Monday, November 28, 2011

A Safe Season?

Have we made Christmas too safe?

That’s what I’ve been wondering this season. Has Christmas become a predictable mish-mash of traditions that have been separated from the earth-shattering power of the incarnation?I’m not bashing Christmas traditions, you realize. When it comes to Christmas traditions, I’m all in favor.

My family dives into Christmas traditions – the tree, the lights, the nativity sets, special dinner, family time – the works! So I’m not belittling these things at all.

I’m just wondering, is it all too safe? And what do I even mean by safe?

Well, to tell you the truth, I’m not entirely sure. I’m just reading the words of the prophets and noticing some fairly cataclysmic language. The heavens being torn open, the mountains quaking, the nations trembling, valleys being lifted up, mountains being made low, and that kind of stuff.

Earth shattering. Powerful. Transformative.

If by “safe” we mean innocuous, secure from risk, stable … well, the only thing “stable” about Christmas was the place Jesus was born.

The birth of Jesus changed everything.

God. Became. Human.

The thought should stagger you. The first inkling of understanding as to what the incarnation truly means should feel like a bolt of lightning electrifying your soul. The sheer power of Christmas scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry, and empties the rich, as Mary sings in Luke 1.

Have we somehow hidden that behind a big inflatable lawn Santa that plays “You Better Watch Out” over and over again? Are we so blinded by the glare of strings of computer programmed LED strings that we can’t see the light of the world any more? Is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra drowning out the sound of the voice of Zion up on the mountain announcing the presence of God?

This Christmas, don’t be safe. Take a risk. Do something you’ve never done before, for the sake of Jesus. Honor the birth of Christ by continuing the mission he inaugurated.

This Christmas, change the world.

(This is my offering for this year's Advent Devotion book published by Campbell UMC. The devotion book is online again this year, and can be accessed and subscribed to by clicking right here.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

For the Sake of the Mission - Follow-up

In his comment on my last post, Bob wrote:

“I can appreciate your position, but what good is a religion that tosses aside beliefs to accomplish their mission. If we believe something is wrong it doesn't give us license to be hateful but we certainly ought not condone sinful actions.”

These are great observations. I agree that a religion’s beliefs shouldn’t be thoughtlessly tossed aside, and I agree that religions should not condone sin. I overlook neither of these things.

For me, Bob’s comment illuminates a deeper question - just what is “religion,” anyway? A set of beliefs? An institution? A set of practices? A relationship with God? Some combination thereof?

I define religion at its heart as a relationship with God. And the mission, expressed many different ways, is to offer that relationship to people. In other words, the beliefs and practices of a religion ought to nurture that relationship. The beliefs and practices are subordinate to the relationship. And so when beliefs and practices make that relationship more difficult they need reformation.

This has been the church’s pattern for generations. We have continually been trying to figure out what, exactly, we believe. And not just on “non-essentials,” either. Questions like the identity of Jesus, the nature of God, the relationship between grace and works - big, important beliefs. Each of these, and many others, have been scrutinized and discussed and reformed over the course of Christian history. In fact, the most memorable figures in the history of the church are those who have said, “Wait a minute! What are we saying here? How does this actually help people find God? Maybe we should rethink this.”

And so, if I might reword Bob’s implied question, “Should we rethink what we believe if we find that it hinders our mission of offering people a relationship with God?” I answer unequivocally, “Yes.” We always have, and I see no reason to stop now. Not without prayerful discernment, of course. Not thoughtlessly, not lightly. But certainly it is acceptable to reform.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Time for the UMC to Change: For the sake of the mission

Several people have recently asked me my opinion on the question of marrying same-sex couples, especially with the current build-up to the United Methodist General Conference next year. I have also been asked recently why I haven’t written as much about homosexuality as I used to.

My simplest answer to both is, I really don’t have anything new to add to the conversation. I have written a bunch about my beliefs on the question; a brief search of “Enter the Rainbow” would illuminate them fully.

Here’s the un-nuanced, nutshell version - first, I know that my understanding is limited and fallible, and I am not privy to the entire truth of God. Secondly, I believe that Scripture is clear about what it condemns, and it does not condemn a mutually loving and respectful relationship between two adults of the same gender. Thirdly, I have come to this belief through deep study of Scripture, earnest prayer, a lot of reading, and many hundreds of conversations and experiences with others. And fourthly, I know that there are many who do not share my belief, and many of those happen to be dear friends whom I know are faithful, loving, gracious followers of Jesus who are not hateful or homophobic or hypocritical in any way. I truly lament when some who share my belief accuse others of such hurtful things.

Lately, I have begun to be alarmed at how the United Methodist positions on same-sex marriage and ordination of people who are gay hinder the mission of the church. The official positions of our denomination on this issue create the perception that our church preaches one thing but enacts another. We’ve all read about the research done by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons that came out in 2007 in their book “unChristian.” (Here are some of their data - This study has led to others, and Adam Hamilton does a wonderful job with this topic in his book, “When Christians Get it Wrong.”

Anecdotally, all it takes is a Google search. Go to Google, type in “Christians are” and a space, and let the drop down suggestions do the rest. The first one I got just now was “hypocrites,” the second was “crazy” and the fourth one was “annoying.” (The third one was “like pumpkins,” which is that trite little piece about how God scoops out our internal junk and carves smiles on our faces. Horrifying!)

Experientially, all it takes is a dozen or so conversations with a few teens and twenty-somethings. The UMC’s position is seen as so completely out of touch with the real world as to be almost laughable. It would be laughable, in fact, if it wasn’t so sad. I’ve had dozens of conversations with dozens of people outside the church who simply consider the church to be so far removed from their lives that they would never even consider turning there for spiritual connection. And it’s not animosity; it’s simple ambivalence.

And so here am I, a pastor who is passionate about helping people become disciples of Jesus Christ who are working to make the world better for God’s sake. And I am discovering over and over again in multiple conversations with many different people who are “outside the church” that I am unable to accomplish that mission, simply because people don’t see why they need to be a part of what they see as a hypocritical organization in order to make the world a better place. They’re already doing that, thanks.

We in the church are told over and over again by so many different people that we need to stay focused on the mission above all else. Districts, conferences, denominational offices, inter-denominational groups - everyone seems to be calling the church to an intensive focus on the mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This renewed focus, they all say, is what it is going to take to save the church from its impending demise.

Well, okay then. How serious are we about that? If there a couple of phrases in the “Book of Discipline” that are proving to be a significant stumbling block to undertaking that mission, should we not remove them?

(Again, I welcome dialogue on these questions. However I invite you to respectful and grace-filled dialogue only, please. Please comment and express your perspective on matters, but please do so in a way that indicates you have read Romans 12 at least once in your life.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Regifting Encouraged

Matthew 25:14-30, a story known as “The Parable of the Talents,” is a wonderful illustration of a Wesleyan understanding of salvation. However it presents several contextual challenges to contemporary North American Christians, cultural stumbling blocks that hinder our understanding of the lessons woven into the parable.

It begins with a man entrusting (Gk. paradidomi, “to give into the hand of another”) of massive sums of money to his servants. Unbidden. Unasked. They do nothing to earn this gift. It is given into their hands with no instruction, just the act of giving.

And they are given differing amounts, “to each according to his ability.” We are tempted to make too much of these differences; the lowest amount given, “one talent,” was equal to 15 years’ salary. The point is not to quibble over the differences in the amounts given, but rather to be amazed by the abundance of the gift.

God gives abundantly to all, and to each one is given a unique life. Because the metaphor of the parable is financial, that unique, personalized giving is indicated by differing amounts of money. Our capitalistic culture has conditioned us to think first, “Five talents is more than one, so five talents is better.” I believe this to be a significant block to understanding this parable. One talent is an enormous, virtually inconceivable gift, and any servant ought to feel the significance of it.

But Servant 3 (shall we call him Dwight?), does not understand the significance of the gift he has been given, and so Dwight does nothing with it. Actually, he does something, but what he does is go and bury the gift in a hole in the ground. His action proves that the gift is not irresistible. Rather than embrace and utilize the gift, he rejects it and hides it away.

Is he (like us) obsessing over and jealous of the differing amounts given? Is he perhaps apathetic to the gift or to the giver? Is he so wrapped up in his life that he can’t be bothered to deal with this gift, even as wonderful as it is? Is he actually afraid to take a risk, thinking the master will punish him if the risk fails?

In the meantime servants 1 and 2 (shall we call them Pam and Jim?) receive the inconceivable gift entrusted to them and put it to work. As they do, they find that the gift multiplies, expands, and returns to them doubled.

Remember that they were not instructed as to what exactly to do with the gift they had been given; it was up to them to take the initiative and utilize the gift, risking it all, not clinging to it for their own security or comfort, but “putting it out there” and hoping for the best.

What motivates Pam and Jim? Why do they do what they do, in such dramatic contrast to what Dwight did? Don’t they fear the master’s punishment if their risk fails? With the enormous gift given them, they might have just called it quits, headed off to the Riviera, and lived a life of ease for the rest of their days - but they didn’t. Why not?

The master returns.

And here, we come to a telling moment. We assume that the master will now ask for the talents back, right? The text tells us he has come to “settle accounts,” so we are actually set up to assume as much.

But imagine our surprise when we do not hear the master ask for the money back, but rather gives Pam and Jim even more. That’s right, when Pam and Jim give their report to the master, he praises them, gives them more, and invites them to “enter into his joy.” He never asks for the talents they have made, let alone the principle originally entrusted.

Here’s another enormous cultural blockage. Even without reading it, the ears of our imagination actually hear the master ask the servants for the money. But he doesn’t. He gives them more.

And then it’s Dwight’s turn.

Poor Dwight.

Dwight comes up to the master and the first thing he says is, “You are a rotten master.” This is probably not the best way to start the conversation.

He continues, “You’re mean and selfish and take things that you don’t earn yourself. So here’s your stupid talent back.”

Notice that, of the three, Dwight is the only one who actually offers to give the talent back to the master, Pam and Jim just show the master what they have done with what they have been given. It’s almost as if Pam and Jim are eager to continue, and are simply giving a status report on their projects to date. Dwight, in contrast, is done with this whole endeavor and is rejecting the gift, and with it any ongoing relationship with the giver as well.

Dwight’s bitter words and his rejection of the gift have consequences. The talent, which was so freely and abundantly given, is no longer available to him. And in a stark contrast to “entering into the joy of the master,” Dwight is forcibly evicted into the mysterious “outer darkness,” a phrase used only three times in the entire New Testament and only in the Gospel of Matthew.

And so the story ends … with gnashing teeth. (Idea for new business: “Outer Darkness Orthodontics.”)

There are at least three contemporary assumptions we make about this parable that I believe hinder our understanding:
1) 5 talents is better than 1. We need to think “different” instead of “better.”
2) The master asks Pam and Jim to return the talents. He doesn’t; he gives them more. (“To those who have, more will be given.” (v. 29))
3) “The joy of the master” equals “heaven” and “the outer darkness” equals “hell.” This is not stated in the parable anywhere; in fact there is no reason not to interpret these two ideas as here-and-now realities in this world rather than somewhere in the next.

If we lay these assumptions aside, this parable may be able to teach us something new. Often, the lesson is minimized to “use it or lose it.” As in, you have been given certain skills by God, and you have to utilize those skills or they will deteriorate. But that doesn’t feel entirely right to me, since this parable is among those that are describing the return of Christ and the realization of the reign of God on earth; the “coming of the end of the age.” (Take a look at Matthew 24:1-3 to read the set-up question for this section.)

So it seems to me that this parable may be able to teach us more than that we need to practice piano at least 30 minutes a day or we won’t get any better. (Although that certainly is true, kids. Do what your teacher tells you.)

With what have we been entrusted by God? What has God given to us?

… It would be better to ask, what hasn’t been.

All that we are comes from God. Life - Love - Grace - Salvation - Truth - Justice - Shalom. Everything. And it is such an inconceivably large gift, true. But what makes it even more inconceivable is that it is given without our asking for it. God’s gift is “prevenient,” that is, it comes prior to the event of our accepting it. God offers first, before we are even aware that an offer has been made.

Discovering that this immeasurable gift is offered to us, we then either accept it or not. Accepting the gift is the moment of “justification” in a Wesleyan viewpoint; other traditions call it “getting saved.” It is a powerful moment. It happens differently for different people; sometimes in one euphoric instant, and sometimes in subtle little moments here and there over time.

And then, if we accept the gift, we may be dismayed to discover that it does not come with instructions. This is called “free will.” Remember that Dwight received the gift, too. The master gave him a gigantic gift, and he accepted it. It’s what he did next that was his downfall.

Yes, we are free to do with the gift whatever we will. Are we going to display it in a curio cabinet in the living room? Are going to store it away in the attic and only get it out when the giver comes to visit? Or will we understand that there is more to do with the gift, that we can use it day by day to live better lives? In a Wesleyan view, there certainly is more that we are to do, once we have received the gift.

This “more to do” is called “sanctification” and it is the process of salvation by which, in cooperation with God’s grace, we grow closer and closer to God, by which we become more and more Christlike, by which the pattern of discipleship becomes more and more deeply imprinted upon us. Having received the gift, we must utilize it in order that it would expand. If we do not, it will wither away and we’ll lose it.

And as we increase the gift God has given, “working out our salvation,” we await the return of the master, the completion of God’s reign, the parousia, the “end of the age,” or any other of a number of metaphors to describe that-for-which-we-wait. And when that moment arrives …. wait for it …

We discover that there is even more!

As unimaginable as God’s gift is in this age, in the next it is even more so. Can you believe that? Just pondering that idea makes my mind swirl. That’s why nobody can know exactly what “that-for-which-we-wait” looks like. In fact I’m kind of suspicious of those who claim they are privy to this knowledge. It is just too huge.

And so the parable has something to teach about using our God-given skills, certainly. It has something to do with unleashing our spiritual gifts, no doubt. But that is because the parable has to do with how we are living our lives as a whole - skills, gifts, words, actions, attitudes, thoughts, relationships, health, resources - everything.

Live life in a way that builds up, multiplies, expands. Focus outwardly. Radiate. Receiving God’s gift is just one moment, it’s what you do with the gift for the rest of your life that matters most.

What will you do with what God has given you?