Archive for December 2013

Ephesians Chapter 1

“How many of you are planning to make a New Year’s resolution?” I asked a congregation last week. Very few hands went up. I assume that most of the others had already obtained perfection. For me, New Year’s Eve and Day are a time of transition. The stores are closed, meetings are canceled, and I’m afraid to go out on the roads. It is a good time to reflect on what has been and what will be. Again, I made the resolution I only partly kept last year, to be a more loving person. By loving, I mean ‘in the moment,’ and present for the people I meet. I shouldn’t spew the garbage of my lousy day on others. I should be prepared to listen and hear what the person I am facing is concerned about. To be Christ-like, moment by moment, is my on going New Year’s resolution. This is what John Wesley was talking about when he asked the early Methodists to become ‘perfect in love.’  


In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul speaks a blessing on his readers. In 2014 we, as the current readers of Ephesians, will receive divine forgiveness and the fullness of God’s grace. What does this mean to you? I am grateful that there is grace before I fail. I am not likely to be perfect in love. Having a mulligan, however, doesn’t make me a better golfer. It’s not just the fact that we are being told that our failure to meet expectations in the coming year is OK. Instead, we are being reminded of how God has promised to be loving us moment by moment in 2014. His grace becomes our hope, and that hope leads us to really work at becoming more loving.


At the chapter’s end, Paul prays that, “the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better” (v.17).  This is the difference between well-wishing and actually making a request of the Holy Spirit; Paul knows that we can’t just get a better year in 2014 out of thin air. We need two things. 1st Wisdom; the capacity to live life well, to adjust to our circumstances, to grow spiritually in our trials, and to capitalize on our assets and opportunities. There are many voices offering wisdom in today’s world. Hearing the right one for this moment will require a gift from the Holy Spirit. 2nd Revelation; is the awareness of God that comes only from God. You can’t discover God in a test tube or prove him with human philosophical arguments (I’m a Philosophy major, I know). You can only know God on God’s terms. This is why transitional times like New Years are so important. We reflect on the past year and say, ‘where did I see God?’ or ‘where should I have seen him if I had been less self absorbed and more open?’  We wait in quiet. We establish new habits for spiritual formation. We pray.


In 2014, all of the good things of the first chapter of Ephesians are already ours. That’s the point of the chapter. That’s the power of Paul’s prayer.

Ephesian 1 promises us spiritual formation in 2014
Christmas 2
New Years
This is my list - your own learning will differ

My Thursday blog on how to fix your church is now entering its second year. Time to reflect or even to do a top ten list:

#10 - Social media matters. I didn’t like Facebook when I first started using it, but now I am connecting with people for whom it is their preferred source of information.

#9 - Information is different from advice. Advice is when I tell you how I would fix your problems. Information is when I share relevant ideas in hopes that you’ll find something useful for walking your own path. Information is fun to share. It is given without any agenda or hope people will do things my way.

#8 - Fiction, art, and movies are all helpful in visualizing our hopes, problems, and solutions.

#7 - Inner city ministries and remote rural congregations have more in common than they think. Those who minister to people on the edges of society need to stick together.

#6 - Postmodern people don’t care what authorities say, they want to relate to you. If you are a pastor, don’t try to be an authority.

#5 - Postmodern people like things said short…. tweet

#4 - Most denominations are dying - the future of Christianity belongs to something different.

#3 - The Gospel of Jesus comes alive when it is spoken in context. Instead of saying, “God is love,” say, “I forgive…” or “This gay person and that gay person have a right to marry” or “This money needs to be given to this situation.”

#2 - Local congregations matter more than denominational aspirations, but caring for the people of a neighborhood trumps both. 

…and drum roll, please!

#1 - Follow your own unique vocation or calling. This is true for both local churches and the people who serve them. 

This dog is headed the wrong way

Recently, I have been serving on a small advisory committee relating to a remote branch of the United Methodist Church’s largest agency (The General Board of Global Missions). It’s like being on the tip of the tail of a very large dog. My experience had led me to believe that the dog is heading in the wrong way. When once our priority was to bring the love of God to the most marginalized people on the planet, our new direction is to preserve the institution of Methodism at all costs. Unfortunately the dog (GBGM) reflects the way our church is going in general.


Today, every hound in United Methodism is on the hunt for ways to make congregations grow and stop the shrinkage of budgets and denominational membership. I think that it is more important that congregations become healthy and engage in meaningful discipleship formation in their context. These are diametrically opposed concerns. We can either teach for the test, that is do the things that add paying United Methodist members to the books, or we can give ourselves fully to the task of loving people. If we say, with Wesley, “the world is our parish,” then we will form partnerships with non-Methodists for the purpose of making disciples for Christ. We will throw ourselves fully into meaningful mission work, such as, No More Malaria, Circles our of Poverty, and our local food bank. If we do this right, there will be less Methodists but more Christians in the years to come.


A key value of the postmodern culture is simplicity. If we simply help every day people to live as Jesus’ disciples, we will be doing the right thing. We should be asking, what will help every agency and local church in United Methodism form new relationships and transform their communities? How can we be more transparent? How can we get back to that singleness of focus  that birthed American Methodism, “nothing to do but to save souls?”


A particular bone in our denomination’s mouth today is the planting of new congregations. What the world needs, however, is not more large box churches in the suburbs. That should be someone else’s concern. We should do what we do best, utilize trained and supervised lay leadership (CLM, Community Workers, VIM) to form small fellowships in the poorest contexts, both urban and rural.


I own a dog. I know how stubborn she can be when she sees a squirrel she shouldn’t chase or wants food that’s not hers. Love and discipline can turn the most spoiled dog around. Today we are seeing in Pope Francis a turn around story happening in the Catholic church. Perhaps there is still hope for the UMC.

United Methodist Church
Fixing Church requires loving people who ain't holy

  You know how you pass those signs saying “Leaving City Limits of…”? Today I realized that I had left the holiness movement. My denomination (United Methodist) has a rich tradition of seeking personal holiness above all else. The Holiness Movement, which began in Wesley’s time among anabaptist groups, rose in prominence in the American religious scene throughout the 1800s, then lost favor to the prosperity gospel of the 1960s. Until the new millennium, I considered myself a holiness preacher. More than my colleagues, I emphasized the need for Christians to lead lives that grew more holy each passing day. Today, I saw the last hint of that attitude fade in my rear view mirror. In fact, I’m starting a new book on John the Baptist (see Weekly Word), and I don’t plan to use the word holiness once.

    Holiness theology is marked by two statements:

 + That the way Christians prove themselves to be Christian is by living a holier lifestyle than those around them. Pure living is for the Christian what circumcision and kosher diet is for the Jews. We, “don’t smoke, drink, or chew… or hang around with those that do.”

 + The goal of every holiness Christian is to become perfectly pure or sanctified. We hope to obtain this in our lives, but realize, “that it’s hard to fly like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys.”


    I know now that these statements are offensive to the postmodern people. But do they have any biblical basis?  In 2001, I went on a sabbatical. Freed from the weekly obligation to speak from the pulpit, I began to study what Jesus preached.

 + Jesus doesn’t advocate a holy lifestyle as a mark of distinction between saved and unsaved. Instead he speaks of a radical love. He calls his people to feed the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned, and befriend the outcast. Further, his ministry represented a total commitment to obtaining basic civil rights for all people. 

 +  In those few places where Jesus speaks about the personal sins, such as, adultery, divorce, or the abuse of children, he does it in the context of his outrage at religious leaders of his day. He accused them of abandoning the wieghty matters of the law: justice, love, mercy.  The Pharisees and Saducees were only interested in biblical ethics if they could use it to humiliate the women, dependents, and the foreigners that they were oppressing.


      During my sabbatical in 2001, I also began to examine the linkage between perfectionist theology and clergy abuse, shame-based relationships, codependency, mental illness, etc. I purchased the web domain as a container for my discoveries. I told people it was a methodist joke. Perfectionism was, however, a serious problem in my life.

    Methodists tend to temper the holiness line by adding the wesleyan phrase “in love” to the question “do you hope to be made perfect in this life?” The problem is that the love Jesus demonstrated forsook any appearance of holiness. He, and the apostle Paul, advocated unconditional acceptance of God’s grace in our personal life. Putting aside our own attempts at holiness provides the energy we need to be effective  witnesses. Instead of spending endless hours defining sin, like the Pharsees did, we go out to minister to those who, like us, felt cut off from God.


To fix the church today, we must put all of our energies into sharing the grace of God with new people. These are the very people that because of their sexual orientation, immigration status, or lack of holiness, we may have rejected before.

United Methodist Church
Matthew 11:2-11
Luke 1:46b-55

In this season, as we remember Mandela, one of the great prophets of our time, we should be mindful of the parallels between his life and message and that of John the Baptist. Mandela, like John, was imprisoned for speaking truth to power. Be careful not to think that John lost his head, and Mandela spent decades breaking rocks in the sun, because they criticized the morals of those on the throne. The revolution that Mary, Mandela, and John were involved with went much deeper than a few sermons against marrying your brother’s wife. John was a thorn in the side of the Herodian dynasty. He preached dignity for the laborer, transparency in government, and the accessibility of God’s Kingdom for all.

    Mary sang of the hope that drives great prophets, both old and new; “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). These were political words. Then, as today, women were instrumental in manifesting the new vision. We think of Winnie Mandela, who articulated the vision while Nelson was in prison. We think of the persistent widow in Jesus’ story (Luke 18:1-8) about prayer. Jesus ends that story by saying that God hears our cries for social justice.

    John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela, always spoke in the future tense. They looked forward to a manifestation of God’s Kingdom when all would be free. Jesus was able to put that hope into present tense. He told John’s disciples, “[Here and now,] the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:15). John, Mandela, and Mary, realized that they were transitional instruments. They would birth a future that they would stand outside. “South Africa belongs to the children,” Mandela would say.

    Here is another similarity, when Mandela was made president, he only served one term. Like John the Baptist, he understood that the process was more important than his own persona. Few pastors understand the transitional mantra, “the process is more important than any one result.” For Nelson Mandela, this meant that the political process of having a people elect a new leader was more important than any leadership that he might bring. Sometime we need to take a lesson from John the Baptist and put our own ministry aside. Prophetic action is not about what we can do, it is about the process that continues after we are gone.

    The song I have been singing this Advent season is that sung by Mom’s Mabley after the death of Bobby Kennedy:

Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked around and he's gone.


Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?
And we’ll be free
Some day soon, and it’s a-gonna be one day … 

“Abraham, Martin, and John” - written by Dick Holler, made popular by Dion and Moms Mabley, 1968

The passing of Nelson Mandela causes me to think of all those on the long journey to freedom
Advent 3
JB teaches us to trust God

For the next month and a half we will see the bedraggled dipping man come in and out of our holiday readings. Oh, here’s that old voice in the wilderness fellow again. He eats locust and wild honey, even though these items haven’t been approved by the FDA. Even though John the Baptist is a key figure in premodern church art and drama, he doesn’t get much attention now. I think many local church problems, as well as our general failure to witness to contemporary culture, is rooted in our failure to appreciate JB’s message.

    John the Baptist stands firmly rooted in the old order. He is the last member of the way things were before Jesus. He proclaims the Kingdom of God, but doesn’t enter it. He acts as a bridge between the old and the new. He is a transitional guide. 

    Today an old way of being church is passing away. In every aspect of congregational life, we struggle to adapt to the coming postmodern world. As we make this shift we need bridge people. Transitional guides, like John the Baptist, do the following:

  • They do a realistic reality check. They explain to us why the old ways are failing. They firmly, but gently, call us to repentance.
  • They proclaim the new, but use traditional language and images. They honor history while teaching us that change is unavoidable.
  • They offer us baptism as a way to cross the river. They teach us the great religious truth; those who have died once (or been baptized) don’t need to fear death in the future.
  • They embrace the wilderness as a symbol of transition. Like the people of the Exodus, we move through wilderness to the promised land. What we leave behind is named. We empty our lives in order to be open to receive what God has for us in the future.
  • They teach us to trust God. John tells us that God will provide a way to get from where we are to where we need to be.
  • They assure us of forgiveness. As forgiven people we find the courage to be risk takers.


This is why John the Baptist matters. In our personal lives we need people to help us the way John the Baptist helped the people who went out to him. In the church, we need more pastors and church leaders to intentionally take on the job of being a transitional guide.

Matthew 3:1-12

One morning, John the Baptist and his disciples went out to the water. This day a variety of people had come out, many from the mixed race cities of the Decapolis. So the prophet said to his disciples, “Try to imagine the Day of Judgment. Will the God who fashions a unique face and home for each soul rebuke us for being different from each other? Will the king herd us like cattle, placing us either in the slaughter line or on the road for redemption according to our nationality? No! I think the king will ask each of us about our acts of compassion.”

“But that will take too long,” his disciples gasped.

“It will last, like, forever,” the youngest added.

“That’s the point.” The Baptizer laughed.

Later that day a giant stone mason named Thomas came to him to be baptized. The prophet asked, “Do you sin big or do you sin just a little?”

This giant said with tears, “My sins are worse than anyone I know. I may be the worst sinner in Galilee, with the possible exception of King Herod.”

“I doubt that,” the prophet roared with laughter. He liked this one. “In repentance there is forgiveness,” and he said and set Thomas gently into the stream.

Then turning to the crowd the prophet shouted, “On the Day of Judgment the Messiah will sort his flock as a shepherd segregates sheep from goats. Each will go as they are told to go, for no soul can refuse its true owner. Some will be ready, but many will not. Some of you believe that with many words you will be able to persuade the judge to let you off. Hah! You instead need to prepare for that Day by living each day with compassion. Nevertheless, may the Messiah come soon!”

[ This has been an excerpt from "Bethany's People" a biblical fiction book that I am working on. Feel free to use it -- Bill Kemp

The Prophet lowered Thomas gently into the water
Advent 2