An Unfolding Work of the Holy Spirit

 

On returning home from the Council of Bishops week-long meeting in Oklahoma City, I find myself slowly getting back into the issues of ministry in our local setting.  Among the disagreements at the Council, the great sign of encouragement was our agreement around the importance of building vital congregations.  Here is a divinely ordered platform on which we can come together.

These musings led me back to an email report I received about a month ago.  I detour to set some context for the report.

Last Conference we made an unusual appointment of Pastor Denise Bell Blakely to Everman UMC as Associate Pastor for Mission, Community Development and Evangelism.  Rev. David Griffin is the senior pastor at Everman.  Everman is a community undergoing change.  Once a predominantly Anglo community, it now has a majority Hispanic population. Collectively both the congregation and the cabinet wondered how we could engage this new environment.  Already, Everman UMC was working on ministry with those attending school right by the church.  They were open to reaching out in a new and creative way.  So too was Pastor Griffin.  Enter Rev. Blakely who lives with a courageous sense of the Holy Spirit calling her.  (It is worth noting that Rev. Griffin is Anglo, Everman UMC is predominately Anglo, and Rev. Blakely is African-American.)  Through the combination of the a grant from the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF), Conference mission support and the local church, together we stepped up to risk-taking mission and service.  Through a supportive church and senior pastor, a new and highly innovative mission work was begun.

After 3 ½ months on the job, Rev. Blakely filed a report which (edited for length) included the following:

  • “Developed English and Spanish Language handouts to the community of Everman and Forest Hill, containing information about Everman UMC, the Lord’s Prayer in English and in Spanish, weekly prayers for children, and the household for Victory in Christ, also in English and in Spanish.
  • Delivered the handouts in door hanger format and in person in the neighborhood surrounding Everman UMC.
  • Visitations at Hugley Senior Center and Communion Service at the Senior Activity Center
  • Home and hospital visitations with the Stephenson family.  Grief counseling for the family.
  • Assisted senior pastor at the Graveside Service for Beverly Stephenson.
  • Attended orientation at the Tarrant County Food Bank.  The orientation is mandatory for access to services at the Food Bank.
  • Developed volunteer handbook for “Hanging Out” that can crossover to all volunteer activities at Everman UMC.
  • Served as primary contact for all walk-in and phone inquiries pertaining to Hanging Out and other mission activities.
  • Attended the Opening Convocation Service for Everman ISD and met with the Superintendent of Everman ISD, the school board members, principals of the schools, Dr. Bean and some of the teachers of the school.  The purpose was to initiate conversation about the expectations and goals of Everman UMC and Everman ISD and how we can help each other achieve these goals.
  • Filled in for the Senior Pastor for three weeks while he was on vacation, carrying out the instructions of the Senior Pastor and mindful of the faithful representation of Jesus, and the United Methodist Church.
  • Began a ministry of grace, handing out bottles of water to those walking in the 100+ heat.  The bottles of water are labeled, “Courtesy of Everman UMC.”
  • Handing out blessing bags consisting of hygiene items and snacks to the homeless in Everman.

Rev. Blakely closed her unusual report with the following: “These are the projects in progress. At I-35 and Everman Parkway, working on developing communication with the prostitutes.  Still discovering Everman. Working with the Senior Pastor in planning a revival.  Working with the volunteers and preparing for Hanging Out 2014-2015.”

She added, “Everman UMC has had eight visitors to the church so far, I believe this is the fruit of prayer in action.  Please pray for the mission and my family, we need all the prayer we can get.”

Wow!  After all the effort and energy at the Council of Bishops, it is this kind ministry that inspires me and fills my soul!  I don’t know many pastors who would set up a dialog with prostitutes, be in conversation with school leaders, establish multi-lingual prayer meetings and plan a revival.  Most of us would get the last three – school, prayer, and revival.  It is the first one I choke on – a ministry with prostitutes.  I confess that I would be afraid to do so.  And yet, the more I think about, I do know someone else who established such a ministry.  His name is Jesus.  I can actually think of a few other pastors who have done so as well.  (Including a Presbyterian minister/missionary and his wife in Hong Kong back in 1968.)

We don’t know how this will come out.  This is work of the Holy Spirit unfolding in ways we do not understand and cannot control.  And yet there is a lesson and witness here for more than just Everman UMC.  The future of the larger United Methodist Church lives on in such Holy Spirit- led ministry.

In my reflection, it is the Lord who is calling us to courageous risk-taking mission and service, willing to evangelistically offer Christ to those most in need.  I want to publically thank the good people of Everman UMC and Pastors Griffin and Blakely.  I also want to be a part of a church that reaches out to those most in need – sharing in both (!!) Word and deed!

Human Sexuality Statement from the Council of Bishops

BishopCrest (4)The following statement was adopted unanimously by the Council of Bishops in the afternoon executive session on November 7, 2014:

As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.  We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people.  We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.

 

Acts of Repentance, Signs of Hope

Thursday afternoon we gathered to engage in an intensive time of follow up to Acts of Repentance for the Treatment of Indigenous People (which was a commitment out of General Conference 2012). It is a massive understatement to assert that the United States’ history of treatment of Native Americans is rife with injustice. Growing up in Seminole, Oklahoma (which is near the headquarters of the Seminole tribe) my wife has a much deeper grasp of the history than I do. Originating in Florida, a significant number of Seminoles held out in the Everglades during the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and Seminole Wars of 1832; however, the majority marched the deadly trial of tears and settled in the Oklahoma territory. Last year as a part of our participation in the “Acts of Repentance,” CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission) worked in mission with churches of the Oklahoma Indian Mission Conference (OIMC).

In our “Acts of Repentance” we are working towards a new future of healed relationships that constitute honest confession of past moral failures and offer hope for a new future. We are witnesses and even at times participants to the victimized. For example the Sand Creek Massacre was led by a Methodist Minister (an elder in good standing!). It is a blight on our history. Today, issues still remain that cry out for holistic ministry — alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty and the like. Together we are called to be a part of a new day. I am grateful for the leadership of representatives of the OIMC for their thoughtful and challenging leadership.

The Council of Bishops’ common time in conjunction with the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church has focused on what unites us. Our overarching engagement is on building vital congregations. A key learning is how the Four Areas of Focus are a reflection of Vital Congregations. Put differently, vital congregations engage in (1) creating new places for new people (through both! the transformation of existing congregations and the creation of new churches and faith communities), (2) leadership development (both lay and clergy), (3) ministry with the poor, and (4) the eradication of killer diseases worldwide (Imagine No Malaria, fighting HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis). These signature goals are the fruit of vital congregations and simultaneously they are formative of vital congregations. Vital congregations not only engage in the focus areas, they come about and grow through engagement of the focus areas. By focusing we more faithfully live our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

When we focus on vital congregations that are in ministry in these focus areas, we are united. A part of this great work of God calls us to come up with signature objectives — that is, defining, challenging, aiming points. A classic example of a signature goal is “Nothing But Nets” or “Imagine No Malaria.” Signature goals have a way of galvanizing the imagination and driving innovative new ministry in the area of the goals. They are not limiting but rather expansive.

Another sign of hope that the COB took part in with the Connectional Table was our vision for our worldwide church. In one sense, it is far easier to just be a national church (as in the Presbyterian or Lutheran Church in America). As a worldwide people of faith, we embody the global call land claim of the gospel of our Lord. Together we are stronger and more faithful. We have the opportunity to learn from each other in grace-filled ministry. As a Council of Bishops we have the responsibility for the initiation of “structures and strategies” for the sake of the worldwide mission of the church.

This, the worldwide nature of the church, is tricky work. Our various contexts differ widely! Imagine being a United Methodist Christian in Russia and the conflict with Ukraine erupts. The same bishop, Bishop Edward Khegay, is responsible for both countries, Russia and the Ukraine! Or reflect on the growing ministry taking place through Global Ministries in Vietnam. In each case the context is dramatically different from Central Texas. The great hope and promise is that together we are “transforming the world for Christ.” On a more practical level, many (most?!) of our congregations in Central Texas wrestle with this wonderful worldwide reality when they take part in a mission trip or support a missionary or pay Connectional Mission Giving (apportionments)!

Taken together we are living the faith in tremendous ways! We are, on a worldwide basis, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Life at the Council

The Council of Bishops (COB) meeting started early for me with a gathering of the Executive Committee of the COB.  Actual activity had begun the day before through my participation in a live web-cast presentation on the church’s response to the divisive issues of weddings for same-gender couples and ordination of those who are “avowed practicing homosexuals.”

In America same-gender issues dominate much of our conversation and energy.  The bishops of the church are very aware that these issues are potentially denomination splitting.  Every meeting has been greeted by protesters from a group called “Love Prevails.” (They advocate a change in church law to permit same gender marriages and ordination of gay and lesbian individuals.) We have been in deep and committed conversations (much of the conversations have been in Executive Session and are confidential) with each other on how to best lead the church around these issues. It is accurate to say that the Council reflects the larger church.  We are not of one mind.  Reflecting the larger UMC, we struggle with deep issues of faithfulness.

As we do I am struck again by what it means to be a worldwide church.  Other areas (most of Africa & parts of Europe and Asia) find the conversation very disturbing.  Our various contexts are quite different.  Taken together they challenge us to seek a way to live together that honors integrity, holds to unity and enables the greater mission we share to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Our work is far wider than one issue.  We heard a tremendously encouraging report from Bishop Tom Bickerton on “Imagine No Malaria.”  The total raised to date has gone over $64.5 million.  We are in sight of the overall goal of $75 million.  It is difficult to understate how much good and how many lives have been saved through this great work of God.  Dr. Christopher Benn reported from the Global Fund (which is one of our international partnering agencies in the battle against killer diseases) that the global rate of death for children under 5 years of age dying from preventable diseases has dropped 41% since 1990. Those who served in Vietnam will remember the blight of malaria in that country.  Amazingly enough last year there were only 20 malaria deaths in the entire country.

There is much that remains to do.  The battle is not over, but we can say with confidence that the fight against malaria is being won.  I urge congregations and individuals in Central Texas to continue to support “Imagine No Malaria.”  It is the gift of life we can give again this Christmas!

Monday morning’s worship featured a great sermon by Bishop Mike McKee (Central Texas missionary to North Texas).  We have spent quality time in worship and small covenant groups for spiritual growth and discernment.  The focused question is one used commonly in historic Methodist Class Meetings:  “How is it with your soul?”

Dr. Kevin Watson, author of The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, offered an insightful teaching on the importance of Holy Conferencing.  He challenged our tendency to abuse the term “holy conferencing.”  True holy conferencing according to Dr. Watson, can only be nurtured in an intimate small group where genuine care and spiritual accountability can take place.  It is not a term to be used (or rather misused) as a mantra for listening politely before you try to convince someone else they are wrong.

We also took part in the quadrennial sexual ethics training for bishops.  Just as this is required for every clergy person under appointment in a conference, so too it is required for bishops.

On a quite different tack, Bishop Greg Palmer (West Ohio) moved and I seconded a special proclamation by the Council of Bishops honoring Dr. Lyle Schaller.  Dr. Schaller was the great “guru” of church growth and leadership for decades.   He is the author of over 50 books with Abingdon Press (the United Methodist Publishing House).  He is now living with his wife of 68 years in a memory care unit in Oklahoma City.  Along with President and Publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House), Bishop John Hopkins and I had the privilege of presenting him with the proclamation.

Wednesday, the Council of Bishops will be in a joint meeting with the Connectional Table focusing on building Vital Congregations.  Thursday we will participate in important acts of repentance, learning and healing as we seek to learn from Native Americans who are a part of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.  This is a part of the continuation of our work of repentance for mistreatment of Native Americans.  Acts of repentance were begun at the Tampa General Conference of 2012.  Hopefully I will be able to offer a follow up blog on those two important issues.

On the Way to the Council

As I write this blog, I am sitting in a hotel room in Nashville, Tennessee, Wednesday October 29th.  We have just finished the annual fall meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board. (Cokesbury & Abingdon Press are two of the better known divisions.)  I have been privileged to serve on this Board for the past 10 years (four as a representative from the Southwest Texas Conference and six as a bishop representing the Council of Bishops (COB).

During those 10 years, we have lived through (and are continuing to live in!) a revolution in the publishing business.  The advent of new technology spearheaded by Amazon has transformed the publishing enterprise beyond previous recognition.  And yet, Amazon just posted the biggest loss in its history.  With the superb leadership of President and Publisher Neil Alexander we are sailing through storm tossed seas, battered but still afloat, and slicing through the waves.  (It is worth noting in this same time period, Borders has declared bankruptcy; Barnes & Noble is losing money and cutting back; Nazarene Press is closing; Augsburg (Lutheran) is in turmoil fighting a lawsuit for failure to honor its pension commitments.

We had a good meeting as we planned future strategy and made strategic decisions.  GROW, our children’s curriculum, is outstanding.  So too is the new adult Covenant Bible Study series.  UNDER WRAPS: The Gift We Never Expected, a new advent study, looks outstanding.  Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It  is exciting in possibilities.

As I reflect on our time and work together, an old song by Bob Dylan comes back from my college days.  “The times they are a changin’”

Tonight, I will join a special gathering put together by the Path 1 (“New Places for New People” focus area) staff of the Discipling Ministries (which used to be known as The Board of Discipleship).  The event is a gathering of seminary professors of evangelism and new church start practitioners.  The hope is for an intensive interaction between the theology and practice of new church development.  One of the key areas of focus is on why “Wesleyan church planting matters.”

I will be offering an opening “theological reflection/devotion” (that is the actual title of my assignment) entitled “The Challenge of Why.”  Central Texas Conference members have heard a precursor of this extended work offered in a series of sermons at the 2012 Annual Conference.  Simply put, the challenge of “why” is to answer the question of “why bother being Christian or worship God by going to church.”

One shudders in recalling the casual comment of a church staff member to her pastor, “We’re Methodists; we can believe whatever we want, can’t we?”  No, we can’t!  Answering the “why” question necessitates recovery of a core orthodoxy at the heart of our teaching and preaching.  It is central to any faithful future for the Methodist movement in North America.

Thursday night I fly home and a brief part of Friday morning will be spent in the office.  We’ll drive to Oklahoma City Friday afternoon so I can take part in a rehearsal for Saturday’s Connectional Table Webcast event of a panel discussion of the bishops who wrote Finding Our Way.

The Council meeting starts Sunday afternoon with a traditional Memorial Service.  I hope to offer reflections on our gathering during the week.  In my devotional time I am reminded again of a song we sang at Taize, In The Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful.

In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful,
In The Lord I will rejoice!
Look to God, do not be afraid.
Lift up your voices, The Lord is near,
Lift up your voices, The Lord is near.

Church Typologies and Crucial Shifts

The great church leadership, administration and church growth guru of the late 20th century for mainline Protestantism was Dr. Lyle Schaller.  Among the many insightful concepts he popularized was the notion of church typologies.  Church typology is a way of understanding churches and common behavior found in similar-sized churches.  The Alban Institute, a highly respected think-tank for mainline Protestants, also offered valuable insight in why open country rural churches worshipping between 50 and 70 on an average Sunday would act much the same and why large downtown “First” churches confront similar challenges.  Both championed the notion that worship attendance was a key (if not “The key”) variable for helping congregations understand their internal dynamics.

I often use my own short-hand version of their deeper insights.  A simple way of thinking about churches based on size is through worship attendance.  (I hasten to add that there are many other factors such as urban, rural, county seat, suburban, etc.!)

Average Worship Attendance Typology
Less than 70 Family chapel
70 to 150 Small
150 to 300 Medium
300 to 750 Large
750 to 1800 Regional
1800+ Mega

There are interesting variations in this shorthand (and admittedly overly simplistic) way of viewing congregations.  For instance, a downtown first church will often have a regional characteristic even if its worship attendance is not around 750.  So too with the perceived leader in an urban ethnic community.  A county seat church will often be a large church even if its worship attendance puts it in the medium category.

There are two size subsets that are important to note:  Less than about 25 or 30 in average worship is a much more distinctive family chapel.  On the other end of the spectrum, at around 500 in average worship a large church starts to act and feel more like it is semi-regional.

There are some common touch points for United Methodist Churches worth noting:

  1. Most churches operate as one size smaller than they really are.  Thus, they tend to shrink to a smaller size just to fit the way they are operating!
  2. We (the UMC) have tended to staff for one size smaller then we are.  Over the last 10 years this has changed, and I see many churches staff bigger than they actually are!  This can hurt the importance of a shared lay ministry.  It is tricky and important to staff for growth without over-staffing.
  3. As church growth breaks into the next size category is much like going through the sound barrier.  Moving to a bigger size means engaging in church operations differently.  People unconsciously often resist such change.  It is not uncommon to see a pattern over a 20 or 30 year time period of a church that approaches a size and then falls back to the smaller size (especially among larger churches).  This is because it is difficult to change the way we consciously operate!  Changing to a larger size is a category shift and requires “doing church” differently.  A lot of congregational fights are really over system issues that have to do with size.
  4. Context – that is the ministry area, mission field, and congregational history – affect the way our “typology” interacts with our ministry, but no church is exempt from wrestling with the issues presented by a category shift!

I am headed out for three days in Nashville.  Two will be spent in the annual meeting of the United Methodist Publishing House Board, which it is my privilege to serve on (along with Dr. Eric McKinney from the Central Texas Conference).  The third day will be participating in and giving an address to a gathering of evangelism professors at various seminaries and a group of new church development pastors.  I’ll fly back in Thursday night and leave Friday for 8 days at the Fall Council of Bishops meeting held this session in Oklahoma City.  (The Council itself only meets for 5 days, but I am on the Executive Committee which adds a pre-meeting meeting, plus I am a part of a panel interview of those who co-authored the book Finding Our Way.)  I ask for your prayers for the Council of Bishops meeting.

My Name is Elizabeth

Anyone who has taken an Intro to the Old Testament class in seminary quickly learns that in Hebrew tradition the naming of someone is critically important. It shares the essence and character of a being. To be named is to be important and significant. To be named is to have lived. A name is not just a label for identification; it is an expression of the essential nature of a person. A name reveals someone’s character. So crucial is this concept that the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) lifts up to significant status the naming of God as in burning bush (Exodus 3). In Exodus 3:14, God replies to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” The Lord’s self-naming denotes the character of both being and action – the sovereign Lord God.

While at the Maua Methodist Hospital in Kenya, Rev. Jim Monroe (CEO of the hospital) shared a story that came out of his first mission trip to Maua Methodist Hospital which I share with you now with his permission.

As Jim first toured the hospital, he came into a ward with six beds and multiple women sharing each bed. Moving into the ward, he was told the patients were dying of AIDS. Jim would stop, pray, and share what he could. Then, at one bed, when he paused, one of the three women sharing the bed got up. She was a very beautiful woman dressed in a hospital gown. The only thing that marred her physical beauty was that her face and arms were covered in sores. As she faced Rev. Monroe, very slowly she took off her gown and turned around so that he could not help but to fully see her. Then she leaned over and said something to him in a language which he did not understand. After sharing, with almost regal stateliness, she then put back on her gown and laid back down in the bed with the other two women, curled into the fetal position, and turned her back to him. Jim turned to the hospital worker who accompanied him and asked what she had said.

She said, “Tell them my name is Elizabeth and that I lived.” The worker explained that she was an unmarried women, triply stigmatized in the community by (1) her lack of marriage, (2) her failure to bear a child and (3) her having AIDS.

Jim shared with our silent listening group that it was this incident which convinced him of the importance of mission work in Maua and Kenya. As I have reflected on this moving story which sticks in my mind it speaks of something deeper. The Christian faith lives on the heartfelt conviction that every human being matters to God. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is for all, no matter how close to God or how far from God they/we might be.

The name Elizabeth, interestingly enough, means “my God is an oath” or “God is satisfaction.” It is a treasured and indeed honored name that connects directly to the character of God. More personally, Elizabeth is also the middle name of our own precious daughter (Sarah Elizabeth Lowry Meek, and the mother of our granddaughter The Amazing Grace!).

Elizabeth reminds me again of a truth we know well: Absolutely every person matters to God. It tells us again and again that we have a moral responsibility and duty to share Christ – his love, redeeming grace and offer of salvation to every human being we can reach. It emphasizes again a truth about the character of God who reaches out to the hungry, the homeless and the hurting. It calls us again and again to missional deeds of love, justice and mercy.  It teaches us, through the essence of naming, core values of the faith we hold and share.

Elizabeth’s story rings in my heart: “Tell them my name is Elizabeth and that I lived.” I pray that we may continue as churches and a people of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and be dedicated to reaching out to all the Elizabeths of this world with the gospel of God’s grace and sharing Christ’s love in words and deeds under the lordship of Jesus Christ through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

 

Anniversaries of Joy, Discipleship and Sacrifice

During the past 2 months I have had the joy and privilege of participating in the anniversary celebrations at four difference Central Texas Conference Churches. Alvarado UMC celebrated its 150th anniversary; Morgan Mill UMC and Cranfills Gap UMC had their 125th anniversary; First UMC, Temple celebrated the 100th anniversary of its magnificent historic sanctuary (the first sanctuary burned to the ground in 1911 and they rebuilt completing the new/current sanctuary in 1914). I will have the joy of sharing in the 100th anniversary celebration of Saginaw UMC.

As I have done my research for each of the five churches listed above, I have been deeply struck by the discipleship (committed, disciplined following of Christ) and sacrifice that each anniversary represents. Consider the times these various churches launched out as a new church. In every case they went ahead and started the church or built the sanctuary in the face of internal trials going on in America that would make a reasonable person pause.

Alvarado UMC began in the midst of a raging Civil War. Morgan Mill UMC and Cranfills Gap UMC both began in the midst of great national debate and division. In 1889 President Grover Cleveland was succeeded by President Benjamin Harrison in a contentious election that would be reversed four years later. (Sounds familiar doesn’t it?) War between America and Germany over an incident in Samoa was barely averted. Racism in all its virulent evil stalked the land. 125 years ago a religious crimes code was passed by Congress “to deny Indians their 1st amendment right: freedom of religion. It was designed to drive away the Indian religious ceremonies and only allow those made and created by white men.”

In Temple, the great First Methodist Episcopal Church sanctuary burned to the ground in 1911 and they went ahead and rebuilt in the face of really tough times. Under President Woodrow Wilson, the peace President, an international misunderstanding with Mexico (then undergoing a revolution) erupted into armed conflict and the occupation of Veracruz. In the initial fighting “19 Americans were killed; 72 wounded. Mexican losses were around between 150 and 170 soldiers killed, between 195 and 250 wounded, and an unknown number of civilians killed.” Meanwhile back at home labor unrest was rampant. The Colorado National Guard attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners killing 24 people in what became known as the Ludlow Massacre.

This tumult paled in comparison with the start of World War I in August and the closure of the New York Stock Exchange because of the war. While the stock market reopened about 3 ½ months later, eventually World War I resulted in over 37 million military and civilian deaths. Comparatively the United States got off light because of when we entered the war and it was fought on foreign soil. With respect and honor to those who so nobly sacrificed, 117,465 deaths are recorded as silent witness to how bleak the times were. You would have thought that the good people of Alvarado, Morgan Mills, Temple, Cranfills Gap, and Saginaw could have picked better safer more congenial times to begin a church.

You would have thought they would have better economic sense than to sail forward into the headwinds of a closed stock market, or contentious national election, or a Civil War. But no, they moved forward in discipleship as committed, disciplined followers of Jesus Christ. In their discipleship they were full of joy. It is easy to be a fan of Jesus; to sit in the stadium and cheer when things are good. It is a whole other thing to live in a deep-seated joy that is committed, disciplined, loyal even – no especially – when times are tough.

This brings me to the second cardinal, biblically-grounded, insight I found in my research. They got to the joy of their anniversaries through sacrifice. Consider the biblical and theological truth that Jesus doesn’t need advice. He is the one giving advice. The Master does not covet fans. He seek followers, friends, who will go beyond being advisors to being sacrificial followers. Reflect on the teaching of Jesus as reflected in John’s gospel. “I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends” (John 1511-15a). This is the example the people of these churches set a hundred plus years ago.

Our ancestors thought it was worth the price to sacrifice so that these churches could come into being. I like to remind every congregation that there was a time in their life when this congregation was a new church. This is part and parcel of the biblical reason new church development is so critical. It is not about whether we will have faith. It is about whether our children and grandchildren will have faith. It is a pearl of great price. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that somebody hid in a field, which someone else found and covered up. Full of joy, the finder sold everything and bought that field” (Matthew 13:44).

Anniversary joy comes in deep sacrificial discipleship! It knows sadness and grief. It lives in times of tumult whether it be 1864, 1889, 1914 or 2014. It ascends the hill of personal prejudice and plants the flag of Christ atop the peaks of violence and rancor. Joy comes in the committed disciplined living as a disciple precisely because it is sacrificial. It is built on our relationship with the Lord and not on our personal preferences. I thank God and those five churches for the joy of sharing with them!

Take My Baby

Our second day at Maua Methodist Hospital in Maua, Kenya, we split  to various  tasks.  A part of our group went with the hospital chaplain on her rounds.  As they moved from ward to ward, they came to the maternity unit.  The ward did not have private rooms (or semi-private) as we are used to.  Instead about 8 beds were spread out in a large rectangle ward offering some limited privacy.  Newborn mothers with their babies were mixed in with some mothers whose babies had not survived.

The reader can imagine the sensitivity and prayers that were needed as members of the team visited with various mothers.  One person would be in great joy because of the birth of their new child and the next bed over a mother would be in deep grief over the loss of a still-born child.

As our team shared individually with the mothers, one of the team members visited with a mother who had a beautiful newborn.  However, instead of great joy, she too was in grief.  As our team member listened, shared and prayed, the new mother offered the team member her new baby.  “Would you take my child?”

As you can imagine the team member was shocked by the offer.  Who would willingly give up their beautiful baby?  I literally could not imagine doing so!  As a father, being a parent is near the top of my list of the truly great things that have happened to me.  (Converting to Christ and marrying Jolynn come first and second.  Our children, Nathan and Sarah, along with our granddaughter, Grace Jean, are all tied for 3rd!)  When I think of giving away a baby, scenes from TV crime dramas come to mind.  You know the kind – Some bad guys cook up a scheme to sell babies for profit and the great detectives of Law & Order or NCIS save the day.

The woman’s offer — “Take my baby” — didn’t fit any of those manufactured dramas.  Instead the offer was made by a mother’s love.  Impoverished with too many children already to feed, the mother out of love for her newborn child hoped that someone would be able to take care of her child better.  She was willing to give the child away as an act of love.  (One member of our Team who has worked with the poor as a nurse commented, “I can take you places where this is happening in Fort Worth too.”)

As our Kenyan Mission Trip team member shared the story, I was blown away.  How could a loving parent ever willingly give up a child?!  Yet the more I reflected on the offer (which by the way was rejected) and the more I discussed it with others, the more I came to see the deep love involved in the grieving mother’s actions.  In love, she was offering her baby to another.

I have been thinking and praying about this incident on our Mission Trip for the last 3 + weeks.  Slowly it has dawned me that this is exactly what God has done with His “only begotten Son.”  The Lord God, the ultimate loving parent, has given His/Her son in love to a spiritually impoverished, morally bankrupt, and physically damaged world.  In love God has said to us, “Here, take my baby.”  This is the greatness, the awesome greatness of God’s love.

As we move into the fall, I invite and challenge us to prepare for the Advent and Christmas season focusing on the great parental love of The Lord.  Doctrinally this is called the incarnation.  It is the awe-inspiring story of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us (John 1:14).  It is  one of three truly great distinctives of the Christian faith (along with the doctrine of the Trinity and the Resurrection.  There is an argument that can be made for others, but that discussion is for a later day.)

For those of you engaging in Advent planning, I urge you to go to Cokesbury.com and investigate the excellent new resources for teaching the meaning of Advent and Christmas (the doctrine of the incarnation).  Let this great love of God dominate our preaching and worship this Advent and Christmas!

Re-Learning from John the Evangelist

In an earlier blog (September 26, 2014 – Medical Camp & the Ongoing Ministry of Ken Diehm), I wrote about the incredible experience of participating in a Medical Mission Camp near Maua, Kenya. We were among the poorest of the poor and engaged in a great ongoing mission venture. While engaged in the medical mission camp, a host of unusual things took place. One of them was meeting John the Evangelist.

As we were handing out malaria bed nets and directing the flow of a long, long line of people seeking medical care, a nicely dressed (suit and tie in the midst of an incredibly dusty, rugged situation) young man appeared on the scene. People (both from the village area and the hospital) started happy exclaiming “John the Evangelist is here!” Rev. Jim Monroe, the CEO of Maua Methodist Hospital, commented, “I knew he would show up.”

Jim made a point of introducing us. It was exciting to meet and visit with John the Evangelist (as the people called him). John shared with me and Randy Wild that he had planted 8 churches. Joking, Randy asked when he was going to start #9. Not getting the joke, John replied in full seriousness, “Soon.”

I know that many of those churches are quite small and effectively are what we would term “house churches.” Yet as we visited, John shared that one of them had grown from 17 members to 300 members (worship attendance if I understood him averages more than 300).

I get it that the Kenyan climate for new church development is radically different from ours. I’ve been a part of starting a new church and fully realize the difference in context and environment. Still, the zealous commitment to evangelism, witness, and new church development is awe- inspiring work of the Lord to which they (the Methodists of Kenya) are highly, incredibly highly, committed. I cannot help but wonder what it would be like if we held to a similar high commitment.

I am not sure that I correctly understand the various steps and their order for ordination in the Methodist Church of Kenya. As John the Evangelist explained to me, he hopes soon to be ordained. Carefully he shared that one is an evangelist first and then becomes a pastor. To him the connection seemed obvious. It was as if he was telling Randy and me, “Of course you can’t be a pastor until you have proven yourself as an evangelist.”

As I listened to John the Evangelist, our Cabinet Retreat of 2011 came back to me. Dr. Ted Campbell, (Associate Professor of Church History at Perkins School of Theology and a specialist in Wesley studies) led the Cabinet through a learning experience from early Methodism in American. Ted had us read the autobiography of Rev. William Stevenson, who was a pioneer itinerant in the southwestern part of the United States. In 1815 Rev. Stevenson was the “first Protestant of any denomination to preach within the bounds of what is today Texas. He was also among the first Methodists or Protestants to preach in Oklahoma as well” (The Autobiography of Rev. William Stevenson, Edited by Ted Campbell).

John the Evangelist operated much like Stevenson. They were both courageous frontier evangelists (witnessers) for Christ and the Wesleyan way of salvation. They both risked physical hardship. They both put together in a marvelously faithful way public evangelism and a concomitant call of commitment to Christ with an active ministry of social aid and justice. In ways that were obvious and seemed instinctive, they both got the combination of evangelism and missions (the deeds of love, justice and mercy).

After visiting for a while, I watched as John the Evangelist moved among the people waiting patiently in line. Their mutual affection and relationship to each other was obvious. In a pleasant and grace-filled manner, he listened, counseled, and helped to connect them to the needed care. He did so explicitly lifting the name of Jesus Christ and, where appropriate, pausing to pray with them.

I cannot help but think we have much to learn, or more properly re-learn, from John the Evangelist.