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“When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18.8)

As advent dawns, another year

Both full of hope and full of fear

Slips forth and fills our atmosphere.

                          But we are yet still waiting.

For though He came once long ago

So that salvation we might know

We have not let His Spirit grow

                       And so we are still waiting.

We’ve been affected by the Fall,

We have not heard His simple call

To share His love and peace with all,

                      Instead we are still waiting.

Indeed, we have not turned the tide

By all the efforts we have tried,

The door must open from outside,

                    And so we are still waiting.

Yet He will come again one day

When men and angels both shall say

He is the Truth, the Life, the Way,

                   And He can end our waiting.

And so for now, we watch and pray

And try to follow and obey

Until we welcome Him and say,

                “Come, Jesus, we’ve been waiting.”

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The Donkey, The Elephant and The Lamb

It was Harvey Cox, a professor I studied with long ago in Boston, who said it most succinctly: “not to decide is to decide.” Sometimes, however, the choices don’t seem to be all that choice when it comes to elections.

Both of the current leading candidates for president, for instance, have ideas that are worth considering and they certainly have displayed high energy levels that could put folks half of their ages to shame. But both also seem to be dragging along with them a cartload of baggage that could potentially far overshadow whatever good they might be able to do.

So like millions of other folks, I find myself wondering just exactly how we got here. For as I suggested in a sermon a few weeks ago, it feels a little like when Samuel went to find a new king and Jesse brought seven of his sons before him for tryouts.

After looking over the boys carefully–and receiving a reminder from the Lord that it’s not what is visible that counts, but what is in the heart–Samuel finally said to Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?”

Or, in short, what Samuel wanted to know was what many today might also wish to ask, namely “Is there anyone else out there from which to choose?” For sometimes just picking the least offensive of our choices doesn’t negate the fact that the lesser of two evils is still evil.

And so when it comes to this election some will simply sit it out, I suspect. But I’m not so certain that is a faithful response either. For if we are indeed the salt of the earth as Jesus told us, surely we’ve been summoned to sprinkle out our seasoning on society rather than simply stay safely ensconced in a salt dome somewhere on the sidelines.

One of my new friends, Susan Henry-Crowe, who ably leads our denominational Board of Church and Society, recently noted that the word suffrage means the right to vote but, she added, it has a secondary definition as well: suffrage is also a series of short intercessory prayers and petitions. In that sense, thus, voting is not simply a civic responsibility but it can even be an act of prayer and faith.

It may not be an easy decision for many of us. For in truth, there is no perfect candidate for president this year, but then there never has been. The good news, however, is that God has a great track record of using imperfect vessels for His purposes and He can even make Pennsylvania Avenue the Road to Damascus if He chooses.

Likewise, because we’ve not been called to be followers of either the donkey or the elephant, but of the Lamb Himself, on November 9, no matter who has been elected, He will still be our King.

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Pursuing the Word

With spies, lies, and a shipwreck thrown in for good measure, his life was anything but dull. But then when you begin to criticize others for their rank ignorance of scripture, as well as for their decidedly unbiblical lifestyles, you can probably figure it will make some folks mad, as indeed it did.

Still, the young man grew convinced that until the scriptures were plainly laid out in their native language that it would be impossible for the average Christian in England to ever really know the truth.  And so he pledged to one clergyman that if God should spare his life, he would so work that “a boy that drives the plough” should know as much about the Bible as that pastor himself.

It was no easy task, to be sure.  For fearing the spread of radical Lutheran ideas, the Catholic bishops in his homeland had actually banned any Bible published in English, preferring instead the use of the rather inaccurate Latin translation of the day known as the Vulgate, and going so far as to actually prescribe the death sentence for anyone who produced an “unlicensed” English version of the Bible. Even the official courses of theology did not include any systematic study of scripture, in fact, for as he later complained, “they have ordained that no man shall look on scripture until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture.”

And so, with no real encouragement from anyone in the church, William Tyndale left his native England for Europe, never to return.  It was in Wittenberg, the home of Luther, that the thirty-two-year old gifted linguist completed his initial translation in 1525, the first to go directly from the Greek text of the New Testament into English.  When he went to Cologne to print it, however, before the presses could get past Matthew 22, a police raid shut them down, only moments after Tyndall escaped clutching the copies of what had been completed thus far.

The young scholar then fled to Worms, an imperial German city which had already begun to embrace Lutheranism.  And it was there that he managed to finish publishing 6,000 copies of his translation, many of which were soon smuggled back into England and Scotland in barrels of flour, further fueling the opposition to Tyndale’s work.  The religious leaders of those lands attacked him relentlessly, in fact, not only burning those volumes in public, but even sending secret agents to the continent to try and trap him.  What’s more, another problem soon arose in the form of pirated and incorrect versions of his translation that began showing up, including one by his close friend and co-worker George Joye, much to the reformer’s lament.

Tyndale labored on, however, moving to Antwerp where he found the support of a few English merchants who helped to both hide him and advance his work as he turned his attention next to the Old Testament. But early in 1529, having completed his rendering of the Torah, or the first five books of Moses, Tyndale was traveling back to Hamburg when, like the apostle Paul centuries before him, he was shipwrecked off the coast of the Netherlands, and his entire freshly translated Pentateuch perished in the sea, along with all of his reference books, including the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, Hebrew grammars, and the Greek translation known as the Septuagint.

His response was simply to start again, doubling down to do his work all over until he finally finished it once more in 1530. And in the next few years, Tyndale went on to focus on the rest of the Old Testament, translating most of the historical books as well as Jonah.  In May of 1535, however, the authorities finally caught up with Tyndale at Antwerp, arresting him on a charge of heresy and holding him in a dark, dank cell devoid of any sunlight near Brussells for sixteen months where the Englishman waited patiently, “abiding the will of God.”   And sadly, despite the appeals of many, it was there on October 6, 1536, that at the age of just forty-two, William Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled, and then burned.

His last words were reported to have been, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.” And that prayer was apparently answered, for within four years of his death, four English translations of the Bible were published in that country at the behest of Henry VIII, all of them based on Tyndale’s labors.  It has been said, in fact, that every English New Testament for the four centuries that followed him was simply a revision of Tyndale’s work, with some 90 percent of his words passing into the King James Version of 1611 and even 75 percent into the Revised Standard Version of 1946.

And some 486 years later this very week, it’s a story that those who read the Bible might do well to remember still. For though it may sound odd to us today, in a time in which the Word of God is both ignored by many and contorted to conform to the culture by others, at least to one faithful disciple of Jesus, the scriptures were literally worth dying for, and their careful translation into English was a sacred task deserving of whatever it took.

All, we could say, so that ploughboys and pastors alike might understand the love of God which shines through on every page of that incredible book.

 

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Authoritatively Speaking

It’s one of my favorite Greek words, in part just because it is kind of fun to say, especially if you put a good Texas drawl on the second syllable making it exousia!  (It practically “oozes” out of your lips, doesn’t it?)  And that’s appropriate because if you break it down, the term actually comes from two other words, the one meaning “out of” (ex), and the other (ousia) signifying the “substance” of something.

In English, we most often translate it as either “authority” or “power.” It’s said in Matthew 7, for instance, that unlike the scribes and Pharisees,  Jesus taught as one having exousia or authority, and two chapters later, Jesus demonstrated that power by not simply healing a paralyzed man but by forgiving his sins as well.

Likewise, the word shows up again in Matthew 21 when the right of Jesus to speak as He did was questioned by the chief priests and elders.  Equally significant, however, is the fact that in Mark 6, as well as in John’s gospel, Jesus gave that same exousia to all those who received Him and believed in His name.

For in the end, exousia is about the genuine moral influence that a person may exert with others, something which comes not out of what degrees, or titles, or positions they may happen to hold, but out of who they actually are, that is to say, what lies at the core of their personal substance or essence.

We Methodists live all around this idea, of course, especially those of us who are clergy. For we are not only those who have been given authority at our ordinations–or more correctly perhaps, been encouraged to exercise the authority we already have in Christ– but we are also those who live under the authority of someone else, namely, that of a bishop who appoints us to serve.

Fortunately, however, here in the Texas Conference we have a new bishop whose authority stems not just from the corner office in which he sits, but from the person whom he is in the Lord, a committed and visionary follower of Jesus who has spent his life encouraging others towards the cause of Christ.

It is in that sense that we are delighted to welcome Bishop Scott Jones to our conference.   For the days ahead will be challenging ones for the good ship Methodism and we are going to need a steady hand at the helm indeed.

I have it on good authority though that we are being blessed by such a leader.

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Let the Games Begin

Michael Phelps will no doubt garner much of the attention at Rio, given his rather amazing record in the last three cycles, though a kayaker capsizing because of a submerged sofa in the water may give him a run for it. Beyond such traditional events as swimming, tennis, basketball and track and field, however, if beach volleyball, ping-pong, and rifle shooting can be official sports of the summer games, it doesn’t seem like a far stretch to suggest a couple of other activities in which some of the rest of us might be able to compete as well.

Jumping to conclusions, for instance, could easily draw a healthy field of tough competitors, each of whom could be judged on how wildly and quickly they can come up with a ridiculous assumption based upon only minimal information, with extra points awarded for each additional person whom they convince to share their unfounded beliefs.

Likewise, shot-putters might be able to double-medal by entering an Olympic competition in casting the first stone, a favorite activity of many whose main intention is to condemn first and love later. For here the judges could actually judge judging, watching carefully for signs of unrighteous indignation and hypocrisy among the competitors, some of whom might also wish to enter another new Olympic activity, throwing your weight around. Then there’s always such perennial favorites as carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, climbing the walls at work, and bending over backwards.

On the other hand, the truth is that though there is seldom any recognition for most of the things we may do in our lives, just doing them faithfully and consistently sometimes requires Olympian-sized efforts indeed. Which is perhaps why one of the most encouraging words in all the scriptures is that which a coach named Paul once told his young protégé: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the Righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—but not only to me, but to all who have longed for His appearing.” (2 Timothy 4.6-8).

Keep on going, thus, my friends. For even if your name never crosses the lips of Bob Costas, the One who matters still has His eyes on you. And in Heaven, they tell us, even the streets are paved with gold.

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What Happened Out West

Just in case you don’t speak Methodist, the way we work is pretty simple: every four years both lay and clergy delegates cluster in one of five regional gatherings known as Jurisdictional Conferences for the principal purpose of electing new bishops to replace those who are retiring. As is customary, thus, those meetings took place last week and the result was that fifteen new bishops, including seven women, were chosen to serve as presiding officers of our church across America.

One of those elections, however, has unfortunately created quite a controversy, at least insofar as maintaining our unity as a denomination in these challenging times. For against the plain directives of our Book of Discipline, some eighty-eight delegates to the Western Jurisdiction, the smallest of our five regional bodies, elected to the office of bishop a self-avowed practicing lesbian who is married to another woman.   And irrespective of one’s views on the question of inclusivity, that act of ecclesial disobedience has stirred up a true crisis within our denomination.

To be sure, at virtually the same moment she was elected late Friday evening the South Central Jurisdictional Conference (of which I was a part) passed a resolution asking for a declaratory decision from our Judicial Council, the highest court of the UMC, as to the legality of the election, and that response will be forthcoming in the months ahead. Likewise our Council of Bishops is meeting this week to discuss how to move forward given this very real challenge to our church’s covenantal connection.

Already, though, the specter of formal division has been raised in many quarters, with some saying that the differences between us are now virtually irreconcilable.   And sadly enough, given not only the election in the West, but the actions of several annual conferences to act in “non-compliance” with the provisions in our Discipline, that may be true. But I believe that until our ecclesiastical court has ruled on the issue, and the special commission authorized by the General Conference to recommend a way forward has been formed and allowed to do its work, that the faithful congregations of our twelve million member global church should  continue to join together to carry out the valuable kingdom work that God still has for us to do in this world.

Accordingly, even while recognizing that we are not all of one mind with respect to the issues of human sexuality, my hope is that we may find a way to both respect one another and to respect the mutual covenant which binds the spiritual heirs of John Wesley as one. Indeed, it is said that his final words were simply, “Best of all… God is with us.” And because that is yet the case, perhaps it is true that the best days of our church may yet lay ahead of us, as well, whether we eventually separate into two distinct bodies or remain as one.

We’re just all going to need to be very careful indeed with our words and actions as we navigate our way in the days and months ahead, sisters and brothers. For no matter how fluent or not you may be in speaking Methodist there is simply no substitute for knowing how to speak the truth in love.

 

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Are We Moving Towards a “Mexit?”

It was pure happenstance that we arrived in the country just one day before it happened. When we woke up the day afterwards, however, it was to a different world indeed. For despite the pleas of many to “Stay Sane and Vote Remain,” the British populace chose instead to make a dash for it, leaving the European Union after more than forty years as a part of that continent-wide community.

What’s more, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant parting of the ways either. For after a rather bitter campaign–with near apocalyptic claims on the part of both sides–the 52-48% vote was split along largely urban/rural and north/south lines, with Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the city of London all wishing to remain in the EU but the rest of the nation opting to go it alone. In turn, though the prime minister suggested that they would take the transition slow and easy, by Friday the other European nations were already telling the Brits to just “pack their bags and go,” sooner rather than later.

The “Brexit”–or British Exit–made me wonder, however, if we are not now seeing the same kind of accelerated sociological/societal split within the United Methodist Church. For not only have the boards of ministry of numerous conferences announced that they will no longer follow church guidelines regarding the ordination of those who perform same gender marriage ceremonies, or who may be engaged in same-sex behavior themselves, but now at least one annual conference has proclaimed that they will act in “non-conformity” to all of the passages within our Book of Discipline regarding that subject.

And in a similar fashion, another conference has voted to support an abortion-rights advocacy group that the General Conference, speaking on behalf of the entire United Methodist Church, just voted to withdraw from, defeating–after twelve years of struggling against parliamentary maneuverings–the minority which embraced our membership in that coalition.

Yet oddly enough, it is the same conservative Methodists who have patiently played by the rules for four decades that have often been labeled by others as “schismatics.”  And no matter what one’s personal views on the particularly painful subjects involved may be, such would seem to be a rather jaded and jangled way of thinking indeed. For the very definition of the word “schism” itself suggests the withdrawal or secession of any group owing to doctrinal or other differences which generally will lead in turn to a formal division of a single church into two distinct bodies.

Thus, if some conferences have already determined to “go their own way” on a subject that the general church has clearly debated and ruled against, has not a schism already occurred, whether we’ve formally acknowledged it yet or not?

In turn, the proposal that entire jurisdictions should adopt a stance of “non-compliance” quite logically may lead some elsewhere to question just why they should continue to subsidize areas that have already determined not to keep the connectional covenant which binds us together. At least from one vantage point, thus, it would seem that the “Mexit” or “Methodist Exit” has indeed begun, led by those on the left.

There is still time perhaps for a solution to emerge, hopefully from the bishop’s commission that will be appointed to study and review “all that is before us” with regard to the sexuality questions. But because of the actions of those unwilling to give that group even a chance to organize before trying to change the conditions on the ground, that time is ticking away rather rapidly.

Indeed, I think of the words of William Bradford, an American who lived in the days following our own national separation from those in England.  Quoting Shakespeare who had penned that “the times seem to be out of joint,” Bradford sighed that “the world wears a strange aspect at the present time…a determined ministry is bringing things to a crisis and seems to foretell some great event.”

We might be well advised thus to heed the latest lessons from the land of the Wesleys. For though some might think it unthinkable that we would actually divide a denomination that has existed in its current configuration for 48 years now, I suspect that many likewise assumed that after 43 years in the EU that Great Britain would never have left it either.

But then they would clearly have been wrong.

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