Reporting In: Inventory, UMCOR-West and Tornado Relief ©

Sunday afternoon we started our yearly Cabinet Inventory Retreat. Once again we face a rising number of retirements. We are in the beginning states of implementing a new LASP (Learning Agility Sustained Performance) model for assessing clergy gifts and graces as well as a new SP/KP (Sustained Performance/Kingdom Potential) model for assessing the mission and ministry of each local church.  As we consider the next appointive steps to take, we will go through careful and prayerful reflection on each pastor involved and each church considered. I am asking for prayers that our work might be saturated by the Holy Spirit’s guidance and result in still greater faithfulness and fruitfulness.

While we begin making appointments for Annual Conference 2016, the work will not be finished until our June 8th fixing of appointments at the close of Conference.  Even then, the Cabinet’s appointive work is not fully completed.  The complexities of life for both clergy and churches almost inevitably dictate that some appointments will take place during the following year.

As we gather, there are some significant celebrations which I desire to report back on and lift up. As I have repeatedly stated, one of the truly great works of the United Methodist Church is the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).  UMCOR operates not only around the world but also right here in the Central Texas Conference.

To refresh our memory, on April 17, 2013 (almost three years ago!) a fertilizer plant in West, Texas caught fire and exploded. UMCOR, through the Central Texas Disaster Relief time under Rev. Laraine Waughtal’s leadership, immediately moved in to offer relief.  They did not just come for the short term but have stay to help people in the community (not just Methodists or Christians) rebuild and move forward with life.  A “hallmark” of UMCOR’s ministry is that we are there in disaster recovery situations for the long haul and not just the visible short term.

I asked Rev. Waughtal to put together a follow up report I could share. The following are excerpts from her report:

“I am so proud of our conference and our team in West.  They are amazing!  … Our reports are not done and will not be for another couple of months.  We still have about four file drawers that our data person is working on –she is entering data as cases are closed out.  We still have five homes we are working on.  Our goal is to be complete by the April 17th anniversary this year. …  if you add up all the figures to date … handled by UMCOR and the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church [the total] is $5,367,292.77!  We should easily go by the $6 million mark.  Part of the reason cases are not closed yet is we are also surveying all of our clients and we will not close files until the work is complete.

Unfortunately, these numbers do not include other agencies and what they invested into the community like Red Cross, Salvation Army and area churches.  We have no way to capture that.  It also does not include the more than $600,000 we have invested into 8 case managers, a part-time construction manager and data specialist along with all of our administrative work and so many other people who have impacted this event. 

All of this involves touching the lives of 630 cases (individuals and families!), which is the most important part.  Our conference also responded with many Early Response Teams to help people recover their belongings in the first month and to make the few homes that were able to safe and secure.  We also responded with volunteers for rebuilds and repairs.” 

To which I respond – WOW! I give thanks to God for your faithfulness through the United Methodist Church.  Together we are living Matthew 25, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me” (Matthew 25:40).

On a related subject, the Central Texas Conference received an emergency $10,000 grant in January to help with relief for victims of tornado damage in the Ellis County/Glenn Heights area (around Ovilla, Texas). A mid-January report notes the following churches involved:

Ovilla UMC
Midlothian UMC
FUMC Mansfield
Morgan Mill UMC
FUMC Hillsboro
Wesley Chapel/Gholson
White’s Chapel
St. John the Apostle
Community of Hope
FUMC Burleson
FUMC Weatherford
FUMC Hurst

I am quite conscious that this list is incomplete. Since then a significant number of other churches have responded.  One of the signs of a healthy disciple-making church is an outward focus serving their community and transforming our world.  We are seeing outwardly focused churches share the love Christ and neighbor in abundance.  I thank God for your life giving ministry!

Class Meetings and Making Disciples ©

In November of 2014 while meeting in Oklahoma City, the Council of Bishops heard an outstanding address from a class meetingyoung Methodist scholar named Kevin Watson. Dr. Watson (who is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology) shared a deep teaching based on his newly published book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.  I’ve had his book on my shelf intending to read it since hearing him in Oklahoma City.

On becoming one of the four supervising bishops for Rio Texas, his book leaped to the top of my long list of books to read. Along with Bishop Joel Martinez, I have picked up the task of representing the bishops at the upcoming Clergy Convocation of the Rio Texas Conference (an event similar to the “Clergy Day Apart” in the Central Texas Conference).  To my delight, I learned that Dr. Watson is one of the featured presenters for the event (along with Dr. Albert Mosley, President at Gammon School of Theology).

It is Dr. Watson’s connection, or more accurately reconnection, of the class meeting with the mission of the church which excites me. We know full well the stated mission of the United Methodist Church – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Clergy tend to get stuck in fruitless debate over precisely what or who a “disciple” is.  The technical navel gazing debate is more often than not a form of work avoidance.  Or, as a friend of mine puts it, “it may be complex but it is not complicated.”  I’ll stake my own flag in a fairly straightforward shot-hand definition.  A disciple of Christ is a committed disciplined follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If the reader wishes a bit more, I’ll add “who continues in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, prayers and the breaking of bread while reaching out to share Christ with all others and helping those in need through the deeds of love, justice and mercy”  (See Acts 2:42-47).  Disciples are fully devoted followers of the Lord Jesus Christ living the great commandment (Luke 10:27) and the great commission (Matthew 28:29-20).  As already stated, it is not complicated, but it is complex.

Disciples are made not born.  Wesleyan’s have always understood that people are transformed into disciples primarily through small groups committed to the shaping of the heart.  Indeed, Professor Watson quotes at the opening of the first chapter Methodism’s first two bishops in America, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke:  “We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages.  But the most profitable exercise is a free inquiry into the state of the heart.” (John Ortberg has written an outstanding book, Soul Keeping, which focuses on the “state of the heart.”)

It is the reconnection of the historic class meeting with the primary mission of making disciples that is so exciting in Professor Watson’s work. He notes that we have three primary types of groups. Affinity groups are gathered around common interest.  My wife is in a group that knits stocking hats for infants, especially in situations of poverty, to help protect that most vulnerable among us.  Back in Corpus Christi I was in a small group that cheered on the Chicago Cubs. (It was a religious experience for us but nobody else!)  Affinity groups mostly function around fun and fellowship not making disciples (there are exceptions but as such the spiritual formation engaged in making disciples – attending to the state of one’s soul – is rarely the focal point of an affinity group.

The second major type of groups found in churches are information-driven groups.  Most bible studies fall into this category.  While there is some sharing, the primary purpose is knowledge/curriculum driven.  Such groups are needed and important but rarely reach the level of depth needed for spiritual transformation that leads directly to more mature Christians (i.e. disciples, committed disciplined follows of Jesus Christ as Lord whose live have been transformed by Christ).  Pungently Dr. Watson adds “Methodists became addicted to curriculum and gradually turned to information-driven groups and away from the class meeting” (p. 7).

The third and most transformative type of group is the class meeting.  Watson’s basic description is instructive.  “A class meeting is a small group that is primarily focused on transformation and not information, where people learn how to interpret their entire lives through the lens of the gospel, build a vocabulary for giving voice to their experience of God, and grow in faith in Christ”  (p. 6). This is where disciples are formed.  In all our fussing and fighting, a recovery of the class meeting or something closely equivalent is necessary to turn from an institutional church back into a movement for Christ.

True transformational spiritual formation groups create disciples of Christ. Therein lies our best hope for a future that captures the Wesleyan vision of holiness of heart and life, justification and sanctification for a and to a hurting and hungry world.  I pray for such a movement for Christ!

The Force at Skellig Michael ©

I first caught sight of Skellig Michael while on vacation in Ireland last summer. On a long dream of trip (over 10 years in gestation) with dear friends, we were driving the beautiful Ring of Kerry in Southwestern Ireland.  The costal scenery 04island wholewas rugged, evoking fantasies of wild Ireland.

When I last saw Skellig Michael (a couple of weeks ago), I was watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, the movie closes with a dramatic confrontation with Luke Skywalker on the austere crags of Skellig Michael.  The Jedi “Force” struggles towards an awakening to combat the forces of evil.

Something similar took place for real on Skellig Michael. Saint Patrick began his epic missionary evangelism in the second half of the 5th century. As the country wrestled with the truth of the Christian faith, other Christ followers stepped forward.  One of those was the famous teach named Finnian.  “At Clonard Finnian built a little cell and a church of clay and wattle, and entered on a life of study, mortification, and prayer. The fame of his learning and sanctity soon spread, and scholars of all ages flocked from every side to his monastic retreat. Finnian established a monastery modeled on the practices of Welsh monasteries, and based on the traditions of the Desert Fathers and the study of Scripture. The rule of Clonard was known for its strictness and asceticism”  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnian_of_Clonard). He was a great teacher of the Christian Faith who educated people such as Saint Columba of Iona fame.  Later Finnian moved to found the monastery at Skellig Michael as a place of retreat and learning, believed to be in the 6th century. There remained a functioning monastery on Skellig Michael until the 12th or 13th century, a period of roughly 600+ years.

So why does all this ancient history matter? It matters because there is a witness offered by the courageous monks of Skellig Michael that would inform and guide us in our day. The real force was awakened on Skellig Michael and didn’t involve Jedi Knights.  It involved people who stood up and stood out for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  They did so in an environment where faith and values were contested between pagan Druidic Ireland (with all its well documented cruelty) and the emerging Christian Faith.  We need to do the same today.09crosses

Secondly, the true force of Skellig Michael — Jesus Christ — led to a great awakening in Ireland. Even with all its flaws, Christian Ireland has been a beacon of hope and learning in our darkened world.  Don’t take my word for it.  Read Thomas Cahill’s marvelous little book How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Third, the hardship and the sacrifice of the monks call us to stand up for Christ in our world today. The days of nominal Christianity are a waning force.  This is actually a good thing.  The monks point us to a hopeful inspired future because the force, the real force is with us!

The Sons and Daughter of the San Antonio Episcopal Area are Going Home ©

Rio Texas, Central Texas & the Work of a Bishop

By now many regular readers of this blog are aware that I will be serving as one of four bishops providing episcopal supervision to the Rio Texas Conference until Sept. 1. Bishop Janice Huie (Texas Conference) will serve as the bishop of record. Bishops Joel Martinez (retired), Robert Schnase (Missouri Conference) and I will each provide specific areas of leadership for the Rio Texas Conference. The vacancy in the Rio Texas Conference (San Antonio Episcopal Area) was created when then Bishop Jim Dorff resigned from the episcopal office and surrendered his credentials as an elder in the United Methodist Church for misconduct.

four interim bishops for Rio Texas-HuieThe team approach for covering an episcopal area is unprecedented. Each of the four bishops selected to server Rio Texas was elected to the episcopacy out of one of the predecessor conferences that united to form the new Rio Texas Conference. (Bishop Martinez was elected out of the Rio Grande Conference. Bishops Huie, Schnase and I were elected out of the Southwest Texas Conference.) For all of us, there is deep sense of wanting to help with a conference we love. As one of my colleagues put it, “the sons and daughter of the San Antonio Episcopal Area are going home.”

Wfour interim bishops for Rio Texas-Martinezhere all of this gets very difficult is balancing the work of our assigned conferences – to which we are all deeply committed – with the need to engage in compassionate leadership for the Rio Texas Conference.

In my case, next week will combine attempts to meet with both the Central Texas Conference Cabinet and the Rio Texas Conference Leadership Team & Cabinet (two meetings). It means driving to Oklahoma City on Monday for a meeting and then driving back in time to catch a flight to San Antonio Monday night. Tuesday morning will involve a planning meeting with the four interim bishops for Rio Texas-Schnasefour bishops in the morning and a meeting of what we are calling the Rio Texas Leadership Team in the afternoon. We will then meet with the Rio Texas Cabinet Wednesday morning. I will fly home that afternoon and hope to make it in time to join the Central Texas Cabinet in session. Then there’s the Texas Wesleyan Board meeting on Friday, and Saturday finds me at First Round Rock for a Leadership gathering in the morning and in Glen Lake that afternoon to meet with the Vital Leadership Academy.

I hope to spend the whole final week of January in Central Texas. The heart of the week will be sharing with Dr. John McKellar in teaching the High Octane Preaching class. The first week in February involves the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) College of Bishops meeting at Perkins School of Theology. Followed by our Central Texas Conference Cabinet Inventory Retreat the next week and the launch of the 2016 Bishop Brown Bag Book Study the following week. And so it goes.

People ask me all the time what a bishop does. My short answer is “lead.” My slightly longer answer goes back to the historic understanding of the office as it developed both in the biblical church (see I & II Timothy) and the early Christian church. The word bishop means overseer. The bishop has oversight (guardian) authority for both the spiritual and temporal affairs of the Church of Jesus Christ. Spiritual authority involves the great teaching office of the episcopacy. A bishop guides the church to continue in the Apostles doctrine and prayers (see Acts 2:42). The “temporal” part of being a bishop involves earthly leadership of the church in very practical ways – assigning clergy, providing oversight of fiscal accountability, helping establish systems of education and learning, dealing with legal concerns and property issues and most of all, guiding missional strategies that “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That is the short answer.

Being a bishop is awesome and incredibly humbling. Most days I love the ministry. Some days it is very, very hard. I am honored to be going home to help Rio Texas. I love being the bishop of the Central Texas Conference. I ask for your prayers and support in the difficult eight-month period of joint oversight.

How Did You Spend Your Christmas Break? ©

Do you remember the typical first assignment for an elementary school student on returning to school in the fall? Growing up we often (virtually always) had to write a paper on “What did you do with your summer vacation?”  It was a fun assignment.

As we flew back from Boston on the 2nd of January, my mind turned to the packed month ahead of me.  It has started quickly:  Worship at Ovilla United Methodist Church and a tour of the wreckage from the Christmas storms.  The response of Ovilla and other wonderful congregations in the area has been inspiring.  The work of disaster relief under Rev. Laraine Waughtal through the Center for Mission Support has been outstanding.  The greater connectional United Methodist Church through UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief) has been (as always!) tremendous (including an immediate $10,000 grant)!

Monday found me in the office and then on the road down to Austin for the meeting of the Conclave (a Texas Methodist Foundation Clergy group made up of the active bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction). I’ll preach at Cross Plains UMC this Sunday for the tenth anniversary of the fire that swept through the community.  That fine congregation gives meaning to the word resilient.  Monday we have a “Strategic Focus Conference” at the Conference Center.  Tuesday and Wednesday I’ll be in Houston for a meeting of the Council of Bishops Executive Committee (COB).  Thursday the General Secretaries and Presidents of the various agencies of the United Methodist Church will join the COB Executive Committee for a planning meeting on our shared worldwide ministries.  I have hopes of being home late on the 16th to sleep in my own bed.

I share all that both by way of inviting the reader to catch a glimpse of my world but more importantly to think spiritually about the question, “How I spent my Christmas break?” I operate out of the conviction that most (all) of us have similarly hectic stress and overly scheduled lives.  Even my retired parents ages 95 and 91 seem inordinately busy to me.  [Hmm, make a mental note, Mike, you need to go down to Kerrville and talk to those kids about slowing down.]

We speak easily of holidays and tend to forget that the root of the word is “Holy Days.” Recreation equates to re-create.  Vacation, time off, … whatever you want to call it, links to our need for “downtime” and especially quiet time.  As I met with my Spiritual Director (a retired Navy Chaplain now serving as pastor of a UMC in Colorado), he issued a mutual challenge to the two us to increase our quiet time, our time of prayer and solitude, of reading scripture and meditating on God’s Holy Word.

All of which brings me back to the importance of taking a Christmas break. There is more going on here than an opportunity to be lazy.  There is potentially something basic to our spiritual formation.  I don’t know what you did but, Jolynn and I feasted on grandchildren (which is why we needed to come home to rest!).  Christmas in Falls Church, Virginia included great conversations with our daughter and son-in-law and even greater time playing with 2½ year old granddaughter Grace.  A great highlight, far greater than any present, was meeting our newest grandchild, 5 week old Samuel David Meek for the first time.  I simply couldn’t get enough of holding him.

On December 26th we flew up to Boston to join our son and daughter-in-law with her extended family in taking part in the baptism of middle grandchild, 5 month old Simon Michael Gabrielse-Lowry on the last Sunday of 2015.  It really was holy time for us.  Super Simon and I giggled and laughed and carried on together in a re-creating way!

I recite my own history by way of asking the reader to think back and reflect on how you spent your Christmas break. Did the light of Christ break in the joy of family time?  Perhaps instead it came in the quiet of alone time or maybe in the glory of worship or even perhaps in the chaos of life.  However it happened this is (or can be) holy time we all need as we step into this New Year of our Lord 2016 – Anno Domino.

Remember the hackneyed but immensely true mantra: Wise-men (and Wise-women!) still seek Him.

Living Christmas into the New Year ©

How do we embrace this joy from God which Christmas calls us to? We know, we surely know, that it is not meant to be a one day phenomenon.

The shepherds guide us in living Christmas. The first principle of application is the most simple. They went.  Not only did they go, they went with haste.  It takes two to make a relationship.

After my first date with Jolynn, my wife, I was so impressed I couldn’t believe she’d really want to date me. Rather than risk rejection, I decided I wasn’t going to bother calling her again.  Thank God for Eric McKinney.  He said, “Let her make that decision.  You can at least show her you’re interested in a relationship.”

The same is to be said for our relationship with God. He has come to us so that we might go to him.  The angel’s announcement of good news is an invitation to go to God.  Faith which transforms fields of fear into pastures of peace is born in the simple act of going to God.

Notice with me the second very straightforward application of great joy. “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child” Luke 2:16-17).

They shared what they had seen and heard.  They formed the first community of praise and service.  It is instructive that this was a community endeavor.  There was none of this nonsense of a private spiritual quest.  Our relationship with God lives and grows in the sharing.  The more we give it away, the more it comes back to us.  There is no private truth here but a public offering.

Where is the greatest joy for you at Christmas? If I ask myself that question, the answer comes easily.  The greatest joy is in the sharing.  This is a part of the purpose of gift giving.  The object is not how much loot I can accumulate, but rather to experience the good news of great joy.  Such an experience comes in sharing as those shepherds first discovered.  For this night to be more than a pause in the parade of life but to become what it is meant to be – the defining moment – it must be shared.  Shared not just by being together but by sharing the message and purpose of the angel’s announcement; the sign of God’s salvation in a baby born to us and for us.

The third application of great joy is demonstrated in what the shepherds did when they left the manger. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). They offered praise to God.  The act of praise transforms our spirits, cements our relationship, and bonds our allegiance.  Praise is an act which carries within its being the power to make this more than just a one night stand.

The fourth application of living Christmas is unmistakably straightforward and unmistakably counter cultural. The news of this night is not restricted for the right of the believing few. Look again at what the Bible teaches.  The good news of great joy for all people comes initially to shepherds in a field.  Shepherds had to work all the time, even on the Sabbath.  They were known for their tough irreligious coarseness.  Ask the good people of that day what groups were outside the faith and one group they would mention would be shepherds.  And yet, it is to them the angels first came with the news.

Or consider Mary and Joseph, the holy couple. They might pass for that day’s version of the middle class.  Status and rank they did not have.  Wealth was not theirs.  And yet they of all people are most blest.

And then there were the heavenly host. The great army of God’s angels like the stars above proclaims the good news of great joy for all people.  There can be no doubt, none at all, this news of God’s birth, love, presence and care is for all people.  Whoever you are, wherever you have been, whatever you have done, the Lord of all creation offers Himself to you this night in grace, an amazing radically free forgiving and redeeming love.

When I was Senior Pastor of University UMC in San Antonio one of my parishioners passed on a story about ministry we shared in at that church. It is a ministry many of our Central Texas Conference churches share in.  One man wrote of his experience of good news of great joy for all people:  “….I was serving a jail sentence.  It was the greatest mistake I had ever made.  ….Surely God had washed his hands of me….. Near Christmas I started looking for a present I could send my daughter to let her know I still loved her.  …in a catalogue I found a …gold chain with a charm that read:  ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’.  … [but] I discovered that I had missed the deadline for Christmas delivery.  I sent a card instead.

“Christmas Day came. When I called home my wife thanked me for the gift that had arrived for our daughter.  I [was] confused.  Then I remembered filling out an application with the prison’s Angel Tree ministry.  Someone would send my daughter a present in my name.

“‘It’s a beautiful gold chain,’ my wife said ‘with a charm that says ‘Daddy’s Little Girl.’’ No one had known about the necklace—except God.  And he sent his ministering angels to show me I wasn’t forgotten” (E-mail titled “Under the Angel Tree” by Michael Montalvo for Guidepost).

The story is not over. Christmas is far from finished.  It is to be lived out in the coming New Year of our Lord 2016.

  1. Go to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
  2. Share what you have seen and heard.
  3. Offer praise to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  4. Remember, the Gospel is for Everyone.

MAY THE LORD’S NEW YEAR FIND YOU SATUARATED WITH AND SHARING THE NEWS OF THE SAVIOR’S BIRTH!

A Baby Born for You ©

I readily and honestly confess I am into babies right now. After an important meeting at the Conference Center this week, I stood around with other grandfathers swamping pictures.  Monday night, December 21st, we shall fly to Washington D.C. to spend Christmas with our daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter (2 &1/2 yr. old “Amazing” Grace).  While there I will hold for the first time our 1 month old grandson Sam (a.k.a. “Yosemite”).  Then on the 26th, we will fly to Boston where our five month old grandson son Simon (a.k.a. “Super” Simon) will be baptized on the 27th of December.

Even as baby bonked as I am, I know that the real baby of focus is one named Jesus. Do you remember the oft told story of a “little boy who was given a part in the church Christmas program? It wasn’t much of a part, just one line.  He was to say the angelic announcement:  ‘Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.’  Mom, Dad, everyone in the family helped him learn his line.  He went over and over it till he had it down pat.  The night of the program came; the crowd filled the sanctuary.  It came time for his one line and facing that mass of people he just froze in fear.  Silence descended as everyone waited for him to speak.  Finally, he raised his arms and in a loud voice said, ‘Boy, do I have good news for you!’”

It is a baby and he is born for you! His name is Jesus.  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

On one level this good news can become too easily a part of our vocabulary and life. The ancients understood a truth we in our niceties seek to avoid.  If all of us in some way or shape have departed from life with God, sinned is the biblical term, then what we justly merit is damnation.  The job failure…it’s just what you deserve; the broken relationship…hey, that’s your problem; the shattered dream…tough luck; the crippling illness…those are the breaks.  Terrorism … what do you expect, sin can be international too.  But such is not the case where God’s good news is heard!

This good news which splits fear asunder is the reason for the season, the birth of a baby who in fact is God with us and for us. The Bible puts it this way: “God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

On another level this is too incredible to be really believed. Some called it a stumbling block and others sheer foolishness (I Corinthians 1:23).  The sign of a new relationship with God which might rescue us from a field of fear is a homeless baby laid in a cow’s feeding trough?!

All this is at God’s initiative. We don’t will God into coming.  We don’t beg, borrow or steal the Lord’s appearing.  We certainly don’t earn God’s favor.  Yet God comes to us in what is least to be feared – a baby.  What is more helpless than a baby?  What is more in need of love and care than a baby?  What more needs protection and support than a baby?  Yet this is how God enters the world.  All this is good news of great joy!

The great joy of His birth is not a pause in the march of days. It is not a temporary state of caroling good will.  It is a change of relationship.  It is good news of great joy because from hence forth our relationship with God is one of love and not fear, of compassion and not judgment.  We experience great joy because our sins are forgiven by this one whose birth we celebrate.  “To you is born a Savior” (Luke 2:11).

By way of illustration, Dr. James Harnish writes: “Beauty and the Beast is a classic tale of radical transformation.  It’s the story of an angry beast whose only hope of being transformed into a genuine human being is to be loved in his unlovable condition by a beautiful woman.  At first, Beauty is frightened by the Beast’s large stature, his meanness, his power.  But over time, the unearned love of Beauty transforms the Beast into a man” (James Harnish, Come Home for Christmas: An Advent Study for Adults, p. 34).

That transformation process is launched this night by none other than God. It is a renewal of life that is offered to the shepherds terrified in the field.  It is the same new life offered to us in our fields of fear.  Do you remember that line from Robert Frost’s poem “The Death of a Hire Man” in which a person named Warren says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” This is the great joy we are offered this night; but with one twist, one great reversal.  We don’t have to go to God. God in Christ comes to us.  This is what is meant by salvation.  All the talk of saving has to do with the restoration of a relationship with God; who in divine beauty comes to us as a baby to woo us and love us.  “The angelic chorus anticipates the jubilation which rings throughout the gospel and especially the joy in heaven which Jesus declares to ensue upon rescuing the lost sheep” (G. B. Caird, Saint Luke, p. 61). Jesus put it this way.  “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

One of the great early Christian leaders, a man named Ambrose, put it this way: “He was a baby and a child, so that you may be a perfect human.  He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you may be freed from the snares of death.  He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar.  He was on earth that you may be in the stars.  He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens.  ‘He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might be rich.’ …

“You see that he is in swaddling clothes. You do not see that he is in heaven.  You hear the cries of an infant, but you do not hear the lowing of an ox recognizing its Master, for the ox knows his Owner and the donkey his Master’s crib.”  (Ambrose, from Arthur A. Just Jr., Editor, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament III—Luke, p. 38 [internal quotes, references, 2 Cor 8:9]).

Behold the baby. In Him lies the birth of eternity as earth and heaven touch this night.  Come, enter a Bethlehem stable and lean over the manger.  “It’s a boy!”  And He is for you.

nativity_stained glass

Music as Witness to the Heart of the Gospel ©

Over the past three weeks I have had the privilege of attending three different Advent worship services that were structured around hymns and carols, choral presentations and contemporary praise, full throated singing and quiet prayer music. Each of the three services has brought a deep joy and great blessing to my life.  So too the congregations were blessed and spiritually lifted.

As I mentally gaze back over those services of worship, I am struck again on how music and theology intersect at the heart to the gospel, the core of our faith. In the music, the hymns, carols and praise choruses – we spiritually soar above the shattered landscape of modern living and offer, both to ourselves and to those who do not know Christ, the heart of the gospel.

Today in my devotional time I was reading E. Stanley Jones’ The Way.  This great Christian called attention to Luke 11:9-10. (“And I tell you: Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.”)  Dr. Jones noted that in “asking” we move from question to quest by knocking on the door of faith.  What else can be done in faith but journey metaphorically and spiritual once again to a Bethlehem stable?  What else must be done but to give Him, the Lord, once again our gifts?

As I reflected on this teaching in my own mind I made the connection about the way music itself helps us ask and seek after the heart of the gospel. Music compels us to inquiry and searching through its very beauty.  This is what happened to me as I participated in these three worship experiences.  One of the most evangelistic things a Christian can do is to invite a non- (or nominal) Christian to such a worship.    What great theology and even greater witness is taught in the faith songs of the season!  Consider the witness:

“O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show and cause us in her ways to go.”
(“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Hymn No.211, The United Methodist Hymnal)

 Or

“What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud, the baby, the son of Mary.”
(“What Child is This,” Hymn No.219, The United Methodist Hymnal)

Connect the hymn-song witness with the way the Apostle Paul focuses us on the heart of the gospel. “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified” (I Corinthians 2:1-2).  I suspect Paul could have almost as easily said, “and to preach him born in a manger.”

This is the heart of the gospel. The outrageous claim that the God of the Universe, the Lord of creation itself, was born and “dwelt among us” (literally pitched his tent in our midst! See John 1:14). This too remains at the heart of the gospel witness as expressed in the very closing verses of Holy Scripture.  “I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God’” (Revelation 21:3).  It is still true today!

Here revelation is piled on outrage, illuminated by a star, and proclaimed to shepherds and kings; and yes, in music proclaimed again as God’s great truth and even greater love to you and me.

“In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.”
(“In the Bleak Midwinter,” Hymn No.221, The United Methodist Hymnal)

 

Ministry and Mission Celebrations ©

Amid all of the bad news we hear, often the good news gets lost. Many of us have experienced the reality of two manifestations of the church existing side by side within the same Conference.  On the one hand there are those places of shrinkage, decline and lament.  On the other hand, there are those mission stations of the advancing Kingdom of God (i.e. churches) that are reaching out in new and vital ways to offer Christ by word and deed to our fear soaked world.

In this season of Advent the great hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” becomes our prayer. Consider verse 7:

O Come, Desire of nations bind
all peoples in one heart and mind.
From dust thou brought us forth to life;
deliver us from earthly strife.”
(Hymn No. 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” The United Methodist Hymnal)

Advent reminds us not only of the Lord’s coming birth but also to look for signs of God’s presence today! Last week I attended a meeting of the Conference Council of Finance and Administration.  The news was good.  Really good.  Churches are reaching out in all sorts of ways with enhanced ministry and mission to share the love of Christ with others.  We have a great deal of ministry and mission to celebrate.

We celebrate:

  • Two awards from the General Board of Global Ministry (GBGM) and the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA).
  • The highest Conference giving to Latvia through the Mission Initiative
  • The highest increase in missionary support in the United Methodist Church in 2014 (of 54 US Conferences) through The Advance as a part of General Board of Global Ministry missional outreach. This includes missional effort in a host of different countries (including but not limited to)
    • Kenya
    • Latvia
    • Honduras
    • Panama
    • Mexico
    • Tanzania
    • Congo
    • Macedonia (the Balkans) to name a few
  • The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) recognition for giving 100% of a Connectional Mission Giving as a part of the worldwide UMC
  • The highest percentage payout through November for Connectional Mission Giving (CMG) since 2008.

This great work of sharing in the name of Christ is not limited to overseas but is taking place in our very midst!

We celebrate:

  • Recognition for CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission) work with recovery in Louisiana
  • Navarro, Williamson, Ellis, Erath Counties flood relief work through the Conference and significant financial support from UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief, the great disaster relief work of the United Methodist Church globally)
  • Tremendous ongoing ministry through our office of Disaster Response and Volunteers in Mission which includes long-term involvement with places that have suffered from natural disasters (relief and help that stays after others have left!)
  • Partnership with the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference

On top of this great mission and ministry effort I also want to celebrate and gives thanks for the larger connection to the church we call the United Methodist Church. Churches and groups of the Central Texas Conference has engaged in many (!) mission trips at Sager Brown and aid to Louisiana in recovering from floods.  With the news of serious flooding in part of our own Conference here in Texas, I received a check for $7,000 from the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Dr. Don Cottrill, Provost of the Louisiana Conference, wrote:

Enclosed with this letter is a check in the amount of $7,000 made to the Central Texas Conference. This is a donation from the Louisiana Conference to your Conference to assist with the recovery efforts from the recent disasters that have impacted your area and your congregations. Along with this check come our prayers for you, those in leadership of the response efforts, and those personally involved in these disasters.
“The Louisiana Conference remembers with gratitude the response from your Conference Cabinet and membership to our own natural disasters. We know the difference you and many others made to us through prayers, volunteers, and monetary contributions to aid in the long process toward recovery. This is a small way to say ‘thank you’ and to support you in whatever ways are most appropriate.”

In this time of Advent we have much to give thanks for and celebrate! Truly the Lord is leading us!  “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – God with us!

 

Lament, Challenge and Hope ©

I confess that I had initially written a different blog to share today.  (It will be published on Friday instead.)  However the tragedy of events in San Bernardino, California brought me to a halt.  No doubt as with many of you, I watched transfixed to the broadcast of the events that followed.  As the story of the mass shooting unfolded and more details became known, I found myself engulfed by tragedy, despair and anger.  As one writer put it, shootings feel like the new normal.  Anguish engulfs us once again.

Quieter reflection has brought me to a point of lament, challenge and hope.  Careful readers of the Holy Scriptures know that there is a category of Psalms called simply Psalms of Lament.  Some are corporate, for the nation and people collectively.  Others are more individual in context.  Psalm 42 speaks to my heart and mind at such a time.  It echoes the confusing jumble of my emotions and thoughts.

“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?” …

I will say to God, my solid rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I have to walk around,
sad, oppressed by enemies?”
10 With my bones crushed, my foes make fun of me,
constantly questioning me: “Where’s your God now?”  (Psalm 42:1-3, 9-10)

The most faithful among us ask, “Where is God?”  The deepest of disciples long for the very presence of the Lord.

In our lament-filled longing, faith calls us to remember we follow a crucified Lord.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is present amidst the bullet riddled terror of the shootings.  Christ is with us as first responders reach out to help.  The Savior’s presence at the epicenter of violence and terror challenges me with a divine calling.

I am challenged to turn away from the worship of violence.  I am challenged by the Savior to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).  We live in a world that often gives violence a final word.  War haunts our globe.  Terrorism has become a fact of political expression.  Interpersonal violence stalks our streets and infects our families.  It is a short step from the venting of rage verbally (in person or on the internet) to the perpetration of violence as an expression of a false, corrosive righteousness.  Stop and reflect on how many television programs are structured around a violent theme or plot.  We have a cultural fascination with a violence that needs to be repented.

Please hear me carefully.  Prudence in safety and protection is not a bad thing.  Nor am I attempting here to enter the debate about gun control.  Proper measures for protection are good and to be taken.  While I was converted to following Christ as a young adult among the Quakers, I left that group (which I still respect highly today!) because I am not a pacifist.  Christian just war theory offers one faithful avenue for confronting oppression.

Beneath our response and lament, our rage and anguish lies the deeper issue of moral challenge.  We are adrift as a moral culture today.  Again carefully, I am not just referring to America or just to terrorists.  Our world culture is adrift.  We have played fast and loose with a moral relativism that has led us away from the Lord.  Herein lies our challenge.  We must confess reliance on false gods (especially the false gods of violence and self-reliance) and return to the Lord.  This begins with each of us individually and links us corporately together in Christ.

The challenge of returning to a greater faithfulness brings us back to deeper, truer hope.  Let the Psalmist speak again to our world and to us even as we are caught in a horrifying new normal.

“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.” (Psalm 42:11)

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