The Cross of Life

For a couple of years my wife and I have attended Good Friday services at St. John the Evangelist Monastery (an Episcopal Church monastery located in Cambridge Massachusetts). The quiet contemplative service centers on an adoration of the cross. At the appropriate time, following the monks lead, participants are invited to approach the cross solemnly kneeling and bowing to the ground three times as they move closer to the cross. The third station of adoration is at the very foot of the cross where participants either kiss or touch the cross in some manner.

There is something deeply moving about this strange and ancient service. Good Friday invites us to come to the cross. It beckons us to stand or kneel in awe before the reality of this night. The words of John Bowring’s great hymn portray the essence: “In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time” (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 295, verse 1.

I must confess that often, too often, I have attempted to sanitize the cross. In doing so I have diminished its power in my life and the life of my congregations. A common lectionary text for Good Friday comes from Hebrews 10:16-25. A fair reading of the text prohibits any “cleaning up” of the crucifixion. Incontestably the employment of the Old Testament image of Jesus as a “blood sacrifice” (verse 19) is anchored in the cross. In a world that knows bombs and IEDs, violence and heartache, a sanitized Jesus will not do. “By the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh),” (Hebrews 10:20) we come to a cross of life. Jesus’ physical death on the cross is a metaphorical tearing of the temple curtain in two. (See Matthew 27:51) Previously the curtain kept the common believer separated from God. Now, on this day we dare to call good, because of our great priest Jesus, the sacrifice has been made that opens our way to God. We are reconciled to God through the cross of life. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase translation catches the essence: “So, friend, we can now – without hesitation – walk right up to God, into ‘the Holy Place.’ Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God.” (The Message, Eugene Peterson, Hebrews 10: 19-20, p. 2193) From this towering conviction we claim a cross of life amidst death’s rubble.

I like that phrasing “without hesitation — walk right up to God.” As I knelt on the marble floor in the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist, I was forcibly struck again by my need to cling to the cross of Christ. Embracing Christ on the cross I find I am connected to the cross of life.

I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church

This past Tuesday morning I had breakfast with Paul Nixon. Paul is an effective and highly creative new church start pastor, consultant and coach. He is gifted in helping existing congregations embrace robust vitality for the mission of Christ. He is also the author of a number of books and works part-time as a consultant to the United Methodist Church’s Path One – new churches for new people in new places.
In an engaging, easy read and immensely practical little book entitled: I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church! Paul writes: “Though the number of young adults who distrust organized Christianity is skyrocketing to the highest levels in American history, this is one of the most spiritually-minded generations we have seen come down the pike. As Jesus would say, ‘the fields are ripe for harvesting’ (John 4:35). There are millions of nonchurch people talking about the most important things in life, if only we would choose to be a part of the conversations.” (p. 104) Those are strong words, but accurate. We have to choose to engage our culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Recounting his own experiences as pastor, consultant and church growth & development executive, he outlines 6 crucial choices:
1) Choose life over death – Pray, build a working coalition of the committed, “tend primarily to what is living, not what is passing away,” and offer enough quality pastoral care to keep the complainers from successfully sabotaging transformation efforts.
2) Choose Community over isolation – “People are as starved for meaningful community today as at any other time in human history.” Get out of the office and spend time engaging the community. Internally, make a decision to intentionally move closer to Acts 2:42-46. Rediscover the power and purpose of small groups.
3) Choose fun over drudgery
4) Choose Bold over Mild – “Mr. Rogers–style worship is killing us.” “Give them Jesus and the Spirit.” Nothing is bolder than unleashing Christ! Don’t soft pedal the gospel. Boldness is expressed in a passion driven, Spirit led commitment to change the world and share the Savior. (Please note: Bold is not a synonym for stupid!)
5) Choose Frontier over Fortress – Too many church buildings look like Fort Knox rather than a mission post of the advancing kingdom of God. The “Fortress test” on pages 82-83 is itself worth the price of the book. Sell, rebuild, downsize, rent, borrow, or buy; “whatever you do beats just sitting around waiting to die in the old location.” (p. 88)
6) Choose Now rather than Later – In his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “the time is always ripe to do right.” Fight procrastination. “Rather than take your church through a self-study or visioning process, just start reading the Book of Acts together and prayerfully walking your neighborhood (both your local neighborhood and, through solid educational experiences, our virtual, global neighborhood). God will help you figure out what you need to do.” (p. 103)
Simple and straightforward, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church! Does not so much break new grounds as help us focus on practice steps to plow the ground of faithfulness and fruitfulness. It is especially adept as a study book for a church leadership team to work through together.

May your Easter be a joyous experience of the resurrected Christ!

Forgotten Ways V

Tuesday I had the joy of sharing with our Residency (clergy in the commissioned process working toward ordination as a deacon or elder) group. I spoke on the topic of Rediscovering Apostolic Witness. My thesis is a farily simple one. Lay people assume clergy know how to share their faith. Clergy by in large don’t and are often resistive to even doing so. I found the group both stimulating and exciting. They were all over the board on faith sharing; some wonderfuly active, others covertly opposed. Such witnessing is one of the crucial forgotten ways we must recover.

The hunger which Hirsch (and others) write about is a direct hunger to experiece the lving Lord. People want to do more than know about God. They want to know God! In The Forgotten Ways HIrsch reaches to the heart of Apostlic Genius with this observation: “All geniune Christian movements involve at their spiritual ground zero a living encounter with the One True God ‘through whom all things came and through whom we live’ (I Cor. 8:6). A God who in the very moment of redeeming us claims us as his own through Jesus our Savior.” (p.84)

My hunch is that the popularity of such songs as “In Christ Alone” comes from their ability to help us embrace the real presence of the living Lord. Ultimately this hunger calls us into worship and leads us to the cross and beyond. Recovering apostolic witnessing is about sharing such an experience with gracefilled (and gracefull) effusive joy. It is an Easter experience.

March 20th Saint Cuthbert Feast Day

Forgive a brief digression from my blog series on Alan Hirsch’s wonderful book The Forgotten Ways. March 20th is Saint Cuthbert’s Feast Day. Saint Cuthbert is one of my heroes. Cuthbert was a monk and bishop in Northumbria during the 7th century. He combined a deep personal holiness and spiritual walk with Christ with a ardent commitment to justice and a vibrant passion for evangelistically sharing the love and lordship of Christ. The three — deep spirituality, justice and evangelism — went together naturally in ways most of us only vaguely speak about. David Adam in Fire of the North: The Life of Saint Cuthbert writes: “Cuthbert penetrated deep into the mountain areas, going where others had been afraid to go, into areas where poverty and ignorance made the people unattractive; Cuthbert saw them as children of God awaiting their redemption. Such ordinary people heard him gladly. He, in turn, attended carefully to instructing them. This meant he was often away from Melrose for two or three weeks at a time, and sometimes even a month. His own example, as well as his teaching, won over the hill people.” A prayer of Cuthbert’s is offered for our sharing.

“Dear Lord our God,
Help us to see Christ
In others,
Help us to receive Christ
From others,
Help us to share Christ
With others,
Help us to be Christ
To others,
Help us to bring Christ
To others.
Help us to see that
In him we live and move
And have our being,
That we dwell in him,
And he dwells in us.”

The Forgotten Ways IV

Recently my son Nathan sent me an email link to the blog of Walter Russell Mead. Mead wrote in a March 14 blog “Sometimes mainline church leaders remind me of the Pope who showed St. Francis around the Vatican to see the many treasures of the church. “Peter can no longer say ’silver and gold have I none’,” chuckled the pontiff.

“Neither can he say ‘rise up and walk’,” snapped St. Francis.

I can only imagine [continues Mead] what Francis Asbury would say to a Methodist convention today.

The mainline churches do a lot of good, but the long inexorable decline both in numbers and in the influence of Christian ideas in modern American life show very plainly that something critical has gone wrong. In attempting to reconcile classic Christian ideas and standards with modernity, the mainline has somehow lost American Christianity’s characteristic and most vital strength: the ability to electrify generation after generation with the call to begin a transformational encounter with the person of Christ.

This ability can’t be regained by committee. There is no diocesan or denominational planning process that can knit the dry bones together.

But the mainline churches will dwindle and diminish if they don’t somehow reconnect with the enthusiasm and charisma that once made them great.” (

At the heart of recovering a vibrant Christianity is the rediscovery and radical reapplication of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Our disputes (theological, missional and otherwise) have to be submitted to His Lordship. Our actions and ministry have to be guided by a sold out conviction that Christ rules our lives and our ministry. Hirsh writes in The Forgotten Ways “I have become absolutely convinced that it is Christology, and in particular the primitive, unencumbered Christology of the NT church, that lies at the heart of the renewal of the church atl all times and in every age.” (p. 99) So am I!

Rediscovering Forgottetn Ways III

I find that every page I read in Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways deeply stimulates my thinking. One of Hirsch’s concepts is the notion of what he calls “Apostolic Genius.” By this he means “the total phenomenon resulting from a complex of multiform and real experiences of God, types of expression, organizational structures, leadership ethos, spiritual power, mode of belief, etc.” (p. 78) Apostolic Genius is what cased the early church explode upon the Roman Empire as a new way of thinking, believing and acting. Apostolic Geniuis is what led the Chinese church to grow from 2 million to 60 million while undergoing persecution.

A review by B. Brisco shares the following summary. “So what are the key elements of Apostolic Genius? The six distinctives identified by Hirsch are:

1. Jesus is Lord
2. Disciple Making
3. Missional-incarnational Impulse
4. Apostolic Environment
5. Organic Systems
6. Communitas, Not Community”

It is both fascinating and inspiring to understand that Apostolic Genius springs out of a core theological conviction. Jesus is Lord! Hirsch writes: “This is cleray the situatino of the gospel in the early church as well as the Chinese revoltuon. The desperate, prayer soaked human clinging to Jesus, the reliance on his Spirit, and the distilliation of the gospel message into the simple, uncluttered message of Jesus as Lord and Savior is what catalyzes the missional potencies inherent in the people of God.” This is deep and heady stuff! It is also, I think, a reminder gift from a God who dares to love us.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, it is the return to a focused center!

Forgotten Ways II

In the first part of Alan Hirsch’s book Forgotten Ways he tries to set the context for the missional church in today’s culture. He notes that the Christendom model of cultural engagement (what he calls “evangelistic-attractional”) is simply not up to the challenge of cross cultural evangelistic and missional engagement. With good intent many churches spend their time trying to reach the same narrow demographic slice of people. “What is becoming increasingly clear is that if we are going to meaninglfully reach this majority of people,” writes Hirsch, “we are not going to be able to do it by simply doing more of the same.”

Attractional evangelism has limited appeal in a culture that increasingly rejects the current mode of being church. A host of different writers have addressed this issue. (One of the best in my opinion is Reggie McNeal’s Six Tough Questions.) We are now in a new missionary age which demands not only cross cultural evangelism but a mode of being (& doing) church which reaches across the cultural divide. Our consumer model of doing church, however successful it may look today, will not finally carry the day. The attractional consumer driven church is not the future. As Hirsch puts it, “We plainly cannot consume our way into discipleship.”

The answer is not to become less open or more indifferent to the culture around us (as many mainline churches have done). Hirsch’s insights are not cause for stubborn celebration of organ music as somehow more holy or cllinging to an out of touch building driven understanding of church. It is a challenge to rediscover what it really means to be missional.

For his part Hisch suggests what he calls the TEMPT model. It looks somethign like this:

Core Practice Spiritual Discipline

(T)together we follow Community Togetherness
(E)engagement with Scripture Integrating Scripture into our lives
(M)mission Missiion (the central discipline)
(P)passion for Jesus Worhsip and Prayer
(T)transformation Character development & accountability

He is challenging us to radically rethink what we are about in doing and being church. I’ll continue the reporting in my next blog.

Rediscovering Forgotten Ways I.

In an arresting article found in the October 2002 Atlantic Monthly Philip Jenkins (Penn State, author of The Next Christiendom: The Coming of Global Christianity and Lost Christianities) wrote: “As the media have striven in recent years to present Islam in a more sympathetic light, they have tended to suggest that Islam, not Christianity, is the rising faith of Africa and Asia, the authentic or default religion of the world’s huddled masses. But Christianity is not only surviving in the global South, it is enjoying a radical revival, a return to scriptural roots. We are living in revolutionary times.
But we aren’t participating in them. By any reasonable assessment of numbers, the most significant transformation of Christianity in the world today is not the liberal Reformation that is so much desired in the North. It is the Counter-Reformation coming from the global South. And it’s very likely that in a decade or two neither component of global Christianity will recognize its counterpart as fully or authentically Christian.”
At the United Methodist Convocation of Cabinets in the fall 2007, one of the African bishops spoke eloquently on what they were doing with the resultant transformative social witness and expansive evangelistic growth. A variety of other speakers commented on how much we had to learn from the so call 3rd world. Our best thinkers and practioners call this “missions to the first world approach.” It involves translating best practices in missin developed over the last century in the two-thirds world in the first world.” (Alan Hirsch)
I hope to write a series of blogs Alan Hirsch’s insightful book Rediscovering Forgotten Ways. More later.

Beyond Indifferentism

I have been in a variety of meetings lately with institutions on whose Boards I sit by virtue of being a Bishop in The United Methodist Church. These include universities, hospitals, foundations and ministries. These various organizations are impressive in their outreach and impact. They often represent true excellence in education, medicine, community service and the like. These organizations are an outgrowth of The United Methodist Church and its ministry legacy. Delve into their history and you discover that they were initially founded as an explicit expression of Christian mission. Theologically speaking, most of these organizations are an expression of what early Methodists called holiness of heart and life. The technical theological term is sanctification. The biblical grounding comes directly out of the Great Commandment (love of God and love of neighbor). As a United Methodist, I am proud and pleased.

The various organizations came into being during the time of “Christendom.” (Christendom is a term used to describe the time in which the culture itself was generally Christian, or in some cases Jewish. This was not meant in an intolerant way. It was simply an unconscious reflection of the cultural climate.) Terms like “faith” and “spiritual” had an unspoken assumption that they referred to the Christian faith.

Today with the end of Christendom, organizations use terms like “faith” or “spiritual” without reference to the Christian faith. The motive is a good one. It is an intentional way of reflecting interfaith respect, dialogue, and cooperation. The assumption is that people of goodwill share common faith convictions about God and the nature of God. The more practiced result is that “faith” and “spirituality” are references to a vague common deism.

Organizations (some, many, most?) give evidence of mission drift. They started as reflections of the Christian faith with a Christological center. They now often reflect a vague sense of cultural goodwill. When asked to define faith, one institutional executive said, “ties to our belief in a certain set of values that tie to a certain set of faith – that’s compassion. The essence comes from Christianity.” No one doubts or debates that they (the various organizations and institutions) are (and are to be) open to all. Virtually all understand that this should not be an opportunity for proselytism. Yet any mention of an explicit Christian witness is greeted with horror. Many organizational representatives can’t imagine an explicitly Christ witness that is not exclusive or intrusive. A significant number of Christian board members are offended by the axiomatic implication that an explicit Christian witness is by definition either exclusive or offensive. They point to the distinction between openness and spiritual indifferentism.

The question that hangs in the air is – to what degree are they still Christian? To what degree do they truly reflect and represent Christ and His church? How can a witness to and of Christ be offered that is neither offensive nor a theological surrender to vague and content-less platitudes?


Recently I was watching a rebroadcast of Ken Burn’s marvelous series on the National Parks. At one point the narrator shared insights from the great naturalist John Muir. Introducing what would become Yosemite National Park, Muir said, “You can’t really experience life at 40 miles an hour.”

Those words were uttered when 40 miles an hour seemed a breathtaking speed. Today 40miles an hour is a slow pace. And yet, Muir’s statement is still profoundly true.

We live in a time of utter overload. Rarely do we take adequate time for rest(Sabbath or otherwise), recreation (re-creation!), or recovery. One scholar in the field, Dr. Richard Swenson, writes: “Life in modern-day America is essentially devoid of time and space. Not the Star Trek kind. The sanity kind. The time and space that once existed in the lives of people who regularly lingered after dinner, helped the kids with homework, visited with the neighbors, sat on the lawn swing, went for long walks, dug in the garden and always had a full night’s sleep.
“People are exhausted. Like the mother of four from LaGrange, Illinois, who said: ‘I’m so tired, my idea of a vacation is a trip to the dentist. I just can’t wait to sit in that chair and relax.

“People are stressed. Like the neurosurgeon who quit medicine to open a bagel shop. People are breaking at the speed limit of life. Like the man who confessed: ‘I feel like a minnow in a flash flood.’” (Richard A. Swenson, M.D., The Overload Syndrome Learning to Live Within Your Limits, p. 11)

I am convinced this is a part of the reality of modern life. I know it is a part of my life. I keep getting pushed back to some of the insights shared by Tom Albin at the clergy Day Apart. Burnout is a common term in modern life. It is new because now, like never before, we are overstressed by the pace of living.
An old Chinese proverb says that a long journey begins with a single step.

Allow me to share three simple examples of how to take a few small steps. (I know I am writing to myself but hopefully the reader can reflect and make the appropriate self application.)
1) Get home at a set time! One significant thing we can do for our marriages and our families is to have a meal together each day that is not interrupted by the phone, TV or just plain lateness. Make being home and being together a priority. Quantity of time has a quality all its own.
2) Turn off your cell phone for a period of time each day (while you are sleeping doesn’t count). I know this may surprise you but somehow we managed to live without always having a phone on next to us. We’ve done it before; we can do it again. I remember listening to Charles Osgood reflecting on how many cell phone calls were really unnecessary. Have you ever hand the conversation where you are simply reporting to people your location? Turn the phone off and get some quiet time to live with yourself or talk to your spouse. A cell phone Sabbath is a good idea!
3) Take 15 minutes each day to simply be still before God. This is about understanding who is really in charge. It is about honoring the first commandment –“you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) Actually, 30 minutes should be the minimum but start easy and expand.

Well, it’s time to go. I have to hurry home. May your Sabbath this week be a joy from God.

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