Archive - January, 2013

Lifting Up Diversity as a Core Value

While on our recent pilgrimage of the Holy Land, we encountered impressive religious and ethnic diversity.  I can recall a wonderful discussion with one of the guides who is a conservative Jew and another guide who is a practicing Syrian Orthodox Christian.  They were able to articulate both their own positions and give respect to those who shared other perspectives (including Muslim).  The diversity enriched and enhanced our experience of the land called Holy by three major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  All this must be noted in the context of the ongoing conflict with and over diversity in that land!  Being diverse and honoring diversity as a core value is not easy!

In same time period, back in America we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The still powerful echoes of his “I Have a Dream” speech linger in our consciousness and guide our higher aspirations. (If you haven’t read it already, I invite you to go to the Central Texas Conference Website and read the feature article “50 Years Later – Is the Dream Closer to Reality” which contains a thoughtful letter from retired Bishop Woody White, the first chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.)

It all leaves me asking the question, how are we doing?  Is the dream closer to reality for us and for our churches?  Do we reflect the diversity God so loves and that we incorporate in our core values?  John 3:16 challenges our actions – “for God so loved the world!”

The quick answer is we have a long way to go!  We are not where we desire to be nor aspire to be.  The follow up answer is that we do show evidence of moving in the right direction.  By way of responding, I asked the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth to come up with some data for me.  They engaged in a brief “Diversity Research Project report” at my request.  They used the measurements endorsed and employed by the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.

UMCORR (United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race) defines “approaching diverse” as a church having “between 81% and 90% of one ethnic group as predominate.”  They define “diverse” as a church having “between 70% and 80% of one ethnic group as predominate.”  The results are as follows:

  2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Approaching   Diverse 6 5 8 6 6 6 10 13 15 18
Diverse 3 3 2 4 4 3 3 2 4 6

We have long way to go!  We are not where we desire or aspire to be.  We are not yet where God wants us.  If we follow a God who loves the “world” (John 3:16) we need to reflect the diversity God so loves!

At the same time, we have made genuine progress.  Well done, thou good and faithful servants.  They are accomplishments to celebrate in, through, and by the grace of our Lord.  May the divine dream continue to call us forward together!

Gazing on Empty

Twice on our Holy Land pilgrimage I found myself waiting in line to gaze on empty.  Despite the incongruence of my phrasing, “gazing on empty” was an activity I took part in with other Christian pilgrims in reverent silence.

The first of these viewings took place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the historic church built first by Byzantines on what they thought was Golgotha (Calvary Hill) and contains the original Sepulchre (rock tomb) of Jesus.  Patiently I waited in line for a long time to finally bend low and slip into the ancient tomb (ornately decorated as a shrine).  Kneeling down I touched the stone slab that Jesus was purportedly laid on and rose from.  I gazed on empty and was moved to prayer.

On our last day, we closed as pilgrimage group with Holy Communion in what is called the Garden Tomb.  This is an alternative site for the tomb of Christ, sometimes referred to as Gordon’s tomb in reference to the British General who discovered it.  The beauty of the Garden Tomb has the look and feel of how I imaged the tomb of Jesus to be. Again, after our service of worship, I waited quietly in line with other Central Texas pilgrims to bend low and step inside to gaze on empty.  The carved niches in the tomb fit my imagination of the biblical story of the Christ’s resurrection.  Once more I paused in prayer and wonder.

The debate over which (or either) is the true sight of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection I leave to others to lay out.  One of guides quoted the comment of a scholar in the matter by saying, “my head says it is the church of the Holy Sepulchre while my heart says it’s the Garden Tomb.”  I concur.

Yet in both places I paused to gaze and reflect upon something that was empty!  The Apostle Paul’s words to the church at Corinth came readily to mind.  “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless. . . . If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else” (I Corinthians 15:14, 19 CEB).

In quiet, prayer, reflection and contemplation I am repeatedly struck by the outrageous and stunning core claims of the Christian faith.  We think the God of all creation, that is of not just the stars but the galaxies!, came to live among us in a baby named Jesus.  This is what Christmas is all about.  We think that both sin and death were actually defeated — conquered by Jesus Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection (regardless of which is the right empty to gaze on).  When someone dismissively says that “dead bodies don’t usually get up and walk away” with the intent of dismissing the resurrection as false,  our outrageous answer is “your right they don’t but in this case, in this one awesome case, he did!”  Death and sin are defeated.  This is the stunning claim of Easter.

Or take the doctrine of the Trinity.  This is the essential claim that God is the great 3 in 1.  We know and experience God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Thus the risen Jesus commands us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

There is more, much more, than a brief blog can do justice to.  Still I paused to gaze on empty in awe and gratitude.  In my pilgrimage I am thrust back to the heart of the faith.  It really is about God’s love to us and for us in the person of the risen Christ calling us to reach out to and for others with that same love.  However powerful sin and death may appear, they are conquered by Christ!

Pilgrimage Reflections

I am a believer in spiritual pilgrimages.  They focus the heart and mind on the Lord in a different, often experiential, way.  All of the senses are engaged, not just our intellect.

As I write this blog, we are in the midst of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Saturday, January 19th, we traveled from Tiberius in Galilee down the Jordan Valley and then up into Jerusalem.  While I have been to the Holy Land twice before, I had never traveled this route to Jerusalem.  The lush river valley was a sharp contrast to the arid, barren wilderness on both sides as we approached the turn off to Jerusalem.  Water is life, and it is certainly at a premium.  The Moab wilderness — a barren wasteland — was where the Exodus journey led before entering the Promised Land.  In a visceral sense the phrase “promised land” took on new, vivid meaning.

Passing Jericho we traveled from the north end of the Dead Sea up to Jerusalem.  It literally is a city set on the hill.  It emerges out of a barren wilderness almost as if by magic!  On our bus, they played the great hymn The Holy City (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing).  On one level it was absolutely hokey, but on another level, I felt my eyes filling with tears and my heart swelling with hope.  I was deeply moved and yet at the same time puzzled that such was the case.

We humans are territorial creatures.  I know I am territorial and I have lived through or witnessed enough conflict over territory (should the church be relocated or not!, etc., etc.) to believe that being Christian brings no such exemption to such feelings. I think Jerusalem represents for me those deep longings of Eden.  It is significant that the Bible opens in Eden, an agricultural setting, and closes with a “new Jerusalem,” the Holy City of God.

Set all of this alongside a city riven by almost perpetual conflict and there is much to meditate upon.  Divine presence and human waywardness (sinfulness) exist side by side in conflict.  This is hardly news but on a pilgrimage in the holy land its reality is present in a forceful way.

Musings on Heading to the Holy Land

Around noon Jolynn and I will board a plane and, along with about 200 other pilgrims from The Central Texas Conference, head to the Holy Land.  As I go through last minute work details before being out for two weeks and finish packing, I find my mind turns to reflect on the land in which Jesus walked and talked.

On one level, given the modern level of violence that inhabits that region of our globe, it is a land that is anything but holy.  On another, more historic level, we know this land called holy as the birth place of three great monotheistic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

William Blake’s 1804 poem (later put to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916) tugs at some of my more primal feelings.  Make the simple substitution of America for “England” in the poem and the longs emerge.  It goes:

“And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land.
(Beneath the poem, Blake inscribed Numbers 11:29 — “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets.”)

A spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land fronts for a deeper spiritual journey.  In the far great theological sense, through the Holy Spirit, the Christian faith would assert the presence of Christ in all lands.  I think I caught a glimpse in the music and worship at Morgan Mill last Sunday.  A recent article in the January 2013 edition of The Smithsonian magazine chronicles a local legend from Shingo, Japan (a mountain hamlet in a “distant corner of northern Japan”) that Jesus ended up in that region and is buried on a hilltop.  While those of us who believe in the resurrection reject out of hand such a legend, the claim of Christ upon all people and all regions remains.

In very truth all lands can be seen as holy.  The promise of Christ in Matthew 28:20 remains:  “I will be with you always.”  Whether Jerusalem, Morgan Mill or Shingo, Japan, it is to this truth I hold as we prepare to fly to the Holy Land.

Offering Christ and Preparing for Lent

It is hard to believe that Christmas is gone and we are now into the season of Epiphany. It is worth careful remembering that this period is one in which we reflect the gospel coming to gentiles, non-believers. In all probability the wise men were followers of Zoroaster. Their coming to Christ is a call and claim on us to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with others. This is a great season to emphasize evangelistic outreach in offering Christ.

While we are living the Epiphany, the light coming to the gentiles, this is also a great time to prepare for the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is February 13th; just a month from now. There are many wonderful ways to use this great season of the Christian year as a time of deepening our walk with Christ. I invite you to prayerfully make your preparations for Lent now.

If you have not already made plans, allow me to suggest for Pastors/preachers, Sunday School class teachers and all others to consider Rev. Adam Hamilton’s new book The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus. It is the third volume of a three-volume Bible study series on the life of Jesus.

The promotional blurb says it well. “Once again, Hamilton approaches his subject matter with thoughtfulness and wisdom in this third volume of his study series on the life of Christ – just as he did with Jesus’ crucifixion in 24 Hours That Changed the World and Jesus’ birth in The Journey.

Using historical information, archeological data, and signature stories of faith, Hamilton follows in the footsteps of Jesus, examining the people he loved, the healing he brought, the parables he taught, and the enemies he made.” (taken from a Cokesbury promo postcard regarding The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus by Adam Hamilton)

Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. A primary path to such discipleship is to walk with Christ to the cross and beyond.

Tuesday Jolynn and I will leave with 200 other pilgrims on a journey to the Holy Land. I covet your prayers.

On the Way – Journeys in the Wilderness

The original identification of Christ followers was not the label “Christian.”  They were called followers of the Way.  By that, they meant they were following the way of Christ in faithful discipleship.

As we met for the first Cabinet meeting of the year, stories of faithfulness and fruitfulness abound.  They are the “narratives” that go with the vital signs of which we have been talking.  Together at Cabinet we spent a great time celebrating progress which has come out of the Exodus Project.  In these narratives we encounter movements of the Holy Spirit that are taking place in our common ministry throughout the Conference. Truly God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is at work within us and through us.

Consider this sampling:

  • St. Barnabas is engaged in an awesome outreach medical clinic to those in need and has started a new contemporary worship called The Encounter with 145 people present on Saturday night
  • 1st Salado is engaged in hands-on ministry not only in the community, but in Africa & Haiti as well;  worship attendance is increasing with a sense of being electric & alive
  • 1st Graham started a ministry of feeding children (and their parents) who are on subsidized lunches during the summer; their children’s ministry is experiencing great growth
  • 1st Brownwood is reaching out to students at  Howard Payne University in creative ways
  • Cross Plains had a “camo” worship reaching out to hunters and is deeply excited as they start HCI (Healthy Church Initiative)
  • Morgan Mill/Bluff Dale – built a new parsonage, received 4 new members on professions of faith,  took 32 on a mission trips – 9 to Haiti, and is engaging in a great disaster response ministry
  • Meier Settlement has taken over the closed Riesel church to use for community & school activities. They sent over 1,000 Christmas boxes out to those in need with widespread community support
  • 1st Waco is engaged in a host of ways including Life Church (a predominantly Hispanic new church start), leading Speegleville as a mission outpost, and Church Under the Bridge for the homeless
  • Austin Avenue has welcomed ARC disabled folks from McClennon County, an outreach for those who are challenged
  • The Ghanaian UMC held its first 1st Sunday worship in the old Aldersgate facility with 128 people present; the service started at 10:40 and ended about 1:30. Excitement and amazing singing abounded
  • Eastland has bought a building and started a city-wide youth program reaching out to those who do not know Christ or have no church home
  • 1st Hurst is engaged in 30 small groups studying Unbinding the Gospel, which will be a church-wide emphasis of sharing faith
  • 1st Fort Worth is engaged in a tremendous children’s ministry reaching out to the whole community
  • Bethesda has built a home from the ground up for a community member in dire need, living Matthew 25; they are engaged in one-on-one discipleship and mentoring of laity.
  • Acton is experiencing a rebirth of ministry at Rancho Brazos, is embracing deepening  discipleship, and seen an exponential increase in worship numbers

The promise of Jeremiah of a “future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11) is unfolding!

At God’s Disposal

As we move into the New Year, my work opened with a Bishops’ Conclave (a TMF clergy group consisting of the active bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction) meeting in Austin.  We discussed issues facing the church and commitments/convictions we are carrying forward.  Clarity on the mission statement forms the foundation — “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  There is renewed conviction coming out of the Council of Bishops on the Call to Action, especially the first two critical points:  1)  a sustained focus on local church vitality; and 2) leadership development.

Concomitant with this ongoing work, I have continued in my devotional life using an electronic copy of The Way: 365 Daily Meditations by E. Stanley Jones edited and updated by Dean Merrill.  It is worth recalling that early Christians were not called Christian but “followers of the way.”  At least for me, when I wrestle with this faith conviction, I do so out of older language about submission to Christ, obedience, and being under orders.  I desire, pray, and work on being a follower of the Way of Christ.

E. Stanley Jones’ meditation for December 23rd pushed me back to Philippians 4:11, 13; “I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. . . . I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.”  It is here the Word of God offers me great nourishment for the coming new year.  Jones writes: “We do not need to strive to do things — instead, we put ourselves at God’s disposal, and He does things through us. . . . Say this prayer: ‘O God, can you do anything with me? I’m at your disposal.  You’ve got me.’ Then let spiritual expectancy possess you.”

A Christian View of The Hobbit?

There is a phrase that I love to remember which describes our times.  “Not all who wander are lost.”  I believe the quote is attributed to Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  We are a people wandering in the wilderness of post-modern, post-Christendom world.  But guided by the light of Christ, we are not lost.

I hope to see the movie “The Hobbit” which has recently come out.  As you probably know it is based on J.R.R.Tolkien’s beloved 1937 novel of the same name.  Dr. Devin Brown, a professor at Asbury University has written a new book which reminds us that if we wander with Bilbo Baggins, we will be wandering through a “world constructed on Christian principles.”

To fully understand Tolkien’s great work we need to recall his deep Christian faith which undergirds his writing.  According to Professor Brown, “Tolkien once wrote a friend, ‘I am a Christian, and whatever I write will come from that essential viewpoint.’”

It is well known that Tolkien’s friendship with C.S. Lewis was among the crucial influences in Lewis’ life that helped the former atheist open his heart to God.  “There’s a famous walk they took,” Brown said from his home near Lexington. “Tolkien said to Lewis, ‘You like these stories, these myths that tell us who we are and why we are here from Icelandic and the Nordic countries — from everywhere but from the New Testament. Maybe you should think of the stories in the New Testament as myths that became true.’” (taken from an article by Kay Campbell and Greg Garrison, Religion News Service, Published: December 14).

Dr. Brown has written a book entitled The Christian World of the Hobbit.  Published by Abingdon Press it is available through Cokesbury for those who would like to follow up further.   It is worth noting that The Hobbit is not an explicitly Christian story, but it is illuminating and as great literature in its own right well worth investigating. However you come out, it is clear that the book is deeply religions if not mystical at its core.  Regardless, I hope you enjoy either the book or movie or better yet, both.