In a Mirror Dimly ©

Lost in one of the truly greatest passages of literature ever written is the phrase, “now we see in a mirror dimly.”  It occurs in the famous love chapter of I Corinthians 13.  We all know how the 13th chapter, the 13th verse ends, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13, NRSV).  It is the verse just before this that is often lost, ignored or casually skipped over.  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12, NRSV).  Virtually without regard to background or conviction (Christian or non-, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, ethnicity or nationality, gender or gender preference, etc.) we members of the human race can ascribe to the notion and need for love to be ultimately triumphant and central to life.

It is the truth of verse 12 that trips us up.  Despite our best intentions and deepest convictions we see both truth and love in a mirror dimly.  What appears to be most loving is often lost in the cacophony of modern life and chaos of the politics of our time (including church politics!).  What purports to be a beacon of truth at best blinks through the shadowed fog of our present age.  The Apostle Paul wrote for us as well as for the Corinthian church.  We see in a mirror dimly.  Seeing dimly, we live in an age of anxiety.  Core values (both those in the culture and in the church) once again are caught in deep dispute and up for grabs.  William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming” once again rakes our nerves and jolts our deeper reflections.

The first stanza appears to be written for our time.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

One of the more memorable speeches I have heard was given by Dr. George Hunter at Community of Joy Lutheran Church back in the mid-1990s.  In the speech, Dr. Hunter introduced me for the first time to the disintegration of foundational enlightenment values (i.e. science reigned supreme and could solve our problems, an ethical consensus built on the centrality of reason and humanistic values supported by the world’s major religions held sway, with enough effort we humans could solve all our problems, human kind was/is essentially good, etc.).  The phrase which has stayed with me over a two-decade long period of observation and learning was that we are watching/living through the collapse of the enlightenment values and convictions.  Indeed, the center is not holding.

And yet, we who claim to follow Christ in all our widely varied differences come back again and again to the notion that Christ is the Center.  The great Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave a principled lecture on Christ the Center at the University of Berlin in 1933.  Published posthumously through a reconstruction of his notes in a book of the same title (Christ the Center), Bonhoeffer begins simply.  “Jesus is the Christ present as the Crucified and Risen One” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, p. 43).  In a time plagued by Hitler’s theories of the master race and convictions of “might making right,” Bonhoeffer stepped courageously into a seething future anchored on core orthodox truth.

We who see in a mirror dimly need his advice and example for our time.  Yet precisely because we at best see only dimly discerning the correct outlines of such truth, this will not be easy.

The New York Times called Allan Bloom’s famous book The Closing of the American Mind (published in the late 1980s) “That rarest of documents, a genuinely profound book.”  Bloom’s opening posits the issue which is before the church as well as the culture to this very day.  “There is one thing” he writes, “a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative” (Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p. 25).

It is just such a debate which is sweeping across present day Christianity.  As I have written in an earlier blog this year, the claim of “alternative facts” challenges the very conception of the Christian faith regardless of our political persuasions. To deliberately reiterate:  If, as some assert, truth is relative (without, we might carefully add, any notion of relative to what!) and radical equality of thought parades itself forward as the Zeus of modern intellectualism, then what pray tell is the center?  Put differently, we are struggling to discern the outlines of what it means to say one is a Christian.  This debate is sharpened between the polarities of a vague theism and a high Christology.  The debate itself rests on an understanding of the authority of Scripture (a least for those who claim to be the inheritors of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura) and historic claims of precisely what constitutes Christian orthodoxy.

While we in the United Methodist Church are swept up in the larger cultural debates of our time, we nonetheless as Christians hold to some faith distinctives.  The earliest creedal claim that “Jesus is Lord” is declaration of who rules us as a people of faith over and above the politics, culture and tumult of our time.  At our best, it is this deeper struggle which lies behind questions of Christian morality including same gender weddings and who may be appropriately ordained elder, etc.  Furthermore, this same debate, at least for Christians, decisively shapes (or ought to shape) our convictions about health care coverage and the appropriate response to terrorism, etc.

Over the coming weeks I hope to write on some of the Wesleyan distinctives and the way they might impact our best thinking and motivate our deepest praying.  I hope to do so in a context of asking careful questions about our relationship and witness to secular culture in the wider framework of what it means to be Christian.  I make no pretense to being able to resolve the current moral debates which wrack both our society and our church.  Rather, I hope to add a modest voice which might encourage deeper reflection.

I start this writing venture with a deep sense of hope.  This, the United Methodist Church, is the Lord’s church and not ours!  Maybe Yeats’ marvelous closing to the his great poem “The Second Coming” best offers us hope as the centers cannot hold and we can only “see in a mirror dimly.”

   Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats)

St. Patrick’s Day

Here’s a little levity from our friends in the Lutheran Church, as presented by Donall and Conall of LutheranSatire…

 

 

 

 

 

Enjoy, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Saint Patrick, Shamrocks and the Trinity ©

A year ago I wrote a blog in honor of the great Irish Saint name Patrick. St. Patrick wrote a number famous prayers including one on the Holy Trinity. It opens with the line:

“I rise today in power’s strength, invoking the Trinity,

believing in threeness,

confessing the oneness,

of creation’s Creator.”[1]

I cannot remember who (?), but someone sent me the follow link from a satirical website. I invited you to enjoy it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw&feature=youtu.be

I confess that the best of us are at times theologically confused. Even the sharpest of metaphors and analogies eventually break down. Yet at his heart, St. Patrick reached for the essence of the Christian faith. He was a true champion of Christ. I remind the reader of what I wrote a year ago.

“Captured as a young boy and taken to Ireland as a slave, Patrick lived there for 6 years before miraculously escaping and returning to his native Briton. At age 48 – well past the life expectancy in the fifth century – Patrick received a vision from God to return to the land of his imprisonment to share the gospel. Ordained as a bishop and appointed to Ireland as history’s first missionary bishop, he arrived back in this wild and barbaric land with his assistants in 432 A. D.

For 28 years until his death in 460 A. D. he poured his life out leading others to Christ. He and his company baptized thousands, planted about 700 churches and he ordained perhaps 1000 priests. “Within his lifetime, 30 to 40 (or more) of Ireland’s 150 tribes became substantially Christian. …Patrick’s achievements included social dimensions. He was the first public man to speak and crusade against slavery. Within his lifetime, or soon after, ‘the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare decreased,’ and his communities modeled the Christian way of faithfulness, generosity, and peace to all the Irish.”[2]

I offer this reminder as a part of an almost annual pilgrimage to lift up St. Patrick. In this time of modern metaphors and “youtube” exclamations, it is important that we pause and remember a true hero of the Christian faith. In the vernacular slang of our age, “he walked the talk.” The great church historian Dr. Williston Walker has written of him, Patrick “so advanced the cause of the Gospel in that island and so organized its Christian institutions, that he deserves the title of Apostle to Ireland.” (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 179)

In the church today it is important that we remember our past. We are here, living as Christ followers, because others gave their life to the cause of Christ. There are others, many others, to add to this pantheon of heroes. There are saints and sages of both genders and from virtually every ethnic group under the sun. Their collective stories should inspire us. We who take so much for granted need to pause on special days to remember, give thanks, and rededicate ourselves to this same holy ministry.

I urge us in our Sunday worship to pause and give thanks. We might add to the list on this special day. No doublet you can think of many, some well know and others not known at all except for a few. Both individually and collectively they are a gift of love from God to us. Their examples are today’s lesson for tomorrow’s future.

 

 

[1]               George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 49

[2]               Hunter, IBID, p. 23

We Are Lost (c) Guest Post by Rev. Frank Briggs

I have been out of the office since February 28th with a follow knee “revision” surgery on the knee replacement I had done in October of 2015. I hope to resume activity on a regular basis next week. In mean time, Rev. Frank Briggs, Senior Pastor of Lighthouse United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, shared with his congregation the following blog article which I am sharing as a guest blog with his permission. JML

“We are lost.”  I’m not sure that those three little words are welcome at any time, but in my lifetime, this time, they caused me concern like I’ve not experienced it before.

On my recent trip to Kenya, two of us on the mission team were privileged to accompany our Bishop, Mike Lowry, to a very important installation service for a District Superintendent of the Methodist church in Kenya.  With our Bishop from America expected at the event, it was a big deal.  In fact, there were probably between 1000 and 1500 in attendance at the service, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Justice was the name of our van driver; love the name, don’t you?  He was the one who, without fanfare, calmly stated the fact, “we are lost”.  I had ridden many hundreds of miles with Justice by the time this trip took place, and found him to be a strong Christian, a loving husband and father, who was very wise.  He was also a terrific driver who navigated through the absolute chaos of Nairobi traffic, to the miles and miles of dirt roads in and around Maua, where we spent our first week.

To appreciate the magnitude of Justice’s three little words, you need to know that the vast majority of Kenya has few paved roads.  Nairobi, yes, good roads there, but you get away from Nairobi, and it becomes difficult to find pavement.  Consider this, in the larger Maua area, there are at least 100,000 people living, and there is one paved road, the two-lane highway that runs through town.  So, 99% of our driving was down silty roads that hadn’t seen a road grader in what I would guess would have been at least 100 years (but perhaps I exaggerate).  Anyway, these dusty roads twist and turn and there are no road signs, so navigation along them comes by way of experience, and Justice had a full measure of it.

Unbeknown to his three passengers, Justice had never been to Tharaka, where the installation service was to be held.  And though we all knew that the route to Tharaka would take us off the main highway (the one previously mentioned), what none of us knew was that this journey would require us travelling down 60 miles of some of the dustiest, siltiest roads you’ve ever seen (think of the famous Baja 1000 off-road race).

The folks who “knew” had told Justice it would take us about 2 hours maximum, to get to the church, but in reality it was a three hour journey, one-way.  It was about an hour and a half into the dusty roads, that Justice pulled over where two roads intersected and stopped, to utter those three little words.

I have to admit that when Justice said, “we are lost”, my first reaction was to think to myself, ‘hey, wait a minute, I’m not lost, because I’m with you, I put my trust in you…you may be lost, but I’m right where I’m supposed to be, so there’s no we in this lost business, it is you who are lost’.  But alas, my rebellion was short-lived as I realized that, at the moment, if Justice was lost, so was I.

Justice chose the turn he thought would get us in the right direction and when we came upon the next little village, he conversed with a few of the men, who confirmed that he was going the right direction, and they coached him on which turns he needed to make ahead.  And when we chanced upon another village, Justice asked again, and then again, at subsequent villages, until we finally arrived at our destination, to the cheers and applause of his three passengers.

Though we were under the impression that the service would start at 10, it wasn’t’ actually to start until 11, so our arrival at 10:15 was no problem as they had not served “breakfast” yet.  Being honored guests, we were some of the first in line to get our food.  None of us knew exactly what we were eating, other than the boiled eggs, and I had the privilege of sitting next to the wife (Pauline) of the Bishop of Kenya.  I must admit that I had to regroup a bit after Pauline asked me how I liked the ______ (a word I cannot remember), but when I looked puzzled at her word, she clarified when she said they were “entrails” a ”delicacy”,  which she was enjoying, like I do Oreos.  But I digress.

The service went swimmingly, as much as a six hour service can go swimmingly, in probably 92 degree heat, all of us outside and under tents (praise the Lord).  And oh, did I mention that I was in a tie with a jacket, and the Bishop, along with the probably 200 clergy who attended, were all in robes.  Yes, picture that would you; but I digress again.

Well, Bishop Lowry did a terrific job bringing the message to the crowd and shortly before the service actually ended, Justice came and let us know that we needed to go, as he didn’t want to go the distance that was required of us to get off the dirt roads, before dark.

We of course did arrive safely back in Maua at about 9:30 that night.  It was a day unlike any other in my life…and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Lent is about our willingness to admit that we have strayed from the highway that we know we should be on, and for some of us, it’s about recognizing, “we are lost.”  It is about taking responsibility for our relationship with Jesus and not finding the nearest scapegoat on which to pin blame for our lack of direction.  Do you know where you are?

Justice did what we all need to do:  own the reality of our position, head the direction that we think we need to go, and find people we can trust to coach us as we find our way.  Have you?

So the next time you find yourself lost, if Justice isn’t around, you can find your own justice, when you seek Jesus.  He will help you utter three other little words, “I am found.”  After all, in this life, there is nothing greater, than being found.  Are you?

Guest Post from Rev. Frank Briggs

Below is Rev. Frank Briggs’, Lead Pastor at Lighthouse Fellowship, Day 6 of Lent, which he posted March 6th. He is posting on Facebook a Lenten devotional to help and guide us through this season of remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus for all.

Lent- Day 6   Three Little Words

Krissie [Briggs] says that though this is longer than most, it’s worth the read, I pray you agree.

“We are lost.”  I’m not sure that those three little words are welcome at any time, but in my lifetime, this time, they caused me concern like I’ve not experienced it before.

On my recent trip to Kenya, two of us on the mission team were privileged to accompany our Bishop, Mike Lowry, to a very important installation service for a District Superintendent of the Methodist church in Kenya.  With our Bishop from America expected at the event, it was a big deal.  In fact, there were probably between 1000 and 1500 in attendance at the service, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Justice was the name of our van driver; love the name, don’t you?  He was the one who, without fanfare, calmly stated the fact, “we are lost”.  I had ridden many hundreds of miles with Justice by the time this trip took place, and found him to be a strong Christian, a loving husband and father, who was very wise.  He was also a terrific driver who navigated through the absolute chaos of Nairobi traffic, to the miles and miles of dirt roads in and around Maua, where we spent our first week.

To appreciate the magnitude of Justice’s three little words, you need to know that the vast majority of Kenya has few paved roads.  Nairobi, yes, good roads there, but you get away from Nairobi, and it becomes difficult to find pavement.  Consider this, in the larger Maua area, there are at least 100,000 people living, and there is one paved road, the two-lane highway that runs through town.  So, 99% of our driving was down silty roads that hadn’t seen a road grader in what I would guess would have been at least 100 years (but perhaps I exaggerate).  Anyway, these dusty roads twist and turn and there are no road signs, so navigation along them comes by way of experience, and Justice had a full measure of it.

Unbeknown to his three passengers, Justice had never been to Tharaka, where the installation service was to be held.  And though we all knew that the route to Tharaka would take us off the main highway (the one previously mentioned), what none of us knew was that this journey would require us travelling down 60 miles of some of the dustiest, siltiest roads you’ve ever seen (think of the famous Baja 1000 off-road race).

The folks who “knew” had told Justice it would take us about 2 hours maximum, to get to the church, but in reality it was a three hour journey, one-way.  It was about an hour and a half into the dusty roads, that Justice pulled over where two roads intersected and stopped, to utter those three little words.

I have to admit that when Justice said, “we are lost”, my first reaction was to think to myself, ‘hey, wait a minute, I’m not lost, because I’m with you, I put my trust in you…you may be lost, but I’m right where I’m supposed to be, so there’s no we in this lost business, it is you who are lost’.  But alas, my rebellion was short-lived as I realized that, at the moment, if Justice was lost, so was I.

Justice chose the turn he thought would get us in the right direction and when we came upon the next little village, he conversed with a few of the men, who confirmed that he was going the right direction, and they coached him on which turns he needed to make ahead.  And when we chanced upon another village, Justice asked again, and then again, at subsequent villages, until we finally arrived at our destination, to the cheers and applause of his three passengers.

Though we were under the impression that the service would start at 10, it wasn’t’ actually to start until 11, so our arrival at 10:15 was no problem as they had not served “breakfast” yet.  Being honored guests, we were some of the first in line to get our food.  None of us knew exactly what we were eating, other than the boiled eggs, and I had the privilege of sitting next to the wife (Pauline) of the Bishop of Kenya.  I must admit that I had to regroup a bit after Pauline asked me how I liked the ______ (a word I cannot remember), but when I looked puzzled at her word, she clarified when she said they were “entrails” a ”delicacy”,  which she was enjoying, like I do Oreos.  But I digress.

The service went swimmingly, as much as a six hour service can go swimmingly, in probably 92 degree heat, all of us outside and under tents (praise the Lord).  And oh, did I mention that I was in a tie with a jacket, and the Bishop, along with the probably 200 clergy who attended, were all in robes.  Yes, picture that would you; but I digress again.

Well, Bishop Lowry did a terrific job bringing the message to the crowd and shortly before the service actually ended, Justice came and let us know that we needed to go, as he didn’t want to go the distance that was required of us to get off the dirt roads, before dark.

We of course did arrive safely back in Maua at about 9:30 that night.  It was a day unlike any other in my life…and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Lent is about our willingness to admit that we have strayed from the highway that we know we should be on, and for some of us, it’s about recognizing, “we are lost.”  It is about taking responsibility for our relationship with Jesus and not finding the nearest scapegoat on which to pin blame for our lack of direction.  Do you know where you are? 

Justice did what we all need to do:  own the reality of our position, head the direction that we think we need to go, and find people we can trust to coach us as we find our way.  Have you?

So the next time you find yourself lost, if Justice isn’t around, you can find your own justice, when you seek Jesus.  He will help you utter three other little words, “I am found.”  After all, in this life, there is nothing greater, than being found.  Are you?

Your servant in Christ,

Frank W. Briggs
Lead Pastor
Lighthouse Fellowship
A United Methodist Community of Faith

Conference Core Team Focuses on the WIG ©

Sunday afternoon, February 26th, the Central Texas Conference Core Team gathered to continue our work determining the WIG for the Conference’s future. I have written briefly on the concept of WIG before. The acronym WIG, in this instance, means the Wildly Important Goal. It is based on the seminal work of Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling and published in their book, The Four Disciplines of Execution.

Pause for a moment and think: What is the one wildly important goal for your church (and/or the Central Texas Conference) to accomplish in the next decade What one thing, if you do it well, will make a strategic and major difference for the life of faith and witness for your church (Conference) in continuing pursuit of the overall witness of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?” It seems like an easy exercise, but in fact, it is not. Typically, as soon as we select one item/strategic goal, we are convicted of some critically important objectives that are left out. In most cases, our list of important strategic objectives quickly grow to five or six items – if not more! Each of those items is important. Each is worthy of attention and ministry. Each has a strong biblical foundation. Narrowing the list of WIG(s) to one (ideally) or two strategic objectives is hard!

Counterintuitively, the research is clear. If you have more than one or two goals, the possibility of accomplishing the goal(s) goes down exponentially! Why? Because good ideas and goals get lost in the day to day “whirlwind” of activities and survival. McChesney, Covey and Huling state “the law of diminishing returns is as real as the law of gravity” (The Four Disciplines of Execution, p. 25).  They go on to write, “The greatest challenge you face in narrowing your goals is simply that it requires you to say no to a lot of good ideas. 4DX [i.e. the Four Disciplines of Execution] may even mean saying no to some great ideas, at least for now. Nothing is more counterintuitive for a leader than saying no to a good idea, and nothing is a bigger destroyer of focus than always saying yes” (The Four Disciplines of Execution, p. 28).

As the core team wrestled with this concept, we tended to jump to tactics without really focusing on the precise WIG. This exercise required deep discussion and hard choices. Clarity is king; actually Christ is King and clarity is the handmaid of faithful ministry in his name.

A second piece of focus on the WIG is the ability to know whether or not we have reached the goal. A simple formula is to be able to say “we will move X to Y by When, with X representing the measurable strategic objective; Y being our goal; and When being our target completion date. The level of specificity challenges our focus. It forces us to move beyond the vaguely theoretical.

As the Core Team wrestled with the WIG, we focused on one specific wildly important goal:  To increase the market share by worship attendance plus professions of faith (which includes those who come in a restored relationship). If this takes place, lives are transformed by and for Christ! The X to Y by When = the Worship Attendance market share (which is currently 1% of the population) to 1.25% by 2026 (our ten year target goal).

No matter what we come up with, some will accuse us of trying to save a dying institution. It is a bogus or false argument. Gone is the day that attending worship is simply culturally appropriate. To worship today is a counter cultural activity. Lives will be transformed in Christ-centered discipleship if this WIG is to be reached.

Worship and professions of faith are foundational ways we measure what it means to be a disciple. Are they the only measurements? Absolutely not! Are they cardinal measurements?  Absolutely!! The distinction is crucial. Is worship more than Sunday morning? Quadruple absolutely!!! Thus measuring worship in new faith communities is crucial. In fact, the denominational measurement for worship attendance has included a wider dimension than merely Sunday morning since before 2012.

Professions of faith, which should include those who joined a church on a restored relationship to Christ and his church, is an additional, crucial part of the WIG. Combined with worship attendance, the two make up a critical measurement of discipleship formation. For someone who is coming back to the Christian faith as an adult, becoming a part of the church on a “restored” relationship is a life-transforming event. In a radical way, Christ is confessed anew as Lord and Savior!

But just know that the key is that local churches will decide for themselves how they will reach their goals. The Conference Core Team and the conference staff exist to energize and equip the local churches, not dictate strategy and tactics. We know that you know your congregations and communities best. So, this isn’t about pushing programs or policies. This is about keeping Christ at the center and focusing on the local church and a combination of lay & clergy leadership together. So stay tuned!

Learning Together (c)

Recently I found myself participating in a fascinating discussion at the United School of Theology Board meeting in Dayton, Ohio. As we wrestled with the rapidly changing landscape of theological education, strategic issues and questions dominated our discussions. Increasingly it appears that there is an abundance of United Methodist Seminaries (13 are a part of the denomination and a number of others have very close ties). The focus of various seminaries differs widely; for instance one has no Masters of Divinity students (the basic degree for pastors) but focuses extensively on producing Ph. D. level scholars. Most other seminaries are some kind of a mix. (I am told the average is something like 54% of seminary enrollees go into local church pastorates; however, I am not sure how accurate that statistic is.) A few – United Theological Seminary is one – are intensely focused on producing local church pastors. (United’s current enrollment reflects something like 84% reporting an intention to become pastors of local churches.) Virtually every seminary (there are a few notable exceptions) is seeking a growth in enrollment and is under great pressure from the high cost of educating a new generation of clergy. An instructive book written by a noted Professor from Candler School of Theology, Emory University and published by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry entitled Formation for Ministry in American Methodism: Twenty-first Century Challenges and Two Centuries of Problem-Solving presents both the evolving history of theological education & training for ordained ministry and challenges our assumptions for the future.

All in all it is a fascinating subject and reflects the creative chaos currently taking place in the church’s theological training and higher education. Together we are struggling for a new way of thinking and understanding. We are learning together. At the United Board meeting, one of the presenters challenged us with a concise way of thinking. She asked us to reflect on the following:

  1. The What?                Comprised of what the data (information and metrics) tell us along with the antidotal stories (what we call the narrative).
  2. The So What?           Which asks the question “what does this mean?” and requires interpretation.
  3. The Now What?       Which challenges us to engage in strategic thinking, planning and deep level application, and mapping out next steps.

As I reflected on this way of thinking, the obvious parallels for local churches and conferences in strategic planning flooded across my mind. There can be little doubt that we are engaged in a trying and exciting time of learning together. Mike Ford, our Conference Lay Leader, has impressed again upon me an old lesson I need to constantly be relearning. Rarely will a church’s future be fully engaged for the Kingdom of God without both lay leaders and clergy leaders learning together!

Two other divergent pieces of learning have also clamored for my recent attention. I have reported before that the South Central Bishops Conclave has recently re-read The Spider and the Starfish. The book challenges overly hierarchal organizations and especially organizations that our bound up by rules (think the UMC Book of Discipline). I noted for elements for my special attention; four points of application or emphasis:

  • Ideology –>  culture –> theology rules!
  • Decentralizes as much as possible; think Hybrid (both connected and flexible; avoid either or thinking)
  • Network is a new form of the Community
  • The Power of Chaos –> we must risk experimentation in learning together

The other piece of learning that I have recently run through my thinking comes from Chip and Dan Health’s book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. I contend the book is less about being decisive and more about “how to make better choices.” The four key lessons have helped guide me in our recent Cabinet Inventory Retreat:

1. Widen your options
2. Reality test your assumptions
3. Attain distance before deciding
4. Prepare to be wrong.

There is much to learn together, and part of the excitement and great adventure of these challenging times lies in learning together!

Prayers for Cabinet Inventory Retreat ©

This morning I drove down to Stillwater Lodge at Glen Lake Camp and Retreat Center.  We begin a three-day Cabinet Inventory Retreat.  Our first activity is worship and prayer.  With our foundation and focus built on God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we together as a Cabinet including the three new incoming district superintendents, will spend some time thoughtfully reviewing the list of retiring clergy and incoming potential new clergy.  Today we have the largest retirement class in recent memory.  We have already received 19 letters of retirement.  Sunday we learned the sad news of the death of a colleague, Pastor Duane Chambers (Lay Supply at Italy-Dresden), and we have a second retirement from 1 pastor (who obviously failed retirement the first time).  This makes something like 21 openings.  (In Cabinet language we call those “clean openings” because there is no one currently down to hold that appointive position come Annual Conference.)  Additionally, if history holds to its regular pattern, we should receive a couple of more retirements before Annual Conference.

Kathy Ezell, Associate Director for the Board of Ordain Ministry, reports seventeen incoming clergy (new seminary graduates, etc.) which includes three deacons who are up for commissioning.  We have not yet received the final list for those who are coming via the Local Pastors’ track.

We will also review the number of fulltime openings for appointment as well as situations where a church/charge will be moving to a less than full time appointment.  We will do so, carefully working through each district and category on the following list (in alphabetical order):

  1. Central District
  2. East District
  3. New Church Starts District
  4. North District
  5. South District
  6. West District
  7. The Center for Evangelism & Church Growth
  8. The Center for Leadership (Campus Ministry)
  9. The Center for Mission Support

In each case we will pause for prayer and a deeper assessment of needs, hopes and dreams.

I write to ask you the reader to be in prayer for the Central Texas Conference Cabinet while we are on our Inventory Retreat.  Recently two beautiful prayers have come to my attention.  My wife Jolynn passed on a prayer from Columba, the great Christian Saint and missionary who brought the Christian faith to Scotland by way of founding Iona Abbey.  It reads as follows:

Be a bright flame before me, O God
a guiding star above me.
Be a smooth path below me,
a kindly shepherd behind me
today, tonight, and for ever.

Alone with none but you, my God
I journey on my way;
what need I fear when you are near,
O Lord of night and day?
More secure am I within your hand
than if a multitude did round me stand.
Amen.  (Saint Columba, Iona Abbey)

The second is a prayer that I ran across in my daily devotional reading.  Dr. Sid Spain, my spiritual director and companion in the faith, and I have been working through A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Ruben Job, (known by many as simply “The Green Book”).  I have added the plural to the tradition phrasing of the prayer by Norman Shawchurck:

Defend me [us] from all temptation, that I [we] may ever accept the right and refuse the wrong.
Defend me [us] from myself, that in your care my [our] weakness may not bring me [us] to shame.
May my [our] lower nature never seize the upper hand.
Defend me [us] from all that would seduce me [us], that in your power no tempting voice may cause me to listen, no tempting sight fascinate my [our] eyes.
Defend me [us] against the chances and changes of this life, not that I [we] may escape them but that I [we] may meet them with firm resolve;
not that I [we] may be saved from them but that I [we] may come unscathed through them.
Defend me [us] from discouragement in difficulty and from despair in failure, from pride in success, and from forgetting you in the day of prosperity.
Help me [us] to remember that there is no time when you will fail me [us] and no moment when I [we] do not need you.
Grant me [us] this desire:
that guided by your light and defended by your grace,
I [we] may come in safety and bring honor to my [our] journey’s end by the defending work of Jesus Christ my [our] Lord.
May it always be so!
(Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Ruben Job; pp. 104-105)

May we pray together?

Living the Big Three ©

For last 7 years as bishop of the Fort Worth Episcopal Area, The Central Texas Conference, I have stressed the critical importance and centrality of what I call the “big three” as the focus of our work as a Conference “energizing and equipping local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

1. Christ the Center
2. Focus on the local Church
3. Leadership development for both lay and clergy.

These three key foci dominate my thought and work. They form the core of strategic engagement with congregations and the larger mission field in living our future as a Conference in faithfulness to the Lord God. Various other importance ministries – vital congregations, inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity, missional outreach both locally and globally, Connectional Mission Giving (CMG), the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI), the Small Church Initiative (SCI) small group development for spiritual growth & Bible Study, campus ministry, CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission), etc. – are to be an outgrowth of living the big three in full faithfulness to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As we (The Central Texas Conference Cabinet) prepare for our Inventory Retreat (the beginning of work on clergy and local church appointments for 2017-2018) next week, a number of various pieces of information and insights have risen into my consciousness. I want to share them with you.

First, in vital congregations we always, always, look at a combination of narrative (story) and metrics. The two should never be separated and a positive change in the narrative (the stories being told of congregational/community life) usually precedes a change in the metrics.

Anecdotally we have heard more stories of professions of faith this last year. The year-end “Congregational Vitality” report reflects the change in narrative that was being reported. Our year end data showed:
• A 2% increase in worship attendance
• Professions of faith had big growth this year – up 27%! All districts showed increases in Professions of faith. (a Huge shout of “Hallelujah!” and “well done!” to all!)
• Four of the six districts showed growth in both worship attendance and professions of faith.
• Over all giving is up 5% (but the data is not yet complete).

Secondly, I note from the regular Conference Communications “Quick Notes” that the work of UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief) has received special commendation for its practice of putting every dollar received in offering to work in a specific relief effort. We are blessed to support such a vital ministry both here in the United States and around the world. Furthermore, significantly, the Central Texas Conference has benefitted directly from this offering in response to tornados that have hit our Conference on three separate occasions over the past year and in relief work for people in the area of West, Texas. The “Quick Notes” article is as follows:

UMCOR earns 4 Star Rating from top U.S. charity evaluator. The CTC Disaster Response Team has worked hand-in-hand with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) for 14 years, rebuilding homes and lives all across Texas and the U.S. A vital piece of UMCORs ability to respond is in its business model of putting every cent donated to a particular relief effort directly to that effort. This is made possible by the continued generous donations received during UMCOR Sunday, which pays all of the organizations overhead and administrative costs. UMCOR’s strong financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency have earned the highest possible ranking from America’s largest independent charity evaluator, Charity Navigator.

I covet your prayers for us as a Cabinet during our Inventory Retreat next week (Tuesday through Thursday). “The goal I [we] pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

Celebrations and a Loss Observed ©

I sit at my keyboard and launch this blog on “Celebrations and a Loss Observed” mindful that today is Valentine’s Day. While flowers, candy and cards abound, I invite us to pause and remember the original Valentine. He was a Christian martyr and bishop of modern day Terni, Italy. In a time when being Christian was illegal, he stood for Christ and so gave up his life reportedly on February 14th in 278 A.D. to Roman persecution. The phrase that sticks in my mind is John 15:13: “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” We have much to celebrate and give thanks for on Valentine’s Day. Such thanksgiving appropriately starts with Christian witness. God’s love has been poured liberally over us all.

Two weeks ago (literally January 29th), Jolynn and I had the great joy to celebrate the launch service for One Fellowship United Methodist Church in Waco. With a packed congregation of well over a hundred, the music sent us soaring; the sermon was a powerful proclamation of the gospel (thanks to Rev. Bryan Dalco); and the blessing of the fellowship of gathered saints, a great joy. A new United Methodist Church is launched in Waco! A new mission post of the advancing kingdom of God rises from remains of older but honored congregations.

A second great celebration involves the missional faithfulness of the people and churches of the Central Texas Conference. Once again we have paid our General Church Connectional Mission Giving (CMG, formerly known as apportionments) 100%. This is a remarkable accomplishment in the chaos of our times.

Consider some of the vital statistics:

  • 285 Apportioned Churches [new churches and missional congregations are not apportioned nor are campus ministries]
    259 Churches 100% paid
    26 Churches did not meet their CMG (Connectional Mission Giving) goal
    6 Churches paid zero

This year’s final figures reported a CMG giving at 95.55%. This is slightly better than our ten year average of 95.13%. Through the wise stewardship CFA (Council on Finance and Administration) we are able to make up the additional 4.45%.

On top of such remarkable faithfulness comes another reason for celebration. Dr. Randy Wild, Executive Director for Mission Support, passed on the following thank you from Rev. Brian Bakeman, Executive Director of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. “Thank you and the Central Texas Conference for being one of two conferences that paid 100% of their South Central Jurisdiction apportionments for 2016.”
In addition to the figures for our Jurisdiction, Dr. Randy Wild reports that we are #1 in the percentage collected for the whole US in our denomination for 2016. The chart speaks volumes.

Central Texas
95.55%
Louisiana
95.54%
North Texas
95.4%
North Georgia
94.65%
Illinois Great Rivers
94.52%
Pacific Northwest
93.08%
Western Pennsylvania
92.4%
Baltimore-Washington
92.06%
Arkansas
90.99%
North Carolina
90.49%
South Georgia
90%

To all of the above I add my heart-felt gratitude and thanksgiving. “Well done! You are good and faithful servants” (Matthew 25:23; with very slight paraphrase).

In the midst of the celebrations we have a distinct loss to observe. Dr. Georgia Adamson’s husband John passed away suddenly Wednesday, February 8th. Georgia has served as District Superintendent, Executive Director for the Roberts Center for Leadership and Assistant to the Bishop during the last seven and a half years. Her husband John is known and loved by many of us. He will be missed! We ask your prayers for Georgia and the whole family in this difficult time of John’s passing. “In life, in death, in life beyond death; we are not alone. Thanks be to God!”

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