Why Does God Need Jonah? – God’s Unrelenting Call

I’ve been reading Jonah lately. And I’m curious about something:

Why does God need Jonah so badly?

Why does God chase after him? Why doesn’t God just let Jonah go?

It intrigues me.

We all know the story. God comes to Jonah, who is already an established prophet around the time of Jeroboam II (793-753 BC) [cf. 2 Kings 14:25], and God tells him to go to the city of Nineveh and preach against it.

Presumably, God is hoping the Ninevites will repent and turn from their wicked ways.

Only, Jonah doesn’t want to go. He balks at God’s call. As he’ll explain later in chapter 4, he was afraid of just that. He’s afraid they really will repent and that God will be merciful and forgive them. And Jonah doesn’t want that. So, he runs away.

Jonah goes to Joppa and jumps on a ship headed for Tarshish. In essence, God says, “Go to Nineveh,” and Jonah jumps on a ship and heads the exact opposite direction. So much for obedience.

Only, God doesn’t stop there. God goes after Jonah and pursues him. He sends a terrible storm that nearly sinks the ship just to get Jonah’s attention.

Apparently, God isn’t in the mood to take ‘no’ for an answer.

Why? Why doesn’t God just call someone else to go, someone who will be more compliant with God’s request?

Why is it so important that it be Jonah? Why won’t God let this go?

To be honest, it’s a bit of a mystery to me. God’s persistence is a bit frightening.

The storm He sends threatens the lives of more people than just Jonah. God seems willing to risk Jonah’s life just to change his mind. It’s like the ex-girlfriend who’s so obsessed she just can’t accept that the relationship is over.

Still, I suspect some of us as pastors can identify with Jonah in this.

Sometimes, when God calls us, God doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. God persists. He keeps calling. He keeps pursuing. He keeps drawing.

You can run if you like. You can ignore the call. Bury it deep down and busy yourself with other things. Still God calls.

You can find a great job in a promising field. You can get married, settle down, and start a family. Still God calls.

You can tell yourself that you’re happy, that you can serve God in other ways, that lay ministry is just as good. Still God calls.

No matter what you do there’s always that nagging feeling pulling at you.

Sometimes, God’s call can be unrelenting.

God wants you.

You are that important to God’s plan. Not just anyone will do. Someone else can’t fill that spot so easily. Or, at least, God would prefer not to.

The messenger is as important as the message. And you are the messenger God wants.

So, God keeps calling. He simply won’t let up until you say ‘yes.’

I’m not sure why God is that way. But, it’s the way He was with Jonah. And it’s the way God is with so many of us.

Why do you think that is?

 


The Trouble with Schism

It’s been fascinating listening lately to all the Methodist voices calling out and speaking against schism. And I applaud them.

On the one hand, we are all genuinely concerned about the future of the United Methodist Church. Our church.

We want it to stay together. We want to remain in mission and ministry together. We are not ready to give up on all the wonderful things that the UMC is and still can be.

What’s more, I am encouraged to hear so many remind us that this unity is God’s calling. Jesus himself prayed for us to be one church:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one even as we are one. I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfected into oneness, so that the world may know that you sent me and that you loved them just as you loved me. (John 17:22-23)

It’s true. We are to be one Church. The Body of Christ. The visible hands and feet of Jesus in this world. Our oneness should be evident to all, a witness to the Oneness and Glory of God.

And schism gets in the way of that.

It tarnishes that witness. It calls into question God’s Oneness, let alone God’s power to transform human lives and make us one with God. After all, if that’s the best God can do with the Church, how much more can I hope for God to do with me?

So, by all means, schism should be avoided. Unity should be maintained. If it all possible, we must remain One Body of Christ.

However, here’s the problem.

We are already in schism.

I hate to bring this up, but it really is the inconvenient truth. We are not One Church. We are not One Body. We are already divided and broken and separated from one another.

The history of that division and brokenness is the stuff of church history courses. In 1054 the Eastern and Western Church split from one another in what is often referred to as the Great Schism.

The presenting issue was the filioque clause in the creed, but the truth is, the issues were much deeper and more irreconcilable. It involved language, culture, geography, national politics, and a host of other complex issues.

All the same, that’s when the Roman Catholic Church became distinct from the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Then, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation with his Ninety-Five Theses. From that point on the Roman Catholic West fractured and splintered into a multitude of Protestant denominations and churches.

The presenting issue was the authority of the Pope, but I suspect that it was all far more complicated than that.

Nonetheless, we are all heirs of that Reformation. We are all still protesting against papal authority, or church authority or any other kind of authority.

Never tell a Protestant what to do or think. They’ll just walk away. They’ll simply split.

Which is, of course, the trouble with schism. Once you start splitting, it’s hard to stop splitting.

That’s how we’ve ended up with at least 41,000 denominations worldwide.

At least, that’s the conservative estimate. And the truth is, it’s growing by the day. Protestant churches just keep splitting apart. Frankly, it’s in our DNA.

So, ironically, for one Protestant to call another Protestant a “schismatic” is a little like the pot calling the kettle black. It’s more than a bit hypocritical.

We are all schismatics.

Even the United Methodist Church is the result of schism. Just ask John Wesley what he thought about breaking away from the Church of England.

Of course, one might counter: But at least we don’t want to schism and break apart anymore than we already have.

True. And, in my opinion, that’s the right way to think.

However, here’s the catch. To truly avoid more schism, to truly build unity, we as Protestants (even United Methodists) have to reconcile with church authority.

And not just our Book of Discipline. Or the next General Conference.

Rather, we have to submit to the authority of the Church as a whole, to the teaching of Holy Tradition.

That is, if you are really serious about being the one Body of Christ, the One Church of Jesus, then you really need to be moving toward becoming Roman Catholic.

Or Eastern Orthodox.

Whichever works for you, in my opinion. (I have multiple friends on either side that will be more than glad to help you cross the Tiber or the Bosporus.)

What we cannot do, though, is tell one group of Methodists that they can’t talk about schism or amicable separation or any other kind of division while we remain in outright rebellion to the Historic Traditional Church.

That is, we cannot talk seriously about maintaining unity while we are actively maintaining division ourselves.

We cannot condemn schism in others while living in schism ourselves.

I’m not sure, but I believe Jesus told a parable about people like that. It had something to do with pointing out the speck in your brother’s eye while you have quite a bit more than a speck in your own. (Matthew 7:3-5)

So, please, whatever we do as Methodists, let’s strive toward unity without all the finger-pointing and name-calling of “schism” and “schismatic.”

It’s a straw-man argument, and it’s hypocritical to boot.

I want us to remain one United Methodist Church as well, but let’s at least be honest about what we are.

We are Protestants. We divide from time to time. It won’t be the end of the world if we do.

The Church of Jesus Christ will stand the test of time with or without us.

 


Hobby Lobby, EWTN, & the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals

By now nearly everyone has heard about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby verdict. Facebook and Twitter have been abuzz about it.

In a five to four decision, the court ruled that private for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In this particular case Hobby Lobby is not required to provide certain contraceptives mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

It’s a landmark decision.

However, the one I’ve been watching more closely is the case filed by EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network), a Catholic-based television network founded in 1981 in Irondale, Alabama by the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration.

Soon after the Hobby Lobby verdict, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of EWTN, granting them an immediate injunction against the HHS mandate to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their insurance program.

You can read more about it in the Christian Post and in the National Review. You can read the court decision here.

My interest is simple. EWTN is an explicitly Christian organization, but is not technically a church.

The Director of HHS, on orders from President Obama, mandated that a wide-range of contraceptives be covered by employer-funded insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Religious organizations like EWTN were not given an exemption.

EWTN is an explicitly Catholic organization. Catholic doctrine considers all contraceptives to be sinful, since in their view contraceptives extinguish the potential of human life. According to Catholic doctrine, to provide contraceptives is to cooperate with evil.

When EWTN and other such organizations requested relief from this requirement, the Obama administration balked.

Finally, after a great deal of public pressure, the administration conceded that the requirement to provide contraceptives could be pushed back from the employer to the overall insurance-provider, but the employer still had to fund it.

EWTN found this concession unacceptable. Since EWTN is self-insured, they would still be funding a practice which they found to be immoral, unethical, and a grave sin. They would be complicit with evil. So, they filed suit.

At stake is a simple issue: What are the limits of government infringing upon religious freedom?

Certainly, there are legitimate reasons for the government to do so. But what are the limits? Particularly when dealing with explicitly religious organizations.

Churches and other places of worship often get automatic exemptions from mandates like the one HHS handed down. So, no Catholic church was required to comply with this mandate.

However, EWTN is not technically a church (house of worship). They televise religious programming, which may include church worship services. But, they are not themselves a church. So, this exemption did not apply to them.

Nor does it apply to hospitals, food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, or any number of other religious charities. All of these are required to comply with the HHS mandate.

The question is: Should they? Should an explicitly religious organization that is not technically a church be forced to comply with government rules that are in direct opposition to their stated religious beliefs?

The answer that the Obama administration gave was ‘yes.’

On June 30, 2014, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals said ‘no.’ Citing the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby, the three judges for the circuit court granted EWTN an immediate injunction pending appeal.

Two of the three judges chose not to comment on the decision. Judge William Pryor provided a 27-page explanation of his opinion.

In part he writes:

It is neither our duty nor the duty of the United States to tell the Network that its undisputed belief is flawed … The Supreme Court has instructed that “it is not for us to say that the line [drawn by the religious believer] was an unreasonable one. Courts should not undertake to dissect religious beliefs …”

The United States flouts that instruction by treating an undisputed religious belief as a disputed question of law. But “it is not for us to say that [the Network’s] religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.”

We must instead “determine whether the line drawn [by the Network] reflects an honest conviction, and there is no dispute that it does.”

In other words, it is not the Obama administration’s job to decide if the Catholic Church is right or wrong in its views on contraception, abortion, or any other moral/ethical issue.

Rather, it is their job to determine if it is a sincerely held view and then respect it. Even if the religious organization in question is not technically a church or house of worship.

If this ruling holds up – and given the recent Hobby Lobby case, there is every reason to think it will – then I find this a very encouraging development for religious freedom.

The government in general is becoming less and less deferential to Christian churches. As Christendom passes away, our place in the culture is less guaranteed.

In the past, many of these safeguards were assumed. Now, they are not. We need them written down and implemented as law.

This court ruling feels like one very important piece of that safeguarding of our religious freedom.

 


Just Pray

Sometimes, the hardest thing in the world is to start praying.

We want to feel in the right mood. We want to feel spiritual. Even holy. So, we put it off. We delay.

Richard Foster, in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, sympathizes with us. Here’s how he puts it:

I used to think that I needed to get all my motives straightened out before I could pray, really pray …

And so I would determine never to pray again until my motives were pure. You understand, I did not want to be a hypocrite. I knew that God is holy and righteous. I knew that prayer is no magic incantation. I knew that I must not use God for my own ends. But the practical effort of all this internal soul-searching was to completely paralyze my ability to pray. (8)

Then, Foster says he discovered this important insight about prayer:

The truth of the matter is, we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives – altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure.

But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything. That is what grace means, and not only are we saved by grace, we live by it as well. And we pray by it. (8)

He concludes with this thought:

This is precisely how it is with prayer. We will never have pure enough motives, or be good enough, or know enough in order to pray rightly.

We simply must set all these things aside and begin praying.

In fact, it is in the very act of prayer itself – the intimate, ongoing interaction with God – that these matters are cared for in due time. (8)

In essence, what I hear Foster saying is this: We will never be holy enough to start praying. So, don’t wait till you feel holy to pray. Pray because you need the God who can make you holy.

We don’t pray because we feel holy or spiritual. It’s as we pray that we become holy and spiritual.

The key is to just start praying. Don’t wait. Don’t delay. Don’t put it off any longer. Just pray. Start now.

The moment we start, God can begin to work His grace more fully into our hearts. The longer we delay, the longer it will take for God to get His grace into us.

So, just do it. Just pray. Begin now.

 


Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Can’t we all just get along?

It’s the question many of us as Methodists are asking these days, isn’t it?

Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t we just figure out a way to live together in spite of our differences?

Do we really have to divide over this or any other issue? For as many things as divide us, aren’t there more things that hold us together? Isn’t that worth preserving?

It’s what many of us are wondering, I suspect.

And yet, from where I sit it is becoming clearer and clearer that staying together seems less and less likely. Here’s why:

We have two groups in the United Methodist Church who believe that an absolute truth is at stake in this conversation. And neither one seems willing to compromise, even a little bit.

So, on the one hand, I talk with my progressive friends, and they assure me that same-sex marriage is a matter of civil rights. They feel sure that homosexual attraction is a matter of biology. People are just born this way.

Marriage is a natural expression of human love. So, why can’t two people who love each other express their love for one another in this conventional fashion? Call them old fashioned, but they just want to get married like everyone else.

Plus, in our society, there are several legal benefits and protections that are conveyed through marriage. So, how can we bar a class of people from those benefits by denying them marriage? Marriage is a fundamental human right. It’s why they talk in terms of ‘marriage equality.’ Everyone should be able to qualify for marriage and enjoy its legal benefits.

As a result, my progressive friends assure me: They will not back down. They will not compromise. They are not interested in negotiation. Right is right. And wrong is wrong. So, just do what’s right. That’s their view as best I understand it. (I hope I have expressed it clearly and fairly.)

On the other hand, though, I talk with my traditionalist friends, and they are just as adamant that the practice of homosexuality is a sin. They feel sure that the Bible forbids this behavior. They likewise believe that there is nearly 2000 years of Church tradition interpreting the Bible in just that way.

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Lectionary Thoughts: Matthew 10:40-42

As I’ve stated elsewhere, I’m not generally a big fan of the lectionary, and I don’t tend to preach from it on a regular basis myself for a variety of reasons.

However, on the request of a friend, I thought I’d take a look at this week’s Gospel reading. These are merely my musings. They are not meant to be anything definitive. There are too many good commentaries available for that. Still, if it turns out well, this may be a thing I continue. So, here goes:

Sunday, June 29 – Matthew 10:40-42

40 Ὁ δεχόμενος ὑμᾶς ἐμὲ δέχεται, καὶ ὁ ἐμὲ δεχόμενος δέχεται τὸν ἀποστείλαντά με. 41 ὁ δεχόμενος προφήτην εἰς ὄνομα προφήτου μισθὸν προφήτου λήμψεται, καὶ ὁ δεχόμενος δίκαιον εἰς ὄνομα δικαίου μισθὸν δικαίου λήμψεται. 42 καὶ ὃς ἂν ποτίσῃ ἕνα τῶν μικρῶν τούτων ποτήριον ψυχροῦ μόνον εἰς ὄνομα μαθητοῦ, ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐ μὴ ἀπολέσῃ τὸν μισθὸν αὐτοῦ.

40 The one who receives you receives me, and the one who receives me receives the One who sent me.  41 The one who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.   42 And whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones merely in the name of a disciple, truly I say unto you, that person will never lose his reward.

There are a couple of things that stand out as I read this passage.

First, on the heels of talking about the sacrifices entailed in being a disciple, of giving up father and mother, son and daughter (10:34-39), Jesus now lists some of the benefits of following Him.

As disciples of Jesus, we have a new family, a new community. And if we are truly followers of Jesus, we should warmly welcome all other disciples of our Lord.

This language of hospitality stands out. That repeated word δέχεται (receive) echoes throughout this passage. And it clearly conveys the notion of welcoming and inviting into one’s home, of offering a friend a seat at the dining room table and providing food and drink, of preparing a room to stay the night in as well.

All of this is understood in that word “receive.” Classical Greek and Roman literature is full of stories talking about welcoming and receiving guests and strangers using just this language of δέχεται. So, Jesus tells us that we ought to be hospitable and welcoming to one another as Christians.

Second, we note the reason why we should welcome them. We welcome them not because we know them, but because they know Jesus. To welcome them is to welcome Jesus in them. Likewise, to welcome the Son is to welcome the Father. So, when we receive fellow Christians as guests, we are also welcoming the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into our homes. This is an act of communion.

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Presbyterian Church USA Votes to Allow Gay Marriage

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted on Thursday, June 19, to allow clergy to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Pastors who do not wish to perform same-sex marriages would not be required to, but those who live in states where gay marriage is already legal are now permitted to officiate them.

In a similar move, the General Assembly also passed a constitutional amendment which would redefine marriage from between “a man and a woman” to “marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and woman.”

This amendment still has to be voted on and approved by a majority of the church’s presbyteries before it becomes official, but given the percentage by which it passed the assembly, approval by the presbyteries seems likely.

According to news reports, the pastor resolution permitting same-sex weddings passed by a vote of 371 to 238 and the marriage amendment passed by a vote of 429 to 175.

This is a significant change from previous years where the measures failed by fairly close margins. Many speculate that the difference this year was the departure of so many traditionalist congregations since the last General Assembly.

You can read the Christian Post article here, and the Religion News Service article here.

As a United Methodist, I see this and can’t help but wonder:  Is this the future of the United Methodist Church?

On the one hand, the pastor resolution permitting same-sex weddings seems very similar to what Adam Hamilton has proposed in A Way Forward.

This certainly looks like a “local option” legislation. Pastors who feel compelled to officiate same-sex weddings are permitted to do so, while those who would prefer not to are not required to do so. Each pastor and church would have to make its own local decision as to what they would do.

On the other hand, I can’t help but note what it took to get there: All the conservatives had to leave.

One cannot help but see the steady stream of traditionalist pastors and churches leaving the denomination. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is in a precipitous decline. Their numbers are plummeting.

Perhaps these legislative moves will change that, but I’m not so sure. It hasn’t for the Episcopal Church. It hasn’t for the United Church of Christ. And it hasn’t for several others. Why should it be different here?

So, is this what the United Methodist Church has to look forward to?

If so, I am not encouraged. Perhaps amicable separation wouldn’t be so bad, after all.