The World is Our Parish ©

 Periodically I am asked, “Should our work in missions (love, justice, and mercy) be focused at home in the communities in which our churches are located or should they be in extended mission work across America and the world?” My answer is always the same; “Yes!” There is something in the essence of loving those who are hungry and hurting and homeless that calls us both locally and globally.

Famously, John Wesley was asked at one time to return and serve the local parish. He turned down that opportunity, declaring “The world is my parish!” By that, Wesley never denigrated or slighted the importance of the local church and local community setting.  He understood that his personal call was to the wider church universal and more intentionally to what was then called the Wesleyan renewal movement. Even more, Wesley saw that at its truest essence the Christian faith is always a both/and.

Biblical examples abound. Christ reaches out and heals those around him. Consider the story of the centurion’s slave (Matthew 8:8-13) or the woman hemorrhaging (Mark 5:28-34).

But he also explicitly calls us to reach beyond to the wider world. The Great Commission is given that we should go to all “nations” (other translations say “people groups”). The famously quoted John 3:16 passage is explicitly expansive to the wider world; for “God so loved the world….”

In writing this today (Monday, August 14, 2017), I want to call for our prayers for peace, healing, love and justice in three specific situations across our nation and world recognizing that these prayers begin at home.

Many of you have watched with growing concern the tragedy that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists/neo-Nazi movements parade hate before us. Not only that, but they try to evoke hate within us (hate either towards them or towards others of a different religion or ethnicity). May our prayers go out for those who lost loved ones in this tragedy and especially for the end of racial hatred. Let us pray that we may be a people of peace. Confessionally, may we all recognize that bigotry and hatred begins in us. With our thoughts and actions, may we grow in Christ-likeness.  Let us be those who reach out for racial healing and the establishment of a more truly just America.

Secondly, I ask for our specific prayers for the people and nation of Kenya. Many of our churches and our Conference as a whole has a very special relationship with Kenya. We’ve sent a large number of different mission groups there to work in a variety of settings. The Rev. Ken Diehm Retreat House is a fixture for the Methodist Church in the Meru Synod (district) of Kenya. Numerous other mission trips have engaged in Christ-honoring works of love, justice and service in the Maua Methodist Hospital.

As you may know from following the news, the nation of Kenya recently held a presidential election. Although most observers believe the election was fair, there have been violent clashes over the results. I ask the people of Central Texas to pray for the nation of Kenya as a whole. May peace be the way forward for our Kenyan brothers and sisters.

The third specific area for which I am asking for prayers is the situation unfolding with North Korea. Much has been written and said. I simply commend to the Christian reader that we be in prayer for a peaceful resolution. The evils of President Kim Jong-Un and the Communist Party in North Korea seem to me to be fairly self-evident. May the wisdom of the Lord guide our response as a nation and as a people. May we separate the common citizen of North Korea from the evils of the current dictatorship which oppresses that country. Let us pray as well for our elected officials (the President, various Cabinet members and Secretaries involved and those working as Ambassadors). May God give wisdom that surpasses our human instincts and ultimately leads to a true lasting peace

As I ask for these prayers specifically for the people of Charlottesville, VA; the citizens and nation of Kenya; and the conflict erupting around North Korea, I continue to ask that we be a people who pray for peace and healing, for love and justice, for hope and help in our own churches, our own neighborhoods, our own cities and states. May the Prince of Peace guide our actions.

Engage! Missional Transformation in Love, Service and Relationship with Others ©

This coming October, we have a significant opportunity to grow our missional outreach to those in our local communities through a CTC-sponsored event entitled ENGAGE: Transforming Missions. The ENGAGE Conference is scheduled for Oct. 6-7 at Temple First UMC, and is designed for clergy and mission leaders seeking to grow deeper relationships with the persons they serve.

Through the opening sessions with Tom Bassford, a leader in transformative mission ministry, and breakout sessions led by our own Central Texas Conference mission leaders, participants will have the opportunity to learn from and dialogue with other leaders about best practices of relational mission ministry.  The key is “relational mission ministry.”  The ENGAGE Conference focuses on helping churches make the transition from ministry that meets emergency needs into individual and community transformation through relationships. I invite the reader to click the following link for a brief video discussion on ENGAGE (the video is also available below). In it, Rev. Dawne Phillips, Director of Missions for the Central Texas Conference, and I discuss the importance of local churches moving toward doing transformational missions.  The Conference will connect our core mission, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, with the WIG as together we seek to reach out in love, justice and mercy to all.

The keynote speaker/teacher is Dr. Tom Bassford. Tom Bassford is Founder and President of Significant Matters and SATalks in Olathe, Kansas, a non-profit organization working with churches, faith-based groups, community stakeholders and philanthropic organizations to tackle complex societal issues in sustainable ways. Before founding Significant Matters, he pastored for more than 30 years and has been involved in the work of church missions both locally and internationally for over 40 years.

In 2014, under Tom’s leadership, Significant Matters launched SATalks, a TED Talk type of gathering and video website to explore and demonstrate ways to create sustainable transformation through church missions.  They also launched the Missions 3.0 Network for churches wanting to move their mission work beyond “helping that hurts.” SATalks and Missions 3.0 exist to accelerate the learning curve around sustainable approaches to missions and connect those early pioneers trying to make it happen.

ENGAGE is an outstanding opportunity for churches to send a team who can participate in a variety of breakout sessions and then return home with ideas to consider for mission focused on making disciples in their local community.  Registration information can be found on the Central Texas Conference website.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #8 ©

Struggling with Sin

Back in my seminary days one of the big intellectual fads that swept across America was a form of psychotherapy called Transactional Analysis (TA).  It was built on the foundation of acceptance and appreciation of both yourself and others (which is in principle a good thing but taken too far – as it was – destructive).  The mantra of TA was “I’m Ok, You’re Ok.”

About that time I was taking a course in pastoral theology from the great Methodist theologian Albert Outler.  I remember him lecturing on the subject to TA and Sin.  He pictured a worship service starting with the liturgy of the pastor saying, “I’m Okay!”and the Congregation responding, “You’re Okay!”  Then pastor would echo back, “You’re Okay!” And the congregation would respond with gusto, “We’re Okay!”  At that point Professor Outler said that someone standing in the back of the sanctuary should respond with a loud, “Bah humbug!”

And now, I give pause. We have reached a theological state in American Protestantism where the notion of sin is almost foreign. When sin applies it is someone else who sinned.  When we talk of sin, far too often it is in reference to sexual peccadillos and rarely to explore the greater sinful hedonism of our own lives in the pursuit of pleasure though gross overconsumption. (Forgive me Lord! I know I am guilty.)

Recently my spiritual mentor, Dr. Sid Spain, wrote a paper offering deep insight into the spiritual life of walking with God.  As part of his work, both in writing and in serving as a pastor and spiritual guide, he noted our struggle in the modern world with the whole concept of sin.  Dr. Spain wrote:

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.  Recently he wrote an article entitled The Strange Persistence of Guilt referencing a longer article of the same name by Wilfred McClay in the Hedgehog Review. [(See David Brooks, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” March 31, 2017; and Wilfred M. McClay, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” The Hedgehog Review; Vol 19 No. 1).  Brooks and McClay are only two of many writers who have diagnosed part of the cause of the rise of incivility in our society as a consequence of the inaccessibility of opportunities for absolution.  Brooks writes, “Religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerful as ever.” As the influence of the church has diminished in the West, fewer people have the opportunity to deal creatively with feelings of guilt, failure and inadequacy. Instead of confessing sin and receiving forgiveness and absolution, we project our dissatisfaction and angst on others.  Unable to process our sin we feel victimized and we vilify.

An inevitable consequence of contemplative prayer is confrontation with the self and the recognition that we are complicit in the brokenness of the world (Sid Spain, Make the Time and Find a Place: Contemplative Prayer for the Easily Distracted, p. 6).

The concept of grace, God’s radically free wholly unmerited forgiving love is applied so casually as to leave us often (not always!) unaffected.  [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. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives (Ephesians 2:8-10).]  What slips our more careful attention is verse 10 of Ephesians 2, repeated here for emphasis, “Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things.  God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. Our good intentions often ignore the moral harm of sin both in ourselves and others. In Dr. Spain’s terms, we fail to confront our complicity in the brokenness of this world. It is somebody else’s fault.

Yet classical Methodist doctrine will not let us off so easily.  For Methodists the response to sin is worked out in sanctification, in “holiness of heart and life.”  This historically is a cardinal assumption of Methodist theology (thinking about the ways of God).  The claim always is that we are to be ‘”moving on to perfection.” To borrow from Sid in paraphrasing St. Augustine’s definition of sin, homo incurvatus in se in the Latin, loosely translated as “Sin is the self, turned in upon its self.”  The Apostle Paul reached for its essence in his great biblical letters. “I’m sold as a slave to sin.  I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate. But if I’m doing the thing that I don’t want to do, I’m agreeing that the Law is right. But now I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it’s sin that lives in me” (Romans 7:14c-17). John Wesley understood sin as a disease, a radical flaw in our human nature that could not be cured simply by our own moral effort yet at the same time needing our willing participation in its cure.

Here again Professor Outler is instructive in his seminal lectures on Wesleyan Theology. “Sin is spoken of as a sickness that can be cured by the Great Physician if we will accept his threefold prescription: 1. Repentance (self-knowledge), 2. Renunciation of self-will, and 3. Faith (trust in God’s sheer, unmerited grace”  (Albert C. Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 37).

I invite the reader to carefully note that our struggle with sin is met in the grace of Jesus Christ. But I also urge an embrace of the truth that such healing comes in repentance and renunciation. There is no such thing as cheap grace for the price of grace is the cross of Christ and our embrace of grace comes in repentance and renunciation. The antidote of Christ comes to us in the divine human synergy as we struggle with sin. Augustine is reputed to have said, “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #7 ©

Scripture, Tradition, Reason & Experience:  Understanding the Quadrilateral in Wesleyan Theology

 This blog picks back up on an extended summer blog series entitled “Reclaiming The Heart of the Wesleyan Way.”  In part five of my blog on this series,  I shared part of the General Rules of the United Methodist Church and the struggle for a common theological core, which I believe is currently taking place within United Methodism.

The “General Rules” (along with The Standard Sermons of Wesley and The Explanatory Notes on the New Testament) are the heart of the United Methodist doctrinal core. They are contained in Section 3, Paragraph #104 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016. Dr. William J. Abraham, Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, has decisively demonstrated that there is a stated and officially adopted doctrinal core for the United Methodist Church. In this time of identity crisis within United Methodism, Section 3, Paragraph #104 is worth remembering and reflecting upon deeply. Professor Abraham rightly notes: “United Methodist doctrine can actually be identified. It is not an amorphous body of vague proposals. Nor is it some malleable theological method which can be twisted to fit this or that fad or convention of culture. United Methodist doctrine is substantial; it is identifiable; and it is clear in fundamental content” (William J. Abraham, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church, p.14).

As church history will teach anyone with casual knowledge of the past, a clear doctrinal core does not finally, once and for all settle issues of doctrinal content. Deep debate still continues about the meaning of this core, how it applies to a current context and historical setting, and what its implications are for “practical Christianity” in our time. In its collective wisdom the United Methodist Church has adopted a method for engaging in debate and discussions about the meaning of our doctrinal core. It can be found immediately after the section on our doctrinal core. Section 4, Paragraph 105 is entitled “Our Theological Task.” Such a critical task – that is of thinking theologically about what we believe and how we are Christian – by very necessity must engage each generation anew.

Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, outlines what is commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The “quadrilateral” is not itself doctrine. Rather, it is a proposed method for doing theology (that is to say thinking and reflecting on God and ways of God among us). It is made up of four components of how we get at the Truth (capital T) of the Christian faith. (The opening part of Paragraph 105 is well worth a careful reading!)

The four components of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are:  Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Each section in Paragraph 105 deserves careful attention. All parts of the quadrilateral do not carry the same weight in theological discourse; thus, The Discipline (as a matter of both doctrine and method) places Scripture above the other three. “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 83).

Tradition is a reference to what we have learned from the saints of the past. This especially includes the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed (both found in the United Methodist Hymnal). The importance of tradition can easily be recognized in Scripture as well as in practice. The admonition of Hebrews is instructive. “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Hebrews 11:1).

Experience acknowledges the importance of a “heart” faith (not just an intellectual collection of “head” doctrines). Again The Discipline is instructive. “Our experience interacts with Scripture. … Experience authenticates in our own lives the truths revealed in Scripture and illumined in tradition, enabling us to claim the Christian as our own” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 87).

Reason becomes a key component or method by which we put theological and doctrinal discussions together. The Discipline is careful to note at the outset of the section on reason, “we recognize that God’s revelation and our experience of God’s grace continually surpasses the scope of human language and reason, we also believe that any discipline theological work calls for the careful use of reason” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 88).

As a whole the “Quadrilateral” has much to commend itself as a method for doing theology (thinking about God and the ways of God).  The danger of heresy, however can slip in when Scripture is subordinated for personal preference backed by a partial reading of Christian history (tradition) and casual application of experience and reason. The tendency in our time is use one of two of the key components (say Scripture and Tradition or Experience and Reason) separate from all four. Instead of an acknowledged method of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a person then ends up with what is a functioning bilateral or unilateral governance of theological discourse that is bereft of the full wisdom of the faith.

There is more to be said here, much more. For now hopefully, the reader’s appetite has been whetted enough to encourage a full reading of both Sections 3 & 4, Paragraphs 104 & 105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, pp. 65-91. As the “good ole boys” used to say, “there’s is gold in them thar hills!”

However we approach issues of deep doctrinal substance, and make no mistake the current threat of schism in the United Methodist Church is ultimately about our doctrinal core, the only truly faithful Christian response is with great humility. “Now we see in a mirror dimly” (I Corinthians 13:12). “This [Our] witness, however, cannot fully describe or encompass the mystery of God” (Section 4, Paragraph #105 of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, p. 91)

A Guide to Reading the Commission on the Way Forward Status Report ©

A Way Forward … Thus Far: A Status Report on the Commission on a Way Forward has recently been released for sharing across the church.  I believe it potentially represents some excellent work on the part of the members of the Commission. The report is available as a PDF and as a video slide show presentation.

As I went through the Report with Vance Morton, director of Communications & IT for the Central Texas Conference, he strongly urged both a greater communication on the subject and some explanation of the terms used, the purpose of this report, etc.  This is not meant as an advocacy blog, but rather as an attempt to help people understand some of the terms and references. I will share some personal comments at the end of this post.

  1. The Commission on the Way Forward was established by the Council of Bishops at the request of the 2016 General Conference. It is to review and make recommendations back to the both the General Conference at a Called Session in February 2019 and to the Council of Bishops on all matters related to The United Methodist Church’s deep division regarding human sexuality and LGBTQ. It is made up of both lay and clergy members from around the world.
  2. This is a status report NOT a listing of preliminary findings or recommendations.
  3. Context (and all its variations throughout the status report) are references to the different settings or mission fields that local churches, conferences and even nations find themselves in. By way of example, the context or mission field of a church in rural North Katanga (a Conference located in the Republic of the Congo) is dramatically different from the context or setting/mission field of a church in urban Los Angeles (U. S.) or one in suburban Berlin (Germany). Context includes the socio-economic setting, diversity and a multitude of other factors which can mean that churches physically near each other operate in very different ministry environments.  What may be considered culturally acceptable in one setting (or context) may be culturally unacceptable in another setting (or context).
  4. Slide #6 – The Anatomy of Peace is a reference to a book by The Arbinger Institute. The Arbinger Institute describes itself as “a global training and consulting firm that specializes in organizational transformation and conflict resolution.”  In conjunction with the work of The Commission on the Way Forward, the Council of Bishops has asked that all bishops read this book.
  5. Slide #8 is particularly instructive. It is important to understand that at this point (a shade less than halfway through their work as a Commission) we are being offered a look at a “sketch,” a very rough framework for a way forward.  The Commission notes:  “At this point, the Commission is sketching models with a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other, improving and correcting until we have something more detailed and complete to share with the Council of Bishops and the church for feedback.”
  6. The reference to “The Colloquy at Emory” refers to an academic theological colloquy entitled “Missio Dei and the United States: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness,” which was recently hosted by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) and the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools (AUMTS). The gathering engaged United Methodist scholars (Seminary professors and academics) and some members of the Council of Bishops in deep learning about how to “reengage our Wesleyan heritage to participate in the Missio Dei” (the mission God has called us to).
  7. The reference to a “pre-1972 approach” in Slide #15 under the subheading “Context” refers to the structure of the United Methodist Church prior to the reorganization of the General Boards and Agencies, which took place after the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Again, Here is the link to the PDF, and here is the link to the video version of status report from the Commission.

Some Personal Observations:

  • This represents an immense amount of prayerful work on the part of the members of the Commission on a Way Forward. However else we respond, we should first express our gratitude for the faithful diligence of their efforts.  I ask all of us to continue to lift them in prayer.
  • Slide #7 – “What connects us now: Our Common Core” – is extremely significant. It represents a theological foundation crucial to whatever future the Lord may have in store for His church. Flushing out the meaning and implications of this theological foundation is particularly important. As the saying goes, “both God and the devil are in the details.”
  • Slides #9 – 13 contain some potentially radical implications:
    o   “A new church will not look like the current church.”
    o   “It may mean multiple versions of the Book of Discipline.”
    o   “Jesus’ call to unity may look like associations or affiliated churches.”
    o   “The way forward cannot be an extension of our path of conflict.”
    o   “We value pushing the pendulum toward looser on structure and contextualization and tighter on naming the essentials of theology and doctrine.
  • Slide #12 – “Our Global Context” – contains a wealth of insight that American United Methodists need to take prayerfully into consideration.
  • Slide #14 – “What We Have Learned” – is deeply significant and requires thought, conversation and prayer.
  • Structure and Finances on Slide #15 are critical.
    o   “We need enough structural freedom so that no one has to compromise their deeply held beliefs.”
    o   Issues involving the Pension Program cannot be ignored or wished away.  Liability is real.

There is more to be said, much more, but for now I invite a careful reading of this substantial status report from the Commission on the Way Forward.  I ask for your continued prayers for the Commission and the church as a whole.

Here in the Central Texas Conference, we have tasks groups led by members of our General Conference Delegation, Cabinet and others working to set up systems and avenues where we can give feedback to the Commission.  This is part of a combined effort of the Council of Bishops and the Commission on the Way Forward.  More information will be shared this fall as the various task groups solidify their plans.

For now and always!:
“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
(Psalm 46:1-3)

Summer Reading ©

I returned from summer vacation on July 25th toting a stack of books that I had taken with me on our travels east to see the grandchildren (along with their parents).  In packing a few weeks before, Jolynn had raised her eyes at me and querulously asked, “Do you really think you will read all of those?”  After 40 years, 11 months, and 9 days of marriage, I have learned how to read some of her body language.  Skepticism streamed out of her mouth and drenched her expression.  I was defiant.

In my defense, I did do a lot of reading while on vacation. I read Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, Ferry (as in the boat we traveled on to get to the Isle of Mull and Iona not winged creatures in the woods), Peg the Little Sheepdog, The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby (Simon’s baby brother – grandchild number 4 – is due in late September or early October), The Wheels on the Truck Go ‘Round and ‘Round (about 15 times) and others of like ilk.  Additionally, I did get to do some of the reading I planned on; just not as much as I had hoped for.

I manage to read:

The Five Marks of a Methodist: The Fruit of a Living Faith by Steve Harper
Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas Ricks
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Drehr (actually this was an audio book listened to while driving East)
About half of Methodism: Empire of the Spirit by David Hempton (I am continuing to read it and expect to be done soon.)

Some of my other summer readings (along with some fun ScFi mind-candy) include:

Unity In Mission: A Bond of Peace for the Sake of Love by Bishop C. Andrew Doyle
Bishop Doyle is the Episcopal Bishop the Houston Diocese.  He writes on how his diocese stayed in unity focused on the mission of the church despite divisions over the same issues that the United Methodist Church is currently dealing with.  The Council of Bishops has asked that all Bishops read this book.  I am currently about ¼ of the way through this significant book.

The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict by The Arbinger Institute
“The Arbinger Institute is a global training and consulting firm that specializes in organizational transformation and conflict resolution.”  In conjunction with the work of The Commission on the Way Forward, the Council of Bishops has asked that all bishops read this book as well.

Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership for Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger
Using the metaphor of the Voyage of Discovery in the Lewis and Clark expedition, this book pulls together in a delightfully readable many of the insights of modern leadership and systems theory joining them with Christian values and faithfulness.  It is being read by a number of Cabinets in the South Central Jurisdiction (we will probably join them in reading it).  I am about 40 pages into it and recommend it highly (so far).

Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World by Bob Johansen
Rev. Ray Bailey, an elder in the Central Texas Conference and retired Brigadier General (Deputy Chief of Staff of the Chaplains Corp in the Army), now serving as Associate General Secretary for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) gifted me with a copy of this book which he highly recommends.  I trust his judgment and look forward to digging into it.  I also noted in my reading that Todd Bolsinger in Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership for Uncharted Territory draws quotes from this book.

Learning Theology with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall
This book is a companion to the outstanding Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures series (some 27 volumes) of which Hall served as Associate Editor.  I am reading this book with a number of young clergy in the CTC out of a conviction that for us to move forward into the future faithfully we must recover out theological core.  It is a deep long-term personal project.

Against the Tide:  The Story of Adomnan of Iona by Warren Bardsley
I began this delightful book on the Isle of Iona.  It chronicles the work of one of the great missionary saints and bishops of Celtic Christianity.  Hopefully, I’ll finish it before summer is over!

So, what are you reading this summer?  If we are called to worship God with our heart and mind, how are you feeding your mind? Summer is a great time for catching up on reading!

Oh, wait a minute, my list is incomplete!  A friend, who is a member of a different Protestant denomination, sent me a copy of Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World by Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia.  We are going to read it and compare notes about our learnings, the two of us from different Protestant Denominations, from one of the America’s leading Roman Catholic thinkers.  It looks fascinating.

There is more I want to read but like a kid surveying an overladen culinary banquet, I think my appetite is bigger that my allotted reading time!  Meanwhile, where did I place Nessie the Loch Ness Monster?  I am sure I have a picture of her (that is Nessie) somewhere….

 

 

 

 

 

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #6

A Movement of the Holy Spirit

Professor David Hempton opens his marvelous history of the Methodist movement (Methodism: Empire of the Spirit) with the recounting of an incident which took place at Oxford University in the early 1880s.  Hugh Price Hughes, the leading Methodist scholar of his day, challenged Professor Mark Pattison, the distinguished scholar and Rector (think Dean) of Lincoln College, Oxford University, who was chairing the meeting, as to why there was no mention of John Wesley in Pattison’s lengthy essay “Tendencies of Religious Thought in England, 1688 – 1750.”  Furthermore, Pattison had relegated Methodism to “somewhere near the opposite pole of reasonable religion” (David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, p. 1).

Hugh Price Hughes, the great Methodist scholar, suggested that John Wesley was “one of the ‘greatest sons’ of the university.”  Irritated Pattison dismissed Methodism & Wesley as not worth consideration as a “reasonable religion.”

In truth Methodism as promulgated by John Wesley was always a head and heart religious understanding of the Christian faith.  Wesley believed deeply in the active providence of God in human life.  There were clear elements of what we might call charismatic.  Again Hempton’s reflections are insightful:  “Generally speaking Wesley accepted the epithet ‘enthusiast’ if it was meant as a rough synonym for a vigorous and earnest faith, but strenuously repudiated it if it was intended as a synonym for false claims to divine inspiration. . . . The rub of the matter was that Wesley accepted as a general proposition that God regularly and strikingly intervened in the created order to advance his purposes and protect his servants, whereas most of his critics did not in the same way”  (David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, p. 35). Not without reason Henry Rack, well on a century after Pattison and Hughes contentious interchange, would label John Wesley a “reasonable enthusiast.”

As Methodism in America grew in size and social respectability the “enthusiastic” side of the faith was gradually pushed to the edges.  This week I dipped my toe in the water of an important but often ignored segment of Methodism, namely our charismatic or renewal elements.  I stepped beyond my comfort zone to attend an Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (ARM) gathering in Lexington, Kentucky.  ARM initially grew out of the Board of Discipleship and eventually spun off as a para-church organization loosely attached to The United Methodist Church.  While I did not witness any speaking in tongues, I did encounter a deep sense of the active movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  People were “slain in the Spirit.”  Prayer, praise and worship were ecstatic and moving with dancing and banners accompanying healing and testimony of healing miracles.

Many know that my own conversion came out of the Quakers.  My greater comfort zone is sitting in silence and praying in quiet.  I have been a part of a group at Taize where I was deeply moved by the worship and felt a deep sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Similarly I have twice been to Iona (most recently in May) where the liturgy conveys the greatness and presence of God.  Charismatic worship, however much it moves us beyond our comfort zone, must be added to the list.  I do not pretend to understand all of this, but I do believe the Holy Spirit moving in each.  (Please note, there is a danger in each form.  One of the speeches at Aldersgate contained strong elements of prosperity gospel which must be rejected as a heretical version of the gospel.). The faithful church of Jesus Christ needs all three of these different forms as well as others.

I noted some key elements to the ARM gathering that particularly impressed me.

1.  They are sold out on a Trinitarian theology and especially lift up Christ as King.
2.   They take sin and the Devil with great seriousness.
3.   Holiness as an active pursuit and ministry of Methodists is real. (The rest of the UMC could learn much from them here.  There is a strong sense of personal and social justice going together!)
4.   God acts supernaturally — that is beyond nature. (I attended a number of excellent workshops that challenged the vapid and tired Unitarian version of Methodism that infects too many of our churches.)
5.   They believe in personal, Holy Spirit inspired transformation and in the renewal of the church.
6.   They pray without ceasing; deep earnest prayer!
7.   They praise with passion – ardent heartfelt enthusiasm.

We have much to learn and relearn from this branch of the Methodist family.  It is well past time to lay down exaggerated fears (while still appropriately policing the abuses) and be more open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is at work in our midst.  This too is a part of our recovering and reclaiming of the Wesleyan Way.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #5 ©

Embracing of Our Doctrinal Core

A focus of the great historic questions for ordination in the United Methodist Church centers on embracing the doctrinal core of United Methodism.  Consider this brief listing of questions put to candidates for ordination at the clergy executive session (from The Book of Discipline 2016, paragraph 336, p. 270):

6.   Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
7.   Will you keep them?
8.   Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?
9.   After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
10. Will you preach and maintain them?

The list brings the thoughtful Methodist Christian up short.  We presume a foundation of common agreement with the basic core doctrines of the United Methodist Church.  Furthermore, John Wesley argued extensively that they formed a common core foundation with other Christians built upon the great creeds of the Church, especially The Nicene Creed (#880, The United Methodist Hymnal) and The Apostles Creed (##881 &#882, The United Methodist Church).  Under “Qualifications for Ordination” (Paragraph 304, The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016), the importance of embracing our doctrinal core is stated even more emphatically:  “Be accountable to the United Methodist Church, accept its Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, accept supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers.”

In today’s United Methodist Church I do not believe a common doctrinal core can be assumed.  The struggle to embrace a common doctrinal core lies behind the current conflict around biblical interpretation and same gender marriage & ordination.  Our theological core must be thoughtfully and prayerfully examined, discussed, argued and finally embraced anew.

As a start, I invite an examination of what we now have in the United Methodist Church.  The Doctrinal Standards and General Rules are listed in Paragraph 104 of The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.  They include those adopted from both the predecessor denominations – The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Methodist Church.  They start with a firm foundation:

Article I-Of Faith in the Holy Trinity

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Article II-Of the Word, or Son of God, Who Was Made Very Man

The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of men.

Article III-Of the Resurrection of Christ

Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.

Article IV-Of the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

Similarly the Evangelical United Brethren doctrinal standards, which were also adopted at the time of union, list the first four doctrines as:  Article I-God, Article II-Jesus Christ, Article III-The Holy Spirit.  There are a total of 25 Articles from the Methodist Church and 16 from the Evangelical United Brethren Church.    That all sounds like a lot but they actually boil down to a basic core which John Wesley largely adapted from the Church of England.

All this makes for somewhat dry reading until we pause to reflect that much of our current angst and debate centers on issues of core doctrine.  What do we believe is central and non-negotiable?  And, just has importantly, how do we interpret or understand core doctrines as they relate to salvation, sin, free will, the sacraments, etc.?

I step back into what might well seem an archaic rendition because what we believe matters.  Belief informs, educates and guides our actions.  Likewise, we often act ourselves into a new way of believing.  As one of pastors stated in a recent sermon, “which is more important belief or action?  The answer is yes!”  It is both.  The one informs and helps shape the other.  Neither belief nor action operates on island divorced from the other.

The way forward for Methodists will surely involve rediscovering and embracing anew our doctrinal core.  The term classically used to describe the doctrinal core of the Christian movement is “orthodoxy.”  Professor Wendy Deichman, former President at United Theological Seminary comments:

“What is orthodoxy? Merriam Webster defines it simply as “a belief or way of thinking that is accepted as true or correct.” In Christian usage this definition applies to central beliefs of the earliest Christian church, those which, in a great sea of competing options, were finally synthesized into creeds and confessions that were formally adopted by the church. It was because of these convictions about the gospel that Christians of each era have gone to the trouble to pass their Christian faith on to others, including their own children, and eventually including us who now also embrace the core doctrines the early Christians believed to be true and correct.”

As I travel across the church I cannot help but note that our theology is weak and appears to be adrift.  We stand in desperate need of recovering our doctrinal core.  But mere knowledge is not enough.  A theological embrace is needed if belief and action are to mutually invigorate each other.  I invite the reader to look through Paragraph 104 of The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016.  What would be on your list of a core doctrinal belief for Methodists?  How does it match the actual position taken by the United Methodist Church?

All too often today we regard doctrine and orthodoxy in negative terms.  Sometimes “orthodoxy” is claimed as the handmaiden of one group or other.  A friend who is decisively on the progressive side of our current divide recently reminded me that the claim to being orthodox is not the province of one part of the church or another.  Today the make-up of “orthodox” Christianity is contested.  The purpose of this blog is less to argue for a particular position and more to advocate a needed embrace of the historic doctrinal core of the Wesleyan Way.  Professor Deichmann advises us rightly:

“Although some will assume or argue that Christian orthodoxy is made up of an oppressively long list of doctrines used to subjugate and control people, history will confirm that Christian orthodoxy is most often expressed in a stunningly short list of beliefs that affirm the Holy Trinity and salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy as historically understood does not wed believers to a long inventory of theological, political, and social doctrines. Rather, orthodoxy as we are using the term here and as expressed in Christian history is made up of a relatively short list of core doctrines that have to do with the heart of the gospel. For example, orthodoxy is not even definitive on the nature of atonement. Rather, it generates conversation among believers in the gospel about the nature of Christ’s death and how we then should live.”

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!!

Page 3 of 59«12345»102030...Last »