Archive - May, 2013

COME HOLY SPIRIT — A Report from Taize 1

I have been gone for the past 10 days on a Young Adult leadership development trip to Taize.  Along with Rev. Larry Duggins (Director of the Missional Wisdom Foundation), Rev. Kyland Dobbins (Director of Mission Experience for CTC) and Leanne Johnson (Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the CTC), we have been leading a group of 20 young adults (ages 17 — 30) on a spiritual pilgrimage to Taize, France.

The brothers of the Taize Community consider the young people who flock to them from all over the world a gift from God.  They in turn nourish that gift with a spiritual care that is extraordinary.  The heart of Taize is three daily worship services anchored in prayer, song (which is often its own prayer), Holy Scripture and silence.  There is a phenomenally strong emphasis on listening to the Holy Spirit at Taize.  Song, silence, and scripture are vehicles and means by which we open ourselves to the Spirit’s presence and guidance.  The morning and afternoon worship experiences are followed by small group Bible Study.

As I soaked in the experience of Taize, I discovered myself going through a spiritual detoxification.  The challenges, struggles and problems of life and of my work as bishop did not disappear.  Rather they are put in perspective as I take time to open myself to the Holy Spirit.  In one sense, this is not new at all.  I hardly needed to travel to France to experience the importance of music, silence, and scripture in my Christian walk.  In another, greater sense, I feel like a desperately thirsty man staggering in from the desert and being offered a cold glass of refreshing water.  Steve Bryant’s (the former editor of the Upper Room) maxim that most of us do not go to the high places enough once again rings true in my life.  I (we!!!!) need time for spiritual detoxification from the world’s constant bombardment.

I invite the reader, whereever you are, whoever you are, to take time for quiet, song and scripture.  Retreat if only for 15 minutes in a place of rest and let the Lord speak to you through the Holy Spirit.  The words of one of the songs (sung in Italian) share the divine message:  “The Lord restores you.  God does not push you away.”

Connection and Conference

Last night I watched the reports on the tornadoes that ripped through the Granbury-Cleburne area.  I could not help but remember the devastation caused to St. Barnabas and Arlington a little over a year ago.  Like so many, I took time to pray for those in the path of the storm.

This morning I gave thanks for the courageous first responders and the early responders that are on the scene.  Rev. Robert Herzig, Senior Pastor of First UMC, Cleburne, shared with me that his neighborhood was devastated and that they had lost the roof on the parsonage.  Yet even in the disaster their church along with so many others was reaching out to help people in need.  He asked for prayers, especially for those who lost their whole homes.

In the midst of tragedies such tornados and explosions, the greatness of the connection of the United Methodist Church comes home with hope and help.  This morning in my email I received the following message from Gregory A. Forrester, Assistant General Secretary for the General Board of Global Ministries division of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR):  “Dear Bishop Lowry, We have been monitoring the report of the devastation that has occurred in Texas this evening.   I have been in touch with Rev. Laraine Waughtal and have offered UMCOR’s assistance.  Please let us know how we can help serve the Central Texas Conference as you respond to this disaster.”  Just as in West, Texas and in Arlington a year earlier, we are in this together, reaching out with love and help in the name of the Lord.

In less than a month, we will gather for the annual meeting of the Central Texas Conference in Fort Worth at Arborlawn UMC.  The decision to return Annual Conference to the local church setting was based not on convenience or cost but rather conviction.  Somehow in a church setting – gathered in a sanctuary – we think, pray and behave differently.  It is easier to remember who and whose we are and what we are about: “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The connection we share is a gift from God.  The Conference is an extension of our mission.  It is the basic unit of Methodism that undergirds every local church.  As someone has said, “we come together to be together what Christ has been for us.”  Christ alone does the saving but together we reach out in missional love with the good news of His salvation in the power of the Holy Spirit.  There is greatness in Connection and Conference!

Faith, Hope and Clarity

Most of us know the great closing of I Corinthians 13, “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13).  What many of us are unaware of is the old King James Version translation of love was charity.  Thus the phrasing of I Corinthians 13:13 in the KJV is: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the great of these is charity.”

During my work on my D. Min. I took a preaching course in which the preaching professor would deliberately misquote the closing of I Corinthians 13:13.  His version as advice for preachers was the statement, “so faith, hope and clarity abide, and the greatest of these is clarity!”

If you step back and think about, this is great advice for preaching.  Clarity is crucial in presentation of the preached word.  Even more, it is critically important in communication in general.  During our recent Forum for Active/Residential Bishops, Professor Maria Dixon Hall noted that most people don’t know what the United Methodist Church stands for and what our mission is.  (Our mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ and for the transformation of the world.”)  Despite our best attempts, clarity of communication is still lacking.

This Friday I was participating in a meeting of leaders of the Council of Bishops, General Secretaries (leaders of the UMC’s Boards and Agencies), Presidents of the Agencies (elected heads of their governing boards) and representatives from the Connectional Table of the UMC.  It was an impressive group.  These people hold a deep common conviction in Christ and a great love for the church (especially the UMC).  Good intention and honorable convictions were the order of the day.

And yet, the very complexity of our struggle kept tripping us up.  Listening, I was reminded of a recent comment from Bishop Robert Schnase.  “Complexity is the killer of organizations.”  He referred us back to the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball (which is a mini-classic in business management about the complexity of Corporations).  (Note:  I may have paraphrased his quote from mistaken memory.  The quote may not be original to Bishop Schnase.)

It is easy to blame the general church or individuals involved or various groups.  But, as I reflected on what I was participating in, it reminded me of so many local churches, including some that I served!  This is not an issue for the larger system alone but for every local congregation!  We can get so complex and rule bound that the mission disappears into the back ground.  Blaming is not only not helpful; it is counterproductive.  The question for each of us individually and as members of groups (agencies, churches, etc.) is to wrestle with governance structures that enhance decision making, reduce the veto power of a few, and open us up to the mission we all believe in – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Now may faith, hope and clarity abide!  And the greatest of these is really love!  (But clarity is needed!)


Report from the Border

This week I am at the Forum for Active/Residential Bishops in San Diego, California.  The gathering is a continuing education event for residential (non-retired) United Methodist Bishops worldwide.  It is a time for discussion and learning.

Yesterday there were three excellent presentations on critical ministry issues facing bishops, cabinets and conferences.  Bishop Mike Coyner led a session on clergy effectiveness and accountability.  Bishops John Hopkins & Robert Schnase shared best practices in appointment making.  Bishop Janice Huie shared innovative ministry the Texas Conference is engaged in around the subject of developing the next generation of clergy leadership.  For my part, I think that the time for active bishops to work together in a continuing education retreat setting is exceptionally valuable.

We have also had engaging presentations from outside leaders.  Brian McClaren (pastor, professor, and author of number of books including A Generous Orthodoxy and Why did Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road  addressed the group.  He challenged us to be engaged in the task of building a Christian identity that is not based on hatred of the other.  He invited us to look at experiments on how to be the church (noting some in England and Cuba).  McClaren challenged bishops to “be obsessed” with gathering (getting/recruiting!) young, spiritually alive, new leaders.

The other outside speaker we listened to with rapt attention was retired Lt. General James Dubik.  He is a leader of The Leadership Roundtable for Church Management (a Catholic leadership development forum) and was one of the senior generals in Iraq before his retirement.  I have had the privilege of listening to him before and was once again blessed and taught on a high level.  Try this one on:  “Leading change is creating problems that force you to make decisions that force you to become the organization you want to become.”  His leadership insights from both the U.S. Army and work with the Catholic Church are tremendous.

Yesterday afternoon we experienced a time of hands on learning.  Breaking into four groups, we traveled to the U.S./Mexico Border and participated in a communion service at Friendship Park (dedicated as a park by then First Lady Pat Nixon) literally on the ocean’s edge of the border.  I listened as, through the fence, Jolynn visited with a mother holding a young child. The mother, a United Methodist, had other children living as U.S. citizens in Los Angeles, Little Rock & Massachusetts; ages 12, 10, and 6.  She and Border Fenceher husband (along with a 2 year old) are not citizens and cannot visit their children.  The hard reality of the border fence and the tangled arbitrariness of our immigration policies was brought home on a painful personal level.  Interestingly enough, conservative leaders from the San Diego Chamber of Commerce have joined with immigration rights activists in pushing for economically vibrant and morally sound immigration reform.  Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, it is time to move forward with reform in a manner consistent with family values and Christian convictions.

As you read this, the bishops will continue work on learning best practices for conference and church leadership.  Our Forum of Active Bishops learning retreat ends Thursday at noon.  Thursday afternoon I will chair a gathering of the COB (Council of Bishops) Congregational Vitality Leadership Team (CVLT).  We will continue working on strengthening and transforming local congregations and building new churches as “new places for new people.”  Friday, I will participate in a meeting of the Executive Committee of the COB (which I am on by way of leading the CVLT) and the General Secretaries of our Boards and Agencies.  Together the bishops and general secretaries will continue the work of aligning all segments of this vast worldwide church (which is growing rapidly in Africa and Asia even while it declines in Europe and North America) for the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  There is a new and refreshing wind blowing in the church!

Saturday I fly home, and Sunday I preach at West UMC and Wesley Chapel (Gholson) UMC.

Reclaim the Day! A Pentecost Community

The earliest Christians understood full well that the Church was a community of the Holy Spirit.  It was born not by human will or effort but by an act of the triune God on Pentecost Sunday (which this year is to be celebrated on May 19th).

The first of the great festival days of the Christian movement was Easter.  The second, ranking ahead of Christmas, was this day – Pentecost Day.  Why?  Because at Pentecost the first Christians experienced God moving in their midst in a way so powerful that it shaped and gave birth to a distinctive community, the community of the Holy Spirit.

The Bible records in Acts 2 that the power of the Holy Spirit that descended at Pentecost was not given to individuals but to the community.  God was present in power and blessing “where two or more gathered in the name of Jesus.”  The church, that disparate collection that is also called the Body of Christ, is the community of the Holy Spirit.

“The nineteenth-century historian Alfred Loisy is often quoted as saying, ‘Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and what came was the church.’  But Loisy did not mean this in the cynical way in which it is often repeated, as if the church were a later misunderstanding of the original intentions of Jesus” (William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church). Rather, it is the affirmation that where we are together in His name, the Spirit is present in the ongoing life and witness of the people of God.  As the great German theologian Karl Barth put it:  “In this assembly, the work of the Holy Spirit takes place” (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline).

I write to invite us to reclaim the importance of Pentecost Sunday.  It is a great festival day to lift and celebrate on the ongoing – continuing – work of the Holy Spirit in our midst!  The Church is a community of the Holy Spirit.  It is, in God’s divine plan, a primary (though not exclusive) place and locus of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  The experience of Pentecost was so dramatic that it changed their lives and gave birth to the Church.  Those present experienced the dynamic dimension of God presence in their lives.

In my recent readings I ran into the following quote from Professor Jason Vickers in his deep book Minding the Good Ground.  “Pentecost reminds us that the church came into existence originally and has existed continuously ever since because the Spirit is present in and to the church. As Irenaeus put it, ‘Where the Church is, there is also the Spirit of God and where the Spirit of God is, there are also the Church and all grace.’”

The temptation is to stop right here.  We might politely muse to ourselves “isn’t it nice that God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  But wait a minute.  The Holy Spirit wasn’t a kind gentle breeze.  It’s no zephyr.  It was a “violent blast” –a “tempest!”

What happened on that first Pentecost Day?  The church got down on its knees and prayed and the Spirit descended.  The Community of the Holy Spirit began in a meeting of prayer and praise!  The preaching came as a response.  And what a response it was.

Peter’s sermon (which makes but the long middle section of the 2nd chapter of Acts, some 23 verses) was the watershed which defined their experience of the Holy Spirit.  Peter preached Jesus.  It sounds so simple and is yet so powerful.  He proclaimed the Spirit as the living Lord Jesus present among us.  That’s right, among us now, amid all our cares and concerns, seeking to deal with our fears and worries, embracing our joys and hopes, the living Lord Jesus through the Holy Spirit.