A teacher named Mr. Chiavetta

Awkward me with braces toward the close of 8th grade.

In seminary, a prof once instructed the class: “Think back to when you were in junior high.” A student raised his hand and asked: “Do I have to?”

Many feel that way. Junior high – now often called “middle school” – is that awkward in-between time. You’re no longer a young child, but you’re not yet an adult. Living in the cracks can be excruciating.

A few years ago, I not only thought back to junior high; I went back. In the village of Spencerport, New York, I drove by what used to be Ada Cosgrove Junior High (now the high school). I thought back to the 8th grade day when my world fell-in. Did a close relative die? Was there a fatal car accident? No – there was nothing as dramatic as that. But in the world of an 8th grader, being ostracized is a punch in the stomach. The injury occurred when around the lunch table a friend launched a verbal assault:

We don’t want you at this table. Why don’t you just go sit somewhere else?

It had already been a rough year. I’d been bullied relentlessly in social studies class, a special agony for a bright but sensitive and slightly built boy terrified at the prospect of a fight. My friend’s cutting words over lunch were the last straw. I stood up and – half-dazed – made my way down the hallway toward the music room.

Mr. Chiavetta was the 8th grade guitar teacher. My clumsy fingers never mastered the instrument, but he didn’t seem to mind. He’d patiently shown me the basic chords and encouraged me. What’s more, I knew that he was a follower of Jesus. His door was open that fateful day, so I slipped into the music room where he greeted me warmly. “Mr Chiavetta, do you have a minute to talk?” I wondered. “Sure, Greg, what’s troubling you?” Knowing I was in a safe place, I broke down in tears and told him what had just happened in the cafeteria and what a discouraging year it had been. He listened kindly, and when the emotional blister was lanced, he prayed with me. That day, his name wasn’t Mr Chiavetta. That day, his name was Jesus.

There’s a lot of talk about public schools these days. Saboteurs have never been stronger. Yet on that day, a troubled boy found courage to go on because an underpaid 8th grade public school music teacher showed up for work. As a Christian, he spoke comforting words in my heart language. To this day, I’m grateful.

There are many public school teachers like Mr Chiavetta, people of Christian faith who are society’s unsung heroes. This essay is for them. You matter. When politicians cut your budgets, when some would rather inscribe “abandon all hope ye who enter here” over your school-house door, when the hours are too long and the rewards seem too few, please  stay. You made a difference for me and you still make a difference for many.

On nails and hammers

The Japanese proverb reminds us: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

It’s an interesting statement for those who belong to the community of Christian faith. We understand the necessity of sometimes being the nail that sticks out. Scripture warns us of the danger of conforming to the pattern of the world (Romans 12:1-2, 1 John 2:15). Jesus encourages us to follow a narrow road that leads to life and to avoid the broad road that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:14-15). And make no mistake: There’s a price to pay if you’re the nail that sticks out. Protruding nails attract hammers, pressure to “go along to get along.” Moral compromise pounds on the door and threatens to kick it down.

This is nothing new for believers. When a bright light shines in a room, people may let their eyes adjust; more often, they douse the light. Most of us realize – in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – that there is a cost to discipleship.

That being said, sometimes I think that Christians needlessly invite the hammer, almost as if we’re looking for a fight. It’s an annual ritual in the U.S. in December to lament the so-called “war on Christmas.” Does this invite mockery? People see Christians who in other lands are martyred for Christ. They see what genuine persecution is and can detect false equivalence a mile away.

But let’s talk about what sometimes happens within the community of faith. With reference to “the world,” our sermon has only one point: “Don’t conform.” Yet I wonder: How do we treat brothers and sisters in Christ who won’t be squeezed into our Christian cultural mold? Do we suddenly ourselves become the hammer, pounding down nails who stick out?

Make no mistake: We have a common goal which is to be like Jesus. Still, conforming to the pattern of Christ – while producing holiness – hardly results in uniformity. Some believers drink coffee, others tea, still others abstain from caffeine. There are Republican saints and Democratic saints, all who love God and neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). Certain Jesus followers sport long hair, tattoes, and a Harley. Others wear short-cropped hair, play golf, and drive a Prius. There are meat-loving Christians and vegan Christians. Some teach in public schools and advocate for public education; others prefer to teach their children at home. We’re a motley crew. What beauty there is in diversity!

Paul recognized the value of diversity in the Body of Christ when he celebrated the various gifts that God the Holy Spirit has lavished upon us.  He asks:

If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts of the body just like he wanted…You are the body of Christ and parts of each other (1 Cor. 12:17-18, 27, CEB).

Natalie Goldberg tells of eating at a restaurant. Unsatisified with her waiter, she complained about him to another waiter. He replied: “I know he’s odd, but if they dance to a different drummer, I say, ‘Just let them dance’ ” (Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within [Shambala, 2005, 21]). How much contention in the church would we avoid if we took the attitude of that waiter?

“Lord, help those today who are suffering for the sake of the Gospel. Shield the blow when the hammer comes down upon them. And forgive me, God, when I have been a hammer, clobbering a brother or sister in Christ who is guilty of nothing more than following you as the person you made them and gifted them to be. AMEN.”


Image credit

Frabel at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Love is responsible (Luke 10:25-37)

greg_photo-copyNote: I preached the sermon, “Love is responsible” (Luke 10:25-37), at University Church of the Nazarene on the campus of Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi) on Sunday, February 27, 2017. As a mnemonic, I represented the five points of responsibility by the five fingers on the hand.

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The story

A man was walking from Jerusalem down to Jericho. Suddenly, robbers attacked him. They stripped him naked and left him for dead along the side of the road.

A priest came along. He saw the man, but perhaps was afraid of making himself ceremonially unclean, so he passed by on the other side of the road and hurried on his way.

Not long after, a Levite happened by. He, too, avoided the dying man and scurried down the road on the other side.

Finally, along came a Samaritan. When he saw the beaten and bleeding man, his heart went out to him. He knelt down beside him and gave him first aid; he poured oil and wine on his wounds, then took him in his arms and placed him on his donkey. They traveled to a nearby inn where the Samaritan took care of him like one of his own family. The next morning, he paid the inn keeper two days worth of his own wages. “I have to go now,” he said. “Take this money to care for the man, and when I come back through, if the bill exceeds this amount, let me know. I’ll cover the difference.”

Jesus turned to the crowd who was listening. “Of these three, which one was a neighbor?” The religious leader who’d started the conversation replied: “The man who had mercy on him.” The Lord concluded: “Now you go and do the same.”

The context

Often we hear this story with little reference to its context. But really it’s a love story. After all, in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus was talking about love. What does it mean to love God? And what does it mean to love our neighbor?

The religious leader who prompted Jesus to tell the parable of the good Samaritan asked: “But who is my neighbor?” What did he really want to know? He was asking: For whom am I responsible? We could even say that in this parable, Jesus defines love with a single word: responsibility.  I would go so far as to say that love = responsibility.

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Catchy slogan, bad theology

not-perfect-just-forgivenYou’ve seen the t-shirts, ball caps, and bumper stickers:

“I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”

It’s a catchy slogan. The problem is, it’s bad theology.

To be fair, who wouldn’t want to celebrate forgiveness? God’s pardon of our sins, after all, is at the heart of the Gospel (Romans 5:1, 1 John 1:9). This is known as justification. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, God has accepted us. When we welcome Christ into our lives, turning away from our sin, we are adopted; we become part of God’s family (John 1:12; Romans 8:15; Acts 3:19).

Where the “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” mantra goes off the rails is in the first phrase: “I’m not perfect.” The problem is, Jesus himself called us to be perfect in love:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48, NIV).

Too often, people quote only v. 48, not taking into account the preceding verses. Jesus is not calling us to an absolute perfection. Such a state of affairs does not exist this side of the Second Coming. John Wesley (1703-91) correctly taught that we will always live with a thousand “infirmities,” which include forgetfulness, misunderstandings, good intentions gone wrong, and the like. But this does not exempt us from perfection in love. The Common English Bible catches this nuance well: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (v. 48).

Wesley always asked about his preachers: “Are you going on to perfection?” He longed for them to grow, for their love to become complete. Justification (forgiveness) is not the end, just the beginning! Sanctification (the ongoing process of cleansing) begins when God forgives us. The one who has experienced the lavish grace of Christ naturally wants to go deeper with God, what Peter calls growing in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). Like a healthy baby doesn’t stay a baby for long but progresses through life’s stages – toddler, child, teen, adult – so a new follower of Jesus grows up in his or her faith.

But let’s go back to the “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” mantra. As currently promoted, it stunts the growth of Christians. A follower of Jesus who is growing up in their faith will naturally be filled more-and-more with God’s love (Ephesians 3:14-21). If being “forgiven but not perfect” becomes an excuse for not loving, for mistreating a fellow believer or one who has no profession of Christian faith, then the saying may become a weapon in the hands of the devil.

It might not be a catchy slogan, but a more accurate ball-cap would read:

“Are you forgiven, too? Let’s grow together.”

My love is not yet complete. Is yours? If not, then let’s toss aside slogans that stamp a misguided seal of approval on sin. Let’s spur each other on and refuse to excuse each other’s failings as if no other outcome is possible. There is victory in Jesus!

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

memorial_tombstone_at_przyszowice_cemetery_2
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?