Archive - October, 2015

Patience for a Patient ©

Tuesday morning at about 9:15 a.m.  I walked in the doors of Texas Health Resources Harris Hospital Southwest.  As I walked up to the information desk where I was to report in for my knee replacement surgery, an elderly woman using a cane and wearing a back brace was in front of me.  About the same time I arrived to begin the line a younger man (40ish) approached from the side. We stood there as she fumbled in her purse and pulled out a phone.  She asked for the room-number of a patient and after some careful search on the computer, the desk volunteer graciously notified her that there was no one registered at Harris SW Hospital under that name.  Graciously the volunteer offered to help expand the search.  As we waited, the lady proceeded to call a family member to see if she had the right hospital. 

I don’t know how you as a reader would handle a situation like this.  I must confess that it is difficult for me not to demonstrate a lack of patience when someone stands in line and deals with a phone call all the while obviously holding up the line.  For that matter, even in the best of circumstances, patience is not one of my spiritual attributes.  Unfortunately or rather very fortunately, I knew the desk volunteer.  Bob Sherman, the volunteer on the information desk, is a member at Arborlawn United Methodist Church.  If Bob was exhibiting a grace filled example of patience to one of the elder saints of the Lord, the least I could do was keep my mouth shut.

By the grace of God and the witness of a good Methodist layman, I did just that.  I kept my mouth shut.  The story doesn’t quite end there. 

A little while later changed into a hospital gown and waiting in the pre-op room, Bob slipped in and asked if he could phone church so that folks on the Arborlawn prayer team could be lifting me up in prayer for a successful knee replacement surgery. I shared my appreciation with Bob a little while later but those brief interactions have lingered in my mind.  The Apostle Paul’s listing of the fruits of the Spirit linger in my mind.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires. If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit” (Galatians 522-25).

Just four days earlier, we had returned from a spiritual pilgrimage following much of the Apostle Paul’s third missionary journey.  The theologian in me cannot help but notice the connection between the witness of those earliest persecuted Christians and a simple act of kindness and care shown at a volunteer’s desk.  In recent blogs I have highlighted how the earliest Christians could live with grace, joy and love in horrific conditions. 

The earliest Christians did not begin by joining a political party.  They didn’t clamor for their rights.  Their witness to the risen Savior sprung out the way they lived towards others.  They took the admonitions of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount; the teaching from his parables; and the way he interacted with all people – even lepers, as an example of how they were to live in relationships with others … event their enemies.  They were literally grace-filled.  They lived by the Spirit and walked by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25).  This way of living differently so marked out earliest Christians that people would wonder if they weren’t some kind a new species or race.

Perhaps you can recall an old admonition I learned in Sunday School.  It goes something like this.  “If you were arrested as a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

I am not a good patient and I am not someone who exhibits patience as a part of my daily walk with Christ.  What I am is a sinner saved by God’s grace.  It is in this relationship that I am lifted up to “be more than I can be.”  Thanks, Bob, for helping me live the faith that is so life giving.  In the background noise of our age and time, I need to remember the words of the Savior and Master – “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them” (Matthew 18:22).

The First Order Concern ©

Thursday evening October 22nd we returned home from our pilgrimage following the Apostle Paul’s 3rd and 4th missionary journeys.  We managed to include a stop at the island of Patmos where John wrote Revelation.  I have had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land and a part of Paul’s missionary/church planting stops before, and I am conscious from other visits that it takes a good while (months and even years) to fully unpack insights from such explorations.  Yet I feel compelled to comment on one of the foundational insights I received.

In truth, that insight is not new at all. It is rather a radical re-emphasis (an exclamation point if you will) of a truth we know full well.  “Jesus is Lord.”  This seminal, creedal affirmation clung to with passionate intensity by the earliest Christians (check out Philippians 2:1-11) hit me once again with tidal wave intensity as we stood by the jail where Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi  – a small dark depressing hovel.  (And yet Paul and Silas offered praise and prayer; check out Acts 16:23-25.)

This truth was hammered home in the hill-top kingdom of Pergamum. Standing at the place “where Satan’s throne is” (Revelation 2:13) with Trajan’s great temple of emperor worship looming above them and the altar of Zeus spread out below them (scholars argue which is “Satan’s Throne”), they didn’t talk about the church or justice or missions.  Their first order of concern was to lift up Christ.  “You are holding on to my name and you didn’t break faith with me [i.e. Christ Jesus]” (Revelation 2:13).

The witness of Christianity’s core creedal affirmation embraced my soul again standing on Mars Hill in Athens. Soaring majestically above and to the right was the Parthenon.  This great citadel of Athena and ancient Greek deities (plus a set aside temple for Caesar Augustus, also considered a god) is still awe inspiring 2,000 years later.  Gazing out from Mars Hill when I looked down, I saw the agora, the market place where Socrates taught and Plato argued.  The sheer courage and incredible depth of commitment exhibited by Paul humbles the most self-righteously ardent among us.  You can read about it yourself in Acts 17.  Incredibly, Paul didn’t argue about the importance of the church or the need to serve others.  He didn’t trumpet the conviviality of Christian fellowship or argue for good moral teaching.  He offered the good news of a once unknown god now known in the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.  He shared a divine embrace from the risen Christ for all people – “God isn’t far away from any of us” (Acts 17:27; read the entire story in Acts 17:16-34).

In every case the foundational offering is Christ. He is not one concern among many.  He isn’t a “first order concerned” offered alongside other important concerns.  Jesus Christ is the first order concern.  The church, justice, fellowship, mission, service, etc. are all important, but there are second order concerns.  They are built on the solid rock of Christ.  Christ and Christ alone is the one who speaks of freedom for the imprisoned, holiness when battered by the presence of Satan’s throne, and truth to an intellectually starving culture.  Great hymns of faith come too – “The Church’s One Foundation” and “In Christ Alone.”

In our present day church and modern witness of Christianity, we are so tempted to begin with second order concerns. I recall with embarrassment a conversation a few years ago with a non-believing cousin and her spouse which focused on the church, its faults and failures, but never really offered Christ.  They were interested church drop-outs.  They knew much about the church and missions and justice, etc. They didn’t know Christ.  I answered their questions and sought to both defend the church and confess her faults and failures.  I shared the institution at its best.  Tragically, I failed to offer Christ.

I have discovered a similar witness all across the Conference I serve and indeed spread far and wide across the shrinking ruins of American Christendom. Culturally we have lived with an assumption that people know Christ or at least know about Christ.  Today many do not even know about Christ, let alone know Christ.  I believe God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is calling us back to our first order witness.  We need more than just information about Christ.  We need to offer the person of Christ … a vibrant living life changing relationship of love and grace divine.  Jesus is Lord indeed!

 

The Coming Victory

Tonight, October 17th, I was sitting in the Cabaret Lounge of the Azamara Journey cruise ship listening to the White’s Chapel UMC Choir (supplemented by a scattering of other choir members from across the Central Texas Conference) singing “Soon and Very Soon We are Going to See the King.” Christians offered Christ as the real King in the face of Rome’s Imperial persecution.  Earlier in the day we had visited the cave on the Island of Patmos where John had received the divine revelation of the King’s (Christ – the Lord Jesus’s) triumph in the book of Revelation.  As I listened, I found myself deeply drawn to this incredible vision of Christ’s liberating victory.

The juxtaposition between visiting the cave where John wrote down the vision of triumph and the nightly news received via TV on returning to the ship is staggering.  Listening to the news in our cabin while we got ready for dinner and the choir concert, we heard of the terrible ongoing conflict in Syria.  Tension between Turkey and Russia over the shooting down of a drone clutched at our hearts (especially given the potential involvement of elements of the U. S. Airforce).  ISIS terror and the continual mind-numbing Arab-Israel conflict clutched at consciousness with our attention made much more immediate by our physical closeness to the center of fight.  The bad news did not limit itself to the middle-east.  It wound around the globe to include virtually all nations and ended with pictures of mud-slides in California.

The news we received was not far from the reality John wrote about in Revelation.  It was into a world of deep conflict that John shared his all-consuming vision of Christ as Lord and Savior.  During the reign of a power of a mad Roman ruler named Domitian who believed he was a god, John offered a dramatically different competing vision of reality.  He offered Christ.

Cruelty shaped the society within which John lived.  Death was a common occurrence.  Violence was an everyday reality.   The barbarism of the arena where Christians and others were routinely put to death for entertainment competed with a society morally corrupt at its core for attention.  While near the top of the hated list, Christians were far from the only ones who felt Domitian’s oppression.

In times like those in which John lived, in times like ours (!), despair is a rational, even sensible response.  It is not, however, the godly response called for by followers of Christ.  Ours is a different witness.  At the concert as I listened, Bruce sang Chris Rice’s moving witness entitled simply “Untitled Hymn.”

“Weak and wounded sinner, lost and left to die;
O raise your head, ‘cause love is passing by.
Come to Jesus, Come to Jesus.  Come to Jesus and live.”

Such is the witness of John in Revelation.  Exiled and left in a cave to die on a desolate rocky outcropping of an island, John writes for us just as in did for those in the age of Domitian’s terror.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’  Then the one seated on the throne said, ‘Look! I’m making all things new.’ He also said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true’” (Revelation 20:1-5, CEB).

“The one who bears witness to these things says, ‘Yes, I’m coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” (Revelation 22:20-21, CEB).

 

Musing on Run ©

I returned a week ago from a tremendous learning and sharing ministry in the Philippines. Together with Bishops John Schol, Rudy Juan, Ciriaco Franscisco, and Peter Torio, I was privileged to share in the COB Bright Spots Project on building vital congregations. Such travels remind me of how tempting it is to view our ministry in parochial terms. It is easy to boil the Christian faith and its witness down to our particular church, city, state, or nation. When we pause to think and pray, we are all reminded that the opposite is true. Mr. Wesley had it exactly right when he said, “the world is my parish!”

By way of example, a recent story crossed my desk about the tremendous ministry we participate in through Africa University. Bishop Marcus Matthews (Resident Bishop of the Baltimore Washington Episcopal Area and Vice-Chair of the African University Board of Directors) writes:

“United Methodist-related Africa University plays a critical role in the lives of people like Claudine Migisha Muhoza of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When rebel armies violently tore through her village, killing her parents and leaving her and her five siblings to fend for themselves, she was six-years-old. She suddenly found herself forced into the role of caregiver to her younger brothers and sisters.

Congolese by nationality, 22-year-old Muhoza was born in Goma, DRC. Despite her horrendous ordeal of losing her parents, she and her siblings rallied. She continued with her schooling, which ultimately led her to Africa University where she is currently studying psychology. 

With more than 6,200 graduates and offering degrees in six faculties of learning, plus programs in peace, leadership and governance, Africa University is making – and will continue to make – a difference through committed, conscientious and caring students.

In 2014, your support of the Africa University Fund (AUF) helped increased giving by more than two percent! That is something to celebrate! Your annual conference played an important role in this accomplishment because it invested 100 percent in its Africa University apportionment in 2014. We continue to celebrate your hard work to accomplish this!

Your annual conference’s ongoing support is essential to future leaders across the continent of Africa. Thank you! I encourage you to keep up the excellent work.

Please share Muhoza’s story, along with the Africa University Fund video, when you invite congregations to give their Africa University Fund apportionment in full. If you need additional resources and information, please encourage them to download resources from the AUF pastor and leader kit or visit Africa University Development website. We want to help YOU help our African sisters and brothers. Thank you!”

Tomorrow I leave for the second part of my renewal leave on a two week trip through Educational Opportunities following parts of the Apostle Paul’s 3 and 4th missionary journeys. Our first stop will be in Istanbul (the ancient city of Constantinople). The Nicene Creed, which we routinely (and rightly!) recite in our worship services, was written in what was essentially a suburb of Constantinople. Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom,” in honor of the second person of the holy trinity, the word made flesh, the wisdom from God – Jesus Christ) was once, for almost 1,000 years, the greatest church of Christianity. For her pulpit some to the great early leaders of the Christian faith preached the gospel (notably St. John Chrysostom). Today after a time used as a Mosque, it is now a museum.

It is a lifelong dream of mine to see this sacred site. As I prepare to leave, I am reminded of a different quote from a different person and time period. “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’ [Ephesians 4:14], seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s ego and desires.

“We however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature, adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI)

As we set sail on the “Adventures of Paul” I hope to report and being reminded again of how wide – literally world-spanning – the Christian faith is. I pray that once again, each and every day, I/we might be yoked with Christ, rooted in a deep friendship with our Lord.