The Cross Connection ©

Here we are partway through Lent and I find myself coming back time and time again to what I like to call the cross connection – that is the way we are connected to the Lord at the foot of the cross. After all, whatever you think of the cross, it is a strange symbol for a faith that lifts up the triumphant love of God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

The cross connection reunites us with the greatness of God. Here, at the foot of the cross, the relationship between Creator and creature is restored.  It is here, at the foot of the cross, that Jesus says “come, come back into a balanced life with me.”  The cross connection works in some basic ways.

First, it secures salvation. A faithful and righteous God cannot and will not glance away from sin and evil in dreamy irresponsible indulgence.  At the cross Christ suffers for our sin.  In classic theology this is called substitutionary atonement.  The word atonement can be understood if you just break it down into its parts – at-one-ment.  It means to be at one, reconnected, with God.  A restoration of the relationship with God through God’s self-sacrificial love.  God’s greater love breaks the great rebellion by stepping forward to pay the price.

Second, it places life back in balance demanding that we radically trust God and rely on the greatness of God. Think of the connection in this way.  It orders our priorities.  Life as it was meant to be moves in a relationship with God and in relation to those we love.  Through the cross connection those are first order things and the rest of the stuff – what we wear and eat and drink and all the paraphernalia of human accomplishment or lack thereof – follows in its proper subservient place.  It works when we “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, [when we do so] … all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Third, it invites us to follow this Christ in picking up our cross in love for others. The cross  connection calls us to greater service following Christ.  This is our crowing joy and obedience in living.

Posted on the wall of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing site was the following written by an unknown author:

I said, “God I hurt.”
And God said, “I know.”

I said, “God, I cry a lot.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you tears.”

I said, “God, I am so depressed.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you sunshine.”

I said, “God, life is so hard.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you loved ones.”

I said, “God, my loved one died.”
And God said, “So did mine.”

I said, “God, it is such a loss.”
And God said, “I saw mine nailed to a cross.”

I said, “God, but your loved one lives.”
And God said, “So does yours.”

I said, “God, where are they now?”
And God said, “Mine is on My right and yours is in the Light.”

I said, “God, it hurts.”
And God said, “I know.”

It is at the foot of the cross, through the cross connection, that life comes back into its proper focus. Sheila Walsh, in her marvelous recording Hope, offers us this great truth in her song, “Here is Love Vast as the Ocean.”

“On the mount of crucifixion
Fountains opened deep and wide
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide
Grace and love like mighty rivers
Poured incessant from above
And Heaven’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.”
(Sheila Walsh, Hope, “Here is Love Vast as the Ocean,” verse 2)
May the cross connection lead us deeper into Lent.

A Message for Lent

Bishop Mike Lowry shares his annual Lenten message of hope and challenges all to pick up their cross and follow the Lord Jesus Christ to Jerusalem and beyond. To view the message via the Central Texas Conference website, go to ctcumc.org/LentMessage2016. You may also view or download the video to show at your church, small group or wherever on the CTCUMC Vimeo Page.

Appointment Making ©

This week we concluded Inventory in the Central Texas Conference. This is a yearly exercise which Bishops and their Cabinets go through.  The Cabinet Inventory Retreat is a time of assessing where the Conference stands on retirements, new people needing an appointment (especially new seminary graduates), and requests from pastor Parish Relations Committees and from pastors.  It is a time of looking at the whole in terms of Conference and church pastoral needs and then beginning to make appointments for the new Conference year.

Looking at requests from Pastor-Parish Relations Committees who are expecting a change in pastors – when they are asked what is most important in terms of ability in a new pastor preaching is listed in first place virtually every time. (In 7/1/2 years as a bishop I can only remember two occasions when preaching was not listed first!  On those occasions it was listed second.)

When I first entered ministry in The United Methodist Church, the conventional wisdom shared with young pastors was: stay close to God and close to your congregation and you will do well.  A high premium (very high!) was paid to happiness, quiet and conflict avoidance.

In truth, staying close to God and each other are very, very good things! We need, all of us, lay and clergy alike!, to stay close to God.  We should stay close in love and care to each other in our congregations.  After all, the church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, a very colony of heaven here on earth.  Biblical admonitions abound.  Just reflect for a moment on passages like Philippians 2:1-5 or I Corinthians 12.

But wait! Hit the pause button and ask what is wrong with this picture?  If we stay close to God (a very, very good thing!) and stay close to each other in the congregation (again a very, very good thing!), who is left out?  The hungry, hurting and homeless, whether spiritually or physically or both, are left out.  Those far from God (and from the body of Christ, the church) are left out.  The great spiritual and social issues contained in the Lord’s Prayer – “on earth as it is in heaven” – are left out.  With the best of intentions the gospel and the church were focused inward on the already churched.  An emphasis on the Great Commandment to love God and love the neighbor (every accessible human being we may reach, Luke 10) was unconsciously a lower priority.  And emphasis on the Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all peoples” baptizing and teaching obedience to the way of Christ (Matthew 28) was unconsciously given a low priority.  Risk-taking mission and transformation-focused evangelism were often (not always!) neglected.

Unfortunately in the church we tend to binary thinking. We tend to advocate an inward focus or an outward focus.  We tend to be consumed with taking care of each other or with an outward passion for justice and mercy.  With our Lord it is not an either/or.  Jesus consistently rejected simple binary thinking.  He nurtured love and taught the earliest followers at the very same time he commanded them to reach out.  Put John 21:15-19 together with Matthew 28:16-20 and the fullness of the gospel emerges.

By the grace of God and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the last few decades have led to a refocusing on the inclusion of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission in ministry and life of congregations. The rejection of binary thinking and the inclusion of a greater gospel vision has led to increased need (demand?) for pastors who can lead and for lay leaders who will join with them in offering leadership.  This truth shone clear as the Cabinet engaged in our yearly Inventory Retreat and began appointment making.

As I reflected on the conversations and feedback from local churches, pastors and the Cabinet, it occurred to me that the list of qualities we (the Central Texas Cabinet) lifted up in consideration for District Superintendents applied to congregational appointments, which means both (!!!) congregations and clergy as well.

In my blog of November 5, 2015 “Changing Central Texas Conference Leadership” I shared as list of non-negotiables that the Cabinet came up with for consideration. It began with the rhetorical question:  What are the qualities that should be met even to be considered for such a key leadership role?

  1. Deep Spirituality/Walk with Christ
    1. Tell me about your daily devotions/spiritual disciplines
    2. What differences has it made in your relationships?
    3. How do you experience God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in community?
  2. Open to Learning
  3. Emotional Intelligence
  4. Team Player
  5. Integrity
  6. Passion for Disciple making/ministry (Is there evidence of faithfulness and fruitfulness?)

These are central core characteristics which provide a foundation for appointment making. I emphasize again – they apply to both congregations and clergy. This core characteristics “fit” with what I like to call the “big 3” which will continue to drive our ministry together as a conference.

  1. Christ at the Center
  2. Focus on energizing and equipping local churches to be vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ
  3. Developing Lay and Clergy Leadership

Each church, each pastor is unique; a gift from God in and of themselves. Narrative and context differ widely.  One size doesn’t fit all.  The importance of long tenure and a fruit-bearing match of congregation and clergy continues.  Deep prayer and careful discernment ultimately drive appointment making.  God is with us in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Reporting In: Inventory, UMCOR-West and Tornado Relief ©

Sunday afternoon we started our yearly Cabinet Inventory Retreat. Once again we face a rising number of retirements. We are in the beginning states of implementing a new LASP (Learning Agility Sustained Performance) model for assessing clergy gifts and graces as well as a new SP/KP (Sustained Performance/Kingdom Potential) model for assessing the mission and ministry of each local church.  As we consider the next appointive steps to take, we will go through careful and prayerful reflection on each pastor involved and each church considered. I am asking for prayers that our work might be saturated by the Holy Spirit’s guidance and result in still greater faithfulness and fruitfulness.

While we begin making appointments for Annual Conference 2016, the work will not be finished until our June 8th fixing of appointments at the close of Conference.  Even then, the Cabinet’s appointive work is not fully completed.  The complexities of life for both clergy and churches almost inevitably dictate that some appointments will take place during the following year.

As we gather, there are some significant celebrations which I desire to report back on and lift up. As I have repeatedly stated, one of the truly great works of the United Methodist Church is the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).  UMCOR operates not only around the world but also right here in the Central Texas Conference.

To refresh our memory, on April 17, 2013 (almost three years ago!) a fertilizer plant in West, Texas caught fire and exploded. UMCOR, through the Central Texas Disaster Relief time under Rev. Laraine Waughtal’s leadership, immediately moved in to offer relief.  They did not just come for the short term but have stay to help people in the community (not just Methodists or Christians) rebuild and move forward with life.  A “hallmark” of UMCOR’s ministry is that we are there in disaster recovery situations for the long haul and not just the visible short term.

I asked Rev. Waughtal to put together a follow up report I could share. The following are excerpts from her report:

“I am so proud of our conference and our team in West.  They are amazing!  … Our reports are not done and will not be for another couple of months.  We still have about four file drawers that our data person is working on –she is entering data as cases are closed out.  We still have five homes we are working on.  Our goal is to be complete by the April 17th anniversary this year. …  if you add up all the figures to date … handled by UMCOR and the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church [the total] is $5,367,292.77!  We should easily go by the $6 million mark.  Part of the reason cases are not closed yet is we are also surveying all of our clients and we will not close files until the work is complete.

Unfortunately, these numbers do not include other agencies and what they invested into the community like Red Cross, Salvation Army and area churches.  We have no way to capture that.  It also does not include the more than $600,000 we have invested into 8 case managers, a part-time construction manager and data specialist along with all of our administrative work and so many other people who have impacted this event. 

All of this involves touching the lives of 630 cases (individuals and families!), which is the most important part.  Our conference also responded with many Early Response Teams to help people recover their belongings in the first month and to make the few homes that were able to safe and secure.  We also responded with volunteers for rebuilds and repairs.” 

To which I respond – WOW! I give thanks to God for your faithfulness through the United Methodist Church.  Together we are living Matthew 25, “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 25:40).

On a related subject, the Central Texas Conference received an emergency $10,000 grant in January to help with relief for victims of tornado damage in the Ellis County/Glenn Heights area (around Ovilla, Texas). A mid-January report notes the following churches involved:

Ovilla UMC
Midlothian UMC
FUMC Mansfield
Morgan Mill UMC
FUMC Hillsboro
Wesley Chapel/Gholson
White’s Chapel
St. John the Apostle
Community of Hope
FUMC Burleson
FUMC Weatherford
FUMC Hurst

I am quite conscious that this list is incomplete. Since then a significant number of other churches have responded.  One of the signs of a healthy disciple-making church is an outward focus serving their community and transforming our world.  We are seeing outwardly focused churches share the love Christ and neighbor in abundance.  I thank God for your life giving ministry!

Class Meetings and Making Disciples ©

In November of 2014 while meeting in Oklahoma City, the Council of Bishops heard an outstanding address from a class meetingyoung Methodist scholar named Kevin Watson. Dr. Watson (who is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology) shared a deep teaching based on his newly published book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.  I’ve had his book on my shelf intending to read it since hearing him in Oklahoma City.

On becoming one of the four supervising bishops for Rio Texas, his book leaped to the top of my long list of books to read. Along with Bishop Joel Martinez, I have picked up the task of representing the bishops at the upcoming Clergy Convocation of the Rio Texas Conference (an event similar to the “Clergy Day Apart” in the Central Texas Conference).  To my delight, I learned that Dr. Watson is one of the featured presenters for the event (along with Dr. Albert Mosley, President at Gammon School of Theology).

It is Dr. Watson’s connection, or more accurately reconnection, of the class meeting with the mission of the church which excites me. We know full well the stated mission of the United Methodist Church – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Clergy tend to get stuck in fruitless debate over precisely what or who a “disciple” is.  The technical navel gazing debate is more often than not a form of work avoidance.  Or, as a friend of mine puts it, “it may be complex but it is not complicated.”  I’ll stake my own flag in a fairly straightforward shot-hand definition.  A disciple of Christ is a committed disciplined follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.  If the reader wishes a bit more, I’ll add “who continues in the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, prayers and the breaking of bread while reaching out to share Christ with all others and helping those in need through the deeds of love, justice and mercy”  (See Acts 2:42-47).  Disciples are fully devoted followers of the Lord Jesus Christ living the great commandment (Luke 10:27) and the great commission (Matthew 28:29-20).  As already stated, it is not complicated, but it is complex.

Disciples are made not born.  Wesleyan’s have always understood that people are transformed into disciples primarily through small groups committed to the shaping of the heart.  Indeed, Professor Watson quotes at the opening of the first chapter Methodism’s first two bishops in America, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke:  “We have no doubt, but meetings of Christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages.  But the most profitable exercise is a free inquiry into the state of the heart.” (John Ortberg has written an outstanding book, Soul Keeping, which focuses on the “state of the heart.”)

It is the reconnection of the historic class meeting with the primary mission of making disciples that is so exciting in Professor Watson’s work. He notes that we have three primary types of groups. Affinity groups are gathered around common interest.  My wife is in a group that knits stocking hats for infants, especially in situations of poverty, to help protect that most vulnerable among us.  Back in Corpus Christi I was in a small group that cheered on the Chicago Cubs. (It was a religious experience for us but nobody else!)  Affinity groups mostly function around fun and fellowship not making disciples (there are exceptions but as such the spiritual formation engaged in making disciples – attending to the state of one’s soul – is rarely the focal point of an affinity group.

The second major type of groups found in churches are information-driven groups.  Most bible studies fall into this category.  While there is some sharing, the primary purpose is knowledge/curriculum driven.  Such groups are needed and important but rarely reach the level of depth needed for spiritual transformation that leads directly to more mature Christians (i.e. disciples, committed disciplined follows of Jesus Christ as Lord whose live have been transformed by Christ).  Pungently Dr. Watson adds “Methodists became addicted to curriculum and gradually turned to information-driven groups and away from the class meeting” (p. 7).

The third and most transformative type of group is the class meeting.  Watson’s basic description is instructive.  “A class meeting is a small group that is primarily focused on transformation and not information, where people learn how to interpret their entire lives through the lens of the gospel, build a vocabulary for giving voice to their experience of God, and grow in faith in Christ”  (p. 6). This is where disciples are formed.  In all our fussing and fighting, a recovery of the class meeting or something closely equivalent is necessary to turn from an institutional church back into a movement for Christ.

True transformational spiritual formation groups create disciples of Christ. Therein lies our best hope for a future that captures the Wesleyan vision of holiness of heart and life, justification and sanctification for a and to a hurting and hungry world.  I pray for such a movement for Christ!

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!

The Sons and Daughter of the San Antonio Episcopal Area are Going Home ©

Rio Texas, Central Texas & the Work of a Bishop

By now many regular readers of this blog are aware that I will be serving as one of four bishops providing episcopal supervision to the Rio Texas Conference until Sept. 1. Bishop Janice Huie (Texas Conference) will serve as the bishop of record. Bishops Joel Martinez (retired), Robert Schnase (Missouri Conference) and I will each provide specific areas of leadership for the Rio Texas Conference. The vacancy in the Rio Texas Conference (San Antonio Episcopal Area) was created when then Bishop Jim Dorff resigned from the episcopal office and surrendered his credentials as an elder in the United Methodist Church for misconduct.

four interim bishops for Rio Texas-HuieThe team approach for covering an episcopal area is unprecedented. Each of the four bishops selected to server Rio Texas was elected to the episcopacy out of one of the predecessor conferences that united to form the new Rio Texas Conference. (Bishop Martinez was elected out of the Rio Grande Conference. Bishops Huie, Schnase and I were elected out of the Southwest Texas Conference.) For all of us, there is deep sense of wanting to help with a conference we love. As one of my colleagues put it, “the sons and daughter of the San Antonio Episcopal Area are going home.”

Wfour interim bishops for Rio Texas-Martinezhere all of this gets very difficult is balancing the work of our assigned conferences – to which we are all deeply committed – with the need to engage in compassionate leadership for the Rio Texas Conference.

In my case, next week will combine attempts to meet with both the Central Texas Conference Cabinet and the Rio Texas Conference Leadership Team & Cabinet (two meetings). It means driving to Oklahoma City on Monday for a meeting and then driving back in time to catch a flight to San Antonio Monday night. Tuesday morning will involve a planning meeting with the four interim bishops for Rio Texas-Schnasefour bishops in the morning and a meeting of what we are calling the Rio Texas Leadership Team in the afternoon. We will then meet with the Rio Texas Cabinet Wednesday morning. I will fly home that afternoon and hope to make it in time to join the Central Texas Cabinet in session. Then there’s the Texas Wesleyan Board meeting on Friday, and Saturday finds me at First Round Rock for a Leadership gathering in the morning and in Glen Lake that afternoon to meet with the Vital Leadership Academy.

I hope to spend the whole final week of January in Central Texas. The heart of the week will be sharing with Dr. John McKellar in teaching the High Octane Preaching class. The first week in February involves the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) College of Bishops meeting at Perkins School of Theology. Followed by our Central Texas Conference Cabinet Inventory Retreat the next week and the launch of the 2016 Bishop Brown Bag Book Study the following week. And so it goes.

People ask me all the time what a bishop does. My short answer is “lead.” My slightly longer answer goes back to the historic understanding of the office as it developed both in the biblical church (see I & II Timothy) and the early Christian church. The word bishop means overseer. The bishop has oversight (guardian) authority for both the spiritual and temporal affairs of the Church of Jesus Christ. Spiritual authority involves the great teaching office of the episcopacy. A bishop guides the church to continue in the Apostles doctrine and prayers (see Acts 2:42). The “temporal” part of being a bishop involves earthly leadership of the church in very practical ways – assigning clergy, providing oversight of fiscal accountability, helping establish systems of education and learning, dealing with legal concerns and property issues and most of all, guiding missional strategies that “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That is the short answer.

Being a bishop is awesome and incredibly humbling. Most days I love the ministry. Some days it is very, very hard. I am honored to be going home to help Rio Texas. I love being the bishop of the Central Texas Conference. I ask for your prayers and support in the difficult eight-month period of joint oversight.

How Did You Spend Your Christmas Break? ©

Do you remember the typical first assignment for an elementary school student on returning to school in the fall? Growing up we often (virtually always) had to write a paper on “What did you do with your summer vacation?”  It was a fun assignment.

As we flew back from Boston on the 2nd of January, my mind turned to the packed month ahead of me.  It has started quickly:  Worship at Ovilla United Methodist Church and a tour of the wreckage from the Christmas storms.  The response of Ovilla and other wonderful congregations in the area has been inspiring.  The work of disaster relief under Rev. Laraine Waughtal through the Center for Mission Support has been outstanding.  The greater connectional United Methodist Church through UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief) has been (as always!) tremendous (including an immediate $10,000 grant)!

Monday found me in the office and then on the road down to Austin for the meeting of the Conclave (a Texas Methodist Foundation Clergy group made up of the active bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction). I’ll preach at Cross Plains UMC this Sunday for the tenth anniversary of the fire that swept through the community.  That fine congregation gives meaning to the word resilient.  Monday we have a “Strategic Focus Conference” at the Conference Center.  Tuesday and Wednesday I’ll be in Houston for a meeting of the Council of Bishops Executive Committee (COB).  Thursday the General Secretaries and Presidents of the various agencies of the United Methodist Church will join the COB Executive Committee for a planning meeting on our shared worldwide ministries.  I have hopes of being home late on the 16th to sleep in my own bed.

I share all that both by way of inviting the reader to catch a glimpse of my world but more importantly to think spiritually about the question, “How I spent my Christmas break?” I operate out of the conviction that most (all) of us have similarly hectic stress and overly scheduled lives.  Even my retired parents ages 95 and 91 seem inordinately busy to me.  [Hmm, make a mental note, Mike, you need to go down to Kerrville and talk to those kids about slowing down.]

We speak easily of holidays and tend to forget that the root of the word is “Holy Days.” Recreation equates to re-create.  Vacation, time off, … whatever you want to call it, links to our need for “downtime” and especially quiet time.  As I met with my Spiritual Director (a retired Navy Chaplain now serving as pastor of a UMC in Colorado), he issued a mutual challenge to the two us to increase our quiet time, our time of prayer and solitude, of reading scripture and meditating on God’s Holy Word.

All of which brings me back to the importance of taking a Christmas break. There is more going on here than an opportunity to be lazy.  There is potentially something basic to our spiritual formation.  I don’t know what you did but, Jolynn and I feasted on grandchildren (which is why we needed to come home to rest!).  Christmas in Falls Church, Virginia included great conversations with our daughter and son-in-law and even greater time playing with 2½ year old granddaughter Grace.  A great highlight, far greater than any present, was meeting our newest grandchild, 5 week old Samuel David Meek for the first time.  I simply couldn’t get enough of holding him.

On December 26th we flew up to Boston to join our son and daughter-in-law with her extended family in taking part in the baptism of middle grandchild, 5 month old Simon Michael Gabrielse-Lowry on the last Sunday of 2015.  It really was holy time for us.  Super Simon and I giggled and laughed and carried on together in a re-creating way!

I recite my own history by way of asking the reader to think back and reflect on how you spent your Christmas break. Did the light of Christ break in the joy of family time?  Perhaps instead it came in the quiet of alone time or maybe in the glory of worship or even perhaps in the chaos of life.  However it happened this is (or can be) holy time we all need as we step into this New Year of our Lord 2016 – Anno Domino.

Remember the hackneyed but immensely true mantra: Wise-men (and Wise-women!) still seek Him.

Living Christmas into the New Year ©

How do we embrace this joy from God which Christmas calls us to? We know, we surely know, that it is not meant to be a one day phenomenon.

The shepherds guide us in living Christmas. The first principle of application is the most simple. They went.  Not only did they go, they went with haste.  It takes two to make a relationship.

After my first date with Jolynn, my wife, I was so impressed I couldn’t believe she’d really want to date me. Rather than risk rejection, I decided I wasn’t going to bother calling her again.  Thank God for Eric McKinney.  He said, “Let her make that decision.  You can at least show her you’re interested in a relationship.”

The same is to be said for our relationship with God. He has come to us so that we might go to him.  The angel’s announcement of good news is an invitation to go to God.  Faith which transforms fields of fear into pastures of peace is born in the simple act of going to God.

Notice with me the second very straightforward application of great joy. “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child” Luke 2:16-17).

They shared what they had seen and heard.  They formed the first community of praise and service.  It is instructive that this was a community endeavor.  There was none of this nonsense of a private spiritual quest.  Our relationship with God lives and grows in the sharing.  The more we give it away, the more it comes back to us.  There is no private truth here but a public offering.

Where is the greatest joy for you at Christmas? If I ask myself that question, the answer comes easily.  The greatest joy is in the sharing.  This is a part of the purpose of gift giving.  The object is not how much loot I can accumulate, but rather to experience the good news of great joy.  Such an experience comes in sharing as those shepherds first discovered.  For this night to be more than a pause in the parade of life but to become what it is meant to be – the defining moment – it must be shared.  Shared not just by being together but by sharing the message and purpose of the angel’s announcement; the sign of God’s salvation in a baby born to us and for us.

The third application of great joy is demonstrated in what the shepherds did when they left the manger. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). They offered praise to God.  The act of praise transforms our spirits, cements our relationship, and bonds our allegiance.  Praise is an act which carries within its being the power to make this more than just a one night stand.

The fourth application of living Christmas is unmistakably straightforward and unmistakably counter cultural. The news of this night is not restricted for the right of the believing few. Look again at what the Bible teaches.  The good news of great joy for all people comes initially to shepherds in a field.  Shepherds had to work all the time, even on the Sabbath.  They were known for their tough irreligious coarseness.  Ask the good people of that day what groups were outside the faith and one group they would mention would be shepherds.  And yet, it is to them the angels first came with the news.

Or consider Mary and Joseph, the holy couple. They might pass for that day’s version of the middle class.  Status and rank they did not have.  Wealth was not theirs.  And yet they of all people are most blest.

And then there were the heavenly host. The great army of God’s angels like the stars above proclaims the good news of great joy for all people.  There can be no doubt, none at all, this news of God’s birth, love, presence and care is for all people.  Whoever you are, wherever you have been, whatever you have done, the Lord of all creation offers Himself to you this night in grace, an amazing radically free forgiving and redeeming love.

When I was Senior Pastor of University UMC in San Antonio one of my parishioners passed on a story about ministry we shared in at that church. It is a ministry many of our Central Texas Conference churches share in.  One man wrote of his experience of good news of great joy for all people:  “….I was serving a jail sentence.  It was the greatest mistake I had ever made.  ….Surely God had washed his hands of me….. Near Christmas I started looking for a present I could send my daughter to let her know I still loved her.  …in a catalogue I found a …gold chain with a charm that read:  ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’.  … [but] I discovered that I had missed the deadline for Christmas delivery.  I sent a card instead.

“Christmas Day came. When I called home my wife thanked me for the gift that had arrived for our daughter.  I [was] confused.  Then I remembered filling out an application with the prison’s Angel Tree ministry.  Someone would send my daughter a present in my name.

“‘It’s a beautiful gold chain,’ my wife said ‘with a charm that says ‘Daddy’s Little Girl.’’ No one had known about the necklace—except God.  And he sent his ministering angels to show me I wasn’t forgotten” (E-mail titled “Under the Angel Tree” by Michael Montalvo for Guidepost).

The story is not over. Christmas is far from finished.  It is to be lived out in the coming New Year of our Lord 2016.

  1. Go to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
  2. Share what you have seen and heard.
  3. Offer praise to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  4. Remember, the Gospel is for Everyone.

MAY THE LORD’S NEW YEAR FIND YOU SATUARATED WITH AND SHARING THE NEWS OF THE SAVIOR’S BIRTH!

A Baby Born for You ©

I readily and honestly confess I am into babies right now. After an important meeting at the Conference Center this week, I stood around with other grandfathers swamping pictures.  Monday night, December 21st, we shall fly to Washington D.C. to spend Christmas with our daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter (2 &1/2 yr. old “Amazing” Grace).  While there I will hold for the first time our 1 month old grandson Sam (a.k.a. “Yosemite”).  Then on the 26th, we will fly to Boston where our five month old grandson son Simon (a.k.a. “Super” Simon) will be baptized on the 27th of December.

Even as baby bonked as I am, I know that the real baby of focus is one named Jesus. Do you remember the oft told story of a “little boy who was given a part in the church Christmas program? It wasn’t much of a part, just one line.  He was to say the angelic announcement:  ‘Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.’  Mom, Dad, everyone in the family helped him learn his line.  He went over and over it till he had it down pat.  The night of the program came; the crowd filled the sanctuary.  It came time for his one line and facing that mass of people he just froze in fear.  Silence descended as everyone waited for him to speak.  Finally, he raised his arms and in a loud voice said, ‘Boy, do I have good news for you!’”

It is a baby and he is born for you! His name is Jesus.  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

On one level this good news can become too easily a part of our vocabulary and life. The ancients understood a truth we in our niceties seek to avoid.  If all of us in some way or shape have departed from life with God, sinned is the biblical term, then what we justly merit is damnation.  The job failure…it’s just what you deserve; the broken relationship…hey, that’s your problem; the shattered dream…tough luck; the crippling illness…those are the breaks.  Terrorism … what do you expect, sin can be international too.  But such is not the case where God’s good news is heard!

This good news which splits fear asunder is the reason for the season, the birth of a baby who in fact is God with us and for us. The Bible puts it this way: “God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

On another level this is too incredible to be really believed. Some called it a stumbling block and others sheer foolishness (I Corinthians 1:23).  The sign of a new relationship with God which might rescue us from a field of fear is a homeless baby laid in a cow’s feeding trough?!

All this is at God’s initiative. We don’t will God into coming.  We don’t beg, borrow or steal the Lord’s appearing.  We certainly don’t earn God’s favor.  Yet God comes to us in what is least to be feared – a baby.  What is more helpless than a baby?  What is more in need of love and care than a baby?  What more needs protection and support than a baby?  Yet this is how God enters the world.  All this is good news of great joy!

The great joy of His birth is not a pause in the march of days. It is not a temporary state of caroling good will.  It is a change of relationship.  It is good news of great joy because from hence forth our relationship with God is one of love and not fear, of compassion and not judgment.  We experience great joy because our sins are forgiven by this one whose birth we celebrate.  “To you is born a Savior” (Luke 2:11).

By way of illustration, Dr. James Harnish writes: “Beauty and the Beast is a classic tale of radical transformation.  It’s the story of an angry beast whose only hope of being transformed into a genuine human being is to be loved in his unlovable condition by a beautiful woman.  At first, Beauty is frightened by the Beast’s large stature, his meanness, his power.  But over time, the unearned love of Beauty transforms the Beast into a man” (James Harnish, Come Home for Christmas: An Advent Study for Adults, p. 34).

That transformation process is launched this night by none other than God. It is a renewal of life that is offered to the shepherds terrified in the field.  It is the same new life offered to us in our fields of fear.  Do you remember that line from Robert Frost’s poem “The Death of a Hire Man” in which a person named Warren says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” This is the great joy we are offered this night; but with one twist, one great reversal.  We don’t have to go to God. God in Christ comes to us.  This is what is meant by salvation.  All the talk of saving has to do with the restoration of a relationship with God; who in divine beauty comes to us as a baby to woo us and love us.  “The angelic chorus anticipates the jubilation which rings throughout the gospel and especially the joy in heaven which Jesus declares to ensue upon rescuing the lost sheep” (G. B. Caird, Saint Luke, p. 61). Jesus put it this way.  “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

One of the great early Christian leaders, a man named Ambrose, put it this way: “He was a baby and a child, so that you may be a perfect human.  He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you may be freed from the snares of death.  He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar.  He was on earth that you may be in the stars.  He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens.  ‘He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might be rich.’ …

“You see that he is in swaddling clothes. You do not see that he is in heaven.  You hear the cries of an infant, but you do not hear the lowing of an ox recognizing its Master, for the ox knows his Owner and the donkey his Master’s crib.”  (Ambrose, from Arthur A. Just Jr., Editor, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament III—Luke, p. 38 [internal quotes, references, 2 Cor 8:9]).

Behold the baby. In Him lies the birth of eternity as earth and heaven touch this night.  Come, enter a Bethlehem stable and lean over the manger.  “It’s a boy!”  And He is for you.

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