Approaching Jerusalem ©

A couple of years ago Jolynn and I had the privilege of traveling with a group from the Central Texas Conference to the Holy Land.  After a period in the northern region around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, we traveled down the Jordan River valley and then took the slow ascent up to Jerusalem.  As we approached the city, the tour bus entered a long dark tunnel through the mountains.  The guide directed us to look to the left as we emerged from the darkness.  As we peered out suddenly the tunnel vanished and the bright sunlight flooded the bus.  The stirring music “The Holy City” blared out over the buses loud speakers.  And then … there it was!  The magnificence of “holy mount” and the great holy city spread before us.  Somehow the combination of all of it managed to be at once hokey and incredibly stirring.  An almost primal sense of hope and expectation filled me with awe.  For me, Jerusalem is the city of the Savior.

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from PikiWiki_Isreal_Jerusalem landscape

Metaphorically the journey of Lent to the cross and beyond is a journey up the mountain to the Holy City.  The week before holy week we are, again metaphorically speaking, approaching the Holy City.  The joy of the approaching Palm Sunday is before us.  And yet, we live in the present.  The regular rhythm of life surrounds us.

For me, Saturday March 21st found me driving to Temple to participate in the funeral service of Rev. Arcynthia Louie, one of the saints of the Lord.  Pastor Louie served St. Paul United Methodist Church in Georgetown.  She left a legacy of a flourishing ministry and grace filled sense of the Holy Spirit that blessed others.  Just before Pastor Quinton Gibson (St. James UMC, Temple) rose to give the funeral oration, a soloist sang with moving conviction and artistic beauty “Because He Lives.”  Grief was leavened with hope.  Sorrow was transformed by triumph.  I am still bathing in the blessing of the service.

I recall when I first came to the Central Texas Conference as a newly consecrated bishop (almost 7 years ago!) we had an extended daylong meeting with Cabinet members and key leaders (lay and clergy) to examine our mission, core values, and strategic needs.  As the group focused in on worship and preaching which lifted up Christ, the theme of preaching the resurrection came forcefully to the forefront.  There was an emphatic consensus that we needed to preach the resurrected Christ as Lord and Savior.  As the soloist at Rev. Louie’s funeral service came to the powerful closing words of “Because He Lives,” that conversation flashed across my mind.  As the heartfelt shouts of “Amen” and claps of exclamation echoed across the St. James sanctuary, I leaned over to Dr. Clifton Howard who was sitting to my left.  Dr. Howard had been a part of that initial conversation and had been insistent about our need to preach the resurrection.  We shared a quick memory of the conversation and its importance at times like this.

Approaching Jerusalem, moving through the season of Lent towards Holy Week, I hear Christ calling us back to the cross and through the cross to the triumph beyond.

You may recall a story that made national news shortly after the tragedy of 9/11(2001).  There was a man working alone on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center when the plane hit his building.  In the chaos and confusion he made his way to the stairs and started down.  As he was passing the 63rd floor on his way down he heard a noise that him stop.  He stepped back and pushed his way through the fire door onto the floor.  There he discovered some terrified people getting ready to jump.  He shouted at them, “Come with me!  I know a way out.”  (Later when interviewed he said at that point he didn’t really know a way out, he just knew they needed to try something different.)  He got people off the ledge and lined them up, like a troop of Cub Scouts or Brownies.  Then, he marched them all the way down 63 flights of stairs to the bottom and to safety.

The interviewer who wrote the story remarked to him, “I understand you had to get tough with one of the women (on the march down the stairs).  Somewhat sheepishly he replied, “Yes, she panicked (part way down) and I had to yell at her to get her back in line.  It was the only way out.”

Jesus is that man for us but with two notable differences.  First, he really does know the way out. He’s not guessing.  Second, the way out is not down – but to Jerusalem, through the cross and only then to the joy of Easter morning.

A Hard Truth that Saint Patrick Lived ©

The story of Saint Patrick is one of the most beguiling and illustrative tales in the Christian lexicon.   As a young boy he was captured by raiders and taken to Ireland in the chains of slavery.  While there he dreamed of freedom and found himself growing closer to God as his strength and shield in captivity.

“One night, after six years of captivity, a voice spoke to Patrick in a dream, saying, ‘You are going home. Look!  Your ship is ready!’  The voice directed him to flee for his freedom the next morning.  He awakened before daybreak, walked to a seacoast, saw the ship, and negotiated his way on board” (George G. Hunter, III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 14).

Returning to England, Patrick became a priest and served for many years as a parish pastor.  “At the age of forty-eight – already past a man’s life expectancy in the fifth century – Patrick experienced another dream that was to change his life again.  An angel named Victor approached him with letters from his former captors in Ireland.  As he read one of the letters, he ‘imagined in that moment that [he] heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut . . . and they cried out, as with one voice, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”’”

When Patrick awakened the next morning, he interpreted the dream as his “Macedonian Call” to take Christianity’s gospel to the Celtic peoples of Ireland (George G. Hunter, III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 15).

I write this St. Patrick’s Day not to honor all things green but rather because his life illustrates a hard truth lived.  Consider well the truth of his life’s witness.  Patrick went back to the land of his enslavement to share the gospel.  He reached out in love through the cross of Christ to those he had every reason to hate.

The hard truth of the gospel is that God’s love in Jesus Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is not just for those worthy of love.  I have to remember this when I watch news of ISIS or the racist chanting of a stupid fraternity.  The good news of God’s love, forgiveness and sacrifice is not just for good people.  The cross is for those we consider to be unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.

A seminal segment from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

When I reflect on the truth of this teaching, I find myself wanting to argue with God.  I want to say, “Lord, do you know what these people are like!?  Do you seriously mean that you died for them?  Do you mean that you really love them?  Not only that, but Lord you can’t mean that we are supposed to love them as well?”  I find myself at one with Soren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish theologian of the 19th century, who, in sardonic jest, once suggested that they gather up all the Bibles in Denmark; take them up to a high mountain and throw them off.  We ought, he suggested, just tell God, “Lord this is too hard!”  Yet clearly here it is from the mouth of Jesus himself no less.  The cross connection is for the unloved, unlovely, and the unlovable!

In his beautiful one line summary of the gospel, John tells us “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).  God’s love was and is for the whole world not just parts of it.  The cross connection is God’s love in and through Christ for the unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.

I have quoted before the late Professor George Macleod (Princeton Theological School) who put it this way:  “I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church.  I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where He died.  And that is what He died about.  And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmanship should be about.”

As we pause in our routine of activities to duly celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I invite us to embrace the truth behind the legend of St. Patrick.  This man really was a Christian saint.  He has much to teach and when we lay his personal witness of life and faith alongside the life and teaching of Jesus, the cross comes into focus.

First, when we reach out through the cross, Christ reaches out with us.

Second, the hard truth St. Patrick lived in following Jesus, the way of the cross, transforms us.  God’s power, the power of true unconquerable love flows in and through us.  In loving even the enemy, we ourselves become more loveable.  And amazingly, so does the so-called enemy.

Third, the cross transforms the unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.  St. Patrick understood and lived this hard yet magnificent saving truth.

St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer

(Ephesians 6:14 … “put on the breastplate of righteousness”)

I bind unto myself today The strong Name of the Trinity, By invocation of the same, The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever. By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation; His baptism in the Jordan River; His death on Cross for my salvation; His bursting from the spiced tomb; His riding up the heavenly way; His coming at the day of doom;* I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power Of the great love of the cherubim; The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour, The service of the seraphim, Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word, The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls, All good deeds done unto the Lord, And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today The virtues of the starlit heaven, The glorious sun’s life-giving ray, The whiteness of the moon at even, The flashing of the lightning free, The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, The stable earth, the deep salt sea, Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today The power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay, His ear to hearken to my need. The wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, His shield to ward, The word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin, The vice that gives temptation force, The natural lusts that war within, The hostile men that mar my course; Or few or many, far or nigh, In every place and in all hours, Against their fierce hostility, I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles, Against false words of heresy, Against the knowledge that defiles, Against the heart’s idolatry, Against the wizard’s evil craft, Against the death wound and the burning, The choking wave and the poisoned shaft, Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name, The strong Name of the Trinity; By invocation of the same. The Three in One, and One in Three, Of Whom all nature hath creation, Eternal Father, Spirit, Word: Praise to the Lord of my salvation, Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Amen.

* Note: “day of doom” is an Old English term meaning “Day of Judgment.”   

(Taken from http://www.prayerfoundation.org/st_patricks_breastplate_prayer.htm)

A Blast from the Past ©

I have recently finished reading Christine A. Chakoian’s insightful book Cryptomnesia: How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church.  I pause in my blog writing to focus on this unusual book.  In particular I want to recommend that Sunday School classes and other learning groups might well benefit by taking time to read and discuss the insights the author offers.

cryptomnesiaThe dictionary renders “cryptomnesia” as a hidden memory which has come back to the forefront; “the reappearance of as suppressed or forgotten memory which is mistaken for a new experience” (The Collins English Dictionary; Cryptomnesia, p. xi).  The author explains it this way:  cryptomnesia is the opposite of déjà vu.  In cryptomnesia, “our brains are tricking us into thinking we’re encountering something new, when in reality we’ve been here before” (Cryptomnesia, p. xi).

What makes this book so worth reading and discussing is the way our current religious reality in post-Christendom America is a repeat of what the earliest Christians experienced in the Roman Empire.  Relearning our past not only gives us courage; it gives us tools for confronting the present and living into a new future.

The chapter headings are telling. In the first two chapters – “When Every Thing Changes: Life in America Today” and “Religious Life in the Shrinking World” – Dr. Chakoian (Lead Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forrest, Illinois) compares our modern experience of the rapid pace of change and cultural diversity with the experience of the first urban Christians.  I find it hope-giving to recall that we in the Christian Church have been in this situation before.  There are insights to reflect upon and perhaps employ.

Chapter 3, “Shifting Our Inheritance: What to Keep and What to Let Go?”, plunges the reader in the conflict going on in the early church as it emerged from the shadow of the Jewish Temple.  The earliest Christians wrestled with worship as it was evolving, the place of baptism (as an outgrowth of ritual baths, cleanings and new life), whether to eat food for idols, is the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) to be retained as Holy Scripture by Christians?, etc.  She rightly points out that some of the answers are surprising.

It is the application to our day that is especially challenging for us!  What are we to keep and what must we let go of?  Think back over the so-called worship wars and divisions about what is central in the worship life of your church.  What to keep and what to let go of are profoundly biblical and theological questions that merit clear headed practical answers.  The reader will easily grasp the parallel struggles between eating food dedicated to idols and circumcision with questions of worship styles and same gender ordination.  A good lesson for a Sunday School class would be to unpack Dr. Chakoian’s concepts of things that are “indifferent” and things that are “essential.”  Step number two would be to start writing your own list and discuss together.

In discussing (holy conversation?) she notes four key behaviors we can learn from the earliest Christians.

  1. “They came together to discern.
  2. They took turns testifying.
  3. They listened to each other’s witness.
  4. They looked to the authority of scripture, Jesus’ teachings, and the Holy Spirit.” (Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p. 50; emphasis in the original)

I confess that I wish to argue pretty strongly with the incompleteness of her list, but the concepts are well worth wrestling with in Christian love and care.

As a Bishop her fourth chapter sparked special interest for me.  It’s entitled “Authority and Community in a Flattened Age.”  She notes our culture wide rebellion from traditional authority.  However, Dr. Chakoian takes the significant next step of confronting the need for authority.  She writes, “Having some kind of authority isn’t optional; it’s essential for us as social creatures” Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p.58). The partial answer she offers models itself off of the earliest Christians and what they took from synagogues, the schools of philosophy, voluntary associations and the Ekklesia (The Household of God).  Dr. Chakoian challenges us to fully embrace a valuing of each other’s gifts without descending into chaos.  A taste of some of the writing is appetizing:

    • “Theresa Latini reminds us of the need for the church to be a place where we learn and practice community in an age of social disconnection.” (p. 73)
    • “Sustaining intimate, accountable Christian relationships in faith communities is crucial.” (p. 73)
    • “The era of top-down authority is over. But that doesn’t mean there is no authority.” (p.77, emphasis in the original)

There is more here.  Chapters on getting along and “taking the message to the masses” await our investigation and reflection.  I repeat the intention in writing this blog.  Cryptomnesia is an excellent book for a Sunday School class to pick up, read and discuss.  I have points of real disagreement with the author but the overall premise is on target.  We have a hidden memory we desperately need to rediscover.  I believe the Holy Spirit is at work in our recovery from biblical, theological and historical amnesia.  Here’s to good discussions!

My Lenten Journeys

While the season of Lent is metaphorically a spiritual journey for Christians to the cross and beyond, for me as a bishop it is also a season of various journeys around my work on various boards and agencies.  As a bishop I share with other bishops in the United Methodist Church worldwide leadership for the whole church.  Additionally, as with all bishops, I have responsibilities beyond the Central Texas Conference for various institutions which relate to either our Conference or the larger South Central Jurisdiction.

This morning I will be attending a Methodist Children’s Home (MCH) Board Meeting in Austin, Texas.  MCH is truly one of the outstanding church-related institutions.  Located in Waco, Texas, MCH lives its motto “offering hope since 1890.”  There is phenomenal Christ-honoring ministry with children that live on the margins of love and care.  This work becomes even more critical as state funding for foster children is cut and service expectations climb.  Where ever we stand on the political spectrum, the church of Jesus Christ is doing a good and godly work in this ministry.  By necessity we need to do more.  Dr. Tim Brown (President of MCH) comments in his Presidential report: “Currently there is also a higher than normal number of children across Texas that are being removed from their families due to abuse or neglect.”  MCH receives some of the children removed by the judicial system from their homes, but the reimbursement rate from the state does not even come close to covering the full cost.  For a people who hear Christ speaking to us saying, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children” (Matthew 19:14), this ministry is immensely meaningful and transforms lives.

Sunday will mark a special treat for me.  In the fall of 1974 as young seminary student, I began my seminary internship (think student/teacher) at First United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas.  For me it was a life changing, nine month period of learning.  I was literally blessed to be mentored by an outstanding Senior Pastor, Dr. Jack Heacock.  The Intern Committee (a group of lay people with the Sr. Pastor who guided my work) and the congregation were wonderful.  I remember teaching my first Sunday School class, The Downtowners.  I remember fumbling through the lesson.  They were super supportive and very helpful with constructive positive feedback.  I can remember another situation where a street person came in the office for help and counseling.  She was very suicidal.  A member of the Intern Committee who was also a practicing licensed psychotherapist with immeasurable patience guided my response and the response of this caring congregation.  I can continue with stories but suffice to say it is a joy to return to First UMC, Austin this Sunday.

Monday morning (too early for my tastes!) I will fly to Nashville for two days of meeting on the Path 1 initiative of the United Methodist Church.  Path 1 is a branch of the United Methodist Churches’ Discipling Ministries.  (Discipling Ministries used to be called The General Board of Discipleship.)  Path 1 works on new church development in the United States.  We in the Central Texas Conference have been recipients of Path 1 Interns, a program that places potential new church developers (clergy who start new congregations) with mentor clergy and congregations.  This past year David Alexander and Mike Ramsdell at First United Methodist Church of Mansfield have been working with Rev. Jennifer Pick.

Among the issues we will be wrestling with are hearing reports on new church planting in the United States for the 2012-2016 quadrennium. (Our denominational goal was 1,000 new places for new disciples.)  A second important task will be preliminary work on setting broad measurable goals for the next quadrennium (2017-2020).  Our third major component involves dialog with Dr. Timothy Bias, the General Secretary of Discipling Ministries, focusing our direction and alignment as we move forward into the future the Lord is calling into being.

I have the privilege of sharing responsibilities in this work with Bishop James Swanson (The Mississippi Conference) and Bishop Mark Webb (The Upper New York Conference).  Each Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church is represented on the Path 1 Advisory Committee.  It is a joy to share that Rev. Gary Lindley (Executive Director of the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth of the Central Texas Conference) represents the SCJ (South Central Jurisdiction).

[I always want to stress that work in new church development is matched with work/ministry for and with the transformation of existing congregations; what we call “Vital Congregations.”  Bishop John Schol of The Greater New Jersey Conference chairs this effort, and I work with him and that group as the Chair of the Council of Bishops Congregational Vitality Leadership Team.  The two together are a central part of any great ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!]

Hopefully I’ll end up back at home late Tuesday evening and back in the office on Wednesday, March 11th.  Saturday, March 14th Jolynn and I will head back out again to Ballinger, Texas where I will be preaching Sunday the 15th.  It is my joy to share with you in our great ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

Lenten Musings – The End of Casual Christianity

Casual Christianity as we know it is dying.  For a good decade now carefully observant pastors have noticed people who typically would worship a couple of times a month moving to worship patterns that are more episodic.  A variety of studies (Pew, Barna, Gallup, etc.) have reported changing patterns of worship attendance.

While much attention is given to decreasing worship attendance, less attention is given to a counter trend of people who are moving more deeply into faithful worship, prayer, ministry to those in need, missional outreach etc.  I confess that I am less able to document this trend.  Rather, I sense it unfolding.

I keep remembering that my predecessor at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Dr. Steve Wende, used to tell the congregation (my dimly remembered paraphrase) “how can you call yourself Christian if you don’t go to the cross with Christ on Good Friday before you show up at Easter?”  His call to take seriously the call to Holy Week worship (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter) was a grace-filled yet clarion claim to deeper discipleship.  The United Methodist Church is gaining significant clarity around its core mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Tire kickers and test drivers are always welcome in our worship but the goal is disciples – committed disciplined followers of Jesus Christ.

I think there is a quietly growing depth to many who have stayed faithful in deeper ways.  There is a counter trend emerging from the end of casual Christianity which is a good, godly, Holy Spirit-induced thing.  The recent overwhelming response to my study of Calvin versus Wesley provides some evidence.  I thought 8 or 9 people would join me.  Was I wrong!  We’ve had a large group at Texas Wesleyan University; multiple simulcast sites, many following the online streaming, and Sunday School classes using the material.  I believe this is a sign of the hunger for deeper discipleship and a closer walk with Christ.

One of the books that I am casually dabbling with (actually occasionally listening to on my phone) is Radical by David Platt.  While I have some strong theological disagreement with what I am hearing/reading, I am attracted by the way he too sees an end to casual Christianity and the growth of discipleship.  The subtitle of the books speaks volumes — Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.  Somewhere along the line, I ran into some quotes in a review from a newer book Platt has written that resonate with me.  The book is entitled Follow Me:

  • “There is indescribable joy, deep satisfaction and an eternal purpose in dying to ourselves and living for Christ.”
  • “Jesus is not some puny religious teacher begging for an invitation from anyone. He is the all-sovereign Lord who deserves submission from everyone.”
  • “Our greatest need is not to try harder. Our greatest need is a new heart.”
  • “We cling to the person of Christ as life itself.”

C.S. Lewis’ comment about Jesus echoes through my musing about the end of casual Christianity. “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

My musings led me back to my faded copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.  It is to the cross that our Lenten journey takes us.  I do know that I need to remember what Bonhoeffer wrote:

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.

When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

Even more, I remember what Jesus said, “After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them’” (Mark 8:34-35).

There is much to think upon, pray about, and engage in action on the way to the cross and beyond.

Progress on Imagining No Malaria, Prayer Missionary & Captives ©

One of the great Focus Areas of the United Methodist Church during the last eight years has been combating killer diseases.  In particular, the United Methodist Church has focused on combating the killer disease of malaria through Nothing But Nets and the larger emphasis called Imagine No Malaria. The Central Texas Conference has been a part of this great mission emphasis contributing $539,458 to date.

It is a joy to share some wonderful good news passed on via Newscope (The United Methodist Publishing House’s weekly newsletter).  The World Health Organization reports that “the number of people dying from malaria has fallen dramatically since 2000 and malaria cases are steadily declining.”   In an article written by Joey Butler of United Methodist Communications, the use of insecticide-treated bed nets is given as one important reason for the drop.  He goes on to note that:

  • “Between 2000 and 2013, the report says, the malaria mortality rate decreased by 47% worldwide. In the WHO African Region-where about 90% of malaria deaths occur-the decrease is 54%. The Dec. 9 report estimates that, globally, 670 million fewer cases and 4.3 million fewer malaria deaths occurred between 2001 and 2013 than would have occurred had incidence and mortality rates remained unchanged since 2000.
  • In 2013, 49% of all people at risk of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa had access to an insecticide-treated net, a marked increase from just 3% in 2004. This trend is set to continue, with a record 214 million bed nets scheduled for delivery to endemic countries in Africa by year-end.
  • Since April 2010, The UMC’s Imagine No Malaria initiative has distributed more than 2.3 million bed nets and is less than $10 million shy of its goal to raise $75 million by 2015 to dramatically reduce deaths and suffering in Africa. Significantly the report closes with a challenge and a holy call to action. “Despite these victories, malaria remains a major threat and greater global commitment is necessary for success. In 2013, one-third of households in areas with malaria transmission in sub-Saharan Africa did not have a single insecticide-treated net, the report noted. Approximately $5.1 billion is needed annually to achieve malaria control and, eventually, elimination; but current annual funds remain around $2.7 billion” (Newscope, Editor Mary Catherine Dean, Vol. 43, Issue 08 / February 25, 2015, “WHO REPORTS ‘DRAMATIC’ DECREASE IN MALARIA DEATHS” by Joey Butler, UMCOM).

In other mission activity, I ask that the congregations of the Central Texas Conference to join in praying for Rev. Phyllis Sortor, a missionary for The Free Methodist Church who has been abducted and held for ransom by terrorists/criminals in Nigeria.  I also ask that we continue to join with Christians around the world in prayer for the Assyrian and Coptic Christians who have been persecuted by ISIS.  News reports indicate that a significant number of Coptic Christians, one of the most ancient branches of the Christian faith, are being executed by ISIS.

It is important that we do not react with hate and especially important that we do not ourselves persecute the many (majority) peaceful Muslims in our midst.  Let goodness be known to all as we keep all those who are persecuted in our prayers.  To this end I request each church in the Central Texas Conference to make a point of lifting up Rev. Sorter and the Assyrian & Coptic Christians in our prayers.

Reflections on a Winter Day (c)

Like many of you, I found myself working at home on Monday, February 23rd.  Outside the study window, both our driveway and the street are covered in a sheet of ice.  Such winter days often leave me in a thoughtful reflective mood.  I try to catch up on writing, email and reading.

In my reading this morning I am continuing to plumb the depths of John Ortberg’s marvelous little book Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You.  Over the past few months, my spiritual guide and I have been slowly working our way through the book and its accompanying study guide.  Today I read the 13th chapter entitled “The Soul Needs a Blessing.”

I found myself captivated by insights that Ortberg (and through John Ortberg, Dallas Willard) offers.  The words “blessing” or “blessings” is one I use often and casually, yet with meaning on my part.  It is here the author focuses my intention.  He writes:  “Blessing is not just a word.  Blessing is the projection of good into the life of another.  We must think it, and feel it, and will it.”  In this simple yet profound definition, I am taken to a deeper level.  I am asking myself, “When I say ‘blessings’ or ‘God bless you,’ do I think it, feel it, and/or will it?”  My honest answer is a hedged yes; mostly but often, far too often, not on an impactful level.  A blessing is reaching out in love.  It connects me to the great commandment, to love God with my heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love my neighbor as I love myself.

John Ortberg quotes his great mentor Dallas Willard (to whom the book is dedicated) as saying, “Churches should do seminars on how to bless and not curse others.”  On reading I simultaneously experienced an “aha” epiphany and a punch in the stomach.  I pastored local churches for 30 years and never once held a seminar on how to bless not curse others.  Furthermore, I’d like to take such a seminar!

Under Willard’s tutelage, John Orberg starts with a passage we know well.  I first learned it about 50 years ago as a teenager.  We called this passage of Holy Scripture the MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) benediction.  It comes from Numbers 6:24.

“The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

The following is my own shortened summary of advice from Soul Keeping on learning to bless (pp. 154-157).  I continue to commend this whole book and in particular this chapter to you.

1.  Blessings and curses are “simply the two ways we treat people.”
2.  Blessing takes time, so don’t hurry.
3.  “Blessings-giving should be asymmetrical. It is not a form of barter.  It’s grace.”
4.   Turn to the one you want to bless.
a.  Look into their eyes..
b.  Allow your mind to focus on this particular individual, the one before you.
5.  “The Lord bless you” = may the Lord, “constantly bring good into your life.”
6.  “Keep you” = God should protect and guard you with the sacrificial love of Christ on the cross. John Ortberg adds:  “Underline the word you.”
7.  “His [God’s] face shine upon you” = the Lord’s glory and delight be in your life. Dallas Willard adds, “Glory always shines.  Glory was always meant to be shared.”  As I understand the biblical concept of glory, it means the radiant presence of the Lord.
8.  “The Lord lift his countenance upon you” = being fully present to someone. I cannot help but think the opposite is multi-tasking while we talk to someone.
9.  “And give you peace” = “unthreatened, undisturbed peace”

I hope to be more of a blessing to people.  How about you?

The Way of the Cross ©

Participating in Ash Wednesday services always re-focuses my attention on the cross.  This was further emphasized for me in writing a devotional for United Community Centers of Fort Worth and preparing a number of sermons that I will be sharing in various congregations during Lent.

I think the early church got it right when it called for a season of self-examination, confession and reflection preceding Easter.  It is a fact of faith that we cannot truly get to Easter without going through Good Friday.  It is a biblical and theological truth that we must first journey to the cross before going to the resurrection joy of the cemetery.

An exchange between Jesus and Peter highlights the point of focus.  “Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: ‘Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts’” (Mark 8:33).  Jesus the Savior makes the cross connection in his determination to live out God’s purpose.  And what is that purpose?  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  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 3:16-17).

Obedient to God, Jesus is on a collision course with human things.  His mind is set on divine things, the divine purpose of God for the salvation of all people.  He is not out for Number One but marches cross-ward for all.  He will suffer, be rejected, and even die to reconnect us to God in a relationship we call salvation.

Peter is “rebuked” because he tempts Jesus to ignore God’s purpose.  One scholar puts it this way:  “Jesus is tempted (and so are we) to think that God’s anointed can avoid suffering, rejection, and death; that God’s rule means power without pain, glory without humiliation.  This is Peter’s human way of thinking; and Jesus, overcoming this tempting suggestion, identifies it as a devil of an idea.  Second, Jesus’ rebuke reminds Peter where disciples belong.  ‘Behind me’ (v. 33) and ‘after me’ (v. 34) are identical in Greek.  Disciples are not to guide, protect, or possess Jesus; they are to follow him” (Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, p. 153).  In the courage of Christ’s self-offering, the cross connection is made.  Jesus offers himself for you and for me and for all.  He not only shows us what God is like, he takes us to God if we will only but follow.

A great preacher of our time, Fred Craddock, puts it this way.  “Do you want to know what God is like?  Jesus is what God is like.  He is the revelation of God’s nature.  You see, it is not enough to say, ‘I believe in God,’ or ‘I believe there is a God.’  People hate in the name of God.  People kill in the name of God.  People are prejudiced in the name of God.  What kind of a God do I believe in?  This kind:  I believe in the God who is presented in Jesus Christ, not just some vague little feeling that crawls around in my head and make me say, ‘You know, I feel kind of funny.  I think I must have faith.’ . . .

“What is God like?  Here is the answer: Jesus. . . . I do not want you to think that to be a Christian you have to believe in God and then you add Jesus.  You do not add anything; it is Jesus Christ who tells us who God is.  This is the kind of God in whom we believe.  . . .  Do you remember when he took that old cross on his shoulder and started up the hill to Golgotha?  That is what God looks like” (Fred Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons, pp. 40-41).

three-crosses The purpose of God is the cross connection; to draw us back into a relationship with him through the suffering, rejection and death of his own son.  The cry of why on our lips – thrown into the angry storm of this world’s hate, of human things – is answered by the divine thing, the very love of God in Jesus the Christ.  This is God’s purpose.

How does this purpose translate for our lives?  Why first, from good old Peter, we learn not to rebuke or manipulate God but to follow, to follow the Lord through suffering, rejection, and death to the cross and beyond.

Secondly, we are taught to focus on divine things by embracing God’s purpose of redemptive love for all people.  We are to see both ourselves and every single human being as a person for whom Christ died.  The cross connection is made for all.

Third, we are to embrace both the purpose and the method of love.  Evil is not met with greater evil.  That is the human way.  The way and purpose of God exists in the gift of divine love to be shared.  This truth is hard to remember and even harder to embrace when facing the hatred of ISIS or violence in our community.  And yet, it is the way of the cross.

Rev. Jason Adams (then an Associate Pastor at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio where I was the Senior Pastor at the time) shared a story with me that has lingered in my mind as an illustration of the way of the cross.  “In the early 1990’s, there were some women who lived near Washington D.C. who wanted to show God’s love to a special group of people.  They heard about a group of babies who were rarely held and destined to live and die in hospitals because they had AIDS.  The babies didn’t get much attention, so they began to cry silently.  No one had responded to their crying out loud, so they stopped doing it.  But they still shed tears.  Even though these children would die by their second birthdays, the women took a number of the AIDS babies’ home.  The women would respond to the silent tears by holding and rocking the babies.  Soon these unloved, cast-off AIDS babies began to cry out loud again.  They had been spoken to in the only way they could understand.  Women, who were willing to truly give of themselves, had spoken to them in the language of love.”

God’s purpose in Jesus Christ is to similarly embrace us in the cross connection.  We are spoken to in a way we can understand.  The divine thing is Christ, his sacrifice for us and the forgiving love of God he offers us and all.  The way of the cross offers a purpose to embrace and a Savior to follow.

I need Lent.  I need it not only to prepare for Easter but to forge the better nature and higher intent of my being.  In the way of the cross, all life and death take on a greater purpose and higher calling.

CTC Cabinet work in Diversity, Mission Field Ministry and Inventory Retreat

As this blog is posted (Tuesday, February 17th), the Central Texas Conference Cabinet is meeting in its yearly “Inventory Retreat.”  At our retreat, we look at the needs of the Conference for clergy deployment in the upcoming year.  This starts with an assessment of the number of people retiring from active appointive ministry (Christian, lay or clergy, never retire from ministry as long as they are faithful followers of Christ!) and the number of people coming in for appointments (new seminary graduates, licensed local pastors, clergy seeking transfer from other United Methodist Conferences or denominations, etc.)  As can be easily imagined, it is extensive and exhausting work.  Given the wild swings in need, balancing incoming and outgoing clergy is difficult.  Additionally we review and pray over requests by both clergy and churches for possible changes of appointment.  We seek to be driven by the Holy Spirit.  Together, with all the clergy and laity of the Central Texas Conference under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, a new church is slowly coming into being.  I ask for your prayers for the Cabinet on our Inventory Retreat.

A critical and exciting (encouraging!) part of work is the growing diversity of the Central Texas Conference.  While our dominant ethnic group continues to be Anglo, we have rising congregations with growing diversity.  Our ministry continues to expand with the addition of Rev. Samuel Macias (on loan from the Northeastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church of Mexico) and the wonderful saints of La Trinidad UMC.  We have a number of thriving Korean language (actually multi-lingual – Korean and English) churches, a vibrant Ghanaian language church (begun as a new start a few years ago) in Arlington, a French-speaking congregation, etc.  Currently we have 5 different situations where an African-American pastors is serving a mostly Anglo congregation.  Likewise three clergy of Korean heritage are also serving predominately Anglo congregations.  (This is a dramatic rise from just a few years ago.)  Additionally many predominately Anglo and/or African-American congregations are faithfully leaping old ethnic boundaries and becoming more multi-ethnic.  In one situation a new church is in the process of being birthed out of two congregations, one predominantly Anglo and the other predominately African-American.

Not only are we moving across ethnic lines but also across gender barriers.  Among Protestant clergy as a whole, women now make up more than ½ of the seminary students.  I believe we are currently at our highest number of women clergy under active appointment and have the greatest number we have ever had on Cabinet.

All this and more is a work of the Lord among us.  This great diversity calls to mind I Corinthians 12:  “There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. … Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many.  We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink” (I Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-13).  Our great diversity and inclusivity is a gift God gives the church through the active presence of the Holy Spirit.

Last month, the Cabinet spent a full day in training on “Intercultural Competency Partnership” under the leadership and guidance of General Secretary Erin Hawkins and a staff member from the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR).  It was a superb time of learning that is part of a larger missional and evangelistic framework to reach all of God’s people.  I love the definition of “intercultural competency” General Secretary Hawkins taught us.  “Intercultural Competency (effectiveness, agility): ‘The ability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior and/or serve as a bridge when difference is present’”  (Mitchell Hammer).  We will continue our learning as an entire Conference with Rev. Rudy Rasmus as our keynote teacher at this June’s Annual Conference meeting.  It should be another time of great learning!

Ultimately all of this is done not for our sake but for the sake of Christ and His church.  Moving into Lent we are reminded again of what we are about regardless of ethnicity or gender, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Once again the Apostle Paul speaks to us from the passages of Holy Scripture.  “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. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (I Corinthians 1:23-25).

As we make appointments we will continue to be guided by the need to make mission field appointments based on gifts and graces that accomplish the mission.  We will continue to lift up core values and commitments with a high Christology, a towering focus on the local church, and an ongoing commitment to leadership development that includes by laity and clergy.  We are driven by faithfulness to Christ and service to the mission field the Lord places before us.  Ministry is much more than a career.  It is a holy calling.  We solicit your prayers.

The Challenge of Brokenness – Part 3 ©

Reporters covering the White House during the administration of President Calvin Coolidge had a tough go of it.  President Coolidge wasn’t called “silent Cal” for no reason.  On a Sunday morning, the story goes, President Coolidge went to church.  Coming out at the close of worship, a reporter accosted Coolidge.

“What did the preacher speak about?” he demanded to know.  Coolidge pause, looked at the reporter and commented, “Sin … [long pause], he was against it.”  So are we – at least in theory.

Officially a doctrine of sin (and original sin at that) is part of the lexicon of United Methodism.  Article VII of the Doctrinal Standards and General Rules of the Methodist Church states:

Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby every man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually. (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 103, Section 3, p. 65)

Similarly Article VII of the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church states:

We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil.  Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. . . . (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 103, Section 3, p. 72)

[It is important to note that both General Rules are currently operative and protected by the Restrictive Rule 2, Paragraph 18 of The Book of Disciple of the United Methodist Church 2012.]  On paper we hold to a doctrine of sin as central to understanding and diagnosing the human condition.  Its evidence is all around and within us in a bewildering variety of personal and corporate ways.  And yet, our easy acceptance of the cult of the nice precludes real analysis.

Similarly the book of The Acts of the Apostles is peppered with specific references to sin.  None perhaps is more pointed than the conclusion of Peter’s great Pentecost sermon.

Peter replied, ‘Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away — as many as the Lord our God invites.’ With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation’ (Acts 2:38-40).

We must repent of sin and be saved by the Lord our God in the fullness of the Trinity – baptized in Jesus Christ, received through the gift of the Spirit, at the invitation of the Lord God.  It is all there in the original doctrinal claim of United Methodism, and yet much of it is lacking in our preaching and teaching today.

The original Methodist movement also reclaimed a strong doctrine of sin.  The aforementioned letter of the Duchess of Buckingham offers dramatic evidence of this conviction and practice. Wesley’s sermon on original sin leaves no room for doubt.

This, therefore, is the first, grand, distinguishing point between heathenism and Christianity.  The one acknowledges that many men are infected with many vices, and even born with a proneness to them; but supposes withal that in some the natural good much overbalances the evil.  The other declares that all men are ‘conceived in sin,’ and ‘shapen in wickedness,’; that hence there is in every man a ‘carnal mind which is enmity against God, which is not, cannot be, subject to his law, and which so infects the whole soul that ‘there dwelleth in him, in his flesh, in his natural state, ‘no good thing;’ but ‘all the imagination of the thoughts of his heart is evil’, ‘only evil’, and ‘continually’  (John Wesley, “Original Sin,” Sermon #44, in The Works of John Wesley, Sermons II, 34-70, Volume 2, ed. Outler,  p. 183).

The modern mind chokes at the strong words and harsh language of Wesley’s sermon.  Yet there is a truth here which we have forgotten and largely ignored even though it lies still embedded in our core doctrines.  We have succumbed to the foundational idolatry of self-salvation.  In moralistic therapeutic deism, Pelagius stands triumphant.  Almost forty years ago Albert Cook Outler offered the theological challenge we face in comfortable middle class Methodism.  “How many of you would take seriously the notion of a human flaw that is radical, inescapable, universal – a human malaise that cannot be cured or overcome by any of our self-help efforts or ethical virtues, however ‘moral’ or aspiring – which is not, at the same time, of the actual essence of God’s original design for the humanum (what he intended human existence to be)?” (Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 32, 34).

The great American theologian of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr, defines sin as rebellion from God ultimately rooted in pride.  We are not the center of the universe.  It is not about us.  Our personal pleasure, regardless of whether it is golf, gold, or grumbling is not the purpose for which we are created.  Outler, the great Methodist theologian, labeled sin “a radical universal human flaw … a malignant disease” (Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 24).

A simple, basic way to think about this issue is to ask yourself who is in charge of your life.  Who is your ruler; your ultimate boss; the commander of your existence, resources, actions, and reactions?  C. S. Lewis put it this way:  “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world and might even be more difficult to save” (C.S. Lewis, quoted in Dean, Almost Christian, p. 25). H. Richard Niebuhr summarizes this watered-down, blanched out understanding of sin in his famous statement:  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, p.193).

And yet, at any age, we are called to greatness through life in Christ under power of the Holy Spirit.   The way of salvation begins with a Holy Spirit-inspired recognition of our sin, of the fact that we are not the center of the universe.  This is what Wesley called the first dawning of grace.  Prevenient grace is the grace of God that goes before.  It leads us to an awareness of our sin and our need for a Savior.  Such grace is the first step in the “order of salvation.”

The critical element of reclaiming a doctrine of sin lies in its connection to the doctrine of salvation.  Indeed any concept of salvation (Christian or otherwise) reflects to the need to be saved from something.  In the Christian case, that something is sin – our persistent separation from God and determination to have ourselves as our own gods.  If the failure of the human condition and the sad state of human affairs is endemic and systematic, then surely we need rescuing.  If it is merely a matter of being “nicer,” then why bother?  We merely need to work a little harder at being nice people.  We need to be more arduous at improving our moral behavior.  And yet, at the center of the Christian claim is the notion of sin that is a radical human flaw that cannot be adequately dealt with by any self-help solution or governmental intervention.  St. Augustine’s words whisper from the past, guiding us to reclaim the present and the future:  “But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error” (Augustine of Hippo, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, Confessions, Book I, 20, pp. 40-41).

It is the centrality of this conviction of sin that delivers us to the issue of atonement and a doctrine of salvation along with the concomitant need for the reclamation of a vibrant doctrine of the Trinity.

Think of the standard images for atonement (at-one-ment with God).  The term salvation comes from the battlefield.  We are knocked to the ground and about to be run-in by a spear-wielding enemy.  Just then, someone steps into to take the blow and dies to save our life.  We are saved!  Or think of redemption, the image comes from the slave market.  It is an especially powerful image for those caught in the grip of an addiction.  We are being auctioned into slavery for our sins  – our willful separation from God.  Someone, Jesus Christ, steps in and pays the price for our freedom.  Or again, consider the term Paul uses in Romans, Justification.  We are in court and held to account for our failures, our sins.  Any plea that we are mostly a nice person is easily thrust aside.  The evidence is clear.  We are guilty of sin, of separation, from God.  As the gavel is pounded down, Christ steps in and sets the verdict aside declaring us justified, that is made right by his actions.

While hardly a complete list, each image referenced points to the seriousness of our separation from God.  They signal a far different reality than the need for just a little correction.  They give evidence of a radical flaw in our makeup; a flaw so deep that none escape.  This truth was demonstrated recently by Pope Francis when he posed the question about himself.  “‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ I am a sinner. This the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

It is the cross rising before us in the distance that makes us face fully and truthfully the reality of sin, our propensity to be our own gods.  It is the cross standing before us in the distance that challenges our naïve assumptions of our own essential goodness.

The Christian conviction wrapped up in the theological concept called atonement is that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus somehow this sin has met its match.  Sin is still real.  It is still present.  It still needs to be faced, confessed and repented of; but its power is ultimately broken.  Heading towards the cross we are challenged to face the seriousness of our separation.  Only then can the joy of Easter morning be fully embraced.

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