Archive - July, 2014

A Writing Retreat

This coming Monday afternoon, I will be leaving on a 5 day “writing retreat.”  I have been working off and on to write a book on what direction the church (especially the United Methodist branch of the Church Universal) should take.  I have started and written different chapters about five or six different times.  I guess I think in sermonic size because much of what I want in the book I have shared in sermonic form.  Yet, I find it difficult to sit down and write the book out in full.  Hence the retreat is a working attempt to still life and focus on what I think needs to be said.

As I look back over notes that stretch before I was elected to the episcopacy, there are a number of titles I have proposed for this “book.”  At one point I came up with the title The Wilderness Way. (Quite separately and after I had outlined this tentative work and written pieces of some chapter, Gil Rendle wrote his great book Journey in the Wilderness.  If you have not read it, I commend it to you strongly!) Chapters partly written include – Faith-walking into an Uncertain Future, Into the Unknown, Go to Deep Waters, The Wilderness Way, Rediscovering Evangelism and Perseverance.

Another tentative title was Back to the Future.  Taking the title from the infamous movie of the same name starring Michael J. Fox, the essential thesis was that we need to go back to go forward.  We need to rediscover the lessons of the original Christians in The Acts of the Apostles (which is the actual title of what we call simply Acts, the fifth book of the New Testament), learn from the Wesleyan revival and especially from the work of the first Methodists in America, and conduct an examination of the some current explosive examples of “movemental Christianity” such the church in China.  My tentative chapter titles include things like – Into the Wilderness, Back to the Future, Answering the Why, Evangelism Embraced, The Church to Come, and Who Trusts in God? – Providential Leading (Borrowing from Albert C. Outler’s book of that title).

More recently my draft work has been tentatively entitled simply The Way.  The earliest Christians were called “followers of the way” (Acts 18 & 19; Acts 24).  Over the last few years I have preached a number of sermons on the “The Way of Christ.”  A recent series was on 1) Followers of the Way, 2) The Way of Salvation, 3) The Way of a Slave, and 4) Shepherds of the Way.

My latest tentative title is The Way: Our Designs’ or God’s Preferences.  The outline goes something like this.

The theological wasteland
Jesus at the Center — one among many or The One
Rejecting Schleiermacher & reclaiming revelation
Becoming again a distinctive people
Genuinely orthodox
Truly Wesleyan
Passionately missional
Unashamedly evangelistic

As you can see, I have a lot of work to do!  I find myself repeatedly coming back to a theme I first lifted up in a speech to the United Methodist Publishing House Board in 2006 and later put in article form for an article published in The Circuit Rider just prior to the 2008 General Conference.  Whatever else we are about we must be: 1) Genuinely orthodox, 2) Truly Wesleyan, 3) Passionately missional and 4) Unashamedly evangelistic.  I am convinced that The Way meaning the Way of the Lord before us necessitates a deep recovery of a core Wesleyan theology and spirituality as a first order of business.  Only from a firm foundation of orthodoxy with Christ at the center can we truly walk in the Way of the Lord.

I ask your prayers for my writing project.




Faith, Hope and Clarity – and the Greatest of These is Clarity

When I was working on Doctor of Ministry degree (D. Min.), I had the privilege of studying under a marvelous preaching professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary named Robert Shelton. (Dr. Shelton later served as Dean and President at APTS.) In a preaching class with other D. Min. students, he would begin critiquing his sermons with a deliberate misquoting of I Corinthians 13:13. The passage is rightly famous and is most commonly translated “so faith, hope, and love abide; and the greatest of these is love.” In the old King James translation the word love is render “charity.” Thus the verse read: “So faith, hope and charity abide; and the greatest of these is charity.” On his critique Dr. Shelton would say, “So faith, hope and clarity abide; and the greatest of these is clarity!”

There is a truth in his witty misquoting that we need to embrace. It goes hand in hand with the critical need for focus. We need clarity. We need to share the essence of the gospel in clear unmistakable terms. Often we operate with Christendom assumptions. We hold to the belief that people know the essence of the gospel; that they know the story of ruin through sin, rescue through Christ on the cross and restoration through resurrection and new life in Christ.

And yet, at our 2013 meeting of the Central Texas Conference, Dr. Kenda Dean (a United Methodist elder and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary) reminded us forcefully that for much of America, Christianity has been boiled down to heretical fuzziness. She called this fuzzy imposter for Christianity “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (Be good/moral; religion is therapeutic, bringing warm fuzzies and counseling encouragement that makes us better, and we believe in one god [small g] somewhere out there.) In her insightful book Almost Christian she wrote: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the ‘crown of rejoicing’ that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former” (Kenda Creasy Death, Almost Christian, p. 5).

A few months ago Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary commented on the same theme in a blog. “One of the greatest needs in the church today is a healthy dose of gospel clarity. Even in the evangelical churches, it seems that the gospel message has become obscured under a heavy cloud of vague moralisms, self-help injunctions, public therapy sermons, and so forth. It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His word which cuts through all of the religious rubble which builds up inside churches. Religion is like cholesterol plaque which slowly accumulates on the walls of your arteries. It creeps in unnoticed, but it can eventually kill you. We love the slow buildup of religious activity and, like the money-changers in the Temple, it can slowly squeeze out the actual purpose of the church.

“This problem is not limited to the Methodist. This is a far ranging problem which cuts right across the contemporary church. It is the same muddle which caused a church to put up on their sign outside, ‘Free Coffee, Everlasting Life – Yes, membership has its privileges.’ It is the same problem which causes churches to eliminate prayers of confession lest the church not be regarded as ‘seeker sensitive.’ It is the same problem which blurs the line between Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘power of positive thinking’ and the church. The list could go on and on.

“Brothers and sisters, we must find new ways to let the clarity of the gospel ring forth from our lives and from the ministries of the church. Wesley’s ‘heart-warming experience’ must be wedded anew with the steadfast powerful message of the gospel as found exposited by Luther in his preface to the Romans. This is certainly how Wesley himself interpreted his heart warming experience. After May 24th he became crystal clear about the nature of the gospel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Word of God. He became razor sharp in his passion to preach the gospel, evangelize the world, disciple believers and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world. We should remind ourselves every day that being a Methodist or a Presbyterian or ‘non-denominational’ means nothing if it is not first and foremost an outgrowth of our more basic identity as Christians who have been transformed by and through Jesus Christ” (Timothy Tennent,; Sunday, March 30th, 2014).

Recently in reading Michael Green’s Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, I encountered its insistence that the earliest Christians absolutely refused to be syncretic. (Syncretism is the notion that all religions and faith systems are essentially equal; all roads lead to the top of the same divine mountain.) With exquisite politeness and absolute firmness the early Christian rejected such muddled thinking. Pastor (& Professor) Green wrote: “There is no additional way. There is no alternative way. Christ is the way to salvation” (Emphasis in the original; Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, p. 232). He continued, “The disciples did not go round casting aspersions on other expressions of religious faith. They did, however, point to Jesus as the only way in which God has fully come to humans, and the only way by which humans can fully come to God and know him as Father” (Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World, p. 232).

Faith, hope and clarity indeed. We need love. It is still the greatest! But I submit there is wisdom offered by Shelton, Dean, Tennent and Green. We are in desperate need of gracious (!I emphasize gracious!) clarity!

Lessons from Jerusalem to Antioch to Central Texas

I am nearing the end of Michael Green’s book Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today.  While the first edition was published over 20 years ago (1993) and the second edition was republished 12 years ago, I find its relevance increasing for our time.  As we push deeper into a post-Christendom America (not necessarily a bad thing), there are lessons we need to apply from those first Christians.

At one point in the book, Professor Green (Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University) details the shift of the center of Christian leadership from the mother church in Jerusalem (i.e. the church of Pentecost) to Antioch.  The Church at Jerusalem was originally known for its missionary (both evangelistic and missional outreach in love, justice and mercy) zeal.  Dr. Green comments:  “The Jerusalem church members were remarkable for their apostolic doctrine, their willingness to sacrifice, their outstanding unity, their social concern, their prayers both informally and in the liturgy of the temple.  Spiritual gifts were clearly in evidence.  Evangelism flourished.  Large numbers became followers of Jesus” (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World. p. 194).

Through the second half of the Book of Acts, the Jerusalem church fades and Antioch takes center stage.  Scholars note a number of reasons for the decline of the Jerusalem church.  Foremost among them was a fading of the evangelistic and missional (love/justice/mercy) zeal they first had.  Slowly Antioch replaced Jerusalem.  If you read the Book of Acts carefully, you will realize that it is from Antioch that the great missionary journeys were launched.

Reflecting on the change Professor Green continues:

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Jerusalem church began well but failed to fulfill God’s number one priority, world mission.  [By world mission he means a very Wesleyan understanding of evangelism/conversion growth and missional outreach in love/justice/mercy.]  The torch was passed to Antioch, which had a blazing zeal for mission, and Jerusalem thereafter shrank into insignificance.   No doubt there were contributory reasons for their decline, but the most crucial one was their satisfaction with their own church life and failure in missionary commitment.  They are a serious warning to us.  Even the most flourishing church can be eclipsed and become an irrelevance if it fails to maintain the outward orientation that Christ laid upon his followers” (Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World. p. 194).

I read the words and sat back in my seat.  The correlation to our day and time is plain to see.  It is so tempting to fold back in on ourselves taking care of those we know and love.  There is nothing wrong and much right and good about excellence in the pastoral care of church members.  And yet, churches that make pastoral care their greatest priority inevitably lose their great calling to outreach and in the end deliver impoverished and inadequate pastoral care because of the failure.  This is all counter intuitive and yet empirically, experientially, and biblically true.

My reading drove me back to an earlier book that I had read back in 2005 when I was the Senior Pastor of University United Methodist Church in San Antonio – Reggie McNeil’s The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church.  McNeil shared the following story and commentary:

“In the summer of 2002, the country spent several anxious days concerned about the fate of nine mine workers trapped in a mine in Pennsylvania.  Rescue efforts involved several innovative strategies, including pumping heated air down the shaft.  As the workers emerged from their ordeal, so did the story of their survival.  One key element was their decision to huddle together to stay warm and touch one another in the cold darkness of the collapsed mine.

“The church in North America far too often resembles these miners.  Feeling trapped in the collapse of the church culture, club members are huddling together in the dark and praying for God to rescue them from the mess they are in.  This is the refuge mentality that pervades the mentality of many congregations and church leaders.  Instead, the church needs to adopt the role of the rescue workers on the surface.  They refused to quite, worked 24/7, and were willing to go to plan B or whatever it took to effect a rescue.

“That’s the church’s mission: to join God in His redemptive efforts to save the world.  People all around us are in darkness.  They are going to die unless someone finds a way to save them.  Trouble is, the church is sleeping on the job.  Too many of us have forgotten why we showed up for work.

“Even worse, many of us never have known” (Reggie McNeal, The Present Future, pp. 18-19).

The lessons move from Jerusalem to Antioch to Central Texas.  Let those with ears hear and those with eyes see; may we see and hear.  Even more, may we obey the call of Christ!

Reflections on the Evil One

Back in my seminary days one of the books that we read for our class on “Methodist History and Doctrine” (taught by the great theologian Albert Outler) was Organizing to Beat the Devil by Charles Ferguson.  The lead image in the book is intriguing.  Launching off of the classic Methodist vision for America – “to reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land” – Methodists organized to “beat the devil.”  Much as we revere the vision, it is the latter part of the statement that we tend to ignore.  We are organized not just to advance the kingdom God, enact evangelism, engage in justice and mercy ministries, etc.  We are organized to “beat the devil.”

Such a phrasing implies as a first order concern that there is in fact a devil to beat!  At a meeting with the District Superintendents and Lay Leader about a month ago, I shared a devotional based on Philippians 4:4-8.  In part the passage reads, “Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. 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 4:5-7).  In the midst of ensuing conversation, I spoke about how hard it was to live such a profoundly beautiful passage wrapped in the controversies of our day and time.  I don’t remember my exact words, but I commented something to the effect that there were days when it seemed like the devil was stalking our best efforts.

A district superintendent interjected with a question.  “Bishop, do you believe in spiritual warfare?”  (I am not sure I ever remember being asked that question before!)  I replied that I had come to believe that there was such a thing as spiritual warfare.  What ensued was one of the liveliest and most inquiringly open discussions I have engaged in for a long time.  Most of us (including myself and it actually may have been all of us) noted that we had not been taught such a concept in our seminary training but that now, over the years, virtually all of us have come to some belief (we had varying opinions) in the presence of evil, the personification of the devil, and the reality of spiritual warfare.

I noted for the group the phasing that is in our official liturgy on membership vows.  “On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?  Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”  (“Baptismal Covenant II”, The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 40).

I had wrongly rejected a doctrine of evil and the devil (a personification of evil) because of a tendency to use the devil as an excuse for a failure of personal responsibility.  Those close to me in age may remember a comedian named Flip Wilson who, when he did something he shouldn’t have, always blamed the devil with the phrase “the devil made me do it.”  I am not sure the devil can “make” me (or anyone!) do anything.  I am thoroughly Wesleyan and believe deeply in a doctrine of free will.  Such conviction does not however negate spiritual warfare, temptation (just look at Luke 4:1-12), or trials (testing).  Spiritual warfare is real.  We are currently engaged on that battlefield whether we acknowledge it or not.

One of the fascinating culture shifts taking place in our age is the move from an excessively rationalistic understanding of reality (modernism) to an understanding of reality that is more open to subjective input that is often labeled “spiritual” (post-modernism).  [An important sidebar: just because something is “spiritual” doesn’t mean it is Christian.]  There is much for me (us?) to ponder here.  The waning of the enlightenment intellectual foundation has delivered us culturally to an untenable post-modernism with no clear understanding of truth as an anchor.  It is past time to theologically investigate and rediscover hidden parts of historic Christian orthodoxy.  Evil is real.  The devil (however we may understand the term) is present.  Human agency (responsibility) cannot be swept away.  Divine authority and revealed truth (including a full blown doctrine of revelation) needs desperately to be re-appropriated.

“Dear friends, don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a humanis from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world. You are from God, little children, and you have defeated these people because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:1-4).

We Methodists were organized to beat the devil.

A Meeting in Chicago and Other Activities

This morning (way too early!) I fly out to Chicago, Illinois.  Unfortunately there will be no time spent at my beloved Wrigley Field (home of the once – 1908 – and future World Champion Chicago Cubs).  Instead I will be in a meeting of the Council of Bishops (COB) Executive Committee.  (I am on the COB Executive Committee through my work as Chair of the Vital Congregations Leadership Team of the COB.)

The agenda is full.  We will examine ongoing work in a variety of areas and ministry including but not limited to leadership development, Acts of Repentance as a part of our ministry with Native Americans, Task Force reports on accountability and human sexuality, training for church trials, work on ‘holy conferencing,’ planning for upcoming COB meetings (in Oklahoma City next November and in Berlin, Germany in May of 2015).  A part of the work near and dear to me (which comes from the Congregational Vitality Leadership Team) is about building vital congregations in Africa.

I often think of the summer as slow or at least a slower time.  I hope to catch up on some reading.  One of my summer activities is to usually lay out my preaching schedule for the fall and winter.  I hope to sketch outlines for various fall teaching projects (one on the book Wesley vs Calvin: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice; another on teaching a joint Wesley Foundation study for the UT Arlington and TCU Wesley Foundations).  I had hoped to spend some significant time this summer writing on a book project about the future of the church.  So far, I haven’t gotten to writing time.

Monday, I was on a conference call with Path 1 (new church development).  The news is exciting.  All across the nation work in new church development and the concomitant outreach is expanding.  Monday evening (just prior to finishing this blog) I participated on a conference call with the Texas bishops about how the church is and should respond to the ongoing border and immigration crises. We are wrestling with how we (the church) respond in ways that are caring and compassionate as well as wise and discerning.  I am deeply impressed by the insightful compassionate faithfulness that our churches (and my fellow bishops) are offering.  The larger Christian community is working together in marvelously ecumenical ways to help the last, the least, and the lost.

As I gaze over the host of items on my desk and get ready to fly off to Chicago, my mind drifts back to the ordination service at Conference.  One of the historic Methodist instructions for those to be ordained is to never be triflingly employed.  It is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Most days, I love this ministry yet the administrative load can overwhelm the available time.  Large organizations are complex.  We are truly a world-wide church with all the benefits and challenges!

Advice from 2 Timothy comes to mind:  “I’m giving you this commission in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is coming to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearance and his kingdom.  Preach the word. Be ready to do it whether it is convenient or inconvenient. Correct, confront, and encourage with patience and instruction. . . . Endure suffering, do the work of a preacher of the good news, and carry out your service fully”  (2 Timothy 4:1-2, 5).

A Christian Response to the Border Crisis

The image of protestors angrily greeting three busloads of mostly women and children in San Diego is both vivid and powerful.  Primal emotions were stirred.   The victims were often terrified younger children.  The great issue – immigration reform – is a need we must address.  Virtually all agree on the need for significant reform.  The passionate debate revolves around what kind of reform.  Good Christians disagree often strongly!  It is important to emphasize the last statement.  Good Christians can disagree with each other with passionate conviction about how to best reform the immigration system and respond to the border crisis.

So what is a Christian response?  Allow me to modestly suggest that there isn’t “a” (as in singular) Christian response.  There are multiple Christian responses.  Our faith offers us deeper moral guidance.  It presents a biblical and ethical framework out of which we may respond.

As I watch a report of the shouting and screaming at buses filled with children, I could not help but recall the words of Jesus.  “Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children” (Matthew 19:14).  Whatever the best strategic answer to the crisis is, further victimization of young children is not the answer.  Adults are the ones who need to be held accountable across the spectrum and across national and ethnic lines.

The second passage that comes to me is the famous one called the “Judgment of the Nations.”  It is well known.

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)

Regardless of our political orientation (Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Green and/or – if there are any of you left – WHIG, We Hope In God), Christians see and help those in need.  I served in the Rio Grande Valley as the Pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Harlingen, Texas.  Among our good friends was another young couple in the church, Myron and Sandy Merchant.  (They kept our son Nathan while I took Jolynn to the hospital for the birth of our daughter Sarah.  We’ve stayed in touch over the years.)  Committed Christians, they tried to faithfully respond in the swirling environment of immigration and border issues.  Myron was Captain in the Border Patrol.  I remember well him calling me one day.  The church had been collecting clothing for those in need.  Over the phone Myron asked, “Do you have some shoes?  We’ve arrested an illegal immigrant we are going to send back but he doesn’t have any shoes.  Could we help him?”

Myron did his duty faithfully and within the context of Christian care.  Wherever we come out on the best immigration policy for our nation, we are to engage that policy with Christ-like care and compassion.

A third piece of moral guidance we might apply in seeking the outline of a Christian response comes from the Book of James.  Often forgotten near the back of the New Testament, it contains marvelous practical advice.  James, the brother of Jesus, warns the first Christians (and us) of the power of the tongue.  He writes of the spiritual and moral importance about what and how we say things.  He warns us against improper hurtful angry speech.

“We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.

Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.

Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.

People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!”  (James 3:2-10)

Each image – a bridle for a horse, a ship at sea, and flame in the forest – is used to illustrate the power of words and importance of not letting our speech descend into poison.  Christian maturity for James (what John Wesley would call moving on to “perfection”) involves controlling our tongue (verse 2).

At a minimum wherever you come out on the political land personal spectrum of immigration and border patrol, we must guard our tongues.  Christians are to be a people who speak gracefully.  Civil discourse should be one of the ways we are known as Christian.

I often list these three modest elements as a partial framework for our response to the border crisis regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum.  Christians are to give witness, offer evidence with their lives, of 1) compassion for children, 2) care for those in need, and 3) communication that is civil (literally grace-filled).

*For information on what the Central Texas Conference is doing in response to the border crisis, please read Rev. Lariane Waughtal’s (CTC Coordinator – Disaster Response/UMVIM)  article.

Executive Staff Retreat

Former President and General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower was once asked about the relationship of plans and planning for the great D-Day invasion.  He is reported to have said something like “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”  This great truth applies to most significant efforts.  Planning is critical but events intrude and flexibility and adaptability are essential.

A couple times a year, I go on a one-day retreat/meeting with what I call the Executive Staff.  The executive staff consists of the 3 Center Directors (Leadership, Mission Support, and Evangelism & Church Growth) and the Dean of the Cabinet.  I have a similar retreat time with the District Superintendents and the Lay Leader.  The attempt is organize in an efficient way that lets each group focus its efforts and then report to the Cabinet as whole on what needs greater attention by the whole group.

There is a fairly new term for such planning and reflection time.  It is called “balcony time.”  It is a time we try to step back and look at the whole as if from above.  Most of us remember the old adage:  “When you are up to your neck in alligators, it is hard to remember that your original intent was to drain the swamp.”  Another way to think of balcony time comes from a friend who is a retired Army General.  He was asked to comment about all the plans that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had to reorganize the Pentagon.  The General noted that events overtook his best plans.

This is true for all of us!  Our Executive Staff Retreat is a chance to catch our breath and hopefully not get overwhelmed with the ongoing tasks always before us.  It is an opportunity to lay the biblical mandates next to the operational activities of our Conference.  It is a time to be open to the Spirit’s guidance.  Our focus is on learning and discernment.

The tentative agenda for the Executive Staff retreat is:

I.            A Time of Centering and Prayer         “The Priority of the Gospel”  Philippians 1:12-26

II.            Re-examination of Core Values

  1. Do these values reflect our deepest convictions?
  2. Do they guide our decision making?
  3. What do we need to learn?

III.            Learnings on Building a Healthy Organization – The Advantage & Acts 2:42-47

  1. Where are we?
  2. What are we making progress on?
  3. What is blocked or missing?
  4. Where do we need to put our focus?
  5. One page evaluation – Where do we stand & what needs to go to Cabinet as a whole?

IV.            Thematic Goal for 2014: increasing the number of vital congregations

  1. How are we doing? (+10% this year)
  2. How do we increase the commitment or “buy in” to this thematic goal?
  3. Where do we need to put our emphasis in the upcoming 6 months?

V.            Fall Focus Events/Ministry Initiatives

  1. Kenya Mission Trip
  2. Seven Levers with Bishop Schnase
  3. Clergy Day Apart
  4. Wesley vs. Calvin possible study?
  5. What other activities need our emphasis on the Conference Calendar?

VI.            Leadership Development

  1. Cabinet Bible Study or reading project for the fall
  2. Do we attend the Verge Conference in 2015?
  3. What are next steps for emphasis in clergy recruitment & lay leadership development?
  4. Process Issues for our attention
    1. Annual Conference Planning Team organization and schedule
    2. Looking ahead at Conference worship in 2015+
    3. Other?

This agenda will change as we move through the day.  There is an intentional rhythm to the schedule.  We hope to quiet ourselves and step back from the hectic pace of everyday activities.  From there, the day moved from a high view (what I like to call 40,000 feet up) to on-the-ground execution of activities and ministry.

In a speech at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in 1957, President Eisenhower went on to comment: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected; therefore, it is not going to happen the way you are planning. So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven’t been planning you can’t start to work, intelligently at least. That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve–or to help to solve.”  It is great advice.  Even better advice comes from Proverbs 21:5 – “The plans of the diligent end up in profit, but those who hurry end up with loss.”

Reform the Continent and Spread Scriptural Holiness Across the Land

Do you recall the original vision for the United Methodist Church?  “To reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land.”  To my mind this is as good a vision statement for the United Methodist Church in America as we can get.  This is our holy grail, our reason for being as a distinctive church in the larger body of Christ.  It fits as a hand does a glove to the stated mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  As we head deeper into the 21st century, we are trying to build a missional church culture where an institutional church culture has existed.  We are trying to return or reclaim our roots as a movement and church.  It’s tricky, hard, exciting, fun, etc.!  I think the Spirit of the Lord is leading us into new future for reforming the Continent and especially the church.

Back in late February I read a blog written by Rich Robinson who is a part of 3DM.  3DM is a missional movement led by Mike Breen and others.  It is one of the blog sites I episodically follow.  [They share on their website this description:  “3DM trains churches and Christian leaders to do discipleship and mission in an increasingly post-Christian world.

“We combine 30+ years of learning from the context of a very secular England, penetrating Biblical insights and experience working with hundreds of faith communities worldwide — to come alongside churches and organizations who want to learn to be the church in this new world.

“We are megachurches, church plants and everything in between.
We are Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and non-denominational.
We are brand new churches and 200-year-old churches; rural, suburban and urban churches.
We are a movement of churches learning how to thrive in the future.
We are 3DM”.]

Here is the blog I read and pass on for your reflection:

Building a missional culture isn’t as easy as A-B-C

“Here are some of the marks of a M.I.S.S.I.O.N.A.L culture – can you see them in your culture or how could they begin to shape how you and your people live?

M – Missional Mindset
People who understand that they are ‘sent’. People who look to the Great Commission as well as the Great Commandments. People who live sacrificially. People who get out of the boat. People who take on the adventure. People who live life outside the church walls. People who recognize those ready and open to Jesus. People who embrace risk & change.

I – Incarnational Lifestyle
People who live a missional lifestyle rather than organize missional events. People who have mission at the core of who they are not just the center of activities that are ‘put on’. People who share life as well as a faith with people. People who ‘live with and amongst’ not ‘minister to’ people. People who look to be good news to who or where they are placed – home, neighborhood, work, nursery, golf club, pub, school gates, coffee shop…

S – Scripturally Based
People who are grounded in scripture – reading, processing, reflecting, learning, applying, acting, living. People informed and imitating the life of Jesus in the GospelsPeople who can feed themselves from the Word. People who have the word of truth as an offensive weapon.

S – Spirit Led
People who are dependent on the Holy Spirit. People who are empowered by the Holy Spirit. People who follow and join what the Spirit is doing in people & places.

I – Intercessory Prayer
People fuelled by prayer. People with a pattern of personal prayer. People with a pattern of corporate prayer. People sent covered by committed prayer. People who change the spiritual temperature through Intercession. People who win battles in prayer. People whose hearts are broken for the lost through prayer.

O – Orbit the Centre
People who live life in communities and gather together with the wider family for
Celebration. People who aren’t isolated from the resource center. People who
are resourced, trained and sent from the central church. People who return to
tell war stories. People who are healed up from battle scars.

N – Neighborhood or Network
People who know who (network – social, demographic, interest, ethnicity) or where (neighborhood) they are called to be Good News. People who live out the Good news in their networks or neighborhoods. People who connect with people. People who recognize People of Peace. People who understand and live Luke 10.

A – Active Participation
People who aren’t consumers of a Christian product on a Sunday. People who participate in the adventure & life of their community. People who play their part. People who ‘have a go’. People who step out of the boat. People who produce vision and grow maturity in others.

 L – Lay Led
People who don’t depend on Christian ‘super heroes’. People who don’t abdicate
responsibility to the pastor and staff. People who step up and take responsibility
for who & where they are called to lead & live.”
-Posted on February 23, 2014 by Anna Robinson 3 written by Rich Robinson, Team Leader for 3DM Europe

As you celebrate the 4th of July may we not only give thanks but also remember and recommit to our wider mission to America – “To reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land.”

What Does Your Church Pray For?

In my readings, I recently finished Andy Stanley’s intriguing book Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend.  As usual in reading Stanley’s material, I found myself stretched and challenged.  There are insights and ideas I loved.  There are also items I have deep disagreement with.

deep and wideOne particular insight I find myself wrestling with came late in this book.  “Speaking of prayer, what does your church pray for?  What does the staff pray for?  What do your elders or deacons pray for?  God’s blessings?  The presence of God?  A pouring out of the Holy Spirit? Safety? As far as the “presence of God” and “a pouring out of the Holy Spirit,” you’re a bit behind.  Both of those were covered on the day of Pentecost.  Regarding God’s presence, Jesus promised to be with those who were making disciples, not gathering for worship.  So besides you, and what you and your congregation want God to do for you, what does your church pray for?” (Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide, p. 312; emphasis in the original).

I want to debate a couple of inferences.  For starters, I think there is nothing wrong and everything right about praying for a fresh or renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  To do so hardly negates or discounts Pentecost.  Secondly, I think Jesus did promise to be with those gathering for worship – Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”  But beyond those debating points, I found a deep probing and high challenge in Stanley’s paragraph.

We pray regularly and earnestly as a Cabinet when we meet.  We pray for discernment and guidance.  We pray for pastors and churches.  We pray for hurts of the world.  We pray for loved ones.  Oh my how we pray.  In our prayer life together, we use the common response for a prayer of celebration – “Loving God, we give you thanks,” and an equally common response for prayers of petition – “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.”

What I’ve noticed is that we seem to have almost 10 prayers of petition and concern for every one prayer of celebration.  We appear to focus on healing for loved ones, for the church, for the world and are light on prayers seeking strength, courage and conviction.  We pray heavily for discernment and insight but seem almost timid in praying for focus, direction, nerve.  We are top heavy on divine intervention and almost quiescent on praise.

There is nothing wrong with our prayers and our praying.  They are good and godly.  Unfortunately we have limited ourselves.  Andy Stanley reflects on the prayers of the early church, a church facing persecution and in desperate need of protection.  What did they pray for? He quotes Acts 4:29 – “Now, Lord, take note of their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with complete confidence.”  They prayed for boldness!  They prayed for God to act mightily – “Stretch out your hand to bring healing and enable signs and wonders to be performed through the name of Jesus, your holy servant” (Acts 4:30).  Notice the results in Acts 4:31.  “After they prayed, the place where they were gathered was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking God’s word with confidence.”

Andy Stanley reflects on the prayers of the first Christ followers: “They asked God to do something powerful through them, but not for their sake.  They were totally focused on those outside the walls of their gathering place” (Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide, p. 313).

I think I pray too genteelly, too tamely, and am both convicted and blessed by Stanley’s insight. How about you?  For me, it is past time to pray for boldness.  Praying is an act of trusting God and obediently living out our prayers.