Friday, December 14, 2012

Who Was Bishop Ralph Henry Houston?

It has been well over a year since Bishop Houston first asked me to speak at this memorial service. I thought, then and now, that participating in this service would be one of the great honors of my life. 

A few weeks ago however, I began to have second thoughts.  I wondered what I would say. It would not have been difficult to prepare a eulogy for a man like Ralph Houston. His life was long, colorful and noteworthy. However, the bishop could not have had a traditional eulogy in mind when he asked me to speak to you today. He evidently sensed that God might use this moment for some purpose that I would to discern when the time. But what would that purpose be, I wondered?
Other people here have known Ralph Houston longer (and better) than I have. Indeed, by the time I met him, he had already lived much of his life. Were I to give a biographical sketch of his life, I would certainly leave out some important things and characterize him in ways many of you would think inauthentic. 
It has occurred to me though that my limited knowledge of Bishop Houston’s life might be an advantage on this occasion. By the time I met him, something important had already formed in his life that I believe God wants us to acknowledge today, but which we might miss were I to simply dwell on his fascinating life. 
That’s why I decided to speak less about what Houston did and more about who he was.
By the time I knew him, Ralph Houston was simply "The Bishop." 
But what exactly is a bishop?
On one occasion, St. Paul, said that "although there are Lords many and Gods many, to us there is only one GOD." 
Gods were everywhere in the ancient world. Every Greco-Roman village had a god or two. Their images filled the parks, on street corners and government offices. But these “gods” were not God. These lords were not The Lord. 
We could say the same thing about bishops. They are many and seemingly everywhere. Every day it seems, some pastor, weary of his lowly estate, grants himself the title of Bishop. So, we feel obliged to pay proper homage to his freshly acquired high holy immanence, even if his diocese consists of three widows and calling card. 
This sort of self-promotion has become so common that for many people the very word "bishop" is something of a joke. 
Then there is the abuse of those bishops who have hidden the sins of the church, misused funds, and in so many other ways have disenchanted the public and even the followers of Christ.  All of these things have worked to undermine the efficacy of the episcopal office. They have created a caricature that unfortunately comes to mind whenever we hear the word “bishop.”
Imagine my surprise then at meeting the real thing.
It happened on a specific morning in this very church. We had asked the people who needed prayer to come forward and among them was a tall African-American man wearing a clerical collar. The impression he made that morning would endure for the twenty-five years I knew him. This, I realized, was no imposter. This was not someone who was trying to impress us by wearing a piece of cloth around his neck. This was the real thing.
Ralph Houston helped me to realize that a bishop is a vital part of a New Testament Church. The bishop is the "episcopos," overseer, the pastor of pastors; the spiritual father of the church’s emerging leaders.  Without a bishop, the Lord’s church become fragmented, superficial and disconnected from its past.
Ralph Houston knew that a bishop is not named to care for just a specific ethnic group or to serve a specific denomination. A bishop, he realized, is called to be a shepherd to all those who follow Christ and even to those who do not yet know Christ. A bishop works to connect the Lord's people scattered throughout the world and through time and space. A bishop watches out for the flock of God. He observes the opportunities and challenges that come during his watch and what they may mean for the church. He discerns the spiritual strengths and weaknesses of the pastors he leads. He takes care to address their susceptibility to temptation and their opportunities for development. He senses when their teaching may be drafting away from sound biblical doctrine or when they may be sliding into of some sort unhealthy attitude. At such times, the bishop steps in to correct, exhort, heal, forgive and restore. He does all these things because the bishop’s motivation is not to demonstrate ecclesiastical power but to maintain the spiritual health of the Lord’s church.   
For all these reasons, a bishop does not pontificate out of a sense of authority and entitlement but out of an influence he earns through love and by manifesting God’s grace through his life and ministry. Out of that grace, he offers prayer and advice. He listens. He waits to be received. He is patient. He is kind. However, does not hesitate to use his authority to bring health and correction to the flock. Most of all, whether in kindness or rebuke, a bishop must strive to speak and act like Jesus.
And didn't Ralph Houston do all of that? 
On a specific date, and in a specific ceremony, the Church of Jesus Christ consecrated Ralph Houston to be a bishop. But Ralph Houston knew what many seem to not understand: that ceremony and vestments do not create a bishop. The spiritual blessings offered through rite and ceremony must be actually received and cooperated with by the one to whom these blessings are offered. When the church lays it's hands upon a person to consecrate him or her to a ministry or office, it is up to that person to accept, receive, and act upon the consecration. After the ceremony of episcopal consecration comes the hard work of doing what is required to actually become a bishop. Becoming a bishop requires that the one set part for this office actively participate in his own personal transformation. The grace is given through the church but it must be received by the person, in the same way that bread and wine are given to the church but must be received and consecrated in order to become for us the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
Ralph Houston did these things. He did not appoint himself to be a bishop. He walked into the appointment that had been given him by the Lord’s Church. Once the appointment was given, he cooperated with the spiritual process that gradually turned that role he had assumed into the man he became. 
That is how Ralph Houston became "the bishop," even for people who do not usually recognize the calling and role of bishops in today’s church.
We will bury him today.  A few days ago, he surrendered his title and office and has joined the communion of saints. So, I conclude my remarks with these brief observations. 
Not all pastors are disciples and not all bishops are Christians. But this pastor was a disciple and this bishop was a Christian. The affairs of the church never became more important to him than the state of his soul. He ministered to us out of his personal walk with God, and so what we received through him came from the Lord he served.
He rose from poverty and built a great business. He led a prosperous church. He grew a healthy family. He was known and respected by national politicians. He led the delegation that welcomed Pope John Paul to California. He was known by church leaders and heads of corporations. He led his denomination. But above all, Bishop Ralph Houston did justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with his God. He walked with Jesus until he became a lot like Jesus. Then, over a week ago, he went to be with Jesus. 
We ask of our fathers-in-God that they strive to model the attitudes and actions of Jesus Christ in how they talk, live and die.
And didn’t Ralph Houston do this? 
Can I get a witness that he loved us, served us and taught us the way of God?
Can I get a witness that he prayed, studied the Word and walked uprightly before us?
Can I get a witness that he ran the race, that he kept the faith and that he finished his course?
The Lord’s Church on the earth then joyfully releases our father-in-God, Bishop Ralph Houston, into the hands of the glorified spirits in Heaven, into the community of saints, into the company of the holy angels, and into the care of him who sits upon the throne and the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.
We release him to heaven with our deepest respect and devotion. And as we do, we pledge to walk as he walked so that we may achieve what he has now achieved: eternal delight in the presence of the Lord. 

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