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VOLUME II: The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation  ©

In my last blog, I noted that I had been recently asked to review and write a publication “blurb” for two new books, Scripture and the Life of God by Dr. David Watson, Dean at United Theological Seminary and The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Professors Scott Kisker (United Theology Seminary) and Kevin Watson (Candler School of Theology). The Band Meeting is, in a sense, Volume II in a rediscovery of the classic Methodist system of developing deep discipleship. Professor Watson’s book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience is what I consider “Volume I” of a two-volume set on recovery the life of deep discipleship (sanctification) in The United Methodist Church. Members of the Central Texas Conference (CTC) will recall that Dr. Kevin Watson spoke to the CTC on Class Meetings last June.

Beneath the fold, almost under the radar of the current controversies sweeping The United Methodist Church around same gender marriage and ordination of LGBTQI individuals, is a quiet steady revival of small group discipleship. This is one significant area where most people can unite together across the theological spectrum.

The Band Meeting is an essential text for the recovery of deep discipleship in The United Methodist Church. I recommend it strongly to those who are serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ as Lord. Page after page challenges us both theologically and practically to embrace transformational holiness (in Christ) through the structure of reawakened Band meetings. “We write this book,” state the authors, “with the assumption that many Christians not only want deeper community but that they are also nagged by a sense that their discipleship is incomplete or lacking” (p. 8). The first half of the book offers a highly readable, excellent theological, biblical and historical foundation for Band Meetings. The second half shares concrete practical steps for starting and nurturing a Band Meeting. Together in these pages offer an opportunity to reclaim the essence of the Wesleyan movement in transformative discipleship. The authors close with the passionate conviction, “We are convinced that the band meeting continues to be a relevant and essential practice for people who are desperate to experience all that God has for their lives” (p. 159).

Early in their book, the authors offer a brief quote from Timothy and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us” (Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, New York: Riverhead Books, 2011; 101; taken from The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 7). The quote speaks not just to the life of deeper discipleship but to the deepest desires of all human beings. The Class Meeting is a critical need in the life of church. To be serious about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (as opposed to just making members of the church or casual acquaintances of Jesus) requires spiritual growth and training in faithful obedience to Christ. The watch-word of early Methodists in the Class Meeting was “watching over one another in love.”

The Band Meeting takes the Class Meeting to a deeper, even scary, level of walking with Christ. It involves genuine confession of sin in a way that risks vulnerability and results in the kind of spiritual growth which is truly called sanctification. Kisker and Watson write, “Sanctification is not a ‘climb, climb up sunshine mountain, heavenly breezes blow,’ as the old children’s song goes. It is a journey down and in, to deeper levels of self-knowledge, to greater dependency on the cross of Christ. It is exploring the closets of our souls we have locked, opening them, and allowing in God’s light. It is scary sometimes to ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12). We cannot, and were not intended, to do this work on our own. We need a band of brothers or sisters” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 118). Furthermore the early Methodists understood that “discipleship meant discipline. Early Methodists understood that fellowship exists among disciples, and without discipline there is no real fellowship” (p. 73).

What The Band Meeting does so effectively is connect core theological doctrines that are shared across the theological spectrum (doctrines of sin, salvation and sanctification) together and then provide us with a tested practical way of living in deep discipleship. This book and band meetings offer us a concrete step forward in walking with Christ. By way of illustration consider the following quote:

“Could it be that the problem facing the church is much larger and more significant than has typically been realized? Maybe the simplest way to put it is that we are all addicts. Some of us are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Some of us are addicted to pornography. Some of us are addicted to gossip, or lying, or television, or social media, or being right, or achieving. They list could go on. Most of us are probably addicted to multiple things. Our common trait is that we are all addicted to the ways of sin and death. We are addicted to a false gospel of sin management (managing death) instead of connecting with life” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 9).

Now link the above assertion that we engage in “sin management” and are addicted to our sins with the deeper Wesleyan way of intentional relational transformation. Our society is awash in the hersey of “spiritual but not religious.” Wesley will have none of such nonsense. Professors Kisker and Watson challenge us to take the next step. John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and other early leaders of Methodism held members to this standard because they were convinced that we need each other in order to come to faith in Jesus and keep growing in faith. This is what Wesley meant by the now popular (and frequently misused) phrase “social holiness.” Wesley only used the phrase “social holiness” one time in all his published writings. It occurred in the 1739 preface to a collection of hymns and poems. In the preface, Wesley critiqued the desert monastic tradition as a way to argue against similar excesses in his own day. He was adamant that we need each other in order to experience the kind of life that Jesus intends for us to have. Wesley displayed the kind of pointed logic he used when he was most passionate as he wrote:

“Directly opposite to [desert monasticism] is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 13).

There is more to be said, much more to be said. In this profound and easy to read book we are offered a significant next step into life with Christ which takes us beyond the class meeting. Please, don’t try this without first being a part of a class meeting. Yet at the same time, I urge the reader to buy this book and challenge us in our small groups and Sunday School classes to inhale its essence. “The band meeting is a catalyst for profound change because it is a place where we bring into the open what has been intentionally and carefully hidden. . .. Praise Jesus, the Holy Spirit is giving people the courage and desperation necessary to move into the light and receive forgiveness, freedom, healing, and power over the ways of sin and death” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 160).

RECOMMENDED! Scripture and the Life of God ©

Periodically, I am asked read a book pre-publication and write a brief promotional blurb for the book. I have had the pleasure of doing this for a number of books including (but not limited to) Leadership Directions from Moses by Olu Brown, A Missionary Mindset by Doug Ruffle, and Go: The Church’s Main Purpose by George Hunter. Recently I had the further distinct privilege of endorsing two new books:  Scripture and the Life of God by Dr. David Watson, Dean at United Theological Seminary and The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Professors Scott Kisker (United Theology Seminary) and Kevin Watson (Candler School of Theology). Both books are outstanding and well worth reading!

By way of endorsement for Dr. Watson’s book I wrote: “Scripture and the Life of God goes way beyond being one more informational book on reading Scripture. This book is transformational! Whether a pastor, a long-time discipled Christian, or a novice to the faith, all will be offered a fresh and exciting adventure into the transformational presence and power of God through Holy Scripture. I cannot recommend it highly enough!”

Dean Watson is a New Testament scholar who writes for the church as a whole. Pastors and Sunday School classes alike will benefit from reading Scripture and the Life of God. The book is written with Study Questions at the end of each chapter to facilitate group discussion. The author does not duck issues of biblical inspiration. Rather he insightfully takes us beyond commonplace considerations to a deeper level of meaning. Consider the following: “Yet in adopting one theory or another, we should remember that the meaningfulness of Scripture does not depend on a particular understanding of inspiration. It depends upon God. God is alive, and God reaches out to us in and through the words of the Bible. Therefore, we search the Scriptures. We pray over them. We listen to them in worship. We sing their words. Ultimately, we are formed by God’s work through them into the people we are meant to be. We have become participants in the divine nature” (Scripture and the Life of God by David F. Watson, pg. 15).

Allow me to offer a couple of other excerpts to whet the reader’s appetite:

“In this book, I want to argue a singular point: the Bible is a form of divine communication meant to lead us more fully into the life of God. Put in theological terms, we might say that through the Bible we receive divine revelation, the purpose of which is soteriological. In other words, the purpose of God’s Word is salvation for the world. John Wesley believed that Scripture shows us ‘the way to heaven –  how to land safe on that happy shore. …Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his Book; for this end, to find the way to heaven.’ Or to put in in yet another way, God speaks to us through the Bible and leads us into salvation. God loves us and wishes us to return that love. When we do, we enter more fully into the divine life. The Bible is a ‘book of meeting.’ It draws us ever more deeply into a relationship with the God who came to us in Jesus Christ. In light of this, our first posture toward the Bible should be one of gratitude, not criticism”(Scripture and the Life of God by David F. Watson, pg. xviii).

“Reading in community is an act of humility. None of us has all the answers. None of us is a perfect interpreter of the Bible. A particularly unique understanding of a passage of Scripture is not likely a very good one. We are fellow travelers on the pathway into the life of God. The biblical scholar James Sanders wrote that we should consider ourselves to be pilgrims: ‘The model of the believing community … is that of a pilgrim folk en route through the ambiguities of present reality to the threshold of truth.’ In this life, we simply will not reach our final destination. We won’t know it all. We will never apprehend the whole truth about God. We will not fully understand all that God has done for us. For our entire Christian lives, we are moving more deeply into the life of God” (Scripture and the Life of God by David F. Watson, pg. 50).

Dr. Watson closes by reminding the reader of a well known story of St. Augustine, which speaks into my life, our lives together, the life of the church and, I believe, has a word desperately needed for our times. “We started this book with a story about Augustine, the great theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries whose spiritual autobiography, the Confessions, is among the classic works of Christian literature. He would come to be called ‘Saint Augustine,’ an iconic figure after whom churches, schools, and cities would be named. Before he was any of these things, though, he was simply a man who came to understand that he needed to know God more deeply than he did. When he heard the voice of a child calling, ‘Pick up and read,’ he took it as a sign that God was leading him into the next step of his journey with Christ. He was obedient. He picked up his copy of Paul’s letter, he read, and he was transformed. Scripture was the vehicle that God used to lead Augustine across a crucial threshold in his life of faith” (Scripture and the Life of God by David F. Watson, pg. 113).

It is my hope that Pastors and Sunday School classes across the Central Texas Conference will use this book, Scripture and the Life of God, to help us better understand and more fully delve into the book which matters most – the Bible. John Wesley, the founder of the Wesleyan revival and the Methodist Church, speaking of the Bible wrote: “I want to know one thing – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. For this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God!” Scripture and the Life of God does just that! It helps us embrace the Holy Scriptures on a more meaningful level.

Summer Reading ©

I returned from summer vacation on July 25th toting a stack of books that I had taken with me on our travels east to see the grandchildren (along with their parents).  In packing a few weeks before, Jolynn had raised her eyes at me and querulously asked, “Do you really think you will read all of those?”  After 40 years, 11 months, and 9 days of marriage, I have learned how to read some of her body language.  Skepticism streamed out of her mouth and drenched her expression.  I was defiant.

In my defense, I did do a lot of reading while on vacation. I read Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, Ferry (as in the boat we traveled on to get to the Isle of Mull and Iona not winged creatures in the woods), Peg the Little Sheepdog, The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby (Simon’s baby brother – grandchild number 4 – is due in late September or early October), The Wheels on the Truck Go ‘Round and ‘Round (about 15 times) and others of like ilk.  Additionally, I did get to do some of the reading I planned on; just not as much as I had hoped for.

I manage to read:

The Five Marks of a Methodist: The Fruit of a Living Faith by Steve Harper
Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas Ricks
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Drehr (actually this was an audio book listened to while driving East)
About half of Methodism: Empire of the Spirit by David Hempton (I am continuing to read it and expect to be done soon.)

Some of my other summer readings (along with some fun ScFi mind-candy) include:

Unity In Mission: A Bond of Peace for the Sake of Love by Bishop C. Andrew Doyle
Bishop Doyle is the Episcopal Bishop the Houston Diocese.  He writes on how his diocese stayed in unity focused on the mission of the church despite divisions over the same issues that the United Methodist Church is currently dealing with.  The Council of Bishops has asked that all Bishops read this book.  I am currently about ¼ of the way through this significant book.

The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by The Arbinger Institute
“The Arbinger Institute is 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 as well.

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership for Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger
Using the metaphor of the Voyage of Discovery in the Lewis and Clark expedition, this book pulls together in a delightfully readable many of the insights of modern leadership and systems theory joining them with Christian values and faithfulness.  It is being read by a number of Cabinets in the South Central Jurisdiction (we will probably join them in reading it).  I am about 40 pages into it and recommend it highly (so far).

Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World by Bob Johansen
Rev. Ray Bailey, an elder in the Central Texas Conference and retired Brigadier General (Deputy Chief of Staff of the Chaplains Corp in the Army), now serving as Associate General Secretary for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) gifted me with a copy of this book which he highly recommends.  I trust his judgment and look forward to digging into it.  I also noted in my reading that Todd Bolsinger in Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership for Uncharted Territory draws quotes from this book.

Learning Theology with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall
This book is a companion to the outstanding Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures series (some 27 volumes) of which Hall served as Associate Editor.  I am reading this book with a number of young clergy in the CTC out of a conviction that for us to move forward into the future faithfully we must recover out theological core.  It is a deep long-term personal project.

Against the Tide:  The Story of Adomnan of Iona by Warren Bardsley
I began this delightful book on the Isle of Iona.  It chronicles the work of one of the great missionary saints and bishops of Celtic Christianity.  Hopefully, I’ll finish it before summer is over!

So, what are you reading this summer?  If we are called to worship God with our heart and mind, how are you feeding your mind? Summer is a great time for catching up on reading!

Oh, wait a minute, my list is incomplete!  A friend, who is a member of a different Protestant denomination, sent me a copy of Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World by Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia.  We are going to read it and compare notes about our learnings, the two of us from different Protestant Denominations, from one of the America’s leading Roman Catholic thinkers.  It looks fascinating.

There is more I want to read but like a kid surveying an overladen culinary banquet, I think my appetite is bigger that my allotted reading time!  Meanwhile, where did I place Nessie the Loch Ness Monster?  I am sure I have a picture of her (that is Nessie) somewhere….

 

 

 

 

 

An Opportunity not to be missed ©

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N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews University in Scotland, author and retired Anglican bishop of Durham, England is coming to Perkins School of Theology at SMU November 15-17.

Perkins School of Theology has issued a public invitation to join them in Professor Wright’s presentation. “We hope you can join us for lectures and discussion related to his book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good. More information and registration can be found at the following link: http://www.smu.edu/Perkins/Events/NTWright .

I believe that Perkins offers us a rare opportunity not to be missed in learning from Bishop N. T. Wright. Three free public lectures are offered:

November 15 at 7:30 p. m                  “The Jesus We Never Knew”
November 16 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus at the Crossroads of History”
November 17 at 7:30 p.m.                  “Jesus and the Future”

There are two special workshops offered (a fee is charged) on Wednesday which will focus on five books by Professor Wright’s:

I strongly urge you not to miss this great opportunity for learning!

 

Class Meetings and Making Disciples ©

In November of 2014 while meeting in Oklahoma City, the Council of Bishops heard an outstanding address from a class meetingyoung Methodist scholar named Kevin Watson. Dr. Watson (who is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology) shared a deep teaching based on his newly published book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.  I’ve had his book on my shelf intending to read it since hearing him in Oklahoma City.

On becoming one of the four supervising bishops for Rio Texas, his book leaped to the top of my long list of books to read. Along with Bishop Joel Martinez, I have picked up the task of representing the bishops at the upcoming Clergy Convocation of the Rio Texas Conference (an event similar to the “Clergy Day Apart” in the Central Texas Conference).  To my delight, I learned that Dr. Watson is one of the featured presenters for the event (along with Dr. Albert Mosley, President at Gammon School of Theology).

It is Dr. Watson’s connection, or more accurately reconnection, of the class meeting with the mission of the church which excites me. We know full well the stated mission of the United Methodist Church – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Clergy tend to get stuck in fruitless debate over precisely what or who a “disciple” is.  The technical navel gazing debate is more often than not a form of work avoidance.  Or, as a friend of mine puts it, “it may be complex but it is not complicated.”  I’ll stake my own flag in a fairly straightforward shot-hand definition.  A disciple of Christ is a committed disciplined follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If the reader wishes a bit more, I’ll add “who continues in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, prayers and the breaking of bread while reaching out to share Christ with all others and helping those in need through the deeds of love, justice and mercy”  (See Acts 2:42-47).  Disciples are fully devoted followers of the Lord Jesus Christ living the great commandment (Luke 10:27) and the great commission (Matthew 28:29-20).  As already stated, it is not complicated, but it is complex.

Disciples are made not born.  Wesleyan’s have always understood that people are transformed into disciples primarily through small groups committed to the shaping of the heart.  Indeed, Professor Watson quotes at the opening of the first chapter Methodism’s first two bishops in America, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke:  “We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages.  But the most profitable exercise is a free inquiry into the state of the heart.” (John Ortberg has written an outstanding book, Soul Keeping, which focuses on the “state of the heart.”)

It is the reconnection of the historic class meeting with the primary mission of making disciples that is so exciting in Professor Watson’s work. He notes that we have three primary types of groups. Affinity groups are gathered around common interest.  My wife is in a group that knits stocking hats for infants, especially in situations of poverty, to help protect that most vulnerable among us.  Back in Corpus Christi I was in a small group that cheered on the Chicago Cubs. (It was a religious experience for us but nobody else!)  Affinity groups mostly function around fun and fellowship not making disciples (there are exceptions but as such the spiritual formation engaged in making disciples – attending to the state of one’s soul – is rarely the focal point of an affinity group.

The second major type of groups found in churches are information-driven groups.  Most bible studies fall into this category.  While there is some sharing, the primary purpose is knowledge/curriculum driven.  Such groups are needed and important but rarely reach the level of depth needed for spiritual transformation that leads directly to more mature Christians (i.e. disciples, committed disciplined follows of Jesus Christ as Lord whose live have been transformed by Christ).  Pungently Dr. Watson adds “Methodists became addicted to curriculum and gradually turned to information-driven groups and away from the class meeting” (p. 7).

The third and most transformative type of group is the class meeting.  Watson’s basic description is instructive.  “A class meeting is a small group that is primarily focused on transformation and not information, where people learn how to interpret their entire lives through the lens of the gospel, build a vocabulary for giving voice to their experience of God, and grow in faith in Christ”  (p. 6). This is where disciples are formed.  In all our fussing and fighting, a recovery of the class meeting or something closely equivalent is necessary to turn from an institutional church back into a movement for Christ.

True transformational spiritual formation groups create disciples of Christ. Therein lies our best hope for a future that captures the Wesleyan vision of holiness of heart and life, justification and sanctification for a and to a hurting and hungry world.  I pray for such a movement for Christ!

A Blast from the Past ©

I have recently finished reading Christine A. Chakoian’s insightful book Cryptomnesia: How a Forgotten Memory Could Save the Church.  I pause in my blog writing to focus on this unusual book.  In particular I want to recommend that Sunday School classes and other learning groups might well benefit by taking time to read and discuss the insights the author offers.

cryptomnesiaThe dictionary renders “cryptomnesia” as a hidden memory which has come back to the forefront; “the reappearance of as suppressed or forgotten memory which is mistaken for a new experience” (The Collins English Dictionary; Cryptomnesia, p. xi).  The author explains it this way:  cryptomnesia is the opposite of déjà vu.  In cryptomnesia, “our brains are tricking us into thinking we’re encountering something new, when in reality we’ve been here before” (Cryptomnesia, p. xi).

What makes this book so worth reading and discussing is the way our current religious reality in post-Christendom America is a repeat of what the earliest Christians experienced in the Roman Empire.  Relearning our past not only gives us courage; it gives us tools for confronting the present and living into a new future.

The chapter headings are telling. In the first two chapters – “When Every Thing Changes: Life in America Today” and “Religious Life in the Shrinking World” – Dr. Chakoian (Lead Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forrest, Illinois) compares our modern experience of the rapid pace of change and cultural diversity with the experience of the first urban Christians.  I find it hope-giving to recall that we in the Christian Church have been in this situation before.  There are insights to reflect upon and perhaps employ.

Chapter 3, “Shifting Our Inheritance: What to Keep and What to Let Go?”, plunges the reader in the conflict going on in the early church as it emerged from the shadow of the Jewish Temple.  The earliest Christians wrestled with worship as it was evolving, the place of baptism (as an outgrowth of ritual baths, cleanings and new life), whether to eat food for idols, is the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) to be retained as Holy Scripture by Christians?, etc.  She rightly points out that some of the answers are surprising.

It is the application to our day that is especially challenging for us!  What are we to keep and what must we let go of?  Think back over the so-called worship wars and divisions about what is central in the worship life of your church.  What to keep and what to let go of are profoundly biblical and theological questions that merit clear headed practical answers.  The reader will easily grasp the parallel struggles between eating food dedicated to idols and circumcision with questions of worship styles and same gender ordination.  A good lesson for a Sunday School class would be to unpack Dr. Chakoian’s concepts of things that are “indifferent” and things that are “essential.”  Step number two would be to start writing your own list and discuss together.

In discussing (holy conversation?) she notes four key behaviors we can learn from the earliest Christians.

  1. “They came together to discern.
  2. They took turns testifying.
  3. They listened to each other’s witness.
  4. They looked to the authority of scripture, Jesus’ teachings, and the Holy Spirit.” (Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p. 50; emphasis in the original)

I confess that I wish to argue pretty strongly with the incompleteness of her list, but the concepts are well worth wrestling with in Christian love and care.

As a Bishop her fourth chapter sparked special interest for me.  It’s entitled “Authority and Community in a Flattened Age.”  She notes our culture wide rebellion from traditional authority.  However, Dr. Chakoian takes the significant next step of confronting the need for authority.  She writes, “Having some kind of authority isn’t optional; it’s essential for us as social creatures” Christine Chakoian, Cryptomnesia, p.58). The partial answer she offers models itself off of the earliest Christians and what they took from synagogues, the schools of philosophy, voluntary associations and the Ekklesia (The Household of God).  Dr. Chakoian challenges us to fully embrace a valuing of each other’s gifts without descending into chaos.  A taste of some of the writing is appetizing:

    • “Theresa Latini reminds us of the need for the church to be a place where we learn and practice community in an age of social disconnection.” (p. 73)
    • “Sustaining intimate, accountable Christian relationships in faith communities is crucial.” (p. 73)
    • “The era of top-down authority is over. But that doesn’t mean there is no authority.” (p.77, emphasis in the original)

There is more here.  Chapters on getting along and “taking the message to the masses” await our investigation and reflection.  I repeat the intention in writing this blog.  Cryptomnesia is an excellent book for a Sunday School class to pick up, read and discuss.  I have points of real disagreement with the author but the overall premise is on target.  We have a hidden memory we desperately need to rediscover.  I believe the Holy Spirit is at work in our recovery from biblical, theological and historical amnesia.  Here’s to good discussions!

Reflections on a Winter Day (c)

Like many of you, I found myself working at home on Monday, February 23rd.  Outside the study window, both our driveway and the street are covered in a sheet of ice.  Such winter days often leave me in a thoughtful reflective mood.  I try to catch up on writing, email and reading.

In my reading this morning I am continuing to plumb the depths of John Ortberg’s marvelous little book Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You.  Over the past few months, my spiritual guide and I have been slowly working our way through the book and its accompanying study guide.  Today I read the 13th chapter entitled “The Soul Needs a Blessing.”

I found myself captivated by insights that Ortberg (and through John Ortberg, Dallas Willard) offers.  The words “blessing” or “blessings” is one I use often and casually, yet with meaning on my part.  It is here the author focuses my intention.  He writes:  “Blessing is not just a word.  Blessing is the projection of good into the life of another.  We must think it, and feel it, and will it.”  In this simple yet profound definition, I am taken to a deeper level.  I am asking myself, “When I say ‘blessings’ or ‘God bless you,’ do I think it, feel it, and/or will it?”  My honest answer is a hedged yes; mostly but often, far too often, not on an impactful level.  A blessing is reaching out in love.  It connects me to the great commandment, to love God with my heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love my neighbor as I love myself.

John Ortberg quotes his great mentor Dallas Willard (to whom the book is dedicated) as saying, “Churches should do seminars on how to bless and not curse others.”  On reading I simultaneously experienced an “aha” epiphany and a punch in the stomach.  I pastored local churches for 30 years and never once held a seminar on how to bless not curse others.  Furthermore, I’d like to take such a seminar!

Under Willard’s tutelage, John Orberg starts with a passage we know well.  I first learned it about 50 years ago as a teenager.  We called this passage of Holy Scripture the MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) benediction.  It comes from Numbers 6:24.

“The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

The following is my own shortened summary of advice from Soul Keeping on learning to bless (pp. 154-157).  I continue to commend this whole book and in particular this chapter to you.

1.  Blessings and curses are “simply the two ways we treat people.”
2.  Blessing takes time, so don’t hurry.
3.  “Blessings-giving should be asymmetrical. It is not a form of barter.  It’s grace.”
4.   Turn to the one you want to bless.
a.  Look into their eyes..
b.  Allow your mind to focus on this particular individual, the one before you.
5.  “The Lord bless you” = may the Lord, “constantly bring good into your life.”
6.  “Keep you” = God should protect and guard you with the sacrificial love of Christ on the cross. John Ortberg adds:  “Underline the word you.”
7.  “His [God’s] face shine upon you” = the Lord’s glory and delight be in your life. Dallas Willard adds, “Glory always shines.  Glory was always meant to be shared.”  As I understand the biblical concept of glory, it means the radiant presence of the Lord.
8.  “The Lord lift his countenance upon you” = being fully present to someone. I cannot help but think the opposite is multi-tasking while we talk to someone.
9.  “And give you peace” = “unthreatened, undisturbed peace”

I hope to be more of a blessing to people.  How about you?

Math and Mission

One of the great gurus of church and conference vitality is Dr. Gil Rendle.  Gil serves as Senior Consultant for the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF).  He is the convener and guide for the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) Bishops Conclave (a bishops’ learning group) as well as working with a group of Cabinet members from across the state.  He is the author of a number of significant works including Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (which I have highly recommended in the past) and his newest, Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics.

Last June I was invited by Dr. Rendle to write a brief recommendation of the book.  I wrote the following:

math of missionDoing the Math of Mission is a seminal work that merits a deep embrace by struggling mainline Protestants.  Rendle challenges us to move beyond counting to measuring purposeful outcomes related to the deep mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Diamonds of insight are found on almost every page.  For instance, “Perhaps the most effective outcome is one that ‘offends’ in its clarity” (p. 30). The critical shift of focus from inputs to measurable outcomes, which reflect clarity of purpose, offers specific and concrete guidance to any congregational leader (lay and clergy alike) or any judicatory executive.  Framed in a sound theology, Doing the Math of Mission provides critical material to build a bridge to the future of God’s preference of the Church.

Currently we (as both a Conference and as the larger United Methodist Church) are wrestling with issues that swirl around accountability (for both churches and clergy), metrics, outcomes and fruitfulness.  These critical issues will not and should not go away.  I have repeatedly insisted that metrics must be yoked to what I like to call the narrative.  Narrative is the story of fruitfulness in its widest context.  At its root the issues of faithfulness and fruitfulness intersect at the junction of just-whose-church-is-this.

Biblically speaking, we must always insist that this is not our church – either Conference, laity or clergy – but in fact the Lord’s church.  It is, we are together, the body of Christ!  Math really goes with mission!  Thus, it is a joy to strongly recommend and urge the reading of Gil’s insightful book – Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness, and Metrics.

While I am on the subject of mission, tomorrow Jolynn and I leave with a Central Texas Conference mission team to Kenya.  Many churches in the Central Texas Conference have had long-term mission relationships with the Methodist Church of Kenya.  It should be an insightful and exciting time of learning.  I hope to blog about the trip in the unfolding 2 week period.

This is truly a part of our purposeful outcomes related to the deep mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

A Writing Retreat

This coming Monday afternoon, I will be leaving on a 5 day “writing retreat.”  I have been working off and on to write a book on what direction the church (especially the United Methodist branch of the Church Universal) should take.  I have started and written different chapters about five or six different times.  I guess I think in sermonic size because much of what I want in the book I have shared in sermonic form.  Yet, I find it difficult to sit down and write the book out in full.  Hence the retreat is a working attempt to still life and focus on what I think needs to be said.

As I look back over notes that stretch before I was elected to the episcopacy, there are a number of titles I have proposed for this “book.”  At one point I came up with the title The Wilderness Way. (Quite separately and after I had outlined this tentative work and written pieces of some chapter, Gil Rendle wrote his great book Journey in the Wilderness.  If you have not read it, I commend it to you strongly!) Chapters partly written include – Faith-walking into an Uncertain Future, Into the Unknown, Go to Deep Waters, The Wilderness Way, Rediscovering Evangelism and Perseverance.

Another tentative title was Back to the Future.  Taking the title from the infamous movie of the same name starring Michael J. Fox, the essential thesis was that we need to go back to go forward.  We need to rediscover the lessons of the original Christians in The Acts of the Apostles (which is the actual title of what we call simply Acts, the fifth book of the New Testament), learn from the Wesleyan revival and especially from the work of the first Methodists in America, and conduct an examination of the some current explosive examples of “movemental Christianity” such the church in China.  My tentative chapter titles include things like – Into the Wilderness, Back to the Future, Answering the Why, Evangelism Embraced, The Church to Come, and Who Trusts in God? – Providential Leading (Borrowing from Albert C. Outler’s book of that title).

More recently my draft work has been tentatively entitled simply The Way.  The earliest Christians were called “followers of the way” (Acts 18 & 19; Acts 24).  Over the last few years I have preached a number of sermons on the “The Way of Christ.”  A recent series was on 1) Followers of the Way, 2) The Way of Salvation, 3) The Way of a Slave, and 4) Shepherds of the Way.

My latest tentative title is The Way: Our Designs’ or God’s Preferences.  The outline goes something like this.

Intro
Issues
The theological wasteland
Jesus at the Center — one among many or The One
Rejecting Schleiermacher & reclaiming revelation
Becoming again a distinctive people
Elements
Genuinely orthodox
Truly Wesleyan
Passionately missional
Unashamedly evangelistic

As you can see, I have a lot of work to do!  I find myself repeatedly coming back to a theme I first lifted up in a speech to the United Methodist Publishing House Board in 2006 and later put in article form for an article published in The Circuit Rider just prior to the 2008 General Conference.  Whatever else we are about we must be: 1) Genuinely orthodox, 2) Truly Wesleyan, 3) Passionately missional and 4) Unashamedly evangelistic.  I am convinced that The Way meaning the Way of the Lord before us necessitates a deep recovery of a core Wesleyan theology and spirituality as a first order of business.  Only from a firm foundation of orthodoxy with Christ at the center can we truly walk in the Way of the Lord.

I ask your prayers for my writing project.

 

 

 

What Does Your Church Pray For?

In my readings, I recently finished Andy Stanley’s intriguing book Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend.  As usual in reading Stanley’s material, I found myself stretched and challenged.  There are insights and ideas I loved.  There are also items I have deep disagreement with.

deep and wideOne particular insight I find myself wrestling with came late in this book.  “Speaking of prayer, what does your church pray for?  What does the staff pray for?  What do your elders or deacons pray for?  God’s blessings?  The presence of God?  A pouring out of the Holy Spirit? Safety? As far as the “presence of God” and “a pouring out of the Holy Spirit,” you’re a bit behind.  Both of those were covered on the day of Pentecost.  Regarding God’s presence, Jesus promised to be with those who were making disciples, not gathering for worship.  So besides you, and what you and your congregation want God to do for you, what does your church pray for?” (Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide, p. 312; emphasis in the original).

I want to debate a couple of inferences.  For starters, I think there is nothing wrong and everything right about praying for a fresh or renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  To do so hardly negates or discounts Pentecost.  Secondly, I think Jesus did promise to be with those gathering for worship – Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”  But beyond those debating points, I found a deep probing and high challenge in Stanley’s paragraph.

We pray regularly and earnestly as a Cabinet when we meet.  We pray for discernment and guidance.  We pray for pastors and churches.  We pray for hurts of the world.  We pray for loved ones.  Oh my how we pray.  In our prayer life together, we use the common response for a prayer of celebration – “Loving God, we give you thanks,” and an equally common response for prayers of petition – “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.”

What I’ve noticed is that we seem to have almost 10 prayers of petition and concern for every one prayer of celebration.  We appear to focus on healing for loved ones, for the church, for the world and are light on prayers seeking strength, courage and conviction.  We pray heavily for discernment and insight but seem almost timid in praying for focus, direction, nerve.  We are top heavy on divine intervention and almost quiescent on praise.

There is nothing wrong with our prayers and our praying.  They are good and godly.  Unfortunately we have limited ourselves.  Andy Stanley reflects on the prayers of the early church, a church facing persecution and in desperate need of protection.  What did they pray for? He quotes Acts 4:29 – “Now, Lord, take note of their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with complete confidence.”  They prayed for boldness!  They prayed for God to act mightily – “Stretch out your hand to bring healing and enable signs and wonders to be performed through the name of Jesus, your holy servant” (Acts 4:30).  Notice the results in Acts 4:31.  “After they prayed, the place where they were gathered was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking God’s word with confidence.”

Andy Stanley reflects on the prayers of the first Christ followers: “They asked God to do something powerful through them, but not for their sake.  They were totally focused on those outside the walls of their gathering place” (Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide, p. 313).

I think I pray too genteelly, too tamely, and am both convicted and blessed by Stanley’s insight. How about you?  For me, it is past time to pray for boldness.  Praying is an act of trusting God and obediently living out our prayers.

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