Acting Boldly – A New Video Bible Study Series from Bishop Lowry

The following is a Guest Post by Vance Morton – Director of Communications for the Central Texas Conference

The days in which “the church” has a favored status in society are over. The time of “Casual Christianity” is no more. This is now a time for boldness and action. As such, the teachings found in the Acts of the Apostles are more vital to our life as a church today than ever. The lessons from Acts serve to remind that the  church doesn’t exist for itself, but that we exist to be witnesses of the Risen Savior moving in our midst. There is nothing passive in these teachings, rather bold conviction, faith and action. Any church that wishes to be faithful, must reach out with grace and clarity and compassion to a world that often rejects it.

It is in this spirit the Bishop Lowry offers his new video Bible Study ACTING BOLDLY – How the Acts of the Apostles Can Guide Today’s Church Through the Wilderness. This video Bible study offers practical insights on how the Church can remain faithful to its mission in an age of frenzied change. We live in chaotic times, and in these times of change and chaos, the Book of Acts speaks to local churches with powerful examples and instructions on how we as the church and individuals of faith can gracefully and boldly step into today’s world and remain fully faithful to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Acts of the Apostles (often called the Fifth Gospel) provide a teaching that is central to our life as a church today – so too do the actions and teachings of the leaders of the early Methodist movement, most of which were greatly influenced by the Acts of the Apostles. This study is designed to be a deep Bible study that is intended to take class discussions and considerations into uncharted territory – the wilderness if you will.

Part One is now available for download, with parts 2-5 expected by Monday, Feb. 19. DVDs of the entire series are available by request for a small shipping charge. In this first of five videos in the ACTING BOLDLY study series, Bishop Lowry shares tried, true and tested ways of reaching out to a bruised and battered world. This session focuses on Chapter 1 of the Book of Acts and provides insights on how The Bible instructs us as a church and a people of faith to step into the chaotic changing world of our day in ways that are fully faithful to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Please visit ctcumc.org/ActingBoldly to learn more and access the videos and study guides for each lesson.

 

Turning to the Cross and Beyond ©

Tomorrow begins the season of Lent – the forty days of journey to the death of Jesus on the cross for our redemption and the triumph of Christ in the resurrection for our salvation. Historically, this has always been a time for Christians to follow Christ to the cross and beyond in quiet contemplation, Spirit-filled prayer and renewed faithfulness.

When I first glanced at the calendar and saw that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day coincided, I thought the collision of the two a bad happenstance. The ultimate sacrificial death appeared to clash with the essence of romantic love. However, as the day draws closer, I find myself reflecting on the conjunction of the two. At the core, they go together. What did Jesus say? “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). What greater intent and higher good is there than that romantic love should lead to life-giving commitment?

It is in this “Holy Spirit” that I urge us come to Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. May the true depth of self-giving love propel us far beyond a one-day celebration with flowers, chocolate and maybe a meal out. Taken together, they call us to the heights of holy, which is to say great, living. This is the right and proper beginning of our journey to the cross and beyond.

Below, I have included an important Lenten message from Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops. I commend it to you and invite you to join with the bishops of the church, including myself, in a time of prayer, fasting and sharing with others. Together, let us turn to the cross and beyond.

Bishop Mike Lowry
Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Conference, The Fort Worth Episcopal Area
February 13, 2018

 2018 Lenten Message from the Council of Bishops
Monday, February 12, 2018

Dear Friends,

On behalf of the entire Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, I greet you as we enter the Lenten Season – a season of reflection and preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ triumphant resurrection on Easter.

The pattern of our Lenten journey was set by Jesus during his 40 days of solitude, fasting, prayer and testing in the Judean desert. This was an essential period of preparation for Jesus’ public ministry.

But, the goal of our Lenten journey was revealed by Jesus when he first foretold his disciples of his death and resurrection. Mark’s Gospel has Jesus saying: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”  (Mark 8:34-35).

What does it mean to lose one’s life for the sake of the gospel? It means to live the same purposeful life Jesus lived. It means to deny our preferences for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom purposes. It means to set aside our self-interest so that others may have a more abundant life. It means we are saved in order to participate in the salvation of others. It means our hearts will break for the very situations that break the heart of God.

Our beloved United Methodist Church is in a season of Lent. We are in an intense season of prayer, discernment and exploring what it means to lose one’s life for the sake of the gospel. The Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops have entered a critical time of reflection, prayer and fasting as we seek to listen deeply and expectantly to the Holy Spirit. We are confident God’s Spirit will guide the Commission and the Council in discerning where God is leading our church and how, through Christ’s grace, we will continue to do ministry and make disciples throughout the world.

We invite all United Methodists to join us in this Lenten reflection by focusing on the mission that Jesus Christ gave us at the end of his earthly ministry after he triumphantly overcame sin, hatred and death to give birth to a church grounded in the new covenant of love. Please join us in these Lenten disciplines of surrendering our lives to the way of the cross.

  • Take at least 30 minutes every day in Lent to pray, offering God your requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving. Pray for the members of the Commission on a Way Forward. Pray for your bishops. Pray for the church and pray for the whole world. 1 John 5:14-15 reminds that we should have bold confidence that “if we ask anything according to God’s will, God hears us. And if we know that God hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of God.”
  • Take time to fast, whether it is from food or from some activity. Take the example of Jesus who withdrew to the desert to fast from food and pray for 40 days before starting his public ministry. Our fasting brings us closer to God and enhances our prayers. In whatever we decide to do, we must remember as Romans 14:17 tells us: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
  • Take time to reflect on your spiritual gifts and resources that God has blessed you with and share them with others. Donate your time or money saved by fasting to your local church for missions and ministries that benefit your local community directly. Offer your service for acts of compassion and advocacy. Take the example of the first Christians who “were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45).

During this Lenten season, let us continue to live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Together, let us lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel. By doing so, we will honor the Lord’s Prayer that the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven and thereby glorify God.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough, President
Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church

 

 

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #15 ©

Our Present Prospects

 An old story ascends the dim recesses of my memory. Back prior to World War II a guy living in a small town is noted for being what we used to simply call a “bad hombre.” He is perennially rude and mean-spirited towards others. He lies and cheats. He has been known to take what isn’t his. He has been in and out of jail for stealing and drunken disorderly conduct numerous times. Strangely he is also someone who shows up at every revival held it the small town. It does not seem to matter if it’s a Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Pentecostal group that is sponsoring the revival.

Finally he is arrested once more for drunken brawling on Main Street. When he is released from jail a couple of months later he promptly heads to the edge of town and takes in the local protestant tent revival. At the close of the service, the preacher gives a stirring heartfelt invitation for people to give their lives to Christ and be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Seemingly deeply moved, the fellow comes forward to the altar weeping and crying out. As he kneels and the pastor lays his hands on him, he shouts out loud, “Fill me Lord, fill me with the Holy Spirit! Listening from the rear of the tent, another person shouts out over the din of conversion crying. “Don’t do it Lord!  He leaks!”

***

For far too long we have leaked. Those who call themselves Methodist have largely aped the culture of what passes for modern day success. Our present prospects will not continue on this same path. As the tsunami of secularity (a post-Christendom culture) sweep over us, the day of casual Christianity is over. In the years ahead there will be painful separation of those who take seriously the life of Christian discipleship and those who are hangers-on. This will not be a clean, neat split but a messy jagged rip frayed at the edges. From a prospective of the early Methodists, it involves recovering our original understanding that Methodism was an “order” within the larger church. Put differently, we Methodists didn’t come into being to be a new denomination. We came into being as a “new faith community” to reform the larger church with a true holiness of heart and life (i.e. a holiness that was and is both personal and social). Professor Scott Kisker puts it this way: “Methodism needs to realize that we are not the Church: we are a way of being Christian within the Church” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist? Rediscovering Our Evangelistic Mission, p.120).

A few months ago, Lovett Weems spent a day with the Cabinet in training. As a part of our extended time together he noted that, at the height of our growth in the first part of the 19th century, over half the delegates to Annual Conference didn’t have church building. One person was given an appointment that was so vague that when he asked about the boundary lines (mission field) of his appoint he was told: “To the north Tennessee, to the East Georgia, to the South the Gulf Coast, to the West, the setting sun.”

In a blog entitled “The Four Marks of  the Next Methodism,” Dean David Watson of United Theological Seminary writes that the “next Methodism” will:

“1. The Next Methodism will feed the hungry, physically and spiritually.
2. The Next Methodism will be Spirit-filled.
3. The Next Methodism will be rooted in Scripture.
4. The Next Methodism will be truly Wesleyan.”

He adds, “Earlier this year I read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Its basic premise is that the culture has turned against us as Christians. We need to retreat and form tightly knit communities that will serve as arks in which we can ride out the flood of neo-paganism in Western culture. This is the best hope we have of preserving a Christian identity in the midst of a hostile world.

“After I finished it, though, I thought, What if John Wesley had done that? Thankfully, he didn’t. In fact, he did the opposite. He preached in the fields and where anyone would listen. He went into the places where he knew people were hostile to him. He was attacked by mobs. He was badmouthed and ridiculed. He didn’t retreat from the culture. He confronted it. And in the midst of all this, he led a revival that swept through England and eventually became a global movement.

“I don’t want the Benedict Option. I want the Wesley Option: high-octane evangelism with a deep commitment to Scripture and an emphasis on sanctification and social holiness”  (https://davidfwatson.me/2017/06/13/four-marks-of-the-next-methodism/).

I could agree more! We move forward on the reclaiming of the heart of the Wesleyan Way centered on Christ, through commitment to Christian growth and spiritual maturity. This will necessitate the recovering of some version of the Class Meeting and love for others that stands apart from our common culture in its holiness and compassion. This will be yoked to the recovery of a real discipline and accountability with each other. 

Did you know that Wesley refused to preach where the Class Meeting was absent? Wesley was clear that if one was not willing to be in a class meeting and be held accountable (“watching over one another in love”) you weren’t allow to be a part of the Methodist societies. Oh, to be sure, you were invited and encouraged to come to the preaching and worship, but you were not a Methodist without real submission to spiritual discipline and practical engagement in the deeds of love, justice and mercy. Methodism was both tough and transformational! Faith sharing and caring for the hungry, hurting and homeless were inseparably linked. Methodists were a sent people. Sent to church needing reformation and renewal. Sent to those who did not know the Lord. Sent to nurture each other in the way that leads to life eternal. This was and is our glory. This was and is our calling. “If our ministry is to be effective in the present age, we must recover what they provided: small disciplined, hospitable, caring fellowships for non-Christians and Christians alike” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist? Rediscovering Our Evangelistic Mission, p.83).

God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is not done with the Methodist Movement, the Wesleyan Way, yet. The Lord’s claim and call still rest upon us in divine glory and to divine purpose. We are to “reform the church and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.”

Mission and the Way Forward in the Season after the Epiphany

The moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) are urging all United Methodists to engage in a time of reflection on missions in the UMC. Specifically, they are asking us to reflect upon where each of us sees mission at the heart of the denomination as well as how it is significant for resolving conflict. The following statement is from the COWF Moderator Bishops David Yemba, Sandra Steiner Ball and Ken Carter. I commend it for careful attention and prayerful reflection.

Bishop Mike Lowry

At the conclusion of the recent meeting of the Commission on a Way Forward, the members were asked to share three words that expressed their prayer for the church in the present moment. The 32 persons reflect the global nature of the church and a profound diversity of gender, age, theological perspective. They are laity, deacons, elders and bishops. The three words each shared then helped to create a word cloud. The more often a word is named, the larger it becomes in the word cloud (picture). The result can be viewed online as well as on the image to the right.

In the Mission, Vision and Scope given to the Commission by the Council of Bishops, we are seeking to “design a way for being church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.” This vision is deeply rooted in the movement of the gospel from a small village in Bethlehem to the ends of the earth. The revelation of the Christ to the Magi (the gentiles) in Matthew 2 signals the church’s calling to share the good news with all people. At our best, this has been the vocation of a missionary church and is the root of a global church, where we are sent “from everywhere to everywhere” in the name of Jesus.

For reflection:

  • What does it mean that the commission sees “mission” at the heart of the way forward for our denomination?
  • Could it be that we discover our unity as we are in mission together?
  • What if mission became the primary framework for our work in resolving conflict?
  • How are we called to be in mission together more fully with our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community?
  • And what three words would express your prayer for the church in the present moment?

Bishops David Yemba, Sandra Steiner Ball, and Ken Carter

Moderator Team of the Commission on a Way Forward

About the Commission: The 32-member Commission on a Way Forward was appointed by the Council of Bishops to assist the bishops in their charge from the 2016 General Conference to lead the church forward amid the present impasse related to LGBTQ inclusion and resulting questions about the unity of the church.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #14 ©

Practical Christianity

Last Saturday I was sitting at the First Steps: How to Big Your WIG Journey gathering in the Fellowship Hall of University UMC.  The gathering wrestled with the goal of how we reach out to a new generation. The WIG (Wildly Important Goal) is our stated mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The group was investigating how to engage missional evangelism. In particular, they were struggling with how to get beyond faith sharing as simply invitational (i.e. knocking on doors and inviting people to church) and missional engagement (the deeds of love, justice, and mercy) as having an explicit faith element that introduces Christ as Savior and Lord to people. In the midst of what felt like a tired old (albeit heartfelt) discussion, one pastor stood up.

“Instead of knocking on doors and inviting people to come to church,” he said, “I go where they are. I go to Starbucks and get involved in conversations with people about what really matters in their life.” Instead of offering an attractional model, he went where people were.

This notion of going where people are is at the heart of the reclaiming the Wesleyan Way. Famously, John Wesley wrestled with just such a public “embarrassment.” Prodded by his friend George Whitfield, Wesley finally left the safety of the church sanctuary to go where the people were. He writes in his Journal “At four in the afternoon I submitted to ‘be more vile’ [2 Sam. 6:22], and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people. The scripture of which I spoke was this . . .: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor’ (John Wesley, Journal, April 2, 1739).

Professor Scott Kisker writes of this central “Wesleyan Way”: “The market place was Wesley’s most frequently used post for this preaching – often the market cross. This stone monument at the center of a market town provided symbolic focus for the intersection of the sacred with the secular. Here the salvation of God met the everyday lives of the people. Here consumers, thieves, merchants, slaves, saints and sinners gathered for the business of the day” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist: Rediscovering Our Evangelistic Mission, pp. 76-77).

                          

At its heart Methodism, what I have chosen to call the Wesleyan Way, is about practical Christianity. In fact Wesley’s theology is often labeled “practical divinity.” It is about both where and how the Christian faith intersects everyday living. Doctrinal teaching (“orthodoxy”) is inseparably linked to correct practice (“orthopraxy”) of the Christian faith. Check out a website of Methodist beliefs and this crucial concept of practical Christianity virtually always shows up.

The website http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-wesleyan-heritage puts it way: “Wesley and the early Methodists were particularly concerned about inviting people to experience God’s grace and to grow in their knowledge and love of God through disciplined Christian living. They placed primary emphasis on Christian living, on putting faith and love into action. This emphasis on what Wesley referred to as ‘practical divinity’ has continued to be a hallmark of United Methodism today.”

Ironically enough much of our practice of Christianity has reversed the emphasis and retreated into the church. Both missions and evangelism have been tragically divorced from each other. The heart of the Wesleyan Way is to put missions and evangelism together in a practical Christianity at the market place cross!

Back in my seminary days, I wrote a paper on the adoption of the Methodist Social Creed. It is anchored in this central tenant of the Wesleyan Way, in a practical Christianity that is lived out at Starbucks and not just in the church sanctuary.  One of the authors of the early Social Creed was Rev. Frank Mason North. He wrote a famous hymn which passionately lays out this emphasis, “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.” The first verse is:

Where cross the crowded ways of life,
Where sound the cries of race and clan,
Above the noise of selfish strife,
We hear your voice, O Son of man.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 427, “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life“)

We are called to go and share the gospel of Jesus Christ by both word and deed where people are! Under the Holy Spirit’s power and presence, we offer a practical Christianity “turn-key” ready for everyday living.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #13 ©

Faith Sharing

The story is well known and speaks to the heart of the Wesleyan Way. Roger Ross relates it as follows:

On April 2, 1739, at age thirty-five, Wesley took the plunge:

At four in the afternoon I submitted to ‘be more vile,’ and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining the city, to about three thousand people.

That was the tipping point of the eighteenth-century revival. If Wesley had waited for those three thousand people to come to church, he would have died standing at the altar. Instead of making them come to him, Wesley went to them.

The early days of the revival felt like a page out of the book of Acts. Compelled by the love of Christ, Wesley would head to the Kingswood coal mines at 5 a.m.
(Meet the Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share Faith by Roger Ross; p. 19)

At the very heart of Methodism is a conviction that people need to come to saving faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. Famously John Wesley said, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those who want you, but to those who want you most”  (Minutes of Conference, 29 June 1744, revised 1745). The painful reality of the current United Methodist Church is that we are excessively reluctant to engage in faith sharing and witness – what we might classically call evangelism.

I have had the joy of serving a number of wonderful churches. On one occasion at Asbury United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi, we consciously geared up to teach evangelism and faith sharing. This wonderful congregation had a history of conversion growth. There were a number of years in which adult professions of faith exceeded the number of people who joined on transfer from another congregation.

The associate pastor taught a course designed to help people discover their personal best style of evangelism  She used material from Willow Creek Community Church entitled Becoming a Contagious Christian: Communicating Your Faith in a Style that Fits You (written by Mark Mittleberg, Lee Strobel & Bill Hybels). As the class, started participation was high. People were eager to discover how to share their faith. Slowly the class built on the learning until the time when people would actually share their faith with a non- or nominal Christian friend.

As the time for faith sharing came closer attendance steadily decreased! Anxiety palpably rose. Excuses for not being able to complete the course grew with creative reasons. It became obvious that many in class (most of us!) were afraid. Fear of faith sharing, rejection, and ridicule was a mind killer and a spirit drainer. Assisting the associate pastor in teaching, she and I over and over tried to address the fears present (both those articulated and those that remained unspoken).

One of the first steps at recovering a personal witness is to honestly face the fear of doing so. The fears we have are often (almost always!) far greater than reality. Amazingly, if shared respectfully in a gracious natural way with attentive listening, most people are eager and hungry to talk about their deepest beliefs, highest yearnings, and soul gnawing spiritual hunger. We need to appropriate the advice of I Peter 3:13-16: “Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience.”

A second key element in recovering personal witness is a willingness to share your own experience of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit acting in your life. People want to know how you experience the Lord Christ in your life far more than they want to know about God in the abstract. Share your story!  It doesn’t need embellishment. In fact, dressing it up weakens the beauty and greatness of God’s presence. Have you had a “God-sighting” this past week? Share the story!

A third basic part of first steps for a congregation recovering personal witness and faith sharing is that the pastor has to practice what he or she is preaching. Put differently, the pastor must – absolutely must! – be a player coach. At a minimum this involves spending time and making friendships with non-Christians and not just residing in a church ghetto. Friendships and relationships have to be real and not just done to get a conversion. One of our deeper struggles is that many Christian people don’t know many non-Christian people. Make some friends and be a friend without expectation of reward. God will offer the opportunity for sharing. (Bob Farr, Doug Anderson, & Kay Kotan have written an excellent basic book titled Get Their Name that can help.)

A fourth basic step at recovering personal witness is to engage in recommending. Jim Ozier (Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church) notes that we are “hardwired to recommend.” We recommend all kinds of things – restaurants, stores, people, hairstyles, doctors, etc. American culture is geared more to recommending than inviting. A crucial first step in faith sharing is simply to learn to recommend Christ and your church to others.

One of my treasured books is an old copy of D. T. Niles classic That They May Have Life (copyright 1951 [currently out of print]). D. T. Niles was a great evangelist, pastor, leader of the World Student Christian Federation, President of the Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Methodist Conference, and President of the World Council of Churches in the middle part of the 20th century. He opens his book with the following assertion. “Evangelism is the call of the hour, as it has been the call of every hour when Jesus has been taken seriously” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 11).

Better remembered and often misquoted is his famous statement found in that classic. “Evangelism is witness. It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 96). Rev. Niles continues in the same paragraph: “The Christian does not offer out of his bounty. He has no bounty. He is simply a guest at his Master’s table and, as evangelist, he calls others too. The evangelistic relationship is to be ‘alongside of’ not ‘over-against.’”

I overheard the conversation; so too did others. In setting you really couldn’t help it. The puzzled plaintive questioning in the voice was unmistakable and the dialogue surfed the edge of embarrassment. It involved a young woman talking to a close and obviously treasured boyfriend. I cannot remember the dialog word for word but it went something like this.

“I don’t understand? If it meant this much to you why wouldn’t you share it with me?”

His response was muffled and awkward. “I didn’t want you to feel pressured or put you on the spot.”

Her earnest, almost heated, reply came back. “But if it meant that much to you; you could at least share your convictions.”

He mumbled something about being embarrassed and fearful of rejection. She respond by saying something to the effect of “if you love, as you say you do, how could you not share!?”

Can you guess what the topic was?  It was about her boyfriend’s failure to share his deep convictions of faith in Christ with his girlfriend. Apparently, he had told her that he went to church but never added much more to his low level, low key sharing. For her, it was a test of love. If you really love me, you will share.

Faith sharing is at the very heart of the Wesleyan Way. More importantly it is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is Lord and Savior. We live in the midst of a people who desperately need to hear that fullness of life, salvation, comes in relationship to him.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #12 ©

The Union of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy or Holiness of Heart and Life Reconsidered

As we move into the new year, I want to pick back up on a theme, a series of blogs, I started early last fall. I wrote on the subject “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way.” At that time I outlined a series of blogs that would conclude with blog number 15. Last fall I wrote through blog #11 and then moved to other (related) topics. With the United Methodist Church facing a possible schism, or splintering, at an upcoming Called General Conference in February of 2019, I am convinced now more than ever that it is important we go back and reclaim our original roots.

I cannot shake a series of conversations I have had with a variety of different people over the past year. One particular interchange is lodged in my mind. Last October I shared insights from a meeting with Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in the Vatican offices across the street from St. Peter’s. Bishop Farrell shared a conviction that different parts of our larger Christian family had insights that we all need to learn from. He explicitly commented that the Methodist movement brought to the wider Christian dialogue a sense of the importance of holiness and holy living.

For John Wesley and the early Methodists, this deep sense of holiness of heart and life was a core element of the Christian faith. In fact, so methodical were the “Wesleyans” about pursuing holiness of heart and life that they were called “Methodists.”

Recently I preached on an important passage from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel. Do this, whether I come and see you or I’m absent and hear about you. Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).

To the best of my knowledge only one other time does the Apostle Paul use the phrase “of most import” or “of first importance” or some other equivalent. The other occasion is found in 1 Corinthians 15, the third and fourth verses when he writes to a letter to the church at Corinth. “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). On that occasion he writes of a central, core, cardinal doctrine (that means “teaching”) of the Christian faith – the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. He spends a chapter arguing that if you don’t buy the doctrine of resurrection, you can throw the rest of this away; it is a waste of your time – “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless;” he write a few short verses later, “you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).

There (in 1 Corinthians 15) the issue is of critical belief – doctrinal importance (orthodoxy = right belief). In this passage from Philippians the issue is of critical practice – the way we live (the technical term is orthopraxy). The two – orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) are inseparably linked. Break one and the other soon will fail. The original Wesleyan movement took this connection so seriously that Wesley linked living “together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel” (Philippians 1:27) with the Articles of Religion as a doctrinal core he established for the Wesleyan way of faith. (See Paragraph 104, Section 3 – Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.)

Those early “Methodists” arnchored this crucial connection on the teaching of Jesus. Jesus uses the reference of the word “important or importance” always to refer to the issues related to the Great Commandment. For example in Mark 12 when asked by a legal expert which commandment is the most important “Jesus replied, ‘The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these’” (Mark 12:29-31).

Every time our Lord and Master references what is most important, he points back to behaviors that reflect the theological heart of the Christ faith. The doctrinal bedrock of monotheism is welded to holy living. When the Apostle Paul instructs the infant struggling church at Philippi to “Live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel,” (Philippians 1:27) he is reflecting the very heart of the teaching of Jesus.

Professor Scott Kisker writes: “As he [John Wesley] read the works of the early Church Fathers, and English devotional works his mother recommended, a particular vison of the Christian life and of the Church captured John – one he carried for the rest of his life. It was a vison of simplicity, of holiness” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist?, pp. 29-30). The essence of holiness of heart and life shakes out in what is called the doctrine of sanctification.

The conviction that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are welded together is at the heart of the Wesleyan Way. Confessing Christ as Lord and Savior necessarily involves us in the deeds and actions of love justice and mercy. In today’s language, Wesleyans are by their very being involved in personal and social holiness. This, we believe, is not the just the way of a faithful church, it is very way of Christ. In doctrinal allegiance to Jesus as Lord, we commit ourselves to live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ! The so called social gospel is inseparably linked to the very heart of the Christian faith and specifically to the Wesleyan Way.

In Honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I sent this letter via email from our Conference database on January 10th to all the local church congregations and lay members across the Central Texas Conference, but I also wanted to share with you. May we continue the groundbreaking work done by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
-Bishop Mike Lowry

Dear Friends in Christ:

I am writing to you to convey an important date and even more important ministry in which we, as the church, are engaged. This coming April 4 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I believe it important that we stand together as Christians in a clear response against racism and violence in all its forms. Furthermore, I believe the tragedy of this great leader’s death offers us a special time and opportunity to remember his legacy of racial justice and mercy. In pausing to remember, may we rededicate ourselves to a fully inclusive society that honors and loves all of God’s children.

I write now to ask that you and your congregation consider in some way recommitting to the call for racial justice and the end of violence in our society on or around April 4th. We live in a nation that has been ripped asunder by deeply imbedded lingering racial divides. I need only mention events like the demonstration in Charlottesville, the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the tragedy of violence over shootings of young African American males and police officers. These events cry out to us to be a people of Christ who stand for racial justice in a way that honors all.

I realize that Easter this year is April 1st and that most pastors and churches have appropriately gone “all out” over Holy Week and Easter to walk in the footsteps of Christ to the cross and beyond in the celebration of His resurrection. In most congregations, the Sunday after Easter is one of the lowest attendance Sundays of the year. I further realize that for most pastors it can be difficult to summon a lot of energy to do anything the week immediately following Easter. Thus, I write inviting you at an appropriate time this Spring to lift up, celebrate and remember Dr. King’s witness and legacy to us as a Christian saint and the call of Christ that claims all of us to be people at work for justice and mercy in our communities, society and wider world.

It is my hope that pastors and laity will come together lifting the cause of racial justice remembering Dr. King’s great Christian witness. I leave it to your best prayerful good judgment on how to best respond and honor this fiftieth anniversary of his death. 

Yours in Christ,

Bishop Mike Lowry

Transformation and the WIG: An Update Report ©

Last September Mart United Methodist Church launched a new faith community built around what they call J.A.M. (Jesus and Me). The new faith community is focused on serving pre-K through 6th grade children in the Mart ISD. Pastor Amy Anderson shares the following story:

One of the first children to sign up was a 2nd grader named Peyten. She came from a single parent household where the mother was a well-known drug addict. One month after we started, Peyten was taken by CPS and placed in the care of an older brother in Waxahachie. The mother, Tammy, as well as CPS gave us permission to remain in contact with the child. We have been able to send her cards, letters, and children’s devotional items appropriate for her age. We also supplied her with Christmas gifts through our children’s change-for-change mission offering. She is doing extremely well.

Her mother, Tammy, got “scared straight” so to speak. Losing her daughter is what it took to make her face reality. She voluntarily went into outpatient rehab and began coming to church. She has also joined us for dinner on Wednesday evenings and stays for bible study. This has been ongoing since the middle of October. She has tested clean and negative for drugs 6 weeks in a row. Last Sunday, Tammy came to me after church in tears and said, “I want to let everyone know that I want to follow Jesus from now on. This town talked about me and judged me but this church loved and embraced me and showed me a better way to live. I want to be a part of this.”

I am so excited to say that she has chosen to profess her faith in worship this coming Sunday, join the church, and has asked to be baptized. We are bringing in a horse trough and celebrating in a big way. It is because of the New Faith Community of J.A.M. that we were able to reach her, through her daughter. She has a long road ahead of her in so many ways but, spiritually, we have a plan in action to help disciple her and a strong group of folks to walk with her on her faith journey. God is good…all the time!

I am awed by the grace of God exhibited through a church responding to the wildly important goal (WIG) of “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  This is truly a story of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in the lives and ministry of a local congregation. It is a narrative of the grace of Christ reflected in a redeemed life.

Narrative (story) and metrics go together. They are a report of God in action moving in, through, and with us. There are crucial lead measures that reflect a commitment in the transformational ministry of making disciples of Christ. Three crucial lead measures for the Conference & Districts are:

1. The number of churches with measurable goals
2.  The number of churches growing in average worship attendance
3. The number of new faith communities

For local congregations, there are also vitally important lead measures which go with stories of transformational disciples. Local church lead measures are:

1. The number of people engaged in faith sharing mission
2. The number of first time visitors
3. Setting measurable goals for average worship attendance and professions of faith growth
4. The number of new faith communities
5. The number of small groups

A couple of additional narrative stories tie to the key metric of the number of new faith communities. Rev. Meg Witmer-Faile, Associate Director of the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth shared the following:

“Just wanted to share with you that I attended the launch of Saginaw UMC’s ‘Simply Worship’ 9:45 AM new faith community yesterday. As you likely recall from their grant application, this new worship service was one of the congregation’s Holy Focus goals, so it is encouraging to see it coming to fruition. Also, they were very grateful to receive the $10,000 grant and expressed that before the end of the worship service, recognized me as representing the CECG/Conference Leadership.

It was a good worship experience, seemingly well-received, and well-attended (@75-80, I believe). Jason, Estee, Greg (the new part-time worship leader for this service), and their Holy Focus worship planning team had obviously prepared well for the launch of this new service. …

One additional note, the woman I sat with during worship yesterday, shared with me that she had visited the Saginaw church three times, had had coffee with Jason to learn more about the church, and had come to church that morning specifically for the Simply Worship service. It was obvious to me that she was comfortable and engaged in worship. What a gift and a blessing—grateful!”

Again the narrative ties to changing metric and God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is active in our faithfulness. One additional narrative I offer comes from Trinity United Methodist Church in Arlington. Dr. Dean Posey, Lead Pastor at Trinity, writes to Rev. Ben Disney, East District Superintendent and Rev. Mike Ramsdell, Executive Director of the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth:

“I wanted to share with both of you some very good news about Trinity. Our average Sunday School attendance for 2017 was 505, and the average worship attendance for 2017 was 645. Our WIG is to increase our Sunday School attendance to 750 by December 2020. We made a decision last fall to add two new worship services beginning January 7, 2018. One worship service is for adults at 9:45am, and the other new service is for children at 11:00am. In addition we added four new Sunday School classes on January 7, 2018 as the first step towards our WIG. I am excited to tell you that last Sunday, January 7 we had 574 in Sunday School and 730 in worship! That is 69 more people in Sunday School and 85 more in worship. We are very excited as we begin this year and look forward to a great 2018 here at Trinity. Thank you both for your encouragement and support.”

Praying Our Way Forward ©

 

It is a famous story and even more famous poem, yet both the story and the poem bear repeating. In the early days of the Second World War, King George the VI gave a Christmas address to the British Empire. In the address he quoted a poem authored by Minnie Haskins. The poem is popularly known as “The Gate of the Year” but the title given it by the author was “God Knows.”

THE GATE OF THE YEAR
‘God Knows’

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

I am asking members of the Central Texas Conference, both lay and clergy, and all others who would join us to share in a special time for prayer for the future of The United Methodist Church.

For over forty years the United Methodist Church has wrestled deeply with how to best respond and be in ministry with our brothers and sisters who identify as LGBTQI. More specifically, The United Methodist Church finds itself in a deep crisis over whether our clergy should be allowed to preside at same-gender weddings and whether “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, Paragraph 304.3) will be eligible for ordination as Deacons and Elders in The United Methodist Church. Currently neither practice is allowed by the Church’s Discipline (church law).

At the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, The United Methodist Church was on the edge of schismatic division over this issue. At the request of the General Conference the Council of Bishops (COB) of The United Methodist Church established a Commission on the Way Forward to bring a report to the a special called General Conference in February of 2019. While this Commission has been meeting, a number of Annual Conferences in the United States have declared their intention (and taken action upon that intention) to refuse to uphold church law as a matter of conscience. The COB has a special called meeting in late February of this year to consider a preliminary draft of the Commission’s report. In its regular meeting in May, the COB will consider the final recommendations of the Commission.

As a part of this larger work, the Council of Bishops have asked we as a people of faith be in prayer together over this potentially denominationally dividing issue. Accordingly, “The Central Texas Conference has been invited by the Council of Bishops to pray for the Commission on a Way Forward from Jan. 28 to Feb 3, 2018. (All other Conferences across the world are also asked to be in prayer over this matter.) You and your local church are invited to join in this important opportunity.

The Council of Bishops has asked each Annual Conference to commit to a week of intentional and fervent prayer for the Commission on the Way Forward. The appointed week for the Central Texas Conference to pray our way forward is Jan. 28 – Feb. 3. I have signed up to be in prayer on Tuesday morning at 7:00 a.m. on January 29th. I both invite and encourage every organization associated with the CTC – each local church, every district office and center of the CTCSC, all Wesley Foundations, extension ministries, UMWs, UMMs, etc. – to claim at least one 15-minute period and devote themselves to prayer.

The Central Texas Conference website has full details and link by which you can sign up for a prayer slot. The great missionary evangelist, pastor and teacher E. Stanley Jones once offered the following benedictory prayer. I now pass it on to you that together we may pray for our Lord to guide us and the Church into the future.

“As you go into the future, remember: The light of God surrounds you. The love of God enfolds you. The presence of God watches over you. The power of God protects you. Wherever you are, God is” (E. Stanley Jones, The Way, April 9).

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