Six Critical Questions

For the past year and a half, the Cabinet of the Central Texas Conference has been working with the Lencioni organization (The Table Group) in assimilating and implementing lessons from Lencioni’s bestselling book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.  We have been seeking to do so in a manner that integrates such thinking with scriptural guidance and theological fidelity to the Wesleyan understanding of faithfulness.  (Many of you might be aware that Patrick Lencioni is a very active practicing Roman Catholic and engages in such work with the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.  Our consultant, David Simpson, is a very active Southern Baptist layman and is likewise committed to integrating the insights of organizational health with Christian theology and practice.)

In our recent Cabinet retreat we examined six critical questions.

1)      Why do we exist?  (Mission)
2)      How do we behave? (Core Values)
3)      What do we do?
4)      How will we succeed?
5)      What is most important right now?
6)      Who must do what?

Our focus was in particular on questions two and five.  In a spirit of transparency and an invitation to join in reflection, I offer the following notes of our work.

1)      Why do we exist?
To energize and equip local churches to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

2)      How do we behave? (Core Values)
i.  Missional (service)
ii.  Christ-like community (worship, lifting up Christ, inclusive)
iii. Engaging, grace-filled, witness [Evangelism] (new people new places, resurrection Jesus, reaching outside the walls)

3)      What do we do?

4)      How will we succeed? (Strategic Anchors; the anchors offer guidance for decision making. We are establishing a “word-smithing” team to refine wording and communication of our strategic anchors.)
- Christ at the Center
- Focus on the Local Church
- Leadership Development

5)      What is most important right now?
1
.      Increasing the number of vital congregations (the current Thematic goal) with five “Defining Objectives” (as follows):
i.     HCI (point guard = Gary Lindley)
ii.    Personal Evangelism & Witness (point guard = Carol Woods)
iii.    30 new church in Risking Taking Mission with the Poor (point guard = Randy Wild)
iv.    Maintain and grow the number of 126+ (average worship attendance) churches (point guard = Bob Holloway)
v.    Lay and clergy leadership development & recruitment (point guard = Georgia Adamson)

We committed to having at least a monthly check-in conversation where we are pointing to these five.  I named “point guards” (drivers or champions) for each of the five defining objectives.

Additionally we outlined some actions steps (some of which are already in process)

Action steps for #5 re Evangelism/Witness:
1.  Bob will visit with Board of Ministry with regard to candidates qualifying for ordination having the ability to tell their personal story of salvation.  Individual DS’s will convey this concern to District Committees on Ministry.
2.  Establish a “Task Force on Conference Evangelism” strategy – Bishop and Carol
3.  The Cabinet will share with each other who they are evangelizing.

Action steps for #5 re Leadership Development:
1.  Continued Recruitment (Georgia)
2.  Laity teaching module for local church (Kim Simpson and Kevin Walters are currently work on this project in conjunction with Georgia Adamson.)
3.  Rewriting HCI curriculum (Gary)
4.  Develop 10+ lay supply (part-time) preachers (Don)
5.  Improving acculturation of newly ordained clergy for the first five years
6.  Leadership succession planning (Bishop)

6)      Who must do what?
There is much thinking and praying that remains to be done to fully complete this work.  And, in a larger sense, it is ongoing work which is never really finished but always in various stages of beginning and refining.  Nonetheless, with Mr. Wesley we celebrate that the “best of all is that God is with us” (Matthew 28:16-20).

LISTENING TO FERGUSON

During the past week I have been out in Colorado (Grand Lake, near the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park) on vacation with my wife and some friends.  During that, I intentionally exercised a “media fast.”  Upon returning home, we reconnected to hear the news of the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri.

As we watch, listen and learn, the situation and people of Ferguson have much to teach us.  The need for racial justice remains large.  The capacity for misunderstanding is huge.  Amid the cacophony of sounds and images coming from Ferguson, we need to sift through the noise and see Christ.  God is calling us to engage in faithful healing.

One of the very best pieces of writing on the situation in Ferguson comes from Bishop Robert Schnase (United Methodist Bishop of the Missouri Conference).  In particular Bishop Schnase highlights the Christ-revealing work of Rev. Willis Johnson and others.  I share Bishop Schnase’s letter with his permission and strongly urge the reader to follow both links back to source and listen to the reports.

Dear friends,

 People have asked about what The United Methodist Church is doing in response to the events in recent days in Ferguson, Missouri, and so I’d like to lift up a few significant points of engagement and offerings of ministry.

 The Missouri Conference launched a new church start in Ferguson two years ago after identifying the community as underserved by The United Methodist Church.   Wellspring United Methodist Church is located two blocks from the area seen frequently on television news in recent days.  The congregation has offered services of prayer and reconciliation and provided meeting space for community and church leaders.  Under the leadership of Rev. Willis Johnson, the church has been on the forefront of efforts to ease tensions, offer consolation and prayer for those who grieve, and to seek the truth about the events that led to the death of Michael Brown.

Let me strongly suggest that you listen to the following National Public Radio interview with Rev. Willis Johnson for the program All Things Considered.   The interview and the accompanying photograph are powerful, and they bear witness to the courage and faith of United Methodists on the front lines as they engage issues of race, anger, fear, and a longing for reconciliation.

 http://www.npr.org/2014/08/14/340422502/ferguson-pastor-this-is-not-a-race-issue-this-is-a-human-issue

 I would also draw your attention to the article by Heather Hahn of the United Methodist News Service.  Her article highlights the involvement of other United Methodist Churches in the St. Louis area and from across Missouri that have reached out with volunteers to help with educational ministries for children and youth during the time that the Ferguson schools have been closed.   The Missouri Conference Office of Mission, Service, and Justice has also offered support and volunteers to help with such basic tasks as clean up and support for those businesses that have been looted or suffered damage.   Heather’s article can be found at:

 http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/church-leaders-strive-to-be-peacemakers-in-ferguson

 United Methodist voices, including that of the Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (an active United Methodist himself), have sought to de-escalate rather than to intensify, to work toward peace and justice rather than to avoid, blame, or ignore.

 We continue to hold in our prayers all those who have most personally and painfully been affected by the violence, and we continue to look for opportunities to serve and to bring a ministry of healing to a community that has been deeply hurt. . . .

 Yours in Christ,

 Robert Schnase
Bishop, Missouri Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church

There are important lessons to learn in listening to Ferguson.  I invite us to join in our prayers and then take the next step in service and ministry as the Holy Spirit leads us.

That’s Path 1

At the recent meeting of the Path 1 Advisory Board in Charlotte, North Carolina, Rev. Martin Lee the new church developer for the Northern Illinois Conference shared a story of the start of a new church in Brookfield, Illinois (in the Chicago metropolitan area).  The old First United Methodist Church of Brookfield had been closed and sold to the public library.  The congregation had dwindled and could not maintain the old facility.  There was not parking and attempts at outreach had not succeeded.

After a season of having no United Methodist Church in Brookfield, the Conference decided to go back into the area and plant a new church.  An effective new church developer was appointed and soon a new church was discipling people in the area.  With help from the Conference New Church development office and sacrifice on the part of the new people, they were soon able to purchase land for a new church.

The land was in a core urban environment and quite expensive.  The purchase required some form of zoning approval because it would be removed from the city’s tax role.  Rev. Lee along with the new church pastor/planter went to the hearing.  The room was packed with people opposing the sale and removal of the land from the tax rolls.  A restaurant owner led the charge to deny the church the land.  (A decision is still pending.)

Karl Sokol, the new pastor/planter, got involved in the community including the business community.  He reached out and made friends.  One of his new friends was the obdurate restaurant owner.  As they visited Greg shared his need for space to worship.  The restaurateur learned that the time they wanted to meet at was when his restaurant was closed so he offered his restaurant as a place for them to worship.

Soon there were worshipping in the very restaurant that had tried to block their entrance into the community.  The owner would periodically peek in to see how they were doing.  After a while, instead of just looking in occasionally the restaurant owner was sitting down and staying.  Gradually he lingered to help.  And now, he has been baptized, confessed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and joined the church.  His life has been transformed by Christ and the community of the faithful.  (By the way, the name of the new church is Compassion UMC.  The restaurant owner and now member of Compassion UMC has changed his position on the sale 180 degrees.)

In sharing the story, Rev. Lee finished by saying, “and that is Path 1.”

Path1 is formally, institutionally, a branch of the work of the General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church.  It works to establish new churches is a part of the crucial focus area “New Places for New People.”  (The other major part of the “New Places for New People” Focus Area is building vital congregations in existing churches.)  The Path 1 Team works with Conferences and local churches to reach new people for Jesus Christ.

This is our Connection Mission Giving (apportionment) dollars at work.  It is at work in transformation in the name of Christ.  Rev. Lee was reminding us that it comes down to the transformation of an individual life.  Bottom line, Path 1 is ultimately about conversion and life transformation.

Here in the Central Texas Conference we are intimately linked with Path 1 through the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth.  Currently Rev. Jennifer Pick is serving as our second Path 1 intern in new church development.  She is appointed to First United Methodist Church of Mansfield.  Rev. Shane Reyna, who served as our first intern at White’s Chapel, is now building a new faith community in the northeast corner of the Conference called 1709 United Methodist Church.  Through the Path 1 LMPN (Lay Missioner Planting Network), Teresa Sims (a lay person) is starting a Hispanic community at Wesley UMC in Arlington.

Path 1 is a Spirit led, life transforming work of God, offering Christ to all. That’s Path 1.

Writing and On the Road Again

For five blissful days I had the opportunity to outline and then begin writing on a possible book about the church as it moves to a new future.  A rough draft (or part) of the introduction goes something like this:

As the waters of secularity recede, a chaotic wasteland lies around us.  And yet, even as church after church closes, the label “wasteland” seems at once appropriate and wildly inappropriate.  There are pockets left where churches can function within an old style Christendom mode. There are places of new exciting ministry emerging that open our eyes to a work of God unfolding among us and around us.

Gil Rendle notes that our struggles of the past couple of decades have not been wasted.  We have been learning.  It is the contention of this book [hopefully this will become part of a book] is that at the heart of our struggle are issues of theology and missional purpose.  We have forgotten the essence of what we are to be about.  As good as our current emphasis on social engagement through deeds of love, justice and mercy (and it is a good! but seriously incomplete emphasis), we need to reclaim, recover and re-appropriate the essential good news of Jesus Christ if we are to complete our exodus journey to a new land.  At its heart, our own reformation is a theological and spiritual pilgrimage of the first order.

Back in November of 2006 General John Abizaid appeared before the Senate Arm Services Committee to defend the then failing strategy of turning the war in Iraq over to Iraqis.  Then Senator Hillary Clinton sharply noted in an exchange while questioning General Abizaid on the strategy, “General, hope is not a strategy.”  Senator Clinton was right.  Shortly thereafter under the leadership of General Petraeus, a new strategy known as “the surge” was adopted.

So too however was General Abizaid in his response to Senator Clinton.  “With regard to hope not being a method, Senator, I agree with you, and I would also say that despair is not a method.”  The General continued, “This has been a very hard and difficult process, and over the length of time, we have learned some hard lessons.”

Today neither hope nor despair may count as faithful and sufficient strategies.  Hope alone is not the implementation of the necessary theological, spiritual and practical journey that the post-Christian church must take.  To be sure, any faithful strategy will involve hope, but it will also involve a deep embrace of core doctrines and practices of the Christian faith that have been too long forgotten or ignored.  Despair is, on the face, unfaithful to the Christian gospel.  We are people of the cross and the resurrection.  History is His (Christ’s) story!

Meanwhile, I am back on the road again.  We drove in from Angel Fire on Sunday evening and went right over to First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth to hear Rev. Ray Simpson, the spiritual retreat director at Lindisfarne, England (Holy Isle).  It was an engaging presentation of the spiritual hunger and renewal taking place currently all around us.

After ½ a day’s work in the office, I flew out Monday night for Charlotte, North Carolina.  Currently I am presiding over two days of meetings for the Path 1 Team of the Board of Discipleship.  Path 1 is the name which refers to new church development as a key path to engaging a secular culture with the gospel.  Those who attended the breakout session led by Rev. Candace Lewis at our Annual Conference will recall that she is the Director of Path 1, our denomination’s new church development efforts.  It is outstanding, creative, engaging ministry which reaches deep into a post-Christian culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In my opinion Path 1 is one of the bright spots in The United Methodist Church.

Thursday I will address the Network of New Church Developers – an informal group of Conference staff in charge of new church development.  Currently, Rev. Gary Lindley from the Central Texas Conference is a part of the group.  Before I was elected bishop I was a part of this informal but vital network from the Southwest Texas Conference.  I’ve been asked to share what I have learned now that I have served as a bishop for 6 years.  As a friend of mine put it, “what have you learned now that you’ve gone over to the dark side?”  With apologies to Darth Vader, it should be a fun time!

I fly home on Thursday afternoon and fly back out on Friday morning for a week vacation in Grand Lake, Colorado (the western end of Rocky Mountain National Park).  While I love what I am doing right now, a week of rest in the Rockies with Jolynn and some dear friends sounds wonderful!

A Writing Retreat

This coming Monday afternoon, I will be leaving on a 5 day “writing retreat.”  I have been working off and on to write a book on what direction the church (especially the United Methodist branch of the Church Universal) should take.  I have started and written different chapters about five or six different times.  I guess I think in sermonic size because much of what I want in the book I have shared in sermonic form.  Yet, I find it difficult to sit down and write the book out in full.  Hence the retreat is a working attempt to still life and focus on what I think needs to be said.

As I look back over notes that stretch before I was elected to the episcopacy, there are a number of titles I have proposed for this “book.”  At one point I came up with the title The Wilderness Way. (Quite separately and after I had outlined this tentative work and written pieces of some chapter, Gil Rendle wrote his great book Journey in the Wilderness.  If you have not read it, I commend it to you strongly!) Chapters partly written include – Faith-walking into an Uncertain Future, Into the Unknown, Go to Deep Waters, The Wilderness Way, Rediscovering Evangelism and Perseverance.

Another tentative title was Back to the Future.  Taking the title from the infamous movie of the same name starring Michael J. Fox, the essential thesis was that we need to go back to go forward.  We need to rediscover the lessons of the original Christians in The Acts of the Apostles (which is the actual title of what we call simply Acts, the fifth book of the New Testament), learn from the Wesleyan revival and especially from the work of the first Methodists in America, and conduct an examination of the some current explosive examples of “movemental Christianity” such the church in China.  My tentative chapter titles include things like – Into the Wilderness, Back to the Future, Answering the Why, Evangelism Embraced, The Church to Come, and Who Trusts in God? – Providential Leading (Borrowing from Albert C. Outler’s book of that title).

More recently my draft work has been tentatively entitled simply The Way.  The earliest Christians were called “followers of the way” (Acts 18 & 19; Acts 24).  Over the last few years I have preached a number of sermons on the “The Way of Christ.”  A recent series was on 1) Followers of the Way, 2) The Way of Salvation, 3) The Way of a Slave, and 4) Shepherds of the Way.

My latest tentative title is The Way: Our Designs’ or God’s Preferences.  The outline goes something like this.

Intro
Issues
The theological wasteland
Jesus at the Center — one among many or The One
Rejecting Schleiermacher & reclaiming revelation
Becoming again a distinctive people
Elements
Genuinely orthodox
Truly Wesleyan
Passionately missional
Unashamedly evangelistic

As you can see, I have a lot of work to do!  I find myself repeatedly coming back to a theme I first lifted up in a speech to the United Methodist Publishing House Board in 2006 and later put in article form for an article published in The Circuit Rider just prior to the 2008 General Conference.  Whatever else we are about we must be: 1) Genuinely orthodox, 2) Truly Wesleyan, 3) Passionately missional and 4) Unashamedly evangelistic.  I am convinced that The Way meaning the Way of the Lord before us necessitates a deep recovery of a core Wesleyan theology and spirituality as a first order of business.  Only from a firm foundation of orthodoxy with Christ at the center can we truly walk in the Way of the Lord.

I ask your prayers for my writing project.

 

 

 

Faith, Hope and Clarity – and the Greatest of These is Clarity

When I was working on Doctor of Ministry degree (D. Min.), I had the privilege of studying under a marvelous preaching professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary named Robert Shelton. (Dr. Shelton later served as Dean and President at APTS.) In a preaching class with other D. Min. students, he would begin critiquing his sermons with a deliberate misquoting of I Corinthians 13:13. The passage is rightly famous and is most commonly translated “so faith, hope, and love abide; and the greatest of these is love.” In the old King James translation the word love is render “charity.” Thus the verse read: “So faith, hope and charity abide; and the greatest of these is charity.” On his critique Dr. Shelton would say, “So faith, hope and clarity abide; and the greatest of these is clarity!”

There is a truth in his witty misquoting that we need to embrace. It goes hand in hand with the critical need for focus. We need clarity. We need to share the essence of the gospel in clear unmistakable terms. Often we operate with Christendom assumptions. We hold to the belief that people know the essence of the gospel; that they know the story of ruin through sin, rescue through Christ on the cross and restoration through resurrection and new life in Christ.

And yet, at our 2013 meeting of the Central Texas Conference, Dr. Kenda Dean (a United Methodist elder and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary) reminded us forcefully that for much of America, Christianity has been boiled down to heretical fuzziness. She called this fuzzy imposter for Christianity “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (Be good/moral; religion is therapeutic, bringing warm fuzzies and counseling encouragement that makes us better, and we believe in one god [small g] somewhere out there.) In her insightful book Almost Christian she wrote: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the ‘crown of rejoicing’ that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former” (Kenda Creasy Death, Almost Christian, p. 5).

A few months ago Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary commented on the same theme in a blog. “One of the greatest needs in the church today is a healthy dose of gospel clarity. Even in the evangelical churches, it seems that the gospel message has become obscured under a heavy cloud of vague moralisms, self-help injunctions, public therapy sermons, and so forth. It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His word which cuts through all of the religious rubble which builds up inside churches. Religion is like cholesterol plaque which slowly accumulates on the walls of your arteries. It creeps in unnoticed, but it can eventually kill you. We love the slow buildup of religious activity and, like the money-changers in the Temple, it can slowly squeeze out the actual purpose of the church.

“This problem is not limited to the Methodist. This is a far ranging problem which cuts right across the contemporary church. It is the same muddle which caused a church to put up on their sign outside, ‘Free Coffee, Everlasting Life – Yes, membership has its privileges.’ It is the same problem which causes churches to eliminate prayers of confession lest the church not be regarded as ‘seeker sensitive.’ It is the same problem which blurs the line between Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘power of positive thinking’ and the church. The list could go on and on.

“Brothers and sisters, we must find new ways to let the clarity of the gospel ring forth from our lives and from the ministries of the church. Wesley’s ‘heart-warming experience’ must be wedded anew with the steadfast powerful message of the gospel as found exposited by Luther in his preface to the Romans. This is certainly how Wesley himself interpreted his heart warming experience. After May 24th he became crystal clear about the nature of the gospel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Word of God. He became razor sharp in his passion to preach the gospel, evangelize the world, disciple believers and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world. We should remind ourselves every day that being a Methodist or a Presbyterian or ‘non-denominational’ means nothing if it is not first and foremost an outgrowth of our more basic identity as Christians who have been transformed by and through Jesus Christ” (Timothy Tennent, http://timothytennent.com/2014/03/30/remembering-the-source-of-aldersgate/; Sunday, March 30th, 2014).

Recently in reading Michael Green’s Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, I encountered its insistence that the earliest Christians absolutely refused to be syncretic. (Syncretism is the notion that all religions and faith systems are essentially equal; all roads lead to the top of the same divine mountain.) With exquisite politeness and absolute firmness the early Christian rejected such muddled thinking. Pastor (& Professor) Green wrote: “There is no additional way. There is no alternative way. Christ is the way to salvation” (Emphasis in the original; Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, p. 232). He continued, “The disciples did not go round casting aspersions on other expressions of religious faith. They did, however, point to Jesus as the only way in which God has fully come to humans, and the only way by which humans can fully come to God and know him as Father” (Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World, p. 232).

Faith, hope and clarity indeed. We need love. It is still the greatest! But I submit there is wisdom offered by Shelton, Dean, Tennent and Green. We are in desperate need of gracious (!I emphasize gracious!) clarity!

Lessons from Jerusalem to Antioch to Central Texas

I am nearing the end of Michael Green’s book Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today.  While the first edition was published over 20 years ago (1993) and the second edition was republished 12 years ago, I find its relevance increasing for our time.  As we push deeper into a post-Christendom America (not necessarily a bad thing), there are lessons we need to apply from those first Christians.

At one point in the book, Professor Green (Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University) details the shift of the center of Christian leadership from the mother church in Jerusalem (i.e. the church of Pentecost) to Antioch.  The Church at Jerusalem was originally known for its missionary (both evangelistic and missional outreach in love, justice and mercy) zeal.  Dr. Green comments:  “The Jerusalem church members were remarkable for their apostolic doctrine, their willingness to sacrifice, their outstanding unity, their social concern, their prayers both informally and in the liturgy of the temple.  Spiritual gifts were clearly in evidence.  Evangelism flourished.  Large numbers became followers of Jesus” (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World. p. 194).

Through the second half of the Book of Acts, the Jerusalem church fades and Antioch takes center stage.  Scholars note a number of reasons for the decline of the Jerusalem church.  Foremost among them was a fading of the evangelistic and missional (love/justice/mercy) zeal they first had.  Slowly Antioch replaced Jerusalem.  If you read the Book of Acts carefully, you will realize that it is from Antioch that the great missionary journeys were launched.

Reflecting on the change Professor Green continues:

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Jerusalem church began well but failed to fulfill God’s number one priority, world mission.  [By world mission he means a very Wesleyan understanding of evangelism/conversion growth and missional outreach in love/justice/mercy.]  The torch was passed to Antioch, which had a blazing zeal for mission, and Jerusalem thereafter shrank into insignificance.   No doubt there were contributory reasons for their decline, but the most crucial one was their satisfaction with their own church life and failure in missionary commitment.  They are a serious warning to us.  Even the most flourishing church can be eclipsed and become an irrelevance if it fails to maintain the outward orientation that Christ laid upon his followers” (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World. p. 194).

I read the words and sat back in my seat.  The correlation to our day and time is plain to see.  It is so tempting to fold back in on ourselves taking care of those we know and love.  There is nothing wrong and much right and good about excellence in the pastoral care of church members.  And yet, churches that make pastoral care their greatest priority inevitably lose their great calling to outreach and in the end deliver impoverished and inadequate pastoral care because of the failure.  This is all counter intuitive and yet empirically, experientially, and biblically true.

My reading drove me back to an earlier book that I had read back in 2005 when I was the Senior Pastor of University United Methodist Church in San Antonio – Reggie McNeil’s The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church.  McNeil shared the following story and commentary:

“In the summer of 2002, the country spent several anxious days concerned about the fate of nine mine workers trapped in a mine in Pennsylvania.  Rescue efforts involved several innovative strategies, including pumping heated air down the shaft.  As the workers emerged from their ordeal, so did the story of their survival.  One key element was their decision to huddle together to stay warm and touch one another in the cold darkness of the collapsed mine.

“The church in North America far too often resembles these miners.  Feeling trapped in the collapse of the church culture, club members are huddling together in the dark and praying for God to rescue them from the mess they are in.  This is the refuge mentality that pervades the mentality of many congregations and church leaders.  Instead, the church needs to adopt the role of the rescue workers on the surface.  They refused to quite, worked 24/7, and were willing to go to plan B or whatever it took to effect a rescue.

“That’s the church’s mission: to join God in His redemptive efforts to save the world.  People all around us are in darkness.  They are going to die unless someone finds a way to save them.  Trouble is, the church is sleeping on the job.  Too many of us have forgotten why we showed up for work.

“Even worse, many of us never have known” (Reggie McNeal, The Present Future, pp. 18-19).

The lessons move from Jerusalem to Antioch to Central Texas.  Let those with ears hear and those with eyes see; may we see and hear.  Even more, may we obey the call of Christ!

Reflections on the Evil One

Back in my seminary days one of the books that we read for our class on “Methodist History and Doctrine” (taught by the great theologian Albert Outler) was Organizing to Beat the Devil by Charles Ferguson.  The lead image in the book is intriguing.  Launching off of the classic Methodist vision for America – “to reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land” – Methodists organized to “beat the devil.”  Much as we revere the vision, it is the latter part of the statement that we tend to ignore.  We are organized not just to advance the kingdom God, enact evangelism, engage in justice and mercy ministries, etc.  We are organized to “beat the devil.”

Such a phrasing implies as a first order concern that there is in fact a devil to beat!  At a meeting with the District Superintendents and Lay Leader about a month ago, I shared a devotional based on Philippians 4:4-8.  In part the passage reads, “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” (Philippians 4:5-7).  In the midst of ensuing conversation, I spoke about how hard it was to live such a profoundly beautiful passage wrapped in the controversies of our day and time.  I don’t remember my exact words, but I commented something to the effect that there were days when it seemed like the devil was stalking our best efforts.

A district superintendent interjected with a question.  “Bishop, do you believe in spiritual warfare?”  (I am not sure I ever remember being asked that question before!)  I replied that I had come to believe that there was such a thing as spiritual warfare.  What ensued was one of the liveliest and most inquiringly open discussions I have engaged in for a long time.  Most of us (including myself and it actually may have been all of us) noted that we had not been taught such a concept in our seminary training but that now, over the years, virtually all of us have come to some belief (we had varying opinions) in the presence of evil, the personification of the devil, and the reality of spiritual warfare.

I noted for the group the phasing that is in our official liturgy on membership vows.  “On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?  Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”  (“Baptismal Covenant II”, The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 40).

I had wrongly rejected a doctrine of evil and the devil (a personification of evil) because of a tendency to use the devil as an excuse for a failure of personal responsibility.  Those close to me in age may remember a comedian named Flip Wilson who, when he did something he shouldn’t have, always blamed the devil with the phrase “the devil made me do it.”  I am not sure the devil can “make” me (or anyone!) do anything.  I am thoroughly Wesleyan and believe deeply in a doctrine of free will.  Such conviction does not however negate spiritual warfare, temptation (just look at Luke 4:1-12), or trials (testing).  Spiritual warfare is real.  We are currently engaged on that battlefield whether we acknowledge it or not.

One of the fascinating culture shifts taking place in our age is the move from an excessively rationalistic understanding of reality (modernism) to an understanding of reality that is more open to subjective input that is often labeled “spiritual” (post-modernism).  [An important sidebar: just because something is “spiritual” doesn’t mean it is Christian.]  There is much for me (us?) to ponder here.  The waning of the enlightenment intellectual foundation has delivered us culturally to an untenable post-modernism with no clear understanding of truth as an anchor.  It is past time to theologically investigate and rediscover hidden parts of historic Christian orthodoxy.  Evil is real.  The devil (however we may understand the term) is present.  Human agency (responsibility) cannot be swept away.  Divine authority and revealed truth (including a full blown doctrine of revelation) needs desperately to be re-appropriated.

“Dear friends, don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a humanis from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world. You are from God, little children, and you have defeated these people because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:1-4).

We Methodists were organized to beat the devil.

A Meeting in Chicago and Other Activities

This morning (way too early!) I fly out to Chicago, Illinois.  Unfortunately there will be no time spent at my beloved Wrigley Field (home of the once – 1908 – and future World Champion Chicago Cubs).  Instead I will be in a meeting of the Council of Bishops (COB) Executive Committee.  (I am on the COB Executive Committee through my work as Chair of the Vital Congregations Leadership Team of the COB.)

The agenda is full.  We will examine ongoing work in a variety of areas and ministry including but not limited to leadership development, Acts of Repentance as a part of our ministry with Native Americans, Task Force reports on accountability and human sexuality, training for church trials, work on ‘holy conferencing,’ planning for upcoming COB meetings (in Oklahoma City next November and in Berlin, Germany in May of 2015).  A part of the work near and dear to me (which comes from the Congregational Vitality Leadership Team) is about building vital congregations in Africa.

I often think of the summer as slow or at least a slower time.  I hope to catch up on some reading.  One of my summer activities is to usually lay out my preaching schedule for the fall and winter.  I hope to sketch outlines for various fall teaching projects (one on the book Wesley vs Calvin: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice; another on teaching a joint Wesley Foundation study for the UT Arlington and TCU Wesley Foundations).  I had hoped to spend some significant time this summer writing on a book project about the future of the church.  So far, I haven’t gotten to writing time.

Monday, I was on a conference call with Path 1 (new church development).  The news is exciting.  All across the nation work in new church development and the concomitant outreach is expanding.  Monday evening (just prior to finishing this blog) I participated on a conference call with the Texas bishops about how the church is and should respond to the ongoing border and immigration crises. We are wrestling with how we (the church) respond in ways that are caring and compassionate as well as wise and discerning.  I am deeply impressed by the insightful compassionate faithfulness that our churches (and my fellow bishops) are offering.  The larger Christian community is working together in marvelously ecumenical ways to help the last, the least, and the lost.

As I gaze over the host of items on my desk and get ready to fly off to Chicago, my mind drifts back to the ordination service at Conference.  One of the historic Methodist instructions for those to be ordained is to never be triflingly employed.  It is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Most days, I love this ministry yet the administrative load can overwhelm the available time.  Large organizations are complex.  We are truly a world-wide church with all the benefits and challenges!

Advice from 2 Timothy comes to mind:  “I’m giving you this commission in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is coming to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearance and his kingdom.  Preach the word. Be ready to do it whether it is convenient or inconvenient. Correct, confront, and encourage with patience and instruction. . . . Endure suffering, do the work of a preacher of the good news, and carry out your service fully”  (2 Timothy 4:1-2, 5).

A Christian Response to the Border Crisis

The image of protestors angrily greeting three busloads of mostly women and children in San Diego is both vivid and powerful.  Primal emotions were stirred.   The victims were often terrified younger children.  The great issue – immigration reform – is a need we must address.  Virtually all agree on the need for significant reform.  The passionate debate revolves around what kind of reform.  Good Christians disagree often strongly!  It is important to emphasize the last statement.  Good Christians can disagree with each other with passionate conviction about how to best reform the immigration system and respond to the border crisis.

So what is a Christian response?  Allow me to modestly suggest that there isn’t “a” (as in singular) Christian response.  There are multiple Christian responses.  Our faith offers us deeper moral guidance.  It presents a biblical and ethical framework out of which we may respond.

As I watch a report of the shouting and screaming at buses filled with children, I could not help but recall the words of Jesus.  “Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children” (Matthew 19:14).  Whatever the best strategic answer to the crisis is, further victimization of young children is not the answer.  Adults are the ones who need to be held accountable across the spectrum and across national and ethnic lines.

The second passage that comes to me is the famous one called the “Judgment of the Nations.”  It is well known.

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)

Regardless of our political orientation (Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Green and/or – if there are any of you left – WHIG, We Hope In God), Christians see and help those in need.  I served in the Rio Grande Valley as the Pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Harlingen, Texas.  Among our good friends was another young couple in the church, Myron and Sandy Merchant.  (They kept our son Nathan while I took Jolynn to the hospital for the birth of our daughter Sarah.  We’ve stayed in touch over the years.)  Committed Christians, they tried to faithfully respond in the swirling environment of immigration and border issues.  Myron was Captain in the Border Patrol.  I remember well him calling me one day.  The church had been collecting clothing for those in need.  Over the phone Myron asked, “Do you have some shoes?  We’ve arrested an illegal immigrant we are going to send back but he doesn’t have any shoes.  Could we help him?”

Myron did his duty faithfully and within the context of Christian care.  Wherever we come out on the best immigration policy for our nation, we are to engage that policy with Christ-like care and compassion.

A third piece of moral guidance we might apply in seeking the outline of a Christian response comes from the Book of James.  Often forgotten near the back of the New Testament, it contains marvelous practical advice.  James, the brother of Jesus, warns the first Christians (and us) of the power of the tongue.  He writes of the spiritual and moral importance about what and how we say things.  He warns us against improper hurtful angry speech.

“We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.

Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.

Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.

People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!”  (James 3:2-10)

Each image – a bridle for a horse, a ship at sea, and flame in the forest – is used to illustrate the power of words and importance of not letting our speech descend into poison.  Christian maturity for James (what John Wesley would call moving on to “perfection”) involves controlling our tongue (verse 2).

At a minimum wherever you come out on the political land personal spectrum of immigration and border patrol, we must guard our tongues.  Christians are to be a people who speak gracefully.  Civil discourse should be one of the ways we are known as Christian.

I often list these three modest elements as a partial framework for our response to the border crisis regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum.  Christians are to give witness, offer evidence with their lives, of 1) compassion for children, 2) care for those in need, and 3) communication that is civil (literally grace-filled).

*For information on what the Central Texas Conference is doing in response to the border crisis, please read Rev. Lariane Waughtal’s (CTC Coordinator - Disaster Response/UMVIM)  article.

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