Easter Faith

In these days after our annual celebration of the Resurrection story, I continue to bask in the afterglow of that world-changing, death-shattering event. Like millions of other believers, I observed the day in worship, caught up in the amazing good news that never ceases to inspire. Singing Wesley’s powerful Christ the Lord is Risen Today with hundreds of others was once again emotional, in a holy and spiritual way. I actually choked up on a few of the alleluias! It is a powerful moment. “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!”

However, in order to “soar,” Easter must be more than a one-day event. If we put all our eggs in one basket (pun intended), then we have missed the message of the resurrection and the glory of it all. Our tendency is to invest ourselves in preparations, both spiritual and secular, that lead to Easter morning, and then all-too-quickly get back to the routine, daily grind. When Easter becomes an “event” rather than an “experience” we close ourselves to the joy and hope of the resurrection renewing us and all of creation.

Our faith boldly proclaims that the Risen Christ is with us. The announcement as recorded in Mark 16 simply says that “he is going ahead of you to Galilee” and in so doing tells us that all we need to know for an Easter faith that transforms us. It means that in all I do, I working in the presence of the living Christ. Whether writing or visiting, working or playing, reading or meeting, I am never alone and never attempting any project on my own. He is always ahead of me, leading me, pulling me, empowering me, and encouraging me.

In reading the Gospel accounts, I am always struck by the fact that, according to Mark, the Risen Christ returns to Galilee. There is something appealing about going back to those places of teaching and healing, back to the place where the disciples were first called and inspired to follow him. It is a sign, for me, that Jesus is alive in the daily work to which all of us have been called and sent. It is a sign that the resurrection message is not about returning to business as usual, but rather to a renewed life that is shaped by the Easter faith. It means developing those “holy habits” that Wesley often detailed, and paying attention to the movement of the Spirit that more often than not surprises us along the way.

In these days after Easter, and the new life and hope that the resurrection generates, I find the words of N. T. Wright most insightful: “Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.” (Surprised by Hope, page 75)

“Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!”

Missional Appointments

On Monday morning, March 18, the District Superintendents and I will retreat to discuss, pray, discern, and process the task of making appointments for the coming year. It is a long, sometimes tense, often emotional week (and the first of two). For us, it is both a working week and a prayer retreat because we are convinced that there is no way we can do this without a deep spiritual component.

As we enter this retreat and this work, we are committed to making missional appointments based on the uniqueness of our churches and the gifts of our clergy. Missional appointments are not limited to certain situations and are not about special needs or concerns. Rather, we believe that all appointments are missional, based on some guiding principles.

There is no career ladder, only a covenant of ministry.  Unfortunately both clergy and churches often speak of climbing or retreating; and, unfortunately too many expectations are based on salary and benefits rather than servanthood. I fully understand the economic challenges that continue to impact many communities in this area. However, from the church side, cutting salaries in an attempt to “get our way” or “change our position on the ladder” is short-sighted and is not about the mission of Christ. From the clergy side, expecting to get a raise in salary or a larger, station church in the next appointment suggests that we are more interested in a job than in our calling to a vocation. Missional appointments focus on following and serving Jesus rather than a consumerist approach that asks “what’s in it for me.”

Our client is the mission field. Appointment making is not about taking care of either the clergy or any one church, or any group of churches. I grow weary of hearing people refer to “my” church or to special considerations to take care of “me.” Missional appointments turn our eyes and hearts toward the mission field: toward those who are hurting; toward those who live outside the realm of God’s grace and love; toward those who have lost hope or become trapped in addictive, destructive behaviors. Missional appointments are all about getting our “self” out of the way, and walking in the way of Christ. Missional appointments emphasize service, not “serve us.”

Open itinerancy means without regard to race, age, gender. Ephesians 2:14 reminds us that Jesus, who is our peace, has broken down the walls that divide us. As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance.” Missional appointments are about demonstrating to the world, to our communities, and (yes) to each other, that we are one in Christ and that the waters of baptism create one Body of Christ, served by those who are called by God and credentialed by the church – regardless of race or age or gender.

Consultation does not mean agreement. Our steps in appointment making and consultation continue to evolve, and have made many shifts since I received my first appointment in 1968. As defined by The Book of Discipline, consultation is not “committee selection or call of a pastor.” (¶426) We certainly take into account the profiles completed and submitted, the requests made both verbally and written, and the unique needs of an area and the conference as a whole. However, not everyone gets everything they want. Missional appointments accentuate partnerships and collaboration and a mutual commitment to advance the Kingdom of God. In Wesleyan terms: it is all about connection, with God and with one another.

Missional appointments allow us to catch a glimpse of what we often pray: “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” That will be our prayer during our retreat and through this season.

Inadequate Answers

As most United Methodists of Western North Carolina know, this is the season of appointment making. The District Superintendents and I are engaged in the process of consultation, conversation, prayer, and discernment. Our goal – our only goal – is to advance the mission of Christ in our communities and the world through the deployment of servant leaders (aka, clergy) who will inspire, guide, and direct the baptized believers of a community (aka, the church).

One piece of information that helps shape our decision-making about these appointments is the on-line “profile” that both clergy and churches complete – well almost everyone does! The questions and responses give us a sense of core values, of needs and concerns, and of hopes and dreams. Again this year the responses given in far too many cases are discouraging. It is not that the answers are wrong; in most cases they reveal a great deal. I prefer to say that the answers are inadequate for extending the mission of Christ and for becoming a faithful, fruitful Body of Christ. Here are a couple of examples.

In response to the question about a church’s “plan of evangelism,” we get a wide variety of answers. Unfortunately, the vast majority of answers come right out of the old – the very old – “attractional model” of evangelism. To explain: there was a time in our history – up until about the 1980’s – when our society and culture was “churched.” That is, it seemed as if most people were either members of a church, or at least open to attending one. We simply put into place practices that made people feel welcome and that encouraged them to come back and “join.” We wanted them to be members and help us keep our churches open and committees functioning. We took them bread or cups or letters or flyers – after they showed up! We did not do much, if any, actual inviting people into the realm of God’s grace.

It is disappointing that most of our churches have no plan to go into the neighborhoods, communities, or to the places where people hang out, and establish a relationship with a non-believer in order to share the good news of divine love, mercy, hope, joy, and/or abundant life. By our practices (or lack of them), we have decided that Jesus really did not mean “GO” into the world, but rather something more akin to “WAIT” until they show up.

Another deeply discouraging response comes with the question about our basic principle of grace-inspired inclusiveness and openness to others. When asked about receiving a pastor who is of a different age, gender, or ethnicity than the majority of church members or of the traditions of the church, the answer we most often get is “not ready.” An inadequate answer! It does not reflect the Spirit of Christ, or the movement of the Spirit in our lives, mindsets, or practices. It raises deeper questions: what have I/we been preaching over the years; and what have I/we been learning in Bible studies; and how many barriers have I/we been erecting to block the movement of the Spirit? Are we not called to be the Body of Christ where “there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, CEB)?

So, yes, I am discouraged. But, no, I am not disheartened because I believe that God is still doing new things among us, and opening doors that some of us never imagined could be. And that is enough to keep me going through another round of appointments, and more opportunities to witness to God’s amazing grace. I happen to believe that God’s way will yet break through – even through another appointment making season and in spite of inadequate, imperfect answers.

March Madness

It is that time of the year again. For many people across this country, the college basketball season is about to swing into tournament mode, and people will “go mad” for their favorite team, for the games, and for the winners and losers. It is also the season for thinking about the Biblical story of David and Goliath – as small schools with small budgets sometimes defeat those larger schools. There is even a name for such things: “bracket busters” and it is sheer “madness.

Growing up in northern Indiana during my grade school and junior high years, I will probably not surprise anyone if I reveal that one of the sports movies I thoroughly enjoy is Hoosiers.  About this time every year I pull out my copy and watch it again. Etched in my childhood memory is the story of the 1954 small town high school (Milan) that actually won the state tournament and that became the inspiration for the Gene Hackman movie. I remember playing basketball games in gyms very similar to those in the movie. There are many memorable moments in the movie, but one of mine occurs as the team is moving through the tournament and facing a challenge from a bigger school. Coach Dale instructs one of his players (Buddy) to guard the opposing player so closely that he knows brand of gum the player chews. When he fouls out, Coach Dale looks at him and Buddy says one word: “Dentyne!”

Lent is also a kind of “march madness” as we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and to the cross. We are marching with Jesus toward the cross and learning, as we go, about the cost of discipleship. During this season of self-denial and introspection we discipline ourselves to stay as close as possible to Jesus – so close that we know the flavor of the gum, or in more spiritual language that we breathe in the spirit of Jesus which then shapes our attitudes, actions, thoughts and behaviors by that holy air. Staying close means that our lives are influenced and formed by our nearness to Jesus.

For the world around us, following Jesus so closely probably looks like madness: to pray for and love our enemies when the world needs someone or something to be against; to be peacemakers in a culture of violence and revenge; to engage in acts of mercy (feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned) in a society that seems built on getting ahead and stepping over anyone in the way; to be a servant first. It is all utter madness!

While followers of Jesus may appear to be foolish or mad by human-designed standards, our discipleship and our practice of faithful living grows out of a deep and abiding relationship with Christ. As surely as God in Christ draws close to us, we march so close as to be shaped by God’s Spirit revealed in Christ Jesus. If that be madness, then let us be so for the sake of Christ and the mission of God in the world.

Discipline and Sacrifice

Here are my answers to the most frequently asked questions I am getting these days: Yes, I have lost weight. (Over 60 pounds since August 1.) No, there is nothing wrong with me. Yes, it has been intentional. No, I am not yet in either Spirited Life or Naturally Slim of the Duke Clergy Health Initiative. (My first “group 3” retreat comes later this month.) Yes, I feel better. No, I did not know I felt bad to start with. Yes, I have had to change many habits and practices. No, it has not been easy.

The decision to finally start down this path was the result of several factors that converged at a turning-point moment for me. I needed to buy some new clothes and standing in a store realizing I was going to another size up stirred something in me. A few days later, I had my annual physical – numbers were okay and nothing to be alarmed about. Except I heard a phrase: “those numbers will not stay that way, unless….” A phone call from my sister reporting on her recent diet and weight loss. I had been attributing my weight to the gene pool of our family. It was decision time for me.

How has this happened, and why would I even bother to write about it, especially at the start of the Lenten season? While I am grateful for the results, and for the comments from others (and most of the questions), I am not blogging this to call attention to myself, or to foster a “look what I did, everyone follow me” attitude. Rather, it is background to two words that I have been living with, and that are at the heart of the season of Lent: discipline and sacrifice.

I had to change some practices and habits in my own life, and that meant a new discipline. There was no one diet book, fad, or magic pill – just the discipline of eating healthier and exercising. The temptation to enjoy those comfort foods and to stay on the couch lurks around me daily. Our faith in Christ requires personal disciplines and the Church has for centuries invited us to spiritual disciplines such as fasting, prayer, Scripture, silence, and service, to mention only a few. Discipline means not just thinking about such things, but beginning to change practices and habits in our lives so that we grow deeper in our faithfulness and clearer in our understanding of what it means and what it takes to follow Jesus. Thus, we come to practice, if only for 40 days, Lenten disciplines.

The discipline of changing practices and habits meant I had to make some sacrifices; probably not life-and-death ones, but for sure life-changing ones. Certain foods were sacrificed in the interest of getting healthy. Fried stuff and sweet stuff topped the list for me. Even giving up some TV-time and computer-time in order to start an exercise routine entailed sacrifice. Along the way in our faith/church life, the idea of “giving up something for Lent” has become part of our vernacular. For too many people it is more like a game that does not entail much sacrifice. However, Lent invites us into a more serious assessment of removing those things in our lives and changing habits that block or hinder a deeper relationship with Christ.

I guess my short answer to where I find myself at this point is to say that I finally got serious about my weight and health. And that is what brings me to Lent, 2013, and its invitation to discipline and sacrifice. Anyone who enters this holy season with serious attention to spiritual (and physical) matters will, no doubt, be surprised and blessed by the results.

Vital Congregations

Bishop, just what do you mean by a “vital congregation” and how will we know if we are one? That is a question I am often asked, and one that is not always easy to answer. Like so many other things in life, I know one when I see one, and I can feel the spirit of depression and desperation in one that is not.

Is it enough to say that a vital congregation is deeply passionate about Jesus, both worshiping Jesus and following Jesus into the mission field? Do we need to be more specific than simply saying that a vital congregation knows that its foundation and source of life is God, and that it exists to give itself away? I have said repeatedly that a vital congregation has nothing to do with the size of the membership or worship attendance, but everything to do with the size and capacity of the soul and spirit of the people. Numbers tell part of the story, and must be seen as indicators of the health and vitality of the church, but not as ends in themselves.

There are many voices and ideas filling the internet and the bookstores with what it means to be vital. In fact that has become such an industry and a genre that one could spend more time studying about what it means to be vital than actually doing the work that leads to vitality. By way of confession, this is yet another piece and another person adding yet another perspective.

One way of defining vitality is to spell it out with these broad categories, as suggested by our conference team: a vital congregation is one that is visionary, inspirational and incarnational, transformative, adaptive, and loving. (Note the spelling: vital!) Those concepts focus on being filled with God’s Spirit, a spirit that is both relevant and alive, on people who embody Jesus in their attitudes and actions, on a church that is flexible and nimble as well as one that is guided by the Wesleyan theology of perfect love: loving God and neighbor.

We could spend hours on each, outlining and highlighting various components of each of those words. For now, the superintendents and I, along with our Congregational Vitality Team, have chosen to utilize Bishop Robert Schnase’s helpful phrases as the framework toward which we move: radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission, and extravagant generosity. The reports and scorecards that we ask each church to complete are grouped around those phrases.

Words, words, words. But do they move us toward vitality?

My hope is that we all invest more of ourselves in serving Jesus in the communities where we live, than in worrying needlessly about whether we measure up or have a higher score or better dashboard than the church down the road. I pray for those places where energy is devoted to passionately following the way of Jesus in the world than expending energy in persistently protecting things past, including buildings. I long to witness “wonders and signs” (Acts 2:43) among people who are creatively joining God in what the Holy Spirit is already up to in the neighborhood; and thus I grow weary of the “whiners and sighers” who prefer to take the church back to the 1950’s and block every fresh movement of God in their midst. I hope for places where we are actually developing “disciples” of Jesus not simply making “members” of a church.

Vital congregation? A place that is alive with and in the Spirit of God, made up of people who are totally devoted to following Jesus. Well, maybe that is a start.

Honoring Dr. King

Once again we pause to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and once again we are reminded – or we confess – that there is still work to do in order to accomplish his dream. The vision cast by Dr. King, not only in that unforgettable message delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, but also with his life and actions, is still awaiting fulfillment.

My journey toward and within that dream has brought me far. I grew up in Mississippi and in a culture that was shaped by a mindset that was hostile and hurtful toward those who were considered different because of skin color. I thank God for the many witnesses who went before me, who confronted the racism and prejudices and contributed to the transformation of lives and communities, and who also shaped and influenced my life, my thinking, my actions, and my attitudes.

Today, in this ever shrinking global community and ever expanding flat world, we encounter people from countries around the world almost daily – people whose skin color, language, dress, and customs are different from the dominant culture. Even though we continue to encounter racism, prejudice, and suspicion, the dream of a beloved community persists. A powerful way to honor Dr. King is to engage in the important work of becoming a community where people are more loving and more Christ-like toward one another; where people are judged by character not skin color; where peace and justice are practiced; where we celebrate all of God’s surprising gifts; where freedom is more than a word or slogan; and, where righteousness flows like a river.

Regrettably, this is unfinished business in our world, in our own neighborhoods, and in our churches. In some churches across Western North Carolina, this shows up in unwillingness and failure to accept either a pastor or members who are “not like us.” Missional appointments and open itinerancy are methods for extending the mission of Christ, yet are often thwarted by words and actions that are less than Christ-like directed toward an appointed pastor who does not fit the ingrained expectations. It is often visible in an attitude that wants to preserve the status quo by creating rules and guidelines for keeping people out.

This year, as we remember and honor Dr. King, I renew my commitment to continue the work toward a beloved community. We are engaged in this yet to be completed task not because it is an agenda proposed or legislated, but because in Christ Jesus we are called to holiness of heart and life. As the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 3:27-28, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” It is time to start practicing in visible, relational ways what we believe, and to start living as faithful baptized followers of Jesus.

Missional Leadership

Early on Monday morning (January 14), while in the process of reading articles via the internet, I visited the Forbes magazine web site and found a fascinating brief piece on “Essential Leadership Lessons – Learned and Incorporated.” The article reported on interviews with four business and organizational leaders who were asked about the most important lesson they had learned last year. The four key words that were highlighted are well worth our attention as leaders in and for the church in the twenty first century. I am borrowing these four words from that article, but adding my own reflections about leading a missional movement.

Focus

It is absolutely essential that we are clear about our mission, direction, and purpose. It is equally essential that we are passionate and totally focused on moving in that direction. To focus means that we have to give serious thought to what we do and eliminate the distractions and diversions. To focus means to love God and follow Jesus, investing our time, energy, and resources in those behaviors and relationships that grow out of our spiritual center. Discipleship question: What patterns of behavior or time-consuming distractions divert my attention and passion from my participating in God’s mission?

Simplify

Mainline denominations have spent the better part of half a century complicating the work of the church by adding layer after layer of committees, guidelines, and expectations. In so doing we have created a complex organization that spends a great deal of time trying to perpetuate itself and protecting itself with additional rules and regulations. To simplify is not to shrink or reorganize into some hybrid lesser version (a “lite” Gospel) nor is it to completely abandon organizational principles. Rather, to simplify is to center ourselves and our work on what is essential to the mission. Discipleship question: In order to keep the main thing the main thing, what basic elements of faith life in community must be at the heart of “church”?

Collaborate

After decades of trying to increase the number of stand-alone churches, and exerting energy competing with other churches in the same neighborhood – sometimes on the same street – we must come to realize the importance of working together. Learning to collaborate and creating partnerships should not be a stretch for those of us who are a part of the Wesleyan tradition. For Wesley and the early Methodist movement, “connexion” was vitally important in both theology and practice. Discipleship question: Am I willing to give up personal and self-centered ideas of preserving “my” church in favor of sharing with others in the mission of Christ in the world?

Adapt

We have been hearing a lot lately about “adaptive challenge” and “adaptive leadership” and the need to adapt to current realities. Some of us are frightened by such things either because change is never easy, or because we want all the answers before we start. In this twenty-first century world, all of us must learn and practice being flexible, nimble, and agile. Taken together, this concept means that we must be ready to respond quickly and faithfully to any given God-moment. Discipleship question: In my life and in the church facility where I worship and serve God, what adjustment must I (we) make to create new wineskins (Matthew 9:17) and bear good, holy fruit (Matthew 7:17-20)?

Missional Light

Epiphany! Historically and liturgically, it is that season of the Christian-Church year that celebrates the unveiling and revealing of Jesus as the Light of the World. Traditionally we pay attention to those first signs and acts of Jesus, those moments when it begins to dawn on us that Jesus really is who he says he is. This is also a time for us to reflect on how and in what ways we reflect the Light in this time and place.

My first thoughts today are centered on several Biblical texts that bubble up at me. Jesus is the Light of the World. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) Got it! And even though we seem surrounded by the darkness that manifests itself in this world of violence and hatred and greed and fear and all the other signs of darkness, following Jesus reveals a path of justice, reconciliation, peace, hope, and love.

But there is more. In following the Light of life, we are called to a new mission. “I have given you as … a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6) “…New things I now declare.” (Isaiah 42:9) And, “you are the light of the world” … “let your light shine.” (Matthew 5:14, 16) So it is not just that Jesus is the light, but that we who follow are called, sent, and challenged to light up the world with the Good News of Jesus.

Those first thoughts lead me, then, to the image of being and becoming missional communities. As we carve out a new way of being church in the twenty-first century, we do not abandon our centuries-long focus on following Jesus in favor of the latest gimmick designed to attract people into our buildings. Rather, we shine our light in the darkest corners of our neighborhoods and communities so that others are may see Christ through us.

To be missional is to know that we do not and cannot keep the light to ourselves, illumining only our buildings. Rather, it is to take the light of Christ into the world.

To be missional is not to perform a few nice projects or to send a little money to a group. Rather, it is to be a holy light that constantly shines through who we are and how we live so that others not only see the light, but are transformed by the light of Christ.

Many of us and many of our churches practice some creative and helpful mission work through December. Whether it is “Angel Tree” projects or “shoebox ministry” or Christmas-like gifts to the homeless, the hungry, or the hurting, we demonstrate this missional light. Can we see those acts as first signs of becoming a missional church at all times and all places? Can we celebrate and give thanks for what we did do, but also commit ourselves to being a missional light throughout the year?

Resolved and Happy!

If there is one thing we can count on during this first week of a new year it is the wonderful greeting we give to one another: that 2013 will be happy. That wish is usually followed with a question: what are your New Year resolutions? As I think about those two things, I see a connection. Somehow, we believe, if we can change a few things in our lives, then happiness will follow. Or, from another angle, we can wish for happiness for ourselves, for others, and for the world, but not seriously consider making any changes in our lives, in spite of well-intentioned resolutions that will be soon forgotten.

For the record, about the only resolution I have ever been able to keep was the one I made more than a decade ago: I resolved not to make any more resolutions. In the last few days I have been interested in reading what others have been writing and thinking and resolving. The various social media outlets have been filled with lists of resolutions, some of a personal nature, others with a historical perspective. I have been particularly intrigued with those of Jonathan Edwards (theologian, preacher) and Jonathan Swift (author, social commentator) and Benjamin Franklin (politician, philosopher). Here are two more contemporary observations that have captured my attention.

I have been following the blog of Seth Godin, author of Tribes, an insightful book I recently read.His January 1 blog included this observation: “New Year’s resolutions rarely work, because good intentions don’t often survive a collision with reality.”

The other comes from Whitney Johnson, in an article I found on the Harvard Business Review page. The article suggests that January resolutions are an attempt to fix all the wrongs in our lives. Rather than starting at that point, we are invited to dream. Here is the key paragraph: “While resolutions are about ‘shoulds’ dreaming is about hope – and who we may become. Dreaming is at the heart of disruption – it is only when we dream that we can hope to create something truly new, something that will overtake old habits, old customs, and old ways of thinking and being.”

We come from a long line of dreamers: from Joseph in the book of Genesis to John in his Revelation. Our dreaming is shaped by the life and teaching of Jesus whose invitation to and gift of abundant life invites us into a relationship with God that fundamentally alters how we move through our days. Our dreaming is fashioned by the Jesus-prayer that imagines God’s Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. Those dreams become the foundation for reordering our lives – not with good intentions, but by a deep commitment to follow Jesus. Those dreams may bump up against the reality of current circumstances, but are not shattered.

Instead of resolutions I will once again renew by vows of baptism: renouncing spiritual forces of wickedness, accepting freedom and power from God, and confessing Jesus as Savior and trusting in his grace. Those vows are the core of a new life, of a hope that does not disappoint, and of empowering us to break old habits and customs. And that will make for a joyous new year.

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