Exploring The Worship Plot

Exploring The Worship Plot

This week, Trevecca Nazarene University launched a new master’s degree program in worship and leadership. I’m passionate about this degree and the ways it will help churches and their worship to deepen their worship. In light of the announcement about this new program, I’m sharing a few excerpts from my book on worship, The Worship Plot.

I love spontaneous moments in response to the Spirit of God. But I also think it is important for us to listen to the story of our creative God. In the Beginning, the Spirit hovered over a dark, formless chaos. Then God went to work. The Result was order, structure, and story. The order did not confine God; it unleashed God. The structure did not inhibit God; it revealed God. The story did not limit God; it narrated God.

In worship, the creating Spirit of God is as work sustaining the life of a people. The structure of worship is conducive to life in the Spirit. The story of God and humans is being told and acted out, much like a play combines words and actions to produce compelling drama. 

In my book, The Worship Plot, I suggest five acts for the drama of worship. 

  1. Entrance. A play starts with an exposition that sets the time and place of the story. The Entrance does something similar for worship. The opening act of the worship plot locates us. We gather at a certain time—on Sundays—because God has called us together. We enter a certain space—God’s presence. Gathering remind us who we are and whose we are. This Sabbath pattern is our distinguishing habit. 
  2. The Bad News. Just as a first act in a play raises a conflict that intensifies during the second, so goes the unfolding of the worship plot. If it really sinks in that we are gathered in the presence of the Holy God, we instantly identify with Isaiah: “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LordAlmighty” (Isa. 6:5, NIV). That’s another way of saying, “What’s a person like me doing in a place like this?” This leads to Act II of our drama, confession of the Bad News, the admission that our lives aren’t all we hope they would be, or all that God has desired for us. 
  3. The Good News. This is the climax of our drama, the turning point for the better—the Good News. The Bible is full of good news. “I have heard your cry.” “And the father ran out to meet him.” “Get up. Take your mat. Go home” (see Exod. 3; Luke 15; Matt. 9). Every one of these statements is made to people living with bad news. Good news can be delivered as scripture, sermon or song. It is the moment in the service when we declare to troubled people that God is with us doing something redemptive. It is the story of Father, Son, and Spirit acting in loving aggressiveness toward troubled humans. We grow numb under worship that drones on and one about sin in a dark world. The worship plot must get for Bad News to Good News, from sin to grace, from death to life. 
  4. Response of the People. The Good News opens us and makes us capable of response. Like the falling action in the fourth act of a play, our response to the Good News should draw us to an outcome where we are better off than we were before. The Good News even suggests what our response might be. The possibilities are many: repent of sin, be baptized, sing a song, give money, volunteer to serve, dedicate an infant, share the Lord’s Supper, testify, offer words of encouragement to fellow worshipers, be silent, break bread. These are real, bodily responses to the Good News. We believe that hearing is not enough; we must do something. 
  5. Blessing. Another world for blessing is benediction, which means “to say good words.” This act of the worship plot takes only a minute or two, but it is the needed conclusion. It’s the denouement of the drama, where we heart that we are better off than we were. A pastor lifts his or her hands and pronounces blessings on the people who have gathered in God’s presence, been honest about their Bad News, received the Good News, and responded to grace. These people are now ready to be sent into the world where Jesus has already gone. They will serve the people of the world, empowered by the grace they have received This closing blessing is a gift. It gives boldness to the beaten-down. It whispers grace to the weak. It invades our damaged self-esteem with words that say God values us. The grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit go with us all. 

Style divides. Story makes us one. 

The Worship Plot

Learn more about the book or get your own copy.

Master’s of Worship and Leadership

Trevecca Nazarene University is launching a new master’s program in January 2020 for worship leaders. The Master of Arts in Worship and Leadership will allow worship leaders to deepen their theological and historical understanding of worship while also honing leadership skills that will deepen their ministries and open new opportunities. Read more.

Thinking about getting married? Try these date suggestions.

Thinking about getting married? Try these date suggestions.

​This blog post is for people in a relationship that could conceivably progress to marriage.  As a college president, I work in the middle of people who are pondering key relationship questions such as, How do I know if this is the one?

When Denise and I are asked that question, we resort to the old staple: You just know. But I’ve come to believe that that answer works only in retrospect (after the fact). If marriage works out great, then We just knew. If it doesn’t, then we messed up in the critical moments of discerning the relationship. Dating couples deserve a better answer than You’ll know.

So here is my considered wisdom for a generation trying to get the marriage decision right. I’m suggesting 10 “must-do” dates that will likely reveal something about the person you are getting serious with.  And if that person has no interest in going on most or all of these dates with you, well, that might tell you something, too.

The Assisted Living/Nursing Home Date

Buy some cut flowers and choose a random nursing home. Go to the community room and engage. Start asking the residents questions about their lives. Then listen. Observe your date. Do he or she care? Is there a genuine interest? Can he or she be comfortable in the presence of dementia? Does this person know how to respect the story of a stranger? Following the visit, as with each of the dates below, go to a coffee shop and talk about what you encountered. 

The Escape Room Date

You’ve probably already done this. This date gives you the chance to see your date under pressure. How does he or she treat people who are slowing them down? Does this person engage in the pursuit? How task-driven is he or she? Is this more about relationships, fun, or winning? What is driving them?

The Church Date

Hopefully, this is not a new thing for either of you. If you are a devoted follower of Jesus, dating and marrying someone who does not find life in Christ—think carefully about this. But do go to church together. I’d suggest you try something off the beaten path. Go to a small church that sings old songs and is five funerals away from closing. Does your date dismiss the faith of these people? Is this a joke? What is his or her capacity for finding meaning in practices and people who are older?

The Baby Sitting Date

Hopefully, there will be a messy diaper during the evening. Can your date deal with messy? How is the division of labor handled? Do you see initiative or avoidance? What kind of parent is peeking through? Does time pass fast or slow?

The Animal Shelter Date

You can watch for compassion here. You’ll also see whether sentimental feelings cloud solid judgment. If you have to talk your date out of adopting an animal on the spot, you may be dating a person whose judgment is ruled by sympathetic feelings. Look for middle ground in your date –compassion/love for God’s creations but also responsible decisions. If your date leaves a small donation, that’s a great sign.

Game Night Date

Chose games that are competitive, solo winner/loser, and in line with the interests of your date. Observe how your date handles winning and losing. Experiment with good-natured trash talk. Can he or she laugh when it isn’t going their way? Can they take teasing? How competitive is your date? If this were an important issue at stake, and one of you would lose and the other win, is this the person you’d want by your side?

The Veteran’s Home

Go tell aging soldiers that you appreciate what they did on behalf of your freedom. Listen to their stories. How does your date react to the cost of war? How does he or she express gratitude to those who have suffered? What does he or she do in the face of PTSD, amputations, shattered memories?

The Formal Date

Wear a suit. Wear a fancy dress. Eat somewhere fairly expensive. Go to a classical concert or a noted theatrical performance. Does your date wilt or waltz? Do you see enough self-esteem or gumption to engage the setting rather than being intimidated by it? Can he or she navigate settings that are new and different? Is this fun? Even if your financial tastes do not gravitate in this direction, you will observe the willingness of your date to explore new settings and experiences. Maybe you prefer to marry a homebody, but if you want get out a lot, this date will tell you whether your potential marriage partner is up to it. 

The Volunteer Project

Find a sweaty, dirty, difficult work project. The more challenging, the better. Help pick up trash in an urban housing neighborhood. Join a Habitat for Humanity team. Unload trucks for the local food bank. Work at a soup kitchen or aid a mission. Does your date work hard? Is he or she counting the minutes until they can get back on their cell phone or the couch? Are they more interested in selfies than the tasks at hand? Does he or she take interest in and engage with the people doing this kind of thing? Does your date care about other people or are they just placating you by being there?

The Family Picture Album Date

Pack a picnic lunch and go to the park. Find a shade tree. Bring your family pictures—all the way back to great grandparents if you can. Tell each other the stories of your relatives. Ask questions. Listen carefully enough to repeat the narratives. Then, go to your date’s home and sit with their family and tell them what you heard. How do these family dynamics work? Is there respect, open communication, appreciation of the family that raised him or her, loving regard and laughter? If this is as awkward as wearing your clothes backward, you may want to think carefully about the relationship.

With each of these dates, you are taking another step on your journey. The question is simple: Do we keep going, pause or stop? As you share life together on these unique dates, ask yourself if this is the person you want to experience life with. Listen to your head and your heart. Don’t be swept to the altar by a tide of romantic hope or surface-based information. Seek depth. Go there thoughtfully.

One last note. All of this assumes that you actually date. Many college students have seen so many broken marriages that they are afraid to commit, even to a date. I’ve written about this in a chapter titled “If Dating is Dead” in my book Human Sexuality II: A Primer for Christians.

If you want to know if this is “the one,” try some of these dates. And even as you observe your date, listen to your own heart. It is telling you something. And maybe you’ll just know.

A Summer Reading List

A Summer Reading List

I know we are nearing mid-summer, and I’m a little late getting this list out. As a university president, I remind myself that the end of learning was never intended to coincide with graduation ceremonies. If commencement means what it means, it is a launch of lifelong learning. So this summer, I’m reading the following:

  • How Will You Measure Your Life, Christensen
    I’ve asked a group of our campus leaders to read this. It is a good reflection on why we do what we do. Christensen is one of my favorite leadership authors. Rick Mann, leader of our MBA program, suggested this one.
  • The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Heifetz, Grashow, Linsky (A Harvard Business Review Book).
    I’m rereading this common-sense, people-empowering book on leadership this summer. You should join me.
  • Leadership: In Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin.
    By reviewing the lives of Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin examines the formative events and reactions to them in times of national crisis for these four leaders.
  •  Heads You Win, Archer.
    A novel.
  • The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Lukianoff and Haidt.
    This is a helpful balance to my reading list from last summer on white privilege, racial sensitivity, and the call-out culture. I found it descriptive of the way a Christian community respects people, discusses competing ideas and develops maturing friendships.
  • Faith Formation in a Secular Age, Root.
    Great book on the spiritual formation of the generation headed to college and already there.
  • Paul, N. T. Wright.
    I try to read one of Wright’s books every year because he seems to be the voice of a theologically responsible church. Paul was the epitome of a gospel entrepreneur.
  • The Fool and the Heretic: How Two Scientists Moved Beyond Labels to a Christian Dialogue about Creation and Evolution, Wood and Falk.
  • Giving a Voice to the Voiceless, Christopher Yuan.
  • The Second Mountain, David Brooks.
Reflections on Commencement

Reflections on Commencement

Commencement is always a special time within the Trevecca community.

It’s a time of celebration and commissioning as we charge our graduates to go out into the world as servant leaders. Full of pomp and circumstance and special recognition, it’s a time to honor those who have worked so hard to obtain their degrees as well as the family, friends and faculty members who have supported them.

This year, we had much to celebrate. The University conferred more than 1,140 degrees on Saturday, with nearly 1,000 graduates taking part in the ceremony. Every Commencement location was crowded with friends and family members excited to see their graduates receive the diplomas they had worked so diligently to earn.

It was also an honor to celebrate the legacy of valued members of our faculty. University officials awarded emeritus status to Dr. Mary Ann Meiners and Dr. Ruth Kinnersley as well as Dr. Steve Pusey, who is retiring from his role as Trevecca’s university provost. Dr. Pusey was also recognized as the recipient of the Lyla T. Mackey Diakonos Award, which honors those who have exhibited extraordinary service to the University community or Christian higher education.

Each year, I am awed by the graduates who shake my hand at graduation and anticipate the wonderful ways they will make a difference in our world as well as the ways they already are.

The weather may have moved our Commencement Convocation indoors, but it didn’t dampen our spirits or our celebration. Thank you, graduates and guests, for your patience and cooperation this weekend. It was our joy to celebrate with you and your families—and our honor to play a role in your story.

Congratulations, Class of 2019!

See photos of the celebration here.

Traveling Together

Traveling Together

Are there seasons of life during which we are more susceptible to bonding with other people in deep, lasting ways? Are there specific ages when what happens in our relationships sticks in our memory, our heart, our identity more readily?

I can’t name many people that I went to first grade with. I faintly remember the things that happened to me in the John F. Kennedy Elementary School right across the street from my 220 South Myrtle house in McComb, Miss. I just don’t remember a lot. And I’d have to say the same about junior high and senior high. I remember a few more classmates and a few standout incidents and a handful of friends that I have quasi-kept-up-with across the years. But I haven’t been back to any class reunions—though I tried one time—and I’m interested in the McComb High Class of ’70 Facebook page. The friendships were good ones, but they haven’t stayed near enough and dear enough to my heart to draw me home.

But the college years are a different story. Four years—actually 12 quarters or about 32 months on this hilltop—have formed me for life … or maybe warped me for life. My college years found me open and susceptible to formative friendships that are alive in me to this day.

Was it Trevecca or was it just that time of life? Was it moving away from home and being thrown into the den of lions called a dormitory? Was it the sense of independence from parents that opened us? Was it that most of us were the first-generation college students in our families, and we felt like these “brave explorers of brand new worlds”? Why did our college years imprint on us in ways that bring us back here again and again?

My dad is 94. Most of the time when he calls, he tells me about someone who died. He’s called me over the past years about all his friends who died – and he doesn’t do that anymore because, well, all his friend didn’t live to 94. Now he’s calling me about people he thinks I may remember from McComb who are closer to my age than his. He reads the paper to see who died. Then he calls me. And I barely remember them.

But when news of a Trevecca friend comes my way, a network of Facebook memories begins that reminds me of people and events and days that lie closest to the center of my heart.

The same is true for a lot of you. Charles Davis told me the news about Dave Edwards yesterday. In the late ’60s, there was a group of guys who lived in C-Suite of Wise Hall: Charles and Dennis Moore and Jim Quiggins and Jordy Conger and David Dodge and Dale Killingsworth and Dave Edwards. They’re getting together for dinner tomorrow night here on campus. Dave Edwards won’t be with them. He’s in day one recovery from major surgery in an attempt to beat bladder cancer.

The news was not good.

But Dave sent the message before his surgery. At the dinner, the men of C-Suite were to circle up, arms on shoulders, bowed heads touching in the middle, wives holding hands in a circle behind them. And they were to pray, not for his healing, but that God would give him grace and strength to face whatever came his way. As Charles told me the story and then read the email from Dave, he was choking back tears.

Explain that.

Fifty years ago these guys were together in a dorm—and with half a century of water under the bridge, 50 years of life experiences, thousands of other people having tromped through their lives—these relationships are the ones they draw on in a moment of need.

I could tell the same stories about Glen English and Charles Torain and Bill Green. About Morris Stocks and Corlis McGee and Bob Brower. About the Streits, the Knights, the Formans, the Shropes, and the Welches. About women’s trios and men’s quartets and basketball teams and intramural football. About religion majors who have traveled through life together serving God and church. About Circle K and K-ettes and Civinettes. About Kings Kids and Solomon’s Porch and dramatic productions. About student pranks and academic profiles.

And it’s all about one thing: friends.

Show me any other 32 months of life that have greater capacity for lifelong bonding, deep friendships. Is it Trevecca, or is it just that time of life? In the wise words of Forrest Gump, “Maybe it’s both.”

Maybe it’s that time, those college years, and maybe it’s something deeply embedded in the culture of Trevecca.

And it’s still happening. I see the signs of it every day. But the students who are here now don’t know it. We didn’t know it in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. You have to live awhile before it dawns on you what those 32 months did to you. I wish I could explain to prospective students that if they’ll enroll here, they will be grateful ’til their dying days.

Maybe what sticks to our souls so deep that we can’t shake it is that here, during our college years, we learned that we matter to other people. They matter to us – we matter to them. In a world where we are customers and clients, patients and patrons, buyers and bosses; in a world where we have economic rules to play by and pecking orders to perform; maybe we are two quarts low on believing that we really matter to someone. And then we touch our college friends, and it all comes spilling out like it was yesterday.

And if we feel like we matter to them, then they matter to us. I love the word chesed in the Bible. It’s the Hebrew covenant word that says that when you’re in a covenant with someone, you have the right to expect certain behaviors of them—and they have the same right to expect certain behaviors of you. So we go into the world trying to live up to the expectations of our covenant friends. We want our lives to be a blessing.

I’ve been humming a tune this week. You know the song, the old hymn “Make Me a Blessing” with that familiar refrain that out of our lives “may Jesus shine.”

This is what friends do for each other. We make them feel like they matter. We place hopeful expectations on them, and we live faithfully to fulfill their expectations of us. And we bless them. We act in ways that are life-giving.

Trevecca has given us a unique opportunity in a specific chapter of our lives to form lifelong friendships. I pray that future generations will experience the same. In their world, where darkness is rife, they will need the covenanted friends that can be found here.

The last verse of the “Trevecca Hymn” says, “God Who set Thy hand upon her, who has long supplied her need, wilt Thou keep our Alma Mater Thine in service as in creed. Give her guidance, give her wisdom, from Thee never let her roam. All the way to heaven’s portal, bring her sons and daughters home.”

I’m thinking of the C-suite guys praying for Dave Edwards as he faces a life-threatening disease. Our finish line is not a diploma, but heaven’s portal.

And so we travel that direction together.

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.


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.