Disciplined community: light from St Benedict

Benedict of Nursia

Benedict of Nursia

John and Charles Wesley were the 18th century co-founders of Methodism. Their young lives were ones of moral striving, extreme fastidiousness in their approach to the Christian faith, an emphasis on the merit accrued by good works. This went on well into adulthood until the brothers – through a series of providential events – received greater light. They came to understand that we do not perform good works in order to be saved. Rather, because God in Christ has graciously saved us, we as a result perform good works. In theological terms, justification (divine pardon of sins) comes first, followed by sanctification (God’s cleansing, leading to holiness of heart and life).

For three decades, the Wesleys had the order backwards, wrongly placing sanctification prior to justification. Once God corrected this error in their thinking and spiritual experience, the brothers – no longer preoccupied with saving themselves – devoted their full energies to announcing the glorious message of saving and sanctifying grace, both the free gift of a loving God, a provision of Christ’s atonement. Their initial error was one they inherited from their father, Samuel – a Church of England clergyman – and their mother, Susanna, but was larger than their upbringing. Moralism was the default message of the Church of England and had been for the second half of the 17th century right up to the Wesley brothers’ arrival on the scene in the early 1700s.

Centuries earlier, Benedict of Nursia (480-543 AD) had devised a rule that served as the organizing principle of a monastery he founded in Monte Cassino, an austere covenant of conduct by which monks agreed to abide. In 53 short chapters, the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict (1) lays out the Abbot’s expectations in every area of life together in the monastery, from eating and sleeping to manual labor, reading of books, and the “Work of God,” the 7 daily worship times that form the backbone of the Benedictine system. What was the ultimate purpose of the 72 “Instruments of Good Works” detailed in Chapter IV? Benedict clarified (p. 8):

Behold, these are the instruments of the spiritual art, which, if they have been applied without ceasing day and night and approved on judgment day, will merit us from the Lord the reward which He hath promised.

As a theological heir of the Wesleys – knowing their early struggles to find the assurance of salvation – my radar is tuned to detect anything akin to salvation by human effort. The above quote betrays what is undoubtedly the greatest weakness of The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, a moral stretching-and-straining that is admirable but devoid of grace.

Yet shall we cast aside as worthless the entirety of a treatise just because Benedict made the same mistake as the early Wesleys? To do so would be foolish, and we would only be cutting off our nose to spite our face. For those open to light from diverse sources, the Holy Rule has much to teach about practical discipleship, including the high place given to the memorization of Scripture, especially the Psalms. Among other matters, Benedict underscored humility as conducive to spiritual growth, the place of corporate discipline in the Christian life, and the beauty of simple living. Let’s examine briefly how Benedict helpfully weaved these into his monastic system.

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If the church could take a selfie

DSCN3653Admit it. You’ve done it. You’ve snapped a photo of yourself – a “selfie” – at least once. Maybe you’ve even gone to the next level and bought one of those trendy selfie sticks, a trick to make a selfie appear like someone else took it.

Sometimes I wonder: What if wasn’t just individuals who took selfies?

What if the church could take a selfie?

What would she see? A better question might be: What should she see?

These are the kinds of questions that more than 300 Nazarene thinkers asked at the March 2014 Global Theology Conference, held in Johannesburg, South Africa. In a summation, Dr Thomas Noble, Professor of Theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary concluded:

The church must be God-glorifying, Christ-centered, and Spirit-filled.

Dr Thomas Noble, Nazarene Theological Seminary

Dr Thomas Noble, Nazarene Theological Seminary

The statement is strong for several reasons. First, it is brief, making it more memorable. Secondly, it is Trinitarian, focusing equally upon God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That is no small virtue at a time when so much of our worship music centers on Jesus to the point that the Father and the Spirit are in danger of being eclipsed. Finally, it is not a halfhearted suggestion. It breathes urgency by using the word “must.” To neglect any of three characteristics is – in some sense – to cease being the church.

But let’s unpack the parts of this triplet.

The church must be God-glorifying.

Worship is the church gathered, but what is the purpose of worship? Pastor Victoria Osteen, Co-Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, was roundly criticized following her remarks in a widely-circulated video. She opined:

When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?

Self-absorption runs counter to Christ’s call to a life centered upon God and poured out in service to the world. Self-glorification is the antithesis of the two Great Commandments, loving God and neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). John Calvin (1509-64), the great Reformer from Geneva, noted regarding God the Father: “As all good flows, without any exception, from him, so ought all praise deservedly to return to him.” (1) Beyond worship, if the church receives human praise for a work of charity, shall she accept the credit for herself or deflect it back to the Father, the source of all that is good?

The church must be Christ-centered.

If God the Father is the one who to be glorified by the church’s worship and deeds, this does not dismiss the importance of Christ in all  that we do. To be Christ-centered as a community of faith means above all never losing sight of Christ crucified. In his self-giving love at Calvary, we behold the exemplar of who we are called to be both individually and corporately. In The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann observed:

The gospels intentionally direct the gaze of Christians away from the experiences of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit back to the earthly Jesus and his way to the cross. They represent faith as a call to follow Jesus. The call to follow him (Mark 8:31-38 par.) is associated with Jesus’ proclamation of suffering. To follow Jesus always means to deny oneself and to take ‘his cross’ on oneself. (2)

Christ crucified is the antidote to the narcissistic ethos of our time. As the church contemplates the self-giving love of Christ most excellently displayed in his death, she will be disgusted by every ingrown, time-consuming program that makes the church a comfortable club for the saints instead of a rescue squad rushing to the aid of those sick and dying from sin.

The church must be Spirit-filled. Make no mistake: This is not just any spirit, for the New Testament recounts the life-sucking and malevolent presence of evil spirits in the cosmos (Ephesians 6:10-20). Rather, God calls the church to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Wesleyan-Holiness teaching has emphasized the need for God to pour the Holy Spirit out like a river upon individual believers. Too often, we forget the corporate nature of this filling as exemplified on the Day of Pentecost. On that momentous occasion, it was the church gathered together in prayer that experienced the miraculous descent of the Dove (Acts 2:1-4). Only through the ongoing effusion of the Third Person of the Trinity is the church unified, cleansed, gifted and empowered for her outwardly-focused mission. Clark Pinnock explained:

God did not pour the Spirit out for us to exult in it as a private benefit. The purpose was ( and is) to empower witnesses to God’s kingdom (Acts 1:8)…God wants a community that, like Jesus, gets caught up in the transformation of the world. (3)

The Holy Spirit is the dynamo of the church (Acts 1:8). Though potentially dangerous if overdone, the metaphor of spiritual warfare demands reliance on the continual protection and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. This is especially important when the church begins living out its call to pierce the darkness by loving the last, the lost and the least, resulting in fierce push-back from the Enemy. Only the Spirit can instill courage amidst the fight, filling the church with stubborn love toward all even if she is at times the target of undeserved hate. Only the Spirit can energize the People of God to advance the Kingdom of Heaven, often against seemingly impossible odds.

If the church took a selfie, I wonder what she’d see? Would she capture the image of a community of faith that glorifies God, is centered on Christ and his selfless example, and overflows with the power and love of the Holy Spirit? Give me that kind of a church and we’ll change the world.

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Notes:

(1) John Calvin, in I. John Hesselink, Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Prss, 1997), 9.

(2) Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 54.

(3) Clark Pinnock, Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 141.

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Image credit:

Dr Thomas Noble: NTS.edu

Casting stones, or catching stones?

JustMercyCoverJesus once told a cabal of religious leaders anxious to stone a woman caught in adultery: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her” (John 8:7, NIV). In his bestseller, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, 2014; Amazon Kindle edition), New York University School of Law Professor Bryan Stevenson calls us to a different task, that of catching the stones cast by others.

Just Mercy recounts Professor Stevenson’s founding of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal aid organization based in Montgomery, Alabama that advocates for those who are victims of shortcomings in the U.S. criminal justice system – the wrongfully convicted, prisoners on death row, and juveniles tossed into the chaos of the adult prison population.

Caring about prisoners is a biblical mandate – “Remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them…” (Hebrews 13:3a, ESV) – so books like Mr Stevenson’s invite the Church to engage an issue too often shunted aside. Well-told stories seize the reader’s heart and won’t let go, stories like Walter McMillan, exonerated after having spent 6 years on death row for a murder he couldn’t have committed. Then there’s Joe Sullivan, convicted with dubious evidence and testimony at 13 years old of rape and  sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, what Stevenson calls “death in prison.” These and a dozen other vignettes  – bolstered by troubling statistics of the sheer number of incarcerated Americans, disproportionately African-American – tell the story of sectors of a criminal justice and prison system tainted by racism and sexual abuse, desperately needing reform.

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When happy-clappy just won’t do

Weeping JesusBill and Gloria Gaither’s hymn, “Because He Lives,” affirms Christian faith in a powerful way. Other Gaither songs (mercifully) have faded into obscurity, ditties like “Happiness” –

I found happiness.

I found peace of mind.

I found the joy of living,

Perfect love sublime!

I found real contentment, happy living in accord.

I found happiness all the time, wonderful peace of mind, since I found the Lord.

The beloved composers from Alexandria, Indiana have written some amazing songs, but let’s be honest: This isn’t one of them. To assert that embracing Christian faith gives us “happiness all the time,” removing sadness from the believer’s experience, is theological quackery. Two events that made me decidedly unhappy this week were terrorist attacks in Paris and northeast Nigeria, the senseless toll of lives brutally snuffed-out surpassing 2,000. A third saddening occurrence didn’t make the news, but it was important to those who knew her. Karen (38), a loving wife and mother of three, succumbed to cancer after a prolonged, heroic fight. She was a teen in the Missouri church where I pastored. She had so much to live for! Really, God?

The "Minnestota Mission," Sedalia Church of the Nazarene, summer 1992. Karen is the third girl from the right.

The “Minnesota Mission,” Sedalia Church of the Nazarene, summer 1992. Karen is the third girl from the right, standing.

At times of grief, we don’t need another happy-clappy song to make us feel guilty for crying. For times like this, we need lament, the words of King David grieving over his slain son, Absalom:

The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33, NIV)

Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) set this biblical text to choral music. As a tenor in the A Capella Choir at Eastern Nazarene College, the song never failed to move me. (Click here for to a moving rendition of the piece with a beautiful montage).

Ecclesiastes 3:4 reminds us that there is a time to weep. But apart from funerals – which these days are as likely to be called a “celebration of life,” further discouraging tears – do we allow lament as one of the languages of our Christian worship?

untitledIn his book, Worshipping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Wipf & Stock, 2012), Robin Parry devoted chapter 9 to the topic of lament. Unpacking Romans 8:17-25, he notes (p. 140) that by “groaning in the Spirit,” we:

1. Express our “sorrow, pain and frustration at the current state of affairs”;

2. Signal our “expectation for a better future”;

3. Intercede, which is “simultaneously a prayer to God for new creation.”

Parry observed: “So the story of the church and of creation is darkness now but light to come – a story already played out in the life of Jesus” (p. 139). Yet much like Holy Week, are we sometimes on Dark Saturday tempted to fast-forward to the Resurrection?

Don’t do it. To heal, we need lament!

We need to give one another permission to feel the deep, searing pain of loved ones ripped away from us, just like Jesus was snatched from the disciples and laid lifeless in a damp tomb. And while it’s understandable that most of what we sing on Sunday morning is upbeat, positive praise addressed to God, is there not a place for worship music that says: “God, this hurts so bad”?

These reflections began with a critique of Bill and Gloria Gaither’s song, “Happiness.” To their credit, they wrote a more authentic song entitled “I believe, help thou my unbelief.” Make no mistake: This is a lament, a desperate desire to hold on to Christian faith even in our darkest moments. It doesn’t tie things up in a nice little bow, and so in the same spirit, I leave the reader with no tidy conclusion, only this song.

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Image credits:

1) Weeping Jesus: Sadlier

2) Worshipping Trinity: Wipf & Stock

German Apple Pancake

pancakeAmy and I tried out a recipe for German Apple Pancake, taken from Allrecipes.com. You can read the recipe over at this link.

My family likes to rib me about “German heritage days,” when I’m especially vocal about how I think things should be done. A positive part of that German heritage (through my mother, whose maiden name was Schwinge) is a knack for making delicious dishes and confections. (I’m not there yet, but I’m learning!) Amy and I had fun making this one together.

This recipe tasted pretty eggy (is that a word?) since it uses 4 eggs. Also, it uses surprisingly little sugar for such a large pancake. We didn’t have an ovenproof skillet, so we just folded everything into a glass pie shell. That worked just fine. The two of us polished it off, no problem.

The German Apple Pancake is not likely something you’ll make on a regular basis. We hope to have it each New Year’s Eve, as our tradition.

Personal AND social transformation: lessons from a jetliner

Is your Gospel like a jet with one wing?

Is your Gospel like a jet with only one wing?

At the front of the chapel at Northwest Nazarene University (Nampa, Idaho – USA) is a memorable quote from Charles Wesley (1707-88), one of the founders of Methodism:

Unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.

With apologies to Mr Wesley, the theme on which God is putting a fire in my bones these days is this:

Unite the two so long disjoined, personal and social transformation.

Like airplanes need two wings, so the Gospel message needs both a personal and social aspect in order to take off and take us where we need to go. While there are some in all age categories who understand and practice a two-winged Gospel, sometimes it seems like the church is a plane with only one wing.

Personal transformation has been the stock-in-trade of the 50+ crowd. This is the Billy Graham flavor of Christian faith focused upon the individual. In the Wesleyan-Holiness variety, it’s a call to be saved and sanctified, meaning God forgiving the wrong things that we have done, filling us with love for God and others, so much that unworthy habits in our lives get crowded out. It’s a fresh start, a new beginning and a life-long journey toward being more-and-more like Jesus, even as God’s Spirit lives inside of us (2 Corinthians 3:18, 5:17). More recently, many have emphasized getting to heaven and – in the meantime – a daily nurturing of our relationship with God through prayer and the reading of Scripture. Historically, this approach is known as pietism.

Social transformation is the heart-cry of many believers in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Young followers of Christ see a world that is broken and needing to be fixed, a world in need of salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). With social justice as an important rallying point, they throw themselves into helping the poor, saving the Earth by changing their consumption habits, or battling prejudice against minorities. It’s about seeing God’s Kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). They see in Jesus a model for how to minister to those forgotten and oppressed by our society. Further, they have the audacity to believe that these wrongs can be righted, that evil systems can be changed.

A teacher poses at the center for street kids run by the Church of the Nazarene in Antananarivo, Madagscar. Children receive basic education, a hot meal, and learn about the love of Jesus

At the center for street kids run by the Church of the Nazarene in Antananarivo, Madagascar, children receive basic education, a hot meal, and learn about the love of Jesus

Unfortunately, we have an unhealthy tendency to think in binary terms, as if one must be either in the personal transformation camp or the social transformation camp. In our day, we see a growing generational divide. The older set may consider those younger to be naive and distracted from the heart of the Gospel, which in their view is mostly about getting people ready for the next life, while the younger set rejects the “Club Heaven” approach, finding that flavor of Christianity to be insular and therefore of limited impact.

But what if the church – like a jet – was always meant to have two wings, not one? What if message of Jesus Christ is not either/or, but both/and?

In fact, the Gospel is about both personal and social transformation. It can neglect neither one for any length of time and thrive, no more than an airplane with only one wing can fly.

As related to local churches, the need differs according to the setting. In a congregation that is insular, we must lean in the direction of community involvement, of adding to piety what John Wesley called “works of mercy” — feeding the poor, visiting the sick, and clothing the naked. It may involve going beyond symptoms to root problems, of marching against corruption or government practices that destroy the environment or campaigning against abortion as a form of systemic evil.

In other churches that are already strong on social transformation, leaders will need to inject a healthy dose of the personal elements of the Gospel. Here is included a call to a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, a need to leave our sinful ways behind and let God change us from the inside out. The use of small accountability groups can do much to foster a stronger inner life and help move new believers on to a closer walk with God.

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Some will ask: Which comes first, personal transformation or social transformation?

As a community of faith, we must always pursue them at the same time.

If we say that personal transformation must come first, the track record is that the church never gets around to building the Kingdom of God beyond the church, to social transformation. Further, as Wesleyans, we believe in the means of grace. In addition to taking the Lord’s Supper, we believe that God can use any number of practices to bring about change in our own lives – praying with others, visiting a nursing home or prison, campaigning against wrongful imprisonment of the innocent, volunteering at the rescue mission, being a Big Brother or Big Sister, going on a Work and Witness trip – all of these practices and more can be what God uses to make people aware of their need for a radical encounter with Jesus that will deliver them from the grip that sin has upon their lives. We must never make “getting saved” a prerequisite for heading out in mission with the church. Often, God will use the mission itself and rubbing shoulders with disciples of Christ to draw individuals to salvation.

Jets need two wings to fly. In the same way, the message of Jesus Christ is about transformation, both personal and social. Pastors and church leaders, how are you pursuing these dual emphases in your setting?

5 things I learned by reading the entire Bible in 2014

??????????This is the time for making New Year’s resolutions. Last year, I made two that I’m glad to say – by the grace of God – I accomplished:

1) Read through the Common English Bible in 2014 (see the plan here);

2) Wrote a daily devotional guide, Trente Minutes Avec Dieu, for speakers of French, available here. This was based on what I read in the reading plan outlined in # 1.

As I look back on the experience of reading through the Bible, at least five observations come to mind:

1. This Book contains some practical things!

It’s a tribute to a collection of 66 ancient writings that even in the year 2014 it contains what I would call  “Golden Passages” that speak to my own journey. So many could be cited, but here are just two:

“In your struggle against sin, you haven’t resisted yet to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:4).

How deadly must sin be if the writer to the Hebrews says we should resist it to the point of shedding our blood? We take sin far too lightly.

“I sought the LORD and he answered me. He delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:4).

I’m reminded due to stormy weather of a very turbulent landing in Johannesburg in late November, following a trip to Mozambique. It’s good to know verses like Psalm 34:4 in times like that!

2. This Book is filled with anger and blood.

There’s no avoiding the issue: the Bible is a violent book, especially large swaths of the Old Testament. The fictional character, President Jeb Barlett, admits in one episode of The West Wing: “I’m a New Testament man, myself.” Wycliffe Bible translators start by translating the New Testament for a good reason. Though there are passages in the Old Testament that present a softer, more loving God, they can be obscured by the horror of other sections. Don’t tell my Old Testament profs, but there’s a reason many preachers prefer the last 27 books to the first 39.

3. This Book is amazingly simple.

Vacation Bible School teaches young children verses like John 3:16 and 1 John 1:9. As they memorize those Scripture portions, their young minds comprehend some basic truths: God is my Creator, God loves me, God wants to forgive me, and God  wants to be part of my life. That’s the simple genius of the Bible.

4. This Book is amazingly complex.

On the other hand, men and women study for years to receive doctoral degrees in biblical literature. There is a constant stream of new commentaries being released to take into account recent findings about a myriad of questions related to the Bible and its background. (Check out the New Beacon Bible Commentary which is an excellent resource, available through the Nazarene Publishing House).

5. This Book will make you hungry for God.

Just when you’re ready to give up because of the complexity and tedious character of some parts of the Bible, all of the sudden there’s a passage that makes you want God more than anything:

“I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).

And then you realize: This Book really needs to be read through a Jesus lens. He is what makes it all come together.

If you want to read the Bible through in 2015, I’d encourage you to do so. Was it an easy year? No. Was it a worthwhile thing to do? Absolutely. Go for it!

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Image credit: Bibledrills.com