A means of grace: a tribute to Dr Rob Staples

rob staples“Take a course from Dr Staples.”

Those six words jumped off the page, words penned by my former Eastern Nazarene College professor when I was a first-year student at Nazarene Theological Seminary. It was part of a thoughtful and pastoral reply to my anguished letter, wondering whether I should continue in my journey toward ordained Nazarene ministry.

First semester at Seminary had been brutal, capped off by a note scrawled on my research paper by a different well-intentioned but theologically brittle professor:

“Mr Crofford, if this is your continuing position, do not seek ordination in the Church of the Nazarene.”

The Lord must have known that such “hardening of the categories” called for an antidote. I enrolled in some of Staples’ courses and the good Doctor became part of God’s medicine.

NTS chapel services were always better attended on the days when Dr Staples preached. We could count on his lively sense of humor to add a light moment to our day. When a colleague took longer than usual to introduce him, piling up the plaudits, Staples at last made his way to the pulpit:

“With a introduction like that,” he quipped, “even I can’t wait to hear what I’m going to say.”

It will be shame if no one preserved his many limericks, humorously delivered before his sermon with a comic’s keen sense of timing.

Other funny moments were more spontaneous. Once in class, Dr Staples lost his train of thought, his brain stubbornly refusing to recall the name of the theological term that eluded him. “Oh no,” he lamented. “I think I might have what’s his name’s disease!”

Staples’ course, “Wesley’s Theology,” opened up a new world. My understanding of the doctrine of holiness to that time was based solely upon the American Holiness Movement interpretation with its strong accent upon a second, definite crisis experience. Dr Staples masterfully guided us through large swaths of Wesley’s writings; the takeaway for me was love. John Wesley taught that – as Jesus affirms in Mark 12:30-31 – holiness boils down to love for God and love for neighbor. Holiness suddenly was immensely practical and others-focused, a refreshing change from the self-centered nature of my prior understanding. Later when I pursued doctoral studies, it’s not surprising that I dug deeper into the theology of John and Charles Wesley. After all, it was Dr Staples who had sowed the seed years before.

All was not roses for the professor students loved. In class one day, he alluded to an episode from a few years earlier where powerful critics in the church questioned aspects of his theology, seeking his removal. Without tearing off the scab, he observed with just a hint of pain:

“I stood at the edge of my ecclesiastical grave and looked down into it.”

After a formal inquiry, he was vindicated, but the episode is a reminder that even professors of theology who are well-loved and loyal to the denomination risk becoming casualties when an unchecked “hardening of the categories” sets in. It was a vigorous defense of Staples by colleagues that saved him for the church. Happily, it meant that he was still there at NTS to teach me when my own time of theological fragility arrived, when I desperately craved not heavy-handed law but lighthearted grace. Indeed, Dr Staples’ wit and wisdom became for me a means of grace.

Dr Staples, thank you for staying the course. Well-done, good and faithful servant.

———

Photo credit: Greenlynn blog

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Nazarene or “Baptarene”? When traditions collide

Phineas F. Bresee served for 38 years as a Methodist minister before beginning the fledgling “Church of the Nazarene” at the turn of the 20th century. Other non-Methodist groups fused with his in 1907 and 1908.

My dad grew up Nazarene, but my mom was raised independent Baptist. So, if ever there was a “Baptarene,” it was me. But I suspect I’m not the only former Baptarene who has rediscovered what being a Nazarene is, and now, I refuse to look back.

Don’t get me wrong. I harbor no animus against Baptists. I’ve always admired their fervor in evangelism, their giving for world missions and their emphasis upon the importance of Scripture. All three of those characterized John Wesley (1703-91) as well, the 18th century Anglican evangelist  who is the ecclesiastical ancestor of Nazarenes. But Wesley wasn’t a Baptist; he was an Anglican/Methodist, and I’ve come to treasure that heritage as something valuable and worth protecting.

Take the issue of women in ministry. From our official beginning in 1908, Nazarenes have formally acknowledged in our Manual that God calls both men and women to all roles of ordained ministry. Among other passages, we’ve always taken Acts 2:17-18 seriously, that in the “last days” God will pour out the Holy Spirit on everyone. The evidence of this outpouring will be (in part) that “servants” who are “both men and women” will “prophesy.” Prophecy is preaching, the telling forth of the message of salvation through Christ. This message is so important that you just can’t keep half of your team planted on the bench. Everyone – male and female – must get into the game.

Another legacy from our Methodist roots is infant baptism for the children of church-going parents, practiced alongside believer baptism for older converts. In the same message on Pentecost, Peter assured his Jewish listeners – the Covenant people of God – that God has done something new in Jesus Christ. After a scathing message where he accused them of having crucified Jesus, he ended with a word of hope: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). The promise of the Holy Spirit – as symbolized in baptism – was for all, regardless of age: “The promise is for you and your children, for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (v. 39, italics added). And so on that Day of Pentecost, whole families were baptized — dads, moms, and kids. That set a pattern that was repeated at key junctures in the book of Acts, where entire “households” (Gk. oikos) were baptized. It’s inconceivable that this did not include babes in arms. This was a New Covenant, and the sign of the New Covenant people of God was baptism.

A third heritage from our Methodist roots is the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) as a means of grace. John Wesley himself celebrated communion frequently, as a way to fortify his faith. Today in Methodist churches and a growing number of Nazarene congregations, Eucharist is the high moment of worship, following a meaty sermon. It is the culmination of the moments spent together as the adoring community of faith.

But what about the Church of the Nazarene?

Have we kept these strands of our heritage from Methodism, or have we been squeezed into a Baptist mold, becoming “Baptarenes”?

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