Church Off the Rails: Following The Way of the Teacher

From my own observation, a large part of why the contemporary Church has gone off the rails is that Christians, churches, and denominations have become hardened around words, issues, belief-systems, causes, philosophies, and theologies all without imbibing in the spirit of Jesus.

Every parent has said, “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you haven’t, your kids are not old enough to to point out your inconsistencies! The thing about the Christian faith is that we have a Master Teacher who we can look to in both what he says and what he does. Jesus, our Master Teacher, teaches his followers not only with his words but also with his manner of life.

Jesus taught using parables. Parables are stories “thrown alongside” another reality. They serve to illumine who God is and what it means to live under the umbrella of God…which Jesus called the kingdom of God. Jesus’ parables were not alway clear to the listeners. They had a mysterious tone to them. But the invitation was for his hearers to wrestle with the meaning. Jesus didn’t give simplistic answers to his hearers. He invited us to engage with God directly.

Jesus taught using preaching and instruction. The Sermon on the Mount or Plain are moments Jesus gets very specific. The poor, grieving, persecuted, meek, and humble are the ones who are blessed. Love and pray for your enemies. Don’t store up treasures here on earth. Don’t pray in public to parade you religion. Again, the purpose of Jesus’ teaching is to get people to adjust their orientation in life – renew their mind, go beyond their way of thinking about God – ‘metanoia’.

But the primary mode of teaching for Jesus was not the spoken word. Jesus most powerful teaching came from his manner of life…from the way he lived and moved in the world…from the way he engaged people and problems day in and day out.

  • Jesus taught by eating with sinners, tax collectors, and others the religious leaders declared unclean. He engaged with the people where were socially and religiously ostracized. Lepers, demon-possessed, the sick, and outsiders were who he was drawn to.
  • Jesus taught through humility, gentleness, and compassion. He was the shepherd who looked out on people who were cut off by the religious leaders – harassed, confused, helpless – like sheep without a shepherd.
  • Jesus taught by what he did day by day. This was his most significant way of teaching. His life bore witness to his words – the truth of his parables and instructions. The religious leadership of his day said one thing but lived another. Jesus’ words and actions aligned.

From my own observation, this is a large part of why the contemporary Church has gone off the rails. We have made idols of certain causes, interpretations, and cultural issues and ignored the way Jesus lived, moved, and engaged the world. It feels as if many churches in America have elevated “proper belief” to the place of idolatry while ignoring compassionate action. (Some will read this and assume I don’t think belief matters – that’s because they don’t don’t have ears to hear or eyes to see the full way Jesus taught). The world is watching. The world is listening. They notice a modern church where words and actions do not align. Not only do they not align with Jesus words and actions…they don’t align with their own words and actions. They will pay more attention to the way we dialogue about this blog post, than the content of the post. *Sigh*…and yet some will continue to focus more on being right, while forsaking the manner of Jesus life.

I believe disciples of Jesus must recapture the sense of being apprentices of Jesus not just scribes of apologetics. We must allow Jesus to be our teacher both in what he says and in how he lives. This is what is truly means to embody Christ.

The United Methodist Church: What We Know and What We Don’t Know

On our podcast, Pod Have Mercy, we’ve talked about the UMC with a variety of folk – Ted Campbell is most recent. But we’ve also shared time with Bishops Scott Jones (Texas) and David Graves (Alabama West Florida and South Georgia) and others. I’ve linked to our most recent with Professor Ted Campbell, Albert C. Outler Professor of Wesleyan Studies at Perkins School of Theology. His understanding of Methodist connectionalism as a part of our theological formation is fascinating.

There are a lot of meetings going on in The United Methodist Church in the USA. Unfortunately, many of these meetings are one sided – depending on what area or region you are in. One of the biggest topics of discussion at conference and district meetings is: What does the future for the United Methodist Church look like? What will stay the same? What will change? As I’ve listened to the answers, there is a lot of misinformation coming from both sides of the aisle.

There are a few things we know absolutely and some things we don’t know yet.


  • Our Articles of Religion and our Doctrinal Standards that have been in place since Methodism began will remain unchanged and in place in The United Methodist Church. The UMC cannot revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine. We also cannot change our Confession of Faith. We cannot change the General Rules of our Societies. These are all available in the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, along with our Doctrinal History and Standards, in paragraphs 102-105. If anyone infers that these aspects of our church will change, they are incorrect. And, if you look at the new Global Methodist Church’s Book of Doctrines and Disciplines, you will see the exact same doctrinal standards, articles of religion, confession, and general rules. They are the same in both churches.
  • The United Methodist Church will have plenty of space for people with traditional beliefs on human sexuality. The conversation of whether someone leaves The United Methodist Church or stays has been presented as a binary choice – a false dilemma – and that is unfortunate because it is not a binary choice. As Bishop John Yambasu wrote me before he died, there will be traditionalists, centrists, and progressives in The United Methodist Church (he also added that Africa will remain UMC, but that is the next point). I know many traditionalists who will remain in the UMC. The vast majority of lay and clergy people that I am friends with and been in ministry with for 30 years in the Southeast and South Central US are traditional in their understanding of human sexuality and they are remaining in the UMC. I am traditional as is Bishop David Graves, Prof. Ted Campbell, and many others. In an October 2021 meeting of large churches and young clergy, 750 people were present from across the US. They stated that 53% of the churches represented were traditional and would remain in The United Methodist Church. The breakdown of clergy was close to 50/50 split as well and are remaining UMC.
  • The United Methodist Church in Africa will remain United Methodist. They have already publicly stated this fact. They are traditional in their views on human sexuality and will not change their views. Their conferences can actually vote to leave now if they choose (even if American conferences cannot), but they have stated that they are not leaving the UMC.
  • There will be contextual space for differences on human sexuality in the UMC in the USA and in other places around the world, but our doctrines, articles of religion, and other doctrinal standards will not change.


  • We don’t know how long it will be before the UMC removes restrictive language around marriage and ordination in the Book of Discipline. It is very possible that it does not change in 2024. It is important to remember that the UMC position on human sexuality has not changed and cannot change until General Conference decides something else.
  • We don’t know how the future of the UMC will be organized globally. I believe our Central Conferences – in Africa, Philippines, and Europe – will lead the way in what the new global UMC looks like and how we are organized as a connection.
  • We don’t know how the number of conferences and the number of bishops will change in the US. There will be realignment and restructuring that will need to take place, but in my opinion, this is not a bad thing at all.
  • We don’t know how many churches will leave the UMC and join the Global Methodist Church or the Free Methodist Church. A lot of people say with certainty what percentage of UMC churches will leave. I have no idea and neither does anyone else.
  • The last thing I will say is that we don’t know the depth and nuance that exists in each local church around the issues of human sexuality, but especially around the idea of leaving the UMC vs. joining the Global Methodist or Free Methodist Churches. Just because the pastor may have a strong viewpoint, or a handful of leaders, I would encourage each and every church to engage in some pretty deep listening and discernment before any decisions are made. This will keep as much of the local church together as possible.

    I’m sure there are many other things we know and don’t know and I’m glad to add to the list. For now, I leave you with some wise words from my Bishop Scott Jones. He is convinced that churches in the Conference can move forward with grace and mutual respect. He quoted John Wesley: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.

Emptying Ourselves

The word ‘humility’ comes from the root ‘humus’ which means dirt or soil. To be humble is to be aware of the dust from which we have been created. We are connected to the soil from which we were created. We are created to be grounded and sober about our human condition.

But dirt also reminds us that we are planted in the soil of God’s heart. Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Christian mystic, was fond of referring to God as the ‘Ground of our being’. God is the ground in which we are planted. So, our humility is both the very humanity that causes our frailties, but also the humanity that is planted in the Ground of all our being. Yes, we are fragile humans with selfish ambition. But we are also created in the image of God and we are empowered for so much more.

True humility understands both aspects and holds them together without the exclusion of the other. People who are humble see themselves honestly. They are aware of their weakness and selfish ambition. But they are also aware of their giftedness and strength.

In Philippians 2:6-7, Paul uses the word ‘kenosis’ which literally means ’emptying’. “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied [kenosis] himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Several other translations say it this way:

He gave up everything and became a slave…” (Contemporary English Version)

He gave up his place with God and made himself nothing.” (New Century Version)

“He set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave…” (The Message)

He made himself nothing…” (New Living Translation)

This week is Holy Week. It is both a sacred and solemn week. Jesus entered Jerusalem knowing the cross awaited him at the end of the week. Jesus empties himself as he moves toward the cross. He had to set aside his own rights and privileges. He had to recognize the dust and the ash of his humanity. He had to let go. We started Lent six weeks ago with Ash Wednesday. We received the mark of ashes on our foreheads and we were reminded, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” We were reminded of our mortality and dependence on God.

I pray that this Holy Week will call us to take our cues from the life of Jesus. Just as Jesus gave himself for others, we must do the same. We must wrestle with setting aside our own desires and our own quest for worldly success in order to move downward into the grist of real life with real people.

This move downward- emptying ourselves- is the antidote to division and disunity according to Paul. Paul wasn’t interested in everyone being on the same side of the political debate. Paul did not believe that everyone had to be in the same place on social issues. Paul is not interested in having a church vote on an issues facing a church or denomination with the groups with the most votes winning.

The source of unity, Paul says, is God. And the one who has lived out a life of union and harmony before is God’s Son, Jesus.

A Strange Game: The Only Winning Move is Not to Play

Greetings Professor Falken…

When we follow Jesus, our God-given identity unfolds within us and animates us with purpose and intention for living our days.

The evil one’s strategy with Jesus in the wilderness intentionally follows the baptism, where in prayer Jesus heard the voice addressing him from the heavens: “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Lk. 3:22).

The temptations in the wilderness focus on Jesus’ identity. As proposed by Satan, they attempt to lure Jesus with wrong ways of framing what it means for him to be the Son of God. In both Luke’s account and Matthew’s Gospel, two of the three testings begin, “If you are the Son of God…” (Lk. 4:3, 9, NIV). The conditional “if”…Satan’s way of trying to move Jesus away from his core identity, from the center of his personhood.

Philosophy calls what is happening here creating a ‘false dilemma’. It is a near relative of a false dichotomy. A false dilemma is defined as an “informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.” This kind of false dilemma says, “If A is true, then B must be true” or “If A is true, then B must happen in this way.” Options are limited to a single course of action or a single result.

Most all of us think and relate to others in this – devilish? – way everyday. We live with this kind of presumptuous thinking that seeks to control and manipulate others into a particular way of acting and being in the world.
• “If you are my friend, you will do this for me.”
• “If you really are a Christian, then you will believe this or that.”
• “If you want to see social change, then you need to align yourself with this or that movement.”
• “If you are a REAL Republican, you’ll vote this way . . . or take this stand on issues.”
• “If you are a REAL Democrat, then these things must be important to you.”

All of this “if-then” thinking limits options…says that there is only one, straight-line way to express your sense of personhood…and tries to force persons into a kind of logic that is false from the beginning. And as I said, those who think and act in this way may not intend it, but they are behaving in a very “devilish” way…for if you do not respond in the way they feel is appropriate in their original “A” statement, then you must not be “A.” (the word for devil in the New Testament means ‘one who divides’)

In the case of Jesus being tested by the evil one in the wilderness, he is told, “If you are the Son of God, then you will act in certain ways.” The evil one tries to limit his options and choices. As far as the devil is concerned, there are no other ways to be the Son of God. And if Jesus chooses other ways to be the Son of God, then the devil can say “see, Jesus is not truly the Son of God.”

The good news is Jesus doesn’t take the bait, and neither should you. You will be confronted with many false dilemmas in our world. Some will be about faith, others politics, and others more personal issues. As long as you are grounded in your divine identity and willing to look deeper beyond the surface of the false dilemmas presented, you will will discover the kind of faith that truly transforms us at every level of life.

Affirming Your True Identity

The Baptism of Jesus

At his baptism, as Jesus was praying, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on his in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ identity was often challenged throughout his life. In fact, he will move directly from baptism into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and to be tempted and tested in the desert by the adversary, satan. It is no coincidence that two of the three temptations begin, “IF you are the Son of God,…”
Years ago, Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., was interviewed by a TV reporter. The interviewer noted that her remarkable work seemed to have such a strong grip on people . . . that it moved those who visited the memorial with a deeply emotional experience. The reporter asked Maya Lin about why that might be so. She replied, “It’s the names. The names are the memorial. No edifice or structure can bring people to mind as powerfully as their names.”
It is important to be named . . . to have a name . . . to know your name . . . to have your deepest, most authentic identity affirmed. Jesus heard that from his Father. We must hear that from God as well in our baptismal identity. “You are my son/daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
The world and society around us are seeking to deconstruct us everyday and rebuild us into something we were not created to be. I believe that a major part of the Christian spiritual life is about hearing again the name that is foundational to the personhood each of us are invited to live into. We forget who we are. We forget what is fundamental to our personhood. We forget the basic nature of our very DNA. In some sense, Christian spirituality is about remembering, then living more fully into our God-given, God-ordained identity.

Pandemic, Fog of War, and Learning Horizons

The “fog of war” is the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. Carl von Clausewitz is credited with coining the term although he never actually used it. Once a battle begins, information becomes confusing and even distorted. We can’t see things accurately due to noise, smoke, and confusion in action. Interestingly, while Clausewitz saw the fog of war as an impediment to overcome, Korean-era fighter pilot, Colonel John Boyd, realized it could be used to advantage leveraged correctly.

I stayed away from blogging since the pandemic began. Early on, I wasn’t entirely sure why. But as we begin to see the daylight on the other side of the pandemic, I get it. Pandemic life was and is deeply uncertain for everyone. In my almost 30 years of experience in ministry, I’ve learned to pierce the “fog of war” in many situations of life – personal and community conflict, denominational upheaval, political tensions, racial struggles, natural disasters, etc. But a pandemic is a new one for all of us. So, I did what many of you did and what many pastors did…we moved from foxhole to foxhole tending to the deep trauma in people’s lives. We were learning in real time – trial and error everyday. Everything was stripped away in an instant. We’ve never seen anything like it in our lifetimes, and I hope once we are finished, we will never see it again.

Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization, wrote, “powerful learning comes from direct experience. We learn eating, crawling, walking, and communicating through direct trial and error – through taking an action and seeing the consequences of that action; then taking a new and different action. But what happens when we can no longer observe the consequences of our actions? What happens if the primary consequences of our actions are in the distant future or in a distant part of a larger system within which we operate? We each have a “learning horizon”, a breadth of vision in time and space within which we assess our effectiveness. When our actions have consequences beyond our learning horizon, it becomes impossible to learn from direct experience.” In lay terms…when the learning horizon is too far away, you have no way to tell how you actions affect you, those around you, and the world you live in. You could be doing great harm, but you have no way to know that it is from your action because you can’t see the consequences of you words and behaviors. (Social media is a good example of this.)

I believe this is where we are as a society and as the church in the United States. For some of us, the pandemic caused us to shut down and hide away. Others attempted to penetrate the fog of the pandemic with certainty rooted in our uncertainty. I mean, if we could be certain enough about this thing, we can defeat it, right? Our learning horizon moved far, far away and that led us to behave badly.

What is the solution? Simon Sinek refined something called the “Golden Circle”. Three circles inside each other. The largest circle is your What – your title, what you do, what you offer, issues in society…it is rooted in everyday actions, words, and practices. The second circle is your How – the way you engage in your What…how you speak, how you engage, how you treat others. The third and smallest circle – the bullseye – is your Why – your central purpose, your central belief system.

It feels to me that Christians in America have been spending too much time focusing on the What with little consideration of the How and very little thought given to the Why. American Christians believe we can “win the day” if we win the What. This thinking disconnects us from the Why and the How. Don’t get me wrong…the What is important, but it is not more important than the How and definitely not more important than the Why.

In John 15, Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul wrote, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

And finally, in Mark 1, Jesus said, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.

The fog of war will always lead to uncertainty if we make the What of life the most important part of our Christian faith. But like Col. Boyd, if we want to reduce the distance of our learning horizon and use the fog of war to our advantage, we will need to spend much more time on our How and our Why, and far less time on our Whats.

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.”

You Are The Beloved

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

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

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

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




The Power of Commitment

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

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

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

Spiritual exercise:

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

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

The Dangers of Nostalgia

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

– Exodus 17:1-7 (The Message)

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

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

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

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