How to pray for a hurting, and hurtful, world

I first blogged about this prayer on September 11, 2013,  on my blog dealing with addiction.    With the recent terrorist attacks and the calls for Christians to pray for those in power, those affected, and those who have caused and plan to cause pain, I thought it worth sharing again.

The Mercy Prayer is a prayer I learned while at Pure Life, developed and taught by Rex Andrews.   This prayer has transformed my life in numerous ways, from finding freedom from compulsive behavior, getting through a bad day, and even growing to love those who hurt me.  The reason is because this prayer, if prayed often, helps to transform one’s mind from being consumed with self to one that is consumed with the thoughts of God – and God’s thoughts towards others are driven by mercy (see Hosea 6:6 and Matt. 9:13).   God’s will for you and I is mercy.

What is mercy?  Rex Andrews defines it as the following:

MERCY is God’s supply system for every need everywhere. Mercy is that kindness, compassion and tenderness, which is a passion to suffer with, or participate in, another’s ills or evils in order to relieve, heal and restore.  It accepts another freely and gladly as he is and supplies the needed good of life to build up and to bring to peace and keep in peace. It is to take another into one’s heart just as he is and cherish and nourish him there. Mercy takes another’s sins and evils and faults as its own, and frees the other by bearing them to God. This is the Glow-of-love. This is the anointing.

You can see by this definition why Jesus is God’s grand display of Mercy.   He took upon himself our sins as his own and bore them to God.

beggar

This is why praying the following mercy prayer is so important.  It nurtures within our minds – long corrupted from habitual sin, pride, and pleasing ourselves – the mind of Christ, who, though in “the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant…”(Phil. 2:5-8).     When we pray the prayer of mercy we are “renewing our minds” (Rom. 12:1-2) to be like that of Christ, and laying our flesh aside in favor of the life of the Spirit.

When I am stressed, angry, when my will is being crossed, when I don’t know how to pray for someone who comes to mind, when temptation arises, or when I have free time and don’t know what to do with myself, I pray this prayer.    When you ask me to pray for you, this is what I am most likely praying.  When my enemies seem to be rising up against me and I know my only weapon is prayer, I pray this prayer.    Learn this prayer and pray it. It will change your life!     But first, a warning…..

YOU WILL NOT WANT TO PRAY IT! 

This is not a prayer that anyone, in their natural state, desires to pray.   It will make every part of your flesh scream against it and devise excuses to avoid it.   But I wonder what would happen if we put these words to use as our united petition to God regarding the pain we so often see around us today.  Not only in the streets of Paris but in our own backyards, in our churches, in our homes.

In the blanks below, what if we inserted the names of our national leaders?   What if we inserted the word “refugees” or even the word “terrorist” or “ISIS”?   What if you inserted the name of the person or entity which fills you with the most fear or anger?

Pray this prayer.  Pray it often.   Pray parts of it or all of it.  Pray, and watch how God moves when his people pray mercy over all his works (Psalm 145:9).

Mercy Prayer

1) Lord, I thank You for_________.

I thank You for saving him/her/them. Thank you for what You have done and are doing in his/her/their life.

2) Make__________ to know Jesus (more). Help him/her/them to increase in the knowledge of God. Destroy speculation and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and help him/her/them to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

3) Make__________ poor in spirit. Bring him/her/them down Lord, but please do it gently. Help him/her/them to see their neediness. Help him/her/them to see themselves in light of You. Put him/her/them in their rightful place Lord.

4) Fill ___________ with Your Holy Spirit. Immerse him/her/them in Your Spirit Lord. Come to them in power and in might. Baptize him/her/them in fire Lord.

5) Life___________.

Life him/her/them according to Thy loving-kindness. Pour out Your life giving mercies into his/her/their soul.

6) Bless__________. Lord, bless him/her/them in everything he/she/they touches. Bless him/her/them spiritually, physically, and financially. Bless their loved ones. Do for him/her/them Lord, instead of me.

7) Mercy__________.

Flood him/her/them with need-filling mercies. Pour them out in super abundance. Find and meet every need in his/her/their life as You see it Lord.

Advertisements

How #PlannnedParenthood Has Convicted Me

Full disclosure:  I’ve not watched the first Planned Parenthood video.   I’ve not read the news.  I have no first hand knowledge of any facts about who has done what.   So what is this about?  It’s about the general principle that tends to defend entities like Planned Parenthood which goes something like this:

The good they do far outweighs the harm.  They are a much-needed resource and therefore we must overlook or attempt to justify the parts we dislike.

The reason this is the most glaring aspect of this story for me is because I see it all too easily in myself and, I suspect, in many of us who follow Jesus.    The reason this argument won’t fly for me with Planned Parenthood is the same reason it will not fly with God when we all one day stand before Him as Judge.

But it is so alluring!   It works so well because deep inside all of us we want it to be true.  We want to believe that the good we do will somehow trump the bad.  We want to believe that the countless people we serve will trump the porn we look at when no one is watching.  We want to believe that the many dollars we give to charity will cover the stinginess with which we give love to our spouse and kids.  We want to believe that the many mouths we feed will surely outweigh the many lusts in which our thoughts indulge.  We want to believe that the many spiritual words we convey through a blog or sermon will cover the words of death or gossip or offense we utter under our breath.

The reason the argument to defend the existence of Planned Parenthood works so well is because we are all doing it on some level or another in our own lives.

Stories abound throughout our scriptures warning us of the futility of this argument.   King Saul is but one example of a man who did all that God commanded but one thing, and lost it all.   He thought his heroic deeds would earn him honor with God but his lack of obedience to all that God required cost him dearly (1 Samuel 15).

Compare Saul’s tepid obedience to that of King Josiah, who instituted total reform in his kingdom upon hearing God’s words, cleansing out any hint of idolatry from the land and the people (2 Kings 23).   Josiah wasn’t fooling around when it came to being right with God.   Everything had to go.   A spring cleaning that left no question as to who was Lord of this house.

Jesus was ruthless when it came to rooting out anything that could hinder the fullness of a life with God.   If your eye causes you to sin gouge it out, he says.  It’s better to enter the kingdom of God missing one part of your body than your whole body be thrown into hell (Matt. 5:29).   In other words, that one part of you that you think is overshadowed by the rest of your good deeds is enough to destroy all of you.

Paul warns that just a little yeast leavens the entire batch (1 Cor. 5:6) which is to say that the things we think are of little consequence will spread like gangrene if we are not vigilant.   Today we might say it’s the little foxes that spoil the vine.

And let us not forget that Jesus warned that just because we call him “Lord” and just because we have fed the hungry and clothed the naked and gave water to the thirsty – just because we have provided many good services to others – we will still be subject to the only judgement that matters: Did we know Jesus and did Jesus know us?

To know Jesus means many things but surely it means at least this:  Knowing that without him I’m dead.   Apart from the shed blood of Jesus Christ I am undone.   I cannot possibly live up to the degree of holiness God demands, at least not this side of heaven.   If I could, there would be no need to groan for a Promised Land to come.   While I believe I’m growing more and more perfect in love of God and neighbor I realize along with it a profound sense of my own brokenness.  The closer I get to my Father in Heaven the more I ought to see my own great need for His Son to be my Savior.   I am utterly and completely reliant on the finished work of the cross where the punishment I deserved was meted out.  It was on that cross that this wretched sinner received amazing grace, and it’s there I must return when I tend to hide behind whatever good I think I’ve accomplished.

I grow weary of living in a culture that laments the killing of a lion while allowing millions of babies to be aborted.  But I am just as weary of the disease in us all that somehow manages to convince me that the more horrified I am at the sins of others the more righteous I appear to both myself and those watching.

Planned Parenthood convicts me because I recognize there are rough areas in my life that I’m trying to compensate for by doing more good.  And that is a fool’s errand. Instead I want to take this opportunity to be like Josiah and see where my life has gathered idols and do a serious spring cleaning.   And where I fall short (and I will) and where I see others fall short (and they will) I want to have on the tip of my tongue and the well spring of my heart the prayer Jesus most commended,

O God, be merciful to me, the sinner (Luke 18:13).

Should evangelicals respond to homosexuality as they do divorce? Yes

An article in the Los Angeles Times, written by Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, argued this past weekend that since evangelicals have conceded with divorce and remarriage that it’s high time they do the same with homosexuality.    It’s not a new argument, and from time to time it gets trotted out as evidence of evangelical hypocrisy.  Why, the left asks, do you extend grace and mercy to those who are divorced and yet refuse to do the same to those who are homosexual?   After all, they continue, Jesus was very clear about the sinfulness of divorce while saying nothing about homosexuality.  

Laying aside, at least here, that at the foundation of this sort of reasoning is this idea that since we excuse one sin we should excuse another, I want to share one way in which I hope Balmer is right, and that those of us who are conservative evangelicals will learn from the ways we evolved over time in our views of divorce and apply the same to homosexuality.

But first, for a great explanation on why divorce and homosexuality are not equivalent, please refer to Russell Moore’s article HERE.  He explains why grace is and ought to be offered to the repentant person who has gone through divorce and how this is different from celebrating a person who sees nothing wrong with pursuing a same-sex sexual relationship.   Even where divorce is accepted it is not celebrated.  No one marches in Divorce Pride parades, and for good reason.

But there is a way in which I hope our response to the sin of homosexuality will mirror our response to the sin of divorce among evangelical circles.  As Balmer points out, where divorce at one time was seen as the unpardonable sin and carried with it so much shame and guilt, today those who are divorced or facing divorce are less afraid to share their pain and struggle.   Today, many churches rightly offer divorce support groups.  Today churches routinely hear members bear witness to how God has healed their past relational brokenness and how their past mistakes serve as lessons for their current relationships.

We recognize how even David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba – where a child was conceived out of wedlock and a murder was committed to cover up the scandal, enabling David to marry his pregnant mistress – God blessed this marriage after David repented of his sin (2 Sam. 12:24-25).   Grace and mercy are always available to the person who repents, no matter how sinful their deed.   Restoration is always God’s desire for us, and it’s available to all who call upon the name of the Lord, surrendering control of their own life to the will of God.

So, overtime, the church has rightly seen fit to offer the same grace and mercy to those who have gone through divorce, even if that divorce was for reasons other than scripture’s permitted one’s.  Likewise, evangelical churches ought to follow suit with regards to homosexuality.   Hopefully one day it won’t be seen as a bigger sin than others.   Hopefully we will provide more and more support for those who confess to same-sex attraction and strive to surrender those desires to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Hopefully the stigma of shame and guilt surrounding homosexuality will dissipate, replaced with environments full of grace and truth, where those struggling can find mutual accountability, love and acceptance.  Just like divorcees experience today.

We are more sensitive to the needs of divorcees today and must become as sensitive to the needs of our brothers and sisters struggling with same-sex desire.  We can do this by repenting of our idealization of marriage as the cure for loneliness and begin preaching and teaching about the virtue of singleness and the joy that can come through a surrendered life to Jesus as our all-in-all over and above a person of either gender.  We can begin to offer support for those who choose faithfulness to God’s word on marriage over the culture’s, and in so doing become a more robust family of God who walks with, eats with, shares with,  prays with and bears with our brothers and sisters choosing celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage as prescribed by God’s original design.

May all of our evangelical churches be seen as hospitals for the broken, where people from all walks of life, with all sorts of struggles, can feel safe to confess those before God and others and be extended the hand of fellowship as we all strive to grow together in holiness, whether divorced, single, married or otherwise.

On not guilting ‘Mericans for loving ‘Merica

Several years ago, while a seminary student and a student pastor of a small rural church, I wrote a blog post around the 4th of July bemoaning how Christians celebrate this day. I said I would not, as my allegiance was to King Jesus alone.

What a bonehead I was.  How self-serving and unloving it was for me to write such a thing, alienating every person in the church and town in which I served as pastor.  My ivory-tower thinking, and the impersonal way I chose to communicate it, did nothing to bring one person to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ or make a disciple.   It only won me the applause of those who read the books I had been reading, who already bought what I was selling.

While telling everyone else not to make an idol of America, I was making an idol of my position.   Those who refused to bow to it were somehow sub-Christian, unlike me and my more progressive friends.

But then I got into the actual work of ministry (as opposed to just writing about it) and learned that out on the front lines the things I was learning in books just didn’t add up.  When I took the time and actually talked to the people I was serving I learned a few things.

None of the people I worshiped with on Sunday were actually worshiping America.  Rather, they were simply grateful for it.  None of them were actually worshiping the flag.  Rather, they were showing respect for it.  None of them were celebrating all the past (and present) sins of our nation, including slavery and segregation and more.  Rather, they were honoring the good that our nation has accomplished in the midst of a world of pain and hurt.   None of them were saying “God bless America” because they desired to be better than all other nations or, even worse, rule the world.  Rather, they were remembering that any good thing we have comes by God’s grace and as Abraham was blessed to be a blessing to nations, they desire to be used in the same way.   None of these people were idolizing war or those who fought and died in war.  Rather, they were honoring men and women who under seemingly impossible odds made the ultimate sacrifice – sacrifices far too many of us today take for granted and cannot even begin to comprehend.

In all these ways no gross sin or idolatry was being paraded  but rather a rich tradition of thanksgiving, joy, celebration, honor and remembrance was and is taking place.  In all this, the people of God were being very much biblical, giving thanks in all things and rejoicing with those who rejoice, while even mourning with those who mourn.  These were, and are, real people with real stories with real legacies.   Shame on me, or any of us, for raining on that parade with our pride.

Today, I do not apologize for being patriotic, for asking God to bless America, or for celebrating this day which declared our independence from imperial rule.  I do, however, apologize for how in the past I made others feel guilty for their American pride while I blogged from my privileged bunker armed with a Mac Book and a seminary degree.

Today I would gladly trade theological pride for American pride.   Pride in my theological position never won a single person to the ultimate freedom found in Jesus Christ.  Pride in America, however, has opened many avenues for me to talk with everyone else in the world who hasn’t read Yoder or Hauerwas (turns out that’s most of the world), making me “one of them so that I might win some.”

So, today I choose to celebrate rather than make others feel guilty for loving ‘Merica.  Today I choose to rejoice and wave flags and light fireworks and eat good food alongside the many people who I pray will be worshiping with me tomorrow morning as we gather for the Lord’s Day.  My hunch is they will find their way to churches led by people celebrating life with them over those who, like I once did, remind them annually at this time how much bigger my thinking is than theirs.

God bless America, and America bless God!

Dear Heterosexual Struggler, you are not forgotten

It’s been almost a week since the Supreme Court voted to make gay marriage legal in every state.   The vote was 5-4, mirroring what I’m noticing the in the news and on social media:  5 out of every 4 discussions are about gay marriage (let that sink in for a moment).

The fact that this issue has so captivated mainstream thought and life is quite impressive. Why?  Because according to a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013, only 3.4% of Americans self-identify as gay, lesbian or bi-sexual.   In this study, 96.6% of Americans identified themselves as straight.   What is so impressive is how the sex lives of 3 out of every 100 people has so captivated our consciousness, both within and without the Christian community.

It got me thinking:  What about the other 97% of us?  It can feel as though we have been forgotten.   It can feel as though our struggles and our sins are of little consequence.  With the spotlight so intensely focused on what 3% of the population is doing behind closed doors it’s easy to minimize or even justify our own struggles.

With 97% of Americans uninterested in marrying someone of the same sex it seems strange that 97% of our conversations about sex have little to do with what we are struggling with, such as….

Pornography

I wish 5 out of every 4 discussions were about this rather than gay marriage.   While we obsess over the 3%, consider these statistics regarding pornography

  • The porn industry generates 13 billion dollars in revenue in the US alone.
  • 1 in 5 mobile searches are for pornography
  • 69% of the internet pay-per-view market is pornography
  • 51% of pastors say pornography is a real temptation
  • 64% of Christian men and 15% of Christian women say they watch porn at least once a month
  • 71% of teens hide online behavior from their parents
  •  9 out of 10 boys and 6 out of 10 girls are exposed to pornography before age 18
  • Average age of first exposure: 12
  • 68% of young adult men and 18% of young adult women use porn weekly.

This sin, legal to view and purchase everywhere, affects every one of us.  The struggle is real, and it is destroying more families and lives than gay marriage ever could.  Our nation’s legalization of gay marriage pales in comparison to the overwhelming acceptance of pornography in our culture and our silence addressing it.

Premarital Sex

Even before pornography began to flourish with the advent of the Internet, virtually everyone was having sex outside of marriage.  A study published by the USA Today in 2006 showed that 9 in 10 women born in the 1940’s had premarital sex.  The median age in 2003 of those having sex for the first time was 17.  Of those interviewed in 2002, 95% said they had sex before marriage.

According to one study, 61 percent of Christians said they would have sex before marriage. Fifty-six percent said that it’s appropriate to move in with someone after dating for a time between six months and two years.

While everyone is talking about who 3% of our population is now allowed to marry, the church has often failed to offer to the struggling rest of us a healthy, positive view of sex and why God intends it to be reserved for marriage.

Sexting

While we as a nation focus on who can and cannot get married, our youth are floundering as we turn blind eyes and hearts to their struggle.   Sexting, which is sending sexually explicit material through mobile devices, is a growing phenomenon among both youth and adults.  40% of all teenagers have sent and received sexual material through their phones.  You can read more stats here, and this CNN article suggests that over 60% of youth are using apps on their phones to send sexually suggestive material.  It’s worth checking out, parents, to learn ways to safeguard your kid’s online behavior.

I know firsthand the reality of these struggles, and know all too well the pain they bring to bear on all of one’s relationships.  Even more, I know the guilt and shame surrounding these behaviors and I know how easy it is to minimize and justify these things because they are done in secret.  Because so few will admit they struggle in these areas, and because the church spends so much time talking about the 3% rather than the other 97%, shame and guilt abound.

The church, when operating as she ought, is a hospital for the broken.  She is to be the place where sinners like you and I, the 100% of us, can be real about our struggles without fear of being shamed or judged so that we might discover the transforming power of grace at work in each of our lives, healing our brokenness and restoring our communion with God and each other.

This is not to say the church has nothing to say about marriage, or shouldn’t address the 3% of our population, but it is to say that as we look at the landscape of sexuality around us, we must admit we are deeply broken and in desperate need of healing.   Ever since The Fall we have been this way.  As I read Scripture, it says that judgment begins in the church, not upon those outside of it (1 Cor. 5:12).  Perhaps the most faithful and God-honoring thing we can do at such a time as this is to look within ourselves and bring to the cross our own struggles and sexual brokenness.   Perhaps the best thing we can do as a church is to beat our chests and cry out, “Have mercy on me, Oh Lord, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

As a pastor of a church, I want to be sure we are offering places of healing for all people, no matter what their struggle.  I don’t want to see us become so fixated on one sin that we forget that we are all sexually broken.  We all need healing.  We all need to have our minds renewed.  We all need to lay our sexual selves down at the altar and offer our bodies to God as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2).   We all must remember that our bodies our not our own, but have been bought with a price, and we are to therefore honor God with how we use them.

The only sense in which “all means all,” a line often used by those fighting for affirmation and acceptance, is truly accurate is in the sense that we are all broken and are all in need of a Savior who not only can forgive us, but can transform our desires into holy affections, pleasing to God and for the glory of His name.

So to the 97% of us out there who are struggling, please know you are not forgotten amid the cacophony of voices, both gleeful and despairing, over gay marriage.  And you are far from being alone.  I hope you’ll seek out a church this weekend to offer up your own struggle to the lover of your soul, and find a brother or sister to walk alongside you as you both recommit to surrendering your bodies, and what you do with them, to God.

Christian, how will you respond to #SCOTUS decision on gay marriage?

Today the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of same-sex marriage across the land.  My Facebook and Twitter feed, like yours, is blowing up over it.   Reactions range from despair to glee.  In the words that follow I want to offer my personal feelings on this decision and how I believe Christians are called to respond.

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:4-7)

My initial reaction was to turn to Paul’s advice to the church, one that was living under the thumb of a corrupt and godless empire, and to rejoice.   Rejoice not because a decision was reached that I agree with but rejoice because in all things, whether good or bad, Jesus is still Lord, he is has defeated sin and death, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again.   I rejoice because this ruling, like so many other things this life throws our way, proves God is true.

What does that mean?   It means that when Jesus promised us there would be trouble in this world (John 16:33) he was correct.  It means that when Jesus promised that this world would hate us (Matt. 10:22, John 15:18) he wasn’t mistaken. It means that when Paul wrote the the last days would be marked by disobedience and sacrilege (2 Tim. 3:1-2) he was right.

The events of today are only further proof that God’s word is true.   It is reason to rejoice!  And if these things are true, so are the promises that Jesus will one day return.  And so are the warnings for we Christians to remember that we are but mere sojourners in this land.  This is not our final home, and while we are here we must guard our hearts from becoming entangled with the cares of this world (Heb. 13:14; 1 Peter 2:11).

Paul’s advice to the Christians at Philippi is what sets the Christian apart from the world.  How will people who have been transformed by the resurrected Christ respond in the wake of adversity, trials and oppression?  How will they react to their enemies, perceived or real?   They will rejoice. They will be considerate of everyone.  They will not worry or be anxious.   They will pray.   They will place their hopes and fears and trust and distrust into the hands of God who holds all things together. None of this has taken Him by surprise.

This means I will choose to pray rather than post on Facebook my despair or glee.  I will choose to rejoice rather than grow bitter or fearful.  I will choose to be considerate of those with whom I might disagree and entrust them and the future of our nation into the hands of my heavenly Father.

To be a biblical Christian in this world means more than just having right opinions about marriage.  It also means obedience to the many commands which tell Christians how to respond to trials, as hard as that may be.

So, Christian, what will it be?  Will you rejoice and pray and allow God to be God or will you reveal that your real hope and trust lies not in the Supreme Judge of the Universe but in the Supreme Court of one nation?

Sin makes even our breath stink

“For false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.” (Psalm 27:12)

I’m reading a wonderful book of daily meditations on Psalm 27 called A Shelter in the Time of Storm by Paul David Tripp.  Today’s reading focused on the above verse, capturing well the degree to which sin has so corrupted the world around us and within us that we can actually exhale violence.   We have fallen so far from God’s original intention for the world, for our relationships, for our selves, that our very breath betrays us.

Paul Tripp writes,

Sin isn’t about human beings being basically okay and just needing a little tweaking in order to be what they were meant to be and do what they were meant to do.   No, the damage of sin reaches to every area of our personhood, deeply altering what we think and what we desire.

Everything we think and everything we desire is tainted by this thing called sin.  The divine verdict that Scripture repeats again and again is not that we are good people who sometimes do bad things but that we are spiritually and physically dead people who need resurrection.   God is not interested in making better people but new people (2 Cor. 5:17).

When I forget this, or when the church forgets this, I cheapen grace.   I remember a time during my seminary days when I resisted the doctrine of original sin – that we are all born into sin and every facet of our being is corrupted by it.   Because my greatest concern was offending other people, I relegated original sin to social justice issues and worldly systems of oppression.   Sin, I then concluded, was a force to be reckoned with out there, and the church was the means God intended to use to fight it.

Any good lie always contains an element of truth.  The bible teaches that the enemy disguises himself as a “angel of light” and his servants as “angels of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15).  I was blind to it at the time, but without the knowledge and humble acceptance that my heart is deceitfully wicked (Jer. 17:9) and my breathe is laced with violence I marched on, battling the sin that is out there while ignorant of the sin that was in me.   And since I was blind to the sin in me, I could not and would not preach or teach on the sin residing in the heart’s of everyone God entrusted to my care.  That, in my “angel of light” thinking, would be offensive.  But this sort of thinking is akin to being under the care of a doctor who will address all the symptoms of one’s cancer without ever attacking and eradicating the cancer itself for fear of offending the patient by telling him or her there is something inside of you destroying you.  Tripp says this about sin…

Its effect is so pervasive and so comprehensive that it influences everything we do and everything we say.  It causes us to think, desire, choose, say, and do things that are the polar opposite of the way we were created to function. So, we don’t actually love our neighbor.  No, we’re jealous of him, or we see him as an obstacle in the way of what we want, or we treat him as an adversary, or we ignore him altogether.  And we don’t love God with our whole hearts.  No, we put creation in his place. We’d rather have the temporary pleasure of physical things than the eternal satisfactions that can be found only in him.  Sin causes us to place ourselves at the center of our universe.  Sin causes us to be obsessed with what we feel, what we want, and what we think we need.

My thinking changed when I desired to be more concerned over offending God than I am offending people.  When I minimize the totalitarian way in which sin effects not only the world around me but the world within me I offend God because I ignore his word which declares this truth regarding my condition and I minimize the glorious, trans-formative power and need for grace.

I cannot begin to comprehend the magnitude of God’s grace without first reckoning with the stench of my own breath.  I cannot appreciate the power of God’s grace without acknowledging the depravity of my own thoughts, feelings, desires, words and deeds.

Tripp concludes today’s meditation this way…

In light of the fact that sin brings all of us to the point that we exhale violence in some form at some time, it’s amazing how much peace and cooperation exist in our relationships.  What’s the explanation for this apparent contradiction?  It can be said in one word: grace. There’s not a day where you and yours are not protected by the most powerful, protective, and beneficial force in the universe – the grace of God.  Every situation, every location, and relationship you’re in every day is made livable and tolerable by his grace. In the majesty of his love, God causes his grace to restrain us, just as he causes the sun and the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust.

There are times while in prayer that I shudder as I imagine what my life and this world would look like should God withdraw his hand of grace.   The chaos and pain and degree of wickedness that would result from such a withdrawal would eclipse anything we have witnessed thus far or could imagine. The flood waters of sin would destroy the earth as they did in Noah’s day.

Seeing sin for what it truly is helps me to see grace for what it truly is.  Sometimes I frustrate God’s grace in my life because I rely on my own understanding and make decisions based on the world’s logic and cultural dictates rather than his wisdom.  I can usually catch myself in those moments by asking the question, “Who am I trying to most please or not offend? God or somebody else? Myself?”

Take time today to consider the ravages of sin on us all, and how it distorts every thought and deed we have.   When you do this, I pray your thoughts and words will be turned to praise the One in whom grace abounds, giving you a deeper appreciation for God’s power to hold all things together in Christ, including yourself.

Why Unity should never be the Goal #UMC

As I and many others return home from our annual conferences I imagine the word we heard most often was “unity.”   If not during annual conference then you no doubt have read about or heard a sermon on unity many times in the past year.   Unity, it appears, has become the goal for we who call ourselves United Methodists.   I want to share here why this should never be the case.

I’m reading a wonderful book by Dr. Larry Crabb entitled The Marriage Builder.   About half way through he writes about how to achieve soul oneness with one’s spouse and suggests that the reason so many couples fail to achieve soul oneness is because they do not understand that goals and desires are not the same thing, or worse yet (and more likely) they mistakenly believe that their desires are goals and vice versa.

Dr. Crabb defines a goal as an objective that is under my control.   When reaching an objective requires that I do certain things, that objective can reasonably be called a goal.  In relation to marriage, ministry to one’s spouse can be a reasonable (and healthy!) goal.   One can choose to minister to another regardless of the way one feels or how the recipient responds.

A desire, on the other hand, is an objective that I may legitimately and fervently want, but cannot reach through my efforts alone.  A desire requires the uncertain cooperation of people and forces outside of myself.  In relation to marriage, a husband may desire that his wife be more attentive to his needs but to make it his goal to change her is to assume a power he does not have.   To make this his goal, he must think in terms of his response to her rather than her response to anyone else.

Whether we perceive our objective as a goal or a desire makes a world of difference in how we live.  If, for example, my objective is that it rain today, I will only end up frustrated and angry when I go about trying to make it rain and fail (or, on the off chance it does rain I will become full of pride in my delusion of success).   All I can do is pray that the One who is in control will allow my objective to become realized.

A legitimate goal, on the other hand, can be reached through my efforts.  I may not feel like doing what is necessary to reach my goal, but I can do it if I choose.  My desire may be that it rain, but my goal is that my lawn receives water.   I can choose to go to the store and buy a sprinkler to water my lawn.  I may not want to drive to the store and spend the money, but I can choose to do so if I wish to reach my goal.

Dr. Crabb goes on to say that the proper response to a desire, then, is prayer.  To a goal, the appropriate response is a set of responsible actions.  A good principle to remember:

Pray for your desires and assume responsibility for your goals.

What is true for marriage is true for the church.   Because unity requires the uncertain cooperation of people and forces outside of ourselves it is a legitimate desire but an illegitimate goal.   It is something that can be hoped for only.   We can pray for unity, as Jesus did in John 17, but if we make it our goal we will only end up frustrated and angry, and even worse, missing our God-given goals.

So what is the goal?  Throughout scripture the goal is always faithfulness.   Faithfulness to God’s truth.   Faithfulness to the church. Faithfulness to our spouse. Faithfulness to one another.  Faithfulness is a legitimate goal because you and I can choose today to do what is necessary to remain faithful.   We may not feel like it, and many times it may inconvenience us, but if our goal is to be faithful to God we will make the necessary choices and sacrifices to achieve our objective.

In the church in which I serve, I desire greatly that we be united but if that were my goal it would cause me to do many things that would be unfaithful to God’s higher calling.   I wonder if those who have been making unity the goal of the United Methodist Church would change how they do church in order to cater to the desires of someone deciding they are leaving their church?  If unity is our goal, we will fall prey to and become servants of the shifting sands of desire.   Unity is a terrible goal, but a healthy desire.

The wonderful thing about faithfulness is that it oftentimes begets unity.   As the Holy Spirit was poured out into the early church, we find they were devoting themselves to the apostles teaching and worship and fellowship.  They were choosing to be faithful in the things they had control over.  And when they did this, God showed up, bringing “awe” and “wonders and signs” and then, and only then, do we find that they were united, having all things in common.

Many of us in the United Methodist Church have mistakenly made unity our goal.  It’s a bad goal. A legitimate and healthy goal is faithfulness.  If and should we make faithfulness our goal, we will find people remaining faithful to God, to the church, to the orders of elders and deacons whom we are in covenant with, and to the vows we made when we became United Methodists.  We will do this even when we do not feel like it or when it costs us something.   And as we are being faithful, we may pray fervently for unity, and wait with hopeful expectation that God will show up and give us the desires of our heart.

Let us pray for our desires and assume responsibility for our goals.

Why I love being (and need to be) a Methodist #UMC

There are many ways the body of Christ talks about how to do life with Jesus.  This is evidenced by the number of denominations that exist and will continue to exist until Christ returns and we learn that all of us were right about some things and wrong about many others and that the one thing we all have in common is our desperate need for a Savior.   But of the many denominations there is a reason I love being a Methodist in the Wesleyan tradition.

I love being a Wesleyan Methodist because when we are our best and connected to our roots we believe passionately that God is not done with any of us yet.

In theological terms we call this the work of sanctification, or growing in holiness, or Christian Perfection.  It is, for Wesleyan’s, the thing which sets us apart from many other ways of following Jesus, insisting that salvation is holistic and ongoing.  The doctrine of Christian Perfection, rightly understood, insists (even against evidence to the contrary) that the root of sin in all of us can be put to death.  We can become not better people but new people through and by the grace of God (2 Cor. 5:17).

This grace of God is to us not just a gift from God that forgives us of our wrong doing but also an empowerment by the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead to resist the devil, flee from sin and change our very natures.    But why do I need that?  Because we believe as Methodists that all of us are born in sin and every facet of the image of God within us has been effaced.  Our will, our intellect, our desires, our reason  – all of it – have been dulled by sin.  We are all broken and in desperate need of a Savior.

This is why we are such a grace-filled church.  We don’t expect you to be perfect.  We don’t expect you to come to us without struggles.  We don’t expect you to be without desires that elicit shame and guilt or that fly in the face of God’s perfect plan.   We don’t expect you to be cleaned up because all of us come to God as beggars in need of grace.

But we don’t stop there.  Or should I say, when we are at our best as Wesleyan Methodists we don’t stop there.   Rather, we claim that while Jesus accepts us just as we are he did not die that we should remain as we have been.    We hold out before one another a vision of being transformed from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).    We insist that holiness, or growing in the likeness of God, is the destiny for each and every person called of God.   We confess our great need for sanctifying grace to change our hearts – our will, our intellect, our desires, our reason – so they they will conform more to the image of God tomorrow than they have today.

And because salvation is holistic, it encompasses not just our mind and soul and heart but also our bodies.  What we do with our bodies matters to God.  We have been bought with a price and are not our own to do with as we please (1 Cor. 6:20).

I love that as a Wesleyan Methodist I am never told that my desires are always right and holy but that they must daily be surrendered on the altar of Self.  I must daily offer up my self to the God who is not finished with me yet or with any of the people I encounter whether they be my wife and kids or my congregants or the random person whom I meet in the store.

The degree to which transformation can occur in me and in which God can be glorified through that process is the degree to which I agree with God that what He desires trumps my desires, what He wills trumps my will, what He thinks trumps my thoughts, what He reasons trumps my reason.   For us Wesleyan Methodists, that is what it means to die to self, take up our cross daily, and live as slaves to righteousness.

I need that vision of the gospel for my own life and I believe the world is crying out for it, too.  Wesleyan Methodists, at their best, offer a hope of transformed lives from the inside out which then transforms the world into places where the holiness of God is made manifest.  Should we as a church ever cease to boldly proclaim such a vision, I, and I’m sure many others, will not cease being Wesleyan Methodists. Rather, the church will have ceased to be what Jesus died to create and the Holy Spirit calls out from among the world.

To Bring Glory to God: #UMC and Homosexuality Debate

Q: What is the chief end of man?

A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.

So begins the Westminster Catechism, written in the 17th century as a means to educate the Church in the faith.  It’s worth noting that of the 107 questions and answers it begins by stating unequivocally what our role as humans is:  To glorify God.  We exist solely for this purpose.

How do we do this?  The second question tackles that:

Q: What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?

A: The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

We exist so that we might glorify God and the only way we know how to do this is through the revealed will of God as stated in the Old and New Testaments of Scripture.

As the United Methodist Church continues to wonder how we can best address the current sexuality debate facing our church, I wonder if it would not do us all well to return to these simple yet profound questions of catechesis.

What is our chief purpose and how do we accomplish it?

Sadly, the chief end of the United Methodist Church appears to be something other than bringing glory and honor to God through fidelity to God’s holy word.  Far too often our chief aim appears to be appeasing the culture around us or a lobby within us or even the noble yet subtly idolatrous goal of church unity.

Today, the Connectional Table of the UMC voted to put forward a proposal to the General Conference, a “Third Way” to move us beyond the impasse in our church regarding homosexuality.   The Rev. Kenneatha Bigham-Tsai, chairperson of one of the subcommittees proposing this “third way”  had this to say about how they came to their decision:

“We believe this proposal will keep everyone at the table, allows for the exercise of conscience, better provides for the inclusion of LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and best maintains the unity of the church.”

Notice what is lacking from the logic behind this decision.   This is but one example of many found in and throughout our church where we – and by “we” I mean both sides of the aisle – have lost sight of our purpose for existence:  To bring glory to God.   Instead we have fallen prey to the always alluring idol of worldly glory, choosing to please the desires of humankind rather than submit to the demands of God.

Unity while forsaking fidelity to God’s rule is rebellion.

This disease is rampant in our church and our current struggle is but one of many ways in which it manifests.   Far too often pastors and leaders in the church organize around the wrong question.  We ask how might we make the folks we serve happy or how we might increase our attendance or how we might slow our decline when the first and primary question we need to ask ourselves is how well are we glorifying God?  How well am I conforming my life, my thoughts, my will, my desires, my hopes, my words to the rule of God as set forth in the Old and New Testaments?   How much am I submitted to God’s ideas over my own or yours?

So long as we make decisions based on polling or money or lobbies or probability of fallout we will fail not just as a denomination but as human beings.  We will fail to live up to our chief end which is to bring glory to God.  It’s fascinating to me that the Westminster Catechism was written as a means to help bring the Church of England into greater conformity with the Church of Scotland.  In other words, their goal was a more unified church.  How did they proceed?  By directing everyone’s goal towards glorifying God.

As we move forward, may we prayerfully consider whether every decision we make and every vote we cast is one that brings glory to God through submission to God’s word.   To do anything else might result in keeping us united but united to the wrong things with the wrong goals and a god that is of our own making rather than the one revealed to us through Scripture.