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

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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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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Running toward evil

Firefighers ascend the World Trade Center on 9-11-01
Firefighers ascend the World Trade Center on 9-11-01

We’re far enough away from the celebration of the 15th annivesary of the destruction of the Twin Towers to reflect on some of its lessons. There is one image that inspires me most: First responders ran toward the evil, not away from it. As people descended the stairs of the World Trade Center, firefighters ascended, not unlike police who run toward the sound of gunfire, not away from it.

This is a useful metaphor of how the church at her best should operate. When we see systemic evil, should we not run toward it, by our presence carrying the light of the Gospel into the darkest of places? Yesterday I listened to a paper presented by a pastor. His topic was corruption in society and how the church can respond in ways to weaken corruption’s grip. In the African nation where this pastor lives, raising his voice too loudly can have consequences, but he has decided it is better to run toward evil with Gospel light than run away and let the darkness deepen.

But it’s not just Africa that needs light. As Americans, have we romaticized rural areas as “God’s country” while avoiding large cities as if they are under the curse? Now as the drug epidemic impacts small villages and towns, it’s only reluctantly that we’ve admitted the problem is not geography but the human heart. If we invite believers to run toward cities it’s not that rural areas don’t count. It’s only that cities have more people whose hearts need the transforming work of God’s grace. Cities set the moral pace for a nation at-large, so it makes sense that we as Christ followers would want to live there, showing another way to live, a better way, a loving way, a Kingdom of God way.

Too often when I’ve known I should run towards evil, like Jonah, I’ve run in the opposite direction. Yet God’s question to the prophet still rings in my ears: “Should I not be concerned”? Let me be like those 9-11 first responders, going in when all the world is going out.

 

 

Church of darkness or church of light?

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Mr Squeers, the evil headmaster at Dotheboys

There are lessons for the church in unsuspecting places. Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is one such place.

The 2002 film version builds around a stark light/darkness dualism. Apart from Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ cold and wealthy but tightfisted uncle, runners-up for the malevolence trophy are Mr and Mrs Squeers, the heartless taskmasters of Dotheboys, a hellish boarding school for males. It is here that 19-year-old Nicholas takes a job as a teacher. Soon, he sees firsthand the wickedness of his superiors, especially in their abuse of their crippled boy servant, Smike.

During this part of the film, lighting is almost entirely in dark shades. Only young Nickleby shines like a lantern, becoming a benevolent savior to the captives of Dotheboys.

When Nicholas flees the wretched school, he takes Smike with him. As they leave the forest, day dawns and with it a splash of color and light. They join a troop of merry actors and eventually end up back in London. There, Nicholas meets the fair Madeline Bray. Though poor, she selflessly cares for her grumpy and abusive father. Her suffering ennobles her; she casts a pure light on all she meets.

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Madeline Bray falls for the noble Nicholas Nickleby.

But in day-to-day human existence, there is more than pure light or unmitigated darkness. There are shades of gray, a mixture of both good and evil even in the lives of individual Christians and in the life of the church. This is implied in Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).

At first reading, it seems Paul is describing their current reality, that they already are “light in the Lord.” The context suggests otherwise. Verses 3-5 give a laundry list of sins they were to avoid, including coarse joking, greed, immorality, and idolatry. That Paul warns against them assumes that all was not well in the church at Ephesus. Likely, dark practices had crept in; sin cast ominous shadows over what would otherwise be the joyful lives of “children of light.”

Good, bad – light, dark. When it comes to the church, have we been both, acting sometimes like Nicholas and Madeline, other times like Ralph Nickleby and the Squeers?

Could it be this strange mixture in the church of good and bad confuses our world and prevents nonbelievers from fully considering the claims of the Gospel?

Let’s try to step into the shoes of a young adult who has no profession of Christian faith but sees how the church (and its members) operate in society. Would such a person tag the church as a “church of light,” righteous, compassionate and coming to the aid of the oppressed, or as a “church of darkness,” self-righteous, concerned mostly for its own needs and silent about the oppression of others?

well

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of light”?

  • digging wells in the developing world – Churches and missionary organizations have dotted the remotest parts of Africa with wells, giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:42). That kind of compassion makes me proud!
  • combating human trafficking – It may be a restavek in Haiti, or a young girl trapped as a sex worker in Bangkok or Dallas. Slavery exists today in various forms. The church is waking up to the problem and swinging into action.
  • recovery groups – The Celebrate Recovery movement continues to grow. Churches across the United States sponsor small accountability groups that allow people to break free from “hurts, hang-ups and habits,” from overeating to pornography addiction. Many churches sponsor divorce care groups, bring healing to those who have suffered a failed marriage. There is new life in Christ!

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of darkness”?

  • spending mostly on herself and her own comfort – Do we really need fancier sound and lighting equipment for worship times that last only 1-2 hours weekly? Does God really want us as a church to go “first class” (like prosperity preachers claim) or could we be having a greater impact if a larger percentage of our tithes/offerings received were funneled outward toward the needs of our local community?
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Ralph Nickleby, self-absorbed speculator
  • silence when others mistreat minority groups  – In Nicholas Nickleby, Smike (who had run away) is recaptured. Mr Squeers ties him up and promises to cane him within an inch of his life. Nicholas looks on in anguish; what will he do? Will he passively allow the beating or will he intervene? In righteous anger, Nicholas shouts: “Stop! This must not go on.” He rushes forward, snatches the cane from Mr Squeers and beats him (but less than he deserved), then unties the hapless Smike. The Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations correctly teach the historic view that God does not condone homosexual practice (Romans 1:18-31, 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Still, can this excuse our passiveness in the face of another caning? While rightly including commonsense provisions about which gender must use which public toilets, a recently minted Mississippi law jumped the rails, striking more broadly at LGBT individuals, permitting rental discrimination by landlords and allowing employers to fire employees solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. We’ve raised our voice against other injustices; why not now? Does not Christ’s love compel us as the church to speak up when any human being is grossly mistreated?

Nicholas Nickleby does well to portray characters who exemplify darkness and light. Where the film is less effective is showing that most people live their lives somewhere between those poles, in the shadow-land. Yet God calls us to holiness, to live according to a consistent, higher standard! Individually as followers of Christ and corporately as the people of God, we are called to forsake all that is dark and to live only as children of light. Where we have sometimes acted as a “church of darkness,” may God accept our repentance, filling us once again with his light, with unconditional love.

Karibuni: Coming close in 2016

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God’s people worship in rural Benin (West Africa)

There’s a wonderful tradition I learned in Nairobi, Kenya. When visiting someone at home, instead of knocking on the door, the visitor calls out in Swahili: “Hodi.” If the host answers “Karibu!” (or to a group, “Karibuni”), then you are welcome to enter. In both singular and plural forms, the greeting means the same the thing: Come close.

God put on flesh; his name was Jesus, “the LORD saves.” We celebrate Advent as a Karibu moment, as the time when God in Christ came close.

It’s difficult to know someone at a distance. A Skype call can keep a relationship going, but it works best as an interlude between in-person encounters. Even in a world drawn closer together by technology, there’s no substitute for incarnation.

The well-known question is appropriate: If God seems far away from you, then who moved? (Hint: It wasn’t God). Following the Advent season – a time when we reflect upon Jesus coming close to us – I sense in return God’s call for me to individually draw closer. It’s God saying to me: Karibu. Yet we live in community and work out our faith corporately. So Jesus also says to us as a group, as the church: Karibuni.

One reason I advocate for frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper is that it dramatizes the divine Karibuni. Communion symbolizes our Lord Jesus with strong arms outstretched in welcome to us. He says:

You are welcome! Come close.

In partaking of the bread and the wine, we experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, the drawing grace of God that woos us away from our sin toward something better, a life of holy love. At the Table, we are transformed, we are one and we are at home.

In Philippians 3:10a, Paul expresses his deepest desire in life: “I want to know Christ…” Only surface knowledge can be gained at a distance. Deeper understanding comes with close proximity. This year, I’m saying to God with all my heart: “Hodi.” I’m sensing his loving response: Karibu! Will you join me and together draw closer to Christ than we ever have before?

Connection: the fourth Nazarene core value

A frequent error message computers generate is: “Connection lost.” When wireless is working well, the world is at our fingertips. On the other hand, when connection to the internet is what my Brit friends call “dodgy,” frustration ensues.

What is true for IT is true for Christian churches. Connectivity counts; it always has. The Apostle Paul lived centuries before the internet, so he used the technology at his disposal. With ink, papyrus and messengers, the missionary from Tarsus kept scattered communities of faith connected, encouraging them, teaching them, mobilizing those who had more to share with those who had less. For the maintenance and advance of God’s Kingdom on earth, connection counts.

The Church of the Nazarene is a recent example of a far-flung community that has historically thrived through connection. During a question and answer session at the March 2015 Africa Regional Conference held in Johannesburg, South Africa, General Superintendent Eugenio Duarte wondered outloud whether – besides being Christian, holiness, and missional – “connection” shouldn’t be added as our fourth core value.

As I type these words, my wife and I are enjoying the company of our older son. He’s been here in Cheonan, South Korea teaching English through a program sponsored by Korea Nazarene University (KNU). It’s a wonderful example of the blessing of Nazarene connection since many of the teachers are graduates of other Nazarene universities. KNU is able to provide a service to its community while offering a chance for Nazarene-connected youth to gain exposure to the broader world. Connectivity still counts.

Yet in churches, connection is no accident. It’s intentional; it takes a lot of hard work to maintain. Local churches that are large and have means could go it alone and provide most of the programs their children and youth could ever need. But as a pastor of a small church in central Missouri, I was glad when the Kansas City District banded together to rent a camp. Our children and teens made friendships with others on the district that they never would have met otherwise. Most importantly, they made decisions for Christ that were life-changing. They grew in their spiritual and world outlook and our intentional commitment to connection was the reason.

If I’m a cheerleader for Nazarene connection, I have personal reasons. It was at a district junior quizzing meet held at the Schenectady church on the Upstate New York District where I first met the girl (Amy Bean) who years later said “yes” to my marriage proposal. At the quiz meet, my father was the photographer , and he had trouble getting us to stand close together for the photo. (Those of my generation will remember “coodies.”). Later at Eastern Nazarene College when Amy and I began dating, my dad joked that now he couldn’t keep us apart!

April 1975 at the Upstate NY District Junior Quiz - Amy and I finished second and first place
April 1975 at the Upstate NY District Junior Quiz – Amy and I finished second and first place

Recently, there’s been a discussion around the question of what divides Nazarenes and whether those divisions will lead us to split. In response, I wrote an essay warning about the dangers of schism. Judging by the number of views – it made my top 5 -as well as “likes” and positive comments on social media, the essay struck a chord with many. Others saw it as a “shushing” of those who who want to have conversations, a call to stick our head in the sand. One way to see an increase in conversation on a topic is to recommend not discussing it for reasons of unity! That seems to be what happened in this case.

I’ve no stomach to wade into discussions on the specific matters that are so divisive. The purpose of this post is merely to remind us all what is at-stake. Connection is a pearl of great value for which I might not be willing to sell everything I have, but I’d be willing to sell a lot (Matthew 13:45-46). And as an American, I realize that we Americans culturally have placed far less value on the interdependence that makes us strong, preferring to elevate the independence that we think makes us happy. Nearly 20 years of living in non-American settings has helped me realize our American blindspot. When talk of a split in the Church of the Nazarene originates in the U.S., it’s worth asking whether it’s the Lord that’s provoking the conversaton or whether the cultural blindspot is in-play.

Christian, holiness, missional – They’re our three core values. Perhaps it’s time to consider adding as our fourth value connection. Let’s not trade away this valuable pearl for a song.