Archive - July, 2013

A Drop in the Bucket

bucketI can’t take claim for the title of this blog.  Rather, I write to lift up and celebrate the ministry of one of our adult Sunday School Classes.  The Contemporary Forum class of First United Methodist Church in Georgetown, Texas is living the scriptural command of James.  “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. . . . But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do” (James 1:22-25).

The Contemporary Forum class joined in partnership with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), one of the truly great ministries of the United Methodist Church.  They raised $7,000 (which was then matched by UMCOR) to build a sustainable fresh water well in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

An article on the UMCOR Website reports: “For just 50 people—most of them retired folks on fixed incomes—this goal seemed impossible at first. It would be an “over-and-above commitment,” because most members already tithed. They took two weeks to pray about it. And then, not knowing where the money would come from, they voted almost unanimously to accept the challenge.  Instead of taking a special offering or fund raising through labor-intensive projects, the class decided to spread their giving out over a period of ten months and give through sacrificial disciplines. For example, some members gave the cost of their water bill each month. Some gave the same amount that they spent on bottled water. Others gave a portion of the cost of each meal they ate out.”  (http://www.umcor.org/UMCOR/Resources/News-Stories/2013/July/0725-A-Drop-in-the-Bucket)

In my life I take the blessing of fresh drinking water for granted.  In the lives of the recipients of this gift, those who live in the Congo, such is not always the case.  Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25 that when we have done it for the least of these, “my brothers and sisters,” we have done it to him.  We speak of our mission as “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  This is an example of that mission lived out both in disciple making and transformation.  I give thanks to God for the faithfulness of this class and for my friend and colleague Bishop Joe Wilson (retired) who shares in leadership with them.

By the way, the UMCOR website notes:  “Regular ‘drop in the bucket’ sacrifices have a lot of power. UMCOR’s entire administrative budget comes from One Great Hour of Sharing, and most of its programs are funded by grants and special offerings.” How much more could we do if we followed the Contemporary Forum’s example and gave sacrificially?  “When faith is applied to a need,” Bishop Wilson says, “miracles are always possible.”  You can support UMCOR’s Water and Sanitation projects with a donation to Advance #3020600, and you can also support UMCOR Health ministry and programs through Advance #3020622. If you’re interested in setting up a regular donation, email umcor@umcor.org or call 1-800-554-8583.

In the King’s Company

This coming Monday morning (July 29th) I will be at Perkins School of Theology to preach in the chapel for the Course of Study School.  A group of my heroes in ministry are licensed local pastors.  The sacrifice is great; the commitment is high; the service is a blessing.  Here in Central Texas we are proud that Rev. Jeannie Treviño-Teddlie, Director of Mexican American Program and a member of the Central Texas Conference, leads the Course of Study School.

In preparation, memories flood back into my life.  Each of us lives our own biography of grace.  God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is active in our lives moving, weaving among in ways seen and unseen.  As I gaze out on this chapel I cannot help but remember 40 years ago slipping into take a seat before I intended to quit seminary.  In the moments of quiet before the service I just prayed quietly and ruminated lost in my own thoughts.  And then the tap on the shoulder came.  It was a friend.   (That guy is now the District Superintendent of the San Antonio District in the Rio Texas Conference.)

“It is good to see you back,” he greeted me, wrapping me in a bear hug.  “Come, on.  Let’s move closer to the front.  You get fed quicker.”  And with that he dragged me up to the front three rows.  It is hard to explain but I came out of that service a different person because I had feasted in the King’s company.

Move to the front, my friend said, you get fed quicker.  In an odd way, I think he is right.  At stake in this sacrament is the heart of the Christian gospel.  We are invited to lay aside our prison garb.  Do you remember the old words?  “Yea that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, …  draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort ….”(The Book of Worship for Church and Home, 1965 edition, “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion,  p. 17).

I am sharing a sermon based on Jeremiah 52:31-34 and I Corinthians 10:14-17.  In my old Interpreter’s Bible commentary on Jeremiah, given to me when I was first ordained a Deacon by the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee of First United Methodist Church of Austin, Texas, is the following notation in the exposition section.  “Man [People], it has been said, is a god in ruins.  Would it be better, perhaps, to call him an exiled king?  For there is something about Jehoiachin that makes him typical, perhaps a symbol, of something in the human condition.  He must have been a lonely king, a king without a people; or if a people, than a people in captivity – like himself” (The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume No. 5, Commentary on Jeremiah, exposition by Stanley R. Hooper, p. 1141).

Do you know the chains of prison?  I think I do.  My hunch; no it is more, it is my conviction, is that we all do.  In this enlightened age we shy away from the word sin and yet the reality burrows deep into the marrow of our being like a tick on a dog.  I invite you to pause and take your own inventory.  What are the bars of your prison?  Where are the walls that have held your captive to lesser living?

As you engage in a personal inventory, do not stop at simply the personal level.  Much of our imprisonment, our sin, is corporate in nature.  What are the bars that hold us in check as society, nation and culture from being – how does that ad put it – “all we can be.”?  Press on the walls of greed, indifference and pride.  Imagine our own Bastille Day.

And now, take the biblical reality into your being.  Become again, or for the first time, your own Jehoiachin.  “So Jehoiachin discarded his prison clothes and ate his meals at the king’s table for the rest of his life. The Babylonian king provided him daily provisions for the rest of his life, right up until he died” (Jeremiah 52:34).

“Since there is one loaf of bread, we who are many are one body, because we all share the one loaf of bread.” At the King’s table, the altar table of Holy Communion, we are united in Christ with each other.  To be sure this is a memorial meal but it is more.  There is the real presence of Christ at the table.  Once again we kneel and experience again (or perhaps for the first time) the loving embrace of the Lord Jesus Christ over our lives.  We are invited into the Kings Company.

I look forward with joy to our sharing on Monday at Perkins.

Reclaiming a Robust Christology

Off and on for the last 3 months I have been working on paper that I will present at the Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies.  The Institute gathers every five years at Christ Church College, Oxford, England where John Wesley studied.  The gathering consists mostly of Wesleyan scholars (University and Seminary professors) from around the world.  A number of attendee slots are set aside for Methodist judicatory leaders (Bishops, Presidents, Superintending Elders – the titles vary depending on which branch of Methodism someone comes from).  I have the privilege of representing the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops for the 8-day Conference.

My paper deals with reclaiming a theological orthodoxy at the heart of Methodism in the North American mission field.  As I have worked on this subject, the cardinal call to reclaim a robust Christology (and pneumatology – Doctrine of the Holy Spirit) as an antidote to what Dr. Kenda Dean, our Conference teacher, calls “moralistic therapeutic Deism.”  A robust Christology is the centerpiece of a faithful and fruitful congregation.

New Testament scholar Willi Marxsen noted long ago that the earliest Christian creed was the simple three word phrase, “Jesus is Lord.” It is not a mistake that the great early Ecumenical Councils of the Church dealt first with the person of Jesus Christ.  A doctrine of salvation hinges on a doctrine of Christology which in turn hinges on an understanding of the Trinity.  The whole issue of soteriology hangs on these core doctrines.

The Apostle Paul’s great assertion of I Corinthians 15 arrests our attention. “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures.” Paul is not offering a minor aside in asserting the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is a claim to who Christ is.  He is the risen triumphant Lord and Savior; fully divine and fully human.  The creedal affirmation rightly reaches to this essence.

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven,
Was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
And became truly human.”
(The Nicene Creed, No. 880; The United Methodist Hymnal)

Such creedal claims are a reflection of the early Christian church.  By way of example, at Pentecost Peter lays out the core Christological claim in the closing line of his sermon.  “Let all Israel know beyond question that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).  When the Apostle Paul offers his witness at Mars Hill, the speech is going well until he insist on the resurrection of Jesus in verse 31.  “When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, ‘We’ll hear from you about this again’ ” (Acts 17:32). This biblical foundation is even more explicit in the Gospel of John.

A similar reflection of what we might loosely call a “high” Christology is found in the works of Wesley and the original Methodist movement.  Again by way of example, Wesley’s sermon on “Salvation by Faith” rests on the firm foundation of a high Christology.  “What faith is it then through which we are saved?  It may be answered: first, in general, it is a faith in Christ – Christ, and God through Christ, are the proper object of it” (John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” Sermon #1, in The Works of John Wesley, Sermons I, Volume 1, ed. Outler, 120).

I recently compared our current struggle over Christology in United Methodism as akin to so emphasizing the fruit of salvation (sanctification) that we are ignoring the roots of our faith.  My conversation partner emphasized the missional (love, justice and mercy) ministry of the church as central in importance.  He argued that such teaching about Christology didn’t matter just as long as we held to Christian values.  I compared his position to picking the fruit while we starved the roots. Sooner or later we pay for such poor nurturing of the soil of faith.  A robust Christology is not a nice added on but central to the church’s life, health, and deep faithfulness.

Breaking Down the Dividing Walls

Since last Friday, I have been in Oklahoma with my wife standing by the bedside of my mother-in-law, Maxine Mitchell, as she slowly passed away (Monday morning July 15th). It has been a sad time for us as a family; as Jolynn put it, “not for what is, but for what was.” Maxine lived a full life of 89 years. She leaves behind a wonderful daughter, two tremendous grandchildren and one “amazing” great granddaughter. She had a rich and satisfying professional career as a bookkeeper. She served The Lord and His church through various ministries at First United Methodist Church in Seminole, including teaching the kindergarten Sunday School class for some 25 years. As a family we can look back on her life with some pride and sense of fulfillment.

And yet, while this has been going on in our lives, the larger story that we as nation have been dealing is the tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin and the trial (with the subsequent not guilty verdict) of George Zimmerman. The contrast is personally striking.

In our family, in our grief, we celebrate a full life. In the larger human family to which we all belong, Trayvon Martin did not have that opportunity. Whatever you think of the verdict, this is a tragedy of the first rank. The life of a child of God has been cut needlessly short. As my fellow Bishop Ken Carter put it: “The toxic brew of economic scarcity, racial profiling, escalating violence and community destabilization is at the heart of the experience.” With my colleague bishop, I ask my Anglo friends and all fellow Christ followers to listen to the voices of hurt, pain, lament and even rage that are shared by some of our African- American brothers and sisters.

If the Bible is right (and I think it is!), we are all one in Christ Jesus. The pain of one is the pain of all. This experience may, through the teaching presence of the Holy Spirit, become an opportunity to open us up once again to the greater dream for which we rightly pray – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

A truly great Christian leader and great American shared this dream when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men [people] are created equal.'” This dream is nurtured in the soil of a biblical people who put allegiance to Christ as Lord and Savior, first, above all else. It grows not from impassioned rhetoric or ill-conceived vigilantism, but from the peace and love of Christ. May the love of Christ guide our response. “Now, in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:13-14)

Podcast with Rev. Shea Reyenga & Dr. John McKellar

This month’s edition of the Focused Center Podcast features an interview with Bishop Lowry and Rev. Shea Reyenga who is currently serving as a Path One Intern at Whites Chapel United Methodist Church.

Shea is working their under the leadership of Dr. John McKellar, pastor at Whites Chapel, who also is a part of this month’s episode.

Shea’s internship is supported by Path One, a ministry of the General Board of Discipleship dedicated to planting new churches.

If you would like to find out more about Path One, we invite you to visit www.path1.org.

To listen to this latest episode, click the play button below.

Play

VBS as Intentional Faith Development

As we move into what have been called the dog days of summer, it is hard to keep the excitement of Pentecost and Easter. They are almost distant memories of our faith and hope. We long for (I long for) some time off; preferably some place cool. And yet, it is sometimes in the summer that our most important ministry can take place.

In my casual driving around I notice signs for Vacation Bible School (not just from United Methodist Churches but from virtually every denominational type and stripe). I take heart from this common activity among us. As I have said before, Vacation Bible School (VBS) is not just a nice activity we do to fill the children’s time and give mom or dad a break. It is a basic part of passing on the faith and the way that leads to life eternal. VBS is Intentional Faith Development – one of the five practices of fruitful congregations and fruitful living.

A number of months ago I had the privilege of visiting Hamilton UMC. Matt Hall the pastor shared with me the following email which I use with permission. He writes:

“This July will mark Rusty’s 6th time to attend Hamilton’s VBS. During the summers Rusty’s grandparents Chuck and Cheryl have Rusty come and stay with them. At Rusty’s first VBS he made some instant friends and heard some of the stories of the Bible for the first time in an exciting and creative way. He also made some very close friends.

Rusty’s friend was Clarlynn, our church organist, who did crafts during VBS week. They keep up with each other and ask about each other throughout the year and make it a point to see each other when Rusty is in Hamilton.

Following that week at VBS. Rusty wanted to know more about Jesus. He kept asking his parents when they were going to church. After a while they began attending a church near their home in Dallas. Rusty’s grandparents have also shared with me a few of the teachable moments they have had with Rusty. One such moment was related to giving. Rusty asked why they put money in the offering plate each Sunday (this was a new concept to him.) His grandmother shared with him why they offered back to God a portion of what they were blessed with. The next time they were in church Rusty was excited and honored to give a portion of his dollars as the offering plate was passed.

Rusty continues to grow in recognizing God’s abundant love for him and his family.

Faithful VBS workers and grandparents have walked with Rusty in his faith journey and they will continue to do so as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ making a difference in the world.”

I give thanks to God for those VBS signs. Where I see them, Intentional Faith Development is taking place. Even more I give thanks to God for the army of volunteers, teachers, and mentors who shepherd the Rustys of this world. Disciples are being made and one small segment at a time the world is being transformed.

Facing Death and Reading Love Wins

Over the fourth of July weekend I have had a time of reflection, prayer and thought. On the morning of July 4th I left Fort Worth to drive up to Oklahoma to be with my wife, Jolynn.  Jolynn was in Oklahoma with her mother, who has been battling a variety of illnesses (including pneumonia twice, a broken hip and a serious infection) since mid-January. We have loved, watched and prayed as she has slowly slipped downhill. The week of the fourth, Jolynn entered her mother in a hospice program.

Prior to leaving I’d stopped by my local library to get some books on CD to listen to while I drove. I grabbed a science fiction novel and then an audio version of a book I had been intending to read caught my eye. It was Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell.

For those of you who do not know, Rob Bell is a prominent evangelical pastor who comes out of an Independent Bible Church. His Amazon website accurately reports, “At age 28 he founded Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, and under his leadership it was one of the fastest-growing churches in America. In 2011 he was profiled in Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people.”

When Bell’s Love Wins came out it was instantly deeply controversial. The topic is essentially about who is saved. Or, put differently, who goes heaven and who goes to hell. Many quickly scorned (or embraced) the book as implying some aspect of universal salvation. Such a reading is both shallow and unfair. Rob Bell has a talent for asking tough questions; many of which he doesn’t answer. Those same probing questions are being asked by secular non-religious and non-Christian society. We would do well to sharpen our thinking, and Love Wins along with Will Willimon’s Who Will Be Saved? are good places to start (start not finish!).

Bell keys off the work of C.S. Lewis. As one reviewer put it: “They both believe that a person can go to hell but they have to really want to go there.” The essential thesis is that it is God’s desire to save everyone but that love is never forced. Heaven and hell are choices made (let’s hear it for a Wesleyan understanding of human agency!). Furthermore, Bell rightly understands the concept of eternal life as involving both the here and the hereafter. Heaven and hell are real and real places but they are so much more (both good and bad!) then the stuff of childhood legend.

It is an easy read (or listen) and I commend it to you.

For me, the impact is magnified standing next the bed of a loved one as they begin the move from this world to the next. Simple answers containing harps and pitchforks don’t help. The immense undying resurrecting love of God in Christ does. “But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Romans 8:37-39)