Sermon: The Apostle’s Tale – Groaning

Note: This is, more or less, my sermon from this morning’s worship service at Shiloh UMC in Stanton, Kentucky. Last week I began a series called The Apostle’s Tale which mostly is based on readings from Romans 8. This series was designed to go along with readings from the Revised Common Lectionary from a few weeks ago but I was doing another series and began this one late. It worked out perfectly, as this sermon dealt with our responsibility as disciples in light of the suffering and evil in the world. Perfect timing. I hope you receive encouragement and food for thought.

 

Romans 8:12-25 (NIV)
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[a] And by him we cry, “Abba,[b] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[c] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

Last week, we began this series with a backdrop of dystopia using examples from The Hunger Games and the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. We also touched on the dystopia all around us, a world where there is much fear and violence, always an “us” versus “them” mentality. We talked about people being oppressed and some people having while others go without simply because of issues such as social class, race, and any number of factors. At least to some extent, dystopia is all around us and, unfortunately, is not just the stuff of books and movies.

We have been seeing some of this play out over the last few days. The North Korean government has made threats of a nuclear strike against Guam and on the mainland of the United States.Kim Jong Un claims that his government is working on specific plans and once it’s completed he will sign off on it and that will be all that’s needed to launch a strike. Allegedly a nuclear warhead can be rocketed toward Guam and be there in 14 minutes. Because of these threats, there has been much anxiety and fear in Guam and elsewhere, mainly at not knowing whether North Korea is truly capable of launching such an attack or if they would actually have the moxy to make such attempt. And, “What if they do and they do it?” Fear. Dystopia.

Yesterday we saw a little piece of dystopia play out with the racial unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in what I feel is a true expression of evil. Violence irrupted and a few people have even lost their lives, ultimately because of racism. Neo-nazis gathered to protest the removal of Civil War monuments and also rallied against the acceptance of other races other than white. Let me very clear: Racism is evil. Violence with racism as the root cause is evil. Racism is incompatible with Christian teaching and should not be tolerated within the church. And yet, so many of these groups claim to be Christians, they claim that they are doing work for God, and they claim that the Bible endorses the enslavement of blacks and calls them evil. Their views are contrary to scripture – scripture does not say any of that. Their actions and words, while they may have the right to hold their opinions, are evil. It’s dystopia playing out on the news.

As Christians, we often feel that we should somehow be exempt from having to experience the evils of the world. Evil is really hard to avoid but we try anyway. We hide ourselves with whatever we think will shield us and we try to pretend that it isn’t there. This really is the complete opposite of what we should do. We can lament and say, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to me because I have Jesus and therefore I don’t have to endure it.” But we see that Paul tells is that part of being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ means that we don’t look away from the suffering going on in the world. We simply can’t. We must acknowledge it and call it what it is. We must confront the sufferings head on.

So how do we do this? How do we keep our eyes on Christ and yet make sure that we see the evils which are happening in the world for what they truly are, something that simply should not being ignored? We do this by joining in God’s sorrow over the state of this world. We join in and take our place in the chorus of all of God’s creation as it groans. The groans are caused by the long pains of labor as God’s promised kingdom is birthed.

I remember a particular call when I ran when I was an EMT. I was working in Mississippi and had not yet enrolled in paramedic school. In fact, I had not been an EMT for very long at all. When the dispatcher called us she was obviously very upset when normally she was calm and professional. I won’t go into the details of the call for a lot of reasons but I will say that it was… gruesome. The patient was in terrible shape and severely disfigured. It was difficult to look at him but I had to force myself to. I had to care for him. I had to look at him and his injuries. Thankfully this was toward the end of my shift but the rest of it was spent in a daze. The sight that I had to force myself to observe was completely overwhelming. When I got home, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I simply had nothing left to give and I ended up sleeping most of the day… Well, when I couldn’t see his face in a dream. That was the price I had to pay but I had no choice. I had to force myself to take it all in and provide the best care I could for him.

Life is like that sometimes. Sometimes the reality that we simply must force ourselves to take it and to not ignore is so overwhelming that it takes all of our energy and we simply have nothing left to give.

Those of us who claim Jesus as Lord must pay attention to the goings-on in the world but we also need to make sure that we acknowledge the suffering and evil as well. We may want to ignore it and try to shield ourselves from it but we shouldn’t and, let’s be honest, we can’t. We can’t turn out backs on the suffering of our neighbors. We can’t turn our backs on heroin and opiate addicts. We can’t turn our backs on the homeless. We can’t turn our backs on the poor. We can’t turn our backs on racists and other bigots. We can’t turn away from threats from North Korea and other entities who seek to do our country harm. And we can’t turn our backs on people within our own borders who wish to do harm to our country. We must acknowledge. We must look. And we must act, even if that action is simply praying for God’s guidance and wisdom.

Paul tells us this – he tells us that we must look upon and acknowledge those places where the most pain and the most groaning by all of creation is happening. But here’s the tricky part, the part that we don’t tend to like: We must join in the suffering. We have to take the pain of others on ourselves and bear it. And even when we don’t see hope, we must never, never, never give up. When the enemy tries to drag us away and distract us from the suffering of the world, we have to dig our heels in deeper and stand our ground. We must be patient, we must remember that God is good and God is working to bring about his kingdom and that day will be here sooner than we think!

It’s natural to wonder where all of this evil and suffering comes from. A common question is “where did all of this come from? How did it start?” It seems to be counterintuitive to God’s intention for the world. And, really, that’s because it is counterintuitive to God’s original plan.

John Wesley talked about this in one of his sermons. He wrestles with the question of how it can be that God provides for all of creation and yet there is suffering.

Ultimately, he chalks it up to original sin. He begins by noting that God created human beings in God’s own image of perfect righteousness and love and gave humans dominion over all of creation, especially those lesser animals, or “brutes” as Wesley names the non-human animal kingdom. The difference between humans and brutes, for Wesley, is that humans alone were endowed with the capacity to obey their creator. Thus endowed, God’s original intent was that humans would ensure that no beasts under their care suffered: “All the blessings of God in paradise flowed through man to the inferior creatures, as man was the great channel of communication between the Creator and the whole brute creation,’ Wesley writes.

Unfortunately, as we all know, human beings messed up the transmission of those blessings in an irreversible way. This has affected not only all humans, but all the creatures under humanity’s care. Wesley laments that there is no way to know what suffering creation has endured because of original sin. All we know is that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; not only creation but we ourselves”

This is why we have evil. The downside of free will is that one is free to commit evil acts if we so choose – that is, if the enemy can fool us into thinking that we should do these things. This is why the neo-nazis and the dictators of the world are allowed to make their threats, shout their vulgar racial slurs, and to drive their cars into groups of innocent people.

Christians are not people of isolation. We simply can not and should not hide ourselves from the suffering of the world and simply remain in our bubbles. Maybe you’ve seen the movie, about the boy who was so sick that he could have absolutely no contact with the outside world? He literally had to live in the bubble. I feel that we Christians often hide ourselves in our bubbles to try and ignore the evil of the world but Paul tells us that we simply can’t do that. Christians are not bubble people! We can’t ignore evil and hope that it will go away because, at least until Christ returns, evil isn’t going anywhere. We must acknowledge it. We must name it. We must feel pain with each other and with our neighbors. We must join in the collective groaning of the world rather than ignoring it.

I want to remind us about the words that we heard last week after we confessed our sins just before having Holy Communion last week: “Hear the Good News! Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. This proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” And we celebrate that because of Christ, we have been set free from the law of sin and death.

This IS the good news of Jesus Christ! As the women would say in The Handmaid’s Tale, “Praise Be!”

But being saved from eternal suffering does not give us a pass to avoid the suffering of God’s creation. Rather, we are called to join with Christ in his suffering, just as we will also join in Christ’s glory.

I want to read the baptismal vows one more time. I want you to ponder them one more time. Are you all in and do you truly affirm these vows or are they just words?

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

If you do, say “amen.”

The Journey to Perfection

92aba00b06181159f052f909ec08e648-john-wesley-gospelI came to Mississippi to have my yearly meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry (DCOM) where my ordination candidacy resides. On my way down from Kentucky, my car started having some trouble and it’s currently undergoing automotive surgery, therefore I have been spending some extra time down south. As I obviously was not going to be preaching at Shiloh today, I decided to worship at First UMC in my hometown of Philadelphia, MS. Their associate pastor, Rev. Ryan McGough, preached on the account of Nicodemus’ journey of faith as described in John’s gospel. One of the points Rev. McGough made was that, like Nicodemus, our faith journey is much more than a moment in time, it’s a life-long process of being perfected in the image of Christ.

When I was in paramedic school I was in the midst of my field internship shifts. I was so ready to be finished and to finally be a medic. I was riding with a crew from a rural service one day and I expressed these sentiments to my preceptor. He said, “Paramedic school gets you ready to pass the written test and to pass the skills check off. Getting through paramedic doesn’t make you a paramedic. When you get your gold patch, you are then a paramedic. But that’s all you are. From there, the real education begins. You will have a choice to make: Do you want to be a paramedic or a good paramedic? One will get you a job but the other will make you a better provider every shift and you will advance. Maybe you will go on to be a critical care medic or maybe even an instructor. But know this: The journey to being a paramedic doesn’t take long. The journey to being a great paramedic is a marathon, not a sprint.”

I’ve said such a few times myself and I will maintain this forever: The process of sanctification is a lifetime process, it does not occur overnight. Salvation is much more than a moment in time in front of an altar rail at a church or tent revival, it’s a journey with Jesus that we all take together as one body of Christ. Salvation is not as simple as punching our fire insurance card, it’s something we have to be invested in for the long haul. It takes faith in God to work in our lives, patience, and persistence.

Perfection in Christ has no express lane.

Persons who are being ordained as Deacons and Elders in the United Methodist Church are asked a series of traditional questions that John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and every bishop since have asked ordinands. One of them is this: “Are you going on to perfection?” Saying that one is “going on” to Christian perfection indicates that this is no one-time thing. This is a process. If you think that one sin too many is going to keep God from loving you, that’s just not true. As Rev. McGough said today, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Persist! Go on! You can do this through the strength of Christ!

Hugh Freeze and Christian Hero Worship

 

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Photo Credit: Deadspin

If you are in tune with the college football world and have been anywhere near a TV, computer, or smartphone then you already know what happened to Hugh Freeze. Coach Freeze is now the former head football coach at Ole Miss. So, there really is not any need to rehash the events because you probably already know all about it. Commenters from all corners were quick to pounce on Freeze. I do feel that we should remember that Coach Freeze is a broken human being just like any of the rest of us and he is as much in need of a savior as you and me. He is a child of God and we should absolutely be praying for him and his family right now. While I made my share my snarky comments (one of my weaknesses is getting too caught up in the Mississippi State – Ole Miss rivalry), I do feel that we should all remember that prayer is the most appropriate response from any of us right now.

I also feel that this points to a major weakness within the Christian church, especially in the more evangelical realm. We tend to celebrate Christians who are famous and we put them on a pedestal. More often than not, it’s the ones who are put on a pedestal who take a major fall. There are exceptions to this rule (at least as far as we can tell) but many who we tend to lift higher than others in the kingdom have been set up for a major moral failure or even worse. Unfortunately for Hugh Freeze, he is just the latest in a long line of famous Christians who have been celebrated and next thing we know we are left asking questions about their integrity and whether they were even faithful disciples in the first place.

Here’s what I know about people like Hugh Freeze, Tim Tebow, and other people who are famous and Christian: They are human, they are broken, they are in need of a savior. In other words, they are just like me and you. We run the risk of being profoundly disappointed when we hold human beings to such high standards that we tend to do in these situations and then a fall from grace occurs. The pressure of being held to such high standards alone can be enough to make someone vulnerable to temptation.

The fact that they are famous does not make them special in the eyes of God. They do not have special standing with the Father due to the fact that a lot of people know who they are. Yes, a famous person can be used of God to spread the good news of Jesus Christ but here’s the thing: So can any one of us. You and I have the same capability, in the ways that the Spirit has gifted us, to do some major work for Jesus Christ. Just imagine how much would be accomplished for the Kingdom if we stopped expecting others to do the work of God and instead allowed ourselves to be used.

We don’t have to be someone like Hugh Freeze or Tim Tebow to be effective for Christ.

We also face a profound danger when we lift famous Christians so high up: We run the risk of idolatry. Whether we are talking about a person or a cell phone, we can be so in awe that we can end up toeing the line between profound respect and worship of that person or thing. This is not something that we set out to do but this trap is an easy one to fall into. We must be careful when we hold people in such high esteem to not cross the line into idolatry.

I believe that God does smile when someone uses their platform to bring glory to His name. I believe that it’s right to be proud that a brother or sister who has a powerful voice willingly uses their position to tell people about Christ. But we must remember that all people have the unfortunate common trait of being imperfect and in need of Christ. We also should remember that while such people may be of God, they are not God. We must be careful to keep the Main Thing the main thing.

And when one of the famous among us in the church has a fall, let us be quick to offer the love of Christ rather than ridicule. I include myself on the receiving end of this advice.

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Romans 3:23 (NLT)

#CurrentUnitedMethodism Is Alive

currentunitedmethodism-300x200
Photo Credit: Joe Iovino

Another week, another UMC-related hashtag, but this is one that I can get behind with full force.

The rumors of the UMC’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Last summer when I went on my Wesleyan Pilgrimage with the UMC’s Discipleship Ministries, I met Joe Iovino. Joe is a web content manager with United Methodist Communications (UMCOM), which means he oversees and contributes a lot of the articles and other electronic publications of the UMC and UMCOM. Joe has felt a lot of the same frustration I have in the seeming obsession of so many of the church’s best and brightest in what a new Methodist movement may look like in the #NextMethodism discussion. Like me, Joe feels that the church needs to be about God’s business now instead of pining away for something new, and he feels that there is need to highlight the good things that UMs are doing right now. Also, like me, Joe disagrees with those who have seemed to give up on the church and are ready to throw it all away as dead and useless.

Joe has begun a conversation that I feel is an important one to have, much more important than giving in to the distractions that the enemy can use to derail the work that we should be doing now. I want to contribute to that conversation in hopes that several others will join in and that we will help the world and our well-meaning colleagues to see that there is work to be done now, there is much more to be done now, and that we are wasting our time and potentially giving in to a trap set by Satan to keep us from doing that work.

One of the tenants of any Wesleyan, but especially United Methodists, is putting our faith into action. I want to share stories from two churches: My own and one pastored by my friend and mentor Rev. Phil Bradley.

Shiloh United Methodist Church is the church that I am appointed to. Shiloh is located just outside of the city of Stanton in Powell County, Kentucky. Powell County has one of the highest rates of poverty and drug use in the Commonwealth and arguably in the nation. Powell County can be a tough place to do ministry but there is also so much greatness everywhere and, at the risk of being biased, among the people called United Methodist. Shiloh participates in the county’s ministerial association and we were the host church for this month’s Praise in the Park, an ecumenical community worship service held in a city park. 200ish people enjoyed some great food, heard some amazing music, and heard of how we are all united in the one gospel of Jesus Christ. Our Backpack Blessings backpack and school supply drive is underway which will culminate in the donated backpacks, donated supplies, and school items of Shiloh’s students and school staffers being prayed over at an upcoming worship service. The donated supplies will be taken to the schools throughout the county to be given to students in need. Additionally, we are in the midst of a heatwave and Shiloh is opening its fellowship hall as a cooling station and offering water, fellowship, and the love of Christ.

This is faith in action. This is #CurrentUnitedMethodism.

My friend and mentor, Phil Bradley, is wrapping up his first month as the new pastor of Bardstown (KY) United Methodist Church. Last weekend, a young man named Tariq Armour drowned in a tragic accident. Tariq was a beloved member of the community and the death was devastating to many, especially his friends at Bardstown High School. Bardstown UMC opened their doors to the student body and to the community for a grief counseling session facilitated by professional counselors, as well as teachers and administration from Bardstown High School. Bardstown UMC showed the community that they were loved and that they were grieving along with them. Most importantly, Bardstown UMC shined the light of Christ into the darkness of grief and showed one and all the love of Christ.

This is faith in action. This is #CurrentUnitedMethodism.

These are just two examples of how United Methodists are ministering and moving right now. There is much work to be done. I say again, the enemy can use our denominational struggles to distract us from the vital work that we have to do now. I simply will not allow myself to give in to that trap and to concentrate on a future that may or may not even materialize.

#CurrentUnitedMethodism is strong, alive, and being used of God for his work. Our church will be even stronger if we resist the temptation to throw it away and instead work as we have been commanded to do.

Are We Almost or Altogether Christian?

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” – Brennen Manning

For the last few weeks, we have been doing a sermon series called The Words of Wesley. I am preaching a few of John Wesley’s sermons but they are somewhat shortened and are in modern language as opposed to the “King James” English that Wesley used. Today’s sermon was “The Almost Christian” where Wesley discussed the attributes of one who is an “Almost Christian” and one who is an “Altogether Christian.” Wesley’s message can be boiled down to say that the Almost Christian seems to be doing everything that a Christian ought to do – going to worship, appearing to reject sin, even praying, etc. – but they lack a sincere faith. A sincere faith and desire to truly serve God are what separate the Almost Christian from the Altogether Christian. In other words, Almost Christian looks and even sounds Christian but they are merely going through the motions for nothing because they lack faith.

In preparing for this sermon, I began to think of cultural Christianity. I have written about this before and how I long for the day when cultural Christianity is dead. I still long for that day. It was not that long ago – and somewhat this is still the case – that churches were filled with people who were only there out of expectation or as a means of material or political gain. Using the name of God for personal gain is nothing new but, as I wrote in my previous article, there was a time when one could suffer in business and politics if they did not attend any church or even the right church. If we take a good, hard, and honest look at why so many people attended worship services in the so-called “good old days,” we find that personal gain was a major motivation.

‘Merica.

Wesley’s sermon makes one take a good, hard, and honest look at their spiritual life to decide if they are truly an Altogether Christian. Toward the end, Wesley asked the congregation gathered at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, England that day a series of questions. For me, this one is the one that really strikes to the heart of whether or not one is an Altogether Christian.

The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, “My God, and my All”? Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing?

So much of what certain people who proclaim Christ engage in can be perceived that the answer to the question above is a resounding “no.” There are so many among us who are using the name of Christ as a means to gain political points. We have church choirs singing political propaganda songs under the guise of a worship anthem. We have an extreme end of a certain political party who insist that they are the only ones who are the true Christians in the political realm.

They may say this but the way they treat the poor and the marginalized say otherwise.

I don’t intend to go off on a political tangent but I do want us to think about whether we are truly part of the church and claim the name of Christ strictly as a means of personal or political gain. If we do the right things, say the right words, and have no motivation other than looking good than we are maybe an Almost Christian (if we are anywhere close to Christian at all). But if our motivation is nothing but the glory of God and we desire nothing but Christ, if we can truly ask ourselves the question above and shout a resounding “yes!” then we are an Altogether Christian.

So are you Almost a Christian or are you Altogether a Christian?

Lessons From The Hunger Games

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A map of Panem from the Hunger Games books, as seen at the Hunger Games Exhibition in Louisville, KY.

Jessica and I spent some time in Louisville, KY for a short get away. Wednesday before we came home, we went to see an exhibit of The Hunger Games movies at the Frazier History Museum. If you didn’t know, Jennifer Lawrence is from Louisville so it makes sense that this exhibition is right up the road from us. Some of the background information told of how the author, Suzanne Collins, came up with the idea for the books. It began when she was watching coverage of the Iraqi military action and she began to ponder how media coverage of violence desensitizes people to the true suffering involved in a war. For the storyline, she incorporated elements of Roman history, specifically the oligarchy and the violence of the battles to the death of the gladiators.

An argument could be made that this is also a reflection of modern society.

We simply can not deny that much of our current society reflects that of ancient Rome. Much of the political power is held by the wealthy, who are in the minority. We only care about our own comfort, our own well-being and as long as we are comfortable nothing else matters. We are oblivious to the suffering of those who are in poverty (and even having the audacity to say it’s entirely their fault), who are marginalized, and who are embattled in addiction. We have reality shows that keep us sedated, news coverage that exposes us to so much violence that we learn to tune it out, which crosses over into real life. We pout over our first world problems like not having the latest phone and forget that people in places like North Korea and Iraq are in fear of their lives on a constant basis. We indulge in excess of all sorts and waste enough food to feed many small countries while children all over the world hope for a bowl of rice. We also do all of this with a straight face while many of us claim to love Jesus and what he teaches, yet we would turn someone away from our churches because their sin is different than ours or because they are not dressed “appropriately.”

We are Panem.

In Revelation 3, we read the words of Jesus to the Church of Sardis:

“I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive—but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is almost dead. I find that your actions do not meet the requirements of my God. Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again.” Revelation 3:1-3a (NLT)

The American church claims that it is strong and, in many ways, this is correct. However, the American church is also very weak in its witness. We have equated our faith to God to the level of our patriotism. We have equated our relationship with God to how large our houses, bank accounts, and SUVs are. We have forgotten/ignored that Jesus was not a caucasian with perfectly maintained brown hair and blue eyes but rather was a Middle Eastern Jew who looks nothing like us. Many of us still look at Christianity as simply doing what is expected and going through the motions of being in a pew on Sunday morning rather than truly having a life of reconciliation and transformation. We treat our neighbors as sub-human while demanding respect for ourselves (and count any perceived disrespect as “persecution.” We also do not truly acknowledge the cruelty and brutality of his death and instead look at it as something “dignified” if we even truly believe it at all.

The question could be asked if it’s too late for the American church to make a turnaround. In small ways, it already is.  We do have devoted disciples who truly live out their faith and who do more than simply go through the motions. They believe the gospel of Jesus Christ and proclaim it not just with their words but also their Christ-like love. Jesus provided such encouragement later in Revelation 3.

“Yet there are some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes with evil. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” Revelation 3:4 (NLT)

I believe there is much good in the American church but we definitely need to do better. The worst thing one who claims to love Christ can do is to simply go through the motions. Let us not be so desensitized and self-absorbed that we are oblivious to the reality right outside our front doors and beyond the walls of our church buildings. Let us also not be arrogant enough to think that the level of our discipleship is tied to material wealth. Let us not call ourselves Christians unless we are actually prepared to live out our faith, instead of simply wanting our fire insurance.

The people of the Capitol in The Hunger Games were so sedated by excess that they had no idea of the suffering in the outlying districts. Hypothetically, if they were aware they likely did not care. The American church is, unfortunately, the same in some ways. A lot of churches do amazing things but there are others that are so wrapped up in “doing” church that they have no interest in being the church. Where does your congregation fall? What are you doing – what are we doing – to not only proclaim Jesus with words but also with our living?

Are we the church or are we just playing church?

#NextMethodism? What About #MethodismNow?

Another day, another UMC-related hashtag.

The hashtag flavor of the week is #NextMethodism. Some of the United Methodist Church’s brightest – mainly on the conservative side but a few moderates – have been engaging in conservation about their visions, hopes, and dreams of what may come out of any split of the United Methodist Church. The authors seem convinced that the UMC is too far gone to save and so they are preparing for something new to come about, perhaps in the form of a phoenix rising out of the ashes.

If such a thing were possible, John Wesley would be spinning in his grave that such a discussion was even happening.

I know, I know… The whole Methodist movement came about from a schism within the Church of England. And I also know that Wesley never set out to begin a new church. But once the new church began to take shape, Wesley had some heavy expectations out of the people called Methodist. In a nutshell, it was his way or no way (the whole bishop thing excluded) and he was not afraid to let his pastors know that they were out of line. 

I can not help but think that if Rev. Wesley were alive today, he would be having some serious discussions with several of our clergy to remind them that their minds were better served by offering the people Christ now instead of engaging in political pandering and other activities which I believe are unbecoming a clergy person.

This discussion has borne a little quality fruit but mostly it has yielded only horse apples.

There have been conspiracy theories and accusations floated, name calling and backbiting, defensiveness, and a general smug tone taken by those engaging in the #NextMethodism discussion. And frankly, I feel that much of the childish behavior that I have witnessed has been vastly unbecoming of a clergy person and some of the people involved would do well to check themselves.

And at least one lay person (who is no longer UM, I may add) would do well to stop his childish name calling campaign.

I have also been outright offended by some of the articles that have been written (that I will not even dignify with a link from this blog – you will have to find them elsewhere). One particular gem was “The #NextMethodism Will Believe in Christ.” Another was, “The #NextMethodism Will Be Biblical.” Really? So, am I to believe that you, as UM clergy, do not proclaim Christ or proclaim scripture, therefore you want a do-over? 

If one attends any given UMC worship service, they will hear scripture proclaimed and the name of Christ lifted up. In many instances, they will also experience the body and blood of Christ consecrated and given to the people. Hopefully, they may even see and participate in faith being put into action outside the walls of the church.

That is #MethodismNow

I know there is clergy who like to proclaim their political agendas from the pulpit instead of preaching the gospel (this does not seem to be confined to one particular political realm or another) but the vast majority do not engage in this behavior. This entire notion of “they’re bad so I’m going to take my toys and go play somewhere else, and here’s what I want it to be like” is just plain ridiculous.

We have better things to do than further advance political causes to score points with the leadership of any potential new denomination. I am also way too busy ministering in a very drug-infested and poverty-stricken area to be too concerned about engaging in such discussions.

I am not naive, I realize that the UMC as we know it likely will not exist in a few more years. I am also not naive enough to think that I will not have to make some serious decisions about how I live out my calling to pastoral ministry. But I also am not willing to engage in fruitless discussions or to accuse the current UMC of being anything but a Christian church (a charge that I think is despicable).

If there are those among us who truly feel that they can no longer minister in the UMC, I may encourage them to begin considering where they can best serve God and go there.

When it comes to such discussions, I will end with the words of the great philosopher Sweet Brown: Ain’t nobody got time for that.

HIPAA and the Church

hellohipaa_wideWhen I first became an EMT, I worked for an ambulance service that was based at a hospital in rural Mississippi. As it was a hospital-based service, I was required to sit through the same new employee orientation as nurses and others who worked within the hospitals. A large chunk of the session was spent talking about HIPAA. As I have worked for other services and did internships while in paramedic school, I had to have further training on HIPAA. With these numerous training sessions and other research have done on my own, I feel pretty confident that I am well-versed in what HIPAA does and does do and to who it does and does not apply to.

There is much confusion and I would like to try and address some of that.

HIPAA – the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act – is a very far-reaching law and has many moving parts to it. The short version of what HIPAA is for is to specify how one’s health information is to be stored, the type of security measures which should be taken, who can access information, and so on. One of HIPAA’s requirements is that healthcare workers and healthcare organizations who have access to one’s health information may not disclose it in any way to anyone without express written permission, except in very limited ways as allowed under the law (and there are not many). This aspect of HIPAA seems to be what has caused the most confusion. There are many people who think that the general public is subject to HIPAA, who think that clergy persons are bound by HIPAA and that even such things as sharing a diagnosis during prayer requests during a worship service is a violation of the law.

If you are a pastor or a parishioner who fears that sharing about Aunt Mabel’s bunions is going to land you in hock due to a violation of HIPAA, fear not. That won’t happen because HIPAA does not apply to such things.

Simply stated, HIPAA does not even apply to the general public in the first place. You can share your own information to your heart’s content. Further, you can share diagnoses and other health information about anyone with anyone and you are not in violation of HIPAA. Is sharing information without permission unethical? Yes. Illegal? Not so much. The only way you would be in violation of HIPAA is if your information was obtained while you were an employee of a clinic, hospital, etc. and you were obtaining this information in the course of performing your job.

HIPAA does not apply to clergy any more than it does to anyone else. While pastors are bound to ethical standards – which certainly includes not sharing private information without permission or without a legal reason such as to report a person who is a danger to themselves or others – clergy persons are not bound by HIPAA in the performance of their pastoral duties. If a pastor is visiting Aunt Mabel in the hospital, HIPAA does not apply to them. The exception to that is if the clergy person is acting within the capacity of a hospital chaplain or other employment with a healthcare organization. Further, clergy persons are not going to get in trouble with the law for sharing health information in settings such as prayer request time.

Again: Is sharing health information without permission unethical? Yes. Is it illegal (in most cases)? No.

I get really bothered when clergy persons are told that anything they share with their congregation is a violation of HIPAA because this simply is not true. Unfortunately, this is the misinformation that clergy persons are given over and over again by people who should know better but don’t. I know of clergy persons who have been told by leadership within their annual conferences that if they share any sort of health-related information that they are in violation of HIPAA. This is simply not true and I encourage my colleagues to become better educated in the legal aspects of ministry. Such education is a benefit for many reasons.

For more about HIPAA and what it does and does not cover (and it’s likely not what you think), this is a good place to start.

Patriotism in Church

bible-american-flag1There was a time when I was a volunteer firefighter. Sometime after I joined with Stonewall Fire and Rescue, I was having a conversation with the chief, at the time it was a man named Jimmy Andrews, and he told me something that I have continued to remember even since I have moved on from being a firefighter. Jimmy said that when he first became a firefighter he heard someone say that the following should be one’s main priorities (and in this order): God, country, family, the fire department, and everything else. Someone else once told me to always make sure that I “keep the Main Thing the main thing.” The takeaway from both of these bits of wisdom is that God should always be the number one priority over all else in our lives, period. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else.

We especially need to remember to keep the Main Thing the main thing when we gather to worship. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else. Now, that should be obvious but I feel like we can sometimes get carried away with celebrating other things to the point that it becomes idolatry. In other words, we forget to keep the Main Thing the main thing.

I’m proud of my country and I love the fact that we, as Americans, have a lot of freedom that we tend to take for granted. We are able to speak our minds, able to gather in worship, able to choose our elected officials and pursue our lives as we see fit. We can come and go as we please without a government official checking our “papers” every few miles. These are things we should be thankful and I feel that it’s appropriate for us to give thanks to God for these freedoms and for our country. Having a flag in the sanctuary is OK. I even like belting out “God Bless America” on Sundays around the patriotic holidays. These things are fine and, so long as they are done properly, I believe they are acceptable to God. But we do have to be careful not to cross a line and make our worship activities more about Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, and Old Glory than about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A few days ago I read an account of last Sunday’s worship service at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. I have to be very honest: Reading about this service – and watching some of it – made me very uncomfortable and I can’t honestly say that I would have wanted to be a participant in it. The author points out that the worship service was much more about American and very little about God.

The fact that there was a red, white, and blue hued cross made me cringe.

To me, this is a major problem that, unfortunately, seems to be an issue that is becoming more and more prevalent in churches in the United States. This does not seem confined to any particular denomination or type of church but more and more American Christians are equating their faith with their patriotism. This is nothing short of idolatry. In celebrating our country, we must be very careful to make sure that we do not place our loyalty to our homeland equal to or even greater than our loyalty to God. Our love for anything (or anyone) should not be equal to or greater than our love for God.

In scripture, we are reminded that we are to place nothing – absolutely nothing – above God. When God told the Israelites, “You must not have any other god but me” (Exodus 20:3 NLT) he wasn’t just talking about a statue of Buddha or the like. An idol can be anything that we are willing to worship or otherwise place above God. This includes patriotism. I want to emphasize that it is perfectly alright to be thankful for our country and to celebrate that blessing but we must be careful to make sure that we do not do so at the expense of our loyalty to God.

We must keep the Main Thing the main thing.

When a celebration of anything overshadows God in a worship service, the line between acceptable and unacceptable has not only been crossed, it has been ignored altogether. It’s also worth noting that in many countries such celebrations are virtually unheard of in Christian worship. I look back on the Wesleyan Pilgrimage I set out on last summer and out of all the churches I visited in England – Methodist or Anglican – I can not recall one that had a Union Jack anywhere on or in the building.

All I’m saying is that we must be careful to make sure that we do not cross a line that should not be crossed.

Inevitably, someone is likely going to accuse me of not being a patriot or of condemning those who do acknowledge patriotic holidays during worship. That could not be farther from the truth. Sing a patriotic song recognize the military, say a prayer of thanks for our freedom (we will be doing all of these things at Shiloh this Sunday). I am not against these things. I am against a worship service not being centered on God and centered on other things, be it a nation, a celebrity, or anything else that is not God. These thoughts – which are mine and mine only – are only intended to serve as food for thought as to what boundaries should be set.

I will close with the words of the author of the article I linked above, as his concerns are also mine.

What would a Christian from another country say? Would they recognize their place in this church?

What about those for whom this has not been such a great country? What about those who still bear the stripes callously inflicted upon their ancestors’ backs?

What about those who don’t claim the Christian faith? Would they come away from such a celebration understanding anything about the gospel of Christ, and hear its call on their lives?

What would happen if Jesus showed up in the flesh? Would we recognize him as our guest of honor? Would we even recognize him at all? (emphasis his)

I don’t think so.

Ladies and gentlemen, something has gone desperately wrong.

God, forgive us.

And may it be so, Lord. Amen.

We Don’t Get to Choose Who Receives Compassion

compassionIf you didn’t know, I’m a former paramedic. During my time on the ambulance, I responded to my share of overdose calls and I also expressed by share of frustration over them. Part of the reason was that I was simply following the example of my peers – I was expected to deride and offhandedly insult people who had overdosed so that’s what I did. One day I realized how wrong that attitude was when I responded to an overdose call and had to administer the drug Narcan. The house I responded to was where the patient lived with her husband and two young children. The husband expressed to me that he had been trying to get her to seek help for addiction but that so far his efforts were ignored by her. While I was working on his wife, I remember him saying “I just hope she gets help before it’s too late.” This with the backdrop of two young children who had to witness their mother almost die right in front of them because addiction had sunk its sharp teeth into her was used by God to convict me of my attitude and to change my heart.

EMS responders have a moral and an ethical (and when on duty legal) to render the best care possible to all regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they live, or the choices they made. None of the matters. EMTs and paramedics practice medicine and are not supposed to base their care on the circumstances of the patient. If someone calls for help, EMS is supposed to respond and is supposed to render the best possible care they are able, period, full stop. For the most part, in spite of some who feel that only certain patients deserve the best care (these providers have no business in EMS and should be stripped of their patches, but that’s another rant), EMS responders give excellent care and indeed save lives.

So imagine my shock, disappointment, and anger when I read about an elected official who wants EMS providers to pick and choose who deserves to live simply because of their poor choices.

Dan Picard (hopefully no relation to Jean-Luc) is a city councilman in Middletown, Ohio and wants EMS units to stop responding to calls for help involving opioid overdoses (story). He says that these calls are too expensive and that the city can not afford it. Mr. Picard is also in favor of issuing a court summons to overdose patients and requiring them to perform community service to compensate the city for saving his/her life. Here’s what Mr. Picard said he wants to do:

I want to send a message to the world that you don’t want to come to Middletown to overdose because someone might not come with Narcan and save your life. We need to put a fear about overdosing in Middletown.

That statement drips with something but compassion is not that with which it is dripping.

The councilman wants to punish people for seeking help for a condition which could very easily kill them (the fact that they took the drug is irrelevant). This plan is illegal, immoral, and unethical but let’s say it was implemented. The city would have a much larger problem: A sudden influx of overdose deaths because people are afraid to call for help for fear of being branded a criminal. I feel that would have a much worse effect on their budget than administering a bunch of Narcan (in addition to the moral, legal, and ethical considerations). Addiction is a disease (this is not up for debate – medical science proves this) and should be treated as a disease, not as a criminal offense.

For Christians, there are other issues to consider.

Whether we are talking about the medical field or anything else, we don’t get to pick and choose to whom we will show compassion and mercy. For Christians, compassion is supposed to be our way of life. Compassion is what Christians are supposed to be known for! From the very beginning, God was setting the example of showing compassion. We read in Genesis of the fall of humanity when Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God told them not to eat. He could have killed them where they stood but instead of showed compassion on them by making them animal skins to cover their newly discovered nudity.

Throughout scripture, we see other examples of compassionate action and instruction that as we have shown compassion we should show compassion. We read the words of Paul: “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12 NLT). We also see an account in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus happened upon some blind men who cried out to him for their sight. This was his response: “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34 NIV).

While we don’t have to be Jesus, we are called to be like Jesus (Ephesians 5:1-2). Jesus did not pick and choose to whom he showed mercy and compassion when they were crying out. He freely showed compassion. If we are Christians, this is part of our calling. We do not get to pick and choose to whom we show compassion. We are called to be compassionate to the entire world.

I have no idea what, if any, faith Mr. Picard claims but I feel that he would do himself and his citizens well to follow the example of Jesus rather than the example of a group of politicians who do not believe in showing mercy to the poor and marginalized.

We all would.