Columba’s Bay

There is a strong sense of “pilgrimage” in the spiritual raditions of Britain.  A “pilgrimage” is a spiritual walk (hike) of refection and prayer.  Today it is often a venture into the past history of Christianity as a way of getting in touch with the Lord’s ongoing work in today’s world.  For ancient Celtic Christians, the notion of pilgrimage had a distinctly future orientation.  A pilgrimage was (is?) venturing for the Lord into the unknown guided only by the active presence of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, August 2nd, we went on a pilgrimage to Columba’s Bay.  It amounted to a seven mile hike out to the place where Saint Columba landed in 563 A. D.  The weather was wet and cool (about 65 degrees F – this probably sounds like heaven given what Fort Worth and much of the U. S. has been going through this summer; it was!).  Mist and fog surrounded the crashing waves on the rocks of Columba’s Bay.  The sense of isolation was palatable.  It must have taken enormous courage to leave home, family and friends and sail into the unknown guided only by the winds of the Spirit.

Standing on the desolate beach I found myself deeply moved and inspired by the faithfulness and courage of those early Christ followers and; yes, love they had for those who did not know Christ.  They sought to take the gospel of God’s love in Christ through the Holy Spirit to wild and violent people.  I have trouble taking the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to my passive neighbor across the street.  Watching the waves pound in through the rock and onto the beach, I found myself convicted by St. Columba.

A number of different writers (including Rev. George MacLeod who founded the modern Iona Abbey Community) talk of there being “thin places” between heaven and earth.  I am not sure I wholly subscribe to the concept for it seems often used as a rationalization for preserving a building over engaging in ministry outreach.  Still, in the nature-filled music of Columba’s Bay those of us on pilgrimage become quiet.  The boundary between heaven and earth was stretched thin.

Community, Work and Worship

In 563 A.D. St. Columba set sail from his beloved Ireland to convert the wild druidic lands of what is today Scotland and Northern England.  Exiled from Ireland for a
conflict which he  helped start and which led to the death of many, Columba sailed east stopping a number of times until he came to a place where, after climbing the highest hill (and there are some high ones – think a green and wet version of the Texas Hill country), he could no longer see his beloved Ireland.  There on the isle of Iona with 12 companions St. Columba established a monastery with the express purpose of sharing the gospel. This great work of God was a combination of both penance and pilgrimage.  According to legend Columba was charged with converting as many people to Christ as those who had died because of the conflict that caused his exile.  Many of us (especially those with Scottish heritage) know life in Christ as extensions of the spiritual lineage of St. Columba.

We landed on Iona on July 30th to become (temporary) “residents” of the Abbey for their “Gathering Place” retreat.  The day’s rhythm quickly settled into 8:15 a.m. breakfast, 9 a.m. worship.  It is at the close of the morning worship that our common schedule shifts.  To be a part of the Abbey is to take place in its common work.  Rev. George MacLeod (who revived the modern day Iona Abbey in the pre-World War II depression) deeply believed that shared work built community.  So do I.  So do we.

The notion that work and community are welded together is no new insight.  This is a central part of the community framework which Jesus builds with his 12 apostles.  It is a crucial part of the spiritual growth and learning that takes place on our CTCYM trips.  My part of the common work for the community involved being “trash man” for the “east range” (a physical section of the Abbey).  Every morning after worship, I
went the 5 restrooms of the East Range and check to make sure they had toilet
paper, soap, sanitary napkins and emptied all the trash bins/cans and restocked
each restroom (the British would say toilet) as appropriately needed.  This is no new task for me; I’ve been the trash taker-outer for the last 34 years, 11 months and 2 days.  (Jolynn and I will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary on August 16th.)

What stands as distinctive is not so much that common work building community but the way the work & community are tied to worship.  There is no benediction, closing or sending from our worship service.  The worship service has a liturgical prayer (at what we would normally consider the end) that leads directly to our  common work.  At least symbolically work, worship and community are woven together.

As we moved to our common work, I could not help but recall with fondness and joy the closing CTCYM communion services I have been privileged to take part in.  Community, work, and worship go together.  God blesses the intertwining.

Blog on Hiatus until September

We are currently at the isle of Iona for a spiritual life retreat.  On the way we hiked along Hadrian’s Wall and spend time in Edinburgh (where I was a college student 40 years ago!). 

I will not be writing a regular blog in the coming weeks but may post notes if the opportunity presents itself.

 

Reflections on Worship at Hexham Abbey Church

Sunday, July 24, 2011 Jolynn and I worshipped at Hexham Abbey Church.  With people of good will around the world, we joined in lifting up the people and nation of Norway in our prayers.  Together we looked to God’s love and grace through our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Hexham Abbey was founded by Wilfrid (Bishop of York), one of the great pioneers of Christianity in northern England in 674 A.D.  Among its historic great is included St. Cuthbert.  We soaked in the history and drank from the well of a deep piety on our Friday afternoon visit.  This brought us back for worship on Sunday.

Our Sunday worship encountered a moderately alive congregation with about 125 people present.  We were greeted with a friendly welcome.  The worship service was classic Anglican with modern phrasing.  Most active Methodists from Central Texas would have found the liturgy very familiar.

What was missing was any real attempt to help a non-Christian understand what was taking place in worship.  The service wasn’t visitor friendly or unfriendly.  It was visitor indifferent.  What leaves me intrigued is the contrast between a clergy who obviously understand that the day of Christendom is over and yet demonstrate no engagement with that knowledge.  They were genuinely welcoming and yet appeared to be without insight into the contradiction between the worship they were leading and the assumption that those attending were already committed, practicing Christians.  They may know they live in a modern mission field that is overwhelmingly non-Christian, but this reality has not yet brought about any real change in worship, how the gospel is shared, or their behavior.

What pains is me is how descriptive this is of many churches, including those in the Central Texas Conference!

Prayers for the People of Norway

I ask that all the churches of the Central Texas Conference – pastors and lay people join with me in lifting up the people of Norway in our prayers during this time of great tragedy.  We pray that the Lord may hold the Norwegians and their country in God’s redeeming grace and love.

Bishop Mike Lowry
Sunday, July 24, 2011

To Be Where the People Are

The last two days of our Wesley Heritage Tour with EO were exciting opportunities to look at the inception of the Wesleyan movement and seek insights for application to the current Wesleyan movement (more specifically through the United Methodist Church & the Central Texas Conference.  Perhaps the highlight for me was visiting the “New Room” in Bristol.

Early in the Wesleyan movement, the Methodists focused on the working class city of Bristol.  Two “societies” came together to build a new room (actually a building with a worship space, apartments for traveling preachers and meeting rooms) in the heart of Bristol.  It is still there not only as a piece of venerable history but also as a current mission post in the city of Bristol.  In the center of the perhaps the busiest shopping area, the New Room stands out as an oasis.  Warmly welcomed by David Worthington, Manager of the New Room, we encountered a sense of energy and purpose there which was not commonly present in other Wesley heritage sites.  (Time prohibited us from really investigating and understanding the New Room’s outreach ministry.)  [David will be with us in Central Texas at Texas Wesleyan University on the evening of October 13th.  Dr. Jesse Sowell will be hosting his brief time in our area.]

The contrast between the old parish churches (like St. Mary de Crypt & St. Andrew’s in Epworth) is worth deep reflection.  Rather than an idyllic setting, the New Room is located where the people are.  It’s plain, versatile interior exhibits a marked contrast with the stone and stain glass of the historic village church.  I found myself reflecting on the difference (and conflict) between traditional worship and (so-called) contemporary worship.  The New Room represented its day’s version of contemporary worship. 

Instead of insisting the people come to us (or them), a hallmark of the Wesleyan movement was a willingness to go where the people are.  Indeed out of Whitfield’s preaching and through his instance, John Wesley took mission outreach a step farther than even the “contemporary” New Room.  Wesley first engaged in “field preaching” on April 1st in 1739.  Appropriately his first text was from the Sermon on the Mount!  Writing of the occasion, John Wesley could not help but comment that he “submitted to be more vile” by preaching outdoors.  Heitzenrater notes, “By this method, the gospel could be brought to the people where they were, to people who could not or would not go to a church at the appointed hour for services” (Richard Heitzenrater, John Wesley and the People Called Methodists, p. 99).

Wesley took the commanding mission (and commission!) to spread the gospel through making disciples way beyond radical hospitality.  He went where the people were out of love of Christ and love of those who have no relationship with the living God as Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.  What is the equivalent of the New Room and field preaching for us this day?  I believe the same living Lord who called Wesley and early Methodists calls us today.

Travels with John

Since last Thursday I have been on an EO (Educational Opportunities) Wesleyan Heritage tour.  We have been visiting the hallowed sites of Wesley’s England. 

Our initial stop in London was at the great St. Paul’s Cathedral.  From there we went to Aldersgate Street where Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed” by a sense of assurance of God’s salvation in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  (“I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”)  The italics emphasis is in the original (written by Wesley himself in his journal.  While scholars debate whether this could be properly called a conversion, one thing is certain: at Aldersgate the head and the heart came together in a profound experience of grace that propelled Wesley to action.  Wesley saw the final verdict on the Aldersgate experience as lived out in love toward God and neighbor in need.  Heitzenrater writes: “Real test, however, of the authenticity of this experience was to be found, not in terms of whether or not he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed,’ but whether or not the expected fruits of faith and assurance … would be in evidence: freedom from sin, doubt and fear, and the fullness of peace, love, and joy in the Holy Ghost (otherwise called ‘holiness and happiness’)” (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, p. 80).

Our Sunday found us in Epworth where John and Charles Wesley were raised worshipping at Wesley Memorial Church and visiting the rectory where they lived as children.  Later in life, John was denied permission to preach in the church because of his “enthusiasm” and so instead preached from atop his father’s grave in the cemetery outside the church.  A throng listened with rapt attention as he shared the good news of God’s love, grace, and righteousness in Christ.  Once again the soaring history provided a marked contrast.  At our worship, the congregations (about 30 in number – which our group of 24 almost doubled) were, with 3 exceptions, all well on the upper side of 60.

A Wesleyan movement that had begun with a strong connection to regular people has lost touch with the culture around it.  While tremendously welcoming, the good people of Epworth do not appear to effectively communicate the gospel to their secular neighbors.  John would see it as a ripe mission field.  (So should we!)  Wesley left the church to speak in the graveyards, market places (malls of his day) and fields (places of work).  Today’s church finds itself holding on to buildings as a shrine and missing the message Wesley gave his life to share. 

This is not, I think, so much a judgment on them as a comment about us.  At its root remains the deep theological question that Christians must answer for and to non-Christians. Why?  Why bother?  What is there in the Christian message that would compel the hungry and hurting (physically, psychologically and spiritually) to stand in a graveyard to hear the news?  And secondly, are we willing to stand in a graveyard or mall or workplace and share this good news (gospel)?!

This pilgrimage is exciting and deeply challenging!

Wesley’s Rules for Preaching

In my reading as I prepare to leave Tuesday for our Educational Opportunities Tour of Wesley Heritage sites in England, I came across the following comment: “The best general method of preaching (in every sermon) was outlined: to invite, to convince, to offer Christ and to build up” (Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, p. 145).

Such guidelines offered by the Rev. John Wesley set me to reflecting on my own preaching.  Do I, in all my sermons, invite, convince, offer Christ and build up.  I would like to think I do but am haunted by the suspicion that I cannot really pass a close examination. 

In our day and time we day we tend to be best at “building up.”  Even though we live in a post-Christendom age, we often assume that people know Christ and are convinced.  I do not think this is really the case.  Wesley’s advice is still good today.  I need to be more diligent in examining my sermons based on Wesley’s admonition – invite, convince, offer Christ and build up.

In 1747 Wesley followed up with some specific rules for preaching:

1747 Rules for Preaching

1.         Be sure to begin and end precisely at the time appointed.
2.         Sing no hymns of your own composing.
3.         Endeavour to be serious, weighty, and solemn in your whole deportment 
             before the congregation.
4.         Choose the plainest tests you can.
5.         Take care not to ramble from you test, but to keep close to it, and make out
             what you undertake.
6.         Always suit your subject to your audience.
7.         Beware of allegorizing or spiritualizing too much.
8.         Take care of anything awkward or affected, either in your gesture or
             pronunciation.
9.         Tell each other, if you observe anything of this kind.

(Minutes [1747], 38;  taken from Wesley and the People Called Methodists by Richard P. Heitzenrater, pg. 164)

Scattered Learning

As I take some time for renewal, some engaging comments come across my line of vision.  Take this one from Paul Nixon (epicentergroup.dc@gmail.com) as he began an address to an Annual Conference meeting.

  • “Over the years, conference becomes an acquired taste.  Sort of like church.
    A lot of folks look at our local churches, and at the age of 24, they are just as appalled with our local gatherings as you and I were once concerned about this kind of gathering. To them, church feels boring, pedantic, tedious.  
    And they don’t stay around long enough to acquire the taste.  
    The churches that are having fun in the 21st century are learning to excel in another kind of conferencing.  They are learning how to conference with their neighbors, with people younger than themselves, with people of diverse culture and who come with varied stories and primary values.  They are listening to their neighbors, sharing with them.  And rethinking ways to do gospel community so that we can work with many of the tastes our neighbors have already acquired.
     All of us should be making the effort to learn our neighbors – but new churches have no choice, because unless they connect with community, they will never even make it to the starting line.  So our new churches are the research and development division of American Christianity.” (emphasis in the original)

 Or here is another piece of learning from my reading in Richard Heitzenrater:

  • “Their [the original Oxford Methodists] actions were guided by lists of questions for self-examination that were arranged according to the virtues for each day of the week: love of God, love of neighbor, humility, mortification and self-denial, resignation and meekness, and thanksgiving. The “one thing needful” was a soul renewed in the image of God. The main focus of the Oxford Methodist spirituality, then, was on an inward state of the soul that would be reflected in (and measured by) their Christian lifestyle” (Wesley and the People Called Methodists by Richard P. Heitzenrater, pg. 47).

Reflections on the 4th

Today I begin a 5-week period of renewal leave.  It is a time to rest and recharge.  It is a time to reflect and renew.  I will be writing about my renewal leave more extensively in The Wilderness Way #60 (see the Central Texas Conference Website, www.ctcumc.org).

As I head out of the office, I find myself reflecting on this July 4th about America.  The wafting restrains of “God Bless America” sung over the exploding fireworks are pause for both celebration and thanksgiving.

I’ve been on a prayer pilgrimage (with the help of a wonderful Jesuit priest) these past 6 months.  He has me taking more time for reflective listening to and for God.  I find my prayer life expanding beyond the simple “God give me” or “God I want variety.”  There is wonder and beauty all around us.  My hectic lifestyle gets in the way of giving God glory.  I continue my list of people, places and situations I pray for.  In fact, I invite you to join me in praying for our world; for those serving and facing combat that they might come home safely; for peace and compassion on all who are suffering.  As I follow the looming budget crisis in the United States (and in other places around the world), I would also ask that you join me in praying for our nation along with leaders in the government from both parties in a way that does not evoke a “them vs. us” confrontation but rather calls for common sacrifice and genuine good will.  Blaming doesn’t help.  Prayer does.

We are blessed as a people and a nation.  In our blessing, we are blessed to be a blessing.  Genesis 12:2 applies to us as well as ancient Israel:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

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