All posts by Cliff Wall

About Cliff Wall

Married, father of five, and pastor and preacher.

Give the People what they Want? The Root of Idolatry

The O’Jays sang “You’ve got to give the people what they want.” They meant, truth, justice, and civil rights. All of those are good things that every person deserves no matter who they are or where they come from.

Giving people what they want is generally a good practice in business too. If you have a restaurant, you won’t do very much business with a menu that’s not very appetizing to people. Sometimes you might be surprised though. From what I understand, at a fall festival they have in Mount Airy, NC, one of the most popular items sold is a collard green sandwich. I’ve never had one, but I think it’s made with cornbread, collard greens, and bacon. Bacon can do wonders with just about anything, but I’m not sure what’s really so appetizing about the collard green sandwich. It’s not quite as popular as the pork chop sandwich from Snappy Lunch in downtown Mount Airy, but its apparently really popular during The Autumn Leaves Festival.

At any rate, sometimes you’ve just got to give the people what they want. Exodus 32, however, shows that this is not always wise; sometimes there’s a danger in giving people what they want.

Moses had been up on the mountain for a long time communing with God and receiving instruction for the people. God also provided stone tablets with the Ten Commandments engraved on them, which he had already spoken to the people about. The people had agreed to keep all of God’s commandments and to be faithful to the covenant. But before Moses came back down Mount Sanai with the stone tablets, the people grew impatient. They demanded that Aaron, Moses’ brother, make them gods that they could see and touch. They demanded that he make them an idol that they could bow down to, even though God had commanded them not to. Aaron quickly gave in and gave the people what they wanted! He made them a golden calf, a young bull. But it sounds like he tried to rationalize it by associating it with the LORD. The people were just so ecstatic about their shiny new idol that they made sacrifices to it and had a drunken orgy, which is what 1 Cor 10:6-8 indicates.

God informed Moses about what was happening among the people. He was livid! He was ready to start all over again with Moses, kind of like he did with Noah. But Moses interceded with God for the people. He appealed to God’s character, to the honor of God’s name, and to the promise that God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob). Although God was righteously indignant, Moses’ prayer reveals that God is merciful, gracious, and forgiving by his very nature.Worshiping_the_golden_calf

Idolatry is a gateway sin. If there is rampant sin among people, you’ll usually be able to trace it back to idolatry. Martin Luther said that faith is first a fulfillment of the first commandment, and obedience to the other commandments flows from there. The reverse may be true as well. When people lose faith in God, they will resort to some form of idolatry that will lead them into further disobedience.

Idolatry emerges from unbelief in God. It is the result of a corruption of the mind, the way we think about God. Stinking thinking leads us to reject the God who created us in his image for gods that we create from our own imagination to suit our own desires. The true God created us in his image to do his will; idolaters create gods in their own image to do their will—to give them what they want. Idolatry is the rejection of the God who is who he is for gods that are what people want them to be. Idols give people the false assurance that they can harness the power of the heavens and bend it to their will.

It is a denial of the reality of God’s nature revealed in God’s word and in the contours of God’s creation. You can detect idolatry that creeps in among God’s people by how they distort the word of God to conform to the idols they worship. Aaron tried to rationalize the idol by calling it the Lord, but this was the same Lord who had clearly prohibited the making of idols. Sometimes what people call the Lord are really only cheap imitations that are actually idols they have conceived to be conformed to their desires and pride.

A mainline theologian at a conference I recently attended apparently does not like the doctrine of original sin. So she spun the story of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden as being a story of Adam and Eve being victims of child abuse at the hands of the serpent. She said because they were only young children that it’s really a story of “original wounding” not “original sin.” Adam and Eve were wounded victims not sinners. Wounded victims need compassion not judgment.

The problem with that interpretation is that it doesn’t make sense of the biblical story; it makes mincemeat of it. Even in the immediate context, key elements of the story that Genesis 1-3 actually tells have to be ignored altogether. God gave a command to Adam (Gen 2:16-17); Adam and Eve disobeyed that command after being tempted by the serpent, who himself distorted God’s word (Gen 3:1-7); and Adam and Eve were also judged by God, along with serpent, and were exiled from the garden to a life of suffering in a fallen world. This mirrors the pattern of God’s relationship with Israel. Commandments were given. They were promised blessing through obedience and cursing because of disobedience. Because of their disobedience they were exiled from the promised land. To say that Adam and Eve were original victims not original sinners is a massive distortion, really a case of epic eisegesis (reading something into the Bible that is not there).

I suspect the distortion is the result of idolatry. More than likely it is the result of a view of god as a non-judgmental, cosmic therapist of sorts, one who would not punish people because of sin. The story in Genesis 1-3, nonetheless, links suffering with sin and rebellion against God, albeit with the hope of redemption and healing to come through renewed faithfulness.

Any god that would never judge because of sin may be what the people want, but it’s not always wise to give people what they want. Aaron gave people what they wanted and it led to disaster. Even with the forgiveness of God there were negative consequences. False gods always promise what they will ultimately never be able to deliver. Idols lead us away from truth and into falsehood. They lead us to believe we can have things our way, that we can always get what we want. But as the Rolling Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want!”

Sometimes people will talk about making the Bible and Christianity more relevant. But we have to be careful with that. If by that we mean making it more understandable and plain, that is very right and true. But if we mean we need to make it more entertaining and acceptable to people’s sinful desires so it will be more popular that is a grave mistake. If the Bible is true, the truth about God will ultimately never win a popularity context with this fallen world as its judge. The truth is always relevant, whether people like it or not.

There is a God who created us out of love for a purpose. He sent his Son into this world to die for our sins that we may be forgiven and he raised him from the dead that we my live a new life in him. If Jesus is the only way to overcome the grave and hell, then of course it is relevant. God’s word teaches us that our own healing and renewal in righteousness and holiness will bring salvation, healing, and renewal to other people and to all of creation. If it’s true, of course it is relevant! The question is, do we believe it is true? If we do our Christian faith will be of utmost importance.

But sometimes people get bored with the truth, or even angry with the truth; so they look to idols. Idols are anything we put trust in at the expense of trust in the God who is who he is. Often today we think we don’t have actual physical idols associated with our modern forms of idolatry, but that would be false.

Although people may not literally bow down to it, the statue of the bull on Wall Street may represent the trust that people place in the power of the almighty dollar rather than in the power of the God in whom our dollars say we trust. Some think their sufficiency and security increase with the size of their bank account, but there is no amount of money that can deliver anyone from the grave or save anyone from hell.

Children at a United Methodist school in Kenya asked me if I like Trump or Obama better. I just happened to have on my T-shirt that shows Jesus telling all the comic book superheroes how he actually saved the world. I told them that the Bible warns us about putting our trust in political leaders to save us (Psalm 146:3-6). Pointing to Jesus on my shirt, I said we should trust in Jesus above all. IMG_20190723_180816606

Political figures can literally become idols, especially when they lead people to believe they will give them what they want. I think about how Chinese authorities recently forced churches there to replace images of Christ with images of China’s communist president. Political figures can become idols and their images on posters and statues used to reinforce their power. Some people willing accept them as their saviors and lords; sometimes the culture forces idols on people. Remember the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? These faithful Jews refused to bow to the idol that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up even though they knew it could cost them their lives in a fiery furnace (Daniel 3).

Sometimes people willingly demand idols; sometimes the culture tries to force others to bow down to its idols. Idols, whether they be idols of wealth, power, amusement, or sex, are harsh taskmasters. The dark forces associated with them may promise enlightenment and freedom, but end up engulfing their devotees in the darkness of enslavement to corrupt desires and human pride. Those who feed the flesh better be prepared to deal with the beast!

We must resist idolatry, whether we are tempted from our desires within or pressured by the culture around us. To give in to idolatry is to settle for cheap imitations that gratify the flesh at the expense of our souls. The God who is the great “I AM” is so much better than the idols that are merely what sinful humans wish them to be!

Sometimes it’s better to give people what they need. What we need is the God who is who he is. And if God gets everything that he wants, which is all of us, we will always have everything we need.

 

 

 

Seeking the Kingdom First in Kenya, the United States, and Everywhere Else

For a while it seemed that I didn’t really have an open door for ministry with United Methodists in Nairobi, Kenya. I had been communicating with the district superintendent there for a few years. He had even invited me to come and speak at their Annual Conference in 2016. But the door didn’t seem to be open for me at the time. I committed to continue to pray for the church there and to pray that God would eventually give me a green light to go.

Last year in August my friend, doctoral mentor, and colleague, Rev. Dr. David Watson, had just returned from a meeting in Nairobi. He asked me if I would consider partnering with a church there that also had a school to educate children and youth. The pastor, Rev. Davies Musigo, he said, was the assistant to the district superintendent, Rev. Wilton Thomas Odongo. Wilton was the district superintendent I had already been talking with since 2015. I was all ears! I was, indeed, interested. A few days later during a worship service in Dayton, Ohio, where I was for my doctoral intensive week with United Theological Seminary, someone I had never met prophesied over me and said they saw me doing ministry in Africa. That was all the confirmation I needed.

I connected with Pastor Davies and Rev. Odongo. Quickly I began to pray for a team to form that would travel with me to Kenya. Within a few months a few people from my church began having meetings to plan a trip. God also put it on my heart to invite Rev. Matt Reynolds of Spirit and Truth to go with me. I am so glad he accepted my invitation! The Holy Spirit had already been stirring Matt’s heart to prepare him.

Thanks to the prayers and support of generous sponsors and the hard work that we put into planning and fundraising we had a wonderful, Spirit-filled trip. We united with our Christian family in Kenya that we had never met–face-to-face at least. It was definitely a blessed foretaste of the gathering we will experience when the Lord Jesus returns with the fullness of the kingdom of God. And it was a lifechanging experience for all of us, Americans and Kenyans. I had encouraged our team to pray and prepare not only to be a blessing but also to be blessed abundantly; God did not disappoint.

While there we had an opportunity to be with the children, youth, and teachers of New Hope Education Center and another United Methodist school in Nairobi as well. Matt and I spent one day teaching pastors and church leaders. Grace, Carly, and Rachel shared lessons with the children at school during the week and during Sunday school on Sunday morning. We spent a lot of time in fellowship and worship; we visited and prayed with church members and community members in their homes. On Saturday we participated in a service for the community where I had the opportunity to preach the gospel with non-church members, including some Muslims, present. Afterwards we shared a hot meal and gave away clothes and food. During Sunday morning worship, which lasted a few hours, I had the privilege of celebrating the sacraments of baptism and holy communion together with Rev. Odongo and Rev. Davies. Matt preached a strong message of hope in the midst of suffering and then we had a powerful time of prayer for people to be filled with more of the Holy Spirit. It was a full and blessed week in so many ways!

The entire week I felt led by the Spirit to focus on seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matt 6:33; Luke 12:31). The level of poverty in the communities we were in was like nothing any of us had ever seen in America. We have more space in the bathrooms in our parsonage than Pastor Davies and his wife Esther have in their entire apartment. And they don’t even have a bathroom at all, or any running water for that matter. They have to share a small latrine with about ten other families in their building. Pastor Davies salary is about $60.00 a month. DS Odongo’s apartment where he lives with his wife and family is slightly better, but not by much; and he has no guaranteed salary at all for his work. Many, many others live with far less space and income. For members of our team the reality of the living conditions are well beyond what we could comprehend without seeing it firsthand. After the first couple of days, I asked members of our team to describe what they were thinking and feeling about what we had seen and experienced so far. “Shocked” and “overwhelmed” by the level of poverty and need seemed to capture much of the experience.

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Esther Musigo, our wonderful dinner host, in the home that she and Pastor Davies share with four children. This is the living room, dining room, and the bedroom for the children. The other small room is where meals are prepared and the master bedroom. 

In the face of those conditions the temptation to put the gospel on the backburner can be great. The need to seek God’s gift of righteousness may seem to be a lesser priority in the face of such great material and physical need. But this is a dichotomy that the Church should not make (see Matt’s reflection on that HERE). In his ministry Jesus fed the hungry, both spiritually and physically. In the face of dire poverty and extreme tyranny in the ancient world, Jesus still called people to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. He warned the rich, the poor and everyone in between about the deceitfulness of riches and worldly cares that can choke the word of God out in one’s heart (Mark 4:18-19). He warned those who sought him out after he miraculously feed a multitude of thousands to “not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life…” (John 6:27). Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Jesus also reminded the devil from Deuteronomy 8:3 that “man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (see also Matt 4:4; Luke 4:4). Hunger can be a great temptation to forget about our need for God’s truth and righteousness.

In Luke 12, after two brothers bring their skirmish over inheritance to Jesus, he warns them and everyone else within earshot and all his followers about seeking to lay treasure up on earth and not being rich toward God (Luke 12:13-21). Jesus also warns not even to allow anxiety over basic needs to deter us from keeping first things first, namely the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Luke 12:22-34). Jesus taught this in the face of dire poverty in the ancient world. John Wesley also taught this in the face of serious poverty in 18th century England. Of course, Jesus did teach us to pray “give us this day our daily bread” but not before or at the expense of “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:9-13).

Yet in the face of great need, it is tempting to downplay the great commission. When we had the community service at Huruma Tent of Prayer, I asked Pastor Davies if we would have the meal and give away food and clothing first or have worship first. He said if we give away food and clothing first, many will not stay for worship to hear the gospel. Some things in Nairobi are very different; many things are the same. Everywhere in the world humans often don’t recognize our common need for God and God’s word.

Although it was tempting to do otherwise, I kept my focus on seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness all week. I shared with the pastors and church leaders of the Nairobi district that each committee of the local church should have this as its primary focus. The booklets that explain the purpose of the committees in the United Methodist Church each begin with the reminder that we are blessed to be a blessing echoing the promise that God made to Abraham that he and his descendants would be blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3). God also said this blessing would come as a result of the righteousness and justice of his people (Gen 18:19). Central to the fulfillment of this promise is the fulfilment of the promise of the new covenant, that God’s people would receive a new heart and a new spirit for obedience to God’s law (i.e. righteousness; see Dt 30:6; Jer 31:31ff; Ezk 36:25-27).

The ministry of each local church and the purpose of every committee should be focused on leading individuals and the church collectively to receive and live into the fullness of these promises that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In the spirit of the early Methodist movement (as Matt Reynolds shared so effectively), as Methodists we should not be complacent with people becoming members of the local church without actually becoming committed disciples. Indeed we should encourage all those who come to our churches to seek entire sanctification (1 Thess 5:23), to be renewed in the image of God in true holiness and righteousness (Eph 4:17-24) by being conformed to the image of Jesus, God’s only Son (Rom 8:29). Professor Kevin Watson argues that encouraging people to seek entire sanctification, the fullness of salvation, was the main reason for Methodism, and its great calling (Read HERE). It is a calling that desperately needs to be reclaimed and rekindled today around the world.

In my talk to pastors and church leaders, I concluded with the story of a father who lost his son to a tragic car accident. In the aftermath he decided to donate his organs, including his heart. A young woman and mother, who was dying of heart failure, received the young man’s heart. The father arranged a meeting with the young woman after she received his son’s heart. He was so grateful to meet the young woman. With tears streaming he pointed to the young woman’s chest and asked, “May I?” She nodded yes, and the father placed his ear on her chest and was filled with overwhelming joy as he listened to the beat of his son’s heart giving life and vitality to the young mother!

God the Father desperately wants to hear his Son’s heart giving eternal life and vitality through his righteousness in the lives of individual believers and in Church, his body on earth, by the power of his Spirit. This is the mission of God in the world for and with the Church in all times and places.

 

 

Brief Reflections on Our Time with United Methodists in the Nairobi District

“Life-changing” seems to be an appropriate word to describe our time with our fellow United Methodists and the people of the Nairobi District. It was for all of us an eye-opening experience. Because of the hospitality and love we experienced from the people of Huruma Tent of Prayer UMC and others in the Nairobi District it was also a heart-warming experience. We are grateful for the leadership of District Superintendent Rev. Wilton Odongo and Pastor Rev. Davies Musigo that made this such a wonderful time of worship, ministry, and fellowship.

We came to Nairobi to be a blessing: to preach, to teach, to learn, and to give to support the ministry of Huruma Tent of Prayer and to support New Hope Education Center. God created us to be receivers of his goodness, who also give to and receive from others. While in Nairobi we all received the blessings of God in abundance through the gifts and ministries of our Kenyan sisters and brothers. 67806790_10157402277401489_5867638084748705792_o

We all, both those of us from the U.S.A. and those from Kenya, have an abundance of God’s good gifts to share with each other and with the world. Our sisters and brothers in Nairobi seem to be able to do much with very little, while increasingly in the U.S. churches struggle to do little in our communities with so much. There is much churches in the U.S. need to learn from churches in Nairobi.

The children of Huruma Tent of Prayer, Highrise UMC, and those who are being educated so well at New Hope Education Center and Dr. B.T. Cooper United Methodist Educational Centre, brought us so much joy! All those precious children are in good hands under the leadership of their dedicated teachers and pastors. Our prayer is they all receive ever-increasing support to better meet the needs of children in those communities. 67067595_722861054811791_8539129084553199616_n

Our mission team from Clarksbury United Methodist Church, in partnership with Rev. Matt Reynolds of Spirit and Truth, made many wonderful memories; more importantly we made many, many wonderful friends! As Ms. Rachel Anders said, “We came to Nairobi as visitors, but we left as family.” Indeed, through faith in Christ and through the power of his blood we are all part of the family of God!

We came on a short-term mission trip, but our commitment is to a long-term mission to Huruma Tent of Prayer UMC and New Hope Education Center, as well the other churches and ministries of the Nairobi District. We will seek the support of other pastors and churches. Let us continue to pray for God to guide us and provide for us as we seek to be in mission and ministry to our communities and world together. 0C9E2D2F-F449-4917-B446-0F7E8520B7F0

Above all, in the face of very, very difficult challenges, let us all remember to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33). The challenges and difficulties are great, but our God and Father is greater! Bwana asifiwe! Amen!

 

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
Luke 12:22-31 ESV

With much love from the Clarksbury UMC (Harmony, NC—U.S.A.) Mission Team (Rev. Cliff Wall, Ms. Rachel Anders, Ms. Carly Etzkorn, and Ms. Grace Wall), and Rev. Matt Reynolds of Spirit and Truth!

How Essential is Holiness for the Church?

The Church is called to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3 NRSV). Eph 4:14, however, should make it clear that this unity cannot be achieved through doctrinal indifference. Biblically unity is inconceivable apart from holiness and truth. If there are factions in the Church with contradictory and competing visions of holiness and truth, there will be division, not unity. Holiness means to be set apart from the world for the sake of the world. The content of holiness is righteousness; the measure of righteousness is truth; the experience and expression of righteousness is love. A reasonably shared vision of holiness, righteousness, and truth are essential to biblical unity and love.

Yet some continue to insist that having a common vision of holiness and moral righteousness is not necessary for unity. But biblically holiness and righteousness clearly are of much higher priority than that view suggests.

In response to those who seek to drive a wedge of radical discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament, there are two major points of continuity between the two testaments. One is that the New Covenant was a promise of the Old Covenant (Deut 30:1-10; Jer 31:31-34; Ezk 36:24-27). Secondly, a related and actually even more foundational promise, was the promise that God made to Abraham. God promised to bless Abram (later renamed Abraham) and his descendants to be a blessing to the rest of the nations of the Earth, the whole world.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” ~ Gen 12:1-3 ESV  (here and hereafter)

The promise was not just for Abraham, it was also for his descendants who would be in covenant relationship with the Lord. From the beginning of this covenant, faith would be the necessary foundation of their relationship with God and the gift of righteousness that God, by grace, would grant them.

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. ~ Gen 15:1-6

Right from the beginning, their holiness and righteousness would be essential for the promised blessing to flow to them and through them to the rest of the nations. Prosperity was not the central aspect of the blessing, although it was a byproduct of it. Prosperity apart from what was the central aspect of the blessing would prove to be a snare that brought cursing rather than blessing (Deut 8:11-20). The key component of the blessing that God would grant the children of Abraham through the line of his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob (later given the name Israel) was the holiness that comes with righteousness. This righteousness would require trust of God and obedience to the just requirements of God’s commandments. Righteousness would be the key to the blessing flowing through the nation of Israel to the nations of the rest of the world.

“…seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” Gen 18:18-19

Trinity 3 visitorsThe promised blessing for Abraham and Israel, which was always meant to bring blessing to all the nations of the world, was contingent upon the righteousness of God’s people. Righteousness was a gift of God activated by faith (see Rom 4:12-12). The very purpose of God’s election of Israel was for them to be holy via righteousness in order to bring the promised blessing to the nations of the world. Long before the moral law was codified on tablets of stone, it was passed on from generation to generation. Moreover, the stories about the judgment of God on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18-19; Jude 7) and the righteous restraint of Joseph in the face of temptation (Gen 39) reveal and foreshadow how sexual holiness would be a central part of the moral life that God expects of his people (hence the emphasis in Lev 18; also note that the expectations become more, not less, stringent in the teachings of Jesus).

Election, however, is not first about who gets to go to heaven when they die; it’s about God’s blessing being enjoyed by all nations on Earth. The blessing of the nations (i.e. Gentiles) would depend on whether they would accept the righteous rule of Israel. Hence, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (Gen 12:3). Acceptance or rejection of the righteous reign of Israel would determine blessing or cursing (Psalm 2:1-12). This is the foundation to the doctrine of the final judgment, the difference between heaven and hell (Matt 25:31-46), the new heaven and earth and the second death (Rev 21:1-8). Israel’s own blessing would also depend on the acceptance of their own calling. But the judgment of blessing and cursing for those who would or would not accept the righteous reign of Israel was a secondary component of Israel’s election. The primary emphasis of election was the righteousness of God’s chosen people through whom blessing would come to all the nations of Earth.

Israel and its leaders repeatedly proved to be unable to maintain faith in the Lord and, consequently, to fulfil their call. One of Abraham’s descendants, however, who summed up in himself all that Israel was supposed to be, did fulfill that call. Jesus proved to be the righteous and holy one, who fulfilled those two central promises and many more made to Abraham and Israel.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. ~ Rom 5:18-21

The righteousness and obedience of Jesus, the true king of Israel, brings the promised blessing of righteousness to all who believe in him and submit to his righteous reign as the Israel’s king and the world’s true Lord.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ~ Phil 2:9-11

The blessing and cursing of all the nations, including the ethnic nation of Israel, still depends on their acceptance of the righteous reign of Israel through her king, Jesus.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, ~ Rom 1:1-5

Those who trust in Jesus receive the promised blessing of righteousness that comes through forgiveness by his blood and the new heart and spirit that comes from receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. This blessing is for Jews and Gentiles. By faith Gentiles enter into the family of Abraham and are grafted into the family tree of Israel. Faith in Jesus is also essential for Jews to fulfill God’s call and election.

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. ~ Gal 3:7-9 (see also Rom 11:11-24 and Eph 2:11-22)

For the Church (i.e. the called out elect of God) made up of Jews and Gentiles, the call to holiness through righteousness is still central and essential to the blessing flowing to and through God’s people. The primary purpose of election under the New Covenant is still the holiness of God’s people for the purpose of bringing blessing to all the nations of the earth. This is the foundation of the great commission to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:18-20).

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. Eph 1:3-6

Compare to:

“For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” ~ Gen 18:19 ESV

Holiness via the gift of righteousness is central and essential to the call of the Church as part of the family of Abraham. I don’t know how it could get more basic and foundational than this! The idea that any serious form of unity could be achieved apart from a shared vision of holiness is fatally flawed. We are often reminded that we are blessed to be a blessing. Central and essential to the fulfillment of this promise is holiness and righteousness. Any doctrine that would marginalize holiness for a thin veneer of unity must be rejected for what it is, a false doctrine.

Like justification, holiness is not a state to be achieved; it’s a gift to be received. It’s also a gift to be shared. And it is a gift that comes with personal responsibility. It is the blessing by which we are blessed to be a blessing. It is nothing less than renewal after the image of God, the God who calls us to be holy as he is holy (Lev 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16). It is “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:23-24). When Paul says we should strive to maintain unity (Eph 4:3), we should not be fooled into thinking we can achieve that through doctrinal indifference or moral compromise. To make every effort to maintain unity is to make every effort to be holy; and to make every effort to be holy is to love the Lord, our God with all our heart, soul and strength, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Biblically these commands to love were not meant to dismiss the importance of the other commandments; they sum up the meaning and significance of all the other commandments. Unity and love should never be used as an excuse for moral compromise. To compromise moral righteousness is to compromise unity and love and the mission of the Church. While we should avoid both errors of adding to or subtracting from the content of the scriptural holiness to which we are called (Deut 4:2; 12:32; Prov 30:6; Rev 22:18), we should never minimize its significance for the mission of the Church.

For all the talk about tension in the texts—and there is some tension—there is a robust unity in the Bible. The storyline is in the family line, the family line of Abraham, and in the fulfillment of the promises made to the family of Abraham. Jesus is the ultimate descendent in whom those promises find their fulfillment. Through faith in Christ we are part of the family of Abraham. We need to remember how we have been blessed to be a blessing. It’s not negotiable; it’s essential.

 

When the Annual Conference Opposes the Global Denomination

Last week, at Lake Junaluska Assembly, the 2019 Western North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church elected General Conference delegates and passed petitions related to the denominational debates on sexuality and gender identity. Overall, the votes of the Annual Conference body of clergy and lay delegates showed strong support for the progressive agenda, and corresponding opposition to the official position of the United Methodist Church. All clergy and lay delegates to the 2020 General Conference are progressive. Traditionalists only garnered three reserve lay jurisdictional delegates.cross

The Annual Conference also passed petitions to ask the General Conference to remove the statement that “the United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” from The Book of Discipline. The rationale given was that there is no clear Christian teaching to which this statement applies and that there is teaching from some scholars that some homosexual relationships can be justified from the Bible. The truth is the “teaching” that the official statement refers to was the univocal teaching of the universal Church that was really only questioned by pagans outside the Church until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. This is a fact acknowledged by progressive scholar Dan O. Via in a book called Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Robert Gagnon presents the other view). I heard progressive scholar Phyllis Tickle say in a lecture on her 500 year cycle theory of church history that it is a “fool’s game” to try to prove that any form of homosexual relationships are justified from the Bible. Yet people continue to try.

As I shared from the floor during the debate, even some of the best progressive/liberal scholars admit that the Bible is actually clear in its absolute prohibition. Most scholars like this end up rationalizing their rejection of “the straightforward commands of scripture,” as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, by dubiously pitting “Jesus” or “the Gospel” against the law and/or Paul. This is what Adam Hamilton does. Yet their vision of Jesus is not one that is actually in harmony with Jesus as he is revealed in the New Testament. There Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount no less, affirms the entirety of the law and the prophets and warns about those who might lead others to even “relax” the commandments (Matt 5:17-20). For Jesus obedience to the will of the Father revealed in his written word is the fruit to look for in godly teachers and his true disciples (Matt 7:15-23).

William Loader, a progressive scholar, who has written a few thousand pages on ancient Jewish and Christian beliefs about sex, acknowledges that the biblical teaching throughout the history of ancient Judaism and early Christianity was that marriage between male and female was the only appropriate place for sexual expression, which was the good gift of the Creator. The foundation of this view was the creation story in Genesis. The creation of male and female for what was intended to be a permanent, life-long marital union set the norm for what was only appropriate within the marriage covenant. Anything outside of that was seen as contrary to the commandments given in Torah, beginning with the summary found in the Ten Words (Ex 20; Dt 5). Homosexual practice, which clearly violates the “natural,” God-given male/female complementarity evident in the structures of creation, was seen as especially egregious (Loader, Making Sense of Sex (2013), 146). According to Loader it is not surprising that Jesus makes a point about the intended permanence of the marriage covenant based on the creation texts in Genesis (i.e. Mark 10; Matt 19) (Loader, 46). These texts were viewed by many as revealing God’s design for sex and marriage in a general sense that would have specific application to any number of specific issues that might come up.

Loader, nonetheless, believes that the prescriptions and proscriptions of the Bible are simply outdated for the modern world wherein there is access to effective birth control. He also assumes a modern absolute, essentialist nature argument for sexual orientation for which, however, there is not a modern scientific consensus. The evidence actually indicates that it is not entirely genetic like race, to which it is so often falsely compared. It is, nonetheless, simply historically untenable and absurd to insist that Jesus must have approved of some same-sex relationships, but failed to pass that message on to his apostles. But progressives continue to try to distance themselves from the Bible while claiming to still cling to Jesus for justification of their rejection of God’s commands.

One progressive lay delegate, who was elected to General Conference, made it a point to declare that she believes Jesus is the Word of God, the clear implication being the Bible is not. But what does she—or anyone else—know about Jesus apart from the Bible? According to Luke 24, on the first day of the resurrection Jesus led his disciples in a study of the entirety of the Bible to show them how it all pointed to him for its fulfillment. Without the Bible, we will never recognize Jesus for who he truly is; apart from the Bible we are likely to create an idol and call it Jesus really in order to worship Aphrodite.

When it comes down to it, it seems progressives do not really care what the Bible says. That’s why when they are pressed to justify their views from scripture, they will often begin by maligning scripture by taking the most harsh sounding passages out of context. This is clearly the modus operandi of Adam Hamilton and his followers.  And that is what actually happened on the floor of Annual Conference when progressives were pressed to justify their position from the Bible. The Bible is clear and Jesus insisted he was in harmony with it. Moreover, it is not justifiable for progressives to declare that the Holy Spirit is leading them to something new, because the Bible clearly indicates that the Holy Spirit brings obedience to the just requirements of the law (Rom 8:4), which was one of the central promises of the new covenant (Ezk 36:27). If there is a spirit leading progressives to reject the straightforward commands of the Bible, it cannot be the Holy Spirit.

The Western North Carolina Annual Conference also passed a petition “Endorsing the Commitments of UMC Next and Supporting the Full Inclusion of All People.” This petition declares the traditional plan, which reaffirmed and reinforced the longstanding official position of the United Methodist Church, to be evil, unjust, and oppressive to the LBGTQIA+ community and to be “inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” It also commits the Western North Carolina Conference to actively work toward the “full inclusion” and “full participation” of LGBTQIA+ persons in membership and leadership of the church. In the context of the progressive movement this undoubtedly means regardless of whether such persons are living within the framework of the United Methodist and Christian standard of fidelity within the covenant of opposite-sex marriage or celibacy in singleness. From the floor progressives acknowledged that gender-identity can include multiple different genders and that the sexual identities along the entirety of the spectrum of the LGBTQIA+ acronym can be virtually endless. Progressive activist and lay delegate to General Conference, Hellen Ryde, explained, what all the letters and the + mean: there are many, many possible expressions of sexual and gender identity and the + stands for those things that we haven’t yet found a name for.

In other words, this petition declares the teaching that God created sex for marriage, and marriage to only be between a man and a woman, to be “evil, unjust, and oppressive” and “inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” And it commits the Annual Conference to resist the implementation of the traditional plan, which reaffirms and reinforces that view. It also declares that the church is to include and affirm the expression of the entirety of the  LBGTQIA+ spectrum, at least among all consenting adults. This must of necessity include polyamarous relationships (like open marriages) and pan-sexualism, where a person is attracted to people of multiple gender identities and sexual identities. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that a free-for-all of sexual “liberation” is exactly what they demand.  Note that I personally was called a liar in February for saying this is where the progressive movement in the church was headed, despite the fact that I provided plenty of evidence.

What this means is the church is being asked to reject not only the straightforward commands in the word of God concerning homosexual practice, but to renounce as “evil, unjust, and oppressive” the entirety of the biblical and traditional Christian sexual ethic set in place by Jesus himself. It was clearly Jesus himself that raised the bar and tightened the restrictions on sexual conduct for his disciples. The progressive petitions completely reverse the trajectory set by the teachings of Jesus and the apostles in a way that even goes far beyond what the early Marxists did by promoting the “free love” movement. They say they are fighting for justice, but they are moralistic sexual and cultural revolutionaries, who, like the revolutionaries in the novels of Dostoevsky, are hell-bent on bringing down the two pillars of western society, the orthodox Christian Church and the traditional family. Both of which, they see as main pillars of the “evil patriarchy” they so despise. But I do know that some are caught up in this movement, who do not realize what they are actually supporting in totality. May God open their eyes!

So it seems pretty obvious that the Western North Carolina Conference has declared its opposition to the global United Methodist denomination. It is also obvious that the Annual Conference has been, is, and will continue to use conference resources not only to promote the acceptance of homosexual practice, but to vilify the traditional and official position of the United Methodist Church, and to promote sexual licentiousness in all of its consensual expressions. Most of the conference leadership has worked to create an atmosphere of intimidation for traditionalists. The deck is certainly stacked against traditionalists when it comes to going before the board of ordained ministry. The conference summer youth event, Spirtus, had to be canceled due to controversy because the main speaker chosen was an LGBTQIA+ activist. During the opening worship service of the Annual Conference there was a choral hymn that was obviously promoting “justice” for LGBTQIA+ persons. The chorus used the tagline “For Everyone Born” straight from the progressive caucus groups that proclaim they are fighting against the “evil, injustice, and oppression” of not affirming the entirety of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.

They have falsely argued for decades that because people are born with fixed sexual orientations therefore the church must accept committed same-sex relationships, when in reality it really seems they just think people ought to be free to have sex with whoever and however and whenever they want without restrictions and negative judgment. The Bible teaches that fallen humans are born with sinful desires, but by the grace of God do not have to be slaves to them. Progressives seem to share the philosophy of Alfred Kinsey that unfettered, mutually-consensual expression of almost any sexual desire is natural, good, and healthy and that sexual repression is bad and, as one of the petitions (Petition 21) put it, “has been the source of tremendous harm to countless people within The United Methodist Church and beyond.”

Progressives have declared the traditional teaching of the Church—what is clearly biblical teaching—to be evil, unjust, and oppressive. Isaiah 5:20-24 (ESV) warns:

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right! Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

During the discussion on the floor regarding the UMC Next petition, an elderly African American gentleman, Coley Hooker, who was a lay delegate to the 2016 and 2019 General Conferences, basically asked who are we to tell God his word is wrong? Mr. Hooker also insisted that when he voted for the traditional plan that he did not vote for evil and hate, he voted for love. He said sometimes the most loving thing God does is to say NO! to what we want. Indeed, getting what we want, when it suits the sinful desires of the flesh, is a dangerous thing.

Conservatives, individuals and churches, must say NO! to the progressive agenda. We must stand firm for what is right and stand against and resist the resistance as we submit ourselves to God.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. ~James 4:1-10

When Traditional Christianity is Incompatible with the Progressive State

A friend and pastor colleague, knowing that I’ve read a lot of the work of N.T. Wright, asked what he thought about the marriage and sexuality debates. Although Wright hasn’t written or said much about the topic specifically , it is no secret that he holds a traditional view of marriage and Christian sexual morality. Once when asked about the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples, he warned that anytime major terms like that are redefined by government or pressure groups  we need to really “watch out.” He compared it to how communists and Nazis in the first half of the 20th century redefined major terms and imposed those new definitions through coercive force. He said because marriage has for many thousands of years, up until very recent times, only been seriously considered to be between people of the opposite sex, for the government to redefine it to include people of the same sex is like the government insisting that black is white (see interview clip here) (Also hear his more recent discussion of the sexuality and gender identity debates here).

When powerful cultural forces redefine terms like marriage and also gender as radically as they have today, you can be assured they will also seek to impose those definitions on society, including the church, through force if necessary. When the power of persuasion fails, force will be applied if and when it is possible. At first there are calls for tolerance of the new views, but when those wielding the radical redefinitions and neologisms gain, or think they have gained, the upper hand, there will be little to no tolerance for traditional views. This is exactly what we have seen the past few years.

For many years now secular forces have sought to use the force of the legal system to punish people who express traditional views or who refuse to join in the celebration of the new “expanded” definition of marriage and gender. Kevin Cochran, the former Atlanta fire chief, was fired for traditional Christian views that he had expressed in a self-published book. After a long court battle he did win a wrongful termination due to religious discrimination settlement in court. The state of Georgia fired physician, Dr. Eric Walsh, because of the content of sermons that he preached in his Seventh Day Adventist church. Walsh also eventually received a settlement in an unlawful termination suit. Others like Jack Phillips and Baronelle Stutzman have been sued and charged with discrimination for refusing to lend their artistic services to celebrate same-sex weddings. Phillips was sued for refusing to make a wedding cake; Stutzman declined to do floral arrangements. For both it was a matter of conscience. They did not want to contribute to the celebration ceremony of something they believe to be immoral. Both have won at least partial victories in the Supreme Court, but continue to face ongoing harassment. Phillips is now being sued for refusing to make a cake celebrating someone’s gender transition.

As David French put it, what each of the above cases (and there are many more) has in common is that government officials sought to use ” their power to send a clear message: Traditional Christianity is incompatible with the progressive state.”  The setbacks that secular progressives have had in court, however, have not really deterred them. The House of Representatives recently passed the ironically named “Equality Act” that would in effect make traditional Christians second class citizens in America who would have to live under constant threat of punishment for publicly expressing traditional Christian beliefs regarding marriage and gender identity. The political left is determined to be able to use the force of law to punish the expression of traditional views. The Equality Act would make it open season again on Christians like Cochran and the others mentioned above.

If you don’t think the promotion of gender confusion through drag queen story time for elementary school students is a good idea, the left thinks you need to be punished and reeducated. If you don’t think it’s a good idea to allow biological males to shower in the same locker room with biological females and vice versa, the left thinks you need to be punished and reeducated. The left has decided that gender is merely a social construct upon which biological sex has no bearing. If you don’t think it’s fair to allow biological males who identify as females to participate in women’s sports, they want to punish and reeducate you. Some on the left argue that it is harmful, insidious even, to “assign” gender to an infant at birth.

The left also wants to use the coercive power of government to force people to use other’s preferred gender pronouns that include he, she, they (applied to individuals), ze, and zer among many others (they say there can be dozens and dozens of different gender expressions, which may also be “fluid,” i.e. change from time to time) . They want the power to punish people who express any disapproval of same sex marriage and any consensual expression of LGBTQIA+ identity. The plus stands for the endless possibilities on the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation, and even denotes “everything on the gender and sexuality spectrum that letters and words can’t yet describe” according to a New York Times article.  By falsely comparing LGBTQIA+ identity with race they have gained a strong foothold in government and have now clearly have the cultural headwinds at their back. And any claim on the right for religious freedom in the First Amendment will be quickly dismissed as a cloak for bigotry and discrimination. For those who hold out hope that a compromise can be reached, don’t hold your breath, progressives are not at all interested.

The debates in the church are not separate from the secular battles. The mayor of Atlanta that fired Kevin Cochran was a United Methodist. Progressives in the church are really just fighting another front on a battlefield of the same war. And it is a war, political and ultimately spiritual. Progressive Christians have made it very clear that they see traditional Christian views as harmful, and not just to people’s feelings. They say they believe conservative views are literally deadly. At times the same people have argued that views on sexual morality and marriage are really indifferent matters on which we can all just agree to disagree, live and let live. But their relentless mantra that conservative views are doing “great harm” to the LGBTQIA+ community belies their claim that those views should be treated as an indifferent matter. Progressives seem to appeal to tolerance only to weaken conservatives’ defense of their own views until they can gain more control. Conservatives do tend to fall for it to appear “reasonable” as it is so framed by those on the radical left. We must be cleareyed! If progressives see conservative views as being as harmful as they have claimed, they will seek to suppress the expression of those views through force if necessary.

At the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St Louis a progressive pastor declared that the traditional plan was like Ebola and that it would make the UMC very sick. He was a major proponent of the liberal “One Church” Plan that would have redefined marriage and allowed for the ordination of practicing homosexuals upon the approval of the clergy session of Annual Conferences. When Rev. Berlin compared the traditional plan, which reaffirms and reinforces our longstanding position on sexual ethics, marriage, and ordination standards as it relates to the those issues, to Ebola, I realized that the One Church Plan was intended to be a quarantine plan for conservative views. In light of all the rhetoric about traditional views doing so much harm to LGBTQIA+ people what else could it be?

You don’t quarantine people that have a harmful disease in order to allow the disease to continue to flourish. The One Church Plan, if adopted, would have given progressives the power and the time necessary to eliminate the conservative views that they see as being so harmful. I know many of them argued that differing cultural contexts require adaptable doctrine, but I don’t think they really believe that conservative Christian views are less harmful in Africa than they are in America. Again they employed the “contextual” argument in order to gain more control of the denomination in order to continue to work to eliminate the “disease” that they believe is doing such great harm to the LGBTQIA+ community. I’m not really offended by the rhetoric, I appreciate how revealing it really is. With the passage of the Traditional Plan it has become obvious that progressives see traditionalists as enemies of the institutional church. And they gladly work with secular progressives to see that traditional Christians are declared enemies of the secular state.

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Washington State Florist, Baronelle Stutzman was declared to be an enemy of the progressive state. ADF Media

Another pastor friend of mine recently wondered whether progressives in the church realize the implications of what they are saying when they claim to be keeping the baptismal vow “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” by applying that to their fight for the full acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQIA+ identity and expression. She wondered if they realize they are firmly placing traditionalists on the side of evil. I think they do. They have long compared conservatives to those who defended slavery and to racists, haven’t they?

We need to be sober about this. Progressives see traditionalists as enemies to be converted to their viewpoint or to be defeated. Even though on the one hand they try to persuade us to believe we are just arguing about minor differences, on the other hand they declare they are resisting evil, injustice, and oppression that is causing great harm. These two things don’t go together. Progressives in the church are fighting for what they see as a more just society, and they are working with secular progressives to achieve that end. It is no secret that leftwing politics is of utmost importance to progressives in the church. And it is certainly no coincidence that undermining the traditional Christian sexual ethic and traditional marriage has been part of the left’s agenda since Marx and Engels. They well knew the connection between the family, the economy, and the state. Marxists and Neo-Marxists have always tried to blur gender lines and undermine the influence of the Church and the stability of the nuclear family in society, even if their views on gender and sexuality have mutated since the days of Marx and Lenin.

Make no mistake about it though, progressives—secular and religious—want to be able to use the force of government to suppress traditional Christian views by punishing traditional Christian people that refuse to comply. Any claim to religious freedom protections will be blithely dismissed as an excuse for hate and bigoted discrimination. Those who are working toward this end see traditional Christians as being on the side of evil, injustice, and oppression. Scripture warns us about those who call evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). The book of Revelation in particular warns about those who seek to oppress faithful Christians through the power of the state for refusing to compromise with an idolatrous and sexually licentious society. It also severely warns Christians about the danger of compromising in either of those categories, whether out of pleasure or pressure.

Traditional Christians are enemies to progressives. Progressives are enemies to traditional Christians. On this we must be clear. But we also need to be clear that Jesus calls his followers to love their enemies. It is also clear that by love Jesus did not mean unconditional affirmation or even tolerance. He chastised a church for tolerating false teaching that led the church of Thyatira into sexual immorality and idolatry (Rev 2:18-29). By love Jesus certainly meant speaking the truth about the kingdom of God and the repentance that is required to enter into it. By love he also meant being willing to speak the truth in the face of threats even if it means losing one’s life. The love of Christ was expressed in his willingness to speak the truth about both the danger of sin and temptation and the forgiveness and transforming grace of the Father. He calls us to the same.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. ~ John 15:18-20 ESV

 

What Might Have Been? What Will Be? Easter’s Answer

By Rev. Cliff Wall

They walked a lonely road of doubt and fear headed for despair. Two men wondering on a Sunday afternoon, “What might have been? What might have been if their teacher had not died?” (Luke 24:21). Doubting the reports of women and angels, who that morning swore that he really was alive (Luke 24:13-35).

What might have been, if that dream had not been devoured by a nightmare? What might have been, if that disease had not come calling? If that precious child had not been lost? If that baby had seen the light of day, or that teenager had walked across the stage? If that parent had not been so filled with rage? What might have been if that mother had lived to see her children have children one beautiful day?

What might have been of that relationship, if I had said something differently or just different? Or if I had said nothing at all? What might have been if I had decided differently? Or if something different—something just and true—had been decided about me?

I wonder, oh how I wonder, about what might have been? What if that accident had not happened? If tragedy had not fallen? If evil had never darkened my door?

So often in this world the beauty and joy of the seed of potential never finds its bloom. Things in this world are really never as good as they could be, and neither are we. Hopes are dashed; dreams are shattered; and the warm light of every life—not matter how dim or how bright— seems to be extinguished by the cold darkness of death.

But those two despondent disciples did not walk alone. A familiar stranger, no stranger to the evil of this world, came along side them, bringing with him Easter’s answer to the question, “What might have been?” Also to the one about what will be?

The promise of Easter is that through Jesus and the power of his resurrection we have a real and living hope, hope that our future is as bright as Christ’s past. We have hope that the potential of what might have been in this fallen world will be far, far better than all we could ever imagine. The glimmer of the good of what might have been in this world, will be infinitely brighter and more brilliant in the world to come. O what a day it will be to see those who never walked, joyously leaping and dancing with Jesus in the blessed Trinity! To see those who never talked singing, “holy, holy, holy is He”!

The darkness of that Friday afternoon, was swallowed up in the light of the victory of Sunday morning. Therefore, it is good; Christ’s death is redemptive. The hopelessness of what might have been has been swallowed up in the victory of what will be because of Easter. Hope has come; hope is with us; hope will come again.

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory of what will be over what might have been through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Grateful for Grace: To Grace Wall on Her 18th Birthday

Dear Grace,

I loved you before I met you. When your mom told me the news that she was pregnant with our first child, my heart was overwhelmed. I was partly overwhelmed because I had just started a Master’s degree

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program, and had planned to work only part-time. We had planned for you, but God’s timing was a little bit different than ours. I wasn’t sure what adjustments we would have to make, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Despite the added hardship of having to continue to work full-time and go to school full-time, my love for you, even before I met you, removed my fear and made a place for you in our home and in my heart forever.

The first time I laid eyes on you my heart was full of joy. From the start it has been such a blessing and a joy to share life with you. You have been with us through many, many good times, and also the bad. Regardless, I am glad that you have been with us through it all.

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Your mom and I have done our best, but at times we have fallen far short of being the people God created us to be, and the parents you needed us to be. Forgive us for where we have failed; be thankful for when we have succeeded. And know that even the hardship by God’s grace will work together for God’s good and eternal purpose for you in Jesus Christ.

I am amazed by and thankful for the gifts and talents with which God has blessed you! Your sharp mind and steel will have brought you tremendous success. You learned to walk without one of your hip sockets; you were determined to get around even in a spica cast after surgery; and you learned to walk all over again when it was removed in spite of other complications. You have had to deal with so many challenges and setbacks, including with your very sensitive skin. Yet, in spite of it all, you have never wavered in your determination to succeed in life.

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When you were dragging yourself around in that cast, I knew you were headed for success. Your accomplishments are amazing, but not surprising. And I am thankful that you have used your talents and abilities, not only to attain accolades for yourself, but also to bless and buildup the church and others.

Not long ago, you asked me, with some incredulity, how your life turned out the way it did. You were remembering a time when you were on the brink of making some

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really bad decisions that would have taken you down a wide and destructive path. The answer, of course, is in your name, grace, God’s grace. At some point you decided to follow Jesus, rather than just following your heart; that has made all the difference.

Your mom and I have tried to teach you the best we can. I am thankful for all the long talks we have had, although you probably wish they hadn’t all been quite so long. Of course we have prayed for you all along the way. We prayed that you would not just know about God, but that you would come to know God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. We prayed that you might be born; we also prayed that you might be born again.

As much as I love you, God loves you infinitely more. He loved you before the foundation of the world. He formed you and made you even in your mother’s womb. You are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14 ESV). By the precious blood of his Son he saved you from sin, and by the power of his Holy Spirit he has remade and is remaking you as a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:17). Whatever great plans you have for yourself, God’s plan is greater. Your life is not your own; “for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20). “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17).

I remember being amazed how fast time had gone by when you turned eight, and then when you were in the eighth grade. Now you are eighteen! I pray that you will continue to follow Jesus all of your days, with all of your heart. The journey will not be easy, but the destination is worth it. You are my precious, precious daughter; most importantly you are a beloved child of God. By God’s grace live fully into that calling. Forever blossom to the glory of God. And always, always know that you are loved.

Happy birthday!

Love,

Dad

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When A Mother Forgets

A little over a month ago my mother called me late one night, around 9:00 p.m. She asked, “Where are you and where am I? Why is all my furniture in this place?” She was in her independent senior living apartment that she’s lived in for more than two and a half years. But she was seriously confused and disoriented. I was concerned, of course, but not surprised. There had been similar episodes before, but none quite that bad.

Shortly after we moved to this area in 2016, I took Momma to her first podiatrist appointment. While I was filling out the new patient form for her, I asked her how tall she was to fill in that blank. She said rather matter-of-factly: “Nine feet.” Other patients in the waiting room chuckled. Momma was not laughing; neither was she joking or “walking tall” to display self-confidence. I said, “Momma, you’re not nine feet tall! How tall are you?” She said, “Maybe, seven feet then.” That was probably the first time I really knew she was showing some symptoms of dementia. Mom and Me Wolfhart

Episodes of confusion like that would flare up again here and there, but not all that often. She’s had trouble, and the frustration that goes along with it, of learning how to do new things. Even a new can opener became a major obstacle last year.

I have kept an eye on her finances and medicine, but she seemed to manage it okay until a little over a month ago. We set all her bills up on a monthly draft, with the exception of her rent payment. She paid it on time every month until last month. She also wrote out her tithe check each month, although there have been a few times she made it out with the name of the community instead of the name of the church.

When I received that call from her a little over a month ago, I called her day time senior care facility, which is part of a program called P.A.C.E. through the United Church of Christ. It’s designed to help people stay at home as long as possible. They take care of their elderly clients primary medical care and prescriptions at their facility. I talked with a nurse, who thought it might just be a urinary tract infection causing this flareup of extreme confusion.

The antibiotic treatment didn’t really clear things up though. The confusion and memory loss has only worsened. Her memories from the distant past are getting mixed in with the present. She sometimes thinks she’s living in Stokes County where she grew up and lived all her life until 2008. She asks me to take her to the bank in King to get some checks every day. She wants me to give her her medicine and let her manage it herself, but she can’t remember taking it just a few hours before. She doesn’t know what day or even what month it is. It seems she thinks everyday is Saturday—she’ll ask about going to church the next day frequently.

She’s surprised that Benjamin, our nine month old, is her grand baby, even though she was asking to see him specifically just a couple of months ago. She insists we never told her he was born. Last week she mistook my wife, Christi, for my first cousin, Denise.; not Denise as she is now, but Denise Edwards (her maiden name) from many, many years ago. At times it’s been so bad that my mother has even been confused about who I am. The first time that happened, I felt a loss I haven’t felt before.

As a pastor I have ministered to people and families who have had this same struggle. Dementia and Alzheimer’s affects every person a bit differently as they go through the different stages. At times, I have had people say that their loved one with memory loss and confusion is not the same person anymore. But the truth is the person really is still the same person, and, most importantly, the same person with the same dignity.

From the Christian perspective a person’s identity and worth is not tied to their physical or mental capacities in the present moment. Our identity and worth as individuals is first found in our beginning as humans created in the image of God; our identity and worth is also bound up in God’s intended destiny for us as people renewed in the image of God in the new heaven and earth. Sin distorts the image of God in us, but it does not eradicate it. The curse, which is the result of sin, diminishes our capacities morally, physically, and mentally. That is true for all of us. But the curse will not remain forever.

Our identity and worth is in our beginning as people created in the image of God and in our final destination as God’s renewed image-bearers in the new creation, not in our diminished capacities, no matter how severe, in this present fallen world. Yet in our minds in our fallen state, we place more stock in the latter rather than the former. We value ourselves relative to others in this world. We believe our identity and worth is tied to our abilities, that our identity can be lost in the chaos of life under the curse. But our identity does not fade with our memories; our diminished and diminishing capacities do not diminish our worth.

The last few weeks have been incredibly hard. I’m an only child with a wife and six children of my own. Our life is already quite busy to say the least. I have had to stay with Momma every night. I have to give her medicine to her twice a day. I have to make sure she eats among other things. And Momma can’t remember that she can’t remember. She doesn’t feel like there is anything wrong (technical term is anosognosia). So she gets very frustrated and irritated sometimes. And in the midst of care giving, I have had to jump through the hoops of bureaucracy. We have three more weeks yet before I can get her into an assisted living facility. Thankfully, she will be in one just three miles from our home. Amazingly, in addition to all the other things going on, I also discovered a couple of weeks ago that her burial insurance policy was canceled!

The insurance company confused my mother with one of their other policyholders with the exact same name (including the middle name) and birth date when that person deceased. They missed the fact that the social security number was different. Thankfully, the policy was reinstated yesterday, but not without a lot of initiation and followup on my part.

It’s moments like this that remind us of just how fragile and fleeting our identities are in this world. Fallen people in our fallen world will be confused about their own identity and worth and the identity and worth of other people. Some may wonder if individual identities really are all that significant? Are we all just a meaningless mass of humanity? Our identities and worth, however, do not depend on our place in the minds of other people, in the data banks of insurance companies, or in the annals of history. After just a few generations most people who have lived are no longer remembered even by people in their own family line. Do you know the name of your great, great grandmother or grandfather without looking it up? Some may; most won’t.

Thankfully, our identities and worth do not depend on the memories of people, but on the mind of God that never fails. When our bodies wither and our minds dim to the point of total disintegration in this world, our unique individual existence remains secure in the God who raises the dead.

My mother may not remember who I am, but I  know who she is. But even if my mind loses its grip on the memory of her, or it is completely lost among my great, great grandchildren, her identity and worth is forever secure in the mind of God. Through  faith in Jesus Christ and in the waters of baptism, Betty Wall was identified as a child of God.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. 1 John 3:1-3 ESV

In hope her life “is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3), who, unlike her life insurance company, will never confuse her with someone else.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15

A Former Lesbian’s Message to the UMC & LGBTQIA+ Community

In my last article, I mentioned my friend, Angy, who was a lesbian. I first met Angy a few years ago at a non-denominational charismatic church. We were both there for a special lecture. She was sitting behind me when she overheard someone asking me about being clergy in the United Methodist Church. The person asked me about the controversy over sexuality in our denomination. I briefly explained and also that I am conservative. That’s when Angy graciously entered into the conversation.

She said she was once a passionate member of the LGBTQIA+ community, who thought the traditional Christian view was pure hate. She said she eventually realized that it wasn’t really preachers like me who were condemning her; it was actually those who were affirming her in her sin.

Angy said she would like to share a word about the controversy in the Church. Below is her succinct and poignant message to the UMC and LGBTQIA+ people.
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By Angy Calvert

As a former member of the LGBTQIA community, I would strongly urge you to understand this one thing in light of the recent United Methodist General Conference..

Our acceptance by God is not dependant on whether the church accepts people in the doors. It almost seems like some people actually think that if a church welcomes someone in, God is then bound to accept that person into the Kingdom. Almost like a “majority rules” concept. We HAVE to understand that GOD IS HOLY and welcomes people into the Kingdom on HIS terms alone, not on any terms or standards we fallen humans deem adequate, and He has made those terms very clear.

The church can welcome people in with open arms all day long and they will still end up in hell for not believing and acknowledging His truth as perfectly expressed in His word! If we choose to suppress that truth, as Romans 1 clearly lays out, no amount of human acceptance will save us.

“On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'”
Matthew 7:22‭-‬23 ESV

Rev. Wall’s last article very correctly states that though we are made in God’s image, we are a fallen race, slaves of sin and hostile to God. One of the ways this plays out most evidently is in same sex desires, as it goes against God’s original created order. We can kick and scream, suppress and refuse it and swear up and down that the Bible doesn’t say it’s wrong, but in the end, we alone will be responsible for our hostility to God’s truth.

If we would stop being hostile to God and accept His judgement on such things, this whole topic of practicing LGBTQIA in the church wouldn’t even exist because we would accept and respect what God said through Paul:

“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you.”
1 Corinthians 5:11‭-‬13 ESV

If you want the extended list of those we are to have nothing to do with if they are professing to be a “brother”, Paul gives it to us here:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
1 Corinthians 6:9‭-‬10 ESV

So Paul is certainly not advocating for singing kumbaya and giving the right hand of fellowship to folks who are defiantly living for their own desires.

I say if someone is honestly searching for the truth, open doors and arms and speak God’s truth to them in love.
If someone claims to know Christ yet sees nothing wrong with practicing sexual immorality, close the doors, and as Paul says:

“Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.”
1 Corinthians 15:34 ESV

I know this is a sensitive topic for a lot of people. I have a great deal of compassion for anyone who is struggling with same sex attraction because I was once that person. But letting someone think God is pleased with the lifestyle they’re living, when God himself has stated that is NOT the case, is the most unloving thing we could possibly do…

Please hear me on this.. eternity is at stake!

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I have learned over the years that people like Angy receive no special sympathy from the radical Left. I have witnessed some of my progressive UM colleagues react with intense vitriol to Angy herself specifically when she has shared her testimony. But for anyone who is truly wrestling with these things, voices like Angy’s should also be heard.

Angy no longer struggles with same sex attraction. She has been transformed by the power of God’s grace. At the same time we are being told by some that gender has no biological basis and is an absolute choice, some of the same people are telling us that sexual orientation is absolutely fixed and people should not have the choice to try to change. Our society seems hell-bent to encourage young children to go through gender reassignment, while preventing any discussion of the possibility that sexual orientation can change. Children are being told it’s fine to question their gender and transform their bodies to confirm to their psychological state. They’re also being told that sexual orientation is absolutely fixed, and seeking change for sexual orientation is harmful. It is absurd and it is a lie. (See how APA researcher has acknowledged that sexual orientation can and does change.)

The power of God can certainly change our corrupted desires. Angy’s is a case in point. But there will also be cases where corrupted desires won’t be completely healed until the resurrection. I have some corrupt desires of my own that I still wrestle with, as do we all. There are Christians who still experience same-sex attraction, but choose, for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, to take up their cross and deny themselves daily when it comes to those desires.

Of course, the Church should not make any particular class of unrepentant sinners feel hopeless. The Gospel, however, is not only about God’s acceptance and affirmation of our dignity as humans created in his image; it is also a call to repentance and transformation with regards to the way sin has distorted God’s image in us through corrupted desires. There is plenty of hope in the gospel for all people.

The unconditional love of God is not that God will save everyone regardless of repentance and faith. God’s love is unconditional in the sense that no one who turns away from sin and turns back to him will be turned away–no matter what we have done or left undone. All people are truly invited to repent and enter into the kingdom of God. Again, there is no special condemnation for some; neither are there special exemptions. God’s grace, which includes forgiveness and new birth, is for all people.

As it turns out, the progressive message of inclusion is really the most exclusive because it excludes the most people from the kingdom of God, even as it purports to welcome more people into the visible Church. That’s Angy’s message above in a nutshell. Let the one who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.