Discerning What Matters Most

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This faith community began in the 1920s , as the neighborhood of Beaverdale was starting to rapidly grow.  Reverend Orf, the pastor of Crocker Hill UMC,  recognized the growing need for a church presence in this area and so area churches banded together for a committee, remodeled an old farmhouse, and on Easter Day, 1925 the first worship service was held at this location.  

As the community grew, the congregation made plans to build a church and the part of our building that is now the music room and offices was built in 1941.  A big part of the design at the time was to build a church structure that would be in keeping with the style of the homes being built all around us.  Classrooms were added in 1947 – part of Immanuel’s long legacy of education.   Our church also opened itself up to the community in this part of our history, housing some of the local elementary school classes in our Fellowship Hall as the schools got too large for the students of the day. 

As the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren church were merging in 1968 to form a new denomination – the United Methodist Church, this congregation was continuing to grow and completed work on this sanctuary.  In the 1960s, youth bell choirs were formed, with adult bells following a decade later – another part of the way music has been a rich part of our tradition.

In 1970s, we began a new ministry that reached out to shut ins with tape recordings of the worship services.  Members from Immanuel were instrumental in helping to pave the way for Vietnamese refugees to be welcomed into our state. 

And since that time, we have continued to grow in faith, we are known as a caring and mission focused community, and we have been willing to take leaps of faith to respond to the needs we recognized within the church and the community, like our expansion of Faith Hall which was completed in 2004.


The Apostle Paul wrote to the people of Philippi to encourage them in the faith and as a church.  And he reminds them that the God who began a good work in them would not abandon them, but would continue to help them to love and bear fruit for the gospel until that day when their work was finally complete. 

And the Philippians needed some encouragement.  While they had been on fire for God at the start, they also had experienced intense persecution because of their faith.  Many were wondering how they could continue to go in in the face of the opposition they were experiencing.  What should their church look like now?  How could they continue to serve when so many around them were dying and falling away? 

Paul’s letter called them to press on with rejoicing even in the midst of their difficulties and to return to God in a spirit of discernment, so they could discover a more excellent way and so they could be strengthened for whatever would come next… until that day when God fills the entire world with the love of Jesus Christ. 


There simply is no comparison between the struggles we experience today in the United States and the persecution experienced in places like Philippi and in other places that are hostile to the Christian faith today.   We gather in this room this morning without fear of death.  We can sing at the top of our lungs and share our faith and the only consequences for doing so might be some angry words or cold shoulders. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t face bumps in the road or our own kinds of trials.  That doesn’t mean that parts of our journey aren’t difficult. 

And so, we need encouragement in our faith sometimes, too.  And like the Philippians, we constantly find ourselves asking the question, what should our church look like now?  How do we continue to serve in the midst of declining membership or in the midst of a culture that cares less and less about what the church has to say?  What are we to do when the good news of the gospel seems to be falling on deaf ears? 

What is it that we are fighting for?  What kind of church are we going to invest in becoming for the future? 


I began our message this morning by remembering a few fragments of our past, because the practice of spiritual discernment about next steps always begins with looking to see what we can learn from where we have been.  And as I look at the history of who this church has been, I see that we began as a community of people who were willing to take risks and go to new places where we thought we might reach new people. 

This church began as a renovated old farmhouse – a house church – that welcomed people into a family.  But we didn’t just stay there.  As the needs of this community of faith continued to grow, we expanded and grew ourselves.  And we took care to continue to resemble the community around us – even thinking about making our physical structure look like the homes in the neighborhood.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Although I’m free of all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them.  I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews… I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak.  I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means.” (1 Cor. 9: 19-22)

So as we think today about what we might be called to next, I think its important to remember that we as a church were willing to take risks to meet new people and willing to adapt to the community as it changed around us so that the community might feel at home in our midst. 


One of the problems with looking backward to find the answer, however, is that we can get caught in analysis paralysis and stay there.  We can try to recreate exactly what we did before or keep researching and studying and waiting for exactly the right moment and we miss the opportunities that are right before us. 

In What Are We Fighting For, Bishop Bickerton reminds us that as a church, we simply can’t wait any longer.  He talks about the act of hitting a baseball and how difficult it is to time your swing just right.  While it is easier in slow pitch to be able to see what is coming at you, as the game goes faster and faster,  we often wait far too long to swing.    And Bishop Bickerton says that the church game is going faster and faster and changing more and more rapidly every day.  There are so many moving parts to a church and we need more technical expertise to reach people today.  We have to adapt and be nimble, and react more quickly to the ways our community and culture are changing, or we might find that we have waiting too long, we have missed the pitch, and our church is no longer relevant. 

All around us, there are pitches coming our way.  There are opportunities a plenty.  In fact, there are so many great ways that we could be in ministry today that it is tempting to try to do everything and toss out a whole bunch of new programs and activities like scattershot and see what works.  But that itself is exhausting.  Instead of scattershot, we need help to discern a clear focus.  And part of that discernment is asking who is the new community that God is calling us to take a risk and step out in faith to reach?  How can we be faithful to our heritage as a church, while also paying attention to where the Holy Spirit is leading us next? 

As an administrative council, we spent some time last fall in discernment looking at a number of the opportunities, realities of our surrounding community, and ways that we are particularly gifted to lead and serve.  We noticed things like that our surrounding neighborhood is now only 80% white, that we have more elementary schools in our community, and that over 1/3 of the families with children around us are now single parent families.  We also have more younger, couples moving into the homes of the neighborhood. 

How is God calling us to step out in faith and reach them for Christ? 

As we continue to discern, we start by connecting our passions and our gifts as a church with the ways we will choose to live in the midst of this place.  We can take the things that we value like music and education and being a caring community and we can carry them with us as we go outside of these walls to reach new people. 

But we also should be willing to test the things that we have always done and do them not just because they are what we like to do, but to ask always if they are faithful to God’s will for our community.  Do our activities and our programs resemble God’s love?  Are they filled with the knowledge of our Lord?  Are we bearing the fruit of the gospel in what we do?  Are we doing them simply because they are easy, or are we rising up to meet the demands of call of Jesus Christ? 


Next week, Trevor will be preaching once again and he will help us think about a final part of our discernment… how do we know what really is the core of who we are as a church that will always be the same and will never change no matter how the world changes around us, and where are the places where we can be more nimble and flexible, so that we can continue to grow towards completion for the glory of God.    What are the things we should be willing to fight for, no matter what? 


A global church #gc2012

This Sunday, the African Ministry from St. Mark’s UMC came and joined our congregation for worship.  Well, they didn’t just join us… they led us.  Pastor Dieudonne preached, the choir sang, the little boys danced, and it was an exciting, uplifting time of worship. 

One of the things that really stuck with me was that Pastor Dieudonne kept reminding us that God is doing us a favor in worship… meaning that God is blessing us right now by allowing us to be here in this place.  And it truly was a blessing to gather with brothers and sisters from around the globe and to remember what we are about and WHO we are about. 

My congregation was full that morning – not only with members of my church and our brothers and sisters from Cedar Rapids, but also from other churches in our community who wanted to come and worship with us.  So we were not only global, but ecumenical, and all different ages were a part of our celebration, too!
For three hours, we were a living embodiment of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic church… the body of Christ, itself.  It was awesome.

And it got me very excited because this morning, I’m in Tampa.  And delegates from every state and countries from all across this globe are gathering.  And as we worship we will remember that we truly are a global church. We are a church that has listened to the command of Jesus Christ to make disciples of all nations… at least we are trying to do so.

So far, I’ve visited with folks from Michigan, Ohio, Alabama, Boston, Puerto Rico, Illinois, Korea, and the Phillippeans. (Yes, I know I spelled that wrong… my brain keeps wanting to type Philippians)

But on the plane yesterday, I was also reminded that our global church has some work to do.  We do not truly share our standards across the globe.  We will make a lot of decisions these next two weeks that will only affect the United Methodist Church in the United States.  We will employ practices that are very “American.”  Our denomination does not represent the diversity of the very places that we live in, much less the world.  There is work to do!!!

For the next two weeks, I hope and pray that we might not only become empowered to truly be a global church, but to listen to our brothers and sisters, to speak out of the fullness of our hearts, and to be willing to change and expand and grow if that means welcoming someone else at the table and into the Body of Christ… or maybe even being willing to get up from our table and go to join someone else in creating the body of Christ where they are!!!

Sometimes… God’s will can kiss my @$$

This week started out rough.  I thought I had an inkling about something very amazing about to happen – but it was going to bring a whole lot of added stress into my life as well.  I spent three whole days psyching myself up about it – so much so that I had pretty much accepted it was going to happen and was excited.

I had a moment however on Monday night when I realized I should pray about it.   I realized that just because I, personally, wanted this to happen, did not mean it was the best thing in the world for me or my ministry or my family.  And that’s kind of what I preached about on Sunday, so I figured I had better take my own advice.  or Paul’s advice.  whichever.

So… I committed to not only praying about it, but that the next morning I was going to ask the small group at the church to pray with me that God’s will would be done in said situation.

Tuesday morning at 8:45, the news came.  It wasn’t going to happen.  The thing I had suddenly been excited for wasn’t going to work out.  End of story.

(I know I’m being cryptic here… but bear with me… sometimes we can’t tell all of our secrets!)


I wrestle at times with making firm statements about God’s will.  John Piper has recieved a lot of flack this past week for claiming that the tornadoes that ripped through the lower midwest and southeast were God’s will.  I tend to hesitate when making proclamations about nature.  I hesitate when one person who prayed fervently was spared and another who prayed fervently was killed.  I do believe that God acts and moves among us.  I do believe that God is present with us in every situation.  But do sometimes things just happen?  Does nature just run its course sometimes?  Our sinful decisions have consequences and sometimes we have to blame ourselves rather than God.

But then there are all of these places in the scriptures where God brings out the battering ram and thunder and lightning and seems to lay the smack down.  I would not for one minute say that God doesn’t have the power/ability/just reasons to unleash holy terror.  Heck, I try to be benevolent and good and sometimes I want to call down a thunderbolt or two upon my youth!  (just kidding… I love you guys… most of the time!)

All of that to say, I never know what to do about God’s will.  I don’t know when to claim something was God’s will or not.  I am not always sure how to discern God’s will.

In our weekly lenten study, I shared that one the greatest tools we have available to us in the Wesleyan tradition are the means of grace: prayer, bible study, christian conferencing, communion, tithing, visiting the sick and in prison, etc…  But we have to DO them in a way that really focuses our attention to God.  We can’t go through the motions.  For an example: When I put my money in the offering plate, I have to say to God – I’m giving this to you… I’m trusting you with it… I’m trusting that you will help me to be faithful with it and all of my resources.  It’s not just about doing our “duty” – its about learning to truly depend upon God.  It is about aligning ourselves with God’s will.

And I have been trying to do that.  I have been trying to trust and pray and listen a whole lot more intentionally lately.

So when I decided Monday night that I truly wanted God’s will to be done… I meant it.  And I meant it that I was going to ask others to pray with me.  I truly wanted to know God’s will.  I wanted that to be the guide for this situation.

And on Tuesday morning… I didn’t like the answer I got.

In other times in my life, I wouldn’t have even thought about God.  I would have thought about how dumb the situation was. I would have had a little pity party for myself.  But because I was trying so hard to listen, the simple reality of God’s will smacked me upside the head.

I don’t like it.  I’m not sure I completely understand.  I wish the answer would change.  And part of me really does want to say, “kiss my @$$,” and go do my own thing.

But if anything, this time of Lent has taught me, personally, that our lives are not our own.  If I want to follow Jesus – I have to follow him all the way.  And that means there are some really good things in this world that I don’t need.

Tonight, we sang in worship a really upbeat version of  – “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  It can be sung SO slow, but Lent has been all about joy, so we just owned it and sang it with some gusto.  It was a reminder that I may not like God’s will, but I have decided to follow.  I have decided to keep the cross before me.  And I’m not turning back.  I can do this with God’s help.  I truly believe that God will help me.  So be it.  Amen.

Do Not Conform

Weekends in the fall seem to be a portrait of contrast in my life.  I experience in those two short days each weekend my best moments and my worst ones.

You see in my family… Saturdays in the fall are good for only one thing: Hawkeye football games (okay… you Cyclone fans can insert yourselves in here to, just change the words in your mind).

Now, I’m not sure that this would be a big problem, if it weren’t for the fact that while enjoyable… and while a great source of community and family time… I also have some of my worst moments during football games

I get very wrapped up in my Hawkeye football.

A bad call?  I’m jumping up out of my seat and yelling at the zebras.

A dropped catch?  That poor Marvin McNutt heard plenty from me last year.

Yes, even Kirk Ferentz… especially Kirk Ferentz… gets an earful from me.

Now – never mind you that I’m sitting on a couch at my parent’s house or in my own basement and they are at least 30 miles away.

It doesn’t matter to me.  My whole self – mind, body, and soul – is focused on that game.  It gets very personal.  I’m sure my blood pressure is rising just thinking about it.  I want to see them win and succeed and when they don’t, it is disappointing.  And when they intentionally do dumb things and make mistakes… well, then sometimes a curse word or two slips in there.

I am NOT the same person during a football game that I am when I come to church on a Sunday morning.  And you might not be the same person at work on a Tuesday afternoon that you are here in worship either.  We have become so comfortable with putting on and taking off our holiness and exchanging it for the ways of the world. We do it seamlessly… without blinking… without even being aware of it ourselves.

In fact, we do it so well that we begin to blur the lines between the two. We look at all of the good things that sports and work and shopping and national pride and money and the like provide that we start to see them as goods that are on the same par, the same level as our divine calling.

So it is no big deal with we give up a Sunday morning for a round of golf or skip our morning devotions in order to be at work early.  They are equally good and important in our lives.

Eh… except, they’re not.

In our gospel lesson for this morning, we find Peter making a similar mistake.  He knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ and he is so proud of himself for correctly identifying his Savior.

But then his mind goes to other places….

I want to invite you to hear this scripture again, this time rewritten by Kyle Childress:

Jesus starts asking them questions about what people are saying about him. Who do they think he is? And more, what do you fellows think about me? Of course, Peter spoke first, “You are the Messiah!” Jesus responded, “Yeah, but you guys need to be quiet about this. Let me explain what being the Messiah is.”

Then he began to teach the hard stuff; he began to teach that he would suffer and die and be raised. Peter interrupted, “No, No! We’ve got a good thing going here. People are having their needs met and more and more of them are joining up. For Pete’s sake, we have a movement started. We’re going to be successful. Some of the boys are already drawing up the blueprints for a new Center for Ministry complex inCapernaum. James and John want to be co-directors and I’m putting together ‘Jesus Tour: A.D. 31’ with t-shirts and kid’s action figures and a possible book deal. Jesus, just think, you could become an author. People might even start quoting you.”

Jesus whirled around, “You don’t get it! The stuff you’re talking about is satanic! It’s the complete opposite of what God wants and who I’m called to be.” And Jesus got back to the hard teachings: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me …”

Ministry centers might be good.  T-shirts with your ministry on them, definitely good. Books about Jesus – awesome…

But the problem is, those things have nothing to do with what God wants right now.  They have nothing to do with God’s will at that moment.  They directly contradict God’s plan for Jesus and for all of human history.

There are so many competing goods out there in the world, and our lines get blurred and sometimes we can no longer tell the difference between divine things and human things, between what we want and what God wants.

So what do we do?  How do we weigh the options?  How do we choose?

Human things vs. Godly things: How do we tell the difference?

A)    YOU don’t: when we come up with these things, we excuse our human actions.

  1. Daniel Deffenbaugh writes:

In our sin and unbelief, we like to think of ourselves as “free thinkers.” In reality, we are only thinking like Satan and like the fallen world system in which we live. Our culture constantly seeks to shape us. Like teenage children, we think we are expressing our individuality and independence when we differ with God. In reality, we are merely following the world, the flesh, and the devil in rebellion and unbelief. When we give our lives to God, we give ourselves over to His influence and control. When we turn to God in obedience, we turn away from the world’s shaping influence on us. Its influence should diminish, and God’s infinite wisdom, contained in Scripture and conveyed by His Spirit, should begin to transform our thinking and our actions. Giving our lives to God as a living sacrifice is the decision to be shaped and influenced by God and not by our fallen world.

B) Not talking about a list of right or wrong – something we can post on a wall and check-off… we are talking about something written on our hearts.

  1. This might be different for everyone… a different choice, not a universal set of ways of being.
  2. Take someone which a gift for public speaking who has a successful job at a corporation.  A) stay in job, use money for God’s will, B) quit job and become preacher, c) stay in job, volunteer on the side
  3. Really reminds us of the importance of discernment… and not not imposing our ways of following God upon others.

C)    HOW does it get written there?

  1. We have to spend time with God
  2. You are who your friends are… be friends with God.
  3. Letting God shape our lives/fixing our attention on God
  4. Means of grace in the Methodist tradition: Prayer, bible study, small groups, communion, worship, service, visiting the sick, tithing
  5. We really have to do these things intentionally… we have to do them so that we are paying more attention to God and what he wants for our lives than we are to our own wants and desires.  When you spend time focusing on God, there starts to become less room for your own base thoughts.

When we let God transform our hearts and our minds, then we will KNOW what God’s will is.  The best of God will be dwelling in our hearts.  It will spill out of us when we talk, when we listen, when we act in this world.

If I started my Saturdays in the fall with prayer… If I spent some time reading the scriptures with my breakfast on those days… If I spent some time with a person in need before the football game even started – my whole attitude and energy would be in a different place.  I would understand that its only a game… a good human enterprise… but that it doesn’t need to take such a huge spot in my life.  I would be able to enjoy it for what it was, knowing that I don’t live and die on the outcome, but on the grace and mercy of my God and Savior…

Excuse me, Pastor…

I make mistakes… Often.

The latest incarnation of mistakes came this past Sunday.

I have a lot of big ideas, but I am not always good at figuring out the details… how things will ebb and flow.  And so, I set in motion a plan to help my congregation discern their spiritual gifts during worship.

We are embarking upon a study of Romans 12 – our theme scripture for the new vision for our church.  It will be a Lenten study and will encompass worship, daily devotions, sunday school lessons, etc.  But a big part of the journey will be to claim and to give over to God the gifts we have been blessed with.

So I found these awesome resources by Dan and Barbara Dick called “Equipped for Every Good Work.” We wanted as many congregants as possible to have the opportunity to discover their spiritual gifts before embarking on this journey.

Realistically, I knew that if I simply directed folks to an online resource, most wouldn’t do it.  If I only offered it during Sunday School, I would miss a lot of people.  If I sent it home, most wouldn’t bring it back.

The only way to let people know, “Hey, this is important” was to set aside time in worship to go through it together.  I handed out scoring sheets and gave a brief introductory sermon and set out reading out the first of 200 statements.

Yes, two hundred.

In my head, it didn’t seem like a lot.  I thought about how many words a typical sermon was and how short the statements were and thought it was doable. THOUGHT.

We got through 40 and I felt like people’s heads were spinning.  We passed 60 and I could sense the tension in the room.  We hit 80 and I looked back and saw a lovely woman near the back shaking her head back and forth.

“How are we doing,” I asked… and the woman kept shaking her head.

“We need to be done,” she replied.

I looked at the clock, and knew she was right.  Between the pauses for answers and the repeating of some statements, there simply was not time.  It was exhausting to think like this.  And it was extremely foolish of me to think that we could get through the entire list in the time we had for worship.

“Good idea,” I said. We made peace with letting it go for now.  We decided that we could either a) finish it the next week or b) let half way done be good enough and still use the tool next week to talk about where we are.

The way the inventory is set up, we were scoring for each category as we went along, and so getting half way through, I think we were able to still get a pretty good indication of where people’s spiritual gifts lie. It was a difficult process, and we didn’t do it perfectly, but I figure that getting through 5 questions for each spiritual gift is just as good as the much shorter 40 question inventory based on the same materials online. So we are going with it.

I’m extraordinarily grateful that someone was willing to step up and call me out.  Just because I’m the pastor does not mean that I have everything figured out all the time.  In fact, as my spiritual gifts demonstrate, I’m not good at organizing. I’m not good with the details.  And I do need to be surrounded by people who are willing to look out for the good of everyone around us when I’m leading us down long and tedious paths.

I have to say, regardless of the length, the very idea of doing this type of spiritual gifts inventory had mixed reactions.  Some people were really enthused by the idea and were looking forward to claiming what they had been called to.  They were intrigued by the ways specific characteristics were lifted up.  They wanted to know more.  Others felt like failures.  They didn’t like the idea of a “test.”  I had tried to carefully explain that this is a way of discovering what we are good at and what we have been gifted at… that there were no wrong answers, but I’m not sure the message sunk in for everyone.

It is difficult to take a deep look at where we are spiritually.  It is hard to be honest with ourselves about what we are not good at.  We can tend to focus on our weaknesses and lament them, rather than celebrate our strengths.

This next Sunday, we had planned on talking about ways that our spiritual gifts can be used in the life of the church, but based on our responses, I want to dive deeper into what it means to be gifted… I want to help people to cherish the ways God has blessed them.  I want to help them let go of the false notion that we have to be perfect at everything and help them to realize that is precisely why we have community – in order to fit our differently shaped puzzle pieces together and make the body of Christ.

I make mistakes.  I make them often.

But thank God I am surrounded by people full of forgiveness.

And thank God that they call me out and give me a chance to rethink my plans and start again in a new and better place.

fact checking in an age of T.M.I.

Too Much Information. I’m not entirely sure that is what was envisioned by the framers of amendment one when they gave freedom to the press. I’m not sure that was what was envisioned by the inventors of the internet, or cable tv, or email.

But we are inundated constantly with information. And depending on which sources we use for our information we read completely different “facts.” Even within one publication we can have radically different portrayals of the truth. Or opinion – which has begun to substitute just fine for truth these days.

As a pastor, I face this when I have congregants reading different interpretations of scripture from vastly different sources and theological frameworks. While it provides and opportunity to talk about why these interpretations might be different, do we ever reach back and find out what the truth of the text is? Is there Truth to be found? or is it all a matter of interpretation?

Certainly this isn’t a new problem. That’s why throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition there have always been schools of thought that argued with one another. There is a reason that Jesus had to interact with Pharisees and Sadducees and Zealots and Essenes. They were all holding on to different pieces of the truth, and holding on to them so fast that they became the Truth for each.

We do this in the church. We do this in politics. We do this in schools. We do this everywhere. Because the idea that we can’t fully grasp the Truth – that it is something that is bigger than us, is scary. We want black and white – truth and falsehood, good guys and bad guys. The in between stuff is a mess and we don’t want to live there.

I chatted with a fellow pastor a while back about how people seem to like morality sermons better than grace sermons. Because with morality and justification sermons the choice is clear – do this, don’t do that. When we talk about love and forgiveness and grace, suddenly we are in the gray area… showing love to a murderer? having compassion for a drug addict? Witnessing someone transform their lives? it’s messy, and hard and challenging, and we would much rather label people as good or bad – even labeling ourselves as good or bad is easier than accepting messy grace.

But the world we live in is not black and white. Reality is dirty and messy and complicated. When we finally dig deep and get to the truth, sometimes we learn that it cannot always be reduced to either/or… sometimes it is both/and.

So what are we to do when we are swimming in a culture of information and mis-information?  How do we know which way to turn?

First, hang out with people who don’t think like you.  One of the best ways to fact-check your information is to compare it with what other people are hearing.  I am involved in both a weekly bible study and a monthly pastoral gathering and one of the things I cherish the most is that we don’t always agree.  We approach theology and scripture from different angles. We place our emphasis on different words.  But in dialogue with one another, we peel back layers of delusion and confusion and we all grow because of the experience.  I also try to listen with patience when I am home visiting my family and the news is on.  While we might not turn to the same sources of information, we can help one another to gain a larger picture of the truth by asking questions, sharing what we have also hear about that situation, and trying to understand the rhetoric behind the news. The key to this piece of advice is that we cannot immediately get defensive.  We must listen and share with grace and love.

Second, seek outside sources of information that you know to be trusted. Not all questions can be answered adequately with a google search, not every website has accurate and honest information. In the midst of the chaos, I’m becoming increasingly grateful for websites like snopes.com. They help sift through lots of information and help to clear up some of the mis-information out there. But they do so in a way that realizes that there is fact and fiction out there. They are willing to say that parts are true and parts aren’t. They show you which is which. They show which items are a matter of interpretation and opinion. They back stuff up with resources. They are indespensible!!!! I am now in the habit of running any email forward I recieve through snopes.com – just to see what’s out there. But I am sad to say that I have had to actually fact check news stories lately as well. While I am not aware of any specific website that does this for theological dilemmas, I am open to suggestions! The biggest rule here is to seek out a source that doesn’t have a dog in the fight.  Look for a source that doesn’t have a financial investment or tie to the information and how it might be used.

Third, get as close to the source of information as you can. If you are trying to study the bible – take some lessons in greek or hebrew.  Carry a dictionary with you and look at what a particular word might mean.  Spend some time studying the context and what is going on in history at the time.  The same principles apply to news stories.  You are going to be much farther from the truth if you are reading a blog responding to an opinion page article about the Super Bowl than if you were there in person.  Reading in-depth sports news articles from the day after adds another layer.  Get as close as possible to the source as you can for the most accurate descriptions.

Fourth, think carefully about “crowd sourcing”. There is an idea in the Wesleyan tradition about Christian Conferencing – that when we gather to discuss and discern with the help of the Holy Spirit we will find God’s will.  We use it to guide important decisions we make (like voting on issues at General Conference) but also in the discernment of truth and what sources of information are important to consider.  I believe God is good and that it is possible to discern the truth among many, so I want to lift this up as an important principle to share.  In scripture study, this might be thought of as communal lectio divina, where we allow the responses of the group inform us.  In today’s networked world, simply asking a question like “How did Whitney Houston die?” on facebook or twitter might get you the right information and from a number of people with a number of different sources. But it could also lead you directly into the midst of mis-information, rumors, speculation and nonsense. Accept “crowd sourced” information with a grain of salt and let it lead you deeper into some of the other principles we have mentioned here, rather than simply being your final stop.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when we try to pretend that this world of information is cut and dry and easy.  When we skew facts and figures, stories, and information, we do so in order to get OUR point across, but in doing so tell only part of the story. It seems like everyone has their own corner on the truth – a news station for just about every perspective you might care to have, a biblical translation that cuts out all liberal or conservative viewpoints. We are so good at owning up to our biases that we actually forget there are other sides of the story to tell. What used to be sources of real news and information have become just another layer of scum you need to dig through in order to gain a smidgen of knowledge.

Truth is not easy to find.  It will take work. It will take some self-awareness to see outside of the fishbowl we are swimming in.  But in this world of far too much information, it is work that we must do.

God and conflict

This morning, I find myself gathering with brothers and sisters preparing for General and Jurisdictional conferences. We are retreating to get to know one another better and to prepare our hearts and minds for the journey.The first thing we started with today was to ask about where God has been present in history.  Our first instinct was to think about times and acts of reconciliation, love, compassion, and growth in knowledge.

But then our leader asked: what about conflict? Does God only act to bring blessing, or does God also shake things up?
The scriptures are FULL of conflict and tension… Between siblings, internal wrestling, prophets vs kings, Jesus vs the pharisees, Jews vs Christians, insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, power and poverty, old ways and new ways… Sometimes that conflict is a result of our fallen nature… But sometimes, God is the instigator. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is moving. Sometimes chaos is introduced into our feeble attempts at order in order to move us back to faithfulness.
The hardest question we are going to face as the people of God is discerning what conflicts are based in our failings/sins/brokenness and which ones are prompted by God calling us to different ways. When are we speaking a prophetic word, and when are we only justifying our preconceived notions. When is the Holy Spirit moving and when are we falling into the base ways of the world.

May God grant us wisdom… And may the Holy Spirit keep moving among us.

Narrowing our Focus

This week, we continue our journey with the Corinthians. As we learn together from their mistakes, we can overcome some of the roadblocks and realities we face as a church.

Last week, we talked about how mishandled conflict can divide the church and even in seasons of peace… like we are experiencing now… past conflict can still leave residue on our lives… it can make us timid to engage, it can leave us tired and worn out, and it stifles creativity within the church.

We talked about how in a culture of winners and losers, we are called to be neither – we are called to be foolish. We are called to let the Cross of Christ guide our lives.

Today – we continue with that idea of holy foolishness.

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1:18)

As Paul continues to write to the Corinthians, he notes that there are a whole lot of ideas floating around in the world.

In Paul’s day, some were calling for miraculous proof for truth in the world. Some looked to philosophy and wisdom as the basis for their life.

But God doesn’t work in either of those ways, Paul writes. God turns each of them upside down and it’s God’s weakness – not his power – that saves… it’s his folly – not his wisdom – that gives life.

Let’s read between the lines a little bit in this letter.

Let’s try to imagine what was going on in Corinth that made these statements necessary.

Those who first responded to the call of God there established a little faith community for themselves.

And then they looked out upon their friends and neighbors, family and business acquaintances and they wanted to figure out how to share this message of God with them.

Now… this big group of people were not all the same. Some were men, some were women. Some were Jewish, some were Greek. Some were rich, some were poor. Some were young, some were old.

And I think what happened, is that everyone disagreed about who was most important to reach out to first.

They did not have a shared vision or understanding about what God was calling them to do…

Kind of like this church:

Those Corinthians each had their own idea about what was going to work, and so they went out into the world and started sharing this amazing Good News about God.

In many ways – each of those ideas discussed around that building committee table were good ideas… Each person had a group in mind that needed to hear the gospel and so they were planning on building this sanctuary, or gym, or coffee shop… whatever it took to reach that specific group of people.

But I think that what we have to do is stop and back up a second.

What happened when the Corinthians tried to do this?  What happened when they made assumptions about their neighbors and tried to custom tailor the message for everyone?  What happened when each person went their own way and they tried to do a thousand different things at once?

They thought… If the Jews want signs, maybe we’ll put on big spectacles! That will draw them in.

They thought… If the Greeks want wisdom, we’ll have long conversations and ignore the the gospel.

Everyone went off and did their own thing and the Good News became torn into pieces and watered down and no longer had any power or punch. It started to look exactly like what everyone else was doing.
Everywhere they went, the message failed.

The people were discouraged.

Someone realized that Jesus was no longer being preached… and they wrote to Paul for help.

I can imagine in this letter to Paul that we have never seen, that someone writes: We give up. We wanted to share the gospel with people, so we came up with all of these ways of reaching out and we started doing what everyone else was doing… but it’s not working.  People keep turning us down and we are exhausted.  We give up.
What is Paul’s response?

He reminds them that they are called to be foolish. They are called to be laughing-stocks of the community.
They aren’t called to change their message with every shifting wind that comes along.
What they are preaching doesn’t make any sense to the people of the world… but they are supposed to keep preaching it anyways.

What Paul does here is he gives them a common, unified vision. He gives them something to stand on, something to be unified with.

The world may not understand you, Paul writes, but you need to stick with the message of the gospel anyways. You need to figure out what it is that you guys really stand for and are about and let that guide you.

You see, its not just division that comes by throwing our lot in with specific people that gets us into trouble… saying, “I’m of Paul” or “I’m of Apollos”… it’s also the fact that we can’t agree on who we are supposed to reach out to and how we are supposed to do it.

Paul keeps telling them to be foolish, because he is asking them to make the cross of Christ the center of all that they do.

He is asking them to believe in their future, to believe in the direction God is pushing them, to hold fast to the vision of what awaits them.

Hold fast to the cross… because it is there at the cross that life and death meet. And it is there at the cross that life wins.

Hold fast to who God has called you to be, no matter what the outside world thinks.

Hold fast.

Paul is asking the church in Corinth, and Paul is asking us to articulate a clear and compelling vision.

Without a vision to unify us, we will always react to everything the world throws at us. We will try to build gymnasiums and coffee shops just because everyone else has one. We will buy into the latest fad and sell off Jesus just to get a few more people in our doors.

That is not our goal.

Our goal is faithful living to the gospel of Christ.

Our goal is to live the kingdom life right now – even if it isn’t fully here yet.

Our goal is to love and forgive in a world where it is popular to get revenge.

Our goal is to sacrifice for others in a world where people think only for themselves.

Our goal is to gather around a table and eat the bread of Christ and the cup of heaven and as we do so to participate in a heavenly banquet. All of that is complete foolishness to the world… but it is who we are called to be.

A colleage from an online preaching forum wrote: We are willing to believe practically anything on Sunday morning in church, but we aren’t likely to keep acting on it come Monday because it’s so foolish by the world’s standards. (Betsy)

And she is right. When we do not share a vision. When we do not let that vision guide everything that we do, we’ll change as soon as we step outside of those doors. We’ll go back to the ways of the world. We’ll change with the winds. We’ll lose who we are supposed to be.

In these next few months, our church is listening for what that vision is. We are joining together in prayer and study to hear God speaking. To hear what specifically God wants us to do.

Not what some famous author wants us to do.

Now what the culture says we should do.

But what God wants us to do. Right here. Right now.

May God speak. And May we hear.