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Iona Interlude ©

I am pausing my “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way” series to share a brief word on a pilgrimage in leadership development.  By the time this is posted, I will be in Iona, Scotland with a group of young adults from the Central Texas Conference.  This trip is a part of our leadership development process that is linked to the Missional Wisdom Foundation  with leadership from Dr. Larry Duggins, Executive Director of the Foundation and Rev. Wendi Bernau. We as a Conference are greatly blessed by their help and support in leadership development.

Iona is a small island in the Inner Hebrides off the larger isle of Mull, which is a way of saying that it is a remote place distant from the clamor of the world.  It is a place where, as my spiritual guide puts it, we have time and space for solitude, silence and simplicity.  Iona is a place where the call to ordained ministry may be nurtured in reflection, adoration and prayer.

In the Central Texas Conference our “Big Three” are: 1) Christ the Center; 2) Focus on the local church; and 3) Lay and clergy leadership development.  This spiritual pilgrimage with young prospective Christian leaders offers a special opportunity to thoughtfully and prayerfully weld together number 1 and number 3 – Christ at the center of life and witness combined with leadership development for the future of the Christian movement and the Wesleyan Way in Central Texas.  Such pilgrimages both to places like Iona, Scotland and Taize, France along with retreats at our own beloved Glen Lake Camp are vitally important to our developing future leaders of the faith.  In May of 2013 we led a similar group to Taize (a spiritual formation gathering from around the world held in France).

Iona is famous as the site that Saint Columba used as a base of operations to introduce Christianity to Scotland.  For well over four centuries it was a center for monastic leadership and Christian formation.  It is thought that the famous Book of Kells may have been produced at the original Iona Abbey.  After World War I, under the leadership of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), a clergyman named George MacLeod became instrumental in reviving the Iona Abbey’s role in Christian spirituality.  In 1938, as the fires of World War II loomed on the horizon, MacLeod founded the Iona Community as an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church committed to seeking new ways of living as followers of Jesus in today’s world.

For many, including myself, Iona is what might be called a thin place, a place where through contemplation, prayer and worship heaven and earth come especially close.  The ecumenical Christian community built around today’s Iona Abbey is a center for the revival of Celtic Christianity.  The music of John Bell (in the supplement to the hymnal The Faith We Sing) comes from the contemporary Iona Community.

As a part of our daily routine, we will begin the morning with worship at the Abbey and then return to our retreat house for breakfast and time of reflection and sharing.  The day closes with worship at the Abbey again after dinner and a time of sharing our learnings together.

Jolynn and I traveled to Iona for a part of my renewal leave in my first quadrennium as bishop of the Central Texas Conference.  I look forward in a special way to taking a hike back to the remote, desolate beach on St. Columba Bay where St. Columba and his small band first landed on their great mission to share Christ with Scotland and England.

I am reminded that the Christian faith is built on such courage, conviction, and community in Christ. We are here, in part, because of their witness and faith sharing.  Out of pilgrimages like this come the next generation of leaders and pastors for our churches.

 

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.

Reflections on the Visit of a Holy Man

I confess to being late to work this morning. I stayed extra half hour at home to watch the arrival of Pope Francis at the White House. The crowds gathered, the pomp and ceremony; the gravitas of press coverage, and the respectful public speeches – taken together they demonstrate our hunger for holy living and a greater connection with both the Lord and each other.

A holy man has come calling on America. We recognize this truth. Many of you are aware that I have been memorizing and living with Philippians 4:4-9 this year in my devotional life.   As a whole the passage reads:

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! 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.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

Pope Francis exemplifies phrases like verse 5, “let your gentleness show,” and verse 8, “if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things.” Amid the caterwauling that makes up modern America and especially the social networks, the holy example of his life speaks louder than words or actions.

I submit that herein lies a lesson for all of us who would call ourselves Christ followers. On an intuitive level, we are attracted to such an example. This does not mean the abandonment of conviction nor does it mean the adoption of a terminal fuzzy and false “niceness.” Pope Francis has been perfectly clear about where he stands on a number of controversial issues – the refugee and immigration crises along with global warming come to mind. (As a side note, United Methodist as represented by the action of General Conference – the only body with the ability to speak for the United Methodist Church – have adopted positions closely in line with those articulated by Pope Francis.) There is a prophetic element to his witness that we need to hear and wrestle with; a simplicity of lifestyle that challenges our materialistic excesses.

While we do not agree on all things doctrinal (the doctrine of Papal Infallibility comes readily to mind), we can disagree and pursue the truth in a manner that reflects a truly Christian lifestyle. Methodists have historically called this holiness of heart and life. It has both a personal and social dimension. Here is a larger doctrinal truth all Christians need to claim or reclaim at the core of our believing and behaving. The visit of this holy man is demonstrating for us how we might act with each other and especially with those with whom we might have strong disagreements. We do well to learn from his example because it is a reflection of the gospel.

I ask us, especially the United Methodists of the Central Texas Conference, to lift up Pope Francis in our prayers. I ask us also to pray for our brothers and sisters who are part of the Roman Catholic Church. May we together give a witness of behavior that befits the call and claim of Christ.

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #3 The Challenge of Why Bother ©

This is the third in a series of “Epiphany” related blogs which deal with the foundational issue of faith sharing and evangelism.  They spring from the understanding that among the very first to greet the new born Savior were a group of wise men who were probably adherents of another religion (Zoroastrianism).

As we struggle with the “Dilemma we face” (see my previous blog) I am convinced that, at its heart, this is a theological crisis.  With pointed insight Ross Douthat (see Bad Religion) and many others have delineated how much the old “mainline” churches have theologically descended into a vague unitarianism.  The challenge presented by much of an indifferent America is, “why bother being Christian?”

Stories abound.  Martha Grace Reese in Unbinding the Gospel viscerally catches my attention with the following tale:

The idea for the Mainline Evangelism Project can probably be dated to one conversation I had with some of my favorite people. I was leading a retreat for eight smart, loving pastors of growing mainline churches. Off the cuff, I asked, “Hey, what difference does it make in your own life that you are a Christian?”

Silence. Loud silence stretched on. And on. I stared around the circle in disbelief. Finally one volunteered hesitantly, “Because it makes me a better person???”

That question hadn’t been intended as a pop final. I was not raised in the church, so I have a very clear sense of having made a choice to become a Christian that went against the culture in which I had always lived. I have a good sense of what it is like to be Christian and what it is like not to be Christian. Most Christians and most pastors grew up in the church. They did not change cultures to get there. (From Unbinding the Gospel, Martha Grace Reese, pg. 14)

Clearly we have some theological work before us.  I would argue that this necessitates at a minimum a re-appropriation of doctrines of salvation and sin.  How real is sin in our life and times?  Surely ISIS and Ferguson challenge us with larger sins of violence and racism but the litany does not end there.  Honest personal reflection clamors for a self-application that in our comfortable middle class existence we wish to explain away.

Likewise our allergy to any talk of hell and damnation leads to a fuzzy notion of what we are saved from (if anything!).  The answer of course is sin and death.  Yet, the full implications of such in our time are often lost on us.  Let’s face it.  The biggest sin confronting most of us, the sin we really need to be saved from, is a massive dose of hedonism which hides in the guise of personal pleasure as long as we don’t harm anyone else.  It begs all kinds of larger questions.  Worship of the self and our own pleasure in any form is an idolatry, and the wages of sin still are death.  We need salvation.  We need a Lord – ruler – Master who can deliver us from our bondage.

In the face of the challenge of “why bother” there is reason for great hope.  A light really does shine in our darkness. The light has a name.  It is Christ.

I close with a perceptive insight offered by Ross Douthant:

The rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread skepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man a God unto himself – these forces have clearly weakened the traditional Christian churches. But they are also forces that Christianity has confronted successfully before. From a weary Pontius Pilate asking Jesus “what is truth?” to Saint Paul preaching beside the Athenian altar to an “unknown God,” the Christian gospel originally emerged as a radical alternative in a civilizations as rootless and cosmopolitan and relativistic as our own. There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of that original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age  (Bad Religion, by Ross Douthat, pg. 278-279).

I think the Apostle Paul has it right. “The wages that sin pays are death, but God’s gift is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)  More in the next blog on “the first steps at recovering a personal witness.”

Facing the Demons

The words are rightly well known.  They are oft uttered in heartfelt worship.  Any genuine life of intentional discipleship rides on the wings of its application.  What words are those?  “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong” (I John 1:9).  Our chafing comes in the opening phrase, “if we confess our sins.”

Most of us choke because we think confession is something others need to do.  The universality of sin is widely disputed in our comfortable existence.  Where evil (as a concomitant expression of sin) is encountered it is usually done so in the extremes of a group like Boka Haram.  And yet, boldly the Apostle Paul asserts, “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).  John likewise declares, “If we claim, ‘We don’t have any sin,’ we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8).  However discarded, sin is still around and still present in our lives.

By inference, I remember on a summer vacation, we found ourselves hiking in Yellowstone National Park, one of our favorite places on earth. We were hiking in the north central part of Yellowstone in a beautiful forested section with a small pristine lake. As we got about a half mile down the trail, we came upon a sign that said, “Danger. Bear Sightings in the Area.” And we paused. We held a debate on whether we should continue down the trail or not. I looked around and thought, “You know. Come on! This is so wonderful, let’s go.” And so, reluctantly, my wife followed me down the trail. She said, “What are you going to do if you come across a bear?” And I said, “I’m going to run and jump in a tree and climb it.” And Jolynn said, “Bears climb trees, Mike. They can get you there.” And I looked at this gorgeous small lake nearby and said, “I’m going to run into the water.” She said, “Bears fish.”

I was lost metaphorically up a tree with no way to get out of danger.  No offense is meant or intended, but I submit so are you, so are we – individually and collectively.  By way analogy at some time or another we have shinnied up a tree that breaks under our weight or plunged into water that threatens to drown us.

Consider another image from the Boston Marathon tragedy. In the film clip of the first explosion, one of the runners was literally blown to the ground by the shock wave.  We pray that may never happen again, but metaphorically we know the reality of being blown to the ground in the living of our days, sometimes because of what we have done and many times through no fault of our own.

Sin is real in our lives and in our society.  It must be confronted.  A crucial aspect of intentional faith development is not to lie to ourselves about our lives or the reality within which we live.  The biblical advice is right on target.  If we confess our sins … then through Christ we can climb down the tree or get out of the water.  Facing the demons of our lives is a necessary element of intentional faith development.

As a part of my Lenten blog series on Heading Towards the Cross, I shared Professor Scot McKnight’s list of false gods that clamor to reign over us, over the very best of us!

  • Individualism – the story that “I” am the center of the universe
  • Consumerism – the story that I am what I own
  • Nationalism – the story that my nation is God’s nation
  • Moral relativism – the story that we can’t know what is universally good
  • Scientific naturalism – the story that all that matters is matter
  • New Age – the story that we are gods
  • Postmodern tribalism – the story that all that matters is what my small group thinks
  • Salvation by therapy – the story that I can come to my full human potential through inner exploration (taken from The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight; pg. 157).

A part of the genius of Methodism was its conviction of holiness of heart and life to such a degree that intentional sin (sins of commission) could actually be dispensed with.  Methodists call this moving on to perfection.  The question is still firmly lodged in our ordination service.  At the Executive Clergy Session of Annual Conference candidates for ordination are asked:

  1. “Have you faith in Christ?
  2. Are you going on to perfection?
  3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
  4. Are you earnestly striving after it?
  5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?”  (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 336, p. 262)

The list continues.  The thrust is clear.  We are to be engaged in ongoing continual faith development.  Along with critical behavior change, we have to face the demons that trip us (and our society) up.

Dallas Willard in his great spiritual classic The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God recalls a powerful teaching by an equally great Christian leader:  “The influential Anglican Bishop Stephen Neill, for example, says simply: ‘To be a Christian means to be like Jesus Christ.’ And, ‘Being a Christian depends on a certain inner relatedness to the living Christ. Through this relatedness all other relationships of a man – to God, to himself, to other people – are transformed.’”  (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, pg. 42).

Critical Behavioral Change

Common wisdom is that we change our beliefs, then our actions follow.  Reality is often different.  Most of us act our way into a new way of thinking and believing.  If we push hard on this distinction, the truth emerges that it is a both/and not an either/or.  Do you recall the old question, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”  Or the more modern version, “Is it nurture or nature, environment or genes?”  Both are important.  Neither can be separated.

So it is with intentional faith development.  What we believe is crucial and critical; yet, belief alone is not the whole story to faith development.  The key adjective “intentional” involves critical behavioral change.  As important as belief is, as critical as truly orthodox theology is, we learn by acting ourselves into a new way of living out our faith.

I invite the reader to look with me at three critical behavior changes that are central to intentional faith development: Devotional and quiet time with an emphasis on scripture reading; Hands-on missional engagement especially with the poor; and Faith sharing with those who are non- or nominal Christians. (I readily admit this list is not exhaustive but let’s start here.)

Devotional and Quiet time with the Word of God:  I have written on other occasions about my conviction that we live life at an unsustainable (and unhealthy!) pace.  Quiet time with the Lord and with Holy Scripture in silence, prayer, reading and reflection is essential!  It is non-negotiable if we wish to grow in intentional faith development.

Perceptively Leonard Sweet writes, “One of my heroes is E. Stanley Jones. He is widely read and celebrated for being a Methodist missionary theologian. But I admire him for another reason: he was a great artist of stillness. Every day, seven days a week, Jones devoted the first hour to leaning on his ‘listening post.’ He stood, sat, or walked in silence and listened to the voice of God: ‘The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!’ E. Stanley Jones mastered the art of stillness, and inspired me to sign-off letters and sign books with this triple wordplay: ‘Still in One Peace’” (Leonard Sweet, The Greatest Story Never Told, pg. 42).

A few years ago the Willow Creek Association participated in an in-depth study of spiritual formation, growth and maturity.  It involved over 80,000 people and some 200 churches (including a few from the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church) all across the denominational and theological spectrum.  There was a deep correlation with devotional practice and regular scripture reading/study.

Hands-on Missional Engagement, especially with the Poor:  Intentional faith development fails when it is only a couple of content-based classes on prayer and bible study.  Yoked with quiet time is the crucial need to be personally engaged in hands on ministry.  Missional engagement with the poor by itself is not enough, but when linked with devotional quiet time and biblical reflection, walking with Christ takes on a whole new (greater!) dimension.

Just before she graduated from college, our daughter took a one night course her college offered on professional deportment.  The class was designed around teaching skills of public etiquette for a business lunch or dinner, proper professional dress, etc.  I remember she came home and instructed us that you are never to pass the salt and pepper shakers separately.  The instructor coached the students “the salt and pepper are married.  They go together!”  So it is with intentional faith development.  Devotion, prayer, quiet time and scripture are married to hands on missional engagement especially with the poor!

The third critical behavioral change is perhaps the most neglected and forgotten part of intentional faith development.

Faith sharing with those who are non- or nominal Christians: There is something amazing that happens in the interchange between faith sharing (including witnessing) with others, especially those who are non- or nominal Christians.  The sharers own faith is strengthened and grows in grace-filled maturity.  Many who participate on a mission trip report that they got much more out of the mission work than did those they were helping.  So it is with witnessing and faith sharing.  In the amazing spiritual economy of God, faith sharing (witnessing) becomes a critical behavioral change whereby the sharer grows in the love of Christ and the love of others.

I cannot help but recall D.T. Niles famous definition of evangelism.  “EVANGELISM is witness.  It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food.  The Christian does not offer out of his bounty.  He has no bounty.  He is simply a guest at his Master’s table and, as evangelist, he calls others too.  The evangelistic relation is to be “alongside of” not “over-against.”  The Christian stands alongside the non-Christian and points to the Gospel, the holy action of God.  It is not his knowledge of God that he shares, it is to God Himself that he points” (Daniel T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 96).

An Inquiry on the Way to Taize

Saturday evening April 5th found Jolynn and me driving over to White’s Chapel UMC to participate in a special Taize “Pilgrimage of Trust” here in the northern part of Texas. Readers may well remember that the Central Texas Conference sponsored a leadership development pilgrimage to Taize, France about a year ago. By way of background:

“The Taize Community is an ecumenical monastic community in France that annually welcomes tens of thousands of young adults from all over the world. … At Taize, young people are invited to united inner life and human solidarity. … The Brothers, from various Christian denominations and twenty-five countries, regularly organize huge gatherings for young adults in major European cities and on other continents [in this case 3 in the State of Texas]. These gatherings are part of a “Pilgrimage of Trust”: those who take part are invited to deepen their trust in God and in their ability to become bearers of reconciliation where they live.”

As we drove, I babbled on about how spiritually nurturing and enriching I found my time at Taize. I shared again my oft repeated mantra that we, in the American society of the 21st century, live at a pace of life that is not sustainable. I waxed eloquent as we drove (or at least I babbled semi-coherently) about how we had to make time for quiet and contemplation.

After listening patiently for a while, Jolynn interrupted me. “Would you have said or done this when you were a young man?” Ouch! I paused for a long time and thought. Then I responded, “Well, remember that I came to Methodism out of the Quakers.” We talked about how I did do some quiet and reflection time but not near enough. The painful truth is that I resisted the notion of Sabbath-rest and contemplation. My nature is passionate activism.

And yet, I find myself judging my own actions in reflection. I can recall a close friend and co-worker pushing me hard on taking more time for my family. Recently spending time with our 1 year old granddaughter reawakened the hectic pressures placed on young parents. I can also remember being on the edge of burnout and thinking about leaving the ministry in my late 30s.

In some deep ways – ways driven I think by the Holy Spirit – the Christian movement in America has gone through a change. Now, in ways many of us (yours truly) did not appreciate through much of the ‘70s and ‘80s, we have reconnected the importance of deep spiritual connectedness with ministry activism. This is a good trend and, as I’ve asserted, a work of the Holy Spirit.

I offer a prayer I wrote for Taize:

Holy One, Holy Three
Settle into the marrow of our being we pray.
Open the eyes of our hearts
To see you moving in our world.
Open the ears of our minds
To discern your greater purpose in our lives.
Take hold of us Lord Jesus, we pray,
Through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit;
That we may be moved to loving and caring
For those most distant and different from us;
That we might serve those most in need;
That we might witness in offering your grace
To those most bent by rage and deprivation.
Holy One, Holy Three
Settle into the marrow of our being
In this season of prayer and reflection.
And claim us Lord once again for You!
In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Bishop Mike Lowry

P.S. As you prepare for Holy Week, the Cross and Easter, I commend an article by Frederick W. Schmidt at http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/blog/entry/4906/before-you-celebrate-easter-get-real  entitled Before You Celebrate Easter, Get Real.

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.

 

COME HOLY SPIRIT – Report from Taize Part 3

I find myself fascinated by the way the Taize Community claims and proclaims a richly, powerfully, dynamic, active embrace of the Holy Spirit.  In many of our churches the Holy Spirit is the last element of the Holy Trinity,  tossed in as almost an afterthought.  We have neglected the Spirit at our peril and impoverishment.  There  is little stress here on the first person of the Trinity as a vague philosophical thought.  God is present through Christ in the Spirit dynamically!

It is fascinating to behold how high the Christology is at Taize and how deeply wrapped in the pneumatology (the Holy Spirit).  The two (Christ and the Holy Spirit) are distinct and yet seemingly inseparable.  One day Rev. Larry Duggins and I had the privilege of eating lunch with the Brothers as the guest of the leader of the Taize Community, Brother Alyoius.  I asked him, “What is the one message you would like to say to any bishop in the church regardless of nationality or denomination?”  He answered quickly without pause, “Stay close to Christ.”

Vague deism is absent in the Taize Community.  The vibrant personality of the Trinitarian God speaks forth.  The songs, prayer, communion (every morning) — all serve as elements of opening the worshipper to the personal agency of God active in our lives.  The Bible stresses the Lordship of Christ.  The songs are drenched in the intimate language of the Holy Spirit.

Marvelously open to others of a differing faith conviction, the Taize Community is nonetheless anchored in its Christology and pneumatology.  Sloppy pluralism doesn’t raise its head.  The embrace of the full personalism of the Holy Trinity (3 persons in 1 essence) is paramount.  The songs in particular are both prayer and theology; teaching (doctrine) and witness.

The Taize Community has much to teach the United Methodist Church at this juncture.  Wesley spoke strongly against a vague deism in his day.  The robust theology of the Trinity in action at Taize is echoed in the songs of Charles Wesley.  We need to reclaim our deeply Trinitarian core.  Once again Christology and pneumatology need to take center place in the life of the church as a believing and acting community of faith.

COME HOLY SPIRIT — Report from Taize 2

I came to Taize immersed in appointment making, preparations for Annual Conference, and the numbing administrative burdens of the office of bishop.  Mind you, I love what I do and I firmly believe God has called me to this place.  I am further convinced that no matter what someone’s job is (paid or unpaid), life can wear a person down.  For me a part of the wearing down lies in the struggle to build up the church even as the tsunami of secularism sweeps over the western world.  Kermit the Frog would say “it’s not easy being green!”  I’ll say, it’s not easy being Christian and especially being a Christian pastor in this day and time!

It took me a couple of days of being at Taize to detox enough so that I could attune myself to the Spirit’s speaking.  Wednesday evening as we sang, the Holy Spirit spoke to me.  In German we sang, “With you there is help and patience.”  In Latin, “it is good to hope and trust in The Lord.”   The music wound itself softly through languages I couldn’t even identify yet became strangely clear.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit was calling me back to faithfulness as attentive trust in The Lord.  Amazingly (providentially!), the only song we sang in English held the verse, “See I am near. … See, I make all things new.”

The Spirit conveyed to me that God in this time of radical change is making all things new in and through the Church.  These are not our last days.  Nor is this a time of despair.  Through the Holy Spirit, The Lord is shaping the church in a new way.  It is scary, at times even terrifying.  The way is often unclear and the Back to Egypt Committee has strong institutional standing.  Yet in it all the Holy Spirit is at work.  Bonum est condidere.  “It is good to hope and trust in The Lord.”

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