Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #1 ©

Two incidents frame the beginning of a series of blogs I have tentatively entitled “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way.”  First, an incident that happened a couple of months ago.  Jolynn and I found ourselves in another community worshipping at a large United Methodist Church on Sunday morning.  The preacher opened by stating that he was continuing a series of sermons by John Wesley with additions of his own.  Absentmindedly I didn’t catch what he said at first.  However as the sermon unfolded, I soon realized that he was preaching Wesley’s famous sermon on “Justification by Faith”  (See The Works of John Wesley, Vol.1, Sermon 5, pp. 182-199, Edited by Albert C. Outler). Somewhat edited for length and spliced with a few comments, its essence and even language was straight Wesley.

I take notes when I listen to a sermon (for my own spiritual learning and growth in faith, not in judgment of the preacher!).  About half way through I put my pen down and closed my notepad.  I sat back and looked across the congregation.  There were roughly four hundred people sitting in the sanctuary, and they were in rapt attention.  Literally you could hear a pin drop.  The sense of spiritual hunger and eager learning was palpable.  (Afterwards I checked with Jolynn and she too felt the mood of anticipation and eager learning).

There is a deep longing for the gospel truth which exists within and around this wildly secular culture of ours.  Like those coming in from the desert, we seek the water of life.  Culturally we are a living embodiment of John 4:15.  “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!’”

The second incident took place the day before my mother-in-law died.  We knew the end was near and had spent the previous day at the nursing home.  Sunday morning – discouraged, emotionally and spiritually hurting – we went to the local United Methodist Church where Maxine was a member.  (Over some 70 years she had held many positions in the church including 25 years plus as a Sunday School teacher, a leader in the UMW, Chair of the Trustees and a member of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.)  We had a soul-deep longing for a word from the Lord; a message of faith that was truly good news, the gospel.  The sermon did not mention God or the Trinity or Jesus Christ/Lord or the Holy Spirit.  The gist of it was that we should all volunteer to help others and if we really wanted to be good we should join the Lions Club.  (Sadly I am not making this up!)

There is a hunger to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way in the chaos of our times; one that is a soul-deep thirsting for a true and living walk with the Lord.  John Wesley once said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Wherever one comes out on the progressive vs traditionalist theological spectrum of modern Methodism in America, the need is for something greater.  We stand with the unnamed woman at well so long ago crying out for the water of life.  This is what the original Wesleyan Way brought to first England and then the world.  Instinctively people recognized in the Wesleyan movement the essence of the Pentecost church.  Wesley’s deep fear has become a painful truth.

“Wesley’s great fear was that the Methodist movement would – in a process that had happened again and again over the centuries – be tamed by the culture until it was nothing more than a docile lapdog,” said the Rev. Dr. Andrew Thompson, a Wesley scholar and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. “He was afraid that Methodism’s engagement with the culture would dilute it until it was a shell of its former self.”

At its heart our crisis in this day is not about a social issue (however desperately important issues like healthcare, immigration, war, and the like are – and make no mistake they are critically important!).  Today The United Methodist Church wrestles with a much deeper theological crisis.  I recently overheard one of our better pastor’s mutter, “we don’t need more vague Unitarianism.”  How right he is!

Many of us in seminary (especially those my age – 67!) recall reading the famous Christian theologian and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr (long Professor at Yale Divinity School).  Back in 1937 writing his book The Kingdom of God in America, Professor Niebuhr penned a famous quote.  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”   (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, p. 193) It was a prescient insight offered just before the outbreak of World War II.

It is just as accurate in a time floundering in self-indulgence and slathered with a self-righteous embrace of victimhood.  As I write, the insights of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: A Nation of Heretics rumbles in the back of my mind.  Near the end of his book he writes, “We are waiting, not for another political savior or television personality, but for a Dominic or a Francis, an Ignatius or a Wesley, a Wilberforce or a Newman, a Bonhoeffer or a Solzhenitsyn.  Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world”  (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: A Nation of Heretics, p. 292).

A deep lingering hunger for a better life exists for us all.  We stand by the wells of life hoping against hope.  Longing for a soul deep significance, a redemption which can deliver far more than materialism’s wildest claims, science’s most brilliant insights, and politics’ most raucous triumph.  This is what the Wesleyan Way provided a heart-sick, slum infested, socially desperate politically bankrupt England.  It is what the Wesleyan Way offered to an infant America and what became the comfort and hope of so many settlers pushing west in the “New World.”  It is what the Wesleyan Way has shared across the globe.

I will offer a series of blogs on this subject over the next month and half or so (with periodic interruptions).  Together the Lord God calls us to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way.  We were once called “enthusiasts.”  It is time to claim the title again.

The Challenge of a Global Church ©

Thursday morning, May 4th, the Council of Bishops held its usual opening worship service.  Often during our worship we are led by newly elected bishops.  This is one way of getting to know them.  Thursday morning five newly elected bishops (four from Africa and one from Europe) led us in worship.  It was a wonderful, truly holy experience.

As they shared their personal witnesses, I heard God speaking to us.  Many of the theological assumptions and personal experiences of the Holy Spirt differ remarkably from the common fare in the United States.  One bishop shared a near death healing experience and his genuine fear of hell.  We North Americans laugh politely but he wasn’t being polite.  He was sharing what for him was a true story of being rescued from the jaws of hell and death.  Another bishop spoke of the church bells in his village ringing when he was born.  He and his family heard a call and claim from the Lord in the peel of the bells.  Americans saw a mere coincidence.  Still yet a third told of God speaking to him while he was playing in a rock band.  We laughed.  (In our defense it was humorously told.)  He gently chided us.  The hand of the Lord was on him in a tangible way according to his witness.

Where we tended to see coincidence, they saw the Lord God powerfully in action.  More than one spoke of being led by God to their spouse.  Some shared tales of visions of Christ.  Collectively they offered narratives of God powerfully in action through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Their profound, even thrilling, witnesses were consistently stories of a powerfully active God were flung in the face of a polite semi-Unitarianism that haunts the hallways of some American churches I visit. We need their witness.  They have much to offer us.

There are a number of other places of crucial differences.  In the current struggle involving human sexuality including same-gender marriage and ordination of “avowed practicing homosexuals,” members of the global church differ among themselves.  Different parts of Europe are on different sides of the divide.  Most of Africa is overwhelmingly in favor of retaining current language with regard to issues of human sexuality. The contextual cultural settings differs not only from the United States but from other places in the world as well.

As a part of the challenge of a Global Church, we have been wrestling over support for theological education.  I have the privilege of serving on the United Theological Seminary board (and have previously served on the Executive Board of Perkins School of Theology).  In the U.S. a critical issue is the large amount of debt new pastors have upon graduation from seminary and moving into their first full-time appointment.  The financial crises in some parts of the world is dramatically different.  There, the challenge is around providing theological education at all.  It engages issues of governance, finances, faculty, etc.

I could continue with other examples but these three issues (theology, human sexuality, and ministerial education & training) highlight the challenge of being a global church.  With the best of intentions, it is easy when living in North America and Northern Europe to make assumptions about the nature of the church that are foreign and even strange to our fellow United Methodists around the world.  Even more, the center of Christianity is in the southern hemisphere.  Africa is the strongest growing region of The United Methodist Church.

We really don’t know how to be a global church.  Good people, committed Christian lay and clergy alike, are struggling to learn.  In the delightful language of systems theory, “we are building the bridge while we walk on it.”  The challenge of a global church is a wonderful gift from the Lord God!

Reflections on the Recent Judicial Counsel Ruling ©

 As you have most likely already read, the UMC Judicial Council released its ruling on the validity of Bishop Karen Oliveto’s election and consecration by the Western Jurisdiction. In its decision – Decision 1341 – the Judicial Council ruled that the consecration of a gay bishop violates church law; however, Bishop Oliveto’s clergy status remains “in good standing” and she will continue to serve as the bishop of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area pending the completion of appropriate administrative or judicial processes. In this case, that means the issue has been remanded back to the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops (COB) who will determine the appropriate action(s).

I ask that we prayerfully respect the decision put forth by the Judicial Council as well as the processes still in play – i.e. the work of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward. In so doing, I wish to emphasize our call to prayer for Bishop Oliveto and her spouse as well as the people and churches of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area.  I fully realize that this decision does little to assuage the anxiety and disagreements that persist in our churches and denomination related to the issues of human sexuality. It is with this realization that I reiterate the request made in the letter Conference Lay Leader Mike Ford and I penned and sent last week – please be a people of prayer and compassion.

Allow me to say it again:  Please pray for Bishop Oliveto, the Western Jurisdiction and the Mountain Sky Conference. Pray for the UMC Council of Bishops, the members of the Commission on a Way Forward and the UMC at large. Extend compassion and care to all who hurt, are confused, or fearful during these uncertain times. Pray for our local churches, clergy and laity. Pray.

Please remember that this decision does not change the UMC Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council has a distinct and critical governance role in our denomination as the body responsible for deciding complex questions of church law, including the right to declare jurisdiction. Our own Dr. Tim Bruster serves as an alternate clergy member of the Council.  The Judicial Council’s actions on this matter are specific to this case. The General Conference is the only body that can speak for the church and has the authority to change The Book of Discipline. And, as you’ll recall, the Council of Bishops has called a special session of General Conference in February 2019 to further explore the broader issues around human sexuality in the church and consider the recommendations brought forth by the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF).

As we look forward to this Special Session of General Conference, it is important to remember that our mission remains firmly fixed on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We will continue to keep Christ at the center of all we do. We will remain focused on growing strong, vital local churches and developing clergy and lay leadership. I deliberately repeat for emphasis.  We will continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. So, slow down, breathe deeply and remember that Jesus is still Lord and that God’s grace is forever with us.

Following the leading of the Holy Spirit, I want to reinforce some key points from my blog on April 25, which included the letter Mike Ford (The Central Texas Conference Lay Leader) and I sent to the clergy and lay leaders of our local churches.

  • Please continue to be wise and respectful leaders on social media. Discussions on a complex issue like this are best done face-to-face. Please resist the temptation to engage in heated conversations via social media. I encourage you to be grace filled and positive on social media, and resist venting or sharing personal convictions, even on your personal sites. Work to help redirect the conversations back to the mission of the church and guide the tone of interactions back towards the positive and uplifting.
  • It is important that we remain in conversation with each other. Clergy, if you have deep concerns regarding this decision, visit with your DS and/or any other member of the Cabinet – including me. Lay leaders are encouraged to reach out to our conference lay leader Mike Ford. Members of the 2016 delegation to General Conference are also an excellent resource of information and context.
  • These are troubled and tumultuous times indeed, not only for our church, but also in our communities and across this bruised and battered world. That is why I cannot stress enough the need to be a people of prayer, to breathe deep, remember that Jesus is still Lord. Keep your church’s focus squarely on the mission and wait for the processes in motion – the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, the Commission on the Way Forward, the called General Conference, etc. – to work through this issue.
  • Keep in mind, sisters and brothers, the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi – particularly chapter 2 verse 5 to “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus“ (CEB), for it is in Christ Jesus that we find the peace of God that surpasses all our human understanding – a peace that will guide our hearts and minds.

Council of Bishops Meeting and Courage ©

Later today (April 28, 2017) I will drive to Dallas for the beginning of a week on Council of Bishops business.  Saturday we have a joint meeting of Bishops and Conference Chancellors.  (Ken Adair is CTC Chancellor and Wilson Woods is CTC Associate Chancellor.)  There are a variety of legal issues that the church is constantly facing (issues revolving around the Trust Clause and property, legal issues dealing with various complaints, etc.).  This is a regular gathering which I find both interesting and at times quite challenging.

On Sunday afternoon the Council of Bishops will begin its regular spring meeting with a memorial worship service remembering both bishops and spouses of bishops who have joined the Church Triumphant since our last gathering.  Somewhere early in our gathering (possibly Monday, May 1st) we should receive news of the Judicial Council’s ruling on the validity of Bishop Oliveto’s election.  As I have written about in recent blogs, the issue of human sexuality will dominate our discussion and reflections.  Anticipation/concern/hope for next year’s report from the Commission on the Way Forward and the looming specter of possible schism hang over our gathering like the Sword of Damocles.

And yet . . .  in the midst of our conflict, the central issue of building vital congregations remains squarely in front of us regardless of any individual bishop’s stance on the controversial issues surrounding human sexuality.  The opportunity and challenge of learning together spreads out before us and the whole church.  Herein is reason for hope. “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).  The hope offered by the Lord God calls us to a time of prayer, reflection and learning together.  It elicits courage from us regardless of our individual positions.

The 2016 General Conference called for extensive church-wide reflection on The United Methodist Church’s system of church government (ecclesiology).  A document entitled “Wonder, Love and Praise” has been written by the Committee on Faith and Order.  Here in Central Texas we already have a task group working on how to lead a Conference-wide study (i.e. studies in every congregation) offering feedback with prayerful and thoughtful reflection.  Together the bishops will begin the wider conversation on church ecclesiology this coming week.  It sounds dry but in reality has the potential to critically impact every local church.

In executive session the Council will receive reports on the progress of the Commission on the Way Forward and spend serious time together seeking to discern the will of the God for the larger denomination.  During our gathering we will meet regularly in Covenant Prayer Groups, which will include all bishops (both active and retired).  It is our hope to model Christian grace and appropriate behavior for the whole church on how to handle disagreements.

As I have been preparing myself, I have been in prayer for the church and the Commission.  I’ve spent careful time reading the report mentioned above (i.e. “Wonder, Love and Praise”).  In my reflection, prayer and reading, I have heard the Holy Spirit speaking to me, and I think to the whole church.  Reading Bishop Rueben Job’s devotional one morning, I was struck by his call to honor the “sovereignty” of God.  In part he writes: “We become prisoners to our own weaknesses and the evil of the world when we forget that God is sovereign and God is able. … Prayers that are completely dependent upon a sovereign God will touch the most troubling parts of our lives and society as a whole” (Rueben Job, 40 Days with Wesley, p. 11).  A few days later my morning scripture reading included a passage from Matthew 10:26-31.  It opens with the words, “Therefore, don’t be afraid of those people because nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing secret that won’t be brought out into the open. What I say to you in the darkness, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, announce from the rooftops” (Matthew 10:26-27).

I am reminded in my reading and prayer time of that constant theme which comes from the Lord is the angelic admonition to “fear not” (Luke 2:10).  Bishop Job has written: “Ever since Jesus has appeared to the disciples, Christians have discovered that there is no need to fear when one is in the presence of God.  To walk with God not only rebukes our fears and sends them away but also increases our courage. … From fear to courage is the natural journey of all that walk with God”  (Norman Shawchuck and Rueben Job, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, p. 185).

Out of those and other readings in my devotional time, the Holy Spirit prompted me to pick back up a significant monograph written by Dr. Gil Rendle.  It is important to note that the Committee on Faith and Order commended that Dr. Rendle’s monograph “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time” should also be read alongside “Wonder, Love, and Praise.”  I commend both to you strongly!  You may find them following the above links.

I close with a tiny sampling of the profound insights found in Dr. Rendle’s monograph “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time”:

“Courage requires the hard work of thoughtfulness and resolve. . . . In the writing of philosopher John Silber, ‘Courage is often misunderstood as a capacity to suppress emotions of fear.’ … Courage is less the response of the stirred heart than of the discerning mind.  Courage is knowing what to be afraid of.  This knowing takes a considerable amount of work.” (p. 3)

“Projections of survivability of our small congregations indicate that over a period of a few decades our United Methodist denomination should expect to close about a third – over 10,000.  The bottom line of our current situation is that, denominationally, we cannot avoid internal pain and suffering.” (p. 11)

“Courage, in the face of empathy, is the act of leadership keeping attention and resources on those people, and that part of the system, with the most potential to align with purpose and move toward identified outcomes.  Courage is to choose missional strategy over relational comfort – and to resource the strategy as needed.  Courage is to choose not to be redirected by empathy when pain cannot missionally be avoided.”  (p. 14)

Reflections on the Upcoming Judicial Council Decision ©

On Tuesday, April 25, Mike Ford, Central Texas Conference Lay Leader, and I sent the following letter (via email) to all the clergy in the Central Texas Conference currently under appointment as well as the Lay Leaders of our local churches. We’d like to thank Vance Morton, director of Communications & IT for the CTC, for his valuable assistance. – JML

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

Dear Friends,

Greetings in the name of Christ! We are writing to all Central Texas Conference clergy currently under appointment as well as those serving as Lay Leader for our local churches, in hopes of providing you the necessary information and context regarding the pending Judicial Council ruling on the validity of the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto.

As you may recall, Bishop Karen Oliveto was elected and consecrated a United Methodist bishop in July by delegates of the Western Jurisdictional Conference. Bishop Oliveto, an elder in good standing at the time of her election, is a partner in a same-sex marriage. At the time of the election, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference petitioned the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision about the validity of her election. The petition asks the Judicial Council whether “the nomination, election, consecration, and/or assignment as a bishop of The United Methodist Church of a person who claims to be a ‘self-avowed practicing homosexual’ or is a spouse in a same-sex marriage” is lawful under The Book of Discipline [Paragraphs 304.3, 310.2d, 341.6, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)].

The Judicial Council is meeting today through Friday (April 25 – 28) in Newark, New Jersey. During this meeting, the Council will act on the request for a declaratory decision on Bishop Oliveto’s election. At this time, we have no indication as to when the ruling will be announced.

The entire Cabinet is quite conscious that there are deep and varied convictions about this issue across the conference and connection. We are also aware that there is great interest, discourse and anxiety about this decision. As such, we are in daily prayer for all United Methodists, but especially the lay and clergy leadership of our conference as they are being called upon to lead their congregations through this critical moment and keep their church’s focus squarely on our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We ask you to join us in these prayers.

We offer the following for your careful consideration, believing that it will help prepare you for the announcement of that ruling and assist in any questions or comments you might receive.

  • First and foremost, be a people of prayer. Pray for the Judicial Council, the Western Jurisdiction, Bishop Oliveto and all the bishops of the church, all local churches, clergy and laity and The United Methodist Church at large.
  • Slow down, relax, don’t over respond. Please remind all to breathe deep and recall that Jesus is still Lord and that God’s grace is at work here. Regardless of the ruling, the churches of the Central Texas Conference will continue in their worship and ministries.
  • No matter how the Judicial Council decides, the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ stays the same. We will stay focused on 1) Keeping Christ at the center of everything we do; 2) Developing strong and effective clergy and lay leadership; 3) Growing vital congregations throughout the Central Texas Conference.
  • We are going to continue to uphold church law. Please do not make premature decisions based on this ruling. The Judicial Council determines the constitutionality and legality of actions taken by individuals or constituted entities of the church and will express its own perspective and give its own rationale for its decision. The Judicial Council’s actions are always specific to particular circumstances. Because their decision will be about a specific request from one jurisdiction regarding the action of another jurisdiction, their decision will not change The Book of Discipline.
  • We ask you to wait for the full report from the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF), which is expected to be released in about a year, and the actions that come out of the called General Conference, scheduled for Feb. 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, before deciding on where you stand on this issue. Remember, this week’s ruling DOES NOT change church law, nor does it suggest how the CWF or the called General Conference might decide.
  • Please be wise and respectful leaders on social media. Discussions on a complex issue like this are best done face-to-face. Please resist the temptation to engage in heated conversations via social media. While Facebook, Twitter, etc. are important and vital tools of communication, posts and tweets can easily be taken out of context, especially when shared or retweeted. While you and the members of your church are certainly entitled to and encouraged to have your own opinions, we do want to remind you that there is a greater constituency beyond your personal social media network to which you are responsible. No matter how the Judicial Council rules, there will be some in your congregation/community/peer groups who are celebrating the ruling and others who will mourn the decision. As you engage via social media, please do so in a positive, uplifting manner and help redirect the conversation back to the mission of the church. We encourage you to be grace filled and positive on social media, and resist venting or sharing personal convictions, even on your personal sites. Remember, as a pastor or lay leader, to some degree, you no longer only represent yourself, you represent your church, and the larger shared ministry of The UMC.
  • It is important that we remain in conversation with each other. Clergy, if you have deep concerns following the decision, we urge you to visit with your DS and/or any other member of the Cabinet – including either one of us. Lay leaders are encouraged to reach out to the conference lay leader. Members of the 2016 delegation to General Conference are also an excellent resource of information and context.
  • At the request of the Council of Bishops, we will form a task force to help us design processes for working with and through the recommendations put forth by the Commission on a Way Forward. Dr. Bob Holloway, dean of the CTC Cabinet; Rev. Leah Hidde-Gregory, Central District Superintendent; Rev. Travis Franklin, North District Superintendent (effective July 1) and Rev. Casey Orr, member of the Commission on a Way Forward, have been named to this task force. They will be joined by four members of the 2016 CTC General and Jurisdictional Conference delegations. The delegation reps will be named by the delegation in the coming months.

Once again, we ask you to be a people of prayer, to breathe deep, remember that Jesus is still Lord, keep your church’s focus squarely on the mission and wait for the process – the Judicial Council, the CWF, the called General Conference, etc. – to work through this issue. We also urge you to live in the second chapter of Philippians – particularly verses 4-5. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.“(CEB)

The Lord is at work here – whether we are aware, the Lord is at work here.

May the grace of the Lord guide your hearts and minds, today and forever.

Of First Importance ©

I confess that the words caught me off guard Easter Sunday morning.  They shouldn’t have.  Scholars argue that the passage read is an early creedal statement of the newborn Christian movement.

I had gone to Sunday worship in Boston at a non-United Methodist Church (Park Street Congregational Church) not as bishop but as Poppa, accompanying (with Jolynn) our son Nathan, daughter-in-law Abigail and most importantly our grandson Simon (21 months old).  It was a relief not be thinking of issues of same-gender marriage or ordination.  Nowadays these questions threaten the very foundation of The United Methodist Church.  My joy was that Easter morning did not revolve around some larger church dispute but focused on being Dad and Poppa (i.e. grandfather to Simon).  Still I must confess, those larger issues were not far from my mind.  We have been told to expect a ruling on the whether the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto from the Western Jurisdiction by the Judicial Council next week.

Anxiety is rising across the church and especially among the clergy.  The future of The United Methodist Church and possible schism hang in the balance.  I have consistently called for prayer and patience as we invite the Holy Spirit to work through the Commission on a Way Forward to guide us on how we can stay together and faithful with sharply different convictions on important issues surrounding human sexuality and its appropriate expression.  I quoted a friend and professor at Claremont School of Theology in an earlier blog in a way that bears repeating, especially in light of the Easter scripture read last Sunday morning:  Professor Jack Jackson wrote perceptively that “human sexuality has become status confessionis for many people at opposite poles on the issue. … We can say we agree on so many other aspects of the Christian life, but the reality is the issue of human sexuality is one of, if not the, key ecclesial issues of our time.  It is an issue that is both shaping and taking priority over every other conversation.”

The lay liturgist at Park Street Congregational Church in Boston read these words:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. . . .
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . .  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (I Corinthians 15:1-8, 14,19 NIV)

Sitting in the historic Park Street sanctuary (immediately adjacent to the Boston Commons with the historic Granary Burial Grounds on the other side of the church, Park Street is where William Lloyd Garrison gave an historic speech igniting the anti-slavery movement) struggling with my own thoughts about the future of The United Methodist Church, the words of verse three hit me again as if with crashing cymbals right next to my ears.  “I passed on to you as of first importance.”

Thank you Lord!  I needed to hear again that while our divisions and theological disagreements are important – so important they may merit deep change in our relationships and connection – they are not of first importance.  The resurrection of Christ is, alone, of “first importance!”

In commenting on this passage Professor Stephen Seamands reminds us, “Lordship and divinity, like two columns of a magnificent arch, are therefore inseparable and dependent on each other. And the keystone of the arch is the resurrection of Christ. Take that away and both columns – in fact the entire structure – tumbles down. Notice how Paul brings all three together at the beginning of his letter to the Romans. The gospel he has been commissioned to preach, he says, is about God’s Son, Jesus, who was “shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:4). (From Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 112).

Pungently C. S. Lewis explains:

There is not in Scripture the faintest suggestion that the Resurrection was new evidence for something that had in fact been always happening. The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe…. He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened.
(C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), pp. 236-237)

In all that may come, the resurrection of Christ is of first importance!  Such is the glory of Easter!

 

 

A Easter Church ©

I used to tape a quote of the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter to my pulpit so I could see it every time I rose to preach:  “I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  Somewhere along the way I stopped doing so but the words that signal the importance of Christian preaching stay with me.  This is even more true as we approach the cross of Good Friday and peer into the fog shrouded mists of Easter Sunday.

More recently Phillip Jenkins’ fascinating book The Lost History of Christianity opens with the disturbing comment:

“Religions die. . . . It is not difficult to find countries or even continents, once viewed as natural homelands of a particular faith, where that creed is now extinct, and such disasters are not confined to primal or “primitive” beliefs. The systems that we think of as great world religions are as vulnerable to destruction as was the faith of the Aztecs or Mayans in their particular gods.
Christianity, too, has on several occasions been destroyed in regions where it once flourished. In most cases, the elimination has been so thorough as to obliterate any memory that Christens were ever there, so that today any Christian presence whatever in these parts is regarded as a kind of invasive species derived from the West” (Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pp. 1-2).

It is no secret that mainline Protestantism in North America has been slowly dying for well over half a century.  Scholars talk about this broad societal trend in terms of the “death of Christendom.”  Christine Chakoian in Cryptomnesia reflects on this widespread change commenting:  “In the last fifty years, every major mainline Protestant denomination has seen a steady decline in membership” (Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p. 11).  United Methodism reached its peak in the mid-1960s and has been steadily declining throughout my ministry (roughly 42 years).  I recently finished listening to a book Robert P. Jones entitled The End of White Christian America.  The title is deeply instructive of the wider demographic shift taking place both ethnically and within various Christian religious groups.  Closer to home, youth soccer games are scheduled for Easter morning this year in Mansfield, Texas.

And yet, all around us creative new expressions of faith communities abound.  First UMC Fort Worth is engaged in a creative new worship expression called “The Gathering.”  Harvest UMC in Fort Worth is a creative new multi-ethnic expression of the Christian faith.  LifeChurch UMC in Waco is a transformational outreach of the Christian witness sponsored by First UMC Waco under the leadership of Pastor Gabe Dominguez. The Wesley Foundation at Tarleton State University has over 50 students gathering for worship regularly.  Rural Nolanville UMC has a “bus stop” ministry that is reaching a new generation.  The Oaks (CTC’s newest congregation) had 5 baptisms (including 1 adult baptism) on Palm Sunday!  Works of missonal outreach in love, justice and mercy exist in abundance in virtually very church.  And the list could go on and on!

Rev. Cecil Williams’ famous turn phrase sticks in my mind.  “It’s a Friday world, but Sunday’s coming!”  Beyond the cross a beam of light lances out on an empty tomb.  Far from dying, new forms and expressions of Christian faithfulness and new faith communities are being born all over the Central Texas Conference and across the United States.

Dr. Tim Tennent, President of Asbury School of Theology, commented in his opening Convocation address in 2016: “Despite the popular narrative that “no-one-goes-to-church-anymore,” the number one corporate activity of Americans in any given week remains church attendance. Between 25% and 37% of Americans attend church regularly. The NFL, in contrast, which has passed baseball as the most popular sport, still only draws 17% of Americans to an event. With apologies to Ellen Marmon, church attendance even outranks NASCAR! The point is, we still have an enormous privilege which we collectively assert in the life of our nation. This privilege is also present for our brothers and sisters from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and Oceania.”  (Tim Tennent, “My 2016 Opening Convocation Address: Homiletical Theology,” Asbury Theological Seminary, September 13, 2016)

God is at work to birth the Lord’s new church!  We are a resurrection people who dare to look at the cross and see through it to a greater work of the Lord unfolding all around us!

Click on the image below to view and/or download Bishop Lowry’s 2017 Easter Message.

A Hill to Die On ©

As I write it is Monday, April 10, 2017.  Yesterday, I worshipped on Palm Sunday with my wife.  The children paraded through the sanctuary waving their palm branches.  It was glorious; a joyous expression of the faith!  I was sitting on the aisle and as they went past our row, I tried to catch the eyes of kids streaming past.  When I connected eye to eye, I would wink and wave at the littler ones.  Big smiles greeted me in return.  I told friends of ours in Jolynn’s Sunday School class that I wanted one of our grandchildren to be with us on such a great day.

And yet today, I read my paper as I ate my cereal.  I prayed for the Christian churches in Egypt that were bombed.  I prayed for those regardless of their faith commitment who suffered from violence and terror.  I prayed for U.S. troops overseas that they might be safe and return home soon.  I prayed for our President and leaders of both parties.  I prayed for our churches that the Lord might find us faithful in this tumultuous Holy Week.

As I looked up in conclusion, it was the cross that caught my eye.  You see, this week we call Holy exists in the shadow of the cross.  So much of modern living has the taste and even texture of tragedy and trial.  Much of life has the grip of struggle and strife.  We too have hills to climb as did Jesus that Holy Week so long ago.

My mind came back to a story that Rev. Ben Disney had shared in a sermon at the start of Lent.  He passed it on to me, and I share it without editing.

“It went on for ten straight days. May 10-20th 1969.
It was known as Hill 937
The battle was part of the Vietnam War – for ten days North Vietnamese fought soldiers from the United States over control of the hill.
In the end 72 Americans died- 372 wounded.
Losses on the North Vietnamese side was estimated at 630 dead.
The hill had no strategic value.
Two weeks after the Americans took it – they abandoned it.
It was known as Hamburger Hill
And it became a metaphor of the insanity and futility of war when there is no clear purpose or mission.

There are some hills worth dying on
Some causes worth giving our lives to
Some principles worthy of our highest calling

But I need to know in the course of my life –
Which hills are worth dying on and which ones are not?
Because the truth is there really is a hill worth dying on

How do I know that?
How do I know which hill matters most?

Because the one we follow – Jesus –
Has gone to great lengths to die on that particular hill
And he invites me to take up my cross and do the same.”
(Rev. Ben Disney, March 19, 2017; Arborlawn United Methodist Church)

This my friends is the call and claim of this week which we call Holy.  Jesus has died on that hill for us and challenges us now to follow Him in service and love of a broken humanity.  We climb the hill not as those without hope but rather with our eyes fixed on the Cross of Christ.  How does that great old hymn put it?

“In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o’er-take me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me.
Lo! It glows with peace and joy.”
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 295, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” John Bowring, 1825)

Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 4 ©

Allow me to step back into the narrative of a four part series of posts entitled Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.  If reader has not read the previous three, I urge him or her to do so before reading this particular blog.  Part 4 is based on and assumes the reader is conversant with the first three blogs on Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.

Recently a friend of mine, Professor Jack Jackson (Claremont School of Theology), wrote perceptively that “human sexuality has become status confessionis for many people at opposite poles on the issue.”  My friend added, “We can say we agree on so many other aspects of the Christian life, but the reality is the issue of human sexuality is one of, if not the, key ecclesial issues of our time.  It is an issue that is both shaping and taking priority over every other conversation.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the United Methodist Church faces possible schism over the issue. Current church law (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016) holds that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth” and all “need the ministry of the Church.”  It goes on to assert that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  It then carefully affirms that “God’s grace is available to all” (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 161G, p. 113).  United Methodist clergy are thus prohibited from officiating same-sex unions (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 2702.1b, p. 788) and avowed practicing homosexuals are not “certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church”  (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 304.3, p. 226).

To say that passions run high and disagreement runs deep with this part of church law is a massive understatement.  A number of Annual Conferences have declared their intentions to refuse to uphold this section of church law.  Various other forms of disobedience are being debated (and practiced!).  The Council of Bishops has, at the request of the 2016 General Conference, established a special “Commission on the Way Forward” to make recommendations which will come before a called General Conference in 2019.

If you have stayed with me this far through all three blogs prior to this fourth blog, I invite you to pause and catch your breath.  I ask you to be in prayer for the whole church.  I ask you to be in prayer for all those who feel excluded by this aspect of church law and for all those who believe it essential to the full understanding of our doctrine of holiness of heart and life.  I ask you to be in prayer for the larger society which is itself locked in a deep debate on this issue.

After catching your breath and after prayer, step back with me into the struggle of Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.  Our struggle with the issue of human sexuality is a part of the larger struggle on how Christians follow Christ and relate appropriately to the culture we find ourselves in.  We have been here before as a church!  Some argue that justice in the name of Christ calls us to transform both society and the church with regard to human sexuality.  They assert we Christians are called to lead society in being more open and accepting to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.  Others, with equally sincere convictions, argue that we must not succumb to the gale force cultural winds of today but stand firm in a principled Christian conviction.  They are convinced that we are not to marry the human preferences of this or any given age and time.  Rather we are to faithfully follow Christ as Lord reflecting the fullness of His teachings and preferences over our cultural desires.

Both claim biblical support for their positions.  Both assert that the other side has given in to and/or is advocating cultural surrender to the current age.  The interaction between allegiance to Christ and engagement with our current culture are intertwined on the issue of human sexuality.   The complexity of the relationship of Christ and culture challenges us all.  Such is the larger context of the debate we are locked into as the church.

In writing these four blogs, I have invited us into the larger issue of Christ and Culture through asking what it means to be a Wesleyan Christian in the cultural chaos of today.  I have been clear that I stand for the traditional position.  I wish to be also clear of my deep respect and love for those who believe me to be tragically mistaken and wrong.  I ask us all to wrestle with what it means to be a follower of the Lord first, foremost, and above all else, in chaos of today’s culture.  These are not easy times to be a Christian.  But, most significantly, these are the times to which Christ has called us all to true, deep faithfulness and obedience.

Listening to NPR as I drove to the office last Friday, I was reminded of Lincoln’s famous words in his second inaugural address.  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”

We are not done with this work.  Nor are we done with the greater debate over what it means to be a Christ follower in the chaos of modern culture.  In the midst of this struggle, we can live, in the name of Christ, with “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 3 ©

As Francis Asbury (the first Methodist Bishop in America) began his great missionary work of sharing the gospel and spreading the Methodist/Wesleyan way of being Christian across the continent, he faced a monumental clash between Christ and Culture. Methodism was officially and doctrinally opposed to slavery. It was the great Methodist layman and member of Parliament William Wilberforce who lead the British movement to abolish slavery. Asbury himself courageously spoke out against the practice of slavery calling “for members to get rid of slaves and to abstain from the practice.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/16/AR2007031602551.html) And yet slowly the Methodist movement compromised on the subject, never endorsing slavery, but relaxing its discipline with regard to Methodists who owned slaves until finally the church divided over the issue. Why? The Methodist movement struggled to engage the culture with the gospel in all its fullness without fully resolving the issue.

Methodists rejected the temptation to stand “above culture” through spiritual indifferentism.  Simultaneously, Methodists refused to simply given in to Christ (“Christ of Culture”). As two separated denominations (three if we add The Methodist Protestant Church), Methodism existed as both being of the culture and seeking to transform it.

This is the third of four “blogs” exploring Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos. Numerous other historical examples abound of the struggle between following Christ and being engaged in the culture of the age. By way of example, Methodists embraced deeply the prohibition movement as a great cause to transform American to what was perceived as more faithful Christian living. It is worth noting that the cause of prohibition was not some squeamish puritanism run by maiden ladies (as has often been portrayed today) but largely grew out of the issue of spousal abuse. Excessive drinking was rampant in America at the time (far more than today) and often men would drink the paycheck away (commonly in response to the harsh working conditions they endured) and take out their frustrations on their wives and children at home.

Both abolition and prohibition are classic examples of how Christianity wrestles with human culture and society in a given context. Both were driven by biblical imperatives. “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.” (Romans 12:2)  “Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives.  Live honorably among the unbelievers.” (I Peter 2:11-12, CEB)

This tension between following Christ as Lord and Savior (the ruler of our lives!) and existing in a given culture and time has always been with us. As long as there are Christians in the world, there always will conflict between following Christ and yet being in the world. Last week I introduced H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous five typologies of how Christians have typically related to human society and culture; 1. Christ against Culture (Opposition), 2. Christ of Culture (Agreement), 3. Christ above Culture (Indifferentism), 4. Christ and Culture in paradox (Tension), 5. Christ transforming Culture (Transformation and Reformation).

While limited, Niebuhr’s distinctions offer us a helpful frame around which to think about how we relate the culture we live in today. It is important, vitally import (!), to remember that none of us are “pure” in a position. All Christians all across the spiritual, theological and denominational spectrum combine and mix our positions in a variety of ways depending on the time and issue we are struggling with.

In America we have lived through (along with most of what is euphemistically called Western civilization) a period of Christendom. It has been a time and age in which the Christian religion and Christian values held cultural dominance. In large measure there was a sense of Christ and Culture working together. Where sharp differences existed most Methodist adopted a strong understanding of Christ transforming culture (of which both the abolition of slavery and prohibition movement are examples). Presciently John Davidson Hunter has reminded us in his masterful To Change the World that the long term drift of mainline denominations has largely been to give ground to emerging culture expressions in exchange for cultural acceptability. It is a poor bargain best abandoned. So too it is poor bargain to relate only the angry negative.

During the last half century or so, we have engaged in what pundits labeled as “the culture wars.” Christians themselves have been in sharp disagreement with each other. Those who perceive themselves to be largely progressive have often (though not always!) lined up on the liberal (or progressive) side of social debates. Seeking to transform culture, deep engagement was sought on great social issues such as institutional racism, war and peace, access to health care, immigration, poverty, etc. Likewise seeking to transform culture those coming have a more traditional evangelical (conservative stance) have often (though not always!) entered the debate at the point of personal morality issues like abortion, racism, government engagement in education, poverty, etc. Among Christians, both progressive and evangelical/traditional there has been much overlap. None-the-less it is reasonable to assert, with careful note of exceptions, that many more progressive Christians have allied themselves loosely with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and many more evangelical/conservative Christians have allied themselves with the more conservative cultural wing of the Republican Party. (It is interesting and perhaps instructive to reflect on how the Roman Catholic Church has moved across the battle lines depending on the issue. For instance on abortion it is aligned with the more conservative side and on immigration with the more progressive side.)

I cannot help but pause in this narrative to offer a personal admonition. Excessive Christian identification with any one political party is dangerous for the Christian witness. If Christ is truly Lord than his rule over our lives cuts across and to a certain degree against all human political movements. In the chaos of our time we need to adopt again the humility of Micah 6:8. “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”

My next blog will reflect on the current conflict between Christ and Culture involving human sexuality.

Page 1 of 5612345»102030...Last »