Moving into Advent ©

So now that we are moving into Advent, what Advent devotional is guiding you?  It is really an easy question.  How are you spiritually nurturing yourself in advent anticipation for the coming of Christ?  Think and pray carefully because griping about secularity doesn’t count and doesn’t help.

Sunday night I got laughing as Jolynn pulled out four different Advent Devotionals to read.  I picked one which looked different, and I thought would spiritually challenge us.  For years it has been our habit to use a nightly devotional (mostly The Upper Room), but four seemed like a little much.

The next morning I woke up thinking about it.  She had spent far more time in preparation for deep spiritual life in Advent than I had.  She at taken extra time at her church to gather some of the various resources they had offered people.  The more I thought about it the more humbled I was.

Advent offers us a profound opportunity.  Taken with an open, inviting and attentive spiritual depth instead of grim grousing, Advent ushers us into joy.  In recent reading from Bishop Ruben Job’s A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, Bishop Job calls “Joy to the World” an advent hymn instead of a Christmas hymn.  It calls, he asserted, to an anticipatory joy.  This may sound obvious but to me it was revelatory.

Later that day for other reasons, I got thinking about the great non-negotiable doctrines of the Church.  Luther at one point in his prolific career insisted that you could do away with the miracles and if you hung on to the doctrine of incarnation (God in the flesh in the birth of Jesus entering human life), it alone was enough (see The Martin Luther Christmas Book translated and arranged by Roland Bainton).

It is here my world and attitude towards Advent shifts.  The joy of the Savior’s coming calls us to prepare in glad tidings of great love and to reflect such preparation in our attitudes and actions.  A couple of resources might be helpful.  One is a recent sermon calling for serious adult discipleship.  It is offered by Rev. Joy Moore, pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church in Evans, Georgia, and ties into a recent blog (and sermon) I have shared entitled “Deep Calls to Deep.” Advent offers a deeper more meaningful relationship with the Lord.  You may find it here.

The second is an article I came across while reading Leading Ideas: Lewis Center for Church Leadership (November 2, 2016 edition).  I have long maintained that Advent is “prime time evangelism.  People are open to the Christian in an unusually receptive way.  This especially true at Christmas Eve.

“Pastor Carey Nieuwhof says unchurched people want to celebrate Christmas, so there is no better time to connect with friends and neighbors who rarely, if ever, go to church. He offers ten ways your church can be involved in the unique opportunity to reach people at Christmas.”  He goes on to list ten ways:

1.  Hold multiple services.
2.  Theme the event around your community, not around your church.
3.  Hand out invitation cards.
4.  Make posters.
5.  Build a special Christmas Website.
6.  Use social media.
7.  Sell (free) tickets.
8.  Love your community.
9.  Invite them back.
10. Plan a Call to Action.
(“Ten Ways to Reach Unchurched People at Christmas“, Carey Nieuwhof).

There is more, much more, to be said and offered but for now I close with brother Martin.  “The Gospel,” [said Martin Luther], “is not so much a miracle as a marvel”  (Martin Luther, The Martin Luther Christmas Book translated and arranged by Roland Bainton).  We are moving into the joy of Advent!

Come to the Light ©

Happy New Year!  No, I’m not a month plus ahead of schedule.  This coming Sunday, November 27th is the first Sunday in Advent.  Many of us know that the advent comes the Latin adventus or coming.  “This season proclaims the coming of Christ in the birth of Jesus, in Word and Spirit, and in the final victory when God’s kingdom shall be complete” (Bishop Ruben Job, A Guide to Prayer and All Who Seek God, p. 20).  It marks the beginning of the Christian year and calls us to a radical reorientation.  In the setting gloom of winter it is a question that at times can haunt the best of us.  The prophet Isaiah opens with simple descriptive phrase, which fits our times.  “The people who walked in darkness” (Isaiah 9:2).

There is a temptation in the darkness to believe that this is the worst of times.  I remember in a history class years ago reading a description of society gone downhill.  It detailed how morals were at low ebb and how a revival was needed.  The professor paused in his reading and asked us to pick the year this description was written.  We chimed up with suggestions.  Most fell with a span of the previous ten years.  Then quietly he share that the description of society sinking downward into the abyss was written in the late 14th century.  Amazingly, we were all sure it had described out time.

Later I read the story behind the professor’s question in a sermon book written by Pastor Mark Trotter.  It is as follows:  “Barbara Tuckman, the historian, has written extensively about the fourteenth century. She pointed out that it was a time in which people were certain that it was the end.  They were certain that it was the time that apocalyptic literature was talking about, that the Book of Revelation was prophesying.  It was a time, more than any other time in history, when the four horsemen of the apocalypse rode the earth. War, which was incessant; famine, which was endemic; pestilence, which decimated Europe in the form of the bubonic plague; and death, which was everywhere.

She focused on 1397, that one year, and pointed out that in 1397, Gutenberg was born, whose printing press transformed the world. And shortly after that in the next century, Joan of Arc emerged, embodying a new spirit of nationalism. … And then came Columbus who opened up a new world. And after Columbus, there came Copernicus, who opened up a new heaven. And shortly after that came Michelangelo who focused human life on a new beauty, the beauty of creation.  And by the end of that century, Martin Luther was born, who called all of humanity to a new understanding of God’s grace.

I remind you that all of this occurred within one hundred years of that time when everyone thought it was the end” (Mark Trotter, “Long Live the Weeds,” First UMC San Diego, California).

The more sage among us look at the prophet Isaiah speaking in the eighth century B.C., the Savior sharing the word of God in approximately 33 A.D., the unknown author of the 14th century, and our own pundits of today with the realism of divine guidance.  Any age is a time of real darkness.  So-called golden ages only exist in the glow of hindsight.

Similarly, the greater national preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick shared the prophetic vision.  “In 1942, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Church, N.Y. entitled a sermon ‘This is a Great Year for Christmas’.  World War II was still going badly for America, and the world was in terrible shape.  But Dr. Fosdick, like that exiled messenger of the Old Testament [Isaiah], believed that it is in the darkest hours that God’s good news is best heard.  When the mountains of adversity and violence are looming before us the feet of the messenger upon those mountains are beautiful – beautiful in bringing good news of salvation.  In our world of terrorism, war, threat of nuclear annihilation, the horrible mess of drugs, etc. ‘this is a great year for Christmas!’” (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 16, No. 4., Oct. Nov. Dec., 1988, p. 45).

What is the Word of the Lord to us this day?  Come to the light!  Hear Jesus speaking directly to us – to me and to you.  “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21).

Jesus himself challenges us with a choice.  “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 20-21).  Don’t dismiss this lightly.  We say to ourselves, “of course I come to the light.  It is other people who refuse to.”  But oh, oh it is so easy to wallow in the self-righteousness of darkness and live in the gloom of despair.  The deeds of evil are greater than simply personal moral failure.  They encompass injustice and indifference to the poor and oppressed.  They include anger, judgmentalism and condemnation of those who are different.  They involve our failure to really trust that God is in charge.  Hear the Word of the Lord spoke to us, to me and to you.  Amid the encircling struggle of modern life, amid the chaos of our times, in the snare of our grief, He asks us to trust him; to come to the light of His love that can redeem any person, any society, any age.

Is there any hope?  Ah, that great old preacher Fosdick is right.  This is a great year for Christmas!  The Light shines in the darkness, in our darkness.  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:4, 6-7).

Ask yourself, how are we instructed to come to this time of the Savior’s birth?  With joy and rejoicing, for “For the yoke of [our] burden, and the bar across [our] shoulders, the rod of [our] oppressor, [God has] broken. . . . For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:4, 6-7).  The light shines in our darkness!

Come to the light!  Hear the Word of God that is set against our struggle; the headline that is not bannered in the newspaper but proclaimed in a star.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).  Let Christ speak again not only to your life personally but to our society as a whole.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).christmas star

Deep Calls to Deep ©

Tuesday, November 8, 2016, our world tilted and ground shifted – wherever you stand on the political spectrum in the United States, whether or not it be far right or far left or anything in between or above or below.  On November 9th we awoke to a new and different world.  The candidate who proclaimed that the election was rigged is now the President-Elect.  His supporters cheered and celebrated.  Those who deeply disputed his candidacy – whether out of fear, anger, straight forward policy disputes, or contentious character flaws – grieved and wondered out loud what the future holds for us as a people and as a nation.

The next day, November 9th, “protesters started at 6 p.m. in Union Square, and began marching north on Broadway to Sixth Avenue at 7:30 p.m. They eventually ended up at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, and later headed to Trump International Hotel & Tower at Columbus Circle. . . . The group chanted, ‘Not my president!’ as well as ‘Black lives matter,’ and, ‘Love Trumps hate.’” Reports noted protests at a variety of places all across the country which have continued and spread.  Meanwhile, both President-elect Trump and Secretary Clinton have called for the nation to peaceably unite.

I write today not to debate the election nor to engage in a futile dispute over who voted and how, nor even to share in a public venting of our celebration or anguish, sunlit hopes or gloom- shrouded fears.  Rather, whether you go to bed wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat or hugging you pillow in tear-stained anguish over what a President Trump might do,  I invite you, more than that, I challenge you to set your personal preferences aside and raise the deeper question of what God now calls us both to be and to do.

A poem by the great British poet and playwright of the mid to late 20th century, Christopher Fry beckons us back to Psalms.  Fry wrote the following:

Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move,
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise
Is exploration into God.[2]

Christopher Fry’s evocative poem springs from the heart of Psalm 42 verse 7.  Reading in a Common English Bible translation, “Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[3] I believe the imagery speaks to our present situation.  It is a picture of an iceberg calving, which is the breaking off from the main ice shelf in a thunderous crash with waves surging outward.  calving_iceThis is where we are living today.  The tumultuous election of Trump verses Clinton; the red state/blue state divide; the policing crisis and the cry “black lives matter;” the assault of truly global economy; the Balkanization of Europe and much of the Middle East along with the seemingly endless conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The list could go on; they all point to the calving of our world.  Reality has shifted and a new world is struggling to be born.

How are we to respond to the surging waves of change that are washing over us?  Are you ready for the answer?  I don’t know.  But, I do know where we are to look for guidance!  “Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[4]  God speaks to us this day.  Lean forward and listen to Holy Scripture for here lies insight and wisdom far greater than our flawed human understandings and more virtuously noble that are our highest aspirations.  Deep calls to deep – plumb the depths of Psalm 42.

Scholars tells us that the original writer of this Psalm lived near what would become Caesarea Philippi “where the springs of the River Jordan rush down into the valley in roaring cataracts.”[5]  He gazes at the unfolding scenes of his life and shares a near universal hunger that lives in us to this day.  “Just like a deer that craves streams of water, my whole being craves you, God.  My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.  When will I come and see God’s face?  My tears have been my food both day and night, as people constantly questioned me, “Where’s your God now?”[6]

Here lies the first great line of instruction for us this day.  1.  Long for God; seek the Lord!  The great St. Augustine put it this way: “Let us burn together for this thirst; let us run together to the fountain of understanding.”[7]  We have spent too long seeking our own desires and pleasures.  We need to see God’s greater glory and will.  Long for God; seek the Lord! 

If this last election was about anything, it was surely about a hunger, a longing for a better life and better world.  The Word of the Lord teaches us that this hunger, this thirst, can only be slaked by the fountain of the Lord’s presence.  “But I remember these things as I bare my soul: how I made my way to the mighty one’s abode, to God’s own house.”[8]

Notice quickly what gets tied to that longing is a hope driven promise.  2. Put your hope in the Lord!  Look at the grandeur of hope amid the very despair of the Psalmist’s situation.  Verse 5:  “Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed? Why are you so upset inside? Hope in God! Because I will again give him thanks, my saving presence and my God.”[9]

The world doesn’t need a more politically partisan church.  It needs a more prayerful church – submitted, humble, and obedient!  Psalm 33:20 says, “We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and our shield.”[10]  Romans 8:18 reminds us:  “I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.”[11]  Hebrews 10:23 asserts with unshakable insistence, “Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable.”[12]

Two quotes from great Christians in the latter half of the 20th century guide us in so placing our hope.  The first I trust many of you know.

In 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the Baccalaureate sermon at the commencement exercises for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and he included the saying [originally spoken by Theodore Parker a Unitarian minister fighting slavery in 1853]: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said in closing, “but it bends toward justice.”

 The second quote is less well known but no less significant.  It comes the great biblical scholar Eugene Peterson.  Many of you know him for his work in producing The Message translation of the Bible.  He wrote a book 1980 called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.  This is God’s claim on us in a day and time filled with instant gratification.  In a culture of text and twitter, the Word of God bids us live in a hope filled faithfulness.

This leads us to the third great lesson the Word of the Lord has for us this day out of Psalm 42.  It comes from the seminal 7th verse.  As the world thunders, cracks and the waves of time and culture crash over us, we are to trust God.  Listen again to verse 7.  It opens with the line you already know, ““Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[13]  Then it adds the following words.  “By day the Lord commands his faithful love; by night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life.

What will redeem life for us in this time?  Look at verse 7!  “The Lord commands his faithful love.”  How does the writer respond?  “By night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life.”  He responds with radical trust!

This then is the towering lesson of Psalm 42; a Psalm given by God to us this day!  3.  Move to a deeper faith through radical trust in God. 

This is not easy.  The shallowness of much of what falsely passes for the Christian today will not do.  I don’t know how many times someone, well meaning, has said to me that they are “spiritual but not religious.”  What nonsensical vacuous tripe!  Being spiritual without being tied to the God who comes in Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is nonsense!  Deep calls to deep!  The writer of Hebrews was correct when he said, “It’s scary to fall into the hands of the living God!”[14] We need a faith that is biblically anchored.  Notice carefully the multi-step process of moving to a deeper faith through radical trust in God.  First, we must move to a deeper faith – summarized pointedly, deep calls to deep.  When the waterfalls roar and the massive waves of life surge wading pool spiritually will only lead to a drowning!  Secondly this calls for radical trust in God; if you will, an anchoring of life in Christ the solid rock.  Thirdly, the combination of a deeper, disciplined, mature faith with radical trust in God results in a “song” within us in the night and a prayer to “the God of my life.”

Jessica LaGrone, the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary was profoundly correct when she said, “Only desperate people need a Savior.”  Folks we are a desperate people!  We need a Savior.  His name is Jesus Christ!

We must go deeper not only into “the formation of beliefs about Jesus but [also into] the cultivation of trust in him. It is an important distinction.” [Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean reminds us by way of illustration.]  “When famed French tightrope walker Charles Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on a high wire in 1860, carrying his trembling manager Harry Colcord on his back, the nineteen-year-old Prince of Wales Edward Albert was there to watch. Before the stunt, Blondin asked the prince, “Do you believe that I can carry a man across the Falls on a tightrope?” Edward replied that he did. So Blondin asked: “Will you be that man?” (The prince declined.)

Incredibly, Blondin died in his bed in 1897 at the age of seventy-five after an accident –free high-wire career. The facts of his feats had been widely reported. But to participate in Blondin’s high-wire act required trust, not belief – a quality found almost exclusively among those close to him, which is why Blondin’s stunts involved his manager (and his five-year-old daughter, until the French government prohibited it, citing “child endangerment”) instead of strangers. Belief may enable us to approach Christ as a curious bystander, but our investment is abstract. Trust opens us to God relationally as we submit ourselves to divine love, which awakens our desire to know Christ better for ourselves.”[15]

 My spiritual mentor and friend shared in his congregation sermon the Sunday following the election this salient insight.  “Let me begin by saying that there are tough, disappointing days ahead for all Americans, for people on both sides of the political and cultural divide.  The euphoria of victory dissipates in the grinding days of hard work that follow. . . .

[Dr. Spain went on to say:] “This is a time for faith and faithful action.  The fact is that many in our nation will not be able to find a strong center in the days ahead; they will languish without a solid place to stand and cope with the disappointments that are coming.  But you and I and people of faith in all places—when we remember who we are, we stand on a solid foundation.  We build our house on a rock that is more than able to withstand the howling winds of ugly and desperate times.”[16]

You recall the verse he references.  It comes from the great Sermon on Mount, near the end of Jesus’ seminal teaching.  “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”[17]

Deep calls to deep.  We are bidden, challenged to move deeper in our faith, as I have already stated. Waiting pool religion will not suffice.  Wherever you are politically, the wind is blowing and the rain sleeting.  We must anchor ourselves yet more firmly on the rock of Christ.  How is it that we do so?  Psalm 42 instructs us:

1. Long for God; seek the Lord!
2. Put your hope in the Lord!
3. Move to a deeper faith through radical trust in God.

“Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed?
Why are you so upset inside?
Hope in God!
Because I will again give him thanks,
my saving presence and my God.”[18]

 [1]               http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/11/09/trump-election-protest/
[2]               Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners, taken from The Word God Sent by Paul Scherer, pg. 111
[3]               Psalm 42:7
[4]               Psalm 42:7
[5]               Artur Weiser, The Psalms, p. 348
[6]               Psalm 42:1-3
[7]               Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII, Psalm 1-50, Edited by Craig A. Blaising & Carmen S. Harding, p. 328
[8]               Psalm 42:4
[9]               Psalm 42:5
[10]             Psalm 33:20
[11]             Romans 8:18
[12]             Hebrews 10:23
[13]             Psalm 42:7
[14]             Hebrews 10:31
[15]             Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian, pp. 118-119
[16]             Dr. Sid Spain, November 13, 2016, First UMC, Eagle, Colorado
[17]             Matthew 7:24-27, CEB
[18]             Psalm 42:11

Using Social Media in Ministry ©

Three or four months ago, I approached Rev. David Alexander (who has been a mentor for me in using social media – the improvements are due to his coaching, the persistent errors are a reflection of his students fumbling) to write a guest blog on using social media in ministry.  There were multiple reasons for asking help in this area.  First, I am a visitor or late immigrant to this world.  My instinctive reactions are those of someone who entered ministry in the age of typewriters.  My children are early adopters.  My grandchildren are natives.  Yet, as is obvious, we live in a social media age.  To share the gospel in its full dimensions we must master the use of the Social Media.  (This is similar to the change clergy went through in Reformation moving from an oral age to a print age.)  Second, in our Cabinet work, we have run into increased communication difficulties with people placing careless and/or controversial statements on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and congregations negatively reacting.  This exposes generational miscommunication through the use of a platform of communication that is understood differently by different generations. Context and background are lost. Fragile relationships between pastors and parishioners are damaged. Trust is threatened.  Third, we (both lay and clergy) need a more coherent dialog on how we use social media. Hopefully this guest blog will be a start.  -Bishop Mike Lowry

Continue Reading…

Reports and Observations from COB & the Extended Cabinet Summit ©

Late last week I returned home (Saturday, November 5th) from a week at the Council of Bishops (COB) meeting and the Extended Cabinet Summit held in Jacksonville, Florida. In the midst of trying to catch up on working that was waiting for me to return home and on the elections, I got behind on blogging. This is a brief attempt to report back on those activities of the Council of Bishops Fall meeting (October 30th through November 2nd) and the Extended Cabinet Summit (November 2nd through 4th). Additionally I want to commend reading a couple of articles I have read in my travels.

The COB meets regularly twice a year – the first week in November and the first week in May. The fall meeting at the beginning of a quadrennium (i.e. this year) is always a retreat in executive session where we welcome new bishops and in a more informal atmosphere can discuss issues together. Parts of the sessions are open to the public (The President’s Address, Worship, etc.) It was a joy to welcome new bishops to the Council including Bishops Ruben Saenz, Jimmy Nunn, and Bob Farr from the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ). The following link offers various news reports on some of the activities which took place at this year’s COB meeting: http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/council-of-bishops-news-statements

On Wednesday, November 2nd, the COB meeting closed shortly after noon. The United States (or Jurisdictional) bishops, with some Central Conference (from outside of the U.S.) bishops joining, then traveled to nearby Jacksonville, Florida to join with their extended Cabinets (Assistants to the Bishop, District Superintendents, leaders of the Connectional Table or the equivalent, Lay Leaders, Treasures or the equivalent, etc.) in an intensely focus gathering on building Vital Congregations. I had the privilege of chairing the event and superb worship leadership was provided by Dr. Olu Brown (recent presenter at the Central Texas Conferences’ Evangelism Summit) and Chuck Bell (music). I commend to your reading the following link. Church Leaders Kick Off Quadrennium With Vital Congregation Focus.

A personal joy which took place amidst the Extended Cabinet Summit was the 7th game victory of my beloved Chicago Cubs … the World Champion Chicago Cubs! I just love saying that(!) but I digress.

In preparation for the Extended Cabinet Summit we had asked that people read background research material put together by Dr. Amy Valdez Barker and the Connectional Table Staff Team. The second reading was a deep, thoughtful and a fascinatingly insightful article on courage written by Dr. Gil Rendle a Senior Vice President at the Texas Methodist Foundation. I have read parts of it over and over. It should be required reading for all (lay and clergy) who would seek to offer wider leadership to the church. It can be found through the following link: “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time” by Gil Rendle.

A second article which caught my attention came in going through emails when I got home. I read a blog by Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary. Regardless of where you stand on the theological spectrum or on “hot-button” issues like same gender marriage, this deeply thoughtful discourse on the linkage between theology and preaching is superbly worth your reading and thoughtful/prayerful reflection.

Allow me to tantalize your thought process by quoting Dr. Tennent:

  • I am publicly calling our movement back to doctrinally-oriented preaching. Like Wesley’s day, our post-Christendom context has spawned vast numbers of church goers who have no real understanding of the Christian faith. Their knowledge of the Bible is weak and their ability to think theologically is almost non-existent. Therefore, this stands as a fresh mandate for us to put aside the light hearted, casual preaching which has become so characteristic of our movement. As noted, this is not about rhetorical style. Whether you preach topically, narratively, exegetically, or expositionally is not the point.
  • A post-Christian culture will not be transformed by light hearted fluff with a sprinkling of vague spirituality and God-talk. If the truth be told, the congregations you will serve are tired of being spoken to like children. They are tired of going into a sermon with low expectations. They are tired of hearing sermons which were cobbled together on Saturday night. They long to be fed! They want to be challenged! They want to think deeply about things. They actually want to know what passages of Scripture mean and how it applies to our context.
  • In the wider culture, our social and political discourse has been coarse, crude, and infantile. Civil discourse has been slain, and demagoguery is on the throne of public discourse. Most media outlets have succumbed to this and it has become difficult to encounter thoughtful, principled reflections on almost any topic that confronts our society today. We must position ourselves as a striking alternative to what goes on in the broader cultural discourse. We must be thoughtful and insightful and prepared, because preaching and, indeed, all ministry, is a holy and sacred responsibility.

Again, I strongly commend your reading the entire address which can be found on the following link. My 2016 Opening Convocation Address: Homiletical Theology.

A Christian Witness in a Bitterly Contentious Election ©

Upon being elected a bishop, I learned quickly that bishops usually cast absentee ballots in national elections.  The Council of Bishops (COB) regularly meets the first week of November.  This year, without giving it a second thought, I voted early.  On returning home last night from a week at the COB meeting on St. Simons Island (Epworth by the Sea in South Georgia) and the Extended Cabinet Summit in Jacksonville, Florida, I realized to my chagrin that I could have actually voted on Election Day.  For the first time in nine years as a bishop, I was home for Election Day.

Watching the news last night with the rest of America, the bitterly contentious nature of the contest repulsed me.  Not for the first time I found myself thinking on how a Christian witness should differ from common contentious arguments all around us.   This fall I preached a series of sermons on the theme of “a different kind of living.”  I am deeply convinced that a (our!) Christian witness should be greater and more gracious than the culture as a whole regardless of our own convictions about who to vote for.

My ruminations led me back to a passage from one of the forgotten books of the New Testament – Titus.  The following words have taken up lodging in my heart and mind this fall.  I find my biases and passions judged by this holy witness.  They challenge me to repent and follow the way of Christ.  Step with me back into the divinely inspired witness found in Titus:

Remind them to submit to rulers and authorities. They should be obedient and ready to do every good thing. They shouldn’t speak disrespectfully about anyone, but they should be peaceful, kind, and show complete courtesy toward everyone. We were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, and slaves to our desires and various pleasures too. We were spending our lives in evil behavior and jealousy. We were disgusting, and we hated other people. But “when God our savior’s kindness and love appeared, he saved us because of his mercy, not because of righteous things we had done.” (Titus 3:1-5)

This is the witness to the role of a Christian’s moral stance with regard to politics, justice, etc. in a time of persecution.  They lifted a different way of living and different mode of relating not just to each other but especially to people who disagreed with them.  Notice again how the first Christians related to a non-Christian culture.  It wasn’t with a new political party; after all, to be Christian was considered treasonous.  It was with a dramatically different kind of living.

Inhale the witness of the embattled Christian Church found in the Roman colony of Philippi.  “Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)  Look at verse 5 where I’ve added emphasis.  It says “let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people.”  Please note.  It does not say “people who agree with you.”  It does not say “other Christians.”  The Bible says all people!

This was the witness, the way of living for earliest Methodists as well.  On October 5th in 1774, John Wesley gave the following advice on Christian voting:

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them. 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy; 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against; And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

Regardless who you support or who you vote for, may it be so for us.  May our words and actions reflect the way of Christ.

Reflections on Rejection of Religion and Deep Desire for the Full Gospel ©

A series of recent readings have left me in deeper reflection about how we reach a new generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Dean Craig Hill’s observation (taken from a professor of his when he was a seminary student over arches my reflections.  “Jesus didn’t just offer advice; he proclaimed good news!”

Recently a lay friend passed on an article that appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly in 2013.  Written by Larry Alex Tauton and entitled “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity,” Tauton’s group conducted extensive research and listening through “a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). Some of the key assertions in the article are:

“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kum-ba-ya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.”

  • The [atheistic students] had attended church. Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity. The mission and message of their churches was vague. These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible.
  • “Given that the New Atheism fashions itself as a movement that is ruthlessly scientific, it should come as no surprise that those answering my question usually attribute the decision to the purely rational and objective…. . For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one. With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well.
  • Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” … “Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching.”
  • Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this whole study was the lasting impression many of these discussions made upon us. That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. I again quote Michael: “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”
  • Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction.

I commend a careful reading of the entire article. It is packed with uncomfortable insights that should challenge all thoughtful faithful Christians.

Now take another thought step with me. A number of recent articles from the Lewis Leadership Center reflect on the importance of intentionally challenging young adults with the intellectual core of the Christian gospel. We need to teach the Scriptures and lay out a compellingly coherent theology. This must be combined with a lived praxis which is more than the vapid adoption of the right or left wing of a contemporary political party. The notion that nice fast beat contemporary music alone does the trick of bringing people in to the faith or church is false. (Please note! the word “alone.” Presenting the gospel in a socially relevant medium is important.) Young adults want substance. They desire a theology that can speak to the deeper issues of life and living very a much akin to the questions that young atheists are asking.

Now take one more intellectual step towards understanding. I picked back up off my bookshelf Kenda Creasy Dean’s superb book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Professor Dean (working with others) chronicles the rise of what is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.   The Christian faith is reduced to being nice, doing good and some version of self-fulfillment. What is hungered for is instead something with meaning and purpose. Put in colloquial language, a Christian faith with muscle, substance and integrity. The problem is not with the younger generation but with the very nature of faith (or the lack of it!) that we (adults) are communicating by both word and deed (or lack thereof). Making disciples means we need to be serious about our own discipleship.

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recall a college professor sharing that Gandhi loved Christ but didn’t love the Christianity he experienced. I do not know if this is true. What I do know is that we are claimed by the living Lord for a much deeper discipleship. In too many different ways we have been succumbed to a culturally homogenized version of the faith. Or, as Professor Dean puts it: “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”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 5).

What does a new generation need?  It needs deeper discipleship, stronger teachers and a clearer proclamation of the gospel.  It needs exactly what I, as a 66 year old adult, needs.  Give me, give us the real thing, not diluted pabulum.  It needs Christ. Jesus offers a way, a faith, and life not just some randomly good advice.  In doing so he challenges all our culture assumptions (those of both the right and left!).

Try this list as a starting point offered by Professor Dean:

  • Portray God as living, present and active
  • Place a high value on scripture
  • Explain their church’s mission, practices and relationships as inspired by ‘the life and mission of Jesus Christ’
  • Emphasize spiritual growth, discipleship and vocation
  • Promote outreach and mission
  • Help teens [and the rest of us!] develop “‘a positive, hopeful spirt,’ ‘live out a life of service,’ and ‘live a Christian moral life’”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 83).

Now that is truly a mouthful that merits a great deal of intellectual digestion.  Furthermore there are elements of it that engage us in high and passionate debate over precisely their meaning.  In every case, they will push us back to a stronger Christ-centered theology and deeper practice of what it means to be Christian.

I think all of this is called “holy living” and that amazingly is just what most of those who have rejected the Christian faith are looking for.  More on Holy Living or if you prefer “holiness” in a later blog.

Tauton closes his article as follows, to which I add an AMEN.

“There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening: ‘I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,’ someone asked. ‘I do not,’ Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, ‘But he does.’”

Membership on “The Commission on a Way Forward” ©

Bishop Bruce Ough, President for the Council of Bishops has announced the selection of membership on the “The Commission on a Way Forward.”  He has noted in his press release that the Commission is made up of 8 bishops, 11 laity, 11 elders, and 2 deacons.  Furthermore Bishop Ough has noted “the makeup of the 32-member commission is roughly comparable to U.S. and Central Conference membership.”

Of special interest to members of the Central Texas Conference is the inclusion of Casey Langley Orr who is serving as a Deacon and appointed to First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, Texas.  I ask us all to keep the entire Commission, and indeed the United Methodist Church as a whole, in our prayers.  Those who share the privilege of being related to the Central Texas Conference, I especially ask that you be in prayer for Casey.  I believe Casey to be an outstanding choice who will prayerfully see a way forward in these tumultuous times.

In the words of Martin Luther: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.  Dost ask who that may be?  Christ Jesus, it is he.” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Number 110, verse 2, The United Methodist Hymnal.)

MEMBERSHIP IS ANNOUNCED AS FOLLOWS:
Jorge Acevedo – USA, Florida, elder, male

Brian Adkins – USA, California, elder, male

Jacques Umembudi Akasa- Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, laity, male

Tom Berlin – USA, Virginia, elder, male

Matt Berryman – USA, Illinois, laity, male

Helen Cunanan – Philippines, elder, female

David Field – Europe, Switzerland, laity, male

Ciriaco Francisco – Philippines, bishop, male

Grant Hagiya – USA, California, bishop, male

Aka Dago-Akribi Hortense – Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, laity, female

Scott Johnson – USA, New York, laity, male

Jessica Lagrone – USA, Kentucky, elder, female

Thomas Lambrecht – USA, Texas, elder, male

Myungae Kim Lee – USA, New York, laity, female

Julie Hager Love – USA, Kentucky, deacon, female

Mazvita Machinga – Africa, Zimbabwe, laity, female

Patricia Miller – USA, Indiana, laity, female

Mande Guy Muyombo – Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, elder, male

Eben Nhiwatiwa – Africa, Zimbabwe, bishop, male

Dave Nuckols – USA, Minnesota, laity, male

Casey Langley Orr – USA, Texas, deacon, female

Gregory Palmer – USA, Ohio, bishop, male

Donna Pritchard – USA, Oregon, elder, female

Tom Salsgiver – USA, Pennsylvania, elder, male

Robert Schnase – USA, Texas, bishop, male

Jasmine Rose Smothers – USA, Georgia, elder, female

Leah Taylor – USA, Texas, laity, female

Deborah Wallace-Padgett – USA, Alabama, bishop, female

Rosemarie Wenner – Europe, Germany, bishop, female

Alice Williams – USA, Florida, laity, female

John Wesley Yohanna – Africa, Nigeria, bishop, male

Alfiado S. Zunguza – Africa, Mozambique, elder, male

MODERATORS
Sandra Steiner Ball – USA, West Virginia, bishop, female

Kenneth Carter – USA, Florida, bishop, male

David Yemba – Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, bishop, male

Observations from the Wesleyan Covenant Association ©

Last Friday, October 7th, I experienced the high privilege of participating in the first meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA).  It was my honor to preach at the closing communion service and share with my friend and colleague Bishop Bob Hayes in presiding over Holy Communion.

wca-lowryI experienced the event as a movement of the Holy Spirit. Prayer was deep. Hope was bright. A sense of the Spirit’s leading was strong. Obedience to Christ was paramount. Such prayer, hope, sense of the Spirit’s leading, and obedience to Christ remains paramount.

In writing these words I quite realize that the gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association was and is controversial.  For some, the WCA is viewed as a potentially schismatic organization.  Honesty compels me to acknowledge that a case can be made that the Wesleyan Covenant Association is potentially a church in waiting.  Yet it is carefully worth noting that WCA is supportive of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  In point of fact, unlike some 9 Annual Conferences, the WCA upholds the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  The WCA is active in searching for a meaningful new unity.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association statement of purpose notes:  “The association is a coalition of congregations, clergy, and laity from across The United Methodist Church, committed to promoting ministry that combines a high view of Scripture, Wesleyan vitality, orthodox theology, and Holy Spirit empowerment. We have come together to support, network, and encourage one another as the uncertain future of The United Methodist Church comes into clearer focus.”

While facing the possibility of future schism, the opening meeting Wesleyan Covenant Association shared a commitment to give the Bishop’s Commission on a Way Forward an opportunity to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Like the rest of the church, this is not a blank check to support whatever the Commission proposes but rather an opportunity to allow space for a new kind of unity.

At the WCA inaugural meeting, a theological statement was adopted which is called the Chicago Statement to the Bishops’ Commission.. I urge a careful and attentive reading of this document.

We need something greater than a tepid statement of vague theological tolerance.  If we are too rigid, boundaries will strangle us as a denomination and we will lose our cardinal focus on the cross of Christ and the redeeming grace of the Lord active in our midst.  Without meaningful theological and ethical boundaries, the United Methodist will dissolve into cultural flotsam.  In its theological statement, the WCA is benefiting the whole church by calling us back to the central issue of reclaiming our core Christian theology.  For those who believe the theological and ethical boundaries are wrongly drawn, a serious debate on what constitutes the core of the Christian faith is blessing to the whole church.  At its heart, the issue before us is not (ultimately) about human sexuality but rather is a dispute about what accurately constitutes the core of the Christian faith and the essence of United Methodism.  To be united is to share a common doctrine, discipline and mission (which includes methodological coherence).

At its heart, I believe we need to recover a high Christology and a deep doctrinal emphasis on the cross of Christ.  For myself I stand with the Apostle Paul and witness of Holy Scripture.  In my closing sermon at the WCA gathering, I shared again the great testimony of faith from the Word of the Lord to the Church at Corinth (and in Central Texas!).  “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:22-24).

For myself as Bishop of the Central Texas Conference, the Fort Worth Episcopal Area, I wish to be publically clear that I believe it is important across the theological spectrum to give the Commission an opportunity to offer a new way forward. I continue to pray daily for the United Methodist Church and its future under the Lordship of Christ through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. May we together walk with Christ!

An Opportunity not to be missed ©

bannerhomepagentwright

N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews University in Scotland, author and retired Anglican bishop of Durham, England is coming to Perkins School of Theology at SMU November 15-17.

Perkins School of Theology has issued a public invitation to join them in Professor Wright’s presentation. “We hope you can join us for lectures and discussion related to his book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good. More information and registration can be found at the following link: http://www.smu.edu/Perkins/Events/NTWright .

I believe that Perkins offers us a rare opportunity not to be missed in learning from Bishop N. T. Wright. Three free public lectures are offered:

November 15 at 7:30 p. m                  “The Jesus We Never Knew”
November 16 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus at the Crossroads of History”
November 17 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus and the Future”

There are two special workshops offered (a fee is charged) on Wednesday which will focus on five books by Professor Wright’s:

I strongly urge you not to miss this great opportunity for learning!

 

Page 1 of 5212345»102030...Last »