Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Half-Truth We Tell Our Children

As a culture, we have a way of telling children half-truths.  The one I am thinking about particularly is this: you can be anything, if you just want it bad enough.  The truthful part of this saying is that many of the limitations we encounter in this life are self-imposed.  So, we agree with Henry Ford’s saying, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”  It is also true that people, including coaches, teachers, parents, and peers often underestimate our potential.  And, we also learn from this saying that the difference between those who achieve great things and those who do not has a lot to do with courage, perseverance, and hard work.

But this, I believe, is where the truth of this saying ends.  Whether we like it or not, we are each a finite creature, limited by the mental, physical, and emotional traits with which God has endowed us.  Our particular profile of gifts and limitation lends itself to all kinds of fruitful and creative endeavors. But, our profile limits us as well as equips.

Take, for example, a portion of my profile.  God has given me a good speaking voice.  With this voice, I have had a number of oportunities open to me.  And, that is a gift, which has equipped me for roles, both professional and personal. 

But, let’s look at another part of my profile.  I am short, slow, and a little clumsy.  That means, I am not ever going to be an NBA player.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy basketball.  Neither does it mean that I can’t improve my basketball-playing skills.  But, no amount of hard work or training is going to enable me to become another Lebron James.  

So, in that sense, I cannot be anything I want to be.  I can’t be an NBA star.  It would be delusional to think otherwise.  And, I am not just being hard on myself.  No self-help book, pep-talk, or self-esteem boosting video is going to change that reality. 

So, what’s the bottom line?  I cannot be anything I want to be.  But, I can be anything God’s wants me to be.  I don’t know who first said that, but I heard it first from my friend, Jeff Fuller.  

God is the one who put each one our unique profiles together, and he had something in mind when he made us.  We were made to further the Kingdom of our Heavenly Father.  We were meant to play a creative role in his plans.  That is why Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  I may not be able to do and become anything my heart dreams; but, I can become anything that corresponds with God’s dreams for me.  And when that becomes the desire of my heart, then I will be able to do and become anything my little ol’ heart desires.  

Monday, February 12, 2018

Lenten Devotion: Part 1


As Spring is Born

A Devotional Guide for Lent 2018

Compiled and Edited by Eddie Bromley and Andrea Woods

Ash Wednesday, February 14

Daily Texts: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17; and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Why do Christians give up something for Lent?  

“It is an opportunity for us to have some discipline in our life and to encounter what a sacrifice is.  Through this we have some reminiscences about some of the sacrifices Jesus made for us, but also reminder of what it’s like to yearn for something we don’t have in our lives.” - Sky McCracken

Daily Prayer:  Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

Thursday, February 15

Daily Texts:  Psalm 25:1-10; Daniel 9:1-14; and 1 John 1:3-10

From the cowardice
that dares not face new truth,

From the laziness that is
contented with half truth,

From the arrogance that thinks
it knows all truth,

Good Lord, deliver me.

prayer from Kenya
UMC Hymnal, p. 597

Lent is a time for self-reflection and examination of the soul, a 40-day liturgical season inspired by Jesus’ forty days in the desert when he was coming to understand the role for which God had consecrated him.  Just as Jesus was challenged in that wilderness to confront a number of temptations, we are challenged to face up to the ways in which the world’s claim on us threatens that of God’s.

Spiritual Practice
At the end of the day, pause for a moment of reflection.  How did you recognize God’s presence in your day?  How did you respond to God’s presence?

Friday, February 16 

Daily Texts:  Psalm 25:1-10; Daniel 8:15-25a; and 2 Timothy 4:1-5

“I appreciate knowing that the ashes for Ash Wednesday come from the palms of last year’s Palm Sunday.  It brings full circle the Christian year, and the meaning of Christ throughout the year.  It also brings a sense of reverence to the beginning of the new season.  - Rhonda Murray

Daily Prayer:  Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  

Saturday, February 17

To be forgiven by God feels like having a heavy weight lifted from the shoulders.  It is like cool water that refreshes the face on a hot summer day.  When the soul is freed from the burden of guilt and shame, there is a need to dance like we once danced, when we were young and unconcerned about looking foolish.

Daily Prayer:  Jesus, your word tells us that if we confess our sins, you are faithful to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  May it be so.  Amen.

Sunday, February 18 - The First Sunday in Lent

Daily Texts:  Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22;

Lent began as a season of fasting and preparation for those who had converted to the faith and were preparing for baptism.  “It was also a time when persons who had committed serious sins and had separated themselves from the community of faith were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness” (Book of Worship). Over the course of generations, the people of God began to recognize the need we all have of renewing our faith, and Lent became gradually a season the whole church participated in, as a way of preparing for Easter. 

Question for reflection:  Why do you think that the early Christians began to see a need for all Christians to participate in a season that had originally been meant for those joining the community of faith and for penitents needing to be reconciled to their spiritual family?  

Daily Prayer:  Dear God, there are still parts of me that need to be converted.  There are ways in which I still need to repent.  Hear the cries of my heart and have mercy on me.  In Christ’s name.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Spiritually Bi-Polar

“..when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Titus 3:4-7

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” - Deuteronomy 7:7-8

God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it.  Yet, we act as if the amount of God’s love for us was measured out to us based on how good or bad we have been.  If we have performed well, then we feel very loved; while, if we have performed poorly, we feel less-loved.  But God’s love and his acceptance of us doesn’t work that way.  God’s love for us is based on his unchanging character and his acceptance of us is firmly rooted on what Jesus has done for us.  

Our mind knows this truth, but in our heart, we have a hard time believing it.  Instead, we act as if we have to earn God’s love.  This misunderstanding of God’s love keeps us in a wild flux, moving back and forth between arrogance and self-loathing.  Neither is a healthy state for our soul.  

St. Augustine described sin as being bent in upon one’s self.  Sin is being too focused on ourselves. When we are arrogant (thinking too much of ourself) or self-loathing (thinking poorly of ourselves), we are being self-absorbed.  Both arrogance and self-loathing are a form of sin which harms the soul.  

The Bible offers an alternative called humility.  Humility is not thinking to highly or lowly of ourselves.  Instead, it is about simply taking our focus off of ourselves.  Philippians 2:1-11 tell us how Jesus modeled humility for us.  Jesus knew his self-worth.  He was confident in his identity, as divine Son of God.  Yet, he was willing to take the form of a servant to demonstrate his love for us and to secure our salvation.  

When we know our own worth and God’s love for us, we can then find the freedom that comes from serving others.   This happens because the person whose identity and self-worth are grounded in the security of who God is and what God has done for us is able to break free from the cycle of arrogance and self-loathing.  That person becomes stable and fully whole; and is thus able to be a redemptive agent for others.  

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Judge Not

In our increasingly secular society, one verse from the Bible that has grown in popularity is Matthew 7:1, which reads, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged."  But what does that mean?"
I don't believe that Jesus is telling us that moral evaluation is never appropriate.  If that were the case, his teaching would render impossible all meaningful conversations about ethics and behavior, to say nothing of how it would paralyze our ability to make moral decisions about our own lives. 

Babylon Bee recently ran an article titled, "Woman Uses Airtight 'Judge Not' Defense to Beat Murder Case."  This bit of satire gives us some clue that many people may be confused about what Jesus' words mean.  In the rest of Matthew chapter seven, Jesus goes on to talk about evaluating moral behavior.  As you read the whole chapter in context, you find out that Jesus does not forbid wholesale the idea of making a moral evaluation.

So, what is Jesus saying?  Well, I think that he is warning us about the dangers of a developing an overly-critical spirit.  An overly-critical spirit is a fault-finding spirit.   At first, allowing ourselves to be critical of others is an enticing sin.  It can even be fun to run others down.  But, it is also habit-forming.  It is like poison ivy on the brain.  Once we have given into scratching it, it begins to itch even more. 

Groups are especially vulnerable to this sin.  Once a group starts complaining and picking people apart, it starts gaining momentum and becomes hard to stop. This guilty pleasure begins to cloud our whole way of looking at the world. We begin looking at everything and everyone through cynical, jaded eyes.  Negativity soon becomes the lens through which we see our world.

This is what Jesus is warning us about when he tells us not to judge.  He is warning us about looking at people and the world around us in an overly-critical way.  A heart that cannot see the hope of grace for others will not likely be able to recognize grace when God offers it to us.  Said another way, one who cannot offer grace to others will not be in a posture to receive grace. 

An overly-critical spirit closes us off to grace, leaving us spiritually dead and toxic.  We become something toxic to others, us this spiritual poison pours from our soul to despoil everything around. 
So watch what comes from your mouth.  Jesus says that a need to be negative is a heart problem (See Matthew 15:19 ).  Thankfully, God, through his Son, Jesus, can do something about the heart problem humanity has.  He can make us into gentler, kinder people, who see the world through the eyes of hope and grace (See Ezekiel 11:18-21 and Matthew 5:1-12).   He can turn toxic people into life-giving, positive people, who make the world around them a better place.  

Monday, November 6, 2017

They Need More than Prayers

This fall, North America has faced more than six natural disasters and several human atrocities.   As these terrible events have unfolded, people have taken to social media to organize relief efforts and express their sympathies.  Sadly, Christians have been scolded by their unbelieving friends and family for making comments about praying for those who have been most immediately impacted by the suffering. 

One of these scoldings was made by one my friends, who will remain un-named.  His remark was, "Do something.  They need more than your prayers!"  This comment begs the question.  How does he know that they haven't made other expressions of love, such as monetary contributions or physical relief work?  In short, he doesn't.  He simply assumes that prayer is all that has been offered.  But, even if he is right, so what?

Now, I admit that prayer is a less than a tangible expression of concern.  It is not like sending money or a flood bucket.  But that doesn't mean that it is worthless, any more than any other non-tangible expression of care.

For example, this same friend of mine often expresses his concern by drawing beautiful pictures of people and places.  It is his way of showing that he cares.  Others place candles, flowers, toys, or mementos at the scene of the event.  Others make t-shirts, with sayings like, "We are all Orlando." 

Yet, people like my friend reserve their hurtful comments for religious people, for having the audacity to offer prayers for suffering people. 

So I ask, how do t-shirts, bumper stickers, or drawings help others?  Well, these intangible ways of showing concern help in ways similar to how expressions of prayer help.  They help by communicating to others that they are not forgotten and that people around the nation love them. 

In times of bitter sorrow and polarizing division, can we really afford to criticize any act of good will?  I think not.  With so much hatred going around, we should welcome any act of love, whether tangible or intangible.

"Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you." - Luke 9:50

Friday, May 20, 2016

Dispatch from General Conference 2016

In spite of what you have may have heard, General Conference was actually a great experience.  And, we did not spend the whole time talking about human sexuality. We spent the majority of the time doing the business of the church, including making plans to provide clean water and education for some of the world's poorest communities, forming partnerships on both halves of the Korean Peninsula for the purpose of bringing peace to one of the most divided parts of the world, commissioning missionaries for work around the globe, and much more, as well as some of the more practical and ordinary business of organizing and running a world-wide church that is able to do extraordinary things because of our connection.  

And yes, we did spend some of our time arguing about human sexuality. This led to the body to taking the unprecedented step of asking our bishops to take the lead in helping us find our way to a solution. Our bishops graciously took the challenge and spent many hours praying, debating, and then finally issuing a plan.

That plan includes forming a commission that will include representatives from the various viewpoints within our church.  These men and women, led by our bishops, will explore creating a plan forward that is acceptable to all parties.  

At first, I was disappointed at the  statement from our The Council of Bishops.  I characterized it as kicking the can down the road, choosing to avoid a difficult but necessary conversation about the real divisions within the United Methodist Church.  But, upon reflection, I realized that how we engage in the conversation matters just as much  as making sure we talk about the issues.   Emotions were running too high to have that conversation during the last week of General Conference.  If we had plowed ahead in that climate, we would not have split the church.  We would have shattered it. 

The special commission removes the pressure of time constraints from the conversation so that we can allow cooler heads and calmer hearts to prevail.  In short, it allows us to handle our disagreements as Christians.  Over a course of time we can discuss how we either move forward together or how we can part in a fair and equitable way.  

So what should our congregation make of this?  I see it as a great opportunity.  Our congregation has many conservative people.  But, we also have many wonderful Christians who are more progressive. We have many different viewpoints within our own church.  And, the opportunity, as I see it, is that we have time to focus on what matters most. We have time to think carefully and deeply about those things which unite us, as we prayerfully consider how to be goo partners in the larger conversation our denomination is having. 

And, this is how I prepose for us to do that. First, we are going to focus on what it means to be Wesleyan Christians in the 21st century. Being Wesleyan is not the only way to be a faithful follower of Jesus, but it is our way and the tradition of our part of the Christian family. And, the Wesleyan tribe represents more than 70 million Christians around the world.  So we are going to focus on what it means to be Wesleyan Christians in our day.

We are also going to talk about what it means to simply be Christian.  We are going to spend time exploring the core beliefs that unite the two billion Christians around the world. 

We are also going to look very closely at the Biblical foundations for our faith.  This will mean looking at the beauty and complexity of the Biblical narrative, as we try to understand ways in which the Bible informs and shapes our faith.   

Finally, after having done that work, we will try to give prayerful thought to some of the tough issues facing us today, including the issue of human sexuality.  

As we enter into this time of conversation, I want to ask you to be brave, truthful, and kind.  I ask you to be slow to speak and quick to listen.  I also ask you to be respectful and considerate of those who differ in opinion from you.  At the end of this this time of Christian conversation, what Wesley called Christian conferencing, we may not all end up seeing eye to eye. We may not find ourselves able to all think alike but, by God's grace, we may still be able to love alike. 

Perhaps we and our denomination will be able to find a way to continue traveling together; but even if we find that  we must part and go our separate ways, we will at least be able to part as friends. 

I believe that the Holy Spirit has given us an unique opportunity to explore what it means to live in Christian community.  What will do with this gift?  That is ours to answer.