The More Things Change

My Christian witness in the face of a global pandemic.

Rewind to March 1. It was the first Sunday in Lent, on the heels of Ash Wednesday. We celebrated Holy Communion and had a potluck meal after worship. It was a great day, but I had no idea the challenges that our community and our world would soon face. This has been a Lent like none other. In fact Valerie and her friend both agreed that this has been the Lent-iest Lent they have ever Lent-ed!

You’ve heard the cliche, “The more things change…” It’s true but ironic that everything has changed and yet, nothing has really changed. My identity, my desperate need for grace, my love for friends and family and the like are still the same. And, yes, sisters and brothers, God’s love has not changed. So what do we do now? Ignore the obvious tragedy and anxiety that surrounds us? No! If we are Christ followers, we reach up to our Heavenly Father and reach out to each other.

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This is a very Wesleyan response. John Wesley regularly had people coming to him in fear, anxious about their sins and failures. So in late 1739, on Thursday evenings Wesley started gathering with people, “having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.1” That’s still what we need today in the face of a turbulent world and a pandemic that has disrupted our lives and routines.

The reformer Wesley encouraged these Christ-followers to follow three simple rules, what came to be known at The General Rules of the United Methodist Church. They can give us some direction in these strange days.

Coronavirus_StayHome_doctors1. Do no harm – Stay home. Yes, I know that many of you disagree with me, but this is one of those times when serving my own needs might inadvertently cause someone else harm. I don’t have to roll out the statistics and wealth of evidence about how a virus is spread. It’s simple. Stay home. Starve the Novel Coronavirus. Stay healthy and keep yourself and your neighbor out of the hospital. When we recognize the brave effort of our overwhelmed medical professionals, they are going to work for us, so we can stay home for them.

2. Do good – Find ways to encourage others. I love seeing the innovative ways many of you have demonstrated kindness and compassion! We have sent thank you cards, done the Facebook Friday phone a friend challenge, delivered Kids Activity Kids, assisted with our Drive Thru Prayer and daily reached out to friends and loved ones. You are not alone, but make sure that everyone else knows that too! And we can do a lot of good just by praying. Fast and pray. Man, have I prayed a lot this past month. Apparently I needed the practice. Haha!

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Hospital workers at Cartersville Medical Center, Cartersville, Georgia lift their voices to sing “Way Maker.”

3. Stay in love with God – What’s the opposite of fear? According to 1 John 4:18 it’s perfect love.  When we fully rely on God’s love and grace, we cannot be ruled by fear, anxiety, or hatred. This is a time to stay in love with God, but also to demonstrate who is Lord of your life. To quote the popular song by Sinach that many have heard on the viral video showing hospital staff lined the roof of Cartersville Medical Center in Cartersville, GA, God is a “Way maker, miracle worker, promise keeper, light in the darkness.” You and I can complain, be ruled by fear, held hostage by anxiety or we can stay in love with God and be a light of hope. We could all use a little more hope!

As we finish Lent and wonder what April is going to be like, I hope these three simple rules will remain as a guide for our lives after COVID-19 diagnoses have left the news. We serve a Psalm 46 God, “Our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble.” We get to model that for the world and our community. So stay home. Stay healthy. Stay encouraged, but most of all, do no harm, do good and stay in love with God.SignJRGBlack300

Confronting What Is Wrong

I did it just the other day… I honked my horn as one last car meandered through a yellow, then red light while the traffic on my side of the intersection waited through the first 3-4 seconds our green light. That’s just wrong. This red-light rebel got me thinking, “How should a Christian respond when we confront sin/evil/injustice in our lives?”

We all have those frequent, stoplight moments. But there are also occasions when we come face to face with something that is just simply wrong. It’s sin that has a ripple effect in our lives. You see it in international issues like human trafficking; an evil invades our lives and our neighborhoods through pornography, the objectification of women and dangerous situations for adolescent girls (and even boys). That’s a big, global evil, but we see sin/evil/injustice at work, in our relationships and unfortunately even in the church.

When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won.
– Mahatma Gandhi

So what do we do? As Christians we begin where we should always begin, in prayer. Prayer is a radical, counter-cultural action of faith that puts our attention on The Truth, The One who defines what is right and good. Jesus even says to “Pray for those who persecute you,” (Matt. 5:44). Only then can we have even the slightest perspective from God’s point of view. Then and only then should we respond with grace. That’s the hard part.

The most difficult thing about being a true Christ-follower is that we are called to confront evil, not just sit there and let it happen. But how we confront it is the key. We don’t pile on more evil. We cannot control how people act, but we can control how we respond. The Bible says that we should, “Never pay back evil with more evil,” (Romans 12:9-21). In fact it’s a key to our Christian witness and should differentiate us from people who do not know the Lord.

We are barely scratching the surface of this complex issue, sisters and brothers. But be encouraged that when you encounter something that is just plain wrong, it is okay to confront it, call it out and then respond in a Godly way. The good news is that whether we are on the giving or receiving end, God’s grace is sufficient to forgive (individual) and reconcile (everyone involved). In the end love will win, because God is love. He confronted evil at the cross. It’s done. The victory has been won.

So rather than respond with you horn like I did, pray and then lead with love. Confronting sin is never easy, but neither is being a true Christ-follower. May we find our strength in Christ and respond with His grace.

Sola Scriptura

My Google search shows two opposing views at the top of the list.

“The Bible is…” Just do a Google search for that statement and see what you find. The top two results paint opposing pictures. 1. The Bible is the Word of God. 2. The Bible is fiction. What do you think? How would you complete the phrase? In October at Elm Springs United Methodist Church we’re centering our Sunday morning worship and teaching on the assertion that the Bible serves as the primary and final authority for the Church. Sola Scriptura is our theme which is Latin for “only Scripture.”

The world saw a huge tidal shift in theology during the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther contradicted the idea that final authority for the church lay in Rome with the Pope and other Catholic leaders. As Luther examined the Holy Bible, he argued that it has authority because only Scripture can be said to be “God breathed.” Only Scripture is without error, and therefore only Scripture is clear and sufficient, “to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives” (2 Timothy 3:16, NLT).

The tide shifted again during the Enlightenment when logic and human reasoning commandeered the top spot for authority. During that same time, The Great Awakening was happening in Europe and the 13 Colonies only to see another change in the United States 50-60 years later during the Second Great Awakening. In the 21st century, human autonomy has once again usurped the Bible and to make matters worse we’ve heaped relativism on our post-modern culture. It’s enough to make one’s head spin.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The temptation in the Garden of Eden began with the question, “Did God really say…” and so it goes in 2019. While much of our United Methodist identity seems to center on activism and social justice, our Wesleyan theological roots are deeply connected to scriptural holiness and the role of God’s Word in our formation as Christ-followers. The Bible is the foundation upon which the Methodist movement was built. John Wesley liked to refer to himself as homo unius libri, or “a man of one book” and considered himself to be in the Reformation tradition of Sola Scriptura.

According to Albert C. Outler, Ken Collins and other John Wesley scholars, he recognized Scripture’s role as the primary source of religious authority, but not in isolation. “Scripture remained primary in its religious authority, but Wesley expected that at least reason and experience would readily support and illuminate scriptural truths [1].” He recognized that other factors played complementary roles in matters of faith and practice.

So how do we see Scripture? The challenge is that if we examine the Bible earnestly, it puts a dent in our self-righteous armor. It knocks us off of the throne where we create our own truth. If we listen for God’s voice in the coming weeks and listen for the Holy Spirit to speak as we study God’s Word together, perhaps we will see more clearly the authoritative role that Scripture should have in the life of a Christ-follower. See you Sunday!

 

 

 

1. Thorsen, Don, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, p. 39, Emeth Press, Copyright 2005

Sooooo not popular!

“The Real Deal” is our current four-week series to study the book of Amos.

Amos is not a popular book of the Bible. Amos was not a popular guy. Repentance is also not popular when one considers that true Christianity is no longer popular in America. So what a great, lighthearted topic to talk about it, huh?

Our four-week worship series is looking at this important minor prophet who had a short-lived ministry sometime around 760-750 BC as a wake up call to those of us who take our faith seriously in the midst of a comfortable, self-centered, self-reliant life. We don’t often take seriously the disease, the poison and – like ancient Israel – the syncretism that seeps into our lives, little by little, drop by drop.

“Seek me!” YHWH says through Amos to us. We might also hear echoes of that much more popular message from Jesus in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God” (my emphasis). Amos draws a clear image for King Jeroboam II and the High Priest Amaziah of the destructive results that come from rejecting the mercies of the Almighty.

An ancient plumb line

But there is hope! YHWH reveals more of God’s nature through Amos. God is just and righteous, but He is also compassionate and merciful. That’s a tough combo to pull off! And through engaging with these difficult Scriptures, the Holy Spirit will help us to learn more about our Creator and learn more about those places in our lives that are not “level” or “plumb” with what God wants from us. The great news is that Christ Jesus came to make the crooked places in our world straight, the rough places in our life level and our broken hearts whole.

I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.

Amos 5:24 (NLT)

Come and experience for yourself how God might use this little-known book to help you seek Him and grow in your faith. See you Sunday!

Secret Lovers or Sworn Enemies?

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Atlantic Starr’s breakout song, “Secret Lovers” (A&M Records)

Atlantic Starr had their breakthrough hit “Secret Lovers” back in 1985. Stevie Wonder’s song, “Part-Time Lover” reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 that same year. I still enjoy 80s music! It doesn’t matter what genre of music is your favorite or what era you choose, you’ll find several popular songs that feature infidelity. In the 21st century we see it so often in every form of entertainment that its overlooked or dismissed as a harmless indiscretion. Atlantic Starr’s lyrics do seem somewhat innocuous…

Secret lovers that’s what we are
Trying so hard to hide the way we feel
Cause we both belong to someone else
But we can’t let it go, cause what we feel is oh so real.

Atlantic Starr, A&M Records

During my time at Asbury Theological Seminary (ATS), one of the things I loved the most was the exceptional biblical teaching, sermons and lectures. One chapel when president, Dr. Timothy Tennant spoke, he said something that stuck with me and became a permanent part of my witnessing toolkit. He said, “When we become Christ-followers, sin becomes our sworn enemy not our secret lover.”

That stuck. That stung a little bit too. I have been a lifelong Christian, but for a big chunk of my life, I treated sin like sweets, a little white lie, fatty food, or yes, a “secret lover.” Just try your best to use some self control, but it’s no big deal if you slip up. Just ask for forgiveness. I mean we really can’t control our base instincts, our primal urges, right?

When I look closely at Paul’s theology of sin, he uses strong language and clear illustrations to help us understand the relationship to sin that a justified, redeemed child of God is supposed to have: “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2, NLT) I guess that’s the daily battle in my own life and the big question I have for many of my friends and colleagues who chose to excuse their ungodly behavior by saying things like, “That’s just how God made me,” or “That’s how I was brought up,” or “I’m not hurting anyone. That’s personal!”

God’s grace (see what Paul says in Romans 6-10 and Ephesians 2) and the love of Jesus Christ, gives me (and all believers) the ability to not be defined by our sin. We don’t have to live in it. We shouldn’t want to live in it! μὴ γένοιτο! (Never may it be! Some would even translate that as, “Hell no!”) You and I should be defined by our faith and our fruit as we live lives that are “dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11, NLT). If our “part-time lover” (sin) is dictating even a fraction of our life, it is holding us back from giving all of ourselves to our Creator (Romans 12:1). We can’t move toward a Christlike life and go on toward perfection while keeping one toe in the pool of temptation. Sorry, Stevie.

Our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin.

Romans 6:6-7, NLT

So what sin is your “secret lover?” Sexual immorality? Self-medication? Pride and arrogance? Rage and anger? Bitterness and resentfulness? It’s time to let it go of it and cling to God’s grace with all that we are. Somethings are a constant battle for me, a reminder that I need Jesus and have to “let go” on a regular basis. Christians, let’s stop excusing bad behavior, stop running after the sin that seems unavoidable and start relying on the strength and sufficiency of God’s grace. When we do that we’ll “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1) That is a love you won’t want to keep a secret!

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Unsalty Salt

Years ago Christian contemporary musician Chris Rice had a song called “Smell the Color 9”. I also remember, “Screen Door on a Submarine” by Rich Mullins on his Songs CD. They have somewhat different messages, but both were fun to listen to. Neither one of them was ever a favorite of mine. However, just the other day Mullins’ lyrics popped into my mind… well, here is a low-res version of the song on YouTube that might refresh your memory of “Screen Door on a Submarine”:


Both songs had people asking, “Huh?” when they first heard the title. While the scriptural truths of those two songs were different, they both remind me of some of the absurd ways that we can present what it means to be a Christian in a post-Christian culture.

One of the metaphors we frequently use is being salt. Today salt has little value, but back in first-century Israel salt was about as big a deal as oil is to us today. Salt was the driving force behind ancient trade routes, battles and geopolitical power plays. Yep. Salt.

Being salt is an idea that came straight from Jesus himself, so it should make sense, right? In Matthew 5:13 Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again?” That’s absurd.

First of all, how can salt stop being salty? When asked what to do with unsalty salt a later rabbi advised, “Salt it with the afterbirth of a mule.” Again, “Huh?” Not only is that confusing to most of us, it’s gross! If you know anything about livestock you might find this ancient joke funny. Mules are sterile. The rabbi’s point was that the question was silly. If you ask a stupid question… If salt loses its saltiness what good is it?

Jesus says the same about disciples who do not live out their calling. That idea is absurd. “Faith without works, baby, it just ain’t happening.” That’s Rich Mullins though, not Jesus.

I am certain that most of us do not see our lives or our beliefs as silly or absurd. However, it is silly if we call ourselves Christians, yet we do nothing to fulfill our purpose. God has a plan for you and has equipped you through the Holy Spirit for a specific reason at this specific time. Is your faith “works-less?” If so, why not make 2019 the year when your faith moves from silly to salty.

Tear Down the Walls

President Reagan delivers one of his most famous speeches punctuated with one of his most remembered lines.

On June 12, 1987, in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Germany, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called out the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and challenged him to remove the barrier which had divided West and East Berlin for over 25 years. Reagan very pointedly said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” It’s time for Christian leaders to look around our churches (and maybe in the mirror), examine the religious culture we’ve created and say, “Pastor, sisters and brothers, let us tear down these walls!”
Now I’m not talking about the actual structures! Let me explain. I recently shared a devotional on Luke 15:1-7 for a clergy “Day Apart” with my colleagues from the northwest corner of Arkansas. One component of our discussion had to do with how we see “the lost” in our communities. In my own life and ministry I have often been looking over an institutional wall at non-believers while I reinforce both blatant and hidden requirements for one to become a part of the faith community. Religious institutions often have some peculiarities and rituals that do not favor the outsider. In fact religion (in its most negative sense) acts as a barrier. It repeats the mantra, “That’s not how we do it,” or “You must be new here,” or “Come back when you ______.”
There is a concept in the social sciences that compares two perspectives on seeing the outsider, the other, or in the language from this parable, the lost. It is the Bounded Set and the Centered Set.

When we should be joyfully guiding people closer to Jesus, discipling them to be all that God wants them to be (as a good shepherd would), churches have often been building walls, piling on burdens and requirements and systematically culling the folks who don’t fit in. Jesus shows us the danger of ritualistic religion and dogmatic attitudes in Matthew 15 and 23. He shows grace to a Gentile/Canaanite woman and praises her faith. Jesus calls the religious leaders “Hypocrites… What sorrow awaits you!” There’s some contrast and comparison too!
I have been going through a real learning and refining season as a pastor and one of the things that I see as most important in my role is to be one who removes barriers, breaks down walls and destroys any impediment to people finding the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Every now and then I fail and fall back into my old way of seeing things, but praise the Lord for His grace! He gives everyone an opportunity, “to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep His love is” (Ephesians 3:18). Faith in Jesus is a game changer that we should share with all humankind, not a secret recipe to be locked up for the chosen few.
If you are already a part of a local congregation, how do you and your church reinforce the Bounded Set perspective of seeing the lost? What religious barriers do you see that need to be torn down? How can you encourage those who might be a long way off but heading in the right direction? One thing I love about being a United Methodist Pastor is the privilege of saying “Welcome! There is a place at the (Lord’s) Table for you.” That’s the invitation no matter how far away you are. After all, we were all outsiders until, by grace through faith, Jesus joyfully guided us home.

A Real Power Play

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un – who will come out ahead in this political power play?

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and US President Donal Trump might actually be in the same room together for “talks” in the next couple of months. This would be an unprecedented event, one that I will have to see to believe.  It’s difficult to know what kind of power play the Asian dictator might be making. It’s possible President Trump might have some unknown motive (other than his ego) driving him. Regardless of who gains an upper hand in the power struggle over the Korean Peninsula, it will be surreal seeing the two men together in photos or videos given the two leader’s rhetoric this the past year. The desire for power will make people do crazy things.

However, this reminds me of a person who transformed Asia in the late 19th century, James Hudson Taylor. He is remembered as one of the earliest European missionaries to China and the founder of China Inland Mission (CIM). But when it came to power he took a much different approach.

“An easy-going, non-self-denying life will never be one of power.”

– J. Hudson Taylor

Would you post that quote on your Facebook page? Can you say, “Amen!” to that? Are you ready to give up every ounce of power and control that you (think you) have and deny yourself? That’s difficult because usually when people attain some level of power or control, they only want more.

Power, influence, wealth and security all seem to be our life goals in America, but every one of those is a house of cards standing one breath away from collapsing… unless faith is part of the equation, faith in Jesus Christ. But the power, influence, wealth and security that come from being a Christ follower look a lot different from what the world offers. That is the hard part.

That’s the struggle for me and my family right now. We are in a season of being patient, trusting the Lord and denying our own desires to serve His Church. Almost every United Methodist clergy person is going through the same experience. Being an itinerant pastor means that we can’t make a power play and at the same time honor God through this yearly process. We trust that the Holy Spirit and the faithful women and men leading the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church will do what is best for our local “mission fields.” After all, we need to practice what we preach! If this is God’s church, then faith must come first. 

James Hudson Taylor, (1832 – 1905) British missionary to China. Beard game, strong!

Today Taylor’s legacy is felt in every corner of Asia because he helped people in the Western culture see China as an uncharted mission field. Now, 150 years later, the church in Asia has emerged as its own powerful mission-sending organization… and God gets all the glory.

The more we wield our own power, influence and wealth, the more we look like the world and the less we look like people of faith. We can trust that God is in control. And if you want to see real power, look to the sacrificial servant leadership of Jesus. He flipped the world’s power structure on its head. He laid down his life for us, the ultimate sacrifice. But it was also the ultimate power play overcoming even sin and death. He’s proven himself worthy of our trust.

Safe Place

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Pastor Lee Jong-rak shows the“baby box” where parents who decide not to raise their babies ― mostly disabled children ― can leave them. (Korean Times)

Have you ever used a night deposit box to pay a bill or a Redbox machine to rent a DVD? Imagine a “Drop Box” for unwanted newborns who are in danger of being abandoned.* Are you ever afraid that your deposit won’t go through? It takes a level of trust. Each one must be safe and secure otherwise no one would leave an important payment, a DVD, or a baby there.

As 2016 ends, I continue to hear people say how anxious and unsafe they feel. Add to that the numerous throngs who say they have lost hope, and it’s enough to cast a dark, foreboding pall over 2017. While much of the angst is due to political upheaval in the US, I would say that 99% of it is misplaced. We trust Redbox, but…

In my opinion, if we are afraid of what America is going to look like after the inauguration, perhaps we are giving way too much credit to our government. If we’re afraid of some attack by a lone-wolf terrorist or a coordinated act by ISIS or other Muslim extremists, perhaps we are grossly underestimating the power of love and peace-loving followers of Allah. If we are afraid of cancer, Zika virus, Ebola, H1N1, etc., perhaps we think too much of our own vapor-like lives. Where have we put our trust?

Years ago at a men’s retreat I heard author Steve Farrar say, “Don’t worry about how long you have to live. God will not allow you to die until He has accomplished His plan for you.” That sounds good on the surface because it aligns with God’s Word and His sovereign nature, but mainly because I think that I’m a pretty worthwhile guy! Pride. Even though I might think that I’ve got a bunch of great things to offer God and the rest of the world, I have to want what He wants, in His time, whatever it costs me. (Gulp. I expect that sentence will be tested again in 2017!)

The more I jump into the flow of what the Holy Spirit has called me (and my family) to do, the more I sense God’s peace, a peace in which I can place my full trust. Sorry, Obama. Sorry, Trump. Neither of you even register on that scale. I do have fears. That reminds me of two quotes, one from a Peter Gabriel song and one from Jesus. I’m a fan of both.

When I allow it to be,
  there's no control over me.
I have my fears,
  but they do not have me. - Peter Gabriel, "Darkness"

And Jesus? Well, His quote is an excerpt from the greatest sermon ever preached as recorded in Matthew 5-7. Here’s a condensed bit from the New Living Translation

"I tell you not to worry about everyday life...
Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
So don’t worry about these things... Seek the Kingdom
of God above all else, and live righteously, and he
will give you everything you need." - Jesus

alfred-e-neuman_worryI’m not going to quote Bobby McFerrin here. I am not saying put on a happy, Alfred E. Neuman face and say “Buck up, campers!” But I will say that 2017 is a great time for the Church to step into our worry-filled world with the message of peace and hope that has been at the core of Jesus’ message since He, “became human and made His home among us” (John 1:14, NLT). If Christ-followers can’t trust the Lord and giver of life, what do we have to offer? God is our refuge, brothers and sisters! He will show us the way of life and give us joy in His presence, (Psalm 16). That sounds like a lot better option than to run around like a collection of worry-worts, whiners or chicken-littles who have lost hope and are waiting for the sky to come crashing down.

So is your church a safe place for people overwhelmed by fear? When doubt, shame, and hopelessness are in control, how can we share the hope that we have, God-honoring, well-grounded, unshakable, trustworthy hope? If we are truly a church that is not afraid, how are we making that evident to our community? And what about you and I? We had better lead by example and put our trust the Lord in 2017.SignJRGBlack300

*Lee Jong-rak is a pastor in South Korea who started the Baby Box for unwanted infants. I would encourage you to watch the documentary “The Drop Box” with some friends and ask the tough questions that might arise.