COME HOLY SPIRIT – Report from Taize Part 3

I find myself fascinated by the way the Taize Community claims and proclaims a richly, powerfully, dynamic, active embrace of the Holy Spirit.  In many of our churches the Holy Spirit is the last element of the Holy Trinity,  tossed in as almost an afterthought.  We have neglected the Spirit at our peril and impoverishment.  There  is little stress here on the first person of the Trinity as a vague philosophical thought.  God is present through Christ in the Spirit dynamically!

It is fascinating to behold how high the Christology is at Taize and how deeply wrapped in the pneumatology (the Holy Spirit).  The two (Christ and the Holy Spirit) are distinct and yet seemingly inseparable.  One day Rev. Larry Duggins and I had the privilege of eating lunch with the Brothers as the guest of the leader of the Taize Community, Brother Alyoius.  I asked him, “What is the one message you would like to say to any bishop in the church regardless of nationality or denomination?”  He answered quickly without pause, “Stay close to Christ.”

Vague deism is absent in the Taize Community.  The vibrant personality of the Trinitarian God speaks forth.  The songs, prayer, communion (every morning) — all serve as elements of opening the worshipper to the personal agency of God active in our lives.  The Bible stresses the Lordship of Christ.  The songs are drenched in the intimate language of the Holy Spirit.

Marvelously open to others of a differing faith conviction, the Taize Community is nonetheless anchored in its Christology and pneumatology.  Sloppy pluralism doesn’t raise its head.  The embrace of the full personalism of the Holy Trinity (3 persons in 1 essence) is paramount.  The songs in particular are both prayer and theology; teaching (doctrine) and witness.

The Taize Community has much to teach the United Methodist Church at this juncture.  Wesley spoke strongly against a vague deism in his day.  The robust theology of the Trinity in action at Taize is echoed in the songs of Charles Wesley.  We need to reclaim our deeply Trinitarian core.  Once again Christology and pneumatology need to take center place in the life of the church as a believing and acting community of faith.

Lessons from the Dean

Beginning Monday, June 10th we will have the joy and privilege of having Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean as our Conference Teacher.  She is renowned for her insight in ministry to youth and young adults.  Significantly those insights translate beyond ministry to young persons.  They are profound in their implications for what it means to be a Christian and to recovering the essence of the Wesleyan movement of faithful discipleship to the Lord.  Her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, is exceptional.

Dr. Dean will be speaking to the Conference on Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning.  These addresses are open to all.  Visitors to Conference are asked to sit in the balcony.  If you are not a delegate to the Central Texas Conference, please receive this blog as an invitation to come and hear Dr. Dean offer us lessons for discipleship.

In March of 2012 Dr. Dean wrote an article for Leading Ideas (The Lewis Center for Church Leadership’s online magazine) entitled “Characteristics for a Healthy Youth Ministry.”  She shared (in part) the following:

“Congregations that succeed in nurturing the faith of young people tend to demonstrate certain key characteristics. What are the top characteristics of a healthy youth ministry?

11. Safe space.

10. A culture of creativity. Young people need practice in multiple “faith languages” — words and actions, art and prayer.

9. A culture of theological awareness.

8. Integration into a congregation’s worship, mission, and discipleship formation at every level.  Teenagers need people to reflect back to them who they are. This “mirroring” is basic to the process of identity formation. Only in the church do young people begin to see themselves through the eyes of people who try to see them as God sees them: beloved, blessed, called.

7. An authentic, fun, and passionate community of belonging.

6. A team of adult youth leaders actively growing in faith. You can’t lead where you don’t go. Adult youth leaders need to model spiritual investment in themselves, in one another, and in the world because youth need examples of faithful, supportive, Christian community.

5. A congregation where people actively seek and talk about God. The 2003 Exemplary Youth Ministry Study convinced me that congregations where young people reliably develop mature faith “talk about God as the subject of sentences.” Talking about God indicates that people in a church are actively seeking God and believe God makes a difference. And, they talk to God as well as about God. God is alive and present and in their midst. God is doing things through them.

4. A congregation where people are visibly invested in youth.

3. A senior pastor who is crazy about young peopleIf a congregation supports youth ministry,  it will be clear because the senior pastor or head of staff talks about young people (positively) in public, includes them in leadership, embraces the faith development of parents, knows youth and their leaders by name, and makes himself or herself available to young people for spiritual conversations. The senior pastor is youth ministry’s head cheerleader.

2. Parents who model faith and know that this matters to their kids. Parents are the most important youth ministers. The National Study of Youth and Religion found that having parents who are religiously active is the most important variable contributing to a teenager’s faith identity and his or her ability to sustain that faith identity between high school and emerging adulthood. And if young people don’t have religiously active parents, then churches need to be places where kids can find adults who will “adopt” them spiritually.

1.      A commitment to Jesus Christ. Since Christians understand God as Triune through Jesus — whose life, death, and resurrection reveals not only who God is and who we are in relationship to God, but that God continues to act in our lives and in the world around us — doing youth ministry without Jesus is like doing dinner without food: you can come to the table, but there’s nothing to eat. So why bother?”

 

There is more and, as I indicated above, I have edited the article quoted.  Hopefully this whets your appetite.  We have a rare opportunity to have a world class scholar and deeply faithful Christian leader teach us.  I hope to see you at Arborlawn UMC on June 10th and 11th!

COME HOLY SPIRIT — Report from Taize 2

I came to Taize immersed in appointment making, preparations for Annual Conference, and the numbing administrative burdens of the office of bishop.  Mind you, I love what I do and I firmly believe God has called me to this place.  I am further convinced that no matter what someone’s job is (paid or unpaid), life can wear a person down.  For me a part of the wearing down lies in the struggle to build up the church even as the tsunami of secularism sweeps over the western world.  Kermit the Frog would say “it’s not easy being green!”  I’ll say, it’s not easy being Christian and especially being a Christian pastor in this day and time!

It took me a couple of days of being at Taize to detox enough so that I could attune myself to the Spirit’s speaking.  Wednesday evening as we sang, the Holy Spirit spoke to me.  In German we sang, “With you there is help and patience.”  In Latin, “it is good to hope and trust in The Lord.”   The music wound itself softly through languages I couldn’t even identify yet became strangely clear.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit was calling me back to faithfulness as attentive trust in The Lord.  Amazingly (providentially!), the only song we sang in English held the verse, “See I am near. … See, I make all things new.”

The Spirit conveyed to me that God in this time of radical change is making all things new in and through the Church.  These are not our last days.  Nor is this a time of despair.  Through the Holy Spirit, The Lord is shaping the church in a new way.  It is scary, at times even terrifying.  The way is often unclear and the Back to Egypt Committee has strong institutional standing.  Yet in it all the Holy Spirit is at work.  Bonum est condidere.  “It is good to hope and trust in The Lord.”

COME HOLY SPIRIT — A Report from Taize 1

I have been gone for the past 10 days on a Young Adult leadership development trip to Taize.  Along with Rev. Larry Duggins (Director of the Missional Wisdom Foundation), Rev. Kyland Dobbins (Director of Mission Experience for CTC) and Leanne Johnson (Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the CTC), we have been leading a group of 20 young adults (ages 17 — 30) on a spiritual pilgrimage to Taize, France.

The brothers of the Taize Community consider the young people who flock to them from all over the world a gift from God.  They in turn nourish that gift with a spiritual care that is extraordinary.  The heart of Taize is three daily worship services anchored in prayer, song (which is often its own prayer), Holy Scripture and silence.  There is a phenomenally strong emphasis on listening to the Holy Spirit at Taize.  Song, silence, and scripture are vehicles and means by which we open ourselves to the Spirit’s presence and guidance.  The morning and afternoon worship experiences are followed by small group Bible Study.

As I soaked in the experience of Taize, I discovered myself going through a spiritual detoxification.  The challenges, struggles and problems of life and of my work as bishop did not disappear.  Rather they are put in perspective as I take time to open myself to the Holy Spirit.  In one sense, this is not new at all.  I hardly needed to travel to France to experience the importance of music, silence, and scripture in my Christian walk.  In another, greater sense, I feel like a desperately thirsty man staggering in from the desert and being offered a cold glass of refreshing water.  Steve Bryant’s (the former editor of the Upper Room) maxim that most of us do not go to the high places enough once again rings true in my life.  I (we!!!!) need time for spiritual detoxification from the world’s constant bombardment.

I invite the reader, whereever you are, whoever you are, to take time for quiet, song and scripture.  Retreat if only for 15 minutes in a place of rest and let the Lord speak to you through the Holy Spirit.  The words of one of the songs (sung in Italian) share the divine message:  “The Lord restores you.  God does not push you away.”

Connection and Conference

Last night I watched the reports on the tornadoes that ripped through the Granbury-Cleburne area.  I could not help but remember the devastation caused to St. Barnabas and Arlington a little over a year ago.  Like so many, I took time to pray for those in the path of the storm.

This morning I gave thanks for the courageous first responders and the early responders that are on the scene.  Rev. Robert Herzig, Senior Pastor of First UMC, Cleburne, shared with me that his neighborhood was devastated and that they had lost the roof on the parsonage.  Yet even in the disaster their church along with so many others was reaching out to help people in need.  He asked for prayers, especially for those who lost their whole homes.

In the midst of tragedies such tornados and explosions, the greatness of the connection of the United Methodist Church comes home with hope and help.  This morning in my email I received the following message from Gregory A. Forrester, Assistant General Secretary for the General Board of Global Ministries division of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR):  “Dear Bishop Lowry, We have been monitoring the report of the devastation that has occurred in Texas this evening.   I have been in touch with Rev. Laraine Waughtal and have offered UMCOR’s assistance.  Please let us know how we can help serve the Central Texas Conference as you respond to this disaster.”  Just as in West, Texas and in Arlington a year earlier, we are in this together, reaching out with love and help in the name of the Lord.

In less than a month, we will gather for the annual meeting of the Central Texas Conference in Fort Worth at Arborlawn UMC.  The decision to return Annual Conference to the local church setting was based not on convenience or cost but rather conviction.  Somehow in a church setting – gathered in a sanctuary – we think, pray and behave differently.  It is easier to remember who and whose we are and what we are about: “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The connection we share is a gift from God.  The Conference is an extension of our mission.  It is the basic unit of Methodism that undergirds every local church.  As someone has said, “we come together to be together what Christ has been for us.”  Christ alone does the saving but together we reach out in missional love with the good news of His salvation in the power of the Holy Spirit.  There is greatness in Connection and Conference!

Faith, Hope and Clarity

Most of us know the great closing of I Corinthians 13, “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13).  What many of us are unaware of is the old King James Version translation of love was charity.  Thus the phrasing of I Corinthians 13:13 in the KJV is: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the great of these is charity.”

During my work on my D. Min. I took a preaching course in which the preaching professor would deliberately misquote the closing of I Corinthians 13:13.  His version as advice for preachers was the statement, “so faith, hope and clarity abide, and the greatest of these is clarity!”

If you step back and think about, this is great advice for preaching.  Clarity is crucial in presentation of the preached word.  Even more, it is critically important in communication in general.  During our recent Forum for Active/Residential Bishops, Professor Maria Dixon Hall noted that most people don’t know what the United Methodist Church stands for and what our mission is.  (Our mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ and for the transformation of the world.”)  Despite our best attempts, clarity of communication is still lacking.

This Friday I was participating in a meeting of leaders of the Council of Bishops, General Secretaries (leaders of the UMC’s Boards and Agencies), Presidents of the Agencies (elected heads of their governing boards) and representatives from the Connectional Table of the UMC.  It was an impressive group.  These people hold a deep common conviction in Christ and a great love for the church (especially the UMC).  Good intention and honorable convictions were the order of the day.

And yet, the very complexity of our struggle kept tripping us up.  Listening, I was reminded of a recent comment from Bishop Robert Schnase.  “Complexity is the killer of organizations.”  He referred us back to the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball (which is a mini-classic in business management about the complexity of Corporations).  (Note:  I may have paraphrased his quote from mistaken memory.  The quote may not be original to Bishop Schnase.)

It is easy to blame the general church or individuals involved or various groups.  But, as I reflected on what I was participating in, it reminded me of so many local churches, including some that I served!  This is not an issue for the larger system alone but for every local congregation!  We can get so complex and rule bound that the mission disappears into the back ground.  Blaming is not only not helpful; it is counterproductive.  The question for each of us individually and as members of groups (agencies, churches, etc.) is to wrestle with governance structures that enhance decision making, reduce the veto power of a few, and open us up to the mission we all believe in – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Now may faith, hope and clarity abide!  And the greatest of these is really love!  (But clarity is needed!)

 

Report from the Border

This week I am at the Forum for Active/Residential Bishops in San Diego, California.  The gathering is a continuing education event for residential (non-retired) United Methodist Bishops worldwide.  It is a time for discussion and learning.

Yesterday there were three excellent presentations on critical ministry issues facing bishops, cabinets and conferences.  Bishop Mike Coyner led a session on clergy effectiveness and accountability.  Bishops John Hopkins & Robert Schnase shared best practices in appointment making.  Bishop Janice Huie shared innovative ministry the Texas Conference is engaged in around the subject of developing the next generation of clergy leadership.  For my part, I think that the time for active bishops to work together in a continuing education retreat setting is exceptionally valuable.

We have also had engaging presentations from outside leaders.  Brian McClaren (pastor, professor, and author of number of books including A Generous Orthodoxy and Why did Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road  addressed the group.  He challenged us to be engaged in the task of building a Christian identity that is not based on hatred of the other.  He invited us to look at experiments on how to be the church (noting some in England and Cuba).  McClaren challenged bishops to “be obsessed” with gathering (getting/recruiting!) young, spiritually alive, new leaders.

The other outside speaker we listened to with rapt attention was retired Lt. General James Dubik.  He is a leader of The Leadership Roundtable for Church Management (a Catholic leadership development forum) and was one of the senior generals in Iraq before his retirement.  I have had the privilege of listening to him before and was once again blessed and taught on a high level.  Try this one on:  “Leading change is creating problems that force you to make decisions that force you to become the organization you want to become.”  His leadership insights from both the U.S. Army and work with the Catholic Church are tremendous.

Yesterday afternoon we experienced a time of hands on learning.  Breaking into four groups, we traveled to the U.S./Mexico Border and participated in a communion service at Friendship Park (dedicated as a park by then First Lady Pat Nixon) literally on the ocean’s edge of the border.  I listened as, through the fence, Jolynn visited with a mother holding a young child. The mother, a United Methodist, had other children living as U.S. citizens in Los Angeles, Little Rock & Massachusetts; ages 12, 10, and 6.  She and Border Fenceher husband (along with a 2 year old) are not citizens and cannot visit their children.  The hard reality of the border fence and the tangled arbitrariness of our immigration policies was brought home on a painful personal level.  Interestingly enough, conservative leaders from the San Diego Chamber of Commerce have joined with immigration rights activists in pushing for economically vibrant and morally sound immigration reform.  Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, it is time to move forward with reform in a manner consistent with family values and Christian convictions.

As you read this, the bishops will continue work on learning best practices for conference and church leadership.  Our Forum of Active Bishops learning retreat ends Thursday at noon.  Thursday afternoon I will chair a gathering of the COB (Council of Bishops) Congregational Vitality Leadership Team (CVLT).  We will continue working on strengthening and transforming local congregations and building new churches as “new places for new people.”  Friday, I will participate in a meeting of the Executive Committee of the COB (which I am on by way of leading the CVLT) and the General Secretaries of our Boards and Agencies.  Together the bishops and general secretaries will continue the work of aligning all segments of this vast worldwide church (which is growing rapidly in Africa and Asia even while it declines in Europe and North America) for the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  There is a new and refreshing wind blowing in the church!

Saturday I fly home, and Sunday I preach at West UMC and Wesley Chapel (Gholson) UMC.

Reclaim the Day! A Pentecost Community

The earliest Christians understood full well that the Church was a community of the Holy Spirit.  It was born not by human will or effort but by an act of the triune God on Pentecost Sunday (which this year is to be celebrated on May 19th).

The first of the great festival days of the Christian movement was Easter.  The second, ranking ahead of Christmas, was this day – Pentecost Day.  Why?  Because at Pentecost the first Christians experienced God moving in their midst in a way so powerful that it shaped and gave birth to a distinctive community, the community of the Holy Spirit.

The Bible records in Acts 2 that the power of the Holy Spirit that descended at Pentecost was not given to individuals but to the community.  God was present in power and blessing “where two or more gathered in the name of Jesus.”  The church, that disparate collection that is also called the Body of Christ, is the community of the Holy Spirit.

“The nineteenth-century historian Alfred Loisy is often quoted as saying, ‘Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and what came was the church.’  But Loisy did not mean this in the cynical way in which it is often repeated, as if the church were a later misunderstanding of the original intentions of Jesus” (William Willimon, What’s Right with the Church). Rather, it is the affirmation that where we are together in His name, the Spirit is present in the ongoing life and witness of the people of God.  As the great German theologian Karl Barth put it:  “In this assembly, the work of the Holy Spirit takes place” (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline).

I write to invite us to reclaim the importance of Pentecost Sunday.  It is a great festival day to lift and celebrate on the ongoing – continuing – work of the Holy Spirit in our midst!  The Church is a community of the Holy Spirit.  It is, in God’s divine plan, a primary (though not exclusive) place and locus of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  The experience of Pentecost was so dramatic that it changed their lives and gave birth to the Church.  Those present experienced the dynamic dimension of God presence in their lives.

In my recent readings I ran into the following quote from Professor Jason Vickers in his deep book Minding the Good Ground.  “Pentecost reminds us that the church came into existence originally and has existed continuously ever since because the Spirit is present in and to the church. As Irenaeus put it, ‘Where the Church is, there is also the Spirit of God and where the Spirit of God is, there are also the Church and all grace.’”

The temptation is to stop right here.  We might politely muse to ourselves “isn’t it nice that God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  But wait a minute.  The Holy Spirit wasn’t a kind gentle breeze.  It’s no zephyr.  It was a “violent blast” –a “tempest!”

What happened on that first Pentecost Day?  The church got down on its knees and prayed and the Spirit descended.  The Community of the Holy Spirit began in a meeting of prayer and praise!  The preaching came as a response.  And what a response it was.

Peter’s sermon (which makes but the long middle section of the 2nd chapter of Acts, some 23 verses) was the watershed which defined their experience of the Holy Spirit.  Peter preached Jesus.  It sounds so simple and is yet so powerful.  He proclaimed the Spirit as the living Lord Jesus present among us.  That’s right, among us now, amid all our cares and concerns, seeking to deal with our fears and worries, embracing our joys and hopes, the living Lord Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

Is That All There is to It?

The night before the recent CTC Conference on Stewardship, the Cabinet met with Clif Christopher and Joe Park (the Conference teachers).  Those of you who know stewardship and know Clif are aware that the subject is really spiritual formation, mission and vision for Christ. Near the end of the evening he shared the following story which I paraphrase from memory.

Clif was sitting in a church on Sunday morning as they waited for the service to start.  As they passed the registration pad on, he noticed that the woman next to him checked the box “wish to join the church.”  When they came to the greeting time, he greeted her by name and commented about her desire to join the church.  “Yes,” she said.  “I’ve checked that box for three weeks in a row.  How do you join this church?”

Just about then the pastor came up the aisle greeting people.  Clif stepped out of his pew and guided the pastor to the woman and said, “Mary wants to join the church.”

The pastor warmly greeted her.  She asked again, “How do I go about joining this church?”  With a big smile the Pastor replied, “You just did!”

As the Pastor returned to the front to continue the service, she leaned over to Clif and whispered, “Is that all there is to it?”

Membership used to mean discipleship.  It still should. Disciples are disciplined, committed followers of Jesus Christ.  Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  The mission is not for the casual; it is for the committed.  Clif spoke a great deal about the need to raise expectations.  There is a deep theology of commitment and faith under the leadership of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The early Methodist movement was built on high commitment.  You had to be a member of a class meeting for spiritual growth, nurture and maturation.  It was expected that members were engaged in hands-on ministry with the poor.  Giving, yes tithing! — 10%, was an expectation.  Witnessing and faith sharing (evangelism) was common.  Membership in a Methodist Church was far from casual!

The reader can trace this out.  In the early Christian movement and the early Methodist movement, the five practices of fruitful congregations and fruitful living (or some biblical version thereof) were expectations.  Here is fodder for a serious theological and spiritual conversation in an Administrative Board or Council meeting.  How do we raise the conversation about expectations under The Lordship of Jesus Christ?  How do we move from membership back to discipleship?

We have to begin with a conversation between lay and clergy leadership.  This cannot be accomplished by “fiat.”  But, the lingering question of the woman in the pew hangs in the air.  “Is that all there is to it?”  Surely there is more to joining the church than a casual relationship.  May the conversation take place.

 

When Faith Kicks In

white dove

On Thursday  morning, April 25, I travelled to West, Texas with staff leadership from the Central Texas Conference (Rev. Dawne Phillips, Rev. Kyland Dobbins, & Vance Morton) to assess how the Conference might best continue to respond to the tragedy.  A crucial part of the visit was meeting with members of West UMC & Wesley Chapel/Gholson to hear their stories and share our love, care and continuing support.  As is often the case, I drove away deeply humbled and gratefully blessed by their faithfulness.

By way of background, officials in West have the blast area divided into three zones.  Zone 1 means some damage.  Zone 2 means serious damage.  Zone 3 means demolished.  As of this writing, the police are still not allowing people into zone 3.

We were met at the church by Pastor Jimmy Sansom and two couples in the congregation (Carl and Ethel, Jack and Fayedell).  Next door neighbors for over thirty years, both couples are in zone 2.  Carl and Ethel took us by to see their homes after our visit.  The damage is so structurally deep that both homes are uninhabitable and will take major (insurance estimates $100,000+) repair.  Still in shock and just beginning to come to terms with the major life change facing them in their retirement years (actually Carl is not yet retired), the depth and breadth of the loss was hard to comprehend for both us and them.

As we visited something amazing took place in listening to their story.  Fayedell was sitting on the couch when the doors and windows blew in.  Showered with glass, she escaped without a cut.  Jack was in the yard and blown down.  He told me that it knocked his pacemaker out of whack.  He had to get the pacemaker reset that morning (Thursday).  Carl showed me the destruction of his computer room – glass shards blown all over it.  Ethel showed us the destruction of her living room.  But it was their attitude, their (if you’ll pardon the inexact description) their “faith Spirit” (my term) they offered that moved me deeply.

Fayedell commented about picking herself up after the explosion. She said, “That’s when your faith kicks in.”  As her daughter sat next to her, she witnessed to God’s blessing her life and trusting God to see them through this as well.  She spoke of losing two children to death and then added “you just have to hang on to God.”  There is a quiet faith foundation that will not be shaken in their sharing.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is present.

Pastor Jimmy Sansom remarked: “Just as an example, Carl and Ethel had their house badly damaged, and with all that, they are the ones reaching out to other people who are going through times of trouble offering money and assistance – reaching out in the midst of all that they are going through. So the congregation is a mixture of helping each other out and helping the community out. We are indeed living out that Great Commandment – as Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I’ve loved you.’ It’s just been a tremendous outpouring of love and prayers from the congregation. Now they are going through some tough times, trying to get everything settled and dealing with insurance companies and such…but the outpouring of prayers and the offering of help from the church members and the community has just been unbelievable. You can see the hand of God at work in all of this – in the midst of the tragedy, you see the blessings.”

For their faithfulness and witness I give thanks to the Lord.  May we continue to be prayer for the people of West and for West UMC and Wesley Chapel UMC in Gholson.  I thank God for the generosity and help coming from so many individuals and churches.  May we too live with a faith that “kicks in.”