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Recovering Doctrinal Greatness Through Advent/Christmas Hymns ©

Even when announced and printed in the bulletin, as I turn in my hymnal to #211 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 211), the words from this great hymn slip in on me and catch me by surprise. They manage to be at once both a caress and a jolt. I suspect that there is no greater Advent hymn than this one. The music is sublime, the words poetic, and the theology arresting in its greatness.

A footnote in The United Methodist Hymnal tells us that it comes from the 9th century. It adds that the original verses were in Latin. A modest amount of internet digging reveals that it has roots even deeper than that. Wikipedia notes that it probably came originally from a series of “plainchant antiphons attached to the Magnificat at Vespers over the final days before Christmas.” More, so much more, than just a catchy tune, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” plunges us into the depth of Christian doctrine.

Consider the first verse:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Springing from the biblical texts of Isaiah 7:14 (“Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.”) and Matthew 1:23 (Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. [Emmanuel means “God with us.”]), the song not only captures our longing for a Savior but denotes our exile from our proper home with God. It does all this through adherence to the Hebrew Text (Old Testament) and the historical reality of the Babylonian exile. Taken as a whole the longing evokes a theological awareness of how lost we are without a Savior.

Thus in a few short verses this great hymn shatters any self-help notions of personal salvation. We too are Israel; we too are lost and stand in need of a Savior.

Look at verse three:

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The words of this version of the hymn in verse three were translated by H. S. Coffin in 1916. The emphasis is on our need for divine help and for the “ordering” of all things, both far and near. The very concept of biblical wisdom is a gift from the Holy Spirit. The verse faces without flinching how disorderly our world is. Have you read the headlines or watched the news lately?

As in all the verses, the refrain brings us back to the great promise of salvation. We who live in a disordered world desperately needing wisdom from on high searching for the path of knowledge move towards a Bethlehem stable with joy. Emmanuel, God with us, will come to us. In the chaos of our day and time, this is surely the greatest news we can ever receive!

With news of North Korea conducting missile tests, the ever-continuing war in the Middle East, and violence in our own cities, the seventh verse almost demands to be sung.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

We are in the midst of international strife, whether the nations (including our own) realize it or not. Christ is the deepest desire of our hearts and minds. As the Prince of Peace approaches, rightly we pray for and work towards peace; “bind all people in one heart and mind!”

Notice too as you sing, how the verse bids us lay down sin both individually and collectively. “Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease.” The version of this verse contained in The United Methodist Hymnal offers a slightly different rendering: “From dust thou brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife.” It recognizes and offers our highest allegiance to the creator God who comes to us in the baby, Emmanuel, God is with us! Notice how the seventh verse spills forth in a prayer, “fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”

There is more, much more to said and shared, but I invite us to not only sing the hymns of Advent/Christmas but also to take the time to dwell in deep reflection on the wisdom and doctrinal greatness of the words. In the music, sung, chanted and prayed, God speaks to us once again.

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 #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)

 

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)

A Time for Courage: Part III ©

The following blog posting (“A Time for Courage: Part III) is the third and final section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference on June 12, 2017. Part I was posted June 19th and Part II was posted June 21st.  I remind the reader of the closing paragraph of Part II: “We are sailing on the Dawn Treader and not on the Titanic!  In the immortal words of William Carey, “Attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.”  In my words, breathe deep.  Jesus is Lord and we are not.  That is a really good thing!  This is his church, not ours!!”  –Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

So let’s get concrete about the work of ministry before us as lay and clergy together in the Central Texas Conference.  Wherever you are on the continuum between a progressive theology and a traditional/evangelical theology, we need faithful and fruitful congregations.  The Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church, calls us to build vital congregations! Whatever the future brings, we need Christ-honoring, life-giving places of worship and service! This is why we are engaged in our God-honoring mission that emerges naturally out of the Great Commission of the risen Savior and moves forward under the power of the Holy Spirit.

When I came to the Central Texas Conference nine years ago, there was already a firmly implanted understanding of the mission of The United Methodist Church and in particular of the mission of the churches in the Central Texas Conference:  “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Our clear vision over the last nine years has centered on building faithful and fruitful churches in all kinds of locations, with wide and a variety missions fields including great diversity, and a deep sense of life transforming discipleship.

Vision: Vibrant and Vital local churches of all sizes, types and in all contexts all across the Central Texas Conference, which are fruitful and faithful in accomplishing the stated mission.

Yoked to the mission and vision has been a consistent core strategy which we have called simply “the Big Three.”  Collectively they represent not only the core strategy but a set of driving values which give shape to our collective ministry.

Core Strategic Values: To engage deeply in the “big three” key strategic values

  1. Christ at the Center
  2. Focus on the local Church
  3. Develop a new generation of lay and clergy leaders

This year we have added a strategic focus, namely what we are calling the WIG (Wildly Important Goal).  The WIG is the key thing we must keep as a targeted goal above all else.  In doing so, we are driven by the living power of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the risen Lord, and the constantly creating genius of our creator God.  Make no mistake, the WIG must be central to have any chance of accomplishing our stated mission.  Folks, this is true regardless of where you stand on the controversial issues facing us as a larger church!  The WIG leads us to tangible strategic focus.  It forms the linchpin of “how” we will accomplish our larger strategic task and links with the why of the Great Commission, which Christ has given us to go and make disciples of all peoples (Matthew 28:18-20).

Strategic Focus:  Increasing the number of disciples of Jesus Christ during the next 10 years through . . .

  • New Faith Communities
  • Clergy and Lay Leadership Development
  • Mission Focused Discipleship

Always, always, always! narrative and metrics go together.  We will seek out the stories of transformation (narrative) – both personal and congregational, embrace growth in variety of forms – missional, spiritual, financial, social, etc.  As we learn the stories of faith transformation, they are yoked to two specific WIG measurements.

WIG MEASUREMENTS YOKED TO THE NARRATIVE:

  • Market share (as defined by average weekly worship attendance divided by total population; currently we are at 1.07%)
    •   1.1% by 2020
    •   1.25% by 2026
  • Professions of Faith
    •   3,500 per year by 2026 (At the end of 2016 the number of professions of faith was 1, 845.)

Taken together with the narrative stories, these are two key components of making disciples.

Tactics:

From our core strategy, focused on the WIG, over the years we have looked at a number of important tactical ways to move towards this Christ honoring goal of vibrant, vital, faithful and fruitful local churches in fulfillment of the Great Commission of Christ to go and make disciples.  This list includes but is not limited to:

  • Investigating our context (with Dr. Gil Rendle)
  • Wrestling with Wesleyan Theology (Dr. Kenda Dean)
  • Local Church Leadership (Rev. Adam Hamilton)
  • Developing cultural and ethnic inclusivity (General Secretary Erin Hawkins & Rev. Rudy Rasmus)
  • Building a Conference and Church culture that is open to experimentation (Bishop Robert Schnase – “Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences”)
  • Understanding our Path to Discipleship (Dr. Candace Lewis, Bishop Scott Jones, & Dr. Phil Maynard)

Today we intentionally add a new and old key tactical component to living out our missional focus of “making disciples for the transformation of the world” by lifting high the Big Three: Christ the Center, Focus on the Local Church, and Developing lay and clergy leaders.  What tactical component to our mission is both new and old, at once at the heart of the Wesleyan movement and yet desperately needing rediscovery while simultaneously radically new?  This crucial tactical component needs to be emphatically embraced on an intensely practical level if a congregation is to be faithful and fruitful in accomplishing the WIG and thus our stated mission.  It is no more nor less than the rediscovery and reclaiming of what original Methodists call “The Class Meeting.”

On a full sea we are now afloat indeed but, this is not the voyage of the Titantic.  Instead to the glory of God, the honor of Christ, and the celebration of the Holy Spirit moving among us, this is the voyage of some kind of combination of the voyages of the Mayflower and the Dawn Treader.  It is combination only God could put together.

Our phenomenal good fortune, no … our phenomenal divine blessing and high privilege is being signed aboard as crew on the ship of the church captained by Christ himself!  I challenge us to be who we are at our best … people of faith and not fear.  This is a time for courage; quiet, persistent, resilient courage under the Lord’s leadership and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

“God of grace and God of glory, On Thy people pour Thy power. Crown Thine ancient church’s story, Bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, For the facing of this hour, For the facing of this hour” (“God of Grace and God of Glory,” Hymn Number 577, The United Methodist Hymnal, verse No. 1).

 

 

A Time for Courage: Part II ©

The following blog posting (“A Time for Courage: Part II) is the second section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference June 12, 2017. Part I was posted on June 19th.   —Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

In Narnia, the green mist preys on people’s weaknesses and their fears. It makes their darkest dreams come true, and frightens, or worse yet, tempts them. The same happens in our time and even in our churches and the greater United Methodist Church.

This is a call to trust and obey. The temptation would be for us to try in this gathering to solve political issues that stalk the halls of Washington, D.C. or the 2019 issues of human sexuality and avoid the pressing needs the Lord God calls us to face today. This does not mean an ignorance of those issues or a failure to address them but rather calls us to focus on the task before us in its proper context.

There will be opportunity to face the issues that threaten us with schism, specifically same gender marriage and ordination of LGBTQI people.  We have a task group working with our feedback to the Commission on the Way Forward.  (The Commission holds the responsibility to prepare a report for the Council of Bishops and the called session of the 2019 General Conference.)  Each and every district along with their lay and clergy will have time and opportunity to give feedback.  We are committed as a Conference to a week of prayer for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and a faithful future of The United Methodist Church.  (It should be noted that each annual conference in The United Methodist Church worldwide has been asked to take a specific week.  Our assigned week is January 28 – February 3.)

I invite you to take the image of the voyage of the Dawn Treader along with the image of the Mayflower and yoke them together with multi biblical injunctions and instructions.  Apply Joshua 1:5b -7, 9:

I won’t desert you or leave you. Be brave and strong, because you are the one who will help this people take possession of the land, which I pledged to give to their ancestors. “Be very brave and strong as you carefully obey all of the Instruction that Moses my servant commanded you.  … I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Embrace Psalm 46:1-7.

God is our refuge and strength,
a help always near in times of great trouble.
That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,
when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea,
     when its waters roar and rage,
when the mountains shake because of its surging waves.
Selah

 There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city,
the holiest dwelling of the Most High.
 God is in that city. It will never crumble.
God will help it when morning dawns.
 Nations roar; kingdoms crumble.
God utters his voice; the earth melts.
 The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!
The God of Jacob is our place of safety.

Clergy, allow me to speak specifically to you while inviting the laity to overhear our conversation.  We need to lay our anxiety on the altar of the Lord.  We are not in control of the future of The United Methodist Church.  We need to trust God and allow the Commission on the Way Forward to do its work while we buttress them with prayer. We need to engage in respectful, carefully graceful conversations with our laity. Let the words of Jesus guide our emotional and spiritual dispositions.

Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth.  But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. …  Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:28-29, 33-34)

Faith is an intentional decision to move into the future according to a particular framework, a worldview, a way of thinking and living. Anxiety is the unintentional decision to move according to a negative framework.  We control what we can control. We release to the Lord what we cannot control.

Laity, allow me to speak to you from both head and heart.  “On such a full sea we are now afloat” (William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3). Shakespeare’s words fit our times and our churches.  Expecting your clergy to magically solve the controversial issues of our day is not just unrealistic. It is fundamentally unfaithful.  We can neither ignore the elephant in the room – possible schism in The United Methodist Church – nor be frozen by fear.  Laity and clergy have to do this together.  We cannot faithfully and successfully sail the perilous seas of our age separately. To borrow in paraphrase from Martin Luther King, Jr., “we must learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish together as fools” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).  This is a time for courage from both lay and clergy leadership.  It is also deeply a time for prayer. It is also a time for uncommon patience.  Hear again the opening words of Psalm 46.  “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Allow me to reiterate my comment directed specifically to the clergy but this time direct it specifically to the laity while inviting the clergy to overhear.  Faith is an intentional decision to move into the future according to a particular framework, a worldview, a way of thinking and living. Anxiety is the unintentional decision to move according to a negative framework.  We control what we can control. We release to the Lord what we cannot control. “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

We are sailing on the Dawn Treader and not on the Titanic!  In the immortal words of William Carey, “Attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.”  In my words, breathe deep.  Jesus is Lord, and we are not.  That is a really good thing!  This is his church, not ours!!

A Time for Courage: Part I ©

The following blog posting (A Time for Courage: Part I) is the first section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference on June 12, 2017.  The rest of the Episcopal Address will be shared in subsequent blogs.  — Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

One of the earliest images of the church of Jesus Christ is the image of the church as a ship at sea. You can find it imprinted on the episcopal stole.  Indeed the image itself harkens back to the Apostle Paul’s famous sea voyage to Rome and shipwreck on Malta, which is chronicled in Acts 27.

In our time, once again, images of the church as a ship at sea have come prominently to mind and are commonly used in referral and reference.  Come with me for a moment and consider some of the images of the church as a ship at sea.  The image is apt because few can doubt that we are sailing in troubled, tempestuous waters.  Consider the societal seas on which we sail:

  • Violence and terrorism seem to engulf our world, just think of ISIS, Manchester, and Syria.
  • Political chaos at home is a daily staple of life in newspaper, on television, in the blogosphere, and even among late night comics.
  • Economic uncertainty with looming retirements, healthcare concerns, and stock market fluctuations are a disturbing fact of life.
  • Religiously, the decline of the Christian Church across all denominations in Europe and North America is a well documented fact of life. For good or ill, we live in a secular age that dismisses and often knows little of historic institutional representations of Christianity.  We are in an age of religious anarchy and the absurd heresy of being “spiritual but not religious” (an oxymoron if ever there was one!) engulfs our society.
  • The twined heresies of a self-centered rampant individualism and a false prosperity gospel grapple with orthodox Christianity in both its progressive and traditional forms.
  • Perhaps deserving the top of the Christian list of high seas is our theological captivity to a cultural moralistic therapeutic deism chronicled so well by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean when she was with us a few years ago.
  • Closer to home in The United Methodist Church, schism over deep disagreements centering on human sexuality – specifically marriage and ordination – threaten to tear us apart.
  • Every year we close more churches.
  • That we exist in a major leadership crisis with the baby boom generation of pastors retiring and a missing generation of replacement pastors (those who should be roughly 45 to 55) ready for larger assignments is beyond doubt or dispute. A new generation of younger lay and clergy leadership is desperately needed.

Painfully we know that we face deep change or slow death, with a steadily increasing speed.  We must face this truth without blinking, reverting to denial, or ignoring the wider reality of our tough mission field.  We are in high seas and the tempest’s howling wind is increasing!

I could go on and so could you, but I think this is enough for now.  Amazingly this is not the whole story!  In the midst of the tempest of our times God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is powerfully, gracefully, compassionately, and explosively at work in our midst. The triune God is building or, more accurately, rebuilding the movement of Christ followers.  Amid the high seas we broach the crashing waves in amazing places. Consider a small sampling.

  • The rise in the number of younger clergy leadership presenting themselves for ordination.
  • The growth in the number of new faith communities in our very midst – try on The Oaks, sponsored by White’s Chapel or a Spanish language service at First UMC, Corsicana led by Lay Supply Pastor Martin Orozco or growing youth outreach in Ranger, Texas (incidentally led by the Youth Director of First UMC, Eastland).
  • Our try on the growing number of experiments in service and witness that combine the best of both missional love, justice and mercy with a genuinely evangelistic sharing of the gospel. Think about the Missional Wisdom Foundation or Project 44 or Life Church in Waco or bourgeoning campus ministries all across the Central Texas Conference.
  • The ever increasing number of congregations engaged in hands-on ministry for the hungry, hurting and homeless. Did you know that Nolanville UMC is engaged in a backpack ministry at the bus stop that combines concrete service help with a specific by name using Scripture grace-filled witness?  Or that Lebanon UMC (in the Central Texas Conference not the country of Lebanon) is running out of room in their sanctuary?
  • God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is moving in our midst folks!

No doubt you can add to this all too brief list.  The gospel truth is that amid the high tempestuous seas of modern life daring courageous Christian witness is surging forward.  This is the witness the risen Savior commanded be taken to the ends of earth (Acts 1:6-8).

It makes all the difference what ship, as an image for the church, you think you are sailing on. As our membership dwindles and our divisions widen, it is not uncommon to hear references to the Titanic.  Have you heard the phrase, “Oh, they are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?”  There is some painful truth we must face here.  For far too long we have acted as if we are too big to fail.  Professor Scott Kisker writes in Mainline or Methodist, “Real Methodism declined because we replaced those peculiarities that made us Methodist with a bland, acceptable, almost civil religion, barely distinguishable from other traditions” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist?: Rediscovering our Evangelistic Mission).

We must confess before an almighty and righteous God who sits enthroned over our lives as Father, Son and Holy Spirit that we have acted like those who boarded the Titanic. Like Carl Hockley in the movie, we believe “It is unsinkable. God himself could not sink this ship!”  You can make a good argument that we are not just headed for the ice fields but that we have already hit the iceberg and are taking in water.  I found reading Jim Collins’ How the Mighty Fall which chronicles the decline and even death of great corporations like A & P, Bank of America or Circuit City to be a painful shadowing of the history of The United Methodist Church in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

But wait! Wait just a minute.  There is another powerful image of the church we should well consider embracing.  Instead of sailing on the Titanic perhaps we are (or can be) on board the Mayflower.

Do you recall the magnificent history of the Mayflower?  In early September of 1620 they set sail with low provisions.  Fear was a constant companion as the western gales which swept the North Atlantic made for treacherous sailing at that time of year.  We know full well as an American people that they sailed for religious liberty and the cause of Christ.  They left the Old World with its model of territorial staid state supported religion behind venturing the storms of the North Atlantic and biting cold of a New England winter for a healthier, more vital Christian life and witness.  Their courage and conviction led not only to the religious freedom we so rightly cherish but, through the Mayflower Compact, to the establishment of representative democracy in North America.

Now apply this image to our context.  We set sail, should we have the courage and conviction which is to say faith and obedience, from the Old World of cultural Christianity and a favored place in America society for established Protestant Churches such as Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.  Our new religious world is a contested one.  Christianity, and Methodism in particular, will exist side by side with a host of competing alternatives.  The witness of vital churches and individual Christians will demand a charitable grace-filled future that will take real courage to offer a specific unapologetic witness for Christ which this new world of religious chaos desperately needs.

This is exciting!  It is hopeful!  It is a cause and commission worth the life of the Church that claims the risen Lord Jesus Christ as its head (See Colossians 1:18).  To laity and clergy alike, this is worth your life as a great call to the highest level of human living and thriving under the Lord’s leadership.  A bland, culturally passive, witness will be swept away in the storms that wash over us.  But a courageous engagement with modern culture that is faithfully and fruitfully expressive in missional evangelism by congregations and Christians in a new post-Christendom land … that is magnificent and truly done to the glory of God.

But wait, there is an even a better image for our adoption.  It comes from C. S. Lewis’s marvelous writing in the Chronicles of Narnia. The story of the voyage of the Dawn Treader offers an even greater image for Christian discipleship in our time.

Do you recall the story or perhaps remember the movie which came out in 2010 of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader?  Narnia represents the land in which the struggle between good and evil takes place.  The Dawn Treader was “the first Narnian ship to be built since the golden age and was commissioned by King Caspian, so that he might sail beyond the Lone Islands and on to the Eastern Oceans to seek the seven great lords” who had disappeared in a quest to fight evil in their land.

In the story Lucy and Edmund along with their cousin Eustace join King Caspian and his crew as they sail courageously into the unknown confronting the “green mist” which represents evil. As they do battle with the forces of darkness, Lucy hears Aslan, the Great Lion who represents Christ as Lord, speak to her.  “But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her ‘Courage, dear heart,’ and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

I submit that this is where we are in our raging tempestuous world today.  The world and especially our nation and the communities we inhabit do not need us to ape the vitriol that so infects our time and land.  In the great name of Christ, our Narnia, our world, needs us to sail unflinchingly into unknown lands. Christ’s words are meant to whisper into our ears, “Take courage, dear heart.” The Lord is with you, with us.

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.

Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 4 ©

Allow me to step back into the narrative of a four part series of posts entitled Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.  If reader has not read the previous three, I urge him or her to do so before reading this particular blog.  Part 4 is based on and assumes the reader is conversant with the first three blogs on Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.

Recently a friend of mine, Professor Jack Jackson (Claremont School of Theology), wrote perceptively that “human sexuality has become status confessionis for many people at opposite poles on the issue.”  My friend added, “We can say we agree on so many other aspects of the Christian life, but the reality is the issue of human sexuality is one of, if not the, key ecclesial issues of our time.  It is an issue that is both shaping and taking priority over every other conversation.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the United Methodist Church faces possible schism over the issue. Current church law (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016) holds that “all persons are individuals of sacred worth” and all “need the ministry of the Church.”  It goes on to assert that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  It then carefully affirms that “God’s grace is available to all” (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 161G, p. 113).  United Methodist clergy are thus prohibited from officiating same-sex unions (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 2702.1b, p. 788) and avowed practicing homosexuals are not “certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church”  (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, Paragraph 304.3, p. 226).

To say that passions run high and disagreement runs deep with this part of church law is a massive understatement.  A number of Annual Conferences have declared their intentions to refuse to uphold this section of church law.  Various other forms of disobedience are being debated (and practiced!).  The Council of Bishops has, at the request of the 2016 General Conference, established a special “Commission on the Way Forward” to make recommendations which will come before a called General Conference in 2019.

If you have stayed with me this far through all three blogs prior to this fourth blog, I invite you to pause and catch your breath.  I ask you to be in prayer for the whole church.  I ask you to be in prayer for all those who feel excluded by this aspect of church law and for all those who believe it essential to the full understanding of our doctrine of holiness of heart and life.  I ask you to be in prayer for the larger society which is itself locked in a deep debate on this issue.

After catching your breath and after prayer, step back with me into the struggle of Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos.  Our struggle with the issue of human sexuality is a part of the larger struggle on how Christians follow Christ and relate appropriately to the culture we find ourselves in.  We have been here before as a church!  Some argue that justice in the name of Christ calls us to transform both society and the church with regard to human sexuality.  They assert we Christians are called to lead society in being more open and accepting to our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.  Others, with equally sincere convictions, argue that we must not succumb to the gale force cultural winds of today but stand firm in a principled Christian conviction.  They are convinced that we are not to marry the human preferences of this or any given age and time.  Rather we are to faithfully follow Christ as Lord reflecting the fullness of His teachings and preferences over our cultural desires.

Both claim biblical support for their positions.  Both assert that the other side has given in to and/or is advocating cultural surrender to the current age.  The interaction between allegiance to Christ and engagement with our current culture are intertwined on the issue of human sexuality.   The complexity of the relationship of Christ and culture challenges us all.  Such is the larger context of the debate we are locked into as the church.

In writing these four blogs, I have invited us into the larger issue of Christ and Culture through asking what it means to be a Wesleyan Christian in the cultural chaos of today.  I have been clear that I stand for the traditional position.  I wish to be also clear of my deep respect and love for those who believe me to be tragically mistaken and wrong.  I ask us all to wrestle with what it means to be a follower of the Lord first, foremost, and above all else, in chaos of today’s culture.  These are not easy times to be a Christian.  But, most significantly, these are the times to which Christ has called us all to true, deep faithfulness and obedience.

Listening to NPR as I drove to the office last Friday, I was reminded of Lincoln’s famous words in his second inaugural address.  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”

We are not done with this work.  Nor are we done with the greater debate over what it means to be a Christ follower in the chaos of modern culture.  In the midst of this struggle, we can live, in the name of Christ, with “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

Guest Post from Rev. Frank Briggs

Below is Rev. Frank Briggs’, Lead Pastor at Lighthouse Fellowship, Day 6 of Lent, which he posted March 6th. He is posting on Facebook a Lenten devotional to help and guide us through this season of remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus for all.

Lent- Day 6   Three Little Words

Krissie [Briggs] says that though this is longer than most, it’s worth the read, I pray you agree.

“We are lost.”  I’m not sure that those three little words are welcome at any time, but in my lifetime, this time, they caused me concern like I’ve not experienced it before.

On my recent trip to Kenya, two of us on the mission team were privileged to accompany our Bishop, Mike Lowry, to a very important installation service for a District Superintendent of the Methodist church in Kenya.  With our Bishop from America expected at the event, it was a big deal.  In fact, there were probably between 1000 and 1500 in attendance at the service, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Justice was the name of our van driver; love the name, don’t you?  He was the one who, without fanfare, calmly stated the fact, “we are lost”.  I had ridden many hundreds of miles with Justice by the time this trip took place, and found him to be a strong Christian, a loving husband and father, who was very wise.  He was also a terrific driver who navigated through the absolute chaos of Nairobi traffic, to the miles and miles of dirt roads in and around Maua, where we spent our first week.

To appreciate the magnitude of Justice’s three little words, you need to know that the vast majority of Kenya has few paved roads.  Nairobi, yes, good roads there, but you get away from Nairobi, and it becomes difficult to find pavement.  Consider this, in the larger Maua area, there are at least 100,000 people living, and there is one paved road, the two-lane highway that runs through town.  So, 99% of our driving was down silty roads that hadn’t seen a road grader in what I would guess would have been at least 100 years (but perhaps I exaggerate).  Anyway, these dusty roads twist and turn and there are no road signs, so navigation along them comes by way of experience, and Justice had a full measure of it.

Unbeknown to his three passengers, Justice had never been to Tharaka, where the installation service was to be held.  And though we all knew that the route to Tharaka would take us off the main highway (the one previously mentioned), what none of us knew was that this journey would require us travelling down 60 miles of some of the dustiest, siltiest roads you’ve ever seen (think of the famous Baja 1000 off-road race).

The folks who “knew” had told Justice it would take us about 2 hours maximum, to get to the church, but in reality it was a three hour journey, one-way.  It was about an hour and a half into the dusty roads, that Justice pulled over where two roads intersected and stopped, to utter those three little words.

I have to admit that when Justice said, “we are lost”, my first reaction was to think to myself, ‘hey, wait a minute, I’m not lost, because I’m with you, I put my trust in you…you may be lost, but I’m right where I’m supposed to be, so there’s no we in this lost business, it is you who are lost’.  But alas, my rebellion was short-lived as I realized that, at the moment, if Justice was lost, so was I.

Justice chose the turn he thought would get us in the right direction and when we came upon the next little village, he conversed with a few of the men, who confirmed that he was going the right direction, and they coached him on which turns he needed to make ahead.  And when we chanced upon another village, Justice asked again, and then again, at subsequent villages, until we finally arrived at our destination, to the cheers and applause of his three passengers.

Though we were under the impression that the service would start at 10, it wasn’t’ actually to start until 11, so our arrival at 10:15 was no problem as they had not served “breakfast” yet.  Being honored guests, we were some of the first in line to get our food.  None of us knew exactly what we were eating, other than the boiled eggs, and I had the privilege of sitting next to the wife (Pauline) of the Bishop of Kenya.  I must admit that I had to regroup a bit after Pauline asked me how I liked the ______ (a word I cannot remember), but when I looked puzzled at her word, she clarified when she said they were “entrails” a ”delicacy”,  which she was enjoying, like I do Oreos.  But I digress.

The service went swimmingly, as much as a six hour service can go swimmingly, in probably 92 degree heat, all of us outside and under tents (praise the Lord).  And oh, did I mention that I was in a tie with a jacket, and the Bishop, along with the probably 200 clergy who attended, were all in robes.  Yes, picture that would you; but I digress again.

Well, Bishop Lowry did a terrific job bringing the message to the crowd and shortly before the service actually ended, Justice came and let us know that we needed to go, as he didn’t want to go the distance that was required of us to get off the dirt roads, before dark.

We of course did arrive safely back in Maua at about 9:30 that night.  It was a day unlike any other in my life…and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Lent is about our willingness to admit that we have strayed from the highway that we know we should be on, and for some of us, it’s about recognizing, “we are lost.”  It is about taking responsibility for our relationship with Jesus and not finding the nearest scapegoat on which to pin blame for our lack of direction.  Do you know where you are? 

Justice did what we all need to do:  own the reality of our position, head the direction that we think we need to go, and find people we can trust to coach us as we find our way.  Have you?

So the next time you find yourself lost, if Justice isn’t around, you can find your own justice, when you seek Jesus.  He will help you utter three other little words, “I am found.”  After all, in this life, there is nothing greater, than being found.  Are you?

Your servant in Christ,

Frank W. Briggs
Lead Pastor
Lighthouse Fellowship
A United Methodist Community of Faith

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