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The World is Our Parish ©

 Periodically I am asked, “Should our work in missions (love, justice, and mercy) be focused at home in the communities in which our churches are located or should they be in extended mission work across America and the world?” My answer is always the same; “Yes!” There is something in the essence of loving those who are hungry and hurting and homeless that calls us both locally and globally.

Famously, John Wesley was asked at one time to return and serve the local parish. He turned down that opportunity, declaring “The world is my parish!” By that, Wesley never denigrated or slighted the importance of the local church and local community setting.  He understood that his personal call was to the wider church universal and more intentionally to what was then called the Wesleyan renewal movement. Even more, Wesley saw that at its truest essence the Christian faith is always a both/and.

Biblical examples abound. Christ reaches out and heals those around him. Consider the story of the centurion’s slave (Matthew 8:8-13) or the woman hemorrhaging (Mark 5:28-34).

But he also explicitly calls us to reach beyond to the wider world. The Great Commission is given that we should go to all “nations” (other translations say “people groups”). The famously quoted John 3:16 passage is explicitly expansive to the wider world; for “God so loved the world….”

In writing this today (Monday, August 14, 2017), I want to call for our prayers for peace, healing, love and justice in three specific situations across our nation and world recognizing that these prayers begin at home.

Many of you have watched with growing concern the tragedy that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists/neo-Nazi movements parade hate before us. Not only that, but they try to evoke hate within us (hate either towards them or towards others of a different religion or ethnicity). May our prayers go out for those who lost loved ones in this tragedy and especially for the end of racial hatred. Let us pray that we may be a people of peace. Confessionally, may we all recognize that bigotry and hatred begins in us. With our thoughts and actions, may we grow in Christ-likeness.  Let us be those who reach out for racial healing and the establishment of a more truly just America.

Secondly, I ask for our specific prayers for the people and nation of Kenya. Many of our churches and our Conference as a whole has a very special relationship with Kenya. We’ve sent a large number of different mission groups there to work in a variety of settings. The Rev. Ken Diehm Retreat House is a fixture for the Methodist Church in the Meru Synod (district) of Kenya. Numerous other mission trips have engaged in Christ-honoring works of love, justice and service in the Maua Methodist Hospital.

As you may know from following the news, the nation of Kenya recently held a presidential election. Although most observers believe the election was fair, there have been violent clashes over the results. I ask the people of Central Texas to pray for the nation of Kenya as a whole. May peace be the way forward for our Kenyan brothers and sisters.

The third specific area for which I am asking for prayers is the situation unfolding with North Korea. Much has been written and said. I simply commend to the Christian reader that we be in prayer for a peaceful resolution. The evils of President Kim Jong-Un and the Communist Party in North Korea seem to me to be fairly self-evident. May the wisdom of the Lord guide our response as a nation and as a people. May we separate the common citizen of North Korea from the evils of the current dictatorship which oppresses that country. Let us pray as well for our elected officials (the President, various Cabinet members and Secretaries involved and those working as Ambassadors). May God give wisdom that surpasses our human instincts and ultimately leads to a true lasting peace

As I ask for these prayers specifically for the people of Charlottesville, VA; the citizens and nation of Kenya; and the conflict erupting around North Korea, I continue to ask that we be a people who pray for peace and healing, for love and justice, for hope and help in our own churches, our own neighborhoods, our own cities and states. May the Prince of Peace guide our actions.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #8 ©

Struggling with Sin

Back in my seminary days one of the big intellectual fads that swept across America was a form of psychotherapy called Transactional Analysis (TA).  It was built on the foundation of acceptance and appreciation of both yourself and others (which is in principle a good thing but taken too far – as it was – destructive).  The mantra of TA was “I’m Ok, You’re Ok.”

About that time I was taking a course in pastoral theology from the great Methodist theologian Albert Outler.  I remember him lecturing on the subject to TA and Sin.  He pictured a worship service starting with the liturgy of the pastor saying, “I’m Okay!”and the Congregation responding, “You’re Okay!”  Then pastor would echo back, “You’re Okay!” And the congregation would respond with gusto, “We’re Okay!”  At that point Professor Outler said that someone standing in the back of the sanctuary should respond with a loud, “Bah humbug!”

And now, I give pause. We have reached a theological state in American Protestantism where the notion of sin is almost foreign. When sin applies it is someone else who sinned.  When we talk of sin, far too often it is in reference to sexual peccadillos and rarely to explore the greater sinful hedonism of our own lives in the pursuit of pleasure though gross overconsumption. (Forgive me Lord! I know I am guilty.)

Recently my spiritual mentor, Dr. Sid Spain, wrote a paper offering deep insight into the spiritual life of walking with God.  As part of his work, both in writing and in serving as a pastor and spiritual guide, he noted our struggle in the modern world with the whole concept of sin.  Dr. Spain wrote:

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.  Recently he wrote an article entitled The Strange Persistence of Guilt referencing a longer article of the same name by Wilfred McClay in the Hedgehog Review. [(See David Brooks, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” March 31, 2017; and Wilfred M. McClay, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” The Hedgehog Review; Vol 19 No. 1).  Brooks and McClay are only two of many writers who have diagnosed part of the cause of the rise of incivility in our society as a consequence of the inaccessibility of opportunities for absolution.  Brooks writes, “Religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerful as ever.” As the influence of the church has diminished in the West, fewer people have the opportunity to deal creatively with feelings of guilt, failure and inadequacy. Instead of confessing sin and receiving forgiveness and absolution, we project our dissatisfaction and angst on others.  Unable to process our sin we feel victimized and we vilify.

An inevitable consequence of contemplative prayer is confrontation with the self and the recognition that we are complicit in the brokenness of the world (Sid Spain, Make the Time and Find a Place: Contemplative Prayer for the Easily Distracted, p. 6).

The concept of grace, God’s radically free wholly unmerited forgiving love is applied so casually as to leave us often (not always!) unaffected.  [You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives (Ephesians 2:8-10).]  What slips our more careful attention is verse 10 of Ephesians 2, repeated here for emphasis, “Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things.  God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. Our good intentions often ignore the moral harm of sin both in ourselves and others. In Dr. Spain’s terms, we fail to confront our complicity in the brokenness of this world. It is somebody else’s fault.

Yet classical Methodist doctrine will not let us off so easily.  For Methodists the response to sin is worked out in sanctification, in “holiness of heart and life.”  This historically is a cardinal assumption of Methodist theology (thinking about the ways of God).  The claim always is that we are to be ‘”moving on to perfection.” To borrow from Sid in paraphrasing St. Augustine’s definition of sin, homo incurvatus in se in the Latin, loosely translated as “Sin is the self, turned in upon its self.”  The Apostle Paul reached for its essence in his great biblical letters. “I’m sold as a slave to sin.  I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate. But if I’m doing the thing that I don’t want to do, I’m agreeing that the Law is right. But now I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it’s sin that lives in me” (Romans 7:14c-17). John Wesley understood sin as a disease, a radical flaw in our human nature that could not be cured simply by our own moral effort yet at the same time needing our willing participation in its cure.

Here again Professor Outler is instructive in his seminal lectures on Wesleyan Theology. “Sin is spoken of as a sickness that can be cured by the Great Physician if we will accept his threefold prescription: 1. Repentance (self-knowledge), 2. Renunciation of self-will, and 3. Faith (trust in God’s sheer, unmerited grace”  (Albert C. Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 37).

I invite the reader to carefully note that our struggle with sin is met in the grace of Jesus Christ. But I also urge an embrace of the truth that such healing comes in repentance and renunciation. There is no such thing as cheap grace for the price of grace is the cross of Christ and our embrace of grace comes in repentance and renunciation. The antidote of Christ comes to us in the divine human synergy as we struggle with sin. Augustine is reputed to have said, “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”

Summer Sabbath

from abqhomeblog.com

from abqhomeblog.com

A good friend recently sent me a beautiful picture of a full moon appearing over the New Mexico Mountains.  Attached was a comment about taking time to “recharge.”  Most of us are familiar with the commandment to “honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  We must confess that we often honor it in the breach.  And yet … in our contentious, chaotic, fast paced world we need more not less time for Sabbath rest.

All of this brings me back to my conviction of the importance of taking a couple of weeks vacation as a “summer Sabbath.” We need time away.  Time physically away from the office and time away from electronic connections (email, cell phone, etc.) is important for both our emotional and spiritual health. There is benefit in gaining distance on our daily struggles, issues and concerns.

In my own casual reflections (and combined with some modest research), I don’t recall much use of the term “burnout” when I initially entered ministry. Today’s language of being “worn out” or “burned out” is common. I confess to being at best a semi-reformed workaholic but in my defense I have always been good about taking time for vacation. A couple of weeks away are life giving. They connect with the concept of a weekly Sabbath to “honor the Lord.”

It strikes me as significant that the British (Europeans as a whole) don’t use the term vacation.  What we label a vacation, they call “being on holiday.”  Following the linguistic connection, the word holiday is a derivation of the term “holy days”. These are days which are set aside to be deliberately holy.  [An aside: I know that under God’s providential care all days are “holy.” However, when something is an everyday part of the background “noise” of life, it loses its impact for reforming the way we actually live as Christians.]  We need time – significant time – where we pause, reflect on life, reconnect with family and loved ones, and recommit ourselves to a life lived for the Lord.  In short, we need days which are set aside to be holy.

A few years ago I had the Chair of a Pastor-Parish Relations Committee call his DS and request a conference with his DS and me.  He didn’t want to see his pastor moved. In fact his concern was just the opposite.  He reported that his pastor was outstanding.  His concern was that his pastor hadn’t taken a real vacation in 5 or 6 years. The District Superintendent concurred with PPR Chair’s shared concern.  Both raised the specter of “burnout.”  Both had talked with the pastor about his need to schedule some time off (vacation or “holidays”) to no avail.  In review of the matter, I came to the conclusion that both were right. One of our most effective senior pastors was showing signs of burnout.  To make a long story short, we held a meeting with the Board Chair of the Church, the PPR Chair, the DS, myself and the pastor.  He offered a series of excuses for not taking a vacation or “summer Sabbath”.  The pastors’ rationale did not stand up to scrutiny.  Finally, with the full support of the group, I instructed the pastor to take a two week vacation and send me a post card of where he went (even if he spent the vacation reading books in the backyard!

A couple of months later I ran into the pastor in a meeting.  He commented, “you’re a hero with my wife.” We both laughed and commented that she was really ready for him to take a vacation.

Now step back with me for a moment and reflect on our world and our individual context.

  • Violence and terror stalks the globe
  • Presidential elections have led to a cultural mood of anger and discourtesy
  • Economic uncertainty heightens uncertainty and angst
  • Church conflict over a variety of hot-button issues (same gender weddings, response to cultural violence, war and peace, abortion, etc.)
  • Personal struggles; and the list could go on

In each instance one of the things we need most is holy time to step back, catch our breath and center ourselves again on the Lord’s grace and guidance.  About 15 years ago I read a book by Bill Hybels entitled Too Busy Not to Pray.  We are too busy not to take time for holy days or a summer Sabbath.  If you haven’t do so already, regardless of whether you are lay or clergy, I encourage you to step back. Don’t find the time, make the time(!) for a summer Sabbath!

Responding to the Violence in Orlando

The news of another terrorist shooting and the tragic deaths of so many in the Pulse Nightclub rocks all of us with its senseless hate-filled violence. It addresses us all on so many levels – unchecked gun violence (examples are many: Sandy Hook, a Colorado movie theater, Columbine High School, etc.), the ISIS terrorism campaign that reaches around the world: Paris to Indonesia to the United States and back again, the horrors of the Syrian/ISIS civil war, ongoing prejudice against those in the LGBTQ community, and the list goes on.

The biblical cry of grief and pain goes up once again.

“I cry out to you, Lord.
You are my rock; don’t refuse to hear me.
If you won’t talk to me,
I’ll be just like those going down to the pit.
Listen to my request for mercy when I cry out to you,
when I lift up my hands to your holy inner sanctuary.” (Psalm 28:1-2)

Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, both the tragedy of gun violence and violence and prejudice directed at a specific groups (the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Ethnic violence of any kind, etc.) must be addressed more successfully. Internet nurturing of hatred and violence is an evil that must, in some as-of-yet-unknown fashion, be addressed.

Even more, hate-driven acts of violence against member of the LGBTQ community is against the moral precepts of all civilized people and especially an offense to those who profess to be Christ followers. The Discipline of the United Methodist Church is clear:  “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.  All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self” (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 161F, p. 111).

I echo Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter (in slight paraphrase to fit our Central Texas Conference setting): “I am lifting up the clergy and laity who will lead worship in our Central Texas Conference churches. May you announce God’s unconditional love for all people and God’s desire for nonviolence through Jesus Christ, who is our peace.

“And as United Methodists [Church and especially in the Central Texas Conference] . . . along with my fellow bishops and especially Bishop Ken Carter of Florida, “I hope we can discover creative, pastoral and grace-filled ways to bear witness to all — including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons — that together we are God’s beloved children.” (Bishop Ken Carter Jr., The full text of Bishop Carter’s statement can be found at here.)

In last Tuesday night’s (June 7th) ordination sermon, I said, “Fear-soaked mean-spirited bigotry against those of another religion, race or nation is not the Christian faith.  We ought to be ashamed that it is so represented by some in public life.”  I would add to that what should have been in the original sermon, namely that “fear-soaked mean-spirited bigotry against those” of an alternative sexual preference is not the Christian faith!  Violence is not the way of Christ.  Christians are to be in the world but not of it! (See 1 Peter 2:11.)

May we lift all who are affected by this tragedy, especially members of the LGBTQ community in Orlando and the people of the city of Orlando as a whole in our prayers. Along with our prayers, may we actively seek ways to faithfully embrace all of God’s children and spread the Kingdom gospel of Christ’s peace and love to all.

“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus….” (Philippians 2:1-5)

How Did You Spend Your Christmas Break? ©

Do you remember the typical first assignment for an elementary school student on returning to school in the fall? Growing up we often (virtually always) had to write a paper on “What did you do with your summer vacation?”  It was a fun assignment.

As we flew back from Boston on the 2nd of January, my mind turned to the packed month ahead of me.  It has started quickly:  Worship at Ovilla United Methodist Church and a tour of the wreckage from the Christmas storms.  The response of Ovilla and other wonderful congregations in the area has been inspiring.  The work of disaster relief under Rev. Laraine Waughtal through the Center for Mission Support has been outstanding.  The greater connectional United Methodist Church through UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief) has been (as always!) tremendous (including an immediate $10,000 grant)!

Monday found me in the office and then on the road down to Austin for the meeting of the Conclave (a Texas Methodist Foundation Clergy group made up of the active bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction). I’ll preach at Cross Plains UMC this Sunday for the tenth anniversary of the fire that swept through the community.  That fine congregation gives meaning to the word resilient.  Monday we have a “Strategic Focus Conference” at the Conference Center.  Tuesday and Wednesday I’ll be in Houston for a meeting of the Council of Bishops Executive Committee (COB).  Thursday the General Secretaries and Presidents of the various agencies of the United Methodist Church will join the COB Executive Committee for a planning meeting on our shared worldwide ministries.  I have hopes of being home late on the 16th to sleep in my own bed.

I share all that both by way of inviting the reader to catch a glimpse of my world but more importantly to think spiritually about the question, “How I spent my Christmas break?” I operate out of the conviction that most (all) of us have similarly hectic stress and overly scheduled lives.  Even my retired parents ages 95 and 91 seem inordinately busy to me.  [Hmm, make a mental note, Mike, you need to go down to Kerrville and talk to those kids about slowing down.]

We speak easily of holidays and tend to forget that the root of the word is “Holy Days.” Recreation equates to re-create.  Vacation, time off, … whatever you want to call it, links to our need for “downtime” and especially quiet time.  As I met with my Spiritual Director (a retired Navy Chaplain now serving as pastor of a UMC in Colorado), he issued a mutual challenge to the two us to increase our quiet time, our time of prayer and solitude, of reading scripture and meditating on God’s Holy Word.

All of which brings me back to the importance of taking a Christmas break. There is more going on here than an opportunity to be lazy.  There is potentially something basic to our spiritual formation.  I don’t know what you did but, Jolynn and I feasted on grandchildren (which is why we needed to come home to rest!).  Christmas in Falls Church, Virginia included great conversations with our daughter and son-in-law and even greater time playing with 2½ year old granddaughter Grace.  A great highlight, far greater than any present, was meeting our newest grandchild, 5 week old Samuel David Meek for the first time.  I simply couldn’t get enough of holding him.

On December 26th we flew up to Boston to join our son and daughter-in-law with her extended family in taking part in the baptism of middle grandchild, 5 month old Simon Michael Gabrielse-Lowry on the last Sunday of 2015.  It really was holy time for us.  Super Simon and I giggled and laughed and carried on together in a re-creating way!

I recite my own history by way of asking the reader to think back and reflect on how you spent your Christmas break. Did the light of Christ break in the joy of family time?  Perhaps instead it came in the quiet of alone time or maybe in the glory of worship or even perhaps in the chaos of life.  However it happened this is (or can be) holy time we all need as we step into this New Year of our Lord 2016 – Anno Domino.

Remember the hackneyed but immensely true mantra: Wise-men (and Wise-women!) still seek Him.

Faith on Trial: Responding to Terrorism in Today’s World ©

Last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent actions seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice rightly captures our hearts and minds in a wide variety of ways.  The sheer barbarism of the attacks spreads anxiety and fear among the bravest.  A deep sense of vulnerability saturates the most stalwart among us.  How are Christians to respond to terrorism in today’s world?

In a real sense, terrorism by its very nature puts our faith as Christ followers on trial.  It challenges us at the core of our beliefs.  Are we willing to hold to Christ whose very presence is announced with the angelic admonition “fear not!” (Luke 2:10)?

My initial response to the news of the Paris attacks was white hot fear-driven anger.  Only on calming down, entering into prayer, and engaging in less heated reflection did I realize that terrorism puts my faith on trial.

I believe our Lord’s admonition to love our neighbor.  I am committed in principle to the Savior’s call to holiness in rejecting hate.  The words of Jesus echo in the throne room of my mind.  “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).

I am conscious that it is easy to be Christian in times of peace and plenty and in settings of safety and joy.  I am also quite aware that the test of the Christian faith comes on the streets of Paris, in rhetorical punditry of television and the cancer ward of the local hospital.

Our faith is put on trial in:

  1. The temptation to reject the Lord’s leading and be driven instead by a desire for revenge. Prayerful reflection and careful thinking are at a premium if our response is to be faithful to the gospel and Lordship of Christ. Those who enact such evil must be brought to justice. There is nothing Christian or holy in allowing terror to reign unchecked. Let us be clear – terror and terrorism is an outgrowth of Satan’s rage. And yet, we must also be carefully clear and faithfully obedient in our response. Matching evil with evil is not the way of Christ. We seek justice not vengeance (Romans 12:19).
  2. The engulfing emotions of fear and fear driven disregard for others who are in dire need. Our model, guide and ruler is the one who was crucified for others, notably for those who were (and are!) guilty of sin. Instead of living under a reign of fear, Jesus reached out stretching His arms wide in an embrace of love. Let us be sympathetic to each other as we wrestle with fear’s grip. Fear is a natural and in some ways healthy response to the horrors of unchecked terror. It alerts us to the need to take protective steps and seek justice for all. The Christian difference is not that fear is not present. It is rather that fear does not reign. It does not rule! Christ alone is Lord! However powerful our emotions, they too are subject to Him. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18).
  3. Our vulnerability mixed with fear and anger which seduces us to react by blaming the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee. Terrorism is a tool of evil which, if left unchecked by Christian values and by the rule of Christ, can lead us to the unfaithful response of prejudice. It is worth carefully noting that the earliest Christians consistently refused to simply take care of only other Christians. They consciously and in allegiance to Christ reached out to any in need. There were no litmus tests for who should receive love and care. Teachings from Jesus like the Parable of the Good Samaritan drove their actions. (See Luke 10:35.) Instructions like James 1:27 were a basic part of the fabric of their response, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.” Let there be no mistake. To only take care of Christians or just be concerned about Americans is not worthy of the gospel. It is not faithful to the clear teaching of Christ. (Check out Jude 1:12 and its explicit rejection of those who care only for themselves.)

As your bishop, I call on us to be a people of faith.  May we reflect the example of Christ and be known the world over for a love which conquers fear.  Jesus our Savior first lived among us as a refugee.  He calls us now to reach out to those refugees fleeing the unspeakable evils of terror and war’s destruction.  May we be instruments of peace offering a place of hope, help and home to those most in need.  May religious prejudice and national jingoism be unknown among us.

Do you recall the Apostle’s closing advice in I Peter?  First Peter is written as a baptismal address to new Christians for a church undergoing dire persecution.  Terror is an everyday part of their lives.  In such context the Apostle closes his letter with advice fit again for today.  “Therefore, humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day. Throw all your anxiety onto him, because he cares about you. Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.  After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you. To him be power forever and always. Amen” (I Peter 5:6-11).