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For All the Saints: Bob, Blessing and Baptism

Today, Thursday, September 11, 2014, I went to the funeral service for one of saints of the Central Texas Conference, Robert H. Briles, Sr., “Bob.”  Such occasions always lead me to reflect on life; its meaning and fragility.  Bob went from being a young boy raised on a farm near Milford, Texas to being a soldier in combat in Korea to a committed pastor pouring his life out in service to Christ and His church. Those leading the service spoke with eloquence but the greater eloquence was Bob’s life and witness.

The great words of the hymn For All the Saints echoed through me:

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Driving back from First UMC in Weatherford over to White’s Chapel for the continuation of the High Octane Preaching Class, I could not help but reflect on the juxtaposition of celebrating the resurrection life of a saint like Bob Briles and the rise of a new generation of preachers as represented in the High Octane Preaching Class.  In the realm of the Lord’s kingdom building rule, together we are all a part of the ongoing never-ending witness to Christ’s rule and reign.

This coming Sunday I will participate in another act of worship which extends that great cause of our Lord.  I will be out at Newcastle United Methodist Church and have the joy of sharing in the baptism of Josiah Ray.

The three actions connect in my mind à from the service of Death and Resurrection for Bob Briles, a saint of the church to à the blessing of teaching the High Octane Preaching Class with John McKellar to à the celebration of Christian baptism with the Ray’s and the faithful of Newcastle UMC.  Bob … blessing … baptism; all point to the truth that we are enlisted together in a great cause, the cause of Christ.

It is the words of a later verse of For All the Saints that lingers deep in my being:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

As I drive along, I think I can hear the hymn and words echoing in my life.  They are still on my ear as a gift from God.  Bob, blessing, and baptism; they all connect with the work of God’s grace through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  In the midst of all the activities that engage us, I celebrate being a part of the cause of Christ!

On another critical subject, we received a letter from Bishop Eduard Khegay of the Eurasia Episcopal Area which includes Russia and Ukraine.  He writes in part, “The United Methodist Church in Ukraine continues its ministry in the time of war, suffering and much uncertainty   in   the   country.   We   have   two   churches   in   the   Eastern   Ukraine   -­‐    in   Lugansk   and Krasnoarmeisk near Donetsk. The bombing of Lugansk was felt by many of our United Methodist people. One bomb fell in the garden of the neighboring house next to our church building. The neighbor suffered and the windows of our church was broken. The congregation in Lugansk which consists of 65 people became refugees and left the city. Only three elderly members of Lugansk UMC decided to stay in the city. 10 members of Lugansk UMC moved to Chelyabinsk region where they are given shelter and small job to survive. I am grateful to our UMC in Satka (Chelyabinsk region, Russia) who helps this group of 10 physically and spiritually. Especially I am grateful to this group of 10 who want  to  start  a  new  church  in  the  midst  of  difficult  situation.  They find comfort in God and in fellowship with our brothers and sisters from Satka.”

Bishop Khegay continued, “Our UMC in Eurasia is very grateful to UMCOR for providing help to Ukrainian refugees in Sochi region and to members of Lugansk UMC who became refugees (documented and undocumented) within Ukraine and Russia. Our members of UMC in Sochi minister to refugees from Ukraine who come to Sochi region in the Southern Russia. ….”

Bishop Khegay closes, “Rev. John Calhoon, GBGM missionary, and Rev. Vladimir Khabriko coordinate our ministries in Kiev, Ukraine helping refugees from Crimea. Again, we are grateful to UMCOR for providing help so quickly when so many people are now in need of food and shelter.  As people called Methodists we move as the Spirit moves us to be where suffering people are, to comfort those who need help, to bring food and water, and to start new churches as God leads us. Thank you for your prayers and support!”

I ask that we keep the people of Ukraine and Russian in our prayers and especially Bishop Khegay and the United Methodists of that embattle region of the world.

Reflections on the Evil One

Back in my seminary days one of the books that we read for our class on “Methodist History and Doctrine” (taught by the great theologian Albert Outler) was Organizing to Beat the Devil by Charles Ferguson.  The lead image in the book is intriguing.  Launching off of the classic Methodist vision for America – “to reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land” – Methodists organized to “beat the devil.”  Much as we revere the vision, it is the latter part of the statement that we tend to ignore.  We are organized not just to advance the kingdom God, enact evangelism, engage in justice and mercy ministries, etc.  We are organized to “beat the devil.”

Such a phrasing implies as a first order concern that there is in fact a devil to beat!  At a meeting with the District Superintendents and Lay Leader about a month ago, I shared a devotional based on Philippians 4:4-8.  In part the passage reads, “Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5-7).  In the midst of ensuing conversation, I spoke about how hard it was to live such a profoundly beautiful passage wrapped in the controversies of our day and time.  I don’t remember my exact words, but I commented something to the effect that there were days when it seemed like the devil was stalking our best efforts.

A district superintendent interjected with a question.  “Bishop, do you believe in spiritual warfare?”  (I am not sure I ever remember being asked that question before!)  I replied that I had come to believe that there was such a thing as spiritual warfare.  What ensued was one of the liveliest and most inquiringly open discussions I have engaged in for a long time.  Most of us (including myself and it actually may have been all of us) noted that we had not been taught such a concept in our seminary training but that now, over the years, virtually all of us have come to some belief (we had varying opinions) in the presence of evil, the personification of the devil, and the reality of spiritual warfare.

I noted for the group the phasing that is in our official liturgy on membership vows.  “On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?  Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”  (“Baptismal Covenant II”, The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 40).

I had wrongly rejected a doctrine of evil and the devil (a personification of evil) because of a tendency to use the devil as an excuse for a failure of personal responsibility.  Those close to me in age may remember a comedian named Flip Wilson who, when he did something he shouldn’t have, always blamed the devil with the phrase “the devil made me do it.”  I am not sure the devil can “make” me (or anyone!) do anything.  I am thoroughly Wesleyan and believe deeply in a doctrine of free will.  Such conviction does not however negate spiritual warfare, temptation (just look at Luke 4:1-12), or trials (testing).  Spiritual warfare is real.  We are currently engaged on that battlefield whether we acknowledge it or not.

One of the fascinating culture shifts taking place in our age is the move from an excessively rationalistic understanding of reality (modernism) to an understanding of reality that is more open to subjective input that is often labeled “spiritual” (post-modernism).  [An important sidebar: just because something is “spiritual” doesn’t mean it is Christian.]  There is much for me (us?) to ponder here.  The waning of the enlightenment intellectual foundation has delivered us culturally to an untenable post-modernism with no clear understanding of truth as an anchor.  It is past time to theologically investigate and rediscover hidden parts of historic Christian orthodoxy.  Evil is real.  The devil (however we may understand the term) is present.  Human agency (responsibility) cannot be swept away.  Divine authority and revealed truth (including a full blown doctrine of revelation) needs desperately to be re-appropriated.

“Dear friends, don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a humanis from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world. You are from God, little children, and you have defeated these people because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:1-4).

We Methodists were organized to beat the devil.

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.”

The Vital Connection of Vision and Obedience

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

The writer of Proverbs clearly ties vision to obedience.  The two go together.  It is almost as if Proverbs previews the Great Commission of Christ.  “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matthew 28:16-20, CEB).  Obedience without vision is aimless and Vision without obedience is empty.

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

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

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

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

 

CORE STRATEGIES: Extravagant Generosity

The incident stands clear in my mind.  It was mid-December of my first year at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio.  Jim (I’ve changed the name and some parts of this story but NOT the essence of the tale to protect anonymity) called and asked for an appointment.  Later that day he sat across the desk from me and slid a piece of paper over to me.  It was a five figure amount of money (the sum $23,000 and change sticks in my mind but I’m not exactly sure).  Puzzled I looked at him.  “That’s one tenth of our share of the business profit for this year,” he said.  “Sue and I always tithe on our profit.  What would you like the money put to?”

I knew their giving pattern.  They already gave over a tithe (10%) on their combined salaries.  While far from the wealthiest in the congregation, they were among the largest givers year in and year out.  “I don’t understand,” I stammered.  “You already tithe.”

Politely he responded as if stating the obvious.  “Of course, but we also tithe on our bonuses.”  Such is a picture of our last but far from least Conference core strategy – extravagant generosity.

Most readers will recognize extravagant generosity as one of the five practices of fruitful congregations.  Others will note its reflection of the original core practices of the Methodist Movement under John Wesley. (“Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”)  Still others will make the biblical connection to the earliest church found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 4:32-37).

Bishop Robert Schnase writes in The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, “First-century Christina communities, the Methodists of the 1700s, faith mentors, and models of Christian living today – all have discovered a truth as sure as gravity, that generosity enlarges the soul, realigns priorities, connects people to the Body of Christ, and strengthens congregations to fulfill Christ’s ministries. Giving reflects the nature of God. Growing in the grace of giving is part of the Christian journey of faith, a response Christian disciples offer to God’s call to make a difference in the world …. People who give generously to the church do so because they genuinely desire to make a positive difference for the purposes of Christ and because they want to align their lives with higher purposes” (pp. 106-107).

To this high and holy purpose we will seek to work as a Conference.  Two immediate practical examples of this strategy come to mind.  First: recently we brought Dr. Clif Christopher to the Central Texas Conference to lead a workshop on stewardship for both clergy and lay leaders.  (I commend his writing including most recently Rich Church Poor Church: Keys to Effective Financial Ministry and commend Joe Park as well as other members of the Horizons Stewardship team.)

Second: we are actively looking for a part-time development officer for the Central Texas Conference.  This position has already been approved by the Core Leadership Team and was reported at the last gathering of the Central Texas Conference.

Standing strong behind this activity is a Conference that is committed to extravagant generosity.  This is demonstrated in our mission response to those who are hungry, hurting and homeless (whether it be physically, spiritually, or psychologically – or some combination of the three!).  It is demonstrated by a long – decades long! – Conference culture that expects from both churches and clergy full faithfulness in paying apportionments.

Together we are living the biblical dream of Acts 4!  I am proud to be the bishop of the Central Texas Conference.

CORE STRATEGIES: Accountability

I was fascinated by the leadership advice offered in comment about his own organization, The Pittsburg Steelers of the National Football League. Head Coach Mike Tomlin commented, “We seek to have a no excuse culture.” The comment came back in 2009 when, under Tomlin’s leadership, the Steelers won the Super Bowl (making him the youngest coach ever to win the Super Bowl and earing him the NFL’s 2008 Coach of the Year award). Today the Steelers are 0-4. However with such a commitment to excellence in accountability, they will get better. (For the record, I am not a Steeler fan!)

I am a fan of excellence in ministry. I believe this is a way we honor Christ and fulfill our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Bishop Robert Schnase writes about the importance of excellence in his book The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. Greg Jones (former Dean of Duke Divinity School) and Kevin Armstong wrote a provocative book entitled Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry. The very concept of excellence when attached to faithfulness in ministry harkens back to honoring Christ with our best. The more excellent way of which Scripture speaks is anchored in love (I Corinthians 12:31). A straight line runs from excellence to fruitfulness to faithfulness.

The notion of disciplined accountability was built into the original equation of early Methodists’ understanding of faithfulness and fruitfulness. Richard Heitzenrater in his marvelous history Wesley and the People Called Methodists reflects on the growing Methodist movement and its penchant for accountability (see especially chapter 4 “Consolidation of the Movement”). It is no mistake that the title for our book of Church law is The Discipline.

Most of us can readily agree with the concept of accountability as a reflection of the excellent way of faithfulness and fruitfulness in ministry. It when we come to the particulars that we choke. We know that metrics (measurement) is needed and yet we also know that any standard of measurement by itself is incomplete. Thus it is important to ask “how many people attend worship” yet this alone is not a faithful determiner of the biblical fruitfulness of a congregations’ (or pastors’) ministry.

Furthermore a part of our struggle in adopting accountability as a core strategy lies not just with the question of metrics but also with our tendency to use measurement to apply blame rather than seeking to learn and develop. Put different, we tend to (falsely!) use the concept of accountability as a punishment first and only later ask, “What is the ‘learning’ we might gain from this outcome (fruitfulness) or lack thereof?” Our defensiveness in learning is a crippling form of sin. So, too, is our tendency to blame and look for a scapegoat (a biblical concept – read the story of Abraham and Isaac – Christ came to put an end too!).

I am convinced that accountability is a key strategy we must employ if we are to be faithful. But we must engage in accountability as a strategy aimed at learning and not blaming! Accountability is about faithfulness and fruitfulness. The two biblically go together. We need to be a no excuse culture that is committed to faithfulness and fruitfulness in learning and application.

[For in-depth learning about the issues related to applying “metrics,” I commend to the reader a series of monographs that Dr. Gil Rendle is publishing online through the Texas Methodist Foundation. You may find them at http://www.tmf-fdn.org/learning-transformation/resources-conversations/written-materials/]

CORE STRATEGIES: Ministry With The Poor

A critical central core strategy of the Central Texas Conference comes straight from the Four Focus Areas of the United Methodist Church – ministry with the poor.  Two quotes come to mind.  The first grows from the soil of Methodism in its original form:

1.  “It is to these Samaritans, those who live outside the palladium of property and privilege, that the Methodist mission is directed. Life is already in the condition of the “spiritual.” Life is the arena of the Spirit. To go deeper into life is to go deeper into the life of the Spirit. Miss J.C. March wrote to John Wesley and asked how best to mature her faith. John answered with an elaboration of prevenient grace: ‘Go see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels. Take up your cross, woman!.… Jesus went before you, and will go with you. Put off the gentlewoman; you bear a higher character. You are an heir of God!’ When Jesus is Lord, our lords become the poor, the sick, the hungry, the hurting” (The Greatest Story Never Told by Leonard Sweet, pg. 86).

Reflect deeply on the truth that Wesley teaches.  To go deeper into a mature faith involves us going to and being with the poor.  Wesley harkens back to the great teaching of Christ in Matthew 25 (“to the least of these my brothers and sisters”) in his phrase, “Jesus went before you.”

The second quote comes from a young millennial Christian leader named Shane Claiborne passed on to me by Dr. Elaine Heath (Professor of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology):

 2.  “The problem with most American middle class Christians, according to Claiborne, is not ignorance of poverty, but absence of relationships with the poor. ‘I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor’”  (From Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community, by Elaine A. Heath and Scott T. Kisker, pg. 74).

Ponder fully the phrase “the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”  Claiborne’s insight fits nicely with the profound and profoundly disturbing work of a secular sociologist Charles Murray (see his book Coming Apart).  Murray notes that often those making policy for the poor really have very little contact with those they seek to help.  This is the flaw in well intended ministry for the poor.  The transforming element of relationship is missing.

The operative word for this strategy both for the Central Texas Conference and the larger United Methodist Church is “with” as in ministry with the poor.  Part of what makes mission trips (whether they are across the street or across the world) so powerfully life changing for the missioner (the one missionally offering) is the personal hands on engagement.  The work of mission teams and local service ministry is literally life transforming for all involved.  This was a cardinal insight of Wesley and the early Methodist.  Today, our mission trips are re-appropriating this great insight.  Thus we together in ministry with the poor live out our core value of being missional – that is, engaged in ministries of love, justice and mercy.

CORE STRATEGIES: Wesleyan Spirituality and Theology

My recent participation in the 13th Oxford Institute for Wesley Studies has given me much reason to pause and reflect on the importance of our Wesleyan essence. With this blog I am beginning a series of blogs on core strategies of the Central Texas Conference. These are the strategies designed to energize and equip local churches to carry out their mission, namely to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

John Wesley famously wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786). Wesley both assumed and argued for the essential importance of doctrine. His genius is the way doctrine is combined with spirit and discipline. Such a connection is a reflection of what early Methodists called “primitive Christianity.” They reached back to the first expression of the Christian faith found in the book of The Acts of the Apostles as well as the writings of Paul and the Gospels to grasp again at what was essential and central to the Christian movement. Among a number of distinctive elements the Methodist movement brought back to the fore was the embodiment of theology in spirit and discipline. Properly understood for Methodists was the notion that theology – core doctrine – was not an idle aside but a central expression of the faith to be lived out or embodied.

All of this seems fairly obvious at first glance; yet, the scene on the North American mission field has largely tried to divorce orthodoxy from orthopraxy; a vital set of core teachings, beliefs, and convictions has been separated from core practices. Wesley’s fear that we should exist as a “dead sect, having the form of religion without the power” has now largely become the case in the mission field called North America. We have held fast to neither the doctrine and spirit nor the discipline on which we first set out. Far from a casual academic exercise, recovery of a core orthodoxy at the heart of our teaching and preaching is central to any faithful future for the Methodist movement in North America. One shudders in recalling the casual comment of a church staff person to her pastor, “We’re Methodists; we can believe whatever we want, can’t we?” No, we can’t. We have to reclaim the past for the future if that future is to be faithful and in any sense enduring.

Yoked with a theologically core orthodoxy must be a deep spirituality. Here is a simple test. How much time have you spent in prayer and quiet with the Lord this day? How much time have you spent actively seeking the Lord’s will and guidance? Holiness of heart and life was and is at the essence, the essential core, of Methodism. Our understanding of holiness has always had both personal and social dimensions. It is anchored in the “still more excellent way” of I Corinthians 13, the way of love. It gains its impetus from time spent with the Lord of love and is lived out in justice and mercy for all humanity. All really means all! Biblically speaking, Wesleyan spirituality is an expression of the great commandment of Christ to love God and love our neighbor, every accessible human being we may reach!

I am convinced that reclaiming a vibrant and robust core orthodoxy for the United Methodist Church in North America is at the center of our currently theological agenda and crucial to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Likewise, so too is the embrace, the energizing, which comes from a deep Wesleyan spirituality built on the foundation of a daily walk with Christ. My essential claim is that we need to move back to the past in order to reclaim a faithful future as a Methodist movement for the greater Christian movement and the Church Universal. The witness of the original Wesleyan movement offers a vibrant guide today in its full orthodox enthusiasm. God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is calling us to a new future anchored in that past.

 

A Drop in the Bucket

bucketI can’t take claim for the title of this blog.  Rather, I write to lift up and celebrate the ministry of one of our adult Sunday School Classes.  The Contemporary Forum class of First United Methodist Church in Georgetown, Texas is living the scriptural command of James.  “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. . . . But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do” (James 1:22-25).

The Contemporary Forum class joined in partnership with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), one of the truly great ministries of the United Methodist Church.  They raised $7,000 (which was then matched by UMCOR) to build a sustainable fresh water well in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

An article on the UMCOR Website reports: “For just 50 people—most of them retired folks on fixed incomes—this goal seemed impossible at first. It would be an “over-and-above commitment,” because most members already tithed. They took two weeks to pray about it. And then, not knowing where the money would come from, they voted almost unanimously to accept the challenge.  Instead of taking a special offering or fund raising through labor-intensive projects, the class decided to spread their giving out over a period of ten months and give through sacrificial disciplines. For example, some members gave the cost of their water bill each month. Some gave the same amount that they spent on bottled water. Others gave a portion of the cost of each meal they ate out.”  (http://www.umcor.org/UMCOR/Resources/News-Stories/2013/July/0725-A-Drop-in-the-Bucket)

In my life I take the blessing of fresh drinking water for granted.  In the lives of the recipients of this gift, those who live in the Congo, such is not always the case.  Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25 that when we have done it for the least of these, “my brothers and sisters,” we have done it to him.  We speak of our mission as “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  This is an example of that mission lived out both in disciple making and transformation.  I give thanks to God for the faithfulness of this class and for my friend and colleague Bishop Joe Wilson (retired) who shares in leadership with them.

By the way, the UMCOR website notes:  “Regular ‘drop in the bucket’ sacrifices have a lot of power. UMCOR’s entire administrative budget comes from One Great Hour of Sharing, and most of its programs are funded by grants and special offerings.” How much more could we do if we followed the Contemporary Forum’s example and gave sacrificially?  “When faith is applied to a need,” Bishop Wilson says, “miracles are always possible.”  You can support UMCOR’s Water and Sanitation projects with a donation to Advance #3020600, and you can also support UMCOR Health ministry and programs through Advance #3020622. If you’re interested in setting up a regular donation, email umcor@umcor.org or call 1-800-554-8583.

Mission, Movement, and Church

At our Cabinet retreat Professor Ted Campbell offered some fascinating insight on the relationship between being a religious movement and an established church.  Dr. Campbell reminded us that the original mission of the Methodist movement from the General Minutes was (is?): “Not to form any new sect; but to reform the nations, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”  At the 1784 Christmas Conference establishing the Methodist Episcopal Church in America the phrase was changed slightly.  “To reform the Continent, and to spread scripture Holiness over these Lands.”

He (Professor Campbell) shared that religious movements typically 1) have a strong, cohesive sense of distinctive vocation or mission typically enunciated by charismatic leaders, often oriented around reform of existing religious institutions; 2) have separate structures from those existing religious institutions (not necessarily opposed to them, but at least in addition to them) designed to fulfill the group’s calling or mission; 3) exhibit fluidity, mobility, “liability” (by
liability he wasn’t referring to the laity  but the ability to be molded to fit situations); and 4) they are not tied to existing, static structures (a typically “outward and visible” sign” of a religious movement according to Dr. Campbell was  “their lack of significant [valuable] property.)”

There is more, much more to his fascinating contrast of movements and the established church, but I found myself stuck on the concept of having a strong and distinctive sense of their mission.  I heard echoes of Tom Locke’s (President of the Texas Methodist Foundation) phrase that he was “sold out on the concept of purpose” or mission.  I’m sold out on mission or purpose.  The Conference is to “energize and equip churches.”  Churches are to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

To movement and mission add the concept of established church as a positive (not a negative!).  Campbell pointed out how quickly an established ecclesiastical structure was added to the missional movement of early Methodism in America.  The established structure involved (involves) ordained ministers, the Superintendency (bishops and presiding elders/DS), and the Sunday Service (a regular style of worship – added as early as 1792).  The constitution with restrictive rules and a delegated general conference was added in 1808.

We (the United Methodist Church) are a mixed culture of movement and church.  The crucial issue is to keep the mission (in Locke’s term “purpose”) at the forefront.  So convicted of this truth were the early Methodists that the early Discipline ruled out “fine structures.” Francis Asbury was against having steeples.  The mission took precedent over property!

One of our core strategies is to engage and develop Wesleyan spirituality and theology.  We need to go back to the future.  We are (and should be!) a mix of movement and church focused on mission.

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