Author Archives: Maxie Dunnam

Unexpectedly: The Holy Spirit around the Globe

I received what was called a local preacher’s license in 1952, when I was only 17 years old. That means I have been at this business of preaching for 68 years. I have been the pastor of nine local churches and the organizing pastor of three of those nine. You may wonder why I’m sharing that…and you may consider it a bit boastful. Not so, not so at all. I share it as a part of a confession. The question really is, what sort of church did I plant?

Our scripture lesson – Acts 2:1-14, 42-47–tells the story of the first church plant in Christian history.  At first blush, that certainly was not a good way to start a church. There was the disturbance of a roaring wind that would drown out any speaking. Then uneducated people speaking in languages they had never heard. And not only a roaring wind, and strange speaking, but what was described as “tongues of fire” resting on each of them.

Unbridled excitement and strange acting. What a way to start a church! The question has to be, what was happening here, anyway?  And that is what my sermon is all about: what was happening here?Let’s think about it.

The first is this: God came unexpectedly, which of course is nothing new. God seems to make it a habit of sneaking up on the human race. Appearing unrepentantly, when no one is looking or knows what is going on, God is in their midst.

The kind of thing that happened at Pentecost had happened before. Moses was out in the field alone, taking care of his father-in-law’s flock. And there it was – a burning bush, and a voice coming out of the bush, and Moses was called to lead God’s children out of Egyptian bondage.

And now, here at Pentecost, is this little band of frightened disciples whose leader has gone off and left them; they are stunned, confused, and unable to figure out what to do. The only instruction they had was, “stay, just stay in Jerusalem, until you receive the gift the Father has promised.” What gift, they must have wondered! Then along comes God unexpectedly when they were not even looking.

Friends, I remind you: that kind of God action has not ceased. I have seen dramatic witnesses of it.  One of the joys of my life was to chair the Evangelism Committee of the World Methodist Council for 20 years. This gave me opportunity to travel the world and meet extraordinary Christians. Two of those were Nelson Mandela and Stanley Mogoba. You know about Mandela, the man whose life and witness led to breaking the back of that awful oppressive system of apartheid. But you probably have not heard of Stanley Mogoba. He was the first Black person to be the presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa.

About the time Nelson Mandela was sent to prison, Stanley met with a group of angry students and sought to dissuade them from violent demonstration. Just for that – trying to avert violence – he was arrested and imprisoned for six years on the notorious Robben Island.  Mandela was already in prison there. He and Mogoba became friends there in prison.

One day someone pushed a religious tract under Mogoba’s cell door. Parenthetically, don’t ever forget: most people become Christian not by big events, but by relationship and simple actions like a person putting a tract beneath a prison cell door. By reading that little tract and responding to the Holy Spirit, Mogoba became a Christian. He quoted the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn to describe his experience:

“Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off; my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed thee.”

God showed up, in a prison and in a simple gospel tract, and something unexpected happened. A person who was to lead the Methodist movement in South Africa was converted.

Are you listening? God who came unexpectedly at Pentecost continues to show up today…in prisons, on the streets, in person, in the Church.

Yes, in the Church. And that leads to the second thing I would say. Pentecost was a missionary event. Jesus made it clear that he would send the Holy Spirit to empower us for ministry. Listen to Acts l:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

It shouldn’t surprise us, friends, when the Holy Spirit comes roaring through our lives and our communities; change will happen, people will be called to minister. People who have never known Jesus before will come to the altar to praise him.

How and why? Because God is a missionary God, and the Holy Spirit is the chief evangelist. Hold that tightly in your mind. The Holy Spirit has the power to create joy in the midst of sorrow and dancing in place of mourning. The Holy Spirit has the power to bring healing for our anguish and rescue life from the jaws of death. The Holy Spirit of God signals a time of restoration, awakening, and revival.

Pentecost was a missionary event. Remember, I asked you to hold tightly in your mind. The Holy Spirit is the chief evangelist. I believe revival is coming, because I believe the Holy Spirit is alive and active in our day, and we are moving toward a global Methodist church, an orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan, Methodist Church.

We have been in a tumultuous time, contending with a mysterious virus; then came massive and widespread demonstrations calling us to racial justice. Our nation is politically divided, and hatred is blatantly present across the land. At the same time, we are also struggling with a painful divide in our United Methodist Church. It is a tough, heavy time.  Discussion of separation is rampant, and I do believe separation is coming. Please hear me now. Separation doesn’t have to be bitter and angry. It can be redemptive. In fact, I believe it is going to be redemptive. That was signaled in a Holy Spirit event on December 17, 2019.  Leaders from different perspectives of the church – from the most liberal to the most conservative – signed a “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” I believe that if we had not had to cancel the General Conference that was to happen in May, that protocol would have passed and we would be on our way to a new global Methodist church.

People who know me and my history in the United Methodist Church are sometimes surprised about my position on some issues and my confidence that revival is coming. Some are surprised that I now believe separation is essential and can be redemptive. For decades, I have worked as hard as any lay person, minister, bishop or other leader in the church to preserve unity as we have struggled. So, let me share how I have come through the struggle to the place I am now in. The bishops called a special session of the General Conference in 2019 because the denomination was on the verge of implosion. We traditionalists prevailed at that General Conference in preserving the authority of Scripture. However, when we had done that by standard procedural vote, the conference deteriorated into a shouting match of anger, hateful accusations, and debate. I left the conference feeling with the psalmist, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?”

That was my state, when two weeks later I went to Cuba. I had visited Cuba twice before, and I knew revival was taking place, but I was not prepared for the robust power of the Holy Spirit being demonstrated in the church there. My time there was redemptive. It was a spiritual time of recovery in the wake of the General Conference experience.

The Church in Cuba is not affiliated with the UMC, it is the Methodist Church of Cuba. Bishop Pereira is a dynamic, Spirit-filled, Spirited-guided leader. Normally he would have attended our special General Conference, but he was needed at home. The communist government was seeking to change the legal definition of marriage. The government wanted to change that to simply a union between two persons. The bishop of the Methodist Church of Cuba had stayed in his country to lead his church in opposing what the government was proposing.  I had come from a meeting in which I and others opposed a part of our church, including many bishops, seeking to do what would have resulted in the same thing the Cuban government was seeking to do. It was the church in Cuba, not the government, that prevailed.

Our missionary God has sent his primary evangelist, the Holy Spirit whose power cannot be denied. I’m going back to Cuba as soon as Covid will allow. I want to be encouraged by the hundreds of little bands of Christians that are being formed every year. The government will not allow the building of churches. So these little groups meet in homes, house churches being established all over. And one day, that government will discover that Holy Spirit power is more dynamic than anything they can design and impose on the people.

In Havana, there is a statue of the Risen Christ towering over the city, almost as high as the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Not far from that statue is Che Guevara’s house, the companion of Castro as he seized leadership of Cuba in 1959.

Our small group shared communion at the feet of Christ, literally, as we gathered at the base of the statue on the morning we were leaving Cuba. There we were at the feet of Jesus, with his shadow falling over the city. When we took the bread and wine, we knew and proclaimed who is Lord, and that one day, he will claim the kingdoms of this world as his own.

More than ever, I believe that Holy Spirit revival is coming, and I pray regularly the prayer we pray during our Walk to Emmaus weekends:

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and kindle in them the fire of Thy love. Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created, and You shalt renew the face of the earth. Amen.

Featured image courtesy Hasan Almasi for Unsplash.

The Cost of Preaching Pastorally & Prophetically

In a previous essay, I reflected on the fact that this is a unique and glorious time to preach the Gospel. The demands and upheaval brought on by the mysterious coronavirus were far more than most of us ever contemplated as pastors. Seeking to be faithful in preaching, teaching and pastoral care, many ministers were exhausted, spiritually depleted because of the intense and demanding changes. Then came the murder of George Floyd, and a social justice struggle more vividly felt and shared publicly than anything like it since the Civil Rights Movement.

On one hand, the preaching demands during the coronavirus pandemic are primarily pastoral and theological. Where is God in all of this?  Is God responsible, what is God’s character? How do I live in community as a “good neighbor”? But on the other hand, the national response to George Floyd’s murder – demonstrations, calls for dramatic restructuring of our policing protocols and systems – adds another, more demanding prophetic layer to our role as ministers,  requiring  a certain, confident dimension to our preaching and leadership.

Sixty years’ experience in ministry leads me to describe our preaching task as both priest (pastor) and prophet. As Christian leaders, we speak to God for the people, and we speak to the people for God. Within my own responsibilities, I’m beginning a mentoring program with eight young clergypeople. Our conversations will center on the demands for pastoral and prophetic leadership in these days of demonstrations and the pronounced cries for racial justice.

The truth is, we really have no option; we must speak. Paradoxically, even our silence is speaking.

In the late 50’s and early 60’s during the Civil Rights Movement, I was a young minister in Mississippi; my ministry was shaped significantly by the issues raging around that movement. Our Wesleyan Accent editor has asked me to share about that time.

There came the time when violence against our Black neighbors was so widespread, events so dramatically demanding Christian witness, that three fellow ministers and I felt compelled to speak together. Each of us had sought to be faithful in our preaching and teaching in our local churches. The violence toward Black citizens was boiling over throughout the state. We four were young and had no significant institutional voice. We hoped that our bishop and other conference leaders would speak out in response to the rising tide of violent expressions of racism and oppressive prejudice; but the silence was deafening. We knew it was past time for someone to say that not all white Mississippi Methodists would continue to live silently in the closed, segregated society taking its destructive toll on our state.

When the four of us gathered on Monday, October 15, 1962, none of us even faintly guessed what might happen as a result of what we were about.  What we did know, and what drove us in our decision and action, was that it was a time when remaining silent would have been irresponsible on our part, and we would’ve betrayed the Gospel we were committed to preaching.

For two days, we reflected, prayed, and talked together; then, we drafted a statement titled Born of Conviction. We engaged 24 others to add their signatures, and the 28 of us together issued the statement to our Methodist Church in Mississippi – and then, “all hell broke loose.” Twenty of the 28 signers of the statement were compelled in different ways and by different circumstances to leave the state. I was among the 20 compelled to leave my home state.

As I have confessed, I am painfully aware of my shortcomings during those days and since; yet despite where I feel I failed, there are lessons to be gleaned from that experience that may be helpful in these days.

There Are Times When We Must Speak

First, there comes a time when we must speak. In our ongoing ministry, we must seek to be faithful in speaking to God for the people and speaking to the people for God. If we are guided by Scripture, the content of our preaching will always have aspects of the pastoral and the prophetic. Yet, occasions come when either the pastoral or the prophetic will become more pronounced.

For instance, we would not be faithful in the context of the coronavirus if, in our preaching and teaching, we were not responding to the pastoral needs and theological questions this new illness raises.  With the overlay of social justice concerns dramatically brought to the forefront with George Floyd’s murder, we have an equally demanding prophetic call.

Few pastors find it easy to balance those two dimensions in their week to week teaching and preaching. Some are more pastorally inclined; others more prophetic. Our current situation sets a unique stage for balance. This is a moment when we must speak to both these issues that are defining our times.

Speaking Publicly Invites Pastoral Interaction

Second, speaking publicly sets the table for more honest and fruitful pastoral sharing. There is a sense in which the virus and the demonstrations together should make it easier for a congregation to “hear gladly” a word from the Lord. Pastoral awareness will not allow silence on either issue. Speaking on these challenges will stimulate deeper sharing in personal relationships between pastors and laypeople. When this happens, listening is far more important than speaking on the part of the pastor. If we need to speak, we need to speak clearly and honestly, as transparently as possible. In the midst of controversy, to try to hide something undermines understanding and reconciliation. If we have listened, and if we speak respectfully with and to those who disagree with what we are saying and doing, then we can move forward with energy and without apology.

Counting the Cost Is a Spiritual Exercise

Third, “counting the cost” can be a positive spiritual exercise. There is cost no matter what the setting and challenges are. In most local churches, preaching on social issues will raise questions and opposition. I have been in settings where no one questioned my speaking on abortion but resistance to speaking on fair housing was heavy.

The “cost” varies. In the United Methodist Church of which I am a part, ordained elders of an annual conference are guaranteed a pastoral appointment. Many of our Wesleyan Methodist ministers serve in denominations in which local congregations call and vote on their pastors. Your consideration of cost is a different kind than mine.

Yet there was no question that there would be cost when I shared authorship and signed that “Born of Conviction” statement in Mississippi decades ago. I think of my wife Jerry. One can imagine how it felt on long nights; she knew what we were seeking to do. She was a 23-year-old with two babies; the cost – a move to California far from her mother and father, seeking to express friendship, to witness, and to share in developing a new congregation. But there was the cost in the long months after we issued the statement, before we moved to California. She knew about our friend – the doctor who had delivered our babies – calling for my resignation; she knew the anger and frustration stirring in the congregation, the unnamed people making angry telephone calls.

There is cost, and it is not all immediate. I often wrestled in my conscience about leaving Mississippi. Even after many years, I found myself in spiritual turmoil, thinking: if the church had been different…if there had been episcopal and other leadership that had supported us young clergy who were seeking to faithful…then I could have stayed.

There is cost, and we can only seek to make our decisions on the basis of faithfulness to our calling, perceived through prayer and the best counsel we receive from Christian conferencing with persons we trust. We must acknowledge that every person’s faithfulness will not be expressed in the same way.

There will be pushback to our preaching, the level of resistance determined by our individual settings, and how long and in what ways we have served our congregation. We can only measure the cost as individuals in very particular settings. If our congregational leadership is earnestly seeking to be faithful to Scripture and to Kingdom principles, we can negotiate specific actions and responses. Only the pastor on site can determine what it means to be faithful today, in this time and setting.

The people we lead are “souls committed to our care.” The very thought of being responsible to speak to God for them, and to speak to  them for God may and should make us quiver inside. We must trust no longer in our own capacity but in God’s power.

Days like these clearly demand some witness from the church. That witness from the church to the larger community begins with the witness clearly shared within the church. When our people have experienced the genuineness of pastoral caring, speaking to God for them, they are more apt to listen to our speaking to them for God.

Reflecting on 60 years in ministry, whatever the costs have been, I relish memories of specific occasions when I have tackled prophetic preaching which was effective because of pastoral attention.

Preaching in Times of Upheaval

Note from the Editor: Recently I asked Founding Editor Dr. Maxie Dunnam to share about the call of preaching in times of deep upheaval. Following the brutal death of George Floyd, I watched as many Caucasian pastors preached about racial justice – some to congregations that had never before heard a biblical sermon on the subject. I watched too as clergy were startled by reactions against their preaching as otherwise sedate churchgoers sent angry emails, withheld giving, or withdrew membership. As I considered the pushback, Maxie came to mind as someone uniquely positioned to offer encouragement to continue to fight the good fight: early in pastoral ministry, in the violence of 1960s Mississippi, he and other white Methodist clergy wrote and signed a public letter against prejudice, racism, and segregation that led to many of them having to leave the state, receiving death threats, even being implicated in police investigations. Those experiences aren’t something about which Dr. Dunnam is quick to speak; he rightly keeps the focus on the injustices to be confronted. However, he responded graciously when I asked him to share two short essays to exhort and encourage white pastors preaching, reading, learning, and leading toward the good news of Gospel-soaked justice. Here is the first.Elizabeth Glass Turner, Managing Editor

What a time to preach!  We may say that with all sorts of emotion and meaning. What a wonderful (challenging, tough, impossible, painful, joyful) time to preach. Who we are, where we are, how long we have been where we are, our past experience and our present understanding and convictions all combine to play huge roles in determining what we say about our present situation in the midst of a raging pandemic and justice issues that may become even more raging than the virus.

It was tough enough, complex enough, challenging enough with the never-experienced-before coronavirus. The sovereignty of God – God’s character, God’s power expressed when love is his defining nature, God’s gift of freedom to us persons, the height of his creation – these core theological issues of our Christian faith all focus in this virus impacting our world.

How much more? How long, oh Lord! Enduring the pastoral demands and upheaval of that confounding epidemic, seeking to be faithful in preaching, teaching, and pastoral care, many pastors were already at the breaking point, when wham! Then comes the murder of George Floyd and a social justice struggle more vividly felt and publicly shared than anything like it since the launching and growth of the Civil Rights Movement.

What a time to preach!

I was a young preacher in those late fifties and sixties of the Civil Rights Movement, and my ministry was significantly shaped by the issues raging around that movement. In my reflection and prayers, since I first saw the man in Minnesota being murdered (a modern lynching) with a crowd looking on, and the dramatic, convincing public expression of our deadly disease of racism, I am painfully aware of my failures. I have stood for racial justice and have been righteously indignant at the blatant mistreatment of our Black brothers and sisters. I have worked for justice, particularly in housing and education, which I believe are systemic issues related to the more organic justice issue. But my primary failure has been in not recognizing in myself, in our churches, and in our nation, our sin of racism. I have worked at not being a racist, but in my ministry of preaching and teaching, I have not been consistently faithful in confronting the sin of racism.

That’s not what this essay is about, but I feel I need to make that confession before addressing the subject I have been asked to write about: how do we preach in times like these? More specifically, what pastoral word might I have for pastors who, for perhaps the first time are speaking up and beginning to see the cost?

First, I speak what may be a harsh word. If you have not been preaching on issues like civil rights and racial justice, don’t try to “redeem yourself” by being bold in speaking now. Having said that, I’m quick to say, probably none of us have been as faithful as we should have been in confronting this.

Preach now we must; but let’s be humble. Admit the issues are so complex that it is difficult to speak clearly. Even so: this is a critical issue for the church. Confess that you have failed in not dealing with this issue and you intend to do so now and in the future. “I don’t know as much as I need to know, therefore my sharing may be limited. But what I do know, and what I am compelled to proclaim, is that God’s love is not limited to the white race, and it certainly cannot be withheld from anyone. Justice is for all and should be expressed equally for all races. God’s creation of us humans, and calling the creation ‘good,’ is the basic foundation for us to call for justice for those to whom justice has been denied. The nature of creation alone is also enough to express public lament for violent treatment of any of God’s children.”

Knowing that your preaching is limited in possible impact, don’t see proclamation as your primary witness. Could you do some of these? One, start a three or four week Bible study, focusing on justice and God’s love for all people. Two, find a way to listen to Black people in your community. Three, establish a small leadership group to plan how your church will move into the future, giving attention to this challenge. Resources on this website, sites like Dr. Esau McCaulley‘s, his podcast, or this project, along with people you know, can provide guidance in finding resources to assist you in any of these pursuits.

I have found that when I am honest in expressing my own limitations and my own convictions, which are clearly based on Scripture, in humility and compassion, most people will listen respectfully. If I do not come off as trying to convince folks of my convictions, and if I refuse to be defensive and argumentative, people will listen more. No other profession than our ordination, gives one the setting and the opportunity to express conviction on issues like racial justice, abortion, assisted suicide, support of those in poverty, and equity in accessing education. It’s a treasure that preachers need to value and hold lightly in clay hands that we must keep with strength and integrity.

Maxie Dunnam ~ A Brand New Year: How to Leave Your Stuff Behind

Do you ever wonder how to leave your stuff behind? Loren Eiseley was one of my favorite writers, a distinguished anthropologist and essayist with the eye of an artist and the soul of a poet.  He saw beyond the surface and had that rare double gift which enabled him to enter deeply into an experience and then share that experience with us. In one of his poignant vignettes from boyhood, he shares a moment of time that bears timeless truth. 

Eiseley was 16, and one day he leaned out the second-story window of his high school and saw an old junk dealer riding in a cart filled with castoff clothing, discarded furniture, and an assortment of broken-down metal objects. A broken-down horse was pulling the cart.  As the decrepit figures passed below him, Eiseley had a sudden sense of what time means in its passing. He wrote: “‘It’s all going,’ I thought with a desperation of the young confronting history.  No one can hold it… we’re riding into the dark.  When my eye fell upon that junk dealer passing by, I thought instantly, ‘save him, immortalize this unseizeable moment, for the junk man is the symbol of all that is going or gone.’”

After that, Eiseley said he could never regard time without a deep sense of wonder. He sought to receive every moment as a kind of gift that was only his.  It’s an image to consider as we begin this new year.  Let’s look at our scripture lesson, found in Genesis 45:1-28, which you can read here.

Tucked away in this story of Joseph’s sojourn into Egypt is a verse packed with far more meaning than appears on the surface. It is a word that carries a whole wagon-load of goods for reflection. It teaches us an eternal truth that we do well to consider as we move into the New Year. It is helpful in practicing how to leave your stuff behind.

Rehearse the story.  Sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph found favor with the Pharaoh and became one of the trusted officials in Pharaoh’s court.  A strange irony of fate (the providence of God, of course) brought Joseph and the brothers who had betrayed him together again.  A famine ravaged the land of Canaan, the people were without food, and they came to Egypt to buy food from the Pharaoh.  They soon learned that the person with whom they dealt was the brother they sold into slavery, so the tables were turned.  Here they were, asking food from the person they cast away. 

When it came to Pharaoh’s attention that Joseph’s brothers came, it pleased him. He instructed Joseph to bring the whole family from Canaan, promising to give them the goods of all the land of Egypt. It is at this point we find the power-packed verse.  Do this, said Pharaoh: “take some carts from Egypt for your children and your wives, and get your father and come.  Never mind about your belongings, because the best of all of Egypt will be yours.”  I like the way the King James’ version translates that. “Regard not your stuff, for the best of all the land of Egypt will be yours.”

Regard not your stuff.  

There’s all sorts of meaning in that.  One translation renders it, “leave your stuff behind.”  Now some of us who have moved a good bit, like Methodist preachers, know what that means. We moved from Mississippi to California years ago.  Moving across the continent made it even more difficult to decide what stuff we were going to take and what stuff we were going to leave behind.  Moving is expensive.  My wife, Jerry, collects rocks, and she had bushels of them.  She knew better than to get into a discussion about taking those rocks from Mississippi to California.  Do you know how heavy rocks are?  So Jerry did a very cunning thing.  She packed her choice rocks into kitchen canisters and cake tins and brought them along.  The movers were mystified, I’m sure, as they handled those cake tins and canisters, and I learned of it long after I had paid the bill!

“Regard not your stuff,” said Pharaoh, “leave your stuff behind…for the good of all the land of Egypt is yours.”

By the time most of us get to be adults, we have accumulated a great deal of stuff – all kinds of stuff.

We’ve learned so many wrong things, stored up so much misinformation, learned to respond in so many destructive ways. We’ve adopted all the biting, snarling, snippy styles of relating, become secretive and cynical.  We carry a lot of stuff around, and it burdens us down.  It’s hard learning how to leave your stuff behind. We get all glued up in our limited world of habit. 

So this word of Pharaoh to Joseph’s brothers is a good word for us, particularly as we begin this new year: leave your stuff behind. What is some of the stuff you need to leave behind as you begin the new year?  What can you drop off your weary, bending back to make your trek into the New Year a bit easier and far more meaningful?

Leave behind self-pity. 

Self-pity is a burden most of us are unwilling to drop off.  Someone hurts our feelings and we carry our hurt with us forever.  We’re treated unfairly and we never forget it.  Something happens in our family and it seems to us like we’re being put down: someone else is receiving special treatment, so we get a kind of complex.  We suffer physically and we get the idea that the whole universe is out to persecute us – such an easy snare to fall into! As long as we carry this burden of self-pity, we can blame our failures on someone or something else.

To go through life with the burden of self-pity is to go through life hampered.  It is to stumble along at an uneasy, faltering pace, so we need to leave the bundle of self-pity behind us.  We need to stride into the future, not with self-pity, but with self-affirmation.  And when we rehearse the gospel, we know that we can do that because the whole of Scripture, especially the Gospels, is an affirming, not a destructive word.

Jesus said that not even a sparrow fell to the ground without the Father taking note. Then he added, “you are of more value than sparrows.” And how extravagant is this? “The very hairs on your head are numbered.” Each of us is a unique, unrepeatable miracle of God, and there is a place in God’s heart that only I can fill…that only you can fill.

“For thee were we made, oh God,” said Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”  No wonder he said that; the psalmist himself had captured it long before – “You have made us a little lower than the angels, a little less than God, and crowned us with glory and honor.” 

We don’t need to go into the New Year with self-pity because God is on our side.  To let go of self-pity is to begin practicing how to leave your stuff behind. God created us. And God is going to be with us.

Leave behind illegitimate responsibility.

The next bundle of stuff we need to leave behind is illegitimate responsibility.  I’m talking about the responsibilities which we rigidly claim for ourselves, but which don’t legitimately belong to us.

Our journey will be more meaningful if we can determine that there are certain responsibilities that are ours; these we will accept and give our resources to.  There are other responsibilities which we simply have to leave with others and with God.  Parents, there is a limitation to the responsibility we can take for our children.  We must do all we can to nurture our children to live productive, helpful, meaningful, Christian lives.  But beyond a certain time and place of nurturing, we must commit them wholly to God, and leave with them and with God the responsibility for guiding themselves.

This is conditioned by a special word to young parents. A Chicago suburbanite put on a last spurt of speed to catch his train but missed it.  A bystander remarked, “if you’d run a little faster you would have made it.”   “No,” the suburbanite replied, “it wasn’t a case of running faster, but of starting sooner.”  Young parents, you can’t begin too soon to relate a child to God – to demonstrate clearly to your children your own commitment and values.  We can’t depend wholly upon the church to instill within our children a love of God’s Word.  That won’t do it;  of course the church has a responsibility, but parents are primarily responsible. When we have been faithful in our parenting, we can leave our inordinate feelings of responsibility for our children behind.

There are responsibilities that we can and must assume – but many of us are weighed down by responsibilities that don’t belong to us. We must leave them behind.

Leave behind cancelled sin. 

There’s a lot of stuff we ought to leave behind, along with self-pity and illegitimate responsibility. What stuff do you still need to leave behind? We can’t name them all, but let me mention one other bundle that we need to cast off as we stride into this New Year: the bundle of cancelled sin.  The phrase comes from Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Oh For A Thousand Tongues To Sing.”  He claims that this is the work of Christ.

He breaks the power of canceled sin,

He sets the prisoner free;

his blood can make the foulest clean;

His blood availed for me.

Scores of people who beat a steady stream to my study door for counseling are burdened down by cancelled sin.  Somewhere in the past, they did things, got involved in situations, and were caught in relationships about which they feel morbid guilt.  They carry this around as an inside burden which no one knows about.  But like a malignancy, it grows and spreads until it poisons the person and brings a sickness like death.

The heart of the gospel is that God through Christ forgives our sins, and our sins are cancelled by God’s grace.  But obviously, this fact and experience are not enough.  Cancelled sin still has power – destructive power in our lives.

How then is the power of cancelled sin actually broken?  How do we leave this burden behind?  There is one key: confession and inner healing.  I believe that under most circumstances, not only confession to God but confession to another is essential for healing and release from the power of cancelled sin

This is the reason James admonishes us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another.  Once we confess to a minister or to an intimate friend or group, we don’t carry the burden alone.  The poisonous guilt that was bottled up inside is now released.  The cleansing and freedom that comes is wing-giving.  Forgiveness and acceptance are confirmed in our lives and the fear of others knowing who and what we are is taken away.

A medical analogy works well here. When an infection appears somewhere on the body, antibiotics are given.  If these do not destroy the infection, usually the infection is localized and has to be lanced.  The surgeon uses the scalpel and opens the boil in order that all the poison can be drained.  Confession is something like the surgeon’s scalpel.  When we honestly open our lives in confession, all the poisonous guilt that we have bottled up within has a chance to flow out.  Confession becomes the cleansing process by which the self is freed from the power of cancelled sin.

Now there are two requisites for redemptive confession – one, you must trust the person or the group to whom you confess; and two, your confession must not be destructive to another person.  We cannot disregard the health and wholeness of another in order to seek our own release.

The big point is that the burden of erased wrongdoing is too great for us to carry into the New Year.  You can leave that stuff behind, because God forgives.  God loves you and accepts you.  And if you’ve not experienced the release from cancelled sin, if the burden of it is still with you, you may need to find a person whom you love and trust with whom you can share.  Open your life to them, and allow the poison to flow out in your honest confession. Remember the promise of John’s gospel: “if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”

I want to invite you now to use your imagination. Picture yourself with a big trash bag. Move through every room of your life; select the stuff you need to leave behind. I’m talking about self-pity and illegitimate responsibility. 

Put it into the trash bag.

What cancelled sin still has power over you, what hidden hatred, what frustrating fear, what devastating doubt, what powerful prejudice?

Put it in the trash bag.  Do it.  Act it out in your imagination. 

Put it into the trash bag.

Is there an unresolved relationship with a husband or wife, a parent or a child, a neighbor?  Is there a jealousy you’ve never brought out into the open? 

Put it into the bag. 

It could be any number of things.  You know what weighs you down, and what stuff you don’t need to take into the New Year. 

Put it into the bag.  Be specific in identifying and visualizing all the stuff in your mind to put into that bag.

Now stay with me in your imagination.  Get in your mind the picture with which we began  – the junk man with his cart filled with cast-off clothing, discarded furniture, all sorts of abandoned useless things.  Do you see it in your mind?  He’s passing by. 

In your imagination now, throw your trash bag onto the junk wagon and let it be taken away. 

Have you done it?  In your imagination, just cast it onto the junk wagon to be taken away.  Be silent now and enjoy the relief and release of getting rid of that burden. Keep the image of the trash man in your mind for a moment, taking all your trash away.  Now substitute for the image of the junk man, Christ himself.

Do you see him?  Jesus. Listen.  Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. 

Leave your stuff behind – all your junk.  Leave it.

You are forgiven.  Your failure and weakness are accepted.  Your past is buried in the sea of God’s loving forgetfulness.

Go into the New Year with Christ, and go joyfully.

Maxie Dunnam ~ Serving Like Jesus

The cross is the symbol of Jesus’ most radical expression of submission and servanthood. At the center of Good Friday was Jesus’ “obedience unto death—even on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This cross-shaped attitude is a pattern for us to implement and imitate.

By opening ourselves to the shaping power of the indwelling Christ, we grow into the likeness of Christ. Serving is one of the most important disciplines because we act our way into Christ-likeness.

The Cross Style of Submission and Serving

Jesus’ way was the way of the cross, and this was essential to his ministry. He chose the way of humiliation. He “emptied himself,” refusing to hang on to the glory that was his with the Father. He reversed all notions of greatness and power. He became weak that we may be strong, poor that we may be rich. And he chose obedient submission even to death on the cross (Philippians 2:5-11).

So, his was a cross-way of life, which made his teaching the most revolutionary in history. His call was to a cross-way of life. “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'”(Mark 8:34).

He minced no words: “He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.'”(Mark 9:35).

Perhaps the most dramatic witness of this cross style was his action at the last supper with his disciples in the upper room. No one was around to perform that common act of a servant when persons came in off the hot dusty roads, that is, washing feet. This was a borrowed room; thus there was no servant or head of the house or anyone to see that the menial task was performed. Jesus provided the unforgettable picture of submission, of the cross style, by washing the disciples’ feet.

Lest the ongoing meaning of this be lost in the bafflement of what was happening, Jesus made it clear. After washing their feet and taking up his garments again, he sat down, explained to them what he had done and why he had done it, and plotted their course as his disciples: “You call me ‘Master’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Then if I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example: you are to do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15, NEB).

Servants After the Style of Jesus

It is clear as we read the New Testament that serving is the most distinctive quality of Jesus’ style of ministry. And Jesus leaves little doubt that it is the style to which he calls us: “The disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master” (Matthew 10:24).

“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:26-28).

Not only does Jesus call us to this style, he gives life through this style: “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

It is clear. The style to which we are called is that of serving:

But not many of us want to be servants, do we? Also, there is a vast difference between the way most of us serve and Jesus’ call to be a servant. The way most of us serve keeps us in control. We choose whom, when, where, and how we will serve. We stay in charge. Jesus is calling for something else. He is calling us to be servants. When we make this choice, we give up the right to be in charge. The amazing thing is that when we make this choice we experience great freedom. We become available and vulnerable, and we lose our fear of being stepped on, or manipulated, or taken advantage of. Are not these our basic fears? We do not want to be in a position of weakness (Dunnam, Alive in Christ, 150).

Here is the conflict. Even though we make the decision to serve, undisciplined as we are, we continue to choose when, where, whom, and how we will serve. Thus we continually run the risk of pride, and we are always vulnerable to a “good works” mentality that sends us frantically to engage ourselves in whatever deeds of mercy we can devise. How do we deal with these snares?

Guarding Against Pride and a “Good Works” Mentality

Thomas Merton reminds us that,

he who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means. (“Contemplation in a World of Action,” 178-79).

If we think we know others and their needs perfectly well, our serving will often hinder rather than help. To combat pride, we must be attentive to the other – a form of submission. We must be patient, intent on serving the genuine needs of the other, rather than serving our own need to serve. In this fashion we will diminish the possibility of being on our own. We will be open to the Spirit to guide us in discerning need and in making appropriate responses to need.

Given a decision to serve, we think we must immediately spring into action. We must guard against two pitfalls. Our desire to serve may be poisoned by a desire to please. Also, there is the snare of turning our servant action into controlling power over another.

One antidote for a “good works” mentality is an ongoing sensitivity to our own unworthiness. The Bible’s witness is clear. Awareness of a calling to service is accompanied by a sense of personal unworthiness. A “good works” mentality is also dissolved by keeping alive the conviction that our salvation depends upon God’s grace, not our performance. A third antidote to a “good works” mentality is an ongoing awareness that our serving is not redemptive within itself. Our serving provides the environment, sets the stage, and releases the energy for the person we are serving to be genuinely helped, even healed.

Now we return to the central issue. We discipline ourselves in serving, deliberately acting as servants because we are servants of Christ. Thus our choosing to serve elicits no false pride.

In a disciplined way we choose and decide to serve here or there, this person or that person, now or tomorrow, until we take the form of a servant and our lives become spontaneous expressions of the cross style.

As we practice the disciplines of submission and serving, we are freed from the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way, and we find the freedom to value and serve others. The primary purpose of these two disciplines, like all spiritual disciplines, is to cultivate the mind of Christ in us. We act our way into Christ-likeness.

Maxie Dunnam ~ Public Confession and Repentance

Note from the Editor: This week at Wesleyan Accent, as we scan, with grief, ongoing news from seeker-sensitive Protestant megachurches and Roman Catholic dioceses, we are reaching into our treasure trove of archives to reexamine different aspects of leadership. Our contributors over the years have written thoughtful, challenging reflections on leadership from a variety of perspectives. 

Today we share this meditation from Dr. Maxie Dunnam, an activist in the Civil Rights Movement.

March 22, 2014 was a day of huge importance for my city of Memphis. Like many significant events, I’m afraid it went unnoticed by most. Two churches, Second and Independent Presbyterian, held a public service of confession and repentance.

Few of us would not recognize our need for individual repentance. None of us are without the mark of Adam; what we would do, we do not, and what we would not do, we do. We need repentance and forgiveness.

But this was public, corporate repentance.

Fifty years earlier to the day two young men – Joe Purdy and Jim Bullock – had visited Second Presbyterian together as part of a church visit campaign, called kneel-ins. Before the young men could reach the entrance, a church representative asked Joe, “Are you African?” When he said, “No, I’m American,” he and his white friend were refused entrance. They returned the following Sunday (and the six Sundays after that) with a growing number of friends of both races who stood outside the church in silent protest of the church’s refusal to welcome them. Though few knew it at the time, the men responsible for repelling the visitors were enforcing an explicit policy of segregation adopted by the church’s session in 1957.

In The Last Segregated Hour, Stephen Haynes, a Religious Studies professor at Rhodes College, does a great job of telling the story, including how it is remembered and the ongoing implications.

Independent Presbyterian Church was founded because Second Presbyterian reversed its position denying the Kneel-in Protesters’ presence in the church, and allowed them entrance. Numerous people opposed that decision, left, and founded a separate church (Independent Presbyterian), which had in its constitution the commitment to preserve racial segregation in the church.

Fifty years later, the pastors and leaders of both congregations felt a need to make a corporate response.

Thank God for pastors and lay leaders who recognized that history is important, and when unrecognized and unconfessed, sin poisons the body. We don’t keep secrets, our secrets keep us.

Jim Bullock, one of the students turned away from Second Presbyterian Church fifty years ago, and one of the speakers at the 50th anniversary commemoration service, has written about the event on March 22 for the Presbyterian News Service:

March 22, 2014 is a day I shall not soon forget. When I woke up my stomach was already churning. The rainy weather seemed to bode ill. I made my customary stop at Starbuck’s where I had my customary grande chai latte. But I could not get my stomach to settle down. Hope and fear were churning away in my gut and the words of a colleague – “you know, this thing could go really badly” – echoed in my ears. I arrived half-an-hour early at the location where the day’s events were to take place (typically, I’m at least five minutes late everywhere I go). I walked inside the church and looked around until I found the room where I was to meet several other men for a time of prayer. The prayer time had been my idea, and I was glad I had suggested it. Inside the room were representatives of three local churches – Idlewild, Second and Independent – which have little in common beyond the name “Presbyterian.” In fact, the churches represent different denominations that define themselves largely in opposition to one another. But there we were, praying for reconciliation – among us, and among the people who would come to Second Presbyterian Church that morning to commemorate the traumatic events that had split the church fifty years earlier.

As the prayer time went on, I found myself crying tears of joy. A day we had hoped for, imagined, and dreamed of was finally here. The Spirit seemed to be honoring our vision of a service of truth-telling and reconciliation at the site of one of the South’s most notorious acts of racial exclusion.

Interestingly, the public confession of particular, individual sins has ballooned in the past three or four decades in the plethora of “confessional” self-help groups that have emerged (for alcoholics, over-eaters, drug abusers, sex addicts). Yet, our ability to acknowledge the existence of large-scale, all-permeating corporate sin has dramatically decreased. We have our time of corporate confession in our worship services, but that has become so perfunctory that its purpose and power is blurred. Maybe corporate confession is dulled in meaning because in our preaching and teaching we have dramatized glaring private sins readily recognized and named, while the “hidden” sins of attitude and omission get no attention.

Scripture is full of God’s call for corporate confession and repentance…the recognition of the sins of the nation, the sins of “the whole people of God.” So what happened in that service on March 22 was not only good and redemptive for the soul of those two congregations, it was good for the whole church…perhaps a model for all.

I may be making too much of it, but I think it is also significant that this public service of confession and repentance for racism took place two weeks before our remodeled and expanded Civil Rights Museum is to be reopened in Memphis (April 4). We are dull indeed if we can visit the museum without feeling we are a “people of unclean lips and we live among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5) We need to repent, not only privately, but corporately.

Maxie Dunnam ~ Witness: Reflecting on Billy Graham’s Funeral

Honor comes to us in all sorts of ways. When we think of personal honors, we usually think of the ways we have been recognized and affirmed in a formal way. But some honors, just as or more meaningful, are not formally bestowed. To be among the 2,300 people invited to witness the private funeral of Billy Graham was a surprising non-formal honor which moved me deeply.  Though I did not have a personal relationship with Billy (I refer to him that way, because that’s the way he would have it), I met him on a couple of occasions.

Because of his biblical and theological perspective, people often fail to reflect on how creative and innovative he was: the way he pioneered the use of radio and television; the way he harnessed print media; the role he played in launching a world-class magazine; and his influence in higher education, particularly theological education.

His funeral, for which he was the primary architect, was in keeping with that ongoing stream of creativity. He was certainly one of the two or three most outstanding Christian leaders of the 20th century if not the most and would certainly have massive attention in death. I can imagine him thinking, “why not use the funeral to make a witness for Christ through the tv coverage?” And that’s a big part of what happened.

The core of the service was the witness of his children, all of them simple and clear, doing what I’m sure pleased him: not praising their father, but emphasizing his message.  The most meaningful for me was the sharing of one daughter who had a painful marriage that ended in divorce, talking about her shame and how dreadful it was to think of how this was affecting her Mom and Dad, but how redemptive it was when she was welcomed home by Billy with open arms. It was a powerful story. There was no pretension of perfection. The feeling was that we were at a large family funeral, friends gathered to remember, to share their grief and celebrate the life of a loved one.

Presidents had visited the family in the days before the funeral, and both the President and Vice President were in attendance at the funeral. Nothing was made of their presence. Most of us in attendance would not have even known they were there, but for a simple naming of them when a few other distinguished “visitors” were welcomed.

The entire service was full of worshipful and grateful joy. My emotions were stirred in a surprising way. For a time in the service I was overcome as my own conversion and Christian experience began to pervade my thoughts. Two men were dominant in that vivid reliving: Wiley Grisson, a fifth grade-educated Baptist preacher under whose powerful preaching I was converted, and my baptism by him, along with my father, in a cold creek, and David McKeithen, a seminary-educated Methodist preacher who paid attention to a poor country boy in the youth group, taking me under his wing and nurturing me in the faith, becoming my father in ministry.

Both of those men belong in the company of Billy Graham. Tears of joy flowed for my being blessed by those two men, and for Billy blessing millions.

Tears of repentance and sadness came when I reflected on the state of our nation today. During the service, we were remembering and celebrating the passionate ministry of this man who was relentlessly driven in sharing the Gospel and calling people to saving faith in Jesus Christ. I couldn’t help but think of Francis Asbury, the powerful evangelist that led so much of the planting of the Gospel and the Methodist movement in America.  Billy Graham lay in state in our Capitol building in Washington; some folks were critical of that.  I wondered if folks were critical when public monies paid for a statue of Francis Asbury on horseback, still present in our capital city.

I was sad and tearful because the signs are far from clear that we are still in the spirit of Francis Asbury, or were ever very much in the spirit of Billy Graham. So, our Methodist movement, once the most obvious presence of the Christian faith and way in this country, is diminishing in number and influence.

There are those who still insist that Billy was never as prophetic as he should have been. Some of that, though in my mind not much, may be so. As I shared in the funeral experience, my mind went back to the mid-sixties in Mississippi. I was not as prophetic, bold and courageous as I should have been, but I did take a stand for the Gospel.

Mississippi was a “closed society” as related to civil rights. Black students couldn’t get into the University of Mississippi, public schools were being integrated and private schools for whites only were rising everywhere; and not only restrooms and lunch counters but white church doors were closed to Black citizens. Along with a few other young Methodist ministers, we took a stand for justice and reconciliation. Billy Graham refused to have a crusade in Mississippi that was not open to all races.

Though not an honor formally bestowed, the invitation to Billy’s private funeral was a signal honor for which I am deeply grateful.  I have long believed that my evangelical faith calls me to be passionate in sharing the Gospel, which means calling people to salvation: personal faith in Jesus Christ which means reconciliation with God and neighbor, and personal and social holiness. Billy’s funeral intensified that belief and commitment.

Maxie Dunnam ~ When Did the United Methodist Church Really Sell Her Soul?

It got my attention – the title of a blog post: When the United Methodist Church Sold Its Soul.  Though I originally saw it shared on Facebook, it was posted on United Methodist Insight by Doyle Burbank-Williams.

The author’s foundational claim was that the UMC sold her soul when the General Conference (the only body that can speak officially for the whole Church) adopted the mission statement, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ.”

It should not have surprised me, but it did. The author blamed our understanding of evangelism (as expressed in our mission statement) for the fact that the church is not affirming same-sex marriage and the ordination of “practicing” homosexual candidates. In making the case, the writer, in the style of many ideologues, made blanket assertions that are strangers to reality and used definitions that are stereotypes not generally true, setting up straw men to destroy. For instance, as he defined it, evangelism is, “join us the way we define us or burn in hell,” against Wesley’s “in all things charity.”

Burbank-Williams used the stereotypical notion that evangelicals share their faith to “carve a notch in some spiritual gun butt” in contrast to his claim that progressives follow Jesus because “it makes the world at least a little bit better.” He confessed, “I have no desire to share my version of the faith.” Yet, I don’t know a more dramatic expression of sharing his version of the faith than what he wrote in his post.

He criticized the mission statement “making disciples of Jesus Christ” because he claimed there was nothing about making this world a better place, or making us better. Our interest and commitment, he said, was about numbers and trying to reverse the membership decline, and, he added, “we have been obsessed with numbers ever since.”

I wonder what he thinks a disciple of Jesus does.

The disciples I know in Memphis are the ones who are making our city a better place; they are the ones who are committed to and are making progress in revolutionizing public education so that a child’s zip code does not determine that child’s potential for a good education. They are the ones who are feeding the hungry, challenging a punitive, not redemptive, criminal punishment system, and are advocating for alternative responses than jail time for drug users. They are the ones who are caring for single moms and are providing shelter for abused women and their children.

These disciples of Jesus Christ I know are not demanding that people be like them; they are loving people where they are, and offering the transforming power Christ provides when he becomes Lord of their life. Because they are loving Jesus and loving like Jesus, most people with whom they share receive their witness gladly.

The writer who contends we lost our soul when we adopted the mission statement insists that “love God, love neighbor” would be a better mission statement from a “Wesleyan” perspective. Would you not think that love for our neighbors compels us to share Christ with them, that doing justice and loving mercy is for the transformation of the world and is at the core of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?

Burbank-Williams’ assumption that the General Conference adopted the mission statement because the denomination was diminishing in numbers is patently false. Scott Jones (now Bishop) and the people who shared with him worked for years to get the Church to define herself and her mission for the sake of integrity and identity. They were not thinking of numbers but rather were seeking to be faithful to the Gospel and to renew a denomination that was aimlessly floundering because of the lack of clarity and commitment to a commonly shared mission.

The original statement of the mission was “to make disciples of Jesus Christ;” later the phrase “for the transformation of the world” was added. The first part of the rationale for our present mission as stated in the Discipline is:

to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.

How the Church could be selling her soul for a mission like that is difficult for me to imagine.

It is obvious that there is confusion about the nature of evangelism and discipleship. We have falsely sought to separate the two. The writer is not alone in this confusion. More evangelical, independent churches have sought to make converts without making disciples; mainline churches, such as the UMC, have sought to make disciples without making converts. The mistake should be obvious from both perspectives; being a Christian means being disciples of Jesus Christ, and being a disciple involves a personal saving relationship with Jesus.

But the author seems to make all social issues equal and demanding acceptance from the church. He contends that his generation adopted a more moderate and reasoned response to biblical authority. He snidely describes the Bible as scripture as, “God’s actual words somehow divinely transmitted via inspired human conduits,” saying those with a high view of scripture pay, “no attention to changing culture or even newer and better translation of ancient words and anthropologies.”

Yet what of highly esteemed, outstanding biblical scholars like N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Richard Hayes, and William Arnold? Incidentally, all of these and countless other biblical scholars disagree with the writer’s convictions about human sexuality, but are constantly calling us to acknowledge and confront culture with the Gospel.

His closing focus on the presenting issue of human sexuality that is threatening the division of the UMC makes clear what his issue really is. He asserts that in adopting our mission statement, we sold our souls by formalizing a narrow orthodoxy/evangelism that denied LGBTQ persons full inclusion. That’s a long leap which I believe is not only inadequate, but falsely reasoned. This kind of reasoning demonstrates disrespect for the largest segment of the Church who are committed to scripture as God’s word and are not, by and large, backward folks who refuse to wrestle with cultural issues; this kind of reasoning has brought our denomination to the brink of division.

If there is formalized division that matches the existing crevasse, I’ll be casting my lot with those who want to live out a mission, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.”




Maxie Dunnam ~ Deliverance Through Thanksgiving

Take a turkey break with this piece by Maxie Dunnam from our archives.

One of our big failures as Christians is our continual refusal to discipline ourselves in living with the word of God. We need to study the Bible. It is the shaping  source of our Christian faith and way. In it we find the revelation of God which God provided through God’s Son, Jesus. It is food for our souls, direction and strength for our journey.

But not only do we need to study the Bible, we need to read the Bible devotionally, and there is a difference. The sermon today comes out of my devotional reading of the Bible a few weeks ago. But before I get into the sermon, let me share with you the way I read the Bible devotionally. Perhaps this might be helpful. In  a time of quietness, reflection and prayer, I simply begin reading a pre-selected passage of scripture. With an open mind and heart I read until some word grabs my attention. I stay with that word, allowing it to tumble around in my mind. I seek to taste the word by reflecting upon it in my mind and heart. I ask the word questions and I allow the word to ask me questions, and then out of that reflection, in that moment I form the prayer that I want to offer to God in response to his word.

I was doing this with the Psalms when I came to this 50th Psalm – a portion of which is our scripture lesson today. I came upon that 15th verse, “And call upon me in your time of trouble and I will deliver you and you shall glorify me.”  Now I don’t even know what was going on in my life at that particular time that caused that verse of scripture to be so significant, except that I am like most people… trouble is often my lot. Maybe I was concerned about one of our children; maybe I was wrestling with some problem; maybe I felt that someone or something was after me, and I was being tested. I know it wasn’t a huge earth-shaking thing or I would remember it. Nevertheless there it was, God’s word for me in that particular situation and I needed it. “And call upon me in your time of trouble and I will deliver you and you shall glorify my name.”

What a promise. Deliverance. None of us will pass through too much of our life without needing to lay hold upon that promise, because none of us will pass through too much of our life without being confronted with trouble. But as I reflected upon this staggering promise, I became aware of the fact that it was not a complete within itself. Though it’s a separate verse in the Bible, it begins with the word and. So I went back to read the entire sentence. If you have your Bible before you, look back at the 14th verse and you’ll find the beginning of the sentence. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the most high.” Then comes the promise: “and call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you and you shall glorify me.”  That set me to thinking all over again. And the word of the Lord came to me in a powerful way. There are conditions that we are to meet if we’re going to appropriate the promise of the Lord to deliver us.

Got that? There are conditions that we are to meet if we’re going to appropriate the promise if the Lord to deliver us. God is not making a wholesale promise here. You can’t lift this verse out of its context and use it as a kind of certified check in God’s bank. Well then, since this promise is so astounding and since none of us are going to pass through too much of life without needing to lay hold of it, what are the conditions that we need to meet in order to appropriate this promise of deliverance that God gives us?

The first condition is, offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

Another translation says, “make thanksgiving your offering.” Now that has a specially beautiful meaning if you see it in its entire context. If you go back to the 10th verse of that reading, you’ll see God talking about all that he is and all that he has, and then in that beautiful 12th verse he says, “if I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.” What does a God like this, an omnipotent God who created and owns the whole universe – what does a God like this want? What does a God like this require of us? There it is. Offer to God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Listen. God’s hunger; God’s deepest longing is satisfied by our love and gratitude. Does that make you stand at attention inside? I mean, does that make you feel tall inside? That the God of the universe, the one who created and owns the world is satisfied, God’s deepest longings are satisfied by your praise and thanksgiving?

What a way to think and live during this thanksgiving season. We need to learn that lesson. It’s so easy to forget. It’s so easy to lose touch with the source of life…how we got to where we are; all the blessing that have been poured out upon us. It’s easy to think that we are where we are today because of our own efforts. We’re like that man who was being honored at a banquet for things he had done. He stood to receive the award, but got his tongue twisted, and said, “I don’t appreciate this, but I certainly deserve it.” Well we put that sort of twist to the facts of our life. We interpret our success, our achievements and accomplishments, as the result of our own doing.

Now this came home to me in a powerful way, as I followed the devastating famine tragedy in Africa. I cut a picture off the front page of our local paper and kept it on my desk. It’s a picture of an old man, who looks to be about 100, but I have an idea he’s about 50. And on his back is the stereotypical emaciated little starving child, probably his grandchild. Three generations starving to death. Now I would feel better if I didn’t look at that picture, but I wouldn’t be better. One of the things I think about when I look at that picture is, I could have been born in anywhere in the world. Has that thought crossed your mind during the past two or three weeks? I could have been born in a place of famine, or a place ravaged by war. I could have been born in a place where people earn less than $2.00 a day. And when I think of that, it makes it easy for me to count my blessings – though I was born in rather severe poverty in Mississippi, in context of our world situation, that poverty in Mississippi would be considered rich.

Then I, I go from there. I did not earn – I simply received the gift of parents who loved me, who sacrificed for me, who encouraged me and supported me. I did not earn – I simply received the gift of a public school education. I didn’t earn – I simply received the right of citizenship in this great country, where I have the freedom to vote, and the freedom to speak out, and the freedom to enter into the political process that shapes the destiny of this nation. But I could have been born anywhere else. You see, it’s gift.

They say that Darwin kept a notebook to jot down the contradictions that he came across, contradictions against his theories, because he knew that if he didn’t jot those contradictions down, he was so committed to his theories that he would forget them. Maybe we need to keep a notebook and record those things that we have received, things that have been given to us, things that have been done for us, blessings that we had absolutely nothing to do with them coming to us. I have an idea that that would change our lives.

Now there’s a facet to this truth that we need to look at in a particular way; and it’s suggested in the particular reading from the Revised Standard Version: the word is offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Now those two words don’t seem to go together. Sacrifice and thanksgiving. I don’t know all that that means, but it means at least this – even when we are not in the mood for thanksgiving, even when we have not recorded in our notebooks that for which we need to be grateful, we need to express gratitude. I’m telling you that gratitude can transform your life. I don’t care in what condition you find yourself; I don’t care in what depression you might be; I don’t care what’s going on in your life at this moment, if you can get in touch with the God of the universe who says to you, “offer a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” and do that, your life will be transformed. A sacrifice of thanksgiving means that the surface circumstances of life don’t have to merit it. Still we do it. Whatever the circumstances – our lives are to be an offering of gratitude.

But there’s more here. Another condition that we are to meet if we are going to appropriate the deliverance of the Lord, and it’s there in our text. Pay your vows to the most-high God. Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That’s the first condition to meet if we’re going to appropriate God’s deliverance. And the second is – pay your vows to the most-high God.

Not long ago, I sat with a man who was on the verge of death; cancer was ravaging his body, and he was anguishing in what seemed to be a hopeless situation. I spent about 30 minutes with him in the hospital room. His despair was punctuated with prayerful pleas that he might live a bit longer. In fact, he said, if he could make it just another year. He kept saying that he needed more time. There were things he wanted to do. Promises he wanted to keep. He wanted to pay back debts he owed; he wanted to make up for some failures that he had experienced. Here was a desperate man who wanted to pay his vows to the most-high God.

Alas, he was too late. But it isn’t too late for us. Are there commitments that you made which you haven’t kept? Are there vows to the Lord that you have not followed through on? This is what the Lord is saying to us today – listen – Do the things you promised when you received my love and forgiveness. Keep the vows you made when you accepted my salvation. That’s the word of the Lord for us today.

It’s one of the most fantastic promises in scripture: call upon me in your day of trouble, and I will deliver you. But that promise is based upon two conditions – One, offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving; and two, pay your vows to the most-high God. We can keep both of those promises today. The question is, will we. It’s the only way we are going to know deliverance.

Maxie Dunnam ~ When All the World Was Cursed


It is difficult these days to reflect on anything of great importance, with the most unusual presidential election in our nation’s history a few weeks away.

Following one of the Presidential debates, one of our staff worship leaders included with his Facebook post a picture of a partial page of a hymnbook. The title of the hymn was When All The World Was Cursed. My friend did it as a kind of spoof. I confess, it was more than a spoof for me because I have gone through days lately when I have wondered, is our nation cursed?

I immediately reached for my United Methodist Hymnal. Though there are a number of hymns there that we never sing in our congregation, I couldn’t imagine that I had missed one with a title like that. I was more than casually interested; I was chaffing with curiosity. What would be the content of such a hymn? What would it sound like? In what liturgical season might it be sung? Would the worship leader have to introduce it with some explanation?

I called my friend and asked, “Where is that hymn?” He brought me a copy of it, from a Lutheran hymnal, intrigued that I was so interested. He seemed pleased that I connected it with the debate and the state of our nation. When All the World Was Cursed. The first stanza explains the title and gives the theme of the hymn.

When all the world was cursed

By Moses’ condemnation,

Saint John the Baptist came

With words of consolation.

With true forerunner’s zeal

The Greater One he named,

And Him as yet unknown,

As Savior he proclaimed.

Johann G. Olearius, 1677

Tr. Paul E. Kretzmann, 1940

I don’t know what I was expecting in the words of the hymn, but I had not thought of John the Baptist. I do know that the title of the hymn was intriguing because of the frustration and confusion, the often near-despair I am feeling during what seems such darkness in the corporate life of our nation. Add to that the crisis in our United Methodist Church, and the darkness feels more ominous.

To not give room for hopelessness and despair, I’m focusing my reflection and praying in two primary directions: First, on the nature of the church in the current state of our nation.when-all-the-world-was-cursed

The reality that most impacts the church here in America is the degree to which our nation has gone in severing the Christian faith from public life — the utter confusion about the meaning of church-state separation. Secular materialism has become the state religion and our public schools, particularly our colleges and universities, are the evangelistic centers for the propagation of this un-faith religious life. The Church is no longer the value setter, the moral and ethical arbiter to which leaders and shapers of culture turn for guidance and validation. In fact, the Church has lost her once-privileged position in Western society and is being pushed to the margins of society.

In this social reality, what is our challenge? Can we be imaginative enough, and Kingdom-oriented enough, to grasp the loss of preferential treatment as an advantage? Let’s use the setting to learn how to be “in” the world, but not “of” the world, to train us as “resident aliens.”

Instead of desperately trying to elbow our way up to the tables of power, let’s give our attention to becoming faithful adherents to God’s sovereignty, knowing that more often than not Kingdom ideals are in conflict with the world in which the Kingdom is set. Let’s believe, and make the case with our life and witness, that putting the right person in the Oval Office is not the answer. Let’s concentrate on being an alternative voice to the madness around us

by not consuming the world’s goods without regard for the world’s poor;

by protecting the unborn and also seeing that they are cared for after birth;

by doing justice and loving mercy;

by refusing to accept and accommodate the prevailing patterns of sexual promiscuity, serial marriage and divorce, or accept definitions of marriage other than the life long covenant of a man and a woman,

by not allowing children’s zip codes to determine the care they receive or, especially, the educational possibilities available to them.

Though we know the Kingdom of God cannot be established before the King comes, let’s spend our lives, all that we are, living as though the Kingdom had come; thus we will approximate in this present world what is going to be established here “as it is in heaven.”

As Richard Foster puts it, “Since, in Christ, we have been reborn into the new reality of the Kingdom of God, we can become ambassadors of peace in the midst of a violent world, models of civility and grace in the midst of a competitive society, conveyors of faith and hope in the midst of a cynical culture, and the embodiment of agape love to all peoples in the midst of an adversarial society.” (A pastoral Letter From Richard Foster, Renovare, November 1999 issue)

This kind of living and witnessing requires that we ground everything we do in the awareness that we live in an apostolic situation where Christian experience, Christian memory, and a Christian vocabulary are not a part of our culture. We must recognize that, for the most part, there is no connecting point in language or symbol between the Church and secular culture. We are not a long way from the setting of the primitive Church of the New Testament and a couple of centuries following. Ours is a neo-pagan culture, and “new barbarians” are a big part of the population of our Western world.

But not only to neo-pagan culture in the U.S. and the West, must our witness, evangelism and mission be shaped; they must also be shaped in the awareness that ours is a multiracial, multicultural, multireligious setting.

51xqoswixpl-_sx406_bo1204203200_A few years ago it became clear to me that the world was changing when Jerry and I were driving with some friends through the wild, beautiful desert of New Mexico. We came to Abiquiu, the home of artist Georgia O’Keefe. On a rise just outside the city, there is a beautiful mosque and a large Muslim school. We stopped and had coffee in an art gallery restaurant,  owned and operated by Muslims.

The lesson? The competing religions of the world are not in faraway countries; they are in the cities of America. Being the church, we must take note of this new reality, not giving into fear and prejudice, but becoming more confident of who we are and the integrity and power of our witness.

I’m focusing my reflection and praying on the nature of the church in the current state of our nation.

I’m also claiming that the signs of the time, the mess our nation is in, and the crisis of our United Methodist Church is a “perfect storm” that calls for  revival. In history, awakening and revival have come most often in times of deep, recognized need. Also, God has often used unlikely, and certainly unholy forces to accomplish his will.

Isaiah witnesses to this (Isaiah 7:1-25), expressing it in a way quaint to our modern ears. “In that day the Lord will shave with a razor which is hired beyond the River – with the king of Assyria – the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.”

Another translation simply renders it, “In that day the Lord will shave with a borrowed razor.” What is being said in the text is that God is going to use the pagan king, Cyrus, to accomplish his will. It’s a memorable way of expressing the fact that God uses what he will and acts how he will to achieve his purpose. God is sovereign King of the universe – in control – and his eternal purpose is going to be accomplished, and he uses all sorts of persons and events and circumstances to accomplish his will. He shaves with a borrowed razor.

He also calls us to prayer as a condition for his renewing, reviving intervention. In my teaching about prayer I often ask the question, What if there are some things God either cannot or will not do until and unless people pray? My reflection to make a response to the question is that the Bible makes clear and histories confirm that God’s promises to act in history and in our personal lives are often connected with conditions that we are to meet. The classic example of that in the Old Testament is God’s word: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray”… that’s the condition. If we meet that condition, God says, “Then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land.” The classic example in the New Testament is the promise of Jesus: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you”… that’s the condition. Then Jesus says, “you may ask what you will and I will grant it.”

In my devotional reading a while ago, I came across a passage from Isaiah that latched onto my mind and heart like a steel-trap: I have posted watchmen on your walls, 0 Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night. You who call upon the Lord, give yourselves no rest, give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem.” (Isa. 62: 6-7) What a challenge to do-it-yourself people. Most of us are far more comfortable out in the trenches than we are in the prayer closet. It is far easier for most of us to work, to busy ourselves in church work, to think we can take no rest from our labor. But that’s not what Isaiah is saying. He is not calling us to never rest from our active work, our much doing, our busy involvements. His word is a call to take no rest from prayer…no rest from calling on the Lord.

I believe this is our first call as Christians: Pray, pray, pray; then when you have prayed, pray.

Are you tired and weary, sort of dull in your discipleship? Pray.

What about the joy of your salvation? Has that joy faded? Pray.

What about your spiritual power? You see power working in other persons but you feel powerless…you wonder what the problem is. Pray.

Do you long for a greater power of the Holy Spirit? Are you convinced you can’t go on without that power? Pray.

Do you believe that prayer is the great means for receiving a spiritual awakening? I press you. Are you praying for a quickening in your own life? How much time do you spend in an average week praying for the church, the nation? For awakening and revival?

Could it be that what is missing is that we don’t spend enough time on our knees? Lord help us!

When all the world was cursed! So we feel. But, think, reflect, have conversation, make the best decision you can and vote. But know: the healing of the nation, awakening and revival is not dependent upon whoever becomes our president. The Psalmist was direct in warning us: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.”(Ps. 127:1)

There is an old admonition, which urges us to pray as though everything depended on Christ, and to work as though everything depended on us. Not a bad formula for effective discipleship, but I know few people who keep the balance. And I know few congregations that are confident enough to “wait on the Lord,” to free themselves from activity and action long enough to discern the direction in which the Lord may want to take them.

The truth is, friends, most of us believe it all depends on us. We are type-A people, even when it comes to faith, confident in ourselves, our skills, our resources. How tempting it is for us to approach spiritual matters the same way that we approach our jobs, our businesses, our families; like Avis, we just try harder: work more, spend ourselves, use our energy, and we can get the job done. But the truth is, in Kingdom terms, we are not getting the job done.

When all the world was cursed. The time is now. We must embrace the presence of Christ in a way we’ve not done before and allow the Holy Spirit, through prayer, to permeate every fiber of our being and be the guiding empowerment of all we seek to do. Change happens, renewal and revival come not because we have designed it, or wanted it, or worked for it, but because God in his infinite grace and unfettered mercy, in his own time and according to his design, brings new life to persons, to congregations, to denominations, to movements, and ministries. “Unless the Lord build the house, the workman labors in vain.” In Africa, 20,000 people pray to receive Christ every day. China continues to explode with new Christians, some suggest 32,000 daily. In Iran, more Muslims have come to know Christ since 1980 than in the previous 1,000 years. It can happen here.

Remember what the hymn is all about…John the Baptist proclaiming the promised coming of Jesus when all the world was cursed. Let’s pray for awakening and revival. The last stanza of the hymn is at the heart of our praying:

Oh, grant Thou Lord of Love,                                                     

That we receive, rejoicing,                                                           

The word proclaimed by John,                                                                   

Our true repentance voicing;

That gladly we may walk                                                                        

Upon our Savior’s way                                                                                        

Until we live with Him                                                                            

In His eternal day.