Holiness for the MP3 generation: Part 1

What is the central theme of the Bible? For the theological descendants of John Wesley (1703-91), the answer has always been holiness. Yet if the holiness legacy is to continue, each generation must articulate it in contemporary terms. Otherwise, the message risks becoming a dusty relic, like an old 78 record you’d find in your great-grandparents’ attic. You know it holds great music, but if anyone is going to hear it today, you have to translate it into MP3 format.

Diane LeClerc does for holiness theology what has been needed for some time. In Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill, 2010), LeClerc is a bridge between generations. Conversant with the way Wesleyan theologians have articulated our message in times gone by, she updates it for today’s readers. In so doing, she conserves what is best from our 18th, 19th, and 20th century heritage then converts it into a format more likely to communicate effectively in the 21st century.

Discovering Christian Holiness has become the go-to textbook for courses on the doctrine of holiness. It is not hard to understand why. At just over 300 pages, it is expansive enough to over all the major themes yet concise enough to not intimidate the newcomer. The book is divided into four parts:

Part 1 – Biblical Holiness

Part 2 – Holiness History

Part 3 – Holiness Theology for Today

Part 4 – Holy Living for a New Century

In the remainder of this essay, we will look at selected themes from the Introduction and Part 1. Subsequent essays will address the content of Parts 2-4.

Key elements of Wesleyan theology

In the Introduction, Diane LeClerc lays out five “key elements” of Wesleyan theology (see pp. 19-30):

  1. It arises out of the biography of John Wesley;
  2. It is soteriologically founded;
  3. It is thoroughly optimistic;
  4. It is practical;
  5. It is foundational to holiness theology

I especially appreciate the third point, sometimes called the “optimism of grace.” As a parent, I’ve noticed that children in general will live up (or down) to expectations. If we expect kindness  from our son or daughter, most of the time they will be kind, even if from time-to-time they are not. In the same way, if our preaching emphasizes that the Holy Spirit enables us to live above sin, we usually will, even if from time-to-time we stumble (1 John 2:1). LeClerc summarizes it well: “Sin need no longer reign in the heart. An outpouring of love into the heart ‘excludes sin.’ We can live truly holy lives” (p. 27).

While the five points provide a good summary, LeClerc follows conventional wisdom on John Wesley’s ministry in Georgia, calling it a “debacle” (p. 22). However, Geordan Hammond in his John Wesley in America (Oxford, 2014) provides a more postive picture, seeing Georgia as a “laboratory for implementing his views of primitive Christianity” (Preface, vii). It is doubtful whether Hammond’s research was available at the time LeClerc was writing Discovering Christian Holiness. Nonetheless, a second edition would do well to reference Hammond’s work as a balancing voice.

Leclerc
Diane LeClerc, Professor of Historical Theology, Northwest Nazarene University

The hermeneutic of love

How should Wesleyans interpret Scripture, especially the doctrine of holiness? We do so through the lens of love. LeClerc explains:

Other traditions might interpret God’s holiness in light of God’s power or God’s sovereignty or God’s justice. The Wesleyan-Holiness interpreter does not ignore these themes about God. But by interpreting God’s holiness in light of God’s love, he or she may reach different conclusions about God’s character than those reached by others (p. 54).

Having ruled out the possibility of not having an intepretive lens – or, as LeClerc calls it, being “just a Bible Christian” (p. 34) – LeClerc admits that employing love as a Wesleyan hermeneutical lens is “not without its difficulties” (p. 54). Currently, I am singing tenor in a production of Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” One song celebrates that God “smote all the firstborn of Egypt.” Paul – a fellow tenor and fellow believer – whispered to me during one of the pauses: “Why would God do that?” The tradition of a “death angel” sometimes is invoked, but Handel was correct: It was not an intermediary that did God’s bloody bidding; it was God himself who directly acted (Exodus 12:29). For these reasons, I question whether love by itself is sufficient as a hermeneutical lens. In stories like the killing of the firstborn of Egyptians, some other characteristic in God’s nature is in view. One may forgive Calvinists for thinking love is too narrow a hermeneutic even if Wesleyans likewise charge that sovereignty has the same weakness. For this reason, it is useful to maintain the adjective “holy” when describing the essence of God as holy love, as do Wesleyan theologians Ray Dunning and Ken Collins. It is in the phrase “holy love” that the importance of God’s honor comes into view, a key consideration in many non-Western cultures that speaking only of “love” does not seem to encompass.

Holiness as the “presence of the good”

In a section entitled “New Testament Images of Holiness,” LeClerc describes holiness in the New Testament as “holistic.” By this she means that “holiness is not just the absence of sin but also the presence of the good. The holy person, then, acts in love and does not simply avoid the unholy” (p. 64). This insight first came home to me in Ken Abram’s book, Positive Holiness: Enjoy the Freedom of Holiness (1988). In short, holiness is not just what I don’t do; more importantly, it is what I do. Some – such as Old Testament scholar Dwight Swanson – have gone further, underscoring the infectious nature of holiness in the New Testament. Whereas in the Old Testament individuals withdrew in order to avoid having their holiness in some way contaminated, in the New Testament – such as when Jesus heals the leper (Matthew 8:1-4) – the direction is inverted; it is cleanness that “infects” uncleanness. LeClerc’s comment about holiness being the “presence of the good” is in-line with Swanson’s observation, a recognition that any holiness sermon that never gets to the positive side of the ledger is incomplete.

Passages “pushed beyond their limits”

In Chapter 2 – “The Whole Holy Tenor of Scripture” – LeClerc does a masterful job. In the space of just 23 pages, she paints the broad panorama of holiness in both Testaments. However, in the middle of the presentation, she asks: “Are there any passages that have been pushed beyond their limits in attempt to support a specific theology of sanctification?” (p. 63). She subsequently does name a few Scripture portions that have been variously intepreted, such as Romans 6-8 and the Spirit baptism passages in Acts. However, I could find nowhere where LeClerc corrects exaggerated interpretations. It’s possible that she wrote something that was subsequently cut by the editor. In any case, the question ends up unnecessarily raising hopes that are then unfulfilled.

Summing it all up

Preachers who are looking for study material for holiness sermons will find a rich deposit in Part 1 of Discovering Christian Holiness. Diane LeClerc succeeds at both introducing the topic of the book and – by addressing what the Bible has to say about holiness – accentuates that Wesleyan-Holiness doctrine first-and-foremost is based upon Scripture. I look forward to reading the remaining parts of the book and reviewing them for my readers.

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.

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

Love is responsible (Luke 10:25-37)

greg_photo-copyNote: I preached the sermon, “Love is responsible” (Luke 10:25-37), at University Church of the Nazarene on the campus of Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi) on Sunday, February 27, 2017. As a mnemonic, I represented the five points of responsibility by the five fingers on the hand.

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The story

A man was walking from Jerusalem down to Jericho. Suddenly, robbers attacked him. They stripped him naked and left him for dead along the side of the road.

A priest came along. He saw the man, but perhaps was afraid of making himself ceremonially unclean, so he passed by on the other side of the road and hurried on his way.

Not long after, a Levite happened by. He, too, avoided the dying man and scurried down the road on the other side.

Finally, along came a Samaritan. When he saw the beaten and bleeding man, his heart went out to him. He knelt down beside him and gave him first aid; he poured oil and wine on his wounds, then took him in his arms and placed him on his donkey. They traveled to a nearby inn where the Samaritan took care of him like one of his own family. The next morning, he paid the inn keeper two days worth of his own wages. “I have to go now,” he said. “Take this money to care for the man, and when I come back through, if the bill exceeds this amount, let me know. I’ll cover the difference.”

Jesus turned to the crowd who was listening. “Of these three, which one was a neighbor?” The religious leader who’d started the conversation replied: “The man who had mercy on him.” The Lord concluded: “Now you go and do the same.”

The context

Often we hear this story with little reference to its context. But really it’s a love story. After all, in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus was talking about love. What does it mean to love God? And what does it mean to love our neighbor?

The religious leader who prompted Jesus to tell the parable of the good Samaritan asked: “But who is my neighbor?” What did he really want to know? He was asking: For whom am I responsible? We could even say that in this parable, Jesus defines love with a single word: responsibility.  I would go so far as to say that love = responsibility.

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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!

O Susanna!

susanna-wesleyFor readers desiring an in-depth portrait of the “Mother of Methodism,” look no further than John A. Newton’s Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism, 2nd ed. (London: Epworth, 2002). An update of the 1968 original, Newton brings to life the mother of John and Charles Wesley, Methodism’s co-founders. From her days as the daughter (and one of 25 children!) of nonconformist London minister, Dr. Samuel Annesley, to her decision at 13 to leave nonconformity and join the Church of England, to her rocky marriage to Samuel Wesley and difficult life in Epworth, Newton paints a detailed portrait of the triumphs and travails of a remarkable woman.

John Newton adds texture to a well-known story. When Samuel and Susanna split over different views on who was the rightful king of England, Samuel announced: “If we have two kings, we must have two beds” (p. 87). Most other treatments of the Wesleys include this detail, then jump to the reconciliation a year later, after which John Wesley was born. Yet Newton digs deeper, adding another six pages of context. In the end, Samuel ends up looking impetuous for having stormed off to London, a conclusion that seems well-supported by the additional detail he provides surrounding the incident.

Of particular interest is chapter 4, “A Mother in Israel.” Here, Newton opens the doors to the Epworth rectory, bringing us into the daily life of the burgeoning Wesley family. For a woman who had grown up in the relative luxury of Dr. Annesley’s London home, the near penury of the Epworth parish must have been a bitter pill. In a rare moment of candor, when asked by the Archbishop of York whether she and her family had ever lacked bread, she replied (p. 98):

My Lord, I will freely own to your grace that, strictly speaking, I never did want bread. But then, I had so much care to get it before it was eat, and to pay for it after, as has often made it very unpleasant to me. And I think to have bread on such terms is the next degree of wretchedness to having none at all!

There is no question that Susanna’s Wesley life was difficult. Despite the hardships, she successfully raised 7 children into adulthood, out of 19 born to her and her husband. (Infant mortality claimed many lives in 18th century England). Newton’s biography illuminates the character of one with an abiding faith in God, intellectual curiosity, and strong pastoral gifts (though squelched by the prejudices of the day).

If there is a weakness in Newton’s book, it is that it borders on making Susanna Wesley a saint. Unlike recent research on John Wesley that has revealed some of his warts, thus humanizing him, there is no such counterbalancing material in Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism unless one reckons her strong will as pigheadedness. Perhaps new light will one day emerge from the many neglected boxes of archives in the Methodist collection at the John Rylands library in Manchester. A fuller account that includes foibles would do nothing to detract from the respect given to Mrs. Wesley but help give a more realistic (and endearing) accounting.

This consideration aside, I enjoyed Newton’s biography of Susanna Wesley. She was unquestionably a strong woman who contributed to the birth of a movement that changed the world. For those looking for a solid (though imperfect) biography, I recommend it.

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