Archive - November, 2011

Beyond Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Thanksgiving was great! We had much to be thankful for as our extended family celebrated
together.  And yet, we couldn’t miss the stories of people camping out to shop on Friday morning.  This incredible display of material addiction assaulted our sense and tempted us at every turn.  It didn’t end.  Monday it continued its rising tide with record reports.  The onslaught of things I (apparently?) need to fill the hole in my heart is both dazzling and
depressing.

And yet,  . . . in the midst of this onslaught came a true blessing.  I think there is something in the commandment to “Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  We went to worship Sunday (my bride of 35+ years was the lay reader at Arborlawn!).  I found worship settling to my soul and challenging to my spirit.  The music, prayers, preaching, and liturgy all were a blessing.  In a deeply perceptive bulletin insert article, Rev. Bryan Bellamy wrote on “Christmas Joy.”  “This [the message of Isaiah 64:1-9] stands in stark contrast to the commercially driven, over-the-top, Christmas ‘spirit’ that surrounds us presently – a message that pushes overspending,  overdrinking, over-hoping, over-getting and over-giving.”  He quoted Bishop Will Willimon. “The hope for us is that we are out of hope and we know it.  We dare not rush to greet the  redeemer prematurely until we pause here, in the darkened church, to admit that we do need redemption.  Nothing within us can save us.  Nothing can save us.  We’ve tried that before.”

Such wisdom is truly good news and genuine cause for rejoicing.  “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee!”  Honoring the Sabbath in worship put things back in perspective for me.  I hope it did so for you. Oh, and for those of you needing gift ideas.  How about giving to something in honor of a loved one as your gift?  As Michael Slaughter reminds us, “Christmas is not your birthday.”  You might try a life saving gift through “Imagine No Malaria.”  You can do so by giving through your local church to “Imagine No Malaria” (INM).  Just note on the check that the gift is for “Imagine No Malaria.”  Churches remit the INM funds to our office on a Remittance Form, Fund #622.  $10 saves a life.

Living With Thanksgiving

The original Thanksgiving proclamation came at a request of both houses of Congress to President Washington.  Congress had asked that President Washington “recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.” (Taken from a copy of the original proclamation.)  But the history runs deeper.

In its origins, as both Congress and President Washington rightly recognized, Thanksgiving is not a secular holiday.  It is a special expression of human gratitude for divine deliverance.  As a distinctly American activity it happened first as best we know in October of 1621.  Governor William Bradford of the
Plymouth Colony “sent forth men fowling, so they might in a special manner
rejoice together after they had gathered the fruit of their labor.”  According to Bradford’s History Of Plimoth Plantation the hunters brought back a “great
store of wild Turkies,” and to this were added lobsters, clams, bass, corn,
green vegetables, and dried fruits.  The Pilgrims did not celebrate thanksgiving in 1622.  But, in 1623, after a rainstorm ended a summer drought and saved the setters’ crops, the Plymouth populace again observed a day of thanks, probably towards the end of July.  And in November after crops were gathered,
Governor Bradford ordered that “all the Pilgrims with your wives and little
ones, do gather at  the meeting house, on a hill . . . there to listen to the pastor, and render thanksgiving to Almighty God for all His blessings.” (William Bradford, History of Plimoth Plantation)

I find such history interesting.  But even more, I believe it to be instructive.  It
is a past which reminds us of the intent of this holiday or holy day.  It is so easy to get lost amid the plenty – the family and friends, the football and food – that we can unwittingly forget why we gather.

You see, the turkey on the table, whether for one or twenty sits there as a
signaling presence of the bounty we share.  To live as a Christian means to live in gratitude for what old Governor Bradford called “the blessings of Almighty God.”  To reach for the essence of this day is to soak in what President Washington meant when he called for us to offer God our “sincere and humble thanks.”

Did you know that old Benjamin Franklin wanted the Turkey to be the American bird instead of the eagle?  Franklin argued that the eagle was a scavenger – a buzzard of sorts – but that the turkey marked out a generosity of spirit for which we should be noted as a Christian people.

Our past remembered with gratitude beckons us to a future beyond Thanksgiving.  In fact, for Christians, thanksgiving is never enough.  Poverty, both physical and spiritual, is a reality today every bit as much as it was in the past.  Gratitude, genuine God driven gratitude, becomes the motive power for true Christian living and serving.  Generosity of spirit marks us out as the one who returns to be sent out again committed to God’s vision of a country and people renewed and reborn.  May it be so for us on this holy day.

God at Work

In my recent Kairos event at the Boyd Unit (Texas Department of Corrections), I was once again privileged to see God at work through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Love trumps evil. Sacrificial love can crack the hardest heat. At Boyd, this wasn’t theological musing but practiced reality.

A team member shared his own story of struggle to turn his life around. He shared his story of 36 years of walking with Christ. Listening was a brother-in-white who had been in and out of jail for most of his adult life (something around 25 + years). God was at work in his life. Christ was claiming his mind and the Holy Spirit was restructuring his heart.

The next day, that brother in white sought me out as a clergy to talk to. He told me he had tried Islam and two or three other things that (as he put it) “didn’t work.” He’d tried to control his life and it “didn’t work.” He wanted to (and did!!!) surrender to Christ. Surrender wasn’t a nice church term; it was a heart-wrenching change. Christ as Lord meant for him to “turn over leadership” of his life to Christ. This wasn’t theological cotton candy but tough stuff.  He leaves the safe place of Kairos and goes back into the compound. This chapel is holy ground. It will be hard out there, and there will be trials. But I saw (see!) God at work.  (I learned later that after a dramatic public profession, announced to all and celebrated with great joy at Kairos, the brother-in-white told the chaplain to change his papers from Muslin to Christian.  News spreads fast in the prison community and his change caused upheaval for he was one of the leaders of the Boyd Muslim community.)

This may sound prosaic, but it isn’t.  Stories of heart-wrenching, risky change abounded at Kairos.  The cost and risk of being Christian is high.  It can (and does at times) involve beatings and persecution.  It is not an easy way but brings more true joy and freedom (even in jail!) than anything else offers.  We free-worlders have much to learn from the courageous faith of the brothers-in-white.  God truly is at work!

Blessings at Boyd

A thin ribbon of dawn sliced the eastern skyline in glorious splendor but what drew our attention was the stark, sharp concertina wire forming a deadly lace of metal on the outer fence of the Boyd Unit Friday morning as we waited to enter a series of gates, check points and searches to arrive at last to a gym that was transformed into holy ground.  In my devotional reading I had somewhere come across the phrase, “whenever someone new enters a room, Christ comes in. But oh, he comes in such disguises.”

Sunday night I returned exhausted and elated from a 4 day Karios at the Boyd Prison Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections.  In our last small group gathering (the “family” table of St. James) the inmates (or “brothers in white”) asked us (the 3 free-worlders) what we got out of the Karios. My answer was simple.  I received blessings at Boyd.  The greatest of those blessings was to see God at work in transformative power.  I was blessed with new friends.  I was blessed by the Spirit far beyond what I had hoped.  The list goes on.  I do not do it justice but write in awe of the power and presence of God at Boyd through the work of Karios.  I also recognize the great battle that takes place daily in that location between good and evil.

Abstract theological concepts like sin and salvation, repentance and redemption, take on flesh and blood form.  They hurl about the room explosive charges of energy and anger, regret and renewal.  In a population where respect, love, and care are rare commodities, the gospel is truly good news.  We free-worlders are careful to honor the humanity and privacy of the brothers-in-white.  An unwritten but firm code is that one does not ask what action or sentence placed an inmate in prison.  We do not seek how long they have to serve.  Respect means willingness to allow a brother in white his privacy. They share but only when they have reached a point of spiritual development and trust.  As I grew in my own journey (blessed by the  brothers in white) the phase “there but for the grace of God” took on new depth.

Forgiveness is taken seriously here.  Anger is strong, and grace is not cheap.  They wrestle hard with the Lord’s Prayer, especially the phrase “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others.”  Some already profess Christ as Lord and Savior but face the reality of a deep failure to live the Christian life.  Others reject God.  Still others have readily given themselves over to the worship of other (false) gods including Satan and evil.  They make much of the distinction between being a Christian and being Christian!  I think we in the free-world can learn a great deal for them.  I know I have.

The inside team (brothers in white) who have been through Kairos, committed or recommitted their lives to Christ as Lord and Savior, and who are giving genuine evidence of walking in newness (righteousness) of life, were awesome sacrificial servants. I encountered two of the greatest missionary evangelists I have ever met at Boyd on the inside team.  One African American, the other Anglo American, they reached across gang, racial, ethnic, religious and other lines risking their own safety to share Christ in ways that truly put together love, justice, mercy and evangelistic passion. One of them was known simply as Demon before his conversion to Christ.  The other was someone who went around beating up people.  They are now living a level of sanctification that I hope in my better days to merely immolate.

I thank the men of Boyd for the blessings they bestowed on me.  I thank also my fellow team  members – both those on the inside and outside team.  They are heroes of the faith, not perfect, just walking in the way of faith.  I will write more in the next blog.

Time in Jail

I remember reading of a young mother who was so busy with work, home and kids (not to mention husband) that she commented, “Right now an hour spent in the dentist’s chair feels like a vacation!”  It hasn’t quite been quite that bad for me, but the fall has been hectic (and will remain so through to mid-December).  This weekend I am spending my time in jail.  It feels like a vacation from travel and meetings!  I have the privilege to serve with a number of other Central Texas Conference clergy and lay people on a Kairos Team serving the Boyd Unit.  I will be in jail with our brothers in Christ who wear white.  I ask that you pray for the team and especially for our brothers on the inside.  Christ died for us all.

On another matter, there are two special posting in the “Bishop’s Corner.”  The first is a summary press release reporting on the recent Council of Bishops meeting at Lake Junaluska.  The second is a letter from the Council of Bishops responding to those who have indicated an intention to violate church discipline by presiding over same-sex marriages and those who protest such planned action.  With grace and ministry to all, the bishops of the church are committed to uphold The Discipline of the United Methodist Churchas established by General Conference.  I invite your careful reading of both documents at

http://www.ctcumc.org/pages/detail/1694

Ministry Matters Making an Impact

At a recent meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board of Directors, we received a great report on a new online ministry. MinistryMatters.com (www.MinistryMatters.com) is the United Methodist Publishing House’s new ministry resource site. It is a unique blend of  magazine and reference site. Its mission is threefold: to equip, connect, and inspire church leaders, both clergy and laity.

I asked the director of Ministry Matters (Shane Raynor) what its most popular feature is.  He replied, “The most popular feature of Ministry Matters is This Sunday, a weekly collection of resources centered around the Revised Common Lectionary. Ministry Matters has recently added kids’ worship helps, small group studies, and non-Lectionary based sermon series to the This Sunday mix.

Visitors to Ministry Matters have also responded well to the site’s current events resources. The most popular articles in the past six weeks have been a joint book review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins and Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell, and a provocative blog post called “Don’t Give ‘Em What They Want.” The site has been presenting different viewpoints and encouraging readers to step outside of their comfort zones as they consider different takes on current events.

I think this is an exciting new resource that I commend to both laity and clergy.  A final note from Shane Raynor, “Looking ahead, we’ll be launching subscriptions (both individual and institutional) in January. There will be new content in the reference library as well as the
fully searchable Common English Bible as the default translation. We’ll also be adding more topical sermon resources and sermon series to give options to pastors who don’t use the Lectionary. In the next few months, we’ll be adding ‘Reach’ and ‘Lead’ to the current ‘Preach,’ ‘Teach,’ and ‘Worship’ tabs.”

Discipleship and Mission

This fall I am co-teaching with Reverends Joseph Nader and Megan Davidson (directors of the UT-Arlington and TCU Wesley Foundations, respectively) a study of The Forgotten Ways Handbook by Alan Hirsch.  In our study we are learning on a deep level about the interaction between discipleship and mission.  Rev. Davidson recently directed my attention to an article in www.vergenetwork.org.

The article is entitled “Why the Missional Movement Will Fail” and is written by Mike Breen.  The following is a brief excerpt.

“It’s time we start being brutally honest about the missional movement that has emerged in the last 10-15 years: Chances are better than not it’s going to fail.

That may seem cynical, but I’m being realistic. There is a reason so many movements in the Western church have failed in the past century: They are a car without an engine. A missional  church or a missional community or a missional small group is the new car that everyone is talking about right now, but no matter how beautiful or shiny the vehicle, without an engine, it won’t go anywhere.  So what is the engine of the church? Discipleship. I’ve said it many times: If you make disciples, you will always get the church. But if you try to build the church, you will rarely get disciples.

If you’re good at making disciples, you’ll get more leaders than you’ll know what to do with. If you make disciples like Jesus made them, you’ll see people come to faith who didn’t know Him. If you disciple people well, you will always get the missional thing.”  (Mike Breen, “Why the Missional Movement Will Fail,” www.vergenetwork.org.)

I am convinced that Breen is right on target.  The Great Commission is to “make disciples”
(Matthew 28:18-20).  Disciples are engaged in mission for the long haul.

Preparing for Christmas Eve

The lead article on the Central Texas Conference website is entitled “What are Your Plans for Christmas Sunday Services.”  I want to strongly encourage pastors, directors of music, and other local church leaders to carefully read the article.  Hopefully it will spark thinking for advanced planning for Advent, Christmas and especially Christmas Eve services.

Prominent on every local church website (and yes, I will check about 20 to 30 websites) should be information and an invitation to Christmas Eve services.  Christmas Eve is the number 1 attended service by non- or nominal Christians.  The service should be planned in the light of radical hospitality to those who do not know Christ in any vibrant way.

In other news, currently I am attending the Council of Bishops meeting Lake Junaluska.
Yesterday we strongly affirmed the Call to Action report along with the Vital Congregations emphasis.  Much has already been written on this subject and much more will be shared as we move forward.  Potentially, we are on the cusp of a turning point in the life of the United Methodist Church.  I am enthusiastically supportive of the proposals.  With courage, now is the time for far reaching change as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.