Summer Sabbath

from abqhomeblog.com

from abqhomeblog.com

A good friend recently sent me a beautiful picture of a full moon appearing over the New Mexico Mountains.  Attached was a comment about taking time to “recharge.”  Most of us are familiar with the commandment to “honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  We must confess that we often honor it in the breach.  And yet … in our contentious, chaotic, fast paced world we need more not less time for Sabbath rest.

All of this brings me back to my conviction of the importance of taking a couple of weeks vacation as a “summer Sabbath.” We need time away.  Time physically away from the office and time away from electronic connections (email, cell phone, etc.) is important for both our emotional and spiritual health. There is benefit in gaining distance on our daily struggles, issues and concerns.

In my own casual reflections (and combined with some modest research), I don’t recall much use of the term “burnout” when I initially entered ministry. Today’s language of being “worn out” or “burned out” is common. I confess to being at best a semi-reformed workaholic but in my defense I have always been good about taking time for vacation. A couple of weeks away are life giving. They connect with the concept of a weekly Sabbath to “honor the Lord.”

It strikes me as significant that the British (Europeans as a whole) don’t use the term vacation.  What we label a vacation, they call “being on holiday.”  Following the linguistic connection, the word holiday is a derivation of the term “holy days”. These are days which are set aside to be deliberately holy.  [An aside: I know that under God’s providential care all days are “holy.” However, when something is an everyday part of the background “noise” of life, it loses its impact for reforming the way we actually live as Christians.]  We need time – significant time – where we pause, reflect on life, reconnect with family and loved ones, and recommit ourselves to a life lived for the Lord.  In short, we need days which are set aside to be holy.

A few years ago I had the Chair of a Pastor-Parish Relations Committee call his DS and request a conference with his DS and me.  He didn’t want to see his pastor moved. In fact his concern was just the opposite.  He reported that his pastor was outstanding.  His concern was that his pastor hadn’t taken a real vacation in 5 or 6 years. The District Superintendent concurred with PPR Chair’s shared concern.  Both raised the specter of “burnout.”  Both had talked with the pastor about his need to schedule some time off (vacation or “holidays”) to no avail.  In review of the matter, I came to the conclusion that both were right. One of our most effective senior pastors was showing signs of burnout.  To make a long story short, we held a meeting with the Board Chair of the Church, the PPR Chair, the DS, myself and the pastor.  He offered a series of excuses for not taking a vacation or “summer Sabbath”.  The pastors’ rationale did not stand up to scrutiny.  Finally, with the full support of the group, I instructed the pastor to take a two week vacation and send me a post card of where he went (even if he spent the vacation reading books in the backyard!

A couple of months later I ran into the pastor in a meeting.  He commented, “you’re a hero with my wife.” We both laughed and commented that she was really ready for him to take a vacation.

Now step back with me for a moment and reflect on our world and our individual context.

  • Violence and terror stalks the globe
  • Presidential elections have led to a cultural mood of anger and discourtesy
  • Economic uncertainty heightens uncertainty and angst
  • Church conflict over a variety of hot-button issues (same gender weddings, response to cultural violence, war and peace, abortion, etc.)
  • Personal struggles; and the list could go on

In each instance one of the things we need most is holy time to step back, catch our breath and center ourselves again on the Lord’s grace and guidance.  About 15 years ago I read a book by Bill Hybels entitled Too Busy Not to Pray.  We are too busy not to take time for holy days or a summer Sabbath.  If you haven’t do so already, regardless of whether you are lay or clergy, I encourage you to step back. Don’t find the time, make the time(!) for a summer Sabbath!

Breathe Deep, Jesus is Still Lord! ©

2016-South-Central-Jurisdiction-Conference-logoI returned home from the recently concluded South Central Jurisdictional Conference last night (Sunday, July 17). During the conference, we elected three fine new bishops – Bishops Ruben Saenz, Jr., Jimmy Nunn, and Bob Farr. I am blessed and honored to be reassigned to the Central Texas Conference of the Fort Worth Episcopal Area for a third quadrennium. Along with the whole of the UMC, we also received news of the election of Karen Oliveto as a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction.

Bishop Oliveto has been described as “an openly lesbian clergyperson” who “has been legally married to Robin Ridenour for more than two years.” Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the UMC Council of Bishops, noted in his statement on her election that “this election raises significant concerns and questions of church polity and unity.”

People from across the United Methodist Church have responded to her election with a wide spectrum of reactions. For some, this is cause for great rejoicing. For others, it is a signal that the United Methodist Church is breaking apart in its refusal to honor The Discipline (church doctrine and law) of the United Methodist Church. 

Wherever you find yourself in the vast spectrum from celebration to despair, I urge you to breathe deep.  Jesus is still Lord! 

Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. (Ephesians 1:22)  Colossians 1:18 tells us that “He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the one who is firstborn from among the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything.” Christ still reigns and rules. Gabriel is neither heralding the establishment of the Kingdom of God from the rooftop of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco (the church where Bishop Oliveto was Sr. Pastor prior to her election) nor playing Taps over the disintegration of the denomination. 

It is important to not overreact. Good honorable faithful Christians will disagree on how we are to respond. Catch your breath, pause, pray. The Holy Scriptures commend us to “be peaceful, kind, and show complete courtesy toward everyone” (Titus 3:2).

The Bishops of the Church remain committed to the process of the Commission on Human Sexuality as established by General Conference. The validity of Bishop’s Oliveto’s election will be appropriately addressed via the normal judicial process in the United Methodist Church. Bishops do not have the authority nor power to rule on the validity of Bishop Oliveto’s election.  That authority is reserved for the Jurisdictional (U.S.) and Central (outside U.S.) Conferences and subject to review by the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council has indicated that it may hear the petition of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference seeking a declaratory judgment on the validity of Bishop Oliveto’s election at its October meeting. The current doctrine and Discipline of the United Methodist Church remains the same.

I will be flying out early tomorrow morning (July 19) to a previously scheduled meeting of the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops. A primary item on the agenda of the Executive Committee is the establishment of the Commission on Human Sexuality. As a group we are mindful of the issues at stake and working together to seek God’s will and purpose.

Bishop OlivetoOn a personal note, Jolynn and I had the privilege of getting to know Bishop Oliveto at the Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies at Christ Church, Oxford, England in 2013. I found her to be a thoughtful, gracious Christ-follower committed to being faithful as best she understands the Christian faith. Later back in the United States, I had the opportunity for a follow-up conversation with her on a subject near and dear to my heart and life witness – evangelism. Once again, I experienced her to be gracious, thoughtful and committed to Christ.  While Bishop Oliveto and I sharply disagree on matters of human sexuality, we are colleagues in Christ. I ask all of us to resist attempts to demonize others.

There is hurt, pain, and grief that runs the gamut on these vexing and contentious issues. Respect each other, especially those you honestly and sincerely disagree with. Let the counsel of Philippians 4 guide you: “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:6-9).

Breathe deep. Jesus is still Lord! I commend to the reader Bishop Bruce Ough’s response on behalf of the Council of Bishops. I fully intend to allow the process to take place and abide by whatever decision is reached. Until then, I continue to keep Bishop Oliveto, the Western and South Central Jurisdictions and all United Methodists firmly in my prayers. My own stance in upholding the current language in The Discipline has not changed. The Lord God is with us all!

Follow the Prince of Peace ©

To read the official statement from the United Methodist Council of Bishops on the recent deadly shootings, please click here.

This morning, Jolynn and I awoke to news of last night’s deadly shootings in Dallas as we prepared for the final leg of our trip home from our two-week vacation in Yellowstone National Park. Intentionally, I had taken leave from email and text during our trip and had deliberately not followed national and international news. As we watched the morning news, I was slowly able to piece together the full narrative of the police shootings of African-American males in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota, which formed the backdrop of yesterday’s tragedy in Dallas. Once again, the toxic mix of racism, injustice and violence reached out to cause great harm and heartache.

With the help of Vance Morton, director of Communications for the Central Texas Conference, I shared deep convictions from my heart via our conference website.dalla prayer vigil Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings had asked that a moment of silence be observed at noon, Friday, July 8. I called on all members of the Central Texas Conference to honor Mayor Rawlings’ request and stop and pray for the victims of last night’s horrific acts of violence in Dallas. I want us to pray for the police, their families, the people of Dallas. I want us to pray for everyone.

As critically important as prayer is, we must not stop there. We who claim the label Christian are grace-filled followers of Jesus Christ. As such, we must continue to reject the forces of hatred, racism, fear, violence and anger in favor of the fruits of the Spirit – i.e. love, patience, kindness and peace as described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians [Galatians 5:22-23].

I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is for us to remember that we are followers of the Prince of Peace. Anger and violence must be laid aside.

Black lives matter to God. Police lives matter to God. All lives matter to the God who gave us his only Son so that we might all have everlasting life. Let us all, everyone, live by the Spirit and follow the Spirit [Gal 5:25] and keep firm in our hearts and minds the commandment of Jesus given to us in John 15 “…love each other as I have loved you.”

I am repeatedly struck in my own devotional life by the charge, the divine orders, for Christians to be a different people. In the words of the mothers and fathers of the faith, we are to be in but not of the world. It is ever significant that Jesus, our Lord and Master, gave us the following gift.  “Peace I leave with you, even as he faced his own unjust death. “My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:27)

Our world today is fear soaked and pain racked. Let us be the kind of people who respond not with anger but with grace and peace. We are followers of The Prince of Peace.

While on vacation, I read during my devotional time a brief section of The Bible I rarely read – Titus 3:1-8.  In part it reads:

“Remind them [i.e. Christians] to submit to rulers and authorities. They should be obedient and ready to do every good thing. They shouldn’t speak disrespectfully about anyone, but they should be peaceful, kind, and show complete courtesy toward everyone. We were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, and slaves to our desires and various pleasures too. We were spending our lives in evil behavior and jealousy. We were disgusting, and we hated other people. But “when God our savior’s kindness and love appeared, he saved us because of his mercy, not because of righteous things we had done. He did it through the washing of new birth and the renewing by the Holy Spirit, which God poured out upon us generously through Jesus Christ our savior. So, since we have been made righteous by his grace, we can inherit the hope for eternal life.” This saying is reliable. And I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God might give careful attention to doing good. These things are good and useful for everyone.” (Titus 3:1-8)

May this word of life become our standard for living. Let us be followers of the Prince of Peace.

A Truth to Remember ©

On this 4th of July I pause to invite us to reflect on a truth to remember. Consider the lessons of time some 70+ years in the past.  In June of 1942 the islands of Attu and Kiska, in the Aleutian Islands were invaded and occupied by soldiers from the Empire of Japan. It was the only part of the United States that was occupied by the enemy in World War II. In some of the harshest fighting of the war, U.S. Naval forces fought a desperate battle in high seas and then in May of 1943 Marines retook the Island of Attu; followed later by the conquest of Kiska.

As Naval and Marine forces regrouped following the successful campaign, reinforcements were rushed to the Aleutian Islands. Among the reinforcements was a young Ensign freshly graduated from Officers’ Candidate School in Plattsburgh, New York. Just 8 or 9 weeks earlier the college women (then inappropriately called “girls”) at Plattsburg State Teachers College (now the University of New York at Plattsburg, part of the SUNY system) held a dance for the sailors who had finally reached the point where they were allowed some leave. One of those young women did what her mother had warned her not to do. She fell in love with a sailor. A day or so before the Ensign shipped out, at their last date together, he proposed.

At his heart ever a romantic, the young sailor with brand new shiny ensign bars said, “Consider yourself proposed to.” She replied, “No, let’s wait and make sure you come back.” To this day, now 91, the college coed insists she did not offer the reply in a lack of love but rather wanted to help him face the danger before him and not feel encumbered or tied down. Her response was a response of love in a time of crisis and conflict.

[As a matter of historical record the war swept south and the young Ensign emerged from the conflict as a Lieutenant Junior Grade and skipper of the U. S. Navy Subchaser PC 819. He came home and married his waiting sweetheart.]

One month ago that young sailor died at age 95, just eleven days before they were to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. When asked about sailing off to the Aleutians and possible life-risking combat, my father would dismiss the sacrifice as he had numerous times before with the casual comment, “We all did what we had to.” Common courage was the order of the day all across America. Sacrifice and courage sound old fashioned in the false sophistication our hurried age. On this 4th of July, I argue that they are a true to remember and a lifestyle to emulate.

Beside the obviously pride I feel as a son of the then young Ensign Frank, I raise that story for a far deeper reason. I quite recognize, as hopefully so do you, that stories such as this can be repeated all across America on this July 4th.  Furthermore I recognize that such stories where people stepped forward in sacrifice and quiet courage can be told in other lands and other nations as well.  I share the story to raise a far higher, greater, nobler truth that in our relative abundance is easy, oh so easy, to forget.  We are here both as citizens and as Christians because of the sacrifice, courage and witness of others.  We both celebrate on the 4th of July and worship freely the day before because down through the two millennia of the Christian faith and the 240 years of the United States of America people have served and sacrificed.  We too must borrow Isaac Newton’s great phrase, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”[1]

I share this personal reflection on the 4th of July in no way to offer some misguided glorification of war.  Those who have valiantly served in combat know full well that its horrors are not to be wished on anyone.  Rather I pause to remember on this special anniversary because this is a time to remember an important truth.  Great living comes in courage, sacrifice, and witness.  It is right amidst the celebration to pause, remember this cardinal truth and give thanks!

[1]               http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/i/isaacnewto135885.html

Faith Sharing Exercises ©

At our recent Annual Conference meeting in Waco, we engaged a series of faith sharing exercises. They are simple tools or exercises that can be used in a Sunday School Class, a United Methodist Women’s group (UMW) or a United Methodist Men’s meeting (UMM).  They are designed so that Youth groups can learn to share their faith.  Taken together they can help us learn or relearn a central part of our faith sharing in the name of Christ.  A good number of people asked about where they could get a copy of these exercises so I am sharing them in this blog.  Allow me to encourage you to employ them and pass them on to others.

Exercise #1: Share with another person your answer to the following question:  How did Christ become real to you?  Reflection: All of us have a meaningful, powerful story to tell.  Sharing this story is a basic way of living Acts 1:8.

Exercise #2: On a sheet of paper, write out briefly three things that are central to your Christian faith.  Cross out two and share with a neighbor the remaining crucial aspect of the Christian faith in your life.  (If time permits, go back and taking turns share the other two.)  Reflection: All of us have a working theology [theology means to talk about God] with the ability to share how God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is active in our lives.

Exercise #3: On a sheet of paper, write out briefly three favorite Bible verses in your life.  Cross out two and share with a neighbor the remaining verse.  (If time permits, go back and taking turns share the other two.)  Reflection: All of us have a working body of Scripture that we can share with other.  In the sharing, elements of exercise #2 are engaged as well.

Exercise #4: We say ‘Jesus saves’, turn and share with your neighbor and answer the question, just “what does Jesus save me from?” Reflection: This engages us in a heartfelt religious witness in the most natural of ways.  It invites others into similar self-reflection and engages us in theologizing together.

Exercise #5: Share with others your answer to the question: What are some of the barriers that keep you from sharing your faith?  Reflection: This exercise helps us confront our fears (which are often irrational) and learn to engaging in living the biblical command from Jesus to witness and share our faith.

These are the five exercises we used at Conference. As you engage in them there are a number of others which you will think of.  For instance, another exercise might involve sharing your favorite movie scene which had spiritual, moral, or theological point that impacted you.  As you share, you will find that others will open up with similar sharing.  It is great opening way of safely discussing faith issues.  Practice of these and other exercises will give you confidence to share in appropriate and graceful ways will be a great blessing to others.

THE COURAGE TO MARCH © PT 4

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given by Bishop Mike Lowry
June 6, 2016

PART IV – “A Time for Courageous Leadership”

Leadership development for both lay and clergy remains and must remain a top priority. To this end two years ago we brought in Dr. Kevin Walters to buttress our development of a new generation of lay leaders.  The Vital Leadership Academy as noted is already making a difference. Soon Dr. Walters along with our Lay Leadership Council will be rolling out a new Lay Servant Ministry program.  We are indebted to our Lay Leader Kim Simpson for her pioneering efforts along with Dr. Walters.

Mr. Jeff Roper has been hired as the Associate Director for Leadership Development freeing Dr. Georgia Adamson to focus on the task of Assistant to the Bishop.  It is my hope that you as a Conference will approve the splitting of those two positions, which was the original intent in the Exodus Project at its inception.  We did not do so because of budget considerations.  I am pleased and proud to say that we are now able to add the position of Leadership Development on a half-time basis in a way that is budget neutral; that is to say, it will not increase our apportionment one dollar.  [This action was approved.]

Jeff brings a wealth of superb senior leadership to us from Alcon Labs. Already he is helping us to develop a system of clergy leadership development which we call LASP.  LASP stands for Learning Agility Sustained Performance. This will enable us to significantly retool as we engage the post-Christendom environment we live in.

Concomitant with the LASP system of clergy training and assessment is what we are tentatively calling SPKP which stands for Sustained Performance Kingdom Potential. It is potentially a way of helping churches assess the degree they are will to step up to higher mission and ministry to which the sovereign Lord is calling them and us together to engage in.  Laity let me put this plainly.  We cannot hold clergy accountable unless churches are themselves open to such accountability.

It will take us awhile to figure all this out. We will go through field testing and pilot project in some districts.  It will be threatening to all of us.  Changes will need to be made.  But it also has the courageous possibility to help us step into the brave new world of church the Lord is calling us to.

There is a famous speech taken from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which addresses to our situation.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.”[1]

These are tough times for the church. There is no way around it.  It is harder to be a pastor today than at any time in my 41 years in ministry (thirty of which have been spent as a pastor of a local church).  Easy answers do not apply.  Complexity is the nature of the situation.  It takes nerve to stand for Christ in today’s environment.  Courage is not a nice bonus in a pastor but a necessity.  Lay leadership demands discernment and uncommon wisdom linked with the fortitude to navigate the storm.

Ross Douthat in his engaging book Bad Religion reminds us of Christian reality in the following quote.

“In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterston describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith” – the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilizations. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud.

But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterston noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died.”[2]

It is not Demosthenes speaking to us[3]; still less Shakespeare. It is Jesus, the sovereign Lord of the both the church and universe.  More importantly it is Christ himself who calls and commands. Do you recall the verse I opened this address with?  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[4]

Friends, the risen Christ stands this day and says again to us, let us march! So it is, so it is. Fear not! It’s time to march!

 

[1]               Brutus; Julius Caesar, Act 4 Scene 3
[2]               Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, pg. 277-278
[3]               “When Cicero spoke we said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke we said, ‘Let us march.’”
[4]               Acts 1:8

THE COURAGE TO MARCH © PT 3

 Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given by Bishop Mike Lowry
June 6, 2016

PART III – “The Sinews of Methodism and the Recovery of Evangelism”

A second element in focusing on local congregations coincides with the importance of small group development. The key is that it is not just any old small group but much more specifically about small groups that develop spiritual depth and muscle.  The central element to the rise of early Methodism was class meetings (small groups) that watched “over one another in love.”

I don’t care if we call them life groups or discovery groups or reunion groups or the original Methodist class meeting or the even more original initial Christian small group experience put together by Jesus the and 12 apostles. What we need to do is rediscover their essence and get intensely insistent on re-engaging this central component of the original Methodist movement.  The Christian church from bible times onward has never sustained discipleship growth without such an emphasis. Consider these two comments taken from Kevin Watson’s marvelous book The Class Meeting,

  • Never omit meeting your Class or Band … These are the very sinews of our Society; and whatever weakens, or tends to weaken, our regard for these, or our exactness in attending them, strikes at the very root of our community. – John Wesley[1]
  • We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages. But the most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart … Through the grace of God our classes form the pillars of our work, and, as we have before observed, are in a considerable degree our universities for the ministry. – Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, 1798 Doctrines and Discipline[2]

Dr. Watson goes on to comment, “I am worried that our approach to Christian discipleship is too often like a person who prepares to run a marathon by buying shoes without actually running in them. Please don’t misunderstand me; just as good running shoes are essential for long-distance running, the Bible and the church are essential for discipleship. Discipleship, however, is about a way of life, not only the life of the mind. Disciples follow Jesus. They are sent out in ministry by Jesus. They heal the sick. The feed the poor. They tell people about Jesus and what he has done.”[3]  We will hear more from him next year.

The third element of our relentless focus on mission through a focus on the local church is the continuing nascent recovery of the evangelism impulse. We have to relearn how to engage in evangelism. This is not optional.  It is biblical and practical.  We won’t be here if don’t!  Obviously, I think the issue is tied to the reassertion of an orthodox theology.  Lovett Weems’ “more people, younger people, and more diverse people” is prophetically accurate.  If we evangelize, more people they will by definition be younger and more diverse.

One of the issues is that generations of clergy were taught how to do pastoral care but not how to engage in evangelism. Gil Rendle’s comment sticks in my mind, “I was taught how to change people’s affiliation not how to change their lives.”  If we are honest, real evangelism is foreign to most clergy and often scary.  We tend to hide behind a theology that says the Holy Spirit does the converting, we don’t.  This is true as far as it goes but fails to recognize that the Holy Spirit often intends to use us as instruments for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  The word evangelism itself means “tactics for sharing the good news” of Jesus Christ.  Our failure to engage in evangelism is largely driven by fear, work avoidance and at times masks our theological poverty.  It is time, well past time, to learn again how to engage in a core work of the gospel.

To that end, on September 19th of 2016 at Whites Chapel UMC we will be holding an evangelism summit.  The Evangelism Summit is intended to offer a short course on evangelism for clergy but all (laity emphatically included) are invited.  We have placed the Summit on a Monday in the 10 to 4 time period to enable clergy to attend.  We have some of the best thinkers and practitioners in the field coming to share with us including Dr. Olu Brown, Lead Pastor of Impact UMC in Atlanta and author of Zero to Eighty: Innovative Ideas for Planting and Accelerating Church Growth, Dr. Billy Abraham from Perkins School of Theology and author of The Logic of Evangelism, and Dr. George Hunter, the first McCreless Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, retired Dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary and author of many books on evangelism notably including The Celtic Way of Evangelism.

Clergy, only three times in the past eight years as your Bishop have I asked you to make attendance at an event a priority in your life. I am asking you now for a fourth time.  I ask you, I will go so far as to plead with you, do not miss this event.  Laity, especially those of you on Pastor-Parish Relations Committees, I ask that you help clear your pastor’s schedule so that she or he may attend.  I invite you to come along too!

Pastor Roger Ross in his new Meet the Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share the Faith reports the following 7 ways to share the faith from the original Methodist movement:

  1. Be Devoted to Prayer
  2. Go Where the People Are
  3. Speak Plain Truth
  4. Use the Music of the Culture
  5. Place Everyone in a Small Group for Spiritual Growth
  6. Give the Ministry to the Laity
  7. Use Mass Communication to Get the Word Out

 He adds:  Why Not Now?[4]

 

[1]               Kevin Watson, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, p. 19
[2]               Kevin Watson, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, p. 53
[3]               Watson, IBID, p. 60
[4]               Roger Ross, Meet the Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share the Faith

THE COURAGE TO MARCH © PT 2

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given by Bishop Mike Lowry
June 6, 2016

PART II – “A Relentless Focus on the Mission”

As we move into a new quadrennium the pathway before us is clear. We must retain a relentless focus on our mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”[1]  The big three will remain the big three.

  1. Christ Centered
  2. Focused on the local Church
  3. Development of a new generation of lay and clergy leadership.

Retaining a deep Christ-centered emphasis, understanding that we live in the embrace of God as the first person of the Trinity, our next step is to embrace the fullness of our great Trinitarian doctrine and heritage with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Our mantra is the Holy Trinity; God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  I intend to deliberately help us widen our understanding and sense of the Holy Spirit as God active in our midst this very day!  I intend to do this without giving an inch on being Christ-centered.  The two naturally go together!  I love the way our conference teacher, Alan Hirsch, puts it in his book The Forgotten Ways:  “The desperate, prayer-soaked human clinging to Jesus, the reliance on his Spirit, and the distillation of the gospel message into the simple, uncluttered message of Jesus as Lord and Savior is what catalyzed the missional potencies inherent in the people of God.”[2]

The Discipline of the United Methodist Church calls the local church “the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.”[3]  I remember when we received the Towers-Watson report in the Council of Bishops back in 2010. Fred Miller, a world renowned expert in institutional leadership, growth and change who led the exhaustive study of the United Methodist Church, made the first key recommendation that there be a 10 year intense focus on the local congregation.  Under questioning by the bishops after presenting the report, he admitted that they would have recommend a 30 year focus on the local church if they thought we could stick with it.  This is that important.  It’s about the local church!  The local church doesn’t exist for the Conference Center.  The Conference Center exists for the local church.

To this end, strategically we will continue the focus on congregational transformation as represented by the Center of Evangelism and Church growth through transformational efforts like the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) and the Small Church Initiative (SCI) as well as other transformation ministries such as Holy Conversations, individual consultants and the like. As a part of this emphasis, we will continue to lift up the stories – the narratives if you will – of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of individuals and congregations.  Consider this one, taken from the recent (and continuing) WeAreMore emphasis.

Along with this emphasis, we now have solid research that indicates that a congregation (including the pastor(s) and key lay leaders) who can articulate a clear coherent path to discipleship is significantly more fruitful in all five major areas of congregational vitality (worship attendance, professions of faith, small group development, missional outreach with the poor and those in need, and extravagant generosity through Connectional Mission Giving and second mile offerings). Bethesda, Acton and First Fort Worth are three examples in the North District alone.

The first time I read about seeing a clearly articulated path to discipleship put out by a congregation was at a workshop at Community of Joy Lutheran Church in Arizona. They were public about pointing back to Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church.  In that book Warren outlines the baseball diamond approach to discipleship used at Saddleback Community Church.  First base was worship attendance.  Second base was bible study and prayer. Third base was mission involvement with the poor and those in need.  Home plate was sharing the faith evangelistically with others.

To my current regret, I and others dissed their approach. We critically noted that few people follow a rigid linear approach to discipleship formation.  Some start with Bible study; others are hooked first through mission work at home or abroad.  There seemed to be as many approaches as there are people to approach.  You know what?  We were both right and terribly wrong.  Discipleship formation is not linear.  One size emphatically does not fit all!  People are unique – duh!  And yet!  The clear delineation of a path is crucial to learning and growth in discipleship.

It reminds me of my son playing T-ball at age 5. One of the kids knocked the ball off the T and headed to third base.  Our left fielder was too busy picking dandelions to pick up the ball.  One of Nathan’s buddies hit ball and took off into center field!  (I have no idea why!)  Nathan only seemed to care about getting the promised snow cone at the end of the game (win or lose).  I can remember sitting in the bleachers in a three piece suit (having come from conducting a funeral service at a nearby cemetery) in the heat of a humid Corpus Christi, Texas summer with the Gulf of Mexico on my left and the T-ball field in front of me laughing so hard I almost fell out of the bleachers.  But you know what, the kids learned baseball.

Something similar happens when a clearly defined path to discipleship is articulated. We’ve discovered that a clearly articulated path to discipleship, even if overly simplified, is vastly superior to the alternative of being unable to cogently and briefly (in an elevator speech) summarize the elements of you and your church’s path to discipleship.  Even the kids that ran to third base and center field were at least engaged and learning baseball.  By way of analogy we need to trust the laity to figure it out and adapt.  They will learn.  Think of the insightful brilliance of the missional slogan Texas Wesleyan University has adopted – Smaller. Smarter.  It tells you all you need to know.  If you come to TWU you will get a quality education in a small classroom environment geared to your learning.

Therefore, I am publically instructing every District Superintendent to ask every pastor and every church council at their Charge Conference or some other appropriate local congregational setting to articulate and share their specific path to discipleship along with the strategic steps to move people forward in their discipleship development. If you don’t have one, your DS will work with you to come up with one.  Furthermore, I will ask every DS to report those strategic paths to discipleship at the Cabinet Inventory prior to our beginning the appointment process next February.  (Hear me carefully, if you don’t know or are not sure, ask!  We will pour gallons of help into the engine of your congregation’s disciple making system if you ask.  We work with the coalition of the willing!  You will not be abandoned but aided; however, you have to ask.  Accountability will be expected by all involved, which includes us at the Conference office.)  We need to think this through and more importantly pray this through. Together we will learn!

 

[1]               The Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 120, p. 91
[2]               Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 86
[3]               The Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 120, p. 91

THE COURAGE TO MARCH ©: Part 1

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given June 6, 2016 by Bishop J. Michael Lowry

PART I – “A New Thing”

 I am mindful what day today is as I stand to speak to you. This is the day is the 72nd anniversary of what is commonly known as simply “D-Day.”  Historically the reference is to the Allied invasion of Europe on June 6th in 1944 hurling back the forces of evil as represented in the scourge of Nazi Germany and most particularly in the Holocaust.  The horrors of that day, especially on Omaha Beach, have been duly documented and even highlighted by the opening scenes from Saving Private Ryan.  What cannot be doubted from the distance of time and space which history gives us is the role of courage in establishing a new future.  A free Europe and free America and much of the rest of the world’s freedom exists because to their sacrifice.  We are the beneficiaries of their courage and must humbly offer our gratitude.

I start at this grim juncture in no way to offer some misguided glorification of war.  Those who have valiantly served in combat know full well that its horrors are not to be wished on anyone.  Rather I pause to remember on this special anniversary because we too as Christ followers must summon up the courage to march.

Audentes Fortuna Iuvat, the Roman phrase variously translated from Virgil means “fortune (or history) favors the brave.” It is no mistake that biblically often the first word from the Lord is “fear not.” It is the angelic message ringing out to the shepherds in their field on Christmas Eve. “Fear not” is the clarion call of the risen Savior at Easter Sunrise. “Fear not” is the word the Lord speaks to us this day.

The Greeks had a saying: “When Cicero spoke we said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke we said, ‘Let us march.’”[1] Friends, the risen Christ stands this day and says again to us, let us march! “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[2]  He commands.  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”[3]

We live in the fading twilight of Christendom. We know this truth. With some notable exceptions, young people are not flooding into our churches. Public opinion regards religious truth claims falsely as vague matters of private truth.   Large swaths of the American culture have dismissed the Christian faith as an antiquated set of opinions to held by the terminally pious.

While the damn is close to breaking over the fragile unity of “mainline” Methodism, simultaneously something remarkable and remarkably good is taking place. God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is at work!  Verses 19 and 20 of Isaiah 43 springs to mind.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[4]

You will no doubt remember the context of this famous passage.  Israel has been defeated.  The leaders are scattered into exile.  It is hard to imagine life getting worse let alone getting better.  Yet in the darkness before the dawn the Prophet speaks of God doing a new thing.  Do you recall the introductory lines of verses 16 & 17 of Isaiah 43?  “The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.”[5]  Allow me to suggest that something like this is again taking place under the Lord’s presence and power through the Holy Spirit.  We are experiencing a new spring of faithful orthodoxy and congregational vitality bubbling around us.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I think the United Methodist Church as we know it (the phrase “as we know it” is a towering qualifier) is slowly collapsing around us.  This slow motion collapse may take a long time to play out and then again it may hit a tipping point and cascade rapidly downward.  Either way, it will be painful, and cause heartache and much anxiety. But this is not the real story.  The real tale we gather to take note of is referenced in the Isaiah 43:19-20.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[6]  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of the Christian faith and church involving a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy at the heart of its expression.

Consider some of the antidotal (or narrative) evidence:

  • The Central Texas Conference showed a growth this past year in most categories of congregational vitality. Just this last week going over the April report on the Vital Signs of Congregational Vitality, I noticed that Alliance UMC showed a 27% gain in worship attendance; First Corsicana reported a 37% increase; St. Stephens in Arlington showed a 433% gain in professions of faith; both First Mansfield and Bethel in Waxahachie reported more than a 1,000% increase in professions of faith. There is a continuing rise in mission engagement with the poor both locally and globally. Extravagant Generosity is common. Our Connectional Mission Giving (CMG) or what is mistakenly referred to as “Apportionments” are the highest paid to date in 9 years, and we have paid 100% 8 out of the last 10 years. We think that is the best record in the United States. (With perhaps only the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference doing better.) I could go on but you get the drift.
  • Those pastors who have an orthodox coherent theology are showing far more fruitfulness than those who lean on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Put bluntly, the churches they pastor are the churches more likely to survive and thrive. [Carefully please note: I am not asserting that this is axiomatically the same as being theologically or politically conservative. Rather it is about an uncompromising gospel orientation that slices across our conventional labels.]
  • Methodist Justice Ministry, an off-shoot of First UMC, Fort Worth led by Rev. Brooks Harrington, is engaging in incredible work for those who are the most vulnerable among us – children. They are living out the great focus area of the church in ministry with the poor. So too is JFON, Justice for Our Neighbors. Their outreach among immigrants includes partnerships with the Texas Methodist Foundation and churches all across the Conference. You will be hearing shortly about the exciting launch of Project Transformation in the Central Texas Conference which combines ministry with the poor and leadership development. Project Transformation reaches out to connect children in need with college students in witness and service to churches in mission.
  • We are seeing signs of witness and creative evangelistic outreach in combination with radical hostility. Hamilton UMC has taken a food pantry and partnered with the local extension agent to offer a cooking class to those they serve in the food pantry. Members also take the class. Together, they share their faith in a non-pressured way at a common meal. New people have joined the church and joined the faith through this simple act of combining caring with an explicit witness. Olney UMC has started a Tuesday Night Boys for young post-high school men who don’t go to college. They teach each other life skills and share the faith in a natural setting. It has already brought 10 new young men into their faith community and faith in Christ.
  • We are beginning to see the results of strong reinvestment in Campus Ministry through our Wesley Foundations, which is resulting in a new lay and clergy leadership for the church.
  • The Vital Leadership Academy is developing a new generation of lay leaders built on in-depth discipleship growth.
  • The gnawing spiritual hunger which surrounds us (even engulfs us) is finding its thirst quenched at the fount of orthodox theology; especially orthodox Wesleyan theology. The fashionable Protestant progressivism of American high culture increasingly looks like an emperor with no clothes. Opportunities for in-depth spiritual formation and biblical growth exist in every (let me emphasize!) every church! People are hungry. Pastors, lay leaders, feed them!
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement (which is in part located within the Central Texas Conference, The Missional Wisdom Foundation, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the works of Dallas Willard & Richard Rohr among many others offer a real sign of the inherent attraction of embracing once again a core Christologically centered and genuinely Trinitarian expression of the Christian faith embraced within the shell of modern United Methodism. (This includes some of those who at best only flirt with orthodoxy.)
  • The hunger and growth of interest in authentic seeking after God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as evidence by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and The Five Day Upper Room Academy for Spirit Formation (led in our Conference by Dr. Bob Holloway, Dean of the Cabinet) offer evidence of the reemergence of interest in deep discipleship. This is a nascent struggling movement but I submit that the careful observer can see a new budding of a deeply faithful expression of orthodox Christianity.[7] It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ. [Incidentally Dr. Watson will be our Conference teacher next year.]
  • All across the Conference, we are increasingly aware that attempts to split doctrine and practice (or orthodoxy and orthopraxy) are inherently destructive. When orthopraxy is split off from a deep connection to orthodoxy, the Christian faith is cut off from its life giving roots. The resultant expression of Christianity is emaciated and inevitably entering a death spiral. When orthopraxy is neglected then orthodoxy is a dead faith signifying nothing and essentially worthless. Remember the admonition of James, “Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?”[8] The two must go together!
  • One kind of church is fading, the declining old mainline with its renewed emphasis on missional outreach largely divorced from an explicit gospel witness (which hence comes across as an advanced version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). The other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church lived out in outwardly focused orthopraxy; which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. For an example, just catch the vibrancy of Harvest UMC, One Fellowship UMC in Waco, Rockbridge UMC on our southern border, Disciple Church (an evolution of the 7th Street experiment which is now a part of First Fort Worth) and Whites Chapel’s work with Path 1 out of Discipleship Ministries. All of them in various ways are combinations of both new churches and transforming partnerships with existing churches. We are seeing emerging churches passionately outwardly focused in ways that are evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.

I could go on but I trust you follow my argument.  God is never left without witnesses.  There are signs of new life all around us.  What is both disturbing and hopeful is that this new life struggles to fit into the existing United Methodist Church culture.  In an April report on Congregational Vitality, the Central Texas Conference has increased to 29% in the number of vital congregations in the period from 2010 through 2014 – a 7% increase.  This is an excellent report but it is not good enough.  Why not a four year goal to have over 50% of our congregations listed as vital congregations?  (Incidentally that would make us the highest in the nation by a large margin.)  Christ as head of the church calls for our best.  The Savior and Lord deserves our best.  In Oswald Chambers inimitable phrase, “My[Our] Utmost for His Highest!”

 

[1]               https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Demosthenes
[2]               Acts 1:8
[3]               Matthew 28:19-20
[4]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[5]               Isaiah 43:16-17
[6]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[7]              see Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry
[8]               James 2:20

Responding to the Violence in Orlando

The news of another terrorist shooting and the tragic deaths of so many in the Pulse Nightclub rocks all of us with its senseless hate-filled violence. It addresses us all on so many levels – unchecked gun violence (examples are many: Sandy Hook, a Colorado movie theater, Columbine High School, etc.), the ISIS terrorism campaign that reaches around the world: Paris to Indonesia to the United States and back again, the horrors of the Syrian/ISIS civil war, ongoing prejudice against those in the LGBTQ community, and the list goes on.

The biblical cry of grief and pain goes up once again.

“I cry out to you, Lord.
You are my rock; don’t refuse to hear me.
If you won’t talk to me,
I’ll be just like those going down to the pit.
Listen to my request for mercy when I cry out to you,
when I lift up my hands to your holy inner sanctuary.” (Psalm 28:1-2)

Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, both the tragedy of gun violence and violence and prejudice directed at a specific groups (the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Ethnic violence of any kind, etc.) must be addressed more successfully. Internet nurturing of hatred and violence is an evil that must, in some as-of-yet-unknown fashion, be addressed.

Even more, hate-driven acts of violence against member of the LGBTQ community is against the moral precepts of all civilized people and especially an offense to those who profess to be Christ followers. The Discipline of the United Methodist Church is clear:  “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.  All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self” (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 161F, p. 111).

I echo Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter (in slight paraphrase to fit our Central Texas Conference setting): “I am lifting up the clergy and laity who will lead worship in our Central Texas Conference churches. May you announce God’s unconditional love for all people and God’s desire for nonviolence through Jesus Christ, who is our peace.

“And as United Methodists [Church and especially in the Central Texas Conference] . . . along with my fellow bishops and especially Bishop Ken Carter of Florida, “I hope we can discover creative, pastoral and grace-filled ways to bear witness to all — including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons — that together we are God’s beloved children.” (Bishop Ken Carter Jr., The full text of Bishop Carter’s statement can be found at here.)

In last Tuesday night’s (June 7th) ordination sermon, I said, “Fear-soaked mean-spirited bigotry against those of another religion, race or nation is not the Christian faith.  We ought to be ashamed that it is so represented by some in public life.”  I would add to that what should have been in the original sermon, namely that “fear-soaked mean-spirited bigotry against those” of an alternative sexual preference is not the Christian faith!  Violence is not the way of Christ.  Christians are to be in the world but not of it! (See 1 Peter 2:11.)

May we lift all who are affected by this tragedy, especially members of the LGBTQ community in Orlando and the people of the city of Orlando as a whole in our prayers. Along with our prayers, may we actively seek ways to faithfully embrace all of God’s children and spread the Kingdom gospel of Christ’s peace and love to all.

“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus….” (Philippians 2:1-5)

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