O Susanna!

susanna-wesleyFor readers desiring an in-depth portrait of the “Mother of Methodism,” look no further than John A. Newton’s Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism, 2nd ed. (London: Epworth, 2002). An update of the 1968 original, Newton brings to life the mother of John and Charles Wesley, Methodism’s co-founders. From her days as the daughter (and one of 25 children!) of nonconformist London minister, Dr. Samuel Annesley, to her decision at 13 to leave nonconformity and join the Church of England, to her rocky marriage to Samuel Wesley and difficult life in Epworth, Newton paints a detailed portrait of the triumphs and travails of a remarkable woman.

John Newton adds texture to a well-known story. When Samuel and Susanna split over different views on who was the rightful king of England, Samuel announced: “If we have two kings, we must have two beds” (p. 87). Most other treatments of the Wesleys include this detail, then jump to the reconciliation a year later, after which John Wesley was born. Yet Newton digs deeper, adding another six pages of context. In the end, Samuel ends up looking impetuous for having stormed off to London, a conclusion that seems well-supported by the additional detail he provides surrounding the incident.

Of particular interest is chapter 4, “A Mother in Israel.” Here, Newton opens the doors to the Epworth rectory, bringing us into the daily life of the burgeoning Wesley family. For a woman who had grown up in the relative luxury of Dr. Annesley’s London home, the near penury of the Epworth parish must have been a bitter pill. In a rare moment of candor, when asked by the Archbishop of York whether she and her family had ever lacked bread, she replied (p. 98):

My Lord, I will freely own to your grace that, strictly speaking, I never did want bread. But then, I had so much care to get it before it was eat, and to pay for it after, as has often made it very unpleasant to me. And I think to have bread on such terms is the next degree of wretchedness to having none at all!

There is no question that Susanna’s Wesley life was difficult. Despite the hardships, she successfully raised 7 children into adulthood, out of 19 born to her and her husband. (Infant mortality claimed many lives in 18th century England). Newton’s biography illuminates the character of one with an abiding faith in God, intellectual curiosity, and strong pastoral gifts (though squelched by the prejudices of the day).

If there is a weakness in Newton’s book, it is that it borders on making Susanna Wesley a saint. Unlike recent research on John Wesley that has revealed some of his warts, thus humanizing him, there is no such counterbalancing material in Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism unless one reckons her strong will as pigheadedness. Perhaps new light will one day emerge from the many neglected boxes of archives in the Methodist collection at the John Rylands library in Manchester. A fuller account that includes foibles would do nothing to detract from the respect given to Mrs. Wesley but help give a more realistic (and endearing) accounting.

This consideration aside, I enjoyed Newton’s biography of Susanna Wesley. She was unquestionably a strong woman who contributed to the birth of a movement that changed the world. For those looking for a solid (though imperfect) biography, I recommend it.

Religion and politics don’t mix

A beaker filled with water to which oil has been added, demonstrating insolubility of oil in water.

When I was a boy, conversations around the dinner table helped knit our family together. Many words of wisdom from my father and mother were delivered in that setting, including : “Religion and politics don’t mix.” I wonder: Have we forgotten this wisdom?

A woman had been part of her denomination for decades. However, she recently left because leaders in her congregation strongly hinted that to be “Christian” means voting for a particular political party. This story comes from my home country, yet as a missionary living in West Africa, I encouraged pastors to strictly avoid endorsing specific candidates or their parties, to merely ask people to pray then vote their conscience. This was in accordance with the long-standing informal policy of my denomination.

In the global village now connected via the internet, these same pastors now know instantly what world leaders say. They hear American politicians promising to remove any remaining legal obstacles to U.S. churches endorsing political candidates and they hear the applause of church leaders. Yet is this wise? Such a move could be disastrous, making congregations satellite campaign offices instead of places where people can come to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. It would take our eyes off the unshakable Kingdom (Hebrews 12:28) that Jesus taught us to pray would come (Matthew 6:10), encouraging instead the church to down the cup of temporal power, a poisoned chalice that so far we’ve only been sipping.

The temptation is real in multiple countries. It was campaign season, and a West African politician approached one of our pastors and his associate, inviting them to visit his home. There, he pulled out a dresser drawer filled with money. “I’ll allow you to help yourself to this money,” he promised. “All you need to do is next Sunday endorse me from the pulpit.” That day, the two pastors resisted the temptation. Instead, they told me the story and I commended them for their courage.

Jesus knew something of this temptation. Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness eating nothing, he was famished. Matthew 4:1-17 (CEB) recounts three ways that the devil tried to entice our Lord to abandon his mission. His final method was to tempt Jesus with power, taking him to a high mountain and showing him all the world’s kingdoms. “I’ll give you all of these if you bow down and worship me,” he offered. Yet Jesus replied: “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, ‘You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him’ ” (4:10). When offered rulership – its power and its perks – the Son of God firmly refused. He would not be deterred from the holy mission his Father had set before him.

An election is just around the corner in Kenya. Last Sunday, our pastor encouraged people to register to vote, but added: “In our church, we don’t endorse candidates or parties.” My pastor knows the wisdom of neutrality, that the witness of the church can be compromised if we are not careful. I think he’d agree that what my parents insisted around our family dinner table is good advice. Religion and politics still don’t mix.

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Image credit: Carpenter Valley Assocation

Thoughts after a cancer ward visit

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By myself (User:Piotrus) (Own work (taken by myself)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A hospital chaplain spoke of the comfort provided to Christians by the belief we have eternal souls. As patients’ bodies gradually become weaker and more uncooperative, they rest in the fact that no disease can diminish their soul which would soon go to be with Jesus. While I respect that position, N.T. Wright has correctly noted that the New Testament hope in the face of death is not disembodied existence but the resurrection.(See his excellent book, Surpised by Hope).

Yesterday I visited a cancer ward. There were many who were wasting away, limbs shriveled, eyes sunken, their frail frames a shadow of what they once were. As I prayed with a friend, my prayer was that God would restore his health. Yet whether God chooses to heal, our faith is that this is not the final chapter. Creation is followed by re-creation. Mortality surrenders to immortality; death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). Eternal life follows resurrection at Christ’s return, God’s gracious gift to the righteous (John 3:16, Romans 6:23).

“He fell asleep in Jesus.” So wrote a friend of mine at the passing of a loved one. It’s a good summary of what happens when people die: They fall asleep. When Jesus returns, believers will have a sweet awakening to life eternal, while punishment and destruction is the rude awakening reserved for the wicked (John 5:28-29; Rev 20:11-15). Both Jesus and Paul used “sleep” as a snynonym for death (John 11:11-14, 1 Thess. 4:13-18). Yet Christians fall asleep in the steadfast hope that the same Jesus whom God raised to life will himself raise us to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:51-55). One short sleep later and Jesus (at his return) will receive us (formerly mortal but now immortal) into his strong arms. The old Negro spirituals called this the “great gettin’ up mornin.’ ” What an amazing awakening that will be!

When it comes to how Christians conceptualize death, sleeping in Jesus is a minority position. Most instead believe in an immortal soul that leaves the body at the moment of death. While I see no conclusive biblical evidence for an “immortal soul” – an idea from Greek philosophy – there are a few New Testament passages traditionally interpreted as teaching a conscious existence apart from our bodies (Luke 16:19-31; 2 Cor 5:1-8, 12:1-5). This is called body-soul dualism, the belief that the enduring part of the human being is not the body but an indestructible soul.

Whichever position one takes, one thing is certain: We must be ready for our own demise. The writer to the Hebrews affirms that all human beings are “destined to die” and “after that face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, NIV). There are no post mortem opportunities to make things right with God. Are you ready for that encounter?

3 holy habits for citizens who follow Jesus

praying-handsYesterday, the United States inaugurated its 45th President. The colorful pageantry we have come to expect as power passes from one American administration to another was on full display.

Whatever our feelings might be toward a given leader, emotions are fleeting; habits endure. Here are three holy habits to develop as citizens who follow Jesus, no matter what country we call home:

1) Pray for leaders. As missionaries, my wife and I often let our supporters know specific ways that they can pray for us. We know that the task God has given us is too big on our own. If we are to make it, we need teammates, people calling our name before the throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:16, Ephesians 6:19). In the same way, Scripture asks us to pray for “kings and for everyone who is in authority, so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity (1 Timothy 2:2, CEB). The task of civic leaders is heavy and often thankless. Are we in the habit of praying for them?

Sometimes it’s hard to know specifically how to pray for leaders. Here’s a public prayer I recently offered:

Lord God, we pray that you will guide our new President. Give him your wisdom and self-control. May he seek the good of others and listen to those who are marginalized. Grant that he may not depend upon himself but upon you in all the important decisions that he must make. Surround him with those who will have the courage to say what must be said. Make his heart tender that he might lead our nation in a directon that pleases you. In Christ’s name we pray, AMEN.

2) Call on leaders to do what is right.  So important to the Bible’s message is doing what is right by the poor, the forgotten, and the powerless that this concern is woven like a golden strand throughout both Old and New Testaments. Deuteronomy 27:19a (NIV) warns: “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Likewise, Amos was a simple farmer from the village of Tekoa, near Bethlehem. In the 8th century BC, God sent him on a mission to Bethel. There, he railed against the abuses of Israel’s elite, insisting: “A lion has roared: who will not fear? The LORD God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8, CEB). His message – while addressed to many nations – was also for the leaders of his own people, Israel’s elite. He accused them of crushing the “weak” and the “needy” (4:1), offenses that he later in the chapter warns will result in domination by foreign powers, famine, drought, and disease.

Jesus modeled this kind of prophetic spirit in Matthew 23:37-39 when he wept over Jerusalem for having killed the prophets and having rejected his own message. Earlier in the chapter, he condemned the teachers of the law and the Pharisees not only for their hypocrisy but for having forgotten “the more important matters of the law,” including “justice, peace, and faith” (23:24, CEB).

While praying for our leaders is crucial, it is insufficient. We as prompted by God must go further, raising our voice on behalf of those unjustly targeted. Amos and Jesus give us a pattern for responsibly engaging our leaders, calling on them to do  what is right. Moments arise when – to use the words of Dallas Willard – a “holy discontent” wells up inside and we must prophesy or else be disobedient to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Who are the “fatherless, the foreigner, and the widow” in our day? Who are the citizens around us who are neglected, even oppressed? There comes a time when Jesus followers must speak up, voicing our opposition to policies and decisions made by our leaders that crush the weak and needy among us. To do less is to deny who we are as Christ followers.

3) Be the change.  Beyond prayers and speaking up for what is right, a final holy habit comes from Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This outlook is implied by Paul in Romans 2:21b-22a (NIV): “You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” We cannot expect the behavior of our leaders to be exemplary if our own conduct is sinful. Instead, Paul elsewhere calls us to be “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation” (Philippians 2:15a, NIV), to be “people who shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life” (Philippians 2:16a, CEB).

A pastor in a large cathedral in Nairobi recently invited the police to come to a special service. At a key moment, more than 200 officers came forward and received a prayer for God’s safety and blessing. Though later during his sermon he did not hesitate to admonish them to act with intergrity at work, he reminded everyone present that the character of the police and all our leaders is merely a reflection of the character of a people as a whole. The leaders produced are a direct product of the community that produces them.

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Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of “self-purification.” As civil rights marchers faced police brutality in the 1960s, he knew that hate could not be overcome by hate, so instead he called his people to non-violence. Self-purification meant rehearsing behind closed doors how to passively resist when publicly beaten by a billy club, dragged by the arm or aggressively handcuffed.

King’s self-purification was applied in a specific circumstance during the civil rights movement, but what would happen if followers of Jesus applied it more generally? He knew that they had to be the change. If they wanted non-violent police, then they themselves had to be non-violent. Likewise, if we desire public leaders who are righteous, what private sinful practices must we allow God to eliminate in our own lives? A transformation of the public realm must begin in the private realm, yet long experience teaches us that human beings are woefully indadequate to make such changes in their own lives. Only God’s power can do that! (2 Cor. 5:17, Romans 12:1-2; 1 Thess. 5:23-24).

Praying for leaders, calling them to do what is right, and modeling needed change are three holy habits for citizens who follow Jesus. God may lead us to develop others, depending upon the situation. Nonetheless, no matter who occupies positions of authority over us, may these practices help God’s people live with winsomeness and integrity.

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Images used in the essay are in the public domain.

If denominations took a StrengthFinder™ test

dscn6415Gallup’s StrengthFinder™ is all the rage. Take a 30 minute test online and you’ll discover your “Top 5,” the key elements of who you are and how you see the world. This constructive tool has helped me understand how God has wired me and what value I can add to the organizations where I work. It focuses on what is right with an individual and not what is wrong, designating 34 “strength themes” and describing them in detail.

Disclaimer: Though I’ve taken the test, have been in 2 workshops explaining the strengths approach, and have been coached on my Top 5  strengths, I am not a certified coach.

But I wonder:

What would the top strengths be if the StrengthFinder™ test were applied not to individuals but to Christian denominations?

I’m a lifelong Nazarene (in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition), so I have a better basis of speculating what my own denomination’s strengths might be. But because my readers come from a variety of Christian backgrounds, I’ll attempt an assessment of a handful of other Christian traditions based on what I’ve studied and observed about them supplemented by conversations over the years with individuals within those traditions. Feel free to correct me where you think I’ve gotten it wrong.

Take a minute and read about all 34 strength themes, then come back to this essay.

For brevity’s sake, let’s identify the top 3 from five major traditions.

(Note: Though I currently live in East Africa, my observations are most applicable in the North American setting which – as an American – is the context with which I am most familiar).

1) Roman Catholicism

a. command – For Roman Catholics, the Pope is the undisputed spiritual leader. Though advised by the Magesterium (collection of Cardinals), he can speak ex cathedra (from the Chair), making pronouncements that are binding upon the faithful. It makes for a unified and authoritative voice on matters of social ethics.

b. ideation – Across time, Roman Catholicism has been theologically creative. The doctrine of purgatory was innovative in its time, and the veneration of Mary and the saints has provided a conversation starter between Roman Catholic missionaries and those for whom ancestors are a large part of their religious worldview.

c. empathy – Hospitals and schools often sprout up wherever the Catholic message is preached. There’s a “can do” attitude apparent in various RC orders, from Jesuit priests (and their education emphasis) to the compassion of nuns as exemplified (for example) in Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

2) Episcopalians/Methodists

a. inclusiveness/includer – The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. (ECUSA) prides itself on creating space for people that society has marginalized. Unlike many denominations, the ECUSA is happy to ordain women, as is the United Methodist Church.

b. harmony – Peace and reconciliation are important themes for both Episcopalians and United Methodists. For example, the UMC held a peace seminar in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August 2015. Likewise, in 2013, the ECUSA participated in a World Council of Churches (WCC) conference in Busan, South Korea that emphasized the theme of justice, peace, and reconciliation.

c. positivity – Christians within this tradition often have a post-millenial view, believing that the church’s role is to help build the Kingdom of God while we await the return of Jesus Christ. There’s a strong belief that we can make the world a better place now, that the Gospel has marked social elements to it that are not incidental to the Christian message but are at its very core.

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An excellent summary of Wesleyan theology

essential-beliefsMark Maddix and Diane LeClerc have done it again. Just two years after collaborating as co-editors of Essential Church: A Wesleyan Ecclesiology (Beacon Hill, 2014), they’ve overseen the production (also by Beacon) of Essential Beliefs: A Wesleyan Primer (2016), a welcome volume that will fill an important niche for those desiring a concise but comprehensive introduction to Wesleyan theology.

The term “primer” is well-chosen. Each of the 19 chapters in the 159 page book serves as an introduction to an important doctrinal topic. Organized in a traditional format, the five sections move the reader from 1) the sources and method of theology, to 2) God as theology’s subject, then 3) creation/humanity/sin, followed by  4) the nature of forgiveness and sanctification, and ending with 5) the church’s “meaning, purpose, and hope,” i.e. ecclesiology and eschatology. By book’s close, the careful reader will have taken in the panoroma of Wesleyan theology and – thanks to the suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter – confidently be able to double back to pursue smaller trails that fork off from the main path.

The editors assigned the writing of chapters out to a crop of younger, emerging scholars, both male and female (Essential Beliefs, 16). This was a good decision, giving the book a freshness and sensitivity to more recent emphases, including a relational reading of sanctification. Also commendable is that not all writers were from North America, with solid chapters contributed by an Austalian, Zimbawean, Brit, and Filipino.

Mark Maddix’s chapter on spiritual growth contains a sentence that caught my attention. Referring to Communion, he observes: “Christians recognize that as they breathe in through participation in Word and Table, they are healed, empowered, and equipped to breathe out in God’s mission in the world” (Essential Beliefs, 122). This is a powerful metaphor that applies not only to Eucharist but to many other discipleship aspects of church life, including Christian education, preaching, and participation in small groups. Not having read Essential Beliefs until this week (December 2016), it’s fascinating that his breathing in/breathing out image is exactly what I have developed at greater length in Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2016) as the concept of “spiritual respiraton.” Maddix’s sentence is a confirmation that the Holy Spirit is always speaking to the church in sundry locations, yet somehow moving us together in the same direction.

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Wipf & Stock publishes latest Crofford book

mere-ecclesiology-coverJ. Gregory Crofford, Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2016)

Available in paperback for $ 13.60 USD at Wipf & Stock by clicking here, or at Amazon.com for $ 17.00 USD by clicking here. An Amazon Kindle e-book edition will be available in early 2017.

Book synopsis

Too many churches limp along with no clear sense of mission. In Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission, Dr. Crofford clarifies the purpose of God’s people through the metaphor of spiritual respiration. “Breathing in” (worship and discipleship) leads to “breathing out” (transformative service in the world). Newcomers and seasoned believers alike will be challenged to discover their calling as the Holy Spirit sends the church out on a challenging mission to heal families, communities, and creation itself.

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Dr. Gregory (“Greg”) Crofford, Ph.D. (University of Manchester), is a Senior Lecturer and the Ph.D. (Religion) Program Coordinator in the Religion Department at Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi, Kenya).
An interview with the author

What led you to write this book?

Christianity is fragmented. I wondered: What are the characteristics that all churches within the Christian tradition share? Mere Ecclesiology is an attempt to identify what unites us and to celebrate it.

You talk about “spiritual respiration.” What do you mean by this rather odd term?

Just like the human body must breathe in order to survive, so must Christ’s body, the church. It’s a word picture. “Breathing in” represents discipleship, coming to Christ and growing in our faith, both individually and corporately. ” On the other hand, “breathing out” is the mission God gives the church in the world, impacting communities through service that transforms. A healthy church will evidence both movements of the Holy Spirit, inward and outward.

Your chapter on “calling” has some surprises. Why do you present the word in such broad terms?

One of the downsides of the clergy/laity divide in how we conceptualize the church is that we become like a soccer match with only a few playing on the field and the rest watching in the stands. Yet Ephesians 4:11-16 teaches that all of God’s saints (believers) have a place of service, a role to fill not only in the church but in how the church fulfills her mission for the sake of the world. It is not just clergy who have a vocation from God. We all have a calling to fulfill. This is really where the sub-title of the book comes into play: “Finding your place in the church’s mission.”

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