A prayer for the Class of 2014, Southern Africa Nazarene University

SANU Chancellor Dr Loren Gresham was with us for the 5th graduation ceremony.
SANU Chancellor Dr Loren Gresham was with us for the 5th graduation ceremony.

I was honored to offer this prayer of dedication for the graduating class:

Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit –

You have promised in your Word that you will never leave us, you will never forsake us. Today, we stand in testimony that your promise is true. You knew each graduate when they were but a child of promise as you knit them together in their mother’s womb. From their earliest days, through primary and high school, and now to this day of academic victory at Southern Africa Nazarene University, through it all, Lord, you have been with them, and we give you praise and heartfelt thanks.

We know, Father, that in the darkest moments of human history, your solution to problems has always been people. When men and women had gone astray, you sent prophets to guide them back to yourself. When it seemed like the forces of darkness would overwhelm all that you had created, you sent your Son, the light of the world, born of a virgin, to crush the serpent’s head.

So today, Holy Spirit, we reaffirm our part in that great struggle, confident that greater is the One who is in us than the one who is in the world. We consecrate to you these graduates of Southern Africa Nazarene University who now take up the fight against disease through the healing arts, against ignorance through the classroom, and against sin and evil through the church’s loving message of transformation for individuals, communities and nations. We send them forth today into a Cause greater than themselves, knowing that their Savior and Sanctifier – the one who stayed with them this far – is not about to abandon them now.

As they go forth, we offer this earnest prayer for their safe-keeping. Guard them in moments of temptation from selfish choices that promise much but deliver only broken relationships and self-hatred. Encourage graduates, Lord, when they refuse moral compromise and end up paying the price. Remind them of the lessons that they have learned from faculty and staff in this University, that if one must choose, it is far better to forfeit this world’s applause than to forfeit one’s integrity.

Today, we pray for their joy and prosperity. God of flourishing, may these graduates know abundance in every way – abundant life in Christ, joy and laughter in their homes, food on their tables, a spirit so overflowing with your love that nothing but kind words and blessings will be on their lips for brothers and sisters less fortunate than themselves. We pray that lips which bless sincerely may be accompanied by hands that give generously.

We pray, oh Lord, for their relationship with you, that it will grow deep and wide. May you fill them with all the fullness of God and the peace that comes through a heart surrendered to the sweet control of the Holy Spirit. When times of trouble and sorrow come, as they surely must, wrap your arms of love around them and be their comfort.

Further, we dedicate them to service in your Body, the Church. Whether vocational or lay ministers, may they find a place of labor and meaningful contribution in your Church. Make of each one a positive example to younger ones in the community of faith who look up to them and will pattern their own behavior on theirs.

Thank you, Jesus, for the sacrificial way in which mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers have supported our graduates. May you bless them today. Give them the satisfaction of knowing that today, they are rightfully proud of their graduate.

Finally, heavenly Father, I leave our graduates in your hands. Guide them and spur them on to excellence in their respective fields, that when their time comes one day to meet you face-to-face, they will leave this nation, this continent, and this Earth a better place than they found it, a little more like God’s Kingdom, the Kingdom that we still pray will come. I pray not only that they will be Christlike disciples. I pray that you will make them Christlike disciples who change the world.

We give you thanks, O Triune God, for each graduate and leave them now in your tender care. For it is in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that we offer this prayer,


Beyond self: Gathered to worship

Southland5The first line of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life may be its most profound: “It’s not about you.” Nothing that the church does together underscores this truth more than worship. When the people of God worship together, we are collectively caught-up into the presence of the Eternal One who far surpasses our minuscule, temporal selves.

Sunday is sacred because – ever since the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter morning – it has been the one time each week when collectively we set aside all distractions. It is on this day that we celebrate the Risen Christ, focusing on God. The hymn by William Kethe calls us to forget self and directs our attention instead to divine Royalty:

Oh, worship the King, all glorious above,

Oh, gratefully sing His pow’r and His love;

Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,

Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.

The heart of worship: It’s all about God

Note where the focus lies. Each person in the room – be it a small store front with a low ceiling or a sanctuary in a high-vaulted cathedral – directs his or her attention heavenward. Self fades away in the bright light of the God who has no equal. Like the prophet Isaiah, worship properly understood transports us beyond ourselves and takes us to another dimension where we catch a glimpse of the majesty of the King: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:3, CEB).

This is the first and most important aspect of worship: It is God-directed. Worship entices us to bow our knee before God, funneling our attention not self-ward but heavenward, celebrating the blessings of God with grateful hearts. And yet as we lose ourselves in God’s majesty, something amazing and paradoxical transpires:

 Steadfast refusal to focus upon ourselves in the end transforms us!

We see this boomerang effect in Ephesians 3:14-21. Paul offers a prayer, yet it is not a hurried petition, a rote recitation. Rather, it is a prayer that breathes the essence of worship:

“This is why I kneel before the Father.” – v. 14 (CEB)

Paul takes on the role of worship leader, submitting as creature to Creator, bringing us collectively into the awesome presence of Almighty God. Importantly, this God is Triune in nature and being. As Paul genuflects before the Father, he asks Him to strengthen our “inner selves” through “the Spirit” (v. 16). He invites Christ himself to live in our hearts “through faith” (v. 17). Oh, the mystery of the Three-in-One God! And not surprisingly, where this Three-in-One God abides, love is never far away:

“I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God” (v. 18-19).

If there was any doubt about the corporate setting of Paul’s prayer, it evaporates in v. 21: “Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always. Amen.”

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Break down every idol: Cleansing the Temple

Greg_18This is the sermon I preached yesterday at the installation of Rev Alolfo Tembe as the new Principal of the Seminário Nazareno em Moçambique in Maputo, Mozambique.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture passages are from the Common English Bible (2011).


SCRIPTURE READING: 2 Kings 23:24-25

“Josiah burned those who consulted dead spirits and the mediums, the household gods and the worthless idols – all the monstrous things that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem. In this way Josiah fulfilled the words of the Instruction written in the scroll that the priest Hilkiah found in the LORD’s temple. There’s never been a king like Josiah, whether before or after him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, all his being, and all his strength, in agreement with everything in the Instruction from Moses.”



We are a holiness church. What does that mean? It means that we are called to be the righteous people of God, set apart for God’s sacred use. We understand that 1 Peter 1:16 – “Be holy, because I, the LORD your God am holy” – is not a command for the distant future. It is God’s expectation of us right now.

Yet for the disciple of Jesus, both saved and entirely sanctified, it is not enough to point to 2 experiences in the past, no matter how meaningful and wonderful those experiences may have been. We must constantly present ourselves before God. Like the Psalmist, we must pray:

Examine me, God! Look at my heart!

Put me to the test!

Know my anxious thoughts!

Look to see if there is any idolatrous way in me,

then lead me on the eternal path!

- Psalm 139:23-24


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When necessary, use words: the power of preaching

black female preacherPreachers today get a bad rap.

“Don’t preach at me” figures on the list of most popular comebacks, along with “Stop judging me.” In modern usage, to preach at someone is to set oneself up as superior, to condescendingly render a verdict on another’s behavior. It is the pop star Madonna pleading with her father: “Papa, don’t preach.”

Yet preaching wasn’t always devalued. There was a time when “preacher” was a term of endearment, a little less formal than “Reverend” but respectful nonetheless. As recently as 1996 in the film “The Preacher’s Wife,” Courtney Vance portrayed Reverend Henry Biggs, an African-American pastor who – while insensitive to his wife’s needs – was nevertheless committed to his work, selflessly serving the members of his inner-city flock. Being a preacher was cool.

So if the term “preacher” has lately fallen on hard times, why do the people of God continue to use it? To answer this question, let’s briefly look at what the New Testament has to say about preaching and its importance to the life of the Body of Christ, the church.

John and Jesus: the preaching cousins

A good place to begin is with the second cousins, John and Jesus. John went into the wilderness and took up a simple lifestyle, wearing clothes made of camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4). People streamed to John and he baptized them with water as a sign of their abandoning their sinful ways. Yet the baptizing followed preaching. We don’t have a lot of detail about what John preached, but it wasn’t for the faint of heart. He urged people to produce good fruit, proof of their changed ways. He called religious leaders “snakes” (Matthew 3:7), demanded that tax collectors not collect more than they were required, and warned soldiers not to accuse people falsely or to extort money. Instead, he told them to be content with their salary (see Luke 3:7-14). John’s boldness in preaching knew no social boundaries, and he paid for his boldness with his head (Matthew 14:1-12).

Yet John was always a warm-up act for the main attraction. About Jesus of Nazareth, John testified: “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less” (John 3:30, NLT). Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus passed his test in the wilderness, resisting the temptations of the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). After this testing, what did Jesus do? He immediately began to preach: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). In fact, the kingdom of heaven and the parables Jesus drew from everyday life became the staple of his magnetic preaching. Just before returning to heaven, Jesus commanded his disciples to preach the Gospel (literally, “good news”) to all creation (Mark 16:15). We preach because it is the command of our Lord to do so.

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How big is too big? On Goldilocks and the devil


Next Saturday, we’ll return to our series Christlike Disciples, Christlike World: The Transformational Mission of the People of God. For today, here’s one from the archives.


The story of Goldilocks and the three bears is a children’s favorite. A little girl takes a walk in the forest, and comes upon a house. She knocks, but when no one answers, she opens the door and begins to explore. Besides three  bowls and three beds, she spies three chairs in the living room. Sitting in the first two, she concludes that they are too big, but the third one is different. “Ah, this chair is just right,” she exclaims.

When it comes to the devil, Christian theologians disagree on how large a “chair” he should occupy. Some argue that he should only be a bit player in salvation’s drama. After all, Satan goes unmentioned in the early affirmations of faith, including the Apostles’ Creed (2nd century CE) and the Nicene Creed (325 CE). Henry and Richard Blackaby, in their devotional guide Experiencing God Day-By-Day (Broadman, 1998), are of this persuasion. In their thoughts for October 31, they observe:

Christians can become preoccupied with battling Satan. This deceives them to invest their time and energy attempting to do something that Christ has already done for them. If Satan can divert you to wage a warfare that has already ended in surrender, he will have eliminated your effectiveness where God wants you. Fearing Satan is fearing a prisoner of war.

Dr Rob Staples, Professor Emeritus of theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary, recalled when he was a boy that his mother asked him to choose one of their farmyard chickens for dinner. When he lopped off the chicken’s head with a axe, the headless chicken danced in a frenzy for a while before dropping over dead. “That is an image of the devil,” Staples told us. “Jesus, through the Cross and Resurrection, chopped off Satan’s head, and all that we have seen since is his death dance.”

On the other hand, some reserve too large a place for the devil in their thinking. In 15 years of ministry in Africa, I have resisted calls for inserting a “demonology” course in our curriculum. While several courses with a different focus touch upon the issue, to dedicate an entire course to the topic reminds me of Goldilock’s comments about the first two chairs: “This chair is too big!” I’ve been in church services where the first ten minutes are given to the congregation raising its voice to chase the devil away. I’ve challenged pastors to consider whether they are unwittingly sowing fear in the hearts of believers. After all, if it takes 200 Christians ten minutes of concerted, high-volume prayer to chase the devil on a Sunday morning, what will the poor saint do on her sick bed when she senses spiritual attack and can only manage a whisper?

The New Testament truth appears to lie somewhere between the position of the Blackabys and Staples and the exaggerated view of some African pastors. It is a view that recognizes the eventual defeat of the devil (Rev. 20:1-3), a final defeat begun via Cross and Empty Tomb.  Satan was wounded, there can be no doubt, yet is this the mortal wound of Staples’ headless chicken? If so, then the “death dance” has lasted 2,000 years!

Peter chose another animal to which he compared Satan:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8, NIV).

Paul joins Peter in his assessment, lamenting that to-date he had been unable to visit the Thessalonians, since Satan had “hindered us” (1 Thess. 2:18, NIV). Yet the same Paul did not hesitate to cast out of of a slave girl in Philippi a python spirit of divination (Acts 16:16-19). His spiritual preparedness to confront whatever the devil threw his way is epitomized in Ephesians 6:10-20, where we are to “put on the full armor of God” so that we may “stand against the devil’s schemes” (v. 11). Unlike the Blackabys, I do not believe that the devil has already surrendered, though one day he will.

When it comes to our understanding of the devil, there is a position – like the chair Goldilocks chose – that fits the biblical evidence “just right.” I wonder: If we insist that “Satan is a defeated foe” – rather than “Satan is wounded and will finally be defeated” – could this lead to spiritual complacency?  A wounded animal is particularly dangerous. To downplay this reality may risk being naively blind-sided while serving the Lord. We may consider something a “test from God” that is instead an attack from Satan. On the other hand, to place the devil center-stage in our thinking is to do what neither creeds nor Scripture have done. This can lead to an unhealthy fascination with darkness. It may sow fear in our hearts, a fear that is unbecoming a Christian’s confidence in the victory of Christ, now and in the future.

Meanwhile, in this great parenthesis between Jesus’ ascension and his final enthronement at the Second Coming, we ask the question contained in Francis Schaeffer’s book title:

How should we then live?

We live in neither complacency nor fear in this time of “already, but not yet.” We live a vigilant life, aware of the devil’s schemes (2 Cor. 2:11). With the Blackabys, we refuse to be distracted from the work to which God has called us, preaching the Gospel, binding up the wounds of the brokenhearted, and in victory over Satan awaiting the day when God shall in Christ bring all things to fulfillment. What a day that will be!


Photo credit: Missoula News

Theology in Overalls: Why it Matters

Pelham Lessing

I was asked by Dr Crofford to consider writing a short essay on a practical theological theme or to write up a book review as a way to introduce me to the readership of his blog: Theology in Overallswhere theology meets everyday life – by being what he calls a guest voice. Instead of thinking about a practical issue to write about or to decide on which of the books I am currently reading would make for a nice book review, I became absorbed by the name and description of the blog-page. So instead of writing a book review or on a practical issue I want to write about Why Theology in Overalls Matters and apply it to one particular sphere.

This got me thinking about the current issue of overalls being discussed in South Africa’s parliament, theology and its practical implications. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is a leftist political party in South Africa. One of the aims and objectives of the party is “to create conditions for total political and economic emancipation, prosperity, and equitable distribution of wealth of the nation.” The EFF are currently embroiled in an argument with government and or parliament on wearing red boiler suits and overalls to parliamentary sessions.

According to the EFF their dress code is a symbol signifying their disassociation and dissatisfaction with the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) who the former claim are not living up to the Freedom Charter[1]. The African National Congress (ANC) has accused the EFF of not respecting the dress code of institutions and a failure to understand decorum, which according to the EFF is relying on colonial imagery. The EFF in turn says that their dress code is used as a symbol of the plight of the poor and working class. For the EFF politics must be practical and speak to life-based (rooted in life) issues. As I read articles and listened to reports on the radio regarding the overall debate, my mind started to focus once more on the practice orientated nature of the gospel.

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God and Coffee: A Story

Newlyweds Kevin and Naomi Nye
Newlyweds Kevin and Naomi Nye

For the next 2 Saturdays, I’ll be featuring guest voices here at Theology in Overalls. Today, I’m pleased  (with permission) to repost  “God and coffee: A story,” from the weblog of Southern Nazarene University alumnus, Kevin Nye.

Kevin is a writer who gently shakes up  your unexamined assumptions. Even if you’re not a coffee connoisseur, you’ll enjoy how Kevin uncovers God in everyday things.



In this, my first “meaty” post about God and Coffee, I simply want to tell a story. It’s a story you may know if you know me personally, or might have a connection to in some other way. It’s nothing more than a personal story about how coffee, and a small little world made possible, changed my life. This felt like an especially poignant story to tell because of all the news and opinions about mental illness surrounding Robin Williams’ death.

This is only a story, and you may wonder, “What does this have to do with God and coffee?” Well, this story has coffee in it, and it has God in it, so that’s my first qualification. But mostly, I tell this story because I think this whole situation was made possible because coffee is something that most of the world shares in common. It’s something that almost all of us drink, young and old, and unites us with the rest of the world: where coffee drinking, farming, and distributing take place. It’s a shared experience, and I think God is in it.

In 2005, an espresso and smoothie catering company called Dirty Water Coffee Co. was started in Oklahoma City by an ambitious, but driven 20 year old named Taggart Dertinger, affectionately known by the name Tag. From scratch, Tag developed a fully mobile coffee and smoothie shop that could be set up in 15 minutes or less, and offer everything from espresso shots to Busted Bean Frappuccinos, or the classic Snozzberry smoothie. By the time I joined the company in 2011, Dirty Water was doing upwards of 20-25 events per week, with four full setups that could be in different places at once.

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