A Time for Courage: Part III ©

The following blog posting (“A Time for Courage: Part III) is the third and final section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference on June 12, 2017. Part I was posted June 19th and Part II was posted June 21st.  I remind the reader of the closing paragraph of Part II: “We are sailing on the Dawn Treader and not on the Titanic!  In the immortal words of William Carey, “Attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.”  In my words, breathe deep.  Jesus is Lord and we are not.  That is a really good thing!  This is his church, not ours!!”  –Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

So let’s get concrete about the work of ministry before us as lay and clergy together in the Central Texas Conference.  Wherever you are on the continuum between a progressive theology and a traditional/evangelical theology, we need faithful and fruitful congregations.  The Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church, calls us to build vital congregations! Whatever the future brings, we need Christ-honoring, life-giving places of worship and service! This is why we are engaged in our God-honoring mission that emerges naturally out of the Great Commission of the risen Savior and moves forward under the power of the Holy Spirit.

When I came to the Central Texas Conference nine years ago, there was already a firmly implanted understanding of the mission of The United Methodist Church and in particular of the mission of the churches in the Central Texas Conference:  “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Our clear vision over the last nine years has centered on building faithful and fruitful churches in all kinds of locations, with wide and a variety missions fields including great diversity, and a deep sense of life transforming discipleship.

Vision: Vibrant and Vital local churches of all sizes, types and in all contexts all across the Central Texas Conference, which are fruitful and faithful in accomplishing the stated mission.

Yoked to the mission and vision has been a consistent core strategy which we have called simply “the Big Three.”  Collectively they represent not only the core strategy but a set of driving values which give shape to our collective ministry.

Core Strategic Values: To engage deeply in the “big three” key strategic values

  1. Christ at the Center
  2. Focus on the local Church
  3. Develop a new generation of lay and clergy leaders

This year we have added a strategic focus, namely what we are calling the WIG (Wildly Important Goal).  The WIG is the key thing we must keep as a targeted goal above all else.  In doing so, we are driven by the living power of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the risen Lord, and the constantly creating genius of our creator God.  Make no mistake, the WIG must be central to have any chance of accomplishing our stated mission.  Folks, this is true regardless of where you stand on the controversial issues facing us as a larger church!  The WIG leads us to tangible strategic focus.  It forms the linchpin of “how” we will accomplish our larger strategic task and links with the why of the Great Commission, which Christ has given us to go and make disciples of all peoples (Matthew 28:18-20).

Strategic Focus:  Increasing the number of disciples of Jesus Christ during the next 10 years through . . .

  • New Faith Communities
  • Clergy and Lay Leadership Development
  • Mission Focused Discipleship

Always, always, always! narrative and metrics go together.  We will seek out the stories of transformation (narrative) – both personal and congregational, embrace growth in variety of forms – missional, spiritual, financial, social, etc.  As we learn the stories of faith transformation, they are yoked to two specific WIG measurements.

WIG MEASUREMENTS YOKED TO THE NARRATIVE:

  • Market share (as defined by average weekly worship attendance divided by total population; currently we are at 1.07%)
    •   1.1% by 2020
    •   1.25% by 2026
  • Professions of Faith
    •   3,500 per year by 2026 (At the end of 2016 the number of professions of faith was 1, 845.)

Taken together with the narrative stories, these are two key components of making disciples.

Tactics:

From our core strategy, focused on the WIG, over the years we have looked at a number of important tactical ways to move towards this Christ honoring goal of vibrant, vital, faithful and fruitful local churches in fulfillment of the Great Commission of Christ to go and make disciples.  This list includes but is not limited to:

  • Investigating our context (with Dr. Gil Rendle)
  • Wrestling with Wesleyan Theology (Dr. Kenda Dean)
  • Local Church Leadership (Rev. Adam Hamilton)
  • Developing cultural and ethnic inclusivity (General Secretary Erin Hawkins & Rev. Rudy Rasmus)
  • Building a Conference and Church culture that is open to experimentation (Bishop Robert Schnase – “Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences”)
  • Understanding our Path to Discipleship (Dr. Candace Lewis, Bishop Scott Jones, & Dr. Phil Maynard)

Today we intentionally add a new and old key tactical component to living out our missional focus of “making disciples for the transformation of the world” by lifting high the Big Three: Christ the Center, Focus on the Local Church, and Developing lay and clergy leaders.  What tactical component to our mission is both new and old, at once at the heart of the Wesleyan movement and yet desperately needing rediscovery while simultaneously radically new?  This crucial tactical component needs to be emphatically embraced on an intensely practical level if a congregation is to be faithful and fruitful in accomplishing the WIG and thus our stated mission.  It is no more nor less than the rediscovery and reclaiming of what original Methodists call “The Class Meeting.”

On a full sea we are now afloat indeed but, this is not the voyage of the Titantic.  Instead to the glory of God, the honor of Christ, and the celebration of the Holy Spirit moving among us, this is the voyage of some kind of combination of the voyages of the Mayflower and the Dawn Treader.  It is combination only God could put together.

Our phenomenal good fortune, no … our phenomenal divine blessing and high privilege is being signed aboard as crew on the ship of the church captained by Christ himself!  I challenge us to be who we are at our best … people of faith and not fear.  This is a time for courage; quiet, persistent, resilient courage under the Lord’s leadership and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

“God of grace and God of glory, On Thy people pour Thy power. Crown Thine ancient church’s story, Bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, For the facing of this hour, For the facing of this hour” (“God of Grace and God of Glory,” Hymn Number 577, The United Methodist Hymnal, verse No. 1).

 

 

A Time for Courage: Part II ©

The following blog posting (“A Time for Courage: Part II) is the second section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference June 12, 2017. Part I was posted on June 19th.   —Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

In Narnia, the green mist preys on people’s weaknesses and their fears. It makes their darkest dreams come true, and frightens, or worse yet, tempts them. The same happens in our time and even in our churches and the greater United Methodist Church.

This is a call to trust and obey. The temptation would be for us to try in this gathering to solve political issues that stalk the halls of Washington, D.C. or the 2019 issues of human sexuality and avoid the pressing needs the Lord God calls us to face today. This does not mean an ignorance of those issues or a failure to address them but rather calls us to focus on the task before us in its proper context.

There will be opportunity to face the issues that threaten us with schism, specifically same gender marriage and ordination of LGBTQI people.  We have a task group working with our feedback to the Commission on the Way Forward.  (The Commission holds the responsibility to prepare a report for the Council of Bishops and the called session of the 2019 General Conference.)  Each and every district along with their lay and clergy will have time and opportunity to give feedback.  We are committed as a Conference to a week of prayer for the work of the Commission on a Way Forward and a faithful future of The United Methodist Church.  (It should be noted that each annual conference in The United Methodist Church worldwide has been asked to take a specific week.  Our assigned week is January 28 – February 3.)

I invite you to take the image of the voyage of the Dawn Treader along with the image of the Mayflower and yoke them together with multi biblical injunctions and instructions.  Apply Joshua 1:5b -7, 9:

I won’t desert you or leave you. Be brave and strong, because you are the one who will help this people take possession of the land, which I pledged to give to their ancestors. “Be very brave and strong as you carefully obey all of the Instruction that Moses my servant commanded you.  … I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Embrace Psalm 46:1-7.

God is our refuge and strength,
a help always near in times of great trouble.
That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,
when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea,
     when its waters roar and rage,
when the mountains shake because of its surging waves.
Selah

 There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city,
the holiest dwelling of the Most High.
 God is in that city. It will never crumble.
God will help it when morning dawns.
 Nations roar; kingdoms crumble.
God utters his voice; the earth melts.
 The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!
The God of Jacob is our place of safety.

Clergy, allow me to speak specifically to you while inviting the laity to overhear our conversation.  We need to lay our anxiety on the altar of the Lord.  We are not in control of the future of The United Methodist Church.  We need to trust God and allow the Commission on the Way Forward to do its work while we buttress them with prayer. We need to engage in respectful, carefully graceful conversations with our laity. Let the words of Jesus guide our emotional and spiritual dispositions.

Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth.  But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. …  Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:28-29, 33-34)

Faith is an intentional decision to move into the future according to a particular framework, a worldview, a way of thinking and living. Anxiety is the unintentional decision to move according to a negative framework.  We control what we can control. We release to the Lord what we cannot control.

Laity, allow me to speak to you from both head and heart.  “On such a full sea we are now afloat” (William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3). Shakespeare’s words fit our times and our churches.  Expecting your clergy to magically solve the controversial issues of our day is not just unrealistic. It is fundamentally unfaithful.  We can neither ignore the elephant in the room – possible schism in The United Methodist Church – nor be frozen by fear.  Laity and clergy have to do this together.  We cannot faithfully and successfully sail the perilous seas of our age separately. To borrow in paraphrase from Martin Luther King, Jr., “we must learn to live together as brothers (and sisters) or perish together as fools” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).  This is a time for courage from both lay and clergy leadership.  It is also deeply a time for prayer. It is also a time for uncommon patience.  Hear again the opening words of Psalm 46.  “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Allow me to reiterate my comment directed specifically to the clergy but this time direct it specifically to the laity while inviting the clergy to overhear.  Faith is an intentional decision to move into the future according to a particular framework, a worldview, a way of thinking and living. Anxiety is the unintentional decision to move according to a negative framework.  We control what we can control. We release to the Lord what we cannot control. “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of great trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

We are sailing on the Dawn Treader and not on the Titanic!  In the immortal words of William Carey, “Attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.”  In my words, breathe deep.  Jesus is Lord, and we are not.  That is a really good thing!  This is his church, not ours!!

A Time for Courage: Part I ©

The following blog posting (A Time for Courage: Part I) is the first section of my Episcopal Address given to the Central Texas Annual Conference on June 12, 2017.  The rest of the Episcopal Address will be shared in subsequent blogs.  — Bishop Mike Lowry, Resident Bishop of the Central Texas Annual Conference.

One of the earliest images of the church of Jesus Christ is the image of the church as a ship at sea. You can find it imprinted on the episcopal stole.  Indeed the image itself harkens back to the Apostle Paul’s famous sea voyage to Rome and shipwreck on Malta, which is chronicled in Acts 27.

In our time, once again, images of the church as a ship at sea have come prominently to mind and are commonly used in referral and reference.  Come with me for a moment and consider some of the images of the church as a ship at sea.  The image is apt because few can doubt that we are sailing in troubled, tempestuous waters.  Consider the societal seas on which we sail:

  • Violence and terrorism seem to engulf our world, just think of ISIS, Manchester, and Syria.
  • Political chaos at home is a daily staple of life in newspaper, on television, in the blogosphere, and even among late night comics.
  • Economic uncertainty with looming retirements, healthcare concerns, and stock market fluctuations are a disturbing fact of life.
  • Religiously, the decline of the Christian Church across all denominations in Europe and North America is a well documented fact of life. For good or ill, we live in a secular age that dismisses and often knows little of historic institutional representations of Christianity.  We are in an age of religious anarchy and the absurd heresy of being “spiritual but not religious” (an oxymoron if ever there was one!) engulfs our society.
  • The twined heresies of a self-centered rampant individualism and a false prosperity gospel grapple with orthodox Christianity in both its progressive and traditional forms.
  • Perhaps deserving the top of the Christian list of high seas is our theological captivity to a cultural moralistic therapeutic deism chronicled so well by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean when she was with us a few years ago.
  • Closer to home in The United Methodist Church, schism over deep disagreements centering on human sexuality – specifically marriage and ordination – threaten to tear us apart.
  • Every year we close more churches.
  • That we exist in a major leadership crisis with the baby boom generation of pastors retiring and a missing generation of replacement pastors (those who should be roughly 45 to 55) ready for larger assignments is beyond doubt or dispute. A new generation of younger lay and clergy leadership is desperately needed.

Painfully we know that we face deep change or slow death, with a steadily increasing speed.  We must face this truth without blinking, reverting to denial, or ignoring the wider reality of our tough mission field.  We are in high seas and the tempest’s howling wind is increasing!

I could go on and so could you, but I think this is enough for now.  Amazingly this is not the whole story!  In the midst of the tempest of our times God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is powerfully, gracefully, compassionately, and explosively at work in our midst. The triune God is building or, more accurately, rebuilding the movement of Christ followers.  Amid the high seas we broach the crashing waves in amazing places. Consider a small sampling.

  • The rise in the number of younger clergy leadership presenting themselves for ordination.
  • The growth in the number of new faith communities in our very midst – try on The Oaks, sponsored by White’s Chapel or a Spanish language service at First UMC, Corsicana led by Lay Supply Pastor Martin Orozco or growing youth outreach in Ranger, Texas (incidentally led by the Youth Director of First UMC, Eastland).
  • Our try on the growing number of experiments in service and witness that combine the best of both missional love, justice and mercy with a genuinely evangelistic sharing of the gospel. Think about the Missional Wisdom Foundation or Project 44 or Life Church in Waco or bourgeoning campus ministries all across the Central Texas Conference.
  • The ever increasing number of congregations engaged in hands-on ministry for the hungry, hurting and homeless. Did you know that Nolanville UMC is engaged in a backpack ministry at the bus stop that combines concrete service help with a specific by name using Scripture grace-filled witness?  Or that Lebanon UMC (in the Central Texas Conference not the country of Lebanon) is running out of room in their sanctuary?
  • God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is moving in our midst folks!

No doubt you can add to this all too brief list.  The gospel truth is that amid the high tempestuous seas of modern life daring courageous Christian witness is surging forward.  This is the witness the risen Savior commanded be taken to the ends of earth (Acts 1:6-8).

It makes all the difference what ship, as an image for the church, you think you are sailing on. As our membership dwindles and our divisions widen, it is not uncommon to hear references to the Titanic.  Have you heard the phrase, “Oh, they are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?”  There is some painful truth we must face here.  For far too long we have acted as if we are too big to fail.  Professor Scott Kisker writes in Mainline or Methodist, “Real Methodism declined because we replaced those peculiarities that made us Methodist with a bland, acceptable, almost civil religion, barely distinguishable from other traditions” (Scott Kisker, Mainline or Methodist?: Rediscovering our Evangelistic Mission).

We must confess before an almighty and righteous God who sits enthroned over our lives as Father, Son and Holy Spirit that we have acted like those who boarded the Titanic. Like Carl Hockley in the movie, we believe “It is unsinkable. God himself could not sink this ship!”  You can make a good argument that we are not just headed for the ice fields but that we have already hit the iceberg and are taking in water.  I found reading Jim Collins’ How the Mighty Fall which chronicles the decline and even death of great corporations like A & P, Bank of America or Circuit City to be a painful shadowing of the history of The United Methodist Church in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

But wait! Wait just a minute.  There is another powerful image of the church we should well consider embracing.  Instead of sailing on the Titanic perhaps we are (or can be) on board the Mayflower.

Do you recall the magnificent history of the Mayflower?  In early September of 1620 they set sail with low provisions.  Fear was a constant companion as the western gales which swept the North Atlantic made for treacherous sailing at that time of year.  We know full well as an American people that they sailed for religious liberty and the cause of Christ.  They left the Old World with its model of territorial staid state supported religion behind venturing the storms of the North Atlantic and biting cold of a New England winter for a healthier, more vital Christian life and witness.  Their courage and conviction led not only to the religious freedom we so rightly cherish but, through the Mayflower Compact, to the establishment of representative democracy in North America.

Now apply this image to our context.  We set sail, should we have the courage and conviction which is to say faith and obedience, from the Old World of cultural Christianity and a favored place in America society for established Protestant Churches such as Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.  Our new religious world is a contested one.  Christianity, and Methodism in particular, will exist side by side with a host of competing alternatives.  The witness of vital churches and individual Christians will demand a charitable grace-filled future that will take real courage to offer a specific unapologetic witness for Christ which this new world of religious chaos desperately needs.

This is exciting!  It is hopeful!  It is a cause and commission worth the life of the Church that claims the risen Lord Jesus Christ as its head (See Colossians 1:18).  To laity and clergy alike, this is worth your life as a great call to the highest level of human living and thriving under the Lord’s leadership.  A bland, culturally passive, witness will be swept away in the storms that wash over us.  But a courageous engagement with modern culture that is faithfully and fruitfully expressive in missional evangelism by congregations and Christians in a new post-Christendom land … that is magnificent and truly done to the glory of God.

But wait, there is an even a better image for our adoption.  It comes from C. S. Lewis’s marvelous writing in the Chronicles of Narnia. The story of the voyage of the Dawn Treader offers an even greater image for Christian discipleship in our time.

Do you recall the story or perhaps remember the movie which came out in 2010 of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader?  Narnia represents the land in which the struggle between good and evil takes place.  The Dawn Treader was “the first Narnian ship to be built since the golden age and was commissioned by King Caspian, so that he might sail beyond the Lone Islands and on to the Eastern Oceans to seek the seven great lords” who had disappeared in a quest to fight evil in their land.

In the story Lucy and Edmund along with their cousin Eustace join King Caspian and his crew as they sail courageously into the unknown confronting the “green mist” which represents evil. As they do battle with the forces of darkness, Lucy hears Aslan, the Great Lion who represents Christ as Lord, speak to her.  “But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her ‘Courage, dear heart,’ and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

I submit that this is where we are in our raging tempestuous world today.  The world and especially our nation and the communities we inhabit do not need us to ape the vitriol that so infects our time and land.  In the great name of Christ, our Narnia, our world, needs us to sail unflinchingly into unknown lands. Christ’s words are meant to whisper into our ears, “Take courage, dear heart.” The Lord is with you, with us.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #4 ©

Methodism at Conference

Sitting on a shelf above my computer is a little ticket which reads:  “Methodist Episcopal Church, Founded A. D. 1784, Quarterly Ticket.”  The following quote from Romans 8:16 is printed on the face: “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”  It is a primal reminder that Methodism began as a movement of the heart and head for the Lord.  It lived in the disciples of “methodical” faithfulness.  Central to such discipline was the original class meeting.  Out of coming together in the class meeting to “watch over one another in love,” Methodists were naturally led to gather together in Conference.  It is here, in Conference, that The Methodist Church as an institution was shaped and formed.

John Wesley described the first conference of Methodists this way:  “In June, 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard us.  After some time, I invited lay preachers that were in the house to meet with us.  We conferred for several days, and were much comforted and strengthened thereby”  (Albert C. Outler, John Wesley, p.134).

The agenda for the first conference was straight forward.  They wrestled with:

  1. What to teach
  2. How to teach
  3. What to do; that is, “how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.”

Since that day, gathering in Conference together has been the governing center of the Wesleyan Way for Methodists.

To this day I am convinced that Annual Conference at our best is when we gather to worship, learn, and celebrate.  If you compare my list to Mr. Wesley’s they have considerable overlap.  In worshipping and learning we are exploring together “what to teach, how to teach, and what to do.”  This is a Methodist Annual Conference at its greatest.

We were blessed this year by wonderful hosting from First United Methodist Church of Mansfield, Texas.  The music and worship transported us to another state of being.  Tuesday’s ordination service was a tremendous celebration as we greeted a large class of those were commissioned and those who were ordained.  Dr. Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, led us in deep learning that called on “reclaiming a forgotten and essential small group experience” (The Class Meeting).  Most of all God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit showed up in marvelous and wonderful ways.

Over the next few blogs I will be sharing the content of my Episcopal Address which was delivered Monday morning, June 12.  It is entitled “A Time for Courage.”

Iona Interlude ©

I am pausing my “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way” series to share a brief word on a pilgrimage in leadership development.  By the time this is posted, I will be in Iona, Scotland with a group of young adults from the Central Texas Conference.  This trip is a part of our leadership development process that is linked to the Missional Wisdom Foundation  with leadership from Dr. Larry Duggins, Executive Director of the Foundation and Rev. Wendi Bernau. We as a Conference are greatly blessed by their help and support in leadership development.

Iona is a small island in the Inner Hebrides off the larger isle of Mull, which is a way of saying that it is a remote place distant from the clamor of the world.  It is a place where, as my spiritual guide puts it, we have time and space for solitude, silence and simplicity.  Iona is a place where the call to ordained ministry may be nurtured in reflection, adoration and prayer.

In the Central Texas Conference our “Big Three” are: 1) Christ the Center; 2) Focus on the local church; and 3) Lay and clergy leadership development.  This spiritual pilgrimage with young prospective Christian leaders offers a special opportunity to thoughtfully and prayerfully weld together number 1 and number 3 – Christ at the center of life and witness combined with leadership development for the future of the Christian movement and the Wesleyan Way in Central Texas.  Such pilgrimages both to places like Iona, Scotland and Taize, France along with retreats at our own beloved Glen Lake Camp are vitally important to our developing future leaders of the faith.  In May of 2013 we led a similar group to Taize (a spiritual formation gathering from around the world held in France).

Iona is famous as the site that Saint Columba used as a base of operations to introduce Christianity to Scotland.  For well over four centuries it was a center for monastic leadership and Christian formation.  It is thought that the famous Book of Kells may have been produced at the original Iona Abbey.  After World War I, under the leadership of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), a clergyman named George MacLeod became instrumental in reviving the Iona Abbey’s role in Christian spirituality.  In 1938, as the fires of World War II loomed on the horizon, MacLeod founded the Iona Community as an ecumenical Christian community of men and women from different walks of life and different traditions in the Christian church committed to seeking new ways of living as followers of Jesus in today’s world.

For many, including myself, Iona is what might be called a thin place, a place where through contemplation, prayer and worship heaven and earth come especially close.  The ecumenical Christian community built around today’s Iona Abbey is a center for the revival of Celtic Christianity.  The music of John Bell (in the supplement to the hymnal The Faith We Sing) comes from the contemporary Iona Community.

As a part of our daily routine, we will begin the morning with worship at the Abbey and then return to our retreat house for breakfast and time of reflection and sharing.  The day closes with worship at the Abbey again after dinner and a time of sharing our learnings together.

Jolynn and I traveled to Iona for a part of my renewal leave in my first quadrennium as bishop of the Central Texas Conference.  I look forward in a special way to taking a hike back to the remote, desolate beach on St. Columba Bay where St. Columba and his small band first landed on their great mission to share Christ with Scotland and England.

I am reminded that the Christian faith is built on such courage, conviction, and community in Christ. We are here, in part, because of their witness and faith sharing.  Out of pilgrimages like this come the next generation of leaders and pastors for our churches.

 

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #3 ©

Being Methodical – Embracing Spiritual Disciplines

The great Christian theologian and spiritual mentor Dallas Willard opens his epic book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, with a profoundly insightful tragic story.  He writes: “Recently a pilot was practicing high-speed maneuvers in a jet fighter. She turned the controls for what she thought was a steep ascent – and flew straight into the ground. She was unaware that she had been flying upside down.

“This is a parable of human existence in our time – not exactly that everyone is crashing, though there is enough of that – but most of us as individuals, and world society as a whole, live at high-speed, and often with no clue to whether we are flying upside down or right-side up. Indeed, we are haunted by a strong suspicion that there may be no difference – or at least that it is unknown or irrelevant” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, pp. 1-2).

Such phrasing is surely descriptive of our age and time.  We live at a pace of life that is simply unsustainable.  In the midst of our times, bombarded by instant news, assaulted by more input than we can possibly process, we remain committed to being follows of Christ.

This is not a new enterprise.  The quest for faithfulness in confusing and even chaotic times is one that all Christians who have gone before and all who come after us have or will wrestle with. How is that we  – moment by moment, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year – walk in the way of Christ?  To be sure, we have primary and basic guidance from Holy Scripture.  Consider ….

  • 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)
  • You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)
  • 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. (Matthew 28: 19-20)
  • You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. (Ephesians 2:8-10a)

As powerful and strengthening as these biblical admonitions are we need something more.

Ardent conviction and sincere intent alone are not enough.  We need a method, a way of practicing the Christian faith such that walking with Christ becomes our habit, our natural way of living. Years ago Jolynn and I took country western dancing class.  The instructor used to say that we needed to develop “muscle memory” for our dancing.  (Unfortunately my muscles were exceptionally challenged!)

The Wesleyan Way is energized by just such thinking and acting. Wesley looked back at the earliest Christians, examined the faithful saints down through the ages, and appropriated a “methodical” way to be a faithful Christian.  It involved what we call today “spiritual disciplines.”

While the list varies, the spiritual disciplines are at least in part made up of foundational activities.  At a minimum they consist of:

  • Quiet time for contemplation of the Holy Spirit and prayer
  • Searching the Scriptures (as Wesley put it, we might say Bible reading and study)
  • Regular worship including regular participation in Holy Communion
  • Watching over one another in love through small group discipleship (class meeting)
  • Works of love, justice and mercy
  • Giving both financially and of our time

All this and more is, must!, take place in the context of community-  the very Body of Christ called the Church.  If you read my above list carefully, you will notice two things.  First, it is not new, this is already an a clear reflection of the witness of Scripture, the practices of the earliest disciples and each succeeding generation of the faith down through almost 2,000 years of Christian history.  The second thing you will notice is that my list is incomplete.  It needs to be filled out, to be written by each of us in our individual contexts.

No one, absolutely no one, lives a life of faithful discipleship by themselves.  We all live in community with Christ and each other.  Our methodical practices will ultimately be under the influence of the how the Spirit shapes us for the better.

I leave the reader with a comment from Professor Jason Vickers:

In the postmodern West, the church is beset by two problems. First, in many quarters, we have lost confidence in the materials, persons, and practices that the Holy Spirit has given to the church for our healing and our salvation. We have lost confidence in the power of Scriptures and the sacraments to form and to transform our lives. We have lost confidence in the power of spirit-filled preaching and prayer to convict us of our sins and to assure us of our forgiveness. We have lost confidence in the power of the testimony of the saints to guide us into all truth. Put simply, we have lost confidence in the very resources by which the church lives and by which she is a source of the renewal of life and of holiness throughout the world.  (Minding the Good Ground by Jason E. Vickers, pg. 94-95)

If we are to reclaim the Wesleyan Way, we must reclaim the spiritual disciplines in the habits of our living.  This is the path to true holiness (Wesley’s holiness of heart and life) and thus the true path ultimately to deep joy and happiness.  Reclaiming the Wesleyan Way involves hiking on the trail of the life well lived!

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #2 ©

Enthusiasts – God as a Subject

Many of us are aware that the title “Methodist” was originally meant as an insult.  Those called Methodists were considered methodical fanatics in the way they followed Jesus (i.e. through in bible study, prayer, spiritual discipline, evangelistic faith sharing and works of love, justice and mercy, etc.).  Often a more common shorthand reference to them was that they were simply “enthusiasts.”  It was not meant as a compliment!

In the introduction to David Hempton’s marvelous Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, the author recalls an interchange between two great Oxford scholars.  Hugh Price Hughes challenged Mark Pattison, the then distinguished scholar and rector (think Dean) of Lincoln College, Oxford. Pattison rejected Methodism as part of religious thought worthy of consideration.  Pattison considered Methodism as “somewhere near the opposite pole of reasonable religion” (David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, p. 1).  Methodists in Pattison’s vision were “enthusiasts” who should be dismissed by all right thinking “reasonable” Christians/people.

And yet, if we are to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we recover the zeal of the original Methodist “enthusiasts.”  They held a passion for Christ and the gospel, for the life of faithfulness and fruitfulness in holiness of heart and life which so burned within them that it shed light on the outside in an often brutal shadowed world.  Indeed so true is this basic element of the original Methodists that some scholars “argue that the explosion of Pentecostalism in the twentieth century … can best be explained as a much-modified continuation of the Methodist holiness tradition”  (Hempton, p. 2).

Famously in “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” John Wesley shared his hopes and fears for the future of the Wesleyan movement with the words: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” 

All this boisterous enthusiasm is a stretch for someone like myself who came to the Christian faith via the Friends (Quakers) and their preference for dignified silence.  And yet… at the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we are called to be enthusiasts for Jesus.  I can’t help but recall a young new start pastor rising to share in a Path One gathering (The United Methodist Church’s official new church & new faith community planting ministry) who commented, “The Methodist Church was begun by a bunch of college students who were determined to take Jesus seriously.”  There is more than just a small element of truth in his comment.  A bunch of college kids got seriously enthusiastic for Jesus.  While estimates vary today there are something around 35 million plus (I am sure this figure is low, but it is the best I could lay my hands on quickly) Methodists around the world and the many, many more who claim connection to the Wesleyan way of Christianity (probably 250 million!).

The modern sage of American culture Garrison Keillor has remarked, “We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them….If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of ‘Michael row your boat ashore’ they would look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this with Methodists, they’d smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!” (Garrison Keillor on “Those People called Methodists” ).
How then are we to reclaim this heart of the Wesleyan Way for our day?  The young pastor has it right for starters.  We embrace the model of a bunch of college kids who decided to take Jesus seriously.  We follow Jesus in our lives and larger world.  But there is more to this than simply a call to commitment and action.  At its core, the need to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way is theological.

Methodists were “enthusiasts” for Christ because they saw God in action!  God was simply not an object of belief but a subject moving in their lives and the lives of those around them.  Personal transformation by God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is real.  Social transformation was (and is!) an outgrowth of personal transformation.  It is happening today!  I can still taste the thrill of sitting in a worship service where the pastor opened by asking people if they had experienced any “God sightings” this week.  All kinds of folks from middle school-aged kids to septuagenarian adults stood up and shared!  They were enthusiasts in the original Methodist sense.  The Trinity was real; Jesus was alive; the Holy Spirit was active!  Their lives and community were being transformed by the Lord moving in their midst.

I love the comment offered by Professor Jason Vickers in his book Minding the Good Ground, “… the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost not simply to dwell among us but to dwell within us in such a way that, as Boris Bobrinskoy once put it, ‘we cannot discern the frontier between his presence and our own autonomy’” (Minding the Good Ground by Jason E. Vickers, pg. 77).  We must get over ourselves; our own convictions, causes and campaigns opening ourselves again to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  This is scary and dangerous stuff.  It is much more than simply academically reclaiming a doctrine of the Holy Spirit (to be sure we must do this much!).  Reclaiming the Wesleyan Way calls us to set aside of cultural “properness” (regardless of where we are on the political, ideological and social spectrum!) and open ourselves to the wild ways of the Holy Spirit!

Regaining an understating of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit as an active subject moving in our lives and worlds is at the very center of reclaiming the heart of the Wesleyan Way.  This will not happen without a re-appropriation of the practice of foundational spiritual disciplines.  But for today, I will pause.  A following blog will offer some reflections on being methodical – embracing the Spiritual Disciplines.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #1 ©

Two incidents frame the beginning of a series of blogs I have tentatively entitled “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way.”  First, an incident that happened a couple of months ago.  Jolynn and I found ourselves in another community worshipping at a large United Methodist Church on Sunday morning.  The preacher opened by stating that he was continuing a series of sermons by John Wesley with additions of his own.  Absentmindedly I didn’t catch what he said at first.  However as the sermon unfolded, I soon realized that he was preaching Wesley’s famous sermon on “Justification by Faith”  (See The Works of John Wesley, Vol.1, Sermon 5, pp. 182-199, Edited by Albert C. Outler). Somewhat edited for length and spliced with a few comments, its essence and even language was straight Wesley.

I take notes when I listen to a sermon (for my own spiritual learning and growth in faith, not in judgment of the preacher!).  About half way through I put my pen down and closed my notepad.  I sat back and looked across the congregation.  There were roughly four hundred people sitting in the sanctuary, and they were in rapt attention.  Literally you could hear a pin drop.  The sense of spiritual hunger and eager learning was palpable.  (Afterwards I checked with Jolynn and she too felt the mood of anticipation and eager learning).

There is a deep longing for the gospel truth which exists within and around this wildly secular culture of ours.  Like those coming in from the desert, we seek the water of life.  Culturally we are a living embodiment of John 4:15.  “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!’”

The second incident took place the day before my mother-in-law died.  We knew the end was near and had spent the previous day at the nursing home.  Sunday morning – discouraged, emotionally and spiritually hurting – we went to the local United Methodist Church where Maxine was a member.  (Over some 70 years she had held many positions in the church including 25 years plus as a Sunday School teacher, a leader in the UMW, Chair of the Trustees and a member of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.)  We had a soul-deep longing for a word from the Lord; a message of faith that was truly good news, the gospel.  The sermon did not mention God or the Trinity or Jesus Christ/Lord or the Holy Spirit.  The gist of it was that we should all volunteer to help others and if we really wanted to be good we should join the Lions Club.  (Sadly I am not making this up!)

There is a hunger to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way in the chaos of our times; one that is a soul-deep thirsting for a true and living walk with the Lord.  John Wesley once said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Wherever one comes out on the progressive vs traditionalist theological spectrum of modern Methodism in America, the need is for something greater.  We stand with the unnamed woman at well so long ago crying out for the water of life.  This is what the original Wesleyan Way brought to first England and then the world.  Instinctively people recognized in the Wesleyan movement the essence of the Pentecost church.  Wesley’s deep fear has become a painful truth.

“Wesley’s great fear was that the Methodist movement would – in a process that had happened again and again over the centuries – be tamed by the culture until it was nothing more than a docile lapdog,” said the Rev. Dr. Andrew Thompson, a Wesley scholar and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. “He was afraid that Methodism’s engagement with the culture would dilute it until it was a shell of its former self.”

At its heart our crisis in this day is not about a social issue (however desperately important issues like healthcare, immigration, war, and the like are – and make no mistake they are critically important!).  Today The United Methodist Church wrestles with a much deeper theological crisis.  I recently overheard one of our better pastor’s mutter, “we don’t need more vague Unitarianism.”  How right he is!

Many of us in seminary (especially those my age – 67!) recall reading the famous Christian theologian and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr (long Professor at Yale Divinity School).  Back in 1937 writing his book The Kingdom of God in America, Professor Niebuhr penned a famous quote.  “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) It was a prescient insight offered just before the outbreak of World War II.

It is just as accurate in a time floundering in self-indulgence and slathered with a self-righteous embrace of victimhood.  As I write, the insights of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: A Nation of Heretics rumbles in the back of my mind.  Near the end of his book he writes, “We are waiting, not for another political savior or television personality, but for a Dominic or a Francis, an Ignatius or a Wesley, a Wilberforce or a Newman, a Bonhoeffer or a Solzhenitsyn.  Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world”  (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: A Nation of Heretics, p. 292).

A deep lingering hunger for a better life exists for us all.  We stand by the wells of life hoping against hope.  Longing for a soul deep significance, a redemption which can deliver far more than materialism’s wildest claims, science’s most brilliant insights, and politics’ most raucous triumph.  This is what the Wesleyan Way provided a heart-sick, slum infested, socially desperate politically bankrupt England.  It is what the Wesleyan Way offered to an infant America and what became the comfort and hope of so many settlers pushing west in the “New World.”  It is what the Wesleyan Way has shared across the globe.

I will offer a series of blogs on this subject over the next month and half or so (with periodic interruptions).  Together the Lord God calls us to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way.  We were once called “enthusiasts.”  It is time to claim the title again.

The Challenge of a Global Church ©

Thursday morning, May 4th, the Council of Bishops held its usual opening worship service.  Often during our worship we are led by newly elected bishops.  This is one way of getting to know them.  Thursday morning five newly elected bishops (four from Africa and one from Europe) led us in worship.  It was a wonderful, truly holy experience.

As they shared their personal witnesses, I heard God speaking to us.  Many of the theological assumptions and personal experiences of the Holy Spirt differ remarkably from the common fare in the United States.  One bishop shared a near death healing experience and his genuine fear of hell.  We North Americans laugh politely but he wasn’t being polite.  He was sharing what for him was a true story of being rescued from the jaws of hell and death.  Another bishop spoke of the church bells in his village ringing when he was born.  He and his family heard a call and claim from the Lord in the peel of the bells.  Americans saw a mere coincidence.  Still yet a third told of God speaking to him while he was playing in a rock band.  We laughed.  (In our defense it was humorously told.)  He gently chided us.  The hand of the Lord was on him in a tangible way according to his witness.

Where we tended to see coincidence, they saw the Lord God powerfully in action.  More than one spoke of being led by God to their spouse.  Some shared tales of visions of Christ.  Collectively they offered narratives of God powerfully in action through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Their profound, even thrilling, witnesses were consistently stories of a powerfully active God were flung in the face of a polite semi-Unitarianism that haunts the hallways of some American churches I visit. We need their witness.  They have much to offer us.

There are a number of other places of crucial differences.  In the current struggle involving human sexuality including same-gender marriage and ordination of “avowed practicing homosexuals,” members of the global church differ among themselves.  Different parts of Europe are on different sides of the divide.  Most of Africa is overwhelmingly in favor of retaining current language with regard to issues of human sexuality. The contextual cultural settings differs not only from the United States but from other places in the world as well.

As a part of the challenge of a Global Church, we have been wrestling over support for theological education.  I have the privilege of serving on the United Theological Seminary board (and have previously served on the Executive Board of Perkins School of Theology).  In the U.S. a critical issue is the large amount of debt new pastors have upon graduation from seminary and moving into their first full-time appointment.  The financial crises in some parts of the world is dramatically different.  There, the challenge is around providing theological education at all.  It engages issues of governance, finances, faculty, etc.

I could continue with other examples but these three issues (theology, human sexuality, and ministerial education & training) highlight the challenge of being a global church.  With the best of intentions, it is easy when living in North America and Northern Europe to make assumptions about the nature of the church that are foreign and even strange to our fellow United Methodists around the world.  Even more, the center of Christianity is in the southern hemisphere.  Africa is the strongest growing region of The United Methodist Church.

We really don’t know how to be a global church.  Good people, committed Christian lay and clergy alike, are struggling to learn.  In the delightful language of systems theory, “we are building the bridge while we walk on it.”  The challenge of a global church is a wonderful gift from the Lord God!

Reflections on the Recent Judicial Counsel Ruling ©

 As you have most likely already read, the UMC Judicial Council released its ruling on the validity of Bishop Karen Oliveto’s election and consecration by the Western Jurisdiction. In its decision – Decision 1341 – the Judicial Council ruled that the consecration of a gay bishop violates church law; however, Bishop Oliveto’s clergy status remains “in good standing” and she will continue to serve as the bishop of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area pending the completion of appropriate administrative or judicial processes. In this case, that means the issue has been remanded back to the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops (COB) who will determine the appropriate action(s).

I ask that we prayerfully respect the decision put forth by the Judicial Council as well as the processes still in play – i.e. the work of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward. In so doing, I wish to emphasize our call to prayer for Bishop Oliveto and her spouse as well as the people and churches of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area.  I fully realize that this decision does little to assuage the anxiety and disagreements that persist in our churches and denomination related to the issues of human sexuality. It is with this realization that I reiterate the request made in the letter Conference Lay Leader Mike Ford and I penned and sent last week – please be a people of prayer and compassion.

Allow me to say it again:  Please pray for Bishop Oliveto, the Western Jurisdiction and the Mountain Sky Conference. Pray for the UMC Council of Bishops, the members of the Commission on a Way Forward and the UMC at large. Extend compassion and care to all who hurt, are confused, or fearful during these uncertain times. Pray for our local churches, clergy and laity. Pray.

Please remember that this decision does not change the UMC Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council has a distinct and critical governance role in our denomination as the body responsible for deciding complex questions of church law, including the right to declare jurisdiction. Our own Dr. Tim Bruster serves as an alternate clergy member of the Council.  The Judicial Council’s actions on this matter are specific to this case. The General Conference is the only body that can speak for the church and has the authority to change The Book of Discipline. And, as you’ll recall, the Council of Bishops has called a special session of General Conference in February 2019 to further explore the broader issues around human sexuality in the church and consider the recommendations brought forth by the Commission on a Way Forward (CWF).

As we look forward to this Special Session of General Conference, it is important to remember that our mission remains firmly fixed on “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We will continue to keep Christ at the center of all we do. We will remain focused on growing strong, vital local churches and developing clergy and lay leadership. I deliberately repeat for emphasis.  We will continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. So, slow down, breathe deeply and remember that Jesus is still Lord and that God’s grace is forever with us.

Following the leading of the Holy Spirit, I want to reinforce some key points from my blog on April 25, which included the letter Mike Ford (The Central Texas Conference Lay Leader) and I sent to the clergy and lay leaders of our local churches.

  • Please continue to be wise and respectful leaders on social media. Discussions on a complex issue like this are best done face-to-face. Please resist the temptation to engage in heated conversations via social media. I encourage you to be grace filled and positive on social media, and resist venting or sharing personal convictions, even on your personal sites. Work to help redirect the conversations back to the mission of the church and guide the tone of interactions back towards the positive and uplifting.
  • It is important that we remain in conversation with each other. Clergy, if you have deep concerns regarding this decision, visit with your DS and/or any other member of the Cabinet – including me. Lay leaders are encouraged to reach out to our conference lay leader Mike Ford. Members of the 2016 delegation to General Conference are also an excellent resource of information and context.
  • These are troubled and tumultuous times indeed, not only for our church, but also in our communities and across this bruised and battered world. That is why I cannot stress enough the need to be a people of prayer, to breathe deep, remember that Jesus is still Lord. Keep your church’s focus squarely on the mission and wait for the processes in motion – the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, the Commission on the Way Forward, the called General Conference, etc. – to work through this issue.
  • Keep in mind, sisters and brothers, the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi – particularly chapter 2 verse 5 to “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus“ (CEB), for it is in Christ Jesus that we find the peace of God that surpasses all our human understanding – a peace that will guide our hearts and minds.
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