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Kenya and Habitat

Over the past three weeks much (though not all) of the focus of my work has been on missions and missional issues facing the church. By missional, I broadly mean engaging in deeds of love, justice and mercy. This falls under the broad theological rubric of sanctification and is what John Wesley would refer to as holiness of heart and life.

For almost two weeks, I was a participant in the Conference Mission Trip to Kenya. Over the years many of our churches have been engaged in great ministry in Kenya. I have been writing a series of reflective blogs on my learnings from the Kenyan trip, and I will be writing more in the next few weeks. One of the deeply moving experiences for me was visiting the Methodist Church of Kenya’s Guest House in Meru. There on the wall was a plaque noting that Dr. Ken Diehm laid the foundation stone and another dedicating the conference hall in his name. The partnership between the Central Texas Conference and the Methodist Church of Kenya is deep and strong, stretching over a number of years. (We will be having a wonderful day of sharing and learning on October 25 through a Global Mission 101 Event held at First UMC, Fort Worth.)

Monday, October 6th, I had the joy of offering the prayer at the great Habitat Carter Build Work Project taking place this week in Fort Habitat Carter buildWorth. It was a tremendous act of the greater community coming together for the common good. Gage Yager, the director of Habitat in this area (and a member of Arlington Heights UMC) commented to me that the United Methodist church is the largest participating group they have. Habitat is truly a godly, missional (“love, justice and mercy”) activity!

Periodically people ask me whether I believe we should be engaged in mission work at home or overseas. My answer is always YES! It is a both/and and not an either/or. The two activities feed each other. Churches that engage in vibrant local ministry sooner or later are led by the Holy Spirit to engage in missional ministry to the larger world. Likewise, churches that engage in missional activity overseas are inevitability led by the Holy Spirit back into greater local missional effort. The two feed each other!

I’ve noticed that in the great plan of the Lord healthy churches are inevitably involved in both local and global missions and missional activities. Somehow the interconnection of the two – local and global – reflects an interconnection of the Holy Spirit and the heart of God in the life of the local church. We become more like Jesus and are in very truth “the body of Christ” (I Corinthians 12:27).

At lunch on Monday I offered the following prayer:

Great and gracious Lord God, we come before you this day about the ministry of Habitat for Humanity mindful always that you first came among us a homeless refugee. We confess, Lord God, to inhabit a world where our priorities are often upside down. Forgive we pray, the ways in which we by omission and commission have participated in the wreck of human life which you hold holy. Your words echo in our thoughts; you have told us what you require of us: “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with y[our] God” (Micah 6:8).

Grant now in our actions and activities, regardless of creed or clan, nation or race, economic or educational status that we might be found faithful to this great ministry. Bless, we pray, those who lead us. We give you thanks this day especially for the ministry and example of President and Mrs. Carter. We ask that you guide and direct and multiply this ongoing activity to your Glory. Amen.

High Windows

A week ago Wednesday (September 24th) I stood outside the chapel at Maua Methodist Hospital in Kenya.  The hospital conducts daily chapel worship every morning with the expectation that all hospital staff will attend.  Graciously they had asked that our Central Texas Conference Mission Team lead worship on that day and that I preach.  The assigned text they gave (as a part of an ongoing series they were involved in) was 2 Timothy 1:1-4.

As I stood outside mentally going over my message, the words of the text flowed over me.  It was as if I could hear the author of 2 Timothy speaking to the staff of Maua Methodist Hospital.   “I’m grateful to God . . .  I’m reminded of your authentic faith … I’m sure that this faith is also inside you. … God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.”

The explicit vibrancy of the Christian faith in our north east Kenyan setting was everywhere present.  The words of 2 Timothy continued to echo: “So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about the Lord or of me, his prisoner. Instead, share the suffering for the good news, depending on God’s power. God is the one who saved and called us with a holy calling. This wasn’t based on what we have done, but it was based on his own purpose and grace that he gave us in Christ Jesus before time began.”

The Kenyan Christians are explicit about their faith.  Amidst a bewildering variety of denominations and expressions (some European and North American implants and other expressions homegrown denominations), they are not ashamed of their faith.  Nor do they take it for granted.  While Kenya is far more Christian as a whole than the United States, there is a still a freshness to their witness that inspires.  We have much to learn from them.

Earlier that week on Monday morning as we stood outside waiting to join the first of our weekly chapel services, Rev. James Monroe, CEO of Maua Methodist Hospital, had called our attention to the placement of the windows in the chapel.  They were not in the normal position but instead high up on the outside walls.  Rev. Monroe went on to explain that when Christianity first came to the area (only a few generations ago) people would throw stones through the windows at Christians worshipping together.  The stones would hit and injure people in the pews.  So, when the built the chapel, as a protective measure they put the widows high up on the outside walls.  In this way people worshipping were less likely to be struck by a thrown rock.

The rock throwing didn’t stop the worship; nor did it squelched their public witness.  They remained, in the words of 2 Timothy, “not ashamed” of the gospel.  Today, because of their public witness, explicit evangelistic sharing, monumental good works for all people (even – especially – those who were not Christian), and steadfast reliance on the Holy Spirit, something like 80% of the population of the Maua region of Kenya is Christian (active and practicing, not just on a role!).  The high windows are both testimony and legacy.  There provide a pointed lesson to us.

I wonder, are we – am I – willing to suffer for Christ in boldly offering our/my witness?  Are we unashamed of the gospel and willing with courage and utter reliance on Christ to say “This is also why I’m suffering the way I do, but I’m not ashamed. I know the one in whom I’ve placed my trust. I’m convinced that God is powerful enough to protect what he has placed in my trust until that day” (2 Timothy 1:12).  Do we “Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you heard from me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus [?]. Protect this good thing that has been placed in your trust through the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”

I return from Kenya thankful for the teaching and prodding they offer us.  We have much to learn.

KENYA_preaching

Reflections on The Discipline, Worship and Focus

At the Convocation of Cabinets (worldwide) held at Lake Junaluska in November 2007, Bishop Janice Huie gave a memorable address. At one point in her presentation, she lifted in one hand a Discipline from one hundred years ago. It was a small, relatively thin book.

Bishop Huie shared the following (taken from her speech notes): In my lifetime, the Book of Discipline has grown from this (hold up a 1948 BOD) to this (hold up a 2004 BOD) and this (hold up a 2004 BOR) and this (hold up a BOW).  The 1948 BOD had a section on the social principles and worship.  (Hold the three.)  Stability and order is good, but that’s a lot of stability and order. 

Just so the initials are clear.  BOR = Book of Resolutions.  The 2012 version is ¾ of an inch thick.  The 2008 version was 2 inches thick!  BOW = Book of Worship.  The most recent version is 1 ½ inches thick.  The current Hymnal is 1 ½ inches thick.  It is supplemented by a number of other hymnals containing a variety of music styles.  BOD = Book of Discipline.  It was 1 ½ inches thick in 2008.  The 2012 version of the BOD is 1 ¼ inches thick.  (There is actually no appreciable change in size, maybe minutely larger in material, but the print size and margins are smaller and the paper is thinner.)

Now reflect on the 1898 Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church.  In that Discipline were not only the rules of the church but also hymns to be sung and orders of worship. Stack it all up as Bishop Huie did.  She weighed up all of the books which we have now to do the same functions as the 1898 Book of Discipline: The Book of Discipline, The Book of Resolutions, The United Methodist Hymnal, The Book of Worship. The difference between the one stack that is difficult for a person to hold in one hand and the one slim book that would easily fit in a saddle bag is staggering to behold.  If my math is accurate, 1898 = ¾ inches.  2012 = 5 inches; if we use the 2008 totals then the differences is 6.75 vs .6.5 inches.

When the church was at its best, it lives out of a clear set of convictions and a passionate commitment to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world with a minimal set of legal instructions.  Wherever we are going as a denominational faith community, adding more pages  to The Discipline won’t help.  [In Remember the Future, Bishop Robert Schnase has a number of excellent chapters on this subject.  Chapter 4: “Four Thousand Shalls” and Chapter 22: “Logjam” especially catch my attention.]  What will make a difference is focusing on the mission of making disciples – disciplined committed followers of Jesus Christ who (by definition!) are engaged in transforming the world (“on earth as it is in heaven!”).

At our recent Cabinet meeting, Don Scott handed me an old 1898 copy of The Discipline.  It still offers marvelous insight to what we are about. One section caught my eye. It is as follows:

CHAPTER VI
The Means of Grace.
Section I
Of Public Worship.

Question 1. What directions are given for uniformity of public worship?
Par. 216. Ans. 1. The norming service shall be conducted in the following order:
(1) Singing – the congregation standing.
(2) Prayer – the congregation kneeling.
(3) Reading a lesson out of the Old Testament, and another out of the New.
(4) Singing – the congregation sitting.
(5) Preaching.
(6) Singing – the congregation standing.
(7) Prayer – the congregation kneeling.
(8) Benediction.
-Book of Discipline 1898

Hmm, … it sounds like an order of worship for a (so-called) contemporary worship service.  But then I’ve gone from preaching to meddling.

What is clear is the need to focus on the mission.  Passionate worship is Job One.  It must be yoked to the other crucial elements of faithful and fruitful living: radical hospitality (witness/evangelism), intentional faith development (prayer), risk-taking mission and service (service), and extravagant generosity (gifts).


 

Bright Spots and the Mosaic Model

“What are the bright spots in your congregation/Conference?”  The question rings in my mind from our recently concluded Team Vital meeting.  To briefly back up, Team Vital is a pilot project that has come out of the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church and the Council of Bishops.  Eleven different conferences from across the United States gather to share insights, learning, and analysis in increasing the number of vital congregations across the United States.

The “bright spots” question directs our attention not only on what is already working or is fruitful in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, but it also points us to a wider solution.  The question directs us to a different way of conceptualizing our strategies for building vital congregations.  An old adage echoed in my mind as we sought to identify and share our bright spots across conference lines.  “Reinforce success.”  Without meaning to, it is easy to focus on the shortcoming.  Faithfulness and fruitfulness comes best when we learn from our “bright spots” and focus on growing ministry that is fruitful and faithful – reinforce success, not failure.

One of the bright spots that fascinated me came from the sharing of people from the Greater New Jersey Conference.  They reported a new ministry called “Mosaic.” Briefly, three small churches within a reasonably short distance from each other all had their church facilities badly damaged in Hurricane Sandy.  All were quite small and on the edge in terms of sustainability as a full-time charge prior to the hurricane.  After Hurricane Sandy, two of them were months from being bankrupt and having to close their doors.  The third was struggling.  Yet all three churches wanted to continue their independent existence.

Using the expertise of Bruce Hartman (former CFO of Foot Locker and Yankee Candle, who is now Director of the Connectional Table for the Greater New Jersey Conference), they worked with younger folks in the area (some seminarians, but not all) to go into these churches which could no longer afford a full-time pastor.  The Greater New Jersey Conference folks call the project “Mosaic” because there is a deliberate intention to engage the neighborhood (mission field) and become a “mosaic” church the reflects the makeup of the local area (or mission field).  The young leadership (mostly volunteer, some on a small stipend) went into the churches with the churches willing ascent (working with a coalition of the willing!) and have become supporting pastors.  They lead worship (but don’t preach!), provide pastoral care and help the congregation engage in outreach ministry to the surrounding neighborhood.

Worship on Sunday morning is different.  The Supporting Pastor with other volunteers share leadership in music, hospitality, prayer, etc.   The sermon comes via technology (download).  Bishop Schol is the regular preacher.  In each of churches they report a much higher excellence in pastoral care, mission outreach, and worship!  All three are now growing!  All three are reporting a membership that is starting to reflect the demographics of the mission field.  It is a bright spot in the Greater New Jersey Conference.

We have experimental bright spots as well.  One is Life Church.  It is a marvelous outreach ministry/new church parented by First UMC in Waco reaching a multi-ethnic but predominately Hispanic group.  Another is the creative work of Thompson Chapel and the experiment of the 7th Street Mission, an off-shoot of First UMC, Fort Worth.  In truth the list is long.  Will they all succeed (be fruitful and faithful)?  Probably not, but the experiences are an exciting and creative way to reach out with the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

For too long, we denominationally have “shot” our entrepreneurs.  For too long, we have squelched creative ministry experiments.  I celebrate the many bright spots around us and long for more creative outreach offering the gospel of Christ to all people.

College and Cabinet

For the past week my time has largely been consumed by two meetings – the South Central Jurisdictional (SCJ) College of Bishops and the annual Inventory Retreat of the Cabinet of the Central Texas Conference.

The South Central Jurisdictional College of Bishops normally meets the first week of February at Perkins School of Theology.  Our agenda is varied but typically receives reports from various Jurisdictional Institutions (i.e. Lydia Patterson Institute in El Paso, Mt. Sequoyah, St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, SMU and Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, etc.).  Our role as bishops is one of governance.  Each of the aforementioned institutions has its own governing Board.  Rather we share in dialog and insight, which relates to the episcopal responsibility of shared oversight of the Church as a whole.  We follow up on various legislation that has come from General and Jurisdictional Conferences as well as any appropriate inquiries from the representatives of Annual Conferences.  (For instance there is a Jurisdictional Task Force called Mission 21 with representatives from the 10 episcopal areas of the Jurisdictional working on possible realignment issues in the future.) We engage in looking at missional priorities for the Jurisdiction and relate to the Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy.  We participated in a discussion of the roles of “Counsels for the Church” in potential upcoming church trials.  And the list continues.

One of the more interesting reports this year involved leadership development.  A crucial issue I have written on many times involves redeveloping the eco-system for clergy development.  Officials from Perkins shared elements of a Lilly Foundation consultation report done by Barbara Wheeler on pathways into Seminary.  Among many items to consider, one stood out as having critical importance: role models and mentoring by clergy and lay leaders of potential clergy.  Significantly the seed of the Holy Spirit, which leads to a lifetime of service to God and the church through ordination, is usually planted at the middle school level!

The second event was the yearly Inventory Retreat of the Central Texas Cabinet.  In this retreat we gather and examine who is retiring, who is graduating from seminary and looking for an appointment, who is looking to be licensed as a local pastor, etc.  Together we carefully and prayerfully sift through the church and clergy consultation forms which various pastors and Pastor-Parish Relations Committees have presented to their District Superintendents.  Together we wrestle with how we might best deploy ourselves to engage the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  This is an ongoing task that will occupy must of the Cabinet’s time between now and Conference in June.  I ask for your continued prayers for all involved in the process.

It is worth noting that we are continuing to see a rise in retirements.  Alongside the rise in retirements is a rise in churches moving to a part-time clergy relationship.  Slowly the renewed emphasis in campus ministry and development of the next generation of lay and church leadership is making a difference.  Balancing all of the various elements is very difficult.  I thank God for the faithful churches, clergy, and lay leaders involved in this great and godly connection called the United Methodist Church.

Preparing for Lent

In the late 1970s I read a story that came from Punch (a magazine dedicated to humor and satire).  As the story went, a woman went into a jewelry story in Sydney, Australia and asked to look at cross necklaces.  The clerk dutifully brought a number of them out and laid them on a black velvet tray.  He looked up and asked her, “Are you interested in one that is plain or one with a little man on it?”

I remember gasping that anyone could be that oblivious of the central symbol of the Christian faith.  Time wise this incident took place at the beginning of the so-called post-Christian era (or post-Christendom).  At the time (i.e. the end of Christendom) a person could reasonably assume knowledge of Christian symbols and their meaning.  Almost forty years later, such an assumption is dangerous if not foolish.  At our recent “Clergy Day Apart” we heard a series of marvelous presentations by Dr. Stephen Seamands on his book Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return.  Overheard in the conversations during a break after Seamands had presented a lecture on preaching the cross and crucifixion was a comment by a pastor that went something like this:  “I’ve always thought we were a church of the incarnation and resurrection.  Why can’t we just skip over that stuff about the cross?”  (I promise you I am not making this up.  I am also hopeful that there is far more to the conversation that I missed!)

Here is a clue.  We have crosses on our altars for a reason!  The Apostle Paul put it bluntly.  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified” (I Corinthians 2:1-2).

Central to the Christian faith is a conviction that we cannot get to Easter except through the cross!  Last week I taught a class on preaching for the West District clergy.  As a part of that class I shared a model set of sermon outlines presenting a series on the meaning and importance of the cross for the Christian faith.  I entitled it “Give Them Christ: Preaching Lent Through Easter” and based it on a rough outline of one chapter of Stephen Seamands book and the Revised Common Lectionary (for Holy Week).  I offer the outline for reflection and use for those so inclined.

Give Them Christ:   Preaching Lent Through Easter

Ash Wed                      The Reality of Sin                                  Psalm 51:1-17
1st Sunday                   The Bizarre Symbol of Our Faith        I Corinthians 2:1-5
2nd Sunday                  The Scandal of the Cross                     I Corinthians 1:18-25
3rd Sunday                   The At-One-Ment of the Cross          Matthew 16:13-23
4th Sunday                   The Suffering of the Cross                  Matthew 27:33-54
5th Sunday                   The Love of the Cross                          John 19:16-30
Palm Sunday               The March of the Cross                      Matthew 21:1-11
Maundy Thursday      The Shadow of the Cross                   John 13:1-17
Good Friday                 At the Cross                                         John 18:1-19:42
Easter                            The Triumphant Sign                        Matthew 28:1-10

I find myself coming back time and time again to a famous quote by George Macleod (a great Scottish preacher & theologian of the mid-twentieth century and founder of the Iona Community):

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church.  I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where He died.  And that is what he died about.  And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmanship should be about.”

Likewise the great old hymn “Lift High the Cross” rings in my ears offering us advice.  “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all adore His sacred name.” The opening verse both invites and challenges us to enter fully into a theology of the cross suitable for Lent.  “Come, Christians, follow this triumphant sign”  (“Lift High the Cross,” The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 159, chorus and verse 1).

GREAT MISSIONAL GENEROSITY

Numbers never tell the whole story.  At the same time, numbers (or metrics) do offer critical insight that must not be ignored.  One yearly numbers (or metrics) ritual in the United Methodist Church is a year-end close out of Connectional Mission Giving.  It is an important mile-post in our collective understanding of covenant with one another and our missional responsibility with the larger church. I vastly prefer the language of Connection Mission Giving or CMG to the old tired label of apportionments.  Apportionments sound like taxes; and who likes taxes?!  In reality, the year-end payout is a witness to our missional generosity, our wider connection in serving the Lord Jesus Christ and the “least of this my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:40).  These financial resources are used both locally and globally.  Places like West, Cleburne and Granbury benefited directly in tornado relief because of our great missional generosity.  Future pastors were educated in seminaries and children live today in America and Africa because of CMG.  (As a rough formula approximately 60% of a local church’s CMG goes to missional outreach through the church both locally and globally.  The remaining 40% goes to pay for what a business person would call “overhead.”  It is worth noting that the so called non-denominational churches spend a similar amount in overhead though in a different way.)

Link the above brief explanation of CMG with one of the basic elements of Christian discipleship – extravagant generosity.  In our vows as Methodist Christians, we commit to serve the Lord and His church through our gifts, our stewardship of our resources.  In numerous ways Jesus himself stresses the importance of such faithfulness with our gifts. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

So how did we, The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, do in 2013 in missional generosity?  At this point the report is only preliminary but the metrics tell a story of outstanding missional generosity!

Overall “payout to CMG” went up 4.08%.  This represents an increase of $188,712.  Outstanding!  Well done thou good and faithful servants!

According to David Stinson, Comptroller/Treasurer of the Central Texas Conference, pay out by the numbers consists of the following data for CMG:

97.23% Paid in CMG in 2013
93.15% Paid in CMG in 2012

269 Churches Paid 100% in 2013
257 Churches Paid 100% in 2012

30 Churches Paid Less than 100% in 2013
40 Churches Paid Less than 100% in 2012

20 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 but not in 2012
10 Churches Paid 100% in 2012 but not in 2013

247 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 and in 2012
209 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 and in each of the previous 5 years
185 Churches Paid 100% in 2013 and in each of the previous 10 years
(Those who are into careful counting and analysis will discover that the number of churches reported does not match the number of churches in the Conference.  This is because a few churches have not yet filed a report; additionally, this report is preliminary and needs refinement.  Still it is essentially accurate and represents a great increase!  We hope to reach 100% to the General Church when all the work is completed.)

I am proud to be the Bishop of The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Great is our faithfulness in Connectional Mission Giving!  Again I stress, well done thou good and faithful servants of the Lord!

CORE STRATEGIES: Extravagant Generosity

The incident stands clear in my mind.  It was mid-December of my first year at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio.  Jim (I’ve changed the name and some parts of this story but NOT the essence of the tale to protect anonymity) called and asked for an appointment.  Later that day he sat across the desk from me and slid a piece of paper over to me.  It was a five figure amount of money (the sum $23,000 and change sticks in my mind but I’m not exactly sure).  Puzzled I looked at him.  “That’s one tenth of our share of the business profit for this year,” he said.  “Sue and I always tithe on our profit.  What would you like the money put to?”

I knew their giving pattern.  They already gave over a tithe (10%) on their combined salaries.  While far from the wealthiest in the congregation, they were among the largest givers year in and year out.  “I don’t understand,” I stammered.  “You already tithe.”

Politely he responded as if stating the obvious.  “Of course, but we also tithe on our bonuses.”  Such is a picture of our last but far from least Conference core strategy – extravagant generosity.

Most readers will recognize extravagant generosity as one of the five practices of fruitful congregations.  Others will note its reflection of the original core practices of the Methodist Movement under John Wesley. (“Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”)  Still others will make the biblical connection to the earliest church found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 4:32-37).

Bishop Robert Schnase writes in The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, “First-century Christina communities, the Methodists of the 1700s, faith mentors, and models of Christian living today – all have discovered a truth as sure as gravity, that generosity enlarges the soul, realigns priorities, connects people to the Body of Christ, and strengthens congregations to fulfill Christ’s ministries. Giving reflects the nature of God. Growing in the grace of giving is part of the Christian journey of faith, a response Christian disciples offer to God’s call to make a difference in the world …. People who give generously to the church do so because they genuinely desire to make a positive difference for the purposes of Christ and because they want to align their lives with higher purposes” (pp. 106-107).

To this high and holy purpose we will seek to work as a Conference.  Two immediate practical examples of this strategy come to mind.  First: recently we brought Dr. Clif Christopher to the Central Texas Conference to lead a workshop on stewardship for both clergy and lay leaders.  (I commend his writing including most recently Rich Church Poor Church: Keys to Effective Financial Ministry and commend Joe Park as well as other members of the Horizons Stewardship team.)

Second: we are actively looking for a part-time development officer for the Central Texas Conference.  This position has already been approved by the Core Leadership Team and was reported at the last gathering of the Central Texas Conference.

Standing strong behind this activity is a Conference that is committed to extravagant generosity.  This is demonstrated in our mission response to those who are hungry, hurting and homeless (whether it be physically, spiritually, or psychologically – or some combination of the three!).  It is demonstrated by a long – decades long! – Conference culture that expects from both churches and clergy full faithfulness in paying apportionments.

Together we are living the biblical dream of Acts 4!  I am proud to be the bishop of the Central Texas Conference.

Saint Aldates, A Vision Alive

It was Sunday morning, August 18th, and as we dressed to go to church the music floated in the open window at Pembroke College, Oxford University.  The night before we had been debating whether to go to Wesley Memorial Methodist Church (think First Methodist Oxford) or Christ Church Cathedral (the church where both John and Charles Wesley had been ordained).  We had decided on Christ Church Cathedral located in Christ Church College across the street from where we were staying.

As we left our rooms and walked over, we passed a plain looking old English Church nestled between Pembroke College and Christ Church College.  The music we had been listening to poured out of this plain church – “How Great Thou Art” sung to drums, guitars and a fast paced beat.  I peered in an open door.  “Look Jolynn, that place is full of young people!”

We turned in front of the church, which was named St. Aldates, intending to stop at a nearby coffee shop.  (St. Aldate, the person not the church, was Bishop of Gloucester and died a martyr’s death resisting pagan invasion forces in 577 A. D.)  The music and self-evident joy was intoxicating.  We paused to read the sign board outside the church.  One of the greeters came outside to the edge of the street and invited us in.  Now that is really radical hospitality!  At first we demurred.  Weren’t we late?  No, he assured us, they were just finishing the first hymn.  The Holy Spirit spoke, and we slipped inside.

The church was reasonably full. (Something we were told was never the case in England.  We had been assured that except for special occasions all churches were mostly empty with just a scattering of older people.).  All ages were present in abundance with a fairly even mixture (though tending to the young side) age-wise.  There was an ethnic diversity that we dream of accomplishing on our best days.  Worship had a passionate intensity, depth and biblical integrity.  The sermon was faithful, thoughtful, and well delivered.  People were friendly and genuinely glad we had come without being clingy.

In the service they spoke of opportunities for service.  It turns out that St. Aldates is active in a large Christian ministry to the homeless in Oxford.  They offered opportunities for continuing spiritual development in prayer and Bible study.  While my conference was talking about a post missionary age, they prayed for a young couple who was leaving on an evangelistic and social (love, justice & mercy) mission to a predominately Muslim country.  Evangelism wasn’t something debated and defined.  It was something engaged in with sensitivity and love both right there in Oxford and around the world.  All of this was wrapped in faithful denominationally obedient Church of England cloak.

Afterwards, we learned that even though it seemed full to us (and even though they had multiple services) the members thought attendance was down because students weren’t present (school was out for the summer at Oxford).  They have a major, as in mega-major, student ministry.  “Usually” one couple told us, “it’s standing room only.”  As I mentally ticked off the five practices of healthy fruitful congregations – radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, extravagant generosity – I realize that all the elements were there.

As we walked away, Jolynn and I reflected on how we thought the Holy Spirit had led us to St. Aldates.  Out of my personal desert, I came to the well of living water.  As a couple, we came to church and God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit spoke to us that day.  Struggling in parched land of a dry and at times contentious gathering of Wesley scholars, I recalled the original Methodist movement.  Here it was at St. Aldates, in an Anglican church no less.  Go figure.  Only God could pull something like this off.   We saw a vision of what the church is to be and be about.  I saw again the vision I have for Central Texas.

This is the vision I have and have had since I came here for the Central Texas Conference.  I see vibrant, spiritually healthy, fruitful and faithful local churches spread all over the area; churches in cities and suburbs; churches in towns and fields; new churches and old churches and even in-between churches.  I can name a host of churches in the Central Texas Conference that are our versions of St. Aldates.  We have a goodly number of healthy fruitful congregations that are vibrantly serving the Lord.  Once again I thank God for the privilege of serving in the Central Texas Conference.  On deep reflection of our St. Aldates experience, this is my vision for the churches both here and all over the world.

aldates

COME HOLY SPIRIT — A Report from Taize 1

I have been gone for the past 10 days on a Young Adult leadership development trip to Taize.  Along with Rev. Larry Duggins (Director of the Missional Wisdom Foundation), Rev. Kyland Dobbins (Director of Mission Experience for CTC) and Leanne Johnson (Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the CTC), we have been leading a group of 20 young adults (ages 17 — 30) on a spiritual pilgrimage to Taize, France.

The brothers of the Taize Community consider the young people who flock to them from all over the world a gift from God.  They in turn nourish that gift with a spiritual care that is extraordinary.  The heart of Taize is three daily worship services anchored in prayer, song (which is often its own prayer), Holy Scripture and silence.  There is a phenomenally strong emphasis on listening to the Holy Spirit at Taize.  Song, silence, and scripture are vehicles and means by which we open ourselves to the Spirit’s presence and guidance.  The morning and afternoon worship experiences are followed by small group Bible Study.

As I soaked in the experience of Taize, I discovered myself going through a spiritual detoxification.  The challenges, struggles and problems of life and of my work as bishop did not disappear.  Rather they are put in perspective as I take time to open myself to the Holy Spirit.  In one sense, this is not new at all.  I hardly needed to travel to France to experience the importance of music, silence, and scripture in my Christian walk.  In another, greater sense, I feel like a desperately thirsty man staggering in from the desert and being offered a cold glass of refreshing water.  Steve Bryant’s (the former editor of the Upper Room) maxim that most of us do not go to the high places enough once again rings true in my life.  I (we!!!!) need time for spiritual detoxification from the world’s constant bombardment.

I invite the reader, whereever you are, whoever you are, to take time for quiet, song and scripture.  Retreat if only for 15 minutes in a place of rest and let the Lord speak to you through the Holy Spirit.  The words of one of the songs (sung in Italian) share the divine message:  “The Lord restores you.  God does not push you away.”

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