The “Yes” of God in Jesus Christ

The great poet Samuel Coleridge wrote a poem entitled The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  In the poem a ship is being followed by an Albatross, one of the great birds of the sea with a wingspan of up to twelve feet. They live on remote islands in the Pacific Ocean.   In the ancient world it was widely regarded as a good omen for a ship to be followed by an Albatross. However, in Coleridge’s classic poem one of the sailors Albatrozshoots the Albatross with a crossbow and kills it, bringing sure doom to the voyage. The sailor who shot the bird is made to wear the dead Albatross around his neck. This is where we get the common saying that someone is wearing guilt or shame “like an albatross around their neck.”

It is a helpful image because sometimes we do fall into the trap of thinking that God has laid an albatross of guilt around our neck.  He is somehow “against” us.   He is forcing us to carry some huge burden.  Perhaps we have a mental picture of an angry God who is just waiting for us to slip up so that he can say “I gotcha.”  We often live under a cloud of internal condemnation and carry the weight of guilt and fear like an albatross around our neck.  However, the Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that all the promises of God are “yes” in Jesus Christ.  God is for us.  Brothers and sisters, God is for you!  He stands with you this day and His word for you is always “yes.”

So, you may ask, what about all the times when God (or God’s Word) says “No” to us.  Isn’t that the “No” of God?   It is precisely here that we have to listen to God’s “no” more carefully.  When God says “No” we must always listen carefully to the hidden “yes” behind every NO of God.  In other words, God only says “No” because He is standing with us and longs for our deepest joy in fellowship with him and others.  Most of what we want God to say “yes” to are things which bring isolation  and destruction to us.  God does not say “no” to crush our joy.  He says “No” because that is the deeper “yes” to our greater joy.

You may feel like you have “shot the albatross” in your life.  You have killed the very thing which was to bring you a blessing and now you must bear that guilt and carry that shame for the rest of your life.  But, today, hear the Yes of God in Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ, every sin has been paid for; every closed door flung wide open; every empty table filled with his abundance; every grave prepared for resurrection; every demon cast into the swine and sent over the hill; every broken wall has been rebuilt; every crushed dream has been renewed; every crooked way has been made straight; every sunset of despair has been turned into a sunrise of hope!  It is true that we do not yet see all of this.  We still await the final consummation. But, in Jesus Christ it is already breaking in!   Satan is being crushed under our feet.  The joy of the gospel is breaking upon us. The dead albatross is rising from our neck and taking flight to, once again, bring a blessing, not a curse.  Today, may you hear afresh the “Yes” of God in Jesus Christ.

Charge to December 2012 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary

From the iconic Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz we learn afresh of the importance of courage.  Who can forget those memorable words, “what makes the muskrat guard his musk?  What makes the Hottentot so hot, or put the “ape” in apricot? Courage.

Like the Lion, we may feel we’re not very courageous, but with God’s help we can be women and men of great courage and boldness tempered with honest, “truth-telling” humility.

There are few traits more needed by pastors and full time Christian workers today than that of courage.  As the church in the West moves from the warm “high noon” light of Christian cultural consensus, to the long “sunset” shadows of post-Christendom, it is easy to lose one’s courage – the moral nerve to stand with Christ and the gospel.  We would much rather occupy the cultural center than the prophetic margins.  It takes courage to announce the gospel even as it is being decried as outrageous and offensive.  We live in a society enmeshed in deep spiritual and moral chaos.  It takes enormous patience and courage to lead someone from the gutter of despair to the high road of holiness, through the power of the gospel.  It takes courage to confess Christ when even big swaths of the church have lost the patience to listen to him.  It takes courage to preach the whole gospel, not just the warm, fuzzy bits.  It takes courage to preach Christ, and not ourselves.  It takes courage to stand firm on the Word of God, when the prevailing winds of culture are blowing hard in your face.

The redemption of the world is hard, toilsome work and God has decided to not redeem the world without us.  So, December 2012 graduates:  go forth as men and women of courage!   Preach the Word with courage!  Pray with Courage.  Love with Courage.  Serve with courage.  Be courageous in your life of holiness.

There is a day in Wesley’s journal where he gets up in the morning and he preaches to a group while loud mocking noises and jeers are going on around him.  He travels on to the next stop, but before he finishes preaching he is pelted with stones and run out of town.  On his third stop he preaches, but some opponents let their animals loose which dispersed the crowd and caused a great commotion.  His final stop that day was an evening service where several thousand people gathered and the Spirit’s presence was sweet and powerful as God did his work, hundreds responding to the gospel.  It took a lot of courage for Wesley to get through that day.  You are going to have days like that.

It was the great 16th century Reformer Martin Luther who once said, “If I confess with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.  Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all other battlefields besides is mere flight and disgrace if you flinch at that point.”

Courage.  Go forth with courage, class of 2012, and don’t give the Devil a chink of light.

Reflections On How The “Love of God” Changes Us

In his 1937 landmark book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr memorably described the weakened message of the church in his day as follows:  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[1]  Tragically, Niebuhr’s devastating critique could easily be said today of evangelical Christianity.  Who has lost sight more of the depth of human sin, the certainty of God’s judgment and the call to repentance than today’s populistic, evangelical churches?  Have you noticed how the prayers of repentance and confession have dropped out of the order of services in many churches?  Have you noticed the quiet re-writing of some of the older hymns to drop out references to wrath, repentance and judgment?  Thankfully, there is a growing realization that, in our attempt to stay at the cultural center of consensus (rather than the prophetic margins) we have inadvertently participated in an obscuring of the gospel.

No where is this problem more evident than how the phrase, “the love of God” is used today.   So much of the biblical meaning has been squeezed out to comply with modern sensibilities.  The word “love” is used in our society for everything from “I love chocolate cake” to “I love that movie” to “for God so loved the world that he gave His only Son.”  The ancient Greeks,  as you know, had four words for love:  eros (erotic love), philia (devoted friendship), storge (parental affection towards children), and agápe (God’s love/ 1 Cor. 13 type love).  Each of these words have nuances of meaning and are used in a variety of ways in the New Testament.   But, it remains instructive.   When we say we ‘love our children’ most understand that this involves a wide range of responses and responsibilities which cannot be understood in merely emotive ways (though it would not exclude this).  When we love our children it involves, among others, acts of compassion towards them, learning to listen, honest truth telling, wise instruction, empathy when they are hurting, forbearing patience, loving discipline, the setting of boundaries, and so forth.  To neglect any of these would not be expressive of the full range of what it means to love.  This is, likewise, true in our relationship with God.  It is misguided, for example, to insist that God’s love towards us does not, at times, involve his disciplining us for our own good.  God has given us moral boundaries, not because He is a tyrannical kill-joy, but because he longs for us to know the deepest joy of His design.  In fact, God is so committed in his covenant-love toward us that He sometimes opposes us in our own inclinations, and deeds, and ideas as to what we think is right because His love is a holy love.

In today’s morally vacuous climate, we can easily become influenced by sentimental concepts of love which precludes his righteous judgment, or his loving discipline.   However, one of the surest signs of God’s love for us is that, like a good parent, He disciplines us, sets moral boundaries, makes judgments according to his revealed will, and so forth.  Sometimes His “discipline” and “truth telling” can really hurt and make us want to flee in the opposite direction.  However, we know from Scripture that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).  Paul says that “when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32).


[1] Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (NY: Harper Row, 1959 edition), 193.

Imprecatory Psalms: Are All the Psalms Suitable for Christian Use?

For the past two years, my wife Julie and I have started each day by singing a Psalm and then carefully thinking and praying through the Psalm line by line. We use a collection of metrical psalms known as the Trinity Psalter which draws from many of the great historic metrical Psalm collections (such as the famous Scottish Psalter) as well as new metrical renditions of the Psalms.  This has been a very enriching experience in our walk with the Lord.  Julie and I have also been slowly working on our own metrical Psalm collection, putting each Psalm into meter.  We hope to have this completed in the next few years (we haven’t yet tossed the coin to see who is going to take on Psalm 119!).

When people hear that we are singing the Psalms they sometimes ask, “Do you really sing them all?  Surely you mean the “old favorites” like Psalm 19, 23, 93, 100, right?”  “Surely,” they continue, “you as a Christian can’t sing Psalms like 109 and 137, can you?”

Psalm 109 and 137 are two of approximately eighteen Psalms that are considered imprecatory Psalms, i.e. they call down curses or judgment on someone (See, Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 109, 137, 139 and 143).  This raises a great question which is not just about singing Psalms, but preaching or reading the Psalms as well.

Are all the Psalms suitable for Christian use?

How do we reconcile the tension between, on the one hand, our confidence that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable, etc.” with our equal confidence that we should bless, not curse, our enemies?  That is the question which I would like to address.

First, all such honest, transparently painful cries found in the Psalms are cries of truth and faith.  The Psalmist turns their cries and pleas to God to act precisely because they know that it is not their place to do so.  We give up our own desire for human vengeance (unlike Islamic terrorism, or personal vendettas, etc.) and put vindication into God’s hands who alone judges and dispenses true justice.  The Apostles quote Psalm 109 after the betrayal of Judas so that they would not be trapped in personal unforgiveness, but rather put the whole matter into God’s hands.

Second, all the Psalms of imprecation point to our ultimate enemy, Satan.  It is true that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but we do wrestle against the powers and principalities of whom the flesh and blood are but minions and servants (Eph.6:12).  So this great enemy, this perpetrator of evil and injustice and death and rebellion against the Lord, rightly prompts our passionate cries for the Lord’s action – to end this night of darkness and death which the enemy has unleashed into this world, and to set things right again.  The ravages of depression in the lives of those you love, the tyranny of poverty and injustice willfully imposed by wealthy dictators upon the poor, the horrors of rape and torture enacted upon innocent victims, the bondages of addiction which entrap and destroy healthy lives and families – all of these “enemies” are the tangible outworking of principalities and powers against which we cry with the psalmist for the Lord to wipe out and deliver us from.

Third, we must never forget that as Christians we read all Scripture in the presence of the Risen Christ.  Even those Psalms which call curses down upon our enemies point to God’s answer in Jesus Christ.  God’s judgment has come, his wrath has been poured out, his vengeance has been paid – and all of it has fallen upon Christ.  Every cry for vindication and vengeance, every curse and desire for “payback” which the psalmist wants to see has come upon Christ on the cross.  Thus, every verse of a psalm which utters a curse is actually a window into the cost and pain of God’s own answer; and a proclamation (of sorts) of the incredible grace of the gospel whereby the wrath and justice of God (of which the psalmist only feels a very small measure) is willingly taken upon Himself.  Christ became a curse for us – our redemption is there pictured.  In the gospel we also come face to face with the depth of our own sinfulness.

Finally, the vivid language of the imprecatory Psalms expresses our hope as believers that there will be a final end to evil, and that it will be destroyed to rise again no more (Rev. 18).  One of the most vivid images in the imprecatory Psalms is found in Psalm 137:8,9 when the Psalmist prays a blessing on those who take a woman’s child and dashes its head upon the rocks.  The imagery is one which God Himself had given as a promise in Isaiah 13:16.  The birth of another generation of Babylonians (who the Psalmist sees perpetuating unspeakable horrors against the people of God) is a sign of the ongoing perpetuation of evil.  The birth of an infant represents a pseudo “new creation” by the Babylonians which must, in the end, give way to the biblical new creation where evil comes to an end and is destroyed with no offspring to rise up again to take up the mantle of evil.  The Psalmist reminds us that there will be an end to the evil in the world.  God is going to set things right.  History as we know it does have an end.  He will come again to judge the world, destroy all evil and usher in the New Creation.

So, for these reasons, I encourage Christians to sing all the Psalms, including the Psalms of imprecation.  The whole Bible is inspired by God and every line of it is profitable for “teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).  So, I’m going to keep on singing the Psalms – all 150 of them.

Are there really any atheists?

Professor Richard Dawkins has been called the world’s most notorious atheist.  Indeed, his atheism is so militant that he is widely regarded as the poster-child for the modern so-called “new Atheist” movement.

His wildly popular books, The God Delusion, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, among others, are regularly cited in atheist articles, books and blogs.  Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion has sold more than 2 million copies and is now in 31 languages.  Dawkins has called all forms of religious belief, “a fixed false belief.”  Dawkins once  declared that “we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in.  Some of us just go one god further.”  He was once asked about the contribution of seminaries and divinity schools to the world to which Dawkins replied, “What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?”

It is, therefore, worth noting that Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, does not actually call himself an atheist.  In a debate earlier this year with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dawkins surprised some by his reaction to a statement made by the Archbishop.  During an exchange, Rowan Williams referred to Dawkins as the world’s most famous atheist.  Dawkins responded by saying that he is not an atheist, but rather considers himself an agnostic (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2105834/Career-atheist-Richard-Dawkins-admits-fact-agnostic.html).   To be fair to Richard Dawkins, he later made it clear (as did many of his devotees) that this did not represent a shift in his views.  Apparently, the world’s most famous atheist has really been an agnostic all along.   Let’s unpack some of the implications of this.

First, let’s clarify the two terms.  An atheist believes that there is no God.  An agnostic affirms that one can never know for certain whether God exists or not.  Notice the two terms atheist and agnostic both begin with the so-called ‘privative a’ (sometimes called the privative alpha).  This is a feature in ancient Greek and in Sanskrit which gets transported into English and a few other languages which use the prefix “a” to negate what follows.  The word theist, for example, means one who believes that God exists.   By placing a privative ‘a’ prefix on the word ‘theist’ an a-theist is one who does NOT believe in God.  This is also true with the word agnostic.  A close examination of the word ‘agnostic’ reveals that the root word is the word ‘gnosis,’ the Greek word for “knowledge.”  The privative ‘a’ attached to the word for knowledge means, quite literally, “no knowledge.”  An agnostic is one who has “no knowledge” about whether God exists or does not exist.

Richard Dawkins explains his agnostic position by saying that it is impossible to “prove” that God exists, so the corollary must also be true; namely, that it is impossible to “prove” that God does not exist.  This seems to concede the very point that many of us have made to our atheist friends; namely that propositions such as “God is” or “God is not” fall outside the normal boundaries of scientific discovery and enquiry.  To use C. S. Lewis’ famous analogy, it would be like trying to find Shakespeare in a Shakespeare play.  Shakespeare is the author of the whole play and therefore transcends it all.  As philosophers and theologians often point out, scientists may be excellent at physics, but metaphysics is outside their remit.  In fact, the very fact that the proposition “God does not exist” cannot be scientifically proven, means that (by their own testimony) there really are no atheists in the world.  There can only be agnostics.

Let me explain.  Because atheists live in what Francis Schaeffer used to call a “one story” universe, they have no access to any knowledge outside of empirically confirmable data.  Since God transcends the empirical world, then they are only left with “no knowledge,” i.e. agnosticism.  Christians, in contrast, live in a two story universe where God has chosen to reveal himself through creation, scripture, the incarnation, and so forth.  Thus, we have access to knowledge which transcends what can be known through empirical scientific enquiry.  Thus, we can be theists, but they can only be, agnostic.  Since no one can prove that God does not exist, there can be no atheist in the world.  Thousands of so called atheists, in atheist blogs and books and so forth should come clean and call themselves the “new agnostic” movement.  Even Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion should be reprinted as a question, not a statement. It should be, The God Delusion? since Dawkins cannot prove (by his own testimony) that belief in God is delusional.  He clearly thinks so, but he cannot know for certain.

Richard Dawkins (and all the host of atheists, er… agnostics, who are out there) have given their lives to a negation; namely they have committed themselves to the proposition that  one cannot know for certain if there is a God.  It is, to put it bluntly, a ‘knowledge about no knowledge.’   I am sure that there are many honest people who affirm such a non-affirmation.  But, surely it is clear that the legs of such a world-view cannot carry one too far.

Reflections on the Embassy Attacks

In recent days we have seen multiple attacks on American embassies or consulates in the Middle East, including those in Lybia, Egypt, and Yemen.  Dating back to the Iranian revolution in the 1970’s we have become accustomed to seeing this kind of violence expressed against America.  In watching the news of these recent attacks, and in light of our recent memory of the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, I was reminded of a book by Bertrand Russell which I read years ago entitled, The Conquest of Happiness.

In that book he makes a very important observation about life.  At one point he is discussing work and why humans spend so much time working.  He argued that work is, in part, based on the desire to build or construct something.  He is not merely referring to carpenters or skilled laborers who physically build things.  He makes the larger point that integral to the human fulfillment is the desire to do constructive things with our lives – building a family, building a business, building an institution, building a movement, building a bridge, and so forth.   He then goes on to argue that construction is, therefore, inherently more satisfying than destruction.

When you destroy something like tearing down the gates of an embassy, killing someone, turning cars over and lighting them on fire, the fulfillment in that kind of activity is fleeting and quickly subsides.  Constructive work, on the other hand, provides an ongoing sense of fulfillment and peace.  In fact, the deepest constructive work is never fully complete, so we have that ongoing sense of building, improving, making things better, and so forth.  With destruction, there is no such lasting sense of accomplishment.  Osama bin Laden came to symbolize one of the greatest acts of destruction in modern times.  However, he was not fulfilled by it.  He ended his life alone in a walled compound, spending his days with a sense of defeat and looking at pornography.

Those who march on embassies, kill ambassadors, burn buildings and turn cars upside down cannot avoid the fact that if their message is to be compelling and bring long term fulfillment they must demonstrate what they will construct once all the destruction is complete.  What is their long-term vision for life, for society, for the world?   The work of destruction is far easier than the harder work of construction.

Christianity, in the end, is not about destruction.  Ultimately, it is the greatest construction project in the universe.  The vision of Christianity is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God which is about reconciliation, peace, healing and the power of God’s love to overcome evil.

So, in the midst of a world of destruction and burning cars in the streets, keep on building, keep on constructing.   Let your capacity to love this world be greater than any force which unleashes hatred on the world.  Let your forgiveness be greater than any force of bitterness.  Remember, the cross is the greatest intersection of the world’s hatred and God’s love.  The resurrection is God constructing once again.  The Risen Lord defeats death.   Construction, in the end, always trumps destruction.

Thanks be to God.

 

What is the Book of Discipline?

One of the beautiful and cherished features of the Methodist tradition is the way in which the pastors are brought into a shared covenant with one another. The whole appointment system under an episcopal form of government (bishops and district superintendents) is made possible because of a shared covenant. We pledge to stand together. We all live as those under authority. If, in the wisdom of the bishop’s council, our services and ministry is needed in another location, we pledge to go – and do it with joy – because we believe in the shared covenant which undergirds the wonderful biblical principle that ministry is not about “us.” It is about building the church of Jesus Christ. A covenant, both in the biblical tradition, as well as in modern day United Methodism is not some vague notion, but it is rooted in specific agreements which, in our case, is outlined in the Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline is what binds us together and provides the “grammar” of that covenant. This has served us well since 1784.

It is, therefore, with dismay that Bishop Mel Talbert has called upon United Methodist pastors to defy the Book of Discipline regarding homosexual practice as being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and, instead, begin to marry homosexual couples. Yet, to do this defies the very covenant we have all agreed to follow. For a bishop to openly declare his defiance against the Book of Discipline and to receive no rebuke from the Council of Bishops is truly startling.

I am not writing this to focus on the homosexual issue per se, though that is the presenting issue which Bishop Talbert has thrust upon us. It applies to pastors who raise doubts about the bodily resurrection of Christ, or the efficacy of the cross, or a whole host of other examples which also break with the Book of Discipline. Bishop Talbert’s open defiance of the Book of Discipline is particularly worth noting because he is a bishop of the church. If a bishop is allowed to openly defy our discipline, then our covenant is broken and no minister can be held accountable. When a bishop is consecrated they take a vow before God to “uphold the discipline and the order of the church.” If this covenant is broken, then the Methodist church becomes a sea of independent churches with no shared faith or doctrine or experience. I applaud the Asbury Seminary graduates who pastor some of the largest churches in the country who initiated the open letter to the bishops asking why Bishop Talbert has not been held accountable (see www.faithfulumc.com). We eagerly await a response from the Council of Bishops. I was not a part of the letter which these pastors wrote, but they must have felt almost ashamed to write it. It is like people from a small town gathering together and pleading with the duly elected sheriff of the town to please uphold the law.

What many in the church long for is a church which is faithful to historic Christianity. What we long for are pastors and episcopal leaders who once again share in a common covenant. What we long for is a growing confidence in the Word of God, the supremacy of Christ and the power of the preached gospel in our ranks. What we long for is a faithful church, even as we recall the words of John Wesley when he said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

How long, O Lord, must we wait? Have mercy upon us and deliver us in this hour of need.

My Charge to the 2012 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary

We live in a world which if it were reduced to a jar with a label on it, that label would probably include the word impossible.  We live at a time when almost everything around us is framed by impossibilities…

●  Peace among Israelis and Palestinians…impossible
●  An America where the threat of terrorism is a distant memory…impossible
●  A congress where Democrats and Republicans engage in healthy, respectful dialogue and work collaboratively across the aisle for the good of America…. impossible
●  A world marked by cultural stability where it is safe to walk the streets at night and crime is low…impossible
●  A society where a man and a woman in their twenties with their whole lives in front of them, stand at the altar of a church and pledge their entire lives to one another – to be faithful until death separates them – and actually do it… I’m afraid too many people would say, nah, …impossible

Most people live in a world of impossibilities… As Thoreau put it we live “lives of quiet desperation.”  Hope is low…expectations are lower… suspicion reigns…cynicism is on the throne…and truth itself is on the scaffold.

Yet, here you are, graduates, poised on this day to go out into this very world framed by such impossibilities.  I charge you, therefore, class of 2012, to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what transforms the impossible into the possible.  Indeed, it is the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ which totally reframes the world and all of human history.  It is these two great singularities – incarnation and resurrection – which reframe a world of despair and cynicism into the larger frame of hope and promise.  This old creation is broken and wounded, but you know that the New Creation is already breaking in!  You are its heralds and ambassadors. You are capable of thinking thoughts that the world cannot think.  You are capable of sacrificial acts which the world cannot fathom.  You are capable of dreaming dreams in a world that only knows ever-maddening nightmares.  You can think about possibilities.

The whole ministry of Jesus was framed by impossibilities…incarnation and resurrection…a virgin birth and an empty tomb.  Someone once said, Jesus came into the world through a door marked “no entrance,” a virgin womb.  He left through a door marked “no exit”, a tomb of death.  Two great impossibilities made possible in Jesus Christ. Nobody had ever walked through those doors before.   In Jesus Christ, the world’s greatest impossibilities are made into possibilities.

Graduates, you would have under-heard the gospel if you believed that the incarnation and the resurrection are mere isolated historical events.  They are historical events, but they serve to re-frame and re-order the whole of human history even today.

You can go out into this world and in Jesus Christ see the impossible made possible.  You can work for peace, because the prince of peace is the Risen and Ascended Lord.  You can re-engage in government and live free of bitterness and cynicism, because the government rests on his shoulders.  You can wage holy war against crime, because God’s love for the world is always greater than Satan’s hate of it.  You can boldly rescue men, women, and children from human trafficking, and the downward spiral of drug addiction because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell therein.”  You can sit with husbands and wives who walk into your office and say “we have given up, our marriage has no hope.”  And you can say, without blinking, God still has the last word in your relationship.  You can preach the gospel to lost sinners and believe afresh in the power of God’s redemption because the cross is still the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.  I charge you to go forth as ambassadors of hope!  Do not get caught in the net of despair.  Do not get trapped in the web of cynicism.  Do not get swallowed up by all the impossibilities.  Instead, be in Christ, where all impossibilities can be reframed by the hope of Jesus Christ.

 

The Black Man in Our Sacred Dreams

It has become almost a stock image, especially in missionary circles:  During a fitful night trying to sleep, an African man has a dream of a white man coming to him telling him that a message of salvation or healing is on the way.  The missionary then arrives, the gospel is preached, people gladly receive the good news and the church is born anew.  You don’t have to go far to find such a story.  In fact, the most recent issue of Christianity Today (May 2012) tells the story of an Islamic farmer in Mozambique named Feliz Talibo who had this very dream a few years ago and is now a devoted Christian, freed from sickness and demonic oppression.

I rejoice over this story and the dozens like it I have read over the years.  It reminds us that God is the greatest evangelist of all.  We see God showing up in the dreams and visions of Joseph  (Matt. 1:20; 2:19), the magi (Matt. 2:12), Pilate’s wife (Matt. 27:19), Ananias (Acts 9:10), Peter (Acts 10:10), Cornelius (Acts 10:3), and Paul (Acts 16:9, 18:9), among others.  Nevertheless, I see a day dawning when the “man in the dreams” will be an African, and the man or woman who has the dream will be white.  Paul once had a vision of a Macedonian Man and, in obedience to God, crossed the sea and found Lydia.  We need the message of Christ, of salvation, of healing, of demonic deliverance and of hope here in the West too, especially as North America is emerging as the fastest growing mission field in the world.  I am praying that God would start sending Africans into the dreams of white men and women.

This prayer may have already been partially answered in the 2012 General Conference of the UMC.  In the midst of leadership failures, stunning disconnects between the mission of the church and the work of the Conference, and attempts by protesters to hijack the Conference, the African delegation kept showing up.  Not only did the Africans bravely remind us that the church is the most diverse movement in the history of the world, but that great inclusiveness must be found in Jesus Christ.   The Africans showed up in our dreams to boldly remind us of the imperative of the gospel to preach good news, to heal the sick and to share the love of Christ.  The Africans showed up in our dreams to gently remind us that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The Africans showed up in our dreams to lovingly remind us that the Scriptures are the Word of God to us.  There were many in this delegation who remembered General Conference 2008 when some wanted to silence their voices and take away their vote.  Today, no one can silence the African church.

It is easy to cite disappointments in the recent General Conference.  But, looking back a decade from now, this conference will be remembered as the time when the African delegation really found their authentic voice to speak prophetically to the church they love so dearly. They showed up in our dreams.  They spoke to us.  If we listen, we just might hear the voice of the Lord calling us to a better day.

Re-Imagining the Gospel

Many of us will remember the 1993 Re-Imagining conference held in Minneapolis which drew so much national attention.  The central purpose of the conference, as I recall, was to help the wider church more fully support the role of women in leadership in the church.  This was, and continues to be, an important conversation in the church and I, for one, support the full participation of women in the life and work of the church.  However, the conference (sponsored by the World Council of Churches) quickly became a time to “re-imagine” the doctrines of God, church, salvation and so forth.  So what could have been a careful reading of Scripture and the history of the church in light of new and real challenges, became an open denunciation of historic Christian faith.  Songs were sung to a God/dess Sophia.  One of the plenary speakers was famously asked about the doctrine of the atonement.  She replied that we “don’t need a theory of atonement” and then went on to say that “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping and weird stuff.”  That statement speaks for itself.

It is perhaps time for a new Re-Imagining conference, but this time a call to re-imagine a church faithful to the gospel and historic faith. Perhaps this General Conference, or a future one, could truly become a re-imagining conference.  I would like to re-imagine a few things by invoking our collective memory of the following:

First, let’s remember that the United Methodist Church is the greatest church planting movement in the history of the United States.  No other denomination in our history has planted a church in every county in the country.  That is an astonishing feat.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great new church planting movement?

Second, let’s remember that our movement has produced some of the most effective, reproducible models for Christian nurture and discipleship in history.  Our very name, ‘Methodist’ was a reflection of the strict ‘method’ we used for discipling new believers.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great discipling movement?

Third, let’s not forget that the Wesleyan doctrine of salvation was fully Trinitarian.  It wasn’t enough to be justified by Christ.  One must be sanctified by the Holy Spirit.  It wasn’t enough to be “declared righteous” (alien, imputed righteousness), we must be “made righteous” (imparted righteousness).  The linking of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying and glorifying grace in the writings of Wesley remains one of his great legacies.  We have a message of transforming grace.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a movement of grace and life?

We live in a day when the church seems to work overtime to erase every possible distinction between the world and the church.  However, the world needs Jesus Christ.  The world needs to hear the gospel.  The world needs the wonderful ministry of the church as an embodied community living out all the realities of the New Creation in the midst of a broken world.  Let’s not forget this.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves with a prophetic imagination.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves as a gospel proclaiming, church planting, disciple making, grace filled movement bringing life and hope to all!

Is this possible?  Do I have hope for the United Methodist Church?  Yes it is.  The very Christ we proclaim in the gospel is the greatest impossibility made possible. In fact, the gospel emerges in the context of two “impossibilities.”  As someone once noted, He entered the world through a door marked “no entry” (a virgin womb).  He left through a door marked “no exit” (a tomb).  Two “impossibilities” made possible in Jesus Christ.   Yes, we can imagine the “impossible” made possible again!