In the Right Order

As a pastor, I am privileged to hear the most important questions people ask. Why am I here? What is my purpose? How do I know if I’m saved? How do I pray? Why can’t I surrender and fully trust God? When is God going to speak to me and how will I know it is God, not just my own inner voice? I always love these questions because they indicate a hunger, the place where all spiritual journeys begin.

Through the years, these questions have frustrated me too. People who’ve gone to church longer than I’ve been alive, taken every Bible study offered, and served on every committee – ask these questions. It has left me to conclude that just going to church doesn’t provide the answers. But, if not church, where might one go?

In this series of blog posts, I want to share one pastor’s perspective on the resources of our faith when faced with life’s most important questions. I’m convinced that clarity in the face of these questions is possible, but we have to move beyond the way the church has suggested we answer in the last century.

Getting Out of Your Head

Kurt, my husband, has wanted a kayak for years. Every time we have the chance to kayak on vacation, he is all about it. There is something about being on the water. Kayaking takes you to places you simply can’t get to with other modes of transportation. We finally ordered a kayak – tandem, inflatable, with upgraded seats. It took almost a month for it to arrive, and another week for us to procure the necessary lifejackets. But, we did it! We got the kayak. We figured out (thank you, YouTube) how to assemble and inflate it, and we put it on the water.

Oh wow! What an amazing experience. No motor, of course. It’s so quiet. We can hear the water lap against the bottom of the boat. We can hear the frogs. We can hear the hawk overhead. Just recently, I ran into a huge school of minnows and you could actually hear them jumping up out of the water. The sounds are only one gift of the kayak. The sunshine and the breeze provide the perfect accompaniment to the water. There is a certain smell about open water – crisp, cool, full of life. We are taking it all in.

Kurt never asked for a kayak. He did desire it, but he never pined away. He just knew that it would be a way to experience one of our great loves…the water. Now that we have it, I wish we hadn’t waited so many years. This kayak gets me out of my head and I desperately need that. I need a way to experience something besides my own perception of the world. I need a place where thinking, strategizing, and planning aren’t necessary. I need to lean in to the gift of my five senses telling me all I need to know about the world.

The fall weather makes me want to stick that boat in the trunk and head to the water anytime I can. What I’ve noticed is how much more peace I have in the rest of my life. When I’m stuck in a no-win situation, I don’t stress nearly as much. When I have a long to-do list, I can slow down and take it one item at a time. And, I am more aware of the gift of being outside anytime I can make it so.

Do you have a way or a place that gets you out of your head? Do you set aside time to pay attention to the world around you without needing to be the center of it? Boy, it’s worth it. I wonder what strife could be put to rest if more people took a few hours a week to paddle a kayak. I know that is way too simple of a solution. I also know that it has been amazingly effective at knocking off some of my rough edges. Enjoy this little moment from one of our recent trips.

Kayaking on Lake Bixhoma


I’ve watched it happen in every congregation I’ve served. Two people finally divorce. It is so painful. Many times the whole congregation feels the pain because they love both partners.  The anger, the betrayal, and being wronged are what present first.  Each person needs to feel justified in the decision to end the marriage. But, no matter how right he or she feels, it doesn’t stop the realization that this is really it. They really aren’t going to live together ever again. They won’t come to church in the same car. One will have the kids, the other won’t, and then it will switch. The kids involvement with the congregation will change too. They can only be at church when it is dad’s weekend, or mom’s or when they stay with grandma.

I’ve never known anyone who anticipated this reality when they said, “I do.” Other people in their lives might have seen it coming, but when they married they thought it would be forever. Unfortunately, the decision to divorce comes long before one or the other (rarely both) end up in my office. That decision happens when one or both utter the words (out loud or in their head), “I think I’d be better off without (insert name here).”  In this moment, they are beginning to envision a different future. And, the more painful it becomes in the relationship, the better it looks being out of the relationship. The hurdle seems to be the cost of having to own this imagination in real ways, outside the relationship, with other family members, and in watching the pain it causes your children. Sometimes this hurdle is enough to make people stay in relationship, but it never heals the brokenness. People living alone in the same house together is just as tragic as watching the pain of trying to separate what God has joined together through a divorce.

What I’m watching in the United Methodist Church feels like what I’ve watched for over 20 years now from the seat of pastor. The marriage took place in 1968 without adequate premarital counseling. The fault lines were there, but we chose to ignore them because surely love is big enough to make it all ok. The honeymoon was over by year four. But by then, we had kids and a joint bank account. We were deciding where to go on vacation together, even if we didn’t really agree. We smiled and stuffed it…for the kids. Late at night, the fights became more painful, when we thought the kids weren’t listening. We said, “Keep your motorcycle! I don’t care.” We said, “If you would just lose some weight, I might be more attracted to you.” We said, “You always…” And, we said, “You never…” We thought the kids didn’t hear, but something felt off, even after a beautiful ordination service, because of a rancorous debate of the floor of Annual Conference earlier that week. No matter. God can fix it, right?

Another twenty years go by and now people at the family reunion called General Conference are starting to notice. When grandparents come over for Christmas, it seems one partner is always upstairs reading a book or playing a video game. There are now verbal jabs, doubting the intentions of the other, nights spent crying oneself to sleep while the other snores away. We can still put on a good face, but it never turns to tenderness anymore with the memory, “Oh, that’s why I love you!” We can keep it going, but we are beginning to forget why we care. General Conferences come and go now with quadrennial regularity…she wants to gain ground with control of the money and he wants to gain ground in a parenting victory. The kids are older now and so we don’t keep our fights in the bedroom. Sometimes they happen at the dinner table or God forbid, in the aisle of a store where other people notice. But, he’s not beating her up. She’s not cheating on him. So, they stay.

Another twenty years go by and the fights are relentless. The tactics know no boundaries any more. It is acceptable to accuse the other of spending the kids’ inheritance, with name calling thrown in just for good measure. It is acceptable for inappropriate text messages to be exchanged with a daughter’s friend because sex is no longer about intimacy, it is about power. The kids are embarrassed to be seen with us. Even extended family members refuse to come over for holidays because they know what it will be like. Our kid’s teachers pray that we never show up at the school at the same time because they are afraid they might have to call the police. Cheating? Yes. Lying? Yes. Stealing? Yes. It’s all fair game because the covenant is in tatters and now. We’re just staying to see who can hurt each other the most, and because we can’t afford a divorce.

I’ve seen abuse. I’ve been gaslighted. I recognize the passive/aggressive tactic of staying just moral enough that you can’t be accused, but not caring about the outcome for the other one little bit. I’ve seen a lot of divorce. That’s what this feels like to me. It feels like I’m a kid in the marriage I just described. I’ve taken sides. Of course I have. I want to go live with one parent and I can’t stomach the thought of living with the other. I look upon this failure with disgust and try to deny that I had any role in it because I’m trying to plot my own survival. It is all so messed up that I’m actually looking forward to the divorce. I won’t have any regrets. I’ve grieved this loss for so long, all I can imagine is the hallelujah of being out from under this hot mess. All the while, the hope that was kindled when the vows were taken is silently crying under the altar table.

Here’s how I see it. The WCA, soon to be the GMC, has never been satisfied in this marriage. Their spouse could never measure up to their expectations. They stopped admiring their spouse, being proud of her, wanting her to shine, a long time ago…if they ever really wanted that. Now, they draw lines and dare her to cross them. They threaten her by saying if she doesn’t do what they want, they will take the kids. They feel perfectly justified in their behavior, even trying to woo her friends to their side, because she failed. She failed to be what she was supposed to be when she said, “I do.” Sure, they are cheating on her — taking the kids into their mistress’ home for the weekend — because they know that soon enough they will be free from any claim she has on them. It should be perfectly fine to tell their own story to the kids so they will still want to be around after the divorce. Maybe the kids will even like the promises of, “It’ll be better with us. You’re going to wish you’d stuck with us.” Maybe the kids will choose them over her and she’ll see how wrong she was to stand up for herself, to demand her way, to disobey.

On our part, there’s plenty to regret. We started out trying to compromise, trying to listen, trying to see his point of view. On our anniversary, he would buy us a lovely card and a dozen roses and for a few days be extraordinarily kind. When we were around the in laws, he would talk about how proud he was of us and thank them for raising such an amazing woman. Never mind that he turned over without a word that night when we went to bed. So we did start to squirrel away some money. We opened an IRA that wasn’t joint and didn’t put his name on the title to the new car. We felt bad. We knew that part of his accusations were true. He probably really shouldn’t trust us. We were beginning to imagine what it would be like when we could be free to be our authentic selves. And — the kids. What if he takes the kids and we never get to see them again? How would we live with ourselves?

Finally, the rebellion was not hidden any longer. We did make decisions about the kids’ schooling, and after school activities and their summer camps — decisions he wouldn’t have wanted us to make. We made them anyway. The more he doubted our intelligence and faithfulness to the marriage, the more we gave him reason to do just that. It’s just that every time we would sincerely apologize and promise to consult him, he took advantage of us and punished us even harder the next time we stood our ground. This time, though, it is just too much. He’s telling everyone that we broke our marriage vows, that we cheated on him, that we have been wanting a divorce since the day we got married. The only question we know how to ask is, “What other choice did we have?” Doesn’t matter. He has all the ammunition he needs. He’s filing for divorce. He’s got a really good lawyer. And, he’s going to take it all.

Ok, we say. Take the house. Take the stuff. Take what you want. Just leave us the kids so we can start over. We’ll be poor but at least we’ll be free from the tyranny.

There’s only one problem. When we got married, we signed a lot more than a marriage license. We signed a constitution. It doesn’t really allow for a divorce, even if both parties want it. It’s not like dividing property — you take this, I’ll take that. We are actually woven from the same fabric. If we split, it will be like tearing the cloak to tatters…which is what we are doing to each other anyway while the world watches.

Just like when I watch this happen between people I love in the church I serve, I feel powerless. By the time it becomes obvious, the fissure has become a crack has become a chasm. As a pastor, all I can do is sit with, be present, not give up. I suppose that is what courage looks like. United Methodist Church, I love you. I’ve loved you since I chose you as my spiritual home in 1994. I don’t know what I will do when you are no longer. I can’t even imagine. But, I am a part of this fabric we tear and so I will sit, be present and not give up.

Becoming Something New

Way back in seminary, my supervising pastor, gave me a phrase I’ve never forgotten, “I don’t think the Kingdom of God hangs on that.” His words came back to me after hearing a powerful sermon about the three parables Jesus tells in Matthew 12: describing the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of a treasure worth selling it all, a fine pearl worth all you have, and nets full of fish where the good are separated from the bad.

As I sat in the sanctuary of Asbury United Methodist Church on April 18, 2021 (surrounded by people who are so hopeful about what will rise from the ashes when our denomination is rent asunder) I realized that I simply have a different vision for the Kingdom of God than my brothers and sisters from the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It became clear to me 5 minutes after I found a place to sit, something was off. I sensed it. And then I realized there was not one person of color in sight, not one. I claim that I live in a white bubble, but I still felt uncomfortable. They were ALL white…actually, they were white, straight, middle to upper class and older than me. Working on a staff where many are younger than me and a few of them are at least a generation younger than me, it was strange to be surrounded by old white people. I realized that afternoon, I see the Kingdom of God through a completely different lens than they do.

Keith Boyette chronicled the demise of the Methodist Church from 1968 to the present. He never referred to it as the United Methodist Church except to lament the loss we experienced when we gave up our heritage to the seduction of religious pluralism in the merger. His presentation was clear and compelling. His demeanor was trustworthy and sincere. I can see why he has risen to prominence. He can explain their position as well as Tom Berlin and Adam Hamilton can explain the position of centrists.

For Keith, it all comes down to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Clearly, this is the only profession that has the potential to change someone. Without clarity around this doctrinal position, Christianity absolutely falls apart. So, a hedge of protection becomes necessary. Atonement must be substitutionary. Repentance must result in the moral categories: chastity, purity, and fidelity. If repentance results in: generosity, empowerment, and inclusion — it is not true repentance. From this place then, the authority of scripture must support the correct moral outcome. The United Methodist conflict over sexual orientation and inclusion is classified as a “presenting issue.” What is at stake are the core doctrines and beliefs of Christian orthodoxy. And that…is why this fight is worth so much to him, to those who follow him, and to how they see the future of the church.

Their position makes a lot of sense. There is nothing wrong with their logic and line of argument. But, what was painfully obvious to me: for those who subscribe to this position — the outcome will look just like that gathering: white, straight, nationalistic, and old. That doesn’t look like the Kingdom of Heaven to me. Instead the Kingdom of Heaven looks like a place where the hunt for hidden treasure never stops, where a pearl is worth looking for until you find it, where the point is to pull in as many fish as you can before you start separating the good from the bad. Personally, I don’t think the Kingdom of Heaven hangs on doctrinal litmus tests, assertion of Christ’s Lordship as justification for dispossessing whole people groups, alignment of the episcopacy across Annual Conferences, prosecution of clergy who choose same gender relationships when clergy who cheat on their wives is acceptable, and holding so tightly to the authority of scripture that the Holy Spirit is squashed by that same authority.

It was important for me to spend my afternoon with those who have shared the ministry of Christ with me. I wanted to hear their passions and try to put myself in their shoes.  I can see the points of their arguments, arguments I would’ve once made and truthfully sometimes wish I could still buy. It would be so much easier. BUT…I don’t want to belong to a white, straight, nationalistic, old church. Still, I felt many pangs of sadness regarding the losses we face. There are colleagues I won’t speak to anymore. There are ministries we won’t be able to share together. There are churches I will never serve. There are people in every congregation I’ve served that won’t belong to church with me any longer. I won’t see them at Annual Conference. I won’t sit on Conference Boards and Committees with them. I won’t fuss with them which always made me think more deeply and argue more forcefully.

The lingering fear I feel after attending this meeting is toward the propaganda being promoted by this movement in Oklahoma. Our Annual Conference is one of 13 considered likely to go GMC on a Conference wide vote. Right now, Oklahoma United Methodists are meeting to decide if they want to take us lock, stock, and barrel — or whether what they would get is too much of a headache to deal with for them. Do they really want our assets? Do they really want our Conference staff? Do they really want our unfunded future pension liabilities?

They are leaving. They are just trying to decide which path is most financially advantageous for them. That makes me sick. They really underestimate the laity of our churches. Their assumption (as stated at the WCA meeting) is that laity either don’t know or don’t care about what is happening. Surely, if they were properly informed about the heresy of the majority of clergy, they would be shocked into action. Of course, the laity would all jump right on the bandwagon of doctrinal purity. I’ve done church long enough to know that it is never that clear cut when you push people into a corner, and they usually surprise you with their ability to read the situation more clearly than you did.

So, my last reflection is around the naiveté expressed by a respected colleague. He believes that the transformation Jesus can bring in people’s lives looks exactly like his definition of sanctification. Because he doesn’t insist on this from a place of exclusion or hate, he feels free from conviction when he hurts people or leaves them without access to the Gospel. Because we have always considered each other friends through the years, I find myself most sad that he is missing out on the beautiful banquet table of God that I imagine when we all get to heaven. I’ve often said, if the traditionalist are right, I’ll have to make amends for leading people astray. If they are wrong, they’ll have to made amends for placing obstacles in the way of grace. I will take the consequences for my mistake over theirs. They will probably take the consequences for their mistakes over mine. Here is where we diverge. But, I’ll take the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven where the banquet table is wide, the people are diverse, and the welcome is much bigger than we can imagine.

What happened in Georgia!

Last month, something amazing happened in Marietta, Georgia. The largest United Methodist Church in the North Georgia Annual Conference, Mt. Bethel UMC, came up against the appointive authority of Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson. The senior pastor at Mt. Bethel, Rev. Jody Ray, was reappointed to a post at the Annual Conference headquarters. This decision, unpopular with the congregation, led to protest. In response, Rev. Ray surrendered his clergy credentials and the congregation has now hired him as the lead preacher and CEO. The congregation also announced their intent to withdraw from the United Methodist Church.

Recently, the controversy escalated to a full-page ad in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution submitted by a group of North Georgia laity known as, “United Methodist Laity for Openness and Transparency.” From articles published by the United Methodist News Service, I learned theological conservatives feel the effort of welcome and inclusion in North Georgia leaves them out. Naturally, this feels fraudulent and they are calling for accountability from their Conference leadership.

Feeling the clash several states over (in Oklahoma), it coincides with my reading of Brian McLaren’s recent book, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It. McLaren narrates the painful journey of outgrowing one’s skin as it relates to faith. His schema, developmental theory, is not new. James Fowler was the pioneer for defining stages of faith development through the lens of theories from other disciplines. McLaren, however, uses a different metaphor than I’ve heard before: tree rings. He makes the point that each stage of faith development incorporates all that has come before, just as tree rings encompass all of the previous growth.

In a footnote on page 108, McLaren illustrates how those in Stage Three and Four are a perpetual threat to those in Stage One and Two. When the stretch posed by Stages Three and Four becomes too much, Stages One and Two institute a purge to protect orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This is actually a cycle that continues to repeat itself in religious institutions and belief systems around the world. No, United Methodist Church, we are not unique.

McLaren drops in this short blurb at the bottom of his footnote, “I have seen the reverse happen rarely, if ever: Stage Two enthusiasts or Stage Three purists instituting a purge of Stage One traditionalists. Stage Four people, in contrast, find purges as abhorrent as Stage One people find tolerance of diversity, so they tend to be buffers in this process, in my experience.”

Consider the implication. By definition, Stage One and Two folk, can only tolerate so much diversity before it begins to threaten the foundations of faith. So, purging is unavoidable – undesirable but unavoidable. Rarely, if ever, does it go the other way. Stage Three folk don’t purge the Stage One and Two folk. And, if the tension gets too high, the Stage Four folk step in and act as a buffer.

Like most, I probably overestimate my spiritual maturity. Rather than identify what stage I am in, I will simply identify my leaning. I lean toward open table. I lean toward inclusion. I lean toward diversity as a strength, even when it is personally uncomfortable. I lean toward change as opportunity for God to do a new thing.

Caught as I am in the undertow of the United Methodist quagmire, McLaren showed me why the North Georgia events feel unbelievable. I understand what my theologically conservative kin feel when they say there is not room at the table for them. They can’t realistically sit at a table where inclusion is a core value; therefore, they see the table as closed to them. It can be said, their table would have different core values: purity, authority and obedience. So, if I make room for them at the table with inclusion as a core value (demanded by definition when the value is inclusion) then they will use that seat to shut me out.

Because it is not within someone who has a leaning toward inclusion to close the gate, to close the table, we will always invite those who don’t share our core value. And, we will always be hurt when those we invited turn around and shut us out. I know the WCA feels like they shouldn’t have to be the one to leave, but they’ve played their cards and now we know their table cannot welcome anyone outside of their own brand of orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the delay of the pandemic means we are forced to live under the same roof when our differences cause each other so much pain. How long, O Lord? How long will we keep inviting people to the table knowing full well they will kick us out at the first available opportunity? My guess is, as someone who leans inclusive, we’ll keep opening the table, no matter what.

Step Four: Aligning Desires

Step Four in the spiritual life is to choose what God asks and act on what God asks. Before we get there, however, let’s acknowledge this truth: surrender (step #2) is actually where change occurs in the spiritual life. Intuitively we know that until we are able to surrender, it is really beyond our capability to choose what God asks – let alone act on it. In this post, I am suggesting that surrender actually has the power to re-write the story we tell ourselves. It is precisely this power which allows us to finally choose what God asks and act on what God asks.

I’m going back to one of my favorite books for an illustration, “Present Over Perfect: Leaving Frantic Behind for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Life” by Shauna Niequist. Listen to how she narrates the power of surrender to re-write her story. “We all have these complicated tangles of belief and identity and narrative, and one of the early stories I told myself is that my ability to get-it-done is what kept me around. I wasn’t beautiful. I didn’t have a special or delicate skill. But, I could get stuff done, and it seemed to me that ability was my entrance into the rooms into which I wanted to be invited.”

Pause and reflect. Do you have a story about what makes you valuable? Why do you think people would want to keep you around? Why do you think God wants to keep you around?

Niequest continues, “I couldn’t imagine a world of unconditional love or grace, where people simply enter into rooms because the door is open to everyone. The world that made sense to me was a world of earning and proving, and I was gutting it out just like everyone around me, frantically trying to prove my worth.”

Can you feel it? Can you feel the power of imagining a world “where people simply enter into rooms because the door is open to everyone?” Niequest’s book goes on to illustrate how surrender gave her the power to re-write her story. Just because we’ve always believed something to be true about ourselves doesn’t mean it has to tell the truth of who we are becoming. Surrender opens up different stories or narratives in our lives. That is why it changes us.

Now we come to the gospel text with this question, “What story is being written by Jesus’ words?”

Matthew 6:19-21
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

One story from this text could sound something like this. God is the almighty buzz kill, the eternal wet blanket, the drenching rain on our parade. God just doesn’t want us to have any fun. Surely God missed the memo, “The one with the most toys wins.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, God, I hear ya! I just think you missed it. My heart isn’t influenced by my treasure. Treasure is more about trophies than it is about values.

Another story might sound something like this. God doesn’t want us to chase after that which can never bring us joy; or put ourselves at risk of loss because we valued the wrong stuff. No, God wants us to invest in that which will last because that will bring us peace.

You know what determines the story you read in the gospel text? Surrender. Only surrender has the power to align our desires with God’s desires. Only surrender creates a thirst in our souls, a thirst for God and what God desires.

Much can get in the way of surrender completing its beautiful re-shaping of our story. One of the main obstacles we face is idolatry. Idolatry keeps our desires from aligning with God’s desires every time. To understand idolatry, let’s go back to the meaning of sin. The Greek word for sin, hamartia, is an archery term and a powerful metaphor. When you see a target, immediately, you know where you are supposed to aim — the bull’s eye. In the spiritual life, we would say the bull’s eye is God’s good and perfect will, God’s highest desire for our lives. Idolatry is when we allow anything other than God’s good and perfect will to be the bull’s eye in our lives. That is Jesus’ word of warning in the text, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Step Four in the spiritual life is to choose what God asks and then act on it. That step is absolutely dependent on us identifying the right bull’s eye in our lives — the good and perfect will of God. If we are aiming at the right target with full surrender, then choosing what God asks will come naturally. In fact, other choices won’t even enter the equation. Richard Rohr puts it like this, “The heartfelt desire to do the will of God is, in fact, the truest will of God.”

This process of aligning our desires with God’s desires is known as sanctification. When everything in the spiritual life is working as intended, it is the most natural expression of loving God that we can imagine. We love God. We trust God. We know God is for us and for our good. We naturally want what God wants. That will look like the Great Commandment and the Great Commission: to love God and neighbor, to go into all the world and make disciples. Step Four, if we’ve done the other three, is a no-brainer. It is the natural result of a life lived under the umbrella of grace.

So, we’ve reached the end of the newsprint which started this whole quest, but an authentic and life-changing journey with God is still ahead of us. I hope you see how sequencing these steps in the right order is essential. Beyond that, remember that any time we are distracted or drifting in the spiritual life, we go back to Step One, knowing God’s goodness and trusting that it is true. I’m praying for your steps.

Step Three: Forgiveness

I get surprised by what I see sometimes. The first time we had our Australian Shepherd groomed, he was shaved for a cooler summer experience. My husband picked him up at the groomers and when I got home, I told Kurt he had to take our dog back. He must’ve gotten the wrong one. The dog greeting me in our laundry room looked so vastly different than the dog I knew and loved, I was convinced it was the wrong dog. It was the right dog. One look at his face and I knew it was the right dog.

Have your eyes ever surprised you? The information they gave your brain didn’t make sense with the reality you were used to seeing. You know that short gap of time where you are trying to reconcile what you saw and what it means? That short gap represents the beautiful availability given to us in Step Two, surrendering our will so that God’s will can direct our lives. Post-surrender vision is different than pre-surrender vision. So, if we allow surrender to do its revealing work in our hearts during this “gap,” it will show us what we’ve never been able to see before – how far short we’ve fallen from God’s plan for our life.

This experience will usually be stark and brief…like when I saw Sox and didn’t recognize him. It is generally an uncomfortable feeling and our brain will seek to reconcile the dissonance. This moment is our chance, so don’t miss it. This is the moment when we can invite our brain to relax and let the dissonance exist. It is true that the intents upon our hearts haven’t always directed us toward God’s will. It is true that our need for control drives us to the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, pride. It is true that we will rationalize our distracted desires so they look better in others’ eyes. Relax, brain. The gift we find in this moment of wakefulness is for our good, even though it can feel uncomfortable. The gift is – only when we see how sin has distorted us will we be ready to seek God’s forgiveness. If we’ve gotten this far, our awareness has already convinced us that we can’t pull out of this on our own. Grace is our only hope. So, sit with this awareness for a while longer and let it lead you to Step Three, receive forgiveness so you can live out the grace that has been extended to you.

The third step in the spiritual life is a move toward true reconciliation with God. Allow me to go back to my illustration of dog grooming. The gap of what I expected to see versus what I saw was so marked that I really was serious when I told my husband he should take Sox back. I just knew Kurt had picked up the wrong dog. That was so not the right decision, true? We can all see it now. I didn’t want another dog. I wanted Sox. But, I wanted Sox to look like I expected him to look. Let’s take a long, slow moment to let this sink in…it is not possible for Sox to look like I expected him to look – any more than it is possible for you to unsee the truth about yourself once you’ve seen it. You can tell your husband (or someone else close to you, for that matter), take him back! Won’t solve the problem or close the gap. The only thing that will close the gap is for you to reconcile what you used to know against what you now know. And that, my friends, is the gift of receiving forgiveness.

So, go ahead and feel the sadness, the regret, the pain, the loss. Find the depth of your need to be made whole. Then, accept the gift that God desires more than anything to give you, forgiveness. And, here’s the hidden surprise – once you’ve received forgiveness, you’ll discover so many more places in your life where you can extend forgiveness to others.

Step Two: Surrender

Do you remember the last time you felt close to God, assured that you were held in the comforting embrace of the creator of the universe? If you’ve ever had a moment like this, try to remember where you were, who was with you, what you felt on the outside and on the inside. Now, imagine this! God’s desire is for you to feel the closeness I just described as often as possible.

In this post, we’re moving from a place of knowing that we are loved and that God is trustworthy…to allowing our will and our desires to be fully surrendered to God. Step Two is being able to surrender our will so that God’s will can direct our lives. And this is a place of freedom! You’ll know you’ve moved through step two when you experience the peace and assurance that true surrender brings. Even though it might seem surrender is a decision we must make, I would encourage us to see it as ceasing to insist on our own way. Rather than surrender being a “forced” response, it is much more of a catharsis, a release, a letting go.

Surrender, in the spiritual life, is much like those “Before/After” pictures. What you see on this side of surrender is much different than what you will see on the other side. Surrender casts such a different light on all of life. If you are on the front side of surrender, it is natural to wonder, “What gets in the way?” If surrender is so beautiful and good, why does it feel like such a tall barrier? Another way to ask it, “If it is so good, why doesn’t everyone do it?” We’ll come back to this answer, but first we must examine the words of scripture.

Ephesians 4:17-24
17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19 They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 That is not the way you learned Christ! 21 For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Notice the phrase: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. In this context, the word, “Gentile” calls to mind a former way of life. It would be like us saying, “Remember what you believed about Santa when you were five? It was good when you were 5, but you aren’t five anymore.” The writer then paints a painful picture of what returning to our former way of life does to us:
• Darkened understanding
• Alienated from God
• Hard hearts
• Futility, we stop trying
• Letting our selfish desires be in charge

In a previous post, I defined sin from the biblical perspective. In Hebrew, it means to “stray from the path.” In Greek, it means to “miss the mark.” Sin is not measured by a behavior or an outcome. Sin is measured by the intention upon our hearts. Sin has long-term effects in our lives when we allow it to operate unexamined and unchecked. Using the scripture, let’s get out the magnifying glass for our own hearts. Are we experiencing any of these chronic conditions?
• Dullness, numbness — an inability to feel either joy or pain
• Obstinance — a hardness of heart, a protective coating that keeps us in place
• Fatigue — being too tired to care, or worn out by despair
• Repeat offending — feeling like no matter how hard we try, we can’t get it right

The writer of the text speaks clearly to this in verse 20, That is not the way you learned Christ! It feels like someone trying to wake us, to jolt us from sleep to awareness, a reminder that God has more for us than this. Pay careful attention this moment of waking up (being roused) because it contains the power to lead us to surrender.

This wakefulness – wiping the sleep from our eyes to see clearly where sin is holding us back – creates a hunger that leads/draws us to surrender. When we feel safe to see the effects of sin in our lives, then acknowledging our need for healing comes naturally. Rather than “giving up,” which is our typical understanding of surrender, we now see it as the only path to real freedom.

Ah, freedom! I can be honest and vulnerable with God. I can admit where I most need grace to cover my inadequacies. Then, I can accept who I am (the amazing parts and the terrifying parts) as God’s creation within me. I can let go of control and trust God to smooth out the rough places, while polishing the beautiful places so they shine. Surrender is the way to freedom, and freedom is the only way we will be able to receive God’s forgiveness legitimately. That will be the next post.

Step One: God’s Goodness

If we are to discover good in the “good news,” we must start in the right place: knowing God’s goodness and trusting it is true. This is Step One of the spiritual life. It is the beginning and also the foundation for what is to come. Anytime we stray from God’s will, it is to this step that we must return.

Since trusting God is key, let’s start with the question, “What does trust require?” Brene Brown gave me the best metaphor for trust in her book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.” She explains trust to her 3rd grade daughter through the example of the marble jar sitting on the teacher’s desk. Every time the class honored each other and her, the teacher would put marbles in the jar. If their response was not so, she would take marbles out. When the class filled up the jar, the teacher threw a party for them. Brene said to her daughter, “trust is built one marble at a time.” Like the marble jar, trust requires time and repeated experiences assuring us our trust is well placed.

I ask you, what is your marble jar like with God? Do you look at life and see God putting marbles in your jar, or taking them out? In our moments of honesty, we might discover a struggle to fully trust God’s goodness to us, to those we love, and toward the future God wants to build through us. We think that God is just waiting to take marbles out, reminding us that we fell short, instead of rooting for us and always looking for a way to add marbles to our jar.

Now, it is time to talk about sin, something we often misunderstand in the spiritual life. Sin is not a behavior or an outcome. Sin is a condition of the heart that causes us to stray from God’s intent for our lives. Sin, in the Greek, is an archery term, hamartia. It literally means, “to miss the mark.”

As the marble jar illustrates trust, one of the best gifts I’ve ever received illustrates this understanding of sin. When I turned 50, my colleague and friend, Rev. Heather Scherer, took me axe throwing for my birthday. We had a patient teacher named Julian, who wanted us to succeed. Because of his coaching, we made significant progress and even nailed a few bull’s eyes before the day ended. As I soaked up Julian’s instruction, I realized the importance of a good throw. He told me to be successful, I had to pay careful attention to where my hands were placed on the handle, releasing at the right point, and following through.

When it comes to the spiritual life, we are often focused on where the axe lands instead of on our throw (or our aim) — and we think God is too. I don’t know where this belief originates, but many of us believe that God is just waiting for us to mess up. Therefore, we must try harder to win God’s approval, striking more bull’s eyes, getting a higher score.

During our axe throwing adventure, Heather and I both struggled to get the hang of it. Julian continued his patient coaching. Finally, Heather said to him, “You just don’t want a failure on your record, do you?” He replied, “No, that’s not it at all. I just want you to have a good time and feel successful.” When Heather got the first bull’s eye, Julian came over to take a picture! He celebrated with us.

Here’s the truth, God wants us to have a good time and feel successful. God cares about the outcome, for sure. God doesn’t want us to miss, but not because God is waiting to judge us. God doesn’t want us to miss because God already knows how painful that will be and the barriers it will erect in our relationship with God. Learning to trust God’s goodness and know it is true means we first have to reconstruct the understanding of sin we picked up somewhere along the way. Sin isn’t God’s way of trapping us or keeping us from having a good time. If we trust that God is for us for our good, we’ll be more apt to believe that God has a bull’s eye worth the intention of our aim.

With this in mind, let me offer these verses of scripture as the biblical image of a bull’s eye: Ephesians 2:4-10
4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

I invite you to read them slowly, allowing the images of the marble jar and axe throwing to mingle with the words of the text.
Verse 4: But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us…(one who is richly generous with the marbles, saying, “I just want you to feel successful and have a good time.”)
Verse 5: …even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…(even when your axe falls to the ground, God reaches down to get it through Jesus Christ, brings it back to you and says, “you’ll get it this time. Relax. Focus. Keep your eye on the target.”)
Verse 8/9: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast…(hitting the bull’s eye is a celebration for all, not a competition.)
Verse 10: For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life…(God loves us enough to create the perfect bull’s eye — and when we discover what that is for each of us, we will finally know God is good and God has good for us.)

God is busy finding those marbles to put in your jar! When you miss the mark, God is interested in helping you improve your aim, not in punishing you. God doesn’t want anything to get in the way of the life-giving relationship that must flow back and forth between the two of you. God loved you enough to form the perfect bull’s eye – for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

May you know God’s goodness in your life and trust that it is true. May it be the deepest anchor of your faith. May it remind you that God is always seeking marbles to put in your jar.

The Right Start

I love to teach the scriptures to parishioners. For over two decades, I’ve seen the power of Disciple Bible Study – a curriculum developed by Bishop Richard Wilke and his wife, Julia, in the 1980’s to improve biblical literacy among United Methodists.

In 2015, I offered the beta version of a shortened curriculum (24 weeks instead of the original 34 weeks.) I’ve offered it every year since. In 24 weeks, we cover the meta story of scripture: God’s great covenant love expressed in creation, in the Ark, with a covenant given first to Abraham and extended through Moses, never being forgotten even in Exile, only to deepen in Jesus and be fully expressed on the cross, and sealed in the resurrection. We study the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures) for 12 weeks and the New Testament (the Christian Scriptures) for 12 weeks.

The first 12 weeks (in the Hebrew scriptures) show us an endless cycle of covenant breaking, repentance and covenant renewal. The class always shakes our head at the obstinance of this chosen people. How could they be so dense? They never get it! Every year, the class is more than ready for the New Testament. They are ready for Jesus who will come and set it all right again.

What they discover is a deeper reconciliation with God, but the requirements are even more impossible than the Mosaic Law. Jesus keeps using the phrase, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you…” Whatever comes after that leads shoulders to slump and elicits sighs of frustration. The new covenant in Jesus asks followers to turn the other cheek, forgive those who have hurt us, even give away our wealth. That is a lot! In fact, for many in the class, it is too much. Sometimes, I fear they leave class feeling like the rich young ruler who walked away sad because he didn’t see a way to honor what Jesus had asked of him.

The third time through this curriculum, I sat down over Christmas break with a piece of newsprint. Anticipating long faces I knew were coming when we entered the New Testament, I wanted a different approach. I wrote out what I understood as necessary steps toward discovering the joy of salvation Jesus offers. This is a picture of that newsprint.

I looked at it for quite a while before I realized that while we teach these steps in the church, we teach them in the wrong order. We ask people to enter at the bottom of the page and work our way up to the top…climbing the ladder. Instead, the good news we discover through Jesus is that we must start at the top of the page. Each step lead us deeper into an authentic and real spiritual life. This approach turns “ladder climbing” on its head and invites us to “sink” into the marvelous grace of God.

And so, join with me as we enter at Step One, knowing God’s goodness and trusting it is true.