Divine Appointments, Flying Hats and Cheesy Blog Post Titles

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Yesterday, we had one of those worship services where not much went according to plan.  The music team had to redo their set at the last minute.  I lost my lapel microphone.  While presenting a “Distinguished Service Award” to a lady in my congregation, I dropped the certificate and broke the beautiful frame I had bought for her.  Our attendance was low.  You know, one of those Sundays.

But then after church, we had our “Year End Meeting” where we celebrated the end of another fiscal year and all that we accomplished.  That went really well.

Around 1:45, as we were preparing to leave I walked into the middle of a room where children were playing “keep away” with a hat.  The hat randomly landed in my hands and I knew just what to do.  The wind was blowing at 20 miles per hour outside, so I charged into the parking lot with a group of kids in tow and threw the hat like a frisbee into the wind which carried it several meters out into our field.  The kids were yelling and giggling as they raced out after it.

Then I turned around to see a parked car behind me with the engine running.  The car was a generic, gray, four door sedan and I didn’t recognize it as belonging to any of our church people.   Without gazing too awkwardly I tried to get a good look at the driver but could only see that he was wearing a gray suit and was looking at a phone in his lap.

I went inside and peered back out.  The children were running in from the field with the retrieved hat.  The man sat in the car.  He looked lost.  So I walked towards his window.  As I did he turned the engine off and climbed out of his car.  He was younger than I had expected and definitely not one of our regular attenders.

“Do you need help finding anywhere?” I asked because he looked very uncomfortable and very lost.

“No, I think that this is maybe where I want to be.  Are your meetings going on right now?”

“Meetings” is one of those words in Utah that definitely indicates a Mormon.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said.  “We meet at 11 but we had a lunch meeting after our regular worship time today so we are all still here.”

“Well, I am LDS” he continued, “but I am curious about other faiths and religions and wanted to come to one of your meetings to see what it is about.”

I invited him into our building and we talked for a half hour as I gave him a tour, of both our facilities and of the Nazarene culture and polity.  He was full of questions about everything from worship and sacraments to pastors and missionaries to even hymns and choruses.  I managed to find out that he is a young, single realtor who still lives with his parents up on the hillside above our church.  He spoke about himself very cautiously, which led me to believe something else was going on.  I couldn’t put my finger on it and didn’t want to be too forward, asking something ridiculous like, “Why are you really here?”  So I stuck to the surface stuff.

In the end we exchanged phone numbers.  He all out guaranteed me that he was going to come to our church next Sunday and then drove away with one of our hymnals and a copy of one the Jesus films that he grabbed off of our bookshelf.

Things like this have happened so many times throughout my ministry that I know not to be too hopeful.  Awhile back I had a very similar experience with a Mormon teenager who was sitting in our front field crying after church one Sunday.  He said he was going to come to our church but we never saw him.  I regularly meet people of all religious affiliations and walks of life who downright promise me they will come to our church “this next Sunday, right at 11 o’clock.”  I never ask them to come but for some reason they always promise to anyway.  Then they never show up.  Even our city’s mayor has made those promises and has yet to fulfill them!

Yet yesterday as I watched him drive away, I couldn’t help but be filled with hope regardless.  As the day went on I found my mind racing with the exciting possibilities.

My hope is not shallow.  New church attenders are nice.  Sometimes they bring friends who stick around and that is nicer.  Sometimes they share awesome testimonies that are fun to brag about at District Assembly.  Sometimes they even buy into your church, heart, soul, mind and strength.  They not only start showing up but they start giving of their money and their time.  That is always really cool.

But none of those things is what I am hoping for.

My hope is that he and I will become friends.  I hope we can regularly meet for lunch or coffee.  I hope we can go see movies together.  I hope that our friendship spans decades and is not one where I lecture him about “true Christianity” while he asks for pastoral advice about love, marriage, family, finances and emotional health.  My hope is that as we meet and talk, that we will both be formed and shaped into the image of Christ.  My hope isn’t that I would “save” him but that as we form a true friendship God would save us both.

I have that hope often whenever these random encounters happen.  It has almost never worked out.  Most times I never see the person again.  Sometimes they become acquaintances whom I occasionally see at the grocery store.  Only two or three times have they turned into true friends.

But those two or three times are more than enough to keep me hoping.

What Would Make Mormons a Christian Denomination?

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Good afternoon everybody (or evening, or morning, or middle of the night depending on when you are reading this).  As I am typing this we have a blizzard developing outside my Utah door that is incredibly beautiful.  I wish I could share it with all of you but pictures would not do it justice.

It has been over a week since I last posted, which means my New Year’s Resolution to blog almost every day is going terribly.  But this morning a friend sent me an email and asked me a question that has been on my heart and mind a lot over the last couple years.  This email came from a couple who lives in a town that is 95% Mormon.  They left the Mormon church years ago but still love the Utah Mormon culture.  Last summer they reached out to me asking about the Church of the Nazarene and I have become their pastor over the last several months.

She more or less pointed out that there are members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles whom she respects and whom she believes are steering the Mormon church in a Christ like direction.  However, she also noted that several Christians she talks with don’t share that belief at all.  Instead they argue that the “Christ” talk is just a deceptive PR stunt.  She wanted to know my thoughts.

I assured her and I assure you that I am not an expert in Mormonism at all.  However, over the last couple years I have spoken with many who are experts including a Southern Baptist Missionary who has a PhD in Mormonism and Richard Muow, the former President of Fuller Theological Seminary who meets regularly with the Mormon leadership.  I have also read some books about the relationship of Mormonism to Christianity that were insightful.  In addition I am friends with several Nazarene scholars who regularly meet with BYU professors and I have also listened to some lectures by an evangelical pastor out of Provo.

And I still find it incredibly difficult to say that the Mormon denomination is a Christian one.  The most gracious I can be is to echo what the previously mentioned pastor in Provo said in one of his lectures: “I do believe many Mormons will be saved, but it will be despite Mormonism, not because of it.”  For the record I also believe many members of the Church of the Nazarene will be saved despite our denomination.  And I believe the same thing about Baptists and Assembly of God and Catholics and Lutherans and any other.  After all it is by grace that we are saved, not by church membership.

However, to call an institution itself Christian requires something more succinct than the generic statement above.  I have thought long and hard about the circumstances that would have to happen for me to be able to call Mormons a Christian denomination.  The email from my friend gave me opportunity to sit down and write two lists that have been germinating in my head.  The first list is of the non-negotiables.  They are the things the top tier of the Mormon leadership must do in order make Mormonism Christian.  The second list are things that would make it easier for me to call them Christian, but that aren’t necessarily deal breakers.  You will notice the second list is longer than the first.  Regarding that second list, be assured I have similar lists for my denomination and, if I am being completely honest, most other Christian denominations.

List 1: What Would Make Mormons a Christian Denomination?

  1. Full acceptance of the Nicene Creed along with First 7 Ecumenical Councils (including full deity of Jesus and full equality of the Trinity)
  2. Statement placing the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments over the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and Doctrines and Covenants  (This would not be a rejection of the Mormon documents per say but a relegation of their authority to that under the Scriptures.)

List 2: Things I Personally Would Like to See:

(Of note: some of these are all ready happening)

  1. Stop proselytizing people from Christian denominations
  2. Stop rebaptizing those from Christian denominations
  3. Start teaching the stories about the life and teachings of Jesus from the four canonical gospels as part of a catechism process for children.
  4. Relax some but not necessarily all requirements on temple recommends so that Christians from other denominations can participate in some manner.
  5. Rejection of the tiered eschatology (i.e. terrestrial, celestial and telestial levels of heaven).
  6. Full and public rejection of eternal marriage, especially eschatological polygamy (i.e. that divorced Mormons who were married multiple times in the temple will be married to multiple wives in heaven).

I have other things I am sure to add to that second list but it is a snowy Sunday afternoon and my head is spinning with other things.  Be that as it may, those are my thoughts from someone who is on the ground doing ministry in Utah!  Have a blessed day wherever and whenever you are!

The Sermon I Should Have Preached: On Holiness and Romans 12-15

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This post is part of an ongoing series where after completing a sermon series I go through the main points I wish I would have had time for.

In mid August I faced a difficult dilemma.  Word had seemingly gotten out to several friends, strangers, congregants and family members that the Church of the Nazarene stands in the holiness tradition.  I want to be very clear that we are not more holy than any other group but we do feel a particular calling to think, talk and preach about holiness.  With that said, our calling has come with a very interesting piece of baggage that we call “The Doctrine of Christian Perfection.”  We believe grace comes with the gift of making us perfect.  And we have now spent 108+ years trying to explain to outsiders and each other just what we mean by that.

Over the summer I was asked by several people about the doctrine.  And I was in a unique place to both defend and describe just what we mean by “perfection.”  I found myself saying, that perfection does not mean faultless but it does mean blameless.  It does not mean inerrant but it does mean mature.  It does not mean perfect at golf but it does perfect at loving.  And, if you will allow me one more, it does not mean perfect at showing our love but it does mean perfect at trying to show our love.

If you are confused, I totally understand.  It was the inadequacy of those descriptions that caused me to launch into a 12 week series about holiness last fall.  As I went to put those 12 sermons together, I realized that underlying the confusion was a misunderstanding of the gospel.  So I decided to split the 12 weeks up into 6 weeks on the gospel and 6 weeks on holiness.

So in mid-October we transitioned from gospel to holiness.  At that time a limitation presented itself.  I have chosen to be faithful to Scripture.  Therefore, I don’t just preach what God “lays on my heart.”  I begin every week in one particular passage of Scripture and then let God speak to me through it.  The passage I chose for the holiness sermons was Romans 12-16, which I thought was a very concise, clear picture of what holiness looks like.  And it is.  There is some wonderful stuff in there and I put together some good sermons.

However, Romans 12-16 doesn’t address the unique difficulties of the Nazarene Doctrine of Christian Perfection.  So with that brief background in mind, here are some things I wish I would have had time to go over in more detail but which the constraints of time and Scripture prevented:

1. Individual Holiness vs. Corporate Holiness:  The first thing I realized when I dug deep into Romans 12-15 is that Paul in that passage offers very little help in understanding how individuals are holy.  After much study I realized that Paul is talking about how a community of people are made holy, not one individual.  It got worse when I consulted a myriad of other passages from both Testaments and realized that almost always when God says, “Be holy” or “Be Perfect” God is talking to a community, not to an individual.  Now there are a couple exceptions but not many.  This is problematic because the Church of the Nazarene is almost entirely obsessed with individual holiness and perfection to the neglect of the church.  I will be honest and admit I am not sure how individual perfection and community perfection fit together in every situation.  There are some things we can say, like “holy individuals don’t steal things and murder people” but if you move beyond that to attitudes and hearts, it becomes a bit more difficult.  This is perhaps why I only alluded to the problem in my sermons and then moved on to the bulk of Romans 12-15, which was about the community.  But just to not lose my ordination let me state very clearly I do believe God calls individuals to a life of holiness, it just isn’t emphasized as much in Scripture as God’s call to communities to organize themselves in holy ways.

2. The Process of Holiness:  Once again, the process by which individual people become holy has been a Nazarene infatuation for the last century, if not more so.  And once again Romans 12-16 kind of let me down.  The only real process verse you get is right at the top in Romans 12:1-2 and I did spend an entire sermon on those two verses.  However, Romans 12:1-2 is more about the process by which a church becomes holy.  For those of you who do not know Romans 12:1-2 has some crazy singulars and plurals going on in the Greek text.  Paul writes that we should present our plural bodies as one singular living sacrifice.  This is your (plural) act (singular) of worship.  Then at the beginning of verse 2 Paul does it again.  You (plural) do not conform to the patterns of this world but you (plural) be transformed by the renewing of your mind (singular).  This verse is not about how individuals become holy.  It is about how the church community becomes holy.  That is a great sermon but as a Nazarene pastor it left me up a creek without a paddle concerning how individuals become holy and I was unable to address the doctrine of Christian perfection issues.

This post is all ready entirely way too long and heady.  However, the entire theme of my blog is about grace and about how God works in my life.  So what I hope I have illustrated is that it is hard for a pastor to preach under the authority of the Scriptures.  It is hard to go into a sermon series thinking I am going to talk about one thing and then get sidelined when I realize the Bible passage for the day is not about that at all.  Yet therein lies the grace.  I could preach whatever I want to preach on Sundays mornings and I might get away with it.  However, I have chosen to be a man under authority.  Therefore I must faithfully interpret what God has provided in the living words of the Bible.  Most times that means sidelining my agenda, or even my denomination’s agenda and opening up new pathways into the life and mission of God.

A Pastor’s Dilemma: The Ecumenical Councils and What Really Happens When We All Get Together

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A couple decades after Jesus’ ascension, the Apostle Paul returned from his first missionary journey and, as the Apostle Paul was prone to do, began a conflict.

The Gentiles were joining the church in great number all across Macedonia and there was massive confusion about how “Jewish” these Gentiles had to be in order to be accepted as full members.

In a decision that would set church precedent for 2000 years and counting, a council of elders was called to figure this out.  They hashed out the different sides of the argument and in the end rallied to the Apostle James when he declared, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19b)

It was an important decision with huge implications.  And it was the right decision.  Jesus had died to make it easy to turn to God, therefore the church decided not to throw up road blocks.  Our theology and our church became bigger.

It wasn’t until 300 years later that another council was called to deal with massive theological rifts in the church.  Over the next centuries several more followed.  These councils were fundamentally different from Acts 15.  They were not called by apostles or even bishops and pastors but by emperors.  Every time they met, our theology became a little bit narrower and our church a bit smaller.

Acts 15 was about pointing the finger across the table and saying, “of course you are welcome here!”  The other councils were about voting people off our island.

As for the massive theological agreements that were struck, I totally agree.  I confess all the creeds they produced.  I believe in the Holy Trinity, the full humanity and divinity of Jesus, the eternally begotten son and the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.

But I am still a child of the 21st century.  The thought of calling councils to make our Christianity narrower makes me uncomfortable.  The thought of saying, “let’s make it a little bit harder for some people to be Christian” rubs me the wrong way.

I posed this dilemma to a class in church last Sunday and I made them uncomfortable too.  We all agreed that calling a council to deal with huge things like the identity of God was probably a necessary thing.  We agreed the idea of the Trinity was around long before it was officially canonized.  Jesus almost certainly taught it.  Likewise the early apostles almost certainly referred to Jesus as fully human and fully God.

Still at Nicea fingers were pointed at two particular bishops who led successful and thriving ministries.  They were not just told, “You are wrong.”  There were told, “You are banished!”

I also asked how we do this today?  What do we banish people for?  What successful ministers do we banish and for what reasons?  Unfortunately in the 21st century we have this love/hate complex going on with celebrity pastors.  We love everything they do until we don’t.  Then we crucify them and for much lesser reasons than the identity of God.

The question of the councils and creeds is even more difficult for those of us who live in 21st century Utah.  We are surrounded by a very prominent religious sect whose scholars will freely tell you, “we are pre-Nicene Christians.”

Are they?  Of course they are pre-Nicene.  Does that mean they are still Christian?  A lot of people living before 300AD would have thought so, though not nearly as many as Dan Brown would suggest in his entertaining but ultimately ridiculous novels.

For the record I am pre-Nicene too but not concerning the nature of Christ.  I am pre-Nicene because at Nicea the council also voted into law twenty canons or rules, many of which my denomination no longer follows.  We never talk about that.  The same council that put together our Christology also gave us other laws that we do not follow today.  Many good Prostestants even mock some of those laws.

For the record, Nicea was one of the better councils.  Some of the other ones were comical train wrecks not far off from your average Three Stooges sketch.  Do we really think this is the way to govern ourselves?  Should we get together to make our theology and our practice smaller and vote our favorite celebrities off of our islands?

Yes, we should.

Albeit with much humility.

There is great value in getting together every once in awhile and hashing out the issues to figure out a way to agree enough to pursue mission in the world.  Though in humility, we should not call our decisions “eternal” but admit that in this time and this place with this congregation/denomination we have agreed to abide by this theology and these rules.  This leaves room open for another generation to come along and tweak our mistakes.

I’m not sure my class reached any easy conclusions on all this.  But a veteran pastor and army chaplain closed our time together by reminding us of the now famous words that date back to Augustine:

“In essentials unity, in non essentials charity, in all things love.”

The True Problem With “Legalism”

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I am a pastor in a holiness denomination, maybe THE holiness denomination.  We were the largest and most successful grouping of churches to arise out of the 19th century Holiness Movement and our favorite hymn “Holiness Unto the Lord” is truly our watchword and song.  I find myself talking and thinking about holiness a lot, a lot more than, say, my reformed siblings.

One of the things I find myself pondering as I think about our watchword and song is that nasty four letter word, “legalism.”  The word is used so much by so many Christians these days that I am not sure it means anything any more other than, “bad Christian.”  With that said, it originally referred to a short lived period of US church history where the ethics of various denominations became fundamental.  In college I learned it was my generation’s job to repent of that time and help lead the denomination in a new direction, but not so much that we turn to another four letter word “antinomianism” or lawlessness.

A fascinating side note in all of this is that in the “Legalism Era” other Christian denominations were just as legalistic as we were.  Today, many of them still are if not more so.  I often wonder how the Baptists, who often don’t seem to have any theology of holiness at all, still throw people out of their churches for things like playing Magic: The Gathering or reading Harry Potter.  All that to say at least legalistic Nazarenes have an excuse and a theology that pushes us towards legalism.  After all we are not the ones saying, “everybody sins every day in thought, word and deed” and then throwing people out of our churches for sinning every day.

Thinking beyond that interesting side note, I often wonder what the real problem with “legalism” is.  I really don’t think it is having a biblically based, church established ethic.  Every social gathering ever known to humanity has had an established ethic.  It is what makes communities possible.  For example, I recently ran past a Yacht Club who seems desperate for new members and is advertising heavily in our community.  Desperate though they are, if you don’t buy a new yacht they still won’t let you join!  Are they legalistic or do they just not want their yacht club to turn into a “whatever vehicle suits your fancy club?”

I think our problem isn’t really that we enforce and hold ourselves to a biblical ethic.  I think the problem with legalism is the age old problem of treating good advice as if it was biblical mandate.  I think as we try to be a holiness people in the world, we hit several gray areas, times when a simple yes or no doesn’t seem to suffice.  In those areas we survey all our options, pray and come up with some good advice about what might be the best way to act in that situation.  Many times we are right.  But then we begin to apply that advice to others as if this is the only absolute right thing to ever do.  Then we practically force others to follow suit or else we begin talking and thinking about them as “lesser Christians” not because they won’t follow the commands of the Bible, but because they won’t listen to our obviously good advice.

To further explain what I mean I want to think through 2 case studies.

The first is the “Focus on the Family” parenting and family advice.  In 1977 a Nazarene psychologist named James Dobson began “Focus on the Family” as a way of helping parents raise better children.  Dobson was and still is a very accomplished psychologist and for the most part did an okay job at fusing biblical parenting ideals with the 1980s North American culture.  Many parents have read his books, followed his advice and seen great benefits.  It was the kind of awesome thing that can happen when a Christian takes both Scripture and their cultural context seriously.

The problem arises when in 2016 Dobson has a massive group of followers who have turned his good advice into biblical principles.  I personally know several parents who have been driven from their churches because they didn’t agree with Dobson’s advice or just didn’t have time to read his books.  When I talk to some of Dobson’s people they seem to believe that James Dobson’s books should be added to the canon of Scripture and are normative for faith and practice.  If his advice isn’t followed you are considered a bad parent and a horrible Christian.   This is one case where our good advice has supplanted the gospel in the lives of our church.

Another example would be protecting ourselves from false accusations of sexual misconduct.  Unfortunately this has become a major area in clergy education.  I have had to and will again have to sit through many seminars about how to protect myself against accusations.  This is badly needed for our day.  We live in a very anxious and paranoid time and the most harmless of accusations have ended otherwise successful pastors and even closed down a few churches.

The advice in these seminars is extremely valuable.  Don’t be alone in the same room as a child.  Don’t drive a child home alone.  Don’t drive alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex.  Always meet with a member of the opposite gender in public.  When you do have to meet alone in public by all means make sure your spouse knows all the details about it.  I try to live my life by these rules.  It is unfortunate that our society is so judgmental that I have to but I do have to!

But these are not biblical.  Nowhere are any of them even suggested in the Bible.  In the Bible Jesus draws water from a well with an adulteress in the middle of the day when no one is around!

The problem here is that when we tell someone, “well you might be innocent but you were stupid for not following MY advice about how to avoid accusation” we are putting the most judgmental people in control.  And whatever you want to say about the Christian ethic, one of its foundations is “do not judge or you will be judged!”

In fact, the Hebrew word “Satan” literally means the “judger” or “accuser.”  When we falsely accuse people and then declare them innocent of the crime but guilty for making yourself susceptible to accusation, we are basically telling the Satans in our church, “you can have free reign!”  We are literally handing the keys to our kingdoms over to Satan.

So follow good advice.  Do the hard work of deliberating about what is best in any given situation.  Pray for discernment always and often.  But don’t punish those who do not follow your good advice and by all means do not hand the keys of the gospel over to the most judgmental, accusatory people in your church.  Instead they need to be reminded that bearing false witness is a crime against the commandments and those who judge may wake up in a very hot, dark place on the other side of death while those who are just ignorant will finds themselves in the arms of mercy.

Wile E. Coyote Ministries: Introduction

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A few months ago I was meeting with my new District Superintendent, talking about church planting, missional movements and ministry in the 21st century in general.

As our hearts and minds met on the drastic need for the church, particularly the Church of the Nazarene, to become more innovative he repeated to me what he had heard from someone else who had heard it from someone else who had read it in a book somewhere,

“The church is Wile E. Coyote in a Road Runner world.”

For those of you younger types (like me) who might be tempted to think Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner were names for obscure characters in that Mad Max movie that came out this summer, let me explain the reference.  There is this old, actually ancient, Warner Bros. cartoon that used to play on Saturday mornings.  It just had two characters.  One was a hungry coyote, cleverly named “Wile E.”  The other was a rather simple but crazy fast bird named the “Road Runner.”

Fatal Flaw #1: Sets tail on fire instead of rocket.

Every episode involved the coyote coming up with some elaborate, cleverly detailed scheme to catch the Road Runner.  And every episode the Road Runner, without so much as a plan or a strategy, just ran right through the scheme.  The humor in the show almost always centered around each plan’s fatal flaw.  Even though the plan was brilliant and well thought through and cleverly executed, there was always one chink in its armor, one thing Wile E. did wrong, one humorous oversight that let the road runner slip away.  In well over half the episodes, the flaw wasn’t a flaw.  It was just the world not working like it is supposed to.

For example, there is the now classic scene where the coyote paints a mural of a tunnel on a cliff side, hoping the Road Runner will smash into the cliff.  Instead, the Road Runner runs right through the mural into an actual tunnel.  The lesson is simple: The world doesn’t work like the coyote wants it too.

Its sad how the church is remembered for our foolishness, not for how well we can execute a potluck that only feeds “us.”

And we are the coyote.  Our programs, or to put it more religiously, our “ministries,” are elaborate.  They are schemed up by outreach committees in 3 hour long meetings.  They are emailed to pastors with subjects that read, “the brilliant plan that will save our church.”  While we pass the offering plates on Sunday morning, a passionate and dedicated layperson explains them to the congregations.  We claim it worked out just great for that mega church in Seattle or that mushrooming church down the street.  Our congregants get all excited and we all jump on board.

But they all have one fatal flaw and that flaw makes all the time, money and energy we just spent worthless.  Most of the time that flaw is we just failed to understand the world we are living in.

Fatal Flaw #2: We don’t know when to stop.

When that flaw manifests itself and our brilliant feat of outreach falls flat on its face, we at least have a number of cliches we use to comfort ourselves.

We say things like:

“Well God doesn’t care about results.  God just cares about faithfulness.”

“That’s just the way the world is.  God has hardened their hearts so that nothing we say will get through.”

“Well at least we tried.  Church of the Baptist Jesus down the street isn’t even trying.”

“We planted a ton of seeds. Go us!”

Some of that may be true and I am all about comfort in the midst of epic failure.  After all, comfort is what gives us the means to get up and try again.

But what if our problem isn’t that we aren’t dedicated enough, passionate enough, wealthy enough or smart enough.  What if our problem is that we just don’t take the time and energy to understand the world we are living in.

Over the next week I want to write a bit about what I perceive are “Wile E. Coyote” ministries being run by many churches.  My hope in this is not to be overly mean or critical but to think deeply about how we spend our time, money and energy in the hopes that we will become better stewards of our callings.

Even more than that, I hope that our mourned failures would turn into seasons of rejoicing as we truly reach the world for Christ.

Until the next post, here are some great articles elaborating on this concept:

http://pres-outlook.org/2000/10/wile-e-coyote-or-the-roadrunner/

http://time.com/3735089/wile-e-coyote-road-runner/

http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2013/march/3031813.html

http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/04/desire-and-causality-in-road-runner.html

The Via Media and the Church of the Nazarene

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I have been working on this post for some time and I am still not quite sure it is going to come together like I want.  However, given the events of the last couple of weeks from church shootings to supreme court rulings to even my own denomination’s fundamentalism controversy, I thought this might be a good time to post it.

While we have argued about these things, I have heard many quote Phineas Bresee (founder of the Church of the Nazarenes) and John Wesley (founder of the Methodists) who said things like:

“Though we do not think alike, may we not love alike.” John Wesley

“On the great fundamentals we are all agreed. Pertaining to things not essential to salvation, we have liberty.” Phineas Bresee

“In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love.” Attributed to both but traces back to Augustine.

These are great slogans.  As banners they really work.  They all hinge on clever grammatical structure and roll off the tongue quite well.

And at their heart, they try to characterize this concept of the “via media” which is Latin for “middle road.”

The “via media” is more of an attitude than an idea that emerged in 18th century England.  The 17th century had been horribly bloody and tumultuous as Prostestants and Catholics took turns killing each other.  After 100 years of debates that almost always ended in bloodshed, an unsettling calm took over the country as people decided, “We are going to still disagree and we are going to keep arguing and debating but we are going to stop killing each other over this religious stuff.”

This was the environment in which John Wesley was born.  For him the via media was not so much an agreement to live and let live.  It was a commitment to engage in debates that were as committed to love as they were to finding truth.  If you read any of Wesley’s sermons (including his titled “The Via Media”) you will find that Wesley had very strong opinions and spoke passionately and firmly on them.  But he hoped that his strong arguments and firey rhetoric would not get in the way of his love.  Simply put, Wesley seems to be more concerned that we debate the non essentials lovingly than that we simply ignore them all together.

I see different via medias at work in our church today.

On the one hand, we have a small but growing group of younger, non confrontational types who think the “via media” means we have to stop having strong opinions all together.  It means we need to get rid of any concept of established truth and agree to live and let live.  We need to stop our silly debates, get rid of our frivolous opinions and, in the words of Big and Rich, “take a ride on the love train.”

In these circles, once an opinion is challenged, like, “I don’t think it is really that hot today,” all conversation stops until someone casually responds, “well we all have different definitions of hot” and everybody sighs in relief.  The problem is that this fear of confrontation creates a culture where we never understand each other because we never present our real selves.  We hide our passions and our thoughts and biases to the point where we are a shadow of ourselves.  We avoid intimacy and understanding and our love never gets past the surface.  This is hardly the love the Bible advocates for.

But then there is this other “via media” going on where certain groups say, “I (or we) decide what is essential.”  In these circles church documents are ignored and the historic creeds are not recognized.  In their place is set a book or an author or a group of beloved leaders whose sayings and teachings are “fundamental.”  Everyone else is expected to completely agree or, quite literally, go to hell.

Don’t get me wrong, these groups claim to have a list of non essentials too.  They just tend to be shallower things, like worship preferences, stances on going to movies, what clothes to wear to church, etc.  It is almost as if these groups are saying, “We are agreed in the essentials and we give liberty just as long as you agree with what we say is essential.”  The existence of these types of people seriously makes me wonder if we really are all agreed upon the fundamentals.

Regardless, both the conflict adverse and the angry dogmatics are operating on misunderstandings of what the “via media” really is.  And in my conversations with both types and many in between, it is becoming increasingly hard for me to even figure out what we mean when we say, “in essentials unity, in non essentials liberty.”  Those in the Church of the Nazarene have very different ideas about what should be on each list.

One group quotes the slogan to say we have no essentials whatsoever.  The other quotes it to get you to agree to their fabricated list.

And I don’t know how we move forward.  The recent happenings at NNU and at MNU certainly don’t give me any hope.  But as I have thought about it over the last months, I have come up with a few suggestions that might help point the way.

First, we must reclaim our articles of faith and the ancient creeds as our essentials.  These are the guiding documents of our faith and of our denomination and we need to stop telling people they can make up their own essentials or borrow someone else’s.  When we say “essentials” we mean stated doctrines, ratified by our members.  For that reason, we might alter our slogan to, “On the articles of faith and creeds we are all agreed” but then the thing gets super clunky and not as easy to memorize.  Still, the essentials are not what you want to make up.  They are the documents we have put together and ratified.

Second, we must stop avoiding each other.  We need to meet face to face.  I know the world is getting more silo oriented, where you can avoid those who do not share your opinions.  I fight this temptation daily.  In turn, social media has made it even harder to have a face to face conversation with whom you disagree.  Instead we either just ignore each other or we plant bombs in the form of angry comments structured by lousy logic and stray Bible verses to serve as “proof texts.”

To be sure, we can ignore each other or throw lousy logic and proof texts around in face to face conversations.  But at least the setting usually forces us to continue to be part of the conversation.  Online, we can set the bomb and run.  On a side note, this is why I delete comments on my blog that take the form of “bombs.”

Third, we must not be afraid of passionate debate.  The “in non essentials liberty” does not mean we get to make up whatever we want to believe, even in the non essentials.  It means we give each other the freedom to present their findings, experiences, logic and opinions in a loving way.  It also means we respect each other enough to do the same ourselves.  When we have given ourselves that liberty, we then listen to each other in a way that seeks understanding and discovers truth.  And if, when the sun begins to set, we find that we still do not agree, then, yes, we fall back on Wesley’s great sentiment that we join our hearts and hands and try to do the work of the kingdom together.

Simply put, we have a lot of work to do.