Truth and Lies About Immortality: Milton and Dostoevsky

Lately I’ve been reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Both contain two intriguing views on the nature of evil to say the least. What has intrigued me particularly in reading the two together is the different ways that distorted concepts of immortality contribute to rebellion against God and to evil actions.

GustaveDoreParadiseLostSatanProfile
Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan, the central character of John Milton’s Paradise Lost c. 1866

Paradise Lost is an epic poem, first published in 1667, in which Milton describes the fall of the archangel Lucifer, who became known as Satan and the devil, and his temptation of Adam and Eve in Eden. Satan’s fall is in part contributed to his own denial of being a creature created by God. Satan claimed an absolute immortality and self-sufficiency apart from any dependence on God (Book IV). He rails against God as a tyrant and uses sophistry and clever rhetoric to lead other angels and Adam and Eve (Gen 3:5) to claim the same independence for themselves to disastrous results. The blurring of the line between creator and creature is used as self-justification for self-will.

In The Brothers Karamazov, written in 1879, it is not the claim to absolute immortality that fuels evil; rather it is the denial of immortality altogether. “There is no virtue if there is no immortality” (Book 2, Chapters 6 & 7). In this case the denial of immortality is the denial of continuing existence for humans beyond death and the ultimate judgment of God that paves the way for evil in this world. Dostoevsky, the Christian Russian novelist, proved to be prophetic.

Dostoevsky set out to warn of the dangers of atheistic socialism, although he identified Christian socialists to be the most dangerous of all (Book 2, Chapter 5). My guess is the Christian socialists of which he warned thought in much the same way as the Sadducees we read about in the Gospels. That is, as practical atheists with little to no concern for thoughts about the afterlife, the supernatural, and the judgment to come. The infamous cult leader, Jim Jones, was a Christian socialist who started out as an openly atheist minister who saw the Soviet Union in Russia as the promised land. Jones who initially denied the existence of God eventually, like Lucifer, came to see himself as god, also with horrifying and disastrous results.

Both the claim to absolute immortality apart from dependence on God and the absolute denial of even an immortality that is dependent on God are dangerous temptations that can lead to self-will and rebellion against God with disastrous results for those who succumb to such temptations and for the world. We must remember we are creatures completely dependent on and accountable to the Creator. This is something that the rebels in Paradise Lost and The Brothers Karamazov were intent on forgetting.

When rational creatures live as if self-sufficient and accountable to no one they begin to use reason in clever but sophistic ways to justify their desires. The way Thomas Aquinas described it sin disrupts the inclination to virtue and misdirects the use of reason to the penultimate rather than the ultimate, namely friendship with God (ST, II, part 1 q. 85:3.) Reason and the will, thus, become slaves to inordinate passions rather than being subordinate to God. It is a “matter of our will surrendering to those appetites or desires and reason then providing post hoc rationalizations justifying the action” (Angus Brook, “Thomas Aquinas on the Effects of Original Sin: A Philosophical Analysis,” The Heythrop Journal, 59,no. 4, July 2018, 722.). The will of the creature is exalted above the will of the Creator and becomes the measure of all things. People begin to see themselves as capable of creating their own truth rather than needing to discern and submit to the Truth.

This is how the image of God gets distorted in people, and that distortion disrupts the flow of God’s blessing and brings a curse. In other words, people live on lies not realizing that without repentance they will be destroyed by them. Hence, Jesus calls Satan the father of lies and the father of all liars (John 8:39-47). Our fallen world runs on lies, but it is headed for a head on collision with the Truth in the judgment to come.

Lies lead to disaster eventually. Dostoevsky foresaw that on the other side of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn saw it in its aftermath. Both exhorted people to renounce lies and earnestly seek to be people committed to the truth. Inspired by both of them, Jordan Peterson in recent times has urgently encouraged the same. Being people of the Truth in a world of lies is not easy and it can be dangerous as history has proven time and time again. It certainly proved deadly for Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). But in the resurrection Jesus proved that lies will not ultimately prevail over Truth and that the life that is firmly grounded in the Truth will not forever be overcome by death.

Both the claim to absolute immortality apart from God and the denial of any immortality at all (i.e. no eternal judgment to come) are foundational lies that lead people to believe they can live life according to their own rules, “rules for radicals,” if you will. But every lie will eventually be exposed by the Truth. A commitment to Truth in a fallen world of lies can be costly, but the reward in the world to come will infinitely surpass any cost we may incur. And Truth is not just a concept, Truth is a person with a name. He’s the one who said let your yea be yea and your nay, nay (Matthew 5:37). His name is Jesus.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. ~ Colossians 3:1-10 ESV

 

 

 

 

 

The Christian Answer to COVID-19?

N.T. Wright made headlines in Time Magazine in the past few weeks by asserting that Christianity offers no answers about COVID-19. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am a thankful admirer of the scholarship of N.T. Wright and that I am fairly well read when it comes to his work. That being said, I was a bit perplexed with his assertion in the Time article.

I understand his assertion that Christianity offers no answers to be a bit of hyperbole to ward off wild speculation about why God may be punishing us—that its the fault of a particular class of sinners and punishment for a specific set of sins. For instance some conservative Catholics seem to think COVID-19 is punishment for Catholics receiving communion in the hand rather than on the tongue. I can think of a lot of other things that may be upsetting God more. But Wright seems to go a bit further to suggest that it would be a “knee-jerk would-be Christian” reaction driven by mere rationalism to suggest this might be a punishment, warning, or sign from God at all. He also referred to those who might suggest such a thing as “silly suspects.” I was disappointed, not least because I probably fall into his insulting category.

I understand it would be wrong to place blame on any particular group or to suggest that this is a specific sign pointing to a particular end-times scenario. I take Jesus seriously when he warned not to assume that a particular group that experiences tragedy is made up of worse sinners than everyone else. Jesus used two smaller-scale tragedies (a slaughter of Galileans at the hands of Pilate and an accident in Jerusalem) to warn about a greater judgment to come that requires the repentance of all people (Luke 13:1-5). I also take the message of Job seriously that in this world the righteous often suffer in spite of their righteousness and not because of any particular sin. Jesus is the perfect case in point. But it is going too far to suggest that Christianity offers no answers at all and that its not supposed to, even if it is hyperbole.

There are some who have made a philosophical move to define God’s goodness in such a way that it necessarily removes any possibility of punishment coming from God. Some go to extremes this way. I used to be one of them. They take the statement that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5 ESV) to mean that God never does anything that would cause pain and suffering to such an extent that God is relieved of any responsibility for even what the Bible clearly reveals to be his own judgment. John Barclay explains this as taking a concept—in this case God’s goodness—and “perfecting” it by taking it to its extreme definitionally. Often this takes concepts beyond how they could be defined in context biblically and then reads that concept back into scripture. Usually this involves screening out texts that don’t fit the “perfected” concept. Barclay offers Marcion as an extreme example of this biblically unwarranted “perfecting” of the concept of God’s goodness ( John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, Erdmanns, 2015, p. 71, Kindle).

Not everyone goes to the extremes that Marcion did, but many hold a view of God’s goodness that drives them to downplay God’s judgment almost entirely if not altogether. N.T. Wright is not actually among them. In his book, Evil and the Justice of God, he says, even though we are inclined to find it offensive, sometimes “God has to get his boots muddy and, it seems, to get his hands bloody, to put the world back to rights” (N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, Intervarsity, 2006, p. 65, Kindle). The use of punishment to restrain evil no more impugns God’s character than it would that of a police officer using force to stop someone from murdering another person. But some will feel the need to protect God’s character by disassociating punishment from God altogether. Others will prefer to use passive language to describe God’s judgment by suggesting that God only allows or permits people to suffer but never causes it directly.

The reality is we can never get away from the fact that God set up the world with consequences to sin built into it, and that the Bible at times clearly depicts God taking an active role in bringing about those consequences. Those who define God’s goodness in such a way as to exclude God’s judgment altogether are following the lead of Plato more so than Moses and the prophets, or Jesus and the apostles. Interestingly, when it comes to natural disasters or plagues, Wright does seem to be somewhat conflicted. He admits that the prophets would be content to attribute them to the judgment of God, but Wright himself is not quite as keen on doing that as they were (Evil and the Justice of God, p. 81).

So, what about COVID-19? Is it a punishment for sin? Is it true that Christianity really provides no answers and was never meant to? When Charles Wesley considered the reason for calamitous earthquakes in his day, he traced their cause back to the fall in Eden and their cure to repentance and faith in Jesus. The least we can and should say about the current pandemic is that it is a reminder of the first pandemic among human beings created in the image of God that got us quarantined from Eden in the first place. The pandemic of sin continues to plague the human race today. And its ramifications in creation remain with us still. Even if you consider that Eden was a specific place on Earth and not the entire Earth itself, the fact remains that God intended the shalom of Eden to multiply and spread with his image bearers around the globe. This was also the intention with the call of Abraham’s family through Isaac and Jacob, and this is the goal of the expanded family of Abraham to include Jews and Gentiles in Christ Jesus.

COVID-19 and all other causes of disease and death among people are a constant reminder of the aborted mission of humanity in Eden because of sin and the judgment of God. Atheists might say it’s just part of the cruel and callous randomness of the natural world, but Christians should not suggest the same. We may not have insight into the particular reasons for it in the present moment, but that doesn’t mean there is no reason at all, or that Christianity doesn’t give us any clue at all. From the Christian perspective we live in a fallen world because of the fall, and the fall was because of sin, and the punishment for sin is death. This is the bad news of the problem that points us to God’s solution in Christ. Easter is the answer to the coronavirus and to all disease and death because Jesus’ death and resurrection solves the problem of the pandemic of sin that is, according to scripture, the cause of all that plagues humanity.

Jesus said he would send the Spirit “to convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). I’m not sure how that can happen by downplaying the biblical connection between human sin and natural evil or to simply say Christianity provides no answers. To use a line from C.S. Lewis, what good is it for God to shout to us in our pain if he can provide no answers for its cause? Isn’t it normal for people to look for the cause of pain in order to alleviate it? The fact that we don’t have all the answers or the fact that there are some answers that are more problematic than others does not mean Christianity provides no answers. Rather than just calling people to lament over the brokenness of the world, why shouldn’t we also lead people to lament over the cause of the brokenness? Then we could lead people not only to lament, but to repent and to rejoice in the cure found in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who suffered under the curse to redeem us from it. To quote N.T. Wright, “there is no need to shrink back from the radical diagnosis, since the remedy is at hand” (Evil and the Justice of God, p, 100).

If the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, then we believe there are not only answers about the coronavirus, there is also an answer to it and everything else that plagues this fallen world because of the fall. Medical science may discover a solution to COVID-19. We all pray they do! But faith in Jesus is the ultimate answer to the problem of our broken and fallen world, and our sure and certain hope for the complete healing of it. And it is the answer that I know N.T. Wright knows and can explain very well. Maybe I’m just being one of those silly suspects and missing the point, but I think Wright missed an opportunity to present the radical diagnosis and the remedy of the gospel in that Time article.

 

 

Wilberforce in the Flow of God’s Grace

God has given us means of grace and called us to the practice of certain spiritual disciplines with and within the community of faith, the church, to get us into the flow of his grace. When we take time to pray, put our hearts into worship, renew our minds through the study of God’s word privately and together with the church, the Spirit of God shows up to meet with us. In these times of fellowship and communion with God, God transforms our hearts and renews our minds; God heals our sin sick souls in order to renew us in his image.

A grandmother who had clung to her old bicycle from childhood was about to take it to the dump. A friend told her about a man who could restore it to be even better than new. She hesitated but decided to give it a go. She took the rusty old, broken down thing to the shop. The repairman worked wonders. The bike was better than new. And it brought great joy not only to the grandmother, but also her nine year old granddaughter. Like a master craftsmen that can save a jalopy from a junkyard and make it a showstopper and award-winner, God by his grace can not only renew our shine, he can also restore our engine so that we will run in the way of his commandments (Psalm 119:32).

God’s grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit, renews us, but we have to get ourselves to the repair shop and meet with the only one who can really fix us. We have to get into the flow of God’s grace by living in the means of grace through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Prayer, fasting (training ourselves in self-denial by going without food, which helps us to gain self-control over our desires), Bible study, worship, and fellowship with other believers gets us in the flow.

In the early Methodist movement believers would meet together in small groups for more than just Bible study. They also met together to share how God was at work in their lives, to confess their sins to one another, to encourage each other, to pray for one another, all to help each become more like Jesus. They took the exhortation from Hebrews very seriously.

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. ~ Hebrews 10:24-25 NRSV

In meeting with each other for this purpose, God himself also joined in the fellowship by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and worked wonders in them, among them, and through them.

All of these spiritual practices got them in the flow of God’s grace where they could receive the good things that God wants us to have. The goal of the practices are all geared toward believers being renewed in the image of God by putting off the old sinful habits of heart and life and putting on new habits of heart and life.

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. ~ Ephesians 4:22-24 NRSV

Sometimes you will hear people pit religion against a relationship with God. It is true that people can do religious practices without a real relationship with God. But religious practices such as prayer and fasting and attending church for worship weekly are not bad practices. They can be directed toward the wrong goal, but they are definitely good practices when directed toward the right goal. True religion should help us to grow in our relationship with God and with our neighbors. True religion should lead us to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as we love our selves (Matthew 22:37-40). You couldn’t really have much of a friendship with another person if you never spent any time with them, talking to them and listening to them, could you? Attending church “religiously” to commune with God and fellowship with other believers also strengthens our friendship with God and our spiritual family; the church is our spiritual family.

Spiritual disciplines, which are religious practices, should be directed toward being renewed in the image of God, which is to be renewed in a holy love relationship with God and neighbor. We must remember that God’s grace is meant not only to flow to us to renew us, but also to flow through us so that we freely and fully share the blessing of God with the world. Our personal renewal is inextricably connected with the renewal of the whole world. John Wesley said all holiness (another way to talk about renewal in the image of God) is social holiness. That is all holiness is about relationships with others. First this includes our relationship with God, who is by nature and eternally social being as one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Holiness is about love of God and neighbor. Through faith we participate in the loving fellowship of the Trinity and thereby are enabled to truly love each other. Renewal in the image of God is renewal in these holy relationships, and is central and essential as the goal of the means of grace and the practices of our faith. John Wesley put it this way:

Ye know that all religion which does not answer this end, all that stops short of this, the renewal of our soul in the image of God after the likeness of him that created it, is no other than a poor farce, and a mere mockery of God, to the destruction of our own soul. ~ Sermon 44: On Original Sin

The more God’s blessing flows to us, the more God’s blessing will inevitably flow through us. According to the Bible the transformation of the world is tied to the transformation of humanity. The transformation of society through ministries of compassion and justice must flow through people whose hearts are being transformed by holy love, and whose minds are being renewed according to God’s holy law. We cannot truly love our neighbors if we do not first truly love God, and we cannot truly love God if we do not truly love our neighbors. The attempt to love neighbor apart from loving God is a twisted and distorted love. The attempt to make the world more just while ignoring our own need for God’s justification and righteousness in our own hearts and lives will be counterproductive at best. Works of compassion and justice in society should flow from human hearts being renewed in the love and righteousness of God.

In 1785 William Wilberforce had a radical conversion experience in England; he was born again. As a new creation in Christ he began to live differently, and developed an overwhelming concern for the wellbeing of others. Through relationships that he had with other evangelical Christians, Wilberforce became a leading abolitionist. He worked

William-Wilberforce
William Wilberforce

tirelessly for many, many years to end the slave trade in England. It was a long-fought and incredibly hard battle with a mighty army of opposition. In 1791, just a few days before his own death, John Wesley wrote a letter of encouragement to Wilberforce. In it he wrote in part:

BALAM, February 24, 1791.

DEAR SIR, — Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, [‘Athanasius against the world.’] I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it. . . .

Through the prayers and encouragement of countless people like John Wesley, and through gaining strength from God through the means of grace, William Wilberforce remained faithful in his struggle in the British parliament. After twenty years heading the campaign to abolish the slave trade, in 1807 Wilberforce finally saw the victory won with the passage of The Slave Trade Act. The blessing of God that flowed to him also flowed through him to bring the blessing of liberation to African slaves, who were all created in the image of God and many of whom were fellow Christians. The blessing of God that flowed to Wilberforce to renew him in God’s image also flowed through him in many other ways into society as well. Wilberforce also supported the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

When we get in the flow of God’s grace by living in the means of grace—by practicing spiritual disciplines, by praying faithfully, by fasting regularly, by renewing our minds to the word of God, and by attending worship at church weekly—God’s blessing will not only flow to us, it will also flow through us to bring blessing to others, and indeed to all creation. By transforming people like William Wilberforce, and people like you and me, God intends transformed people to transform the world. But we have to get into the flow.

For the Church, it’s the flow that started as Jesus’ first disciples devoted themselves to prayer (Acts 1:14) after Jesus ascended into heaven. Then one day, shortly thereafter, just as Jesus had promised (Acts 1:8), they found themselves in the flow of God’s blessing that empowered them to begin the transformation of the world.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. ~ Acts 2:1-4 NRSV

Are you ready to get in or get back into the flow?

New UMC Separation Plan: “Winning” the Church?

News broke late last week that an agreement had been reached to divide the United Methodist Church. Some news outlets wrongly reported that this was an “official” decision to divide the denomination over conflicts about LGBTQIA+ issues. The agreement reached through the help of a world class mediator was an agreement among United Methodist leaders representing people from a very wide swath across the ideological spectrum. This was an agreement among these diverse leaders to support this particular plan of separation together at the General Conference in May this year, giving it wider overall support than plans previously submitted. The General Conference will have to consider, debate, and vote on the plan of separation once presented. Amendments and modifications to the plan are also a possibility. The General Conference vote in May alone will determine whether the plan becomes official.

The new proposal incorporated elements from some of the other plans previously with modifications and additions representing a broader compromise between the differing factions: traditionalist and progressive. Some of the significant compromises that were negotiated involve the voting thresholds needed for annual conferences and local churches to reaffiliate with the traditionalist denomination that would be formed without having to relinquish property and other assets.

Generally speaking traditionalists have asked for simple majorities (50% +1) for annual conferences and local churches to make those decisions. Progressives, on the other hand, have fought for higher thresholds. In fact, up until last year’s special General Conference, they made it clear that they did not want a consistent plan of disaffiliation for local churches to be able to separate from the denomination and keep their local church property at all. Progressives desire as much leverage as possible. When they reluctantly came to provide for disaffiliation plans for conservative churches that do not desire to be affiliated with the increasingly radical progressive movement, they set the threshold for disaffiliation much higher. Their disaffiliation plans required a two-thirds vote threshold as well as other high cost hurdles for local churches.

Conservatives have generally wanted to make the process as painless as possible, but progressives want the decision for local churches to be more difficult. Again, as late as last February, they insisted upon being able to force congregations to have to choose between remaining faithful to their convictions or possibly walking away from their property altogether. Progressives used many noble sounding reasons about the importance of unity to justify the coercive tactics to be sure; but a coerced unity is not really unity at all. And their preferred “One Church Plan” with no disaffiliation option was defeated.

Nevertheless, the newest proposal reaches some middle ground between the simple majorities that traditionalists prefer and the higher thresholds that progressives prefer. By a vote of 57%, annual conferences (Methodism’s version of dioceses) may vote to affiliate with conservatives. Conferences that fail to meet that threshold, or that choose not to vote at all, will remain with the UMC as it now is (but if this separation plan is adopted will quickly allow for same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy without the current constraints of traditional marriage and probably even celibacy in singleness).

Local churches will have to officially call for a churchwide vote to affiliate with the conservative side. There will be an incentive for progressives to try to avoid having churches vote. Conservatives in local churches will need to be aware of the options and push for a discussion and vote in the local church. No vote means no chance of affiliating with the new conservative denomination where there will not be a trust clause, which means local churches will own the local church property.

Conservatives want a fellowship of the committed rather than a coalition of the coerced where the denomination can hold local churches hostage by threating to seize church property. Conservatives want churches free to focus on the mission of making disciples without the current confusion about what a disciple is really supposed to be. And conservatives want to be free to voluntarily work together to sow for a great awakening and see another mighty move of God in our day.

Nonetheless, for a local church not to vote will leave it by default with the progressive denomination, which will retain the United Methodist name and the trust clause (I seriously doubt the progressive denomination will give up the trust clause). If a vote is called, the church council, however, would have the power to set the threshold at a simple majority or at a two-thirds majority. This means a church council that is disproportionately progressive relative to the congregation as a whole could require a higher threshold and vice versa.

Again generally speaking conservatives want the decision threshold to be easier to achieve, and progressives want a higher threshold. Progressives seek as much leverage as they can get. They want to use property as leverage to put individuals and congregations in a position of having to choose between their traditional Christian convictions and remaining in a local church, that in many cases, they and their families have been a part of and helped build for generations. That is a horrible position to put individuals and local churches in, but that’s very well a position in which many local churches may find themselves.

In some cases a mere 34% of a congregation will be able to force a local church into remaining in the progressive affiliation where there will be more going on than many have really considered. Not only will the progressive UMC have same-sex marriage and practicing LGBTQIA+ clergy, there will also be progressive churches having drag queen children’s sermons promoting the early sexualization of children and potentially encouraging children as young as seven years old to begin gender transition treatments. These are real things and real debates happening in progressive circles already, including in progressive churches. There’s a lot more in that acronym than an L and a G! Progressive Mainliners have made it clear that they see an endless spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities, virtually all of which should be celebrated and affirmed. People in the pews and local congregations should not be fooled by those who will employ the terms “centrist” and “moderate” to lure people into remaining affiliated with the progressive radicalism.

The real tragedy here is that many people and conservative leaning congregations will be forced to choose between church property and what is right according to the Bible. In some cases people very well may have to decide between walking away from a local church property and remaining in fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:1-11). It’s a terrible position to be in.

We know Jesus talked about how horrible it would be for someone to gain the whole world but lose his or her soul, but we may never have imagined that local church property might be included in the admonition. We need to pray that local churches will have discernment and courage. If it comes down to it, church property is not worth losing one’s soul over. This doesn’t mean that people should rashly walk away, but we must count the cost. Some are going to gain church property and denominational assets by almost any means necessary, but at what ultimate cost? That’s the worst tragedy with this whole mess. Too many have walked away too early, but some will hold on far too long. May God give wisdom.

The other confusing thing in this new proposal for a lot of people is why it seems the traditionalist side has to “leave” the denomination when the traditional position is still the official position of the United Methodist Church. That position was actually strengthened at last year’s special General Conference! It is strange. But the reality is that progressives are in control of the mother ship so to speak. Although the progressive position is not official, most of the leadership of the denominational institutions and boards and agencies in the United States is progressive. Progressives have created an overall  denominational leadership culture in the United States that operates under the assumption of theological pluralism. There’s really no serious commitment to the historic doctrinal standards of Methodism. Liberals and progressives have played fast and lose with the historic doctrines for a long time. Most of the time they use the traditional vocabulary but with liberal/progressive definitions.

Sometimes they use the term “generous orthodoxy” but really mean a license for heterodoxy and heresy. There is little will or desire among leadership in the United States to enforce commitment to our doctrinal standards despite the very serious vows we all take at ordination about teaching and defending them. In fact, the opposite often happens. Heterodoxy is given a pass or even celebrated, while a serious commitment to orthodoxy is punished as being too narrow or inflexible. In my own case, the board of ordained ministry expressed concerns about my conservative views. One person insisted that I should understand that all religions really lead to the same place. The board also officially required me to read a book that promotes the idea that genuine Christianity is radically diverse in terms of doctrine and that orthodoxy, including that found in the historic creeds and even in the teachings of John Wesley, was a corruption of the Christian faith. True story; I have it in writing.

Just a few months ago I was at a conference, sponsored by Duke Divinity School and the Duke Endowment with two bishops and several district superintendents present, where one of the main speakers not only denied the doctrine of original sin, but denied that Adam and Eve sinned at all in the garden of Eden. Many in attendance were concerned, but not enough among the leadership of two annual conferences and Duke Divinity School. They were indifferent at best, if not openly praising the false teaching. If this is true for two conferences in the Bible Belt, what do you think it’s like across the United States as a whole? Bishops and pastors can not only deny the virgin birth and bodily resurrection and get away with it, they can also deny the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity without any serious concern. For that matter, some can bring monotheism or possibly even theism altogether in question without any serious concern of accountability to our doctrinal standards. If anything they might receive a tap on the hand and a wink and a nod to be more subtle.

So, as strange as it seems, even though the official position of the denomination is the traditional position, most of the leadership of the denomination in the United States will not enforce accountability to that position. For many decades now, the operating assumption in the United States has been a commitment to theological pluralism and doctrinal indifferentism, which ironically involves a hostility to a serious commitment to orthodoxy and traditional morality.

That’s why we have the strange phenomena of it looking like the “winners” at all of the General Conferences since the 1970’s have to “leave” the denomination. The new proposal, however, is actually an agreement to divide the denomination into two separate denominations. One of the concessions though is the progressive side gets to keep the United Methodist name and almost all the denominational assets with the exception of local church properties and annual conference properties that vote to align with the conservative side, which will also get $25 million. At any rate, it will be hard to avoid the perception that Traditionalists were just allowed (forced?) to “leave” with the short end of the stick. If this new proposal in some from passes, denominational property and assets will be gained and lost by both sides, even if some will gain more than others. Everyone involved should pray not to lose their soul in the process.

We all need to count the cost. As strange as it may seem, Jesus just might say, “what good is it to gain a church and lose your soul. God, grant us wisdom and courage!

There are major decisions ahead for local churches. Local churches must call for a vote if they will have a chance to choose which side to align with. Not voting at all is a vote to align with the progressive movement. The potential decisions ahead are quite stark, a broad way of being a church or the narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14). Choose wisely.Broad Path Narrow Path

God be with you!

(Listen to Billy Abraham describe the clear choice that will have to be made)

See News Release from Council of Bishops Here.

Christian Self-defense? Should Christians Fight Back?

In the aftermath of the church shooting last Sunday in Texas where an armed church member killed the murderer, some pacifist Christians expressed sadness. They were sad that church members were armed in the first place; they were sad that the murderer was shot and killed. Some believe witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ itself was greatly harmed by this act of collective self-defense. They believe this because they believe the gospel is, at least in large part, about a commitment to absolute non-violence. In the minds of some it would have been better if church members refused to use deadly force even if it meant many more people would have been murdered.

Many pacifists would be okay with some type of force to stop the murderer, but not lethal force. Absolute pacifists would also object to the use of deadly force even by police officers. Killing, in their minds, is never justified. To them, Jesus’ death on the cross was an act of absolute pacifism and its ultimate example. In this light, to be a follower of Jesus involves a commitment to absolute pacifism. While some pacifists would see their view as one they would personally hold with firm conviction without condemning other Christians, others are quite aggressive (“pacifist-aggressive”) and are quick to accuse non-pacifist Christians of betraying the gospel itself as they see it.

While I respect conscientious pacifist convictions, and believe all Christians should strive to be “almost absolute pacifists,” I do disagree with them. One reason is that pacifists seem to be more committed to non-violence than Jesus. When someone is more committed to non-violence in the name of Jesus than Jesus himself was and is, something may have gone awry.

A key messianic passage in Isaiah 11:1-10 indicates that Messiah will establish a world of perfect peace by bringing perfect justice. He will judge in favor of the meek; and he will do this by killing the wicked.

And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. ~ Isaiah 11:3-4 ESV

Saint Paul evokes this very passage in 2 Thessalonians in reference to the judgment that Christ will execute on the Antichrist and those who allow themselves to be seduced by the same spirit of lawlessness.

And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. ~ 2 Thessalonians 2:8 ESV

Jesus reiterated the promise of the Old Testament that the meek (i.e. those humble enough to trust and obey God’s word) will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). At that final judgment, in Matthew 24 Jesus himself says of the one who fails to remain alert and faithful that his coming will catch them off guard, and he “will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51).

Some will object that Jesus executing divine justice in the final judgment does not mean other people, especially Christians, are allowed to use violence to punish and suppress evil now. Jesus, however, indicated that he would also carry out divine judgment in this world before the final judgment after the same pattern of divine judgment we find in the Old Testament. As the Lord brought judgment on Israel and Judah via the Assyrians and Babylonians, so too Jesus warned that judgment would once again fall on Jerusalem, this time via the Romans, for rejecting him. In the parable of the vineyard and tenants, where the tenants mistreated servants sent by the owner of the vineyard (i.e. the prophets) and killed his son whom he sent, Jesus said in response to his own question about what the owner would do to the tenants, “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Luke 20:16a). This was about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Just before this, in Luke 19:11-27 Jesus tells a parable in which he uses an analogy of investing for faithful discipleship while awaiting his second coming. It too may be in part a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans that also foreshadows the final judgment. Jesus ends the parable by saying: “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:27). There are many other passages like this.

If Jesus came to teach absolute pacifism above all, he went about it in a curious way. This should make one question, at least a little bit, whether Jesus was committed to absolute pacifism. But we’re not Jesus. So, are Christians supposed to be absolute pacifists to be genuine Christians? Well, as I’ve already indicated the Bible is replete with examples of God executing lethal force to punish the wicked. In this world it was often carried out by the hands of humans, including his own people. God actually instituted government authorities to use lethal force to punish and suppress evil. The basis of this is in Genesis 9:6:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

Paul says in Romans 13 that government authorities have been ordained by God to encourage good and to punish, in order to deter, evil.

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. ~ Romans 13:3-4 (see also 1 Peter 2:13-14)

Contrary to what many might think, government is actually a good thing; in fact it’s a God thing for the overall good of human society in this fallen world where evil still lurks. But like any good thing, government can be corrupted by sinful people to promote evil and punish good. It happened throughout the history of Israel and every other nation as well. As a result there are times when God’s people have to say, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29; ). This is a lesson Revelation certainly makes abundantly clear. In general, nonetheless, government authorities are authorized to use lethal force to punish and suppress evil. And among many of the earliest converts to Christianity were Roman soldiers (i.e. Acts 10). There is no indication in the New Testament that soldiers who converted were required to stop being soldiers or to refrain from the use of lethal force in carrying out their duties. Although there were some pacifist voices, like Tertullian and Origen, in the first few centuries of the Church, there was also a rapidly increasing number of Christians in the Roman military. Some of the earliest persecutions of Christians at the hands of the government started first among Christian soldiers.

When government authorities are reasonably functional, nevertheless, no one, including Christians should seek personal vengeance against evildoers themselves apart from recognized government authorities. In Romans 12:9-21 Paul, echoing the teachings of Jesus says Christians should not render evil for evil, but instead meet evil with good, to meet cursing with blessing. Neither should Christians try to avenge themselves by seeking personal retribution. Instead we are to leave vengeance to God. The first section of Romans 13 referenced above should make it clear that this doesn’t mean that Christians should just avoid seeking justice in this life and simply wait for the final judgment. We should cooperate with and support governmental authorities in responsibly carrying out their duties. Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Personal vengeance for an act of evil is not permitted, but the vengeance of God carried out through the sanctioned authorities is when absolutely necessary. But even then we should seek the ultimate good of the evildoer, that they would be led to repentance through the goodness and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ living in us. But what about in situations of an immediate murderous threat to self and others? Should Christians defend themselves and others with lethal force if necessary in situations like that?

Some will say that the teaching of Jesus itself prohibits Christians from defending themselves and others with lethal force.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. ~ Matthew 5:38-42

To interpret this as requiring absolute non-resistance under any circumstance is a stretch, as the context of the rest of the Bible should make clear. A slap on the cheek was a personal insult to express hatred and contempt for another person. Christians are not to return hatred for hatred and contempt for contempt, insult for insult. Christians should seek to diffuse hatred with love and evil with good. Christians should avoid personal retaliation and seeking personal vengeance, as we have already seen. But we should not think that there is no limit whatsoever to Jesus’ command not to resist one who is evil anymore than we should think there is not limit to his command to give money to one who begs. We should give to those who are truly in need as we are able, but it doesn’t mean we are required to give everything we have to a swindler simply because he begs (see 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). If an evil person is murderously rampaging against Christians or anyone else, self-defense and the defense of others is not prohibited. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Christians should not call the proper authorities to stop a criminal attack. An insulting slap on the cheek is one thing, an attack with a deadly weapon with the intent to murder is another.

In Luke 22:35-38, Jesus gave his disciples instruction for what they should have to be prepared after his imminent arrest. He told them to have a moneybag, a knapsack, and a sword. If they didn’t have a sword, he told them to sell their cloak to get one if necessary. The type of sword he mentioned was used for self-defense, especially to ward off violent robbers. When his disciples told him they had two swords, Jesus, in apparent approval, said, “It is enough” (Luke 22:38).Roman Dagger

Some interpret Jesus’ statement as a rebuke for having the swords at all. This makes little sense, however, in light of the fact that Jesus had just told them to get a sword even at the cost of their cloak. Some, nonetheless, will raise the objection that the fact that Jesus told his disciples not to use their swords to defend him when he was arrested indicates that he really did not want them to use swords for self-defense at all. But just because Jesus did not want them to use their swords to keep him from being arrested and executed does not mean he did not want them to be prepared to defend themselves against sudden attacks from malevolent individuals on the streets of Jerusalem.

Jesus repeatedly made it clear, as he again reiterated in Luke 22:35-38, that he was going to be killed at the hands of corrupt religious and government officials in order to fulfill Scripture. Earlier, when he had told his disciples this was going to happen, Peter said he wouldn’t allow it. But Jesus rebuked him for his satanically inspired zeal to thwart the will of God (Mark 8:31-33). The scripture Jesus specifically alluded to in Luke 22:35-38 was Isaiah 53. There we see the righteous suffering servant called to lead Israel back to God and to be a light to the nations, who would die as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice for the sins of others in order to make many righteous. There is no indication that his death was to be the ultimate example of absolute pacifism. In light of so much of the Bible in both testaments, including the teaching of Jesus himself, there certainly seems to be some clear limits to Jesus’ pacifism.

He certainly calls his disciples to be prepared to die for their faithfulness to the word of God at the hands of a corrupt culture and tyrannical authorities like he was if necessary (Mark 8:34-38; Matthew 10:16-32). His sacrificial death and resurrection deliver those who believe from the fear of death that the evil one uses to enslave people to conformity to the ways of a wicked world. But this doesn’t mean Christians should not also be prepared to defend themselves and others in emergency situations when there is no time to wait for the proper authorities. It also doesn’t mean that Christians should discourage God-ordained authorities from justly using lethal force when necessary.

When one interprets Matthew 5:38-39 in a wooden literal sense to advocate an absolutist pacifist position, it seems to lead to a lot of distorted mental and exegetical gymnastics to interpret the rest of the Bible through that lens. Among progressive Christian pacifists, it is quite baffling how they can insist that people under all circumstances deny their God-given desire to preserve life by using lethal force only if absolutely necessary, by employing such an absolutist wooden literal interpretation of a couple of verses from Matthew 5. It’s baffling because they also give a pass on Jesus’ teaching about denying one’s illicit sexual desire especially considering Jesus’ dire hyperbolic warning in that regard (Matthew 5:27-30). Not all pacifists do this, but a lot of progressive pacifists certainly do when it comes to anything on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum of sexual desire. Nonetheless, John Wesley recognized Jesus’ exhortation to non-resistance in the face of evil was not to be taken in a strict wooden literal sense (see Wesley’s Notes). It’s better to interpret Matthew 5:38-39 through the lens of the overarching Biblical witness as Wesley did.

But we should be thankful for the witness of conscientious pacifists that help us to wrestle with these things. We should all be pacifists as far as is reasonably possible. “If possible,” we should all do everything we can “to live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). We should do our best to strive to avoid the use of violence, whether by our own hands or the hands of others. Violence should never be the first line of defense, but at times in this fallen world it will be necessary as a last resort. Thankfully, there will be a time when it will no longer will be. That’s at the second coming of Jesus the Messiah who will usher in a world of perfect peace, but only after he has used lethal force to destroy the wicked.

Come, Lord Jesus!

 

So, What are We Praying for?

Prayer and worship are chief among the means of grace. New life in Christ begins with prayer and is sustained and strengthened by prayer. But genuine Christian prayer is informed and transformed by the word of God. The Bible is essential and indispensable to prayer and all the other means of grace and spiritual disciplines. The Bible should inform and transform the content and direction of our prayer and our worship with the help of the Holy Spirit. The Bible reveals to us that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9-10); the Spirit enables us to believe the message of the Bible and confess Jesus as Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3). The Spirit also helps us in our weakness to pray as we ought to pray.  In other words, the Holy Spirit inspires and guides us to pray according to the word of God, which reveals the will of God. The Spirit even picks up where we fall short and prays for us.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. ~ Romans 8:26-27 NRSV

In our weakness we easily forget what Jesus said should be the focus of our prayer lives. For that matter, we easily forget what should be the focus of the entirety of our lives as Christians, including all the other means of grace and practice of spiritual disciplines. Jesus warned that our focus should not be on worldly riches and acclaim and our own personal comfort and convenience (Matthew 6:19-33; Luke 12:13-34). Instead of allowing our lives and prayer lives to be consumed by the worry over our own comfort and security in this world, “about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25 NRSV), Jesus tells us to “strive first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33 NRSV).

In other words, our personal desires for pleasure, comfort, and security in this world should not be focus of our lives; neither should they be the focus of our prayer lives. God and God’s will for us should be at the center of our prayers. In all things, especially in prayer we should seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. We should pray for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness to come and reign supreme in our own lives, and flow through us into the lives of others and the rest of the world. Jesus said:

  “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” ~ Matthew 6:9-13 NRSV

This is how the Holy Spirit inspires and guides us to pray according to God’s will revealed in God’s word, especially in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:1-18).praying hands on bible

The Spirit will also inspire and guide us in our worship of God together in the church where prayer and the reading and preaching of the Bible together with the liturgy and songs and hymns of the church, and especially the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, conform us to the image of Christ. In worship also we seek first the kingdom and God and his righteousness to renew us into the image and likeness of God so that we will be blessed to be a blessing to our communities and our world for the glory of God’s name among the nations. Prayer, Bible study, and worship are all means to this goal, a goal that will be brought to completion at the resurrection of the body when Jesus comes again. This is what Christians are called to pray for.

It’s not that we should never pray for our own needs. Jesus did say to pray “gives us this day our daily bread.” Indeed, we are to pray for our needs, the greatest of which is for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done in our lives and over all the earth. Jesus is not warning about praying for our need; he is warning about praying according to our greed. Where our will is opposed to God’s, we must pray for our will to be transformed to be in harmony with the will of God. James tells us that praying according to our own desires without regard for the will of God is a mistake. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3 NRSV). But when we pray according to God’s will, when we pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his righteousness to be ours, he hears us and will grant our requests.

And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. ~ 1 John 5:14-15 NRSV

The primary focus of our prayer life should be the truly good things that God wants us to have. We should pray for faith, hope, and love. We should pray for God’s wisdom (James 1:5) so we can know the difference between good and evil and have the courage to do what is right. We should pray for the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control Galatians 5:22-23), to be abundant in our lives in in our churches. We should pray for the works of our sinful nature in us to be removed from our hearts (Galatians 5:24; Colossians 3:5-9) and be replaced by the godly, Christ-like character that God wants to give us.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. ~ Colossians 3:1-17 NRSV

In other words, we should pray to be the kind of people that Jesus said we should be in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This is the will of God for us, and it is the most important thing for us to ask for in prayer. And Jesus promised regarding these good things that God wants to give us:

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” ~ Matthew 7:7-11 NRSV

It is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that makes these virtues and holy character possible in our lives (See Luke 11:1-12). These are the good things that God wants us to pray for. This is what is means to seek the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness first.

A man set his sights on winning the lottery. One day he bought a winning ticket that brought him tens of millions of dollars. He thought it was the answer to his prayers. But winning it all caused him to lose everything that really mattered. His prayer life was focused on all the wrong things. He had millions of dollars, but little to no love. He bought a mansion, but did not secure a place in the house of the Lord. He had lots of fancy cars, but no true friends. He desperately tried to fill the void in his soul with all the shiny things money could buy, but still felt empty. Eventually he blew all the money, he had to sell most of his things, and he lost all hope because he had put his hope in the uncertainty of temporal riches rather than in the eternal God. He gained the world, but lost his soul (see Mark 8:36; Luke 12:13-21).

God wants us to have something so much better than anything this fallen world has to offer us. He wants us to have the things that make for an eternal home with him. Our prayers, our worship, and everything we do should be according to what God wants. And what God wants is the absolute best for us. If God get’s everything he wants, which is all of us, we who trust God with our lives will eternally have everything we could ever need.

So, what are you praying for?

 

For us and For our Salvation: Why God Became Human

A few kids in a youth group asked their United Methodist pastor: “Do we (i.e. United Methodists) believe people need to be saved? Our Baptist friends always talk about being saved. Do we believe that too?”

The short answer is yes, of course! Of course we United Methodists believe in the need for salvation (even if some unofficially find the traditional notion distasteful). But there is more to salvation than just getting a free ticket to go to heaven rather than hell when we die.

Genesis tells us that God created humanity in his image and after his likeness to be his royal representatives on earth. God intended to exercise his loving and righteous rule over creation through humanity. We were created not only to be blessed by a holy loving relationship with God, but also to be mediators through which the blessing of God would flow to the rest of creation. We were also created to lead the rest of creation in praise of God for the glory of God.

There are small, seemingly insignificant pipes that allow water to flow into and out of our homes. With the water we quench our thirst, prepare our food, and clean ourselves, our clothes and dishes and more. Large cables and thin and imperceptible wires also allow electricity to flow into and through our homes providing lighting, heating, cooling, and powering our electronics. Has the flow of water or electricity ever been disrupted at your house?

Recently a car ran off the road and hit a power pole in our neighborhood. It snapped a cable, which cut off all the electricity to our home and many others on a Saturday night. We ended up eating takeout by candle light. Fortunately my lap top was charged enough for us to be able to watch a family movie on DVD. But we all realize how much better things are with flowing water and electricity when they get disrupted.

When the first humans, Adam and Eve, gave into the temptation of Satan in the Garden of Eden and sinned against God it disrupted the flow of God’s blessing not only to them, but also the flow of God’s blessing to the rest of creation that came through them. Their hearts were corrupted and their minds were darkened; and the whole creation suffered as a result. Sin not only hurt their relationship with God and each other, it also brought a curse on the created world. Because the image of God in humanity was distorted, disharmony in the rest of the world followed. Like a disease, the corrupting power of sin spread to all humans who were born after Adam and Eve and the whole world suffered.

God called the nation of Israel to restore God’s blessing to the world, to be a light among all the other nations. He gave them commandments, summed up in the Ten Commandments. He promised that they would be blessed to be a blessing to the rest of the nations of the world if they would keep them; he warned them that they would be cursed if they rebelled. Although they had some shining moments, they were few and fleeting. After hundreds and hundreds of years of repeated rebellion, the nation of Israel was destroyed and expelled from the promised land. Like Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden, Israel was exiled from the land that God had given them.

Israel failed to restore the blessing of God to creation. The power of sin that had been passed from Adam and Eve to the rest of the human race proved to be too strong for humanity to overcome on its own. The promised blessings of God depended on human obedience, but humanity, even Israel with a special relationship with God, proved to be utterly unwilling and therefore incapable of fulfilling its part of the covenant. God had made these promises that depended on human obedience for their fulfillment, now what would God do? . . .

 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. ~ Galatians 4:4 NRSV

Madonna and ChildGod’s blessing to the world depends on humans being obedient to God’s design for them. Humans are meant to live in peace and harmony with God so peace and harmony can flow through them to each other and the rest of creation. When fallen humanity proved incapable, God himself in the person of the one and only eternal Son of God became human and was born of the Virgin Mary. Evoking Isaiah 7:14, Matthew tells us he was Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Joseph, Mary’s husband, at the behest of the angel named him Jesus, which means “the Lord Saves” (Matt 1:21). As a full-fledged human, Jesus fulfilled humanity’s obligation of obedience to God. God in Christ Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves, and by grace through faith allows us to share fully in the blessing that he himself restored. Saint Paul put it this way:

If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just 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.  ~ Romans 5:17-19 NRSV

Saint John put it this way:

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16 NRSV

Jesus’ obedience to God cost him his life at the hands of sinful men (Philippians 2:8). But although evil people can kill, God can raise the dead. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus God offers us forgiveness of sins and new life as a free gift.

We are saved by grace (i.e. what God has done for us in Christ Jesus), through faith (trusting in Jesus), for good works, a new way of life in the world.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. ~ Ephesians 2:8-10 NRSV

The incarnation of the Son of God, his life, death, and resurrection planted the seed of the new creation within the midst of our fallen world. It was a seed that sprang forth with Jesus from the heart of the earth when he arose from the dead. It continues to grow even now, and we can participate in its transforming power by grace through faith.

In the Methodist tradition we believe God’s grace leads us and empowers us to believe. When we believe we are justified and forgiven by God on account of the shed blood of Christ. At the same time we are also born anew from above by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the new birth we receive a new heart for a holy life that we must grow into. It is God’s grace that helps us grow. In this process called sanctification we are enabled to shed ourselves of the corruption of sin and to be renewed into the image and likeness of God as God intended when God first created humanity. It is a process where God heals our distorted desires and corrects our false beliefs. Sin makes us want to do things selfishly that are not right; in our darkened minds we seek to justify ourselves with falsehoods and lies. The grace of God renews us “in true righteousness and holiness” (see Eph 4:17-32).

To help us in this renewal of the image of God in holy love in us, God has given us certain practices of discipleship, spiritual disciplines, that we are called to practice together in the church. These are called means of grace. Means of grace are like channels that connect us to God so God’s grace in Christ can flow to us to renew us. If you want to receive the benefits of the internet, you have to get connected, right? You have to get access to the right signal. The means of grace and the practice of spiritual disciplines gets us connected to receive the grace of God that renews us into the image of God. But the reconnecting to God the Father through the Son is not merely restoring power, it is the restoration of a relationship that was lost. It is the restoration of friendship with God.

The means of grace include prayer, Bible study, worship (including the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion), fasting, fellowship with believers, works of mercy and compassion in the Church and world. These practices put us in the best position to receive the signal of God’s grace so we can grow. But we must not forget that the means of grace all have an end, meaning a goal.

A basketball coach gives basketball players certain drills to practice so they can become good, hopefully even great, players. A band director gives students certain things to practice so they can become good musicians. But becoming a good basketball player is not just meant to benefit the individual, but also a team and a school or a city. A good musician is meant to benefit a band and those who will be enriched by the music.

God gives us certain practices to help renew us into the image and likeness of God, but not just for ourselves. God wants to not only bless us, but to bring blessing to the rest of the world through us. The goal of renewal in the image of God will be complete in the resurrection of the body when Christ comes again. This is called glorification. It’s the goal of the means of grace and the practice of spiritual disciplines, including all the gifts of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:7-16; 1 Corinthians 12-14). Completion of renewal in the image of God will not only restore blessing to humanity, it will also restore the fullness of God’s blessing to the rest of creation (Rom 8:18-30). But whenever we faithfully practice spiritual disciplines now, a measure of God’s blessing will not only flow to us, but also through us into our families, to our friends and even our enemies, to our communities, and to the rest of creation, which God is renewing as he renews us.

By practicing spiritual disciplines we work out our salvation as God works in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure”(Philippians 2:12-13). By participating in our own jesus-bridge-1transformation, we participate in God’s transformation of the whole world. In other words, the means of grace, made possible by the obedience of Jesus Christ, are a bridge to somewhere. That somewhere is the kingdom of God fully come in the new heaven and earth (Revelation 21-22).

Joy to the world!

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground:
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found.

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son
is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic* and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism
for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
*universal
The United Methodist Hymnal # 880.

 

 

Man Cannot Live by Chick-Fil-A Alone; Support the Salvation Army

Chick-Fil-A has hit the headlines hard. For one reason because of left-wing protests and demonstrations outside of some of its newer locations, like one in Toronto. Left-wing activists have excoriated Chick-Fil-A for its support of traditional Christian values on marriage and family. They have also decried its charitable contributions to organizations like the Salvation Army, which also upholds traditional values on sex and marriage. In the face of such protests, conservative Christians have rallied to support Chick-Fil-A. Many would say it’s that support that has helped it become one of the most prosperous fast-food chains in the country, despite not opening on Sundays. Yet a couple of weeks ago Chick-Fil-A was in the headlines for different reasons.chickfila meal

After an interview with Chick-Fil-A executives, Bisnow published an article entitled “EXCLUSIVE: Chick-fil-A To Stop Donations to Charities with Anti-LGBT Views.”  In the article the COO, Tim Tassopoulos, is quoted as saying: “There’s no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are,” and “There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message.”

The journalist, Cameron Sperance, went on to explain that “the new initiative will no longer include donating to organizations like the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Paul Anderson Youth Home, Chick-fil-A says, all of which sparked criticism in the past from the LGBTQ community due to the organizations’ stances on homosexuality.” Sperance also said, “Future partners could include faith-based and non-faith-based charities, but the company said none of the organizations have anti-LGBT positions” (emphasis mine).

This November 18th article came on the heels of news that a halftime show singer for the Thanksgiving Day game between the Cowboys and Bills, Ellie Goudling, threatened to cancel her performance because the Cowboys work with the Salvation Army to help the homeless. The Salvation Army is not just a charitable organization, it is a Christian denomination in the Wesleyan tradition, founded by William and Catherine Booth. Because they have an official position that sex is for marriage and marriage should only be between one man and one woman—the same official position of the United Methodist Church and many other Christian denominations around the country and the world— leftists have labeled them a hate group. This is in spite of the fact that they are one of the largest and most effective providers of poverty relief for people from all walks of life. Just today a Salvation Army bell ringer told me how thankful for how much the Salvation Army had done for him despite his sinful past and criminal background. They help anyone who needs it. But for some left-wing activists identity politics comes before helping people in need.Salvation Army Bell Ringer

In response to Chick-Fil-A’s decision not to renew their support for them, the Salvation Army made the following statements:

“We’re saddened to learn that a corporate partner has felt it necessary to divert funding to other hunger, education and homelessness organizations — areas in which The Salvation Army, as the largest social services provider in the world, is already fully committed,” and “We serve more than 23 million individuals a year, including those in the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, we believe we are the largest provider of poverty relief to the LGBTQ+ population.”

“When misinformation is perpetuated without fact, our ability to serve those in need, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion or any other factor, is at risk,” The Salvation Army continued. “We urge the public to seek the truth before rushing to ill-informed judgment and greatly appreciate those partners and donors who ensure that anyone who needs our help feels safe and comfortable to come through our doors.” https://www.dailywire.com/news/salvation-army-releases-statement-on-chick-fil-a-cutting-ties-chick-fil-a-issues-new-statement

The news that Chick-Fil-A would no longer donate to organizations with traditional views on sexual morality and marriage sparked concern and outrage in conservative circles. Many conservatives felts betrayed. Some asked Chick-Fil-A to clarify their position. The Bisow article said Chick-Fil-A would continue to give to faith-based organizations, but not to one’s with “Anti-LGBTQ” views. In response to inquiries from The Christian Post, Chick-Fil-A representatives insisited they had not capitulated to political pressure and that they would continue to give to Christian organizations. That same article in The Christian Post, however, reminds us that the COO, Tim Tassopoulos, had told Bisnow

“There’s no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are,” and

“There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message.” and

“When there is a tension, we want to make sure we’re being clear. We think this is going to be helpful.”

Tassopoulos says Chick-Fil-A wants to be clear regarding the negative press they have received. Well Bisnow and many other media outlets came to the clear conclusion that Chick-Fil-A will no longer be giving to organizations like the Salvation Army that have supposedly “anti-LGBTQ” views (i.e. traditional Chrisitin views on sex and marriage). In light of the denials that that is actually the case, conservatives asked for further clarification from Chick-Fil-A. Franklin Graham called the CEO, Dan Cathy, personally. Mr. Cathy assured Rev. Graham that they had not changed their values. Some were satisfied, many were not. If they were really trying to be clear it didn’t work.

Some conservative Christians were offended that other conservatives would question Chick-Fil-A’s loyalty, much less condemn their decision. They said since it has long been a supporter of traditional Christian values that everyone should just give them the benefit of the doubt. Some suggested that it was un-Christian, even Pharisaical to raise such concerns about Chick-Fil-A. Apparently, some think it’s divisive to question and express concerns about Chick-Fil-A’s decision, but fine to depict those expressing those concerns as a pitchfork wielding mob of Pharisees.

If I had heard conflicting reports about the decisions of a friend, I would ask that friend for clarification, privately of course. But Chick-Fil-A is a corporation that made very public statements ostensibly to clarify its values. When the headline from an exclusive interview says what it said, I can understand the concern and the calls for further clarification, especially in light of the denials.

Specifically, if Chick-Fil-A wants to be clear about its values, it would be nice to know: Did the Bisnow article misrepresent their new initiative and the rationale for it? Chick-Fil-A said they will still support faith-based and non-faith-based organizations period. But the Bisnow article said that “the company said” none of the organizations have “anti-LGBTQ” views. Does this mean Chick-Fil-A will no longer support organizations like the Salvation Army because of their views regarding sexual morality and marriage? Or does Chick-Fil-A reject the idea that groups like the Salvation Army actually have “anti-LGBTQ” views? If so, why stop supporting them?

I think those are fair questions given the circumstances.

Grayson Gilbert reported that Chick-Fil-A’s recent decisions were at least a few years in the making. He says Dan Cathy admitted it was a mistake to oppose same-sex marriage in 2014. And it does seem that the way Chick-Fil-A wants to clarify its values in terms of its giving is in response to the criticism it has received based in the perception of its support for traditional values. I have to admit, I have my doubts that its representatives will make a clear and unequivocal statement in support of traditional Christian beliefs regarding marriage. At least I hope they would affirm the right of organizations like the Salvation Army to hold and express traditional views without harassment and threat of government coercion. Nonetheless, the Salvation Army will still receive my support and I hope yours as well. People like the young man I talked to today need help from the Salvation Army, and few do it better.

Regardless of where Chick-Fil-A really stands, make no mistake about what we are dealing with. The reason there is a controversy in the first place is because a powerful segment of the population in the Western world refuses to tolerate even the existence of organizations with traditional values on marriage in its precincts. Boston, Buffalo, and San Antonio all blocked Chick-Fil-A from opening new restaurants. A new Chick-Fil-A in Toronto was blockaded by protestors and a new London location had to shut down amid protests after only eights days. All of this because of their perceived support for traditional values. A perception that it seems Chick-Fil-A wants to change.

Leftists demand total capitulation and the full acceptance of their values, anything less will not be tolerated. This includes organizations like the Salvation Army and any other that refuses to abandon their traditional Christian beliefs regarding sex and marriage.

CBS has a new show called “Evil.” It’s about a team employed by a Catholic diocese to invesigate puported cases of demonic possession and other supernatural phenomena. In one of the early episodes the skeptic, former Catholic, agnostic psychologist asked her priest in training team member, why he would want to be a priest in the Catholic Church given its treatment of the LGBTQ community (strange that her concern was not about the child sex abuse scandals). The priest in training responded by saying the church is flawed, but needs “good” people to correct it. After watching several episodes, for several reasons, including what clearly seems to be a mixed portrayal of occult practices and a positive portrayal of a “throuple” (bisexual/polyamorous relationship), I’ve gotten the impression that the show’s producers are more interested in blurring the lines between good and evil than exposing the devices of the latter. A few weeks before the episode that clearly seemed to put a positive spin on polyamory, CBS published a glowing article about the same, including open marriages, that expressed disapproval of anyone’s disapproval of such relationships.

Make no mistake, the message to the Church is loud and clear, it must change to affirm and celebrate sexual behavior that it has traditionally deemed sinful. The pressure that organizations like Chick-Fil-A and the Salvation Army (which is a denominaitonal church) have faced will not stop at the front doors of other traditional churches. As a matter of fact, infiltrators slipped through the back door long ago anyway. We have already seen that many denominations have already capitulated to the pressure, much of which has come from within. If Chick-Fil-A in fact did capitulate, at least they clung to traditional values far longer than almost all mainline denominations before leftists activists started telling them to “cluck off!” (This literally was the message on picket signs in front of the new Toronto location). The radical sexual revolutionaries will accept nothing but total surrender. Mutual tolerance will not be tolerated, even though the sexual revolutionaries ascended to cultural power under that banner.

For a longtime our culture and much of the church in America has fed the flesh; now we are dealing with the beast. It resembles the beast described in Revelation, chapter 13. This is the leader of the world empire empowered by Satan that wages war against the saints and won’t allow anyone to buy or sell without his stamp approval, which requires total allegiance to his dark agenda. God’s people, however, are called to endurance (13:10), which means not to compromise with the idolatry and sexual immorality of the world empire over which the beast reigns (see messages to the churches in Rev 2, 3, and 17). The world empire is described as a great prostitute that makes the world drunk with sexual immorality.

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” ~ Rev 17:1-2 ESV

Churches and individual Christians in the first century were called to be faithful to the end, to not capitulate to a hostile culture, if it cost them their livelihoods, or even if it cost them their lives.

Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. ~ Rev 2:10

Perhaps Chick-Fil-A compromised to sell more chicken sandwiches and waffle fries and gain cultural respectability; I hope not, but maybe they did. Whatever the case, when faced with temptation, every follower of Jesus needs to remember that man cannot live on bread alone. Jesus reminds us of this when he faced the temptation of the devil, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (Matt 4:4). Christians cannot live by Chick-Fil-A alone either.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. 1 John 2:15-17

 

 

 

 

 

Finding God When All is Lost

The mother of a mischievous boy sent him to talk to their pastor, hoping the young fella would see the error of his ways. The pastor asked the little man, “Where is God? The boy clamed up and didn’t say a word. Again the pastor asked more emphatically, “Where is God?!” The boy slid to the edge of his chair as he tightly clinched its edge, but still didn’t say a word. Again the pastor asked, “Where is God, young man?!!” This time the boy bolted for the door, ran straight home, and exclaimed to his mother, “Momma, Momma! They’ve lost God down at the church, and they think I’ve got something to do with it!!”

It’s true. Sometimes the people of God do in fact lose God, even if he’s as close as the nose on our face. Israel and Judah had lost God in the blinding mist of idolatry. 2 Kings 21, tells us that King Manasseh, son of Hezekiah, had led Judah into idolatry and wickedness that was even worse than that of the Canaanites (See God’s warning in Lev 18; Dt 8). He even flooded the temple itself with idols and wickedness. Prophets of God warned them, but they refused to listen. In the days of the following king, Josiah, they found the book of the law that had been lost in the temple, underneath all the idols I suppose (2 Kings 22). When Josiah and the people read the book of the law, they realized that they had not only lost the word of God, they had also lost the God of the word. What they discovered when they found God, is it was actually they themselves, who had been lost all along.

Josiah and the people repented and they experienced revival, but it was short-lived. After Josiah died, the succeeding kings led the people back into sin until eventually all was lost. The 17 month Babylonian siege led to hell on earth in Jerusalem, and this was just the prelude to the destruction of the city and the temple, which was burned to the ground. The people of Judah were expelled from the land; they were in exile. All that God had blessed them with was lost. Lamentations is a short poetic book of the Bible that captures the pain and horror of this devastating loss.

In the midst of describing the excruciating experience and feelings of hopelessness, Lamentations 3:21-25 says this:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. (ESV)

Sometimes it takes losing everything to find the only thing that really matters; the only thing that really matters is the one and only Someone, who deserves our all.

Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom to truly begin building our lives on the Rock of Ages. Everything else is sinking sand.

Sometimes it’s the hard things that awaken us to the truly good things that ultimately matter. When you’re up the creek without a paddle or a boat or a life jacket, up to your neck with all the forces of death and hell dragging you down, is when you just might begin to look for the Lifeguard who sent his only Son as a life raft.

Jesus reaching into the water

Israel, including the northern kingdom headquartered in Samaria and the southern kingdom of Judah headquartered in Jerusalem, found themselves in just such a place. Samaria had been decimated by Assyria; Jerusalem by Babylon. When all was lost, some of them realized that all they had left were the promises of a faithful, forgiving, and merciful God. Sometimes it takes losing all else before people will really begin to look for God. But there is a limited window of opportunity to actually find God.

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. ~ Isaiah 55:6-7

And you can’t find the Lord if you aren’t really serious about seeking him.

You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. ~ Jeremiah 29:13-14

In order to find God, we need to know what day it is. Today is the only day we really have, and every today is the day of salvation, the time to seek the Lord. Thankfully his mercies are new every morning! But those todays won’t come forever; eventually the window of opportunity will close.

In order to find God, we also need to know where we are. Where are we? We are always on the brink of the eternal judgment of God. We are always on the brink of losing everything we have in this world. The question is will we find God in time to find ourselves standing on the promises of God when all else is lost, for “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is 40:8).

Our culture has lost God. In many school districts this Thanksgiving, kids will learn about the pilgrims without ever hearing about the One they followed. They will read about how they gave thanks without hearing of the One to whom they gave thanks. God is not only lost to our culture, in many ways he has been intentionally hidden by outright rejection or by distorting his true identity. The same is true for much of the church that has been conformed to the world. The nation and the compromised church is on the brink. Like Israel and Judah they have been convinced by false prophets and priests that “it can’t happen to us” (Lam 4:12-13). In the face of warnings and lesser judgment before exile, Israel in pride declared they would rebuild even better and stronger than before without God (Is 9:8ff); the lying prophets of Jerusalem filled the people with vain hopes that disaster would never come as they encouraged the wicked (Jer 23:17). They were disastrously wrong and eventually they lost everything, which gave them the opportunity to begin seeking the only blessing that lasts forever.

One day we’ll all discover that there is only one thing that will give us ultimate security, and that is faith in the Lord and God, whose steadfast love and faithfulness endures forever. We may have the promise of social security, but what we really need is the eternal security that only God can provide. You can be buried in your RV, but without God eternity will be anything but a picnic. The truth is we brought nothing with us into this world, and we will not be able to take anything with us when we leave it (1 Tim 6:7). Eventually everyone will lose everything, but only some will find the only thing that lasts forever with blessing, a true, loving relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. ~ 1 Tim 6:17-19

Sometimes it takes losing everything to find the one thing that really matters eternally. If we will seek God with all our heart, we will discover that it wasn’t really God who was lost after all. If we will seek him, we will find him to be faithful and forgiving, gracious and merciful, abounding forever with steadfast love.

Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. ~ 2 Corinthians 4:13-18

Why It’s Hard Being a Preacher Today; Why God is More than Enough

It’s not easy to be a preacher in the United Methodist Church these days. Not that it ever was easy, but right now it’s as hard as it’s ever been. The fault line that has been there from the beginning of the denomination in 1968 has erupted. Fall out is every where, and it seems it will get worse before it gets better.

It not easy to be a preacher in the UMC for anyone. The fault line runs right through every single local church in the U.S. The majority of our pastors are progressive (the majority of Bishops even more so); the majority of our laity in the pews are traditionalists. But those majorities are not overwhelming and they are mixed. The day of judgment is upon us in more ways than one.

Undoubtedly our denomination is under the judgment of God. At best, overall we have been lukewarm; at worst we have been in flat out rebellion against God’s word. And if Scripture is true, God is displeased either way.

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. ~ Rev 3:15-22 ESV

In many ways things are as bad as they were in Jerusalem during the ministry of Jeremiah.

“But in the prophets of Jerusalem
I have seen a horrible thing:
they commit adultery and walk in lies;
they strengthen the hands of evildoers,
so that no one turns from his evil;
all of them have become like Sodom to me,
and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.”

Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets:
“Behold, I will feed them with bitter food
and give them poisoned water to drink,
for from the prophets of Jerusalem
ungodliness has gone out into all the land.”

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” ~ Jeremiah 23:14-17

Still, many of our leaders will refuse to acknowledge the pattern. Like the leaders of Judah, they will bury their heads in the sand, refuse to call the denomination to real repentance, encourage the rebellious, and condemn the righteous like they did with Jeremiah.

It’s not easy to be a preacher in the UMC right now. For fear of losing significant numbers of people over the years, many have opted to ride the fence. In trying to sustain a certain number of people in the pews, many have failed to provide the sheep a diet substantive and steady enough to sustain a healthy faith. A focus on numerical growth at the expense of spiritual growth has left churches weak and malnourished, vulnerable to wolves, including those in sheep’s clothing. Indifference to doctrine in the name of a pseudo unity has brought us nothing but division and strife, and left the people in the pews to be blown about and tossed to and fro by every wind of false doctrine and deceitful scheming (Eph 4:14). As a result we have lost in both quantity and quality.

The current environment is hard on everyone. The tangled web of conflict and strife has pulpits pitted against the pews, bishops and district superintendents pitted against certain pastors and churches, boards and agencies and seminaries pitted against local churches, pastor against pastor, bishop against bishop, etc., etc., etc. . . . In many cases pastors on the very same staff are actively working against one another, and bishops and district superintendents are actively working against pastors that they have appointed. Progressive students at Duke Divinity School apparently see neutrality as rejection. Nothing less than full acceptance of the full LGBTQIA+ spectrum and agenda will do.

Yet we still hear the repeated assertions of those who insist we can all just get along, even while they insist that traditional views are doing great harm by promoting at least injustice and oppression, and probably even evil. For good reason these types of assurances ring hollow. At best they are incredibly naïve; likely they are disingenuous.

Some churches have pastors who are angered by other pastors on staff referring to the congregation as “sisters and brothers” because it is not “inclusive” enough. For some progressives the only possible explanation that someone can’t clearly see that there are dozens and dozens, maybe even an infinite number of possible genders and pronouns to go with them, is that they are backward bigots. In other churches there are progressive senior pastors who honestly feel like they have to protect the congregation from an associate who has traditional views. There are also lay leadership teams in churches that have felt like they had to protect the church from the views of progressives pastors that deny the warning of eternal judgment in hell or that the Bible is in its entirety really the uniquely inspired word of God, or that deny Jesus as the incarnate Son of the one true God, Yahweh, is the only way to the Father. As a matter of fact, progressives are unhappy about masculine nouns and pronouns for God, like Father and he, and seek to ban their use. Moreover, boards of ordained ministry are under fire because they uphold the standards for ordained ministry or because they refuse to. And annual Conferences and jurisdictional conferences are vowing to defy the General Conference.

Churches have been losing people on all sides of the issues that divide us for decades. That has only accelerate since the 2019 General Conference. These are definitely difficult days to be a pastor in the UMC.

Within the past week I learned that a local pastor in North Georgia has been removed from his church by the bishop and cabinet. Apparently his crime was allowing a WCA event to be held at his local church and working in agreement with his congregation to take advantage of a newly added disaffiliation plan in the Book of Discipline. Although there has been some question about whether the disaffiliation plan is valid, it seems that the disaffiliation plan was upheld by the judicial council. At any rate, it seems for supporting the WCA, which has called for faithfulness to our doctrinal standards and discipline and/or amicable separation, and for working with his church in what at least appears at this time to be a legitimate disaffiliation plan, this local pastor was summarily removed from his church. The reality is that his bishop would probably do back flips to avoid punishing any progressive pastor who would lead their church in open defiance of the General Conference.

It’s really is hard to be a pastor in the UMC right now. It’s hard for people on all sides. It is also painful to the point of deleteriously affecting the health and well-being of our pastors. Some pastors feel like John Eubanks in Jerry Clower’s story of “The Coon Hunt.” Feeling like they are trapped in a tree with a wildcat, some pastors may feel like it’d just be better for somebody to shoot up in the tree amongst ’em because somebody’s just got to have some relief!

In addition to the normal and inevitable stresses of being a pastor, we also have the added stress of possibly being at odds with leaders, who have a lot of power over us, and with a significant number of people in our congregations. In some cases it may only be a significant minority; in others it may be a significant majority; in others it may be split right down the middle. And this is not to mention the increasing pressure from the secular culture on churches and other organizations that espouse traditional Christian views. It is a pressure that many churchgoers and church leaders succumb to and personally bring to bear in their own local churches. In any scenario the fault line has erupted. People must find at least temporary relief on one side or the other; the fence has vanished in the chasm.

The progressive Baptist theologian, David Gushee, said a couple of years ago:

I now believe that incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible, and the sources and methods of moral discernment, separate many of us from our former brethren — and that it is best to name these differences clearly and without acrimony, on the way out the door. I also believe that attempting to keep the dialogue going is mainly fruitless. The differences are unbridgeable. https://www.theaquilareport.com/david-gushee-differences-unbridgeable/

Gushee was right. He was also right to say that the only possibility that remains is that one side might convert to the other, as he himself did. The fissure has become a great chasm. Trying to hold both sides hostage in the same church will only bring more chaos, confusion, and calamity. It’s downright painful to be a pastor in the UMC right now, but not hopeless.

God called the prophet Jeremiah to preach to a wayward Jerusalem that had become like Sodom and Gomorrah (Jer 23:14). It was a painful time for Jeremiah. He’s not called the “weeping prophet” for no reason! When God called him, he told him the people would fight against him (Jer 1:19). As a matter of fact, throughout his entire ministry, it seems Jeremiah only won two converts (i.e. Baruch and Ebed-melech). For his preaching, Jeremiah was sorely mocked and severely persecuted. At times he was so weary he wished he had never been born. At times he felt like giving up altogether on preaching the truth; but the fire of God’s word burned too powerfully within his soul! (Jer 20:7-18). Undoubtedly, the vision of hope of better days to come (3:15-18; 23:5-6; 29:10-14; 31:31-40; etc.) sustained him.

Jeremiah by Michelangelo
The Prophet Jeremiah by Michelangelo – Sistine Chapel

It’s hard to be a pastor in the UMC right now. It is painful, but others have experienced far worse. Although God told Jeremiah that the leaders of Jerusalem and the people would fight against him, God also promised him that they would not prevail, because God said, “for I am with you” (1:19). No matter how many may be against us, God being with us is always more than enough. We have to believe that, and hold on to the promise that better days are sure to come.