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Iona Interlude ©

I am pausing my “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way” series to share a brief word on a pilgrimage in leadership development.  By the time this is posted, I will be in Iona, Scotland with a group of young adults from the Central Texas Conference.  This trip is a part of our leadership development process that is linked to the Missional Wisdom Foundation  with leadership from Dr. Larry Duggins, Executive Director of the Foundation and Rev. Wendi Bernau. We as a Conference are greatly blessed by their help and support in leadership development.

Iona is a small island in the Inner Hebrides off the larger isle of Mull, which is a way of saying that it is a remote place distant from the clamor of the world.  It is a place where, as my spiritual guide puts it, we have time and space for solitude, silence and simplicity.  Iona is a place where the call to ordained ministry may be nurtured in reflection, adoration and prayer.

In the Central Texas Conference our “Big Three” are: 1) Christ the Center; 2) Focus on the local church; and 3) Lay and clergy leadership development.  This spiritual pilgrimage with young prospective Christian leaders offers a special opportunity to thoughtfully and prayerfully weld together number 1 and number 3 – Christ at the center of life and witness combined with leadership development for the future of the Christian movement and the Wesleyan Way in Central Texas.  Such pilgrimages both to places like Iona, Scotland and Taize, France along with retreats at our own beloved Glen Lake Camp are vitally important to our developing future leaders of the faith.  In May of 2013 we led a similar group to Taize (a spiritual formation gathering from around the world held in France).

Iona is famous as the site that Saint Columba used as a base of operations to introduce Christianity to Scotland.  For well over four centuries it was a center for monastic leadership and Christian formation.  It is thought that the famous Book of Kells may have been produced at the original Iona Abbey.  After World War I, under the leadership of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), a clergyman named George MacLeod became instrumental in reviving the Iona Abbey’s role in Christian spirituality.  In 1938, as the fires of World War II loomed on the horizon, MacLeod founded the Iona Community as an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church committed to seeking new ways of living as followers of Jesus in today’s world.

For many, including myself, Iona is what might be called a thin place, a place where through contemplation, prayer and worship heaven and earth come especially close.  The ecumenical Christian community built around today’s Iona Abbey is a center for the revival of Celtic Christianity.  The music of John Bell (in the supplement to the hymnal The Faith We Sing) comes from the contemporary Iona Community.

As a part of our daily routine, we will begin the morning with worship at the Abbey and then return to our retreat house for breakfast and time of reflection and sharing.  The day closes with worship at the Abbey again after dinner and a time of sharing our learnings together.

Jolynn and I traveled to Iona for a part of my renewal leave in my first quadrennium as bishop of the Central Texas Conference.  I look forward in a special way to taking a hike back to the remote, desolate beach on St. Columba Bay where St. Columba and his small band first landed on their great mission to share Christ with Scotland and England.

I am reminded that the Christian faith is built on such courage, conviction, and community in Christ. We are here, in part, because of their witness and faith sharing.  Out of pilgrimages like this come the next generation of leaders and pastors for our churches.

 

Return and Reflections ©

Someone once said that life is what happens to you on the way to something else.  There is an element of honesty in such a reflection, which I discovered while in Kenya to my regret.

On Wednesday, January 18th, I stepped into a good sized meeting room from the second day of a two-day seminar on preaching and theology.  Rev. Jim Monroe from the Oregon-Idaho Conference was my co-presenter.  We had shared the material the week before at KeMU (Kenya Methodist University) in Meru located in the north central part of Kenya.  Now we were making a similar set of presentations in Nairobi (the capital of Kenya and its major city).  In attendance were clergy from approximately 5 synods (their term for what we would call a District), plus the Synod Bishops (our equivalent to District Superintendents) and the Presiding Bishop (which is the person who has oversight over the whole Church; the equivalent of our bishops).  Meanwhile the rest of the combined Oregon-Idaho/Central Texas Mission Team were at a Methodist elementary school and church in one of the most impoverished areas of Nairobi.

On arrival in the room, I was not feeling well.  Nonetheless, with people having sacrificed to be present for a period of mutual sharing and learning, I was determined to see it through.  At the request of the presiding Bishop, Joseph Ntombura, I offered the morning devotional on Colossians 1:15-20 about Christ being the head of the church.  Afterwards we stood together for a lengthy time of prayer led by one of the Kenyan Synod Bishops.  Partway through the prayer I felt myself losing it. I leaned over and whispered to Jim Monroe, “I’ve got to sit.  I might faint.”  He helped me to my chair and then got some juice for me to drink.  Bishop NTombura called for a “tea” break (which was actually next on the agenda anyhow) and I was led into another room.  The nurse was called and after her examination I was headed for a local clinic.

Diagnosed with a serious infection, I was given the first of three antibiotic infusions. Dr. Randy Wild on the first day and Rev. Dawne Phillips (our CTC team leader) on the days following accompanied me to the clinic for treatment under the watchful tutelage of a marvelous nurse named Ruth, who worked for the MCK (Methodist Church of Kenya).  Loaded with antibiotics and other pills to take, Saturday I was freed to board the plane for the long flights back to the US. (5 ½ hours from Nairobi to Dubai and 16 hours – with a three hour layover – from Dubai to DFW.)  It is wonderful to be home!  To embrace Jolynn after emerging from Customs was both a joy and relief far greater than Christmas morning! On firm instructions from the doctor in Kenya to see my family physician immediately upon return, I spent a good part of Monday at the doctor’s office going through further tests and a checkup.

This unexpected “check” in my activities gave me time and pause for some deeper reflections.  It is both easy and dangerous to exalt in the emergence of African Christianity.  While experiencing exciting growth both missionally (love, justice and mercy) and evangelistically, they have their own set of problems, struggles and challenges.  To some degree, they are in the early front edge of an emerging Sub-Saharan African Christendom. (Phillip Jenkins award winning book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity is now published in a revised and updated version.  It is probably the best way to get and overall read on this worldwide trend.)  An emerging Kenyan Christendom is evident in the common signs plastered around the community praising God and giving thanks to the Lord Jesus!  Here surely is a learning from Kenyan Methodism which we need to incorporate.  They find it incomprehensible that explicit evangelism is separated from explicit missions (deeds of love, justice and mercy).  For them it is obvious that the two go together. They are puzzled by our attempts to separate them.

Even in the context of a Christendom setting, one of our questions in the first set of presentations at KeMU was from a pastor who lives and leads a small emergent church on the northeastern edge of the country where Islam is the major religion.  He sought insight on remaining faithful and evangelistic in a conflicted and even dangerous setting.  I don’t know for sure what he learned from us.  I know we learned from him.  The sense of gracious, firm clarity about the boundaries of what makes up Christianity (Jesus is Lord!) is a lesson we need to learn and relearn.  He was (many we met are) gracious in response to other religions especially competitive non-Christian religions.  But (Hear the shout from them!) they never gave into the temptation to be syncretic.  The Lord Jesus Christ was the leader.  They avoided vague talk about God and embraced a strong understanding and language about God in action through the Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power.  The full dimensions of the Trinity were readily, even enthusiastically, embraced, proclaimed, and advocated.

Third, we spent a lot of time praying.  The second day of my illness Bishop NThombura came by at 9 pm to check on me.  He apologized for the lateness of the hour but he had been in an important all day meeting.  Later I learned the meeting was a full day of prayer spent together by the “Cabinet.”  They take prayer seriously!  Cautiously here, many of us also take prayer seriously.  Nonetheless, we can learn from their diligence and earnestness.

The fourth lesson for me ties to the third one on the seriousness of prayer.  I have written before about how prayer among most of us moves quickly if not almost immediately to prayers of petition.  We instinctively pray for those who are ill, for people who are suffering, for the end of violence, racism, and hunger, etc.  We spend far less time on prayers of joy and thanksgiving.  I have speculated that the rise of contemporary Christian praise music is an unconscious (sometimes very conscious) sense in the younger generation that something is seriously missing in our prayer life, i.e. praise and thanksgiving!  When the Kenyans pray, they spent the bulk of their time praising God in the fullness of the Trinity (that is, praising each person of the Holy Trinity) and lifting up, exulting God in action through Christ and the active power of the Holy Spirit.  Thus the Psalms entered their corporate prayer life in an explicit way.  For instance, Psalm 46 speaks of the Lord as “our refuge and strength,” “a help always near,” a place of safety.”  Verse 11 is specific and concrete.  “The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!” (Psalm 46:11).  Thus the Kenyans would teach us to engage in believing prayer which stresses praise, thanksgiving, and the active presences of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our/their lives.

I have asked myself why we spend so little time in praise, thanksgiving and calling on God’s active intervention.  Some of the reason resides, I think, in the theological weakness of the current American mainline Protestantism.  But, in a more profound way, I suspect it has to do with our typically American sense of self-reliance.  We have so much in terms of resources (financial, institutional, educationally, etc.) in America that we tend to subconsciously seek to move forward on our own strength.  The Kenyans lack an excess of resources.  They are more readily thrown back on the strength of the Lord.  They instinctively know they can’t make it on their own.  Our (American Methodism’s) instinctive response is more “we’ll call in God if we need extra help from God.”  They (Kenyans) are more inclined to listen for the Lord’s guidance.

A word of caution is in order.  Kenyans and American Methodists alike succumb to the idolatrous temptation to dethrone God and enthrone ourselves.  Alike, we are tempted to challenge the Lordship and leadership of Christ.  Together we are inclined to insist on our own will over the will of the Holy Spirit.  Sin is alive and well in all of us.  Together we recall, “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

New Room Report

For the last two and a half days I have been in Franklin, Tennessee attending the New Room Conference. I was warned not to go. I was told that the New Room Conference was a gathering to plan the schism of the United Methodist Church over the issue of LGBT marriage and ordination. I suppose such rumors came about because the New Room talks about building a new network of Wesleyan Christians.

The notion that this is some schismatic Wesleyan-United Methodist group couldn’t be farther from the truth. There has been no talk about leaving the United Methodist Church from any of the Conference speakers. New Room has used explicit language about a new annual conference. But such talk about a conference is not structural.

The New Room Conference is about a global Wesleyan movement. It is an effort about connecting Wesleyan Christians from all over. In their own words, “it’s a decisively, unapologetically, creatively, Wesleyan gathering.” Yesterday I sat next a retired University President who is (as he put it) “a salvationist,” by which he meant a part of the Salvation Army. We heard a lecture from the Presiding Elder (translate Bishop) of the Wesleyan Church (Jo Anne Lyon). Her moving address connected a Wesleyan understanding of sanctification with ministry among those who have been maimed and mutilated by extremist in Syrian refugee camps. [The official from the Wesleyan Church who introduced her commented that some people work for the “man” but they work for the woman and are proud of it!]

If there is a theme, it is about the recovery of a full Wesleyan understanding of sanctification with a large (very large) dose of movement (work) of the Holy Spirit. These folks are deeply serious about genuine discipleship and deep allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. The focus is worldwide and not just a North American-centric vision.

Dr. Stanley John gave an impassioned address on the rise of immigrant churches in North America and the changing face of American Christianity. [“Stanley John is a member of the Indian diaspora born and raised in Kuwait. He serves as the director of the Alliance Graduate School of Missions and Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies at the Alliance Theological Seminary of Nyack College in Nyack, New York.”] There is a great emphasis on church planting and evangelism that is yoked with sanctification in the best Wesleyan sense. Mike Breen, leader of the 3DM, led a workshop I attended that challenged us to consider how we move beyond mere cultural Christianity. Lisa Yebuah, Pastor of Inviting Ministries at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, NC, and Andrew Forrest, Pastor of Munger Place UMC in Dallas, both gave exciting illuminating talks. Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler, gave an excellent address on the role of class and band meeting (similar to an address he gave to the Council of Bishops in Oklahoma last year). I could go on but hopefully you have received a taste of what for me has been a heartwarming and wonderfully encouraging conference.

The original purpose of an annual conference meeting was to investigate what to teach and how to teach and not about running an institution. This conference (spelled with a small “c”) is focused on the original purpose and not a political gathering. I hope to go to next year’s conference, time permitting.

As I closed this blog, I would be remiss if I did not note the recurrence of prayer for and conversation about the persecution of Christians. Persecution is a present reality in a number of places around the world. We tend to think of the Middle East and ISIS but the struggle is far wider. One report from India was particularly chilling. Amid the reality of persecution there is a wonderful converting ministry which is a work – one of the Holy Spirit offering love in the place of hate. I ask you to join with me in prayer for all those suffering for the faith and for those causing the suffering. May Christ be known! May our discipleship grow in both sanctification (personal and social holiness in heart and life) and grace-filled love for all people!

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.

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #7:

Spirit Led

This blog will be posted as we open the 2015 meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference.  We meet in a time of great opportunity and equally great peril.  Facing forward with a focus on the local church, I invite us to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit for the Church of Jesus Christ.  One of the great and godly things going on is the gradual rediscovery among mainline Christians of the fullness of the doctrine of the Trinity.  Dr. Jason Byassee’s new book Trinity: The God We Don’t Know is but one example of this very positive trend.  As the post-Christendom Church continues to emerge, the Holy Spirit’s leading is taking center stage.  Insightfully Dr. Byasee comments, “The descent of the Spirit in the birth of the church is almost like a second incarnation. … What God does for us in Christ, God works in us by his Holy Spirit” (Jason Byassee, Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, p. 41).

Spiritual formation and small group ministry must once again take center stage in the life of the United Methodist Church.  Prayer is at the heart of openness to the Spirit’s leading.  Discernment (as a form of prayer) – an often forgotten, misunderstood and/or misused tool for seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance – must once again assume its rightful place at the center of our corporate ministry.  “We know this because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5).

Discernment (along with Holy Conversation – a deeply abused and misunderstood concept in the life of the church today!) involves extensive quiet, intensive biblical study, and a settled openness to guidance that comes from God.  Discernment by nature is complex but at its core involves a quiet attentiveness to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit over, above and beyond our own desires or preferences. Discernment in its fullness takes a practiced heart, fine-tuned to hear the word of God and the single-mindedness to follow that word in love.  It is truly a gift from God, but not one dropped from the skies fully formed.  It is a gift cultivated by a prayerful life and the search for self-knowledge. Typically we apply discernment on an individual level.  We need to also recover the concept of discernment for the church as a body seeking the Lord’s leading.

Ruth Haley Barton carefully instructs both the church and the individual who would seek the Spirit’s leading.  “The capacity to discern and do the will of God arises out of friendship with God, cultivated through prayer, times of quiet listening, and alert awareness” (Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, p. 116).  Perceptively she counsels those seeking discernment that “the practice of discernment begins with a prayer for indifference. … Here [indifference] means ‘I am indifferent to anything but God’s will.’  This is a state of wide-openness to God” (Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, p. 119; Chapter 8 on “Discernment” is particularly helpful.  So too is the work of Monsignor Joesph Tetlow, SJ, Making Choices in Christ — my former spiritual guide – and various writings of  John Ortberg, especially Soul Keeping.)

The leading of the Holy Spirit will always be shaped by the love of God in Christ. “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).  In a variety of ways we must ask as both a church and as individuals, “What does love call for? How are we to best live out of the love of God in Christ?”  Quick superficial answers are not helpful here.  Often what seems loving may in discernment turn out not to be loving at all.

I am currently reading A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir.  It is the autobiography of the eminent patristic theologian and Wesleyan scholar Thomas Oden (long time Professor at The School of Theology at Drew University).  At one point he recounts a sabbatical early in his career as a theologian to Heidelberg University.  While there he had the rare opportunity to visit with perhaps the greatest Christian thinker of the 20th century (and arguably one of the greatest Christian theologians ever), Karl Barth.  Early in the conversation, Professor Oden shared his enthusiasm for the then voguish combination of therapy and theology centered on self-affirmation.  Professor Barth remarked, “Proceed cautiously.  The only source of love of the neighbor is the Word which God speaks affirming both you and the neighbor, not any self-affirmation one gives to oneself”  (Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, p. 96). Later, as they closed the conversation, Dr. Barth encouraged him and underscored “that the church must ‘live by the Holy Spirit,’ and not the spirit of the times” (Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, p. 96).

We need that same encouragement and caution today.  D.T. Niles words temper our self-serving attempts to insist that the Holy Spirit baptize our preferences.  “He (or she) who marries the present age, will be a widow (or widower) in the next.” The Spirit is not subject to the faddish whims of our times.  It is not governed by temporary enthusiasm, momentary inspirations or even heart-felt aspirations.  The Holy Spirit’s leading of the church is anchored in Scripture and tradition.  It lives within the riches of the grace of God – prevenient, justifying and sanctifying.

The leading of the Spirit is not an embrace of every high emotion that comes along.  The Holy Spirit does not and will not lead us contrary to the witness of Holy Scripture.  Likewise under the Spirit’s guidance and interpretation of the witness of Scripture is guided by the great historical affirmations of the Christian faith as found in the seminal creeds.  There too we see the footprint of the Holy Spirit’s leading.

We are being led into a new future by the Holy Spirit.  This is God’s doing.  May we be among those who are prayerfully discerning.

A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit #2

Aslan is on the Move! ©

Few Christian writers and thinkers have had such a profound influence on the life of the faith & the church as C. S. Lewis.  (Mere Christianity is basic foundational reading!)  In his classic Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe shares a wonderful allegorical tale of children who go exploring in an old wardrobe and find themselves in a new land – Narnia.  The land is frozen in perpetual winter through the grip of an evil queen.  The children themselves are tempted and even caught in the Queen’s evil snare.

Aslan is this great lion and messiah/Christ figure in the allegorical tale.  As the children move towards Aslan and away from the evil Queen, the land, which had been previously caught in perpetual winter, begins to thaw.  Noticing the changing landscape one of the creatures’ comments to another, “Aslan is on move!”

A new church is being called into being by the Holy Spirit!  Aslan is on the move!  Things long frozen in tradition and habit are opening up.   By way of example consider the following elements both in the Central Texas Conference and in the larger United Methodist Church.

  • Risk-taking is on the rise
  • There is a noticeable rise in interest in spiritual formation and discernment
  • Hands-on mission engagement is the norm for a local churches in much greater ways than ever before (In fact, it is no longer acceptable for a local church to NOT be in ministry with the poor.)
  • The question has changed from “are you starting new faith communities?” to “where and how are you starting new faith communities?” (46% of our Path 1 new faith community starts are multi-ethnic.)
  • We are seeing bright-spots in evangelistic engagement
  • We are begging to grapple with the discipleship in a way that transcends membership
  • Multiple Conferences across the United States are experimenting with a variety of ministries and with innovative ways of structuring for ministry
  • Attempts at accountability are on the rise (albeit with some serious angst)
  • Across the board we are seeing longer appointments
  • The Cabinet is partnering with senior pastors in making appointments of associate pastors in new and experimental ways.

All this is not without resistance and painful change. The days of subsidy are over. The days of the guaranteed appointment are numbered. (More on this in a later blog.) Job security for clergy is shaky. We are being called into risk-taking ministry in ways that we are not trained for. As painful as this can be at times, I see the Holy Spirit’s hand in much of this.

Here in Central Texas we launched the Exodus Project with a special called session of the Central Texas Conference (CTC) in 2010 with a restructuring designed to bring about a cultural shift with a focus on Christ and on energizing and equipping local congregations as they engage the mission field in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” In adopting that report, we committed to conducting a detailed evaluation of the results of the Exodus project after 2014. That report will be presented at the upcoming 2015 gathering of the Central Texas Conference. Conducted by an independent outside consultant who is an expert in the field (Mike Bonem), the preliminary draft suggests that we have made significant progress in a cultural change to deeper Christ-centered discipleship in the life of the CTC.

The report suggests a significant beginning, not an ending or completion. What I am suggesting is that behind the seemingly pragmatic tasks and issues of the Annual Conference and our common work together lies an even greater insight. The Holy Spirit is at work in the movement of faith that is calling forth a new church. Business as usual is no more (whether we like it or not) and this a work of the Spirit! Aslan is on the move!

The Cape of Good Hope ©

This Sunday I will be preaching at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Belton.  I will be using the lectionary text for the second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-30.  As I reflected on the passage, my mind drifted back to an illustration used by Rev. Michael Green, the great British pastor and scholar.

In 1499 A.D. the European view of the world changed dramatically. For years European traders had been looking for a sea route to India. They had been searching for a way to the land rich with spices and perfumes around the southern tip of Africa. “All attempts at rounding the Cape had failed. So much so that this treacherous headland was known as the Cape of Storms and it was the scene of many wrecks. However, one determined sailor determined to try again. He succeeded in rounding the Cape and reaching the East. Indeed, there is still a monument to this famous mariner, Vasco da Gama, in China today. Ever since he sailed back to Lisbon [arriving home in 1499 A.D.] it has been impossible to doubt that a way to the Orient exists round the bottom of Africa. The very name of that perilous Cape was changed to its present title, the Cape of Good Hope” (Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus, p. 131).

I think we often live at the juncture of the Cape of Storms.  This week I watched news of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber.  I’ve continued my ongoing prayers for the young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the victims of the Garissa killing spree in Kenya, and for the safety of US soldiers serving in the Middle East (all a part of my regular prayer life).  I have read my morning paper with stories of crimes, struggles, and storms right here in Texas.  I had my fill and then some of the senseless and often fruitless political wrangling of both parties.  I have wrestled with and prayed about storms battering my work as a bishop and life as a husband, son, and brother.  My strong hunch is so have you.  Metaphorically speaking, we sail on seas that traverse the Cape of Storms.

When I read the Bible story of those disciples gathered behind locked doors on Easter evening, I think the Lord through Holy Spirit is speaking again to me, to us.  He is reminding me that we also sail past the Cape of Good Hope because Christ is risen and the ultimate destination the Savior offers is life lived with God.

I am forcefully struck by a cardinal truth in this passage (one of many!).  The Cape of Storms becomes the Cape of Good Hope in community that is Christ centered – Christ focused!   Thomas only experienced the presence of the risen Christ when he was a part of the transforming community of Christ!  Cut off and alone there was no experience of the resurrection in his life.  In the transforming community, he experiences the risen Christ!

We live the resurrection only as a part of the transforming community of Christ. The Christian faith is not an isolationist movement. Thomas overcomes doubt through others.  Thomas’ Cape of Storms becomes the Cape of Good Hope when he is with others in the transforming community. It is here and only here that he experiences the resurrected Christ.

It is our relationship with the risen living Jesus in community (!) that transforms our life.  Walking with God, receiving the Spirit, living through doubt – these are all ways in which we live the resurrection in a transforming relationship.

In his book What’s Right with the Church, Bishop Will Willimon writes: “The church [the transforming community] is a post-Easter phenomenon. It was the astounding, unexpected presence of the risen Christ that formed a believing community. Without that presence, the church might have been described as a memorial society or a reunion for old veterans of the Jesus campaign, laboring to keep alive the fading memory of a dead hero.” (William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church, p. 45).

In the transforming community, Thomas experienced the living Christ. Doubt was overcome in his triumphant affirmation and commitment. “My Lord and my God!”  Doubt always is overcome by commitment.  Research has long taught us that we often act ourselves into a new way of believing and thinking.

So on this weekend after Easter, how will it be for you?  Is Easter a pleasant interlude of appreciation and remembrance or cause for a higher level of renewed faith and commitment which comes in living through doubt?  Do you wish to live the resurrection?  Do you want to transform the Cape of Storms into a Cape of Good Hope for your life?  We do so by being a part of the transforming community that overcomes doubt and affirms by word and deed. “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

I hope to start a new series of blogs soon on the transformed church that is coming into being through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amid the declines of Christendom and struggles of early 21st century Christians that many of us know full well, I think God in Christ through the presence of Holy Spirit is doing something amazing.  A transformed Christian community is slowly taking place.  With timidity, prayer and wonder, I hope to write on this Spirit led transformation, which is calling into being a new church.

In this Easter season, may you sail the seas of the Cape of Good Hope!

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).

MISSION TO FORT WORTH

 What comes to your mind when you think of a missionary?

I must confess that my usual image is both anchored in the past and colonial in genre. I imagine Albert Schweitzer and pith helmets.  Intellectually I know better. Here in Central Texas we are living into a new world where the whole world, including Fort Worth!, is missionary turf.

For a long time the Central Texas Conference (CTC) has had a formal (covenantal) relationship with the Eastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church of Mexico.  Over the last couple of years we have worked to strengthen our relationship with the Easter Mexico Conference. A couple of years ago, Randy Wild, Rev. Dawne Phillips (CTC Director of Missions) and I traveled to Monterrey, Mexico and spent time with Bishop Garcia and their Conference leaders in Monterrey.  Bishop Raul Garcia and the members of the Conference have been wonderfully receptive!

As God led the two Conference in reconnecting, it became clear that we had much to offer each other.  While we initially talk about CTC missions trips to Eastern Mexico, it quickly became clear that mission runs both ways. After visiting their seminary, I came home thinking about internships for seminary students to help train us an outreach in our own neighborhoods.

God had even bigger dreams! Last June at Annual Conference, we were blessed to have LaTrinidad UMC transfer from the Rio Grande Conference to the Central Texas Conference. LaTrinidad is a great church with a long history of outreach in the Diamond Hill area of Fort Worth. As the North District Superintendent, Dr. Ginger Bassford, worked with them on a pastoral change, it quickly became clear that a special skill set was needed for a new pastor.

Again the Lord moved through the Holy Spirit!  Contact between folks at LaTrinidad, the North District Superintendent and a reciprocal visit by a District Superintendent from the Eastern Mexico Conference led to conversations between the two bishops (Bishop Raul Garcia and myself).  Through the gracious leadership of Bishop Garcia, the hard work of Dr. Bassford, and the courageous optimism of Rev. Macias (along with the support of Rev. Macias’ family), the Rev Samuel Macias will become (after we clear all the immigration hurdles and he receives a guest worker permit – “green card”) the new pastor at LaTrinidad UMC in Fort Worth!  Rev. Macias will be with us from two to four years and then return to the Eastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church in Mexico to continue his ministry back in his home country.

We, the Central Texas Conference, are the recipients of a missionary from the Eastern Mexico Conference. It is a great mission of outreach in sharing the gospel through love, justice and mercy in Fort Worth.  Praise God!  A new mission to Fort Worth will soon be launched.  You can read more about this mission to Fort Worth here.

Even as we are receiving a missionary from Eastern Mexico Conference, we are sending missionaries ourselves. Tuesday we had our first team meeting of a conference mission trip to Kenya in September.  I look forward to being a part of the Kenyan mission team next September.  The mission road runs both ways!  We are all working together to share the love of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit and spread the gospel of salvation!

All of this is as it should be. Spiritually we are Wesleyan Christians. John Wesley, the founder of the Wesley (Methodist) movement declared, “The world is my parish.” We are living this great legacy of mission in the name of Jesus Christ!

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.

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