Cuban Methodism: Spirit-filled and Overflowing

The Rev. Guillermo Leon Mighthy holds the microphone for trumpet player Jorge Lázaro Corrales Estradas. Photo by Steve Beard.

The Rev. Guillermo Leon Mighthy holds the microphone for trumpet player Jorge Lázaro Corrales Estradas. Photo by Steve Beard.

Within a Caribbean culture marked by Cold War skullduggery, economic scarcity, and vindictive secularism, the Methodist Church in Cuba stands out as a beacon of spiritual freedom, miraculous signs and wonders, unexpected blessings, and salsa infused worship. Not only has vibrant Christianity survived some of the darkest decades of Cuba’s history, it is a thriving testimony to the profound hope found at the roots of the faith.

“Young people in Latin America have spent a long time learning a language that is different than the language of God,” said the Rev. Guillermo Leon Mighthy, illustrating the prevailing way of thinking in Cuba.

“By the age of 18, they have heard more than 80,000 times these five phrases: (1) ‘I don’t know,’ (2) ‘There isn’t any,’ (3) ‘I don’t have any,’ (4) ‘I can’t,’ and (5) ‘It’s not easy.’ Five negative phrases; nothing positive,” said Leon. “This is not the language of the Bible.”

Leon is the 41-year-old lead pastor of the Central Havana Methodist Church in one of the grittiest neighborhoods in the Cuban capital. As a former professional soccer player and past leader of Methodist youth in Cuba, Leon has a spiritual counterattack for each of these phrases.

“First, the Bible never says that we don’t know. We know who we are, we know what we have, and we know the One who is with us. Second, yes there is; in God there is hope. In God there is healing. In God there is blessing,” said Leon, who is also the district superintendent of Havana.

“Third, yes we have. God says he is our shepherd and we will lack nothing. God says that whatever we lack we will receive in riches in his glory,” he continues. “Fourth, yes, we can do it. The apostle Paul says in Philippians that we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us. Lastly, with Christ it is easy, because Christ helps us. Nothing is impossible with God.”

The falling of the fire

Hope and anticipation are common themes in Leon’s preaching, along with spiritual warfare, victory, overcoming, healing, and blessing. These are also the repeated themes in the Cuban Methodist pulpits and the narrative of testimonies delivered during services. The spiritual dynamic behind the growth of Cuban Methodism is the “movement of the Holy Spirit,” said Pastor Aylen Font Marrero, a 29-year-old staff member of the Methodist Cathedral of Holguín, 450 miles east of Havana.

According to the latest information provided by the Methodist Church of Cuba, there are 410 churches and 927 missions (churches in formation). With approximately 46,500 members, there are about twice that number involved in the ministry of the denomination in different ways.

Although the personalities and styles of each congregation may differ, Font believes that Cuban Methodists are unified in “seeking God, the movement of the Holy Spirit, the falling of the fire and anticipating the glory of God to descend.” The primary focus of each congregation is “the love of God for the people of God. This is what we want to really see and experience and see grow,” she said.

The embers of this revival fire have been stoked since the 1970s, reports the Rev. Dr. Rini Hernandez, district superintendent in the Florida Annual Conference. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Methodists all over Cuba were participating in all night prayer vigils, reports Hernandez. The outgrowth of their prayers were miraculous signs and wonders, including speaking in tongues, physical healing, deliverance from spiritual oppression, and being physically overwhelmed by the power and presence of God in their meetings.

“We did not know it was Pentecostal,” Hernandez told Good News. “We were just asking God to fill us with the Holy Spirit.” Along with the outpouring of supernatural occurrences, these Methodists experienced a holy boldness that has characterized their singular focus on sharing their faith. “We lost all fear of repercussions and committed ourselves to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the Cuban people, one life at a time,” he recently wrote in an article for the Florida Annual Conference. “The Holy Spirit’s fire spread out to the local churches, youth camps, and almost every event in the life of the church.”

Heart-warming experience

In an interview with Bishop Ricardo Pereira in conjunction with my first visit to Cuba more than 16 years ago, he told of his special experience with the Holy Spirit on October 18, 1984, many years before he became bishop. “At that time I had two young men in my church —14 and 16 years old. They had read about John Wesley and his ‘heart-warming’ experience,” Pereira said.

“That night, at 8 o’clock they knelt down in the church and said to me, ‘Pastor we are not going to get up from here until we have the same experience that John Wesley had.’” Pereira told them that they were confused. “I don’t think it works that way. I have been told that not everyone receives the same experience.” Nevertheless, these boys were going to pursue a blessing from God. Pereira said that he grabbed one of the boys, but he said, “Pastor I will not get up from here.”

Pereira was angry. “I slammed the door and went home and started watching television,” he admits. “But something was stirring in my heart, telling me, ‘Pastor you are not doing right. How can you allow your members to pray by themselves? Why don’t you go and keep watch with them?’”

He walked back to the sanctuary and said to them, “See, you have not received anything.” The boys continued asking God to give them the power to evangelize. At 11 o’clock he told them, “It is very late. Why don’t you begin again tomorrow?”

“No pastor,” they said, “we are not going to get up from here until we receive the touch of the Spirit.” At 12:04, Pereira reports that the boys had an “explosion of light in their faces and great joy in their heart.” After their experience, Pereira said: “I was so afraid that I knelt next to them and said, ‘Okay, I won’t get up until He fills me up, too.’ I wept and asked God to forgive me. And I said, ‘Lord I want you, too. I have been preaching the gospel, doing the best I could, but if this joy is real, if you can give that explosion in the hearts of my two members, you can give it to me, too.’

“At 3:00 a.m. we were all like mad people, speaking in tongues. I woke up my wife so that I could tell her that I too had this joy in my heart.”

Renewed Methodism

Although both share in an experiential and supernaturalist faith, Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God believe that speaking in tongues is the “initial evidence” of receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. That is not a doctrinal distinctive for Methodists. Nevertheless, Methodist services in Cuba are unapologetically charismatic. The framework for theology and ministry within Cuban Methodism was not imported from other denominations, but is an organic expression of their own unique divine encounter.

The Cuban experience mirrors the religious trend of its neighbors. In the latest study of 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries and one U.S. territory (Puerto Rico), Pew Research found that two-thirds of Protestants (65 percent) identified as Pentecostal Christians either through denominational affiliation or personal self-identity.

Sociologists pair Pentecostals and charismatics into the category of “renewalists” when studying international religious trends. As the fastest growing spiritual movement, renewalists account for one-fourth of all global Christians with upwards of 500 million adherents. According to the World Christian Database of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, Brazil has the highest number of renewalists, followed by the United States, China, Nigeria, India, and the Philippines.

As Professor Philip Jenkins points out in his ground-breaking work, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, believers outside the United States take the Bible very seriously. “For Christians of the Southern Hemisphere, and not only for Pentecostals, the apostolic world as described in the New Testament is not just a historical account of the ancient Levant [sections of the Middle East], but an ever-present reality open to any modern believer, and that includes the whole culture of signs and wonders. Passages that seem mildly embarrassing for a Western audience read completely differently, and relevantly, in the new churches of Africa or Latin America.”

At the outset of the Cuban revolution, the late Fidel Castro used to define the boundaries of cultural engagement to the intellectuals and artists: “Inside the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.” Within revival, the Methodist Church has transfixed and transformed – redeemed, perhaps – that kind of singular focus to a pinpoint: Cuba for Christ.

High voltage worship

Even non-church going observers would recognize something combustible and dynamic taking place in a Cuban worship service. This is not the place to be if one has been lulled into expecting a predictable 55-minute morning service with two Victorian-era hymns, a children’s sermonette, a choral anthem, a homily, and tidy benediction.

“We worship God with so much passion,” said Pastor Adria Nuñez Ortiz, “we give him praise with all we have in our hearts. We have so much love for God because we understand that he has done so much for us. Everything we do for him is nothing in comparison to what he has done for us.” Nuñez is associate pastor of Central Havana Methodist Church and married to Pastor Leon. She is also a songwriter, musician, and leader of their high-energy choir.

The worship time is unmistakably Caribbean. “As in biblical times, Cuban Methodists praise the name of the Lord and dance with all kinds of instruments and shouts of joy,” Bishop Pereira told me not long ago. There is a jacked-up salsa beat with a sliver of hip-hop and drums, congas, guitars, bass, trumpets, and trombones. If you solely associate Cuban music with Buena Vista Social Club, there is a brand new galaxy of sound in the church. The worship is frenetic, physical, ecstatic, electrifying, and emotional.

With a smile, one pastor told me that the “jumping does not draw the Holy Spirit, but jumping is the response when the Holy Spirit falls.”

For Nuñez, the pogoing up and down in worship is a simple expression of joy. “We rejoice every time we think about what God has done for us,” she said. “Specifically in our context of central Havana, many people were drug addicts, idol worshippers, prostitutes and God took them out of that way and saved them. The Bible says that the one who is forgiven much, loves much. And when somebody pays a huge debt for you, then expressions of joy and happiness come out of your heart and that’s what’s happening in Cuba.”

New day in Cuba

Needless to say, many things have changed in Cuba since my first visit in 2000. Netflix is streaming (for those with credit cards); the online home rental business Airbnb is now available to foreigners, the black market emporiums are hiding in plain sight, and the Rolling Stones played last year before 500,000 in Havana in a free concert a few days after President Barack Obama’s controversial visit. With the average Cuban making less than $20 a month, there still isn’t expendable income for luxuries such as high-dollar rock concert tickets.

Cell phones are omnipresent (a vibrant black market), but the internet is spotty and frustratingly slow. Private enterprises are still in infancy stages, as one might expect in one of the last remaining Communist countries. There is, understandably, a strand of “forbidden island” allure for Americans to explore Cuba as more avenues open for tourism. Many visitors simply hit the Ernest Hemingway hot spots, buy cigars, rum, and a Che Guevara t-shirt, cruise around in a 1952 pink Cadillac convertible taxi cab, and then drink mojitos on the pristine beaches.

For Professor David Watson, however, the experience is all about plunging his students into the eye of a revivalistic tornado. “A lot of our seminary students have never experienced what spiritual renewal looks like, and when they come here they get to be a part of a very powerful Spirit-filled revival,” said Watson, the academic dean at United Theological Seminary. Watson has brought students to Cuba from the Dayton, Ohio, seminary for the last three years.

“One of the ideas behind our seminary’s emphasis on church renewal is that all renewal – individual, local church, or church universal – is the work of the Holy Spirit. That is certainly the case in the Cuban Methodist revival,” he observed. “We want our students to be exposed to and learn about what it looks like when God shows up in a powerful way in the life of a congregation or denomination.”

Amanda Moseng is one of those seminary students, soon-to-be a provisional elder in the West Ohio Annual Conference. Her trip to Cuba was sparked by a divine healing she experienced at a Holy Spirit conference hosted by United Seminary. While in Cuba, Moseng tirelessly prayed for healing and blessing for those who came forward at the end of each of the services. Not raised as a charismatic, the Cuban scenario was new, but she adapted with deftness and enthusiasm.

Moseng’s own healing encounter is the catalyst behind her faith to confidently pray for “healing in people and to open myself to let the Holy Spirit work in whatever way the Holy Spirit wants to manifest,” she said. Prior to her trip to Havana, she had never prayed for healing for someone else. She now has a “boldness of faith that only God grants, that only comes from the Spirit.” Moseng also had the unique opportunity to preach in the Central Havana church on “holy boldness” to an attentive congregation. “I’m just so humbled that God would choose me to do those things, that God would use me for that. I will be eternally grateful for what I’ve experienced here,” she said. “I’ve been transformed in ways I could never have imagined and I will leave here with a sense of boldness and faith that’s greater than I’ve ever had.”

Finding wealth in Cuba

For the last 28 years, the Rev. Jaime Nolla has made a yearly pilgrimage to Cuba. “When you see people who either walk for miles, travel on the back of a platform truck, or travel in an overloaded, very old bus, standing because of the lack of space, to get to a crowded church anticipating to experience the presence of God, your heart is moved in ways you cannot describe with words,” said Nolla, a retired United Methodist pastor and former district superintendent in the Wisconsin Annual Conference.

Nolla was one of the clergypersons standing in the front of the 500 men and women jammed into the sanctuary of the Vedado Methodist Church in downtown Havana waiting to be anointed with oil. The bustling and energetic congregation worships in a striking art deco church with loud praise music spilling out from the open doors and windows near the University of Havana. The expectancy and desire was palpable as those in seemingly never ending lines waited patiently in an attitude of prayer for this blessing.

Nolla’s numerous visits over such a lengthy period of time have afforded him opportunities to see innumerable Methodist congregations across the length of the island (more than 700 miles long).

“Many of these people come dressed with the one or two outfits they own because of the poverty on the island. However, none of the obstacles that would stop people from coming to church in the United States are big enough to stop them from coming to church,” he told Good News. “We are thankful to God for the commitment and dedication second to none that we have seen and experienced.”

“When you live in a place where there is extreme poverty, the response of the people is to find wealth in other ways,” observed the Rev. Rebekah Clapp, one of my travel mates and translators in Havana. “For Cubans, that spiritual wealth has become a response to that.” Clapp earned her M.Div. at United Theological Seminary after living in Nicaragua, and is currently working on her Ph.D. in intercultural studies at Asbury Theological Seminary.

“Because of the reality of spiritual forces that they interact with, Christians respond with language of victory, language of overcoming,” she continued. “They have victory in their lives in Christ over and against spiritual forces, over and against the powers of the idolatrous religions, over and against the work of the devil, and also over and against the socioeconomic and political reality in which they live. They can respond to it by saying, ‘I have life in Christ, I have power in the Holy Spirit, and I have victory.’ That gives them hope, that gives them purpose.”

It may also go a long way in explaining how the Methodist Church has been a sustained oasis in the spiritual desert of Cuba’s soul for the last 50 years.

Witness to Hope: 50 years of Good News Magazine

Graham-KeysorLooking back upon the 1960s, Good News was launched in an era bookended by the smoking barrels of assassin rifles, the fleeting banter of “God is dead” dogma, a Cuban missile crisis, attack dogs lunging at civil rights protesters, flower children, Cassius Clay becoming Muhammed Ali, the Bible read from space, a six day war, and The Who destroying their instruments on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour television show.

The decade was anything but uneventful.

President John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was assassinated in 1963 on the same day as the death of Anglican layman C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia. Strangely enough, it was also the day of the passing of Aldous Huxley, author of a Brave New World.

In 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Two months later Senator Robert Kennedy died in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles after being shot. The homicidal brutality and steely calculation of humanity’s original sin bared it fangs once again. It was a bloody decade – and not just for the famous and prophetic.

There was a reason that Timothy Leary simply said, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” With more meaningful contrition, however, the weathered bluesman would simply say, “Lord, have mercy.” The cultural mavens of that decade were trying to juggle the adrenaline of the counterculture, civil rights and race relations, budding feminism and women’s liberation, new immigration standards, the influx of alternative religions, and American young men dying in Vietnam.

The world was a chaotic place at the time. It probably always has been, but it seemed to be especially strung out and anxious. No wonder Andy Warhol turned a familiar and comforting symbol like a Campbell’s tomato soup can into a pop culture icon.

Modern, secular man. Charles Keysor was a journalist who had his life flipped upside down at a Billy Graham crusade. Although he was a church-going Methodist, Keysor was a modern, secular man – self-described as “self-sufficient, agnostic, ambitious, materialistic, and seen in church mostly at his wife’s urging.” Nevertheless, he would lay awake at night wondering if there was more to life than a good paycheck, a nice house in the country, and professional success. “I had heard about Jesus,” Keysor would admit. “But as I reached my mid-30s I could see no connection between His perfect life and my struggles; between His death on the cross and my growing inner confusion.” Where was a man supposed to find hope?

On business trips, he would dip into the Gideon Bible in his hotel room. “Jesus seemed to know me better than I knew myself,” Keysor said. “I desperately wanted a new and better life.” He responded to the invitation at a Graham crusade, “believing that Jesus could work a miracle if I gave myself to him.” Surrender. Forgiveness. Conversion. New life.

Graham represented a different spiritual and cultural strand during the 1960s – one that included preachers on television such Rex Humbard, Kathyrn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, gospel singers such as Jake Hess and the Statesmen Quartet, The Staples Singers, The Dixie Hummingbirds, and ministries such as Teen Challenge, Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth With A Mission (YWAM), and InterVarsity.

For Keysor, it was the commitment made at a revival that opened his heart – with all the fear and trepidation of making a counterintuitive career shift – to going to seminary and becoming a clergyman. He graduated from Garrett Theological Seminary in 1965, was ordained, and appointed to Grace Methodist Church in Elgin, Illinois – his home church, northwest of Chicago.

While he was working his way through seminary, theologians and philosophers were attempting to find ways to eradicate what they perceived as outmoded and traditionalist concepts of God and cobble together a new secular theology for up-to-date sensibilities. In 1961, Protestant theologian Gabriel Vanhanian made a splash with his provocatively titled The Death of God: The Culture of our Post-Christian Era. Five years later, William Hamilton and Thomas Altizer published Radical Theology and the Death of God. There were other writers of this era spinning a similar yarn. Like students dissecting a formaldehyde-drenched frog in high school biology class, theologians were pretending to slice open the chest of God to see if the heart was still beating.

As a journalist and seminarian, Keysor had been fully exposed to all the varieties of eclectic, faddish theologies and alternative religions. None of those academic contrivances, however, had changed Keysor’s heart or given him the answers to the questions surrounding his purpose in life. The experience of turning his soul, mind, and career path over to Jesus Christ rang truer to him than did the trendy notions of theologians who had become bored or exasperated with orthodoxy.

In 1966, Keysor was invited by Dr. Jim Wall, editor of the Christian Advocate, to publish an affirmation of the beliefs of Methodist evangelicals. Entitled “Methodism’s Silent Minority,” Keysor made a spirited defense of the elementary Christian basics: the inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the physical resurrection of Christ, and the return of Christ. Of course, there was nothing revolutionary in what Keysor had affirmed. It was all found in our Articles of Religion. The stir that was created is that Keysor affirmed it sober – without a wink, without his fingers crossed.

The “Silent Minority” article hit the streets only a few months after Time religion editor John Elson wrote a lengthy cover story with the sucker-punch title “Is God Dead?” In addition to the 3,421 letters from Time readers, the title stirred up a tsunami of a national debate about God, faith, and culture.

In response to his own article, Keysor was also flooded with letters and long distance phone calls (a big deal back then) from Methodist preachers. Almost all told him the same thing: “Thanks for speaking up! I didn’t think anybody else believed the way I do.” A few of the writers and callers asked Keysor about starting a magazine to reflect their point of view.

Demonstrate a way. Two years before Keysor’s article, Bishop Gerald Kennedy of Los Angeles presented the Episcopal Address at the 1964 General Conference of the Methodist Church. “Kennedy is unquestionably among the four or five most dazzling preachers in the U.S. today — an oratorical genius with a commanding baritone, and the pace and timing of a Broadway pro,” wrote Time magazine in a cover story on Methodism’s identity crisis a week after the General Conference.

“This year many of the 858 Methodist delegates arrived at their conference with the deep conviction that their church had reached a turning point in history,” reported Time, “and with a scarcely concealed fear that the vitality that once burned in Methodism was lost when fiery evangelism gave way to today’s organized, institutional church.”

In his address, Kennedy told the delegates that the Christian task is “to pursue our ancient course of attacking our own imperfections, keeping our life open to God, and perfecting our society. We are not trying to sell a system, but to demonstrate a Way which is incomparably better than all others, and shines with the promise of a more abundant life for all men.”

Kennedy was surefooted; appreciated by conservatives and liberals alike. Although not narrowly categorized as an evangelical, he was the high-profile chair of Billy Graham’s three week crusade in Los Angeles in 1963 (final evening attendance of more than 134,000).

At that time, Kennedy was spearheading the fastest-growing area of the Methodist Church. It was a golden era of buying property, building churches, and extending the tent pegs of Wesleyan Christianity on the West Coast.

Cornering Kennedy. Shortly after a speaking engagement in Chicago, Bishop Kennedy got cornered by Keysor. The persistent journalist spelled out the plan for Good News magazine. “That sounds great,” said Kennedy, “Let me know if I can help.” The next day Keysor asked him to write an article for the launch issue about the place of evangelicals in The Methodist Church.

Landing Kennedy in the first issue of Good News in 1967 illustrated Keysor’s tenacity as much as it revealed Kennedy’s authentic inclusivity and respect for evangelicals.

“It must be said that there is no question in my mind as to their [evangelicals] being a legitimate part of the Methodist heritage,” wrote Kennedy. “They are Wesleyan in their basic propositions. Their emphasis on conversion finds an echo on nearly every page of John Wesley’s Journal. The truth seems to me to be that The Methodist Church has been, broadly speaking, evangelical in its understanding and interpretation from the beginning.”

Kennedy had had run-ins with both closed-minded liberals and irascible fundamentalists. Although the power structure of the Methodist Church was unapologetically reflective of the liberalism of the era, Kennedy believed in a beefy pluralism that included orthodox believers, especially the “brethren whose emphasis is on the unchanging and eternal verities of our faith.” At a time when evangelicals felt like unwanted third-cousins, Kennedy’s affirmation went a long way when he wrote that they “are just as legitimately Methodists as are these brethren who look down their noses at them and consider them outmoded.”

Of course, we live in a different era. A lot has changed in 50 years. There may be a temptation to view some of Kennedy’s words as less dramatic than they appeared in that first issue of Good News in 1967. Although Methodism appeared rich and strong, we had deep and painful fissures – not only with race, but also with theology, spirituality, and ideology. Kennedy’s words of inclusion were important.

Along these lines, there were two major events that took place in between Keysor’s “Silent Minority” article and the first issue of Good News that made Kennedy’s olive branch extension all the more significant.

• British believers gathered on October 18, 1966, for the National Assembly of Evangelicals in London to discuss theology, ecumenism, and unity. Before 1000 delegates, the two most well-known evangelical leaders – the Rev. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of Westminster Chapel and the Rev. Dr. John Stott of All Souls Church – had a major public rift about whether evangelicals should remain or withdraw from the Church of England. Lloyd-Jones argued that evangelicals are “scattered about in the various major denominations … weak and ineffective.” Stott, an Anglican, took umbrage and used his position as the chair of the event to fire back with animated rhetoric at Lloyd-Jones, his ministerial colleague and friend.

• One week later, The World Congress on Evangelism was sponsored in Berlin by Billy Graham and Dr. Carl F. H. Henry, founding editor of Christianity Today. The conference drew leaders from 60 denominations. “We discovered that we were all needy sinners – all alike before God in both our inadequacy and our unrealized potential,” said the Rev. Mike Walker, a Methodist pastor from Texas and Good News board member, in his report from Berlin in the first issue of Good News.

According to the New York Times reporting, there was discussion among the international delegates to starting a “new denomination or withdrawing from the central bodies of existing ones.” Henry is quoted as saying that evangelicals should “stay where they are and resummon their denominational brethren to the major task of the church, preaching the Gospel.”

This was, quite simply, part of the Good News vision.

God is not dead. For fifty years, Good News has faithfully worked within The United Methodist Church because people like Chuck Keysor believed God could offer renewed spiritual life to men, women, and children. “Orthodox Methodists come in theologically assorted shapes, sizes, and colors,” wrote Keysor in his “Silent Minority” article. “But, unfortunately, the richness and subtlety of orthodox thought are often overlooked and/or misunderstood. There lurks in many a Methodist mind a deep intolerance toward the silent minority who are orthodox. This is something of a paradox, because this unbrotherly spirit abounds at a time when Methodism is talking much about ecumenicity — which means openness toward those whose beliefs and traditions may differ.”

Good News has always believed evangelicals, conservatives, moderates, and traditionalists have an essential role within The United Methodist Church – and we wanted to make it a more faithful denomination by supporting missions and publishing trustworthy confirmation materials and Sunday school curriculum.

More importantly than anything else, we wanted Good News magazine to reflect our witness for the life-changing message of Christ with grace and truth. Jesus is the Good News – we are merely a movement and a magazine.

In the height of the “God is dead” hype, the Rev. Dr. James Cleveland, known as the King of Gospel Music, recorded a two-album set in Cincinnati featuring a pew-jumping rendition of “God Is Not Dead.” In the same year, Tennessee Ernie Ford released his album “God Lives!,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe played her sanctified blues at the Newport Folk Festival, Mahalia Jackson recorded “There is a Balm in Gilead” on an Easter Sunday album, and Elvis released his album “How Great Thou Art.”

“One reason for the persistence of gospel music is the people’s persistent interest in the Gospel,” observed Keysor in his “Silent Minority” article. In other words, listen to the singers and gospel choirs. Let their light shine. Let them play their part.

That is what Good News has wanted to do for the last 50 years – play our part. Keysor called it our “journalistic ‘mission’ to Methodism’s ‘silent minority.’” We remain grateful to God for this opportunity and to the men and women who sacrifice, contribute, and pray for us to press forward in our mission to see a renewed United Methodist Church.

In his Good News article, Bishop Kennedy wrote, “A great deal of this modern spirit is a passing thing, and after we have changed our minds a hundred times in the future, the great and fundamental truths of our religion will shine forth with continuing brilliance. With all the modern talk about Church having to keep up to date, it is great to have clear voices proclaiming that over against all the novelties there is the unchanging truth of what God has done for us through the Incarnation.”

It remains our vision to be a witness to hope for a life-transforming United Methodism and a clear voice that allows the continuing brilliance of our Lord and Savior to shine through the pages of Good News.

With the Mourners, We Mourn

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 11.28.42 AMAs we pulled together this celebratory issue of Good News, we were confronted with the horrific news of the brutal murders of brothers and sisters in the faith.

Twenty-five people died and 49 more were injured when a bomb went off on the chapel on the grounds of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of the Egyptian Orthodox Church. In your prayers, we invite you to join us in remembering the precious women and children – the targets of this bombing – who were victims of this terrorism.

The description from Reuters is heartbreaking: “The chapel’s floor was covered in debris from shattered windows, its wooden pews blasted apart, its pillars blackened. Here and there lay abandoned shoes and sticky patches of blood.”

“As soon as the priest called us to prepare for prayer, the explosion happened,” said Emad Shoukry, who was inside when the blast took place. “The explosion shook the place … the dust covered the hall and I was looking for the door, although I couldn’t see anything … I managed to leave in the middle of screams and there were a lot of people thrown on the ground.”

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” St. Paul instructs. Our prayers are with the families of the victims. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

25 Years as Editor in Chief

Honoring-Steve-MemphisWhile gathering in Memphis, Tennessee, the Good News Board of Directors celebrated the 25th anniversary of Mr. Steve Beard as columnist and editor in chief of Good News – at the helm for more than 150 issues of the independent United Methodist magazine.

In commenting on the anniversary, the Rev. Walter Fenton, a colleague at Good News, noted that Beard’s wide-ranging journalistic interests swung from John Wesley to Bono, Johnny Cash, and Mahalia Jackson – and passionately focused on the plight of martyrs and persecuted believers around the globe and the marginalized in our own society.

“You’re always wondering about how we as a church can find ways to be more compassionate, gracious, and just simply kind and decent to the lost and lonely in this world that too many of us hardly even notice,” concluded Fenton.

The board of directors presented Beard with a framed picture of the “Million Dollar Quartet” – Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lewis in the studio of Sun Records in Memphis, as well as original art from contemporary folk artist Chris Taylor.

Prior to his retirement, the Rev. Dr. James V. Heidinger II, president emeritus of Good News, worked with Beard for 18 years. “I remember a great picture on one of Steve’s office walls of him in a tuxedo, talking with the late William F. Buckley Jr. at a Washington D.C. reception,” recalled Heidinger. “It always reminded me of the cultural adjustment Steve had to make in coming to our former offices in Wilmore, Kentucky.”

“But how fortunate for all of us that Steve did come! And that he stayed,” continued Heidinger. “He worked himself ragged giving Good News a first-rate publication, issue after issue. It has been your calling for quarter of a century, and you have done it splendidly!”

“You are gifted professional, a skilled craftsman, and a person of great integrity,” Heidinger concluded. “You have amazingly good instincts about how we can and should relate to a church struggling for its soul…. Congratulations on this very significant milestone.”Honoring-Steve-Memphis

Remembering Thomas C. Oden

Oden bioProfessor Thomas C. Oden was the prime agitator to the agony and ecstasy of my seminary experience. It was wading through 1,400 pages of his three volume systematic text books that introduced me to his dear friends Athanasius, Basil, John Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, as well as Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine – that’s just to name a few.

To be honest, sometimes it felt like fraternity hazing and at other times it read devotionally, healing the wounds of my worn-out and stretched mind. Looking back on it, I would not have had it any other way.

It was with deep sorrow and great gratitude, mixed with a redemptive joy, that I heard about the death of Dr. Oden (1931-2016), my dear friend who taught me so much about the faith once delivered to the saints. Along with his many other responsibilities, he also served – and we were honored to have him – as contributing editor to GOOD NEWS.

There will be many glowing testimonials to Tom – and none of them will be exaggerations. He was a one of a kind theological mind with a deep spiritual yearning to be faithful to the deep roots of Christianity. Over our 25 years of friendship, there are a few reasons I have always trusted Oden.

First, he was steadfastly committed to the historic teachings of Jesus. He made a professional vow to be theologically “unoriginal,” a counterintuitive move for a brilliant intellect within a culture where newer is always considered better and theologians huff and puff to “keep pace with each new ripple of the ideological river.” Oden was sold out to the witness of the martyrs, saints, and prophets – the faith that has been “everywhere and always and by everyone believed” to be the truth of Christianity.

Second, he had a checkered past. For some reason, I trust those whose skeletons have already been laid bare. He wasn’t always a bleeding heart for orthodoxy. As a “movement theologian,” he dabbled in theoretical Marxism, existentialism, demythologization, Transactional Analysis, Gestalt therapy, humanistic psychology, and parapsychology. Oden liked the bandwagons and everyone winked and nodded. Everyone, that is, except the late Jewish scholar Will Herberg, a brilliant colleague at Drew University who hounded Oden to rediscover his Christian roots.

“The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I still felt depressed even in acquiescence,” G.K. Chesterton wrote many years ago in Orthodoxy. “But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy like a bird in spring.”

Taking Herberg’s admonition seriously, Oden incrementally turned his back on trendy movements and “the fantasies of Bultmannianism” he had embraced and ended up being United Methodism’s preeminent theologian.

Third, Oden smiled. Sounds insignificant, but it was not. He was pastoral and deeply concerned about the care of the soul. He was a lover of ideas, an engaged student and teacher. Oden was not bitter – mildly amused, but not bitter. He was actually grateful for his colleagues – feminist, form critical, deconstructionist, and even heretical – who challenged him to be more clear in his espousal of orthodoxy. He only asked for a fair hearing.

One would need a billboard to list all his books. Oden spent 17 years editing the 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. My last interview with Oden dealt with his four-volume collection of John Wesley’s Teachings. He described Wesley’s sermons as addressing the “whole compass of divinity” through his deep grounding in ancient ecumenical teaching.

The same could be said of my beloved friend, Professor Thomas C. Oden. He will be sorely missed.

Evangelicals Unite in Chicago

swayze4During the first hour of its launch event in Chicago on October 7, leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) were scrambling to find more chairs to accommodate the standing-room-only gathering, as well as swaying and clapping to the enthusiastic and impromptu participation of African United Methodists during the opening worship time – a visible reminder of the global nature of the denomination.

“I am convinced God is doing a new thing among those of us who claim the historic, orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan expression of our faith,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway, lead pastor of Reynoldsburg (Ohio) United Methodist Church, in his presentation on the group’s purpose. “I believe we are planting seeds today that — when full grown — will bear the fruit of a vital Wesleyan witness and a dynamic Spirit-filled Methodism across the globe.”

Speaking on behalf of the participants from Africa, the Rev. Dr. Edwin Julius Momoh of the Sierra Leone Annual Conference, affirmed the kinship between the goals of the WCA and African United Methodism. “We understand that the WCA is vision-driven movement committed to moving forward God’s agenda for the evangelization of the nations, the revitalization of The United Methodist Church, and the transformation of society; as we do in Africa.”

The inaugural gathering was a high-energy mixture of affirmative messages on the Lordship of Jesus, the centrality of the Scriptures in the life of the Church, and the Wesleyan drive to transform the world through Christian discipleship and social holiness.

“We Methodists believe in holding in tension both works of piety and works of mercy,” said the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, senior minister of Grace Church, a multi-site congregation committed to recovery ministry in Southwest Florida, in his presentation. “Faith expressed without a robust expression of both in the life of an individual follower of Jesus or a local church is incomplete and unbiblical in our understanding of what it means to live in Christ. For us faith is lived best when as a follower of Jesus I work on my prayer life and work to end human trafficking. My local church is being faithful to the way of Jesus when our hands are lifted high in transcending worship and our hands are reaching low to work with the poor.”

The Chicago event was also a show of solidarity to orthodox clergy and laity in sections of the church that no longer adhere to the global United Methodist views on marriage and sexuality. The day-long event culminated with a communion service overseen by two United Methodist bishops.

“We don’t live on the world’s wisdom, we do not exist on the world’s power,” said Bishop Mike Lowry of the Fort Worth Area of the Central Texas Conference, during his communion homily. “You know and I know it is Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. What is at stake for us in this struggle we are in is not ultimately the issue of human sexuality. What is at stake for us is who is Lord, who rules, who saves us. We preach Christ and him crucified.”

Living core of our faith. Interspersed between messages calling for a revitalized Wesleyanism, WCA leaders crowd-sourced affirmation of its theological underpinnings, purpose, and moral principles. “We are reciting the Nicene Creed today without crossing our fingers behind our backs,” said the Rev. Dr. Bill Arnold, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, before leading the group in the ancient affirmation of faith. “These standards and this creed are more than mere historical relics of our past. These are the living core of our faith, rooted firmly, we believe, in the revelation contained in the Old and New Testaments.”

It also christened a new leadership team through audience affirmation by applause and “amens.” As the council members began their work together they elected Dr. Jeff Greenway as the group’s chairperson; the Rev. Carolyn Moore, pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church outside of Augusta, Georgia, as vice chairperson; the Rev. Madeline Carrasco Henners, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Luling Texas, as secretary; and Ferrell Coppedge, lay leader of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia, as treasurer.

With more than 1,800 participants, the Donald E. Stevens Convention Center near O’Hare Airport in Chicago was flooded with enthusiastic United Methodists from every conference across the denomination in the United States and from ten conferences in Africa.

The Rev. Dr. Kim Reisman, the World Director of World Methodist Evangelism, called upon the gathering to find strength in the global church’s witness. “I believe the Wesleyan Covenant Association is a place where we can be encouraged to follow the lead of those beyond the United States and begin rooting ourselves in the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, so that we can move beyond self-reliance, and boldly claim, or reclaim, the Trinitarian shape of Wesleyan life and witness.”

Chicago Statement. Through a “Chicago Statement” that was affirmed by a standing ovation and cheers, the group asked the Council of Bishops to “swiftly name the members” of the Commission on the Way Forward and “approve the call for a special General Conference in early 2018 to enable resolution of the conflict that divides us before further harm is done to United Methodist members, congregations, conferences, and ministries.”

“If we are one church, we need to stop acting like two churches,” said the Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter, pastor of a multi-site United Methodist congregation around Geneseo, Illinois, in presenting the statement. “If we are two churches, we need to stop pretending we are one. I say these things as someone who has worked passionately for the cause of church unity over the past few years.”

In the midst of dissension and uncertainty within United Methodism, leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association say the group was formed in order to bring a unifying voice of hope and encouragement to evangelicals and traditionalists as they face the future.

“What unites us is that we long to be part of a mighty movement that God uses to change the world,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, pastor of adult discipleship at The Woodlands (Texas) United Methodist Church, during his message to the group. “We did not join the United Methodist Church to debate what the Bible has made clear. We did not enter the ministry to save the church. We are Methodists because we want to be part of a church that God would use to save the world.”

“We don’t know what the future will bring,” said Renfroe, who is also president and publisher of Good News. “We are not here to promote schism. But we are not here to be naïve either. Change is coming to the United Methodist Church. We all know that. The bishops know that and many have said so publicly.”

The Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology (United Methodist) in Liberia, reminded the group about the importance of choosing the right way when two divergent paths are presented at a crossroad. “The only sustainable path to global unity of the people called United Methodist is total submission and loyalty to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and an exclusive obedience to the Word of God as primary authority for faith and Christian living,” said Kulah. “While we live within diverse cultures and religious worldviews, it is important that we love and embrace everyone, but we must continually live within God’s parameter of grace defined by Scripture.”

Light of the world. The temptation to accommodate to the values of the prevailing culture has been a struggle for the Church since the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, observed the Rev. Dr. Andrew Thompson in his presentation. “The Church was not meant to adhere to the values of the world. The Church was not meant to be the handmaiden of the culture,” said Thompson, Wesleyan scholar and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. “The Church was rather called to be the ‘light of the world,’ the ‘city built on the hill,’ and the ‘lamp upon the lampstand’ giving light to the darkness beyond (Matthew 5:14-15)!

“Wesley’s great fear was that the Methodist movement would – in a process that had happened again and again over the centuries – be tamed by the culture until it was nothing more than a docile lapdog,” Thompson continued. “He was afraid that Methodism’s engagement with the culture would dilute it until it was a shell of its former self.”

In his opening sermon, the Rev. Kenneth Levingston, senior minister of Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in Houston, said that the “core of our struggle” is when men, women, and the Church attempt to put other things in God’s rightful place. Levingston said that modern false gods include: salvation without sacrifice, sanctification without submission, mercy and grace without truth and transformation, social holiness without Scripture, and forgiveness without faithfulness.

Reunion of the rescued. The Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of the Chapel of Asbury Theological Seminary, told the story of the special reunions conducted by the 155 survivors of flight 1549 that was forced to land on the icy waters of the Hudson River in January of 2009. On that day, all the ferryboats in the area were deputized into rescue boats in order to save the passengers who were perched precariously along the sinking plane’s massive wings. The event is known as the “Miracle on Hudson” and the reunions are dubbed “Celebrations of Life.”

LaGrone called the WCA Chicago gathering a “reunion of the rescued.” She reminded the participants that their unified purpose can be found because “together we were saved, together we find hope in our shared faith, and so together we stand. We were, all of us, sinking deep in sin, and Jesus rescued us.”

“We meet not just to find a way forward, but to remember how we found The Way, the Truth, and the Life in the first place,” said LaGrone. “And to remember that to fully know life is not just to be rescued from something, but to be rescued for something. To become the rescued and transformed means to be those intent on the rescue and transformation of others.”

Appealing to the future. Wesleyan Covenant Association leaders announced during the afternoon session that they had run out of membership forms and encouraged participants to sign-up online (wesleyancovenant.org). Two young clergypersons appealed to the future of the church in asking participants to join the association.

“It’s not often that you get to be part of history,” said the Rev. Ryan Barnett, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Kerrville, Texas. “No matter how you think things are going to turn out in the United Methodist Church, there is no question that they will be different for my son than they were for my parents.”

“Today, I’m joining the WCA because I’m desperate for renewal within the church and revival within the world,” said the Rev. Madeline Carrasco Henners. “I want to support my brothers and sisters in conferences that ostracize them or violate our global covenant. I’m joining the WCA because I believe it will be a vibrant, Spirit-filled Wesleyan voice within the world. Finally, I’m joining the WCA because I desire to be in covenant with brothers and sisters who seek to know, love, and honor God in all they do.”

Bill Hybels and the Virtuous Spiral Upward

Hybels-01

Photo by Lance Rothwell, Florida Annual Conference

“For 60 minutes I sat in my own personal agony, watching this guy, who was probably only ever going to come to church once. I could viscerally sense him being pushed further and further away from the God that he was interested in, albeit mildly.”

That was one of the emotional and transformative moments Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek, described during an hour-long interview in front of the more than 700 clergy and laity at the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church in June. The pivotal scene he described took place during his teenage years in high school when a fellow baseball player – the wildest kid in school – asked to attend a church service with Hybels.

“I didn’t think about it,” recalled Hybels. “I should have thought about it…. I had never sat in my little legalistic, traditional, inward-focused church with someone far from God.”

After a few days of feeling as though his teammate was intentionally avoiding him, Hybels finally asked his friend about the church service. “Bill, I know you’re religious, but you pitch normal, you dress normal, you talk normal,” he said. “What you took me to was just not normal. So I’m just trying to figure out why someone as normal as you would be a part of something as abnormal as that was?” That encounter gave Hybels his “first rude awakening to what can happen in a single church service.”

Hybels launched Willow Creek outside of Chicago in 1976. Forty years later, more than 25,000 people attend one of Willow’s seven regional locations each weekend. He is also chairman of the board of the Willow Creek Association, a network of more than 7,000 member churches from 90 denominations in 90 different countries.

That high school experience when he was 17 years old gave Hybels a passion for creating a spiritually-centered – but outward-focused – congregation. When a first time visitor appeared at the church, Hybels wanted to make sure that the staff paid careful attention to “rehearsing and true innovation and heartfelt pieces of art that would move human souls, and preaching that would actually be intellectually rigorous and theologically sound, but also applicable Monday morning.”

The Hybels interview – conducted by his friend Jorge Acevedo, senior pastor of Grace Church in Cape Coral, Florida – was one of the key components of a leadership emphasis at the 2016 Florida Annual Conference. The event also featured presentations by Jeff James from the Disney Leadership Institute, Texas Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, and Lucille O’Neal, author and mother of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal.

Hybels has become a driving force in providing leadership models and training for local Christian churches through his renowned Global Leadership Summit each year and through his books such as Courageous Leadership, The Call to Lead, Leading from Here to There, and Leadership Axioms.

Vision for the Church

“There is something beautiful and powerful and potential-filled in the concept of a church,” a professor told Hybels during a study of the book of Acts in 1972. This was the second transformative event that shaped Hybels’ vision for Willow Creek. His professor provided a picture of a New Testament church that triggered a life-altering response in Hybels.

“There was once a worshipping community radically devoted to God. They were relentlessly committed to spreading the Gospel, even at the risk of their own lives,” Hybels recalls his professor saying. “They were sewn together in a kind of fellowship where they called each other brothers and sisters. They sold their property and possessions so that no one in the community would live with ongoing need. And gender walls came down and racial walls came down and socio-economic walls came down. And they experienced the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in community at a point in time.”

“It blew my mind,” Hybels recalled. “I got all caught up in the vision of what the church could be. I knew the church of my youth and it was not faith-inspiring, it didn’t move me to want to do much on its behalf. But he described a kind of church that I had never experienced.”

Why don’t we have churches like this today, the professor provocatively asked his students. “Has God lost His power? Is the Holy Spirit no longer fired up? Does the Gospel no longer change lives? The problem is, young people like you won’t risk everything to try to build one. That’s the problem.”

Hybels had never been confronted with a vision like that for the church. “Some of you are just thinking about what your parents want you to do,” said the professor. “You’re just going to inherit a business…. I plead with you, why not cancel your career plans and give every day of the rest of your life to the building and developing of an Acts 2 church?”

Those words hit a nerve because Hybels’ father was a very successful businessman who had a plan of handing the family business over to his son. Meanwhile, Hybels was feeling an undeniable call to plant a church. The two visions collided when Bill explained his call to his father.

“It’s the first time that I ever knowingly disappointed him,” he confessed. “He was a hero figure, bigger than life – flew his own airplanes and sailed his own boats and traveled all over the world and did deals and was a strong Christian. I devastated him by that choice.”

Hybels’ father made sure that his son understood the gravity of his decision to walk away from the security and responsibility and rewards of the family business. “If you have any idea in your mind that I’m going to support this venture financially, I’m not going to,” Hybels recalled his father saying. “Further, if you’re going to really do this, then we’re going to have the lawyers come down and we’re going to write you out of the family interests and you’re going to sign some papers and you’re going to give back the keys to stuff and the credit cards and all that. I’m not cutting off relationship, but let’s see if this is God really calling you or if this is something you think that our family is going to underwrite.”

Hybels admitted an internal struggle. “And I went back to prayer,” he said. “I asked God a second or third time on that” – triggering laughter by the crowd. Nevertheless, the call was undeniable. At the same time, his father was not bluffing. “I remember it like it was yesterday, signing all the legal papers,” said Hybels. “And that was it for that.” Regretfully, two years after the church began, his father had a massive heart attack and died. “He never saw what Willow Creek would become some day,” said Hybels. “He only thought that I was being careless with something that he had spent a lifetime preparing for me to lead. So that’s a hard part of the story.”

Doing things differently

“After 40 years, how would you have started Willow differently, knowing what you know now?” Acevedo asked Hybels during the Q&A session.

“I have been asked this question before. And I actually have a bit of an issue with that kind of question,” responded Hybels, with a grin. “We’ll get over it,” he said as the audience laughed.

“In actuality, we don’t get to go back with the knowledge we have decades later. We’re living life real time right now. I’d like to be as smart now as I hopefully will be 10 years from now, but I can’t microwave that,” Hybels said. “When I look back at some regrets, instead of beating myself up and saying, ‘Oh, you idiot,’ I realize I was 22 when I started the church and I did the best I could and I made some terrible decisions and I made some, what turned out to be, pretty smart decisions. And I don’t get to do that do-over.

“I would rather remind myself that every day is the only day I get to live real time. So I want to be filled with the Holy Spirit today. I want to love my enemies today,” Hybels continued. “I want to do good in this world and try to reach some people today. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow isn’t here yet. The only shot I have is real time.”

Virtuous Spiral Upwards

Leadership matters to Hybels because people matter to God. “The only thing God spilled the blood of His son for is people,” said Hybels. From his vantage point, if you have been given the spiritual responsibility of human souls, you have a sacred obligation to grow as a leader, develop your pastoral skills, and learn how to preach more effectively.

Hybels is fully committed to training the leaders of local churches despite denominational affiliation or worship style. More than 20 years ago, Hybels launched the Global Leadership Summit to help develop spiritual gifts of leadership. In 2016, more than 300,000 people participated in the live telecast of the Summit. Throughout the fall, Summit events take place at more than 675 sites in 125 countries and 59 languages.

“Everyone wins when a leader gets better… I shamelessly ask all of you to make the decision to get better, to preach better, to lead better, to communicate, to worship – whatever it is that you do in the church…,” Hybels said. “When you feel in your own spirit that you are developing and … your heart is growing, your head is growing, your gifts are growing, it creates a culture around you of people who start to live their life that way. … It’s a virtuous spiral upwards, if you can create that kind of culture. If you don’t, there’s a high degree of probability that there will be a less than virtuous spiral the other way.”

The downward spiral hit the church of Hybels’ childhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when it officially closed its doors. “It was a thoroughly defeated congregation that had to hold its own funeral and sell the building…. I sat in front of that church and balled like a baby. What is sadder on planet earth than a kingdom light that goes out? We live in a dark world. We don’t have that many lights. So when one starts to flicker and then it goes out, it’s a cosmos-wide tragedy when a church dies. Some do.”

Hurricanes and spiritual conversations

“We United Methodists are pretty good at acts of compassion and mercy,” Acevedo told Hybels during the interview. “We’re at our best when a hurricane blows through or there’s a crisis. We’re good at giving away bags of groceries. And yet, we’re not so good at just ‘walking across the room,’ a phrase that you’ve popularized, and engaging in God-honoring and people-honoring spiritual conversations.” Although Willow is most well known for effectively reaching out to spiritual seekers, Hybels praised United Methodism’s social outreach.

“If you guys are really as good as he’s saying at compassion and justice, I want to say from the rooftops, way to go,” Hybels said. “Because most churches around the world don’t give a rip about the poor. They just don’t. They hold their little services, keep it all tidy. And they’re not passing out any groceries, they’re not responding to any hurricanes. There is a passivity and a complacency in churches around the world that drives me up the wall. So the fact that you are good at compassion and justice is no small thing. Hear my commendation, for whatever it’s worth, and please don’t devalue yourselves for being that, because that’s a major part of what Christ said we ought to be about.

“But if you’re a little weaker on the evangelism side, then I would just say, oh, you don’t know what you’re missing,” he continued. It is the vision, simplicity, and power of that passage in Acts 2 that originally ruined Hybels – in a good way. The Scripture reads: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (42-47).

This is clearly the dynamism that Hybels lives for. “I don’t understand church work apart from the adventure and the thrill of seeing God transform a human heart,” he said. “Now, I’m all for the compassion and justice. We do a lot for prisoners. We do a lot of compassion and justice stuff. When people say, what’s the church really about? It’s about evangelism, discipleship, and compassion and justice in its simplest framework. When evangelism is occurring supernaturally and people are growing in their faith, putting roots down deep, and joining small groups and you’re doing compassion and justice, pinch me.

“Forty years into it and I’m as passionate about the beauty, power, and potential of the local church as I was day one. I am in awe of the church.  And when it’s working right, there’s no institution like it on planet earth,” Hybels said.

You’re not crazy!

“Every pastor needs to hear every once in a while that you’re not crazy. Because there’s a lot easier ways to earn a living, and there’s a lot easier ways to develop a career that isn’t as messy and as exhausting as being a pastor,” Hybels said to conclude his remarks. “And there are times when we’ve launched capital campaigns and fallen short of the goal. And there are times when we’ve had what we thought were brilliant ideas and launched them with high hopes and they just fell flat, and no one’s life changed.”

At the same time, Hybels reminded the clergy that “God has entrusted you with what He treasures most in this world….  And He’s gifted you. And He’s given you His Holy Spirit. And every once in a while someone probably just has to say to you, ‘You are not crazy for pouring your life into this.’ You are not crazy for enduring what you endure, from season to season. You are not crazy for staying faithful to the Word of God when pastors are bailing on the trustworthiness of scripture, right and left. You are not crazy for holding the line on certain moral issues that everyone is willing to cave on. Every once in a while you just need someone to tell you you’re not crazy.”

Hybels ended the session by describing a time that he spoke at Acevedo’s Grace Church. “The place was electric because Jorge’s life story is one of redemption and optimism, that God can do anything, and he’s got a congregation that has experienced so much recovery and they key into Jorge’s optimism,” he recalled. “The place was on fire that night.”

Hybels transitioned from the story of Acevedo’s United Methodist congregation committed to recovery ministry into a benediction and a charge. “I would encourage you to do whatever you need to do to stay fired up, stay on the faith-filled side of things, tell people God is still strong, the Holy Spirit still has His stuff, the Gospel still transforms people’s lives, the church is still the hope of the world. And you keep beating that drum and good things will happen.”

The Gospel According to Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler NightcrawlerWhen moviegoers were first introduced to Kurt Wagner more than a dozen years ago in the blockbuster film X2: X-Men United, he was darting through a legion of hapless Secret Service officers at the White House. At first glance, he appeared as a fierce blue demon-looking character that was able to disappear into thin air and reappear across the room.

For those who don’t follow the alternative universe of comic book imagination and discussions of “mutants,” Wagner is one of the most fascinating characters introduced in the X-Men franchise.

Wagner’s appearance in X2 (played by Alan Cumming) delighted comic book fans. His character is better known as Nightcrawler (or Fuzzy Elf to his friends). As a “teleporter,” the German-accented mutant is able to morph into a puff of blue smoke and transport himself with the speed of sound. With acrobatic grace, he cuts quite an image with his dark blue skin, tail, pointy ears, three-fingered-hands, and funny teeth.

There was more than a ripple of thrill coursing through the veins of comic book fans when it was announced that Nightcrawler would reemerge in this year’s blockbuster X-Men: Apocalypse. Mysteriously, the character has been absent from the last five films in the series.

Nightcrawler has been one of Marvel Comics’ most unique and complex superheroes since 1975. For those outside the X-Men cult of fans, the series revolves around a cast of characters that have some form of genetic mutation that manifests itself through extraordinary abilities. They have names such as Wolverine, Cyclops, Magneto, and Rogue. The mutants can control the weather (Storm), blow freezing cold wind (Iceman), or walk through walls (Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat). As you would expect, they are treated as freaks and ostracized from society. The storyline revolves around the struggle between the humans and mutants and the need to fight prejudice, suspicion, and bigotry when dealing with people who may have different looks or talents.

Perhaps the most intriguing characteristic about Nightcrawler is that he is a mutant of faith — a devout Christian. Out of all the myriad of cartoon superheroes created in the last fifty years, very few have articulated or been identified with a specific religious faith.

There have, however, been exceptions to the rule. In 2002, it was revealed in the comics that Ben Grimm (aka The Thing) of The Fantastic Four was Jewish. Clark Kent (aka Superman) was raised Methodist. In the movie Daredevil, crucifixes and other religious iconography flood the screen (as well as visits to the confessional) in order to convey Matt Murdock’s struggle between vigilantism and his boyhood Catholic faith.

To their credit, the screenwriters, director, and producers of X2 allowed Nightcrawler to retain his purity of faith and hope. They skipped the subtle, read-between-the-lines type of allusions to his Christianity and let him express full-metal devotion. Nightcrawler takes refuge in an abandoned cathedral in Boston, festooned with statues of Jesus. When he is nervous, he holds a crucifix and says the rosary in German. When he needs to summon inner strength, he recites the Lord’s Prayer. When the group is confronted with tragedy, he pastorally quotes Psalm 23.

Awash in hellfire, brimstone, and lazerbeams, X-Men: Apocalypse was this summer’s big screen spectacle loaded with melodramatic screen banter about false gods and Four Horsemen, all bursting out of the rubble of ancient Egyptian cults. While some observers rightfully complain when Hollywood turns its back on religion, it must be pointed out that some films overdose on discombobulated spirituality. Apocalypse may well have been one of those films.

In the midst of the metaphysical chaos of an X-Men film, you can thankfully depend on the pointy-eared blue character (this time played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) with the tail to make the sign of the cross and pray: “Dear Father, hold me in the light of God. Protect me from danger. Save me by your command. Listen to my prayer and keep me safe.”

Quite simply, Nightcrawler is one of the most devout and unconventional Christian characters that has ever been portrayed on the big screen. Furthermore, his distinct characteristics span his portrayal in comic books, graphic novels, and an animated film. He talks righteously about sin and the power of faith, without the slightest hint of holier-than-thouism. Although he has every right to be angry at humans for their bigotry, he chooses to help them. He has fears, but he acts with courage through the power of prayer. He quotes the Scripture to find strength that his genetically mutated special powers cannot give him.

In the movie version, Nightcrawler’s faith is further highlighted in that his body is covered in tattoos, one for each of his sins. He calls them his “angel marks.” In a form of penance, they are self-inflicted ancient Enochian symbols considered to be an angelic alphabet.

Good-natured swashbuckler 

When Nightcrawler first began with the X-Men, he was not conceived as a religious superhero. He was a swashbuckling adventurer with a good sense of humor and a special charisma with the ladies. He even became the leader of the British superhero group Excalibur.

His unique look always made him appear to be something that he was not — namely a demon. The creators used his image to further press their point that prejudice and bigotry brutally cloud our judgment in being able to truly judge a person. This was only heightened when Nightcrawler began quoting Scripture, praying, and hanging out in abandoned cathedrals. He began to be mentored by a priest at Church of Michael the Archangel in Brooklyn and studying for the priesthood.

For a period of time in the X-Men comics, Nightcrawler was shown wearing a clerical collar and even presiding over the funeral of a friend. In the midst of his theological studies, he also struggles with his faith, the tremendous injustice that he sees all around him, and what it would mean to become a priest.

In the graphic novel Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1: Hope (2003, written by Chuck Austen), Nightcrawler is staring at a life-size crucifix in St. Patrick’s Cathedral when he says, “Your death was intended to show us a shining example of how we should live in loving union with you and those around us. Yet even those of us who hold you deepest in our hearts — fail — in keeping true to your divine word.”

In continuing his confession, he says: “Clergy, parishioners, priests — me. I have such thoughts — feelings I cannot escape — the desires for the touch of a woman.” While the temptations of the flesh weigh heavy on his conscience, Nightcrawler’s vastly more threatening challenge is against the racist and religious humans of the Church of Humanity, a Ku-Klux-Klan type of anti-mutant organization.

With the gritty and heart-torn anxiety of the Psalmist, his poignant monologue continues by unleashing his frustration on a seemingly standoffish God. “And now another Holy War is brewing — more fools take up weapons of murder in Your name. And You allow it. Perhaps even encourage it. If we take You into our hearts, does that mean fighting and killing in Your name — or not fighting and being killed in your name? Which is the right answer? And what purpose does it serve to torment your most faithful when the goal is maybe one day sitting beside you — alone — possibly forever apart from the ones we love and desire — who chose wrongly or failed your uncertain tests?”

The scene concludes with Nightcrawler looking at his crucified Jesus and saying, “When next we meet, I expect answers.”

Did God give up on the mutants? 

With the heightened popularity of the X-Men movies, a DVD collection of animated TV episodes from the early 1990s was released entitled X-Men: The Legend of Wolverine (Buena Vista, written by Eric Lewald, Mark Edward Edens, and Sidney Iwanter). It includes an entire episode devoted to the origin and theological disposition of Nightcrawler.

The story takes place within a monastery in a small Bavarian village in Germany. Three of the X-Men (Wolverine, Gambit, and Rogue) find themselves being aided by monks in the aftermath of an avalanche. Having been mistaken for a demon by the townspeople because of his looks, Nightcrawler explains to Wolverine and his friends that his genetic mutations were evident from birth and that the villagers chased him and his mother out of town.

His mom (Mystique) also abandoned him as a child (in the comics, she throws him over a waterfall) and a family of travelling performers took him in. When he was young he was able to work in the circus, but he was still treated as an outcast, “shunned and hated.” In talking with Wolverine, Nightcrawler says, “Though all people are flawed and struggle with the capacity for sin, none likes to be reminded of our shared human weakness. My appearance does not make it easy.”

“Don’t it make you crazy?” Wolverine asks with incredulity.

“It did once, but then I found peace by devoting my life to God,” said Nightcrawler. “He directed me to this place [the monastery] where they value the character of my heart, not my appearance.”

This only sends Wolverine further into a rage. “What are you talking about? God gave up on us long ago!” Nightcrawler counters, “No, my friend, God does not give up on his children — human or mutant. He is there for us in our times of joy and to help us when we are in pain — if we let Him.”

Later, Nightcrawler tells Wolverine, “We are alike, you and I — angry at the world. My pain drives me to seek God, yours drove you away.” Wolverine is further infuriated when he asks why God would have allowed him to be treated so badly. “Our ability to understand God’s purposes are limited,” says Nightcrawler, “but take comfort in the fact that his love is limitless.”

The episode concludes with Wolverine kneeling in a French cathedral reading the Bible and saying, “I will give thanks to you O Lord. Though you are angry with me, your anger is turned away and you have comforted me. I will trust you. I will not be afraid.”

Not a bad message — especially coming from a thoroughly unconventional superhero.

The Martyr’s Invitation

_90520544_mediaitem90520543“Jacques, you were a faithful disciple of Jesus.”

If he were given the opportunity to overhear the proceedings at his own funeral, these are the words that Father Jacques Hamel would have been most pleased to hear. They were said with a mixture of solemnity, sorrow, and triumph by those who knew him best.

In what can only be described as barbaric bloodlust, Father Jacques’ throat was slit by two jihadists in front of the altar of the church at St Étienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, nearly 80 miles northwest of Paris. He was 85 years old.

Father Jacques’ death sparked international controversy for politicians and religious leaders in the midst of our current battle against terrorism. Some call his death martyrdom. Others wish we could call it something else so as not to add further tension to an easily flammable international tinderbox.  It is pitiable that the ghastly murder of an elderly priest should have very smart observers tiptoeing through a minefield, but such is the world we live in.

Thankfully, from the testimonies given at Father Jacques’ funeral, there are more celebratory observations to be made.

1. Lifelong commitment. One of his ministerial colleagues used to jokingly remind Father Jacques that he was getting up in years and that perhaps it was time to take his pension. The old priest would laugh and say, “Have you ever seen a retired pastor? I will work until my last breath.”

What was said with good humor ended up being manifest in great tragedy. Serving communion would be his final pastoral act. “This is my body given for you,” said Jesus. “This is the new covenant in my blood…”

“When Jesus wanted to explain to his disciples what his death was all about,” writes Anglican scholar N.T. Wright, “he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.” As the disciples noted, these are very difficult concepts to grasp. When offered, however, we receive the gifts of the sacraments with grateful and childlike faith.

What was intended to be sacrilegious, Father Jacques’ death in the shadow of the altar ended up becoming an amplified witness of lifelong devotion to the incarnate love of a God pierced with bleeding wounds in his hands, feet, and side. Blood remains the key element that binds all of humanity. When pooled in a puddle, it may appear grotesque; but coursing through our veins, blood remains the source of life.

2. Spiritual vision. At his funeral, it was recalled that Father Jacques tried to push away his murderer with his feet, twice saying, “Go away, Satan.” As taught by St. Paul, Father Jacques knew “our struggle is not against flesh and blood but … against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

Father Jacques had seen many horrors during military service as a younger man. His life had been spared when other soldiers lost their lives. His ministry was one way of responding to the mystery of why his life had been spared. His sister Roselyne spoke of his humble spirit: “The God of love and mercy chose you to be at the service of others … until your last breath.”

3. It’s all about Resurrection. “Christ is risen, it is a mystery, a secret, a secret that God gives us to share,” Father Jacques wrote to his parishioners last Easter. Archbishop Dominique Lebrun responded to this message at the funeral: “Perhaps this mystery, this secret you confided was what was winning hearts in our assembly: yes, Christ is risen. The death is not the last word.”

Lebrun continued: “The resurrection of Jesus is not a catechism lesson, it is a reality, a reality for our heart, for the secret of the heart, a reality at the same time to share with others, as a confidence told with trust.”

There were several thousand French men and women in attendance at Father Jacques’ funeral. For a proudly secular society, this was an enormous audience. Each listener was challenged by Archbishop Lebrun’s message: “Brothers and sisters, let us be simple and honest about ourselves. It is in our heart, in the depths of our heart that we have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Jesus, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the path of truth and peace, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the victory of love over hatred, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to his resurrection.”

Lebrun concluded: “God will never force us. God is patient, and God is merciful. Even when I, Dominique, have resisted, and said ‘no’ to love; even when I told God, ‘I will think about it; we will see later,’ even when I have forgotten, God is patient. God expects me because of his infinite mercy.

“But we must uphold with Jesus that every man, every woman, every human person can change his heart with His grace. This is how we make ours the words of Jesus, even as they may seem beyond our strength today, ‘Well! I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”

It is with grace that we remember an elderly French priest, desperately loved by his parishioners. It is with grace that we ask God for the strength to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It is with grace that we receive with open arms the power of the resurrection, the great mystery and the great secret that we are empowered to share.

Pentecost at the Crossroads

African Central Conferences worship service“The United Methodist Church is at a crossroads,” Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa told the more than 500 assembled for the African Worship Service on Pentecost Sunday at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Nhiwatiwa welcomed the international congregation and made it clear that the church in Africa and its bishops must play a pivotal role in helping The United Methodist Church take the right road. “The church has been here before” he said, and African bishops such as St. Cyprian and St. Augustine led the church at other key crossroads.

Nhiwatiwa, the president of the African Council of Bishops, concluded with the message that the Holy Family sought shelter in Africa, the Word was kept safe in Africa, so that it would shine as a bright beacon for all the world. “As it was 2,000 years ago, God said, ‘Take the baby to Egypt’ [Africa].… With worldwide hostility to the cause of Christ, we say again today: ‘Take the baby to Egypt!’”

The congregation erupted with cheers as it gave Nhiwatiwa a standing ovation before being led into worship by the dynamic Africa University Choir. Participants in the worship service hailed from numerous African nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Angola, and Nigeria.

The modern day reality of United Methodism is that nearly 5 million of our 12 million members are found on the African continent. In Portland, that new reality explains why 30 percent of the 864 delegates were Africans – with 48 delegates from the North Katanga Conference in Congo. That number will increase exponentially as membership continues to skyrocket in Africa and descend in North America. Quite simply, the energy, vitality, and growth within Methodism is found in different time zones, nations, and languages than the solely American name brand Methodism of yesterday. The shift is epic.

• More United Methodists reside in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2.5 million) than in the North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions combined (2.4 million).

• More United Methodists live in Nigeria (457,959) than the entire Western Jurisdiction (322,939).

• Twice as many United Methodists worship in Cote d’Ivoire (677,355) as in Virginia (327,706) – one of our largest annual conferences.

• More United Methodists worship in Mozambique (108,322) than in Northern Illinois (90,820).

The axis of Methodism is shifting. The unmistakable tilt of the sociological and spiritual reality found in the newly emerging United Methodist Church is in African cities such as Harare, Abuja, and Kinshasa. These urban epicenters could end up being the Londons, Bristols, and Epworths of the next wave of Wesleyan resurgence.

The fiery tongues of angels were manifest on Pentecost in the book of Acts, but the tongues of Methodism’s next chapter may be in French, Portugese, and Swahili.

“Today is Pentecost Sunday, and so we celebrate the birth of the Church,” said the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, dean of Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia. “This historic day, the day on which the Church was born, is also the first time in the history of General Conference that the Central Conference of Africa conducts a worship service that celebrates Jesus Christ.

“As bearers of the Good News every second there is a message to offer to the world,” said Kulah, one of the leaders of the Africa Initiative that prepared delegates for the General Conference in Portland. “The Initiative is a movement of African leaders both clergy and lay people committed to partnership. We need to raise our voice and pray to seek God’s face to train and develop leaders so that the African church will be empowered with men and women who know the truth, and who live the truth, and who proclaim the truth.”

Kulah repeated the theme of the crossroads confronting United Methodism. “I’ve come to realize that on our life’s journey, there are always crossroads to encounter,” he said. “And at the crossroads of life, it becomes our responsibility to carefully identify the path that leads to our destination. If we fail to take the path that leads to our destiny, we eventually will take a road that leads to our dead end.”

Preaching from Jeremiah chapter 2, Kulah spoke about the political and religious leaders of the nation of Judah abandoning God. “Their priests were preaching lies, their prophets were prophesying lies. They were preaching peace when there was no peace,” he said. God sent the Prophet Jeremiah on the difficult task of declaring His truth to a wayward people.

“The crossroads is a place of decision making. At the crossroads, you choose to take a new direction or the wrong direction,” Kulah said as individuals from the congregation stood in affirmation of his message. “At the crossroads, God asks us what path will you take. Will you take the path that leads to what is good?”

Great biblical characters such as Abraham and Esther had to face their own crossroads, said Kulah. God chose them to make difficult decisions with faith. “I don’t know how long we will be at the crossroads, but eventually we will move on,” he said.

“Look to the future and see the church. Do you see a growing, vibrant church? What do you see? God’s invited all of you to look into the future,” Kulah told the assembly. In the interim, he said, we are to “walk in justice, walk in mercy, and walk in righteousness.”

Kulah concluded by quoting Jesus: “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life. No one, absolutely no one, comes to the Father except through me.” When we come to our crossroads, the rest for our soul is found in Jesus Christ.

The service concluded with the Lord’s Supper being served by the African bishops to the congregation gathered from around the globe. The morning message soon seemed to crystalize: With a shared cup and a broken loaf of bread we will approach the crossroads together with one faith, redeemed by one Lord, and empowered by one Spirit. It was, after all, Pentecost Sunday.