Posted in reflections

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

Posted in reflections

How big is too big? On Goldilocks and the devil

1346445103-chairThe story of Goldilocks and the three bears is a children’s favorite. A little girl takes a walk in the forest, and comes upon a house. She knocks, but when no one answers, she opens the door and begins to explore. Besides three  bowls and three beds, she spies three chairs in the living room. Sitting in the first two, she concludes that they are too big, but the third one is different. “Ah, this chair is just right,” she exclaims.

When it comes to the devil, Christian theologians disagree on how large a “chair” he should occupy. Some argue that he should only be a bit player in salvation’s drama. After all, Satan goes unmentioned in the early affirmations of faith, including the Apostles’ Creed (2nd century CE) and the Nicene Creed (325 CE). Henry and Richard Blackaby, in their devotional guide Experiencing God Day-By-Day (Broadman, 1998), are of this persuasion. In their thoughts for October 31, they observe:

Christians can become preoccupied with battling Satan. This deceives them to invest their time and energy attempting to do something that Christ has already done for them. If Satan can divert you to wage a warfare that has already ended in surrender, he will have eliminated your effectiveness where God wants you. Fearing Satan is fearing a prisoner of war.

Dr Rob Staples, Professor Emeritus of theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary, recalled when he was a boy that his mother asked him to choose one of their farmyard chickens for dinner. When he lopped off the chicken’s head with a axe, the headless chicken danced in a frenzy for a while before dropping over dead. “That is an image of the devil,” Staples told us. “Jesus, through the Cross and Resurrection, chopped off Satan’s head, and all that we have seen since is his death dance.”

On the other hand, some reserve too large a place for the devil in their thinking. In 15 years of ministry in Africa, I have resisted calls for inserting a “demonology” course in our curriculum. While several courses with a different focus touch upon the issue, to dedicate an entire course to the topic reminds me of Goldilock’s comments about the first two chairs: “This chair is too big!” I’ve been in church services where the first ten minutes are given to the congregation raising its voice to chase the devil away. I’ve challenged pastors to consider whether they are unwittingly sowing fear in the hearts of believers. After all, if it takes 200 Christians ten minutes of concerted, high-volume prayer to chase the devil on a Sunday morning, what will the poor saint do on her sick bed when she senses spiritual attack and can only manage a whisper?

The New Testament truth appears to lie somewhere between the position of the Blackabys and Staples and the exaggerated view of some African pastors. It is a view that recognizes the eventual defeat of the devil (Rev. 20:1-3), a final defeat begun via Cross and Empty Tomb.  Satan was wounded, there can be no doubt, yet is this the mortal wound of Staples’ headless chicken? If so, then the “death dance” has lasted 2,000 years!

Peter chose another animal to which he compared Satan:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8, NIV).

Paul joins Peter in his assessment, lamenting that to-date he had been unable to visit the Thessalonians, since Satan had “hindered us” (1 Thess. 2:18, NIV). Yet the same Paul did not hesitate to cast out of of a slave girl in Philippi a python spirit of divination (Acts 16:16-19). His spiritual preparedness to confront whatever the devil threw his way is epitomized in Ephesians 6:10-20, where we are to “put on the full armor of God” so that we may “stand against the devil’s schemes” (v. 11). Unlike the Blackabys, I do not believe that the devil has already surrendered, though one day he will.

When it comes to our understanding of the devil, there is a position – like the chair Goldilocks chose – that fits the biblical evidence “just right.” I wonder: If we insist that “Satan is a defeated foe” – rather than “Satan is wounded and will finally be defeated” – could this lead to spiritual complacency?  A wounded animal is particularly dangerous. To downplay this reality may risk being naively blind-sided while serving the Lord. We may consider something a “test from God” that is instead an attack from Satan. On the other hand, to place the devil center-stage in our thinking is to do what neither creeds nor Scripture have done. This can lead to an unhealthy fascination with darkness. It may sow fear in our hearts, a fear that is unbecoming a Christian’s confidence in the victory of Christ, now and in the future.

Meanwhile, in this great parenthesis between Jesus’ ascension and his final enthronement at the Second Coming, we ask the question contained in Francis Schaeffer’s book title:

How should we then live?

We live in neither complacency nor fear in this time of “already, but not yet.” We live a vigilant life, aware of the devil’s schemes (2 Cor. 2:11). With the Blackabys, we refuse to be distracted from the work to which God has called us, preaching the Gospel, binding up the wounds of the brokenhearted, and in victory over Satan awaiting the day when God shall in Christ bring all things to fulfillment. What a day that will be!


Photo credit: Missoula News