Difficult Questions About Embodying Grace

“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. For

‘Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it.For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also sufferedfor sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring youto God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…”

– 1 Peter 3:8-18

At Chapelwood United Methodist in Houston, Texas, we strive to be defined by how we ‘embody grace’.  We say, “we embody grace as we receive it to those who need it…and everyone needs it!” We take this seriously because this is exactly what God did in Jesus Christ…God was embodied through the life and ministry and resurrection of Christ.  We believe we are now called to embody Christ in the world…to give substance to the grace offered for the salvation of the world.  This leads to some difficult questions for Christ-followers in the days in which we live:

How does a Christian live in the world?

What does it mean to have a heart that is distinctly formed by the Spirit of God?

What is the stance from which the follower of Christ is to live his/her discipleship?

And what does it mean to live from that stance when it seems as if the entire world is doing life from other stances and other values?

1 Peter raises some legitimate concerns given the values of the world in which the early Christians lived.  Their world, like ours, was hostile to the values and beliefs of the Christian faith.  The early leaders of the faith wanted to weave the values of Christ into their young congregations…especially in the midst of their persecution.  The concern then and now is…”How do I hold fast to the promise of God’s blessing and at the same time act appropriately (with the Spirit of Christ) toward those who seem hostile to the faith?”

These are questions we still wrestle with today.

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.

Unity

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.  I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  – Messiah Jesus, John 17:17-23

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My daughter Maddie’s picture under The Cloud Gate Sculpture in Chicago – surrounded by people from across the globe.

Unity.  What does it even mean? The dictionary says, “the quality or state of not being multiple; a condition of harmony; the quality or state of being made one.” But for United Methodist Christians the word is laden with different meanings.  As the United Methodist Church struggles with actual unity, the word ‘unity’ has been co-opted.  Some refer to it as a ‘totem’, a ‘code word for mushy moderates’, ‘an idol’, ‘selling out full justice’, and ‘a holy-sounding argument for those who want to avoid the issue altogether’.

I have a different perspective on unity.  It is rooted in my understanding of scripture and the experience in the context I serve.  Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas is unique.  It is actually a collection of diverse worship communities (churches) who live out their faith as ONE church.  The Sanctuary, Mercy Street, Contemplative, Upper Room, The Branch, Fair Haven, and Holy Family are each very different.  Most people who spend a weekend with us and visit our differing services realize this is not their parent’s church.  Different lead pastors, different contexts, and really diverse people.

Our worship community pastors, the lead pastors of each community, are a tight-knit group.  We really love each other, we spend a lot of time together, and we are very different:  Male, female, white, black, hispanic, asian, young, old, married, and single.  We come from different parts of the country and we’ve been educated in different schools.  We have all been formed by different experiences.  There is very little ‘uniformity’.  But there is a deep unity.

Last week, we met to discuss how we want the Holy Spirit to help us lead Chapelwood through the next few years as the UMC struggles with the issues before us.  We started with our own stories.  We shared our personal beliefs on the issues surrounding scripture, the life of Christ, marriage, sexuality, gender, and many other issues.  We’ve had these conversations before, but we were very intentional this time to press each other to go as deep as possible with our struggles, beliefs, and dreams for our church.  When we finished, a few things were clear to me:

  • We do not all see the issues the same way and we do not all long for the same outcomes…
  • We are currently wrestling with many of the issues…
  • We love the people we serve and we grieve knowing there are people on all sides of these issues in our communities – some who may find staying in the UMC difficult…

And, with all the differences we shared, we left our time together with more commitment and love toward each other than when we started.  The power of the Holy Spirit actually pulled us together – not apart – as we shared our different stories and our different dreams for the church.  I left more focused on Christ.  Jesus was glorified in our sharing.

And this is just one reason why I wholeheartedly disagree with people who say unity is some type of totem, excuse to avoid conflict, or excuse to exclude others.  Unity is not the end…the glory of Christ is the end…unity is the means by which we get there.  Unity is very challenging.  People who claim unity is an excuse to avoid conflict have never actually contended for honest unity in a diverse community.  It is far easier to draw bold lines in the sand, state what you believe, and then stand far removed on one side of the issue.

I do not fear schism and separation in our denomination.  Why?  Because it’s easy.  It is intellectually and spiritually lazy.  And it relieves the tension of the day (until the next issue arises).  Schism is definitely messy, but it’s not horrifying.

You want to know what I fear?  Unity.  I fear, revere, dread, cherish, dismay, exalt, and esteem unity.  Why?  Because unity means I have to give and take, live and die, learn and be taught.  It requires deep humility, love, and grace – things I don’t always do well with.  I am blessed to live in a community that seeks to live into the prayer Jesus prayed.  And my prayer is that ‘we also may be sanctified in truth…that we may all be one…so that the world may believe that God sent Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.’

I Believe in the Church

1 Corinthians 12:12-31
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?31But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”  Newton actually borrowed that ancient phrase from a saying that dates back centuries – “dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Simply put, he is saying I did not get here by myself and that is true for all of us. We are not who we are on our own. We each owe a debt of gratitude to more people than we can name for who we are and for what we have done.  And not just thanks to those we’ve known in our lives. We owe a debt to the generations who have come before us that we don’t know! We have all stood on the shoulder of giants. For those of us who are Christians, we are who we are because of the community of faith that has brought us here. That community of faith is the CHURCH.  (My church members were concerned that somehow this statement was connected to recent presidential political banter “You didn’t build that”.  That is not in my mind at all here, so please don’t place your political fears here!)

In the Apostle’s Creed, each Sunday we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” When we say it, we are declaring the unique role the church, the body of Christ, plays in our lives.

Now let me clear something up at the very beginning, the holy catholic church (with a little c) is not the same as talking about the Roman Catholic Church. The word catholic, if you look it up in the dictionary, means “of broad scope, relating to all humankind, universal”. For the first 1,000 years there was only one Christian Church, the universal church, the catholic church. When we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” we are not aligning with Roman Catholicism. We are saying we believe that the church universal is the body of Christ and no matter what denomination we are we are.  We are a part of the ONE, UNIVERSAL body of Christ.
If you have a “universal remote control” at your house you can help your understanding of small “c” catholic by referring to it at the “catholic remote” from now on.

The church is important. God’s design and will is that the church is Christ’s body on earth. This is important for us to understand as we think about how God works in the world and how we are a part of that.

There are those who say, “I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” And that is true. Just like you can be an American and not vote or participate in making your country a better place to live. It is true one can be a believer in Christ and not go to church, but it is also true that to be fully committed as a Christ follower and disciple, you must be connected to the community of faith. Trust me, I’ve known hunters and golfers and others who tell me they find God in a tree stand or on the fairway on a beautiful morning. And I will say, sure you can see God there! Christian theology for 2,000 years has taught that God is revealed to all through natural revelation – i.e. the birds and the trees.  But it is only through what theologians call “particular revelation” that one can live distinctly as a disciple of Christ.  In our faith, we believe this “particular revelation” comes through the church.

The second type of person I have experienced as a pastor quite a bit is the one who says, “I will go to my Bible study at my friend’s house and that will be my church.” Or, “I will be involved in Walk to Emmaus or Gathering Place or “(insert valid ministry here)” and that will be my church. Just as Paul stated, the ear is not the eye and the foot is not the hand. These parachurch ministries are vital and important and they are extensions of the body of Christ, but they are NOT the church by themselves. Churches are not perfect, I will be the first to admit. And many of these ministries and groups sprout up because the church hasn’t done its job, that is true. But Paul makes clear that the church, the body of Christ, has a distinct personality because it is God’s prescribed way to save the world. Imperfect as it is, it is God’s vehicle that provides the fullness, balance and accountability we need in our lives. It is okay to supplement your church with other studies and groups, but to abandon the church is not healthy. There is no tradition, obedience, submission, or covenant involved beyond the church. When we look for substitutes for church, what we are really looking for is church on my terms. That is selfish and gives us over to the temptation of power in our lives.

The church calls us to submit to Christ.  One thing I know about people, is we don’t change naturally. I don’t become a better person or a better Christian just because I know I should. The way we change is when others come alongside us and encourage us, and yes, sometimes admonish us lovingly.  If left to my own will, I would do only the things I think are good and worthy. The church calls us to more. To not forget about the poor, the marginalized, the needy – in our world and among us.

Methodists and the Importance of New Birth

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” – Romans 5:6-11

In our Wesleyan Methodist heritage, we believe that Accepting Grace (Justifying Grace) is the work of God that grants us pardon and new life. We call it the moment of salvation – when we say yes to God’s invitation to life, we are saved, born again, redeemed, granted pardon. God’s Accepting Grace is two works of God taking place at the same time. When we say yes with our words and our heart, we are Justified and Regenerated.

Justification is what God does FOR us – forgiving our sins. Regeneration is what God does IN us – renewing our fallen nature. Accepting Grace is both of these at work in us. God accepts us, cleanses us, claims us, and changes us.

Justification is that great image of being declared NOT GUILTY. We are actually guilty since we are all sinners, but as we know one can go into the courtroom guilty and through a variety of factors be declared NOT GUILTY. I can’t think of anyone particular to use as an example here, but I can point to the irony of being declared NOT GUILTY when you are guilty in the American judicial system. For example, when you bust into a Las Vegas hotel room to reclaim your stolen memorabilia. But that is another story for another day…

John Wesley, in his sermon Justification by Faith, stated, justification is the clearing us from the accusation brought against us by the law: At least if this forced, unnatural way of speaking mean either more or less than this, that, whereas we have transgressed the law of God, and thereby deserved the damnation of hell, God does not inflict on those who are justified the punishment which they had deserved.Justification is what God does FOR us.

Regeneration is what God does IN us – renewing our fallen nature. Regeneration is not about status, rather it is about nature and being. Regeneration is not a declaration, it is a transformation. The great image here is of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. What amazes me when I visit the Cecil Day Butterfly Center at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia, is how a caterpillar can become a butterfly. It is the same creature and yet completely different. This is the work of regeneration through the Holy Spirit – we are the same creature, yet completely different.

John Wesley, in his sermon, The New Birth, says this about regeneration, “this is the great change God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty spirit of god when it is ‘created anew in Christ Jesus’, renewed after the image of God, when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender love for all humanity.”

Now here’s the rub, Accepting Grace is our way of understanding what God does FOR us and IN us at salvation. But this work of Accepting Grace must be volitionally accepted, unlike Preparing Grace (Prevenient Grace) which is poured out on all regardless of response. Accepting Grace requires a YES from us. In our recent United Methodist experience and tradition, we have moved away from talking about this YES. This may be one of the reasons we have many church members on the rolls and in the pews who want to think of themselves as justified, but have never experienced regeneration! They have never said YES with their hearts allowing the Spirit to renew their fallen nature.

It is time to begin to reclaim this distinctive and essential doctrine of our faith. Methodists are people who believe in a decision of faith, whether that decision comes in a blinding light, or a slow and nuanced growth in the church. Either way, the moment of Justification and Regeneration must occur.

The beauty of our denomination is the proclamation of love. We respect each other even when we have differing views on issues that are not essential to the faith. We focus primarily on our love of God and neighbor manifested through action. But let us never forget the need of new birth. Let us proclaim and invite. Let us lift high the redeeming cross of Christ.