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.

A classic that speaks to our time


Viktor Frankl

Plus ça change, rien ne change — The more that changes, nothing changes.

This French proverb came to mind as I read Victor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (Amazon Kindle edition). First published in English in 1962, the book serves up timeless insights, chronicling Frankl’s stint in 4 concentration camps during World War 2, surviving the ordeal and from it fine-tuning what became known as logotherapy.

The book neatly divides into 2 major parts. The first part records Frankl’s experiences in the camps, noting with a keen eye the everyday details of life and how prisoners coped (or didn’t) with the horrendous conditions. Part two turns to a scholarly exposition of logotherapy – from the Greek logos, “meaning” –  a theory that many neuroses have little to do with sex (Freud) or power (Adler) but everything to do with what Frankl terms the “existential vacuum,” the failure to identify purpose or meaning in life.

Speaking of the minority of prisoners who maintained a hopeful attitude, Frankl observed: “They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (p. 68, location).

Related is a quote from Neitzsche cited multiple times:

“He who has a Why to live can bear almost any How” (location 21).

Frankl identifies three areas that can bring meaning to a person’s life (location 28):

1) work (doing something significant)

2) love (caring for another person)

3) courage during difficult times

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Changing the world the Wesleyan way

John Wesley, 1703-91

John Wesley’s message was simple, just like Jesus’. Is ours?

He insisted in his 1746 The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained:

I have again and again, with all the plainness I could, declared what our constant doctrines are; whereby we are distinguished only from Heathens, or nominal Christians; not from any that worship God in spirit and in truth. Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three, — that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third, religion itself (Works, 8:521-22, CCEL digital edition).

Jesus was once asked to sum up all the Law and the Prophets, the heart of the message of what Christians now call the Old Testament. He answered by saying that we should love God and love our neighbor (Mark 12:28-34). These are the two Great Commandments, and they are the very marrow of what it means to be a Christlike disciple.

What does the religion of loving God and others look like, particularly as worked-out socially? In Principles Farther Explained, Wesley continued:

This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men…this religion we long to see established in the world, a religion of love, joy, and peace, having its seat in the heart, but every showing itself by its fruits, continually spring forth, not only in all innocence, (for love worketh no ill to his neighbor), but likewise in every kind of beneficence, spreading virtue and happiness all around it (p. 524).

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Getting beyond the fear factor

Love-Is-Greater-Than-Fear-Sticker-(5143)Fear sells.

Check out any news website. How many of the stories use fear as a hook?

– Something sinister is in our food!

– Vaccines cause autism!

– A meteor will strike the Earth!

The message is loud-and-clear: Be very, very scared.

The problem with fear is that it destroys relationships. The first ruptured relationship was between humans and our Creator. Genesis 3 tells the story of God’s search for Adam in the garden. God asked: “Where are you?” Adam and Eve were hiding, and Adam answered:

“I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.”

Their sin – disobedience to God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – produced fear. Fear in-turn led them to flee from God. Hiding symbolizes estrangement, absence of relationship.

Yet fear wreaks havoc not only on our relationship with God. It also prevents deep relationships with others. Some years ago, we spoke of our missionary work at a church located in a U.S. town where historically there has been high tension between blacks and whites. After the service, the pastor gave us directions back home.

“Make sure,” he said, “that you don’t turn right heading out of the parking lot. That will take you through a bad section of town.”

Once the pastor had gone, rebels that we are, we climbed in the car, pulled out of the parking lot and turned right. We soon found a chicken restaurant and had some dinner. Sure, we were the only white customers in the establishment; it mattered not one bit. The employees treated us kindly and with respect and the other customers smiled at us. There was no fear; we were welcome. The well-meaning pastor had given us fear-based directions. Instead, we chose otherwise and enjoyed a pleasant and safe dinner. In a way, I pitied the pastor. What relationships was he missing out on in that town because he could not get past the fear factor, a fear based upon the superficial characteristic of skin color?

The apostle John gives the remedy for the fear factor. It’s the love factor:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NIV).

Paul writes: “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13b). Service is the incubator in which love can grow. You may fear the homeless and want to walk past them, holding your wallet a bit tighter. But something happens when you volunteer at the rescue mission and find out that it’s not just “the homeless.” It’s George and Susan and Ralph and – suddenly – you begin to care.

Perfect love casts out fear.

“Religion of hate” is another popular phrase that instills fear. It allows us to “other” an entire swath of the Earth’s population, to write them off as infected with what can come across as a dangerous form of belief. But what happens when stereotypes are subjected to new information? “Aalim” (not his name) sat next to me on the plane. He was traveling home with some other high school students, checking out universities where he might attend. He told me that he liked the Oklahoma City Thunder (a city where I’ve lived before) and loved playing basketball. We talked about Kevin Durant and his amazing skills on the court. By the end of the flight, Aalim was no longer a faceless individual in a group. He was just a regular teenager, a basketball fan, an aspiring architect. Yes, I know what I’m told to think about “them.” It’s the same fear-based thinking that told me not to drive through “the bad part of town,” but how can I fear someone like Aalim when I get to know him even a little?

Perfect love casts out fear.

I’m part of the Wesleyan-Holiness stream of Christianity. We pride ourselves on the “optimism of grace,” a belief that God can do amazing things in the human heart, transforming our lives and making us like Jesus, filling us with love for God and neighbor. But when it comes to our knee-jerk response to current events, sometimes I wonder:

Do we have spiritual dyslexia? Is perfect fear driving out our love?

Do divisions in our families, communities and nation persist because we have allowed ourselves to be overcome by fear instead of getting down on our knees and giving our fears to God, serving the very ones we fear and thereby dispelling fear with love? What unquestioned prejudices passed down allow us with impunity to “other” our neighbors, building walls instead of bridges?

Fellow follower of Jesus, perfect love still drives out fear. Isn’t it high time we get beyond the fear factor?


Image credit: Northern Sun

Is holiness our hope, or is Jesus? Reflections on a subtle idolatry

E-HOPE-CUSometimes God is gentle breezes and rainbows. Other times, the LORD is ferocious winds and thunder clouds. In Numbers 21, God is both.

The people were griping and complaining…again. They railed against God and Moses:

Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food! (Numbers 21:5, NIV).

Scripture never says in so many words that God was angry, but it’s a justified conclusion. Right after this complaint, the LORD sent venomous snakes into the camp and “many Israelites died” (v. 6).

Yet God – in steadfast love – relented. God commanded Moses: “Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (v. 8). So Moses made a bronze snake and did exactly what God instructed. Those who looked up at the bronze snake, though bitten by a serpent, were healed.

It’s an inspiring story to that point, so memorable that Jesus discerned in the story a parallel to his own crucifixion, a day when he would be lifted up like the bronze desert snake (John 3:14), a spiritual balm for all who look to him.

But the story of the people of Israel and the bronze snake has another  chapter. Fast forward hundreds of years. It is the time of King Hezekiah and this good servant of God is determined to purge the land and the Temple of idols. In 2 Kings 18:4 (NIV), we read:

“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Neshutan).”

bronze snake

What happened? Sometime between Moses and Hezekiah, what had been intended as simply a helpful way to focus their attention on the God who heals had mutated into something magical. Instead of the people looking past a mere symbol to the awesome God behind the symbol, they made the bronze snake an object of their worship, an end in itself.  Sensitive to the voice of the LORD, the king knew it had to go.

“Holiness, Africa’s Hope” is a banner that hung outside a church office, but I wonder: Can holiness become like a bronze snake? Can even the phrase “Holiness Unto the Lord” subtly shift over time to become a magical saying, falsely comforting those who mouth it as if the words themselves have power? Are we with every good intention unwittingly directing people to trust in a religious experience – however meaningful and valid – and not the Saviour who is the source of that experience? Rather than saying “Holiness, Africa’s Hope,” would it not be more accurate and biblical to say: “Jesus, Africa’s Hope”? Nowhere in the New Testament is holiness described as our hope, yet Colossians 1:27 affirms:

“To them (the saints) God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Our hope is not holiness, but Jesus. Our hope is not a what, but a Who.

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Goodbye, puny god

Sirius, the brightest star in Earth's sky

Sirius, the brightest star in Earth’s sky

“Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight…”

The children’s poem came to mind last week. Under my feet was the cool grass of the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort, South Africa. But this night we weren’t looking at the birds or the plants. Our focus was the heavens, and I learned amazing new things.

That “first star I see tonight” has a name. It’s called Sirius, the brightest star visible from any point on Earth. It is 8.6 light years away, or 8.6 x 5.8 trillion miles distant from our planet. It is a white star, of much greater size and intensity than our own Sun, which is only a medium-sized yellow star.

Likewise, the Hubble telescope keeps capturing images of space that take our breath away, glimpses of the enormity of the cosmos:


Hubble Ultra Deep Field, 2014

In A Short History of Nearly Everything (Doubleday, 2003), Bill Byron dazzles the reader with a fascinating description of how the stars, planets, and all that is suddenly sprang into existence:

In a single blinding pulse, a moment of glory much too swift and expansive for any form of words, the singularity assumes heavenly dimensions, space beyond conception…In less than a minute the universe is a million billion miles across and growing fast….in three minutes, 98 percent of all matter there is or ever will be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich. – p. 28

The Psalmist was no less impressed than Mr Byron, marveling:

When I look up at your skies and what your fingers have made – the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place – what are human beings, that you think about them; what are human beings that you pay attention to them? (Psalm 8:3, CEB).

There is a tendency these days in theology to size-down God. It’s a convenient way to solve the problem of evil and suffering: “Maybe a good God doesn’t always act because God can’t.” But after an evening gazing at the stars, that explanation loses whatever small attraction it might have held. When the heavens declare a mind-blowing, awesome, immensely powerful Creator God, how could I ever believe in a puny god like some Christians seem to half-heartedly serve?

Goodbye, puny god. Hello, majestic God of the universe!

But like the Psalmist dared paint his tiny self onto this boundless cosmic canvas, so I hazard to ask:

If God could fling stars into space, what could this God of love do in my life? Could this God in Jesus Christ forgive me, deliver me, change me, energize me to make a difference on this tiny speck of a planet we call Earth?

Likewise, a fresh vision of this beyond-my-imagination God is bound to deepen my intensity in worship. How can I, a mere grain of sand in the vast scheme of things, come lightly into the presence of such a fearsome Triune God? How dare I stand in the sanctuary and play with text messages, FaceBook or a dozen other distractions when in the presence of such a Being?

Get outside. Get away from the city lights. Look up, but I warn you: Your puny god will be no more. Instead, you will be drawn to your knees in praise of our magnificent Creator God.


UPDATE: I changed the light year reference to 5.8 trillion rather than 1 trillion miles. See the comment from Lucien Jacquet below, who corrects that and a few other scientific details.

Image credits


Ultra Deep Field: Hubble Site Gallery