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VOLUME II: The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation  ©

In my last blog, I noted that I had been recently asked to review and write a publication “blurb” for two new books, Scripture and the Life of God by Dr. David Watson, Dean at United Theological Seminary and The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Professors Scott Kisker (United Theology Seminary) and Kevin Watson (Candler School of Theology). The Band Meeting is, in a sense, Volume II in a rediscovery of the classic Methodist system of developing deep discipleship. Professor Watson’s book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience is what I consider “Volume I” of a two-volume set on recovery the life of deep discipleship (sanctification) in The United Methodist Church. Members of the Central Texas Conference (CTC) will recall that Dr. Kevin Watson spoke to the CTC on Class Meetings last June.

Beneath the fold, almost under the radar of the current controversies sweeping The United Methodist Church around same gender marriage and ordination of LGBTQI individuals, is a quiet steady revival of small group discipleship. This is one significant area where most people can unite together across the theological spectrum.

The Band Meeting is an essential text for the recovery of deep discipleship in The United Methodist Church. I recommend it strongly to those who are serious about being disciples of Jesus Christ as Lord. Page after page challenges us both theologically and practically to embrace transformational holiness (in Christ) through the structure of reawakened Band meetings. “We write this book,” state the authors, “with the assumption that many Christians not only want deeper community but that they are also nagged by a sense that their discipleship is incomplete or lacking” (p. 8). The first half of the book offers a highly readable, excellent theological, biblical and historical foundation for Band Meetings. The second half shares concrete practical steps for starting and nurturing a Band Meeting. Together in these pages offer an opportunity to reclaim the essence of the Wesleyan movement in transformative discipleship. The authors close with the passionate conviction, “We are convinced that the band meeting continues to be a relevant and essential practice for people who are desperate to experience all that God has for their lives” (p. 159).

Early in their book, the authors offer a brief quote from Timothy and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us” (Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, New York: Riverhead Books, 2011; 101; taken from The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 7). The quote speaks not just to the life of deeper discipleship but to the deepest desires of all human beings. The Class Meeting is a critical need in the life of church. To be serious about making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (as opposed to just making members of the church or casual acquaintances of Jesus) requires spiritual growth and training in faithful obedience to Christ. The watch-word of early Methodists in the Class Meeting was “watching over one another in love.”

The Band Meeting takes the Class Meeting to a deeper, even scary, level of walking with Christ. It involves genuine confession of sin in a way that risks vulnerability and results in the kind of spiritual growth which is truly called sanctification. Kisker and Watson write, “Sanctification is not a ‘climb, climb up sunshine mountain, heavenly breezes blow,’ as the old children’s song goes. It is a journey down and in, to deeper levels of self-knowledge, to greater dependency on the cross of Christ. It is exploring the closets of our souls we have locked, opening them, and allowing in God’s light. It is scary sometimes to ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12). We cannot, and were not intended, to do this work on our own. We need a band of brothers or sisters” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 118). Furthermore the early Methodists understood that “discipleship meant discipline. Early Methodists understood that fellowship exists among disciples, and without discipline there is no real fellowship” (p. 73).

What The Band Meeting does so effectively is connect core theological doctrines that are shared across the theological spectrum (doctrines of sin, salvation and sanctification) together and then provide us with a tested practical way of living in deep discipleship. This book and band meetings offer us a concrete step forward in walking with Christ. By way of illustration consider the following quote:

“Could it be that the problem facing the church is much larger and more significant than has typically been realized? Maybe the simplest way to put it is that we are all addicts. Some of us are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Some of us are addicted to pornography. Some of us are addicted to gossip, or lying, or television, or social media, or being right, or achieving. They list could go on. Most of us are probably addicted to multiple things. Our common trait is that we are all addicted to the ways of sin and death. We are addicted to a false gospel of sin management (managing death) instead of connecting with life” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 9).

Now link the above assertion that we engage in “sin management” and are addicted to our sins with the deeper Wesleyan way of intentional relational transformation. Our society is awash in the hersey of “spiritual but not religious.” Wesley will have none of such nonsense. Professors Kisker and Watson challenge us to take the next step. John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and other early leaders of Methodism held members to this standard because they were convinced that we need each other in order to come to faith in Jesus and keep growing in faith. This is what Wesley meant by the now popular (and frequently misused) phrase “social holiness.” Wesley only used the phrase “social holiness” one time in all his published writings. It occurred in the 1739 preface to a collection of hymns and poems. In the preface, Wesley critiqued the desert monastic tradition as a way to argue against similar excesses in his own day. He was adamant that we need each other in order to experience the kind of life that Jesus intends for us to have. Wesley displayed the kind of pointed logic he used when he was most passionate as he wrote:

“Directly opposite to [desert monasticism] is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 13).

There is more to be said, much more to be said. In this profound and easy to read book we are offered a significant next step into life with Christ which takes us beyond the class meeting. Please, don’t try this without first being a part of a class meeting. Yet at the same time, I urge the reader to buy this book and challenge us in our small groups and Sunday School classes to inhale its essence. “The band meeting is a catalyst for profound change because it is a place where we bring into the open what has been intentionally and carefully hidden. . .. Praise Jesus, the Holy Spirit is giving people the courage and desperation necessary to move into the light and receive forgiveness, freedom, healing, and power over the ways of sin and death” (The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 160).

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 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 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.

Racism is Real!

In preparation for Thanksgiving my wife has decorated our house beautifully.  If you step into the living room and look at the mantle over the fireplace, four elegant figurines peer out from the fall foliage.  On the left are the classic looking pilgrim couple.  On the right are an equally idealized Native American (First Nation) couple.  They remind us that the first Thanksgiving was a multi-ethnic event.

Beyond that glowing reality lies a disturbing reality.  Recently at the Council of Bishops meeting we engaged in a continuing act of Repentance for the mistreatment and, at times, slaughter of Native Americans.  (I invite the reader to check out my blog on November 7th entitled “Acts of Repentance Signs of Hope.”)  Racism against Native Americans by an Anglo dominated culture is real.

Today as we awake following the non-indictment of a police officer for the shooting of a young African-American male in Ferguson, Missouri, we are reminded again that racism is real.  Regardless of your perspective on the Grand Jury’s action in Missouri, demonstrations coupled with anger and mistrust point us back to the irrefutable raw wound of racial injustice, profiling and neglect.  At General Conference in 2012, the United Methodist Church passed roughly 14 separate resolutions directly or indirectly about combating racism.  Ferguson, Missouri and its aftermath reminds us that this is an issue none of us can walk away from if we wish to claim an identity as Christ followers.

Galatians 3:28 states the biblical case with unwavering clarity.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  The great commission of the risen Savior and Lord Jesus Christ remarkably gives the command:  “Jesus came near and spoke to them, ‘I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).  The word translated “nations” in verse 19 is rendered “ethne” in the Greek.  It does not mean a nation-state as we are apt to assume but rather means a people group.  It is the root of our word “ethnic.”  Jesus is commanding us to reach all ethnic groups, all people groups.

The implication is compelling.  Racism must be confessed, especially the subtle racism of white privilege.  (Resolution 3376 adopted by the 2012 General Conference, p. 455 The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, 2012 is worth prayerful reflection by all, especially those who like me come from an Anglo-American heritage.)  Confession needs to lead us into action to eradicate this blight on human society.

Dr. Sylvester Key, Pastor of McMillan United Methodist Church in Fort Worth and an African-American as well as a U. S. Army veteran, wrote the following letter, which I in part and with permission quote.

 “When the verdict was read in Ferguson as it relates to the shooting of Michael Brown the first thing I did was send a message to my three sons urging them to comply with law enforcement officers.

 I grew up during the height of racial segregation; that is to say, I was bused to an all-black school, could only go to the stores in our neighborhood because black boys were not allowed in Homestead stores. We were perceived as thieves and always were looking for something to steal.

 I have been stopped, detained, forced to get out of the car and put your head against the rear tire on the vehicle. Handcuffed and had a gun pulled on me a time or two.

 I have been stopped in Texas, Florida, Virginia and New Mexico while driving to my next military assignment. I have been called “Boy”, “Black Animal”, “Coon” and yes the “N” word. Hearing those words angered me but it also gave me the determination to make something out of my life.…

 We must not riot and burn the communities we live in. We must not look at people who are not black as the enemy. What we must do is work harder, vote, demand that our children receive a quality education and get back in the church. The church was the only place we had any authority, where we could speak our mind and the place where we took ownership.

 I fought in a war that was to stop the threat of communism in VietNam but we were losing the war for racial equality in America. …” (Dr. Sylvester Key, Sr.)

Pastor Key’s prophetic words, linked with our best resolutions and highest desires, call us to a higher standard of living, a biblical standard; a standard that reflects Christ’s presence in our midst.  Racism is real.  Let us confess and commit to reach out and build a better world in the name of our Lord.  This is in very truth the mission the Lord has given us – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

When you pause to pray over Thanksgiving dinner, I ask you to pray for those in Ferguson, both the demonstrators and the police, and for all of us as a people that we might yet more deeply walk in the way of Christ.  May we live the Apostle Paul’s words to the church at Galatia.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Facing the Demons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Behavioral Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CORE STRATEGIES: Wesleyan Spirituality and Theology

My recent participation in the 13th Oxford Institute for Wesley Studies has given me much reason to pause and reflect on the importance of our Wesleyan essence. With this blog I am beginning a series of blogs on core strategies of the Central Texas Conference. These are the strategies designed to energize and equip local churches to carry out their mission, namely to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

John Wesley famously wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786). Wesley both assumed and argued for the essential importance of doctrine. His genius is the way doctrine is combined with spirit and discipline. Such a connection is a reflection of what early Methodists called “primitive Christianity.” They reached back to the first expression of the Christian faith found in the book of The Acts of the Apostles as well as the writings of Paul and the Gospels to grasp again at what was essential and central to the Christian movement. Among a number of distinctive elements the Methodist movement brought back to the fore was the embodiment of theology in spirit and discipline. Properly understood for Methodists was the notion that theology – core doctrine – was not an idle aside but a central expression of the faith to be lived out or embodied.

All of this seems fairly obvious at first glance; yet, the scene on the North American mission field has largely tried to divorce orthodoxy from orthopraxy; a vital set of core teachings, beliefs, and convictions has been separated from core practices. Wesley’s fear that we should exist as a “dead sect, having the form of religion without the power” has now largely become the case in the mission field called North America. We have held fast to neither the doctrine and spirit nor the discipline on which we first set out. Far from a casual academic exercise, recovery of a core orthodoxy at the heart of our teaching and preaching is central to any faithful future for the Methodist movement in North America. One shudders in recalling the casual comment of a church staff person to her pastor, “We’re Methodists; we can believe whatever we want, can’t we?” No, we can’t. We have to reclaim the past for the future if that future is to be faithful and in any sense enduring.

Yoked with a theologically core orthodoxy must be a deep spirituality. Here is a simple test. How much time have you spent in prayer and quiet with the Lord this day? How much time have you spent actively seeking the Lord’s will and guidance? Holiness of heart and life was and is at the essence, the essential core, of Methodism. Our understanding of holiness has always had both personal and social dimensions. It is anchored in the “still more excellent way” of I Corinthians 13, the way of love. It gains its impetus from time spent with the Lord of love and is lived out in justice and mercy for all humanity. All really means all! Biblically speaking, Wesleyan spirituality is an expression of the great commandment of Christ to love God and love our neighbor, every accessible human being we may reach!

I am convinced that reclaiming a vibrant and robust core orthodoxy for the United Methodist Church in North America is at the center of our currently theological agenda and crucial to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Likewise, so too is the embrace, the energizing, which comes from a deep Wesleyan spirituality built on the foundation of a daily walk with Christ. My essential claim is that we need to move back to the past in order to reclaim a faithful future as a Methodist movement for the greater Christian movement and the Church Universal. The witness of the original Wesleyan movement offers a vibrant guide today in its full orthodox enthusiasm. God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is calling us to a new future anchored in that past.

 

Representative Granger Working with Imagine No Malaria

Tuesday, September 3rd I had the privilege of visiting with Representative Kay Granger, Congresswoman for the 12th District in which I reside.  On behalf of the other bishops of Texas (Bledsoe, Dorff, Huie and McKee) along with Bishop Tom Bickerton (who heads the Imagine No Malaria campaign for the Council of Bishops), Rev. Clayton Childers (Director of Advocacy for Imagine No Malaria from the General Board of Church and Society) and I presented Congresswoman Kay Granger a letter of gratitude and appreciate.

taken by Mattie Parker

Photo of Bishop Lowry, Rep. Granger and Rev. Childers taken by Mattie Parker

 

Congresswoman Granger has been an instrumental force in funding the Global Fund, which participates in the Imagine No Malaria Campaign.  The United Methodist Church through Imagine No Malaria is both a financial supporter of Global Fund and a recipient from the Global Fund.  We team with the Global Fund, the Gates Foundation, the NBA, and others in combating killer diseases across our globe.  Our letter in major part read:

On behalf of the United Methodist Church (UMC), our Imagine No Malaria campaign, and our members all across the country, we want to thank you for your leadership and work on H.R. 2855, the Fiscal Year 2014 State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, and for your robust and faithful support of the U.S. contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, especially during these times of fiscal austerity.

 As you know, a child dies of malaria every 60 seconds, a still alarming statistic but vast improvement over just a few years ago when we lost a child every 30 seconds to this preventable and treatable disease. Much of this improvement can and should be credited to the Global Fund, a critical tool in the fight against malaria. Global Fund-supported programs save lives. In fact more than 100,000 lives are saved each month in 150 countries around the world because of the work of the Global Fund. In terms of the malaria specific work being supported by the Global Fund, we would like to offer a few key highlights: by 2012 Global Fund-supported malaria programs had distributed over 270 million insecticide-treated nets, provided indoor residual spraying in dwellings 44 million times, and leveraged donor funding to finance the treatment of 260 million cases of malaria.

 The success of the Global Fund is a success of the United States. We are grateful for your bipartisan leadership. Your hard work and efforts as Chairwoman make it clear that the United States and the U.S. House of Representatives will continue to ensure that funding for malaria eradication efforts remain a key priority even during difficult times. … Your leadership in Congress remains critical to the success of global health programs worldwide and on behalf of your fellow United Methodists, we would like to extend our sincerest gratitude and appreciation for all you do.

Representative Granger shared with us how extensive this work is.  The Congresswoman talked about her work with Bono and others emphasizing the bipartisan nature of this United States government aid.  She noted the progress we have made against polio. Recalling how her mother was stricken by polio and she along with her sister babysat a neighboring child when others were afraid to do so. Her words echo the compassion of her heart for this effort.

We had a great visit and amid all the congressional wrangling we hear about, I want the people called Methodists to hear about one of our own engaged in a godly work.  God bless you and thank you for your leadership, Representative Granger!

Watch this video, The Global Fund, Be the Generation to Defeat AIDS, TB and Malaria ft Charlize Theron and Bono.

 

 

The Great 50 Days

Easter is over.  As a pastor for 30 years I am aware of a sense of the life of the church moving on.  We start looking towards the end of school, graduations, Mother’s Day, summer activities, Vacation Bible School, mission trips – the list is almost endless.  These are good things.  It is important to prepare for them and celebrate significant accomplishments.

But wait, pause.  In fact do far more than pause for a moment.  I ask us to stop and live in the great 50 days – the time from Easter to Pentecost.  The resurrection is not a one Sunday event which we nod to and move on.  Do you remember what Paul said about the resurrection of Christ?  “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else” (I Corinthians 15:17-19).

In previous centuries the emphasis was on life after death.  Today we live culturally with an orientation towards life.  We now, Christians and non-believers alike, have an almost casual assumption that we are going to heaven no matter what.  It is as if our doctrine of resurrection is narrowed to a minor blip on the wider passage of life’s meaning and purpose.  In the so-called “West,” this is a part of the larger secular movement from a time of disease, famine, war and low life expectancy to a culture of relative abundance and security.  George Hunter in his upcoming book Should We Change Our Game Plan? comments “Bertrand Russell famously observed that until recent times, most serious thinking was about death. . . . People today are more likely to be asking questions about the meaning of life…” (George Hunter, Should We Change Our Game Plan?, p. 27).

The risen Savior was much to say not only about life after death but about conquering of sin and hell.  The resurrection is not a one-and-done doctrine but an orientation of life Godward following the triumphant Christ!

Do some cultural exegetical work.  It seems like hardly a week goes by without some new movie featuring a super hero who rescues humanity from evil and death.  This emphasis speaks volumes to the deeper hunger in our lives both individually and collectively for someone or something that can reign triumphant over the despair and destruction that stalks our time and territory.  It is here, in this landscape of despair and destruction, sin and suffering, that the gospel of the risen Christ is truly triumphant Good News!  Hell and death are conquered.

Huddled in fear behind locked doors (both physically and metaphorically) then and now Jesus strides in to our midst.  Let the Good News of His victory speak again to your life.  “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ Then he breathed on them [breathes this day on us] and said [says], ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:19-23).

I invite, nay more, I urge us to live the Great 50s in the triumph of the resurrection!

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