The Coming of the Faithful ©

I readily acknowledge that one of my favorite Advent/Christmas hymns is “O Come All Ye Faithful” (No. 234, The United Methodist Hymnal).  John Wade’s (ca. 1743) clarion words combined with the soaring music (credited to Wade and a number of others) are at once a call and claim from Christ. When I step back and reflect on the hymn there is in its beauty a theological reflection of the essence of Christmas and the Christian faith itself.

“O come all ye faithful joyful and triumphant
Oh come ye O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him born the King of angels;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

Consider the first verse along with the chorus. The faithful are called. The call comes as a word of immense joy. In C. S. Lewis’ inimitable words, “we are the visited planet.” We are joyful because God himself has taken up residence in our midst! “The Word [has become] flesh and the King of angels makes his home among us.” We are those who have seen his glory, “glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (My paraphrasing of John 1:14). This great theological claim is buttressed by an assertion that foreshadows the resurrection. Come as those who are “triumphant!”

Verse two cements the great theological assertions of the hymn.

“True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,
Lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

I invite the reader to think where you have encountered the opening words of verse two before. We find them in a slightly different form in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, …” (The Nicene Creed, No. 881, The United Methodist Hymnal). We are not meant to miss the illumination of this great connection. The hymn offers us both great music and great theology.

Notice again how the following two lines complete the parallel. “Lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb; Son of the Father, begotten, not created;” (verse 2 of the hymn) = “begotten not made, of one Being with the Father; through Him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was “incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human” (The Nicene Creed, No. 881, The United Methodist Hymnal).

Swept up in the music, it is easy to forget that these great hymns teach great theology. Verses three and four complete the initial core story from Luke’s gospel.

Sing choirs of angels sing in exultation;
O sing all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
See how the shepherds summoned to his cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too will thither bend our joyful footsteps;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

I think the most faithful thing we can do is come and adore; acknowledging that the baby Jesus is Christ the Lord (making the proper connection with Philippians 2:1-11). In doing so we too are joyful and triumphant.

 

 

Cry Glory! ©

Sunday morning I went to worship with my wife.  As usual the sermon was excellent, the liturgy challenging and the fellowship a blessing.  What towered above the rest, as is often the case at this time of the year, was the music.  The Hand bell Choir offering a prelude of “Joy to the World” was followed by a soaring introit – “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.”  Together we traveled with the angels.  The words “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” come from the Latin version of Luke 2:14,  “Glory to God in the Highest.”

After lighting the Advent wreath, we listened in rapt attention to “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy.”  The music was and is beautiful but the line that caught my attention is the refrain sung over and over:  “He come from the glory, He come from the glorious Kingdom.”  As if to emphasize that phrase, after it is repeated twice, there comes a short three-word musical emphasis, “Oh, Yes, believer.”  Then, “He come from the glory, He come from the glorious Kingdom” is repeated twice more.  Even now writing three days later, I am swept away by the power of the music and the import of the words.

Together the Children’s Choir and the Chancel Choir graced us (there is no other appropriate phrasing) with a song I was less familiar with, “How Far is it to Bethlehem?”  As I listened I thought again of the seminary lesson from Dr. Ogden, “we do theology (that is talk about God) in order that we might do doxology (that is praise God).  Here in the music led by both Children and Chancel choirs, the two were gloriously reunited.  And without even trying a derivation of the word glory reappears.

I dare say that I could travel across the Central Texas Conference and even around the world at this time of year and come again and again to a celebration of God’s glory in Christ’s birth in a Bethlehem stable.  Instinctively Christians around the world know “glory’s” majestically wonderful appropriateness.

The theologian in me just has to pause and probe the meaning of “glory.”  Why is this word and its related phrases so central to our expression of worship in the season of Advent, of preparation for the Savior’s coming, and the following celebration of Christ’s birth?

Modest research can take us far.  In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (a marvelous five volume set put out by the United Methodist Publishing House – Abingdon Press) it is noted that the word “glory” has both an objective and subjective sense (hang with me, the technicalities are important!).  Subjectively “glory” refers to the object of worship.  It points us back to God.  When we sing “glory to God in the highest” we are giving full-throated acclamation that the Lord is God alone.  God alone is worthy of our unqualified and unmitigated praise.  Think of it as the Pledge of Allegiance on steroids.  No wonder the angels sang, “Glory to God in the Highest!”  (Luke 2:14).

Objectively, the word “glory” “denotes the object of worship (i.e., God’s revealed presence, God’s glory)  (The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2, “Glory,” P. 576, Carey C. Newman). Thus the word “glory” is a concrete way of talking about God’s very presence in our midst!  The Glory of God means the very presence of God right now, right here.

When the angels sing they are in the same act declaring their utmost, highest allegiance to God alone as ruler and master and simultaneously proclaiming that God’s very presence is here in the baby Jesus!  When the choir sings “He come from the glory, He come from the glorious Kingdom” it leads us to the profound truth at the center of the Christian faith: that the baby Jesus comes from God.  He is God, manifest, made known in human form.  All of this is an echoing of our foundational creedal affirmation as Christians.  In the Apostles Creed we affirm: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, … and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, …” (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 881). He [the baby Jesus] come from the Glory indeed!

Thus it is that we gather in this season and time to cry Glory!  This too is our affirmation of faith merging in worship with the beauty of the music.  More recently a song entitled “Cry Glory” was made popular in the movie Selma.  Written by American Rapper Common and Singer John Legend, it appropriately connects the very presence of God with the cause of racial justice.  We are a people who are, as very act of witness and declaration of faith, cry Glory!

All this is biblically anchored in Psalm 29.

You, divine beings! Give to the Lord—
give to the Lord glory and power!
Give to the Lord the glory due his name!
Bow down to the Lord in holy splendor!  (Psalm 29:1-2)

Appropriately our worship Sunday ended with the postlude “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Inhale once again the message of faith.  “Glory to the newborn King!”

 

Have Mercy! Mary and Joseph in Junction, Texas

It’s Tuesday morning, December 6, as I write. I am in Junction, TX as what we call “The Peer Retreat.” A group of us has been meeting together for forty years. Most of us went to Perkins School of Theology together, and over these forty years, we have celebrated the highs of ministry and struggled over the challenges.

 As I sit on the porch, I look down a long ravine and over the low hills to I-20, a distance of about three miles. In the distance, I can see cars and semi-trucks rolling by. They appear to be slowly creeping along, even though I know most are going about 70 mph.  In the distance, even the semis appear quite tiny. Over the terrain, silence engulfs the scene as if a transparent, invisible quilt is spread over us. Reading my devotional, I imagine I see Mary and Joseph walking this way. Having seen the hills of the Holy Land and travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, it is not hard to imagine the holy couple walking by. The terrain is quite similar.

 It is here I pause in my devotional time and let the mystery we call Advent soak in. Here is Christ at a distance. God is on the move. Step by steady step, the Savior comes. Earlier I had read the first three verses of Psalm 57:

Have mercy on me, God;
    have mercy on me
    because I have taken refuge in you.
    I take refuge
    in the shadow of your wings
        until destruction passes by.
I call out to God Most High—

    to God, who comes through for me.
He sends orders from heaven and saves me,
    rebukes the one who tramples me. Selah
        God sends his loyal love and faithfulness. (Psalm 57:1-3, CEB)

 I instinctively pause as I read and think about our situation, what scholars like to call our “context.” War still rages in the Middle East. I have prayed regularly since the invasion of Iraq for the safety of the troops and their return home. I have prayed regularly for the people of those countries as well; that they may live in peace. As we slowly put things back together after a contentious election here in the United States, I pray for the healing of our nation. Our church is in the midst of a potentially schismatic debate over same-gender marriage and issues relating to who might be ordained. Families are under stress in a myriad of ways – jobs, relationships, finances, external and internal commitments, illness… the list could on.

 I glance again across the ravine and once again imagine I see Mary and Joseph at a distance, a far distance, walking this way. I hear again the words I have but moments earlier read aloud. Have mercy on me, God; have mercy on me because I have taken refuge in you. I take refuge in the shadow of your wings until destruction passes by” (Psalm 57:1).

 Luther argued that there was no greater miracle than the Incarnation – God with us in the person and work of Jesus as the Christ. It is preposterous to think that the Almighty Supreme Divine Creator of the entire universe – the galaxies beyond number, the billions and billions of stars, the trillions of planets – should come to us in the person of a fragile baby! Yet, this is precisely the Christian claim that bids us spend Advent in such ardent preparation.

 We too hold to the truth and tradition of Christ’s coming. “Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming(Matthew 24:42).  Since we belong to the day, let’s stay sober, wearing faithfulness and love as a piece of armor that protects our body and the hope of salvation as a helmet. … So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already” (1Thessalonians 5: 8, 11).

joseph leading mary

Moving into Advent ©

So now that we are moving into Advent, what Advent devotional is guiding you?  It is really an easy question.  How are you spiritually nurturing yourself in advent anticipation for the coming of Christ?  Think and pray carefully because griping about secularity doesn’t count and doesn’t help.

Sunday night I got laughing as Jolynn pulled out four different Advent Devotionals to read.  I picked one which looked different, and I thought would spiritually challenge us.  For years it has been our habit to use a nightly devotional (mostly The Upper Room), but four seemed like a little much.

The next morning I woke up thinking about it.  She had spent far more time in preparation for deep spiritual life in Advent than I had.  She at taken extra time at her church to gather some of the various resources they had offered people.  The more I thought about it the more humbled I was.

Advent offers us a profound opportunity.  Taken with an open, inviting and attentive spiritual depth instead of grim grousing, Advent ushers us into joy.  In recent reading from Bishop Ruben Job’s A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, Bishop Job calls “Joy to the World” an advent hymn instead of a Christmas hymn.  It calls, he asserted, to an anticipatory joy.  This may sound obvious but to me it was revelatory.

Later that day for other reasons, I got thinking about the great non-negotiable doctrines of the Church.  Luther at one point in his prolific career insisted that you could do away with the miracles and if you hung on to the doctrine of incarnation (God in the flesh in the birth of Jesus entering human life), it alone was enough (see The Martin Luther Christmas Book translated and arranged by Roland Bainton).

It is here my world and attitude towards Advent shifts.  The joy of the Savior’s coming calls us to prepare in glad tidings of great love and to reflect such preparation in our attitudes and actions.  A couple of resources might be helpful.  One is a recent sermon calling for serious adult discipleship.  It is offered by Rev. Joy Moore, pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church in Evans, Georgia, and ties into a recent blog (and sermon) I have shared entitled “Deep Calls to Deep.” Advent offers a deeper more meaningful relationship with the Lord.  You may find it here.

The second is an article I came across while reading Leading Ideas: Lewis Center for Church Leadership (November 2, 2016 edition).  I have long maintained that Advent is “prime time evangelism.  People are open to the Christian in an unusually receptive way.  This especially true at Christmas Eve.

“Pastor Carey Nieuwhof says unchurched people want to celebrate Christmas, so there is no better time to connect with friends and neighbors who rarely, if ever, go to church. He offers ten ways your church can be involved in the unique opportunity to reach people at Christmas.”  He goes on to list ten ways:

1.  Hold multiple services.
2.  Theme the event around your community, not around your church.
3.  Hand out invitation cards.
4.  Make posters.
5.  Build a special Christmas Website.
6.  Use social media.
7.  Sell (free) tickets.
8.  Love your community.
9.  Invite them back.
10. Plan a Call to Action.
(“Ten Ways to Reach Unchurched People at Christmas“, Carey Nieuwhof).

There is more, much more, to be said and offered but for now I close with brother Martin.  “The Gospel,” [said Martin Luther], “is not so much a miracle as a marvel”  (Martin Luther, The Martin Luther Christmas Book translated and arranged by Roland Bainton).  We are moving into the joy of Advent!

Come to the Light ©

Happy New Year!  No, I’m not a month plus ahead of schedule.  This coming Sunday, November 27th is the first Sunday in Advent.  Many of us know that the advent comes the Latin adventus or coming.  “This season proclaims the coming of Christ in the birth of Jesus, in Word and Spirit, and in the final victory when God’s kingdom shall be complete” (Bishop Ruben Job, A Guide to Prayer and All Who Seek God, p. 20).  It marks the beginning of the Christian year and calls us to a radical reorientation.  In the setting gloom of winter it is a question that at times can haunt the best of us.  The prophet Isaiah opens with simple descriptive phrase, which fits our times.  “The people who walked in darkness” (Isaiah 9:2).

There is a temptation in the darkness to believe that this is the worst of times.  I remember in a history class years ago reading a description of society gone downhill.  It detailed how morals were at low ebb and how a revival was needed.  The professor paused in his reading and asked us to pick the year this description was written.  We chimed up with suggestions.  Most fell with a span of the previous ten years.  Then quietly he share that the description of society sinking downward into the abyss was written in the late 14th century.  Amazingly, we were all sure it had described out time.

Later I read the story behind the professor’s question in a sermon book written by Pastor Mark Trotter.  It is as follows:  “Barbara Tuckman, the historian, has written extensively about the fourteenth century. She pointed out that it was a time in which people were certain that it was the end.  They were certain that it was the time that apocalyptic literature was talking about, that the Book of Revelation was prophesying.  It was a time, more than any other time in history, when the four horsemen of the apocalypse rode the earth. War, which was incessant; famine, which was endemic; pestilence, which decimated Europe in the form of the bubonic plague; and death, which was everywhere.

She focused on 1397, that one year, and pointed out that in 1397, Gutenberg was born, whose printing press transformed the world. And shortly after that in the next century, Joan of Arc emerged, embodying a new spirit of nationalism. … And then came Columbus who opened up a new world. And after Columbus, there came Copernicus, who opened up a new heaven. And shortly after that came Michelangelo who focused human life on a new beauty, the beauty of creation.  And by the end of that century, Martin Luther was born, who called all of humanity to a new understanding of God’s grace.

I remind you that all of this occurred within one hundred years of that time when everyone thought it was the end” (Mark Trotter, “Long Live the Weeds,” First UMC San Diego, California).

The more sage among us look at the prophet Isaiah speaking in the eighth century B.C., the Savior sharing the word of God in approximately 33 A.D., the unknown author of the 14th century, and our own pundits of today with the realism of divine guidance.  Any age is a time of real darkness.  So-called golden ages only exist in the glow of hindsight.

Similarly, the greater national preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick shared the prophetic vision.  “In 1942, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Church, N.Y. entitled a sermon ‘This is a Great Year for Christmas’.  World War II was still going badly for America, and the world was in terrible shape.  But Dr. Fosdick, like that exiled messenger of the Old Testament [Isaiah], believed that it is in the darkest hours that God’s good news is best heard.  When the mountains of adversity and violence are looming before us the feet of the messenger upon those mountains are beautiful – beautiful in bringing good news of salvation.  In our world of terrorism, war, threat of nuclear annihilation, the horrible mess of drugs, etc. ‘this is a great year for Christmas!’” (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 16, No. 4., Oct. Nov. Dec., 1988, p. 45).

What is the Word of the Lord to us this day?  Come to the light!  Hear Jesus speaking directly to us – to me and to you.  “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21).

Jesus himself challenges us with a choice.  “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 20-21).  Don’t dismiss this lightly.  We say to ourselves, “of course I come to the light.  It is other people who refuse to.”  But oh, oh it is so easy to wallow in the self-righteousness of darkness and live in the gloom of despair.  The deeds of evil are greater than simply personal moral failure.  They encompass injustice and indifference to the poor and oppressed.  They include anger, judgmentalism and condemnation of those who are different.  They involve our failure to really trust that God is in charge.  Hear the Word of the Lord spoke to us, to me and to you.  Amid the encircling struggle of modern life, amid the chaos of our times, in the snare of our grief, He asks us to trust him; to come to the light of His love that can redeem any person, any society, any age.

Is there any hope?  Ah, that great old preacher Fosdick is right.  This is a great year for Christmas!  The Light shines in the darkness, in our darkness.  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:4, 6-7).

Ask yourself, how are we instructed to come to this time of the Savior’s birth?  With joy and rejoicing, for “For the yoke of [our] burden, and the bar across [our] shoulders, the rod of [our] oppressor, [God has] broken. . . . For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:4, 6-7).  The light shines in our darkness!

Come to the light!  Hear the Word of God that is set against our struggle; the headline that is not bannered in the newspaper but proclaimed in a star.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).  Let Christ speak again not only to your life personally but to our society as a whole.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).christmas star

Deep Calls to Deep ©

Tuesday, November 8, 2016, our world tilted and ground shifted – wherever you stand on the political spectrum in the United States, whether or not it be far right or far left or anything in between or above or below.  On November 9th we awoke to a new and different world.  The candidate who proclaimed that the election was rigged is now the President-Elect.  His supporters cheered and celebrated.  Those who deeply disputed his candidacy – whether out of fear, anger, straight forward policy disputes, or contentious character flaws – grieved and wondered out loud what the future holds for us as a people and as a nation.

The next day, November 9th, “protesters started at 6 p.m. in Union Square, and began marching north on Broadway to Sixth Avenue at 7:30 p.m. They eventually ended up at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, and later headed to Trump International Hotel & Tower at Columbus Circle. . . . The group chanted, ‘Not my president!’ as well as ‘Black lives matter,’ and, ‘Love Trumps hate.’” Reports noted protests at a variety of places all across the country which have continued and spread.  Meanwhile, both President-elect Trump and Secretary Clinton have called for the nation to peaceably unite.

I write today not to debate the election nor to engage in a futile dispute over who voted and how, nor even to share in a public venting of our celebration or anguish, sunlit hopes or gloom- shrouded fears.  Rather, whether you go to bed wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat or hugging you pillow in tear-stained anguish over what a President Trump might do,  I invite you, more than that, I challenge you to set your personal preferences aside and raise the deeper question of what God now calls us both to be and to do.

A poem by the great British poet and playwright of the mid to late 20th century, Christopher Fry beckons us back to Psalms.  Fry wrote the following:

Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move,
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
The enterprise
Is exploration into God.[2]

Christopher Fry’s evocative poem springs from the heart of Psalm 42 verse 7.  Reading in a Common English Bible translation, “Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[3] I believe the imagery speaks to our present situation.  It is a picture of an iceberg calving, which is the breaking off from the main ice shelf in a thunderous crash with waves surging outward.  calving_iceThis is where we are living today.  The tumultuous election of Trump verses Clinton; the red state/blue state divide; the policing crisis and the cry “black lives matter;” the assault of truly global economy; the Balkanization of Europe and much of the Middle East along with the seemingly endless conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The list could go on; they all point to the calving of our world.  Reality has shifted and a new world is struggling to be born.

How are we to respond to the surging waves of change that are washing over us?  Are you ready for the answer?  I don’t know.  But, I do know where we are to look for guidance!  “Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[4]  God speaks to us this day.  Lean forward and listen to Holy Scripture for here lies insight and wisdom far greater than our flawed human understandings and more virtuously noble that are our highest aspirations.  Deep calls to deep – plumb the depths of Psalm 42.

Scholars tells us that the original writer of this Psalm lived near what would become Caesarea Philippi “where the springs of the River Jordan rush down into the valley in roaring cataracts.”[5]  He gazes at the unfolding scenes of his life and shares a near universal hunger that lives in us to this day.  “Just like a deer that craves streams of water, my whole being craves you, God.  My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.  When will I come and see God’s face?  My tears have been my food both day and night, as people constantly questioned me, “Where’s your God now?”[6]

Here lies the first great line of instruction for us this day.  1.  Long for God; seek the Lord!  The great St. Augustine put it this way: “Let us burn together for this thirst; let us run together to the fountain of understanding.”[7]  We have spent too long seeking our own desires and pleasures.  We need to see God’s greater glory and will.  Long for God; seek the Lord! 

If this last election was about anything, it was surely about a hunger, a longing for a better life and better world.  The Word of the Lord teaches us that this hunger, this thirst, can only be slaked by the fountain of the Lord’s presence.  “But I remember these things as I bare my soul: how I made my way to the mighty one’s abode, to God’s own house.”[8]

Notice quickly what gets tied to that longing is a hope driven promise.  2. Put your hope in the Lord!  Look at the grandeur of hope amid the very despair of the Psalmist’s situation.  Verse 5:  “Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed? Why are you so upset inside? Hope in God! Because I will again give him thanks, my saving presence and my God.”[9]

The world doesn’t need a more politically partisan church.  It needs a more prayerful church – submitted, humble, and obedient!  Psalm 33:20 says, “We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and our shield.”[10]  Romans 8:18 reminds us:  “I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.”[11]  Hebrews 10:23 asserts with unshakable insistence, “Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made the promises is reliable.”[12]

Two quotes from great Christians in the latter half of the 20th century guide us in so placing our hope.  The first I trust many of you know.

In 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the Baccalaureate sermon at the commencement exercises for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and he included the saying [originally spoken by Theodore Parker a Unitarian minister fighting slavery in 1853]: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said in closing, “but it bends toward justice.”

 The second quote is less well known but no less significant.  It comes the great biblical scholar Eugene Peterson.  Many of you know him for his work in producing The Message translation of the Bible.  He wrote a book 1980 called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.  This is God’s claim on us in a day and time filled with instant gratification.  In a culture of text and twitter, the Word of God bids us live in a hope filled faithfulness.

This leads us to the third great lesson the Word of the Lord has for us this day out of Psalm 42.  It comes from the seminal 7th verse.  As the world thunders, cracks and the waves of time and culture crash over us, we are to trust God.  Listen again to verse 7.  It opens with the line you already know, ““Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me.”[13]  Then it adds the following words.  “By day the Lord commands his faithful love; by night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life.

What will redeem life for us in this time?  Look at verse 7!  “The Lord commands his faithful love.”  How does the writer respond?  “By night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life.”  He responds with radical trust!

This then is the towering lesson of Psalm 42; a Psalm given by God to us this day!  3.  Move to a deeper faith through radical trust in God. 

This is not easy.  The shallowness of much of what falsely passes for the Christian today will not do.  I don’t know how many times someone, well meaning, has said to me that they are “spiritual but not religious.”  What nonsensical vacuous tripe!  Being spiritual without being tied to the God who comes in Christ in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is nonsense!  Deep calls to deep!  The writer of Hebrews was correct when he said, “It’s scary to fall into the hands of the living God!”[14] We need a faith that is biblically anchored.  Notice carefully the multi-step process of moving to a deeper faith through radical trust in God.  First, we must move to a deeper faith – summarized pointedly, deep calls to deep.  When the waterfalls roar and the massive waves of life surge wading pool spiritually will only lead to a drowning!  Secondly this calls for radical trust in God; if you will, an anchoring of life in Christ the solid rock.  Thirdly, the combination of a deeper, disciplined, mature faith with radical trust in God results in a “song” within us in the night and a prayer to “the God of my life.”

Jessica LaGrone, the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary was profoundly correct when she said, “Only desperate people need a Savior.”  Folks we are a desperate people!  We need a Savior.  His name is Jesus Christ!

We must go deeper not only into “the formation of beliefs about Jesus but [also into] the cultivation of trust in him. It is an important distinction.” [Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean reminds us by way of illustration.]  “When famed French tightrope walker Charles Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on a high wire in 1860, carrying his trembling manager Harry Colcord on his back, the nineteen-year-old Prince of Wales Edward Albert was there to watch. Before the stunt, Blondin asked the prince, “Do you believe that I can carry a man across the Falls on a tightrope?” Edward replied that he did. So Blondin asked: “Will you be that man?” (The prince declined.)

Incredibly, Blondin died in his bed in 1897 at the age of seventy-five after an accident –free high-wire career. The facts of his feats had been widely reported. But to participate in Blondin’s high-wire act required trust, not belief – a quality found almost exclusively among those close to him, which is why Blondin’s stunts involved his manager (and his five-year-old daughter, until the French government prohibited it, citing “child endangerment”) instead of strangers. Belief may enable us to approach Christ as a curious bystander, but our investment is abstract. Trust opens us to God relationally as we submit ourselves to divine love, which awakens our desire to know Christ better for ourselves.”[15]

 My spiritual mentor and friend shared in his congregation sermon the Sunday following the election this salient insight.  “Let me begin by saying that there are tough, disappointing days ahead for all Americans, for people on both sides of the political and cultural divide.  The euphoria of victory dissipates in the grinding days of hard work that follow. . . .

[Dr. Spain went on to say:] “This is a time for faith and faithful action.  The fact is that many in our nation will not be able to find a strong center in the days ahead; they will languish without a solid place to stand and cope with the disappointments that are coming.  But you and I and people of faith in all places—when we remember who we are, we stand on a solid foundation.  We build our house on a rock that is more than able to withstand the howling winds of ugly and desperate times.”[16]

You recall the verse he references.  It comes from the great Sermon on Mount, near the end of Jesus’ seminal teaching.  “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”[17]

Deep calls to deep.  We are bidden, challenged to move deeper in our faith, as I have already stated. Waiting pool religion will not suffice.  Wherever you are politically, the wind is blowing and the rain sleeting.  We must anchor ourselves yet more firmly on the rock of Christ.  How is it that we do so?  Psalm 42 instructs us:

1. Long for God; seek the Lord!
2. Put your hope in the Lord!
3. Move to a deeper faith through radical trust in God.

“Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed?
Why are you so upset inside?
Hope in God!
Because I will again give him thanks,
my saving presence and my God.”[18]

 [1]               http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/11/09/trump-election-protest/
[2]               Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners, taken from The Word God Sent by Paul Scherer, pg. 111
[3]               Psalm 42:7
[4]               Psalm 42:7
[5]               Artur Weiser, The Psalms, p. 348
[6]               Psalm 42:1-3
[7]               Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament VII, Psalm 1-50, Edited by Craig A. Blaising & Carmen S. Harding, p. 328
[8]               Psalm 42:4
[9]               Psalm 42:5
[10]             Psalm 33:20
[11]             Romans 8:18
[12]             Hebrews 10:23
[13]             Psalm 42:7
[14]             Hebrews 10:31
[15]             Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian, pp. 118-119
[16]             Dr. Sid Spain, November 13, 2016, First UMC, Eagle, Colorado
[17]             Matthew 7:24-27, CEB
[18]             Psalm 42:11

Using Social Media in Ministry ©

Three or four months ago, I approached Rev. David Alexander (who has been a mentor for me in using social media – the improvements are due to his coaching, the persistent errors are a reflection of his students fumbling) to write a guest blog on using social media in ministry.  There were multiple reasons for asking help in this area.  First, I am a visitor or late immigrant to this world.  My instinctive reactions are those of someone who entered ministry in the age of typewriters.  My children are early adopters.  My grandchildren are natives.  Yet, as is obvious, we live in a social media age.  To share the gospel in its full dimensions we must master the use of the Social Media.  (This is similar to the change clergy went through in Reformation moving from an oral age to a print age.)  Second, in our Cabinet work, we have run into increased communication difficulties with people placing careless and/or controversial statements on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and congregations negatively reacting.  This exposes generational miscommunication through the use of a platform of communication that is understood differently by different generations. Context and background are lost. Fragile relationships between pastors and parishioners are damaged. Trust is threatened.  Third, we (both lay and clergy) need a more coherent dialog on how we use social media. Hopefully this guest blog will be a start.  -Bishop Mike Lowry

Continue Reading…

Reports and Observations from COB & the Extended Cabinet Summit ©

Late last week I returned home (Saturday, November 5th) from a week at the Council of Bishops (COB) meeting and the Extended Cabinet Summit held in Jacksonville, Florida. In the midst of trying to catch up on working that was waiting for me to return home and on the elections, I got behind on blogging. This is a brief attempt to report back on those activities of the Council of Bishops Fall meeting (October 30th through November 2nd) and the Extended Cabinet Summit (November 2nd through 4th). Additionally I want to commend reading a couple of articles I have read in my travels.

The COB meets regularly twice a year – the first week in November and the first week in May. The fall meeting at the beginning of a quadrennium (i.e. this year) is always a retreat in executive session where we welcome new bishops and in a more informal atmosphere can discuss issues together. Parts of the sessions are open to the public (The President’s Address, Worship, etc.) It was a joy to welcome new bishops to the Council including Bishops Ruben Saenz, Jimmy Nunn, and Bob Farr from the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ). The following link offers various news reports on some of the activities which took place at this year’s COB meeting: http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/council-of-bishops-news-statements

On Wednesday, November 2nd, the COB meeting closed shortly after noon. The United States (or Jurisdictional) bishops, with some Central Conference (from outside of the U.S.) bishops joining, then traveled to nearby Jacksonville, Florida to join with their extended Cabinets (Assistants to the Bishop, District Superintendents, leaders of the Connectional Table or the equivalent, Lay Leaders, Treasures or the equivalent, etc.) in an intensely focus gathering on building Vital Congregations. I had the privilege of chairing the event and superb worship leadership was provided by Dr. Olu Brown (recent presenter at the Central Texas Conferences’ Evangelism Summit) and Chuck Bell (music). I commend to your reading the following link. Church Leaders Kick Off Quadrennium With Vital Congregation Focus.

A personal joy which took place amidst the Extended Cabinet Summit was the 7th game victory of my beloved Chicago Cubs … the World Champion Chicago Cubs! I just love saying that(!) but I digress.

In preparation for the Extended Cabinet Summit we had asked that people read background research material put together by Dr. Amy Valdez Barker and the Connectional Table Staff Team. The second reading was a deep, thoughtful and a fascinatingly insightful article on courage written by Dr. Gil Rendle a Senior Vice President at the Texas Methodist Foundation. I have read parts of it over and over. It should be required reading for all (lay and clergy) who would seek to offer wider leadership to the church. It can be found through the following link: “Be Strong and of Good Courage: A Call to Quiet Courage in an Anxious Time” by Gil Rendle.

A second article which caught my attention came in going through emails when I got home. I read a blog by Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary. Regardless of where you stand on the theological spectrum or on “hot-button” issues like same gender marriage, this deeply thoughtful discourse on the linkage between theology and preaching is superbly worth your reading and thoughtful/prayerful reflection.

Allow me to tantalize your thought process by quoting Dr. Tennent:

  • I am publicly calling our movement back to doctrinally-oriented preaching. Like Wesley’s day, our post-Christendom context has spawned vast numbers of church goers who have no real understanding of the Christian faith. Their knowledge of the Bible is weak and their ability to think theologically is almost non-existent. Therefore, this stands as a fresh mandate for us to put aside the light hearted, casual preaching which has become so characteristic of our movement. As noted, this is not about rhetorical style. Whether you preach topically, narratively, exegetically, or expositionally is not the point.
  • A post-Christian culture will not be transformed by light hearted fluff with a sprinkling of vague spirituality and God-talk. If the truth be told, the congregations you will serve are tired of being spoken to like children. They are tired of going into a sermon with low expectations. They are tired of hearing sermons which were cobbled together on Saturday night. They long to be fed! They want to be challenged! They want to think deeply about things. They actually want to know what passages of Scripture mean and how it applies to our context.
  • In the wider culture, our social and political discourse has been coarse, crude, and infantile. Civil discourse has been slain, and demagoguery is on the throne of public discourse. Most media outlets have succumbed to this and it has become difficult to encounter thoughtful, principled reflections on almost any topic that confronts our society today. We must position ourselves as a striking alternative to what goes on in the broader cultural discourse. We must be thoughtful and insightful and prepared, because preaching and, indeed, all ministry, is a holy and sacred responsibility.

Again, I strongly commend your reading the entire address which can be found on the following link. My 2016 Opening Convocation Address: Homiletical Theology.

A Christian Witness in a Bitterly Contentious Election ©

Upon being elected a bishop, I learned quickly that bishops usually cast absentee ballots in national elections.  The Council of Bishops (COB) regularly meets the first week of November.  This year, without giving it a second thought, I voted early.  On returning home last night from a week at the COB meeting on St. Simons Island (Epworth by the Sea in South Georgia) and the Extended Cabinet Summit in Jacksonville, Florida, I realized to my chagrin that I could have actually voted on Election Day.  For the first time in nine years as a bishop, I was home for Election Day.

Watching the news last night with the rest of America, the bitterly contentious nature of the contest repulsed me.  Not for the first time I found myself thinking on how a Christian witness should differ from common contentious arguments all around us.   This fall I preached a series of sermons on the theme of “a different kind of living.”  I am deeply convinced that a (our!) Christian witness should be greater and more gracious than the culture as a whole regardless of our own convictions about who to vote for.

My ruminations led me back to a passage from one of the forgotten books of the New Testament – Titus.  The following words have taken up lodging in my heart and mind this fall.  I find my biases and passions judged by this holy witness.  They challenge me to repent and follow the way of Christ.  Step with me back into the divinely inspired witness found in Titus:

Remind them to submit to rulers and authorities. They should be obedient and ready to do every good thing. They shouldn’t speak disrespectfully about anyone, but they should be peaceful, kind, and show complete courtesy toward everyone. We were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, and slaves to our desires and various pleasures too. We were spending our lives in evil behavior and jealousy. We were disgusting, and we hated other people. But “when God our savior’s kindness and love appeared, he saved us because of his mercy, not because of righteous things we had done.” (Titus 3:1-5)

This is the witness to the role of a Christian’s moral stance with regard to politics, justice, etc. in a time of persecution.  They lifted a different way of living and different mode of relating not just to each other but especially to people who disagreed with them.  Notice again how the first Christians related to a non-Christian culture.  It wasn’t with a new political party; after all, to be Christian was considered treasonous.  It was with a dramatically different kind of living.

Inhale the witness of the embattled Christian Church found in the Roman colony of Philippi.  “Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)  Look at verse 5 where I’ve added emphasis.  It says “let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people.”  Please note.  It does not say “people who agree with you.”  It does not say “other Christians.”  The Bible says all people!

This was the witness, the way of living for earliest Methodists as well.  On October 5th in 1774, John Wesley gave the following advice on Christian voting:

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them. 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy; 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against; And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

Regardless who you support or who you vote for, may it be so for us.  May our words and actions reflect the way of Christ.

Reflections on Rejection of Religion and Deep Desire for the Full Gospel ©

A series of recent readings have left me in deeper reflection about how we reach a new generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Dean Craig Hill’s observation (taken from a professor of his when he was a seminary student over arches my reflections.  “Jesus didn’t just offer advice; he proclaimed good news!”

Recently a lay friend passed on an article that appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly in 2013.  Written by Larry Alex Tauton and entitled “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity,” Tauton’s group conducted extensive research and listening through “a nationwide campaign to interview college students who are members of Secular Student Alliances (SSA) or Freethought Societies (FS). Some of the key assertions in the article are:

“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kum-ba-ya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.”

  • The [atheistic students] had attended church. Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity. The mission and message of their churches was vague. These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible.
  • “Given that the New Atheism fashions itself as a movement that is ruthlessly scientific, it should come as no surprise that those answering my question usually attribute the decision to the purely rational and objective…. . For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one. With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well.
  • Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” … “Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching.”
  • Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this whole study was the lasting impression many of these discussions made upon us. That these students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable. I again quote Michael: “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”
  • Sincerity does not trump truth. After all, one can be sincerely wrong. But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction.

I commend a careful reading of the entire article. It is packed with uncomfortable insights that should challenge all thoughtful faithful Christians.

Now take another thought step with me. A number of recent articles from the Lewis Leadership Center reflect on the importance of intentionally challenging young adults with the intellectual core of the Christian gospel. We need to teach the Scriptures and lay out a compellingly coherent theology. This must be combined with a lived praxis which is more than the vapid adoption of the right or left wing of a contemporary political party. The notion that nice fast beat contemporary music alone does the trick of bringing people in to the faith or church is false. (Please note! the word “alone.” Presenting the gospel in a socially relevant medium is important.) Young adults want substance. They desire a theology that can speak to the deeper issues of life and living very a much akin to the questions that young atheists are asking.

Now take one more intellectual step towards understanding. I picked back up off my bookshelf Kenda Creasy Dean’s superb book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Professor Dean (working with others) chronicles the rise of what is called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.   The Christian faith is reduced to being nice, doing good and some version of self-fulfillment. What is hungered for is instead something with meaning and purpose. Put in colloquial language, a Christian faith with muscle, substance and integrity. The problem is not with the younger generation but with the very nature of faith (or the lack of it!) that we (adults) are communicating by both word and deed (or lack thereof). Making disciples means we need to be serious about our own discipleship.

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recall a college professor sharing that Gandhi loved Christ but didn’t love the Christianity he experienced. I do not know if this is true. What I do know is that we are claimed by the living Lord for a much deeper discipleship. In too many different ways we have been succumbed to a culturally homogenized version of the faith. Or, as Professor Dean puts it: “After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism. These theological proxies gnaw, termite-like, at our identity as the Body of Christ, eroding our ability to recognize that Jesus’ life of self-giving love directly challenges the American gospel of self-fulfillment and self-actualization. Young people in contemporary culture prosper by following the latter. Yet Christian identity, and the “crown of rejoicing” that Wesley believed accompanied consequential faith born out of a desire to love God and neighbor, require the former”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 5).

What does a new generation need?  It needs deeper discipleship, stronger teachers and a clearer proclamation of the gospel.  It needs exactly what I, as a 66 year old adult, needs.  Give me, give us the real thing, not diluted pabulum.  It needs Christ. Jesus offers a way, a faith, and life not just some randomly good advice.  In doing so he challenges all our culture assumptions (those of both the right and left!).

Try this list as a starting point offered by Professor Dean:

  • Portray God as living, present and active
  • Place a high value on scripture
  • Explain their church’s mission, practices and relationships as inspired by ‘the life and mission of Jesus Christ’
  • Emphasize spiritual growth, discipleship and vocation
  • Promote outreach and mission
  • Help teens [and the rest of us!] develop “‘a positive, hopeful spirt,’ ‘live out a life of service,’ and ‘live a Christian moral life’”  (Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p. 83).

Now that is truly a mouthful that merits a great deal of intellectual digestion.  Furthermore there are elements of it that engage us in high and passionate debate over precisely their meaning.  In every case, they will push us back to a stronger Christ-centered theology and deeper practice of what it means to be Christian.

I think all of this is called “holy living” and that amazingly is just what most of those who have rejected the Christian faith are looking for.  More on Holy Living or if you prefer “holiness” in a later blog.

Tauton closes his article as follows, to which I add an AMEN.

“There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening: ‘I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,’ someone asked. ‘I do not,’ Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, ‘But he does.’”

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