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A New Church Being Called Forth by the Holy Spirt #6:

 

A MISSIONARY CHURCH

Shortly before I was elected as bishop in the United Methodist Church, I stood with others, including two bishops, at a tiny country church in Leesville, Texas.  A plaque was dedicated to Alejo Hernandez who had been ordained at Leesville in 1871 by Bishop Enoch Marvin.  In part the plaque reads simply, “He was a burning bush and the first to preach the gospel among the Mexicans in the manner done by the Methodists.”

In 1873 Bishop Keener charged Hernandez “with the responsibility of opening a Methodist mission. With the result, as described by the secretary of the Board of Missions:  ‘Brother Hernandez has been subjected to the dire necessities of poverty, to the persecutions of superstitious ignorance and bigoted power, and to the no less potent influences of flattery. But out of all the Lord hath brought him by his power.’” (http://www.gcah.org/history/biographies/alejo-hernandez)

Reverend Hernandez was a man on a mission.  He understood himself as driven by the Lord through the Holy Spirit and assigned by the bishop.  Illness caught up with him in Mexico, and he did not live long.  Buried in Corpus Christi, Texas, his tombstone reads:  “He was a burning bush and the first to preach the gospel among the Mexicans in the manner done by the Methodists.”

Methodism began as a missionary movement!  People like Hernandez were the norm not the exception.  The term missionary comes from mission and it details a person sent on a mission in the name of and by the power of the Risen Christ.

For decades the term missionary was dismissed as a form of cultural imperialism.  Yet today the Pentecost movement in China is largely the legacy of North American missionaries prior to World War II.  The phrase missional with all its variations on “mission” and “missionary” calls those who are Christ followers back to the deep sense of being sent by Christ.  It is the awakening of the claim of Matthew 28:16-20 – The Great Commission.  Rightly it has been said that the church doesn’t so much have a mission, the church is a mission – a people sent to share the gospel in word and deed by Christ himself.

Alan Roxburgh, author of The Missional Leader, writes:  “If ever there was a word that has shaped North American Christianity in the opening decades of the 21st century it is the word missional.”  He continues with the following:

In 1998 Eerdmans published a book with the title Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.  It was written in the most unlikely manner by a team of missiologists, theologians and practitioners who met for three years to compose the book.  The book’s genesis lay in the convergence of various people inside a new network called the Gospel and Our Culture Network.  Comprised of people from a variety of church backgrounds (Methodist, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist and Anabaptist) GOCN coalesced around the writings of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary in India for over thirty years.  Newbigin, upon his retirement in the mid 70’s returned to his native England to encounter the fact that the Christian culture he had left some thirty years earlier had all but disappeared.  Having a keen missionary sensibility Newbigin recognized that by the latter part of the 20th century the mission field for the Gospel had shifted dramatically.  The greatest challenge to Christian mission was now those very nations that had once sent missionaries out around the world.  It was the peoples of Europe, shaped by the Western tradition, that were rapidly losing their identity as Christian.  In one memorable epithet Newbigin asked the question: Can the West be converted?  That question captured the imagination of church leaders in the UK and Europe.  It represented one of the fundamental issues that had to be addressed by the church but had not been articulated so clearly until that point.  The challenge facing the Western churches was the re-conversion of its own people.”  (From a paper presented by Alan Roxburgh to United Methodist Church Developers in 2007, “What is Missional Church?”)

What we need today, what God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is calling into being, is a new church – a missionary church in the truest sense of the word!  Properly understood a missionary church is a sent church.  Such a sending comes from the authority of the risen Christ.  By its very nature it encompasses both personal and social holiness, both justice/mercy and evangelism, both justification and sanctification – “make disciples” + “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded.”  The focus of attention is not on institutional survival but on serving the Lord through loving others in the fullest understanding & sense of love.

Again Roxburgh is on target.

“The biblical narratives are about God’s mission in, through and for the sake of the world.  The focus of attention is toward God not the other way around.  The missio dei is about a theocentric rather than anthropocentric understanding of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection which itself, as the apocalyptic engagement of God with the world, breaks into creation in order to call forth that which was promised from the beginning – that in this Jesus all things will be brought back together and made new.  But the focus of the missional is doxological.  It is not about, in the modern, Western, expressive individualist sense, meeting my needs.  The perpendicular pronoun is not the subject of the narrative; God is the subject.” (Alan Roxburgh, IBID)

Put bluntly a missional church is a movement for Christ that goes into the world (thus is incarnational at the essence of its methodology).  Worship, spiritual formation, bible study and the like provide a critical shaping that propels us forward.  The ancient theme so well explicated in 1 & 2 Peter of “in the world but not of it” is applicable at the very core of the churches’ being.

What are some of the practical elements of a sent church, a missionary church?  A missionary church will be:

1.  Christ centered at its heart.
2.  Spirit led in its soul.
3.  Sacrificial in nature.
4.  Servant oriented in character.
5.  Incarnational in methodology.
6.  Explicitly evangelistic in witness.
7.  Creatively engaging in its expression.

All this sounds good until we get down to particulars.  Yet if the gospel is anything, it is about the scandal of particularity.  The High God of the universe comes in the baby named Jesus.  This same Lord God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is calling a new church into being.  As the years unfold we can expect and even rejoice in a wondrously different shaping of the “United Methodist” part of the church universal.  We are at the end of a time of cultural privilege and accommodation.  The days of the guaranteed appointment in its current form are numbered.  The dominance of a physical structure (building) is receding.

Who knows what will happen?  Only God.  Methodism started as a missionary movement.  This is where our future lies.  We are in for a wild, exhilarating, terrifying wild ride.  The Holy Spirit is calling a new church into being.

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #5:

The Three Orthos at the Heart

At the very heart of a new church being called forth by the Holy Spirit will be what I call the three orthos.  At its core the healthy renewed Christian movement in American will be a combination of orthodoxy, orthropraxis, and orthokardia.  The word ortho comes from the Latin and late Greek.  It means right or correct.  Thus orthodox = right belief or right (correct) doctrine.  Orthopraxis = right practice or correct action and practice.  Orthokardia = right heart.

Over the years the church has on different occasions emphasized one of the three above the others; thus, there have been times when right doctrine so dominated practice and heart that the result lacked grace.  There have been occasions when heart has been right but the actions disastrously mistaken.  There have been times when the practice was holy but its lack of cohesion with heart and doctrine led to long term mistakes with little lasting strength.

Orthopraxy, which is currently in ascendant position of the three, is an insistent emphasis in Wesleyan thinking.  Thus Don Thorsen in Cavlin vs. Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice writes,

“Wesley emphasized that the church ought to be more than a congregation of believers – more than ‘faithful men’; it ought to also exhibit ‘living faith.’  It is not enough for people to exhibit right belief (or orthodoxy); they ought to also exhibit a right heart (orthokardia) and right practice (orthopraxis).  From Wesley’s perspective, the devil (as well as other religious people) may hold to ‘orthodoxy or right opinions,’ but ‘may all the while be as great a stranger as he to religion of the heart’” (Don Thorsen, Calvin vs. Wesley: Bring Belief in Line with Practice, p. 98).

Significantly, “progressives” with an emphasis on enlightenment-thinking and a reasoned faith and “evangelicals” with an passion for doctrinal correctness both run the risk of ignoring religion of the heart (orthokardia).  Orthokardia holds a critical function of constantly directing our attention to Christ as the center of the Christian faith.  I am convinced that much of the emphasis of modern praise music is an attempt recapture a forgotten orthokardia.  So too is much of the renewed interest in spiritual formation.

Orthodoxy, correct or right doctrine, was central in the life of the earliest Christian movement. After the Holy Spirit descended, Peter preached, and listeners responded with repentance. The life of the newborn church was anchored in its doctrine. “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers” (Acts 2:42).  Jaroslav Pelikan (one of the great scholars of the Christian faith over the last half century) in Acts: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, references the textus a patribus receptus with a stronger translation of action of those earliest Christ followers.  “And they were persisting in the doctrine of the apostles” (textus a patribus receptus, excerpt from Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), p. 57; emphasis added).  Thus the critical importance of doctrine (or foundational teaching) emerges as a centerpiece of the life of the earliest Christian church.  The importance of doctrine towers over any strategy for growth or program for action.  It is a first-order claim on the life of the church.

John Wesley famously wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786).

Wesley both assumed and argued for the essential importance of doctrine.  His genius is the way doctrine is combined with spirit and discipline.  In other words, part of the genius of early Methodism was the way it combined the three – orthodoxy, orthropraxis, and orthokardia. Such a connection is a reflection of what early Methodists called “primitive Christianity.”  They reached back to the first expression of the Christian faith found in the book of The Acts of the Apostles as well as the writings of Paul and the Gospels to grasp again at what was essential and central to the Christian movement.  Among a number of distinctive elements the Methodist movement brought back to the fore was the embodiment of theology (orthodoxy) in spirit (orthokardia) and discipline (orthopraxis).  Properly understood for Methodists was the notion that theology – core doctrine – was not an idle aside but a central expression of the faith to be lived out or embodied.

I close this writing on a deep conviction that God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is doing a wonderful thing.  A new church is being called forth for our post-Christendom age.  The words of Ross Douthat (which I have quoted before) are worth re-emphasizing.

“The rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread skepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man [and woman] a God unto himself [or herself] – these forces have clearly weakened the traditional Christian churches. But they are also forces that Christianity has confronted successfully before. From a weary Pontius Pilate asking Jesus “what is truth?” to Saint Paul preaching beside the Athenian altar to an “unknown God,” the Christian gospel originally emerged as a radical alternative in a civilization as rootless and cosmopolitan and relativistic as our own. There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of that original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age” (Bad Religion, by Ross Douthat, pg. 278-279).

COUNCIL OF BISHOPS PASTORAL LETTER ON RACISM

While I have been in Europe attending the Council of Bishops meeting in Berlin, we as the world-wide Council have lived with the ongoing news of racial strife across the globe.  One regular aspect of the nightly news here in Europe has been the struggle of European countries to respond in humanitarian ways to the refugees from North Africa.  (For those unaware, there is a veritable tide of refugees crossing the narrow parts of the Mediterranean seeking the safety and financial opportunities that Europe offers.  Typically, they land in Italy.  By analogy for Americans, this is very similar to the Cuban and Vietnamese boat refugees that the United States has experienced in the past.)  We have also been following the news of continuing clashes over police action in places like Baltimore.  We are constantly aware of racial and tribal conflict in the Middle East.

However someone understands any given situation (whether in Italy, the United States, the Middle East or somewhere else in the world), it is clear that racism is a world-wide issue.  We who follow a Lord and Master who reached out in love to all people are committed to love, justice and mercy for all people.  All really means all!  Thus as a Council we believe we are to offer pastoral leadership on this critical issue for the whole church.  As such, our episcopal pastoral letter is also shared as a witness to the wider world.  I am convicted by the love of Christ to vote for this pastoral letter to the church and the world.  I am honored to join my sister and brother bishops in sharing it with the church and the world.

BishopCrest (4)“Grace and peace in the name of Jesus Christ!

We, the bishops of The United Methodist Church, are meeting in Berlin, Germany, 70 years after the end of World War II.  As we gather, we renew our commitment to lead, as together we seek to become the beloved community of Christ.

We are a church that proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.  On every continent, people called United Methodist are boldly living the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Yet, the people of our world are hurting, as injustice, violence and racism abound.  Our witness to the dignity of all human life and the reign of God is needed now more than ever.

Our hearts break and our spirits cry out, as we see reports of migrant people being attacked and burned in the streets of South Africa, note the flight of Jews from Europe, watch the plight of Mediterranean refugees and see racially charged protests and riots in cities across the United States that remind us that systems are broken and racism continues.  The evidence is overwhelming that race still matters, that racism is woven into institutional life and is problematic to communal health.  This reality impacts every area of life – in the church and in the world.

Racism is prejudice plus intent to do harm or discriminate based on a belief that one is superior or has freedom to use power over another based on race. Xenophobia is an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.  Racism and xenophobia, like other sins, keep us from being whole persons capable of living up to our full potential. They deny the profound theological truth that we are made in the image of God with the handprint of love and equality divinely implanted in every soul.

As bishops of the Church, we cast a vision for a world community where human worth and dignity defeat acts of xenophobia and racism. We acknowledge that silence in the face of systemic racism and community fears serves only to make matters worse.

We commit to lead, model and engage in honest dialogue and respectful conversation and invite people of faith everywhere to join us.  Let us repent of our own racial bias and abuse of privilege.  May we love God more deeply and, through that love, build relationships that honor the desire of people everywhere to be seen, valued, heard and safe. As we proclaim and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, may we lead the way in seeking justice for all, investing in and trusting God’s transforming power to create a world without hatred and racism.

As United Methodists, we affirm that all lives are sacred and that a world free of racism and xenophobia is not only conceivable, but worthy of our pursuit.  We renew our commitment to work for a Church that is anti-racist and pro-humanity, believing that beloved community cannot be achieved by ignoring cultural, racial and ethnic differences, but by celebrating diversity and valuing all people.

“This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.” 1 John 4:21 (CEB)

RESOURCES

A New Dawn in Beloved Community:  Stories with the Power to Transform Us, Linda Lee, ed., Abingdon Press, 2012

Pan-Methodist Statement on Racism
from the 72nd Consultation of Methodist Bishops

Understanding and Dismantling Racism: the Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America,
Joseph Barndt,  Fortress Press, 2007″

A Call for Prayer and Healing from the Council of Bishops

council of bishops logo 2014_medOnce a quadrennium, the United Methodist Council of Bishops meets intentionally outside the United States, which reminds us that we are truly a worldwide church. As we gather in Berlin, I ask for your prayers, especially for those Christians undergoing persecution, civil unrest and violence, as well as those dealing with the devastation brought about by natural disasters. I also request prayers for all the bishops as we gather together to discern the Holy Spirit’s guidance of this great church.

On the opening day of our meeting, Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, sent an open letter to the people of The United Methodist Church requesting that we all join together in prayer for the church and the world. Bishop Brown, not only remembered those who are suffering around the world, he also commented on the recent eruption of violence in Baltimore and the need to no longer be in denial about the powerful impact of racism in the U.S. Bishop Brown currently serves as bishop for the San Francisco Episcopal Area, but he grew up in the very neighborhood of Baltimore that is ground zero for the rioting and unrest in the area.

I offer up to you his letter as a guest blog post.

“To the people of The United Methodist Church:

Grace and peace to the people called United Methodist and all people of good will. I greet you in the name of Jesus, the Christ who is risen. From May 1-7, the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church will hold its 2015 meeting in Berlin, Germany. During this week, we will be praying for the church and taking actions that we hope will help lead the church in a faithful response to the call of discipleship. Please pray with us, for the church and all those the church seeks to serve.

We are a church that practices ministry to the world in Jesus’ name. While United Methodist churches are primarily in Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States, our ministry partnerships connect us with every continent. So, we grieve when the news of the day reminds us of the many ways the people of our world are hurting and suffering under the weight of tragedy. We seek to respond readily with prayers and aid to the natural disasters such as we have just witnessed in Nepal. And the human inflicted pain also requires a prayerful response that declares that terrorism, human exploitation, bullying and abuses of power will not overcome us.

Please join me and the Council of Bishops in prayer, reflection and action toward overcoming the issues that sometimes divide our societies. Together we can find ways, appropriate to our social context, for healing the brokenness between us.

For those of us in the United States, our attention has been called to the powerful impact of racism on all of us. If we seek healing, we cannot continue to be in denial. Some of us have read the shocking Justice Department report on Ferguson and most have seen the violence that tragically erupted there against police officers. Since then other unarmed Black men have been killed in several cities and now Baltimore has also erupted in violence.

As a Black man who grew up in the very Baltimore neighborhood we have watched explode, this is personal. I grieve over what I see in my old neighborhood. The anger in the community is real because of decades of distrust.

Video documentation has raised expectations that claims of wrongdoing would be seriously considered; so distrust grows because very few police officers have been held accountable.

A just society cannot be built on violence. Violence and misconduct by either a misguided police officer or an angry citizen will not lead us to beloved community. Reconciliation can occur when we tell the truth and take responsibility for our actions.

Rev. Willis Johnson, pastor of Wellspring United Methodist Church which serves Ferguson, Missouri, said this: “Who is going to become a model for dealing with reconciling and truth? That is the role of the Church!”

In this season of resurrection, the Council of Bishops and I believe that we followers of Jesus are called to lead the way. Let us examine and repent of our own sins of racial bias and abuse of privilege. Let us proclaim and live the Gospel of love and justice for all. Let us become proactive in modeling that gospel in our churches and teaching it to young and old alike. Let us be disciples who are engaged with God in transforming our world, beginning in our own communities, working for justice, judicial reform and good police/community relations. Let us break down the walls that divide us and build relationships that vanquish our fears. When we work together for justice and peace, we will no longer be strangers.

Remember, all who would follow Jesus, he calls us again and again to “love your neighbor as yourself.”(Matt.22:39) Even out of the injustice and violence he experienced, Jesus leads us to hope and resurrection. Let us believe in and practice the power of prayer for our world, our church, our neighbors and our own lives.

And, the risen Christ said to his followers, “remember, I am with you always.”(Matt.28:20)

Your brother in Christ,

Warner H. Brown, Jr.”

Following the  release of the Bishop Brown’s letter, Bishop Gregory V. Palmer of the Ohio West Episcopal Area called for the Council to issue a pastoral letter on racism and asked the president to appoint a task force to work on this effort, to be completed by May 7.

A NEW CHURCH BEING CALLED FORTH BY THE HOLY SPIRIT #3: Smaller. Bigger ©

Texas Wesleyan University has been engaged in an award-winning advertisement campaign for student admissions. The campaign is built around a clever and insightful slogan, “Smaller. Smarter.”

The slogan is clever in that it is easy to remember. It is deeply insightful because it captures an essence of the educational adventure that Texas Wesleyan offers. As a church-related (United Methodist) liberal arts university, Texas Wesleyan University is committed to smaller classes where students receive intimate mentoring and direction from high quality professors and thus emerge smarter. By implication, they emerge with a four-year university degree at a point of insight, intellectual growth and maturity that is more advanced than a large 4-year university.

As we face the church of tomorrow, our slogan might instead be “Smaller. Bigger.” For well over two decades now, we have been watching a national trend in churches that cuts across denominational groupings. The trend is a growing number of very large congregations. Typically worshipping 700 or more on an average Sunday, they might best be labelled regional churches. Somewhere around 1,800 in average worship attendance, churches move into what might well be called the “mega” church category.  Regional and mega churches have been growing all across America, not only in non-denominational varieties but also in mainline denominations like The United Methodist Church. Here in the Central Texas Conference, our rise in worship attendance has largely been driven by our churches with over 500 in average worship attendance.

Simultaneously, there is a national trend in the direction of smaller congregations. More and more congregations are going part-time in their pastoral appointments, with average worship somewhere between 30 and 75 in attendance. (Lovett Weems’ calculations indicate that it takes an average worship attendance of 126 to afford a full-time elder in The United Methodist Church today. Our calculations in Central Texas, while varying from church to church, tend to hover at around 100 in average worship attendance to financially support a full-time elder.) This growth in small churches represents an intimate deepening walk with Christ in settings that are often lay-led and lay-driven. Where the deepening walk with Christ is present, smaller churches have a health and vitality that is uniquely their own. Many such smaller congregations are often much more able to achieve a high level of supportive spiritual accountability.  People aren’t able to simply sit back and “enjoy the show.”

Interestingly, the largest congregations in average worship attendance are actually very fragile.  The pivotal role of senior clergy leadership is crucial. By contrast, churches that have around 50 in average worship attendance tend to be extremely stable. There is a strength and vitality in the small church that is exciting. (This is a part of why we emphasize not only the Healthy Church Initiative, HCI, but also the Small Church Initiative, SCI.)

We face a future in The United Methodist Church that is at once going to be smaller and bigger. It much more difficult to engage in standardization in ministry. Put differently, one size DOES NOT fit all! Both pastors and lay leaders need very different skill sets for these two different mission fields.

Meanwhile, churches that average 150 – 300 in average worship attendance (medium sized) and churches that average 300-700 (large sized) tend to be either climbing or declining but are rarely stable. The shifting landscape on the American scene really is smaller and bigger at the same time.

In urban environments, there are also an increasing number of very large churches that have multiple numbers of small satellites. They are combining smaller and bigger in exciting and creative ways which capture the best of both worlds!

Alan Hirsch in his tremendous book, The Forgotten Ways notes the rising sense of highly committed small groups. (Think of the fellowship of the ring in the Tolkien trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Even more, think of Jesus and the original 12 disciples.  Add in the original Methodist class meeting.) We are going to see a continued growth in house church groups and in the health and strength of small town or rural congregations which offer vibrant spiritual connections to the Lord and each other.  They will be served by less than full time pastors. The very organizational shape of the church is changing in ways that are hard for our current structure to keep up with let alone effectively lead. Hirsch notes that the church will be made up of “the journey of a group of people that find each other only in a common pursuit of a vision and a mission that lies beyond itself. Its energies are primarily directed outward and forward” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, pg. 236).

Jolynn and I experienced a fascinating example of this about a decade ago when our daughter was a student at the University of York in England. As good parents, we saved some vacation time and went over for Thanksgiving to visit her in her semester abroad study. We were there for the first Sunday in Advent that year. Together as a family, we chose to go to the great York Minster Cathedral for Sunday Advent evening worship. As we entered (over an hour early thinking we’d have no trouble finding a seat), we were shocked to discover that the great cathedral, which is typically very sparsely attended during a regular Sunday worship, was packed. There were well over 2,000 people present. We sat in folding chairs on the side aisle.

While waiting for the service to start, we visited with the family behind us. They were in their mid-thirties with two preschool children. They lived in York and were very active practicing Christians in a local Baptist Church. They did not in any way identify with the Church of England. Puzzled, we asked them what brought them to the great Cathedral (the seat of one of three Archbishops in the Anglican Church) this night. They shared that they came to the cathedral, as did many Christians from a variety of churches, for high festival celebrations but spent their regular Sundays and discipleship formation activities in their much smaller church that was served by a part-time pastor holding another job. It is this model that many suggest we will see more and more of; large regional churches that serve as centers for faith and community coupled with small – in essence house churches – churches in a small setting with limited space.

I believe we are witnessing a gradually unfolding work of the Holy Spirit. Historically, if you study the cathedral system that gradually arose in Europe, it was originally this model: small communities encircling larger centers of worship and praise. For United Methodists, this represents a dramatic institutional change that is imperceptibly taking place. It is difficult, given our common ecclesiastical assumptions, to adjust to. “Smaller. Bigger.” evokes a very different set of clergy needs and competencies.  It elicits different patterns of organizational structure and decision making.  I hope to address those issues in a follow up blog.

Lenten Musings – The End of Casual Christianity

Casual Christianity as we know it is dying.  For a good decade now carefully observant pastors have noticed people who typically would worship a couple of times a month moving to worship patterns that are more episodic.  A variety of studies (Pew, Barna, Gallup, etc.) have reported changing patterns of worship attendance.

While much attention is given to decreasing worship attendance, less attention is given to a counter trend of people who are moving more deeply into faithful worship, prayer, ministry to those in need, missional outreach etc.  I confess that I am less able to document this trend.  Rather, I sense it unfolding.

I keep remembering that my predecessor at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Dr. Steve Wende, used to tell the congregation (my dimly remembered paraphrase) “how can you call yourself Christian if you don’t go to the cross with Christ on Good Friday before you show up at Easter?”  His call to take seriously the call to Holy Week worship (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter) was a grace-filled yet clarion claim to deeper discipleship.  The United Methodist Church is gaining significant clarity around its core mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Tire kickers and test drivers are always welcome in our worship but the goal is disciples – committed disciplined followers of Jesus Christ.

I think there is a quietly growing depth to many who have stayed faithful in deeper ways.  There is a counter trend emerging from the end of casual Christianity which is a good, godly, Holy Spirit-induced thing.  The recent overwhelming response to my study of Calvin versus Wesley provides some evidence.  I thought 8 or 9 people would join me.  Was I wrong!  We’ve had a large group at Texas Wesleyan University; multiple simulcast sites, many following the online streaming, and Sunday School classes using the material.  I believe this is a sign of the hunger for deeper discipleship and a closer walk with Christ.

One of the books that I am casually dabbling with (actually occasionally listening to on my phone) is Radical by David Platt.  While I have some strong theological disagreement with what I am hearing/reading, I am attracted by the way he too sees an end to casual Christianity and the growth of discipleship.  The subtitle of the books speaks volumes — Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.  Somewhere along the line, I ran into some quotes in a review from a newer book Platt has written that resonate with me.  The book is entitled Follow Me:

  • “There is indescribable joy, deep satisfaction and an eternal purpose in dying to ourselves and living for Christ.”
  • “Jesus is not some puny religious teacher begging for an invitation from anyone. He is the all-sovereign Lord who deserves submission from everyone.”
  • “Our greatest need is not to try harder. Our greatest need is a new heart.”
  • “We cling to the person of Christ as life itself.”

C.S. Lewis’ comment about Jesus echoes through my musing about the end of casual Christianity. “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

My musings led me back to my faded copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.  It is to the cross that our Lenten journey takes us.  I do know that I need to remember what Bonhoeffer wrote:

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.

When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

Even more, I remember what Jesus said, “After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them’” (Mark 8:34-35).

There is much to think upon, pray about, and engage in action on the way to the cross and beyond.

Progress on Imagining No Malaria, Prayer Missionary & Captives ©

One of the great Focus Areas of the United Methodist Church during the last eight years has been combating killer diseases.  In particular, the United Methodist Church has focused on combating the killer disease of malaria through Nothing But Nets and the larger emphasis called Imagine No Malaria. The Central Texas Conference has been a part of this great mission emphasis contributing $539,458 to date.

It is a joy to share some wonderful good news passed on via Newscope (The United Methodist Publishing House’s weekly newsletter).  The World Health Organization reports that “the number of people dying from malaria has fallen dramatically since 2000 and malaria cases are steadily declining.”   In an article written by Joey Butler of United Methodist Communications, the use of insecticide-treated bed nets is given as one important reason for the drop.  He goes on to note that:

  • “Between 2000 and 2013, the report says, the malaria mortality rate decreased by 47% worldwide. In the WHO African Region-where about 90% of malaria deaths occur-the decrease is 54%. The Dec. 9 report estimates that, globally, 670 million fewer cases and 4.3 million fewer malaria deaths occurred between 2001 and 2013 than would have occurred had incidence and mortality rates remained unchanged since 2000.
  • In 2013, 49% of all people at risk of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa had access to an insecticide-treated net, a marked increase from just 3% in 2004. This trend is set to continue, with a record 214 million bed nets scheduled for delivery to endemic countries in Africa by year-end.
  • Since April 2010, The UMC’s Imagine No Malaria initiative has distributed more than 2.3 million bed nets and is less than $10 million shy of its goal to raise $75 million by 2015 to dramatically reduce deaths and suffering in Africa. Significantly the report closes with a challenge and a holy call to action. “Despite these victories, malaria remains a major threat and greater global commitment is necessary for success. In 2013, one-third of households in areas with malaria transmission in sub-Saharan Africa did not have a single insecticide-treated net, the report noted. Approximately $5.1 billion is needed annually to achieve malaria control and, eventually, elimination; but current annual funds remain around $2.7 billion” (Newscope, Editor Mary Catherine Dean, Vol. 43, Issue 08 / February 25, 2015, “WHO REPORTS ‘DRAMATIC’ DECREASE IN MALARIA DEATHS” by Joey Butler, UMCOM).

In other mission activity, I ask that the congregations of the Central Texas Conference to join in praying for Rev. Phyllis Sortor, a missionary for The Free Methodist Church who has been abducted and held for ransom by terrorists/criminals in Nigeria.  I also ask that we continue to join with Christians around the world in prayer for the Assyrian and Coptic Christians who have been persecuted by ISIS.  News reports indicate that a significant number of Coptic Christians, one of the most ancient branches of the Christian faith, are being executed by ISIS.

It is important that we do not react with hate and especially important that we do not ourselves persecute the many (majority) peaceful Muslims in our midst.  Let goodness be known to all as we keep all those who are persecuted in our prayers.  To this end I request each church in the Central Texas Conference to make a point of lifting up Rev. Sorter and the Assyrian & Coptic Christians in our prayers.

CTC Cabinet work in Diversity, Mission Field Ministry and Inventory Retreat

As this blog is posted (Tuesday, February 17th), the Central Texas Conference Cabinet is meeting in its yearly “Inventory Retreat.”  At our retreat, we look at the needs of the Conference for clergy deployment in the upcoming year.  This starts with an assessment of the number of people retiring from active appointive ministry (Christian, lay or clergy, never retire from ministry as long as they are faithful followers of Christ!) and the number of people coming in for appointments (new seminary graduates, licensed local pastors, clergy seeking transfer from other United Methodist Conferences or denominations, etc.)  As can be easily imagined, it is extensive and exhausting work.  Given the wild swings in need, balancing incoming and outgoing clergy is difficult.  Additionally we review and pray over requests by both clergy and churches for possible changes of appointment.  We seek to be driven by the Holy Spirit.  Together, with all the clergy and laity of the Central Texas Conference under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, a new church is slowly coming into being.  I ask for your prayers for the Cabinet on our Inventory Retreat.

A critical and exciting (encouraging!) part of work is the growing diversity of the Central Texas Conference.  While our dominant ethnic group continues to be Anglo, we have rising congregations with growing diversity.  Our ministry continues to expand with the addition of Rev. Samuel Macias (on loan from the Northeastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church of Mexico) and the wonderful saints of La Trinidad UMC.  We have a number of thriving Korean language (actually multi-lingual – Korean and English) churches, a vibrant Ghanaian language church (begun as a new start a few years ago) in Arlington, a French-speaking congregation, etc.  Currently we have 5 different situations where an African-American pastors is serving a mostly Anglo congregation.  Likewise three clergy of Korean heritage are also serving predominately Anglo congregations.  (This is a dramatic rise from just a few years ago.)  Additionally many predominately Anglo and/or African-American congregations are faithfully leaping old ethnic boundaries and becoming more multi-ethnic.  In one situation a new church is in the process of being birthed out of two congregations, one predominantly Anglo and the other predominately African-American.

Not only are we moving across ethnic lines but also across gender barriers.  Among Protestant clergy as a whole, women now make up more than ½ of the seminary students.  I believe we are currently at our highest number of women clergy under active appointment and have the greatest number we have ever had on Cabinet.

All this and more is a work of the Lord among us.  This great diversity calls to mind I Corinthians 12:  “There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. … Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many.  We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink” (I Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-13).  Our great diversity and inclusivity is a gift God gives the church through the active presence of the Holy Spirit.

Last month, the Cabinet spent a full day in training on “Intercultural Competency Partnership” under the leadership and guidance of General Secretary Erin Hawkins and a staff member from the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR).  It was a superb time of learning that is part of a larger missional and evangelistic framework to reach all of God’s people.  I love the definition of “intercultural competency” General Secretary Hawkins taught us.  “Intercultural Competency (effectiveness, agility): ‘The ability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior and/or serve as a bridge when difference is present’”  (Mitchell Hammer).  We will continue our learning as an entire Conference with Rev. Rudy Rasmus as our keynote teacher at this June’s Annual Conference meeting.  It should be another time of great learning!

Ultimately all of this is done not for our sake but for the sake of Christ and His church.  Moving into Lent we are reminded again of what we are about regardless of ethnicity or gender, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Once again the Apostle Paul speaks to us from the passages of Holy Scripture.  “But we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (I Corinthians 1:23-25).

As we make appointments we will continue to be guided by the need to make mission field appointments based on gifts and graces that accomplish the mission.  We will continue to lift up core values and commitments with a high Christology, a towering focus on the local church, and an ongoing commitment to leadership development that includes by laity and clergy.  We are driven by faithfulness to Christ and service to the mission field the Lord places before us.  Ministry is much more than a career.  It is a holy calling.  We solicit your prayers.

The Greater Advent Desire

Recently I caught myself in worship singing with full-throated adoration the great Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  On this particular Sunday we didn’t just sing the typical first four verses but instead dug deep into verses 6 and 7, which are sung less often.  As I lifted verse 7 in the air, its words forcibly struck me:

O come, Desire of nations bind
All peoples in one heart and mind.
From dust thou brought us forth to life;
Deliver us from earthly strife.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” verse 7)

And then the chorus kicked in with joy and wonder swelling to fill the whole sanctuary.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

In a typical week where violence haunts the land we call holy, parades in brutal excess by ISIS and even stalks our country and nation through civil disturbance, I could not help but wonder.  Is this really the “desire of nations?”

It struck me that often our desire as individuals and nations is not to be bound in “one heart and mind” but rather to be victorious; to have our side or our positon win.  We need not look overseas to behold this warped sense of desire.  As I watched Congress I could not help but wonder if at times our two major parties are more intent on “winning” than on actually helping America.  Confession drives me to face a reality that this can be just as true in the church (and in my own life) among Christians as it can be in our country and wider world.

Singing and meditating on the words we sung, I noticed something.  The preceding verse, verse 6, has been curiously changed.  It reads:

O Come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thy justice here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” verse 6)

The change lies in the second line – it used to read “thy advent [instead of justice] here.”  In my musings, I cannot help but wonder if the change is both significant and in grave error.  We sing “O Come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer.”  Dayspring means “dawn.”  The song is a prayer that “death’s dark shadows” may in truth and fact be put to “flight.”  Justice by itself doesn’t put such dark shadows to flight.

Ultimately Advent is about the very coming of Christ; the appearing of our Lord and Savior, ruler and deliver.  As good and as legitimately desired as justice is, we need more than justice.  By ourselves we will never truly be able to achieve true justice.  Rather we need something better, something greater.  We need a Savior.  We need a Lord (ruler) who takes us to justice and beyond; to world bound in one heart and mind.

However anesthetizing it may be to simply drift along with the good cheer of the season, we know in our heart of hearts that this is not enough.  Even the most jaded justice singing partygoer perceives a greater advent desire.  Rightly Dan Schaeffer has written, “Unless we dwell upon this mystery, letting it take center stage, we will chase the true spirit of Christmas to no avail” (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, p. 145).  Only such spiritual depth will salve the wound in our souls and the ache in our hearts.

Let this great Advent song be our prayer.

O Come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thy justice here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
 O come, Desire of nations bind
All peoples in one heart and mind.
From dust thou brought us forth to life;
Deliver us from earthly strife. 

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” verses 6, 7 and chorus)

Emmanuel, God with us!, is our greater Advent desire.  It is our prayer.  For …

A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
    and authority will be on his shoulders.
    He will be named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
-Isaiah 9:6

Ground Breaking for The Wesleyan Homes at Estrella

We have so many wonderful ministries in the Central Texas Conference that it is hard to keep track of them all.  The list goes on and on!

One of those outstanding ministries is The Wesleyan HomesAll the way back in 1953, leadership in the Central Texas Conference moved forward to establish “homes for the aging.”  Over the years this great ministry (located in Georgetown, Texas) has grown and expanded. In January 2008, a 124 apartment Independent Living facility was opened on a 40 acre campus.  In 2011 the assisted living and memory care apartments were completed.  Last Saturday (December 6th) I had the high privilege and great honor to speaking at the ground breaking service for the next phase of expansion.

With deep appreciation for the ministry of Wesleyan Homes and all who are a part of it, I want to share the following excerpts from my speech at the ground breaking ceremony.

This is indeed a good, even more, a great and significant day.  We break ground in the season of Advent looking forward again to the coming birth of our Savior.  If we reflect on what we are engaged in; if we think about the great ministry of the Wesleyan Homes, we cannot help but reflect that we are about a homecoming; the building of a place of residence and service that becomes, by the grace of God, more than just a physical edifice but a true home to which we are blessed to come.

A couple of years ago a colleague of mine had his choir sing an old secular piece of Christmas music at the start of his sermon one Advent Sunday.  Can you guess what they sang?  They sang that great tune made popular by Bing Crosby “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”  He reported that especially among the World War II generation the song struck a deep chord.  “Former soldiers shared their memories of hearing that tune on a troop ship crossing the Atlantic, in a snowbound Army base in Europe, and on a sun-soaked airstrip in the Pacific. . . . Spouses and parents remembered hearing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on the radio as they sat down to Christmas dinner with an empty chair at the table”  (James Harnish, Come Home for Christmas, p. 9). There was something about that song and Crosby’s silky voice that evoked the longing for home.

We too know this longing even separated by three quarters of a century.  This advent, this time of preparation is just such a time.  There beats within us a soul-deep longing for God.  It beckons us to new hope and greater faith.  We are invited to come home; to come home not just to the Wesleyan; to come home not just to family and friends.  Far greater still, we are invited and even urged to come home to the Lord.

The truth is that our journey never really stops simply at ground breaking, even one as important and significant as this.  Our journey continues on at once both back in history and forward in time.  We are invited back to a Bethlehem stable; to kneel and pour forth adoration in heart and voice.  We are invited forward into the future with the advent conviction that Christ is coming again.

Glance with me at the Scripture passage I have chosen for this occasion, Matthew 1:18-23. It is, I suspect, almost too well known by us.  Joseph desires at once to do the compassionate and sensible thing.  He will break off his engagement with Mary.  In a stunning sequence of events an angel of the Lord visits him with both news and instructions.

The news is the joy of this time.  Listen as the Holy Spirit speaks to us again: “the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”[1]

The instructions are given to Joseph but directed through him to us as well.  “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”[2]  You know the response.  It slides in the passage simply, un-assumedly in verse 24.  “When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.”[3]  Joseph did as he was instructed.  He was profoundly obedient.  He responded with quiet dignity, great courage and immense faithfulness.

Dignity, courage, and faithfulness are the pointed hallmarks of this lesson from Joseph.  I submit that they are the guiding stake markers of our action today.  We break this ground for a home of dignity.  We turn this earth in courageous commitment to the future.  We dig this foundation in full faithfulness to the One who proclaims that he does and will live among us.

They will, we will, “call him Emmanuel … [which] means “God with us.”[4]

Christ’s coming really is our homecoming!  He is our homecoming right here, right now as we break this ground.  And so . . . with fervor, joy, and assiduity of purpose, we break this ground for a home of dignity.  We turn this earth in courageous commitment to the future.  We dig this foundation in full faithfulness to the One who proclaims that he does and will live among us.

[1]               Matthew 1:20c-21
[2]               Matthew 1:20b
[3]               Matthew 1:24
[4]               Matthew 1:23

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