Racism and Rooftop Experiences

Racism and Rooftop Experiences

Imagine that you are Simon Peter, the Jewish zealot, on the Day of Pentecost.

Everything you have learned from your religious roots suggests that the covenant between God and humans requires one to become a Jew to experience the acceptance of God. Your culture has engrained within you the privilege of Jewishness. Some of this, you understand about yourself. Some of this is beyond your self-knowledge. For you, all non-Jews, people not-like-you, are in a different category. You call them all “Gentiles”, which is also a synonym for “sinner”. They are outsiders, unclean persons, profane reprobates. Their only path to salvation is to become what you already are, a Jew.

And then, on the Day of Pentecost, a fine Jewish feast, a miracle of speaking and hearing occurs.  You are among your fellow Jews from all over the known world and suddenly, fire falls from heaven. Little shoots of fire rest on human heads. The Jews in the room, including you, begin to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus. But the languages being spoken/heard are not the typical Jewish languages but rather the languages of the Gentiles. The upper room sounds like an assembly of nations with one exception. Interpreters are not needed.

You are the public spokesperson for this strange event. You convince the amazed spectators that these people are not drunk, but rather, are filled with the Holy Spirit. You liken this to the promise of the prophet Joel and connect it to the promise of the crucified, risen Jesus.

And a movement of repentance ensues.  

A while later, on a preaching mission, you find yourself on a rooftop in Joppa praying. You fall into a trance. A divine voice commands you to kill and eat unclean animals, food that you have always religiously avoided. You protest. You have never eaten unclean animals. The voice challenges your characterization of this food: “What God has called clean, you must not call unclean.” You are puzzled as to what this is about. As you sit on the roof contemplating this strange command, three Gentiles show up in front of the house. They are calling your name. The Holy Spirit tells you that these are God-sent messengers and you are to go with them. You learn that these men are servants of a Gentile named Cornelius. God had appeared to him, given him your location in Joppa, and told him to listen to whatever you had to say. So you travel with them to his home, share the message of Jesus, and witness the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles gathered in Cornelius’ home … in the same way that the Spirit had been given to the Jews gathered in the upper room.

Something transforming is happening inside you as you begin to understand these strange experiences—Gentile languages used to declare the resurrection of Jesus, divine voices declaring the unclean food clean, the Holy Spirit given to Gentiles just as the Holy Spirit was given to Jews. Your world, your cultural understandings, your exclusions and inclusions, your prejudices are all turned upside down. You utter the words that you never thought a Jew like you would say, “I now understand that God shows no partiality.”

Imagine that you are white, on the day that George Floyd was murdered.

If it required the miracle of Pentecost to open one of Jesus’ closest followers to the reality that God cherishes every life equally, that Jesus died for every person equally, that the invitation to life is issued to every person equally, and that God is not partial to any race—what is needed for you to become part of the solution to the deeply entrenched sin of racism?

The Holy Spirit reveals to us our sin, our prejudice, our racism, our cultural blind spots, our exclusiveness, and all our stubborn categorizations. Where a lost world hardens us in these practices, God’s Spirit softens us. If we resist the Spirit, our hearts get harder, our eyes get blinder, our ears get deafer, and our categories get smaller.

As the Spirit-filled followers of Jesus, we have work to do in a world of brutality, murder, and racism. To be empowered for this work, sanctification is required. God’s love drives out sin and fills us with the power of reconciling love. The Holy Spirit compels us to go into the world as servants of the humble Jesus.

Observing humans, I have seen very few of us experience deep change because of shame, angry blaming, social media ranting, or even threat. These tactics only harden us in our defensiveness. While we work in the public square for justice, reconciliation, and peace, we believe the human heart is the original site of the racism that takes shape in institutions, policies, and cultures. If we are to be like Jesus, it begins with the work of the Holy Spirit in the core of our being. There, we confess that we are blind to our own blindness, needing the Holy Spirit to show us who we are, and to help us repent, and to forgive us. Only then, are we forgiven, enlightened, and empowered, as was Simon Peter, to become the difference this world needs.

Peter could have taken a defensive, religious posture that day on the roof. And he would have missed the miracle that God was up to. As we reflect on Pentecost, it is right for us to humbly ask, “What is God saying to me in the death of George Floyd?”

Postscript

I have found it hard to write about this. I’m not sure that another white institutional voice is what the world needs. I have tried to amplify other voices. One that I admire is a recent Trevecca graduate, Jeremiah Eliphaz Wright. Another is a reflection by Christine Youn Hung.

And finally, on Facebook, I recently shared an experience written by Deltha Katherine Harbin and a reflection from police officer Bobby Sr Walker.

Hedge Religion

Hedge Religion

I’m not sure I’ve ever lived in a time like this. A tornado ripped through our state leaving death, injury, and destruction. A COVID-19 virus has found its way to our neighborhood. A stock market plunge is rearranging our economy. Human contact is on hold. Health care systems are overwhelmed. The elderly are afraid. College students are at home, taking classes online. Small businesses are counting the cash on hand which will determine employment for real people.

Across the years, I’ve been in the trenches where humans deal with darkness. And the haunting thing about these trenches is the questioning that comes.

  • Why does a virus create such fear?
  • Why can’t someone find a cure?
  • How do we cope with human isolation?
  • Why do the elderly have to die alone, separated from those who have loved them their whole lives?
  • Why did the tornado take the path it did?
  • Why was a whole family swept away?
  • Why did my friend, my loved one, die?

We all have our questions. You have yours, I have mine. We are wired to want answers. God made us this way. It’s why books about suffering become best sellers:                 

  • When Bad Things Happen to Good People
  • Where is God When It Hurts
  • When God Doesn’t Make Sense
  • The Problem with Pain.

Many of us who are followers of God wish there were simple answers because we’ve been cornered by doubters who nail us with their questions:

  • Why does God?
  • How can God?
  • Where was God?

And we cannot explain why. We float our guesses, but it doesn’t stop the questions. Nor does God pipe in with much help. There is an awkward silence.

Suffering strips away the veneer of life. We learn that we are not as secure as we thought. Suffering changes the way we see the world, and it shatters certain kinds of faith. We talk about God, or don’t talk about God, in ways different from before.

Job understands. If you come to his story wanting simple answers, prepare to be disappointed. God is silent for most of the book. God will speak in the end … though not convincingly enough to settle the matter. We mutter our questions in the dark … because we face a terrifying power, a wind we could not direct or control, a disease we can’t take a pill to cure. These forces blew through our protective hedges and are obliterating everything in their path.  

That’s what happened to Job. A whirlwind came crashing down on him. According to the story, it was God who moved the protective hedge and let it happen.

The story begins with God bragging about Job—upright, blameless, devout, the greatest man among the people of the East, a righteous man. This is Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and Saint Francis of Assisi all rolled into one. This is not just a nice guy; this is the most righteous man on all the earth. And God is the one saying all these good things about him.

God said to Satan, “Have you noticed my friend Job? There’s no one quite like him—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil.”

Satan retorted, “So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart? Why, no one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does—he can’t lose! But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.”

God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him.”


Then Satan left the presence of God.

(Job 1:8-12, The Message)

God accepts Satan’s challenge. I’m not sure I’d want God betting on me. But God believes Job’s righteousness is deeper than trinkets and treasures. God decides to give Job the terrible dignity of proving that his integrity runs deeper than what he gets from God. Right off the bat we are given to understand that God is not about utilitarian religion—religion for reward. To serve God for reward, insurance, or a protective hedge is to fall short of knowing God as God wishes to be known. This makes God into a power that we appease to get the goodies.  God refuses to let such a claim stand. Satan says Job is righteous because God has built a hedge around him. God says no. Let’s see.

We read the account from an earthly perspective of our suffering. We ask the usual questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? What are the causes behind human suffering? But these are not the main question of the book. The story of Job is told in answer to a simple question. Why is Job righteous? Is Job’s trust in God linked to a divine hedge of protection? And what will Job do if the hedge is removed? How will he speak of God, to God, about God? What will become of his integrity?

So God removes the hedge. I wish I didn’t have to say this … but it is true. In our biblical story, God is sovereign. Satan cannot operate without permission. God is free to do as God pleases without needing permission from anyone. God removes the hedge. God allows Job’s suffering. The Old Testament man was correct in understanding that, ultimately, both good and evil and come from the hand of God—by cause or permission.

We’ve done our human best to protect ourselves from catastrophe—security alarms, insurance policies, neighborhood watch, health checkups, nest eggs, air bags, steel bars, passwords, identity protection, armed forces hand washing, social distancing, and sheltering at home. And most of the time, our hedges hold. We are mindful to have good, thick hedges. As Christians, we half-believe that by serving God, our families will be protected. We’d like to believe that being in church every week gives us a better chance at escaping calamity. But I can assure you that better people than us lost their homes in the tornado or have tested positive for COVID-19.  

We know the righteous are not shielded from suffering. Too many among us have gotten the test results back, buried children, lost jobs, and had our hearts broken. We know that ‘hedge religion’ is not foolproof. But we wish it were. And if it were, Satan would be right. We do it for what we get back in return.

God removed the hedge around Job.

And the Sabeans raided Job’s oxen.

Lightning struck Job’s sheep and shepherds.

The Chaldeans stole Job’s camels.

A tornado killed Job’s children. 

In rapid-fire order, he was reduced to nothing.

His business – gone.

His possessions – gone.

His children – gone.

Job’s response was orderly … appropriate.

“Job got to his feet, ripped his robe, shaved his head, then fell to the ground and worshiped:

‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth. God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed.’

Not once through all this did Job sin; not once did he blame God.” 

(Job 1:20-22, The Message)

God is winning the wager. The hedge is gone, and Job has not cursed God. He is grieving, yet he clings to his integrity.

In chapter 2, God is bragging again. This cannot be good for Job.

One day when the angels came to report to God, Satan also showed up. God singled out Satan, saying, “And what have you been up to?”

Satan answered God, “Oh, going here and there, checking things out.”

Then God said to Satan, “Have you noticed my friend Job?

There’s no one quite like him, is there—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil? He still has a firm grip on his integrity! You tried to trick me into destroying him, but it didn’t work.”

Satan answered, “A human would do anything to save his life. But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away his health? He’d curse you to your face, that’s what.”

God said, “All right. Go ahead—you can do what you like with him. But mind you, don’t kill him.”

(Job 2:1-8, The Message)

Does Job’s integrity end at his own skin? Is he the kind of God-follower who can handle anything exterior but collapses when it gets under his own hide? Satan strikes again. The hedge does not hold. Job’s body becomes vulnerable to disease. The only thing left guarded is his life.

Satan left God and struck Job with terrible sores. Job was ulcers and scabs from head to foot. They itched and oozed so badly that he took a piece of broken pottery to scrape himself, then went and sat on a trash heap, among the ashes.

(Job 2:7-8, The Message)

We want to ask, “How can God let this happen to a good man like Job?” But heaven is asking, “How will Job speak of God now?” The issue is his righteousness, his wholeness, his internal coherence. This is what holds Job together when his world is coming apart.

His wife said, “Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you? Curse God and be done with it!”

He told her, “You’re talking like an empty-headed fool. We take the good days from God—why not also the bad days?”

Not once through all this did Job sin. He said nothing against God.

(Job 2:9-10, The Message)

Many have followed the advice of Job’s wife. They demanded an answer and didn’t get one. They felt cheated, abandoned by God. And they turned and walked away. Job gives the pious answer. “I didn’t complain when goodness came from God’s hand, so why should I complain when trouble comes from the same hand?” Be careful not to paint Job too stoically. Within a few chapters, he will be questioning God, yelling at God, trying to sue God, and accusing God. But for now, he sits on the ash heap of suffering with the other cursed folk.  Another biblical character whose name also begins with J will suffer in a similar place.

Job’s friends come. Like good friends, they sit with him for seven days in silence. Quite remarkable, if you ask me. Most friends of religious persuasion burst through the door blabbing some pious explanation. Job’s friends sit and say nothing. And then Job speaks.

“Obliterate the day I was born. Blank out the night I was conceived!
Let it be a black hole in space.
May God above forget it ever happened.
Erase it from the books!
May the day of my birth be buried in deep darkness,
shrouded by the fog, swallowed by the night.
And the night of my conception—the devil take it!
Rip the date off the calendar, delete it from the almanac.
Oh, turn that night into pure nothingness—
no sounds of pleasure from that night, ever!…
And why? Because it released me from my mother’s womb
into a life with so much trouble.”

(Job 3:1-10, The Message)

Finally, it’s getting to him. After cursing the night of his conception and theday of his birth, he asks questions – all beginning with the word whyWhy didn’t I die at birth? Why did loving arms even rock me? Why did I ever see the light of day? Why does God bother to keep such miserable people alive? But then he asks the most piercing question of them all.

What’s the point of life when it doesn’t make sense, when God blocks all the roads to meaning? Instead of bread I get groans for my supper, then leave the table and vomit my anguish. The worst of my fears has come true, what I’ve dreaded most has happened. My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed.
No rest for me, ever—death has invaded life.

(Job 3:23-26, The Message)

Job prefers never to have been born at all, or to have died a stillborn death. He prefers an unconscious grave to this earthly existence. There are things that can hurt so badly that we wish we’d never been born. Job is there. It is the honest eruption of a suffering soul whose seven days on the ash heap have finally led to questions. Something has shattered inside Job. His trust in God is now brought into the conversation. He has progressed from chapter 1: “God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed” (1:21) to chapter 2: “He said nothing against God” (2:10) to chapter 3: “My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed. No rest for me, ever—death has invaded life” (3:25-26).

The world can never be the same again. He can never speak of God the same way again. What form of righteousness will rise from this ash heap? What does shattered faith look like? How do hedge-less people talk about God? Is there a future in God for those who suffer innocently?

Satan watches. God still trusts Job. Job wants to die…or at least to get some answers. This is what makes the story of Job so hard for us to grasp. It is different from other parts of the Bible. We are more at home in the Proverbs where you build a religious hedge of wisdom around yourself and it protects you. You have a deal with God. You do certain actions and it will result in certain consequences.

The fool and his money are soon parted.

The one who sows wicked deeds reaps wicked consequences.

The one who cares for a tree will eat its fruit.

Cause and effect.

You reap what you sow.

You get what you deserve.

We believe this. We want our children to believe this. We want to build a hedge around them. We want them to wise up and listen to us because we know the consequences of their bad choices. We know where the moral boundary lines are drawn. We know what people ought and ought not to do.

And besides, it’s scriptural. The Proverbs are a fine collection of cause and effect hedge religion.  Deuteronomy is also a narrative masterpiece of this theology. Obey God and you will inherit the land, produce bountiful crops, drink from choice wells, and have lots of kids. But disobey God and you’ll get drought, blight, enemies pestering you, childlessness, and poverty aplenty. Cause and effect religion – good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. God as much as guarantees it in Proverbs and Deuteronomy. And then something happens that makes no sense. We did good and got bad. Or even worse, the guy that did bad got good.

Job wrestles with the fact that God may not be as cut-and-dried as he thought. Job has lost his business, his possessions, his kids, his social standing, his reputation, and his health…all in short order. God removed the hedge. He’s sitting atop an ash heap scraping sores and wrestling with cause and effect religion.  Maybe God has a dark side, mysterious, wildly free. Maybe suffering is loosed in this world indiscriminately.

Job’s friends come to help. They had lived where Job had lived, like Job had always lived…until now. They haven’t suffered. But they’ve come to fix their pal Job. After listening to Job lament, they begin. They offer scripture, the tried and true texts of cause and effect religion. It’s all they know.  In their view, the only explanation for Job’s plight is that Job has sinned – big time. He is reaping what he has sown. “Repent Job, change your wicked ways! God will be good to you if you do!”

But Job, being the man of integrity that he is, knows he has done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this type of treatment from God. He says so. His friends don’t believe him. Their theology has only one explanation for this calamity. Sin.

Job’s friends scare me. I’m afraid I might look in the mirror and see one of them. I can be so sure about God’s ways and God’s doings. I have my theology down pat, tightly woven, no loopholes, airtight. I can explain to you why things happen to certain people. “I saw it coming three years ago.” “I knew she was a flirt and this would come back to haunt their marriage.” “I can tell you his problem – he’s too liberal.”

We’re so sure. We know about people, don’t we, friends of Job? And if they’ll give us half a chance, we can fix them. We know how. Our formula works. Pray this prayer. Read this book. Go to this seminar. See this counselor. Memorize these verses. Listen to this preacher.

Job refuses to be fixed by the religion of his friends. He refuses because his authentic experience does not fit their hedge religion. They think he sinned. He knows that personal sin has nothing to do with this. He calls them names – windbags, sorry comforters. He says to them,


I didn’t ask you for one red cent –
nor did I beg you to go out on a limb for me.
So why all this dodging and shuffling?
Confront me with the truth and I’ll shut up,
show me where I’ve gone off the track.
Honest words never hurt anyone,
but what’s the point of all this pious bluster?
You pretend to tell me what’s wrong with my life,
but treat my words of anguish as so much hot air.
Are people mere things to you?
Are friends just items of profit and loss?
Look me in the eyes!
Do you think I’d lie to your face?
Think it over – no double-talk!
Think carefully – my integrity is on the line!
Can you detect anything false in what I say?
Don’t you trust me to discern good from evil?”

(Job 6:14-30, The Message)

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin wrote a God-anointed book in the last days of his battle with the cancer that claimed his life. He wrote, “Whenever we are with people who suffer, it frequently becomes evident that there is very little we can do to help them…. The reason this is so frustrating is that we like to be ‘fixers’. We want not only to control our own destiny, but also that of others.” I think Cardinal Bernardin was right. If we can’t fix our friends with our answers, will our answers fix us when the time comes? Dare we admit that we have no control over our own future? The security of our hedge is in question.

Let’s be kind to our fixer friends. Their hedge religion has gotten them where they are. They are enjoying their health, homes, jobs, business success, educational attainments, and reputable friends. They accept all this as a gift of God – which it is. They believe it to be the wink of God’s approval on their righteousness.

Do you realize that Job’s friends are betting with Satan? They believe Job was good because God protected and blessed him. If Job will repent to get back in God’s good graces, he’ll be restored and get his stuff back. But God has given Job the terrible dignity of proving them all wrong.

Who are you cheering for? I think we want Job’s friends to be right. Could it be that sometimes, most of the time, cause and effect religion is right? Could it be that Proverbs and Deuteronomy explain life most of the time? Could it be that this is a good way to raise children, work, eat, study, run a business, and live? Job’s friends are partly right. There are consequences for behavior, rewards for discipline, and punishments for sin. This is the way of God.

But it doesn’t always explain every situation. God is more than a vending machine who dispenses what we deserve. Suffering is a reality in our world and there are few answers that satisfy.  

Job actually wishes his friends were right. Because then, the solution would be easy – an apology from God. When it dawned on God that Job had not committed grievous sins, God would come down with a sheepish grin on his face and say, “Job old buddy, old pal, I owe you an apology. I wasn’t paying attention the other day and some nasty stuff got labeled with the wrong address and I’m here to make it up to you because I know you did nothing to deserve this. You’ve been a faithful and loyal servant and I’m going to see to it that nothing like this ever happens to you again. I’ve fired your Guardian Angel.”

But we never hear God say oops.

The language of Job toward God in chapters 3-37 is blunt, brutal, and accusatory. Repeatedly, the friends try to reel him in and change his mind about why this has happened to him. But Job is not buying it. Interestingly, at the end of the story (Job 42:7-8), God says that Job spoke well of God while the friends didn’t. They said all the religious words. Job, on the other hand, accused God of breaking his promise, said God was hounding him like a hunter, accused God of destroying the good right along with the bad, challenged God to a debate, portrayed God as wildly free with diplomatic immunity from any law, and dared God to appear in court and defend himself. Job banged on heaven’s doors until his knuckles were bloody, demanding God to answer for the suffering he had experienced. But no one came to the door.

And in the end, God said, “Job spoke well of me.” Apparently, the essence of faith is wrestling with God. The word Israel means those who wrestle with God. Job is doing quite well for himself given his paltry health and pitiful handicap. He is wrestling with the side of God that he does not understand. Ash heap theology shoots holes in hedge religion. God hides and won’t appear in court to defend himself, so Job calls him out. And according to our story, God is pleased with this. 

I find myself wondering about the conversations in Gethsemane and on the cross. Maybe the essence of faith is wrestling with God. Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, wrote in his Memoirs, “I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against his injustice, protested his silence, and sometimes his absence, but my anger rises up within faith, and not outside it. Prophets and sages rebelled against the lack of divine interference in human affairs during the times of persecution. Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah teach us that it is permissible for a man to accuse God, provided it be done in the name of faith in God. Sometimes we must accept the pain of faith so as not to lose it. And if that makes the tragedy of the believer more devastating than that of the unbeliever, so be it.”

A Prayer
Give us a holy uncertainty about our wrong certainties.
Deliver us from fixing each other with answers that are non-answers.
May we be led by suffering to the heart of God,
revealed most clearly on a cross,
where God came to us on the ash heap
and there died in our place.
Amen.

Fostering the Creative Connection

Fostering the Creative Connection

Before becoming the President of Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, I spent 20 years in the trenches of pastoral ministry on a university campus. Some of my friends have accused me of leaving holy work for the dark side of university administration. To the contrary, my love of the local church has deepened. I still believe that the local church is the hope of a broken world.

One of the things I wish we could do better is creating worship gatherings that are formative. Believing that we are story-formed people, I have written extensively on worship as an enacted story, plotted in tandem with the biblical story to be preached on a given Sunday morning. As a pastor, the creative connection between the preaching pastor and the planner of the worship event was often disjointed.

Now I’m taking it one step further.

Trevecca has created a fully online master’s degree in worship and leadership which launches this January. I have written and filmed the lectures for the first class. It is an in-depth review of a way to form sermons and services side-by-side.

Get a taste for the first class by watching this video.

After watching the video, you may want to consider enrolling in the program. Here’s a brief description of what you can expect:

  • The curriculum integrates a study of worship with coursework from our respected master’s program in organizational leadership. Students will deepen their understanding of theology while also improving their leadership capabilities.
  • Examples of topics covered include worship ministry dynamics and relationships; worship in the Old and New Testament; spiritual formation; church leadership and contemporary issues in worship; personal leadership and development; organizational culture and change; strategic thinking; conflict management; and leading and building teams.
  • The program is 100 percent online, with books and materials delivered to your front door. You’ll never step foot on campus! Finish the program in 18 months with a master’s degree in hand.
  • Graduates will develop an e-portfolio curated throughout the program that can be used when applying for a new ministry position.
  • The degree also equips students with the academic credentials needed to teach worship and/or leadership at the undergraduate level. Or, students can become qualified to serve in an executive pastor role.

As a pastor-at-heart, I will always be looking for ways to improve the worship experiences of our people. I believe this program will help you lead such an endeavor. Learn more about the Master of Arts in worship and leadership.

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.

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.

 

Knowledge as Love

Knowledge as Love

[wpsr_socialbts]Robert Oppenheimer was one of the scientists who worked on the production of the first atomic bomb. During my doctoral work on the campus of The University of Chicago in Hyde Park, I walked past the building each day that he and his team of physicists worked in. In his reflection on their work, he wrote this:

“I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands— to release the energy that fuels the stars. To let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles—to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people the illusion of illimitable power and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles. This is what you might call technical arrogance that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.” (The Day after Trinity, p. 30)

When we want to know without accountability, responsibility and community—without God—we can blow up the world.

Parker Palmer has always been one of my favorite authors. I reread his book To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey this summer. In it, he wrote: “We are well-educated people who have been schooled in a way of knowing that treats the world as an object to be dissected and manipulated, a way of knowing that gives us power over the world … In my own way, I have used my knowledge to rearrange the world to satisfy my drive for power, distorting and deranging life rather than loving it for the gift it is.” (p. 2)

Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we pursue knowledge as power, knowledge without responsibility for each other, knowledge that is ours, not a gift received from God. When knowledge becomes nothing more than objective, cold, hard fact, it slips beyond the vibrant connection to our Creator.

For, you see, knowledge is truth that is more than a formula or a verbal construct. Knowledge is flesh and blood, embodied in the Christ who said, “I am the way, the truth, the life.” For Christian higher education, then, knowledge is embodied, incarnated, shared, humbly received, and responsibly used—all for restoring a broken world.

Our educational enterprise is distinctively different precisely because we are Christians. We engage our students in knowing because God has graciously engaged us in knowing. We love them because we are loved by God. We lay down our lives in service to them because Christ laid down His life for us. We engage them in redeeming the world because this is what God has called us to.

And to teach students, we must love them.

And what might this love look like? It’s definitely not a don’t-worry-about-your-grades, kum-ba-yah, slop-excusing, buddy/buddy, easy-grade, cheap diploma factory. That is the antithesis of love.

Love looks more like a faculty research symposium, a faculty-led research project, writing a grant application, restoring an Honor Society or Phi Delta Lambda tradition, a student research symposium, The Cumberland River Review, balloon launches, beekeeping, 3-D printers, a documentary film in Israel, a student-composed opera, Trevecca around the Globe, mission trips, an undocumented student testifying before political leaders, iWork, Trevecca Authors Celebration, the openness of a professor to notice depression or a sudden disinterest, the mentoring of academic support personnel to relieve testing anxiety! It looks like residence directors, University employees, Plant Ops personnel, and others engaging students in life lessons. It looks like an admissions team raising the entrance standards as a truth-telling act. Rather than taking anyone’s money, we honestly confront them with their capacity for college work. It looks like the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies recognizing the learning differences of the 35-year-old mom with two kids working full time while trying to finish college.

We do this, not just for ourselves, and not just for our students, but for the sake of the world. Think of the educational possibilities that exist in the coming 12 months. As Christian educators, we will engage our students around world-altering issues such as the upcoming U.S. presidential election, immigration and the future of our undocumented neighbors, minority issues and the proper use of police force, ISIS and terrorism, cancer research, global warming, urban food production, a collapsing music industry model and the refugee crisis.

Can we as Christian educators keep going to class day after day in a world like this with 10-year-old notes and not educate students to live responsibly in this world, loving God, serving humankind? Academic excellence calls us to hard work in order to love our students as God loves us— so that we participate in the redemption of the world.

David Brooks, the NY Times columnist, spoke eloquently at the January CCCU Presidents’ Forum. His words encapsulate what I’m trying to say.

“Some Christian institutions adopt an adversarial posture toward the mainstream culture because things seem to be going against them. From my vantage point, it’s the exact opposite for you (CCCU institutions). You guys are the avant-garde of 21st century culture. You have what everybody else is desperate to have: a way of talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion, and intellect. You have a recipe to nurture human beings who have a devoted heart, a courageous mind, and a purposeful soul. …

“For Christian universities, this holistic development is your bread and butter. This is the curriculum. This is the chapel service. This is the conversation students are having late at night. It’s lived out. Now, you in this room, have the Gospel. You have the example of Jesus Christ. You have the beatitudes; the fire of the Holy Spirit; you believe in a personal God who is still redeeming the world.

“Carrying the Gospel is your central mission to your students, but that’s not all you have. You have a way of being that is not all about self. You have a counterculture to the excessive individualism of our age. You offer an ideal more fulfilling and more true and higher than the ideal of individual autonomy. You offer lessons in the art of commitment.

“… A commitment is falling in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for those moments when love falters. It arises as a deep sensation of certainty, a moral and spiritual sensation that something is right, that you’ve been called to something.” (David Brooks, “The Cultural Value of Christian Higher Education,” Advance Magazine, CCCU)

 

The Higher Calling of Christian Higher Education

The Higher Calling of Christian Higher Education

As the president of a Christian university, it’s my job to communicate the vision what a Christian university should be to our faculty and staff. In my mind, Christian universities should be places that nurture and mentor, but also challenge.

Our mission is simple: Christian higher education and doing it with excellence. In the world of higher education, many things can vie for our attention, but our primary focus is students, both traditional undergrad and adult. Take them away, and we’re not here. As Christian educators, we exist for more than ourselves.

I think we need to be reminded of this because other loves often trump our love for students. These mistresses can be compelling. I’ll name three.

For some of us, our field of study is the mistress that seduces us from meaningful interaction with students. Content fascinates us –and to land a gig that pays us to follow our academic interests is a good job. We love music or math or film or philosophy more than we love our students. To be honest, students are a bother at times … because they refuse to love our field as much as we love our field. They distract us. Loving theories and facts and books is so much easier than loving students.

Others of us love our leisure more than we love our students. We get weekends off, a ton of holidays, a long winter’s nap and, for some, a partial year contract. So we easily fall into the minimalist routine– show up, lecture, attend some meetings, keep the grades flowing, and slide to the parking lot as early as possible. Students are a pain when it comes to our schedules –especially when they want our time, our applause at their ballgame or play or concert, our worshipping presence in community chapels, our wisdom for their issues. And lots of times they want it after 9 p.m., which really messes with us.

And then others of us love the idea of retirement more than we love our students. We just can’t pull the trigger yet, so we hold on for the day we can get the rocking chair and open our TIAA-Cref mail. If we could retire tonight, we would—because the love of educating students is no longer a passion that propels us from our beds every morning.

Lots of loves –our field of study, our research, our leisure, our schedule, our retirement–lots of loves can supersede the love for students and our work of forming them by way of Christian higher education.

I want to call Christian educators to embrace the love of students and to do the hard work of educating them with excellence. Why?

Because we are loved by God and entrusted with human life.

Because education is being done in destructive ways all over the world and we have a chance to do it better.

Because the culture of darkness needs our graduates if there is to be hope and light.

April 7 Is World Health Day 2015

April 7 Is World Health Day 2015

I’ve been drinking water from a bottle that says “Drop by Drop.” During Lent, the students at Trevecca Nazarene University took up the cause of clean water for the masses who do not have it. The university students in our J. V. Morsch Center for Social Justice won an award from Nazarene Compassion International for the campaign idea. We are now field testing it for others to use. We are drinking water instead of tea and soft drinks and coffee. OK, I cheated on the coffee. The idea is that we donate the difference to the cause of wells in villages where good drinking water is not available. There are lots of Drop by Drop bottles around.

This cause hits my family in the heart. Anna Ryan, our granddaughter, has personally earned enough money to place two wells in Central American villages. One time she made bracelets out of rubber bands and sold them. The other time she did chores and made some more bracelets. We bought a lot. I don’t wear them, but I have lots of extra rubber bands if you need any. I hope I have not caused a worse human crisis over a dwindling supply of rubber bands.

So on this World Health Day 2015 (this year highlighting the theme of food safety), I encourage you to also consider the importance of safe water.

Think twice and pray at least once when you tip a cup to your lips. Good health begins with clean water. And like our friends in the Salvation Army, we are all called to “Do the Most Good.”

World Health Day 2015 #safefood