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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.

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).

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #10 (C)

Amazing Grace!

Few Christian doctrines have overtaken The United Methodist Church as the doctrine of grace.  One could almost argue that the song “Amazing Grace” has become the unofficial anthem of the church. The words ring out:

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear
And Grace, my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed
(“Amazing Grace,” Hymn No. 378, verses 1 & 2, The United Methodist Hymnal)

For John Wesley, an understanding of grace was and is always tied to a doctrine of salvation and more explicitly to an understanding of justification. Two of Wesley’s favorite texts for preaching were: 1 Corinthians 1:30 – “It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us.” And, Ephesians 2:8-10 – “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.” Thus Wesley writes in his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament on Ephesians 2:8, “Grace, without any respect to human worthiness, confers this glorious gift. Faith, with an empty hand, and without any pretense to personal desert, receives the heavenly blessing.” Wesley’s footnote on 1 Corinthians 1:30 reads, “out of His grace and mercy.”

A simple definition of grace might be the radically free and wholly unmerited gift of God’s love and forgiveness. Father Roger Haight, S.J. has written one of the best books I have ever read on the subject (I read it for my doctoral work back in 1983) entitled The Experience and Language of Grace. Tracing the connect of the word from the Latin gratia back to the Greek charis, which is the word the New Testament uses, he writes that the word charis of several Hebrew words which convey “meanings reducible to three main ideas: condescending love, conciliatory compassion and fidelity. As a result,” says Father Haight, “the word grace has the special connotation of everything that pertains to a gift of love; it is totally gratuitous or unmerited and underserved” (Roger Haight, S.J., The Experience and Language of Grace, p. 6).

I love the old acrostic for Grace.
God’s
Riches
At
Christ’s
Expense

The claiming or reclaiming of the Wesleyan Way will always have an understanding of grace tied to a doctrine of salvation at its center. Most of us find it easy and comforting to apply grace to ourselves, our loved ones, and our church. Where we choke is on applying a doctrine of grace to someone we consider obviously underserving. But then that is the Christian dilemma. The claim of the faith, rising out of a proper understanding of the infection we call sin, is that all of us are underserving.

The second place we choke on a doctrine of grace lies in our modern rendering of grace as something cheap or easily given. Grace is, to be sure, radically free but it is never cheap or easy. Our own experience should tell us this much.

The words of the famous Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer offer both a caution and frame for our usage of the great doctrine of grace.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. . . .

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. … In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 45-46)

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).

 

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #7 ©

Scripture, Tradition, Reason & Experience:  Understanding the Quadrilateral in Wesleyan Theology

 This blog picks back up on an extended summer blog series entitled “Reclaiming The Heart of the Wesleyan Way.”  In part five of my blog on this series,  I shared part of the General Rules of the United Methodist Church and the struggle for a common theological core, which I believe is currently taking place within United Methodism.

The “General Rules” (along with The Standard Sermons of Wesley and The Explanatory Notes on the New Testament) are the heart of the United Methodist doctrinal core. They are contained in Section 3, Paragraph #104 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016. Dr. William J. Abraham, Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, has decisively demonstrated that there is a stated and officially adopted doctrinal core for the United Methodist Church. In this time of identity crisis within United Methodism, Section 3, Paragraph #104 is worth remembering and reflecting upon deeply. Professor Abraham rightly notes: “United Methodist doctrine can actually be identified. It is not an amorphous body of vague proposals. Nor is it some malleable theological method which can be twisted to fit this or that fad or convention of culture. United Methodist doctrine is substantial; it is identifiable; and it is clear in fundamental content” (William J. Abraham, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church, p.14).

As church history will teach anyone with casual knowledge of the past, a clear doctrinal core does not finally, once and for all settle issues of doctrinal content. Deep debate still continues about the meaning of this core, how it applies to a current context and historical setting, and what its implications are for “practical Christianity” in our time. In its collective wisdom the United Methodist Church has adopted a method for engaging in debate and discussions about the meaning of our doctrinal core. It can be found immediately after the section on our doctrinal core. Section 4, Paragraph 105 is entitled “Our Theological Task.” Such a critical task – that is of thinking theologically about what we believe and how we are Christian – by very necessity must engage each generation anew.

Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, outlines what is commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The “quadrilateral” is not itself doctrine. Rather, it is a proposed method for doing theology (that is to say thinking and reflecting on God and ways of God among us). It is made up of four components of how we get at the Truth (capital T) of the Christian faith. (The opening part of Paragraph 105 is well worth a careful reading!)

The four components of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are:  Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Each section in Paragraph 105 deserves careful attention. All parts of the quadrilateral do not carry the same weight in theological discourse; thus, The Discipline (as a matter of both doctrine and method) places Scripture above the other three. “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 83).

Tradition is a reference to what we have learned from the saints of the past. This especially includes the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed (both found in the United Methodist Hymnal). The importance of tradition can easily be recognized in Scripture as well as in practice. The admonition of Hebrews is instructive. “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Hebrews 11:1).

Experience acknowledges the importance of a “heart” faith (not just an intellectual collection of “head” doctrines). Again The Discipline is instructive. “Our experience interacts with Scripture. … Experience authenticates in our own lives the truths revealed in Scripture and illumined in tradition, enabling us to claim the Christian as our own” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 87).

Reason becomes a key component or method by which we put theological and doctrinal discussions together. The Discipline is careful to note at the outset of the section on reason, “we recognize that God’s revelation and our experience of God’s grace continually surpasses the scope of human language and reason, we also believe that any discipline theological work calls for the careful use of reason” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 88).

As a whole the “Quadrilateral” has much to commend itself as a method for doing theology (thinking about God and the ways of God).  The danger of heresy, however can slip in when Scripture is subordinated for personal preference backed by a partial reading of Christian history (tradition) and casual application of experience and reason. The tendency in our time is use one of two of the key components (say Scripture and Tradition or Experience and Reason) separate from all four. Instead of an acknowledged method of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a person then ends up with what is a functioning bilateral or unilateral governance of theological discourse that is bereft of the full wisdom of the faith.

There is more to be said here, much more. For now hopefully, the reader’s appetite has been whetted enough to encourage a full reading of both Sections 3 & 4, Paragraphs 104 & 105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, pp. 65-91. As the “good ole boys” used to say, “there’s is gold in them thar hills!”

However we approach issues of deep doctrinal substance, and make no mistake the current threat of schism in the United Methodist Church is ultimately about our doctrinal core, the only truly faithful Christian response is with great humility. “Now we see in a mirror dimly” (I Corinthians 13:12). “This [Our] witness, however, cannot fully describe or encompass the mystery of God” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 91)

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #5 ©

Embracing of Our Doctrinal Core

A focus of the great historic questions for ordination in the United Methodist Church centers on embracing the doctrinal core of United Methodism.  Consider this brief listing of questions put to candidates for ordination at the clergy executive session (from The Book of Discipline 2016, paragraph 336, p. 270):

6.   Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
7.   Will you keep them?
8.   Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?
9.   After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
10. Will you preach and maintain them?

The list brings the thoughtful Methodist Christian up short.  We presume a foundation of common agreement with the basic core doctrines of the United Methodist Church.  Furthermore, John Wesley argued extensively that they formed a common core foundation with other Christians built upon the great creeds of the Church, especially The Nicene Creed (#880, The United Methodist Hymnal) and The Apostles Creed (##881 &#882, The United Methodist Church).  Under “Qualifications for Ordination” (Paragraph 304, The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016), the importance of embracing our doctrinal core is stated even more emphatically:  “Be accountable to the United Methodist Church, accept its Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, accept supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers.”

In today’s United Methodist Church I do not believe a common doctrinal core can be assumed.  The struggle to embrace a common doctrinal core lies behind the current conflict around biblical interpretation and same gender marriage & ordination.  Our theological core must be thoughtfully and prayerfully examined, discussed, argued and finally embraced anew.

As a start, I invite an examination of what we now have in the United Methodist Church.  The Doctrinal Standards and General Rules are listed in Paragraph 104 of The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.  They include those adopted from both the predecessor denominations – The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Methodist Church.  They start with a firm foundation:

Article I-Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Article II-Of the Word, or Son of God, Who Was Made Very Man

The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

Article III-Of the Resurrection of Christ

Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.

Article IV-Of the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

Similarly the Evangelical United Brethren doctrinal standards, which were also adopted at the time of union, list the first four doctrines as:  Article I-God, Article II-Jesus Christ, Article III-The Holy Spirit.  There are a total of 25 Articles from the Methodist Church and 16 from the Evangelical United Brethren Church.    That all sounds like a lot but they actually boil down to a basic core which John Wesley largely adapted from the Church of England.

All this makes for somewhat dry reading until we pause to reflect that much of our current angst and debate centers on issues of core doctrine.  What do we believe is central and non-negotiable?  And, just has importantly, how do we interpret or understand core doctrines as they relate to salvation, sin, free will, the sacraments, etc.?

I step back into what might well seem an archaic rendition because what we believe matters.  Belief informs, educates and guides our actions.  Likewise, we often act ourselves into a new way of believing.  As one of pastors stated in a recent sermon, “which is more important belief or action?  The answer is yes!”  It is both.  The one informs and helps shape the other.  Neither belief nor action operates on island divorced from the other.

The way forward for Methodists will surely involve rediscovering and embracing anew our doctrinal core.  The term classically used to describe the doctrinal core of the Christian movement is “orthodoxy.”  Professor Wendy Deichman, former President at United Theological Seminary comments:

“What is orthodoxy? Merriam Webster defines it simply as “a belief or way of thinking that is accepted as true or correct.” In Christian usage this definition applies to central beliefs of the earliest Christian church, those which, in a great sea of competing options, were finally synthesized into creeds and confessions that were formally adopted by the church. It was because of these convictions about the gospel that Christians of each era have gone to the trouble to pass their Christian faith on to others, including their own children, and eventually including us who now also embrace the core doctrines the early Christians believed to be true and correct.”

As I travel across the church I cannot help but note that our theology is weak and appears to be adrift.  We stand in desperate need of recovering our doctrinal core.  But mere knowledge is not enough.  A theological embrace is needed if belief and action are to mutually invigorate each other.  I invite the reader to look through Paragraph 104 of The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.  What would be on your list of a core doctrinal belief for Methodists?  How does it match the actual position taken by the United Methodist Church?

All too often today we regard doctrine and orthodoxy in negative terms.  Sometimes “orthodoxy” is claimed as the handmaiden of one group or other.  A friend who is decisively on the progressive side of our current divide recently reminded me that the claim to being orthodox is not the province of one part of the church or another.  Today the make-up of “orthodox” Christianity is contested.  The purpose of this blog is less to argue for a particular position and more to advocate a needed embrace of the historic doctrinal core of the Wesleyan Way.  Professor Deichmann advises us rightly:

“Although some will assume or argue that Christian orthodoxy is made up of an oppressively long list of doctrines used to subjugate and control people, history will confirm that Christian orthodoxy is most often expressed in a stunningly short list of beliefs that affirm the Holy Trinity and salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy as historically understood does not wed believers to a long inventory of theological, political, and social doctrines. Rather, orthodoxy as we are using the term here and as expressed in Christian history is made up of a relatively short list of core doctrines that have to do with the heart of the gospel. For example, orthodoxy is not even definitive on the nature of atonement. Rather, it generates conversation among believers in the gospel about the nature of Christ’s death and how we then should live.”

A Time for Courage: Part I ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council of Bishops Meeting and Courage ©

Later today (April 28, 2017) I will drive to Dallas for the beginning of a week on Council of Bishops business.  Saturday we have a joint meeting of Bishops and Conference Chancellors.  (Ken Adair is CTC Chancellor and Wilson Woods is CTC Associate Chancellor.)  There are a variety of legal issues that the church is constantly facing (issues revolving around the Trust Clause and property, legal issues dealing with various complaints, etc.).  This is a regular gathering which I find both interesting and at times quite challenging.

On Sunday afternoon the Council of Bishops will begin its regular spring meeting with a memorial worship service remembering both bishops and spouses of bishops who have joined the Church Triumphant since our last gathering.  Somewhere early in our gathering (possibly Monday, May 1st) we should receive news of the Judicial Council’s ruling on the validity of Bishop Oliveto’s election.  As I have written about in recent blogs, the issue of human sexuality will dominate our discussion and reflections.  Anticipation/concern/hope for next year’s report from the Commission on the Way Forward and the looming specter of possible schism hang over our gathering like the Sword of Damocles.

And yet . . .  in the midst of our conflict, the central issue of building vital congregations remains squarely in front of us regardless of any individual bishop’s stance on the controversial issues surrounding human sexuality.  The opportunity and challenge of learning together spreads out before us and the whole church.  Herein is reason for hope. “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).  The hope offered by the Lord God calls us to a time of prayer, reflection and learning together.  It elicits courage from us regardless of our individual positions.

The 2016 General Conference called for extensive church-wide reflection on The United Methodist Church’s system of church government (ecclesiology).  A document entitled “Wonder, Love and Praise” has been written by the Committee on Faith and Order.  Here in Central Texas we already have a task group working on how to lead a Conference-wide study (i.e. studies in every congregation) offering feedback with prayerful and thoughtful reflection.  Together the bishops will begin the wider conversation on church ecclesiology this coming week.  It sounds dry but in reality has the potential to critically impact every local church.

In executive session the Council will receive reports on the progress of the Commission on the Way Forward and spend serious time together seeking to discern the will of the God for the larger denomination.  During our gathering we will meet regularly in Covenant Prayer Groups, which will include all bishops (both active and retired).  It is our hope to model Christian grace and appropriate behavior for the whole church on how to handle disagreements.

As I have been preparing myself, I have been in prayer for the church and the Commission.  I’ve spent careful time reading the report mentioned above (i.e. “Wonder, Love and Praise”).  In my reflection, prayer and reading, I have heard the Holy Spirit speaking to me, and I think to the whole church.  Reading Bishop Rueben Job’s devotional one morning, I was struck by his call to honor the “sovereignty” of God.  In part he writes: “We become prisoners to our own weaknesses and the evil of the world when we forget that God is sovereign and God is able. … Prayers that are completely dependent upon a sovereign God will touch the most troubling parts of our lives and society as a whole” (Rueben Job, 40 Days with Wesley, p. 11).  A few days later my morning scripture reading included a passage from Matthew 10:26-31.  It opens with the words, “Therefore, don’t be afraid of those people because nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing secret that won’t be brought out into the open. What I say to you in the darkness, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, announce from the rooftops” (Matthew 10:26-27).

I am reminded in my reading and prayer time of that constant theme which comes from the Lord is the angelic admonition to “fear not” (Luke 2:10).  Bishop Job has written: “Ever since Jesus has appeared to the disciples, Christians have discovered that there is no need to fear when one is in the presence of God.  To walk with God not only rebukes our fears and sends them away but also increases our courage. … From fear to courage is the natural journey of all that walk with God”  (Norman Shawchuck and Rueben Job, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, p. 185).

Out of those and other readings in my devotional time, the Holy Spirit prompted me to pick back up a significant monograph written by Dr. Gil Rendle.  It is important to note that the Committee on Faith and Order commended that Dr. Rendle’s monograph “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time” should also be read alongside “Wonder, Love, and Praise.”  I commend both to you strongly!  You may find them following the above links.

I close with a tiny sampling of the profound insights found in Dr. Rendle’s monograph “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time”:

“Courage requires the hard work of thoughtfulness and resolve. . . . In the writing of philosopher John Silber, ‘Courage is often misunderstood as a capacity to suppress emotions of fear.’ … Courage is less the response of the stirred heart than of the discerning mind.  Courage is knowing what to be afraid of.  This knowing takes a considerable amount of work.” (p. 3)

“Projections of survivability of our small congregations indicate that over a period of a few decades our United Methodist denomination should expect to close about a third – over 10,000.  The bottom line of our current situation is that, denominationally, we cannot avoid internal pain and suffering.” (p. 11)

“Courage, in the face of empathy, is the act of leadership keeping attention and resources on those people, and that part of the system, with the most potential to align with purpose and move toward identified outcomes.  Courage is to choose missional strategy over relational comfort – and to resource the strategy as needed.  Courage is to choose not to be redirected by empathy when pain cannot missionally be avoided.”  (p. 14)

Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 4 ©

Allow me to step back into the narrative of a four part series of posts entitled Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.  If reader has not read the previous three, I urge him or her to do so before reading this particular blog.  Part 4 is based on and assumes the reader is conversant with the first three blogs on Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.

Recently a friend of mine, Professor Jack Jackson (Claremont School of Theology), wrote perceptively that “human sexuality has become status confessionis for many people at opposite poles on the issue.”  My friend added, “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.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the United Methodist Church faces possible schism over the issue. Current church law (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016) holds that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth” and all “need the ministry of the Church.”  It goes on to assert that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  It then carefully affirms that “God’s grace is available to all” (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 161G, p. 113).  United Methodist clergy are thus prohibited from officiating same-sex unions (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 2702.1b, p. 788) and avowed practicing homosexuals are not “certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church”  (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 304.3, p. 226).

To say that passions run high and disagreement runs deep with this part of church law is a massive understatement.  A number of Annual Conferences have declared their intentions to refuse to uphold this section of church law.  Various other forms of disobedience are being debated (and practiced!).  The Council of Bishops has, at the request of the 2016 General Conference, established a special “Commission on the Way Forward” to make recommendations which will come before a called General Conference in 2019.

If you have stayed with me this far through all three blogs prior to this fourth blog, I invite you to pause and catch your breath.  I ask you to be in prayer for the whole church.  I ask you to be in prayer for all those who feel excluded by this aspect of church law and for all those who believe it essential to the full understanding of our doctrine of holiness of heart and life.  I ask you to be in prayer for the larger society which is itself locked in a deep debate on this issue.

After catching your breath and after prayer, step back with me into the struggle of Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.  Our struggle with the issue of human sexuality is a part of the larger struggle on how Christians follow Christ and relate appropriately to the culture we find ourselves in.  We have been here before as a church!  Some argue that justice in the name of Christ calls us to transform both society and the church with regard to human sexuality.  They assert we Christians are called to lead society in being more open and accepting to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.  Others, with equally sincere convictions, argue that we must not succumb to the gale force cultural winds of today but stand firm in a principled Christian conviction.  They are convinced that we are not to marry the human preferences of this or any given age and time.  Rather we are to faithfully follow Christ as Lord reflecting the fullness of His teachings and preferences over our cultural desires.

Both claim biblical support for their positions.  Both assert that the other side has given in to and/or is advocating cultural surrender to the current age.  The interaction between allegiance to Christ and engagement with our current culture are intertwined on the issue of human sexuality.   The complexity of the relationship of Christ and culture challenges us all.  Such is the larger context of the debate we are locked into as the church.

In writing these four blogs, I have invited us into the larger issue of Christ and Culture through asking what it means to be a Wesleyan Christian in the cultural chaos of today.  I have been clear that I stand for the traditional position.  I wish to be also clear of my deep respect and love for those who believe me to be tragically mistaken and wrong.  I ask us all to wrestle with what it means to be a follower of the Lord first, foremost, and above all else, in chaos of today’s culture.  These are not easy times to be a Christian.  But, most significantly, these are the times to which Christ has called us all to true, deep faithfulness and obedience.

Listening to NPR as I drove to the office last Friday, I was reminded of Lincoln’s famous words in his second inaugural address.  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”

We are not done with this work.  Nor are we done with the greater debate over what it means to be a Christ follower in the chaos of modern culture.  In the midst of this struggle, we can live, in the name of Christ, with “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

Prayers for Cabinet Inventory Retreat ©

This morning I drove down to Stillwater Lodge at Glen Lake Camp and Retreat Center.  We begin a three-day Cabinet Inventory Retreat.  Our first activity is worship and prayer.  With our foundation and focus built on God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we together as a Cabinet including the three new incoming district superintendents, will spend some time thoughtfully reviewing the list of retiring clergy and incoming potential new clergy.  Today we have the largest retirement class in recent memory.  We have already received 19 letters of retirement.  Sunday we learned the sad news of the death of a colleague, Pastor Duane Chambers (Lay Supply at Italy-Dresden), and we have a second retirement from 1 pastor (who obviously failed retirement the first time).  This makes something like 21 openings.  (In Cabinet language we call those “clean openings” because there is no one currently down to hold that appointive position come Annual Conference.)  Additionally, if history holds to its regular pattern, we should receive a couple of more retirements before Annual Conference.

Kathy Ezell, Associate Director for the Board of Ordain Ministry, reports seventeen incoming clergy (new seminary graduates, etc.) which includes three deacons who are up for commissioning.  We have not yet received the final list for those who are coming via the Local Pastors’ track.

We will also review the number of fulltime openings for appointment as well as situations where a church/charge will be moving to a less than full time appointment.  We will do so, carefully working through each district and category on the following list (in alphabetical order):

  1. Central District
  2. East District
  3. New Church Starts District
  4. North District
  5. South District
  6. West District
  7. The Center for Evangelism & Church Growth
  8. The Center for Leadership (Campus Ministry)
  9. The Center for Mission Support

In each case we will pause for prayer and a deeper assessment of needs, hopes and dreams.

I write to ask you the reader to be in prayer for the Central Texas Conference Cabinet while we are on our Inventory Retreat.  Recently two beautiful prayers have come to my attention.  My wife Jolynn passed on a prayer from Columba, the great Christian Saint and missionary who brought the Christian faith to Scotland by way of founding Iona Abbey.  It reads as follows:

Be a bright flame before me, O God
a guiding star above me.
Be a smooth path below me,
a kindly shepherd behind me
today, tonight, and for ever.

Alone with none but you, my God
I journey on my way;
what need I fear when you are near,
O Lord of night and day?
More secure am I within your hand
than if a multitude did round me stand.
Amen.  (Saint Columba, Iona Abbey)

The second is a prayer that I ran across in my daily devotional reading.  Dr. Sid Spain, my spiritual director and companion in the faith, and I have been working through A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Ruben Job, (known by many as simply “The Green Book”).  I have added the plural to the tradition phrasing of the prayer by Norman Shawchurck:

Defend me [us] from all temptation, that I [we] may ever accept the right and refuse the wrong.
Defend me [us] from myself, that in your care my [our] weakness may not bring me [us] to shame.
May my [our] lower nature never seize the upper hand.
Defend me [us] from all that would seduce me [us], that in your power no tempting voice may cause me to listen, no tempting sight fascinate my [our] eyes.
Defend me [us] against the chances and changes of this life, not that I [we] may escape them but that I [we] may meet them with firm resolve;
not that I [we] may be saved from them but that I [we] may come unscathed through them.
Defend me [us] from discouragement in difficulty and from despair in failure, from pride in success, and from forgetting you in the day of prosperity.
Help me [us] to remember that there is no time when you will fail me [us] and no moment when I [we] do not need you.
Grant me [us] this desire:
that guided by your light and defended by your grace,
I [we] may come in safety and bring honor to my [our] journey’s end by the defending work of Jesus Christ my [our] Lord.
May it always be so!
(Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Ruben Job; pp. 104-105)

May we pray together?

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