A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit #2

Aslan is on the Move! ©

Few Christian writers and thinkers have had such a profound influence on the life of the faith & the church as C. S. Lewis.  (Mere Christianity is basic foundational reading!)  In his classic Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe shares a wonderful allegorical tale of children who go exploring in an old wardrobe and find themselves in a new land – Narnia.  The land is frozen in perpetual winter through the grip of an evil queen.  The children themselves are tempted and even caught in the Queen’s evil snare.

Aslan is this great lion and messiah/Christ figure in the allegorical tale.  As the children move towards Aslan and away from the evil Queen, the land, which had been previously caught in perpetual winter, begins to thaw.  Noticing the changing landscape one of the creatures’ comments to another, “Aslan is on move!”

A new church is being called into being by the Holy Spirit!  Aslan is on the move!  Things long frozen in tradition and habit are opening up.   By way of example consider the following elements both in the Central Texas Conference and in the larger United Methodist Church.

  • Risk-taking is on the rise
  • There is a noticeable rise in interest in spiritual formation and discernment
  • Hands-on mission engagement is the norm for a local churches in much greater ways than ever before (In fact, it is no longer acceptable for a local church to NOT be in ministry with the poor.)
  • The question has changed from “are you starting new faith communities?” to “where and how are you starting new faith communities?” (46% of our Path 1 new faith community starts are multi-ethnic.)
  • We are seeing bright-spots in evangelistic engagement
  • We are begging to grapple with the discipleship in a way that transcends membership
  • Multiple Conferences across the United States are experimenting with a variety of ministries and with innovative ways of structuring for ministry
  • Attempts at accountability are on the rise (albeit with some serious angst)
  • Across the board we are seeing longer appointments
  • The Cabinet is partnering with senior pastors in making appointments of associate pastors in new and experimental ways.

All this is not without resistance and painful change. The days of subsidy are over. The days of the guaranteed appointment are numbered. (More on this in a later blog.) Job security for clergy is shaky. We are being called into risk-taking ministry in ways that we are not trained for. As painful as this can be at times, I see the Holy Spirit’s hand in much of this.

Here in Central Texas we launched the Exodus Project with a special called session of the Central Texas Conference (CTC) in 2010 with a restructuring designed to bring about a cultural shift with a focus on Christ and on energizing and equipping local congregations as they engage the mission field in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” In adopting that report, we committed to conducting a detailed evaluation of the results of the Exodus project after 2014. That report will be presented at the upcoming 2015 gathering of the Central Texas Conference. Conducted by an independent outside consultant who is an expert in the field (Mike Bonem), the preliminary draft suggests that we have made significant progress in a cultural change to deeper Christ-centered discipleship in the life of the CTC.

The report suggests a significant beginning, not an ending or completion. What I am suggesting is that behind the seemingly pragmatic tasks and issues of the Annual Conference and our common work together lies an even greater insight. The Holy Spirit is at work in the movement of faith that is calling forth a new church. Business as usual is no more (whether we like it or not) and this a work of the Spirit! Aslan is on the move!

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT: Expectant Emotions(C)

Irritable
Depressed
Excited
Anxious
Exalted hopes
Negative emotions
Anger
Unrealistic dreams
Irrational mood swings

What does this short list describe?  The answer; the list is taken from an article on emotional changes and feelings that an expectant mother experiences!  It is also a descriptive list of what the mainline (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) churches are going though in American society during the second decade of the 21st century.  (I am indebted to Dr. Kenda Dean for this insight.)  We are depressed and excited, anxious and hopeful; we are experiencing irrational mood swings.

Over Easter we had a joyous visit with our son and daughter-in-law.  They are expecting their first child in early August.  Our conversation was filled with hope and laughter; with recounting of incidents and growth pains from their childhood, and some sharing of anxieties and fears.  Their child-to-be is eagerly sought and joyously wanted.  Expectant emotions are a healthy part of the process and yet they do constitute their own struggle and trial. The same is true for the church, especially The United Methodist Church.

Over the past few years I have come to believe deeply that God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is giving birth to a new or renewed church in the North American mission field.  Phyllis Tickle builds her marvelous book, The Great Emergence, on an insight from Bishop Mark Dyer.  Bishop Dyer famously observed “that the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale”  (Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, p. 16). Tickle goes on to note that by rummage sale she (and by inference Bishop Dyer) mean that the “empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity” are shattered so that “renewal and new growth can occur.  She writes of three very positive outcomes which emerge from the expectant emotions and birth pains of transformed Christian witness.

  1. A new, more vital form of Christianity does emerge.
  2. The organized expression of Christianity (translate as church form and culture) is reconstituted “into a pure and less ossified expression of its former self.”
  3. The faith has spread into new “geographic and demographic areas.”
    -(the above points are either a quote or close paraphrase taken from The Great Emergence, p. 17)

Often it feels like I am aligned with two churches/conferences simultaneously.  One is vibrant, growing and experimenting with new forms of ministry.  Its appointment needs from the current United Methodist institutional structure are dramatically different from those in the past.  No longer are general associates needed.  Associate pastors are often target specialists.  In very large “regional” churches, a key position is that of a “teaching/preaching” associate pastor.  This position did not even exist when I entered ministry 40 years ago.  In small to medium sized churches, the key component is pastoral leadership.  Congregations desperately want pastors who know how to lead them into a new future. Previous generations sought a pastor who first and foremost who excelled at pastoral care. The shift in emphasis, though subtle, is significant. No longer is pastoral care the key to the future.  And yet, simultaneously, there is a continued demand for the pastor to ensure continued stellar pastoral care.  For many years we have been moving to longer and longer appointments for pastors.  Lay leadership is deeply engaged in outreach and willing to look at new ways to reach new people with the gospel.

At the same time, there are churches, pastors, and lay leaders who remain strongly resistant to making this shift.  We are steadily having more and more churches go from full-time to part-time pastors.  The “worship wars” of the ‘90s were one part of lay (and clergy!) resistance to the new church that God is calling into being.  The choice of slow death is being embraced over change.  In a good number of cases the issue is demographic.  Many smaller communities simply don’t have the economic and population health to remain strong.  A younger generation is steadily moving to urban environments.  Choosing a new future means becoming a legacy congregation.  This can be deeply painful and even involve the grief as of a death.

It is harder to be an effective pastor today than it used to be!  This is a simple yet under-appreciated truth.  Concomitant with this truth is the reality that it is also harder to be a wise lay leader.  The old forms are breaking down, and God is doing something new!

We are living Isaiah 43:19 and this is a truly good and exciting thing!  A great insight we need to prayerfully hold on to is an understanding that it is the Lord calling a new church into being through the active presence of the Holy Spirit!

The Cape of Good Hope ©

This Sunday I will be preaching at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Belton.  I will be using the lectionary text for the second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-30.  As I reflected on the passage, my mind drifted back to an illustration used by Rev. Michael Green, the great British pastor and scholar.

In 1499 A.D. the European view of the world changed dramatically. For years European traders had been looking for a sea route to India. They had been searching for a way to the land rich with spices and perfumes around the southern tip of Africa. “All attempts at rounding the Cape had failed. So much so that this treacherous headland was known as the Cape of Storms and it was the scene of many wrecks. However, one determined sailor determined to try again. He succeeded in rounding the Cape and reaching the East. Indeed, there is still a monument to this famous mariner, Vasco da Gama, in China today. Ever since he sailed back to Lisbon [arriving home in 1499 A.D.] it has been impossible to doubt that a way to the Orient exists round the bottom of Africa. The very name of that perilous Cape was changed to its present title, the Cape of Good Hope” (Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus, p. 131).

I think we often live at the juncture of the Cape of Storms.  This week I watched news of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber.  I’ve continued my ongoing prayers for the young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the victims of the Garissa killing spree in Kenya, and for the safety of US soldiers serving in the Middle East (all a part of my regular prayer life).  I have read my morning paper with stories of crimes, struggles, and storms right here in Texas.  I had my fill and then some of the senseless and often fruitless political wrangling of both parties.  I have wrestled with and prayed about storms battering my work as a bishop and life as a husband, son, and brother.  My strong hunch is so have you.  Metaphorically speaking, we sail on seas that traverse the Cape of Storms.

When I read the Bible story of those disciples gathered behind locked doors on Easter evening, I think the Lord through Holy Spirit is speaking again to me, to us.  He is reminding me that we also sail past the Cape of Good Hope because Christ is risen and the ultimate destination the Savior offers is life lived with God.

I am forcefully struck by a cardinal truth in this passage (one of many!).  The Cape of Storms becomes the Cape of Good Hope in community that is Christ centered – Christ focused!   Thomas only experienced the presence of the risen Christ when he was a part of the transforming community of Christ!  Cut off and alone there was no experience of the resurrection in his life.  In the transforming community, he experiences the risen Christ!

We live the resurrection only as a part of the transforming community of Christ. The Christian faith is not an isolationist movement. Thomas overcomes doubt through others.  Thomas’ Cape of Storms becomes the Cape of Good Hope when he is with others in the transforming community. It is here and only here that he experiences the resurrected Christ.

It is our relationship with the risen living Jesus in community (!) that transforms our life.  Walking with God, receiving the Spirit, living through doubt – these are all ways in which we live the resurrection in a transforming relationship.

In his book What’s Right with the Church, Bishop Will Willimon writes: “The church [the transforming community] is a post-Easter phenomenon. It was the astounding, unexpected presence of the risen Christ that formed a believing community. Without that presence, the church might have been described as a memorial society or a reunion for old veterans of the Jesus campaign, laboring to keep alive the fading memory of a dead hero.” (William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church, p. 45).

In the transforming community, Thomas experienced the living Christ. Doubt was overcome in his triumphant affirmation and commitment. “My Lord and my God!”  Doubt always is overcome by commitment.  Research has long taught us that we often act ourselves into a new way of believing and thinking.

So on this weekend after Easter, how will it be for you?  Is Easter a pleasant interlude of appreciation and remembrance or cause for a higher level of renewed faith and commitment which comes in living through doubt?  Do you wish to live the resurrection?  Do you want to transform the Cape of Storms into a Cape of Good Hope for your life?  We do so by being a part of the transforming community that overcomes doubt and affirms by word and deed. “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

I hope to start a new series of blogs soon on the transformed church that is coming into being through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amid the declines of Christendom and struggles of early 21st century Christians that many of us know full well, I think God in Christ through the presence of Holy Spirit is doing something amazing.  A transformed Christian community is slowly taking place.  With timidity, prayer and wonder, I hope to write on this Spirit led transformation, which is calling into being a new church.

In this Easter season, may you sail the seas of the Cape of Good Hope!

Peace Be With You ©

A straightforward CNN news story reports the following: “They were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and fellow citizens. They were students and dreamers, pursuing their ambitions for a better life. And on Tuesday night, Kenyans gathered to remember them as innocent victims of a terrorist attack that stunned a nation and left communities heartbroken. The gathering began with quiet chatter among a crowd of hundreds, before mourners went silent and moved toward one end of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Then, 147 crosses were unloaded from a truck and quietly planted in the ground. The names of some of the victims were read aloud and then repeated by the audience in unison. The crowd then sang the national anthem. The attack at a university in Garissa on Thursday killed 147 people, mostly students. The Al-Shabaab militant group claimed responsibility. Kenyans attending the event wrote notes honoring the victims and lit candles.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/07/africa/kenya-attack-victims-vigil )

It continues with the stark reality of religious violence and Christian martyrdom. “In the Garissa attack, the terrorists separated Christians from Muslims, making some recite verses from the Quran. Those who couldn’t quote the holy book tried to flee the gunfire, but whizzing bullets sent them to the ground. Others scampered into closets and stayed there for hours, until after the siege was over. Images from the scene showed heaps of students lying in pools of blood, faces down.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/07/africa/kenya-attack-victims-vigil/)

Many individuals and churches in the Central Texas Conference have personal relationships with Kenya. Having participated in the Central Texas Conference (CTC) mission trip to Kenya a year ago, the terrible news brought the reality of persecution and violence home. I could not help but think immediately of Bishop Joseph Ntombura and his wife Pauline staying in our home in Fort Worth. (We had visited their home in Kenya on our mission trip). The many friends and vital ministry of Maua Methodist Hospital (Maua Methodist Hospital Service Fund #09613A) are lodged in our hearts as a Conference. The martyred faithfulness and senseless tragedy of Garissa touches us personally.

How is a Christian to respond? Our first answer is render whatever practical aid we can. Our truest second instinct is to deep prayer. The reaction we must guard vigilantly against is a reaction of violence against those innocent others who are Muslims.

The reality of the killings should well focus us on another killing. This tragedy took place just before Good Friday and the killing of Christ on a cross. Now, two days post Easter, we know the story did not end at the cross. Neither will it end in the bullet-marked, blood-soaked detritus of Nairobi University at Garissa. The need for a grace-filled, love-soaked, hope-offering witness by Christians is greater now than ever. It is to our time that Jesus speaks.

On Easter, Jolynn and I worshipped with our son and daughter-in-law in Boston. In part the pastor’s hope-filled sermon led us back to Easter evening and the story of disciples huddled behind a locked door including the interchange with “doubting,” or rather “honest,” Thomas. I invite the reader to recall what Jesus said to the fear filled (no doubt in some anger driven – towards the Romans and other Jewish authorities) Christ followers. The twentieth chapter of John’s gospel (good news!) records the Savior’s greeting. “It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, ‘Peace be with you’”   (John 20:19).

The great William Temple who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the World War II wrote a commentary on the Gospel of John. He who preached during the Battle of Britain reminds us, “The wounds of Christ are His credentials to the suffering race of [humans]” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple). In writing on Jesus words “peace be with you,” Archbishop Temple then quoted a poem by Edward Shillito published under the title Jesus of the Scars.

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
(Taken from Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple, p. 366)

But Archbishop Temple did not stop there in his commentary. He directed attention further to the follow injunction of Jesus our Lord. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’” (John 20:21) . The peace of Christ is in very truth and fact with us should we choose to so avail ourselves. Prophetically Archbishop Temple added: “This is the primary purpose for which the Spirit is given: that we may bear witness to Christ. We must not expect the gift while we ignore the purpose. A Church which ceases to be missionary will not be, and cannot rightly expect to be spiritual” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple, p. 367).

Jesus now once again says to us and to our Kenyan brothers and sisters, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’” (John 20:21).

The Easter Promise ©

On Sunday they had entered Jerusalem in triumph.  On Friday, they were imprisoned by defeat.  The fog of despair and hopelessness settled in.  Thus the Easter story opens.  “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).

They did not go to the tomb expecting to encounter a risen Savior.  Neither do we.  They had seen the bars of death slam shut.  So have we.  The stone had been rolled in place.  They went wrapped tightly by the chains of defeat to anoint the body of their dead leader.  So certain were they of Jesus’ death, of his imprisonment within the walls of the tomb, that even when an angel appeared to them to share the news of liberation they were not initially joyful but disbelieving.  They had been convinced of the finality of the message:  ‘Jesus Defeated!’  And in his defeat they knew their own imprisonment to the forces of darkness and despair.

It is so easy to be casually critical of those early followers of Jesus.  One wants to think, “if only I had been there, I would have believed the scriptures.  I would have recognized that Jesus was the Savior who would free us.  I would have believed in his resurrection.”  Yet we are not so different from those first followers.  It is all too easy to become imprisoned by defeat and despair.  The harsh reality of life is that we all know or will experience fog settling in, the bars slamming shut, the chains enfolding us.  We know what it is like to walk a cemetery road.

There is a powerful witness of this reality in Joyce Rebeta-Burditt’s novel The Cracker Factory.  A woman named Cassie writes her brother Bob about her husband leaving her.  “He looked at me one night and said, ‘Cassie, you’re a loser.’  Bob,” writes Cassie, “when I stand on Judgment Day to hear myself condemned to hell, it will be no more devastating and irrevocable than Charlie’s ‘You’re a loser.’  Forever defective.  Forever doomed.  No hope at all” (Taken from Have I Told You Lately by Joe Harding, p. 68).

Let me call him Jim, but it could be Sue or Olivia or Tom.  An achiever in school, driven by the success ethic, he climbed the pinnacle of success in earning power and career status.  In his mid-forties, despite a reasonably sound marriage and fine children, he gazes in examination at his life and finds it consumed by the pursuit of money, pleasure, and power.  Devoid of deeper purpose and higher values, the emptiness of what has driven him cascades over him and the fog settles in.  The bars of the rat race prison slam shut around him.  Does it sound familiar?

Easter morning greets us walking a cemetery road.  The simple line from the opening of the Easter story speaks volumes about the reality of life we all experience. “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).

We may speak of springtime and glory in the blooming of flowers; we may celebrate the coming of the Easter bunny and frolic in the search for eggs; but the Easter news is a peeling of the bells of triumph.  Suddenly there was a great earthquake” (Matthew 28:2). In the Bible an earthquake is always a sign of God’s presence.  “An angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (Matthew 28:2).   And where does this happen?  At the very place of imprisonment; at the epicenter of defeat.  From now on no death and no defeat need be final.  Despair as a condition of human existence is disenthroned.  Trudging tomb-ward in defeat we encounter God’s messenger ringing out the proclamation, “He is not here; for he has been raised!” (Matthew 28:6).

About a decade ago I had the high privilege of getting to know on an intimate level one of the great Christian saints of our time.  Many of you will remember that Father Martin Jenco was an Iranian hostage for years.  He told how the terrorists would move him at night, bound in tape and stuffed in the undercarriage of a truck.  He even recalled privately how he feared he would suffocate because his mouth was taped shut and often he was suffering from congestion and had trouble breathing through his nose.  But he shared that when he was taken from the tomb like compartment under the truck and the tape removed he would say to himself in Latin, “He is risen from the dead, hallelujah, hallelujah!” (Story shared by Father Martin Jenco with the author at Asbury United Methodist Church, Corpus Christi, Texas).

Our Easter dawns when we too receive this announcement of victory.  Easter comes upon us when the ground shakes and God is present with us in triumphant power.  So much of life can be spent, even for believing Christians, in the hopelessness of defeat, imprisoned by past hurts and failures, chained by regrets and grief.  Easter dawns, Easter really comes, when we begin to believe, really believe, that with the help and presence of God in the risen Savior, stones are moved and bars ripped open.

Jesus rises as a Colossus astride the world’s defeat and despair.  Death is not final.  That stone he has moved, once for all!  The chains of fear are broken.  Life is not futile and failure is not fatal.  He meets us on the road of living and speaks, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:10).

When you and I traverse the rubble of our lives, the past mistakes, the broken promises, the shattered dreams; it is this message that God proclaims to us through the resurrection of Jesus.  The Easter victory does not end in the graveyard.  Scholars are quick to note that in Matthew’s gospel the encounter at the tomb is not the climax.  The risen Christ is present when the women hear and obey with joy the angel’s word of command.

“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.  Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” (Matthew 28:8-10).

Do you catch the import?  Where is Jesus with them in liberating power?  On the road, in the midst of life, he intersects the women and us too.  This is the Easter promise of the triumphant Christ!  In joy and worship we are invited to liberated living, to embrace the promise.  This is not some sugar-coated pill or cosmetic dressing of new clothes but a freedom in his presence, which will take us through and beyond death, failure and futility.  The Savior’s promise of verse ten that “they will see me” is a promise that we will see him.

Christ the Lord has risen indeed!  May the joy and hope of Easter be yours!

Greetings this Easter

Please click below to view a video message from Bishop Lowry…

Msg for Easter_big

 

 

 

 

 

The Way of the Cross ©

This week we are walking the way of the cross.  Across the globe Christians traverse the week we call holy in a spiritual and powerfully symbolic journey from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the cross of Good Friday.  It is both tempting and easy to forget the original impact and meaning of the cross.  It was the Roman instrument of death designed to be the ultimate deterrent and mark of degradation.

I keep remembering what Dr. Stephen Seamands shared with us on a “Clergy Day Apart” retreat a couple of years ago.  Giving advice both to preachers and hearers on the way of the cross – this annual Holy Week pilgrimage – Dr. Seamands wrote:

Since most modern hearers are largely unaware of that, we must be intentional in making what has become so familiar strange again, helping them recover the scandal of the cross (1Cor. 1:23). Here’s how Fleming Rutledge does that in one of her sermons:

Not even the celebrated film by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, can convey the full ghastliness of crucifixion to a modern audience. We don’t understand it because we have never seen anything like it in the flesh. The situation was very different in New Testament times…. Everyone knew what it looked like, smelled like, sounded like – the horrific sight of completely naked men in agony, the smell and sight of their bodily functions taking place in full view of all, the sounds of their groans and labored breathing going on for hours and, in some cases, for days. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that no one cared.

We tend to associate the horror of crucifixion with agonizing physical pain – what Mel Gibson so vividly portrayed in his film. That was a major dimension, and it’s no accident that our English word excruciating is derived from crux, the Latin word for “cross.” Yet despite the unbearable physical agony, people in Roman times dreaded the shame associated with crucifixion even more. Since crucifixion was reserved for the dregs of society, outcasts, slaves, and common criminals, the fact that one was crucified defined him or her as a miserable, wretched being that didn’t deserve to exist. By pinning them up like insects, crucifixion was deliberately intended to display and humiliate its victims.  (From Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 56-57)

While the electric chair and the syringe have replaced it as an instrument of the death penalty, the reality of the cross is still around. We live with “little crucifixions” every day: dying by violence, religious and racial discrimination, the agony of the poor. So much of the world’s suffering is rooted in human failure: crimes of passion or greed, wars resulting from lust for power and domination, crooked governments, social injustices, humanity scourged by twisted motives.

In the biblical view the taproot of it all lies in human sin, a deep-seated egocentricity, a bondage to selfishness that separates us from God, from others, and from wholeness.  However distant in time, we know instinctively the way of the cross.

A profound transaction took place on Golgotha that day. There have been various theories advanced to explain that transaction. The great preacher William Quick has written, “Simply put, God revealed in Christ’s death His love for us and reconciled us to our Maker. Paul Tillich said, ‘The cross is the central manifestation of God’s participation in the suffering of the world.’ The Apostle Paul said, ‘He gave Himself a ransom for all.’  Perhaps Jesus put it best of all, ‘greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down His life for his friends’” (“The Cross and the Crap Game”, Signs of Our Times, William K. Quick, pp. 74-5).

However we come to this week called Holy, it is to the cross we march.  Only through the cross can we arrive at the joy of Easter morning.  I absolutely love the way the great hymnist John Bowring puts it:

            In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story gathers round its head subline.

            When the woes of life o’re take me, hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me.  Lo! It glows with peace and joy.”
(“In The Cross of Christ I Glory, Hymn No. 295, verses 1 & 2, The United Methodist Hymnal; words by Jon Bowring, 1825)

three-crosses

Jesus Takes Command ©

Palm Sunday is upon us.  What a great day!  The Savior’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem hits a high note in the life of faith.

Notice first where the story begins.  “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives” (Mark 11:1a).

Bethany is sometimes translated as the “house of the poor” or the “house of dates.”  It was one of the recognized lodging places for religious pilgrims approaching the holy days in Jerusalem (being just a short mile or so outside of Jerusalem).  Significantly Jesus doesn’t start in the center of the holy city.  Oh no, the action begins where we live!  This was true then and it is true now.  We don’t need to go someplace special to be truly Christian.  It all starts here on the journey of faith from Bethany.

The opening verse might almost be entitled “Jesus takes command.”  Those of you who know your Civil War history may remember a significant turning point early in the Civil War.  It happened when General Johnson, then the leader of the army of Northern Virginia, was wounded and President Jefferson Davis sent for General Lee.  Robert E. Lee took command, repulsed the Union advance, and changed the whole course of American history.  Others might hearken to the Korean War and the genius of General Douglas MacArthur as he took command at Inchon;  or perhaps Patton in Europe with his brilliance, Rommel in North Africa, Hannibal crossing the Alps, or Caesar in Gaul.  They are all illustrations from history of a great leader taking charge.  This is precisely what happens in the opening verse and yet far more.  It is the one true leader who takes command.  “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples” (Mark 11:1).

“He sent.”  Those two simple words tell us so much.  Scholar after scholar, author after author, notes that this is a crucial turning point where Jesus takes command of events and actions.  Jesus takes the initiative to proclaim and declare for all to see that he really is the savior.  The instructions to the disciples in verses two and three – “go into the village … find a colt … if any one asks” – demonstrate that he is the one in charge.  He who comes mounted on a colt is the supreme commander, the king.

Thus this day we call Palm Sunday invites us in the retelling and rehearing of the story to ask, is Jesus the commander of my life.  Am I willing to march to His orders?

What unfolds in the next verse (Mark 11:4) is the answer of those called disciples.  So often in the Bible these guys – Peter, James, John and the rest of them – got it wrong; but on this day they got it right.  The disciples obeyed the Lord.  Verse four tells us “they went” as instructed.  They trusted Jesus and shared what he had told them in verse five.  In other words they acted as model disciples understanding that faith really is a matter of trust and obedience.  Once again the lesson of the Bible is clear for us.  As we enter Holy Week, are we willing to trust and obey?

What fascinates me here is not only did the disciples’ get it right but so too did the bystanders.  They untie the colt, a valuable possession, and simply say, “The Lord needs it” (Mark 11:3).  The amazing example for us is the response made in verse six.  “They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it” (Mark 11:6).

The Palm Sunday road from Bethany challenges and invites us to respond in faith to God’s call and claim on our life.  The Lord has need not just of the colt but of you and me.

Notice how the crowd responded. “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!’
Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11:8-10)

A famous Methodist preacher of an earlier age, Halford Luccock comments: “There was no debate about it; no cautious trial and balance to see whether or not the risk to the clothes was really called for; no wondering if some show of respect at a cheaper price might not be enough.  These people were lifted on a tide of hope and joy and love. . . . The life that never forgets itself in a great lift of devotion is poor, no matter how richly upholstered its furniture” (Halford Luccock, Interpreter’s Bible, Mark, Vol. 7, p. 826).

That day they gave Jesus a conqueror’s welcome.  The shout was actually a reference back to the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

There is this punctuation of praise in the word “hosanna.”  It literally means “Save Now!”  It is a shout of adulation to the Lord.  Thus here at this start of Holy Week we are reminded that worship always begins in praise.  When we praise, we remember who God is and recommit ourselves to the one who alone has the full right to command our allegiance.

Their cry has it right.  “Hosanna! [Save us now!]  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9).  I dare to say it is the same cry we bring to this day, however deeply that cry may be buried in the secret places of our heart, both in praise and as a plea.

Jesus rides the road from Bethany to enter the Holy City this day.  He rides that road to enter the holy city of our hearts and minds, our wills and way.  He comes as commander, the leader, the Lord.  However we might break down this day; however we might celebrate and seek to understand it, the one unmistakable truth is the claim Jesus makes about himself for the disciples, for those in the crowd so long ago and for us.  He is the king, the commander, the ruler, the Lord.    This is the cardinal creed of the Christian faith.  In fact the earliest Christians didn’t have the Apostles’ Creed.  They used a three-word affirmation.  “Jesus is Lord.”

That is what this day is about.  He rides from Bethany and enters the holy city of our lives proclaiming that he is the Lord, the ruler and commander.  He rides down the road of our life and says, “Will you follow me?”

Approaching Jerusalem ©

A couple of years ago Jolynn and I had the privilege of traveling with a group from the Central Texas Conference to the Holy Land.  After a period in the northern region around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, we traveled down the Jordan River valley and then took the slow ascent up to Jerusalem.  As we approached the city, the tour bus entered a long dark tunnel through the mountains.  The guide directed us to look to the left as we emerged from the darkness.  As we peered out suddenly the tunnel vanished and the bright sunlight flooded the bus.  The stirring music “The Holy City” blared out over the buses loud speakers.  And then … there it was!  The magnificence of “holy mount” and the great holy city spread before us.  Somehow the combination of all of it managed to be at once hokey and incredibly stirring.  An almost primal sense of hope and expectation filled me with awe.  For me, Jerusalem is the city of the Savior.

PikiWiki_Israel_15514_Jerusalem_landscape

from PikiWiki_Isreal_Jerusalem landscape

Metaphorically the journey of Lent to the cross and beyond is a journey up the mountain to the Holy City.  The week before holy week we are, again metaphorically speaking, approaching the Holy City.  The joy of the approaching Palm Sunday is before us.  And yet, we live in the present.  The regular rhythm of life surrounds us.

For me, Saturday March 21st found me driving to Temple to participate in the funeral service of Rev. Arcynthia Louie, one of the saints of the Lord.  Pastor Louie served St. Paul United Methodist Church in Georgetown.  She left a legacy of a flourishing ministry and grace filled sense of the Holy Spirit that blessed others.  Just before Pastor Quinton Gibson (St. James UMC, Temple) rose to give the funeral oration, a soloist sang with moving conviction and artistic beauty “Because He Lives.”  Grief was leavened with hope.  Sorrow was transformed by triumph.  I am still bathing in the blessing of the service.

I recall when I first came to the Central Texas Conference as a newly consecrated bishop (almost 7 years ago!) we had an extended daylong meeting with Cabinet members and key leaders (lay and clergy) to examine our mission, core values, and strategic needs.  As the group focused in on worship and preaching which lifted up Christ, the theme of preaching the resurrection came forcefully to the forefront.  There was an emphatic consensus that we needed to preach the resurrected Christ as Lord and Savior.  As the soloist at Rev. Louie’s funeral service came to the powerful closing words of “Because He Lives,” that conversation flashed across my mind.  As the heartfelt shouts of “Amen” and claps of exclamation echoed across the St. James sanctuary, I leaned over to Dr. Clifton Howard who was sitting to my left.  Dr. Howard had been a part of that initial conversation and had been insistent about our need to preach the resurrection.  We shared a quick memory of the conversation and its importance at times like this.

Approaching Jerusalem, moving through the season of Lent towards Holy Week, I hear Christ calling us back to the cross and through the cross to the triumph beyond.

You may recall a story that made national news shortly after the tragedy of 9/11(2001).  There was a man working alone on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center when the plane hit his building.  In the chaos and confusion he made his way to the stairs and started down.  As he was passing the 63rd floor on his way down he heard a noise that him stop.  He stepped back and pushed his way through the fire door onto the floor.  There he discovered some terrified people getting ready to jump.  He shouted at them, “Come with me!  I know a way out.”  (Later when interviewed he said at that point he didn’t really know a way out, he just knew they needed to try something different.)  He got people off the ledge and lined them up, like a troop of Cub Scouts or Brownies.  Then, he marched them all the way down 63 flights of stairs to the bottom and to safety.

The interviewer who wrote the story remarked to him, “I understand you had to get tough with one of the women (on the march down the stairs).  Somewhat sheepishly he replied, “Yes, she panicked (part way down) and I had to yell at her to get her back in line.  It was the only way out.”

Jesus is that man for us but with two notable differences.  First, he really does know the way out. He’s not guessing.  Second, the way out is not down – but to Jerusalem, through the cross and only then to the joy of Easter morning.

A Hard Truth that Saint Patrick Lived ©

The story of Saint Patrick is one of the most beguiling and illustrative tales in the Christian lexicon.   As a young boy he was captured by raiders and taken to Ireland in the chains of slavery.  While there he dreamed of freedom and found himself growing closer to God as his strength and shield in captivity.

“One night, after six years of captivity, a voice spoke to Patrick in a dream, saying, ‘You are going home. Look!  Your ship is ready!’  The voice directed him to flee for his freedom the next morning.  He awakened before daybreak, walked to a seacoast, saw the ship, and negotiated his way on board” (George G. Hunter, III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 14).

Returning to England, Patrick became a priest and served for many years as a parish pastor.  “At the age of forty-eight – already past a man’s life expectancy in the fifth century – Patrick experienced another dream that was to change his life again.  An angel named Victor approached him with letters from his former captors in Ireland.  As he read one of the letters, he ‘imagined in that moment that [he] heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut . . . and they cried out, as with one voice, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”’”

When Patrick awakened the next morning, he interpreted the dream as his “Macedonian Call” to take Christianity’s gospel to the Celtic peoples of Ireland (George G. Hunter, III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 15).

I write this St. Patrick’s Day not to honor all things green but rather because his life illustrates a hard truth lived.  Consider well the truth of his life’s witness.  Patrick went back to the land of his enslavement to share the gospel.  He reached out in love through the cross of Christ to those he had every reason to hate.

The hard truth of the gospel is that God’s love in Jesus Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is not just for those worthy of love.  I have to remember this when I watch news of ISIS or the racist chanting of a stupid fraternity.  The good news of God’s love, forgiveness and sacrifice is not just for good people.  The cross is for those we consider to be unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.

A seminal segment from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

When I reflect on the truth of this teaching, I find myself wanting to argue with God.  I want to say, “Lord, do you know what these people are like!?  Do you seriously mean that you died for them?  Do you mean that you really love them?  Not only that, but Lord you can’t mean that we are supposed to love them as well?”  I find myself at one with Soren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish theologian of the 19th century, who, in sardonic jest, once suggested that they gather up all the Bibles in Denmark; take them up to a high mountain and throw them off.  We ought, he suggested, just tell God, “Lord this is too hard!”  Yet clearly here it is from the mouth of Jesus himself no less.  The cross connection is for the unloved, unlovely, and the unlovable!

In his beautiful one line summary of the gospel, John tells us “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).  God’s love was and is for the whole world not just parts of it.  The cross connection is God’s love in and through Christ for the unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.

I have quoted before the late Professor George Macleod (Princeton Theological School) who put it this way:  “I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church.  I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where He died.  And that is what He died about.  And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmanship should be about.”

As we pause in our routine of activities to duly celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I invite us to embrace the truth behind the legend of St. Patrick.  This man really was a Christian saint.  He has much to teach and when we lay his personal witness of life and faith alongside the life and teaching of Jesus, the cross comes into focus.

First, when we reach out through the cross, Christ reaches out with us.

Second, the hard truth St. Patrick lived in following Jesus, the way of the cross, transforms us.  God’s power, the power of true unconquerable love flows in and through us.  In loving even the enemy, we ourselves become more loveable.  And amazingly, so does the so-called enemy.

Third, the cross transforms the unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.  St. Patrick understood and lived this hard yet magnificent saving truth.

St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer

(Ephesians 6:14 … “put on the breastplate of righteousness”)

I bind unto myself today The strong Name of the Trinity, By invocation of the same, The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever. By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation; His baptism in the Jordan River; His death on Cross for my salvation; His bursting from the spiced tomb; His riding up the heavenly way; His coming at the day of doom;* I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power Of the great love of the cherubim; The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour, The service of the seraphim, Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word, The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls, All good deeds done unto the Lord, And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today The virtues of the starlit heaven, The glorious sun’s life-giving ray, The whiteness of the moon at even, The flashing of the lightning free, The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, The stable earth, the deep salt sea, Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today The power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay, His ear to hearken to my need. The wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, His shield to ward, The word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin, The vice that gives temptation force, The natural lusts that war within, The hostile men that mar my course; Or few or many, far or nigh, In every place and in all hours, Against their fierce hostility, I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles, Against false words of heresy, Against the knowledge that defiles, Against the heart’s idolatry, Against the wizard’s evil craft, Against the death wound and the burning, The choking wave and the poisoned shaft, Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name, The strong Name of the Trinity; By invocation of the same. The Three in One, and One in Three, Of Whom all nature hath creation, Eternal Father, Spirit, Word: Praise to the Lord of my salvation, Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Amen.

* Note: “day of doom” is an Old English term meaning “Day of Judgment.”   

(Taken from http://www.prayerfoundation.org/st_patricks_breastplate_prayer.htm)

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