Mental Illness and the Church: They Don’t Want Me When I’m Messy

Mental Illness and the Church: They Don’t Want Me When I’m Messy

My wife recently wrote the following on her Facebook page…

While in treatment I’ve had a few people speak with me about the church because they know I’m married to a pastor. It’s been so saddening and has even made me angry to hear how people dealing with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses have been treated in church.

One man said, “They don’t want me when I’m messy. They don’t really want to hear how I am when my answer is not ok.”

Another said, “I don’t have it together enough to go to church. They avoid me”

Last one, “I texted my associate pastor about how I was feeling and he told me I shouldn’t talk like that.”

Over the course of the three-week group therapy my wife received for her depression and anxiety she heard many more reports, each one more tragic and heart-breaking than the last.   Real people with real problems voicing their very real trouble with the body of Jesus – the church.   For far too many people the church is the last place on earth they would consider going for help.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, this should not be!

Since hearing my wife’s report my heart has been broken over my own ignorance and prejudice to the need around me, even in my own home.  I confess that over these past few months while my wife has been suffering my response has been less than holy.  On far too many occasions I wanted the problem to just go away.  Too many times I put my own needs before hers.  Too many times I resented what she was experiencing because it ran against my expectations of what I wanted our marriage to be.

When Amy tearfully pleaded with me that she felt very lost and alone and desperately needed me to be to her “Jesus with skin on” I shamefully told her I’m not Jesus and can’t bear that burden.

But that was just a cop-out.  While the part about me not being Jesus is true, it’s also false.   I am, for better or worse, the body of Christ.  And if you are a Christian, so are you.   When my wife and millions of others suffering from mental illness are looking for Jesus they are, for better or worse, seeing him in us.

I am heart-broken by the image they too often receive.

I believe with all my heart that the church is still the best hope for the world.  I know she has her flaws but, when she is at her best, she is a hospital for the broken, openly confessing that she does not always have it all together but faithfully points towards the One who does.   I will not defend the Church’s actions to the group members who confided in my wife their distrust apart from saying this:  Hurting people hurt people.   Perhaps our failure is our pride, not admitting our own weaknesses and powerlessness and, because we have deep-rooted hurts and fears ourselves we are unable (or unwilling) to look at yours.

The answer in all of this, I believe, is massive repentance on both a global and individual scale.    We must be able to hear the cries of those hurting around us, desperate to see Jesus with skin on, and repent for our inability or unwillingness to be with the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.  We must admit we ourselves need healing and a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit in order to carry out the work first begun by our Lord, who came not to be served but to serve.  Jesus said it’s not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick.  Jesus was drawn to the hurting and his compassion drew them to himself.   It’s difficult to imagine anyone suffering from mental illness saying of Jesus, “He doesn’t want me when I’m messy.”

Luke, a doctor and follower of Jesus, wrote that if we will repent, and turn again, our sins will be wiped out and times of refreshing will come from the Lord (Acts 3:19-20).   To be offered the opportunity to begin again is a gracious gift, and one we as a church must seize both for our own salvation and that of those looking to us for help.  We can trust that the Spirit of God will refresh us, enabling us to bear the brokenness of the world as Christ’s body must, so that it might be transformed into something new for the Father’s glory.

This repentance begins for me, and perhaps for you, with a desire to listen and learn.   I’m writing this post not because I have answers but because I’m seeking some.   I want to know how to better posture myself as a pastor, and my church, so that when people suffering from mental illness look at us they see Jesus with skin on.  Here are just a few ways I am presently striving to bear fruit in keeping with repentance and I invite you to improve upon these and offer more of your own.

  1. Talking about depression and mental illness from the pulpit. I recently concluded a sermon series titled, “When Life Hurts.”  Here is a small taste from the first of that series:

If you are struggling with depression or other mental illness today I want you to know that you are not alone.  I want you to know that you don’t have to carry the weight of shame or guilt. I want you to know that you are worthy of love and that there isn’t a dark place on earth or in your mind that you can go that Jesus isn’t there with you.  I want you to know that there is no judgment or condemnation here. I want you to know that I find it to be spiritual malpractice when the church can safely ask for prayer for a loved one who has diabetes and needs to be on insulin in order to live but we feel ashamed to say I am struggling with depression and need some medicine to help me survive.    Where and when that happens to you, here me please – I’m sorry.    I’m sorry that has happened to you.  I’m sorry that you have been judged when what you most needed was love.   I’m sorry.

I’ve read that very few pastors talk about mental illness from the pulpit.  This must change.   In your church and mine are many who are suffering from mental illness – alone and silently – and they wonder each week, Does God have a word for me?  Will these people still love me if they knew my secret?    Assure them, routinely, that the answer to both questions is a resounding YES.

  1. Repeatedly affirming that the church is a hospital for the broken and not a morgue for saints. We say this a lot in our church and over the last several months it has begun to take root.  We lift up the values of humility and vulnerability and I strive, by God’s grace, to model these from the pulpit.   We began praying last year that God would make us the kind of people who want the sort of people nobody else wants or sees.  That certainly includes the people in my wife’s therapy group.   I’m growing increasingly confident that anyone can walk through the doors of our church and feel at home, like it’s a place where they can find hope and healing alongside others who are seeking the same (whether they are seasoned Christians or presently agnostic).
  1. Launching a recovery ministry. We have just launched a recovery ministry where every Thursday we offer a free meal, a worship service with a recovery related message followed by open share groups for things such as chemical addiction, sexual integrity and grief, pain and loss.   These are safe groups where people dealing with life’s hang-ups, including depression, can come and share their struggle with people who are on the same journey.   Here we get real, acknowledging that it’s our secrets that make and keep us sick.

These are just some of the ways we are trying to put skin on Jesus in our small neck of the woods.  My hope is that this post will generate discussion about how we can do better at addressing the needs of those suffering silently with mental illness all around us, both in our pews and out.   If you battle mental illness please consider sharing in the comments, anonymously if you like, how we can better serve you.   How can the church better serve your needs?

May our massive repentance lead to massive change in hearts so that we may never again hear it said of the body of Christ, “They don’t want me when I’m messy.”

Rethinking Online Communion

Rethinking Online Communion

When I first heard about a church offering online communion, perhaps a year ago, I thought how ridiculous!  How we have lost our way!  I was concerned that this would only enable others to stay away from church while simultaneously watering down the meaning and importance of holy communion.

Upon further reflection, I think those initial thoughts were wrong.   Two things led me to rethink my position.  One is an online support group I lead for men seeking sexual integrity.  The community formed there is real, precious, and life-changing.  Second is the recovery ministry being launched out of my church which is introducing me to many people who are not ready to step foot inside a traditional church service.  Many of them are today’s lepers, feeling estranged from God and society, yet desperate to know if someone cares and if there is hope for them.   Each of these instances got me thinking.

My Wesleyan Heritage

In November of 1739, John Wesley visited a Moravian Society meeting at Fetter Lane.  There he was introduced to a woman whom he had known to be strong in faith but now was filled with doubt.  Wesley records something in his journal which disturbed him about this woman and the teaching she had received.  He writes, “one whom I had left strong in faith and zealous of good works… now told me, Mr. Molther had fully convinced her she never had any faith at all; and had advised her, till she received faith, to be still, ceasing from outward works; which she had accordingly done and did not doubt but in a short time she should find advantage of it.” (John Wesley, entries for November 1-7, 1739, in The Works of John Wesley, vol.19, ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashille: Abingdon, 1990)119-20.)

Subsequent journal entries from Wesley reveal that nearly everyone in the Fetter Lane Society was experiencing a crisis of faith, doubting whether they had any.   Mr. Molther’s instructions to those filled with doubt was to refrain from anything which could be construed as a form of works righteousness, which especially included participation in the Lord’s Supper, but to instead be still and wait upon the Lord to deliver the assurance of faith they desired.

This doctrine, called “stillness,” did not sit well at all with John Wesley.  For many months Wesley went to great lengths arguing against this doctrine of stillness.   Contrary to Mr. Molther’s insistence that God’s only command to us is to believe and until such time as we believe we cannot partake of any means of grace, Wesley argued that God only commands us are to love Him and others, and the means of grace (of which holy communion is a primary one) are the means through which God nourishes our faith.   Whether you are a believer or an unbeliever, Wesley contends, God commands us to obey Him, and one form of obedience is taking part in the Lord’s Supper, often.

In June of 1740 Wesley preached a sermon on Holy Communion.  In it said this:

I preached on, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the ancient Church, every one who was baptized communicated daily. So in the Acts we read, they “all continued daily in the breaking of bread, and in prayer.”

But in latter times, many have affirmed, that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting, but a confirming ordinance. And among us it has been diligently taught, that none but those who are converted, who have received the Holy Ghost, who are believers in the full sense, ought to communicate.

But experience shows the gross falsehood of that assertion, that the Lord’s Supper is not a converting ordinance. Ye are the witnesses. For many now present know, the very beginning of your conversion to God (perhaps, in some, the first deep conviction) was wrought at the Lord’s Supper. Now, one single instance of this kind overthrows the whole assertion.

Converting Ordinance

Wesley believed that communion should not be limited to the converted, to those who already believed and had their lives properly sorted, including their doctrine.   He believed all were welcome to partake, whether you had faith or none.   The day after delivering the sermon quoted above, Wesley writes in his journal,

Saturday, June 27, 1740

I showed at large,

  1. That the Lord’s Supper was ordained by God, to be a means of conveying to men either preventing, or justifying, or sanctifying grace, according to their several necessities.

  2. That the persons for who it was ordained, are all those who know and feel that they want the grace of God, either to restrain them from sin, or to show their sins forgiven, or to renew their souls in the image of God.

  3. That inasmusch as we come to his table, not to give him anything, but to receive whatsoever he sees best for us, there is no previous preparation indispensably necessary, but a desire to receive whatsover he pleases to give. And,

  4. That no fitness is required at the time of communicating, but a sense of our state, of our utter sinfulness and helplessness; every one who knows he is fit for hell, being just fit to come to Christ, in this as well as all other ways of his appointment.

For Wesley, and Methodists ever since, communion is a gift from God to us, a means to nourish each of us on our journey, reminding us of God’s great love towards us and abiding presence.  It meets each of us where we are – sinner or saint, believer or doubter, mustard seed or mountains of faith – for the purpose of taking us where we need to go.   It’s a holy mystery how this happens.  Can this mystery not also extend to those participating online?

Communion as Evangelism

My initial thoughts about online communion strike me as similar to Mr. Molther’s doctrine of “stillness.”   The Fetter Lane Society prevented those who were lacking in faith to participate in the Lord’s Supper.  I wanted to prevent those who lacked the inclination or desire to come to church from participating in the same.   As I reflect on my feelings then and now I fear I was more concerned with being a liturgical policeman than I was with being an evangelist who, like God, indiscriminately scatters seed throughout the world irrespective of whether it lands on good soil or not.   How would God scatter seed today?   I believe He would use all the tools at His disposal, including the growing online communities forming every day.

I run into people all the time, as I’m sure you do, who tell me they cannot see themselves stepping foot into a church lest the roof cave in on us all.   Misguided as that notion of God may be, it’s the notion they have.  How wonderful it is to be able to present them with an option of participating in a worship service online, where they can taste and see that the Lord is good!  And how wonderful it is to not be shackled by a closed table understanding of this holy mystery but instead be able to offer them, via an online connection, the means to participate in the means of grace.   Who am I to say God cannot be working in their heart as we share in the Lord’s Supper separated by space yet connected by Spirit?  If even one of these begins to understand that God loves even them and they then develop a hunger for even more, thus one day working up the courage to step foot inside your church, wouldn’t it be worth it?   I am convinced it would.   Let us not consign those who cannot or will not enter our church buildings to the doctrine of “stillness” but instead offer any means necessary to stir up in them faith. 

What about Baptism?

An objection to offering online communion is to suggest it opens a slippery slope.  What about baptism?  Will we offer that online, too?   No.   We do not believe that baptism, like communion, is a converting ordinance.  Nor is it something to be done often, but only once.   We do not believe one must be baptized in order to participate in communion.    So because of what we believe is and is not happening in the sacrament of baptism we can safely, and justifiably, put a stop to that slope from slipping.

Consider how many unbaptized our online campuses could potentially reach.  Consider how our meeting them where they are – through online worship and communion – rather than demand they meet us where we are, could move someone from no faith at all to a place where they decide to be obedient to Christ and come to you, their pastor, to inquire about baptism.   How awesome will that be!?

What about individualism?

Are we not promoting isolation and individualism when we offer online communion?  I do not think that online communion should be seen as an equal counterpart to real, flesh and blood encounters within a worshiping community.  I think it would be wise to routinely offer the invitation to come and get plugged into a local church.  At the same time I don’t want to discount the community – as different as it may be – people experience online.

Think of your own interactions.  Are not a great deal of them done online?   Do you foresee this changing in the near future?   If not, why not make these interactions more meaningful rather than less?   The irony of the debates against online communion is they are all happening online!  I’ve talked more today about communion online with friends from around the country than I ever have in a church setting face to face.  I value those interactions, even if I may disagree with those I’m interacting with.

The “real presence” that communion points to is not my presence as the pastor with the communicant, but God’s presence with each of us wherever we are, both spiritually and physically.   Those who are not coming into your church today are not going to show up tomorrow because you tell them they need to grow up and stop being individualistic and come experience communion in a brick and mortar church.   They just won’t, and our insistence that they do, even with great theological and liturgical zeal, will not convince them.   But experiencing it for themselves, where they presently are, might awake them to possibilities they had not considered before.   Paul said he became all things to all people that he might win someone to Christ.   I believe online communion could be a means of grace to many who otherwise would never know it.

Racism and the Power of the Gospel

The events in Ferguson Missouri have certainly sent shock waves through our nation. As a result some very dark and ugly things from our past and in our present have been unearthed – things that many would prefer to remain buried. Regardless of where one may stand with regards to whether Officer Darren Wilson should have been indicted (for the record based on everything I’ve heard and read I respect the grand jury’s decision in this case but please don’t stop reading if you disagree), the reality is that America has a sordid history of racism that needs to be aired out in court, so to speak. We need to have an honest conversation about racism in all its hideous forms and get to the heart of the matter; and hopefully to the heart of its solution.

racial-harmony

As a rural white southerner I am very familiar with racism. I literally grew up in a small country store on a long country road in a community in the hills of North Carolina. Since my mother and father’s store was a community gathering place I heard a lot of things that young ears should not hear I suppose. Some of what I heard was blatantly racist. The N-word was common parlance whether directed toward African Americans or fellow whites as a jovial or malicious insult. Mimicking our superiors we kids, including me, sometimes used it as an insult as well. In “mixed company” however, we knew enough to restrain our use of the word. At school, when tempers flared out of control, however, some white kids would hurl the word toward one of our black classmates. Quite often this resulted in fisticuffs.

Our schools weren’t segregated, but many of our homes and most, if not all, of our churches certainly were. Many white southerners knew intuitively if it hadn’t been stated overtly that having black friends at school was one thing, but bringing one home with you was a different story. To say that interracial dating was discouraged would be an understatement; to say that it could be among white parents’ worst nightmares wouldn’t.

Especially by the time I was in high school, basketball had helped me form closer friendships with African Americans than I ever had before. After a game one Friday night, I invited a black friend to spend the night with me so we could hang out and play some ball together on Saturday. The next morning I could tell my father was not pleased – a fact that he would make all the more evident once my friend was gone.

Why did my father think this way? Was it because he was a mean, cruel, and hateful person? No. While he certainly had his fair share of imperfections, by all accounts he was a kind and generous soul. At his funeral 10 years ago two people stood among the congregation to share their thoughts and sentiments. One was one a Midwestern retired transplant and one of the wealthiest members of the community; the other was a poor black woman named Oka Lee, who drove over thirty miles to attend the service. Oka Lee tearfully spoke of how much she loved my father and how good he was to her and her family when she was growing up. I recognized the dichotomy in my father growing up.

Daddy was probably more concerned about what others might think. He was steeped in a culture of boundaries that for much of his life (he was born in 1928) were more overtly and strictly enforced, but still pervaded the culture even though the lines shifted enough to make room for some official public integration. Yet even though I knew he wasn’t an evil man, he said some things that morning that were quite revolting. In the retrospective light of more life-experience and a better understanding of history, however, it was understandable – not right but understandable. I had broken an unspoken rule, not one of which I was totally unaware. Before I finished high school I would push the boundaries a bit more by showing just an inkling of romantic affection for an African American girl. Some of my white classmates were quick to remind me that she was a n… (well, you know), and that I was encroaching dangerous territory.

Some may feel that I am dishonoring my father by discussing this. I understand some of those concerns. Nevertheless, I am more committed to the truth than I am to saving face for family. I believe Jesus is the truth and he said, “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” As I alluded above, as with many in America, my father sincerely believed what he had been led to believe by the culture in which he grew up. So for him this was a sin of ignorance in the Biblical sense of the phrase. My commitment to truth and to the gospel of Jesus overrides any family ties; nevertheless what I experienced with my father and with my friends was the resilient power of propaganda. Unjust systems run on lies. One of the biggest and most insidious lies to support racism goes back to the days of the African slave trade and continued long past the Civil Rights struggles of the last half of the last century and lingers among some still today. That is the lie that blacks are not fully human in its most sinister form; or, in its more subtle form, that blacks are inherently inferior, especially intellectually.

It is this lie and the racist ideology that it supports that led to the propagation of slavery, Jim Crow segregation laws in the south after slavery, and in many ways the eugenics movement. This lie also led many to doubt that the Washington Redskins could win the Super Bowl in 1988 with an African American Quarterback, Doug Williams, at the helm. (Not only did they win in convincing fashion; Williams was named MVP after breaking a few Super Bowl records.) The same lie, nevertheless, led a stranger who was talking to me in a Sears store in the late 1990’s to refer to the Book “The Bell Curve” to argue that blacks were simply genetically inferior; although the authors never purported to have solved the nature verses nurture puzzle by stating that it was genetics alone that determined intelligence scores. The Bible too has suffered interpretive distortions because of this white supremacist ideology.

In order to “prove” blacks as less than human in the past some found justification in the story of Noah’s ark surmising that the eight “souls” that were accounted for in the ark were Noah and his family and since blacks are obviously among us, they must have numbered along with the animals! The Canaanite’s relegation to slave status after the flood was also preposterously applied to blacks by wildly concluding that the Canaanites must have had black skin.

Over the years I have had to address a few Biblical misunderstandings myself. Even today there are people who believe that the Bible condemns interracial marriage. I saw a video of a white southern preacher ranting against it just a couple of months ago. While some still believe that the Bible condemns interracial marriage, even a cursory reading of Scripture should reveal that it was interreligious marriage that was the concern for the people of God. I have also had conversations with some, who were obviously influenced by the aforementioned lie, who were adamantly opposed to blacks and whites even worshipping together and were genuinely surprised to learn that both blacks and whites, as well as an innumerable multitude “from every nation, tribe, people, and language”(Rev 7:9), will be worshipping God together in the eternal kingdom.

In college heterodox religion (my sophomore year of college I joined an anti-Trinitarian group) brought me into close bonds of friendship with an African American man. We became roommates and the best of friends. He was a groomsman in my wedding and I was the best man in his. He married a Mexican American a fact that stirred up some consternation in whites, blacks, and Hispanics – even among some of his family and hers. He and his wife invited me and my wife to be with them in the delivery room when they delivered their first child, a beautiful baby girl. Obviously we were very close. Over the years I discerned that the misgivings that some had about their relationship were far more visceral than they were Biblical or rational.

Other conversations that I have had have been very telling. Many older white Americans actually consciously recognize the difference between their feelings that are rooted in the aforementioned propaganda and their rational reflections based on other experiences and biblical evidence that contradict those sentiments. I have heard very visceral racist rants laced with choruses of rational reflection that goes something like this: “I know it might just be the way I was brought up that is causing me to feel this way.” But the feelings fueled by the propaganda tend to dominate the song. What is needed is another song – a new song inspired by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
All of these and similar sentiments have exerted tremendous influence over the minds of countless millions of whites throughout America’s history, thereby ironically enslaving them to an anti-Christian racist ideology and blinding far too many to the racial harmony that is to be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. While some will argue that the Bible is really just altogether a part of the problem, I really believe that in its pages we will not only find part of the solution to racial and ethnic hostilities – I believe we will find the solution. It is only a distorted and ill-informed interpretation of the Bible bereft of the illumination of the Holy Spirit that is part of the problem. Self-interested ideology readily lends itself to cherry-picking and proof-texting, whether it be with regards to science or theology. The Bible actually diagnoses the problem and reveals the solution.

Undoubtedly it is sin that is the root problem. The essence of sin is pride and selfishness. Out of self-interest humans exalt themselves and their own desires above the will of God and the needs of others. Who could doubt that prideful European ethnocentrism mixed with greed in cold and callous hearts propelled the African slave ships longer and farther than the Atlantic breezes? Jesus said that all kinds of evil flow from the human heart, and it is the human heart (a Hebraic metaphor for the essence a person) that is the problem. Sin is more than just the wrong actions that we take, it is also the death-force that inspires and compels us to those actions. The Bible diagnoses the heart as sinful – wicked and deceitful (Jer 17:9) – and the first person it deceives is the person to whom it belongs. Sin compels us to actions that seem right, but in the end lead to disaster. Our sinful hearts compel us to declare war against God, and to hostility with each other. Sin alienated us from God and estranged us from each other.

If Genesis is telling us anything, it is telling us that we all come from one God, the Creator, and that we are all related to each other – all of us. Because of sin we were separated from God in a sea of idolatry and from each other on a battlefield of ethnic hostility. In mercy God devised a plan of redemption and reconciliation. He chose to reintroduce himself to an alienated humanity by calling and commissioning Abraham. Through Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob, Israel, God promised to bless all nations of the earth. Through Christ, the ultimate seed of Abraham (Gal 3:16), God’s promise was fulfilled and through faith in him salvation and membership in the household of God is available for both Jew and Gentile alike (Rom 1:16; Eph 2). Moreover, through the blood of Christ the long awaited promise of the new covenant was ratified (see Heb 9-10), and along with it the fulfillment of the promise of a new obedient heart (Heb 10:16).

Jesus’ identification of the human heart being the source of evil was and is not incidental to the gospel; indeed it is central to it. The law (Deut 30:6) and the prophets (Jer 31:33-34; Ezk 36:26-27) both attest to the promise of a new heart of obedience, and through faith in Christ all, Jew and Gentile, may receive this blessing through Abraham’s seed. Faith in Christ brings forgiveness of sins and through the new birth a new heart of ever-increasing obedience to God. Being reconciled to God naturally means also being reconciled to others. We have peace with God and with each other. This is good news! And Jesus commands us to share it with all nations and invite all people to be a part of the same family of God in Christ through the obedience of faith. All other distinctions of ethnicity, class, or gender – while not disappearing nor becoming completely irrelevant – necessarily become secondary to our membership as brothers and sisters in the family of God (Gal 3:28) and as vitally connected members of the body of Christ. It all begins with forgiveness and heart transformation. This is not to say that sin is only a matter of individual hearts. While sin flows from individual hearts, it also may permeate the collective consciousness of entire people groups manifested quite starkly in culture; it also may become codified in a nation’s laws. So Christians must seek to preach the gospel to change hearts, teach the word of God with an eye toward transformation of culture, and seek justice by advocating for just laws – “to make disciples for the transformation of the world,” if you will. The later, however, should never replace or even take priority over the former lest the gospel, the word, and the church become domesticated shells – hollowed out of their divine design and intended meaning – to promote an ulterior agenda.

While some doubt it, I believe the gospel is more than enough. “It is the power of God” (Rom 1:16); of it we should not be ashamed. Hasn’t the Bible been used to justify slavery and other bad things? For sure it has, but only by a shallow and superficial understanding of it. John Wesley was adamantly opposed to slavery and the racism that undergirded it; he was also deeply formed and shaped by Scripture. For the Bible he had the highest regard as the inspired word of God, and believed that it should shape every fiber of a Christian’s being – thoughts, words, tempers, and actions. I have no doubt that he was opposed to slavery and racism not in spite of Scripture, but because of it. The New Testament reveals a Spirit-inspired form of slavery that is characteristic of true discipleship that not only delivers us from the slavery of sin, but also witnesses against and undermines the sinful societal systems of domination that stem from the flesh. Jesus calls us into a kingdom in which there are no masters but one, and even he became a slave for others (see Philp 2:5-11). Christians are called to be slaves to one another in love (Gal 5:13) and this turns all worldly relationships based on domination and manipulation on their head – upside down and therefore right side up. This too is central to the gospel (See also Mark 9:33-37; 10:35-45; & John 13).

RomansCornerstone

The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It is enough to reconcile us to God and one another. In Jesus we meet a man who was rejected by his own people. They called him a Samaritan (for a first century Jew an insult roughly equivalent to the N-word) and dismissed him as a demoniac (John 8:48). They handed him over to the Gentiles whom they despised who in turn callously crucified him on their behalf. He was despised and rejected by all; yet it is in him and through him that we must receive salvation. The Jew must find salvation in the one that was rejected as a Samaritan; the Samaritan and the Gentile must find it in the one who was ethnically a Jew. In Jesus we find redemption and reconciliation. In Jesus we find God; we also find each other – our long lost relatives from every tribe and tongue.

Churches of all places should reflect most vividly the multi-ethnic, multi-racial reconciled family of God. To say that we haven’t done so well in America would be an understatement! This failure to bridge the racial divide, to heal this damaged relationship, and to genuinely seek forgiveness and reconciliation has left us vulnerable to those who would seek to exploit and stoke racial tensions for ulterior political ends. I suspect the calls for a “new system” arise more from political ideology and expediency than from the gospel. It is the gospel that is the answer, not the political philosophies of the left or the right.

Several weeks ago someone asked me how we should address racism in the church – in our local congregations. I said we should handle racism by preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible – by speaking the truth in love and exposing the lies of the evil one. To seek to justify racial segregation in worship and church fellowship is antithetical to the gospel itself. Paul’s rebuke of Peter for avoiding table fellowship with Gentiles makes that clear (Gal 2). Christ commanded us to go to all nations, all peoples, to baptize and teach and to form faith communities that are a foretaste of the kingdom of God. The gospel is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and it is a gospel of reconciliation. In Christ Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles of all tribes and tongues are reconciled to the one true God and each other in the one family of God. We all come from one God and we are all related; in the kingdom of God we will all live and worship together. If someone doesn’t want any part of that now, why would they want any part of that for eternity? A gospel with segregation of any degree is no gospel at all! So, how do we address racism in the church?

On a Maundy Thursday several years ago I held the answer in my hand. I pastored a church that was founded in 1762 as an Anglican parish. At the height of the Revolutionary War the congregation joined with the fledgling Methodist movement, becoming one of the Methodist Episcopal Church’s original congregations at the Christmas Conference in 1784. Until the end of the Civil War slaves could come there for worship, but they couldn’t come in. They had to listen to the service from outside the windows as the sanctuary didn’t have a balcony for blacks. After the war someone granted the former slaves their own plot of land just across the road on which to build their own church. Thus was the founding of Union Chapel AME Zion. While I pastored the original church I sought out opportunities to fellowship and worship with our brothers and sisters across the road. Their pastor preached at our church – the first time one of their pastors had ever preached in the church that their ancestors couldn’t even set foot in. I preached at theirs. Both worship services were preceded by fellowship meals. We ate together; we prayed together; we worshiped together. The following year I invited them to join us for our Maundy service. It was at that service that I held the answer in my hand; it was the foot, the black foot that I held in one hand as I washed it with the other. Let’s pray that this becomes more than just an occasional occurrence in an isolated place here and there.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.

 footwashing 2

The Walking Dead; the Living Lord

“Hey, you look just like that guy from “The Walking Dead!” So said a young man at the door of Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School who had just come through the line to shake my hand after the sermon I delivered there early in 2011.

Although I had never watched it, I knew enough about the show to know that it’s about a zombie apocalypse. So I didn’t know whether to take his observation as a compliment or an insult. I wasn’t having a particularly bad hair day, but I asked, “Are you saying I look like a zombie, dude?” “Oh, no! Not at all,” he said laughing. “You look just like the sheriff, Rick Grimes,” he clarified.

Rick Grimes

Last summer at Lake Junaluska, a couple of days before Annual Conference and right after a pick-up basketball game, a couple young guys from Mississippi who were there for a youth retreat asked if they could take my picture. Puzzled, I asked why. They said that I looked so much like the sheriff from The Walking Dead that they just had to show their friends back home.

Later that summer while exercising my thumb with the remote, I noticed that there was a weekend marathon of The Walking Dead. I couldn’t resist. I took the plunge and just started watching and watching and watching. By the end of the year I had caught up on the first few season thanks to Netflix and have been watching it ever since.

If you’re not one of the 14 million or so viewers (I just heard today that the show was beating out Sunday night football in the ratings), as I mentioned above, the show is about a zombie apocalypse that breaks out due to some mysterious virus that causes people to turn into flesh-eating “walkers”, as they’re called. The walkers can only be stopped by puncturing their brains. Because the zombie virus becomes so widespread so fast there is a complete societal breakdown and survivors among the living must fend for themselves the best they can without the everyday amenities and securities that we all take for granted, like police, hospitals, electricity, etc.

In this context there is much to be feared not only from the dead but also the living who prey on the weak, naïve, and unprepared. The world of The Walking Dead is a fallen world that brings challenges to the morality, ethics, and “common sense” of the world that was. What’s right and wrong in the fallen world of the zombie apocalypse isn’t all that clear, and that is a frequent topic of conversation in the show-that-follows-the show called The Talking Dead, which functions as somewhat of a commentary on the practical and moral dilemmas that the characters face.

In an episode last season two adults, Carol and Tyreese, with three children not their own, Lizzie, Mika and Judith, were taking shelter in an abandoned farm house after having been separated from the larger group that they were with during a time of crisis. Two of the children were little girls, one around 10 and the other around 11 or 12 maybe. The other child, Judith, was a baby girl a little less than a year old I think, and also the daughter of the sheriff Rick Grimes. She had been born to his wife, who died in childbirth, in an abandoned prison after the apocalypse was already in full swing.

One of the older girls, the older of the two I think, Lizzie, had become somewhat mentally unhinged. She became overly fascinated with walkers and endeavored to play with them and feed them like they were playmates and pets. By this point in the series virtually all of the characters had given up hope of finding any humanity left in the zombies, but Lizzie was hanging on to some very dangerous sentimentalism. Scolding her and reasoning with her just didn’t seem to work, but after a major scare things seemed to change.

A herd of walkers stumbled upon the farm and began to attack Lizzie and Mika. Finally it seemed that Lizzie had snapped out of the deadly spell of zombie sympathy and saw them for what they were and the only merciful thing at the time that could be done, stopping them by puncturing their brain by whatever means necessary. Feeling comfortable that Lizzie had come to here senses, Carol and Tyreese, ventured out to find some food leaving the girls behind at the farm house.

They returned to find that Lizzie had fallen back into her delusion once again, this time having killed her sister, Mika; her murderous eyes and her deadly weapon being set next on baby Judith. She murdered Mika and was about to murder Judith under the delusion that it would be good to have them come back as zombie playmates. It was a horrible and gut wrenching scene, but worse was still to come.

In the old country home Carol and Tyreese agonized over what to do at the kitchen table, in a world with Sheriff Rick but no police force as before, a world with no prisons, juvenile detention centers, or mental health care facilities. What were they to do? They could no longer trust Lizzie at all. She might kill them or Judith at any unguarded moment. Should they just lock her in the barn and abandon her? What should they do?
They finally made a decision. In excruciating anguish Carol took Lizzie out into a field of wild flowers and shot her in the back of the head. It was horrible. It was horrific. It was incredibly, incredibly sad. Millions of viewers were left in shock as were the host and guests on the commentary after-show, The Talking Dead, which included the actress who plays Carol.

On The Talking Dead everyone, including viewers who called or tweeted in or sent in answers to a survey, agreed that the execution of Lizzie was horrible, but they also all, at least virtually all, agreed that it was the right thing to do. Wow! They agreed it was the right thing to do in such world as that, the fallen world of the zombie apocalypse.

As I watched I wondered what those same people might say about the morality of Deuteronomy 21:18-21, and the other cruel and violent stories of the Bible in general.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (ESV)
18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

AMC’s The Walking Dead is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart, but the truth is neither is the Bible. Yet while The Walking Dead is a cultural sensation, the Bible is quite often maligned, mocked, and dismissed by cultural elites and the average person. The new atheists, as their called, are quick to point out passages like the one above or other violent stories such Israel’s conquest of the Canaanites to dismiss the Bible and the One True God that it describes as a moral monstrosity that should be given little to no ethical credibility at all. But atheists aren’t the only ones that point to the “problems” of the Bible in order to dismiss certain portions of it. Docetists and Gnostic Christians of antiquity and many modern day Christians do as well.

Marcion in the second century dismissed the Old Testament and its so-called cruel “demi-god” in favor of the supposedly more loving and forgiving supreme God revealed in Jesus in the New Testament, but not before also excluding some specific New Testament texts as well. Saint Irenaeus wrote about how his Gnostic opponents would resort to attacking the validity of Scripture itself after they were unable to win their arguments from Scripture. His exact words were, “when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying they are not correct, or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them …” (Against the Heresies III). Much has changed since the days of Irenaeus, but much has stayed the same!

A not uncommon ploy among some liberal Christians is to point out the other so-called morally objectionable commands of the Bible, such as the one from Deuteronomy above in an attempt to undermine its authority on other issues, especially sexual ethics. In a conversation with a progressive pastor several months ago, and not even on the subject of sexuality, but simply on the moral authority of the Bible generally, he objected that the Bible may not always be the best guide since it even commands the stoning of disobedient children. At least he didn’t resort to the shrimp argument! It is often argued that since the Bible contains many ethical standards that we find objectionable today then maybe we shouldn’t be too concerned with some of its other prohibitions, especially the ones regarding sex. What should we make of these objections? Here, by way of analogy, which always has its limitations though, I believe The Walking Dead may help.

The Bible is not a simple collection of moral instructions to be applied indiscriminately in any and every situation in every time. Indeed there are timeless truths and moral laws, but that is not the sum total of what the Bible is. First and foremost and primarily the Bible conveys a grand narrative or story. It is a true story of creation, fall, and redemption. After chapter 3 the story mainly deals with God the Creator’s continuing relationship with a fallen world in rebellion and filled with violence and evil. Humanity, God’s crowning creation, as God’s image bearers was meant to be God’s representative stewards over creation and the praise and worship leaders of all of God’s creatures. Temptation led to rebellion and rebellion led to the virus of sin that infected the whole human race and threw the entire creation out of whack. Humanity was left in a state of spiritual death, “dead in trespasses and sins” in which even all Christians “once walked” as do all the children of disobedience (Eph 2:1-2). We were the walking dead.

The first several chapters of Genesis spell out just how badly and how quickly the world spiraled into chaos as a result of sin, and how God went to work mysteriously through the election of Abraham and his descendants, Israel, the ultimate of whom was Jesus, to rescue the fallen world. The world had drastically changed. It became increasingly volatile and dangerous with a tremendous amount of moral ambiguity due to the mysterious relationship between Divine sovereignty and human freedom.

In this fallen world God gave the clear command to his chosen people Israel “thou shalt not kill”, but also allowed for and even commanded killing in cases of national defense and social offense such as murder and other forms of high handed rebellion that jeopardized family, tribal, and societal stability. This is not because killing is ideal, but in this fallen world sometimes necessary as a check against unmitigated violence and evil. The fallen world is not the ideal world, but the world as it is, filled with dangerous forces of evil and sin. In this world (a phrase often used on The Talking Dead when someone is explaining why such unsettling decisions had to be made in the show) God allows and even commands actions that are far from ideal. This is a world where sinful humans insist on having things their way and for a time God allows them to have it, which is quite often a punishment all its own.

God allowed for divorce in the law of Moses for example, but pointing to the story of Creation Jesus revealed that that wasn’t what God had really intended (Mark 10:1-12). Here Jesus recognized and shows us – if we have ears to hear and eyes to see – how to read the Bible. God sometimes makes concessions in a fallen world that are less than ideal, but with the goal of training and preparing a people for the renewed world where perfect righteousness is completely at home (2 Peter 3:13). God allowed Israel to have a king even though it was far from ideal and not what He really wanted (see 1 Sam 8). Yet He made provision for a king after warning them of the negative consequences. It would be the vast majority of future kings beginning with Solomon that would bring many burdens to the people and eventually led them astray into idolatry and immorality that eventually brought national destruction and exile. God had used Israel to bring judgment on the Canaanites; and Assyria and Babylon to bring judgment on Israel. With the exception of Jesus the Bible doesn’t tell us a clear-cut story of unambiguous heroes and villains because not even the chosen ones were exempt from Divine wrath nor were the unchosen ones exempt from Divine blessing (i.e. Rahab in Joshua, Ruth in Judges, & Naaman in 2 Kings to name a few). So we have to consider the nature of the Divine interaction in and with a fallen world before we quickly pass negative judgment on and dismiss particular texts of the Bible.

We also must consider not only the difference between the world before and after Eden and before the New Heaven and New Earth, but also the difference between the world of 21st century Europe and North America and the ancient world that the Bible describes. Was the later more like the world of the zombie apocalypse or modern America? Think of the Jews coming out of Egypt where they were enslaved and wandering in the desert before entering the land of Canaan, which Biblical scholars suggest would have been filled with horrendously violent, warring tribes all vying for control (Watch Professor Lawson Stone explain the literary and historical context of the violent texts in the Old Testament HERE).

To sit from the perch of our world full of amenities, luxuries, securities, and institutions that the ancients could have never imagined and dismiss them as morally inept is quite dubious at best. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of morally questionable (to say the least) and quite vexing problems and practices of our own even with our modern amenities. So we must understand that the Bible is telling us a true story (not true in every sense of the word but in the highest sense of the word) about a fallen world not an ideal world.

The Bible describes a world filled with moral ambiguity not because there are no absolutes values, but because of sin and the wicked courses of this world we are too blind and blinded to see them clearly much less live into them fully. And much of the evil comes directly from our sin-infected, wicked hearts. Yes there are horrible stories of revolting atrocities in the Bible, “texts of terror” if you will. They are recorded in the pages of Scripture not because God is such a moral monster, but because of sin humanity is. No Scripture can be lightly dismissed simply because it does not reflect the heart of God revealed in Jesus as some are wont to propose; because not all of Scripture was given to just reveal God, but also to reveal sin, the sin in us. Romans 7 says exactly that; Torah, the law, reveals humanity’s sin and rebellion in all its ugliness and gore. It was displayed most vividly and despicably when Jew and Gentile conspired together to crucify the Lord of Glory Himself. In other words, the Bible reveals the problem, but, thank God it also reveals the solution; and it’s not an antiviral substance. It’s a person and His name is Jesus. “For God so loved the world, [even fallen in rebellion] that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16 KJV).

We still live in a fallen world where even now decisions may have to be made that are horrible in the faint retrospective afterglow of Eden and the brilliant light of the present but still coming reality of the kingdom of God, but for this fallen world, right. This is the paradox of the horrible and right. In the fallen world in ancient Israel a rebellious son who threatened the livelihood and lives of his family and the stability of the paradigmatic society of the chosen people must a least be warned about the horrible consequences for high-handed rebellion (the penalty in Deut 21:18-21 had to be agreed to by both parents and the tribal elders and in later Rabbinic commentary was highly qualified so as to provide several layers to protect the falsely accused. See New Interpreter’s Bible). In the fictitious world of The Walking Dead horrible but possibly necessary decisions have to be made as well. Neither is our world immune from horrible dilemmas.
In a restaurant a while back, my family sat around a table enjoying the company of two of our children’s grandparents over some scrumptious food. A woman sitting close to us overheard our conversation and surmised that we were Christians. She walked over and asked us to pray for her family, especially her son. She said that she and her family had to lock their bedroom door at night out of fear for their lives. Their son was very menacing and dangerous, not to the point of institutionalization per se, but enough so to cause his parents a great deal of fear.

We definitely still live in a fallen world, a dangerous world of the walking dead. This is the world that God so loved that he gave His only Son. This is the fallen world of the walking dead from which Jesus, the Living Lord, came to rescue us and to heal and renew for the meek. As Christians we still live in a fallen world, but we also live as citizens of the kingdom of love and light even in the here-and-now. We trust in the Living Lord who through death conquered sin and death and delivered us from the fear of death (Heb 2:14-15) so that we may live forever with him in the world “set free from its bondage to corruption” (Rom 8:21); a world with no more horror because there will be nothing horrible, a world where righteousness and righteousness alone is fully at home (2 Peter 3:13), world without end. Amen.

Witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses: Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience

Knock, knock. Ruff, ruff! My wife answered the door to find two well-dressed men on our front porch being sniffed over by our dog Cooper. One had a King James Bible and a little yellow book entitled “What does the Bible Really Teach?” The other gentleman had a very new and nice looking “New World Translation” in his hand. Both were obviously Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW’s) and they wanted to discuss the Bible with us. I invited them in to sit by the warm fire in our den on this cool early November Monday.

knocking-at-the-door

After a couple of minutes of small-talk, I said that I gathered they were JW’s from the little yellow book. The one who held it in his hand was surprised that I was familiar with it. I told him that I actually had a couple of versions of my own that I had perused a time or two. He asked what I thought about the title, what I thought it might imply. I said it obviously implies that this book will tell the readers what the Bible actually says versus what they may have been misled to believe that it says, and then I cut to the chase.

First, I told them that I believe all genuine Christians desire for their faith to be grounded in and in harmony with what the Bible actually teaches, with the exception of some very liberal Christians who openly admit that they think Scripture is just wrong and to be ignored in certain respects (i.e. Dan Via in the book Two Views on homosexuality). I also told them that most importantly I myself am very concerned about my faith being in harmony with Scripture. I also told them that I read and study the Bible daily and read it through in its entirety every year at least. At this point I let them know that I am also a pastor. Then, I shared with them that at one time I made many of the very same arguments that they make with regards to the nature of God and the person of Jesus Christ.

I was involved with an anti-Trinitarian group called The Way International (TWI) for over a decade, I shared. Although the doctrine of TWI was a bit different, we had used basically the same arguments and proof-texts (that means pulling scripture out of context to support a preconceived notion that is often foreign to Scripture itself). We pitted the human nature against the divine nature of Christ as revealed in Scripture and dismissed the paradox by explaining away the later. I shared with them that I too at one time was convinced that Jesus could not be God, but came to believe that I was indeed wrong after a period of self-examination and reevaluation that I entered into after a miracle that occurred with our daughter Anna after an emergency C-section (Read about that here). I told them that I came to believe that I had been exalting my own reason and logic above the revelation of the Bible and that I realized that there are many things, especially the nature of God, that may be beyond human comprehension, but not illogical. Incomprehensibility and irrationality are two different things.

That’s really the biggest objection to the Trinity, whether it be from JW’s, TWI, or Unitarian Universalists, that it is illogical. That would be true if Trinitarians actually taught that there is one God and three God’s, but that is not what the Trinity teaches. It teaches that there is one God in three persons, thus God is one in a particular sense, in His nature or being, and three in another sense, in persons. It is certainly ultimately beyond full human comprehension, but it is not technically illogical. One of the gentleman actually agreed that there are many things that are beyond our comprehension. How much more the God who created everything that is! This is not to say that there is no need to think about these things, to the contrary, the Triune God and his ways require us to love him with all of our mind while knowing that we will never grasp everything about Him and His ways (see Psalm 139, Isaiah 55:8-9 & Romans 11:33).

The other gentleman, apparently none too impressed, piped up and said, what do you do about Colossians 1:15, which says Christ is the firstborn of all creation, which they interpret to mean the first created being, who the created all other things. I pointed out that the phrase is a figure of speech to refer to Christ’s preeminence over all of creation. I also pointed out that John 1:3 was very insistent that not one thing came into existence without him as their own translation attests. If he himself was created by the Father, Jehovah, then one thing did indeed come into existence without him. In that same passage back in Colossians 1 in verse 16 it also emphatically says that all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible, were created by him, although the NWT (the JW’s own translation) unjustifiably adds the word “other” to make it appear to be saying that Christ created everything else after he himself was created. There is no credible reason to do that and it is quite curious that the NWT translators added the word “other” in Colossians 1:16, but not in John 1:3.

Next he says what about Proverbs 8:22 which he said clearly says Christ was created. I didn’t really go into the details of this with them, but I simply said there is much more going on in that passage in Proverbs 8 that must be considered. First of all, some translations say “possessed” rather than “created” in Proverbs 8:22. The translation “created”, however, does seem to fit best in this particular context. Nevertheless, the passage, as well as much of Proverbs, is using the figure of speech personification to speak of the very abstract concept of wisdom. Wisdom is personified as a woman who brings blessing and life to those who welcome and embrace her. My JW guests agreed with me that God Himself would never have been without wisdom, one of his many attributes. On another note, while Christ was certainly considered to be the wisdom of God in the flesh in the New Testament and by the early church fathers, it may be going a bit far to completely identify wisdom in Proverbs with Christ. Another aspect to consider here, and I am speculating, is that the wisdom here referred to as “created” is the logical code upon which the universe and everything in it is what it is and does what it does. One might say here the natural law embedded in the universe that declares the glory of the Lawgiver, namely God, (compare Psalm 19; also it is interesting to note that later Jews would identify wisdom with Torah as Christians would with Christ) who would later be revealed to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who created all things together. At any rate, Proverbs 8 is a very figurative passage and it is hard to discern and tease out the specific possible referents, namely wisdom as an attribute of God and as the logic embedded within physical reality and the interplay between them. What I have in mind is the distinction between the full wisdom of God and the specific wisdom formulation of natural law that governs the universe. This too is “knowledge [is] too wonderful for me” (Psalm 139:6).

That being said, what is clear is that John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16 indicate that Christ created all things period. Moreover, there is nothing in the New Testament or in Genesis 1 for that matter, to indicate that God created a being who then created everything else. Genesis 1 identifies God as the creator of all things and John 1:1 identifies the Word that became flesh (1:14) as God, not “a god” as the NWT would suggest. JW’s teach that Jesus, as the first created being was an archangel who was divine in a lesser sense than Jehovah. Hebrews chapter 1:8-11, as I pointed out to them identifies the Son not as an angel (especially see the context), but as God (Hebrew would be Elohim) and as the Lord (Jehovah or Yahweh, the name of God in the OT). Verse 8 may be explained away as Christ simply receiving the title “Elohim” as God’s representative, but it is much more difficult to explain away verses 10-11, which has God the Father applying Psalm 102:25-27 to the Son. The Son is identified, not as an angel or created wisdom, but as the eternal Lord, Jehovah Himself who laid the foundation of the earth and crafted the heavens.

I also shared with my visitors that I finally confessed Jesus as Lord and God (see John 20:28) and put my faith in Him as such when reading through Philippians 2 a few months after the miracle with our daughter Anna and during my time of reexamining my life and beliefs. I finally saw that verse 6 means what it says when it speaks of Christ being in “the form of God” and having equality with God and accepted it for what it actually says. The passage goes on to speak of Christ becoming something that he was not before, namely a human slave, which is what John 13:1-17 also reveals about the Word that was God (1:1) that became flesh (1:14). Before Christ became human he wasn’t simply a forethought in God’s mind as TWI teaches or an angel of a lower nature than God the Father as JW’s teach, but he was in the form of God and equal with God. As John 1:1 simply puts it, He was God. Philippians 2 goes on to speak of Christ in human form further humbling himself in obedience to the Father by giving his life on the cross, for which God exalted Him and gave him the name that is above every name. Then echoing Isaiah 45:23 that speaks of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing to God, Paul says that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess “that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philp 2:11). There’s no good reason to think that this would mean Lord in a lesser sense than Hebrews 1:10-11. I told my guests that I finally did what this passage calls us to do. I humbled myself and confessed Jesus as Lord in the highest sense of the term and put my faith in Him as such even though exactly how it is so is beyond my full comprehension.

The gentleman carrying the little yellow book objected and said that this was a very controversial passage. I said that anything can be made complicated and claimed to be controversial, but that doesn’t make it so. “What name would be above every other name?” I asked. After a moment of hesitation I said what about what Jesus says of Himself in John 8? There in an argument with the religious leaders who had scolded him for saying he saw Abraham, Jesus said, “Before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:58 NET). My guest objected that Jesus was simply claiming preexistence, not to be God. Their NWT does render the last phrase “I have been” rather than “I am”, but it is most certainly wrong to do so. Without dispute the Greek manuscripts clearly show that “I am” is the proper translation of ego eimi, which is clearly the present tense indicative form. “I am” may sound odd because it is grammatically incorrect if Jesus was simply saying that he preexisted Abraham as an angel or lesser divine being, but it makes perfect sense if Jesus was in fact claiming for Himself the name of God that was revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3:14) as the negative reaction of the religious leaders would indicate. When I pointed out that the Greek was clearly present tense indicative, he began to try to rationalize it in another way and I gently called him on it.

That’s really the issue. As I explained to them before and as I explained to them at this point again, it’s not that the Scriptures don’t really teach us that Jesus Christ is God; the problem is that how this is so in a metaphysical sense is beyond our comprehension and in pride we assume that because it doesn’t make sense to us then it can’t possibly make sense at all. This is an example of when we love to exalt our reason and logic above the revelation of God in the Bible. Jesus is not only revealed to be Lord and God in the highest sense of those terms in a few statements in a few passages, but also in the way he acted and the way he spoke. When Jesus said things like “You have heard that it was said, but I say unto you” (i.e. Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5) and “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 KJV), he was speaking with an authority far greater than the ordinary prophet. Ordinary prophets would simply say, “Thus saith the Lord” or call people to return to the Lord not to them. Jesus, however, speaks without reference to a higher authority and calls people to Himself. Jesus divinity is also revealed when he calms storms on the sea (Matt 8 & Matt 14) and walks on water (Matt 14), powers that are attributed to Jehovah God in the Old Testament (see Psalm 107:28-29 & Job 9:28). When his disciples in wonder asked, “What manner of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” The answer isn’t a semi-divine angel, but as the Psalm indicates the correct answer is that He is the Lord, Jehovah, or as Matthew would say, Emmanuel, which means God with us.

There is much more I could have told my guests and much more I could say here, but I hoped to get them to see that the problem is not that the Bible doesn’t really teach that Jesus is God, but that we have a hard time humbling ourselves to the reality of Someone Who is so far beyond our comprehension. It takes humility to have that kind of faith.

Of course they continued to throw out the standard objections, “If Jesus was God then who did he pray to?” “If Jesus was God then why did he say the Father is greater than him?” (John 14:28). The misunderstanding with the first may be cleared up by recognizing a couple of different things about the Trinity and about the incarnation. First, the Trinity is NOT teaching that the Father is the Son and the Son is the Father. They share the same divine nature with all of the attributes of divinity including omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence and they share the same will, but they are eternally distinct persons who act in coordination with one another but also in distinct ways. John 1:1 indicates as much when it speaks of the Word being “with God” and at the same time simply stating that “the Word was God.” There is a real unity but also a real distinction in the persons. As someone has said, God is one what and three Who’s. So the persons can and do communicate with each other, hence the Son praying to the Father. The other reality is that Trinitarians also recognize the full humanity of Jesus. He truly became human, and as a human he could and would pray to the Father as well. Both of these realities could also explain why Jesus said the Father is greater. First the Father could be considered greater in terms of their roles in salvation history, but still equal in terms of nature and divine attributes. A boss, for example, could be considered greater than an employee in terms of her roll within a company, but equal in terms of their shared humanity. Another way to think about it is that the Father would be greater in light of the incarnation. That is in terms of Jesus human nature. Either is a plausible solution to the paradox we find in Scripture that Jesus is both equal with the Father as we have seen and somehow less than the Father. Anyway, for what it’s worth, I also shared with my guests that I eventually realized that in the past I wasn’t really arguing against the Trinity. The arguments that I made and that they were making and that their little yellow book makes is actually against an ancient heresy called modalism, which Trinitarians also reject.

Again the problem is not that the Bible really doesn’t teach that Jesus is God. The problem is the all too human tendency to pride that causes us to exalt our limited human reason above Divine revelation. The former, without the healing balm of the gospel and the guiding light of the Bible, John Wesley called “the blind leader of the blind” (Sermons, Vol. 1, p. 209). I also shared with my guests that it is equally wrong to exalt tradition above Scriptural revelation as well, a point with which they readily concurred. It is also wrong to exalt one’s own personal experience or feelings above the word of God. In terms of authority, in the Methodist tradition this is often called the Wesleyan quadrilateral, but is more accurately seen as “a unilateral rule of Scripture within a trilateral hermeneutic of reason, tradition, and experience” (Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace, p. 46). I’m not sure what may come of it, but I am thankful for the opportunity to witness to Jehovah’s Witnesses and bear witness to the light, “the true light, who gives light to everyone” (John 1:5 NET). May their hearts also be flooded with that light as mine was almost 9 years ago; and may they too confess by the Holy Spirit that truly Jesus is their Lord and their God (John 20:28) in the highest sense of those terms to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Can we stop making excuses for small churches?

Can we stop making excuses for small churches?

I’m tired of being lulled by the matrix that is religion into an acceptance of the status quo in the Church, whatever the denomination.  We are reminded again and again that the vast majority of churches in America are classified as “small churches” (less than 100 people in attendance) as if being told this fact enough times will help shield me, the pastor, from feelings of ineffectiveness.   I can easily become content that I’m “average” or “normal” just like the majority of churches in America.

And so long as I’m comparing myself to the church down the corner or in the next city, that will work.   But it doesn’t work when I compare myself to God’s standard for his church.

When I read my bible I read about a God whose heart breaks for the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.   I read about a God who desires that none be lost but that all will be saved.  I read about a God who wants his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.  I read about a God who says fantastic things to me and you like,

‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.’ (Luke 14:23).

The God we find in scripture is not content with a small church.  And for most of our history since Pentecost God has not had a small church.  Just open the book of Acts and watch as God adds thousands each day to the messy, uneducated, Spirit-filled band of disciples who called themselves the ekklesia,or church, meaning those who are called out.

Church, by God’s definition then, is always a group of people growing in both faith and number as they are continually going out into the world to make disciples of Jesus, compelling the world to come in so that God’s house will be full.

It’s really difficult to imagine that Jesus died on a cross so that we could have a place to gather on Sunday mornings without the purpose and intention of seeing people who do not know Jesus join us next Sunday.  And then some more yet again the next Sunday.  And the next.  And…well, you get the idea.

If we as Christians – whether clergy or lay – are doing our job as the church we should never remain a small church because we are always going out as those called out by the God who calls all to Himself.

So perhaps here it would do well to define what a “small church” is, at least as I see it.  A “small church” is a church that has not seen any growth in the past year. It could be a church of any numerical size but yet not a single conversion.  Not a single baptism.  Not a single life changed.

Such a gathering is not a church and we need to stop making excuses for such places.  We need to stop encouraging nostalgic sympathies among long-time Christians and instead encourage them to grow up and get out into the world to take part in the mission to which God has called them.  The only reason a church should remain “small” is because everyone within a 30 mile radius of your building is already saved.   But so long as there are people around us dying and going to hell we need to stop pandering to our own desires of what a church should or shouldn’t be and instead compare ourselves with the moving, holy, unpredictable, messy, flourishing, vital, magnetized Church of Jesus Christ that we read about in the New Testament.

Anything less than this is, in my humble opinion, an offense to the Lord of the Church, the one who died to birth it.  So rather than making excuses let us instead spur one another on to good works. Let us encourage one another to get out into the harvest and get to work bringing it in, for our Lord says it’s plentiful!  Let us pray for revival in our communities, that God would raise up leaders and workers who can help us reach the lost and disciple the found.   Let us pray that this take root in each of our own hearts.

Praying with and for you, and all our Sunday places of worship, that we may truly be the church, and therefore, anything but small.

Just do your job: Make Disciples #UMC

Just do your job: Make Disciples #UMC

That’s our job.  Jesus handed it to us when he ascended to heaven.  It’s the mission God entrusted to us, the church, while we await his return.   One day I will have to answer for how well or how poorly I sought out and made disciples of Jesus Christ.

Several months ago I was convinced that it was really hard to make disciples when my denomination couldn’t seem to agree on what a disciple looks like.   And it’s true, we seem to be at odds, at least from a global perspective, when it comes to defining sin and marriage and what a life of holiness should look like.  Perhaps it’s a sign of my own weakness, but when I spend time gazing at the state of the church from a global point of view I get dizzy.   I lose air.  I find it very difficult up in the stratosphere to see how any of this can or will work out.   This is only one of the many reasons I would make a pitiful God (despite my constant striving to be that) – I can’t shoulder all the mess and brokenness that is the Church.

But God – the one true God – can.

He shouldered it on the cross.  He shoulders it today, as Jesus is living and always interceding on behalf of his Bride.  Because Jesus is the Savior of the church I don’t have to be it.   A few months ago I came to that realization and I have to say, it’s been such a relief!   I do not have to save the church.   Say that with me:

I do not have to save the church.

God has done it and is doing it and will do it.  When I understand this and live into this I come down out of the dizzy-headed stratosphere and I find myself in a local congregation situated in a community where God placed me and has graciously gifted me in certain ways to do the work of seeking the lost and making disciples of Jesus Christ.   That’s my job.  That’s your job.  Wherever you are.

When I am busy having breakfast and lunch appointments with dreamers from my local church, or meeting with addicts on Thursday night who hunger and thirst for freedom, or hold the hand of an elderly woman in a nursing home, or pray with the sick in the hospital, or study for this Sunday’s sermon, or gear up for a community wide Trunk or Treat this weekend, or visit a neighbor and offer them some food I find that my heart is full to bursting and my joy is complete.   When I get my head out of the clouds and focus on making disciples – interacting with people who are flesh and blood and right in front of me – I find the cares I had when I tried to save the church melt away.

God’s got that.  He’s given me this.

I have this hunch that grows increasingly stronger that if each and every one of us would put our hand to the plow and get to work in our communities where real people are dying and going to hell (sidebar:  If a vein just bulged on your  forehead and you yelled at the screen, “Yeah, but so many of my colleagues don’t even believe in hell!” then take a deep breath and say this aloud again:  I don’t have to save the church) then we would see the Holy Spirit move in ways we cannot begin to imagine.    We would see revival break out in our streets if we would just offer Christ to the people around us rather that bicker and complain and grumble about what people we don’t even personally know are doing.

I am preaching to myself as much as to anyone else here, but stop blaming everyone else for the state of the church and look instead in the mirror, repent for the sloth that is so easily dressed up as righteous-indignation-over-the-internet, and get to work.   The harvest is plentiful, says our Lord, and he called you and I to bring it in.  Just do it.

Make disciples.

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