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I SAW GOD

On Friday night our CTCYM Community Living Center shared in a moving, humorous and thought provoking worship service.  Every team came forward & each CTCYMer was invited to share.  As if in a cascading litany, young person after young person spoke the phrase “I saw God” or “I saw God’s love.” In a manner at once casual and deeply reflective, they were reporting on a Matthew 25 experience. “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me’  (Matt 25:40).

I saw God on a ladder; I saw God holding a paint brush; I saw God lying under a floor pounding in floor joists; I saw God in a client.  The list goes on and on.  I saw God or saw God’s love in action – working in nursing homes, building wheel chair ramps, painting, washing windows, cleaning up, washing flea infested dogs, mowing the yard, helping a homeless guy walking by, putting in a new storm door, doing new things we’d never done before, cooking.  I saw God or saw God’s love in relationships with each other, with clients, with new friends.  One of the adults spoke of “Angels dropped out of a white van” (a reference to our transportation).

This isn’t heresy. This is not a mistaken identification of CTCYMers as God.  We are not God, merely the Lord’s children.  Rather it is an understanding of God in action with us, around us and through us.  It is a living witness to Jesus keeping his promise of Matthew 28:20.  “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”  Both seasoned adults and young persons share a story of singing for a “client” who is in hospice Maybe one of the youth summarized it best when he opened his remarks, “I saw God in so many places it’s hard to pick one to talk about.”

I couldn’t help but think again of the prayer of Aelred of Rievaulx (circa 1147-1167 A. D., and popularized in the musical Godspell): “To know Him more clearly; to love Him more dearly; to follow Him more nearly.”  This, I think, was and is the great and holy project of CTCYM.  I was privileged to share in the mission.

RAMPING UP IN ARKANSAS

The words lay sterile on the page in the little read Book of Resolutions: “The United Methodist Church believes God’s love is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty.  We cannot be just observers.  So we care enough about people’s lives to risk interpreting God’s love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex” (pg. 27). Behind the seeming academic dryness lies the active engaging godly love exemplified by CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission).

Monday I worked as a part of Team 1 building a ramp. Tuesday morning left CTCYM for two days of a national meeting on building vital congregations in the United Methodist Church held at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary just outside Chicago.  When I returned the initial ramp was finished!  Joining up with Team 4, another ramp much longer in size at a second location was nearing completion.  (The home owner is in a rehabilitation hospital and one of the medical conditions for coming home is a wheel chair ramp.). The team leaders had to make the youth quit on time.  They (the Youth) wanted to work straight through closing time.

There are numerous reasons for such dedication.  High among them is, I believe, the three way connection between the CTCYMers, the client (person being helped), and God.  Things are ramped up (pun quite intentional) because we are “not just observers” but connected, united.  The trinitarian model is not accidental.  It reflects the reality of God who took flesh, risked and reached out in love, justice and mercy.

By the time you read this we will have finished ramp #2! CTCYMers know how to ramp up for the Lord!

Grounded in Discipline

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

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

“1. Immersed in Scripture (Instead of Entertained)

2. Observing the Sabbath (Instead of Being Productive)

3. Fasting for Simplicity (Instead of Consuming)

4. Choosing Embodiment (Instead of Being Divided)

5. Postured by Prayer (Instead of Power)”

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

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

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

Remember the Future

At recent meetings with other SCJ bishops as we looked forward to General Conference, Bishop Robert Schnase called our attention to agenda for the first (“general”) conference of preachers under John Wesley.  He noted a threefold purpose for such holy conferencing.  “The Methodists conferred on ‘1. What to teach, 2. How to teach, and 3. What to do, that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.’”

It is easy to get lost in the thicket of emotional issues facing the church: war & peace, sexual orientation & practice, restricting & Call to Action, etc.  In an earlier blog I called for an emphasis in prayer-filled and Holy Spirit-oriented preparation.  It is important, vitally important, not to lose sight of what matters most, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ultimately Conference is about mission and ministry; about guiding and equipping the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Amid all the noise, we need to keep the main thing the main thing!

The March 22nd Quick Notes highlights an important resource which I commend to you strongly.  “Bishop Robert Schnase’s “Remember the Future: 30 Days of Preparation,” blog series begins [March 26].  The series of daily reflections in preparation for General Conference 2012 will be a blend of daily topics from leadership and institutional challenges to Wesleyan beliefs and more. About eight of the blogs through the series will have video clips included; all will include scripture and additional reading recommendations for those who want to know more. Go to ministrymatters.com to sign-up, read a description of the series and an introductory blog from Robert Schnase.

The Ministry of Chaplains at Harris Methodist (THR)

The following is a note passed on to me by Senior Chaplain Eric Smith of THR – Harris Methodist Hospitals and used with permission.  May you look back with blessing on the past and forward with joy to the future.  Christ is with us!  -Bishop Mike Lowry

A Blessing for Heroes in Green

Still dark and cold outside, but already the “good guys in green” shuffle in for another 12-hour day.  These are the men and women who work in surgery at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth.  Ahead of them is a day of relieving suffering and saving lives of people whom they may never have a conversation.  These dedicated professionals will again walk the thin line between moving as quickly as possible and working as close to perfection as they can.  They perform this feat on a daily basis without a net.  They will do it on this particular Tuesday in December and again on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, early in the morning and in the deepest hours of night.

But for just a few moments, they will pause to receive a blessing, a blessing of the hands.  This is a ritual provided to employees throughout the Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospitals by your appointed Chaplains.  Warm water representing the Source of life and healing, the loving God, is poured over each staff member’s hands.  A prayer is spoken, asking God to bless these hands in their important work of caring for the sick and wounded, asking God to fill these hearts with compassion and purpose.  The Chaplains offer words of encouragement.  They share the appreciative words of post-operative patients that these caregivers rarely get to hear.

Twenty-five heroes in green silently await their turns.  Their hands are large and small, calloused and smooth.  Most respond with a quiet, “Thank you.”  A few tears are shed.  Each of them exits the room and walks into another busy day doing their very best to restore people to health.  They will do so with blessed hands.

Chaplain Timothy Madison
December 13, 2011

Travels with John

Since last Thursday I have been on an EO (Educational Opportunities) Wesleyan Heritage tour.  We have been visiting the hallowed sites of Wesley’s England. 

Our initial stop in London was at the great St. Paul’s Cathedral.  From there we went to Aldersgate Street where Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed” by a sense of assurance of God’s salvation in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  (“I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”)  The italics emphasis is in the original (written by Wesley himself in his journal.  While scholars debate whether this could be properly called a conversion, one thing is certain: at Aldersgate the head and the heart came together in a profound experience of grace that propelled Wesley to action.  Wesley saw the final verdict on the Aldersgate experience as lived out in love toward God and neighbor in need.  Heitzenrater writes: “Real test, however, of the authenticity of this experience was to be found, not in terms of whether or not he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed,’ but whether or not the expected fruits of faith and assurance … would be in evidence: freedom from sin, doubt and fear, and the fullness of peace, love, and joy in the Holy Ghost (otherwise called ‘holiness and happiness’)” (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, p. 80).

Our Sunday found us in Epworth where John and Charles Wesley were raised worshipping at Wesley Memorial Church and visiting the rectory where they lived as children.  Later in life, John was denied permission to preach in the church because of his “enthusiasm” and so instead preached from atop his father’s grave in the cemetery outside the church.  A throng listened with rapt attention as he shared the good news of God’s love, grace, and righteousness in Christ.  Once again the soaring history provided a marked contrast.  At our worship, the congregations (about 30 in number – which our group of 24 almost doubled) were, with 3 exceptions, all well on the upper side of 60.

A Wesleyan movement that had begun with a strong connection to regular people has lost touch with the culture around it.  While tremendously welcoming, the good people of Epworth do not appear to effectively communicate the gospel to their secular neighbors.  John would see it as a ripe mission field.  (So should we!)  Wesley left the church to speak in the graveyards, market places (malls of his day) and fields (places of work).  Today’s church finds itself holding on to buildings as a shrine and missing the message Wesley gave his life to share. 

This is not, I think, so much a judgment on them as a comment about us.  At its root remains the deep theological question that Christians must answer for and to non-Christians. Why?  Why bother?  What is there in the Christian message that would compel the hungry and hurting (physically, psychologically and spiritually) to stand in a graveyard to hear the news?  And secondly, are we willing to stand in a graveyard or mall or workplace and share this good news (gospel)?!

This pilgrimage is exciting and deeply challenging!

Off to Seattle and Alaska

Tuesday morning, May 31st, I will be flying to Seattle to meet with the new church development team from the Pacific Northwest Conference and then on to Alaska.  While in Alaska, I will present a day long teaching on how the church confronts our new reality and engages in ministry and mission in the new world we find ourselves in and preach the opening worship service for the Alaskan Missionary Conference on Friday. 

The theme the Alaska Missionary Conference leaders gave me was Come to the Edge.  I think it significant that their conception is that we engage in ministry “on the edge.”  The term can be taken in multiple senses.  We are on the edge of the unknown.  We are on the edge of new and exciting possibilities.  We are on the edge of our best understanding.  The list could continue but I think the reader can get the drift.  I have entitled my 3 presentations: 1) The Storm-tossed Sea, 2) The Ship Made Ready (An ancient image for the Church was the ship.), and 3) Sailing Beyond the Map.

While the context in Alaska is very different from Central Texas, the issues are largely the same.  All of us are moving beyond the edge of our knowledge and trusting ourselves to the unknown by placing ourselves in the hands of a known God.  It is both scary and wonderful!  I am looking forward to learning from them and sharing with them.

From a Christendom Mentality to a Missional Reality

Monday afternoon (May 2, 2011) at the Council of Bishops (COB), we heard Professor Dana Robert of Boston School of Theology address the historic leadership role of the office of bishop from the 3rd paragraph of the Nicene Creed.  “We believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Dr. Robert posed the following questions to the bishops gathered:

1.  “What does it mean for United Methodist bishops to represent the ‘oneness’ of the church?
2.  What does it mean for United Methodist bishops to represent the ‘catholicity’ of the church?
3.  In changing from a Christendom to a missional context, how should the role of the bishop evolve?
4.  What are the most important spiritual qualities necessary to be a bishop today?”

Even more pointedly Dr. Robert framed the questions from a historic perspective with the telling comment, we are “caught in transition from a Christendom mentality to a missional reality.”

This discussion may sound somewhat dry and technical, yet it directs our attention bluntly to the 3rd point of the Call to Action to “reform the Council of Bishops” focusing on the active bishops assuming responsibility and public accountability for a new missional culture with measureable fruitfulness.  I have often said that, in my experience clergy, understand that Christendom is over but haven’t yet really engaged in a new missional reality (i.e. are still operating out of a Christendom modality).

 Like much of the church, the COB is wrestling with the painful change from an old mentality to a new reality.  One thing is clear.  God is calling us to a new world.  Like the Exodus of old the Lord is going before us.

 I ask you to keep in your prayers two special areas of concern that we have lifted up in COB – the victims of the tornados in Alabama and the people of the Ivory Coast recovering from a civil war.  I also ask for continued prayers for those recovering from the Possum Kingdom Fires.

Texas Wesleyan University

This morning I attended the Board of Trustees meeting at Texas Wesleyan University.  I am grateful that, under the leadership of new President Fred Slabach, TWU is engaged in strengthening its connection with the church. There is a creative openness to learning and intellectual exploring that is exciting. From my perspective, there is openness to church relations, to the Christian faith, and comparative religion that is refreshing!

The mission of Texas Wesleyan is clearly stated: “Our mission at Texas Wesleyan University is to develop students to their full potential as individuals and as members of the world community. …The University also strives to develop a sense of civic responsibility and spiritual sensitivity, with a commitment to moral discrimination and action.”

President Slabach has articulated a clear vision emphasizing the importance of “critical thinking, analytical reasoning and creative problem-solving” in intellectually, nurturing, small classes. “Texas Wesleyan aspires to be a values- and student-centered university where motivated students prepare for graduate school and leadership in professional careers.”  Recently ranked in the top tier of regional liberal arts universities by US News & World Report, TWU is engaging culture in ways that unite knowledge and vital piety.

There was a day when TWU served us a pipeline for clergy leadership development. Looking around the Central Texas Conference, many of our best pastors are TWU graduates. I hope for the day when the pipeline of leadership development for our churches again runs through Texas Wesleyan University. If we as a church are serious about leadership development (as we must be if there is to be a future to The United Methodist Church), then we must re-engage in serious deep Christian dialogue with our church-related colleges and universities.

Christian Unity

In the last two weeks, I have attended to different Episcopal (judicatory) ecumenical events. Texas Conference of Churches held a retreat at Concordia University in Austin. This past Monday and Tuesday, I was in Atlanta for a quadrennial meeting of Pan Methodist bishops (African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, African Union Methodist Protestant Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Union American Methodist Episcopal Church and United Methodist Church).

I see value in meeting with leaders across the denominational spectrum. Relationship building leads to shared ministry. We have much in common – beginning with a shared post-Christendom culture.

What has left me puzzled is our reluctance to talk about Christian unity. Even seemingly tame references to unity evoke hasty qualifications that people want to speak of unity in ministry not in ecclesiastical union. I wonder why. Jesus said in John 17:20-21, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” I believe God intends us to be as a larger Christian movement. Methodists came into being to reform the church. When that is accomplished, we should go out of existence (Mission accomplished!). When we worshipped and visited together, I learned again what I already knew. In the Pan Methodist context, the other Pan Methodists denominations came into being because of the white Methodist racism. We still have much to repent of. I was blessed by the graciousness of my new found friends and colleagues.

Reinhold Neibuhr once said that “nothing worth doing is accomplished in our life time.” I do not expect true unity in my life time. But we should engage in the effort. With Jesus, our prayer should continue to be “…As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

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