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Praying Our Way Forward ©

 

It is a famous story and even more famous poem, yet both the story and the poem bear repeating. In the early days of the Second World War, King George the VI gave a Christmas address to the British Empire. In the address he quoted a poem authored by Minnie Haskins. The poem is popularly known as “The Gate of the Year” but the title given it by the author was “God Knows.”

THE GATE OF THE YEAR
‘God Knows’

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

I am asking members of the Central Texas Conference, both lay and clergy, and all others who would join us to share in a special time for prayer for the future of The United Methodist Church.

For over forty years the United Methodist Church has wrestled deeply with how to best respond and be in ministry with our brothers and sisters who identify as LGBTQI. More specifically, The United Methodist Church finds itself in a deep crisis over whether our clergy should be allowed to preside at same-gender weddings and whether “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, Paragraph 304.3) will be eligible for ordination as Deacons and Elders in The United Methodist Church. Currently neither practice is allowed by the Church’s Discipline (church law).

At the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon, The United Methodist Church was on the edge of schismatic division over this issue. At the request of the General Conference the Council of Bishops (COB) of The United Methodist Church established a Commission on the Way Forward to bring a report to the a special called General Conference in February of 2019. While this Commission has been meeting, a number of Annual Conferences in the United States have declared their intention (and taken action upon that intention) to refuse to uphold church law as a matter of conscience. The COB has a special called meeting in late February of this year to consider a preliminary draft of the Commission’s report. In its regular meeting in May, the COB will consider the final recommendations of the Commission.

As a part of this larger work, the Council of Bishops have asked we as a people of faith be in prayer together over this potentially denominationally dividing issue. Accordingly, “The Central Texas Conference has been invited by the Council of Bishops to pray for the Commission on a Way Forward from Jan. 28 to Feb 3, 2018. (All other Conferences across the world are also asked to be in prayer over this matter.) You and your local church are invited to join in this important opportunity.

The Council of Bishops has asked each Annual Conference to commit to a week of intentional and fervent prayer for the Commission on the Way Forward. The appointed week for the Central Texas Conference to pray our way forward is Jan. 28 – Feb. 3. I have signed up to be in prayer on Tuesday morning at 7:00 a.m. on January 29th. I both invite and encourage every organization associated with the CTC – each local church, every district office and center of the CTCSC, all Wesley Foundations, extension ministries, UMWs, UMMs, etc. – to claim at least one 15-minute period and devote themselves to prayer.

The Central Texas Conference website has full details and link by which you can sign up for a prayer slot. The great missionary evangelist, pastor and teacher E. Stanley Jones once offered the following benedictory prayer. I now pass it on to you that together we may pray for our Lord to guide us and the Church into the future.

“As you go into the future, remember: The light of God surrounds you. The love of God enfolds you. The presence of God watches over you. The power of God protects you. Wherever you are, God is” (E. Stanley Jones, The Way, April 9).

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.

Prayers for Cabinet Inventory Retreat ©

This morning I drove down to Stillwater Lodge at Glen Lake Camp and Retreat Center.  We begin a three-day Cabinet Inventory Retreat.  Our first activity is worship and prayer.  With our foundation and focus built on God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we together as a Cabinet including the three new incoming district superintendents, will spend some time thoughtfully reviewing the list of retiring clergy and incoming potential new clergy.  Today we have the largest retirement class in recent memory.  We have already received 19 letters of retirement.  Sunday we learned the sad news of the death of a colleague, Pastor Duane Chambers (Lay Supply at Italy-Dresden), and we have a second retirement from 1 pastor (who obviously failed retirement the first time).  This makes something like 21 openings.  (In Cabinet language we call those “clean openings” because there is no one currently down to hold that appointive position come Annual Conference.)  Additionally, if history holds to its regular pattern, we should receive a couple of more retirements before Annual Conference.

Kathy Ezell, Associate Director for the Board of Ordain Ministry, reports seventeen incoming clergy (new seminary graduates, etc.) which includes three deacons who are up for commissioning.  We have not yet received the final list for those who are coming via the Local Pastors’ track.

We will also review the number of fulltime openings for appointment as well as situations where a church/charge will be moving to a less than full time appointment.  We will do so, carefully working through each district and category on the following list (in alphabetical order):

  1. Central District
  2. East District
  3. New Church Starts District
  4. North District
  5. South District
  6. West District
  7. The Center for Evangelism & Church Growth
  8. The Center for Leadership (Campus Ministry)
  9. The Center for Mission Support

In each case we will pause for prayer and a deeper assessment of needs, hopes and dreams.

I write to ask you the reader to be in prayer for the Central Texas Conference Cabinet while we are on our Inventory Retreat.  Recently two beautiful prayers have come to my attention.  My wife Jolynn passed on a prayer from Columba, the great Christian Saint and missionary who brought the Christian faith to Scotland by way of founding Iona Abbey.  It reads as follows:

Be a bright flame before me, O God
a guiding star above me.
Be a smooth path below me,
a kindly shepherd behind me
today, tonight, and for ever.

Alone with none but you, my God
I journey on my way;
what need I fear when you are near,
O Lord of night and day?
More secure am I within your hand
than if a multitude did round me stand.
Amen.  (Saint Columba, Iona Abbey)

The second is a prayer that I ran across in my daily devotional reading.  Dr. Sid Spain, my spiritual director and companion in the faith, and I have been working through A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Ruben Job, (known by many as simply “The Green Book”).  I have added the plural to the tradition phrasing of the prayer by Norman Shawchurck:

Defend me [us] from all temptation, that I [we] may ever accept the right and refuse the wrong.
Defend me [us] from myself, that in your care my [our] weakness may not bring me [us] to shame.
May my [our] lower nature never seize the upper hand.
Defend me [us] from all that would seduce me [us], that in your power no tempting voice may cause me to listen, no tempting sight fascinate my [our] eyes.
Defend me [us] against the chances and changes of this life, not that I [we] may escape them but that I [we] may meet them with firm resolve;
not that I [we] may be saved from them but that I [we] may come unscathed through them.
Defend me [us] from discouragement in difficulty and from despair in failure, from pride in success, and from forgetting you in the day of prosperity.
Help me [us] to remember that there is no time when you will fail me [us] and no moment when I [we] do not need you.
Grant me [us] this desire:
that guided by your light and defended by your grace,
I [we] may come in safety and bring honor to my [our] journey’s end by the defending work of Jesus Christ my [our] Lord.
May it always be so!
(Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Ruben Job; pp. 104-105)

May we pray together?

A Time for Prayer ©

This Sunday night, February 28, at 9:45 p.m., I will pause for a special set-aside 15 minutes of prayer for the upcoming General Conference meeting of The United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon in May. I invite others to join with me and with the Central Texas Conference in taking an opportunity to pause and be in special prayer for General Conference. The need is great.

As I prepare for my own time of prayer, I recall that powerful scene in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles which opens with the disciples being instructed by the risen Lord, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

Stunned, they watch the ascension of Jesus. “While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, ‘Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven’”(Acts 1:10-11).  What do they do next?  It is amazingly instructive.  They returned to Jerusalem had a prayer meeting!  They didn’t argue about strategy.  They didn’t battle over doctrine.  To be sure those important tasks would come later.  They first prayed!  “All were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14).

My friend and colleague Bishop William Willimon has written: “The response of the disciples to the instruction, reproof, and the promise is exemplary.  They gathered to pray (Acts 1:12-14).  In an activist age one might expect the disciples to undertake some more ‘useful’ activity.  They are told to be witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’ (1:8) and their first response is prayer.  The action demanded of the church is more than busyness and strenuous human effort.  Disciples have been told that the promised kingdom is a gift to be given in God’s own time and that the promised Spirit is also by God’s grace.  Their mission requires more than even their earnest striving” (Bishop William Willimon, Acts, p. 21).  So too, does ours.  Our mission, to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, requires fervent prayer.  I invite you to join with me in such prayer.

By way of background, the United Methodist Church’s ultimate governing body is the General Conference. It meets every 4 years to establish church direction and polity (which means governance and law). General Conference alone has the ability to speak for world-wide United Methodist Church. The delegates are ½ clergy and ½ laity with representatives elected by their home Conferences on a proportional basis. Appropriately, this year’s General Conference meeting (which opens May 10th) gathers together under the banner of “Therefore Go! Pray.”

It is no secret that The United Methodist Church is wrestling with a deeper division over central issues of faith, doctrine and ministry. The obvious presenting issue swirls around same gender marriage (which the United States Supreme Court has recently ruled a constitutional right) and ordination of avowed practicing homosexuals (gay and lesbian). However, it is critically important to understand that far deeper division of faith and doctrine impact our disunity. One of the various renewal groups has gone so far as to assert that the unity of the church is hanging by a thread.

In response to perceived struggles and divisions, the Council of Bishops voted to ask the Residential Bishops (active bishops) to lead their Annual Conference(s) in a 24 hour Prayer Vigil on a designated day between January 1 and the opening of General Conference. I took this specific request to the Conference Core Team and to the Cabinet. We selected February 28th, this coming Sunday, as our day to be in specific prayer. Dr. Bob Holloway, District Superintendent of the East District, agreed to put together a team from Central Texas to guide our response. They have developed a guided Taize-style prayer resource which is posted at www.ctcumc.org/GC16-prayervigil .

Requests have gone out in all districts calling us to pray for General Conference and the unity of the church. You may sign up for a time slot by going to http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c084fa9ad2aa7fd0-therefore. Here at the Conference Service Center, we have teamed up with the South District to cover a portion of the 24-hour period. I signed up for the 9:45 p.m. time slot. Whenever you are led to make time to pray this Sunday, I ask that you join with me in praying for the Central Texas Conference Delegates (listed at the end of this blog) and for the General Conference as a whole. May the Holy Spirit truly guide our deliberations and actions. “Not our will, but thy will O Lord be done!”

The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church Delegates and reserves to General and Jurisdictional Conference:

General – Tim Bruster (clergy) Tom Harkrider (lay), John McKellar (clergy), Kim Simpson (lay), Clifton Howard (clergy), Steve McIver (lay), Brenda Wier (clergy), Darlene Alfred (lay)

Jurisdictional (and General alternates) – Tom Robbins (clergy), Ethan Gregory (lay), Chris Hayes (clergy), Darcy Deupree (lay), Jim Conner (clergy), Kylie Campbell (lay), Debra Crumpton (clergy), Kevin Gregory (lay)

Alternates (to Jurisdictional) – Louis Carr (clergy), Mary Percifield (lay), Mary Spradlin (clergy), Marianne Brown (lay), Jason Valendy (clergy), Kathy Ezell (lay)

 

Lament, Challenge and Hope ©

I confess that I had initially written a different blog to share today.  (It will be published on Friday instead.)  However the tragedy of events in San Bernardino, California brought me to a halt.  No doubt as with many of you, I watched transfixed to the broadcast of the events that followed.  As the story of the mass shooting unfolded and more details became known, I found myself engulfed by tragedy, despair and anger.  As one writer put it, shootings feel like the new normal.  Anguish engulfs us once again.

Quieter reflection has brought me to a point of lament, challenge and hope.  Careful readers of the Holy Scriptures know that there is a category of Psalms called simply Psalms of Lament.  Some are corporate, for the nation and people collectively.  Others are more individual in context.  Psalm 42 speaks to my heart and mind at such a time.  It echoes the confusing jumble of my emotions and thoughts.

“Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.
When will I come and see God’s face?
My tears have been my food both day and night,
as people constantly questioned me,
“Where’s your God now?” …

I will say to God, my solid rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I have to walk around,
sad, oppressed by enemies?”
10 With my bones crushed, my foes make fun of me,
constantly questioning me: “Where’s your God now?”  (Psalm 42:1-3, 9-10)

The most faithful among us ask, “Where is God?”  The deepest of disciples long for the very presence of the Lord.

In our lament-filled longing, faith calls us to remember we follow a crucified Lord.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is present amidst the bullet riddled terror of the shootings.  Christ is with us as first responders reach out to help.  The Savior’s presence at the epicenter of violence and terror challenges me with a divine calling.

I am challenged to turn away from the worship of violence.  I am challenged by the Savior to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).  We live in a world that often gives violence a final word.  War haunts our globe.  Terrorism has become a fact of political expression.  Interpersonal violence stalks our streets and infects our families.  It is a short step from the venting of rage verbally (in person or on the internet) to the perpetration of violence as an expression of a false, corrosive righteousness.  Stop and reflect on how many television programs are structured around a violent theme or plot.  We have a cultural fascination with a violence that needs to be repented.

Please hear me carefully.  Prudence in safety and protection is not a bad thing.  Nor am I attempting here to enter the debate about gun control.  Proper measures for protection are good and to be taken.  While I was converted to following Christ as a young adult among the Quakers, I left that group (which I still respect highly today!) because I am not a pacifist.  Christian just war theory offers one faithful avenue for confronting oppression.

Beneath our response and lament, our rage and anguish lies the deeper issue of moral challenge.  We are adrift as a moral culture today.  Again carefully, I am not just referring to America or just to terrorists.  Our world culture is adrift.  We have played fast and loose with a moral relativism that has led us away from the Lord.  Herein lies our challenge.  We must confess reliance on false gods (especially the false gods of violence and self-reliance) and return to the Lord.  This begins with each of us individually and links us corporately together in Christ.

The challenge of returning to a greater faithfulness brings us back to deeper, truer hope.  Let the Psalmist speak again to our world and to us even as we are caught in a horrifying new normal.

“Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed?
Why are you so upset inside?
Hope in God!
Because I will again give him thanks,
my saving presence and my God.” (Psalm 42:11)

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).

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.

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #7:

Spirit Led

This blog will be posted as we open the 2015 meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference.  We meet in a time of great opportunity and equally great peril.  Facing forward with a focus on the local church, I invite us to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit for the Church of Jesus Christ.  One of the great and godly things going on is the gradual rediscovery among mainline Christians of the fullness of the doctrine of the Trinity.  Dr. Jason Byassee’s new book Trinity: The God We Don’t Know is but one example of this very positive trend.  As the post-Christendom Church continues to emerge, the Holy Spirit’s leading is taking center stage.  Insightfully Dr. Byasee comments, “The descent of the Spirit in the birth of the church is almost like a second incarnation. … What God does for us in Christ, God works in us by his Holy Spirit” (Jason Byassee, Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, p. 41).

Spiritual formation and small group ministry must once again take center stage in the life of the United Methodist Church.  Prayer is at the heart of openness to the Spirit’s leading.  Discernment (as a form of prayer) – an often forgotten, misunderstood and/or misused tool for seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance – must once again assume its rightful place at the center of our corporate ministry.  “We know this because our good news didn’t come to you just in speech but also with power and the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5).

Discernment (along with Holy Conversation – a deeply abused and misunderstood concept in the life of the church today!) involves extensive quiet, intensive biblical study, and a settled openness to guidance that comes from God.  Discernment by nature is complex but at its core involves a quiet attentiveness to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit over, above and beyond our own desires or preferences. Discernment in its fullness takes a practiced heart, fine-tuned to hear the word of God and the single-mindedness to follow that word in love.  It is truly a gift from God, but not one dropped from the skies fully formed.  It is a gift cultivated by a prayerful life and the search for self-knowledge. Typically we apply discernment on an individual level.  We need to also recover the concept of discernment for the church as a body seeking the Lord’s leading.

Ruth Haley Barton carefully instructs both the church and the individual who would seek the Spirit’s leading.  “The capacity to discern and do the will of God arises out of friendship with God, cultivated through prayer, times of quiet listening, and alert awareness” (Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, p. 116).  Perceptively she counsels those seeking discernment that “the practice of discernment begins with a prayer for indifference. … Here [indifference] means ‘I am indifferent to anything but God’s will.’  This is a state of wide-openness to God” (Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, p. 119; Chapter 8 on “Discernment” is particularly helpful.  So too is the work of Monsignor Joesph Tetlow, SJ, Making Choices in Christ — my former spiritual guide – and various writings of  John Ortberg, especially Soul Keeping.)

The leading of the Holy Spirit will always be shaped by the love of God in Christ. “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).  In a variety of ways we must ask as both a church and as individuals, “What does love call for? How are we to best live out of the love of God in Christ?”  Quick superficial answers are not helpful here.  Often what seems loving may in discernment turn out not to be loving at all.

I am currently reading A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir.  It is the autobiography of the eminent patristic theologian and Wesleyan scholar Thomas Oden (long time Professor at The School of Theology at Drew University).  At one point he recounts a sabbatical early in his career as a theologian to Heidelberg University.  While there he had the rare opportunity to visit with perhaps the greatest Christian thinker of the 20th century (and arguably one of the greatest Christian theologians ever), Karl Barth.  Early in the conversation, Professor Oden shared his enthusiasm for the then voguish combination of therapy and theology centered on self-affirmation.  Professor Barth remarked, “Proceed cautiously.  The only source of love of the neighbor is the Word which God speaks affirming both you and the neighbor, not any self-affirmation one gives to oneself”  (Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, p. 96). Later, as they closed the conversation, Dr. Barth encouraged him and underscored “that the church must ‘live by the Holy Spirit,’ and not the spirit of the times” (Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir, p. 96).

We need that same encouragement and caution today.  D.T. Niles words temper our self-serving attempts to insist that the Holy Spirit baptize our preferences.  “He (or she) who marries the present age, will be a widow (or widower) in the next.” The Spirit is not subject to the faddish whims of our times.  It is not governed by temporary enthusiasm, momentary inspirations or even heart-felt aspirations.  The Holy Spirit’s leading of the church is anchored in Scripture and tradition.  It lives within the riches of the grace of God – prevenient, justifying and sanctifying.

The leading of the Spirit is not an embrace of every high emotion that comes along.  The Holy Spirit does not and will not lead us contrary to the witness of Holy Scripture.  Likewise under the Spirit’s guidance and interpretation of the witness of Scripture is guided by the great historical affirmations of the Christian faith as found in the seminal creeds.  There too we see the footprint of the Holy Spirit’s leading.

We are being led into a new future by the Holy Spirit.  This is God’s doing.  May we be among those who are prayerfully discerning.

A Call for Prayer and Healing from the Council of Bishops

council of bishops logo 2014_medOnce a quadrennium, the United Methodist Council of Bishops meets intentionally outside the United States, which reminds us that we are truly a worldwide church. As we gather in Berlin, I ask for your prayers, especially for those Christians undergoing persecution, civil unrest and violence, as well as those dealing with the devastation brought about by natural disasters. I also request prayers for all the bishops as we gather together to discern the Holy Spirit’s guidance of this great church.

On the opening day of our meeting, Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, sent an open letter to the people of The United Methodist Church requesting that we all join together in prayer for the church and the world. Bishop Brown, not only remembered those who are suffering around the world, he also commented on the recent eruption of violence in Baltimore and the need to no longer be in denial about the powerful impact of racism in the U.S. Bishop Brown currently serves as bishop for the San Francisco Episcopal Area, but he grew up in the very neighborhood of Baltimore that is ground zero for the rioting and unrest in the area.

I offer up to you his letter as a guest blog post.

“To the people of The United Methodist Church:

Grace and peace to the people called United Methodist and all people of good will. I greet you in the name of Jesus, the Christ who is risen. From May 1-7, the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church will hold its 2015 meeting in Berlin, Germany. During this week, we will be praying for the church and taking actions that we hope will help lead the church in a faithful response to the call of discipleship. Please pray with us, for the church and all those the church seeks to serve.

We are a church that practices ministry to the world in Jesus’ name. While United Methodist churches are primarily in Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States, our ministry partnerships connect us with every continent. So, we grieve when the news of the day reminds us of the many ways the people of our world are hurting and suffering under the weight of tragedy. We seek to respond readily with prayers and aid to the natural disasters such as we have just witnessed in Nepal. And the human inflicted pain also requires a prayerful response that declares that terrorism, human exploitation, bullying and abuses of power will not overcome us.

Please join me and the Council of Bishops in prayer, reflection and action toward overcoming the issues that sometimes divide our societies. Together we can find ways, appropriate to our social context, for healing the brokenness between us.

For those of us in the United States, our attention has been called to the powerful impact of racism on all of us. If we seek healing, we cannot continue to be in denial. Some of us have read the shocking Justice Department report on Ferguson and most have seen the violence that tragically erupted there against police officers. Since then other unarmed Black men have been killed in several cities and now Baltimore has also erupted in violence.

As a Black man who grew up in the very Baltimore neighborhood we have watched explode, this is personal. I grieve over what I see in my old neighborhood. The anger in the community is real because of decades of distrust.

Video documentation has raised expectations that claims of wrongdoing would be seriously considered; so distrust grows because very few police officers have been held accountable.

A just society cannot be built on violence. Violence and misconduct by either a misguided police officer or an angry citizen will not lead us to beloved community. Reconciliation can occur when we tell the truth and take responsibility for our actions.

Rev. Willis Johnson, pastor of Wellspring United Methodist Church which serves Ferguson, Missouri, said this: “Who is going to become a model for dealing with reconciling and truth? That is the role of the Church!”

In this season of resurrection, the Council of Bishops and I believe that we followers of Jesus are called to lead the way. Let us examine and repent of our own sins of racial bias and abuse of privilege. Let us proclaim and live the Gospel of love and justice for all. Let us become proactive in modeling that gospel in our churches and teaching it to young and old alike. Let us be disciples who are engaged with God in transforming our world, beginning in our own communities, working for justice, judicial reform and good police/community relations. Let us break down the walls that divide us and build relationships that vanquish our fears. When we work together for justice and peace, we will no longer be strangers.

Remember, all who would follow Jesus, he calls us again and again to “love your neighbor as yourself.”(Matt.22:39) Even out of the injustice and violence he experienced, Jesus leads us to hope and resurrection. Let us believe in and practice the power of prayer for our world, our church, our neighbors and our own lives.

And, the risen Christ said to his followers, “remember, I am with you always.”(Matt.28:20)

Your brother in Christ,

Warner H. Brown, Jr.”

Following the  release of the Bishop Brown’s letter, Bishop Gregory V. Palmer of the Ohio West Episcopal Area called for the Council to issue a pastoral letter on racism and asked the president to appoint a task force to work on this effort, to be completed by May 7.

Peace Be With You ©

A straightforward CNN news story reports the following: “They were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and fellow citizens. They were students and dreamers, pursuing their ambitions for a better life. And on Tuesday night, Kenyans gathered to remember them as innocent victims of a terrorist attack that stunned a nation and left communities heartbroken. The gathering began with quiet chatter among a crowd of hundreds, before mourners went silent and moved toward one end of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Then, 147 crosses were unloaded from a truck and quietly planted in the ground. The names of some of the victims were read aloud and then repeated by the audience in unison. The crowd then sang the national anthem. The attack at a university in Garissa on Thursday killed 147 people, mostly students. The Al-Shabaab militant group claimed responsibility. Kenyans attending the event wrote notes honoring the victims and lit candles.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/07/africa/kenya-attack-victims-vigil )

It continues with the stark reality of religious violence and Christian martyrdom. “In the Garissa attack, the terrorists separated Christians from Muslims, making some recite verses from the Quran. Those who couldn’t quote the holy book tried to flee the gunfire, but whizzing bullets sent them to the ground. Others scampered into closets and stayed there for hours, until after the siege was over. Images from the scene showed heaps of students lying in pools of blood, faces down.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/07/africa/kenya-attack-victims-vigil/)

Many individuals and churches in the Central Texas Conference have personal relationships with Kenya. Having participated in the Central Texas Conference (CTC) mission trip to Kenya a year ago, the terrible news brought the reality of persecution and violence home. I could not help but think immediately of Bishop Joseph Ntombura and his wife Pauline staying in our home in Fort Worth. (We had visited their home in Kenya on our mission trip). The many friends and vital ministry of Maua Methodist Hospital (Maua Methodist Hospital Service Fund #09613A) are lodged in our hearts as a Conference. The martyred faithfulness and senseless tragedy of Garissa touches us personally.

How is a Christian to respond? Our first answer is render whatever practical aid we can. Our truest second instinct is to deep prayer. The reaction we must guard vigilantly against is a reaction of violence against those innocent others who are Muslims.

The reality of the killings should well focus us on another killing. This tragedy took place just before Good Friday and the killing of Christ on a cross. Now, two days post Easter, we know the story did not end at the cross. Neither will it end in the bullet-marked, blood-soaked detritus of Nairobi University at Garissa. The need for a grace-filled, love-soaked, hope-offering witness by Christians is greater now than ever. It is to our time that Jesus speaks.

On Easter, Jolynn and I worshipped with our son and daughter-in-law in Boston. In part the pastor’s hope-filled sermon led us back to Easter evening and the story of disciples huddled behind a locked door including the interchange with “doubting,” or rather “honest,” Thomas. I invite the reader to recall what Jesus said to the fear filled (no doubt in some anger driven – towards the Romans and other Jewish authorities) Christ followers. The twentieth chapter of John’s gospel (good news!) records the Savior’s greeting. “It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, ‘Peace be with you’”   (John 20:19).

The great William Temple who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the World War II wrote a commentary on the Gospel of John. He who preached during the Battle of Britain reminds us, “The wounds of Christ are His credentials to the suffering race of [humans]” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple). In writing on Jesus words “peace be with you,” Archbishop Temple then quoted a poem by Edward Shillito published under the title Jesus of the Scars.

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
(Taken from Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple, p. 366)

But Archbishop Temple did not stop there in his commentary. He directed attention further to the follow injunction of Jesus our Lord. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’” (John 20:21) . The peace of Christ is in very truth and fact with us should we choose to so avail ourselves. Prophetically Archbishop Temple added: “This is the primary purpose for which the Spirit is given: that we may bear witness to Christ. We must not expect the gift while we ignore the purpose. A Church which ceases to be missionary will not be, and cannot rightly expect to be spiritual” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple, p. 367).

Jesus now once again says to us and to our Kenyan brothers and sisters, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’” (John 20:21).

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