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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 3 ©

As Francis Asbury (the first Methodist Bishop in America) began his great missionary work of sharing the gospel and spreading the Methodist/Wesleyan way of being Christian across the continent, he faced a monumental clash between Christ and Culture. Methodism was officially and doctrinally opposed to slavery. It was the great Methodist layman and member of Parliament William Wilberforce who lead the British movement to abolish slavery. Asbury himself courageously spoke out against the practice of slavery calling “for members to get rid of slaves and to abstain from the practice.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/16/AR2007031602551.html) And yet slowly the Methodist movement compromised on the subject, never endorsing slavery, but relaxing its discipline with regard to Methodists who owned slaves until finally the church divided over the issue. Why? The Methodist movement struggled to engage the culture with the gospel in all its fullness without fully resolving the issue.

Methodists rejected the temptation to stand “above culture” through spiritual indifferentism.  Simultaneously, Methodists refused to simply given in to Christ (“Christ of Culture”). As two separated denominations (three if we add The Methodist Protestant Church), Methodism existed as both being of the culture and seeking to transform it.

This is the third of four “blogs” exploring Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos. Numerous other historical examples abound of the struggle between following Christ and being engaged in the culture of the age. By way of example, Methodists embraced deeply the prohibition movement as a great cause to transform American to what was perceived as more faithful Christian living. It is worth noting that the cause of prohibition was not some squeamish puritanism run by maiden ladies (as has often been portrayed today) but largely grew out of the issue of spousal abuse. Excessive drinking was rampant in America at the time (far more than today) and often men would drink the paycheck away (commonly in response to the harsh working conditions they endured) and take out their frustrations on their wives and children at home.

Both abolition and prohibition are classic examples of how Christianity wrestles with human culture and society in a given context. Both were driven by biblical imperatives. “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.” (Romans 12:2)  “Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives.  Live honorably among the unbelievers.” (I Peter 2:11-12, CEB)

This tension between following Christ as Lord and Savior (the ruler of our lives!) and existing in a given culture and time has always been with us. As long as there are Christians in the world, there always will conflict between following Christ and yet being in the world. Last week I introduced H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous five typologies of how Christians have typically related to human society and culture; 1. Christ against Culture (Opposition), 2. Christ of Culture (Agreement), 3. Christ above Culture (Indifferentism), 4. Christ and Culture in paradox (Tension), 5. Christ transforming Culture (Transformation and Reformation).

While limited, Niebuhr’s distinctions offer us a helpful frame around which to think about how we relate the culture we live in today. It is important, vitally import (!), to remember that none of us are “pure” in a position. All Christians all across the spiritual, theological and denominational spectrum combine and mix our positions in a variety of ways depending on the time and issue we are struggling with.

In America we have lived through (along with most of what is euphemistically called Western civilization) a period of Christendom. It has been a time and age in which the Christian religion and Christian values held cultural dominance. In large measure there was a sense of Christ and Culture working together. Where sharp differences existed most Methodist adopted a strong understanding of Christ transforming culture (of which both the abolition of slavery and prohibition movement are examples). Presciently John Davidson Hunter has reminded us in his masterful To Change the World that the long term drift of mainline denominations has largely been to give ground to emerging culture expressions in exchange for cultural acceptability. It is a poor bargain best abandoned. So too it is poor bargain to relate only the angry negative.

During the last half century or so, we have engaged in what pundits labeled as “the culture wars.” Christians themselves have been in sharp disagreement with each other. Those who perceive themselves to be largely progressive have often (though not always!) lined up on the liberal (or progressive) side of social debates. Seeking to transform culture, deep engagement was sought on great social issues such as institutional racism, war and peace, access to health care, immigration, poverty, etc. Likewise seeking to transform culture those coming have a more traditional evangelical (conservative stance) have often (though not always!) entered the debate at the point of personal morality issues like abortion, racism, government engagement in education, poverty, etc. Among Christians, both progressive and evangelical/traditional there has been much overlap. None-the-less it is reasonable to assert, with careful note of exceptions, that many more progressive Christians have allied themselves loosely with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and many more evangelical/conservative Christians have allied themselves with the more conservative cultural wing of the Republican Party. (It is interesting and perhaps instructive to reflect on how the Roman Catholic Church has moved across the battle lines depending on the issue. For instance on abortion it is aligned with the more conservative side and on immigration with the more progressive side.)

I cannot help but pause in this narrative to offer a personal admonition. Excessive Christian identification with any one political party is dangerous for the Christian witness. If Christ is truly Lord than his rule over our lives cuts across and to a certain degree against all human political movements. In the chaos of our time we need to adopt again the humility of Micah 6:8. “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”

My next blog will reflect on the current conflict between Christ and Culture involving human sexuality.

Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 2 ©

Near the close of John Ortberg’s delightful book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, he tells the story of Robert and Muriel McQuilken.  An accomplished college President, Robert left his job to care for his wife Muriel as she slowly slipped away under the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.  Dr. McQuilken has written fairly eloquently about “how much his wife taught him, even with the disease.  (John Ortberg,  Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them,  p. 226).

As he cares for her, he reads an article in the newspaper one day about a person who ended their relationship with a spouse “because it wasn’t meeting my needs.”  Ortberg reports Robert reflecting on the “eerie irrelevance” of such criteria.  Ortberg quotes Robert writing in response to the article:  “Eventually he decided that he could not remain president of his college and care for Muriel.  When the time came, the decision was firm.  It took no great calculation… ‘Had I not promised forty –two years before, “in sickness and in health … till death do us part?”’”

Dr. McQuilken writes of being surprised by people’ reaction to the announcement of his resignation.  “It was a mystery to me, until a distinguished oncologist, who lives constantly with dying people, told me, ‘Almost all women stand by their men; very few men stand by their woman.’  Thoughtfully Robert goes on to comment, “It is more than keeping promises and being faith; through.  As I watch her brave descent into oblivion, Muriel is the joy of my life’”  (John Ortberg, Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, p. 226).

The contrast between “it wasn’t meeting my needs” and “in sickness and in health” highlights the clash of values and commitments between our current culture’s excessive love of personal fulfillment and the deeper commitments of a Christian marriage.  The clash of following Christ or following the dominant culture collides at the deep seated level of values.  Furthermore the value clash is more than just individual.  It exists on a communal level as well.  For example, Christians may well debate with each other about how to best provide healthcare coverage for the hungry, homeless and hurting.  What is not up for debate as a Christian is the basic commitment to care for the hungry, homeless and hurting.  Christian values as transmitted by Christ commend that we take care of the sick (“I was sick and you took care of me.” Matthew 25:36.)  Our Lord teaches us “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).

Christian faith, belief and values to some degree exist in a constant contrast and clash with cultural values.  Cultural values, however good, lack the compassion and depth of care that the Christian faith practices and teaches.  Our current age (the second decade of the 21st century) is awash in a philosophical naturalism that promulgates human pleasure and self-aggrandizement above the greater spiritual good of obedience to the Lord and faithfulness in service to others.

Well over half a century ago (1949 to be exact) the great Christian theological and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a justly famous book entitled Christ and Culture. In the book he categorized five major ways Christians relate to the culture of their time and age.  A brief summary is as follows (with a special thanks to Pattie Wood helping with background research):

  1. Christ against Culture

Christ has sole authority of us as Christians and rejects what the culture pulls us to join. This school of thought can be countered by Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves. Niebuhr writes, “Though there is no statement here that the Christian is obliged to participate in the work of the social institutions, to maintain or convert them, neither is there any express rejection of the state or of property as such” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 49).

  1. The Christ of Culture

Jesus was a part of the society of his time, and the forgiveness, grace and love He offers shows us that we should be fully immersed in the culture of the day. This school of thought does not see the tension between living as Christ directed and the culture in which we live. We are directed to follow Christ’s example, but we are not directed to live “like everyone else” where the sins of culture are fully acceptable. Niebuhr writes, “Jesus Christ is the great enlightener, the great teacher, the one who directs all men in culture to the attainment of wisdom, moral perfection, and peace. …But whatever the categories are by means of which he is understood, the things for which he stands are fundamentally the same – a peaceful, co-operative society achieved by moral training” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 92).

  1. Christ Above Culture (“Synthesists”)

As humans, we cannot attain full unity with Christ, who is above what we as Christians can achieve. Fully aware of this, synthesists affirm humanity, sin and free will while striving to meet the One above humanity. “…when he affirms both Christ and culture, he does so as one who knows that the Christ who requires his loyalty is greater and more complex in character than the easier reconciliations envisage. Something of the same sort is true of his understanding of culture; which is both divine and human in its origin, both holy and sinful, a realm of both necessity and freedom, and one to which both reason and revelation apply” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 121).

  1. Christ & Culture in Paradox (“Dualists”)

Dualists believe the problem is not between God and culture but between God and humans. God’s grace and act of reconciliation in Jesus is understood, as is human sin. They function in paradox: sinful and righteous, doubting yet believers, insecure and yet assured of salvation. “The dualist knows that he belongs to that culture and cannot get out of it, that God indeed sustains him in it and by it; for if God in His grace did not sustain the world in its sin it would not exist for a moment” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, p. 156).

  1. Christ the Transformer of Culture (“Conversionists”)

With a more positive outlook than dualists or synthesists, conversionists believe in the distinction between God’s work and the work of humans. They try to remain obedient to God as savior and redeemer and try to live out the work of the Lord in our society. They hold a view of creations working in the created world under Christ; of the Fall as an act of Humans corrupted; and of God authoring all things and humans responding.

(For further information see https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2015/02/25/christ-and-culture-an-overview-of-a-christian-classic/ .)

Niebuhr’s classic typologies are helpful in clarifying our thinking.  They challenge the thoughtful Christian to ask…where do I fit in?  Do I live in a basic rejection of human culture and society?  Or perhaps, I envision the way Christian values and Christ fit in with my current cultural values?  Am I primarily withdrawn from culture appreciative of culture but standing above it?  Perhaps I hold to the notion of Christ and human culture in irreducible paradox that must be tolerated but not embraced.  Or maybe, just maybe, I hold fast to the conviction that as followers of Christ we must be constantly engaged in transforming human culture for the better.

Most of us, when given a choice, at least verbally ascent to some version of the last choice – with Christ, in obedience to Christ, we are committed to transforming human culture along the lines of a Christian vision.  Then again the allure of the other options is far stronger than we typically realize.  Furthermore, even in agreement, the goal to live with Christ transforming culture opens us to the greater debate of just how our modern culture is to be best transformed.  Today’s chaos continues to swirl around us.

More in the next blog.

Christ and Culture in Today’s Chaos, Part 1 ©

“Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.” (Romans 12:2)

Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives.” (1 Peter 2:11)                   

Since its inception, the Christian faith has lived in an uneasy tension with the culture that surrounds it.  For the earliest Christians living in a hostile Roman Empire highlighted the deep tension between Christianity and culture.  They held fast to the core conviction that Jesus is Lord (and not Caesar!) reading the Holy Scriptures which reinforced the conviction that Christians were called to be “in the world and not of it.”

In a ground shaking book published in 1989 Duke Professors Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (later to be elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church) noted the deep changes going on in American culture and the ongoing tensions with Christian values and conviction.  The book entitled Resident Aliens struck such a nerve that it was read by almost every Methodist pastor then serving.  Provocatively, Professors Hauerwas and Willimon noted the old Moffatt translation of Philippians 3:20 (“We are a colony of heaven.”  In the new Common English Bible translation – “Our citizenship is in heaven.”) and went on to comment, “The church is a colony, an island of one culture in the middle of another”  (Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 12).  Profoundly they went on to elucidate; “Christianity is more than a matter of a new understanding. Christianity is an invitation to be a part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ” (Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Alien, p. 24).

We have lived through a long era where American culture has been closely attached to Christianity as the dominant religion of our nation and of so-called western civilization as a whole.  In the chaos of our times, fundamental societal-wide assumptions  – philosophical, political, and moral – are up in the air.  The dreary and depressing cacophony of our present political disputes (both in Washington and Austin, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof) provide all too much evidence of today’s chaos.  Like it or not Christians living in our present culture face the inevitable tension between Christianity and culture.  The earliest Christians instinctively knew what we often struggle with; namely that biblically faithful Christian give a higher allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

They had it right.  To be Christian is to live in tension with the culture around us.  Struggling Christians of our age (which includes all of us who profess Christ whether we are United Methodist or some other variation of the great universal Church) irrefutably call us “to be in the world but not off it!”  We might all benefit by getting up in the morning and repeating Romans 12:2.  “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.”

And yet …. We live in this culture in what is euphemistically called a post-modern (and by some post-Christian) world.  To be Christian is to be engaged in the world.  The Bible does not teach an indifferent response to the world but a Christian witness under the Lordship of Christ that prays regularly, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Presciently one scholar has written:  “The legacy of this is that it is way too simplistic to reduce the church’s current problems to a “progressive” vs. “conservative” struggle. That struggle is there and shouldn’t be ignored, but that is not the point of this article. My point is that all Christian movements in the West have struggled with the transition to post-Christendom. We have reacted in different ways: The mainline churches have said, “let’s accommodate the church’s doctrine to the latest cultural social demands and maybe they will like us again.” [Surely an oversimplification.] The evangelicals have said, “Let’s preach part of the gospel, downplay the negative, costly side, and keep our services lively and entertaining, without a lot of demands.” [Again, Surely an oversimplification.] But neither “solution” is sustainable. We need robust Christian identity, transformed lives, and a kingdom vision for society, all linked with a deep commitment to catechesis. The “bar” must be raised, not lowered”  (Timothy C. Tennent, Post-Christendom and Global Christianity (Part I), posted June 9, 2009).

Despite the oversimplifications of such differing viewpoints, the essential thrust of the comment is accurate.  Regardless of where one is positioned on the social and theological spectrum of current Protestant Christianity, we are deeply engaged in a struggle between Christianity and Culture in today’s chaos.  We are a people of the cross, the graves, the skies.”  (How do we both reject a cultural sell-out of Christianity to the present age and stay deeply engaged with the culture and society we called in the name of Christ to transform?)

Roughly a century ago William Ralph Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, famously commented, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”  Surely Dean Inge is correct and yet … We must in the name of Christ engage our present age.  Christian retreat from the chaos of our times is neither faithful nor helpful.  It is at this critical juncture that the Wesleyan version of biblical Christianity speaks again to our time.  It is at this crucial temporal and eternal crossroads that the Wesleyan vision of holiness of heart and life address the moral and ethical anarchy of our time.  We are not married to the values and outlook of the present age.  Simultaneously in the name of Christ, at whose name every knee shall one day bow, we choose to engage our morally chaotic world.  Furthermore we recognize that good faithful Christians will differ in viewpoint even as they wrestle appropriately together with how we go about “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

To be continued next week.

In a Mirror Dimly ©

Lost in one of the truly greatest passages of literature ever written is the phrase, “now we see in a mirror dimly.”  It occurs in the famous love chapter of I Corinthians 13.  We all know how the 13th chapter, the 13th verse ends, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13, NRSV).  It is the verse just before this that is often lost, ignored or casually skipped over.  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12, NRSV).  Virtually without regard to background or conviction (Christian or non-, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, ethnicity or nationality, gender or gender preference, etc.) we members of the human race can ascribe to the notion and need for love to be ultimately triumphant and central to life.

It is the truth of verse 12 that trips us up.  Despite our best intentions and deepest convictions we see both truth and love in a mirror dimly.  What appears to be most loving is often lost in the cacophony of modern life and chaos of the politics of our time (including church politics!).  What purports to be a beacon of truth at best blinks through the shadowed fog of our present age.  The Apostle Paul wrote for us as well as for the Corinthian church.  We see in a mirror dimly.  Seeing dimly, we live in an age of anxiety.  Core values (both those in the culture and in the church) once again are caught in deep dispute and up for grabs.  William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming” once again rakes our nerves and jolts our deeper reflections.

The first stanza appears to be written for our time.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

One of the more memorable speeches I have heard was given by Dr. George Hunter at Community of Joy Lutheran Church back in the mid-1990s.  In the speech, Dr. Hunter introduced me for the first time to the disintegration of foundational enlightenment values (i.e. science reigned supreme and could solve our problems, an ethical consensus built on the centrality of reason and humanistic values supported by the world’s major religions held sway, with enough effort we humans could solve all our problems, human kind was/is essentially good, etc.).  The phrase which has stayed with me over a two-decade long period of observation and learning was that we are watching/living through the collapse of the enlightenment values and convictions.  Indeed, the center is not holding.

And yet, we who claim to follow Christ in all our widely varied differences come back again and again to the notion that Christ is the Center.  The great Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave a principled lecture on Christ the Center at the University of Berlin in 1933.  Published posthumously through a reconstruction of his notes in a book of the same title (Christ the Center), Bonhoeffer begins simply.  “Jesus is the Christ present as the Crucified and Risen One” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, p. 43).  In a time plagued by Hitler’s theories of the master race and convictions of “might making right,” Bonhoeffer stepped courageously into a seething future anchored on core orthodox truth.

We who see in a mirror dimly need his advice and example for our time.  Yet precisely because we at best see only dimly discerning the correct outlines of such truth, this will not be easy.

The New York Times called Allan Bloom’s famous book The Closing of the American Mind (published in the late 1980s) “That rarest of documents, a genuinely profound book.”  Bloom’s opening posits the issue which is before the church as well as the culture to this very day.  “There is one thing” he writes, “a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative” (Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p. 25).

It is just such a debate which is sweeping across present day Christianity.  As I have written in an earlier blog this year, the claim of “alternative facts” challenges the very conception of the Christian faith regardless of our political persuasions. To deliberately reiterate:  If, as some assert, truth is relative (without, we might carefully add, any notion of relative to what!) and radical equality of thought parades itself forward as the Zeus of modern intellectualism, then what pray tell is the center?  Put differently, we are struggling to discern the outlines of what it means to say one is a Christian.  This debate is sharpened between the polarities of a vague theism and a high Christology.  The debate itself rests on an understanding of the authority of Scripture (a least for those who claim to be the inheritors of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura) and historic claims of precisely what constitutes Christian orthodoxy.

While we in the United Methodist Church are swept up in the larger cultural debates of our time, we nonetheless as Christians hold to some faith distinctives.  The earliest creedal claim that “Jesus is Lord” is declaration of who rules us as a people of faith over and above the politics, culture and tumult of our time.  At our best, it is this deeper struggle which lies behind questions of Christian morality including same gender weddings and who may be appropriately ordained elder, etc.  Furthermore, this same debate, at least for Christians, decisively shapes (or ought to shape) our convictions about health care coverage and the appropriate response to terrorism, etc.

Over the coming weeks I hope to write on some of the Wesleyan distinctives and the way they might impact our best thinking and motivate our deepest praying.  I hope to do so in a context of asking careful questions about our relationship and witness to secular culture in the wider framework of what it means to be Christian.  I make no pretense to being able to resolve the current moral debates which wrack both our society and our church.  Rather, I hope to add a modest voice which might encourage deeper reflection.

I start this writing venture with a deep sense of hope.  This, the United Methodist Church, is the Lord’s church and not ours!  Maybe Yeats’ marvelous closing to the his great poem “The Second Coming” best offers us hope as the centers cannot hold and we can only “see in a mirror dimly.”

   Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats)

St. Patrick’s Day

Here’s a little levity from our friends in the Lutheran Church, as presented by Donall and Conall of LutheranSatire…

 

 

 

 

 

Enjoy, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Saint Patrick, Shamrocks and the Trinity ©

A year ago I wrote a blog in honor of the great Irish Saint name Patrick. St. Patrick wrote a number famous prayers including one on the Holy Trinity. It opens with the line:

“I rise today in power’s strength, invoking the Trinity,

believing in threeness,

confessing the oneness,

of creation’s Creator.”[1]

I cannot remember who (?), but someone sent me the follow link from a satirical website. I invited you to enjoy it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw&feature=youtu.be

I confess that the best of us are at times theologically confused. Even the sharpest of metaphors and analogies eventually break down. Yet at his heart, St. Patrick reached for the essence of the Christian faith. He was a true champion of Christ. I remind the reader of what I wrote a year ago.

“Captured as a young boy and taken to Ireland as a slave, Patrick lived there for 6 years before miraculously escaping and returning to his native Briton. At age 48 – well past the life expectancy in the fifth century – Patrick received a vision from God to return to the land of his imprisonment to share the gospel. Ordained as a bishop and appointed to Ireland as history’s first missionary bishop, he arrived back in this wild and barbaric land with his assistants in 432 A. D.

For 28 years until his death in 460 A. D. he poured his life out leading others to Christ. He and his company baptized thousands, planted about 700 churches and he ordained perhaps 1000 priests. “Within his lifetime, 30 to 40 (or more) of Ireland’s 150 tribes became substantially Christian. …Patrick’s achievements included social dimensions. He was the first public man to speak and crusade against slavery. Within his lifetime, or soon after, ‘the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare decreased,’ and his communities modeled the Christian way of faithfulness, generosity, and peace to all the Irish.”[2]

I offer this reminder as a part of an almost annual pilgrimage to lift up St. Patrick. In this time of modern metaphors and “youtube” exclamations, it is important that we pause and remember a true hero of the Christian faith. In the vernacular slang of our age, “he walked the talk.” The great church historian Dr. Williston Walker has written of him, Patrick “so advanced the cause of the Gospel in that island and so organized its Christian institutions, that he deserves the title of Apostle to Ireland.” (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 179)

In the church today it is important that we remember our past. We are here, living as Christ followers, because others gave their life to the cause of Christ. There are others, many others, to add to this pantheon of heroes. There are saints and sages of both genders and from virtually every ethnic group under the sun. Their collective stories should inspire us. We who take so much for granted need to pause on special days to remember, give thanks, and rededicate ourselves to this same holy ministry.

I urge us in our Sunday worship to pause and give thanks. We might add to the list on this special day. No doublet you can think of many, some well know and others not known at all except for a few. Both individually and collectively they are a gift of love from God to us. Their examples are today’s lesson for tomorrow’s future.

 

 

[1]               George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, p. 49

[2]               Hunter, IBID, p. 23

We Are Lost (c) Guest Post by Rev. Frank Briggs

I have been out of the office since February 28th with a follow knee “revision” surgery on the knee replacement I had done in October of 2015. I hope to resume activity on a regular basis next week. In mean time, Rev. Frank Briggs, Senior Pastor of Lighthouse United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, shared with his congregation the following blog article which I am sharing as a guest blog with his permission. JML

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post from Rev. Frank Briggs

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

Lent- Day 6   Three Little Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your servant in Christ,

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

Conference Core Team Focuses on the WIG ©

Sunday afternoon, February 26th, the Central Texas Conference Core Team gathered to continue our work determining the WIG for the Conference’s future. I have written briefly on the concept of WIG before. The acronym WIG, in this instance, means the Wildly Important Goal. It is based on the seminal work of Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling and published in their book, The Four Disciplines of Execution.

Pause for a moment and think: What is the one wildly important goal for your church (and/or the Central Texas Conference) to accomplish in the next decade What one thing, if you do it well, will make a strategic and major difference for the life of faith and witness for your church (Conference) in continuing pursuit of the overall witness of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?” It seems like an easy exercise, but in fact, it is not. Typically, as soon as we select one item/strategic goal, we are convicted of some critically important objectives that are left out. In most cases, our list of important strategic objectives quickly grow to five or six items – if not more! Each of those items is important. Each is worthy of attention and ministry. Each has a strong biblical foundation. Narrowing the list of WIG(s) to one (ideally) or two strategic objectives is hard!

Counterintuitively, the research is clear. If you have more than one or two goals, the possibility of accomplishing the goal(s) goes down exponentially! Why? Because good ideas and goals get lost in the day to day “whirlwind” of activities and survival. McChesney, Covey and Huling state “the law of diminishing returns is as real as the law of gravity” (The Four Disciplines of Execution, p. 25).  They go on to write, “The greatest challenge you face in narrowing your goals is simply that it requires you to say no to a lot of good ideas. 4DX [i.e. the Four Disciplines of Execution] may even mean saying no to some great ideas, at least for now. Nothing is more counterintuitive for a leader than saying no to a good idea, and nothing is a bigger destroyer of focus than always saying yes” (The Four Disciplines of Execution, p. 28).

As the core team wrestled with this concept, we tended to jump to tactics without really focusing on the precise WIG. This exercise required deep discussion and hard choices. Clarity is king; actually Christ is King and clarity is the handmaid of faithful ministry in his name.

A second piece of focus on the WIG is the ability to know whether or not we have reached the goal. A simple formula is to be able to say “we will move X to Y by When, with X representing the measurable strategic objective; Y being our goal; and When being our target completion date. The level of specificity challenges our focus. It forces us to move beyond the vaguely theoretical.

As the Core Team wrestled with the WIG, we focused on one specific wildly important goal:  To increase the market share by worship attendance plus professions of faith (which includes those who come in a restored relationship). If this takes place, lives are transformed by and for Christ! The X to Y by When = the Worship Attendance market share (which is currently 1% of the population) to 1.25% by 2026 (our ten year target goal).

No matter what we come up with, some will accuse us of trying to save a dying institution. It is a bogus or false argument. Gone is the day that attending worship is simply culturally appropriate. To worship today is a counter cultural activity. Lives will be transformed in Christ-centered discipleship if this WIG is to be reached.

Worship and professions of faith are foundational ways we measure what it means to be a disciple. Are they the only measurements? Absolutely not! Are they cardinal measurements?  Absolutely!! The distinction is crucial. Is worship more than Sunday morning? Quadruple absolutely!!! Thus measuring worship in new faith communities is crucial. In fact, the denominational measurement for worship attendance has included a wider dimension than merely Sunday morning since before 2012.

Professions of faith, which should include those who joined a church on a restored relationship to Christ and his church, is an additional, crucial part of the WIG. Combined with worship attendance, the two make up a critical measurement of discipleship formation. For someone who is coming back to the Christian faith as an adult, becoming a part of the church on a “restored” relationship is a life-transforming event. In a radical way, Christ is confessed anew as Lord and Savior!

But just know that the key is that local churches will decide for themselves how they will reach their goals. The Conference Core Team and the conference staff exist to energize and equip the local churches, not dictate strategy and tactics. We know that you know your congregations and communities best. So, this isn’t about pushing programs or policies. This is about keeping Christ at the center and focusing on the local church and a combination of lay & clergy leadership together. So stay tuned!

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