Archive - March, 2016

More than a Metaphorical Aside: The Good News We Dare Proclaim! ©

“They went to the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).

tombHow simply the Easter story opens in Matthew’s gospel.  A tomb-ward journey is one we have all taken all too often.  I can remember full well such a journey in my life as a pastor in Austin, Texas.

He was young; in his thirties, with a lovely wife and two fine boys. He was athletic.  Before moving to Austin they had lived in northern California where he had regularly hiked and fished in the mountain streams. When I first met him, they came to my office in a state of shock.  Feeling poorly the last few weeks, he had been to the doctor.  Routine tests had turned into a more careful examination and then the awful hammer-like blow of the diagnosis.  He had inoperable, terminal cancer and they gave him mere months to live.

I can remember so clearly our extensive time together as this vibrant vigorous man wasted away. Finally the day came and we stood, eyes rimmed with tears, around the grave in the Liberty Hill Cemetery.

As we move through the cross of Good Friday to the tomb of Easter morning, I have no doubt that most, if not all of us, can share some similar story which has touched our life. It may not be a physical loss but instead the death of a relationship.  Perhaps it has been the yawning chasm of personal defeat in moral failure, the loss of a job, or struggle with a loved one.  Maybe it has been the intrusion of evil on either a personal or global level.  Whatever our own experience, Easter begins here.  In almost stark words, the Gospel of Matthew reports of the women, they “went to see the tomb.”

A colleague of mine has pointedly written: “If Christianity has no response to the suffering of the world, it isn’t relevant.  Or, as Monika Hellwig has said, if it doesn’t play in a cancer ward or a shoddy nursing home for the elderly, whatever it is, it isn’t good news” (William Willimon, Sighing for Eden, p. 159).

There is more to this story than simply a metaphorical tale. There is more to be said than just spring as sprung, or the trivial “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” or just some nonsense about how “it will get better.”  The Easter journey first jolts to a stop at the cross.  Death is real.  Tragedies happen.  Evil stalks the earth.  The cross brings us to the tomb.

We are comfortable, oh so comfortable, with this story of the resurrection. And yet, to absorb its impact is to understand that here the earth and sky change places.  In the simplest terms, the mightiest enemy we know, death, is defeated; not only for one person but for all; not just long ago in a distance land but in all times and for all lands.  Dead bodies don’t usually rise, but this one did!  The rule and reign of the risen Savior starts at the tomb of Easter morning!  The earth shook because victory had been achieved over the hostile powers of sin and death.  The cross of suffering has been transformed into a cross of hope.  This good news of a Savior’s rising is flung into the world’s harsh rage and the paralyzing fear induced by today’s headlines.

Come to the triumphant truth of this day. Here is the good news of which we speak so glibly.  It’s more than simply a metaphorical aside.  It is a defiant triumphant statement about life’s final destiny.  It is our ultimate answer to this worlds tragedies (whether it is a terrorist act or shattering illness).  Sin and death, defeat and destruction are conquered by the risen Christ.  Oh, to be sure, they may still happen, but their word is not the final word.  It is not the lasting mark of the pitiless dark.  The dawn breaks on His rising.

The angelic promise encounters the divine answer in the person of Jesus. “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him” (Matthew 28:9).  He is with us in triumphant glory.  In our graveyards, along the paths of life strewn with rubble and marked with struggle.  He meets us and is with us!

Here is the good news which we dare proclaim. Christ is risen indeed!

A WITNESS IN HONOR OF ST. PATRICK ©

“I rise today in power’s strength, invoking the Trinity,
believing in threeness,
confessing the oneness,
of creation’s Creator.”

Thus opens the full text of the famous Celtic prayer St. Patrick’s Breastplate. There is more, much more, to the prayer but the opening lines anchor Patrick not in mythology but far more importantly in Christian theology.  St. Patrick’s Day is more than a day to celebrate all things green.  We do well to honor St. Patrick as a giant of a Christian leader, missionary, evangelist and bishop.  Even more, in celebration of the life and ministry of St. Patrick, we remember in order that we might learn and recommit ourselves to this same great mission in the name of Christ.

His story is a compelling witness to the Christ as Lord of his life and to his love in Christ through the Holy Spirit even for those who mistreated and harmed him.

Captured as a young boy and taken to Ireland as a slave, Patrick lived there for 6 years before miraculously escaping and returning to his native Briton. At age 48 – well past life expectancy in the 5th century – Patrick received a vision from God to return to the land of his imprisonment to share the gospel.  Ordained as a bishop and appointed to Ireland as history’s first missionary bishop, he arrived back in this wild and barbaric land with his assistants in 432 A. D.

For 28 years until his death in 460 A. D. he poured his life out leading others to Christ. He and his company baptized thousands, planted about 700 churches, and he ordained perhaps 1,000 priests.  “Within his lifetime, 30 to 40 (or more) of Ireland’s 150 tribes became substantially Christian. …Patrick’s achievements included social dimensions.  He was the first public man to speak and crusade against slavery.  Within his lifetime, or soon after, ‘the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare decreased,’ and his communities modeled the Christian way of faithfulness, generosity, and peace to all the Irish” (George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 23).

I invite the reader to pause with me and deeply consider Patrick’s witness. In doing so I am reminded that he sought to honor and serve Christ in all he did, with the fullness of his very life!  Patrick’s return to Ireland was courageous.  His witness to Christ was electric.  His sharing of the Christ’s saving grace was bracing.  He offered a new possibility, a new way of living in and through Christ that converted a land.

George Hunter’s brilliant book The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again closes with the profound insight learned from St. Patrick.  “The supreme key to reach the West again is the key that Patrick discovered – involuntarily but providentially.  The gulf between church people and unchurched people is vast, but if we pay the price to understand them, we will usually know what to say and what to do; if they know and feel we understand them, by the tens of millions they will risk opening their heat to the God who understands them”  (George Hunter, The Cesaint_patrickltic Way of Evangelism, p. 121).

We who live in a land more pagan than Christian need to learn again from this great man. We are called like he was to share a witness of Christ for a people spiritually starving, living in a druidic darkness of fear, bombarded by religious quackery, and overdosing on confectionary falsehood.  We need to offer God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  The claim laid upon Patrick is laid upon us by the Lord.

A brilliant teacher and communicator of the gospel, Patrick used the ever-present native plant, the shamrock, as a symbol of the holy Trinity. Each leaf witnessed to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is a prayer which comes, legend has it, from the breastplate of St. Patrick.  I read it first in the old Book of Worship for the United Methodist Church.  I use prayer regularly, and I invite the reader to pray the prayer as well:

“Christ be with me, Christ within 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 the mouth of friend and stranger” (Taken from The Book of Worship of the United Methodist Church, 1964 edition, p. 244).

Trust the Tradition ©

Last Tuesday I took an unusual trip. In one sense, it was a journey that had been decades in the making.  In another sense I had the appointment on my calendar for about three months and my drive to Oklahoma City took about four hours.

Tuesday, March 8th, I drove to Oklahoma City to spend the afternoon with the eminent retired theology professor (Emeritus) from Drew Divinity School Dr. Thomas Oden.  Tom Oden was the Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University in New Jersey from 1980 until his retirement in 2004. After retiring he continued to teach and write at Drew in the status as Professor Emeritus. My first introduction to Dr. Oden came in seminary classes at Perkins School of Theology, SMU in 1973. I still have Dr. Oden’s book The Intensive Small Group Experience which Professor Dick Murray (a revered Professor of Christian Education) assigned as a required reading for class. Later that year, I read Dr. Oden’s Kerygma and Counseling; Toward a covenant ontology for secular psychotherapy. But for me, his watershed work was book entitled Agenda for Theology which was later edited and updated and reissued as After Modernity…What?. In an ecumenical clergy lunch study group in Harlingen, Texas, I encountered my own path for learning and understanding the Christian faith over the coming decades.

While not the same, my theological journey parallels Dr. Oden’s. He has been a mentor along the way.  For me the trial has led from the sweeping theological fads of the late 20th century (Bultman, Tillich, process theology, etc.) into the great consensual tradition of historic Christian Orthodoxy.  I am currently reading Dr. Oden’s latest book The Rebirth of African Orthodoxy: Return to Foundation. Published by Abingdon Press in preparation for General Conference, it can be purchased through Cokesbury beginning in April. I recommend it highly.  It challenges so much of the casual misguided theological assumptions of our time.

As I have stated often in sermons and speeches, the theology we have been largely pursuing for the past half century or more is largely bankrupt. Our hyper reaction against evangelical fundamentalism (a mistake of the first order – evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not the same!) and uncritical embrace of enlightenment intellectual biases has led us into the cul-de-sac of a vague therapeutic moral deism (to use the term popularized by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary).  We need to think and pray our way beyond where we are now and back to a theology that is genuinely orthodox, healthily open (that is to say both orthodox and non-rigid) and truly Wesleyan.  For me, Tom Oden has been such a guide in his rediscovery of orthodoxy and African Christianity.

As we neared the end of our time visiting together in his study, I asked him what message he most wanted to impart to me. He reply, almost softly, thoughtfully, “trust the Tradition.”  And then he went on, “The one thing I have learned is to trust the Tradition.  To trust the consensus of the ancient Christian writes as guided by the Holy Spirit.”

I found myself deeply moved as he spoke. “Trust the Tradition.”  The great theological concept of Tradition is one of the four pillars of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (along with Scripture, Reason, and Experience).  Unfortunately we often reduce the term to tradition(s) – lower case and with an “s” added.  Such a stunted understanding of a great theological concept imperials our full understanding of our faith and doctrine (which drives the practice of faith, orthopraxy = right action) leaving us spiritually and theologically warped and diminished.

Tradition, as properly understood as a theological concept and a pillar of the quadrilateral, is not a small “t” but a capital “T” existing alongside a capital “T” for Truth. Tradition is not mere history.  It is the great consensual reflection of the Christian faith that has been handed down from the earliest Christian writing (including but not limited to Scripture) and great Ecumenical Councils (think of the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed found in our hymnal).  Significantly, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012 holds just such a high view of Tradition.  Listen for the witness of the Church.  “The story of the church reflects the most basic sense of tradition, the continuing activity of God’s Spirit transforming human life.  Tradition is the history of that continuing environment of grace in and by which all Christian live, God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ.  As such, tradition transcends the story of particular traditions.” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, p. 83)

In our conversation and in my reading, I was being invited to “recapture the resonance of a consensual orthodoxy, the harmony of voices celebrating the apostolic testimony to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, witnessed to in scripture and understood best by African interpreters of the faith.” As I listened I could not help but think of the old true quote, “He [or she] who marries the present age will be a widow in the next.” (Note: I think the quote comes from C. S. Lewis but am not sure.)

Dr. Oden went on, “… Listen carefully to the voice of conscience. Conscience is a gift of the Spirit.”  He paused and then carefully explained in answer to my probing that conscience and Scripture go together.  “Conscience is not a feeling.  It is moral judgment.” He said.

We drew our time to a close with him urging a regular discipline of prayer and devotion. Appropriately we closed in prayer.  As I headed to the car his words echoed through rugged trail of my thoughts.  “Trust the Tradition.”  I heard the Holy Spirit communicating to me through a person of faith.

Our Gnawing Hunger and the Class Meeting ©

I readily confess that this blog is only half formed and invite the perceptive reader to engage in wrestling the intersection of our gnawing hunger and the call to spiritually walk with Christ. Allow me the space and grace to interconnect some of my thinking and mediation.

As I watch the craziness that is the current American race for presidential nominations in both parties, I cannot help but think that they reflect a deep anxiousness and gnawing spiritual hunger that has infected us as a civil populace. As the waning value system of an old (and previously) entrenched church culture passes from the scene, the vacuum left eats at our souls as both a church and a nation.  We know that the current level of political discourse and national dialog (or true lack thereof) is toxic and yet are unable to extricate ourselves from it.  (As a sidebar, this meets the definition of original sin for all – all means all! – concerned.)

And yet our better natures cry for something more. The Lord calls us repeatedly to live in love and charity with all in need.  The unmitigated teaching of Jesus challenges us to trust the Lord.  “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. . . . Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith!  Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well’” (Luke 12, 22, 27-31).

Add to this teaching the Apostle Paul’s admonition in the closing part of Philippians. “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks” (Philippians 4:6).  Stir with the faithful need to pray and trust.  The outcome I submit is what we long for – a sense of peace amid the storms of change that swirl around us.

We instinctively know that we cannot get there on our own. Solitary spirituality can only take us so far.  The biblical admonitions to be together the body of Christ speak deep in the thunder of our times.  It is here I suspect that the Wesleyan Way of life following Christ has something to offer.

In my ongoing reading of Kevin Watson’s marvelous book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, I think God is guiding me and our larger church but to its essential structure. Dr. Watson quotes Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, 1798, Doctrines and Discipline:

“We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages. But the most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart … Through the grace of God our classes form the pillars of our work, and, as we have before observed, are in a considerable degree our universities for the ministry.”

Then he adds, “A common method (joining every Methodist to a class meeting) and a common message (the necessity of repentance, faith, and holiness) were at the center of Methodism during its periods of most explosive growth” (The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience by Kevin M. Watson, pg. 53).

There is much here to wrestle with and piece together. More later…