Nineteen Questions-5: Are You Resolved to Devote Yourself Wholly to God and to God’s Work?

Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and to God’s work? 

In my reflections leading up to ordination, I started reading a book by retired UMC Bishop Ernest Lyght entitled Have You Faith in Christ? A Bishop’s Insight into the Historic Questions Asked of Those Seeking Admission into Full Connection in The United Methodist Church. His brief insights into each of the nineteen questions have been invaluable to my own reflection on these questions that I will soon answer. When it comes to this question, which begins a departure from the questions about personal faith and perfection, this is how he begins his consideration:

The question is predicated on the foundation of the first four questions, which explore one’s relationship to Christ and test one’s desire to seek perfection and to strivev after perfection in love. When we say yes to these questions we are also saying yes to God and the work of God’s ministry.[1]

So this fifth question flows from the previous four. If I am to be wholly devoted to God and God’s work, that resolve flows out of my relationship with Christ and desire to seek perfection. Bishop Lyght suggests that this question should be read in two-parts:

  1. Is your resolve such that you are without reservation fully committed to God?
  2. Are you ready and willing to do the work of God’s ministry without excuses?

Today, as I consider my own resolve, I’m contemplating the resolve of those who have come before me. I have the honor of receiving the mantle of leadership passed from the retiring class of Elders at this year’s retirement service. It’s a humbling responsibility. I even have a line. Near the end of the service honoring the retirees, one of the retiring Elders will pass a lantern to me with these words: “We transfer this mantle from our generation to the young, indicating thereby that the responsibilities and dedication of the older generation will be caught up and carried on by the young, and the spirit of today’s Elijahs will rest upon today’s Elishas.” As I receive the lantern I will respond by saying “We who come after you take up the mantle which falls upon us. May we inherit a double share of your spirit.”

I’m struck by the simplicity and depth of this moment. The statements are simple. Then I start looking at some of the words. Mantle. Responsibilities. Dedication. Inherit.

I will stand there receiving the mantle of leadership from 31 pastors who, according to The Current, have served a total of 959 ¾ years in ministry. I believe they have shouldered the mantle well. These are one’s who have resolved fully to be devoted to God and God’s work. They’ve sacrificed for that commitment. They’ve laughed, cried, smiled, and rolled their eyes as they faced the joys and challenges of vocational ministry. They’ve “left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, and children…for me and for the Good News.”[2] I am grateful for the many ways they have served Christ’s Holy Church through the years. I think I speak for all of us being ordained and commissioned when I say that we do not take this responsibility lightly. We want that same resolve and dedication they have had for so many years. We really do pray for a double portion of their Spirit as we move forward living out the work to which God has called us.

I am resolved to give myself fully to God and the work God has called me to, no matter what that looks like. For me, it’s a matter of trust that God’s grace will proceed me wherever I go. Part of my daily preparation for ordination has been the reciting of The Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition. The more I pray this prayer, the more I feel that resolve, dedication, and commitment.wesley-covenant-prayer.jpg

Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and to God’s work? I am so resolved.

 

 [1]Lyght, Ernest S. Have You Faith in Christ?: A Bishop’s Insight into the Historic Questions. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. Kindle Edition. Loc. 585

[2] Mark 10:29-30

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Nineteen Questions-4: Are You Earnestly Striving After It?

Are you earnestly striving after it?

This is the last question about my own spiritual journey. Having reflected upon this question and the previous two, it is very clear that this issue of holiness (perfection in love, sanctification) was of the utmost importance to John Wesley. We’ve reflected on the meaning of going on to perfection as well as the expectation of reaching perfection in love in this life. Now the question shifts past the expectation and asks “Okay, so you expect it—what are you doing to get there?”

I believe that we strive after perfection by being open to the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. The ability to be open to that energy means that we, as Wesley exhorted, attend to the ordinances of God. This means being invested in the public and private worship of God, receiving Eucharist, prayer, searching the Scriptures, fasting, engaging in works of mercy and justice. Participation in these public and private means of grace keep our relationship with God from being static and propel us into dynamic and maturing faith.

Am I striving after it? Yeah. Do I do a great job of it? Sometimes. Sometimes I’m an utter failure. The point is that we can’t stay put. If we are going to earnestly strive after holiness of heart and life, we have to work it out. Keep practicing the means of grace even when it feels dry and routine. Work it out!

Striving after it reminds me of what Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

Even though I can be a stumbling, bumbling failure of a disciple…I know that God is still working in me, perfecting me in love and making me holy. This striving, work-it-out.pngwhen it’s going well and when it’s at a standstill is a part of that work…working out my salvation. In that striving, you never know when the perfecting moments might come.

In a previous appointment, I served as the chaplain of a United Methodist related retirement home. There was an old, wrinkly retired Methodist pastor among the residents. Well into his nineties, he was still always looking for those opportunities to work out his salvation. He just wanted God to be able to use him for God’s kingdom without his advanced age being an issue. Some days this was really difficult for him. He had spent so much of his life serving God’s kingdom, working out his own salvation , leading others to salvation, announcing the reign of God…that he often felt like wasted flesh now. Then I saw a perfecting moment. I was going to be away for vacation when one of the monthly communion services was scheduled. I asked him if he would be willing to preside at the Table. He wept. A lot. “I guess God still has use for me after all.” I’ll never forget that moment. It was a bright shiny moment of the fruit of striving for perfection in love.

God use me! Make me what you want!

Are you earnestly striving after it? With God’s help, I am.

Nineteen Questions 3–Do You Expect to be Made Perfect in Love in this Life?

I’m a day behind, so I’m going to do two shorter reflections today. I went camping with a group of guys…that was anything but perfect.

Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?

This question, at first brush, seems just as strange as the previous was to me at my first annual conference when I was 15. Do you expect to be made perfect in this life? At first glance, it just seems rather presumptuous of John Wesley to make this inquiry. But, as Bishop Lyght points out, it is doubtful that Wesley would ask this question if he didn’t truly believe that it was possible.

The question makes sense to me on a cerebral level in light of the previous question. If I am going on to perfection, if I’m striving for it, then the expectation should be that God can work that holiness in me while on terra firma. John Wesley wrote of this expectancy. In his journal he defended the charge to expect perfection in love in this life, “I say an hourly expectation; for to expect it at death, or some other time hence, is much the same as not expecting it at all.”[1]

As I reflect on this question, that really makes sense to me. It is really easy to say “Oh yeah, God is going to make me perfect—but not in this life.” To expect to be perfected in love in this life—now that’s a God-sized expectation! I expect that God can make me the type of human being who loves God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, who loves my neighbor as myself, who does justice and loves mercy and walks humbly before God. I want that holiness of heart and life that deepens a dynamic, mature relationship with God and neighbor. I want to be all that God has called me to be. I expect to be made perfect in love in this life—not by anything that I can do, but by the grace of God.

Do you expect to be made perfect in this life? God willing, I do.

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[1] John Wesley, “May 6, 1760 to October 28, 1762,” Journal and Diaries IV (1755-65), ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vol. 21 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992, p. 389.

Nineteen Questions-2. Are You Going On to Perfection?

I was 15 years old—attending my first ever session of Annual Conference when I first heard this question. The question struck me as odd at first. I was a new Christian and to that point everything had been about my conversion experience. All I knew is that I was a sinner saved by grace—the idea of “going on to perfection” seemed out of place.

The more I learned about God, and the more I learned about the Wesleyan movement, however, the more I fell in love with the doctrine of perfection in love. Perfection is central to the DNA of the Wesleyan tradition.

John Wesley, in his sermon Christian Perfection, said it this way “By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God, and our neighbors, ruling our tempers, words, and actions.” For Wesley, perfection was synonymous with holiness or total sanctification.

Wesley made this emphasis that was really a re-emphasis on the Holy Spirit. In the reformation there was so much emphasis on conversion and justification through faith in Christ alone, and rightly so as Christology needed to be brought back to the center, that the work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart was completely de-emphasized. Wesley was bringing into focus the fullness of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit works in our lives to bring us to perfection.

Going on to perfection is the post-conversion process of the Holy Spirit re-orienting our lives away from sin and toward holiness. Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, wrote that perfection “doesn’t mean your life is free from sin. But it does mean that sin becomes your mortal enemy, not your secret lover.”[1]

I can look back over my own life and see where God’s sanctifying grace has been at work through the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit moving me on to perfection.image1.JPG By the grace and mercy of God, I am not the person I was when Christ found me, I’m not the person I was five years ago, I’m not the person I was last week. I have come to celebrate the process of going on to perfection by rejoicing in all the small victories where I can see that my heart has been re-oriented away from sin, where I can say that I am more loving, more Christ-like, more even-tempered. I am far from perfection (just ask my wife), but the Holy Spirit continues to work in my heart and life and move me toward it.

Are you going on to perfection? I am, by the grace of God.

[1] Tennent, Timothy C. Awakening Holiness. Wilmore, KY: Seedbed, 2011. E-Book. P.36

Nineteen Questions–1. Have You Faith in Christ?

Have you faith in Christ? This seems like such an obvious and simple question for one seeking ordination in the Church. Indeed it’s one of the foundational–nay, THE foundational question of the Christian faith.

The faith to confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is the bedrock upon which Christianity is built. Jesus as Lord is not just a piece of Christianity, it is Christianity. Upon Peter’s confession of Him as “the Christ, the son of the Living God” Jesus pledged to build His Church. For me, the Christological hymn preserved in Philippians 2:6-11 says it all:

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
 and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

In reflecting on this question, retired Bishop Ernest Lyght imagines that there are really two layers to this question: “Do you know Jesus?” and “How well do you know Jesus?”[1]

I came to know Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life” when I was 14 years old during a week of church camp.faith-spirit-of-faith3-300x225 I came to realize that Jesus had been pursuing me with His grace before I was even willing to admit the existence of God. I accepted the invitation to confess my sin, put my trust in Jesus, and submit my life to his Lordship. The words of Charles Wesley’s great hymn became my reality:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night:
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

This was a dramatic experience in my life. During that same week of camp I felt God’s call to ordained ministry. I really began my Christian journey with the peculiar certainty that Jesus wanted to use me. But even though I felt that call, the height of it all was knowing that Jesus loved me and had rescued me.

How well do I know Jesus? To me, this is a question of Christian growth. My life changed the instant I professed faith in Jesus Christ, but the story of faith would be incomplete if it ended there. Faith must always strive to be maturing. Fresh in my mind right now is the sermon that my friend and co-laborer Bruce preached yesterday on John 16:12-15. In my journey, there have continually been new facets to faith in Christ. There have been times where I could “not bear” to know any more, but I’ve learned more about Christ and His grace as the journey continues. As individual believers, we are called to lives of personal and social holiness. This is only possible by submitting our entire selves to the Lordship of Christ in vocation, relationships, time, passion, and will. In so doing, we know him more, and reclaim more of our authentic humanity.

Christ continues to be my only hope. He’s my hope for my own life, for the life of my family, my hope for the human race, my hope for the Church. Everything I have and everything I am is because of Jesus.

Have you faith in Christ? I have.

[1] Lyght, Ernest S. Have You Faith in Christ?: A Bishop’s Insight into the Historic Questions. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. Kindle Edition. Loc. 284

Nineteen Questions

Almost two years ago, on June 6, 2014, I was commissioned by Bishop Jonathan Keaton as a Provisional Elder in The United Methodist Church. After 4 years of undergraduate school, 4 years 37fd05fd-707d-4e8d-ac83-4f75fafd767eof seminary, and an interview with the Board of Ordained Ministry, this commissioning began two years of preparation for ordination.

This past February, I appeared before the Board of Ordained Ministry again for four, one-hour long interviews (Doctrinal, Sermon, Bible Study, Fruitfulness) to evaluate my growth and effectiveness in ministry and endless pages of written work I had prepared. Later that evening I received a phone call indicated that I had been approved by the Board for Ordination as an Elder. In that moment all the hard work, all the meetings, all the late nights, all the money invested, all the hoops…they were worth it. The call and giftedness from God that I knew in my heart was affirmed by my Church. I was ready for the celebration to begin.

Then, at the end of April, those of us being ordained (as well as those being commissioned) met with our Bishop in Springfield to prepare for the service. We worshiped, ate together and went over details of the service. In the midst of it, Bishop Keaton presented us with nineteen questions. As part of our general examination at Annual Conference, we would be expected to answer these nineteen historic questions:

You have indicated that you are convinced that you should enter the ministry of Christ’s holy Church. You have declared that you are willing to face any sacrifice that may be involved in the consecration of life. You have indicated that you are so situated in life that you can accept the obligations of the itinerant ministry. You have affirmed that you will respect the purity of life in body, mind, and spirit, and that you will keep before you as the one objective of your life the advancement of the reign of God. Remember the words of Christ, who said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In accordance with the usage and Discipline of The United Methodist Church and the historic usages of our communion, and in the presence of this conference, I ask you:

  1. Have you faith in Christ? I have.
  2. Are you going on to perfection? I am, by the grace of God.
  3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? God willing, I do.
  4. Are you earnestly striving after it? With God’s help, I am.
  5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and to God’s work? I am so resolved.
  6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church? I do.
  7. Will you keep them? I will so endeavor.
  8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church? I have studied them.
  9. After full examination do you believe our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? I believe that they are.
  10. Will you preach and maintain them? I will.
  11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? I have.
  12. Do you approve of our Church government and polity? I do so approve.
  13. Will you support and maintain them? I will, with God’s help.
  14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place? I will.
  15. Will you visit from house to house? This is my commitment.
  16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? I will so recommend.
  17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God? That is my intention.
  18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? I am not.
  19. Will you observe the following directions? (a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. (b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake. The Lord being my helper, I will.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on these nineteen questions. I think of so many who have come before me who have answered these questions. I think of those who earnestly strove to keep these commitments. I think of those who were unable to keep them. In my reflection, it has become very clear to me that I do not want ordination to just be a “business transaction”. It’s about more than conference membership and the completion of formal study. It really is the beginning of a lifelong commitment to service to Christ’s Holy Church through The United Methodist Church.

I have nineteen days before ordination. Nineteen days to prepare myself spiritually to answer these nineteen questions. I can’t be the only one who has wrestled or is wrestling with the spiritual weight of preparation for ordination. So, one of the things that I’m doing to prepare myself for the day of ordination is to reflect deeply on each of these questions and I’ve decided to share those reflections here. Perhaps it may aid someone else in their own grappling with these important questions.

Later today, I’ll post about question one.

Warning: Methonerd Rant Ahead

You’ve been warned.

I am not a delegate to General Conference in Portland, nor was I eligible to be (ordination in less than a month….BOOM!). However, I am a huge Methonerd. What I mean by that is that I have watched the live stream of General Conference since it began last week, have followed along with legislation being considered and worshiped right alongside the delegates via the stream. No, I’m not a delegate, so what I say here matters very little in the grand scheme of things. But I do love Jesus and The United Methodist Church. The UMC welcomed me with open arms when I first began to follow Jesus. I have served as a Pastor in the UMC for the last nine years and…as I gleefully pointed out earlier…I am to be ordained as an Elder in Full Connection at our Annual Conference in less than a month. Because of my deep love for The United Methodist Church, and uneasiness about some of the action taken by the General Conference today, I decided I would rant. 🙂

If you are a Methonerd, you will find some of what I post to be redundant to what you already know. But I also know that there are those who will read this who aren’t up on all the metho-lingo, so let me give some background.

First, General Conference is the only body that can speak for the entire United Methodist Church. It is a decision-making body that gathers every four years to make decisions that will advance our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Pastors and laypeople from every annual conference around the world are elected and sent as delegates.

For several decades, there has been growing division in our denomination around the issue of human sexuality. The United Methodist Church officially holds that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This has caused division and hurt in our denomination between those who affirm this language and those who wish for a more inclusive Church.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough reads a statement about sexuality and the church from the denomination's Council of Bishops on May 18 at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough reads a statement about sexuality and the church from the denomination’s Council of Bishops on May 18 at the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS.

The issue came before this General Conference as well. Yesterday, a request was made for our Bishops to bring forward a plan for a suggested way forward that the delegates could either accept or reject. Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the Council brought the plan this morning. You can find the full text of the Bishops’ proposal here, some of the highlights are as follows. The Bishops suggested that:

-General Conference 2016 defer all discussion on human sexuality.

-The discussion of human sexuality be referred to a special commission selected by the Council of Bishops. This commission would study, examine and make recommendations for a way forward from the current deadlock.

-If the commission finishes their work before the 2020 General Conference, there could be a specially called session of the General Conference to vote on the recommendations of the commission. 

After the Council of Bishops presented their plan, a motion was made by Rev. Adam Hamilton to accept their recommendation. His motion was debated and was defeated by a vote of 438-393.

A short time after this was defeated, another delegated moved to accept the Bishops’ plan. It was ruled that his motion was somehow different from the one offered by Rev. Hamilton (I’m still not sure how that’s possible). This time, the plan offered by our Bishops was approved 428-405. Barring any parliamentary challenge or ruling by the Judicial Council, it would appear that this is the plan that will be used.

So basically, the can gets kicked down the road for another 2-3 years so we can talk more about the issue. I seriously feel like the Titanic is sinking and we’re busy rearranging the deck chairs. I believe the time for talking has passed. This was the moment for the General Conference to act, and it slipped by. I have dear friends on both sides of the human sexuality debate…my newsfeed contained posts from conservatives, moderates, and progressives. Frankly, I didn’t see very many who were happy with the action taken by the General Conference. We wanted action. Either action that affirmed the orthodox position that has been held by the Church since 1972 or action that made a way for full inclusion in our Church. Folks…we didn’t get any of that!

We’ve tried study commissions in the past (1976, 1980, 1988) and we’re still terribly divided over this issue. I fear that we cannot endure 2-3 more years of business as usual. Our witness to the world hangs in the balance. Our Church hangs in the balance. I’m sitting here wondering if the Church I am about to be ordained in will even exist by the time the commission is done with their work. I desperately want us to stay together, so let’s find a way to make it happen NOW. The time for talking is over. No matter what happens, I believe that there can still be a vital expression of Wesleyan Christianity with or without The United Methodist Church….but my heart yearns for us to stay united. I put my trust in Jesus Christ who is Lord of the Church to lead and guide us into the future, no matter what it may hold.

That’s my hope.  I still sit here tonight, hoping and praying that the action taken by General Conference today will be reconsidered before Friday. Come what may, the time for action is NOW.