Changing the world the Wesleyan way

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John Wesley, 1703-91

John Wesley’s message was simple, just like Jesus’. Is ours?

He insisted in his 1746 The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained:

I have again and again, with all the plainness I could, declared what our constant doctrines are; whereby we are distinguished only from Heathens, or nominal Christians; not from any that worship God in spirit and in truth. Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three, — that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third, religion itself (Works, 8:521-22, CCEL digital edition).

Jesus was once asked to sum up all the Law and the Prophets, the heart of the message of what Christians now call the Old Testament. He answered by saying that we should love God and love our neighbor (Mark 12:28-34). These are the two Great Commandments, and they are the very marrow of what it means to be a Christlike disciple.

What does the religion of loving God and others look like, particularly as worked-out socially? In Principles Farther Explained, Wesley continued:

This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men…this religion we long to see established in the world, a religion of love, joy, and peace, having its seat in the heart, but every showing itself by its fruits, continually spring forth, not only in all innocence, (for love worketh no ill to his neighbor), but likewise in every kind of beneficence, spreading virtue and happiness all around it (p. 524).

Continue reading “Changing the world the Wesleyan way”

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Madagascar adventure

Boys from the neighborhood where we stayed

Boys from the neighborhood where we stayed. They proudly display their puppy.

This is an account of Amy’s and my first visit to Madagascar, 18-23 January, 2010. We visited again 30 May – June 3, 2011. Our Nazarenes there are a committed group of people, and the joy of the Lord radiates from their lives. Please pray for Rev Ronald and Rachelle Miller and family, current missionaries in Mada. They replaced Rev David and Lisa Johnson (who now serve on the Africa East Field).

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What do you think of when you hear the word “Madagascar”? Some of us probably think of the movie that came out a few years back, or perhaps the lemur or some other exotic animal. From now on, I’ll think of the Big Island as the place where God is up to Big Things.

My wife, Amy, and I arrived on a Saturday and were greeted at the airport by Dave Johnson and his teenage daughter, Amanda. As we wound through Antananarivo, the capital city with nearly two million residents, the bustling activity was striking. Many barefoot men muscled a “pousse-pousse” (French for “push-push”) laden with bags of rice or other staples. Women set up small tables along the road, wooden stalls filled with colorful fruits and vegetables, suspended plucked chickens or dried fish and beans. Others displayed their wares on the ground, including shoes in all shapes and sizes, brooms or soap.

We went to church on Sunday. More than two hundred gathered under a tent at the children’s center. A group of seven teenage girls made up the worship team, including a boy playing drums and one of the older men on the keyboard. The Lord’s presence was close, and though I expected the many children present to become restless during my sermon, they listened with rapt attention. At the end, two dozen or more came forward as a sign that they wanted to follow Jesus!

On Monday, I began to teach a course on Galatians, part of the pastoral training program through the Institut Théologique Nazaréen. Fifteen students came faithfully, morning and afternoon, as we studied Paul’s letter. I couldn’t have done it without Pastor Richard, who translated my French into Malagasy, the local language. Every day, we memorized another verse from Galatians. Between lectures, students broke into small groups of three or four and talked about how to apply what we were learning to pastoral ministry. In this way, older students became mentors for those who were younger, encouraging them as they took their first steps as shepherds of the flock.

Church History I class

Church History I class

A highlight for me was hearing the testimonies from the students. Many had been born into homes where going to church was only a formality. Only later had they heard the Gospel, that Jesus could change their lives and give them a purpose. Several of the female pastors tearfully recounted how their husbands had beaten them, sometimes just for daring to go to the Nazarene Bible study. Despite this, they prayed for them and some of the husbands had come to Christ. Others spoke of how they had participated in the “turning of the bones” (ancestor worship) but later abandoned this annual ceremony, putting their faith in Christ. This was a step of faith for them, since honoring the dead by digging them up is prevalent in Madagascar.

The day before we left, we visited the street center. Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM International) sponsors this outreach to street children. Many live with parents in ramshackle lean-tos, in tunnels or under bridges. From Monday through Friday, they can come to the center and get a solid breakfast and lunch. There are primary school classes for those who are younger, and older girls can learn sewing or housekeeping. The building was completed with labor from five Work and Witness teams, and includes a basketball court and comfortable living quarters for Pastor Richard and his wife, Theresa, who is the center’s Director. As I toured the building, I thought of three students who had been in my Galatians class. They had come through the center, found the Lord, and felt the call to pastoral ministry. Those stories and many more were only possible because of the incredible work of the center, a work that is even more desperately needed as the economy in Madagascar has been crippled in recent days.

Before I knew it, our time was up. Amy and I said goodbye to our new friends. We left grateful for the many Nazarenes who continue to give sacrificially to the work in Madagascar. Most of all, we’re grateful for the Big Things that God is up to on the Big Island.

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus: An Advent Homily (Luke 2:22-38)

Charles Wesley (1707-88), penned the moving words to "Come, Thou long expected Jesus"

Charles Wesley (1707-88), penned the moving words to “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”

Note to the reader: I preached this homily at the Maraisburg Church of the Nazarene yesterday (15 December 2013) near Johannesburg, South Africa. We celebrated worship on the same morning that the nation buried former President Nelson Mandela, following a week of memorial services and loving remembrances.

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SCRIPTURE READING: Luke 2:25-38 (CEB)

I. INTRODUCTION

Have you ever waited so long for something that you wondered if it would ever come about?

Perhaps some of you are now past the average marriage age, and you wonder if you will ever find “the one.” Or in a tough economy with high unemployment, you’ve been searching for a good job for what seems like forever.

It’s Christmas time, and with Christmas childhood memories flood back. One year, my grandma sent a big box in the mail several weeks before Christmas Day. We opened it up, and inside were many packages carefully wrapped, one for each of us in the family. Dad put the gifts under the tree, and of course my brothers and I did what children do. When our parents weren’t looking, we’d pick up our present, shake it to see what noise it made, anything to help guess what was inside.

It seemed like we waited so long for Christmas Day! Finally, the wait got the best of us. Very early on Christmas morning when Dad and Mom were still asleep, I heard noise coming from the living room. Quietly, I made my way down the staircase, and found my two older brothers shining flashlights around the room! Of course, I opened mine up, too, and joined in the fun. Then, we carefully wrapped them up again and put them under the tree. The next morning, when it came time to open presents, we opened the gift from grandma. “Oh look! A flashlight!” we said, pretending like we hadn’t seen it before. It was hard to wait all the way to Christmas.

II.  ISRAEL’S LONG WAIT: BACKGROUND TO LUKE 2:22-38

Whether it’s waiting for marriage, employment, or just opening up a Christmas present, one thing is sure: Waiting can be tough. That was certainly the case for Israel. There was about a 400 year silence between the close of the Old Testament and the opening of the New Testament. Malachi was the last Jewish prophet upon whom the spirit of prophecy had rested, and he wrote around 350 b.c. In those closing words of the Old Covenant, Malachi 4:5 spoke of Elijah the prophet coming “before the great and terrible day of the LORD” (CEB). Luke clearly considered John the Baptist an Elijah-like figure. In Luke 1:44, we even have the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth, her cousin. Both women were expecting babies, and the yet-to-be-born John leaps for joy when he hears the voice of Mary.

And now after this long silence, the spirit of prophecy is back in full force. The Holy Spirit is speaking again, and this time it’s to an old priest, Simeon, and to an old prophetess, Anna. The Spirit says to them that the long wait is almost over. Look at Luke 2:26:

The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

The term “Christ” comes from the Greek word, Christos. It means the “anointed One.” In Hebrew, the equivalent term is maschiach, the Messiah. Simeon and Anna were about to see the Saviour for whom they had waited so long!

Continue reading “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus: An Advent Homily (Luke 2:22-38)”

Comfort or hardscrabble? Comparative views on evil and suffering

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Young boys in the Muthare slum of Nairobi, Kenya

If you want to chew up a church in America, hire a missionary who has just returned from Africa. When you’ve witnessed abject poverty and the resilient spirit of many who live in it, you may be tempted to ask a well-off U.S. church member complaining about petty things:

Would you like a little cheese with your whine?

As a theology teacher, I often include a section on theodicy in courses I teach pastors here in Africa. Theodicy is the doctrine of evil and suffering, especially attempts to justify God whom we believe – despite all evidence to the contrary – is both Almighty and good. It’s the old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But I’ve noticed across the years that theodicy doesn’t cause the angst in my African adult students that it causes in me. In fact, I’ve yet to come across a book written by an African theologian on that topic, though it’s a perennial favorite among American Christians, including the latest by Pastor Tim Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (2013).

Why is this the case?

Many Americans I know (including myself) are accustomed to comfort, growing angry at God when difficulties unexpectedly arise. In contrast, many Africans I know are accustomed to a hardscrabble life and praise God heartily when they receive unanticipated blessings.

My wife and I went to the Muthare slum in Nairobi for church a few years ago. Eighty of us were packed tightly into a small room with a tin roof and a dirt floor. We sat on wooden benches in their humble church. At the end of the service, they wanted to celebrate Christmas early since the children in their church-run primary school were at the end of their term and would soon scatter. Two women brought out a white 12″x 12″ frosted cake. Before that day, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to cut such a small confection into eighty slices, but they masterfully pulled it off, gingerly wrapping each morsel in a napkin and passing it to the children. The young ones’ eyes lit up in delight at the sugary treat! I thought how as boys my five brothers and I easily devoured a birthday cake twice that size and with a fraction of the gratitude that those Kenyan children showed.

What was the difference? My brothers and I expected comfort as life’s default setting and so took cake for granted. As for Muthare churchgoers, they seemed to expect tough times as the norm and so were elated to find an exception to the rule.

Regarding theodicy, the apostle Peter lived closer to the dominant African view than the dominant American one. In 1 Peter 4:12-13 he writes:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as through something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (TNIV, italics added).

How can I who have received so much so easily fall into a complaining mode? My prayer is that God will help me to see the world with new eyes, as a place where tough times are normal and good times are a serendipity. Then, let me as I am able and directed by God’s prompting, be a channel of God’s good gifts.

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Photo credit: Journey of Hope

African voices

African_voices

African Voices, by Mark and Nancy Pitts (Nazarene Publishing House, 2010)

Mark and Nancy Pitts spent 3 years at Africa Nazarene University in educational administration. During that time, they opened up their home to a variety of Nazarene students and leaders from a swath of the African continent.  African Voices (CDs available here) presents profiles of eight leaders and the impact they are having as they serve Christ.

The Pitts did a good job presenting a variety of stories. Two of the leaders interviewed were women clergy (Jackie Mugane and Agnes Ibanda), a reminder that the Church of the Nazarene without apology believes that God calls both women and men to all roles of ministry in the church, both lay and ordained. Other profiles underscored the sacrifices that those whom God calls are willing to make (with their families’ blessing) in order to equip themselves for service. This came through in the story of Chanshi Chanda, who sold his business and for several months lived in humble conditions, awaiting their move to Malawi to begin ministerial studies.

But in all the stories, the emphasis on changed lives and holiness shone through. Sometimes this included the social impact that holiness should have. Ermias Choliye from Ethiopia observed:

“The message of holiness helps in corruption in the government, and it helps in the community to do away with individualism. Some preach prosperity, some preach tradition…but they don’t live like true Christians. When we bring in this living strategy from the teachings, then they accept, [and] the community now opens the door and gives licenses to the Church. So holiness is the full message that we need in life.”

African Voices does raise a question. One leader interviewed (p. 23) claimed 400,000 Nazarenes in a single field. Can this be accurate when the entire Region is composed of just over a half million?

Yet overall, African Voices effectively helps the reader get a glimpse of the passion for Christ that animates many of our African Nazarene leaders. Readers will be inspired to pray for them individually as they push out the boundaries of the Kingdom.

Is Evangelicalism Platonic and Gnostic?

blakecrIt’s a classic entry from The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, Aged 37 3/4:

Sunday December 22nd

Guest speaker at church today, dressed in a monk’s habit. He said that God is nice and he likes us. Everyone looked at Edwin to see if we agreed. Difficult to tell as he was grinning like a happy little boy. Speaker kept quoting Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who is, of course, a Roman Catholic!

Afterwards, Richard Cook whispered to us, ‘Ah yes, but is she saved?’

Gerald whispered back, ‘Ah yes, but how many filthy beggars have you washed this week, Richard?’

Get the book. Read it all — it’s a hoot, and has kept our family laughing at times we’d rather cry.

Like all good comedians, Plass knows how to have us laughing and thinking at the same time. For lying just under the surface of a farcical scene is an important point: What is the relationship of things spiritual and things bodily? Is our job just to get people “saved” (ready to meet God) or does this whole Christianity business also involve rolling up our sleeves and pitching in?

It’s funny how our view of reality may have an unintended effect upon how we answer that question. It’s an old discussion, one that came up in the earliest centuries of the Church. The term Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” Some claimed that salvation was attained through special knowledge. It was an esoteric system that included a pure God far removed from Creation, with “eons” (or emanations) radiating from Him, and only the “demi-urge” (a far removed from God, intermediate being) indirectly bringing the universe into existence. God was spirit and pure, whereas matter was evil.

Importantly, Gnosticism contained a strong element of escapism. The Catholic Encyclopedia explained:

“This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if only we knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence — this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought.”

Gnosticism was shaped by many religions, so It is debated how much Gnosticsm was influenced by Plato’s thought, but some influence is accepted. Plato had taught that the soul is immortal and would outlive the temporal body. In this sense, priority was placed upon what was eternal (“Ideas” or “Forms”) vs. what was only an earthly shadow.

Whatever the degree of Plato’s influence upon Gnostic belief, Gnosticism has had an influence upon Christian theology and practice. Monasticism grew up in early centuries of the Church, some forms of which treated the body harshly. Others reacted differently to the mix of Platonism and Gnosticism, believing that the soul (being pure) could not be negatively affected by bodily behavior. Hedonism was the result.

Past ideas can echo down to the present. Evangelicalism is the brand of Christianity that became prominent in North America (and to some extent, in the United Kingdom) in the mid twentieth century. Billy Graham was its most notable leader, emphasizing people “making a decision for Christ.” The most important thing in life was to be “born again,” to be “saved.” (Thank the Lord for the many thousands who found hope in Christ through Dr Graham!)

Much broader than Graham himself, in most Evangelical preaching, the emphasis was placed upon heaven as the place where our “never dying soul” would go to be at death, but only if we had “accepted Christ.” Those who presented the Gospel (Good News) in this way were called “soul winners.” In my own denomination, there was the mid-20th century “Crusade for Souls.” Long-time Nazarene Theological Seminary Professor of Evangelism Charles (Chic) Shaver taught a modified form of the “Kennedy Plan,” which begins with the question:

Have you reached the place in your life where you know for sure that if you died tonight you would go to heaven?

Note where the emphasis lies. The concern is for the next life, not this one. Underneath the little word “you” is the dualistic assumption, that the real “you” is the one that leaves when you die. The word “soul” is not explicit, but it’s there nonetheless.

We must ask: For all of its positive fruit, to what degree was this understanding of the Gospel influenced by Plato, or perhaps Gnostic-like ideas? By 1987 when I took “Personal Evangelism,”  some students at NTS had begun questioning Dr Shaver. It was difficult, after all, to be learning about Gnosticism from Dr Paul Bassett in Church History I and not see shades of Gnosticism in the “soul winning” language used down the hall. To his credit, Shaver recognized the problem, but kept the language, explaining that he could “spend the next 50 years on that cause” and be distracted from the task God had given him, which was introducing people to Christ — fair enough. To this day, I appreciate Dr Shaver and the way he made us concerned not just about “souls,” but about people. Still, the “soul” language can be problematic.

A second question relates to the moral ramifications of Gnostic teaching. Earlier, we saw that one possible reaction to the “soul matters more than body” idea was monasticism. Twentieth century Evangelicalism built no monasteries, but I wonder if a monastic spirit isn’t behind some of the more legalistic expressions of the movement? If what matters is eternal souls being one day in heaven with God, then necessarily everything else that is “earthly” pales in comparison, especially if what is earthly is by definition corrupt. And what’s more, if there’s any question whatsoever that such pursuits could keep the soul “missing heaven” (as evangelists used to say), then those things must be eschewed as “worldly.”

Finally, Gnostic pessimism shines through in some versions of the End Times. The Left Behind series of books and films encourages disengagement from the world, presenting a dystopic vision. Only the “rapture” (and later, the Second Coming of Jesus) will bring bliss for those who escape the Great Tribulation and the claws of the Anti-Christ to go to be with Jesus in a better place. This is the default view of most Evangelicals, yet the escapism it shares with Gnosticism is real.

So what do you think? Realizing the overall good that has been done by emphasizing evangelism, have we sometimes been Platonic or even Gnostic in how we speak about our Christian faith?

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Photo credit: Sullivan County

When compassion and purity embrace: Lessons from James 1:27

Cup-Cold-WaterI’ve always liked the New Testament book of James. Yes, James is my first name, so that’s a point in his favor, but it’s more than that. James knows how to marry compassion and purity. Take for instance James 1:27 (NIV):

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: To look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Some emphasize purity, contained in the last phrase of the verse, “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This is an essential part of the Christian ethic and is as old as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Commandments 6-10 are all phrased negatively:

6) “You shall not murder.”

7) “You shall not commit adultery.”

8) “You shall not steal.”

9) “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

10) “You shall not covet…”

Jesus himself ratified the Ten Commandments as still in effect (Matthew 19:16-22). How many of the cases that clog our court system can be traced back to a non-respect of these basic principles of conduct? Eighty percent of divorce lawyers would be out of business if the seventh commandment was obeyed. Likewise, the corruption so rampant in many countries reflects a fundamental disregard of the tenth commandment, where the “little guy” is the victim of extortion, the prey of government bureaucrats determined to fleece the public. As for the sixth commandment, if followed by all, debate over the death penalty would be unnecessary since murders would be no more.

I am part of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. We have  been quite comfortable with the Ten Commandments and other Scriptures that apply to personal morality. As for preaching, the importance of being “saved” and “sanctified” is our stock-in-trade. While this has sometimes morphed into legalism – a piling up of rules not clearly taught in Scripture – more often there has been a positive note of the transformation God the Holy Spirit makes in our lives. That’s an outcome we can celebrate!

Where we have done less well is applying the earlier part of James 1:27, i.e. the looking after orphans and widows in their distress. This phrase symbolizes the positive aspect of holiness, that righteousness is more than what we don’t do; it is what we do. The order of the phrases is important. James calls us to positive action before he calls us to purity. The proverb affirms: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” It’s not enough to outline the things from which the believer should abstain. Rather, when we pour our lives compassionately into others, we may very well be too busy to be distracted by the “sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1a, NIV).

The old debate over whether we should emphasize compassion or purity is a false one. James 1:27 shows that the two go hand-in-glove. May the Lord show us opportunities to put our faith into loving action!

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Photo credit: Truth Endures