Archive - January, 2018

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #14 ©

Practical Christianity

Last Saturday I was sitting at the First Steps: How to Big Your WIG Journey gathering in the Fellowship Hall of University UMC.  The gathering wrestled with the goal of how we reach out to a new generation. The WIG (Wildly Important Goal) is our stated mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The group was investigating how to engage missional evangelism. In particular, they were struggling with how to get beyond faith sharing as simply invitational (i.e. knocking on doors and inviting people to church) and missional engagement (the deeds of love, justice, and mercy) as having an explicit faith element that introduces Christ as Savior and Lord to people. In the midst of what felt like a tired old (albeit heartfelt) discussion, one pastor stood up.

“Instead of knocking on doors and inviting people to come to church,” he said, “I go where they are. I go to Starbucks and get involved in conversations with people about what really matters in their life.” Instead of offering an attractional model, he went where people were.

This notion of going where people are is at the heart of the reclaiming the Wesleyan Way. Famously, John Wesley wrestled with just such a public “embarrassment.” Prodded by his friend George Whitfield, Wesley finally left the safety of the church sanctuary to go where the people were. He writes in his Journal “At four in the afternoon I submitted to ‘be more vile’ [2 Sam. 6:22], and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people. The scripture of which I spoke was this . . .: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor’ (John Wesley, Journal, April 2, 1739).

Professor Scott Kisker writes of this central “Wesleyan Way”: “The market place was Wesley’s most frequently used post for this preaching – often the market cross. This stone monument at the center of a market town provided symbolic focus for the intersection of the sacred with the secular. Here the salvation of God met the everyday lives of the people. Here consumers, thieves, merchants, slaves, saints and sinners gathered for the business of the day” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist: Rediscovering Our Evangelistic Mission, pp. 76-77).

                          

At its heart Methodism, what I have chosen to call the Wesleyan Way, is about practical Christianity. In fact Wesley’s theology is often labeled “practical divinity.” It is about both where and how the Christian faith intersects everyday living. Doctrinal teaching (“orthodoxy”) is inseparably linked to correct practice (“orthopraxy”) of the Christian faith. Check out a website of Methodist beliefs and this crucial concept of practical Christianity virtually always shows up.

The website http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-wesleyan-heritage puts it way: “Wesley and the early Methodists were particularly concerned about inviting people to experience God’s grace and to grow in their knowledge and love of God through disciplined Christian living. They placed primary emphasis on Christian living, on putting faith and love into action. This emphasis on what Wesley referred to as ‘practical divinity’ has continued to be a hallmark of United Methodism today.”

Ironically enough much of our practice of Christianity has reversed the emphasis and retreated into the church. Both missions and evangelism have been tragically divorced from each other. The heart of the Wesleyan Way is to put missions and evangelism together in a practical Christianity at the market place cross!

Back in my seminary days, I wrote a paper on the adoption of the Methodist Social Creed. It is anchored in this central tenant of the Wesleyan Way, in a practical Christianity that is lived out at Starbucks and not just in the church sanctuary.  One of the authors of the early Social Creed was Rev. Frank Mason North. He wrote a famous hymn which passionately lays out this emphasis, “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.” The first verse is:

Where cross the crowded ways of life,
Where sound the cries of race and clan,
Above the noise of selfish strife,
We hear your voice, O Son of man.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 427, “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life“)

We are called to go and share the gospel of Jesus Christ by both word and deed where people are! Under the Holy Spirit’s power and presence, we offer a practical Christianity “turn-key” ready for everyday living.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #13 ©

Faith Sharing

The story is well known and speaks to the heart of the Wesleyan Way. Roger Ross relates it as follows:

On April 2, 1739, at age thirty-five, Wesley took the plunge:

At four in the afternoon I submitted to ‘be more vile,’ and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining the city, to about three thousand people.

That was the tipping point of the eighteenth-century revival. If Wesley had waited for those three thousand people to come to church, he would have died standing at the altar. Instead of making them come to him, Wesley went to them.

The early days of the revival felt like a page out of the book of Acts. Compelled by the love of Christ, Wesley would head to the Kingswood coal mines at 5 a.m.
(Meet the Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share Faith by Roger Ross; p. 19)

At the very heart of Methodism is a conviction that people need to come to saving faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. Famously John Wesley said, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go always, not only to those who want you, but to those who want you most”  (Minutes of Conference, 29 June 1744, revised 1745). The painful reality of the current United Methodist Church is that we are excessively reluctant to engage in faith sharing and witness – what we might classically call evangelism.

I have had the joy of serving a number of wonderful churches. On one occasion at Asbury United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi, we consciously geared up to teach evangelism and faith sharing. This wonderful congregation had a history of conversion growth. There were a number of years in which adult professions of faith exceeded the number of people who joined on transfer from another congregation.

The associate pastor taught a course designed to help people discover their personal best style of evangelism  She used material from Willow Creek Community Church entitled Becoming a Contagious Christian: Communicating Your Faith in a Style that Fits You (written by Mark Mittleberg, Lee Strobel & Bill Hybels). As the class, started participation was high. People were eager to discover how to share their faith. Slowly the class built on the learning until the time when people would actually share their faith with a non- or nominal Christian friend.

As the time for faith sharing came closer attendance steadily decreased! Anxiety palpably rose. Excuses for not being able to complete the course grew with creative reasons. It became obvious that many in class (most of us!) were afraid. Fear of faith sharing, rejection, and ridicule was a mind killer and a spirit drainer. Assisting the associate pastor in teaching, she and I over and over tried to address the fears present (both those articulated and those that remained unspoken).

One of the first steps at recovering a personal witness is to honestly face the fear of doing so. The fears we have are often (almost always!) far greater than reality. Amazingly, if shared respectfully in a gracious natural way with attentive listening, most people are eager and hungry to talk about their deepest beliefs, highest yearnings, and soul gnawing spiritual hunger. We need to appropriate the advice of I Peter 3:13-16: “Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience.”

A second key element in recovering personal witness is a willingness to share your own experience of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit acting in your life. People want to know how you experience the Lord Christ in your life far more than they want to know about God in the abstract. Share your story!  It doesn’t need embellishment. In fact, dressing it up weakens the beauty and greatness of God’s presence. Have you had a “God-sighting” this past week? Share the story!

A third basic part of first steps for a congregation recovering personal witness and faith sharing is that the pastor has to practice what he or she is preaching. Put differently, the pastor must – absolutely must! – be a player coach. At a minimum this involves spending time and making friendships with non-Christians and not just residing in a church ghetto. Friendships and relationships have to be real and not just done to get a conversion. One of our deeper struggles is that many Christian people don’t know many non-Christian people. Make some friends and be a friend without expectation of reward. God will offer the opportunity for sharing. (Bob Farr, Doug Anderson, & Kay Kotan have written an excellent basic book titled Get Their Name that can help.)

A fourth basic step at recovering personal witness is to engage in recommending. Jim Ozier (Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church) notes that we are “hardwired to recommend.” We recommend all kinds of things – restaurants, stores, people, hairstyles, doctors, etc. American culture is geared more to recommending than inviting. A crucial first step in faith sharing is simply to learn to recommend Christ and your church to others.

One of my treasured books is an old copy of D. T. Niles classic That They May Have Life (copyright 1951 [currently out of print]). D. T. Niles was a great evangelist, pastor, leader of the World Student Christian Federation, President of the Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Methodist Conference, and President of the World Council of Churches in the middle part of the 20th century. He opens his book with the following assertion. “Evangelism is the call of the hour, as it has been the call of every hour when Jesus has been taken seriously” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 11).

Better remembered and often misquoted is his famous statement found in that classic. “Evangelism is witness. It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 96). Rev. Niles continues in the same paragraph: “The Christian does not offer out of his bounty. He has no bounty. He is simply a guest at his Master’s table and, as evangelist, he calls others too. The evangelistic relationship is to be ‘alongside of’ not ‘over-against.’”

I overheard the conversation; so too did others. In setting you really couldn’t help it. The puzzled plaintive questioning in the voice was unmistakable and the dialogue surfed the edge of embarrassment. It involved a young woman talking to a close and obviously treasured boyfriend. I cannot remember the dialog word for word but it went something like this.

“I don’t understand? If it meant this much to you why wouldn’t you share it with me?”

His response was muffled and awkward. “I didn’t want you to feel pressured or put you on the spot.”

Her earnest, almost heated, reply came back. “But if it meant that much to you; you could at least share your convictions.”

He mumbled something about being embarrassed and fearful of rejection. She respond by saying something to the effect of “if you love, as you say you do, how could you not share!?”

Can you guess what the topic was?  It was about her boyfriend’s failure to share his deep convictions of faith in Christ with his girlfriend. Apparently, he had told her that he went to church but never added much more to his low level, low key sharing. For her, it was a test of love. If you really love me, you will share.

Faith sharing is at the very heart of the Wesleyan Way. More importantly it is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is Lord and Savior. We live in the midst of a people who desperately need to hear that fullness of life, salvation, comes in relationship to him.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #12 ©

The Union of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy or Holiness of Heart and Life Reconsidered

As we move into the new year, I want to pick back up on a theme, a series of blogs, I started early last fall. I wrote on the subject “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way.” At that time I outlined a series of blogs that would conclude with blog number 15. Last fall I wrote through blog #11 and then moved to other (related) topics. With the United Methodist Church facing a possible schism, or splintering, at an upcoming Called General Conference in February of 2019, I am convinced now more than ever that it is important we go back and reclaim our original roots.

I cannot shake a series of conversations I have had with a variety of different people over the past year. One particular interchange is lodged in my mind. Last October I shared insights from a meeting with Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in the Vatican offices across the street from St. Peter’s. Bishop Farrell shared a conviction that different parts of our larger Christian family had insights that we all need to learn from. He explicitly commented that the Methodist movement brought to the wider Christian dialogue a sense of the importance of holiness and holy living.

For John Wesley and the early Methodists, this deep sense of holiness of heart and life was a core element of the Christian faith. In fact, so methodical were the “Wesleyans” about pursuing holiness of heart and life that they were called “Methodists.”

Recently I preached on an important passage from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel. Do this, whether I come and see you or I’m absent and hear about you. Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).

To the best of my knowledge only one other time does the Apostle Paul use the phrase “of most import” or “of first importance” or some other equivalent. The other occasion is found in 1 Corinthians 15, the third and fourth verses when he writes to a letter to the church at Corinth. “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). On that occasion he writes of a central, core, cardinal doctrine (that means “teaching”) of the Christian faith – the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. He spends a chapter arguing that if you don’t buy the doctrine of resurrection, you can throw the rest of this away; it is a waste of your time – “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless;” he write a few short verses later, “you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).

There (in 1 Corinthians 15) the issue is of critical belief – doctrinal importance (orthodoxy = right belief). In this passage from Philippians the issue is of critical practice – the way we live (the technical term is orthopraxy). The two – orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) are inseparably linked. Break one and the other soon will fail. The original Wesleyan movement took this connection so seriously that Wesley linked living “together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel” (Philippians 1:27) with the Articles of Religion as a doctrinal core he established for the Wesleyan way of faith. (See Paragraph 104, Section 3 – Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.)

Those early “Methodists” arnchored this crucial connection on the teaching of Jesus. Jesus uses the reference of the word “important or importance” always to refer to the issues related to the Great Commandment. For example in Mark 12 when asked by a legal expert which commandment is the most important “Jesus replied, ‘The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these’” (Mark 12:29-31).

Every time our Lord and Master references what is most important, he points back to behaviors that reflect the theological heart of the Christ faith. The doctrinal bedrock of monotheism is welded to holy living. When the Apostle Paul instructs the infant struggling church at Philippi to “Live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel,” (Philippians 1:27) he is reflecting the very heart of the teaching of Jesus.

Professor Scott Kisker writes: “As he [John Wesley] read the works of the early Church Fathers, and English devotional works his mother recommended, a particular vison of the Christian life and of the Church captured John – one he carried for the rest of his life. It was a vison of simplicity, of holiness” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist?, pp. 29-30). The essence of holiness of heart and life shakes out in what is called the doctrine of sanctification.

The conviction that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are welded together is at the heart of the Wesleyan Way. Confessing Christ as Lord and Savior necessarily involves us in the deeds and actions of love justice and mercy. In today’s language, Wesleyans are by their very being involved in personal and social holiness. This, we believe, is not the just the way of a faithful church, it is very way of Christ. In doctrinal allegiance to Jesus as Lord, we commit ourselves to live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ! The so called social gospel is inseparably linked to the very heart of the Christian faith and specifically to the Wesleyan Way.

In Honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I sent this letter via email from our Conference database on January 10th to all the local church congregations and lay members across the Central Texas Conference, but I also wanted to share with you. May we continue the groundbreaking work done by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
-Bishop Mike Lowry

Dear Friends in Christ:

I am writing to you to convey an important date and even more important ministry in which we, as the church, are engaged. This coming April 4 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I believe it important that we stand together as Christians in a clear response against racism and violence in all its forms. Furthermore, I believe the tragedy of this great leader’s death offers us a special time and opportunity to remember his legacy of racial justice and mercy. In pausing to remember, may we rededicate ourselves to a fully inclusive society that honors and loves all of God’s children.

I write now to ask that you and your congregation consider in some way recommitting to the call for racial justice and the end of violence in our society on or around April 4th. We live in a nation that has been ripped asunder by deeply imbedded lingering racial divides. I need only mention events like the demonstration in Charlottesville, the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the tragedy of violence over shootings of young African American males and police officers. These events cry out to us to be a people of Christ who stand for racial justice in a way that honors all.

I realize that Easter this year is April 1st and that most pastors and churches have appropriately gone “all out” over Holy Week and Easter to walk in the footsteps of Christ to the cross and beyond in the celebration of His resurrection. In most congregations, the Sunday after Easter is one of the lowest attendance Sundays of the year. I further realize that for most pastors it can be difficult to summon a lot of energy to do anything the week immediately following Easter. Thus, I write inviting you at an appropriate time this Spring to lift up, celebrate and remember Dr. King’s witness and legacy to us as a Christian saint and the call of Christ that claims all of us to be people at work for justice and mercy in our communities, society and wider world.

It is my hope that pastors and laity will come together lifting the cause of racial justice remembering Dr. King’s great Christian witness. I leave it to your best prayerful good judgment on how to best respond and honor this fiftieth anniversary of his death. 

Yours in Christ,

Bishop Mike Lowry

Transformation and the WIG: An Update Report ©

Last September Mart United Methodist Church launched a new faith community built around what they call J.A.M. (Jesus and Me). The new faith community is focused on serving pre-K through 6th grade children in the Mart ISD. Pastor Amy Anderson shares the following story:

One of the first children to sign up was a 2nd grader named Peyten. She came from a single parent household where the mother was a well-known drug addict. One month after we started, Peyten was taken by CPS and placed in the care of an older brother in Waxahachie. The mother, Tammy, as well as CPS gave us permission to remain in contact with the child. We have been able to send her cards, letters, and children’s devotional items appropriate for her age. We also supplied her with Christmas gifts through our children’s change-for-change mission offering. She is doing extremely well.

Her mother, Tammy, got “scared straight” so to speak. Losing her daughter is what it took to make her face reality. She voluntarily went into outpatient rehab and began coming to church. She has also joined us for dinner on Wednesday evenings and stays for bible study. This has been ongoing since the middle of October. She has tested clean and negative for drugs 6 weeks in a row. Last Sunday, Tammy came to me after church in tears and said, “I want to let everyone know that I want to follow Jesus from now on. This town talked about me and judged me but this church loved and embraced me and showed me a better way to live. I want to be a part of this.”

I am so excited to say that she has chosen to profess her faith in worship this coming Sunday, join the church, and has asked to be baptized. We are bringing in a horse trough and celebrating in a big way. It is because of the New Faith Community of J.A.M. that we were able to reach her, through her daughter. She has a long road ahead of her in so many ways but, spiritually, we have a plan in action to help disciple her and a strong group of folks to walk with her on her faith journey. God is good…all the time!

I am awed by the grace of God exhibited through a church responding to the wildly important goal (WIG) of “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  This is truly a story of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in the lives and ministry of a local congregation. It is a narrative of the grace of Christ reflected in a redeemed life.

Narrative (story) and metrics go together. They are a report of God in action moving in, through, and with us. There are crucial lead measures that reflect a commitment in the transformational ministry of making disciples of Christ. Three crucial lead measures for the Conference & Districts are:

1. The number of churches with measurable goals
2.  The number of churches growing in average worship attendance
3. The number of new faith communities

For local congregations, there are also vitally important lead measures which go with stories of transformational disciples. Local church lead measures are:

1. The number of people engaged in faith sharing mission
2. The number of first time visitors
3. Setting measurable goals for average worship attendance and professions of faith growth
4. The number of new faith communities
5. The number of small groups

A couple of additional narrative stories tie to the key metric of the number of new faith communities. Rev. Meg Witmer-Faile, Associate Director of the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth shared the following:

“Just wanted to share with you that I attended the launch of Saginaw UMC’s ‘Simply Worship’ 9:45 AM new faith community yesterday. As you likely recall from their grant application, this new worship service was one of the congregation’s Holy Focus goals, so it is encouraging to see it coming to fruition. Also, they were very grateful to receive the $10,000 grant and expressed that before the end of the worship service, recognized me as representing the CECG/Conference Leadership.

It was a good worship experience, seemingly well-received, and well-attended (@75-80, I believe). Jason, Estee, Greg (the new part-time worship leader for this service), and their Holy Focus worship planning team had obviously prepared well for the launch of this new service. …

One additional note, the woman I sat with during worship yesterday, shared with me that she had visited the Saginaw church three times, had had coffee with Jason to learn more about the church, and had come to church that morning specifically for the Simply Worship service. It was obvious to me that she was comfortable and engaged in worship. What a gift and a blessing—grateful!”

Again the narrative ties to changing metric and God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is active in our faithfulness. One additional narrative I offer comes from Trinity United Methodist Church in Arlington. Dr. Dean Posey, Lead Pastor at Trinity, writes to Rev. Ben Disney, East District Superintendent and Rev. Mike Ramsdell, Executive Director of the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth:

“I wanted to share with both of you some very good news about Trinity. Our average Sunday School attendance for 2017 was 505, and the average worship attendance for 2017 was 645. Our WIG is to increase our Sunday School attendance to 750 by December 2020. We made a decision last fall to add two new worship services beginning January 7, 2018. One worship service is for adults at 9:45am, and the other new service is for children at 11:00am. In addition we added four new Sunday School classes on January 7, 2018 as the first step towards our WIG. I am excited to tell you that last Sunday, January 7 we had 574 in Sunday School and 730 in worship! That is 69 more people in Sunday School and 85 more in worship. We are very excited as we begin this year and look forward to a great 2018 here at Trinity. Thank you both for your encouragement and support.”

Praying Our Way Forward ©

 

It is a famous story and even more famous poem, yet both the story and the poem bear repeating. In the early days of the Second World War, King George the VI gave a Christmas address to the British Empire. In the address he quoted a poem authored by Minnie Haskins. The poem is popularly known as “The Gate of the Year” but the title given it by the author was “God Knows.”

THE GATE OF THE YEAR
‘God Knows’

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

I am asking members of the Central Texas Conference, both lay and clergy, and all others who would join us to share in a special time for prayer for the future of The United Methodist Church.

For over forty years the United Methodist Church has wrestled deeply with how to best respond and be in ministry with our brothers and sisters who identify as LGBTQI. More specifically, The United Methodist Church finds itself in a deep crisis over whether our clergy should be allowed to preside at same-gender weddings and whether “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, Paragraph 304.3) will be eligible for ordination as Deacons and Elders in The United Methodist Church. Currently neither practice is allowed by the Church’s Discipline (church law).

At the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, The United Methodist Church was on the edge of schismatic division over this issue. At the request of the General Conference the Council of Bishops (COB) of The United Methodist Church established a Commission on the Way Forward to bring a report to the a special called General Conference in February of 2019. While this Commission has been meeting, a number of Annual Conferences in the United States have declared their intention (and taken action upon that intention) to refuse to uphold church law as a matter of conscience. The COB has a special called meeting in late February of this year to consider a preliminary draft of the Commission’s report. In its regular meeting in May, the COB will consider the final recommendations of the Commission.

As a part of this larger work, the Council of Bishops have asked we as a people of faith be in prayer together over this potentially denominationally dividing issue. Accordingly, “The Central Texas Conference has been invited by the Council of Bishops to pray for the Commission on a Way Forward from Jan. 28 to Feb 3, 2018. (All other Conferences across the world are also asked to be in prayer over this matter.) You and your local church are invited to join in this important opportunity.

The Council of Bishops has asked each Annual Conference to commit to a week of intentional and fervent prayer for the Commission on the Way Forward. The appointed week for the Central Texas Conference to pray our way forward is Jan. 28 – Feb. 3. I have signed up to be in prayer on Tuesday morning at 7:00 a.m. on January 29th. I both invite and encourage every organization associated with the CTC – each local church, every district office and center of the CTCSC, all Wesley Foundations, extension ministries, UMWs, UMMs, etc. – to claim at least one 15-minute period and devote themselves to prayer.

The Central Texas Conference website has full details and link by which you can sign up for a prayer slot. The great missionary evangelist, pastor and teacher E. Stanley Jones once offered the following benedictory prayer. I now pass it on to you that together we may pray for our Lord to guide us and the Church into the future.

“As you go into the future, remember: The light of God surrounds you. The love of God enfolds you. The presence of God watches over you. The power of God protects you. Wherever you are, God is” (E. Stanley Jones, The Way, April 9).

Heading Into the New Year or When the Camel Dies ©

Yesterday, I closed the Year of our Lord in great joy, praise and thanksgiving. Our youngest grandson, Adam Amittai (Jonah’s father’s name; it means “truth;” otherwise he is known as “Awesome Adam” to me) Gabrielse-Lowry was baptized. In this sacred act (sacrament), we – his family – celebrated God’s presence and embrace of Adam as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What a great way to end one year and begin another!

I have been musing on how we are to head into the new year. There is much that can be written and shared. We could rightly discuss at length such things as faith, commitment, service, etc. Instead, suspecting how tumultuous this new year of Our Lord 2018 will be, I choose to focus on what to do when the camel dies. Allow me to explain.

My wife is a member at Arborlawn UMC, and as an accompanying spouse I get to attend that church more than any other. One of the experiences we enjoyed greatly this Advent was their live nativity celebration. It is a wonderful way to step back into the story of the Savior’s birth and learn again of the ways of God with us! This is not the first time we have attended Arborlawn’s live nativity (and a number of the churches I had the privilege of serving held live nativities themselves). As we sat on a bale of hay watching, people in the know whispered that we should watch the new camel. He entered on cue somewhat rambunctious and rebellious. The week following, I inquired to Rev. Ben Disney (the East District Superintendent and former pastor of Arborlawn) about the “back story” of the camel. He shared the following tale:

“For years Arborlawn UMC has presented a Live Nativity event for the congregation and community. The telling of the Christmas story and the birth of Jesus involves close to 200 volunteers, costumes, set designs, music, dancing angels, and live animals such as a herd of sheep, donkey and a camel.

For 10 consecutive years the same camel appeared in each presentation; an older camel named Elisha who was remarkably gentle and tame. Children were encouraged to surround it and pet it. The camel would always remain calm in spite of loud noises, distractions, children running or large crowds just a few feet away. Every year, without fail, the camel would kneel on cue at the feet of the newborn savior to pay homage to the birth of our savior.

A few years ago it happened. Elisha the camel returned for another performance as part of the Live Nativity pageant. The early presentation of the evening went on without a hitch. As always, on cue, Elisha the camel processed in with the wise men and knelt down to honor the newborn king. Following the early presentation Elisha was escorted to a corral where he waited for the final evening show. Elisha laid down. A few children came over to pet it. One of them remarked that something didn’t seem right. The handler for Elisha said the camel was just sleeping. The children were quickly escorted away. Elisha had passed away.

For the second presentation of the evening no camel was used. The presentation went on without Elisha and the cast improvised as best they could.

The following year a new very young camel was brought in to take the place of Elisha, the older camel. But the younger camel was unlike Elisha. The new, younger camel was nervous and aggressive. The children were not allowed to pet it and the cast held their breath hoping the handler could control him as they processed in for the crucial scene. The new, younger camel did manage to bow down to the newborn child but it was only after a lot of coaxing and pulling on the part of the handler. Defiant and rebellious to the end the newer younger camel was taken quickly to the corral for the safety of the crowd, especially the children.”

What do you do when the camel dies? What do you do when something which seems essential or at least very important, doesn’t work, or moves on, or dies? Those are questions for we who would enter the new year in faith.

The obvious answer is that you trust God and go forward in faith. In sharing his story, Rev. Disney noted, “I do find it intriguing that the final act of the old camel on this earth was to bow down before the lord of lords and the king of kings.” I am more than convinced, I am convicted that the final act of the old camel must be our first act of the New Year.

Epiphany Day is traditionally understood as January 6th. It is the day that the magi (wise men) are said to have arrived to present their gifts to the baby Jesus. So here is where we both end the old year and begin the New Year, in adoration of Christ the Lord. The new young camel came in full of vim and vigor at this year’s live nativity. He was rambunctious. We need his energy in our lives and in the life of the church. But we need it harnessed to the kneeling in faith of the old camel.

From a posture strangely mixed with adoration and enthusiasm, awe and energy, commitment and courage, we are called by the Lord of the New Year to embrace this entrance into uncharted territory. Biblically speaking, the Christmas story isn’t over at all. It is just beginning. Our entry into 2018 must be guided by obedient pioneering faith. We enter the unknown led by the Lord.

Recently I have been reading Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger. I commend it highly. Using the metaphor and model of the Lewis & Clark Expedition for moving into uncharted territory, he offers tremendous insight for how we might move forward into the new year. Bolsinger outlines five critical lessons for leadership in uncharted territory (heading into the New Year).

  1. “The World in front of you is nothing like the world behind you.
  2. No one is going to follow you off the map unless they trust you on the map.
  3. In uncharted territory, adaptation is everything.
  4. You can’t go alone, but you haven’t succeeded until you’ve survived the sabotage.
  5. Everybody will be changed (especially the leader).”
    (Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, p. 17)

How do we head into the New Year of our Lord 2018? With persistence, perseverance and faith. When the camel dies, we go forward into uncharted territory. Before we do – critically before we do!!- we kneel in adoration and homage. Then, like the young camel, we go forward with zeal.

Happy New Year!