Wednesday, May 25, 2016

the best is yet to come

The Pentecost window at Duke Divinity School
After a flash of red, the green is rolling out in our sanctuaries - the Pentecost season is here. And this past Sunday I was preaching on the Holy Spirit, the "down payment of our inheritance" as the redeemed people of God (Eph 1:14). The Spirit has been on my mind lately.

Meanwhile I've been reading Jason Byassee's little book, Trinity: The God We Don't Know, and I'm in the middle of chapter 2: "The Spirit We Don't Know."
Byassee's discussing Jesus' incredible promise in John 14 that "the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do great works than these, because I am going to the Father" (14:12). Greater works than these? Greater than turning water to wine (John 2), making the lame walk (John 5), feeding thousands with a few morsels (John 6)? Greater than raising the dead (John 11)?

And why does Jesus' exit, his "going to the Father," mean that we will be able to accomplish these greater things?
It must have to do with that insistence in John 16 that "it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you" (16:7).

The Helper. The Holy Spirit.

While Jesus has to leave his disciples, this Helper will be with you forever (14:16), so do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid (14:27). The Helper Jesus is sending to us will bring peace and teach us everything - through the Spirit, those who believe in Jesus will accomplish amazing things.

Then Byassee writes:
The Spirit is powerfully present on Jesus unlike any before or since. And yet the church should wish for Jesus's departure so the Spirit will descend upon us in a way unlike any before or since. There are two sendings of God into human history to give life and save—the Son and the Spirit (John 6:63). And each is better than the previous. Religious communities do have a tendency to look back to a golden era and romanticize a lost time. The church should not. We know greater things are yet to come. God not only grants us knowledge about himself, God progressively comes closer to us, fills us and our world with more of himself. First Son, then Spirit. With God, the best is always yet to come. (38-39)
Greater things, Jesus said. And even the Spirit, the source of these "greater things" from God, even the Spirit with us now is only a down payment: a comforter, the giver of new life (Rom 7:6), an engagement ring, ahead of the day when God wipes away every tear, makes all things new, and God's people come to Jesus like a bride adorned for her husband (Rev 21:1-5).

A down payment. Just the beginning.

The best is yet to come.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Update from General Conference 2016

There have been some interesting and important developments over the last few days at General Conference. Let me fill you in.

First: the United Methodist Church's General Conference - the denomination's sole decision-making body, which gathers every 4 years, made up of delegates from around the globe - is meeting in Portland right now. As always, one of the most prominent and contentious topics up for discussion at the conference has been sexuality: presently the UMC holds that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," though many United Methodists (especially in the US) are opposed to the church's position. The discord over sexuality has been so intense in recent years that many have feared a looming split in the denomination.

This week the General Conference took an unprecedented step in trying to address this conflict: the conference (a body of clergy and lay delegates) requested guidance from the church's Council of Bishops. The bishops have no official influence over the decisions of the General Conference: their roles are generally limited to preaching in worship services at the conference and presiding over the business of the conference in accordance with Robert's Rules of Order. They don't have input in the discussions on the conference floor and don't have a vote on any proposals. As I understand it, the General Conference has never officially requested the guidance of the bishops, but this issue has been so divisive and hope for unity moving forward so scant, that the conference is looking for wisdom and leadership.

The bishops' response came in the form of a statement, which you can read online here. Essentially, the bishops recommended that all proposals related to the question of sexuality be tabled, that a special commission be formed to "develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality", and that a special session of the General Conference will be called before the regularly scheduled General Conference of 2020, solely to address this issue.
On Wednesday the General Conference approved the bishops' plan by a vote of 428-405.

(Read more about this from the New York Times.)

"Revising" the church's teachings and policies in The Book of Discipline could mean a number of things. According to the Council of Bishops, "We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current Discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts." To rectify this, the commission could recommend anything from rewriting and making more sensitive passages that have become painful to many after years of hearing them bandied about inconsiderately (like the famous "incompatible with Christian teaching" phrase), to a radical reversal of the church's stance (which seems unlikely); from a tightening of current rules concerning clergy that often go unenforced, to a restructuring on a denominational level to allow for diverging positions and practices, all under the sanction of the one, global church (for instance, see the "Love Alike Plan" that was proposed this year). Time will tell. Whatever the recommended revisions eventually do look like, the aim is to avoid a schism.

(Read United Methodist minister and author Jim Harnish's reflections on the Holy Spirit's surprises at General Conference.)

For now, this proposal (defer the conversation - commission - called General Conference before 2020) is the church's best shot at finding a way to accommodate the variety of deeply-held convictions on the question while maintaining the unity within the church body that Jesus himself desired and prayed for (see John 17).

And that's what's been happening at General Conference.

Monday, May 09, 2016

"Will the conference affect Portlanders?"

"Will the conference affect Portlanders?" she asked.

Tomorrow, May 10th, the United Methodist Church's General Conference will begin in Portland, Oregon. Every four years bishops and delegates from around the world gather somewhere for General Conference and make decisions affecting the mission, the money, the principles, and the organization of the UMC. I was just reading an article from The Oregonian explaining all of this to the locals, and the articles ends by briefly addressing the question: "Will the conference affect Portlanders?"

The answer? Yes: traffic may swell near downtown, the restaurants near the convention center will definitely be crowded at lunch, and hotel rooms will be fewer and pricier for the duration of the conference. (Also, these United Methodist will be doing some volunteering while they're in town, "so some Portlanders may benefit from their presence.")

While I am glad to hear it reported that some people may be blessed by Portland's United Methodist guests over the next week and a half, even that happy observation only reinforces another, rather depressing take-away.

Will the conference affect Portlanders?

Yes. While they're here (mostly inconveniencing us).

But that's all you need to worry about.

Beyond the immediate effects on traffic and hotel room availability, etc., once they're done and gone: No, the conference will not affect Portlanders.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But apparently Portland hasn't heard that we're transforming the world.

Which makes me wonder: have the people in your town heard? Or in mine?

Or do they just know that you don't want to turn left onto the highway right here on Sunday mornings, because the church traffic makes it tricky, and that you need to get to the restaurant pretty early to beat the after-church crowd?

Will the conference affect Portland? Will it affect Oregon? Will it affect Georgia or Michigan, Natchez, D.C., Manila, Mutare, or Baton Rouge? Will the work of United Methodists affect the world? Will your congregation? Has anyone seen the world-transforming, disciple-making power of your church?

In Portland they haven't.

They just know we have meetings, argue over different things, and occasionally some people may benefit from our presence.

So what do we need to be doing, what does your congregation need to be doing right where you are - how can we love the Lord and love our neighbors in a way that the world will hear about? How can we start to take people from assuming the conference will not affect them to never forgetting how those United Methodists affected their lives for good?

United Methodists everywhere have two critical tasks this week (and I'd invite Christians of all stripes to join in both). One is to pray for the deliberations and decisions of the General Conference, that the Holy Spirit would stir in hearts and direct the church.

Two is to go and touch someone's life in the name of Jesus Christ.

In other words, to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

GM2016: The care filling your mind

image from Christianity Today

This past Christmas my brother and I were both given a daily-reading book taken from the writings of George MacDonald, a Scottish Christian writer and minister from the 1800s. (The book is Consuming Fire, and 100% of the royalties from it go to the ALS Therapy Development Institute in Cambridge, MA.)
I don't have a great track record with this sort of book, but here we are in May, and I'm still going strong! That's because MacDonald (a huge influence on C. S. Lewis) is overflowing with unique perspectives, powerful insights, wonderful images, and just plain interesting interpretations of the scriptures.
And because I've been struck so often and so profoundly by things I've read there over the last few months, I thought I might begin to share some of his words here on the blog.

I wanted to start with a simple little passage that nevertheless seemed to jump off the page, sit down, and stare at me from an uncomfortably close distance.

The care that is filling your mind at this moment, or but waiting till you lay the book aside to leap upon you - that need which is no need, is a demon sucking the spring of your life. If you say that yours is a reasonable and unavoidable care, I ask if there is something about it which you must do at this very moment. If not, then you are allowing it to usurp the place of something that is at this moment required - the greatest thing that can be required: to trust in the living God, whose will is your life. (Consuming Fire, April 22nd)

Later on (April 25th), he warns us about opening "your windows to the mosquitoes of care," whose buzzing drowns out the voice of the Eternal in our lives.

That thing you can't stop worrying about, is there something you need to do about it at this very moment? No? Then quit making excuses, offering rationalizations. "Cast your cares on the Lord, and he will sustain you" (Ps 55:22). "Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you" (1 Pet 5:7).
Give your worries to God, quit holding on to them, because they're really holding on to you. They're the cares of the world that choke the gospel out of our lives (Matt 13:22); they're draining the spring of your life. They're distracting you in this moment - while you're looking at this screen, or just waiting for you to finish reading - they're distracting you from trusting in the living God.

And that's what life is really all about.

Monday, April 04, 2016

your body and the Body

I just read an article about a recent, anonymous blog post written by an ordained United Methodist clergywoman arguing for universal access to birth control. That's not why people are reacting to the blog post, though - there are countless UM pastors who would like to see universal access to birth control. What's drawn attention to her post is her personal story:

I chose to go on birth control because I didn't want to get pregnant and I wanted to have sex. Because I am a clergy woman in The United Methodist Church, and I'm single, that information could get me brought up on charges, and I could lose my ordination.  

When one is ordained in the UMC, he or she take a vow that includes, among other things, a commitment to either fidelity in marriage or celibacy in singleness, whichever is relevant. Breaking one's clergy covenant is serious business. Hence the anonymous post.

The post is followed up be a long series of comments, most of which are supportive of the author.

"She was very brave to write this." (I don't doubt it.)

"It's ridiculous that she has to hide behind anonymity."

"My fiancée and I are doing the same thing!"

"The people passing judgment on you are hypocrites."

"No one makes a fuss when men are having premarital sex."*

"What you do with your body is no one's business but your own."

This last sentiment was tossed around a few times, and it's something you hear every time any question of Christian sexual ethics comes up: what goes on in your bedroom is only between you and the other individual there with you; it's nobody else's concern. As the anonymous blogger puts it, "I'm very grateful... that I don't have to justify my [birth control] prescriptions to my bishop. I don't think it is any of his business."

The problem is, for a Christian, that's simply not true. That's because Christians all are united in one Body (1 Cor 12:12ff); we are members of one another (Eph 4:25). And if you're a Christian that has implications for your sexuality.

In 1 Corinthians chapter 6, Paul is addressing a rather awkward problem in the church at Corinth: apparently some of the members have been caught spending time with prostitutes. And not like Jesus did. So Paul writes explaining why this is beyond the pale for followers of Jesus:

15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Your body is a "member" of Christ, and so what you do with your body, you do with Jesus' body. Jesus, who refrained for sexual pleasures in life, whose body was torn apart for us, he is entangled in your sexual activities. Because your body isn't first and foremost yours; it's his.
And, by extension, as members of one another, as members together in the Body of Christ, the other members of the Church are also entangled in our sexual activities.

In the US today - elsewhere too, I'm sure, but certainly in the US - we love to assert our freedom, our personal liberties, our privacy, but (however desirable those things may be) these are fundamentally American assertions, not Christian ones. "For the body does not consist of one member but of many" (1 Cor 12:14), and Jesus is the head (Col 1:18). When we say, what I do in the bedroom is my business, we're saying "I am my own." But Paul says "you are not your own." Jesus bought you at a price. You belong to him; you are a part of his Body.

And so Christians - ministers! - can't sit there and complain that other believers are paying attention to how they live. Christianity is not a religion of autonomous individuals! It's a Body-faith that affects what we may do with our bodies. If that seems repressive to you or like an infringement on your rights, you might want to look into other avenues of spiritual expression, besides Christianity. Or you may need to sit down with the New Testament and see if there aren't aspects of this faith that you hadn't seen and appropriated before.


* If this is true, it needs to be rectified now - not only because it's unjust to the women, but also because the men need to be held accountable. But I personally can't speak to the claims of a double standard here. I just don't pay enough attention to cases where clergy are brought up on charges or suspended or lose their credentials for this or that. What I can say is that I wasn't having sex before I was married, and I expect the same from all of my male and female colleagues in ministry.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Superman, Easter, and Hope

Easter Sunday morning I preached on how the resurrection of Jesus redefines the word "hope" for Christians: hope means that even when the very worst has already happened - on Friday Jesus was dead! - God has the power to heal and restore and renew - on Sunday Jesus was alive. In other words, in Christ, we can have hope in any situation, no matter how broken, no matter how final. It's never too late for God to save the day. And Jesus is the living embodiment of that hope.

I compared Jesus that morning to Superman in Grant Morrison's classic story, All-Star Superman. In the story, Superman is the living embodiment of hope. He's saved the world so many times, defeated so many enemies, that when you see him you know that there's hope, that everything's going to be alright. As they've said in recent Superman films, the big 'S' on his chest is actually a symbol from the planet Krypton: it means hope

I wanted to share the scene from All-Star Superman I described in the sermon, because I think it's powerful (click to enlarge):

The writer is imagining a world where there's such a hope that even suicidal despair can look on it and take heart and hold on to life.

The difference between Jesus and Superman is that Metropolis and the events there are fictional; Galilee, Jerusalem, Golgotha, and those events are not. Jesus actually did all of these incredible things - actually rose again! - and he did them in the middle of the real world. And so we have this hope as an anchor for our souls (Heb 6:19) in the real world, with all of its brokenness and suffering.

I've been trying to remind myself of this ever since I read about the suicide bombing in Pakistan on Easter. The resurrection of Jesus means that no matter how it looks, no matter how many grisly acts of terror murderous extremists perpetrate, we are actually living in that world where there's hope. It must have looked pretty grim, pretty bleak, pretty hopeless to Mary Magdalene, weeping over Rome's bloody handiwork in the garden that Sunday morning... but then she heard Hope call her name: "Mary."


Because God raised Jesus from the dead, we always have hope that things will be alright. If not now... one day. In the meantime, all we can do is look on him, our risen Lord, the living embodiment of our hope, and hold on.

Monday, February 29, 2016

the suffering of Christ

Yesterday in worship I preached on God's faithfulness in suffering. The faithfulness that Thomas Dorsey experienced when he wrote "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"; the faithfulness that the apostle Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 10:13: "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it." Many people have encountered God's presence and power for endurance right in the middle of their pain and suffering.

Then this morning I was reading in Consuming Fire, a 365-day devotional version of George MacDonald's classic Unspoken Sermons, and MacDonald turned to the topic of Jesus's suffering on the cross.

It is with the holiest fear that we should approach the terrible fact of the sufferings of our Lord. Let no one think that those were less because he was more... My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Never before had he been unable to see God beside him. Yet never was God nearer to him than now. He could not see, could not feel him near, and yet it is "My God" that he cries.