EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness #2  The Dilemma We Face ©

Come journey with me towards an unknown future.  Do what the poem bids: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” (“The Gate of the Year,” or “God Knows” by Minnie Louise Haskins)   Follow the star to a Bethlehem stable … and beyond.

Since moving to the Boston area approximately a decade year ago our son Nathan has been actively involved in a local church. (For the record, it is not United Methodist but for the purposes of this blog could just as easily have been so.)  He has served on their version of the Administrative Council and been church treasurer for two terms.  He’s sung in the choir and engaged in education, stewardship and missions.  He loves his local church but on marrying about a 1 ½ years ago, Nathan and Abigail (our daughter-in-law, who likewise was active in her local church) decided to find a new church home together that was closer to their new home.

As my son was finishing his term of leadership, the church’s beloved pastor of many years announced that he was leaving to accept a new assignment in Florida.  Additionally the church was hit with news of some potentially devastating financial consequences (structural damage on the building).  Over the years the endowment had gradually been spent down as the congregation slowly declined in membership.  Financially, the viability of the congregation has now been called into question.  Their beloved church is now facing the real possibility of closure.

For decades they have declined to engage in evangelism.  Concepts of witness, conversion and faith-sharing simply weren’t a part of the church theology or culture.  They were built as a congregation for Christendom.  The general church culture of their area was expected to provide for the next generation.  But, as we well know, in our post Christendom age, this simply is not happing.

The unattractive dilemma they face is simple and straightforward:

  1. They have declined to the point where brining in new members is a matter of survival.
  2. Evangelism, sharing the good news of salvation in Christ and bringing in the next generation, is critical if all the good missional activities of love, justice and mercy are to continue.
  3. Their theology, while technically believing in evangelism and witness, doesn’t really encourage such activities and/or in principle doesn’t believe in evangelism, the need for conversion to Christ as Lord and Savior, membership in His body, the church, and salvation.
  4. The Pastor, so excellent, wonderful and faithful in pastoral care, worship spiritual formation and mission outreach, does not know how to engage in evangelism and is allergic to even learning how to do so. [In fairness to the pastor, who really is a wonderful faithful Christian, he comes out of a Christian faith tradition that does not know how to share evangelism and is also allergic to doing so.]
  5. The laity share the same allergic response to evangelism.
  6. Questions abound about when persuasion becomes manipulation to such an extreme degree that any kind of persuasion is view as manipulation (however light and gentle!) and results in a conviction that attempts at conversion are unethical.
  7. Yet this church will not survive without strong evangelistic engagement! It either gets in the conversion business or dies (and their great good works of love, justice and mercy die with them)!

Here is the punch line.  The same can be said for a host of Central Texas Conference churches, pastors, and laity!!  WE FACE THE SAME DILEMMA!

We are here – active, present, saved, blessed and empowered as Christ followers – because the Epiphany story of light in our darkness did not die with the wise men.  We are here because the great commission given by the risen Lord Jesus in Matthew 28 (“Therefore, 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) did not end with a group of befuddled Christ followers debating definitions of evangelism and arguing that they did not want to share their faith for fear that persuasion might be seen as manipulation.  We are here present and active as Christ followers, those saved by grace, for two towering reasons.

  1. Because of what God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit has done to redeem us;
  2. And, because others cared enough to share the good news and lead us (persuade us!) in the way of faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.

The light shines in our darkness and we can blow it out or share it.  The choice is up to us.  Like those of old, may we be numbered among the wise.

 

EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness 1

Happy New Year! And greetings in the name of the Lord whose birth we celebrate.  With this first blog of 2015, I quite realize that Christmas is over and yet, based on hard biblical evidence, want to assert that it is not at all over!  The Eastern Orthodox tradition celebrates Christmas with the arrival of the magi (wise men) on January.  In Western Christian tradition January 6th is also historically celebrated as Epiphany Day.

Perhaps we know the story too well.  It begins, as Matthew tells us, in a straightforward fashion.  “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?  christmas starFor we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him’” (Matthew 2:1-2).

Older translations call them “wise men,” which Raymond Brown (the great Catholic biblical scholar) thinks is too charitable a designation, if not downright misleading.  They are called, in the original, “magi” (which is how the Common English Bible – CEB renders the translations).  A little note at the bottom of one of those older translations says they were “a learned class in ancient Persia,” (Revised Standard Versions – RSV) which doesn’t tell the whole story.

Brown reminds us that “magi” covers a conglomeration of astronomers, fortune tellers, arguers, and magicians of varying degrees of plausibility and quackery.  Bishop Willimon comments that Matthew is probably thinking of astrologers or stargazers – a ridiculous, absurdly frivolous, specifically condemned pastime by Jewish standards.  The magi would thus represent, to the early Jewish reader, the epitome of Gentile idolatry and religious quackery, dabblers in stars or chicken gizzards, forever trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future.  They were not so much “wise men” or “we three kings of Orient are” but your average, credulous, naïve, gentile horoscope devotee – sincere perhaps, learned, earnest – but utterly ignorant about religious matters (William Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, pp. 48-49). And yet, Matthew, in his own way, commends them to us. Why is that?  What lesson can these stargazers teach us?

With an economy of words, Matthew tells of their unrelenting search for Jesus.  They come to Herod for help, and the religious scholars of the day carefully check things out in Scripture.  “They told him, in Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet…then Herod…sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him” (Matthew 2:5-8).

The religiously learned sat while these untutored ignorant stargazers searched.  Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “wise men (and women) still follow Him.”  This is true, good, and holy advice, but it misses the first and most vital point of the lesson.  Wise people still seek Him.  These wise men, these stargazers, these seekers, would instruct us of faith’s journey.  The new year begins best for us when we seek Him.

Again Bishop Willimon perceptively comments, “Do you see?  The Chosen people (read, church) pour over our Scriptures, debate fine points of theology, doing it all so decently and in order, checking one another out on correct doctrine, keeping our religion middle-of-the-road, balanced, respectable.  In our wait, we miss the whole thing” (William Willimon, IBID, p. 49).

Ironic isn’t it, God uses searching, seeking unbelievers (probably from Iraq or Iran) as a lesson for us.  In one sense, the search for the real spirit of Christmas reaches its culmination on December 25th with the child found in a Bethlehem manger.  In another, just as assuredly true sense, the search for the real spirit of Christmas, the Holy Spirit of God, continues into the New Year.

Lessons abound for us but not the least of which is our danger in missing the warning given by God deliberately to those who are believers.  Don’t get so lost in pouring over the scriptures and debating theology that you fail to enter the new year seeking Christ.

I think there is a great further lesson that we must take to heart.  We are afloat on a sea of seeking people.  Assumptions of a Christian America are wildly mistaken.  In our post-Christendom world, the recovery of Epiphany: The Light in Our Darkness, is a central issue for the church.

I intend to begin the New Year of our Lord 2015 writing a series of blogs on the recovery of a witnessing, sharing, evangelizing faith.  It is the primal lesson of the magi and actually (though often forget) the intended focus for the season of Epiphany.

The word “epiphany” means “an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being.” Check a good dictionary, and it goes on to say that an “epiphany” is a “usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something … an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking … an illuminating discovery” (Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary).

The shock of this passage to the first century reader lies in just who finds the Savior.  It is not the great King or learned scholars.  Those who we call wise were truly unbelievers, those thought by all to lie outside God’s grace and care.  The “ah-ha!” moment, the “epiphany”, comes in the realization of where their arduous searching journey leads them.  Notice carefully that they are led by God (remember the star) to the newborn Lord.  If star-gazing, chicken-gizzard dappling interlopers from Iraq (Persia) are led to the Lord, why then this God is for all!  The Savior is not the property of one race, clan, or nation.

The second shock comes when it dawns on us that we should have been there helping the magi find the way.  Those believers who stayed in the Palace with Herod pouring over the scriptures but failing to put their teaching into active use miss the greatest event in history.  Surely this is an epiphany – a striking new insight – that we need to be reminded of.  We are not only to seek Christ ourselves but just as importantly, we are to engage others in their seeking.  This God, the very one who comes to us in the baby Jesus, is for all.  No one is outside God’s grace, not even strangers from the East.  The implications for us as we engage in ongoing conflicts in the ancient area of Persia (think ISIS) or even in the cultural wars of our own society are astounding.  They call us to reach out evangelistically to everyone and commend our care of those most perceived outside God’s love and care.  Epiphany: The Light in Our Darkness is about the great Wesleyan imperatives of evangelism and sanctification (holiness of heart and life).

More to come.  Happy New Year!

The Gate of the Year

“The Gate of the Year” is the popular name given to a poem written by Minnie Louise Haskins in 1908. The title given to it by the author was “God Knows”.  It is one of my favorite poems (despite its Calvinistic leanings), and I offer it as a prayer to begin this New Year of our Lord 2015.

God Knows
holding-handsAnd I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still: What need our little life Our human life to know, If God hath comprehension? In all the dizzy strife Of things both high and low, God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will Is best. The stretch of years Which wind ahead, so dim To our imperfect vision, Are clear to God. Our fears Are premature; In Him, All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until God moves to lift the veil From our impatient eyes, When, as the sweeter features Of Life’s stern face we hail, Fair beyond all surmise God’s thought around His creatures Our mind shall fill.

May the light of the Lord guide you into this New Year of our Lord, 2015 A. D.!

Bishop Mike Lowry

A Night Above All Nights

Christmas story

As a Child of the Light

During this Advent time of preparation I find myself drawn again and again back to hymns and music, both ancient and contemporary with everything in between, as a way of expressing my faith.  Dr. Shubert Ogden’s phrase – “we do theology in order that we might do doxology” – sticks in my mind.  Sometimes, often?, I experience it in the reverse.  I do doxology (praise), and it leads me to theology.  Such is this season of the year.

Recently I came back to an Advent hymn that is not sung that often.  It was a favorite at Bethany United Methodist Church in Austin when I served as Senior Pastor there (1997-2001).  “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” is Hymn No. 206 in The United Methodist Hymnal.  The third verse grasps for the essence of Advent.  “I’m looking for the coming of Christ.  I want to be with Jesus.  When we have run with patience the race, we shall know the joy of Jesus.  In Him there is no darkness at all.  The night and the day are both alike.  The Lamb is the light of the city of God.  Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus” (Hymn No. 206, verse 3, The United Methodist Hymnal).

At our best this is our ardent desire.  We want to be like Jesus.  Amid all the talk of the “spirit of Christmas” there lives a nugget of truth.  The true Holy “Spirit” calls us to be like Jesus.  The great biblical teachings rise again to the forefront.  The commandment to love God and neighbor (the Great Commandment); the admonition to feed, clothe, visit and care for “the least of these my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:31-46); the call to “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).  All this and more shines in the light.

I am always moved by great acts of generosity and service that spring forth in this season of the year.  I even more deeply moved that such actions issue forth year round.  There is something great and godly about seeing a church and a people walk as children of the light.  Allow me to lift up two straightforward, wonderful examples as emblematic of many such great ministries taking place in our churches.

Consider this one from Poolville UMC, a small country church in the North District.  They took the United Methodist Churches Service of Repentance to Native Americans to heart and lifted up the light of Christ in deeds of love:

For 2014 Poolville UMC decided to develop a three-year Covenant relationship with General Board of Global Ministries’ missionary Donna Pewo.  Donna Chaat Pewo serves as a Church and Community Worker at the Clinton and El Reno Church and Community Ministry of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC).  The Clinton/El Reno ministry primarily serves children of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes in a rural area west of Oklahoma City.  

On April 4th and 5th Poolville UMC took about 35 people on a mission trip to the Clinton Oklahoma United Methodist Indian Community Center. Nearly half who went were members of other community churches, and many of those were youth​.  Projects included making repairs on playground equipment, building new benches around the playground, some painting, exterior repairs, plumbing, interior carpentry and purchasing & installing five 8×6 foot metal shelves.​

On September 13th through September 15th, fifteen members of the Poolville United Methodist church ventured out on their second mission trip to Oklahoma this year, this time to the El Reno Indian United Methodist Church. Some of the projects included cutting weeds and mowing the grass, repairing the front porch, new signage, installing three new AC and heating units, repairing the water heater, painting the entire interior of the fellowship hall and installing fourteen 8 foot light fixtures in the fellowship hall and one light fixture in the children’s room.

Child of the light indeed!

Or take this example from Bartlett UMC in the South District, a small town near Temple:

Food for Friends is a ministry begun by Bartlett UMC.  It is one way this congregation seeks to make a difference in its community. Each Friday this ministry feeds 125 homebound and elderly personas a warm, home-cooked meal.  Since 2010, the ministry has served 30,000 meals!

It is so simple, practical and basic.  It is a reflection of the light and way of the Christ-child who started life himself as a homeless refugee.

At our annual Cabinet Christmas Party, the members of the Cabinet (Bishop, Lay Leader, Center Executives, District Superintendents) and spouses traditionally give our “white envelope” gifts.  Instead of gifts for each other, each couple offers a special financial gift in the honor of the rest of the Cabinet to some ministry that reaches out with the love of Christ in word and deed.  The list is impressive and exceptionally varied.  Some gifts are in our towns and communities (Food For Friends was one such gift this year).  Others stretch across the globe (at least two were for Maua Methodist Hospital, an Advance Special of the United Methodist Church and the ministry locus of our Conference Mission Trip to Kenya last September).

This kind of holy activity goes on all over the church in myriad of ways as reflections of the light of Christ.  Together we head eastward to Bethlehem Stable.  We’re looking for the coming of Christ.  We want to be with Jesus.christmas star

The Greater Advent Desire

Recently I caught myself in worship singing with full-throated adoration the great Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  On this particular Sunday we didn’t just sing the typical first four verses but instead dug deep into verses 6 and 7, which are sung less often.  As I lifted verse 7 in the air, its words forcibly struck me:

O come, Desire of nations bind
All peoples in one heart and mind.
From dust thou brought us forth to life;
Deliver us from earthly strife.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” verse 7)

And then the chorus kicked in with joy and wonder swelling to fill the whole sanctuary.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

In a typical week where violence haunts the land we call holy, parades in brutal excess by ISIS and even stalks our country and nation through civil disturbance, I could not help but wonder.  Is this really the “desire of nations?”

It struck me that often our desire as individuals and nations is not to be bound in “one heart and mind” but rather to be victorious; to have our side or our positon win.  We need not look overseas to behold this warped sense of desire.  As I watched Congress I could not help but wonder if at times our two major parties are more intent on “winning” than on actually helping America.  Confession drives me to face a reality that this can be just as true in the church (and in my own life) among Christians as it can be in our country and wider world.

Singing and meditating on the words we sung, I noticed something.  The preceding verse, verse 6, has been curiously changed.  It reads:

O Come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thy justice here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” verse 6)

The change lies in the second line – it used to read “thy advent [instead of justice] here.”  In my musings, I cannot help but wonder if the change is both significant and in grave error.  We sing “O Come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer.”  Dayspring means “dawn.”  The song is a prayer that “death’s dark shadows” may in truth and fact be put to “flight.”  Justice by itself doesn’t put such dark shadows to flight.

Ultimately Advent is about the very coming of Christ; the appearing of our Lord and Savior, ruler and deliver.  As good and as legitimately desired as justice is, we need more than justice.  By ourselves we will never truly be able to achieve true justice.  Rather we need something better, something greater.  We need a Savior.  We need a Lord (ruler) who takes us to justice and beyond; to world bound in one heart and mind.

However anesthetizing it may be to simply drift along with the good cheer of the season, we know in our heart of hearts that this is not enough.  Even the most jaded justice singing partygoer perceives a greater advent desire.  Rightly Dan Schaeffer has written, “Unless we dwell upon this mystery, letting it take center stage, we will chase the true spirit of Christmas to no avail” (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, p. 145).  Only such spiritual depth will salve the wound in our souls and the ache in our hearts.

Let this great Advent song be our prayer.

O Come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thy justice here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
 O come, Desire of nations bind
All peoples in one heart and mind.
From dust thou brought us forth to life;
Deliver us from earthly strife. 

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 211, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” verses 6, 7 and chorus)

Emmanuel, God with us!, is our greater Advent desire.  It is our prayer.  For …

A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
    and authority will be on his shoulders.
    He will be named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
-Isaiah 9:6

Ground Breaking for The Wesleyan Homes at Estrella

We have so many wonderful ministries in the Central Texas Conference that it is hard to keep track of them all.  The list goes on and on!

One of those outstanding ministries is The Wesleyan HomesAll the way back in 1953, leadership in the Central Texas Conference moved forward to establish “homes for the aging.”  Over the years this great ministry (located in Georgetown, Texas) has grown and expanded. In January 2008, a 124 apartment Independent Living facility was opened on a 40 acre campus.  In 2011 the assisted living and memory care apartments were completed.  Last Saturday (December 6th) I had the high privilege and great honor to speaking at the ground breaking service for the next phase of expansion.

With deep appreciation for the ministry of Wesleyan Homes and all who are a part of it, I want to share the following excerpts from my speech at the ground breaking ceremony.

This is indeed a good, even more, a great and significant day.  We break ground in the season of Advent looking forward again to the coming birth of our Savior.  If we reflect on what we are engaged in; if we think about the great ministry of the Wesleyan Homes, we cannot help but reflect that we are about a homecoming; the building of a place of residence and service that becomes, by the grace of God, more than just a physical edifice but a true home to which we are blessed to come.

A couple of years ago a colleague of mine had his choir sing an old secular piece of Christmas music at the start of his sermon one Advent Sunday.  Can you guess what they sang?  They sang that great tune made popular by Bing Crosby “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”  He reported that especially among the World War II generation the song struck a deep chord.  “Former soldiers shared their memories of hearing that tune on a troop ship crossing the Atlantic, in a snowbound Army base in Europe, and on a sun-soaked airstrip in the Pacific. . . . Spouses and parents remembered hearing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on the radio as they sat down to Christmas dinner with an empty chair at the table”  (James Harnish, Come Home for Christmas, p. 9). There was something about that song and Crosby’s silky voice that evoked the longing for home.

We too know this longing even separated by three quarters of a century.  This advent, this time of preparation is just such a time.  There beats within us a soul-deep longing for God.  It beckons us to new hope and greater faith.  We are invited to come home; to come home not just to the Wesleyan; to come home not just to family and friends.  Far greater still, we are invited and even urged to come home to the Lord.

The truth is that our journey never really stops simply at ground breaking, even one as important and significant as this.  Our journey continues on at once both back in history and forward in time.  We are invited back to a Bethlehem stable; to kneel and pour forth adoration in heart and voice.  We are invited forward into the future with the advent conviction that Christ is coming again.

Glance with me at the Scripture passage I have chosen for this occasion, Matthew 1:18-23. It is, I suspect, almost too well known by us.  Joseph desires at once to do the compassionate and sensible thing.  He will break off his engagement with Mary.  In a stunning sequence of events an angel of the Lord visits him with both news and instructions.

The news is the joy of this time.  Listen as the Holy Spirit speaks to us again: “the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”[1]

The instructions are given to Joseph but directed through him to us as well.  “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”[2]  You know the response.  It slides in the passage simply, un-assumedly in verse 24.  “When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.”[3]  Joseph did as he was instructed.  He was profoundly obedient.  He responded with quiet dignity, great courage and immense faithfulness.

Dignity, courage, and faithfulness are the pointed hallmarks of this lesson from Joseph.  I submit that they are the guiding stake markers of our action today.  We break this ground for a home of dignity.  We turn this earth in courageous commitment to the future.  We dig this foundation in full faithfulness to the One who proclaims that he does and will live among us.

They will, we will, “call him Emmanuel … [which] means “God with us.”[4]

Christ’s coming really is our homecoming!  He is our homecoming right here, right now as we break this ground.  And so . . . with fervor, joy, and assiduity of purpose, we break this ground for a home of dignity.  We turn this earth in courageous commitment to the future.  We dig this foundation in full faithfulness to the One who proclaims that he does and will live among us.

[1]               Matthew 1:20c-21
[2]               Matthew 1:20b
[3]               Matthew 1:24
[4]               Matthew 1:23

A Critical Advent Sharing

One of the newsletters I read regularly is Update from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary.  Dr. Lovett Weems is a very wise and practical writer about the American church scene and especially about the United Methodist Church.  Recently I read the following article by Dr. Weems which I found striking and deeply insightful. Graciously Dr. Weems has given permission to reprint his recent article.  I do so with a strong recommendation to Pastors and Lay Leaders:  Read this article and next week, before Christmas(!), act upon it in some significant way.  This article is reprinted by permission from the free e-newsletter of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and available at www.churchleadership.com.

The Emergence of the Dones

A friend alerted me to a blog by Thom Schultz, founder of Group Publishing, on “The Rise of the Dones.” At first I thought there must be a misprint. Surely the title meant to refer to the rise of the “Nones,” the increasingly large number of people, especially among those under 30, who choose as their religious affiliation “None.”

But “Dones” was correct, so I set out to learn more about this new group. Dones are those who typically were at one time the most active and loyal of church members. Now they have left. They did not go to other churches. They stopped going to church completely. Sometimes these persons are referred to as the “dechurched.”

Schultz points out the danger for churches. “The very people on whom a church relies for lay leadership, service and financial support are going away. And the problem is compounded by the fact that younger people in the next generation, the Millennials, are not lining up to refill the emptying pews.”

Drawing on research by sociologist Josh Packard, Schultz points to people fatigued with being talked at through countless sermons and Bible studies when they really want to be more engaged and to participate instead of a Sunday routine of “plop, pray, and pay.”  

Schultz asks if they will return. “Not likely, according to the research. They’re done. Packard says it would be more fruitful if churches would focus on not losing these people in the first place. Preventing an exodus is far easier than attempting to convince refugees to return.”

Often I will ask a pastor to think of a few people in the congregation who, if they left in the next year, would cause the church to be most vulnerable. Once they come up with their list, my follow-up question is, “What personal engagement have you had with them in the last two weeks?” Usually the answer is “none,” precisely because these are the people who are most loyal and dependable. They do not “require” or insist upon attention. But not giving attention to them is dangerous.

Pastors, staff, and congregational leaders need to spend time with the most active people to stay in touch with their thinking and feelings. Such ongoing connection can pick up clues about concerns or opportunities that would be missed otherwise. Decisions to leave are not made suddenly. They have been brewing for some time. Once people leave, often the clues that something was not right become all too obvious in retrospect.

Finding ways to talk with long-time, active members about their spiritual journeys and the connection of those journeys with your congregation can go a long way toward understanding the heart of the congregation and issues that can guide congregational leadership. Schultz suggests these questions.

*  Why are you a part of this church?
* What keeps you here?
*  Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? Why or why not?
*  How would you describe your relationship with God right now?
*  How has your relationship with God changed over the past few years?
*  What effect, if any, has our church had on your relationship with God?
*  What would need to change here to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others? 

Remember that leaders listen. Leaders usually have to listen to those expressing upset and displeasure. Good leaders make sure they are finding time to listen to the most faithful well before any of them become “Dones.”

Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
December 3, 2014
http://www.churchleadership.com/leadingideas/updates/141203.html

 

 

LIVING ADVENT

Last Sunday the reality of Advent enfolded us with comfort, hope and joy.  I confess that I awoke Sunday morning feeling the worse for wear.  The Amazing Grace (our 20 month old granddaughter) with her parents had visited for a week over Thanksgiving.  We had a wonderful time.  Grace even left me a present as she flew away – a bad head cold.

We almost stayed home.  I had no desire to share this gift with others.  But then I remembered that this was the first Sunday in Advent.  I love Advent!  Last Sunday (the first Sunday in Advent) was effectively New Year’s Sunday for Christians and I needed the comfort, hope and joy such worship brings.  With no assignments pressing on my calendar, I went to worship accompanying my wife at her church (and one of my 320 or so churches; well, let’s get theologically correct, it is Christ’s church and we are privileged to participate in this branch of the larger body of Christ).  We slipped up into the balcony so as not to share my cold with others.  As usual the worship was a true blessing.

I cannot help but think that Advent reaches to the true essence of the human condition and of our need(s).  Consider next Sunday’s Old Testament Lesson in The Revised Common Lectionary – Isaiah 40:1-11.  The passage opens with the famous words “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-3).

It is not a mistake that Handel chose to open his incredible Messiah with this passage from Isaiah.  It is sung in a major key as a triumphant announcement.  “God has done and is doing just that.  What is common with all such passages as this one from the Bible is that God is the one who comforts.  Israel, that’s us, are the ones comforted.  One commentator notes, “Comforting signifies God’s intervention to help and restore. The comforting is in the past tense” (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, p. 34).  God has acted!  Comfort precedes the call to preparation.

Look where the soaring words of the prophet lead us.  “A voice is crying out:

Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level,
and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
and all humanity will see it together;
the Lord’s mouth has commanded it. (Isaiah 40:3-5)

In the chaos of modern living, the prophet Isaiah speaks of today just as much as for Israel of old.  It is hard to breathe when we are knotted up by our sin.  It is difficult to move forward when life is a mess.  This is true individually.  It is true collectively – as a nation and as a world.  Sin makes it difficult to breathe.  And yet, while we breathe there is still hope.  In the labor pains of a new world and new creation and a new church, we need to remember that the glory of the Lord will appear.  In the agonies of our time and age, we need to remember that the Lord God has commanded this.  When we are in exile and feel abandoned, remember the prophet’s words:

Go up on a high mountain,
    messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
    messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
    say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
    coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm,
    bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms
    and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes. (Isaiah 40:9-11)

Do you remember what a herald is?  A herald is one who runs ahead with news of how the battle has turned out.  If all is lost than it is time to flee for your life.  If victory, than it is a great time of celebration.  Isaiah calls us to function as heralds.  We are to run ahead and shout for joy.  God has the victory.  In a practical way, don’t settle for happy holidays.  Be a herald of good tidings, live Advent.  The word “Advent” literally means the coming as in the coming of a significant event or person.  The season starts the Christian year challenging us, encouraging us to literally live out verse 3. “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!” (Isaiah 40:3).  We do so by proclaiming that this is a time to rejoice in the coming of Christ!

There is an unapologetic evangelistic component to our Christmas preparation.  We make ready the highway by getting up the high mount of faith, lifting up our voice with strength, and sharing the news of Emmanuel, God with us and for us in the person of Jesus Christ.

The prophet speaks to us again.  This time it is not a message of doom and gloom but of comfort, hope and joy.  Live Advent!

The Content of our Prayers – Some Unscientific Reflections

Thanksgiving always brings us to a time of prayer and reflection.  It is a time of gratitude that gets expressed through our prayers.  This is good and an important activity.

As I engage in reflection, I have noted over the last year a pattern in our life as church that has probably long been present.  I want to lift up the pattern by highlighting our prayers as a Cabinet when we meet.

Together we as a Cabinet spend time in worship and prayer.  Our prayers are not casual and quick but rather deep and careful.  We go through a worship litany in which we are invited to lift up prayers of celebration and thanksgiving and respond with the words, “Loving God, we give you thanks.”  In the litany we are also invited to lift up prayers of concern, petition and supplication before the Lord responding with the words, “Merciful God, hear our prayers.”

What I have noticed in an unscientific way is that our prayers are overwhelmingly prayers of concern, supplication, and petition.  We pray for a veritable army of individuals both in the Conference and beyond by name.  We pray for situations, trials and struggles; for peace on earth, the end of racism, the safety of those serving overseas, etc., etc.  The list goes on and on.  I could add a great deal more, but the reader can follow the drift of this assertion.

All of these prayers are more than just good.  They are godly.  It is right and proper to pray for a friend battling cancer; a loved one out of work; a neighbor experiencing grief.  It is more than needed to pray for soldiers in Afghanistan, the end of racial violence in Ferguson and in Central Texas; feeding the hungry; homeless individuals, etc.  Again these are Christ-honoring, holy prayers.

What is often missing is that we spend little time in prayers of praise and thanksgiving.  This is just not a centerpiece of our prayer life.  To be sure, we do offer some prayers of praise and thanksgiving, but the ratio seems to run something like ten to one.

I’ve noticed that the Cabinet is no different from our churches.  The same kind of praying and the same rationale appears to roughly apply as I visit around the Conference.  Furthermore when I attend functions around the General Church, the same emphasis on concerns & petitions applies.  The same lack of praise and thanksgiving can fairly be noted.

A number of years back I read Augustine’s Confessions (for the third time).  In reading I noticed that he often began his devotions with the phrase – “Great are you O Lord, and greatly to be praised.”  The great saint determinedly opened in praise even when times were bad!  Especially the great saints of the church, praise and thanksgiving were at the core of their prayer life.  Don’t misunderstand me, they didn’t neglect concerns and petitions.  Rather, the balance was much more even and they led with praise!

I am convinced that there is a lesson here which applies to the content of my prayers and my devotional life.  I do not spend enough time in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord.  It was the great saint and devotional leader Meister Eckhart who is reported to have said, “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” Praise and thanksgiving are a foundational way we place ourselves properly, obediently, faithfully before the Lord God.

The simple acrostic for prayer guidance is helpful.  Pray ACTS.

Adoration (praise)
Confession
Thanksgiving
Supplication (prayers of petition and concern)

Supplication comes last.  Great are you O Lord, and greatly to be praised!  This Thanksgiving I give you thanks, praise, glory and honor.