Leadership and Hope as the Tsunami Engulfs Us

It has been almost 10 years since a tsunami engulfed the southern part of Indonesia and Thailand.  Many of us remember scenes and stories from the event.  One in particular that has stayed in my mind is the tale of young 10 year old Tilly Smith at Maihkoa Beach near Phuket, Thailand.  With her parents she watched as suddenly the water was sucked out to sea and dry land appeared.  Adults stopped to stare open mouth but Tilly remember a geography lesson from her school back in Surrey, England.  She realized that water rushing out is a prelude to the crashing of a tidal wave, a tsunami of terrifying force.  Many were saved because of her insight and courageous warning.

A tsunami of secularity is hitting Chrisitan churches of the so-called industrialized world.  But unlike Maikhao, Beach few have been listening to Tilly Smith give her warning. Instead of moving to higher ground, we have argued over who controls the temporarily dry land.

Think back on the history of Christianity in the West since World War II.  In America, with the end of the war, the tide went out exposing great swatches of new land.  Soldiers came home, married and started raising a family, and went to church.  Churches boomed in numerical growth across the country.  There was an explosion in new church development.

As the water receded, the so-called mainline churches dominated the American social and religious landscape.  The denominational health and strength of American churches was impressive.  Like those at Maikhoa Beach with Tilly, we were tempted (and usually succumb to the temptation) to rush toward the receding water and the newly dry land.  The reach of the Christian movement was expanding.  A shining future of unimpeded progress not only numerically but ethically in the arenas of love, justice and mercy appeared before us.

Meanwhile, the crashing waves coming in could be seen in the distance by the perceptive few attuned like Tilly to the approaching disaster.  A French Priest and sociologist named Abbe Godin authored an academic work entitled simply France Pagan? The original work, written in 1940, addressed the loss of the French working class in the 1930s by the Roman Catholic Church.  Fr. Abbe Godin was an early Tilly Smith.  The underwater earthquake had already hit Europe through the rock crushing volcanism of the Enlightenment and the deep disillusionment of World War I.  The moral chaos which followed directly contributed to World War II.

In the United States the tsunami of secularity has taken much longer to crash on the beaches of our society.  But, today it is common for many to see the church as irrelevant and Christianity as quaint.  Amid signs of spiritual starvation, we in the church are wrestling with deep institutional change and engulfed in a crisis of relevancy.  Since coming to Central Texas I have talked about the end of Christendom (the culture wide dominance of the Christian church) and the post-Christian age we are now in.  (Growing up in the 1950s, Wednesday night was church night and other events were not schedule in the community.  So called “Blue Laws” about what could be sold or open on Sunday were common.  Today, youth often have to choose between going to church on Sunday or participating in their soccer league.)

The United Methodist Church has been struggling to engage this new cultural reality during most of my 40 years of ministry.  It is an exciting time with wonderful new ministries emerging.  It is trying time with vast change sweeping like tsunami waters over existing congregation.  To paraphrase Dickens’ marvelous quote; “it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.”

Saturday morning Jolynn and I will fly to St. Simons Island, Georgia for the Learning Retreat of the Active Bishops of the United Methodist Church.  Collectively, the bishops of the church are leaning in to what is called “the Adaptive Challenge;” – ““To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The United Methodist Communications press release shares well the outline of our learning activities:  “Much of the learning experience will be centered on ‘adaptive leadership,’ led by Marty Linsky, a professor at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates, a leadership consulting, training and coaching practice. Linsky co-authored The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World with Ronald A. Heifetz and Alexander Grashow.”

Professor Heifetz’ landmark leadership study Leadership Without Easy Answers written in 1994 reaches for the essence of what we are working on.  Together with Marty Linsky they wrote Leadership on the Line in 2002.  Both of my copies are liberally highlighted.  I am further fascinated that one of the articles we are required to read before coming is entitled “Leadership in a Permanent Crisis.”

The press release accurately continues: “‘We believe we are in a time of adaptive change,’ said Bishop Peter Weaver, executive secretary of the Council. ‘We’re not looking at just defined problems with clear-cut solutions, but rather how we might adapt to more effectively accomplish our mission in a global and changing environment.’

The Vital Congregations Leadership Team [which I am Convener/Chair of] will lead the bishops in talking about congregational development and how to apply the adaptive leadership theory in ways that help reach the goal of increasing the number of vital congregations. The attendees will also travel from Epworth to see the principles of congregational vitality in action.

Dr. Christine Pohl, Associate Provost for Faculty Development at Asbury Theological Seminary, and author of Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us, will invite the participants into spiritual centering and living into community through daily Bible study and worship.”

We are engaging in these activities amidst an ongoing crisis of church governance around the issue of same gender marriages (which are not allowed by United Methodist Church Law and significant number of United States UM clergy committed to breaking that law).  The crisis focused around same gender issues and ministry is, I am convinced, a presenting issue of the deeper crisis of theology and authority (biblical and ecclesiastical).  The United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH) is releasing a new book edited by Bishop Rueben Job and President & Publisher of the UMPH entitled Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist.  In Finding Our Way various bishops of the church offer perspectives for prayer and consideration about the best way forward in this current presenting crisis for the United Methodist Church.  I am privileged to be one of the contributors.  I commend it to your reading.

Scott Jones, bishop for the Great Plains area, correctly observes, “Unity rests in coherence of doctrine, mission, and discipline.” The painful reality is that we lack coherence in doctrine. We don’t have deep clarity on mission. (We agree to “make disciples,” but we don’t agree on what it means to be a disciple.) And we are locked in a struggle over discipline.

This pessimistic assessment should not deter us.  The church been here before.  After all, we are a people of the resurrection.  Wesley’s great affirmation is an echo of the risen Savior’s promise at the close of the gospel of Matthew; “the best of all is that God is with us!”

The question we must face as we look to a future of hope is: What form will this new future God is calling us to take?  We must weld the Lord’s promise in Jeremiah to a resurrection conviction and theology.  “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13)

To borrow from Yeats’ marvelous poem The Second Coming:

“Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”

It is to this end we will labor on our Learning Retreat.

 

 

MISSION TO FORT WORTH

 What comes to your mind when you think of a missionary?

I must confess that my usual image is both anchored in the past and colonial in genre. I imagine Albert Schweitzer and pith helmets.  Intellectually I know better. Here in Central Texas we are living into a new world where the whole world, including Fort Worth!, is missionary turf.

For a long time the Central Texas Conference (CTC) has had a formal (covenantal) relationship with the Eastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church of Mexico.  Over the last couple of years we have worked to strengthen our relationship with the Easter Mexico Conference. A couple of years ago, Randy Wild, Rev. Dawne Phillips (CTC Director of Missions) and I traveled to Monterrey, Mexico and spent time with Bishop Garcia and their Conference leaders in Monterrey.  Bishop Raul Garcia and the members of the Conference have been wonderfully receptive!

As God led the two Conference in reconnecting, it became clear that we had much to offer each other.  While we initially talk about CTC missions trips to Eastern Mexico, it quickly became clear that mission runs both ways. After visiting their seminary, I came home thinking about internships for seminary students to help train us an outreach in our own neighborhoods.

God had even bigger dreams! Last June at Annual Conference, we were blessed to have LaTrinidad UMC transfer from the Rio Grande Conference to the Central Texas Conference. LaTrinidad is a great church with a long history of outreach in the Diamond Hill area of Fort Worth. As the North District Superintendent, Dr. Ginger Bassford, worked with them on a pastoral change, it quickly became clear that a special skill set was needed for a new pastor.

Again the Lord moved through the Holy Spirit!  Contact between folks at LaTrinidad, the North District Superintendent and a reciprocal visit by a District Superintendent from the Eastern Mexico Conference led to conversations between the two bishops (Bishop Raul Garcia and myself).  Through the gracious leadership of Bishop Garcia, the hard work of Dr. Bassford, and the courageous optimism of Rev. Macias (along with the support of Rev. Macias’ family), the Rev Samuel Macias will become (after we clear all the immigration hurdles and he receives a guest worker permit – “green card”) the new pastor at LaTrinidad UMC in Fort Worth!  Rev. Macias will be with us from two to four years and then return to the Eastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church in Mexico to continue his ministry back in his home country.

We, the Central Texas Conference, are the recipients of a missionary from the Eastern Mexico Conference. It is a great mission of outreach in sharing the gospel through love, justice and mercy in Fort Worth.  Praise God!  A new mission to Fort Worth will soon be launched.  You can read more about this mission to Fort Worth here.

Even as we are receiving a missionary from Eastern Mexico Conference, we are sending missionaries ourselves. Tuesday we had our first team meeting of a conference mission trip to Kenya in September.  I look forward to being a part of the Kenyan mission team next September.  The mission road runs both ways!  We are all working together to share the love of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit and spread the gospel of salvation!

All of this is as it should be. Spiritually we are Wesleyan Christians. John Wesley, the founder of the Wesley (Methodist) movement declared, “The world is my parish.” We are living this great legacy of mission in the name of Jesus Christ!

In the King’s Garden

The shouts of Christ’s rising slowly fade into the background.  Another Easter has come and gone.  The sardonic slice of my nature can’t help but remember the old joke about the fellow who only shows up for worship on Easter.  Finally at the end of one glorious Easter service he greets the pastor.  “Pastor” he says, “It was wonderful but let me offer some advice.  Every time I come you preach on the same subject – the resurrection of Jesus.  Why don’t you try something different next year?”

We are so tempted to move quickly on. I want to argue instead that in the “Great 50 days” between Easter and Pentecost we must take up residence in the resurrection joy, truth and triumph of Christ.  Let’s pitch our tent in the King’s garden.

I invite us simply to make the connection between the Eden Paradise of Genesis (the first garden!) and the tragic fall of sin and expulsion from the garden of paradise.  Now continue to draw the line from the fall to the incarnation.  Recall how the Apostle John speaks of it in the great opening overture of the Gospel of John.  “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14).  The phrase “made his home among us” comes out of a nomadic culture.  It means literally “pitched a tent among us.”  Now continue to draw that line to the crucifixion.

Do you recall the scene from Luke 23 as Jesus speaks on the cross to the thieves crucified with him?  “One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’  Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, ‘Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:39-43).

On our trip about year ago to the Holy Land, one of the guides noted that the word “paradise” means “the king’s garden.”  I checked his assertion when we got home.  Sure enough, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible notes that “paradise” is a word that comes from the Old Persian. “It [was] developed to signify a beautiful garden, like a king’s garden” (The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Me – R, Volume 4, p. 377).

Continue to draw the line from the cross to the resurrection.  Through the resurrected Christ we are offered a way back to Eden, to the King’s garden.  By way of review, the sequence goes like this:  Paradise (Eden) -> the fall (sin) -> the incarnation (Christ with us) -> the crucifixion (the high watermark of sin!) -> the resurrection (an invitation to live in the King’s garden, in paradise).

We make a serious mistake when we limit the concept of the resurrection to simply something about life after death.  Theologically we know the resurrection is about the defeat of sin, hell, and death.  It is about new life in Christ now and for all eternity.  Our life as a disciple is to be connected with the understanding of our living in King’s Garden and for the transformation of the world into a garden fit for King Jesus – “on earth as it is in heaven.”  There is a here-and-hereafter element to our Easter proclamation.

Take up residence in the King’s Garden.  Christ is Risen!  Comments the great biblical scholar N. T. Wright, “The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God’s purpose or rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos” (Wright, Surprised by Hope, pg. 184).  No wonder our task (mission) is to complete the line drawn by “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!”  The King’s Garden awaits!

garden

 

SIGNS OF EASTER

In life’s all too common journeys, we encounter small signs of a great victory.  Those signs were there on that first Easter.  The Bible says, “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (John 20:1).  She does not understand its meatombning.  She runs to get others.  She jumps immediately to the common supposition that “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2).

Whatever else is to be said at this point it is clear that the grave is not the end.  I remember a colleague telling of pausing in a cemetery after he had finished a funeral.  He looked at a massive stone crypt set near where he had just concluded the funeral service.  Clear specific instructions had been left.  “Not to be opened upon any circumstance” was chiseled on the stone door facing of the crypt.  And yet, there it was.  The tiny shoot of a plant, possibly a tree in the making, had slowly but inexorably forced the stone door of the crypt open.  A shaft of light was streaming in.

So it is for us this day.  A shaft of light breaks through the darkness.  Mary struggles to believe; so do Peter and the other disciple as they peer in to examine what is left behind.  They examine the grave like befuddled detectives, one starting to believe; the other, Peter, clearly not knowing what to make of the empty tomb.

We are so like them that at times it is painful.  We believe and yet we are overwhelmed in grief and loss.  We believe and yet we shake our heads at how awful the world is.  We believe and yet … we are not sure.  We believe and see small signs of a great victory.

Notice what the disciples and Mary did.  They relegated the extraordinary – the stone rolled, the tomb empty – to the ordinary.  They sought to explain it all with a sensible supposition – the body has been taken.  All the while they confront massive evidence of the truth.  Christ has been raised from the dead.  Death and sin are conquered.  Belief dawns slowly with the light.  The Bible says, “For as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9).

This too is our struggle.  Small signs of this colossal victory are all around us.   Mary and the two disciples of that first Easter morning would teach us to look for signs of the extraordinary in the ordinary.  In love shared, in care given, with hope amid despair, and laughter in the place of grief, comes the dawning of belief.  One of the followers gets it.  “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed” (John 20:8). Let that be you.  Begin to see the extraordinary – God in resurrection action – amid the ordinary.

Pause here.  Catch with me precisely where Jesus is first encountered.  It is near the tomb!  Angels are messengers of God.  They point to the triumph.  They are inside the tomb, at the very epicenter of defeat, directing our attention to the triumph.  Still Mary struggles to believe.

Did you make the critical connection?  We encounter Jesus first, often best, at the very place of our defeat, despair, and deep grief.  Where we struggle to believe, God is most present.  Where we have come to the end of our resources, there God can break through in triumph.

Focused on her grief Mary teeters on the edge of faith. “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away’” (John 20:14-15).  Then the full impact of the resurrection, the gospel, hits.  “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’” (John 20:16).  In the naming she is claimed by the Lord.  His triumph becomes her destiny!  The “Jesus Way” leads not to defeat but to victory.  Our morning begins in a graveyard.  It erupts in a shout.  “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).

Our path of faith is the same.  Near the tombs of our life – be they physical, spiritual or symbolic – we are named and claimed by the risen Lord.  Lift your head when defeat, despair, and deep grief settle in.  Look for the triumphant Christ.  He is at hand.  You are named and claimed.

A friend of mine, Joe Harding, years ago sat on a plane next to the great actor Richard Burton.  Conversing with him, Harding asked him about playing the role of Marcellus in the epic movie The Robe.  Marcellus was the commanding officer of the soldiers who crucified Christ and gambled for his garments at the foot of the cross.

Richard Burton relayed how terrifying it was to play that scene at the foot of the cross.  He told Joe how the figure of Jesus was made out of plastic and one of the stage hands stood beneath the cross, out of view, and pumped blood through this plastic figure.  Burton said that the scene was so terrifying, so fake and unreal, that one of his fellow actors had a nervous breakdown.

As Burton finished relating the story, the plane pulled up to the gate, and they got ready to leave.  Joe didn’t know what to say but words just sort of popped into his mouth.  He said, “Mr. Burton, I know a Jesus that is real and alive.”

What about you?  Do you know a Jesus who is real and alive?  He calls us by name – Mary! or Jim! or Juanita! or Mark!.  This Easter we are named and claimed by the risen Lord.  His triumph is our destiny!

The Glory Road

What leads to human glory?  Put differently what defines the path of great success? Or, what delineates the triumph of a life well lived?

It is reported that Alexander the Great was not satisfied, even when he had completely subdued the nations.  “He wept because there were no more worlds to conquer, and he died at an early age in a state of debauchery.  Hannibal, who filled three bushels with the gold rings taken from the knights he had slaughtered, committed suicide by swallowing poison.  Few noted his passing, and he left this earth completely unmourned.  Julius Caesar, ‘dyeing his garments in the blood of one million of his foes’, conquered 800 cities, only to be stabbed by his best friends at the scene of his greatest triumph.  Napoleon, the feared conqueror, after being the scourge of Europe, spent his last years in banishment.” (Pulpit Resource, G.S. Bowles)  For all their supposed glory, the true road to glory eluded these great ones of history.

More than three hundred years before the birth of Christ, Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, walked the Athenian marketplace at high noon with a lantern replying to inquirers that he was “searching for an honest man” – whom he never found.  Characteristically the Greek was a searcher after the truth, a seeker of the road to glory.  “It was no unusual thing to find a Greek who had passed through philosophy after philosophy, and religion after religion, and gone from teacher to teacher in the search of truth.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 2, p. 120)

Today’s quest for truth and glory may be different in outward form, but its inward content has changed little.  The proliferation of philosophies, religions and self-help books which mark our age give testimony to a search for success.  Contrast our search with the road to glory that leads to the cross of Good Friday.

Speaking of the road to glory, “Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’” (John 12:22-23)  Then he unpacked what this road looks like.  He marked out three signs for us to look for.

1.      Only in spending our lives for others, do we gain our life.  Verse 24, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)  William Barclay put it this way: “If we look after ourselves as a hypochondriac looks after his health, no doubt we will exist longer – but we will never live.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 2, p. 124)  The road to glory runs through spending your life from great and worthy causes – family and friends, peace and justice, the gospel and goodness, faith and mercy.

2.      Through death comes life.  Verse 25, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25)  When we die to personal desire and ambition we become to the glory of life lived for God.  It is when we finally surrender our own aspirations that God gives us even greater triumphs.  Death really does lead to life.

3.      Greatness comes through service.  Verse 26, “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) Take a quick heart check.  When have you been most alive?  Isn’t the answer when we have been serving others?  The glory of a day well lived finds its expression in the joy of serving with spouse, child or friend; reaching to others in need whether it’s through work or church or school or whatever.  We instinctively know this truth and yet so easily forget it.

For Christ, the road to glory lead to the cross in sacrifice and then beyond!  He sees this clearly and thus states:  “’Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–‘ Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’” (John 12:27-28)

May your experience of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday lead to the cross.  May it be a journey on the glory road.  It is only on this road that Easter morning dawns.

 

An Inquiry on the Way to Taize

Saturday evening April 5th found Jolynn and me driving over to White’s Chapel UMC to participate in a special Taize “Pilgrimage of Trust” here in the northern part of Texas. Readers may well remember that the Central Texas Conference sponsored a leadership development pilgrimage to Taize, France about a year ago. By way of background:

“The Taize Community is an ecumenical monastic community in France that annually welcomes tens of thousands of young adults from all over the world. … At Taize, young people are invited to united inner life and human solidarity. … The Brothers, from various Christian denominations and twenty-five countries, regularly organize huge gatherings for young adults in major European cities and on other continents [in this case 3 in the State of Texas]. These gatherings are part of a “Pilgrimage of Trust”: those who take part are invited to deepen their trust in God and in their ability to become bearers of reconciliation where they live.”

As we drove, I babbled on about how spiritually nurturing and enriching I found my time at Taize. I shared again my oft repeated mantra that we, in the American society of the 21st century, live at a pace of life that is not sustainable. I waxed eloquent as we drove (or at least I babbled semi-coherently) about how we had to make time for quiet and contemplation.

After listening patiently for a while, Jolynn interrupted me. “Would you have said or done this when you were a young man?” Ouch! I paused for a long time and thought. Then I responded, “Well, remember that I came to Methodism out of the Quakers.” We talked about how I did do some quiet and reflection time but not near enough. The painful truth is that I resisted the notion of Sabbath-rest and contemplation. My nature is passionate activism.

And yet, I find myself judging my own actions in reflection. I can recall a close friend and co-worker pushing me hard on taking more time for my family. Recently spending time with our 1 year old granddaughter reawakened the hectic pressures placed on young parents. I can also remember being on the edge of burnout and thinking about leaving the ministry in my late 30s.

In some deep ways – ways driven I think by the Holy Spirit – the Christian movement in America has gone through a change. Now, in ways many of us (yours truly) did not appreciate through much of the ‘70s and ‘80s, we have reconnected the importance of deep spiritual connectedness with ministry activism. This is a good trend and, as I’ve asserted, a work of the Holy Spirit.

I offer a prayer I wrote for Taize:

Holy One, Holy Three
Settle into the marrow of our being we pray.
Open the eyes of our hearts
To see you moving in our world.
Open the ears of our minds
To discern your greater purpose in our lives.
Take hold of us Lord Jesus, we pray,
Through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit;
That we may be moved to loving and caring
For those most distant and different from us;
That we might serve those most in need;
That we might witness in offering your grace
To those most bent by rage and deprivation.
Holy One, Holy Three
Settle into the marrow of our being
In this season of prayer and reflection.
And claim us Lord once again for You!
In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Bishop Mike Lowry

P.S. As you prepare for Holy Week, the Cross and Easter, I commend an article by Frederick W. Schmidt at http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/blog/entry/4906/before-you-celebrate-easter-get-real  entitled Before You Celebrate Easter, Get Real.

PRAYER AND ADAPT TO THRIVE

I had planned to write today’s blog on a new book written by John Flowers and Karen Vannoy entitled Adapt to Thrive.  Life and death however have a way of intruding.  The most recent tragedy at Fort Hood affects us deeply in the Central Texas Conference (as well as our nation) and even more so in the South District (which includes Fort Hood) which begs for our continuing prayers for all affected.  Gary Lindley, New Church Start District Superintendent for the Central Texas Conference, and I have both been in conversation with Rev. Mark Hart, the new church start pastor for Genesis Fellowship UMC in Killeen.  Mark is a retired veteran and his wife Rose is currently serving in the Army.  She is the commander of Alpha Company. The shooting involved the Unit that she commanded.  Rev. Lindley reports, “One of soldiers killed was in her unit.  Rose had just finished talking to this young man who was killed. He left to go into the building. Rose was to follow to do a review, but she was delayed. As she made her way toward the building she heard the shots.  The young man who was killed had just told Rose that he had 9 months to complete his tour.  He leaves a wife and young children. When I spoke to Rose, she was returning to the base to care for her unit and to assist in providing support for her troops.”  Please be in prayer for Mark and Rose Hart and all the soldiers at Fort Hood. Rose will be the one who will have to work with soldiers with PTSD and discharging them from the military.

Even as we lift up our prayers for those facing deep tragedy, we are ever reminded of our common need for the gospel of Jesus Christ and for vital congregations that share and live out the gospel under Christ’s Lordship.  Our adaptive challenge remains fixed in front of us.  “To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  There are a significant number of new resources being produced to help us embrace the adaptive challenge of building vital congregations.  April 20th will mark the publication of one such excellent addition to our resource library — Adapt to Thrive.

“Most local churches will either go extinct or adapt and thrive” (p. 127).  This deep conviction undergirds the powerful challenge John Flowers and Karen Vannoy offer in their most recent book.  (They have previously written 10 Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline and What To Do About It and Not Just a One-Night Stand: Ministry with the Homeless.)  In Adapt to Thrive the authors take us beyond best practices into the world of adaptive transformation.  Putting a sound theological and organizational foundation in place, they empower local churches (and their leaders) in practical ways to enter the desperately needed world of deep change.  The sub-title catches the essence: How Your Church Must Identify Itself as a Unique Species, Modify Its Dysfuntional Behaviors, and Multiply Its Transformational Influence In Your Community.

There is much to like in this book and even more to learn. Without flinching they name the loss of focus and “mission drift” which currently cripples many churches.  “It is not only the sin that lives in us that prevents us from fulfilling our purpose.  It is also that we have forgotten who we belong to; we are as lost and confused as the people we would try to reach. Clergy and laity alike share the blame” (p. 16). The authors tie a larger church culture of mission drift with a unique understanding of each congregation’s own distinctive mission.  The two are welded to a greater understanding of a commitment to be followers of Jesus and not just admirers of Jesus.  From this platform they argue for ten central adaptations the church must make:
1. From scarcity to abundance
2. From entitlement to egalitarianism
3. Form somberness to playfulness
4. From limited access to trust
5. From ignoring the neighbors to embracing the neighbors
6. From predictability to freedom
7. From marginal members to deep disciples
8. From baby steps to giant leaps
9. From suspicion to grace
10. From a generic culture to a self-defined culture

We can argue about the various adaptations – are they the right ones? Is something left out?, etc. – in fact the authors invite our thoughtful debate.  What the book does superbly well is engage us in practical applications that impact the mission field around us.  I love their quote of Doug Anderson, “we need to move from a preference-driven church to a purpose-driven church” (p. 60). In adaptation #4 they challenge the notion that the building belongs to the members.  Reading, I could not help but recall a fight in the first church I pastored over who got a key to the building.  (I gave everyone a key who wanted one!)  We needed this adaption to move from limited access to trust.  Flowers and Vannoy write, “Limited-access churches lock gates, update alarm systems, put bars on windows, and even fences around the property.  The fences don’t really keep anyone out, but they do communicate a message to the area.  Limited-access churches maintain an old culture of mistrust” (p. 73). Ouch!  There is a truth here that needs hearing!  Take this simple insight from adaptation #5.  “Embracing your neighbors is an attitude before it’s an action” (p. 79).

Perhaps the most intriguing and challenging adaptation is #7: “from marginal members to deep disciples.”  There can be little doubt that such conviction is at the core of the Wesleyan movement in its unique expression of the Christian faith.  The early “Methodists” were “methodical” (hence the name) in moving people from marginal adherence to deep discipleship.  This is still at the very center core of today’s United Methodist Church.  Our mission we say is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  This section alone is worth the price of the book.  Consider some of the insights:

  •  “We have trained them [church members] to a dysfunctional culture of very low expectations.” (p.88)
  •  “The movement from marginal membership to deep disciples will be necessary but not necessarily easy.” (p.89)
  • “Elevate local church membership.” (p. 89)
  •  “Accountability is not achieved by shaming and blaming.  It is achieved by telling the truth about high expectations.”  (p. 90)
  • “This path of adaptation means that we transcend our fears and anxieties in order to develop relationships outside our comfort zone.” (p. 92)

The welding of deep insight with practical application is the hallmark of this insightful book.  Adapt to Thrive speaks deeply to churches trying to recover their missional identity.  The writers present ten specific, concrete steps which move a congregation through the adaption process.  Step-by-step, they offer guidance on engaging the mission field around us with the life-giving love of Christ.  It is a joy to commend this book to congregations and congregational leaders who are hungering for new life in Christ!

In advocating this book, I make no plea that it has all the answers.  I do plea that both lay and clergy leaders avail themselves of the excellent resources developed to enable us to meet the adaptive challenge.  Amid our squabbles, this is really the way forward.  Again the risen Christ stands at boundaries of modern living and commands, challenges, invites us to follow Him.

ENFORCED SABBATH

Last Wednesday I went to the hospital for arthroscopic surgery on my left knee.  Dutifully I reported at 5:30 a.m. (Yes, despite my protestations that God is not awake at that hour, I still had to report at 5:30 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. surgery.)  Suffice to say the surgery went fine.  The only real hiccup was the discovery of an “insufficient” fracture of my left knee in addition to the cartilage work the doctor was expecting.  (If I understand it right, an “insufficient fracture” is a fracture inside the knee that does not reach the outer edge of the knee.)  Instead of 2 weeks on crutches, I am now sentenced to 4 weeks on crutches plus some physical therapy.

I had blocked off Wednesday for the surgery and Thursday through Sunday for healing.  I learned again the truth of a line I have learned many times in my life:  “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.”

I thought recuperation would be a pleasant 4 day sabbatical from the routine of work.  The combination of pain, pain medication, and exercise involved anything but gentle, easy rest.  I tried reading some professional books (Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley and Apologetics by Alister McGrath, both good and recommended with enthusiasm) but found I could not concentrate.  I switched to a long awaited science fiction novel by David Weber (Like a Mighty Army; the 7th in the Safehold Series).  It is a great yarn, full of action.  I could only hang on for about 2 & 1/2 pages before drugs and drowsiness would cause me to lose focus.

Recovering from surgery or battling illness in any form is not Sabbath rest!  Duh!  This obvious truth I know well and yet easily forgot.  As I recovered it set me to thinking about the importance of rest amid the rhythm of work.  This is not a new thought with me.  I have long held that we live at a pace that is not sustainable.  Our bodies sometimes make us slow down.  Mine did so for me.

Yet Sabbath is something different.  It is an intentional dedicated pause for a purpose.  The purpose is to both honor and refocus on God as Lord and Ruler of our lives. The Scriptures teach us a far greater truth than simply enforced time off.  The commandment to honor the Sabbath springs from the earlier commandment, “You must have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).  We are instructed/commanded by the Lord God:  “Remember the Sabbath Day and treat it as holy.  Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to The Lord your God. …” (Exodus 20:8-10a).

Even in recovery The Lord is teaching me.  Even in recovery my own sinful nature is ever before me.  I have tried to act as if this commandment to honor the Sabbath has been repealed and am found out.  I’ve tried to “double dip” my time by having recovery serve as an enforced Sabbath and it has not worked.  The purpose of Sabbath rest directs me back to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It leads me in prayer and obedience, reflection and renewal.

My Spiritual Director is always reminding me not to find the time for devotions and quiet but rather to MAKE the time for devotion and quiet.  To honor the Sabbath is to make the Sabbath holy, not to squeeze something else in it (not even something as necessary as recovery from surgery).  Sabbath can never be enforced but is a freely chosen act of obedience, love and devotion.  In our pauses, in my pauses, God speaks once again and listening (however foggily amid the pain and pills) I find myself blessed and loved.

How is it with your soul?

Heading Towards the Cross: The Offense of Substitutionary Atonement

I readily confess that one of my favorite more contemporary Christian hymns/songs is “In Christ Alone” (written in 2001).  Its emphasis on the centrality of Christ and the trust the Lord rarely fails to move me to a deeper conviction and engage me in a stronger commitment.  It is one of those songs that feeds my soul.  Even typing the words, the great, first verse anchors my being and brings me before the Lord in peace.

“In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.”

The second verse moves into an affirmation of the incarnation. “Christ alone, Who took on flesh, Fullness of God in helpless babe!” Yet, from there it plunges into claims of atonement that are often an offense.

“This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid –“

The third verse embraces the resurrection in full-throated glory and the fourth verse moves the listener to the heights of discipleship in sanctified commitment.  Yet the last half of the second verse remains as an in-your-face declaration of substitutionary atonement.

In my last blog, “Heading Towards the Cross: The Workings of the Cross – Atonement” I noted the variety of metaphors which speak to the issue of how the cross “works” or how we are atoned – if you will, “at-oned” with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. I made no claims that my list was exhaustive (the list was largely, though not exclusively, taken from the writing of Scot McKnight in his book A Community Called Atonement). I emphasized how the earliest Christians refused to settle for a single metaphor or image understanding of atonement and salvation.  Through a refusal to settle for a single metaphor and an equal refusal to jettison any one biblical image under the inspired guidance of the Holy Spirit, those earliest Christians led us to a great and uncomfortable truth.  We wish to pick the image we like and slide quickly by the rest. Such is a mistake of biblical proportions.

In particular this conflict can be noted around issues relating to substitutionary atonement.  Substitutionary atonement is the notion (metaphor or image) that Jesus did something we could not do for ourselves.  He paid the price for our sin.  In short form it goes something like this.  A righteous, just, and holy God cannot simply ignore the disasters and evil consequence of sin.  The price of sin must be paid.  Christ, the one sinless human being (fully human and fully divine!), on the cross paid the price that just and righteous God required. God’s wrath is not against humans but against sin.  It is the logical consequence of love’s full embrace.  To demand that God’s wrath towards sin be ignored is effectively to live in a delusion of sin’s effect on human life and living.  By way of illustration of sin’s power we simply need to point to the civil war waging in Syria this very day.  Or, should we chose something closer to home, we can easily note the rising homelessness in the world’s most prosperous nation (including right here in Fort Worth!).  These are the real world consequences of sin and they can be ignored or papered over.

Yet notions of a wrathful God make us, especially those of the old mainline (now sideline) – shrink back in unfeigned disgust.  We recoil at the very idea of God’s wrath needing to be satisfied.  It makes God look vengeful and needless cruel. (Years ago I heard someone refer to it as “divine child abuse.”  In a recent article Dr. Bill Bouknight recalled that “back in 1993 at the infamous Re-Imagining Conference, a Union Seminary professor said, ‘We don’t need to hear about somebody hanging on a cross, and blood dripping, and all that stuff.’  And when those words were spoken, the interdenominational audience exploded into applause.  Obviously, the message of the cross is still as offensive as St. Paul found it to be—‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (I Cor. 1:23).”  He went on to note that “The official position of the UMC is clearly stated in Article XX of the Articles of Religion: ‘The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction but that alone’ (Bill Bouknight, The Atonement Controversy).”  Furthermore, scriptural references are too numerous to be ignored.  “God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:3, CEB).  “…he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2, NRSV).  “People are destined to die once and then face judgment. In the same way, Christ was also offered once to take on himself the sins of many people. He will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27-28).  “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain, and by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9, CEB). The list could go on but the reader can get the drift.

Whether we like it or not, substitutionary atonement cannot be ignore.  H. Richard Niebuhr’s great quote will preach at lent!  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr from The Kingdom of God in America).  At the same time it is important, vitally important, that we do not boil our whole understanding of salvation down to substitutionary atonement.  What the first Christians refused to do, so should we refuse to do also.  There is room and application needed for all of the various understandings (theories/metaphors/images) of atonement.  We need to embrace the whole of the gospel not just part of it.

The offense of substitutionary atonement comes for much of our age because it, substitutionary atonement, takes sin so seriously.  This is a truth we need to recover not only in our peaching and teaching but in our lives and confession.  “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I John 1:8-10).  We suffer from a surfeit of cheap grace.  A grace that costs little and means less.  Paul had it right, “we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:23-24).

The song, In Christ Alone, has it right, “Here in the death of Christ I live” (verse 2, last line).

Heading Towards the Cross: The Workings of the Cross – Atonement

There is an old story passed on to me years ago by an Army veteran in a congregation I served.  If I recall it correctly, a company of soldiers was dug-in on a hill and receiving a great deal of lethal shelling from the enemy.  Through the explosions, a soldier dived into a foxhole.  Hugging the ground his fingers touched metal.  He pried up a little pocket cross.  As the shelling lessoned, he look across the foxhole and notice that the person he shared it with was a chaplain.  “Say Chaplain,” he said, “how do you make this thing work anyhow?”  Atonement is about how this thing – the cross, crucifixion and resurrection – works.  It is about how we become at one with God.

Make no mistake about it.  The cross looms over the landscape leading to Easter.  How the cross works in the equation that leads us from the incarnation of Christmas to the joy of Easter morning and beyond is what this journey called Lent is about.

The cross is the epitome of Roman power and might.  It is the essence of human sin and suffering.  It is an unescapable reality of the Christ faith.  “Jesus said to everyone, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them’” (Luke 9:23-24).

I like the way the famous Anglican Church pastor John R. W. Stott put it: “There is then, it is safe to say, no Christianity without the cross. If the cross is not central to our religion, ours is not the religion of Jesus.” Or take the great quote of the German Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer who so valiantly resisted the evils of Nazi Germany: “The cross is laid on every Christian…. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 89).

That phrase of Bonhoeffer’s – “he bids him come and die” – is justly famous for this is exactly what Bonhoeffer did.  Furthermore it is justly famous because it pushes us back on the meaning of the cross and the basic teaching of Jesus – “take up [your] cross.”

All of this is a way of getting at how salvation becomes effective, how it all “works.”  It is significant, I think, that the early church insisted on doctrine of incarnation with Jesus confessed as fully human and fully divine as embedded in the great creeds. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; … he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human” (The Nicene Creed). They battled over the precise meaning of the Holy Trinity giving us the great threefold rendition of the Apostle Creed. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, … And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; … I believe in the Holy Spirit” (The Apostles Creed).

But, when it came to understanding salvation, what we properly call atonement or at-one-ment.  They reached for a series of metaphors and refused to adopt just one definition or understanding.  Each metaphor points back to the crucial transaction that takes place in the crucifixion and in the resurrection.  Consider the listing that Scot McKnight lifts up in his marvelous book A Community Called Atonement.

  • Recapitulation – “he [Jesus] became like us that we might be like him” (Attributed to a number of early church theologians including Irenaeus and Athnasius)
  • Ransom/Christus Victor – Jesus’ identification with us in death breaks our captivity to sin
  • Satisfaction – Jesus identifies with our sinful nature (this metaphor is closely akin to Substitution)
  • Substitution – Jesus did something for us that we could not do for ourselves, “He died instead of us and for our sins so that we could be raised with him to new life” (McKnight, p. 111).
  • Representation – “We both die and rise with Christ (inclusive representation) and he dies and is raised instead of us but for our benefit by incorporation (exclusive representation)” (McKnight, p. 112).
  • Penal Substitution – Christ died instead of us and died for us by paying the “price” for our sins.
  • Demonstration – Jesus’ death was the supreme demonstration of God’s love making it possible for us to take up our cross and live a life of love & service to others.

The list is hardly exhaustive and is fraught with complexity.  I would argue that the early church got it right in insisting on not just one metaphor but a series of metaphors.  Put differently, it is a serious mistake to take one of the above (or some version) and lift it alone as the sum total of what we understand atonement – at-one-ment – to be.  The “way it works” to go back to my opening image is more complex and more varied than any single metaphor.  In its great wisdom the early Church understood this truth.  My plea is that Lent finds us wrestling with these great themes.  They are still vitally the stuff of life today … especially in this bruised and battered world of ours.

On a very different subject, I want to pass on some good news.  The Central Texas Conference has received a grant from the General Board of Global Ministries.  The RELCC (Racial Ethnic Local Concerns Committee) grant is for a part of the covenant relationship with the Eastern Mexico Conference in which Eastern Mexico sends a team of worship leaders to lead a weekend worship retreat at El Buen Samaritano.  The retreat is designed for worship leaders seeking training/resources for leading Hispanic worship.  Rev. Sam Macias and Rev. Lilliana Padilla were instrumental in the development of this idea and have worked with the Conference centers of both Mission Support and Evangelism & Church Growth to set up this ministry project.  We give thanks for the generosity of GBGM and all here who have worked on setting this up!