The Hunger Among Us ©

Recently a friend pointed me back to an article written a number of years ago about The Beatles and spiritual hunger.  In their meteoric rise from obscurity to fame, The Beatles quickly discovered that fame and fortune were not everything it was cracked up to be. “At a later time in Lennon’s life he addictively found himself watching popu­lar television preachers in search of answers. It was reported that Lennon sent a fascinating letter to the Rev. Oral Roberts in 1972, regretting having said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and confessing that he took drugs because he feared reality. Additionally, he quoted the fa­mous lyrics ‘money can’t buy me love’ and sent a donation.”
“It’s true. The point is this, I want happiness,” read the letter to Roberts. “I don’t want to keep on with drugs…. Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phony? Can He love me? I want out of hell.”

In the midst of a thoughtful and lengthy response, Roberts wrote, “What I want to say … is that Jesus, the true reality, is not hard to face. He said, ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.'”

Despite the letters exchanged between the rock star and the TV preacher, Len­non’s restless journey eventually led him to embrace philosophies and beliefs that were all over the map.

“You could rattle human authority by growing your hair long, but you couldn’t conquer your inner demons in the same way,” observed [author Steve] Turner [in his book, The Gospel According to the Beatles]. “To ‘change your head,’ as John referred to it in [the song] ‘Revolution,’ required something much more radical” (Steve Beard, “Summer of Love,” Good News, May/June 2017, p. 9).

I am convinced and convicted that we live in a time and culture seeking something greater, something more, than what we have.  Society-wide, we have a desperate search for meaning and truth which often exists just below the thin soil of American hedonism.  Hurricanes like Harvey and Irma force people to confront this truth.  They challenge us by making us face what matters most.

There is a deep spiritual hunger among us.  We all need wisdom and guidance.  Faithful and fruitful churches understand this truth. It is a cry we hear behind the words spoken by someone who says “I don’t go to church, but I’m very spiritual.” It ricochets around this county. It reverberates in conversations held across social networks. It is part of the background noise of our searching society.

Great churches live out of this focused center. They understand that people are not seeking an institution but a relationship with God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The focused center we are called to live out of is the same one that captivated the struggling conflicted early Christian church. Thus, the Apostle Paul wrote the small struggling house church in metropolitan Corinth his second letter of instructions. “Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own” (II Corinthians 5:14-15, The Message).

Bishop Will Willimon writes: “There may be religions that begin with long walks in the woods, communing with nature, getting close to trees. There may be religions that begin by delving into the recesses of a person’s ego, rummaging around in the psyche. Christianity is not one of them” (William Willimon, Peculiar Speech, p. 19). It is about an encounter with Jesus, the God/Man. It is the divine answer to the hunger within, around and among us. This focused center brings us to faith – faith as trusting obedience that encounters Christ in our everyday lives through our following Him. It is no more nor less than the way of the cross. This is the true path of salvation. Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (John 12:26).

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #11 ©

Reclaiming a Doctrine of Salvation

 Last week Dr. Lisa Neslony, West District Superintendent in the Central Texas Conference, wrote in a perceptive email, “What if Christians sought the spiritually lost the way volunteers have been seeking people in Southeast Texas? And why don’t we? Maybe we don’t really believe people are threatened by a spiritual death that is as real as water rising all around you. It struck me Tuesday when I listened to the radio on my way west that some people had refused being ‘saved’ (the broadcaster’s word) on Monday but were begging to be saved Tuesday. I have to admit that sometimes I give up on people. But I am overwhelmed with the conviction that I should offer the saving grace of Jesus Christ to all I meet as many times as it takes so people can experience God’s salvation.”

In Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesley Way #10, I wrote on the concept of grace and noted carefully that an understanding of grace is ultimately tied to a doctrine of salvation. Thus at the heart of the Wesleyan Way is a rock solid conviction that the offer of salvation is for all! Ironically, the mainline Christian core has migrated from a battle over salvation for the elect only vs salvation as available to all (through not all are saved!), to a loose conviction that in some vague way everyone is saved. Often this theological fuzziness is confused even further by an understanding of salvation that is truncated into the simplistic (and false notion) of just getting into heaven.

In his great sermon “The Scriptural Way of Salvation” preaching on the text of Ephesians 2:8 (“Ye are saved through faith”), John Wesley famously noted: “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. . . . It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. . . . So that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul till it is consummated in glory” (John Wesley, “The Scriptural Way to Salvation,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 2, Sermons II, 34-70, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 156). So too, in Sermon I of Wesley’s collection of sermons (which formed a theological backbone of Methodism) Wesley connected salvation with grace and faith (again preaching on Ephesians 2:8) in a way that great clarity. “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation” (John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 1, Sermons I, 1-33, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 118).

In his marvelous book Who Will Be Saved? (which I heartily recommend!) Bishop William Willimon draws the connection tight. “Although celebration of humanity is the dominant, governmentally sanctioned story, it is not the story to which Christians are accountable. It is the conventional North American story that, at every turn, is counter to the gospel. Thus we begin by noting that there are few more challenging words to be said by the church than salvation. Salvation implies that there is something from which we need to be saved, that we are not doing as well as we presume, that we do not have the whole world in our hands and that the hope for us is not of our devising. . . . To be sure, Scripture is concerned with our eternal fate. What has been obscured is Scripture’s stress on salvation as invitation to share in a particular God’s life here, now, so that we might do so forever. Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation. Salvation isn’t just a question of who is saved and who is damned, who will get to heaven and how, but also how we are swept up into participation in the mystery of God who is Jesus Christ” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, p. 3).

Consider further that if the source of salvation is grace, God’s radically free unmerited love poured out for us on the cross of Christ, then a critical element of love is that it cannot be forced. Forced grace is a contradiction in terms. If it is forced, it isn’t grace! We either lean forward and say to God, “thy will be done,” or lean back and hear the Lord whisper in our ears, “all right then, have it your way.” (This phrase is not original to me but I do not recall the original source.) Hell is both real and of our own choice and making. It hinges on the critical decision of whether Jesus is truly the Lord of our life. It is about much more than simply saying the magic words of profession or passing off allegiance to Christ as mere intellectual assent. To be sure grace abounds, but is never cheap nor is it easy.

We have waded too long in the shallow pool of indulgent self-preference. The one who hangs on the cross for us and rises from death in triumph will not be content with a rotting sentimentality spread so thinly over 21st century hedonism. Hung over self-indulgent sentimentality cannot stand the gas ovens of the Nazis or the pain of cancer or the clash of our self-will at the expense of God’s created design and desire. Truth was not crucified on the cross. The Way, the Truth, and Life rose triumphant on Easter morning.

Any true notion of Christian salvation is tied inextricably to Jesus Christ. Again Bishop Willimon is on target. “Salvation is literally inconceivable apart from Christ: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Peter wasn’t speaking to the question of other faiths  – he was testifying before his follow Jews about the Jew, Jesus. . . . If Jesus is, as we believe him to be, as much of God as we ever hope to see, the one who uniquely brought about our at-one-ment with the Father, then we can’t also say that Jesus is only a way, one truth among many, and just another life. Jesus is not simply a great moral example; he is the salvation of God, God’s peculiar, un-substitutable fullness. Jesus’ distinctive way of suffering, sacrificial love, outrageous invitation, and boundary-breaking, government-enraging, relentless seeking – vindicated by surprising, unexpected resurrection – cannot be merged with other means of definitions of salvation” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, pp. 93-94).

If we are to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we cannot neglect the full development and employment of a biblical doctrine of salvation. Much of the muddled thinking about salvation comes from a confusion of the importance of good works as a part of salvation with a vague understanding of cheap grace. For far too long cheap grace has been stirred with the good works of love, justice and mercy in a manner which as produced the bland gruel of shallow “niceness.”  It is time to reclaim (and preach!) a full doctrine of salvation by Christ alone. And all this done in a manner soaked in humble grace at the foot of the cross and next to the open grave.

Professors Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson in their soon to be published book The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation take time to remind us of this cardinal conviction of early Methodism. “British Methodists summarized the distinctive Wesleyan aspects of salvation with the ‘four alls:’

“All need to be saved.
“All can be saved.
“All can know they are saved.
“All can be saved to the uttermost.”

(Taken from The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 66 pre-publication copy. Footnote: This summary was developed in the early twentieth century by W. B. Fitzgerald. See W.B. Fitzgerald, The Roots of Methodism (London: The Epworth Press, 1903), 173)

 

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #10 (C)

Amazing Grace!

Few Christian doctrines have overtaken The United Methodist Church as the doctrine of grace.  One could almost argue that the song “Amazing Grace” has become the unofficial anthem of the church. The words ring out:

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear
And Grace, my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed
(“Amazing Grace,” Hymn No. 378, verses 1 & 2, The United Methodist Hymnal)

For John Wesley, an understanding of grace was and is always tied to a doctrine of salvation and more explicitly to an understanding of justification. Two of Wesley’s favorite texts for preaching were: 1 Corinthians 1:30 – “It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us.” And, Ephesians 2:8-10 – “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.  Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” Thus Wesley writes in his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament on Ephesians 2:8, “Grace, without any respect to human worthiness, confers this glorious gift. Faith, with an empty hand, and without any pretense to personal desert, receives the heavenly blessing.” Wesley’s footnote on 1 Corinthians 1:30 reads, “out of His grace and mercy.”

A simple definition of grace might be the radically free and wholly unmerited gift of God’s love and forgiveness. Father Roger Haight, S.J. has written one of the best books I have ever read on the subject (I read it for my doctoral work back in 1983) entitled The Experience and Language of Grace. Tracing the connect of the word from the Latin gratia back to the Greek charis, which is the word the New Testament uses, he writes that the word charis of several Hebrew words which convey “meanings reducible to three main ideas: condescending love, conciliatory compassion and fidelity. As a result,” says Father Haight, “the word grace has the special connotation of everything that pertains to a gift of love; it is totally gratuitous or unmerited and underserved” (Roger Haight, S.J., The Experience and Language of Grace, p. 6).

I love the old acrostic for Grace.
God’s
Riches
At
Christ’s
Expense

The claiming or reclaiming of the Wesleyan Way will always have an understanding of grace tied to a doctrine of salvation at its center. Most of us find it easy and comforting to apply grace to ourselves, our loved ones, and our church. Where we choke is on applying a doctrine of grace to someone we consider obviously underserving. But then that is the Christian dilemma. The claim of the faith, rising out of a proper understanding of the infection we call sin, is that all of us are underserving.

The second place we choke on a doctrine of grace lies in our modern rendering of grace as something cheap or easily given. Grace is, to be sure, radically free but it is never cheap or easy. Our own experience should tell us this much.

The words of the famous Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer offer both a caution and frame for our usage of the great doctrine of grace.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. . . .

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. … In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 45-46)

Responding to Harvey ©

Prayers, Patience, Donations and Cleaning Kits Needed in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey

With so many of you, Jolynn and I have watched the news of Hurricane Harvey (#HurricaneHarvey) with deep interest. For us, it is very personal. We lived in Corpus Christi, Texas for 13 years (while I was Sr. Pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church). We have friends up and down the coast. We have lived through a couple of hurricane evacuations and know the drill on boarding up the house. I have been in (and preached in) the communities of both Rockport and Aransas Pass. Our son went to Rice University, which has sustained a lot of damage and on the news we saw flooded streets in Houston near where he used to live.

So, it is in a very personal way, we (both Jolynn and I) ask you to join with so many others in praying for the people of the Texas Gulf Coast and especially those hit hard by flooding from Harvey both in Texas and Louisiana. I also want to call you to pray earnestly and often for the health and safety of all dealing with this historic flooding – both those directly affected as well as all of the first responders who have come from all across Texas and several other states to assist in rescue efforts.

As our prayers continue for all of those who have had their world swept away, as well as those who are still in danger from this unprecedented and still developing weather event, may we respond with concrete actions of love and service. In answer to our prayers, the Lord will give us guidance on how best to respond with support for relief and recovery efforts both in the short- and long-term.

In time of disaster, it is well for us to remember the promise of the risen Christ. “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:20)  It is at times like this that the great commandment of Jesus moves us beyond mere sentiment into action. “This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:38-39) Our Lord, who was renowned for his love and service to others, (all others, regardless of race, creed, orientation, political affiliation, nationality, etc.!) calls us to service in deeds of love for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:14)

I’d also like to echo the calls for patience and financial support that have been posted on our conference website (ctcumc.org/HurricaneHarvey ) and delivered via our Mission Support and Disaster Relief communications. I know that the yearning to help is burning within each of us. However, right now, and most likely for several weeks to come, the best way we can respond is to pray and give to the UMCOR Hurricane Harvey Advance #901670 through your local church or online at umcor.org.

For those who would called to support the relief and recovery efforts beyond financial donations, UMCOR has put out a call for Cleaning Buckets and Hygiene Kits. Many local congregations in the Central Texas Conference have such efforts underway. If you are so called, start by checking with your local church and your district office for such efforts. After you have completed your buckets and/or kits, please contact Sheryl Crumrine (sherylcrumrine@ctcumc.org/ 817-877-5222) at the Central Texas Conference Service Center (CTCSC) for information on how to get them to where they are most needed.

Another way our conference will assist in the immediate response efforts is to host those who have had to flee their homes due to flooding and wind damage. Authorities estimate as many as 30,000 people will need shelter and many of those have already come into our conference seeking refuge. We have learned that Killeen FUMC is currently hosting seven people and is prepared to help as many as 100 at a time. If your church is already providing shelter or has the ability to do so, please email Sheryl Crumrine at sheryl@ctcumc.org so that the CTCSC Disaster Response team can best assist you in these efforts.

Our conference ERT teams are ready and standing by to assist as soon as they are called upon. However, the tragic truth is that this storm is far from over and much more rain and flooding is still expected in the Greater Houston area and throughout southeast Texas. The areas most impacted are still in active rescue mode where preventing the loss of life being the primary focus right now. It is important to wait and pray until the storm is over, the immediate danger has passed, the damage can be assessed and the immediate needs identified.

This is going to be a very long recovery process, most likely, several years. We have been engaged in the long haul for recovery and healing through our Conference office of Disaster Response headed by Rev. Ginger Watson. There will be much to do and plenty of opportunities to help in the months and years to come.

As I write this, our Conference is not in active disaster mode as there is no flooding or other emergencies to report from within the Central Texas Conference. However, that could change as the rain continues, so we will continue to watch our South District counties closely. Our Disaster Response team remains in regular contact with UMCOR and state of Texas authorities.

The Disaster Response team along with our Communications & IT department and others are in regular contact with our partners in Texas Conference and the Río Texas Conference. Both conferences are posting regular updates on their conference Facebook pages (Texas Conference Facebook, Rio Texas Conference Facebook) and watch ctcumc.org/HurricanHarvey for the latest updates from our Disaster Response team.

We will have more information about the specific needs of people in the coastal region and how best to work with our partners in the Texas Conference and Rio Texas Conference as soon as those are available. Vance Morton and our communications team at the Conference Center will continue to share information out as soon as we have it.  Meanwhile, please continue to monitor the situation through our Conference website ctcumc.org/HurricaneHarvey for updates.

The Lord will guide our best and most prayer filled efforts to help our brothers and sisters suffering from Hurricane Harvey.  For now, may we respond with prayer, cleaning buckets, hygiene kits and financial support to UMCOR Advance #901670 through our local churches or the Central Texas Conference directly.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #9 ©

A Community of Holiness

 In a casual conversation recently, a clergy colleague commented to me, “We used to fight over doctrine now we fight over behavior.” I am struck by the insight offered in that comment. Churches are to be communities of holiness which provide the foundation for a common ethical behavior in service to the Lord God and genuine love of the neighbor, even those we disagree with! It is important to note that, to a very real degree, behavior is a reflection of doctrine. Ultimately the two (behavior and doctrine) are intertwined. Nonetheless, my colleague’s comment sticks with me because there is a thoughtful reflection of our current reality contained in it.

In our recent angst over various issues bedeviling us as a people (globally – Afghanistan, North Korea, and terrorism in Spain; in the United States – violence, racism, incivility and gender preference) the breakdown of community and common communal ethic is ever present. We struggle over what is acceptable common behavior both in the Christian community (i.e. the Church) and in our wider social communities. This was true in the Great Britain of early Methodism as well. The Methodist movement as an expression of the Christian faith (what I call the Wesleyan Way) offered a deep sense not only of belonging but also of a commitment to Christ which enhanced a common ethic and way of living.

Today, we desperately need to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way through spiritual formation in a community of holiness (otherwise called the Church). As good as most churches are at being friendly, collectively we long for a deeper, more intimate sense of community. Professors Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson remind us in their marvelous book The Band Meeting (soon to be published): “Christ came to build a ‘holy priesthood’ (I Peter 2:5), not simply ordain individual priests. He came to create a community of people equipped to ‘proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (1 Peter 2:9). They further note that “Methodism ordered itself to bring the gospel to people at every level of community” (Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson, The Band Meeting, p. 68; pre-publication copy).

Living in an age of individualism run amuck, it would well serve us to recover the communal sense of the Wesleyan Way. We best do this not by throwing bricks at others but by ourselves growing in holiness both individually and as a community of faith.

Consider Luke 6:47-48: “I’ll show what it’s like when someone comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice. It’s like a person building a house by digging deep and laying the foundation on bedrock. When the flood came, the rising water smashed against that house, but the water couldn’t shake the house because it was well built. We build our lives on bedrock when we anchor them in Christ. We do so by drilling down deep into His Word.”

Basic spiritual practices are the pitons we pound into the rock of Christ. By way of analogy, in mountain climbing a piton (also called a pin or peg) is a metal spike (usually steel) that is driven into a crack or seam in the climbing surface with a climbing hammer and which acts as an anchor to either protect the climber against the consequences of a fall or to assist progress in aid climbing. Pounding in pitons is basic to walking with Christ! We call this spiritual formation at its foundational, if you will, bedrock level. This is necessary to survive the rising waters of evil, sin, death and chaos; the violence and cultural incivility which so bedevil us as a people; the dis-ease of lacking moral center so evident in the torch-lit parade at Charlottesville.

Wesley famously said that there was no such thing as solitary religion. By that he meant that we were anchored in our faith and grew in the faith only through some kind of group accountability. A rock anchor, a piton, for early Methodists was small spiritual formation group. The painful truth is that we have become casually comfortable in our Christianity to a point that we have forgotten foundational spiritual disciplines that anchor us to the bedrock of Christ. This is actually where we got the name Methodist. We were so methodical about being Christian. What do those practices look like? Regular disciplined prayer with some kind of a group or support system that can graciously hold you accountable. The Methodist motto was “watching over one another in love.”

At this point I almost feel like a shill for small group ministry. And yet, without apology communities of holiness come from a communal practice of spiritual accountability. To be sure it starts with the individual in solitude, silence and simplicity, but by necessity it must expand to a wider sense of a shared commitment to and practice of holiness. The common disciplines (both privately and with others) of quiet time with God, prayer, worship, Bible reading & study all become linked to service in love of God and others.

The point of tending to the institutional needs of the church (and of so called organized religion) is that those needs help us to be shaped spiritually in formative practice that issues forth in the deeds of love, justice and mercy. Ignore the formative practices of spiritual formation for too long (both individually and as a group) and the high ethical commitments of loving God and neighbor fall away for lack of a healthy foundation.

John Wesley went so far as to write John Smith, “What is the aim of any ecclesiastical order? Is it not to snatch souls from the power of Satan for God and to edify them in the love and fear of God? Order, then has value only if it responds to these aims; and if not, it is worthless” (John Wesley, letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746; taken from, The Band Meeting, p. 68; pre-publication copy, by Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson).

We reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way as we rekindle formative spiritual practices and build communities of holiness. Such formative practices take methodical work and holy discipline. The discipline of holiness involves more than just the lone individual. We must be a part of communities of holiness. Together, we are built on the bedrock of Christ. “So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already”  (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

 

Rejecting White Supremacy, Racism and Neo-Nazi Behavior: An Open letter to Congresswoman Kay Granger ©

Representative Kay Granger is Congresswoman of the 12th Congressional District of Texas. We reside in the 12th Congressional District and thus Congresswoman Granger is our (Bishop Mike and Jolynn Lowry) representative. In the past we have been publically appreciative of her work and grateful for her representation.  I share this “Open Letter to Congresswoman Kay Granger” in response to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article published in the Thursday, August 17th morning paper entitled, “Kay Granger condemns violence by ‘both sides’” (Written by Andrea Drusch, Star-Telegram Washington bureau). The article opens with the following sentence: “Fort Worth Rep. Kay Granger on Wednesday lined up with President Donald Trump, condemning violence coming from ‘both sides’ and raising concerns about a rush to remove Confederate monuments.

Dear Congresswoman Granger,

I write both as Bishop of the Fort Worth Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church and as a concerned citizen and voter living in the 12th Congressional District of Texas.  Thursday morning I read with dismay an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporting your equal condemnation of ‘both sides’ in the recent white-supremacist Neo-Nazi rally and act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Equating the two sides in this tragedy and act of domestic terrorism is both inaccurate and inappropriate.  The two groups of protesters are not the same, and any implication that they are is to be rejected as morally repugnant.

White supremacists and Neo-Nazis explicitly cause damage, hurt and pain to named ethnic and religious groups in our society.  The fount of racism and hatred which pours forth from their virulent protest harms the nation as a whole and us both individually and collectively.  We are a nation wounded by their hatred.

One group came with the intent of causing public disruption.  They wrapped themselves in Nazi flags and regalia; they carried shields and clubs; they lifted lit torches invoking the evil specter of the Ku Klux Klan Rallies. Counter-demonstrators did not coalesce with a predetermined commitment to violence. Both the intent and the behavior of those on opposing side is decisively different.

I am appreciative of your public statement in which you say, “The recent events in Charlottesville are abhorrent and are not representative of the core values and morals of the United States. As a nation, we can have a civil debate over the differences in our beliefs, but we must condemn white supremacist groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis that promote bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, and violence” (Representative Kay Granger, https://kaygranger.house.gov/).  Regretfully your reported interview negates much of the moral virtue exhibited in your statement. However well intended your comments, they carry the subtle implication of excusing white supremacy and Neo-Nazi activity.

I recommend to you the clear and unequivocal statements by other leaders of the Republican Party.

  • “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms. As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country.”(Joint statement from former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush)
  • House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted: “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
  • “[Republican Senator Marco] Rubio countered Trump by saying the organizers of the white-nationalist rally were ”˜100 percent to blame’ for the terror attack that followed, a reference to the death of Heather Heyer after James A. Fields allegedly drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators.” (From The Atlantic, August 15, 2017)

Holy Scripture reminds us, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Jesus calls for us to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

Together, may we carefully consider ways to learn from our past without honoring rebellious behavior. In humility and confession, we need enter into thoughtful discussion and a deeper commitment to a shared future that reaches out to all in compassion and kindness without compromising our values or virtue.

Public leaders, be they political, religious or from the business sector, need to speak with one clear voice against racial supremacy and Neo-Nazi behavior.  Should you so desire, I would welcome a further opportunity to visit with you about such matters.

Yours in Christ,

 

Bishop Mike Lowry

Resident Bishop of the Fort Worth Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church

 

The World is Our Parish ©

 Periodically I am asked, “Should our work in missions (love, justice, and mercy) be focused at home in the communities in which our churches are located or should they be in extended mission work across America and the world?” My answer is always the same; “Yes!” There is something in the essence of loving those who are hungry and hurting and homeless that calls us both locally and globally.

Famously, John Wesley was asked at one time to return and serve the local parish. He turned down that opportunity, declaring “The world is my parish!” By that, Wesley never denigrated or slighted the importance of the local church and local community setting.  He understood that his personal call was to the wider church universal and more intentionally to what was then called the Wesleyan renewal movement. Even more, Wesley saw that at its truest essence the Christian faith is always a both/and.

Biblical examples abound. Christ reaches out and heals those around him. Consider the story of the centurion’s slave (Matthew 8:8-13) or the woman hemorrhaging (Mark 5:28-34).

But he also explicitly calls us to reach beyond to the wider world. The Great Commission is given that we should go to all “nations” (other translations say “people groups”). The famously quoted John 3:16 passage is explicitly expansive to the wider world; for “God so loved the world….”

In writing this today (Monday, August 14, 2017), I want to call for our prayers for peace, healing, love and justice in three specific situations across our nation and world recognizing that these prayers begin at home.

Many of you have watched with growing concern the tragedy that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists/neo-Nazi movements parade hate before us. Not only that, but they try to evoke hate within us (hate either towards them or towards others of a different religion or ethnicity). May our prayers go out for those who lost loved ones in this tragedy and especially for the end of racial hatred. Let us pray that we may be a people of peace. Confessionally, may we all recognize that bigotry and hatred begins in us. With our thoughts and actions, may we grow in Christ-likeness.  Let us be those who reach out for racial healing and the establishment of a more truly just America.

Secondly, I ask for our specific prayers for the people and nation of Kenya. Many of our churches and our Conference as a whole has a very special relationship with Kenya. We’ve sent a large number of different mission groups there to work in a variety of settings. The Rev. Ken Diehm Retreat House is a fixture for the Methodist Church in the Meru Synod (district) of Kenya. Numerous other mission trips have engaged in Christ-honoring works of love, justice and service in the Maua Methodist Hospital.

As you may know from following the news, the nation of Kenya recently held a presidential election. Although most observers believe the election was fair, there have been violent clashes over the results. I ask the people of Central Texas to pray for the nation of Kenya as a whole. May peace be the way forward for our Kenyan brothers and sisters.

The third specific area for which I am asking for prayers is the situation unfolding with North Korea. Much has been written and said. I simply commend to the Christian reader that we be in prayer for a peaceful resolution. The evils of President Kim Jong-Un and the Communist Party in North Korea seem to me to be fairly self-evident. May the wisdom of the Lord guide our response as a nation and as a people. May we separate the common citizen of North Korea from the evils of the current dictatorship which oppresses that country. Let us pray as well for our elected officials (the President, various Cabinet members and Secretaries involved and those working as Ambassadors). May God give wisdom that surpasses our human instincts and ultimately leads to a true lasting peace

As I ask for these prayers specifically for the people of Charlottesville, VA; the citizens and nation of Kenya; and the conflict erupting around North Korea, I continue to ask that we be a people who pray for peace and healing, for love and justice, for hope and help in our own churches, our own neighborhoods, our own cities and states. May the Prince of Peace guide our actions.

Engage! Missional Transformation in Love, Service and Relationship with Others ©

This coming October, we have a significant opportunity to grow our missional outreach to those in our local communities through a CTC-sponsored event entitled ENGAGE: Transforming Missions. The ENGAGE Conference is scheduled for Oct. 6-7 at Temple First UMC, and is designed for clergy and mission leaders seeking to grow deeper relationships with the persons they serve.

Through the opening sessions with Tom Bassford, a leader in transformative mission ministry, and breakout sessions led by our own Central Texas Conference mission leaders, participants will have the opportunity to learn from and dialogue with other leaders about best practices of relational mission ministry.  The key is “relational mission ministry.”  The ENGAGE Conference focuses on helping churches make the transition from ministry that meets emergency needs into individual and community transformation through relationships. I invite the reader to click the following link for a brief video discussion on ENGAGE (the video is also available below). In it, Rev. Dawne Phillips, Director of Missions for the Central Texas Conference, and I discuss the importance of local churches moving toward doing transformational missions.  The Conference will connect our core mission, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, with the WIG as together we seek to reach out in love, justice and mercy to all.

The keynote speaker/teacher is Dr. Tom Bassford. Tom Bassford is Founder and President of Significant Matters and SATalks in Olathe, Kansas, a non-profit organization working with churches, faith-based groups, community stakeholders and philanthropic organizations to tackle complex societal issues in sustainable ways. Before founding Significant Matters, he pastored for more than 30 years and has been involved in the work of church missions both locally and internationally for over 40 years.

In 2014, under Tom’s leadership, Significant Matters launched SATalks, a TED Talk type of gathering and video website to explore and demonstrate ways to create sustainable transformation through church missions.  They also launched the Missions 3.0 Network for churches wanting to move their mission work beyond “helping that hurts.” SATalks and Missions 3.0 exist to accelerate the learning curve around sustainable approaches to missions and connect those early pioneers trying to make it happen.

ENGAGE is an outstanding opportunity for churches to send a team who can participate in a variety of breakout sessions and then return home with ideas to consider for mission focused on making disciples in their local community.  Registration information can be found on the Central Texas Conference website.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #8 ©

Struggling with Sin

Back in my seminary days one of the big intellectual fads that swept across America was a form of psychotherapy called Transactional Analysis (TA).  It was built on the foundation of acceptance and appreciation of both yourself and others (which is in principle a good thing but taken too far – as it was – destructive).  The mantra of TA was “I’m Ok, You’re Ok.”

About that time I was taking a course in pastoral theology from the great Methodist theologian Albert Outler.  I remember him lecturing on the subject to TA and Sin.  He pictured a worship service starting with the liturgy of the pastor saying, “I’m Okay!”and the Congregation responding, “You’re Okay!”  Then pastor would echo back, “You’re Okay!” And the congregation would respond with gusto, “We’re Okay!”  At that point Professor Outler said that someone standing in the back of the sanctuary should respond with a loud, “Bah humbug!”

And now, I give pause. We have reached a theological state in American Protestantism where the notion of sin is almost foreign. When sin applies it is someone else who sinned.  When we talk of sin, far too often it is in reference to sexual peccadillos and rarely to explore the greater sinful hedonism of our own lives in the pursuit of pleasure though gross overconsumption. (Forgive me Lord! I know I am guilty.)

Recently my spiritual mentor, Dr. Sid Spain, wrote a paper offering deep insight into the spiritual life of walking with God.  As part of his work, both in writing and in serving as a pastor and spiritual guide, he noted our struggle in the modern world with the whole concept of sin.  Dr. Spain wrote:

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.  Recently he wrote an article entitled The Strange Persistence of Guilt referencing a longer article of the same name by Wilfred McClay in the Hedgehog Review. [(See David Brooks, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” March 31, 2017; and Wilfred M. McClay, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” The Hedgehog Review; Vol 19 No. 1).  Brooks and McClay are only two of many writers who have diagnosed part of the cause of the rise of incivility in our society as a consequence of the inaccessibility of opportunities for absolution.  Brooks writes, “Religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerful as ever.” As the influence of the church has diminished in the West, fewer people have the opportunity to deal creatively with feelings of guilt, failure and inadequacy. Instead of confessing sin and receiving forgiveness and absolution, we project our dissatisfaction and angst on others.  Unable to process our sin we feel victimized and we vilify.

An inevitable consequence of contemplative prayer is confrontation with the self and the recognition that we are complicit in the brokenness of the world (Sid Spain, Make the Time and Find a Place: Contemplative Prayer for the Easily Distracted, p. 6).

The concept of grace, God’s radically free wholly unmerited forgiving love is applied so casually as to leave us often (not always!) unaffected.  [You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives (Ephesians 2:8-10).]  What slips our more careful attention is verse 10 of Ephesians 2, repeated here for emphasis, “Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things.  God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. Our good intentions often ignore the moral harm of sin both in ourselves and others. In Dr. Spain’s terms, we fail to confront our complicity in the brokenness of this world. It is somebody else’s fault.

Yet classical Methodist doctrine will not let us off so easily.  For Methodists the response to sin is worked out in sanctification, in “holiness of heart and life.”  This historically is a cardinal assumption of Methodist theology (thinking about the ways of God).  The claim always is that we are to be ‘”moving on to perfection.” To borrow from Sid in paraphrasing St. Augustine’s definition of sin, homo incurvatus in se in the Latin, loosely translated as “Sin is the self, turned in upon its self.”  The Apostle Paul reached for its essence in his great biblical letters. “I’m sold as a slave to sin.  I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate. But if I’m doing the thing that I don’t want to do, I’m agreeing that the Law is right. But now I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it’s sin that lives in me” (Romans 7:14c-17). John Wesley understood sin as a disease, a radical flaw in our human nature that could not be cured simply by our own moral effort yet at the same time needing our willing participation in its cure.

Here again Professor Outler is instructive in his seminal lectures on Wesleyan Theology. “Sin is spoken of as a sickness that can be cured by the Great Physician if we will accept his threefold prescription: 1. Repentance (self-knowledge), 2. Renunciation of self-will, and 3. Faith (trust in God’s sheer, unmerited grace”  (Albert C. Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 37).

I invite the reader to carefully note that our struggle with sin is met in the grace of Jesus Christ. But I also urge an embrace of the truth that such healing comes in repentance and renunciation. There is no such thing as cheap grace for the price of grace is the cross of Christ and our embrace of grace comes in repentance and renunciation. The antidote of Christ comes to us in the divine human synergy as we struggle with sin. Augustine is reputed to have said, “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #7 ©

Scripture, Tradition, Reason & Experience:  Understanding the Quadrilateral in Wesleyan Theology

 This blog picks back up on an extended summer blog series entitled “Reclaiming The Heart of the Wesleyan Way.”  In part five of my blog on this series,  I shared part of the General Rules of the United Methodist Church and the struggle for a common theological core, which I believe is currently taking place within United Methodism.

The “General Rules” (along with The Standard Sermons of Wesley and The Explanatory Notes on the New Testament) are the heart of the United Methodist doctrinal core. They are contained in Section 3, Paragraph #104 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016. Dr. William J. Abraham, Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, has decisively demonstrated that there is a stated and officially adopted doctrinal core for the United Methodist Church. In this time of identity crisis within United Methodism, Section 3, Paragraph #104 is worth remembering and reflecting upon deeply. Professor Abraham rightly notes: “United Methodist doctrine can actually be identified. It is not an amorphous body of vague proposals. Nor is it some malleable theological method which can be twisted to fit this or that fad or convention of culture. United Methodist doctrine is substantial; it is identifiable; and it is clear in fundamental content” (William J. Abraham, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church, p.14).

As church history will teach anyone with casual knowledge of the past, a clear doctrinal core does not finally, once and for all settle issues of doctrinal content. Deep debate still continues about the meaning of this core, how it applies to a current context and historical setting, and what its implications are for “practical Christianity” in our time. In its collective wisdom the United Methodist Church has adopted a method for engaging in debate and discussions about the meaning of our doctrinal core. It can be found immediately after the section on our doctrinal core. Section 4, Paragraph 105 is entitled “Our Theological Task.” Such a critical task – that is of thinking theologically about what we believe and how we are Christian – by very necessity must engage each generation anew.

Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, outlines what is commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The “quadrilateral” is not itself doctrine. Rather, it is a proposed method for doing theology (that is to say thinking and reflecting on God and ways of God among us). It is made up of four components of how we get at the Truth (capital T) of the Christian faith. (The opening part of Paragraph 105 is well worth a careful reading!)

The four components of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are:  Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Each section in Paragraph 105 deserves careful attention. All parts of the quadrilateral do not carry the same weight in theological discourse; thus, The Discipline (as a matter of both doctrine and method) places Scripture above the other three. “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 83).

Tradition is a reference to what we have learned from the saints of the past. This especially includes the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed (both found in the United Methodist Hymnal). The importance of tradition can easily be recognized in Scripture as well as in practice. The admonition of Hebrews is instructive. “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Hebrews 11:1).

Experience acknowledges the importance of a “heart” faith (not just an intellectual collection of “head” doctrines). Again The Discipline is instructive. “Our experience interacts with Scripture. … Experience authenticates in our own lives the truths revealed in Scripture and illumined in tradition, enabling us to claim the Christian as our own” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 87).

Reason becomes a key component or method by which we put theological and doctrinal discussions together. The Discipline is careful to note at the outset of the section on reason, “we recognize that God’s revelation and our experience of God’s grace continually surpasses the scope of human language and reason, we also believe that any discipline theological work calls for the careful use of reason” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 88).

As a whole the “Quadrilateral” has much to commend itself as a method for doing theology (thinking about God and the ways of God).  The danger of heresy, however can slip in when Scripture is subordinated for personal preference backed by a partial reading of Christian history (tradition) and casual application of experience and reason. The tendency in our time is use one of two of the key components (say Scripture and Tradition or Experience and Reason) separate from all four. Instead of an acknowledged method of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a person then ends up with what is a functioning bilateral or unilateral governance of theological discourse that is bereft of the full wisdom of the faith.

There is more to be said here, much more. For now hopefully, the reader’s appetite has been whetted enough to encourage a full reading of both Sections 3 & 4, Paragraphs 104 & 105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, pp. 65-91. As the “good ole boys” used to say, “there’s is gold in them thar hills!”

However we approach issues of deep doctrinal substance, and make no mistake the current threat of schism in the United Methodist Church is ultimately about our doctrinal core, the only truly faithful Christian response is with great humility. “Now we see in a mirror dimly” (I Corinthians 13:12). “This [Our] witness, however, cannot fully describe or encompass the mystery of God” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 91)

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