Risk, Fear, and Thanksgiving ©

 “All who want to come after me must say not to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.  All who want to save their lives will lose them.  But all who lose their lives because of me will be saved” (Luke 9:23-24).

 Reading various responses related to Syrian refugees and letting those who have gone through a two-year vetting process enter America in the newspaper and listing online, I am impressed with our desire for a safe, risk-free America. It is almost as if some are nationally advocating that we live like the little boy in the commercial exiting the family van. His mother has dressed him in a football helmet with catcher’s mask over the helmet and a matching chest protector, shoulder pads and hockey knee pads.  Incessantly the mother is giving instructions about being safe and not doing anything that is dangerous or risky. 

 With most of us I laugh at the ridiculously over protective parent.  And yet … there is a part of me that deeply understands and appreciates such desire for safety. I want my family safe! I want my country safe! The randomness of terrorism is terrifying.  Which brings me to a still deeper reflection.

 I am conscious that risk and fear are yoked to discipleship and courage. Much of my internal argument (and our external debate as Christians with the larger political culture) over risk and safety pushes me (us) back on my (our) relationship with Jesus. The Lord challenges me (us) to reject the rule of fear and let Him (Christ) rule. Fear remains but it does not reign. One of C.S. Lewis’s comments comes to mind.  It is a scene from his famous Christian allegory The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  In the scene Mr. Beaver is introducing the children to Aslan, the great Christ character who appears as a mighty lion. 

 “Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh,” said Susan [the youngest of the 3 young human children in the allegory].  “I’d thought he was a man.  Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver … “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”

 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom not the fear of this world (Proverbs 9:10).  The Apostle Paul reached for this great biblical truth when he wrote:  “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Roams 5:1-5, NRSV).

 Divine courage, Holy Spirit-infused endurance, brings us to grace filled hope in deeper discipleship.  Risk in Christ’s name and at His service brings us to true thanksgiving.  Whatever actions politician’s take, Christians reach out with the love of Christ.  Jesus isn’t safe.  The Christian life is a call to a great adventure in service to the living Lord.  Such hope does not disappoint us. 

 In scary submission to Christ, I am (we are) delivered to the deeper joy of thanksgiving.  Those Pilgrim fathers and mothers who risked the storms of the north Atlantic knew this truth.  Those Native Americans who risked reaching out to those same pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving in the “New World” live such truth (even if Christ was yet unknown to them!).  Now it is our time to step up and step out for Christ.

 Sunday while sitting in worship I listened as the Arborlawn UMC choir sang the great prayer verse “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful.”  Prayerfully listening I was transported back to my time in France a couple of years ago.  At Taize we sang this same praise chorus in a variety of language.  The words are an appropriate prayer for our time of Thanksgiving.

 “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful,
            In the Lord I will rejoice!
Look to God, do not be afraid.
            Lift up your voices, the Lord is near,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.”




Faith on Trial: Responding to Terrorism in Today’s World ©

Last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent actions seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice rightly captures our hearts and minds in a wide variety of ways.  The sheer barbarism of the attacks spreads anxiety and fear among the bravest.  A deep sense of vulnerability saturates the most stalwart among us.  How are Christians to respond to terrorism in today’s world?

In a real sense, terrorism by its very nature puts our faith as Christ followers on trial.  It challenges us at the core of our beliefs.  Are we willing to hold to Christ whose very presence is announced with the angelic admonition “fear not!” (Luke 2:10)?

My initial response to the news of the Paris attacks was white hot fear-driven anger.  Only on calming down, entering into prayer, and engaging in less heated reflection did I realize that terrorism puts my faith on trial.

I believe our Lord’s admonition to love our neighbor.  I am committed in principle to the Savior’s call to holiness in rejecting hate.  The words of Jesus echo in the throne room of my mind.  “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).

I am conscious that it is easy to be Christian in times of peace and plenty and in settings of safety and joy.  I am also quite aware that the test of the Christian faith comes on the streets of Paris, in rhetorical punditry of television and the cancer ward of the local hospital.

Our faith is put on trial in:

  1. The temptation to reject the Lord’s leading and be driven instead by a desire for revenge. Prayerful reflection and careful thinking are at a premium if our response is to be faithful to the gospel and Lordship of Christ. Those who enact such evil must be brought to justice. There is nothing Christian or holy in allowing terror to reign unchecked. Let us be clear – terror and terrorism is an outgrowth of Satan’s rage. And yet, we must also be carefully clear and faithfully obedient in our response. Matching evil with evil is not the way of Christ. We seek justice not vengeance (Romans 12:19).
  2. The engulfing emotions of fear and fear driven disregard for others who are in dire need. Our model, guide and ruler is the one who was crucified for others, notably for those who were (and are!) guilty of sin. Instead of living under a reign of fear, Jesus reached out stretching His arms wide in an embrace of love. Let us be sympathetic to each other as we wrestle with fear’s grip. Fear is a natural and in some ways healthy response to the horrors of unchecked terror. It alerts us to the need to take protective steps and seek justice for all. The Christian difference is not that fear is not present. It is rather that fear does not reign. It does not rule! Christ alone is Lord! However powerful our emotions, they too are subject to Him. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18).
  3. Our vulnerability mixed with fear and anger which seduces us to react by blaming the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee. Terrorism is a tool of evil which, if left unchecked by Christian values and by the rule of Christ, can lead us to the unfaithful response of prejudice. It is worth carefully noting that the earliest Christians consistently refused to simply take care of only other Christians. They consciously and in allegiance to Christ reached out to any in need. There were no litmus tests for who should receive love and care. Teachings from Jesus like the Parable of the Good Samaritan drove their actions. (See Luke 10:35.) Instructions like James 1:27 were a basic part of the fabric of their response, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.” Let there be no mistake. To only take care of Christians or just be concerned about Americans is not worthy of the gospel. It is not faithful to the clear teaching of Christ. (Check out Jude 1:12 and its explicit rejection of those who care only for themselves.)

As your bishop, I call on us to be a people of faith.  May we reflect the example of Christ and be known the world over for a love which conquers fear.  Jesus our Savior first lived among us as a refugee.  He calls us now to reach out to those refugees fleeing the unspeakable evils of terror and war’s destruction.  May we be instruments of peace offering a place of hope, help and home to those most in need.  May religious prejudice and national jingoism be unknown among us.

Do you recall the Apostle’s closing advice in I Peter?  First Peter is written as a baptismal address to new Christians for a church undergoing dire persecution.  Terror is an everyday part of their lives.  In such context the Apostle closes his letter with advice fit again for today.  “Therefore, humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day. Throw all your anxiety onto him, because he cares about you. Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.  After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you. To him be power forever and always. Amen” (I Peter 5:6-11).

Training for a Job that No Longer Exists ©

I was ordained Deacon in 1974, graduated from seminary in 1976, and ordained elder in 1977. The church I entered was basking in the setting sun of cultural Christendom. As a newly minted pastor one of the primary points of my reference was my District Superintendent (DS). In ecclesiological terms a pastor under appointment to a local church reports to the congregation’s Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and to the District Superintendent. DSes were to serve as the pastor’s guide and mentor, supervisor and evaluator. The DS represented the Pastor in Cabinet meetings where appointments were made under the authority of the bishop. In short, the position of DS was designed to carry both pastoral and managerial functions. Evolving from the frontier days of missional outreach and connection, it was the natural outgrowth of a management culture. That job no longer exists. A DS who operates out of the 1960s management culture is a failure- and even worse a problem for both churches and clergy.

Unfortunately this job, which no longer exists, is one which I was mentored to do. For many the height of their ministry was not pastoring a local church but serving on Bishop’s Cabinet as a DS with supervisory responsibility for somewhere between 30 and 45 churches. Good DSes kept the system running. They settled conflict. They negotiated dilemmas. They coached younger clergy helping them to assimilate into a bureaucratic church culture. One of my mentors, Rev. Bob Grimes, who was himself both a very effective pastor of large regional churches worshipping over 1,000 in average attendance and a District Superintendent, used to comment: “There is nothing as useless in the Methodist system as a DS when you don’t need them, and there is nothing as vital as a DS when you do need them [usually in a situation of crisis, conflict and pastoral change].”

Yet today the job of DS is so different that it effectively no longer exists as originally designed in a pastoral/bureaucratic structure. Our culture has changed dramatically. Typically pastors do not move as often. The tenure of a pastor changes the relationship with both the church and the denomination. Furthermore, we have slowly and painfully learned that someone can be either a pastor or supervisor but not effectively serve as both. Additionally, there is a skill set need for a DS that relates to church transformation/renewal/revival which involves a highly flexible collaborative and adaptive learning. It used to be that a DS ran her or his own district and conference staff did not interfere with his/her area of supervision. Now a DS that cannot work effectively with conference staff (and vice versa) needs to be replaced. The day of territorialism is dead and gone.

My list could go on but the reader gets the drift. I learned how to parent from watching my parents. Those who have served as DSes have learned to be a DS by watching those who went before. Today, however, the job is so in flux and change; the needs are so different and compel collaboration, adaptively and experimentation that length of tenure is no longer a critical criteria.

Over the years, various General Conferences have added responsibilities to the position of DS. They have done so with the best of intentions. Unfortunately now there are so many different disciplinary requirements for the job that no one can effectively meet all the requirements. As it is written in The Book of Discipline, the job is designed for failure. Which brings me to today.

Over the last 3 quadrennium (12 years), all across the United Methodist Church in America, experiments have been going on over the deployment of DSes for the stated mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There is widespread agreement that a District Superintendent is to be the “chief mission strategist” for their district. What is far from clear however is just what is meant by the phrase “chief mission strategist.”

Those who carefully understand the full implication of the Exodus Project for the Central Texas Conference will realize that over the past 6 or 7 years there have been a great deal of changes in how our Cabinet operates. Appointments are made based on mission-field effectiveness and not tenure. There is a high level of collaborative interaction between the conference staff and the districts (both HCI and our various Mission initiatives are examples of this morphing change). The role of the DS is far closer to that of a teacher and coach than as a pastor/supervisor.

In truth we don’t yet fully understand the role of the District Superintendent in this new post-Christendom world we seek to minister to. We are learning and experimenting. This is a good, godly thing. The Holy Spirit is leading us. My old friend and mentor Bob Grimes, gone now over 10 years, was and is right. “There is nothing as useless in the Methodist system as a DS when you don’t need them, and there is nothing as vital as a DS when you do need them [usually in a situation of crisis, conflict and pastoral change].”

In a period of great adaptive change, we need good effective courageous DSes who “get it” now more than ever. We need the kind of people leading Districts who have themselves been faithful and fruitful building vital congregations. We need leaders who love the local church and are willing to go the extra mile to help in the development of a new generation of clergy and lay leaders. We need people who can put aside ego and territoriality to work joyfully with others. And most of all, we need people who are sold out on Christ – his ministry, mission and salvation.

Changing Central Texas Conference Leadership ©

I find myself slowly and impatiently (see my previous blog!) recovering from knee replacement surgery. I have just begun my second week at home dominated by physical therapy and much needed rest.  As I do so, I hope to take some time to write a couple (or more) blogs that look ahead at leadership and life together in the Central Texas Conference (CTC) of the United Methodist Church.  While the blogs will be directed explicitly at my episcopal area (The Fort Worth Episcopal Area), I hope that readers from other Conferences and Christian denominations might find their thinking stimulated in ways that are applicable to their specific context for ministry.

In early September the CTC met again with David Simpson from the Table Group. (The Table Group is an organization set up by Patrick Lencioni which helps organizations – both profit and non-profit – develop leadership health in order to carry out their stated mission.)  This time our focus was on succession planning.

Let me explain. In the United Methodist Church (UMC), District Superintendents may serve a maximum of 8 years on the Cabinet.  Likewise, Executive Center Directors may serve a maximum of 8 years in one rotation.  A person can move from being a DS to being a Executive Center Director (or vice versa) but cannot serve more than a total of 14 years combined.  While church law does not bind us, Conference Lay Leaders are elected for a 4 year (one quadrennium) term.  By way of translation, this means that over the next 2 years, 7 out of 10 Cabinet positions will have a new person serving in leadership.  Among current District Superintendents the Central, East, North and West District Superintendents will each be facing a change sometime in the next 2 years.  Two of the three Executive Center Director positions face a possible change.  And, if we continue with our tradition in Conference Lay Leadership assignment, we will have a new Conference Lay Leader in the Fall of 2016.

I invite the attentive reader to take the issue of succession planning one step further. We are in the midst of a massive shift in clergy retirements with the slow rolling wave of “baby boomer” retirements peaking somewhere around 2018.  Peering closer, a disproportionate number of those retirements will take place among clergy providing senior pastor leadership for the largest 1/3 of our churches.

With worship, prayer and careful spiritual discernment, we wrestled in retreat over the key factors we must have in a new generation of leadership, especially clergy leadership on the Cabinet and in some of our strategic churches and lay leadership positions. Put differently, what are the qualities that should be met even to be considered for such a key leadership role?


  1. Deep Spirituality/Walk with Christ
    1. Tell me about your daily devotions/spiritual disciplines
    2. What differences has it made in your relationships?
    3. How do you experience God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in community?
  2. Open to Learning
  3. Emotional Intelligence
  4. Team Player
  5. Integrity
  6. Passion for Disciple making/ministry (Is there evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness?)

What I like to call the “big 3” will drive the train in selection making.

  1. Christ at the Center
  2. Focused on energizing and equipping local churches to be vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ
  3. Developing Lay and Clergy Leadership

These big 3 core commitments are not up for debate. Together as a Conference we have, in deep faith and prayer, wrestled long and hard to arrive at a strong consensus around this core.  We are not going to engage in wasted time and effort to reinvent the wheel.  If someone is not committed to them, they don’t need to be on the Cabinet in either a lay or clergy leadership position.

While only one position faces a Disciplinary mandated change at Conference 2016 (The Central District Superintendent), these key appointments plus other significant lay leadership selections and the filling of positions vacated by the retirement of senior pastors are linked to each other.  Thus, over the next 5 or 6 months, I will be intentionally instigating a series of conversations about the impact of succession planning on the faithfulness and fruitfulness of mission and ministry in the Central Texas Conference.  I’ll be engaged in the standard conversations – with District Superintendency Committees, Leadership Centers’ Core Teams, and through the Cabinet with various Staff/Pastor-Parish Relations Committees.  But I also hope to stir up a large variety of other avenues for seeking advice and input.  This is not a casting call for nominations!  It is an invitation to be a part of a floating conversation and prayer filled discernment.

We are not seeking the perfect DS, Lay Leader, or Executive Center Director. No one is perfect.  Christ alone is the sovereign Lord of the church.  We will not be taking “votes” on who should be selected in clergy appointments.  Rather, I call us to engage in transparent holy conversations.  Evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness based on the core non-negotiables is essential.  Through it all, together, I invite us to be in submitted prayer and open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Patience for a Patient ©

Tuesday morning at about 9:15 a.m.  I walked in the doors of Texas Health Resources Harris Hospital Southwest.  As I walked up to the information desk where I was to report in for my knee replacement surgery, an elderly woman using a cane and wearing a back brace was in front of me.  About the same time I arrived to begin the line a younger man (40ish) approached from the side. We stood there as she fumbled in her purse and pulled out a phone.  She asked for the room-number of a patient and after some careful search on the computer, the desk volunteer graciously notified her that there was no one registered at Harris SW Hospital under that name.  Graciously the volunteer offered to help expand the search.  As we waited, the lady proceeded to call a family member to see if she had the right hospital. 

I don’t know how you as a reader would handle a situation like this.  I must confess that it is difficult for me not to demonstrate a lack of patience when someone stands in line and deals with a phone call all the while obviously holding up the line.  For that matter, even in the best of circumstances, patience is not one of my spiritual attributes.  Unfortunately or rather very fortunately, I knew the desk volunteer.  Bob Sherman, the volunteer on the information desk, is a member at Arborlawn United Methodist Church.  If Bob was exhibiting a grace filled example of patience to one of the elder saints of the Lord, the least I could do was keep my mouth shut.

By the grace of God and the witness of a good Methodist layman, I did just that.  I kept my mouth shut.  The story doesn’t quite end there. 

A little while later changed into a hospital gown and waiting in the pre-op room, Bob slipped in and asked if he could phone church so that folks on the Arborlawn prayer team could be lifting me up in prayer for a successful knee replacement surgery. I shared my appreciation with Bob a little while later but those brief interactions have lingered in my mind.  The Apostle Paul’s listing of the fruits of the Spirit linger in my mind.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires. If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit” (Galatians 522-25).

Just four days earlier, we had returned from a spiritual pilgrimage following much of the Apostle Paul’s third missionary journey.  The theologian in me cannot help but notice the connection between the witness of those earliest persecuted Christians and a simple act of kindness and care shown at a volunteer’s desk.  In recent blogs I have highlighted how the earliest Christians could live with grace, joy and love in horrific conditions. 

The earliest Christians did not begin by joining a political party.  They didn’t clamor for their rights.  Their witness to the risen Savior sprung out the way they lived towards others.  They took the admonitions of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount; the teaching from his parables; and the way he interacted with all people – even lepers, as an example of how they were to live in relationships with others … event their enemies.  They were literally grace-filled.  They lived by the Spirit and walked by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25).  This way of living differently so marked out earliest Christians that people would wonder if they weren’t some kind a new species or race.

Perhaps you can recall an old admonition I learned in Sunday School.  It goes something like this.  “If you were arrested as a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

I am not a good patient and I am not someone who exhibits patience as a part of my daily walk with Christ.  What I am is a sinner saved by God’s grace.  It is in this relationship that I am lifted up to “be more than I can be.”  Thanks, Bob, for helping me live the faith that is so life giving.  In the background noise of our age and time, I need to remember the words of the Savior and Master – “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them” (Matthew 18:22).

The First Order Concern ©

Thursday evening October 22nd we returned home from our pilgrimage following the Apostle Paul’s 3rd and 4th missionary journeys.  We managed to include a stop at the island of Patmos where John wrote Revelation.  I have had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land and a part of Paul’s missionary/church planting stops before, and I am conscious from other visits that it takes a good while (months and even years) to fully unpack insights from such explorations.  Yet I feel compelled to comment on one of the foundational insights I received.

In truth, that insight is not new at all. It is rather a radical re-emphasis (an exclamation point if you will) of a truth we know full well.  “Jesus is Lord.”  This seminal, creedal affirmation clung to with passionate intensity by the earliest Christians (check out Philippians 2:1-11) hit me once again with tidal wave intensity as we stood by the jail where Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi  – a small dark depressing hovel.  (And yet Paul and Silas offered praise and prayer; check out Acts 16:23-25.)

This truth was hammered home in the hill-top kingdom of Pergamum. Standing at the place “where Satan’s throne is” (Revelation 2:13) with Trajan’s great temple of emperor worship looming above them and the altar of Zeus spread out below them (scholars argue which is “Satan’s Throne”), they didn’t talk about the church or justice or missions.  Their first order of concern was to lift up Christ.  “You are holding on to my name and you didn’t break faith with me [i.e. Christ Jesus]” (Revelation 2:13).

The witness of Christianity’s core creedal affirmation embraced my soul again standing on Mars Hill in Athens. Soaring majestically above and to the right was the Parthenon.  This great citadel of Athena and ancient Greek deities (plus a set aside temple for Caesar Augustus, also considered a god) is still awe inspiring 2,000 years later.  Gazing out from Mars Hill when I looked down, I saw the agora, the market place where Socrates taught and Plato argued.  The sheer courage and incredible depth of commitment exhibited by Paul humbles the most self-righteously ardent among us.  You can read about it yourself in Acts 17.  Incredibly, Paul didn’t argue about the importance of the church or the need to serve others.  He didn’t trumpet the conviviality of Christian fellowship or argue for good moral teaching.  He offered the good news of a once unknown god now known in the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.  He shared a divine embrace from the risen Christ for all people – “God isn’t far away from any of us” (Acts 17:27; read the entire story in Acts 17:16-34).

In every case the foundational offering is Christ. He is not one concern among many.  He isn’t a “first order concerned” offered alongside other important concerns.  Jesus Christ is the first order concern.  The church, justice, fellowship, mission, service, etc. are all important, but there are second order concerns.  They are built on the solid rock of Christ.  Christ and Christ alone is the one who speaks of freedom for the imprisoned, holiness when battered by the presence of Satan’s throne, and truth to an intellectually starving culture.  Great hymns of faith come too – “The Church’s One Foundation” and “In Christ Alone.”

In our present day church and modern witness of Christianity, we are so tempted to begin with second order concerns. I recall with embarrassment a conversation a few years ago with a non-believing cousin and her spouse which focused on the church, its faults and failures, but never really offered Christ.  They were interested church drop-outs.  They knew much about the church and missions and justice, etc. They didn’t know Christ.  I answered their questions and sought to both defend the church and confess her faults and failures.  I shared the institution at its best.  Tragically, I failed to offer Christ.

I have discovered a similar witness all across the Conference I serve and indeed spread far and wide across the shrinking ruins of American Christendom. Culturally we have lived with an assumption that people know Christ or at least know about Christ.  Today many do not even know about Christ, let alone know Christ.  I believe God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is calling us back to our first order witness.  We need more than just information about Christ.  We need to offer the person of Christ … a vibrant living life changing relationship of love and grace divine.  Jesus is Lord indeed!


The Coming Victory

Tonight, October 17th, I was sitting in the Cabaret Lounge of the Azamara Journey cruise ship listening to the White’s Chapel UMC Choir (supplemented by a scattering of other choir members from across the Central Texas Conference) singing “Soon and Very Soon We are Going to See the King.” Christians offered Christ as the real King in the face of Rome’s Imperial persecution.  Earlier in the day we had visited the cave on the Island of Patmos where John had received the divine revelation of the King’s (Christ – the Lord Jesus’s) triumph in the book of Revelation.  As I listened, I found myself deeply drawn to this incredible vision of Christ’s liberating victory.

The juxtaposition between visiting the cave where John wrote down the vision of triumph and the nightly news received via TV on returning to the ship is staggering.  Listening to the news in our cabin while we got ready for dinner and the choir concert, we heard of the terrible ongoing conflict in Syria.  Tension between Turkey and Russia over the shooting down of a drone clutched at our hearts (especially given the potential involvement of elements of the U. S. Airforce).  ISIS terror and the continual mind-numbing Arab-Israel conflict clutched at consciousness with our attention made much more immediate by our physical closeness to the center of fight.  The bad news did not limit itself to the middle-east.  It wound around the globe to include virtually all nations and ended with pictures of mud-slides in California.

The news we received was not far from the reality John wrote about in Revelation.  It was into a world of deep conflict that John shared his all-consuming vision of Christ as Lord and Savior.  During the reign of a power of a mad Roman ruler named Domitian who believed he was a god, John offered a dramatically different competing vision of reality.  He offered Christ.

Cruelty shaped the society within which John lived.  Death was a common occurrence.  Violence was an everyday reality.   The barbarism of the arena where Christians and others were routinely put to death for entertainment competed with a society morally corrupt at its core for attention.  While near the top of the hated list, Christians were far from the only ones who felt Domitian’s oppression.

In times like those in which John lived, in times like ours (!), despair is a rational, even sensible response.  It is not, however, the godly response called for by followers of Christ.  Ours is a different witness.  At the concert as I listened, Bruce sang Chris Rice’s moving witness entitled simply “Untitled Hymn.”

“Weak and wounded sinner, lost and left to die;
O raise your head, ‘cause love is passing by.
Come to Jesus, Come to Jesus.  Come to Jesus and live.”

Such is the witness of John in Revelation.  Exiled and left in a cave to die on a desolate rocky outcropping of an island, John writes for us just as in did for those in the age of Domitian’s terror.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’  Then the one seated on the throne said, ‘Look! I’m making all things new.’ He also said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true’” (Revelation 20:1-5, CEB).

“The one who bears witness to these things says, ‘Yes, I’m coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” (Revelation 22:20-21, CEB).


Musing on Run ©

I returned a week ago from a tremendous learning and sharing ministry in the Philippines. Together with Bishops John Schol, Rudy Juan, Ciriaco Franscisco, and Peter Torio, I was privileged to share in the COB Bright Spots Project on building vital congregations. Such travels remind me of how tempting it is to view our ministry in parochial terms. It is easy to boil the Christian faith and its witness down to our particular church, city, state, or nation. When we pause to think and pray, we are all reminded that the opposite is true. Mr. Wesley had it exactly right when he said, “the world is my parish!”

By way of example, a recent story crossed my desk about the tremendous ministry we participate in through Africa University. Bishop Marcus Matthews (Resident Bishop of the Baltimore Washington Episcopal Area and Vice-Chair of the African University Board of Directors) writes:

“United Methodist-related Africa University plays a critical role in the lives of people like Claudine Migisha Muhoza of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When rebel armies violently tore through her village, killing her parents and leaving her and her five siblings to fend for themselves, she was six-years-old. She suddenly found herself forced into the role of caregiver to her younger brothers and sisters.

Congolese by nationality, 22-year-old Muhoza was born in Goma, DRC. Despite her horrendous ordeal of losing her parents, she and her siblings rallied. She continued with her schooling, which ultimately led her to Africa University where she is currently studying psychology. 

With more than 6,200 graduates and offering degrees in six faculties of learning, plus programs in peace, leadership and governance, Africa University is making – and will continue to make – a difference through committed, conscientious and caring students.

In 2014, your support of the Africa University Fund (AUF) helped increased giving by more than two percent! That is something to celebrate! Your annual conference played an important role in this accomplishment because it invested 100 percent in its Africa University apportionment in 2014. We continue to celebrate your hard work to accomplish this!

Your annual conference’s ongoing support is essential to future leaders across the continent of Africa. Thank you! I encourage you to keep up the excellent work.

Please share Muhoza’s story, along with the Africa University Fund video, when you invite congregations to give their Africa University Fund apportionment in full. If you need additional resources and information, please encourage them to download resources from the AUF pastor and leader kit or visit Africa University Development website. We want to help YOU help our African sisters and brothers. Thank you!”

Tomorrow I leave for the second part of my renewal leave on a two week trip through Educational Opportunities following parts of the Apostle Paul’s 3 and 4th missionary journeys. Our first stop will be in Istanbul (the ancient city of Constantinople). The Nicene Creed, which we routinely (and rightly!) recite in our worship services, was written in what was essentially a suburb of Constantinople. Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom,” in honor of the second person of the holy trinity, the word made flesh, the wisdom from God – Jesus Christ) was once, for almost 1,000 years, the greatest church of Christianity. For her pulpit some to the great early leaders of the Christian faith preached the gospel (notably St. John Chrysostom). Today after a time used as a Mosque, it is now a museum.

It is a lifelong dream of mine to see this sacred site. As I prepare to leave, I am reminded of a different quote from a different person and time period. “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’ [Ephesians 4:14], seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s ego and desires.

“We however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature, adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI)

As we set sail on the “Adventures of Paul” I hope to report and being reminded again of how wide – literally world-spanning – the Christian faith is. I pray that once again, each and every day, I/we might be yoked with Christ, rooted in a deep friendship with our Lord.


When the first George Bush (that is George Herbert Walker Bush) was President, he lifted up what he called for “1,000 Points of Lght.” President Bush urged us to focus on the better side of our nature by lifting up organizations (ministries) that shape human society in healthy, hopeful ways. I thought then and think now that there is something to this emphasis on the points of light or bright spots around us. I believe this is especially true for the Church. There are “bright spots” – “points of light” – all around us.

Sunday night I arrived in the Philippines with Bishop John Schol from the Greater New Jersey Conference. We are working with representatives from the Philippines Central Conference (three Episcopal Areas) on the Council of Bishops Bright Spots Project. The Bright Spots project is an outgrowth of the United Methodist Church’s worldwide emphasis on building vital congregations. The areas of congregational vitality are the same in the Philippines as they are in the United States (and around the rest of the world). We look for evidence of congregational vitality through transformation life stores, fruitfulness in ministry, and life changing ministries which reflection the Wesleyan way of being a Christ follower (holiness of heart and life). The five markers of vitality correspond to the witness of the Holy Spirit through the earliest Christian church as found immediately after Pentecost in Acts 2:42-47. Vitality is measured by the “five markers of disciples involved/engaged in “1) making new disciples (evangelism, a part of radical hospitality); 2) worship; 3) small groups (intentional faith development); 4) hands on mission (risk-taking mission and service); and 5) giving to missions (extravagant generosity).” The connection to the Bright Spots Project comes out of the work of the Council of Bishops Congregational Vitality Leadership Team, Discipleship Ministries and Vital Congregations project through the Connectional Table.

The “Bright Spots” project builds on the notion and understanding of a research method called Positive Deviance. (PD) PD is a strength-based approach around core principles which involve communities possessing the expertise to address their own problems. In brief form the community (read church) discovers existing uncommon, successful behaviors and strategies. Put differently, it looks at the bright spots among the various congregations in an Annual Conference. PD is built on the notion that “someone just like me is succeeding against all odds with the same resources that are available to me.” PD focuses on practice instead of knowledge. (“You are more likely to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”) For those of you interested in reading more, I strongly commend The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin.

All this sounds dry but it ends up exciting. Drawing lay and clergy together we learn how to focus on what is working (fruitful and faithful ministry) and learn from such ministry in ways that are naturally transferable to other congregations. Practical insights are welded to the best biblical and theological insights. The beauty of this approach is the way people are turned into their own researchers and own the results in a concrete way. Instead of a top-down “program,” “bright spots” provides a bottom up approach to ministry in the post-Christendom twenty-first century.

In the Central Texas Conference our focus remains firmly on what I call the Big 3.
1. Christ at the Center
2. Focus on the Local Church
3. Development of Lay and Clergy Leadership

As I keep insisting, no one needs to ask what the focus of the next Annual Conference is. The theme is on “energizing and equipping local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

We are blessed with many bright spots. We can learn much by asking simple questions of each other, laying aside our preconceived convictions and listening again as if for the 1st time what leads to excellence in faithful and fruitful ministry. What can we learn from our “bright spots?” How is it some churches engage in risk-taking ministry above and beyond what is normally expected? How come some congregations have professions of faith in situations where other churches are closing? How is it that passionate worship breaks out in the oddest places?

The Holy Spirit is loose in our world and our churches. We have much to learn from others. As we share, God works on us in our hearts leading us to exciting faithfulness.

Reflections on the Visit of a Holy Man

I confess to being late to work this morning. I stayed extra half hour at home to watch the arrival of Pope Francis at the White House. The crowds gathered, the pomp and ceremony; the gravitas of press coverage, and the respectful public speeches – taken together they demonstrate our hunger for holy living and a greater connection with both the Lord and each other.

A holy man has come calling on America. We recognize this truth. Many of you are aware that I have been memorizing and living with Philippians 4:4-9 this year in my devotional life.   As a whole the passage reads:

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. 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.

Pope Francis exemplifies phrases like verse 5, “let your gentleness show,” and verse 8, “if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things.” Amid the caterwauling that makes up modern America and especially the social networks, the holy example of his life speaks louder than words or actions.

I submit that herein lies a lesson for all of us who would call ourselves Christ followers. On an intuitive level, we are attracted to such an example. This does not mean the abandonment of conviction nor does it mean the adoption of a terminal fuzzy and false “niceness.” Pope Francis has been perfectly clear about where he stands on a number of controversial issues – the refugee and immigration crises along with global warming come to mind. (As a side note, United Methodist as represented by the action of General Conference – the only body with the ability to speak for the United Methodist Church – have adopted positions closely in line with those articulated by Pope Francis.) There is a prophetic element to his witness that we need to hear and wrestle with; a simplicity of lifestyle that challenges our materialistic excesses.

While we do not agree on all things doctrinal (the doctrine of Papal Infallibility comes readily to mind), we can disagree and pursue the truth in a manner that reflects a truly Christian lifestyle. Methodists have historically called this holiness of heart and life. It has both a personal and social dimension. Here is a larger doctrinal truth all Christians need to claim or reclaim at the core of our believing and behaving. The visit of this holy man is demonstrating for us how we might act with each other and especially with those with whom we might have strong disagreements. We do well to learn from his example because it is a reflection of the gospel.

I ask us, especially the United Methodists of the Central Texas Conference, to lift up Pope Francis in our prayers. I ask us also to pray for our brothers and sisters who are part of the Roman Catholic Church. May we together give a witness of behavior that befits the call and claim of Christ.

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