Insights from Upper New York

Last Thursday I flew to Syracuse, New York.  Friday and Saturday mornings I made two separate presentations/bible studies to the Upper New York Conference of the United Methodist Church.  It was a great time of making new friends, sharing and learning for me.

Bishop Mark Webb and the good folks of Upper New York exercised radical hospitality towards me!  I was tremendously blessed by the warmth of their welcome and the graciousness of their hosting me.  (I even got time for an afternoon side trip to The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York on Friday afternoon.  A member of the staff at the Hall of Fame is also a member at the Cooperstown UMC.  They were able to arrange some special time down in the archives where I got to hold the hat Greg Maddux wore when he pitched against Roger Clements.  It is the only occasion where two pitchers who have won three hundred games each have pitched against each other!)

The Upper New York Conference was alive and vibrant.  I gained a sense of the Holy Spirit moving in their midst.  In a tough challenging cultural situation, they are wrestling with how to reach out in the name Christ with the gospel.  Upper New York has been one of the eleven conferences in the U.S. (along with Central Texas) who were involved in a growing Vital Congregation’s pilot learning project.

As commentators have well noted, the tsunami of secularity (which I wrote about in my May 2nd blog Leadership and Hope as the Tsunami Engulfs Us) has hit the northeast harder and earlier than the southwest.  Put differently, Upper New York is dealing with a tougher version of the tsunami than Central Texas is.  (There is no reason to either worry or brag in Central Texas.  Our time will come!)  There are lessons we can learn from Upper New York.  Perhaps the first and most important is to keep a good spirit as we are led by the Holy Spirit.  Discouragement will hammer us all, but this is still the Lord’s world.

The second strong impression I left Upper New York with lies in the close similarity of issues both conferences are facing.  I have written before about how I get up in the morning as a bishop and wrestle with three clear areas of focus: 1) Deep theological & cultural change within the Church focused on recovery of a Christ-centered theology; 2) The building of vital congregations including both the transformation of existing congregations and the development of new congregations; and 3) Developing a new generation of both lay and clergy leaders.  My perception is that Upper New York was deeply engaged in those same issues as well.

By way of example, I participated in a service honoring retirees and recognizing those to be ordained Deacons and Elders.  They (Upper New York) are already being hit by the retirement tsunami.  (Our peak in Central Texas should hit no later than 2018 but probably earlier.)  By my rough count, 38 deacons and elders retired and 12 new deacons and elders were voted on (to be ordained the next day).  The math is fairly plain.  Upper New York replaced about 1/3 of their retirees.  The impact is offset somewhat by the number of churches being closed.  The same is true for Central Texas.  Both conferences are facing serious leadership shortages.  (This is meant in no way to subtract from some outstanding new clergy being ordained in both conferences!)

I closed my Friday morning address with a reference to the British missionary C. T. Studd who left a fortune behind and abandoned a star cricket career (think all-star major league baseball player) to share the gospel in places like China and India.  He said, “Some wish to live within the sound of Church or Chapel bell; I want to run a Rescue Shop within a yard of hell.”

In my better moments, so do I.  In our better moments as a church, as local congregations, this is actually what we do.  We run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.  It is to this high and truly holy purpose that we gather and offer our witness.  This great truth towers before both the conferences.

Our son, now 35 and recently married, was born six weeks premature.  Jolynn and I were scheduled to start Lamaze class the day after Nathan was born.  I had the Lamaze instruction book in my pocket as I held my wife’s hand in the delivery room.  (Have you ever had one of those really bright ideas that wasn’t real bright?)  I pulled it out of my pocket and started reading it to Jolynn.  “It says here, honey, you need to breathe deep and focus.”  It is a blessed act of her forbearance and divine mercy that I am still alive today.  It also helped that she couldn’t get off the table.

Yet, as strange as it may sound, this is exactly the kind of advice we need today.  We need to breathe deep and focus.  Those of us from both the Upper New York Conference and the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church know that the Christendom world where America went to church every Sunday has died.  A new world is aborning and, as strange as it may seem, we need to remember that this is God’s world.  The Great Commission of Christ to His disciples is as applicable today as it has ever been.  Our mission, should we accept it, is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Amidst the chaos of our times and the controversies that are wracking the United Methodist Church, a new church is being born.  This is scary, but it is also a good and godly thing.  “The Church [truly] is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.”

A Time To Remember

As we come to Memorial Day, I invite us to pause for a time to remember and give thanks to and for those who has served in protecting our freedom.  This is not light task but rather an honorable endeavor that often calls for the greatest of sacrifice.

Recently Chaplain Ray Bailey, an elder in the Central Texas Conference currently serving as a Brigadier General Deputy Chief of Chaplains in the United States Army, shared with me the following story (used with permission):

Remembering our Fallen on Memorial Day

Recently I was asked by a widow to lead a simple service of remembrance at the grave of her husband buried in Arlington Cemetery.  It was the one year anniversary of his death.  As I walked to the gravesite, I noticed several family members at various graves paying honors and grieving at their loss.  Walking by one grave was a young woman and several other family members and friends placing a blanket on the grave so the wife could sit.  A wheelchair was there with a young Marine who had no legs.  He slowly lifted himself up by his arms and sat down on the blanket.  The wife gently stroked the tombstone and wept. I positioned myself by the tombstone where I was to conduct the service.  The family gathered and we began.  There were tears, smiles of memory, and solemn looks as I shared love, hope, and faith.  After I concluded I turned back toward the other graves and to my surprise, every eye of multiple families in the area was watching me had been listening to my words.  There were tears, smiles, and silent mouthing of “thank you” given me.  I was so moved by the moment. I slowly went back to my car and noticed the Marine slowly lift himself up back into his wheelchair while the young wife slowly folded the blanket to depart.  When I came close, she reached out and took my hand and through her tears, she smiled and thanked me for my words that meant so much in her pain.  As I drove away tears streamed down my face as I prayed, “Dear Lord, hold them in your hands.”

           -A personal story, CH Ray Bailey

 Courage, commitment, duty, and honor are old fashioned words that merit our proper respect and gratitude. Behind the noble sentiment of Memorial Day are the lives and loves of real people; people with families, friends and loved ones. This day is for us a proper time to remember and give thanks.  With General Bailey we too pray, “Dear Lord, hold them in your hands.”

memorial day

Joy in the Journey

As we look together at intentional faith development, there is joy in the journey – a deep seated peace and happiness that transcends even tragedy. This was at least part of what John Wesley was pointing toward in his understanding of the doctrine of perfection. Joy is at the core of holiness of heart and life.

There is a story which sticks with me from Philip Yancey’s marvelous book Where is God When It Hurts? Yancey writes of being surprised by happiness [deep seated joy]. He interviews and examines the lives of those we might call famous or stars and comments, “these ‘idols’ are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met” (Philip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?, p. 57). Then he reflects on those who might rightly be called “servants.”  Then he comments:  “I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to uphold them as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But now, as I reflect on those two groups, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours and no applause, ‘wasting’ their talents among the poor and uneducated. But somehow, in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the peace that is not of this world” (Philip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?, p. 57).

Once again we rediscover the truth of Jesus’ teaching. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

I heard someone say once in a sermon that “great living comes in serving.”  There is a truth here that gets at the essence of Methodism’s understanding of holiness of heart and life. Many love to quote St. Irenaeus, “the glory of God is man fully alive.”  What is missing is the full citation from this great saint. He continued, “The life of man is the vision of God.”  Intentional faith development is our moving on to perfect in this life through the very vision and works of the Lord. Literally and factually speaking, there is joy in the journey.

Both in Scripture and in the words of Jesus we are given an invitation to celebrate the joy, to enter into the discipline of joy. Sounds odd, doesn’t it, to combine those two words – discipline and joy?  Yet as a matter of faithful living they go together. Consider the powerful example that comes to us from the eighth chapter of the book of Nehemiah.

Let me set the context for you. The book of Nehemiah comes at the point in which the Hebrew people have returned to Jerusalem from exile. They have seen their nation destroyed. The Holy Temple where God is said to dwell is in ruins. They had been driven from their homes and lived in foreign lands as, at best, second class citizens. Now at last they return home. If Hollywood were to film the scene that opens before us in the eighth chapter, the picture would pan across a sad heart-wrenching tableau.

As the chapter opens, the Law of Moses is read to them. After living through devastation, they encounter again the Holy Scriptures in a scene of covenant renewal. They weep in verse nine because they understand how far short of God’s law they have fallen. These are a people who ought to be joyless but instead, as the word of God comes to them afresh, Nehemiah speaks for the Lord. “Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength’” (Nehemiah 8:10).

Did you catch the focus in the last part of that verse?  “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” God is telling them – don’t focus on the human failure; focus on God’s graciousness; focus on what God has done, is doing, and will do. In the tumult of our time those are words we need to hear.

Intentional faith develop leads to joy in the journey. The fruit of such joy is the “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ”  (Philippians 4:7, KJV).

Such is the ultimate aim of intentional faith development: a growing maturity in Christ that results in crazy love for God and others, immense joy in service to all, deep peace that passes understanding and true discipleship in daily walk with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. What more could anyone want from life?!

Recently I had the privilege of attending a Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF) Board meeting. At the meeting we focused on the issue of what it means to “make disciples.”  Among a number of outstanding and provocative presentations Dr. Clayton Oliphant & Rev. Debra Hobbs Mason from First UMC, Richardson, Texas shared the following contrast (which I use with permission).

Traditional Approach to Discipleship:

  • more passive than active
  • more complex than simple
  • more accidental than intentional
  • more subjective than quantifiable

New Approach

  • more active than passive
  • more simple than complex
  • more intentional than accidental
  • more quantifiable than subjective

So I invite the reader, lay or clergy, to reflect on the path to discipleship in your community of faith. Have your really focused on “making disciples” – disciplined committed followers of Jesus Christ?  Do you have a clear path that members and visitors alike can readily grasp and comprehend?  Does your path to discipleship engage in critical behavioral change?  Are demons faced and confessed with forward movement in holiness of heart and life (moving on to perfection)?  Is there joy in the journey and the fruit of peace which passes all understanding?

Facing the Demons

The words are rightly well known.  They are oft uttered in heartfelt worship.  Any genuine life of intentional discipleship rides on the wings of its application.  What words are those?  “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong” (I John 1:9).  Our chafing comes in the opening phrase, “if we confess our sins.”

Most of us choke because we think confession is something others need to do.  The universality of sin is widely disputed in our comfortable existence.  Where evil (as a concomitant expression of sin) is encountered it is usually done so in the extremes of a group like Boka Haram.  And yet, boldly the Apostle Paul asserts, “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).  John likewise declares, “If we claim, ‘We don’t have any sin,’ we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8).  However discarded, sin is still around and still present in our lives.

By inference, I remember on a summer vacation, we found ourselves hiking in Yellowstone National Park, one of our favorite places on earth. We were hiking in the north central part of Yellowstone in a beautiful forested section with a small pristine lake. As we got about a half mile down the trail, we came upon a sign that said, “Danger. Bear Sightings in the Area.” And we paused. We held a debate on whether we should continue down the trail or not. I looked around and thought, “You know. Come on! This is so wonderful, let’s go.” And so, reluctantly, my wife followed me down the trail. She said, “What are you going to do if you come across a bear?” And I said, “I’m going to run and jump in a tree and climb it.” And Jolynn said, “Bears climb trees, Mike. They can get you there.” And I looked at this gorgeous small lake nearby and said, “I’m going to run into the water.” She said, “Bears fish.”

I was lost metaphorically up a tree with no way to get out of danger.  No offense is meant or intended, but I submit so are you, so are we – individually and collectively.  By way analogy at some time or another we have shinnied up a tree that breaks under our weight or plunged into water that threatens to drown us.

Consider another image from the Boston Marathon tragedy. In the film clip of the first explosion, one of the runners was literally blown to the ground by the shock wave.  We pray that may never happen again, but metaphorically we know the reality of being blown to the ground in the living of our days, sometimes because of what we have done and many times through no fault of our own.

Sin is real in our lives and in our society.  It must be confronted.  A crucial aspect of intentional faith development is not to lie to ourselves about our lives or the reality within which we live.  The biblical advice is right on target.  If we confess our sins … then through Christ we can climb down the tree or get out of the water.  Facing the demons of our lives is a necessary element of intentional faith development.

As a part of my Lenten blog series on Heading Towards the Cross, I shared Professor Scot McKnight’s list of false gods that clamor to reign over us, over the very best of us!

  • Individualism – the story that “I” am the center of the universe
  • Consumerism – the story that I am what I own
  • Nationalism – the story that my nation is God’s nation
  • Moral relativism – the story that we can’t know what is universally good
  • Scientific naturalism – the story that all that matters is matter
  • New Age – the story that we are gods
  • Postmodern tribalism – the story that all that matters is what my small group thinks
  • Salvation by therapy – the story that I can come to my full human potential through inner exploration (taken from The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight; pg. 157).

A part of the genius of Methodism was its conviction of holiness of heart and life to such a degree that intentional sin (sins of commission) could actually be dispensed with.  Methodists call this moving on to perfection.  The question is still firmly lodged in our ordination service.  At the Executive Clergy Session of Annual Conference candidates for ordination are asked:

  1. “Have you faith in Christ?
  2. Are you going on to perfection?
  3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
  4. Are you earnestly striving after it?
  5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?”  (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 336, p. 262)

The list continues.  The thrust is clear.  We are to be engaged in ongoing continual faith development.  Along with critical behavior change, we have to face the demons that trip us (and our society) up.

Dallas Willard in his great spiritual classic The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God recalls a powerful teaching by an equally great Christian leader:  “The influential Anglican Bishop Stephen Neill, for example, says simply: ‘To be a Christian means to be like Jesus Christ.’ And, ‘Being a Christian depends on a certain inner relatedness to the living Christ. Through this relatedness all other relationships of a man – to God, to himself, to other people – are transformed.’”  (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, pg. 42).

Critical Behavioral Change

Common wisdom is that we change our beliefs, then our actions follow.  Reality is often different.  Most of us act our way into a new way of thinking and believing.  If we push hard on this distinction, the truth emerges that it is a both/and not an either/or.  Do you recall the old question, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”  Or the more modern version, “Is it nurture or nature, environment or genes?”  Both are important.  Neither can be separated.

So it is with intentional faith development.  What we believe is crucial and critical; yet, belief alone is not the whole story to faith development.  The key adjective “intentional” involves critical behavioral change.  As important as belief is, as critical as truly orthodox theology is, we learn by acting ourselves into a new way of living out our faith.

I invite the reader to look with me at three critical behavior changes that are central to intentional faith development: Devotional and quiet time with an emphasis on scripture reading; Hands-on missional engagement especially with the poor; and Faith sharing with those who are non- or nominal Christians. (I readily admit this list is not exhaustive but let’s start here.)

Devotional and Quiet time with the Word of God:  I have written on other occasions about my conviction that we live life at an unsustainable (and unhealthy!) pace.  Quiet time with the Lord and with Holy Scripture in silence, prayer, reading and reflection is essential!  It is non-negotiable if we wish to grow in intentional faith development.

Perceptively Leonard Sweet writes, “One of my heroes is E. Stanley Jones. He is widely read and celebrated for being a Methodist missionary theologian. But I admire him for another reason: he was a great artist of stillness. Every day, seven days a week, Jones devoted the first hour to leaning on his ‘listening post.’ He stood, sat, or walked in silence and listened to the voice of God: ‘The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!’ E. Stanley Jones mastered the art of stillness, and inspired me to sign-off letters and sign books with this triple wordplay: ‘Still in One Peace’” (Leonard Sweet, The Greatest Story Never Told, pg. 42).

A few years ago the Willow Creek Association participated in an in-depth study of spiritual formation, growth and maturity.  It involved over 80,000 people and some 200 churches (including a few from the Central Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church) all across the denominational and theological spectrum.  There was a deep correlation with devotional practice and regular scripture reading/study.

Hands-on Missional Engagement, especially with the Poor:  Intentional faith development fails when it is only a couple of content-based classes on prayer and bible study.  Yoked with quiet time is the crucial need to be personally engaged in hands on ministry.  Missional engagement with the poor by itself is not enough, but when linked with devotional quiet time and biblical reflection, walking with Christ takes on a whole new (greater!) dimension.

Just before she graduated from college, our daughter took a one night course her college offered on professional deportment.  The class was designed around teaching skills of public etiquette for a business lunch or dinner, proper professional dress, etc.  I remember she came home and instructed us that you are never to pass the salt and pepper shakers separately.  The instructor coached the students “the salt and pepper are married.  They go together!”  So it is with intentional faith development.  Devotion, prayer, quiet time and scripture are married to hands on missional engagement especially with the poor!

The third critical behavioral change is perhaps the most neglected and forgotten part of intentional faith development.

Faith sharing with those who are non- or nominal Christians: There is something amazing that happens in the interchange between faith sharing (including witnessing) with others, especially those who are non- or nominal Christians.  The sharers own faith is strengthened and grows in grace-filled maturity.  Many who participate on a mission trip report that they got much more out of the mission work than did those they were helping.  So it is with witnessing and faith sharing.  In the amazing spiritual economy of God, faith sharing (witnessing) becomes a critical behavioral change whereby the sharer grows in the love of Christ and the love of others.

I cannot help but recall D.T. Niles famous definition of evangelism.  “EVANGELISM is witness.  It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food.  The Christian does not offer out of his bounty.  He has no bounty.  He is simply a guest at his Master’s table and, as evangelist, he calls others too.  The evangelistic relation is to be “alongside of” not “over-against.”  The Christian stands alongside the non-Christian and points to the Gospel, the holy action of God.  It is not his knowledge of God that he shares, it is to God Himself that he points” (Daniel T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 96).

Designing the Path

I can still recall the thrill of listening to Bill Hybels, the Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, describe their mission well over two decades ago.  “Willow Creek exists to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.”  Harvard Business School had a graduate student do a study of Willow Creek’s discipleship path.  With amazement she reported that it was their intention to take atheists and turn them into missionaries!  At Willow they call them “FDFers” – fully devoted followers.

Here in the Central Texas Conference we describe our mission in similar terms.  The mission of the churches, clergy and lay people of the Conference is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Both statements of mission grow out of the great commission of the risen Lord Jesus Christ in the closing paragraph of Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:16-20).  What stood out for me was not the declaration of purpose or mission; after all, that is given by Christ!  Rather, I was then and still am now deeply impressed by the clarity of their strategy for making disciples (or if you prefer, FDFers).

Clarity is often a forgotten, critical element in the path of discipleship.  Ironically in the United Methodist Church we have been exceptionally clear about the central elements of intentional faith formation (raising up disciples).  Our fivefold vows state the essence:  “prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.”  Another way to think of intentional faith development in making disciples is to compare a biblical model from Acts with the original Methodist Movement, then place the two alongside the “five practices of fruitful congregations and fruitful living.”

Methodist chrt

The challenge for many churches is to get clear about the pathway for making disciples.  This is harder than it looks at first blush.  While we want to set out a “pathway” that is linear, life doesn’t happen in a linear fashion.  Intentional faith development swirls, ebbs and flows.  The context and missional situation can vary greatly from person to person and from congregation to congregation.  Yet, if we haven’t thought and prayed through a clear path of discipleship, we tend to end up with a vague, nice sounding yet inconsequential plan for intentional faith development.  A linear path, however imperfect, is better than no clearly delineated path.

At our upcoming Annual Conference meeting, we hope to look at different models for faith development in making disciples.  Bishop Jones will offer an outline with The Wesleyan Way.  Our other three presenters will share different models with written material for any church (pastor, lay leader, Sunday School teacher, etc.) to pick up and adapt for their own unique setting.

Presenter: Rev. Candace Lewis Resource: A Disciple’s Path by James   A. Harnish
Presenter: Dr. Phil   Maynard Resource: Shift by Phil Maynard
Presenter: Sue   Engle Resource: Charting a Course of   Discipleship by Teresa Gilbert, Patty Johansen, & Jay Regennitter   (revised by Delia Halverson)

We have a tendency to make this all overly complex.  The early Methodists were clear and simple.  Their “method” (hence the name Methodist) could be succinctly communicated.  The challenges of clarity and communication are once again squarely before us.  What is your path of discipleship?  Can you lay it out in 25 words or less in a manner that can readily be understood by a non- or nominal Christian?  Do the members of your congregation understand and share your path of discipleship?

 

Annual Conference Focuses on Making Disciples

I am often asked, “What is the theme of this year’s Annual Conference?” For me, the answer is always the same. Our theme is “to energize and equip local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The theme is the Conference’s core mission – to energize and equip local congregations. The second part of theme reflects the core mission of every local United Methodist congregation – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I don’t believe in a theme de jour or flavor of the year. To borrow from the slogan made famous by Ford Motor Company… This –“to energize and equip local congregations to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – is Job 1!

Underneath that theme we try to have a focused teaching piece (usually two or three major presentations) that will guide us as an Annual Conference through our local churches to better accomplish the mission of making disciples. Sometimes the best laid plans go astray.

I typically work a year and a half ahead in scheduling Conference teachers. About 18 months ago, I asked Rev. Rudy Ramus the Sr. Pastor of St. John’s UMC in Houston to be our Conference teacher for 2014. My intent was that he would lead us in a focused teaching on how we might be more culturally and ethnically sensitive. Rev. Ramus graciously agreed to come lead us. However, he recently found out that his daughter will be graduating from medical school that day! We celebrate for her and for the whole Ramus family but have had to scramble to change our plans.

Rev. Rasmus has consented to come lead us in the same teaching piece in 2015 instead. I had planned to have us focus on intentional faith development – how we in fact grow and mature as disciples of Jesus Christ in 2015. Instead we have flipped the two subjects. We will focus on discipleship development (the path of disciple-making) in 2014 and receive Rev. Rasmus’ great teaching on cultural and ethnic sensitivity in 2015. (For those interested, our Conference teaching in 2016 will be on evangelism and witness.)

I am pleased to announce, with great appreciation for their willingness to come on short notice!, that we will have Bishop Scott Jones on Monday afternoon share an overview of intentional faith development using his material from Cokesbury’s The Wesleyan Way. Rev. Candace Lewis, Executive Director of Path 1 (the United Methodist Church’s new church development initiative) will share the critical learning that her Path 1 Team have made in discipleship development. Dr. Phil Maynard, a noted pastor, consultant and leader in the church, will share a path to discipleship based on his book Shift. Rev. Sue Engle, a leader in the field of intentional faith development, will use the material developed in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference called Charting the Course of Discipleship as a model for how local congregations can set out a clear and cogent path of discipleship. Each of the three presentations/break-out sessions will be for 1&1/2 hours. They are designed to help pastors, lay leaders and congregations work on drafting their own plans for discipleship formation in their respective ministry settings. It is our intent to give every congregation some very practical tools by which they may think through and enact a path of discipleship from a new Christian to a deeply committed discipline-follower of Christ. They will have components that involve education, Bible study, spiritual formation and applications in practice.

Over the next 5 or 6 blogs I intend to write on intentional faith development. My material will hone in on elements of a path for discipleship that move us beyond vague assertions in to practical applications.

What do we mean by a disciple of Jesus Christ? Arguments about definition (which clergy tend to love and laity tend to have their eyes glaze over!) are often exercises in work avoidance. While we may quibble about the words, the essence is straight forward. A disciple is a committed disciplined follower of Jesus Christ. Dallas Willard says a disciple is an apprentice of Christ. The great Saint Athanasius reminds us that Christ became like us that we might be like Him! It is an audacious claim with a missional call into evangelistic witness and ministry of love, justice and mercy for all – literally all! – of God’s people. Discipleship has membership intentions. We are to be followers of the way of Christ! And, we are to be a part of the living, loving, forgiving body of Christ, the church!

Discipleship is at the heart of what the Apostle Paul calls sanctification. “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (I Corinthians 1:30, NRSV). I love the way the Common English Bible translates the same passage: “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” (I Corinthians 1:30, CEB). Eugene Petersen’s The Message paraphrase renders the passage, “Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 1:30, The Message).

In one sense discipleship is clear. We are followers of Jesus who seek to imitate Him in our life and witness. In another sense, discipleship can involve different, complex, and contextual applications. In all senses it is a life journey with the Lord living, as Wesley put it, in the full house of God.

Think about it. What is the path of discipleship for your church? How clear and clearly understood by all is it? Are you walking on that path? “O Master let me walk with thee in lowly paths of service free; tell me thy secret; help me bear the stain of toil, the fret of care” (“O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee,” Hymn No. 430, The United Methodist Hymnal).

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