Stumbling through Anatolia

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Acts 16:6-10

Isn’t this a wonderful story about how ministry works?

We are surrounded these days by book, videos, seminars, and workshops that instruct us how to establish clear priorities, align resources, and communicate effectively to mobilize the church.

It all sounds great.

I’ve never been able to do these things. I’ve always found church work to be extremely messy.

But it sounds great to imagine a church in lock-step unison, rallying around a common vision, and executing the work of ministry with the precision of marching band at half-time.

The churches I have served as pastor more often look like a little league soccer game — swarms of kids running wildly out of position and after the ball, some standing idly off in some corner of the field, some wandering over to the sidelines to demand treats from their parents or potty breaks, and the goal keepers day dreaming or forgetting their jobs and dashing out onto the field because that is what everyone else is doing.

My failure to lead this kind of church, perhaps, is why I find the passage from Acts above so comforting.

It is worth noting as we read the words above, that in Acts 15 we saw the first great council of the Church, where they were attempting to squash division over important matters of doctrine and practice. This glorious council was followed by Paul and Barnabas having a sharp disagreement and agreeing to go their separate ways. Unity lasted about a verse and a half.

And so we come to Acts 16.

Here are Paul and his companions wandering around Anatolia, preaching the gospel, but with no real idea where they might end up next. They plan to preach in Asia, and the Holy Spirit puts up a road block. They set out to go another way, and Jesus says, “Nope.” Finally, in a dream they are called into Macedonia.

This is how ministry often feels to me. How did Jesus put it to Peter? You will be led around, often where you do not want to go.

As I write this, large numbers of my colleagues and a large number of congregations in the United Methodist Church are deciding to leave the UMC or discerning whether they should do so. I consider many of the people making these choices friends, even mentors.* Even so, I find myself a bit like Paul at the border of Bithynia. If I weigh up the pros and cons, if I consider the prospects and the release from the challenges of a long journey through Asia where the Spirit has blocked the gospel, then I might be tempted to leap over that boundary as well. But Jesus keeps standing there with His hand in my face.

My hope and prayer for all of us, those leaving and those staying, is that it is the Holy Spirit who is leading. There are bad reasons to stay in the UMC and there are bad reasons to go. Many right now are like Paul, feeling called by the Holy Spirit into the Macedonia of a new denomination. Some are like Paul at the border of Mysia, thinking the prospects look ripe over there across that boundary in Bithynia, but Jesus keeps standing there and saying “no.”

If the Spirit is calling some of us to leave, then we should be helping them pack up their things and get on with the journey. If the Spirit is calling some of us to stay UMC, then we need to listen, even if we see a lot of good that might be done in Bithynia, especially if we are weary of the mess and missed opportunities in Asia.

For me, this has been a time of discernment and prayer. I can tell you many reasons — to switch my metaphor — that jumping on that boat to Macedonia would be an exciting journey, but it is not my call to make, where I go in ministry. Jesus keeps telling me that He called me to the UMC, and He has said He wants me to stay. With all due respect to my friends and their BeUMC hashtags, I don’t see any other reason why any of us should be or remain United Methodist. Either we have been called or we have not. If the call remains, then that settles the matter, at least for me.

The Holy Spirit knows what He is doing right now. As always, it feels uncertain and it is frustrating to our best laid plans, but we have good company in that. Lord, give me ears to hear.

*I know many of my friends in the UMC have exactly zero interest in leaving and no call to discern anything related to that. If this post feels like it is not speaking at all to your experience, you are most likely correct.

How do you get heard?

The dominant non-religious attitude in America toward sex is something like the attitude Americans have toward commercial transactions. So long as both parties are fully informed about what they are doing and agree of their free will, whatever they want to do is fine with most people.

The standard is the same whether you are standing in a pawn shop or cruising Tinder looking for a hook up.

Because this is the American attitude toward sex, it makes much of what the church says seem silly or reactionary or bigoted. What does God care if two people — or more — enter into a sexual encounter with open eyes?

That is the question.

And the problem is that it is impossible to answer without back-tracking pretty seriously.

You see, Christians historically have not accepted the idea that we own our bodies. We are created by God and redeemed by Christ. Our body — like everything else — is placed at our disposal for a span of time, but belongs to God. So, the notion that we can do whatever we feel like with it is a bit like the teenager who trashes his parent’s house when they leave town over the weekend. He was left in charge of the house, but he was not given license to do whatever he wanted.

Paul gets at this to a degree in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

This idea that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit gets into another issue.

Some people will ask why anyone should care about what another person does so long as “no one gets hurt.” The problem for Christians is that sin hurts someone. It hurts the sinner. It profanes the temple of the Holy Spirit.

By the time we go back this far, of course, we’ve totally lost non-Christian conversation partners. It is nonsense and foolishness to them. In truth, it is nonsense and foolishness to a lot of Christians because we have largely adopted the secular attitude about our own bodies.

I’m not sure how to combat this within the church. How do you get to the point where those of us who follow Jesus and read the Bible can see the way a biblical view of who we are is at odds with the commercial view? The commercial view gets so much more time to make its case, and has spent a lot more time crafting its message and delivery. I’m not sure how we get heard, even inside our own sanctuaries.

Paul in India

Tim Tennent writes about a modern-day apostle he met recently in India.

One of them (whose name cannot be shared for security reasons) is a former road-worker who was one of the earliest to respond to the gospel in the region. He shared with us his love for Christ and the amazing ministry God has given to him. He is constantly traveling, bringing the gospel to new villages all over this mountainous region. When many people of his age are thinking about retirement, he is thinking about which villages have not yet had the opportunity to hear the gospel. He has personally led over 500 Hindus to Jesus Christ. When we left the meeting, one of our Trustees turned to me and said, “I feel like I have just met the Apostle Paul.”