Sometimes, Distraction Is a Choice

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Over and over as the chasm between conservative, centrist, and progressive factions within the United Methodist Church has been growing, the word that keeps being thrown around over and over is: “Distraction.” On both sides of the theological aisle, churches have left with “the distraction of the continued debate on LGBTQ inclusion” cited as a primary reason. They claim that the “distraction” of the debate has prevented them from effectively ministering and otherwise working for God’s kingdom.

Has it, now?

My response was (note: I have protected my Twitter account so my response is copied and pasted):

I have maintained throughout that anything is only a distraction if one allows it to me (sic). Anyone who says any of this has kept them from doing the work of the kingdom is admitting thay they have allowed the enemy to win.

Here’s the thing: Ministry must still be done regardless of our desire to engage in endless debates and discussions over human sexuality. Now, I’m not saying that these conversations aren’t important. What I am saying is that when one chooses to make this the sole focus of their life, then, yes, they are distracted from the work that God has called us all to undertake.

“Distraction” is a choice.

The truth is, all of this is only a distraction if we one allows it to be. For me, I have discussions about denominational things from time to time, but I spend much more of my time talking about Jesus and the gospel. I do this because I have chosen to not allow human sexuality debates to be what keeps me from ministering to the people in my midst and to those outside it I’m able to reach. Simply, anyone who cites the “distraction” of LGBTQ inclusion as why they want to leave or why the church should split is admitting defeat. At the end of the day, no matter how many pieces the UMC is carved into, things are going to continue to come up. If it’s not LGBTQ inclusion, it will be something else later on. Then what? Are we going to keep splitting and not doing God’s work because we’re “distracted” by something new?

Citing “distraction” is an admission that one has allowed the enemy to win. You better believe the enemy finds this hilarious, a joke at your expense. Or, perhaps, at the expense of your witness.

Let’s do better, church.

A Sermon (more or less): “Keeping the Christ in Us”

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This is, more or less, a sermon I preached on December 26th at my churches. This sermon is my ordination sermon, meaning this is the one I’m submitting to my annual conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry as part of my application to be ordained as an Elder. I wanted to share it here for any feedback anyone might want to share, but also because I want to share this message with as many people as possible. I hope you find inspiration and blessing in this attempt at articulating the gospel. – Jonathan

The text: Colossians 3:12-17 (NLT)

For many years, I have been hearing, reading, and otherwise seeing encouragement from various people and groups to “keep Christ in Christmas.” There are parts of this notion that I believe are valid, as the Christmas celebration has become more and more secular even among professing Christians, with many people choosing observances of the holiday that have little or nothing to do with the reason Christmas exists in the first place (spoiler alert: It’s when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday). Even Christians seem to have forgotten what Christmas is all about.

A heads up for next year: Next year, Christmas will fall on a Sunday, and I have no plans of calling off worship. I remember the last time Christmas was on Sunday, there were churches cancelling services because it was Christmas! Think of this for a moment: The very idea sounds obscene and silly, but it was happening. I was even berated in a Facebook group for pastors when I expressed that the pastors who cancelled their worship services because Christmas fell on a Sunday were misguided and missing the mark of what the day even means. I remember one of the members of the group referred to me as an “old fashioned and uncaring” person, followed by a… well, it was a name I won’t repeat here because he said I wasn’t being sensitive to the needs of families. But, you get the idea. To say that I was shocked would be an understatement.

The world we live in has, indeed, become more secular. I see a lot of hand wringing among people who worry that we are losing sight of God and that we’re “trying to take God out of everything.” First, know that none of us are that powerful. Trying to take God out of anything is like trying to command the oxygen out of this room right now. We simply can’t do it. Not to mention, God is where God wants to be and there’s nothing we can do about that. What’s more: The reason God often seems absent from our celebrations and our world is because we seem to forget about God. God hasn’t left, we simply fail to acknowledge him. We want others to “Keep Christ in Christmas” but what have we done to bring that about in our own right? As disciples of Jesus, keeping Christ in anything ought to start with us.

Here’s the thing: We can’t give the impression that we’re keeping Christ in Christmas unless we keep the teachings of Jesus and the ways of Jesus close to our hearts and act upon those teachings. If people can’t see Jesus in us, why should they be concerned with the true meaning of a holiday we care deeply about? If we want to truly keep Christ in Christmas, we must also keep Christ in ourselves, every single day. Keeping Christ in Christmas – and beyond – starts with us keeping the ways of Jesus on full display in our lives.

Christmas is vital to the Christian faith because the birth of Jesus brought about what I daresay is the most important aspect of the entire story, but one that we often overlook: It’s the incarnation. Dr. Ken Collins was one of my professors at Asbury and he spent a lot of time – at least two full class days – lecturing on the importance of God becoming flesh for us. Let me save you a lot time and expensive of going to seminary and boil down what Dr. Collins told us: Had the birth of Jesus not happened – that is, if God had not been born fully divine and fully human – then anyone who claimed that Jesus truly was the Messiah would have been wrong. That would have included the angels who appeared to the shepherds and proclaimed explicitly that the Messiah had been born and told the shepherds where they could find him. This much trouble would not have been brought forth for a lie so we know that Messiah came that night.

As Jesus was alive in the barn that night, and is still alive at the right hand of the Father today, so should Christ be alive in us today. Paul is writing his disciples in Colossae and saying just that. If you want to summarize his message, he’s telling the Colossian Christians that if they’re really saved by Jesus and have the Holy Spirit within them, this is how they act like it. I don’t believe that Paul is telling them – and us – to simply play nicely together, rather he’s saying that every single day we must choose to put Jesus fully on display in every aspect of our lives, from how we treat one another, how we talk, even how we think. We choose to show mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, and to make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.

If Jesus is alive in you, then this is what it will look like to other people. This is how people will know that you have Jesus. Paul is listing these attributes and asking, “How well are you keeping the Christ in you?”

Paul’s metaphor of putting on clothing as a way of displaying one’s devotion to Jesus is a frequent instruction and here’s one reason why I believe he states this: What we wear is a choice. It was your choice to wear what you have on today, just as it was my choice to have this robe on while I preach this morning. You or I could have chosen differently but this is the choice we made.  Our faith is the same way: Every single day, we choose to put on Christ by daily accepting His grace and mercy and choosing to live out that faith by taking the teachings of Jesus seriously enough to live them out. The way we treat each other and people in general is a choice that we make every single day. Everyday, we can choose to treat each other the way the world expects – with distrust, thinking the worst about the other, and general disdain – or we can choose to live “love your neighbor as yourself.” Being a disciple is more than saying we go to church or having a fish symbol somewhere on our car; being a disciple is an intentional way of life. It’s an ethical and moral responsibility.

Conflict is going to arise, even within the church. I believe Paul is telling us to be on guard for that. In spite of any decision that we make to put on Jesus every morning, we are still going to have problems come up. Paul teaches us here that putting on Christ involves knowing that not all of us are on the same level and we are going to get plenty of things wrong. Lord knows I have my faults. Sometimes I can really put my foot in my mouth when I allow my fingers or my mouth to move faster than my brain and heart. We all have those times. We have a choice, however: When we are on the receiving end of offense, we can choose to hold that against the other person or we can choose to love, forgive, and understand that we all have faults. Paul tells us to choose love.

I like verse 17 the best of all in this passage: “And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus.” Every day, we are a representative of Jesus. People know us and know that we profess Jesus as our savior. The choice is ours as to how good of a representative we are of him. When we send representatives to Jackson or to Washington, we want them to remember where they come from and who they represent, not only to vote the way they believe is in our best interest, but also to represent us in the best way possible. As Christ’s representatives, we have somewhat of the same responsibility: Everyday we vote to uphold the gospel and follow it. Everyday, we represent Jesus and it’s up to us to give a good picture of Jesus to all people we meet. It may sound hyperbolic but one’s impression of Jesus could be based on you. What kind of impression do you want to make? Paul is letting us know that we have a responsibility to remember who we are, where we come from, and who we belong to. We belong to Jesus. Let’s represent him well.

The choice is ours: We can take on this moral code that Paul is teaching about here or we can do our own thing and say it’s of Jesus when it really isn’t. There has been much damage done to the church throughout the ages by people – well-meaning for the most part – who have made majorly bad decisions in God’s name. From judgment on who’s worthy to come to the table, rants about coffee cups and “happy holidays” to the more heinous examples of genocide, these people do not represent Jesus well at all. I saw something recently that said, “People say they want to keep Christ in Christmas but I’d settle for keeping Christ in Christians,” Ouch. How well have we represented Jesus lately? Have we put on Jesus of the Bible of an idol of our own making and own moral judgments? Would Jesus approve of how we treat our neighbors?

Let’s keep Christ in Christmas by putting on full display the Christ that’s within us. What’s more, let’s do it every single day. Let’s keep Christ all year ‘round.

Rescue the Lost Sheep

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A few years ago, I attended a ministry conference where the featured speaker made a statement that I often recall: “God is in the rescue business.” One of the occasions where I found myself thinking of this statement was in a conversation this morning with one of my friends, who said, “I don’t like churches because of my issues and hang ups and what happened to me growing up there. I’d absolutely feel safe in your church. And that’s what’s important. Taking in the lost sheep and helping them feel like they have a sturdy shelter again.” Honestly, a statement like this is something every Christian ought to long to hear, that someone has even an ounce of faith because of their witness. Especially as a pastor, I like knowing that someone has rekindled their faith because I allowed them the space to explore and safely ask questions and express doubts. As a shepherd, my job is to seek the lost sheep and bring them safely into the care of Jesus, the great shepherd.

Unfortunately, especially in the western world, Christians seem to have lost sight of the mission and of who God really is. Jesus didn’t come for the righteous, but for the sinner (Luke 5:32). Yet, this doesn’t stop many Christians from judging who is and is not worthy to attend their church. The idea often seems to be that people must all be alike and think alike in order to join a particular church. Here’s the thing, though: That’s entirely a modern construct. From its earliest days, the church – as in, the collection of people – was meant to be diverse in its make up and perspective. If you look at Acts 2 and other parts of the new testament that reveal the look of the early church, you’ll see that they were people from all sorts of places, walks of life, and outlooks. Some were totally convinced of Jesus being the Messiah while others had their doubts. Some were certain of how to express their faith from their Jewish background while others had never been Jewish and had no idea what was going on. Now, we want homogony in every facet and if a “sheep” wants to come to a particular pen who doesn’t fit with the other sheep, then that sheep is often ignored and sent back out into the world even more hurt and scarred than they were when they walked in.

In such churches, any sheep who does not look and think the same as the current sheep aren’t welcome.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) is a perfect example of what evangelism is supposed to be. The Pharisees aren’t happy that Jesus has been associating with “tax collectors and other notorious sinners” because, as the Pharisees saw it, they were not worthy of being loved by God. They had decided that these “sinners” were not welcome. Jesus uses the example of a shepherd who tends a flock of 100 sheep leaving 99 to find the one who wandered away and brings the lost sheep back. There, the sheep who wandered off and was malnourished, dehydrated, and injured can be cared for and healed. Jesus closes out this lesson by saying, “In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” (Luke 15:7 NLT)

This is the job that Jesus wants His people to carry out: Find the lost sheep and bring them home, even if the sheep don’t quite “fit.” Bishop James Swanson once said in a sermon, “Being together does not mean being and thinking alike.”

Our job is to go out, find the lost sheep, and bring them to Jesus to be made whole and healed. It doesn’t matter what we believe is “wrong” with them or how different they are, it’s still our job to show them to the rescuer. We don’t get to pick and choose who comes to the table because it’s not ours; the table belongs to Jesus.

Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one,
Lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save.

Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful,
Jesus will save.

“Rescue the Perishing,” a hymn by Fanny Crosby

The New Worship Wars

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I remember several years ago that one of the big churchy buzzwords (or maybe “buzz term” would be more appropriate) was worship wars. Basically, this was a term used to describe the struggles many congregations faced about traditional versus contemporary music in their worship services. Many churches opted to have separate traditional and contemporary services and, often, the result was turf wars over which service was better or which service’s attenders mattered more. Some opted to have blended styles of worship with contemporary and traditional music, liturgy, and other elements mixed together. The result of the blended approach has often been the fans of contemporary and traditional approaches arguing amongst themselves over which style was proper and appropriate. Still other churches have opted for either traditional or contemporary only styles of worship which has often resulted in people opting not to attend a particular church due to their worship style. I want to note that, in my experiences, the arguments for or or against contemporary or traditional worship have been rooted in personal preference and not in anything related to biblical teaching or to church tradition (remember: There was a time when even the organ was considered “contemporary”) and the resulting strife was anything but glorifying to God.

The church has always been involved in such debates since there has been a church. Ever since this thing called “the church” has been in existence, we have been arguing about everything from the proper way to baptize to the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. While many of these arguments don’t become major in the sense that it can impact the entire church, we see a new front in worship wars emerging: In-person versus digital/online and hybrid forms of worship. Almost daily, I’m seeing posts on social media decrying one continuing to engage with their church virtually. Such posts essentially have the same message: “You have to come back to church,” as in physically and in-person. The strong suggestion is also made that virtual forms of worship are fake and that one who engages digitally is not actually worshipping.

Baloney.

Now, I know not everyone will agree. People will quote scriptures like Hebrews 10:25 as proof that not going to a worship in a physical space is invalid. Participating in the life of the church is vital but there are many more ways to do this than simply occupying a seat on Sunday morning (and if that’s al one does, they’re not really engaged). We have many ways by which we can participate in the life of the church and engage in worship – attending in-person services and activities are just one of the ways we can connect with one another.

First, let me present some anecdotal evidence: I and many of my brothers and sisters in ministry have been able to reach far more people by live streaming our services and using tools such as Zoom and Google Classroom than we have ever been able to reach from our pulpits and our buildings. While people are obsessed with things like views on Facebook, there are ways to estimate who’s truly engaged online and who simply spends a few seconds watching and scrolls away. On average, my two churches have an addition 10-30 people engaged online every Sunday morning, people who would not be with us in any way otherwise. These are people who may not be regularly connected to a church and, somehow, found the Facebook page. One of my churches has even seen someone with no apparent connection to the congregation begin giving occasionally through our online giving platform. For all we know, this would have never happened otherwise. Colleagues of mine have told of similar events within their contexts.

I recently attended the Leadership Institute at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas (as in, Adam Hamilton’s church) and found some great insights about digital and hybrid worship. Barna Group has done extensive research on preferences of digital, physical and hybrid worship and discipleship activities. What was revealed to those who attended a break out about digital and hybrid worship was:

  • While 52% of all churched adults surveyed preferred primarily physical gatherings, 35% preferred a mix of both (hybrid).
  • 41% of Gen Z prefers physical while 37% prefer hybrid (only 13% wanted digital onl).
  • 42% of Millennials prefer physical while 40% want hybrid (again, 13% preferred digital).
  • For Gen X, 47% prefer physical while 39% want hybrid (wow!).
  • Baby boomers: 71% prefer physical gatherings, but 24% want a mixture.
  • The biggest take away: A total of 87% of churched digital discipleship participants feel that digital forums for discipleship provide a safe space to speak openly,
  • Source

Here’s the bottom line: Most people still prefer to gather physically (yes, even younger people) but significant portions of each generation group want a hybrid approach. One reason is being able to still interact with worship even if they can not be present at the time of worship. There’s also more: People also feel more free in asking questions and having more open dialogue online rather than in person. As an introvert, I completely understand as sometimes asking the tough questions in physical groups can be very intimidating. Reality is, some physical spaces within the church are not safe for tough discussions. With the modern tools at our disposal, we have opportunities to be more real with one another. The people have spoken: The winner of this latest incarnation of the worship wars is “both,” not just physical or just digital.

Sunday morning is never going to go away (nor should it) but the church will evolve into a mix of digital and physical, and not just on Sunday morning, but throughout the week.

In these discussions, one must also be careful not to discount those for whom digital is really their only option. We are still in a pandemic. Some people are simply not comfortable gathering in public spaces right now (this is a choice we ought to honor, not mock or try to persuade otherwise) and still others who have weakened immune systems who would surely die if they contracted Covid-19 or some other sickness. When we make statements that say “it’s time to come back to church,” we are not being sensitive to these groups (made up of people made in God’s image).

We must be sensitive to the needs of our neighbors and respect their choices for their own health, regardless of our own preferences.

The church has an opportunity: Resist the changes taking place and fight against it (which history should teach us does not work). Or, we can meet people where they are. Social media has a lot of bad stuff happening on it but, like anything else, it comes down to how we choose to use it. We can choose to use social media and other online platforms to meet people where they are, which is largely on social media. For a prime example of someone who excelled at meeting people where they are and communicating with them in ways that were accessible, see Jesus.

Let’s put down our weapons of worship warfare and pick up our ability to love. As long as one is engaged with God – regardless of whether that takes places in a pew or on the couch – they are bringing him glory. Let’s do the same.

A TL, DR Sermon: “YOU Give Them Something

(I’m at new appointment – more on that another time – and we have not been meeting in-person for nearly a month due to COVID-19. For people in my midst who don’t have reliable internet access and are unable to watch our worship service recordings, I’ve been including condensed versions of my sermons for the worship bulletin. Here is this week’s. I will be sure to include them here starting now. I hope you find a blessing from my ponderings. – Jonathan)

Text: Matthew 14:13-21 (NLT)

One of the most common questions for pastors right now is, “How should Christians respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? What should our witness be?” I believe this is an excellent question, because what we see playout on social media and elsewhere by people who state that they are followers of The Son seem to be anything but a positive response. I believe Jesus calls us to exhibit sacrificial compassion in the face of a crisis like COVID-19.

I believe this is just one of the lessons we learn from what we call the Feeding of the 5,000. First of all, we need to know that the number was actually much higher because only the men were counted (the women and children present were not counted at gathers back then). Jesus likely fed closer to 10,000 – or more – people with five loaves of bread and two fish! People tend to get lost in the “how” of this miracle but I believe the more important question is, “Why?”

The writer of Matthew tells us why in verse 14: “He had compassion on them.” We have to remember that this is just after Jesus found out that John the Baptist had been executed so He was in the midst of grieving the loss of his cousin and friend. This grief may not be unlike the collective grief we’re experiencing now.

I believe there are several reasons why Jesus responded in the way that He did and I’m sure I could preach several sermons on this passage. The lesson we most need now is His example of sacrificial compassion. When Jesus told the disciples, “You give them something,” He wasn’t trying to pass the buck because He didn’t feel like performing a miracle, rather He wanted them to know that sending people away in their time of need is not how a disciple ought to respond to a need.

How do we respond in the midst of crisis, whether it’s a pandemic, natural disaster, or something else? We show compassion, even to the point of personal sacrifice. That’s why we do things to protect our neighbors: It’s not out of a desire to make a political statement but out of a desire to make a moral statement, to give a strong witness for the love of Christ. We are called to be imitators of Jesus and showing compassion is one of the ways which we do this.

Remember: Even Judas ate, had his feet washed, and sat at the right hand of Jesus – the place of honor – at the Last Supper. If Jesus can show the one who would betray Him this much compassion and mercy, what could we do?

Let’s go and do likewise.

Sermon: Real Talk about Racism

More or less, what follows is the sermon I gave this morning at Druid Hills UMC in Meridian, MS (Lost Gap had a different sermon because they were voting on closure today). I’m sharing this here because I believe this is a message that we all need a reminder of right now. The recent racial unrest has underscored that we have a long way to go in racial equity, much farther than we probably want to admit. I hope you will take my attempt to articulate what has been on my heart and “chew on” these words. Allow God to work on you and what your part may be in breaking the church’s silence on racism and how we can combat this sin.

If you’d like, you can watch the worship service from Druid Hills here.

LUKE 10:24-37 (NLT)
One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

27 The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[c]

28 “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

29 The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Parable of the Good Samaritan
30 Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.

31 “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. 32 A Temple assistant[d] walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.

33 “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. 34 Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins,[e] telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’

36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Last week we celebrated the day that the Holy Spirit was sent to this world with a video worship service featuring clergy, laity, and children from all over our Mississippi Annual Conference connection. Did you notice the diversity that was represented? Men, women, white black, and everything in between coming together with but one two-fold goal in mind: To lead us in worship and to give glory to the Lord’s name. As I watched the video with you all last week, the sheer beauty of how wide and deep our own state is in terms of the different people we have in our midst brought tears to my eyes. In my mind, it was truly a reflection of God’s kingdom – the way the kingdom was always intended to be and will be someday when Jesus returns.

We live in a fallen world where diversity is not always celebrated and, in many cases, is discouraged and even ridiculed. The killing of George Floyd sent shockwaves through our nation, just as such an unjust and evil event ought to do. While Mr. Floyd’s death may have been an event that brought our racial tension to a head, this was hardly the first time that we have seen unjust killing of people of color. Another recent example is the shooting death of Breona Taylor, a young black EMT from Louisville, Kentucky, who was killed when police executed a raid at the wrong address – her apartment – looking for a suspect who was already in jail on another charge. I resonate with the cries of our brothers and sisters of color when I say that enough is enough and it’s time for an end to these senseless deaths. As a white man who has family members who are biracial or of another race entirely, I must stand up for my loved ones. As a Christian pastor, I know we are all children of God. The children’s song says, “red or yellow, black or white, we are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” So why are we not doing that for each other now? We are all loved by God. And God taught us to love our neighbor, as we heard a moment ago. So, now above any other time in our existence, God is calling us to love our neighbors. We must love the most threatened among us. We should stand with our black brothers and sisters and protect them, love them, treat them as our equal… because anything less is a sin in front of our Lord and Savior.

Now I say all of this as a pastor among a white congregation. I say this, knowing that this is not the popular belief in this area, but brothers and sisters, Jesus did not preach to what was popular. He preached to what is right.

On Friday, Bishop Swanson sent out a video that was both a rebuke against the church for its long and deafening silence on racism as well as how we can begin to respond. Bishop Swanson is absolutely correct: The church has remained silent for far too long and this needs to change. The reason the church is often silent on racism is because we don’t want to seem to be preaching political topics or we don’t want to make people uncomfortable. The truth about the gospel is that the truths within it often are uncomfortable because we are forced to see ourselves for who and how we truly are. So, today, I do my part to change this trend of silence in the church. Today, I stand here and tell you that we’re going to get uncomfortable. I declare from this pulpit that racism is a sin. Racism is incompatible with Christian faith – you cannot call yourself a follower of Jesus if you are a racist. To remain silent is equally as sinful. Our baptismal vows that we make before God and His people include standing up for the oppressed and to resist evil in whatever form it takes. That starts with us acknowledging the sin of racism.

And that brings us to our scripture today: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. The legal expert who is questioning Jesus is really wanting to justify himself. While I fully admit that I’m using some conjecture here, I would speculate that the man that Jesus was talking to was one of the Jews who really hated Samaritans. Back then, Jews and Samaritans simply did not get along. Jews viewed them as inferior and as beneath them. Perhaps the justification that the man was seeking was really that which would affirm his hatred toward someone simply because that person looked different than he did. And as we see through the rest of the passage, Jesus is not having it. The fact is, a story where the Samaritan was the hero was very scandalous to the Jews who heard it.

The belief back then was that touching certain people or people experiencing certain conditions would make one unclean and this certainly would have included touching a man who was beaten and bloody and left in a ditch to die. The Levite and the priest would have been considered to be ceremonially unclean had they touched him. It was because of those crazy fears that they went so far as to cross the street. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech using the story of the Good Samaritan as an example. He had this to say about it: “The first question the priest and Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop and help this man, what will happen to him?’” In other words, the priest and the Levite were putting themselves first. Instead, the Samaritan chose to put the man before him and to in turn take care of him.

One thing I have seen over and over again is that children do not seem to have a racism gene. If you go to a park in most cities, you can see white children playing with children who are black, brown, and everything in between. Comedian Denis Leary says, “Racism isn’t born, folks. It’s taught. I have a two-year old son. You know what he hates—naps.” Children are not born to hate other people. Instead, this behavior is something that is learned. When children are raised in ignorance about other races, that’s how they learn to hate. And simply, this is not ok.

More than anything, racism is not a skin issue, it’s a sin issue. The problem is not the color of one’s skin or their national origin, the problem is that the person who is racist is giving in to sin. James 2:9 says, “But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.” When the command handed down says, “Love the Lord with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself,” there are no qualifiers attached to that. There is no asterisk with a list of who our neighbors are not at the bottom of the page. Our neighbors are all people, period, full stop. There’s a meme that goes around from time to time where Jesus is telling those gathered to love their neighbors as themselves. Someone from the crowd goes, “What about my black neighbor?” Another says, “What about my Jewish neighbor?” And then Jesus says, “I’m going to start over, tell me where I lost you.” When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he’s telling us that we are to love all people no matter what.

So how can we neighbor those who look different than us? Well, it starts by taking a good look at the person in the mirror. We have to confront our prejudices. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a minute: We all have them. We all have those pre-conceived judgements about other people that are not based on any sound reason or experience (which is the definition of a prejudice, by the way). Some examples might be, “All rich people are snobs.” Or, “Old people are mean.” Or, “Which men can’t jump.” I could go on and on. Or maybe we say things like, “I’m not racist because I have black friends.” Well, that’s great! But do you truly see them as your equal? Are they just as much deserving of the love of Christ as you are? We have to confront those prejudices. We have to get real with ourselves.

Next, we have to see to understand others. This is another hard part because this means we will have to get even further outside of our comfort zones than we did when we took a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror. This means that we have to actually pay attention to our neighbors, take the time to get to know them, really listen to them. This is the one that is the easiest to ignore because it takes real effort on our part, but it’s so vital. We can not simply look at people different from us who are on TV or read some data about what works in one place. We have to know how to love people and help them right where we are. This is where they live as well and it’s vital that we take this seriously enough to truly listen to them in order to find out how we can best show them the love of Christ.

After we listen to them, we have to do the hardst thing of all: We have to love those who are different from us. This is not simply telling someone that we love them, it’s actually doing it. It’s putting our faith and our words into action to show them that we mean it. This is hard becasue it involves a lot of sacrifice. In 1996 in Michigan there was a rally by the Ku Klux Klan and the police in the town were doing their best to keep the Klan and the protesters separated. One of the Klansmen snuck over to the protesters side. Next thign you know, they started to beat on him with shouts of “kill the Nazi” being hurled. 18-year old African American girl named Keisha Thomas threw her body on top of the man’s to stop beating. She put herself at physical risk protect man that likely wanted to harm her.

Who does this? Committed believer. “I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.”

Crossed the street—protect someone different from her.

Thomas says she tries to do something to break down racial stereotypes every day. No grand gestures. She thinks that small, regular acts of kindness are more important. “The biggest thing you can do is just be kind to another human being. It can come down to eye contact, or a smile. It doesn’t have to be a huge monumental act.”

Radical love is what she showed to that man. The best way to combat racism is with love because racism is not the presence of hate, it’s the absence of love! Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God loves all people. He loves Americans. But he also loves Nigirians, Cubans, Hondurans, Mexicans, Choctaws, Jamaicans, Turks, Iranians, Russians, and all other people. He loves white people, black people, brown people, and everything in between. Heaven will be the most diverse place you will ever see. If you hate diversity, you are really going to hate Heaven. Ultimately we will all be together and it will be a beautiful sight.

We have to face the sin of racism and combat it head on. Racism is not a Christian value. It is not acceptable to God and racism should therefore not be acceptable to us. Jesus said for us to love our neighbors with no qualifiers attached to that. He told us now to neighbor those who are different than us. We simply love.

Imagining What’s Next in the Methodist Movement

John Wesley preaching at the market cross in Epworth, England.

There was a time – 2016 to be precise – that I was completely against any sort of break off within the United Methodist Church. Part of me still wishes to find some way to maintain some sort of unity, but my views have softened as the years have gone by. The work of the Commission on a Way Forward has been completed, a special session of General Conference voted on proposals, and yet the in-fighting has continued until it has reached a fever pitch. My opinion now is that a separation of some sort is going to be in the best interests of all parties so that we can continue doing the work of God’s Kingdom. I could give plenty of “hot takes” of what this should look like, but there’s really no use in engaging in such. There are plenty of others who are eager to do this (if you don’t believe me, just search the #UMC hashtag on any social media platform).

With an inevitable split becoming apparent, I have been keeping my eye on what could be next. The Protocol on Reconciliation Through Separation that has been drafted and proposed by a group representing the spectrum of theological thought within the UMC, while not perfect, seems to be the most equitable means to end the fighting and to move forward. Since the Protocol has been released, I have been watching for proposals for changes within the UMC as well as proposals for new denominations. The only significant work toward a new expression of Methodism, at least as far as I know, has been done by the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

WCA has released two portions of a proposed Doctrine and Discipline for a new traditionalist church. The first section deals with doctrinal standards and clergy deployment. I gave some thoughts and a proposal for changes to their proposed clergy deployment strategy a couple of months ago. In speaking with someone involved with WCA leadership, my proposal was well received by those who read it. I’ve also had conversations with other pastors who I know to be aligned with orthodox theology and they expressed similar concerns to the ones I conveyed, that is that women and persons of color would have a difficult time securing placements under a modified call system. In addition to my thoughts on the proposed clergy deployment system, I offered these thoughts on the proposed doctrinal standards:

I find that their doctrine seems spot-on with expressions of orthodox Methodist/Wesleyan belief. High regard for the sacraments – including baptism of children and babies – is retained and other important Methodist distinctives are contained. I like that WCA has incorporated the creeds as foundational doctrinal standards as well.

The doctrinal standards are solid and strong, and a great representation of Wesleyan theology. In the draft, I noted no fundamentalist bent or overt attempt at excluding anyone. From where I sit, I believe any true Wesleyan would be hard pressed to find anything in the doctrinal standards they disagree with. In fact, this section is almost identical to the current Book of Discipline (with the draft’s inclusion of the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed being notable exceptions).

Since that time, a second section has been released that details credentialing of ministers and a few details of how clergy are to conduct ministry. As with the first section, I like the work that has been done, particularly in providing multiple pathways by which one may be ordained an Elder. Theological education is absolutely required – as it should be – but how one obtains that education is much more flexible under the proposed Discipline. There will still be required subject matter and approved schools but even a clergyperson who completes a course of study outside of a traditional seminary education may have an opportunity to obtain Elders orders. I believe this is a very positive step in the right direction, one that will allow more people to be ordained as an Elder with less debt that if they had attended seminary.

I have written previously (here and here) of expanding the role of the licensed local pastor (LLP) within the UMC. Under WCA’s proposal, local pastors would be ordained as Deacons and be granted sacramental authority when serving as the pastor in charge of a local congregation or charge. As mentioned above, one obtaining their theological education by course of study would be an option in seeking ordination as an Elder. There is currently an option for an LLP to become an Elder within the UMC, but the candidate must obtain a bachelor’s degree and complete additional seminary-level coursework in addition to the standard course of study. In theory, the additional material could be incorporated into the standard course of study, thus enabling a clergyperson to be ordained in a more timely fashion. Likewise, Provisional Elders would also be ordained as Deacons – a practice that ceased some years ago in the UMC – and would be granted sacramental authority while serving a two year residency in preparing for ordination as an Elder.

LLPs would also have full voice and vote on all matters within the annual conference. I believe this is a major positive, something I have also championed in the past. What remains unclear in the proposal is whether or not LLPs will be eligible to serve as delegates to General Conference (this portion of the proposal has not been released yet). The ability for LLps to serve as clergy delegates to General Conference is something I believe is essential, as LLPs currently provide a significant amount of the pastoral ministry within many annual conferences (in Mississippi, LLPs outnumber Elders), therefore ought to be able to participate in shaping the overall ministry of the church.

Overall, I like the work that has been done in this proposal (with the noted exception of the proposed clergy deployment system). Of course, we must remember that what has been presented is a proposed draft so nothing is final. Assuming that WCA’s proposed church is formed, the convening body would still have to approve a discipline, doctrine, polity, etc. Also, a split is not even final, as General Conference is the only body that can actually initiate the work of an official separation of any sort (and as of today, the UMC’s General Conference will not meet until sometime in 2021).

Diversity of thought is not necessarily a bad thing (more on that in a moment) but it’s become clear that those whose interpretations of marriage differ will continue to focus on the issue to the detriment of the mission for Christ. While I lament separation, I acknowledge that this may be the best course of action for the long term. However this shakes out, I would hope that any denominations that form as a result of a separation can carry on some mutual ministry. Missing an opportunity to have an eccumenical relationship between two bodies with the same roots would be a real shame.

I remember a sermon that Bishop Swanson gave at Central UMC in Meridian sometime leading up to General Conference 2019. I’ll never forget a statement he made: “We don’t all have to think alike to be together.” When I wrote previously of diversity, I was talking about a lot of things: Diversity of race, gender, and, yes, theological thought. Not everyone within the universal church of Jesus agrees on every single facet of theology and doctrine, yet we are all united in Christ. In my mind, a snapshot of the kingdom is our unity in Christ in spite of our differences in opinion. I have my convictions but that does not mean that I can’t minister to or be in ministry with someone whose convictions are different than mine.

I hope you will join me in praying into whatever is next in this movement called Methodism. Let’s lean in to how God is working during this time and join in that movement. God is not done with us yet.

The Clergy-Laity Disconnect

“The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission.” – 2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 127, “The Ministry of the Laity” 

When Methodism was getting on its feet in the 18th Century, the movement was largely one spread by… wait for it… the laity! That’s right, it wasn’t ordained or licensed pastors who were out beating the bushes with the good news of the gospel for all people who the church either couldn’t or wouldn’t reach – it was lay persons who were trained in Wesley’s teachings and on how to preach. Laity were the class leaders and the primary leaders within their societies and congregations. The pastors were there to be the spiritual leaders whose primary job was to equip the laity for ministry. The laity were expected to make most of the major decisions and to be the movers and shakers within the church.

Read that again: It was the laity, not the pastors, who were charged with the responsibility of doing ministry. These were not the prominent people of their day, rather they were the marginalized of British society – the poor.

There were first of all the itinerating lay preachers, assigned in pairs to circuits throughout the British Isles, and eventually sent in pairs to America. There were also the non-itinerating local ministers and the stewards who oversaw the various societies. Most important were the leaders of classes, who provided spiritual oversight for those under their care.

What Wesley did is open the door for hundreds of men and women to become leaders in the vast missionary endeavor of spreading scriptural holiness across the nation. Since most of these were not from the upper classes, British society did not provide avenues of leadership. Indeed some evangelical pastors criticized Wesley for disrespecting the class distinctions they believed God had established. But Wesley recognized their gifts and commitment, and enlisted them into God’s service.

“Wesley and Lay Leadership” – Dr. Henry H. Knight, III – St. Paul School of Theology https://www.catalystresources.org/consider-wesley-51/

At some point this began to change. Dr. Knight points to the merger that created the United Methodist Church in 1968 as a major turning point where the laity became passive consumers – largely due to their lack of education on our doctrine and theology – and the clergy were highly educated providers of religious services for the congregation, specialists in the same vein as lawyers and doctors. As Dr. Knight states, “This was hardly a recipe for vibrant outreach into their communities.”

That perception has only increased as the years have passed. Today, the UMC is hardly the movement where the laity are the primary leaders and the clergy are the equippers and providers of guidance and teaching. Today the pastors are expected to be the CEOs and to make most of the decisions. In the typical UMC congregation, the laity are not involved beyond roles such as Sunday School teacher or the lay leadership roles mandated by the Book of Discipline (which, let’s be real, are often only on paper in many congregations). This is a major problem for many reasons, but the main reason is because the widening gulf between the clergy and laity is yet another way in which we have forgotten who we are.

It’s time for Methodists to get back to our roots.

I was reminded of the width of this gulf is yesterday when I published my proposed re-write of WCA’s proposed church clergy deployment plan. I want to digress for a moment and express my appreciation for most of the feedback given being constructive and helpful. As the comments on social media continued, I realized that the tone and type of the feedback differed between clergy and laity. The reason is because we have different points of view on what is most needed in our churches and how to meet those needs. As I mentioned to someone yesterday, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. I believe clergy and laity ought to come together and to hear one another. You know, like John Wesley and the early Methodists did.

We need to get back to our roots.

In the United Methodist Church, we say that we believe in the priesthood of all believers – but do we really? Our Book of Discipline affirms the ministry of the laity but as I read the paragraph that contains this affirmation, I can’t help but question how we actually practice this aspect of ministry.

“The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission.”

2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 127, “The Ministry of the Laity” 

Spoiler alert: We suck at this.

There is plenty of blame to go around for how we got here. Part of it is societal norms changing where worship attendance is now largely seen as optional, therefore so is becoming involved in the ministry and leadership of the church. The clergy also have been afraid of feeling less important and have failed to equip their laity for ministry in addition to other failures to teach the doctrine of the church that would not be popular with many within their congregations. I could go on but you get the point.

Pastors, you may not like what I’m about to say but I’m going to say it anyway: We need to give the laity their church back. What I mean by that is, we need to reclaim our roles as the spiritual leaders and the equippers of the laity to conduct the ministry of the church. We need to allow our people to take the lead and we need to let go of some of the control that we have claimed. This is more than a great thing that Wesley taught; allowing the laity to lead is a biblical mandate.

“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.”

Ephesians 4:11-12 (NLT)

I realize that this is not the case in all congregations. I’m thankful to be able to say that I know of many churches that are doing great work because the laity took ownership of the ministry of their church. But when it comes to the majority of congregations, we still have a major disconnect and we need to address it quickly. We, the clergy, certainly have our place but so do the laity. It’s time we set aside our pride and our ambitions, took a step back, and started equipping the saints again.

Sports teams are made up of individuals with different responsibilities but with the same goal in mind: To win. On scoreboards, teams are shown as winning or losing, just one individual on the team. The same goes for the church: We all have different jobs but we are on the same team and we ought to have the same goal: To win souls for God’s kingdom. Our job is to minister to the people with the gospel but also by being the hands and feet of Christ. By being doers of the word, we allow God to use us in this endeavor. If the church is failing, it’s because we have failed to carry out this mission. We have all become power hungry or consumers. It’s time for this to change.

It’s time to get back to our roots.

Help Me Get to General Conference!

42301730_1569501283728286_rLast week, I received word that I have been chosen to serve as a marshal at the upcoming General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. I counted this as a blessing because I have wanted to serve at General Conference for many years but never had the opportunity. I count this as an honor to be able to serve the larger church with my time, service, and witness.

A lot of people don’t realize this but serving as a marshal or as a page at General Conference is a completely voluntary position. I will receive no funding from my annual conference or elsewhere to subsidize my expenses. I am responsible for paying all of my expenses – travel, lodging, food, all of it. I don’t like the thought of “begging” but I definitely can’t pay for this trip on my own. We’re talking probably around $3,000 or so by the time it’s all said and done. With that in mind, I have set up a couple of fundraisers and would love any help you can give me!

The first is a t-shirt with the theme verse for the 2020 General Conference on it. You will have a choice of colors for your shirt. They make great gifts as well! Every shirt sold helps me meet my goal. This fundraiser has a closing date of October 14th so hurry! Find my page right here!

If t-shirts aren’t your thing, you can give at my GoFundMe page, or send donations via PayPal (if you use this method, include a note that this is for GC 2020, that way I will know why someone is sending my money).

I very much appreciate all of the support I have received so far and thank you for any help you offer from this blog. It would mean a lot for me to be able to serve at General Conference.

Jonathan

Being One is Not Being the Borg

“Being one does not mean that we all think alike.”
Bishop James Swanson on “The Power That Makes Us One.”

Last week, Bishop Swanson – the resident bishop of the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church – was in my district where he met with the pastors followed by preaching at a district-wide laity rally in the evening. The theme of this rally was “The Power that Makes Us One,” referring to the power of the Holy Spirit that unites us as Christians. Bishop gave the above quote during his sermon and it made me think of some of the rhetoric I have witnessed as the United Methodist Church has continued to debate LGBTQ inclusion. My thoughts then turned to Star Trek.

If you’re a Trekkie, you know of The Borg. The Borg are a hive mind collective made up of cybernetic beings that are forcibly “assimilated” by injecting nanoprobes into the host and where their brains surgically altered. The point is to collect the knowledge of all alien species into a common brain with the goal of achieving a perfect linked society where all think as one.  Anyone within the collective who begins to exhibit signs of independent thought is terminated as quickly as possible. The Borg are famous for the phrase “resistance is futile,” as they believe that all lifeforms must and will submit to assimilation.

There seems to be a concerted effort by organizations on all ends of the political and theological spectrum trying to assimilate members of the UMC. The idea is that a church can’t be a church unless all of the members agree completely… or else. I believe such thinking is contrary to the reality of our humanity and denies that we are all independent creatures with our own ways of understanding the nuances of doctrine. One thing I have noticed from all of those involved is that they love Jesus, know that He loves them in spite of their flaws, and want others to know that love as well. And yet, because of disagreement on a piece of doctrine, so many of us are content to throw all of that away. For the life of me, I can’t reconcile that with, well, really much at all.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, stated: “If we can not think alike, can we not love alike?” I believe this is a profound statement that acknowledges the scriptures that teach us that we will be known as Christ’s disciples by our love (John 13:35) rather than our agreement on doctrine. While doctrine is important, it’s not the end-all, be-all. The main thing is to keep Christ the main thing as he is the main thing. Some argue that the disagreement is over the authority of scripture. I say the issue is interpretation rather than authority. There is a major difference between the two and we must stop conflating authority with interpretation.

We are a church made up of imperfect people from all walks of life, different places, different races, and different experiences. This is exactly what the church has always been. The first disciples were all people from different backgrounds, did not understand things all the same, and yet Jesus used them in mighty ways and even considered them his closest friends. They were not a hive mind and neither are we. The church was never intended to be The Borg. The only way in which the church can and ought to be one is through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ, and to the glory of God the father.

Thanks be to God.