon the use of labels, but name tags are on my mind as I just got back from the National BMCR meeting and am about to fly out to a Connectional Table meeting. We like to wear name tags at these meetings. Name tags tell other people who we are, and they’re also a reminder to us as to who we are. As hectic as life gets that’s a nice fringe benefit. I usually don’t care for name tags. I like being anonymous. On a trip a few years ago to Christ UMC in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, a group of us large church United Methodist ministers were on hand to survey how that church does its ministry. We went to all four worship services taking in each service’s nuance. They wanted us to sit together down front with name tags. I wanted to sit unobtrusively in the balcony without a name tag. I thought it would better help me accurately gauge the congregation and the services. People treat you differently if they know who you are. Sometimes I would rather get lost in the crowd and observe.

Simon Peter tried that tactic after Jesus was arrested. In the courtyard of the High Priest’s home Peter tried to hide the fact that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. He didn’t want to stand out. Simon Peter didn’t want anyone to associate him with Galilee or anyone from there. He ended up preserving his secret identity by denying Jesus three times. He kept his secret but almost lost his soul. We need to remember who we are and Whose we are however much we like to be secret agents for God. A church member was asked why he didn’t witness for Jesus more. His reply, “I’m in the secret service!” Sure, it is better to do good deeds without fanfare or calling attention to ourselves, but sometimes we let Jesus down by not giving Christ the credit that he’s due for the things that God does through us.

If we want the Call to Action to work we better get/understand who we are and do something with that knowledge. I’m going to dare call it an age-old term that’s loaded with baggage for many – “witnessing.” Craig Bird describes witnessing in his article, “Gearing Up for God.” He writes: “Ancient Rome: Two strangers meet along a dusty road. Miles pass in pleasant conversation. Obscure references to religious ideas slip into the dialogue. The men sense a spiritual kinship but are wary of expressing it. After all, Christianity is a criminal offense punishable by death. They stop to rest. The discussion rambles from the latest war news to the price of bread and the hijinks of the Roman Senate. The younger of the two pushes his walking stick through the dust as he talks, tracing half an oval. The older man glances at the mark, then into the eyes of his new acquaintance, and quickly around to see who else might be paying attention. Then with his own staff, he draws a mirror image, connecting with the first line at one end but intersecting it at the other. “He is risen!” he exclaims. “He is risen indeed!” comes the reply.

Modern Rome: Two American tourists meet while waiting to clear customs. One wears a $50 pullover knit shirt. The logo replicates what the ancient Christians drew in the dirt – an emblem of a fish. The other sports a baseball cap with a four-letter acronym on the crown: WWJD? “Nice shirt,” says one. “Great hat,” says the other. What a difference a few centuries make. The cost attached to that original Christian icon was severe. Display the fish symbol, and the culture could demand you pay with your life. In the 21st century, the cost of Christian symbols is more ambiguous. Christian gear – clothes, jewelry, bumper stickers and related merchandise – generates an estimated $3 billion in annual revenue. But the real value of those purchases is more difficult to peg.

Some evangelicals say “Christian wear” is an effective witnessing tool. Others say it does more harm than good, particularly when the actions of Christians contradict their T-shirts. Some things haven’t changed over the centuries. Now, as then, Christian symbols remain a means of identifying “friendlies.” But what was once a furtive code for a persecuted religious minority is now a spiritual fashion statement. While early Christians contemplated, often in the dank darkness of the underground tombs of Rome, how to live faithfully the example of Jesus, today’s believers, especially evangelicals, are apt to broadcast that intention on brightly colored bracelets and T-shirts asking, “What Would Jesus Do?”’ I think a better idea is putting our money where our mouth is, our faith into action, and our love into good works more than words! But if we don’t tell people the Reason (Jesus) why we do good works then we might as well be Rotarians. I’ve been in Rotary and their “Four-Way Test” is pretty darn good. Jesus is even better.

As I ponder the Call to Action and the proposed restructuring of the United Methodist Church I am more and more fearful that we are rearranging deck chairs and not emphasizing Jesus enough as the why. There’s much good to be sure in the proposals, but a structural solution to a spiritual problem only gets us so far. Repentance and revival are needed to grow our church. We have to call on the Lord! Metrics may help us gauge how well we’re doing. Developing new missions and ministries, small groups, better leaders, and relevancy to younger people are great strategies to be sure, but the word everyone is avoiding is “evangelism.” We have to shed our anonymity and get right with God while we dare to speak to people about God’s marvelous grace in Jesus. That’s a call to action that will do much more good in turning our church around. If we want people to know Christ we have got to invite them from the steps into the house!

Charge Conference Christians

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Everyone wants to put on a good face for Charge Conference. They are in full swing right now. I actually went to bed last night counting how many Charge Conferences I have had instead of counting sheep. Charge Conferences are in full-swing, along with consultations with pastors about their ministry. I have heard some great reports which underscore the very reason we have these annual meetings. The most distinctive Wesleyan doctrine is sanctification. We are “Methodists” because we believe in a methodical way to live our faith, making sure that we are held accountable. All those forms are our empirical way to gauge how we’re doing spiritually. At least that’s how I rationalize it. The bottom-line is that we believe Jesus didn’t save us to leave us the way we were found, but to transform us and the world. We need transformation, not just at Charge Conference reporting time but year round.

I wish there were a pill that would really cure all that ails us. Some might say that our national malaise is the product of a poor economy, the war on terror, midterm-election year mudslinging, the disintegration of the family, and sorry football teams. It’s tough when sports, your source of distraction from life’s difficulties, only adds to the problem. What I’ve found when life is on the slippery slope is to do something worthwhile. It doesn’t matter so much what the task, just so it takes commitment.

Psychologists, for years, have said that one of the best ways to get out of the doldrums is to make yourself do something for somebody else. They’re right! If we give in to the pits we’re never going to get out. Commitment is the ability to push through the pain, the angst, the pessimistic cynical mindset in which we find ourselves and keep at the projects that we’re supposed to complete. George Miller gave an interesting analogy, “The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.” What he’s saying about Italian food is true for me. It sticks with me for a long time.

When we’re a little down, we shouldn’t give in to it. We should stick to the things that we know that we’re supposed to do. Sure, I know very well that I don’t feel like going to walk, but I also know the endorphins that are released when I exercise will make me feel better. Unfortunately, many of us easily avoid the things we should do. Jerome K. Jerome, who lived from 1859-1927, said it for all sad-sacks and procrastinators, “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

So maybe we shouldn’t vegetate and let our burdens build up. Doing something good and worthwhile is a better answer. It’s all about commitment. Lewis Smedes puts the matter quite plainly, “I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God… When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and control at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.”

Many years ago a pastor preached on three different kinds of believers: “if,” “because,” and “regardless.” An “if” believer follows God IF he or she receives blessings and rewards in return. This person waits to see what God will do first, then decides whether or not to respond in obedience. A “because” believer follows God BECAUSE God blesses the person. This person has seen the connection between personal obedience and God’s blessing and wants to keep it going. A “regardless” believer follows God REGARDLESS of the person’s circumstances, cynicism, and hardships. A “regardless” believer honors commitment and knows that God is faithful to the faithful. Which am I today when it comes to the seemingly mundane paperwork and meeting schedule that exhibits a long obedience in God’s direction?