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Celebrations and a Loss Observed ©

I sit at my keyboard and launch this blog on “Celebrations and a Loss Observed” mindful that today is Valentine’s Day. While flowers, candy and cards abound, I invite us to pause and remember the original Valentine. He was a Christian martyr and bishop of modern day Terni, Italy. In a time when being Christian was illegal, he stood for Christ and so gave up his life reportedly on February 14th in 278 A.D. to Roman persecution. The phrase that sticks in my mind is John 15:13: “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” We have much to celebrate and give thanks for on Valentine’s Day. Such thanksgiving appropriately starts with Christian witness. God’s love has been poured liberally over us all.

Two weeks ago (literally January 29th), Jolynn and I had the great joy to celebrate the launch service for One Fellowship United Methodist Church in Waco. With a packed congregation of well over a hundred, the music sent us soaring; the sermon was a powerful proclamation of the gospel (thanks to Rev. Bryan Dalco); and the blessing of the fellowship of gathered saints, a great joy. A new United Methodist Church is launched in Waco! A new mission post of the advancing kingdom of God rises from remains of older but honored congregations.

A second great celebration involves the missional faithfulness of the people and churches of the Central Texas Conference. Once again we have paid our General Church Connectional Mission Giving (CMG, formerly known as apportionments) 100%. This is a remarkable accomplishment in the chaos of our times.

Consider some of the vital statistics:

  • 285 Apportioned Churches [new churches and missional congregations are not apportioned nor are campus ministries]
    259 Churches 100% paid
    26 Churches did not meet their CMG (Connectional Mission Giving) goal
    6 Churches paid zero

This year’s final figures reported a CMG giving at 95.55%. This is slightly better than our ten year average of 95.13%. Through the wise stewardship CFA (Council on Finance and Administration) we are able to make up the additional 4.45%.

On top of such remarkable faithfulness comes another reason for celebration. Dr. Randy Wild, Executive Director for Mission Support, passed on the following thank you from Rev. Brian Bakeman, Executive Director of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. “Thank you and the Central Texas Conference for being one of two conferences that paid 100% of their South Central Jurisdiction apportionments for 2016.”
In addition to the figures for our Jurisdiction, Dr. Randy Wild reports that we are #1 in the percentage collected for the whole US in our denomination for 2016. The chart speaks volumes.

Central Texas
95.55%
Louisiana
95.54%
North Texas
95.4%
North Georgia
94.65%
Illinois Great Rivers
94.52%
Pacific Northwest
93.08%
Western Pennsylvania
92.4%
Baltimore-Washington
92.06%
Arkansas
90.99%
North Carolina
90.49%
South Georgia
90%

To all of the above I add my heart-felt gratitude and thanksgiving. “Well done! You are good and faithful servants” (Matthew 25:23; with very slight paraphrase).

In the midst of the celebrations we have a distinct loss to observe. Dr. Georgia Adamson’s husband John passed away suddenly Wednesday, February 8th. Georgia has served as District Superintendent, Executive Director for the Roberts Center for Leadership and Assistant to the Bishop during the last seven and a half years. Her husband John is known and loved by many of us. He will be missed! We ask your prayers for Georgia and the whole family in this difficult time of John’s passing. “In life, in death, in life beyond death; we are not alone. Thanks be to God!”

Using Social Media in Ministry ©

Three or four months ago, I approached Rev. David Alexander (who has been a mentor for me in using social media – the improvements are due to his coaching, the persistent errors are a reflection of his students fumbling) to write a guest blog on using social media in ministry.  There were multiple reasons for asking help in this area.  First, I am a visitor or late immigrant to this world.  My instinctive reactions are those of someone who entered ministry in the age of typewriters.  My children are early adopters.  My grandchildren are natives.  Yet, as is obvious, we live in a social media age.  To share the gospel in its full dimensions we must master the use of the Social Media.  (This is similar to the change clergy went through in Reformation moving from an oral age to a print age.)  Second, in our Cabinet work, we have run into increased communication difficulties with people placing careless and/or controversial statements on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and congregations negatively reacting.  This exposes generational miscommunication through the use of a platform of communication that is understood differently by different generations. Context and background are lost. Fragile relationships between pastors and parishioners are damaged. Trust is threatened.  Third, we (both lay and clergy) need a more coherent dialog on how we use social media. Hopefully this guest blog will be a start.  -Bishop Mike Lowry

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Reflections on Rejection of Religion and Deep Desire for the Full Gospel ©

A series of recent readings have left me in deeper reflection about how we reach a new generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Dean Craig Hill’s observation (taken from a professor of his when he was a seminary student over arches my reflections.  “Jesus didn’t just offer advice; he proclaimed good news!”

Recently a lay friend passed on an article that appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly in 2013.  Written by Larry Alex Tauton and entitled “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity,” Tauton’s group conducted extensive research and listening through “a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). Some of the key assertions in the article are:

“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kum-ba-ya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.”

  • The [atheistic students] had attended church. Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity. The mission and message of their churches was vague. These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible.
  • “Given that the New Atheism fashions itself as a movement that is ruthlessly scientific, it should come as no surprise that those answering my question usually attribute the decision to the purely rational and objective…. . For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one. With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well.
  • Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” … “Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching.”
  • Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this whole study was the lasting impression many of these discussions made upon us. That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. I again quote Michael: “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”
  • Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction.

I commend a careful reading of the entire article. It is packed with uncomfortable insights that should challenge all thoughtful faithful Christians.

Now take another thought step with me. A number of recent articles from the Lewis Leadership Center reflect on the importance of intentionally challenging young adults with the intellectual core of the Christian gospel. We need to teach the Scriptures and lay out a compellingly coherent theology. This must be combined with a lived praxis which is more than the vapid adoption of the right or left wing of a contemporary political party. The notion that nice fast beat contemporary music alone does the trick of bringing people in to the faith or church is false. (Please note! the word “alone.” Presenting the gospel in a socially relevant medium is important.) Young adults want substance. They desire a theology that can speak to the deeper issues of life and living very a much akin to the questions that young atheists are asking.

Now take one more intellectual step towards understanding. I picked back up off my bookshelf Kenda Creasy Dean’s superb book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Professor Dean (working with others) chronicles the rise of what is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.   The Christian faith is reduced to being nice, doing good and some version of self-fulfillment. What is hungered for is instead something with meaning and purpose. Put in colloquial language, a Christian faith with muscle, substance and integrity. The problem is not with the younger generation but with the very nature of faith (or the lack of it!) that we (adults) are communicating by both word and deed (or lack thereof). Making disciples means we need to be serious about our own discipleship.

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recall a college professor sharing that Gandhi loved Christ but didn’t love the Christianity he experienced. I do not know if this is true. What I do know is that we are claimed by the living Lord for a much deeper discipleship. In too many different ways we have been succumbed to a culturally homogenized version of the faith. Or, as Professor Dean puts it: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the “crown of rejoicing” that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 5).

What does a new generation need?  It needs deeper discipleship, stronger teachers and a clearer proclamation of the gospel.  It needs exactly what I, as a 66 year old adult, needs.  Give me, give us the real thing, not diluted pabulum.  It needs Christ. Jesus offers a way, a faith, and life not just some randomly good advice.  In doing so he challenges all our culture assumptions (those of both the right and left!).

Try this list as a starting point offered by Professor Dean:

  • Portray God as living, present and active
  • Place a high value on scripture
  • Explain their church’s mission, practices and relationships as inspired by ‘the life and mission of Jesus Christ’
  • Emphasize spiritual growth, discipleship and vocation
  • Promote outreach and mission
  • Help teens [and the rest of us!] develop “‘a positive, hopeful spirt,’ ‘live out a life of service,’ and ‘live a Christian moral life’”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 83).

Now that is truly a mouthful that merits a great deal of intellectual digestion.  Furthermore there are elements of it that engage us in high and passionate debate over precisely their meaning.  In every case, they will push us back to a stronger Christ-centered theology and deeper practice of what it means to be Christian.

I think all of this is called “holy living” and that amazingly is just what most of those who have rejected the Christian faith are looking for.  More on Holy Living or if you prefer “holiness” in a later blog.

Tauton closes his article as follows, to which I add an AMEN.

“There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening: ‘I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,’ someone asked. ‘I do not,’ Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, ‘But he does.’”

Class Meetings and Making Disciples ©

In November of 2014 while meeting in Oklahoma City, the Council of Bishops heard an outstanding address from a class meetingyoung Methodist scholar named Kevin Watson. Dr. Watson (who is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology) shared a deep teaching based on his newly published book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.  I’ve had his book on my shelf intending to read it since hearing him in Oklahoma City.

On becoming one of the four supervising bishops for Rio Texas, his book leaped to the top of my long list of books to read. Along with Bishop Joel Martinez, I have picked up the task of representing the bishops at the upcoming Clergy Convocation of the Rio Texas Conference (an event similar to the “Clergy Day Apart” in the Central Texas Conference).  To my delight, I learned that Dr. Watson is one of the featured presenters for the event (along with Dr. Albert Mosley, President at Gammon School of Theology).

It is Dr. Watson’s connection, or more accurately reconnection, of the class meeting with the mission of the church which excites me. We know full well the stated mission of the United Methodist Church – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Clergy tend to get stuck in fruitless debate over precisely what or who a “disciple” is.  The technical navel gazing debate is more often than not a form of work avoidance.  Or, as a friend of mine puts it, “it may be complex but it is not complicated.”  I’ll stake my own flag in a fairly straightforward shot-hand definition.  A disciple of Christ is a committed disciplined follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If the reader wishes a bit more, I’ll add “who continues in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, prayers and the breaking of bread while reaching out to share Christ with all others and helping those in need through the deeds of love, justice and mercy”  (See Acts 2:42-47).  Disciples are fully devoted followers of the Lord Jesus Christ living the great commandment (Luke 10:27) and the great commission (Matthew 28:29-20).  As already stated, it is not complicated, but it is complex.

Disciples are made not born.  Wesleyan’s have always understood that people are transformed into disciples primarily through small groups committed to the shaping of the heart.  Indeed, Professor Watson quotes at the opening of the first chapter Methodism’s first two bishops in America, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke:  “We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages.  But the most profitable exercise is a free inquiry into the state of the heart.” (John Ortberg has written an outstanding book, Soul Keeping, which focuses on the “state of the heart.”)

It is the reconnection of the historic class meeting with the primary mission of making disciples that is so exciting in Professor Watson’s work. He notes that we have three primary types of groups. Affinity groups are gathered around common interest.  My wife is in a group that knits stocking hats for infants, especially in situations of poverty, to help protect that most vulnerable among us.  Back in Corpus Christi I was in a small group that cheered on the Chicago Cubs. (It was a religious experience for us but nobody else!)  Affinity groups mostly function around fun and fellowship not making disciples (there are exceptions but as such the spiritual formation engaged in making disciples – attending to the state of one’s soul – is rarely the focal point of an affinity group.

The second major type of groups found in churches are information-driven groups.  Most bible studies fall into this category.  While there is some sharing, the primary purpose is knowledge/curriculum driven.  Such groups are needed and important but rarely reach the level of depth needed for spiritual transformation that leads directly to more mature Christians (i.e. disciples, committed disciplined follows of Jesus Christ as Lord whose live have been transformed by Christ).  Pungently Dr. Watson adds “Methodists became addicted to curriculum and gradually turned to information-driven groups and away from the class meeting” (p. 7).

The third and most transformative type of group is the class meeting.  Watson’s basic description is instructive.  “A class meeting is a small group that is primarily focused on transformation and not information, where people learn how to interpret their entire lives through the lens of the gospel, build a vocabulary for giving voice to their experience of God, and grow in faith in Christ”  (p. 6). This is where disciples are formed.  In all our fussing and fighting, a recovery of the class meeting or something closely equivalent is necessary to turn from an institutional church back into a movement for Christ.

True transformational spiritual formation groups create disciples of Christ. Therein lies our best hope for a future that captures the Wesleyan vision of holiness of heart and life, justification and sanctification for a and to a hurting and hungry world.  I pray for such a movement for Christ!

The Sons and Daughter of the San Antonio Episcopal Area are Going Home ©

Rio Texas, Central Texas & the Work of a Bishop

By now many regular readers of this blog are aware that I will be serving as one of four bishops providing episcopal supervision to the Rio Texas Conference until Sept. 1. Bishop Janice Huie (Texas Conference) will serve as the bishop of record. Bishops Joel Martinez (retired), Robert Schnase (Missouri Conference) and I will each provide specific areas of leadership for the Rio Texas Conference. The vacancy in the Rio Texas Conference (San Antonio Episcopal Area) was created when then Bishop Jim Dorff resigned from the episcopal office and surrendered his credentials as an elder in the United Methodist Church for misconduct.

four interim bishops for Rio Texas-HuieThe team approach for covering an episcopal area is unprecedented. Each of the four bishops selected to server Rio Texas was elected to the episcopacy out of one of the predecessor conferences that united to form the new Rio Texas Conference. (Bishop Martinez was elected out of the Rio Grande Conference. Bishops Huie, Schnase and I were elected out of the Southwest Texas Conference.) For all of us, there is deep sense of wanting to help with a conference we love. As one of my colleagues put it, “the sons and daughter of the San Antonio Episcopal Area are going home.”

Wfour interim bishops for Rio Texas-Martinezhere all of this gets very difficult is balancing the work of our assigned conferences – to which we are all deeply committed – with the need to engage in compassionate leadership for the Rio Texas Conference.

In my case, next week will combine attempts to meet with both the Central Texas Conference Cabinet and the Rio Texas Conference Leadership Team & Cabinet (two meetings). It means driving to Oklahoma City on Monday for a meeting and then driving back in time to catch a flight to San Antonio Monday night. Tuesday morning will involve a planning meeting with the four interim bishops for Rio Texas-Schnasefour bishops in the morning and a meeting of what we are calling the Rio Texas Leadership Team in the afternoon. We will then meet with the Rio Texas Cabinet Wednesday morning. I will fly home that afternoon and hope to make it in time to join the Central Texas Cabinet in session. Then there’s the Texas Wesleyan Board meeting on Friday, and Saturday finds me at First Round Rock for a Leadership gathering in the morning and in Glen Lake that afternoon to meet with the Vital Leadership Academy.

I hope to spend the whole final week of January in Central Texas. The heart of the week will be sharing with Dr. John McKellar in teaching the High Octane Preaching class. The first week in February involves the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) College of Bishops meeting at Perkins School of Theology. Followed by our Central Texas Conference Cabinet Inventory Retreat the next week and the launch of the 2016 Bishop Brown Bag Book Study the following week. And so it goes.

People ask me all the time what a bishop does. My short answer is “lead.” My slightly longer answer goes back to the historic understanding of the office as it developed both in the biblical church (see I & II Timothy) and the early Christian church. The word bishop means overseer. The bishop has oversight (guardian) authority for both the spiritual and temporal affairs of the Church of Jesus Christ. Spiritual authority involves the great teaching office of the episcopacy. A bishop guides the church to continue in the Apostles doctrine and prayers (see Acts 2:42). The “temporal” part of being a bishop involves earthly leadership of the church in very practical ways – assigning clergy, providing oversight of fiscal accountability, helping establish systems of education and learning, dealing with legal concerns and property issues and most of all, guiding missional strategies that “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That is the short answer.

Being a bishop is awesome and incredibly humbling. Most days I love the ministry. Some days it is very, very hard. I am honored to be going home to help Rio Texas. I love being the bishop of the Central Texas Conference. I ask for your prayers and support in the difficult eight-month period of joint oversight.

The First Order Concern ©

Thursday evening October 22nd we returned home from our pilgrimage following the Apostle Paul’s 3rd and 4th missionary journeys.  We managed to include a stop at the island of Patmos where John wrote Revelation.  I have had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land and a part of Paul’s missionary/church planting stops before, and I am conscious from other visits that it takes a good while (months and even years) to fully unpack insights from such explorations.  Yet I feel compelled to comment on one of the foundational insights I received.

In truth, that insight is not new at all. It is rather a radical re-emphasis (an exclamation point if you will) of a truth we know full well.  “Jesus is Lord.”  This seminal, creedal affirmation clung to with passionate intensity by the earliest Christians (check out Philippians 2:1-11) hit me once again with tidal wave intensity as we stood by the jail where Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi  – a small dark depressing hovel.  (And yet Paul and Silas offered praise and prayer; check out Acts 16:23-25.)

This truth was hammered home in the hill-top kingdom of Pergamum. Standing at the place “where Satan’s throne is” (Revelation 2:13) with Trajan’s great temple of emperor worship looming above them and the altar of Zeus spread out below them (scholars argue which is “Satan’s Throne”), they didn’t talk about the church or justice or missions.  Their first order of concern was to lift up Christ.  “You are holding on to my name and you didn’t break faith with me [i.e. Christ Jesus]” (Revelation 2:13).

The witness of Christianity’s core creedal affirmation embraced my soul again standing on Mars Hill in Athens. Soaring majestically above and to the right was the Parthenon.  This great citadel of Athena and ancient Greek deities (plus a set aside temple for Caesar Augustus, also considered a god) is still awe inspiring 2,000 years later.  Gazing out from Mars Hill when I looked down, I saw the agora, the market place where Socrates taught and Plato argued.  The sheer courage and incredible depth of commitment exhibited by Paul humbles the most self-righteously ardent among us.  You can read about it yourself in Acts 17.  Incredibly, Paul didn’t argue about the importance of the church or the need to serve others.  He didn’t trumpet the conviviality of Christian fellowship or argue for good moral teaching.  He offered the good news of a once unknown god now known in the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.  He shared a divine embrace from the risen Christ for all people – “God isn’t far away from any of us” (Acts 17:27; read the entire story in Acts 17:16-34).

In every case the foundational offering is Christ. He is not one concern among many.  He isn’t a “first order concerned” offered alongside other important concerns.  Jesus Christ is the first order concern.  The church, justice, fellowship, mission, service, etc. are all important, but there are second order concerns.  They are built on the solid rock of Christ.  Christ and Christ alone is the one who speaks of freedom for the imprisoned, holiness when battered by the presence of Satan’s throne, and truth to an intellectually starving culture.  Great hymns of faith come too – “The Church’s One Foundation” and “In Christ Alone.”

In our present day church and modern witness of Christianity, we are so tempted to begin with second order concerns. I recall with embarrassment a conversation a few years ago with a non-believing cousin and her spouse which focused on the church, its faults and failures, but never really offered Christ.  They were interested church drop-outs.  They knew much about the church and missions and justice, etc. They didn’t know Christ.  I answered their questions and sought to both defend the church and confess her faults and failures.  I shared the institution at its best.  Tragically, I failed to offer Christ.

I have discovered a similar witness all across the Conference I serve and indeed spread far and wide across the shrinking ruins of American Christendom. Culturally we have lived with an assumption that people know Christ or at least know about Christ.  Today many do not even know about Christ, let alone know Christ.  I believe God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is calling us back to our first order witness.  We need more than just information about Christ.  We need to offer the person of Christ … a vibrant living life changing relationship of love and grace divine.  Jesus is Lord indeed!

 

Reporting From the Mission Field

There a many great avenues of ministry taking place in the Central Texas Conference and around the larger church. One of them lies in new church development. It is important to remember that every church was at one point in its life a new church.

Recently I met with our New Church Start District. The diversity was astonishing! There were eight developments that are a part of our New Church Start District. One is Korean; another is predominantly African American; and a third is reaching out to a predominantly Hispanic mission field. Two are extensions of parenting church situations. Two others are proposed “mergers” that would result in radically new and different churches.

Taken as a whole, there are a variety of experiments going on that reach deep into unconverted, unchurched and untapped mission fields. The very nature of the work is exploratory. It is also exciting with the connotations of a roller-coaster ride. The Holy Spirit is wildly at work in ways we only dimly understand. It is our call to be open – faithfully and courageously obedient to the Spirit’s claim upon us.

In another setting, I learned of some of the initial fruit of our strong emphasis in upgrading campus ministry and specifically Wesley Foundations. This ministry takes time to develop and mature, but it is making a tangible difference in the life of the Conference. Rev. Joseph Nader, CTC Coordinator of Campus Ministries, reports that we now have:

  • “2 students serving at Arborlawn UMC in the youth group.
  • 4 students serving at FUMC Mansfield in the youth group.
  • 1 student serving at Richland Hills UMC in the children’s ministry.
  • 2 students serving at the UTA Wesley (1 of them a repeat…also serving at Mansfield).”

He concludes, “Really [we have] a total of 8 students serving in a ministry designed to help them discern a call, and then equip them for moving forward in ministry. Additionally it is worth noting that Rev. Megan Davidson who was Director of the Wesley Foundation at TCU is moving on to be Chaplain at Southwestern University. Rev. Melissa Turkett is the new (as of Annual Conference) Wesley Foundation Director at Baylor University. Melissa is a graduate of the Wesley Foundation of UTA. In her last year at Perkins School of Theology, Melissa served her internship at the UTA Wesley Foundation.”

On a very different subject, I had the privilege of attending the Board meeting for Texas Wesleyan University (TWU) last week. TWU is moving forward in a number of impressive ways. We are looking forward to moving the Conference offices to TWU. It was reported at the Board meeting that the new Conference Center building should be completed this coming summer.

As we move towards Thanksgiving, I hope that we all will remember to give thanks by offering out of our bounty to those desperately in need. Here in the Central Texas Conference I especially want to remind us of our traditional “Thanksliving Offering.”

The Conference news notes that: “The 2014 Thanksliving Offering, generally received in the month of November, will go to energize and equip local church ministries with persons experiencing food insecurity in their communities. The Thanksliving Special Day Offering (Remittance Fund #3968) can be sent to the CTC Service Center online or by mailing a check.”

The Holy Spirit is moving in our midst, and we are blessed to be a part of a great work of the Lord. In countless numbers of ways, some large and impressive others small and unnoticed, the Kingdom of God is being constructed through a multitude of risk-taking acts of faithfulness. We truly have reason to rejoice and be thankful!

Joy in the Journey

As we look together at intentional faith development, there is joy in the journey – a deep seated peace and happiness that transcends even tragedy. This was at least part of what John Wesley was pointing toward in his understanding of the doctrine of perfection. Joy is at the core of holiness of heart and life.

There is a story which sticks with me from Philip Yancey’s marvelous book Where is God When It Hurts? Yancey writes of being surprised by happiness [deep seated joy]. He interviews and examines the lives of those we might call famous or stars and comments, “these ‘idols’ are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met” (Philip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?, p. 57). Then he reflects on those who might rightly be called “servants.”  Then he comments:  “I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to uphold them as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But now, as I reflect on those two groups, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours and no applause, ‘wasting’ their talents among the poor and uneducated. But somehow, in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the peace that is not of this world” (Philip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?, p. 57).

Once again we rediscover the truth of Jesus’ teaching. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

I heard someone say once in a sermon that “great living comes in serving.”  There is a truth here that gets at the essence of Methodism’s understanding of holiness of heart and life. Many love to quote St. Irenaeus, “the glory of God is man fully alive.”  What is missing is the full citation from this great saint. He continued, “The life of man is the vision of God.”  Intentional faith development is our moving on to perfect in this life through the very vision and works of the Lord. Literally and factually speaking, there is joy in the journey.

Both in Scripture and in the words of Jesus we are given an invitation to celebrate the joy, to enter into the discipline of joy. Sounds odd, doesn’t it, to combine those two words – discipline and joy?  Yet as a matter of faithful living they go together. Consider the powerful example that comes to us from the eighth chapter of the book of Nehemiah.

Let me set the context for you. The book of Nehemiah comes at the point in which the Hebrew people have returned to Jerusalem from exile. They have seen their nation destroyed. The Holy Temple where God is said to dwell is in ruins. They had been driven from their homes and lived in foreign lands as, at best, second class citizens. Now at last they return home. If Hollywood were to film the scene that opens before us in the eighth chapter, the picture would pan across a sad heart-wrenching tableau.

As the chapter opens, the Law of Moses is read to them. After living through devastation, they encounter again the Holy Scriptures in a scene of covenant renewal. They weep in verse nine because they understand how far short of God’s law they have fallen. These are a people who ought to be joyless but instead, as the word of God comes to them afresh, Nehemiah speaks for the Lord. “Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength’” (Nehemiah 8:10).

Did you catch the focus in the last part of that verse?  “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” God is telling them – don’t focus on the human failure; focus on God’s graciousness; focus on what God has done, is doing, and will do. In the tumult of our time those are words we need to hear.

Intentional faith develop leads to joy in the journey. The fruit of such joy is the “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ”  (Philippians 4:7, KJV).

Such is the ultimate aim of intentional faith development: a growing maturity in Christ that results in crazy love for God and others, immense joy in service to all, deep peace that passes understanding and true discipleship in daily walk with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. What more could anyone want from life?!

Recently I had the privilege of attending a Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF) Board meeting. At the meeting we focused on the issue of what it means to “make disciples.”  Among a number of outstanding and provocative presentations Dr. Clayton Oliphant & Rev. Debra Hobbs Mason from First UMC, Richardson, Texas shared the following contrast (which I use with permission).

Traditional Approach to Discipleship:

  • more passive than active
  • more complex than simple
  • more accidental than intentional
  • more subjective than quantifiable

New Approach

  • more active than passive
  • more simple than complex
  • more intentional than accidental
  • more quantifiable than subjective

So I invite the reader, lay or clergy, to reflect on the path to discipleship in your community of faith. Have your really focused on “making disciples” – disciplined committed followers of Jesus Christ?  Do you have a clear path that members and visitors alike can readily grasp and comprehend?  Does your path to discipleship engage in critical behavioral change?  Are demons faced and confessed with forward movement in holiness of heart and life (moving on to perfection)?  Is there joy in the journey and the fruit of peace which passes all understanding?