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?

SLOWING DOWN

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.

Connecting Head and Heart

Last night I had the joy and privilege of attending Perkins School of Theology Alumni Award Banquet. The receipent of the 2010 Distinguished Alumnus Award was Rev. Adam Hamilton, the Lead Pastor of UM Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. In a movingly eloquent and deeply thoughtful acceptance speech, he spoke of the need to combine the head and the heart. Dr. Hamilton noted that this was a common characteristic of Methodism.

He is right that at our best we combine the head and the heart. And yet, I think that we, both lay and clergy, need to be more dilgent in the clarity and depth of our theology as expressed from the pulpit and in our teaching. What is the last new book on theology that you have read? How have you been chanllegned to think through your faith (and its expression) in light of the human dilemna. It is easy to unthinkingly reflect the bias of our own education and cultural situation. It is hard to think widely and reflect deeply. The early Methodists were required to do theological reading as the traveled on the circuit. Maybe it is time for us to reinstitute such a policy by covenanting to read and reflect together.

Spiritual Renewal

The last two days, I’ve been blessed to be at the Clergy Day Apart (an annual one day retreat for spiritual nourishment of the Central Texas Conference). Tom Albin from the Upper Room (a part of the United Methodist Church’s Board of Discipleship) was the key note speaker. Listening to him I was reminded of the old Aqua Velva aftershave commercial. In the commercial Aqua Velva was compared to a wakeup slap in the face followed by the tag line; “Thanks, I needed that.”

I live my life at too fast a pace. I know this truth and yet like someone addicted to alcohol I seem to find myself almost powerless to stop. The Clergy Day Apart is a wakeup call. Tom’s thoughtful insightfulness pierced me with both judgment and grace. He spoke about love for God and neighbor. Love for God (as I understood him) was expressed in worship, prayer and praise. Tom talked about this as oxygen for our soul. He noted that we often function on spiritual oxygen deficiency. I find this true in my life. My spiritual oxygenation seems to rise and fall based on the time I spend in worship, prayer and praise. Quoting Bishop Ruben Job, he talked about our need for 1 hour of prayer a day, one day set aside for spiritual quite & prayer a month, and one week a year for spiritual retreat.

I am convicted. My most generous estimate has about 30 minutes a day for prayer. Bill Hybels book (which I read over a decade ago) Too Busy NOT to Pray comes to mind. I regularly set aside a day a month for quiet time. I call it my Q day and got the idea from John Stott who did so for years. I am convicted again because I far too routinely allow things to impinge on the schedule. Lately I have been setting aside a week a year as a part of my study leave. Even there I have to fight my tendency to compromise the time. How about you? Do you regularly love God through spiritual renewal in worship, prayer and praise?

Tom also spoke powerfully of love of neighbor expressed in evangelical witness and social justice. Using the image of a cross, he noted that for many Methodists we have a small vertical axis and an elongated horizontal axis. There is much food for thought in that image. Biblically he tied his presentation to John 15. It is worthy of meditation. May God bless and keep you.

Unity and Mission

Last night I spoke at the Tarrant Area Community of Churches along with Commissioner Roy Brooks (a member of Morningside UMC). I could not help but be struck by the fact that when I was a child such events were unheard of. Today they are so common place that they are taken for granted.

I made the glaringly obvious case that unity is for the purpose of mission. Jesus’ prayer for the disciples (that us!) in John 17 lays out the importance of unity in and for mission for all Christians everywhere. In fact the biblical theme for the evening came from the resurrection story of the road to Emmaus in the 24th chapter of Luke’s gospel. “You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:48) This theme was chosen in Scotland during the planning phase of the anniversary of the 1910 World Mission Conference which marked the beginnings of the modern ecumenical movement. It was chosen rightly for it calls us to something central to the gospel –our essential unity in Christ. But it does not call us to unity (“oneness”) because that is nice or good thing (though it may be both of those). Instead we are called into unity by the very resurrection of Jesus who rising conquerors the powers of sin, hell, and death. We are to be one for His mission “so that the world may believe that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”(John 17:23

In my reading of the gathering, the auidance was far more interested in mission than in unity. Unity in mission seemed virtually taken for granted. A part of me celebrates this and a part of me is deeply concerned. My childhood taught me that it should not be taken for granted. My adult life in ministry constantly reminds me that when our theological and biblical underpinnings are not constantly reinformce we gradually drift from the convictions that once made us strong.

I thank God for the work in Christian unity going on through groups like the Tarrant Area Community of Churches. I also believe there is much more careful and thoughtful dialogue needed about genuine deep unity as Christ followers.

Pursuing Excellence

I recently read a fascinating article entitled “The Mundanity of Excellence” by Daniel F. Chambliss. Chambliss reported on a detaled study of excellence in swimming. The results are both surprising and facinating. They transfer to insights for other occupations including pastoral ministry.

First, he notes what does not produce excellence.
1) Excellence is not the result of unusual personality characteristics.
2) Excellence is not the result of quantitative changes in behavior. (Though the work of Malcom Gladwell in Outliers seems to suggest otherwise.)
3) Excellence is not the result of some “inner quality” or natural ability.

Excellence is the result of “qualitative differentiation.” Chambliss illustrates it this way. “For a swimmer doing the breaststroke a qualitative change might be a change from pulling straight back with teh arms to sculling them outwards, to the sides.”

The Bible speaks of excellence in ministry as an act of faithfulness in response to God. Hebrews 8:6 describes Jesus ministry as now a “more excellent ministry.” Dean Greg Jones (at Duke Divinity School) has written about the need for excelence in ministry. Chambliss noted three areas of change — technique, discipline, attitude. I found myself wrestling with what Chambliss’ insight represent for ministry in the local church.

For instance, in preaching, excellence may be presented by the step up to the next level of through more carefully writing out sermons and then practicing delivery before preaching. I suspect that one of the major differences in preaching levels has to do with the level of preparation discipline. In missions, what are the intentional behavior changes that move a church from good to excellent?

Excellence comes not from a quantitative leap, nor from some innate inner talent or luck (a debatable concept for Christians) but rather from discrete incremental factors that drive mission and ministry in the practices of fruitful ministry. Chambliss writes: ” Excellence is mundane. Superlateive performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then fitted together in a synthesized whole.”

So it is with good preaching, great missional outreach, life changing evangelism and the list could (and should) go on.

The Hedgehog Concept

Last summer I read Jim Collins newest book How the Mighty Fall. It was a fascinating reprise to his marvelous earlier works Built to Last and Good to Great (including the added monograph Good to Great for Social Sectors). Recently I had the opportunity to revisit this work with others. In Collins’ work he talks about the “Hedgehog Principle.” In a summary he writes: “Greatness comes about by a series of good decisions consistent with a simple, coherent concept – a ‘hedgehog’. The hedgehog concept is an operating model that reflects understanding of three intersecting circles: what you can be the best in the world at, what you are deeply passionate about, and what best drives your economic or resource engine.” (Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall, p. 181)

I am mindful that churches are very different from businesses. Our mission is biblically and theologically defined. The power and presence of the Holy Spirit cannot be over estimated. At the same time (and not in contradiction), business models are helpful tools. They can guide the clarity of our thinking about our divinely called mission.

Bearing the above in mind, I am convinced that a significant question to ask is – what is our Hedgehog Concept? This applies to churches and conferences. It is also important to separate what we think our current Hedgehog Concept is versus what our Hedgehog Concept ought to be (reality verses aspiration). While I wrestle with both, I think at our best Methodism has lived with some version (you can argue about exact phrasing until the cows come home!) of the following Hedgehog Concept.

1. We are best at being (originally) at intentional Christian discipleship development (hence the name Methodist coming from being “methodical” about discipleship growth and development).
2. Our passion is to transform people and the world.
3. Our economic or resource engine (meaning more than just where does the money comes from but rather what drives our best development and transformational efforts) is the local church.

Now the big question is how big is the gap between reality and aspiration?

As I begin this Year of Our Lord 2010 (A.D.), I offer a new blog. I’ve entitled it This Focused Center based on The Message (a paraphrased translation of the Bible by Eugene Peterson) version of II Corinthians 5:14-15. “Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.”

My subtitle is Reflections on Christ and His Church. As I wrote in my Wilderness Way #28 column, I hope to share what I am reading and wrestling with. Together I hope and pray that we can live out of the focused center of life with Christ. Truly he came for all and he came to include us “in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.”
I offer this blog out of a conviction that we need to turn and return to a deeply Trinitarian expression of the Christian faith. More explicitly, it appears to me that much of contemporary mainline theological/cultural reflection appears to have a vague sense of God, a passing acquaintance with Jesus as Lord, and little conception of the work of the Holy Spirit. I want to invite us to be focused as explicitly Christian; that is to say, living out of the focused center of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior – crucified and risen for all!

Three quotes I ran into in my reading last fall stick with me. First, somewhere Philip Yancey wrote: “How would telling people to be nice to one another get a man crucified? What government would execute Mister Rogers or Captain Kangaroo?” I think was C. S. Lewis who said about Christ as our focused center: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” In meanderings through Willie the Shake (William Shakespeare that is) there is a line from Henry V which clings to my soul. ““This is a stem / Of that victorious stock, and let us fear / The native mightiness and fate of him.” I may have the quotes wrong but they ring of truth for me. We are called to live from this Focused Center. I will try to write ever 3 days or so. You are invited to share a comment or thought.

Given the hectic-ness of my schedule I will only be able to reply spasmodically. Together as we wrestle and reflect on the truth of life and the truth of Christ and the truth of the Great God three in One – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I pray we can live the resurrection life, “a far better life than people every lived on their own.”

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