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“In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 1

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part I: “I am Doing a New Thing!”

It is indeed a high honor to stand before you this day and address some of the issues that confront us as a larger church. As I do so, I am reminded of a story that one of our truly outstanding preachers, Dr. Zan Holmes, shared on one occasion.

He told of a man who survived the Great Johnstown Flood. Historians in our group may recall well that this great flood took place on Friday, May 1, 1889, unleashing something like 20 million tons of water that devastated Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It is well documented that the flood killed 2,209 people. In the midst of the tragedy, not only our nation but the world was brought together to aid the “Johnstown sufferers.” The site is now actually a part of the National Park Service.

At any rate, a survivor of the Great Flood finally died of old age and went to heaven. There he was greeted by St. Peter and ushered through the Pearly Gates. As he looked around, he said, “You know I am one of the few survivors of the Great Johnstown Flood. People need to hear my story.” And Peter answered, “Well that’s very nice, thank you, but I don’t think so. Everyone has a story.”

However, the guy wouldn’t let it go. He bugged St. Peter. He talked to Jesus about it. He constantly shared his unshakable conviction that he had to tell people in heaven about his miraculous survival of the Great Johnstown Flood. Finally, with the Lord’s permission, Peter gathered together a huge crowd in heaven to hear the man address them on surviving the Johnstown flood. As the guy got ready to step on stage before the packed heavenly auditorium of millions, Peter turned to him and said, “By the way, remember that Noah is in the audience.”

“I am doing a new thing!”

 I feel somewhat like that man in addressing this distinguished gathering. Noah is in the audience. I’ve had the privilege of studying and being mentored by so many of you in your teachings and writings that it is difficult to adequately express my gratitude and debt. Even more, as we seek to address the topic of “The Future of The United Methodist Church,” I am made doubly mindful of the great cry that rose around Johnstown as the water went up behind the Southfork Dam – “The Dam is becoming dangerous and may possibly go!” We gather with that same cry ringing around us. So it is that “now we see in a mirror dimly” both the future of The United Methodist Church and the re-emergence of a vibrant orthodoxy in the North American mission field.

Counterintuitively, while the dam is close to breaking over the fragile unity of “mainline” Methodism simultaneously something remarkable, and remarkably good, is taking place.  God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is at work!  Verses 19 and 20 of Isaiah 43 spring to mind.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”

You will no doubt remember the context of this famous passage.  Israel has been defeated.  The leaders are scattered into exile.  It is hard to imagine life getting worse let alone getting better.  Yet in the darkness before the dawn the Prophet speaks of God doing a new thing.  Do you recall the introductory lines of verses 16 & 17 of Isaiah 43?  “The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.”  Allow me to suggest that something like this is again taking place under the Lord’s presence and power through the Holy Spirit.  We are experiencing a new spring of orthodoxy budding around us, of which this gathering is evidence.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I think the United Methodist Church as we know it (the phrase “as we know it” is a towering qualifier) is slowly collapsing around us.  This slow motion collapse may take a long time to play out and then again it may hit a tipping point and cascade rapidly downward.  Either way, it will be painful, causing heartache and much anxiety but this is not the real story.  The real tale we gather to take note of is referenced in the Isaiah 43:19-20.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy.

Consider some of the antidotal evidence:

  • Seminaries which focus on orthodoxy are showing growth, especially in young people.
  • Those pastors who have an orthodox coherent theology are showing far more fruitfulness than those who lean on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Put bluntly, the churches they pastor are the churches more likely to survive and thrive. [Carefully please note: I am not asserting that this is axiomatically the same as being theologically or politically conservative. Rather it is about an uncompromising gospel orientation that slices across our conventional labels.]
  • The gnawing spiritual hunger which surrounds us (even engulfs us) is finding its thirst quenched at the fount of orthodox theology; especially orthodox Wesleyan theology. The fashionable Protestant progressivism of American high culture increasingly looks like an emperor with no clothes.
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the work of Dallas Willard among many others offers a real sign of the inherent attraction of embracing once again a core Christologically-centered and genuinely Trinitarian expression of the Christian faith embraced within the shell of modern United Methodism. (This includes some of those who at best only flirt with orthodoxy.)
  • The hunger and growth of interest in authentic seeking after God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as evidenced by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and many of you is another sign of the reemergence of interest in theological orthodoxy. This is a nascent struggling movement but I submit that the careful observer can see a new budding of a deeply faithful expression of orthodox Christianity. It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • The search and experimentation for “something more” being conducted on the edge of Methodism offers a further hint both at the hunger for substance and the slowly awakening conviction that the theology we have been largely pursuing for the past half century or more is largely bankrupt. Our hyper reaction against evangelical fundamentalism (a mistake of the first order – evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not the same!) and an uncritical embrace of enlightenment intellectual biases has led us into the cul-de-sac of a vague therapeutic moral deism (to use the term popularized by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary). We are increasingly aware that attempts to split doctrine and practice (or orthodoxy and orthopraxy) are inherently destructive. When orthopraxy is split off from a deep connection to orthodoxy, the Christian faith is cut off from its life giving roots. The resultant expression of Christianity is inherently emaciated and entering a death spiral.
  • The growing sense among some bishops that we work side by side with two kinds of churches offers evidence of new day dawning. One kind of church is the fading, declining old mainline with its renewed emphasis on missional outreach largely divorced from an explicit gospel witness (which hence comes across as an advanced version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) and the other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. By very nature such a church, grounded in the gospel, instinctively understands that doctrine and practice cannot be separated. Furthermore the emerging church is passionately, outwardly focused in way that is evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.
  • The rise in a new generation of young scholars committed to an orthodox witness of the Christian faith speaks to the awakening orthodoxy which this group (United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy) represents. But then I am back where I started.

I could go on but I trust you follow my argument.  God is never left without witnesses.  There are signs of new life all around us.  What is both disturbing and hopeful is that this new life struggles to fit into the existing United Methodist Church culture.

Rather than an excessive focus on gender preferences, I want to argue that we have been engaged as a denomination in extended affairs with various new versions of heresy. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, Missional plagiarism, political infatuations of both the right and the left iced over with a prosperity gospel which surreptitiously tugs at the heart of the crumbling mainline edifice.  (With regard to the prosperity gospel, consider the casual embrace of financial resources and upper middle class status that accompany the hidden assumptions of virtually all United Methodists including myself.)

Alister McGrath rightly notes: “Heresy was a flawed, deficient, anemic, and inauthentic form of Christian faith that was inevitably doomed to extinction in the pluralist and intensely competitive world of late classical antiquity.” And we should carefully add, in the pluralistic and intensely competitive world of the early 21st century.  He continues, “Orthodoxy had greater survival potential, prompting a ‘search for authenticity’ as a means of safeguarding its future.”

The new or more accurately renewed Church which the Lord is calling into being out of the old “mainline” will be smaller, learner and more doctrinally coherent. We will recover, we are recovering, some sense of what it means to say Jesus is Lord and to assert core doctrines of incarnation, sin, justification and sanctification (to mention a few).  I have come slowly, painfully to believe that the Holy Spirit is moving us away from a “Big Tent” Methodism (and “big tent” Christianity) which enjoys periodic affairs with heretical suitors into a new movement of faithfulness and fruitfulness in the name of our Lord.  But then, I am ahead myself.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

Lament, Challenge and Hope ©

I confess that I had initially written a different blog to share today.  (It will be published on Friday instead.)  However the tragedy of events in San Bernardino, California brought me to a halt.  No doubt as with many of you, I watched transfixed to the broadcast of the events that followed.  As the story of the mass shooting unfolded and more details became known, I found myself engulfed by tragedy, despair and anger.  As one writer put it, shootings feel like the new normal.  Anguish engulfs us once again.

Quieter reflection has brought me to a point of lament, challenge and hope.  Careful readers of the Holy Scriptures know that there is a category of Psalms called simply Psalms of Lament.  Some are corporate, for the nation and people collectively.  Others are more individual in context.  Psalm 42 speaks to my heart and mind at such a time.  It echoes the confusing jumble of my emotions and thoughts.

“Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.
When will I come and see God’s face?
My tears have been my food both day and night,
as people constantly questioned me,
“Where’s your God now?” …

I will say to God, my solid rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I have to walk around,
sad, oppressed by enemies?”
10 With my bones crushed, my foes make fun of me,
constantly questioning me: “Where’s your God now?”  (Psalm 42:1-3, 9-10)

The most faithful among us ask, “Where is God?”  The deepest of disciples long for the very presence of the Lord.

In our lament-filled longing, faith calls us to remember we follow a crucified Lord.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is present amidst the bullet riddled terror of the shootings.  Christ is with us as first responders reach out to help.  The Savior’s presence at the epicenter of violence and terror challenges me with a divine calling.

I am challenged to turn away from the worship of violence.  I am challenged by the Savior to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).  We live in a world that often gives violence a final word.  War haunts our globe.  Terrorism has become a fact of political expression.  Interpersonal violence stalks our streets and infects our families.  It is a short step from the venting of rage verbally (in person or on the internet) to the perpetration of violence as an expression of a false, corrosive righteousness.  Stop and reflect on how many television programs are structured around a violent theme or plot.  We have a cultural fascination with a violence that needs to be repented.

Please hear me carefully.  Prudence in safety and protection is not a bad thing.  Nor am I attempting here to enter the debate about gun control.  Proper measures for protection are good and to be taken.  While I was converted to following Christ as a young adult among the Quakers, I left that group (which I still respect highly today!) because I am not a pacifist.  Christian just war theory offers one faithful avenue for confronting oppression.

Beneath our response and lament, our rage and anguish lies the deeper issue of moral challenge.  We are adrift as a moral culture today.  Again carefully, I am not just referring to America or just to terrorists.  Our world culture is adrift.  We have played fast and loose with a moral relativism that has led us away from the Lord.  Herein lies our challenge.  We must confess reliance on false gods (especially the false gods of violence and self-reliance) and return to the Lord.  This begins with each of us individually and links us corporately together in Christ.

The challenge of returning to a greater faithfulness brings us back to deeper, truer hope.  Let the Psalmist speak again to our world and to us even as we are caught in a horrifying new normal.

“Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed?
Why are you so upset inside?
Hope in God!
Because I will again give him thanks,
my saving presence and my God.” (Psalm 42:11)

Faith on Trial: Responding to Terrorism in Today’s World ©

Last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent actions seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice rightly captures our hearts and minds in a wide variety of ways.  The sheer barbarism of the attacks spreads anxiety and fear among the bravest.  A deep sense of vulnerability saturates the most stalwart among us.  How are Christians to respond to terrorism in today’s world?

In a real sense, terrorism by its very nature puts our faith as Christ followers on trial.  It challenges us at the core of our beliefs.  Are we willing to hold to Christ whose very presence is announced with the angelic admonition “fear not!” (Luke 2:10)?

My initial response to the news of the Paris attacks was white hot fear-driven anger.  Only on calming down, entering into prayer, and engaging in less heated reflection did I realize that terrorism puts my faith on trial.

I believe our Lord’s admonition to love our neighbor.  I am committed in principle to the Savior’s call to holiness in rejecting hate.  The words of Jesus echo in the throne room of my mind.  “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).

I am conscious that it is easy to be Christian in times of peace and plenty and in settings of safety and joy.  I am also quite aware that the test of the Christian faith comes on the streets of Paris, in rhetorical punditry of television and the cancer ward of the local hospital.

Our faith is put on trial in:

  1. The temptation to reject the Lord’s leading and be driven instead by a desire for revenge. Prayerful reflection and careful thinking are at a premium if our response is to be faithful to the gospel and Lordship of Christ. Those who enact such evil must be brought to justice. There is nothing Christian or holy in allowing terror to reign unchecked. Let us be clear – terror and terrorism is an outgrowth of Satan’s rage. And yet, we must also be carefully clear and faithfully obedient in our response. Matching evil with evil is not the way of Christ. We seek justice not vengeance (Romans 12:19).
  2. The engulfing emotions of fear and fear driven disregard for others who are in dire need. Our model, guide and ruler is the one who was crucified for others, notably for those who were (and are!) guilty of sin. Instead of living under a reign of fear, Jesus reached out stretching His arms wide in an embrace of love. Let us be sympathetic to each other as we wrestle with fear’s grip. Fear is a natural and in some ways healthy response to the horrors of unchecked terror. It alerts us to the need to take protective steps and seek justice for all. The Christian difference is not that fear is not present. It is rather that fear does not reign. It does not rule! Christ alone is Lord! However powerful our emotions, they too are subject to Him. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18).
  3. Our vulnerability mixed with fear and anger which seduces us to react by blaming the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee. Terrorism is a tool of evil which, if left unchecked by Christian values and by the rule of Christ, can lead us to the unfaithful response of prejudice. It is worth carefully noting that the earliest Christians consistently refused to simply take care of only other Christians. They consciously and in allegiance to Christ reached out to any in need. There were no litmus tests for who should receive love and care. Teachings from Jesus like the Parable of the Good Samaritan drove their actions. (See Luke 10:35.) Instructions like James 1:27 were a basic part of the fabric of their response, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.” Let there be no mistake. To only take care of Christians or just be concerned about Americans is not worthy of the gospel. It is not faithful to the clear teaching of Christ. (Check out Jude 1:12 and its explicit rejection of those who care only for themselves.)

As your bishop, I call on us to be a people of faith.  May we reflect the example of Christ and be known the world over for a love which conquers fear.  Jesus our Savior first lived among us as a refugee.  He calls us now to reach out to those refugees fleeing the unspeakable evils of terror and war’s destruction.  May we be instruments of peace offering a place of hope, help and home to those most in need.  May religious prejudice and national jingoism be unknown among us.

Do you recall the Apostle’s closing advice in I Peter?  First Peter is written as a baptismal address to new Christians for a church undergoing dire persecution.  Terror is an everyday part of their lives.  In such context the Apostle closes his letter with advice fit again for today.  “Therefore, humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day. Throw all your anxiety onto him, because he cares about you. Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.  After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you. To him be power forever and always. Amen” (I Peter 5:6-11).

Musing on Run ©

I returned a week ago from a tremendous learning and sharing ministry in the Philippines. Together with Bishops John Schol, Rudy Juan, Ciriaco Franscisco, and Peter Torio, I was privileged to share in the COB Bright Spots Project on building vital congregations. Such travels remind me of how tempting it is to view our ministry in parochial terms. It is easy to boil the Christian faith and its witness down to our particular church, city, state, or nation. When we pause to think and pray, we are all reminded that the opposite is true. Mr. Wesley had it exactly right when he said, “the world is my parish!”

By way of example, a recent story crossed my desk about the tremendous ministry we participate in through Africa University. Bishop Marcus Matthews (Resident Bishop of the Baltimore Washington Episcopal Area and Vice-Chair of the African University Board of Directors) writes:

“United Methodist-related Africa University plays a critical role in the lives of people like Claudine Migisha Muhoza of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When rebel armies violently tore through her village, killing her parents and leaving her and her five siblings to fend for themselves, she was six-years-old. She suddenly found herself forced into the role of caregiver to her younger brothers and sisters.

Congolese by nationality, 22-year-old Muhoza was born in Goma, DRC. Despite her horrendous ordeal of losing her parents, she and her siblings rallied. She continued with her schooling, which ultimately led her to Africa University where she is currently studying psychology. 

With more than 6,200 graduates and offering degrees in six faculties of learning, plus programs in peace, leadership and governance, Africa University is making – and will continue to make – a difference through committed, conscientious and caring students.

In 2014, your support of the Africa University Fund (AUF) helped increased giving by more than two percent! That is something to celebrate! Your annual conference played an important role in this accomplishment because it invested 100 percent in its Africa University apportionment in 2014. We continue to celebrate your hard work to accomplish this!

Your annual conference’s ongoing support is essential to future leaders across the continent of Africa. Thank you! I encourage you to keep up the excellent work.

Please share Muhoza’s story, along with the Africa University Fund video, when you invite congregations to give their Africa University Fund apportionment in full. If you need additional resources and information, please encourage them to download resources from the AUF pastor and leader kit or visit Africa University Development website. We want to help YOU help our African sisters and brothers. Thank you!”

Tomorrow I leave for the second part of my renewal leave on a two week trip through Educational Opportunities following parts of the Apostle Paul’s 3 and 4th missionary journeys. Our first stop will be in Istanbul (the ancient city of Constantinople). The Nicene Creed, which we routinely (and rightly!) recite in our worship services, was written in what was essentially a suburb of Constantinople. Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom,” in honor of the second person of the holy trinity, the word made flesh, the wisdom from God – Jesus Christ) was once, for almost 1,000 years, the greatest church of Christianity. For her pulpit some to the great early leaders of the Christian faith preached the gospel (notably St. John Chrysostom). Today after a time used as a Mosque, it is now a museum.

It is a lifelong dream of mine to see this sacred site. As I prepare to leave, I am reminded of a different quote from a different person and time period. “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’ [Ephesians 4:14], seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s ego and desires.

“We however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature, adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI)

As we set sail on the “Adventures of Paul” I hope to report and being reminded again of how wide – literally world-spanning – the Christian faith is. I pray that once again, each and every day, I/we might be yoked with Christ, rooted in a deep friendship with our Lord.

Reflections on the Visit of a Holy Man

I confess to being late to work this morning. I stayed extra half hour at home to watch the arrival of Pope Francis at the White House. The crowds gathered, the pomp and ceremony; the gravitas of press coverage, and the respectful public speeches – taken together they demonstrate our hunger for holy living and a greater connection with both the Lord and each other.

A holy man has come calling on America. We recognize this truth. Many of you are aware that I have been memorizing and living with Philippians 4:4-9 this year in my devotional life.   As a whole the passage reads:

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

Pope Francis exemplifies phrases like verse 5, “let your gentleness show,” and verse 8, “if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things.” Amid the caterwauling that makes up modern America and especially the social networks, the holy example of his life speaks louder than words or actions.

I submit that herein lies a lesson for all of us who would call ourselves Christ followers. On an intuitive level, we are attracted to such an example. This does not mean the abandonment of conviction nor does it mean the adoption of a terminal fuzzy and false “niceness.” Pope Francis has been perfectly clear about where he stands on a number of controversial issues – the refugee and immigration crises along with global warming come to mind. (As a side note, United Methodist as represented by the action of General Conference – the only body with the ability to speak for the United Methodist Church – have adopted positions closely in line with those articulated by Pope Francis.) There is a prophetic element to his witness that we need to hear and wrestle with; a simplicity of lifestyle that challenges our materialistic excesses.

While we do not agree on all things doctrinal (the doctrine of Papal Infallibility comes readily to mind), we can disagree and pursue the truth in a manner that reflects a truly Christian lifestyle. Methodists have historically called this holiness of heart and life. It has both a personal and social dimension. Here is a larger doctrinal truth all Christians need to claim or reclaim at the core of our believing and behaving. The visit of this holy man is demonstrating for us how we might act with each other and especially with those with whom we might have strong disagreements. We do well to learn from his example because it is a reflection of the gospel.

I ask us, especially the United Methodists of the Central Texas Conference, to lift up Pope Francis in our prayers. I ask us also to pray for our brothers and sisters who are part of the Roman Catholic Church. May we together give a witness of behavior that befits the call and claim of Christ.

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #5:

The Three Orthos at the Heart

At the very heart of a new church being called forth by the Holy Spirit will be what I call the three orthos.  At its core the healthy renewed Christian movement in American will be a combination of orthodoxy, orthropraxis, and orthokardia.  The word ortho comes from the Latin and late Greek.  It means right or correct.  Thus orthodox = right belief or right (correct) doctrine.  Orthopraxis = right practice or correct action and practice.  Orthokardia = right heart.

Over the years the church has on different occasions emphasized one of the three above the others; thus, there have been times when right doctrine so dominated practice and heart that the result lacked grace.  There have been occasions when heart has been right but the actions disastrously mistaken.  There have been times when the practice was holy but its lack of cohesion with heart and doctrine led to long term mistakes with little lasting strength.

Orthopraxy, which is currently in ascendant position of the three, is an insistent emphasis in Wesleyan thinking.  Thus Don Thorsen in Cavlin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice writes,

“Wesley emphasized that the church ought to be more than a congregation of believers – more than ‘faithful men’; it ought to also exhibit ‘living faith.’  It is not enough for people to exhibit right belief (or orthodoxy); they ought to also exhibit a right heart (orthokardia) and right practice (orthopraxis).  From Wesley’s perspective, the devil (as well as other religious people) may hold to ‘orthodoxy or right opinions,’ but ‘may all the while be as great a stranger as he to religion of the heart’” (Don Thorsen, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bring Belief in Line with Practice, p. 98).

Significantly, “progressives” with an emphasis on enlightenment-thinking and a reasoned faith and “evangelicals” with an passion for doctrinal correctness both run the risk of ignoring religion of the heart (orthokardia).  Orthokardia holds a critical function of constantly directing our attention to Christ as the center of the Christian faith.  I am convinced that much of the emphasis of modern praise music is an attempt recapture a forgotten orthokardia.  So too is much of the renewed interest in spiritual formation.

Orthodoxy, correct or right doctrine, was central in the life of the earliest Christian movement. After the Holy Spirit descended, Peter preached, and listeners responded with repentance. The life of the newborn church was anchored in its doctrine. “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers” (Acts 2:42).  Jaroslav Pelikan (one of the great scholars of the Christian faith over the last half century) in Acts: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, references the textus a patribus receptus with a stronger translation of action of those earliest Christ followers.  “And they were persisting in the doctrine of the apostles” (textus a patribus receptus, excerpt from Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), p. 57; emphasis added).  Thus the critical importance of doctrine (or foundational teaching) emerges as a centerpiece of the life of the earliest Christian church.  The importance of doctrine towers over any strategy for growth or program for action.  It is a first-order claim on the life of the church.

John Wesley famously wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786).

Wesley both assumed and argued for the essential importance of doctrine.  His genius is the way doctrine is combined with spirit and discipline.  In other words, part of the genius of early Methodism was the way it combined the three – orthodoxy, orthropraxis, and orthokardia. Such a connection is a reflection of what early Methodists called “primitive Christianity.”  They reached back to the first expression of the Christian faith found in the book of The Acts of the Apostles as well as the writings of Paul and the Gospels to grasp again at what was essential and central to the Christian movement.  Among a number of distinctive elements the Methodist movement brought back to the fore was the embodiment of theology (orthodoxy) in spirit (orthokardia) and discipline (orthopraxis).  Properly understood for Methodists was the notion that theology – core doctrine – was not an idle aside but a central expression of the faith to be lived out or embodied.

I close this writing on a deep conviction that God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is doing a wonderful thing.  A new church is being called forth for our post-Christendom age.  The words of Ross Douthat (which I have quoted before) are worth re-emphasizing.

“The rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread skepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man [and woman] a God unto himself [or herself] – these forces have clearly weakened the traditional Christian churches. But they are also forces that Christianity has confronted successfully before. From a weary Pontius Pilate asking Jesus “what is truth?” to Saint Paul preaching beside the Athenian altar to an “unknown God,” the Christian gospel originally emerged as a radical alternative in a civilization as rootless and cosmopolitan and relativistic as our own. There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of that original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age” (Bad Religion, by Ross Douthat, pg. 278-279).

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #5

 Evangelism as Mission © 

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

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

We have long and rightly understood that there is an intimate and inseparably intertwined connection between evangelism and missions.  (By missions, I will employ a short-hand definition – the deeds of love, justice and mercy.)  Living the Great Commandment to love God and love our neighbor (see Luke 10:25-37 and Matthew 22:34-40) engages us in activities of social justice as straightforward as feeding the hungry and as controversial as welcoming the stranger (think of debates about immigration and gender preference) and providing adequate medical care for all; the commandment impels us forward to bring relief to victims in Haiti, water wells to Kenya, and help to the homeless in Fort Worth.  This is a central part of the light of Christ being brought in the darkness of our currently twisted world society.  It is an offering of love in the name of Jesus, who is with us always.

Evangelism can be understood as one vital aspect of missions.  If we truly love people, we will share with them what we understand to be the source of life at its fullest (see John 10:10).  Failure to share new life in its fullness under the Lordship of Christ is a negation of love in its fullness.  To truly love the neighbor is to evangelistically share in graceful, appropriate ways.  (Please read carefully!!!! note the qualifier: “in graceful, appropriate ways.”)

The title phrasing is important.  The light of Christ comes in our darkness as a part of mission as evangelism.  It does not say that mission is evangelism nor even evangelism is mission.  Evangelism is one important, critically important, aspect of the larger mission we are engaged in. Simply engaging in missions or what is seen as missional activity is not necessarily engaging in evangelism.  It may or may not bring the light of Christ into our darkness.

Evangelism cannot be collapsed into engaging in more ministries of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, engaging in medical ministry/missions in a different setting (whether in one’s home city or on another continent), etc.  All this and more is needed – desperately needed.  All this and more, the great missional expanse of ministries of sanctification through love, justice and mercy, is worthy of our time, talent, and energy in the name of Christ.  Missions – what I would like to summarize by the phrase “the deeds of love, justice and mercy” – is a companion of evangelism.  Indeed the case can be made that evangelism is a subset of the wider ministry of missions.  However good and godly (“He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8), Jesus felt it necessary and vital to add the great commission – “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

When we conflate evangelism and missions (or missional activity of love, justice and mercy), we do an injustice to both and truncate the full biblical witness offered by the Risen Savior and Lord.  It is significant that Jesus instructs His followers to specifically “name the name.”   Disciples are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity.

In an instinctive and nascent way, the wise men understood this truth.  It is this great epiphany truth to which they point in offering their gifts.  The light of Christ enters our darkness offering a way out into the light of grace-filled love for a battered and bruised world.  Sharing that light is its own deep act of love and a fulfillment of the holy (and holistic) mission Christ as Lord and Savior calls us to engage in.

“Jesus spoke to the people again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12).  He said, “I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me won’t live in darkness” (John 12:46).

As a Child of the Light

During this Advent time of preparation I find myself drawn again and again back to hymns and music, both ancient and contemporary with everything in between, as a way of expressing my faith.  Dr. Shubert Ogden’s phrase – “we do theology in order that we might do doxology” – sticks in my mind.  Sometimes, often?, I experience it in the reverse.  I do doxology (praise), and it leads me to theology.  Such is this season of the year.

Recently I came back to an Advent hymn that is not sung that often.  It was a favorite at Bethany United Methodist Church in Austin when I served as Senior Pastor there (1997-2001).  “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” is Hymn No. 206 in The United Methodist Hymnal.  The third verse grasps for the essence of Advent.  “I’m looking for the coming of Christ.  I want to be with Jesus.  When we have run with patience the race, we shall know the joy of Jesus.  In Him there is no darkness at all.  The night and the day are both alike.  The Lamb is the light of the city of God.  Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus” (Hymn No. 206, verse 3, The United Methodist Hymnal).

At our best this is our ardent desire.  We want to be like Jesus.  Amid all the talk of the “spirit of Christmas” there lives a nugget of truth.  The true Holy “Spirit” calls us to be like Jesus.  The great biblical teachings rise again to the forefront.  The commandment to love God and neighbor (the Great Commandment); the admonition to feed, clothe, visit and care for “the least of these my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:31-46); the call to “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).  All this and more shines in the light.

I am always moved by great acts of generosity and service that spring forth in this season of the year.  I even more deeply moved that such actions issue forth year round.  There is something great and godly about seeing a church and a people walk as children of the light.  Allow me to lift up two straightforward, wonderful examples as emblematic of many such great ministries taking place in our churches.

Consider this one from Poolville UMC, a small country church in the North District.  They took the United Methodist Churches Service of Repentance to Native Americans to heart and lifted up the light of Christ in deeds of love:

For 2014 Poolville UMC decided to develop a three-year Covenant relationship with General Board of Global Ministries’ missionary Donna Pewo.  Donna Chaat Pewo serves as a Church and Community Worker at the Clinton and El Reno Church and Community Ministry of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC).  The Clinton/El Reno ministry primarily serves children of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes in a rural area west of Oklahoma City.  

On April 4th and 5th Poolville UMC took about 35 people on a mission trip to the Clinton Oklahoma United Methodist Indian Community Center. Nearly half who went were members of other community churches, and many of those were youth​.  Projects included making repairs on playground equipment, building new benches around the playground, some painting, exterior repairs, plumbing, interior carpentry and purchasing & installing five 8×6 foot metal shelves.​

On September 13th through September 15th, fifteen members of the Poolville United Methodist church ventured out on their second mission trip to Oklahoma this year, this time to the El Reno Indian United Methodist Church. Some of the projects included cutting weeds and mowing the grass, repairing the front porch, new signage, installing three new AC and heating units, repairing the water heater, painting the entire interior of the fellowship hall and installing fourteen 8 foot light fixtures in the fellowship hall and one light fixture in the children’s room.

Child of the light indeed!

Or take this example from Bartlett UMC in the South District, a small town near Temple:

Food for Friends is a ministry begun by Bartlett UMC.  It is one way this congregation seeks to make a difference in its community. Each Friday this ministry feeds 125 homebound and elderly personas a warm, home-cooked meal.  Since 2010, the ministry has served 30,000 meals!

It is so simple, practical and basic.  It is a reflection of the light and way of the Christ-child who started life himself as a homeless refugee.

At our annual Cabinet Christmas Party, the members of the Cabinet (Bishop, Lay Leader, Center Executives, District Superintendents) and spouses traditionally give our “white envelope” gifts.  Instead of gifts for each other, each couple offers a special financial gift in the honor of the rest of the Cabinet to some ministry that reaches out with the love of Christ in word and deed.  The list is impressive and exceptionally varied.  Some gifts are in our towns and communities (Food For Friends was one such gift this year).  Others stretch across the globe (at least two were for Maua Methodist Hospital, an Advance Special of the United Methodist Church and the ministry locus of our Conference Mission Trip to Kenya last September).

This kind of holy activity goes on all over the church in myriad of ways as reflections of the light of Christ.  Together we head eastward to Bethlehem Stable.  We’re looking for the coming of Christ.  We want to be with Jesus.christmas star

LIVING ADVENT

Last Sunday the reality of Advent enfolded us with comfort, hope and joy.  I confess that I awoke Sunday morning feeling the worse for wear.  The Amazing Grace (our 20 month old granddaughter) with her parents had visited for a week over Thanksgiving.  We had a wonderful time.  Grace even left me a present as she flew away – a bad head cold.

We almost stayed home.  I had no desire to share this gift with others.  But then I remembered that this was the first Sunday in Advent.  I love Advent!  Last Sunday (the first Sunday in Advent) was effectively New Year’s Sunday for Christians and I needed the comfort, hope and joy such worship brings.  With no assignments pressing on my calendar, I went to worship accompanying my wife at her church (and one of my 320 or so churches; well, let’s get theologically correct, it is Christ’s church and we are privileged to participate in this branch of the larger body of Christ).  We slipped up into the balcony so as not to share my cold with others.  As usual the worship was a true blessing.

I cannot help but think that Advent reaches to the true essence of the human condition and of our need(s).  Consider next Sunday’s Old Testament Lesson in The Revised Common Lectionary – Isaiah 40:1-11.  The passage opens with the famous words “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-3).

It is not a mistake that Handel chose to open his incredible Messiah with this passage from Isaiah.  It is sung in a major key as a triumphant announcement.  “God has done and is doing just that.  What is common with all such passages as this one from the Bible is that God is the one who comforts.  Israel, that’s us, are the ones comforted.  One commentator notes, “Comforting signifies God’s intervention to help and restore. The comforting is in the past tense” (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, p. 34).  God has acted!  Comfort precedes the call to preparation.

Look where the soaring words of the prophet lead us.  “A voice is crying out:

Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level,
and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
and all humanity will see it together;
the Lord’s mouth has commanded it. (Isaiah 40:3-5)

In the chaos of modern living, the prophet Isaiah speaks of today just as much as for Israel of old.  It is hard to breathe when we are knotted up by our sin.  It is difficult to move forward when life is a mess.  This is true individually.  It is true collectively – as a nation and as a world.  Sin makes it difficult to breathe.  And yet, while we breathe there is still hope.  In the labor pains of a new world and new creation and a new church, we need to remember that the glory of the Lord will appear.  In the agonies of our time and age, we need to remember that the Lord God has commanded this.  When we are in exile and feel abandoned, remember the prophet’s words:

Go up on a high mountain,
    messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
    messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
    say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
    coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm,
    bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms
    and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes. (Isaiah 40:9-11)

Do you remember what a herald is?  A herald is one who runs ahead with news of how the battle has turned out.  If all is lost than it is time to flee for your life.  If victory, than it is a great time of celebration.  Isaiah calls us to function as heralds.  We are to run ahead and shout for joy.  God has the victory.  In a practical way, don’t settle for happy holidays.  Be a herald of good tidings, live Advent.  The word “Advent” literally means the coming as in the coming of a significant event or person.  The season starts the Christian year challenging us, encouraging us to literally live out verse 3. “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!” (Isaiah 40:3).  We do so by proclaiming that this is a time to rejoice in the coming of Christ!

There is an unapologetic evangelistic component to our Christmas preparation.  We make ready the highway by getting up the high mount of faith, lifting up our voice with strength, and sharing the news of Emmanuel, God with us and for us in the person of Jesus Christ.

The prophet speaks to us again.  This time it is not a message of doom and gloom but of comfort, hope and joy.  Live Advent!

Anniversaries of Joy, Discipleship and Sacrifice

During the past 2 months I have had the joy and privilege of participating in the anniversary celebrations at four difference Central Texas Conference Churches. Alvarado UMC celebrated its 150th anniversary; Morgan Mill UMC and Cranfills Gap UMC had their 125th anniversary; First UMC, Temple celebrated the 100th anniversary of its magnificent historic sanctuary (the first sanctuary burned to the ground in 1911 and they rebuilt completing the new/current sanctuary in 1914). I will have the joy of sharing in the 100th anniversary celebration of Saginaw UMC.

As I have done my research for each of the five churches listed above, I have been deeply struck by the discipleship (committed, disciplined following of Christ) and sacrifice that each anniversary represents. Consider the times these various churches launched out as a new church. In every case they went ahead and started the church or built the sanctuary in the face of internal trials going on in America that would make a reasonable person pause.

Alvarado UMC began in the midst of a raging Civil War. Morgan Mill UMC and Cranfills Gap UMC both began in the midst of great national debate and division. In 1889 President Grover Cleveland was succeeded by President Benjamin Harrison in a contentious election that would be reversed four years later. (Sounds familiar doesn’t it?) War between America and Germany over an incident in Samoa was barely averted. Racism in all its virulent evil stalked the land. 125 years ago a religious crimes code was passed by Congress “to deny Indians their 1st amendment right: freedom of religion. It was designed to drive away the Indian religious ceremonies and only allow those made and created by white men.”

In Temple, the great First Methodist Episcopal Church sanctuary burned to the ground in 1911 and they went ahead and rebuilt in the face of really tough times. Under President Woodrow Wilson, the peace President, an international misunderstanding with Mexico (then undergoing a revolution) erupted into armed conflict and the occupation of Veracruz. In the initial fighting “19 Americans were killed; 72 wounded. Mexican losses were around between 150 and 170 soldiers killed, between 195 and 250 wounded, and an unknown number of civilians killed.” Meanwhile back at home labor unrest was rampant. The Colorado National Guard attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners killing 24 people in what became known as the Ludlow Massacre.

This tumult paled in comparison with the start of World War I in August and the closure of the New York Stock Exchange because of the war. While the stock market reopened about 3 ½ months later, eventually World War I resulted in over 37 million military and civilian deaths. Comparatively the United States got off light because of when we entered the war and it was fought on foreign soil. With respect and honor to those who so nobly sacrificed, 117,465 deaths are recorded as silent witness to how bleak the times were. You would have thought that the good people of Alvarado, Morgan Mills, Temple, Cranfills Gap, and Saginaw could have picked better safer more congenial times to begin a church.

You would have thought they would have better economic sense than to sail forward into the headwinds of a closed stock market, or contentious national election, or a Civil War. But no, they moved forward in discipleship as committed, disciplined followers of Jesus Christ. In their discipleship they were full of joy. It is easy to be a fan of Jesus; to sit in the stadium and cheer when things are good. It is a whole other thing to live in a deep-seated joy that is committed, disciplined, loyal even – no especially – when times are tough.

This brings me to the second cardinal, biblically-grounded, insight I found in my research. They got to the joy of their anniversaries through sacrifice. Consider the biblical and theological truth that Jesus doesn’t need advice. He is the one giving advice. The Master does not covet fans. He seek followers, friends, who will go beyond being advisors to being sacrificial followers. Reflect on the teaching of Jesus as reflected in John’s gospel. “I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends” (John 1511-15a). This is the example the people of these churches set a hundred plus years ago.

Our ancestors thought it was worth the price to sacrifice so that these churches could come into being. I like to remind every congregation that there was a time in their life when this congregation was a new church. This is part and parcel of the biblical reason new church development is so critical. It is not about whether we will have faith. It is about whether our children and grandchildren will have faith. It is a pearl of great price. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field” (Matthew 13:44).

Anniversary joy comes in deep sacrificial discipleship! It knows sadness and grief. It lives in times of tumult whether it be 1864, 1889, 1914 or 2014. It ascends the hill of personal prejudice and plants the flag of Christ atop the peaks of violence and rancor. Joy comes in the committed disciplined living as a disciple precisely because it is sacrificial. It is built on our relationship with the Lord and not on our personal preferences. I thank God and those five churches for the joy of sharing with them!

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