Archive - March, 2015

Jesus Takes Command ©

Palm Sunday is upon us.  What a great day!  The Savior’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem hits a high note in the life of faith.

Notice first where the story begins.  “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives” (Mark 11:1a).

Bethany is sometimes translated as the “house of the poor” or the “house of dates.”  It was one of the recognized lodging places for religious pilgrims approaching the holy days in Jerusalem (being just a short mile or so outside of Jerusalem).  Significantly Jesus doesn’t start in the center of the holy city.  Oh no, the action begins where we live!  This was true then and it is true now.  We don’t need to go someplace special to be truly Christian.  It all starts here on the journey of faith from Bethany.

The opening verse might almost be entitled “Jesus takes command.”  Those of you who know your Civil War history may remember a significant turning point early in the Civil War.  It happened when General Johnson, then the leader of the army of Northern Virginia, was wounded and President Jefferson Davis sent for General Lee.  Robert E. Lee took command, repulsed the Union advance, and changed the whole course of American history.  Others might hearken to the Korean War and the genius of General Douglas MacArthur as he took command at Inchon;  or perhaps Patton in Europe with his brilliance, Rommel in North Africa, Hannibal crossing the Alps, or Caesar in Gaul.  They are all illustrations from history of a great leader taking charge.  This is precisely what happens in the opening verse and yet far more.  It is the one true leader who takes command.  “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples” (Mark 11:1).

“He sent.”  Those two simple words tell us so much.  Scholar after scholar, author after author, notes that this is a crucial turning point where Jesus takes command of events and actions.  Jesus takes the initiative to proclaim and declare for all to see that he really is the savior.  The instructions to the disciples in verses two and three – “go into the village … find a colt … if any one asks” – demonstrate that he is the one in charge.  He who comes mounted on a colt is the supreme commander, the king.

Thus this day we call Palm Sunday invites us in the retelling and rehearing of the story to ask, is Jesus the commander of my life.  Am I willing to march to His orders?

What unfolds in the next verse (Mark 11:4) is the answer of those called disciples.  So often in the Bible these guys – Peter, James, John and the rest of them – got it wrong; but on this day they got it right.  The disciples obeyed the Lord.  Verse four tells us “they went” as instructed.  They trusted Jesus and shared what he had told them in verse five.  In other words they acted as model disciples understanding that faith really is a matter of trust and obedience.  Once again the lesson of the Bible is clear for us.  As we enter Holy Week, are we willing to trust and obey?

What fascinates me here is not only did the disciples’ get it right but so too did the bystanders.  They untie the colt, a valuable possession, and simply say, “The Lord needs it” (Mark 11:3).  The amazing example for us is the response made in verse six.  “They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it” (Mark 11:6).

The Palm Sunday road from Bethany challenges and invites us to respond in faith to God’s call and claim on our life.  The Lord has need not just of the colt but of you and me.

Notice how the crowd responded. “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!’
Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11:8-10)

A famous Methodist preacher of an earlier age, Halford Luccock comments: “There was no debate about it; no cautious trial and balance to see whether or not the risk to the clothes was really called for; no wondering if some show of respect at a cheaper price might not be enough.  These people were lifted on a tide of hope and joy and love. . . . The life that never forgets itself in a great lift of devotion is poor, no matter how richly upholstered its furniture” (Halford Luccock, Interpreter’s Bible, Mark, Vol. 7, p. 826).

That day they gave Jesus a conqueror’s welcome.  The shout was actually a reference back to the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

There is this punctuation of praise in the word “hosanna.”  It literally means “Save Now!”  It is a shout of adulation to the Lord.  Thus here at this start of Holy Week we are reminded that worship always begins in praise.  When we praise, we remember who God is and recommit ourselves to the one who alone has the full right to command our allegiance.

Their cry has it right.  “Hosanna! [Save us now!]  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9).  I dare to say it is the same cry we bring to this day, however deeply that cry may be buried in the secret places of our heart, both in praise and as a plea.

Jesus rides the road from Bethany to enter the Holy City this day.  He rides that road to enter the holy city of our hearts and minds, our wills and way.  He comes as commander, the leader, the Lord.  However we might break down this day; however we might celebrate and seek to understand it, the one unmistakable truth is the claim Jesus makes about himself for the disciples, for those in the crowd so long ago and for us.  He is the king, the commander, the ruler, the Lord.    This is the cardinal creed of the Christian faith.  In fact the earliest Christians didn’t have the Apostles’ Creed.  They used a three-word affirmation.  “Jesus is Lord.”

That is what this day is about.  He rides from Bethany and enters the holy city of our lives proclaiming that he is the Lord, the ruler and commander.  He rides down the road of our life and says, “Will you follow me?”

Approaching Jerusalem ©

A couple of years ago Jolynn and I had the privilege of traveling with a group from the Central Texas Conference to the Holy Land.  After a period in the northern region around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, we traveled down the Jordan River valley and then took the slow ascent up to Jerusalem.  As we approached the city, the tour bus entered a long dark tunnel through the mountains.  The guide directed us to look to the left as we emerged from the darkness.  As we peered out suddenly the tunnel vanished and the bright sunlight flooded the bus.  The stirring music “The Holy City” blared out over the buses loud speakers.  And then … there it was!  The magnificence of “holy mount” and the great holy city spread before us.  Somehow the combination of all of it managed to be at once hokey and incredibly stirring.  An almost primal sense of hope and expectation filled me with awe.  For me, Jerusalem is the city of the Savior.


from PikiWiki_Isreal_Jerusalem landscape

Metaphorically the journey of Lent to the cross and beyond is a journey up the mountain to the Holy City.  The week before holy week we are, again metaphorically speaking, approaching the Holy City.  The joy of the approaching Palm Sunday is before us.  And yet, we live in the present.  The regular rhythm of life surrounds us.

For me, Saturday March 21st found me driving to Temple to participate in the funeral service of Rev. Arcynthia Louie, one of the saints of the Lord.  Pastor Louie served St. Paul United Methodist Church in Georgetown.  She left a legacy of a flourishing ministry and grace filled sense of the Holy Spirit that blessed others.  Just before Pastor Quinton Gibson (St. James UMC, Temple) rose to give the funeral oration, a soloist sang with moving conviction and artistic beauty “Because He Lives.”  Grief was leavened with hope.  Sorrow was transformed by triumph.  I am still bathing in the blessing of the service.

I recall when I first came to the Central Texas Conference as a newly consecrated bishop (almost 7 years ago!) we had an extended daylong meeting with Cabinet members and key leaders (lay and clergy) to examine our mission, core values, and strategic needs.  As the group focused in on worship and preaching which lifted up Christ, the theme of preaching the resurrection came forcefully to the forefront.  There was an emphatic consensus that we needed to preach the resurrected Christ as Lord and Savior.  As the soloist at Rev. Louie’s funeral service came to the powerful closing words of “Because He Lives,” that conversation flashed across my mind.  As the heartfelt shouts of “Amen” and claps of exclamation echoed across the St. James sanctuary, I leaned over to Dr. Clifton Howard who was sitting to my left.  Dr. Howard had been a part of that initial conversation and had been insistent about our need to preach the resurrection.  We shared a quick memory of the conversation and its importance at times like this.

Approaching Jerusalem, moving through the season of Lent towards Holy Week, I hear Christ calling us back to the cross and through the cross to the triumph beyond.

You may recall a story that made national news shortly after the tragedy of 9/11(2001).  There was a man working alone on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center when the plane hit his building.  In the chaos and confusion he made his way to the stairs and started down.  As he was passing the 63rd floor on his way down he heard a noise that him stop.  He stepped back and pushed his way through the fire door onto the floor.  There he discovered some terrified people getting ready to jump.  He shouted at them, “Come with me!  I know a way out.”  (Later when interviewed he said at that point he didn’t really know a way out, he just knew they needed to try something different.)  He got people off the ledge and lined them up, like a troop of Cub Scouts or Brownies.  Then, he marched them all the way down 63 flights of stairs to the bottom and to safety.

The interviewer who wrote the story remarked to him, “I understand you had to get tough with one of the women (on the march down the stairs).  Somewhat sheepishly he replied, “Yes, she panicked (part way down) and I had to yell at her to get her back in line.  It was the only way out.”

Jesus is that man for us but with two notable differences.  First, he really does know the way out. He’s not guessing.  Second, the way out is not down – but to Jerusalem, through the cross and only then to the joy of Easter morning.

A Hard Truth that Saint Patrick Lived ©

The story of Saint Patrick is one of the most beguiling and illustrative tales in the Christian lexicon.   As a young boy he was captured by raiders and taken to Ireland in the chains of slavery.  While there he dreamed of freedom and found himself growing closer to God as his strength and shield in captivity.

“One night, after six years of captivity, a voice spoke to Patrick in a dream, saying, ‘You are going home. Look!  Your ship is ready!’  The voice directed him to flee for his freedom the next morning.  He awakened before daybreak, walked to a seacoast, saw the ship, and negotiated his way on board” (George G. Hunter, III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 14).

Returning to England, Patrick became a priest and served for many years as a parish pastor.  “At the age of forty-eight – already past a man’s life expectancy in the fifth century – Patrick experienced another dream that was to change his life again.  An angel named Victor approached him with letters from his former captors in Ireland.  As he read one of the letters, he ‘imagined in that moment that [he] heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut . . . and they cried out, as with one voice, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”’”

When Patrick awakened the next morning, he interpreted the dream as his “Macedonian Call” to take Christianity’s gospel to the Celtic peoples of Ireland (George G. Hunter, III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 15).

I write this St. Patrick’s Day not to honor all things green but rather because his life illustrates a hard truth lived.  Consider well the truth of his life’s witness.  Patrick went back to the land of his enslavement to share the gospel.  He reached out in love through the cross of Christ to those he had every reason to hate.

The hard truth of the gospel is that God’s love in Jesus Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is not just for those worthy of love.  I have to remember this when I watch news of ISIS or the racist chanting of a stupid fraternity.  The good news of God’s love, forgiveness and sacrifice is not just for good people.  The cross is for those we consider to be unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.

A seminal segment from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

When I reflect on the truth of this teaching, I find myself wanting to argue with God.  I want to say, “Lord, do you know what these people are like!?  Do you seriously mean that you died for them?  Do you mean that you really love them?  Not only that, but Lord you can’t mean that we are supposed to love them as well?”  I find myself at one with Soren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish theologian of the 19th century, who, in sardonic jest, once suggested that they gather up all the Bibles in Denmark; take them up to a high mountain and throw them off.  We ought, he suggested, just tell God, “Lord this is too hard!”  Yet clearly here it is from the mouth of Jesus himself no less.  The cross connection is for the unloved, unlovely, and the unlovable!

In his beautiful one line summary of the gospel, John tells us “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).  God’s love was and is for the whole world not just parts of it.  The cross connection is God’s love in and through Christ for the unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.

I have quoted before the late Professor George Macleod (Princeton Theological School) who put it this way:  “I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church.  I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where He died.  And that is what He died about.  And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmanship should be about.”

As we pause in our routine of activities to duly celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I invite us to embrace the truth behind the legend of St. Patrick.  This man really was a Christian saint.  He has much to teach and when we lay his personal witness of life and faith alongside the life and teaching of Jesus, the cross comes into focus.

First, when we reach out through the cross, Christ reaches out with us.

Second, the hard truth St. Patrick lived in following Jesus, the way of the cross, transforms us.  God’s power, the power of true unconquerable love flows in and through us.  In loving even the enemy, we ourselves become more loveable.  And amazingly, so does the so-called enemy.

Third, the cross transforms the unloved, unlovely, and unlovable.  St. Patrick understood and lived this hard yet magnificent saving truth.

St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer

(Ephesians 6:14 … “put on the breastplate of righteousness”)

I bind unto myself today The strong Name of the Trinity, By invocation of the same, The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever. By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation; His baptism in the Jordan River; His death on Cross for my salvation; His bursting from the spiced tomb; His riding up the heavenly way; His coming at the day of doom;* I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power Of the great love of the cherubim; The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour, The service of the seraphim, Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word, The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls, All good deeds done unto the Lord, And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today The virtues of the starlit heaven, The glorious sun’s life-giving ray, The whiteness of the moon at even, The flashing of the lightning free, The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, The stable earth, the deep salt sea, Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today The power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay, His ear to hearken to my need. The wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, His shield to ward, The word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin, The vice that gives temptation force, The natural lusts that war within, The hostile men that mar my course; Or few or many, far or nigh, In every place and in all hours, Against their fierce hostility, I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles, Against false words of heresy, Against the knowledge that defiles, Against the heart’s idolatry, Against the wizard’s evil craft, Against the death wound and the burning, The choking wave and the poisoned shaft, Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name, The strong Name of the Trinity; By invocation of the same. The Three in One, and One in Three, Of Whom all nature hath creation, Eternal Father, Spirit, Word: Praise to the Lord of my salvation, Salvation is of Christ the Lord.


* Note: “day of doom” is an Old English term meaning “Day of Judgment.”   

(Taken from

A Blast from the Past ©

I have recently finished reading Christine A. Chakoian’s insightful book Cryptomnesia: How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church.  I pause in my blog writing to focus on this unusual book.  In particular I want to recommend that Sunday School classes and other learning groups might well benefit by taking time to read and discuss the insights the author offers.

cryptomnesiaThe dictionary renders “cryptomnesia” as a hidden memory which has come back to the forefront; “the reappearance of as suppressed or forgotten memory which is mistaken for a new experience” (The Collins English Dictionary; Cryptomnesia, p. xi).  The author explains it this way:  cryptomnesia is the opposite of déjà vu.  In cryptomnesia, “our brains are tricking us into thinking we’re encountering something new, when in reality we’ve been here before” (Cryptomnesia, p. xi).

What makes this book so worth reading and discussing is the way our current religious reality in post-Christendom America is a repeat of what the earliest Christians experienced in the Roman Empire.  Relearning our past not only gives us courage; it gives us tools for confronting the present and living into a new future.

The chapter headings are telling. In the first two chapters – “When Every Thing Changes: Life in America Today” and “Religious Life in the Shrinking World” – Dr. Chakoian (Lead Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forrest, Illinois) compares our modern experience of the rapid pace of change and cultural diversity with the experience of the first urban Christians.  I find it hope-giving to recall that we in the Christian Church have been in this situation before.  There are insights to reflect upon and perhaps employ.

Chapter 3, “Shifting Our Inheritance: What to Keep and What to Let Go?”, plunges the reader in the conflict going on in the early church as it emerged from the shadow of the Jewish Temple.  The earliest Christians wrestled with worship as it was evolving, the place of baptism (as an outgrowth of ritual baths, cleanings and new life), whether to eat food for idols, is the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) to be retained as Holy Scripture by Christians?, etc.  She rightly points out that some of the answers are surprising.

It is the application to our day that is especially challenging for us!  What are we to keep and what must we let go of?  Think back over the so-called worship wars and divisions about what is central in the worship life of your church.  What to keep and what to let go of are profoundly biblical and theological questions that merit clear headed practical answers.  The reader will easily grasp the parallel struggles between eating food dedicated to idols and circumcision with questions of worship styles and same gender ordination.  A good lesson for a Sunday School class would be to unpack Dr. Chakoian’s concepts of things that are “indifferent” and things that are “essential.”  Step number two would be to start writing your own list and discuss together.

In discussing (holy conversation?) she notes four key behaviors we can learn from the earliest Christians.

  1. “They came together to discern.
  2. They took turns testifying.
  3. They listened to each other’s witness.
  4. They looked to the authority of scripture, Jesus’ teachings, and the Holy Spirit.” (Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p. 50; emphasis in the original)

I confess that I wish to argue pretty strongly with the incompleteness of her list, but the concepts are well worth wrestling with in Christian love and care.

As a Bishop her fourth chapter sparked special interest for me.  It’s entitled “Authority and Community in a Flattened Age.”  She notes our culture wide rebellion from traditional authority.  However, Dr. Chakoian takes the significant next step of confronting the need for authority.  She writes, “Having some kind of authority isn’t optional; it’s essential for us as social creatures” Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p.58). The partial answer she offers models itself off of the earliest Christians and what they took from synagogues, the schools of philosophy, voluntary associations and the Ekklesia (The Household of God).  Dr. Chakoian challenges us to fully embrace a valuing of each other’s gifts without descending into chaos.  A taste of some of the writing is appetizing:

    • “Theresa Latini reminds us of the need for the church to be a place where we learn and practice community in an age of social disconnection.” (p. 73)
    • “Sustaining intimate, accountable Christian relationships in faith communities is crucial.” (p. 73)
    • “The era of top-down authority is over. But that doesn’t mean there is no authority.” (p.77, emphasis in the original)

There is more here.  Chapters on getting along and “taking the message to the masses” await our investigation and reflection.  I repeat the intention in writing this blog.  Cryptomnesia is an excellent book for a Sunday School class to pick up, read and discuss.  I have points of real disagreement with the author but the overall premise is on target.  We have a hidden memory we desperately need to rediscover.  I believe the Holy Spirit is at work in our recovery from biblical, theological and historical amnesia.  Here’s to good discussions!

My Lenten Journeys

While the season of Lent is metaphorically a spiritual journey for Christians to the cross and beyond, for me as a bishop it is also a season of various journeys around my work on various boards and agencies.  As a bishop I share with other bishops in the United Methodist Church worldwide leadership for the whole church.  Additionally, as with all bishops, I have responsibilities beyond the Central Texas Conference for various institutions which relate to either our Conference or the larger South Central Jurisdiction.

This morning I will be attending a Methodist Children’s Home (MCH) Board Meeting in Austin, Texas.  MCH is truly one of the outstanding church-related institutions.  Located in Waco, Texas, MCH lives its motto “offering hope since 1890.”  There is phenomenal Christ-honoring ministry with children that live on the margins of love and care.  This work becomes even more critical as state funding for foster children is cut and service expectations climb.  Where ever we stand on the political spectrum, the church of Jesus Christ is doing a good and godly work in this ministry.  By necessity we need to do more.  Dr. Tim Brown (President of MCH) comments in his Presidential report: “Currently there is also a higher than normal number of children across Texas that are being removed from their families due to abuse or neglect.”  MCH receives some of the children removed by the judicial system from their homes, but the reimbursement rate from the state does not even come close to covering the full cost.  For a people who hear Christ speaking to us saying, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children” (Matthew 19:14), this ministry is immensely meaningful and transforms lives.

Sunday will mark a special treat for me.  In the fall of 1974 as young seminary student, I began my seminary internship (think student/teacher) at First United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas.  For me it was a life changing, nine month period of learning.  I was literally blessed to be mentored by an outstanding Senior Pastor, Dr. Jack Heacock.  The Intern Committee (a group of lay people with the Sr. Pastor who guided my work) and the congregation were wonderful.  I remember teaching my first Sunday School class, The Downtowners.  I remember fumbling through the lesson.  They were super supportive and very helpful with constructive positive feedback.  I can remember another situation where a street person came in the office for help and counseling.  She was very suicidal.  A member of the Intern Committee who was also a practicing licensed psychotherapist with immeasurable patience guided my response and the response of this caring congregation.  I can continue with stories but suffice to say it is a joy to return to First UMC, Austin this Sunday.

Monday morning (too early for my tastes!) I will fly to Nashville for two days of meeting on the Path 1 initiative of the United Methodist Church.  Path 1 is a branch of the United Methodist Churches’ Discipling Ministries.  (Discipling Ministries used to be called The General Board of Discipleship.)  Path 1 works on new church development in the United States.  We in the Central Texas Conference have been recipients of Path 1 Interns, a program that places potential new church developers (clergy who start new congregations) with mentor clergy and congregations.  This past year David Alexander and Mike Ramsdell at First United Methodist Church of Mansfield have been working with Rev. Jennifer Pick.

Among the issues we will be wrestling with are hearing reports on new church planting in the United States for the 2012-2016 quadrennium. (Our denominational goal was 1,000 new places for new disciples.)  A second important task will be preliminary work on setting broad measurable goals for the next quadrennium (2017-2020).  Our third major component involves dialog with Dr. Timothy Bias, the General Secretary of Discipling Ministries, focusing our direction and alignment as we move forward into the future the Lord is calling into being.

I have the privilege of sharing responsibilities in this work with Bishop James Swanson (The Mississippi Conference) and Bishop Mark Webb (The Upper New York Conference).  Each Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church is represented on the Path 1 Advisory Committee.  It is a joy to share that Rev. Gary Lindley (Executive Director of the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth of the Central Texas Conference) represents the SCJ (South Central Jurisdiction).

[I always want to stress that work in new church development is matched with work/ministry for and with the transformation of existing congregations; what we call “Vital Congregations.”  Bishop John Schol of The Greater New Jersey Conference chairs this effort, and I work with him and that group as the Chair of the Council of Bishops Congregational Vitality Leadership Team.  The two together are a central part of any great ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!]

Hopefully I’ll end up back at home late Tuesday evening and back in the office on Wednesday, March 11th.  Saturday, March 14th Jolynn and I will head back out again to Ballinger, Texas where I will be preaching Sunday the 15th.  It is my joy to share with you in our great ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

Lenten Musings – The End of Casual Christianity

Casual Christianity as we know it is dying.  For a good decade now carefully observant pastors have noticed people who typically would worship a couple of times a month moving to worship patterns that are more episodic.  A variety of studies (Pew, Barna, Gallup, etc.) have reported changing patterns of worship attendance.

While much attention is given to decreasing worship attendance, less attention is given to a counter trend of people who are moving more deeply into faithful worship, prayer, ministry to those in need, missional outreach etc.  I confess that I am less able to document this trend.  Rather, I sense it unfolding.

I keep remembering that my predecessor at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Dr. Steve Wende, used to tell the congregation (my dimly remembered paraphrase) “how can you call yourself Christian if you don’t go to the cross with Christ on Good Friday before you show up at Easter?”  His call to take seriously the call to Holy Week worship (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter) was a grace-filled yet clarion claim to deeper discipleship.  The United Methodist Church is gaining significant clarity around its core mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Tire kickers and test drivers are always welcome in our worship but the goal is disciples – committed disciplined followers of Jesus Christ.

I think there is a quietly growing depth to many who have stayed faithful in deeper ways.  There is a counter trend emerging from the end of casual Christianity which is a good, godly, Holy Spirit-induced thing.  The recent overwhelming response to my study of Calvin versus Wesley provides some evidence.  I thought 8 or 9 people would join me.  Was I wrong!  We’ve had a large group at Texas Wesleyan University; multiple simulcast sites, many following the online streaming, and Sunday School classes using the material.  I believe this is a sign of the hunger for deeper discipleship and a closer walk with Christ.

One of the books that I am casually dabbling with (actually occasionally listening to on my phone) is Radical by David Platt.  While I have some strong theological disagreement with what I am hearing/reading, I am attracted by the way he too sees an end to casual Christianity and the growth of discipleship.  The subtitle of the books speaks volumes — Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.  Somewhere along the line, I ran into some quotes in a review from a newer book Platt has written that resonate with me.  The book is entitled Follow Me:

  • “There is indescribable joy, deep satisfaction and an eternal purpose in dying to ourselves and living for Christ.”
  • “Jesus is not some puny religious teacher begging for an invitation from anyone. He is the all-sovereign Lord who deserves submission from everyone.”
  • “Our greatest need is not to try harder. Our greatest need is a new heart.”
  • “We cling to the person of Christ as life itself.”

C.S. Lewis’ comment about Jesus echoes through my musing about the end of casual Christianity. “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

My musings led me back to my faded copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.  It is to the cross that our Lenten journey takes us.  I do know that I need to remember what Bonhoeffer wrote:

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.

When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

Even more, I remember what Jesus said, “After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them’” (Mark 8:34-35).

There is much to think upon, pray about, and engage in action on the way to the cross and beyond.