A Vision of Unity from Africa

I have been in a lot of meetings over the past several years regarding the impasse in the United Methodist Church over human sexuality.  I have always believed in the unity of the church and fought for it.  I also realized that we were doing more harm by not figuring out some sort of space in the church over this issue…whether that be separation or even a split.  There are people on both sides of this debate who feel they cannot remain in the United Methodist Church.  The recent Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation would provide a framework for those who feel they cannot remain in the United Methodist Church over this issue by birthing new denominations of Methodism.  I lament the separation and the negative impact it will have on our mission, but we need to get to a place where we can focus on the central reason we exist as the church.

The Preamble of the United Methodist Church’s Constitution reads, “The church is a community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. It is the redeemed and redeeming fellowship in which the Word of God is preached by persons divinely called, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s own appointment. Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the church seeks to provide for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world. The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world, and its very dividedness is a hindrance to its mission in that world.”

Over the past year, I have been in conversation with some African Bishops in the United Methodist Church.  A few weeks ago, Bishop John Yambasu (Sierra Leone) sent me the following email, which he gave me permission to share:

“At this time in our long and confusing journey, I believe continued dialogue is a major step in attaining understanding and moving forward to a peaceful way of resolving our current unresolved debate on human sexuality. And I thank you so much for sharing your perspectives on the future of the UMC. For us in Africa and the Central Conferences, we believe the earlier we get this debate behind us the better for the work of mission that God has called us to. Each day, millions of people around the world are dying of hunger, lack of water and preventable and treatable diseases. It seems to me that our denomination has become insensitive to the needs of the world around us. Rather we have become too occupied with this debate on human sexuality and shamefully investing God’s resources into this debate. 

Fortunately, dissolution is no more the issue before us. We are talking about separation.  It seems to me that many of the critical issues cannot be resolved now until separation happens. For now, we can only guess that there will be two denominations that will emerge after the separation – The Renewal and Reformed Coalition and the Post Separation UMC. While I cannot say for sure what will happen in the New denomination that is being led by WCA, I can safely say that;

  1. General agencies, including Wespath, will now stay as part of the structure of the Post separation UMC. 
  2. Africa will remain in the post separation UMC and Traditional
  3. The Centrist/Progressive coalition in the US will remain in the post separation UMC, and;
  4. Some traditionalists in the US will remain in the post separation UMC.

How this will work out for the post separation US church with centrists, progressives and traditionalists remains to be figured out.  We need special prayers for God’s guidance to help us address this matter. What the Central Conferences and the Connectional Table are proposing is for each region – Africa, Europe, Philippines and the US to become a Regional Conference with each regional conference (hopefully) having its own book of discipline that will provide for dealing with contextual issues.”

In a recent session hosted by Stan Copeland at Lover’s Lane UMC in Dallas, Texas, Bishop Mande Muyombo (Northern Katanga, Tanzania) said this, “the challenge we have here in defining the word conservative, or more ‘traditionalist’ – we may have had here in the honeymoon talk that you heard – but the challenge that we have right now is that word is being interpreted for our people in the wrong way.  In as much as I disagree with my LGBTQ person, I have to recognize his or her dignity.  If I chase that individual out of the church, I’m wondering if I’m preaching the Gospel.  The Gospel of love that Professor Empeche alluded to.  And I think for the African church, that is the challenge we have.  We cannot be perceived as people who come to oppress other people because of what we legislate.  I think we have the challenge to reform ourselves and look into each other.  If we are going to chase away people from the church, I am wondering…if we are still the church.  So, again, I want to emphasize that point that the time has come for us to move into regional conferences, respect each other’s space, and give each other time to build relationships and talk to one another and be submissive and vulnerable to the work of the Holy Spirit.”

I hate to say this, but it’s been a while since a United Methodist Bishop has inspired me…and now I’m inspired by two!  These Bishops have really challenged me.  The African United Methodists are actually leading us forward.  They are casting a vision to remain together as one church while allowing for regional, contextual flexibility on issues that are “non-essential” as relates to salvation.  I didn’t think it was possible, but I am reminded that with God, all things are possible.  They are teaching and leading us toward a new unity even in the midst of our disagreement on the issues confronting our church.  They do not agree with same-sex marriage or LGBTQ ordination, but they can be a part of a church where that would occur in another context.  They can also recognize and humbly ask for forgiveness for the harm done through previous UMC legislation.  We may not all agree, but their words and actions may lead the United Methodist Church toward a powerful and transcendent understanding of unity taught by both Jesus and Paul.

I understand not everyone in Africa may agree with Bishops Yambasu and Muyombo, but I am grateful for two Bishops in our church that take the words from our Preamble seriously,”The church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world, and its very dividedness is a hindrance to its mission in that world.”

“If We Are Going to Chase People Away From the Church, Are We Still The Church?”

Years ago, I had a young man come to me in tears.  He and his wife were divorcing after 10 years of marriage with 3 children together.  There was no affair or abuse: they “grew out of love”.  He told me, “no one is innocent in this…she just had the guts to walk away.”  It was a tragic situation.  But it grew worse.

He had been teaching a youth Sunday school class at their church.  He loved it.  They were a couple of strong faith even in the midst of their marriage falling apart.  The church he was attending was her family’s church.  Her parents had been there most of their lives. The preacher visited the young man.  Using the Bible, he told him, “you can’t teach our young people anymore since you are getting a divorce.”  The young man tried to explain to no avail.  He accepted the decision.  But then, at the end of the conversation, the pastor said, “you need to leave this church.  The Bible is clear: a man cannot divorce his wife.  We cannot allow you to remain unless you repent and reconcile.  And…her family was here first.”

The young man came to see me since we knew each other.  We prayed and shed tears.  It wasn’t long before he drifted out of church completely.  To this day, he still won’t attend church because of the harm done.  I share this not to point to the pastor, or the young man, or the wife, or her family…I share it simply to show that there are times we close the doors of the church to people.  When we do, are we still the church?

Last weekend, Bishop Mande Muyombo of the North Katanga Conference in the Democratic Republic of Congo (a conference with over 2,000 churches) humbled everyone at Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church last Saturday with a radical statement about what it means to be conservative and an amazing confession.  (I strongly encourage you to watch these two videos.)  Following his confession, the entire colloquy gathered together to ask for forgiveness for their actions as well.  He asked a question that has echoed in my heart all week: “If we are going to chase people away from the church, are we still the church?”

Bishop Muyombo is a traditionalist.  He does not agree with same-sex marriage.  But he is obviously wrestling with God’s Word – as many of us are – regarding exclusion of any of God’s children.  African, Filipino, and other international United Methodists want to keep the church unified even though they disagree with the practice of same sex marriage (there are some who want separate the church as well).  The same thing is occurring in our US United Methodist churches.  The difference is this: those on each side of this issue believe the other side is radical.  The choice seems binary: either leave the UMC to join a conservative Methodist Church that will exclude all LGBTQ folk; or stay in the UMC where the liberals will lead the church toward no truth, no beliefs, and no values.

This binary choice is false.

First, a new traditionalist Methodist Church does not feel they are “chasing away” LGBT folk.  They will welcome anyone and everyone, but they will stand firm that LGBT lifestyle is a sin and those practices cannot be lived out, blessed, or allowed in their church.  This will be a church of traditional non-compatiblists.  It won’t be a church for everyone, but it will be a church centered on Jesus and God’s Word.

Second, remaining in the United Methodist Church does not mean it will become a raging, liberal, socialist (please feel free to fill in any word here that may scare you if you are a traditionalist non-compatiblist) church.  On the contrary, as Bishops Muyombo and Yambasu (from Sierra Leone, who convened the recent Protocol separation plan) make clear, the UMC will remain a church with great diversity and contextual flexibility.  This will be a church of traditional compatiblists, centrists, moderates, and progressive compatiblists. It won’t be a church for everyone, but it will be a church centered on Jesus and God’s Word.

It is deeply distressing that our church feels it must split, but I for one am ready to return all my focus and energy on making disciples of Jesus Christ!  And I want to be part of a church that doesn’t chase anyone away.

Chapelwood and the Future of The United Methodist Church

On Friday January 3, major news outlets reported the press release from a broad group of United Methodist leaders who have agreed in principle to a separation over the issue of human sexuality.  The Washington PostNew York Times, Christianity TodayCNN, and many others reported on the details agreed upon in the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.  As with any news these days, some of the headlines and reporting may mischaracterize the proposed plan.  News outlets and Bishop’s statements also don’t reveal how the potential separation may impact our local churches.  I want to share a few clarifying statements and give clarity on how this potential separation could impact Chapelwood UMC.

First, let me give you the simple synopsis of what this agreement means. I encourage you to read the actual protocol in the link above and read some of my previous blog posts about the Indianapolis Plan to give you background on some of the rationale for decisions.

  • This plan is not a final decision.  It is a plan being submitted to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church for deliberation in May 2020.  There are some agreed upon principles within it, but keep in mind – only the General Conference can make decisions affecting the United Methodist Church.
  • This plan will allow the formation of a new traditionalist Methodist denomination that would disallow same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons.  That new denomination would be formed by the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and would follow their newly proposed Book of Doctrines and Discipline for a New Methodist Church.
  • This plan would allow for the continuation of the United Methodist Church.  The UMC would remain intact with our Book of Discipline.  The only difference is that the restrictive language disallowing same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons will be removed.  Each pastor, local church, and annual conference would decide whether they would do weddings or ordain clergy.
  • This plan allows churches, annual conferences, and central conferences to choose if they want to remain in the United Methodist Church or leave to join the new, traditionalist Methodist denomination.  All churches would keep their properties and assets.
  • Finally, the plan calls for an immediate moratorium on all charges/complaints addressing restrictions in the Book of Discipline related to self-avowed practicing homosexuals or same-sex weddings.  While someone could still file charges, the agreement calls to hold the complaints in abeyance until the agreed upon separation is finalized.  This will allow churches and pastors to begin living into ministry as they feel called.

How Does All This Affect Us at Chapelwood?

I love Chapelwood United Methodist Church.  We are a diverse community of faith that loves Jesus.  We impact the world for Christ in many different ways.  We are made up of multiple worship communities who each live out Christ’s love in contextually relevant ways.  Chapelwood, Mercy Street, The Center for Christian Spirituality, Fair Haven, Upper Room, Generaciones, and Oikon Chapelwood each seek to embody God’s grace as we receive it to all who need it!  Our pastors reflect ethnic and theological diversity.  At Chapelwood, we don’t agree on everything.  But we do agree on the essentials of the faith – the orthodox tenets of Christianity which we find in scripture, reflected in the Christian creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene), taught in John Wesley’s sermons and notes on the Old and New Testament, reflected in The General Rules of the Methodist Church and in our Articles of Religion.

If you have listened to me preach or speak at all over the past 6 years, you know that I believe the central focus of the Bible is this: God’s love seeks to renew humanity through Jesus Christ.  The life and ministry of Jesus Christ is the primary way we see God intersect with the world.  If you want to know what God would do in any given situation, look to Jesus.  In Matthew 9, Jesus says, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come not to call the righteous but sinners.”  The truth is we are ALL sinners.  We must all learn what Jesus means when he says he desires mercy over sacrifice.

The church must be open to all.  No one should be told they do not belong at the table with Jesus Christ.  The issues of same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons will continue to be debated in the United Methodist Church.  There will be a lot of theological diversity within the UMC going forward, as there has been in the past.  You can be a part of a family with different views.  I just completed a week with my family in town arguing religion and politics!  We don’t agree on everything, but we love each other and we would never break fellowship over our disagreements.

There are many resources that address the different views Christians have on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons. One that I have found enlightening is a one-hour video by two friends and fellow professors at Candler School of Theology at Emory University – the Rev. Dr. Kevin Watson and the Rev. Dr. Kendall Soulen.  There is also a 30-minute follow up Q&A where they list their biblical references again.  They are friends who offer differing perspectives of Biblical interpretation regarding marriage within Christian communities.  I love the fact that they are friends and co-workers who engage in intellectual dialogue with different perspectives of scripture.  They engage in this conversation with love and kindness.  I hope this will be a model for us at Chapelwood.

Final thoughts:

  • As senior pastor, I want it to be clear that I will be leading Chapelwood to remain in the United Methodist Church.  There are two primary reasons for this.  First, the new traditionalist Methodist denomination will be very different in structure, practices, and beliefs from the United Methodist Church that exists today.  I included a link above to the new Book of Doctrines and Discipline for this church.  The changes are far more than simply disallowing same-sex marriage.  Simply put, leaving the UMC would deeply change Chapelwood’s identity, structure, practices, and beliefs.  Second, remaining in the United Methodist Church fully embraces who we are and what we have always stood for as Chapelwood.  We believe in embodying God’s grace to everyone!  Everyone is welcome to join us at God’s table as we struggle peacefully to live out our lives of discipleship.  We won’t do it perfectly, but we will be the kind of family that welcomes everyone!  Our leadership is aware of our direction and is supportive.  I have stated to our leadership on many occasions that Chapelwood will not make a hard right or left turn theologically.
  • In 2020, there will by many opportunities – dialogues, classes, and small groups – to discuss the differing ways we read and understand scripture.  We need to engage in conversations about the differing ways we read the Bible.  We need to grow in our Biblical literacy on ALL issues.
  • I encourage you to meet with any of our pastors (and even retired pastors) to discuss this issue with them one on one.  Our pastors have differing views on homosexuality, but we are all supportive of Chapelwood and we are all supportive of remaining in the United Methodist Church.  We love living in a diverse community of faith.
  • Chapelwood will continue to be a church made up of people with differing beliefs on the issue of homosexuality.  Life in community can be messy.  I’m okay with that.  We are a church filled with differing political opinions as well.  But, we are also of one mind when it comes to God’s kingdom work and the impact we make for Christ Jesus.
  • Our missional focus will not change.  We will continue to make disciples, embody grace, and impact the world.

Please be in prayer for our church and all our members.  I am praying for peace, understanding, love, and kindness.  I am also praying for calm in the midst of storms.

Look for opportunities coming soon to engage in further discussions on the future of Chapelwood and the UMC.  I am really excited about The Impact of Generosity sermon series in January and know that God will bless us as we engage in our annual stewardship campaign.  I look forward embodying God’s grace with you.

The Indianapolis Plan – Final

I am putting the Indianapolis Plan Basic Provisions here.  I will be blogging on the provisions as we ended up over the next several days.  Traditionalists, Centrists, and Progressives did not agree on all provisions but we felt we needed to offer a different option to General Conference delegates related to separation.  We realized much of this plan, if used, will be modified.  We are praying for GC2020.

BASIC PROVISIONS OF AN INDIANAPOLIS PLAN ​​​​FOR AMICABLE SEPARATION​​​​       September 18, 2019

INTRODUCTION:

The 2019 special General Conference of the United Methodist Church highlighted the depth of the irreconcilable differences present in The United Methodist Church.

Rather than continuing the quarrel over homosexuality at the 2020 General Conference, a group of Progressives, Centrists, and Traditionalists present these proposals as a possible pathway to amicable separation in The United Methodist Church.  The names of the participants are at the end of the document.

We envision a new future for the people of The United Methodist Church to avoid further harm to one another, to United Methodists around the world, to the church universal, and to those with whom we strive to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We seek to move away from the caustic atmosphere which has often marked conversation in the United Methodist Church into a new season where we bless one another as we send each other into our respective mission fields to multiply our witness for Christ.

We envision an amicable separation in The United Methodist Church which would provide a pathway to new denominations of the Methodist movement so we can all make new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. These new denominations, though separate, will continue the rich heritage of the Methodist movement while being free to share their respective witnesses for Christ unhindered by those with whom they have been in conflict.  We will release one another to joyful obedience to Christ’s call on our lives.

BASIC PROVISIONS:

1. The 2020 General Conference of The United Methodist Church would support an amicable separation plan by providing a pathway for the development of a Traditionalist United Methodist Church and a Centrist United Methodist Church.  A Progressive expression may emerge as a Progressive United Methodist Church or may be included in the Centrist United Methodist Church. Other denominations may emerge as well. (Names are placeholders and descriptive; each new denomination would choose their own name and may use “United Methodist Church” with an appropriate modifier if they so choose).
2. The United Methodist Church would not be dissolved but would have its legal continuation through the Centrist United Methodist Church.
3. The Traditionalist United Methodist Church would be a global denomination that would maintain the current stance of the United Methodist Discipline regarding the practice of homosexuality. It would emphasize unity around doctrine, mission, and standards, leaner denominational structure, greater local flexibility, and accountable discipleship.
4. The Centrist United Methodist Church would be a global denomination that would remove from the Discipline the “incompatibility” language and prohibitions against same-sex weddings, ordinations, and appointments.  Centrist annual conferences and local congregations would make their own decisions regarding the ordination and appointment of homosexual persons and performing same-sex weddings in their conferences and congregations. It would practice faith with a generous spirit, emphasizing greater local flexibility within a deep commitment to connectionalism, social  justice, and missional engagement that transforms the world for Jesus Christ
5. A Progressive expression may emerge as a Progressive United Methodist Church that would be a global denomination that includes church-wide protection against discrimination based on race, color, gender, national origin, ability, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or economic condition, and that practices full itinerancy of LGBTQIA+ pastors and same-sex weddings in all their churches. Another progressive expression may be the inclusion of progressives in the Centrist United Methodist Church.
6. Other denominations may be formed by a group of 50 or more local churches or by one or more annual conferences.
7. All denominations would have their own General Conferences or governing boards, books of Discipline, structure, polity, and finances.  Any local congregation which chooses to join one of these denominations would be relieved of the trust clause in order to take their assets and liabilities into the new denomination.
8. Annual conferences in the United States would decide by a simple majority vote of those annual conference members present and voting with which denomination to align.  Annual conferences not making a decision would become part of the Centrist United Methodist Church by default.
9. Central conferences would decide by a simple majority vote of those members present and voting with which denomination to align.  Central conferences that do not make a decision would become part of the Traditionalist United Methodist Church by default. Annual conferences outside the United States could decide by a simple majorityto align with a different denomination than their central conference.
10. Local churches disagreeing with their annual conference’s decision could decide by a simple majority vote of a charge or church conference to align with a different denomination.  All local church property, assets, and liabilities would continue to belong to that local church.
11. Clergy and ministerial candidates would decide with which denomination to align.  By default, they would remain part of the denomination chosen by their annual conference, unless they choose to affiliate with a different denomination.
12. Bishops (active and retired) would decide with which denomination to align.  By default, they would remain part of the Centrist United Methodist Church unless they choose to align with a different denomination.
13. Continuation of clergy and episcopal pensions would be provided for by assigning liability for the unfunded pension liabilities to the new denominations and by receiving payments from withdrawing congregations that choose not to align with created denominations.
14. Annual conferences and local congregations could begin functioning in the new alignment beginning August 1, 2020, on an interim basis.  Annual conferences, local churches, and clergy choosing to align with a denomination other than the Traditionalist Unite Methodist Church would be exempt during the interim period, following the adjournment of General Conference 2020 to the start of the new denominations, from the provisions in the Discipline prohibiting same-sex weddings and the ordination, appointment, or consecration of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. Inaugural General Conference sessions would be held in the fall of 2021, with the new denominations becoming fully functional as of January 1, 2022.  The Progressive United Methodist Church might launch at a later date, if desired. The opportunity to choose an alignment would remain open until at least December 31, 2028.
15. Wespath, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, United Methodist Women, the General Commission on United Methodist Men, and The United Methodist Publishing House would continue as independent 501(c)(3)organizations with their own self-perpetuating boards of directors and would be able to serve any denomination thatdesires to receive services from them.
16. All other United Methodist boards and agencies would become part of the Centrist United Methodist Church with mutually agreed upon initial funding and subject to possible reforms and restructuring by the Centrist United Methodist Church.  Such boards and agencies could also contract to serve other denominations formed in this process.
17. The 2020 General Conference would provide continuing funding for Central Conference ministries during the 2021-2024 Quadrennium supported by all denominations.  All United Methodist conferences and congregations would be encouraged to continue support for Central Conference ministries regardless of denominational affiliation.
18. A process and principles for allocating general church assets to fund transition to new denominations and to be devoted to the missional purposes of each denomination thereafter would be adopted by the 2020 General Conference.
19. Mandatory retirement provisions for all bishops would be waived until 2022 after the new denominations have become operational.  Jurisdictional conferences might not elect bishops in 2020, reconvening in 2021 or 2022 as part of the Centrist United Methodist Church. Central conferences would elect the number of bishops determined by the 2020 General Conference, as planned. This would allow a proper match of the number of bishops needed under these new conditions.  Bishops in other denominations formed in this process would be elected and assigned according to the provisions of those denominations.

Here are the United Methodist Progressive, Centrist and Traditionalists Clergy and Laity who developed and signed this proposal for an amicable separation.  Organizational names are provided for informational purposes only and do not imply that these churches or organizations have endorsed these proposals.

Rev. Keith Boyette, President,
Wesleyan Covenant Association
Fredericksburg, Virginia
Traditionalist

Rev. Darren Cushman Wood, Senior Pastor
North United Methodist Church
Indianapolis, Indiana
Progressive

Rev. Dr. Douglas Damron, Senior Pastor
Epworth United Methodist Church
Toledo, Ohio
Centrist

Lynette Fields, Layperson
Florida Annual Conference
Orlando, Florida
Progressive

Rev. Dr. Cathy Johns, Senior Pastor​​​​​
Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio
Centrist

Krystl D. Johnson, Layperson​​​
Lay Delegate, Eastern Pennsylvania Conference
Chester, Pennsylvania
Traditionalist

Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, Vice President and General Manager
Good News
Spring, Texas
Traditionalist

Rev. Dr. Kent Millard, President
United Theological Seminary
Dayton, Ohio
Centrist

Cara Nicklas, Layperson​​​​​​
Lay Delegate, Oklahoma Annual Conference
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Traditionalist

Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter, Directing Pastor
First United Methodist Church
Geneseo, Illinois
Traditionalist

Rev. Dr. John E. Stephens, Senior Pastor
Chapelwood United Methodist Church
Houston, Texas
Centrist

Rev. Judy Zabel, Senior Pastor
Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Centrist

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.

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.