5 things my boyhood church did right

Rochester (NY) Zone Junior Quizzing team, circa 1971

Siblings, unite! Rochester (NY) Zone Junior Quizzing team, circa 1971. L to R: Mark Crofford, Val Clemens, Phil Clemens, Greg Crofford

There’s a lot of second-guessing happening on the internet these days, popular bloggers lamenting how the church is failing “this generation.” So to balance out all the hand-wringing, indulge me a retrospective on my own growing up years. Here are 5 things my boyhood church did right:

1. Simple preaching – Reverend Morris Wilson never had more than an 8th grade education, but he had a call to preach. His sermons were not complicated, but they connected. He knew how to laugh and how to make us cry. Reverend Wilson (no one dared call him “Morris” – that would be disrespectful) was a master at holding things up to sanctified ridicule: “Some people say this. I say that’s applesauce.” Or to motivate us, he would chide: “It’s time to get off our blessed assurance and get busy.” It was direct, loving and anointed. It’s hard to beat that combination.

2. Adults included kids – My parents went to choir practice at 5 p.m. and the evening service didn’t start until an hour later. At 5:30 p.m. some of the old saints would gather for prayer in the “upper room” over the gymnasium. Tired of running around in the hallways with my brothers, around 12 years old, I climbed the stairs to the upper room one Sunday evening and asked if I could pray with them. They welcomed a boy when they could have chased me away. I remember the prayers of those saints, as they prayed for the pastor, cried for lost loved ones, and asked God to send a revival to our church. Those prayers from Mr and Mrs Whitman, Mr and Mrs Laird and others impacted my young life. They taught me to trust God for things small and large.

3. Bible quizzing – My mother, Marilyn Crofford, was our indefatigable Jr. Quizzing coach, and from the age of 7 I remember studying books of the Bible. We had cardboard boxes with cards numbered 1 to 4, shipped from the Nazarene Publishing House in Kansas City, and we’d pull the card that corresponded to the right answer to the question (see b & w photo above). Later this became teen quizzing as I did my best to follow in the footsteps of my older brothers. By the time I graduated high school, I had memorized large swaths of the New Testament. Quizzing taught me the importance of team work, and much of the Scripture I quote to this day first lodged itself deep within me during those long hours of study. Back then, I was working for a trophy to put up on the mantle next to my brothers’. Those trophies are long gone, but the benefits of digging into Scripture linger.


World Bible Quiz, 1981 – Our Upstate NY District team took first place!

4. Visiting people at home or in nursing homes -  My dad wasn’t a pastor, but he took his job as Sunday School teacher seriously. Some Saturday mornings, he’d go calling on absentees, and he’d take me along. By doing so, he taught me something about shepherding. Or at Christmas time, the children’s church leaders would load us kids up in the bus and we’d go visit old folks in nursing homes. One Christmas, I got to sing a solo on “Away in a Manger.” Those nursing home visits taught us to remember the marginalized, people who otherwise might be “out of sight, out of mind.”

45 rpm record, with one song on each side

45 rpm record, with one song on each side

5. Right and wrong – When I was just 8 or 9, I remember one morning in Sunday School when Nada Rogers, my teacher, played a 45 record for us. (Alright, I’m dating myself with this story.) Something came over me that day, and I just had to have that record! Reaching in my pocket, I pulled out the 35 cents my dad had given me for the Sunday School offering. “Mrs Rogers,” I said, “I want to buy that record from you.” “It’s not mine, she said, so I can’t sell it to you.” But I wasn’t so easily dissuaded. I kept nagging her until finally she said: “Greg, for me to sell something to you that doesn’t belong to me would be wrong. Do you understand?” That day, she taught me an important lesson. There is such a thing in this world as right and wrong. There are boundaries that God has laid down, and they are there for a reason.

Does this mean my boyhood church was flawless? Far from it! Academic Dean emeritus Donald Young of Eastern Nazarene College once quipped: “I’m glad the church isn’t perfect. If it was, they wouldn’t let me in.” But for all it did wrong, my church did a lot of things right. What’s more, I suspect what was true in the 1970s is no less true in 2014. What good things is God up to in your church? Tell the world!


Image credit: EPier.com

Bless not the instrument: thoughts on glorifying God

Statue of John Wesley (1703-91) on the campus of Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, KY

Statue of John Wesley (1703-91) on the campus of Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, KY

The life and teachings of John and Charles Wesley, Methodism’s co-founders, have shaped me at a deep level. Sometimes I call John “Saint Wesley” since we in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition are prone to place a halo on his head, overlooking evidence of his all-too-human imperfections. Those responsible in 1791 for etching the words on Wesley’s tombstone must have sensed this ill-advised tendency. Toward the end of the inscription appear these words:

READER if thou art contrain’d to bless the INSTRUMENT,

Rich Little in his essay “5 Overlooked Cultural Sins Threatening the Church” names “celebrity” as one such sin. Little notes:

“There were and are none like him (Jesus Christ). He is so incomparable to the celebrities we celebrate today that to offer a comparison is an affront to his majesty.”

When John Wesley in the 18th century or anyone else in the 21st century takes on the aura of celebrity, are we not “blessing the instrument” rather than giving God the glory?

To say that “the only good in me is the Christ in me” is more than a throw-away slogan. It is a profound theological truth that John Wesley himself promoted as Scriptural. It is no accident that the doctrine of sin looms large in Christian theology. Jesus himself refused to entrust himself to people, because he knew what was in their heart (John 2:24). Like Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Because we know that our default position as human beings post-Fall is to do evil, we cannot give direct credit for good deeds to any individual. To do so would be to “bless the instrument.” Rather, we can only praise God for the powerful working of His grace in the lives of individuals who have surrendered to the impulses of that grace, wherever they are on the spiritual journey.

As Wesleyans, we believe that God the Holy Spirit through prevenient grace (the grace preceding conversion) is always at-work in the world. Not only Christians but people of all faiths (or no faith) are recipients of God’s preceding grace. The old hymn asks God to let our hands move “at the impulse of Thy love” and many do, even if they are not yet conscious of it. A beautiful work of art or a memorable song (like Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band“) is an admirable expression of grace. The poet Cecil Alexander put it this way:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

How will a Wesleyan understanding of grace change how we talk about one another?

Instead of blessing the instrument, we will bless the One who made the instrument. The conversations might sound something like these:

Scenario One

Comment: “Susan, it’s so exciting to see how you’re allowing God to do some amazing things in your life!”

Reply: “Thanks, Mrs. Jones. You’re exactly right. God has been good to me.”

Scenario Two

Comment: “God has given you a gift for singing, Kyle. Keep  letting God use it for His glory!”

Reply: “Thanks, Mr. Thomas. It’s fun singing for the Lord.”

Scenario Three

Comment: “Your work in the children’s department has really turned things around, Brian. I thank God for you.”

Reply: “Do you think so, pastor? I’m glad God has let me be part of a good team.”

On the other hand, if we praise the individual directly as if they are responsible for whatever is good, should we be surprised when sooner or later they develop an attitude of superiority? As the people of God, when we praise the recipient of the gift rather than the Giver, are we not beginning to walk down the fatal path of celebrity? The most that we can do is to praise the individual for allowing God to do admirable things in their lives. Whether that individual is a believer or a non-believer, we believe that any good is a reflection of the grace of God at-work in His creation.

The self-esteem movement was well-intentioned but has served to focus the attention back on the individual, robbing God of the glory due to Him. We are valuable one and all because we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). When we see something beautiful in each other, shall we not direct the praise back to God, the maker of beauty?

I still like John Wesley, but what I really like is that Wesley allowed God to work powerfully in his life. My prayer is that more and more I will let God do the same in mine. To Him be the glory, forever and ever!

THEODORE BOONE series: Kudos, Mr Grisham

9781444728880Have you visited the youth literature section of a bookstore lately? I did, and was dismayed that 70% of the books were about vampires, fallen angels, or paranormal activities. Seriously?

I have no clue whether John Grisham noticed the same unhealthy trend, but he is serving up a wholesome alternative with his Theodore Boone legal fiction series for young readers. Good on him.

Theo is not your typical protagonist. He’s no sports hero , but he has a good head on his shoulders, and his parents are lawyers. Theo has a boundless curiosity and the knack for getting mixed up in the thick of mysteries.

For Christmas, I picked up a copy of Theodore Boone: The Accused. In this second book in the series, Theo is framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Can he and his family clear his name before he’s arrested?

Here’s to hoping Mr Grisham makes time for more installments in the Theodore Boone series. As for Theodore Boone: The Accused,  I can’t wait to pass the book along to the teenagers of some family friends.


Image credit: Hachette

Belonging and believing: Baptism and the People of God

978-1-426-71137-4Helen came 15 minutes early to Sunday night service. “Pastor,” she said, “I have to get saved!”

What was up with Helen?

This seventy-something Missourian certainly hadn’t stopped by my office on the spur of the moment. Her coming to Christ was like a pot on slow boil, and the “flame” had been two years of friendship from others in the women’s ministry group. In short, women in our church loved Helen to Jesus.

I thought about Helen when reading George Hunter III’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West Again (Kindle edition; Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2000, 2010). Hunter reports on John Finney’s 1992 study, examining how people come to faith in Christ. Finney discovered that most people today come to faith gradually, as they are folded into the life of the Christian community. Hunter calls this the “ongoing contagious life of the congregation” (location 795) in contrast to “special event preaching.” Summing up this philosophy, Finney uses just four words:

Belonging comes before believing.

Yet Finney’s and Hunter’s insight has implications not just for adult conversion but for how we bring up our children in Christian faith. The Anabaptist view dominates in North America, reversing the “belonging/believing” order to “believing/belonging.”  It reserves the waters of baptism (the sign of belonging) for children old enough to make a conscious decision about their faith. Practically, this means most children aren’t baptized until at least ten or older. It is an essentially individualistic view, where the person is seen as prior and superior to the group. (Contrast this with the dominant African ethos, which says: “I am because we are.”) Whether intentionally or not, does this give the message to our children: “You don’t really belong to the church until you believe”?

Surprisingly, many Nazarenes coming from a Baptist background do not realize that our DNA includes a strong strand of the Finney/Hunter “belonging before believing” idea. This is passed down to us from our Methodist heritage and the covenant theology espoused by John Wesley. A newborn child (as symbolized by infant baptism) is early folded into the loving community of faith. Later in childhood, he or she through careful Christian education, including catechism, comes to a personal understanding of saving faith. Just like circumcision “marked off ” the Jewish male as part of the faith community, so baptism “marks off” the male and female infant of Christian parents as belonging to the covenant New Testament People of God (Colossians 2:11-12). It announces to one and all:  “This child, through prevenient grace, belongs to the church, even before he or she believes.”

Hunter and Finney (location 797) contend that the postmodern mindset is much more receptive to the belonging/believing pattern than the dominant evangelical opposite. As Wesleyan people, are we not well-positioned to appropriate the best from both Evangelical and covenant traditions? We must continue to invite unbelieving adults to a place of personal conversion followed by baptism. Likewise, we encourage those bringing up their children in the Nazarene community of faith to present their infants for baptism. Baptism (like circumcision) is a one-time sign of initiation. Whether later as an adult or earlier as a little child, it’s an amazing thing to belong to the People of God. Let’s joyfully celebrate it!

UPDATE: There has been some excellent feedback to this piece over on Naznet.com. The “nub” of the debate is this: Does a Baptist -like ecclesiology really reverse the order from belonging/believing to believing/belonging? Not everyone accepts this premise.  Is it simplistic for me to call this ecclesiology “individualistic” and that represented by baptizing young children “corporate”? What do you think?


Image credit: The Good Book Stall

Third Global Nazarene Theology Conference, Johannesburg (23-27 March)

The first meeting of the Africa Nazarene Women Clergy met just prior to the GTC-3. We have some amazing female ministers in Africa!

The first meeting of the Africa Nazarene Women Clergy convened for three days prior to the GTC-3. We have some amazing female ministers in Africa!

The Third Global Nazarene Theology Conference wrapped last week, and what an AMAZING time it was!

Imagine 300 from around the denomination, all six world regions, coming together to discuss God’s direction for the Church of the Nazarene, under four headings:

- context
- Bible
- theology
- history

Like the two previous GNTCs (Guatemala – 2002, Amsterdam – 2007), most of the “heavy lifting” was done in small groups of 8-10, purposely diverse in terms of place of origin, gender, linguistic background and role in the church. The 22 regular papers and 4 summation papers (available at didache.nazarene.org), written around the four mentioned themes, gave us lots to talk about, and freely share we did.

The GNTC 3 was sponsored by the International Board of Education (IBOE), and all six General Superintendents were in attendance. The official theme was:

“Critical Issues in Ecclesiology”

As one serving on the Africa Region, I was proud of our contingent from Africa, made up of both Africans and missionaries to Africa. Together, we produced 5 of the 22 regular papers presented, and served on two of the four panels.

Post-conference, in relation to the “people called Nazarenes,” here are some of the incredible blessings that linger in my mind, as well as some of the questions:

1. The diversity was holy practice for the forthcoming consummated Kingdom of God come to a new earth, aka “heaven.”

2.What will it mean to be a truly global church vs. a North American church with overseas interests?

3. We put into practice part of our Wesleyan heritage, “conference” as a means of grace. The meaning of “connection” also came up, of “dependence” vs. “interdependence” in a world where financial means vary wildly by region.

4. Have we repented of our sin of silence and indifference during apartheid? What other corporate sins have we swept under the rug that need acknowledgement and cleansing?

5. Gathering together at the Table of the Lord was a powerful moment, a reminder that “In Christ, there is no East or West, in Him no North or South.” It’s cliched, but the ground truly is level at the foot of the Cross!

6. We all acknowledge the reality of poor people and rich people (not “the poor” and the “rich,” which are impersonal, reductionistic words), but we have radically different ideas of what that reality would have us DO as a church — give to poor people, or create systems that help poor people rise, i.e. wealth creation (redemption and lift)?

7. The CoTN seems to have an unresolved tension at its heart, since its inception. Are we a “believer’s church in the Wesleyan tradition,” as Tracy and Ingersol maintain in the introduction to their book, What is a Nazarene? (i.e. a voluntary association of the saved) or are we more “catholic,” the “Body of Christ,” with an emphasis upon our “people-hood” first and (subsequently, via catechism) upon the individual salvation of those who make up that people? This strand comes from Methodism/Anglicanism, whereas the former strand came from Congregationalist groups who were part of the 1907 and 1908 merger.

Think Tank

Africa Theological Think Tank

8. We are as diverse as any group I know on the meaning and practice (or non-practice) of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I’m tempted to type “confused” in place of “diverse.” Is this an area worth contending for, or should we simply acknowledge a “big tent” approach growing out of how one answers question # 7? In Africa, the practical outworking has been that we rarely practice communion, though an unjustified “fear”or taking communion “unworthily” is another large part of that neglect. Do many Nazarene congregations around the world celebrate communion more as a memorial than a means of grace, as a “reward for the righteous” rather than a prevenient grace-filled call to all who “desire to follow Christ”? A partisan of the second position, one of the panelists, called our ritual on communion in the Manual an “abomination” and “non-Wesleyan.”

My question to you: Should we re-write that ritual, or just add a second one more consistent with a “means of grace” theology?

9. Holiness was discussed, and was alluded to in several papers. However, it seemed more like a starting assumption for discussion, more implicit that explicit.

Volume 1 of the Africa Journal of Wesleyan Theology, went on sale at the GTC-3. Topics addressed by Think Tank writers were ancestor worship, polygamy, marriage customs, homosexuality, and Christus Victor.

Volume 1 of the Africa Journal of Wesleyan Theology, went on sale at the theology conference.. Topics addressed inside by Think Tank writers were ancestor worship, polygamy, marriage customs, homosexuality, and Christus Victor.

10. Our heritage of enfranchising women in all roles of lay and ordained service was on display, with a healthy (if still too small) number of female participants. Now, if such solidarity at an official conference were only enough to break down prejudices at the local church level…

11. An accent upon the need for the Holy Spirit to act more often among us came through in multiple conversations. Deliverance ministry and divine healing had a fair hearing. I was reminded of a book title by Tony Campolo: How to be charismatic without speaking in tongues

And in-line with that final point, here’s my award for the most quotable quote:

“Our ecclesiology must be God-glorifying, Christ-centered, and Spirit-filled.”

- Dr Thomas A. Noble

May the Lord together give us a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit, leading to greater unity, renewed vision, and undying passion to keep making Christlike disciples who change the world.

So many books, so little time

booksI’m in the final stages of correcting assignments for an online missions course that I monitored for Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Once that’s done, I’ll put up a review of the two Kindle version course text books, both of which were new to me:

Hunter, George G., III. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…AGAIN. 10th anniversary edition, revised and expanded. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2000, 2010.

Pierson, Paul E. The Dynamics of Christian Mission: History Through a Missiological Perspective. Pasadena, CA: William Carey International Press, 2009.

Other e-books that I haven’t started, but that are beckoning to me from my iPad Kindle reader:

1) Allen, J. Bennett. The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case. Long Beach, CA: Allen & Allen Semiotics, 2010.

This reflects my budding interest in innocence projects, which came out of following the story of Ryan Ferguson, exonerated after being wrongly imprisoned for nearly 10 years in a Missouri penitentiary for a murder he did not commit. Ferguson’s grace under fire amazed me, and his tireless advocacy for the innocent post-release is inspiring.

2) Barrett, Matthew, and Caneday, Ardel, gen. eds. Four Views on the Historical Adam. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013.

-I’ve seen very little dedicated to this topic, so hope to expand my thinking about possibilities.

3) Burden, Suzzanne, Carla Sunberg, and Jamie Wright. Reclaiming Eve: The Identity and Calling of Women in the Kingdom of God. Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 2014.

-Carla Sunberg recently spoke at the Africa Nazarene Women’s Clergy conference, and referenced this new book. It’s designed for the average lay reader.

4) Carson, D.A.  Christ and Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008.

- I appreciate the original 5 points from H. Richard Niebuhr, and look forward to Carson’s take on it.

5) Fudge, Edward William. The Divine Rescue: The gripping drama of a lost world and of the Creator who will not let it go. Abilene, Texas: Leafwood Publishers, 2010.

- This Church of Christ biblical scholar is best known for his excellent work on hell and conditional immortality. You can read my short book on the same subject by clicking here. You may also be interested in my podcast interview with Christopher Date at the Rethinkinghell.com website, dedicated to evangelical conditionalism (aka annihilationism). Grab a cup of coffee…the interview is 90 minutes long.

6) Heurtz, Christopher L. Simple Spirituality: How to See God in a Broken World. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2008.

- Anything on Christian simplicity attracts my attention.

7) Keller, Timothy. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York: Dutton (Penguin), 2013.

-Rev. Brent L. White, a UMC pastor with a growing blog, highly recommends this book. Timothy Keller is pastor of the 5,000 member Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

8) McClung, Grant, ed. Azusa Street and BeyondC: Missional Commentary on the Global Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement. Revised edition. Alachua, Florida: Bridge-Logos, 2006.

- I’ve read little about Pentecostalism from an insider’s point-of-view. This was mentioned by Pierson, and should be enlightening.

9) Merrick, Britt, with Trowbridge, Allison.  Godspeed: Making Christ’s Mission Your Own. Ontario, Canada: David C. Cook, 2012.

- Honestly, I don’t remember who recommended this, but it looks like it would be a good book for an intro to missions course.

10) Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville, Dallas, Mexico City, and Rio de Janeiro: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

- My friend and advocate for those living in poverty, James Copple, is a big Bonhoeffer fan. This one’s for you, Jim!

11) Noble, T.A.  Holy Trinity: Holy People (The Historic Doctrine of Christian Perfecting). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013.

- Dr Thomas Noble was the internal examiner for my PhD viva through the University of Manchester. He is considered one of the foremost Wesleyan theologians of our time, with an accent upon Christology.

12) Olson, Roger E. Questions To All Your Answers. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2007.Sanneh, Lamin. Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2008.

- The more I read of Roger Olsen’s blog, the more I like how he thinks. Dr Matt Price of MVNU put me on to this book.

13) Snyder, Howard A., with Scandrett, Joel. Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace (Overcoming the Divorce between Earth and Heaven). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011.

- Snyder is one of my John Wesley heroes. I’m about 10 pages in on this one, and liking how he frames ecology from a soteriological perspective. This (so far) reminds me of Michael Lodahl’s God of Nature and Of Grace.

14) Truesdale, Al, ed.  Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists. Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 2012.

- Truesdale has been a gatekeeper for me in my academic career, including inviting me to write several articles for the 2013 Global Dictionary of Wesleyan Theology. I’m anxious to see what he and others have to say about what Paul Bassett has called the “fundamentalist leavening of the holiness movement.”

15) Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Madison, Wisconsin: IVP Academic, 2010.

- I’m an unapologetic theistic evolutionist. My Presybterian pastor friend, Chris Wiley, had good things to say about Walton’s work.

16) Wright, N.T. Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. SPCK, 2011.

- I’m about 1/2 way done with this. It’s not as revolutionary to my own thinking as Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, but it’s making some good points.


Photo credit: Readcwbooks.com

Edward Fudge on the resurrection

Dear readers:

The month of March 2014 is easily the busiest I have known in a long time, with meetings and conferences booked solid. So, I’ve decided – with his blessing – to pass on to you some of my favorite graceEmails from a friend mine, Mr Edward Fudge, author of The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment. 3rd ed. (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011). Edward is a retired lawyer and a fine biblical theologian, from the Church of Christ. Enjoy!


Edward Fudge

The Age of Reason was dawning, and an anti-Christian intellectual named Lepeau was desperate for advice. He had created a rational new religion, Lepeau told French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, but, despite its superiority to Christianity, it had failed to catch on. Might Talleyrand have any suggestions? “M. Lepeau,” the diplomat dryly replied, “to ensure success for your new religion, you need only two things. Arrange to have yourself crucified, and three days later rise from the dead.”

New religions recoil with horror at the suggestion and respond with derision when anyone says it aloud, but Jesus’ resurrection is the linch-pin of Christianity, without which it crumbles and disintegrates before our watching eyes. It identifies Jesus as the conqueror over death (Rev. 1:18), the world’s Savior, and the Jews’ Messiah (Acts 3:17-26). By raising him from the dead, God declared powerfully and publicly that Jesus is his Son (Rom. 1:4). By the resurrection, God ordained Jesus as the great shepherd of God’s sheep (Heb. 13:20-21), and consecrated him as the high priest who intercedes for us in the heavenly sanctuary (Rom. 8:31-39). Because Jesus is risen, we know that he will be our judge when he appears again in power to make all things new (Acts 17:30-31).

Without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all preaching is empty, faith is worthless, the apostles become liars, sins remain unforgiven, Christians are pitiful fools, and dead believers have simply perished (1 Cor. 15:13-19). It is no wonder that Paul calls the resurrection of Jesus Christ a matter “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). Indeed, if Jesus was not resurrected, nothing flows from Calvary but the memory of a travesty.


Photo credit: Edwardfudge.com

On sugar maples, Southern Red Bishops and theology


A Southern Red Bishop rests after feeding on tender grain at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort, outside Johannesburg, RSA

My father-in-law, John, is amazing. When I was dating his daughter, Amy (now my wife), I would sometimes visit their home near Auburn, New York. Usually at some point, her dad would proudly take me on a stroll in their park-like back yard,  pointing out the many species of trees, some of which he had planted himself. Looking at the trees, I could identify oaks, elms, and maples. For John, that was child’s play. In his youth, he had studied to be a forest ranger and had spent several years surveying in the Northeast. He knew not only the English names for all the trees, but the Latin ones, too, terms like acer saccharum (sugar maple) and ulmus americana (American elm).

I wish he could travel to South Africa. His health now would never allow the trip. If he came, I’d show him the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens where not only are there many varieties of trees, but also birds. When it comes to birds, I’ll admit that I’m still weak in identifying different species, but little by little, I’m learning. And my favorite so far at Sisulu is the Southern Red Bishop. Riding my bike in our neighborhood the other day, I saw many birds, but instead of thinking “Look at that bird!,” I mused: “I hope that sacred ibis doesn’t decide to dive-bomb me!” My two-wheeled approach startled a pair of laughing doves, chasing them upward. To my right on the freshly mowed grass, a black-masked weaver pecked at a worm.

What applies to species of trees and birds applies to God. There was a time when I was content to just say “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” But with time, I don’t just want to know that I am saved. I want to know how salvation works. So we learn of soteriology, Christology, hamartiology, and the Christus Victor. Some think theologians needlessly complicate things. I beg to differ. The same God who made salvation simple enough for a child to understand made study of Scripture and theology profound enough for minds far greater than my own to spend a lifetime contemplating the mystery of redemption.

So let’s have at it. Let’s unabashedly dive in deep to all areas of knowledge and master each discipline’s vocabulary as an act of worship to our Creator God. And I’ll make you a deal: If you are interested in knowing more about tertium quid, conditional immortality, and the eschaton, I’ll keep plugging away in areas that hold less fascination for me, but where my interest can still be sparked. One day, I hope to shake my head in disbelief that I used to be satisfied with merely saying “tree” and “bird.”

What is your “Canon within the Canon” ?

The Waltons featured a scene where Olivia Walton (the mother) punished Mary Ellen by sending her up to her room, requiring her to memorize a certain number of Bible verses. Imagine the mother’s horror when a few hours later Mary Ellen came down and began reciting verses that were offbeat and downright gory! Maybe making Bible memorization a punishment is not the lesson we want our children to learn.

But that funny scene between mother and daughter underscores a reality for 21st century Christians:

There are parts of the Bible that we hardly ever read.

The “Canon” is the list of writings that Christians accept as inspired by God. Because of our benign neglect, do we end up with a “Canon within the Canon,” a de facto sizing down of the 66 books to a far slimmer volume what we call the Holy Bible?

What do we do with…

Genocide apparently ordered by Yahweh (Book of Joshua)?

God coming in the night to kill Moses even as Moses is en route to Egypt, in obedience to God’s command? (Exodus 4)?

The LORD’s instructions for applying the blood of the sacrifice to Aaron’s and his sons’ right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe (Exodus 29:24)?

The gang rape of a concubine by in Gibeah by some men in the town, and her husband who later dismembered her and sent her twelve body parts to the twelve tribes of Israel (Judges 19)?

These are merely four examples of passages (primarily in the Old Testament) that we avoid while reading or preaching. But let’s face it: There are neglected New Testament passages as well. Pastors, when was the last time that you preached out of the genealogy in Luke 3:23-38, or Revelation 6-18 with its mysterious symbols?

In our more honest moments, we realize that we all have our “Canon within the Canon,” our “life verse,” our “go to” portions of Scripture that bring us comfort in time of need. We may not like Marcion the ancient heretic be so bold as to declare the Old Testament off-limits, or to say that the God of the Jews is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, in the “actions speak louder than words” category, I wonder if we don’t end up in the same place through what we emphasize and what we ignore.

So how to we get out of this rut? Or, to use another metaphor, how do we change the mowing pattern so that we’re not always cutting the grass the exact same way?

1. Read the Bible through in a year.  This morning, the reading plan lead me to Mark 3:20-35, but also Numbers 3-4. Because I’ve been writing a French devotional each day, and alternating between the OT and NT passages as the basis for composing a short meditation, today I was “stuck” with instructions on what the duties of the various clans were when it came time for the children of Israel to move camp. So what of value does one say about that? Thankfully, John Bright’s book, The Authority of the Old Testament, gave me some help. He encouraged the reader to ask: What does this passage tell me about God? (He used more fancy words than that, but that was his point). So, I took Numbers 3-4 from the perspective of God wanting each of us to have a task in God’s work. It became a leadership lesson in how to deploy people in the Church. I don’t know that Bright’s method works every time, but it’s the best tool I’ve found to help us with those more difficult (or seemingly boring) passages. But back to the reading plan: If we weren’t forced to read some of the more obscure parts of Scripture because it’s on the schedule for the day, would we even read them at all?

2. Use the Lectionary when preparing sermons. By advising this, I admit that I’m telling others to do something that I’ve yet to do myself. My excuse is that my current ministerial role doesn’t take me into the pulpit every week. Still, I’ve read positive testimonies from those currently pastoring that using a tool like the Revised Common Lectionary is a good way to ensure that our people are getting a balanced spiritual diet as they listen to our preaching. As I monitor debates on the Internet, I wonder sometimes whether the New Testament only has four books, i.e. the Gospels. Arguments over morality seem to begin and end with Jesus. It makes me wonder: What about the rest of the New Testament? Does Paul have nothing to add? Peter? James? And of course the Old Testament still has something of enduring value to say, as long as we understand first what it meant to the original listeners before bringing it to the New Testament for what John Bright called a “verdict.” Well has it been said that only a study of the whole Bible makes for whole Christians. If this is true, then must not preaching as well be wide-ranging?

Mrs Walton didn’t want to hear Mary Ellen’s recitation of certain Bible verses. Likewise, our tendency is to unwittingly identify a “Canon within the Canon” by our reading and preaching habits. It won’t be easy, but we can do better. Let’s consider the full counsel of God and not just an abbreviated version.


Photo credit: Biologos.org

An amazing guide through the End Times maze

roseIt’s not often that I recommend a resource without reservation. This is one of those times.

The slick pamphlet, “Four Views of the End Times” by Rose Publishing, lays out the details of historic premillenialism, amillenialism, dispensational premillenialism, and post-millenialism in a simple and helpful way. Usually I’m not a big “charts” fan, but the diagrams they provide help the student grasp the convergences and divergences between these four schools of thought regarding the proper interpretation of the disputed “millenium” concept from Revelation 20.

Tomorrow, I’ll use the pamphlet for an adult Bible study. I’m grateful for the good work others have done, so I don’t have to chop through the eschatological forest by myself, but can follow a path hewn out by others.


Photo credit: Barnes and Noble


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