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Math and Mission

One of the great gurus of church and conference vitality is Dr. Gil Rendle.  Gil serves as Senior Consultant for the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF).  He is the convener and guide for the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) Bishops Conclave (a bishops’ learning group) as well as working with a group of Cabinet members from across the state.  He is the author of a number of significant works including Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (which I have highly recommended in the past) and his newest, Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics.

Last June I was invited by Dr. Rendle to write a brief recommendation of the book.  I wrote the following:

math of missionDoing the Math of Mission is a seminal work that merits a deep embrace by struggling mainline Protestants.  Rendle challenges us to move beyond counting to measuring purposeful outcomes related to the deep mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Diamonds of insight are found on almost every page.  For instance, “Perhaps the most effective outcome is one that ‘offends’ in its clarity” (p. 30). The critical shift of focus from inputs to measurable outcomes, which reflect clarity of purpose, offers specific and concrete guidance to any congregational leader (lay and clergy alike) or any judicatory executive.  Framed in a sound theology, Doing the Math of Mission provides critical material to build a bridge to the future of God’s preference of the Church.

Currently we (as both a Conference and as the larger United Methodist Church) are wrestling with issues that swirl around accountability (for both churches and clergy), metrics, outcomes and fruitfulness.  These critical issues will not and should not go away.  I have repeatedly insisted that metrics must be yoked to what I like to call the narrative.  Narrative is the story of fruitfulness in its widest context.  At its root the issues of faithfulness and fruitfulness intersect at the junction of just-whose-church-is-this.

Biblically speaking, we must always insist that this is not our church – either Conference, laity or clergy – but in fact the Lord’s church.  It is, we are together, the body of Christ!  Math really goes with mission!  Thus, it is a joy to strongly recommend and urge the reading of Gil’s insightful book – Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness, and Metrics.

While I am on the subject of mission, tomorrow Jolynn and I leave with a Central Texas Conference mission team to Kenya.  Many churches in the Central Texas Conference have had long-term mission relationships with the Methodist Church of Kenya.  It should be an insightful and exciting time of learning.  I hope to blog about the trip in the unfolding 2 week period.

This is truly a part of our purposeful outcomes related to the deep mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

A Christian Response to the Border Crisis

The image of protestors angrily greeting three busloads of mostly women and children in San Diego is both vivid and powerful.  Primal emotions were stirred.   The victims were often terrified younger children.  The great issue – immigration reform – is a need we must address.  Virtually all agree on the need for significant reform.  The passionate debate revolves around what kind of reform.  Good Christians disagree often strongly!  It is important to emphasize the last statement.  Good Christians can disagree with each other with passionate conviction about how to best reform the immigration system and respond to the border crisis.

So what is a Christian response?  Allow me to modestly suggest that there isn’t “a” (as in singular) Christian response.  There are multiple Christian responses.  Our faith offers us deeper moral guidance.  It presents a biblical and ethical framework out of which we may respond.

As I watch a report of the shouting and screaming at buses filled with children, I could not help but recall the words of Jesus.  “Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children” (Matthew 19:14).  Whatever the best strategic answer to the crisis is, further victimization of young children is not the answer.  Adults are the ones who need to be held accountable across the spectrum and across national and ethnic lines.

The second passage that comes to me is the famous one called the “Judgment of the Nations.”  It is well known.

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “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.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)

Regardless of our political orientation (Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Green and/or – if there are any of you left – WHIG, We Hope In God), Christians see and help those in need.  I served in the Rio Grande Valley as the Pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Harlingen, Texas.  Among our good friends was another young couple in the church, Myron and Sandy Merchant.  (They kept our son Nathan while I took Jolynn to the hospital for the birth of our daughter Sarah.  We’ve stayed in touch over the years.)  Committed Christians, they tried to faithfully respond in the swirling environment of immigration and border issues.  Myron was Captain in the Border Patrol.  I remember well him calling me one day.  The church had been collecting clothing for those in need.  Over the phone Myron asked, “Do you have some shoes?  We’ve arrested an illegal immigrant we are going to send back but he doesn’t have any shoes.  Could we help him?”

Myron did his duty faithfully and within the context of Christian care.  Wherever we come out on the best immigration policy for our nation, we are to engage that policy with Christ-like care and compassion.

A third piece of moral guidance we might apply in seeking the outline of a Christian response comes from the Book of James.  Often forgotten near the back of the New Testament, it contains marvelous practical advice.  James, the brother of Jesus, warns the first Christians (and us) of the power of the tongue.  He writes of the spiritual and moral importance about what and how we say things.  He warns us against improper hurtful angry speech.

“We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.

Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.

Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.

People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!”  (James 3:2-10)

Each image – a bridle for a horse, a ship at sea, and flame in the forest – is used to illustrate the power of words and importance of not letting our speech descend into poison.  Christian maturity for James (what John Wesley would call moving on to “perfection”) involves controlling our tongue (verse 2).

At a minimum wherever you come out on the political land personal spectrum of immigration and border patrol, we must guard our tongues.  Christians are to be a people who speak gracefully.  Civil discourse should be one of the ways we are known as Christian.

I often list these three modest elements as a partial framework for our response to the border crisis regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum.  Christians are to give witness, offer evidence with their lives, of 1) compassion for children, 2) care for those in need, and 3) communication that is civil (literally grace-filled).

*For information on what the Central Texas Conference is doing in response to the border crisis, please read Rev. Lariane Waughtal’s (CTC Coordinator – Disaster Response/UMVIM)  article.

MISSION TO FORT WORTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prisoner’s Prayer

In May of 2008 Jolynn took a trip to Ethiopia with the group from the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) in San Antonio (where she was serving as a faculty member).  The trip was led by a retired Lutheran Missionary whose place on the UIW faculty she had taken.  This missionary (Jim Sorensen) had served in hospital work in Ethiopia prior to the Marxist revolution in 1974.  The Marxist regimen known as the Derg (a short name of the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987) literally wrecked this great historic nation.  Hundreds of thousands of political enemies of the regime were kill or tortured in a period known as the “red terror.”  Later in 1984, over 1 million died in a serve famine.  Finally that evil regime was booted out and the country has engaged in a long slow climb back to economic and political health.  As the UIW group toured the country, they encountered a great Christian history and witness that reached back to story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.  The rock churches of Lalibela (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are witness of great faith.  But this small band of pilgrims from San Antonio encountered an even greater witness of faithfulness.  They discovered an Ethiopian Orthodox Church that is alive and well despite “toils and tribulations.”

The above long paragraph serves as backdrop for the following story which I recently read in John Ortberg’s marvelous book Who is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus.  Pastor Ortberg writes:

“Years ago I was in Ethiopia when it was under a Marxist regime and the church was mostly underground. One or another of the leaders of the Christian group would frequently be arrested and put into prison, which was horribly over-crowded and unspeakably foul. Other prisoners used to long for a Christian to get put in prison, because if a Christian was jailed, his Christian friends would bring him food – actually, far more food than that one person could eat, and there would be leftovers for everybody. It became the ‘prisoner’s prayer’: ‘God, send a Christian to prison.’”  (From Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus by John Ortberg, p. 43)

I find myself inspired in reading this story.  We speak of radical hospitality, as well we should.  Here radical hospitality was lived at a level I find almost unimaginable.  It is tempting in the blessed security of a North America to view ourselves as the center of the Christian universe.  This is not so.  There is a line from the great hymn “The Voice of God is Calling” (No. 436, The United Methodist Hymnal, verse 4) which reads:

“From ease and plenty save us; from pride of place absolve;
Purge us of low desire; lift us to high resolve;
Take us, and make us holy; teach us Your will and way;
Speak, and behold! we answer; command, and we obey!”

I am struck by the connections of courage and faith, hospitality and witness, conviction and obedience.  I cannot help but wonder.  I need to be saved from ease and plenty and lifted to high resolve.  I must ask myself, am I the kind of Christian who is an answer to such a prayer?  Am I the kind of Christian who visit those in jail with such bounty?

Good News on a Great Connection

Amid reports on institutional angst and anguish (including the recent letter from the Council of Bishops) what is often lost is the great good news of tremendous ministry taking place through the United Methodist Connection.

Friends, there are some really great things happening in mission and ministry in the name of Jesus Christ through the United Methodist Connection.  Great news that came out of the Council of Bishops includes (but are not limited to!):

1.News that we have taken a giant leap towards our goal of raising $75 million to fight the killer disease with Imagine No Malaria.

2.  In our focus in establishing Vital Congregations through “New Places for New People,” the UMC Connection has blown past our benchmark goals.

  • We can celebrate that with just 37 conferences reporting so far, there are 91 new church plants for 2013.  The Western Jurisdiction has already doubled the amount of church plants from the previous year.  So far we are planting in the United States approximately 11 new churches per month.  Our total number of new churches since 2008 is 776!
  • East Africa alone reports 442 new churches or faith communities.  The General Board of Global Ministries reports that we have started more than 574 new congregations outside the US since 2008 through Mission Initiatives.  We now have more new faith communities (“New Places for New People”) in Vietnam than we have churches in Minnesota!
  • Our Congregational Vitality Initiative transforming existing congregations into robust, vital congregations for the 21st Century is succeeding.  Bishop John Schol (lead Bishop on the Vital Congregations project, which is a part of the Focus Area on “New Places for New People”) reports an increase in the number of vital congregations in the United Methodist Church in the United States.  This is based on both a critical review of the metrics (worship attendance, mission engagement, professions of faith, small groups for bible study and spiritual formation, and extravagant generosity) and the developing pattern of metrics reports.  This is really great news!

3.  The Central Conference Pension Initiative (CCPI), which was established to provide pensions for retired clergy in Africa, has reached its audacious goal!  Pensions are now provided for the poorest pastors in the global United Methodist Church.  Should you happened to see Mr. Earl Cox (a layperson from First UMC, Fort Worth, or Dr. Tim Bruster (Senior Pastor of First UMC, Fort Worth, or Bishop Chamness) join with me in offering them your heartfelt thanks!  These three (along with many others!) championed this great work of God.  Brothers and sisters in Christ have food on their table tonight because of their work.

There is more to share, much more.  We heard reports of new initiatives in ministry with the poor, leadership development through scholarships and special training opportunities, etc.  The Four Focus Areas (New Places for New People, Leadership Development, Ministry with the Poor, & Combating Killer Diseases) are moving forward in the name of the Lord!

Here in Central Texas there is also good news on the great connection known as the United Methodist Church.  The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is a tremendous mission outreach ministry of the UMC.  It is at work in our name offering the love and help of Christ to those in need.  I came home from the COB meeting with two letters of announcement waiting for me.

  • “I am very pleased to announce that United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has approved your grant request up to the amount of $200,000 U.S. Dollars for Continued Recovery West Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion 2013 from November 1, 2013 to November 1, 2015.”
  • “I am very pleased to announce that United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has approved your grant request up to the amount of $200,000 U.S. Dollars for Granbury Tornado Continued Response 2013 from November 1, 2013 to October 31, 2015.”

Our mission work is not just over “there” but right here at home in the Central Texas Conference! Our Conference Center for Mission Support is following up with appropriate local officials on these projects.

I remember well standing in the lobby of the Terrace Hotel at Lake Junaluska on a break from our COB meeting when Bishop Rudy Juan approached me with tears in his eyes.  Bishop Juan has become a good personal friend.  We’ve worked together on the “New Places for New People” Focus Area.  He is the resident bishop for Manila in the Philippines.  As we talked he poured out his heartfelt concern for the people and churches of his country as Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines.  I assured him of our prayers and support.  With Methodists all over the world, we are taking a special offering for relief efforts through UMCOR.

The United Methodist News reads in part:  “A few weeks ago you had probably never heard of Tacloban, one of the cities in the Philippines hardest hit by Typhoon Haiyan. Because of the support of United Methodists, UMCOR is one of the first groups to get into this devastated city with emergency relief supplies. typhoon relief

UMCOR was uniquely positioned to do this because of the strong United Methodist Church network in the Philippines, the staff on the ground who were ready to take action, and the generous support of donors like you.”

The great connection of ministry known as the United Methodist Church is working.  In the name of Christ we are offering help and hope here at home and around the world.  I want all to know this good news!

Closer to home but of similar excitement is the emergence of a true partnership with the Eastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church in Mexico.  The Central Texas Conference is taking a Thanksgiving offering for this missional outreach.  The funds will be used to support CTC ministry work teams travelling to Eastern Mexico as well as teams from the Eastern Mexico Conference travelling to Central Texas. Internship programs through the John Wesley Seminary in Monterrey and scholarships for students at the John Wesley Seminary will also be supported via this Special Offering.  I invite you to join with Jolynn and me in giving both to the UMCOR Typhoon Relief for victims of Typhoon Hiayan in the Philippines and the Thanksgiving (Thanksliving!) offering for a true mission partnership with the Eastern Mexico Conference.

Representative Granger Working with Imagine No Malaria

Tuesday, September 3rd I had the privilege of visiting with Representative Kay Granger, Congresswoman for the 12th District in which I reside.  On behalf of the other bishops of Texas (Bledsoe, Dorff, Huie and McKee) along with Bishop Tom Bickerton (who heads the Imagine No Malaria campaign for the Council of Bishops), Rev. Clayton Childers (Director of Advocacy for Imagine No Malaria from the General Board of Church and Society) and I presented Congresswoman Kay Granger a letter of gratitude and appreciate.

taken by Mattie Parker

Photo of Bishop Lowry, Rep. Granger and Rev. Childers taken by Mattie Parker

 

Congresswoman Granger has been an instrumental force in funding the Global Fund, which participates in the Imagine No Malaria Campaign.  The United Methodist Church through Imagine No Malaria is both a financial supporter of Global Fund and a recipient from the Global Fund.  We team with the Global Fund, the Gates Foundation, the NBA, and others in combating killer diseases across our globe.  Our letter in major part read:

On behalf of the United Methodist Church (UMC), our Imagine No Malaria campaign, and our members all across the country, we want to thank you for your leadership and work on H.R. 2855, the Fiscal Year 2014 State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, and for your robust and faithful support of the U.S. contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, especially during these times of fiscal austerity.

 As you know, a child dies of malaria every 60 seconds, a still alarming statistic but vast improvement over just a few years ago when we lost a child every 30 seconds to this preventable and treatable disease. Much of this improvement can and should be credited to the Global Fund, a critical tool in the fight against malaria. Global Fund-supported programs save lives. In fact more than 100,000 lives are saved each month in 150 countries around the world because of the work of the Global Fund. In terms of the malaria specific work being supported by the Global Fund, we would like to offer a few key highlights: by 2012 Global Fund-supported malaria programs had distributed over 270 million insecticide-treated nets, provided indoor residual spraying in dwellings 44 million times, and leveraged donor funding to finance the treatment of 260 million cases of malaria.

 The success of the Global Fund is a success of the United States. We are grateful for your bipartisan leadership. Your hard work and efforts as Chairwoman make it clear that the United States and the U.S. House of Representatives will continue to ensure that funding for malaria eradication efforts remain a key priority even during difficult times. … Your leadership in Congress remains critical to the success of global health programs worldwide and on behalf of your fellow United Methodists, we would like to extend our sincerest gratitude and appreciation for all you do.

Representative Granger shared with us how extensive this work is.  The Congresswoman talked about her work with Bono and others emphasizing the bipartisan nature of this United States government aid.  She noted the progress we have made against polio. Recalling how her mother was stricken by polio and she along with her sister babysat a neighboring child when others were afraid to do so. Her words echo the compassion of her heart for this effort.

We had a great visit and amid all the congressional wrangling we hear about, I want the people called Methodists to hear about one of our own engaged in a godly work.  God bless you and thank you for your leadership, Representative Granger!

Watch this video, The Global Fund, Be the Generation to Defeat AIDS, TB and Malaria ft Charlize Theron and Bono.

 

 

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.

Connection and Conference

Last night I watched the reports on the tornadoes that ripped through the Granbury-Cleburne area.  I could not help but remember the devastation caused to St. Barnabas and Arlington a little over a year ago.  Like so many, I took time to pray for those in the path of the storm.

This morning I gave thanks for the courageous first responders and the early responders that are on the scene.  Rev. Robert Herzig, Senior Pastor of First UMC, Cleburne, shared with me that his neighborhood was devastated and that they had lost the roof on the parsonage.  Yet even in the disaster their church along with so many others was reaching out to help people in need.  He asked for prayers, especially for those who lost their whole homes.

In the midst of tragedies such tornados and explosions, the greatness of the connection of the United Methodist Church comes home with hope and help.  This morning in my email I received the following message from Gregory A. Forrester, Assistant General Secretary for the General Board of Global Ministries division of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR):  “Dear Bishop Lowry, We have been monitoring the report of the devastation that has occurred in Texas this evening.   I have been in touch with Rev. Laraine Waughtal and have offered UMCOR’s assistance.  Please let us know how we can help serve the Central Texas Conference as you respond to this disaster.”  Just as in West, Texas and in Arlington a year earlier, we are in this together, reaching out with love and help in the name of the Lord.

In less than a month, we will gather for the annual meeting of the Central Texas Conference in Fort Worth at Arborlawn UMC.  The decision to return Annual Conference to the local church setting was based not on convenience or cost but rather conviction.  Somehow in a church setting – gathered in a sanctuary – we think, pray and behave differently.  It is easier to remember who and whose we are and what we are about: “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The connection we share is a gift from God.  The Conference is an extension of our mission.  It is the basic unit of Methodism that undergirds every local church.  As someone has said, “we come together to be together what Christ has been for us.”  Christ alone does the saving but together we reach out in missional love with the good news of His salvation in the power of the Holy Spirit.  There is greatness in Connection and Conference!

When Faith Kicks In

white dove

On Thursday  morning, April 25, I travelled to West, Texas with staff leadership from the Central Texas Conference (Rev. Dawne Phillips, Rev. Kyland Dobbins, & Vance Morton) to assess how the Conference might best continue to respond to the tragedy.  A crucial part of the visit was meeting with members of West UMC & Wesley Chapel/Gholson to hear their stories and share our love, care and continuing support.  As is often the case, I drove away deeply humbled and gratefully blessed by their faithfulness.

By way of background, officials in West have the blast area divided into three zones.  Zone 1 means some damage.  Zone 2 means serious damage.  Zone 3 means demolished.  As of this writing, the police are still not allowing people into zone 3.

We were met at the church by Pastor Jimmy Sansom and two couples in the congregation (Carl and Ethel, Jack and Fayedell).  Next door neighbors for over thirty years, both couples are in zone 2.  Carl and Ethel took us by to see their homes after our visit.  The damage is so structurally deep that both homes are uninhabitable and will take major (insurance estimates $100,000+) repair.  Still in shock and just beginning to come to terms with the major life change facing them in their retirement years (actually Carl is not yet retired), the depth and breadth of the loss was hard to comprehend for both us and them.

As we visited something amazing took place in listening to their story.  Fayedell was sitting on the couch when the doors and windows blew in.  Showered with glass, she escaped without a cut.  Jack was in the yard and blown down.  He told me that it knocked his pacemaker out of whack.  He had to get the pacemaker reset that morning (Thursday).  Carl showed me the destruction of his computer room – glass shards blown all over it.  Ethel showed us the destruction of her living room.  But it was their attitude, their (if you’ll pardon the inexact description) their “faith Spirit” (my term) they offered that moved me deeply.

Fayedell commented about picking herself up after the explosion. She said, “That’s when your faith kicks in.”  As her daughter sat next to her, she witnessed to God’s blessing her life and trusting God to see them through this as well.  She spoke of losing two children to death and then added “you just have to hang on to God.”  There is a quiet faith foundation that will not be shaken in their sharing.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is present.

Pastor Jimmy Sansom remarked: “Just as an example, Carl and Ethel had their house badly damaged, and with all that, they are the ones reaching out to other people who are going through times of trouble offering money and assistance – reaching out in the midst of all that they are going through. So the congregation is a mixture of helping each other out and helping the community out. We are indeed living out that Great Commandment – as Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I’ve loved you.’ It’s just been a tremendous outpouring of love and prayers from the congregation. Now they are going through some tough times, trying to get everything settled and dealing with insurance companies and such…but the outpouring of prayers and the offering of help from the church members and the community has just been unbelievable. You can see the hand of God at work in all of this – in the midst of the tragedy, you see the blessings.”

For their faithfulness and witness I give thanks to the Lord.  May we continue to be prayer for the people of West and for West UMC and Wesley Chapel UMC in Gholson.  I thank God for the generosity and help coming from so many individuals and churches.  May we too live with a faith that “kicks in.”

 

“Yes, UMCOR is here!”

It is easy in our day to take the United Methodist Connection for granted.  It is easier still to view “apportionments” as taxes.  A variety of recent events not only challenge but also decisively set aside any sense that the connection is unimportant and that “apportionments” are just taxes.  Together, they allow all of us a ministry reach in the name Lord that is far greater than even the largest church could accomplish alone.

One of the early responders in West was Rev. Laraine Waughtal, the Central Texas Conference’s Disaster Relief Coordinator.  Laraine is a trained and certified disaster responder.  When she walked in to the Red Cross Center in West, her badge had UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) on it.  The Red CrosUMCORs official shouted, “Yes! UMCOR is here!” United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has a worldwide reputation for its wonderful work sharing the love of Christ in disaster relief.  So too do many other Christian denominational relief efforts.  Together they form a magnificent witness living out Matthew 25:40 where Jesus teaches us, “Even as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

Even as she was traveling to West, Conference officials (Dr. Randy Wild & Rev. Kyland Dobbins and I) were working with UMCOR on coordinating relief.  $10,000 in emergency funds has been released by UMCOR.  This is combined with the incredible generosity of our member churches in their special “City of West” relief offering taken last Sunday.  God bless you all for your kindness and extravagant generosity.

But our connectional response of love, faith and hope does not stop there.  Earlier in the week I had responded to Bishop Suda Devadhar of the New England Area with our prayers and support.  Soon, we too as a Conference were the recipients of a flood of prayers and offers of support.  The sense of the wider connection of the United Methodist Church was and is both palpable and concrete.

We are making a conscious effort to change our thinking and terminology from talk about “apportionments” with connotation of taxation to the more accurate title “Connectional Mission Giving” (CMG).  To the casual observer of those funds we divide them out, something in the neighborhood of 35% – 40% cover what business people would call overhead. (CTC’s percent of “overhead” expenses have gone down recently due to direct billing of Health Insurance and Pensions.)   All churches and church organizations face such expenses.  This includes the so called independent Bible Churches.  The remaining 60% – 65% go to direct missional spending both in the Conference (Glen Lake Camp as an example) and to the wider world beyond (missionaries, hunger relief, evangelistic outreach, etc.)

Connected together in mission and prayer, we are making a difference; even more “we are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  I thank God for your faithfulness!

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