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Monday, June 10, 2019

When Life Changes, God is Good


Introduction
This is the third blog in a series base on my church's VBS theme for this summer--Life is Wild. God is Good.  It's all about the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt.  Today, we learn: When life changes, God is good.

Psalm 106:1
Praise the Lord!
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!
    His faithful love endures forever.

The Israelites lived in Egypt for over 430 years.  Imagine 400 years!  What was your family doing 430 years ago?  You probably have no idea.  What was America doing 430 years ago?  Well, America didn't even exist as a nation 430 years ago.  Consider this, the King James Version of the Bible--a version we consider very old, so old it is sometimes hard for us to understand it--hadn't yet been written 430 years ago.  And the Egyptians lived in Egypt for 430 years.  That's a long time.

The Egyptians were unfair to the Israelites.  They forced them to work as their slaves.  But when life is unfair, God is good.  God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go.  Pharaoh said, “No!”  So God sent ten scary plagues to torment the Egyptians and convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free.  And when life is scary, God is good.  When your life is scary, trust God is working things out for your good.  The last plague was the scariest of all.  The Angel of Death struck the firstborn son of every family in Egypt; every family accept those who heeded God’s warning to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a lamb lost their firstborn son.  The night after Passover, Pharaoh awoke to the sound parents crying all over Egypt and found that even his own son was dead.  Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Israelites go free.

The Israelites packed their things and left Egypt.  The word Exodus literally means “going out.”  The second book of the Bible, Exodus, tells the story of the Israelites going out of Egypt.  They were leaving behind everything they'd known.  Egypt was not their homeland, but the Israelites had lived in Egypt for 430 years.  It was all they had ever known and all their parents and grandparents had known for generations.  It was going to be a huge change.  So the Israelite's needed to learn:  When life changes, God is good.

Pharaoh was a stubborn, arrogant man.  Even though the Lord God, Yahweh, had brought Pharaoh and all Egypt to their knees with the ten terrible plagues, Pharaoh changed his mind.  He wanted the Israelite slaves back.  He decided to chase them and drag them back to Egypt.  After all, he was still Pharaoh—the most powerful man in the world!

Pharaoh’s chariots bore down on the Israelites.  He had them trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea.  Many of the Israelites cried out in fear.  “Why did you bring us out in the dessert to die?  It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than dead in the wilderness!”  This is a common sentiment for people who are struggling through a significant change.  Even when the changes are good, we complain and get stuck in negative thinking.  But God is good and He makes a way when there seems to be no way forward.  We have to trust Him.

Exodus 14:21-22 21 Then Moses raised his hand over the sea, and the Lord opened up a path through the water with a strong east wind. The wind blew all that night, turning the seabed into dry land. 22 So the people of Israel walked through the middle of the sea on dry ground, with walls of water on each side!

The Rest of the Story
The Egyptians tried to pursue the Israelites, but God fought for His people.  The Egyptians saw the Israelites crossing the Red Sea on dry ground and followed them, but God cause confusion in their ranks.  Chariots got stuck or their wheels fell off.  The couldn't catch up to the Israelites.  Then, once all the Israelites were safely on the other side of the sea, God caused the waters of the Read Sea to come crashing back together upon the Egyptian army.  The passage says not a single one survived.  

You would think seeing the Lord fight for His people in this way would convince the Israelites to trust God more.  However, we see again and again that they complained.  The first example is when they come to the spring of Marah.  They and their animals are thirsty, but the water of the spring is bitter.  So, the Israelites complained, "Why did you bring us out in the dessert to die of thirst!  Things were so much better when we were slaves in Egypt!"  So God told Moses to throw a piece of wood into the spring and it made the water good to drink.

Then another time, the Israelites were complained they had plenty of food to eat, but they were starving in the wilderness.  So God made manna fall from heaven--a mysterious substance the Israelites could gather and eat.  Soon they complained about this too and said they wanted meat to eat.  So God made flocks of quail descend upon them and they had more meat to eat than they could stand.

Time and time again, God provided and the Israelites still complained.  They struggled as their lives dramatically changed.  In some sense, they longed for the safety and security of Egypt.  Even though they had been slaves, at least they knew what to expect from life.  Wandering in the dessert required them to trust God as their lives changed.

When life changes, God is good.
Often, God initiates change because it's for our own good.  God wanted to deliver the Israelite from Egypt, but His delivery was more than just a change of location.  The Israelites were slaves.  Even after they were free, they were still slaves in their minds.  God wanted to change their minds.  God wanted the Israelites to be His holy people, a Kingdom of priests who would represent Him to the whole world.  They were to be distinct and different from all other people.  They were to be a beautiful, bright light that would draw all people all over the world back to God.  The Israelites were part of God’s grand plan to save the whole world and would eventually usher in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world.  So God had to change the Israelites.

Change is hard—especially when it alters the very identity of who you are.  No wonder the Israelites were always complaining in Exodus.  We look back and we think, “Man, what a bunch of whiners!”  But understand this:  God wants to change you too.  He wants to change your fundamental identity.

Who are you?  What's your identity?  I mean, how would you describe yourself?  These are hard questions if you've ever really tried to answer them.  You might identify as a man or a woman (or something else).  Maybe you would say:  "I am a husband or a wife,  a parent, a child, a college student or retired."  You might choose your occupation as your identity--banker, farmer, lawyer, pastor, etc.  

God says, “Forget all that.  That's justr what the world says.  That’s not really who you are.  I’m going to give you a whole new identity--an eternal identity.  I made you and I know why. I'm going to help you realize who you really are according to My master plan.” 

A lot of people only become Christians because they want to go to heaven. Someone told them that they would go to Hell and suffer torment for eternity unless they accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. And they want to go to heaven instead, so they become a Christian. And to be sure, the Bible does say, "The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ." (Romans 6:23) But God says, “That’s not big enough. You need a whole new identity.” 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, "This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!" And Galatians 6:15b says, "What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation."

And so, after we start following Christ, God begins to change our identity.  Once we were slaves, but God set us free.  But it takes a long time for the Holy Spirit to convince us we are really free so we start thinking like free people instead of people who are still slaves to sin.  God is changing our identity from sinner to saint.  He is changing you from a child of the Devil to a child of God.  He is changing you from someone who worships all the wrong things--material possessions, your family, a romantic relationship, the esteem of people, pleasure, or your own selfish desires--to someone who worships only God (as you were originally create to).

These are some of your eternal identities:  Free, Saint, Child of God, Worshiper of the One True God.  These are eternal.  They will never change.  Ten thousand million years from know, no one will even care that you were a lawyer or a doctor or even a parent.  All that will matter and remain is your identity in Christ.

The Exodus is a picture of the Christian life.   The Christian life is a process of surrendering to God each new day and allowing Him change our identity and make us His people.  It’s a life long journey as we walk through the wilderness of this life toward the Promised Land of Eternal Life with God.

Closing
Proverbs 3:5-6 says, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take."

Change is inevitable.  We face many changes in this life.  Ultimately, God is changing us; and that’s a good thing!  Because, when life changes, God is good. 

When my son was a little child, he had a baby blanket.  He carried it everywhere with him and whenever life was too much for him, he'd stick the corner of that blanket in his mouth and suck.  As you can imagine that blanket would get really nasty and we had to wash it often.  Well, after a few years it was really work out, but he just wouldn't give it up.  So as he was getting ready to go to preschool, my wife and I came up with a plan.  We cut the blanket in half.  The a few days later, we cut the half blanket in half.  We kept this up until Gavin only had a small square left.  Then we finally convinced him to give it up.  We promised to keep it safe for him.  (We still have the remains of that  blanket packed away somewhere in a memory box.)

Blankets wear out, but God stays the same.  So cling to God in the midst of change, because God never changes.  Malachi 3:6a - “I am the Lord, and I do not change.” God is Yahweh – The Great I Am (Exodus 3:14).  He is The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end… (Revelation 1:8).  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end (Lamentations 3:22) The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8) 

So when life changes, remember:  God is good.  Trust Him.  Cling to Him.  And be transformed.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Fighting for the Soul of the UMC, Part 2


“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Acts 1:8

"Give me 100 men who hate nothing but sin and love God with all their hearts and I will shake the world for Christ!"
John Wesley

In my first article, I shared why it is critical for pastors and members serving in local United Methodist congregations to focus on renewing the United Methodist Church at the denominational level.  You can read that article here.

Now I want to share some strategies to build a more vibrant and effective United Methodist denomination that better reflects the orthodox views firmly founded upon a right understanding of Scripture.  These ideas are meant to provide direction and hopefully inspire creative leaders to work out the details that could make them a reality.  I welcome your contributions to this vision of a renewed, effective UMC.

Do Not Leave the UMC
First and foremost, conservative evangelicals who wish the UMC to hold to orthodox Christian teaching firmly founded upon Scripture must not leave.  Every orthodox leader and church that pulls out of the denomination only leaves the UMC weaker and more skewed toward the progressive side of the spectrum.  Traditionalists currently hold a modest majority within the denomination.  Voting at the 2019 general conference confirmed this.  Furthermore, this orthodox majority will only increase in coming years as the population of progressive United Methodists in the US decreases while traditional United Methodist in Africa and Asia are growing quickly.  Delegates to the 2020 general conference will likely be even more in favor of traditional Christian values.  This traditional majority will increase even more for general conferences in 2024 and beyond.  2019 was probably progressives’ last best hope for gaining the votes they needed to flip the UMC’s stance on homosexuality.  But this only holds true if conservatives refuse to walk away!  We are winning the struggle to maintain a faithful denomination; now is not the time to leave!  Please, do not abandon your brothers and sisters to fight for the soul of the UMC alone.

Furthermore, we need to be firm but gracious to progressives.  If they refuse to uphold, defend, and teach the orthodox Christian doctrine our denomination has ratified, we must insist they exit the denomination.  It is the same thing we would do if a disruptive individual interrupted one of our worship services in a local church.  We would insist they leave and escort them out as gently and politely as we could.  We must be gracious and loving as we invite those disrupting our denomination to leave.  Every time conservatives resort to angry name calling or unfair treatment, we betray Christ and it deeply damages our witness.  Jesus said in John 13:35, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”  1 Corinthians 13:4-7 tells us the kind of love the Church should practice.  It’s not a weak love that allows unrighteousness or false teaching to remain in the church.  However, we can be firm without being unloving or rude; and we must.

In some places where conservatives are  outnumbered, we should take a page from LGBT activists’ playbook.  Conservatives should peacefully resist and protest.  This must not degenerate into the hateful signs and verbal attacks on perceived enemies.  Rather, let us be the noble ones and force progressives to embarrass themselves in the public eye as they persecute orthodox Christians simply because we are being faithful to what we believe God says in the Bible.  How can we support conservatives in overwhelmingly progressive areas as they seek peaceful changes in their districts, conferences, and jurisdictions?  Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

Focus on Leading the Denomination
Secondly, local church leaders must focus more on the denomination.  I believe one of the reasons the UMC has drifted over the years is our most faithful, orthodox United Methodists have been busy leading local churches.  To address this, we must turn some of our attention back to the denomination.  We must be diligent in watching, studying, and actively participating in our districts, annual conferences, and general conference.  We must pay close attention to how money is allocated, who is selected for leadership, and how our districts and conferences are run.  We must pay close attention to who is elected delegates for annual, jurisdictional, and general conferences.  We must understand the issues presented (not just issues like homosexuality that garner attention).  We can no longer leave these things to the people pulling the strings behind the curtains at conference while we simply offer a “rubber stamp”. 

Furthermore, we must openly band together with colleagues who share our values.  You can be sure progressives are doing the same.  In many places, progressives have already worked together very effectively to entrench people in leadership who will guard their ideas.  It will take hard work to change the current landscape of leadership in the United Methodist Church so that it better represents the values in local congregations, but it can be done.  The very first thing we can do is elect delegates to the 2020 general and jurisdictional conferences who represent orthodox Christian values.  If you have a vote at your annual conference this year, use it well!  Clergy, encourage your lay delegates to vote for orthodoxy.  Laity, encourage your pastors to do the same.  We must continue these efforts even beyond the 2020 general conference to make sure orthodox Christianity remains the strongest voice in our denomination.  Each UM church is allocated a certain number of delegates to annual conference.  Often, those delegates don't even attend.  Orthodox delegates must not only attend, they must be ready to understand the issues that will be addressed at conferences so they can make their votes count.

Conservatives must also become more united in what we believe.  So far, much of our passion has been about what we don’t believe (we don’t believe homosexuality is God’s will and we don’t want to ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals, etc.).  Unfortunately, we are less united on issues about what we want for the UMC.  We often disagree on other issues like abortion, the drinking of alcohol, women in ministry, politics, styles of worship, etc.  We need to be more gracious with each other on non-essentials and work hard to build a solid platform on the essentials.

Clearly Understand and Teach Orthodox United Methodist Beliefs
Part of the reason orthodox teaching is under attack in the UMC is orthodox Christians have not been clear about exactly what we believe.  Even though conservatives have spent a lot of time arguing with progressives about homosexuality, we have not done well at sharing our thoughts openly with our congregations.  It is not a subject most pastors want to preach or teach about for a number of reasons.  Meanwhile though, the wider culture around us has been hard at work sharing their narrative in every available format—TV, movies, music, politics, the courtroom, through doctors and psychologists, and education.  It is no wonder we are losing the hearts and minds of our congregations and the denomination as a whole in the US.  Our silence is a forfeit.

But the problem of unclear teaching goes beyond homosexuality.  Conservatives often aren’t clear on other doctrines such as divorce and why we follow some Old Testament laws and not others.  For example, many conservatives struggle to answer progressives’ challenges about why we oppose homosexuality on biblical grounds but still allow divorce.  To be sure, there are biblical grounds for allowing divorce, but few orthodox pastors (let alone the average layperson) can articulate sound theological reasons.  It’s no wonder our positions often seem weak and inconsistent.  Every faithful conservative ought to be informed about our doctrines and be able to offer a coherent answer from Scripture to these kinds of challenges. 


Therefore, conservative evangelical United Methodists need to become very clear on exactly what we believe.  We need to understand which doctrines are really essential to Wesleyan Christianity and which are more open to different interpretations.  We need to be united in our teaching on the essentials and gracious in non-essentials.  We need to be able to clearly articulate how we believe the Bible addresses issues such as divorce, sex outside of marriage, the need for ordained women in ministry, and which Old Testament laws apply to Christians and why.  Furthermore, orthodox United Methodists need to work hard to be united in our agreement on these doctrines.

Better Education and Training for Pastors
Part of the UMC’s anemia on doctrinal issues is the weak theological training many pastors receive.  John Wesley was an educated man and he expected Methodist pastors to be also.  Unfortunately, United Methodist seminaries in the United States often do not prepare pastors to be effective pastoral leaders.  Seminary education is too broadly focused while immersing students in an environment that celebrates progressive ideology and scoffs at traditional orthodoxy.  A three-year master of divinity degree should be the ultimate preparation for pastors answering God’s call to lead a local church.  Instead, pastors often leave seminary confused about what they are supposed to believe and lost when they try to lead a church.  We must do better. 

Theological training in United Methodist seminaries should focus primarily on a Wesleyan theology that is firmly grounded in Scripture.  Orthodox Christianity should be the norm that is held in high esteem by all.  Professors who seek to train future pastors should be deeply and passionately in love with Jesus Christ.  Students should spend their time falling deeper in love with Christ and learning how to live out that love in word and deed.  Upon completion of seminary, pastors should be expected to clearly articulate sound biblical doctrine to their boards of ordained ministry.  Some of the things they should be able to clearly explain from a Biblical perspective are:
  • Why women are welcomed in ordained ministry
  • Why we expect lifelong monogamous marriage but allow for divorce in certain circumstances
  • A clear Wesleyan view of how Old Testament laws apply for Christians today
  • What are the essentials of United Methodist doctrine—those doctrines which are non-negotiable and why?

But seminary education should not be confined to theology.  Pastors need much better training in the practical matters of day to day leadership of a local congregation.  How do you write and preach an effective sermon and offer an invitation that wins people to Christ?  How do you go out into the community and invite people to church?  How do you manage the complicated business aspects of a church?  How do you navigate the politics of a local congregation?  What are the practical steps to offer effective pastoral care to real people in a real church?

I have great respect for local/lay pastors.  Their passion for Jesus Christ and their commitment to serve inspires me.  Many of these pastors work a full-time job in the secular world and then also do the difficult job of leading a church.  I don’t want to leave them out of this discourse.  I’m sure there are reforms needed in their training as well.  I have not spoken of their situation only because I do not know enough to speak to it.  One thing I do know, I believe these local and lay pastors should have more voice in our conferences.  They should not be excluded from voting for delegates to general and jurisdictional conferences.  These faithful ministers of Christ have great practical wisdom to share and their faith is firm.  We need their voice.

Honor and Advance What is Already Great About the UMC
We must also honor what is already great about the United Methodist denomination.  If you are reading this, you are probably already a United Methodist or you wouldn’t spend time reading such UMC-centered material.  Therefore, I assume there are (or were) many great things about this denomination that drew you to the UMC.  So, even as we consider how things in the UMC must change, there are many things in this denomination we must also keep (and even advance).  

The UMC is a grace-filled denomination that has historically maintained a delicate balance between grace and truth.  Contrary to the accusations of many progressives, conservatives are not a bunch of Pharisees who care about rules more than people.  We are an open, welcoming people.  We realize everyone struggles with sin.  Divorce, sexual sin, substance abuse, and many other sins are part of the human condition and all who struggle with these and other sins are tenderly welcomed at the table of Jesus Christ who gave His life to redeem us.  The UMC has lost its delicate balance over the last few years, not because we turn away people who struggle with sins like homosexuality, but because progressives wish to claim sex between two people of the same gender is not sin (even though Scripture consistently says it is). So, we must always be a denomination that welcomes and loves all people, despite their sin, and offers God’s grace and forgiveness that leads to a transformed life.  We must become even more gracious and welcoming.  Let us conservatives who adamantly defend the Truth of God’s Word about homosexuality (and all sin) be just as adamant that God’s grace is freely given to all people.  Let us be forever clear that it is the practice of homosexuality that is sinful, not same-sex attraction itself.  Only those who engage in homosexual behavior or are romantically involved with others of the same sex are acting contrary to God’s will on this matter.

Diversity and inclusiveness are buzzwords that have been drilled into United Methodists ad-nauseam.  Even so, at their root, these are good concepts that we’ve embraced because they truly reflect God’s will and also strengthen the Church.  United Methodism must remain a big tent that always includes people of many diverse backgrounds.  Evangelicals, charismatics, male and female, high-church and low-church people, advocates for traditional worship and innovators of new worship styles must all be welcomed and treated equally for their valuable contributions to God’s Kingdom.  We must always be a United Methodism that seeks racial and ethnic diversity.  Let us defend the rights of minorities and always ensure equal treatment. We must unequivocally affirm the long-standing effective ministry of women.  We must advocate for the equal treatment of women, the ordination of women as pastors, and the full acceptance of female leadership in every area of the UMC.   Let us be rid forever of all petty designations of “Jew and Gentile” that separate us and have nothing at all to do with the essentials of the faith according to the orthodox Wesleyan tradition.

Diversity and inclusiveness in an orthodox UMC must be more than a buzzword or report given at annual conference about the number of women and minorities represented.  We must open up all our pulpits and churches to cross-cultural appointments.  All churches should be available to be served by black, white, Asian, Latino, or female clergy.  These designations should not even be considered as reasons why a particular pastor cannot be appointed to a church.  We are all one in Jesus Christ.  We must "desegregate" the local church as well as the pulpit.

The UMC is a global denomination and the Church in Asia and Africa are our fastest growing segments—both in numbers and in spiritual depth.  Roughly 45% of United Methodists currently live outside the United States.  They will be a majority in a few years.  It’s time we start acting like a global denomination.  We must finally realize America is not the center of the Christian universe or the UMC.  Our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness must expand to the place where these brothers and sisters across the globe are treated as true equals.  We must do more than pay lip service to this ideal.  We must live into it in practical ways.  General conferences should be held in global locations.  Why do we still ask delegates from Africa, Asia, and Europe to travel halfway around the world to an American general conference?  Sometimes, we should travel to them.  We might learn some important things along the way.

We also need to learn from our faithful sisters and brothers across the globe.  We need to learn their theology and doctrine, their practice of ministry, and how they live as faithful disciples of Jesus.  The UMC is flooded with books and curriculums written by people in the US, many of which are weak and watered down or just wrapping the same old US ideas in new packaging.  Perhaps we should make it a priority to let others from around the world teach the US how to teach and preach.  The Holy Spirit is setting the UMC on fire around the globe.  Let Methodist churches, Sunday schools, and small groups in the US be set ablaze by the ideas and practices of those United Methodist Christians that are growing their churches exponentially in Africa and Asia. 

Summary
While many are frustrated and/or are pessimistic about the future of the United Methodist Church, I have great optimism.  The special called general conference this year proved that the majority of our denomination is still in favor of orthodox Christian doctrine founded upon Scripture.  Furthermore, the tide is changing in the UMC.  The orthodox voice calling for Scriptural holiness is now growing stronger.  Progressives who would redefine Christianity will not have the power to force their views upon conservative, so long as conservative remain true and do not abandon the UMC. 

To be sure, there are many more aspects of the UMC that need reform.  The fight over human sexuality was only one issue, which was really a symptom of deeper issues.  Much work is yet to be done to bring renewal.  However, I am confident we can focus more and more resources toward renewing our denomination and the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ now that we are beginning to move past the draining fight over homosexuality. 

In conclusion then, let me leave you with a simple list to summarize the strategies to make the UMC.  I admit these are not fully formed.  They need fleshing out.  I welcome your contributions to a better more effective United Methodist Church.
  • Do Not Leave the UMC
  • Focus More on Leading the Denomination
  • Clearly Understand and Teach Orthodox United Methodist Beliefs
  • Better Education and Training for Pastors
  • Honor and Advance What is Already Great About the UMC


Monday, June 3, 2019

When Life is Scary, God is Good


Introduction
As my church prepares for vacation Bible school coming July 8-12, I'm sharing a message series inspired by the themes for each day of VBS.  The overall theme is: Life is Wild, God is Good.  We learn that when life is unfair, or scary, or when it changes, or is sad, or when life is good, God is good.  God is good all the time and all the time, God is good.

Last week, I shared how God is good even when life is unfair.  The Israelites were forced to work as slaves in Egypt.  It wasn't fair, but God was still good to the Israelites and he sent Moses to help deliver them from Egypt.  However, things had to get worse before they could get better.  Today, we learn that when life is scary, God is good.

Psalm 23:4Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.  Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.

Exodus 7:14, 19
14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn, and he still refuses to let the people go…  19 Then the Lord said to Moses: “Tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and raise your hand over the waters of Egypt—all its rivers, canals, ponds, and all the reservoirs. Turn all the water to blood. Everywhere in Egypt the water will turn to blood, even the water stored in wooden bowls and stone pots.’”

When Life is Scary, God is Good
Quite often, things have to get worse before they get better.  Thankfully, when life is unfair, God is good.  And today we learn that when life is scary, God is good.  God sent Moses to demand that Pharaoh let the Israelites go free, but Pharaoh said no.  So God sent ten plagues to bring Pharaoh and the Egyptians to their knees in submission.  You can read the full description of all the plagues in Exodus 7:14-12:32.  The first plague was turning all the water in Egypt into blood.  The second was a plague of frogs.  These were followed by an infestation of lice (or gnats), flies, the death of Egyptian livestock, boils covering the Egyptian's skin, destructive hail, locusts, and darkness.  In the final plague, God caused the death of every first born make child not residing in a house marked by the blood of a lamb.

God is Lord
One of the great themes of the Exodus story is the Lordship of God.  In fact, the book of Exodus is really when God reveals Himself as “the Lord”.  When God first appeared to Moses in a burning bush in Exodus 3:15 He tells Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: Yahweh [The Lord], the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.  This is my eternal name, my name to remember for all generations.” 

In Egypt, Pharaoh was the lord.  Egyptians considered Pharaoh a god.  He rules with absolute authority.  He could command people to be put to death, even children.  But God showed the Egyptians and the Israelites and whole world that Pharaoh was just a man.  Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Israelites, the God of the Bible, our God is truly the Lord.  The ten plagues in Exodus prove that Yahweh has authority over all creation.  As a polytheistic society, the Egyptians probably believed in gods who ruled over all the various things like frogs and flies and the sun and weather.  However, Yahweh God is the only One who is in charge of frogs and flies, the sun, our health, and the weather.  The Lord made everything we see (and even things we can’t see).  He has the power to control everything.  And Yahweh God is all knowing and He knows that no one else has the right or ability to be Lord in His place because they will always misuse and abuse.  God will not let anyone else claim lordship over all the earth. 

But, sometimes things must get worse before they get better.  And sometimes, things will also get scary before they get better.  Yahweh God, the Great Lord of All, sent 10 plagues to prove to Pharaoh and the Egyptians and the Israelites and everyone in the whole world that only Yahweh is God and Lord of all.  And even thought The Lord was fighting for the Israelites, they had to live through the scary plagues right along side the Egyptians.  They had to learn as we do: when life is scary, God is good.  When things get scary, always remember, God is Lord; God is in control; and God loves you.  Remember that scary things often accompany the work of the Lord, but do not be dismayed because is good.

Use Your Fear
It’s OK to be afraid.  Sometimes, you just can’t help it when so many terrible and scary things are happening all around.  So often our fears make us think and act irrationally.  However, I want to suggest you let your fear lead to positive things.

First of all, let your fear turn your heart to God.  Don't be like Pharaoh who hardened his heart.  Pharaoh could have saved himself and his people great suffering if he'd simply submitted to The Lord.  Instead, Pharaoh was stubborn and arrogantly held onto the lie that he was greater than God.  If only he'd repented and turned to God, God would have blessed him and all the Egyptians.

So when life is scary, we need to soften our hearts and repent of any sin we become aware is in our lives.  If we have been living in opposition to God, we need to ask forgiveness and turn to Him.  God is faithful and just and quick to forgive us through His Son, Jesus Christ.  Forget your ego; let go of your pride.  Turn to God.  He is the Lord and you are not.

Second, let your fears lead you to trust God.  Trust that God loves you.  The last plague God brought in Exodus was the worst.  He sent the Angel of Death to wipe out the first born of every living thing--people and animals--in Egypt who didn't have the blood of a lamb on the doorpost of their house.  The Egyptians (and even Pharaoh) could have been spared the death of their firstborn children if only they'd humbled themselves, trusted in God, and put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts.  The Angel of death "passed over" all who had the blood of a lamb on their doorpost.  

The yearly celebration of Passover became the way for Israelites to always remember how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt.  Passover was also a foreshadowing of how God would save all humanity from slavery to sin.  For Jesus Christ is called the Lamb of God.  One day, John the Baptist say Jesus coming towards him and he declared, "Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29)  Jesus let the glory of heaven to die on the cross for our sins.  Though he was perfect in every way, with no sin in him, Jesus shed his blood as our Passover Lamb.  His blood covers our sins.  "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 6:23)

Yet, we must still trust the Lord.  We must put our faith in Christ and figurative apply the blood of the Lamb to the doorpost of our life.  If we do, The Lord will deliver us from slavery to sin and give us new life, abundant life, eternal life.  The Angel of Death will pass over our life and we will live.  So when life is scary, let it lead you to trust in Christ and be save, because God is good.

Jesus, the Lamb of God, was celebrating the Passover with his disciples when he changed the ceremony.  He took the bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, "This is my body, given for you."  Likewise, after the meal he took the cup of wine and asked the Lord to bless it and gave it to his disciples and said, "This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  As often as you drink it, do it in remembrance of me."

So now, put your faith in Jesus.  And receive Holy Communion and remember what Christ has done for you.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away your sin if you will trust him and follow him as your Savior and Lord.  Will you?

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Fighting for the Soul of the UMC, Part 1


"I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd."
John 10:16

“…I believe in the holy catholic church…”
The Apostles’ Creed

The United Methodist Church is struggling.  Here’s why I think it is critical that pastors and leaders in local churches work hard to revitalize the UMC at the denominational level.  I will offer a second installment with some strategies that may help lead our denomination to be more effective for the Kingdom of God. Read it here.

I have a deep passion for helping people grow closer to God.  It is the passion that drove me to leave a promising career as an engineer and become an itinerant preacher in the United Methodist Church.  I’ve never regretted my decision.  I’ve been truly blessed.  There’s nothing more important or rewarding for me than serving as a pastor in a local church.

I’ve served as an appointed pastor in the UMC for 18 years.  My ministry has focused mainly on the local congregation because it’s where the bulk of hands on, frontline ministry takes place.  Though I have been faithful to the United Methodist connection and worked some at the district and conference level, my heart has always belonged to the local churches I’ve served. 

I suspect this is the attitude of most UM pastors and congregational leaders who serve in a local church.  We tend to let people in the district and conference offices focus on the denomination.  We stick to ministering to the families in our neighborhoods and communities.  There is more than enough work to keep us busy.  The tremendous pace and scope of our duties in the community is astounding.  We have precious little time to divert to denominational concerns.  We’ve entrusted those matters to others who are more passionate about the institution so we can focus on our local ministry setting.

The problem right now is many denominational leaders in the UMC are pushing ideas that are fundamentally at odds with the biblical values of most pastors and members in the local church.  Even though our special called general conference voted for a traditional plan that reaffirms an orthodox, biblical teaching about human sexuality, many bishops and other denominational leaders have vowed to disregard, disobey, and obstruct the decision.  So even though the elected voice of our denomination has spoken, it seems most of our denominational leaders in the US are vowing not to abide by the decision.  It’s very frustrating.

I have spoken with pastors and church members who are fed up.  Some are ready to throw their hands up and walk away from the denomination.  They say things like, “Who cares about the denomination anyway?  Who needs them?  Let them have the declining mainline institution and we’ll just go do church in our congregation the way we’ve always done it.” 

It would be a big mistake to abandon the denomination to progressive leaders bent on forcing the United Methodist brand to promote unchristian doctrine.  There is way more at stake than you may think—especially if your primary focus has been (like mine) the local ministry setting.  We all need to prayerfully consider why orthodox Christians should stay and work hard to renew the United Methodist Church.

Connectional vs. Congregational
United Methodists are connectional because we believe strongly the Church Jesus Christ established is more than just one congregation.  It includes all faithful Christians in all places throughout all time.  We believe we can be more effective at fulfilling our mission to make disciples of all the nations when we work together. 

United Methodists follow the example of the earliest Christians in the New Testament who were also connectional.  Local congregations worked together for the good of the worldwide Church.  The Apostle Paul collected funds to help the persecuted church in Jerusalem.  Early Christians conferred with each other to determine orthodox Christian doctrine and speak together as one voice throughout the whole world.  At the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15, Church leaders had their own “General Conference” and decided Christians throughout the whole world didn't have to be circumciced but should “…abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood.” 

Congregationalism is a different option that some Christians choose (like Baptists).  They believe a congregational governing model is the best way to be faithful Christians.  Each congregation makes their own rules; they are not beholden to any other local church; there are no Baptist general conferences to tell local congregations how to believe or act or what to teach.

However, United Methodist pastors and congregations who consider pulling out of the United Methodist connection aren’t choosing congregationalism for theological reasons. The core value behind their decision is often: “I don’t really care what the Church Universal does as long as I can do things the way I like in my own church.”  So if you are thinking of pulling out of the UMC, ask yourself a very honest question:  “Am I leaving so I can truly further God’s Kingdom or is it really so I can just maintain my own little kingdom in my congregation?” 

Saving the Lost
Even if you plan to leave the UMC for a different connection, the stakes are still very, very high.  Millions of souls hang in the balance.  The UMC is a global denomination with some 12 million members.  That’s not an abstract number.  It represents 12 million living people that God loves so much He sent His only begotten son to die for them.  The United Methodist denomination has tremendous influence over the 12 million souls in our care.  If the denomination as a whole abandons orthodox Christian teaching, it will mislead millions of people in this generation alone.  And that doesn’t even account for the damage it will do to future generations across the globe who will be influenced by a corrupted UMC.

If evangelicals are serious about saving souls according to Christ’s command, we need to do all we can to save the denomination.  I understand the passion for the local churches that leads pastors and members to think the local congregation is the only thing we need to worry about.  However, we need to check our attitude whenever we are tempted to turn our backs on 12 million people just because we are more interested in the hundred or so members of our local congregation.  God’s Kingdom transcends our little flock.  It includes millions across the globe who rely on the United Methodist Church to be a trustworthy, biblical witness for Jesus Christ.

Weariness is No Excuse
Many people are tired of fighting.  I’m tired of fighting too.  However, I find new strength whenever I consider what I’m fighting for.  Jesus never said the Christian journey would be easy.  However, He did say in Matthew 10:22, “And all nations will hate you because you are my followers. But everyone who endures to the end will be saved.” 

Few find it hard to fight for something they really care about.  If an intruder was trying to break into my house and harm my family, I would fight to my last breath to defend the people I love.  Well, the Church is our family and the denomination is our house.  In fact, UM elders and deacons are members of an annual conference, not a local congregation.  If we are to be faithful to the Church, we must be faithful to the denomination, not just the local church. 

Conservatives are often frustrated when progressives don’t uphold the Book of Discipline.  However, conservative elders are also guilty of breaking their vows when they leave the UMC.  At ordination, elders promise to “…be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting and upholding its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline,” and “defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word…”  Conservative members of local United Methodist congregations promise to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church” when they join the church.  It would be one thing if the denomination fundamentally changed our doctrines to be contrary to God’s Word.  Then, perhaps, we might be justified to leave.  However, General Conference has affirmed our long standing orthodox Christian teaching about human sexuality.  We have no justification to leave.  

But people say they are tired.  What have we endured that is so wearisome?  Perhaps Americans have grown too soft.  Christians in the past were tortured and burned at the stake for their faithfulness to Christ.  Hebrews 11:36-37 says, “Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword…”  Faithful United Methodists outside the US face similar persecution today.  And yet, it was our brothers and sisters from Africa and Asia who fought so hard to make sure the UMC passed the Traditional Plan.  Has our faith grown so weak in America that we can’t even endure a little scorn from a fallen world?

Our brothers and sisters around the globe helped US conservatives win the 2019 tug-o-war at General Conference.  Are conservatives in America now going to be cowards who walk away leaving those same faithful Africans and Asians holding the rope by themselves to be dragged away by US progressives in 2020 and beyond?  God forbid.

Conservative evangelicals in American need to pray hard that God would help us “run and not grow weary”.   There are still many miles ahead and many battles left to fight.  Jesus never promised it would be easy, but the struggle is worth it.  For the sake of God’s Kingdom, we need to “press on” and “fight the good fight of faith”.

A Vision for the Future
We also need a clear strategy to renew our denomination.  While pastors and congregations have been focused on the local church, others have been working to reshape our denomination into something that doesn’t represent what we believe.  It’s time to wake up.  It’s time to work hard at the denominational level to ensure the UMC offers sound biblical teaching and godly leadership.  It will be an uphill battle, but the reward will be a denomination that truly reflects God’s Kingdom values and supports local congregations on the front lines of the Christian faith.

Imagine a denomination truly united in our beliefs and doctrines that has a clear vision about what it means to make disciples of Jesus Christ and how to do it.  Imagine a denomination full of variety and diversity, but truly united about foundational doctrines that are non-negotiable.  Imagine a denomination where you don’t have to secretly wonder if your colleagues in ministry really have a heart like yours as you take their hand for the shared work of God’s Kingdom.  This dream can become a reality if we are willing to work for it.  

It’s time for a gut check.  Are you willing to be faithful to the vows you made?  Do you have the courage to work openly to renew our denomination so we can make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?  Are you willing to work for the glory of God where He called you, in the United Methodist Church? 

I am.


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

When Life is Unfair, God is Good


Introduction
We're going to have a great Vacation Bible School this summer--July 8-12.  The theme of our curriculum from Group Publishers is Life is Wild, God is Good.  Over the next few weeks, I'm going to share a a 5 part series based off the 5 days of VBS.  God is Good! Even when life is unfair, or is scary, or when life changes, or is sad, God is good! And when life if good, God is good.  Throughout the series, we will learn about the Exodus, when God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Today, we learn how the Israelites became slaves; and we learn that even when life is unfair, God is good!  That’s not just something we say.  That’s what Scripture teaches.

Scriptures
Nahum 1:7 – The Lord is good, a strong refuge when trouble comes.  He is close to those who trust in him.

Exodus 1:11 – So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. They appointed brutal slave drivers over them, hoping to wear them down with crushing labor. They forced them to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses as supply centers for the king.

Background
God is deeply and personally involved in our lives.  The Bible is full of stories of how God is personally involved in people’s lives.  So don’t ever think God doesn’t care about you or that He has more important things to do than worry about your life and your struggles.  God is all powerful, all loving, and present everywhere.  He is more than capable of being personally involved in your life (and mine and everyone else’s life on the planet).  There is no limit to God’s involvement and He cares deeply about all of us.

However, we must also understand that God’s story is infinitely greater than just our lives.  The beautiful tapestry of God’s master plan weaves through everyone’s lives and it spans across many generations.  The story of the Exodus is a brilliant example of God working out His plans in individual lives as well as across many generations of people.

Exodus is the second book of the Bible.  But perhaps you remember the story of Joseph from the first book, Genesis.  Joseph’s brothers were jealous and so they sold him into slavery in Egypt.  It wasn't fair, but God was still good to Joseph.  He gained favor in Egypt and eventually rose to be the second in command to Pharaoh.  God helped Joseph interpret a dream that prophesied Egypt would have 7 years of surplus harvest followed by seven years of famine.  And so Joseph led the Egyptians to store up extra food during the 7 good years so they would have enough for the 7 bad years.  His efforts saved thousands of Egyptians from starvation, including many of the people leaving around Egypt--even Joseph's brothers and their families who came to live in Egypt.  Life us unfair, but God was good.

The Israelites were in Egypt for 400 years.  Sometimes, the numbers in the Bible get lost on us.  Think about the magnitude of 400 years for a minute.  What does 400 years mean in the timeline of American history?  400 years ago, America didn’t even exist as a nation.  The Israelites were in Egypt for 400 years.  Let that sink in for a minute. 

The story of Exodus really showcases how God’s plans involve individuals as well as spanning across many generations.  God was intimately involved in Joseph’s life, but his plans weren’t just for Joseph, the spanned across 400 years and many generations right down to the Israelite slaves in Egypt.  God is at work in our lives in much the same way.  God is intimately interested in you and He is working out His plans for your life right now.  However, His plans are grander than just you.  In fact, God was at work 400 years ago in your ancestors lives, and His plans for them were setting things up for you today!  You probably don’t even know the names of your ancestors from 400 years ago, let alone their struggles, problems, suffering, and victories.  But God is good and He used even their suffering to be a blessing for them and for you today.

When Life is Unfair… God is Good!
Life was unfair for the Israelites in Egypt.  Their ancestor, Joseph, was a brilliant, godly man who saved everyone in Egypt from starving to death.  But his noble actions and the favor it imparted to his people were soon forgotten.  New Pharaohs came to power who didn’t care and they became suspicious of the Israelites.  And they imposed harsher and harsher treatments.  Soon they forced the Israelites to work as their slaves.  It wasn’t fair.  But guess what:  life ain’t always fair, is it?

But guess what else:  When life is unfair, God is good!  The more the Egyptians persecuted the Israelites, the more God made them prosper.  They kept having children and growing families.  They continue to thrive, despite the harsher and harsher conditions.  They grew to be so many, the Egyptians were paranoid the Israelites would overpower them.  So Pharaoh decided to hatch one of the most evil plans you can imagine:  Every time a baby boy was born to the Israelites, they were to be drowned in the river.

But still, God was good.  God helped the Israelite midwives and the parents to find ways around Pharaoh’s horrible plans.  And Exodus 1:20-21 says, “God was good to the midwives, and the Israelites continued to multiply, growing more and more powerful. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.”

Principle – When life is truly unfair to you, understand it may be an opportunity for God to work tremendous good for you in hidden ways.  Difficulties make you stronger.  Trials make you wiser.  Suffering can draw you closer to God.  And remember, it is not just for you.  God is working out plans that span across generations.  Do you know that the trials and tribulations your parents and grandparents and great grandparents endured for generations, have brought you many of the blessings you enjoy in this life?  Memorial Day reminds us all of the sacrifices so many in our country made to guarantee the blessings we enjoy in the United States.  Was it fair that they should die so that we can celebrate and enjoy the blessings of God?  Still, God was good to them in ways we may never understand.  And God is good to us because of what they endured.  Life is unfair, but God is good!

Things Often Get Worse Before They Get Better
When the time was right and God was ready to rescue the Israelites from the Egyptians, he chose a man named Moses.  In Exodus chapter 5 we read that God sent Moses and his brother to demand that Pharaoh set the Israelites free.  Do you think Pharaoh listened and let the Israelites free?  Of course not!  Not at first.  In fact, he did the opposite.  He made conditions even worse for the Israelites.  Pharaoh said they had to continue slaving away to make bricks, but he was going to provide the straw they needed; they would have to collect it themselves and still turn out the same number of bricks.  So the Israelites suffered even worse and they were really angry at Moses for stirring up trouble for them.

And this is another important principle for you to understand.  Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better. When you are struggling and God comes to deliver you, sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. And when things get worse before they get better, you have to check our faith and ask:  do I really trust God? Do I really believe the Lord when He says He’s gonna set me free?

God is Lord
One of the great themes of the Exodus story is the Lordship of God.  In fact, the book of Exodus is really when God reveals Himself as “the Lord”.  When God first appeared to Moses in a burning bush in Exodus 3:15 He tells Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.  This is my eternal name, my name to remember for all generations.” 

Yahweh is the proper name of God.  It is a difficult word to translate, but it is full of meaning.  In some sense, it means Lord.  But it is more.  It means “the eternal one, the existing one.”  It means “reality” as in “true reality”.  In other words:  What you think is reality is not really reality; God is reality.  God is Truth.  Our notions of reality are always skewed my our fears, our sins, our lack of vision and perception.  But God is THE LORD.  The Lord made it all.  He controls it all.  No one perceives the way things are as accurately as God. 
When you think there is no hope, God says, “There is hope.” 
When you think all is lost, God says, “I will save you!”
When you fear you will never be delivered from your suffering or struggle or whatever in this life enslaves you, God says, “I AM THE LORD.  I will deliver you!”

In Egypt, Pharoah was considered lord, like a god.  He said to Moses and the Israelites, “Who is you’re god?  He’s nothing!  You’re nothing.  I’m Pharaoh!  I’m like a god!  I have the power to enslave you or destroy you!  I even have the power to make you drown your baby boys in the river!” 

And so, the stage is set.  A great conflict is coming between God and Pharoah to prove who really is the Lord?  Check back next week to hear more of the story.

Closing
But today, you have some questions to answer in your own heart: 
Do you really believe God when He says He’s gonna set you free?
Do you believe God  is THE LORD and has the power to deliver you?
Do you believe and will you trust THE LORD, even if things get worse before they get better?

Life is wild.  God is Good.  Even when life is unfair, God is good.