Archive - April, 2014

In the King’s Garden

The shouts of Christ’s rising slowly fade into the background.  Another Easter has come and gone.  The sardonic slice of my nature can’t help but remember the old joke about the fellow who only shows up for worship on Easter.  Finally at the end of one glorious Easter service he greets the pastor.  “Pastor” he says, “It was wonderful but let me offer some advice.  Every time I come you preach on the same subject – the resurrection of Jesus.  Why don’t you try something different next year?”

We are so tempted to move quickly on. I want to argue instead that in the “Great 50 days” between Easter and Pentecost we must take up residence in the resurrection joy, truth and triumph of Christ.  Let’s pitch our tent in the King’s garden.

I invite us simply to make the connection between the Eden Paradise of Genesis (the first garden!) and the tragic fall of sin and expulsion from the garden of paradise.  Now continue to draw the line from the fall to the incarnation.  Recall how the Apostle John speaks of it in the great opening overture of the Gospel of John.  “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14).  The phrase “made his home among us” comes out of a nomadic culture.  It means literally “pitched a tent among us.”  Now continue to draw that line to the crucifixion.

Do you recall the scene from Luke 23 as Jesus speaks on the cross to the thieves crucified with him?  “One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’  Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, ‘Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:39-43).

On our trip about year ago to the Holy Land, one of the guides noted that the word “paradise” means “the king’s garden.”  I checked his assertion when we got home.  Sure enough, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible notes that “paradise” is a word that comes from the Old Persian. “It [was] developed to signify a beautiful garden, like a king’s garden” (The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Me – R, Volume 4, p. 377).

Continue to draw the line from the cross to the resurrection.  Through the resurrected Christ we are offered a way back to Eden, to the King’s garden.  By way of review, the sequence goes like this:  Paradise (Eden) -> the fall (sin) -> the incarnation (Christ with us) -> the crucifixion (the high watermark of sin!) -> the resurrection (an invitation to live in the King’s garden, in paradise).

We make a serious mistake when we limit the concept of the resurrection to simply something about life after death.  Theologically we know the resurrection is about the defeat of sin, hell, and death.  It is about new life in Christ now and for all eternity.  Our life as a disciple is to be connected with the understanding of our living in King’s Garden and for the transformation of the world into a garden fit for King Jesus – “on earth as it is in heaven.”  There is a here-and-hereafter element to our Easter proclamation.

Take up residence in the King’s Garden.  Christ is Risen!  Comments the great biblical scholar N. T. Wright, “The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God’s purpose or rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos” (Wright, Surprised by Hope, pg. 184).  No wonder our task (mission) is to complete the line drawn by “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!”  The King’s Garden awaits!

garden

 

SIGNS OF EASTER

In life’s all too common journeys, we encounter small signs of a great victory.  Those signs were there on that first Easter.  The Bible says, “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (John 20:1).  She does not understand its meatombning.  She runs to get others.  She jumps immediately to the common supposition that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2).

Whatever else is to be said at this point it is clear that the grave is not the end.  I remember a colleague telling of pausing in a cemetery after he had finished a funeral.  He looked at a massive stone crypt set near where he had just concluded the funeral service.  Clear specific instructions had been left.  “Not to be opened upon any circumstance” was chiseled on the stone door facing of the crypt.  And yet, there it was.  The tiny shoot of a plant, possibly a tree in the making, had slowly but inexorably forced the stone door of the crypt open.  A shaft of light was streaming in.

So it is for us this day.  A shaft of light breaks through the darkness.  Mary struggles to believe; so do Peter and the other disciple as they peer in to examine what is left behind.  They examine the grave like befuddled detectives, one starting to believe; the other, Peter, clearly not knowing what to make of the empty tomb.

We are so like them that at times it is painful.  We believe and yet we are overwhelmed in grief and loss.  We believe and yet we shake our heads at how awful the world is.  We believe and yet … we are not sure.  We believe and see small signs of a great victory.

Notice what the disciples and Mary did.  They relegated the extraordinary – the stone rolled, the tomb empty – to the ordinary.  They sought to explain it all with a sensible supposition – the body has been taken.  All the while they confront massive evidence of the truth.  Christ has been raised from the dead.  Death and sin are conquered.  Belief dawns slowly with the light.  The Bible says, “For as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9).

This too is our struggle.  Small signs of this colossal victory are all around us.   Mary and the two disciples of that first Easter morning would teach us to look for signs of the extraordinary in the ordinary.  In love shared, in care given, with hope amid despair, and laughter in the place of grief, comes the dawning of belief.  One of the followers gets it.  “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed” (John 20:8). Let that be you.  Begin to see the extraordinary – God in resurrection action – amid the ordinary.

Pause here.  Catch with me precisely where Jesus is first encountered.  It is near the tomb!  Angels are messengers of God.  They point to the triumph.  They are inside the tomb, at the very epicenter of defeat, directing our attention to the triumph.  Still Mary struggles to believe.

Did you make the critical connection?  We encounter Jesus first, often best, at the very place of our defeat, despair, and deep grief.  Where we struggle to believe, God is most present.  Where we have come to the end of our resources, there God can break through in triumph.

Focused on her grief Mary teeters on the edge of faith. “Jesus 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’” (John 20:14-15).  Then the full impact of the resurrection, the gospel, hits.  “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’” (John 20:16).  In the naming she is claimed by the Lord.  His triumph becomes her destiny!  The “Jesus Way” leads not to defeat but to victory.  Our morning begins in a graveyard.  It erupts in a shout.  “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).

Our path of faith is the same.  Near the tombs of our life – be they physical, spiritual or symbolic – we are named and claimed by the risen Lord.  Lift your head when defeat, despair, and deep grief settle in.  Look for the triumphant Christ.  He is at hand.  You are named and claimed.

A friend of mine, Joe Harding, years ago sat on a plane next to the great actor Richard Burton.  Conversing with him, Harding asked him about playing the role of Marcellus in the epic movie The Robe.  Marcellus was the commanding officer of the soldiers who crucified Christ and gambled for his garments at the foot of the cross.

Richard Burton relayed how terrifying it was to play that scene at the foot of the cross.  He told Joe how the figure of Jesus was made out of plastic and one of the stage hands stood beneath the cross, out of view, and pumped blood through this plastic figure.  Burton said that the scene was so terrifying, so fake and unreal, that one of his fellow actors had a nervous breakdown.

As Burton finished relating the story, the plane pulled up to the gate, and they got ready to leave.  Joe didn’t know what to say but words just sort of popped into his mouth.  He said, “Mr. Burton, I know a Jesus that is real and alive.”

What about you?  Do you know a Jesus who is real and alive?  He calls us by name – Mary! or Jim! or Juanita! or Mark!.  This Easter we are named and claimed by the risen Lord.  His triumph is our destiny!

The Glory Road

What leads to human glory?  Put differently what defines the path of great success? Or, what delineates the triumph of a life well lived?

It is reported that Alexander the Great was not satisfied, even when he had completely subdued the nations.  “He wept because there were no more worlds to conquer, and he died at an early age in a state of debauchery.  Hannibal, who filled three bushels with the gold rings taken from the knights he had slaughtered, committed suicide by swallowing poison.  Few noted his passing, and he left this earth completely unmourned.  Julius Caesar, ‘dyeing his garments in the blood of one million of his foes’, conquered 800 cities, only to be stabbed by his best friends at the scene of his greatest triumph.  Napoleon, the feared conqueror, after being the scourge of Europe, spent his last years in banishment.” (Pulpit Resource, G.S. Bowles)  For all their supposed glory, the true road to glory eluded these great ones of history.

More than three hundred years before the birth of Christ, Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, walked the Athenian marketplace at high noon with a lantern replying to inquirers that he was “searching for an honest man” – whom he never found.  Characteristically the Greek was a searcher after the truth, a seeker of the road to glory.  “It was no unusual thing to find a Greek who had passed through philosophy after philosophy, and religion after religion, and gone from teacher to teacher in the search of truth.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 2, p. 120)

Today’s quest for truth and glory may be different in outward form, but its inward content has changed little.  The proliferation of philosophies, religions and self-help books which mark our age give testimony to a search for success.  Contrast our search with the road to glory that leads to the cross of Good Friday.

Speaking of the road to glory, “Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’” (John 12:22-23)  Then he unpacked what this road looks like.  He marked out three signs for us to look for.

1.      Only in spending our lives for others, do we gain our life.  Verse 24, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)  William Barclay put it this way: “If we look after ourselves as a hypochondriac looks after his health, no doubt we will exist longer – but we will never live.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 2, p. 124)  The road to glory runs through spending your life from great and worthy causes – family and friends, peace and justice, the gospel and goodness, faith and mercy.

2.      Through death comes life.  Verse 25, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25)  When we die to personal desire and ambition we become to the glory of life lived for God.  It is when we finally surrender our own aspirations that God gives us even greater triumphs.  Death really does lead to life.

3.      Greatness comes through service.  Verse 26, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”  (John 12:26) Take a quick heart check.  When have you been most alive?  Isn’t the answer when we have been serving others?  The glory of a day well lived finds its expression in the joy of serving with spouse, child or friend; reaching to others in need whether it’s through work or church or school or whatever.  We instinctively know this truth and yet so easily forget it.

For Christ, the road to glory lead to the cross in sacrifice and then beyond!  He sees this clearly and thus states:  “’Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–‘ Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’” (John 12:27-28)

May your experience of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday lead to the cross.  May it be a journey on the glory road.  It is only on this road that Easter morning dawns.

 

An Inquiry on the Way to Taize

Saturday evening April 5th found Jolynn and me driving over to White’s Chapel UMC to participate in a special Taize “Pilgrimage of Trust” here in the northern part of Texas. Readers may well remember that the Central Texas Conference sponsored a leadership development pilgrimage to Taize, France about a year ago. By way of background:

“The Taize Community is an ecumenical monastic community in France that annually welcomes tens of thousands of young adults from all over the world. … At Taize, young people are invited to united inner life and human solidarity. … The Brothers, from various Christian denominations and twenty-five countries, regularly organize huge gatherings for young adults in major European cities and on other continents [in this case 3 in the State of Texas]. These gatherings are part of a “Pilgrimage of Trust”: those who take part are invited to deepen their trust in God and in their ability to become bearers of reconciliation where they live.”

As we drove, I babbled on about how spiritually nurturing and enriching I found my time at Taize. I shared again my oft repeated mantra that we, in the American society of the 21st century, live at a pace of life that is not sustainable. I waxed eloquent as we drove (or at least I babbled semi-coherently) about how we had to make time for quiet and contemplation.

After listening patiently for a while, Jolynn interrupted me. “Would you have said or done this when you were a young man?” Ouch! I paused for a long time and thought. Then I responded, “Well, remember that I came to Methodism out of the Quakers.” We talked about how I did do some quiet and reflection time but not near enough. The painful truth is that I resisted the notion of Sabbath-rest and contemplation. My nature is passionate activism.

And yet, I find myself judging my own actions in reflection. I can recall a close friend and co-worker pushing me hard on taking more time for my family. Recently spending time with our 1 year old granddaughter reawakened the hectic pressures placed on young parents. I can also remember being on the edge of burnout and thinking about leaving the ministry in my late 30s.

In some deep ways – ways driven I think by the Holy Spirit – the Christian movement in America has gone through a change. Now, in ways many of us (yours truly) did not appreciate through much of the ‘70s and ‘80s, we have reconnected the importance of deep spiritual connectedness with ministry activism. This is a good trend and, as I’ve asserted, a work of the Holy Spirit.

I offer a prayer I wrote for Taize:

Holy One, Holy Three
Settle into the marrow of our being we pray.
Open the eyes of our hearts
To see you moving in our world.
Open the ears of our minds
To discern your greater purpose in our lives.
Take hold of us Lord Jesus, we pray,
Through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit;
That we may be moved to loving and caring
For those most distant and different from us;
That we might serve those most in need;
That we might witness in offering your grace
To those most bent by rage and deprivation.
Holy One, Holy Three
Settle into the marrow of our being
In this season of prayer and reflection.
And claim us Lord once again for You!
In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Bishop Mike Lowry

P.S. As you prepare for Holy Week, the Cross and Easter, I commend an article by Frederick W. Schmidt at http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/blog/entry/4906/before-you-celebrate-easter-get-real  entitled Before You Celebrate Easter, Get Real.

PRAYER AND ADAPT TO THRIVE

I had planned to write today’s blog on a new book written by John Flowers and Karen Vannoy entitled Adapt to Thrive.  Life and death however have a way of intruding.  The most recent tragedy at Fort Hood affects us deeply in the Central Texas Conference (as well as our nation) and even more so in the South District (which includes Fort Hood) which begs for our continuing prayers for all affected.  Gary Lindley, New Church Start District Superintendent for the Central Texas Conference, and I have both been in conversation with Rev. Mark Hart, the new church start pastor for Genesis Fellowship UMC in Killeen.  Mark is a retired veteran and his wife Rose is currently serving in the Army.  She is the commander of Alpha Company. The shooting involved the Unit that she commanded.  Rev. Lindley reports, “One of soldiers killed was in her unit.  Rose had just finished talking to this young man who was killed. He left to go into the building. Rose was to follow to do a review, but she was delayed. As she made her way toward the building she heard the shots.  The young man who was killed had just told Rose that he had 9 months to complete his tour.  He leaves a wife and young children. When I spoke to Rose, she was returning to the base to care for her unit and to assist in providing support for her troops.”  Please be in prayer for Mark and Rose Hart and all the soldiers at Fort Hood. Rose will be the one who will have to work with soldiers with PTSD and discharging them from the military.

Even as we lift up our prayers for those facing deep tragedy, we are ever reminded of our common need for the gospel of Jesus Christ and for vital congregations that share and live out the gospel under Christ’s Lordship.  Our adaptive challenge remains fixed in front of us.  “To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  There are a significant number of new resources being produced to help us embrace the adaptive challenge of building vital congregations.  April 20th will mark the publication of one such excellent addition to our resource library — Adapt to Thrive.

“Most local churches will either go extinct or adapt and thrive” (p. 127).  This deep conviction undergirds the powerful challenge John Flowers and Karen Vannoy offer in their most recent book.  (They have previously written 10 Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline and What To Do About It and Not Just a One-Night Stand: Ministry with the Homeless.)  In Adapt to Thrive the authors take us beyond best practices into the world of adaptive transformation.  Putting a sound theological and organizational foundation in place, they empower local churches (and their leaders) in practical ways to enter the desperately needed world of deep change.  The sub-title catches the essence: How Your Church Must Identify Itself as a Unique Species, Modify Its Dysfuntional Behaviors, and Multiply Its Transformational Influence In Your Community.

There is much to like in this book and even more to learn. Without flinching they name the loss of focus and “mission drift” which currently cripples many churches.  “It is not only the sin that lives in us that prevents us from fulfilling our purpose.  It is also that we have forgotten who we belong to; we are as lost and confused as the people we would try to reach. Clergy and laity alike share the blame” (p. 16). The authors tie a larger church culture of mission drift with a unique understanding of each congregation’s own distinctive mission.  The two are welded to a greater understanding of a commitment to be followers of Jesus and not just admirers of Jesus.  From this platform they argue for ten central adaptations the church must make:
1. From scarcity to abundance
2. From entitlement to egalitarianism
3. Form somberness to playfulness
4. From limited access to trust
5. From ignoring the neighbors to embracing the neighbors
6. From predictability to freedom
7. From marginal members to deep disciples
8. From baby steps to giant leaps
9. From suspicion to grace
10. From a generic culture to a self-defined culture

We can argue about the various adaptations – are they the right ones? Is something left out?, etc. – in fact the authors invite our thoughtful debate.  What the book does superbly well is engage us in practical applications that impact the mission field around us.  I love their quote of Doug Anderson, “we need to move from a preference-driven church to a purpose-driven church” (p. 60). In adaptation #4 they challenge the notion that the building belongs to the members.  Reading, I could not help but recall a fight in the first church I pastored over who got a key to the building.  (I gave everyone a key who wanted one!)  We needed this adaption to move from limited access to trust.  Flowers and Vannoy write, “Limited-access churches lock gates, update alarm systems, put bars on windows, and even fences around the property.  The fences don’t really keep anyone out, but they do communicate a message to the area.  Limited-access churches maintain an old culture of mistrust” (p. 73). Ouch!  There is a truth here that needs hearing!  Take this simple insight from adaptation #5.  “Embracing your neighbors is an attitude before it’s an action” (p. 79).

Perhaps the most intriguing and challenging adaptation is #7: “from marginal members to deep disciples.”  There can be little doubt that such conviction is at the core of the Wesleyan movement in its unique expression of the Christian faith.  The early “Methodists” were “methodical” (hence the name) in moving people from marginal adherence to deep discipleship.  This is still at the very center core of today’s United Methodist Church.  Our mission we say is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  This section alone is worth the price of the book.  Consider some of the insights:

  •  “We have trained them [church members] to a dysfunctional culture of very low expectations.” (p.88)
  •  “The movement from marginal membership to deep disciples will be necessary but not necessarily easy.” (p.89)
  • “Elevate local church membership.” (p. 89)
  •  “Accountability is not achieved by shaming and blaming.  It is achieved by telling the truth about high expectations.”  (p. 90)
  • “This path of adaptation means that we transcend our fears and anxieties in order to develop relationships outside our comfort zone.” (p. 92)

The welding of deep insight with practical application is the hallmark of this insightful book.  Adapt to Thrive speaks deeply to churches trying to recover their missional identity.  The writers present ten specific, concrete steps which move a congregation through the adaption process.  Step-by-step, they offer guidance on engaging the mission field around us with the life-giving love of Christ.  It is a joy to commend this book to congregations and congregational leaders who are hungering for new life in Christ!

In advocating this book, I make no plea that it has all the answers.  I do plea that both lay and clergy leaders avail themselves of the excellent resources developed to enable us to meet the adaptive challenge.  Amid our squabbles, this is really the way forward.  Again the risen Christ stands at boundaries of modern living and commands, challenges, invites us to follow Him.

ENFORCED SABBATH

Last Wednesday I went to the hospital for arthroscopic surgery on my left knee.  Dutifully I reported at 5:30 a.m. (Yes, despite my protestations that God is not awake at that hour, I still had to report at 5:30 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. surgery.)  Suffice to say the surgery went fine.  The only real hiccup was the discovery of an “insufficient” fracture of my left knee in addition to the cartilage work the doctor was expecting.  (If I understand it right, an “insufficient fracture” is a fracture inside the knee that does not reach the outer edge of the knee.)  Instead of 2 weeks on crutches, I am now sentenced to 4 weeks on crutches plus some physical therapy.

I had blocked off Wednesday for the surgery and Thursday through Sunday for healing.  I learned again the truth of a line I have learned many times in my life:  “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.”

I thought recuperation would be a pleasant 4 day sabbatical from the routine of work.  The combination of pain, pain medication, and exercise involved anything but gentle, easy rest.  I tried reading some professional books (Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley and Apologetics by Alister McGrath, both good and recommended with enthusiasm) but found I could not concentrate.  I switched to a long awaited science fiction novel by David Weber (Like a Mighty Army; the 7th in the Safehold Series).  It is a great yarn, full of action.  I could only hang on for about 2 & 1/2 pages before drugs and drowsiness would cause me to lose focus.

Recovering from surgery or battling illness in any form is not Sabbath rest!  Duh!  This obvious truth I know well and yet easily forgot.  As I recovered it set me to thinking about the importance of rest amid the rhythm of work.  This is not a new thought with me.  I have long held that we live at a pace that is not sustainable.  Our bodies sometimes make us slow down.  Mine did so for me.

Yet Sabbath is something different.  It is an intentional dedicated pause for a purpose.  The purpose is to both honor and refocus on God as Lord and Ruler of our lives. The Scriptures teach us a far greater truth than simply enforced time off.  The commandment to honor the Sabbath springs from the earlier commandment, “You must have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).  We are instructed/commanded by the Lord God:  “Remember the Sabbath Day and treat it as holy.  Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to The Lord your God. …” (Exodus 20:8-10a).

Even in recovery The Lord is teaching me.  Even in recovery my own sinful nature is ever before me.  I have tried to act as if this commandment to honor the Sabbath has been repealed and am found out.  I’ve tried to “double dip” my time by having recovery serve as an enforced Sabbath and it has not worked.  The purpose of Sabbath rest directs me back to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It leads me in prayer and obedience, reflection and renewal.

My Spiritual Director is always reminding me not to find the time for devotions and quiet but rather to MAKE the time for devotion and quiet.  To honor the Sabbath is to make the Sabbath holy, not to squeeze something else in it (not even something as necessary as recovery from surgery).  Sabbath can never be enforced but is a freely chosen act of obedience, love and devotion.  In our pauses, in my pauses, God speaks once again and listening (however foggily amid the pain and pills) I find myself blessed and loved.

How is it with your soul?