{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

The Parable of the Town Sign

There was once a town that was full of life and abundance. Love and peace were staples of this community and people gathered to share each other’s burdens and build each other up. Hospitality was a way of life practiced all over this little town. In fact, people from far and wide wanted to come to this town after they figured out their own towns just didn’t offer the abundance of life and love that this little town offered. It was the kind of little town that seemed to transform its residents into beacons of joy and the residents just couldn’t help but to extend that joy to everyone else. Even on the bad days–and yes, there were bad days–this town just had an amazing way of banding together around one another in such a way that no resident ever doubted the faithfulness of the little town.

The mayor of this town was wise and full of love for the people. Every policy instituted was weighed and measured by what was best for the people and how love and peace could be extended even further. This mayor was steadfast to the people and to the mission that this town would be open to all who wished to come and be transformed by the alternative lifestyle this town exemplified.

One day, the mayor decided it might be a good idea to let more people from outside of the town know about the joys of this little town in a new way. The mayor decided it would be a good idea to build a beautiful sign that could direct people to the little town. Surely this way people from far and wide would know of the abundance of life and love and joy that was present in the little town. So the mayor commissioned a group of residents to form a team to oversee the project of building this sign. The mayor’s only instruction to the team: Make sure it’s a sign that easily points people directly to our town.

So the residents set out together to begin the process of planning and crafting this sign.

As the planning took shape, one of the team members suggested they add a little extra color. “People will surely see the sign better if we add a little extra color. And if they can see the sign better, they’ll more easily know how to get to our little town.” So the group took a vote and decided that the sign would be better with a little extra color. They just knew the mayor would be proud of their decision to enhance the sign.

When it came time to put the plans down and create the physical sign, another idea emerged. “What if we made the sign larger than we originally planned? That way even more people could see our sign and know how to get to our little town.” So they made the sign 3x larger than they had originally planned. They just knew the mayor would love knowing this sign would be even larger than originally planned.

Soon the day came when the sign was to be completed. They hoisted up their extra large, extra colorful sign and stood around to admire their handiwork. But there was something missing.

“We need lights,” one of the team members suggested.

Everyone on the team thought that was a fine idea. Lights would make their sign even more attractive and easy to see. If the sign was more attractive and eye-catching, then surely more people would know how to get to their little town. The team just knew the mayor would be proud of them for adding such a useful feature to the sign.

Finally the team stood around and admired their extra large, extra colorful, abundantly lit sign and marveled at their handiwork. It wasn’t long, however, before concerns were raised among members of the team.

“What if it rains, how will our sign stay dry?”

“What about the heat, will our sign overheat and get damaged by the sun?”

“What about vandals who might damage our sign? What do we do about the sketchy folks we don’t want around our sign? Do we need security to keep them out?”

The group went on and on. They came up with one scenario after another of how their precious sign–the result of many long, agonizing hours of work–could be protected from various elements and conditions that could damage it.

After some time of debate, the team decided the best thing to do would be to consult the mayor. They knew their top priority was to protect this sign but they couldn’t agree as to the best way to do so. Surely the mayor would have a thoughtful answer! They decided it would be best to organize their various plans and write them down. This way they could present the various scenarios and their solutions in an orderly fashion. So they spent some time crafting all of this in writing and then went back to the little town to seek the counsel of the wise mayor.

The group arrived at the mayor’s office and began by telling the mayor how beautiful the sign had turned out. They delighted in telling the mayor that this sign was so much more beautiful and eye-catching than they had originally planned. And it was because of this that they grew concerned about possible ways the sign could be damaged. So they began to present their plans and scenarios according to their reports. In presenting these plans they conveyed to the mayor just how much they loved this sign and wanted nothing more than to protect it so that it could be a lasting symbol of their little town and the team’s hard work.

To the amazement of the team members, the mayor responded with a disappointed sigh.

“All of this sounds fine but you seem to have forgotten the original mission of this project,” the mayor said.

“What do you mean?” one of the team members answered. “You sent us to make the most beautiful and eye-catching sign ever. And we just want to protect the sign so that it will last for years to come.”

“Yes, it’s a beautiful sign for all to see,” the mayor answered. “But you forgot something even more important. The sign was meant to point people to our little town–nothing more and nothing less. And you’ve spent so much time working on the sign, protecting it and trying to preserve it, that you’ve made the sign itself the top priority instead of its ability to clearly direct people to our little town.”

And with that, the team left the mayor’s office with their heads hung in shame.

 

Sometimes It Takes a Few Days to Find Good Words…

A funny thing happened last week…

Well, maybe it wasn’t all that funny. We did have 9 months to prepare and plan for it. But they were right–whoever “they” are–there are no words for what happens when the miracle of life unfolds before your very eyes. Even more amazing than that is when that miracle somehow contains the same DNA that you carry around.

My first Facebook status update after Olivia Kate’s birth read:

“I’d like you to meet Olivia Kate Gosden. For one who fancies themselves in using words, I can’t find any that quite fit here.”

It’s been a week now. 9 days to be exact. I’m learning a lot. For example, did you know it’s possible to change a diaper with very minimal lighting and with one eye half-closed? Also, did you know diaper bags are a necessity when you leave the house? I know what you’re thinking but if you were trying to rush out the door to make an 8:30am doctor’s appointment on 3 hours of sleep you might not have been so smart either. We didn’t tell her to poop as soon as we sat down in the exam room. It’s pretty amazing to learn just how ignorant you’ve been over the last few years of adulthood.

Nonetheless I’m a little sleep-deprived these days but I think I’d like to take a stab at some of the words that so readily eluded me in the afterglow of the events of last weekend.

The Opposite of Faith

Olivia Kate didn’t make things easy. We came to the hospital that day preparing for a long morning and afternoon of childbirth. But around noon the doctors informed us that she wasn’t doing so well with natural birth. Her heart rate was dropping after contractions. They wanted to do an emergency c-section before she became too distressed. And so in a matter of just a few minutes, I went from my comfortable rocking chair in the labor room to a cold, hard bench in a holding area dressed in full scrubs and mask. I sat on that bench and all I can remember was how dark it was. I guess they don’t like a lot of florescent lighting in that area. Nevertheless I sat there dumbfounded as I waited to be summoned to the operating room where Katie was. Within the next 15 minutes a doctor was whisking our newborn baby off because she wasn’t breathing. Another 5-10 minutes later (it might as well have been 5-10 hours!) they were ushering me into a room where our Olivia Kate was crying and squirming all over the place–delightfully angry at all the fuss being made over her. Already my little drama queen!

For those who wants to intellectualize matters of faith as “things we must understand” to appreciate, I say you’ve never been witness to the miracle of a child being born. There is very little in that entire series of events that I “understand.” For me it hit home in a real way that faith is, if nothing else, an eternal trust that God is alive and present with us no matter what. In fact, I would say that I realized an important theological truth over the course of Olivia Kate’s birth: the opposite of faith is not doubt but knowledge. You see, it doesn’t take an act of faith to know with certainty how events will unfold. It doesn’t take faith to understand in great detail how things operate. Faith is what you turn to when plans change midstream and you find yourself charting a course you never expected to be on. And it’s in the mystery of those confusing moments that God is most present.

Grace is Real

If grace is first and foremost a gift, then being a part of the miracle of my own child’s birth made grace very real for me. Thankfully I had some wonderful advice from good friends (I’m not smart enough to have come up with this on my own) who said that no amount of prep would ever make one “ready” for a baby. This freed Katie and I up to simply live into the wonder that is childbirth and parenthood. The concept of God’s prevenient grace–the grace that goes before you–has become all the more a reality for me. Even before we could take in the miracle of birth, God was at work in that labor room, operating room, and eventually the recovery room and hospital nursery. Modern medicine may have made sure the complications we experienced didn’t let matter get out of hand. But make no mistake, God was present even before the medical professionals arrived. And no matter how things turned out, God was with us.

I’m also taken by the notion that before I could even conceptualize love for Olivia Kate I felt it. Grace, and only grace, is to credit for love being such a compelling emotion that it overtakes reason. And even greater than that is before I was overcome with the feeling of love for Olivia Kate, God was already over-the-moon in love with her. My greatest hope is that we’re somehow able to convey God’s love for her as she grows up–but more on that later.

More Than Perfection 

It’s common to hear someone exclaim, “Oh she’s perfect!” when they see a newborn baby. And there’s a part of you as a parent that believes there’s nothing more perfect than that wiggling, cooing little creature that will let you endlessly hold it for hours. But the truth is, those creatures eventually grow up–actually I hear it happens all too quickly. And what was once a vision of perfection will give way to a reasoning human being who is prone to be tempted and even to make bad choices. There’s no avoiding this conclusion.

But what if perfection is overrated? God doesn’t love us because we’re perfect. God loves us because God is perfect and full of love and because we belong to God. So if we’re called to exemplify that love to others, aren’t we called to love them precisely because they’re created in God’s image? By the same token, I love Olivia Kate not because she’s perfect, but because she’s mine–and there’s nothing she’ll ever be able to do to change that fact.

One of the greatest graces I’m living into everyday is that just as she grows daily, her mother and I grow as well. We don’t do everything right. And hopefully one day Olivia Kate will learn the power of God’s grace when she realizes that she loves her parents despite our faults and mistakes. The good news is we’ve got plenty of time and dirty diapers to get through before we have to cross that bridge.

What Does Discipleship Look Like in Community?

It is my belief that the greatest failing of The United Methodist Church over the last 50 years does not lie in the number of people we’ve lost or the dollars that have disappeared from our coffers. The greatest failure of our church is a failure to disciple one another.

Somewhere along the way church membership has been confused with authentic, life-changing discipleship. Maybe the cultural norm of church led us to believe that society and the church went hand-in-hand. We grew comfortable as an American institution. I believe much of the panic we’re experiencing as a denomination is not rooted as much in decline of resources as it is in decline of influence and priority in community life. It’s tough not being the center of attention. But we simply cannot be satisfied using discipleship as a means of regaining some sense of power and comfort that went with those days gone by. Authentic discipleship requires so much more. And it means we have to look at church life in new ways–this doesn’t happen when we’re consumed with simply trying to recapture old realities. Mediocre discipleship should no longer be an acceptable norm in our churches.

Previously in Our Series…

As previously mentioned, discipleship is a life-long process of growth and maturity. For me, the best way to illustrate the complexity of discipleship is to compare it to the life of a human being. We begin young and helpless. It’s a powerful truth to realize what it means to be a “child of God.” However it can become easy to simply want to remain a child in the faith. Just as children grow up, so too must disciples grow up and “put childish things aside” (1 Cor. 13:11). This doesn’t mean we stop being beloved children of God at all–it simply means that there comes a time that our relationship with God must mature and lead us to deeper waters of love and service to God and other people.

Discipleship is About Relationship(s)

We live in a world that likes to create islands for individuals to live. One of the bedrocks of our society is the concept of individual rights and benefits. All of this is fine but if the Church is to say anything about discipleship, it must begin by saying that discipleship is dependent on relationship with others. This is non-negotiable. You don’t get to come and work on your own personal faith journey at church. You don’t get to “be fed” at a table set for 1. No, you leave the world of individualism and come to church for a corporate experience wrought with the messiness of being in relationship.

Relationship Status: Always Complicated

We begin by noting that relationship with God is messy. Any formulaic approach to relationship with God is liable to be a sales pitch for cheap grace. The God of the Old and New Testaments found in the person of Jesus of Christ simply will not fit into a neat box. If discipleship has been sold as some sort of simplistic portrayal of  how “Jesus died for our sins and now we live for him” while leaving out the sheer vastness of what that means, then it will inevitably result not in a worship of God but rather a worship of ourselves and our own ideals. Relationship with God is rich and complex and takes a lifetime to even have the hope of somehow understanding it.

If we talk about the complexity of relationship with God, we have to include the fact that discipleship requires a distinct way of being in relationship with other people. We cannot (and I can’t emphasize this enough) be Christian or in an active relationship with God if we don’t see how that also affects our relationships with others. Virtues such a peace, inclusively, grace, and forgiveness must become hallmarks of a disciple’s life with others. You can’t be a disciple if you think you can expect such virtues from God without also extending those virtues to others. Any pursuit of Christian perfection will lead us along the winding road of learning to live with and radically love other people.

Still to Come…

Discipleship in community is not passive in nature. Just as intimate friendships and relationship require a certain amount of commitment and work, so too discipleship requires a community of people to gather together and invest in the living out of discipleship together. This requires a certain amount of time, effort, and most certainly accountability. If discipleship is the process of growing in and being shaped by God’s sanctifying grace, then Christian perfection, and nothing less, is always the goal of discipleship. And if Christian perfection is the goal of discipleship, then we have to submit ourselves to a standard of living and being in the world and trust that other sojourners on the road of discipleship will watch over us in the kind of love that doesn’t settle for mediocrity.

NEXT POST–Accountable Discipleship: Reviving our Methodist Heritage for a New Era

 

A Wesleyan Missional Manifesto

Back in October 2011, I was priviledged to be with a group of United Methodist pastors and lay people who gathered around the common interest of reform in the church. By now you’ve probably heard a lot about the reform being debated by leaders in the denomination. The Call to Action and Vital Congregations movement has created quite the stir among the UMC faithful. But those of us who gathered 5 months ago all agreed that while structural reform was good, it wasn’t enough.

Out of that gathering was born an idea to create a document rooted in history and distinct Wesleyan theology that would serve as a supplement to the structural change offered by denominational leaders. We felt this would add an ingredient of theological integrity to the discussion. And so we spent the next few months beginning to craft the document for others to read and hopefully endorse.

It’s not finished yet but Rev. Jay Voorhees has posted it on his blog in order to get the discussion going.

READ THE WESLEYAN MISSIONAL MANIFESTO HERE!

What would you add or change about this document? How do you see it contributing to the conversation of change?

Beginning to Rethink What it Means to be a Disciple

 

About 2 or 3 General Conferences ago, we crafted a mission statement for The United Methodist Church that says:

“The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

We’ve put this statement all over bumper stickers, banners, stationary, and even across our church bulletins. As we’ve faced some tougher times since the economic turndown of 2008, we’ve come back to that mission statement time and time again. It’s become a part of the collective imagination of our churches. But let me ask a question: What does it mean to make a disciple? We can quote a mission statement for memory but the question of “how” seems to be the nagging question in many of our church circles.

It is my belief that the greatest failing of The United Methodist Church over the last 50 years does not lie in the number of people we’ve lost or the dollars that have disappeared from our coffers. The greatest failure of our church is a failure to disciple one another. 

The Methodist movement began when the Wesleys and others decided the Church of England reached a point where it was going through the motions of doing church. They felt things like personal conversion, salvation in the most evangelical sense, and discipleship were lacking across the Church of England. Now, some 250 years later, we find ourselves in a similar position. Only this time, we’re the ones guilty of going through the motions of doing church. 

Over the next few blog posts I want to begin a conversation that I hope readers will contribute to. If the church is in the type of decline that statistics and reports are telling us, then it will take as many people as possible working, praying, and conferencing together (yes, holy conferencing) in order to come up with creative ways to re-imagine ourselves as The United Methodist Church. So I would like to plant my flag in the fertile ground of discipleship and say let’s begin our journey of rediscovery there.

Being Christian Means New Life and Nothing Less

If we’re truly called by Christ to be “born from above” (John 3:5-8), then discipleship is an expression of new life in Christ. John Wesley would argue that once we experience justifying grace (the acceptance of forgiving grace by faith) we are then regenerated into new life. And life, then, takes on new perspective because we are born anew in the Spirit. Discipleship is the process of participating in God’s sanctifying grace that seeks to move us all the way to complete salvation–perfection in grace. So to discuss discipleship, I think it’s only appropriate to use the model of human development and relationships as our guiding analogy.

The Infant Stage

Human beings are relational by nature. I’m becoming more and more aware of this fact as my wife and I get closer everyday to the birth of our first child. Children come into the world defenseless and helpless. They have basic needs that must be met by others. It’s the dependence upon others that begins the relational aspect of our life as humans. Having needs met by a caregiver is among the most primal relationships in nature.

The same is true in our relationship to God. So often we turn to the analogy of God as Father or parent because it is God who, by grace, gives the gift of life and provides our very needs. We like to refer to ourselves “children of God.” It’s comforting to speak of God in these terms. But do we ever risk overusing this analogy? Do we think of God so much in a parental way that we never see ourselves as anything but needy children? Think about it. How often do we reduce prayer to a never-ending wish list (I want, I need). How often do we, clergy and laity alike, neglect our call to be ministers because we’re so inwardly focused (church needs to meet my needs). And how often do we fail to play nice with others (If God loves me, then God must not like those people because I don’t like them). All to easily we can turn into spiritual kindergartners who whine too much and can’t play nice with others because we want everything “our way, right away.”

Growing Up in Faith

The Apostle Paul reminds us that there comes a point in time in life that we’re to put childish things aside (1 Cor. 13:11). So if we have new life in the Spirit, there also comes a time when we should grow in our faith and mature past the point of being so inwardly focused and self-serving. This maturity is found in a life of discipleship. The life of a disciple is found first and foremost in a life that hears the call to deny themselves, take up a cross, and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23). But even more than that, it’s a call that challenges us to move past such a self-centered view of faith. Discipleship means that our faith grows beyond simply a “personal decision for Jesus” or a personal belief we cling to for ourselves. Discipleship requires that we take our faith public as we follow Jesus and give our of lives in community with others. This is why Wesley saw salvation as “holiness of heart and life.” Discipleship requires that faith must take a certain shape in our lives. Discipleship becomes the vessel by which faith, undergirded always with grace, shapes and molds us towards salvation–no less than complete holiness of heart and life towards God and our neighbors.

However discipleship simply cannot simply be a collection of individual journeys. It requires life together with others in community. But more on that later…Next Post: What Does Discipleship Look Like in Community? 

 

Announcing a New Series…

I’ve decided to begin 2012 with a new series that I hope will take us at least most of the way to General Conference. If you’re a United Methodist, you know by now there’s a great deal of change coming out of Tampa that will affect the entire Methodist Connection. The Call to Action is being used as a basis for assessing the health and vitality of our local congregations. There’s a good chance that there will be some major changes to the ordination process as a means of addressing ineffective clergy and hopefully stem the tide of decline in our churches.

As you also know, I’ve been a bit of a critic of many of these changes. I’m not convinced that implementing some sort of contrived plan of action will do much more than make us feel better for having “done something.” And yet, over these past few months and after studying and following much of the debate, I can now see some of the merits of the plans that are being proposed. We do have a problem with unhealthy congregations. And we do have a problem with clergy who feel more entitled than empowered to preach to preach the gospel. There’s a lot to be said for these plans in holding clergy and congregations accountable for doing good work of ministry. Are the priorities dangerously close to being self-serving? Sure. Are there still merits with the plans in spite of some shortcomings in theological integrity? I think so.

But that’s not why I’m writing this series. If you want a more candid and electric view of criticism for the Call to Action, check out my friend, Jeremy–he’s got some convincing material out there. I would rather examine what I’m not hearing much of in these debates: our failure in Christian Discipleship.

This upcoming series will seek to address the practice of Christian discipleship at the most local levels. Yes, there will be some theoretical approaches to my work: you can’t study practices without a little theory. But I hope this series will address some of our denominational shortcomings at the most practical level. Recently a friend of mine offered a thought that has stuck with me:

“It’s not about who or how many people or dollars we’ve lost, but how well we disciple people”

Therefore, I want to undergird this series not with our shallow mission statement of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” but with The General Rule of Discipleship:

“To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

And so as I begin I want to ask you for your  help. Please feel free to interact on this blog and offer your thoughts along the way. I want this to be a community experience of sorts. And frankly, I probably need some help fleshing these thoughts out. So please feel free to respond!

Is discipleship our greatest need in the Church today? How do you see our failure of discipleship in American Christianity? What do you see as our greatest need in forming disciples of Jesus Christ?

Women’s Witness to the Gospel

I’m a 29-year-old, Southern male who’s been born and raised in the buckle of the Bible-Belt here in South Georgia. I will testify to the fact that the gender debate in the Church is alive and well despite the amount of progress the feminist movement has made in the last 30 years or so. It’s still very common that we address God with male imagery in the liturgy of worship. The fact that Jesus is called “Son” and God is called “Father” leads many to see the image of God solely in male terms. Women still struggle at times finding a clear and definitive voice in the Church. This is nothing new.

You can imagine my boredom with the fact that John Piper has publicly declared God’s intention for Christianity is for it to have a “masculine feel” at a recent meeting of preachers. In his defense I’m sure Piper was trying to offer a corrective to the “Macho-God Movement” promoted by the likes of Mark Driscoll and other pastors who would lead us to believe that God is somehow a steroid-pumped Rambo figure waiting to drop a hurting of judgment on all who would cross his path. Piper instead advocates for a more sensitive male-figure God. Maybe a kinder, gentler Mr. Rogers sort of God who loves both men and women to the fullest degree. This is a quaint view of God but unfortunately it’s not the kind of God I know best.

Now I’m not the kind of bible scholar who would dare challenge the likes of John Piper on his use of scripture. But I am a pastor in the United Methodist tradition and I’ve been introduced to the idea that as people of faith, we have to employ the tools of tradition, reason and experience along with our reading of scripture in order to gain a robust interpretation of matters of faith and theology. We call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. And so I have to look to my experience and reason to inform my readings of scripture and tradition where John Piper would lead me to believe God is somehow predominately masculine.

Women Taught Me the Very Scripture John Piper Quotes

My earliest recollections of faith come in the form of Sunday School lessons taught by wonderfully loving and patient women. I encountered the Bible with the help of these women through reading and learning texts (memorization drills) as well as interactive activities (usually in the form of crafts). And so before I learned that God could somehow be male, God was made manifest in the form of these wonderful women of faith who served the church by teaching children the faith. I’ve known countless women who have devoted their lives to shaping the faith of others. And in doing so, they’ve also modeled the faith in radical ways, teaching me the virtues of faithfulness, justice, and compassion.

Women Were Leaders in My Life

Even though I grew up in the Bible-Belt, I learned early on that women could actually thrive as leaders in the Church. For 15 years of my life, I went to church where a female pastor served as the senior pastor. Our church grew and even thrived as a mid-size, neighborhood United Methodist Church during that time. I was confirmed as a member of my church and in the vows of my baptism that remind me of the waters of baptism being like the womb (female imagery) where life is born. I went to seminary with some of the brightest and most capable young, up-and-coming pastors, many of whom were women. Some of my most influential professors in seminary were world-renowned biblical scholars that also happened to be (you guessed it) women. And so I know that I can read biblical texts that might lead me to believe this isn’t so, but my experience has shown that God just loves to defy the norms we create with narrow readings of scripture.

Church Leadership Begins with Faithful Discipleship

I’m concerned that somehow John Piper and other evangelicals like him seem to believe that leadership goes exclusively with power. The examples he uses in his recent talk speak of a God who is portrayed as a powerful king, men who make up the power structure of councils, and husbands who are to assume the position of power as the head of the household. What about the texts that remind us, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35)? What about the fact that while the powerful disciples sat paralyzed behind locked doors, the women were faithfully caring for the body of Jesus and thus became the first evangelists who told the good news of resurrection (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12)? And what about the fact that even Paul declares, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal.3:28)? When did power become the sole descriptor of God?

I fear that our cultural tendency to love power and position leads those like John Piper (and the rest of us for that matter) to forget that God is so much bigger than the images we might project. And we may live in a world that clamors for powerful leaders but we have to remember that we’re all called to be faithful disciples before we’re called to be leaders. And for me, it’s always been the women in my life who have embodied that sort of faithful discipleship.

I want to thank, Rachel Held Evans, who is one of my favorite theological voices these days for issuing the challenge to men to respond to John Piper’s remarks. Too often we men who agree with wonderful voices like Rachel sit back and depend on her and others like her to raise these issues so that we can rubberstamp them with our quiet, “Amen”]

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