Archive - February, 2013

Prayer

We begin our Cabinet sessions with a time of worship using The Upper Room Worship Book.  This time is precious to me.  I feel calmed and centered by singing, focusing on Holy Scripture, and sharing in prayer.  It is here that I can feel the presence of God through the Holy Spirit.  The prayer time involves prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of petition and intercession.  The thanksgiving prayers have at the response – “Loving God, we give you thanks.”  The prayers of petition and intercession contain the response – “Merciful God, hear our prayer.”

This morning (Wednesday, February 27, 2013) as we prayed we opened with a string of petitions for pastors, family and friends battling cancer.  It had six or seven in row and felt like more.  There was something in these petitions that brought us before God in a heartfelt, humbling and cleansing way.  Gradually, with no planning or intention, the Cabinet moved to giving thanks in prayer.

Such an exercise is hardly unique to us a Cabinet.  It is part of the fabric of Christian belief and practice across the world.  I dare assert that every church in the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church practices such prayer in one form or another as a part of its worship life.  We know the image of a “foxhole” prayer; that is a prayer said in a time of deeper anguish, danger, or great need.  What impressed me today was how our prayers of petition and intercession are linked to our praise and thanksgiving.  In doing the two together, I found myself transported to a deeper spiritual awareness and greater calm.

The armchair theologian in me thinks this has to do with a sense of submission to God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  In such prayer I acknowledge who is Lord, who alone is worthy of my (our) worship.  In such prayer I also acknowledge my greater gratitude and greater hope.  Life is both too glorious and too thrown (battered, beaten?) to live alone.  As an act of worship I choose to place my life under the Lord’s rule together with other Christ followers.  It is here that I learn again what the Christians of Philippi learned.  “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.  Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)minding good ground

In my reflection I am taken back to a book I am reading – Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal by Jason Vickers.  Vickers argues persuasively that “tarrying together in prayer” is foundationally essential for the church and our common Christian life together.  Presciently he comments, “It is not altogether clear that the church knows the difference between tarrying together in prayer and loitering together at the church bake sale” (p. 44).  He goes on to add, “The church that truly yearns for renewal will commit herself to one thing above all else.  She will invite the Holy Spirit to come, and she will do so continuously until the Spirit shows up” (p. 45).

Merciful God, hear our prayer.  Loving God, we give you thanks!

Focus on Christ

Lent at its best involves walking with Jesus.  I find in devotional time that I am repeatedly drawn back to this journey with the Savior.

As a part of my devotion time, I am reading E. Stanley Jones’ daily devotions from The Way.  The devotional for February 20th in part reads:  “We must get our values straight, and the central value of the Christian faith is Christ.  If someone replies, ‘No, God is our central value and starting point,’ I will answer that apart from Christ we know little about God.  If we try to start from God, we do not actually start from God, but from our ideas about God. . . . Jesus is God breaking through to us. . . . If Christ is not the center of your circle, then your circumference wobbles.  Your faith exhausts itself against the problems of life. .  . . If you begin at any other place, you will end in chaos” (E. Stanley Jones, The Way, February 20th).

The week before, my Spiritual Mentor had shared with me an extended quote from John Phillip Newell, the famous spiritual leader of the Iona community.  It comes at the issue of walking with Jesus from the opposite end of the theological spectrum.  Newell wrote:  “How do we reclaim the wisdom of Jesus in the Christian household today and in our world of relationships?  For many of us it has been a difficult journey.  Rightly we have been appalled at the way in which Jesus has been hijacked by triumphalist religion.  The truly humble one at the head of our tradition has been used to prop up an often arrogant and irrelevant religious system.  The son of compassion has been used to justify intolerance and even violence.  Consequently many of us have gone silent about our great treasure.  We have been so determined to distance ourselves from the misrepresentations of Jesus that we have failed to articulate the true essence of Jesus.  When E. Stanley Jones, the twentieth century American theologian who with Mahatma Gandhi helped lead the way in Indian interfaith relationship, was asked what the uniqueness of Christianity was, he said that Christianity’s uniqueness was Jesus.  This, of course, is the obvious answer.  But maybe, under our many layers of doctrinal statements about Jesus, we have ended up missing the obvious.  And we have ended up missing our greatest treasure”  (John Philip Newell, “A New Harmony; The Spirit, The Earth, and the Human Soul”).

What impresses me is where the two coalesce at the focal point of Christ.  In both cases my spiritual journey drives me back to a humble walk with the Lord.  It is here that I live and move and have my being.  Come what may, we cannot escape the piercing question of Matthew 16:15, which Jesus himself puts to us.  “He [Jesus] said, ‘And what about you?  Who do you say that I am?’”

Our Lenten journey travels the road of confession or moves not at all.

Focus on the Mission

As the Cabinet continues its joint ministry work, we wrestle deeply with how we stay focused on the mission.  By way of reminder to readers, our mission as a part of the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  The clear focus of our ministry as a Conference staff (Cabinet and Conference Center) is to “energize and equip local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This Tuesday (February 19th) we spent a day with consultant Mike Bonem (author of Leading from the Second Chair and In Pursuit of Great and Godly Leadership).  Mike facilitated our discussion on what it means to think about the District Superintendent as a mission strategist.  (I have written on this before in a number of blogs.)  This is a major emphasis of our work together as a Cabinet.  While it may not always be clear from a distance, the “mission strategist” approach has already brought great change to our Cabinet work (both in what we work on and how we work).  One clear example is the way we engage in appointment making. (See my recent Blog entitled “Inventory and Narrative”)

As a Cabinet we are clear that the mission is the driver!  Notice that is not “a driver” or even “the primary driver.”  It is THE driver.  Do we live up to this perfectly?  No, but we are working on it!

In answering the question “what does it mean to say someone is a mission strategist?” we came up with the following list.  A Mission Strategist is:

1)         Led by the Holy Spirit
2)         Clear about the mission
3)         Has a strategy
4)         Externally focused (focused on the mission field)
5)         Points pastors, laity & congregations in the same direction
6)         Focuses energy on the coalition of the willing
7)         Minimizes energy on institutional maintenance
8)         Speaks the truth in grace
9)         Points churches towards resources & fresh ideas
10)       Courageously holds self and others accountable
11)       Not an island; aligned, committed to interacting with the rest of the Cabinet

This list is hardly complete and is an evolving document.  Nonetheless, it offers a guide to what we are about and hopefully gives needed insight to lay leaders and pastors.

As I look over the list and reflect on our work together, what rings in my ears is the command of the risen Christ.  “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth.Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

 

Sin – Ash Wednesday – Wesley

Wednesday night February 13th, the Cabinet traveled to First UMC in Cleburne to participate in worship. The worship service was both a blessing and an examination. The Youth Director Peyton Carter preached an excellent faithful sermon on sin and the need to confess as a part of beginning our Lenten journey to the cross and beyond.

Such a message is a traditional and deeply appropriate Ash Wednesday theme. The ancient words of imposition ring in my mind –“repent and believe the gospel.” I love the way the new Common English Bible translates repentance – “change your hearts and lives” (see Mark 1:15, CEB). Whoever we are, wherever we are, repentance, the change of heart and lives towards the Lord, is a claim upon us if we are to travel the Way of Christ to the cross and beyond.

As I listened I made personal application to my own life. I engaged in self-examination and confession. What did I need to repent of; what needed change in my heart and life?

I also could not help but reflect on the larger theologizing of the church. I can hardly remember many sermons with sin as a major theme lately. It is almost as if we think sinning is something others do. Perhaps our good and legitimate stress on grace has overshadowed such a core doctrinal concern. Yet I think Dietrich Bonheoffer’s warnings against cheap grace need to be heard again. It is worth recalling that when the great Methodist theologian Albert Outler wrote his classic Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, his second chapter was on the doctrine of sin. He entitled it: “Diagnosing the Human Flaw: Reflections upon the Human Condition.” Confession and repentance (change of heart and life) are an ongoing element of any spiritually healthy life of Christian discipleship.

On the larger level, Wesley’s famous words come back to me. “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (John Wesley). On Wesley’s monogram are the words “believe, love, obey.” Theological faithfulness and genuine spiritual depth comes in connecting the two.
Believe –>  Doctrine
Love –>  Spirit
Obey     –>  Discipline

We need to theologically reclaim reflection and preaching/teaching on the “human flaw.” We need to do so with grace and conviction not damnation and mean-spirited judgment. Put differently, the truth needs to be said in love and claimed over our own lives as necessary precondition of preaching and teaching about its reality in the lives of others.

There is more to be said here, much more! But for now, Ash Wednesday is a good place to recommit to such a journey of faith. We must preach and teach in such a way that we reclaim core theological convictions with depth, courage, conviction and grace.

Inventory and Narrative

This past Monday (February 11th) the Central Texas Conference Cabinet began its annual four day Inventory Retreat at Stillwater Lodge in Glen Rose.  Together we will sift through the myriad of personnel issues that are before us as a part of the United Methodist connection.  We will look at:  1) the number of retirements taking effect at Conference; 2) the new seminary graduates and Course of Study candidates who are requesting an appointment at Conference; 3) those pastors and/or churches who are requesting consideration of a move or different appointment assignment.

This is always a complex process with a host of “moving parts.”  The big difference is, of course, that the “parts” are not machine parts but real people and real churches both of whom (the pastors and churches) are seeking to engage in faithful and fruitful ministry on the part of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We will begin the process in worship and prayer. We will end it in worship and prayer. We will take periodic time apart for prayer and discernment.  This is a Spirit-led process, flawed and blessed by us as Cabinet, pastors, and churches seeking to faithfully do our best in service the Lord and His church.

Bathed in prayer and spiritual discernment, we are governed by the principle that our (the Cabinets’) client is/are:

1)      God and the kingdom of God
2)      The mission field (the larger community and area of an appointment)
3)      The Church
4)      The Clergy
In that order!

We look at the vital signs as guided by the fruitful practices of ministry and illuminated by statistical data (passionate worship = worship attendance; radical hospitality = evangelism/professions of faith; risk-taking mission & service = number of people engaged in hands on missional outreach to the hurting, hungry and homeless; intentional faith development = small groups for biblical and spiritual growth, Sunday School attendance; and extravagant generosity = percent of connectional mission giving (CMG = apportionment) paid, financial generosity through second mile mission giving).  As always, such vital signs are important. They are significant, proximate measures of fruitfulness and faithfulness.  (A proven axiom of leadership development is that you get more of what you measure.)

The key to understanding vital signs lies in the little word in the previous sentence – “proximate.”  No statistic, however good, tells the whole story of fruitfulness and faithfulness.  We always have to ask what is the narrative, the context, or what some call the “back story.”  It is here we look most carefully for insight, understanding and spiritual guidance.  Often (almost always) the narrative (“back story”) changes before the statistics.  It is why the vital sign statistics are never read unfiltered.

What does narrative look like?  Why consider this story from Cross Plains UMC shared with the District Superintendent Rev. Carol Woods and passed on to me by Pastor Kevin Morton.  “Each year, during hunting season, hundreds, if not thousands, of hunters come to the Cross Plains area.  This year, we made a special effort to invite all the hunters to join us for worship.  We wanted them to feel welcome and to not worry if they did not have “church clothes”, so we designated November 4, the first Sunday of deer rifle season, as Camo Sunday.  We passed out invitations, put out flyers, and posted it on Facebook, and the congregation attended worship wearing camouflage clothing.  We received a wonderful response from the community and had several visitors who attended wearing their camo.”

Pastor Morton adds that among the other highlights of 2012:

  • Worship attendance is up almost 10%
  • 11 new members – two by adult baptism and profession of faith
  • As of 10/31/12, over 21% of offerings received have gone to missions, benevolences, and charities.
  • Established covenant relationship with UM missionary in Macedonia

Narrative is a key component of inventory.  It links with the vital signs.  Narrative both leads to and gives evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness.

Still Spending the Power

In my old worn copy of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (a Christmas gift from my parents in 1974), she describes a scene of vivid illumination.  “Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time see, knocked breathless by a powerful glance” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, pg. 33).

I had an experience akin to her illumination on our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Late in the day, after walking part of the Via Dolorosa (the Way of the Cross) and visiting the Wailing Wall (the remaining wall of the old Temple of Jerusalem that Jesus knew), our group moved down into the recently opened archeological park  that leads to the teaching steps of the old wall to the city of Jerusalem.  The steps are on the south end of the “Temple Mount” just outside the Hulda Gate, which was the primary entrance to the Temple Mount in the time of Christ.  In the gathering dusk we walked and sat on the steps where Jesus sat when he taught.

As I sat there in the gathering twilight, the quiet settled around me with conversely the noise of the city of Jerusalem as its backdrop.  In my pause I heard Jesus again speaking and teaching – to me personally but more than that to all of us – all seekers of the truth whether Christ followers or not.  Different passages of scripture played across my mind – “I am the Way, the truth and life.  … Love the Lord your God with all your heart …”  As I sat I was struck again by how graciously and deeply the Lord would teach us.

I remember the Reveal study conducted by the Willow Creek Association.  They noted the absolutely critical importance of Bible Study and reading the scriptures regularly in deepening one’s spiritual walk with Christ. (Reflection on Scripture was the #1 factor for spiritual growth and development. See Reveal: Follow Me by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, p. 41.) It struck me that however powerful my experience on the teaching steps was, the same power and blessing can come from letting the Lord speak to us through regular reading and study of the Scriptures.

It is really is simple and basic, yet absolutely foundational.  Become a part of some Bible study groups.  Sit again this day on the teaching steps and let Christ speak to you.  As for me, I am still spending the power.

Church in a Time of Change

I find myself settling back in upon our return from our pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  It feels good to be back in the routine of episcopal life in the Central Texas Conference.  Wednesday afternoon I drove down to the South District office and met with Rev. Rankin Koch, the South District Superintendent and Rev. Tom Robbins who chairs the District Superintendency Committee.  Look for an announcement on the incoming (at Conference) South DS on the Conference website Monday.

Today I am driving to Eastland to meet with Rev. Carol Woods as we review ministry in the West District together.  Eastland UMC is engaged in some exciting outreach ministry (as are other churches throughout the Conference).  It does my soul good to be “on the ground” in our local churches.

Changing subjects just a bit; at our last Council of Bishops meeting we had a Powerpoint presentation from Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary entitled “Being Church in a time of Change.”  Some those insights stick with me in a deep way, and I pass them on for your reflection.

We are living through three major shifts:

1. From Christendom to World Movement
2.  From Religiously Segmented to Religiously Pluralistic World
3.  From Denominational Preeminence to Ecclesial Ferment and Experimentation

Dr. Pieterse quoted Andrew Walls.  “Christianity began the twentieth century as a Western religion [and] ended the century as a non-Western religion, on track to become progressively more so. . . . The demographic transformation of the church. . . faces us with twin challenges: a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christianity.”  On a more personal level, our recent Holy Land pilgrimage reinforced just how worldwide and diverse the Christian movement is.  There are a growing number of Asian Christians on pilgrimage to the Holy Land!  The implications of this change were deeply felt in the UMC at our last General Conference (and hence affected local churches in Central Texas!).

Consider the following statistical data which Dr. Pieterse quoted form Dr. Phillip Jenkins:

  • In 1900, two-thirds of all Christians lived in Europe.
  • Today, less than one-fourth of Christians reside in Europe; and by 2025 it will drop to under 20 percent.
  • Today, more than 65 percent of Christians live outside the West.
  • Between 1900 and 2000, the Christian presence in Africa increased from 10 million people to over 360 million.
  • Africans and Asians already make up about 30 percent of Christianity around the world.
  • By 2025, half of all Christians on the planet will live in Africa and Latin America.
  • By 2050, non-Hispanic whites will make up only about one-fifth of the world’s projected 3 billion Christians.

Or reflect on the following insights he offered from a variety of sources:

  • Christianity should enjoy a worldwide boom in the new century, but the vast majority of believers will be neither white nor European, nor Euro-American.”1
  • Today, a typical Christian is not a White Methodist or Episcopalian living in an upscale suburb of New York or Atlanta, but a poor woman struggling to survive in a village somewhere in Nigeria or in a favela in Brazil. (Jenkins)
  •  “Christianity today is largely a movement of the “poor, the powerless, and the persecuted.”2
  • Christians make up a significant percentage of the 2.8 billion people worldwide struggling to survive on pennies a day.
  • Of the 1,090 million people who live in absolute poverty, 260 million are Christians—13 percent of all Christians.
  •  Approximately 100 million Christians live in the world’s twenty-six poorest countries.

He offered some insights and implications for our North American (and hence Central Texas) context.  Consider:

A Growing World Church in Our Midst:

  • “Immigrant congregations represent the fastest growing segment of American Christianity across all traditions. . . . [E]very Christian migrant is a potential missionary.1

An Emerging Landscape of Ecclesial Ferment and Experimentation:

  • “[T]he forms of legitimacy that shaped the twentieth century have been disappearing in a process of rapid and discontinuous change.”
  • “A crisis of legitimacy occurs when discontinuous change occurs in the overall environment and is not matched by corresponding responses within the organization.”
  • “[D]enominations face questions of identity and legitimacy. . . . [T]hey are confronting a legitimacy crisis and will be unable to become missionally shaped systems unless they understand the dynamics of this crisis.”
  • “[D]enominations tend to address the crisis at the levels of organizational structure and role identity. . . . Changing them will not address the legitimation crisis. The core issue facing a [denomination] is at the level of culture, or identity.”2

There is a lot to chew on here, and I invite the reader to prayerfully chew away with me.  In the midst of our change I see great opportunity.  The Holy Spirit is at work in our world!  Here in Central Texas these insights are being reflected in our congregations.  For instance, one of our new churches is made up of Ghanaian immigrants; we have a large Korean Methodist contingent in the Central Texas Context; as with all of Texas (& America) responding to Hispanic ministry growth is central to our future.  The list could go on but you get the drift.

These are exciting and changing times!  God is working in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  It is my joy to share in ministry with folks in Central Texas!