Can the American church master the marriage two-step?

DSCN4560In light of this week’s historic Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, it looks like conservative churches in the U.S. may be doing some fancy legal dancing in coming days.  The question remains: Can the American church learn the marriage two-step?

The two-step is simple. Step one is a civil ceremony  followed by step two, a blessing officiated by the faith community. In Côte d’Ivoire, a West African nation, I attended the religious ceremony for one of my students and his bride. When they arrived at the church, they had come straight from the mayor’s office where they had already been married. Now at the church, the pastor led them through a second ceremony, “in the presence of God and these witnesses,” brothers and sisters-in-Christ who added their blessing and approval in a service of holy matrimony.

Such an arrangement seemed odd to me at first since I only knew of one-step weddings. When my wife and I married in 1985, I recall the solemn words intoned by my brother, the presiding minister:

“By the authority invested in me by the State of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

On the application for the marriage license, the Reverend signed his name as the “officiant.” Practically speaking, he was acting both as an agent of the church and as an agent of the State, two roles wrapped up in a single individual. No prior ceremony at the town hall was necessary. We had merely picked up the paperwork from the town clerk and had the minister sign the forms after the ceremony at church, along with our witnesses.

But I wonder:

Has the one-step wedding joined together church and state in a kind of unholy matrimony?

As long as ministers of the Gospel are accredited by the State to perform wedding ceremonies that include a civil function, they are acting as de facto agents of the government, what one colleague of mine called a “sub-magistrate.” In this arrangement, it follows logically that the State controls the procedure including who qualifies to be married. As of June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that two men or two women have the constitutional right to be joined together in marriage. It is not far-fetched to think that pastors who have in the past performed wedding ceremonies “by the authority invested in my by the State of ______” could be pressured to perform ceremonies for all comers, whether opposite sex or same-sex.

Here’s a better way:

STEP ONE: Conservative pastors must opt out of the current system. Instead, he or she would refer inquirers to the Justice of the Peace (JOP) or his/her equivalent in a given jurisdiction. The marriage license would be issued.

STEP TWO: People of faith who desire to have their marriage blessed in the presence of God and others of their faith community can do so, whether at the church, synagogue, mosque, or other house of worship. For Christians, this is the service of holy matrimony.

Our logic is clear: We understand holy matrimony to be a rite of the church which is distinct from the civil union (wedding ceremony) performed by the magistrate. As those faithful to the Scriptures, we believe that the blessing of holy matrimony is a life-long covenant sealed before God only by a heterosexual couple, one man and one woman.

What if two men or two women who have gone through a wedding ceremony conducted by the Justice of the Peace desire a religious blessing as well? Such a couple would be free to seek out a faith community that is willing to perform this ecclesiastical rite. More churches in the U.S. now do so than before. However, since the civil and religious aspects of a wedding would have been disentangled, the prospect of a gay couple legally coercing a conservative minister to perform the ceremony would be avoided since – by opting out – no conservative pastor would any longer be accredited by the State to carry out civil marriage functions on its behalf.

The United States is a pluralistic nation. Though once there was a Christian consensus, this is no longer the case. While some Christians consider the Bible authoritative on the question of marriage, in a democratic society, its teachings cannot be imposed upon those of other faiths or no faith. On the other hand, the longstanding tradition of the one-step wedding makes us vulnerable to having the unorthodox marriage views of others imposed upon us. It is high time that we get out of the civil marriage business. It is time that we learn the marriage two-step.

Trading in our goodbyes for hellos

goodbyeIt was December 5, 2005. Political storm clouds had been gathering for months, but on that day, the storm let loose. Word came from our superior that – due to insecurity in the country – we were to evacuate Haiti within 48 hours. Just one day before, we’d decorated the Christmas tree. Now, we quickly removed the ornaments, collapsing the tree and storing it in a closet. Hurriedly, we did laundry, packed our clothes, swept the house and headed to the airport.

So began an odyssey that took the four of us to Bethany, Oklahoma. Since that time, Bethany has been our psychological anchor, even if after three years there Amy and I physically returned to Africa, the continent of our earlier missionary service. One son already lives overseas, and the other will soon move to another state. Like a hot air balloon tethered to the ground, one-by-one, the slender ropes have once again been severed. The balloon is slowing rising again, this time to a new base back East with a sibling, a new driver’s license and address, a new touch-back point when we return from Africa briefly to the U.S. each year. Nine years after first coming to Oklahoma, it’s time for another goodbye.

Goodbyes were the stuff of life for Paul. In Acts 20:13-38, Paul was passing near Ephesus, his old pastorate where he’d spent three years pouring his life into new disciples. He was on his way to Jerusalem, so from Miletus he sent word to the elders in Ephesus to come to see him. After encouraging them to remain firm in the faith and warning them about dangers to the flock, Luke recounts the emotional scene:

When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship (20:36-38, NIV).

As Paul lamented that he would be absent from the Ephesians, so today we lament absence. Despite gadgets that connect us across the miles in real time via the Internet, there’s no substitute for sitting in the same room with friends and loved ones. Through the prophets, God had sent revelation to his people – a kind of virtual contact – yet it was inferior to the incarnation, Jesus coming in the flesh. It is only in the flesh that we can place a reassuring hand on a shoulder, wipe a tear, or give someone a hug. When distance separates us, like Paul, we grieve the loss.

The French language is rich when it comes to saying goodbye. In the musical, “The Sound of Music,” the children perform a goodnight song for the gathered party goers. In a clever bi-lingual play on words, Lisel chants: “Adieu, adieu, to yuh and yuh and yuh.” The word “adieu” (literally, “to God”) is well-chosen since her family would soon be secretly crossing the Alps from Austria to the safety of war time neutral Switzerland. She had no expectation to see them again, so she commended them into God’s hands. Yet the more common way to say goodbye is “au revoir,” meaning “until the re-sighting,” or more informally, “see you later.” The Scottish tune “Auld Lang Syne” – commonly sung at New Year’s Eve parties – is a celebration of times gone by. The French keep the tune, but substitute words with another meaning: “Ce n’est qu’un au revoir, mes frères” (“This is only a ‘see you later,’ my brothers. “) It looks forward, not backward.

Christian faith also looks forward. However sad goodbyes might be, hope changes the equation. The same gloomy Paul of Acts 19 is cheerier elsewhere, reminding the Corinthians that we are resurrection people:

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:9, NIV).

To the Thessalonians, he paints a picture of Christ’s return when we shall be raised to new life (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). We are to “comfort each other with these words” (v. 18), the promise that we shall “be with the Lord forever” (v. 17).

Former missionary Linda Seaman has said:

Heaven is where we’ll trade in all our goodbyes for hellos.

I’ve gotten better at saying goodbyes. When moving, it’s healthy to visit one last time places that hold good memories and to wish farewell to friends. I spent a lot of time this week doing just that. Some friends I won’t see again during this life, but we despair not. The Christian hope sustains us.

Saying goodbye to Bethany, Oklahoma – a safe harbor after a storm – won’t be my last goodbye. There will be other goodbyes made to other people and places on this earthly journey. I’m glad that – for the Jesus follower – the journey ends with  heavenly hellos. Don’t miss the reunion!

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Image credit: Luna Starla blog

God’s not-so-secret plan to save creation

earthIt’s a classic scene in television’s West Wing. Josh Lyman mistakenly announces to the White House press corps that the president has a “secret plan to fight inflation.” His colleagues rib him mercilessly.

As it turns out God is nothing like Mr. Lyman. The divine plan is not to fight inflation but to save creation, and it’s not at all a secret. In fact, Jesus announces it openly:

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16, NLT).

The Greek word translated as “world” is kosmos. It can also be translated as universe. God – the creator of the universe – has a deep and abiding love for all creation. Psalm 145:9 affirms: “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (ESV). Later, Psalm 149 calls on all creation to praise the LORD. Nothing is excluded – sun, moon, stars, angels, human beings, the creatures of the ocean depths, animals that scurry along the ground – all must give glory to the creator. In Isaiah’s vision, even trees join the people of God in joyful song (Isaiah 55:12).

The catastrophe

Yet something has gone terribly wrong in creation. Something is broken and must be repaired. Paul explained the devastating consequences of our first parents’ poor choice to disobey God. Death was the result of sin, or disobedience (Romans 5:12). This disastrous consequence rippled out to damage all that God had perfectly made. Romans 8:20-21 (NIV) tells us:

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,  the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.

In the first section of Christlike Disciples, Christlike World, we looked at the people of God, the church. Beginning in this chapter, we focus on the church’s mission. What are the people of God supposed to do? God wants to use us as partners to repair what is broken:

God’s intent is transformation, to restore to its original state all that God has made.

It’s a not-so-secret plan to save creation. And what is the catalyst that God will use to do that? It’s you, it’s me, it’s us as the church, a monumental mission inspired by our immense God. Yet too often in the past, our mission has been truncated, as if God cared only about the spiritual condition of individuals. In fact, God wants to make us Christlike disciples not as an end in itself, but as a means to a far broader end. This is the transformational mission of the people of God, to be God’s instruments of change in our community, our culture, and nature itself, redeeming the very biological ecosystem that sustains us.

ripples in a pond

Rock, ripples, and results

If we could only have one Gospel, I would choose Luke. It’s an amazing story of the difference Jesus of Nazareth makes in our world. The birth narrative in Luke 1-2 announces the coming of the Son of God to earth, the incarnation, the divine taking on human flesh.

Have you ever dropped a rock into a pond? What happens? The rock makes ripples. In a way, Jesus is like a rock that God the Father dropped into the pond of human existence. If Luke gives us the story of the rock, Jesus of Nazareth, then Acts is about the ripples and the results. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells his 11 disciples that they must wait for the power of the Holy Spirit, who would live inside of them. Then – and only  then – can they effectively ripple out, impacting others in positive, life-changing ways:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8, ESV).

The Greek word for “power” is dunamis. It is the root from which derives the English word “dynamite.” When filled with the Holy Spirit, our lives ripple in powerful ways, positively influencing those around us. We become evidence of the transforming capacity of the Gospel.

Yet our world is highly change-resistant. The forces of the status quo don’t give in easily. Jesus found that out firsthand when they arrested, whipped, stripped and hung him on a cross to die. Now on a hill outside Jerusalem, the resurrected Christ warns his disciples: “You will be my witnesses.” The Greek word used in Acts 1:8 for “witnesses” is marthures, giving us our English word “martyr.” This is no ordinary testimony they will bear, but a testimony even unto death. Among those who heard Jesus that day was Peter, who tradition tells us was himself crucified upside down, when he considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as had Jesus. Likewise, Stephen became the first martyr, stoned to death for his Christian confession (Acts 7). Advance always comes at a cost. The early history of the church is a bloody one. Writing in the 2nd century AD, Tertullian observed: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” What was true then is true today as numerous Christians in the Middle East are being martyred for no other offense than their faith in Christ.

Thankfully, the rock and the ripples are followed by results. Luke’s account in Acts shows the Christian faith moving out in ever-wider circles. Individuals are transformed, leading to transformation of communities and their pagan practices: Saul, Apollos, Lydia, Priscilla and Aquilla, Cornelius and many more become testimonies of the explosive, transformational power of belief in the risen Lord. In later chapters, we’ll look at some of those stories in greater detail.

Summing it all up

God cares deeply about all creation – human beings, communities, trees, animals, and the whole of creation, all of which were originally meant to praise the creator. Yet human sin – willful disobedience to God – marred what God had made perfect. Not willing to give up on what he had made, God in Christ has launched a not-so-secret plan to save creation, and God’s holy people, the church, are partners in that holy, transformational mission. In the next chapter, we’ll look at the human heart, where the problem originated and where the divine solution must begin.

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Image credits

Earth: Celestia Mother Lode

Pond: Insight 4 Living Today

 

Christian education: Digging deeper, building higher

skycraperI love skyscrapers. If visiting a new city, I’ll often head straight for the tallest building and – as long as the fee isn’t too much – take the elevator to the observation deck. There’s nothing like the view you can get of the city when perched up so high.

I’ve learned a few things about how engineers design skyscrapers. The more floors tall a building is, the deeper the foundation must be.

That’s a good picture of how the church should think about education. The church encourages education of all kinds for its people because she knows that God is not glorified by ignorance. Jesus never saw a contradiction between heart and head. He called us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Matthew 22:37). Jesus invites us: “Build high!” Followers of Christ are free to pursue truth and discovery in all its forms, but to build higher, we must first dig deeper.

Digging deeper

The Psalmist affirms: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. All who practice it have a good understanding” (Psalm 111:10a, ESV). God is the sure foundation upon which we can build in all areas of life, including educationally. Saint Augustine (d. 430 AD) called this “faith seeking understanding.”

The Jewish people knew how important it was to properly teach their children about God. In Deuteronomy 6:6-8 (NIV), God commands :

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.

Children are like wet cement. It is never a question of of whether they will be imprinted but only who will do the imprinting.

Parents are a child’s first teachers, and when it comes to learning about God, they turn to us. Once when our older son was only three years old, he was thinking about the song that he had learned in Sunday School, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” As we drove in the car, his question was earnest: “Mom and Dad, does God really have the whole world in His hands?” “Yes,” I replied, “God really does.” There was a long pause. Finally, he replied: “God must have really big hands!”

Theologians can debate the finer points of whether God as spirit can have hands (John 4:34). To do so is to miss the point. The imagery of “big hands” is a lesson about God’s immensity, that God is bigger than creation – and, by extension – bigger than any problem we face.

Not all lessons about God taught by parents are helpful. A mother warned her son: “Even if I can’t see what you’re doing, God sees.” While this may be true, is it helpful? She planted in the young mind of her son an image not of God as a loving Father who forgives  and can help us rise above our failures, but rather a as divine version of the CCTV monitoring cameras used by countries to track their own citizens. We must be careful what we teach and how we teach it, nurturing in our children a desire to draw near to God as one who is not only bigger than our problems but also loving, gracious, and worthy of our trust.

One program that helps build deep faith foundations is Bible quizzing. Memorization of Scripture is encouraged by the Bible itself (Psalm 119:11) and few programs have been as successful in grounding youth in God’s written Word. In moments of uncertainty, passages memorized serve as an internal moral compass, guiding us to make decisions that are pleasing to God.

Yet Christian education – at home or at church – should focus not just on Bible memorization but also discovering how each of us fits into what Michael Lodahl calls the “Story of God.” That story in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments reveals God as a tri-unity (Trinity), God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Knowing that some of the subjects they would discuss could be unsettling, a theology professor was wise. He would always begin his class by inviting students to recite the Apostles’ Creed, the foundational, ancient summary of that story of faith:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

Educating our children in the things of God begins at the youngest age. It is the task of parents and other members of the household of faith to bring them up to love God. While learning about God is lifelong, many churches make a point to catechize children around the age of 12. Catechism is a system of questions and responses that a child memorizes. Some traditions call this “foundations of faith.” It is another opportunity to make sure that our children have experienced the transformational work of Christ in their lives, that for them Jesus is not just the Savior of the world but their Savior. Children who have not yet decided to follow Jesus can be encouraged to make that decision.

Easter Sunday is traditionally the day when new believers are baptized. Graduates from the catechism class who have a clear profession of Christian faith but who have not yet been baptized should be given the opportunity to be baptized by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. Since Christian baptism is a sacrament of initiation and therefore is not repeatable (Ephesians 4:5),  those who at the request of their parents were already baptized as infants or young children can publicly participate in a ritual that reaffirms what their parents did for them — see the liturgy in the “Appendix.”

Building higher

Because God calls us to love the LORD with all our mind, the people of God are not threatened by education in all its forms. Rather, they embrace it as another expression of their worship. Though the emperor Charlemagne (d. 814) was wrong to not allow for the education of girls, he is to be commended for requiring cathedrals and monasteries to provide a course of study for intelligent boys who also had the desire to learn. Later, Pope Gregory VII (1073-85 AD) insisted that clergy be well educated, leading over time to the founding in the mid 12th century of the first university (the famed “Sorbonne”) attached to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Areas of study included theology, philosophy, law, mathematics, and medicine. Such an openness to both the book of revelation (Scripture) and nature’s book (science) was the seedbed that would later produce men like Gregory Mendel (1822-84), a monk who became a renowned geneticist.

Besides Roman Catholicism, the Reformed tradition of Christianity (birthed in the early 16th century) has taught that “all truth is God’s truth.” Celebrated English physicist Isaac Newton (b. 1642) was also a man of abiding faith, writing extensively in the fields of science and theology.  This dual curiosity was shared by the Anglican priest and co-founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-91). Wesley was fascinated by medicine, and wrote a book outlining remedies for common ailments. He also developed a machine used to shock those suffering from depression, a crude precursor to 20th century electroshock therapy.

Today, this ability to see science and Christian faith as compatible – not contradictory – lives on in persons like John Polkinghorne, an accomplished theoretical physicist who later became an Anglican priest. His attitude reflects the maxim of the late longtime Dean of Eastern Nazarene College:

There is no conflict between the best of education and the best in the Christian religion.

Far from undermining Christian faith, encouraging our children to pursue knowledge in whatever academic discipline they choose will often establish their faith. It gives them the confident message that our faith is robust, not like a fragile teacup, ready to shatter under the slightest pressure. Psalm 19:1 (NIV) celebrates: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Because God is the Creator, the creation will point to its author, like a painting tells us something of the character of the painter.

Christian education is like a skyscraper. With Christian faith as a solid foundation, we invite our people to build the skyscraper of knowledge higher than ever before. Yet to build higher, we must first dig deeper. For the people of God, education is founded upon the fear of the Lord, then builds upward. The pursuit of knowledge in all its forms is not an affront to God but a noble expression of what it means to love God with all our mind. This is our duty, and this is our joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Accordingly, no matter the academic discipline, we encourage followers of Jesus to reach as high as they can, to build the superstructure of knowledge and discovery as high as they can.

 

 

A skeptic once defined “faith” as believing with all your heart what you couldn’t possibly believe with all your head. Yet Jesus never saw a contradiction between faith that is passionate and faith that is reflective. He urged us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Matthew 22:37). Loving God does not mean checking our brain at the church door.

 

 

When the Good News…isn’t

EdFudge1The longer I live, the more I realize that God has people everywhere, in every denomination.

Edward Fudge is a brother in the Church of Christ. I hope you enjoy his essay below as much as I did. It is reprinted with his permission.

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“Evangelism without Evangel is an ism”

– by Edward Fudge

My late friend J. D. Clanton faithfully attended the opening Sunday morning service of his congregation’s annual “Gospel Meeting,” but he also held them to their advertising. Each year the visiting “gospel preacher” decried the evils of sin, the horrors of hell, and the list of things an “alien sinner” must do to be saved. J. D. knew that the New Testament word for “gospel” meant “good news,” and he knew that the sermon he just heard would never be mistaken for that. So every year, as J. D. shook the “gospel preacher’s” hand and exited the building, he also left him with a sincere smile and a simple question: “What’s good about the good news?”

Truth is, my old buddy J. D. had a point. The more we read Luke’s summaries of first-century “gospel” discourses, conversations, and maybe even a sermon or two, the more keenly aware we become of several major differences between evangelism as done by the Apostles and their gospel associates in the beginning, and much of what passes for evangelism today. That said, here is Difference #1: Whatever is going on in Acts sounds more like telling a story and less like giving instructions.

We start with Peter’s remarks to a street crowd on Pentecost reported in Acts 2:14-40, not a sermon but an explanation of a very strange day interrupted by tornado-like noise, flying fireballs, and ten dozen men and women talking in languages they never learned (v, 2-12). The end of the world has started, says Peter; God is dousing all his folks in Holy Spirit, and the messianic microphone is wide open to his sons and daughters of all ages (v. 13-21). This segues into the Jesus story–his good life and deeds, his murder, his resurrection and ascension (v. 22-35). Peter accuses this crowd of complicity in Jesus’ death–the crowd asks what to do–Peter answers their question–3,000 get baptized that day (v. 36-40).

Turn through the rest of Acts and you’ll find “sermons” are really “stories” more often than not–in Jerusalem (ch. 3:11-21; 4:8-12; 7:1-53), at Caesarea (ch. 10:36-43); in Antioch of Pisidia (13:13-41); and in Athens, Greece (17:22-31). Instructions are often included or added, not a formula and not twice in the same words. Not arbitrary commands but necessary responses from good hearts in view of new realities as told in the preceding stories. Worthy of our imitation and actually simpler rather than more complicated. Finally, this is all “natural” (supernaturally, of course).

From independence to interdependence: The power of small groups

Goma_groups2We expected to run alone. That’s how our former cross-country coach did it. But on his first day, our new coach explained then demonstrated a different way of running together. He called it “Indian running.” Coach laced on his running shoes and ordered: “Follow me.”

Quickly we formed a line, like baby chicks following their mother hen. Setting a brisk pace, after a minute, coach barked out his command: “Next runner.” The boy at the back of the line then sprinted, passing his teammates, taking his position at the front of the line as the new leader. After another minute, he, too, would shout: “Next runner” and a new leader emerged. In this way, everyone had a chance to set the pace for a time. No longer were we nine runners depending only upon ourselves. Instead, we were interdependent, encouraging each other, running together.

Coach taught us all an important lesson:

Interdependence beats independence every time.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament teaches the power of interdependence. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NIV) explains:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

In the same way, Paul encouraged the Galatians to carry each other’s burdens as a way of fulfilling Christ’s law of love (Galatians 6:2). In the earliest days of the church in Jerusalem, this was how believers built each other up in the faith, sharing their possessions, meeting in each other’s homes, eating together, celebrating meal Holy Communion, praying and encouraging one another (see Acts 2:42-28). It was an attractive, loving fellowship, and outsiders longed to be part of of it.

What worked in the earliest centuries still worked hundreds of years later. The young English evangelist, John Wesley (1703-91), was instrumental in birthing many people into Christian faith. However, he noticed that their faith often quickly grew cold. Like a newborn baby needs a blanket to keep warm, so new believers need warm fellowship to grown in their faith. Wesley soon despaired of visiting in the homes of everyone who was coming to Christ. He had to find a new system. Over time, he organized the early Methodists into mixed male/female groups of 15-20 (“classes”) and – for those who desired – into single gender “bands” of 5-7. These small groups met once per week in the evening for 60-90 minutes, allowing people to share their successes and challenges with each other, to pray and encourage each other in their faith. Like the early Christians, the Methodists discovered that – while independence leads to spiritual indifference – interdependence fosters spiritual growth.

Small groups are discipleship groups, helping members follow Jesus more closely, together. Paradoxically, greater dependence upon each other leads to greater dependence upon God.

While serving as a missionary in Benin (West Africa), I always looked forward to the Wednesday morning men’s breakfast. Five or six of the male missionaries in town met each week at 7 a.m. at the same café. We drank coffee, ate eggs and toast, caught-up on events from the last week, and encouraged each other. Before leaving, we spent 10 or 15 minutes in prayer. Those were years of great challenge in ministry, and our weekly meetings were fresh water for my thirsty spirit. Though we never ran together, those Wednesday breakfasts reminded me of Indian runs from high school. Once again, I moved from independence to interdependence, growing stronger in the process.

In small groups, we learn that our struggles are not ours alone. With time, trust develops between members. Brothers and sisters feel free to share about unhealthy habits that have ensnared them and receive help from others in the group. In the confession of sin and praying for each other, healing comes (James 5:16).

To be independent leads to isolation and despair. Interdependence, on the other hand, builds community and together draws us closer to God. What small group opportunities are there in your church? If there are none, speak with your pastor or other leaders in your church. Reflect how you can become a catalyst to begin this powerful initiative in your community of faith.

A means of grace: a tribute to Dr Rob Staples

rob staples“Take a course from Dr Staples.”

Those six words jumped off the page, words penned by my former Eastern Nazarene College professor when I was a first-year student at Nazarene Theological Seminary. It was part of a thoughtful and pastoral reply to my anguished letter, wondering whether I should continue in my journey toward ordained Nazarene ministry.

First semester at Seminary had been brutal, capped off by a note scrawled on my research paper by a different well-intentioned but theologically brittle professor:

“Mr Crofford, if this is your continuing position, do not seek ordination in the Church of the Nazarene.”

The Lord must have known that such “hardening of the categories” called for an antidote. I enrolled in some of Staples’ courses and the good Doctor became part of God’s medicine.

NTS chapel services were always better attended on the days when Dr Staples preached. We could count on his lively sense of humor to add a light moment to our day. When a colleague took longer than usual to introduce him, piling up the plaudits, Staples at last made his way to the pulpit:

“With a introduction like that,” he quipped, “even I can’t wait to hear what I’m going to say.”

It will be shame if no one preserved his many limericks, humorously delivered before his sermon with a comic’s keen sense of timing.

Other funny moments were more spontaneous. Once in class, Dr Staples lost his train of thought, his brain stubbornly refusing to recall the name of the theological term that eluded him. “Oh no,” he lamented. “I think I might have what’s his name’s disease!”

Staples’ course, “Wesley’s Theology,” opened up a new world. My understanding of the doctrine of holiness to that time was based solely upon the American Holiness Movement interpretation with its strong accent upon a second, definite crisis experience. Dr Staples masterfully guided us through large swaths of Wesley’s writings; the takeaway for me was love. John Wesley taught that – as Jesus affirms in Mark 12:30-31 – holiness boils down to love for God and love for neighbor. Holiness suddenly was immensely practical and others-focused, a refreshing change from the self-centered nature of my prior understanding. Later when I pursued doctoral studies, it’s not surprising that I dug deeper into the theology of John and Charles Wesley. After all, it was Dr Staples who had sowed the seed years before.

All was not roses for the professor students loved. In class one day, he alluded to an episode from a few years earlier where powerful critics in the church questioned aspects of his theology, seeking his removal. Without tearing off the scab, he observed with just a hint of pain:

“I stood at the edge of my ecclesiastical grave and looked down into it.”

After a formal inquiry, he was vindicated, but the episode is a reminder that even professors of theology who are well-loved and loyal to the denomination risk becoming casualties when an unchecked “hardening of the categories” sets in. It was a vigorous defense of Staples by colleagues that saved him for the church. Happily, it meant that he was still there at NTS to teach me when my own time of theological fragility arrived, when I desperately craved not heavy-handed law but lighthearted grace. Indeed, Dr Staples’ wit and wisdom became for me a means of grace.

Dr Staples, thank you for staying the course. Well-done, good and faithful servant.

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Photo credit: Greenlynn blog