“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