Return and Reflections ©

Someone once said that life is what happens to you on the way to something else.  There is an element of honesty in such a reflection, which I discovered while in Kenya to my regret.

On Wednesday, January 18th, I stepped into a good sized meeting room from the second day of a two-day seminar on preaching and theology.  Rev. Jim Monroe from the Oregon-Idaho Conference was my co-presenter.  We had shared the material the week before at KeMU (Kenya Methodist University) in Meru located in the north central part of Kenya.  Now we were making a similar set of presentations in Nairobi (the capital of Kenya and its major city).  In attendance were clergy from approximately 5 synods (their term for what we would call a District), plus the Synod Bishops (our equivalent to District Superintendents) and the Presiding Bishop (which is the person who has oversight over the whole Church; the equivalent of our bishops).  Meanwhile the rest of the combined Oregon-Idaho/Central Texas Mission Team were at a Methodist elementary school and church in one of the most impoverished areas of Nairobi.

On arrival in the room, I was not feeling well.  Nonetheless, with people having sacrificed to be present for a period of mutual sharing and learning, I was determined to see it through.  At the request of the presiding Bishop, Joseph Ntombura, I offered the morning devotional on Colossians 1:15-20 about Christ being the head of the church.  Afterwards we stood together for a lengthy time of prayer led by one of the Kenyan Synod Bishops.  Partway through the prayer I felt myself losing it. I leaned over and whispered to Jim Monroe, “I’ve got to sit.  I might faint.”  He helped me to my chair and then got some juice for me to drink.  Bishop NTombura called for a “tea” break (which was actually next on the agenda anyhow) and I was led into another room.  The nurse was called and after her examination I was headed for a local clinic.

Diagnosed with a serious infection, I was given the first of three antibiotic infusions. Dr. Randy Wild on the first day and Rev. Dawne Phillips (our CTC team leader) on the days following accompanied me to the clinic for treatment under the watchful tutelage of a marvelous nurse named Ruth, who worked for the MCK (Methodist Church of Kenya).  Loaded with antibiotics and other pills to take, Saturday I was freed to board the plane for the long flights back to the US. (5 ½ hours from Nairobi to Dubai and 16 hours – with a three hour layover – from Dubai to DFW.)  It is wonderful to be home!  To embrace Jolynn after emerging from Customs was both a joy and relief far greater than Christmas morning! On firm instructions from the doctor in Kenya to see my family physician immediately upon return, I spent a good part of Monday at the doctor’s office going through further tests and a checkup.

This unexpected “check” in my activities gave me time and pause for some deeper reflections.  It is both easy and dangerous to exalt in the emergence of African Christianity.  While experiencing exciting growth both missionally (love, justice and mercy) and evangelistically, they have their own set of problems, struggles and challenges.  To some degree, they are in the early front edge of an emerging Sub-Saharan African Christendom. (Phillip Jenkins award winning book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity is now published in a revised and updated version.  It is probably the best way to get and overall read on this worldwide trend.)  An emerging Kenyan Christendom is evident in the common signs plastered around the community praising God and giving thanks to the Lord Jesus!  Here surely is a learning from Kenyan Methodism which we need to incorporate.  They find it incomprehensible that explicit evangelism is separated from explicit missions (deeds of love, justice and mercy).  For them it is obvious that the two go together. They are puzzled by our attempts to separate them.

Even in the context of a Christendom setting, one of our questions in the first set of presentations at KeMU was from a pastor who lives and leads a small emergent church on the northeastern edge of the country where Islam is the major religion.  He sought insight on remaining faithful and evangelistic in a conflicted and even dangerous setting.  I don’t know for sure what he learned from us.  I know we learned from him.  The sense of gracious, firm clarity about the boundaries of what makes up Christianity (Jesus is Lord!) is a lesson we need to learn and relearn.  He was (many we met are) gracious in response to other religions especially competitive non-Christian religions.  But (Hear the shout from them!) they never gave into the temptation to be syncretic.  The Lord Jesus Christ was the leader.  They avoided vague talk about God and embraced a strong understanding and language about God in action through the Lord Jesus Christ in the Spirit’s power.  The full dimensions of the Trinity were readily, even enthusiastically, embraced, proclaimed, and advocated.

Third, we spent a lot of time praying.  The second day of my illness Bishop NThombura came by at 9 pm to check on me.  He apologized for the lateness of the hour but he had been in an important all day meeting.  Later I learned the meeting was a full day of prayer spent together by the “Cabinet.”  They take prayer seriously!  Cautiously here, many of us also take prayer seriously.  Nonetheless, we can learn from their diligence and earnestness.

The fourth lesson for me ties to the third one on the seriousness of prayer.  I have written before about how prayer among most of us moves quickly if not almost immediately to prayers of petition.  We instinctively pray for those who are ill, for people who are suffering, for the end of violence, racism, and hunger, etc.  We spend far less time on prayers of joy and thanksgiving.  I have speculated that the rise of contemporary Christian praise music is an unconscious (sometimes very conscious) sense in the younger generation that something is seriously missing in our prayer life, i.e. praise and thanksgiving!  When the Kenyans pray, they spent the bulk of their time praising God in the fullness of the Trinity (that is, praising each person of the Holy Trinity) and lifting up, exulting God in action through Christ and the active power of the Holy Spirit.  Thus the Psalms entered their corporate prayer life in an explicit way.  For instance, Psalm 46 speaks of the Lord as “our refuge and strength,” “a help always near,” a place of safety.”  Verse 11 is specific and concrete.  “The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!” (Psalm 46:11).  Thus the Kenyans would teach us to engage in believing prayer which stresses praise, thanksgiving, and the active presences of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our/their lives.

I have asked myself why we spend so little time in praise, thanksgiving and calling on God’s active intervention.  Some of the reason resides, I think, in the theological weakness of the current American mainline Protestantism.  But, in a more profound way, I suspect it has to do with our typically American sense of self-reliance.  We have so much in terms of resources (financial, institutional, educationally, etc.) in America that we tend to subconsciously seek to move forward on our own strength.  The Kenyans lack an excess of resources.  They are more readily thrown back on the strength of the Lord.  They instinctively know they can’t make it on their own.  Our (American Methodism’s) instinctive response is more “we’ll call in God if we need extra help from God.”  They (Kenyans) are more inclined to listen for the Lord’s guidance.

A word of caution is in order.  Kenyans and American Methodists alike succumb to the idolatrous temptation to dethrone God and enthrone ourselves.  Alike, we are tempted to challenge the Lordship and leadership of Christ.  Together we are inclined to insist on our own will over the will of the Holy Spirit.  Sin is alive and well in all of us.  Together we recall, “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Conclave and Kenya ©

Like many of you, my year has begun with a full slate of ministry activities.  It began January 3rd with a day and a half in the office to answer emails and plow through paperwork accumulated from the Christmas – New Year break time.  The afternoon of January 4th I drove to Austin, Texas for the twice yearly South Central Bishops Conclave.  The Conclave is a gathering of the active (i.e. residential or non-retired) bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church under the sponsorship of the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF).  It is an invaluable time of learning and sharing.  Using the Harvard Business School case study approach, we wrestle together with leadership challenges facing us and the church as a whole in our work.  Often we have a special presentation on a critical subject or issue facing the church.  We engage in this time of significant learning and sharing under the guidance of Dr. Gil Rendle, Senior Consultant for TMF.  His most recent article on Courage is a seminally insightful document about leadership in the Protestant Church in America during the second decade if the 21st Century. The Conclave is one of the most valuable times of learning that I have.

 I arrived home from the Bishops’ Conclave on Friday evening in time to finish packing for a Saturday morning flight to Kenya (via Dubai).  For the second time it is my great privilege to take part in an ongoing ministry the Central Texas Conference has (along with about 10 other U.S. Conferences and teams from Germany and the British Methodist Church.  Many churches and individuals from across the Central Texas Conference (CTC) have been involved in this God-honoring ministry.  Dr. Ken Diehm, then Senior Pastor of First UMC, Grapevine, Texas helped pioneer this work.  On this trip, under the leadership of Rev. Dawne Phillips, Director of Missions for CTC and Dr. Randy Wild, Executive Director of the Center for Mission Support, we have joined a key group from the Oregon-Idaho Conference led by Rev. Jim Monroe and Rev. Sue Owen.  Jim and Sue have served as pastors and District Superintendents in Oregon and more recently as missionaries at the Maua Methodist Hospital in Maua, Kenya.

 Bishop nThombura asked that we come back to share in teaching clergy along with engaging in other critical mission ministry.  Jim Monroe and I have spent the two previous days teaching a seminar on the Bible and Preaching for pastors in the Methodist Church of Kenya (MCK) at Kenya Methodist University (KeMU).  It was an exciting and challenging time of teaching.  Some of the Pastors have seminary degrees from Schools of Theology in Kenya, England and the United States.  We dealt with a question related to the controversial “Jesus Seminar” and I had a challenging conversation with a graduate from Wesley Theological Seminary in DC.  Other pastors have very little education and almost anything we can share is greeted with appreciation. We will be heading to Nairobi, to repeat our two-day seminar there.  Overall, we will have addressed approximately 350 to 400 pastors.

 Meanwhile the combined team made of folks from both Conferences have been holding a medical clinic out in a remote area of Kenya that does not have regular access to medical treatment.  Sharing with schools (a deworming clinic, supplies, etc.), the ongoing historic work of Methodism in education is bearing rich fruit in Kenya!

 While the outlying clinic work is taking place, half of our combined group has been rotating in and out working on a project high in the hills.  Through the great ministry of Maua Methodist Hospital, a single mother of four (including a three month old infant) with AIDS (from the Father of the infant who has disappeared) was living in a shack (barely standing) made of two wood walls and two plastic sheets.  It is poverty and desperation at its worst and lowest.  Additionally the elderst daughter (11 years old) also has AIDS.  A Christian neighbor brought her tremendous need to the attention of the hospital and working together hospital staff, the local village and our mission team have built a house for the family (two rooms; the kitchen is outside and the “restroom” is about 15 feet behind the house) in one short week!  Frank Briggs, Jim McClurg, Randy Wild, and Tom Larson (from Bend, Oregon) left before dawn over nearly impassible roads to finish the house building before the 11 am community wide celebration and dedication of the house.  It was a Kenyan version of an emergency “Habitat” house build!

 Tomorrow I have been asked to preach and assist Bishop nThombura in the installation of a new Synod Bishop in Thaarka, Kenya.  A Synod Bishop is the equivalent of our District Superintendents.  (Bishop nThombura is called the Presiding Bishop.)  While I am there, the rest of the team will be spread out preaching at other churches in the area.  We are tired but phenomenally blessed by this ongoing shared ministry.  The CTC and its member churches should be deeply gratified to learn that the ministry so many of our congregations have taken part in is continuing to share the Word and Way of Christ.  Together we are sharing with Christians around the world in building a vibrant Christian witness in Kenya! 

 I must give a special shout out to Grapevine UMC in closing.  There is a “Guest House” (the Kenyan version of a Retreat Center) in Meru, Kenya (the center of Methodism in Kenya) named after Dr. Ken Diehm.  I had visited it two years earlier and after our Pastors School presentation I got to stop by for a brief visit again.  The work continues to go forward.  Most of the 2nd floor is now finished and initial construction is taking place on the 3rd floor.  For those who are from the CTC, think of the Diehm Guest House as their Glen Lake.  I learned that follow-up teams from First UMC Grapevine have continued to come and work on the Guest House.  What a tremendous blessing of faithfulness!  This is truly a work of the Lord.

 We will land at DFW the afternoon of January 22nd after a 6 hour flight from Nairobi to Dubai and a 14 hour flight form Dubai to DFW.  After a day of sleeping and recovery, I hope to be back in the office on Tuesday, January 24th.  We have a Cabinet meeting coming up on January 30th.

Pride and Integrity

by Rev. Mike Ramsdell

 Rev. Mike Ramsdell served for 21 years as Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Mansfield, Texas in the Central Texas Conference.  He is currently the North District Superintendent. Mike has a clear grasp on the many appointments which flounder because of relationship confusion.  Increasingly, especially around “hot” political and moral issues, clergy and lay leaders run into conflict.  Listening to Mike argue that clergy are often confused and fail to make a distinction between pride and integrity, I asked him to write a guest blog on the subject.  While I am away on a mission trip in Kenya, I commend his blog to you for its important insights.

I remember some years ago having a conversation over lunch with a pastor who was in trouble.  His church was in conflict and a ministry that had begun well was about to end badly. It did not have to happen.  He was talented, likable, and called.  But he had yet to learn the difference between pride and integrity, and thinking he was about integrity, he had created and exacerbated personal conflict with church members over issues that weren’t really that big of a deal.   Everyone paid the price; he the most.  He was left in a position where he could no longer lead his church.

Integrity is on pretty much every list of characteristics of effective leaders, and it should be.  Integrity is about faith, about the cause, about holiness, humility, right, the truth.  It is one of the cores of following Jesus Christ, an unwillingness to compromise our faith and what is good and right. It’s where we find the rules we will not break, the lines we will not cross, and the life in Christ we choose to live. It is the foundation of long term success in ministry and leadership. Humility is the foundation of integrity – being willing to put the cause of Christ, what is right and good – ahead of ourselves.

  • Integrity: a moral compass that doesn’t waver, a wholeness of character (dictionary definition)
  • The integrity of the upright guides them (Proverbs 11:3)

My guess is that conversations about integrity are not new to Church leaders.  The problem is that often people get integrity and pride mixed up, and thinking they are making decisions and dealing with relationships from a foundation of integrity they sometimes damage themselves, others, and the cause of Christ.  Yet pride just might be the real motivation.  There is a difference!

  • Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18)
  • Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more important than yourselves (Philippians 2:3)

Integrity is about Christ, about faith, about the truth, about selflessness.
Pride is about us, about me, about my feelings about self-centeredness.

Integrity in a leader will build the Church, strengthen relationships, form and shape the cause that the leader is about, focusing the Church on Christ and His mission, a focus away from the leader. It is the foundation of long-term ministry and success.

Pride destroys relationships, creates division, breaks down the cause of the Church, and focuses people on the leader, his or her personal ambition, the leader’s feelings and self-importance.  Pride limits the long-term life and success of a Church leader and the Church they serve.

For the prideful Christian, everything becomes personal, it’s always seems to be about them.  For the person who is about integrity, everything becomes about Christ and the mission of Christ.  Knowing the difference makes all the difference.

 

Into the New Year of our Lord Two-Thousand and Seventeen ©

As we pause on the edge of a New Year, I hold stubbornly to the conviction that every year is still A. D. regardless of what a politically correct culture asserts.  Please don’t get me wrong.  This is not an excuse to be rude to non-Christians (friend or otherwise).  Our times may be properly labeled C. E. for Common Era; but significantly, in our heart of hearts, Christians need to hold to a theological conviction at every year since the birth of Christ is A. D. –  “In the Year of our Lord.”

Wikipedia says:  “The terms anno Domini (AD or A.D.) and before Christ (BC or B.C.) are used to label or number years in the Julian and Gregorian calendars. The term anno Domini is Medieval Latin, which means in the year of the Lord but is often translated as in the year of our Lord. It is occasionally set out more fully as anno Domini nostri Iesu (or Jesu) Christi. (“in the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What is at stake is no more nor less than the conviction that this year – 2017 – belongs to Christ for those of us who claim to be Christian!  Carefully understand what I am saying.  Be polite and gracious.  It is acceptable to use C.E. or Common Era when dealing with a wider secular audience.  There is nothing wrong with such courtesy.  There must remain however a towering conviction that must hold in our hearts and minds!  For us, this year and every year is the year of our Lord!  Our life, our year, belongs to Jesus as Lord!  It is at His and His name only that our knee bows (Philippians 2:10-11).

This unshakable conviction that 2017 is the “Year of Our Lord” is an anchor in the storms of life that even now crash over us.  I often find myself at the opening of a New Year going back to a famous poem and even more to its reading on the radio.

In1939, King George VI of England broadcast a Christmas Day message to the British Empire heard around the world.  He ended it by quoting an obscure poet named Minnie Louise Haskins.  Twenty-five years earlier, she had privately published a book of verses called The Desert.  Originally entitled “God Knows,” the more popular name is “The Gate of the Year.” The words catch the essence of those wise men who journeyed across the desert following the light to worship the newborn Savior.  They invite and challenge us to start our new year on the same journey.

God Knows [The Gate of the Year]
And 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,minnie-louise-haskins-150x150
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.

Time to Ponder ©

The line is stuck there at the close of Luke’s Christmas story.  In truth it is often ignored or simply skipped over.  “Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully” (Luke 2:19, CEB).  I like the clarity and grasp of biblical accuracy in modern language that comes from the Common English Bible (CEB) translation. Yet sometimes older translations offer an elegance that captures the essence of a passage. The old King James translation (KJV) renders verse 19 as “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Whether it is “considered carefully” or “pondered,” Holy Scripture delivers us to a deeper truth.  Thinking deeply and reflecting carefully on the birth of the Savior is foundational to the Christian faith.  There is more going on here than simply Christmas good will and warm feelings to all.  While Christmas is about love – God’s love come in the form of a baby named Jesus – there is much more to ponder than simply the vague good feeling of love.  The birth of the Savior – incarnation – is the hinge of history.  The story is far from over!

Behind the joy that comes to us in this post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s time of rest and good cheer, we would do well to ponder deeply; to think carefully.  Behind the good feelings and joyous Spirit is the truth that is contained in Mary’s pondering.  It is God who is with us, not just in reverent seriousness, but in the good cheer and the laughter.  The Christian year does not begin with New Year.  It begins four weeks earlier with the start of Advent, the start of the time of preparation, and from Christmas day forward the world becomes a different place.  It is the simple and profound conviction that God has visited our world and lives not as a transient guest for a brief period of time, but rather lives among us during all of the days that follow.  We gather on this day for a time to ponder with a truth to share, for a world to save.

Did you notice the simple line that almost laconically closes the narrative of the Savior’s birth?  “And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21). The name Jesus literally means “God will save” (See Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2, p. 869).  The story ends with this pointed, if casual, reminder of what it is all about.  God will save.  The naming you will recall is given by the Angel Gabriel at his visitation with Mary in the 1st chapter of Luke’s gospel.  Mary and Joseph as parents model faithful behavior for us.  They did as they had been commanded.  They acted on the conviction that through this child God would save a world.

I always remember the vivid imagery I ran across in my New Testament studies in seminary.  It has been offered by a man named Hans Conzelman, a famous New Testament professor.  He lived on the continent of Europe.  He recalled the D-Day invasion, how it happened, the courage of that event, the troops coming to shore, and the sense that after the beachhead had been established it would ultimately lead to winning the war.

World War II wasn’t over. The combat was still raging. There were still many days – in fact, a year plus – of fighting that had to take place, but one could see the end.  It was in sight.  One knew the outcome of the war.  One knew that there would be a day soon where the Allied powers would triumph.

Conzelman wrote that is the image of the birth of Christ in our midst.  On Christmas Day the beachhead had been established.  We can see the outcome of the battle.  The victory belongs to the God who’s born among us as a baby. There is still much to do.  The conflict is not over.  We live in a time when that conflict between good and evil rages among us.  We have a world to win for a Savior whose triumph is sure.

In the first light of a new day, the famous words of Howard Thurman call us forward in faith.

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among all people,
To make music in the heart.”

Let this be a time of faithful pondering.

It’s About the Baby: Revelation on the Nature of God ©

I confess I can’t wait for Christmas Day.   We have the whole gang coming to our house.  My 92 year old mother and twin brother are coming up from Kerrville, Texas.  Our son Nathan and daughter-in-law Abigail are flying in from Boston with our middle grandchild 1½ year old Simon (alias Super Simon!). Our daughter Sarah and son-in-law Steve are flying in from the Washington, D.C. area with two precious grandchildren, 3½ year old Grace (alias the Amazing Grace!) and 1 year old (plus a month) Sam (alias Yosemite Sam!).  It will be fabulous!  My ever perceptive wife says that I have built expectations in my head well beyond the best dreams of expectant reality.  In my excitement, Christmas is about the Grandkids coming!

And yet a cluster of things give me pause to remember that it is about the baby; not the grandbabies, as precious as Grace, Simon, and Sam are to us, but it is about a baby named Jesus.  Last Sunday we read the lectionary lesson from Matthew and Isaiah.  “Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). And Matthew, “Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled: Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel  (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)” (Matthew 1:22-23).  A baby named Jesus is the ultimate demonstration of the very character and nature of God.

Consider:

1. God’s very nature is love. What is more loving than a baby? Numerous theologians and Christian writers over the 20 centuries of time have pointed out that God came as a baby not to overwhelm us (for God could have come as a conquering giant or an terrible power) but to woo us.  We instinctively approach a baby in tender love.

2. God comes as one vulnerable. The defining characteristic of the Lord is not overwhelming might or coercion but rather one in the most vulnerable of forms.

3. God enters our world in humility. The Lord’s place of entry is not a castle or a palace but a cave made into a stable.  Egotistic ambition is counter the very nature and character of the divine presence.

4. God comes to all of us, not just the mighty but lowly. Shepherds were consider the lowest of the low, but it is “certain poor shepherds” who are accorded the honor of greeting the newborn King and Savior.

The list could go on but now let us simply pause here.  There is enough to power and instruct us.  The baby shows by way of demonstration the way to life and light eternal.  God in Christ through the baby Jesus unfolds the divine nature for all to see.

The great joy of His birth is not a pause in the march of days.  It is not a temporary state of caroling good will.  It is a change of relationship.  It is good news of great joy because from henceforth our relationship with God is one of love and not fear, of compassion and not judgment.  We experience great joy because our sins are forgiven by this one whose birth we celebrate.  “To you is born a Savior” (Luke 2:11, paraphrased).

Do you remember the story of Beauty and the Beast?   It is “a classic tale of radical transformation.  It’s the story of an angry beast whose only hope of being transformed into a genuine human being is to be loved in his unlovable condition by a beautiful woman.  At first, Beauty is frightened by the Beast’s large stature, his meanness, his power.  But over time, the unearned love of Beauty transforms the Beast into a man” (James Harnish, Come Home for Christmas: An Advent Study for Adults, p. 34).

That transformation process launched at Christmas is done so by none other than God.  It is a renewal of life that is offered to the shepherds terrified in the field.  It is the same new life offered to us in our fields of our modern day fear.  Do you remember that line from Robert Frost’s poem “The Death of a Hire Man” in which a person named Warren says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in” (Frost taken from Harnish, IBID, p. 35).

This is the great joy we are offered at Christmas but with one twist, one great reversal.  We don’t have to go to God. God in Christ comes to us.  God reveals, makes known, God’s very nature!  This, my friends, is what is meant by salvation.  All the talk of saving has to do with the restoration of a relationship with God; who in divine beauty comes to us as a baby to woo us and love us.

Christmas really is about the baby (even more than our family no less!)!  It is revelation into the very nature of God.

baby-jesus-christmas-pictures-218

The Holy Family Leaves Aleppo ©

I am hopeful the title of this blog caught your attention.  I want to invite us as Christians to connect two seemingly disparate events: the journeys of Mary and Joseph first to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt with the newborn baby Jesus and the massive refugee tragedy of Aleppo.

Let’s look first at Biblical record.  Luke reports, “Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.  He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant” (Luke 2:4-5).

We usually take the journey to Bethlehem for granted.  We envision a pastoral scene with a loving, tenderly caring husband and a beautifully blue-robed clad pregnant lady riding on a donkey.  The scene is virtually bucolic.  The reality is radically different.

The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is roughly 69 miles as the crow flies.  In all probability they were both walking.  (Scholars debate whether Joseph as an artisan would have had enough financial resources to afford a donkey.)  The country was run by a conquering foreign government, i.e. the Roman Empire.  Oppression as well as fear from thugs and bandits was part of everyday reality.  You get the drift.  The journey to Bethlehem is closer to walking from Aleppo, Syria to the border and then catching a bus to the Greek seaport near the Island of Lesbos (the center for refugee resettlement).  Modern scenes of refugees escaping violence and persecution are closer to the truth.

This is especially so when yoked to what is called by biblical scholars simply “The Flight to Egypt.”  Rembrandt’s moving painting of the scene only begins to capture the human tragedy.  Roll the terse biblical description around in mind.  Matthew writes:  “Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died” (Matthew 2:14-15).  What follows is the story of the murder of the innocents (that is the two year old land younger children in the region).  Note carefully that Joseph led the Holy Family on their flight at night (verse 14). This is no gentle journey but a scene of fleeing in terror.

Watching the news I cannot help but think that the flight of refugees from Aleppo in the evening news which parades before us is similar.  Faithfulness and deep spirituality should well lead us to see the baby Jesus carried by his mother, her back bent low, on the hard scrabble trail to safety.  Peering through the barbed wire, a two year Jesus looks back at us.

It is incumbent on those of us who claim the title Christian to remember that the Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord, started his worldly life as a homeless refugee. We sing “Come let us adore him” (Hymn No. 234, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,The United Methodist Hymnal).  This is good and proper.  We should sing with full-throated joy!  But to fully be the faithful who come, we must see him as he is and not a figure in a beautifully carved crèche scene.  He is the baby on the dusty road.  He is the child behind the barbed wire fence.  His parents are the ones desperately searching for milk and food for their son.

I confess, when I put it all together, that there is more.  When I really understand that it is the Holy Family which seeks to flee Aleppo, I realize God is calling me to reach out, even though I don’t know how. I am overwhelmed with a sense of frustration, sadness and hopelessness.  Yet it is here that God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit most causes me to pray and nudges me to reach out of all who are homeless and/or refugees.  “O Come, All Ye Faithful” indeed.

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The Coming of the Faithful ©

I readily acknowledge that one of my favorite Advent/Christmas hymns is “O Come All Ye Faithful” (No. 234, The United Methodist Hymnal).  John Wade’s (ca. 1743) clarion words combined with the soaring music (credited to Wade and a number of others) are at once a call and claim from Christ. When I step back and reflect on the hymn there is in its beauty a theological reflection of the essence of Christmas and the Christian faith itself.

“O come all ye faithful joyful and triumphant
Oh come ye O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him born the King of angels;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

Consider the first verse along with the chorus. The faithful are called. The call comes as a word of immense joy. In C. S. Lewis’ inimitable words, “we are the visited planet.” We are joyful because God himself has taken up residence in our midst! “The Word [has become] flesh and the King of angels makes his home among us.” We are those who have seen his glory, “glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (My paraphrasing of John 1:14). This great theological claim is buttressed by an assertion that foreshadows the resurrection. Come as those who are “triumphant!”

Verse two cements the great theological assertions of the hymn.

“True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,
Lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

I invite the reader to think where you have encountered the opening words of verse two before. We find them in a slightly different form in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, …” (The Nicene Creed, No. 881, The United Methodist Hymnal). We are not meant to miss the illumination of this great connection. The hymn offers us both great music and great theology.

Notice again how the following two lines complete the parallel. “Lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb; Son of the Father, begotten, not created;” (verse 2 of the hymn) = “begotten not made, of one Being with the Father; through Him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was “incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human” (The Nicene Creed, No. 881, The United Methodist Hymnal).

Swept up in the music, it is easy to forget that these great hymns teach great theology. Verses three and four complete the initial core story from Luke’s gospel.

Sing choirs of angels sing in exultation;
O sing all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
See how the shepherds summoned to his cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too will thither bend our joyful footsteps;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

I think the most faithful thing we can do is come and adore; acknowledging that the baby Jesus is Christ the Lord (making the proper connection with Philippians 2:1-11). In doing so we too are joyful and triumphant.

 

 

Cry Glory! ©

Sunday morning I went to worship with my wife.  As usual the sermon was excellent, the liturgy challenging and the fellowship a blessing.  What towered above the rest, as is often the case at this time of the year, was the music.  The Hand bell Choir offering a prelude of “Joy to the World” was followed by a soaring introit – “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.”  Together we traveled with the angels.  The words “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” come from the Latin version of Luke 2:14,  “Glory to God in the Highest.”

After lighting the Advent wreath, we listened in rapt attention to “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy.”  The music was and is beautiful but the line that caught my attention is the refrain sung over and over:  “He come from the glory, He come from the glorious Kingdom.”  As if to emphasize that phrase, after it is repeated twice, there comes a short three-word musical emphasis, “Oh, Yes, believer.”  Then, “He come from the glory, He come from the glorious Kingdom” is repeated twice more.  Even now writing three days later, I am swept away by the power of the music and the import of the words.

Together the Children’s Choir and the Chancel Choir graced us (there is no other appropriate phrasing) with a song I was less familiar with, “How Far is it to Bethlehem?”  As I listened I thought again of the seminary lesson from Dr. Ogden, “we do theology (that is talk about God) in order that we might do doxology (that is praise God).  Here in the music led by both Children and Chancel choirs, the two were gloriously reunited.  And without even trying a derivation of the word glory reappears.

I dare say that I could travel across the Central Texas Conference and even around the world at this time of year and come again and again to a celebration of God’s glory in Christ’s birth in a Bethlehem stable.  Instinctively Christians around the world know “glory’s” majestically wonderful appropriateness.

The theologian in me just has to pause and probe the meaning of “glory.”  Why is this word and its related phrases so central to our expression of worship in the season of Advent, of preparation for the Savior’s coming, and the following celebration of Christ’s birth?

Modest research can take us far.  In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (a marvelous five volume set put out by the United Methodist Publishing House – Abingdon Press) it is noted that the word “glory” has both an objective and subjective sense (hang with me, the technicalities are important!).  Subjectively “glory” refers to the object of worship.  It points us back to God.  When we sing “glory to God in the highest” we are giving full-throated acclamation that the Lord is God alone.  God alone is worthy of our unqualified and unmitigated praise.  Think of it as the Pledge of Allegiance on steroids.  No wonder the angels sang, “Glory to God in the Highest!”  (Luke 2:14).

Objectively, the word “glory” “denotes the object of worship (i.e., God’s revealed presence, God’s glory)  (The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2, “Glory,” P. 576, Carey C. Newman). Thus the word “glory” is a concrete way of talking about God’s very presence in our midst!  The Glory of God means the very presence of God right now, right here.

When the angels sing they are in the same act declaring their utmost, highest allegiance to God alone as ruler and master and simultaneously proclaiming that God’s very presence is here in the baby Jesus!  When the choir sings “He come from the glory, He come from the glorious Kingdom” it leads us to the profound truth at the center of the Christian faith: that the baby Jesus comes from God.  He is God, manifest, made known in human form.  All of this is an echoing of our foundational creedal affirmation as Christians.  In the Apostles Creed we affirm: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, … and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, …” (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 881). He [the baby Jesus] come from the Glory indeed!

Thus it is that we gather in this season and time to cry Glory!  This too is our affirmation of faith merging in worship with the beauty of the music.  More recently a song entitled “Cry Glory” was made popular in the movie Selma.  Written by American Rapper Common and Singer John Legend, it appropriately connects the very presence of God with the cause of racial justice.  We are a people who are, as very act of witness and declaration of faith, cry Glory!

All this is biblically anchored in Psalm 29.

You, divine beings! Give to the Lord—
give to the Lord glory and power!
Give to the Lord the glory due his name!
Bow down to the Lord in holy splendor!  (Psalm 29:1-2)

Appropriately our worship Sunday ended with the postlude “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Inhale once again the message of faith.  “Glory to the newborn King!”

 

Have Mercy! Mary and Joseph in Junction, Texas

It’s Tuesday morning, December 6, as I write. I am in Junction, TX as what we call “The Peer Retreat.” A group of us has been meeting together for forty years. Most of us went to Perkins School of Theology together, and over these forty years, we have celebrated the highs of ministry and struggled over the challenges.

 As I sit on the porch, I look down a long ravine and over the low hills to I-20, a distance of about three miles. In the distance, I can see cars and semi-trucks rolling by. They appear to be slowly creeping along, even though I know most are going about 70 mph.  In the distance, even the semis appear quite tiny. Over the terrain, silence engulfs the scene as if a transparent, invisible quilt is spread over us. Reading my devotional, I imagine I see Mary and Joseph walking this way. Having seen the hills of the Holy Land and travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, it is not hard to imagine the holy couple walking by. The terrain is quite similar.

 It is here I pause in my devotional time and let the mystery we call Advent soak in. Here is Christ at a distance. God is on the move. Step by steady step, the Savior comes. Earlier I had read the first three verses of Psalm 57:

Have mercy on me, God;
    have mercy on me
    because I have taken refuge in you.
    I take refuge
    in the shadow of your wings
        until destruction passes by.
I call out to God Most High—

    to God, who comes through for me.
He sends orders from heaven and saves me,
    rebukes the one who tramples me. Selah
        God sends his loyal love and faithfulness. (Psalm 57:1-3, CEB)

 I instinctively pause as I read and think about our situation, what scholars like to call our “context.” War still rages in the Middle East. I have prayed regularly since the invasion of Iraq for the safety of the troops and their return home. I have prayed regularly for the people of those countries as well; that they may live in peace. As we slowly put things back together after a contentious election here in the United States, I pray for the healing of our nation. Our church is in the midst of a potentially schismatic debate over same-gender marriage and issues relating to who might be ordained. Families are under stress in a myriad of ways – jobs, relationships, finances, external and internal commitments, illness… the list could on.

 I glance again across the ravine and once again imagine I see Mary and Joseph at a distance, a far distance, walking this way. I hear again the words I have but moments earlier read aloud. Have mercy on me, God; have mercy on me because I have taken refuge in you. I take refuge in the shadow of your wings until destruction passes by” (Psalm 57:1).

 Luther argued that there was no greater miracle than the Incarnation – God with us in the person and work of Jesus as the Christ. It is preposterous to think that the Almighty Supreme Divine Creator of the entire universe – the galaxies beyond number, the billions and billions of stars, the trillions of planets – should come to us in the person of a fragile baby! Yet, this is precisely the Christian claim that bids us spend Advent in such ardent preparation.

 We too hold to the truth and tradition of Christ’s coming. “Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming(Matthew 24:42).  Since we belong to the day, let’s stay sober, wearing faithfulness and love as a piece of armor that protects our body and the hope of salvation as a helmet. … So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already” (1Thessalonians 5: 8, 11).

joseph leading mary

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