“God, may you and I be like coffee and milk; once mixed together, they can’t be separated.” So says the Haitian prayer.
As a hospice chaplain, I’ve encountered some coffee and milk marriages. Couples may have been together for 50 or 60 years. Because life for one of them is drawing to a close, one is labelled the “patient” while the other is the “caregiver.” But this fails to capture the myriad ways their lives had already become mixed together long before they began the hospice journey. Family photos on the wall, twin recliner chairs in proximity, bookshelves carefully arranged with reading treasures, tended plants on porches or back decks, family pets lovingly caressed – the evidence of two lives marvelously intertwined is on full display.
Not all marriages are like this. I’ve heard that it’s possible to live under one roof and already be emotionally divorced from one’s partner. Spouses have been downgraded to roommates. But tell me: Just because this can happen, must it happen? The clues of enduring love that I discover in the homes of hospice couples encourage me to cherish the relationship that – other than my relationship with God – is the most rewarding. Coffee and milk, anyone?
How are Christ followers to live when society seems increasingly hostile to the church? T. Scott Daniels in Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World (Beacon Hill, 2017, Kindle edition) takes up this question, mining the biblical metaphor of “exile” for insights that can serve the People of God at a moment when – in the United States – our cultural influence is waning.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Christian clergy were paid deference, and the church was closer to the center of civic life. For Daniels, the word “exile” – evoking the 70 years that the Jewish people were in captivity in Babylon following the fall of Jerusalem in 586 A.D. – is appropriate to describe the sense of disorientation Christians feel in 2020 America. Daniels observes: “People who live in exile feel displaced. They feel like resident aliens. They feel like a people who have to live counterculturally” (location 56).
One of the key fears of Christian parents – according to Daniels – is that they will lose their children to the surrounding culture. To pre-empt this outcome, he emphasizes that we must formulate a story and the practices to sustain that story (location 111).
Daniels cites the 19th century German philosopher Nietzsche who famously concluded that “God is dead.” If this is true, then meaning must be made by each individual. But is this enough? Daniels thinks not:
Without God there is no more certainty or hope about the future. When the only meaning life has is the meaning an individual creates, it ceases to have any real or lasting significance. When the story that gave people meaning and purpose – the story of God – is gone, all that remains is a kind of hopeless despair (location 605).
In subsequent sections, Daniels outlines what alternative stories people live by. These include the “success” story, the “nation” story, the “humanist” story, or a fragmented story that weaves together elements of each (See Chapter 3, “This is My Story.”) Daniels summarizes well the non-God stories that thrive.
Overall, Daniels has written a helpful book that resonates with our cultural moment. Each chapter includes engaging discussion questions that let readers expand on the ideas presented. But where Embracing Exile comes up short is its failure to examine what version of the God story large segments of the American church have been communicating in recent decades. Is it possible that the messages we’ve been communicating have been more reactionary than Spirit-led? As the broader culture changes rapidly, has our response come from a place of fear rather than a heart of love?
In the church where I grew up in the 1970s, we often sang the hymn “I love to tell the story.” The lyrics by Ian Eskelin have stayed with me:
I love to tell the story,
‘Twill be my theme in glory.
To tell the old, old story
Of Jesus and his love.
Love is at the center of the Gospel message (Romans 5:8, John 3:16), but is love what we’re still all about?
A store in a mall became concerned about the number of teenagers who were loitering. Some suggested they were shoplifting or keeping older shoppers from entering. The manager did some research and learned that the highest frequencies can only be heard by those younger than 18. So he installed a machine that would broadcast painful high frequencies near the store entrance. When younger teens came close, their ears hurt, so they hurried away. On the other hand, those 18 or older kept coming in. Their ears weren’t hurt; they couldn’t hear the painful high tones.
At the center of the Good News is love, but is love what we’re now broadcasting? Is it possible that what used to be a story of love with an attractive melody has mutated into a discordant and shrill refrain? Has what we believe to be Good News instead become Bad News in their ears, driving them away?
It’s possible that many youth turn to other meaning-making stories – what Daniels calls “metanarratives” (location 501) – not because they have rejected the historic, winsome Jesus story of loving God and loving others (Mark 12:30-31) but because that’s not what we’re broadcasting anymore.
Here are three areas where our story – rather than attracting youth – may have repulsed them:
Caring for the Earth – A strong stewardship ethic is apparent in Genesis and the Psalms, yet how often have we heard Christians mocking “tree huggers” or ridiculing those who advocate for phasing out the energy sources driving climate change? How might Lisa, an 11-year-old girl forced to flee with her family from a forest fire engulfing their Colorado home, respond if she overheard such comments?
Gun violence – Tonya, a 13-year-old girl near Pittsburgh, practices an active shooter drill with her classmates at middle school. After school, she steps off the bus and spots her churchgoing neighbor’s political yard sign touting “God, guns, and country.” If you were Tonya, what reaction might this produce?
Two moms – In Chicago, Antonio, a 15-year-old boy long passed-over in the foster system, is finally adopted by a lesbian couple. At home one night, taking a break from his homework, he picks up his phone and begins scrolling through social media. He clicks on a viral YouTube video of a preacher who insists that “homosexuals are going to hell.” How would you feel if you were Antonio?
Note: Each of these scenarios ends with a question mark because I’m raising questions, not drawing definitive conclusions. Here’s another question: Rather than “Blessing Babylon” – as Daniels titles Chapter 5 – have we (with every good intention) unwittingly been “Cursing Babylon”?
The “exile” metaphor (while certainly present in Scripture) presupposes that a hostile culture has in some way marginalized a faithful church. (The Babylonians forcibly marched the Jewish mobility into exile, after all). This metaphor seems to imply that the church is the “good guys” and everyone else the “bad guys.” Yet as Wesleyans, we believe that God’s prevenient grace is active in every corner of God’s creation (John 1:9; Romans 2:14-15).
An emphasis upon “exile”- while well-intended for all the reasons Daniels outlines – may foster a back-door self-righteousness, a “batten down the hatches” approach that sequesters itself at just the moment when a world drowning in hate needs the engagement of a church turbo-charged by love. We are a missional people. Does talk of “exile” fuel that mission or impede it?
This short essay passes over other themes that Scott Daniels covers, themes that deserve their own consideration. Daniels, to his credit, gently invites us to think together about how we engage the world in faithful ways, without being “squeezed into the world’s mold” (Romans 12:2, Philips). We should thank Pastor Daniels for a well-written and thought-provoking book.
My younger brother, Chad, worked in tech support. Sometimes I’ll call him when my computer gets cranky. If my computer were a car, then he’s like the mechanic or technician who knows his way around under the hood and gets his hands greasy. But Chad would admit that often the best solution to a computer problem is simple: Reboot!
A one-word summary to Paul’s message in Colossians 3:1-11 is exactly that: Reboot. Paul details the glitches, the things that are going wrong, then he offers the fix, the divine reboot that makes all the difference.
First, let’s set the stage.
At the end of Colossians 2, beginning in v. 13, Paul had already written of the futility of a rules-based religion. Bodily discipline and pious self-denial only treat the symptoms and not the disease. He concludes in v. 23 – “They provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.”
Now in chapter 3, Paul – who himself had been the most zealous of rule keepers as a Pharisee – shows us a different way, a life focused not on the keeping of rules but on the new life that only Christ can give. And so he begins in v. 1 –
“Since you have been raised to new life in Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand.”
Note the passive voice. He doesn’t say “since you have raised yourself to a new life in Christ.” Rather, “since you have been raised…” Only God can do the job! Christianity is not a self-improvement program. We are forgiven and transformed not by what we do, but by what God in Christ has done and is doing in our lives. The word for this is grace.
Because of God’s grace, his power at work in Christ and therefore working inside of us, we are able to do what Paul says next: “Set your sights on the realities of heaven.”
Steven Covey wrote Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the habits is this: “Work with the end in mind.”
Set your sights – Paul says – on the realities of heaven, our end, our goal, our objective.
My work as a hospital chaplain has brought into sharp relief what Paul is talking about. In pre-COVID times, I’ve stood with families by bedsides when they said their goodbyes to a beloved and godly grandmother about to meet Jesus. I sat with two twenty-something sons as they accompanied their dad to death’s door, tearfully telling him all that he had meant to them. He was a churchgoing and loving father who obviously had raised his sons well. The comfort that faith brings in those moments has no price-tag.
Work with the end in mind. Set your sights on the realities of heaven. In verse 3, he reminds us that our “life is hidden with Christ in God,” then in verse 4 affirms that when Christ returns, we also will share in his glory. What a promise!
My heart is breaking with concern as I watch many of my beloved denominational leaders rushing to ‘take a knee’ before the cultural idol of ‘social justice’ rather than leading us to the true answer for the hour: a clarion call to Christian holiness.
His alternative solution? “The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the promise of Christian holiness IS the answer! It’s revival we need.”
There’s much to consider in what Pastor Hull has written, and I hope you’ll read the entire statement on his FaceBook page, as linked above. There’s no question that sin in the human heart is a sickness that needs the cure that only Jesus can provide. By “revival,” Hull and those of us in the holiness tradition recognize that God wants to change our hearts. We individually need forgiveness of sins and the heart cleansing that the blood of Jesus provides (1 John 1:7-9). For this end we constantly pray.
But as a 3rd generation Nazarene who grew up in a revivalistic tradition, I wonder whether this individualistic lens is sufficient in our current cultural moment. “Just get people saved and sanctified and everything will be fine” is the sentiment I hear periodically. Usually it is voiced at a moment of societal reckoning like we’re witnessing following the brutal killing of George Floyd, a Black man arrested and murdered at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25.
I’ve been processing in my heart and mind what we all saw in that video. In this essay, I want to talk about it on two levels, namely, emotionally and theologically.
First, what can we say emotionally?
I’ve tried over the last 60 days to hear the voices of Black, Brown, and Asian Americans as they open up about their daily experience of living in the United States. (In this pandemic, that has mostly been through watching short testimonial videos and reading stories online). What I’ve heard is a heart’s cry from people who in a hundred ways, large and small, sense that they have been disrespected, wronged, and marginalized because of their skin color. Hull criticizes some of our Nazarene denominational leaders for “taking a knee before the cultural idol of social justice.” I respectfully disagree. What I see our denominational leaders doing is what hundreds of thousands across our land have been doing. We’ve stopped, we’ve sat down, and we’ve attempted to listen to the hurt. (If you haven’t watched the movie, “Just Mercy,” I highly recommend it as a good discussion starter). Out of those conversations have come stories of individuals of color who have been hurt by society in general and (sometimes) by churches. Only when we acknowledge that and ask for forgiveness can we experience God’s healing together.
Some years ago, General Superintendent Jerry Porter and other denominational leaders met with a group of Black Nazarene pastors. At the end, he knelt in front of one of the lead pastors and on behalf of the Church of the Nazarene asked for their forgiveness for our silence and (sometimes) complicity around racism. That moment seared itself into my memory, as I read about it in Holiness Today. I remember thinking that this is the essence of entire sanctification, of God’s Holy Spirit moving the church as a whole to a place of repentance. These kinds of gestures can be the first rain drops of a mighty divine downpour among us! And as we see similar gestures unfolding in our society – powerful signs of God’s prevenient grace at work – can we dare believe that the God who has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21) is up to something new?
In the spirit of Dr. Porter’s historic gesture, I’ve been gratified to see reports on social media of pastors who – following George Floyd’s death – have headed into the streets to stand in solidarity with those raising their voices in support of Black lives. On Facebook, Adam Lipscomb, pastor of the City Life Church (a Wesleyan church in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan) wrote of his involvement in one such protest on May 30, 2020:
I was at the protest downtown in Grand Rapids tonight. I was asked to pray by the organizers of a nonviolent protest that was to include a silent march. There were other groups that were not part of that protest that were filling the space before the non-violent protesters arrived. It’s easy to watch the news tonight and think that only one group was involved. There were multiple groups, some of which were Christian, nonviolent, and very disciplined. Other groups were from some sort of militia, and there were identifiable provocateurs.
I spent much of the night as part of the safety team standing between the protesters and police. I did end up taking an opportunity to pray publicly. It was a particularly dicey moment, and I shouted out my prayer over the crowd. I’m home now and will continue to pray for peace with justice. #BlackLivesMatter
It shouldn’t surprise us that the devil will try to sow weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Jesus warned us as much. But it strikes me that what Pastor Lipscomb did and what many clergy and laity from a broad spectrum of denominations are doing is God’s good work and puts feet to our holiness.
Secondly, what can we say theologically?
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police calls us not only to process emotionally but also theologically. On this score, there is much to say.
1 Thess. 5:23-24 is a favorite passage for those of us who are persuaded that entire sanctification is a second definite work of grace after the New Birth. Yet as many sermons as I’ve heard preached on that passage, I’ve yet to hear a preacher underscore that Paul’s admonition is not to an individual, but to a church. When Paul writes “May the God of peace sanctify you through and through,” we could translate it as “May the God of peace sanctify y’all through and through.” Yes, God sanctifies individuals, but God does so in the context of our relational networks. In Africa, the meaning of Ubuntu is summarized as “I am because we are.” We cannot conceive of individual holiness apart from our connections with other human beings, so we could just as well say social sanctification as sanctification. It’s all of one piece.
Hull criticizes the term “social justice” as an “idol.” He says “the moment that ‘social’ is added to justice, it isn’t.” He doesn’t explain what he means by that statement. In fact, justice often plays itself out in the social setting as is evidenced by the Old Testament prophets’ calling out the injustices of their day. Sometimes, young idealists are mocked as being SJW’s – Social Justice Warriors. If they dropped the word “social” and just became JWs (Justice Warriors), would that satisfy their critics? Maybe we should just adopt the language of Zambian Nazarene Chanshi Chanda, who speaks of “Christlike Justice.” (See his excellent primer, Christlike Justice and the Holiness Tradition, where he maintains that our theological tradition is the natural soil for justice concerns to grow). Perhaps we should speak of Christlike Justice Warriors – CJWs? But I have the sneaking suspicion that whatever label we might use – SJW, JW, or CJW – someone would criticize. It’s time to ask ourselves:
What is it about the demand for justice that makes us profoundly uncomfortable?
How might our view change if we saw our pursuit of justice not as a distraction from holiness but as one important way that the church models Christian holiness for the world to see?
Finally, we need to revisit our concept of sin. Sin is not just individual; sin can be systemic. This is what the prophet Amos had in mind when he admonished Israel:
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:15, NIV).
God’s favor upon His people was dependent (according to Amos) on how just the court system was. For that system to be corrupt (i.e. sinful) brought God’s judgment upon the people. In verse 14, seeking good and not evil had an objective. It was “that you may live.” God cared about whether the systems in place were righteous or evil. Society flourishes when justice dominates.
This is but a taste of the Scripture’s concern for justice. As Nazarenes who are part of the holiness tradition, we must consider whether revival comes first and then racial reconciliation follows, or whether we have the order backwards. As the church, should we not come alongside anyone animated by God’s prevenient grace (Christian or not) to work for racial reconciliation as a necessary prerequisite and foretaste of revival? Is this not the model from Zaccheus? First, he acknowledged his wrongdoing then explained how he would be reconciled with those offended, by making restitution (Luke 19:8). Only then did Jesus say: “Today, salvation has come to this house…” (Luke 19:9a, NASB). Reconciliation preceded revival.
Thank you, Pastor Michael Hull, for your thoughts. You are my brother in Christ. I’ve been struggling to understand what holiness looks like in the age of George Floyd and I sense that you are, too. Let us continue to feel, to think, and to act as the Lord leads us in the holy way of Gospel reconciliation.
What a strange place to be during our nation’s birthday celebration. But this year in Texas, we had a guest show up uninvited. His name? Mr. COVID-19 and he doesn’t mix well with others.
Our Governor just ordered Texans to wear masks when going out in public. (To show he wasn’t joking, he pushed the announcement to our cell phones, like an AMBER alert for missing children). In Houston, San Antonio, as well as in Austin (where I live), a recent surge in COVID hospitalizations means that intensive care units are at near capacity.
It’s difficult to say to what extent people are complying with the Governor’s order. My observations are only anecdotal. A quick trip for groceries to our North Austin Walmart yesterday would indicate that people are taking this pandemic seriously. I watched as parents in the parking lot put on their own mask then helped their young children adjust theirs. Waiting in the line outside the door, we stood 6 feet apart and shuffled slowly toward the entrance. We were Black, White, Latinx, and Asian, a multi-cultural crowd, and I heard no one griping as we waited for admission.
Good citizenship aside, you don’t need to look far in the Bible to find a reason for Christians to wear a mask. The Second Great Commandment from our Lord is relevant: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:39, NIV). And since any of us can be a spreader of corona virus, even if we show no symptoms, our mask becomes a visible symbol of our consideration for others’ welfare. If Jesus were here, he’d have his mask on.
In practice, our Christian duty is sometimes elbowed aside by other considerations. There’s a libertarian streak in us Americans. We place a premium on self-expression and individualism. Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” become a hit for a reason. Still, there are times when both our individual and collective interests are served by adhering to what experts advise. This is one of those times.
So here’s to a happy July 4th, from behind the mask. Let’s pray that this time next year, such measures will be unnecessary and we can get back to the group activities that make this day special.
Today we have a guest voice here on Theology in Overalls.
Chale Atikonda is a Master of Arts in Religion student and serving as Teacher’s Assistant at Africa Nazarene University in Kenya, Africa. He is an aspiring writer in the area of Theology. He is a Youth Pastor of Chiimba Church of the Nazarene and he is from Malawi, Africa.
His paper, entitled “Poverty of Spirit,” was edited by Eileen Qui.
Matthew 5:3; Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν).
There have been a good number of interpretations of what Jesus meant when He said that the “poor in spirit” are blessed. Some people believe that Jesus recommended physical poverty as a merit to enter into the eternal Kingdom of God. Others believe that Jesus meant one must suffer under the guidance of the Spirit, such as punishing the body by denying it food, sleep or good clothing, and in extreme cases, even punishing the body by beating it, causing bleeding wounds to make one poor in obedience to what they believe to be the leading of the Spirit of God. Before I embark on explaining what I believe Jesus meant when He called us to the poverty of the Spirit so that we are able to attain the Kingdom of God, let us begin from the original language in which this verse was written in.
(of one who crouches and cowers) beggarly, poor
are the poor
Self (emphatic), he, she, it (used for the third person)
kingdom, sovereignty, royal power
is the kingdom
Although the Greek word πτωχοὶ basically means “poor”, this text appears many times in Hebrew scripture and the usage of its equivalent Hebrew word is broader than the Greek word. The Hebrew word “עני” meaning “poor” describes a person who can do nothing on his/her own and is totally dependent on other people to provide all their needs. Ryan Shaw concurs by stating that “in Hebrew ‘poor’ reflects the humble and helpless putting their trust in God. The ‘poor’ admit Spiritual bankruptcy.” In addition to this, the Bible hub comments, “Poverty in any shape helps to stir in man a sense of need, a disposition to consider himself as dependent….” Therefore, in the original language, the word “poor” describes someone who cannot do anything on his/her own and all needs must be provided by someone else. A good example can be a baby who always needs an adult to give them what they need and be at their service all the time. However, the difference from a baby is that the “poor,” as described in the original language, know that they are unable to do anything for themselves. Therefore, they must become attached to someone who has the ability to provide for their needs.
THEN WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?
In this verse, Jesus meant that the blessed are those who know that they cannot do anything on their own and therefore, recognize that they always need God to meet all their needs. The poor in spirit recognize their spiritual bankruptcy and are humble enough to completely submit themselves to a master who is rich in everything to provide for their needs. The logic behind this is that one cannot submit oneself as a poor person to a master/provider to provide for him/her without some form of worship or service to this master/provider. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun concurs, “Everyone worships someone or something…. Human beings cannot help but assign ultimate value and worth to someone or something. Of course that does not mean everyone worships God. One’s ultimate devotion can rest in money, success, a person, a garden, a creed, a cause so forth. Ultimately, what we are devoted to will shape our lives.” That is why there are numerous people who worship their jobs and give their all in serving or working. They work hard not because they love what they do or take pride in their work, but because they know that their job provides them with what they need. Without their jobs, they cannot get what they need and make ends meet. They are poor in the eyes of their job. Ryan Shaw argues in agreement that “Poverty of Spirit means I need God for everything. It is confidence in God, not natural circumstances or abilities.” So Jesus meant that blessed are those who come to this state, see themselves weak and insufficient without God and they, therefore, join themselves to God with humbleness in living, service and worship. Such people qualify to attain the Kingdom of God.
I sat across from a homeless man in a hospital room. For 45 minutes, he poured out his heart. My job? To be present with him, to silently witness his pain and frustration. At the end, we prayed together. He said he felt better, lighter. He thanked me for listening.
In nearly a year on the job as a hospital chaplain-in-training, here’s the greatest takeaway so far:
People need to be heard.
James 1:19 encourages us: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (NIV). What does it mean to be “quick to listen”?
Listen to understand, not to respond. This can be the hardest part of listening. We start out well, but after a few seconds, we begin mentally planning out our response. That response usually begins with “Yes, but…” And suddenly we’ve become a sparring partner in a debate rather than an empathetic listener.
Listen deeply by asking clarifying questions. If something is unclear, a short question seeking clarity shows others that you’re present with them, that they’re being heard. “When you said ‘I’m so tired of it all,’ what did you mean?”
Listen to pray more specifically. Details matter. I know that I wasn’t listening closely if I ask a question and someone responds: “As I said earlier…” My question reveals that I had tuned out. On the other hand, when I close a patient visit with a prayer, I will often rehearse the detailed concerns they mentioned, bringing them specifically to God in prayer. One patient observed afterwards: “You didn’t miss a thing!” To listen well is to love well.
Over the past week, anger and frustration have boiled over on our streets. Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” If there’s one thing that I can do to move the needle a fraction in the right direction, it’s listening – not to respond, not to debate, but to understand.
Please tell me your story. What are the everyday indignities and frustrations that you live with as an African-American, Latinx, Native American or other minority in the United States?
If I had titled this essay before August 2019, I would have chosen the title “Thoughts in a pandemic.” But I’m a hospital student chaplain this year, and “thoughts” seemed too cerebral. With the novel corona virus raging, it has stirred up emotions in me, feelings like fear, sadness, anxiety, dread, and disorientation.
When I get scared, portions of Scripture calm me. Isaiah 41:10 (NLT) assures:
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.
Some Christians find comfort in the “God is in control” mantra. The problem with that statement is that with total control comes total responsibility. But I don’t hold God responsible for COVID-19 because that kind of a sadistic God doesn’t fit who Jesus is, and Jesus is the perfect revelation of the Father (John 14:9). God is not the cause of this pandemic nor of the various sicknesses I see in patients I visit at the hospital. But what I do hold God responsible for is coming alongside us in the middle of our suffering, strengthening us, and helping us through. That’s the take-away from Isaiah 41. God is with us! The LORD will sustain us; God will help us in the middle of the storm.
Take a deep breath. Slowly let it out. Are you afraid today? God is on your side. Inhale his love and compassion; exhale your anxiety. All will be well.