Archive - September, 2015

PHILIPPINES BRIGHT SPOTS

When the first George Bush (that is George Herbert Walker Bush) was President, he lifted up what he called for “1,000 Points of Lght.” President Bush urged us to focus on the better side of our nature by lifting up organizations (ministries) that shape human society in healthy, hopeful ways. I thought then and think now that there is something to this emphasis on the points of light or bright spots around us. I believe this is especially true for the Church. There are “bright spots” – “points of light” – all around us.

Sunday night I arrived in the Philippines with Bishop John Schol from the Greater New Jersey Conference. We are working with representatives from the Philippines Central Conference (three Episcopal Areas) on the Council of Bishops Bright Spots Project. The Bright Spots project is an outgrowth of the United Methodist Church’s worldwide emphasis on building vital congregations. The areas of congregational vitality are the same in the Philippines as they are in the United States (and around the rest of the world). We look for evidence of congregational vitality through transformation life stores, fruitfulness in ministry, and life changing ministries which reflection the Wesleyan way of being a Christ follower (holiness of heart and life). The five markers of vitality correspond to the witness of the Holy Spirit through the earliest Christian church as found immediately after Pentecost in Acts 2:42-47. Vitality is measured by the “five markers of disciples involved/engaged in “1) making new disciples (evangelism, a part of radical hospitality); 2) worship; 3) small groups (intentional faith development); 4) hands on mission (risk-taking mission and service); and 5) giving to missions (extravagant generosity).” The connection to the Bright Spots Project comes out of the work of the Council of Bishops Congregational Vitality Leadership Team, Discipleship Ministries and Vital Congregations project through the Connectional Table.

The “Bright Spots” project builds on the notion and understanding of a research method called Positive Deviance. (PD) PD is a strength-based approach around core principles which involve communities possessing the expertise to address their own problems. In brief form the community (read church) discovers existing uncommon, successful behaviors and strategies. Put differently, it looks at the bright spots among the various congregations in an Annual Conference. PD is built on the notion that “someone just like me is succeeding against all odds with the same resources that are available to me.” PD focuses on practice instead of knowledge. (“You are more likely to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”) For those of you interested in reading more, I strongly commend The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin.

All this sounds dry but it ends up exciting. Drawing lay and clergy together we learn how to focus on what is working (fruitful and faithful ministry) and learn from such ministry in ways that are naturally transferable to other congregations. Practical insights are welded to the best biblical and theological insights. The beauty of this approach is the way people are turned into their own researchers and own the results in a concrete way. Instead of a top-down “program,” “bright spots” provides a bottom up approach to ministry in the post-Christendom twenty-first century.

In the Central Texas Conference our focus remains firmly on what I call the Big 3.
1. Christ at the Center
2. Focus on the Local Church
3. Development of Lay and Clergy Leadership

As I keep insisting, no one needs to ask what the focus of the next Annual Conference is. The theme is on “energizing and equipping local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

We are blessed with many bright spots. We can learn much by asking simple questions of each other, laying aside our preconceived convictions and listening again as if for the 1st time what leads to excellence in faithful and fruitful ministry. What can we learn from our “bright spots?” How is it some churches engage in risk-taking ministry above and beyond what is normally expected? How come some congregations have professions of faith in situations where other churches are closing? How is it that passionate worship breaks out in the oddest places?

The Holy Spirit is loose in our world and our churches. We have much to learn from others. As we share, God works on us in our hearts leading us to exciting faithfulness.

Reflections on the Visit of a Holy Man

I confess to being late to work this morning. I stayed extra half hour at home to watch the arrival of Pope Francis at the White House. The crowds gathered, the pomp and ceremony; the gravitas of press coverage, and the respectful public speeches – taken together they demonstrate our hunger for holy living and a greater connection with both the Lord and each other.

A holy man has come calling on America. We recognize this truth. Many of you are aware that I have been memorizing and living with Philippians 4:4-9 this year in my devotional life.   As a whole the passage reads:

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! 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.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

Pope Francis exemplifies phrases like verse 5, “let your gentleness show,” and verse 8, “if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things.” Amid the caterwauling that makes up modern America and especially the social networks, the holy example of his life speaks louder than words or actions.

I submit that herein lies a lesson for all of us who would call ourselves Christ followers. On an intuitive level, we are attracted to such an example. This does not mean the abandonment of conviction nor does it mean the adoption of a terminal fuzzy and false “niceness.” Pope Francis has been perfectly clear about where he stands on a number of controversial issues – the refugee and immigration crises along with global warming come to mind. (As a side note, United Methodist as represented by the action of General Conference – the only body with the ability to speak for the United Methodist Church – have adopted positions closely in line with those articulated by Pope Francis.) There is a prophetic element to his witness that we need to hear and wrestle with; a simplicity of lifestyle that challenges our materialistic excesses.

While we do not agree on all things doctrinal (the doctrine of Papal Infallibility comes readily to mind), we can disagree and pursue the truth in a manner that reflects a truly Christian lifestyle. Methodists have historically called this holiness of heart and life. It has both a personal and social dimension. Here is a larger doctrinal truth all Christians need to claim or reclaim at the core of our believing and behaving. The visit of this holy man is demonstrating for us how we might act with each other and especially with those with whom we might have strong disagreements. We do well to learn from his example because it is a reflection of the gospel.

I ask us, especially the United Methodists of the Central Texas Conference, to lift up Pope Francis in our prayers. I ask us also to pray for our brothers and sisters who are part of the Roman Catholic Church. May we together give a witness of behavior that befits the call and claim of Christ.

New Room Report

For the last two and a half days I have been in Franklin, Tennessee attending the New Room Conference. I was warned not to go. I was told that the New Room Conference was a gathering to plan the schism of the United Methodist Church over the issue of LGBT marriage and ordination. I suppose such rumors came about because the New Room talks about building a new network of Wesleyan Christians.

The notion that this is some schismatic Wesleyan-United Methodist group couldn’t be farther from the truth. There has been no talk about leaving the United Methodist Church from any of the Conference speakers. New Room has used explicit language about a new annual conference. But such talk about a conference is not structural.

The New Room Conference is about a global Wesleyan movement. It is an effort about connecting Wesleyan Christians from all over. In their own words, “it’s a decisively, unapologetically, creatively, Wesleyan gathering.” Yesterday I sat next a retired University President who is (as he put it) “a salvationist,” by which he meant a part of the Salvation Army. We heard a lecture from the Presiding Elder (translate Bishop) of the Wesleyan Church (Jo Anne Lyon). Her moving address connected a Wesleyan understanding of sanctification with ministry among those who have been maimed and mutilated by extremist in Syrian refugee camps. [The official from the Wesleyan Church who introduced her commented that some people work for the “man” but they work for the woman and are proud of it!]

If there is a theme, it is about the recovery of a full Wesleyan understanding of sanctification with a large (very large) dose of movement (work) of the Holy Spirit. These folks are deeply serious about genuine discipleship and deep allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. The focus is worldwide and not just a North American-centric vision.

Dr. Stanley John gave an impassioned address on the rise of immigrant churches in North America and the changing face of American Christianity. [“Stanley John is a member of the Indian diaspora born and raised in Kuwait. He serves as the director of the Alliance Graduate School of Missions and Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies at the Alliance Theological Seminary of Nyack College in Nyack, New York.”] There is a great emphasis on church planting and evangelism that is yoked with sanctification in the best Wesleyan sense. Mike Breen, leader of the 3DM, led a workshop I attended that challenged us to consider how we move beyond mere cultural Christianity. Lisa Yebuah, Pastor of Inviting Ministries at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, NC, and Andrew Forrest, Pastor of Munger Place UMC in Dallas, both gave exciting illuminating talks. Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler, gave an excellent address on the role of class and band meeting (similar to an address he gave to the Council of Bishops in Oklahoma last year). I could go on but hopefully you have received a taste of what for me has been a heartwarming and wonderfully encouraging conference.

The original purpose of an annual conference meeting was to investigate what to teach and how to teach and not about running an institution. This conference (spelled with a small “c”) is focused on the original purpose and not a political gathering. I hope to go to next year’s conference, time permitting.

As I closed this blog, I would be remiss if I did not note the recurrence of prayer for and conversation about the persecution of Christians. Persecution is a present reality in a number of places around the world. We tend to think of the Middle East and ISIS but the struggle is far wider. One report from India was particularly chilling. Amid the reality of persecution there is a wonderful converting ministry which is a work – one of the Holy Spirit offering love in the place of hate. I ask you to join with me in prayer for all those suffering for the faith and for those causing the suffering. May Christ be known! May our discipleship grow in both sanctification (personal and social holiness in heart and life) and grace-filled love for all people!

Christ the Refugee ©

The words are so simple and common. They come at the conclusion of Matthew’s great story of the Savior’s birth. We read the story at Christmas but rarely focus on closing verses and still less preach on them. “When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.’  Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt” (Matthew 2:13-14). Jesus was a political refugee fleeing political persecution.

Today we are confronting a similar refugee crisis streaming out Syria. In May, while in Europe for a Council of Bishops meeting, the European refugee crisis dominated the news. Today we are just beginning to confront the breadth of this horrible crisis and the way it is impacting not just Europe but the wider world. The level of human suffering is massive. The numbers are staggering. The need is enormous.

I have read a variety of articles about who is to blame. Clearly the primary guilt resides with the oppression of the Assad regime and the true evil of ISIS. The casual reader can consume articles about the failure of various European countries and the way they are handling the crisis on their door step. Some articles go wider afield and note the failure of wealthy Arab regimes in the area to help. Some point to the actions of U.S. and Coalition governments in pulling forces out of an unstable country in neighboring Iraq (inadvertently and unintentionally aiding the establishment of ISIS). Still others point to the slow response of the U.N. relief agency.

As a Christian, a Christ follower, I challenge us to avoid getting caught in the blame game. Instead focus on a basic biblical truth. Christ was a refugee from the brutal oppression of Herod. Our Lord and Master can be found among the Syrian refugees. As Christ followers we are to reach out with help in compassion and love. It really is that simple.

One of the truly great worldwide ministries of the United Methodist Church is UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief). There is a detailed separate article on the Central Texas Conference website about the refugee crisis and our response. I urge you to read the full article. It notes in part: “For more than a year, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has been responding to the conflict in the Middle East by assisting refugees and displaced persons in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. Working with local and international partners and via grants totaling nearly $2 million, UMCOR has helped alleviate suffering in the region by providing food, water, clothing, household items and improved places for children to learn and play. UMCOR’s efforts are continuing in this arena, including additional projects expected to be approved during the last quarter of 2015.”

As we reflect on Christ the refugee, I am asking the members and churches of the Central Texas Conference to take two very specific actions. First, please be in committed dedicated prayer for the refugees. Lift them up in worship services at your church. Make prayer for refugees a part of your daily prayer life. Second, I urge you to respond through your local church in tangible financial gifts through the great UMCOR ministry. To support UMCOR’s ongoing efforts in response to this and other disasters as well as its work to reduce disaster risk, I ask that an offering be taken for the International Disaster Response Advance, #982450

Just prior to attending the 2008 Jurisdictional Conference where I was elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church, Jolynn and I went on a spiritual formation retreat through the Pastors Retreat Network. In my directed spiritual reading, I came across a piece of writing by a Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop. My vague memory is that the Metropolitan Bishop was writing in 1880s. I cannot remember his name but the words have stuck with me: “Whenever someone new enters a room, Christ enters the room. And, oh, he [Christ] comes in such disguises.”

Join me in seeing Christ in the refugee. However well disguised, the Lord is present.

 

 

 

Institutional Relationships and Faith Based Health Care

Thursday night (September 10th) I drove home from a very engaging and fruitful Cabinet Retreat. This morning (September 11th) I left early to attend a two day Texas Health Resources (THR) Leadership Conference focusing on the critical theme of “Exploring the Next Frontier in Heath Care Leadership.” For me this is a time of deep learning. It is important to hold together the Church’s historic relationship with healthcare (originally through the Harris Methodist Hospital System and since the merger) through THR. As a part of the recent restructuring, I now serve on the Board of Texas Health Resources by virtue of the office of Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Conference.

It is significant that THR is very serious about being a “faith based” hospital system. Recently Dr. Eric Smith was promoted from Senior Chaplain to Vice-President of Spirituality and Faith Integration (system wide). The “faith” connection matters greatly to THR. System values reflect the deep Methodist roots (on the Harris Fort Worth side) and the Presbyterian roots (on the Dallas Presbyterian side). Like American society as a whole and the church in particular, THR is feeling its way forward in a post-Christendom environment.

At our June meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference perhaps the biggest debate revolved around health insurance for clergy. As I listen and learn at this THR Leadership Retreat, I cannot help but note the reality we are facing society wide. We are in a period of great change! This mirrors my work on the United Methodist Publishing House Board – the publishing industry is undergoing a revolution (think Amazon and self-publishing). Who would have thought just 10 years ago that a person could receive health care at Wal-Mart and CVS! I cannot help but add the obvious: the church is going through similar great disruptive change in our post-Christendom environment. Like all the rest of my colleague bishops and many lay leaders and senior clergy, we are wrestling with just what institutional relationships look like and what they ought to look like.

In our Annual Conference debate, a hidden sub-text is the move to a consumer driven health care system. A crude illustration will hopefully illuminate. When I was a child, whatever the doctor (or nurse) said was (pardon the pun) gospel. Today, it is both expected and demanded that the intelligent and responsible patient (and/or family caretaker) will both question and engage in meaningful dialogue about their healthcare. In a good way the Conference debate illuminated that both clergy and laity must be individually responsible for healthcare. The days of being “taken care of” are over. We must be participants in the health and healing process.

From our Christian (and faith based) system we seek not only to provide an environment that is safe, healing and kind but one that aligns the wider system to achieve high performance for everyone! By its very nature this is an incredibly complex task. While THR is geographically focused (the north Texas area), the drive to full integration of healthcare services (including insurance) is a part of the future both locally and nationally. Three elements will continue to dominate the faith based discussion – 1) access, 2) care, and 3) cost.

Both as Christians and as a larger society, we need to get beyond venting about what we don’t like to figuring out solutions that benefit all. I am impressed by THR’s dedicated work in this direction. Christ’s teaching from Matthew 25 echoes in the background … “in as much as you did it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

Whose Side Are You On?

The daily news of divisions assault us. I have been watching with many of you the nightly news of debate amongst the contenders for the Republican Party’s nomination for president. Are you for Trump or Cruz, Perry or Fiorina, Rubio or Kasich, Carson or Bush, or any of the other (what is it now –17?) candidates. Maybe instead your preference leans into the Democratic Party’s race for the nomination. Do you support Clinton or Sanders, Webb or Chafee? The rhetoric of division and demonization has already scaled the foothills of the absurd.   I cannot help but think of Donald Trump’s trip to Laredo and his claim that he had put his life in danger by going there. (The last time I went there I helped open a new United Methodist Church!)

Before we settle into the holy arrogance of the elite, we must pause and confess the divisions among us. For starters there is the obvious denominational division which is a scandal on the body of Christ. But the issue of whose side are you on strikes closer to home. Nowadays almost everywhere I go in the United Methodist Church there are debates and divisions about whether United Methodist pastors should be able to perform same gender marriages and about ordination of those who are a part of a same gender married couple. Whose side are you on?

Recently as a part of my daily devotional life, I perceived the Lord directing me to read the book of Joshua. I confess that I am more a New Testament guy (through I do regularly read and study both). Trying to be faithful, I have slowly been reading through Joshua and contemplating its lessons.

One day, I went through a series of experiences where the divisions impacted me directly. I watched (but did not take part in) a debate around various Republican candidates. People kept pushing each other to declare whose side they were on. The argument quickly became strident. Later in the day I was directly involved in a painful strife-laced tense argument about how the United Methodist Church should respond to the recent Supreme Court decision declaring marriage a constitutional right. I went to bed that night more than just a little disturbed by the divisions tearing at both our society and church.

The next morning as I went through my devotional time the fifth chapter of Joshua came up for reading in the regular rhythm of my devotions. Joshua 5:13-15 reads:

13 When Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up. He caught sight of a man standing in front of him with his sword drawn. Joshua went up and said to him, “Are you on our side or that of our enemies?”
14 He said, “Neither! I’m the commander of the Lord’s heavenly force. Now I have arrived!” Then Joshua fell flat on his face and worshipped. Joshua said to him, “What is my master saying to his servant?”
15 The commander of the Lord’s heavenly force said to Joshua, “Take your sandals off your feet because the place where you are standing is holy.” So Joshua did this.

I heard the Lord speaking to me and us as a people of faith. It is well past time in our debates and divisions that we embrace a godly humility. We do not have God on our side. Humbly we pray that we might faithfully align ourselves with the only one who can rightly be called Lord and Master.

This does not mean we should not have opinions, preferences and convictions. We can and should. It does not mean we should not debate issues, even passionately stating the case as best we understand it. Again, we can and should.

It does mean that we should sit lightly. However sure we are that we are right, the last word belongs to Lord God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However convinced we are that our “side” is the Lord’s side, only the Lord Jesus Christ alone can truly make such a claim.

The Lord stands in our midst and speaks again to our challenge of whose side you are on. The answer is once again clear. “Neither! I’m the commander of the Lord’s heavenly force. Now I have arrived!” (Joshua 5:14a). We too, like Joshua, need to fall on our faces in worship asking only, “What is my master saying to his servant?” (Joshua 5:14b).

The Crucial Role of Music in Faith Development

I have just returned from a month off for Renewal Leave. During that time period, I have been working on a possible book focusing on the need of the United Methodist Church to reintegrate the core essence of orthodoxy theology. I also spent some time being Grandpa! Simon Michael Gabrielse-Lowry was born to our son and daughter-in-law on July 16th. The highlight of my summer was holding Simon (love that middle name – Michael!).

During my Renewal Leave and the three weeks preceding it (2 weeks of vacation and about a week in separate chunks for the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops and the meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board), I have not be writing my regular blog – The Focused Center. I have from time to time posted a guest blog. With this writing I am picking back up the joy and challenge of writing my regular blog. I try to publish a blog on Tuesdays and Fridays.

While on leave, Jolynn and I have worshipped in a variety of places and settings. We’ve worshipped at United Methodist Churches and churches of other denominations. We’ve shared in praise and prayer at churches large and small, rural, urban, and suburban. We heard some excellent preaching, and we’ve experienced some preaching that left much to be desired.

In our worship adventures I have been repeatedly impressed by the way much of our theology comes from the music. (Unfortunately, almost tragically, the theology of at least 1/2 the sermons we heard were mush.) Often it was the music that spiritually fed us the most. I was most impressed by how much of what we heard and sang was a mixture of old and new. Many are familiar with “Amazing Grace (My Chains Fell Off).” How many of you have heard a mixture of “I Need Thee Every Hour” with a contemporary praise theme? Check out Matt Maher’s “Lord, I Need You.

The list could go on but my point is made.

There is something happening in healthier, robust, faithful and fruitful churches about the way they are recovering and reclaiming deep faithfulness through a mixture of old and new music. We know the phrase, “music soothes the savage beast.” This much is true. But music does much more. It is a crucial vehicle of witness and praise. Our music is often our theological anchor.

Recently in our weekly time together my spiritual guide reminded me of how important our music is. He related visiting with an old friend who lives in another state. His friend was returning to the faith and the church after a long sojourn. His friend asked for advice on finding a church. My guide advised his friend to look first and foremost for a place with great music that was anchored in the Trinitarian faith.

Shortly before that conversation, I had been reading a biography of the great Church of India bishop Lesslie Newbigin, Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life by Geoffrey Wainwright. This saint of the 20th century and theological titan often sang a hymn as a part of his devotions.

The hat trick took place for me reading a blog by Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary. Dr. Tennent wrote: “Those of us in the Wesleyan stream … have been nurtured and nourished for centuries on theologically rich hymnody. The reason is because when the “chips were down” it has been our hymns which have saved us. Even when the church became lured into exchanging the gospel for the latest cultural mess of pottage, our hymns managed to keep us on track. The rich theological depth of our hymns helped us to re-remember the gospel and become better hearers of the Scriptures (Timothy Tennent, “ A Word to Worship Song Writers: Take Up Thy Pen and Write,” March 8, 2015.

This summer I encountered once again the great truth that music plays a crucial role in faith development. I have more favorite hymns and treasured contemporary music than I can fairly report on. I carry in my pocket words from a chorus I learned at Taize.

“In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice!
Look to God, do not be afraid,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.”

The words of “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” – whether sung in the original 1757 version or presented by Chris Rice in a 2007 version (“Peace Like a River: The Hymns Project”) – never fail to move me. As they impact on the soul of my being, I am learning again about great theological doctrines of sin, salvation, and sanctification. I am embraced by a high Christology and blessed by a love that will not let me go and demands an active repentance.

“3. Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed His precious blood; How His kindness yet pursues me Mortal tongue can never tell, Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me I cannot proclaim it well.

4. O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.”
-Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Richard Robinson, 1757

Music plays a crucial role in faith development. Theology unfolds in the embrace of great music both contemporary and traditional.   It is good to be back.