Archive - August, 2017

Responding to Harvey ©

Prayers, Patience, Donations and Cleaning Kits Needed in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey

With so many of you, Jolynn and I have watched the news of Hurricane Harvey (#HurricaneHarvey) with deep interest. For us, it is very personal. We lived in Corpus Christi, Texas for 13 years (while I was Sr. Pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church). We have friends up and down the coast. We have lived through a couple of hurricane evacuations and know the drill on boarding up the house. I have been in (and preached in) the communities of both Rockport and Aransas Pass. Our son went to Rice University, which has sustained a lot of damage and on the news we saw flooded streets in Houston near where he used to live.

So, it is in a very personal way, we (both Jolynn and I) ask you to join with so many others in praying for the people of the Texas Gulf Coast and especially those hit hard by flooding from Harvey both in Texas and Louisiana. I also want to call you to pray earnestly and often for the health and safety of all dealing with this historic flooding – both those directly affected as well as all of the first responders who have come from all across Texas and several other states to assist in rescue efforts.

As our prayers continue for all of those who have had their world swept away, as well as those who are still in danger from this unprecedented and still developing weather event, may we respond with concrete actions of love and service. In answer to our prayers, the Lord will give us guidance on how best to respond with support for relief and recovery efforts both in the short- and long-term.

In time of disaster, it is well for us to remember the promise of the risen Christ. “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:20)  It is at times like this that the great commandment of Jesus moves us beyond mere sentiment into action. “This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:38-39) Our Lord, who was renowned for his love and service to others, (all others, regardless of race, creed, orientation, political affiliation, nationality, etc.!) calls us to service in deeds of love for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:14)

I’d also like to echo the calls for patience and financial support that have been posted on our conference website (ctcumc.org/HurricaneHarvey ) and delivered via our Mission Support and Disaster Relief communications. I know that the yearning to help is burning within each of us. However, right now, and most likely for several weeks to come, the best way we can respond is to pray and give to the UMCOR Hurricane Harvey Advance #901670 through your local church or online at umcor.org.

For those who would called to support the relief and recovery efforts beyond financial donations, UMCOR has put out a call for Cleaning Buckets and Hygiene Kits. Many local congregations in the Central Texas Conference have such efforts underway. If you are so called, start by checking with your local church and your district office for such efforts. After you have completed your buckets and/or kits, please contact Sheryl Crumrine (sherylcrumrine@ctcumc.org/ 817-877-5222) at the Central Texas Conference Service Center (CTCSC) for information on how to get them to where they are most needed.

Another way our conference will assist in the immediate response efforts is to host those who have had to flee their homes due to flooding and wind damage. Authorities estimate as many as 30,000 people will need shelter and many of those have already come into our conference seeking refuge. We have learned that Killeen FUMC is currently hosting seven people and is prepared to help as many as 100 at a time. If your church is already providing shelter or has the ability to do so, please email Sheryl Crumrine at sheryl@ctcumc.org so that the CTCSC Disaster Response team can best assist you in these efforts.

Our conference ERT teams are ready and standing by to assist as soon as they are called upon. However, the tragic truth is that this storm is far from over and much more rain and flooding is still expected in the Greater Houston area and throughout southeast Texas. The areas most impacted are still in active rescue mode where preventing the loss of life being the primary focus right now. It is important to wait and pray until the storm is over, the immediate danger has passed, the damage can be assessed and the immediate needs identified.

This is going to be a very long recovery process, most likely, several years. We have been engaged in the long haul for recovery and healing through our Conference office of Disaster Response headed by Rev. Ginger Watson. There will be much to do and plenty of opportunities to help in the months and years to come.

As I write this, our Conference is not in active disaster mode as there is no flooding or other emergencies to report from within the Central Texas Conference. However, that could change as the rain continues, so we will continue to watch our South District counties closely. Our Disaster Response team remains in regular contact with UMCOR and state of Texas authorities.

The Disaster Response team along with our Communications & IT department and others are in regular contact with our partners in Texas Conference and the Río Texas Conference. Both conferences are posting regular updates on their conference Facebook pages (Texas Conference Facebook, Rio Texas Conference Facebook) and watch ctcumc.org/HurricanHarvey for the latest updates from our Disaster Response team.

We will have more information about the specific needs of people in the coastal region and how best to work with our partners in the Texas Conference and Rio Texas Conference as soon as those are available. Vance Morton and our communications team at the Conference Center will continue to share information out as soon as we have it.  Meanwhile, please continue to monitor the situation through our Conference website ctcumc.org/HurricaneHarvey for updates.

The Lord will guide our best and most prayer filled efforts to help our brothers and sisters suffering from Hurricane Harvey.  For now, may we respond with prayer, cleaning buckets, hygiene kits and financial support to UMCOR Advance #901670 through our local churches or the Central Texas Conference directly.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #9 ©

A Community of Holiness

 In a casual conversation recently, a clergy colleague commented to me, “We used to fight over doctrine now we fight over behavior.” I am struck by the insight offered in that comment. Churches are to be communities of holiness which provide the foundation for a common ethical behavior in service to the Lord God and genuine love of the neighbor, even those we disagree with! It is important to note that, to a very real degree, behavior is a reflection of doctrine. Ultimately the two (behavior and doctrine) are intertwined. Nonetheless, my colleague’s comment sticks with me because there is a thoughtful reflection of our current reality contained in it.

In our recent angst over various issues bedeviling us as a people (globally – Afghanistan, North Korea, and terrorism in Spain; in the United States – violence, racism, incivility and gender preference) the breakdown of community and common communal ethic is ever present. We struggle over what is acceptable common behavior both in the Christian community (i.e. the Church) and in our wider social communities. This was true in the Great Britain of early Methodism as well. The Methodist movement as an expression of the Christian faith (what I call the Wesleyan Way) offered a deep sense not only of belonging but also of a commitment to Christ which enhanced a common ethic and way of living.

Today, we desperately need to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way through spiritual formation in a community of holiness (otherwise called the Church). As good as most churches are at being friendly, collectively we long for a deeper, more intimate sense of community. Professors Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson remind us in their marvelous book The Band Meeting (soon to be published): “Christ came to build a ‘holy priesthood’ (I Peter 2:5), not simply ordain individual priests. He came to create a community of people equipped to ‘proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (1 Peter 2:9). They further note that “Methodism ordered itself to bring the gospel to people at every level of community” (Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson, The Band Meeting, p. 68; pre-publication copy).

Living in an age of individualism run amuck, it would well serve us to recover the communal sense of the Wesleyan Way. We best do this not by throwing bricks at others but by ourselves growing in holiness both individually and as a community of faith.

Consider Luke 6:47-48: “I’ll show what it’s like when someone comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice. It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. When the flood came, the rising water smashed against that house, but the water couldn’t shake the house because it was well built. We build our lives on bedrock when we anchor them in Christ. We do so by drilling down deep into His Word.”

Basic spiritual practices are the pitons we pound into the rock of Christ. By way of analogy, in mountain climbing a piton (also called a pin or peg) is a metal spike (usually steel) that is driven into a crack or seam in the climbing surface with a climbing hammer and which acts as an anchor to either protect the climber against the consequences of a fall or to assist progress in aid climbing. Pounding in pitons is basic to walking with Christ! We call this spiritual formation at its foundational, if you will, bedrock level. This is necessary to survive the rising waters of evil, sin, death and chaos; the violence and cultural incivility which so bedevil us as a people; the dis-ease of lacking moral center so evident in the torch-lit parade at Charlottesville.

Wesley famously said that there was no such thing as solitary religion. By that he meant that we were anchored in our faith and grew in the faith only through some kind of group accountability. A rock anchor, a piton, for early Methodists was small spiritual formation group. The painful truth is that we have become casually comfortable in our Christianity to a point that we have forgotten foundational spiritual disciplines that anchor us to the bedrock of Christ. This is actually where we got the name Methodist. We were so methodical about being Christian. What do those practices look like? Regular disciplined prayer with some kind of a group or support system that can graciously hold you accountable. The Methodist motto was “watching over one another in love.”

At this point I almost feel like a shill for small group ministry. And yet, without apology communities of holiness come from a communal practice of spiritual accountability. To be sure it starts with the individual in solitude, silence and simplicity, but by necessity it must expand to a wider sense of a shared commitment to and practice of holiness. The common disciplines (both privately and with others) of quiet time with God, prayer, worship, Bible reading & study all become linked to service in love of God and others.

The point of tending to the institutional needs of the church (and of so called organized religion) is that those needs help us to be shaped spiritually in formative practice that issues forth in the deeds of love, justice and mercy. Ignore the formative practices of spiritual formation for too long (both individually and as a group) and the high ethical commitments of loving God and neighbor fall away for lack of a healthy foundation.

John Wesley went so far as to write John Smith, “What is the aim of any ecclesiastical order? Is it not to snatch souls from the power of Satan for God and to edify them in the love and fear of God? Order, then has value only if it responds to these aims; and if not, it is worthless” (John Wesley, letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746; taken from, The Band Meeting, p. 68; pre-publication copy, by Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson).

We reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way as we rekindle formative spiritual practices and build communities of holiness. Such formative practices take methodical work and holy discipline. The discipline of holiness involves more than just the lone individual. We must be a part of communities of holiness. Together, we are built on the bedrock of Christ. “So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already”  (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

 

Rejecting White Supremacy, Racism and Neo-Nazi Behavior: An Open letter to Congresswoman Kay Granger ©

Representative Kay Granger is Congresswoman of the 12th Congressional District of Texas. We reside in the 12th Congressional District and thus Congresswoman Granger is our (Bishop Mike and Jolynn Lowry) representative. In the past we have been publically appreciative of her work and grateful for her representation.  I share this “Open Letter to Congresswoman Kay Granger” in response to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article published in the Thursday, August 17th morning paper entitled, “Kay Granger condemns violence by ‘both sides’” (Written by Andrea Drusch, Star-Telegram Washington bureau). The article opens with the following sentence: “Fort Worth Rep. Kay Granger on Wednesday lined up with President Donald Trump, condemning violence coming from ‘both sides’ and raising concerns about a rush to remove Confederate monuments.

Dear Congresswoman Granger,

I write both as Bishop of the Fort Worth Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church and as a concerned citizen and voter living in the 12th Congressional District of Texas.  Thursday morning I read with dismay an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporting your equal condemnation of ‘both sides’ in the recent white-supremacist Neo-Nazi rally and act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Equating the two sides in this tragedy and act of domestic terrorism is both inaccurate and inappropriate.  The two groups of protesters are not the same, and any implication that they are is to be rejected as morally repugnant.

White supremacists and Neo-Nazis explicitly cause damage, hurt and pain to named ethnic and religious groups in our society.  The fount of racism and hatred which pours forth from their virulent protest harms the nation as a whole and us both individually and collectively.  We are a nation wounded by their hatred.

One group came with the intent of causing public disruption.  They wrapped themselves in Nazi flags and regalia; they carried shields and clubs; they lifted lit torches invoking the evil specter of the Ku Klux Klan Rallies. Counter-demonstrators did not coalesce with a predetermined commitment to violence. Both the intent and the behavior of those on opposing side is decisively different.

I am appreciative of your public statement in which you say, “The recent events in Charlottesville are abhorrent and are not representative of the core values and morals of the United States. As a nation, we can have a civil debate over the differences in our beliefs, but we must condemn white supremacist groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis that promote bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, and violence” (Representative Kay Granger, https://kaygranger.house.gov/).  Regretfully your reported interview negates much of the moral virtue exhibited in your statement. However well intended your comments, they carry the subtle implication of excusing white supremacy and Neo-Nazi activity.

I recommend to you the clear and unequivocal statements by other leaders of the Republican Party.

  • “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms. As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country.”(Joint statement from former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush)
  • House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted: “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
  • “[Republican Senator Marco] Rubio countered Trump by saying the organizers of the white-nationalist rally were ”˜100 percent to blame’ for the terror attack that followed, a reference to the death of Heather Heyer after James A. Fields allegedly drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators.” (From The Atlantic, August 15, 2017)

Holy Scripture reminds us, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Jesus calls for us to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

Together, may we carefully consider ways to learn from our past without honoring rebellious behavior. In humility and confession, we need enter into thoughtful discussion and a deeper commitment to a shared future that reaches out to all in compassion and kindness without compromising our values or virtue.

Public leaders, be they political, religious or from the business sector, need to speak with one clear voice against racial supremacy and Neo-Nazi behavior.  Should you so desire, I would welcome a further opportunity to visit with you about such matters.

Yours in Christ,

 

Bishop Mike Lowry

Resident Bishop of the Fort Worth Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church

 

The World is Our Parish ©

 Periodically I am asked, “Should our work in missions (love, justice, and mercy) be focused at home in the communities in which our churches are located or should they be in extended mission work across America and the world?” My answer is always the same; “Yes!” There is something in the essence of loving those who are hungry and hurting and homeless that calls us both locally and globally.

Famously, John Wesley was asked at one time to return and serve the local parish. He turned down that opportunity, declaring “The world is my parish!” By that, Wesley never denigrated or slighted the importance of the local church and local community setting.  He understood that his personal call was to the wider church universal and more intentionally to what was then called the Wesleyan renewal movement. Even more, Wesley saw that at its truest essence the Christian faith is always a both/and.

Biblical examples abound. Christ reaches out and heals those around him. Consider the story of the centurion’s slave (Matthew 8:8-13) or the woman hemorrhaging (Mark 5:28-34).

But he also explicitly calls us to reach beyond to the wider world. The Great Commission is given that we should go to all “nations” (other translations say “people groups”). The famously quoted John 3:16 passage is explicitly expansive to the wider world; for “God so loved the world….”

In writing this today (Monday, August 14, 2017), I want to call for our prayers for peace, healing, love and justice in three specific situations across our nation and world recognizing that these prayers begin at home.

Many of you have watched with growing concern the tragedy that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists/neo-Nazi movements parade hate before us. Not only that, but they try to evoke hate within us (hate either towards them or towards others of a different religion or ethnicity). May our prayers go out for those who lost loved ones in this tragedy and especially for the end of racial hatred. Let us pray that we may be a people of peace. Confessionally, may we all recognize that bigotry and hatred begins in us. With our thoughts and actions, may we grow in Christ-likeness.  Let us be those who reach out for racial healing and the establishment of a more truly just America.

Secondly, I ask for our specific prayers for the people and nation of Kenya. Many of our churches and our Conference as a whole has a very special relationship with Kenya. We’ve sent a large number of different mission groups there to work in a variety of settings. The Rev. Ken Diehm Retreat House is a fixture for the Methodist Church in the Meru Synod (district) of Kenya. Numerous other mission trips have engaged in Christ-honoring works of love, justice and service in the Maua Methodist Hospital.

As you may know from following the news, the nation of Kenya recently held a presidential election. Although most observers believe the election was fair, there have been violent clashes over the results. I ask the people of Central Texas to pray for the nation of Kenya as a whole. May peace be the way forward for our Kenyan brothers and sisters.

The third specific area for which I am asking for prayers is the situation unfolding with North Korea. Much has been written and said. I simply commend to the Christian reader that we be in prayer for a peaceful resolution. The evils of President Kim Jong-Un and the Communist Party in North Korea seem to me to be fairly self-evident. May the wisdom of the Lord guide our response as a nation and as a people. May we separate the common citizen of North Korea from the evils of the current dictatorship which oppresses that country. Let us pray as well for our elected officials (the President, various Cabinet members and Secretaries involved and those working as Ambassadors). May God give wisdom that surpasses our human instincts and ultimately leads to a true lasting peace

As I ask for these prayers specifically for the people of Charlottesville, VA; the citizens and nation of Kenya; and the conflict erupting around North Korea, I continue to ask that we be a people who pray for peace and healing, for love and justice, for hope and help in our own churches, our own neighborhoods, our own cities and states. May the Prince of Peace guide our actions.

Engage! Missional Transformation in Love, Service and Relationship with Others ©

This coming October, we have a significant opportunity to grow our missional outreach to those in our local communities through a CTC-sponsored event entitled ENGAGE: Transforming Missions. The ENGAGE Conference is scheduled for Oct. 6-7 at Temple First UMC, and is designed for clergy and mission leaders seeking to grow deeper relationships with the persons they serve.

Through the opening sessions with Tom Bassford, a leader in transformative mission ministry, and breakout sessions led by our own Central Texas Conference mission leaders, participants will have the opportunity to learn from and dialogue with other leaders about best practices of relational mission ministry.  The key is “relational mission ministry.”  The ENGAGE Conference focuses on helping churches make the transition from ministry that meets emergency needs into individual and community transformation through relationships. I invite the reader to click the following link for a brief video discussion on ENGAGE (the video is also available below). In it, Rev. Dawne Phillips, Director of Missions for the Central Texas Conference, and I discuss the importance of local churches moving toward doing transformational missions.  The Conference will connect our core mission, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, with the WIG as together we seek to reach out in love, justice and mercy to all.

The keynote speaker/teacher is Dr. Tom Bassford. Tom Bassford is Founder and President of Significant Matters and SATalks in Olathe, Kansas, a non-profit organization working with churches, faith-based groups, community stakeholders and philanthropic organizations to tackle complex societal issues in sustainable ways. Before founding Significant Matters, he pastored for more than 30 years and has been involved in the work of church missions both locally and internationally for over 40 years.

In 2014, under Tom’s leadership, Significant Matters launched SATalks, a TED Talk type of gathering and video website to explore and demonstrate ways to create sustainable transformation through church missions.  They also launched the Missions 3.0 Network for churches wanting to move their mission work beyond “helping that hurts.” SATalks and Missions 3.0 exist to accelerate the learning curve around sustainable approaches to missions and connect those early pioneers trying to make it happen.

ENGAGE is an outstanding opportunity for churches to send a team who can participate in a variety of breakout sessions and then return home with ideas to consider for mission focused on making disciples in their local community.  Registration information can be found on the Central Texas Conference website.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #8 ©

Struggling with Sin

Back in my seminary days one of the big intellectual fads that swept across America was a form of psychotherapy called Transactional Analysis (TA).  It was built on the foundation of acceptance and appreciation of both yourself and others (which is in principle a good thing but taken too far – as it was – destructive).  The mantra of TA was “I’m Ok, You’re Ok.”

About that time I was taking a course in pastoral theology from the great Methodist theologian Albert Outler.  I remember him lecturing on the subject to TA and Sin.  He pictured a worship service starting with the liturgy of the pastor saying, “I’m Okay!”and the Congregation responding, “You’re Okay!”  Then pastor would echo back, “You’re Okay!” And the congregation would respond with gusto, “We’re Okay!”  At that point Professor Outler said that someone standing in the back of the sanctuary should respond with a loud, “Bah humbug!”

And now, I give pause. We have reached a theological state in American Protestantism where the notion of sin is almost foreign. When sin applies it is someone else who sinned.  When we talk of sin, far too often it is in reference to sexual peccadillos and rarely to explore the greater sinful hedonism of our own lives in the pursuit of pleasure though gross overconsumption. (Forgive me Lord! I know I am guilty.)

Recently my spiritual mentor, Dr. Sid Spain, wrote a paper offering deep insight into the spiritual life of walking with God.  As part of his work, both in writing and in serving as a pastor and spiritual guide, he noted our struggle in the modern world with the whole concept of sin.  Dr. Spain wrote:

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.  Recently he wrote an article entitled The Strange Persistence of Guilt referencing a longer article of the same name by Wilfred McClay in the Hedgehog Review. [(See David Brooks, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” March 31, 2017; and Wilfred M. McClay, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” The Hedgehog Review; Vol 19 No. 1).  Brooks and McClay are only two of many writers who have diagnosed part of the cause of the rise of incivility in our society as a consequence of the inaccessibility of opportunities for absolution.  Brooks writes, “Religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerful as ever.” As the influence of the church has diminished in the West, fewer people have the opportunity to deal creatively with feelings of guilt, failure and inadequacy. Instead of confessing sin and receiving forgiveness and absolution, we project our dissatisfaction and angst on others.  Unable to process our sin we feel victimized and we vilify.

An inevitable consequence of contemplative prayer is confrontation with the self and the recognition that we are complicit in the brokenness of the world (Sid Spain, Make the Time and Find a Place: Contemplative Prayer for the Easily Distracted, p. 6).

The concept of grace, God’s radically free wholly unmerited forgiving love is applied so casually as to leave us often (not always!) unaffected.  [You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives (Ephesians 2:8-10).]  What slips our more careful attention is verse 10 of Ephesians 2, repeated here for emphasis, “Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things.  God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. Our good intentions often ignore the moral harm of sin both in ourselves and others. In Dr. Spain’s terms, we fail to confront our complicity in the brokenness of this world. It is somebody else’s fault.

Yet classical Methodist doctrine will not let us off so easily.  For Methodists the response to sin is worked out in sanctification, in “holiness of heart and life.”  This historically is a cardinal assumption of Methodist theology (thinking about the ways of God).  The claim always is that we are to be ‘”moving on to perfection.” To borrow from Sid in paraphrasing St. Augustine’s definition of sin, homo incurvatus in se in the Latin, loosely translated as “Sin is the self, turned in upon its self.”  The Apostle Paul reached for its essence in his great biblical letters. “I’m sold as a slave to sin.  I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate. But if I’m doing the thing that I don’t want to do, I’m agreeing that the Law is right. But now I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it’s sin that lives in me” (Romans 7:14c-17). John Wesley understood sin as a disease, a radical flaw in our human nature that could not be cured simply by our own moral effort yet at the same time needing our willing participation in its cure.

Here again Professor Outler is instructive in his seminal lectures on Wesleyan Theology. “Sin is spoken of as a sickness that can be cured by the Great Physician if we will accept his threefold prescription: 1. Repentance (self-knowledge), 2. Renunciation of self-will, and 3. Faith (trust in God’s sheer, unmerited grace”  (Albert C. Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 37).

I invite the reader to carefully note that our struggle with sin is met in the grace of Jesus Christ. But I also urge an embrace of the truth that such healing comes in repentance and renunciation. There is no such thing as cheap grace for the price of grace is the cross of Christ and our embrace of grace comes in repentance and renunciation. The antidote of Christ comes to us in the divine human synergy as we struggle with sin. Augustine is reputed to have said, “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #7 ©

Scripture, Tradition, Reason & Experience:  Understanding the Quadrilateral in Wesleyan Theology

 This blog picks back up on an extended summer blog series entitled “Reclaiming The Heart of the Wesleyan Way.”  In part five of my blog on this series,  I shared part of the General Rules of the United Methodist Church and the struggle for a common theological core, which I believe is currently taking place within United Methodism.

The “General Rules” (along with The Standard Sermons of Wesley and The Explanatory Notes on the New Testament) are the heart of the United Methodist doctrinal core. They are contained in Section 3, Paragraph #104 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016. Dr. William J. Abraham, Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, has decisively demonstrated that there is a stated and officially adopted doctrinal core for the United Methodist Church. In this time of identity crisis within United Methodism, Section 3, Paragraph #104 is worth remembering and reflecting upon deeply. Professor Abraham rightly notes: “United Methodist doctrine can actually be identified. It is not an amorphous body of vague proposals. Nor is it some malleable theological method which can be twisted to fit this or that fad or convention of culture. United Methodist doctrine is substantial; it is identifiable; and it is clear in fundamental content” (William J. Abraham, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church, p.14).

As church history will teach anyone with casual knowledge of the past, a clear doctrinal core does not finally, once and for all settle issues of doctrinal content. Deep debate still continues about the meaning of this core, how it applies to a current context and historical setting, and what its implications are for “practical Christianity” in our time. In its collective wisdom the United Methodist Church has adopted a method for engaging in debate and discussions about the meaning of our doctrinal core. It can be found immediately after the section on our doctrinal core. Section 4, Paragraph 105 is entitled “Our Theological Task.” Such a critical task – that is of thinking theologically about what we believe and how we are Christian – by very necessity must engage each generation anew.

Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, outlines what is commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The “quadrilateral” is not itself doctrine. Rather, it is a proposed method for doing theology (that is to say thinking and reflecting on God and ways of God among us). It is made up of four components of how we get at the Truth (capital T) of the Christian faith. (The opening part of Paragraph 105 is well worth a careful reading!)

The four components of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are:  Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Each section in Paragraph 105 deserves careful attention. All parts of the quadrilateral do not carry the same weight in theological discourse; thus, The Discipline (as a matter of both doctrine and method) places Scripture above the other three. “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 83).

Tradition is a reference to what we have learned from the saints of the past. This especially includes the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed (both found in the United Methodist Hymnal). The importance of tradition can easily be recognized in Scripture as well as in practice. The admonition of Hebrews is instructive. “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Hebrews 11:1).

Experience acknowledges the importance of a “heart” faith (not just an intellectual collection of “head” doctrines). Again The Discipline is instructive. “Our experience interacts with Scripture. … Experience authenticates in our own lives the truths revealed in Scripture and illumined in tradition, enabling us to claim the Christian as our own” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 87).

Reason becomes a key component or method by which we put theological and doctrinal discussions together. The Discipline is careful to note at the outset of the section on reason, “we recognize that God’s revelation and our experience of God’s grace continually surpasses the scope of human language and reason, we also believe that any discipline theological work calls for the careful use of reason” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 88).

As a whole the “Quadrilateral” has much to commend itself as a method for doing theology (thinking about God and the ways of God).  The danger of heresy, however can slip in when Scripture is subordinated for personal preference backed by a partial reading of Christian history (tradition) and casual application of experience and reason. The tendency in our time is use one of two of the key components (say Scripture and Tradition or Experience and Reason) separate from all four. Instead of an acknowledged method of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a person then ends up with what is a functioning bilateral or unilateral governance of theological discourse that is bereft of the full wisdom of the faith.

There is more to be said here, much more. For now hopefully, the reader’s appetite has been whetted enough to encourage a full reading of both Sections 3 & 4, Paragraphs 104 & 105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, pp. 65-91. As the “good ole boys” used to say, “there’s is gold in them thar hills!”

However we approach issues of deep doctrinal substance, and make no mistake the current threat of schism in the United Methodist Church is ultimately about our doctrinal core, the only truly faithful Christian response is with great humility. “Now we see in a mirror dimly” (I Corinthians 13:12). “This [Our] witness, however, cannot fully describe or encompass the mystery of God” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 91)

A Guide to Reading the Commission on the Way Forward Status Report ©

A Way Forward … Thus Far: A Status Report on the Commission on a Way Forward has recently been released for sharing across the church.  I believe it potentially represents some excellent work on the part of the members of the Commission. The report is available as a PDF and as a video slide show presentation.

As I went through the Report with Vance Morton, director of Communications & IT for the Central Texas Conference, he strongly urged both a greater communication on the subject and some explanation of the terms used, the purpose of this report, etc.  This is not meant as an advocacy blog, but rather as an attempt to help people understand some of the terms and references. I will share some personal comments at the end of this post.

  1. The Commission on the Way Forward was established by the Council of Bishops at the request of the 2016 General Conference. It is to review and make recommendations back to the both the General Conference at a Called Session in February 2019 and to the Council of Bishops on all matters related to The United Methodist Church’s deep division regarding human sexuality and LGBTQ. It is made up of both lay and clergy members from around the world.
  2. This is a status report NOT a listing of preliminary findings or recommendations.
  3. Context (and all its variations throughout the status report) are references to the different settings or mission fields that local churches, conferences and even nations find themselves in. By way of example, the context or mission field of a church in rural North Katanga (a Conference located in the Republic of the Congo) is dramatically different from the context or setting/mission field of a church in urban Los Angeles (U. S.) or one in suburban Berlin (Germany). Context includes the socio-economic setting, diversity and a multitude of other factors which can mean that churches physically near each other operate in very different ministry environments.  What may be considered culturally acceptable in one setting (or context) may be culturally unacceptable in another setting (or context).
  4. Slide #6 – The Anatomy of Peace is a reference to a book by The Arbinger Institute. The Arbinger Institute describes itself as “a global training and consulting firm that specializes in organizational transformation and conflict resolution.”  In conjunction with the work of The Commission on the Way Forward, the Council of Bishops has asked that all bishops read this book.
  5. Slide #8 is particularly instructive. It is important to understand that at this point (a shade less than halfway through their work as a Commission) we are being offered a look at a “sketch,” a very rough framework for a way forward.  The Commission notes:  “At this point, the Commission is sketching models with a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other, improving and correcting until we have something more detailed and complete to share with the Council of Bishops and the church for feedback.”
  6. The reference to “The Colloquy at Emory” refers to an academic theological colloquy entitled “Missio Dei and the United States: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness,” which was recently hosted by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) and the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools (AUMTS). The gathering engaged United Methodist scholars (Seminary professors and academics) and some members of the Council of Bishops in deep learning about how to “reengage our Wesleyan heritage to participate in the Missio Dei” (the mission God has called us to).
  7. The reference to a “pre-1972 approach” in Slide #15 under the subheading “Context” refers to the structure of the United Methodist Church prior to the reorganization of the General Boards and Agencies, which took place after the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Again, Here is the link to the PDF, and here is the link to the video version of status report from the Commission.

Some Personal Observations:

  • This represents an immense amount of prayerful work on the part of the members of the Commission on a Way Forward. However else we respond, we should first express our gratitude for the faithful diligence of their efforts.  I ask all of us to continue to lift them in prayer.
  • Slide #7 – “What connects us now: Our Common Core” – is extremely significant. It represents a theological foundation crucial to whatever future the Lord may have in store for His church. Flushing out the meaning and implications of this theological foundation is particularly important. As the saying goes, “both God and the devil are in the details.”
  • Slides #9 – 13 contain some potentially radical implications:
    o   “A new church will not look like the current church.”
    o   “It may mean multiple versions of the Book of Discipline.”
    o   “Jesus’ call to unity may look like associations or affiliated churches.”
    o   “The way forward cannot be an extension of our path of conflict.”
    o   “We value pushing the pendulum toward looser on structure and contextualization and tighter on naming the essentials of theology and doctrine.
  • Slide #12 – “Our Global Context” – contains a wealth of insight that American United Methodists need to take prayerfully into consideration.
  • Slide #14 – “What We Have Learned” – is deeply significant and requires thought, conversation and prayer.
  • Structure and Finances on Slide #15 are critical.
    o   “We need enough structural freedom so that no one has to compromise their deeply held beliefs.”
    o   Issues involving the Pension Program cannot be ignored or wished away.  Liability is real.

There is more to be said, much more, but for now I invite a careful reading of this substantial status report from the Commission on the Way Forward.  I ask for your continued prayers for the Commission and the church as a whole.

Here in the Central Texas Conference, we have tasks groups led by members of our General Conference Delegation, Cabinet and others working to set up systems and avenues where we can give feedback to the Commission.  This is part of a combined effort of the Council of Bishops and the Commission on the Way Forward.  More information will be shared this fall as the various task groups solidify their plans.

For now and always!:
“God is our refuge and strength,
a help always near in times of great trouble.
That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,
when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea,
    when its waters roar and rage,
when the mountains shake because of its surging waves.”
Selah
(Psalm 46:1-3)