Barnabas, the man with the yellow cap

yellow_capEdward de Bono has written about six thinking hats. In Bono’s analysis, for efficient and productive meetings, the leader (the “blue hat”) must encourage a mix of contributions from the others:

white hat: seeks facts, data

red hat: senses the emotion involved

green hat: contributes new ideas and perspectives; creative

black hat: sees the potential pitfalls and dangers of a idea; pessimistic

yellow hat: highlights the possibilities in proposals and people; optimistic

My adulthood has been a quest to toss away my black cap and doff a yellow one.

People who wear yellow hats are sunny, bright, optimistic. Those words hardly described me in high school, where my black cap was firmly in-place, so much that my 10th grade American History teacher – word-playing on my name, Gregory – called me “drudgery.” In retrospect, he did me a favor, sowing a seed that later produced a desire to change, to let God’s grace change me.

Emphatically, I reject the determinism of our day. Are temperaments immutable, “once a black hat, always a black hat”? Followers of Christ committed to a Wesleyan-Arminian theology should know better. We believe like John Wesley (1703-91) that God graciously enables individuals to choose. Therefore, whatever my innate inclinations or childhood conditioning toward pessimism, I have a choice. For my part, I’ve consciously decided to belt out Annie’s “The sun will come out tomorrow” ten times for every one time I (might) listen to Gary Jules’  “Mad World.” Black cap? Been there, done that. With the Holy Spirit’s help, every day, I’ll choose the yellow one instead.

Barnabas, the son of encouragement

Barnabas, the son of encouragement

Part of wearing a yellow cap is a firm resolve to encourage rather than discourage others, and no Bible character modeled yellow-hat-living better than Barnabas, the “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). When the believers in Jerusalem were rightfully wary of Christian-persecuting Saul’s “conversion,” it was Barnabas who convinced the church to accept him as a genuine brother – Paul, no longer Saul – transformed by the grace of God (Acts 9:27). Later, when John Mark disappointed Paul and Barnabas by abandoning them on the first missionary journey, Barnabas stood staunchly by the youthful John Mark, setting out with him as a new duo. Why? Paul – once burned, twice shy – refused to allow John Mark to journey with them the second time around (Acts 15:37-41). It was providential that yellow-hatted Barnabas was there for John Mark at a very fragile moment. Today, many consider Barnabas’ protegé the author of the Gospel of Mark. Even Paul eventually had a change of heart, asking Timothy to bring John Mark with him, because “he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).

Encouragers do not live in denial, as if evil and suffering don’t exist. Rather, because they know all too well that these results of the Fall are rampant, yellow-capped disciples of Christ purposefully lean into optimism, underscoring the possibilities of the grace of God to redeem both individuals and communities.

It wasn’t just the church of the first century that needed encouragers.  The people of God in every age must have a healthy number of them for its own equilibrium and flourishing. But I wonder:

When it comes to the church and her prospects today, where have all the yellow hats gone? Like honey bees, are they mysteriously dying off?

Judging by what I read on the internet, there must have been a sale on black caps. Lots of people – especially bloggers – are busy lamenting the church’s decline, writing her obituary, as if the church can do nothing right. You’ve seen the posts: “10 blunders that…” and “5 mistakes that…”  As one who has worn the black cap too often myself, I realize the danger of that kind of unchecked pessimism. Black-hatters, I challenge you:

Come with me on my quest for the yellow hat.

There is a place for caution. The church cannot do without some black hats, but does she now have too many? More than ever, the church needs upbeat people like Barnabas, sons and daughters of encouragement. You know you want to sport that yellow cap! It’s stylish and comfortable. Enough already with the over-the-top negativity. Together, let’s make the choice – by God’s grace – to be possibility thinkers.

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Image credits:

yellow cap: Augustcaps.com

Barnabas: The Faith Pal

Heaven: Starting the song all over again

trumpetMr. Taylor was my first band conductor.

Conducting a 4th grade band takes a special kind of patience. Every child is new at his or her instrument, be it the flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, drums, or a dozen other things that make noise. And let’s face it, for 4th graders, about all we could was make noise. Like my brothers before me, I played the trumpet, or at least I tried.

Our first concert came at Christmas time. By then, all of us had a grand total of 3 months of experience, practicing twice per week in the band room. Parents and siblings gathered in the cafeteria and waited for us to file in. At last, all of us were in our seats and Mr. Taylor stepped up to the small platform, took his conductor’s baton, and raised his arms. We all snapped to attention and raised our instruments, ready to play.

I’m not sure what happened, but only about half of us began playing when his arms came down, signalling the start of the song. Were some still trying to spot where their families sat in the audience? Maybe others were still adjusting their music on the stand or simply daydreaming, but whatever the reason, it was a poor start.

Mr. Taylor then did something that surprised us. He suddenly stopped directing the song, tapping his baton several times on the music stand. We all ground to a halt, not knowing what to make of it all. Slowly, he turned around and addressed the audience:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had a very poor start to the song. Please forgive us. We can do better. Now, we are going to start all over again.”

And that is exactly what we did. I’m glad to report that the second time went much better, and when we were done, the audience applauded with gusto.

That’s what Heaven will be like. Heaven is New Creation. Heaven is God starting the song all over again.

The first time through, the song has been marred by sin, off-key. God knows we all can do better. One day, he will tap his baton on the music stand and we will all begin again.

John described it this way: :

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).

More and more of those who have played their instruments with me in the band are now silent, awaiting that second chance to perform. On that day, the band will once again assemble. All who have played before us will be present, gloriously resurrected by the Lord in new, durable bodies. What a grand reunion that will be as Jesus raises the baton and we start the song all over again!

How about you? Will you be in the band? This life is only the poor beginning to the song, but a new, better beginning is coming. Don’t miss out on it. Keep your instrument in-tune. What a performance that will be!

From conditioning to encounter: A response to Aldous Huxley

huxley2

Aldous Huxely (1894-1963)

The interface between theology and psychology has always intrigued me. Yesterday, I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The 1932 classic from the British novelist and philosopher presents a vision of a far-off future where humans no longer fulfill the role of “father” and “mother.” Instead, reproduction is carefully engineered by the State, social classes predetermined from fertilization and gestation in closely-monitored bottles.

There are many themes to explore in the book, and the dystopian vision still resonates well at a time when The Hunger Games is all the rage. Allow me to focus this brief essay on a single topic, namely, whether we believe in God only because others have conditioned us to do so.

Conditioning is a psychological technique whereby humans are molded to think and act in ways determined by the person in control. Brave New World portrays a system whereby young children are spoon-fed ideas while they sleep, messages repeated over-and-over through tiny speakers hidden under their pillows. In this passive way, the various classes – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon – acquire their worldview, especially their prejudices toward members of other castes.

Though the novel never explains exactly how the rulers of the “brave new world” condition people’s thinking about God, the Divine Being comes up at the end of the book in a conversation between the Savage and Mustapha Mond, the Controller (p. 183):

The Savage interrupted him. “But isn’t it natural to feel there’s a God?” “You might as well ask if it’s natural to do up one’s trousers with zippers,” said the Controller sarcastically. “You remind me of another of those odd fellows called Bradley. He defined philosophy as the finding of bad reasons for what one believes by instinct. As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons – that’s philosophy. People believe in God because they’re conditioned to believe in God.” (italics added)

There’s some truth in what Huxley says. Can there be any doubt that Christian education – what Huxley would no doubt consider a form of conditioning – affects a child’s worldview, like a hand imprint left in wet cement? Children who have not yet learned to reason are particularly open to whatever teaching is given, positive or negative, whether it is training to be an altar boy or a child soldier.

Yet Huxley’s critique leaves unaddressed other considerations, particularly the role of religious experience. This experience is both individual and corporate. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Scripture may be considered largely the experience of the divine as lived across time by persons and peoples. Further, it is not a mystical experience devoid of any historical reference, but experiences that transpired in real time. Isaiah saw the LORD lifted up, but it happened “in the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 1:1). Likewise, The Apostles’ Creed assumes historical reality, portraying a Saviour who “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

More than any other Christian tradition, evangelical faith has discerned the importance of moving past conditioning to encounter. John Wesley (1703-91) had been conditioned by his father and mother to believe that God existed, to pray and to read the Bible. Yet on May 24, 1738, Wesley recorded his personal experience of God’s grace, that his heart was “strangely warmed” while listening to someone read the introduction to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans. Whether we call this his “evangelical conversion” or simply the moment of the assurance of faith matters little. The point is that – to use Wesley’s later term – he moved in his own self-perception from having the faith of a “servant” to that of a “son.”

Religious experience is always a slippery subject to discuss. Any faith – to be held as true by its adherents – must account for the religious experiences of those who espouse other faith traditions. Why should our community of faith’s experiences be considered more valid? Further, what one calls “God” the skeptic might call hallucination, but at least now we’re having a conversation not about “brainwashing” but something empirical, experiences that can to at least some degree be analyzed and evaluated.

The power of encounter should never be underestimated. Saul had been conditioned to believe certain strict tenets as a boy who grew up under Pharisaical teachings. It was only later, however, when conditioning met encounter in the person of the Living Christ on the road to Damascus that his vision was transformed. Through a radical experience of the transcendent, some of his conditioning was modified. No longer would he seek out Christians to imprison them as enemies of the Jewish faith. Instead, he now became one of their key leaders. Experience trumped conditioning.

Yet one must be careful. God exists independently of our experience of God. One might be tempted to conclude: “For you, God exists because you’ve experienced him, but for me God does not exist since I have never experienced God.” Yet the tree that falls in the forest still makes a sound, whether or not I am close enough to hear it. What matters is that the effects of encounter are measurable. Like a strong wind topples a tree, the fallen tree serves as evidence of an invisible reality. So it is in the spiritual realm. Lives transformed from drunkenness to sobriety, husbands who stop beating their wives, children who were before disobedient to parents who suddenly become more compliant and helpful, these effects and many more testify to a Cause, and that Cause is God. When it happens to enough people, we call it a religious awakening.

Brave New World is a fascinating book on many levels. Aldous Huxley has  done Christ followers a favor by forcing us to begin to think through our assumptions, including how we have come to believe what we do about God. But what do you think? Is Christian faith – or any faith – no more than the result of conditioning? Weigh-in below in the comment thread.

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Photo credit: Diccionari Cultural

District Assembly Line? Why we need District Conference instead

assemblyHenry Ford invented the assembly line. His efficiency experts determined that to produce the maximum number of quality cars, workers should be stationed along the line, each one performing a given task.

But what works well for putting together cars is a failure when it comes to people. Having attended many District Assemblies in both the United States and in Africa, I wonder:

Do we now have District Assembly Lines?

Assemblies have become efficient, but less-and-less relational. The focus is on getting the church’s business accomplished in just a few short hours – a morning or an afternoon – but in the efficiency, have we surrender relational effectiveness?

It wasn’t always this way. We used to have District Assembly, which really were District Conferences. When I was boy on the Upstate New York District, we used to have a full two days given to Assembly. Pastors reported at-length on both victories and struggles. We took time to pray for each other. Resolutions were made from the floor, and we took the time to listen to both sides before going forward together.

Part of the problem is a good problem. In my life-time, we have more than doubled in number, from under 1 million to 2.3 million. This means that General Superintendents now are jetting around the world to hold District Assemblies. Since they are the only ones authorized to ordain elders and deacons, necessarily their stays are shorter.

Yet our sense of connection as local Nazarene churches is weakening. To reverse this decline, it’s time for us to get creative at the district level, and maybe the regional conference can guide us.

We have just finished a 5 day regional conference in South Africa. The incredible joy that I’ve seen on the faces of our delegates from southern Africa and lusophone Africa has done my heart good. We had time for each other. Around the breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables, we laughed and cried, renewed friendships and made new ones. In extended sessions, we discussed challenges in the church and shared possible solutions. Because it was a longer period, we had time for three nights of holiness preaching. Helpful workshops were the order of the day. We finished the week united in our common mission and feeling connected.

Singing during evening worship, Africa Regional Conference (Johannesburg)

Singing during evening worship, Africa Regional Conference (Johannesburg)

Yet the regional conference is expensive. We come from long distances, and these are just representatives. Many more who would have profited from the relationship building could not attend, and even if they had been available, what venue is large enough? Further, the regional conference is only every four years, hardly frequent enough for most.

The question is:

How can the relational emphasis of the regional conference be brought to the district level on an every year basis?

1. Take time together, several days annually, to build connection. The word Conference has a rich heritage within Wesleyan-Holiness circles. It was John Wesley (1703-91) who convened in London the very first Methodist Conference in 1744. John Wesley reported regarding this Conference:

In June 1744, I desired my brother and a few other clergymen to meet me in London, to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those who heard us. After some time, I invited the lay preachers that were in the house to meet with us. We conferred together for several days and were much comforted and strengthened thereby.

Wesley noted that they were “comforted” and “strengthened.” It also did not happen in a half day of hurried business. Rather, they were together for “several days.” It takes time to bond and build a team. What was true in 18th century England is no less true for human beings today, no matter their cultural background. Have we forgotten this relational truth?

2. Change our language from “Assembly” to “Conference.” Words matter, and the term “Assembly” has come to be associated only with church business. Let’s get back to our Wesleyan roots and speak of Conference. If need be, we can carve out three hours from the Conference and call it “district church business session,” but let it not be the primary focus. Our main purpose should be connecting.

3. Remind the District Superintendent and his or her team that they have great freedom to organize this annual event and to use their creativity. District Conference could be the most anticipated event of the year. As it currently stands, districts seem to feel like they cannot do much without the presence of the outside church higher-up, whether that’s the General Superintendent or whoever may have been appointed to preside in his or her place. If the “district business meeting” and the ordination service are the only two events requiring the presence of the G.S., then there is great latitude to plan other events around those times, events more conducive to team-building and making connections between local churches on the district.

4. Don’t forget the children, teens and twenty-somethings. On the planning team, there should be representation from teens and those in their twenties. Inter-generational events should be the norm and space given to participation in both planning and on the platform by these three often forgotten age categories. Let us enfranchise all ages at the District Conference, including children. Only then can we reverse the lamentable trend where the average age at what we now call District Assembly is certainly above 50 and perhaps higher.

In the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” the character played by actor Tom Hanks comes in to the neighborhood and builds a “big box” location of his chain book store. When the home-grown bookshop owner complains, he remarks:

“It’s not personal, it’s business.”

And that’s the problem with our current District Assembly Lines. They’re not personal, they’re just business. Assembly lines in the auto industry make for high efficiency, but in the church they’re destructive. It’s time to disassemble our annual District Assembly Lines and move to an annual District Conference, fostering over several days greater levels of connection while still accomplishing the church business that we must. 

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UPDATE:  Twenty-four hours after posting it, this article has been viewed almost 400 times, which is more than 4x my usual traffic. Thank you to Dr. Eugenio Duarte for his comments at Africa Regional Conference this week, about connection really being our fourth Nazarene Core Value, i.e. Christian, holiness, misssional, and connectional. My essay is nothing more than reflecting on what he said and attempting to apply that principle in a particular case. I’m late to the party, as conversation on FaceBook shows some districts have already been re-thinking District Assembly in creative ways to combine it with other events (NMI, NYI, camp meeting) to make it longer and more relational. May this trend take hold. 

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Image credit: F.R. Milovan Blog

O Africa, Ability is your name!

Ability2

Ability took our order, and got me thinking.

Friday is date night, but this week, Amy and I did a Friday date lunch instead. When I was done ordering our fish, as I’ll often do – gregarious Greg that I am –  I made conversation with the server. Reading his name tag, I discovered a name I’d never seen before: “Ability.”

We chatted a bit, and later I reflected on the optimism behind his name. Twenty or so years ago, a son was born. Of all the names his father and mother could have chosen for him, they chose this unique name, one that says:

Look what we were able to do, together.

Ability’s name is not so much a “Yes, I can” as a “Yes, we can.”

North American media has done Africa a grave disservice. It seems to cover only wars, famine, and disease. The story of Africa Rising rarely makes the news, yet a huge part of that story is optimism, fueled by a deep trust in the goodness of God and the Lord’s desire to see life on this Great Continent not just survive but flourish.

O Africa, Ability is your name!

This week, 800 optimistic Nazarenes from across Africa are converging on Johannesburg for a time of worship and equipping. In the laughter and let’s-take-time-for-each-other conversations around the dinner table, a confident can-do attitude is never far away.

Here are some of the other positive “Abilities” that I’ve seen in Africa since arriving in 1993:

– Responsibility

– Dependability

– Respectability

– Accountability

– Flexibility

– Capability

Are they always demonstrated? Of course not. After all, what human society anywhere in the world perfectly reflects these characteristics? But I have come to cherish the dominance of these values, the sweet fruit of  placing an emphasis not on independence but interdependence. Africa is at her worst when she forgets these communal values. On the other hand, she is at her best when she celebrates and rewards them.

Reuben Welch said it well:

We really do need each other.

Ability in all its forms takes root in the soil of dependence upon God, then blossoms in mutual assistance. It’s as simple as loving God and loving neighbor (Mark 12:28-34).

I’m glad I met Ability at the fish shop. His name reminds us that – with God, and working together – all things are possible.

Called to the Fire: A review

charles_johnson1The history of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the United States has always fascinated me. As a Nazarene, a book that addresses civil rights and adds a Nazarene angle is a double winner. Chet Bush’s Called to the Fire: A Witness for God in Mississippi – The Story of Dr. Charles Johnson (Abingdon, Nook edition, 2012) is one such book.

Charles Johnson has served for many years as pastor of the Fitkin’s Memorial Church of the Nazarene in Meridian, Mississippi. Called to the Fire chronicles Johnson’s struggle as a Bible College student about to graduate, desiring the sunny skies of San Diego but sent by his District Superintendent (and the Lord) to the hotbed of Mississippi during the upheaval of racial confrontations.

The biography opens with the October 1967 trial of defendants in the notorious murder in Neshoba County, MS of civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. Johnson served as a witness for the prosecution, having known and worked with Schwerner for several months prior to the slayings. The middle chapters go back in time, filling in details about Johnson’s upbringing, call to ministry, and organizing of the Meridian Action Committee (MAC) which fought for a better life for African-Americans living in Meridian, MS. Chet Bush praises Johnson, noting that he worked to “help the whole man” (p. 8). Bush continued:

Charles Johnson dignified a people by demanding justice for them. Charles Johnson dignified another people by demanding justice from them. This is the nature of prophetic speech and the effect of justice restored. Justice means to invite a healing to occur both in the life of the oppressed and an oppressor, for it is beneath the dignity of a fully whole person to treat another as a second-rate human” (pp. 8-9).

Called to the Fire is nuanced in its treatment of racism. Johnson recognizes that the blanket warning that his own mother gave him as a boy to not trust any white person was as much a form of racism as that received by African-Americans at the hands of whites. This introduces a dilemma (p. 31): “How does one break from the mold of racism when a mother must teach her child a healthy distrust toward another people to keep him safe?” Such a stereotype about whites crumbled under the fatherly care Johnson received from a white evangelist, C.R. Smith, who showed compassionate love to Johnson and many other destitute African-American boys living in Orlando, Florida. Johnson observes (p. 36):

What I was hearing from Mother and what I was seeing in C.R. Smith just didn’t match up. As I watched C.R. I saw that he wasn’t like what I had been taught white people were like. He was breaking down the stereotype for me. My walls of fear were crumbling.

What a beautiful description of the possibility of racial understanding that is as close as positive interactions between individuals. Though our skin color differs, we can be united in our common humanity.

Dr. Charles Johnson

Dr. Charles Johnson

Bush is sensitive when dealing with Johnson’s first marriage. His wife suffered from anxiety that was heightened by the very real threats that the Johnsons received, such as harassing calls in the middle of the night. When she died young of congestive heart failure, Johnson knew that “terror” was what really killed her, concluding: “We lost her in the war” (p. 99). This episode humanizes Johnson who had difficulty reconciling the demands of pastoral ministry with duty to his emotionally fragile wife.

For all its strengths – including the short length of just 148 pages, making the book readable in a single sitting – Called to the Fire has a few shortcomings. There are no photos of Charles Johnson after 1988. Also, note 3 on the final page of the Nook edition ends abruptly, with incomplete wording. Hopefully this kind of e-book conversion error can be corrected in future editions.

Whatever its faults, Called to the Fire is a well-written, fascinating account of a pivotal decade in American history as seen through the lens of a Nazarene pastor. In light of the recent racial confrontations in the United States,  it’s refreshing to read of the difference that one pastor – filled in equal parts with resolve in the face of injustice and the winsome love of God – can make in a troubled world.

Renovating Holiness: Wrapping a gift in more attractive ways

RHDr Rob Staples, Professor Emeritus of Theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary, once compared the holiness message to a gift. The color and style of the wrapping paper vary depending upon who is doing the wrapping, but underneath, the present itself remains unchanged.

That image came to mind as I perused Tom Oord’s and Josh Broward’s Renovating Holiness (SacraSage, 2015). After reading the more than 100 essays from contributors across the globe – all born after 1960 and most in their 20s and 30s – it’s apparent that younger Nazarenes are articulating holiness differently than those who came before. Still, the underlying truth is unchanging:

God in Christ wants to make us holy.

The chapters in Renovating Holiness are brief, most no more than 750 to 1,000 words, making it easy to read one or two essays in a sitting. A significant number of the chapters were written by those outside North America, including contributions from Africa, Europe, South America, and Asia. (Full disclosure: I contributed a chapter as an American ministering in Africa). This wide array of authors lends the volume a global flavor which is especially important since now less than 50% of the membership of the Church of the Nazarene resides in the U.S. or Canada.

Renovating Holiness has 32 solid essays on the biblical and theological formulation of holiness, addressing passages and themes that are sometimes overlooked. Examples of this are the refreshing treatment of holiness in Exodus by Marty Michelson and the questions on purity and impurity in Ephesians answered by Svetlana Khobyna. Elsewhere, Rob Snow’s treatment of some spiritual gifts is sure to generate conversation, especially in world areas where much of what is spiritually showy has long since been judged a shallow side-water outside the deep main current of historic Wesleyan concerns.

Yet for all the helpful attention given to biblical-theological themes, Renovating Holiness is strongest in the 2/3 of the book focusing on what might be termed the working out of holiness in the world. This is holiness with a social conscious never satisfied to barricade itself behind the four walls of church buildings and piously mouth “Maranathas!” Rather, in myriad ways, the core value of love – celebrated in the sacraments and fine-tuned through small group discipleship – must be expressed in redemptive ways that spill over into society. Essays under the rubric “On Engaging Culture” do this most clearly, yet the motif of what may be termed holiness for the sake of others recurs in numerous chapters, a golden thread that ties together an otherwise motley collection.

On the other hand, an unsavory element slipped into one of the meals served up by Renovating Holiness. James Travis Young’s otherwise insightful observations in “Some Call it Love” are marred by his claim: “We were told lies about holiness and were told about holiness by liars” (p. 94). Such incendiary language is a hot pepper that risks ruining the whole dish. His critique would likely be interpreted by most non-Western readers as out-of-bounds, violating the norms of deference and respect due to elders. If what the back cover says is true – that the doctrine of holiness has for some been considered a “sacred cow” – then in this instance a small stroke of the editorial pen would have improved the essay without compromising its main thrust.

These cautionary comments aside, Renovating Holiness should be celebrated as a gift to the Church of the Nazarene and the broader Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. In a significant way, it gives voice to rising scholar-practitioners who for too long have lacked printed venues where they can skillfully wrap up the gift of holiness in relational ways more appealing in today’s world. This book may signal the beginning of a long-overdue conversation as we collaborate – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – to present holiness in a fashion more winsome and contemporary.