Archive - March, 2013

Amazing Grace

Read the resurrection story of John 20:11-18.  Enter the scene with Mary.  Archbishop William Temple wrote, “gradually her sorrow becomes tinged with wonder of what it was that the two apostles had seen when they went into the tomb; so she too looks in, …What catches her attention is not the linen clothes, but ‘two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.’[1]  The place of His Death was between two thieves; …The place of His burial was between two angels; …the place where God’s forgiveness meets [human] sin.” (William Temple, Readings in St John’s Gospel, p. 361)

Still caught in grief, not understanding, Mary turns back and catches sight of a man she believes is a gardener.  Should we, in the stillness of time, lean forward with cocked ear, we too might catch the words said to her.  “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

“Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’”

She was named and claimed!  In the naming of her name, death becomes life.  Deception is conquered by deliverance!  She, who comes seeking by the tomb, is now embraced by a new reality.  The words of the prophet Isaiah – “I have called you by name, you are mine!” (Isaiah 43:1) – dance in the air between them.  The poet Sallie Chesham catches the essence:

             Always after, she
            Would find no horror
            In spilled blood,
            The grave,
            Would even wave at death.
            Trial and triumph
            She judged the same.
            The only thought
            Of consequence was this:
            Forever He would call
            Her by name.
 (Sallie Chesham, “After Mary,” The Splendor of Easter, p. 133-134)

Such is the splendor of this resurrection day!  We are named and claimed by the risen Lord!   You are named and claimed by the risen Lord!

When you are named in love, you are claimed in love.  In Christ’s one word “Mary!” not only does she know He is alive; she also knows she is alive!  “Because I live,” said Jesus, “you shall live also” (John 14:19). As Mary is named by the Savior, she is known by God, given an identity and purpose, no more a mere ripple in the waters of existence.

I remember when our son was born.  I was there, Nikon Daddy, camera slung around my neck coaching Jolynn with inane comments like a baseball announcer gone mad.  The doctor picked him up and cleaned him off.  Weighing and talking measurements, he dictated to the nurse:  “Baby boy Lowry.” I interrupted him, “He’s not just a boy; his name is Nathan.  He’s ours.”  He was named and claimed!

This Easter the march of the resurrecting God has taken a glorious step forward.  Our granddaughter, our first grandchild, has been bobaby gracern.  She is named Grace Jean Meek.  I’ve already taken to calling her simply “The Amazing.”  She too is named and claimed by the resurrecting Lord.

So are you.  Joyous Easter!


[1]               John 20:12

At the Intersection of Pain, Sin and Love

“There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.” (John 19:18-20)

The great American patriot Thomas Paine once wrote:  “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.  It is dearness only which gives everything its value, Heavens knows how to put a proper price on its goods.”

Come to the foot of the cross and gaze at the sign:

  • He is King/Lord
  • He is Savior
  • This is the price He paid on your and my behalf.

For years the ancient Hebrews had offered up finest lambs as an expression of love for God and sacrifice for their sins.  It was an attempt to desperately bridge the chasm between God and humans, between heaven and earth.

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the whole world!” (John 1:29)

  • Jesus on the Cross is God saying, “you don’t have to, I have”
  • The cross is more than a nice theory
  • The cross is greater than a kind thought
  • At the cross God incarnate hangs at the human juncture of pain, sin and love

The place of the cross is at the divine intersection with human despair and hope, anguish and embrace, sin and salvation, greed and grace.  George McLeod, the great Princeton preaching professor, has pointedly written:  “I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church.  I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a cross roads so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where He died.  And that is what he died about.  And that is where churchmen [we would say disciples] should be and what churchmanship [discipleship] should be about.”graffiti cross

May we together stand this day at the foot of the cross.



March Madness

How about Florida Gulf Coast?  Or think about Harvard beating New Mexico.  With many of you I’ve been following the NCAA “March Madness” playoffs.  I confess that I don’t really have a dog in this hunt.  There is no team that is a favorite for me.  I just enjoy a good game.  Saturday while during some household chores, I was able to watch Indiana University (one of the favorites) barely survive an upset at the hands of a tough Temple team.  It is fun and wacky; it is “March madness” as the television advertisers like to say.

And yet, the real “March Madness” has nothing to do with basketball.  It has to do with the events of this week we call Holy.  Furthermore, instead of not having a dog in hunt, I and every human being who has ever or will ever live has eternity hanging in the balance.  The entrance to Jerusalem by a King on a donkey is true, holy “March madness.”

Consider the week begins in a triumphant entry that is strangely contrasted with the entries of other rules.  The pomp and circumstance of Roman might and power is contrasted with the home-grown parade of branches and cloaks.  Yet 2000 years later, it is that home-grown parade we remember not the clanking pageantry of Roman muscle.

Or take some of the other events of this week.  The cleansing of the temple is the stuff of craziness.  It is designed to bring the wrath of religious power down upon the perpetrator’s head – that is, the head of Jesus of Nazareth.  Yet the “March Madness” of the Savior teach us something of God’s love for those who have not, for those outside of the religious mainstream.

Take the Thursday meal in a borrowed upper room with a traitor and denier sitting at the table.  You would think that the Savior of the world would do a better job of picking those to eat with him at his last supper.  Yet…when I pause to reflect I cannot help but discover that he has me also to sit at table with him.  The choices of this Jesus, this Lord and Savior, are strange indeed by the world’s standards.

Or embrace Friday.  Why call this day good? It is a day in which the greatest man who ever lived suffered a cruel and rampantly unjust execution.  Yet in the madness of March it is the day of salvation.

And look where the “March Madness” ends. The championship is not in an arena but at a graveyard.  May this Easter find you there … in celebration!

Preaching for Tips

The morning was beautiful with the midst slowly clearing the water.  The sea was calm.  Our excitement was noisy, exuberant, and expectant; somehow all three elements mingled in the joy of our gathering.

We had left our embarkation point in two boats and tied together in the middle of the sea.  Our destination point lay to the north before us.  It was a little town called Capernaum.  Off our starboard side (the right side for you land lubbers), the Golan Heights rose in the distance.  Gazing out at the view and blocking out modernity, I could easily imagine myself sailing with Peter and the gang.  There on the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberius) we held a morning worship service.

As we sang it was a holy moment for me.  On an intensely personal level it was as if the Holy Spirit wafted on the wind over the boats.  I preached on one of the great Sea of Galilee stories of Jesus calming the storm.  While I spoke, Rev. Brad Slaten took the picture you see with me standing next to the sign “Tip”.  Someone later told me told me later, “Bishop, I thought you were preaching for tips.”

Apparently the Bishop is preaching for tips. ?In the joy of the day the humor of it all struck me, but now on later reflection the time and the picture intermingle and bid me reflect on a deeper, holy story.  Consider, as I write this it is the Friday before the start of Holy Week, the Palm Sunday procession. This evening begins the Jewish Sabbath that leads to the Sunday procession.


I love Palm Sunday.  I love Easter morning – especially the Sunrise Service.  It is tempting, oh so very tempting! to skip like a flat rock thrown across the lake from the celebratory expectation of Palm Sunday to the triumphant joy of Easter morning.  Yet to do so is like preaching for tips instead of embracing the vastly greater spiritual depths of Christ’s sacrifice and the fullness of the journey to the cross and beyond.  Palm Sunday’s meaning comes from the cross.  This is where Christ fully dismounts.  Easter gains its resurrecting power only when we have knelt at the cross.  I am convinced that this is what the Apostle Paul was reaching for when he wrote to the Corinthians, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.  . . We preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.  But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:18, 23-24).

Recently I visited a friend in the hospital.  As he lay on his back recovering from his treatment, he spoke of his hope to be out of the hospital and in his church on Easter.  He commented, “Oh, I really need Easter this year!”  So do I.  So, I think, do we all.  Facing Holy Week the question before us is, Will we settle for “tips” on better living, or walk to the cross and through the cross beyond the joy of the Son’s rising?

Drinking from a Firehose

drinking from the firehoseDuring the past week, I feel like I have been drinking from a firehose. Friday after work (March 8th), Jolynn and I drove hurriedly up to Oklahoma to be with my mother-in-law, Maxine Mitchell (for whom I ask your prayers along with prayers for Jolynn), who was hospitalized and had to move to a nursing home with skilled care. After spending Saturday and Sunday dealing with looking for a place, offering love and care, and following up on medical options, I caught a 6 a.m. flight from Oklahoma City to DFW where I caught my original flight to Nashville, Tennessee for a meeting of the Path 1 Team.

Path 1 is the name of the United Methodist Churches’ (in the United States) focus on “new places for new people.” It is attached to the General Board of Discipleship (whose General Secretary is our own Rev. Karen Greenwaldt – she would want me to pass on her greetings and support). In two days of meetings we received great reports. Path 1 exceeds its goal of 650 new churches in the U.S. over the last quadrennium. The final total was 683! This represents a 406% growth over the previous quadrennium! And, we engaged in deep advanced planning for new church development to reach its goal of 1,000 new churches in this quadrennium. It is a great and godly work.

I got home late Tuesday night. Wednesday morning I spent time in reverse mentoring (a younger clergy person mentors me!) and then dove into afternoon meetings dealing with worship plans for this coming Annual Conference. In between I tried to catch up on my email and snail mail. (If you haven’t heard from me yet I beg your patience. As of this writing, I am 71 emails behind and a stack of snail mails.)

Wednesday evening I attended a dinner sponsored by the Texas Methodist Foundation. It was the opening of an 8:30 to 2:30 meeting on Thursday, which involved laity who have held senior executive positions dialoging with leadership from the Texas Methodist Foundation (President Tom Locke, Senior Consultant Gil Rendle, and Vice President of Leadership Ministry Lisa Greenwood) and myself as episcopal leader. It was a tremendous time of learning and garnering insight from folks who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know.

Wednesday mid- to late-afternoon I tried to catch up on email and write two blogs. Wednesday evening involved a trip to Dallas to visit a CTC clergy person in the hospital.

After some more email work on Friday morning, I headed out to Glen Lake Camp and Retreat Center for a Taize Group retreat that finished up on Saturday. Sunday I visited one of our churches. I save about 10 Sundays a year to visit churches all over the Central Texas Conference unannounced. I want to experience what a lay visitor would experience when they visit a church.

Sunday afternoon and Monday morning I try to take off (my Sabbath). Monday afternoon will find me teaching a PLD group and participating in a conference phone call for one of the boards I am on.

I confess that I love the work I am engaged in! And yet, I feel like I am drinking out of firehose. What about you? I shared the above narrative not brag or complain but to invite reflection. I find my experience is common to both lay and clergy. We live in a culture and at a pace that is unsustainable. It reminds me of the importance of Sabbath and rest. How about you? Do you live with the awareness that the commandment to honor the Sabbath hasn’t been repealed?

The Impact of Glen Lake

One of the truly great and impactful ministries of the Central Texas Conference is Glen Lake Camp (along with Stillwater Lodge). Two events have recently transpired that reinforce the crucial high impact ministry of Glen Lake Camp.

First, last Sunday we announce a change in appointment for the Director of Glen Lake Camp & Stillwater Lodge. Rev. Kay Hawkins has done an outstanding job in leading Glen Lake. Through her ministry she has blessed the entire Central Texas Conference. And yet, for a variety of important reasons, she will be moved to First UMC Burleson as the Senior Pastor. This was a tough decision for us as a Cabinet. With her move, I am delighted to share what was made public Sunday. We are following high quality with high quality at Glen Lake. Rev. Travis Franklin, Senior Pastor of Salado UMC will become the new Director of Glen Lake Camp and Stillwater Lodge. The willingness of both of them to serve in these new capacities will enhance our collective mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world! I thank God for both of them!

Second, a friend passed along a blog by Sam Breen (who is part of a cutting edge mission movement called 3DM) about the high impact of Camps on his life. He writers in part: “Camps are important. They have a massive impact in the development of a person, regardless of whether or not the camp has a spiritual aspect. At camp, teenagers are able to pursue independence in a safe environment. The insecure find their self-esteem, lifelong friendships are made, dreams and goals are shaped. The realization occurs that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Students stand in a room with hundreds of other kids and realize that their life can collide with the lives of others to create life-altering moments.

On top of this, the spiritual element to camp can make a difference that might change lives forever. Sometimes people are so close to choosing to follow Jesus that all it takes is being away from the normality of the everyday to shake up their world enough to choose Christ. Camp is a pilgrimage, an experience some youth may not find anywhere else. They arrive and discover that they are in a room with hundreds of other students there for the same reason — to experience Jesus afresh. That kind of expectancy can do incredible things in the spiritual realm. It’s not surprise to me that at camps, God seems to “show up” more. When there are that many people in a room, with people standing side by side, almost everyone’s faith grows.” (

To which I add a hearty amen! It may surprise the reader to learn that I was briefly a camp director for the Hartford County YMCA in Woodstock, Connecticut before I went into ordained ministry. I saw such work then and now as a great ministry. In a matter of a few weeks lives are transformed and grown in ways that deeply impact a person faith and values for the rest of their life. Glen Lake is a godly ministry worthy of our ardent prayers and passionate support.

Outwardly Focused & Upwardly Witnessing

Allow me to begin with a story that comes from Pastor Steve Nance at Groesbeck First UMC.

 “The lady that runs our local housing authority office called the church some time back asking for clothing for one of her clients.  She called nine local churches in the Groesbeck area and FUMC was the only one that responded.  We placed a call out to the church and in a very short time supplied her with everything she needed and included food items as well.  The lady from the housing authority was so overwhelmed with the church’s willingness to get involved that she visited the church a few Sundays ago.  Last Wednesday night she attended the first session of a new Bible study based on the TV show, Mayberry.  Today she came in and asked if she and her husband could join the church.  She wants to be a part of a church that ‘gets out of the walls of the building’ (our [First UMC Groesbeck’s] tag-line).

 “Pastor Nance adds,  ‘Funny story:  we recently changed insurance companies.  Underwriting for the new company saw on our website that we engage in risk taking missions.  He needed a written explanation as to what this was before we could be insured!!’”

 Wow!  I find such a narrative to be exciting.  It is at the heart of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  In PLD Group (Pastors Leadership Development Group – a part of the Healthy Church Initiative ministry) we are reading The Outwardly Focused Church by Rick Rusaw & Eric Swanson.  Their insights go hand in hand with the experience of First UMC Groesbeck.  They comment, “Service is, and should be, the identifying mark of Christians and the church. … One of the most effective ways to reach people with the message of Jesus Christ today is through real and relevant acts of service. … To tell the truth, we must show the truth. … Externally focused churches are convinced that good deeds and good news can’t and shouldn’t be separated” (Emphasis in the original; The Outwardly Focused Church by Rick Rusaw & Eric Swanson, pp. 11 & 24).

The combination of radical hospitality (evangelism) and risk-taking mission and service is at the very heart of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission (Luke 10:27 & Matthew 28:18-20).  It is at this crossroads (pun intended as we move through Lent to the cross and beyond) that gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, intersects our hurting and hungry world.  Think of the cross.  The arms extended horizontally represent risk-taking mission and service.  The upward reaching center beam stands for the good news of salvation in and through Christ our Lord shared in the radical hospitality of evangelistic witness.  Outwardly focused and upwardly witnessing.  This is the church of Jesus Christ, the body of Christ, at its best!

Deep Data Mining’s 16 Drivers of Congregational Vitality

Recently I found myself in a conversation with some lay leaders about crucial issues involving church health and vitality.  These lay leaders asked me, “What makes a church grow?”  I offered a couple of points in reply.  Almost immediately with no supporting data other than opinion they started to debate my answer.  I pointed out that my answer wasn’t a matter of opinion it was based on the deep data mining on congregational vitality done by Towers Watson in their report. (Click above link to read the extensive Towers Watson Report, which formed the back ground for the Call to Action Report.)

Arguing with the results of the deep data mining is a bit like debating that 2+2 = 4 in base 10 math or disputing that human beings need oxygen to breathe.  We can debate the issue, but the debate doesn’t change the data or the facts of the case.  The words of Neil Alexander, President and Publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House, keep coming back to me.  He said something like we don’t need more opinion about what causes vital congregations, we need data driven facts.

In the fall of 2011, I visited every District and made separate presentations to both the clergy and laity of all the Districts sharing key data points.  By way of critical reminder, deep data mining’s sixteen (16) drivers of congregational vitality are:

Driver 1: Vital churches have more small groups for all ages appropriate to each congregation.

Driver 2: Vital churches have more programs for children (under 12 years old).

Driver 3: Vital churches have more programs for youth (age 12-18).

Driver 4: Vital churches focus on increasing the effectiveness of lay leaders by equipping them to understand their role and carry out their roles effectively.

Driver 5: Vital churches have lay leaders who demonstrate a vital personal faith (regular worship, intentional spiritual growth, personal devotional life, and giving of financial resources.)

Driver 6: Vital churches place an emphasis on rotating lay leadership in order to involve more people over time.

Driver 7: Vital churches call, equip, use, and support more lay leaders than non-vital churches. (20 percent or more of their worship attendees describe themselves as current or past leaders in their church.)

Driver 8: Vital pastors give attention to developing, coaching, and mentoring lay leadership to enable laity to increase their ability to carry out ministry.

Driver 9: Vital pastors use their influence to increase the participation of others in order to accomplish changes in the church.

Driver 10: Vital pastors motivate the congregation to set and achieve significant goals through effective leadership.

Driver 11: Vital pastors inspire the congregation through preaching.

Driver 12: Vital pastors, when they are serving effectively, stay for a longer period of time. (Short-term appointments of effective pastors decrease the vitality of a congregation.)

Driver 13: Vital churches offer a mix of contemporary (newer forms of worship style) and traditional services.

Driver 14: Vital churches have preachers who tend to use more topical sermon series in traditional services.

Driver 15: Vital churches use more contemporary music (less blended music that includes traditional tunes) in contemporary services.

Driver 16: Vital churches use more multi-media in contemporary services (some congregations in other parts of the world may have limited access or do not use multi-media to the same extent and therefore it may not be as important as it is in some cultures.)

Application of such data (beyond pontificating or idle curiosity) involves investigating how my church or community of faith is doing in each category.  There is a wealth of important contextual nuancing that calls for deeper investigation.

Practical next steps involve picking a couple of categories to improve.  Don’t try to do everything at once.  Take a couple of concrete steps.  The Healthy Church Initiative/Small Church Initiative (HCI/SCI) provides clear and helpful information about application.  (Contact the Central Texas Conference Center for Evangelism and Church Growth for more information about HCI/SCI.)

Elements of Discipleship and Evidence of Vital (Fruitful) Congregations

What makes for a disciple? What are the elements of discipleship? We (especially clergy) love to argue & debate ad nauseam about the various elements of discipleship. It is both a fun and a significant debate. I have taken part in this debate many times. But … at its most foundational, true discipleship has some straight forward characteristics. The elements of discipleship line up with the five vows of membership and the five fruitful practices. Those five elements line up with the vital signs.

Disciples worship –>  presence –> passionate worship –> Vital sign of worship attendance
Disciples make new disciples –> witness –>  radical hospitality –>  vital sign of number of professions of faith
Disciples grow in their faith –>   prayers –>  intentional faith development –> vital sign of number of small groups
Disciples engage in mission –> service –>  risk-taking mission and service –> vital sign of the number of people doing outreach in the community and the world
Disciples give generously for mission –>  extravagant generosity –>  vital sign of the amount of money given to mission

An example of a vital congregation engaging in a crucial element of disciple-making comes from Whites Chapel. This Sunday they will confirm 180 students! Additionally some 22 families will join the church with their confirmands. We would expect a large confirmation class from a church the size of Whites Chapel. We would further expect that a number of families might be joining the church with their confirmand. But this many! The high numbers in both categories are well beyond reasonable expectations and give evidence of a vital congregation deeply committed to disciples making (both in witness/radical hospitality and prayers/intentional faith development).

Whites Chapel is just one example of many wonderfully faithful and fruitful churches in the Central Texas Conference. Biographies of God’s grace are being written in the hearts and minds of people all across the Central Texas Conference. I am humbled and grateful to be the bishop of such great conference engaged in a host of exciting ministries!

Recently a team from the Central Texas Conference participated in a pilot program called Team Vital with some 10 other Conferences. Team Vital is an outgrowth of the work of the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table of the UMC. Its work is to design models for Annual Conferences to use in growing vital congregations. They shared some comparative data that is exciting.

Central Texas Conf # Highly Vital Cong. Professions of Faith Worship Attendance
2010 22% 2,007 44,995
2011 23% (+1%) 2,106 (+99) 46,607 (+1,612)

This is the latest comparison data that the General Council of Finance and Administration (GCFA) has available. (2012 data won’t be available till later in the year.) Furthermore, 76% of adult worshipers are in a small group; 23% of worshipers are involved in a mission experience; 14% of local church spending goes to mission (over and above connectional mission giving/apportionments); 39% of congregations are growing in worship attendance. (All data used here has been provided by the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), which gets its numbers from annual conferences, who in turn get their numbers from year-end reports filled out by the churches.)

This is wonderful news giving witness to great faithfulness and growing fruitfulness. The elements of discipleship are blooming. The evidence of vital (fruitful) congregations is growing. Well done you good and faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ!