Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Very Busy

I have not had a lot of time to attend to this blog lately. That's a shame, because I'd been hoping to comment on General Conference stuff, not to mention the NFL Draft. I'm just too busy, but I hope to get some time soon.

I'm busy in a good way, I think, since things are well with my family, and JUMC continues to be blessed and to be a blessing, to me and to our community. I continue to be in prayer for all that's happening in Fort Worth, and hope that God's Kingdom is furthered by the decisions which are made.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Another Prayer for General Conference

Almightyand everlasting Father,
you have given the Holy Spirit
to abide with us forever:

Bless, we pray,
with his grace and presence,
the bishops and
other clergy and laity
now assembled in your Name
in Fort Worth, Texas,

that your Church,
being preserved in true faith and godly discipline,
may fulfill all the mind of him who loves her
and gave himself for her,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord;

who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
- adapted from The Book of Common Prayer

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Prayer for General Conference

Almighty God,
your Son promised
his disciples
that he would
be with them always.

Hear the prayer we offer
for your servants
who will begin meeting
this week
in Fort Worth, Texas
as the General Conference of
The United Methodist Church.

May your Holy Spirit rest on them:
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of counsel and power,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.

Grant them vision and courage;
unite them in love and peace;
teach them to be trustworthy stewards
of your truth.

And so guide them in all their doings
that your Kingdom may be advanced,
your people confirmed in their most holy faith,
and your unfailing love declared to all the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
- adapted from The Book of Common Order
of the Church of Scotland

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Amending the Mission of the Church

"The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ."
(Book of Discipline - 2004, ¶120)

At JUMC, we make sure that the mission of the Church is in our bulletin every week. Everything that we do ought to be viewed through the lens of our mission. Hopefully, it's something upon which every one who participates in our worship and ministry reflects; I know that the pastor tries to drive it home regularly!

One of the proposals to be considered by our General Conference in a few weeks will alter our mission. The proposal has been made that our mission be changed to "The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

Many United Methodists have been citing this as our mission (incorrectly) for some time. The truth is that the proposed amendment originates not in our Discipline, but in the Council of Bishops. We need to remember, though, that the Bishops cannot change our mission. Our mission remains the sentence stated at the beginning of this post.

Should we change our mission statement? The truth is that I believe GC2008 will approve the change, if for no other reason than many UMs seem to think that the new version is already in place. And transforming a world so in need of transformation is certainly not a bad thing.

But Stephen Taylor over at NitroRev raises some good points. Stephen is a GC delegate from South Carolina. Concerning the new version, he writes,
"It’s definitely a 'Methodist' statement, which means it is sufficiently ambiguous. It leaves wide open for interpretation 'how' we are going to transform the world and what such transformation would look like. That’s the perfect scenario for any cause group to argue that their issue deserves priority attention since it is part of our 'mission'."

The problem, as I see it, is that some UMs might shift their focus from the making of disciples to the transformation of the world. Transforming the world might then become our measure of success; we may not do well when it comes to baptisms or professions of faith, but as long as people are getting health care in Africa, human rights in Tibet, or just immigration laws into the USA, we may determine that we're being faithful.

Please don't misunderstand...getting health care in Africa, human rights in Tibet, and just immigration laws into the USA are all worthwhile projects. None are necessarily antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But these ministries should not be seen as ends in themselves, but rather as a response to the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Our mission is a concise adaptation of Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28, in which our Lord commands, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." He said nothing about transforming the world in this passage.

Our reason for making disciples, then, is not to transform the world. We make disciples because Jesus commanded us to do it. Transforming the world is a secondary concern; it's not a bad thing, but it's not part of the commission given us by Jesus. The official mission statement of the Church should not obscure Jesus' command. A more faithful change, then, might read, "The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, for Jesus commanded it."

Lots to pray about in the coming weeks...

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Farewell Charlton Heston

God bless Charlton Heston (1924-2008).

Charlton Heston, one of filmdom's most illustrious actors, passed away yesterday after a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease. He won an Oscar for 1959's Ben Hur, the definitive Hollywood epic. He is also well known for his larger-than-life roles as Moses in The Ten Commandments, Taylor in Planet of the Apes, Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told, General Gordon in Khartoum, Neville in The Omega Man, Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers, El Cid in El Cid, and Thorn in the underrated Soylent Green.

Heston has been one of my favorite Hollywood actors for some time. Like many in my generation, I was first exposed to his work every Easter, with the annual showing of The Ten Commandments on network television. Later, as a teenage oddity steeped in sci-fi geekery, I marveled at Planet of the Apes and, eventually, Soylent Green (which remains one of the most sophisticated sci-fi movies ever filmed). It was only as an adult that I learned to love Ben Hur, a masterful film with one of the best portrayals of Jesus in Hollywood history, which featured a tour de force performance by Heston.

But Charlton Heston was more than just another star; he was a Christian activist fighting for what he perceived to be right...long before it became chic in Hollywood to lift up one's favorite cause. Best known today as a conservative stalwart who headed the National Rifle Association (which, in my opinion, was his all-time scariest role), he also marched with Martin Luther King and was an early Hollywood opponent of racism and segregation (along with, it may surprise some, John Wayne). He opposed both Marxism and McCarthyism as threats to liberty. As an elder statesman, he spoke out against abortion and political correctness, to which he referred as "tyranny with manners".

In 2002, Heston was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, the tragic condition which eventually claimed the life of his close friend, Ronald Reagan. His appearances in recent years were rare.

I'm thanking God today for the work of Charlton Heston. I'll be able to enjoy his movies with my children and (someday) grandchildren for years to come. If you're not familiar with his film work, I commend it to you.

I'm also thanking God for Charlton Heston's example as a Christian activist. My opinions may differ with Heston on some issues, but he never shied away from standing up for what he believed was right, even if it meant being ridiculed by some of the cultural elites. He stood up for basic human rights in a very confusing era, in a very confusing place. We can all learn something, I think, from this very gifted man.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star?

In a few days, I'll be participating the in Western PA Congress on Evangelism. Because I'll be gone for a few days, I'm trying to get a load of work done, including putting the finishing touches on next Sunday's sermon.

I'm preaching on the lectionary reading from Acts 2...sort of. The Acts reading stops at verse 41, with the rest of the chapter in the readings for April 13. But, since I'm focusing on Psalm 23 on April 13, I've combined the two Acts readings for use on April 6 (I'm sure you find this fascinating).

At any rate, it's been a good exercise for me, since much of the passage from which I'm preaching deals directly with evangelism.

In January 1967, one of my favorite bands, the Byrds, released the song "So You Want to Be a Rock'n'Roll Star". GREAT song. The first part of the song chronicles what one needs to do in order to become a rock star. "If you want _____, then do _____."

"So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star?
Then listen now to what I say
Just get an electric guitar
Then take some time
and learn how to play
And with your hair
swung right
And your pants too tight
It's gonna be all right
Then it's time to go downtown
Where the agent man
won't let you down
Sell your soul to the company
Who are waiting there to sell plastic ware
And in a week or two
If you make the charts
The girls'll tear you apart"
- McGuinn/Hillman, 1967

I've loved that song for years. But, like this legendary Hall of Fame band can teach us what steps we need to take to become stars, so, in my view, the Acts 2 passage can teach us the steps we need to take to evangelize.

"...they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."
- Acts 2:42-47 (ESV)

The end of this passage shows the remarkable success of the baby Church regarding evangelism. We Methodists, who at one time prided ourselves on approaching things methodically, can learn much from this passage. Indeed, once we did, I think. I personally need a reminder of that...and often.

What were some of the key elements in this evangelistic success?

* DEVOTION TO THE APOSTLES' TEACHING - We may not have direct access to Paul, John, and Peter, but we have the inspired Holy Scriptures, and 2000 years of interpretive tradition, including doctrinal standards which Methodist pastors have taken sacred vows to uphold. How often do we refer to Wesley's sermons, our General Rules, or our Articles of Religion in our preaching and teaching? It seems to me that inasmuch as we embrace, obediently teach, and faithfully embody our doctrine, the Spirit just might bless our evangelistic efforts.

* FELLOWSHIP - Just being together and hanging out with our sisters and brothers in the faith is a tremendous blessing. Last night was "Spirit Night" for JUMC at our local Chick-fil-a, and we gathered together for dinner and had a joyous time (and were probably a little too loud for some of the other patrons!). In fact, just hanging out with my sisters and brothers is, for me, the highlight of Annual Conference. Inasmuch as we seek fellowship with one another, the Spirit just might bless our evangelistic efforts.

* THE BREAKING OF THE BREAD - Gathering for worship is an essential part of our Christian life, and we ought to be regularly celebrating the Eucharist. General Conference 2004, in its adoption of This Holy Mystery as an official Eucharistic statement of the UMC, encouraged congregations to move to weekly celebration. To my knowledge, the only community in our Conference which celebrates every week in every service is Hot Metal Bridge. Shame on me. Inasmuch as we break the Bread and share the Cup, the Spirit just might bless our evangelistic efforts.

* PRAYER - Certainly we all agree that we need to be a people of prayer. The congregation that sent me out into ministry, Trinity UMC in Indiana, PA, held weekly prayer meetings. During that hour, they didn't gather primarily for Bible study or fellowship; they gathered to pray - for one another, for the Church, for this broken world. What a wonderful practice! We need to say our prayers, individually, as married couples and families, and communally. Inasmuch as we faithfully pray, the Spirit just might bless our evangelistic efforts.

* SIGNS & WONDERS - My charismatic friends have specific views on what these things are. God bless them; they're one up on the rest of us...who generally have no idea what the writer of Acts means by these words. But we do know that these things were present in the infant Church. My own view is that "signs" and "wonders" are, among other things, seeing lives transformed by the gospel...and being a part of that transformation. Inasmuch as we are seeking the signs and wonders of transformation, the Spirit just might bless our evangelistic efforts.

* SHARING - No one in the Church should ever go hungry, go without health coverage, or not have access to quality education. In spite of what politicians believe (appealing to our own self-centeredness, in my opinion), it is not the government's job to provide those things...it is the job of the Church. When we celebrate the sacrament of baptism, I make it clear that when the congregation takes their vows, they are making a promise to God to see that the needs of the child are met. If the child needs food, it's the congregation's responsiblity to provide. Shelter in the storm? Heat in the winter? Clothes in the cold? Camp in the summer? School supplies in the autumn? A ride to worship or Vacation Bible School? We need to be a people of sharing and responsibility, who take our vows seriously. If a member of our congregation is lacking any need, we should take it personally. Inasmuch as we care for one another's needs, the Spirit just might bless our evangelistic efforts.

The end result? "The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." So, it's a wonderful thing to learn new ways of telling the old, old story, but evangelism begins, it seems to me, with the Church being the Church.

"O gracious God, we pray for your holy Church universal, that you would be pleased to fill it with all truth, in all peace. Where it is corrupt; purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it; where it is right, establish it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of him who died and rose again and ever lives to make intercession for us, Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen."
- The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992), #501