CTC Cabinet work in Diversity, Mission Field Ministry and Inventory Retreat

As this blog is posted (Tuesday, February 17th), the Central Texas Conference Cabinet is meeting in its yearly “Inventory Retreat.”  At our retreat, we look at the needs of the Conference for clergy deployment in the upcoming year.  This starts with an assessment of the number of people retiring from active appointive ministry (Christian, lay or clergy, never retire from ministry as long as they are faithful followers of Christ!) and the number of people coming in for appointments (new seminary graduates, licensed local pastors, clergy seeking transfer from other United Methodist Conferences or denominations, etc.)  As can be easily imagined, it is extensive and exhausting work.  Given the wild swings in need, balancing incoming and outgoing clergy is difficult.  Additionally we review and pray over requests by both clergy and churches for possible changes of appointment.  We seek to be driven by the Holy Spirit.  Together, with all the clergy and laity of the Central Texas Conference under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, a new church is slowly coming into being.  I ask for your prayers for the Cabinet on our Inventory Retreat.

A critical and exciting (encouraging!) part of work is the growing diversity of the Central Texas Conference.  While our dominant ethnic group continues to be Anglo, we have rising congregations with growing diversity.  Our ministry continues to expand with the addition of Rev. Samuel Macias (on loan from the Northeastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church of Mexico) and the wonderful saints of La Trinidad UMC.  We have a number of thriving Korean language (actually multi-lingual – Korean and English) churches, a vibrant Ghanaian language church (begun as a new start a few years ago) in Arlington, a French-speaking congregation, etc.  Currently we have 5 different situations where an African-American pastors is serving a mostly Anglo congregation.  Likewise three clergy of Korean heritage are also serving predominately Anglo congregations.  (This is a dramatic rise from just a few years ago.)  Additionally many predominately Anglo and/or African-American congregations are faithfully leaping old ethnic boundaries and becoming more multi-ethnic.  In one situation a new church is in the process of being birthed out of two congregations, one predominantly Anglo and the other predominately African-American.

Not only are we moving across ethnic lines but also across gender barriers.  Among Protestant clergy as a whole, women now make up more than ½ of the seminary students.  I believe we are currently at our highest number of women clergy under active appointment and have the greatest number we have ever had on Cabinet.

All this and more is a work of the Lord among us.  This great diversity calls to mind I Corinthians 12:  “There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. … Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many.  We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink” (I Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-13).  Our great diversity and inclusivity is a gift God gives the church through the active presence of the Holy Spirit.

Last month, the Cabinet spent a full day in training on “Intercultural Competency Partnership” under the leadership and guidance of General Secretary Erin Hawkins and a staff member from the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR).  It was a superb time of learning that is part of a larger missional and evangelistic framework to reach all of God’s people.  I love the definition of “intercultural competency” General Secretary Hawkins taught us.  “Intercultural Competency (effectiveness, agility): ‘The ability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior and/or serve as a bridge when difference is present’”  (Mitchell Hammer).  We will continue our learning as an entire Conference with Rev. Rudy Rasmus as our keynote teacher at this June’s Annual Conference meeting.  It should be another time of great learning!

Ultimately all of this is done not for our sake but for the sake of Christ and His church.  Moving into Lent we are reminded again of what we are about regardless of ethnicity or gender, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Once again the Apostle Paul speaks to us from the passages of Holy Scripture.  “But 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. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (I Corinthians 1:23-25).

As we make appointments we will continue to be guided by the need to make mission field appointments based on gifts and graces that accomplish the mission.  We will continue to lift up core values and commitments with a high Christology, a towering focus on the local church, and an ongoing commitment to leadership development that includes by laity and clergy.  We are driven by faithfulness to Christ and service to the mission field the Lord places before us.  Ministry is much more than a career.  It is a holy calling.  We solicit your prayers.

The Challenge of Brokenness – Part 3 ©

Reporters covering the White House during the administration of President Calvin Coolidge had a tough go of it.  President Coolidge wasn’t called “silent Cal” for no reason.  On a Sunday morning, the story goes, President Coolidge went to church.  Coming out at the close of worship, a reporter accosted Coolidge.

“What did the preacher speak about?” he demanded to know.  Coolidge pause, looked at the reporter and commented, “Sin … [long pause], he was against it.”  So are we – at least in theory.

Officially a doctrine of sin (and original sin at that) is part of the lexicon of United Methodism.  Article VII of the Doctrinal Standards and General Rules of the Methodist Church states:

Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby every man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually. (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 103, Section 3, p. 65)

Similarly Article VII of the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church states:

We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil.  Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. . . . (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 103, Section 3, p. 72)

[It is important to note that both General Rules are currently operative and protected by the Restrictive Rule 2, Paragraph 18 of The Book of Disciple of the United Methodist Church 2012.]  On paper we hold to a doctrine of sin as central to understanding and diagnosing the human condition.  Its evidence is all around and within us in a bewildering variety of personal and corporate ways.  And yet, our easy acceptance of the cult of the nice precludes real analysis.

Similarly the book of The Acts of the Apostles is peppered with specific references to sin.  None perhaps is more pointed than the conclusion of Peter’s great Pentecost sermon.

Peter replied, ‘Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away — as many as the Lord our God invites.’ With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation’ (Acts 2:38-40).

We must repent of sin and be saved by the Lord our God in the fullness of the Trinity – baptized in Jesus Christ, received through the gift of the Spirit, at the invitation of the Lord God.  It is all there in the original doctrinal claim of United Methodism, and yet much of it is lacking in our preaching and teaching today.

The original Methodist movement also reclaimed a strong doctrine of sin.  The aforementioned letter of the Duchess of Buckingham offers dramatic evidence of this conviction and practice. Wesley’s sermon on original sin leaves no room for doubt.

This, therefore, is the first, grand, distinguishing point between heathenism and Christianity.  The one acknowledges that many men are infected with many vices, and even born with a proneness to them; but supposes withal that in some the natural good much overbalances the evil.  The other declares that all men are ‘conceived in sin,’ and ‘shapen in wickedness,’; that hence there is in every man a ‘carnal mind which is enmity against God, which is not, cannot be, subject to his law, and which so infects the whole soul that ‘there dwelleth in him, in his flesh, in his natural state, ‘no good thing;’ but ‘all the imagination of the thoughts of his heart is evil’, ‘only evil’, and ‘continually’  (John Wesley, “Original Sin,” Sermon #44, in The Works of John Wesley, Sermons II, 34-70, Volume 2, ed. Outler,  p. 183).

The modern mind chokes at the strong words and harsh language of Wesley’s sermon.  Yet there is a truth here which we have forgotten and largely ignored even though it lies still embedded in our core doctrines.  We have succumbed to the foundational idolatry of self-salvation.  In moralistic therapeutic deism, Pelagius stands triumphant.  Almost forty years ago Albert Cook Outler offered the theological challenge we face in comfortable middle class Methodism.  “How many of you would take seriously the notion of a human flaw that is radical, inescapable, universal – a human malaise that cannot be cured or overcome by any of our self-help efforts or ethical virtues, however ‘moral’ or aspiring – which is not, at the same time, of the actual essence of God’s original design for the humanum (what he intended human existence to be)?” (Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 32, 34).

The great American theologian of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr, defines sin as rebellion from God ultimately rooted in pride.  We are not the center of the universe.  It is not about us.  Our personal pleasure, regardless of whether it is golf, gold, or grumbling is not the purpose for which we are created.  Outler, the great Methodist theologian, labeled sin “a radical universal human flaw … a malignant disease” (Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 24).

A simple, basic way to think about this issue is to ask yourself who is in charge of your life.  Who is your ruler; your ultimate boss; the commander of your existence, resources, actions, and reactions?  C. S. Lewis put it this way:  “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world and might even be more difficult to save” (C.S. Lewis, quoted in Dean, Almost Christian, p. 25). H. Richard Niebuhr summarizes this watered-down, blanched out understanding of sin in his famous statement:  “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, The Kingdom of God in America, p.193).

And yet, at any age, we are called to greatness through life in Christ under power of the Holy Spirit.   The way of salvation begins with a Holy Spirit-inspired recognition of our sin, of the fact that we are not the center of the universe.  This is what Wesley called the first dawning of grace.  Prevenient grace is the grace of God that goes before.  It leads us to an awareness of our sin and our need for a Savior.  Such grace is the first step in the “order of salvation.”

The critical element of reclaiming a doctrine of sin lies in its connection to the doctrine of salvation.  Indeed any concept of salvation (Christian or otherwise) reflects to the need to be saved from something.  In the Christian case, that something is sin – our persistent separation from God and determination to have ourselves as our own gods.  If the failure of the human condition and the sad state of human affairs is endemic and systematic, then surely we need rescuing.  If it is merely a matter of being “nicer,” then why bother?  We merely need to work a little harder at being nice people.  We need to be more arduous at improving our moral behavior.  And yet, at the center of the Christian claim is the notion of sin that is a radical human flaw that cannot be adequately dealt with by any self-help solution or governmental intervention.  St. Augustine’s words whisper from the past, guiding us to reclaim the present and the future:  “But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error” (Augustine of Hippo, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, Confessions, Book I, 20, pp. 40-41).

It is the centrality of this conviction of sin that delivers us to the issue of atonement and a doctrine of salvation along with the concomitant need for the reclamation of a vibrant doctrine of the Trinity.

Think of the standard images for atonement (at-one-ment with God).  The term salvation comes from the battlefield.  We are knocked to the ground and about to be run-in by a spear-wielding enemy.  Just then, someone steps into to take the blow and dies to save our life.  We are saved!  Or think of redemption, the image comes from the slave market.  It is an especially powerful image for those caught in the grip of an addiction.  We are being auctioned into slavery for our sins  – our willful separation from God.  Someone, Jesus Christ, steps in and pays the price for our freedom.  Or again, consider the term Paul uses in Romans, Justification.  We are in court and held to account for our failures, our sins.  Any plea that we are mostly a nice person is easily thrust aside.  The evidence is clear.  We are guilty of sin, of separation, from God.  As the gavel is pounded down, Christ steps in and sets the verdict aside declaring us justified, that is made right by his actions.

While hardly a complete list, each image referenced points to the seriousness of our separation from God.  They signal a far different reality than the need for just a little correction.  They give evidence of a radical flaw in our makeup; a flaw so deep that none escape.  This truth was demonstrated recently by Pope Francis when he posed the question about himself.  “‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ I am a sinner. This the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

It is the cross rising before us in the distance that makes us face fully and truthfully the reality of sin, our propensity to be our own gods.  It is the cross standing before us in the distance that challenges our naïve assumptions of our own essential goodness.

The Christian conviction wrapped up in the theological concept called atonement is that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus somehow this sin has met its match.  Sin is still real.  It is still present.  It still needs to be faced, confessed and repented of; but its power is ultimately broken.  Heading towards the cross we are challenged to face the seriousness of our separation.  Only then can the joy of Easter morning be fully embraced.

The Challenge of Brokenness – Part 2 ©

 

 I read the famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s semi-classic What Ever Became of Sin? 40+ years ago.  Yet down through the decades the books resonates in the uncomfortable pit of my soul.  One particular story lingers.  It is as follows:

On a sunny day in September, 1972 in Chicago’s downtown business loop, a plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner.  “As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word ‘GUILTY!’

Then without any change in expression, he would resume his stiff stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture.  Then again, the inexorable raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word ‘GUILTY!’

The effect of this strange [behavior] on the passing stranger was extraordinary, almost eerie,” reported the noted psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger.  “They would stare at him, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.

One man, turning to another who was [Dr. Menninger’s] informant, exclaimed: ‘But how did he know?!’”
(Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin, p. 72)

To borrow from the Apostle Paul; my brokenness is ever before me.

In his work Menninger chronicled the “disappearance of sin” as a general concept and as a part of our cultural language.  He noted that the concept of sin had migrated into crime, symptoms of illness or disease, and collective irresponsibility.  At the close of his still appropriate book (perhaps even more so than when originally published), he delivers a plaintive defense of the need to reclaim and reapply an understanding of sin.  The closing words of his work linger hauntingly in the air above modern society like smoke after a fire.  “Yet, how is it, as Socrates wondered, that ‘men know what is good, but do what is bad?’ ” (Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin?,  p. 230).

Culturally we are not far from the Duchess of Buckingham’s famous complaint to the Countess of Huntingdon on Methodist preachers and their understanding of sin.

I thank your ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers.  Their doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions.  It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. (Letter from the Duchess of Buckingham to the Countess of Huntingdon in the early days of Wesley’s ministry.)

It may be monstrous, but it is also true.

What stands in marked contrast today is that many Methodists (and Methodist preachers) are inclined to at least subconsciously agree with the Duchess of Buckingham.  As noted last week, while exceptions abound, a weak doctrine of sin is the general rule.  We don’t teach or preach on sin to any significant degree.  Thus there is no real need to be saved from anything.  We need merely to improve. “‘Gospels of Sin Management’ presume a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind … [and] they foster ‘vampire Christians,’ who only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until heaven”  (Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, p. 76).

We have limited the label “sin” to something others do … those who aren’t good.  We have applied it to a certain class of actions (usually involving errant sexuality) or relegated the concept to our enemies.  Yet everywhere we live with the consequences of sin, our own and others.  Consider this list (that I shared in a previous blog) which Professor Scot McKnight has put together.

  • 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

 

(Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, p. 157)

 Years ago Professor Albert Outler told a story in one our classes about a student who was wrestling with the weighty topics of sin and salvation.  Casually (as Dr. Outler remembered) he recommended a book for the student to read on the subject.  To his surprise, the student went, purchased the book, and carefully read it through.  Upon finishing, grief stricken, he returned to visit the professor.  “Well” he exclaimed, “if sinning is a part of our very nature and we can’t overcome it by moral effort alone, then all I have to say is ‘God help us!’”  To which, Dr. Outler pointed out, this is exactly what God has done in Christ.

The challenge of our brokenness can only be answered by Christ and the good news of salvation.  This necessitates the recovery of a vibrant cross-roads (pun intended; literally where the cross meets the road of life!) at the juncture of sin and salvation.  Such is the subject of the next blog.

The Challenge of Brokenness (c)

Stories which circulate on the internet are dangerous citations.  Attribution is at best sketchy.  Internet tales can take on an exaggerated life of their own.  Any yet, I will venture where angels fear to trod by sharing a story passed on to by Rev. Virgilio Vasquez-Garza (my good friend, esteemed colleague, and Assistant to the Bishop for the Rio Texas Conference).  It is written in the first person but just who that individual is, is not cited. “As a bagpiper, I play many gigs. Recently I was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man. He had no family or friends, so the service was to be at a pauper’s cemetery in the Kentucky back country. As I was not familiar with the backwoods, I got lost and, being a typical man, I didn’t stop for directions. I finally arrived an hour late and saw the funeral guy had evidently gone and the hearse was nowhere in sight. There were only the diggers and crew left and they were eating lunch. I felt badly and apologized to the men for being late. I went to the side of the grave and looked down and the vault lid was already in place. I didn’t know what else to do, so I started to play. The workers put down their lunches and began to gather around. I played out my heart and soul for this man with no family and friends. I played like I’ve never played before for this homeless man. And as I played ‘Amazing Grace,’ the workers began to weep. They wept, I wept, we all wept together. When I finished I packed up my bagpipes and started for my car. Though my head hung low, my heart was full. As I opened the door to my car, I heard one of the workers say, ‘I never seen nothin’ like that before and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.’” (email story received from Rev. Virgilio Vasquez-Garza; RevDiver@aol.com; Thursday, March 31, 2011)

There is much to both laugh at and admire in that story.  The heartfelt offering for a homeless man embraces the best of the gospel witness.  The still compassion of those gathered around listening touches the heart.  The commitment to give your best in the playing of the bagpipes regardless of the context reminds us to offer our best no matter what the situation.  The salute to septic tank painfully challenges us to reflect on the degree to which the Christian movement is playing over the compacted refuse of a broken society and a broken church.

If, as has been my contention, the heart of our challenge as a church today lies in the combination of an emaciated theology with a stunted understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, then, we too have been playing “Amazing Grace” over a septic tank.  We have exalted the human potential movement beyond any true merit.  We have limited human responsibility beyond reason.  We have too often advocated a “salvation plus” heresy.

By “salvation plus” I mean the notion that salvation comes through Christ plus anything else we might earnestly assert.  For example, often for those on the theological and political right the subtle “salvation plus” comes from an individualistic human freedom (the right to bear arms as an example) plus a dollop of Jesus.  Conversely for many on the religious and political left “salvation plus” comes packaged as exalted faith in government intervention plus a peppering of Jesus ethic with a dash of God.

The thoughtful and fair reader will point out that both of the aforementioned positions are caricatures.  Such an assertion is accurate.  Yet caricature and all, a core of truth remains.  We are always tempted by the notion that somehow we can correct what God didn’t quite get right.  Subtly the argument is made that we need to improve God’s working by adding a little bit of our own genius.

Yet always the gospel story returns to Christ alone.  Rome will not save us either in the first century or the twenty-first century version.  The heroic human individual is lamentably flawed in both the first century edition and the twenty-first century addition.  There lies deep within us and our larger society and culture a brokenness that challenges our deepest human longing, our highest human aspirations and our noblest efforts at virtuous living. Devoid of a divine dimension, we are playing “Amazing Grace” over a septic tank.  The music may be beautiful but in the final analysis we are worshipping the wrong thing. At the heart of the challenge of brokenness lies the recovery of a doctrine of original sin.

Stop you reading for a moment and engage in a quick spiritual examination.  When is the last time you heard a sermon on original sin?  When have you last heard a sermon on sin that made you squirm?  How frequent and how real is your own sense of confession?  How often do you consider sin to be something that applies mostly to others (and only in a mild sense touches upon your own person, group, nation, ideology, and culture?

As I write this I have been teaching a class comparing John Calvin and John Wesley.  We have spent our time examining their differences (using Don Thorsen’s book Calvin vs Wesley: Bringing Belief in Line with Practice).  Yet even as we focus on their differences, we must start with their great agreements.  Facing the brokenness of their time, both started with a deep understanding of human sinfulness (including their own!).  For Calvin, there was abiding sense of total depravity; a sinfulness at our core.  For Wesley, the emphasis was on human sin as a corruption of our creation, a sickness unto death.  I can still hear the great Methodist theologian Albert Cook Outler speaking in class and reaching out through print.  “How many of you would take seriously the notion of a human flaw that is radical, inescapable, universal – a human malaise that cannot be cured or overcome by any of our self-help efforts or ethical virtues, however ‘moral’ or aspiring – which is not, at the same time, of the actual essence of God’s original design for humanum (what He intended human existence to be)?”  (Albert C. Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 24)

Perhaps it is past time that we reclaim the doctrine of original sin both for ourselves and for the church, the tattered bride of Christ, which we love.

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #7

 

 Moving Beyond the Church World © 

We stood gazing over the impressive “hemi” engine at the Good Guys Car Show located on the grounds of the Fort Worth Motor Speed Way.  My cousins, Fred and Tom, peered intently inside the hood of the “hot rod.”  They gazed in awe down at the engine components.  I gazed too but I had no clue what we were actually looking at.  Finally I had to ask; “What are we looking at?”  Almost reverently Fred pointed with one finger down at a part of the engine intake.  Solemnly he intoned, “Fuel injected.”

That day at the Texas Motor Speedway I was introduced to a different world I only dimly knew existed.  My cousins had talked with great zest about the world of cars and car shows (especially what I would call the “hot rods”) before.  They had repeatedly invited me to come to one of the shows with them.  They both had restored older model cars to a “street rod” configuration.  This semi-hidden world was a great part of life for them.  It was a part of life that they were eager to share.

So what does all this have to do with the Wisemen and “the light in our darkness?”  In a sense, everything!  Neither of my cousins is an active Christian.  To be sure, they would align themselves loosely with what they understand to be some of the values of the Christian faith.  Still neither would claim the title of “disciple” or “Christ follower.”  Strangely however, they were “evangelistic” about their love of cars and zeal to share that love with others.

For me they are a launching point into this last blog (of seven) on the series “EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness.”  I write to offer six practical suggestions for church pastors moving themselves and their churches beyond the church world.  Additionally, I write to offer five practical suggestions for lay people in moving beyond the church.  [While I will list them separately, there is a real sense that both lists belong to both lay and clergy alike!]

Practical suggestions for church pastors moving themselves and their churches beyond the church world:

1.     Live the incarnation. Go and enter in the non-Christian, non-church world. The Lord of the universe didn’t just demand that we come to him!  Jesus came to us.  Follow Christ’s example!
2.     Make friends for the sake of friendships (not as a means to an end). Model such behavior for your congregations and be publically explicit about such modeling! This is a basic way we both share the love of Christ in us and help our congregations do the same.
3.     Where appropriate, share what God is doing in your life. The key is to speak of the triune God as a subject in action and not as the object of sentence. To quote Carlyle, “People want to know God other than by second hand.”  To quote Peter, “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it” (I Peter 3:15).
4.     Pray to be led into a faith-sharing, witnessing opportunity. The Holy Spirit is at work in our world and our lives. Every time I remember to pray to be led, in measurable time, the Holy Spirit comes through!  The Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is powerfully active in our lives!  We need to both seek and trust the Spirit’s guidance.
5.     Turn “attenders” into “recommenders.” Jim Ozier writes, “Before we get to a culture of invitation, we must master the art of recommendation” (Jim Ozier & Fiona Haworth, Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church, p. 117; the whole book is an excellent starting place, but chapter 9 is worth the price all by itself!).
6.     Rediscover and employ in congregational worship brief “testimonials” or “witnesses” by lay people about how God is active in their life. Brief, practical faith sharing has a power and blessing all its own. It must not be about God but do stress how God has been active in my/our life/lives.

Practical suggestions for lay people in moving beyond the church world:

1.     Prayer, Prayer, Prayer! It cannot be said enough. The Holy Spirit will lead you!  In your prayer, trust your fears to the Lord. Pray also for people you see in public places. Try asking your table server next time you eat out if they have something they might like you to pray for as you say grace.  9.5 times out of 10, they will be deeply appreciative and often spiritually moved!
2.     Rehearse and be able to share your own story (“testimony”) of how God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit has been and is now active in your life. Sunday School classes and small groups are excellent safe places to practice. In fact, a Sunday School class will itself be revitalized and revolutionized by such faith sharing.
3.     Engage in mission outreach as a part of sharing your faith story. The Christian faith is more caught than taught. A (lay) friend recently told me about how in his church they share fresh grown produce with the poor and hungry.  In doing so, they add a gracious non-coercive verbal witness
4.     Exemplify a Christian lifestyle by both word and deed. It is not an either/or equation. It takes both word and deed.  The two together are a gift to others!  Employ Philippines 4:4-9.  In this divisive culture, it will be received as a blessing.
5.     Invite and go with. Incarnational faith sharing and invitational faith sharing go together. They too are not an either/or.  Pick some wonderful ministry/event in the life of your church and invite a non-Christian friend to go with you.  Most Christians fail to understand how scary visiting a church is to non-Christians.  Simultaneously most non- or nominal Christians would secretly be delighted by an invitation to go to church with Christian friends on Christmas Eve, Easter or Mother’s Day.

There is more, much, much more, to be said.  Allow a redundant emphasis.  The clergy list applies to laity and the lay list applies to clergy!  The light shines in our darkness and the darkness does not overcome it!  (John 1:5). Moving beyond the church world is an exciting adventure in faithfulness!

I would also recommend these resources to explore evangelism and faith sharing:

Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church by Jim Ozier and Fiona Haworth

Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism by Martha Grace Reese

Get Their Name: Grow Your Church by Building New Relationships by Bob Farr, Doug Anderson and Kay Kotan

Just a Walk Across the Room by Bill Hybels

 

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #6

 A Test of Love ©  I overheard the conversation; so too did others. In the setting you really couldn’t help it. The puzzled plaintive questioning in the voice was unmistakable and the dialogue surfed the edge of embarrassment.  It involved a young woman talking to a close and obviously treasured boyfriend.  I cannot remember the dialog word for word but it went something like this.

“I don’t understand?  If it meant this much to you why wouldn’t you share it with me?

His response was muffled and awkward.  “I didn’t want you to feel pressured or put you on the spot.”

Her earnest, almost heated, reply came back.  “But if it mean that much to you; you could at least share your convictions.” He mumbled something about being embarrassed and fearful of rejection.  She respond by saying something to the effect of “if you love, as you say you do, how could you not share!?”

Can you guess what the topic was?  It was about her boyfriend’s failure to share his deep convictions of faith in Christ with his girlfriend.  Apparently he had told her that he went to church but never added much more to his low level, low key sharing.  For her, it was a test of love.  If you really love me, you will share.

There is a great love contained in the story of the wise men (Magi) as found in Matthew 2.  Actually there are two great loves.  The overwhelming first love is God’s love for us, for all humans.  God loved us so much that the Lord of the Universe didn’t just sit back and say, “I hope they get it.”  God came down and came to us in the person of a baby named Jesus; the cradle connects to the cross … and beyond!  According to Luther, this is the greatest miracle of all.  This great love is encapsulated in the great doctrine of “incarnation.” God became flesh, human, in Jesus!

The second love is that of the wise men traveling their great distance and kneeling at the Savior’s feet.  It can be simply summarized in the power, majesty, and humble overwhelming love of Matthew 2:11.  “They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

The test of love for us is similar to that of both God Almighty and the wise men.  Do we love enough to share?  Do we love enough to risk misunderstanding or rejection?  Do we really love as the Lord loves?

There is much written about attractional theology and attractional church evangelism.  Our churches should exemplify such radical hospitality that people are attracted to them.  They should be so open, welcoming and loving that others want to come!  But by itself attraction is not enough.  It fails to fully reflect the greater love of God in Christ.

Incarnational theology and incarnational evangelism engages, reaches out, to the last, the least, and the lost.  It passes the test of love in its willingness to reach out, initiate an encounter, and, with great graceful intentionality, offer our gifts in sharing that which matters most to us – the very person and love of Christ.

Back in 2010 Rev. Mike Slaughter, the lead pastor for Ginghamsburg UMC, wrote a book entitled Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus.  His first chapter was entitled “Missional vs. Attractional.”  Among other great insights he commented, “The church must make a major paradigm shift from attractional evangelism to mission evangelism.” (p. 7)  The chapter ties the great commandment of love to the great commission of faith sharing and disciple making. Offering the light of Christ in our darkness is a test of love.

Awhile back (2006) Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church wrote an insightful and instructive book entitled Just a Walk Across the Room.  One reviewer on Amazon wrote: “It was insightful to me to see how easy it can be to share my faith with others in a non-threatening and easy manner. The bottom line is to truly care about others, be open and honest, and share the most important thing in my life which is my relationship with Christ.”

Witnessing, faithful sharing, and evangelism comprise together a test of love. Ultimately this concept of love connects with deeper convictions about salvation.  In an age where we have confused salvation with going to heaven, it is useful to remember that salvation is ultimately not about heaven but about a relationship with Christ as Lord both in this life and the next.  Jesus himself put it well.  “I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.” (John 10:10)

There is an old, once well-known but now almost forgotten poem that expresses this relationship well.  It draws together God’s great love and the test of our sharing.  Written by Myra ‘Brooks’ Welch, it is simply entitled “The Touch of the Masters Hand.”

The Touch of the Masters Hand

T’was battered and scarred, and the auctioneer thought

It scarcely worth his while

To waste much time on the old violin, but held it up with a smile;

“What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried, “Who’ll start the bidding for me?”

“A dollar, a dollar”; then two!”

“Only two? Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?

Three dollars, once; three dollars twice; going for three.”

 

But no, from the room, far back, a gray-haired man Came forward and picked up the bow;

Then, wiping the dust from the old violin, and tightening the loose strings,

He played a melody pure and sweet as caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer, with a voice that was quiet and low,

Said; “What am I bid for the old violin?”

And he held it up with the bow.

A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?

Two thousand! And who’ll make it three?

Three thousand, once, three thousand, twice, and going and gone,” said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,

“We do not quite understand what changed its worth.”

Swift came the reply: “The touch of a master’s hand.”

 

And many a man with life out of tune,

And battered and scarred with sin,

Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd, much like the old violin,

A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine; a game – and he travels on.

“He is going” once, and “going twice, He’s going and almost gone.”

But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd never can quite understand

The worth of a soul and the change that’s wrought

By the touch of the Master’s hand.

A Wow, and a Well-done, and an On the Road Again

Wow!  A huge congratulations goes out to all the faithful saints and servants for our Connectional Mission Giving (commonly called “Apportionments”) in 2014.  David Stinson, CTC Treasurer, notes that “2014’s payout rate of 95.95% is actually the second highest percent since 2006 and third highest in the last fourteen years.  A job well done!”  I agree!  He goes on to add, “In addition to the excellent CMG giving, our Conference churches also gave $177, 302 to Special Day Offerings, a 20% increase over the year before.”

Under Dr. Randy Wild’s and Dr. John McKellar’s leadership, the CTC Council of Finance and Administration is able to report that we have paid our General Church and Jurisdictional Conference Connectional Mission Giving in full for 2014!  Wow!  Well done, thou good and faithful servants!  To the churches of the Central Texas Conference who faithfully paid in full I offer a heartfelt word of thanks!

We continue into the new year as we have the past year with a focused intense effort at “energizing and equipping local churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  I have written before about the key role that HCI (the Healthy Church Initiative) and SCI (the Small Church Initiative) are playing in this great ministry.  This fall I received a fascinating report from Rev. Carol Woods, the West District Superintendent, about the highly positive impact that HCI and SCI are having in her District.  I pass it on with a heart “Well done!” to emphasize its importance.

“In the Fall of 2010, 19 churches in the West District began participating in HCI or SCI.  Five of those churches went on to do the HCI consultation in the Spring of 2012, and are just now completing the two year process of following up on their prescriptions.  All five of these churches have experienced worship attendance increases from 12% to 66% with a 28% average increase.  These increases greatly increased the viability of three of the churches, which had been rapidly declining prior to doing HCI.  In contrast, three healthy 126+ churches in the West District that did very little or no HCI chose not do a HCI consultation.  They decreased in worship attendance in a similar period of time.  Their worship attendance decreased 7%, 9%, and 21% respectively for an average decrease of 12.3%.” (Rev. Carol Woods, West District CTC)

Monday afternoon (January 26th) I hit the road again.  Rev. Gary Lindley, Executive Director for Evangelism and Church Growth, and I are visiting seminaries in the east.

By way of background, we routinely have connections with Perkins School of Theology and Brite Divinity School.  With the SCJ College of Bishops, we have quadrennial meetings at St. Paul’s School of Theology in Kansas City.  As we look ahead to a wave of retirements, we are trying to consciously extend our reach.  Two years ago (along with Kyland Dobbins and Joseph Nader who accompanied me on different parts of the trip) I visited Boston University School of Theology, Harvard Divinity School, Duke Divinity School, Gammon School of Theology, Chandler School of Theology, and Asbury Theological Seminary.  Just this past December I had an outstanding visit with officials at Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor in Waco.

On this trip, we hope to visit with those who are a part of special ministry training programs in new church development and campus ministry at Asbury.  We will spend time at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.  It is our hope to open a relationship with folks at United in a way that might lead to a mutually fruitful future.

We’ll be back home Thursday and Friday.  Sunday I am back on the road with a South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) College of Bishops meeting at Perkins School of Theology, S.M.U.

Meanwhile I am having a blast teaching on Calvin vs Wesley using Professor Don Thorsen’s book.  The class is a joy and the subject matter is fascinating.  We’ve been meeting at Lou’s Place on the campus of Texas Wesleyan University.  Next week’s focus is on chapter 3: “Humanity: More Freedom Than Predestination.”

As the Super Bowl comes upon us (with the tribulation of Deflategate – if you don’t understand ask a sports fan), Dr. Art Torpy, a participant in the Calvin vs Wesley class passed on the following:  “Is the Super Bowl divinely rigged? One in four Americans say yes, according to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Religion News Service. Twenty-six percent of Americans and 27 percent of self-described sports fans believe God plays a role in determining which team will win a sporting event. Even more — 53 percent of Americans and 56 percent of sports fans — say God rewards faithful athletes with good health and success.”  Dr. Torpy couldn’t help but facetiously add, “Calvin lives on!”  To which I answer, LOL! [Hmmm…. I can’t help but wonder; does God have something against my beloved Chicago Cubs?]

I truly believe that God is building a new great church in our midst even as the old world of Christendom is passing from the scene.  In the chaos of our modern world, it is important to remember a great biblical truth.  “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” (Jeremiah 29:11).

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #5

 Evangelism as Mission © 

One of my treasured books is an old copy of D. T. Niles classic That They May Have Life (copyright 1951).  D. T. Niles was a great evangelist, pastor, leader of the World Student Christian Federation, President of the Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Methodist Conference, and President of the World Council of Churches in the middle part of the 20th century.  He opens his book with the following assertion.  “Evangelism is the call of the hour, as it has been the call of every hour when Jesus has been taken seriously” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 11).

Better remembered and often misquoted is his famous statement found in that classic.  “Evangelism is witness.  It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food” (D. T. Niles, That They May Have Life, p. 96). Rev. Niles continues in the same paragraph: “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.’”

We have long and rightly understood that there is an intimate and inseparably intertwined connection between evangelism and missions.  (By missions, I will employ a short-hand definition – the deeds of love, justice and mercy.)  Living the Great Commandment to love God and love our neighbor (see Luke 10:25-37 and Matthew 22:34-40) engages us in activities of social justice as straightforward as feeding the hungry and as controversial as welcoming the stranger (think of debates about immigration and gender preference) and providing adequate medical care for all; the commandment impels us forward to bring relief to victims in Haiti, water wells to Kenya, and help to the homeless in Fort Worth.  This is a central part of the light of Christ being brought in the darkness of our currently twisted world society.  It is an offering of love in the name of Jesus, who is with us always.

Evangelism can be understood as one vital aspect of missions.  If we truly love people, we will share with them what we understand to be the source of life at its fullest (see John 10:10).  Failure to share new life in its fullness under the Lordship of Christ is a negation of love in its fullness.  To truly love the neighbor is to evangelistically share in graceful, appropriate ways.  (Please read carefully!!!! note the qualifier: “in graceful, appropriate ways.”)

The title phrasing is important.  The light of Christ comes in our darkness as a part of mission as evangelism.  It does not say that mission is evangelism nor even evangelism is mission.  Evangelism is one important, critically important, aspect of the larger mission we are engaged in. Simply engaging in missions or what is seen as missional activity is not necessarily engaging in evangelism.  It may or may not bring the light of Christ into our darkness.

Evangelism cannot be collapsed into engaging in more ministries of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, engaging in medical ministry/missions in a different setting (whether in one’s home city or on another continent), etc.  All this and more is needed – desperately needed.  All this and more, the great missional expanse of ministries of sanctification through love, justice and mercy, is worthy of our time, talent, and energy in the name of Christ.  Missions – what I would like to summarize by the phrase “the deeds of love, justice and mercy” – is a companion of evangelism.  Indeed the case can be made that evangelism is a subset of the wider ministry of missions.  However good and godly (“He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8), Jesus felt it necessary and vital to add the great commission – “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

When we conflate evangelism and missions (or missional activity of love, justice and mercy), we do an injustice to both and truncate the full biblical witness offered by the Risen Savior and Lord.  It is significant that Jesus instructs His followers to specifically “name the name.”   Disciples are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity.

In an instinctive and nascent way, the wise men understood this truth.  It is this great epiphany truth to which they point in offering their gifts.  The light of Christ enters our darkness offering a way out into the light of grace-filled love for a battered and bruised world.  Sharing that light is its own deep act of love and a fulfillment of the holy (and holistic) mission Christ as Lord and Savior calls us to engage in.

“Jesus spoke to the people again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12).  He said, “I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me won’t live in darkness” (John 12:46).

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #4

 First Steps at Recovering a Personal Witness© 

I have had the joy of serving a number of wonderful churches.  On one occasion at Asbury United Methodist Church, we consciously geared up to teach evangelism and faith sharing.  This was a congregation with a history of conversion growth.  There were a number of years in which adult professions of faith exceeded the number of people who joined on transfer from another congregation.

The Associate Pastor taught a course designed to help people discover their personal best style of evangelism  She used material from Willow Creek Community Church entitled Becoming a Contagious Christian: Communicating Your Faith in a Style that Fits You (written by Mark Mittleberg, Lee Strobel & Bill Hybels). As the class started participation was high.  People were eager to discover how to share their faith.  Slowly the class built on the learning until the time when people would actually share their faith with a non- or nominal Christian friend.

As the time for faith sharing came closer attendance steadily decreased!  Anxiety palpably rose.  Excuses for not being able to complete the course grew with creative reasons.  It became obvious that many in class (most of us!) were afraid.  Fear of faith sharing, rejection, and ridicule was a mind killer and a spirit drainer.  Assisting the Associate Pastor in teaching, she and I over and over tried to address the fears present (both those articulated and those that remained unspoken).  

One of the first steps at recovering a personal witness is to honestly face the fear of doing so.  The fears we have are often (almost always!) far greater than reality.  Amazingly, if shared respectfully in a gracious natural way with attentive listening, most people are eager and hungry to talk about their deepest beliefs, highest yearnings, and soul gnawing spiritual hunger.  We need to appropriate the advice of I Peter 3:13-16.  “Who will harm you if you are zealous for good? But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them.  Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it. 1Yet do this with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience.”

A second key element in recovering personal witness is a willingness to share your own experience of God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit acting in your life.  People want to know how you experience the Lord Christ in your life far more than they want to know about God in the abstract.  Share your story!  It doesn’t need embellishment.  In fact, dressing it up weakens the beauty and greatness of God’s presence.  Have you had a “God-sighting” this past week?  Share the story!

A third basic part of first steps for a congregation recovering personal witness and faith sharing is that the pastor has to practice what he or she is preaching.  Put differently, the pastor must, absolutely must! be a player coach.  At a minimum this involves spending time and making friendships with non-Christians and not just residing in a church ghetto.  Friendships and relationships have to be real and not just done to get a conversion.  One of our deeper struggles is that many Christian people don’t know many non-Christian people.  Make some friends and be a friend without expectation of reward.  God will offer the opportunity for sharing.  (Bob Farr, Doug Anderson, & Kay Kotan have written an excellent basic book titled Get Their Name that can help.)

A fourth basic step at recovering personal witness is to engage in recommending.  Jim Ozier (Clip In: Risking Hospitality in Your Church) notes that we are “hardwired to recommend.” We recommend all kinds of things – restaurants, stores, people, hairstyles, doctors, etc.  American culture is geared more to recommending than inviting.  A crucial first step in faith sharing is simply to learn to recommend Christ and your church to others.

There is more to say here, much, much more.  But, at first step:

  1. Face your fears
  2. Share your story of Christ active in your life
  3. Practice what your preach, make friends
  4. Recommend Christ and your church

Epiphany is real.  The light of Christ shines in our darkness.  Take some basic first steps to share the light and so live the great commission (Matthew 28:16-20).  Next week, “evangelism as mission.”

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #3 The Challenge of Why Bother ©

This is the third in a series of “Epiphany” related blogs which deal with the foundational issue of faith sharing and evangelism.  They spring from the understanding that among the very first to greet the new born Savior were a group of wise men who were probably adherents of another religion (Zoroastrianism).

As we struggle with the “Dilemma we face” (see my previous blog) I am convinced that, at its heart, this is a theological crisis.  With pointed insight Ross Douthat (see Bad Religion) and many others have delineated how much the old “mainline” churches have theologically descended into a vague unitarianism.  The challenge presented by much of an indifferent America is, “why bother being Christian?”

Stories abound.  Martha Grace Reese in Unbinding the Gospel viscerally catches my attention with the following tale:

The idea for the Mainline Evangelism Project can probably be dated to one conversation I had with some of my favorite people. I was leading a retreat for eight smart, loving pastors of growing mainline churches. Off the cuff, I asked, “Hey, what difference does it make in your own life that you are a Christian?”

Silence. Loud silence stretched on. And on. I stared around the circle in disbelief. Finally one volunteered hesitantly, “Because it makes me a better person???”

That question hadn’t been intended as a pop final. I was not raised in the church, so I have a very clear sense of having made a choice to become a Christian that went against the culture in which I had always lived. I have a good sense of what it is like to be Christian and what it is like not to be Christian. Most Christians and most pastors grew up in the church. They did not change cultures to get there. (From Unbinding the Gospel, Martha Grace Reese, pg. 14)

Clearly we have some theological work before us.  I would argue that this necessitates at a minimum a re-appropriation of doctrines of salvation and sin.  How real is sin in our life and times?  Surely ISIS and Ferguson challenge us with larger sins of violence and racism but the litany does not end there.  Honest personal reflection clamors for a self-application that in our comfortable middle class existence we wish to explain away.

Likewise our allergy to any talk of hell and damnation leads to a fuzzy notion of what we are saved from (if anything!).  The answer of course is sin and death.  Yet, the full implications of such in our time are often lost on us.  Let’s face it.  The biggest sin confronting most of us, the sin we really need to be saved from, is a massive dose of hedonism which hides in the guise of personal pleasure as long as we don’t harm anyone else.  It begs all kinds of larger questions.  Worship of the self and our own pleasure in any form is an idolatry, and the wages of sin still are death.  We need salvation.  We need a Lord – ruler – Master who can deliver us from our bondage.

In the face of the challenge of “why bother” there is reason for great hope.  A light really does shine in our darkness. The light has a name.  It is Christ.

I close with a perceptive insight offered by Ross Douthant:

The rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread skepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man a God unto himself – these forces have clearly weakened the traditional Christian churches. But they are also forces that Christianity has confronted successfully before. From a weary Pontius Pilate asking Jesus “what is truth?” to Saint Paul preaching beside the Athenian altar to an “unknown God,” the Christian gospel originally emerged as a radical alternative in a civilizations as rootless and cosmopolitan and relativistic as our own. There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of that original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age  (Bad Religion, by Ross Douthat, pg. 278-279).

I think the Apostle Paul has it right. “The wages that sin pays are death, but God’s gift is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)  More in the next blog on “the first steps at recovering a personal witness.”