New Fields of Ministry

Just prior to Christmas, I had the joy and privilege to visit the Project 44 Farm.  Many of you know about Project 44 which began as a ministry to refurbish donated cars and give them to those in need.  That wonderful ministry continues to grow.  Not content to rest on one ministry outreach, the folks at Project 44 have expanded to new fields of ministry (subtle pun intended).  They have begun a farm to feed those struggling to find food!

The Farm sits on a 50 acre piece of land in Granbury, Texas. Project-44.org has currently cultivated 2.5 acres of outdoor crop space on this property for planting and has erected a 4500 square foot greenhouse on the property for year-round planting. It was cold day when I went, but the enthusiasm and commitment warmed my heart.  Over the past year the Project 44 Farm folks estimate that they have produced over 15,000 pounds of produce with countless volunteer support to provide food for hungry families all over Hood County. They are partnering with 4 local non-profit organizations to distribute food throughout Hood County including Rancho Brazos, an extension mission ministry of Acton UMC, as well as local charity Rose’s Place and Christian Service Center. They believe the land they currently have cultivated for use could potentially produce over 30,000 pounds of produce under the right conditions and with adequate volunteer support.  They do need more volunteers.  If interested, contact Kyle Roberson, Administrative Director of Project-44, at 214.215.0033 or kyle@project-44.org.

They showed me a 3 bedroom 2 bathroom house on the property they have been given permission to use.  I shared my vision of starting a “new abbey” here in the Central Texas Conference in line with the emerging new monasticism movement.  I can imagine an appointed pastor in some multi-assignment capacity (maybe tent-making or a combination of part-time assignments) as well some seminarians in an internship capacity.  The establishment of an Abbey would facilitate not only a place of work and worship but also a place where worship, prayer, and labor could come together as a manifestation of a faith community.

I realize all of this is a distant vision but I am also convinced that we need to “attempt great things for God and expect great things from God” (William Carey). We need to dream dreams and see visions (Joel 2:28 & Acts 2:17). Who knows where the Lord will lead us.

HONORING THE SABBATH ON CHRISTMAS DAY

This was one of those rare years when Christmas Day (and New Year’s Day) fell on a Sunday.  In Methodist tradition our high celebration of the birth of Christ is on Christmas Eve.  At least originally the notion of Christmas Eve worship was to greet the Christ-child at the start of Christmas Day in worship (that is at midnight).  It “fits” with the angelic greeting of the shepherds in their fields at night.  Symbolically at least, we are joining the shepherds in adoration.  (Ancient Orthodox tradition has it that the animals are the first to greet the newborn Savior by speaking at midnight!  You might check out the hymn “The Friendly Beasts” (UM Hymnal, No. 227).

What draws my reflection is the morning after – Christmas Day, a Sabbath Day for Christians – the Son’s Day or Resurrection Day.  After multiple Christmas Eve services (including one at 11:00 p.m.), Arborlawn (my wife’s church) held one worship at 10 a.m. on Christmas Day (instead of the usual 3).  We went (and yes, I was late).  They ran out of bulletins!  Far more people showed up than were expected.

Christmas Day afternoon we drove to Oklahoma to have Christmas dinner with my mother-in-law.  Her United Methodist Church held a Christmas Eve service but no service on Sunday – the Christian Sabbath day! – Christmas Day.  My mother-in-law and her friends were disappointed (if not disgusted) by the lack of a Christmas Day (Sunday) service.  Politely but pointedly she noted that worshipping God on Sunday, especially a Christmas Day Sunday, was a part of keeping the commandment to honor the Sabbath.  The lack of worship on Christmas Day seemed unfaithful.

I can’t help but wonder in all this if the lay people are telling us (the clergy) something critical to faithfulness.  These laity appear to take the commandment to “honor the Sabbath and keep it holy” as more important than the clergy.  In the case of Arborlawn (where the clergy leadership was clearly faithful and provided excellent worship leadership), the laity were telling us (the clergy) about the importance of such worship.  The commandment to honor the Sabbath still applies; even … no make that especially, on Christmas Day.

The Year of Our Lord (Anno Domini) 2012

As we step in the New Year I wish to challenge the assumption of 2012 as being in the “Common Era” – C.E.  Please don’t misunderstand.  As a matter of courtesy and the use of the phrase “C.E.” by Christians with others is often a matter of politeness and courtesy.  It is appropriate.

And yet, among those who are Christ followers, it is not adequate or even accurate.  To be a Christ follower is live the conviction that this is the year of our Lord – Anno Domini – 2012.

The Christmas story isn’t over.  It is barely beginning.  As Adam Hamilton states in The Journey, “Something astounding had begun in the cave in Bethlehem – yet something that would not be completed until this child walked out of another cave thirty-three years later, following his crucifixion” (p. 118).

My new year opens in Austin with the other active bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.  Our TMF bishops group (called “The Conclave”) gathers traditionally the first week of the New Year. Together we are wrestling with issues of leadership and direction facing us and the church in this new year of our Lord.

More significantly (far more significantly!), January 6th is Epiphany Day.  In search of the real spirit of Christmas, the Holy Spirit of God, we are led not just to Christmas but into the new year.  Like the wise persons of old, what we must embrace is the importance of the continuing search for Christ in our lives.  With those gentile pagans, we are led to embrace the great truth that God is for all!  Ephipany Day (the light to the gentiles) focuses us on the gift and its surprising nature.

Notice I said gift not gifts.  So often we focus on the material gifts the wise men bring – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  These were stupendous gifts, no doubt about it.  But, they were not the gift.  The Bible tells us, “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).  “The greatest gift they brought was their devotion: their willingness to endure whatever it took and to look as long as it took to find what God had promised them through the sign.  Their physical gifts paled in comparison. . . . What greater gift can we bring to Christ than our commitment to find Him no matter what the cost, and when we have found Him, to worship Him?” (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, pp. 162, 163).

The search for the real spirit of Christmas will always find its conclusion in such homage, such worship.  Here lies the “epiphany” of God: 1) To seek Christ constantly in all our living, 2) to embrace Christ who embraces all in sharing His love, and 3) to offer Him our unstinting worship.

Gazing at the stars, truly wise men beckon us on a journey of faith that experiences the joy of worshiping Christ, offering Him our treasure, and sharing His love who those who do not yet have the privilege of knowing Him.

May such a blessing be yours in this year of the Lord, 2012.

The Ministry of Chaplains at Harris Methodist (THR)

The following is a note passed on to me by Senior Chaplain Eric Smith of THR – Harris Methodist Hospitals and used with permission.  May you look back with blessing on the past and forward with joy to the future.  Christ is with us!  -Bishop Mike Lowry

A Blessing for Heroes in Green

Still dark and cold outside, but already the “good guys in green” shuffle in for another 12-hour day.  These are the men and women who work in surgery at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth.  Ahead of them is a day of relieving suffering and saving lives of people whom they may never have a conversation.  These dedicated professionals will again walk the thin line between moving as quickly as possible and working as close to perfection as they can.  They perform this feat on a daily basis without a net.  They will do it on this particular Tuesday in December and again on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, early in the morning and in the deepest hours of night.

But for just a few moments, they will pause to receive a blessing, a blessing of the hands.  This is a ritual provided to employees throughout the Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospitals by your appointed Chaplains.  Warm water representing the Source of life and healing, the loving God, is poured over each staff member’s hands.  A prayer is spoken, asking God to bless these hands in their important work of caring for the sick and wounded, asking God to fill these hearts with compassion and purpose.  The Chaplains offer words of encouragement.  They share the appreciative words of post-operative patients that these caregivers rarely get to hear.

Twenty-five heroes in green silently await their turns.  Their hands are large and small, calloused and smooth.  Most respond with a quiet, “Thank you.”  A few tears are shed.  Each of them exits the room and walks into another busy day doing their very best to restore people to health.  They will do so with blessed hands.

Chaplain Timothy Madison
December 13, 2011

We Have Seen His Glory

The Word became flesh and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14

 The amazing truth of Christmas is the Lord’s coming is our homecoming.  The author, poet and Christian theologian G. K. Chesterton caught this truth in his classic poem, “The House of Christmas.”

“To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town thanRome;
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.”

May this Christmas be for you a true home-coming.  Luther is said to have remarked, “The Gospel is not so much miracle as a marvel.”  The God of the universe has made a home among us.  Truly, we have seen God’s glory, full of grace and truth.  May your Christmas be merry in the bright light that is the natal star.

No Room in the Guestroom

Last Sunday (December 18th) I attended my wife’s Sunday School class (New Hope) at  Arborlawn UMC.  James Nader (the father of two of our pastors – Joseph and John) is the teacher.  He does an excellent job and on the rare occasions I am able to go with my wife I thoroughly enjoy both the lessons and the class members.  Sunday’s lesson was on the birth narratives from Luke (using Ellsworth Kalas’s Christmas from the Backside).  It focused on the innkeeper and the famous line from Luke 2:7 – “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  I was following the lesson in my Bible which is the new CEB (Common English Bible) translation.  What caught my eye was the way the CEB translated verse 7 – “She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.”

Is it guestroom or inn?  The difference is intriguing.  NRSV says “inn.”  The NIV says “guest room.”  The KJV says “inn.”  I confess I was not aware of the disparity.  I am not even sure it makes much difference.  And yet . . . a guestroom implies intimacy. We have a guest bedroom in our house.  When you are there, you’re an honor guest, cherished company.

Cautiously, I am aware that we far too easily “villianize” the innkeeper (guestroom host?).  After all, to make room for the holy family, he or she would have had to kick someone else out.  A good case can be made that the innkeeper (guestroom host) did the best he or she could do.  Still, the translation “guestroom” lingers in my heart and mind.  Do I, do we, receive Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus has honored guests in our home this season?

St. Ambrose remarks, “He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens.  He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might be rich.  Therefore his poverty is our inheritance and the Lord’s weakness is our virtue.  He chose to lack for himself that he may abound for all.”  There is much to reflect upon and learn from each time we enter the drama of the Savior’s birth.  The very nature and character of God is revealed to us.  And, we . . . , we are invited (or is it challenged) to host the Lord in our homes.

The Advent Journey

During this time Jolynn and I are going on an Advent journey.  In some sense beyond the physical, we are walking again from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  The common packages of the time go with us.  We have strung up lights and set a manger scene on the lawn.  We have decorated the house with nativity scenes and praying Santas (and yes, a Santa climbing the ladder day by day to Christmas Eve).  We have hosted two parties.  We have been bathed in wonderful Christmas music at worship and through the mystery of CD’s.  (I am currently listening to a new Christmas CD by Casting Crowns a contemporary/classical Christian group).

We have (as many of you have) been reading Adam Hamilton’s book The Journey.  The readings step us back into an ancient, and yet ever new, reality.  Once again we learn the truth of God.  In the swirling blessing of this preparation, I find myself pausing again to wonder at it all.  John says, “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14, CEB).  In the midst of our busy days, this truth penetrates in flashes of lighting and I find myself overwhelmed with God’s glory and love.  May the preparations bring us all to the foot of the manger.

A Special Gift

Yesterday I received a special gift from Dr. Michael Patison, chair of the Central Texas
Conference’s History Book Committee.  Fresh off the press, Michael handed me a copy of The Central Texas Annual Conference 1866-2010: At the Center of Texas Methodism.  Dr. Patison (as Editor) and the whole Committee writing team did a wonderful job! I wrote in the preface that this “is a work that encompasses more than history.  It encompasses an Act of God – the birth and life of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.”

It is almost fashionable these days to believe that one can be spiritual without being a part of a local church.  It is not true.  The old phrasing comes to mind – “the church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time.”  The other phrase which comes to mind is the one from  Santayana, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In the special gift of this history few have lessons that may guide into the future God is even now preparing for us.

The Central Texas Annual Conference 1866-2010: At the Center of Texas Methodism will be sold at Annual Conference this coming June in Waco. Those who would like to purchase a copy earlier may do so either at the Conference Service Center through Nancy Schusler or by contacting directly Michael Patison (www.mpatison@charter.net) or Rev. Nancy Bennett  (npbennett1@yahoo.com). The cost is $25 for pick up; $28.50 for shipped.

A Day of Celebration

We know December 7th as “a day that will live in Infamy!”  Do you know what is special about December 6th?

In a lot of ways, it is a much bigger day for Christians.  December 6th is the feast day for a Bishop from Myra (a part of today’s nation of Turkey) in the 4th century.  That bishop’s name was  Nicholas – St. Nicholas from which we get the original story behind Santa Claus. St. Nicholas was known as a champion of the poor and especially of poor children.  He is also considered the patron saint of sailors.  The list of his accomplishments and compassion especially for those in  need is long and distinguished.  Ironically, he originally stood for the opposite of glided  consumption. St. Nicholas gave away what he had to help those in desperate need.  (The story behind the stocking has to do with him putting gold coins in the stocking for poor young women so that they would have the money to pay a dowry for marriage rather than being sold into prostitution and slavery.)

Tuesday, December 6th, I was Duke University attending the Episcopal Leadership Forum (a part of my continuing education with 24 other UMC bishops under the auspices of Duke  Divinity School and The Thomas Center for Business Leadership).  In the morning devotional and prayer time, we remembered St. Nicholas and invited him once again to teach us by  example.  Our morning prayer was entitled, “Remembering our brother Bishop, Saint Nicholas of Myra.”  It is as follows:  “Almighty God, who in you love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on the land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work from the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you. Amen.”

 

Christmas Eve, Making Disciples and Church Growth

I have shared often how crucial Christmas Eve worship is as an opportunity to reach non- or nominal Christians.  A recent article in Ministry Matters (www.ministrymatters.com click on “Articles”, it was posted November 28th) entitled “How Christmas Can Help Your Church Grow in 2012” caught my attention.  The authors listed 6 key ideas.  “1) Promote your January sermon series and other upcoming activities during Advent and Christmas services.”  2) Use your Christmas kids’ programming as an on-ramp for new families to get involved.  3)  Offer multiple mission opportunities. 4) Do the caroling thing. (The CEB New Testament Christmas Outreach Kit works well for this kind of outreach.) 5) Use your church’s small groups for outreach during the holidays.  6) Be creative and try new things.”  The authors, Betsy Hall & Shane Raynor, add: “Don’t settle with doing the same candlelight service year after year. Remember, Christmas Eve is prime time. Pull out all the bells and whistles. Get your most creative people on board and provide a worship experience that will make first time visitors want to return in 2012.” To which I add a hearty Amen! The worship of God is the first and most basic step on the path of discipleship.

I commend the article to you.  It closes with the challenging question, “What does your church do during Advent and Christmas that encourages growth in the months ahead?”

As you are lifting up the connection between Christmas Eve, making disciples, and church growth? Don’t forget alternative forms of communication as a way to reach seekers.  A church Facebook page and a twitter auto update are two (among many) different suggestions.  (Our younger clergy have been coaching me, and they are great resources to visit with about different options!)  Whatever you do, have Christmas Eve services featured PROMINENTLY on your  website!

While you are at it, another article from the Lewis Leadership Center is really worth your attention.  It is entitled “Asking Bigger Questions” and written by Keith Anderson. It is from The Lewis Center for Church Leadership online journal Leading Ideas dated November 30th (www.churchleadership.com).