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Deep Calls to Deep ©

Tuesday, November 8, 2016, our world tilted and ground shifted – wherever you stand on the political spectrum in the United States, whether or not it be far right or far left or anything in between or above or below.  On November 9th we awoke to a new and different world.  The candidate who proclaimed that the election was rigged is now the President-Elect.  His supporters cheered and celebrated.  Those who deeply disputed his candidacy – whether out of fear, anger, straight forward policy disputes, or contentious character flaws – grieved and wondered out loud what the future holds for us as a people and as a nation.

The next day, November 9th, “protesters started at 6 p.m. in Union Square, and began marching north on Broadway to Sixth Avenue at 7:30 p.m. They eventually ended up at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, and later headed to Trump International Hotel & Tower at Columbus Circle. . . . The group chanted, ‘Not my president!’ as well as ‘Black lives matter,’ and, ‘Love Trumps hate.’” Reports noted protests at a variety of places all across the country which have continued and spread.  Meanwhile, both President-elect Trump and Secretary Clinton have called for the nation to peaceably unite.

I write today not to debate the election nor to engage in a futile dispute over who voted and how, nor even to share in a public venting of our celebration or anguish, sunlit hopes or gloom- shrouded fears.  Rather, whether you go to bed wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat or hugging you pillow in tear-stained anguish over what a President Trump might do,  I invite you, more than that, I challenge you to set your personal preferences aside and raise the deeper question of what God now calls us both to be and to do.

A poem by the great British poet and playwright of the mid to late 20th century, Christopher Fry beckons us back to Psalms.  Fry wrote the following:

Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move,
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise
Is exploration into God.[2]

Christopher Fry’s evocative poem springs from the heart of Psalm 42 verse 7.  Reading in a Common English Bible translation, “Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[3] I believe the imagery speaks to our present situation.  It is a picture of an iceberg calving, which is the breaking off from the main ice shelf in a thunderous crash with waves surging outward.  calving_iceThis is where we are living today.  The tumultuous election of Trump verses Clinton; the red state/blue state divide; the policing crisis and the cry “black lives matter;” the assault of truly global economy; the Balkanization of Europe and much of the Middle East along with the seemingly endless conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The list could go on; they all point to the calving of our world.  Reality has shifted and a new world is struggling to be born.

How are we to respond to the surging waves of change that are washing over us?  Are you ready for the answer?  I don’t know.  But, I do know where we are to look for guidance!  “Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[4]  God speaks to us this day.  Lean forward and listen to Holy Scripture for here lies insight and wisdom far greater than our flawed human understandings and more virtuously noble that are our highest aspirations.  Deep calls to deep – plumb the depths of Psalm 42.

Scholars tells us that the original writer of this Psalm lived near what would become Caesarea Philippi “where the springs of the River Jordan rush down into the valley in roaring cataracts.”[5]  He gazes at the unfolding scenes of his life and shares a near universal hunger that lives in us to this day.  “Just like a deer that craves streams of water, my whole being craves you, God.  My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.  When will I come and see God’s face?  My tears have been my food both day and night, as people constantly questioned me, “Where’s your God now?”[6]

Here lies the first great line of instruction for us this day.  1.  Long for God; seek the Lord!  The great St. Augustine put it this way: “Let us burn together for this thirst; let us run together to the fountain of understanding.”[7]  We have spent too long seeking our own desires and pleasures.  We need to see God’s greater glory and will.  Long for God; seek the Lord! 

If this last election was about anything, it was surely about a hunger, a longing for a better life and better world.  The Word of the Lord teaches us that this hunger, this thirst, can only be slaked by the fountain of the Lord’s presence.  “But I remember these things as I bare my soul: how I made my way to the mighty one’s abode, to God’s own house.”[8]

Notice quickly what gets tied to that longing is a hope driven promise.  2. Put your hope in the Lord!  Look at the grandeur of hope amid the very despair of the Psalmist’s situation.  Verse 5:  “Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed? Why are you so upset inside? Hope in God! Because I will again give him thanks, my saving presence and my God.”[9]

The world doesn’t need a more politically partisan church.  It needs a more prayerful church – submitted, humble, and obedient!  Psalm 33:20 says, “We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and our shield.”[10]  Romans 8:18 reminds us:  “I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.”[11]  Hebrews 10:23 asserts with unshakable insistence, “Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable.”[12]

Two quotes from great Christians in the latter half of the 20th century guide us in so placing our hope.  The first I trust many of you know.

In 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the Baccalaureate sermon at the commencement exercises for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and he included the saying [originally spoken by Theodore Parker a Unitarian minister fighting slavery in 1853]: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said in closing, “but it bends toward justice.”

 The second quote is less well known but no less significant.  It comes the great biblical scholar Eugene Peterson.  Many of you know him for his work in producing The Message translation of the Bible.  He wrote a book 1980 called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.  This is God’s claim on us in a day and time filled with instant gratification.  In a culture of text and twitter, the Word of God bids us live in a hope filled faithfulness.

This leads us to the third great lesson the Word of the Lord has for us this day out of Psalm 42.  It comes from the seminal 7th verse.  As the world thunders, cracks and the waves of time and culture crash over us, we are to trust God.  Listen again to verse 7.  It opens with the line you already know, ““Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[13]  Then it adds the following words.  “By day the Lord commands his faithful love; by night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life.

What will redeem life for us in this time?  Look at verse 7!  “The Lord commands his faithful love.”  How does the writer respond?  “By night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life.”  He responds with radical trust!

This then is the towering lesson of Psalm 42; a Psalm given by God to us this day!  3.  Move to a deeper faith through radical trust in God. 

This is not easy.  The shallowness of much of what falsely passes for the Christian today will not do.  I don’t know how many times someone, well meaning, has said to me that they are “spiritual but not religious.”  What nonsensical vacuous tripe!  Being spiritual without being tied to the God who comes in Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is nonsense!  Deep calls to deep!  The writer of Hebrews was correct when he said, “It’s scary to fall into the hands of the living God!”[14] We need a faith that is biblically anchored.  Notice carefully the multi-step process of moving to a deeper faith through radical trust in God.  First, we must move to a deeper faith – summarized pointedly, deep calls to deep.  When the waterfalls roar and the massive waves of life surge wading pool spiritually will only lead to a drowning!  Secondly this calls for radical trust in God; if you will, an anchoring of life in Christ the solid rock.  Thirdly, the combination of a deeper, disciplined, mature faith with radical trust in God results in a “song” within us in the night and a prayer to “the God of my life.”

Jessica LaGrone, the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary was profoundly correct when she said, “Only desperate people need a Savior.”  Folks we are a desperate people!  We need a Savior.  His name is Jesus Christ!

We must go deeper not only into “the formation of beliefs about Jesus but [also into] the cultivation of trust in him. It is an important distinction.” [Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean reminds us by way of illustration.]  “When famed French tightrope walker Charles Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on a high wire in 1860, carrying his trembling manager Harry Colcord on his back, the nineteen-year-old Prince of Wales Edward Albert was there to watch. Before the stunt, Blondin asked the prince, “Do you believe that I can carry a man across the Falls on a tightrope?” Edward replied that he did. So Blondin asked: “Will you be that man?” (The prince declined.)

Incredibly, Blondin died in his bed in 1897 at the age of seventy-five after an accident –free high-wire career. The facts of his feats had been widely reported. But to participate in Blondin’s high-wire act required trust, not belief – a quality found almost exclusively among those close to him, which is why Blondin’s stunts involved his manager (and his five-year-old daughter, until the French government prohibited it, citing “child endangerment”) instead of strangers. Belief may enable us to approach Christ as a curious bystander, but our investment is abstract. Trust opens us to God relationally as we submit ourselves to divine love, which awakens our desire to know Christ better for ourselves.”[15]

 My spiritual mentor and friend shared in his congregation sermon the Sunday following the election this salient insight.  “Let me begin by saying that there are tough, disappointing days ahead for all Americans, for people on both sides of the political and cultural divide.  The euphoria of victory dissipates in the grinding days of hard work that follow. . . .

[Dr. Spain went on to say:] “This is a time for faith and faithful action.  The fact is that many in our nation will not be able to find a strong center in the days ahead; they will languish without a solid place to stand and cope with the disappointments that are coming.  But you and I and people of faith in all places—when we remember who we are, we stand on a solid foundation.  We build our house on a rock that is more than able to withstand the howling winds of ugly and desperate times.”[16]

You recall the verse he references.  It comes from the great Sermon on Mount, near the end of Jesus’ seminal teaching.  “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”[17]

Deep calls to deep.  We are bidden, challenged to move deeper in our faith, as I have already stated. Waiting pool religion will not suffice.  Wherever you are politically, the wind is blowing and the rain sleeting.  We must anchor ourselves yet more firmly on the rock of Christ.  How is it that we do so?  Psalm 42 instructs us:

1. Long for God; seek the Lord!
2. Put your hope in the Lord!
3. Move to a deeper faith through radical trust in God.

“Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed?
Why are you so upset inside?
Hope in God!
Because I will again give him thanks,
my saving presence and my God.”[18]

 [1]               http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/11/09/trump-election-protest/
[2]               Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners, taken from The Word God Sent by Paul Scherer, pg. 111
[3]               Psalm 42:7
[4]               Psalm 42:7
[5]               Artur Weiser, The Psalms, p. 348
[6]               Psalm 42:1-3
[7]               Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII, Psalm 1-50, Edited by Craig A. Blaising & Carmen S. Harding, p. 328
[8]               Psalm 42:4
[9]               Psalm 42:5
[10]             Psalm 33:20
[11]             Romans 8:18
[12]             Hebrews 10:23
[13]             Psalm 42:7
[14]             Hebrews 10:31
[15]             Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian, pp. 118-119
[16]             Dr. Sid Spain, November 13, 2016, First UMC, Eagle, Colorado
[17]             Matthew 7:24-27, CEB
[18]             Psalm 42:11

Preparing for Conference ©

Today (Tuesday, May 31, 2016) as a spent time in my morning devotionals, one of the assigned texts for my reading was Matthew 7:15-20.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore, you will know them by their fruit.

I confess that this is not a passage I have spent a lot of time with. Yet I have, with many, engaged over the last 10 years or so in a deeper discussion about the implications of this and other passages like it (John 15 and Mark 4 as examples).  As we seek to be accountable to the Lord and to the Lord’s church for our ministry (both lay and clergy!), we spend much time wrestling with the twined concepts of faithfulness and fruitfulness.  The popularity of Bishop Robert Schnase’s books, The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations and its companion work The Five Practices of Fruitful People, demonstrates our hunger to be fruitful people in the service of the Lord Christ.

Where we have struggled as a church is in understanding what good fruit is. In one sense, we can readily agree on a common biblical matrix which is easily represented by simply reading the closing paragraphs of Pentecost Sunday and the birth of the Church in Acts 2. The five vows of membership in a United Methodist Church are a good theological reflection of this biblical foundation. So too, are the five practices which Bishop Schnase wrote about.

Acts 2:42-47 The Five Vows The Five Practices
Prayers & Teaching Prayers & Praise Intentional Faith Development
Shared Meals (Communion) Presence (Worship) Passionate Worship
Community (Fellowship) Gifts (building up the church) Extravagant Generosity
Share with those in need Service Risk-taking Mission
Added to the community those being saved Witness (Evangelism) Radical Hospitality

 

Where our real struggle comes lies in accountability and metrics. The United Methodist Church of today tends to weigh heavily gifts & service and struggles with notions of faithfulness to the Apostles’ Teaching.  We get witness in deeds of love and mercy yet shy away from personal faith sharing.  Having just returned from General Conference I am struck by how the Africans are clear about accountability for numerical growth of the church while North American pastors verge of being phobic about any kind of metric accountability.

What is clear in the teaching from Jesus found in Matthew 7 is that doctrine (right teaching) and fruitfulness go together. At General Conference the emphasis on building vital congregations was a reflection of this union.  There is a lesson here for us in the early 21st century. Right faith (doctrine) goes with right worship goes with right practice.  Any separation is fundamentally false and leads inevitability to a lack of fruitfulness.  An ancient proverb from the time of the birth of Christianity according to William Barclay was simply, “Like root, like fruit.”

All of this ties into preparation for Annual Conference when we reflect on John Wesley’s original intention for Annual Conference. The Annual Conference meeting was to focus on a) what is taught… that is what do we as Methodists- teach about the Christian faith and doctrine; and b) how is it taught … that is how is the teaching connected to our practice of ministry.

This coming meeting of the Central Texas Annual Conference will feature Alan Hirsch as our Conference teacher. His book The Forgotten Ways is one of those rare books which I turn back to time and time again.  This snippet found in the Introduction of The Forgotten Ways will whet your appetite for what should be a great time of learning.

“The conditions facing us in the twenty-first century not only pose a threat to our existence but also present us with an extraordinary opportunity to discover ourselves in a way that orients us to this complex challenge in ways that are resonant with an ancient energy. This energy not only links us with the powerful impulses of the original church, but also gives us wings with which to fly. … The church (the ecclesia), when true to its real calling, when it is on about what God is on about, is by far and away the most potent force for transformational change the world has ever seen. It has been that before, is that now, and will be that again”  (The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch pg. 17).

In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church, PT 2

On April first of this year, I had the privilege and high honor of being asked to address a gathering of the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy Conference at Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The address is reprinted in a series of four blogs in slightly edited form beginning today, April 29, 2016. I offer the address entitled “In a Mirror Dimly”: The Future of the United Methodist Church © for reflection and discussion as the United Methodist Church prepares for upcoming meeting of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church beginning May 10th in Portland, Oregon. – Bishop Mike Lowry

Part II: In a Mirror Dimly

I entitled this paper “In a Mirror Dimly: The Future of the United Methodist Church” for a reason.  A few years ago I decided to move out of the predictive business with regards to the United Methodist Church.  We see in a mirror dimly and must come to this whole subject of the future with vast humility and on bended knee.  The fact that I am (we are) so often wrong in our predictions about the future ought to humble us, shame us, and even leave us laughing.  I say this as an ardent Chicago Cubs fan earnestly believing in the memory of our patron saint (and my childhood hero) Ernie Banks that “this year will be the year the Cubs win it all.”  Nonetheless I have been asked to address the subject of the future of the United Methodist Church and so seeking an umbrella of mercy, I will go where angels fear to tread.

What will happen at General Conference just a few weeks away? Will the delegates vote to eliminate the “incompatibility” clause with regards to homosexuality and embrace marriage and ordination of those who self-identify as LGBTQ?  I don’t know.  Will current language about ordination and the prohibition of performing same gender marriages be retained as a chargeable offense?  I don’t know.

Conventional wisdom has it that while the Jurisdictional Methodism (i.e. the United States) has swung even more in favor of allowing same gender preferences for marriage and ordination, the Central Conferences (most notably in Africa) who remain steadfast in support of the current language on same gender marriage and ordination have gained votes. The prediction is that the two will cancel each other out leaving us a church with a narrow margin steadfastly defending current disciplinary standards.

What I think I do know is that the current deep United States divisions and growing refusal to abide by church law in any meaningful sense is inherently unstable. One of Lincoln’s quotes echoes in the recesses of my mind.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Secondly, should the Discipline significantly change on these presenting issues, those of us who live in the United States should expect some form of denomination- splintering rebellion in the worldwide (and in parts of the U.S. as well) church.  Just as the best predictor for how a high school student will do in college is how they did academically in high school, so the best predictors we have for the future of the United Methodist Church are to look at other denominations that have gone through such a change.  The chaos in the worldwide Anglican Communion continues.  Nationally, we have examples from the Lutherans and Presbyterians that are probably predictively accurate for United Methodism in America.

Consider the options should the General Conference vote in favor of a change through removing the “incompatibility” clause and allowing ordination and marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Those who do not concur face a limited series of choices:

  1. Embrace the change despite any misgivings and be hopeful that proponents are correct (despite all evidence to the contrary) that such actions garner an influx of new young disciples.
  2. Stay in the church as a loyal minority (especially in the United States).
  3. Leave the United Methodist Church to form a new branch of the Wesleyan movement as a part of the universal church. In doing so, make a corollary set of decisions around whether or not to pursue legal action over property, endowments and the like.
  4. Simply leave (presumably to take up membership in another Christian tribe).

It seems important to me to carefully consider these options (as well as other variations on them which I have not named) prior to the heat of General Conference. We all, both those in favor and those opposed to a change, have much to fear from hasty decisions made in the passions of the moment.  Discernment and prayer are first order activities here.  Furthermore, if such a change comes about, it will be important for those who are not sure they can remain in the United Methodist Church to create time and space for prayer, discernment, consultation, and consideration.

More in the next installment of this four part series…

The Force at Skellig Michael ©

I first caught sight of Skellig Michael while on vacation in Ireland last summer. On a long dream of trip (over 10 years in gestation) with dear friends, we were driving the beautiful Ring of Kerry in Southwestern Ireland.  The costal scenery 04island wholewas rugged, evoking fantasies of wild Ireland.

When I last saw Skellig Michael (a couple of weeks ago), I was watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, the movie closes with a dramatic confrontation with Luke Skywalker on the austere crags of Skellig Michael.  The Jedi “Force” struggles towards an awakening to combat the forces of evil.

Something similar took place for real on Skellig Michael. Saint Patrick began his epic missionary evangelism in the second half of the 5th century. As the country wrestled with the truth of the Christian faith, other Christ followers stepped forward.  One of those was the famous teach named Finnian.  “At Clonard Finnian built a little cell and a church of clay and wattle, and entered on a life of study, mortification, and prayer. The fame of his learning and sanctity soon spread, and scholars of all ages flocked from every side to his monastic retreat. Finnian established a monastery modeled on the practices of Welsh monasteries, and based on the traditions of the Desert Fathers and the study of Scripture. The rule of Clonard was known for its strictness and asceticism”  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnian_of_Clonard). He was a great teacher of the Christian Faith who educated people such as Saint Columba of Iona fame.  Later Finnian moved to found the monastery at Skellig Michael as a place of retreat and learning, believed to be in the 6th century. There remained a functioning monastery on Skellig Michael until the 12th or 13th century, a period of roughly 600+ years.

So why does all this ancient history matter? It matters because there is a witness offered by the courageous monks of Skellig Michael that would inform and guide us in our day. The real force was awakened on Skellig Michael and didn’t involve Jedi Knights.  It involved people who stood up and stood out for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  They did so in an environment where faith and values were contested between pagan Druidic Ireland (with all its well documented cruelty) and the emerging Christian Faith.  We need to do the same today.09crosses

Secondly, the true force of Skellig Michael — Jesus Christ — led to a great awakening in Ireland. Even with all its flaws, Christian Ireland has been a beacon of hope and learning in our darkened world.  Don’t take my word for it.  Read Thomas Cahill’s marvelous little book How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Third, the hardship and the sacrifice of the monks call us to stand up for Christ in our world today. The days of nominal Christianity are a waning force.  This is actually a good thing.  The monks point us to a hopeful inspired future because the force, the real force is with us!

Report on the Core Leadership Team/Cabinet Retreat ©

Last week the Central Texas Conference (CTC) Core Leadership Team and Cabinet met to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report. With the adoption of the Exodus Project Evaluation Report, the CTC Core Team and Cabinet promised to begin work on the seven recommendations adopted by the Central Texas Conference in the Exodus Project Evaluation Report.

By way of recall, the seven recommendations that came out of the Exodus Project evaluation were:

  •  Recommendation 1: Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions
  •  Recommendation 2: Formalize Resourcing to Leverage Local Expertise
  •  Recommendation 3: Focus Disproportionately on “Select” Churches
  •  Recommendation 4: Invest in Leadership Development
  •  Recommendation 5: Create Transparent Evaluation Processes that Align with Exodus
  •  Recommendation 6: Re-emphasize Peer Learning
  •  Recommendation 7: Clarify the Role of the DS

Dr. Mike Bonem, our Conference consultant for the Exodus Project evaluation, led us through a process of focusing on the top two or three recommendations.  There was a clear consensus that all of the recommendations are important and need to be addressed; however, our work recognized that we must begin with a focused intent on a smaller list.

There was close to unanimous consent (with some 20 people in the room, both lay and clergy leaders) that the item of first importance was recommendation #4: to invest in leadership development.  Likewise there was close to unanimous agreement that recommendation #3 was second on the list in order of importance.

Much improvement in leadership development was noted.  Last year, the Conference made a heavy investment in lay leadership development with the addition of Dr. Kevin Walters to work with Kim Simpson (Conference Lay Leader) and Georgia Adamson (Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Development).  The HCI Lay Leadership Development groups have proved to be a strong part of lay leadership development. A variety of other leadership development options were noted for clergy – High Octane Preaching, Board of Ordained Ministry Residency, HCI Pastoral Leadership groups, various continuing education events, etc. What the group wrestled with was the need for a more coherent and cohesive process of leadership development (as differentiated from episodic learning opportunities).

The Core Leadership Team and Cabinet noted critical elements of leadership development.

Self-evaluation
Orthodox theology
Emotional intelligence
Constantly develop preaching
Learn to handle stress
Staffing/administrative leadership
Evaluation based on performance

The list is in no way exhaustive but rather suggestive of the lines of development needed for growing clergy leaders.

A group of selection criteria were established for implementation of recommendation #3, “Focus disproportionately on ‘Select’ Churches.”  Some obvious questions that beg answering are:  Who selects the churches?  What is the criteria by which a church is to be considered select?  How will this “focus” be implemented?  The critical answer to who or what is a “selected” church is that our focus will be on “the coalition of the willing.”  Churches will self-select by how they engage in the ministry and mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Some of the self-selection criteria involved will be:

  1. Ability or willingness to grow. (How would we know? – by a churches response) (1) Readiness 360, (2) Capacity; 3) what they do/how they vote, 4) intervention (?)
  2. Evidence of new energy, commitment, etc.
  3. Exercise demons (resolving past disputes and control issues) – willingness to engage in intervention when needed, etc.
  4. Crucial location/situation

The third issue we looked at was Recommendation #1, “Develop a New Process to Guide Programming Decisions.”  We noted some preliminary issues.  The need to develop a clear set of decision-making criteria and communicate better.  We raised the question, is there value to have a budget review committee external to the Conference Center?  We focused on three key convictions/commitments: 1. Clarify decision-making process for programs (& resources), 2. Communicate better; 3. Don’t tolerate silos…. Work on ending silos.  “Is it a problem to be solved or a tension to be managed?” (Andy Stanley).

This begins the process of learning and implementation of the next steps facing the Central Texas Conference.  The Evaluation Report for the Exodus Project is found in the Pre-Conference Journal beginning on page 29.  As we worked together, we could sense the Holy Spirit guiding our efforts.  I invite and urge lay and clergy who are a part of the Central Texas Conference to join in the journey.

Peace Be With You ©

A straightforward CNN news story reports the following: “They were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and fellow citizens. They were students and dreamers, pursuing their ambitions for a better life. And on Tuesday night, Kenyans gathered to remember them as innocent victims of a terrorist attack that stunned a nation and left communities heartbroken. The gathering began with quiet chatter among a crowd of hundreds, before mourners went silent and moved toward one end of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Then, 147 crosses were unloaded from a truck and quietly planted in the ground. The names of some of the victims were read aloud and then repeated by the audience in unison. The crowd then sang the national anthem. The attack at a university in Garissa on Thursday killed 147 people, mostly students. The Al-Shabaab militant group claimed responsibility. Kenyans attending the event wrote notes honoring the victims and lit candles.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/07/africa/kenya-attack-victims-vigil )

It continues with the stark reality of religious violence and Christian martyrdom. “In the Garissa attack, the terrorists separated Christians from Muslims, making some recite verses from the Quran. Those who couldn’t quote the holy book tried to flee the gunfire, but whizzing bullets sent them to the ground. Others scampered into closets and stayed there for hours, until after the siege was over. Images from the scene showed heaps of students lying in pools of blood, faces down.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/07/africa/kenya-attack-victims-vigil/)

Many individuals and churches in the Central Texas Conference have personal relationships with Kenya. Having participated in the Central Texas Conference (CTC) mission trip to Kenya a year ago, the terrible news brought the reality of persecution and violence home. I could not help but think immediately of Bishop Joseph Ntombura and his wife Pauline staying in our home in Fort Worth. (We had visited their home in Kenya on our mission trip). The many friends and vital ministry of Maua Methodist Hospital (Maua Methodist Hospital Service Fund #09613A) are lodged in our hearts as a Conference. The martyred faithfulness and senseless tragedy of Garissa touches us personally.

How is a Christian to respond? Our first answer is render whatever practical aid we can. Our truest second instinct is to deep prayer. The reaction we must guard vigilantly against is a reaction of violence against those innocent others who are Muslims.

The reality of the killings should well focus us on another killing. This tragedy took place just before Good Friday and the killing of Christ on a cross. Now, two days post Easter, we know the story did not end at the cross. Neither will it end in the bullet-marked, blood-soaked detritus of Nairobi University at Garissa. The need for a grace-filled, love-soaked, hope-offering witness by Christians is greater now than ever. It is to our time that Jesus speaks.

On Easter, Jolynn and I worshipped with our son and daughter-in-law in Boston. In part the pastor’s hope-filled sermon led us back to Easter evening and the story of disciples huddled behind a locked door including the interchange with “doubting,” or rather “honest,” Thomas. I invite the reader to recall what Jesus said to the fear filled (no doubt in some anger driven – towards the Romans and other Jewish authorities) Christ followers. The twentieth chapter of John’s gospel (good news!) records the Savior’s greeting. “It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, ‘Peace be with you’”   (John 20:19).

The great William Temple who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the World War II wrote a commentary on the Gospel of John. He who preached during the Battle of Britain reminds us, “The wounds of Christ are His credentials to the suffering race of [humans]” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple). In writing on Jesus words “peace be with you,” Archbishop Temple then quoted a poem by Edward Shillito published under the title Jesus of the Scars.

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
(Taken from Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple, p. 366)

But Archbishop Temple did not stop there in his commentary. He directed attention further to the follow injunction of Jesus our Lord. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’” (John 20:21) . The peace of Christ is in very truth and fact with us should we choose to so avail ourselves. Prophetically Archbishop Temple added: “This is the primary purpose for which the Spirit is given: that we may bear witness to Christ. We must not expect the gift while we ignore the purpose. A Church which ceases to be missionary will not be, and cannot rightly expect to be spiritual” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel by Archbishop William Temple, p. 367).

Jesus now once again says to us and to our Kenyan brothers and sisters, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’” (John 20:21).

A Christian Response to the Border Crisis

The image of protestors angrily greeting three busloads of mostly women and children in San Diego is both vivid and powerful.  Primal emotions were stirred.   The victims were often terrified younger children.  The great issue – immigration reform – is a need we must address.  Virtually all agree on the need for significant reform.  The passionate debate revolves around what kind of reform.  Good Christians disagree often strongly!  It is important to emphasize the last statement.  Good Christians can disagree with each other with passionate conviction about how to best reform the immigration system and respond to the border crisis.

So what is a Christian response?  Allow me to modestly suggest that there isn’t “a” (as in singular) Christian response.  There are multiple Christian responses.  Our faith offers us deeper moral guidance.  It presents a biblical and ethical framework out of which we may respond.

As I watch a report of the shouting and screaming at buses filled with children, I could not help but recall the words of Jesus.  “Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children” (Matthew 19:14).  Whatever the best strategic answer to the crisis is, further victimization of young children is not the answer.  Adults are the ones who need to be held accountable across the spectrum and across national and ethnic lines.

The second passage that comes to me is the famous one called the “Judgment of the Nations.”  It is well known.

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)

Regardless of our political orientation (Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Green and/or – if there are any of you left – WHIG, We Hope In God), Christians see and help those in need.  I served in the Rio Grande Valley as the Pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Harlingen, Texas.  Among our good friends was another young couple in the church, Myron and Sandy Merchant.  (They kept our son Nathan while I took Jolynn to the hospital for the birth of our daughter Sarah.  We’ve stayed in touch over the years.)  Committed Christians, they tried to faithfully respond in the swirling environment of immigration and border issues.  Myron was Captain in the Border Patrol.  I remember well him calling me one day.  The church had been collecting clothing for those in need.  Over the phone Myron asked, “Do you have some shoes?  We’ve arrested an illegal immigrant we are going to send back but he doesn’t have any shoes.  Could we help him?”

Myron did his duty faithfully and within the context of Christian care.  Wherever we come out on the best immigration policy for our nation, we are to engage that policy with Christ-like care and compassion.

A third piece of moral guidance we might apply in seeking the outline of a Christian response comes from the Book of James.  Often forgotten near the back of the New Testament, it contains marvelous practical advice.  James, the brother of Jesus, warns the first Christians (and us) of the power of the tongue.  He writes of the spiritual and moral importance about what and how we say things.  He warns us against improper hurtful angry speech.

“We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.

Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.

Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.

People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!”  (James 3:2-10)

Each image – a bridle for a horse, a ship at sea, and flame in the forest – is used to illustrate the power of words and importance of not letting our speech descend into poison.  Christian maturity for James (what John Wesley would call moving on to “perfection”) involves controlling our tongue (verse 2).

At a minimum wherever you come out on the political land personal spectrum of immigration and border patrol, we must guard our tongues.  Christians are to be a people who speak gracefully.  Civil discourse should be one of the ways we are known as Christian.

I often list these three modest elements as a partial framework for our response to the border crisis regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum.  Christians are to give witness, offer evidence with their lives, of 1) compassion for children, 2) care for those in need, and 3) communication that is civil (literally grace-filled).

*For information on what the Central Texas Conference is doing in response to the border crisis, please read Rev. Lariane Waughtal’s (CTC Coordinator – Disaster Response/UMVIM)  article.

Reform the Continent and Spread Scriptural Holiness Across the Land

Do you recall the original vision for the United Methodist Church?  “To reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land.”  To my mind this is as good a vision statement for the United Methodist Church in America as we can get.  This is our holy grail, our reason for being as a distinctive church in the larger body of Christ.  It fits as a hand does a glove to the stated mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  As we head deeper into the 21st century, we are trying to build a missional church culture where an institutional church culture has existed.  We are trying to return or reclaim our roots as a movement and church.  It’s tricky, hard, exciting, fun, etc.!  I think the Spirit of the Lord is leading us into new future for reforming the Continent and especially the church.

Back in late February I read a blog written by Rich Robinson who is a part of 3DM.  3DM is a missional movement led by Mike Breen and others.  It is one of the blog sites I episodically follow.  [They share on their website this description:  “3DM trains churches and Christian leaders to do discipleship and mission in an increasingly post-Christian world.

“We combine 30+ years of learning from the context of a very secular England, penetrating Biblical insights and experience working with hundreds of faith communities worldwide — to come alongside churches and organizations who want to learn to be the church in this new world.

“We are megachurches, church plants and everything in between.
We are Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and non-denominational.
We are brand new churches and 200-year-old churches; rural, suburban and urban churches.
We are a movement of churches learning how to thrive in the future.
We are 3DM”.]

Here is the blog I read and pass on for your reflection:

Building a missional culture isn’t as easy as A-B-C

“Here are some of the marks of a M.I.S.S.I.O.N.A.L culture – can you see them in your culture or how could they begin to shape how you and your people live?

M – Missional Mindset
People who understand that they are ‘sent’. People who look to the Great Commission as well as the Great Commandments. People who live sacrificially. People who get out of the boat. People who take on the adventure. People who live life outside the church walls. People who recognize those ready and open to Jesus. People who embrace risk & change.

I – Incarnational Lifestyle
People who live a missional lifestyle rather than organize missional events. People who have mission at the core of who they are not just the center of activities that are ‘put on’. People who share life as well as a faith with people. People who ‘live with and amongst’ not ‘minister to’ people. People who look to be good news to who or where they are placed – home, neighborhood, work, nursery, golf club, pub, school gates, coffee shop…

S – Scripturally Based
People who are grounded in scripture – reading, processing, reflecting, learning, applying, acting, living. People informed and imitating the life of Jesus in the GospelsPeople who can feed themselves from the Word. People who have the word of truth as an offensive weapon.

S – Spirit Led
People who are dependent on the Holy Spirit. People who are empowered by the Holy Spirit. People who follow and join what the Spirit is doing in people & places.

I – Intercessory Prayer
People fuelled by prayer. People with a pattern of personal prayer. People with a pattern of corporate prayer. People sent covered by committed prayer. People who change the spiritual temperature through Intercession. People who win battles in prayer. People whose hearts are broken for the lost through prayer.

O – Orbit the Centre
People who live life in communities and gather together with the wider family for
Celebration. People who aren’t isolated from the resource center. People who
are resourced, trained and sent from the central church. People who return to
tell war stories. People who are healed up from battle scars.

N – Neighborhood or Network
People who know who (network – social, demographic, interest, ethnicity) or where (neighborhood) they are called to be Good News. People who live out the Good news in their networks or neighborhoods. People who connect with people. People who recognize People of Peace. People who understand and live Luke 10.

A – Active Participation
People who aren’t consumers of a Christian product on a Sunday. People who participate in the adventure & life of their community. People who play their part. People who ‘have a go’. People who step out of the boat. People who produce vision and grow maturity in others.

 L – Lay Led
People who don’t depend on Christian ‘super heroes’. People who don’t abdicate
responsibility to the pastor and staff. People who step up and take responsibility
for who & where they are called to lead & live.”
-Posted on February 23, 2014 by Anna Robinson 3 written by Rich Robinson, Team Leader for 3DM Europe

As you celebrate the 4th of July may we not only give thanks but also remember and recommit to our wider mission to America – “To reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land.”

The Most Important Issues facing the United Methodist Church

Fascinating and instructive poll results were published in a recent article written by Heather Hahn of the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) entitled “The most important issues facing The UMC today.” The poll was a survey “by email of 509 U.S. United Methodist lay members by Corporate Research of Greensboro, N.C., and Research Now of Dallas.”

Hahn notes in the article two important qualifiers to the poll.  First, “the poll screened out pastors, retired pastors and paid staff at any level of the denomination to focus on the views of lay members, who sometimes can seem voiceless in churchwide discussions.”  And, second, “The 509 sample size — representing a denomination with about 7.4 million U.S. members — is a typical statistical sample of the kind seen in political and market research.”  She further adds, “This United Methodist survey has a 4.4 percent margin of error.”

Creating disciples of Christ

39%

Youth involvement

27%

Members’ spiritual growth

24%

Decline in membership

19%

Poverty

17%

Children at risk

17%

Social injustice

16%

Sexual orientation/same-sex marriage

11%

Structure of the UMC

8%

Economic inequality

7%

Women and minorities in UMC

5%

Racism

4%

Immigration reform

3%

With the aforementioned background firmly in place, I submit that the poll results are encouraging.  They show a distinct focus by the laity on our official core mission as a church, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  It also reflects the importance of the local church as the primary place disciples of Jesus Christ are made.  The crucial factors of both social and personal holiness (Wesleyan distinctives) can be clearly discerned in the polling data.

In these turbulent times, perhaps the most important thing is to keep the main thing the main thing!  We may deeply debate various issues and stances of the church.  This is a good thing.  Great churches debate great issues.  Let us stay united on the central towering mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ!  Disciples of Christ transform the world!

The Prisoner’s Prayer

In May of 2008 Jolynn took a trip to Ethiopia with the group from the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) in San Antonio (where she was serving as a faculty member).  The trip was led by a retired Lutheran Missionary whose place on the UIW faculty she had taken.  This missionary (Jim Sorensen) had served in hospital work in Ethiopia prior to the Marxist revolution in 1974.  The Marxist regimen known as the Derg (a short name of the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987) literally wrecked this great historic nation.  Hundreds of thousands of political enemies of the regime were kill or tortured in a period known as the “red terror.”  Later in 1984, over 1 million died in a serve famine.  Finally that evil regime was booted out and the country has engaged in a long slow climb back to economic and political health.  As the UIW group toured the country, they encountered a great Christian history and witness that reached back to story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.  The rock churches of Lalibela (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are witness of great faith.  But this small band of pilgrims from San Antonio encountered an even greater witness of faithfulness.  They discovered an Ethiopian Orthodox Church that is alive and well despite “toils and tribulations.”

The above long paragraph serves as backdrop for the following story which I recently read in John Ortberg’s marvelous book Who is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus.  Pastor Ortberg writes:

“Years ago I was in Ethiopia when it was under a Marxist regime and the church was mostly underground. One or another of the leaders of the Christian group would frequently be arrested and put into prison, which was horribly over-crowded and unspeakably foul. Other prisoners used to long for a Christian to get put in prison, because if a Christian was jailed, his Christian friends would bring him food – actually, far more food than that one person could eat, and there would be leftovers for everybody. It became the ‘prisoner’s prayer’: ‘God, send a Christian to prison.’”  (From Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus by John Ortberg, p. 43)

I find myself inspired in reading this story.  We speak of radical hospitality, as well we should.  Here radical hospitality was lived at a level I find almost unimaginable.  It is tempting in the blessed security of a North America to view ourselves as the center of the Christian universe.  This is not so.  There is a line from the great hymn “The Voice of God is Calling” (No. 436, The United Methodist Hymnal, verse 4) which reads:

“From ease and plenty save us; from pride of place absolve;
Purge us of low desire; lift us to high resolve;
Take us, and make us holy; teach us Your will and way;
Speak, and behold! we answer; command, and we obey!”

I am struck by the connections of courage and faith, hospitality and witness, conviction and obedience.  I cannot help but wonder.  I need to be saved from ease and plenty and lifted to high resolve.  I must ask myself, am I the kind of Christian who is an answer to such a prayer?  Am I the kind of Christian who visit those in jail with such bounty?

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