A Methodist Goes to Rome

He was twenty-seven when he made the trip, feeling enormously grateful for the chance to go and see it all for himself. For even half a millennia ago, the Eternal City was still an ancient destination, filled with all kinds of amazing artifacts from antiquity that bore silent witness to the glory of an empire that once ruled the world.

Still relatively new in his spiritual calling, however, it was not ruins that interested the young priest but religious renewal, and spending a month in Rome seemed to offer enormous possibilities towards that end. Only as Martin Luther settled into his new surroundings, what soon began to overwhelm him was both the ineptitude and the outright immorality of many of those within the Vatican.

Priests rushed through the mass in a race to complete as many each day as possible, for instance, telling Luther to “passa, passa” or speed it up when he said the liturgy.  And the shameful scandal of the Renaissance popes, siring children and selling off indulgences, still lingered like a bad odor in the church infecting all.   Thus, as Roland Bainton long ago expressed it in his classic biography of the reformer, Luther was horrified to hear that “if there were a hell Rome was built upon it.”

There were good people of faith there as well, of course, for God has always had His sacred, if sometimes secret, agents scattered throughout. As disgusted as he was by what he saw, Luther thus continued to believe that the church that he served still held the valid means of grace, even if seven years later—five hundred years ago on Tuesday, in fact– he challenged that church in a movement that became known as the Protestant Reformation.

But walking through the Vatican last week, I have to admit that I too found myself wondering what to make of church leaders whose egos and impulses were clearly out of control. For in erecting room after room, and indeed, palace after palace, filled with monuments to themselves, the overarching ambition of many of the popes seemed to be simply to be remembered, no matter how much money and maneuvering it took to do so.  And that temptation, so it seems, still needs to be checked in all of us, both Protestants and Catholics, who dare to lead God’s people.  For whenever ministry is about us, it becomes self-serving and not at all worthy of the One who came to serve all.

On the other hand, should you happen to be in Rome one of these days, you might want to look out for a used grey Ford Focus.  For if you look closely at the elderly man in it moving through those ancient city streets, he may look slightly familiar to you.  His name is Francesco, and had he been the pope when Luther visited Rome in 1510, we can only imagine how things might have turned out a bit differently.

Even for this Methodist making his first trip to Rome as well.

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A Post Harvey Hallelujah

(Sung to the tune of Leonard Cohen)

I’ve heard it said when storms may come,                                                                                    that some may panic, some may run,                                                                                             But they don’t know the power that comes from You.                                                                  For in the midst of wind and wave,                                                                                                 We find the strength to still be brave,                                                                                            For You can save, so we’ll sing hallelujah!

            Hallelujah, hallelujah!  Hallelujah, hallelujah!

Though twisters came and waters rose,                                                                                           And nature threw its cruelest blows,                                                                                                 In everything we heard the voice of You:                                                                                     “Fear not,” You said, “My peace I give,”                                                                                                 “I will be with you; you will live                                                                                                         To sing my praise again, O hallelujah!”

            Hallelujah, hallelujah!  Hallelujah, hallelujah!

And so in all the days ahead,                                                                                                          We’ll turn to You, our Living Head,                                                                                         Whatever comes we’ll put our trust in You.                                                                                         In sunny days and darkest night,                                                                                                           With You we’ll stand and win the fight,                                                                                          And sing with voices bright, O hallelujah!

            Hallelujah, hallelujah!  Hallelujah, hallelujah!

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From Inside the Ark

As morning dawns on Day Two the sanctuary has never been more holy. For scattered throughout its pews, as in classrooms and offices around the building, Christ Church truly is a refuge this day offering both safety and community to a host of evacuees from area floods who have found their way to our building.

That has not been easy in and of itself. For not only is the street on which we are located now flooded in both directions, our parking lot is also a running stream and our basement level has standing water as well, with the torrent held back only by a pair of glass doors and some sandbags.  Most of those who made it here came in the back of dump trucks as the city of Sugar Land began to pluck folks out of homes which are now in danger of flooding, or have already begun to do so.  A school bus likewise showed up with a group last night and as they stumbled in, the dazed look on their faces said it all.

Some had only a few moments notice, for instance, before being told they had to get out of their houses, and so the only possessions they brought were in a garbage sack or pillow case. Others walked here, slogging through the waters, and were quickly given youth or mission trip T-shirts to change into.  Two are in wheelchairs and there are at least a couple of babies as well.  And a number brought their family pets which slept with them in the classrooms we tried to give to families.

Reflective of our broader community–the most diverse county in the world, so we are told– the group is also incredibly varied, speaking several languages and representing numerous cultures and religious backgrounds. Still, we have become a little oecumenical ecclesia and most have tried to find some way to help, whether it is moving furniture, cooking pasta in our kitchen, or sharing what they do have with those around them.

There are some material blessings to give thanks for indeed. Though the power went off for a while yesterday afternoon it has been back on since and so lights, air conditioning and, of course, cell phone chargers have all been able to work.  We’ve kept our monitors on, tuned to a local TV station, allowing our guests to feel connected to what is happening outside of our instant island.  The staff and church volunteers who are here with us have absolutely been phenomenal.  And just now, we’ve learned that the staff at Berryhills, a local eatery, stayed up making 300 tamales which they somehow managed to get to us in the dark of night.  In turn, the city has promised to get us more food and bedding supplies, for it appears that more of our neighbors are on the way and that we are going to be here for some time to come.

In short, God has given us a lovely laboratory to live out the theme verse of our congregation in very tangible ways: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have sent you… for in its peace you shall find your own.”  (Jeremiah 29.7)

So far our water-logged community is finding how to make it work. And under the high wooden rafters of our sanctuary… even with a few leaks… we have discovered again why the church really is the Ark of Salvation.






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A Word to the Windblown

(In light of the extreme weather conditions associated with Hurricane Harvey, the following devotional is being sent out to the members of Christ Church of Sugar Land, Texas, unable to gather together for corporate worship on August 27, but yet able to join in heart for all those affected by the storm and its aftermath.)

A little like those seven hapless travelers whose fabled “three hour tour” ended up turning into three years on “Gilligan’s Island,” the voyagers on this trip probably never saw it coming either. To be sure, when they left Caesarea and then Sidon, the winds had prevented them from taking the direct route over to Asia Minor (what we call Turkey today), and so they had been forced to pass on the leeward side of Cyprus, that is, the side that was downwind, which took several days longer than they had expected. And then from Cnidus down to the island of Crete, they had once again had to take the leeward side, causing in the words of Dr. Luke who was on that journey with Paul, “much time” to be lost, Acts 27.9. So much, in fact, that it was dangerous just to be out on the waters at all, much less try to cross the Aegean Sea.

For sailing after September 15 was doubtful and after November it was downright suicidal.   Only, as good old Luke the historian is quick to point out, since it was already after the Jewish Day of Atonement, that meant that it was at least October when they set out. So they probably knew that there was no way to make it all the way to Rome, but they reasoned that if they could only get to Phoenix, a little further to the west on the island of Crete from Fair Havens that it would at least be a much better place to spend the winter.

The little band thus set sail and when a gentle south wind began to blow, it might have seemed like, in spite of Paul’s prophecies of doom and gloom, that it was all going to work out. Until, that is, the kind of storm that they called simply a “Northeaster” hit them and, caught up in near hurricane force winds, that prison transport ship from Alexandria could do very little but simply be driven along by the wild gusts and gales. The storm was so intense, in fact, that those onboard were barely able to hoist up the lifeboat and secure it.

Only no sooner was that task accomplished but that the ship itself began to literally be torn apart. So they tied it together by passing cables and ropes under the ship– which meant that some poor sailor had to go down there — and when that wasn’t enough, they began to throw all of the cargo overboard to lessen the load. And when that wasn’t enough either, they then began to throw out even the essential spare parts– the extra masts and tackles that every ship would carry on a voyage in those seas. Only still there was no sign of relief.

For eleven days and nights the storm continued to pound them, making it impossible to see the sun in the day, or the stars at night, or even to be able to tell the difference between the two. The ship was leaking badly and there was little food left, but even what had not been destroyed or washed away went largely untouched, for as tired and weak as they all were–passengers and crew alike–who could have had an appetite to eat in such an impossible situation?

And so we can understand it all how they must have felt when Luke tells us in the astonishingly poignant words of verse twenty that when neither sun nor stars had appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.” For like that unexpected Northeaster on the Aegean Sea, Hurricane Harvey has come upon us suddenly and with little warning, as well, and it shows no signs at present on moving on in any kind of timely way.

Only read on just a few more verses of this rather gripping travel narrative in Acts and you will see that it wasn’t the end of the story. What’s more, when the storms of life are raging all around us as well such is not a time for us to give up hope either–it is not the moment for grumbling or dissent– it’s not the season for worry or impatience or anger–rather, it is a kairos or timely occasion for discipline and for courage. “Consider it pure joy, my brethren,” wrote James, “whenever you face trials of many kinds.” “Endure hardship as discipline,” added the writer to the Hebrews.

And don’t you love it that even the apostle Paul, that seasoned and serious saint whose labors summoned and supported the early church of Christ, could not resist saying “I told you so” at least a little when despite his warnings the ship had sailed on for Phoenix, only to be smacked down by a storm that seemed to go on forever. “Men,” he says, “you should have taken my advice…then you would have spared yourself this damage and loss.” For Paul knew that sometimes the real storms in life aren’t those that come from the outside, they are the ones that churn up on the inside of us.

Victor Hugo tells in his last novel called “Ninety-Three” of another such ship that was once caught in a dangerous storm on the high seas. At the height of the storm, however, the frightened sailors heard a terrible crashing noise below the deck. And the reason it was so terrible is that they knew what it was, for the noise was coming from a cannon, part of the ship’s cargo, that had broken loose. It was moving back and forth with the swaying of the ship, crashing into the side of the ship with terrible impact.

Knowing that it could cause the ship to sink, two brave sailors volunteered to make the dangerous attempt to retie the loose cannon. Because they understood that the danger of a shipwreck from the cannon was greater than the fury of the storm. And that is like human life, isn’t it? The storms of life may blow about us, but sometimes it is not those exterior storms that pose the gravest danger. It is the terrible corruption that can exist within us which can overwhelm us. Because the furious storm outside may be overwhelming but it’s what is going on inside that poses the greater threat to our lives.

So that’s when discipline is needed. That’s when we simply need to fall back on what we know is right and follow the principles of our faith that have been proven to be timeless and trustworthy. When the unexpected gales of life are blowing, then in the words of the former Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, “it’s no time to go wobbly.” Or as the popular slogan of England went during the dark days of the Second World War, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Because when the storms come, it’s also a time for courage. And that’s the best thing about this little story here in Acts 27.

For you see, St. Paul didn’t just remind his fellow voyagers that he had warned them about setting out on that journey, but he also went on to give his companions a message of encouragement and hope, as well. “I urge you to keep up your courage,” Paul said, “because not one of you will be lost.” The ship may be destroyed. We will run aground on an island. But not one of you will lose even a single hair from your head. And what a wonderful exhortation that should be for all of us, as well. For even when the winds of strife may be their strongest, and we can’t even begin to see the end of it all, that’s when we need to take courage and be confidant in the promises of God, trusting that God is still in control, no matter what the circumstances around us might suggest.

Charles Tindley understood that. The son of slaves, he taught himself to read and write at age 17. Worked as a janitor while attending night school until he could earn his divinity degree though a correspondence course. And then in 1902, he became the pastor of Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, the church where he earlier been the janitor. When he died thirty years later, that church had 12,500 members. Charles Tindley is best remembered, however, for two of the songs that he wrote, one of which became the basis for the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” But the other one is even better known– “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.”

At least according to the forecast, the days ahead show every sign of being challenging ones. But don’t give up, no matter how long the storms may rage. Instead, keep calm and carry on. Let us claim that word from Paul, in fact, that not one of us– not one of us— will be lost to the One who knows us the best and yet loves us the most. For in the words of another wonderful old hymn, the “wind and waves still know His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.”



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A Plain Post to God’s People

Supremacy     so͞oˈpreməsē     noun

the state or condition of being superior to all others in authority, power, or status, as in, “the supremacy of the king.”

Let’s start with the definition, shall we? For at least insofar as Mr. Webster is concerned, “supremacy” implies ultimate authority. And at least insofar as the Christian faith tells us, that belongs to One and One only, specifically, Jesus Christ. Which means that any ridiculous notion such as “white supremacy” is not only nonsensical, but it is dead wrong and dangerously blasphemous to anyone who names the name of Jesus.

Likewise, “racism,” defined as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior,” is indefensibly at odds with the biblical proclamation that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What’s more, we could say the same about sexism and all kinds of other ‘isms, for that matter.

So it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist (no offense to my friends at NASA) to tell us that there is no place at all within the Christian church—in any of its varied expressions—for attitudes which would condone the hateful rhetoric that some are espousing today and that came to an ugly head at Charlottesville over the weekend. No. Place. At. All. Full stop. Period.

To be certain, as offensive as their rhetoric may be, racists are welcome in our church, just as sinners of every flavor are. For I believe that we have the only antidote to the poisonous contagion within their hearts that can genuinely change them. War mongers can come, too, for the same reason, though we’ll ask them to check their payloads at the front door. Heck, we’ll even take gossips, gluttons, and lapsed Methodists who have forgotten how to get here over the years.

But along with our open doors, we’re going to keep open hearts, to coin the United Methodist marketing department—that is, hearts that are genuinely receptive to all, irrespective of whatever their human condition or circumstances may be. (We’ll even keep open minds up to a point–so long, that is, as they are not so open that our brains fall out.)

It doesn’t mean we don’t have doctrines worth defending and standards that should make us stand out from the rest of the world. It similarly doesn’t imply that all religions are interchangeable or even that all belief systems are worth believing in. But it does suggest that when it comes to how we treat one another, we will do so with deference and respect to all. And all means y’all, no matter where you may live.

In short, the sermon series for September at Christ Church on “Lost and Found: Civility, Compassion, and Community,” just got a whole lot more relevant. For now more than ever, we actually need some “climate change” in the world, at least insofar as the political and spiritual climate is concerned.

And who knew that Methodists could have such a meteorological ministry? For it’s up to us to start lowering the ambient temperatures around us, even in the heat of summer, beginning with our own.

No matter how you may choose to define the problem.








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The Sacrifice of a Signature

They were, as a whole, a most unusual assortment of individuals.  For what they did on that day long ago was not potentially dangerous, as we sometimes remember, but several of them actually paid the price for their boldness, as well.

Nine of them, for instance, died of wounds or hardships suffered during the long and bloody conflict with the enemy.  Another five were captured or imprisoned, a fate almost worse than death because of the brutality which they then endured.  The houses of twelve men were burned to the ground, and seventeen lost everything that they owned.

What was surely the hardest of all to take, however, was that the retribution for their actions fell not just upon themselves, but upon the ones whom they loved.  For the wives, sons, and daughters of several were killed, jailed, mistreated, persecuted, or left penniless. One was even driven from his wife’s deathbed and subsequently suffered the greatest pain of all, the loss of all of his children.

And all of it was simply because each of them signed their names to a piece of paper.  A paper which dared to not only challenge the mightiest empire in the world at the time, but to question the fundamental convictions about how a society is structured, as well.  For the declaration which they made spoke of higher ideals and greater loyalties than subjugation to any earthly king or power:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”

Those who signed that proclamation were thus branded as traitors and everyone of them was hunted.  Their enemies even tried to bribe them back, offering immunity, freedom, rewards, property, and their lives to break their pledged oaths and take the King’s protection.

But the amazing truth is that even in the darkest hours, not a single one of those who signed the American Declaration of Independence defected or changed their stand.  Instead, they chose to forfeit their fortunes and their futures, but never their honor or the cause in which they believed– freedom, liberty, and justice for all.

To be sure, they were not perfect men and their vision was far too narrow and even myopic when it came to the rights of minorities and women.  But they nevertheless understood that though the cost of caring for the common good may be high, it is yet worth pursuing.

Two hundred and forty-one years later,we still enjoy the fruit of their sacrifice.  As we celebrate yet another Fourth of July, perhaps it is time thus that we begin to put aside the partisanship and consider how to join together once more in the common cause that is America.

Likewise, when you sit down tomorrow at the table and say grace over all of your grilled goodies, perhaps it’s worth giving thanks to God as well for those extraordinary patriots whose signatures cost them so much in order to give us even more.





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A Dream for Methodists

Maybe it’s the futon we’ve been sleeping on in England. Or the conversation I had last night over a duck and cranberry pie with an English Methodist leader. But it crept into my mind all the same, especially after thinking about the widening impasse we seem to be facing in the United Methodist Church these days.

For if we had the chance to start afresh, I can’t help but dream that we could build the church a bit differently than it is right now. Doctrinally, for instance, I would simply update the language and context of the 25 Articles of Religion, throw in a good plank or two about prevenient grace and entire sanctification, then add the Apostles’ Creed and call it a day. (Yes, I love Wesley’s Standard Sermons–whether we count 44 or 52 of them–and would still commend them to all as excellent examples of applied theology.  But as actual statements of doctrine they have always been a bit unwieldy.)

When it came to leadership, I’d follow the example of the global south church and establish term bishops, giving them a six-year term with the possibility of re-election to one further six-year stint. Presiding elders (yes, I would change the name back from district superintendents), along with conference staff appointments, would be similarly limited to no more than three four-year terms during their career. And I’d allow for a presiding bishop to be chosen out of those who had finished their first six year term.

I’d draw annual conference lines either around standard metropolitan areas or balance them all out numerically to include somewhere between 250,000-300,000 members in each. In turn, I’d abolish all jurisdictions and have a regional or national conference that met once every three years to elect bishops and adjust the polity of each region, excluding the doctrinal and social charter sections.

That task would fall to a Global Conference which would meet once every six years for no more than a week for the primary purpose of inspiration, education, and renewing our Wesleyan ties and witness. To that group, however, would also indeed fall the responsibility of stewarding our global social compact. That statement however would be limited to only a few essential items, primarily expressing our support for the God-given human rights of all, though without compromising our bedrock belief that God’s best answers to the problems of the world are to be found in Jesus.

That charter would accordingly call upon governments to respect all of their citizens, as well as the created order which God has given us to treat as stewards. It would commend the biblical understandings of life which begins at conception, the covenant of marriage as the mutual submission and selfless service between one man and one woman, and holiness of heart and habits that glorifies God in all that we do, including the mandate to love all. 

Beyond that, it would say nothing about human sexuality in its varied expressions, nor would it endorse any particular governmental or economic system, other than to decry oppressive conditions that may diminish life in its intended fullness. Resolutions dealing with specific concerns could still be proposed at the regional conferences but each one, if adopted, would only have a shelf life of three years unless adopted again at the next conference.

There would be only four general boards, dealing with education (including our schools and seminaries), discipleship (including evangelism, men and women’s ministries, youth programs and bible studies), witness and outreach (including missions, health, and social concerns) and stewardship (including oversight of the pensions and general church’s budget).

That too would be simpler, however, as the shared giving program would be set as a tithe of local church receipts, with half going to the general church and half going directly to projects or programs beyond themselves as determined by each congregation.

And all of this I might call simply The Methodist Christian Church, for it is, after all, His church and not ours, whether we are genuinely “united” or not.  We’d be bound not by property trust clauses, but by trust in Christ alone. And if anyone wanted to join, we’d simply ask them, “Is your heart with mine? Then give me your hand.”

Of course it is just a dream and it no doubt overlooks many aspects of what it means to be both a faithful and fruitful church. On the other hand, if the alternative is the nightmare that we continue to be falling into as a denomination, that dream might be worth pursuing even in the light of day.

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