Posted in book reviews, reflections

Scott Daniels on exile and the stories we live by

scott-daniels
Scott Daniels

How are Christ followers to live when society seems increasingly hostile to the church? T. Scott Daniels in Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World (Beacon Hill, 2017, Kindle edition) takes up this question, mining the biblical metaphor of “exile” for insights that can serve the People of God at a moment when – in the United States – our cultural influence is waning.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Christian clergy were paid deference, and the church was closer to the center of civic life. For Daniels, the word “exile” – evoking the 70 years that the Jewish people were in captivity in Babylon following the fall of Jerusalem in 586 A.D. – is appropriate to describe the sense of disorientation Christians feel in 2020 America. Daniels observes: “People who live in exile feel displaced. They feel like resident aliens. They feel like a people who have to live counterculturally” (location 56).

One of the key fears of Christian parents – according to Daniels – is that they will lose their children to the surrounding culture. To pre-empt this outcome, he emphasizes that we must formulate a story and the practices to sustain that story (location 111).

Daniels cites the 19th century German philosopher Nietzsche who famously concluded that “God is dead.” If this is true, then meaning must be made by each individual. But is this enough? Daniels thinks not:

Without God there is no more certainty or hope about the future. When the only meaning life has is the meaning an individual creates, it ceases to have any real or lasting significance. When the story that gave people meaning and purpose – the story of God – is gone, all that remains is a kind of hopeless despair (location 605).

In subsequent sections, Daniels outlines what alternative stories people live by. These include the “success” story, the “nation” story, the “humanist” story, or a fragmented story that weaves together elements of each (See Chapter 3, “This is My Story.”) Daniels summarizes well the non-God stories that thrive.

embracing exile

Overall, Daniels has written a helpful book that resonates with our cultural moment. Each chapter includes engaging discussion questions that let readers expand on the ideas presented. But where Embracing Exile comes up short is its failure to examine what version of the God story large segments of the American church have been communicating in recent decades. Is it possible that the messages we’ve been communicating have been more reactionary than Spirit-led? As the broader culture changes rapidly, has our response come from a place of fear rather than a heart of love?

In the church where I grew up in the 1970s, we often sang the hymn “I love to tell the story.” The lyrics by Ian Eskelin have stayed with me:

I love to tell the story,

‘Twill be my theme in glory.

To tell the old, old story

Of Jesus and his love.

Love is at the center of the Gospel message (Romans 5:8, John 3:16), but is love what we’re still all about?

A store in a mall became concerned about the number of teenagers who were loitering. Some suggested they were shoplifting or keeping older shoppers from entering. The manager did some research and learned that the highest frequencies can only be heard by those younger than 18.  So he installed a machine that would broadcast painful high frequencies near the store entrance. When younger teens came close, their ears hurt, so they hurried away. On the other hand, those 18 or older kept coming in. Their ears weren’t hurt; they couldn’t hear the painful high tones.

At the center of the Good News is love, but is love what we’re now broadcasting? Is it possible that what used to be a story of love with an attractive melody has mutated into a discordant and shrill refrain? Has what we believe to be Good News instead become Bad News in their ears, driving them away?

It’s possible that many youth turn to other meaning-making stories – what Daniels calls “metanarratives” (location 501) – not because they have rejected the historic, winsome Jesus story of loving God and loving others (Mark 12:30-31) but because that’s not what we’re broadcasting anymore.

Here are three areas where our story – rather than attracting youth – may have repulsed them:

  1. Caring for the Earth – A strong stewardship ethic is apparent in Genesis and the Psalms, yet how often have we heard Christians mocking “tree huggers” or ridiculing those who advocate for phasing out the energy sources driving climate change? How might Lisa, an 11-year-old girl forced to flee with her family from a forest fire engulfing their Colorado home, respond if she overheard such comments?
  2. Gun violence –  Tonya, a 13-year-old girl near Pittsburgh, practices an active shooter drill with her classmates at middle school. After school, she steps off the bus and spots her churchgoing neighbor’s political yard sign touting “God, guns, and country.” If you were Tonya, what reaction might this produce?
  3. Two moms – In Chicago, Antonio, a 15-year-old boy long passed-over in the foster system, is finally adopted by a lesbian couple. At home one night, taking a break from his homework, he picks up his phone and begins scrolling through social media. He clicks on a viral YouTube video of a preacher who insists that “homosexuals are going to hell.” How would you feel if you were Antonio?

Note: Each of these scenarios ends with a question mark because I’m raising questions, not drawing definitive conclusions. Here’s another question: Rather than “Blessing Babylon” – as Daniels titles Chapter 5 – have we (with every good intention) unwittingly been “Cursing Babylon”?

The “exile” metaphor (while certainly present in Scripture) presupposes that a hostile culture has in some way marginalized a faithful church. (The Babylonians forcibly marched the Jewish mobility into exile, after all). This metaphor seems to imply that the church is the “good guys” and everyone else the “bad guys.” Yet as Wesleyans, we believe that God’s prevenient grace is active in every corner of God’s creation (John 1:9; Romans 2:14-15).

An emphasis upon “exile”- while well-intended for all the reasons Daniels outlines – may foster a back-door self-righteousness, a “batten down the hatches” approach that sequesters itself at just the moment when a world drowning in hate needs the engagement of a church turbo-charged by love. We are a missional people. Does talk of “exile” fuel that mission or impede it?

This short essay passes over other themes that Scott Daniels covers, themes that deserve their own consideration. Daniels, to his credit, gently invites us to think together about how we engage the world in faithful ways, without being “squeezed into the world’s mold” (Romans 12:2, Philips). We should thank Pastor Daniels for a well-written and thought-provoking book.

Posted in sermons & addresses

Reboot! (A sermon on Colossians 3:1-11)

View sermon online (beginning at 40:40) –  https://www.facebook.com/149735601721319/videos/295600038414974

My younger brother, Chad, worked in tech support. Sometimes I’ll call him when my computer gets cranky. If my computer were a car, then he’s like the mechanic or technician who knows his way around under the hood and gets his hands greasy. But Chad would admit that often the best solution to a computer problem is simple: Reboot!

A one-word summary to Paul’s message in Colossians 3:1-11 is exactly that: Reboot. Paul details the glitches, the things that are going wrong, then he offers the fix, the divine reboot that makes all the difference.

First, let’s set the stage.

At the end of Colossians 2, beginning in v. 13, Paul had already written of the futility of a rules-based religion. Bodily discipline and pious self-denial only treat the symptoms and not the disease. He concludes in v. 23 – “They provide no help  in conquering a person’s evil desires.”

Now in chapter 3, Paul – who himself had been the most zealous of rule keepers as a Pharisee – shows us a different way, a life focused not on the keeping of rules but on the new life that only Christ can give. And so he begins in v. 1 –

“Since you have been raised to new life in Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand.”

Note the passive voice. He doesn’t say “since you have raised yourself to a new life in Christ.” Rather, “since you have been raised…” Only God can do the job! Christianity is not a self-improvement program. We are forgiven and transformed not by what we do, but by what God in Christ has done and is doing in our lives. The word for this is grace.

Because of God’s grace, his power at work in Christ and therefore working inside of us, we are able to do what Paul says next: “Set your sights on the realities of heaven.”

Steven Covey wrote Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the habits is this: “Work with the end in mind.”

Set your sights – Paul says – on the realities of heaven, our end, our goal, our objective.

My work as a hospital chaplain has brought into sharp relief what Paul is talking about. In pre-COVID times, I’ve stood with families by bedsides when they said their goodbyes to a beloved and godly grandmother about to meet Jesus. I sat with two twenty-something sons as they accompanied their dad to death’s door, tearfully telling him all that he had meant to them. He was a churchgoing and loving father who obviously had raised his sons well. The comfort that faith brings in those moments has no price-tag.

Work with the end in mind. Set your sights on the realities of heaven. In verse 3, he reminds us that our “life is hidden with Christ in God,” then in verse 4 affirms that when Christ returns, we also will share in his glory. What a promise!

So the stage is set. Paul turns our eyes toward the risen, exalted Christ who is seated in power at God’s right hand. He encourages us to focus on the prize before us. Continue reading “Reboot! (A sermon on Colossians 3:1-11)”

Posted in Christlike justice, missions & evangelism, reflections

Holiness in the age of George Floyd

Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City, 7/13/2020 

How do holiness and promoting justice in society relate? In a Facebook post on July 25, 2020, longtime Nazarene Pastor Michael Hull observed:


My heart is breaking with concern as I watch many of my beloved denominational leaders rushing to ‘take a knee’ before the cultural idol of ‘social justice’ rather than leading us to the true answer for the hour: a clarion call to Christian holiness.

His alternative solution? “The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the promise of Christian holiness IS the answer! It’s revival we need.”

There’s much to consider in what Pastor Hull has written, and I hope you’ll read the entire statement on his FaceBook page, as linked above. There’s no question that sin in the human heart is a sickness that needs the cure that only Jesus can provide. By “revival,” Hull and those of us in the holiness tradition recognize that God wants to change our hearts. We individually need forgiveness of sins and the heart cleansing that the blood of Jesus provides (1 John 1:7-9). For this end we constantly pray.

But as a 3rd generation Nazarene who grew up in a revivalistic tradition, I wonder whether this individualistic lens is sufficient in our current cultural moment. “Just get people saved and sanctified and everything will be fine” is the sentiment I hear periodically. Usually it is voiced at a moment of societal reckoning like we’re witnessing following the brutal killing of George Floyd, a Black man arrested and murdered at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25.

I’ve been processing in my heart and mind what we all saw in that video. In this essay, I want to talk about it on two levels, namely, emotionally and theologically.

First, what can we say emotionally?

I’ve tried over the last 60 days to hear the voices of Black, Brown, and Asian Americans as they open up about their daily experience of living in the United States. (In this pandemic, that has mostly been through watching short testimonial videos and reading stories online). What I’ve heard is a heart’s cry from people who in a hundred ways, large and small, sense that they have been disrespected, wronged, and marginalized because of their skin color. Hull criticizes some of our Nazarene denominational leaders for “taking a knee before the cultural idol of social justice.” I respectfully disagree. What I see our denominational leaders doing is what hundreds of thousands across our land have been doing. We’ve stopped, we’ve sat down, and we’ve attempted to listen to the hurt. (If you haven’t watched the movie, “Just Mercy,” I highly recommend it as a good discussion starter). Out of those conversations have come stories of individuals of color who have been hurt by society in general and (sometimes) by churches. Only when we acknowledge that and ask for forgiveness can we experience God’s healing together.

Some years ago, General Superintendent Jerry Porter and other denominational leaders met with a group of Black Nazarene pastors. At the end, he knelt in front of one of the lead pastors and on behalf of the Church of the Nazarene asked for their forgiveness for our silence and (sometimes) complicity around racism. That moment seared itself into my memory, as I read about it in Holiness Today. I remember thinking that this is the essence of entire sanctification, of God’s Holy Spirit moving the church as a whole to a place of repentance. These kinds of gestures can be the first rain drops of a mighty divine downpour among us! And as we see similar gestures unfolding in our society – powerful signs of God’s prevenient grace at work – can we dare believe that the God who has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21) is up to something new?

In the spirit of Dr. Porter’s historic gesture, I’ve been gratified to see reports on social media of pastors who – following George Floyd’s death – have headed into the streets to stand in solidarity with those raising their voices in support of Black lives. On Facebook, Adam Lipscomb, pastor of the City Life Church (a Wesleyan church in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan) wrote of his involvement in one such protest on May 30, 2020:

I was at the protest downtown in Grand Rapids tonight. I was asked to pray by the organizers of a nonviolent protest that was to include a silent march. There were other groups that were not part of that protest that were filling the space before the non-violent protesters arrived. It’s easy to watch the news tonight and think that only one group was involved. There were multiple groups, some of which were Christian, nonviolent, and very disciplined. Other groups were from some sort of militia, and there were identifiable provocateurs.

I spent much of the night as part of the safety team standing between the protesters and police. I did end up taking an opportunity to pray publicly. It was a particularly dicey moment, and I shouted out my prayer over the crowd. I’m home now and will continue to pray for peace with justice.
#BlackLivesMatter

It shouldn’t surprise us that the devil will try to sow weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Jesus warned us as much. But it strikes me that what Pastor Lipscomb did and what many clergy and laity from a broad spectrum of denominations are doing is God’s good work and puts feet to our holiness.

Secondly, what can we say theologically?

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police calls us not only to process emotionally but also theologically. On this score, there is much to say.

1 Thess. 5:23-24 is a favorite passage for those of us who are persuaded that entire sanctification is a second definite work of grace after the New Birth. Yet as many sermons as I’ve heard preached on that passage, I’ve yet to hear a preacher underscore that Paul’s admonition is not to an individual, but to a church. When Paul writes “May the God of peace sanctify you through and through,” we could translate it as “May the God of peace sanctify y’all through and through.” Yes, God sanctifies individuals, but God does so in the context of our relational networks. In Africa, the meaning of Ubuntu is summarized as “I am because we are.” We cannot conceive of individual holiness apart from our connections with other human beings, so we could just as well say social sanctification as sanctification. It’s all of one piece.

Chanshi Chanda 

Hull criticizes the term “social justice” as an “idol.” He says “the moment that ‘social’ is added to justice, it isn’t.” He doesn’t explain what he means by that statement. In fact, justice often plays itself out in the social setting as is evidenced by the Old Testament prophets’ calling out the injustices of their day. Sometimes, young idealists are mocked as being SJW’s – Social Justice Warriors. If they dropped the word “social” and just became JWs (Justice Warriors), would that satisfy their critics? Maybe we should just adopt the language of Zambian Nazarene Chanshi Chanda, who speaks of “Christlike Justice.” (See his excellent primer, Christlike Justice and the Holiness Tradition, where he maintains that our theological tradition is the natural soil for justice concerns to grow). Perhaps we should speak of Christlike Justice Warriors – CJWs? But I have the sneaking suspicion that whatever label we might use – SJW, JW, or CJW – someone would criticize. It’s time to ask ourselves:

What is it about the demand for justice that makes us profoundly uncomfortable?

How might our view change if we saw our pursuit of justice not as a distraction from holiness but as one important way that the church models Christian holiness for the world to see?

Finally, we need to revisit our concept of sin. Sin is not just individual; sin can be systemic. This is what the prophet Amos had in mind when he admonished Israel:

Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:15, NIV).

God’s favor upon His people was dependent (according to Amos) on how just the court system was. For that system to be corrupt (i.e. sinful) brought God’s judgment upon the people. In verse 14, seeking good and not evil had an objective. It was “that you may live.” God cared about whether the systems in place were righteous or evil. Society flourishes when justice dominates.

Dr. John Nielson of Eastern Nazarene College, at a BLM Prayer Rally, Quincy, MA – 6/14/2020 

This is but a taste of the Scripture’s concern for justice. As Nazarenes who are part of the holiness tradition, we must consider whether revival comes first and then racial reconciliation follows, or whether we have the order backwards. As the church, should we not come alongside anyone animated by God’s prevenient grace (Christian or not) to work for racial reconciliation as a necessary prerequisite and foretaste of revival? Is this not the model from Zaccheus? First, he acknowledged his wrongdoing then explained how he would be reconciled with those offended, by making restitution (Luke 19:8). Only then did Jesus say: “Today, salvation has come to this house…” (Luke 19:9a, NASB). Reconciliation preceded revival.

Thank you, Pastor Michael Hull, for your thoughts. You are my brother in Christ. I’ve been struggling to understand what holiness looks like in the age of George Floyd and I sense that you are, too. Let us continue to feel, to think, and to act as the Lord leads us in the holy way of Gospel reconciliation.

_______________________________________

Image credit (Black Lives Matter marchers)

Wikimedia Commons: Eden, Janine and Jim from New York City / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Posted in book reviews, Uncategorized

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”

Posted in discipleship, parables, reflections

Swimming upstream

512px-Salmon_fish_swimming_upstreamQ – What do salmon, coho, and rainbow trout have in common?

A – They all swim upstream for reproductive purposes.

Biologists believe that odors of the home waters where they were spawned remain wired in their brain. Sciencing.com explains: “At maturity, they are instinctively drawn back to the place of their birth.”

These three species of fish hold a lesson for Christianity:

Reproduction requires swimming against the current.

Going with the flow is easier, but spawning the next generation of believers mandates a counter-cultural approach. We are upstream Christians in a downstream world.

The words of Paul to Titus have a timeless quality though they were written 1,900 years ago:

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds (Titus 2:11-14, NLT).

They, too, were to be upstream Christians in a downstream world. In a society that was “evil,” Paul called Titus and the flock he shepherded to lead lives characterized by “wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God.” Their attention was to remain hopefully focused on the future, the day of Christ’s return. Meanwhile, there was no place for idleness. In the same way the twelve-year-old Jesus insisted that he must be busy with his Father’s work (Luke 2:49), so Paul reminds Titus to commit himself to God’s good work in the world (v. 14).

What is striking about Paul’s advice to his young protégé is that living in an evil world never justified jumping out of the stream. Upstream fish remain in the stream but are strong enough to swim against it. To succeed in this counter-cultural feat, believers must remember three things:

1) Remember that our help comes from the LORD. Isaiah 26:3 reminds us:  “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you” (Isaiah 6:3, NIV). The would-be crushing pressure from our surroundings must be matched by an internal spiritual force that pushes back. Andrés Filipe Arias knows this well. Caught up as a pawn in a geo-political chess game, this former Columbian Minister of Agriculture now sits in a Miami detention center. His petition for assylum in the U.S. hopelessly delayed, he faces 17 years of wrongful imprisonment if extradited to his home country. Such a force would have crushed many, but the husband of one and father of two has deep faith in God. When asked how he is coping, he replied: “I feel strong and at peace. Of course, every second I long for my home, my wife, and my kids. But I’ve learned to accept God’s will no matter how mysterious are His ways.” As to his sanity, he testifies that God sees to it.

2) Remember to swim together.  The salmon, coho, and rainbow trout swim upstream together. In the same way, resisting the downstream pull of our culture is best done when we stick together. This is the strongest argument for the church; there is strength in numbers. It’s no accident that it wasn’t a single Hebrew but three Hebrews brothers who together refused to bow before the idol of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:16-18). Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NIV) teaches that a “cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Jesus calls us to be like the light set on a lampstand that draws people in from the darkness to the warmth of the light (Luke 11:33). We shine best when we shine collectively.

3) Remember to keep on loving. Being counter-cultural is no excuse for aloof disengagement. Jesus told of a time when evil would increase. What would be the result? “The love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12b, NIV). Our love for God and for others is the ultimate measure of holiness (Mark 12:28-31). If our churches are shrinking, could it be that would-be seekers coming in from the cold – in the words of evangelist Charles “Chic” Shaver – never found enough love to keep them warm? What kind of “love” inscribes “all welcome” on the church sign but freezes people out once they step inside?

Like Paul and Titus, we live in a world that too often is evil, yet this is no excuse for downstream living. With the strength that comes from the Lord and banding together, followers of Christ model a different path, a better way. May our love never grow cold! Instead, let us open our arms wide to all, inviting people to join us and our Leader in this epic swim upstream.


 

Image credit: By Robert W. Hines, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Posted in discipleship, reflections, Uncategorized

Two sayings broken beyond repair

penWhen I was a boy and something broke, I’d take it to my dad. In my mind, he could fix anything. We’d go down in the basement to his work bench where we’d poke around in some of the boxes and containers. One tube of epoxy glue, one vice and 24 hours of patience later, whatever had been broken was as good as new.

Sometimes it’s not just objects that are broken. Sayings can be broken, too. Sometimes they can be fixed; other times, they’re beyond repair.

One of Israel’s favorite proverbs was broken and could not be fixed:

What do you mean by this proverb of yours about the land of Israel: ‘When parents eat unripe grapes, the children’s teeth suffer’? As surely as I live, says the LORD God, no longer will you use this proverb in Israel! (Ezekiel 18:2-3, CEB).

The proverb had become an excuse to shift blame. The rest of chapter 18 drives home the point that we must not blame our sins on those who came before us. Each of us is morally responsible before God as individuals.

Could what was true in Ezekiel’s day be true in ours? Is God asking us to jettison some sayings that have become counterproductive? Here are two that – like a dusty can of corn whose expiration date has passed – should be tossed in the trash, no longer fit for human consumption.

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace.”

God’s grace is an amazing thing! Without it, we would be lost (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11). But in practice, we don’t read all the way to the end of the sentence. We get bogged down in the first four words, putting a full-stop where it doesn’t belong: “I’m just a sinner.”

The result is a sinning religion, a Christianity full of forgiveness but devoid of Christlikeness. We “get saved,” meaning that we’ve tucked our ticket for heaven in our wallet or purse for safekeeping. Now – so we think – we can do what we please. In theological terms, we may have been justified but we’ve stopped short of sanctification. The summit of the mountain lies ahead, but we’re satisified to camp out in the foothills.

Yet God invites us to climb higher. The lowlands of sin are behind us and there’s no turning back. Paul reminds the Corinthians that – while sin was a part of their past – it is no longer what they are about (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). And because of this, Peter insists: “You will be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, CEB). 

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace” can be an entry ramp to the highway of spiritual compromise. It’s the travel companion of similar sayings like “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” It rationalizes our sinful ways by conditioning us to live with a divided heart, forgetting that those who are double-minded are “unstable in all their ways” (James 1:8, CEB). Yet Christ calls us to a deeper life, one characterized by joyfully living into the ways of God. John Wesley called it “holiness of heart and life,” understanding that the very essence of holiness is love for God and others (Mark 12:28-34).

“Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

If love is the very essence of holiness, then we must address a second saying that claims to be loving. But is it?

Hate the sin, love the sinner.

The saying at a certain level sounds like Paul: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9, NIV). But can we ignore the repulsive effect that the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb has upon listeners? It is often in social media conversations around sexuality that well-intentioned Christians trot out the proverb, thinking all the while that they’re being graceful in doing so. But any communication has two parties, a transmitter and a receiver. Effective communication only happens when the message transmitted is accurately decoded by the listener in the way that the sender intended.  And it is here that the breakdown occurs. The first phrase – “Hate the sin” – begins with the imperative, “Hate.” Like a flash-bang grenade tossed into the conversation, it deafens the listener to any words that follow. They never hear “love the sinner” because the only message they’ve received is that they are “the sinner” who is hated. If our objective is an evangelistic conversation, has the door just slammed shut? 

Some have suggested reversing the words so that the saying becomes: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” At least we then lead with love, not judgment. This seems closer to Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). First, he pronounced words of love to her: “Neither do I condemn you” (11a, CEB). Then, he instructed her to abandon her wrongdoing: “Go, and from now on, don’t sin any more” (11b). 

But I still wonder if the saying is beyond repair. Even if we lead with love by frontloading the words “love the sinner,” the proverb still has a whiff of smug judgmentalism about it. Phylicia Masonheimer asks:

Do we actually hate sin, or do we simply love judgment?

In “hate the sin, love the sinner,” the couplet “the sinner” comes across as clinical, like a medical journal article discussing “the patient.” It’s cold, aloof, and off-putting, like when a man talks publicly about “the wife.” What listener wants to have the verbal label “the sinner” taped on their chest? While it is theologically correct as a description of those who have not yet come to Christ (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:10), we need God’s wisdom to know when is the right time as a relationship develops to speak of sin and its meaning. In our social media interactions, we forget that often we have not yet earned the right to speak at that deeper level, that many of our readers are still ripening to God through the action of prevenient grace. Our words will either stir up that grace or douse it. Experience tells us that whatever our intentions, the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb pushes people away.  Isn’t it time for it to go?

Summing it all up

My dad was gifted at fixing broken objects. Sometimes when sayings are broken, they, too, can be mended. But there are other times when it’s best to just throw them out. The expressions “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” and “Hate the sin, love the sinner” are two such popular sayings, well-intended but counteproductive. May the Holy Spirit help us to be sensitive to these and other sayings that produce negative effects.

 

 

Posted in reflections

Going up the down escalator

Escalator_in_Japan_(6394120847)

Admit it. You’ve done it, too.

Maybe you were in some department store at a time when few were around. You could have taken the escalator going in the right direction, but what fun is that? So you looked down to make sure your shoe laces were tied, then stepped onto the rolling metal steps. You shifted into high gear, then started straining against the tide, pumping your legs at double-speed. Chances are you got some dirty looks along the way, but a minute later you raised your arms at the top in Rocky-like triumph:

You made it up the down escalator.

What you did was totally optional. After all, to make it to a higher level, you could have done what you usually do. You could have just taken the “up” escalator. But something strange has been happening lately. More escalators seem to be going down.

Marijuana? “Legalize its recreational use nationally,” some say, even though it is causing big problems for one state that already has.

Pornography? “No big deal,” though South Dakota and Virginia think otherwise.

Coarse language? “They’re only words. Take a chill pill!”

Cheating on exams? “Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.”

Undocumented workers and their children? “Send them back to where they came from!” makes a popular talking point, despite the fact that many are high achievers and are contributing to the nation’s well-being.

Lesbian daughter? “Kick her to the curb until she straightens out. What would people at church think, after all?” (So now we have many homeless LGBTQ youth.)

These days, we seem to be flocking to the down escalators, dulling our senses, hardening our hearts and consciences, even as we sink to lower-and-lower levels. To buck the trend – to get to the next floor up – we’ll have to brush off an old skill:

We’ll need to gather our strength, steel our resolve, and walk up the down escalator.

The Bible can help. Paul reminds us in Romans 12:2 (NLT):

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

There are those who resist the tide. Former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson brought his son back home, pulling the talented player from the Nebraska football program. His reason? Keyshawn Jr. got distracted by university party life and was busted for marijuana. He forget why he was there in the first place, to excel at football. Fans applauded the unusual decision by a strict and caring dad.

Thankfully, some “up” escalators still function. Find them and use them; invite others to join you. Volunteer for Little League. Take your son or daughter along to visit an old friend at the nursing home. Make it a family activity to help pass out food at your church’s food pantry. There are many ways to keep your community’s “up” escalators well-oiled and in-service. In so doing, we’ll be modeling – as Rick Warren insists – that “it’s not about you.”

Sometimes your community’s “up” escalators are broken; all escalators are rolling downward. It’s decision time. When you exert yourself and walk up the down escalator, rest assured: You’ll get dirty looks. Pressure will mount for you to go with the flow. Don’t give in! Get enough people walking against the grain and someone’s bound to ask what happened to all the up escalators.

Meanwhile, don’t grow tired. Join with others who are going up and encourage each other. When you land at the top, thank the Lord, then have your moment of Rocky-like triumph, together.

______________________________________________

Photo credit

By Yuko Honda from Tokyo, Japan (何の気なしに乗ると予想外の動きをするのでうわっ!てなるエスカレーター。) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in book reviews, The Wesleys and Wesleyan theology

Holiness for the MP3 generation- Part 3

dchUse the word “holiness” and – for some – memories of campmeetings and old-time revival preachers come to mind. Yet for those born since 2000, such things mean little. For a new generation more comfortable with social media than altar calls, new methods of communicating a timeless message are needed.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we looked at biblical and historical perspectives on holiness as described in Diane Leclerc’s Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill, 2010). In this the final installment, we turn to what Leclerc calls “Holiness Theology for Today.” Leclerc succeeds in mining the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage then bridging from the 18th century Methodist Revival and the 19th Century Holiness Movement to the 21st century, freshening up teachings on the Fall, full salvation, and five other holiness motifs (purity, perfection, power, character, and love).

Let us look at two themes from the latter portion of the book, namely, sin and God’s nature of holy love.

Sin

Chapter 6, “Created and Fallen Humanity,” addresses what may be termed the “problem” prior to later chapters exposing God’s gracious solution. Leclerc is correct to note the divergent definitions that Wesleyans and Calvinists use for “sin”:

…Wesleyans and Calvinists argue over the issue of sin. Their arguments are based on two very different understandings of what sin is. According to John Calvin, sin is falling short of the glory of God, or missing the mark. Thus any non-Godlike qualities or imperfections in humanity are considered sinful. Understandably then, a Calvinist could claim that we sin in thought, word, and deed daily. Most would simply say that we are sinful because we are not God (Leclerc, 160).

Leclerc does well to elucidate the reasoning behind the Calvinistic pessimism regarding sin. When seen in this way, it may be questioned whether John Wesley is very far from John Calvin on this point considering that Wesley admitted “infirmities” remain no matter how deep the sanctifying work of God in the human heart. Where we as Wesleyan-Holiness people sometimes go wrong, however, is excusing wrong attitudes or actions with the catch-all “I’m only human” rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to scrutinize and correct them.

 

Leclerc
Diane LeClerc

 

God’s nature as “holy love”

A second discussion that Leclerc engages is the question of God’s nature. Some – such as Ray Dunning and Ken Collins – have argued that the phrase “holy love” is an apt summary of God’s character. In Collins’ The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abingdon, 2007), every chapter title incorporates in the words “holy love,” and Collins quotes Wesley’s repeated use of the expression “holy love” to sustain his thesis. Thomas Jay Oord, however, has argued that the term “holy love” is tautological, a needless piling up of words. If the nature of holiness is love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31) – as Wesley taught- then saying that God is “holy love” adds nothing since “holy” is already contained in the idea of love.* (For more on love as the “core of holiness,” see Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl, Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love [Beacon Hill, 2005], 70-72).

It is apparent that Leclerc is familiar with the debate between these two theologians. To her credit, she attempts to steer a middle course:

‘God is love,’ John says simply and profoundly. We may modify God’s love with the word ‘holy.’ But this adds little to an understanding of God because by nature God’s love is holy. The modifier ‘holy’ does remind us, however, that God is beyond us as other than us. God is holy and always different from us in nature (Leclerc, 274).

Leclerc has put her finger on an important duality in the doctrine of God. The LORD is both “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6) and in Christ, God is “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). There is both transcendence and immanence in God. To say that God is love underscores God’s immanence, but to say that God is holy love maintains in tension God’s transcendence and immanence, as does the whole tenor of Scripture. The truth of 1 John 4:8 must be balanced with passages like Isaiah 6, otherwise our view of God may become skewed.

Summing it all up

Though strong overall, one weakness of Discovering Christian Holiness is the lack of an index, a frustration for readers trying to locate specific passages in a hefty volume. Hopefully future editions will remedy this unfortunate omission. Yet whatever its shortcomings, Diane Leclerc has written an excellent book that will serve well both church and academy for years to come.

______

*from a conversation with Dr Oord

 

Posted in book reviews

Holiness for the MP3 generation – Part 2

dchCicero in 46 BC observed: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” In Part 1 of Discovering Christian Holiness (Beacon Hill, 2010), Diane LeClerc examines the biblical foundation for holiness. (You can read my essay on Part 1 by clicking here). Now in Part 2, true to Cicero’s adage, she fills us in on the history of holiness doctrine, on “what happened” before our time, providing a panoramic view of the centuries. What emerges is strong evidence that – far from being a oddity – holiness has remained an important theological concern for thinkers across the ages.

The terrain LeClerc traverses is vast. In this short essay, we turn our attention to three selected themes (or persons) that she covers, namely: 1) holiness and asceticism; 2) Jerome, and 3) Mildred Bangs Wynkoop.

Holiness and asceticism

Western evangelicalism is recovering an appreciation for ancient faith, including the spiritual disciplines practiced by monks. In Chapter 3, LeClerc lists “radical asceticsim” among the “important elements in the development of an early theology of the holy” (p. 80). When persecution of Christians waned following the rise of Constantine in the early 4th century, treating one’s body harshly became an alternative to martyrdom.

Though LeClerc does not develop the theme too deeply, it is worthwhile to consider the rise of renewal movements historically. For example, in 18th century England, a non-demanding form of Christian faith held sway, similar to how being a Christian became socially advantageous under Constantine. The Methodist movement – like ancient monasticism – demanded much more of its adherents. There were rules of conduct, and if individuals refused to follow them, becoming what John Wesley called “disorderly walkers,” they were unceremoniously booted out of the Methodist societies. So while there were no early Methodist monks, the Methodist spirit certainly contained ascetic elements.

In Wesleyan-Holiness churches today, have we maintained ascetic elements, or have we “lowered the bar” much like in Constantine’s time? In her foreword to Gregory Crofford’s Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2016), JoAnne Lyon observes: “I believe that one reason for overall declining membership in the church, particularly in the West, is that there is no challenge” (p. ix). LeClerc reminds us that monasticism was accompanied by a concern for rigourous living, a non-conformity to the broader societal dubious moral norms. While the danger of legalism is always present, we would do well to revisit what spiritual challenges we offer youth who have grown weary of the libertinism of our day.

Jerome (347-420 AD)

In addition to asceticism, LeClerc gives two pages to Jerome. Known mostly for his Scripture translation (the Latin Vulgate), I was fascinated to learn the strong influence Jerome had on early Christian views of marriage. Jerome came to teach that those who are married are in some sense less holy than those who live a life of celibacy.  LeClerc notes: “He (Jerome) praised countless women for leaving husbands and children behind so that they could be entirely devoted to God” (p. 96).

What are we to make of this? It is undeniable that Christians across history have had an uneasy relationship with sexuality. It is unfortunate that something holy made by God to be celebrated is instead denigrated, even in backhanded ways, like that of Jerome. Though most evangelicals today would deny that there is a hierarchy of sins, it is striking how often sexual sins get top billing and other sins that Scripture mentions far more frequently – such as neglecting the poor – receive little attention. It is time that we get over our fixation upon things sexual and recast the pursuit of holiness in far broader terms.

Mildred Bangs Wynkoop (1905-97)

In Chapter 4, LeClerc moves to a survey of important holiness figures from 1703 to 2000 AD. Beginning with John Wesley, she profiles a total of 32 men and women who have contributed subsantially to the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage. It is a source of pride for those in our tradition to see both genders on this list, yet gender aside, Mildred Bangs Wynkoop rightfully receives positive treatment by the author. LeClerc credits her for having “revolutionized the way the doctrine of holiness was articulated in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition” (p. 127). This revolution was conceptualizing holiness in terms of relationship rather than in terms of eradicating sin, a recovery of a neglected emphasis in the theology of John Wesley (1703-91), namely, holiness as loving God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31).

mildred bangs wynkoop
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop

This took courage for Wynkoop at a time when most holiness preachers envisioned the “flesh” or the “sinful nature” as a thing, like a bad tooth that needed to be extracted, or a tree stump that God uproots. Wynkoop moved past these problematic subtantival conceptions and in their place taught a more dynamic way of picturing sanctification, as the ongoing pursuit of relationship. Summarizing Wynkoop’s theology, LeClerc concludes:

Our capacity for relationships, for loving relationships, is our God-given purpose and destiny. There is a God-designed holy manner for relating to God, to others, and even to ourselves. Sin distorts these relationships. God-derived love restores them. Holiness, then, is found most clearly when we love as God first loved us (p. 127).

Today’s holiness preachers take for granted the relational way of talking about God’s work in our lives, not realizing that Wynkoop ushered in a paradigm shift of immense proportions.

Summing it all up

Ascetism, Jerome, and Mildred Wynkoop are just three elements in Part 2 of Discovering Christian Holiness. Diane LeClerc traces many others in two chapters that are a veritable smorgasbord of information about our holiness forebearers, each one worthy of a book-length treatment of their own. LeClerc does a good job of pointing us to the forest. Let the reader journey into the woods and discover the many trees.


 

Image credit (Mildred Bangs Wynkoop): Asbury E-Place

 

Posted in book reviews

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.