A Time for Courage: Part I ©

The following blog posting (A Time for Courage: Part I) is the first section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference on June 12, 2017.  The rest of the Episcopal Address will be shared in subsequent blogs.  — Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

One of the earliest images of the church of Jesus Christ is the image of the church as a ship at sea. You can find it imprinted on the episcopal stole.  Indeed the image itself harkens back to the Apostle Paul’s famous sea voyage to Rome and shipwreck on Malta, which is chronicled in Acts 27.

In our time, once again, images of the church as a ship at sea have come prominently to mind and are commonly used in referral and reference.  Come with me for a moment and consider some of the images of the church as a ship at sea.  The image is apt because few can doubt that we are sailing in troubled, tempestuous waters.  Consider the societal seas on which we sail:

  • Violence and terrorism seem to engulf our world, just think of ISIS, Manchester, and Syria.
  • Political chaos at home is a daily staple of life in newspaper, on television, in the blogosphere, and even among late night comics.
  • Economic uncertainty with looming retirements, healthcare concerns, and stock market fluctuations are a disturbing fact of life.
  • Religiously, the decline of the Christian Church across all denominations in Europe and North America is a well documented fact of life. For good or ill, we live in a secular age that dismisses and often knows little of historic institutional representations of Christianity.  We are in an age of religious anarchy and the absurd heresy of being “spiritual but not religious” (an oxymoron if ever there was one!) engulfs our society.
  • The twined heresies of a self-centered rampant individualism and a false prosperity gospel grapple with orthodox Christianity in both its progressive and traditional forms.
  • Perhaps deserving the top of the Christian list of high seas is our theological captivity to a cultural moralistic therapeutic deism chronicled so well by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean when she was with us a few years ago.
  • Closer to home in The United Methodist Church, schism over deep disagreements centering on human sexuality – specifically marriage and ordination – threaten to tear us apart.
  • Every year we close more churches.
  • That we exist in a major leadership crisis with the baby boom generation of pastors retiring and a missing generation of replacement pastors (those who should be roughly 45 to 55) ready for larger assignments is beyond doubt or dispute. A new generation of younger lay and clergy leadership is desperately needed.

Painfully we know that we face deep change or slow death, with a steadily increasing speed.  We must face this truth without blinking, reverting to denial, or ignoring the wider reality of our tough mission field.  We are in high seas and the tempest’s howling wind is increasing!

I could go on and so could you, but I think this is enough for now.  Amazingly this is not the whole story!  In the midst of the tempest of our times God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is powerfully, gracefully, compassionately, and explosively at work in our midst. The triune God is building or, more accurately, rebuilding the movement of Christ followers.  Amid the high seas we broach the crashing waves in amazing places. Consider a small sampling.

  • The rise in the number of younger clergy leadership presenting themselves for ordination.
  • The growth in the number of new faith communities in our very midst – try on The Oaks, sponsored by White’s Chapel or a Spanish language service at First UMC, Corsicana led by Lay Supply Pastor Martin Orozco or growing youth outreach in Ranger, Texas (incidentally led by the Youth Director of First UMC, Eastland).
  • Our try on the growing number of experiments in service and witness that combine the best of both missional love, justice and mercy with a genuinely evangelistic sharing of the gospel. Think about the Missional Wisdom Foundation or Project 44 or Life Church in Waco or bourgeoning campus ministries all across the Central Texas Conference.
  • The ever increasing number of congregations engaged in hands-on ministry for the hungry, hurting and homeless. Did you know that Nolanville UMC is engaged in a backpack ministry at the bus stop that combines concrete service help with a specific by name using Scripture grace-filled witness?  Or that Lebanon UMC (in the Central Texas Conference not the country of Lebanon) is running out of room in their sanctuary?
  • God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is moving in our midst folks!

No doubt you can add to this all too brief list.  The gospel truth is that amid the high tempestuous seas of modern life daring courageous Christian witness is surging forward.  This is the witness the risen Savior commanded be taken to the ends of earth (Acts 1:6-8).

It makes all the difference what ship, as an image for the church, you think you are sailing on. As our membership dwindles and our divisions widen, it is not uncommon to hear references to the Titanic.  Have you heard the phrase, “Oh, they are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?”  There is some painful truth we must face here.  For far too long we have acted as if we are too big to fail.  Professor Scott Kisker writes in Mainline or Methodist, “Real Methodism declined because we replaced those peculiarities that made us Methodist with a bland, acceptable, almost civil religion, barely distinguishable from other traditions” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist?: Rediscovering our Evangelistic Mission).

We must confess before an almighty and righteous God who sits enthroned over our lives as Father, Son and Holy Spirit that we have acted like those who boarded the Titanic. Like Carl Hockley in the movie, we believe “It is unsinkable. God himself could not sink this ship!”  You can make a good argument that we are not just headed for the ice fields but that we have already hit the iceberg and are taking in water.  I found reading Jim Collins’ How the Mighty Fall which chronicles the decline and even death of great corporations like A & P, Bank of America or Circuit City to be a painful shadowing of the history of The United Methodist Church in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

But wait! Wait just a minute.  There is another powerful image of the church we should well consider embracing.  Instead of sailing on the Titanic perhaps we are (or can be) on board the Mayflower.

Do you recall the magnificent history of the Mayflower?  In early September of 1620 they set sail with low provisions.  Fear was a constant companion as the western gales which swept the North Atlantic made for treacherous sailing at that time of year.  We know full well as an American people that they sailed for religious liberty and the cause of Christ.  They left the Old World with its model of territorial staid state supported religion behind venturing the storms of the North Atlantic and biting cold of a New England winter for a healthier, more vital Christian life and witness.  Their courage and conviction led not only to the religious freedom we so rightly cherish but, through the Mayflower Compact, to the establishment of representative democracy in North America.

Now apply this image to our context.  We set sail, should we have the courage and conviction which is to say faith and obedience, from the Old World of cultural Christianity and a favored place in America society for established Protestant Churches such as Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.  Our new religious world is a contested one.  Christianity, and Methodism in particular, will exist side by side with a host of competing alternatives.  The witness of vital churches and individual Christians will demand a charitable grace-filled future that will take real courage to offer a specific unapologetic witness for Christ which this new world of religious chaos desperately needs.

This is exciting!  It is hopeful!  It is a cause and commission worth the life of the Church that claims the risen Lord Jesus Christ as its head (See Colossians 1:18).  To laity and clergy alike, this is worth your life as a great call to the highest level of human living and thriving under the Lord’s leadership.  A bland, culturally passive, witness will be swept away in the storms that wash over us.  But a courageous engagement with modern culture that is faithfully and fruitfully expressive in missional evangelism by congregations and Christians in a new post-Christendom land … that is magnificent and truly done to the glory of God.

But wait, there is an even a better image for our adoption.  It comes from C. S. Lewis’s marvelous writing in the Chronicles of Narnia. The story of the voyage of the Dawn Treader offers an even greater image for Christian discipleship in our time.

Do you recall the story or perhaps remember the movie which came out in 2010 of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader?  Narnia represents the land in which the struggle between good and evil takes place.  The Dawn Treader was “the first Narnian ship to be built since the golden age and was commissioned by King Caspian, so that he might sail beyond the Lone Islands and on to the Eastern Oceans to seek the seven great lords” who had disappeared in a quest to fight evil in their land.

In the story Lucy and Edmund along with their cousin Eustace join King Caspian and his crew as they sail courageously into the unknown confronting the “green mist” which represents evil. As they do battle with the forces of darkness, Lucy hears Aslan, the Great Lion who represents Christ as Lord, speak to her.  “But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her ‘Courage, dear heart,’ and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

I submit that this is where we are in our raging tempestuous world today.  The world and especially our nation and the communities we inhabit do not need us to ape the vitriol that so infects our time and land.  In the great name of Christ, our Narnia, our world, needs us to sail unflinchingly into unknown lands. Christ’s words are meant to whisper into our ears, “Take courage, dear heart.” The Lord is with you, with us.

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