Archive - presence of Holy Spirit RSS Feed

THE COURAGE TO MARCH © PT 2

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given by Bishop Mike Lowry
June 6, 2016

PART II – “A Relentless Focus on the Mission”

As we move into a new quadrennium the pathway before us is clear. We must retain a relentless focus on our mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”[1]  The big three will remain the big three.

  1. Christ Centered
  2. Focused on the local Church
  3. Development of a new generation of lay and clergy leadership.

Retaining a deep Christ-centered emphasis, understanding that we live in the embrace of God as the first person of the Trinity, our next step is to embrace the fullness of our great Trinitarian doctrine and heritage with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Our mantra is the Holy Trinity; God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  I intend to deliberately help us widen our understanding and sense of the Holy Spirit as God active in our midst this very day!  I intend to do this without giving an inch on being Christ-centered.  The two naturally go together!  I love the way our conference teacher, Alan Hirsch, puts it in his book The Forgotten Ways:  “The desperate, prayer-soaked human clinging to Jesus, the reliance on his Spirit, and the distillation of the gospel message into the simple, uncluttered message of Jesus as Lord and Savior is what catalyzed the missional potencies inherent in the people of God.”[2]

The Discipline of the United Methodist Church calls the local church “the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.”[3]  I remember when we received the Towers-Watson report in the Council of Bishops back in 2010. Fred Miller, a world renowned expert in institutional leadership, growth and change who led the exhaustive study of the United Methodist Church, made the first key recommendation that there be a 10 year intense focus on the local congregation.  Under questioning by the bishops after presenting the report, he admitted that they would have recommend a 30 year focus on the local church if they thought we could stick with it.  This is that important.  It’s about the local church!  The local church doesn’t exist for the Conference Center.  The Conference Center exists for the local church.

To this end, strategically we will continue the focus on congregational transformation as represented by the Center of Evangelism and Church growth through transformational efforts like the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) and the Small Church Initiative (SCI) as well as other transformation ministries such as Holy Conversations, individual consultants and the like. As a part of this emphasis, we will continue to lift up the stories – the narratives if you will – of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of individuals and congregations.  Consider this one, taken from the recent (and continuing) WeAreMore emphasis.

Along with this emphasis, we now have solid research that indicates that a congregation (including the pastor(s) and key lay leaders) who can articulate a clear coherent path to discipleship is significantly more fruitful in all five major areas of congregational vitality (worship attendance, professions of faith, small group development, missional outreach with the poor and those in need, and extravagant generosity through Connectional Mission Giving and second mile offerings). Bethesda, Acton and First Fort Worth are three examples in the North District alone.

The first time I read about seeing a clearly articulated path to discipleship put out by a congregation was at a workshop at Community of Joy Lutheran Church in Arizona. They were public about pointing back to Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church.  In that book Warren outlines the baseball diamond approach to discipleship used at Saddleback Community Church.  First base was worship attendance.  Second base was bible study and prayer. Third base was mission involvement with the poor and those in need.  Home plate was sharing the faith evangelistically with others.

To my current regret, I and others dissed their approach. We critically noted that few people follow a rigid linear approach to discipleship formation.  Some start with Bible study; others are hooked first through mission work at home or abroad.  There seemed to be as many approaches as there are people to approach.  You know what?  We were both right and terribly wrong.  Discipleship formation is not linear.  One size emphatically does not fit all!  People are unique – duh!  And yet!  The clear delineation of a path is crucial to learning and growth in discipleship.

It reminds me of my son playing T-ball at age 5. One of the kids knocked the ball off the T and headed to third base.  Our left fielder was too busy picking dandelions to pick up the ball.  One of Nathan’s buddies hit ball and took off into center field!  (I have no idea why!)  Nathan only seemed to care about getting the promised snow cone at the end of the game (win or lose).  I can remember sitting in the bleachers in a three piece suit (having come from conducting a funeral service at a nearby cemetery) in the heat of a humid Corpus Christi, Texas summer with the Gulf of Mexico on my left and the T-ball field in front of me laughing so hard I almost fell out of the bleachers.  But you know what, the kids learned baseball.

Something similar happens when a clearly defined path to discipleship is articulated. We’ve discovered that a clearly articulated path to discipleship, even if overly simplified, is vastly superior to the alternative of being unable to cogently and briefly (in an elevator speech) summarize the elements of you and your church’s path to discipleship.  Even the kids that ran to third base and center field were at least engaged and learning baseball.  By way of analogy we need to trust the laity to figure it out and adapt.  They will learn.  Think of the insightful brilliance of the missional slogan Texas Wesleyan University has adopted – Smaller. Smarter.  It tells you all you need to know.  If you come to TWU you will get a quality education in a small classroom environment geared to your learning.

Therefore, I am publically instructing every District Superintendent to ask every pastor and every church council at their Charge Conference or some other appropriate local congregational setting to articulate and share their specific path to discipleship along with the strategic steps to move people forward in their discipleship development. If you don’t have one, your DS will work with you to come up with one.  Furthermore, I will ask every DS to report those strategic paths to discipleship at the Cabinet Inventory prior to our beginning the appointment process next February.  (Hear me carefully, if you don’t know or are not sure, ask!  We will pour gallons of help into the engine of your congregation’s disciple making system if you ask.  We work with the coalition of the willing!  You will not be abandoned but aided; however, you have to ask.  Accountability will be expected by all involved, which includes us at the Conference office.)  We need to think this through and more importantly pray this through. Together we will learn!

 

[1]               The Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 120, p. 91
[2]               Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 86
[3]               The Book of Discipline 2012, Paragraph 120, p. 91

A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit #8:

The Future Before Us

I come now to the close of an eight part series on “A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirit.” I opened recalling how books on giving birth to one’s first child describe the emotional changes and feeling of an expectant mother – irritable, emotional, anxious, excited, exuberant, irrational. The list is also a descriptive of what the mainline (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) churches are going though in American society during the second decade of the 21st century. The future is now unfolding before us. “The Lord is near!” (Philippians 4:6).

How now shall we live? The answer which comes ringing back to us through the great tradition of the church in keeping with the witness of Holy Scripture is clear – with Spirit induced hope! These are not the last days of the church. Far from it. These are days of a pulsing new beginning (or if you prefer renewal) under the Spirit’s guidance.

William Butler Yeats marvelous poem The Second Coming needs to be heard again with the ears of expectant faith.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart;  the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(By Willian Butler Yeats 1865-1939)

Written in the aftermath of World War I’s devastation, the poet calls us once again to a radical trust in God. We too are called back to Bethlehem. We must kneel before the baby and recall that it is His church, not ours.

Jason Byassee perceptively notes: “Religious communities do have a tendency to look back to a golden era and romanticize a lost time. The church should not. We know greater things are yet to come. God not only grants us knowledge about himself, God progressively comes closer to us, fills us, and our world with more of himself. First Son, then Spirit. With God, the best is always yet to come” (Jason Byassee, Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, pp. 38-39).

I believe God in Christ though the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is speaking to us anew. There are so many passages of Scripture that clamor for our attention in times like these. Among them some of the best advice comes from Hebrews 12. “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Paul’s great writing to the church at Philippi guides us as well.  “It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).

The discerning reader will add other passages. Taken together they beckon us to a new future. Truly, the church is of God and will be preserved until the end of time. We do not rest on our own promises or even ardent good intent. We live in God’s greater purpose! Over the centuries a host of different voices have given witness to this greater truth. Our various organizational manifestations may stumble and crumble, but God’s great purpose will out! The battle belongs to the Lord! (2 Chronicles 20:15).

We are at the end of a time of cultural privilege and accommodation. Despite the Judicial Council, the guaranteed appointment (in its current form) is a Dodo bird already scheduled for extinction. The dominance of a physical structure (building) is receding. And yet now more than ever our witness is needed in a world beaten down, half-starved, morally bankrupt and spiritually emaciated. (Dr. Timothy Tennent’s writings on a similar theme are well worth exploring; see “I Came, I Saw, I Loved: My Charge to the Asbury Theological Seminary Spring Graduating Class of 2015” http://timothytennent.com/2015/06/03/i-came-i-saw-i-loved-my-charge-to-the-asbury-theological-seminary-spring-graduating-class-of-2015/)

There is a story which Pope Benedict XVI loved to repeat “about Napoleon exclaiming to French bishops that he had to ‘destroy the Catholic Church.’ A particularly courageous bishop responded, ‘But sire, not even we have been able to do that!’” (Taken from Trinity: The God We Don’t Know, by Jason Byassee, p. 48). We Methodists can easily and accurately transpose this tale into our context. Despite our best (or worst) efforts we are unable to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. This is truly good news from the Lord God. The future – the God led, God inspired, God anointed future – lies before us.

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.

The Cape of Good Hope ©

This Sunday I will be preaching at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Belton.  I will be using the lectionary text for the second Sunday of Easter, John 20:19-30.  As I reflected on the passage, my mind drifted back to an illustration used by Rev. Michael Green, the great British pastor and scholar.

In 1499 A.D. the European view of the world changed dramatically. For years European traders had been looking for a sea route to India. They had been searching for a way to the land rich with spices and perfumes around the southern tip of Africa. “All attempts at rounding the Cape had failed. So much so that this treacherous headland was known as the Cape of Storms and it was the scene of many wrecks. However, one determined sailor determined to try again. He succeeded in rounding the Cape and reaching the East. Indeed, there is still a monument to this famous mariner, Vasco da Gama, in China today. Ever since he sailed back to Lisbon [arriving home in 1499 A.D.] it has been impossible to doubt that a way to the Orient exists round the bottom of Africa. The very name of that perilous Cape was changed to its present title, the Cape of Good Hope” (Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus, p. 131).

I think we often live at the juncture of the Cape of Storms.  This week I watched news of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber.  I’ve continued my ongoing prayers for the young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the victims of the Garissa killing spree in Kenya, and for the safety of US soldiers serving in the Middle East (all a part of my regular prayer life).  I have read my morning paper with stories of crimes, struggles, and storms right here in Texas.  I had my fill and then some of the senseless and often fruitless political wrangling of both parties.  I have wrestled with and prayed about storms battering my work as a bishop and life as a husband, son, and brother.  My strong hunch is so have you.  Metaphorically speaking, we sail on seas that traverse the Cape of Storms.

When I read the Bible story of those disciples gathered behind locked doors on Easter evening, I think the Lord through Holy Spirit is speaking again to me, to us.  He is reminding me that we also sail past the Cape of Good Hope because Christ is risen and the ultimate destination the Savior offers is life lived with God.

I am forcefully struck by a cardinal truth in this passage (one of many!).  The Cape of Storms becomes the Cape of Good Hope in community that is Christ centered – Christ focused!   Thomas only experienced the presence of the risen Christ when he was a part of the transforming community of Christ!  Cut off and alone there was no experience of the resurrection in his life.  In the transforming community, he experiences the risen Christ!

We live the resurrection only as a part of the transforming community of Christ. The Christian faith is not an isolationist movement. Thomas overcomes doubt through others.  Thomas’ Cape of Storms becomes the Cape of Good Hope when he is with others in the transforming community. It is here and only here that he experiences the resurrected Christ.

It is our relationship with the risen living Jesus in community (!) that transforms our life.  Walking with God, receiving the Spirit, living through doubt – these are all ways in which we live the resurrection in a transforming relationship.

In his book What’s Right with the Church, Bishop Will Willimon writes: “The church [the transforming community] is a post-Easter phenomenon. It was the astounding, unexpected presence of the risen Christ that formed a believing community. Without that presence, the church might have been described as a memorial society or a reunion for old veterans of the Jesus campaign, laboring to keep alive the fading memory of a dead hero.” (William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church, p. 45).

In the transforming community, Thomas experienced the living Christ. Doubt was overcome in his triumphant affirmation and commitment. “My Lord and my God!”  Doubt always is overcome by commitment.  Research has long taught us that we often act ourselves into a new way of believing and thinking.

So on this weekend after Easter, how will it be for you?  Is Easter a pleasant interlude of appreciation and remembrance or cause for a higher level of renewed faith and commitment which comes in living through doubt?  Do you wish to live the resurrection?  Do you want to transform the Cape of Storms into a Cape of Good Hope for your life?  We do so by being a part of the transforming community that overcomes doubt and affirms by word and deed. “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

I hope to start a new series of blogs soon on the transformed church that is coming into being through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amid the declines of Christendom and struggles of early 21st century Christians that many of us know full well, I think God in Christ through the presence of Holy Spirit is doing something amazing.  A transformed Christian community is slowly taking place.  With timidity, prayer and wonder, I hope to write on this Spirit led transformation, which is calling into being a new church.

In this Easter season, may you sail the seas of the Cape of Good Hope!

CTC Cabinet work in Diversity, Mission Field Ministry and Inventory Retreat

As this blog is posted (Tuesday, February 17th), the Central Texas Conference Cabinet is meeting in its yearly “Inventory Retreat.”  At our retreat, we look at the needs of the Conference for clergy deployment in the upcoming year.  This starts with an assessment of the number of people retiring from active appointive ministry (Christian, lay or clergy, never retire from ministry as long as they are faithful followers of Christ!) and the number of people coming in for appointments (new seminary graduates, licensed local pastors, clergy seeking transfer from other United Methodist Conferences or denominations, etc.)  As can be easily imagined, it is extensive and exhausting work.  Given the wild swings in need, balancing incoming and outgoing clergy is difficult.  Additionally we review and pray over requests by both clergy and churches for possible changes of appointment.  We seek to be driven by the Holy Spirit.  Together, with all the clergy and laity of the Central Texas Conference under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, a new church is slowly coming into being.  I ask for your prayers for the Cabinet on our Inventory Retreat.

A critical and exciting (encouraging!) part of work is the growing diversity of the Central Texas Conference.  While our dominant ethnic group continues to be Anglo, we have rising congregations with growing diversity.  Our ministry continues to expand with the addition of Rev. Samuel Macias (on loan from the Northeastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church of Mexico) and the wonderful saints of La Trinidad UMC.  We have a number of thriving Korean language (actually multi-lingual – Korean and English) churches, a vibrant Ghanaian language church (begun as a new start a few years ago) in Arlington, a French-speaking congregation, etc.  Currently we have 5 different situations where an African-American pastors is serving a mostly Anglo congregation.  Likewise three clergy of Korean heritage are also serving predominately Anglo congregations.  (This is a dramatic rise from just a few years ago.)  Additionally many predominately Anglo and/or African-American congregations are faithfully leaping old ethnic boundaries and becoming more multi-ethnic.  In one situation a new church is in the process of being birthed out of two congregations, one predominantly Anglo and the other predominately African-American.

Not only are we moving across ethnic lines but also across gender barriers.  Among Protestant clergy as a whole, women now make up more than ½ of the seminary students.  I believe we are currently at our highest number of women clergy under active appointment and have the greatest number we have ever had on Cabinet.

All this and more is a work of the Lord among us.  This great diversity calls to mind I Corinthians 12:  “There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. … Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many.  We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink” (I Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-13).  Our great diversity and inclusivity is a gift God gives the church through the active presence of the Holy Spirit.

Last month, the Cabinet spent a full day in training on “Intercultural Competency Partnership” under the leadership and guidance of General Secretary Erin Hawkins and a staff member from the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR).  It was a superb time of learning that is part of a larger missional and evangelistic framework to reach all of God’s people.  I love the definition of “intercultural competency” General Secretary Hawkins taught us.  “Intercultural Competency (effectiveness, agility): ‘The ability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior and/or serve as a bridge when difference is present’”  (Mitchell Hammer).  We will continue our learning as an entire Conference with Rev. Rudy Rasmus as our keynote teacher at this June’s Annual Conference meeting.  It should be another time of great learning!

Ultimately all of this is done not for our sake but for the sake of Christ and His church.  Moving into Lent we are reminded again of what we are about regardless of ethnicity or gender, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Once again the Apostle Paul speaks to us from the passages of Holy Scripture.  “But we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (I Corinthians 1:23-25).

As we make appointments we will continue to be guided by the need to make mission field appointments based on gifts and graces that accomplish the mission.  We will continue to lift up core values and commitments with a high Christology, a towering focus on the local church, and an ongoing commitment to leadership development that includes by laity and clergy.  We are driven by faithfulness to Christ and service to the mission field the Lord places before us.  Ministry is much more than a career.  It is a holy calling.  We solicit your prayers.

Reporting From the Mission Field

There a many great avenues of ministry taking place in the Central Texas Conference and around the larger church. One of them lies in new church development. It is important to remember that every church was at one point in its life a new church.

Recently I met with our New Church Start District. The diversity was astonishing! There were eight developments that are a part of our New Church Start District. One is Korean; another is predominantly African American; and a third is reaching out to a predominantly Hispanic mission field. Two are extensions of parenting church situations. Two others are proposed “mergers” that would result in radically new and different churches.

Taken as a whole, there are a variety of experiments going on that reach deep into unconverted, unchurched and untapped mission fields. The very nature of the work is exploratory. It is also exciting with the connotations of a roller-coaster ride. The Holy Spirit is wildly at work in ways we only dimly understand. It is our call to be open – faithfully and courageously obedient to the Spirit’s claim upon us.

In another setting, I learned of some of the initial fruit of our strong emphasis in upgrading campus ministry and specifically Wesley Foundations. This ministry takes time to develop and mature, but it is making a tangible difference in the life of the Conference. Rev. Joseph Nader, CTC Coordinator of Campus Ministries, reports that we now have:

  • “2 students serving at Arborlawn UMC in the youth group.
  • 4 students serving at FUMC Mansfield in the youth group.
  • 1 student serving at Richland Hills UMC in the children’s ministry.
  • 2 students serving at the UTA Wesley (1 of them a repeat…also serving at Mansfield).”

He concludes, “Really [we have] a total of 8 students serving in a ministry designed to help them discern a call, and then equip them for moving forward in ministry. Additionally it is worth noting that Rev. Megan Davidson who was Director of the Wesley Foundation at TCU is moving on to be Chaplain at Southwestern University. Rev. Melissa Turkett is the new (as of Annual Conference) Wesley Foundation Director at Baylor University. Melissa is a graduate of the Wesley Foundation of UTA. In her last year at Perkins School of Theology, Melissa served her internship at the UTA Wesley Foundation.”

On a very different subject, I had the privilege of attending the Board meeting for Texas Wesleyan University (TWU) last week. TWU is moving forward in a number of impressive ways. We are looking forward to moving the Conference offices to TWU. It was reported at the Board meeting that the new Conference Center building should be completed this coming summer.

As we move towards Thanksgiving, I hope that we all will remember to give thanks by offering out of our bounty to those desperately in need. Here in the Central Texas Conference I especially want to remind us of our traditional “Thanksliving Offering.”

The Conference news notes that: “The 2014 Thanksliving Offering, generally received in the month of November, will go to energize and equip local church ministries with persons experiencing food insecurity in their communities. The Thanksliving Special Day Offering (Remittance Fund #3968) can be sent to the CTC Service Center online or by mailing a check.”

The Holy Spirit is moving in our midst, and we are blessed to be a part of a great work of the Lord. In countless numbers of ways, some large and impressive others small and unnoticed, the Kingdom of God is being constructed through a multitude of risk-taking acts of faithfulness. We truly have reason to rejoice and be thankful!

An Unfolding Work of the Holy Spirit

 

On returning home from the Council of Bishops week-long meeting in Oklahoma City, I find myself slowly getting back into the issues of ministry in our local setting.  Among the disagreements at the Council, the great sign of encouragement was our agreement around the importance of building vital congregations.  Here is a divinely ordered platform on which we can come together.

These musings led me back to an email report I received about a month ago.  I detour to set some context for the report.

Last Conference we made an unusual appointment of Pastor Denise Bell Blakely to Everman UMC as Associate Pastor for Mission, Community Development and Evangelism.  Rev. David Griffin is the senior pastor at Everman.  Everman is a community undergoing change.  Once a predominantly Anglo community, it now has a majority Hispanic population. Collectively both the congregation and the cabinet wondered how we could engage this new environment.  Already, Everman UMC was working on ministry with those attending school right by the church.  They were open to reaching out in a new and creative way.  So too was Pastor Griffin.  Enter Rev. Blakely who lives with a courageous sense of the Holy Spirit calling her.  (It is worth noting that Rev. Griffin is Anglo, Everman UMC is predominately Anglo, and Rev. Blakely is African-American.)  Through the combination of the a grant from the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF), Conference mission support and the local church, together we stepped up to risk-taking mission and service.  Through a supportive church and senior pastor, a new and highly innovative mission work was begun.

After 3 ½ months on the job, Rev. Blakely filed a report which (edited for length) included the following:

  • “Developed English and Spanish Language handouts to the community of Everman and Forest Hill, containing information about Everman UMC, the Lord’s Prayer in English and in Spanish, weekly prayers for children, and the household for Victory in Christ, also in English and in Spanish.
  • Delivered the handouts in door hanger format and in person in the neighborhood surrounding Everman UMC.
  • Visitations at Hugley Senior Center and Communion Service at the Senior Activity Center
  • Home and hospital visitations with the Stephenson family.  Grief counseling for the family.
  • Assisted senior pastor at the Graveside Service for Beverly Stephenson.
  • Attended orientation at the Tarrant County Food Bank.  The orientation is mandatory for access to services at the Food Bank.
  • Developed volunteer handbook for “Hanging Out” that can crossover to all volunteer activities at Everman UMC.
  • Served as primary contact for all walk-in and phone inquiries pertaining to Hanging Out and other mission activities.
  • Attended the Opening Convocation Service for Everman ISD and met with the Superintendent of Everman ISD, the school board members, principals of the schools, Dr. Bean and some of the teachers of the school.  The purpose was to initiate conversation about the expectations and goals of Everman UMC and Everman ISD and how we can help each other achieve these goals.
  • Filled in for the Senior Pastor for three weeks while he was on vacation, carrying out the instructions of the Senior Pastor and mindful of the faithful representation of Jesus, and the United Methodist Church.
  • Began a ministry of grace, handing out bottles of water to those walking in the 100+ heat.  The bottles of water are labeled, “Courtesy of Everman UMC.”
  • Handing out blessing bags consisting of hygiene items and snacks to the homeless in Everman.

Rev. Blakely closed her unusual report with the following: “These are the projects in progress. At I-35 and Everman Parkway, working on developing communication with the prostitutes.  Still discovering Everman. Working with the Senior Pastor in planning a revival.  Working with the volunteers and preparing for Hanging Out 2014-2015.”

She added, “Everman UMC has had eight visitors to the church so far, I believe this is the fruit of prayer in action.  Please pray for the mission and my family, we need all the prayer we can get.”

Wow!  After all the effort and energy at the Council of Bishops, it is this kind ministry that inspires me and fills my soul!  I don’t know many pastors who would set up a dialog with prostitutes, be in conversation with school leaders, establish multi-lingual prayer meetings and plan a revival.  Most of us would get the last three – school, prayer, and revival.  It is the first one I choke on – a ministry with prostitutes.  I confess that I would be afraid to do so.  And yet, the more I think about, I do know someone else who established such a ministry.  His name is Jesus.  I can actually think of a few other pastors who have done so as well.  (Including a Presbyterian minister/missionary and his wife in Hong Kong back in 1968.)

We don’t know how this will come out.  This is work of the Holy Spirit unfolding in ways we do not understand and cannot control.  And yet there is a lesson and witness here for more than just Everman UMC.  The future of the larger United Methodist Church lives on in such Holy Spirit- led ministry.

In my reflection, it is the Lord who is calling us to courageous risk-taking mission and service, willing to evangelistically offer Christ to those most in need.  I want to publically thank the good people of Everman UMC and Pastors Griffin and Blakely.  I also want to be a part of a church that reaches out to those most in need – sharing in both (!!) Word and deed!

What Does Your Church Pray For?

In my readings, I recently finished Andy Stanley’s intriguing book Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend.  As usual in reading Stanley’s material, I found myself stretched and challenged.  There are insights and ideas I loved.  There are also items I have deep disagreement with.

deep and wideOne particular insight I find myself wrestling with came late in this book.  “Speaking of prayer, what does your church pray for?  What does the staff pray for?  What do your elders or deacons pray for?  God’s blessings?  The presence of God?  A pouring out of the Holy Spirit? Safety? As far as the “presence of God” and “a pouring out of the Holy Spirit,” you’re a bit behind.  Both of those were covered on the day of Pentecost.  Regarding God’s presence, Jesus promised to be with those who were making disciples, not gathering for worship.  So besides you, and what you and your congregation want God to do for you, what does your church pray for?” (Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide, p. 312; emphasis in the original).

I want to debate a couple of inferences.  For starters, I think there is nothing wrong and everything right about praying for a fresh or renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  To do so hardly negates or discounts Pentecost.  Secondly, I think Jesus did promise to be with those gathering for worship – Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”  But beyond those debating points, I found a deep probing and high challenge in Stanley’s paragraph.

We pray regularly and earnestly as a Cabinet when we meet.  We pray for discernment and guidance.  We pray for pastors and churches.  We pray for hurts of the world.  We pray for loved ones.  Oh my how we pray.  In our prayer life together, we use the common response for a prayer of celebration – “Loving God, we give you thanks,” and an equally common response for prayers of petition – “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.”

What I’ve noticed is that we seem to have almost 10 prayers of petition and concern for every one prayer of celebration.  We appear to focus on healing for loved ones, for the church, for the world and are light on prayers seeking strength, courage and conviction.  We pray heavily for discernment and insight but seem almost timid in praying for focus, direction, nerve.  We are top heavy on divine intervention and almost quiescent on praise.

There is nothing wrong with our prayers and our praying.  They are good and godly.  Unfortunately we have limited ourselves.  Andy Stanley reflects on the prayers of the early church, a church facing persecution and in desperate need of protection.  What did they pray for? He quotes Acts 4:29 – “Now, Lord, take note of their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with complete confidence.”  They prayed for boldness!  They prayed for God to act mightily – “Stretch out your hand to bring healing and enable signs and wonders to be performed through the name of Jesus, your holy servant” (Acts 4:30).  Notice the results in Acts 4:31.  “After they prayed, the place where they were gathered was shaken. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking God’s word with confidence.”

Andy Stanley reflects on the prayers of the first Christ followers: “They asked God to do something powerful through them, but not for their sake.  They were totally focused on those outside the walls of their gathering place” (Andy Stanley, Deep and Wide, p. 313).

I think I pray too genteelly, too tamely, and am both convicted and blessed by Stanley’s insight. How about you?  For me, it is past time to pray for boldness.  Praying is an act of trusting God and obediently living out our prayers.

A Flat Bottle of Soda or a Scary Thing

Recently I had the great joy of sharing in a Charge Conference Celebration for the East District.  As we sang, prayed and heard incredible witnesses of service in the name of Christ from various congregations, I had this sense of the Holy Spirit moving powerfully in our midst.  In a much quieter way, but no less substantial, I experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship at the 8:30 a.m. service at Arborlawn on November 3rd.  We remembered the saints in prayers and thanksgiving, among those listed was my mother-in-law.

All of this is great joy.  I think God is up to something new with the United Methodist Church.  The Holy Spirit is messing with us.  I recall an old story about an enthusiastic preacher who preached in one of those old “prow” (as in prow of a ship) pulpits in New England where, when the preacher stepped into the pulpit, a small door or gate was latched behind them.  While hearing the enthusiastic sermon a wide-eyed little boy tightly gripped his father’s hand.  As the cadence rose and the Spirit moved, the little boy leaned over and whispered to his dad.  “What do we do if he gets out?”

By contrast, Joseph Nader passed on some remarks made by the noted horror novelist Stephen King in an interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.  King was talking about his new novel, Joyland, which apparently intermixes elements of a criminal detective story with the supernatural.  Naturally the conversation drifted into King’s own religious (and hence spiritual) background.  The following dialog took place:

  • “GROSS: Is that what you had in church? What did you have in church when you were growing up?
  • KING: Oh no, I went to a Methodist church for years as a kid, and Methodist youth fellowship on Thursday nights, and it was all pretty – you know, think of a bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours.
  • (LAUGHTER)
  • KING: There weren’t very many bubbles left in that stuff by then. It was pretty – it was Yankee religion, Terry, and there’s really not much in the world that’s any more boring than that. They tell you that you’re going to go to hell, and you’re half-asleep.
  • (LAUGHTER)
  • KING: What kind of preaching is that?
  • GROSS: But you always believed in God. You were just bored in church.
  • KING: Well, I guess that the jury’s out on that.”
  • (The entire transcript may be found at http://www.npr.org/2013/05/28/184827647/stephen-king-on-growing-up-believing-in-god-and-getting-scare)

Ouch!  Methodism is compared to a “bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours.”  Painfully, I think there is some truth to the complaint.  (I said some not total truth.)  We had/have (?) gotten so respectable that we’ve been afraid to acknowledge the Holy Spirit moving in our midst.

A part of what excites me today is that I believe I am seeing a discernible change.  The Holy Spirit does scare us (scares me!).  The Spirit ought to!  Remember Hebrews 10:31 – “It’s scary to fall into the hands of the living God!”  It is well to remember that the original Methodists were called “enthusiasts.” One of C. S. Lewis’ great comments comes again to mind.  “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he [Jesus Christ] isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

COME HOLY SPIRIT — Report from Taize 4

Today [May 25] we left for Cluny right after worship. The great Cluny Abbey fills me with awe. It once was the “major ecclesia” – the largest church in Christendom. Cluny Abbey started over 1,000 satellite abbeys. Its influence spread far and wide. In the French Revolution, it was dismantled stone by stone down to the very foundation in most places by an angry mob. A beacon of care and compassion, faith and hope, had become a citadel of despotism and greed.

And yet, it is only a short distance from Taize, a new beacon of hope and faith, reconciliation and love. This is not a mere accident of history and happenstance of geography. I believe God through the Holy Spirit is speaking to me (and to us) in the resurrection life of Christ. Rising north of the ruins of the great Cluny Abbey is the light of Christ in the simplicity of Taize.

I came to Taize in some angst, if not despair, over the state of the United Methodist Church. Eight days before leaving, I had participated in a meeting of officers of the Council of Bishops, General Secretaries, Board and Agency Presidents, and leadership from the Connectional Table. It was a gathering highlighted by a false politeness and sabotaged by wanton political maneuvering – the church at its worst. The week that followed was filled with a funeral, two days of hard work in making appointments (appointments made without good options and in facing of difficult choices), then three more days of hard digging through administrative work. I commented to a fellow bishop that the UM church was going down (meaning the image of a boxer being knocked to the ground).

Here at Taize for the second time, the Spirit clearly spoke to me. The shadow of Cluny is being erased by the light of Taize. “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Even as vast segments of the UMC and the larger Christian witness in America dissolve in a voracious black hole of enlightenment’s legacy, God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is making something new. The soaring songs in candlelight service of resurrection called me forward in commitment to Christ.

As if compelled, for I believe I was, I found myself standing and walking forward to kneel with others before the icon of Jesus at the Table with His followers. In the time of renewal, prayer, and commitment, the words of the songs washed over me as some 2,000+ faithful (mostly young people) sing our faith.

Afterward, a surprise meeting with Christoph Benn, a doctor with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. He drove up from Geneva because the brothers of Taize told him there was a UM bishop up here and he wanted to share appreciation and offer encouragement for the Imagine No Malaria campaign. Amazing how the Spirit intervenes …. God is at work.

Page 1 of 3123»