On obscure Olympians and unsung disciples

olympicsAs the Olympics in Rio wind down, I’m struck by one main takeaway: We haven’t really seen much of the Olympics.

Sure, we saw some athletes celebrated, headliners like Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Usain Bolt. Yet the organizers of the 2016 summer Olympic Games report that more than 11,000 athletes are competing this year. Among those 11,000 are hundreds whose stories of discipline triumphant will never be publicly celebrated.

The level of commitment that it takes to even make it to the Olympic Games is staggering. I’ve managed to string together 2 weeks of early morning walks – not runs or swims or rowing, mind you, just brisk walks – and I’m proud of myself. Now imagine pushing yourself to your limits not for 2 weeks but nearly every day for years on end and we begin to catch just a glimpse of the commitment of athletes to their sport.

What is true in the sports world is true in the church. We have our Phelps-like “superstars,” leaders like Billy Graham and Rick Warren, Joyce Meyers, Tibi Joshua and Pope Francis. They are the headliners, the ones people know about. Yet there are many who never garner attention or praise, never capture the public spotlight who are nevertheless the journeywomen and journeymen whose quiet discipline and low-key faith in Christ make the church work. We won’t hear much about them, yet without them and their commitment to service under-girded by spiritual discipline, the Kingdom would stall.

Yet whether we are a headliner or one who is little known, Paul’s charge to us is the same:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Cor. 9:24, NIV).

While some will win a “crown that will not last” (v.25a), we all are focused on the “crown that will last forever” (v.25b). What is Paul saying? For most of us, the spiritual discipline that fuels our service in the Kingdom will go unrewarded on this earth. Yet we have a God who sees and who one day will recognize excellence. Discipline uncelebrated here and now will be rewarded there and then (Matthew 25:23).

Reward on the last day is extrinsic, yet there is an intrinsic motivation for spiritual discipline. Yes, God will one day reward faithfulness, but spiritual discipline has value in itself, and that value is participating in the life of God (2 Peter 1:4). God is our recompense.

Though she had won the gold medal, Olympic wrestler Helen Maroulis admitted: “Yesterday was about stepping on the mat and just wrestling to the best of my ability and really taking joy in what I do.” Yes, the gold medal was an honor, an extrinsic motivation, yet the greater motivation was intrinsic, “taking joy in what I do.” Such an internal motivation is primary, and – in her case – fortunate, since the media seemed more interested in reporting on the juvenile antics of male American swimmers outside the pool than her exploits on the mat.

One day, God will reward every unsung disciple for service often unnoticed and underappreciated this side of heaven. Meanwhile, let’s remain faithful, knowing that the greatest reward is here-and-now, and that reward is God himself. He is enough!

Image credit: publicdomainpictures.net

 

One Book, two approaches

chevalier_tuckerIn the film “Gigi,” Maurice Chevalier and Sophie Tucker sing the unforgettable “I remember it well.” (Click link to watch song). The aged couple reminisce about how they first met so many years ago. What’s strange – and comical – is that they agree on few of the details. On that day, was it raining or was it sunny? Did they meet at 9 a.m. or 8 a.m.? Was he on time to pick her up, or was he late? By the end of the song, there are many of these at-odds-with-each other memories. What is amazing about the song, however, is a simple realization: The details really don’t matter. What matters is that they met and fell in love. That fact no one can deny.

“I remember it well” has something to teach us when we come to Scripture. There are times when the Bible itself “remembers” it in two different ways:

  1. Were humans created on the sixth day or the fifth? Before re-reading Genesis, I would have confidently told you that humans – along with animals – were created on the sixth day. So says Genesis 1:24-26. Yet it’s not quite that simple. The Bible also says that humanity was created “on the day the LORD God made earth and sky” (see Gen. 2:4b and 7, CEB). Exactly when did God make earth and sky? Genesis 1:20-23 is clear: That happened on the fifth day. The details differ.
  2. Were there two angels at the empty tomb or one?  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the crux of the Christian faith. That makes it all the more surprising to see that the Gospels themselves have different memories of one of the details from that morning. Matthew 28:2 recounts a single “angel of the Lord” who comes down from heaven and rolls away the stone. On the other hand, Luke 24:4 speaks of two “men” who were dressed in “gleaming bright clothing” (CEB). So which was it, one messenger from heaven or two? The details differ.
  3. What did Saul’s traveling companions on the road to Damascus experience? There is an intriguing variance in the details of the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. While Saul was encircled with a light from heaven and fell to the ground – even as a voice from heaven spoke to him – his traveling companions “heard the voice but saw no one” (Acts 9:7, CEB). Later defending himself before a crowd in Jerusalem, Saul (now Paul) recounts: “My traveling companions saw the light, but they didn’t hear the voice of the one who spoke to me” (22:9, CEB). Did the companions hear the voice or didn’t they? The two possibilities are mutually exclusive.

saul

What is the takeaway from Genesis 1-2? We do not stake our faith on harmonizing two divergent creation stories in every detail. Rather, we understand the bottom line, that God is the creator, however he happened to create. That’s what matters.

And the resurrection? Whether there were two angels at the tomb or one in the last analysis is unimportant. What all four Gospels attest is that Jesus rose from the dead. That’s what matters.

What shall we say about Saul’s traveling companions? Whatever they saw or heard, one fact is undeniable: On the road to Damascus, Saul met the risen Christ and the man from Tarsus was never the same! We must not lose sight of that crucial takeaway, however the minor details in Paul’s recounting might vary.

Behind these three examples are two different ways of reading holy Scripture, one fundamentalist and one flexible. The first is uptight when seeming discrepancies arise; the second realizes that – while many discrepancies can be resolved – it’s vital not to neglect the main point by getting distracted by incidentals. Don’t overlook the forest for the sake of the trees.

As a child, I sang the words to a simple song:

The B-I-B-L-E

yes that’s the book for me!

I stand alone on the Word of God

The B-I-B-L-E.

If the Bible is the firm foundation on which I stand, then logically any apparent discrepancy must be explained. Much is at stake, after all, my very faith. Yet Wesleyans have taken an approach different than that of fundamentalists. We do not believe that the Bible itself is our foundation. Rather, it is Christ who is the firm place we have planted our feet. Scripture points us to him. While the Bible is imperfect, Christ is perfect. He is the One in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9, NIV). He is our place to stand.

Chevalier’s and Tucker’s charming song has something to teach us. Was it raining or fair weather when they met? Did their outing get a late start or did it begin on time? Was it 8 a.m. or 9 a.m.? When all was said and done, the affectionate old couple didn’t care. What counted was that they had met and that they had fallen in love; there was no denying that. As we come to Scripture, their attitude is worth emulating. There are details that Scripture itself remembers differently, but of one central reality we are sure. Here we solidly plant our feet: Christ died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again. Maranatha!

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Image credits

Chevalier and Tucker: YouTube.com

Saul: Markmcmillion.com

What does love DO?

LOVEDOESNote to the reader: I preached this sermon at the Upstate New York District Family Camp, on Sunday, July 3. Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible.

Text: Hebrews 13:1-16

Hebrews is an amazing book! It took a long time for the church to give it her stamp of approval, mainly because we’re not sure who wrote it. But one thing is certain: We sense in it the voice of the Lord.

Chapters 1-10 explain the high priestly ministry of Christ. We see how Jesus made atonement for our sins as God’s perfect sacrifice. Now chapters 11, 12, & 13 make some practical applications to life. In view of the great sacrifice for sin, the towering Cross of Christ, how shall we live?

Hebrews 13:1 sets the tone for the rest of the chapter:

Keep loving each other like family (CEB).

Love is one of the most overworked words in the English language. Still, it is the supporting beam that holds up the whole house of Christianity. Remove that beam, and the whole structure comes crashing down. Jesus in Mark 12 even summarized all the law and the prophets with two Great Commandments:

  1. Love God;
  2. Love others.

John Wesley with his brother, Charles, was the co-founder of the 18th century Methodist movement. If Phineas Bresee was our spiritual father, as Nazarenes, then Wesley was our spiritual grandfather. Here’s what he had to say about love:

How far is love…to be preferred before truth itself without love? We may die without the knowledge of many truths and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But if we die without love, what will knowledge avail? Just as much as it avails the devil and his angels.

A few years ago, Bob Goff wrote a book entitled Love Does. It’s not enough to give an abstract definition of love. We understand what love is when we look at at what love does. Hebrews 13 may be understood as a long answer to a simple question:

What does love DO?

And to that question, I see in vv. 1-16 at least 4 answers:

  1. Love welcomes.
  2. Love remembers the forgotten and the mistreated.
  3. Love lives simply.
  4. Love sacrifices.

LOVE WELCOMES

First, love welcomes. Let’s read v. 2 again: “Don’t neglect to open your home to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.”

When we first arrived in Kenya, one of the first words we learned in Swahili was the word for “welcome” – karibu, or (in the plural) karibuni.  It literally means “come close.” The writer to the Hebrews is saying: Love welcomes. He’s reminding us that the people of God are radically hospitable, that we are a “come close” people.

Verse 2 begins by saying that being a “come close” people includes being in each others’  homes. Back in 1986, Amy and I were in Kansas City while I attended seminary. Sunday night was an important service in the life of our church because we got to know each other more informally. Sue (not her real name) was one of our close friends. I remember when 30 minutes after the service people were still visiting and laughing. The janitor needed to lock up, so Sue announced lightheartedly: “Go home, people! You do have homes?” In fact, we did, and often after Sunday morning church, we invited others over for dinner, or they invited us. Sometimes it was Sunday evening, and we’d play a game or watch a movie together, in our homes.

Have we gotten out of the habit of home fellowship? Verse 2 reminds us: “Don’t neglect to open up your home to guests…” What will that look like as individuals, as churches, as a nation? What opportunities to reach people for Christ is God sending right to our doorstep, people from other countries, moving in right across the street?

I graduated from Eastern Nazarene College in 1985 but walked the neighborhood in Wollaston (Massachusetts) once again last Tuesday. Wollaston Church of the Nazarene does not need to send missionaries to China. God has already sent a bunch of Chinese to Wollaston! The “mission field” has come to us. They own restaurants, real estate agencies, and laundromats. They send their children to the public schools. I wonder: Are we saying to the Chinese in Wollaston or those of other nationalities “Karibuni” – come close – or are we saying “go away”? The first lesson from Hebrews 13 is: LOVE WELCOMES.

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Taking a break

pause-buttonDear “Theology in Overalls” subscribers and readers –

Life is changing!

On August 1, my wife, Amy, and I will head to Nairobi, where we will take up positions at Africa Nazarene University. We’re excited about this new turn in the road and what God has in-store for us.

Meanwhile, I have three major academic publishing projects (with deadlines) that are demanding my attention.

Between now and the end of 2016, I’m placing this blog on ice. In early 2017, I’ll evaluate whether my time commitments will allow me to restart.

Twice per month (on the 15th and 30th), I’ll post up some “best of TIO” columns from my more than 3 years of archival material.

Thank you for having so faithfully read TIO.

Together on the journey,

Greg

Blueberry pie time

Greg_pieSometimes, you just have to take a break from theology. Blueberry pie is as good (and delicious) an excuse as any!

Baking is relaxing and scratches my creativity itch. I used to be totally nervous that I would add a little bit too much of an ingredient and ruin the whole thing. Now, I’m much more go-with-the-flow. It’s tough to mess things up irretrievably.

Maybe there’s a spiritual application there…

We come to God all nervous, thinking we’ve totally messed things up, and God says: “It’s not so bad.” Then he adds the right proportion of ingredients we needed to balance things out. The end result? Delicious.

To my regular readers…

Sorry things have been a bit quiet here at “Theology in Overalls” lately. Amy and I are only one week away from the movers coming, boxing up our belongings and shipping them to Africa Nazarene University in Nairobi. We arrive there in early August to begin our new teaching (Greg) and editing (Amy) assignments. These have been chocked-full days, especially since we also have a region-wide conference for our Nazarene educators sandwiched in-between, plus two months in the U.S. on home assignment (deputation) during June and July…good but hectic times.

On the other hand, I have been writing. Just 2 weeks ago, I sent off a short manuscript to a publisher, and should know within a few weeks whether it will be green-lighted. Topic? Ecclesiology. We’ll see…

Thanks for reading TIO. May Father, Son, and Holy Spirit shower you and yours today with the divine presence.

An address to the graduates of NTC and NTCCA

Greg_grad_NTCI was honored to deliver this address to the graduates of Nazarene Theological College (South Africa) on April 23, 2016 and the graduates of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa (Lilongwe, Malawi) on May 7, 2016.

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WE ARE GATHERED TODAY in this place for a celebration. During these moments together, we pause to thank the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – for his grace upon the lives of these graduates. In one way, today marks an ending, the finish line for a race that these women and men have been running, some for as long as the past 3 years. Graduates, as you cross that finish line this morning, I add my voice to the chorus of voices and say: “Congratulations! Well-done.”

Yet if today is an ending, in another more important way, it is also a beginning, or – to use the traditional word for a graduation ceremony – a commencement. It is the start of the rest of your life as those who seek to be ordained ministers, leading the flock of God in one capacity or another. At such a high and holy moment, what would our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, be pleased for us to consider?

Because this is a graduation address and not a sermon, I will not take a single biblical text and expound it. That is an essential skill for a preacher and one that your teachers have taught you well. But like a preacher often does, allow me to give you a Trinity of ideas, 3 words of advice as you either launch out in ministry or else continue in that path:

1) Defend the flock fiercely;

2) Hold your position lightly;

3) Cling to Jesus tightly. Continue reading

Work with the end in mind

By Petey21 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Petey21 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“WORK WITH THE END IN MIND”

Rev. 2:18-29

I.  INTRODUCTION

Eric, a first year college student, moved into the dormitory. Once he had arranged his things inside his room, he cut a large golden letter “V” out of paper and posted it on his door. Others often would ask what the “V” meant, but Eric never would say. When his friends went out to party, he instead spent long hours in the library. He made friends for sure, but he kept his priorities straight. The four years passed quickly, and graduation day came. The Vice Chancellor of the school introduced him as the valedictorian. Eric came to the podium, then opened up his folder. Carefully, he took out what was inside. With a huge smile on his face, he held it up a large golden “V” as his classmates burst into applause.

Eric is a good example of what Steven Covey, the leadership guru, identified as one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Here it is: WORK WITH THE END IN MIND. And that’s exactly how our passage today is structured. Revelation 2:26-29 is a description of the golden letter “V,” a picture of the conqueror, the overcomer, the victor. God desires a wonderful outcome for each of us and in Jesus’ words to the church in Thyatira we find solid advice on how best to work with the end (or the goal) in mind. Allow me to paraphrase that advice as follows:

  1. Celebrate and keep doing what is working well.
  2. Avoid pitfalls.
  3. Persevere!

II. CELEBRATE AND KEEP DOING WHAT IS WORKING WELL

In Rev. 2:18, the Son of God, Christ himself – whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet like burnished bronze – congratulates the church in Thyatira.

That’s a lesson in and of itself. It seems like if you steal something or shoot somebody, you get mentioned in the news. How often, though, do we as a church celebrate the achievements of our own people? Maybe one of our children won a dance contest. Celebrate it! Or perhaps one of our brothers got a promotion at work. Can we celebrate that? There are dozens of good things, wholesome achievements that fly under the radar. Maybe we don’t know about them, or maybe we do, but do we praise God for what he is allowing us to achieve both as a church and as individuals in the church?

Jesus says in verse 19: “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” Those are high words of praise! Who at the end of their life when the believers gather for the funeral would not want that kind of praise?

“Sister so-and-so was loving and faithful.”

“Brother so-and-so served us well and didn’t quit.”

In the same way, take inventory of your life. What are you doing well? Are you a good provider, showing up at work on-time and giving your best to your employer? Then you need to tell your spouse: “Good job! Keep up the good work.” Maybe your children used to leave their toys lying around the house, to the point where they were a hazard. But now, they’re doing better. Or maybe last term they had a “D” on their report card but this time they raised it to be “B.” That’s worth celebrating. Perhaps someone at school said a very hurtful thing to your daughter, but instead of getting bitter, she prayed and God helped her forgive them. Parents, take a minute to celebrate your daughter’s forgiving heart. It will serve them well throughout life.

It’s important to identify what we’re doing well. Several times, I’ve taught a course on preaching. One student would preach and the others would have a handout where they could write comments. After the sermon, no matter how poor, we would always before suggesting improvements take time to affirm the things the preacher had done right. Perhaps they had lots of zeal when preaching. We affirmed that. Or maybe the volume was plenty high so that everyone could clearly hear what was being said. We affirmed that, too. It was important that we sincerely praised what was worthy of praise.

God looks at you, my brother, my sister, and God sees lots to praise. You are making spiritual progress! Celebrate that in yourself and celebrate that in others.

Celebrate and keep doing what is working well.

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