President Trump and Jerusalem
Each morning at 9am I get a very short news brief from NPR and an update on the weather for the day. One of these days I may switch it up to another news source just for fun. Regardless, I just listen for the highlights and take everything with a grain of salt.
This past week those news highlights have all focused in on President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel with a bit of NPR'ish concern about what kind of affect this will have on life in the Middle East and across the world. Please understand me... I do not think the conflict in the Middle East is funny or trivial. If there is any particular humor to me in this situation, it is that President Trump, who has never been shy about making waves in the media, has apparently stumped them on one subject for a week. 13 months in and everyone ran out of material... who would have thought?
This has undoubtedly created great waves, both among those working on President Trump's impeachment proceedings as well as those who will use this as leverage to rally to his defence. Once again, Israel is being used for the political agendas of the rest of the world. This is not a new problem either God warned Israel about being manipulated by the multi-stringed forms of support the rest of the world would throw at them. Major passages in most of the Old Testament Prophets warn Israel not to put their faith in the support of other nations, but instead to keep their faith rooted in God Himself.
I'm not a citizen of Israel or Palestine, nor am I Jewish or Muslim, so I really don't have a dog in their fight. My understanding of the Bible though gives Israel two main options in dealing with their status as God's chosen people in the world today.
Would I feel differently if I were Jewish? Yeah, I probably would. As it is, I'm mostly European immigrant and a little bit Native American... one part of my family having stolen the birthright of the other part, like Jacob and Esau, leaving me in a conflicted mess and knowing that at the end of the day nobody deserves any of it... It's all a gift from God that we cannot earn. No, I'm not talking about salvation. I'm talking about land. There are enough homeless refugees in our world that those of us who "own" land are a blessed minority and we probably ought to be more grateful, and better stewards of it.
Circles of Concern
Stephen Covey has been a proponent of identifying two distinct areas in our lives. The first is called the Circle of Concern. This is the circle that identifies what things in life we spend our thoughts, energy, and worry on. It is likely different for each of us. Some of you have the nation of Israel squarely in your circle of concern, while others may never give them a thought at all. Some of you have President Trump in your circle of concern and others may only worry about him when he addresses topics which are more rooted in your circle of concern. Regardless of what it covers, each of us has a circle of concern and we typically spend a significant portion of our life dealing with the issues within them.
Circles of Influence
Somewhere inside our circle of concern is a smaller circle that is called the Circle of Influence. This is the area of topics that we can actually do something about. We may have direct control over these issues, such as, how we spend our money, what news station we listen to, who we vote for... or we may have indirect influence over them such as what kind of food our grocery store stocks (based upon our purchases), what businesses succeed in our community, how well our children do in school, how healthy our families are, etc.
It is likely that there are many things in your circle of concern that you have no real influence over, either directly or indirectly. It is possible that there are things in your circle of influence that is not inside your circle of concern... in other words, there may be people or things that you influence that you just don't care about. Both of these outliers can be problematic if they get too extreme.
Our culture has actually locked us into a reactive pattern when it comes to political influence. We may be following after the political culture of Mexico. I was once told in a Political Science class that the people of Mexico were more likely to blow up the ballot box than to actually vote. It is easier to just get mad about things you cannot change than to actually work to exert political influence in the areas you actually have responsibility over. We may not blow up the ballot boxes, but our whole nation loves to blow up Twitter and Facebook with ridiculous posts about subjects far outside their area of influence. When was the last time you saw a post about someone taking action to be a responsible parent and raise up the next generation of leaders in our world? When did you last see someone picking up litter in their own neighborhood? It's just easier to get online and complain about it rather than take action and make a difference.
Mark Batterson takes the idea of circles of concern and influence and applies the concept of prayer to it. Instead of focusing all our prayers on things outside our influence (which is not bad) he teaches that we should start in our area of direct influence - ourselves, and pray that God would work in us first, fixing us, remaking and redeeming ourselves, before we take on the rest of the world. If we will not allow the peace of God to lead and guide us, how can we honestly pray for God's peace and guidance in the Middle East? It is kind of hypocritical.
Something amazing happens when we take Mark's approach to our lives. We become better stewards of what God has given us influence over, and then our influence suddenly begins to grow out into that circle of concern... and beyond. It works very much like a story Jesus told His disciples.
The question that Jesus asks us is:
The political implication of that question is:
What is even better though is actual, physical, real involvement in issues. Are you in support of helping the poor? What impoverished person have you personally helped this week? Have you bought meals for anyone or provided a home for someone without housing? It is more than putting your money where your mouth is... are you putting your time and your actions where your mouth is? Are you leading by example?
Jesus never was given an opportunity to vote, but people tried to figure out what leaders He supported. Instead of giving away His political influence to politicians, He used it to make a difference in the lives of those around Him, leading by example.
What are you doing with your political influence?
Get your copy of Jesus Politics today!
Just over two years ago, while I was teaching New Testament at Campbellsville University, I was encouraged to publish one of my lessons on the four gospels and four different types of Jewish groups in the first century AD. A year and a half ago, in the middle of the last presidential campaign, I got very irritated and motivated to do just that. Two and half weeks later I had the first draft of Jesus Politics. Today, some eighteen months later, that book has been published and is available to purchase through Parson's Porch. (Part of the proceeds of this book go to care for the homeless in Cleveland, TN.)
You can purchase your copy today here.
Why should you buy this book?
Are you frustrated with politics? Do you wonder what Jesus would think of our nation today? More importantly, do you know what He would do about it?
This book gives you a clear look at what the political arena looked like during the time of Jesus, how they got that way, and how Jesus challenged the political values of all of God's people with his own values of grace, self-control, sacrifice, and incarnation. The book itself is about 5 pages of picture/charts showing a simple interaction of those values and then several hundred pages that examine how these values appear in some of the unique portions of each of the four gospels. Too often we skip right to the political values without learning any of the spiritual foundation beneath it. The focus of this book is on spiritual values with political implications.
Jesus Politics will give you some specific questions to ask of all our leaders, from the global and national level, down to the authority figures within your own family, and these questions will help you discern whether your leaders or your own leadership is in alignment with the values of Jesus.
A clear articulation and understanding of these values is needed even more today than two years ago when the I first began the writing process. When President Trump gives the State of the Union Address will you know what values to look and listen for in the speech? Will you know where to find God in the media's response? Will your own response be in line with the values of Jesus?
This book was not written primarily to our own political leaders. It was written to every Christian leader in the world. While many of my examples are drawn from the United States, several come from outside our nation. The political values that Jesus exhorted were not specific to one nation or another, so I strongly encourage those outside the U.S. to read this as well to find applications within their own politics.
It is time for Christians to take responsibility for their own leadership and politics, measuring what we do and see by the standards of Jesus, rather than waiting for a secular world to tell us what and who is Christian or not.
Ministry in the Full Gospel
Somewhere awhile back in the 20th century (seems odd to say that) a Charismatic Movement broke out calling themselves "Full Gospel" churches. Oddly enough, Google identified 3 churches as related to "Full Gospel" near me in my county of around 100 churches. One was something called the "Full Gospel Tabernacle", which is probably most like this particular brand of Pentecostalism. Another on the list was the Church of Latter Day Saints just down the road from me, which I'm sure is a bit of a misunderstanding. The last, which surprised me, was my own church, St. Mark United Methodist. So, apparently my credentials for writing about "Full Gospel" ministry is verified by Google. That is just more evidence that the world is confused by the names and terminology we use to place divisions in the Body of Christ.
My brief experience with a Pentecostal congregation leads me to believe that "Full Gospel" to them meant an appropriate worship, reverence, and application of the Holy Spirit in their lives (often, but not always shown by praying/speaking in tongues and prophesying). I'm not a tongue-speaker myself, but there is much that I affirm among that tradition. However, I believe that a better description of what it means to have the full gospel occurs when we move beyond monocultural ministries into multicultural ministries.
Monocultural ministries often are described as natural, organic, and working with the culture around us. There are lots of ministry models for this, both missional and attractional in emphasis. The underlying premise for them is: like attracts like. You remember those days of booming youth groups and rivalries between churches to attract the upcoming crowd of football players, because if you get the popular kids then the rest will follow? Do you remember the church growth movements that boiled down to "If you build it, they will come."
And then we ended up with a lot of great big church buildings that remain mostly empty and/or get rented out for daycares, birthday parties, and other community events. Those are not bad things, but they are probably not what the builders envisioned when those churches were built.
That's the lifecycle of most monocultural ministries. They start with a small passionate core team that wants to win their culture for Christ, they invest heavily, make contacts, and market their idea in the community as the culturally relevant thing to do. It struggles at first, but once it gains a critical mass, it becomes the new cultural outlet for time, energy, direction, and a sense of belonging. If they can weather the growth and potential conflicts over the years, they may have several decades of growth. The big hurdle tends to be passing the torch to the 2nd generation. Generally, if a church can raise up one generation of leaders, it can raise up a dozen generations and last until the community around them completely changes culture.
The struggles of many churches in the United States today may be due more to that second fact than the first. Our church leaders know how to train people like them. However, our cultural landscape has been changing rapidly and their children spend more of their life throughout the week in a foreign culture that raises them as opposed to the church which they only spend 4-8 hours each month at best. Many have dropped out altogether and are no longer part of "Christian" culture, and therefore, we do not know how to raise them to become church leaders like us. We lose our people spiritually because we never had them culturally, and we only know how to minister in one culture.
So, if you live in a low-tech, isolated, third-world country, you may be able to do monocultural ministry well for the long-term. However, much of the European and more and more of the American cultural landscape is showing us that it does not work for us across the generations anymore. So what do we do?
We can do the same thing that the first generation of Christians did... learn to grow and thrive in multicultural ministries. Oftentimes we think of multicultural ministry as a black/white issue in the U.S., and to a degree, that has been true. Today though, in our very globalized society, it goes much further. It involves race. It involves social-economic status. It involves language. It involves nationality. In every ministry situation built around a monocultural community though, it will essentially come down to Jews and Gentiles. Insiders and Outsiders.
Among anarchists, there may be the thought that the solution to this division is to simply eliminate all insiders and make everyone an outsider. Should you succeed at that, there would be no community though, no hub for people to stick to and find belonging. There is another solution though, something modeled by Jesus and fleshed out in the Early Church. You have to continually, intentionally make the inside group diverse.
Does that sound like Affirmative Action? Probably, but it has a different purpose. Diversity among core leadership is not about giving every culture what it deserves. It is about modeling on a small scale how every culture submits to Jesus as Savior and Lord and how Jesus brings us all together as redemptive cultures1. That model (modeling being one of the most primary forms of teaching) becomes a hub that then is able to draw a much greater, much more diverse crowd together, and show them how to live together in Christ. This multicultural ministry gets to the heart of the story of the Rich Young Ruler when Peter asks, "if this man cannot be saved, then what hope to we have?" Jesus reply is the same to us, when contemplating multicultural ministries: "With man, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." What does this have to do with multicultural ministry? That rich young ruler was the epitome of the "in crowd".
Jesus, instead built a core of 12 disciples that, under normal circumstances, would never have stayed under the same roof or ate at the same dinner tables. Tax collectors, fishermen, revolutionaries, people from priestly families... and women! Don't forget Mary and Martha who tagged right along with the guys. The Samaritan woman who was one of the first evangelists was arguably chosen by Jesus as he left the Twelve and sought her out on that hot afternoon in Samaria. Yes, Jesus created a multicultural church, and it was only by an act of God that they came together in the first place.
Where have I experienced this kind of ministry? I was invited to help pastor a leadership team of international students doing ministry at Campbellsville University. Their vision is to bring all people of all cultures together in the name of Christ. It is challenging work, particularly when almost half of our students in the ministry are not proficient English speakers. It is a place we pray for spiritual gifts of communication.
I have experienced this ministry meeting with Hispanic Pastors from all across Kentucky. I hear there stories, struggling with ministry, making ends meet, having very migratory congregations, and dealing with a wide range of cultures within their own context and people who do not always see eye to eye (Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Salvadorans, Columbians, etc.) Some have said that ministry was much easier in their home countries where it was monocultural. I listen and learn all I can from them.
Finally, there is my own multicultural experience at church. We are a small, fairly traditionally led, about 95% white, English speaking church. However, we have been blessed with a 4 or 5 year sister-relationship with a primarily African American church in town. We worship together several times a year and often participate together in community-wide ministries. It's not just a show though. Our members greet each other in Wal-Mart. We pastors work together. Both our congregations only have a small degree of diversity, but the people who bring us new kinds of culture are celebrated for the gifts they are as people, not just as token cultural representatives. We learn from each other and we make each other better - often in joyous ways, and sometimes as iron sharpens iron.
We are not there yet... not by a long shot. But we keep moving forward. We celebrate the work God is doing in us, because without Him, none of this is possible. We learn from our mistakes by repenting, giving grace, and offering healing. We don't give up on one another just because we cannot understand each other at times. We pray, and God keeps us humble and in awe of what He can do as He creates a redemptive community that we could never even imagine.
One of the bigger conflicts within any ministry of any size comes between the people representing church health (sometimes called discipleship) and those representing new church growth (sometimes called evangelism). Sometimes these conflicts hide under the guise of young vs old, and often things like worship music get dragged into this fight. If you've been in a church for more than a year, you've probably observed and perhaps participated in this conflict. Let's be honest though... unless it is purely an issue of people fighting over personal preferences, the root of this problem lies in the value of care and discipling the church family and the value of care for the lost and those outside the family of faith.
The reason we struggle actually saying and believing that we can just do both is that we have a limited amount of resources. In bigger arenas we may squabble over money. I think the more subtle, yet prevalent conflicts arise over things like time, energy focus, sometimes even prayer.
How do we spend our time? If we have approximately 1 hour a week with most of our people on Sunday morning, how much of it is spent on discipleship and how much on evangelism? When we make plans with our property, do we do it for the sake of evangelism or discipleship... or perhaps neither one? When we pray, do we spend the majority of our time praying for the lost or praying for those who are already Christians? Some of these questions may seem silly, until you try flipping the priorities. What happens when you make getting your entire class to accept Christ as Lord and Savior the main purpose of your Sunday School lesson? Does it feel weird and out-of-place? What about doing an alter call, not for salvation, but as a call to tithe?
We fight among ourselves and sometimes within ourselves trying to put discipleship and evangelism in their appropriate boxes, but we rarely stay settled. One always seems to take the lead and the other gets put on the shelf. It doesn't work... and it won't work, because these two aspects of ministry were made to flow together.
You need Kingdom vision of a discipleship system. No, you don't have to be an engineer to figure this out. You need to be a team player that understands how your own ministry affects the ministry of the others within your church. I think of it as a relay race (the way Hebrews may have described the Christian faith) where the two most important tasks a runner has is to:
Running well means knowing yourself and pushing yourself to the best of your abilities. Making good handoffs means knowing your partner and communicating well. You may think that this means the team that keeps their eyes on each other would make the best handoffs. This is not the case. Good handoffs involve cheering each other on, to be sure, but soon after the first runner heads off, the second runner gets into place and stops watching the other runners. They ready themselves and wait for the first runner to shout go, before the handoff so that the baton is passed between two runners going at full speed. The team that drop the batons suddenly into the laps of their teammates and then says go will lose every time because the momentum is lost. In a counterintuitive fashion, the team that wins follows their teammates words, not their actions, because they have trust that their actions will follow their words. They trust their teammates to tell them how to start their own race.
Discipleship and Evangelism were meant to work this way. Across the United Methodist Connection, and other denominations that practice Connection, churches young and old, can find ways to pass the baton to one another. In order to do this, both kinds of ministries must learn to make decisions for the purpose of the Kingdom and not merely their own survival. Older churches fear closing and younger churches fear never becoming self-sufficient, and both are legitimate fears, but we are not called to live by fear... we live by faith. We do not build trust by carefully screening our teammates, but by being trust-worthy ourselves.
So, part three of what I've been up to: I have been encouraging connection between the discipleship parts of our conference and the New Church Development work I have been doing. It has been a blessing to see how well-received that encouragement has been and watching those ministries team up together to help struggling churches find new opportunities for spiritual life and growth in their own communities. We are stronger, no only standing together, but working together in service to God.
When we hear about transitions in Methodist denominations, we typically think about pastor moves. However, congregations are in a state of flux themselves as well. Many of our Hispanic congregations expect to lose 25% of their members each year due to relocation for work and family purposes. A large portion of our older Anglo congregations may be looking at losing that many to death, health concerns, or retirement relocation. Indeed, some of our congregations with a majority of members in their 70s and 80s may be looking at losing much more than that. Everything and Everyone Everywhere is changing... Except our mission.
Jesus raised up leaders after Him to carry on the process of making new disciples. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking our job is to get people saved and God's job is to take them from there. Instead it is just the opposite. Only Jesus can save and He commanded us to go and make disciples and feed the sheep He brings into the fold.1 We all fall prey to this misunderstanding from time to time. Both churches young and old get mixed up regarding their mission and God's part in that.
Perhaps it is because the specifics of God's mercies are new each morning and He is not entirely predictable. Our egos cannot control Him and plan for Him. So instead, we plan around Him, leaving Him out of our plans. Ultimately, He is the one making the plans and we need to constantly realign our own lives around His vision. Perhaps it would make a difference if there were leaders set aside to specifically seek God's vision and help align the ministries of their church in obedience to God. Normally, the main task of those leaders is making sure the bills get paid and the building does not fall apart.
Often this transition is experienced in a slow decline. A few members move away. Each year a few more pass away. We experience the normal passages of life as we lose more through graduations, marriages and divorces, and more. This is normal. This is life.
The problem arises when we realize that it has been several years since we have brought in new people to our family of faith. The births do not compensate for the deaths, and we hemorrhage out our graduates, who often never return. Essentially, our babies do not stay and become fully-functioning members... so where will our new members come from? When was the last time we had a visitor to church? When was the last time someone joined our congregation from outside our church families? These are some of the questions that do not get asked until we are already on the downward slope and losing our balance.
Sometimes, transitions occur because of new growth. Growth, which often seems to be the entire goal, brings changes itself. Many churches can tell stories of experiencing a period of great growth, followed by loss, and then ending in slow decline. Why is that? They were not equipped to handle the growth.
They may have run out of seats or parking spaces. It is likely they were no longer able to know everyone by name and people felt neglected. Ultimately, the church was able to grow in numbers, but not in disciples because all the energy was being directed to bringing in more people and keeping them there, instead of truly making them part of the family of faith and raising them up to be followers of Jesus... and that problem probably found its root with an insufficient number of leaders/teachers within the congregation. Where the leaders are few, decline is right around the corner.
There is another part of this story that may have occurred as well. Somewhere in the middle of that growth, a few people may have realized that some of the members (with longer standing in this church) were given more influence and input into the way the ministries were run. There is a certain justice to that, but when new people do not have clear ways (and clear filters) into the leadership of the church, everyone gets frustrated, lines are drawn in the sand, and conflict grows into a schism in the house of God.
This kind of conflict is never easy to resolve and almost always means losing not only attending people, but often losing good leaders within the church. It kills the morale of the congregation far more than the death of beloved leaders, because this kind of separation feels so unnatural. It feels like the church kicking people out rather than welcoming them in and it often takes years for a church to recover.
How do we hope to help? It may seem counterintuitive that an outsider could bring any practical help to congregations facing these issues. (Although, ironically, most of these congregations believe that bringing in a new (better) pastor from outside will solve the problem.) I am a pastor myself and I know that we pastors make our fair share of mistakes. Generally speaking though, removing people from the congregation is not the best place to start. Healthy congregations have ways of gracefully correcting us for the benefit of all, and that health can be modeled to a congregation through the intervention of outside leaders. These kinds of things are primarily helpful with churches in conflict though. What about the majority that are simply experiencing slow decline or a burst of growth they are unprepared to adequately disciple?
We invite the leadership into a discussion about Ability, Willingness, and Vision. It is not helpful to discuss major property renovation if the resources are simply not there to make it happen. Likewise it is useless to discuss the addition of major programming if the current property is unable to support it. We have to have a conversation about the current reality of the congregation so we can begin to chart a course to the place we need to be. Sometimes that kind of conversation is easier when you have a more objective outside presence in the room encouraging the conversation.
We also talk about willingness. Some congregations have leaders that are simply exhausted and do not have the capacity to lead the people into the next few years, let alone the next few decades. Lack of spiritual renewal often leaves them burnt out and when the church puts on revivals, they are often the ones left to carry the workload for the benefit of everyone else. Without willingness, a church cannot move forward.
Finally, we talk about the kingdom vision of the church. What do we know already that God wants us to be and to be doing? Do we know how to make disciples? Do we know how to reach people for Christ? Do we know how to call them to serve Him with their lives? Do we know why we exist?
These are all questions that every church should ask of themselves at least once a year. They can keep us on the path of faithfulness to God if we continue to check our alignment with His will on a regular basis, instead of waiting until we are halfway off the cliff. I am beginning to use these questions among my own church leaders and sharing them with other pastors, to help spread this opportunity to encourage good spiritual health within our congregations.
We are training regional pastor and laity teams (2 by 2) to be facilitators in this process. I do not expect to be doing much consulting with this particular process myself, but I have already been involved in helping to train up some of the first facilitators who feel called to this kind of ministry. Among the many plates I have spinning at the moment (and there is more to come), this was one I feel I can support more from a distance, as a consultant to the process. I am saving my presence and efforts to be more involved when those turns toward health are made and opportunities arise for discussions about Fresh Expressions.
Where have I been?
Some of you frequent readers may have wondered what ever became of the daily blogs you had been receiving during much of the first half of 2017. Some of the small seeds I have been scattering for the past few years have started to take root and begin to sprout. Like the mustard seed, it has been a few small things with much larger implications as they continue to grow and connect with others.
First of all though, a short word about writing... A couple years back I began reading Stephen King's On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. Along with several other books and experiences in life, I began to start calling myself a writer, and to write on a regular basis. The most memorable part of King's book for me was his comment about writing at least 2000 words each day. At first that seemed daunting, but before long I was easily writing at least 1000 words per day, while keeping my day job. A lot of fruit has come out of that work, much of it found on my devotional blog.
I wrote something like 1200-1500 words per day for that blog, every day, for somewhere around 8 or 9 months. There were ups and downs in the excitement level, but in the last few months I noticed my writing quality dwindling and something inside me was begging for a rest from the routine. So I pulled back the reins and slowed to a halt.
At the same time I began to spend more of my ministry time planning and working with New Church Development, and a particular form of NCD called Fresh Expressions. The simplest way to describe Fresh Expressions is taking taking the means of making disciples to communities outside the church. Imagine you were going to start a new Christian community in a foreign country far away. What would you need to do? What would you expect as a result in your home congregation? Now imagine that you are doing that in your own community but with similar expectations and results. That is what Fresh Expressions looks like. It brings the core values of church to a new context, linking them primarily by the missionaries sent from the local congregation.
Fully functioning Fresh Expressions are built around 4 main components, designated by directions.
The form and methodology of ministry in these Fresh Expressions can be as varied as the number of Fresh Expressions themselves, however they are not meant to be Church-lite. They are meant to be the church thriving in places and among people that traditional ministries are unable to reach.
I am excited about this particular kind of ministry because the accessibility of it is not dependent upon large financial resources, growing metropolitan areas, or groups of people with any particular backgrounds with church. In other words, any church has the potential to start a thriving Fresh Expression in their community with prayerful, thoughtful investment. It is mission work at the level of small groups. Instead of getting other to come to us, we go to them and take as much of "church" (at least the good parts of "church") that we can pack with us.
My work this past year has primarily been in supporting New Church Development in the Central KY area. In October, I was asked to help form a team and oversee Fresh Expressions all across Kentucky. This fall, I have spent most of my work in this area speaking to groups of church lay leaders and working to recruit members of the new KYFX team.
Through all of this, I have been sharing my vision of the means and fruitfulness of Fresh Expressions. I am not a math or numbers person in general, but I have been working with a formula as a guide to the possibilities of Fresh Expressions. It looks something like this:
What is more
If that was not reason enough to get excited about, then think about this: In our time where the local church has not often been faithful in raising up new leaders and new pastors to fill churches, let alone plant new ones, Fresh Expressions is becoming a means of raising up and training new leaders who are able to reach those who cannot be reached in traditional settings. Laity who are willing and able to lead a Fresh Expression may become some of the better candidates for pastoral ministry in the years to come, and they can discover and practice those gifts and skills first without incurring large debts from theological education. Essentially, they get free on-the-job training for ministry. The conference and local church also get a method of testing the fruitfulness of these leaders before investing large amounts of resources into them.
To me, the possibility of raising up the next generation of church leaders is even more exciting than planting new churches. Buildings and programs come and go, but the people whose lives are changed and who give them over to the service of God can touch hundreds and thousands of others each. Fresh Expressions, to me, are not a means of changing or reforming the Church. It is a way of starting new ministries based upon the place where the needs of the people intersect with the commission of the gospel so that all may be saved, transformed, and given new life.
This hope for the future hinges upon the willingness of the local churches to try something new to reach new people, the ability of our district and conference ministries to give them adequate support to match their faith, and God's grace to cover and lead us all. Failure is certainly an option, but giving up is not. God may not demand that we succeed perfectly every time on our own, but He does command that we seek His help and attempt to fulfill the mission He gave to us.
Chains of Ingenuity
I’ve spent the last several months working on my expositions of the daily scripture readings here. That’s not all I’ve been up to though. Between working on several writing projects, one that is finished and in need of a publisher and another in the works, decided to jump back into my music a little more. Specifically, I’m working on a musical about the life of John Wesley, the celebrated founder of the Methodist movement from the 1700’s in England. There is more than enough drama and adventure in his life to pull a significant story from it, as some have already done in cinema, and many have done in books.
There is plenty of music in his life as well. His brother Charles was a prolific hymn writer of the time period and several of his songs are beloved and sung by us today. One of his most famous hymns is the Christmas Carol Hark the Herald, Angels Sing, which I hope to incorporate into the musical in a small way. Much of the music for his hymns have been rearranged over the years but his lyrics remain with us.
Why Wesley? With so many other church leaders, let alone the cast of powerful stories in the Bible itself, why focus on two brothers from the 1700’s? For one, they represent the original values of my own church tradition, a church that is going through (along with most churches) a significant time of discernment and deliberation right now. We, like the Anglican Church that Wesley belonged to, are going through a decline and are trying to rediscover our mission and purpose - or more specifically, how to live into the mission and purpose we already have. Meanwhile, the current Anglican Church has been trying out some of the very things that Wesley did 200 years ago and experiencing new birth. Maybe interaction with his story will inspire us anew as well.
We are also in the midst of some significant political change as well. I expect we will look back on this decade and the one to follow as a kind of launchpad for a new renaissance in the United States. I would love to claim that it will originate with us and travel the world from here, but some of this political change has already taken place in Europe, in places like England and France (that I’m aware of) and I am sure that this change is related to the political climates in Africa and Asia as well. We are seeing corruption float to the surface within and inside our media as well as our governing authorities, perhaps most significantly in places like Venezuela today, but we in the U.S. are not outside of that threat either.
Times are changing, and we cannot stop that. What impressed me about John Wesley was that, in his own changing times, he was sure to take note of the people on the sidelines. Indeed, it is arguable that he built his church from the ‘B’ team - those the churches of the day did not want. By remembering the people being left out, Wesley changed his own nation, one person, one link at a time, until he reached back across the Atlantic and transformed the newborn United States of America. Our founding fathers may have written our constitution and led us into battle, but it was Wesley and others like him who transformed the hearts of we the people, to create a Christ honoring culture at the beginning of our nation. It was not simple or easy then, nor is it now, but he was not afraid to take up the standard for Christ and fight for the souls of this world.
The last few years I have seen my social media celebrating 30 days of Thankfulness throughout the month of Novemeber. I have not seen a single instance of that this year. This year, I have seen it filled with vioence, rioting, name calling, sarcasm, and, on the more positive side, pleas for peace.
Looking back, it has not just been this month either. 2016 has been filled with unrest. In many cases, it seems like we have traded our gratitude for fear. Now that we come to one of the biggest holiday seasons of the year, we find ourselves with too little to celebrate.
Does that sound too naïve? Is it wiser to push aside gratitude to make more room for fear and anger? Do we enjoy freedom more when we use it to push others down? I don't think so. I think we should look back to the beginnings of this holiday and remember that it was two separate groups of people that banned together in peace and cooperation (Here I'm thinking of the generosity of the Native Americans to the Pilgrim colonists). Or perhaps we can remember that it was created as a national holiday following the Civil War, when our nation had been torn apart by incredible violence and strife. I imagine that first national holiday was hard to swallow for many people.
I wish I had good answers for the people of our nation and the chaos we have endured throughout this entire year. I don't understand how thousands can gather to celebrate a baseball team one week and storm the streets in anger and hatred the next. But this much I do know: we will lose our community if we give up our gratitude. Our nation will not split in two - it will simply shatter until it is everyone for themselves. Gratitude is the true food of family and the crux of community and when we lose it, we lose everything.
So this holiday season, what are you grateful for?
“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever.”
Psalms 118:1 NLT
Yesterday I made a mistake.
I have been taking Chinese lessons for about a year now, from 3 different teachers, and am progressing painfully slow. It took me 6 months to be able to distinguish between all the Chinese consonants. It took almost another 4 months to be able to hear the tones they use in every word. I'm not a linguist.
But I try. In rehearsing last week's lesson, I tried to get creative and create my own sentence instead of just repeating the phrase in front of me. I tried to say, "I have brothers.", but due to a slight mispronunciation I instead said, "I have God." My teacher had a perplexed look on her face and told me that was not the correct way to say that phrase, that I should say "I believe in God", not "I have God."
I explained I was trying to say "brothers" and not "God" and we had a good laugh. This mistake has stuck with me though. There is a difference between belief and possession. I have brothers. I have sisters. I have a wife. I believe in them as well, but saying I believe in brothers does not mean that I have one myself. I think this is more than just a problem in Chinese linguistics. It is a perspective on what it means to be a human being, what it means to be God, and the kinds of relationships possible between the two.
The Bible itself tells us that we have to do more than believe in God.
So believing in God does necessarily make you good or put you in right standing with God.
The idea of "having" God seems to be a bit of a stretch as well. If God truly is the Creator of everything, certainly he can "have" us as his possessions, but how could we possibly "have" him as well. It all comes down to semantics. In some cases, possession signifies a subject-object relationship, as in. "I have a car.". However, you can also say, "I have a president." while someone else can claim, "I have a king.". This is a change in semantics that does not assume that the president or king does not have a free will of their own, nor does it assume that because you have them, that you are somehow superior to them. Those people are more than their titles.
This is probably best expressed by the fact that most cultures (perhaps all cultures) consider it appropriate for children to refer to their parents by their functional title, not by their actual or chosen names. It doesn't matter how old the parents or children are, it is always more honorable to be called "Mom" than it is to be called "Linda" or "Jessica" by your children. Similarly, if anyone is asked if they "have" a mother, anyone would say yes without feeling like they were somehow objectifying that important person in their life.
God wants to be in a relationship with us, just like that… like a heavenly parent. He wants to have us, and he wants us to have him. I'm reminded of the traditional wedding vows - "…to have and to hold, from this day forth, til death do us part.". We understand what it is to have a relationship, Sometimes we just get a little shy of applying that same reasoning to a God who is so much greater than us.
We are approaching Advent, a time when we celebrate the grace and goodness of God, who could have stayed back and objectified us, but instead chose to come near to us all in Jesus Christ and lets us all know that he wants to have us and his own people as he offers himself to us as well.
Do you have God?
I've got a prayer list. It's actually part of an app on my phone called Faithlife - an app marketed as a Christian version of Facebook. I'm not sure it has succeeded in that, but it has a daily checklist of prayer requests that I have been using for the last 5 months or so. Functionally, it is no different from carrying a small notebook around in my pocket, but for me, it seems to work.
Life has become more complicated in 2016. I took on some new leadership roles within my local ecumenical community and across Kentucky and my work is now more influential and more influenced by national and denominational politics (both good and bad) as well as a much wider community. Most days I go to bed having no clue what I am supposed to be doing or if any of the dozen ideas I've had are the right things to do. I'm constantly trying to find the place where ideas that work meet the values that are faithful to God. I don't always succeed in that.
So I have a prayer list. I list all the people that are in my care - whether they know it or not - and I pray for them each day. The list grows because it is not just prayers offered for those who are sick or in trouble. I pray for those I pastor and those I work alongside. I pray for those that God brings into my life that need to know him. I pray for friends and family. If you are reading this, there's a good chance that you are on my prayer list.
Praying does not calm me down. Some days it feels like a chore. Other days, I'm praying through my list while I'm actually doing other chores. I am not a super prayer warrior and do not have a specific time, place, or ritual to praying through this list. My only criteria is consistency (doing it each day) and surrender. I don't pray for specific outcomes. I just lift those people and situations (mostly people) up to God and leave them in His care.
The affect of this very basic prayer practice has been incredible. Consistent prayer has opened my eyes to the work and power of God in the lives of those around me. I have less answers to offer and more opportunities to see God work out impossible situations. My ideas still matter, but I find that I hold them loosely and allow God to sift and shape them before my eyes.
Does this sound like just "going with the flow"? It does not feel like it. It actually feels like steady work as I battle myself and my schedule each day to be sure I am taking this time to pray. That is my part of the work. I then let God do His part of the work in solving these problems and stirring up new life in those that need to be moved by His Spirit. I apply prayer - the ultimate solvent to the situations in my life, and as I consistently pray, and God consistently works, I begin to see solutions forming before my eyes.
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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