A Bit Overwhelmed

A Bit Overwhelmed

So our University chaplain, Shawna Songer Gaines, lost her grandfather this week and asked me to fill in for her in chapel. We are walking through the Exodus story in chapel this semester. The assigned text was the story of Moses before the burning bush. Since I had preached this text a few years ago, I dusted off the sermon for current use. I didn’t expect what happened to me as I preached.

I was a bit overwhelmed.

Rather than standing as the powerful preaching narrator of Moses’ experience, I found myself feeling quite powerless before the need that I face every day. Moses had the almighty Pharaoh standing between him and the freedom of the Israelites. I have the almighty dollar standing between me and the funding of Christian education for the next generation of credentialed servants in the world.

Those of us who are living our days on the Trevecca campus see and sense the holy ground experiences that are transforming our students. It is palpable; holy work is going on. And we have been blessed beyond our means to be growing rapidly (more than 1,300 in the past three years alone). Our growth has outpaced our capacity to provide financial aid.

So I’ve been taking a page out of Moses’ excuse playbook and explaining to God why we can’t do this. I’m not a great fundraiser. What if the alumni don’t give back? What if I can’t adequately impart Trevecca’ vision and inspire donors? 

Yes, like Moses, I whine a lot to God. And God keeps entrusting growing numbers of students to us for holy ground experiences. This work of funding Christian higher education is… well, it’s way past what I can do.

I’m not alone.

You are working on hurricane recovery, the opioid crisis, a declining church, messy politics, loving tough neighbors, saving a company to keep good people working, providing medical care in a greedy system and a million other impossible tasks. So to all my friends who are standing before a bush that won’t burn and a heavenly voice that can’t be ignored and a challenge bigger than you are… grace and peace from a brother who is standing barefoot along with you.

Blessings,
Dan

If you’d like to hear the sermon, the podcast is available here. The Scripture and sermon begin around the 45-minute mark.

 

The Vulnerability of God

The Vulnerability of God

A Christmas Meditation on Luke 1:26-38

We are vulnerable, and we know it. We have seen…

  • high tech space shuttles disintegrate leaving no trace of human remains,
  • skyscrapers collapse,
  • stock markets plummet rearranging retirement plans,
  • companies bought, sold, moved with city-wrecking swiftness,
  • viruses spread, kill, and mutate,
  • babies snuffed out in the womb because their timing was inconvenient,
  • the earth poisoned, polluted, and warmed to its destruction,
  • health disappear at the reading of a blood test,
  • hurricanes rearrange life for millions,
  • governments fail to deliver financial responsibility,
  • nations bring the world to the brink of war.

Any serious person who thinks about the way the world is and seems to be headed has reason to feel vulnerable. So we do all kinds of things to cope with our vulnerability. Some of us numb ourselves to it by too much TV, sports, novels, eating … you can fill in the blanks. Some of us busy ourselves to avoid serious thought about life. Some of us power up and create safe zones, our protected space. We guard our space and wall ourselves in from unwelcomed intruders and inconvenient people.

We live between fearful avoidance and posturing toughness. But we’re still vulnerable.

That’s why we love Mary. She is a picture of vulnerability. Look her up in your pictorial dictionary. How tall is she? How old? Where is she standing? What is she wearing? What color is her hair? How is it fixed?

At the Nelson Art Gallery in Kansas City, you can see Mary through the eyes of artists. Many artists. And in the composite, she is a mature adult, wears velvet dresses (usually a deep red), lives in a larger than average home, has a chair by the window through which light cascades softly, and she likes to read. This is the Mary of classic art.

And she appears to be fully in charge of her space.

But we know better. Mary is in junior high. She wears Wal-Mart or Old Navy clothes at best. She can’t read because girls of her day rarely did. Her parents make all the decisions that affect her life, including the one that she should be married to an older man named Joseph. We don’t know if she even liked him. She lives in a two-bit town without a McDonald’s or stoplight.

And into the bedroom of this child comes the brightly beaming divine messenger whose name means “God has shown himself mighty.” She stands there in her flannel nightgown, her hair braided by her best friend, wearing Big Bird house shoes. If you ask me, this is divine overkill.

Resplendent angel & Precocious child

Messenger of Most High God & Girl barely past puberty

Holy wattage & Candlelit bedroom

Might and glory & Weakness and vulnerability

Defenseless? I think so.

Fragile? Yes.

Overwhelmed? Most likely.

Vulnerable? Definitely.

That’s why we adore her. We can get our human arms around Mary. She’s like us. She has had overwhelming stuff happen to her. She has faced life with little power to make it turn out the way she planned. Forces beyond her have rearranged her life. She’s the matron saint of the vulnerable.

If you ever think our own story is not in the Bible, look closely at Mary. She’s vulnerable. And we are, too.

  • Mike and Cheryl lost their baby boy within days of the meningitis diagnosis.
  • Julie died of ovarian cancer, leaving two little baby girls behind.
  • Emily’s husband walked out on her two weeks ago.
  • Tyler is in counseling for depression. He’s 9.
  • Aaron can’t come back to college next semester. His dad lost a job.
  • Afghanistan isn’t going like we’d hoped and who knows how North Korea will end.
  • Health insurance is no longer a benefit. It’s an out-of-pocket expense.
  • Tom is failing high school. He doesn’t care. He just plays X-Box.

We can get our arms around Mary because she seems to know how we feel. But Mary may not be the most vulnerable one in the story. There is one who becomes even more vulnerable than she: the God who becomes dependent flesh in the womb of a vulnerable Mary. This story may seem to magnify Mary, but it’s really about God…and the vulnerability of God.

God the Creator becomes creature.

God, the breath of every living thing, becomes embryo.

God, whose hand scoops out oceans, floats in a fetal sac.

God, whose voice splits cedar trees, cries for mother’s milk.

God, who crushes king’s armies, can’t walk.

God, who feeds all living things, is hungry.

God, who is sovereign, cannot defend himself.

God, full of glory, poops and pukes.

On the day that Gabriel came to visit Mary,

on the day that the Holy Spirit came upon her,

on the day that the power of the Most High overshadowed her,

on that day…

God became vulnerable.

 

How vulnerable?

Herod hunted him.

Hometown folk reached for rocks to stone him.

Pharisees criticized him.

Family members thought him nuts.

A friend turned on him.

Liars testified against him.

Rulers chickened out on justice and caved in to the demands of a lynch mob.

City folk spit on him.

Soldiers crucified him.

Dying thieves mocked him.

Pious leaders mocked him as he died.

That’s how vulnerable God became that day in Mary’s womb. What happens to us has already happened to him. He came into our vulnerability. He meets us there.

I forget that. I prefer Gabriel, messenger of “The God who shows himself Mighty” with a capital M. When I am vulnerable, I want to behold a delivering, transforming, world-altering, situation-changing, putting-me-back-in-control God. I ask God to meet me at the intersection of Fixed and Finished.

But God has chosen to meet us in the vulnerable Christ, revealing himself at the point of our vulnerability. The saints of the Psalms knew this. It’s why they prayed…

I’m afraid.

I don’t know where to turn.

I can’t go on much longer.

I can’t fix this.

I’m in a mess of my own making.

I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up.

I’m dying down here. Do you care?

Jesus is God’s answer to all those prayers.

Dare we meet the Mighty God at the point of our vulnerability? He’s here…right here…right now. “Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

In this season of Advent, I invite us all to embrace the fragile, vulnerable reality of our world—and to remember that this is where our God is most at home. Our God is at work for his purposes in the world through us.

May our humility, our faith, and our generosity reflect the Christ born in us.

 

ENC Fall Top 10

ENC Fall Top 10

The Eastern Nazarene College family gathered for a celebration of its future on October 13-17. You commissioned me as your new president-elect, and we championed our mission, welcomed friends for Homecoming and held our fall Board of Trustees meeting. Here’s a list of our unofficial top 10 things that happened. Feel free to share with friends, post on social media, put in your church bulletin, or just smile when you think of the list.

  1.  Core Vision. We articulated and celebrated our mission in the commissioning of me as the new president-elect. You can view my “Why ENC?” address at this link or below. If you wish to view the entire commissioning service, you can find it here. I regret that the flavor and joy of the pig roast on the lawn following the service is impossible to convey in print.
  2. Successful Financial Campaign. We challenged our friends and alumni to give $98k in a day. We excelled to the tune of $192,000 over the Homecoming weekend. The campaign started with the celebration dinner on Friday night where we honored the accomplishments of many alumni.  We are grateful for the support of the American Christian Credit Union, Assurance, Dick Pritchard and many other sponsors and volunteers who made the evening exceptional.
  3. New Students. A record 42 prospective students visited ENC’s campus on our Red Carpet Day on Oct. 14, and are considering making Eastern their college choice. The recent tuition reset for incoming students in 2018 makes ENC one of the most affordable Christian colleges in the Northeast.
  4.  Spiritual Vitality. The report to the Board of Trustees by our College chaplain, Lynne Bollinger, expressed the vibrant spiritual atmosphere of the students. Three students have come to faith this year, and 13 ministers are serving on the chaplain’s team, including Pastor Stretch Dean, who leads a vital Wednesday night gathering.
  5. Engaged Alumni. Alumni are feeling empowered and energized by a culture of generosity. We saw that through Work and Witness teams volunteering to help us restore the residence halls, the overwhelming response to the $98k in a day campaign, crowdfunding, more than 400 people attending the Friday evening banquet, and the attendance at 13 alumni reunion gatherings.
  6. A Plan for the Future. The ENC Board of Trustees approved the report of a Joint Task Force on the merger of ENC and Trevecca Nazarene University. The process lays out a plan for the ongoing mission of ENC on the Quincy campus with established benchmarks of sustainability in enrollment and finances. The board adopted a new Board Policy Manual and approved a Faculty Handbook. The Eastern trustees also named the new cabinet comprised of the joint ENC/Trevecca team.
  7. New Website. The new Eastern website is now functional with minor changes still underway. Visit the website for more details on these highlights and other stories.
  8. Church Support. The number of local Nazarene churches who are voluntarily committing to a double educational budget this year continues to grow. In addition, the eight districts of the ENC region/field are combining their efforts for a significant gift to the College. Every church is being asked to place a priority on sending a student to Eastern.
  9. Athletics. The ENC incoming freshman class has 90 student-athletes. The athletic department is mentoring these students with devoted intentionality. Over the Homecoming weekend, men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball, and our conference-winning tennis team competed, while men’s and women’s basketball teams kicked off their practice schedule.
  10. HOPE. From the commissioning service to the alumni gatherings to the banquet to the Sunday worship at Wollaston Church to the opening prayer gathering of the Board of Trustees meeting, the weekend was saturated with an optimism that God has work for us to do, and we are ready to embrace it.
Can a president be a prophet?

Can a president be a prophet?

My wife often gives me the look when I come out of the closet dressed for the day. The look means, “You can’t wear that with that.” And I get it. Some things do not go together, and the clash between them is unsettling. I think this is true for me in more ways than clothing. I believe our world is in need of prophetic voices, yet I find myself most often titled president of a university.  

So I was reading the Richard Rohr online devotional guide last week and his guest editor, John Dear, was writing about prophets. And he wrote, “Prophets cannot be at the center of any social structure. Rather, they are on the edge of the outside. They cannot be fully insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from the outside either. Throughout history, they have spoken truth to power, regardless of the ruler’s political persuasion. They are able to lovingly criticize their own group, recognizing their own complicity….”

A president is the ultimate insider, at the center of a social structure, and far from the outside edge. So…can a president be a prophet? 

The same writer suggests these 12 signs of a true prophet.

  1. A prophet is someone who listens attentively to the word of God, a contemplative, a mystic who hears God and takes God at God’s word, and then goes into the world to tell the world God’s message. So a prophet speaks God’s message fearlessly, publicly, without compromise, despite the times, whether fair or foul.
  2. The prophet is centered on God. The prophet does not do his or her own will or speak his or her own message.
  3. A prophet interprets the signs of the times. The prophet is concerned with the world, here and now, in the daily events of the whole human race, not just our little backyard or some ineffable hereafter. The prophet sees the big picture—war, starvation, poverty, corporate greed, nationalism, systemic violence, nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction. The prophet interprets these current realities through God’s eyes, not through the eyes of analysts or pundits or Pentagon press spokespeople.
  4. A prophet takes sides (the “bias toward the bottom” or the “preferential option for the poor”). A prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. . . . A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless.
  5. All the prophets of the Hebrew Bible are concerned with one main question: justice and peace. They call people to act justly and create a new world of social and economic justice, which will be the basis for a new world of peace.
  6. Prophets simultaneously announce and denounce.
  7. A prophet confronts the status quo. With the prophet, there is no sitting back. The powerful are challenged, empires resisted, systemic justices exposed. Prophets vigorously rock the leaky ship of the state and shake our somnolent complacency. . . .
  8. For the prophet, the secure life is usually denied. More often than not the prophet is in trouble. Consequently, the prophet ends up outcast, rejected, harassed, and marginalized—and, eventually, punished, threatened, targeted, bugged, followed, jailed, and sometimes killed.
  9. Prophets bring the incandescent word to the very heart of grudging religious institutions. There the prophet confronts the blindness and complacency of the religious leader—the bishops and priests who keep silent amid national crimes; the ministers who trace a cross over industries of death and rake blood money into churchly coffers. The institution that goes by the name of God often turns away the prophet of God.
  10. True prophets take no delight in calling down heavenly bolts. Rather, they bear an aura of compassion and gentleness. They are good and decent, kind and generous.
  11. Prophets are visionaries. In a culture of blindness, they offer insight. In a time of darkness, they light our path. When no one else can see, the prophet can. And what they see is a world imbued with God’s purposes: a world of justice and peace and security for all, a world where all of creation is safe and at rest. The prophet holds aloft the vision—it’s ours for the asking. The prophet makes it seem possible, saying “Let’s make it come true and we shall be blessed.”
  12. Finally, the prophet offers hope. Now and then, they might sound despairing, but only because they have a heightened awareness of the world’s darkest realities. These things overwhelm us; we would rather not hear. But hearing is our only hope. For behind the prophet’s unvarnished vision lies a hope we seldom understand—the knowledge that God is with us, that the kingdom of God is at hand. To realize that hope, we must trust ourselves to plumb the depths and trust God to see us through. (John Dear, Center for Action and Contemplation Meditations@cac.org)

I read this list and fall short in so many ways. I can hear my friends saying, “I know Amos and Micah. I’ve preached Amos and Micah. And you, sir, are no Amos or Micah.” And I would not protest this estimation. Yet I find myself refusing to believe that the leaders of our educational institutions (yes, us ultimate insiders) can refuse to be prophetic and, at the same time, hope for a better world.

Maybe this is why I talk to myself a lot. Most of the time it sounds like a prophet arguing with a president. I believe that the leaders of educational institutions are important voices for public critique, moral clarity, compassion for the weakest among us, and a just world. If we presidents just run the machinery of institutions and stay off everyone’s sensitivity radar, how will a new generation taste the kingdom of God?   

In the Old Testament, the prophet, priest, and king were three different people and each could play a separate role. Yet in the New Testament, Jesus fulfills all three simultaneously. And this prophet-priest-king Jesus among the flock becomes the pattern for Christian leaders in the church. As a pastor I tried to embrace all three roles: the healing/sacramental work of the priest, the justice-doing/resource-tending work of the king, and the culture-critiquing/hope-bearing work of the prophet. 

But in our culture, the president of a social structure (like a university) is viewed as a political figure whose every move is judged to be in alliance with powers other than the kingdom of God. And it is impossible to work in institutions and not be somehow complicit in the dark powers of the world. Sometimes a university president sees this and sometimes we are blind to ourselves. This work humbles me like nothing I’ve ever done before – to hold power that appears to be this-world political but then to exercise the same as an expression of the kingdom of God breaking into the world through critique and hope. 

After 12 years, I should have this figured out. But I don’t. Maybe the secret is to live in the tension between the two. Maybe I can wear that with that. Here’s hoping.

 

Reflections from the 2017 General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene

Reflections from the 2017 General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene

This June gathering of the global Nazarene family in Indianapolis, Ind., will go down as one of my favorite General Assemblies. I walked away with deep hope for the church, greater determination to be global, and optimism about our mission. I served as a delegate of USA/Canada Education region, representing the 10 institutions of our field. These include both Trevecca Nazarene University and Eastern Nazarene College.

The 10-day gathering began with the GNEC (Global Nazarene Education Consortium) gathering. Leaders of our 62 higher education institutions from around the world worked on collaborative efforts, best practice learning, and global mission. It was a delight for me to see the four international presidents who have earned their doctoral degrees in our Ed.D. program, as well as two current participants in the program and two applicants. Several years ago, we decided to offer one free seat in each Ed.D. cohort for an educational leader from a developing non-USA institution. Trevecca is making a significant impact in offering doctoral preparation to some of our best global leaders. It was also a delight to hear the reports on the Global Nazarene Library. This digital library is providing resources globally to our partners. Ruth Kinnersley, director of Trevecca’s library services, has been engaged in this project from its inception. In many developing countries, access to this library has propelled our institutions to the forefront of library resources. Denominational affiliation in a world of independent mega-churches may be a negative for some, but it enhances our ability to have strong global partners.

On days 3-5 of the Assembly, I had the chance to participate in three presentation panels and seminar sessions. The first was a discussion on the Theology and Practice of Ordination in the Church. Our challenge as a global church is to call for the highest level of preparation possible while recognizing that access to education varies significantly from nation to nation and even among diverse minorities and socio-economic groups. The same standard of qualification for ordination cannot be applied to all but this process needs to be held in check considering the complexity of our world and the need for well-trained pastors to address this complexity. One member of this panel was my friend Tara Beth Leach. She grew up in the church I pastored in Illinois, was called to ministry, and now serves as senior pastor of Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene, one of our historic congregations. Tara Beth is one of our best preachers and thinkers. Watching the next generation step into leadership was invigorating.

A second session was hosted by Nazarene Publishing House, now renamed The Foundry. This open air conversation was a panel conversation about my book A Charitable Discourse: Having the Hard Conversations. I chatted with Virginia Bauer, Matt Hastings, Erik Gernand, and Shawna Songer Gaines – all great clergy friends. We conversed about congregational hot potato topics – when and how to talk together, the generational divide, the difference in meaning between pastoral and pompous, and how to avoid blowing up a church over a difference of opinion. Being with these four great leaders made me want to believe in cloning.

The third presentation was a solo lecture on Human Sexuality and The Church. Using some of the material from a new ebook release, Human Sexuality II: A Primer for Christians, I laid the groundwork for the legislation coming to the General Assembly from a task force that I had participated in for the past three years. We were assigned the work of rewriting the Manual section of The Covenant of Christian Conduct. I’ll reflect on this work a little later. (The ebook is available here. All proceeds go to the Trevecca Student Scholarship Fund.)

One of the highlights of General Assembly is the Exhibit Hall. Imagine massive. Trevecca and ENC had side-by-side booths where we greeted alumni, recruited future students, and conversed with old friends. The sign hanging above the two areas said, Two Cities: One Mission, with the skylines of Boston and Nashville prominently displayed. Denise and I found stools and straddled the line between the two booths, greeting friends old and new.

I wish you all could have experienced the camaraderie of the booths. It was like a family reunion of generational alumni. Everyone knew some of the same people. Tall tales were told, pranks remembered, tears shed as deceased friends were recalled, merger discussed, children introduced to their future college, and hugs galore were given. I enjoyed watching Russ Long, chair of the ENC Board of Trustees, as he worked the ENC booth most of the weekend. He made the trip to Indy for the whole weekend just to be part of helping the ENC family get their arms around the prospects of a merger. I was moved by his passion and energy. And the first mixing of the employees representing Trevecca and ENC was a union to celebrate. I know I’m prejudiced, but the energy around the Trevecca/ENC booth seemed to captivate the whole Exhibition Hall. Thanks to all who built the booths, transported them, constructed them on site, worked them, and then tore them down and brought them home. You provided a space and place for something significant to happen.

The legislative work of the General Assembly began on Saturday with a delegate orientation and committee meetings. All delegates were assigned to one of 10 committees. My assignment was on the Christian Action Committee. This body of about 200 dealt with the resolutions of an ethical nature – sanctity of life, sexuality, alcohol, marriage, racism, etc. If you would like to read the resolutions, they are available at GA2017.com. Scroll to Resources, choose “English,” and the committees will be listed with the various resolutions under the committee.
Two significant issues in the CA Committee had to do with alcohol and human sexuality. The discussion on our stance of abstinence from alcohol revolved around the issue of whether it should remain a condition for membership. The attempt of the legislation was to affirm the call to abstinence as an act of loving regard for and solidarity with those who are being harmed by it, but to also recognize that our calling is unique among the denominations and to make place within membership for those who might disagree with our position of abstinence. The call of young clergy was for integrity around the issue, admitting that many members of the church drink socially even as the church tends to follow a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” practice. I blogged about this issue last week. The legislation was amended and brought to the floor of the General Assembly the following week. After some brief discussion it was referred to the Board of General Superintendents for further study. A task force will be appointed to bring recommendation back to the 2021 GA.
The second issue of significance was the report of the Task Force on Human Sexuality. This report can be read in its entirety on my blog post Thoughts on Human Sexuality. The committee heard the report, discussed at length, and voted unanimously in favor of adoption. There was a holy hush in the room as we realized the power of the unity that had enveloped this discussion and position. Issues that have ripped apart our Episcopalian and Methodist friends, threatening the division of their denominations, had brought us together around a position that was biblical, truthful, gracious and redemptive. Having served with the international leaders who had crafted the statement over the past three years, I cried with joy. The legislation went to the floor of the General Assembly Plenary Session and was passed with a 97 percent approval vote. I was proud of my church.
On Sunday, the midpoint of the 10-day conference, we gathered in worship as ~40,000 people from 162 nations celebrated our Lord and shared the communion meal together. Thousands more live-streamed the service in their congregational gatherings around the globe. Then we all rushed off to Sunday dinner. Both Trevecca and ENC held their alumni and friends dinners in nearby hotel ballrooms. Denise and I, plus our three daughters, did the “merger dash.” We welcomed the Trevecca crowd at the door until the salads were served, then zoomed over two blocks via waiting van to do the ENC dinner talk as they were eating the main course, then zoomed back to the TNU site where dessert was being enjoyed, and gave the TNU talk. Then we sat down and ate a piece of dry chicken. It was fun to see the fellowship of the alumni of these two schools and to share with each a report on their alma mater. On our way back to our hotel room, we stopped by the Southern Nazarene University luncheon and greeted Loren and Linda Gresham, who are completing 50 years of service to SNU. We also congratulated Dr. Keith Newman, the incoming SNU president. The family of Nazarene educators is a gift to the Church.
On day six, the Plenary Sessions began and for the next four days we dealt with hundreds of legislative items brought before the Assembly by the committees. Some of it was exciting—a Manual revision of restoration of pastors, debate on the article of faith on Sanctification, whether the GA ought to meet every four or every five years. Some of it was boring. I won’t name those because I’m sure they were vitally important to someone, though I know not who. The highlight of the Assembly was the election of two new general superintendents. The church elects six to lead the global work. Two of our past six were retiring and the four incumbents were re-elected with strong affirmation. For most of history, we have elected six Anglo American men. We had elected only one female and two non-USA leaders prior to this Assembly. We elected Dr. Filimao Chambo, an African, and Dr. Carla Sunberg, missionary, educator, and multi-lingual servant. The church took a giant step forward in recognizing the diversity of the people of God in its leadership. I was seated near both of the newly elected general superintendents. As the ballot of their election was announced, the African delegation broke into a song of celebration and ushered their brother to the platform for his acceptance speech. When Dr. Sunberg was announced, they did the same for her. I heard them saying to her on the walk to the platform, “We love him (pointing to Dr. Chambo) and we love you. We will pray for him and we will pray for you.” I love these African Christians.

 

Thoughts on Human Sexuality

Thoughts on Human Sexuality

The Church of the Nazarene recently passed a resolution to rewrite the Covenant of Christian Conduct section under Human Sexuality. The vote was 97 percent affirmative on the resolution.

Purchase your copy of the ebook here.

Several friends have asked for a copy of the resolution, so I have placed it below, in its entirety. It was my privilege to work on this for three years with a group of international scholars, psychologists, pastors, and theologians. As we were doing this work, I was simultaneously working on curriculum for the church. It is now available in ebook format as Human Sexuality II: A Primer for Christians. The first hard copy volume by the same title is out of print. The second volume has several new chapters and has been re-edited to be more current. The book has discussion questions at the conclusion of each chapter for group conversation.  

Human Sexuality and Marriage

The Church of the Nazarene views human sexuality as one expression of the holiness and beauty that God the Creator intended. Because all humans are beings created in the image of God, they are of inestimable value and worth. As a result we believe that human sexuality is intended by God to include more than the sensual experience, and is a gift of God designed to reflect the whole of our physical and relational createdness.

As a holiness people, the Church of the Nazarene affirms that the human body matters to God. Christians are both called and enabled by the transforming and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit to glorify God with our bodies. Our senses, our sexual appetites, our ability to experience pleasure, and our desire for connection to another are shaped out of the very character of God. Our bodies are good, very good.

We affirm belief in a God whose creation is an act of love. Having experienced God as holy love, we understand the Trinity to be a unity of love among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, we are made with a yearning for connection with others at the core of our being. That yearning is ultimately fulfilled as we live in covenanted relationship with God, the creation, and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Our creation as social beings is both good and beautiful. We reflect the image of God in our capacity to relate and our desire to do so. The people of God are formed as one in Christ, a rich community of love and grace.

Within this community, believers are called to live as faithful members of the body of Christ. Singleness among the people of God is to be valued and sustained by the rich fellowship of the church and the communion of the saints. To live as a single person is to engage, as Jesus did, in the intimacy of community, surrounded by friends, welcoming and being welcomed to tables, and expressing faithful witness.

Also within this community, we affirm that some believers are called to be married. As defined in Genesis, “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The marriage covenant, a reflection of the covenant between God and the people of God, is one of exclusive sexual fidelity, unselfish service, and social witness. A woman and a man publicly devote themselves to one another as a witness to the way God loves. Marital intimacy is intended to reflect the union of Christ and the Church, a mystery of grace. It is also God’s intention that in this sacramental union the man and woman may experience the joy and pleasure of sexual intimacy and from this act of intimate love new life may enter the world and into a covenantal community of care. The Christ-centered family ought to serve as a primary location for spiritual formation. The church is to take great care in the formation of marriage through pre-marital counseling and teaching that denotes the sacredness of marriage.

The Scriptural story, however, also includes the sad chapter of the fracturing of human desire in the fall, resulting in behaviors that elevate self-sovereignty, damage and objectify the other, and darken the path of human desire. As fallen beings, we have experienced this evil on every level—personal and corporate. The principalities and powers of a fallen world have saturated us with lies about our sexuality. Our desires have been twisted by sin, and we are turned inward on ourselves. We have also contributed to the fracturing of the creation by our willful choice to violate the love of God and live on our own terms apart from God.

Our brokenness in the areas of sexuality takes many forms, some due to our own choosing and some brought into our lives via a broken world. However, God’s grace is sufficient in our weaknesses, enough to bring conviction, transformation, and sanctification in our lives. Therefore, in order to resist adding to the brokenness of sin and to be able to witness to the beauty and uniqueness of God’s holy purposes for our bodies, we believe members of the body of Christ, enabled by the Spirit, can and should refrain from:

  • Unmarried sexual intercourse and other forms of inappropriate sexual bonding. Because we believe that it is God’s intention for our sexuality to be lived out in the covenantal union between one woman and one man, we believe that these practices often lead to the objectification of the other in a relationship. In all its forms, it also potentially harms our ability to enter into the beauty and holiness of Christian marriage with our whole selves.
  • Sexual activity between people of the same sex. Because we believe that it is God’s intention for our sexuality to be lived out in the covenantal union between one woman and one man, we believe the practice of same-sex sexual intimacy falls short of God’s will for human sexuality. While a person’s homosexual or bi-sexual attraction may have complex and differing origins, and the implication of this call to sexual purity is costly, we believe the grace of God is sufficient for such a calling. We recognize the shared responsibility of the body of Christ to be a welcoming, forgiving, and loving community where hospitality, encouragement, transformation and accountability are available to all.
  • Extra-marital sexual relations. Because we believe this behavior is a violation of the vows that we made before God and within the body of Christ, adultery is a selfish act, a family-destroying choice, and an offense to the God who has loved us purely and devotedly.
  • Divorce.  Because marriage is intended to be a lifelong commitment, the fracturing of the covenant of marriage, whether initiated personally, or by the choice of a spouse, falls short of God’s best intentions. The church must take care in preserving the marriage bond where wise and possible, and offering counsel and grace to those wounded by divorce.
  • Practices such as polygamy or polyandry. Because we believe that the covenantal faithfulness of God is reflected in the monogamous commitment of husband and wife, these practices take away from the unique and exclusive fidelity intended in marriage.

Sexual sin and brokenness are not only personal, but rather pervades the systems and structures of the world. Therefore, as the church bears witness to the reality of the beauty and uniqueness of God’s holy purposes we also believe the church should refrain from and advocate against:

  • Pornography in all its forms, which is desire gone awry. It is the objectification of people for selfish sexual gratification. This habit destroys our capacity to love unselfishly.
  • Sexual violence in any form, including rape, sexual assault, sexual bullying, hateful speech, marital abuse, incest, sex trafficking, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, bestiality, sexual harassment, and the abuse of minors and other vulnerable populations. All people and systems that perpetrate sexual violence transgress the command to love and to protect our neighbor.  The body of Christ should always be a place of justice, protection, and healing for those who are, who have been, and who continue to be affected by sexual violence.

Therefore we affirm that:

  • Where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. Although the effects of sin are universal and holistic, the efficacy of grace is also universal and holistic. In Christ, through the Holy Spirit, we are renewed in the image of God. The old is gone and the new comes. Although the forming of our lives as a new creation may be a gradual process, God’s healing is effective in dealing with the brokenness of humanity in the areas of sexuality.
  • The human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. We affirm the need for our sexuality to be conformed to God’s will. Our bodies are not our own but have been bought with a price. Therefore, we are called to glorify God in our bodies through a life of yielded obedience.
  • The people of God are marked by holy love. We affirm that, above all the virtues, the people of God are to clothe themselves with love. The people of God have always welcomed broken people into our gathering. Such Christian hospitality is neither an excusing of individual disobedience nor a refusal to participate redemptively in discerning the roots of brokenness. Restoring humans to the likeness of Jesus requires confession, forgiveness, formative practices, sanctification, and godly counsel—but most of all, it includes the welcome of love which invites the broken person into the circle of grace known as the church. If we fail to honestly confront sin and brokenness, we have not loved. If we fail to love, we cannot participate in God’s healing of brokenness.

As the global church receives and ministers to the people of our world, the faithful outworking of these statements as congregations is complex and must be navigated with care, humility, courage, and discernment.

Reframing the Alcohol Question in the Church of the Nazarene

Reframing the Alcohol Question in the Church of the Nazarene

 

Every denomination has its hot buttons. Alcohol is one of ours.

When the issue of social drinking comes up, we line up to tell our stories of abuse, destruction, and slippery slopes. And these stories are true. As a result of this passion, we are unable to carry the conversation forward on a meaningful level. I watched, again, as our General Assembly sought to address the issue. My friend, Rick Powers, simply requested that we spend 15 minutes talking about the issue that had been referred. We got no traction on his request. So I would suggest a simple reframing of the question in this way. Rather than asking, “Can Nazarenes drink socially?” what if we change the question to this: “Is our call to abstinence a matter of membership, discipleship, or both?”

I’ll start with where we might gain consensus (and by consensus I mean a majority opinion of General Assembly delegates, not a popular vote of all social media Nazarenes). We might agree on the following points:

  1. From our beginning, the Church of the Nazarene has expressed concern for the abuse of alcohol. We believe it is part of our historic calling to stand with those who suffer its abusive consequences while also opposing a culture that glorifies its use to the detriment of many.
  2. We have chosen abstinence as the means by which we will stand in solidarity with those who suffer, and as our means of bearing witness to the world that our love for the neighbor expresses itself in such a witness. There are also other ways to express the same concern.
  3. We do not believe that God has called every denomination and movement to the same expression of abstinence. While the issue of alcohol may be rooted in our historic origin, other movements were formed around different issues – peace/reconciliation for the Mennonites, helping the poor for the Salvation Army, biblical inerrancy for the Baptists. When these movements discuss these issues, the same passion we see around alcohol emerges among them. So, as we stand among the wider people of  God, it might do us well to admit that this is unique to us and our history. Therefore, we will not make this an issue that is central to Christian faith.
  4. I believe that we should confess a period of legalism in our movement which caused us to view abstinence as a personal badge of holiness. We did it for our own righteousness rather than in love for the neighbor. It became proof of personal holiness rather than a practice of social justice.  If we intend to be honest about the Bible, the only position for abstinence to be made is rooted in love for the neighbor. And a very good case can be made for this.

While many will wish to disagree on some or all of these points, I believe this where consensus might begin.  If so, might we tame our passion a bit and tackle this question: “Is our call to abstinence a matter of membership, discipleship, or both?” I’ll take a shot at each option.

  1. It is a matter of membership. The covenant of church membership is a vow of solidarity with the church. Preparation for membership should include a thorough introduction to what we believe and practice. Those who join should follow the practices of the Covenant of Christian Conduct. Our ethic is based on the concept of the collective Christian conscience as guided by the Holy Spirit, which is expressed by a General Assembly of the denomination. Our call to abstinence is found there. We also state that “those who violate the conscience of the church do so at their own peril and to the hurt of the witness of the church.”  This seems to suggest that we recognize the reality that not all members adhere to the corporate conscience of the church and thus, harm our social witness.

So what do we do with this? Is abstinence from alcohol the leading litmus test for membership? Or possibly the lone remaining litmus test? The same Covenant of Christian Conduct also calls for tithing, justice for the poor, education via our Nazarene schools, discernment in movies and dancing, and a lot of other things. Shall we place the same membership emphasis on tithing, engaging social justice for the poor, sending our youth to Nazarene colleges, and not going to raunchy movies or making suggestive dance moves? It strikes me that you can be a member of the church and not tithe, attend, serve, or profess the experience of sanctification.

The conversation we should be having revolves around the difference between calling persons to embrace ethical convictions and making these same convictions essential to membership. Could it be that there are many who wish to join us in our mission to make Christ-like disciples, but who respectfully do not embrace every ethical position that we hold. The millennials, for all their interesting ways, are giving us a gift by calling us to honesty around this issue. In the words of a wise young pastor, “This isn’t about the young person who wants to social drink, but the lifetime 50-year-old members who already do.” They are asking for honesty. Our current practice resembles looking the other way, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Had I chosen to evict the members who were social drinkers from the Nazarene congregations I pastored, I would have decimated the church. Some of the most Christ-like persons I have pastored fit the category. But I would also say that, over time, many of them eventually came to the practice of abstinence as I carefully preached the call and as they observed the ministry of the church to those abused by alcohol. We were able to call people to abstinence without shaming or evicting those members who respectfully disagreed. Which leads me to the second option.

  1. It is a matter of discipleship. I understand the concern of those who believe that removing this as a membership requirement softens our position. I would suggest that a membership requirement ignored by many causes us to play games of avoidance. We become silent, or we wink at known behavior, or we shame people, or we just look the other way. I view membership as invitation to join us in the mission to make Christ-like disciples.  I prefer the requirement that one be baptized to join the church thus affirming that one already belongs to the body of Christ. And in the body of Christ, we believe that God has the right to tell us what to do with our time, money, and bodies. I also believe that a brief statement of doctrinal affirmations is a requirement. If a person understands God in an essentially different way than we do, there are other families they can and should join. Membership is an early association decision. Discipleship is the life-long work we do to call and empower people to live in likeness to Jesus. I prefer to think of the call to abstinence as a matter of discipleship rather than a check-the-box for membership.
  2. It is both a matter of discipleship and membership. This is where many would land. But if we do, we need to rethink membership. It would need to become a long-term, delayed, highly catechism-ed act. We would create a process by which one does not join the church until they are a consistent tither, a servant among the poor, a tee-totaller, a graduate of one of our Nazarene colleges (yes, I’m kidding… but just a little), wholly sanctified, clean movie list, and innocent on the dance floor. Forgive my attempt at over-statement here, but I think membership is either an entry point followed by careful discipleship, or it is an achievement recognized by those who are the walking brand of everything we believe (which begins to sound a little like our earlier legalism).

I am encouraged by the way our church dealt with human sexuality. It was a privilege to help craft that work and to offer curriculum to the church for calling people to a sexual ethic and practice. I hope we can rewrite our whole Covenant of Christian Conduct as a cohesive call to the life of holiness as we understand it. It would serve as an understanding of our specific, historic, and present call, not a litmus test for all believers. And I pray that our welcome to membership could be the beginning of participation in a family with lots of holy practices.

During the General Assembly deliberations, I tweeted the line, “The church is both clunky and wise.” I believe this. We are deliberately slow because global conversations are not easy, because generations matter, and because we always fight our own ghosts. But hope is among us in the person of Jesus. If we keep pursuing his likeness, we will find ourselves in a good place. In the words of a retiring General Superintendent, “The church is a mess, but I love her.”

And I would add, “Jesus is a stretch, but I desire to be made like him.”

Reflections on the bombing in Manchester

Reflections on the bombing in Manchester

Friends, the following is a reflection of a Trevecca alumnus, Joseph Wood, who works as a theology professor in Manchester. His theological leadership is a healing touch following the terrorist attack in his city. May God grant grace to our friends in the U.K.  
The old motto holds true: the sun never sets on Trevecca. Our graduates serve globally. 
—Dan Boone

A screenshot of Wood’s reflections at Seedbed, movement and media platform whose mission is to gather, connect, and resource the people of God to sow for a great awakening.

Terror. Death. Grief. Pain. Anguish. Fear.

These are the words which appeared on my social media feed and the news two days ago. I live in Manchester, UK and our city was attacked late Monday night by a suicide bomber. Almost 2 dozen people, many of whom were children, lost their lives, and many more are still in hospital fighting for theirs. Yesterday was a day of grief, pain, and deep sadness.

As I opened my social media apps yesterday, another word appeared: Aldersgate. In the midst of tragedy, I see a word which sends my mind racing.

Yesterday, people around the world recognized a significant moment in the life of John Wesley. Nearly 300 years ago on that day, a young John Wesley, ‘went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street.’ For months he had been struggling with faith and doubt, grace and works, and he had been praying for God to bring him a sense of assurance of faith. In this meeting a passage from Martin Luther’s Preface to Romans was being read. Luther, too, struggled with faith and fear. As a young monk, he longed to have an assurance of the state of his soul. As he began to study the letters to the Romans and Galatians, he became convinced of the fact that assurance comes through faith alone and faith is a gift of God, made available through the righteousness of Christ.

As Wesley was hearing Luther explain the depths of love being expressed in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he recorded later in his Journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This was a pivotal moment in the life of Wesley, one which many see as a catalyst for what would become of his life: the leader of a worldwide movement in the Church.

So, I am thinking today about Aldersgate and I am still grieving of what happened in my city on Monday and I wonder, what does it mean to have a ‘heart strangely warmed’ in the midst of tragedy?

On a day like yesterday, hearts in Manchester could easily feel cold and sad. People affected could have hearts of hostility and anger. The hearts of those in the emergency services could be simply weary and tired.

But this is not what I saw in the town square yesterday. Thousands of Mancunians gathered together to speak hope over the city, to pray for the city, and to show their love for the city. I have heard story after story of ordinary people caring for the injured, giving rides to those who were stranded, and offering hospitality to strangers. I saw church building after church building with doors opened wide, welcoming anyone who wanted to pray, speak with someone, or simply find a place of quiet to reflect.

This week, in many ways, I saw a city with a “heart strangely warmed.” This may seem an odd phrase to use to describe the atmosphere, as not all of those people at the town hall were Christians and not all of those willing to help would claim faith in Christ. But as I reflect on Aldersgate and as I observe the response of a city in which Wesley preached many times, I wonder if the Spirit of God may be moving over our city, gently warming the hearts of this great place, offering the gifts of faith, hope, and love.

Please continue to pray for the people of Manchester.

Holy Week Ramblings

Holy Week Ramblings

It affected me in more ways than I had expected.

I suppose the way the funeral meshed into my week gave it all kinds of things to spill over into.

Yesterday I went to the funeral of Ben Speer, sat on the back row, listened to songs I hadn’t heard in years sung by the Gaither Homecoming crowd and the Stamps-Baxter choir and found myself deeply moved. Why?

I think it is more than nostalgia. I think it is all the other things floating around in my life these days.

A few nights ago, I went to the Trevecca Undergraduate Student Research Symposium and heard bright young scholars make presentations on topics like producing a documentary film, anxiety in undocumented students, reforming girls of the 19th century England, and the massacre of African-American Union soldiers at Fort Pillow. These were just a few of the 30 presentations.

I saw young minds creating and discovering, then sharing their findings with standing-room only crowds. The Fort Pillow massacre report connected me to J. J. White Memorial Presbyterian Church in my hometown. He was the founder of my birthplace, but I had never heard the story that he had served time for war crimes committed in the massacre at Fort Pillow. And he has a church named after him a hundred plus years later.

My cousin Andy and I talked late last night about growing up in Mississippi and all that was going on there that we did not know then and how we are responsible for the worlds we are making now.

Then, yesterday morning a committee of the Tennessee legislature failed to recommend a bill to allow DACA students to pay the same in-state tuition as the same kids they went through TN K-12 schools with. They have to pay out-of-state tuition, which makes college practically unaffordable for them. And my DACA friends are heartbroken.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to get AT&T U-verse installed at my house. Today will be their third trip. I forget how dependent I am on wireless connections to be omnipresent.

Then in chapel this week at Trevecca, students and professors shared about their trip to Israel and the film they are making, Thy Kingdom Come. Our chaplain asked the students on the panel a question: How did this trip affect how you know Jesus? When people travel to the Holy Land, we usually ask if they read the Bible differently after being there or if their faith seems more historically grounded, but Shawna Songer Gaines asked these students if they now know Jesus differently.

Their humble responses made me grateful for professors who do life with students and for the Jesus that is knowable.

And then, I’m navigating two worlds with the recent decision to serve as president of two schools, one in Nashville and one near Boston. I know the Nashville school well having served 12 years as president of Trevecca Nazarene University, six years as its campus church pastor, and four years as a student. Its history is entwined with my own and that of my older friends. But the role of president of Eastern Nazarene College has me learning a new history. I’ve been reading the 2-volume work of Dr. James R. Cameron detailing the history of the college. Founded in 1900 and surviving against the odds, this school is my newest challenge. It is a gem worth bringing back to stability and strength. I am humbled that they would let me try (along with several friends who are smarter than me at what they do).

And finally, we have 20-30 people coming for Easter weekend. Our own gang is approaching 20, and then we have friends from lots of places. Our celebration will include family and friends of all ages, from 1 to 90. We’ll attend Good Friday service with one daughter’s family and Easter Sunday with another daughter’s family.  It’s Holy Week.

So I went to Ben Speer’s funeral yesterday and found myself in a quiet place reflecting on the timeless Christ and the frail time-marked humans that I live among. For the grandkids in my back yard this weekend and the college students making discoveries in the lab and the Holy Land, my musings make little sense … because when you’re young, you can’t look back far enough to wonder.

And for the long-dead founder of my hometown who slaughtered Union soldiers because of the color of their skin but got his name on a church sign anyway and for Mom and Pop Speer who welcomed Ben home, it is too late to do anything different about anything. We live with the world they created, good and bad.

And for the AT&T installer, the state legislators, and the friends coming for Easter weekend, I pray grace over what they do.

And if the Lord tarries, what we’re doing now at Trevecca and what we will attempt at Eastern Nazarene College will be history of some kind. And we will live with that.

I suppose it was the songs we sang at Ben’s funeral: “In a Land Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” “Time Has Made a Change,” “Sheltered in the Arms of God.” You can Google those lyrics if you’d like, but these are the songs I grew up singing. They still mean a lot to me, but now, all these years later, I think I’m really beginning to understand them.

The common denominator in all of this is the timeless Christ, who wastes nothing, preserves everything and rises from the worst we can do. Jesus seems very near this week.

I saw something beautiful today

I saw something beautiful today

A few reflections from this past Sunday. 

I saw something beautiful today: a new church was born.

The congregation that my wife and I attend opened their arms 16 months ago to a pastor couple who have worked among us to collect a group of people with the commitment to launch a new congregation in a different part of the city. Ours is a congregation that had its own birth less than 10 years ago in a storefront building. Now it has reproduced itself in loving generosity. With the world awash in “big,” it was moving to see something tiny and small take its first steps today.

The launching pastor, with tears in his eyes, compared the mother church to a pregnant woman glowing in the beauty of new life. The two congregations gathered as one for the last time today and shared the Lord’s Supper, sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and spoke a blessing. Next week, another part of the city will be graced with the presence of a loving new congregation.

I saw something beautiful today.