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Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 4 ©

Allow me to step back into the narrative of a four part series of posts entitled Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.  If reader has not read the previous three, I urge him or her to do so before reading this particular blog.  Part 4 is based on and assumes the reader is conversant with the first three blogs on Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.

Recently a friend of mine, Professor Jack Jackson (Claremont School of Theology), wrote perceptively that “human sexuality has become status confessionis for many people at opposite poles on the issue.”  My friend added, “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.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the United Methodist Church faces possible schism over the issue. Current church law (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016) holds that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth” and all “need the ministry of the Church.”  It goes on to assert that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  It then carefully affirms that “God’s grace is available to all” (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 161G, p. 113).  United Methodist clergy are thus prohibited from officiating same-sex unions (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 2702.1b, p. 788) and avowed practicing homosexuals are not “certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church”  (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 304.3, p. 226).

To say that passions run high and disagreement runs deep with this part of church law is a massive understatement.  A number of Annual Conferences have declared their intentions to refuse to uphold this section of church law.  Various other forms of disobedience are being debated (and practiced!).  The Council of Bishops has, at the request of the 2016 General Conference, established a special “Commission on the Way Forward” to make recommendations which will come before a called General Conference in 2019.

If you have stayed with me this far through all three blogs prior to this fourth blog, I invite you to pause and catch your breath.  I ask you to be in prayer for the whole church.  I ask you to be in prayer for all those who feel excluded by this aspect of church law and for all those who believe it essential to the full understanding of our doctrine of holiness of heart and life.  I ask you to be in prayer for the larger society which is itself locked in a deep debate on this issue.

After catching your breath and after prayer, step back with me into the struggle of Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.  Our struggle with the issue of human sexuality is a part of the larger struggle on how Christians follow Christ and relate appropriately to the culture we find ourselves in.  We have been here before as a church!  Some argue that justice in the name of Christ calls us to transform both society and the church with regard to human sexuality.  They assert we Christians are called to lead society in being more open and accepting to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.  Others, with equally sincere convictions, argue that we must not succumb to the gale force cultural winds of today but stand firm in a principled Christian conviction.  They are convinced that we are not to marry the human preferences of this or any given age and time.  Rather we are to faithfully follow Christ as Lord reflecting the fullness of His teachings and preferences over our cultural desires.

Both claim biblical support for their positions.  Both assert that the other side has given in to and/or is advocating cultural surrender to the current age.  The interaction between allegiance to Christ and engagement with our current culture are intertwined on the issue of human sexuality.   The complexity of the relationship of Christ and culture challenges us all.  Such is the larger context of the debate we are locked into as the church.

In writing these four blogs, I have invited us into the larger issue of Christ and Culture through asking what it means to be a Wesleyan Christian in the cultural chaos of today.  I have been clear that I stand for the traditional position.  I wish to be also clear of my deep respect and love for those who believe me to be tragically mistaken and wrong.  I ask us all to wrestle with what it means to be a follower of the Lord first, foremost, and above all else, in chaos of today’s culture.  These are not easy times to be a Christian.  But, most significantly, these are the times to which Christ has called us all to true, deep faithfulness and obedience.

Listening to NPR as I drove to the office last Friday, I was reminded of Lincoln’s famous words in his second inaugural address.  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”

We are not done with this work.  Nor are we done with the greater debate over what it means to be a Christ follower in the chaos of modern culture.  In the midst of this struggle, we can live, in the name of Christ, with “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

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!

Racism is Real!

In preparation for Thanksgiving my wife has decorated our house beautifully.  If you step into the living room and look at the mantle over the fireplace, four elegant figurines peer out from the fall foliage.  On the left are the classic looking pilgrim couple.  On the right are an equally idealized Native American (First Nation) couple.  They remind us that the first Thanksgiving was a multi-ethnic event.

Beyond that glowing reality lies a disturbing reality.  Recently at the Council of Bishops meeting we engaged in a continuing act of Repentance for the mistreatment and, at times, slaughter of Native Americans.  (I invite the reader to check out my blog on November 7th entitled “Acts of Repentance Signs of Hope.”)  Racism against Native Americans by an Anglo dominated culture is real.

Today as we awake following the non-indictment of a police officer for the shooting of a young African-American male in Ferguson, Missouri, we are reminded again that racism is real.  Regardless of your perspective on the Grand Jury’s action in Missouri, demonstrations coupled with anger and mistrust point us back to the irrefutable raw wound of racial injustice, profiling and neglect.  At General Conference in 2012, the United Methodist Church passed roughly 14 separate resolutions directly or indirectly about combating racism.  Ferguson, Missouri and its aftermath reminds us that this is an issue none of us can walk away from if we wish to claim an identity as Christ followers.

Galatians 3:28 states the biblical case with unwavering clarity.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  The great commission of the risen Savior and Lord Jesus Christ remarkably gives the command:  “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 28:18-20).  The word translated “nations” in verse 19 is rendered “ethne” in the Greek.  It does not mean a nation-state as we are apt to assume but rather means a people group.  It is the root of our word “ethnic.”  Jesus is commanding us to reach all ethnic groups, all people groups.

The implication is compelling.  Racism must be confessed, especially the subtle racism of white privilege.  (Resolution 3376 adopted by the 2012 General Conference, p. 455 The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, 2012 is worth prayerful reflection by all, especially those who like me come from an Anglo-American heritage.)  Confession needs to lead us into action to eradicate this blight on human society.

Dr. Sylvester Key, Pastor of McMillan United Methodist Church in Fort Worth and an African-American as well as a U. S. Army veteran, wrote the following letter, which I in part and with permission quote.

 “When the verdict was read in Ferguson as it relates to the shooting of Michael Brown the first thing I did was send a message to my three sons urging them to comply with law enforcement officers.

 I grew up during the height of racial segregation; that is to say, I was bused to an all-black school, could only go to the stores in our neighborhood because black boys were not allowed in Homestead stores. We were perceived as thieves and always were looking for something to steal.

 I have been stopped, detained, forced to get out of the car and put your head against the rear tire on the vehicle. Handcuffed and had a gun pulled on me a time or two.

 I have been stopped in Texas, Florida, Virginia and New Mexico while driving to my next military assignment. I have been called “Boy”, “Black Animal”, “Coon” and yes the “N” word. Hearing those words angered me but it also gave me the determination to make something out of my life.…

 We must not riot and burn the communities we live in. We must not look at people who are not black as the enemy. What we must do is work harder, vote, demand that our children receive a quality education and get back in the church. The church was the only place we had any authority, where we could speak our mind and the place where we took ownership.

 I fought in a war that was to stop the threat of communism in VietNam but we were losing the war for racial equality in America. …” (Dr. Sylvester Key, Sr.)

Pastor Key’s prophetic words, linked with our best resolutions and highest desires, call us to a higher standard of living, a biblical standard; a standard that reflects Christ’s presence in our midst.  Racism is real.  Let us confess and commit to reach out and build a better world in the name of our Lord.  This is in very truth the mission the Lord has given us – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

When you pause to pray over Thanksgiving dinner, I ask you to pray for those in Ferguson, both the demonstrators and the police, and for all of us as a people that we might yet more deeply walk in the way of Christ.  May we live the Apostle Paul’s words to the church at Galatia.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

The Trajectory of Christianity – Musings on Advent and the Second Coming

The phrase stuck with me out of Sunday morning’s sermon – “the trajectory of Christianity.”  So too did the lectionary passage read for the day – Matthew 24:36-44.  Those who follow the lectionary constantly encounter the juxtaposition between advent – the coming of Christ, God with us in the flesh – and the second (or more properly the return of Christ in His final coming).  In Christian thinking the two are linked.  Advent is theologically yoked to the return of Christ and the consumption of human history.

I must confess that I am uncomfortable with this.  I struggle with its implications for faith, witness and proclamation.  Yet this insistence is built into the most basic affirmation we make in the communion liturgy.  At the culmination of the “Great Thanksgiving” is the adamant confession:  “Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.”

As I wrestle with the why of this affirmation amid my Advent preparations, in the reflective moments of my quiet and contemplation, the risen Lord speaks to me again.  When I am caught in despair with what appears to be the downward spiral of people and things I hold dear, the Lord God is in charge working into the greatness of a divine culmination that I in my best moments cannot fully see and only dimly comprehend.  That which is dying – nature, the church, people! etc. – is being reborn.  Christ shall return in glory and triumph.  This whole hurting world and all of us in it will be surprised in hope and joy.  The Lord whisperers to me in my doubt and timidity of faith of the Lord’s triumphant glory “on earth as it is in heaven.”  This strange almost bizarre connection between the birth of Christ and the return of Christ offers incredible hope in the trials of the present!  My faith is tested here as the Lord leans over and says, “trust me, trust me, I know what I am doing!”

Unlike other religions, the Christian faith is not cyclical.  We live in a linear faith with a destination in mind – the Kingdom of God under the rule and reign of Christ.  This is not something to be meekly spiritualized nor should it be lightly slid over as unimportant.  Rather the preaching of this season, the songs of hope and faith, are distant calls to a triumphant culmination that offers us a profound, deeply profound, hope that triumphs over sin and death, cruelty and injustice.  We assert such a truth when we affirm in the Apostles Creed “from thence he shall come to judge the quick [living] and the dead.”  Karl Barth reminds us: “In the biblical world of thought, the judge is not primarily the one who rewards some and punishes others; he is the man who creates order and restores what has been destroyed” (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, pp. 134-135; taken from Give them Christ, by Stephen Seamands, p. 172).

The trajectory of Christianity is a hope-based, joy-filled triumph for all!  We close Sunday worship with a great old hymn whose 5th verse directs our preparation for both the Savior’s birth and for His final return in glory!

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way. 
(“People, Look East” written by Eleanor Farjeon)

Stay Focused!

The Dictionary defines distraction as:  “Having the attention diverted” or “Suffering conflicting emotions; distraught.”  From an online Thesaurus the following notation was offered, “having the attention diverted especially because of anxiety.”  I am intrigued by these definitions because I believe this season in the church’s life is awash in distractions.  Our attention needs to stay focused tightly on our mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  That is to be the focus!  This is our primarily mission!  Let me deliberately repeat.  Our attention and focus needs to stay fixed on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!”  (Matthew 28:16-20).

And yet, consider all the worthy (and unworthy) distractions.  We might wander off into deep social commentary about the gridlock and shutdown in Washington D.C., about a concern for health care or immigration reform or any other type of reform we care to image.  Time might be justly exercised on returning to civil society and respecting those who disagree or fighting poverty, in justice or any of a host of social problems.  Conversely we can, with some merit, be distracted by the moral relativism of our time, the lack of social cohesion, the breakdown in marriage and parental responsibility.  We might justly tackle deep and corrosive issues like the dearth of biblical knowledge, the failure of leadership, or the decline of worship attendance.  One could rightly argue that our attention needs to be fixed on ministry with the poor, combating AIDS/HIV and-or Imagine No Malaria, starting new churches, leadership development, or the Call to Action.  A current distraction is the ongoing fight in the denomination and larger society around issues of same sex union (marriage), ordination, and civil rights for all people.  We might, in the local church focus our time and attention taking care of our members and raising the budget (stewardship), supporting the next mission trip or lifting up children and youth.  We might let our attention wander into ….

The list could go on and on.  If you read carefully, virtually everything listed above merits engagement.  Furthermore, if you read carefully, virtually everything listed above reflects in some way on the issue of discipleship.  They are all good things in some manner but they are not the main thing!  Crying out over the whole is the question of lordship – who really rules our lives as individuals and as a church?

I do believe we must both speak and live gracefully into the issues that confront our day and time.  At stake is the question of how we so speak and live gracefully in this time of distraction.  My contention is straightforward.  Local churches (pastors and lay leaders) need to stay focused on making disciples.  Disciples of Jesus Christ by definition are grace-filled and graceful in relationship to these and other tough, trying issues.  We need more talk about Christ, His rule and reign in our lives and our churches – not less.  We need more sharing of the good news of God’s love and presence – not less.  We need more, much more, evangelistic outreach that invites every single person to put their life under the reign and rule of Christ.  We need more world transforming actions of love, justice, and mercy – not less.

I am intrigued that a key definition of distraction relates to having our “attention diverted especially because of anxiety.”  The driver of anxiety is our timidity (failure?) in really trusting the Lord.  In times of similar societal tumult, the Methodist Movement thrived because at its heart we Methodists lived the connection of spirituality and faithfulness that blooms from true discipleship to Christ.  We need in these times of distraction to move closer to embracing again (or maybe for the first time) what it means to be a radical Christ follower (i.e. a disciple).

Allow me to close by offering two simple resources.  First, embrace quiet time and prayer by laying your life before the Lord.  Recently I’ve taken to praying a song lifted up at Taize and sung at Arborlawn UMC. “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.”  Try praying and meditating on that every day at the start of the day for 5 minutes (or just 2 minutes!).  It will change your perspective and your life.  I promise you if you spend 5 minutes at the start of the day praying and meditating on that song you will be blessed beyond measure.  Your own walk of discipleship to Christ will take on a different hue and tone.

Second, let me suggest that we continue to recover what it means to be a Wesleyan Christian in the fullness of the original discipleship vision of the Wesleyan Movement.  Cokesbury has recently put out an outstanding resource that any small group or Sunday School class would benefit from.  It is entitled The Wesleyan Way: A Faith That Matters and is authored by Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Episcopal Area (Nebraska & Kansas).  Just go to www.cokesbury.com.

Whatever we do individually and together:  stay calm; stay focused.  Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Remember, “The Lord is near.”

Grounded in Discipline

In the midst of my sojourn in Florida (i.e. General Conference) and my re-immersion in the Central Texas Conference, I have kept up my reading.  One of the recent books I’ve read is Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith.  He is the co-author of the book UnChristian, which many read a few years ago when we had his co-author David Kinnaman in the Central Texas Conference.

While uneven, elements linger in my thoughts, particularly the 8th chapter entitled “Grounded, Not Distracted.” Lyons lays out five key spiritual disciplines for not just our reflection but for committed, habitual practice:

“1. Immersed in Scripture (Instead of Entertained)

2. Observing the Sabbath (Instead of Being Productive)

3. Fasting for Simplicity (Instead of Consuming)

4. Choosing Embodiment (Instead of Being Divided)

5. Postured by Prayer (Instead of Power)”

(The Next Christians: How a New Generation Is Restoring the Faith, Chapter 8 “Grounded, Not Distracted,” Gabe Lyons, pp. 127-146)

The list echoes the early sentiment, practice, and posture of those people called Methodist.  You remember, the ones who were so “methodical” about pursuing spiritual disciplines.  There was a day the “discipline” didn’t mean a book but a lifestyle that was grounded and not distracted.

I continue to pray regularly the prayer of Aelred of Rievaulx (1147-1167 A.D.), which was paraphrased in Godspell – “To know Him [Christ] more clearly; to love Him [Christ] more dearly; to follow Him [Christ] more nearly” (original language).  I don’t know about you, but for me, I need to be grounded in discipline … not the book, the spiritual disciples of the life of faith.

A Special Gift

Yesterday I received a special gift from Dr. Michael Patison, chair of the Central Texas
Conference’s History Book Committee.  Fresh off the press, Michael handed me a copy of The Central Texas Annual Conference 1866-2010: At the Center of Texas Methodism.  Dr. Patison (as Editor) and the whole Committee writing team did a wonderful job! I wrote in the preface that this “is a work that encompasses more than history.  It encompasses an Act of God – the birth and life of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.”

It is almost fashionable these days to believe that one can be spiritual without being a part of a local church.  It is not true.  The old phrasing comes to mind – “the church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.”  The other phrase which comes to mind is the one from  Santayana, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In the special gift of this history few have lessons that may guide into the future God is even now preparing for us.

The Central Texas Annual Conference 1866-2010: At the Center of Texas Methodism will be sold at Annual Conference this coming June in Waco. Those who would like to purchase a copy earlier may do so either at the Conference Service Center through Nancy Schusler or by contacting directly Michael Patison (www.mpatison@charter.net) or Rev. Nancy Bennett  (npbennett1@yahoo.com). The cost is $25 for pick up; $28.50 for shipped.