Four on the Fourth: July 4th, Virtue and the Wesleyan Way

James Madison famous wrote in The Federalist No. 51 “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” What is often forgotten are the preceding sentences. “It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature.”

From a Christian theological position this is witness to the doctrine of sin. Utopian dreams aside, the Wesleyan branch of Christianity has held to a deep conviction of the reality of sin, “the spiritual forces of wickedness” and “the evil powers of the world” (The United Methodist Hymnal, liturgy for the “renunciation of sin and profession of faith, p. 40). Co-joined with such conviction has been an ardent belief in the twin responses of personal and social holiness. Our Arminian roots and belief in free will weld us as Wesleyans to notions of civic virtue and morality. Regardless of where we might stand (from the far right to the far left), the recent drama around accessible health care for all is a reflection of such theological convictions played out in the confusing contest for public policy.

As we (those of us who are citizens of the United States) rightly celebrate the 4th of July and our independence, it is worth reflecting on the importance of civic virtue (welded as it is to religious conviction — albeit often hidden religious convictions). The founding fathers (& mothers! – just note the role of someone of the intellectual and moral statue of Abigail Adams!, but I digress) held a strong passionate belief in at least four cardinal virtues. While they are variously debated by scholars, there is reasonable consensus around the four (are there more?): industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. (While many across the political spectrum have written on this subject since before the American Revolution and down into the present day, I have found Charles Murray’s recent summation in Coming Apart, chapters 6, 8-11 especially helpful in summation.).

Industriousness denotes a strong work ethic and desire to get ahead (however one defines “get ahead”). Industriousness involves a cluster of qualities that focus around concepts of hard work, accountability and personal responsibility. Honesty as a civic & moral virtue relates to voluntarily complying with the law and with what are generally taken to involve cultural and ethical norms (think of George Washington “I shall not tell a lie”). Marriage, many scholars argue, was taken as a “bedrock institution” (see Murray, Coming Apart, p. 134). As a founding virtue, marriage referred to both fidelity in marriage & the permanence of marriage. (It is worth noting that however much we might dislike it, the evidence is overwhelming that a stable marriage between a man and a woman is the — get that!– THE single greatest statistical variable for producing well-adjusted emotionally healthy children.). Religiosity refers not to the Christian faith per se (many of the founding fathers were deists) but to the importance of religious belief in general. (This entails what has come to be known of generally as “Civic Religion.” Washington was specific in his Farewell Address. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable.”

Let me invite the reader who has slogged through this longer than usual blog so far to step back and attempt to reconnect these four founding virtues (moral convictions) with the Wesleyan branch of Christian witness. Each, however debated, represents aspects of both social & personal holiness that reach beyond concepts of justice and mercy (without in any way!!! denigrating the importance of justice and mercy, along with service). It is worth noting that the great Methodist layman William Wilberforce, rightly known for his great championship of the cause to end slavery, understood his life of faith to involve two great causes. The first was the eradication of the slave trade. The second (and often forgotten) was the improvement of what he often referred to as public manners by which he meant the establishment of public virtue in ways that reflected the Great Commandment (love of God and love of neighbor). This entailed advocacy of labor reform and just pay, support for public education, and enhance of community. (Chapter 6 of Amazing Grace: William Wiberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas is particularly insightful.)

Support of the 4 virtues (as well as others) on the 4th is not a purely American project. Nor is it an attempt to pump a religious agenda into patriotism. Rather it is a deeper reflection and acting out of a truly Christian agenda for society as a whole. It rejects theocracy and embraces a Christ driven compassion for all society. It seeks to live the prayer we have been taught by our Lord & Master — “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

A GATHERING OF THE CLAN

Last Saturday I attended a gathering of the clan.  The occasion was a Memorial Service in honor of Rev. Frank Leach.  Frank had served (along with his gracious wife Barbara) honorably and with distinction for well over 40 years.  Many remember with deep appreciation his tenure as Senior Pastor at Polytechnic UMC.  More recently I had the joy of appointing him to serve as interim pastor at University UMC in Fort Worth along with Rev. Bob Weathers.

As I gazed out over the congregation the sense of the family or clan gathered to honor one of our own was palpable.  Seated in the full Sanctuary were clergy who had led (and are leading) Central Texas Conference for decades.  With them were lay leaders who had (and still are!) serving the cause of Christ through their local church and the Conference. As I stood before the gathered clan and reflected on both Frank & us gathered as a Christian community, the words that sprang to my mine came from the first verse of “For All the Saints.” “For all the saints who from their labors rest who thee by faith before the world confess, thy name of Jesus be forever blessed!”

I think it was Victor Hugo who said, “if we see far, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants.” It struck me forcibly that we as a faith community, a gathering of the clan of Christ, stand on the collective shoulders of giants.  For this I am profoundly grateful.

MUSINGS

As I worked through accumulated administrative details on my desk, the news of the Supreme Court ruling on the new health care law came in. The next morning, listening to various responses on the both radio and television I was struck again by reactive and fear driven we culturally are. There is little time in the modern news cycle for reflective response. The demand for a quick quote tramples deeper thought and measured reflection.

Not long ago I preached an Advent sermon on the bondage of fear versus the challenge of faith. I opened with the comment; “we are a society snared in the bondage of fear. Just consider the coming presidential elections and the charges tossed about. They are a fear driven mantra. Your health care will disappear. Your retirement savings will be lost. The government or big business or pick your bogyman of your choice will dominate your life.”

We live the challenge of faith in the basic way we are Methodist – that is to say, by being methodical about the spiritual disciples of prayer, worship and bible study that keep us focused on the sacrifice and love of Christ. Often our outward expression of fear reflects a crippled inward walk with Christ. This is not about ignoring fear or pretending it doesn’t exist. It is about walking with Christ beyond fear!

Do you remember the report back of the original scouts going into the Promised Land? “The land that we crossed over to explore is a land that devours its residents. All the people we saw in it are huge men.” (Numbers 13:32 – I like the older translation “there be giants in the land!”) Fear kept the people of God paralyzed in the wilderness. The same can happen for us.

There may be giants in the land but there is also Christ! I don’t have any great insight about what the future holds but I do know that God holds the future. Wherever you or I might stand on the various issues confronting us (individually, as a church, as a nation, or as a world), the Lord of life calls us to embrace life with the challenge of faith. It really does trump the bondage of fear.

The Dog Days of Summer

With 100+ degree weather upon us, we are into what someone has called the dog days of summer.  Time can seem to drag and life can feel hot and heavy.  My wife tells me that when she was young she’d spend time lolly-gagging in the hammock reading novels.  That sounds good but is rarely a real option for most of us.  What should a working pastor do in the dog days of summer?  (With a slight bit of thought & imagination, a lay person can easily come up with their version of the following.)

I try & recommend some of the following:

1.  Catch up on the administrative paper work that always seems to be piling up.  While this hardly makes the pulse pound with excitement, it is important.  (Remember, attention to detail separates the women from the girls and the men from the boys.)

2.  Engage in advanced planning for the fall. This is the ideal time to chart out (and do preliminary research on) sermons through Advent.  It is also a great time to set up the fall stewardship campaign, plan new Sunday School classes & small groups for spiritual development, and plan further mission, service and evangelism ministry, etc.

3.  Do in-depth reading & study. My summer reading program includes Bad Religion, Ted Campbell’s text on Methodism, Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials (The entire Cabinet will be reading this book as a refresher on Methodist theology. Dr. Campbell will be leading the fall Cabinet retreat.); and  Jason Vickers’  Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal.

4. Get in at least a 2 week vacation!  After Jurisdictional Conference (mid-July), Jolynn & I are flying out to San Francisco to visit my brother & sister-in-law & head up the Northwest coast for 2 weeks (including 4 days hiking & sightseeing in Olympic National Park.  Genuine recreation is re-creation, and it doesn’t need to cost much money!

I hope your dog days are worth barking about!

 

Extravagant Generosity and Vital Congregations

 As I move through the accumulated paperwork of my office, many different items caught my attention.  Two offer witness to living out of our missional purpose of “making disciples for the transformation of the world.”

Rev. Dawne Phillips shared that in a recent preaching at FUMC Weatherford that she was presented with a check for the Conference in the amount of $17,071 to be contributed to Imagine No Malaria.  The contribution is the first gift from a $440,000 capital campaign for a new bus, audio-visual equipment, long-range planning with an architect, debt reduction and a 10% pledge to Imagine No Malaria.  Their plan is to make periodic payments to the Conference as funds are received.  The faithfulness and fruitfulness of the good folks at First UMC, Weatherford is a prime example of extravagant generosity.

Another (of many) example of faithfulness and fruitfulness is the growing participation by the churches of the Central Texas Conference in the greater Vital Congregations emphasis of the larger United Methodist Church. Gary Lindley and Jeff Jones offer the following bullet points:

  •  Thus far 128 churches are participating. Some of these include: White’s Chapel, Keller, Killeen First, Oglesby, Ranger and Cranfills Gap.
  • Criteria for determining whether or not a church is vital are:
    For each church, we average the metrics from each category (Worship Attendance, Professions of Faith, Number in Small Groups, People in Mission, Dollars to Mission). Churches receive a score from 1 to 3 in each category based on their ranking with other churches. Churches in the bottom 25% of each category receive a 1; those in middle 25-75% receive a 2; and those in the top 25% receive a 3. Those scores are then added together. Churches with a score of 10 or more and with no score of 1 in any single category are considered “Highly Vital.”
  • Data will be reviewed by the Center for Evangelism and Church Growth to determine churches that are considered vital.
  • Numbers represent the narratives – numbers communicate what is happening in our churches, they capture quantitative and qualitative growth.  We need both the numbers and the personal stories.

As I have written before, with the numbers (or metrics) we add the crucial narrative!  (See my blog of March 19, 2012 entitled The Importance of Narrative and my comments on the same subject in my recent Episcopal Address.)  When the Cabinet looks at appointments and assesses faithfulness and fruitfulness, we will examine together both the metrics of vital congregations and the narratives that accompany those metrics.  May the stories of God’s unfolding grace in Christ through the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit abound!

I SAW GOD

On Friday night our CTCYM Community Living Center shared in a moving, humorous and thought provoking worship service.  Every team came forward & each CTCYMer was invited to share.  As if in a cascading litany, young person after young person spoke the phrase “I saw God” or “I saw God’s love.” In a manner at once casual and deeply reflective, they were reporting on a Matthew 25 experience. “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me’  (Matt 25:40).

I saw God on a ladder; I saw God holding a paint brush; I saw God lying under a floor pounding in floor joists; I saw God in a client.  The list goes on and on.  I saw God or saw God’s love in action – working in nursing homes, building wheel chair ramps, painting, washing windows, cleaning up, washing flea infested dogs, mowing the yard, helping a homeless guy walking by, putting in a new storm door, doing new things we’d never done before, cooking.  I saw God or saw God’s love in relationships with each other, with clients, with new friends.  One of the adults spoke of “Angels dropped out of a white van” (a reference to our transportation).

This isn’t heresy. This is not a mistaken identification of CTCYMers as God.  We are not God, merely the Lord’s children.  Rather it is an understanding of God in action with us, around us and through us.  It is a living witness to Jesus keeping his promise of Matthew 28:20.  “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”  Both seasoned adults and young persons share a story of singing for a “client” who is in hospice Maybe one of the youth summarized it best when he opened his remarks, “I saw God in so many places it’s hard to pick one to talk about.”

I couldn’t help but think again of the prayer of Aelred of Rievaulx (circa 1147-1167 A. D., and popularized in the musical Godspell): “To know Him more clearly; to love Him more dearly; to follow Him more nearly.”  This, I think, was and is the great and holy project of CTCYM.  I was privileged to share in the mission.

RAMPING UP IN ARKANSAS

The words lay sterile on the page in the little read Book of Resolutions: “The United Methodist Church believes God’s love is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty.  We cannot be just observers.  So we care enough about people’s lives to risk interpreting God’s love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex” (pg. 27). Behind the seeming academic dryness lies the active engaging godly love exemplified by CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth in Mission).

Monday I worked as a part of Team 1 building a ramp. Tuesday morning left CTCYM for two days of a national meeting on building vital congregations in the United Methodist Church held at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary just outside Chicago.  When I returned the initial ramp was finished!  Joining up with Team 4, another ramp much longer in size at a second location was nearing completion.  (The home owner is in a rehabilitation hospital and one of the medical conditions for coming home is a wheel chair ramp.). The team leaders had to make the youth quit on time.  They (the Youth) wanted to work straight through closing time.

There are numerous reasons for such dedication.  High among them is, I believe, the three way connection between the CTCYMers, the client (person being helped), and God.  Things are ramped up (pun quite intentional) because we are “not just observers” but connected, united.  The trinitarian model is not accidental.  It reflects the reality of God who took flesh, risked and reached out in love, justice and mercy.

By the time you read this we will have finished ramp #2! CTCYMers know how to ramp up for the Lord!

JOY AND BLESSING AT CTCYM

Today (Monday, June 11th) finished my first full day at CTCYM (Central Texas Conference Youth Mission).  Our young people are a joy as they come together in mission and service!  We are building a wheel chair ramp for an older couple in great need.  Jennifer & David, the adult leaders of the team are super!

This is my first CTCYM but hardly my first mission trip.  I’ve been on trips of mission and service to places as diverse as the Texas Gulf Coast, Appalachia, and Guatemala. On one level this mission, as with the others, is exciting; on another level it is just hot hard work (my back aches tonight! — the ravages of aging my wife tells me — I told her that it couldn’t be me!).  Today as a part of our time we studied I John 4 & the famous passage that “God is love.”. I was struck again that deep love is tangible and engaging.  It is ethereal and vague but has a concreteness that reflects God’s love for us in Christ.

It strikes me that a significant element of the power & impact of CTCYM is this mixing of practical engagement and biblical reflection.  This is good godly learning with a lot of fun & fellowship  supporting it.  I am blessed to share with these disciples.

Bound for Waco

Tonight (Friday, June 01, 2012) I had the joy of participating in a rousing ordination service at the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference. It was a Pentecost experience full of riotous praise and worship, fine preaching (from Bishop Sudarshanna Devadhar) and great music. It was also striking for how multi-ethnic the Greater New Jersey Conference is. It was a glimpse of the church at its best. The ordination service closed with an altar for others to come forward and pray with the Cabinet and members of the Board of Ordained Ministry about their call to ministry.

And yes, lest I unfairly over-portray the joy of my time in New Jersey, their Conference faces the same problems all of the United Methodist Church in the United States is facing. Growth comes hard; evangelism is an oft forgotten ministry; outreach is strong. Like the rest of us, they are sailing into a headwind.

For Jolynn and me, it is good to be headed home. We look forward to coming together in Waco. The Holy Spirit has an amazing ability to be in multiple places. I believe Dr. Joy Moore will bless us incredibly with great preaching and godly sharing. There are great ministries to celebrate and new adventures to undertake. Together God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is leading us! I look forward with joy to our time of sharing, learning and growing in the Lord. See you in Waco!

On the Road Again

Saturday Jolynn and I flew out to Philadelphia.  We spent the Memorial holiday time with a cousin and her family in northern New Jersey.  The family R&R was a welcome joy after the hectic schedule of recent weeks and a nice rest before the next round of travels.

On Wednesday we will arrive in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania for the meeting of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.  I will be the conference preacher there.  The Greater New Jersey Conference focused on the first three vows of Methodism – prayers, presence, gifts – last year.  They have asked me specifically to address the twin themes of Service and Witness.

Next Saturday we will fly back to Fort Worth, grab a quick change of clothes and then head down to Waco for the Central Texas Conference.  It should be a great time of learning and worship with Dr. Joy Moore and Dr. Gil Rendle leading us.

The following Thursday, June 7th (the day after the CTC Conference closes), I will fly back out to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to speak to the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Their Conference theme is “the river flows through us and beyond us.”  My first address is on the transformation of the local church following the theme “The River Flows Through Us.”  The second address is on the importance of new church development and is entitled “The River Flows Beyond Us.”

All across the country, Conferences of the UMC are spending more time in worship and learning as we lean into a new future.  I look forward to sharing with and learning from our colleagues in Christ serving in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  I’ll see you in Waco!