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Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #12 ©

The Union of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy or Holiness of Heart and Life Reconsidered

As we move into the new year, I want to pick back up on a theme, a series of blogs, I started early last fall. I wrote on the subject “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way.” At that time I outlined a series of blogs that would conclude with blog number 15. Last fall I wrote through blog #11 and then moved to other (related) topics. With the United Methodist Church facing a possible schism, or splintering, at an upcoming Called General Conference in February of 2019, I am convinced now more than ever that it is important we go back and reclaim our original roots.

I cannot shake a series of conversations I have had with a variety of different people over the past year. One particular interchange is lodged in my mind. Last October I shared insights from a meeting with Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in the Vatican offices across the street from St. Peter’s. Bishop Farrell shared a conviction that different parts of our larger Christian family had insights that we all need to learn from. He explicitly commented that the Methodist movement brought to the wider Christian dialogue a sense of the importance of holiness and holy living.

For John Wesley and the early Methodists, this deep sense of holiness of heart and life was a core element of the Christian faith. In fact, so methodical were the “Wesleyans” about pursuing holiness of heart and life that they were called “Methodists.”

Recently I preached on an important passage from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel. Do this, whether I come and see you or I’m absent and hear about you. Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).

To the best of my knowledge only one other time does the Apostle Paul use the phrase “of most import” or “of first importance” or some other equivalent. The other occasion is found in 1 Corinthians 15, the third and fourth verses when he writes to a letter to the church at Corinth. “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). On that occasion he writes of a central, core, cardinal doctrine (that means “teaching”) of the Christian faith – the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. He spends a chapter arguing that if you don’t buy the doctrine of resurrection, you can throw the rest of this away; it is a waste of your time – “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless;” he write a few short verses later, “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” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).

There (in 1 Corinthians 15) the issue is of critical belief – doctrinal importance (orthodoxy = right belief). In this passage from Philippians the issue is of critical practice – the way we live (the technical term is orthopraxy). The two – orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) are inseparably linked. Break one and the other soon will fail. The original Wesleyan movement took this connection so seriously that Wesley linked living “together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel” (Philippians 1:27) with the Articles of Religion as a doctrinal core he established for the Wesleyan way of faith. (See Paragraph 104, Section 3 – Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.)

Those early “Methodists” arnchored this crucial connection on the teaching of Jesus. Jesus uses the reference of the word “important or importance” always to refer to the issues related to the Great Commandment. For example in Mark 12 when asked by a legal expert which commandment is the most important “Jesus replied, ‘The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these’” (Mark 12:29-31).

Every time our Lord and Master references what is most important, he points back to behaviors that reflect the theological heart of the Christ faith. The doctrinal bedrock of monotheism is welded to holy living. When the Apostle Paul instructs the infant struggling church at Philippi to “Live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel,” (Philippians 1:27) he is reflecting the very heart of the teaching of Jesus.

Professor Scott Kisker writes: “As he [John Wesley] read the works of the early Church Fathers, and English devotional works his mother recommended, a particular vison of the Christian life and of the Church captured John – one he carried for the rest of his life. It was a vison of simplicity, of holiness” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist?, pp. 29-30). The essence of holiness of heart and life shakes out in what is called the doctrine of sanctification.

The conviction that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are welded together is at the heart of the Wesleyan Way. Confessing Christ as Lord and Savior necessarily involves us in the deeds and actions of love justice and mercy. In today’s language, Wesleyans are by their very being involved in personal and social holiness. This, we believe, is not the just the way of a faithful church, it is very way of Christ. In doctrinal allegiance to Jesus as Lord, we commit ourselves to live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ! The so called social gospel is inseparably linked to the very heart of the Christian faith and specifically to the Wesleyan Way.

Transformation and the WIG: An Update Report ©

Last September Mart United Methodist Church launched a new faith community built around what they call J.A.M. (Jesus and Me). The new faith community is focused on serving pre-K through 6th grade children in the Mart ISD. Pastor Amy Anderson shares the following story:

One of the first children to sign up was a 2nd grader named Peyten. She came from a single parent household where the mother was a well-known drug addict. One month after we started, Peyten was taken by CPS and placed in the care of an older brother in Waxahachie. The mother, Tammy, as well as CPS gave us permission to remain in contact with the child. We have been able to send her cards, letters, and children’s devotional items appropriate for her age. We also supplied her with Christmas gifts through our children’s change-for-change mission offering. She is doing extremely well.

Her mother, Tammy, got “scared straight” so to speak. Losing her daughter is what it took to make her face reality. She voluntarily went into outpatient rehab and began coming to church. She has also joined us for dinner on Wednesday evenings and stays for bible study. This has been ongoing since the middle of October. She has tested clean and negative for drugs 6 weeks in a row. Last Sunday, Tammy came to me after church in tears and said, “I want to let everyone know that I want to follow Jesus from now on. This town talked about me and judged me but this church loved and embraced me and showed me a better way to live. I want to be a part of this.”

I am so excited to say that she has chosen to profess her faith in worship this coming Sunday, join the church, and has asked to be baptized. We are bringing in a horse trough and celebrating in a big way. It is because of the New Faith Community of J.A.M. that we were able to reach her, through her daughter. She has a long road ahead of her in so many ways but, spiritually, we have a plan in action to help disciple her and a strong group of folks to walk with her on her faith journey. God is good…all the time!

I am awed by the grace of God exhibited through a church responding to the wildly important goal (WIG) of “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  This is truly a story of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in the lives and ministry of a local congregation. It is a narrative of the grace of Christ reflected in a redeemed life.

Narrative (story) and metrics go together. They are a report of God in action moving in, through, and with us. There are crucial lead measures that reflect a commitment in the transformational ministry of making disciples of Christ. Three crucial lead measures for the Conference & Districts are:

1. The number of churches with measurable goals
2.  The number of churches growing in average worship attendance
3. The number of new faith communities

For local congregations, there are also vitally important lead measures which go with stories of transformational disciples. Local church lead measures are:

1. The number of people engaged in faith sharing mission
2. The number of first time visitors
3. Setting measurable goals for average worship attendance and professions of faith growth
4. The number of new faith communities
5. The number of small groups

A couple of additional narrative stories tie to the key metric of the number of new faith communities. Rev. Meg Witmer-Faile, Associate Director of the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth shared the following:

“Just wanted to share with you that I attended the launch of Saginaw UMC’s ‘Simply Worship’ 9:45 AM new faith community yesterday. As you likely recall from their grant application, this new worship service was one of the congregation’s Holy Focus goals, so it is encouraging to see it coming to fruition. Also, they were very grateful to receive the $10,000 grant and expressed that before the end of the worship service, recognized me as representing the CECG/Conference Leadership.

It was a good worship experience, seemingly well-received, and well-attended (@75-80, I believe). Jason, Estee, Greg (the new part-time worship leader for this service), and their Holy Focus worship planning team had obviously prepared well for the launch of this new service. …

One additional note, the woman I sat with during worship yesterday, shared with me that she had visited the Saginaw church three times, had had coffee with Jason to learn more about the church, and had come to church that morning specifically for the Simply Worship service. It was obvious to me that she was comfortable and engaged in worship. What a gift and a blessing—grateful!”

Again the narrative ties to changing metric and God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is active in our faithfulness. One additional narrative I offer comes from Trinity United Methodist Church in Arlington. Dr. Dean Posey, Lead Pastor at Trinity, writes to Rev. Ben Disney, East District Superintendent and Rev. Mike Ramsdell, Executive Director of the Smith Center for Evangelism and Church Growth:

“I wanted to share with both of you some very good news about Trinity. Our average Sunday School attendance for 2017 was 505, and the average worship attendance for 2017 was 645. Our WIG is to increase our Sunday School attendance to 750 by December 2020. We made a decision last fall to add two new worship services beginning January 7, 2018. One worship service is for adults at 9:45am, and the other new service is for children at 11:00am. In addition we added four new Sunday School classes on January 7, 2018 as the first step towards our WIG. I am excited to tell you that last Sunday, January 7 we had 574 in Sunday School and 730 in worship! That is 69 more people in Sunday School and 85 more in worship. We are very excited as we begin this year and look forward to a great 2018 here at Trinity. Thank you both for your encouragement and support.”

The Fourth Sunday in Advent ©

Today, I offer a liturgy for the lighting of the Advent Wreath candles for both the fourth Sunday in Advent and for Christmas Eve. Traditionally (and usually) those are different days. This year, they fall on the same day.

In the Methodist traditions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Christ Candle is lit on Christmas Eve as a sign and symbol of welcoming the newborn Savior into our lives and the life of the world He came to save.  Jolynn and I will be lighting the fourth candle before our traditional Christmas Eve worship this year. We will then use the liturgy for Christmas Eve on Christmas morning. I urge families to use the liturgies in whatever way appears best for their own special celebration of the Savior’s birth. The liturgy is based loosely on an ancient sharing of the Passover meal modified and adopted for Advent. -Bishop Mike Lowry

The Fourth Sunday of Advent
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light four candles as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light four candles?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given to us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The fourth candle stands for the peace of the Lord. In the birth of the baby Jesus, God comes in human flesh and rules among us with peace and justice.”

Read:   Luke 2:1-20

Sing: “The First Noel”
“The first Noel, the angels did say,
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel!”

Prayer:
Lord God, we who live in a world torn by violence; we who live in a culture of clamor quietly approach a Bethlehem stable longing for your peace. As we too receive again the good news of your birth in the baby Jesus, may your peace settle on our hearts, minds, and lives. May your peace which passes all understanding encompass our world and inhabit our homes. Come Lord Jesus, Come! Amen.

 

Christmas Eve or Christmas Day
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 52:7-10

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light four candles and the center Christ Candle as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light four candles and the Christ Candle?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The fourth candle stands for the peace of the Lord. Today (or tonight) we light the Christ Candle in celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus, God with us! “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:3-5).

Read:   John 1:1-14

Sing: “Joy to the World”
“Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and heaven, and nature sing.”

Prayer:
Dear Lord God, on this day (or eve) of your birth as the baby Jesus, we come to give our overwhelming thanks and praise. Your hope is with us; your love surrounds us; your joy fills us and peace settles upon us. In the birth of your Son our Savior and Lord, you declare once again your eternal love for us and for all human kind. O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. Amen.

Advent Gratitude ©

Each Advent season, as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, we go into overdrive deciding on who we need/want to get a gift. In my better moments, my energy to find gifts is driven by gratitude. As I reflect on the people who have especially blessed me, I find myself instinctively giving thanks.

Recently, I received a special gift that gave me pause for special Advent gratitude. It came in the form of a letter from Bishop Hector Ortiz Vidal, bishop of Methodist Church in Puerto Rico.

Dear Bishop Lowry:

Peace and Grace in Christ be upon you, your family and your Church.

I wish to express our deepest gratitude for your offering. Your offering has helped us alleviate the pain of our people and support the Ministries and Mission of our Methodist Church of Puerto Rico. Hurricane María destroyed most of our Island, but she could not destroy our passion to serve and love the ones in need. Your help represents a gift from heaven that humbly and gratefully we receive.

The Spaniard author Saint John of the Cross, in his work The Dark Night of the Soul. tells us about the adversities human beings and institutions face in our walk through life. Puerto Rico and The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico have lived “the dark night of the soul,” but on this dark moment, you have been light that enlightened our lives.

In this Christmas Season, may the Star that lit the Manger and all that was accompany with peace hymns illuminate your life as you enlightened ours.

With the appreciation and esteem always,

Bishop Héctor F. Ortiz Vidal

We who live in such abundance are called at this season to remember that the Christ child came to a poor family looking for shelter and hope. The faith of the Methodist people of Puerto Rico serves as a reminder to me (and to us) that we have so much for which to be thankful.

I am thankful for you, the people and congregations of the Central Texas Conference (CTC). Your response is an overwhelming blessing to those in need. David Stinson, Comptroller and Treasurer of the CTC, reports the following Disaster Relief funds received as of Dec. 11, 2017.

$159,270.12 UMCOR USA Disaster Relief.
$2,074.00 Hurricane Irma
$3,983.55 Hurricane Maria
$366,613.75 Hurricane Harvey

Add to the above, 2000+ cleaning buckets assembled in the CTC at an estimated value of $130,000; plus an additional 5,000 hygiene kits for Harvey impacted families at a value of approximately $60,000.

When you add that all up, the Grand total given in hurricane relief (so far) comes out to about $721,941.42. This is truly an Advent of gratitude and an outreach of love in helping! God bless and keep you!

By way of follow up, $70,000 of the Hurricane Harvey funds were sent on Nov.1 as an initial seed offering to help the churches of the Rio Texas Conference. Dawne Phillips, CTC Director of Missions, adds that “approximately 1000 [cleaning buckets] went to Harvey impacted areas with volunteers driving trailers to either Conroe or Kerrville depots, and the rest going with ERTs as they responded to the crisis. 2500 [hygiene kits] have gone to the gulf coast. We have sent cleaning and hygiene kits to UMCOR’s Sager Brown warehouse in Louisiana to help stock them for Hurricane Irma and Maria relief, and we have restocked our own depots so that we are ready for the next emergency.”

Well done, thou good and faithful servants, well done indeed!

The Family Advent Wreath

While serving at Asbury United Methodist Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, the Rev. Monte Marshall and I regularly put together an Advent Devotional Booklet. At the beginning of each week in the devotional booklet we wrote a short, lectionary based liturgy to use with a Family Advent Wreath candle lighting liturgy. Devotionals for each day of the week were written by various members of the congregation.

In our family, the lighting of the Advent and the sharing of the accompany liturgy around the kitchen table became a central element in our preparation for Christmas. Even now, with our children grow and having children of their own, this still a central part of our devotional preparation for the coming birth of Christ.

The liturgy is based loosely on an ancient sharing of the Passover meal modified and adopted for Advent. Each Friday in Advent I will offer another week’s liturgy for use as a family (whether it be one person or many) in preparation for the birth of the Christ child. Those wishing to receive the liturgy for the First Sunday in Advent may email my Executive Secretary, Mrs. Pattie Wood, (PattieWood@ctcumc.org) and she will send you the liturgy for the First Sunday. Bishop Mike Lowry

The Second Sunday of Advent

(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)

Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11 

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light two candles as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light two candles?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given us in the baby Jesus. God’s outpouring of love calls us to prepare ourselves with love for others as we celebrate the coming of the Savior into our lives and the world. We prepare for Christ’s birth through acts of love and kindness towards others, especially the poor and lost.”

Read:   Mark 1:-8

Sing: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,

                And ransom captive Israel,

                That mourns in lonely exile here,

                Until the Son of God appears.

                Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee,

                O Israel!

Prayer: “Lord God, You call us to prepare the way for the birth of your Son our Savior and Lord. May the love which you pour out upon us so fill us with love that your love overflows our lives on to others, especially those forgotten, neglected and rejected. Help us to be so involved with loving others in your name that we make straight your way in the desert. In the hungry, sick, poor, lonely, imprisoned, and stranger may we see you present with us. Fill our lives with your Spirit of love and sharing during this time that we may so prepare for your coming birth by sharing and loving others. Amen.”

 

 

Encountering Jesus on the Journey ©

In the church, we make much of the journey to Bethlehem. The tale is framed by the simple phrasing of verse 4 in Luke’s second chapter: “Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.” (Luke 2:4) What is often forgotten is the bookend of this epic journey found in Matthew 2: “When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.’ Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt.” (Matthew 2:13-14)

The story closes with a paragraph rarely preached from our pulpits.

19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 20 “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” 21 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee. 23 He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:19-23)

Approaching the joy Advent (the coming of the Christ-child) and the festive time of our Christmas celebrations, it is hard, if not painful, to remember that the holy child starts his life as a Christmas refugee, as migrant living in strange lands.

The Council of Bishops (COB) of the United Methodist Church has called on UMCs to observe Global Migration Sunday on Dec. 3, though churches may choose to observe it on another Sunday if they prefer. I join with my fellow bishops in asking the churches of the Central Texas Conference to pause to recall the tragedy of global migration in our time.

I am also quite conscious that many churches already have extensive Advent plans set in motion.  As such, if you wish, it would be appropriate for a congregation to remember Global Migration at some other time. Such a time of remembrance, prayer, learning and commitment should not be lost in the hectic pace of other activities. I specifically request that every church in the Central Texas Conference make time to observe Global Migration Sunday between now and the end of May 2018.

Bishop Bruce Ough, President of the Council of Bishops, wrote a letter to the United Methodist Church as a whole (one we shared in a banner headline on the CTC website on October 18th) in which he reminded us that…

“From Asia and Europe to Africa and the Americas, the plight of more than 65 million men, women and children forced to leave their homes and migrate to places unknown calls all Christians to remember what God requires of us.

Wars, natural disasters, persecution, economic hardships and growing violence around the world are the major root causes of the unprecedented global migration we witness with grave concern today. As if these deadly forces were not enough, migrants also face myriad problems including hazardous travel, cultural barriers and the physical and emotional costs of arriving in strange lands where they are not always welcome and they often face persecution.

For most of these migrants, the decision to flee their homeland comes as a last resort effort to live. We are reminded of Joseph and Mary as they sought to save their lives and especially the life of the Christ child as they fled to Africa to escape the wrath of King Herod, who (threatened by the birth of Jesus) ordered the massacre of children (Matthew 2:13‑14).”

We who journey to a Bethlehem stable are called to go with baby Jesus all the way. We too are called to join the Savior in the journey of migration. For most of us, following the Christ does not mean leaving home, let alone flee persecution. For this blessing, we should appropriately thank God. We are fortunate and blessed to live in a freedom! With this blessing, we should appropriately join the Lord in serving the refugee. Remember what the adult Jesus, who himself had been a refugee, said, “When you welcome the sojourner, you welcome me.” (Matthew 25:35)

Whenever you choose to observe Global Migration Sunday, I recommend that you visit umcmigration.org/resources and review the wide array of video, multi-media, presentation, digital and worship resources in several different languages.

The Migrant (from UMCMigration.org) from Central Texas Conference UMC on Vimeo.

Why an Emphasis of Christ at the Center?

The words of the great hymn ring out in many a church.

The church’s one Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is His new creation, by water and the Word;
from heav’n He came and sought her to be His holy bride;
with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.
(“The Church’s One Foundation,” No. 545, The United Methodist Hymnal)

The words center us at a focal point of the Christian faith. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann comments, “At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross” (Jurgen Moltmann, taken from A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight, pg. 61).

Since coming to the Central Texas Conference over 9 years ago, I have operated out of a deep conviction born in prayer and consultation that three core values for our ministry tower above all other aspirants for our attention. We call them simply the Big Three:

1. Christ at the Center
2.  A Focus on the Local Church
3.  Lay and Clergy Leadership Development

Periodically I am challenged by the Christological emphasis being of first importance. Typically the question comes in the form of a skeptical query, “Why Christ? Why not God or Jesus?” Often it is followed by an argument tinged with defiance that the center should be on God in order to indicate the full breath of the Holy Trinity or on Jesus (with a concurrent implicit emphasis on the Lord’s humanity).

The challenge poses a reasonable question, but I believe it flounders in the context of the early 21st century United Methodist Church. An emphasis on God alone without a specific reference to the Trinity leads us into a closet Unitarianism. An emphasis on Jesus without a similar emphasis on Christ denies the redemptive work of the totality of Jesus as the Christ, the Lord and Savior of all. (It is worth noting that the issue of a creeping Unitarianism affects mostly the old “mainline” protestant church. Many on the so-called “evangelical” side of the church/denomination equation, including most Independent Bible churches, suffer from exactly the opposite malady.)

Interestingly enough, the skeptical query almost always (with rare exception) comes from clergy. I submit that they reflect a theological emphasis that has mistakenly led us away from the core center of the Christian faith. Put more bluntly the deeper struggle over theological orthodoxy in The United Methodist Church today centers around the need to more fully embrace a robust Christology. We are in danger of being a Unitarian United Methodist Church, which emphasizes Jesus’ mercy and justice ministry at the expense of the Lord’s redeeming work on the cross.

Make no mistake, we rightly should lift up Christ’s great teaching of mercy and justice. The Great Commandment to love God and the neighbor is to be ever before us ardently engaging in ministries of love, justice and mercy. My pause, which leads me back to a deeper emphasis on Christ at the Center, is that in the process of so emphasizing the human work of Jesus and the importance of the Godhead, we in The United Methodist Church have subtly descended into a cultural version of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 

1.      A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

2.      God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

by Kenda Creasy Dean, pg 14

 

3.      The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4.      God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.

5.      Good people go to heaven when they die.

Irenaeus, a church Father from the 2nd century, insisted on what we would call a “high” Christology while firmly anchoring creedal affirmation that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. “But following the only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”  Scot McKnight goes on to comment, “The implication of this observation shapes the entirety of what we mean by the atonement: God identifies with us in the incarnation. Without identification, without incarnation, there is not atonement” (Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, pg. 54).

It is significant that the ancient Church Fathers and Mothers welded together a high Christology with a passion for ministry to the last, the least and the lost. They had a saying, springing from the writings of theologians like Irenaeus, that went, “He became like us that we might be like him.”

In a recent dialog between the Central Texas Conference Cabinet and members of the faculty and administration of Perkins School of Theology, conversation around the United Methodist need to embrace a stronger Christology struck a deep nerve. Professor Rebecca Miles followed up on the conversation by sharing her concern in a series of email exchanges (used with permission). She commented, “You bet, Bishop. Is it is clear that I don’t think this (i.e. a weak understanding of Christ and Christology) is just a Perkins problem but a problem of our church generally.” She added in a later email, “Let’s talk about Christology! [Emphasis hers.] I am also concerned about the lack of Christology or the presence of an anemic or unformed Christology in our pastors (laity too). . . . I wonder if there might be a way to link this effort to jointly sponsored Central Texas Conference/Perkins preparation for commissioning.”

Dr. Miles closed with an invitation, which I commend to the laity of the Central Texas Conference. “Regarding laity (especially lay church professionals), we are hosting a course in UM Studies in January with Whitfield, Miles and Campbell teaching. For me, Wesleyan theology is one way to get at the key Christological issues and also to counter the rampant Calvinist theology among our laity (or simple theological apathy). Here is a link to the event. I hope all of you will consider sharing this:  https://www.smu.edu/Perkins/PublicPrograms/UM-Studies-Course

I close with a quote from the great missionary evangelist and theologian E. Stanley Jones:

Christianity is Christ…. We do not begin with God, for if you do you do not begin with God but with your ideas of God, which are not God. We do not begin with man, for if you do you begin with the problems of man. And if you begin with a problem you will probably end with a problem, and in the process you will probably become a problem…. We don’t begin with God, and we don’t begin with man, we begin with God-Man and from Him we work out to God, and from Him we work down to man. In His light we see life – all life. For He is the revelation of God and man – the revelation of what God is and what man can become – he can become Christlike.

 

The Vatican and Christian Unity ©

I pray that they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21)

Saturday, October 30th, I found myself with a group from the Central Texas Conference sitting in worship at the 5 p.m. Mass at the Vatican. As we faced the great high altar, to our immediate left was a Choir from CTCUMC. The Choir was built around the core of the tremendous White’s Chapel Choir. Shauna LaCroix Fuller, the Executive Director of Music and Worship Ministries at White’s Chapel led our witness in song. In a dramatically different and truly ecumenical way, we worshipped God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together. As we worshipped in St. Peter’s Basilica, I found myself both swelling with pride at the magnificent witness of our choir and humbling giving thanks that the great cause of Christian unity is being slowly advanced.

Monday morning I had a private meeting with Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in the Vatican offices across the street from St. Peter’s. Bishop Michael Olson, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, had graciously set up our meeting. Additionally, I had been briefed in advance by United Methodist Bishop Michael Watson, the Ecumenical Officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, in preparation for our time together. We had almost an hour and a half of delightful in-depth conversation on the issues surrounding Christian Unity, especially as they related to United Methodists and the Catholic Church.

Nearing the end of our conversation, I asked Bishop Farrell what message he would like me to take back and share with the pastors and churches of the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. With his graceful urging I pass on the essence (as best as I remember) of Bishop Farrell’s comments. He began by noting (for the second time) that we (both our churches) have had a hard time translating the good work being done on a higher ecclesiastical level to the pews. He was deeply committed to the notion that bishops and other church leaders need to communicate our ecumenical commitments to our priests/pastors and congregations better. Then he proceeded to enumerate four keys elements he wished communicated.

  1. “Please communicate to your people how serious we are about Christian unity.”  His gracious and open conversation moved far beyond the merely superficial. Bishop Farrell explicitly referenced John 17 and Jesus’ prayer for unity for a purpose: “so that the world may believe that you sent me.”
  2. “We need to learn from each other!”  Bishop Farrell exhibited a wide and deep grasp of insights that he believes the Catholic Church is learning from sharing in dialogue with other Christian communities and noted specifically some of the insights he believes the Catholic Church offers us as United Methodists and Protestants. He re-emphasized that that we have much to teach each other. I could not agree more!  Openness to real dialogue at a deep level will benefit all of us and most emphatically the greater Christian witness to a non-believing world.
  3. Speaking of the formal dialog between the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations, he highlighted the problem that, from his perspective, Protestant denominations have drifted from their own core documents and this made it very difficult for Catholics to engage in a deeper dialog. I am compelled to say that I strongly agree with Bishop Farrell’s sense of a drift from our founding principles and documents. We, United Methodist, will better participate and assist the larger learning of the universal worldwide Christian movement by more clearly adhering to and offering up what makes us distinct. Bishop Farrell noted the Wesley doctrine of holiness (sanctification) as something he believes we have to offer the entire church.
  4. Bishop Farrell raised the wider issue of what is call “ecclesiology,” the order and governance of the church. In particular, he discussed the role of bishops (biblically the term means “overseer”) and the faithful continuity of our shared global witness for Jesus as Lord. Here too, I found myself in general agreement. With the rise of the “Independent Bible Church” in American culture, the biblical office of bishop (which is among other things, the locus of Christian unity) is deeply challenged.

There is more, much more, to my blessed time with Bishop Farrell. Allow me to close by sharing his conviction that the greater ecumenical ministry must be pursed with vigor on the local level –  congregation to congregation, pastor to priest, bishop to bishop, etc. God is truly with us in this effort. May the great prayer of Christ guide us – that we all may be one so that the world may believe.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #11 ©

Reclaiming a Doctrine of Salvation

 Last week Dr. Lisa Neslony, West District Superintendent in the Central Texas Conference, wrote in a perceptive email, “What if Christians sought the spiritually lost the way volunteers have been seeking people in Southeast Texas? And why don’t we? Maybe we don’t really believe people are threatened by a spiritual death that is as real as water rising all around you. It struck me Tuesday when I listened to the radio on my way west that some people had refused being ‘saved’ (the broadcaster’s word) on Monday but were begging to be saved Tuesday. I have to admit that sometimes I give up on people. But I am overwhelmed with the conviction that I should offer the saving grace of Jesus Christ to all I meet as many times as it takes so people can experience God’s salvation.”

In Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesley Way #10, I wrote on the concept of grace and noted carefully that an understanding of grace is ultimately tied to a doctrine of salvation. Thus at the heart of the Wesleyan Way is a rock solid conviction that the offer of salvation is for all! Ironically, the mainline Christian core has migrated from a battle over salvation for the elect only vs salvation as available to all (through not all are saved!), to a loose conviction that in some vague way everyone is saved. Often this theological fuzziness is confused even further by an understanding of salvation that is truncated into the simplistic (and false notion) of just getting into heaven.

In his great sermon “The Scriptural Way of Salvation” preaching on the text of Ephesians 2:8 (“Ye are saved through faith”), John Wesley famously noted: “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. . . . It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. . . . So that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul till it is consummated in glory” (John Wesley, “The Scriptural Way to Salvation,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 2, Sermons II, 34-70, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 156). So too, in Sermon I of Wesley’s collection of sermons (which formed a theological backbone of Methodism) Wesley connected salvation with grace and faith (again preaching on Ephesians 2:8) in a way that great clarity. “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation” (John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 1, Sermons I, 1-33, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 118).

In his marvelous book Who Will Be Saved? (which I heartily recommend!) Bishop William Willimon draws the connection tight. “Although celebration of humanity is the dominant, governmentally sanctioned story, it is not the story to which Christians are accountable. It is the conventional North American story that, at every turn, is counter to the gospel. Thus we begin by noting that there are few more challenging words to be said by the church than salvation. Salvation implies that there is something from which we need to be saved, that we are not doing as well as we presume, that we do not have the whole world in our hands and that the hope for us is not of our devising. . . . To be sure, Scripture is concerned with our eternal fate. What has been obscured is Scripture’s stress on salvation as invitation to share in a particular God’s life here, now, so that we might do so forever. Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation. Salvation isn’t just a question of who is saved and who is damned, who will get to heaven and how, but also how we are swept up into participation in the mystery of God who is Jesus Christ” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, p. 3).

Consider further that if the source of salvation is grace, God’s radically free unmerited love poured out for us on the cross of Christ, then a critical element of love is that it cannot be forced. Forced grace is a contradiction in terms. If it is forced, it isn’t grace! We either lean forward and say to God, “thy will be done,” or lean back and hear the Lord whisper in our ears, “all right then, have it your way.” (This phrase is not original to me but I do not recall the original source.) Hell is both real and of our own choice and making. It hinges on the critical decision of whether Jesus is truly the Lord of our life. It is about much more than simply saying the magic words of profession or passing off allegiance to Christ as mere intellectual assent. To be sure grace abounds, but is never cheap nor is it easy.

We have waded too long in the shallow pool of indulgent self-preference. The one who hangs on the cross for us and rises from death in triumph will not be content with a rotting sentimentality spread so thinly over 21st century hedonism. Hung over self-indulgent sentimentality cannot stand the gas ovens of the Nazis or the pain of cancer or the clash of our self-will at the expense of God’s created design and desire. Truth was not crucified on the cross. The Way, the Truth, and Life rose triumphant on Easter morning.

Any true notion of Christian salvation is tied inextricably to Jesus Christ. Again Bishop Willimon is on target. “Salvation is literally inconceivable apart from Christ: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Peter wasn’t speaking to the question of other faiths  – he was testifying before his follow Jews about the Jew, Jesus. . . . If Jesus is, as we believe him to be, as much of God as we ever hope to see, the one who uniquely brought about our at-one-ment with the Father, then we can’t also say that Jesus is only a way, one truth among many, and just another life. Jesus is not simply a great moral example; he is the salvation of God, God’s peculiar, un-substitutable fullness. Jesus’ distinctive way of suffering, sacrificial love, outrageous invitation, and boundary-breaking, government-enraging, relentless seeking – vindicated by surprising, unexpected resurrection – cannot be merged with other means of definitions of salvation” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, pp. 93-94).

If we are to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we cannot neglect the full development and employment of a biblical doctrine of salvation. Much of the muddled thinking about salvation comes from a confusion of the importance of good works as a part of salvation with a vague understanding of cheap grace. For far too long cheap grace has been stirred with the good works of love, justice and mercy in a manner which as produced the bland gruel of shallow “niceness.”  It is time to reclaim (and preach!) a full doctrine of salvation by Christ alone. And all this done in a manner soaked in humble grace at the foot of the cross and next to the open grave.

Professors Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson in their soon to be published book The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation take time to remind us of this cardinal conviction of early Methodism. “British Methodists summarized the distinctive Wesleyan aspects of salvation with the ‘four alls:’

“All need to be saved.
“All can be saved.
“All can know they are saved.
“All can be saved to the uttermost.”

(Taken from The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 66 pre-publication copy. Footnote: This summary was developed in the early twentieth century by W. B. Fitzgerald. See W.B. Fitzgerald, The Roots of Methodism (London: The Epworth Press, 1903), 173)

 

Responding to Harvey ©

Prayers, Patience, Donations and Cleaning Kits Needed in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey

With so many of you, Jolynn and I have watched the news of Hurricane Harvey (#HurricaneHarvey) with deep interest. For us, it is very personal. We lived in Corpus Christi, Texas for 13 years (while I was Sr. Pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church). We have friends up and down the coast. We have lived through a couple of hurricane evacuations and know the drill on boarding up the house. I have been in (and preached in) the communities of both Rockport and Aransas Pass. Our son went to Rice University, which has sustained a lot of damage and on the news we saw flooded streets in Houston near where he used to live.

So, it is in a very personal way, we (both Jolynn and I) ask you to join with so many others in praying for the people of the Texas Gulf Coast and especially those hit hard by flooding from Harvey both in Texas and Louisiana. I also want to call you to pray earnestly and often for the health and safety of all dealing with this historic flooding – both those directly affected as well as all of the first responders who have come from all across Texas and several other states to assist in rescue efforts.

As our prayers continue for all of those who have had their world swept away, as well as those who are still in danger from this unprecedented and still developing weather event, may we respond with concrete actions of love and service. In answer to our prayers, the Lord will give us guidance on how best to respond with support for relief and recovery efforts both in the short- and long-term.

In time of disaster, it is well for us to remember the promise of the risen Christ. “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:20)  It is at times like this that the great commandment of Jesus moves us beyond mere sentiment into action. “This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:38-39) Our Lord, who was renowned for his love and service to others, (all others, regardless of race, creed, orientation, political affiliation, nationality, etc.!) calls us to service in deeds of love for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:14)

I’d also like to echo the calls for patience and financial support that have been posted on our conference website (ctcumc.org/HurricaneHarvey ) and delivered via our Mission Support and Disaster Relief communications. I know that the yearning to help is burning within each of us. However, right now, and most likely for several weeks to come, the best way we can respond is to pray and give to the UMCOR Hurricane Harvey Advance #901670 through your local church or online at umcor.org.

For those who would called to support the relief and recovery efforts beyond financial donations, UMCOR has put out a call for Cleaning Buckets and Hygiene Kits. Many local congregations in the Central Texas Conference have such efforts underway. If you are so called, start by checking with your local church and your district office for such efforts. After you have completed your buckets and/or kits, please contact Sheryl Crumrine (sherylcrumrine@ctcumc.org/ 817-877-5222) at the Central Texas Conference Service Center (CTCSC) for information on how to get them to where they are most needed.

Another way our conference will assist in the immediate response efforts is to host those who have had to flee their homes due to flooding and wind damage. Authorities estimate as many as 30,000 people will need shelter and many of those have already come into our conference seeking refuge. We have learned that Killeen FUMC is currently hosting seven people and is prepared to help as many as 100 at a time. If your church is already providing shelter or has the ability to do so, please email Sheryl Crumrine at sheryl@ctcumc.org so that the CTCSC Disaster Response team can best assist you in these efforts.

Our conference ERT teams are ready and standing by to assist as soon as they are called upon. However, the tragic truth is that this storm is far from over and much more rain and flooding is still expected in the Greater Houston area and throughout southeast Texas. The areas most impacted are still in active rescue mode where preventing the loss of life being the primary focus right now. It is important to wait and pray until the storm is over, the immediate danger has passed, the damage can be assessed and the immediate needs identified.

This is going to be a very long recovery process, most likely, several years. We have been engaged in the long haul for recovery and healing through our Conference office of Disaster Response headed by Rev. Ginger Watson. There will be much to do and plenty of opportunities to help in the months and years to come.

As I write this, our Conference is not in active disaster mode as there is no flooding or other emergencies to report from within the Central Texas Conference. However, that could change as the rain continues, so we will continue to watch our South District counties closely. Our Disaster Response team remains in regular contact with UMCOR and state of Texas authorities.

The Disaster Response team along with our Communications & IT department and others are in regular contact with our partners in Texas Conference and the Río Texas Conference. Both conferences are posting regular updates on their conference Facebook pages (Texas Conference Facebook, Rio Texas Conference Facebook) and watch ctcumc.org/HurricanHarvey for the latest updates from our Disaster Response team.

We will have more information about the specific needs of people in the coastal region and how best to work with our partners in the Texas Conference and Rio Texas Conference as soon as those are available. Vance Morton and our communications team at the Conference Center will continue to share information out as soon as we have it.  Meanwhile, please continue to monitor the situation through our Conference website ctcumc.org/HurricaneHarvey for updates.

The Lord will guide our best and most prayer filled efforts to help our brothers and sisters suffering from Hurricane Harvey.  For now, may we respond with prayer, cleaning buckets, hygiene kits and financial support to UMCOR Advance #901670 through our local churches or the Central Texas Conference directly.

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