Holy Scripture: John

For most of my life, John was my least favorite book of the Bible. I loved the concreteness of Mark or the poetry of the Psalms. Even the genealogies of 1 Chronicles interested me more than John. It seemed vague and wandering and unsure of what it wanted to be. 

Even through seminary, I did not take the Gospel of John that super seriously. There were passages I liked, of course, but I always told myself that I was more of a Mark and Matthew kind of guy. 

Full time ministry changed that for me. As I started administering communion, the words of Jesus around communion in John 6 had more meaning. As I preached funerals, the words of John 14 became so deeply life giving. As I performed weddings, the words of John 2 held power.

As well, as I began to teach others of the Trinity, the Gospel of John became the ultimate source and resource to explain the amazing mystery and power of our God who is Three-in-One

The Gospel of John begins at the beginning, before the beginning. It begins in poetry and power with the Logos, the word, the reason, the meaning, becoming flesh. Logos is a challenging word to translate into English. Logic is a direct cognate. Word is often used, but a word describes the separate words on this page, it does not describe how meaning is made from the words on the page. 

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
    and without the Word
    nothing came into being.
What came into being
    through the Word was life, 
    and the life was the light for all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. (John 1:1-5, CEB)

The story of Jesus is more than the story of an old teacher and the people who followed him. The story of Jesus is the story of life and light creating everything and fighting off the darkness of corruption which wishes to smother that light. 

After reading the other gospels (referred to as synoptic because they all look at the life of Jesus in a similar way), John blows away our expectations and presents a Jesus both God and man, both Alpha and Omega, both teacher and savior. 


Holy Scripture: Luke

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Whereas Matthew begins with genealogy and Mark begins with a declaration harkening back to the Genesis 1, Luke begins in the historians way: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us…” Luke, commonly thought to be a doctor, looks at the story of Jesus from the view of history and he makes it a history. But not just any history. Luke shares with us the history of the true LORD of all.

Kyrie, the Greek word for Lord, has an important religious history that plays itself out in the Gospel of Luke. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are of names for God, but the most important by far is referred to in Hebrew as Hashem (or the word) and in Greek as the Tetragrammaton: YHWH. Some people pronounce the name but this is deeply offensive to Jews so I try to avoid it.

Alright, hopefully you are staying with me. In worship, when reading the name, in Hebrew it is referred to as Adonai, which means Lord, and Kyrie in Greek. In all of the Gospels, Jesus is referred to as Adonai, but this takes place most especially in the Gospel of Luke.

Here in this Gospel, we have a deep connection to God the Father. Much of the time, this can be missed if you go into the Gospel thinking Luke is a historian and thinking that Lord is a secular term instead of a deeply religious one.

Luke is also full of songs. The first chapter with the annunciation of Mary and Benedict contain two of the most beautiful songs in human history (fight me!). The parables throughout Luke are deeply rich, including the Prodigal Son.

Luke is also the same author of Acts and we see in that book a continuation of many of the themes in this Gospel. It is an exciting practice to read Luke-Acts together, seeing the ways that the words of Jesus carry into the life of the early church. And for us today, we can look back to see how the words of Jesus, the reality that Jesus is Lord and God, can effect and impact us today.

Holy Scripture: Mark

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Jesus gets to the point. One of the stunning qualities about the Jesus revealed in the Bible is his directness of speech. At no place is that clearer than in the Gospel of Mark. Mark begins in the middle of things. There is infancy narrative, no Christmas, no escape to Egypt.

It begins with an announcement and a quote from Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3: Look, I am sending my messenger before you. He will prepare your way, a voice shouting in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.”

Then we get John the Baptist, the call of the disciples, and miracles and ministries. Stuff happens in Mark. Stuff happens immediately. In Greek, the word euthus means immediately is used a lot Mark, so often that it is rarely translated because in English it seems redundent. Stuff happens immediately.

Another key aspect of the Gospel of Mark is what is known as the Messianic secret. Jesus doesn’t toot his own horn a lot. In fact, over and over he tells people not to share a miracle with anyone. Jesus is not a salesman. His actions are deliberate and done for the people involved.

Finally, Mark ends abruptly. The oldest manuscripts end with the angel telling Mary and Mary Madeline: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

That is it. Running away and being frightened. Later manuscripts add verses 9-20 but I find the starkness of Mark beautiful. This Gospel cuts through adornments to bear witness to the brutal wonder of the life of Jesus Christ. God is revealed not in comfort but in the immediate action of a Nazarene carpenter. Something different is going on. This is not a normal story. The world is turning upside down. 

Holy Scripture: Matthew

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A testament could also be called a testimony. The Newer testimony of God for us continues the story of the older testimony of God for us. This is what we have with the Gospels. Much as the Torah, the first five books of Moses are the preeminent texts of the older testimony of God to us through the Jewish people. The Gospels are the preeminent texts of the newer testimony. This is where Jesus is revealed.

The Gospel of Matthew, the Good News that Matthew shares with us begins with something rather jarring to modern eyes: a genealogy of Jesus Christ from Abraham and David up until his birth. Matthew serves as a bridge from the prophets to the apostles. There is not a pre-birth narrative in Matthew, though the book contains some infant narratives not found elsewhere. The wise men come in Matthew. As well, there is a flight to Egypt that is not present elsewhere.

The twentieth century has been filled with theories about authorship of the Gospels and the order in which they were written. A prominent theory posits a document called Q which contains sayings found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Mark is universally regarded as the earliest Gospel with various scholars speculating over the order of the other Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the synoptic Gospels because they look at the life of Jesus in roughly comparable ways. The Gospels of John is held out as something different and is commonly thought to have been written later in the 1st Century.

Because it starts with the Genealogy, many scholars believe that Matthew was written for a Jewish audience. Like the rest of the New Testament, it is written in what is called Koiné Greek, or common Greek. That is, this is the Greek of the commoners not of the elites. If you remember the musical My Fair Lady, it is more the language of Eliza Doolittle than of Henry Higgins.

There is a power and directness in the original language. One of the struggles with translations like the King James that make the entire Bible sound beautiful and regal is that the original language is not regal at all. It is basic and direct. Some books (like Luke-Acts and Hebrews) use more formal language and syntax, but overall, the language of the newer testimony is not very high. It is to the point and to the point of the people. God is not here for the special but for us. God is with us no matter where we are.

Two of my guiding scriptures are found in the Gospel of Matthew: Matthew 5 and Matthew 25. These texts continue to challenge and reveal more of God’s love to me. As well, they convict me about how to serve and lead God’s people today. These are texts set apart. The more I return to them, the more I get out of them. The less I return to them, the less I really am myself.

Holy Scripture: Minor Prophets

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Like a lot of the language in the Bible, the minor in minor prophets does not refer to these books being less important than others. The minor prophets are not minor of importance just as the major prophets are not major in importance. The minor prophets are short and the major prophets are long. In Hebrew, they are referred to as the Twelve. They are Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. These books are not long but they are rather deep in meaning and quite jarring to read. The first book, Hosea, begins with God calling the prophet to marry a prostitute. Amos 1:-4 says “The Lord proclaims: For three crimes of Damacus, and for four, I won’t hold back the punishment, because they have harvested Gilead with sharp iron tools. I will send down fire on the house of Hazael…”

Jonah is by far the most often quoted and read of the minor prophets in the modern church, but I think that has as much to do with its narrative structure as it does with the content.

Neither major nor minor prophets are easy to jump into. And this, I feel, is important. The bible isn’t there to be easy. God didn’t give us the revelation of Holy Scripture to simplify things for us. Nor is every chapter and book a helpful list of aphorisms or fables.

What is important to remember, as well, is that there is not a different God in the Old Testament from the New Testament. There is not an angry God long ago and then a God of love later on. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the same of God of all creation is the same Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We always must remember not to judge Scripture too quickly. If something seems harsh or confusing, it probably is, at least, confusing to us in 2018. That does not mean that it is incomprehensible. Instead, with eyes on the God is who love in Jesus Christ.

The Christian Bible is structured differently than the Tanakh, or the Jewish scriptures. The Tankh ends with 2 Chronicles with Cyrus’s decree:

"This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: "'The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the LORD their God be with them.’" (2 Chron 36:23, NIV)

The Christian Scriptures end the old Testament with the Minor Prophets, specifically, with the book of Malachi. “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Mal 4:5-6, NIV).

The prophets lead to the Messiah. The speak in the midst of exile and pain and point to a hope found in God, who will come. They are not just history but point to the shattering of history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is and was and is to come.

Holy Scripture: The Major Prophets

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Major prophets is not a name inherent to the text of the Bible. In fact, most names for every book come from later scholars and readers. The division of manor prophets and minor prophets is fairly intuitive, but would be clearer (though less noble) as wordy prophets and succinct prophets. There was never a time when Jeremiah’s mom and Micah’s mom were at a party and Jeremiah’s mom made a big deal, saying, “it is so wonderful that Micah is a prophet now, though, of course, my son, Jeremiah, is a major prophet. It’s not his fault there aren’t more major prophets…”

The major prophets consist of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Each text is enormous with a lot of textual issues. The Greek Septuagint version of Jeremiah is 1/8 shorter than the Hebrew Masoretic text. It gets more complicated because the Septuagint is from the 2nd Century BC while the Masoretic text is from about a thousand years later. All translation is challenging, but no bit of translation can make up for the difference. What is interesting is that when the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the last century, there were fragments of Jeremiah in Hebrew that matched the Septuagint more than the Masoretic text.

Is one version more right than another? Is the Hebrew more authentic than the Greek? There is one way that we can be tempted to rule in a certain direction. Martin Luther certainly was, but I personally think that it was because Luther’s Hebrew was much better than his Greek.

With Isaiah, most scholars divide the book into 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Isaiah due to the language being used and the topics under discussion. 

So there are textual challenges here. If our faith is week, they could be terminal. If our faith is in the integrity of the Bible rather than in the life-giving love of Jesus Christ and the revelation of God found in the Scriptures, it could be terminal. But to read the Bible as Holy Scripture is to see it all as God-breathed, to read God present here in ways beyond our control or mastery. God is present in the Septuagint and in the Masoretic. God is present in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Isaiah. God is present throughout the Prophets. 

The prophets have hard words for the people of Israel and hard words for us today. These books are not easy to read. One of my teachers used to call Isaiah the 5th Gospel. As Christians, Jesus is found throughout the prophets and it is not very hard to read him there. We should seek God not just in the simple and direct texts, but in the challenging and confusing ones. There is fruit to be had for our lives and our faith. 

Holy Scriptures: The Poetical Books

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What is a poem? This is not as simple a question as it seems. English language poetry used to be the kind of thing people read to each other after dinner but with the advent of radio and television and the internet, popular consumption of poetry has been radically limited. And yet, there is a modern distinction between poems and songs that would be irrational in the ancient world. The great epic poem, the Odyssey, was sung for hundreds of years before it was written down. Ancient poetry, as well, focused on different devices than English poetry. For instance, instead of emphasizing rhyme and meter, Hebrew poetry emphasizes parallelism. For instance, in Psalms 29:1 


Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty,
give unto the LORD glory and strength.


The last word of each line parallels each other. 

Another great poetic example is the entirety of Psalm 119. The longest chapter in the bible is an acrostic of the Hebrew Alphabet all the way through. 

The poetical books of the Bible are generally considered to be Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. I would be put Lamentations in there, but not everyone does. 

What is important is that these books were not written to relay information. They had a different purpose. In the early church, leaders would teach people first Ecclesiastes because the hard look at life was the most similar to what everyday people experienced. Then, they would teach the Proverbs showing the way of wisdom. And finally, after years, they would allow people to read the Song of Solomon. The idea being that you must be mature in your faith to understand the Song and not be moved to temptation by the fleshiness of it. 

We have in the Psalms, as well, the book mostly heavily cited by Jesus Christ in the Gospels. It is also referred to as the songbook of the church. In Psalm 12:6, it says “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.” This the basis of the ancient Liturgy of the Hours. The 7 prayer times taken up by monks and nuns in the early church. My own prayer life is heavily shaped by this practice.

The poetry books of the Bible are still Holy Scripture but they do not cease to be poems. They are meant to be spoken and shared, to evoke and provoke, to guide and emote. If you read the Psalms like you read Genesis or Judges, you are missing the point. Yet God is found therein and God speaks to us all from the pages of these poems. 

Holy Scripture: The Histories

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History is a contentious term. It seems simple enough. If you think to your grade school studies, history was an account of what happened in the past. But whose account matters? This is not as simple a question as ut may seem.

As well, what happens that deserves to be recorded and what happens that deserves to be forgotten? James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, is over 700 pages all taking place in one day. 

The first Western histories were written about wars and contained speeches that people did not say. These were not seen as false but incomplete.

Most histories followed in these same lines of the Greeks. They focused on battles and heroes and great men and great villains. 

This began to change in the mid-19th century when histories began to focus on data and attestations and accurate reflections of what happened.

It is not a coincidence that modern history rose hand in hand with modern photography. The existence of a photograph gives the viewer the possibility of accuracy. But anyone who has ever taken a picture knows that it is not entirely accurate. Choices are made. The camera is pointed in this direction and not that. The focus is on this spot and not that. 

All of this is important when we look at the histories of the bible. The entire bible is not history, but a number of books are: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. 

These books cover the history from the entry of the Hebrew people into the promised land, to the Babylonian captivity. And yet some of the history overlaps, especially 1 & 2 Chronicles and 1 & 2 Kings. The Kings are continuations of 1 & 2 Samuel, clearly following in the sam narrative trajectory. Chronicles covers similar periods but from a different perspective and with some foci. 

As well, there is one pretty glaring contradiction between 

1 Chronicles 21:1-2 (ESV)

 Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.”

and 

2 Samuel 24:1 & 2 (ESV)

Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people”

Now one way to read this is proof of the fallibility of Scripture another is to read Satan as adversary in this verse but as the personification of evil everywhere else in the Bible. 

Both of these readings I feed deeply insufficient. I don’t have a complete answer but my response would be to try to find out what is being said rather than look for verification of some prior assumption about historicity based on modern assumptions. 

When we enter the strange world of the Bible, we are not entering a textbook or a rule book but the space where God is revealed. To read it as a history textbook is to misread it. To read it as ancient irrelevant myths is to read it. How we read it as the word of God can only be learned and lived through the life of the people of God.

Holy Scripture: Torah

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The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah. Torah is a Hebrew word which means law or instruction or way. It is all of these words and more. The Torah is also called the Pentateuch or the Five books of Moses. Each of these refer to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. 

These books are different. They are sacred. They are holy. They start before creation and follow the creation of everything with the fall and the flood and the calling of Abram and Sarai. From there, the story continues through Isaac and Jacob and the 12 brothers before moving to the slavery in Egypt, the calling of Moses, the Exodus, and the wanderings in the wilderness. Leviticus covers the law in detail while Numbers and Deuteronomy give two different accounts of the journey from Wilderness to the cusp of the Promised Land.

Torah is the holiest book of Judaism. Any other sacred writing has a secondary footing compared to the Torah. The Talmud, the holy set of enormous books that drives much of Jewish thought consists of commentaries upon commentaries upon the Torah. 

How are Christians supposed to understand the Torah?

This is not a simple question. A deeply complicating factor has been the history of anti-semitism in the church. This wicked distortion has read Paul as a self-hating Jew and read the law something wicked and strangling upon the people. In this poor view, law is contrasted with spirit, which is good and lovely.

In practice, it separates the God of the Old Testament from the God of the New Testament. One is a God of rules, another of Love. This is wrong. The scriptures which Jesus and all the New Testament authors speak of are Torah and the rest of the Old Testament. There is only one God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the God of Jesus Christ who is love. 

The law is not just telling people what to do but a gift from God about how to live. It has been distorted and can be, but everything can be distorted. The devil quotes scripture back to Jesus. Instead of dismissing the law, we must look at how Jesus uses the Torah, how we are taught that not one jot or tittle will fall away of the law. 

Instead of dismissing scriptures that we don’t understand, we should pray and seek God’s wisdom. We should remember what Paul says in Romans that the Gentiles are grafted onto the tribe of Abraham in Christ. Christians do not replace Jews. The New Testament does not replace the Old. If you read the Torah and are confused, I encourage you to write down questions, take it slow, talk to me or another you respect about what is going on. Jesus is revealed in Torah in amazing ways. It is not just a story or a law but a gift from God that continually enriches our lives.

Holy Scripture: Lectio Divina

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While the first use of the Bible was in corporate worship, early in the life of the church, certain Scriptures were used by the faithful for personal devotion. Without a printing press, the Scriptures had to be copied by hand and so full copies of all the books of the Bible bound together were rare. However, different verses and chapters were much easier to share from person to person, from community to community. As well, ancient practices of memorization were rather astounding so that a person could have Paul’s letter to the Galatians, for example, for a week and have the entire thing memorized. Then they would be able to share the text with another person 

Personal devotions did not look like they do today. There were not a lot of personal reflections on top of the scriptures. Instead, verses were prayed in detail in the practice that has now become known as lectio divina. Verses came to exist as a way to pray the scriptures. Paul did not write verses or chapters in his manuscripts. Chapter numbers and verse numbers came from later editors who wanted to distinguish what should be prayed corporately (the chapter) and what should be prayed personally (the verse). This is, of course, a rough simplification of a phenomenally complex process. 

Lectio divinameans holy reading in Latin. To practice lectio divinais to take a verse, like Galatians 3:27, for instance: “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (CEB). You read the verse. You read it again. You focus on one word the sticks out to you. Maybe clothed. What does it mean to clothe myself with Christ? You pray about it. The point is not comprehension nor getting to what Paul meant. The reading is holy. It is good. How is God speaking to you through it?

God offers the Bible through the community of the followers of Jesus Christ known as the church. The entire Bible is not handed to Paul as God hands Moses the tablets or as Jibreel hands Mohammed the Quran. This doesn’t make the Bible less valid but places its validity and truthfulness less as a stand-alone object and more on the community in which it is read and proclaimed, and the Triune God which is revealed therein. 

Lectio divina is only part of the gift of scripture but it is important. God offers himself to us. God offers the Word of God in the form of words on a page or words recited. What an amazing gift? 

Holy Scripture: The Lectionary

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Before the Bible was the Bible it was read in worship. Lectio means ‘I read’ in Latin and so the lectionary was the set of readings for a specific day. Some of the earliest manuscripts in existence are not full books of the bible but readings for specific days. 

The most used lectionary today is called the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). It was created in 1992 by the Consultation on Common Texts, an ecumenical group from a number of different denominations. 

The RCL consists of a set of readings for each Sunday and Holy Day of the year, beginning with the first Sunday of Advent. It is a three-year cycle so every three years, we return back to the same text again. Yet three years is a long time of daily life. A lot can happen in the world in three years. Karl Barth said that preachers need to have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other because to preach is to make the Word of God alive for the people who hear you. 

Not every church uses the lectionary but a lot of them do. Most every Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran church uses it. Most nondenominational and Baptist churches do not. I usually preach sermons in a series and most preachers who preach this way do not use the lectionary. The pick and choose the text to fit the topic. Another form of preaching is called expository preaching. This involves following a single book of the bible over a course of many weeks or many years. Next week’s reading will always immediately follow this week’s reading. I like to use the lectionary to base a sermon series around. I don’t like choosing the text. I prefer to receive the text and present it in a new light. If it were just up to me, I would probably avoid certain sections. The RCL itself avoids readings that were prominent in older lectionaries (tough I like to put them back in). It gets down to whether we see the Bible as a tool or a gift. Is it a tool to be used how I see fit, or a gift that can transform me and you and the entire world?

The point of the bible is not to be a set of rules or a code of living. This exists within the Bible, but it is not the whole thing. I am going to be doing a series of blog posts on the Bible, eventually going through the entire Bible, yet I am starting with the lectionary because what the Bible is, first of all, is a series of readings with which to worship the Triune God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are revealed herein. The Bible is never changing yet always new and fresh. We do not stand above it. We receive it as grace. We don’t use it as a sword to guilt or manipulate others, we receive it and share and love it and worship our Lord with it, for here Christ is revealed for all ages. 

UMC Glossary: The General Commission on Communication & the General Board of Church & Society

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With all of these different boards and commissions and conferences, it can sometimes seem confusing when different boards or conferences say different things. What is important to always remember is that the only group that can speak for the United Methodist Church is the General Conference. There is no press secretary for the UMC, though there is a General Commission for Communications (UMCom). This group is responsible for the website, any press releases, and for resources concerning communication for local church. They provide a lot of helpful graphic design, web hosting, and church communication plans. Nevertheless, whatever is produced by UMCom is not authoritative for the whole church. 

The same can be said for the General Board of Church & Society (GBCS). This is the group tasked with supporting and carrying out what is declared in the Social Principles and the UMC Book of Resolutions. GBCS has offices in Washington D.C. and they function, in large part, as the lobbyists of the United Methodist Church. Sometimes there will be a statement made by someone who works for GBCS that is presented by news organizations as “The UMC claims that...kittens are cuter than puppies”. Well, not exactly. But any claim made by an officer of GBCS is not the UMC speaking. It is a distinction that is easily lost among press concerns and the thirst for controversy. At a previous appointment, there was a comment made by an employee of GBCS that caused me to receive about 15 emails and two people leave the church. People can understandably be upset and in that specific incident, the employee in question was later asked to resign, but still, GBCS does not speak for the church but helps the church speak to the world. 

We should not be silent in what we believe, nor should we act like we are alone. One of the great benefits of being a part of a larger church is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel with communications, as well, we coordinate with other churches to make sure our voice is stronger when we do speak up about injustice in this world. 

 

UMC Glossary: Discipleship Ministries

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One of the benefits of being in a connectional church is the resourcing and support that goes with it. That is, there are thousands of churches like Berkeley across the country and the world with people trying to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Discipleship Ministries is the new name of what formerly was called the General Board of Discipleship. Their mission is explicitly as follows.

[to provide] leadership and resources in the areas of spiritual growth and development, devotional literature, curriculum resources, Christian education, evangelism, worship, stewardship, and ministry of the laity. Discipleship Ministries oversees The Upper Room.

The most popular aspect of Discipleship Ministries is the Upper Room, which produces a number of Spirituality resources for individuals around the world. The Upper Room daily devotional is translated into 33 languages around the world. As well, people from around the world are able to submit devotionals. 

The Upper Room also coordinates Walk to Emmaus gatherings around the country, which many members of Berkeley have been involved in in the past. Here is how they describe the event.

The walk to Emmaus is an experience of Christian spiritual renewal and formation that begins with a three-day short course in Christianity. It is an opportunity to meet Jesus Christ in a new way as God’s grace and love is revealed to you through other believers.

The Walk to Emmaus experience begins with the prayerful discernment and invitation from a sponsor.  After one accepts this invitation they complete an application.  The Emmaus leaders prayerfully consider each applicant and in God’s time, the person is invited to attend a three-day experience of New Testament Christianity as a lifestyle.

Following the three-day experience, participants are joined in small groups to support each other in their ongoing walk with Christ.

 Through the formational process of accountable discipleship in small groups and participation in the Emmaus community, each participant’s individual gifts and servant-leadership skills are developed for use in the local church and its mission.  Participants are encouraged to find ways to live out their individual call to discipleship in their home, church, and community. 

The objective of Emmaus is to inspire, challenge, and equip the local church members for Christian action in their homes, churches, communities and places of work.  Emmaus lifts up a way for our grace-filled lives to be lived and shared with others.

Discipleship Ministries also resources pastors and church leaders on worship preparation and many resources for worship. This helps with planning songs, seasons, even worship series. Resources for New Church development is also provided by Discipleship Ministries. That means that churches like Berkeley can use the same tools that church plants are using to try and reach the unchurched in our community. 

Discipleship Ministries is supported by our apportionment dollars. Without their ministry and support, the church would be quite adrift. 

 

 

UMC Glossary: A Global Church

The United Methodist Church is a global church. it is not simply based in the US but based all over the world. Each local church or mission is a base for the UMC. I am going to show a set of images which reveal how the Central Conferences around the world are structured.

Central Conferences came into exist in the 1880s out of demand for the growing Church in Asia especially. Methodist missions around the world peaked from the 1840s to the 1920s. Soon after that, churches in Japan, Mexico, and Korea became autonomous. In the 1950s, a working group was organized at General Conference in order to coordinate with churches outside of a strictly missionary context. There are UMC missionaries all over the world, but the Central conferences which I am showing here are each church in explicit and continuous connection with even Berkeley UMC. 

There are Methodist churches in many other parts of the world. We are in connection with them through the World Methodist Council

A major distinction between Methodist churches globally and the Central Conferences is that each central conference sends delegates to General Conference. A delegate from the Philippines or Russia has just as much say as a delegate from Houston or San Antonio. 

General Conferences have many translators for each time it meets. In 2016, there was even a session entirely in French.

I have a friendship with the District Superintendent of Hungary and I hope to continue to build further relationships with the UMC there.

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UMC Glossary: The Connectional Table

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Last week, I shared about all the General Agencies that support the mission of the United Methodist Church. Since General Conference meets only every four years, and issue that has propped up as the church has grown world wide is what body will give oversight to the General Agencies? Some might assume that it would be the Council of Bishops but they have a very limited scope and authority. General Conference is the only body with true oversight authority, but, again, they only meet every four years.

Thus, The Connectional Table was created. Here is an excerpt from the CT's website

Created at the 2004 General Conference, the Connectional Table was formed to serve as both the visioning body of the church and the steward of resources to carry out the vision of the denomination worldwide.

A transition team, chaired by Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher, cared for personnel, property and programmatic issues associated with the dissolution of the General Council on Ministries, allowing the Connectional Table to move forward with its work.

The purpose of the Connectional Table is to discern and articulate the vision for the church and the stewardship of the mission, ministries, and resources of The United Methodist Church as determined by General Conference and in consultation with the Council of Bishops.

The 2004 General Conference made clear that “the Connectional Table is to be motivated by faithfulness to the mission of the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ; global in scope and holistic in understanding; inclusive in nature and collaborative in style; and while being efficient in the stewardship of resources, be transparent, accessible, and accountable in all relationships.”

The structure and organization of the Connectional Table reflects the desire to make sure that all voices are represented around the table and are heard in the conversation about the mission and ministry of the Church. Jurisdictional and central conferences elect members to serve on the Connectional Table. The Council of Bishops both leads and collaborates with the Connectional Table. The agencies of the Church also have representation in the CT, participating with voice (general secretaries) and vote (agency presidents). Representation from each of the ethnic caucuses and from The Division on Ministries with Young People make sure their unique interests and perspectives are heard and inform the work.

The Connectional Table objectives are to:

  1. Provide a forum for vision and implementation;
  2. Enable flow of information and communication;
  3. Coordinate program life of the global church;
  4. Evaluate the missional effectiveness of agencies;
  5. Recommend changes for agency effectiveness;
  6. Provide leadership in planning and research; and
  7. Collaborate with Finance and Administration (GCFA) to develop the budget.

From a far, the different levels of bureaucracy of the United Methodist Church may seem archaic or convoluted. And yet, much of the structure has been constantly evolving since the inception of the church. Delegates to General Conference don't want to keep doing the same old thing. There are over 10 million members of the UMC worldwide and our connection is not simply nominal. In order to make the connection strong we to develop and promote tools and groups which keep us focused on the mission of the church and the Connectional Table is one of the groups.

UMC Glossary: General Agencies

The UMC is a global church. The most vital part of the UMC is each individual local church. In order to better serve local churches and connect ministries world wide. To that end, General Agencies have been created by General Conference to support those ministries in specific ways. These agencies cannot speak for the church, but they each have a mission which corresponds to the mission of the UMC as whole: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 

I am going to copy from the website of each agency to share a little bit about them all. 

The General Commission on Archives and History (GCAH) gathers, preserves, and disseminates materials on the history of The United Methodist Church and its antecedents. It maintains archives and a library in which the historical records are kept.

The General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) challenges United Methodists to work in areas of important social concern and develops resources to inform, motivate, and train United Methodists on issues of social justice in the society. 

The General Commission on Communication (United Methodist Communications; UMCOM) provides leadership for the denomination in the fields of communication, public relations, and promotion of the general funds and programs of the denomination. It is the official news gathering and distribution agency of the denomination. It provides resources and services to local churches and annual conferences in the field of communications. 

Discipleship Ministries (GBOD) provides leadership and resources in the areas of spiritual growth and development, devotional literature, curriculum resources, Christian education, evangelism, worship, stewardship, and ministry of the laity. Discipleship Ministries oversees The Upper Room.

The General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) manages the finances and operational needs of the denomination and serves as the general treasurer of the denomination.

The General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) connects the church in mission. This is accomplished by sending missionaries, including young adults, from everywhere and to everywhere; collaborating and engaging with volunteers; evangelizing and church planting through mission initiatives; addressing diseases of poverty and global health; and responding to natural and civil disasters. (UMCOR is a part of GBGM)

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) leads and serves The United Methodist Church in the recruitment, preparation, nurture, education, and support of Christian leaders, both lay and clergy.

On behalf of the church, GBHEM prepares and assists those pursuing professional ministry through ordination, certification, or licensed ministry. For those exploring God's call in their lives and thinking about beginning the candidacy process, GBHEM also offers resources, as well as an event, to help young adults hear, discern, and respond to God’s call to ordained ministry.

GBHEM also supports a network of 119 United Methodist-related schools, colleges, and universities in the United States, including 13 schools of theology. Additionally, through a network of chaplaincies, Wesley Foundations, ecumenical ministries and church-based ministries, The United Methodist Church reaches more than 1,300 campuses around the world. (The current General Secretary of GBHEM is a former pastor of Berkeley, Kim Cape)

Wespath (Formerly The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits) supervises and administers the pension and benefits programs, plans, and funds of The United Methodist Church. It administers and disburses the retirement and benefit funds of the various annual conferences.  

The General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) focuses on bringing about full and equal participation of the racial and ethnic constituencies in The United Methodist Church. The commission carries out its work through advocacy of the issues and by reviewing and monitoring the practices of the denomination. 

The General Commission on Status and Role of Women (GCOSRW; COSROW) challenges The United Methodist Church to commit to the full participation of women in the life and mission of the church. The commission serves as an advocate for, and on the behalf of, women; seeks to eliminate inequities in relation to women in the church; and monitors the general agencies, institutions, and connectional structures to ensure the inclusion of women. 

The General Commission on United Methodist Men (UMMen) involves men in a growing relationship to Jesus Christ and his church and provides resources and support for programs of evangelism, stewardship and the needs of men.

The United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH) distributes the official publications, records and forms of the denomination; publishes books through Abingdon Press; and operates Cokesbury, its retail division, and MinistryMatters.com, which offers online resources and community for leaders. The publishing house also produces and distributes church school materials and study resources throughout the denomination. 

United Methodist Women (UMW) is a faith-based membership organization of laywomen within The United Methodist Church. UMW members are committed to growing as disciples of Jesus Christ in community with other women and advocating on behalf of women, children and youth around the world. United Methodist Women has been in mission for more than 140 years.

Again, the General Agencies are not the church, they serve the church and allow us to do more things and more places with the possibility of reaching more people for Jesus Christ. If these are new to you, I hope you can take some time browse the websites and see some of the amazing things that are going on.

UMC Glossary: District Superintendents

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Who is your pastor’s pastor? In some denominations, this can be a very tricky question. Congregational and non-denominational churches cannot answer the question. The pastor is the pastor’s pastor. As a pastor, I can tell you, I am not a very good pastor for myself. 

As discussed before, Elders appointed to a local church are not members of a local church. Elders are members of the annual conference. As conferences are currently structured, my District Superintendent (or DS) is my pastor. 

This is not a minor thing. I need a pastor who can support, encourage, and hold me accountable to the vows I have made. 

DSs have many other responsibilities beyond being the pastor’s pastor. They are appointed by the Bishop to be extensions of the Bishop’s office. DSs represent the bishop at the District level as well as work with the bishop in what is called the Cabinet. The Cabinet consists of all the DSs plus a few other conference level personal. They function to advise the bishop on all clergy appointments. 

There is a liturgical calendar in the church (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.) as well as an administrative one. In the UMC, our administrative calendar revolves around Annual conference. The fall is Charge Conference season and the spring is appointment season. DSs supervise local church charge conferences (which are the annual administrative event of the local church). They also represent the district in the cabinet during the appointment season. (Here is a video of our current bishop, Robert Schnase, explaining the appointment process). When there is an opening, the DS explains what is going on in that church. As well, the other DSs proffer candidates from the district who have gifts that may be applicable to that location.

When there is a pastoral move and a new pastor is coming in, the DS comes with the newly appointed pastor to meet with the Leadership Team to introduce the pastor to the church. 

When disciplinary matters come up, the DS is also a big piece of that system. 

The DS serves for 6 year terms before returning to local ministry or serving in another capacity. For me, though, the DS is mostly my pastor. Someone I can turn to in times of need, of doubt, someone who can remind me why I am here. 

UMC Glossary: Bishops

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A bishop is a funny word and a funny position within the United Methodist Church. In Roman Catholic churches, the bishop is a separate ordination and a special calling. In the United Methodist Church, a bishop is an elder elected to be the superintendent of an annual conference and to preside over that conference session. They are given authorities to particular ministries, but they are still full elders. However, instead of being members of annual conferences (like other elders), bishops are members of the College of Bishops.

Bishops deserve respect but not fealty. They are not members of the House of Lords (like in the Church of England) and their power is not infinite, yet they have specific authorities that are quite consequential. They also have a task that is not enviable. A few years ago, I wrote about the office on the site Ministry matters and I am posting the full text here to share more about what I learned of Bishop’s at that time. 

In December of 2015, I was on my way to San Antonio to drop off my papers at the Episcopal Office for ordination as an elder in the Rio Texas Conference. While on the road, I received an email from the conference communications director concerning an imminent announcement about the actions of our bishop. A few hours later, came the bishop’s resignation. I handed off my papers hoping to be ordained but having no idea who would actually ordain me. Instead of bringing in a retired bishop to finish Mr. Dorff’s term, though, the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction elected to have four bishops cover the responsibilities of the Rio Texas Conference. These were all people who had come out of either the former Southwest Texas Conference or the former Rio Grande Conference and so they had a special relationship with us. What I don’t think they realized is that by delegating the functions of the bishop to four separate individuals, they revealed a great insight into how bishops in the United Methodist Church actually view their own job.

The Bishop of Record for Rio Texas was Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Conference. Houston is geographically closest to San Antonio and the Texas and former Southwest Texas Conferences had shared bishops in the past. What is important with Bishop Huie is that as the bishop of record, her one responsibility was for appointments. That’s it. Thus, we see that bishops understand appointments as the most important responsibility given to them since the power to appointment went hand in hand with an official capacity as bishop.

Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Conference was designated to plan and lead Annual Conference. The Bishop is president of the conference. Sometimes we may forget because conference happens only once a year, but this was seen by the college of bishops as a responsibility great enough to fully occupy one person.

Bishop Michael Lowry of the Central Texas Conference was designated with overseeing the nominations process of the conference. Because Rio Texas is a new conference, many older disciplinary committees have been merged together, but there is still a lot of work to be done in nominations. Bishop Lowry was also tasked officially with assisting the transition to the new bishop, though what that specifically means was never made clear.

Bishop Joel Martínez, a retired bishop of both the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Conferences was designated with preaching at special services around the conference, overseeing mission, service and justice ministries, and with sitting on the various boards and charities that go with being bishop of the conference.

There was a fifth bishop who oversaw the Rio Texas Conference in the Spring and Summer of 2016. He was not named in the official press releases. He was not discussed on the website. But when we met up as districts to discuss the new system, Bishop Huie herself mentioned this function. Bishop Michael McKee of North Texas was designated with overseeing complaints and judicial actions. Bishop Huie said that this was the worst part of the job of being a bishop so she was thankful that Bishop McKee took on this responsibility.

So what we have is a five-fold office: appointments, annual conference, nominations, pastoral ministry, and judicial complaints. We should not see these functions as equivalent but comparable. This is how bishops see their job. This is what they do. Each of these tasks is an enormous responsibility. United Methodist bishops are not a separate order because they are not a separate ordination. They do not function like Catholic or Episcopal bishops, no matter how fancy a crozier one person may have. The pragmatic episcopacy is a noble goal. An episcopacy based on truly superintending the connection (that is, fulfilling the functions that are asked) as opposed to positioning oneself above the connection.

So what can we learn from this episcopal relationship? Bishops in the UMC have a lot of responsibilities. In order for active bishops to help with the Rio Texas conference, they were only willing to take on one aspect of episcopal ministry. It may go without saying, but the episcopacy is an arduous place to be and the people there need our continuous prayers and respect. How often do you pray for your bishop? Have you ever asked of their spiritual condition? Have you ever asked how they are going on to perfection in this life? The five-fold office mentioned here does not even include responsibilities to any General Boards or Agencies. Yet in the five-old office, I see a hopeful future for the position of bishop. A future that does not have CEO envy or Catholic envy but is firmly Wesleyan in the goal of sanctification, in the goal of personal responsibility, in the goal of social holiness, in the goal of being disciples of Jesus Christ.

It is here that I propose an idea of the pragmatic bishop. The pragmatic bishop leads by serving. The pragmatic bishop leads by doing the job of the bishop, the five tasks the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction knew needed to be done for the conference to continue. Maybe a few more tasks, but at least these five. The pragmatic bishop is not a person apart but a person in ministry with and our connection will be strengthened as conferences and bishops see their relationship as deeply connected. The bishop is not simply an authority. The bishop has a job. Titus 1:5 points to this. 1 Timothy 3 points to the character of the person who would do this. For us not so called, it is our job to serve as the bishop requires, and help build a church where the office of bishop is not isolating but sanctifying.

When we, as a church, affirm that the most effective place for making disciples of Jesus Christ is the local church, we are not saying that we don’t need bishop’s leadership. We are saying that bishops are not the center of the story of what it means to be a Methodist. The bishop is a part of the story, they serve a function, but they are the center. By looking at the interim episcopacy of the Rio Texas Conference, we can see how bishops view what they do, and we can see what they do not find important enough to designate. We in the local church should be reminded of what we do and, mostly, what God has done and is still doing through all of us, despite all of us

UMC Glossary: Annual Conference

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Methodists are not known for their flowery language. Annual Conference is a conference that meets annually. After 1784, Annual Conferences were centered around places that people could travel to. 

Annual Conferences are analogous to presbytery’s in the Presbyterian church, Synods in the Lutheran Church, conventions in the Baptist Church, and Dioceses in the Catholic Church. Geographically, they are similar, but in practice, Annual Conferences are much more central to the function of the United Methodist Church than any other denominations geographical divider. 

As discussed earlier, UMC elders are itinerant, which means we are moved. The annual conference is the area in which an elder can be moved. As well, Elders and Deacons are not members of local churches, they are members of Annual Conferences. Each of the other churches in the conference matters to me both because a colleague is currently appointed there and also because I could be there soon. 

As well, the annual conference is both the administrative unit of the regional church as a well as a literal conference that meets annually. Berkeley’s conference (Rio Texas) has been meeting for many years in Corpus Christi, TX. This year’s conference is being held June 6-9. Each church has lay delegates, lay alternates, and clergy delegates. 

There are business sessions and teaching sessions at annual conference. The business session adopts the budget for the conference and any new policies that may need to be implemented. As well, every four years, delegates are chosen from Annual conference to go to the General Conference. The business side can be tedious with all the Robert’s Rules going on, but the amazing thing about it is that every delegate has a voice. Every church, no matter how small, has the right to stand and speak. The Bishop gets to appoint elders and committees, but they preside over Annual Conference, they cannot dictate it. 

Annual Conference is also where new clergy are commissioned and ordained. The best part of annual conference is found here, in the worship of our Lord and the ordaining of new people for the commitment of ministry. 

As Methodists, we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Both geographically and generationally. There is a service at conference where both the retiring clergy and the new clergy are both recognized. We are a part of something bigger than ourselves. In times of challenge, it is wonderful to remember that.

UMC Glossary: General Conference

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There is no pope for the United Methodist Church. So who speaks for the church? I do not nor does my bishop. The authority to speak for the church resides solely in the General Conference. That is it. There is no spokesperson for the church. There are General boards which have secretaries and can speak to their designated area but not for the church itself.

So what is this General Conference. This is from umc.org:

The General Conference is an international body of nearly 1,000 delegates that meets every four years. The delegates are elected by annual conferences (at annual conference sessions) to attend General Conference. They represent all annual conferences around the world. Half of the delegates are laity (non-clergy members), half are clergy.

Bishops attend the General Conference but cannot vote. Different bishops serve as presiding officers during the conference. Other bishops cannot speak unless permission is specifically granted by the delegates.

During General Conference, delegates discuss and vote on petitions and resolutions proposed by individuals, agencies, annual conferences, and other groups within the denomination. These actions result in a revision of the Book of Discipline, the denomination's book of law, and Book of Resolutions, policies of the denomination on current social issues.

It is at General Conference where delegates wrestle with today's issues in light of scriptural teachings and the church's understanding of that teaching. Here is where the church's official stands and church policies are made regarding such issues as human sexuality, abortion, war and peace, as well as determination of ministries and funding.

General Conferences are held in years divisible by 4, such as 2008, 2012, 2016, etc.

Resolutions for General Conference must be submitted months ahead of time. The body of General Conference has the power to call a special meeting with a special, focussed agenda. This is a called General Conference. This is what happened in 2016. The Conference voted to have a called session in February 2019 to address resolutions concerning Human Sexuality and to have a plan for a way forward. 

General Conference is not a nimble, fast moving body. It moves slowly, sometimes excruciatingly slowly. Yet in its deliberations is a continuity back to the early church. The first church council takes place in the book of Acts. The first decision the early church makes is a bureaucratic one: who is going to replace Judas Iscariot? Even when it seems like it, bureaucracy is not antithetical to the Gospel. When people are together, decisions have to be made. Sometimes those are not the decisions you would make. Being a part of a church is holding on to the fact, by faith, that God is more present in our deliberations than the sinful humans are. Because ultimately, our hope does not rest in General Conference or the United Methodist Church but in our Lord, Jesus Christ, who called the curious community of people together to grow holy and follow him in faith, hope, and love.