Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #12 ©

The Union of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy or Holiness of Heart and Life Reconsidered

As we move into the new year, I want to pick back up on a theme, a series of blogs, I started early last fall. I wrote on the subject “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way.” At that time I outlined a series of blogs that would conclude with blog number 15. Last fall I wrote through blog #11 and then moved to other (related) topics. With the United Methodist Church facing a possible schism, or splintering, at an upcoming Called General Conference in February of 2019, I am convinced now more than ever that it is important we go back and reclaim our original roots.

I cannot shake a series of conversations I have had with a variety of different people over the past year. One particular interchange is lodged in my mind. Last October I shared insights from a meeting with Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in the Vatican offices across the street from St. Peter’s. Bishop Farrell shared a conviction that different parts of our larger Christian family had insights that we all need to learn from. He explicitly commented that the Methodist movement brought to the wider Christian dialogue a sense of the importance of holiness and holy living.

For John Wesley and the early Methodists, this deep sense of holiness of heart and life was a core element of the Christian faith. In fact, so methodical were the “Wesleyans” about pursuing holiness of heart and life that they were called “Methodists.”

Recently I preached on an important passage from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel. Do this, whether I come and see you or I’m absent and hear about you. Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).

To the best of my knowledge only one other time does the Apostle Paul use the phrase “of most import” or “of first importance” or some other equivalent. The other occasion is found in 1 Corinthians 15, the third and fourth verses when he writes to a letter to the church at Corinth. “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). On that occasion he writes of a central, core, cardinal doctrine (that means “teaching”) of the Christian faith – the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. He spends a chapter arguing that if you don’t buy the doctrine of resurrection, you can throw the rest of this away; it is a waste of your time – “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless;” he write a few short verses later, “you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).

There (in 1 Corinthians 15) the issue is of critical belief – doctrinal importance (orthodoxy = right belief). In this passage from Philippians the issue is of critical practice – the way we live (the technical term is orthopraxy). The two – orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) are inseparably linked. Break one and the other soon will fail. The original Wesleyan movement took this connection so seriously that Wesley linked living “together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel” (Philippians 1:27) with the Articles of Religion as a doctrinal core he established for the Wesleyan way of faith. (See Paragraph 104, Section 3 – Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.)

Those early “Methodists” arnchored this crucial connection on the teaching of Jesus. Jesus uses the reference of the word “important or importance” always to refer to the issues related to the Great Commandment. For example in Mark 12 when asked by a legal expert which commandment is the most important “Jesus replied, ‘The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these’” (Mark 12:29-31).

Every time our Lord and Master references what is most important, he points back to behaviors that reflect the theological heart of the Christ faith. The doctrinal bedrock of monotheism is welded to holy living. When the Apostle Paul instructs the infant struggling church at Philippi to “Live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel,” (Philippians 1:27) he is reflecting the very heart of the teaching of Jesus.

Professor Scott Kisker writes: “As he [John Wesley] read the works of the early Church Fathers, and English devotional works his mother recommended, a particular vison of the Christian life and of the Church captured John – one he carried for the rest of his life. It was a vison of simplicity, of holiness” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist?, pp. 29-30). The essence of holiness of heart and life shakes out in what is called the doctrine of sanctification.

The conviction that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are welded together is at the heart of the Wesleyan Way. Confessing Christ as Lord and Savior necessarily involves us in the deeds and actions of love justice and mercy. In today’s language, Wesleyans are by their very being involved in personal and social holiness. This, we believe, is not the just the way of a faithful church, it is very way of Christ. In doctrinal allegiance to Jesus as Lord, we commit ourselves to live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ! The so called social gospel is inseparably linked to the very heart of the Christian faith and specifically to the Wesleyan Way.

In Honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I sent this letter via email from our Conference database on January 10th to all the local church congregations and lay members across the Central Texas Conference, but I also wanted to share with you. May we continue the groundbreaking work done by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
-Bishop Mike Lowry

Dear Friends in Christ:

I am writing to you to convey an important date and even more important ministry in which we, as the church, are engaged. This coming April 4 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I believe it important that we stand together as Christians in a clear response against racism and violence in all its forms. Furthermore, I believe the tragedy of this great leader’s death offers us a special time and opportunity to remember his legacy of racial justice and mercy. In pausing to remember, may we rededicate ourselves to a fully inclusive society that honors and loves all of God’s children.

I write now to ask that you and your congregation consider in some way recommitting to the call for racial justice and the end of violence in our society on or around April 4th. We live in a nation that has been ripped asunder by deeply imbedded lingering racial divides. I need only mention events like the demonstration in Charlottesville, the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the tragedy of violence over shootings of young African American males and police officers. These events cry out to us to be a people of Christ who stand for racial justice in a way that honors all.

I realize that Easter this year is April 1st and that most pastors and churches have appropriately gone “all out” over Holy Week and Easter to walk in the footsteps of Christ to the cross and beyond in the celebration of His resurrection. In most congregations, the Sunday after Easter is one of the lowest attendance Sundays of the year. I further realize that for most pastors it can be difficult to summon a lot of energy to do anything the week immediately following Easter. Thus, I write inviting you at an appropriate time this Spring to lift up, celebrate and remember Dr. King’s witness and legacy to us as a Christian saint and the call of Christ that claims all of us to be people at work for justice and mercy in our communities, society and wider world.

It is my hope that pastors and laity will come together lifting the cause of racial justice remembering Dr. King’s great Christian witness. I leave it to your best prayerful good judgment on how to best respond and honor this fiftieth anniversary of his death. 

Yours in Christ,

Bishop Mike Lowry

Transformation and the WIG: An Update Report ©

Last September Mart United Methodist Church launched a new faith community built around what they call J.A.M. (Jesus and Me). The new faith community is focused on serving pre-K through 6th grade children in the Mart ISD. Pastor Amy Anderson shares the following story:

One of the first children to sign up was a 2nd grader named Peyten. She came from a single parent household where the mother was a well-known drug addict. One month after we started, Peyten was taken by CPS and placed in the care of an older brother in Waxahachie. The mother, Tammy, as well as CPS gave us permission to remain in contact with the child. We have been able to send her cards, letters, and children’s devotional items appropriate for her age. We also supplied her with Christmas gifts through our children’s change-for-change mission offering. She is doing extremely well.

Her mother, Tammy, got “scared straight” so to speak. Losing her daughter is what it took to make her face reality. She voluntarily went into outpatient rehab and began coming to church. She has also joined us for dinner on Wednesday evenings and stays for bible study. This has been ongoing since the middle of October. She has tested clean and negative for drugs 6 weeks in a row. Last Sunday, Tammy came to me after church in tears and said, “I want to let everyone know that I want to follow Jesus from now on. This town talked about me and judged me but this church loved and embraced me and showed me a better way to live. I want to be a part of this.”

I am so excited to say that she has chosen to profess her faith in worship this coming Sunday, join the church, and has asked to be baptized. We are bringing in a horse trough and celebrating in a big way. It is because of the New Faith Community of J.A.M. that we were able to reach her, through her daughter. She has a long road ahead of her in so many ways but, spiritually, we have a plan in action to help disciple her and a strong group of folks to walk with her on her faith journey. God is good…all the time!

I am awed by the grace of God exhibited through a church responding to the wildly important goal (WIG) of “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  This is truly a story of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in the lives and ministry of a local congregation. It is a narrative of the grace of Christ reflected in a redeemed life.

Narrative (story) and metrics go together. They are a report of God in action moving in, through, and with us. There are crucial lead measures that reflect a commitment in the transformational ministry of making disciples of Christ. Three crucial lead measures for the Conference & Districts are:

1. The number of churches with measurable goals
2.  The number of churches growing in average worship attendance
3. The number of new faith communities

For local congregations, there are also vitally important lead measures which go with stories of transformational disciples. Local church lead measures are:

1. The number of people engaged in faith sharing mission
2. The number of first time visitors
3. Setting measurable goals for average worship attendance and professions of faith growth
4. The number of new faith communities
5. The number of small groups

A couple of additional narrative stories tie to the key metric of the number of new faith communities. Rev. Meg Witmer-Faile, Associate Director of the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth shared the following:

“Just wanted to share with you that I attended the launch of Saginaw UMC’s ‘Simply Worship’ 9:45 AM new faith community yesterday. As you likely recall from their grant application, this new worship service was one of the congregation’s Holy Focus goals, so it is encouraging to see it coming to fruition. Also, they were very grateful to receive the $10,000 grant and expressed that before the end of the worship service, recognized me as representing the CECG/Conference Leadership.

It was a good worship experience, seemingly well-received, and well-attended (@75-80, I believe). Jason, Estee, Greg (the new part-time worship leader for this service), and their Holy Focus worship planning team had obviously prepared well for the launch of this new service. …

One additional note, the woman I sat with during worship yesterday, shared with me that she had visited the Saginaw church three times, had had coffee with Jason to learn more about the church, and had come to church that morning specifically for the Simply Worship service. It was obvious to me that she was comfortable and engaged in worship. What a gift and a blessing—grateful!”

Again the narrative ties to changing metric and God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is active in our faithfulness. One additional narrative I offer comes from Trinity United Methodist Church in Arlington. Dr. Dean Posey, Lead Pastor at Trinity, writes to Rev. Ben Disney, East District Superintendent and Rev. Mike Ramsdell, Executive Director of the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth:

“I wanted to share with both of you some very good news about Trinity. Our average Sunday School attendance for 2017 was 505, and the average worship attendance for 2017 was 645. Our WIG is to increase our Sunday School attendance to 750 by December 2020. We made a decision last fall to add two new worship services beginning January 7, 2018. One worship service is for adults at 9:45am, and the other new service is for children at 11:00am. In addition we added four new Sunday School classes on January 7, 2018 as the first step towards our WIG. I am excited to tell you that last Sunday, January 7 we had 574 in Sunday School and 730 in worship! That is 69 more people in Sunday School and 85 more in worship. We are very excited as we begin this year and look forward to a great 2018 here at Trinity. Thank you both for your encouragement and support.”

Praying Our Way Forward ©

 

It is a famous story and even more famous poem, yet both the story and the poem bear repeating. In the early days of the Second World War, King George the VI gave a Christmas address to the British Empire. In the address he quoted a poem authored by Minnie Haskins. The poem is popularly known as “The Gate of the Year” but the title given it by the author was “God Knows.”

THE GATE OF THE YEAR
‘God Knows’

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

I am asking members of the Central Texas Conference, both lay and clergy, and all others who would join us to share in a special time for prayer for the future of The United Methodist Church.

For over forty years the United Methodist Church has wrestled deeply with how to best respond and be in ministry with our brothers and sisters who identify as LGBTQI. More specifically, The United Methodist Church finds itself in a deep crisis over whether our clergy should be allowed to preside at same-gender weddings and whether “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, Paragraph 304.3) will be eligible for ordination as Deacons and Elders in The United Methodist Church. Currently neither practice is allowed by the Church’s Discipline (church law).

At the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, The United Methodist Church was on the edge of schismatic division over this issue. At the request of the General Conference the Council of Bishops (COB) of The United Methodist Church established a Commission on the Way Forward to bring a report to the a special called General Conference in February of 2019. While this Commission has been meeting, a number of Annual Conferences in the United States have declared their intention (and taken action upon that intention) to refuse to uphold church law as a matter of conscience. The COB has a special called meeting in late February of this year to consider a preliminary draft of the Commission’s report. In its regular meeting in May, the COB will consider the final recommendations of the Commission.

As a part of this larger work, the Council of Bishops have asked we as a people of faith be in prayer together over this potentially denominationally dividing issue. Accordingly, “The Central Texas Conference has been invited by the Council of Bishops to pray for the Commission on a Way Forward from Jan. 28 to Feb 3, 2018. (All other Conferences across the world are also asked to be in prayer over this matter.) You and your local church are invited to join in this important opportunity.

The Council of Bishops has asked each Annual Conference to commit to a week of intentional and fervent prayer for the Commission on the Way Forward. The appointed week for the Central Texas Conference to pray our way forward is Jan. 28 – Feb. 3. I have signed up to be in prayer on Tuesday morning at 7:00 a.m. on January 29th. I both invite and encourage every organization associated with the CTC – each local church, every district office and center of the CTCSC, all Wesley Foundations, extension ministries, UMWs, UMMs, etc. – to claim at least one 15-minute period and devote themselves to prayer.

The Central Texas Conference website has full details and link by which you can sign up for a prayer slot. The great missionary evangelist, pastor and teacher E. Stanley Jones once offered the following benedictory prayer. I now pass it on to you that together we may pray for our Lord to guide us and the Church into the future.

“As you go into the future, remember: The light of God surrounds you. The love of God enfolds you. The presence of God watches over you. The power of God protects you. Wherever you are, God is” (E. Stanley Jones, The Way, April 9).

Heading Into the New Year or When the Camel Dies ©

Yesterday, I closed the Year of our Lord in great joy, praise and thanksgiving. Our youngest grandson, Adam Amittai (Jonah’s father’s name; it means “truth;” otherwise he is known as “Awesome Adam” to me) Gabrielse-Lowry was baptized. In this sacred act (sacrament), we – his family – celebrated God’s presence and embrace of Adam as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What a great way to end one year and begin another!

I have been musing on how we are to head into the new year. There is much that can be written and shared. We could rightly discuss at length such things as faith, commitment, service, etc. Instead, suspecting how tumultuous this new year of Our Lord 2018 will be, I choose to focus on what to do when the camel dies. Allow me to explain.

My wife is a member at Arborlawn UMC, and as an accompanying spouse I get to attend that church more than any other. One of the experiences we enjoyed greatly this Advent was their live nativity celebration. It is a wonderful way to step back into the story of the Savior’s birth and learn again of the ways of God with us! This is not the first time we have attended Arborlawn’s live nativity (and a number of the churches I had the privilege of serving held live nativities themselves). As we sat on a bale of hay watching, people in the know whispered that we should watch the new camel. He entered on cue somewhat rambunctious and rebellious. The week following, I inquired to Rev. Ben Disney (the East District Superintendent and former pastor of Arborlawn) about the “back story” of the camel. He shared the following tale:

“For years Arborlawn UMC has presented a Live Nativity event for the congregation and community. The telling of the Christmas story and the birth of Jesus involves close to 200 volunteers, costumes, set designs, music, dancing angels, and live animals such as a herd of sheep, donkey and a camel.

For 10 consecutive years the same camel appeared in each presentation; an older camel named Elisha who was remarkably gentle and tame. Children were encouraged to surround it and pet it. The camel would always remain calm in spite of loud noises, distractions, children running or large crowds just a few feet away. Every year, without fail, the camel would kneel on cue at the feet of the newborn savior to pay homage to the birth of our savior.

A few years ago it happened. Elisha the camel returned for another performance as part of the Live Nativity pageant. The early presentation of the evening went on without a hitch. As always, on cue, Elisha the camel processed in with the wise men and knelt down to honor the newborn king. Following the early presentation Elisha was escorted to a corral where he waited for the final evening show. Elisha laid down. A few children came over to pet it. One of them remarked that something didn’t seem right. The handler for Elisha said the camel was just sleeping. The children were quickly escorted away. Elisha had passed away.

For the second presentation of the evening no camel was used. The presentation went on without Elisha and the cast improvised as best they could.

The following year a new very young camel was brought in to take the place of Elisha, the older camel. But the younger camel was unlike Elisha. The new, younger camel was nervous and aggressive. The children were not allowed to pet it and the cast held their breath hoping the handler could control him as they processed in for the crucial scene. The new, younger camel did manage to bow down to the newborn child but it was only after a lot of coaxing and pulling on the part of the handler. Defiant and rebellious to the end the newer younger camel was taken quickly to the corral for the safety of the crowd, especially the children.”

What do you do when the camel dies? What do you do when something which seems essential or at least very important, doesn’t work, or moves on, or dies? Those are questions for we who would enter the new year in faith.

The obvious answer is that you trust God and go forward in faith. In sharing his story, Rev. Disney noted, “I do find it intriguing that the final act of the old camel on this earth was to bow down before the lord of lords and the king of kings.” I am more than convinced, I am convicted that the final act of the old camel must be our first act of the New Year.

Epiphany Day is traditionally understood as January 6th. It is the day that the magi (wise men) are said to have arrived to present their gifts to the baby Jesus. So here is where we both end the old year and begin the New Year, in adoration of Christ the Lord. The new young camel came in full of vim and vigor at this year’s live nativity. He was rambunctious. We need his energy in our lives and in the life of the church. But we need it harnessed to the kneeling in faith of the old camel.

From a posture strangely mixed with adoration and enthusiasm, awe and energy, commitment and courage, we are called by the Lord of the New Year to embrace this entrance into uncharted territory. Biblically speaking, the Christmas story isn’t over at all. It is just beginning. Our entry into 2018 must be guided by obedient pioneering faith. We enter the unknown led by the Lord.

Recently I have been reading Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger. I commend it highly. Using the metaphor and model of the Lewis & Clark Expedition for moving into uncharted territory, he offers tremendous insight for how we might move forward into the new year. Bolsinger outlines five critical lessons for leadership in uncharted territory (heading into the New Year).

  1. “The World in front of you is nothing like the world behind you.
  2. No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map.
  3. In uncharted territory, adaptation is everything.
  4. You can’t go alone, but you haven’t succeeded until you’ve survived the sabotage.
  5. Everybody will be changed (especially the leader).”
    (Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, p. 17)

How do we head into the New Year of our Lord 2018? With persistence, perseverance and faith. When the camel dies, we go forward into uncharted territory. Before we do – critically before we do!!- we kneel in adoration and homage. Then, like the young camel, we go forward with zeal.

Happy New Year!

INCARNATION: The Outrageous Claim at the Heart of the Christian Faith, Part 2 ©

A couple of weeks ago the question was posed to the Warmed Hearts Sunday School Class (of which my wife is a member) at Arborlawn United Methodist Church along the lines of “what is the greatest miracle, the incarnation or the resurrection?” As my wife reported the discussion (I was not present), it is a fascinating question, and I have not been able to get it out of my mind. Even more, it is an excellent question. Regardless of how one answers it, the question takes us deep into the realm of core doctrines (teachings), which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith.

I suspect that a good argument can be made for either the incarnation or the resurrection. Even more, my hunch is that a better argument can be made that they are theologically (ultimately) inseparable. This much is certain. Both the incarnation and the resurrection are outrageous claims at the heart of the Christian faith. Hold them together. In one hand, the incarnation – “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14); in the other hand, the resurrection – “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. . . . If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4,14).

Today, the great celebration called Christmas, I’ll take the incarnation as the outrageous claim at the heart of the Christian faith. If the incarnation had not happened, the resurrection could not have happened. I return again and again to Martin Luther’s great series of Christmas sermons (The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton). Luther is purported to have said, “The Gospel is not so much a miracle as a marvel” (Martin Luther, The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton, p. 10). This is so true. We take miracles somehow as an action outside of known scientific laws. I think this is a mistake. (For philosophers who are reading, I would argue that such a definition is a “category mistake.”) The label “marvel” better fits, for the incarnation is a wonder to behold, to take in with breath-stealing awe. God is at work here in our world and even more, in our very midst!

Dr. Bainton (a great history professor and author of the award winning Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther) captures well Luther’s conviction about the incarnation. “Christian teaching is that in Christ God became flesh. Compared with that, no particular miracle matters much. If one could but believe that do lay in the manger, one could let go the star and the angel’s son and yet keep the faith” (The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton, p. 12).

Recently a colleague encouraged me to re-read Annie Dillards’ marvelous book, Teaching a Stone to Talk. Dillard writes about attending a local church stuck back in a remote part of the country. “Week after week I was moved by the pitiableness of the bare linoleum-floored sacristy which no flowers could cheer or soften, by the terrible signing I so loved, by the fatigued Bible readings, the lagging emptiness and dilution of the liturgy, the horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of dreary senselessness pervading the whole, which existed alongside, and probably caused, the wonder of the fact that we came” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, p. 39). As she reflects on the core of the Christian faith she is taken in by the incredible truth and awesome reality of the incarnation, of the outrageous notion that the God of the entire universe is actually with us and for us in Christ. She writes, “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flairs; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, pp. 52-53).

Thus it is, I think, that we come to this day called Christmas and this truth of Christian teaching we call the Doctrine of the Incarnation. John the Evangelist is surely right. “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  Here we must live and move and find our being. This is a stone on which to stand; a foundation on which to build; an outrageous doctrinal core to hold on to at all costs.

In his missionary classic The Christ of the Indian Road, published in 1925, E. Stanley Jones eloquently portrays the powerful difference Christ’s show-and-tell, personal revelation made:

                He did not discourse on the sacredness of motherhood – he suckled as a babe at his mother’s breast and that scene has forever consecrated motherhood….
He did not discourse on the dignity of labor – he worked at a carpenter’s bench and his hands were hard with toil of making yokes and plows, and this forever makes the toil of the hands honorable….
He did not teach in a didactic way about the worth of children – he put his hands upon them and blessed them and setting one in their midst tersely said, “Of such is the kingdom of God.”…
He did not paint in lowing colors the beauties of friendship and the need for human sympathy – he wept at the grave of a friend.
He did not argue the worth of womanhood and the necessity of giving them equal rights – he treated them with infinite respect, gave to them his most sublime teaching, and when he arose from the dead he appeared first to a woman.
He did not teach in the schoolroom manner the necessity of humility – he “girded himself with a towel and kneeled down and washed his disciples’ feet.”
(taken from Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 46)

May the joy of the Savior’s birth be yours. Bishop Mike Lowry, Christmas Day, 2017

The Fourth Sunday in Advent ©

Today, I offer a liturgy for the lighting of the Advent Wreath candles for both the fourth Sunday in Advent and for Christmas Eve. Traditionally (and usually) those are different days. This year, they fall on the same day.

In the Methodist traditions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Christ Candle is lit on Christmas Eve as a sign and symbol of welcoming the newborn Savior into our lives and the life of the world He came to save.  Jolynn and I will be lighting the fourth candle before our traditional Christmas Eve worship this year. We will then use the liturgy for Christmas Eve on Christmas morning. I urge families to use the liturgies in whatever way appears best for their own special celebration of the Savior’s birth. The liturgy is based loosely on an ancient sharing of the Passover meal modified and adopted for Advent. -Bishop Mike Lowry

The Fourth Sunday of Advent
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light four candles as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light four candles?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given to us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The fourth candle stands for the peace of the Lord. In the birth of the baby Jesus, God comes in human flesh and rules among us with peace and justice.”

Read:   Luke 2:1-20

Sing: “The First Noel”
“The first Noel, the angels did say,
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel!”

Prayer:
Lord God, we who live in a world torn by violence; we who live in a culture of clamor quietly approach a Bethlehem stable longing for your peace. As we too receive again the good news of your birth in the baby Jesus, may your peace settle on our hearts, minds, and lives. May your peace which passes all understanding encompass our world and inhabit our homes. Come Lord Jesus, Come! Amen.

 

Christmas Eve or Christmas Day
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 52:7-10

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light four candles and the center Christ Candle as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light four candles and the Christ Candle?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The fourth candle stands for the peace of the Lord. Today (or tonight) we light the Christ Candle in celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus, God with us! “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:3-5).

Read:   John 1:1-14

Sing: “Joy to the World”
“Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and heaven, and nature sing.”

Prayer:
Dear Lord God, on this day (or eve) of your birth as the baby Jesus, we come to give our overwhelming thanks and praise. Your hope is with us; your love surrounds us; your joy fills us and peace settles upon us. In the birth of your Son our Savior and Lord, you declare once again your eternal love for us and for all human kind. O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. Amen.

INCARNATION: The Outrageous Claim at the Heart of the Christian Faith, Part 1 ©

“Whew! You’d better take that sweater to the cleaners,” exclaimed Jolynn shortly after Thanksgiving. I confess, she was right. I had been holding (as much as I possibly could) then seven weeks old Adam Amittai Gabrielse-Lowry on my shoulder. He had rewarded my enthusiastic affection and joy by spitting up, multiple times, on the sweater. The smell of sour milk had left its marking scent all over me.

As I put the sweater in the car along with other clothes to go to the cleaners the following Monday, my thoughts had turned to Advent. Advent is the great time of preparation for the coming of the Savior. Thus it was a short mental leap for me to move from my beloved newest grandchild to the coming birth of the baby Jesus. Frederick Buechner’s words about “God in diapers” stuck in my mind.

Stay with me here, for this is the outrageous claim at the heart of the Christian Faith. God has come to us in the person of a baby named Jesus.

This outrageous claim is embedded firmly in John the Evangelist’s great symphonic opening overture. “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Many a scholar has noted that the phrase translated as “made his home among us” (CEB translation) or “dwelt among us” (KJV) means literally “pitched his tent among us.” Luke offers the awesome grandeur of an angelic announcement. “Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). Matthew shares in a more prosaic phrasing; “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place…. She gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus” (Matthew 1:18, 25). Mark, well Mark only gets at this universe-shaking change of reality in a roundabout way. “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, … After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:1, 14-15).

Each gospel in its own unique way announces a cardinal, core conviction of the Christian doctrine (teaching). It is called simply the Doctrine of the Incarnation. The great Nicene Creed puts it this way:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.”

Scholars define the term “incarnation” as literally meaning “enfleshment.” As one eminent scholar puts it, “incarnation expresses the belief that the divine took human form, or to be more specific, that God’s Word became the human being Jesus from Nazareth” (James D.G. Dunn, “Incarnation,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 I-Ma, p. 30). This outrageous claim lies at the heart of the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul understands full well what is at stake in the doctrinal conviction of the incarnation, especially as it plays out in the death and resurrection. “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).

This claim of incarnation, of the God of the entire universe coming in human flesh and living among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, must be at the very heart of our preaching, singing, prayers, and sharing at Christmas. Frederick Buechner grasps the essence of this outrageous doctrine at the heart of the Christian faith when he writes, “The incarnation is a kind of vast joke whereby the Creator of the ends of the earth comes among us in diapers…. Until we, too, have taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.”

To us, a “savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). May we sing with the angels and come with exuberant awestruck joy to a Bethlehem stable to peer over the shoulders of kneeling and behold God with us.

A Message for Advent 2017 ©

Bishop Lowry shares an Advent message of hope for a bruised and battered world – a hope that comes in the form of a baby at Christmas.

Please share this with your church, small group, friends and family by clicking either the share icon (second top right corner of video below) or the link at the bottom of the video player.

 

Bishop Lowry’s Message for Advent 2017 from Central Texas Conference UMC on Vimeo.

 

The Third Sunday in Advent ©

Today, I offer a liturgy for the lighting of the Advent Wreath candles.  As I wrote in my blog “The Advent Wreath,” for our family, the lighting of the Advent Wreath and the sharing of the accompanying liturgy around the kitchen table became a central element in our preparation for Christmas. Even now, with our children grown and having children of their own, this remains a central part of our devotional preparation for the coming birth of Christ.

The liturgy is based loosely on an ancient sharing of the Passover meal modified and adopted for Advent. This Friday, I offer a liturgy for use as a family (whether it be one person or many) in preparation for the birth of the Christ child on the third Sunday of Advent. Those wishing to receive the liturgy for the First Sunday in Advent may email my Executive Secretary, Mrs. Pattie Wood, (PattieWood@ctcumc.org) and she will send you the liturgy for the First Sunday. 

Bishop Mike Lowry

The Third Sunday of Advent
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 35:1-2

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light three candles as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light three candles?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The Prophet Isaiah said, “The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the rose [KJV translation].”  This is why the candle is often pink. We come to a Bethlehem stable with great joy and celebrate the birth of our Savior in the baby Jesus. May we prepare for Christmas with joy in what God has done and is doing in our lives.

 “The desert and the dry land will be glad;
       the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the [rose] crocus.
They will burst into bloom,     
      and rejoice with joy and singing.
They will receive the glory of Lebanon,     
     the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the Lord’s glory,     
     the splendor of our God.” (CEB translation)

Read:   John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sing: “What Child is This?”

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 babe, the son of Mary.

Prayer: “Lord Jesus, we come to you with joy as we prepare again to celebrate your birth.  May praise, laughter, and goodwill fill our hearts and burst forth in sharing. May the songs of this season engulf us with the joy of your presence, care, and all-consuming love. You are indeed the baby Savior and the Lord of all life born among us. With glad hearts and excited minds, we come to the celebration of your birth. Lead us to share your joy, hope and love with those who stand in great need and even greater want during this season. Let the goodness you instill in our heart and minds spill forth in joy for all people in your name and at your coming.  Amen.

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