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.

Reading Paul Again…For the First Time

This will be a odd blog post.  It’s just passages of scripture.

I recently returned from Greece and Turkey with a group of 50 of my new closest friends from Chapelwood.  We followed in the footsteps of Paul and I wanted to read all of Paul’s letters again several times – to see if I noticed anything new in light of the trip.

I have to admit the divisions of the world (and the church) do color my readings.  What I discovered reading Paul again was a friend and co-laborer.  Paul is a mentor.   He is doing exactly what I am doing…fighting every day to share the Gospel and keep the followers of Jesus together so they can effectively change the world.  In every letter, Paul is trying to manage the divisions in his churches.  Paul is strict with those who are dividing the church.  But if you read all of them together, you see the larger themes: he encourages them to love, be kind, forgive, bear with weaker members.  Paul is trying to keep the church together so they can be a visible testimony to the power of Christ in the world.

I found it transforming.  I hope you will as well.  And if you feel going to Greece will help you in your readings, let me know! 😉

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.  For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites…

– Romans 16:17-18

Now, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose…Has Christ been divided?

– 1 Corinthians 1:10, 13a

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So, we are ambassadors for Christ…

– 2 Corinthians 5:17-20a

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

– Galatians 5;13-15

I encourage you to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together. You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.

– Ephesians 4:1-6

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

– Philippians 2:1-5

Put to death, therefore, whatever in your is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  These are the ways you once followed when you were living that life.  But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge according to the image of its creator.  In that renewal there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

– Colossians 3:5-11

Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia.  But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.

– 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so they they may be ashamed.  Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.

– 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

– 1 Timothy 4:12

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.  Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.  Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, and their talk will spread like gangrene…have nothing to to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, and apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness,  God may perhaps grant that they will depend and come to know the truth…

– 2 Timothy 2:14-17a, 23-25

Remind them to be subject to the rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.  For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, desipicable, hating one another.  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit…I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.  But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.  After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.

– Titus 3:1-11

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.

– Philemon 17-19

Good News to Bad Christians

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

 –1 Corinthians 1:10-17

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

 –1 Corinthians 1:1-5

It seems that our country is divided over everything.  I mean, we can’t even have a little fun when IHOP changes its name to IHOb just to draw attention to itself.  We all want to claim the moral high ground based on the values that are important to us.  For some, obeying law and respecting authority is the highest value.  For others, justice and mercy are the highest values.  And then there are many others who find themselves on a spectrum between multiple other values that include the two I listed already.  We don’t think the same way.  But we must acknowledge that we are influenced by powerful values and the leaders who embody those values.

I find it fascinating how the Apostle Paul dealt with a church that struggled with many divisions.  The church in Corinth was his most diverse community and most divided church.  There were many social, political, and economic divisions within the church alone (Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell points to 15 divisions Paul addresses in his letters).  How did the people of Corinth deal with their problems?  They separated into “factions” based on partisan issues (partisan means strong supporter of a party, cause, or person).  Each of these factions claimed their own ‘leaders’ – they co-opted Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter) and even Jesus!  Christians were slandering and quarrelling.  Paul addressed this by sending good news to bad Christians in 1 Corinthians.  Paul starts his letter by writing, “let there be no divisions among you, but be united in the same mind and the same purpose…it has been reported there are quarrels among you…some say “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Christ””.

I love how Paul does this.  He starts with himself as the lowest “claimed faction” leader and moves up to Christ.  After all, if your are in a faction that claims Cephas (Peter) or Christ you have way more authority than Paul or Apollos!  But Paul calls this for what it is: if you think you have the moral high ground just because you claim Christ and turn him into a leader of your faction, you are sadly mistaken.  You think that makes you right?  Christ can not be divided.  Christ is “faction-less”.

If we want to follow Christ, we must follow Christ.  You can’t follow another faction leader or even their ideals.  You can’t divide Christ and claim him for your faction.  You can’t slander the leaders of other factions.  You can’t slander or quarrel with members of a different faction.  If you are followers of Christ, you must love one another in the midst of your differences and you must stop tearing each other down.  This is Paul’s central lesson in 1 Corinthians.  “You have divisions…okay; but what are those divisions rooted in?  Your faction’s belief system?  That is not what I taught you.”  Christ is not a faction and he is our primary leader.  Christ gets the highest allegiance over every other leader.  No one gets more loyalty than Christ…not Paul, not Apollos, not Cephas, and not any other earthly leader.  Only Christ…and we don’t get to divide Christ’s teachings into what we like and the what we don’t like.  We must follow his teachings and embody his actions.  We must remind ourselves of the greatest commandment he gave us and lay the rest down at his feet.

  • First reflection: How much of our quarrel, slander, emotional frustration, division, etc. is rooted in one of our factions?  Can we acknowledge that we are part of a faction that influences us more than Jesus’ teachings? (nationalism, political party, ideology, denominational, etc.). These are questions we can only answer for ourselves if we hope to be transformed by Christ.  It starts with me.

The second thought has to do with HOW we deal with our divisions.  Have you noticed how frustrating it becomes engaging in discussions trying to outdo one another with facts, resources, words, definitions, history, and laws?  You say something, I counter with another fact, you counter back, I counter back…it escalates and escalates and all we are left with is bitterness and frustration.  We try to out enlighten one another…as if some report or study or quote will convert the person we disagree with.  We post a new article from our favorite faction-news-outlet and…BOOM!  (Mic drop…walk off stage).  It doesn’t work that way.  Why?  Because as long as we have loyalty to a faction, whatever that faction is, we will remain loyal.  Our worldview will not be changed by any human argument against it as long as our allegiance is locked in.  Albert Einstein once wrote, “…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”  His quote evolved into, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  Use all the articles and news reports you want from your faction outlets.  Those who disagree with you will discount them before they even read them.  There will be no boom.  There will be no mic drop.  Just more frustration and anger.

This is what Paul addresses to the Corinthians.  He doesn’t use “words” to argue divisions or try to solve the problem.  Words won’t work.  Paul knows the same words that created the problems can’t solve the problems.  Paul wrote, “when I came to you, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…I decided to know nothing but Christ and him crucified…my speech and proclamation were not in plausible words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God.”  Paul realized he had to shine a light on the demonstration of the Spirit, not words.  He reminds them that he didn’t proclaim Christ with words but with the power of God.  Corinthians were brilliant, cosmopolitan people…words alone would not convert them.  Paul did not depend upon the wisdom of the “rulers of the age” (whether philosophical or political), instead he pointed to the things taught to by the Spirit…spiritual things modeled in loving action…things embodied by the life and teachings of Christ, revealed by the power of God.

  • Second reflection:  In what ways do we depend on words, teachings, eloquent rebuttals, news stories, research data, etc. to try to convince other factions they are wrong?  Are we willing to admit that we look for information and listen to the voices of our own “factions”?  Can we see the fallacy of depending on the wisdom of the rulers of the world to try to change other peoples views?  How do Paul’s words challenge those of us struggling with divisions in our own country and our churches?  What would it look like to discuss our differences in a new ways that could reveal the power of God and build unity?

Let me close with some honest admission paraphrasing Paul.  Here is a trustworthy saying: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.  When I am a bad Christian, my struggle is being a part of the Christ faction.  I have to constantly test my loyalties to make sure I haven’t made Christ the co-opted, claimed leader of my own faction.  All Christians, good and bad, should wrestle with this.  Paul wrote these words to me…but I thought I’d share them with you:

“Do not deceive yourselves.  If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God…so let no one boast of human leaders…all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”  

— 1 Corinthians 3:18-23

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.’

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.