Archive - July, 2011

Prayers for the People of Norway

I ask that all the churches of the Central Texas Conference – pastors and lay people join with me in lifting up the people of Norway in our prayers during this time of great tragedy.  We pray that the Lord may hold the Norwegians and their country in God’s redeeming grace and love.

Bishop Mike Lowry
Sunday, July 24, 2011

To Be Where the People Are

The last two days of our Wesley Heritage Tour with EO were exciting opportunities to look at the inception of the Wesleyan movement and seek insights for application to the current Wesleyan movement (more specifically through the United Methodist Church & the Central Texas Conference.  Perhaps the highlight for me was visiting the “New Room” in Bristol.

Early in the Wesleyan movement, the Methodists focused on the working class city of Bristol.  Two “societies” came together to build a new room (actually a building with a worship space, apartments for traveling preachers and meeting rooms) in the heart of Bristol.  It is still there not only as a piece of venerable history but also as a current mission post in the city of Bristol.  In the center of the perhaps the busiest shopping area, the New Room stands out as an oasis.  Warmly welcomed by David Worthington, Manager of the New Room, we encountered a sense of energy and purpose there which was not commonly present in other Wesley heritage sites.  (Time prohibited us from really investigating and understanding the New Room’s outreach ministry.)  [David will be with us in Central Texas at Texas Wesleyan University on the evening of October 13th.  Dr. Jesse Sowell will be hosting his brief time in our area.]

The contrast between the old parish churches (like St. Mary de Crypt & St. Andrew’s in Epworth) is worth deep reflection.  Rather than an idyllic setting, the New Room is located where the people are.  It’s plain, versatile interior exhibits a marked contrast with the stone and stain glass of the historic village church.  I found myself reflecting on the difference (and conflict) between traditional worship and (so-called) contemporary worship.  The New Room represented its day’s version of contemporary worship. 

Instead of insisting the people come to us (or them), a hallmark of the Wesleyan movement was a willingness to go where the people are.  Indeed out of Whitfield’s preaching and through his instance, John Wesley took mission outreach a step farther than even the “contemporary” New Room.  Wesley first engaged in “field preaching” on April 1st in 1739.  Appropriately his first text was from the Sermon on the Mount!  Writing of the occasion, John Wesley could not help but comment that he “submitted to be more vile” by preaching outdoors.  Heitzenrater notes, “By this method, the gospel could be brought to the people where they were, to people who could not or would not go to a church at the appointed hour for services” (Richard Heitzenrater, John Wesley and the People Called Methodists, p. 99).

Wesley took the commanding mission (and commission!) to spread the gospel through making disciples way beyond radical hospitality.  He went where the people were out of love of Christ and love of those who have no relationship with the living God as Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.  What is the equivalent of the New Room and field preaching for us this day?  I believe the same living Lord who called Wesley and early Methodists calls us today.

Travels with John

Since last Thursday I have been on an EO (Educational Opportunities) Wesleyan Heritage tour.  We have been visiting the hallowed sites of Wesley’s England. 

Our initial stop in London was at the great St. Paul’s Cathedral.  From there we went to Aldersgate Street where Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed” by a sense of assurance of God’s salvation in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  (“I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”)  The italics emphasis is in the original (written by Wesley himself in his journal.  While scholars debate whether this could be properly called a conversion, one thing is certain: at Aldersgate the head and the heart came together in a profound experience of grace that propelled Wesley to action.  Wesley saw the final verdict on the Aldersgate experience as lived out in love toward God and neighbor in need.  Heitzenrater writes: “Real test, however, of the authenticity of this experience was to be found, not in terms of whether or not he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed,’ but whether or not the expected fruits of faith and assurance … would be in evidence: freedom from sin, doubt and fear, and the fullness of peace, love, and joy in the Holy Ghost (otherwise called ‘holiness and happiness’)” (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, p. 80).

Our Sunday found us in Epworth where John and Charles Wesley were raised worshipping at Wesley Memorial Church and visiting the rectory where they lived as children.  Later in life, John was denied permission to preach in the church because of his “enthusiasm” and so instead preached from atop his father’s grave in the cemetery outside the church.  A throng listened with rapt attention as he shared the good news of God’s love, grace, and righteousness in Christ.  Once again the soaring history provided a marked contrast.  At our worship, the congregations (about 30 in number – which our group of 24 almost doubled) were, with 3 exceptions, all well on the upper side of 60.

A Wesleyan movement that had begun with a strong connection to regular people has lost touch with the culture around it.  While tremendously welcoming, the good people of Epworth do not appear to effectively communicate the gospel to their secular neighbors.  John would see it as a ripe mission field.  (So should we!)  Wesley left the church to speak in the graveyards, market places (malls of his day) and fields (places of work).  Today’s church finds itself holding on to buildings as a shrine and missing the message Wesley gave his life to share. 

This is not, I think, so much a judgment on them as a comment about us.  At its root remains the deep theological question that Christians must answer for and to non-Christians. Why?  Why bother?  What is there in the Christian message that would compel the hungry and hurting (physically, psychologically and spiritually) to stand in a graveyard to hear the news?  And secondly, are we willing to stand in a graveyard or mall or workplace and share this good news (gospel)?!

This pilgrimage is exciting and deeply challenging!

Wesley’s Rules for Preaching

In my reading as I prepare to leave Tuesday for our Educational Opportunities Tour of Wesley Heritage sites in England, I came across the following comment: “The best general method of preaching (in every sermon) was outlined: to invite, to convince, to offer Christ and to build up” (Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, p. 145).

Such guidelines offered by the Rev. John Wesley set me to reflecting on my own preaching.  Do I, in all my sermons, invite, convince, offer Christ and build up.  I would like to think I do but am haunted by the suspicion that I cannot really pass a close examination. 

In our day and time we day we tend to be best at “building up.”  Even though we live in a post-Christendom age, we often assume that people know Christ and are convinced.  I do not think this is really the case.  Wesley’s advice is still good today.  I need to be more diligent in examining my sermons based on Wesley’s admonition – invite, convince, offer Christ and build up.

In 1747 Wesley followed up with some specific rules for preaching:

1747 Rules for Preaching

1.         Be sure to begin and end precisely at the time appointed.
2.         Sing no hymns of your own composing.
3.         Endeavour to be serious, weighty, and solemn in your whole deportment 
             before the congregation.
4.         Choose the plainest tests you can.
5.         Take care not to ramble from you test, but to keep close to it, and make out
             what you undertake.
6.         Always suit your subject to your audience.
7.         Beware of allegorizing or spiritualizing too much.
8.         Take care of anything awkward or affected, either in your gesture or
             pronunciation.
9.         Tell each other, if you observe anything of this kind.

(Minutes [1747], 38;  taken from Wesley and the People Called Methodists by Richard P. Heitzenrater, pg. 164)

Scattered Learning

As I take some time for renewal, some engaging comments come across my line of vision.  Take this one from Paul Nixon (epicentergroup.dc@gmail.com) as he began an address to an Annual Conference meeting.

  • “Over the years, conference becomes an acquired taste.  Sort of like church.
    A lot of folks look at our local churches, and at the age of 24, they are just as appalled with our local gatherings as you and I were once concerned about this kind of gathering. To them, church feels boring, pedantic, tedious.  
    And they don’t stay around long enough to acquire the taste.  
    The churches that are having fun in the 21st century are learning to excel in another kind of conferencing.  They are learning how to conference with their neighbors, with people younger than themselves, with people of diverse culture and who come with varied stories and primary values.  They are listening to their neighbors, sharing with them.  And rethinking ways to do gospel community so that we can work with many of the tastes our neighbors have already acquired.
     All of us should be making the effort to learn our neighbors – but new churches have no choice, because unless they connect with community, they will never even make it to the starting line.  So our new churches are the research and development division of American Christianity.” (emphasis in the original)

 Or here is another piece of learning from my reading in Richard Heitzenrater:

  • “Their [the original Oxford Methodists] actions were guided by lists of questions for self-examination that were arranged according to the virtues for each day of the week: love of God, love of neighbor, humility, mortification and self-denial, resignation and meekness, and thanksgiving. The “one thing needful” was a soul renewed in the image of God. The main focus of the Oxford Methodist spirituality, then, was on an inward state of the soul that would be reflected in (and measured by) their Christian lifestyle” (Wesley and the People Called Methodists by Richard P. Heitzenrater, pg. 47).

Reflections on the 4th

Today I begin a 5-week period of renewal leave.  It is a time to rest and recharge.  It is a time to reflect and renew.  I will be writing about my renewal leave more extensively in The Wilderness Way #60 (see the Central Texas Conference Website, www.ctcumc.org).

As I head out of the office, I find myself reflecting on this July 4th about America.  The wafting restrains of “God Bless America” sung over the exploding fireworks are pause for both celebration and thanksgiving.

I’ve been on a prayer pilgrimage (with the help of a wonderful Jesuit priest) these past 6 months.  He has me taking more time for reflective listening to and for God.  I find my prayer life expanding beyond the simple “God give me” or “God I want variety.”  There is wonder and beauty all around us.  My hectic lifestyle gets in the way of giving God glory.  I continue my list of people, places and situations I pray for.  In fact, I invite you to join me in praying for our world; for those serving and facing combat that they might come home safely; for peace and compassion on all who are suffering.  As I follow the looming budget crisis in the United States (and in other places around the world), I would also ask that you join me in praying for our nation along with leaders in the government from both parties in a way that does not evoke a “them vs. us” confrontation but rather calls for common sacrifice and genuine good will.  Blaming doesn’t help.  Prayer does.

We are blessed as a people and a nation.  In our blessing, we are blessed to be a blessing.  Genesis 12:2 applies to us as well as ancient Israel:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

Focused Priorities for the Immediate Future

I have just returned from 3 days at Duke Divinity School as a part of the Episcopal Leadership Forum.  We are a group of 22 UM bishops who meet twice a year in a continuing education context.

One of the exercises they put us through was to reflect on what our individual priorities will be for the next 18 months.  I found it to be welcome “balcony” time.  For me two priorities leap to the forefront.  Actually these are not new at all but continuations of ongoing work.  (In addition, I want to assert that by their very nature of these priorities are flexible and subject to significant revision and morphing.)

 1)  To grow a learning organization that reaches a new generation for Christ.  At a minimum there are four specific strategies that encompass this priority.

  1. Developing Cluster groups as learning communities
  2. District Superintendents learning a new job focused in coaching
  3. Conference Staff and Centers becoming more tightly focused on energizing and equipping local congregations
  4. Establishing a culture of accountability throughout the Conference system

2)  Designing and implementing a leadership development system for both lay and clergy.

  1. Developing a new generation of leaders for congregations and the conference
  2. Helping train leaders for the new post-Christendom age
  3. Moving continuing education from being a job “perk” for clergy to a focused part of ministry development on a voluntary basis