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Institutional Relationships and Faith Based Health Care

Thursday night (September 10th) I drove home from a very engaging and fruitful Cabinet Retreat. This morning (September 11th) I left early to attend a two day Texas Health Resources (THR) Leadership Conference focusing on the critical theme of “Exploring the Next Frontier in Heath Care Leadership.” For me this is a time of deep learning. It is important to hold together the Church’s historic relationship with healthcare (originally through the Harris Methodist Hospital System and since the merger) through THR. As a part of the recent restructuring, I now serve on the Board of Texas Health Resources by virtue of the office of Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Conference.

It is significant that THR is very serious about being a “faith based” hospital system. Recently Dr. Eric Smith was promoted from Senior Chaplain to Vice-President of Spirituality and Faith Integration (system wide). The “faith” connection matters greatly to THR. System values reflect the deep Methodist roots (on the Harris Fort Worth side) and the Presbyterian roots (on the Dallas Presbyterian side). Like American society as a whole and the church in particular, THR is feeling its way forward in a post-Christendom environment.

At our June meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference perhaps the biggest debate revolved around health insurance for clergy. As I listen and learn at this THR Leadership Retreat, I cannot help but note the reality we are facing society wide. We are in a period of great change! This mirrors my work on the United Methodist Publishing House Board – the publishing industry is undergoing a revolution (think Amazon and self-publishing). Who would have thought just 10 years ago that a person could receive health care at Wal-Mart and CVS! I cannot help but add the obvious: the church is going through similar great disruptive change in our post-Christendom environment. Like all the rest of my colleague bishops and many lay leaders and senior clergy, we are wrestling with just what institutional relationships look like and what they ought to look like.

In our Annual Conference debate, a hidden sub-text is the move to a consumer driven health care system. A crude illustration will hopefully illuminate. When I was a child, whatever the doctor (or nurse) said was (pardon the pun) gospel. Today, it is both expected and demanded that the intelligent and responsible patient (and/or family caretaker) will both question and engage in meaningful dialogue about their healthcare. In a good way the Conference debate illuminated that both clergy and laity must be individually responsible for healthcare. The days of being “taken care of” are over. We must be participants in the health and healing process.

From our Christian (and faith based) system we seek not only to provide an environment that is safe, healing and kind but one that aligns the wider system to achieve high performance for everyone! By its very nature this is an incredibly complex task. While THR is geographically focused (the north Texas area), the drive to full integration of healthcare services (including insurance) is a part of the future both locally and nationally. Three elements will continue to dominate the faith based discussion – 1) access, 2) care, and 3) cost.

Both as Christians and as a larger society, we need to get beyond venting about what we don’t like to figuring out solutions that benefit all. I am impressed by THR’s dedicated work in this direction. Christ’s teaching from Matthew 25 echoes in the background … “in as much as you did it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

On the Way to the Council

As I write this blog, I am sitting in a hotel room in Nashville, Tennessee, Wednesday October 29th.  We have just finished the annual fall meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board. (Cokesbury & Abingdon Press are two of the better known divisions.)  I have been privileged to serve on this Board for the past 10 years (four as a representative from the Southwest Texas Conference and six as a bishop representing the Council of Bishops (COB).

During those 10 years, we have lived through (and are continuing to live in!) a revolution in the publishing business.  The advent of new technology spearheaded by Amazon has transformed the publishing enterprise beyond previous recognition.  And yet, Amazon just posted the biggest loss in its history.  With the superb leadership of President and Publisher Neil Alexander we are sailing through storm tossed seas, battered but still afloat, and slicing through the waves.  (It is worth noting in this same time period, Borders has declared bankruptcy; Barnes & Noble is losing money and cutting back; Nazarene Press is closing; Augsburg (Lutheran) is in turmoil fighting a lawsuit for failure to honor its pension commitments.

We had a good meeting as we planned future strategy and made strategic decisions.  GROW, our children’s curriculum, is outstanding.  So too is the new adult Covenant Bible Study series.  UNDER WRAPS: The Gift We Never Expected, a new advent study, looks outstanding.  Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It  is exciting in possibilities.

As I reflect on our time and work together, an old song by Bob Dylan comes back from my college days.  “The times they are a changin’”

Tonight, I will join a special gathering put together by the Path 1 (“New Places for New People” focus area) staff of the Discipling Ministries (which used to be known as The Board of Discipleship).  The event is a gathering of seminary professors of evangelism and new church start practitioners.  The hope is for an intensive interaction between the theology and practice of new church development.  One of the key areas of focus is on why “Wesleyan church planting matters.”

I will be offering an opening “theological reflection/devotion” (that is the actual title of my assignment) entitled “The Challenge of Why.”  Central Texas Conference members have heard a precursor of this extended work offered in a series of sermons at the 2012 Annual Conference.  Simply put, the challenge of “why” is to answer the question of “why bother being Christian or worship God by going to church.”

One shudders in recalling the casual comment of a church staff member to her pastor, “We’re Methodists; we can believe whatever we want, can’t we?”  No, we can’t!  Answering the “why” question necessitates recovery of a core orthodoxy at the heart of our teaching and preaching.  It is central to any faithful future for the Methodist movement in North America.

Thursday night I fly home and a brief part of Friday morning will be spent in the office.  We’ll drive to Oklahoma City Friday afternoon so I can take part in a rehearsal for Saturday’s Connectional Table Webcast event of a panel discussion of the bishops who wrote Finding Our Way.

The Council meeting starts Sunday afternoon with a traditional Memorial Service.  I hope to offer reflections on our gathering during the week.  In my devotional time I am reminded again of a song we sang at Taize, In The Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful.

In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful,
In The Lord I will rejoice!
Look to God, do not be afraid.
Lift up your voices, The Lord is near,
Lift up your voices, The Lord is near.

Faith, Hope and Clarity – and the Greatest of These is Clarity

When I was working on Doctor of Ministry degree (D. Min.), I had the privilege of studying under a marvelous preaching professor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary named Robert Shelton. (Dr. Shelton later served as Dean and President at APTS.) In a preaching class with other D. Min. students, he would begin critiquing his sermons with a deliberate misquoting of I Corinthians 13:13. The passage is rightly famous and is most commonly translated “so faith, hope, and love abide; and the greatest of these is love.” In the old King James translation the word love is render “charity.” Thus the verse read: “So faith, hope and charity abide; and the greatest of these is charity.” On his critique Dr. Shelton would say, “So faith, hope and clarity abide; and the greatest of these is clarity!”

There is a truth in his witty misquoting that we need to embrace. It goes hand in hand with the critical need for focus. We need clarity. We need to share the essence of the gospel in clear unmistakable terms. Often we operate with Christendom assumptions. We hold to the belief that people know the essence of the gospel; that they know the story of ruin through sin, rescue through Christ on the cross and restoration through resurrection and new life in Christ.

And yet, at our 2013 meeting of the Central Texas Conference, Dr. Kenda Dean (a United Methodist elder and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary) reminded us forcefully that for much of America, Christianity has been boiled down to heretical fuzziness. She called this fuzzy imposter for Christianity “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (Be good/moral; religion is therapeutic, bringing warm fuzzies and counseling encouragement that makes us better, and we believe in one god [small g] somewhere out there.) In her insightful book Almost Christian she wrote: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the ‘crown of rejoicing’ that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former” (Kenda Creasy Death, Almost Christian, p. 5).

A few months ago Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary commented on the same theme in a blog. “One of the greatest needs in the church today is a healthy dose of gospel clarity. Even in the evangelical churches, it seems that the gospel message has become obscured under a heavy cloud of vague moralisms, self-help injunctions, public therapy sermons, and so forth. It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His word which cuts through all of the religious rubble which builds up inside churches. Religion is like cholesterol plaque which slowly accumulates on the walls of your arteries. It creeps in unnoticed, but it can eventually kill you. We love the slow buildup of religious activity and, like the money-changers in the Temple, it can slowly squeeze out the actual purpose of the church.

“This problem is not limited to the Methodist. This is a far ranging problem which cuts right across the contemporary church. It is the same muddle which caused a church to put up on their sign outside, ‘Free Coffee, Everlasting Life – Yes, membership has its privileges.’ It is the same problem which causes churches to eliminate prayers of confession lest the church not be regarded as ‘seeker sensitive.’ It is the same problem which blurs the line between Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘power of positive thinking’ and the church. The list could go on and on.

“Brothers and sisters, we must find new ways to let the clarity of the gospel ring forth from our lives and from the ministries of the church. Wesley’s ‘heart-warming experience’ must be wedded anew with the steadfast powerful message of the gospel as found exposited by Luther in his preface to the Romans. This is certainly how Wesley himself interpreted his heart warming experience. After May 24th he became crystal clear about the nature of the gospel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Word of God. He became razor sharp in his passion to preach the gospel, evangelize the world, disciple believers and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world. We should remind ourselves every day that being a Methodist or a Presbyterian or ‘non-denominational’ means nothing if it is not first and foremost an outgrowth of our more basic identity as Christians who have been transformed by and through Jesus Christ” (Timothy Tennent, http://timothytennent.com/2014/03/30/remembering-the-source-of-aldersgate/; Sunday, March 30th, 2014).

Recently in reading Michael Green’s Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, I encountered its insistence that the earliest Christians absolutely refused to be syncretic. (Syncretism is the notion that all religions and faith systems are essentially equal; all roads lead to the top of the same divine mountain.) With exquisite politeness and absolute firmness the early Christian rejected such muddled thinking. Pastor (& Professor) Green wrote: “There is no additional way. There is no alternative way. Christ is the way to salvation” (Emphasis in the original; Michael Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today, p. 232). He continued, “The disciples did not go round casting aspersions on other expressions of religious faith. They did, however, point to Jesus as the only way in which God has fully come to humans, and the only way by which humans can fully come to God and know him as Father” (Green, Thirty Years that Changed the World, p. 232).

Faith, hope and clarity indeed. We need love. It is still the greatest! But I submit there is wisdom offered by Shelton, Dean, Tennent and Green. We are in desperate need of gracious (!I emphasize gracious!) clarity!

Insights from Upper New York

Last Thursday I flew to Syracuse, New York.  Friday and Saturday mornings I made two separate presentations/bible studies to the Upper New York Conference of the United Methodist Church.  It was a great time of making new friends, sharing and learning for me.

Bishop Mark Webb and the good folks of Upper New York exercised radical hospitality towards me!  I was tremendously blessed by the warmth of their welcome and the graciousness of their hosting me.  (I even got time for an afternoon side trip to The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York on Friday afternoon.  A member of the staff at the Hall of Fame is also a member at the Cooperstown UMC.  They were able to arrange some special time down in the archives where I got to hold the hat Greg Maddux wore when he pitched against Roger Clements.  It is the only occasion where two pitchers who have won three hundred games each have pitched against each other!)

The Upper New York Conference was alive and vibrant.  I gained a sense of the Holy Spirit moving in their midst.  In a tough challenging cultural situation, they are wrestling with how to reach out in the name Christ with the gospel.  Upper New York has been one of the eleven conferences in the U.S. (along with Central Texas) who were involved in a growing Vital Congregation’s pilot learning project.

As commentators have well noted, the tsunami of secularity (which I wrote about in my May 2nd blog Leadership and Hope as the Tsunami Engulfs Us) has hit the northeast harder and earlier than the southwest.  Put differently, Upper New York is dealing with a tougher version of the tsunami than Central Texas is.  (There is no reason to either worry or brag in Central Texas.  Our time will come!)  There are lessons we can learn from Upper New York.  Perhaps the first and most important is to keep a good spirit as we are led by the Holy Spirit.  Discouragement will hammer us all, but this is still the Lord’s world.

The second strong impression I left Upper New York with lies in the close similarity of issues both conferences are facing.  I have written before about how I get up in the morning as a bishop and wrestle with three clear areas of focus: 1) Deep theological & cultural change within the Church focused on recovery of a Christ-centered theology; 2) The building of vital congregations including both the transformation of existing congregations and the development of new congregations; and 3) Developing a new generation of both lay and clergy leaders.  My perception is that Upper New York was deeply engaged in those same issues as well.

By way of example, I participated in a service honoring retirees and recognizing those to be ordained Deacons and Elders.  They (Upper New York) are already being hit by the retirement tsunami.  (Our peak in Central Texas should hit no later than 2018 but probably earlier.)  By my rough count, 38 deacons and elders retired and 12 new deacons and elders were voted on (to be ordained the next day).  The math is fairly plain.  Upper New York replaced about 1/3 of their retirees.  The impact is offset somewhat by the number of churches being closed.  The same is true for Central Texas.  Both conferences are facing serious leadership shortages.  (This is meant in no way to subtract from some outstanding new clergy being ordained in both conferences!)

I closed my Friday morning address with a reference to the British missionary C. T. Studd who left a fortune behind and abandoned a star cricket career (think all-star major league baseball player) to share the gospel in places like China and India.  He said, “Some wish to live within the sound of Church or Chapel bell; I want to run a Rescue Shop within a yard of hell.”

In my better moments, so do I.  In our better moments as a church, as local congregations, this is actually what we do.  We run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.  It is to this high and truly holy purpose that we gather and offer our witness.  This great truth towers before both the conferences.

Our son, now 35 and recently married, was born six weeks premature.  Jolynn and I were scheduled to start Lamaze class the day after Nathan was born.  I had the Lamaze instruction book in my pocket as I held my wife’s hand in the delivery room.  (Have you ever had one of those really bright ideas that wasn’t real bright?)  I pulled it out of my pocket and started reading it to Jolynn.  “It says here, honey, you need to breathe deep and focus.”  It is a blessed act of her forbearance and divine mercy that I am still alive today.  It also helped that she couldn’t get off the table.

Yet, as strange as it may sound, this is exactly the kind of advice we need today.  We need to breathe deep and focus.  Those of us from both the Upper New York Conference and the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church know that the Christendom world where America went to church every Sunday has died.  A new world is aborning and, as strange as it may seem, we need to remember that this is God’s world.  The Great Commission of Christ to His disciples is as applicable today as it has ever been.  Our mission, should we accept it, is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Amidst the chaos of our times and the controversies that are wracking the United Methodist Church, a new church is being born.  This is scary, but it is also a good and godly thing.  “The Church [truly] is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.”

Designing the Path

I can still recall the thrill of listening to Bill Hybels, the Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, describe their mission well over two decades ago.  “Willow Creek exists to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.”  Harvard Business School had a graduate student do a study of Willow Creek’s discipleship path.  With amazement she reported that it was their intention to take atheists and turn them into missionaries!  At Willow they call them “FDFers” – fully devoted followers.

Here in the Central Texas Conference we describe our mission in similar terms.  The mission of the churches, clergy and lay people of the Conference is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Both statements of mission grow out of the great commission of the risen Lord Jesus Christ in the closing paragraph of Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:16-20).  What stood out for me was not the declaration of purpose or mission; after all, that is given by Christ!  Rather, I was then and still am now deeply impressed by the clarity of their strategy for making disciples (or if you prefer, FDFers).

Clarity is often a forgotten, critical element in the path of discipleship.  Ironically in the United Methodist Church we have been exceptionally clear about the central elements of intentional faith formation (raising up disciples).  Our fivefold vows state the essence:  “prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.”  Another way to think of intentional faith development in making disciples is to compare a biblical model from Acts with the original Methodist Movement, then place the two alongside the “five practices of fruitful congregations and fruitful living.”

Methodist chrt

The challenge for many churches is to get clear about the pathway for making disciples.  This is harder than it looks at first blush.  While we want to set out a “pathway” that is linear, life doesn’t happen in a linear fashion.  Intentional faith development swirls, ebbs and flows.  The context and missional situation can vary greatly from person to person and from congregation to congregation.  Yet, if we haven’t thought and prayed through a clear path of discipleship, we tend to end up with a vague, nice sounding yet inconsequential plan for intentional faith development.  A linear path, however imperfect, is better than no clearly delineated path.

At our upcoming Annual Conference meeting, we hope to look at different models for faith development in making disciples.  Bishop Jones will offer an outline with The Wesleyan Way.  Our other three presenters will share different models with written material for any church (pastor, lay leader, Sunday School teacher, etc.) to pick up and adapt for their own unique setting.

Presenter: Rev. Candace Lewis Resource: A Disciple’s Path by James   A. Harnish
Presenter: Dr. Phil   Maynard Resource: Shift by Phil Maynard
Presenter: Sue   Engle Resource: Charting a Course of   Discipleship by Teresa Gilbert, Patty Johansen, & Jay Regennitter   (revised by Delia Halverson)

We have a tendency to make this all overly complex.  The early Methodists were clear and simple.  Their “method” (hence the name Methodist) could be succinctly communicated.  The challenges of clarity and communication are once again squarely before us.  What is your path of discipleship?  Can you lay it out in 25 words or less in a manner that can readily be understood by a non- or nominal Christian?  Do the members of your congregation understand and share your path of discipleship?

 

Annual Conference Focuses on Making Disciples

I am often asked, “What is the theme of this year’s Annual Conference?” For me, the answer is always the same. Our theme is “to energize and equip local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The theme is the Conference’s core mission – to energize and equip local congregations. The second part of theme reflects the core mission of every local United Methodist congregation – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I don’t believe in a theme de jour or flavor of the year. To borrow from the slogan made famous by Ford Motor Company… This –“to energize and equip local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – is Job 1!

Underneath that theme we try to have a focused teaching piece (usually two or three major presentations) that will guide us as an Annual Conference through our local churches to better accomplish the mission of making disciples. Sometimes the best laid plans go astray.

I typically work a year and a half ahead in scheduling Conference teachers. About 18 months ago, I asked Rev. Rudy Ramus the Sr. Pastor of St. John’s UMC in Houston to be our Conference teacher for 2014. My intent was that he would lead us in a focused teaching on how we might be more culturally and ethnically sensitive. Rev. Ramus graciously agreed to come lead us. However, he recently found out that his daughter will be graduating from medical school that day! We celebrate for her and for the whole Ramus family but have had to scramble to change our plans.

Rev. Rasmus has consented to come lead us in the same teaching piece in 2015 instead. I had planned to have us focus on intentional faith development – how we in fact grow and mature as disciples of Jesus Christ in 2015. Instead we have flipped the two subjects. We will focus on discipleship development (the path of disciple-making) in 2014 and receive Rev. Rasmus’ great teaching on cultural and ethnic sensitivity in 2015. (For those interested, our Conference teaching in 2016 will be on evangelism and witness.)

I am pleased to announce, with great appreciation for their willingness to come on short notice!, that we will have Bishop Scott Jones on Monday afternoon share an overview of intentional faith development using his material from Cokesbury’s The Wesleyan Way. Rev. Candace Lewis, Executive Director of Path 1 (the United Methodist Church’s new church development initiative) will share the critical learning that her Path 1 Team have made in discipleship development. Dr. Phil Maynard, a noted pastor, consultant and leader in the church, will share a path to discipleship based on his book Shift. Rev. Sue Engle, a leader in the field of intentional faith development, will use the material developed in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference called Charting the Course of Discipleship as a model for how local congregations can set out a clear and cogent path of discipleship. Each of the three presentations/break-out sessions will be for 1&1/2 hours. They are designed to help pastors, lay leaders and congregations work on drafting their own plans for discipleship formation in their respective ministry settings. It is our intent to give every congregation some very practical tools by which they may think through and enact a path of discipleship from a new Christian to a deeply committed discipline-follower of Christ. They will have components that involve education, Bible study, spiritual formation and applications in practice.

Over the next 5 or 6 blogs I intend to write on intentional faith development. My material will hone in on elements of a path for discipleship that move us beyond vague assertions in to practical applications.

What do we mean by a disciple of Jesus Christ? Arguments about definition (which clergy tend to love and laity tend to have their eyes glaze over!) are often exercises in work avoidance. While we may quibble about the words, the essence is straight forward. A disciple is a committed disciplined follower of Jesus Christ. Dallas Willard says a disciple is an apprentice of Christ. The great Saint Athanasius reminds us that Christ became like us that we might be like Him! It is an audacious claim with a missional call into evangelistic witness and ministry of love, justice and mercy for all – literally all! – of God’s people. Discipleship has membership intentions. We are to be followers of the way of Christ! And, we are to be a part of the living, loving, forgiving body of Christ, the church!

Discipleship is at the heart of what the Apostle Paul calls sanctification. “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (I Corinthians 1:30, NRSV). I love the way the Common English Bible translates the same passage: “It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us” (I Corinthians 1:30, CEB). Eugene Petersen’s The Message paraphrase renders the passage, “Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 1:30, The Message).

In one sense discipleship is clear. We are followers of Jesus who seek to imitate Him in our life and witness. In another sense, discipleship can involve different, complex, and contextual applications. In all senses it is a life journey with the Lord living, as Wesley put it, in the full house of God.

Think about it. What is the path of discipleship for your church? How clear and clearly understood by all is it? Are you walking on that path? “O Master let me walk with thee in lowly paths of service free; tell me thy secret; help me bear the stain of toil, the fret of care” (“O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee,” Hymn No. 430, The United Methodist Hymnal).

An Inquiry on the Way to Taize

Saturday evening April 5th found Jolynn and me driving over to White’s Chapel UMC to participate in a special Taize “Pilgrimage of Trust” here in the northern part of Texas. Readers may well remember that the Central Texas Conference sponsored a leadership development pilgrimage to Taize, France about a year ago. By way of background:

“The Taize Community is an ecumenical monastic community in France that annually welcomes tens of thousands of young adults from all over the world. … At Taize, young people are invited to united inner life and human solidarity. … The Brothers, from various Christian denominations and twenty-five countries, regularly organize huge gatherings for young adults in major European cities and on other continents [in this case 3 in the State of Texas]. These gatherings are part of a “Pilgrimage of Trust”: those who take part are invited to deepen their trust in God and in their ability to become bearers of reconciliation where they live.”

As we drove, I babbled on about how spiritually nurturing and enriching I found my time at Taize. I shared again my oft repeated mantra that we, in the American society of the 21st century, live at a pace of life that is not sustainable. I waxed eloquent as we drove (or at least I babbled semi-coherently) about how we had to make time for quiet and contemplation.

After listening patiently for a while, Jolynn interrupted me. “Would you have said or done this when you were a young man?” Ouch! I paused for a long time and thought. Then I responded, “Well, remember that I came to Methodism out of the Quakers.” We talked about how I did do some quiet and reflection time but not near enough. The painful truth is that I resisted the notion of Sabbath-rest and contemplation. My nature is passionate activism.

And yet, I find myself judging my own actions in reflection. I can recall a close friend and co-worker pushing me hard on taking more time for my family. Recently spending time with our 1 year old granddaughter reawakened the hectic pressures placed on young parents. I can also remember being on the edge of burnout and thinking about leaving the ministry in my late 30s.

In some deep ways – ways driven I think by the Holy Spirit – the Christian movement in America has gone through a change. Now, in ways many of us (yours truly) did not appreciate through much of the ‘70s and ‘80s, we have reconnected the importance of deep spiritual connectedness with ministry activism. This is a good trend and, as I’ve asserted, a work of the Holy Spirit.

I offer a prayer I wrote for Taize:

Holy One, Holy Three
Settle into the marrow of our being we pray.
Open the eyes of our hearts
To see you moving in our world.
Open the ears of our minds
To discern your greater purpose in our lives.
Take hold of us Lord Jesus, we pray,
Through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit;
That we may be moved to loving and caring
For those most distant and different from us;
That we might serve those most in need;
That we might witness in offering your grace
To those most bent by rage and deprivation.
Holy One, Holy Three
Settle into the marrow of our being
In this season of prayer and reflection.
And claim us Lord once again for You!
In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Bishop Mike Lowry

P.S. As you prepare for Holy Week, the Cross and Easter, I commend an article by Frederick W. Schmidt at http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/blog/entry/4906/before-you-celebrate-easter-get-real  entitled Before You Celebrate Easter, Get Real.

The Vital Connection of Vision and Obedience

Friday (October 25, 2013) I wrote a blog on Vision.  In that blog I quoted Proverbs 29:18 in both the KJV translation and the CEB (Common English Bible) translation.  Respectively the verse is rendered:  “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he” (KJV.  And, “When there’s no vision, the people get out of control, but whoever obeys instruction is happy” (CEB).  I shared how I was intrigued by how rarely the entire passage was quoted and promised (or threatened depending on the reader’s point of view) to pick up that connection in this blog.

The writer of Proverbs clearly ties vision to obedience.  The two go together.  It is almost as if Proverbs previews the Great Commission of Christ.  “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, 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 28:16-20, CEB).  Obedience without vision is aimless and Vision without obedience is empty.

The vision points us, directs us, and leads us into a preferred future of obedient faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ – God with us in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ as Lord is the essence of our confession as Christians.  In the most basic way we understand that Lord means the ruler, the Master, the One to whom our ultimate allegiance is given.  All of this and yet more resides in the heart of our confession.  There can be little dispute of this essential truth.  This is why the martyrs died.  Their obedience was given to the Lord first and foremost.

Theoretically this all sounds so nice and neat.  It is in the messiness of real living that such a vital connection is put to the test.  Recently I visited a church which is facing critical change, including a decision to relocate (which it has already voted in favor of doing).  The problem is obedience means that power and privilege will flow away from the long-time leaders of the church as they live into this new vision.  Levels of rationalization and resistance can rise to new heights. We tend to seek the grandeur of the vision without the hard living of obedience.

So, too, this is a reality in the area of appointments.  It is easy to sing “all to Jesus I surrender” or “take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee” or “wonderful merciful savior.”  It is hard to go to an appointment you didn’t want or respond to a move you didn’t seek.  Our modern sense of upwardly moving career clashes with our profession of obedience to Christ and allegiance to the Lord’s greater vision.  I do not make this as a light assertion.  I have twice been moved against my desires.  One of the moves proved to be a great blessing.  The other was not and even there I learned, grew in faithfulness, and was blessed (reluctantly I will admit).

John Calvin says, “The only true knowledge of God is born of obedience.”  It is to this truth that I confess.  Despite his strong anti-Calvinist convictions, on this much John Wesley would agree.  It is not by accident that obedience in submission to the Conference, Class Meeting and community of faith was for Wesley an extension of his commitment to Christ. The Wesleyan Covenant prayer is prime example of such conviction. (“Let me be employed for thee or set aside by thee; let me be exalted by thee or brought low by thee; …”)  Vision and obedience go together under the Lordship of Christ.  They go together even when it is against my natural inclinations or personal desires. I have discovered a love and joy to the prayer which Bishop Cho has taught me.  “Dear God, Your will.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  Nothing else.”

 

Bishop’s Bible Camp for Adults

Please allow me a brief pause in my ongoing report on “Insights on Changes in Congregations, Clergy and Deployment” – reporting and reflecting on a detailed study of trends in the Central Texas Conference put together by the Lewis Center for Leadership. The reason for the pause is exciting!

I want lift up the Bishop’s Bible Camp for Adults, which will be held on Saturday, September 21st at Glen Lake Camp & Retreat Center.  Taking place alongside this special Bible Study and learning event for adults is the 3rd and 4th Grade Bible Camp for children.  Last year the children’s event was a tremendous success.  This year we’ve added the adult study.  I’m blessed with the opportunity to share in our learning!

The Bishop’s Bible Camp for Adults will focus on the Gospel of Mark.  Following the Immersion Bible Study we will move into the interior of Mark’s gospel and investigate what God is saying to us through this “good news.”  Together we will not only examine what Mark says to us as a Word from the Lord but also how we might live as faithful Christ followers based on this good news.

Mark opens with the words: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you. He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight’.” (Mark 1:1-3)

Scholars are of virtual unanimous opinion that Mark is the earliest of the four gospels.  The evidence is overwhelming that both Matthew and Luke had access to or had read portions of Mark before they wrote their gospels.  The Gospel of Mark takes us on journey of exploration into the life and ministry of the Savior and Lord.  It invites us –no, it does more – it challenges us to walk in the way that truly leads to life eternal.

I look forward to a great day of sharing together in learning.  You can download the flier or register for the Bishop’s Bible Camp for Adults here, ctcumc.org/bishopsbiblecamp.

Rebuilding the Pipeline

This past week I have visited six seminaries – Chandler, Gammon (ITC), Duke, Asbury, Boston University, and Harvard.  A seventh, Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. was to be included but could not be fitted into the schedule.  Perkins, Brite, and Austin Presbyterian (each in or adjacent to the Central Texas Conference) have been or will be visited.  Hopefully, additional schools will be added as we move forward. (Those above were chosen often because we have students currently studying at them.) Kyland Dobbins and Joseph Nader (both young clergy in Central Texas) joined me at various parts in the journey.

The intent of the trip is simple.  We hope to rebuild the pipeline from youth groups & youth ministry through college & university campus ministry to the seminary and back to the local church.  Think of it as a circular pipe line that benefits all involved at its various stations.  Leadership development for next decade makes this a critical task.  Preliminary analysis of clergy age trends for United Methodism in Texas indicated that we should have a surplus of elders through (roughly) 2016 and a slowly widening shortage of seminary trained elders moving towards 2020.

Visiting with our young seminarians was both exciting and hopeful for me.  We need more young ministerial candidates but it was delightful and encouraging to share with those I met.  A bouquet of great thanks goes to all the seminaries involved.  We were graciously received at each.  They are deeply interested in being engaged with the Conference and our local churches.

A common theme was the deep missional engagement in love, justice and mercy.  This is clearly where our heart, passion and commitment are for the students and the seminaries.  The Wesleyan imperatives of personal and social holiness are alive and well.  Evangelistic outreach is something we ascent to but both groups (students and seminaries) wrestle with how to engage in evangelism.  We acknowledge the need for evangelism but are generally (there are some notable exceptions) deficit in the application.  I find myself ever reminded of the great missionary Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s epigram, “Words without deeds are empty, but deeds without words are dumb.”

There are abundant challenges for all of us but also a new future of hope and possibility beckons us forward.  I am coming home after 10 plane flights in 14 days (part spent on personal family time) believing that it was a journey well met.  We are rebuilding a crucial pipeline for a new generation of church leaders.  For this I give thanks to God both to and for the students we visited and the seminaries that partner with us in a great work of leadership development.

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