Tag Archives: Evangelism

The Clearest Witness That We Are Christian by Maxie Dunnam

Wesleyan Accent

  

The Clearest Witness That We Are Christian by Maxie Dunnam

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I’ve written two previous articles on this general theme, saying yes to forgiveness. If you have not seen those articles, you can see them here and here.

I make this claim now: saying yes to forgiveness is our clearest witness to the fact that we are Christian.

Here is a powerful witness. It was 1921 in the South of Poland, following the devastation of another war. A Quaker woman had driven herself in selfless service as a nurse to that war-torn land. She spent herself in tireless love, and she died — having literally given her life away.

A question arose: Where would she be buried? It was Roman Catholic territory and church law forbade any but baptized Roman Catholics be buried in the consecrated ground of a Catholic cemetery – and that was the only cemetery around. Yet the Quaker nurse was deeply loved by all. It was a far more serious question than we modern Protestants can grasp. Where would she be buried?

Finally it was settled. The decision was made that she was to be buried just outside the cemetery fence. So it was done.

During the night, however, after the funeral, Polish peasants, faithful Roman Catholics, moved the fence so that it would include the grave of their beloved nurse inside the sacred ground.

That’s what Christ does, and that’s the task of Christians – to move fences, to tear down walls. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:18-19)  

One of my heroes is Clarence Jordan. He comes to mind because he paraphrased this text about God being in Christ, “Putting his arms around the world and hugging it to himself.” Clarence was not a casual quoter of Scripture. He was a New Testament Greek Scholar.

His witness is more highly charged for me because he took his paraphrase personally. He founded Koinonia Farm, in southwest Georgia, as a primary witness for reconciliation in the context of rigid racial segregation and conflict. 

From an early age, Jordan was troubled by the racial and economic injustice he perceived in his community. Hoping to improve the lot of sharecroppers through scientific farming techniques, he earned a degree in agriculture from the University of Georgia. During his college years he became convinced that the roots of poverty were spiritual as well as economic, and became a Christian minister.

It thrills me to ponder how God used this person, his gifts and his training. He titled his paraphrase of Scripture the Cotton Patch Paraphrase of the New Testament. He was also instrumental in the founding of Habitat for Humanity. I quote him often. “God was in Christ. Putting his arms around the world and hugging it to himself.”

Saying yes to forgiveness is our clearest witness to the fact that we are Christian.

This post is part III in Maxie’s series on Saying Yes to Forgiveness.  Join us next week as we learn more about how we Forgive Others as We Forgive Ourselves

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From The Margins by Rob Haynes

  

From The Margins by Rob Haynes

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Occasionally, a friend or family member will send me a piece they’ve found in the media about the “decline” of the Church. These articles, videos, podcasts, books, etc. talk about the increase in the notion of the irrelevance of the church in the lives of many in the United States and/or Europe. Usually, this is accompanied by some degree of anxiety from the one who shared it. We should, no doubt, pay attention to the trends in which people seem to be turning their backs on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Numbers shown in such statistics are not merely benign figures. They represent real people whose lives matter to God.

The changing demographics in many parts of the world will cause, and are causing, some significant challenges for churches. This comes not only in the financial realm (fewer participants means less money in the offerings, presumably), but also in terms of ministries offered, lives impacted, and resources available. Things are changing and will continue to change. This changing landscape provides us with the opportunity, and responsibility, to rethink and restructure our approaches to evangelism. 

We need to admit that we are not the first generation to face challenges in our efforts to bear witness in the public arena to the great things that Jesus has done and to do so in a way that is faithful to the gospel. This is not the first time that the church has lost the privileged voice. Today’s Christians are living on the margins, just as many have done in the past. Yet, the Church continues in her mission throughout time and through the world. This gives us hope that we are not responsible for inventing something new to solve the problem. Rather, we look to the witness of the Scriptures and the saints who have gone before. We do, after all, stand on the shoulders of giants of the faith today. Standing on such a witness, let’s looks at some at some opportunities and responsibilities that the shifts in our culture might bring for evangelism:

  • We cannot assume that the “public good” will assist us in making disciples of Jesus Christ. In the past, we could rely on the general culture to be conversant in the principles of the Christians message and, by and large, embrace them. At least this was the way the prevailing winds were blowing.
  • With this in mind, it’s important to point out that the answer is not a full-frontal attack in the culture wars. That has been tried and found wanting. Rather, it’s going to need to begin with humility and repentance. It’s okay to admit past mistakes. It’s okay to admit that you may have questions too. These make the message even more welcoming.
  • That doesn’t mean compromising the Message or seeking to do some sort of acrobatics to make it more “relevant.” The gospel is always relevant. Open the message of Jesus to others in a way that shows love and compassion. God will fill in the gaps. 
  • The world is increasingly complex and changing at an even faster pace each day, it seems. 

This means that, as those living on the margins, we need to learn from those who are shaping the culture. Learn how to speak the language. Learn what questions the culture is asking. The gospel has the answers to those questions. But you will never know how to answer them if you don’t know what the questions are in the first place.

  • At the same time, don’t get sucked into selling a bill of goods to the culture who only wants to measure usefulness in terms of individual gain, national prosperity, or economic advantage. The gospel does not fit into those frameworks. Rather, Jesus challenged all of those “advantages” and declared them all to be worth nothing compared to what He was offering.
  • It means that we need to take time to get to know our neighbors. I mean, really get to know them. They are not just another “soul to be saved.” Rather, they are people who have hopes, dreams, wants, and longings. The gospel is the only thing that will fulfill those in a meaningful way. Others will be open to hearing the gospel when they know that you actually care about them for who they are, not just an accomplishment in your evangelistic mission.
  • We must increase our practical ministries. We can learn well from the early Celtic Christian movement who embraced serving their pagan neighbors while sharing the Good News with them. They were hometown missionaries before we even had the term.
  • We must be open to the Holy Spirit leading. We need to admit that there is no single method of evangelism that works everywhere for everyone. Don’t be too quick to criticize others for how God has called them to serve. 
  • Evangelism must expect the ongoing discipleship of those who accept Jesus’ offer of Life and Life abundantly. Be prepared to take the long journey with others who express a desire to grow in their faith.

And above all else: what’s more important than HOW we evangelize is the character of the Christians who share their faith. Holiness matters. People not only need to hear that God is alive, but they need to see His followers live in such a way that they demonstrate the love of our Living God. This is a good place to recall John Wesley’s words about the Methodist movement in the West, its expanse in his lifetime:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” (Thoughts on Methodism)

 We need not fear for the future of the Church. The Kingdom will Come and God’s Will shall be done. If we fail to fulfill our role, God will raise up another. However, remembering that Palm Sunday admonition, I don’t want a rock to take my place in crying out – or in showing and sharing the love of Jesus as He commanded us to do. If we must do that from the margins, so be it.

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Struggle is “Normal” by Maxie Dunnam

  

Struggle is “Normal” by Maxie Dunnam

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Over and over, in his journal, Wesley confirmed personal testimony of salvation working in the lives of believers. One of his classic illustrations was the story of the barber who shaved him.  The fellow’s experience was so vital and life-changing that he could not resist sharing with the man who introduced the change.

The barber who shaved me said, “Sir, I praise God on your behalf. When you were at Bolton last, I was one of the most eminent drunkards in all the town; but I came to listen at the window, and God struck me to the heart. I then earnestly prayed for the power against drinking; and God gave me more than I asked: He took away the very desire of it. Yet I felt myself worse and worse, till, on the 5th of April last, I could hold out no longer. I knew I must drop into hell that moment unless God appeared to save me. And He did appear. I knew He loved me and felt sweet peace. Yet I did not dare to say I had faith, till yesterday was twelve-month, God gave me faith; and His love has ever since filled my heart.”

Wesley would say the barber’s witness was his experience of the beginning of salvation. There was more, much more.

I believe [the new birth] to be an inward thing; a change from inward wickedness to inward goodness; an entire change of our inmost nature from the image of the devil (wherein we are born) to the image of God; a change from the love of the creature to the love of the Creator; from earthly and sensual to heavenly and holy affections, in a word, a change from the tempers of the spirit of darkness to those of the angels of God in heaven!

Change is a key word in that dramatic claim: a change from the tempers of the spirit of darkness to those of the angels of God in heaven! Justification is the starting point of sanctification. Change, “going on to salvation,” is the overarching dynamic.

Whereas in his early struggles to be Christian, Wesley practiced discipline in order to become a Christian, going on to salvation he experienced joy in being Christian by practicing disciplines that once had been drudgery.

In our going on to full salvation, struggle is normal and discipline is essential, I will discuss this more in my next article.

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God May Be Asking For a Witness, Not an Attorney by Rob Haynes

“As a lawyer for God, putting up His case, I was a failure. As a witness for God, telling what He had done for me, I was a success. As in a flash, I saw my calling: I was to be a witness! It was bitter medicine, bitterly and publicly administered, but I took the medicine and found it cured me of illusions. I would not be God’s able lawyer, but I would be a witness to grace.”

E Stanley Jones

 

I was recently in a coffee shop enjoying the morning and catching up on some reading. At a nearby table were some folks whom I know from the broader Christian community in my town. My acquaintances discussed strategies for convincing a hypothetical non-believer to become a Christian. I was struck by their tone in particular. Their conversation was framed as one in which one might win a great legal battle. They talked about how to get the other person to capitulate in an argument of wit and strategy.

The quote above comes to mind when I think about this incident in the coffee shop. E. Stanley Jones was a missionary to India. He arrived there in 1907 and had a rough start to his ministry there. His attempts to argue for God led to a real crisis of faith and ministry early on. After a careful reconsideration of his approach (and his vocational service), Jones became a significant influence on millions of people, including many world leaders.

He dedicated his life and ministry to conversations of faith with people in one-on-one settings, small groups, and large seminars. He held to six principles of faith-sharing:

  1. Frankness. Jones made sure that his hearers knew that the reason for their gathering was a faith-sharing opportunity.
  2. Humility. He never attached another’s religion in his messages. “If there is an attack in [the message], it must be a positive presentation of Christ. He himself must be the attack.”
  3. Openness. He never shied away from difficult questions, but rather welcomed careful examination and reflection.
  4. Deference. He made sure the others in his conversations felt valued and appreciated.
  5. Christ-Centered. He never shied away from the necessity of faith in Jesus.
  6. Experiential. Jones felt that “Christ must be interpreted in terms of the Christian experience rather than mere argument.”

In our present day and age, it seems like there are many who want to argue. However, maybe God is asking you to be his witness, not his attorney. Jesus told his disciples that they were to be just that: Witnesses. What if your approach to sharing Jesus took on these six principles?

To finish the opening quote from Brother Stanley (as he preferred to be called), he said,

“And I have been a witness – a witness before princes and peasants, before Brahmans and outcastes, before the mighty and the miserable, of what Christ has done for an unworthy recipient. I have found that this is what people want to hear – testimony of what has happened and is happening to you.”

Jones proved to be an effective witness for Christ in the pluralistic society in India of the 20th Century. The pluralistic societies of our day can be reached in much the same way. Everywhere we turn there is someone willing to argue. Yet, this principle remains: people truly want to hear a testimony of what has happened and is happening to you. Giving them that testimony steeped in Brother Stanley’s principles can prove just as effective today.

Where might God be calling you to not be his attorney, but rather his witness?

Assurance by Maxie Dunnam

Most people in the Methodist Wesleyan tradition of the Christian faith know at least the broad outline of Wesley’s life. In 1725, having been nurtured by his mother, Susanna, and his father, Samuel, a priest in the Church of England, John, while a student at Oxford University, had a conversion to the ideal of holy living. There are few examples in history of a more disciplined religious person: he rose at 4:00 am, read the New Testament in Greek for an hour, and then prayed for an hour with his brother Charles and others who had joined him in what was derisively called the Holy Club. He spent time visiting prisons and gave to the poor all of his money except that which was absolutely necessary for his own living. He was a person desperately seeking salvation and assurance of his salvation.

Knowing that bit of biography makes his witness more powerful:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

This was the watershed experience that gave him the assurance of salvation. Naturally, this became a part of his teaching. Assurance is the privilege of every Christian. Persons can know they are saved, and they can be saved to the uttermost.

The Aldersgate prayer meeting was for Wesley an evangelical conversion that resulted in assurance. That assurance is a testimony to present salvation, not presumption about the future. Once the Spirit makes that witness to us, the witness of assurance can be continually verified. It can be verified in at least five ways:

  1. We can simply remember that the goodness of God once shown to us in Christ is the goodness of God toward us for all time.
  2. We know that we have repented of our sins, and can continue to repent daily.
  3. We are aware of change in our lives-and the awareness of assurance grows within us as we see changes continually happening.
  4. Assurance is ours if we are aware of a new character being produced in us if the fruits of the Spirit are growing in our lives.
  5. We know assurance if we find joy in the service of God.

There are few experiences that can provide more power in our lives than to have assurance of our salvation. Think what it could do for any one of us:

  • Our timidity and uncertainty about witnessing would be dissolved. We would not be intimidated by those “buttonhole witnesses” who come on like gangbusters.
  • We would know that tenderness, patience, and understanding are authentic testimonies, as well as words.
  • We would not get overwrought with our Christian friends who insist on future security, for we would be assured of our present relationship with Christ.
  • We would be joyous in our service for God, but not driven in our works or mistaken in the notion that our works would save us.
  • We would be delivered from frantic preoccupation with taking our spiritual temperature minute by minute, because we could relax in our trust of the Lord.

And all of that would help every one of us, wouldn’t it?

Persons can know they are saved. That’s assurance and they can be saved to the uttermost. That’s perfection or sanctification which I will discuss in my next article.

Salvation, A Thorny Issue by Maxie Dunnam

In a previous blog, we considered the nature of grace. Grace was a core issue in Wesley’s theology. He sounded the note of grace strongly in opposition to a doctrine of predestination. The doctrine of predestination has as its center an understanding of grace being limited. For Wesley, grace is not limited – it is universal. It is “free in all, and free for all.” It is free to all in the sense that it is given without price, and flows from the mercy of God.

That doesn’t mean that all persons receive this grace, or that they deliberately appropriate it, or respond to it for their salvation. They don’t. That is the reason Wesley sounded so clearly the note of repentance. God’s prevenient grace works in our lives to lead us to repentance which is a necessary response for salvation. That doesn’t mean that all persons receive this grace, or that they deliberately appropriate it, or respond to it for their salvation. They don’t.

God’s grace is universal, but a person may suppress or ignore this grace. If so, scripture warns that we may experience hardness of heart, so that the stirrings of the Spirit within will go unheeded.

This raises one of the thorniest issues in theology today- the issue of universal grace and universal salvation. In addressing the issue, the uniqueness of Christ as God’s source of salvation is under attack. Our Biblical, orthodox, Wesleyan Christology is labeled exclusivistic.

Because historical relativity and religious pluralism are so pervasive, many are challenging the place of Christ as the goal of things. Is Christ really that final, definitive and normative? The uniqueness of Christ is also diminished by those in whose thinking and understanding Christians may hold to Christ as their unique Savior without necessarily claiming as much for others. Christ may be my personal Lord and Savior, but this does not mean that he is the only Savior or the only Lord for all other religions. To hold Christ as the final and normative Word of God is branded as “theological fundamentalism.” Jesus is one of the ways in which God meets the world of human experience, but it is arrogant bigotry to claim that Jesus is God’s unique way of dealing with the salvation of the world.

This kind of thinking primarily makes Christ one of many “ways” to salvation. There is an equally  forceful theological voice which does not diminish the uniqueness of Christ as Saviour. They joyfully and  confidently contend that grace will  work universally, and eventually all will come into God’s kingdom through the work of Christ. One of those voices is David Lowes Watson. Here a word from his book God Does Not Foreclose,

“When we look at the cross, and remember our own spiritual homecoming, we realize how much God was willing to risk, and continues to risk, to have us back home. For God will always give us freedom to accept this gracious invitation or refuse it. We can all recall what it is like to be rejected by someone, even by a stranger; and much worse, the shock and the pain of rejection by a friend, a spouse, a daughter, or a son. We can then begin to sense the depth of God’s anguish throughout human history. Not one prodigal, but millions of daughters and sons across the centuries have lived their lives away from their true home. Alienated from their true family, they have suffered from the ravages of human sin, either as sinners, or as those who are sinned against. It is incalculable how much grief and torment this has heaped on a God who is more loving and protective than any human mother, more trustworthy and concerned than any earthly father. This is why our surrender to God’s grace, our acceptance of God’s invitation to come home, is such an overwhelmingly joyous occasion.” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990, p. 95)

As we read that, we want to say, “Amen,” “Yeah!” But not to the conclusion of these voices. They are arguing and contending for a universal accomplished salvation. God does not foreclose on sinners. Confirming his argument, Watson quotes Carl Braaten. 

“The good news is that all people have been united with God in Christ. One chief difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is that the one knows and the other does not yet know.” (Journal of the Three, 1987-1988, p. 17)

My question is, is that the chief difference? Are all persons united with God in Christ, and some of us who call ourselves Christians know it, but others who don’t know it are guaranteed salvation as well

This seems to me to be begging the question. Listen again to Braaten:

The threat of eternal condemnation is real for all people. Nevertheless, there is no basis to assert that God will necessarily in the end actualize this possibility. Christians may hope and pray that all might be saved, that the distinction between those who already believe and those who do not yet believe will ultimately be destroyed by the Word of God who is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9).

So Braaten at least draws back from asserting that God will actualize the possibility of eternal salvation for everyone. Of course, we can hope and pray – and as Christians we will hope and pray for the redemption of all humankind. But I for one will continue to be challenged by Jesus’ parable of the last judgment, and the awful possibility that I may be among those who did not serve “the least of these” and will hear that awful verdict: “these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt. 25:46).

Ideas have consequences. What we think about Jesus determines what we do about evangelism. And what we do about evangelism is shaped by what we think about grace.

I know that may sound dogmatic and perhaps rash. I certainly hope I have communicated that I am not eager to draw conclusions about the ultimate salvation of others. But recall what I have said. To proclaim the uniqueness of Christ and the reality of divine judgment, is not the same as pronouncing our own judgment. In the Wesleyan accent, the danger of rejecting grace is always counterbalanced by the wonder of what can happen in our lives when we accept and cooperate with it. Perhaps my putting this dogmatic assertion in a slightly different way will challenge you. What you think Jesus can do for a person will determine what you do about evangelism.

Following Jesus in Mission by Brian Yeich

An epiphany is a moment of realization often experienced as a sudden, and perhaps surprising, insight. Earlier this month, Christians celebrated Epiphany, when the church reflects on God’s revelation through the coming of Jesus; I believe it presents us with an opportunity to reflect on how Jesus is speaking to us today.

As 2023 launches, one of the things I continue to reflect on is how we are called by Jesus to be on mission in our world. I am involved in a ministry called the Inspire Movement, which seeks to help Christians abide deeply with God and live missionally in the world. The goal is that people will become the kind of disciples who live as everyday ordinary missionaries. When we share this vision with people, they are often hesitant to embrace the idea that they are called to be a “missionary” or “evangelist.”

I think part of the hesitancy comes from two similar misperceptions about living lives on mission for Jesus. First, there is the misperception that we are not gifted in evangelism, and therefore cannot or even should not be engaged in sharing the gospel with others. While the gift of evangelism may not show up in our spiritual gifts inventory, Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew make clear that disciples are called to be engaged in the world: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13–17, ESV)

While being salt and light may not look like preaching on a street corner or traveling to exotic locations around the world to spread the gospel, the potential impact is still significant. We can still share the story of our relationship with Jesus with our neighbor. We can share how Jesus has changed us and invite that person to see how Jesus might work in their life.

Another misperception that prevents us from living a life on mission is the idea that the work of evangelism has to be done on our own. We may think that the work of evangelism and everyday mission is the stuff of superheroes, not ordinary Christians. But for Wesleyan-minded Christians, John Wesley’s teaching on prevenient grace makes clear that it is God who is on mission; we are invited to join God in his work. For Wesley, prevenient grace describes God’s initial work in our salvation, when the Lord is drawing us to himself and toward awakening and repentance. According to Wesley in his sermon, On Working Out Our Own Salvation, prevenient grace includes, “the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him.” Wesley is clear that this is the work of God, and not by our own efforts or the efforts of others. We can be confident that God was at work in a person’s life long before we came on the scene.

However, this doesn’t mean we have no role to play. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, we may have different roles as we join God on his mission, but it is God who does the work: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” We are still called to share the gospel with others, but rather than having to be the “Lone Ranger” to invite someone to follow Jesus, we can trust the Holy Spirit to be at work in that person’s life drawing them and awakening them to the reality of the God who loves them.

How is Jesus calling you to join him on mission this year? As you reflect on your life with Jesus during this season of goals, I invite you to consider how Jesus may be calling you into mission in your community, school, or workplace. Take confidence in the fact that the Holy Spirit goes before you and will be with you as you seek to follow Jesus in mission.


Featured image courtesy Erica Nilsson via Unsplash.

Reacting to the Image of God: Wesley and Worth by Andy Stoddard

I try my best not to get drawn into the hot fire of the cultural moment. One of my great fears for our moment is that we will all become reactionary, driven more by emotions than reason (or if we are religious an overarching theological perspective). We react to culture, we react to others, we react to ourselves. Reacting like this often means that we don’t take time to stop, think, pray, and discern. In seminary, a professor named Dr. Knickerbocker said, “always watch what word we use. Do we say ‘I feel’? Or ‘I think’? Or ‘I believe’?” Our feelings may be valid, and reason is just as fallen and faulty as emotion. But in a reactionary moment, I try to stay non-reactive.

As a follower of Jesus, I’ve found that Wesleyan theology animates how and why I interact with people. One of the greatest theological works ever, in my opinion, is John Wesley’s sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” In this sermon, Wesley lays out a concept you may be familiar with: his understanding of grace – prevenient, the grace that goes before; justifying, the grace of conversion; and sanctifying, the grace of Christian growth.

There are so many takeaways from his theology but primary to me is the understanding that God is the first and primary actor in our salvation. We do not save ourselves by anything that we can do. God is the first actor. He calls us (prevenient), saves us (justifying), and grows us (sanctifying). Our very salvation is the work of God. In fact, in a recent sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, we looked at how our very salvation is a Trinitarian act. We are brought to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. We are saved only through God’s work.

But here is why this matters in a reactionary culture. Why must God be the first actor? Why does salvation rest on God’s action, not on ours? The reason is original sin, sometimes called the doctrine of depravity. When Adam and Eve fell, they took all of humanity with them. (Romans 5: 121 Corinthians 15: 20-21) This doctrine says that when they fell, we as humans fell with them. We are sinful, corrupt, whatever term or adjective you’d like to use. We are sinful. You. Me. All of us. It is part of the human condition.

Now here is the question. What does that mean? We know all humans are made in the image of God. (Genesis 1: 26-27) But sin has entered in. What does that do to the image of God within us? One theological perspective is that the image of God is completely destroyed: nothing good is left within us. From this perspective, we are completely dead in our sins. Sin destroyed that goodness of God. Yes, we are made in God’s image, but we most certainly are not good. That view is a dominant theme within modern American evangelicalism. As I’ve heard it said, a dead man can’t crawl out of a burning house, and the only thing we deserve is hellfire.

That way of thinking is not how Wesley looked at things. Wesley understood the reality of human sin, yes; but he believed that while the fall corrupted the image of God within us, it didn’t destroy it. Ted Runyan has a wonderful book called The New Creation that covers this subject in-depth. His entire point is that the fall corrupted that image of God within us – it is in need of redemption – but is not completely gone. We humans remain of great worth, and there is the hope for salvation for all. (John 3:161 Timothy 2: 3-4)

This is the reason I am so drawn to Wesleyan theology. Without a doubt, we need salvation. And we are sinful. We can’t save ourselves. But that image of God, while corrupted, has not been completely destroyed. Prevenient grace extends to us an awakening of that image that allows us to walk toward God’s offer of grace.

This cultural moment would teach us to see other people as our enemy. To see people only deserving of judgment, especially those who are not Christians or those who we may disagree with. Those who may vote differently, live differently, act differently. We could easily take on the view of sin that casts them out and removes their worth. It is tempting to harden to our sides; they are over the line, they are on the other side.

Of course, I want to be clear. I believe in sin, judgment, and hell. No one comes to the Father but through the Son. (John 14:6) Sin is destructive; it destroys God’s prize creation, humanity. (John 10:10) This is not an apology for sin. It is a call to love all people in the way that God does. Our societal moment can take from us the desire to truly see the worth in others. The worth in those who are wrong. The worth in those we would see as even our enemies. The path of Christ calls us to love even the enemy. (Matthew 5:43-48Romans 5:10)

As a follower of Christ and as a pastor, I want to speak against racism and also never discount the potential conversion and sanctification of the racist. And if I am their pastor, I want to be able to hopefully, through God’s grace, help them grow. I want to speak against immorality and also never discount the potential conversion and sanctification of the immoral. And if I am their pastor, I want to be able to hopefully, through God’s grace, help them grow. As a fallen human, my guilt is the same as anyone I preach to. In my calling, I want to hold out hope for redemption to those of infinite worth in the same way I respond to it myself. I never want to discount the worth of people, no matter who they are, what they do, or what they believe. Because everyone is truly loved by God who wants to redeem them.

I want as many people as possible to know the love of Jesus. Some would say that because of their sin, those who do not know Jesus are hostile to him and aren’t interested in knowing God at all. Maybe. But when I read Scripture, I see a lot of people who did not know Jesus but who wanted to know him. And today, I see a lot of people who do not know Jesus and who are very hostile to the Church. But there is still a fascination with Jesus and the Church. There is a yearning spiritually. It’s not surprising; Scripture says God has written eternity on the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Recently, I read a tweet that caused me to think a lot. By how I love others, do I make hell a more appealing place for folks to want to be than church? I want those who do not know Jesus Christ to be drawn to him and follow him. That is my one true desire for ministry. I want folks of all kinds to know their worth to Jesus. And if I all do is extend a metaphorical middle finger or kick sand in their face, how will know they know Jesus? Because that’s what I want more than anything else: for as many as possible to know Jesus.

I don’t want to get involved in hardening my heart at others, because I want all people, all people, to know Jesus. This world is calling me and you to harden our hearts to others. To write them off. To deem them as enemies. Maybe people in the church are calling us to do that. Maybe even preachers are calling us to do that. But I don’t believe that is right, and it isn’t Wesleyan. In one recent article, the author pointed out that for the first time in history, non-churchgoers make up the majority of the population in America. This is the context we live in now. We can choose to bemoan where we are. We can harden our sides and opinions. We can see our neighbors as our enemy and give up any hope for their redemption. We can harden our opinions, shout the loudest, and condemn the most. But I don’t think that’s the way of Jesus or the way of Wesley. I want as many as possible to know Jesus.

And that starts with each of us knowing our worth in Jesus and seeing others’ worth in Jesus. Even the folks we can’t stand.


 

Lenten Love: Make Things Better by Edgar Bazan

The Lenten season has started. Lent is six weeks (excluding Sundays) dedicated to prayer, fasting, and reflection to prepare for the grand celebration of Christ conquering death and his resurrection.

When I think of Lent, I am reminded that Easter is coming. We will soon celebrate the victory of Jesus over death through his resurrection and the gifts of forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all those who believe in him. In light of this, this Lenten season invites us to a particular time of reflection about our relationship with God and how we practice what we say we believe. As we are reminded of the meaning and purpose of our faith, we are also confronted with the realization that we may not be living up to the expectations of Jesus’ teachings.

Are we living up to Jesus’ teachings? Are we there yet? If you are like me, then you are far from it. We are trying; we stumble now and then, but we are not in denial, and we are making progress, even if it is just a little bit every day. With this in mind, I invite you to a serious and responsible self-reflection about how you are living your faith, but most importantly, how your relationship is with God and with one another.

Henri Nouwen described Lent as a time to refocus, to reenter a place of truth, to find ourselves in God once again. This is precisely what I want us to do this Lenten season: to find our place in God and affirm our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Let’s begin with a simple question: how are you observing Lent?

Are you fasting, reading Scripture, praying? Great! That’s what the church traditionally has done for many centuries. Lent is a time of faith renewal as much as it may be a time of reconciliation with God. Fasting, reading Scripture, and praying are means of grace that help us be strong in our faith and close to God. So if you are practicing this, that is wonderful; keep doing it!

Today’s challenge is to go beyond a personal renewal of our faith and reconciliation with God. What if we commit to practice our faith to make the world better: more loving, more kind, compassionate, truthful, and empty of hate and evil? What if we show our faith to others in ways that make life better for them? What if we are a tangible blessing to others?

One of the most prominent critiques I make is that often, we are primarily known for what we are against than for what we offer. Our faith is more about how we make things better for all people, just like Jesus did. With this in mind, here is an idea of how we can observe Lent this year. The reading from Romans 12:9-21 using The Message translation encourages us like this:

Don’t fake your love, be real. Run away from evil; cling to good. Be good friends who love deeply. If you see someone in need, do something about it. Don’t be a cause for others to trip over but bless those even when they disagree with you. Laugh with your friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Discover beauty in everyone. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do, but be generous in your goodness to all people. And last, don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

As you can see, in this Scripture, Paul describes how Christians are to love each other and how we are to engage in our relationships with others. Paul explains that Christian behavior is doing everything for all people’s common good.

Our text doesn’t just say, “Love others more,” but it describes specific behaviors for loving others that Jesus himself modeled. This helps us see that Christian love is not just being nice to people; Christian love has a moral orientation toward the good. When we show love toward someone, we are moving them toward God’s goodness, so they too may find themselves in God. That is what Christian witness is, both during the Lenten season and throughout the year.

Since our faith is less about what we don’t do and much more about how we make things better for all people – just like Jesus did – let’s make part of our Lent resolutions to bring people to Jesus by practicing genuine love and showing generous goodness.


Featured image courtesy Ante Gudelj on Unsplash.

Connecting in the Cloud of Witnesses

Churches around the world honor the “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us – all those people who shaped, challenged, and carried us forward on our spiritual journey. When I contemplate the saints in my own life, I’m reminded of two interrelated ideas. The first is called six degrees of separation; the second, three degrees of influence. In theory, there are just six or fewer degrees of separation, via introduction, from one person to any other person in the world. Essentially, through a chain of a “friend of a friend” connections, any two people in the world can be linked in a maximum of six steps. In our age of social media “influencers,” the theory of three degrees of influence shouldn’t be a surprise. It asserts that social networks have great influence on us, but that influence doesn’t end with whom we have direct ties. We influence our friends, who in turn influence their friends, which means that our actions  influence people we have never met.

What does this have to do with the great cloud of witnesses? For me, the connection is in the metaphorical power of this kind of reflection. These ideas help us visualize the importance of understanding our own place in that cloud.

My own story illustrates this, but first, a small bit of history.

Nelson Mandela was a Methodist, educated in a Methodist boarding school where the chaplain was Rev. Seth Mokitimi. In 1964, Mokitimi became the first Black person elected to lead a major denomination in South Africa, as President of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA). He was a powerful influence on Mandela.

In 1963, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island. Rev. Peter Storey, a young, White, newly ordained pastor in the MCSA became his chaplain. Four years later, Storey became the Superintendent Minister at the District Six Methodist Mission in Cape Town. This mission is now a museum that documents the history of District Six and the work of Peter Storey and fellow Methodists in their fight against Apartheid. As time passed, Storey became a bishop and was also elected president of the denomination.

Keeping that bit of history in mind, consider that my father is also a Methodist minister. When I was growing up, he served as the World Editor of The Upper Room, a devotional magazine distributed in 64 languages. The Upper Room gives an annual award to a worldwide Christian leader in recognition of their work. When I was in high school, it was given to Abel Hendricks, a “colored” (the Apartheid classification meaning not Black and not White) Methodist minister in South Africa who had spent his ministry fighting Apartheid. He stayed in our home when he came to Nashville to receive the award. I remember being fascinated as he talked about his life and struggle. Like Peter Storey and Seth Mokitimi, Abel was elected president of the MCSA. In fact, he was elected twice.

In 1980, I had the opportunity to attend the first International Christian Youth Conference on Evangelism (ICYCE), sponsored by World Methodist Evangelism. It was a life-changing event for me. Peter Storey was one of the keynote speakers.

Fast forward a few decades to 2011, when I began working more closely with Dr. Ivan Abrahams, the General Secretary of the World Methodist Council. As a young Methodist minister in South Africa, Ivan was mentored by both Abel Hendricks and Peter Storey. I now hold Ivan as one of my mentors. In his time as a Methodist bishop and then as president of the denomination, he came to know Mandela well; when Mandela died, it was Ivan who was called upon to deliver the sermon at the memorial service.

The idea of six degrees of separation illustrates how small our world really is and how connected we actually are to one another. The notion of three degrees of influence suggests that we have an impact on others in ways we may never realize. My experience attests to the connections illustrated in both these ideas. Who knew I would be connected to Nelson Mandela through a friend of a friend of a friend?

As interesting as I may find it, that’s not the whole story. The real story is about the spiritual inheritance we receive from the great cloud of witnesses – and the importance of finding our own place in that “cloud.”

Abel Hendricks is in my cloud of witnesses; and yet as he sat at our dinner table describing what it felt like to be “colored” in South Africa, he likely was not aware of the impact he was having on the shy 17-year-old girl sitting across from him.

Peter Story is in my cloud of witnesses; and yet as he preached and taught day after day at ICYCE, he likely didn’t notice the skinny 20-year-old whose head was spinning with the magnitude of what she was hearing.

Do you think about spiritual inheritance? We receive it from others, but we must also be willing to leave it for those who follow behind. Do you take seriously your own place in the great cloud of witnesses? If we are connected to everyone else by no more than six degrees, there is great potential for lasting influence. Who knows what kind of impact you may have on the 17-year-old, or 20-year-old, or 45-year-old, or 67-year-old who happens to be the friend of a friend of a friend…


Featured image courtesy Ben Stern on Unsplash.