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Iona Interlude ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reflections on a Winter Day (c)

Like many of you, I found myself working at home on Monday, February 23rd.  Outside the study window, both our driveway and the street are covered in a sheet of ice.  Such winter days often leave me in a thoughtful reflective mood.  I try to catch up on writing, email and reading.

In my reading this morning I am continuing to plumb the depths of John Ortberg’s marvelous little book Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You.  Over the past few months, my spiritual guide and I have been slowly working our way through the book and its accompanying study guide.  Today I read the 13th chapter entitled “The Soul Needs a Blessing.”

I found myself captivated by insights that Ortberg (and through John Ortberg, Dallas Willard) offers.  The words “blessing” or “blessings” is one I use often and casually, yet with meaning on my part.  It is here the author focuses my intention.  He writes:  “Blessing is not just a word.  Blessing is the projection of good into the life of another.  We must think it, and feel it, and will it.”  In this simple yet profound definition, I am taken to a deeper level.  I am asking myself, “When I say ‘blessings’ or ‘God bless you,’ do I think it, feel it, and/or will it?”  My honest answer is a hedged yes; mostly but often, far too often, not on an impactful level.  A blessing is reaching out in love.  It connects me to the great commandment, to love God with my heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love my neighbor as I love myself.

John Ortberg quotes his great mentor Dallas Willard (to whom the book is dedicated) as saying, “Churches should do seminars on how to bless and not curse others.”  On reading I simultaneously experienced an “aha” epiphany and a punch in the stomach.  I pastored local churches for 30 years and never once held a seminar on how to bless not curse others.  Furthermore, I’d like to take such a seminar!

Under Willard’s tutelage, John Orberg starts with a passage we know well.  I first learned it about 50 years ago as a teenager.  We called this passage of Holy Scripture the MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) benediction.  It comes from Numbers 6:24.

“The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

The following is my own shortened summary of advice from Soul Keeping on learning to bless (pp. 154-157).  I continue to commend this whole book and in particular this chapter to you.

1.  Blessings and curses are “simply the two ways we treat people.”
2.  Blessing takes time, so don’t hurry.
3.  “Blessings-giving should be asymmetrical. It is not a form of barter.  It’s grace.”
4.   Turn to the one you want to bless.
a.  Look into their eyes..
b.  Allow your mind to focus on this particular individual, the one before you.
5.  “The Lord bless you” = may the Lord, “constantly bring good into your life.”
6.  “Keep you” = God should protect and guard you with the sacrificial love of Christ on the cross. John Ortberg adds:  “Underline the word you.”
7.  “His [God’s] face shine upon you” = the Lord’s glory and delight be in your life. Dallas Willard adds, “Glory always shines.  Glory was always meant to be shared.”  As I understand the biblical concept of glory, it means the radiant presence of the Lord.
8.  “The Lord lift his countenance upon you” = being fully present to someone. I cannot help but think the opposite is multi-tasking while we talk to someone.
9.  “And give you peace” = “unthreatened, undisturbed peace”

I hope to be more of a blessing to people.  How about you?

Stay Focused!

The Dictionary defines distraction as:  “Having the attention diverted” or “Suffering conflicting emotions; distraught.”  From an online Thesaurus the following notation was offered, “having the attention diverted especially because of anxiety.”  I am intrigued by these definitions because I believe this season in the church’s life is awash in distractions.  Our attention needs to stay focused tightly on our mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  That is to be the focus!  This is our primarily mission!  Let me deliberately repeat.  Our attention and focus needs to stay fixed on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!”  (Matthew 28:16-20).

And yet, consider all the worthy (and unworthy) distractions.  We might wander off into deep social commentary about the gridlock and shutdown in Washington D.C., about a concern for health care or immigration reform or any other type of reform we care to image.  Time might be justly exercised on returning to civil society and respecting those who disagree or fighting poverty, in justice or any of a host of social problems.  Conversely we can, with some merit, be distracted by the moral relativism of our time, the lack of social cohesion, the breakdown in marriage and parental responsibility.  We might justly tackle deep and corrosive issues like the dearth of biblical knowledge, the failure of leadership, or the decline of worship attendance.  One could rightly argue that our attention needs to be fixed on ministry with the poor, combating AIDS/HIV and-or Imagine No Malaria, starting new churches, leadership development, or the Call to Action.  A current distraction is the ongoing fight in the denomination and larger society around issues of same sex union (marriage), ordination, and civil rights for all people.  We might, in the local church focus our time and attention taking care of our members and raising the budget (stewardship), supporting the next mission trip or lifting up children and youth.  We might let our attention wander into ….

The list could go on and on.  If you read carefully, virtually everything listed above merits engagement.  Furthermore, if you read carefully, virtually everything listed above reflects in some way on the issue of discipleship.  They are all good things in some manner but they are not the main thing!  Crying out over the whole is the question of lordship – who really rules our lives as individuals and as a church?

I do believe we must both speak and live gracefully into the issues that confront our day and time.  At stake is the question of how we so speak and live gracefully in this time of distraction.  My contention is straightforward.  Local churches (pastors and lay leaders) need to stay focused on making disciples.  Disciples of Jesus Christ by definition are grace-filled and graceful in relationship to these and other tough, trying issues.  We need more talk about Christ, His rule and reign in our lives and our churches – not less.  We need more sharing of the good news of God’s love and presence – not less.  We need more, much more, evangelistic outreach that invites every single person to put their life under the reign and rule of Christ.  We need more world transforming actions of love, justice, and mercy – not less.

I am intrigued that a key definition of distraction relates to having our “attention diverted especially because of anxiety.”  The driver of anxiety is our timidity (failure?) in really trusting the Lord.  In times of similar societal tumult, the Methodist Movement thrived because at its heart we Methodists lived the connection of spirituality and faithfulness that blooms from true discipleship to Christ.  We need in these times of distraction to move closer to embracing again (or maybe for the first time) what it means to be a radical Christ follower (i.e. a disciple).

Allow me to close by offering two simple resources.  First, embrace quiet time and prayer by laying your life before the Lord.  Recently I’ve taken to praying a song lifted up at Taize and sung at Arborlawn UMC. “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice!  Look to God, do not be afraid.  Lift up your voices, the Lord is near, Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.”  Try praying and meditating on that every day at the start of the day for 5 minutes (or just 2 minutes!).  It will change your perspective and your life.  I promise you if you spend 5 minutes at the start of the day praying and meditating on that song you will be blessed beyond measure.  Your own walk of discipleship to Christ will take on a different hue and tone.

Second, let me suggest that we continue to recover what it means to be a Wesleyan Christian in the fullness of the original discipleship vision of the Wesleyan Movement.  Cokesbury has recently put out an outstanding resource that any small group or Sunday School class would benefit from.  It is entitled The Wesleyan Way: A Faith That Matters and is authored by Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Episcopal Area (Nebraska & Kansas).  Just go to www.cokesbury.com.

Whatever we do individually and together:  stay calm; stay focused.  Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Remember, “The Lord is near.”

Lessons from the Dean

Beginning Monday, June 10th we will have the joy and privilege of having Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean as our Conference Teacher.  She is renowned for her insight in ministry to youth and young adults.  Significantly those insights translate beyond ministry to young persons.  They are profound in their implications for what it means to be a Christian and to recovering the essence of the Wesleyan movement of faithful discipleship to the Lord.  Her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, is exceptional.

Dr. Dean will be speaking to the Conference on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning.  These addresses are open to all.  Visitors to Conference are asked to sit in the balcony.  If you are not a delegate to the Central Texas Conference, please receive this blog as an invitation to come and hear Dr. Dean offer us lessons for discipleship.

In March of 2012 Dr. Dean wrote an article for Leading Ideas (The Lewis Center for Church Leadership’s online magazine) entitled “Characteristics for a Healthy Youth Ministry.”  She shared (in part) the following:

“Congregations that succeed in nurturing the faith of young people tend to demonstrate certain key characteristics. What are the top characteristics of a healthy youth ministry?

11. Safe space.

10. A culture of creativity. Young people need practice in multiple “faith languages” — words and actions, art and prayer.

9. A culture of theological awareness.

8. Integration into a congregation’s worship, mission, and discipleship formation at every level.  Teenagers need people to reflect back to them who they are. This “mirroring” is basic to the process of identity formation. Only in the church do young people begin to see themselves through the eyes of people who try to see them as God sees them: beloved, blessed, called.

7. An authentic, fun, and passionate community of belonging.

6. A team of adult youth leaders actively growing in faith. You can’t lead where you don’t go. Adult youth leaders need to model spiritual investment in themselves, in one another, and in the world because youth need examples of faithful, supportive, Christian community.

5. A congregation where people actively seek and talk about God. The 2003 Exemplary Youth Ministry Study convinced me that congregations where young people reliably develop mature faith “talk about God as the subject of sentences.” Talking about God indicates that people in a church are actively seeking God and believe God makes a difference. And, they talk to God as well as about God. God is alive and present and in their midst. God is doing things through them.

4. A congregation where people are visibly invested in youth.

3. A senior pastor who is crazy about young peopleIf a congregation supports youth ministry,  it will be clear because the senior pastor or head of staff talks about young people (positively) in public, includes them in leadership, embraces the faith development of parents, knows youth and their leaders by name, and makes himself or herself available to young people for spiritual conversations. The senior pastor is youth ministry’s head cheerleader.

2. Parents who model faith and know that this matters to their kids. Parents are the most important youth ministers. The National Study of Youth and Religion found that having parents who are religiously active is the most important variable contributing to a teenager’s faith identity and his or her ability to sustain that faith identity between high school and emerging adulthood. And if young people don’t have religiously active parents, then churches need to be places where kids can find adults who will “adopt” them spiritually.

1.      A commitment to Jesus Christ. Since Christians understand God as Triune through Jesus — whose life, death, and resurrection reveals not only who God is and who we are in relationship to God, but that God continues to act in our lives and in the world around us — doing youth ministry without Jesus is like doing dinner without food: you can come to the table, but there’s nothing to eat. So why bother?”

 

There is more and, as I indicated above, I have edited the article quoted.  Hopefully this whets your appetite.  We have a rare opportunity to have a world class scholar and deeply faithful Christian leader teach us.  I hope to see you at Arborlawn UMC on June 10th and 11th!

Faith, Hope and Clarity

Most of us know the great closing of I Corinthians 13, “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13).  What many of us are unaware of is the old King James Version translation of love was charity.  Thus the phrasing of I Corinthians 13:13 in the KJV is: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the great of these is charity.”

During my work on my D. Min. I took a preaching course in which the preaching professor would deliberately misquote the closing of I Corinthians 13:13.  His version as advice for preachers was the statement, “so faith, hope and clarity abide, and the greatest of these is clarity!”

If you step back and think about, this is great advice for preaching.  Clarity is crucial in presentation of the preached word.  Even more, it is critically important in communication in general.  During our recent Forum for Active/Residential Bishops, Professor Maria Dixon Hall noted that most people don’t know what the United Methodist Church stands for and what our mission is.  (Our mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ and for the transformation of the world.”)  Despite our best attempts, clarity of communication is still lacking.

This Friday I was participating in a meeting of leaders of the Council of Bishops, General Secretaries (leaders of the UMC’s Boards and Agencies), Presidents of the Agencies (elected heads of their governing boards) and representatives from the Connectional Table of the UMC.  It was an impressive group.  These people hold a deep common conviction in Christ and a great love for the church (especially the UMC).  Good intention and honorable convictions were the order of the day.

And yet, the very complexity of our struggle kept tripping us up.  Listening, I was reminded of a recent comment from Bishop Robert Schnase.  “Complexity is the killer of organizations.”  He referred us back to the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball (which is a mini-classic in business management about the complexity of Corporations).  (Note:  I may have paraphrased his quote from mistaken memory.  The quote may not be original to Bishop Schnase.)

It is easy to blame the general church or individuals involved or various groups.  But, as I reflected on what I was participating in, it reminded me of so many local churches, including some that I served!  This is not an issue for the larger system alone but for every local congregation!  We can get so complex and rule bound that the mission disappears into the back ground.  Blaming is not only not helpful; it is counterproductive.  The question for each of us individually and as members of groups (agencies, churches, etc.) is to wrestle with governance structures that enhance decision making, reduce the veto power of a few, and open us up to the mission we all believe in – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Now may faith, hope and clarity abide!  And the greatest of these is really love!  (But clarity is needed!)

 

TAIZE: DEVELOPING A NEW GENERATION OF LEADERSHIP

One of our vital strategic objectives is to develop a new generation of leadership.  As the “baby boomer” pastors & lay leadership retire this becomes increasingly critical.  We must be focused on forming and developing a generation of young disciples and leaders for the 21st century.  As an integral part of that process, I will be a part of leadership team leading a pilgrimage of young adults to Taizé, France, in May 2013, to expose them to the deep spirituality and justice orientation of the Taizé community.  The intent of the pilgrimage will be to develop the personal spirituality and the leadership capabilities of the young adults through prayer, reflection, community, and instruction.

Our partner in this venture is the Missional Wisdom Foundation.  The Missional Wisdom Foundation is a private non-profit corporation that supports the education and Christian development of adults through service and new monasticism. The Foundation makes it possible for students and others engaged in ministry to live in community and to explore Christian service by providing financial, asset management and administrative services. The Missional Wisdom Foundation is a private corporation and is an approved extension ministry of the United Methodist Church.

The pilgrimage will be open to young adults from the Central Texas Conference between the ages of 17 and 30.  They will be selected through an application process that will be administered by the Conference Pilgrimage Leadership Team.

The application is on-line at www.missionalwisdom.com.  Approximately 20 participants will be selected.  The Selection Committee will endeavor to choose a diverse group of participants, considering geographic location, gender, and ethnicity in the selection of qualified candidates.

Each participant will be responsible for contributing $500 toward the cost of the trip, either individually or through the local church.  The remainder of the trip cost will be underwritten by the Missional Wisdom Foundation.  No conference funds will be used for this trip.

The Conference Pilgrimage Leadership Team includes myself, Rev. Larry Duggins  (Director, Missional Wisdom Foundation; Associate Pastor, White’s Chapel UMC; Trip Leader), Rev. Kyland Dobbins (Center for Mission Support), and Leanne Johnston (Center for Evangelism and Church Growth).

I am excited about this incredible opportunity for learning and spiritual formation.  While space is limited, I invite those who are eligible to prayerful consider applying by following the link to the Missional Wisdom Foundation and the pilgrimage tab on their page.

Ministry Matters Making an Impact

At a recent meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board of Directors, we received a great report on a new online ministry. MinistryMatters.com (www.MinistryMatters.com) is the United Methodist Publishing House’s new ministry resource site. It is a unique blend of  magazine and reference site. Its mission is threefold: to equip, connect, and inspire church leaders, both clergy and laity.

I asked the director of Ministry Matters (Shane Raynor) what its most popular feature is.  He replied, “The most popular feature of Ministry Matters is This Sunday, a weekly collection of resources centered around the Revised Common Lectionary. Ministry Matters has recently added kids’ worship helps, small group studies, and non-Lectionary based sermon series to the This Sunday mix.

Visitors to Ministry Matters have also responded well to the site’s current events resources. The most popular articles in the past six weeks have been a joint book review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins and Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell, and a provocative blog post called “Don’t Give ‘Em What They Want.” The site has been presenting different viewpoints and encouraging readers to step outside of their comfort zones as they consider different takes on current events.

I think this is an exciting new resource that I commend to both laity and clergy.  A final note from Shane Raynor, “Looking ahead, we’ll be launching subscriptions (both individual and institutional) in January. There will be new content in the reference library as well as the
fully searchable Common English Bible as the default translation. We’ll also be adding more topical sermon resources and sermon series to give options to pastors who don’t use the Lectionary. In the next few months, we’ll be adding ‘Reach’ and ‘Lead’ to the current ‘Preach,’ ‘Teach,’ and ‘Worship’ tabs.”

Liberal Arts Without Religion?


I sat through a discussion recently about whether a church-related college or university should require a course in religion as a part of a liberal arts education. Science classes, fine arts classes, language classes (to mention a few) are a required and expected part of a liberal arts curriculum. The required religion course was not a required course in Christianity (or any other particular religion); it was simply a required course in religion – period. The faculty voted to eliminate a required course in religion.

It is incomprehensible to me that religion per se is not a basic and foundational part of any truly comprehensive liberal arts education. The historical and contemporary importance of religion (not just the Christian religion but religion as a broader category of inquiry and study) is self-evident in a world torn by religious conflict, competition and claims. And yet, the skeptical gods of the Enlightenment reign triumphant in the academy. Religion is to be suspect on principle. In much of “so-called” higher culture in Western civilization (Europe and North America), religion (and especially the Christian religion) is rejected out of hand as some form of corrupted superstition. It is no longer seen as the queen of academic inquiry but rather treated as the dreads of mere opinion and ignorant opinion at that.

And yet, those same gods of the Enlightenment, so eagerly embraced, are challenged across the landscape by religious climate to truth with a capital T. Two colleagues of mine commented on the subject: “How can your education be liberal if it has no exposure to religion?”(Rev. David McNitsky) “The need for intentional examination of the religious dimension of life is imperative to any first-rate liberal arts institution. As important as open inquiry is in the area of the humanities, arts, and sciences, fine arts, etc. is, I contend, that any complete education must address the religious dimension of life. Religious dimensions of life contextualize all other areas of inquiry.” (Dr. J. Eric McKinney)

Well spoken gentleman!