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.

John_Wesley_by_George_Romney

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!

MedWorkers_rooftop_cartersvillemedctr
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.

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.

A Choice to Make

icecream_31flavorsWhen I was a kid and we had been extra good – like getting all A’s – mom and dad would take us to Baskin-Robbins the home of 31 flavors of ice cream. I was always so excited but then the challenge came when you walked in the door and were faced with 31 different options! Decisions, decisions.

We are now quickly closing in on election day (as if you didn’t know this by the 24-hour news cycle that has been belching up political fodder for over a year). We are faced with a VERY difficult decision! This is… drum roll… Decision 2016, and we ain’t pickin’ between chocolate chip and butter pecan.

I am reminded of Decision 864, BCE! In 1 Kings 18, there are only two options that Elijah presents to the people of Israel. Follow God or follow Baal. One can hardly blame the Israelites for wanting to follow this false god. Their king, King Ahab married Jezebel. As a high priestess for this pagan god, she sheltered and cared for hundreds of Baal’s prophets. Baal’s presence was all over the kingdom. The people with power and influence were steering everyone towards worshiping him not YHWH.

trump_clinton_wikicommonsElijah finally confronted the underlying issue that had caused Israel so much trouble up to this point. How long will you go on flip-flopping between two opinions? Either serve God or serve Baal. This is a far more important decision that we face every day. It will be there when you wake up on November 9 and the political ads are gone, your mailbox is a little less cluttered and the confetti has been swept off the floor.

A different version of the same question was asked by Joshua when Israel first settled the land of Canaan and began to establish itself as a nation now free from Egyptian slavery. Joshua’s famous statement to the Israelites was, “Choose today whom you will serve… but as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15, NLT). His challenge to decide was a familiar one for Israel. They faced that decision daily for an entire generation that was spent wandering.

oppositedirectionssignSo how do you make a decision in a culture that continues to try to lead you astray? What do you do when leaders and people of influence and power are pushing you further and further from what the Bible says and further from the truth contained in Scripture? Well, just like Israel we have to choose. Choosing between Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? Ha! That’s mere child’s play compared to the decision about who will be the Lord of your life. SignJRGBlack300

Absorbing or Spreading?

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‘Sausage Party’ courtesy of Sony Pictures

We’ve lost another canary in the coal mine. I’m not sure if you noticed it, but it got my attention.  In mid-August Sony Pictures rolled out a foul-mouthed, sexual-innuendo laced, rated-R animated movie called Sausage Party. Not surprising. But what was surprising was that it was on America’s movie screens at the same time as the big-budget remake of Ben-Hur (MGM and Paramount/Viacom Inc.) and out sold the epic film by approximately 3 to 1.

‘Ben-Hur’ image courtesy of MGM and Paramount
‘Ben-Hur’ courtesy of MGM and Paramount

Even with a cameo by Jesus (played by Rodrigo Santoro) and God – or at least the guy who’s played God before – Morgan Freeman (who plays Sheik Ilderim) and a proven storyline, the movie that cost $100m to make brought in only $11.5m its first weekend. Why? I think I’d agree with critic Scott Mendelson, “Well, Ben-Hur is a flop (at least domestically for now) because audiences didn’t want to see it. It’s that simple.”1 The truth is that more Americans would rather watch and “absorb” the kind of content found in movies like Sausage Party.

I am not a movie critic. I am not going to decry Hollywood’s moral failures or lambast Sony Pictures for producing another 90 minutes of junk to appeal to our our basest natures. I am not going to wag my finger at you if you paid to see Sausage Party (I would ask you “Why?” though!), or if you’ve watched other morally questionable productions like Game of Thrones, etc. But I am going to issue a challenge, Christian, about growing as a disciple.

So here is where I have to look in the mirror and think of all the time I’ve wasted by entertaining myself with junk that my friends are talking about or that advertisers tell me are a “must see.” I have to honestly ask myself, “Am I willing to do the things that it takes to stay connected with Jesus Christ and not the culture?” If I am going to pay to see a movie or watch something online, does that entertainment strengthen my spirit and encourage me to abide in my Heavenly Father’s presence?

My work as a pastor calls me to be an evangelist, a 24/7 testimony of God’s love. This also lies at the core of the Methodist Church’s Wesleyan theology. John Wesley said, “What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists? To reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”2 This is also the same calling of every Christ-follower who wants to become a disciple.

I recognize that I have repeatedly fallen short by absorbing cultural crap rather than spreading “scriptural holiness.”

Morality will not save me. Being arrogant or pious will not advance my effectiveness or my ministry. But being more grace-filled, Christ-centered and focused on Him will!

I’m guessing that most of us don’t want to see Ben-Hur. Fair enough. But brothers and sisters, can we make better choices with our time and ask the Lord to help strengthen us in our calling to spread “scriptural holiness?” Can we make the daily personal sacrifices and the tough choices that will keep us connected to the Holy Spirit’s life-giving power? If I am going to share His love beyond the walls of my church, I am going to have to look to Him (rather than Sony Pictures) to be my guide.SignJRGBlack300

No “fun” in fundamentalism

Under-the-Banner-of-HeavenI recently finished reading a book by John Krakauer called “Under the Banner of Heaven.” It is a disturbing look into some of the fundamentalist views of the Mormon Church and the violent, destructive outcomes that can occur when we carry our beliefs to the extreme. If you are familiar with the Mormon church, you know about Joseph Smith, the gold tablets, the lost tribes of Israel in America and the doctrine of eternal progression (you too can be a God).

Yes. Those beliefs are a sliver of the views that separate Mormonism from Christianity. Much effort has gone into shaping Mormonism to seem like just another Christian denomination. It’s not. Now don’t get me wrong. Mormons are some of the most upstanding, moral, intelligent, mission-minded, self-sacrificing people in our country. They put most Christian church-goers to shame! But this is not a post pitting Mormonism against Christianity, I am talking about beliefs and taking them to extreme levels.

And, before we get to proud of ourselves, Christians, we need to look in the mirror and study examples like the one Krakauer documented. One can find a cautionary tale interwoven into this book. On the surface, getting back to the fundamentals of what we believe can be a good thing. But fundamentalism of any type can be a dangerous, slippery slope.

Christian fundamentalism grew out of the Protestant church’s response to the liberal theology that sprang up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that period many theologians wanted to interpret Scripture based on modern perspectives and the influences of the Enlightenment without allowing any preconceived notions about the authority of Scripture. But many theologians pushed against that idea by arguing that the Bible was inerrant because, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true” (2 Timothy 3:16). God inspired or “breathed” His words into the various authors that He chose to write the Bible.

FundyHellPosterBut now Christian fundamentalism in the 21st century looks a lot more like religious extremism. We’ve jumped into the political arena and sullied the gospel with a desire to earn votes, legislate morality and be in control.  Fundamentalism also smacks of Christian legalism, taking the morality and laws contained in Scripture and making them more important than the message of love and grace found in the gospel. In his first recorded sermon Paul says, “[In] Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is made right in God’s sight—something the law of Moses could never do” (Acts 13:38-39, NLT) He’s talking about Jews, Gentiles and everyone [who is] believing (πᾶς πιστεύων), not just good people.

It can get pretty confusing for folks outside the Church looking in. I hear, “I’ll go (back) to church once I get my life together,” on a regular basis. We have miscommunicated or been misunderstood by many people. In our passion to strengthen our position and convince people that we’re right, let’s forget our own agenda and let the Holy Spirit lead, not a dogmatic, legalistic, fundamentalist perspective. Just like most Mormons would say that the Lafferty brothers and Fundamental Mormonism doesn’t accurately represent their beliefs, 21st century Christian fundamentalism doesn’t accurately represent the true Christ-follower.

So what do you believe? What separates your faith in Jesus Christ from the faith of a Mormon? What about a Bahá’í? What about your friendly neighborhood agnostic materialist? How do we witness about our faith to others? Leave the dogma and political baggage out of it. Grace is great place to start rather than a list of rules, a KJV Bible, attendance requirements and political affiliation. God’s grace expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a good beginning (Ephesians 2:1-10). Trust the Holy Spirit to speak though Scripture! And really, there is no better witness than your own life… depending on what you believe.SignJRGBlack300

The Numbers Game

MegaChurchAuditoriumOne of the greatest challenges for today’s churches is to monitor and evaluate the spiritual health of our congregants. This is especially difficult for churches with an weekly attendance over 150.

See! I did it already! I started talking about numbers. Accurate numbers can tell part of the story of what is happening in a congregation, but Spiritual health isn’t really about numbers.

Now don’t get me wrong, the numbers in my checking account say a lot about my priorities. The number of times when I missed church or a  chapel service during seminary says something. The number of hours I have spent sharing God’s love with others or reading His word should indicate… something, right?

In my previous ministry role, I was a part of the organization’s primary leadership team. As the department leaders sat around a big table and attempted to evaluate where we were needing to improve and where we saw success, the debate always came back around to measuring spiritual growth. “It can’t be done. It depends on the individual. That’s really private information and I don’t think we should be asking that…” It’s an honest, real dilemma.

However I don’t agree that spiritual growth and discipleship can’t be measured. John Wesley looked at discipleship (being a disciple who will make more disciples) by asking “How does your soul prosper?” Today, we might say, “How is your spiritual life?” Those are words to be spoken in love.

Me and J-Dub (John Wesley) hanging out on the Asbury Theo. Sem. campus.
Me and J-Dub (John Wesley) hanging out on the Asbury Theo. Sem. campus.

In Philippians 3 Paul talks about pressing on toward the goal, “I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Phil. 3:12, NLT). John Wesley would call this perfection “holy love.” While we pursue God’s plan for our lives and await our entire sanctification (when we stand face to face with our Creator), we should see less and less sin and more and more love filling our heart and motivating our actions. That’s the true measure of our spiritual health.

So what is your spiritual goal? Sure, it’s great to try to be at worship for 26 consecutive weeks, or to read through 17 books of the Bible. But remember that the goal is “holy love.” Let’s work together to give everything we have to pursue Christ and the love that first loved us. As you do keep looking above and loving beyond.SignJRGBlack300

It’s All Good

ItsAllGood_beach-smIt’s interesting what people say or how they act when they are standing in line making small talk and discover you’re a pastor. “We’re all basically good people, and we just need to learn to accept each other.” That was a person’s conclusion to a conversation I had recently at the grocery store here in our town of 7,200. That comment seems harmless enough, don’t you think? However, there is an underlying problem or two.

“We’re all basically good people” – My family and I have found that our little town is full of good people! We can’t argue with the love and support we’ve experienced from our church and the community. Thank you! For many of our Bible-belt neighbors, doing good flows from their faith in Jesus Christ. Others would say that society, the rule of law, a healthy family or a good education lies at the heart of the good things that people do. If we only look at humanity, we can misunderstand good and evil and miss a chance to recognize God’s presence in our lives.

All that is good in the world comes from God. Remember the creation story? It was very good (Genesis 1:31). It is through prevenient grace that we see that same goodness flow from all corners of our community, just like the rain falls on saints and sinners alike. In Philippians 2 Paul challenges us to look to the needs of others and points to the example of Jesus. Pursuing Christlikeness for God’s glory is the example. If it is good, it begin and ends with Him. We don’t possess the capacity to create goodness on our own.

Supermarket check-out lineBack to the check-out line conversation. “We just need to learn to accept each other” – Yes. No. Wait! Accept?… what exactly does accepting mean? Some say accepting is synonymous with welcoming. Other say it means tolerating. As Christians we are called to be welcoming, compassionate and hospitable, but I’m not sure that’s what we mean.

The problem arises when we accept that people are just the way they are. Oh well. Nothing that can change that. That type of thinking robs the gospel message of all its hope! We must accept people where they are, but love them enough not to leave them there.

My life would’ve been a disaster if everyone just accepted the fact that I drank too much alcohol, lost my temper, and looked at inappropriate things on the internet. What if people responded to my struggles with, “Oh well. He’s just having a good time. He’s really angry, but he’ll cool down. Guys are like that. He’s not hurting anyone.”

Here we also find grace, but this is justifying grace. In our state of sin and failure, you and I have been met with forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Our relationship with our creator is restored (See Romans 5:8, 2 Corinthians 5:19)! If we take God’s gift seriously, we won’t tolerate drunkenness, rage, or lust because they fracture relationships, with our Heavenly Father and each other.

Christian living is putting faith and love into action as a response to God’s grace. It’s not tolerating lies and accepting people’s brokenness. I am a broken sinner too. I make mistakes, but I need a grace-filled community who will join me in pursuing Christlikeness. If you see me doing good, that’s because of God. Give Him the glory.

I wish I had been able to add some of these thoughts to that supermarket conversation. I’d like a mulligan on that one. But praise the Lord that God’s grace is there, even when I fail to recognize it or point it out to others.

Keep looking above and loving beyond.SignJRGBlack300

The Both/And of Growing Up in Church

My family after church, probably Easter '84 or '85.
My family after church, probably Easter ’84 or ’85.

Did you grow up in the church? Was Sunday worship attendance expected when you were a child? In our house, we were so involved and invested in the children’s ministry that we were often one of the first families to get to church and the last to leave. My parents served the children in our church and community for over three decades. Sunday morning mattered! But Sunday morning was not the only faith-forming part of my childhood.

I remember riding in our van with a caravan of friends going visit people in prison. I heard stories from my dad about sharing the love of Jesus with a man at the local doughnut shop who had fallen asleep on his hamburger. I sang songs that my mother wrote for Vacation Bible School and children’s outreach. I would sit on the steps and listen in on the Bible studies that the grown ups had in our finished basement.

One Sunday my parents volunteered to help a man move from St. Louis down to a place out in the country in Jefferson County. I didn’t hear all the details, so I was surprised when we pulled up and parked our van under an interstate bridge. We helped the stranger load up his belongings (even though they smelled like they needed to stay under the bridge!), fed him and took him to a rehabilitation center far away from the concrete jungle that had been his home.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Being connected and invested in the Body of Christ every Sunday as I was growing up was only part of the equation. Being the Church Monday through Saturday as a kid is what has really shaped my ministry and now drives my faith as an adult. It is a both/and mentality of parenting that should mirror the balance in the church between evangelism and discipleship.

What kind of balance do you have in your home between discipleship and outreach?
What kind of balance do you have in your home between discipleship and outreach?

Today I had a great time working through this with a colleague in our local church. The tendency is to gradually move from a pie chart that is close to 50/50 – a balance between reaching out to the lost and building up the people in the congregation – to a pie chart that is in the 80/20 neighborhood… 80% serving the needs of the congregation. I have to constantly evaluate my own ministry and my own parenting, otherwise I will suddenly find myself in maintenance mode rather than taking steps of faith into the unknown. What a great opportunity to show my kids that God is there, alive and by our side as we learn to love others more than ourselves.

So what excites you about sharing Sunday morning with your kids? Is there something you can share Monday through Saturday ministry that is making a lasting difference in people’s lives? Is that a part of the equation in your household? Honestly ask yourself what your pie chart percentages look like. You might have already established the fact that Sunday morning matters, but be encouraged and remember the power of serving others Monday through Saturday. As you look above and love beyond, make that a part of what matters in your life and in your family.SignJRGBlack300