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INCARNATION: The Outrageous Claim at the Heart of the Christian Faith, Part 1 ©

“Whew! You’d better take that sweater to the cleaners,” exclaimed Jolynn shortly after Thanksgiving. I confess, she was right. I had been holding (as much as I possibly could) then seven weeks old Adam Amittai Gabrielse-Lowry on my shoulder. He had rewarded my enthusiastic affection and joy by spitting up, multiple times, on the sweater. The smell of sour milk had left its marking scent all over me.

As I put the sweater in the car along with other clothes to go to the cleaners the following Monday, my thoughts had turned to Advent. Advent is the great time of preparation for the coming of the Savior. Thus it was a short mental leap for me to move from my beloved newest grandchild to the coming birth of the baby Jesus. Frederick Buechner’s words about “God in diapers” stuck in my mind.

Stay with me here, for this is the outrageous claim at the heart of the Christian Faith. God has come to us in the person of a baby named Jesus.

This outrageous claim is embedded firmly in John the Evangelist’s great symphonic opening overture. “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Many a scholar has noted that the phrase translated as “made his home among us” (CEB translation) or “dwelt among us” (KJV) means literally “pitched his tent among us.” Luke offers the awesome grandeur of an angelic announcement. “Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). Matthew shares in a more prosaic phrasing; “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place…. She gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus” (Matthew 1:18, 25). Mark, well Mark only gets at this universe-shaking change of reality in a roundabout way. “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, … After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:1, 14-15).

Each gospel in its own unique way announces a cardinal, core conviction of the Christian doctrine (teaching). It is called simply the Doctrine of the Incarnation. The great Nicene Creed puts it this way:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.”

Scholars define the term “incarnation” as literally meaning “enfleshment.” As one eminent scholar puts it, “incarnation expresses the belief that the divine took human form, or to be more specific, that God’s Word became the human being Jesus from Nazareth” (James D.G. Dunn, “Incarnation,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 I-Ma, p. 30). This outrageous claim lies at the heart of the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul understands full well what is at stake in the doctrinal conviction of the incarnation, especially as it plays out in the death and resurrection. “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).

This claim of incarnation, of the God of the entire universe coming in human flesh and living among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, must be at the very heart of our preaching, singing, prayers, and sharing at Christmas. Frederick Buechner grasps the essence of this outrageous doctrine at the heart of the Christian faith when he writes, “The incarnation is a kind of vast joke whereby the Creator of the ends of the earth comes among us in diapers…. Until we, too, have taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.”

To us, a “savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). May we sing with the angels and come with exuberant awestruck joy to a Bethlehem stable to peer over the shoulders of kneeling and behold God with us.

The Third Sunday in Advent ©

Today, I offer a liturgy for the lighting of the Advent Wreath candles.  As I wrote in my blog “The Advent Wreath,” for our family, the lighting of the Advent Wreath and the sharing of the accompanying liturgy around the kitchen table became a central element in our preparation for Christmas. Even now, with our children grown and having children of their own, this remains a central part of our devotional preparation for the coming birth of Christ.

The liturgy is based loosely on an ancient sharing of the Passover meal modified and adopted for Advent. This Friday, I offer a liturgy for use as a family (whether it be one person or many) in preparation for the birth of the Christ child on the third Sunday of Advent. Those wishing to receive the liturgy for the First Sunday in Advent may email my Executive Secretary, Mrs. Pattie Wood, (PattieWood@ctcumc.org) and she will send you the liturgy for the First Sunday. 

Bishop Mike Lowry

The Third Sunday of Advent
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 35:1-2

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light three candles as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light three candles?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The Prophet Isaiah said, “The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the rose [KJV translation].”  This is why the candle is often pink. We come to a Bethlehem stable with great joy and celebrate the birth of our Savior in the baby Jesus. May we prepare for Christmas with joy in what God has done and is doing in our lives.

 “The desert and the dry land will be glad;
       the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the [rose] crocus.
They will burst into bloom,     
      and rejoice with joy and singing.
They will receive the glory of Lebanon,     
     the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the Lord’s glory,     
     the splendor of our God.” (CEB translation)

Read:   John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sing: “What Child is This?”

What child is this, who laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

Prayer: “Lord Jesus, we come to you with joy as we prepare again to celebrate your birth.  May praise, laughter, and goodwill fill our hearts and burst forth in sharing. May the songs of this season engulf us with the joy of your presence, care, and all-consuming love. You are indeed the baby Savior and the Lord of all life born among us. With glad hearts and excited minds, we come to the celebration of your birth. Lead us to share your joy, hope and love with those who stand in great need and even greater want during this season. Let the goodness you instill in our heart and minds spill forth in joy for all people in your name and at your coming.  Amen.

The Vatican and Christian Unity ©

I pray that they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21)

Saturday, October 30th, I found myself with a group from the Central Texas Conference sitting in worship at the 5 p.m. Mass at the Vatican. As we faced the great high altar, to our immediate left was a Choir from CTCUMC. The Choir was built around the core of the tremendous White’s Chapel Choir. Shauna LaCroix Fuller, the Executive Director of Music and Worship Ministries at White’s Chapel led our witness in song. In a dramatically different and truly ecumenical way, we worshipped God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together. As we worshipped in St. Peter’s Basilica, I found myself both swelling with pride at the magnificent witness of our choir and humbling giving thanks that the great cause of Christian unity is being slowly advanced.

Monday morning I had a private 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 Michael Olson, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, had graciously set up our meeting. Additionally, I had been briefed in advance by United Methodist Bishop Michael Watson, the Ecumenical Officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, in preparation for our time together. We had almost an hour and a half of delightful in-depth conversation on the issues surrounding Christian Unity, especially as they related to United Methodists and the Catholic Church.

Nearing the end of our conversation, I asked Bishop Farrell what message he would like me to take back and share with the pastors and churches of the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. With his graceful urging I pass on the essence (as best as I remember) of Bishop Farrell’s comments. He began by noting (for the second time) that we (both our churches) have had a hard time translating the good work being done on a higher ecclesiastical level to the pews. He was deeply committed to the notion that bishops and other church leaders need to communicate our ecumenical commitments to our priests/pastors and congregations better. Then he proceeded to enumerate four keys elements he wished communicated.

  1. “Please communicate to your people how serious we are about Christian unity.”  His gracious and open conversation moved far beyond the merely superficial. Bishop Farrell explicitly referenced John 17 and Jesus’ prayer for unity for a purpose: “so that the world may believe that you sent me.”
  2. “We need to learn from each other!”  Bishop Farrell exhibited a wide and deep grasp of insights that he believes the Catholic Church is learning from sharing in dialogue with other Christian communities and noted specifically some of the insights he believes the Catholic Church offers us as United Methodists and Protestants. He re-emphasized that that we have much to teach each other. I could not agree more!  Openness to real dialogue at a deep level will benefit all of us and most emphatically the greater Christian witness to a non-believing world.
  3. Speaking of the formal dialog between the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations, he highlighted the problem that, from his perspective, Protestant denominations have drifted from their own core documents and this made it very difficult for Catholics to engage in a deeper dialog. I am compelled to say that I strongly agree with Bishop Farrell’s sense of a drift from our founding principles and documents. We, United Methodist, will better participate and assist the larger learning of the universal worldwide Christian movement by more clearly adhering to and offering up what makes us distinct. Bishop Farrell noted the Wesley doctrine of holiness (sanctification) as something he believes we have to offer the entire church.
  4. Bishop Farrell raised the wider issue of what is call “ecclesiology,” the order and governance of the church. In particular, he discussed the role of bishops (biblically the term means “overseer”) and the faithful continuity of our shared global witness for Jesus as Lord. Here too, I found myself in general agreement. With the rise of the “Independent Bible Church” in American culture, the biblical office of bishop (which is among other things, the locus of Christian unity) is deeply challenged.

There is more, much more, to my blessed time with Bishop Farrell. Allow me to close by sharing his conviction that the greater ecumenical ministry must be pursed with vigor on the local level –  congregation to congregation, pastor to priest, bishop to bishop, etc. God is truly with us in this effort. May the great prayer of Christ guide us – that we all may be one so that the world may believe.

The Hunger Among Us ©

Recently a friend pointed me back to an article written a number of years ago about The Beatles and spiritual hunger.  In their meteoric rise from obscurity to fame, The Beatles quickly discovered that fame and fortune were not everything it was cracked up to be. “At a later time in Lennon’s life he addictively found himself watching popu­lar television preachers in search of answers. It was reported that Lennon sent a fascinating letter to the Rev. Oral Roberts in 1972, regretting having said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and confessing that he took drugs because he feared reality. Additionally, he quoted the fa­mous lyrics ‘money can’t buy me love’ and sent a donation.”
“It’s true. The point is this, I want happiness,” read the letter to Roberts. “I don’t want to keep on with drugs…. Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell.”

In the midst of a thoughtful and lengthy response, Roberts wrote, “What I want to say … is that Jesus, the true reality, is not hard to face. He said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.'”

Despite the letters exchanged between the rock star and the TV preacher, Len­non’s restless journey eventually led him to embrace philosophies and beliefs that were all over the map.

“You could rattle human authority by growing your hair long, but you couldn’t conquer your inner demons in the same way,” observed [author Steve] Turner [in his book, The Gospel According to the Beatles]. “To ‘change your head,’ as John referred to it in [the song] ‘Revolution,’ required something much more radical” (Steve Beard, “Summer of Love,” Good News, May/June 2017, p. 9).

I am convinced and convicted that we live in a time and culture seeking something greater, something more, than what we have.  Society-wide, we have a desperate search for meaning and truth which often exists just below the thin soil of American hedonism.  Hurricanes like Harvey and Irma force people to confront this truth.  They challenge us by making us face what matters most.

There is a deep spiritual hunger among us.  We all need wisdom and guidance.  Faithful and fruitful churches understand this truth. It is a cry we hear behind the words spoken by someone who says “I don’t go to church, but I’m very spiritual.” It ricochets around this county. It reverberates in conversations held across social networks. It is part of the background noise of our searching society.

Great churches live out of this focused center. They understand that people are not seeking an institution but a relationship with God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The focused center we are called to live out of is the same one that captivated the struggling conflicted early Christian church. Thus, the Apostle Paul wrote the small struggling house church in metropolitan Corinth his second letter of instructions. “Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own” (II Corinthians 5:14-15, The Message).

Bishop Will Willimon writes: “There may be religions that begin with long walks in the woods, communing with nature, getting close to trees. There may be religions that begin by delving into the recesses of a person’s ego, rummaging around in the psyche. Christianity is not one of them” (William Willimon, Peculiar Speech, p. 19). It is about an encounter with Jesus, the God/Man. It is the divine answer to the hunger within, around and among us. This focused center brings us to faith – faith as trusting obedience that encounters Christ in our everyday lives through our following Him. It is no more nor less than the way of the cross. This is the true path of salvation. Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (John 12:26).

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #11 ©

Reclaiming a Doctrine of Salvation

 Last week Dr. Lisa Neslony, West District Superintendent in the Central Texas Conference, wrote in a perceptive email, “What if Christians sought the spiritually lost the way volunteers have been seeking people in Southeast Texas? And why don’t we? Maybe we don’t really believe people are threatened by a spiritual death that is as real as water rising all around you. It struck me Tuesday when I listened to the radio on my way west that some people had refused being ‘saved’ (the broadcaster’s word) on Monday but were begging to be saved Tuesday. I have to admit that sometimes I give up on people. But I am overwhelmed with the conviction that I should offer the saving grace of Jesus Christ to all I meet as many times as it takes so people can experience God’s salvation.”

In Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesley Way #10, I wrote on the concept of grace and noted carefully that an understanding of grace is ultimately tied to a doctrine of salvation. Thus at the heart of the Wesleyan Way is a rock solid conviction that the offer of salvation is for all! Ironically, the mainline Christian core has migrated from a battle over salvation for the elect only vs salvation as available to all (through not all are saved!), to a loose conviction that in some vague way everyone is saved. Often this theological fuzziness is confused even further by an understanding of salvation that is truncated into the simplistic (and false notion) of just getting into heaven.

In his great sermon “The Scriptural Way of Salvation” preaching on the text of Ephesians 2:8 (“Ye are saved through faith”), John Wesley famously noted: “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. . . . It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. . . . So that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul till it is consummated in glory” (John Wesley, “The Scriptural Way to Salvation,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 2, Sermons II, 34-70, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 156). So too, in Sermon I of Wesley’s collection of sermons (which formed a theological backbone of Methodism) Wesley connected salvation with grace and faith (again preaching on Ephesians 2:8) in a way that great clarity. “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation” (John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 1, Sermons I, 1-33, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 118).

In his marvelous book Who Will Be Saved? (which I heartily recommend!) Bishop William Willimon draws the connection tight. “Although celebration of humanity is the dominant, governmentally sanctioned story, it is not the story to which Christians are accountable. It is the conventional North American story that, at every turn, is counter to the gospel. Thus we begin by noting that there are few more challenging words to be said by the church than salvation. Salvation implies that there is something from which we need to be saved, that we are not doing as well as we presume, that we do not have the whole world in our hands and that the hope for us is not of our devising. . . . To be sure, Scripture is concerned with our eternal fate. What has been obscured is Scripture’s stress on salvation as invitation to share in a particular God’s life here, now, so that we might do so forever. Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation. Salvation isn’t just a question of who is saved and who is damned, who will get to heaven and how, but also how we are swept up into participation in the mystery of God who is Jesus Christ” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, p. 3).

Consider further that if the source of salvation is grace, God’s radically free unmerited love poured out for us on the cross of Christ, then a critical element of love is that it cannot be forced. Forced grace is a contradiction in terms. If it is forced, it isn’t grace! We either lean forward and say to God, “thy will be done,” or lean back and hear the Lord whisper in our ears, “all right then, have it your way.” (This phrase is not original to me but I do not recall the original source.) Hell is both real and of our own choice and making. It hinges on the critical decision of whether Jesus is truly the Lord of our life. It is about much more than simply saying the magic words of profession or passing off allegiance to Christ as mere intellectual assent. To be sure grace abounds, but is never cheap nor is it easy.

We have waded too long in the shallow pool of indulgent self-preference. The one who hangs on the cross for us and rises from death in triumph will not be content with a rotting sentimentality spread so thinly over 21st century hedonism. Hung over self-indulgent sentimentality cannot stand the gas ovens of the Nazis or the pain of cancer or the clash of our self-will at the expense of God’s created design and desire. Truth was not crucified on the cross. The Way, the Truth, and Life rose triumphant on Easter morning.

Any true notion of Christian salvation is tied inextricably to Jesus Christ. Again Bishop Willimon is on target. “Salvation is literally inconceivable apart from Christ: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Peter wasn’t speaking to the question of other faiths  – he was testifying before his follow Jews about the Jew, Jesus. . . . If Jesus is, as we believe him to be, as much of God as we ever hope to see, the one who uniquely brought about our at-one-ment with the Father, then we can’t also say that Jesus is only a way, one truth among many, and just another life. Jesus is not simply a great moral example; he is the salvation of God, God’s peculiar, un-substitutable fullness. Jesus’ distinctive way of suffering, sacrificial love, outrageous invitation, and boundary-breaking, government-enraging, relentless seeking – vindicated by surprising, unexpected resurrection – cannot be merged with other means of definitions of salvation” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, pp. 93-94).

If we are to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we cannot neglect the full development and employment of a biblical doctrine of salvation. Much of the muddled thinking about salvation comes from a confusion of the importance of good works as a part of salvation with a vague understanding of cheap grace. For far too long cheap grace has been stirred with the good works of love, justice and mercy in a manner which as produced the bland gruel of shallow “niceness.”  It is time to reclaim (and preach!) a full doctrine of salvation by Christ alone. And all this done in a manner soaked in humble grace at the foot of the cross and next to the open grave.

Professors Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson in their soon to be published book The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation take time to remind us of this cardinal conviction of early Methodism. “British Methodists summarized the distinctive Wesleyan aspects of salvation with the ‘four alls:’

“All need to be saved.
“All can be saved.
“All can know they are saved.
“All can be saved to the uttermost.”

(Taken from The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 66 pre-publication copy. Footnote: This summary was developed in the early twentieth century by W. B. Fitzgerald. See W.B. Fitzgerald, The Roots of Methodism (London: The Epworth Press, 1903), 173)

 

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #9 ©

A Community of Holiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The World is Our Parish ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #8 ©

Struggling with Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of First Importance ©

I confess that the words caught me off guard Easter Sunday morning.  They shouldn’t have.  Scholars argue that the passage read is an early creedal statement of the newborn Christian movement.

I had gone to Sunday worship in Boston at a non-United Methodist Church (Park Street Congregational Church) not as bishop but as Poppa, accompanying (with Jolynn) our son Nathan, daughter-in-law Abigail and most importantly our grandson Simon (21 months old).  It was a relief not be thinking of issues of same-gender marriage or ordination.  Nowadays these questions threaten the very foundation of The United Methodist Church.  My joy was that Easter morning did not revolve around some larger church dispute but focused on being Dad and Poppa (i.e. grandfather to Simon).  Still I must confess, those larger issues were not far from my mind.  We have been told to expect a ruling on the whether the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto from the Western Jurisdiction by the Judicial Council next week.

Anxiety is rising across the church and especially among the clergy.  The future of The United Methodist Church and possible schism hang in the balance.  I have consistently called for prayer and patience as we invite the Holy Spirit to work through the Commission on a Way Forward to guide us on how we can stay together and faithful with sharply different convictions on important issues surrounding human sexuality and its appropriate expression.  I quoted a friend and professor at Claremont School of Theology in an earlier blog in a way that bears repeating, especially in light of the Easter scripture read last Sunday morning:  Professor Jack Jackson wrote perceptively that “human sexuality has become status confessionis for many people at opposite poles on the issue. … We can say we agree on so many other aspects of the Christian life, but the reality is the issue of human sexuality is one of, if not the, key ecclesial issues of our time.  It is an issue that is both shaping and taking priority over every other conversation.”

The lay liturgist at Park Street Congregational Church in Boston read these words:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. . . .
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . .  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (I Corinthians 15:1-8, 14,19 NIV)

Sitting in the historic Park Street sanctuary (immediately adjacent to the Boston Commons with the historic Granary Burial Grounds on the other side of the church, Park Street is where William Lloyd Garrison gave an historic speech igniting the anti-slavery movement) struggling with my own thoughts about the future of The United Methodist Church, the words of verse three hit me again as if with crashing cymbals right next to my ears.  “I passed on to you as of first importance.”

Thank you Lord!  I needed to hear again that while our divisions and theological disagreements are important – so important they may merit deep change in our relationships and connection – they are not of first importance.  The resurrection of Christ is, alone, of “first importance!”

In commenting on this passage Professor Stephen Seamands reminds us, “Lordship and divinity, like two columns of a magnificent arch, are therefore inseparable and dependent on each other. And the keystone of the arch is the resurrection of Christ. Take that away and both columns – in fact the entire structure – tumbles down. Notice how Paul brings all three together at the beginning of his letter to the Romans. The gospel he has been commissioned to preach, he says, is about God’s Son, Jesus, who was “shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:4). (From Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 112).

Pungently C. S. Lewis explains:

There is not in Scripture the faintest suggestion that the Resurrection was new evidence for something that had in fact been always happening. The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe…. He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened.
(C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), pp. 236-237)

In all that may come, the resurrection of Christ is of first importance!  Such is the glory of Easter!

 

 

A Hill to Die On ©

As I write it is Monday, April 10, 2017.  Yesterday, I worshipped on Palm Sunday with my wife.  The children paraded through the sanctuary waving their palm branches.  It was glorious; a joyous expression of the faith!  I was sitting on the aisle and as they went past our row, I tried to catch the eyes of kids streaming past.  When I connected eye to eye, I would wink and wave at the littler ones.  Big smiles greeted me in return.  I told friends of ours in Jolynn’s Sunday School class that I wanted one of our grandchildren to be with us on such a great day.

And yet today, I read my paper as I ate my cereal.  I prayed for the Christian churches in Egypt that were bombed.  I prayed for those regardless of their faith commitment who suffered from violence and terror.  I prayed for U.S. troops overseas that they might be safe and return home soon.  I prayed for our President and leaders of both parties.  I prayed for our churches that the Lord might find us faithful in this tumultuous Holy Week.

As I looked up in conclusion, it was the cross that caught my eye.  You see, this week we call Holy exists in the shadow of the cross.  So much of modern living has the taste and even texture of tragedy and trial.  Much of life has the grip of struggle and strife.  We too have hills to climb as did Jesus that Holy Week so long ago.

My mind came back to a story that Rev. Ben Disney had shared in a sermon at the start of Lent.  He passed it on to me, and I share it without editing.

“It went on for ten straight days. May 10-20th 1969.
It was known as Hill 937
The battle was part of the Vietnam War – for ten days North Vietnamese fought soldiers from the United States over control of the hill.
In the end 72 Americans died- 372 wounded.
Losses on the North Vietnamese side was estimated at 630 dead.
The hill had no strategic value.
Two weeks after the Americans took it – they abandoned it.
It was known as Hamburger Hill
And it became a metaphor of the insanity and futility of war when there is no clear purpose or mission.

There are some hills worth dying on
Some causes worth giving our lives to
Some principles worthy of our highest calling

But I need to know in the course of my life –
Which hills are worth dying on and which ones are not?
Because the truth is there really is a hill worth dying on

How do I know that?
How do I know which hill matters most?

Because the one we follow – Jesus –
Has gone to great lengths to die on that particular hill
And he invites me to take up my cross and do the same.”
(Rev. Ben Disney, March 19, 2017; Arborlawn United Methodist Church)

This my friends is the call and claim of this week which we call Holy.  Jesus has died on that hill for us and challenges us now to follow Him in service and love of a broken humanity.  We climb the hill not as those without hope but rather with our eyes fixed on the Cross of Christ.  How does that great old hymn put it?

“In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o’er-take me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me.
Lo! It glows with peace and joy.”
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 295, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” John Bowring, 1825)

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