Archive - November, 2017

Settling for Less ©

 I drove down to Kerrville, Texas for our family Thanksgiving gathering wearing my “Chicago Cubs World Series Champions 2017” jersey. That’s right; the shirt read “2017” not “2016.” It was a gift from Howard Martin back in early September at the celebration of First UMC Stephenville’s 100th anniversary. At the time, the Cubs were in a battle with the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals over who would win the Central Division of the National League.

The last time any team repeated as a World Series Champion was back in 2000 when the New York Yankees won for the third straight time. Between 2010 and 2014 the San Francisco Giants won every other year but never two years in a row. The theory is that, with the addition of first the Division Playoff Series, then the League Championship Series added to the World Series, teams that get into the World Series have roughly played a month more than the rest of the teams. The extra time playing especially at a hyper elite level takes a toll on the pitchers especially. Statistically there is usually a distinct drop-off (since the addition of the League Championship Series) in the pitching performance of World Series teams the following year.

With that as backdrop, I confess that I wasn’t too disappointed that the Cubs didn’t win the World Series this year. In fact, I was proud that they won the Central Division and the Division Playoff Series. Even more, I was delighted that the Astros won the World Series. After all they have been through, our neighbors down South needed a big win! I was quite willing to settle for less this year after last year’s championship.

It was a conversation with Dr. Clifton Howard (Assistant to the Bishop) that got me thinking differently. Casually I commented to him that I wondered why I was willing to settle for less. I opined that if it had been a year ago, I would have been deeply disappointed. But, the year after a championship it was okay to settle for less. Clifton challenged me by asking me to think about that spiritually. Would I be willing to settle for less in terms of missional outreach to the poor or professions of faith? He added, “Churches that grow tend to be churches that don’t settle.”

As I mulled all this over while driving, Oswald Chambers famous devotional classic “My Utmost for His Highest” came to mind. 

I think I have read his great classic of Christian spiritual guidance and devotion three times in my life (including one year as a Bishop). There is the line from the movie As Good as It Gets where Jack Nicholson says, “You make me want to be a better man.” The Christian faith does more than that for me, for us all. It actually makes us better people. Chambers’ book serves as a great devotional guide to help me be a better man, a true Christ-follower.

In less than a week Advent is upon us. This season of the Christian year calls us to prepare for the coming of the Savior. (Advent means literally “coming” – out of the Latin.) I have written before about how the season of Advent, and especially Christmas Eve worship, is special time when non- or nominal Christians are unusually open to the hearing the gospel of God’s saving presence with us in the person of Jesus the Christ.

I write to invite us as a church and as individual Christians not to settle for less. Use this time as a special opportunity to reach out to those eager and receptively open to hear the gospel. Offer the love of God by deeds of justice and mercy but don’t stop there; don’t settle for less. Fuse word and deed with a worship that offers new life in Christ.

As a basic first step, make sure that your website prominently shares worship times and especially the time of your Christmas eve service. Make sure greeters and ushers are prepared to offer truly radical hospitality in welcoming. Don’t miss the opportunity to register attendance for both members and visitors that all might share in grace-filled follow up.

One of the ways the infant Christ-child is referred to by the theological fathers and mothers of the faith is as a baby where Word and deed are one. Think about it. In Christ and Christ alone, Word and deed are one. During this Advent season follow the model of his life witness. Don’t settle for less. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:5). Share the gospel, the good news of a God who loves so lavishly that the Lord of all life comes to us in the person of a helpless baby. Let John 1:14 infuse your living as an individual; let it saturate your witness, actions and sharing as a church.

“The Word became flesh
and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
glory like that of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Reflections on the Council of Bishops and the Way Forward ©

As I write, I am finishing a week of work at the Council of Bishops (COB) meeting in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. The COB (all United Methodist Bishops around the world, both active and retired) met Sunday night through Wednesday noon. The Active Bishops Learning Retreat lasted from Wednesday afternoon through Friday noon. We have worshipped and prayed together greatly! The experience has been exhausting (emotionally, spiritually, and physically).

In the midst of this, the activities of the world continue. As a person who was elected out of (what is now) the Rio Texas Conference and was a pastor in San Antonio not far from Sutherland Springs, the tragedy of the church shootings has settled deeply in my heart. Across both the U.S. and the world, violence is never far from us. I find myself praying for a spirit of peace (the Holy Spirit!) in both my heart and our larger world. I commend to myself and all who read this blog the prayer of St. Francis, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace….”

While our Council work dealt with a variety of subjects including building vital congregations and ecumenical relations, the main focus of our time together was on the interim report from the Commission on a Way Forward (CoWF). The CoWF was established at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon to help the Church discern a way forward around the issues of allowing Methodist clergy to perform same-gender weddings and the ordination of “avowed practicing homosexuals.” At our just concluded COB meeting, representatives from the CoWF presented some very preliminary ideas (or sketches) on possible ways to move beyond the impasse which threatens The United Methodist Church with schism.

The report from the CoWF presented three rough sketches or preliminary models for consideration and feedback from the COB:

  • One sketch of a model affirms the current Book of Discipline (BOD) language and places a high value on accountability.
  • Another model sketch removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  • A third model sketch is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services, and one COB while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.
  • Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church.
  • Each sketch includes a gracious way for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

I want to stress that what the Commission presented to the bishops was nowhere near their final product. These are sketches, or outlines, or very rough models that might well shape more detailed pictures. Furthermore, we (both the Bishops and the Church as a whole through its General Conference delegates) are not limited to these three sketches or models. That’s why I feel the term “sketches” is so apropos. The Commission still has a long way to go before they will be ready to present their final models. I invite thoughtful reflection and offer – along with my colleague bishops – a couple of questions for reflection, dialogue and spiritual discernment.

  1. Based on the description, how would you build a church from one or more of these sketches?
  2. How does that sketch multiply our Wesleyan witness and expand our mission in the world?

I would like to underscore that there was common agreement that the mission of the church is paramount!  “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (Matthew 28:16-20). Intensive and intense dialogue is being held about underlying theology. It is important to note that the CoWF itself dealt with the issue of foundational theology and doctrine in its recent progress report. Click here or the image above to see the full report.  I also want to reiterate and highlight the last two points from the COB about the various models or sketches. Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church. Each sketch includes a gracious way for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

Here are some “talking points” the bishops of the church have agreed to commonly share with the leaders and local churches. Please feel free to use them whenever you are asked about how the church is progressing through this issue.

  • The Mission of God through the Risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit trumps and guides everything.
  • The values of unity and contextualization for the sake of the mission undergird the work we are sharing and leading.
  • The Commission serves the Council, preparing the COB to fulfill its service to the General Conference in making a recommendation for a way forward.
  • To best serve the Council, the Commission did not express a preference of a model.
  • In the same way, the Council withholds a preference in order to allow the bishops to engage their conferences in teaching and dialogue.
  • The values highlighted in any one model also live within the fabric of the other models.
  • The Commission shared three sketches of models with the Council. The CoWF is aware that we are not restricted to these models and are open to learning, listening and improvement.
  • It is likely that additional models or sketches may emerge as the process continues.

We are in a season of prayer, dialogue and spiritual discernment. It is important that we resist the temptation to rush to judgment or seek premature closure. The COB will be meeting in late February to review some follow up work from the CoWF based on our preliminary feedback as a Council of Bishops. In the meantime, I join my fellow bishops in calling on all United Methodists to engage in honest, meaningful and respectful conversations regarding this issue and/or any of the political, religious and justice issues of our day.

Bishop Ough, in a pastoral letter to the UMC released at the conclusion of our meeting, reminded all that the United Methodist Church is diverse in its theological understanding of Scripture as well as Christ’s call on our lives. In the letter – which I recommend to you (click here to access) – we are prompted to recall Paul’s admonishment to the church at Ephesus to …”to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together.” (Ephesians 4:1-3 CEB)

To read the official release from the COB on our work with the Commission on a Way Forward, go to ctcumc.org/episcopalannouncements. In all things I urge us together to embrace the advice of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:1-5, NRSV).

A Texas Tintern Abbey ©

William Wordsworth’s famous poem “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey“ drifted back into my mind through my musing at the close of a recent trip. Sunday, October 29th, Jolynn and I had the joy of sharing with Ferris Heights United Methodist Church on the celebration of the 80th anniversary of their founding. After sharing in worship and a fellowship dinner, we gazed through the document history of Ferris Heights. There were pictures of a full sanctuary and pastors sharing children’s sermons surrounded by a forest of youngsters.

This was the fourth anniversary or otherwise special celebration I have preached at this fall. Each is a time of rejoicing, remembering and recommitting to the ministry of our Lord. Almost always there is a special history room or display. The pictures explode with a different time in the life of the church, a time when sanctuaries were full and children abundant. But such is not usually the case today. Oh, there are notable exceptions to be sure, but inhaling the historic pictures reminds me that the time of Christian cultural dominance is over.

As I age, some of the pictures now represent times in which I was just starting out as a pastor. One that overlapped my ministry was on display at First UMC, Stephenville. (We were there for the celebration of their 100th anniversary.) It pictured a pastor surrounded by a large youth choir dressed smartly in beautiful choir robes. Viewing the glory of a bygone era brought back good memories.

Thus in my musing on Sunday driving home, I could not help but think I have had a Texas encounter with Tintern Abbey this fall. Wordsworth’s famous words cascaded over me.

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of a more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
Here…
On the best portion of a good man’s life;
In his little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love…
(William Wordsworth, “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” selected verses)

The sense of what William Shakespeare called a “sweet sorrow” surrounds my reflections; yet as my colleague Mike Ramsdell puts it, “the truth is your friend.” The truth is that the day of abundance in worship attendance and a surplus of young children is largely over. In a wider cultural sense the sun has set on the church of the 1980s and ’90s.

I am increasingly convinced that we have underestimated the magnitude of the tsunami of secularity that has already washed over Europe and is now crashing on the shores of America. It would behoove us to go back and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. High culture evidences distain for cultural Christianity. Casual Christianity will not survive the impact of the secular wave battering the church. Rediscovering how to evangelistically engage modern secular culture is not an option if we wish to survive. New forms of ministry must abound. It was former Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki who pointedly stated, “If you dislike change, You’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

Yet it is here, in the midst of radical change amid the institutional life of the church which we have grown up with, that I am most excited and hopeful. Looking over what once was, the Lord brought me to a vision of the new future. A man stood up at Ferris Heights and shared what they were doing in Karios Prison Ministry. Such ministry was and is transformative in the way of Christ. Truly God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is even now birthing a renewed, deeper Christianity.

Ross Douthat in his engaging book Bad Religion reminds us of this reality in the following quote.

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterston describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith” – the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilizations. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud.

But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterston noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died” (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, pg. 277-278).

Embracing a full blown unapologetic, Wesleyan-to-core, classically orthodox Christian faith is the wave of the future, however far out to sea that wave may yet be. The signs of its coming are scattered around us. The way ahead is difficult. It will call for courage and sacrifice on the part of those who wish to be found truly and fully faithful. We are duly challenged. Is Jesus Lord of our lives, including our professional work? Is this his church or a human institution? Make no mistake, the way is strewn with obstacles but if this is the Lord’s church, the gates of hell will not stand against it.