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Insight on Seeking a Way Forward ©

In the second part of my Episcopal address last week at Annual Conference, I tried to offer some insight on seeking a way forward for us as a larger church. This came at the end of three separate presentations (one by Lay Leader Mike Ford, the 2nd by myself as your Bishop, and the 3rd by Dr. Tim Bruster, head of the Central Texas Conference delegation to General Conference and Rev. Casey Orr a member of the Commission the Way Forward) on the issues to be presented to the called General Conference in February of 2019. There can be little doubt that the Called General Conference carries the possibility of a split in The United Methodist Church. In part I said, catch your breath, breathe deep, Jesus is still Lord, and that is an awesomely good thing!

About five years ago, Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean was our Conference teacher. In her brilliant book Almost Christian, she recalls the story of French tightrope walker Charles Blondin crossing Niagara Falls on a high wire in 1860, carrying his trembling manager Harry Colcord on his back. Watching was the nineteen-year-old Prince of Wales Edward Albert. Before the stunt, Blondin asked the prince, “Do you believe that I can carry a man across the Falls on a tightrope?” Edward replied that he did. So Blondin asked: “Will you be that man?” (The prince declined.) 

I have shared this story before but come back to it with deliberate intent. Dean goes on to remark, “Incredibly, Blondin died in his bed in 1897 at the age of seventy-five after an accident-free high-wire career. The facts of his feats had been widely reported. But to participate in Blondin’s high-wire act required trust, not belief – a quality found almost exclusively among those close to him, which is why Blondin’s stunts involved his manager (and his five-year-old daughter ….) instead of strangers.”  Dr. Dean perceptively continues, “Belief may enable us to approach Christ as a curious bystander, but our investment is abstract. Trust opens us to God relationally as we submit ourselves to divine love, which awakens our desire to know Christ better for ourselves” (Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, pp. 118-119).

Without glossing over the truth or pretending, let us unflinchingly face the reality that we are in rough seas. The storm winds are blowing. Furthermore, they carry far more than just the surface challenges of same gender marriage and ordination of “avowed practicing homosexuals.”  The driving rain of our steadily decreasing numbers (for the entire 50-year life of The United Methodist Church), the swirling winds of profound cultural change, the flooding waves of an aging demographic in the church, the pounding sea of a chaotic world, the roaring foam of violence in our own schools, all this and more make our journey precarious. And yet this is where allegiance to Christ shines most.

I stand before you as your bishop to remind us (myself included) that Christ is the one who calms the sea. You remember the passage don’t you? “When Jesus got into a boat, his disciples followed him. A huge storm arose on the lake so that waves were sloshing over the boat. But Jesus was asleep. They came and woke him, saying, “Lord, rescue us! We’re going to drown!”

He said to them, “Why are you afraid, you people of weak faith?” Then he got up and gave orders to the winds and the lake, and there was a great calm.

The people were amazed and said, “What kind of person is this? Even the winds and the lake obey him!” (Matthew 8:23-27).

 So, what do we need to be and be about?  First, foremost, and above all else. We need to be a people who trust the Lord in a time of tumult. Do you recall Mordecai’s response to Esther?  “Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family” (Esther 4:14).

Trust is not easy. It is hard. It involves radical obedience. It will only come through close personal relationship with the Lord. It involves submitting our preferences to God’s will and greater desire. But then, this is the essence of faith. The old hymn has it right. “Trust and obey for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.”

Deep prayer and intensive spiritual formation are the order of the day. We must continue to engage in small groups, if you will class meeting, for spiritual formation and mutual encouragement. Soul care is not an extra that can be added when there is time. It is a necessity. (This is why the Cabinet gathers regularly as a Class Meeting to encourage one another in love by asking, “How is it with your soul?” and “How is your walk with the Lord?”)  In Soul Keeping John Ortberg remarks, “The salvation of your soul is not just about where you go when you die. The word salvation means healing or deliverance at the deepest level of who we are in the care of God through the presence of Jesus. Sooner or later, your world will fall apart. What will matter then is the soul you have constructed” (John Ortberg, Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You, pg.48). Breathe deep, Jesus is still Lord.

Secondly, we need to stay focused on the mission. Job one is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  It is biblical. It comes from the risen Christ himself in Matthew 28. It is the Great Commission given to all Christians. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians to a church in real trouble. It’s not just sailing on high seas. It is sailing through a hurricane. What does Paul advocate, admonish and encourage?  He calls them back to Christ at the center and to the mission of Christ. I love the way The Message translation paraphrases 2 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” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15, The Message).

The Wildly Important Goal – the WIG – is the target. It is the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ, and disciples of Christ, by definition, will be engaged in transforming our world. We look at the narrative, the stories of faith transformation. We lay alongside them the metrics of average worship attendance and professions of faith. We will ask the crucial question. How does this compare to our mission field (our market share)?  The act of doing so will build vibrant vital congregations that live the mission in joy, in surrender and in service to the God who is among us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We will remain firmly anchored to our driving values. These are what I call the big three. 1) Christ at the center; 2) Focus on the local church; and 3) Lay and Clergy leadership development.

Think about it. If you are an ardently sold out progressive on the need for a change of church doctrine with regard to LGBTQ+ issues, what is the one thing you need most to pull this off?  The answer is both clear and obvious. We need vital congregations where disciples of Jesus Christ are made, and the world is transformed. If you are an ardently sold out traditionalist with regard to holding the line on the current doctrinal stance of the church, what is the must-do?  Again, the answer is as plain as the nose on our face. We must build vital congregations where disciples of Jesus Christ are made, and the world is transformed. If you are somewhere between the two, the answer remains emphatically the same! This much is clear. We must be fully engaged in the mission Christ has laid before us all!

Whether you are progressive, church uniting or traditionalist or someplace off on your own in lala land, we will keep Christ at the Center. We will stay focused on building vibrant vital local congregations through the implementation of the WIG, the Wildly Important Goal.

The British slogan, “keep calm and carry on,” sticks in my heart as a call from God. Recently I wrote a blog entitled “Dancing in a Hurricane.”  I ran into the phrase “dancing in a hurricane” while reading Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late. It traces back to a ballad written by Brandi Carlile entitled “The Eye.”  According to Friedman, the chorus of the ballad is:

“I wrapped your love around me like a chain But I never was afraid that it would die You can dance in a hurricane But only if you’re standing in the eye.”

The imagery can be borrowed and adapted to living as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. In a Christian context, the image of the “eye” can be placeholder of the will of God. I regularly use the simple prayer, “Lord, your will. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing else.”

 More than ever in these times we need to seek the eye of the hurricane. For Christians, the eye is life lived in the fullness of allegiance to God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. I remain convinced and convicted that God is creating something new in our midst. A new (or more properly speaking – renewed!) church is being born amid the vortex of the hurricane of our time. Wesley’s undying proclamation, “the best of all is that God is with us,” clamors again for our embrace.

Let the words of Psalm 46 drape across your shoulders like cloak of divine love.

 46 God is our refuge and strength,     a help always near in times of great trouble. That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,     when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea, when its waters roar and rage,     when the mountains shake because of its surging waves. Selah (Psalm 46:1-2)