Archive - April, 2013

Is That All There is to It?

The night before the recent CTC Conference on Stewardship, the Cabinet met with Clif Christopher and Joe Park (the Conference teachers).  Those of you who know stewardship and know Clif are aware that the subject is really spiritual formation, mission and vision for Christ. Near the end of the evening he shared the following story which I paraphrase from memory.

Clif was sitting in a church on Sunday morning as they waited for the service to start.  As they passed the registration pad on, he noticed that the woman next to him checked the box “wish to join the church.”  When they came to the greeting time, he greeted her by name and commented about her desire to join the church.  “Yes,” she said.  “I’ve checked that box for three weeks in a row.  How do you join this church?”

Just about then the pastor came up the aisle greeting people.  Clif stepped out of his pew and guided the pastor to the woman and said, “Mary wants to join the church.”

The pastor warmly greeted her.  She asked again, “How do I go about joining this church?”  With a big smile the Pastor replied, “You just did!”

As the Pastor returned to the front to continue the service, she leaned over to Clif and whispered, “Is that all there is to it?”

Membership used to mean discipleship.  It still should. Disciples are disciplined, committed followers of Jesus Christ.  Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  The mission is not for the casual; it is for the committed.  Clif spoke a great deal about the need to raise expectations.  There is a deep theology of commitment and faith under the leadership of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The early Methodist movement was built on high commitment.  You had to be a member of a class meeting for spiritual growth, nurture and maturation.  It was expected that members were engaged in hands-on ministry with the poor.  Giving, yes tithing! — 10%, was an expectation.  Witnessing and faith sharing (evangelism) was common.  Membership in a Methodist Church was far from casual!

The reader can trace this out.  In the early Christian movement and the early Methodist movement, the five practices of fruitful congregations and fruitful living (or some biblical version thereof) were expectations.  Here is fodder for a serious theological and spiritual conversation in an Administrative Board or Council meeting.  How do we raise the conversation about expectations under The Lordship of Jesus Christ?  How do we move from membership back to discipleship?

We have to begin with a conversation between lay and clergy leadership.  This cannot be accomplished by “fiat.”  But, the lingering question of the woman in the pew hangs in the air.  “Is that all there is to it?”  Surely there is more to joining the church than a casual relationship.  May the conversation take place.

 

When Faith Kicks In

white dove

On Thursday  morning, April 25, I travelled to West, Texas with staff leadership from the Central Texas Conference (Rev. Dawne Phillips, Rev. Kyland Dobbins, & Vance Morton) to assess how the Conference might best continue to respond to the tragedy.  A crucial part of the visit was meeting with members of West UMC & Wesley Chapel/Gholson to hear their stories and share our love, care and continuing support.  As is often the case, I drove away deeply humbled and gratefully blessed by their faithfulness.

By way of background, officials in West have the blast area divided into three zones.  Zone 1 means some damage.  Zone 2 means serious damage.  Zone 3 means demolished.  As of this writing, the police are still not allowing people into zone 3.

We were met at the church by Pastor Jimmy Sansom and two couples in the congregation (Carl and Ethel, Jack and Fayedell).  Next door neighbors for over thirty years, both couples are in zone 2.  Carl and Ethel took us by to see their homes after our visit.  The damage is so structurally deep that both homes are uninhabitable and will take major (insurance estimates $100,000+) repair.  Still in shock and just beginning to come to terms with the major life change facing them in their retirement years (actually Carl is not yet retired), the depth and breadth of the loss was hard to comprehend for both us and them.

As we visited something amazing took place in listening to their story.  Fayedell was sitting on the couch when the doors and windows blew in.  Showered with glass, she escaped without a cut.  Jack was in the yard and blown down.  He told me that it knocked his pacemaker out of whack.  He had to get the pacemaker reset that morning (Thursday).  Carl showed me the destruction of his computer room – glass shards blown all over it.  Ethel showed us the destruction of her living room.  But it was their attitude, their (if you’ll pardon the inexact description) their “faith Spirit” (my term) they offered that moved me deeply.

Fayedell commented about picking herself up after the explosion. She said, “That’s when your faith kicks in.”  As her daughter sat next to her, she witnessed to God’s blessing her life and trusting God to see them through this as well.  She spoke of losing two children to death and then added “you just have to hang on to God.”  There is a quiet faith foundation that will not be shaken in their sharing.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is present.

Pastor Jimmy Sansom remarked: “Just as an example, Carl and Ethel had their house badly damaged, and with all that, they are the ones reaching out to other people who are going through times of trouble offering money and assistance – reaching out in the midst of all that they are going through. So the congregation is a mixture of helping each other out and helping the community out. We are indeed living out that Great Commandment – as Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I’ve loved you.’ It’s just been a tremendous outpouring of love and prayers from the congregation. Now they are going through some tough times, trying to get everything settled and dealing with insurance companies and such…but the outpouring of prayers and the offering of help from the church members and the community has just been unbelievable. You can see the hand of God at work in all of this – in the midst of the tragedy, you see the blessings.”

For their faithfulness and witness I give thanks to the Lord.  May we continue to be prayer for the people of West and for West UMC and Wesley Chapel UMC in Gholson.  I thank God for the generosity and help coming from so many individuals and churches.  May we too live with a faith that “kicks in.”

 

“Yes, UMCOR is here!”

It is easy in our day to take the United Methodist Connection for granted.  It is easier still to view “apportionments” as taxes.  A variety of recent events not only challenge but also decisively set aside any sense that the connection is unimportant and that “apportionments” are just taxes.  Together, they allow all of us a ministry reach in the name Lord that is far greater than even the largest church could accomplish alone.

One of the early responders in West was Rev. Laraine Waughtal, the Central Texas Conference’s Disaster Relief Coordinator.  Laraine is a trained and certified disaster responder.  When she walked in to the Red Cross Center in West, her badge had UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) on it.  The Red CrosUMCORs official shouted, “Yes! UMCOR is here!” United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has a worldwide reputation for its wonderful work sharing the love of Christ in disaster relief.  So too do many other Christian denominational relief efforts.  Together they form a magnificent witness living out Matthew 25:40 where Jesus teaches us, “Even as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

Even as she was traveling to West, Conference officials (Dr. Randy Wild & Rev. Kyland Dobbins and I) were working with UMCOR on coordinating relief.  $10,000 in emergency funds has been released by UMCOR.  This is combined with the incredible generosity of our member churches in their special “City of West” relief offering taken last Sunday.  God bless you all for your kindness and extravagant generosity.

But our connectional response of love, faith and hope does not stop there.  Earlier in the week I had responded to Bishop Suda Devadhar of the New England Area with our prayers and support.  Soon, we too as a Conference were the recipients of a flood of prayers and offers of support.  The sense of the wider connection of the United Methodist Church was and is both palpable and concrete.

We are making a conscious effort to change our thinking and terminology from talk about “apportionments” with connotation of taxation to the more accurate title “Connectional Mission Giving” (CMG).  To the casual observer of those funds we divide them out, something in the neighborhood of 35% – 40% cover what business people would call overhead. (CTC’s percent of “overhead” expenses have gone down recently due to direct billing of Health Insurance and Pensions.)   All churches and church organizations face such expenses.  This includes the so called independent Bible Churches.  The remaining 60% – 65% go to direct missional spending both in the Conference (Glen Lake Camp as an example) and to the wider world beyond (missionaries, hunger relief, evangelistic outreach, etc.)

Connected together in mission and prayer, we are making a difference; even more “we are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  I thank God for your faithfulness!

Faith Facing Tragedy

Collectively this has been a hard week. News of the tragic terrorist bombing at the Boston marathon was joined last night by the massive explosion here at home in West, Texas. While Boston may be distant, we still reach out instinctively with our prayer and our care. The town of West is  in the heart of our Conference. This tragedy is close to home and touches our lives much more intimately. Here too we reach out with the love and care of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I was on the phone last night with Rev. Don Scott, the District Superintendent of West UMC. West United Methodist Church is pastored by Rev. Jimmy Samson. At the time of writing this blog (Thursday morning, April 18, 2013), Rev. Laraine Waughtal, Disaster Relief Coordinator for the Central Texas Conference of the UMC, is in West working with Pastor Samson on how we might best respond. Rev. Kyland Dobbins and Dr. Randy Wild from our Conference Center for Mission Support are coordinating our response. We are aware of four church members whose homes are demolished and many others who have suffered damage. Three families of West UMC are currently unaccounted for. A number of churches in the Central District of the Conference are open as emergency shelters as needed. Officials from The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR – a part of our connectional worldwide mission to places experiencing disasters and one arm of The General Board of Global Ministries) has already been in touch with the offer of an emergency grant to help in relief efforts.

As is being widely reported, the community of West currently has all the emergency help they need. Officials in West are asking people to stay away until further assessment is done and specific help is requested.

How should we as a people of faith face these and other tragedies?

First, foremost and always, let us be a people who place our lives and the lives of our loved ones before God in trusting prayer. Remember the promise of God. “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)

Second, let us be a people of patience. We give thanks for first responders and other early responders who are immediately engaged. This is a time to commit in faith for the long haul. After the cameras have been turned off and the news reports stilled, we will remain in service and love to the community of West. In the ensuing days, weeks and months, needs will emerge that call for our action.

Third, let us be a people of hope. In the upcoming days we will have an opportunity to live out our faith-based hope through generosity of spirit, time and resources including financial resources. We are calling on the churches of the Central Texas Conference to receive a special offering for disaster relief in West. Checks should be made out to The Central Texas Conference Disaster Response. Please note in the note section “The City of West.” Other ways to offer support are through UMCOR and The Red Cross. As the full scope of the need unfolds the Central Texas Conference will response with further specific calls for help as needed. I urge you to watch our conference website, ctcumc.org, for updates as they become available.

Prayer, Patience, and Hope frame faith facing tragedy. Dr. Randy Wild recently reminded us of one of St. Augustine’s prayers:

“God of our life,
there are days when the burdens we carry
chafe our shoulders and weigh us down;
when the road seems dreary and endless,
the skies gray and threatening;
when our lives have no music in them,
and our hearts are lonely,
and our souls have lost their courage.

Flood the path with light, we beseech Thee;
turn our eyes to where the skies are full of promise;
tune our hearts to brave music;
give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age;
and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road to life, to Thy honor and glory. –Amen”
(Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa (354-430 A.D.)
As quoted in “All Will be Well: A Gathering of Healing Prayers)

May we face these and other tragedies with faith, hope and love. God is with us in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit!

Resurrection not Resuscitation

I am fascinated by all the movies and faux-science fiction books on vampires, zombies, ghosts and various other creatures.  (Yes, I confess that as the avid science fiction reader that I am, I am offended to find such books in the science fiction shelves of Barnes and Noble.  And yes, I do have Zombies on my I-Pad.  My wife says I addicted.)  But really, Abraham Lincoln Zombie Killer!  I don’t think so!  They speak of our modern (or should I say post-modern) dis-ease.  We are an anxious, restless, searching society that lives with a fear, a deep fear that our current problems are unconquerable.

I confess at times, I too, feel that so many of the issues we face are simply beyond us.  Life can (does sometimes) feel out of control.  Yet it is at the very point of my anxiety and sense of helplessness that the Easter message rings out loud and clear.  It is not about bunnies and eggs and whistling in the dark.  It is not about a false bravado or sham courage.  It is about Christ conquering sin and death on Easter morning.

Recently I read a fascinating blog entitled “The Death of Death” in MinistryMatters.com posted on March 27, 2013 and written by Clay Morgan.  It is worth reading so I pass on some nuggets.  Morgan writes: “Vampires, zombies, ghosts, and undead creatures appeal to us because eternity has been set in our hearts. Our limited minds aren’t able to comprehend infinity, yet humankind has long been obsessed with immortality. We feel that there’s something beyond this existence. A person’s soul, spirit, essence, or whatever we want to call it must live forever.

“In all our speculation we’ve created fictional scenarios in which life beyond the grave happens right here on earth. It’s part of what makes creatures of the night so interesting. In some ways, visions of undead hordes aren’t too far from what the Bible predicts. That’s what resurrection is, after all. Dead people will come back to life. If Scripture is accurate, then we are all getting a seriously extreme makeover for eternity—a version of our bodies that can never be destroyed.

“Paul said the perishable will become imperishable. First century believers like the Corinthians were already asking him how such a thing could be possible. ‘How are the dead raised?’ they wondered. ‘With what kind of body will they come?’ It’s like they were saying, ‘How could this possibly work? What would a corpse look like if it was pulled from the grave? Are you nuts?!’ Even New Testament listeners in places like Corinth envisioned grim, zombielike bodies.

“Paul responded by pointing out the laws of nature. Flowers and plants are not put in the ground. Seeds are. They look nothing like that which they yield but must first be put in the ground. The death of those seeds leads to new life and beauty. He described how even in our current understanding we know there are heavenly bodies like the sun, moon, and stars that we can see with our earthly bodies. We can understand that a gap exists between these realms, but transformation must occur in order to bridge it.

“If we’re honest, most of us have thought about ways we would like to change our body. We dream about bodies that are not only perfect but also immune to sickness—bodies that can never die because death will be dead. Christ’s work on the cross means we don’t even have to fear death. Paul knew it when he asked, ‘Where, O death, is your victory? / Where, O death, is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55). The sting of death is sin, and God nailed it to the cross to make a spectacle of it” (Blog, The Death of Death by Clay Morgan, posted on MinistryMatters.com,  March 27, 2013).

Beyond, way beyond all our nonsense, lies this crazy offense that’s true.  He is risen!  Death and sin really are conquered.  Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.  Morgan adds:  “Jesus is the only one who raised himself from the dead. Everyone else was just resuscitated. They came back to life for a while but still had to die again.” (excerpt from Undead: Revived, Resuscitated, Reborn by Clay Morgan, Copyright © 2012.  I have not read the book so I cannot recommend it.)

We not only worship a risen savior.  We dare to follow him.  Death is dead.  He has risen; “the first fruits ….” Read again I Corinthians 15.

 

The Great 50 Days

Easter is over.  As a pastor for 30 years I am aware of a sense of the life of the church moving on.  We start looking towards the end of school, graduations, Mother’s Day, summer activities, Vacation Bible School, mission trips – the list is almost endless.  These are good things.  It is important to prepare for them and celebrate significant accomplishments.

But wait, pause.  In fact do far more than pause for a moment.  I ask us to stop and live in the great 50 days – the time from Easter to Pentecost.  The resurrection is not a one Sunday event which we nod to and move on.  Do you remember what Paul said about the resurrection of Christ?  “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else” (I Corinthians 15:17-19).

In previous centuries the emphasis was on life after death.  Today we live culturally with an orientation towards life.  We now, Christians and non-believers alike, have an almost casual assumption that we are going to heaven no matter what.  It is as if our doctrine of resurrection is narrowed to a minor blip on the wider passage of life’s meaning and purpose.  In the so-called “West,” this is a part of the larger secular movement from a time of disease, famine, war and low life expectancy to a culture of relative abundance and security.  George Hunter in his upcoming book Should We Change Our Game Plan? comments “Bertrand Russell famously observed that until recent times, most serious thinking was about death. . . . People today are more likely to be asking questions about the meaning of life…” (George Hunter, Should We Change Our Game Plan?, p. 27).

The risen Savior was much to say not only about life after death but about conquering of sin and hell.  The resurrection is not a one-and-done doctrine but an orientation of life Godward following the triumphant Christ!

Do some cultural exegetical work.  It seems like hardly a week goes by without some new movie featuring a super hero who rescues humanity from evil and death.  This emphasis speaks volumes to the deeper hunger in our lives both individually and collectively for someone or something that can reign triumphant over the despair and destruction that stalks our time and territory.  It is here, in this landscape of despair and destruction, sin and suffering, that the gospel of the risen Christ is truly triumphant Good News!  Hell and death are conquered.

Huddled in fear behind locked doors (both physically and metaphorically) then and now Jesus strides in to our midst.  Let the Good News of His victory speak again to your life.  “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ Then he breathed on them [breathes this day on us] and said [says], ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:19-23).

I invite, nay more, I urge us to live the Great 50s in the triumph of the resurrection!