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Reclaim the Day! A Pentecost Community

The earliest Christians understood full well that the Church was a community of the Holy Spirit.  It was born not by human will or effort but by an act of the triune God on Pentecost Sunday (which this year is to be celebrated on May 19th).

The first of the great festival days of the Christian movement was Easter.  The second, ranking ahead of Christmas, was this day – Pentecost Day.  Why?  Because at Pentecost the first Christians experienced God moving in their midst in a way so powerful that it shaped and gave birth to a distinctive community, the community of the Holy Spirit.

The Bible records in Acts 2 that the power of the Holy Spirit that descended at Pentecost was not given to individuals but to the community.  God was present in power and blessing “where two or more gathered in the name of Jesus.”  The church, that disparate collection that is also called the Body of Christ, is the community of the Holy Spirit.

“The nineteenth-century historian Alfred Loisy is often quoted as saying, ‘Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and what came was the church.’  But Loisy did not mean this in the cynical way in which it is often repeated, as if the church were a later misunderstanding of the original intentions of Jesus” (William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church). Rather, it is the affirmation that where we are together in His name, the Spirit is present in the ongoing life and witness of the people of God.  As the great German theologian Karl Barth put it:  “In this assembly, the work of the Holy Spirit takes place” (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline).

I write to invite us to reclaim the importance of Pentecost Sunday.  It is a great festival day to lift and celebrate on the ongoing – continuing – work of the Holy Spirit in our midst!  The Church is a community of the Holy Spirit.  It is, in God’s divine plan, a primary (though not exclusive) place and locus of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  The experience of Pentecost was so dramatic that it changed their lives and gave birth to the Church.  Those present experienced the dynamic dimension of God presence in their lives.

In my recent readings I ran into the following quote from Professor Jason Vickers in his deep book Minding the Good Ground.  “Pentecost reminds us that the church came into existence originally and has existed continuously ever since because the Spirit is present in and to the church. As Irenaeus put it, ‘Where the Church is, there is also the Spirit of God and where the Spirit of God is, there are also the Church and all grace.’”

The temptation is to stop right here.  We might politely muse to ourselves “isn’t it nice that God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  But wait a minute.  The Holy Spirit wasn’t a kind gentle breeze.  It’s no zephyr.  It was a “violent blast” –a “tempest!”

What happened on that first Pentecost Day?  The church got down on its knees and prayed and the Spirit descended.  The Community of the Holy Spirit began in a meeting of prayer and praise!  The preaching came as a response.  And what a response it was.

Peter’s sermon (which makes but the long middle section of the 2nd chapter of Acts, some 23 verses) was the watershed which defined their experience of the Holy Spirit.  Peter preached Jesus.  It sounds so simple and is yet so powerful.  He proclaimed the Spirit as the living Lord Jesus present among us.  That’s right, among us now, amid all our cares and concerns, seeking to deal with our fears and worries, embracing our joys and hopes, the living Lord Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

March Madness

How about Florida Gulf Coast?  Or think about Harvard beating New Mexico.  With many of you I’ve been following the NCAA “March Madness” playoffs.  I confess that I don’t really have a dog in this hunt.  There is no team that is a favorite for me.  I just enjoy a good game.  Saturday while during some household chores, I was able to watch Indiana University (one of the favorites) barely survive an upset at the hands of a tough Temple team.  It is fun and wacky; it is “March madness” as the television advertisers like to say.

And yet, the real “March Madness” has nothing to do with basketball.  It has to do with the events of this week we call Holy.  Furthermore, instead of not having a dog in hunt, I and every human being who has ever or will ever live has eternity hanging in the balance.  The entrance to Jerusalem by a King on a donkey is true, holy “March madness.”

Consider the week begins in a triumphant entry that is strangely contrasted with the entries of other rules.  The pomp and circumstance of Roman might and power is contrasted with the home-grown parade of branches and cloaks.  Yet 2000 years later, it is that home-grown parade we remember not the clanking pageantry of Roman muscle.

Or take some of the other events of this week.  The cleansing of the temple is the stuff of craziness.  It is designed to bring the wrath of religious power down upon the perpetrator’s head – that is, the head of Jesus of Nazareth.  Yet the “March Madness” of the Savior teach us something of God’s love for those who have not, for those outside of the religious mainstream.

Take the Thursday meal in a borrowed upper room with a traitor and denier sitting at the table.  You would think that the Savior of the world would do a better job of picking those to eat with him at his last supper.  Yet…when I pause to reflect I cannot help but discover that he has me also to sit at table with him.  The choices of this Jesus, this Lord and Savior, are strange indeed by the world’s standards.

Or embrace Friday.  Why call this day good? It is a day in which the greatest man who ever lived suffered a cruel and rampantly unjust execution.  Yet in the madness of March it is the day of salvation.

And look where the “March Madness” ends. The championship is not in an arena but at a graveyard.  May this Easter find you there … in celebration!

On the Way – Journeys in the Wilderness

The original identification of Christ followers was not the label “Christian.”  They were called followers of the Way.  By that, they meant they were following the way of Christ in faithful discipleship.

As we met for the first Cabinet meeting of the year, stories of faithfulness and fruitfulness abound.  They are the “narratives” that go with the vital signs of which we have been talking.  Together at Cabinet we spent a great time celebrating progress which has come out of the Exodus Project.  In these narratives we encounter movements of the Holy Spirit that are taking place in our common ministry throughout the Conference. Truly God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is at work within us and through us.

Consider this sampling:

  • St. Barnabas is engaged in an awesome outreach medical clinic to those in need and has started a new contemporary worship called The Encounter with 145 people present on Saturday night
  • 1st Salado is engaged in hands-on ministry not only in the community, but in Africa & Haiti as well;  worship attendance is increasing with a sense of being electric & alive
  • 1st Graham started a ministry of feeding children (and their parents) who are on subsidized lunches during the summer; their children’s ministry is experiencing great growth
  • 1st Brownwood is reaching out to students at  Howard Payne University in creative ways
  • Cross Plains had a “camo” worship reaching out to hunters and is deeply excited as they start HCI (Healthy Church Initiative)
  • Morgan Mill/Bluff Dale – built a new parsonage, received 4 new members on professions of faith,  took 32 on a mission trips – 9 to Haiti, and is engaging in a great disaster response ministry
  • Meier Settlement has taken over the closed Riesel church to use for community & school activities. They sent over 1,000 Christmas boxes out to those in need with widespread community support
  • 1st Waco is engaged in a host of ways including Life Church (a predominantly Hispanic new church start), leading Speegleville as a mission outpost, and Church Under the Bridge for the homeless
  • Austin Avenue has welcomed ARC disabled folks from McClennon County, an outreach for those who are challenged
  • The Ghanaian UMC held its first 1st Sunday worship in the old Aldersgate facility with 128 people present; the service started at 10:40 and ended about 1:30. Excitement and amazing singing abounded
  • Eastland has bought a building and started a city-wide youth program reaching out to those who do not know Christ or have no church home
  • 1st Hurst is engaged in 30 small groups studying Unbinding the Gospel, which will be a church-wide emphasis of sharing faith
  • 1st Fort Worth is engaged in a tremendous children’s ministry reaching out to the whole community
  • Bethesda has built a home from the ground up for a community member in dire need, living Matthew 25; they are engaged in one-on-one discipleship and mentoring of laity.
  • Acton is experiencing a rebirth of ministry at Rancho Brazos, is embracing deepening  discipleship, and seen an exponential increase in worship numbers

The promise of Jeremiah of a “future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11) is unfolding!

The Miracle

I cannot help but share the following cartoon which was passed on to me.

It is too funny, and yet I am reminded of the claim made by Martin Luther that Christmas is the greatest miracle of all.  If we can come to the belief that God lies in the manger in the person of a helpless baby named Jesus, all others fade into insignificance.  As the New Year approaches, I invite us to go with those who are wise to stable to kneel before our king.  There really are twelve days of Christmas, and the season probably comes to an end with us kneeling before the Lord on Epiphany Day, January 6th.  The light of the gospel of Christ has come to all people!  May this new year be a true year of our Lord 2013!

A Different Kind of Christmas

Last Sunday we flew back into to DFW from the Council of Bishops meeting at St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. The weather was cool (if not cold for Texas).  Somehow with Halloween over, despite the fact that Thanksgiving has not come, thoughts turned to Christmas.

Many in local churches are already well down the road in Advent/Christmas planning.  At recent United Methodist Publishing House board meeting I was deeply impressed by the writings of Pastor Mike Slaughter (Ginghamsburg UMC) entitled A Different Kind of Christmas.  The subtitle says it all – “living and giving like Jesus.”  A book description takes it a step further.  “Every year, we say we’re going to cut back, simplify, and have a family Christmas that focuses on the real reason for the season—Jesus. But every year, advertisements beckon, the children plead, and it seems easier just to indulge our wants and whims. Overspending, overeating, materialism, and busyness rob us of our peace and joy and rob Jesus of his rightful role as the center of our celebration.”  The series has a study guide, a devotional book, children’s and youth studies as well as a DVD.  I commend it to you.

One of my goals is to “live and give like Jesus.”  I want, indeed long, for a different kind of Christmas.  How about you?

There are a variety of other excellent resources that invited us to make the “holidays” truly “holy days.”  A number of different churches and authors in our conferences have produced materials.  Rev. Mark Winter (www.onemanshow.org) of the Central Texas Conference has written Just a Word: A Collection of Advent Devotionals.  The “Journey” material by Adam Hamilton is outstanding.  Other great resources abound.

Together, let’s commit to make this a different kind of Christmas.  About ½ a dozen years ago Dan Schaeffer wrote, “This is the essential difference between those who possess the real Christmas spirit and those who don’t.  If you removed the trees, and the lights, and the poinsettias, and the decorations, and the presents, and the food, and the music, those with the real Christmas spirit would still celebrate” (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, p. 18).  Do you remember that marvelous little story by Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas?  How, after all the trimmings and presents were stolen, the Whos of Whoville still sang.  Let’s sing and reach out in love to the hungry the hurting and the homeless whether it be physical, spiritual, or psychological.

Inventory and Ministry Matters

I have just returned for the Cabinet’s annual inventory retreat.  At this retreat, we take stock of coming retirements, incoming seminary graduates and new licensed local pastors, those pastors and or churches considering or requesting moves, etc.  As we live into the new reality of a post- Christendom age, we continue to be governed by the notion of trying to make mission field appointments.  Our focus/guide remains:  Our clients are: 1) God, 2) The Mission Field, 3) The congregation, and 4) The clergy – In that order!  People readily agree with that focus.  The implementation, however, is painful.  The old “ladder” system no longer holds.  This is a painful part of our exodus journey.

Switching topics, I want to call attention to some recent articles in Ministry Matters (www.ministrymatters.com).  F.  Douglas Powe, Jr. has written a thoughtful article entitled “Revitalizing African American Congregations for the Post-Civil Rights Generation” (Posted on February 1st, 2012).  It is an excerpt from his book Pouring New Wine into New Wine Skins: Revitalizing African American Congregations.

 Another Ministry Matters (www.ministrymatters.com) article worth reading is Church, Take Up Your Mats by Christian Piatt, Posted January 30th, 2012.

 

 

Extravagant Generosity by CTC!

Way to go Central Texas Conference!!!  At Thursday’s meeting of the CFA (Conference Council on Finance and Administration), we were able to fund our Connectional Mission Giving to the General Church (otherwise called apportionments) at 100%!  Historically, the Central Texas Conference has a tremendous record of being a conference that almost always pays out fully (100%) to Connectional Mission Giving.  (Last year was one of the few exceptions and even then we did extremely well given the recession.)

2011   PAYOUT COMPARISON:
Payout   percentage in 2011

93.41

Payout   Percentage in 2010

93.14

Number   of churches paying 100% in 2011

262

Number   of churches paying 100% in 2010

267

Number   of churches that INCREASED payout percentage in 2011

25

Number   of churches that DECREASED payout percentage in 2011

26

Number   of churches that paid 100% in 2011, but not in 2010

17

Number   of churches that paid 100% in 2010, but not in 2011

19

Total   CMG (apportionment) dollars paid by churches in 2011

10,614,795

Total   CMF (apportionment) dollars paid by churches in 2010

10,746,987

The change in total CMG (Connectional Mission Giving) in 2011 reflects the deep savings that have resulted from the Exodus Project (moving from 7 geographical Districts to 5 Geographical Districts, reconfiguration of staff, elimination of redundant or obsolete structure, etc.).

The extravagant generosity of the Central Texas Conference did not stop with just Connectional Mission Giving and Conference Ministry Support.  Asking and Fair Share Goals for Laura Edwards, Senior Ministry, Justice for our Neighbors – JFON, Mid-Cities Age Level, Global AIDS Fund, United Community Centers and Metro Board of Missions resulted in an additional $189,860.51 in generosity.  Among the 3 pages of special offerings over and above CMG & Fair Share was an Annual Conference Offering of $43,732.45 which went to Glen Lake Camp, twice the normal amount; UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) offering of $32,015.27 – 1/3 more than ever before; Imagine No Malaria offering of $121,980.56; $13,761.84 for Wildfire Relief in our area, with many churches giving directly to those in need; $49,914.38 in relief for spring storms in Joplin and parts of Oklahoma; and a special Pacific Emergency offering for victims of the Tsunami and related disasters in Japan of $119,106.2!.

Our response has been nothing short of phenomenal.  It represents a true movement of the Holy Spirit among us.  Well done thou good and faithful servants!

HONORING THE SABBATH ON CHRISTMAS DAY

This was one of those rare years when Christmas Day (and New Year’s Day) fell on a Sunday.  In Methodist tradition our high celebration of the birth of Christ is on Christmas Eve.  At least originally the notion of Christmas Eve worship was to greet the Christ-child at the start of Christmas Day in worship (that is at midnight).  It “fits” with the angelic greeting of the shepherds in their fields at night.  Symbolically at least, we are joining the shepherds in adoration.  (Ancient Orthodox tradition has it that the animals are the first to greet the newborn Savior by speaking at midnight!  You might check out the hymn “The Friendly Beasts” (UM Hymnal, No. 227).

What draws my reflection is the morning after – Christmas Day, a Sabbath Day for Christians – the Son’s Day or Resurrection Day.  After multiple Christmas Eve services (including one at 11:00 p.m.), Arborlawn (my wife’s church) held one worship at 10 a.m. on Christmas Day (instead of the usual 3).  We went (and yes, I was late).  They ran out of bulletins!  Far more people showed up than were expected.

Christmas Day afternoon we drove to Oklahoma to have Christmas dinner with my mother-in-law.  Her United Methodist Church held a Christmas Eve service but no service on Sunday – the Christian Sabbath day! – Christmas Day.  My mother-in-law and her friends were disappointed (if not disgusted) by the lack of a Christmas Day (Sunday) service.  Politely but pointedly she noted that worshipping God on Sunday, especially a Christmas Day Sunday, was a part of keeping the commandment to honor the Sabbath.  The lack of worship on Christmas Day seemed unfaithful.

I can’t help but wonder in all this if the lay people are telling us (the clergy) something critical to faithfulness.  These laity appear to take the commandment to “honor the Sabbath and keep it holy” as more important than the clergy.  In the case of Arborlawn (where the clergy leadership was clearly faithful and provided excellent worship leadership), the laity were telling us (the clergy) about the importance of such worship.  The commandment to honor the Sabbath still applies; even … no make that especially, on Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve, Making Disciples and Church Growth

I have shared often how crucial Christmas Eve worship is as an opportunity to reach non- or nominal Christians.  A recent article in Ministry Matters (www.ministrymatters.com click on “Articles”, it was posted November 28th) entitled “How Christmas Can Help Your Church Grow in 2012” caught my attention.  The authors listed 6 key ideas.  “1) Promote your January sermon series and other upcoming activities during Advent and Christmas services.”  2) Use your Christmas kids’ programming as an on-ramp for new families to get involved.  3)  Offer multiple mission opportunities. 4) Do the caroling thing. (The CEB New Testament Christmas Outreach Kit works well for this kind of outreach.) 5) Use your church’s small groups for outreach during the holidays.  6) Be creative and try new things.”  The authors, Betsy Hall & Shane Raynor, add: “Don’t settle with doing the same candlelight service year after year. Remember, Christmas Eve is prime time. Pull out all the bells and whistles. Get your most creative people on board and provide a worship experience that will make first time visitors want to return in 2012.” To which I add a hearty Amen! The worship of God is the first and most basic step on the path of discipleship.

I commend the article to you.  It closes with the challenging question, “What does your church do during Advent and Christmas that encourages growth in the months ahead?”

As you are lifting up the connection between Christmas Eve, making disciples, and church growth? Don’t forget alternative forms of communication as a way to reach seekers.  A church Facebook page and a twitter auto update are two (among many) different suggestions.  (Our younger clergy have been coaching me, and they are great resources to visit with about different options!)  Whatever you do, have Christmas Eve services featured PROMINENTLY on your  website!

While you are at it, another article from the Lewis Leadership Center is really worth your attention.  It is entitled “Asking Bigger Questions” and written by Keith Anderson. It is from The Lewis Center for Church Leadership online journal Leading Ideas dated November 30th (www.churchleadership.com).

Living with the Common English Bible

A particular delight in my devotional life during the last few months has been discovering the Common English Bible.  The Common English Bible or CEB for short is a new translation encompassing the best of current biblical scholarship from across the spectrum.  The translation is fresh and exciting.  It moves beyond the theological positioning of other biblical translations to embrace a deep accuracy with the original biblical text.  “The Common English Bible is committed to the whole church of Jesus Christ. To achieve this, the CEB represents the work of a diverse team with broad scholarship, including the work of over one hundred and seventeen scholars—men and women from twenty-two faith traditions in American, African, Asian, European and Latino communities. As a result, the English translation of ancient words has an uncommon relevance for a broad audience of Bible readers—from children to scholars” (www.commonenglishbible.com). With joy, I enthusiastically recommend the CEB translation!

Taste the fresh CEB translation of Jeremiah 29:11-12.  “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the LORD; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you.”  The promo blurb is right.  “The Common English Bible is not simply a revision or update of an existing translation. It is a bold new translation designed to meet the needs of Christians as they work to build a strong and meaningful relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”

Tomorrow I fly out to El Paso to visit The Lydia Patterson Institute.  Lydia Patterson is a mission of the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church (of which the Central Texas Conference is a part).   The bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction will be meeting together at Lydia Patterson as we seek to strengthen our mission and witness to the greater Hispanic community  (www.lydiapattersoninstitute.org).

Their mission is to:

  • “Represent Christian Faith as understood by The United Methodist Church.
  • Provide quality bilingual, cross-cultural academic education.
  • Provide a Center where local church leaders, clergy and lay, may receive training and experience in effecting Christian witness and ministry with persons of other races and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Develop leadership skills in persons interested in cross-cultural and international positions of Christian ministry.”
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