A life update

Dear readers:

You may have noticed that things have been quiet lately here at “Theology in Overalls.” Allow me to explain.

In early August, Amy and I returned from Africa following 23 years of missionary service with the Church of the Nazarene. For various reasons, it was time to move along, and I am now serving as a chaplaincy resident at a hospital in the Austin, Texas area. I’m continuing as on ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene (South Texas District), but in a role that differs significantly from that of a theological educator.

Nearly 1 million strong, Austin is a very diverse and growing city, part of the Austin-San Antonio-Houston “triangle” here in Texas that is drawing so many. Amy and I are urbanites, and enjoy city living and all the amenities it has to offer. On the church front, the Wesleyan understanding of the Gospel has yet to gain a strong foothold here in greater Austin. I believe that God will use our gifting in winsome ways in a location where many have yet to follow Christ or experience the reality of holiness of heart and life.

I’m not sure yet what the change of ministry assignments (from theological educator to chaplain) will mean for “Theology in Overalls.” Because of privacy laws, I will not be able to write about interactions with patients or others at the hospital. In 18 months or so, once I am established in a permanent health care chaplaincy position (the Lord willing), I am likely to have more time to post regularly. Meanwhile, I keep reading widely and will still need a way to process ideas or react to events in church and life, especially here in the U.S. Bear with me; the learning curve for health care chaplaincy is steep, and the emotional energy needed on a daily basis is high. Thank you for your prayers for us during this daunting but promising time.

Together,

Greg

Austin, Texas (USA)

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On restitution and tipping

US_Silvercert1By any standard, John the Baptist was odd.

Matthew 3:4 portrays a wilderness dweller clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. His food? Locusts and wild honey.

Most detect the explicit part of his message. We must repent, turning away from our sins. He warned the crowds who traveled out to gawk at this Elijah-like prophet:

Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven! (Matt. 3:3, CEB)

Yet there’s an often overlooked element to his fiery preaching. Repentance alone is insufficient. Once we have repented, there is a second step: “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives” (3:8, CEB; italics added).

John the Baptist’s two-step sermon that day squares with a word from the prophet Ezekiel centuries earlier. God called Ezekiel a “lookout” to warn Israel about a “sword” that the LORD was about to bring against them — see Ezekiel 33:1-16. God had pronounced a “death sentence” upon them since they were a “wicked people” (v. 8). Yet this sentence was not inevitable. How could it be averted?

And even if I have pronounced a death sentence on the wicked, if they turn from sin and do what is just and right – if they return pledges, make restitution for robbery, and walk in life-giving regulations in order not to sin – they will live and not die (Ezek. 33:14-15, CEB).

Repentance alone was not sufficient. Israel was required to produce evidence of  repentance by paying back what they had stolen. The vital second step was restitution.

The online Oxford English Dictionary gives three definitions for “restitution”:

  1. The restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner;
  2. Recompense for injury or loss;
  3. The restoration of something to its original state.

Continue reading “On restitution and tipping”

Of a forgotten time

out of africaKaren Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) published Out of Africa in 1937. In this classic memoir, she reflects upon her time as a small-time coffee farmer and expatriate living west of Nairobi, Kenya. Many know of Blixen thanks to the 1985 movie, “Out of Africa,” starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, which is based upon Blixen’s account.

As one who lives and works only a few kilometers away from the community now called “Karen” (the upscale Nairobi suburb bearing Blixen’s name), some of the places she describes are places I’ve been. Her old tractor and the mammoth rusted coffee dryer sit adjacent to her old farmhouse, now a museum open to tourists. The Ngong Hills that she praises poetically also greet me each morning a century later, unchanged in their glory, though now hemmed-in by dwellings and businesses spilling over from Nairobi.

The reader is soon aware that Blixen’s workers and the squatters on her farm became for her like the children she never birthed, and she the matriarch. Her love for them is evident, though there is always a measure of condescension. Nowhere does she describe a “Native” (now an unacceptable descriptor) as an equal. Perhaps this stems in-part from her own high birth as a Danish baroness? A Kenyan reading the book today may take offense at some of the sweeping character generalizations she makes about Kikuyus, the Maasai, and others. The colonialist worldview tolerated in the early 20th century – which shows up in Blixen’s occasional use of the term “savage” and talk about “two races” (white and black) – sounds a false note in a book whose words-pictures otherwise let the account soar to orchestral levels.

 

K Blixen home

Karen Blixen home

 

Despite these shortcomings, Out of Africa, when considered as a snapshot-in-time, provides a fascinating portrayal of an era that is no more. Visitors to the museum should first read the book. This will provide context to better appreciate the compelling story of an intrepid European woman who – thanks to a 17 year sojourn – came to fondly view Kenya and its hospitable people as her second home.

 

 

Holiness and Healing: A critical book review

bohi mccorkleHow big is the “Big Tent” in the Church of the Nazarene? Evangelist Dan Bohi and Pastor Rob McCorkle have written a fascinating book that may provoke readers to ask this question with greater urgency.

Holiness and Healing (Groveport, Ohio: FSM Publishing, 2016, Kindle edition) was born out of the authors’ concern that we Nazarenes at some point dropped power from our sanctification message, focusing only upon purity. Corey Jones (who wrote the introduction) alludes to Bohi’s illustration of the Holy Spirit as a dove that can only fly if it flaps both wings simultaneously, the wing of power and the wing of purity:

The Holy Spirit’s work should result in both purity and power, in spiritual gifts and the fruit of the Spirit, and in holiness and miracles in and through the lives of believers (Kindle location 126).

This two-winged dove metaphor undergirds the rest of the book, a wide-ranging discussion of multiple topics including (among others) revival, the Five-fold ministry outlined in Ephesians 4:11-13, miracle stories, impartation, and a theology of healing.

The book gets some things right. Rob McCorkle zeroes in on the meaning of salvation. He correctly notes that the Greek word, soteria, has been too narrowly understood in the past as applying only to spiritual things. It is more than preparing individuals for heaven. Rather, “it includes deliverance, healing, and restoration” (Kindle location 816). In short, God wants to redeem all that has gone wrong, to destroy the devil’s work and all of the effects of sin upon creation (1 John 3:8). Clearly, the Church of the Nazarene affirms divine healing, as stated in our 14th Article of Faith. (See my support of this doctrine in a paper written a few years ago with the late Field Strategy Coordinator, Rev Mashangu Maluleka, of South Africa).

Bohi and McCorkle also repeatedly mention the malaise that affects the Church of the Nazarene, particularly in North America, which is their field of ministry. While there are bright spots, the decline in membership and the pace of the closing of churches (relative to new church starts) does not augur well for our future. As a missionary who has itinerated every couple of years in the U.S. on home assignment, I, too, have noted the graying of our American churches and the generally dispirited attitude in many congregations. The authors and I are of one mind in diagnosing the problem. Their proposed remedy is concerted corporate prayer coupled with a revivalism characterized by the manifestation of all nine of the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11. (See Kindle location 160).

Their willingness to admit the problem and propose a solution is admirable. Nonetheless, there are difficulties with their approach, in light of Scripture. After examining those, let us consider an alternative to revivalism from the book of Acts, one that is also more in keeping with our Nazarene DNA as descendants of John and Charles Wesley and the Methodist movement of 18th century Great Britain.

A faulty understanding of “apostle”?

Chapter 6 is entitled “An Apostolic Culture: A Biblical Model for Ministry.” Holiness and Healing espouses a re-organization of the church based on Ephesians 4:11-13. On Bohi’s and McCorkle’s reading, the Church of the Nazarene only practices three of the five roles mentioned by Paul (evangelist, pastor, and teacher). What is missing are the roles of apostles and prophets. According to the authors, the former “governs” while the latter “guides” through prophetic words (locations 1697, 1703). This appears to be close to the teachings of Alan Hirsch, an adjunct instructor at Asbury Theological Seminary and a prolific writer in the area of apostolic renewal and missional movements.

One of the postive features of the polity of the Church of the Nazarene is the checks-and-balances in-place that make for accountability. (Note: Dan Bohi is now a disrict licensed minister in the Church of the Nazarene, as announced near the beginning of this video). Rob McCorkle calls Bohi an “apostle” (location 1850). It’s not clear in Holiness and Healing how an apostle as defined by the authors would fit into our polity. (The authors recognize this problem as well). Specfically, how would “governors” be accountable? The concept seems to invest too much authority in the hands of a single individual, opening a door to the likely abuse of ecclesiastical power.

Continue reading “Holiness and Healing: A critical book review”

A more excellent way: An open letter to my fellow clergy

clerical collar.jpgI opened my e-mail today and found a message from my state Board of Elections. In less than 2 months, Americans will go to the polls and cast their vote for many elected offices. These range from local Sheriffs, city council members, state representatives, governors, judges, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

Politics has always fascinated me, since the day in 1974 that the honorable Rep. Barber Conable came to my 6th grade class in Spencerport, NY. Later, his opponent visited as well. At the end, we had an unofficial in-class vote, and Rep. Conable was handily re-elected. To this day, I’m not sure how my social studies teacher managed to get such a high-powered duo to come visit, but it left a deep impression on me:

I learned that voting was something every good citizen should do.

But as much as I appreciate the importance of taking part in the democratic process, with time, its many flaws have left me hungry for a better way. Maybe it’s because Jesus taught his followers to pray:

Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10, NIV).

With each attack ad, with each half-truth or outright lie uttered by candidates, all in a bid to gain or keep power, I become more anxious for the day when King Jesus will return and take his throne (Rev. 19:4). He is the one who is “true and just” (Rev. 19:2). We can count on him to lead us with integrity and love.

But meanwhile we live here on this earth. How shall we as members of the clergy carry ourselves in the run-up to elections? Here are two suggestions:

  1. Maintain political neutrality. There’s an increasing tendency among my fellow members of the clergy to speak out for candidates of one party or another. In so doing, the danger is that we will be seen as operatives of the GOP or the Democratic Party instead of (like Paul), an ambassador of the Gospel (Ephesians 6:20). This unwise taking sides shows up in various ways. It may be allowing for the distribution in church of a “voters’ guide” which is really no more than a thinly-veiled means of pushing one party’s candidates. Or perhaps we used to pray regularly during worship for the nation’s highest official. But now? We never pray for the new leader. People notice the subtle signals that we as their spiritual leaders send.
  2. Use social media wisely. Today, the “pulpit” is no longer limited to the piece of furniture that sits at the front of the sanctuary. Choosing to bash politicians online lowers us to the level of partisan hacks. Instead of using our social media megaphone to encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess. 5:11), we loudly condemn the latest comments from high elected officials. The danger is that by routinely criticizing every remark, we become nothing more than background noise, easily tuned out. When the key moment comes when I as a messenger of the Lord must speak a prophetic word, I no longer have the ear of my listeners because I’ve foolishly forfeited it long ago. If a sermon is carefully prepared and prayed over, why should it be any less for a Facebook status or a Tweet? Whether during an election season or other times, ask yourself:

Will this comment attract people to Christ or drive them away?

Jesus opens his arms and invites us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NIV). His invitation is non-partisan. It is extended to one-and-all, regardless of political persuasion. As preachers, when we maintain political neutrality and use social media wisely, we commend all comers to the only One who can unite us, our Christ who breaks down walls (Ephesians 2:14). In troubled times, is that not a more excellent way?

______________

Image credit: Test Everything Blog 

Hezekiah’s prayer (2 Kings 19:14-19)

017-hezekiah-assyrians.jpg

Note to the reader

I preached this sermon on Sunday morning September 9, 2018 at the University Church of the Nazarene on the campus of Africa Nazarene Univerity (Ongata-Rongai, Kenya). It was part of the “prayer” theme announced for the month of September.

Hezekiah has always amazed me. He is that rare king in Israel’s history who pleased the LORD and walked with integrity. May we be like Hezekiah.

________________________________________________________________________

“Hezekiah’s Prayer” (2 Kings 19:14-19, NIV)

“Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD: ‘LORD, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, LORD, and hear: open your eyes, LORD, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God.

It is true, LORD, that the Assyrians have laid waste these nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. Now, LORD our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, LORD, are God.”

INTRODUCTION

His name was Dominick. He was big; I was small. He was tough; I wasn’t so tough. He stood in my way on the road, grabbed the handlebars of my bike, and sneered:

Where do you think you’re going, punk?

My little boy’s heart beat fast with fear. What do you say to someone so scary, someone much taller and stronger than you? Then I had an inspiration. “Dominick, you may be bigger than I am, but my brother is bigger than you are!” Reluctantly, he let me go.

There have alway been bullies like Dominick in our world. They strut on the world stage and throw their weight around. King Sennacherib of Assyria was one of them. He stood in the way of little nations and threatened to beat them up. 1 Kings 19:12 lists some of the nations that had crumbled before the Assyrian armies – Gozan, Harran, Rezeph, Hamath, Arpad, Lair, Sepharvaim, Hennah, and Ivvah. Like a row of dominos, one-by-one, they capitulated.

THE THREAT TO JUDAH

King Hezekiah took the threat very seriously. 2 Chronicles 32:1-5 gives a parallel account. They heard the news that the Assyrian army was coming from Lachish, so they took action. The King ordered that the water outside the city be cut off. If Sennacherib’s thirsty army was determined to lay siege to Jerusalem, then why give them something to drink when they arrived? Next, he ordered the city’s walls to be reinforced, and he added watch towers to be constructed on the walls. Finally, they made large numbers of weapons and shields.

Brothers and sisters, hear me: When faced with the enemy’s threats, don’t remain idle. You may not be able to do everything, but you can do something. 

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Continue reading “Hezekiah’s prayer (2 Kings 19:14-19)”

Profits, but at what price?

 

Missiles_(23388791110)

Armies commonly use missiles and guides bombs as supposedly precision instruments, but targeting can go badly wrong.

CNN reports that the guided bomb that killed 40 schoolboys on a school bus in Yemen on August 9 was manufactured by Lockheed Martin, a U.S. Defense contractor. In the same article, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis noted that the targeting was done by Saudi Arabia, not by the U.S. Apparently, that excuses us as Americans from any responsbility in this tragedy…or does it? This appears to be nothing more than a “guns don’t kill people, people do” NRA-type argument, just applied this time to another nation.

 

I’m not a big fan of firearms, but last summer, I tried out several borrowed guns at a firing range. When I later priced a.380 Smith and Wesson, I was suprised to see that it cost nearly $ 400.00 USD. (That’s more than twice the annual income for a family in Malawi). The gun itself is of a durable plastic but the mechanisms aren’t particularly complex. I can’t imagine that it would cost Smith & Wesson anywhere close to that to manufacture, so there’s likely a big profit with every sale.

Walter Rauschenbush observed: “When fed with money, sin grows wings and claws.” If there’s hefty profit in a single handgun, imagine the profit in a guided bomb like the one that annihiliated the hapless schoolboys in Yemen.

At the end of my work day, I want to know that my labor helped make the world a better place, even if in the smallest of ways. Everyone has to live with their own conscience, but if I were an employee of Lockheed Martin and woke up to gruesome images like those from Yemen, I’d find another job.


 

Image credit: By Thomas Quine (Missiles) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons