Willing to Pay the Price?

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.  Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.  So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
– 1 Corinthians 9:24–27

There is an old Hasidic, rabbinical parable about a prince who dreams of his kingdom being a place where people live in perfect community.  He dreams of a place where all the people of the kingdom give, love, serve, and mentor one another.  As he shared the vision with those in the kingdom, they all agreed with great excitement! To seal the covenant of the new community, the prince called for a great ceremonial bowl to be placed in the center of the town and for each person to bring their finest vintage bottle of wine. They would seal their covenant by all pouring their best wine in the ceremonial bowl together, and then they would all drink from the gifts they shared.  One of the elders went home and looked at the vintage wine and decided to empty into a decanter and fill the bottle with water.  As the elder poured the wine into the great ceremonial bowl, he prepared to drink with all of the others.  The cups were handed out, they were all filled from the great bowl and they all drank together…but to their utter surprise it wasn’t wine at all but water. Everyone did the same thing as the elder.  No one was willing to pay the price for true community.

Paul says we are to run the race of faith in such a way as to win it.  Verse 24 holds a lot of irony.  For many of us today, the aim is not victory but simply the way we run the race.  We live in a culture where participation is all that matters.  Paul indicates there must be passionate effort and dedication to achieve victory.  We are to run the race of faith with great self-control and purpose.  We train our bodies and minds.  We never run aimlessly.  Paul continues by saying we should “punish my body and enslave it”.  The earliest Christians spent a lot of time thinking about the passions that had power of all of us.  They believed those passions must be overcome through dedicated lives and regular prayer.  Are Christians today willing to commit the effort it takes to devote everything in life for the sake of the Gospel?  I would have to be the first to admit I’m not always ready to give that much.  I need to commit myself to something more.  I also need help in my training and as I run the race.  If I am going to bring my best wine to the ceremonial bowl, I am going to need some help along the way.

One of the things we have dedicated ourselves to at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas is a renewed commitment to discipleship.  We have done well in our history with clear and appropriate discipleship pathways for children and youth.  We haven’t done so well with adults.  How do we recommit ourselves to our basic call?  How can we help adults grow as followers of Jesus?

Ascending Leaders has helped us frame some priorities in this renewed focus.

Get People Moving – We must have a clear mission and a clear pathway for how we make disciples. Followers of Christ must be in movement (even when we stop to pray and rest, we are active in faith).  The verbs are clear in Paul’s letters.  We are to “press” on.  How we create movement in the life of a disciple is key.

Make Scripture the Heart of Everything – We focus on God’s Word, but do we make engagement with the Bible easy and meaningful?  What about for people at different stages of their faith journey?  How do we take what we preach and teach on Sundays and extend it into the other 6 days of the week?

Everyone Owns the Vision – I love the question Ascending Leaders asks: Do we see ourselves as more than people who GO to church and begin to believe we ARE the church?  How do we build this culture change in the church? Our mission of making followers of Christ is to enable followers to make more followers.

Minister to the Local Community – I truly believe that a local church has to see their community as their mission field.  Our whole world is our mission field, but we must start locally.  If a local church is not working to improve the lives of those we serve by tackling real, local issues and concerns, then it won’t really matter if we go away.  I want the church I serve to make a difference in the neighborhoods we live in.

Christ Centered Leadership – As Evagrius Ponticus said, “Love is the way of the Christian life; humility is the way we achieve it.”  In John 13, Jesus washed his disciples feet and said, “I have set an example for you…love one another as I have loved you.”  Followers of Christ model the same surrender to power Christ did.

We are making a renewed commitment to discipleship at Chapelwood.  I think Christians everywhere should do the same.  If there ever was a time we needed effective followers of Christ influencing the world, it is now!

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.’

The Shepherd ‘Keeper’

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

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James Rebank is Twitter’s most popular shepherd.  He lives in the Lake District of England in Matterdale.  His story is fascinating.  Oxford educated and now an accomplished author, Rebank gives insight in the life of a real shepherd in a modern world.  Helen MacDonald writes about Rebank’s book The Shepherd’s Life, “It’s not a romantic retreat to a blurred, vague, green, imagined nature.  Working with livestock is real and unsparing and beautiful and hard. It’s a book full of mud and blood and groundedness and community.”

I have no idea what it meansto be a shepherd, but Rebank gives me some insight I never would have imagined.  No longer is the shepherd this type of artificial, nostalgic carved wooden figure in my nativity or some awe-struck, wage earner of the first century staring in the sky as angels sing.  The are real and gritty…and teach some lessons we all should learn.

Shepherds are KEEPERS.  They keep watch over their flock.  They keep the flock fed.  The keep the flock from danger.  They keep them bound together.  Psalm 121 says, “The Lord is your keeper.”  In Hebrew, the word can mean “to have charge of, to guard, or to protect.”

On Thanksgiving, all I could think of were the shepherd “keepers” of my life.  In addition to God the Shepherd Keeper, I thought of my “mema”, my mother in law, and other people in my life who have ‘kept’ me connected to my family, my faith, my friendships, and my responsibilities.  They have had ‘charge over me’.  They ‘guarded’ me.  They ‘protected’ me.

I am not one who naturally longs to be ‘kept’ by anyone, but I find that this characteristic of God is vital in our spiritual lives.  With all the “mud and blood and groundedness and community”, I find that havinga ‘keeper’ in my life is vitally important to my well-being.

Sutherland Springs and Springs of the Water of Life

“for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” -Revelation 7:17

Little did I know as we worshiped on November 5 that a tragedy was befalling fellow saints of God in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  At Chapelwood UMC in Houston, we were gathering to worship God and to remember the saints who died this past year.  First Baptist in Sutherland Springs was worshiping as well.  This should have been a Sunday where the saints – living and dead – are united with one song of praise to the Lamb on the throne.  Methodists and Baptists, Protestants and Catholics – the untold number of saints gathered around the throne singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:12)

I have no words to speak or write that can help make sense of this awful tragedy.  Watching the news doesn’t help at all.  “It is a gun issue.”  “It is a mental health issue.”  “It is a sin issue.”  My friends, evil never limits the places and spaces where it works.  Evil will do anything it can to destroy life – to kill, steal, and destroy.  The devil is at work and will always seek to introduce fear and doubt into the lives of people of faith.  Evil will even work after the tragedy as we try to find some easy solution or explanation.  It’s not easy.  It never has been.

I have received quite a few emails asking ‘why’?  I don’t have the answer.  I took theology, psychology, and ethics in seminary and can articulate evil, sin, pain and suffering.  But the theology doesn’t do much for me in this moment.  I am more connected to the laments in the Psalms and the hoped for future in Revelation.  It’s not that I am avoiding anything.  It’s just that this seems to happen every week and words begin to echo into meaninglessness.  I need words to help me name the pain.

Like in Psalm 6, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.  My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.  Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.  The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.  All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror; they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”

And Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

So, right now and am in sackcloth and ashes.  I am weeping inside and out.

But there is something we can do.  Christians will need to be ready to step up our discipleship if we want to see our world changed.  We must lament…and they we must step forward.  We must give up time to disciple and be discipled.  We must give time to teach our teens and children.  We must open the pathways of the Holy Spirit to work not just in us, but to expand the influence of Christ in the world.

Join me as we weep and cry out.  Then join me as we step forward in faith to change the world.