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Reflections on the Council of Bishops and the Way Forward ©

As I write, I am finishing a week of work at the Council of Bishops (COB) meeting in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. The COB (all United Methodist Bishops around the world, both active and retired) met Sunday night through Wednesday noon. The Active Bishops Learning Retreat lasted from Wednesday afternoon through Friday noon. We have worshipped and prayed together greatly! The experience has been exhausting (emotionally, spiritually, and physically).

In the midst of this, the activities of the world continue. As a person who was elected out of (what is now) the Rio Texas Conference and was a pastor in San Antonio not far from Sutherland Springs, the tragedy of the church shootings has settled deeply in my heart. Across both the U.S. and the world, violence is never far from us. I find myself praying for a spirit of peace (the Holy Spirit!) in both my heart and our larger world. I commend to myself and all who read this blog the prayer of St. Francis, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace….”

While our Council work dealt with a variety of subjects including building vital congregations and ecumenical relations, the main focus of our time together was on the interim report from the Commission on a Way Forward (CoWF). The CoWF was established at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon to help the Church discern a way forward around the issues of allowing Methodist clergy to perform same-gender weddings and the ordination of “avowed practicing homosexuals.” At our just concluded COB meeting, representatives from the CoWF presented some very preliminary ideas (or sketches) on possible ways to move beyond the impasse which threatens The United Methodist Church with schism.

The report from the CoWF presented three rough sketches or preliminary models for consideration and feedback from the COB:

  • One sketch of a model affirms the current Book of Discipline (BOD) language and places a high value on accountability.
  • Another model sketch removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  • A third model sketch is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services, and one COB while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.
  • Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church.
  • Each sketch includes a gracious way for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

I want to stress that what the Commission presented to the bishops was nowhere near their final product. These are sketches, or outlines, or very rough models that might well shape more detailed pictures. Furthermore, we (both the Bishops and the Church as a whole through its General Conference delegates) are not limited to these three sketches or models. That’s why I feel the term “sketches” is so apropos. The Commission still has a long way to go before they will be ready to present their final models. I invite thoughtful reflection and offer – along with my colleague bishops – a couple of questions for reflection, dialogue and spiritual discernment.

  1. Based on the description, how would you build a church from one or more of these sketches?
  2. How does that sketch multiply our Wesleyan witness and expand our mission in the world?

I would like to underscore that there was common agreement that the mission of the church is paramount!  “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (Matthew 28:16-20). Intensive and intense dialogue is being held about underlying theology. It is important to note that the CoWF itself dealt with the issue of foundational theology and doctrine in its recent progress report. Click here or the image above to see the full report.  I also want to reiterate and highlight the last two points from the COB about the various models or sketches. Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church. Each sketch includes a gracious way for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

Here are some “talking points” the bishops of the church have agreed to commonly share with the leaders and local churches. Please feel free to use them whenever you are asked about how the church is progressing through this issue.

  • The Mission of God through the Risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit trumps and guides everything.
  • The values of unity and contextualization for the sake of the mission undergird the work we are sharing and leading.
  • The Commission serves the Council, preparing the COB to fulfill its service to the General Conference in making a recommendation for a way forward.
  • To best serve the Council, the Commission did not express a preference of a model.
  • In the same way, the Council withholds a preference in order to allow the bishops to engage their conferences in teaching and dialogue.
  • The values highlighted in any one model also live within the fabric of the other models.
  • The Commission shared three sketches of models with the Council. The CoWF is aware that we are not restricted to these models and are open to learning, listening and improvement.
  • It is likely that additional models or sketches may emerge as the process continues.

We are in a season of prayer, dialogue and spiritual discernment. It is important that we resist the temptation to rush to judgment or seek premature closure. The COB will be meeting in late February to review some follow up work from the CoWF based on our preliminary feedback as a Council of Bishops. In the meantime, I join my fellow bishops in calling on all United Methodists to engage in honest, meaningful and respectful conversations regarding this issue and/or any of the political, religious and justice issues of our day.

Bishop Ough, in a pastoral letter to the UMC released at the conclusion of our meeting, reminded all that the United Methodist Church is diverse in its theological understanding of Scripture as well as Christ’s call on our lives. In the letter – which I recommend to you (click here to access) – we are prompted to recall Paul’s admonishment to the church at Ephesus to …”to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together.” (Ephesians 4:1-3 CEB)

To read the official release from the COB on our work with the Commission on a Way Forward, go to ctcumc.org/episcopalannouncements. In all things I urge us together to embrace the advice of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:1-5, NRSV).

Reflections on the Recent Judicial Counsel Ruling ©

 As you have most likely already read, the UMC Judicial Council released its ruling on the validity of Bishop Karen Oliveto’s election and consecration by the Western Jurisdiction. In its decision – Decision 1341 – the Judicial Council ruled that the consecration of a gay bishop violates church law; however, Bishop Oliveto’s clergy status remains “in good standing” and she will continue to serve as the bishop of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area pending the completion of appropriate administrative or judicial processes. In this case, that means the issue has been remanded back to the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops (COB) who will determine the appropriate action(s).

I ask that we prayerfully respect the decision put forth by the Judicial Council as well as the processes still in play – i.e. the work of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward. In so doing, I wish to emphasize our call to prayer for Bishop Oliveto and her spouse as well as the people and churches of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area.  I fully realize that this decision does little to assuage the anxiety and disagreements that persist in our churches and denomination related to the issues of human sexuality. It is with this realization that I reiterate the request made in the letter Conference Lay Leader Mike Ford and I penned and sent last week – please be a people of prayer and compassion.

Allow me to say it again:  Please pray for Bishop Oliveto, the Western Jurisdiction and the Mountain Sky Conference. Pray for the UMC Council of Bishops, the members of the Commission on a Way Forward and the UMC at large. Extend compassion and care to all who hurt, are confused, or fearful during these uncertain times. Pray for our local churches, clergy and laity. Pray.

Please remember that this decision does not change the UMC Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council has a distinct and critical governance role in our denomination as the body responsible for deciding complex questions of church law, including the right to declare jurisdiction. Our own Dr. Tim Bruster serves as an alternate clergy member of the Council.  The Judicial Council’s actions on this matter are specific to this case. The General Conference is the only body that can speak for the church and has the authority to change The Book of Discipline. And, as you’ll recall, the Council of Bishops has called a special session of General Conference in February 2019 to further explore the broader issues around human sexuality in the church and consider the recommendations brought forth by the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF).

As we look forward to this Special Session of General Conference, it is important to remember that our mission remains firmly fixed on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We will continue to keep Christ at the center of all we do. We will remain focused on growing strong, vital local churches and developing clergy and lay leadership. I deliberately repeat for emphasis.  We will continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. So, slow down, breathe deeply and remember that Jesus is still Lord and that God’s grace is forever with us.

Following the leading of the Holy Spirit, I want to reinforce some key points from my blog on April 25, which included the letter Mike Ford (The Central Texas Conference Lay Leader) and I sent to the clergy and lay leaders of our local churches.

  • Please continue to be wise and respectful leaders on social media. Discussions on a complex issue like this are best done face-to-face. Please resist the temptation to engage in heated conversations via social media. I encourage you to be grace filled and positive on social media, and resist venting or sharing personal convictions, even on your personal sites. Work to help redirect the conversations back to the mission of the church and guide the tone of interactions back towards the positive and uplifting.
  • It is important that we remain in conversation with each other. Clergy, if you have deep concerns regarding this decision, visit with your DS and/or any other member of the Cabinet – including me. Lay leaders are encouraged to reach out to our conference lay leader Mike Ford. Members of the 2016 delegation to General Conference are also an excellent resource of information and context.
  • These are troubled and tumultuous times indeed, not only for our church, but also in our communities and across this bruised and battered world. That is why I cannot stress enough the need to be a people of prayer, to breathe deep, remember that Jesus is still Lord. Keep your church’s focus squarely on the mission and wait for the processes in motion – the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, the Commission on the Way Forward, the called General Conference, etc. – to work through this issue.
  • Keep in mind, sisters and brothers, the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi – particularly chapter 2 verse 5 to “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus“ (CEB), for it is in Christ Jesus that we find the peace of God that surpasses all our human understanding – a peace that will guide our hearts and minds.

Of First Importance ©

I confess that the words caught me off guard Easter Sunday morning.  They shouldn’t have.  Scholars argue that the passage read is an early creedal statement of the newborn Christian movement.

I had gone to Sunday worship in Boston at a non-United Methodist Church (Park Street Congregational Church) not as bishop but as Poppa, accompanying (with Jolynn) our son Nathan, daughter-in-law Abigail and most importantly our grandson Simon (21 months old).  It was a relief not be thinking of issues of same-gender marriage or ordination.  Nowadays these questions threaten the very foundation of The United Methodist Church.  My joy was that Easter morning did not revolve around some larger church dispute but focused on being Dad and Poppa (i.e. grandfather to Simon).  Still I must confess, those larger issues were not far from my mind.  We have been told to expect a ruling on the whether the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto from the Western Jurisdiction by the Judicial Council next week.

Anxiety is rising across the church and especially among the clergy.  The future of The United Methodist Church and possible schism hang in the balance.  I have consistently called for prayer and patience as we invite the Holy Spirit to work through the Commission on a Way Forward to guide us on how we can stay together and faithful with sharply different convictions on important issues surrounding human sexuality and its appropriate expression.  I quoted a friend and professor at Claremont School of Theology in an earlier blog in a way that bears repeating, especially in light of the Easter scripture read last Sunday morning:  Professor Jack Jackson wrote perceptively that “human sexuality has become status confessionis for many people at opposite poles on the issue. … We can say we agree on so many other aspects of the Christian life, but the reality is the issue of human sexuality is one of, if not the, key ecclesial issues of our time.  It is an issue that is both shaping and taking priority over every other conversation.”

The lay liturgist at Park Street Congregational Church in Boston read these words:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. . . .
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . .  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (I Corinthians 15:1-8, 14,19 NIV)

Sitting in the historic Park Street sanctuary (immediately adjacent to the Boston Commons with the historic Granary Burial Grounds on the other side of the church, Park Street is where William Lloyd Garrison gave an historic speech igniting the anti-slavery movement) struggling with my own thoughts about the future of The United Methodist Church, the words of verse three hit me again as if with crashing cymbals right next to my ears.  “I passed on to you as of first importance.”

Thank you Lord!  I needed to hear again that while our divisions and theological disagreements are important – so important they may merit deep change in our relationships and connection – they are not of first importance.  The resurrection of Christ is, alone, of “first importance!”

In commenting on this passage Professor Stephen Seamands reminds us, “Lordship and divinity, like two columns of a magnificent arch, are therefore inseparable and dependent on each other. And the keystone of the arch is the resurrection of Christ. Take that away and both columns – in fact the entire structure – tumbles down. Notice how Paul brings all three together at the beginning of his letter to the Romans. The gospel he has been commissioned to preach, he says, is about God’s Son, Jesus, who was “shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:4). (From Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 112).

Pungently C. S. Lewis explains:

There is not in Scripture the faintest suggestion that the Resurrection was new evidence for something that had in fact been always happening. The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe…. He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened.
(C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), pp. 236-237)

In all that may come, the resurrection of Christ is of first importance!  Such is the glory of Easter!

 

 

Observations from the Wesleyan Covenant Association ©

Last Friday, October 7th, I experienced the high privilege of participating in the first meeting of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA).  It was my honor to preach at the closing communion service and share with my friend and colleague Bishop Bob Hayes in presiding over Holy Communion.

wca-lowryI experienced the event as a movement of the Holy Spirit. Prayer was deep. Hope was bright. A sense of the Spirit’s leading was strong. Obedience to Christ was paramount. Such prayer, hope, sense of the Spirit’s leading, and obedience to Christ remains paramount.

In writing these words I quite realize that the gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association was and is controversial.  For some, the WCA is viewed as a potentially schismatic organization.  Honesty compels me to acknowledge that a case can be made that the Wesleyan Covenant Association is potentially a church in waiting.  Yet it is carefully worth noting that WCA is supportive of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  In point of fact, unlike some 9 Annual Conferences, the WCA upholds the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  The WCA is active in searching for a meaningful new unity.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association statement of purpose notes:  “The association is a coalition of congregations, clergy, and laity from across The United Methodist Church, committed to promoting ministry that combines a high view of Scripture, Wesleyan vitality, orthodox theology, and Holy Spirit empowerment. We have come together to support, network, and encourage one another as the uncertain future of The United Methodist Church comes into clearer focus.”

While facing the possibility of future schism, the opening meeting Wesleyan Covenant Association shared a commitment to give the Bishop’s Commission on a Way Forward an opportunity to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Like the rest of the church, this is not a blank check to support whatever the Commission proposes but rather an opportunity to allow space for a new kind of unity.

At the WCA inaugural meeting, a theological statement was adopted which is called the Chicago Statement to the Bishops’ Commission.. I urge a careful and attentive reading of this document.

We need something greater than a tepid statement of vague theological tolerance.  If we are too rigid, boundaries will strangle us as a denomination and we will lose our cardinal focus on the cross of Christ and the redeeming grace of the Lord active in our midst.  Without meaningful theological and ethical boundaries, the United Methodist will dissolve into cultural flotsam.  In its theological statement, the WCA is benefiting the whole church by calling us back to the central issue of reclaiming our core Christian theology.  For those who believe the theological and ethical boundaries are wrongly drawn, a serious debate on what constitutes the core of the Christian faith is blessing to the whole church.  At its heart, the issue before us is not (ultimately) about human sexuality but rather is a dispute about what accurately constitutes the core of the Christian faith and the essence of United Methodism.  To be united is to share a common doctrine, discipline and mission (which includes methodological coherence).

At its heart, I believe we need to recover a high Christology and a deep doctrinal emphasis on the cross of Christ.  For myself I stand with the Apostle Paul and witness of Holy Scripture.  In my closing sermon at the WCA gathering, I shared again the great testimony of faith from the Word of the Lord to the Church at Corinth (and in Central Texas!).  “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:22-24).

For myself as Bishop of the Central Texas Conference, the Fort Worth Episcopal Area, I wish to be publically clear that I believe it is important across the theological spectrum to give the Commission an opportunity to offer a new way forward. I continue to pray daily for the United Methodist Church and its future under the Lordship of Christ through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. May we together walk with Christ!

Beware of Nostalgia ©

Two pieces of reading and variety of reflective conversations with a wide and extremely diverse collection of people have caught my attention recently.  As he commonly does, Gil Rendle offers insightful reflections on the challenge a nostalgic longing presents to the church.  Almost simultaneously, I have been reading Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism.  Dr. Levin forcefully notes that much of our current political malaise (and dearth of leadership) stems from being “blinded by nostalgia” through looking back on mythic ideal age in America (the late 1950s –early 1960s for liberals and the early 1980s “Regan era” for conservative) and trying to somehow recreate that age (which can’t be done!).

What has captured my immediate attention is how both point to the danger of being so enamored by the past that we have trouble addressing the present.  In one of my early workshops under the great Methodist leadership guru Lyle Schaller, I remember him saying, “The most important vote an Administrative Board [or Council] takes every year is to decide what year is next year.”  Schaller went on to explain that if you think next year is 1957 you will vote, act and commit your resources differently than if you think next year is 2017.

In a Texas Methodist Foundation, August 15th blog entitled “Nostalgia and Three Changed Questions“, Dr. Rendle shares how he has added the critically important word “now” to his “Holy Conversations’” questions.  [“Who are we now?  What does God call us to do now?  Who is our neighbor now?”] He goes on to comment:

“I have come to believe that one of our key challenges in the church is nostalgia.  An antidote to nostalgia is to keep reminding ourselves when we are (i.e., now).  I am an early baby-boomer and grew up in the church when it was strong, growing consistently and at the center of the culture.

“When nostalgia kicks in, I am tempted to conjure that image of the church and assume that with a bit more hard work, we could be like that again.  (By the way, I’m also tempted to think of myself as having more hair and energy as well as less weight and complaints.)  The problem with nostalgia is that it leads me to think that’s how the church is (or I am) supposed to be and that somehow the world is supposed to be like it was before, as well!”

I am captured by the idea that the first task of leadership is to draw an honest picture of the current reality, which in this case is a picture of the church no longer in the center of a changed culture.  Nostalgia doesn’t help, and in most cases reminds us of what we cannot have anymore.  Instead, we need to ask what we are going to do with what we do have.

We in the church and in the larger American society need to beware of nostalgia. The temptation to try to “turn back the clock” to an imagined better time is powerful for all of us! Various scripture examples abound. There is Mordechai’s proclaim to Esther, “But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family” (Esther 4:14).  The prophet Isaiah shares a word of the Lord.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness” (Isaiah 43:19-20).  Perhaps greatest of all, there is the Lord himself proclaiming, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:15).

God doesn’t need to get with our program.  We must enlist or re-enlist with the mighty workings of God.  In a serious of recent presentations, I have intentionally made a point of emphasizing what the Lord is doing now(!) in, through and around us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.   God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing!  We are called to ministry for such a time as this!  The Kingdom of God is at hand!

In the South Central Jurisdictional Conference Episcopal Address, I reached for this great truth.  I said, “Please, I bid you, step with me carefully into the new future God is even now leading us to.  This is not the stuff of Pollyanna dreams nor still an ostrich-like head-in-the-sands denial of reality.  It is the stuff of our faith.  Here we find our footing in these turbulent times on the solid rock of Christ as Lord and Savior (Matthew 7:24-25).  ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord’ (Jeremiah 29:11-14a).”

Beware of nostalgia!  It can call us away and lead us astray however well intended.  The Lord God is birthing a new church out of the old and in some places in the old!

THE COURAGE TO MARCH ©: Part 1

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given June 6, 2016 by Bishop J. Michael Lowry

PART I – “A New Thing”

 I am mindful what day today is as I stand to speak to you. This is the day is the 72nd anniversary of what is commonly known as simply “D-Day.”  Historically the reference is to the Allied invasion of Europe on June 6th in 1944 hurling back the forces of evil as represented in the scourge of Nazi Germany and most particularly in the Holocaust.  The horrors of that day, especially on Omaha Beach, have been duly documented and even highlighted by the opening scenes from Saving Private Ryan.  What cannot be doubted from the distance of time and space which history gives us is the role of courage in establishing a new future.  A free Europe and free America and much of the rest of the world’s freedom exists because to their sacrifice.  We are the beneficiaries of their courage and must humbly offer our gratitude.

I start at this grim juncture in no way to offer some misguided glorification of war.  Those who have valiantly served in combat know full well that its horrors are not to be wished on anyone.  Rather I pause to remember on this special anniversary because we too as Christ followers must summon up the courage to march.

Audentes Fortuna Iuvat, the Roman phrase variously translated from Virgil means “fortune (or history) favors the brave.” It is no mistake that biblically often the first word from the Lord is “fear not.” It is the angelic message ringing out to the shepherds in their field on Christmas Eve. “Fear not” is the clarion call of the risen Savior at Easter Sunrise. “Fear not” is the word the Lord speaks to us this day.

The Greeks had a saying: “When Cicero spoke we said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke we said, ‘Let us march.’”[1] Friends, the risen Christ stands this day and says again to us, let us march! “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[2]  He commands.  “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.”[3]

We live in the fading twilight of Christendom. We know this truth. With some notable exceptions, young people are not flooding into our churches. Public opinion regards religious truth claims falsely as vague matters of private truth.   Large swaths of the American culture have dismissed the Christian faith as an antiquated set of opinions to held by the terminally pious.

While the damn is close to breaking over the fragile unity of “mainline” Methodism, simultaneously something remarkable and remarkably good is taking place. God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is at work!  Verses 19 and 20 of Isaiah 43 springs to mind.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[4]

You will no doubt remember the context of this famous passage.  Israel has been defeated.  The leaders are scattered into exile.  It is hard to imagine life getting worse let alone getting better.  Yet in the darkness before the dawn the Prophet speaks of God doing a new thing.  Do you recall the introductory lines of verses 16 & 17 of Isaiah 43?  “The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.”[5]  Allow me to suggest that something like this is again taking place under the Lord’s presence and power through the Holy Spirit.  We are experiencing a new spring of faithful orthodoxy and congregational vitality bubbling around us.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I think the United Methodist Church as we know it (the phrase “as we know it” is a towering qualifier) is slowly collapsing around us.  This slow motion collapse may take a long time to play out and then again it may hit a tipping point and cascade rapidly downward.  Either way, it will be painful, and cause heartache and much anxiety. But this is not the real story.  The real tale we gather to take note of is referenced in the Isaiah 43:19-20.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[6]  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of the Christian faith and church involving a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy at the heart of its expression.

Consider some of the antidotal (or narrative) evidence:

  • The Central Texas Conference showed a growth this past year in most categories of congregational vitality. Just this last week going over the April report on the Vital Signs of Congregational Vitality, I noticed that Alliance UMC showed a 27% gain in worship attendance; First Corsicana reported a 37% increase; St. Stephens in Arlington showed a 433% gain in professions of faith; both First Mansfield and Bethel in Waxahachie reported more than a 1,000% increase in professions of faith. There is a continuing rise in mission engagement with the poor both locally and globally. Extravagant Generosity is common. Our Connectional Mission Giving (CMG) or what is mistakenly referred to as “Apportionments” are the highest paid to date in 9 years, and we have paid 100% 8 out of the last 10 years. We think that is the best record in the United States. (With perhaps only the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference doing better.) I could go on but you get the drift.
  • Those pastors who have an orthodox coherent theology are showing far more fruitfulness than those who lean on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Put bluntly, the churches they pastor are the churches more likely to survive and thrive. [Carefully please note: I am not asserting that this is axiomatically the same as being theologically or politically conservative. Rather it is about an uncompromising gospel orientation that slices across our conventional labels.]
  • Methodist Justice Ministry, an off-shoot of First UMC, Fort Worth led by Rev. Brooks Harrington, is engaging in incredible work for those who are the most vulnerable among us – children. They are living out the great focus area of the church in ministry with the poor. So too is JFON, Justice for Our Neighbors. Their outreach among immigrants includes partnerships with the Texas Methodist Foundation and churches all across the Conference. You will be hearing shortly about the exciting launch of Project Transformation in the Central Texas Conference which combines ministry with the poor and leadership development. Project Transformation reaches out to connect children in need with college students in witness and service to churches in mission.
  • We are seeing signs of witness and creative evangelistic outreach in combination with radical hostility. Hamilton UMC has taken a food pantry and partnered with the local extension agent to offer a cooking class to those they serve in the food pantry. Members also take the class. Together, they share their faith in a non-pressured way at a common meal. New people have joined the church and joined the faith through this simple act of combining caring with an explicit witness. Olney UMC has started a Tuesday Night Boys for young post-high school men who don’t go to college. They teach each other life skills and share the faith in a natural setting. It has already brought 10 new young men into their faith community and faith in Christ.
  • We are beginning to see the results of strong reinvestment in Campus Ministry through our Wesley Foundations, which is resulting in a new lay and clergy leadership for the church.
  • The Vital Leadership Academy is developing a new generation of lay leaders built on in-depth discipleship growth.
  • The gnawing spiritual hunger which surrounds us (even engulfs us) is finding its thirst quenched at the fount of orthodox theology; especially orthodox Wesleyan theology. The fashionable Protestant progressivism of American high culture increasingly looks like an emperor with no clothes. Opportunities for in-depth spiritual formation and biblical growth exist in every (let me emphasize!) every church! People are hungry. Pastors, lay leaders, feed them!
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement (which is in part located within the Central Texas Conference, The Missional Wisdom Foundation, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the works of Dallas Willard & Richard Rohr among many others offer a real sign of the inherent attraction of embracing once again a core Christologically centered and genuinely Trinitarian expression of the Christian faith embraced within the shell of modern United Methodism. (This includes some of those who at best only flirt with orthodoxy.)
  • The hunger and growth of interest in authentic seeking after God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as evidence by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and The Five Day Upper Room Academy for Spirit Formation (led in our Conference by Dr. Bob Holloway, Dean of the Cabinet) offer evidence of the reemergence of interest in deep discipleship. This is a nascent struggling movement but I submit that the careful observer can see a new budding of a deeply faithful expression of orthodox Christianity.[7] It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ. [Incidentally Dr. Watson will be our Conference teacher next year.]
  • All across the Conference, we are increasingly aware that attempts to split doctrine and practice (or orthodoxy and orthopraxy) are inherently destructive. When orthopraxy is split off from a deep connection to orthodoxy, the Christian faith is cut off from its life giving roots. The resultant expression of Christianity is emaciated and inevitably entering a death spiral. When orthopraxy is neglected then orthodoxy is a dead faith signifying nothing and essentially worthless. Remember the admonition of James, “Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?”[8] The two must go together!
  • One kind of church is fading, the declining old mainline with its renewed emphasis on missional outreach largely divorced from an explicit gospel witness (which hence comes across as an advanced version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). The other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church lived out in outwardly focused orthopraxy; which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. For an example, just catch the vibrancy of Harvest UMC, One Fellowship UMC in Waco, Rockbridge UMC on our southern border, Disciple Church (an evolution of the 7th Street experiment which is now a part of First Fort Worth) and Whites Chapel’s work with Path 1 out of Discipleship Ministries. All of them in various ways are combinations of both new churches and transforming partnerships with existing churches. We are seeing emerging churches passionately outwardly focused in ways that are evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.

I could go on but I trust you follow my argument.  God is never left without witnesses.  There are signs of new life all around us.  What is both disturbing and hopeful is that this new life struggles to fit into the existing United Methodist Church culture.  In an April report on Congregational Vitality, the Central Texas Conference has increased to 29% in the number of vital congregations in the period from 2010 through 2014 – a 7% increase.  This is an excellent report but it is not good enough.  Why not a four year goal to have over 50% of our congregations listed as vital congregations?  (Incidentally that would make us the highest in the nation by a large margin.)  Christ as head of the church calls for our best.  The Savior and Lord deserves our best.  In Oswald Chambers inimitable phrase, “My[Our] Utmost for His Highest!”

 

[1]               https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Demosthenes
[2]               Acts 1:8
[3]               Matthew 28:19-20
[4]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[5]               Isaiah 43:16-17
[6]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[7]              see Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry
[8]               James 2:20

Council of Bishops Letter to the Church ©

Bishop Lowry presiding over a plenary session at General Conference 2016

Bishop Lowry presiding over a plenary session at General Conference 2016

Members of the Council of Bishops delayed their leaving Portland, Ore. following the end General Conference 2016 by a day and came together to work on issues referred to us by the General Conference. In major part, we worked to share a common understanding with regard to the adoption of “An Offering for a Way Forward” – a statement from the Council of Bishops on Human Sexuality, which establishes a Commission on Human Sexuality based on action by the 2016 General Conference. You can read this statement at ctcumc.org/COB-awayforward.

It is important to faithfully consider the contents of the statement from the Council of Bishops, which was adopted by General Conference. My colleague, Bishop Scott Jones, resident bishop of the Great Plains Conference UMC, has written a useful summary, which I share with his permission below.

“Please read the statement carefully, and study it closely. It has many important sections about prayer, continuing conversation, and the unity we have in Christ. At the same time, there have been social media statements, which are based on misunderstandings of the document. The following key points will help you understand what it does and does not say:

  • We [The United Methodist Council of Bishops] are committed to the unity of The United Methodist Church and will seek to strengthen it.
  • We will lead the church in every part of the world in times of worship, study, discernment, confession and prayer for God’s guidance.
  • We are called to work and pray for more Christ-like unity with each other, rather than separation from one another.
  • We have heard that some believe there is “contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate language concerning human sexuality in the Book of Discipline.” However, no agreement about the truth or falsity of this claim has been reached, either by the Council of Bishops or by the General Conference.
  • The Council of Bishops will form a commission to study all of the paragraphs in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality. The subject has been referred to this commission, which will be named sometime between now and Nov. 2, 2016.
  • The Council of Bishops may choose to call a special session of the General Conference before 2020 to deal with recommendations of the commission. No decision has been made about whether this is a wise use of the church’s money and time.
  • The Council of Bishops will have conversations about how the church can best live in grace with one another, including discussion about ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm.
  • The bishops will uphold the discipline of the Church while these conversations continue.
  • All provisions of the 2012 Book of Discipline on matters of human sexuality will remain in force until a General Conference changes them.”

We are more, far more as a church than simply wrangling about how we understand controversial social issues that confront us and society in general. I urge your careful attention to our #WeAreMore web site and social media properties and the outstanding, life-changing work of Jesus Christ in and through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Additionally the Bishops have shared an open letter to the church which can be found at ctcumc.org/COBGC16letter.

My friends, God is at work in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Lives are being transformed, disciples are being made and people are loved. Amid the clashing confusion of our time the Kingdom of God is moving forward!

We Are More ©

On May 10th the United Methodist General Conference will convene in Portland, Oregon. Quadrennially (every four years) General Conference meets as the highest ruling body of The United Methodist Church. General Conference alone can speak for the whole church. At General Conference the Discipline (book of church law) is adopted for the next quadrenniam. The worship is inspiring. The speakers are challenging. The debates are invigorating.

All too often debate over a controversial issue drowns out much of the meaningful substance of the greater ministry taking place in and through the United Methodist Church worldwide. It is no secret that once again much of the debate and argument will be focused on issues regarding ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals (currently not allowed in United Methodist Church law) and performance of same gender weddings by United Methodist Church clergy (also currently prohibited by church law). Other controversial issues regarding resolutions addressing a vast array of issues clamor for attention.

As I attend General Conference (bishops preside but do not vote, much like at Annual Conference), I am reminded of Bishop J. Chess Lovern’s marvelous statement. “Great churches wrestle with great issues.” [A personal aside: Bishop Lovern ordained me an elder in the United Methodist Church May 31, 1978.] In the midst of our public debates it is easy to forget that the foundation of ministry is faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord and the making of disciples for the transformation of the world.

The bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church (Central Texas is a part of the South Central Jurisdiction and I am one of the afore mentioned bishops) along with their Conference Communication Directors (Vance Morton for Central Texas) have gotten together to share the incredible good news and faithfulness of the church and Conferences of the South Central Jurisdiction. We’ve entitled the campaign We Are More in order to remind one and all that we are more than an attention grabbing headline and heated debate. In faithfulness to Christ we are about life transformation and the transformation of society.

I strongly urge readers of my blog to follow the #WeAreMore campaign launched by SCJ Bishops. Together we have produced a series of compelling faith-based stories from around the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ). The campaign is designed to connect people and proclaim that #WeAreMore when united through Jesus Christ. Click the logo to the right to read more about the campaign or visit ctcumc.org/WeAreMore to check out the faith stories already posted and/or to submit one of your own.

A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit #8:

The Future Before Us

I come now to the close of an eight part series on “A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit.” I opened recalling how books on giving birth to one’s first child describe the emotional changes and feeling of an expectant mother – irritable, emotional, anxious, excited, exuberant, irrational. The list is also a descriptive of what the mainline (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) churches are going though in American society during the second decade of the 21st century. The future is now unfolding before us. “The Lord is near!” (Philippians 4:6).

How now shall we live? The answer which comes ringing back to us through the great tradition of the church in keeping with the witness of Holy Scripture is clear – with Spirit induced hope! These are not the last days of the church. Far from it. These are days of a pulsing new beginning (or if you prefer renewal) under the Spirit’s guidance.

William Butler Yeats marvelous poem The Second Coming needs to be heard again with the ears of expectant faith.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart;  the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(By Willian Butler Yeats 1865-1939)

Written in the aftermath of World War I’s devastation, the poet calls us once again to a radical trust in God. We too are called back to Bethlehem. We must kneel before the baby and recall that it is His church, not ours.

Jason Byassee perceptively notes: “Religious communities do have a tendency to look back to a golden era and romanticize a lost time. The church should not. We know greater things are yet to come. God not only grants us knowledge about himself, God progressively comes closer to us, fills us, and our world with more of himself. First Son, then Spirit. With God, the best is always yet to come” (Jason Byassee, Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, pp. 38-39).

I believe God in Christ though the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is speaking to us anew. There are so many passages of Scripture that clamor for our attention in times like these. Among them some of the best advice comes from Hebrews 12. “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Paul’s great writing to the church at Philippi guides us as well.  “It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).

The discerning reader will add other passages. Taken together they beckon us to a new future. Truly, the church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time. We do not rest on our own promises or even ardent good intent. We live in God’s greater purpose! Over the centuries a host of different voices have given witness to this greater truth. Our various organizational manifestations may stumble and crumble, but God’s great purpose will out! The battle belongs to the Lord! (2 Chronicles 20:15).

We are at the end of a time of cultural privilege and accommodation. Despite the Judicial Council, the guaranteed appointment (in its current form) is a Dodo bird already scheduled for extinction. The dominance of a physical structure (building) is receding. And yet now more than ever our witness is needed in a world beaten down, half-starved, morally bankrupt and spiritually emaciated. (Dr. Timothy Tennent’s writings on a similar theme are well worth exploring; see “I Came, I Saw, I Loved: My Charge to the Asbury Theological Seminary Spring Graduating Class of 2015” http://timothytennent.com/2015/06/03/i-came-i-saw-i-loved-my-charge-to-the-asbury-theological-seminary-spring-graduating-class-of-2015/)

There is a story which Pope Benedict XVI loved to repeat “about Napoleon exclaiming to French bishops that he had to ‘destroy the Catholic Church.’ A particularly courageous bishop responded, ‘But sire, not even we have been able to do that!’” (Taken from Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, by Jason Byassee, p. 48). We Methodists can easily and accurately transpose this tale into our context. Despite our best (or worst) efforts we are unable to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. This is truly good news from the Lord God. The future – the God led, God inspired, God anointed future – lies before us.