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.

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!

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?

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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Africa and the re-enchantment of the West

By Douglas Baulch (Douglas Baulch) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Merlin the magician
Vampires, wizards, witches, zombies – enchantment pervades the NetFlix movies we stream, the television programs we watch, and the books that sell by the millions. Science may be taught in our classrooms – the “Star Trek” franchise still has a following, after all – but it’s the paranormal and the supernatural that are all the rage. In North America and Europe at the close of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, we’re seeing what may be termed the re-enchantment of the West.

As a missionary serving in Africa, I find this phenomenon fascinating since Africa arguably has never been de-enchanted, nearly a century of colonial rule and decades of post-colonial Western influence notwithstanding. Teaching a class of pastors in Benin some years ago, one told the story of seeing a mob with sticks chasing a stray dog. They beat it while the animal tried to escape. Finally, the bleeding dog fell to the ground under the pummeling of the crowd, then before their eyes changed into a young man, complete with bleeding wounds on his body. The pastor wanted to know: What does Christian theology have to say about that?

Recently I ordered a textbook for a theology course at the unversity where I teach. The book was published recently in the West, by Western scholars. Though the book has much to commend it, my Kenyan students will look in vain to find any framework by which to respond to the question the West African pastor asked me, yet Benin and Kenya are close in outlook. In January 2016, a story was reported in multiple news outlets that breathes the same enchanted worldview. Purportedly, a Kenyan man had his motorcycle stolen. To find out who had taken it, and to get it back, he went to the witchdoctor, who allegedly sent a swarm of bees. The bees split into two groups, one enveloping the missing motorcycle, the other attacking the supposed thief. As reported in one French language edition of the story, people sent for the witchdoctor, who then made the bees leave. One Kenyan official gave an alternative explanation, reporting that a queen bee had become lodged in the handlebars, which explains the swarming of the rest of the hive. It was one event but explained through two very different pairs of spectacles.

The re-enchantment of the West and the ongoing enchantment of sub-Saharan Africa raise several questions in my mind:

  1. What place does science education have in curriculum of public and private schools? Is its purpose de-enchantment?
  2. Does an acknowledgment of cause/effect in the universe as explained by science necessarily exclude supplementary explanations of other agents such as witchdoctors, or – to use the Western paradigm – witches, warlocks, or wizards?
  3. Must Christian theology in a postmodern world rediscover categories that appear in older systematic theologies, including the discussion of angels and demons? Are there any other voids in our teaching that encourage African Christians to seek explanations – and sometime, solutions to their everyday problems, like stolen bikes – in sub-Christian ways, by means other than addressing their needs to God in prayer?
  4. Western views of magic as portrayed in fiction suggest both benevolent and malevolent forms, so-called “good witches” or “good wizards.” Can we mentally compartmentalize this as harmless fantasy – merely the entertaining product of a healthy imagination – or are we unwittingly encouraging dabbling with very real malevolent forces, to our own spiritual harm?
  5. How do we adress issues around magic while avoiding sowing fear, keeping our eyes firmly on the truth that Christ has vanquished evil in all of its forms? In desiring to be relevant, is it possible that we’ll end up making the devil and his minions larger and more powerful than they are? We must not inflate the power of the demonic by giving it undue attention, detracting from the surpassing greatness and power of the Triune God, a God who is never far away but present and active in our world.

These are areas that are ripe for theologizing based upon solid exegesis of biblical material. Having been trained in a Western setting, I did not have eyes to see Scripture in-light of the kind of question that the Beninese pastor asked me. After twenty years in Africa, I’m more sensitive to such questions. However, they are better dealt with by local African theologians who can marry scientific explanations (where applicable) to the more supernaturalistic worldview that they know so well and that is apparent in Scripture.

In light of the re-enchantment of the West, we are witnessing a golden opportunity for Western and African Christian theologians to put their heads together to provide biblical answers to practical questions but from a holistic worldview. Let us not be satisfied to let vacuums in our thinking persist. Answers that honor God are there if we are willing to seek them. We owe the church and our world nothing less.


Photo credit: By Douglas Baulch (Douglas Baulch) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The high-wire of sound doctrine

high-wireFalse doctrine can have a ring of truth to it. That’s what makes it attractive. But there’s a catch: Wrong teaching results when a single truth is isolated from other balancing truths.

Two examples come to mind. The first is from Psalm 46:10a (NIV): “Be still and know that I am God.” In our frenetic world, many of us need to rediscover the practice of quietness. Catherine Marshall spoke of the “prayer of relinquishment.” We must come to a place of stillness where we acknowledge that God is God and we are not.

Yet for the person who has trouble gearing down and waiting on the Lord, there is a polar opposite. This is the individual who is passive almost to the point of fatalism. Their motto is que sera, sera – whatever will be, will be. Such a person doesn’t need Psalm 46:10; instead, give them a dose of James 2:17. Tell them that faith without works is dead. Remind them to put feet to their prayers.

A second example has to do with how we describe God’s character. I’m reading through A More Christlike God by Bradley Jersak. It’s representative of 21st century North American writers who emphasize the love and grace of God, and what amazing attributes of our Triune God these are! For those who have lingered in oppresssive, legalistic settings in the church, a book like Jersak’s is salve for a bruised spirit, just what the doctor  ordered.

But love and grace are not all Scripture has to say about God. Have we so emphasized these two truths that we risk losing sight of counterbalancing truths apparent in the life of Christ and the New Testament as a whole? Jesus was willing to make a whip and drive moneychangers from the Temple, an event so pivotal to the narrative that it is recorded in all four Gospels (John 2:13-17, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-47, Matthew 21:12-13). And the writer to the Hebrews thunders that our God is a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, NIV). The same Bible that affirms God’s love affirms God’s wrath. If we are unable or – worse yet – unwilling to hold these twin truths together, then we’ll merely repeat the mistake of the Israelites who got bored at the foot of Mt. Sinai, forging our own golden calf, reshaping God into how we imagine the LORD should be instead of bowing before who God actually is. God ends up as the stereotypical doting and permissive grandpa, the substitute teacher who kids at first think is fun but ultimately whose clueless classroom management cannot earn their respect.

Sound doctrine is a balancing act. Scripture is nuanced and we can’t afford to lean too far in one direction or another, or we may tumble off the high wire. Let’s avoid falsehood by continuing to balance truth with truth.

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Image credit: Music Teacher’s Helper