Tuesday, June 22, 2010

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Friday, June 4, 2010

Like Christ

In getting ready for the Conference, I finish writing my episcopal address and find pieces left over. I alway fit a bit like Marco Polo who is reported to have said on his death bed, "But I haven't told a half of what I've seen." There are quotes I want to offer that lie unused on the cutting flow of my manuscript. One is from one of my favorite church leaders, John Stott: "In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of the hypocrites and the pagans and added: “Do not be like them” (Matt. 6:8). Finally, the apostle Paul could write to the Romans: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed” (Rom. 12:2). Here then is God’s call to a radical discipleship, to a radical nonconformism to the surrounding culture. It is a call to develop a Christian counterculture. The followers of Jesus, for example, are not to give in to pluralism, which denies the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus, nor be sucked into materialism or become led astray into ethical relativism, which says there are no moral absolutes. This is God’s call to his people to be different. We are not to be like reeds shaken by the wind, as Jesus said, but to be like rocks in a mountain stream; not to be like fish floating with the stream, but to swim again the stream – even the cultural mainstream. We are faced, in fact, with two cultures, two value systems, two standards and two lifestyles. Which shall we choose? If we are not to be like chameleons, changing color to suit our surroundings, what are we to be like? The answer is that we are to be like Christ. The eternal and ultimate purpose of God by his Spirit is to make us like Christ." (by John Stott taken from UnChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons pgs. 151-152)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Back to the Future

Tuesday, May 25th, I had the privilege of joining an ecumenical group for a Conversation with Leaders of the China Christian Council. Brite Divinity School graciously hosted the gathering along with the Tarrant Area Community of Churches. As I listened to the Rev. Gao Feng (President of the Christian Council – representing the registered Protestant Churches), I could not help but think that we have much to learn or more accurately relearn.

Rev. Gao’s group purports to represent some 20 million Protestant Christians in China. Their group is “registered” with the government. There are other “unregistered” protestant Christian gatherings in China. By all accounts the 20 million figure is low. In fact, a more accurate number may be closer to 40 million. The Christian movement is growing rapidly in China.

Repeatedly I was struck the reference to the Christian Church in China as “post-denominational.” There is an affiliation but it is a loose one. One of the Brite professors present who had more detailed knowledge than I said that it was a relationship more like what we might have with the National Council of Churches. The Christian Church in China reported 3,700 pastors (1,000 of which are female). You do the math. By my rough count that means there was one pastor for every 5,405 active(!) lay persons. They reported 55,000 churches and “meeting points” (many of which are house fellowships). That means each ordained clergy had 14.85 churches or meeting places they were responsible for!

Behind all this is obviously a vibrant movemental sense of the Holy Spirit at work. Lay leadership in ministry is common and vital to the movement. Much of the preaching is done by lay leaders guiding house fellowships. (The leaders insisted in not calling them house churches because as they put it “there is only one church.”) Instead of focusing on church buildings, most of the members worship in homes.

Hit the pause button and ask, “Where have I seen this before?” Here are three quick answers: 1) The Book of the Acts of the Apostles, 2) The Celtic missionary movement from Ireland in the 5th – 7th centuries, and 3) The early Methodist movement.

It’s time to go back to the future! We need to loosen our structure and allow ministry to flourish as a lay movement under the power of the Holy Spirit once again.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Identify our Core Values: What I Learned in Meetings

Last Friday afternoon (continuing until noon on Saturday) I participated in a fascinating meeting that has remained on my mind and be lodged in my prayer life. (The previous 5 days were spent meeting as a part of the Council of Bishops (COB) in Columbus, Ohio.) I am still not sure what the name of the group I was meeting with is. The gathering consisted of the President of the Council of Bishops, the General Secretaries of the various United Methodist general church commissions and agencies, the Presidents (Chairs of the agency or commission’s board) of those agencies (some of whom are bishops), the four Focus Area lead bishops (I hold the position for “New People in New Places and the Transformation of Existing Congregations – commonly referred to as Path1), and leadership from the Connectional Table.

The purpose of the meeting was to examine potential reduction/realignment of general church agencies; coordinate budgeting and finances; examine the impact of the global nature of the church related to our current and possible future structures. That is a lot to engage in! Thirty or so dedicated and committed people wrestled hard with preliminary considerations of this huge task. I was impressed with the dedication and seriousness with which the group went about its work.

One of the issues that surfaced is the relationship of the Four Areas of Focus (Leadership, New Places for New People and Transformation of Existing Congregations, Poverty, and Eradication of Killer Diseases) with the disciplinary mandates. Disciplinary Mandates are those items that The Discipline of the United Methodist Church mandates (orders) that the general agencies engage in. I had the privilege of visiting with Erin Hawkins, General Secretary for The Commission on Religion and Race, at a break and she conveyed to me that her agency had some 34 or 35 disciplinary mandates. Hers is one of the smaller agencies. It doesn’t take a genius to know that we have vastly over legislated the church’s work. How does the existing “to do” list converge with our missional priorities? Discernment of convergence (Holy Spirit driven!) is a major task before us! We are far from agreement on this most basic commitment.

What we could agree upon is our mission. The United Methodist Church exists to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We had ready agreement that mission should drive are alignment and budget. From that came the necessary corollary that we should align and budget in a manner that is outcome based. In other words, what alignment will best produce the outcomes we are after in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?”

The huge question that drives off such a conviction of mission and determination to be outcome driven is: what are our shared core values and what are the outcomes we should measure? So, if you have read this far, here is where you come in. I would like feedback on 1) what four or five core values should drive this mission process, and 2) what are the key outcomes we should be seeking.

I want hear what you think. Please, short concise answers to 1) what four or five core values should drive this mission process, and 2) what are the key outcomes we should be seeking? If you can’t put it on a postcard, it is too long. I promise to read all ideas but, due to other time restrictions, will not be able to respond to any individual. Instead, I will share group feedback with you in a later blog. Thanks for the help!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Pray as We Examine our Faith Focus and our World

Starting Sunday evening, May 2nd, I will be at the Council of Bishops meeting and remain for an additional two days for a meeting of a Task Group of Bishops and General Secretaries on aligning our church with the Four Focus Areas: combating the diseases of poverty by improving health globally; engaging in ministry with the poor; creating new places for new people and revitalizing existing congregations; and developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world.

My particular work is with the area of creating new places for new people and revitalizing existing congregations. It is a stimulating time and as we go forth, I am reminded of a quote by Nelson Henderson in which he said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade we do not expect to sit.”

It’s no secret that we’re looking at amazing and large spectrum issues that involve us moving through the wilderness of our time (from a Christendom culture to a post-Christendom culture). I like to say that no one knows for sure what they’re doing. We do know, however, who we are traveling with – and that person is God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amid all the controversies of our time - debates over war and peace, health care, racism, poverty – it’s important to remember that the church is engaged in significant issues that affect not just those who claim to be Christian but those who do not know Christ. Bishop Ches Lovern taught me that great churches deal with great issues. As we meet as a Council, I ask for your prayers for the Council as a whole and for the church and its leadership. I cannot help but remember a marvelous piece of writing that Garrison Keiler shared about Methodists. He wrote, “I do believe this: people, these Methodists, who love to sing in four-part harmony are the sort of people you could call up when you are in deep distress. If you are dying, they will comfort you; if you are lonely, they will talk to you; if you are hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad!” His marvelous little insights provoke me to remember that this is not my church or your church but is truly God’s church. And in our own humorous way are simply but part of it; gifted by God to take part in the struggles of our time to advance the kingdom of God. Please keep us in your prayers as we reach out.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Liberal Arts Without Religion?

I sat through a discussion recently about whether a church-related college or university should require a course in religion as a part of a liberal arts education. Science classes, fine arts classes, language classes (to mention a few) are a required and expected part of a liberal arts curriculum. The required religion course was not a required course in Christianity (or any other particular religion); it was simply a required course in religion – period. The faculty voted to eliminate a required course in religion.

It is incomprehensible to me that religion per se is not a basic and foundational part of any truly comprehensive liberal arts education. The historical and contemporary importance of religion (not just the Christian religion but religion as a broader category of inquiry and study) is self-evident in a world torn by religious conflict, competition and claims. And yet, the skeptical gods of the Enlightenment reign triumphant in the academy. Religion is to be suspect on principle. In much of “so-called” higher culture in Western civilization (Europe and North America), religion (and especially the Christian religion) is rejected out of hand as some form of corrupted superstition. It is no longer seen as the queen of academic inquiry but rather treated as the dreads of mere opinion and ignorant opinion at that.

And yet, those same gods of the Enlightenment, so eagerly embraced, are challenged across the landscape by religious climate to truth with a capital T. Two colleagues of mine commented on the subject: “How can your education be liberal if it has no exposure to religion?”(Rev. David McNitsky) “The need for intentional examination of the religious dimension of life is imperative to any first-rate liberal arts institution. As important as open inquiry is in the area of the humanities, arts, and sciences, fine arts, etc. is, I contend, that any complete education must address the religious dimension of life. Religious dimensions of life contextualize all other areas of inquiry.” (Dr. J. Eric McKinney)

Well spoken gentleman!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Open Conspiracy of the Forgotten Way

The open conspiracy of the forgotten way of discipleship lifts my life and haunts my steps. That open conspiracy is to be, as the ancients put it, "little Christs." Alan Hirsch writes: "This notion of the imitation of Christ is one of the undisputed central tenets of both Jesus's teaching and that of the Apostles." (Alan Hirsch,The Forgotten Ways, p. 113) Or, as Mother Teresa put it: "We must become holy not because we want to feel holy but because Christ must be able to live his life fully in us."

Such a notion lifts me because I am inspired and pulled forward to my better self through discipleship. Two recent experiences of worship come to mind. One at a small church and the other at a large church. In very different ways (and yet oddly similar) both worship services ushered me into the presence of the living Lord. It haunts me because I know how often and how far I can miss the presence of Christ in my life.

As I visit around the Conference I am increasingly convinced of the utter centrality of a transformational relationship with Christ in making disciples of Christ. I am also convicted that the most foundational place of such formation is in the local church. I am furthermore committed to the belief that the most important way the Central Texas Conference can aid this process is by energizing and equipping local churches.

Walter Russell 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 [writes Mead] can only imagine 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.” (http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2010/03/14/wanted-a-mainlinegelical-church)

Let me be like Christ and share Christ with others by word and deed!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

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.

Friday, March 19, 2010

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. “WE DWELL IN HIM “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.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

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.” (http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2010/03/14/wanted-a-mainlinegelical-church/) 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!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

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!

Friday, February 26, 2010

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.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

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.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

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?

Friday, February 5, 2010


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.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

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.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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.

Friday, January 22, 2010

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.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

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.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

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?

Friday, January 1, 2010

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.”