Archive - January, 2017

Alternative Facts? (c)

On returning home from Kenya, I read in my local paper the next morning about a dispute between officials in the Trump Administration and those who officially report on the size of the crowd at Presidential inaugurations. Personally, being out of the country when the inauguration took place I really don’t have an opinion as to whether the crowd was bigger or small than that at President Obama’s inauguration. Even more personally, I don’t care.

What caught my attention was a response by officials of the Trump Administration claiming that they had “alternative facts.” It is here that I choke. Furthermore it is here that Christians of all political persuasions ought to pause and offer a coughing gulp. [At this point I ask the reader to stay with me. This is not a blog about the Trump Administration – pro or con. I write instead to raise the larger issue of how we perceive “truth.” Make no mistake, the Christian faith is based on a reveal truth claim that Jesus is Lord. Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6] But then, once again I am ahead of myself.

Two further incidents intersect this fracture point in reality. First, a number of years ago I was visiting with a young woman who was not Christian. I made a basic assertion about the existence of God. She responded that it was okay if I believe God existed but she didn’t. She went on to comment, “That’s you truth but it is not my truth. My truth is that there is no God.”

Hit the brakes here and think for a minute. We (she and I) made mutually exclusive truth claims. If one is right, the other is wrong. It logically can be no other way. And yet, she saw truth (and concomitantly “facts”) as so malleable that they virtually lost any meaning. At that point logic itself breaks down and we are left with mere opinion. The very fabric of speech descends into mumbled incoherent assertions.

The second story deals with a disagreement that took place about a year ago in the Bishop’s Conference room next to my office. I participated in an exchange of views with two other individuals who were disputing the importance of a proposed Conference apportionment. With some heat, one of the individuals retorted to the other, “you’re entitled to your own preference but you’re not entitled to your own facts!” This is the truth! We are not entitled to our own facts, alternative or otherwise. Facts belong to common shared reality and relate to truth claims on a direct basis. (Ironically, later it turned out that the maker of the statement was proven wrong about their assertion as to the facts of the situation.)

Track the truth of this second story/assertion. We may well dispute with each other about precisely what are the relevant facts. We may disagree about how the truth is to be understood or applied. Because of context and culture, we may even have radically different perceptions of the truth mutually before us. There is even such a thing as paradox (thought a paradox is quite different from mutually exclusive truth claims… but again I digress). But, philosophically and biblically the Christian faith has always asserted that Truth (with a capital T) stands independent of our preferences, commitments and ardent convictions. Technically speaking, there is no such thing as two truths that contradict each other or differing facts. (Again, we might argue about precisely what the facts are! But, the facts are the facts for all parties involved whether I like it or not!) A claim of alternate facts is linguistically nonsense. There is no such thing as alternate facts. Someone may claim that the other party has the facts wrong. But the facts are the facts for all involved. Put concretely, gravity holds on planet earth whether I like it or not. Those are the facts.

The reason this matters is far greater than a dispute over who is right about the size of the inauguration crowd. It gets to the heart of the very gospel itself and truth of Christ. As C. S. Lewis famously put it: When Jesus make the claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) He (Jesus) is either a liar or a lunatic or speaking the truth.

A variety of theological scholars across the spectrum (including non-Christian scholars) have noted and disputed the current false notion that Truth is “fungible” and related to my personal preferences. Many have noted before me that we live in a “post-truth” world where subjective desire and preferences seem (appear) to trump (pun intended) objective facts and Truth (with a capital T).

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we assert that everything is not subjective. There is a reality that stands over against and above our preferences. In major part this is what is foundationally at stake in our confession of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A recent blog by Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary, states this truth exceptionally well. I share his closing for our edification:

“As the western world slips with ever increasing rapidity into a post-Christian cultural milieu, I am afraid that we will need to be ever mindful that, we are in a post-truth cultural context, which stands in stark contrast to a Christian world-view which affirms truth claims rooted in God’s self-disclosure. Because God is the creator of the universe, the whole of creation is founded on the bedrock of truth. Therefore, we must become the new vanguard of cultural truth-tellers who adamantly resist all forms of demagoguery which shroud truth for any desired outcome, even if it is a so-called “Christian end.” It would be easy if our struggle were simply over who sits on the Supreme Court, without a deeper regard for a broader discourse about the nature of truth itself.

Lesslie Newbigin was prophetic when he alerted us to the sign of the post-Christian malaise when “public facts” are trounced by personal preferences. We are then lost in a sea of ever divisive assertions of preferences—or projected fake news—rather than a serious encounter with public facts. In post-modernity, the pluralization of ideologies grows exponentially, creating a society hopelessly divided by seemingly endless personal preferences which are increasingly difficult to accommodate, but coupled by an ever increasing demand that we do so. It is naïve to think that now that the election is over, things will “return to normal.” On the contrary, it appears we are in a new norm—a post-truth generation. It is not merely a new word, it is an emerging cultural reality which cuts across every sector of society and all our institutions.

The church must find our rightful voice which rises above the din of partisan politics, post-truth discourse and fake news. We are those who are rooted and grounded in not only the truth of God’s revelation, but also we are those who still embrace the very notion of truth itself. That, in the end, may be our most valuable contribution to an ever fragmenting culture. This is also why we could very well be entering a very hopeful phase of Christian witness as we proclaim the gospel through word and deed. Post-truth may be the newest hot word in the English language, but truth will never lose its currency. We may be descending into a world of fake news, but there is plenty of cultural space to share the true news of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.”  (Tennent, http://timothytennent.com/2016/12/12/fake-news-in-a-post-truth-world/)

Return and Reflections ©

Someone once said that life is what happens to you on the way to something else.  There is an element of honesty in such a reflection, which I discovered while in Kenya to my regret.

On Wednesday, January 18th, I stepped into a good sized meeting room from the second day of a two-day seminar on preaching and theology.  Rev. Jim Monroe from the Oregon-Idaho Conference was my co-presenter.  We had shared the material the week before at KeMU (Kenya Methodist University) in Meru located in the north central part of Kenya.  Now we were making a similar set of presentations in Nairobi (the capital of Kenya and its major city).  In attendance were clergy from approximately 5 synods (their term for what we would call a District), plus the Synod Bishops (our equivalent to District Superintendents) and the Presiding Bishop (which is the person who has oversight over the whole Church; the equivalent of our bishops).  Meanwhile the rest of the combined Oregon-Idaho/Central Texas Mission Team were at a Methodist elementary school and church in one of the most impoverished areas of Nairobi.

On arrival in the room, I was not feeling well.  Nonetheless, with people having sacrificed to be present for a period of mutual sharing and learning, I was determined to see it through.  At the request of the presiding Bishop, Joseph Ntombura, I offered the morning devotional on Colossians 1:15-20 about Christ being the head of the church.  Afterwards we stood together for a lengthy time of prayer led by one of the Kenyan Synod Bishops.  Partway through the prayer I felt myself losing it. I leaned over and whispered to Jim Monroe, “I’ve got to sit.  I might faint.”  He helped me to my chair and then got some juice for me to drink.  Bishop NTombura called for a “tea” break (which was actually next on the agenda anyhow) and I was led into another room.  The nurse was called and after her examination I was headed for a local clinic.

Diagnosed with a serious infection, I was given the first of three antibiotic infusions. Dr. Randy Wild on the first day and Rev. Dawne Phillips (our CTC team leader) on the days following accompanied me to the clinic for treatment under the watchful tutelage of a marvelous nurse named Ruth, who worked for the MCK (Methodist Church of Kenya).  Loaded with antibiotics and other pills to take, Saturday I was freed to board the plane for the long flights back to the US. (5 ½ hours from Nairobi to Dubai and 16 hours – with a three hour layover – from Dubai to DFW.)  It is wonderful to be home!  To embrace Jolynn after emerging from Customs was both a joy and relief far greater than Christmas morning! On firm instructions from the doctor in Kenya to see my family physician immediately upon return, I spent a good part of Monday at the doctor’s office going through further tests and a checkup.

This unexpected “check” in my activities gave me time and pause for some deeper reflections.  It is both easy and dangerous to exalt in the emergence of African Christianity.  While experiencing exciting growth both missionally (love, justice and mercy) and evangelistically, they have their own set of problems, struggles and challenges.  To some degree, they are in the early front edge of an emerging Sub-Saharan African Christendom. (Phillip Jenkins award winning book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity is now published in a revised and updated version.  It is probably the best way to get and overall read on this worldwide trend.)  An emerging Kenyan Christendom is evident in the common signs plastered around the community praising God and giving thanks to the Lord Jesus!  Here surely is a learning from Kenyan Methodism which we need to incorporate.  They find it incomprehensible that explicit evangelism is separated from explicit missions (deeds of love, justice and mercy).  For them it is obvious that the two go together. They are puzzled by our attempts to separate them.

Even in the context of a Christendom setting, one of our questions in the first set of presentations at KeMU was from a pastor who lives and leads a small emergent church on the northeastern edge of the country where Islam is the major religion.  He sought insight on remaining faithful and evangelistic in a conflicted and even dangerous setting.  I don’t know for sure what he learned from us.  I know we learned from him.  The sense of gracious, firm clarity about the boundaries of what makes up Christianity (Jesus is Lord!) is a lesson we need to learn and relearn.  He was (many we met are) gracious in response to other religions especially competitive non-Christian religions.  But (Hear the shout from them!) they never gave into the temptation to be syncretic.  The Lord Jesus Christ was the leader.  They avoided vague talk about God and embraced a strong understanding and language about God in action through the Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power.  The full dimensions of the Trinity were readily, even enthusiastically, embraced, proclaimed, and advocated.

Third, we spent a lot of time praying.  The second day of my illness Bishop NThombura came by at 9 pm to check on me.  He apologized for the lateness of the hour but he had been in an important all day meeting.  Later I learned the meeting was a full day of prayer spent together by the “Cabinet.”  They take prayer seriously!  Cautiously here, many of us also take prayer seriously.  Nonetheless, we can learn from their diligence and earnestness.

The fourth lesson for me ties to the third one on the seriousness of prayer.  I have written before about how prayer among most of us moves quickly if not almost immediately to prayers of petition.  We instinctively pray for those who are ill, for people who are suffering, for the end of violence, racism, and hunger, etc.  We spend far less time on prayers of joy and thanksgiving.  I have speculated that the rise of contemporary Christian praise music is an unconscious (sometimes very conscious) sense in the younger generation that something is seriously missing in our prayer life, i.e. praise and thanksgiving!  When the Kenyans pray, they spent the bulk of their time praising God in the fullness of the Trinity (that is, praising each person of the Holy Trinity) and lifting up, exulting God in action through Christ and the active power of the Holy Spirit.  Thus the Psalms entered their corporate prayer life in an explicit way.  For instance, Psalm 46 speaks of the Lord as “our refuge and strength,” “a help always near,” a place of safety.”  Verse 11 is specific and concrete.  “The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!” (Psalm 46:11).  Thus the Kenyans would teach us to engage in believing prayer which stresses praise, thanksgiving, and the active presences of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our/their lives.

I have asked myself why we spend so little time in praise, thanksgiving and calling on God’s active intervention.  Some of the reason resides, I think, in the theological weakness of the current American mainline Protestantism.  But, in a more profound way, I suspect it has to do with our typically American sense of self-reliance.  We have so much in terms of resources (financial, institutional, educationally, etc.) in America that we tend to subconsciously seek to move forward on our own strength.  The Kenyans lack an excess of resources.  They are more readily thrown back on the strength of the Lord.  They instinctively know they can’t make it on their own.  Our (American Methodism’s) instinctive response is more “we’ll call in God if we need extra help from God.”  They (Kenyans) are more inclined to listen for the Lord’s guidance.

A word of caution is in order.  Kenyans and American Methodists alike succumb to the idolatrous temptation to dethrone God and enthrone ourselves.  Alike, we are tempted to challenge the Lordship and leadership of Christ.  Together we are inclined to insist on our own will over the will of the Holy Spirit.  Sin is alive and well in all of us.  Together we recall, “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Conclave and Kenya ©

Like many of you, my year has begun with a full slate of ministry activities.  It began January 3rd with a day and a half in the office to answer emails and plow through paperwork accumulated from the Christmas – New Year break time.  The afternoon of January 4th I drove to Austin, Texas for the twice yearly South Central Bishops Conclave.  The Conclave is a gathering of the active (i.e. residential or non-retired) bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church under the sponsorship of the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF).  It is an invaluable time of learning and sharing.  Using the Harvard Business School case study approach, we wrestle together with leadership challenges facing us and the church as a whole in our work.  Often we have a special presentation on a critical subject or issue facing the church.  We engage in this time of significant learning and sharing under the guidance of Dr. Gil Rendle, Senior Consultant for TMF.  His most recent article on Courage is a seminally insightful document about leadership in the Protestant Church in America during the second decade if the 21st Century. The Conclave is one of the most valuable times of learning that I have.

 I arrived home from the Bishops’ Conclave on Friday evening in time to finish packing for a Saturday morning flight to Kenya (via Dubai).  For the second time it is my great privilege to take part in an ongoing ministry the Central Texas Conference has (along with about 10 other U.S. Conferences and teams from Germany and the British Methodist Church.  Many churches and individuals from across the Central Texas Conference (CTC) have been involved in this God-honoring ministry.  Dr. Ken Diehm, then Senior Pastor of First UMC, Grapevine, Texas helped pioneer this work.  On this trip, under the leadership of Rev. Dawne Phillips, Director of Missions for CTC and Dr. Randy Wild, Executive Director of the Center for Mission Support, we have joined a key group from the Oregon-Idaho Conference led by Rev. Jim Monroe and Rev. Sue Owen.  Jim and Sue have served as pastors and District Superintendents in Oregon and more recently as missionaries at the Maua Methodist Hospital in Maua, Kenya.

 Bishop nThombura asked that we come back to share in teaching clergy along with engaging in other critical mission ministry.  Jim Monroe and I have spent the two previous days teaching a seminar on the Bible and Preaching for pastors in the Methodist Church of Kenya (MCK) at Kenya Methodist University (KeMU).  It was an exciting and challenging time of teaching.  Some of the Pastors have seminary degrees from Schools of Theology in Kenya, England and the United States.  We dealt with a question related to the controversial “Jesus Seminar” and I had a challenging conversation with a graduate from Wesley Theological Seminary in DC.  Other pastors have very little education and almost anything we can share is greeted with appreciation. We will be heading to Nairobi, to repeat our two-day seminar there.  Overall, we will have addressed approximately 350 to 400 pastors.

 Meanwhile the combined team made of folks from both Conferences have been holding a medical clinic out in a remote area of Kenya that does not have regular access to medical treatment.  Sharing with schools (a deworming clinic, supplies, etc.), the ongoing historic work of Methodism in education is bearing rich fruit in Kenya!

 While the outlying clinic work is taking place, half of our combined group has been rotating in and out working on a project high in the hills.  Through the great ministry of Maua Methodist Hospital, a single mother of four (including a three month old infant) with AIDS (from the Father of the infant who has disappeared) was living in a shack (barely standing) made of two wood walls and two plastic sheets.  It is poverty and desperation at its worst and lowest.  Additionally the elderst daughter (11 years old) also has AIDS.  A Christian neighbor brought her tremendous need to the attention of the hospital and working together hospital staff, the local village and our mission team have built a house for the family (two rooms; the kitchen is outside and the “restroom” is about 15 feet behind the house) in one short week!  Frank Briggs, Jim McClurg, Randy Wild, and Tom Larson (from Bend, Oregon) left before dawn over nearly impassible roads to finish the house building before the 11 am community wide celebration and dedication of the house.  It was a Kenyan version of an emergency “Habitat” house build!

 Tomorrow I have been asked to preach and assist Bishop nThombura in the installation of a new Synod Bishop in Thaarka, Kenya.  A Synod Bishop is the equivalent of our District Superintendents.  (Bishop nThombura is called the Presiding Bishop.)  While I am there, the rest of the team will be spread out preaching at other churches in the area.  We are tired but phenomenally blessed by this ongoing shared ministry.  The CTC and its member churches should be deeply gratified to learn that the ministry so many of our congregations have taken part in is continuing to share the Word and Way of Christ.  Together we are sharing with Christians around the world in building a vibrant Christian witness in Kenya! 

 I must give a special shout out to Grapevine UMC in closing.  There is a “Guest House” (the Kenyan version of a Retreat Center) in Meru, Kenya (the center of Methodism in Kenya) named after Dr. Ken Diehm.  I had visited it two years earlier and after our Pastors School presentation I got to stop by for a brief visit again.  The work continues to go forward.  Most of the 2nd floor is now finished and initial construction is taking place on the 3rd floor.  For those who are from the CTC, think of the Diehm Guest House as their Glen Lake.  I learned that follow-up teams from First UMC Grapevine have continued to come and work on the Guest House.  What a tremendous blessing of faithfulness!  This is truly a work of the Lord.

 We will land at DFW the afternoon of January 22nd after a 6 hour flight from Nairobi to Dubai and a 14 hour flight form Dubai to DFW.  After a day of sleeping and recovery, I hope to be back in the office on Tuesday, January 24th.  We have a Cabinet meeting coming up on January 30th.

Pride and Integrity

by Rev. Mike Ramsdell

 Rev. Mike Ramsdell served for 21 years as Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Mansfield, Texas in the Central Texas Conference.  He is currently the North District Superintendent. Mike has a clear grasp on the many appointments which flounder because of relationship confusion.  Increasingly, especially around “hot” political and moral issues, clergy and lay leaders run into conflict.  Listening to Mike argue that clergy are often confused and fail to make a distinction between pride and integrity, I asked him to write a guest blog on the subject.  While I am away on a mission trip in Kenya, I commend his blog to you for its important insights.

I remember some years ago having a conversation over lunch with a pastor who was in trouble.  His church was in conflict and a ministry that had begun well was about to end badly. It did not have to happen.  He was talented, likable, and called.  But he had yet to learn the difference between pride and integrity, and thinking he was about integrity, he had created and exacerbated personal conflict with church members over issues that weren’t really that big of a deal.   Everyone paid the price; he the most.  He was left in a position where he could no longer lead his church.

Integrity is on pretty much every list of characteristics of effective leaders, and it should be.  Integrity is about faith, about the cause, about holiness, humility, right, the truth.  It is one of the cores of following Jesus Christ, an unwillingness to compromise our faith and what is good and right. It’s where we find the rules we will not break, the lines we will not cross, and the life in Christ we choose to live. It is the foundation of long term success in ministry and leadership. Humility is the foundation of integrity – being willing to put the cause of Christ, what is right and good – ahead of ourselves.

  • Integrity: a moral compass that doesn’t waver, a wholeness of character (dictionary definition)
  • The integrity of the upright guides them (Proverbs 11:3)

My guess is that conversations about integrity are not new to Church leaders.  The problem is that often people get integrity and pride mixed up, and thinking they are making decisions and dealing with relationships from a foundation of integrity they sometimes damage themselves, others, and the cause of Christ.  Yet pride just might be the real motivation.  There is a difference!

  • Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18)
  • Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more important than yourselves (Philippians 2:3)

Integrity is about Christ, about faith, about the truth, about selflessness.
Pride is about us, about me, about my feelings about self-centeredness.

Integrity in a leader will build the Church, strengthen relationships, form and shape the cause that the leader is about, focusing the Church on Christ and His mission, a focus away from the leader. It is the foundation of long-term ministry and success.

Pride destroys relationships, creates division, breaks down the cause of the Church, and focuses people on the leader, his or her personal ambition, the leader’s feelings and self-importance.  Pride limits the long-term life and success of a Church leader and the Church they serve.

For the prideful Christian, everything becomes personal, it’s always seems to be about them.  For the person who is about integrity, everything becomes about Christ and the mission of Christ.  Knowing the difference makes all the difference.