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Reflections on the Council of Bishops and the Way Forward ©

As I write, I am finishing a week of work at the Council of Bishops (COB) meeting in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. The COB (all United Methodist Bishops around the world, both active and retired) met Sunday night through Wednesday noon. The Active Bishops Learning Retreat lasted from Wednesday afternoon through Friday noon. We have worshipped and prayed together greatly! The experience has been exhausting (emotionally, spiritually, and physically).

In the midst of this, the activities of the world continue. As a person who was elected out of (what is now) the Rio Texas Conference and was a pastor in San Antonio not far from Sutherland Springs, the tragedy of the church shootings has settled deeply in my heart. Across both the U.S. and the world, violence is never far from us. I find myself praying for a spirit of peace (the Holy Spirit!) in both my heart and our larger world. I commend to myself and all who read this blog the prayer of St. Francis, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace….”

While our Council work dealt with a variety of subjects including building vital congregations and ecumenical relations, the main focus of our time together was on the interim report from the Commission on a Way Forward (CoWF). The CoWF was established at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon to help the Church discern a way forward around the issues of allowing Methodist clergy to perform same-gender weddings and the ordination of “avowed practicing homosexuals.” At our just concluded COB meeting, representatives from the CoWF presented some very preliminary ideas (or sketches) on possible ways to move beyond the impasse which threatens The United Methodist Church with schism.

The report from the CoWF presented three rough sketches or preliminary models for consideration and feedback from the COB:

  • One sketch of a model affirms the current Book of Discipline (BOD) language and places a high value on accountability.
  • Another model sketch removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  • A third model sketch is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services, and one COB while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.
  • Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church.
  • Each sketch includes a gracious way for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

I want to stress that what the Commission presented to the bishops was nowhere near their final product. These are sketches, or outlines, or very rough models that might well shape more detailed pictures. Furthermore, we (both the Bishops and the Church as a whole through its General Conference delegates) are not limited to these three sketches or models. That’s why I feel the term “sketches” is so apropos. The Commission still has a long way to go before they will be ready to present their final models. I invite thoughtful reflection and offer – along with my colleague bishops – a couple of questions for reflection, dialogue and spiritual discernment.

  1. Based on the description, how would you build a church from one or more of these sketches?
  2. How does that sketch multiply our Wesleyan witness and expand our mission in the world?

I would like to underscore that there was common agreement that the mission of the church is paramount!  “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (Matthew 28:16-20). Intensive and intense dialogue is being held about underlying theology. It is important to note that the CoWF itself dealt with the issue of foundational theology and doctrine in its recent progress report. Click here or the image above to see the full report.  I also want to reiterate and highlight the last two points from the COB about the various models or sketches. Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church. Each sketch includes a gracious way for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.

Here are some “talking points” the bishops of the church have agreed to commonly share with the leaders and local churches. Please feel free to use them whenever you are asked about how the church is progressing through this issue.

  • The Mission of God through the Risen Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit trumps and guides everything.
  • The values of unity and contextualization for the sake of the mission undergird the work we are sharing and leading.
  • The Commission serves the Council, preparing the COB to fulfill its service to the General Conference in making a recommendation for a way forward.
  • To best serve the Council, the Commission did not express a preference of a model.
  • In the same way, the Council withholds a preference in order to allow the bishops to engage their conferences in teaching and dialogue.
  • The values highlighted in any one model also live within the fabric of the other models.
  • The Commission shared three sketches of models with the Council. The CoWF is aware that we are not restricted to these models and are open to learning, listening and improvement.
  • It is likely that additional models or sketches may emerge as the process continues.

We are in a season of prayer, dialogue and spiritual discernment. It is important that we resist the temptation to rush to judgment or seek premature closure. The COB will be meeting in late February to review some follow up work from the CoWF based on our preliminary feedback as a Council of Bishops. In the meantime, I join my fellow bishops in calling on all United Methodists to engage in honest, meaningful and respectful conversations regarding this issue and/or any of the political, religious and justice issues of our day.

Bishop Ough, in a pastoral letter to the UMC released at the conclusion of our meeting, reminded all that the United Methodist Church is diverse in its theological understanding of Scripture as well as Christ’s call on our lives. In the letter – which I recommend to you (click here to access) – we are prompted to recall Paul’s admonishment to the church at Ephesus to …”to live as people worthy of the call you received from God. Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience. Accept each other with love, and make an effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit with the peace that ties you together.” (Ephesians 4:1-3 CEB)

To read the official release from the COB on our work with the Commission on a Way Forward, go to ctcumc.org/episcopalannouncements. In all things I urge us together to embrace the advice of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:1-5, NRSV).

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #10 (C)

Amazing Grace!

Few Christian doctrines have overtaken The United Methodist Church as the doctrine of grace.  One could almost argue that the song “Amazing Grace” has become the unofficial anthem of the church. The words ring out:

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear
And Grace, my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed
(“Amazing Grace,” Hymn No. 378, verses 1 & 2, The United Methodist Hymnal)

For John Wesley, an understanding of grace was and is always tied to a doctrine of salvation and more explicitly to an understanding of justification. Two of Wesley’s favorite texts for preaching were: 1 Corinthians 1:30 – “It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us.” And, Ephesians 2:8-10 – “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.  Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” Thus Wesley writes in his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament on Ephesians 2:8, “Grace, without any respect to human worthiness, confers this glorious gift. Faith, with an empty hand, and without any pretense to personal desert, receives the heavenly blessing.” Wesley’s footnote on 1 Corinthians 1:30 reads, “out of His grace and mercy.”

A simple definition of grace might be the radically free and wholly unmerited gift of God’s love and forgiveness. Father Roger Haight, S.J. has written one of the best books I have ever read on the subject (I read it for my doctoral work back in 1983) entitled The Experience and Language of Grace. Tracing the connect of the word from the Latin gratia back to the Greek charis, which is the word the New Testament uses, he writes that the word charis of several Hebrew words which convey “meanings reducible to three main ideas: condescending love, conciliatory compassion and fidelity. As a result,” says Father Haight, “the word grace has the special connotation of everything that pertains to a gift of love; it is totally gratuitous or unmerited and underserved” (Roger Haight, S.J., The Experience and Language of Grace, p. 6).

I love the old acrostic for Grace.
God’s
Riches
At
Christ’s
Expense

The claiming or reclaiming of the Wesleyan Way will always have an understanding of grace tied to a doctrine of salvation at its center. Most of us find it easy and comforting to apply grace to ourselves, our loved ones, and our church. Where we choke is on applying a doctrine of grace to someone we consider obviously underserving. But then that is the Christian dilemma. The claim of the faith, rising out of a proper understanding of the infection we call sin, is that all of us are underserving.

The second place we choke on a doctrine of grace lies in our modern rendering of grace as something cheap or easily given. Grace is, to be sure, radically free but it is never cheap or easy. Our own experience should tell us this much.

The words of the famous Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer offer both a caution and frame for our usage of the great doctrine of grace.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. . . .

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. … In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 45-46)

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #9 ©

A Community of Holiness

 In a casual conversation recently, a clergy colleague commented to me, “We used to fight over doctrine now we fight over behavior.” I am struck by the insight offered in that comment. Churches are to be communities of holiness which provide the foundation for a common ethical behavior in service to the Lord God and genuine love of the neighbor, even those we disagree with! It is important to note that, to a very real degree, behavior is a reflection of doctrine. Ultimately the two (behavior and doctrine) are intertwined. Nonetheless, my colleague’s comment sticks with me because there is a thoughtful reflection of our current reality contained in it.

In our recent angst over various issues bedeviling us as a people (globally – Afghanistan, North Korea, and terrorism in Spain; in the United States – violence, racism, incivility and gender preference) the breakdown of community and common communal ethic is ever present. We struggle over what is acceptable common behavior both in the Christian community (i.e. the Church) and in our wider social communities. This was true in the Great Britain of early Methodism as well. The Methodist movement as an expression of the Christian faith (what I call the Wesleyan Way) offered a deep sense not only of belonging but also of a commitment to Christ which enhanced a common ethic and way of living.

Today, we desperately need to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way through spiritual formation in a community of holiness (otherwise called the Church). As good as most churches are at being friendly, collectively we long for a deeper, more intimate sense of community. Professors Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson remind us in their marvelous book The Band Meeting (soon to be published): “Christ came to build a ‘holy priesthood’ (I Peter 2:5), not simply ordain individual priests. He came to create a community of people equipped to ‘proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (1 Peter 2:9). They further note that “Methodism ordered itself to bring the gospel to people at every level of community” (Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson, The Band Meeting, p. 68; pre-publication copy).

Living in an age of individualism run amuck, it would well serve us to recover the communal sense of the Wesleyan Way. We best do this not by throwing bricks at others but by ourselves growing in holiness both individually and as a community of faith.

Consider Luke 6:47-48: “I’ll show what it’s like when someone comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice. It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. When the flood came, the rising water smashed against that house, but the water couldn’t shake the house because it was well built. We build our lives on bedrock when we anchor them in Christ. We do so by drilling down deep into His Word.”

Basic spiritual practices are the pitons we pound into the rock of Christ. By way of analogy, in mountain climbing a piton (also called a pin or peg) is a metal spike (usually steel) that is driven into a crack or seam in the climbing surface with a climbing hammer and which acts as an anchor to either protect the climber against the consequences of a fall or to assist progress in aid climbing. Pounding in pitons is basic to walking with Christ! We call this spiritual formation at its foundational, if you will, bedrock level. This is necessary to survive the rising waters of evil, sin, death and chaos; the violence and cultural incivility which so bedevil us as a people; the dis-ease of lacking moral center so evident in the torch-lit parade at Charlottesville.

Wesley famously said that there was no such thing as solitary religion. By that he meant that we were anchored in our faith and grew in the faith only through some kind of group accountability. A rock anchor, a piton, for early Methodists was small spiritual formation group. The painful truth is that we have become casually comfortable in our Christianity to a point that we have forgotten foundational spiritual disciplines that anchor us to the bedrock of Christ. This is actually where we got the name Methodist. We were so methodical about being Christian. What do those practices look like? Regular disciplined prayer with some kind of a group or support system that can graciously hold you accountable. The Methodist motto was “watching over one another in love.”

At this point I almost feel like a shill for small group ministry. And yet, without apology communities of holiness come from a communal practice of spiritual accountability. To be sure it starts with the individual in solitude, silence and simplicity, but by necessity it must expand to a wider sense of a shared commitment to and practice of holiness. The common disciplines (both privately and with others) of quiet time with God, prayer, worship, Bible reading & study all become linked to service in love of God and others.

The point of tending to the institutional needs of the church (and of so called organized religion) is that those needs help us to be shaped spiritually in formative practice that issues forth in the deeds of love, justice and mercy. Ignore the formative practices of spiritual formation for too long (both individually and as a group) and the high ethical commitments of loving God and neighbor fall away for lack of a healthy foundation.

John Wesley went so far as to write John Smith, “What is the aim of any ecclesiastical order? Is it not to snatch souls from the power of Satan for God and to edify them in the love and fear of God? Order, then has value only if it responds to these aims; and if not, it is worthless” (John Wesley, letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746; taken from, The Band Meeting, p. 68; pre-publication copy, by Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson).

We reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way as we rekindle formative spiritual practices and build communities of holiness. Such formative practices take methodical work and holy discipline. The discipline of holiness involves more than just the lone individual. We must be a part of communities of holiness. Together, we are built on the bedrock of Christ. “So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already”  (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

 

Engage! Missional Transformation in Love, Service and Relationship with Others ©

This coming October, we have a significant opportunity to grow our missional outreach to those in our local communities through a CTC-sponsored event entitled ENGAGE: Transforming Missions. The ENGAGE Conference is scheduled for Oct. 6-7 at Temple First UMC, and is designed for clergy and mission leaders seeking to grow deeper relationships with the persons they serve.

Through the opening sessions with Tom Bassford, a leader in transformative mission ministry, and breakout sessions led by our own Central Texas Conference mission leaders, participants will have the opportunity to learn from and dialogue with other leaders about best practices of relational mission ministry.  The key is “relational mission ministry.”  The ENGAGE Conference focuses on helping churches make the transition from ministry that meets emergency needs into individual and community transformation through relationships. I invite the reader to click the following link for a brief video discussion on ENGAGE (the video is also available below). In it, Rev. Dawne Phillips, Director of Missions for the Central Texas Conference, and I discuss the importance of local churches moving toward doing transformational missions.  The Conference will connect our core mission, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, with the WIG as together we seek to reach out in love, justice and mercy to all.

The keynote speaker/teacher is Dr. Tom Bassford. Tom Bassford is Founder and President of Significant Matters and SATalks in Olathe, Kansas, a non-profit organization working with churches, faith-based groups, community stakeholders and philanthropic organizations to tackle complex societal issues in sustainable ways. Before founding Significant Matters, he pastored for more than 30 years and has been involved in the work of church missions both locally and internationally for over 40 years.

In 2014, under Tom’s leadership, Significant Matters launched SATalks, a TED Talk type of gathering and video website to explore and demonstrate ways to create sustainable transformation through church missions.  They also launched the Missions 3.0 Network for churches wanting to move their mission work beyond “helping that hurts.” SATalks and Missions 3.0 exist to accelerate the learning curve around sustainable approaches to missions and connect those early pioneers trying to make it happen.

ENGAGE is an outstanding opportunity for churches to send a team who can participate in a variety of breakout sessions and then return home with ideas to consider for mission focused on making disciples in their local community.  Registration information can be found on the Central Texas Conference website.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #7 ©

Scripture, Tradition, Reason & Experience:  Understanding the Quadrilateral in Wesleyan Theology

 This blog picks back up on an extended summer blog series entitled “Reclaiming The Heart of the Wesleyan Way.”  In part five of my blog on this series,  I shared part of the General Rules of the United Methodist Church and the struggle for a common theological core, which I believe is currently taking place within United Methodism.

The “General Rules” (along with The Standard Sermons of Wesley and The Explanatory Notes on the New Testament) are the heart of the United Methodist doctrinal core. They are contained in Section 3, Paragraph #104 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016. Dr. William J. Abraham, Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, has decisively demonstrated that there is a stated and officially adopted doctrinal core for the United Methodist Church. In this time of identity crisis within United Methodism, Section 3, Paragraph #104 is worth remembering and reflecting upon deeply. Professor Abraham rightly notes: “United Methodist doctrine can actually be identified. It is not an amorphous body of vague proposals. Nor is it some malleable theological method which can be twisted to fit this or that fad or convention of culture. United Methodist doctrine is substantial; it is identifiable; and it is clear in fundamental content” (William J. Abraham, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church, p.14).

As church history will teach anyone with casual knowledge of the past, a clear doctrinal core does not finally, once and for all settle issues of doctrinal content. Deep debate still continues about the meaning of this core, how it applies to a current context and historical setting, and what its implications are for “practical Christianity” in our time. In its collective wisdom the United Methodist Church has adopted a method for engaging in debate and discussions about the meaning of our doctrinal core. It can be found immediately after the section on our doctrinal core. Section 4, Paragraph 105 is entitled “Our Theological Task.” Such a critical task – that is of thinking theologically about what we believe and how we are Christian – by very necessity must engage each generation anew.

Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, outlines what is commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The “quadrilateral” is not itself doctrine. Rather, it is a proposed method for doing theology (that is to say thinking and reflecting on God and ways of God among us). It is made up of four components of how we get at the Truth (capital T) of the Christian faith. (The opening part of Paragraph 105 is well worth a careful reading!)

The four components of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are:  Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Each section in Paragraph 105 deserves careful attention. All parts of the quadrilateral do not carry the same weight in theological discourse; thus, The Discipline (as a matter of both doctrine and method) places Scripture above the other three. “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 83).

Tradition is a reference to what we have learned from the saints of the past. This especially includes the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed (both found in the United Methodist Hymnal). The importance of tradition can easily be recognized in Scripture as well as in practice. The admonition of Hebrews is instructive. “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” (Hebrews 11:1).

Experience acknowledges the importance of a “heart” faith (not just an intellectual collection of “head” doctrines). Again The Discipline is instructive. “Our experience interacts with Scripture. … Experience authenticates in our own lives the truths revealed in Scripture and illumined in tradition, enabling us to claim the Christian as our own” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 87).

Reason becomes a key component or method by which we put theological and doctrinal discussions together. The Discipline is careful to note at the outset of the section on reason, “we recognize that God’s revelation and our experience of God’s grace continually surpasses the scope of human language and reason, we also believe that any discipline theological work calls for the careful use of reason” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 88).

As a whole the “Quadrilateral” has much to commend itself as a method for doing theology (thinking about God and the ways of God).  The danger of heresy, however can slip in when Scripture is subordinated for personal preference backed by a partial reading of Christian history (tradition) and casual application of experience and reason. The tendency in our time is use one of two of the key components (say Scripture and Tradition or Experience and Reason) separate from all four. Instead of an acknowledged method of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a person then ends up with what is a functioning bilateral or unilateral governance of theological discourse that is bereft of the full wisdom of the faith.

There is more to be said here, much more. For now hopefully, the reader’s appetite has been whetted enough to encourage a full reading of both Sections 3 & 4, Paragraphs 104 & 105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, pp. 65-91. As the “good ole boys” used to say, “there’s is gold in them thar hills!”

However we approach issues of deep doctrinal substance, and make no mistake the current threat of schism in the United Methodist Church is ultimately about our doctrinal core, the only truly faithful Christian response is with great humility. “Now we see in a mirror dimly” (I Corinthians 13:12). “This [Our] witness, however, cannot fully describe or encompass the mystery of God” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 91)

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #5 ©

Embracing of Our Doctrinal Core

A focus of the great historic questions for ordination in the United Methodist Church centers on embracing the doctrinal core of United Methodism.  Consider this brief listing of questions put to candidates for ordination at the clergy executive session (from The Book of Discipline 2016, paragraph 336, p. 270):

6.   Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
7.   Will you keep them?
8.   Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?
9.   After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
10. Will you preach and maintain them?

The list brings the thoughtful Methodist Christian up short.  We presume a foundation of common agreement with the basic core doctrines of the United Methodist Church.  Furthermore, John Wesley argued extensively that they formed a common core foundation with other Christians built upon the great creeds of the Church, especially The Nicene Creed (#880, The United Methodist Hymnal) and The Apostles Creed (##881 &#882, The United Methodist Church).  Under “Qualifications for Ordination” (Paragraph 304, The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016), the importance of embracing our doctrinal core is stated even more emphatically:  “Be accountable to the United Methodist Church, accept its Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, accept supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers.”

In today’s United Methodist Church I do not believe a common doctrinal core can be assumed.  The struggle to embrace a common doctrinal core lies behind the current conflict around biblical interpretation and same gender marriage & ordination.  Our theological core must be thoughtfully and prayerfully examined, discussed, argued and finally embraced anew.

As a start, I invite an examination of what we now have in the United Methodist Church.  The Doctrinal Standards and General Rules are listed in Paragraph 104 of The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.  They include those adopted from both the predecessor denominations – The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Methodist Church.  They start with a firm foundation:

Article I-Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Article II-Of the Word, or Son of God, Who Was Made Very Man

The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

Article III-Of the Resurrection of Christ

Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.

Article IV-Of the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

Similarly the Evangelical United Brethren doctrinal standards, which were also adopted at the time of union, list the first four doctrines as:  Article I-God, Article II-Jesus Christ, Article III-The Holy Spirit.  There are a total of 25 Articles from the Methodist Church and 16 from the Evangelical United Brethren Church.    That all sounds like a lot but they actually boil down to a basic core which John Wesley largely adapted from the Church of England.

All this makes for somewhat dry reading until we pause to reflect that much of our current angst and debate centers on issues of core doctrine.  What do we believe is central and non-negotiable?  And, just has importantly, how do we interpret or understand core doctrines as they relate to salvation, sin, free will, the sacraments, etc.?

I step back into what might well seem an archaic rendition because what we believe matters.  Belief informs, educates and guides our actions.  Likewise, we often act ourselves into a new way of believing.  As one of pastors stated in a recent sermon, “which is more important belief or action?  The answer is yes!”  It is both.  The one informs and helps shape the other.  Neither belief nor action operates on island divorced from the other.

The way forward for Methodists will surely involve rediscovering and embracing anew our doctrinal core.  The term classically used to describe the doctrinal core of the Christian movement is “orthodoxy.”  Professor Wendy Deichman, former President at United Theological Seminary comments:

“What is orthodoxy? Merriam Webster defines it simply as “a belief or way of thinking that is accepted as true or correct.” In Christian usage this definition applies to central beliefs of the earliest Christian church, those which, in a great sea of competing options, were finally synthesized into creeds and confessions that were formally adopted by the church. It was because of these convictions about the gospel that Christians of each era have gone to the trouble to pass their Christian faith on to others, including their own children, and eventually including us who now also embrace the core doctrines the early Christians believed to be true and correct.”

As I travel across the church I cannot help but note that our theology is weak and appears to be adrift.  We stand in desperate need of recovering our doctrinal core.  But mere knowledge is not enough.  A theological embrace is needed if belief and action are to mutually invigorate each other.  I invite the reader to look through Paragraph 104 of The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.  What would be on your list of a core doctrinal belief for Methodists?  How does it match the actual position taken by the United Methodist Church?

All too often today we regard doctrine and orthodoxy in negative terms.  Sometimes “orthodoxy” is claimed as the handmaiden of one group or other.  A friend who is decisively on the progressive side of our current divide recently reminded me that the claim to being orthodox is not the province of one part of the church or another.  Today the make-up of “orthodox” Christianity is contested.  The purpose of this blog is less to argue for a particular position and more to advocate a needed embrace of the historic doctrinal core of the Wesleyan Way.  Professor Deichmann advises us rightly:

“Although some will assume or argue that Christian orthodoxy is made up of an oppressively long list of doctrines used to subjugate and control people, history will confirm that Christian orthodoxy is most often expressed in a stunningly short list of beliefs that affirm the Holy Trinity and salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy as historically understood does not wed believers to a long inventory of theological, political, and social doctrines. Rather, orthodoxy as we are using the term here and as expressed in Christian history is made up of a relatively short list of core doctrines that have to do with the heart of the gospel. For example, orthodoxy is not even definitive on the nature of atonement. Rather, it generates conversation among believers in the gospel about the nature of Christ’s death and how we then should live.”

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #3 ©

Being Methodical – Embracing Spiritual Disciplines

The great Christian theologian and spiritual mentor Dallas Willard opens his epic book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, with a profoundly insightful tragic story.  He writes: “Recently a pilot was practicing high-speed maneuvers in a jet fighter. She turned the controls for what she thought was a steep ascent – and flew straight into the ground. She was unaware that she had been flying upside down.

“This is a parable of human existence in our time – not exactly that everyone is crashing, though there is enough of that – but most of us as individuals, and world society as a whole, live at high-speed, and often with no clue to whether we are flying upside down or right-side up. Indeed, we are haunted by a strong suspicion that there may be no difference – or at least that it is unknown or irrelevant” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, pp. 1-2).

Such phrasing is surely descriptive of our age and time.  We live at a pace of life that is simply unsustainable.  In the midst of our times, bombarded by instant news, assaulted by more input than we can possibly process, we remain committed to being follows of Christ.

This is not a new enterprise.  The quest for faithfulness in confusing and even chaotic times is one that all Christians who have gone before and all who come after us have or will wrestle with. How is that we  – moment by moment, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year – walk in the way of Christ?  To be sure, we have primary and basic guidance from Holy Scripture.  Consider ….

  • He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you:  to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8)
  • You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)
  • 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. (Matthew 28: 19-20)
  • You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. (Ephesians 2:8-10a)

As powerful and strengthening as these biblical admonitions are we need something more.

Ardent conviction and sincere intent alone are not enough.  We need a method, a way of practicing the Christian faith such that walking with Christ becomes our habit, our natural way of living. Years ago Jolynn and I took country western dancing class.  The instructor used to say that we needed to develop “muscle memory” for our dancing.  (Unfortunately my muscles were exceptionally challenged!)

The Wesleyan Way is energized by just such thinking and acting. Wesley looked back at the earliest Christians, examined the faithful saints down through the ages, and appropriated a “methodical” way to be a faithful Christian.  It involved what we call today “spiritual disciplines.”

While the list varies, the spiritual disciplines are at least in part made up of foundational activities.  At a minimum they consist of:

  • Quiet time for contemplation of the Holy Spirit and prayer
  • Searching the Scriptures (as Wesley put it, we might say Bible reading and study)
  • Regular worship including regular participation in Holy Communion
  • Watching over one another in love through small group discipleship (class meeting)
  • Works of love, justice and mercy
  • Giving both financially and of our time

All this and more is, must!, take place in the context of community-  the very Body of Christ called the Church.  If you read my above list carefully, you will notice two things.  First, it is not new, this is already an a clear reflection of the witness of Scripture, the practices of the earliest disciples and each succeeding generation of the faith down through almost 2,000 years of Christian history.  The second thing you will notice is that my list is incomplete.  It needs to be filled out, to be written by each of us in our individual contexts.

No one, absolutely no one, lives a life of faithful discipleship by themselves.  We all live in community with Christ and each other.  Our methodical practices will ultimately be under the influence of the how the Spirit shapes us for the better.

I leave the reader with a comment from Professor Jason Vickers:

In the postmodern West, the church is beset by two problems. First, in many quarters, we have lost confidence in the materials, persons, and practices that the Holy Spirit has given to the church for our healing and our salvation. We have lost confidence in the power of Scriptures and the sacraments to form and to transform our lives. We have lost confidence in the power of spirit-filled preaching and prayer to convict us of our sins and to assure us of our forgiveness. We have lost confidence in the power of the testimony of the saints to guide us into all truth. Put simply, we have lost confidence in the very resources by which the church lives and by which she is a source of the renewal of life and of holiness throughout the world.  (Minding the Good Ground by Jason E. Vickers, pg. 94-95)

If we are to reclaim the Wesleyan Way, we must reclaim the spiritual disciplines in the habits of our living.  This is the path to true holiness (Wesley’s holiness of heart and life) and thus the true path ultimately to deep joy and happiness.  Reclaiming the Wesleyan Way involves hiking on the trail of the life well lived!

The Challenge of a Global Church ©

Thursday morning, May 4th, the Council of Bishops held its usual opening worship service.  Often during our worship we are led by newly elected bishops.  This is one way of getting to know them.  Thursday morning five newly elected bishops (four from Africa and one from Europe) led us in worship.  It was a wonderful, truly holy experience.

As they shared their personal witnesses, I heard God speaking to us.  Many of the theological assumptions and personal experiences of the Holy Spirt differ remarkably from the common fare in the United States.  One bishop shared a near death healing experience and his genuine fear of hell.  We North Americans laugh politely but he wasn’t being polite.  He was sharing what for him was a true story of being rescued from the jaws of hell and death.  Another bishop spoke of the church bells in his village ringing when he was born.  He and his family heard a call and claim from the Lord in the peel of the bells.  Americans saw a mere coincidence.  Still yet a third told of God speaking to him while he was playing in a rock band.  We laughed.  (In our defense it was humorously told.)  He gently chided us.  The hand of the Lord was on him in a tangible way according to his witness.

Where we tended to see coincidence, they saw the Lord God powerfully in action.  More than one spoke of being led by God to their spouse.  Some shared tales of visions of Christ.  Collectively they offered narratives of God powerfully in action through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Their profound, even thrilling, witnesses were consistently stories of a powerfully active God were flung in the face of a polite semi-Unitarianism that haunts the hallways of some American churches I visit. We need their witness.  They have much to offer us.

There are a number of other places of crucial differences.  In the current struggle involving human sexuality including same-gender marriage and ordination of “avowed practicing homosexuals,” members of the global church differ among themselves.  Different parts of Europe are on different sides of the divide.  Most of Africa is overwhelmingly in favor of retaining current language with regard to issues of human sexuality. The contextual cultural settings differs not only from the United States but from other places in the world as well.

As a part of the challenge of a Global Church, we have been wrestling over support for theological education.  I have the privilege of serving on the United Theological Seminary board (and have previously served on the Executive Board of Perkins School of Theology).  In the U.S. a critical issue is the large amount of debt new pastors have upon graduation from seminary and moving into their first full-time appointment.  The financial crises in some parts of the world is dramatically different.  There, the challenge is around providing theological education at all.  It engages issues of governance, finances, faculty, etc.

I could continue with other examples but these three issues (theology, human sexuality, and ministerial education & training) highlight the challenge of being a global church.  With the best of intentions, it is easy when living in North America and Northern Europe to make assumptions about the nature of the church that are foreign and even strange to our fellow United Methodists around the world.  Even more, the center of Christianity is in the southern hemisphere.  Africa is the strongest growing region of The United Methodist Church.

We really don’t know how to be a global church.  Good people, committed Christian lay and clergy alike, are struggling to learn.  In the delightful language of systems theory, “we are building the bridge while we walk on it.”  The challenge of a global church is a wonderful gift from the Lord God!

Reflections on the Recent Judicial Counsel Ruling ©

 As you have most likely already read, the UMC Judicial Council released its ruling on the validity of Bishop Karen Oliveto’s election and consecration by the Western Jurisdiction. In its decision – Decision 1341 – the Judicial Council ruled that the consecration of a gay bishop violates church law; however, Bishop Oliveto’s clergy status remains “in good standing” and she will continue to serve as the bishop of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area pending the completion of appropriate administrative or judicial processes. In this case, that means the issue has been remanded back to the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops (COB) who will determine the appropriate action(s).

I ask that we prayerfully respect the decision put forth by the Judicial Council as well as the processes still in play – i.e. the work of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward. In so doing, I wish to emphasize our call to prayer for Bishop Oliveto and her spouse as well as the people and churches of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area.  I fully realize that this decision does little to assuage the anxiety and disagreements that persist in our churches and denomination related to the issues of human sexuality. It is with this realization that I reiterate the request made in the letter Conference Lay Leader Mike Ford and I penned and sent last week – please be a people of prayer and compassion.

Allow me to say it again:  Please pray for Bishop Oliveto, the Western Jurisdiction and the Mountain Sky Conference. Pray for the UMC Council of Bishops, the members of the Commission on a Way Forward and the UMC at large. Extend compassion and care to all who hurt, are confused, or fearful during these uncertain times. Pray for our local churches, clergy and laity. Pray.

Please remember that this decision does not change the UMC Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council has a distinct and critical governance role in our denomination as the body responsible for deciding complex questions of church law, including the right to declare jurisdiction. Our own Dr. Tim Bruster serves as an alternate clergy member of the Council.  The Judicial Council’s actions on this matter are specific to this case. The General Conference is the only body that can speak for the church and has the authority to change The Book of Discipline. And, as you’ll recall, the Council of Bishops has called a special session of General Conference in February 2019 to further explore the broader issues around human sexuality in the church and consider the recommendations brought forth by the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF).

As we look forward to this Special Session of General Conference, it is important to remember that our mission remains firmly fixed on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We will continue to keep Christ at the center of all we do. We will remain focused on growing strong, vital local churches and developing clergy and lay leadership. I deliberately repeat for emphasis.  We will continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. So, slow down, breathe deeply and remember that Jesus is still Lord and that God’s grace is forever with us.

Following the leading of the Holy Spirit, I want to reinforce some key points from my blog on April 25, which included the letter Mike Ford (The Central Texas Conference Lay Leader) and I sent to the clergy and lay leaders of our local churches.

  • Please continue to be wise and respectful leaders on social media. Discussions on a complex issue like this are best done face-to-face. Please resist the temptation to engage in heated conversations via social media. I encourage you to be grace filled and positive on social media, and resist venting or sharing personal convictions, even on your personal sites. Work to help redirect the conversations back to the mission of the church and guide the tone of interactions back towards the positive and uplifting.
  • It is important that we remain in conversation with each other. Clergy, if you have deep concerns regarding this decision, visit with your DS and/or any other member of the Cabinet – including me. Lay leaders are encouraged to reach out to our conference lay leader Mike Ford. Members of the 2016 delegation to General Conference are also an excellent resource of information and context.
  • These are troubled and tumultuous times indeed, not only for our church, but also in our communities and across this bruised and battered world. That is why I cannot stress enough the need to be a people of prayer, to breathe deep, remember that Jesus is still Lord. Keep your church’s focus squarely on the mission and wait for the processes in motion – the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, the Commission on the Way Forward, the called General Conference, etc. – to work through this issue.
  • Keep in mind, sisters and brothers, the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi – particularly chapter 2 verse 5 to “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus“ (CEB), for it is in Christ Jesus that we find the peace of God that surpasses all our human understanding – a peace that will guide our hearts and minds.

Council of Bishops Meeting and Courage ©

Later today (April 28, 2017) I will drive to Dallas for the beginning of a week on Council of Bishops business.  Saturday we have a joint meeting of Bishops and Conference Chancellors.  (Ken Adair is CTC Chancellor and Wilson Woods is CTC Associate Chancellor.)  There are a variety of legal issues that the church is constantly facing (issues revolving around the Trust Clause and property, legal issues dealing with various complaints, etc.).  This is a regular gathering which I find both interesting and at times quite challenging.

On Sunday afternoon the Council of Bishops will begin its regular spring meeting with a memorial worship service remembering both bishops and spouses of bishops who have joined the Church Triumphant since our last gathering.  Somewhere early in our gathering (possibly Monday, May 1st) we should receive news of the Judicial Council’s ruling on the validity of Bishop Oliveto’s election.  As I have written about in recent blogs, the issue of human sexuality will dominate our discussion and reflections.  Anticipation/concern/hope for next year’s report from the Commission on the Way Forward and the looming specter of possible schism hang over our gathering like the Sword of Damocles.

And yet . . .  in the midst of our conflict, the central issue of building vital congregations remains squarely in front of us regardless of any individual bishop’s stance on the controversial issues surrounding human sexuality.  The opportunity and challenge of learning together spreads out before us and the whole church.  Herein is reason for hope. “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).  The hope offered by the Lord God calls us to a time of prayer, reflection and learning together.  It elicits courage from us regardless of our individual positions.

The 2016 General Conference called for extensive church-wide reflection on The United Methodist Church’s system of church government (ecclesiology).  A document entitled “Wonder, Love and Praise” has been written by the Committee on Faith and Order.  Here in Central Texas we already have a task group working on how to lead a Conference-wide study (i.e. studies in every congregation) offering feedback with prayerful and thoughtful reflection.  Together the bishops will begin the wider conversation on church ecclesiology this coming week.  It sounds dry but in reality has the potential to critically impact every local church.

In executive session the Council will receive reports on the progress of the Commission on the Way Forward and spend serious time together seeking to discern the will of the God for the larger denomination.  During our gathering we will meet regularly in Covenant Prayer Groups, which will include all bishops (both active and retired).  It is our hope to model Christian grace and appropriate behavior for the whole church on how to handle disagreements.

As I have been preparing myself, I have been in prayer for the church and the Commission.  I’ve spent careful time reading the report mentioned above (i.e. “Wonder, Love and Praise”).  In my reflection, prayer and reading, I have heard the Holy Spirit speaking to me, and I think to the whole church.  Reading Bishop Rueben Job’s devotional one morning, I was struck by his call to honor the “sovereignty” of God.  In part he writes: “We become prisoners to our own weaknesses and the evil of the world when we forget that God is sovereign and God is able. … Prayers that are completely dependent upon a sovereign God will touch the most troubling parts of our lives and society as a whole” (Rueben Job, 40 Days with Wesley, p. 11).  A few days later my morning scripture reading included a passage from Matthew 10:26-31.  It opens with the words, “Therefore, don’t be afraid of those people because nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing secret that won’t be brought out into the open. What I say to you in the darkness, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, announce from the rooftops” (Matthew 10:26-27).

I am reminded in my reading and prayer time of that constant theme which comes from the Lord is the angelic admonition to “fear not” (Luke 2:10).  Bishop Job has written: “Ever since Jesus has appeared to the disciples, Christians have discovered that there is no need to fear when one is in the presence of God.  To walk with God not only rebukes our fears and sends them away but also increases our courage. … From fear to courage is the natural journey of all that walk with God”  (Norman Shawchuck and Rueben Job, A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, p. 185).

Out of those and other readings in my devotional time, the Holy Spirit prompted me to pick back up a significant monograph written by Dr. Gil Rendle.  It is important to note that the Committee on Faith and Order commended that Dr. Rendle’s monograph “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time” should also be read alongside “Wonder, Love, and Praise.”  I commend both to you strongly!  You may find them following the above links.

I close with a tiny sampling of the profound insights found in Dr. Rendle’s monograph “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time”:

“Courage requires the hard work of thoughtfulness and resolve. . . . In the writing of philosopher John Silber, ‘Courage is often misunderstood as a capacity to suppress emotions of fear.’ … Courage is less the response of the stirred heart than of the discerning mind.  Courage is knowing what to be afraid of.  This knowing takes a considerable amount of work.” (p. 3)

“Projections of survivability of our small congregations indicate that over a period of a few decades our United Methodist denomination should expect to close about a third – over 10,000.  The bottom line of our current situation is that, denominationally, we cannot avoid internal pain and suffering.” (p. 11)

“Courage, in the face of empathy, is the act of leadership keeping attention and resources on those people, and that part of the system, with the most potential to align with purpose and move toward identified outcomes.  Courage is to choose missional strategy over relational comfort – and to resource the strategy as needed.  Courage is to choose not to be redirected by empathy when pain cannot missionally be avoided.”  (p. 14)

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