Archive - November, 2012

The Strangest Thing

For years I have enjoyed reading Circuit Rider magazine.  The most recent addition focuses on mission and evangelism.  It is worth perusing.  I did so and ran into the following story from an article entitled “Evangelism with the Never-Churched” by Dr. Jack Jackson.

Dr. Jackson writes: “Last Christmas season, my family walked through the downtown community where we live. In one of the store windows we passed were a small set of woodcarvings that included a baby, two adults right next to the baby, three kingly-looking persons nearby, and a scattering of cows, donkeys, and ducks. I still am not sure of the significance of the ducks, but we were looking at a crèche.
One of my children’s friends pointed out the Nativity scene. He said it was the strangest thing he had ever seen. Cows never hang out with ducks, much less people, he said.
‘What is this?’ he asked.
My wife responded by saying it was the Nativity scene.
‘What is that?’ came the response.
‘It is the story of Jesus’ birth in the stable.’
To which our friend said, ‘Never heard of it.’”

Think about it.  The Christmas story is the strangest thing.  Faith in Christ as Lord and Savior hinges on the outrageous conviction that God has visited and taken up residence on planet Earth in the person and work of Jesus the Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is mind-blowing!

Double think about it.  We often assume that people know the story.  Today, for many, this is not so.  Dr. Jackson continues: “It is not necessary to recap the growth trends of people leaving Christian places of worship. Recent polls suggesting that 20 percent of U.S. citizens have no connection to any religious tradition surprise few. Most of us also know that there are people in our communities, like my child’s friend, with virtually no awareness of the basics of the Christian gospel. And yet evangelistic and missional practices in many churches seem to assume an awareness of the Christian story that clouds effective evangelism” (“Evangelism with the Never-Churched” by Jack Jackson, published in the Circuit Rider November/December/January 2012-2013).

As I have said before, Advent and Christmas is prime-time evangelism.  This is an opportunity to sing and pray, teach and preach about the greatest story ever told.  This is a chance to invite non- or nominal Christian friends and family members to worship with you.  Now is the ideal time to introduce someone to the Lord of the universe who comes in the form of a baby named Jesus.

Whatever you do this advent, reach out and invite.  Feature prominently on your website worship times, especially Christmas Eve services (the highest attended worship for non-Christians!).  With love and care, offer the Lord to the whole community through your witness and worship.  It is the strangest thing.  This birth we prepare for and celebrate is also the most wonderful thing!

Approaching Advent

Well, how did you do?  Did you survive Black Friday and Cyber Monday with your sanity intact?  A friend passed along a story about a “woman who was out Christmas shopping with her two children. After many hours of looking at row after row of toys and everything else imaginable and after hours of hearing both her children asking for everything they saw on those many shelves, she finally made it to the elevator with her two kids.

“She was feeling what so many of us feel during the holiday season time of the year. Overwhelming pressure to go to every party, every housewarming, taste all the holiday food and treats, get that perfect gift for every single person on our shopping list, make sure we don’t forget anyone on our card list, and the pressure of making sure we respond to everyone who sent us a card.

“Finally the elevator doors opened in the parking garage, and there was already a crowd in there. She pushed her way into the elevator and dragged her two kids in with her and all the bags of stuff. When the doors closed she couldn’t take it anymore and stated, ‘Whoever started this whole Christmas thing should be found, strung up, and shot.’

“From the back of the car everyone heard a quiet calm voice respond, ‘Don’t worry we already crucified Him.’ For the rest of the trip down the elevator it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.”

We may cluck at that woman, but the truth is, that could be me.  In my most patient mode I have little tolerance for shopping.  Furthermore, I suspect most of us have at one time or another hit our wall on this Christmas thing.  I invite us this morning to begin a search for the real spirit of Christmas.  To do so, we must start by taking a startling fresh look at Christmas.

A number of years back I read a neat little book about Christmas written Dan Schaeffer entitled In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas. Dan Schaeffer opens his timely and fresh book with the statement:  “Each year, millions of people go in search of the real spirit of Christmas.  True, some want to find it only so they can try to package it and sell it.  But others gaze at the Christmas tree, the presents, and all the decorations and wonder: What is all this really about?” (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, p. 9).

“Some people,” Schaeffer notes, “are attracted to Christmas the way they’re attracted to a concert or the Super Bowl or the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. …[Others] do sense that there is a deeper holy meaning to this season, which at least temporarily satisfies their spiritual longings.  The shared excitement and anticipation are such wholesome emotions that many are attracted to the celebration of Christmas even when they don’t really know what it’s all about. … In other words, … they are like people at weddings who laugh louder and drink more than anyone else, and yet are not really close friends of either the bride or groom.  They’ve been invited because they work with the bride or groom or are friends of the couple’s parents  . . . but they have no real interest in the two who have just gotten married.  Their real interest is in the celebration” (Schaeffer, IBID, pp. 17-18).

Writes Schaeffer, “This is the essential difference between those who possess the real Christmas spirit and those who don’t.  If you removed the trees, and the lights, and the poinsettias, and the decorations, and the presents, and the food, and the music, those with the real Christmas spirit would still celebrate” (Schaeffer, IBID, pp. 17-18).  Do you remember that marvelous little story by Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas?  How, after all the trimmings and presents were stolen, the Whos of Whoville still sang.  Such is the search for the real spirit of Christmas.

To grasp the real Spirit of Christmas we must go back to the original story.  We must take a fresh look at a strange out of place scene, the crèche scene that adoringly decorates so many homes (including mine!).  A handful of words of Luke’s gospel – Luke 2:12 – challenge my conceptions.  “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

I envision a scene like so many of our crèche sets.  Mary and Joseph are dressed in beautiful clothes.  The setting is peaceful, gentle and enticing.  But the reality is far different.  God did not come to earth in a magnificent manger scene but in a cattle feeding trough.  Born a refugee in a time of terror, God enters human history among the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low.

Early in her career, my wife engaged in some public health nursing.  She dealt with clients where the newborn baby’s crib was a box or a dresser drawer.  Such is a more apt analogy for God’s entrance in the world.  It is indeed a strange scene that presents itself to us at Christmas.  In our search for the real spirit of Christmas we must take a startlingly fresh look at a strange, compelling and challenging scene.  Here again God in Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit moves in our midst as we approach advent.  This is one of the outrageous core claims at the heart of the Christian faith.

Unlit Advent Wreath : Advent wreath with red candles Stock Photo

A Time for Thanksgiving

I have a little sticker I put on my note paper from time to time.  It reads simply:  “The first and last task of a leader is to say thanks.”  I don’t know where I came across this statement (except that I am sure it is not original to me!).  I think it was Meister Eckhart (a greater Christian theologian and spiritual leader of the late 13th and early 14th centuries) who wrote:  “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

It is that time of year again; a time when we pause to give thanks.  Rather than cynically disparaging the encroaching holidays (originally known as “holy days”!), I come to this time with a deep sense of thanks.  Gratitude flows through me, and I invite the reader to join in.

I want to thank first, foremost and always the Great God who comes to us and for us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  In that thanksgiving, I offer a special gratitude for being reassigned to the Central Texas Conference as your bishop for the 2012-2016 quadrennium.  David Stinson, Conference Treasurer, reports that wonderful 5 figure amount of money was given to Imagine No Malaria by various churches and individuals in honor of our return.  Such generosity is a joy to my heart and give thanks to God for the blessing of the people and churches of the Central Texas Conference.  Through our efforts, with so many others, a killer disease is being defeated.  Lives are being saved.

Jolynn and I thank both God and you!  May your Thanksgiving truly be a Holy Day!

The Outlandish Claims of Radical Orthodoxy

It is right there in the great opening overture of the Gospel of John.  “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). The phrase translated “made his home among us” literally means pitched his tent in our midst.  Again, think about the close of the New Testament.  Revelation 21:3 says, “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.”

True orthodoxy really is radical and outrageous.  The Christian claim is that God dwells, lives, with us in the person and work of Jesus through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes (dare I say often) I forget what an outlandish claim this is.  Consider it: the God of the universe; the God who set the galaxies in motion, is active in our lives today.  God is not a distant unengaged deity content to simply urge us to be nice.  God is actively engaged in our lives!

Every now and then I run across something that forcefully reminds me of this great orthodox truth.  One of the consistently excellent pieces of research which I read regularly is Background Data for Mission written and edited by Dr. John H. Southwick of the General Board of Global Ministries (and a pastor up in the Pacific Northwest Conference).  With his permission, I offer the following excerpt from the October 2012 issue (Volume 24, No. 6):

     Clay County, Kentucky is an Appalachian locale which had a bad rap for years as being a den of drug trafficking and corruption.  This compounded into all kinds of social problems.  Youth were selling and using drugs and reaped the consequences.  One or two addicts a week were dying.  City officials were taking bribes to look the other way.  Churches had programs to help who they could but were barely making a dent in the problems.  At the same time, the churches were largely inward looking and concerned about being islands in the sea of despair.  

            Finally some of the pastors got desperate enough to really start praying.  Pastors from churches that normally would not associate with one another joined in.  One Saturday morning, after an all-night prayer meeting, the UMC pastor said, “I believe we need to pray for God to expose the darkness.”  A few months later, arrests began as the FBI starting moving in.  When city officials were arrested, some churches lost members because they were either arrested or were cronies of those who were.  One of pastors envisioned a march to make a statement against the sin of the community.  The Saturday prayer meetings were now at 150 in attendance but the pastors had no idea how many would march. Many of the organizers were receiving violent threats.   To make matters worse the weather was awful on the day of the march, yet 3,500 folks from 63 churches in the county showed up.  This was a turning point.

            Since then the corrupt officials are gone.  Addicts are coming to faith in Christ and joining the churches.  Droves of students are turning from drugs and turning to Christ.  The county seat, Manchester, now has an official sign below its name, “City of Hope.”  Since the march in 2004, $9 million dollars in drugs has come off the streets, 3,300 drug dealers have been arrested with a 97% conviction rate, 1,500 vouchers for addicts’ rehabilitation/recovery have been issued, and 50,000 children have been reached with help and education.  Wildlife has returned to the area.

            The Sentinel Group has done exhaustive research on communities, and even countries, that are experiencing these kinds of transforming revivals.  Some are documented in DVD format, available at their website.  “Appalachian Dawn” documents Clay County.  The Sentinel Group has also identified key principles which can be utilized to invite God to move in transforming revival in any community.  They are quite adamant that this cannot be programmed.  In fact, at its best programming brings about no more than incremental changes over a long timeframe and can usually be entirely attributed to human efforts.  Transforming revival is explosive and rapid and can only be attributed to God.

            Among the common characteristics of communities having had this experience is a core of Christians who recognize the desperation their community is in and identify the underlying sin causing it.  They then cooperate in focused prayer that is frequent, long, and intense, often accompanied by fasting.  Usually this will involve Christians of various stripes laying aside their differences and uniting under the commonly understood needs in the community and commonly recognized reality that God is the only answer.  In addition to longing for God’s help, there is a hunger for the person and presence of God.  Furthermore, there is faith and expectation that God will move and that they will continue in their crying out to God until it happens and beyond.  There is often persecution so perseverance is essential.  Also critical to the breakthrough is deep repentance and humility amongst those seeking God’s intervention.

            While all of this seems far removed from the experience of modern day American United Methodists, it is not far removed from our heritage.  As we ponder how to live out our mission statement, we might do well to strive for transforming revival.

A Different Kind of Christmas

Last Sunday we flew back into to DFW from the Council of Bishops meeting at St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. The weather was cool (if not cold for Texas).  Somehow with Halloween over, despite the fact that Thanksgiving has not come, thoughts turned to Christmas.

Many in local churches are already well down the road in Advent/Christmas planning.  At recent United Methodist Publishing House board meeting I was deeply impressed by the writings of Pastor Mike Slaughter (Ginghamsburg UMC) entitled A Different Kind of Christmas.  The subtitle says it all – “living and giving like Jesus.”  A book description takes it a step further.  “Every year, we say we’re going to cut back, simplify, and have a family Christmas that focuses on the real reason for the season—Jesus. But every year, advertisements beckon, the children plead, and it seems easier just to indulge our wants and whims. Overspending, overeating, materialism, and busyness rob us of our peace and joy and rob Jesus of his rightful role as the center of our celebration.”  The series has a study guide, a devotional book, children’s and youth studies as well as a DVD.  I commend it to you.

One of my goals is to “live and give like Jesus.”  I want, indeed long, for a different kind of Christmas.  How about you?

There are a variety of other excellent resources that invited us to make the “holidays” truly “holy days.”  A number of different churches and authors in our conferences have produced materials.  Rev. Mark Winter (www.onemanshow.org) of the Central Texas Conference has written Just a Word: A Collection of Advent Devotionals.  The “Journey” material by Adam Hamilton is outstanding.  Other great resources abound.

Together, let’s commit to make this a different kind of Christmas.  About ½ a dozen years ago Dan Schaeffer wrote, “This is the essential difference between those who possess the real Christmas spirit and those who don’t.  If you removed the trees, and the lights, and the poinsettias, and the decorations, and the presents, and the food, and the music, those with the real Christmas spirit would still celebrate” (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, p. 18).  Do you remember that marvelous little story by Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas?  How, after all the trimmings and presents were stolen, the Whos of Whoville still sang.  Let’s sing and reach out in love to the hungry the hurting and the homeless whether it be physical, spiritual, or psychological.

A Sense of Perspective

One of the joys and privileges I have as a bishop is moving among an extremely wide variety of individuals and groups.  In the Council of Bishops the worldwide nature of the church is always apparent. It is heart-warming to see the active compassion and support extended by our colleague bishops from Europe, Asia, and Africa to those areas hurt by Super Storm Sandy. Those who have suffered much in their own areas are standing together in seeking to respond to Sandy.  A disaster gives us a sense of perspective.

Furthermore, traveling in Central Texas I am continually struck by how diverse we are as a Conference.  Politically I find myself with people that are sold-out convinced Republicans and people who are sold-out convinced Democrats.  The United Methodist Church in Central Texas has strong representation in both camps!  (It is worth noting by way of example that Dick & Lynn Chaney as well as Hillary Clinton are United Methodists!)  As the election fades in our minds, I invite us to a sense of faith perspective.  Whether or not it is clear to us (you), God is at work in our midst.

To gain a sense of perspective of how incredibly blessed we are in this country, consider the three following very different scenarios:

1.  At the recent Council of Bishops meeting one of our new bishops, Bishop Unda from the Congo preached.  He told of being thrown in jail by rebel soldiers during a civil war sweeping his country.  He was thrown in a dark cell and could tell that there were dead bodies on the floor.  It was very crowded so he asked a man sitting on a bench to move over so he could sit down.  The man did not respond so he asked again.  Again there was no response.  Gently he reached out to touch the man only to discover that he was dead.  Said Bishop Unda, “that was when I felt the hand of God on my shoulder saying ‘You are not alone.'”  The next day they took him out to execute him by firing squad but the soldier’s gun jammed. So the officer in charge let him go.  Bishop Unda learned later that some women from his church had been praying with some of the wives of the rebel soldiers.  God was active over and above all human actions (both those good and bad).  It gives you a sense of perspective.

2.  On election night, we (the Council of Bishops) heard a brief address from Bishop Ntambo (one of 3 bishops from the Congo).  Bishop Ntambo is also Senator Ntambo in the Congo; to my knowledge the only bishop who is not only a serving bishop but an elected official.  It was moving to hear him talking about how fortunate we (citizens of the United States) were to have peaceful elections. Bishop/Senator Ntambo recalled elections in his country where parents hid their children for fear of gunfire.  His sharing gave us a sense of perspective.

3.  A third sense of perspective for me comes from recent readings.  I have been reading a book of public addresses given by the great missionary Bishop Lesslie Newbigin.  Some of them were given in 1941, in England, during the height of Nazi invasion.  Bishop Newbigin spoke of God being active even if it was not clear to those gathered hearing his speech.  With the hindsight of history, it is clear that Bishop Newbigin was correct.

As I reflect on a sense of perspective, I thank God that we are so blessed as to hold free elections.  Regardless of whether the outcome causes you to celebrate or moan, I invite the reader to have a sense of faith perspective.  Wesley’s words are for us:  “The best of all is that God is with us!”

 

A Time for Grace

I write this blog on Friday, November 2nd, four days prior to the November 6th elections. As I write, I find myself reflecting both in thought and prayer on the election, not only on the presidential level but all across the political spectrum. It is news to no one that we are a nation deeply divided in political convictions. Furthermore, we are deeply divided as a Christian people. There are good, deeply committed, highly disciplined, believing Christians who are convinced that the sake of faithfulness necessitates voting for a Republican president. There are good, deeply committed, highly disciplined, believing Christians who are convinced that the sake of faithfulness necessitates voting for a Democratic president.

As you read this blog, the election is nearing the end and the results will soon be in.

For some, this is a time of celebrating. For others it is a time of deep pain and anguish, often on a very personal level. I submit that for a people who follow Christ, this is a time for grace.  It is a time for neither triumphalist gloating nor bitter despair.  Rather, it is a time for caring for those you disagree with, even those you disagree with vehemently.  Kindness and care need to carry the day.  Remember what Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:46-48, CEB).

A little over a quarter of a century ago, the great missionary Bishop Lesslie Newbigin said in a speech about Christianity in the so-called western world: “Our problem here is not that the gospel appears as something foreign to our culture; it is that it has become so totally domesticated within our culture that its power to exercise a radically critical function is in question” (Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble, pg. 89).  Without deep reflection and genuine humility in response, it is easy for any and all of us to assume that God is on our side.

Instead, let our prayer be that we may be aligned with God.  This is a time to treat each other with grace.  Let our response regardless of whether we agree or not with the results be a reflection of Christ’s grace-filled love.  Let the admonition of the prophet Micah guide us in this time for grace.  “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, CEB).

Responding to Sandy

We all watched with anxious hearts as Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast.  For us the anxiety was compounded by concern for adult children living in the Washington, D. C. and Boston areas and cousins living in the Hudson River Valley of New York.  Thankfully all came through the storm safely.

As I watch the news, I am conscious that this is not the case for everyone.  While life can easily slip back into our normal routines, I want to urge us as a people of faith, hope and love not to forget what has just taken place.  Please explicitly keep the victims of Hurricane Sandy in your prayers.  As God leads you in your prayer life, respond in faithful loving action.

Recalling the words of James, “I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action,” (James 2:18, CEB). I call upon us to reach out in faithful action in response to those hurting from Sandy’s impact.  The Central Texas Conference website www.ctcumc.org (see article, “Hurricane Sandy Disaster Response,”) or go to http://ctcumc.org/news/detail/314 for concrete ways to help.

Three specific immediate responses to Sandy are:

  • Pray      – pray for those who have lost family members and those who have been injured. Pray for those who have lost homes and businesses. Pray for the First Responders who are traveling thousands of miles to help get heat and electricity back to the homes, towns and cities. Pray for those on the ground who give aid and comfort.
  • You can give to UMCOR through this link. Donate to UMCOR US Disaster Response, Advance #901670, and select Hurricanes 2012 from the drop-down menu. You can also text the word RESPONSE to 80888 to      give an immediate $10 donation.
  • Your churches can collect funds for relief supplies or you can make up cleaning buckets or health kits. See the UMCOR website for details to make-up these needed supplies: umcor.org/UMCOR/Relief-Supplies. You can contact  Sager Brown for shipping information 337.923.6238.