Believing, Belonging, and Behaving in the United Methodist Church

Believing, Belonging, and Behaving in the United Methodist Church

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Around 15 years ago, I attended a workshop led by the late Dr. Stanley Grenz. He wrote the textbook we used a few years later for theology and doctrine in seminary, but that first impression remains the most memorable. Dr. Grenz wrote three words on an old-school white-paper easel:

Believe. Belong. Behave.

And then he asked which order was best when it comes to being part of a church.

If your church is like mine, it often goes in the order listed above. If you want to join our church, we ask if you believe the things we believe. If you do, we’ll let you belong. And once you belong…we hope you’ll behave. It’s not in the official liturgy, but, “Please don’t rob any banks or otherwise embarrass us publicly,” is often implied.

Is this the best way for people to enter into a relationship with a church?

All three of these words are at the heart of the conversation happening right now in the United Methodist Church. In February, the decision-making body of our denomination will meet to discuss our stance on human sexuality. One potential change, on the recommendation of our Council of Bishops, would give United Methodist churches and pastors the freedom to host and officiate same-sex weddings, if they so desired. This plan would also give the freedom to ordain LGBT clergy to each local board of ordained ministry. (The full 231-page report became public last month, which also includes a traditionalist option and a proposal to create multiple branches within the denomination.)

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Only What You Take With You

Only What You Take With You

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If you adjust for inflation, the first Star Wars film is the second highest-grossing movie of all-time. This means more people saw it in theaters than any other film in history, other than Gone with the Wind. And, thanks to successful sequels and merchandising – I don’t think anyone is asking for a Scarlett O’Hara action figure this Christmas – Star Wars has far more permanence. Those who saw it in theaters in 1977 could be buying their grandchildren BB-8’s this holiday season.

Its commercialization is fine and insanely lucrative, I’m sure. But what really makes it last – what really makes anything last – is story.

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Childlike Faith & Genesis 1

Childlike Faith & Genesis 1

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People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. – Mark 10:13-16 (NRSV)

How do they hear it, our children? How did we hear it when we were kids?

My wife is 36 weeks pregnant with our first child. The pamphlets at the doctor’s office are changing, from fun facts about pregnancy to how to keep a human being alive when you take one home from the hospital. This thing is happening.

In some ways I know we’ll be teaching our son about God and faith right away (and far more, I assume, that he’ll be teaching us). But at some point between Goodnight Moon and the 17 Star Wars books we got that I know he’s too young for but I’m probably going to read to him anyway…at some point, we’re going to open a bible. At some point, we’re going to get to tell these stories we’ve heard and lived for all these years to this new life.

How should we tell it?

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How’s it going to work when we get to heaven?

Will we be changed in an instant? Will I be entirely different in the first millisecond I’m there? Will all the vices I’ve chased in this life simply vanish from my person and my personality, never to desire them again? Will we be made perfect, instantaneously and forever?

Or will we come as we are by the grace of God, face-to-face with heaven, and be left to make our own adjustments to its reality? Will there still be change beyond that first millisecond? Will there still be growth?

“This is heaven,” perhaps we’ll hear, “and your lust can’t be here. Your greed. Your sloth. Your pride. But something much better is waiting for you. Come and learn. You’ve got trillions of years.”

What if when we get there, instead of being greeted by friends and family long gone, God decides the best way to teach us this better way is to plop us down at a table of multi-colored strangers, our only connection this common grace? What if at first it’s not the people we hoped we’d see but the people we thought we wouldn’t? Or perhaps the people we just didn’t think about at all?

Maybe in heaven we still learn to swim by just being thrown in the pool.

On Sunday we had a family become members of our church. There are questions we ask upon such an occasion, and two of them are what you’d expect: variations on repentance of sin and profession of faith in Jesus Christ. But in our church, there is a third: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

I’ve seen many of my United Methodist friends and colleagues find solace in this question the past few days. It means saying yes to being part of a church – ours and so many others – is more than just agreeing with doctrine. It is believing we are free, and powerfully so. And it is believing this freedom and power are not without purpose.

The question acknowledges evil, injustice, and oppression can come in many forms, and so too must our resistance. But in any form, two things must remain constant. We have to pray, without believing it is all we can do. And we have to act, without forgetting that same common grace.

Continue reading “Disarm.”

The Plowman and The Merchant

The Plowman and The Merchant

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“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” – Matthew 13:44-46 (NRSV)

If the kingdom of hell has its roots in that which is worthless, it’s no surprise to hear the kingdom of heaven compared to something valuable. But upon closer examination, it’s not the pearl that’s directly compared to the kingdom here. It’s the merchant.

The merchant is actively searching and finds what he’s looking for. Is the man in the field doing the same?

When I hear buried treasure, I picture somebody’s uncle on the beach with a metal detector. But some biblical scholars believe the man in this story wasn’t necessarily looking for what he found. Eugene Peterson uses “accidentally” to describe the find in The Message; Eugene Boring, a professor at TCU’s divinity school, puts it this way in The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary:

“The plowman is doing his regular work, not looking for or expecting anything special, when he comes upon the treasure quite by accident. The merchant is actively seeking, knows what he is looking for, and still finds something beyond all his expectations. The kingdom can become real in either way.”

Those who seek will find. But you might also stumble upon it.

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Slow and Steady and Right Now.

Slow and Steady and Right Now.

Photo by reza shayestehpour on Unsplash

In January I preached a sermon on patience and talked about a restaurant Alex and I go to on special occasions. It’s the kind of place where they bring you a palate cleanser between courses (so by “special occasions” I mean “when someone gives us a gift card”). It is not the sort of place you go when you’re in any kind of hurry. But what is most remarkable to me about it isn’t the food or the service (both of which are excellent). It’s that in the small set of hours I’ve spent in this place, I’ve never once seen someone on their phone.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe it’s a restaurant policy I’m unaware of. Maybe we’ve just dined in particularly detached company. But I am convinced this is an extraordinary dynamic, because I’ve never been asked as many questions after a sermon as I was that day:  that many people wanted to know the name of the restaurant.

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The Kingdom of Hell

The Kingdom of Hell

Photo by paul morris

If Jesus speaks of a kingdom of heaven, is there a kingdom of hell?

After telling a story about how the kingdom of heaven is like a farmer scattering seed, Jesus follows up with another agricultural parable:  again, a farmer sows. But this time an enemy comes in the middle of the night and plants weeds alongside the wheat. When the farmer’s servants ask if he wants them to pull the weeds up, he says to wait until the harvest so as to avoid uprooting the wheat as well. Then the wheat will be gathered and the weeds burned.

Again, the disciples ask what this means and again, Jesus obliges. Distinctions are drawn between the wheat and weeds as “children of the kingdom” and “children of the evil one”. And the harvest is akin to “the end of the age”, when “all causes of sin and all evildoers” will be collected out of the kingdom of heaven and thrown into a fiery furnace.

This sounds like what we tend to think of as hell. When you do a Google image search for hell, the overwhelming visual is fire (and someone who clearly hates Elmo). But when Jesus talks more specifically about hell, fire isn’t always as dominant a metaphor.

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Like Good Soil

Like Good Soil

What does Jesus say most often?

For a complete sentence the winner is, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” This speaks quite highly of us, that the thing Jesus says most often is essentially, “Listen!” This is Christ the frustrated school teacher, knowing we’re going to miss something important and doing his best anyway.

There’s an old saying about show me your bank account and your calendar and I’ll show you what you value. But as most people aren’t in the business of showing me either, I have to rely on what they say. Not the catchphrases or talking points, but what they talk about most often. What we really hear when we listen.

Right now my dessert chef wife values cakes, our soon-to-arrive baby, and whatever her project of the week is. Last week it was leading the music for Vacation Bible School, this week it’s the nursery, next week she’ll be conquering something else. I know this is what she values because I trust her mouth and my ears. She’ll tell you I value church, sports, and the baby in some order depending on what day it is.

What Jesus says most often is, “Listen!” What will we hear if we do?

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Suggested Revisions to Matthew 5

Suggested Revisions to Matthew 5

First of all, Jesus, no one knows what “beatitude” means. It’s unnecessarily confusing, and I’m just going to be honest, so is a lot of your material. Can you be less mysterious? You’ll sell more books that way.

Let’s just call them blessings, right? Everyone loves blessings! Blessings sell! People will definitely read a list of how to be blessed…which means we’ve just got to tweak the list itself. Just a little. Because the way it is, people will never believe it. Not really, you know. They’ll read it every once in a while and say they believe it, but they’ll have a hard time actually living it.

We have to make these a little more realistic. I’ve just made a couple of changes.

How about this?

Blessed are the poor rich in spirit, because if the kingdom of heaven belongs to anyone it should be us.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted by clichés and easy answers.

Blessed are the meeksounds too much like weak, let’s take it out.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are righteous, because if we believe we already are there’s no need to be hungry for it.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy…from God, maybe, but less so from us. I’m just being honest. Blessed are the honest!

Blessed are the pure in heart – but more importantly the pure in outward appearances and sound bites – for they will see God be sure everyone else knows it.

Blessed are the peacemakers peacekeepers, because making peace is too much to ask.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and let’s make sure we clarify our minor grievances and people being crucified for their faith are basically the same thing.

See? Much better.

Fake News & Absolute Truth

Fake News & Absolute Truth

When it comes to news, information, and, you know, the state of the world in general, who do you listen to? Who do you trust?

When I was in high school, I trusted Mr. Fugate. He taught 11th grade American history, and my class was the last to go through before he retired. The class was legendary for its 30+ page written assignment on the 1960’s, which both prepared you for college and opened 1990’s eyes to a more turbulent time.

A year after graduation I started leading a bible study in my parents’ basement, and when the conversation turned to guest teachers Mr. Fugate was the first one nominated. He agreed, and doubled our attendance that night. I still remember him leaning forward – everyone in their seats leaning right back in anticipation – and saying, “Boys and girls, I want to ask you a question:  are you a thermostat, or a thermometer?”

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