Charge to December 2012 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary

From the iconic Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz we learn afresh of the importance of courage.  Who can forget those memorable words, “what makes the muskrat guard his musk?  What makes the Hottentot so hot, or put the “ape” in apricot? Courage.

Like the Lion, we may feel we’re not very courageous, but with God’s help we can be women and men of great courage and boldness tempered with honest, “truth-telling” humility.

There are few traits more needed by pastors and full time Christian workers today than that of courage.  As the church in the West moves from the warm “high noon” light of Christian cultural consensus, to the long “sunset” shadows of post-Christendom, it is easy to lose one’s courage – the moral nerve to stand with Christ and the gospel.  We would much rather occupy the cultural center than the prophetic margins.  It takes courage to announce the gospel even as it is being decried as outrageous and offensive.  We live in a society enmeshed in deep spiritual and moral chaos.  It takes enormous patience and courage to lead someone from the gutter of despair to the high road of holiness, through the power of the gospel.  It takes courage to confess Christ when even big swaths of the church have lost the patience to listen to him.  It takes courage to preach the whole gospel, not just the warm, fuzzy bits.  It takes courage to preach Christ, and not ourselves.  It takes courage to stand firm on the Word of God, when the prevailing winds of culture are blowing hard in your face.

The redemption of the world is hard, toilsome work and God has decided to not redeem the world without us.  So, December 2012 graduates:  go forth as men and women of courage!   Preach the Word with courage!  Pray with Courage.  Love with Courage.  Serve with courage.  Be courageous in your life of holiness.

There is a day in Wesley’s journal where he gets up in the morning and he preaches to a group while loud mocking noises and jeers are going on around him.  He travels on to the next stop, but before he finishes preaching he is pelted with stones and run out of town.  On his third stop he preaches, but some opponents let their animals loose which dispersed the crowd and caused a great commotion.  His final stop that day was an evening service where several thousand people gathered and the Spirit’s presence was sweet and powerful as God did his work, hundreds responding to the gospel.  It took a lot of courage for Wesley to get through that day.  You are going to have days like that.

It was the great 16th century Reformer Martin Luther who once said, “If I confess with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.  Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all other battlefields besides is mere flight and disgrace if you flinch at that point.”

Courage.  Go forth with courage, class of 2012, and don’t give the Devil a chink of light.

A Fire to Preach

I will never forget the day when Bob Kerr, the District Superintendent of the North Georgia Conference called me on the telephone and told me about my very first appointment. He said, “Congratulations, Tim, the bishop has appointed you to the Nacoochee Valley Circuit.” I was told that I was the new pastor of a “four point” charge of four churches nestled in the beautiful mountains of North Georgia. I was fresh out of seminary. I had probably preached less than a dozen sermons. I had never conducted a funeral or a wedding and, of course, had never given communion.

Nevertheless, within a few weeks I found myself the pastor of the Nacoochee, Chattahoochee, Mt. Pleasant and Loudsville United Methodist Churches. In addition to those four churches I had was responsible for preaching every week to campers at a nearby campground. I had always heard about circuit riding Methodist preachers, and now I was one. John Wesley and Francis Asbury had famously traveled on horseback to hundreds of “preaching points.” Now, over two hundred years later I was crisscrossing the mountains of North Georgia in a 1973 Buick LeSabre! What a joy it was for a young preacher like me from the city to preach the gospel, lead an annual camp meeting, and become part of the lives of these wonderful rural people. I learned more over the next decade about people and about Christian ministry than one could ever find in a book or a classroom.

Because these congregations were mostly elderly people, I soon found myself conducting funerals. In fact, in my first two years of ministry I conducted 52 funerals! I remember a lady stopping my outside of church one day and saying to me, “There are only two kinds of preachers, there are the marrying preachers and there are burying preachers – and you’re a true burying preacher!” I realized that we had a lot of work to do to really help these churches prepare for the next generation!

During the next several years I was able to lead these churches to become full time appointments and, at a subsequent appointment, led another two point charge, the Carnesville-Allens Charge to become their own full time churches. My colleagues soon gave me the nickname, “The circuit breaker”! However, looking back on those wonderful years in pastoral ministry, my greatest memories are not about building new parsonages, expanding facilities, or the countless meetings and budget discussions. What I remember most are the men and women who received Christ as their personal Lord and savior. For decades, most of those churches had only grown through their own children who were growing up in the church, or the occasional transfer of membership from other Methodist churches. However, once they began to re-conceptualize their work as a missional church they began to invite new people to church and gradually we began to see dozens of people come to Christ, many of whom had never heard the gospel before. My own seminary training had not adequately prepared me to lead a congregation to be a community of evangelists or disciplers. However, it was the greatest “on the job training” one could ever hope for.

I remember one young lady in my congregation named Susan who asked for prayer for her husband, Kent. I finally went to visit Kent and, by the grace of God, he received Christ as his Lord and Savior. He was so enthusiastic about his new found faith, he called me the next day and asked if I would meet him at his parent’s house and lead them to Christ. That night they received Christ. Two days later, Kent and I were in the living room of his brother and sister-in-law and they received Christ. A few days later, we had the joy of leading his grandmother to Christ. I will never forget the Sunday we baptized this entire family into the church. I always thought that household conversions were something found only in the book of Acts. I slowly realized that whenever the church is faithful to Christ and the gospel, the book of Acts continues to unfold in the world today.

One of my prayers for the graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary, is that they would leave Wilmore or Orlando with a fire to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ and proclaim the gospel with confidence! The gospel of Jesus Christ is still good news to a lost world. Our mission is to “spread Scriptural holiness throughout the world.” May God grant us the wisdom and the grace to send forth a whole new generation of circuit riders who will crisscross the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.