Holidays into Holy Days

Thanksgiving is upon us (actually passed by the time this blog is posted) and the Christmas glitter already surrounds us.  This year in particular for those of us who claim to be Christ followers (i.e. Christians), we almost cascade from Thanksgiving into Advent.  Whether we wish to or not, we weave between secular holidays and holy days.

Thanksgiving is a secular holiday yet, with only the barest amount of scratching on the surface of the story, this time reveals itself to be a holy day.  As we know, the one to whom we properly give thanks is God.  The Native Americans who came to the first feast knew this truth in their own way.  So too did our pilgrim mothers and fathers.  It is important I think not to skip lightly over this holy day but use it as a proper spiritual introduction into Advent.

Perhaps my favorite quote for this time of the year is one from Meister Eckhart (a greater Christian theologian and spiritual leader of the late 13th and early 14th centuries).  “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”  This is doubly so if we trace the connection from Thanksgiving to the being of Advent on December 1st.  Advent is the time of preparation for the birth of the Savior (Messiah).  The word “Advent” means coming or arrival and these truly are holy days of preparation.

The Christian faith hangs in the balance on the fulfillment of the great prophecy of God with us!  (“Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. [God with us!]” Isaiah 7:14.) The good news of which we speak and preach is built on the doctrine of the incarnation.

At our recent “Clergy Day Apart” Professor Seamands reminded us of the importance of this proclamation.  “It is an idea, Augustine concluded, utterly unique to Christianity.  Fifteen hundred years later, after spending over half a century as a missionary and evangelist in India where he was continually dialoguing with and witnessing to Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, E. Stanley Jones came to the same conclusion: “This verse – ‘The Word became flesh.’ is the Great Divide. In all other religions it is Word became word – a philosophy, a moralism, a system, a technique.” Only in Christianity “for all time and all men everywhere, ‘the Word became flesh’ – the Idea became Fact.”  The incarnation, then, distinguishes the Christian faith from all other faiths.”  (From Offer Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 32).

Turn the holidays into holy days.  Preach and teach and share the scandal of the incarnation.

Oh, lest I forget, allow me to pause and note a neat event taking place through the ministry of Campus Drive Community United Methodist Church. They are hosting a men’s conference (“Liberators in Action”) on December 1st from 10 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. with Reggie Barnes and Tony Curtis from the Dallas Cowboys as keynote speakers.  For more information follow this link http://www.ctcumc.org/pages/detail/2394.

May your holidays be holy days!

Good News on a Great Connection

Amid reports on institutional angst and anguish (including the recent letter from the Council of Bishops) what is often lost is the great good news of tremendous ministry taking place through the United Methodist Connection.

Friends, there are some really great things happening in mission and ministry in the name of Jesus Christ through the United Methodist Connection.  Great news that came out of the Council of Bishops includes (but are not limited to!):

1.News that we have taken a giant leap towards our goal of raising $75 million to fight the killer disease with Imagine No Malaria.

2.  In our focus in establishing Vital Congregations through “New Places for New People,” the UMC Connection has blown past our benchmark goals.

  • We can celebrate that with just 37 conferences reporting so far, there are 91 new church plants for 2013.  The Western Jurisdiction has already doubled the amount of church plants from the previous year.  So far we are planting in the United States approximately 11 new churches per month.  Our total number of new churches since 2008 is 776!
  • East Africa alone reports 442 new churches or faith communities.  The General Board of Global Ministries reports that we have started more than 574 new congregations outside the US since 2008 through Mission Initiatives.  We now have more new faith communities (“New Places for New People”) in Vietnam than we have churches in Minnesota!
  • Our Congregational Vitality Initiative transforming existing congregations into robust, vital congregations for the 21st Century is succeeding.  Bishop John Schol (lead Bishop on the Vital Congregations project, which is a part of the Focus Area on “New Places for New People”) reports an increase in the number of vital congregations in the United Methodist Church in the United States.  This is based on both a critical review of the metrics (worship attendance, mission engagement, professions of faith, small groups for bible study and spiritual formation, and extravagant generosity) and the developing pattern of metrics reports.  This is really great news!

3.  The Central Conference Pension Initiative (CCPI), which was established to provide pensions for retired clergy in Africa, has reached its audacious goal!  Pensions are now provided for the poorest pastors in the global United Methodist Church.  Should you happened to see Mr. Earl Cox (a layperson from First UMC, Fort Worth, or Dr. Tim Bruster (Senior Pastor of First UMC, Fort Worth, or Bishop Chamness) join with me in offering them your heartfelt thanks!  These three (along with many others!) championed this great work of God.  Brothers and sisters in Christ have food on their table tonight because of their work.

There is more to share, much more.  We heard reports of new initiatives in ministry with the poor, leadership development through scholarships and special training opportunities, etc.  The Four Focus Areas (New Places for New People, Leadership Development, Ministry with the Poor, & Combating Killer Diseases) are moving forward in the name of the Lord!

Here in Central Texas there is also good news on the great connection known as the United Methodist Church.  The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is a tremendous mission outreach ministry of the UMC.  It is at work in our name offering the love and help of Christ to those in need.  I came home from the COB meeting with two letters of announcement waiting for me.

  • “I am very pleased to announce that United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has approved your grant request up to the amount of $200,000 U.S. Dollars for Continued Recovery West Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion 2013 from November 1, 2013 to November 1, 2015.”
  • “I am very pleased to announce that United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has approved your grant request up to the amount of $200,000 U.S. Dollars for Granbury Tornado Continued Response 2013 from November 1, 2013 to October 31, 2015.”

Our mission work is not just over “there” but right here at home in the Central Texas Conference! Our Conference Center for Mission Support is following up with appropriate local officials on these projects.

I remember well standing in the lobby of the Terrace Hotel at Lake Junaluska on a break from our COB meeting when Bishop Rudy Juan approached me with tears in his eyes.  Bishop Juan has become a good personal friend.  We’ve worked together on the “New Places for New People” Focus Area.  He is the resident bishop for Manila in the Philippines.  As we talked he poured out his heartfelt concern for the people and churches of his country as Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines.  I assured him of our prayers and support.  With Methodists all over the world, we are taking a special offering for relief efforts through UMCOR.

The United Methodist News reads in part:  “A few weeks ago you had probably never heard of Tacloban, one of the cities in the Philippines hardest hit by Typhoon Haiyan. Because of the support of United Methodists, UMCOR is one of the first groups to get into this devastated city with emergency relief supplies. typhoon relief

UMCOR was uniquely positioned to do this because of the strong United Methodist Church network in the Philippines, the staff on the ground who were ready to take action, and the generous support of donors like you.”

The great connection of ministry known as the United Methodist Church is working.  In the name of Christ we are offering help and hope here at home and around the world.  I want all to know this good news!

Closer to home but of similar excitement is the emergence of a true partnership with the Eastern Mexico Conference of the Methodist Church in Mexico.  The Central Texas Conference is taking a Thanksgiving offering for this missional outreach.  The funds will be used to support CTC ministry work teams travelling to Eastern Mexico as well as teams from the Eastern Mexico Conference travelling to Central Texas. Internship programs through the John Wesley Seminary in Monterrey and scholarships for students at the John Wesley Seminary will also be supported via this Special Offering.  I invite you to join with Jolynn and me in giving both to the UMCOR Typhoon Relief for victims of Typhoon Hiayan in the Philippines and the Thanksgiving (Thanksliving!) offering for a true mission partnership with the Eastern Mexico Conference.

Big Hope Mentoring Program

The following is a guest post from Rev. David Alexander, Directing Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Mansfield

Two years ago our church started researching the possibility of launching a mentoring program for one of our local elementary schools. Through some of our church lay leaders we were introduced to Big Hope; a mentoring program for at risk students that was started as a partnership between Kids Hope USA and Big Brothers & Big Sisters.

After prayerfully considering this exciting opportunity we launched our Big Hope program in the Fall of 2012 in partnership with Ponder Elementary School which is located less than a mile from our church campus.

The framework of the program is really simple.

It involves one church establishing a relationship with one school, pairing up one child with one trained mentor for one hour each week, and inviting one additional prayer partner to pray consistently for each child & mentor. We started with a small group of kids in 2012.

Six months after our launch we shared the following video update with our congregation.

Big Hope: Alice Ponder Elementary from First Methodist Mansfield on Vimeo.

We are currently in the second year of this partnership. In the last year we have also had the chance to connect other churches in our area with other Elementary Schools. Two additional schools launched programs in the Mansfield area in the Fall of 2013.

First United Methodist Church of Mansfield is a large congregation that is committed to making a difference in our local community, but part of what makes Big Hope so special is that if a church has people who are willing to take an hour of their week to mentor kids, you have everything you need.

Churches of all sizes can make a substantial difference in their local community because of the resource support that is provided by Kids Hope USA and Big Brothers & Big Sisters.

We have a dream that one day every at risk child in our local school district will have the opportunity to connect with a caring mentor. We would love nothing more than to help other United Methodist churches get connected to this tremendous opportunity to bless children in their local community.

If you are interested in hearing more about Big Hope or have any questions about the possibility of starting a program in your area, please contact our Director of Serving and Outreach, Susan Luttrell, at susanl@fmcm.org or by contacting our church office at 817-477-2287.

Statement of the Council of Bishops

Earlier today, The Council of Bishops released the following statement. Bishop Lowry, who is currently participating in the Council of Bishops fall meeting at Lake Junaluska, N.C., has requested that the announcement be posted on his blog in its entirety. While Bishop Lowry fully supports the actions detailed in the following, he wishes to express his love for all of God’s children and is requesting for prayers for all involved. He remains dedicated to our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world and hopes that all followers of Christ might continue to work together on this great mission.  

STATEMENT
OF
THE COUNCIL OF BISHOPS

 On October 26, 2013, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert conducted a ceremony celebrating the marriage of a same-gender couple in Center Point, Alabama.  Prior to October 26, 2013 Bishop Talbert advised Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference, of his intention.  Bishop Wallace-Padgett requested that Bishop Talbert not perform the ceremony in the area in which she serves.  After conversation with Bishop Wallace-Padgett, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the Council of Bishops, engaged the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops in a discussion about the proposed action.  On October 21, 2013, the Executive Committee issued a statement requesting Bishop Talbert not to perform the ceremony in Bishop Wallace-Padgett’s area.  They said, in part:

“The bishops of the church are bound together in a covenant and all ordained elders are committed to uphold the Book of Discipline. ‘Conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies’ are chargeable offenses in the United Methodist Church (¶2702.1.b).”

The actions of Bishop Talbert raise considerable concerns and have stimulated much conversation, reflection, and prayer among the members of the Council of Bishops.  The Council recognizes the deep divisions and pain in our church over these issues.  United Methodists are not of one mind, and followers of Christ and people of conscience hold conflicting views. These issues require continuing honest and respectful conversation as well as prayer throughout the church.

The purpose of the Council of Bishops is to lead the church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  To that end, bishops are also required to “uphold the discipline and order of the Church…..and to share with other bishops in the oversight of the whole church”  (Para 403.1.f).   When there are violations of the Book of Discipline, a response is required.   However, the General Conference has given the Council of Bishops limited authority for the task of holding one another accountable.  Such authority and accountability resides in the College of Bishops and the Jurisdiction or Central Conference Committees on Episcopacy (Paragraph 413.and Paragraph 403.1.f).

Therefore, the Council of Bishops, after much prayer and conversation, takes the following actions:

  • We acknowledge that we, the Council of Bishops, and the Church are not of one mind in matters of human sexuality; pain exists throughout the connection, including persons who support Bishop Talbert’s actions and persons who object to them.  We express our pastoral concern and care for all people.
  • We affirm the October 21, 2013 action of the Executive Committee which requested that Bishop Talbert not conduct a ceremony celebrating the marriage of a same gender couple in the North Alabama area.
  • We respectfully request that Bishop Wenner, President of the Council of Bishops, and Bishop Wallace-Padgett, Resident Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, address the action of Bishop Talbert and file a complaint under the provisions of Paragraph 413 for undermining the ministry of a colleague (Paragraph 2702.1f) and conducting a ceremony to celebrate the marriage of a same gender couple (Paragraph 2702.1b) within the bounds of the North Alabama Conference.
  • We recommend that the Executive Committee initiate a task force to lead honest and respectful conversations regarding human sexuality, race and gender in a world-wide perspective in our shared commitment to clear theological understanding of the mission and polity of the United Methodist Church.

As a Council of Bishops, we affirm the theological task articulated in the Book of Discipline (Paragraph 105, page 87).  “United Methodists as a diverse people continue to strive for consensus in understanding the gospel.  In our diversity, we are held together by a shared inheritance and a common desire to participate in the creative and redemptive activity of God.  Our task is to articulate a vision in a way that will draw us together as a people in Mission…..  We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom to continue our journey with the whole people of God.”

Podcast with Dr. Stephen Seamands

This month’s edition of the Focused Center Podcast features an interview with Dr. Stephen Seamands, Professor of Christian Doctrine from Asbury Theological Seminary.

Dr. Seamands is the author of numerous works including his latest book, Give them Christ : Preaching his Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return. Dr Seamands was also the guest speaker at the recent Clergy Time Apart in the Central Texas Conference where he had a chance to share this recording with Bishop Lowry.

To listen to this latest episode, click the play button below.

Play

To Know Christ and make Him Known

They lie as two half-crumpled sticky notes on my desk.  One reads use John 17:3; the other simple records – Acts 20:24. Somewhere in my wanderings they came to me as messages from God.  They’ve sat as notes on my desk for at least a couple of months, if my dim memory is correct. Now, I’m not sure how or why, it’s time to pick them up.

“This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent” (John 17:3).

“But nothing, not even my life, is more important than my completing my mission. This is nothing other than the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus: to testify about the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).

Last night I finished my part of this year’s Missional Academy (a class I teach with young adults from the UT Arlington and TCU Wesley Foundations).  We have been working through Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways Handbook.  Unknowingly, the class called me back to a quote from Hirsch’s original work, The Forgotten Ways. I have the quote stuck inside my Bible as a self-reminder.  It reads:  “The desperate, prayer-soaked human clinging to Jesus, the reliance on his Spirit, and the distillation of the gospel message into the simple, uncluttered message of Jesus as Lord and Savior is what catalyzed the missional potencies inherent in the people of God” (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 87).

I think the impetus in my mind and heart for picking up the two biblical quotes and the powerful witness to their truth by Hirsch comes from a collision in my heart and mind of two events.  The first event concerns the actions of a colleague, Bishop Mel Talbert.  Bishop Talbert, despite the request not to by both the resident bishop and the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops, recently performed a same-sex wedding in violation of church law.  Tomorrow I fly out for the Council of Bishops annual fall meeting.  As a group we are in uproar over how to respond to Bishop Talbert’s actions.  A huge principle of our covenantal life together is that a bishop does not perform ministry in another bishop’s area without their permission.  A second huge issue revolves around our vow to uphold The Discipline of the United Methodist Church. (I covet your prayers for the Council, for Bishop Talbert, and for my participation in our meeting.)

Stay with me because this blog is NOT about the Council of Bishops or the actions of any particular bishop.  It is about Christ – to know Him and make Him known.

The second part of the collision in my heart and mind took place at the Central Texas Conference Clergy Time Apart retreat.  Dr. Stephen Seamands Professor of Christian Doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary shared three lectures and a moving sermon on the subject of his excellent new book, Give them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return.  I was deeply blessed by his thoughtful and stimulating presentations.  He opened reminding us of the four cries of the Reformation.  Most of us remember the first two.  1. Sola fide – by faith alone; 2.  Sola gratia – by grace alone.  It is the other two we tend to forget, 3. Sola scriptura – by Scripture alone and 4. Sola Christus – by Christ alone.  [There is actually a fifth “battle cry” of the Reformation – 5. Sola Deo Gloria – to the glory of God alone.]

Professor Seamands called us back to the heart of the gospel reminding us of the Wesley’s Aldersgate experience – “I did trust in Christ and Christ alone for my salvation.” In his reminder he called us back to the main task before us through a deep theological presentation of the heart of the Christian gospel, Good News!, message.  He noted a quote by Bishop Will Willimon – “Preaching is always revived and carried forth on a rising theological tide.”

His lecture on the importance of preaching on the cross (surely a great, truly great, Lenten theme) was a brilliant reminder of not just the “what” of Christ’s death but the “so what,” the meaning for us in this day of the death of Christ on a cross.  I am still thinking about a number of things he said.  For example, “The cross for human suffering means Christ can take our scars and make them radiant too.”  And, “Many have brought their sins to the cross but never understood they can bring their suffering to the cross.”

I commend a podcast interview with Dr. Seamands, which will go up on the website next week.  But even more, whatever you think in the midst of our current trials and tribulations as a church, I call us together back to Christ.  Our call and glory is to know Christ and make Him known.  It is no more and no less than John 17:3 and Acts 20:24.

“This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent” (John 17:3).

“But nothing, not even my life, is more important than my completing my mission. This is nothing other than the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus: to testify about the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).

A Flat Bottle of Soda or a Scary Thing

Recently I had the great joy of sharing in a Charge Conference Celebration for the East District.  As we sang, prayed and heard incredible witnesses of service in the name of Christ from various congregations, I had this sense of the Holy Spirit moving powerfully in our midst.  In a much quieter way, but no less substantial, I experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship at the 8:30 a.m. service at Arborlawn on November 3rd.  We remembered the saints in prayers and thanksgiving, among those listed was my mother-in-law.

All of this is great joy.  I think God is up to something new with the United Methodist Church.  The Holy Spirit is messing with us.  I recall an old story about an enthusiastic preacher who preached in one of those old “prow” (as in prow of a ship) pulpits in New England where, when the preacher stepped into the pulpit, a small door or gate was latched behind them.  While hearing the enthusiastic sermon a wide-eyed little boy tightly gripped his father’s hand.  As the cadence rose and the Spirit moved, the little boy leaned over and whispered to his dad.  “What do we do if he gets out?”

By contrast, Joseph Nader passed on some remarks made by the noted horror novelist Stephen King in an interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.  King was talking about his new novel, Joyland, which apparently intermixes elements of a criminal detective story with the supernatural.  Naturally the conversation drifted into King’s own religious (and hence spiritual) background.  The following dialog took place:

  • “GROSS: Is that what you had in church? What did you have in church when you were growing up?
  • KING: Oh no, I went to a Methodist church for years as a kid, and Methodist youth fellowship on Thursday nights, and it was all pretty – you know, think of a bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours.
  • (LAUGHTER)
  • KING: There weren’t very many bubbles left in that stuff by then. It was pretty – it was Yankee religion, Terry, and there’s really not much in the world that’s any more boring than that. They tell you that you’re going to go to hell, and you’re half-asleep.
  • (LAUGHTER)
  • KING: What kind of preaching is that?
  • GROSS: But you always believed in God. You were just bored in church.
  • KING: Well, I guess that the jury’s out on that.”
  • (The entire transcript may be found at http://www.npr.org/2013/05/28/184827647/stephen-king-on-growing-up-believing-in-god-and-getting-scare)

Ouch!  Methodism is compared to a “bottle of soda with the cap off for 24 hours.”  Painfully, I think there is some truth to the complaint.  (I said some not total truth.)  We had/have (?) gotten so respectable that we’ve been afraid to acknowledge the Holy Spirit moving in our midst.

A part of what excites me today is that I believe I am seeing a discernible change.  The Holy Spirit does scare us (scares me!).  The Spirit ought to!  Remember Hebrews 10:31 – “It’s scary to fall into the hands of the living God!”  It is well to remember that the original Methodists were called “enthusiasts.” One of C. S. Lewis’ great comments comes again to mind.  “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he [Jesus Christ] isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Stay Focused!

The Dictionary defines distraction as:  “Having the attention diverted” or “Suffering conflicting emotions; distraught.”  From an online Thesaurus the following notation was offered, “having the attention diverted especially because of anxiety.”  I am intrigued by these definitions because I believe this season in the church’s life is awash in distractions.  Our attention needs to stay focused tightly on our mission – “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  That is to be the focus!  This is our primarily mission!  Let me deliberately repeat.  Our attention and focus needs to stay fixed on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!”  (Matthew 28:16-20).

And yet, consider all the worthy (and unworthy) distractions.  We might wander off into deep social commentary about the gridlock and shutdown in Washington D.C., about a concern for health care or immigration reform or any other type of reform we care to image.  Time might be justly exercised on returning to civil society and respecting those who disagree or fighting poverty, in justice or any of a host of social problems.  Conversely we can, with some merit, be distracted by the moral relativism of our time, the lack of social cohesion, the breakdown in marriage and parental responsibility.  We might justly tackle deep and corrosive issues like the dearth of biblical knowledge, the failure of leadership, or the decline of worship attendance.  One could rightly argue that our attention needs to be fixed on ministry with the poor, combating AIDS/HIV and-or Imagine No Malaria, starting new churches, leadership development, or the Call to Action.  A current distraction is the ongoing fight in the denomination and larger society around issues of same sex union (marriage), ordination, and civil rights for all people.  We might, in the local church focus our time and attention taking care of our members and raising the budget (stewardship), supporting the next mission trip or lifting up children and youth.  We might let our attention wander into ….

The list could go on and on.  If you read carefully, virtually everything listed above merits engagement.  Furthermore, if you read carefully, virtually everything listed above reflects in some way on the issue of discipleship.  They are all good things in some manner but they are not the main thing!  Crying out over the whole is the question of lordship – who really rules our lives as individuals and as a church?

I do believe we must both speak and live gracefully into the issues that confront our day and time.  At stake is the question of how we so speak and live gracefully in this time of distraction.  My contention is straightforward.  Local churches (pastors and lay leaders) need to stay focused on making disciples.  Disciples of Jesus Christ by definition are grace-filled and graceful in relationship to these and other tough, trying issues.  We need more talk about Christ, His rule and reign in our lives and our churches – not less.  We need more sharing of the good news of God’s love and presence – not less.  We need more, much more, evangelistic outreach that invites every single person to put their life under the reign and rule of Christ.  We need more world transforming actions of love, justice, and mercy – not less.

I am intrigued that a key definition of distraction relates to having our “attention diverted especially because of anxiety.”  The driver of anxiety is our timidity (failure?) in really trusting the Lord.  In times of similar societal tumult, the Methodist Movement thrived because at its heart we Methodists lived the connection of spirituality and faithfulness that blooms from true discipleship to Christ.  We need in these times of distraction to move closer to embracing again (or maybe for the first time) what it means to be a radical Christ follower (i.e. a disciple).

Allow me to close by offering two simple resources.  First, embrace quiet time and prayer by laying your life before the Lord.  Recently I’ve taken to praying a song lifted up at Taize and sung at Arborlawn UMC. “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice!  Look to God, do not be afraid.  Lift up your voices, the Lord is near, Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.”  Try praying and meditating on that every day at the start of the day for 5 minutes (or just 2 minutes!).  It will change your perspective and your life.  I promise you if you spend 5 minutes at the start of the day praying and meditating on that song you will be blessed beyond measure.  Your own walk of discipleship to Christ will take on a different hue and tone.

Second, let me suggest that we continue to recover what it means to be a Wesleyan Christian in the fullness of the original discipleship vision of the Wesleyan Movement.  Cokesbury has recently put out an outstanding resource that any small group or Sunday School class would benefit from.  It is entitled The Wesleyan Way: A Faith That Matters and is authored by Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Episcopal Area (Nebraska & Kansas).  Just go to www.cokesbury.com.

Whatever we do individually and together:  stay calm; stay focused.  Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Remember, “The Lord is near.”

The Vital Connection of Vision and Obedience

Friday (October 25, 2013) I wrote a blog on Vision.  In that blog I quoted Proverbs 29:18 in both the KJV translation and the CEB (Common English Bible) translation.  Respectively the verse is rendered:  “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he” (KJV.  And, “When there’s no vision, the people get out of control, but whoever obeys instruction is happy” (CEB).  I shared how I was intrigued by how rarely the entire passage was quoted and promised (or threatened depending on the reader’s point of view) to pick up that connection in this blog.

The writer of Proverbs clearly ties vision to obedience.  The two go together.  It is almost as if Proverbs previews the Great Commission of Christ.  “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matthew 28:16-20, CEB).  Obedience without vision is aimless and Vision without obedience is empty.

The vision points us, directs us, and leads us into a preferred future of obedient faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ – God with us in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ as Lord is the essence of our confession as Christians.  In the most basic way we understand that Lord means the ruler, the Master, the One to whom our ultimate allegiance is given.  All of this and yet more resides in the heart of our confession.  There can be little dispute of this essential truth.  This is why the martyrs died.  Their obedience was given to the Lord first and foremost.

Theoretically this all sounds so nice and neat.  It is in the messiness of real living that such a vital connection is put to the test.  Recently I visited a church which is facing critical change, including a decision to relocate (which it has already voted in favor of doing).  The problem is obedience means that power and privilege will flow away from the long-time leaders of the church as they live into this new vision.  Levels of rationalization and resistance can rise to new heights. We tend to seek the grandeur of the vision without the hard living of obedience.

So, too, this is a reality in the area of appointments.  It is easy to sing “all to Jesus I surrender” or “take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee” or “wonderful merciful savior.”  It is hard to go to an appointment you didn’t want or respond to a move you didn’t seek.  Our modern sense of upwardly moving career clashes with our profession of obedience to Christ and allegiance to the Lord’s greater vision.  I do not make this as a light assertion.  I have twice been moved against my desires.  One of the moves proved to be a great blessing.  The other was not and even there I learned, grew in faithfulness, and was blessed (reluctantly I will admit).

John Calvin says, “The only true knowledge of God is born of obedience.”  It is to this truth that I confess.  Despite his strong anti-Calvinist convictions, on this much John Wesley would agree.  It is not by accident that obedience in submission to the Conference, Class Meeting and community of faith was for Wesley an extension of his commitment to Christ. The Wesleyan Covenant prayer is prime example of such conviction. (“Let me be employed for thee or set aside by thee; let me be exalted by thee or brought low by thee; …”)  Vision and obedience go together under the Lordship of Christ.  They go together even when it is against my natural inclinations or personal desires. I have discovered a love and joy to the prayer which Bishop Cho has taught me.  “Dear God, Your will.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  Nothing else.”

 

Proverbs 29:18 for the Central Texas Conference

It is the old King James translation of Proverbs 29:18 that stays with me. Perhaps you recall it as well. “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” The new CEB (Common English Bible) translation renders the passage, “When there’s no vision, the people get out of control, but whoever obeys instruction is happy.” (Proverbs 29:18) Either way the importance of vision towers over our spiritual landscape. [Note: I am intrigued by how rarely the entire passage is quoted. The writer of Proverbs clearly ties vision to obedience and yet rarely do we make such a connection. This will be the subject of next Tuesday blog but for now I choose to focus on vision.]

This passage in its great phrasing from the KJV sticks both in our heads and hearts because it captures an essential truth. Our Lord offers us a great vision of a renewed world – “on earth as it is in heaven.” This is truly gospel – good news! The Wesleyan Movement came with this great vision to “reform the nation, especially the church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land.” The vision points us, directs us, and leads us into a preferred future of obedient faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ – God with us in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. It is from that larger vision that visions (plural) naturally spring forth for every faithful Christian body – a local church, a Conference, a Denomination, etc.

Since coming to the Central Texas Conference as the residential bishop in 2008 I have wrestled with how best to convey the deep overpowering vision I feel called to offers us as a conference. I’ve shared it in a host of different phrasing but always with the same essence. It is akin to the famous phrase from the first election of President Clinton. In that election his strategy team post on the way for to see one phrase, “it’s the economy stupid!” My phrase is equally simple. “It is the local church!”

My vision is to build powerhouse local churches all across the Central Texas Conference. What is a powerhouse church? It is not based on size. It can be large or small, rural or urban, dominantly ethnic or wildly diverse. Powerhouse local churches are churches that live the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” They are launching pads of faithfulness and fruition; robust and vibrant in both personal and social holiness (holiness of heart and life!). Powerhouse churches are missionally engaged. The five practices are intermixed in their being and everywhere evident in the life together and outreach to others – radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission service, and extravagant generosity. They are growth enabling, growth enhancing places of faithfulness and fruitfulness!

What does this vision look like? Images flood through my mind. President George H.W. Bush’s “1,000 points of light” come to mind. The great missionary emphasis of the Irish Abbeys re-Christianizing Europe in the Dark Ages spring out of the past as a picture of the future. (Thomas Cahill’s marvelous book How the Irish Saved Civilization is still a great read!) The Methodist chapels and class meetings of 18th century England dance before my eyes. Wonderful congregations of the current (yes! That is correct! The current!) Central Texas Conference parade before me.

It is not a mistake that every Annual Conference meeting in my episcopacy has one crowing central theme – Energizing and Equipping local churches. Local churches are the locus of disciple making. It is their great blessing and enthralling mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Powerhouse local churches aren’t perfect. They are places real people, warts and all, come to worship, learn and follow God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are places from which we leave to serve and love others – all others, every accessible human being we may reach.

We can’t do this stuff of being faithful Christians alone. It takes not just village but a real community of faith, fellowship and the fullness of the gospel. It takes a powerhouse church.  It takes a Lord ruling and Spirit empowering and creator God guiding. It is this glorious adventure that thrills my soul and gets me out of bed in the morning.