About thejohnstephens

Senior Pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas. Husband, father, pastor, and friend. When not working, I enjoy spending time with family and friends and teeing it up on the golf course.

The Misuse of Anger

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
– Frederick Buechner

Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, by Theodoor Rombouts

In Ephesians 4:26, Paul says, “be angry but do not sin”.  Paul seems to allow for an Anger that does not reach the level of sin.  In the Old Testament (notably in the Psalms), God is frequently depicted as angry.  In the New Testament, we find Jesus angry as he throws the money changers and merchants out of the Temple.  In the Bible, righteous indignation seems to be an appropriate response to offenses committed against God (Ps. 119:53; Mk. 3:5).  There is a place to respond in Anger, but this Anger is something distinctly less permanent than deeply-rooted wrath or hostility. We all struggle to distinguish between getting angry for injustice versus becoming an angry person.  Anger is needed in some situations of injustice. It is better than callous indifference.  So how do we determine if our anger is indeed righteous or sinful?  We should ask ourselves these questions:

  • Does our expression of Anger lead to love, wholeness (shalom), or healing?  Is it building up others and the body of Christ?  Are we helping to bring healing to someone or some group that has been oppressed or abused?  If the answers are “yes” – then perhaps your expression of Anger is righteous.
  • On the other hand, does my expression of Anger lead to division, destruction, animosity, alienation, or separation?  This kind of Anger would be hard pressed to be “righteous”.

Paul also writes in Ephesians 4:27, “do not make room for the devil”.  When Anger takes up residence within us, we become ‘angry people’. Angry people sow division, destruction, animosity, alienation, and separation.

It seems to me that good people in our society and churches are responding to injustice with Anger.  But they are allowing that Anger to consume them and others in destructive ways.  We are not always good at using Anger in beneficial ways.  Our goal should be to leverage our Anger into love, wholeness, healing, and building up the body of Christ.  We all need to stop and ask this question: Has injustice led me to righteous Anger?  If so, am I leveraging that Anger to build up the body of Christ?  Or, have I allowed that Anger to ‘make room for the devil’ in my life?  Good people, motivated by injustice, are right to get angry.  Too often, many of them lose control of the Anger.  It controls them. The good they want to do is followed by a wake of destruction and brokenness.  I pray we can find ways to harness the passion of righteous Anger to build the body of Christ.

Mercy is the quality that stands against Anger. All the Anger words – wrath, bitterness, resentment, vengeance, judgment, etc. – are devoid of mercy. The person who swims in the current of God’s mercy already has a leg up in dealing with Anger.  God’s love at work in the world is “mercy”…mercy extended toward friends and enemies, those like me and those unlike me, toward those of every race and tribe. Mercy is a distinctly “God-like” quality.

You may be angry for the right reasons; but be careful that your Anger does not consume you and lead to destruction.

The Terrible Temptation for the United Methodist Pastor

Last week, I preached on Sloth. Or, as the ancient Christians referred to it, Acedia.  I shared a personal testimony that of the Seven Deadening Sins, this one has affected me the most in recent days, weeks, and even years.  I believe it also affects many of my brothers and sisters who are in ministry in the United Methodist Church as we have been battling over the issue of human sexuality.

I have heard it said that many United Methodist pastors are going through the stages of grief.  Others are dealing with naturally occurring depression triggered by this difficult event.  But for me, Acedia/Sloth is my struggle.  Acedia was always thought to be linked to vocation and it was considered the monk’s (pastor’s) most dangerous temptation.  The vows we take to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples are foolishness to the world.  We have given our lives to this vocational calling.  We put all our chips in the UMC/Wesleyan basket.  We bet everything we have on this and we are uncertain of the future.  I truly believe that this “fight” in our denomination has led many pastors to lose focus, become listless, and find themselves spiritually sluggish.

We must do all we can to stay focused on the main thing.  However, that is easier said than done.

Kathleen Norris writes this about Sloth/Acedia: “At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care.  The person struggling with acedia refuses to care or is incapable of caring.  When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.” (from Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life)

Thomas Aquinas thought of Sloth as a “paralysis of the will to continue,” which begins with dissatisfaction and ends in desperation.  He went on to say that the slothful person loses sight of the goal of life.  Sloth is a fundamentally spiritual issue – a sadness in relation to belief and practice.  Aquinas thought that joy and charity were the opposites to Sloth. After all, we should find joy in following Christ and that joy should generate love!

John Cassian believed that the spiritual person’s Acedia/Sloth could be disguised as good deeds, or even fighting the good fight.  When we help others and fight for a cause, we can distract from the interior work we need to do.  Cassian said the religious person beset by the “foul mist of acedia decides that he/she should pay their respects to others and visit the sick.”  The hidden good work is of value here.

William May wrote, “The soul in the state of sloth is beyond sadness and melancholy.  It has removed itself from the rise and fall of feelings; the very root of its feelings in desire is dead.  That is why, for the medieval moralist, sloth was…the most terrifying of sins.  It is sin at its utter most limit.  To be human is to desire.  The good person desires God and other things in God.  The sinful person desires things in the place of God, but they are still recognizably human inasmuch as they have known desire.  The slothful person, however, is a dead person, an arid waste…their desire itself has dried up.” (from Sinning Like a Christian)

I shared these steps on Sunday that I am using to battle Acedia/Sloth, and I wanted to share them again:

  1. Make a firm intention to keep on keeping on.  Take the next right step.
  2. Bite off small spiritual disciplines and tackle humble activities.
  3. Care for others (this causes us to stop turning inward)
  4. Pay attention to your inner life.
  5. Make a vow of stability (the Benedictines make this vow so they are forced to deal with interior issues in the face of difficult situations/locations)
  6. Look for joy.  It is all around, but acedia/sloth blinds us.

 

Lenten Disciplines for Every Day: Fasting

John the Short said, “If a king wants to take a city filled with his enemies, he first captures their food and water, and when they are starving he subdues them.  So it is with gluttony.  If a man is sincere about fasting and is hungry, the enemies that trouble his soul will grow weak.”

Early Christians believed the first sin of humanity was gluttony – Adam and Eve overreaching beyond God’s boundaries.  It just so happened to be connected to fruit on a tree.  The earliest Christians thought of gluttony in broader terms than we do.  We think of it as ‘overeating’ or ‘lavish feasting’, but the early monastics saw food deeply connected to our spiritual lives.  Thomas Aquinas points to this in the 13th century as he expands gluttony to include ‘eating too eagerly’, which he considered the most egregious form.  Eating eagerly causes us to disregard health, social, and especially spiritual matters in our lives.  He points to Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of beans as a primary example of disregarding the spiritual for sake physical desire.

We all suffer from obsessions with food in our culture.  I am currently binge watching several food shows in ‘4K Ultra HD’, including ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ by Somin Nosrat (which I highly recommend, by the way).  Gluttony has moved from the mouth and the stomach, to my leisure time and my eyes.  While on vacations, my family has a notorious practice of discussing our lunch plans over breakfast, discussing dinner plans over lunch, and discussing breakfast plans over dinner.  I often wonder how much more we could share together….

But here is the rub…gluttony is always about more than food.  Evagrius listed it as the first of the 8 passions, or terrible temptations.  It has always been connected deeply to our spirituality and has always been see as one of the obstacles to love.

Are you fasting from some food or drink this Lent?  Many of us do.  But let me ask all of us, including myself, to consider whether we are actually giving up something ‘easy’ – which only skims the surface of Lent’s intention – or if we are considering giving up something more difficult?  Here are a few more difficult things to consider ‘fasting’ from not just at Lent, but in our lives…some things that we tend to ‘overindulge’ in:

What if we could learn to tame or possibly lay aside our ego, or even our pride for Lent?

What would it feel like if we could learn to ‘fast’ from worry?

Is it possible for me to go 40 days (or even 1 day?!?) without judging someone else…without being critical…without gossiping…without slandering someone else?

If you are like me, you will say, “that’s basically impossible, so why start?”  You miss the point.  Ash Wednesday begins with the affirmation that we are dust.  We affirm our humanity and our imperfections.  We WILL mess up during Lent…and life.  It is assumed already.  But we identify our failing, we get up, brush ourselves off, ask for God’s guidance, and we learn as we keep going…relying on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Try it…not just for the remainder of Lent, but everyday.  Think about boldly ‘giving something up’…something hard…something that could change your life.

Reflections on The United Methodist General Conference

I have always felt that as followers of Jesus we should be guided by the final words of Jesus in Acts 1:8 when he said to his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  A mentor of mine told me long ago that Jerusalem was the closest connections…our church, family, and local neighborhood; Judea was our broader regions…our country; Samaria was the “out of bounds place” – the place where “those we see as other than ourselves dwell…they live and move outside our safe walls”; then, the ends of the earth….well, that speaks for itself.  The key line to me has always been, “you will be my witnesses”.  In order to be a witness for Jesus, we must begin with our own identity…we must receive the Good News about ourselves before we can share the Good News in the world. We are salt and we are light because God, whose children we are, is committed to making the world something new. I truly believe the way we engage in disagreeing with each other is one of our most powerful witnesses.  As we articulate our differences…we must continually ask, “are we salt…are we light…are we bearing witness to the love of God, neighbor, and self.”  We begin with scripture.  Jesus calls his followers to be his witnesses.

On Tuesday, February 26, 2019, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted once again on the definition of marriage.  The Traditional Plan was adopted by a vote of 438-384 (53% – 47%: out of 870 delegates representing 12 million members).  The Traditional Plan maintains the current position of the United Methodist Church which defines marriage as between a man and woman.  The plan also added more punitive accountability measures against those who break church law for reasons of conscience. The Traditional Plan passing means clergy still cannot officiate same-sex marriages. Churches still cannot host same-sex weddings.  LGBTQ+ persons are still ineligible for ordination. And the statement, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” remains in place.

I have read many articles from United Methodist pastors telling their people “nothing has changed” and “everything remains the same”.  Honestly, we have to acknowledge that this General Conference in St. Louis changed a lot.  It changed the way people see and understand the United Methodist Church.  There are Methodists in our family who are glad to see this decision upholding traditional views. There are also many Methodists in our family who are deeply hurt and grieving.  Chapelwood has LGBTQ+ members and friends who feel as though their denomination has told them or their family members “you don’t belong…you are not loved…your life is not valued”.  The fact that some of our members feel this way breaks my heart beyond words.  I apologize for the hurt you are feeling by our denomination.  While neither Chapelwood nor I were involved in this decision, I want you to hear me say I am sorry for the pain you feel.  For those of you who are more traditional in your belief, please know I would say the same thing to you had the decision gone the other way.  I love each and every member of Chapelwood.

Chapelwood is a very special church.  It has changed me in more ways than I can articulate over the past five years.  I know this church.  Chapelwood has been and will continue to be a church that “embodies God’s grace as we receive it to those who need it…and everyone needs it”…including me.  For 70 years, we have strived to welcome and love those who felt unloved in our community.  Those who know Chapelwood, know this to be true.

Let me share just a few thoughts to guide us in our prayers and reflections:

  1. How will Chapelwood communicate our belief that God loves everyone in a way that our world knows we mean it?  Unfortunately, the Christian Church has a terrible history of segregating people with disastrous long-term consequences.  At Chapelwood, we have a high value of Scripture.  That high value of Scripture compels us to study the life of Jesus, obey the teachings he gave us, and live as Christ lived.  It compels us to radically open our doors to welcome everyone to God’s table.  It also sends us into the world where people live to share the Gospel of Christ with them. The creation of our many, differing worship communities points to this passion.  It feels that we will have to work harder than ever to let the world know that when we say everyone is 100% loved by God and by us…we mean it with all our heart.
  2. I also want to ask us all to prayerfully consider our words and actions around this decision and this topic.  Our General Rules state that we are to ‘do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God’.  I know harm has been done to people we love. I hope each one of us will measure our words with gentleness and kindness.  LGBTQ+ persons are some of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters right now.  They are constantly attacked, criticized, bullied, picked on, and excluded.  They need our love and their families need our love. I don’t want any of our words to do anything that would lead others to attack or harm them. 
  3. The vote was extremely close and divisive…53%-47% (50 votes separating the decision in a denomination of 12 million).  Just like our country, our denomination is deeply divided over this and many other issues. I point us back to Acts 1:8…how we will be a witness in the world in our disagreements?

A few other reflections:

  • This difficult conversation is not over with this vote.  This conversation is going to continue.  Much of the Traditional Plan is unconstitutional according to our Book of Discipline and other parts will most definitely be challenged.  There is currently no way for a local congregation to leave the denomination if they disagree with this decision.  Pastors who choose to break the church law will be charged and there will be church trials.  There will also be another General Conference in May 2020 to go through this all again. Delegates for that conference will be voted on at our Texas Annual Conference in May 2019.  I am praying about how to be more involved in this process going forward. Pray for me, please.
  • The United Methodist Church is a connectional church.  Chapelwood is a part of that connection.  I, and our pastors, will be faithful to the polity (rules) of our denomination, while at the same time doing everything we can to let everyone know they are 100% loved.
  • Chapelwood is a family. And as a family, we need to support and love each other.  I still believe in Jesus’ prayer for unity and Paul’s definition of the church as a body of Christ with many different members.  You can’t do away with a part of the body easily or painlessly.  Each and every member of Chapelwood is my family and member of the body of Christ.

This Sunday, March 3, 2019, I will host two information sessions about the General Conference in the Chapel at 9:45 and 11:10.  I invite you to join me for more details, to ask questions, and share a time of prayer.  I am also glad to meet with any members of our family to pray and talk together…you may also contact me or any of our Chapelwood pastors if you have questions.

Our mission has not changed, and our God has not changed.  God is the same yesterday, today, and forever!  Pray for Chapelwood, pray for our country, and pray for our denomination.

You Are The Beloved

From Henri J. M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World

“All I want to say to you is “You are the Beloved,” and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being – “You are the Beloved.”  The greatest gift my friendship can give to you is the gift of your Belovedness.

“I can give that gift only insofar as I have claimed it for myself. Isn’t that what friendship is all about: giving to each other the gift of our Belovedness?  Yes, there is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: “You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody – unless you can demonstrate the opposite.”  These negative voices are so loud and so persistent that it is easy to believe them. That’s the great trap. It is the trap of self-rejection. Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity and power can, indeed, present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection.

“When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. I am constantly surprised at how quickly I give in to this temptation. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone or abandoned, I find myself thinking: “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” Instead of taking a critical look at the circumstances or trying to understand my own and others’ limitations, I tend to blame myself – not just for what I did, but for who I am. My dark side says: “I am no good. . . . I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected and abandoned.”. . .Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”

 

 

 

The Power of Commitment

Most of us make commitments, vows, and promises that hold no weight because they are rooted in our own self-interest. Most of our lives are driven by these small commitments (whims) – to a lifestyle, to a work, to a belief, to an ideology, to a way of presenting yourself. It is not that these things are unimportant, but most often they are not worth our full trust. They are not solid enough to hold the weight of our being. They are not transcendent enough to make a difference in the world in God’s name.

The commitments that have the power to hold us, to shape us, to make a difference in our world come from a much deeper, more substantive place. They come from within us, from the place within us where we are most deeply and intimately connected to God. This is why it is extremely important for Christians to spend time reexamining their commitments on a regular basis.

The vows that really count in life are those which arise from our truest, most authentic self. They are the promises we make which give God glory, which make me come more fully alive, and which impart life and healing onto others and the world.

Spiritual exercise:

  • Take some time to give some silence and solitude to consider your commitments.
    • To what am I committed? Make a list of the: people, groups, institutions, beliefs/philosophies/ideologies, lifestyles, ideals
  • Then, for each one I ask, “Why am I committed to this person/group/etc.?” What is behind this commitment? From where does this commitment originate within me? What part of me does this commitment represent?
  • Bring what you experience in this exercise into your prayer. Tell God honestly how you feel about what you see about yourself. Listen to what God says to you.

The renewal of commitments is necessary. These times remind me of who I am. They also remind me of how I have not attained the mark, how I depend on God’s mercy, and how I need God’s Spirit to enliven my days.

The Dangers of Nostalgia

Directed by GOD, the whole company of Israel moved on by stages from the Wilderness of Sin. They set camp at Rephidim. And there wasn’t a drop of water for the people to drink. The people took Moses to task: “Give us water to drink.” But Moses said, “Why pester me? Why are you testing GOD?” But the people were thirsty for water there. They complained to Moses, “Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?” Moses cried out in prayer to GOD, “What can I do with these people? Any minute now they’ll kill me!” GOD said to Moses, “Go on out ahead of the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel. Take the staff you used to strike the Nile. And go. I’m going to be present before you there on the rock at Horeb. You are to strike the rock. Water will gush out of it and the people will drink.” Moses did what he said, with the elders of Israel right there watching. He named the place Massah (which means Testing-Place) and Meribah (which means Quarreling) because of the quarreling of the Israelites and because of their testing of GOD when they said, “Is GOD here with us, or not?”

– Exodus 17:1-7 (The Message)

In Exodus 14, we read the story of God doing the incredible – answering the Israelites’ prayer and pushing aside the water to give them a path to freedom. In Exodus 15 the Israelites are dancing in celebration. But within just a few verses, the miracle has worn off. The Israelites are parched; they go looking for water only to find none.   They want to return to slavery.  “Back in the good ol’ days, when we spent all day making bricks and building pyramids, when we had no rights, and the Pharaoh occasionally killed all our male children, those were the days.”

But in slavery, every day is the same. There is something comfortable about suffering…it is predictable. Freedom can be much more trying. Out here in the wilderness, when they have to depend on God, when they are in uncharted territory, there is no predictability. They wake up every day having to trust that God is going to lead them somewhere. They are numbed to the now, trapped in the spiritual lands of Massah (“test”) and Meribah (“find fault”). They wander in their grumbling, and it should be no surprise that they go in circles for forty years.

Nostalgia never leads you forward, because nostalgia casts an impossible standard— it is a much-improved rendering of what once was. Nostalgia is never real. The present can never match an idealized past. Whether it is holding on to the church of our youth (which ceased to exist many years ago) or clinging to a season of our own lives in which things were better than they are now, nostalgia quietly steals our joy and makes us indifferent to the flowing streams of living water God has provided here in the wilderness. It is telling that this generation of exodus wanderers never makes it to the promised land, perhaps because their nostalgia won’t let them get there.

Liberation and hope lie in wait for those who can stop pretending that the past was perfect and who can walk in faith toward God’s future.