What if I Stumble

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The Tuesday right after Easter I wrote a blog post that was half a response to the announcement of a friend’s upcoming job termination and half a struggle with current trends in the church, particularly as it relates to my denomination. If you haven’t read it, you can read it here.

My struggle is that there seem to be mobs out there who want to banish from the church those who think differently.  In the post I wondered how I would survive if such a mob ever managed to crucify my career.  In the Spirit of Easter, I claimed the resurrection hope that God would meet me in that painful situation and bring new life out of it.

The post was written with great amounts of passion, apparently a relatable one as that post is still my most successful post to date.

What I am about to write comes from an equal amount of passion, albeit a different kind of passion.  In fact, this post is in many ways an inverse of that last one.

Because as much as I am afraid that a scapegoating mob will crucify my career while I am innocent, I am much more terrified that I will deserve a crucifixion for gross sin or negligence.

Will I fall to the temptation to have an extramarital affair?

Will I stumble into online porn?  (It is unlikely at this point but still possible.)

Will my marriage crumble spectacularly overnight? (Very likely and more likely until we celebrate our 40th anniversary by the odds.)

Will I accidentally lose my temper and strike a parishioner?  (There are days when that temptation is more real than others.)

Will I become lazier and lazier and not do the work to which I am called?  (I might all ready be at that point.)

Or will my epic tumble be less epic?  Will it just be a growing pride and arrogance that refuses to admit when I am wrong and own my bad decisions?  (There are close calls of this nature almost every week.)

I have watched all these things happen to people who were thought to be much more holy than me.  I have seen calm, gentle pastors buckle under the stresses of the job and lash out.  I have seen an otherwise humble pastor suddenly choose the most pitiful and absurd molehill to die on, like paint color in the sanctuary.  And, of course, I have seen my fair share of extramarital affairs and divorces among the clergy.

And I am not guaranteed to avoid any of that.  It is true that I have had an excellent formation and training that at least helps me see temptation when it is coming.  I have wonderful mentors and friends who speak the truth in love.  I regularly practice disciplines of prayer, fasting, silence, solitude and exercise that keeps me calm and humble. But none of that makes me immune from the cliff falls from grace.

In fact, most days I think there is a 75% chance that my crucifixion will be a result of my own guilty choices, compared to the 25% that it will just be an angry mob looking for an innocent victim.

On those days I wonder how I will fail.  I wonder what the price for my wife, children and congregation will be.  And I wonder how I will possibly be able to get out of bed the next day if it ever should happen.

And every day I feel like my crucifixion is almost a guarantee.  After all, ministry is truly a dangerous line of work.

But as we approach the Ascension and climb that soon to be empty hilltop with the disciples, I find an incredible amount of hope.  The Ascension is that wonderful day when Jesus not only showed off his super power of flight, but also sat down at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  There he represent us, the church, as both head and priest.

The Apostle Paul uses the word “energeo” in Ephesians 1 to describe the Ascension.  It is the same word we use for “energize.”  The Ascension energized the great power of God, the power that is now fully displayed in us the church, which Paul says is, “the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way.”

I think that means that the charged up power of God is at work whether we are faithful or unfaithful.  If ever I should fail, whether in gross immorality or in spiritual weakness, I still trust my head and my priest who sits at the right hand of God our Father.  After all the church is much bigger than my bad choices and though I may cause pain, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I know a great healer who can forgive, redeem and reconcile the consequences of my bad decisions.

In closing, the old Christian rock band D.C. Talk has a song on their “Jesus Freak” album called, “What if I Stumble,” that struggles with these same issues through these lyrics,

What if I stumble
What if I fall?
What if I lose my step
And I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue
When my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble
And what if I fall?

At the end of the song they claim the love of Christ by saying,

I hear You (God) whispering my name
You say, “My love for You will never change.”

And that whisper is enough to get me out of bed tomorrow.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Brueggemann’s “Prophetic Imagination”

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A very strange thing happened indeed this week.  I actually finished a book!  April was a crazy month full of Easter worship and District Assembly gatherings and online debates and very little reading.

So I decided to mark my return to grace by reading an especially wonderful author whom I have always quoted but never read, Walter Brueggemann.  A friend at District Assembly referenced “Prophetic Imagination” several times so I downloaded it and worked my way through it this week.  As is the case with many books, it spoke “prophetically” into several facets of my current experience.  Or did it speak “imaginatively?”

Click to buy on Amazon

As many of you know, I began pastoring a new church two months ago.  The transition forced me to ask myself the hard practical questions about what a church is and how a pastor should lead it.

At the same time my district gathered to elect a new Superintendant.  In the end most everybody agreed we elected the right person.  Still, the process forced me to think long and hard about who I want as a “pastor to pastors.”  Do I want an executive with a plan?  A leader with a vision?  A friend with a shoulder to cry on?  A prophet with an imagination?  Or all of the above?

Likewise, as most of you know, I have been closely following three scandals in the Church of the Nazarene.  One concerns our Publishing House.  The other two concern our universities.  There seems to be a failure in the upper realms of our leadership to really follow the dictates of love, justice and honesty especially when money is on the line.  Where did this failure come from and why have we been so hesitant to be honest about it?

A key topic in all those discussions was the comparisons and contrasts between churches, businesses and universities.  A friend of mine summed up those differences well in the chart below.

At the intersection of all this stands Brueggemann’s “Prophetic Imagination.”  His brief but in depth discussion of the biblical prophets and holy communities illuminates several disparities between the church’s current state and our divine calling.

I could waste a lot of words fleshing out those discrepancies, but I will stick with a list Brueggemann gives in the preface to the 2nd edition.  He mentions the key characteristics of a Prophetic Community:

1) The community must have a long and available memory that sinks the present generation into an identifiable past made available in songs and stories.

2) There is a sense of pain that is cited as a real social fact.

3) Hope (not optimism) is actively practiced.

4) There is an effective mode of discourse that is distinctive and richly coded in ways only insiders know.  (i.e. a shared language).

The church I now pastor has quite a few families who now serve or once served in the US military.  As I have gotten to know them, I feel a sense of humiliation for the Christian church because the US military does those 4 things way better than most congregations.  They have songs and stories that root their identity in the great conflicts of the last 200 years.  They have a coded language with scores of acronyms that I can barely keep up with.  They have a real sense of pain and loss from living in a world where armies are necessary and they have a profound sense of hope that the US military can be the solution (or at least an integral part of it) to all the world’s problems.  All of this encourages scores of otherwise helpless young men (and some women) to join up.

I am frustrated that the church struggles to garner the same enthusiasm.  As Brueggemann argued convincingly, our insistence on catering to the powers and adopting their vocabulary has completely numbed us to our God given calling.  Now we get together to figure out how to co opt the powers and as we do, we ourselves are being coopted.

But all hope is not lost.  Brueggemann insists that the prophets in Scripture (from Moses to Jesus) did two things to awaken the holy community.  First they led the people in mourning.  Second they sang songs and told stories that energized faithfulness.  To put it more simply, they called the people back to worship and led them in the same.

And this is where the prophetic imagination informs my questions about the church, its leadership and our current scandals.  After all, it is no secret that the evangelical tradition has not done worship well.  We have filled it with the words of our culture, not the words of our ancient faith.  We have sung the narratives of the empire and not the songs of the redeemed.  And we have shared in the anger of the people, not in the compassion of our God.

If that is the case, then it might be possible that after attending those numbing services for decades, certain denominational leaders found themselves closed off to the hope of the gospel.  Instead of being emptied of all but God, they became filled with the edicts, deadlines and demands of the dominant culture.  If that is true, when they became leaders of institutions (like businesses, universities and churches), they had no Christian hope to add meaning or depth to their work and so made the controversial decisions that landed them in the hot seats.

If that is what happened, it means that who we choose to lead us in worship is so incredibly important.  Instead of vision casters, we need creative story tellers.  Instead of institution growers we need professional mourners.  Instead of money makers we need selfless givers.  And instead of relevant hipsters spewing the modern lingo, we need Biblical scholars who can make accessible the rich language of our tradition.

That all sounds poetic up above, but I am reminded by Brueggemann that this all has to start with me in my own setting and context.  After all, it is quite possible that I am currently leading a congregation that will include future CEO’s, University Presidents, Pastors and Superintendants.  It is a high and necessary calling to sing the songs and tell the stories of our ancient faith every week so that they can be grounded in compassion and justice, not in power and money.  Needless to say, the risk of failure is great.

Therefore, pray for me and pray for my church and I shall endeavor to do the same for you and your church.  And I pray the God of all history continues to call up prophets in this time and place who will sing the right songs, cry the proper tears and energize the needed love.

The Nazarenes and Strengthsfinders: The Gospel According to Gallup

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Hello Everyone.

As are so many Nazarene leaders these days I want to begin with an apology that is in no way an apology at all.  I am sorry I have not been able to post anything for the last few days.  I have actually had a life and a local ministry context that needed my attention and so have not had time.

When I do have a spare moment, I have been piecing together a post about our big tent in the church.  I want it to be a really well written piece about getting along despite our differences and a call back to charity.  But it has not yet come together.

However, in the interests of biding time and frantically trying to keep your interest, Monday night’s NNU Alumni Q&A (that was more Q than A) with David Alexander introduced a fascinating wrinkle into the ongoing discussion about Nazarene identity.  As a sort of defense, he listed off his top 5 strengths according to Gallup’s Strengthsfinder’s Inventory.

This wrinkle, like most wrinkles in sheets or blankets, is caused by something much more concrete and sinister lying underneath and something that has bugged me for many years.  We in the Church of the Nazarene seem to be cultivating an unhealthy relationship with the Gallup organization, particularly through their Strengthsfinders Inventory.

Now, it would be inappropriate to leave out that I was on staff at a church that did not exercise caution when it came to Gallup’s Strengthsfinders.  The church let Gallup’s message replace the cross as its main proclamation to the world.

Perhaps most disappointing was regularly my senior pastor, whom I otherwise love and respect, would climb into the pulpit, hold up one of Gallup’s books, open it and read a passage.  This was in a worship service where no Scripture was otherwise read. Then he would exegete the Strengthfinders book for the congregation.  Whenever any book other than Scripture is exegeted from the pulpit, I get super nervous.

This is the word of Gallup. Thanks be to Gallup most high!

So I readily acknowledge that my beginning with Gallup left a really bad taste in my mouth, one I have not yet washed down (as evidenced by my snarky caption above).  In humility, I admit that isn’t how others are using Strengthsfinders and some have found a great and healthy way to refer to it.  Yet my weary journey with it has led me to deep and critical thinking which in turn has led to some questions and concerns.

The doctrine (or as I call it “gospel”) of Strengthsfinders rests on a few key principles:

The 1st and most foundational principle is that people should play to their strengths as much as possible while only managing their weaknesses.  A subset of this is that you manage your weaknesses by surrounding yourself with those who have different strengths.

2nd: There are only 34 strengths.

3rd: Those strengths are grouped into four categories that further help define your personality.

4th: You cannot change your strengths no matter how hard you try.  Your personality is set in stone.

5th: The best way to help yourself is to pay a tithe (er, um, donation, er, um, purchase) to Gallup so that you can take a test that tells you your top 5 of 34 strengths.  For those reaching super Gallup-saintdom you can even hire a Gallup clergy person, er, Strengths coach to help you help yourself even more.

With that basic framework in mind (and I admit I am summarizing the loads of Gallup books I have read and heard sermons about) I have great concerns about Strengthsfinders as it relates to our doctrine and polity.

First, I think it is quite naive to assume all of humanity can be summarized in 34 categories.  Humans are way more complex than that.  After all, when I fell in love with my wife I did not fall in love with an order of strengths but a complicated and complex human being who has shades of moods and layers of depth.  I am the same way.  You are too.  I am not a jumble of 34 categories roughly ordered.  I am a full, complete and complex human being and the only way to get to know me is to do life with me over the course of years.  I am not a woo, ideator, inputter, communicative and positive ENFP.

More than that, our church, particularly us Wesleyans, have always argued that the best way to know ourselves is to find ourselves in Christ using the means of grace.  If you want to know yourself and all your strengths and weaknesses, an inventory will not do it.  Instead it is much better to pray, fast, worship, give and serve.

Second, I really struggle with any narrative that says you cannot change.  I know Gallup insists they are talking about personality, not sinfulness, but still the Nazarene doctrine is built on the concept that God can change you and the real sciences have shown over and over again that you are changing whether you like it or not.  I think we need to be cautious and critical of doctrines and gospels that claim we can’t and won’t change.

Third, and perhaps most importantly for me, is that the church’s main proclamation is about the weakness of a cross.  Paul says in 1st Corinthians 12 that the power of God is made perfect in weakness and that when we are weak, then we are strong.  I believe Paul arrives at that conclusion because Paul understands the cross.  He is arguing from a logic he articulates in Philippians 2, that though Christ was in very nature God, he emptied himself and became nothing and humbled himself to death.  Biblically, postures of weakness glorify Christ, not postures of playing to your strengths.

This leads to a rabbit trail about the nature of American corporate greed with its gospel that only those who produce get the glory.  In that world Gallup really is good news because if you just pay your tithe and buy their book and take their test you can produce more for your church.  But the church is not a community of production.  We are a community of worship and of service.  In our church only those who take postures of weakness are guaranteed glory.

I feel like maybe one of the reasons our leaders are failing us so badly right now is because they have gotten caught up in the gospels according to Wall Street and Gallup.  They are trying to manipulate their personalities to produce things for God instead of falling on their knees in weakness and crying out, “I need you.  I need you.  Every hour I need you.”

But I digress.  .  .

With those things in mind, I am in no way saying we need to throw everything out that Gallup tries to offer us.  In fact the one thing personality inventories do is create a common vocabulary for people to understand each other and themselves.  Doing so aids understanding, creates unity, contributes to cooperation and leads to love.

But hopefully I have at least convinced you to keep Gallup in the boardroom and out of the pulpit.  After all, no doctrine or book or decree or gospel should share space with the Holy Scriptures of our Living God. 😛

Stay tuned for more as I have time!

When We Confess Our Sins. . .

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When I was in junior high people began throwing around the word, “hypocrite” like it was free candy.  It was an especially popular concept in Christian circles as we used it to judge anybody who held any sort of ethical standard for us.  All being sinners ourselves, we knew that any legalist who gave us a “thou shalt” could not live up to any ethical standard themselves.  So we dismissed any ethicist with the word, “hypocrite.”

It was at that time that I realized it was almost impossible for a true Christian to actually be a hypocrite.  My thinking went that if the central confession of our faith was that we are all sinners in need of a savior, then sinning did not make us hypocrites.  It made our message truer.

That is a fairly dangerous thought process from an uneducated middle schooler.  It runs us really close to antinomianism, the idea that we should go on sinning so that grace may increase.

But I still think there is a shred of truth there.  After all, we are not the sinning community but we are the confessional community.  One of our pillars has always been confessing our sins, airing our dirty laundry for all to see.  This does not mean we are the most church when we go on sinning.  But we are the most church when we confess our sins, hanging them out for all to see while we pray for the God of forgiveness to deliver us.

There have been those this week who have suggested that having honest discussions about our church’s shortcomings are hurting our witness to the world.  They seem to be caught up in the 1950s mindset that the church can only be effective in mission if we are sinless and conflict free.

They want us to hide behind vague cliches like, “You are hurting the church” and “You are making our witness less effective.”

I disagree.  First the church is all ready hurting.  We are hurting not because of the actions of any one person or the existence of any one crisis but because we are the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus.  Our scars and bruises and pain only magnify Christ that much more.

Second, our witness does not rest on our own power or might.  If you read Acts 1:8 Jesus does not say, “Go and try to witness.”  Jesus issues a promise, “You WILL be witnesses” whether you like it or not.

I write all this to give us hope.  If our faith rested in our own deeds and sinlessness than this would be a time of despair.  But as our denomination confesses some of our dirty laundry, I am buoyed by hope, hope in a God who will make us witnesses, a God who will reveal God’s nature and self through these trying and hurting times, a God who uses situations like these to draw us all closer to the cruciform lamb, standing as though slain.

I am reminded of the closing words of Charles Dickens, “Tale of Two Cities” and they are my sentiments and prayer today:

“I see a beautiful [church] and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives.  .  .peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy.”

Keep on fighting for transparency and justice and know your toil in the Lord is not in vain!

Loving the Community in The Anti Institutional Age

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Let’s face it.  As a society we are not huge fans of institutions any more.  Whatever Postmodernism means it is certainly a rejection of everything institutional.  In the last 100 years, the word “President” has changed its meaning from “a position of great authority” to “person we elect to hate and blame our problems on.”

I did not realize how true that was until I began pastoring in a small town in Oregon.  The town voted Republican and claimed conservatism but it was not long until I realized their brand of conservatism had nothing to do with social issues like abortion and homosexuality and going to church.  Instead they hated everything institutional.  Whether it was big government, big church or big business, anything that smelled institutional was flatly suspect.  To put it more simply, they weren’t conservative as much as they were libertarian.

That town is not alone.  It is becoming true of all American towns and cities but it is more prevalent in the Northwest.  We seem to be the forerunners in tearing down institutions.

This is bad news for NNU because “Northwest” is its first name.  Whether you supported the President’s actions this week or decried them, chances are you became involved because anti-institutionalism is in your bones.

Concerning the events surrounding NNU, on one side we have the fundamentalists who hate institutions more than probably any other group.  The creeds and dictates of the historical church are suspect just because they came from the historical church.  The reality that a professor has been approved by several governing boards over and over again proves to them how errant this professor is.  Surely an institutionally approved professor is anathema because, after all, institutions are the source of all cursing.

I would venture a guess that if a professor was terminated for not agreeing with the made up doctrines of any given fundamentalist, that fundamentalist would make up new doctrines and use them to attack other professors.  They are not doing this because they love the institution but because they are decidedly against any institution telling them what to believe.  Instead they hold that the institution should be made to believe what they believe and teach what they want them to teach, not the other way around.

On the other side you have those of us who love the community at NNU and have fond memories of our times there.  We want is best for the community, particularly the individuals therein.  A lot of us became involved not because we dislike NNU but because there was a threat against a friend who happened to be on staff.  However, anti-establishment runs through our veins too.  So it is easy to attack those with the institutional titles just because they are leaders of an institution.

I wonder if this Oordeal ends with the resignation of someone with an institutional title, if the next one will be able to do better.

After all, in such a climate having an institutional title, like “President” of “Director” or “Head of the Office of University Advancement” stacks the chips against you from the get go.  You are suspect just because you were dumb enough to let them call you “President.”  You thought it was a title of power and prestige.  We all knew we just wanted someone to attack and investigate when things go wrong.

Then there is Facebook, which made the world flatter than anything else before it.  In this new age we can trade notes and compare data and put together the truth behind every action.  The surprising thing this week is not how many vague superstitions filled Facebook but how quickly the truth got out and went around the world.  There is now no control over the truth.  It will get out there.  In fact, as politicians know, the best way to fight the truth is to fill the internet with half truths and lies.  It is admirable that no Christians want to do this.  However, it is the only way to win.

You know, I take that back.

There is another way to win.  It is to act in the way of Jesus:  With integrity, honesty and 100% transparency.

In this day and age, where everything an institutional leader does is both public and highly suspect, that is the only way to go, unless you want to dive into the realm of lies and half truths.  Us younger types have known this for some time.  It is still quite shocking to me that the older leaders among us have not figured it out.

Still, if anything has happened within me this week, it is that I have been completely cured of my desire to ever have an institutional title or position.  Thanks but no thanks.  I will not volunteer for that witch hunt!

If you didn’t follow all that, the cartoon below might help.  In the 21st century Northwest there are no room for bosses, only leaders:

How to Give a Good Gift

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Last fall my wife and I found ourselves in the best financial situation we have yet seen.  We both had steady jobs.  We were on top of our bills.  Our needs were more than provided for and our “want” list was at an all time low.

Then I got paid a $3000 paycheck for coaching Cross Country.  As we mulled over how to split it between gifts, savings, paying off debt, Christmas and other things, I got a card in the mail from NNU asking me to help contribute to a scholarship for Track and Field.

We gladly gave an amount to the scholarship and doing so was a point of pride.  It was the first time I was able to give back to the school and since graduating I have longed to help the school as much as it helped me.  When I gave a meager amount to that scholarship, I promised it would be the first of many meager amounts, and one day hopefully some not so meager amounts.

I bring all this up to go on the record and state that nothing that has happened at NNU the last couple weeks and few years will change my support for the campus.  I still plan on giving my time, money and compliments to the school.  I still plan on encouraging my parishioners to give their time, money and compliments to the University.  I will still support my children if they choose to attend there.  Whether Tom Oord goes or stays and whether Alexander goes or stays, no matter who goes or who stays I will continue to give good gifts to NNU.

I bring all this up to say that a wrinkle in the recent situation has to do with monetary gifts.  I know that we have not confirmed the names of anybody who has threatened the university with decreased giving because of Tom but we have confirmed the existence of them.  Moreover, several professors and administrators have said that regularly in NNU’s 100 year history someone will only offer to give a gift if certain professors are terminated.

I do not think those people understand what a good gift looks like, at least from Scripture.  When Scripture calls us to give, we are called to give in the way of the cross, a free, unrestrained, non manipulative gift.  If the gift is misused, we are still blessed.  If the gift is squandered, we are still blessed.  If the gift is rejected, we are still blessed.  Scripture is quite clear in that regard.

In fact, the Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians that “God loves a cheerful giver.”

That word “cheerful” makes me curious.  That adjective is out of place when you think about it.  It should be “God loves a grateful giver” or “God loves a gracious giver.”  Instead, Paul chose “cheerful.”  That is quite weird.

But then I think of two people in my life, my friend Dustin and my grandmother.  Dustin grew up in a very bad household.  There was verbal and physical abuse, manipulation and even spiritual degradation.  Then he moved across the country to live with his grandparents and that is when I got to know him.  I fell in love with the kid immediately.  He was the most incredible friend I had ever made.  My friends in high school and youth group rallied around him and showered love on him in the form of full access to our social gatherings.  We even elected him Prom King!

At the end of the school year, Dustin showed up to school with a bag stuffed full of very expensive presents for all of us.  He danced a little jig down the hallway, grinning from ear to ear as he handed out these gift wrapped gold watches, jewelry, expensive video games and the like.

The scene shocked us.  His younger brother surprised us further by saying that Dustin had never spent more than $1 on a present before.  He had spent hundreds on us.  Dustin was not giving these gifts to manipulate us or to coerce us.  I don’t think he even knew why he was giving us the gifts.  I think he was just so happy (maybe, cheerful) to have such an amazing group of friends that his right hand did not know what his left hand was doing as he threw those watches and necklaces out.

We should learn how to give like Dustin gave, not because we want control or manipulation or power but because we are cheerful and we want to join God by giving rain to both the just and the unjust (see the Sermon on the Mount).

Awhile back my grandma started going to a church in town whose presence in our community was less than stellar.  They were a mean and hostile community but they took care of older people better than anybody else.  So it happened that while my grandma was attending that church, she sold my grandpa’s cabin for $250,000.  She paid the tithe to the mean, hostile church.  I complained and she told me quite sternly, “I did not give that money to that church.  I gave it to God and if they use God’s money for sinful aims, God will probably hold them accountable.”

I repented quite quickly because my grandma knows how to give a good gift, better than even me.

With all this said, I really struggle at the thought that any NNU alumni or supporter would even want to give money manipulatively or with ulterior motives.  I think the reality these types exist illustrates a spiritual failure in our congregations.  As a pastor, I note that we have not taught or modeled the giving of good, cheerful gifts so we create situations that put unbelievable pressure on the administrations of our universities.

May we all do better, including myself.

Tinder Piles, Gasoline and Leadership

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The scandal at NNU is now entering its second week.  What started out as the announcement of a simple restructuring plan has grown into a wildfire of conflict.

Unfortunately, I am far too involved right now to back out.  My blog posts and comments are available and public.  There is no turning back. With that said, if I owned a Delorian I might go back in time a week and encourage my more ignorant self to stay away from this one.

As I move forward without my Delorian, I do want to clarify that by supporting Tom Oord I am not worshiping Tom or even agreeing with Tom’s views and opinions.  I think the best person to defend Tom’s theology is Tom himself, which he has done repeatedly.  Instead, I am supporting my friend, someone who taught me how to love and how to think and who has reached out to me numerous times to give me opportunities and career advice.

With that said, to say this issue is about Tom Oord would be a crazy understatement given the events of this weekend.  This has grown to be a very complex and interesting dilemma, one that involves the entire soul of the Church of the Nazarene and her commitment to higher education.

As we enter week two, it is not time to back away from this dilemma or let it fade into the night, but time to recommit ourselves to charitable discourse, peaceful (and hopefully speedy) solutions, prayer, fasting and, of course, living lives of love.

With that said, it also a week to be a bit reflective.  Most of what happened last week was understandably reactionary.  Now that the hard data is out (which you can read here) it is perhaps time to stop reacting and be more discerning and proactive.

Therefore, my blog posts this week will focus on discussing the deeper issues at play.  These issues include the role of leadership in the 21st century, the ongoing battle between conservative fundamentalists and the more moderate wing of our party (to say the Church of the Nazarene has liberals is to vastly misunderstand the meaning of the word, “liberal”), the role of social media in aiding or preventing charitable discourse and the relationship between the sanctuary and the classroom.

At the same time, I am not promising I will address all those issues.  I do still have a local ministry context that deserves priority.  However, these greater issues need to be discussed or they will continue to bubble to the surface again and again.

Since I just wasted a lot of my word count on introductory material, I only want to say a bit more about leadership in the NNU situation.

I have lately been profoundly influenced by the book, “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott.  In the book she argues that careers, marriages, institutions and churches fail one conversation at a time.

Click here to buy.

Due to my own connections with NNU’s campus, I know that this is exactly what has happened here.  Over the last four years there have been several conversations between the faculty and administration that have served to metaphorically stack up a large pile of dry tinder.  Some situations before this one have even poured gasoline on that tinder.  After the pile of wood and gasoline had been constructed, all it took was one spark to set the thing ablaze.  This spark was the layoff of a highly public and controversial professor.  To change metaphors, it was like the dominoes had been stacking for years and Tom Oord was the single domino that set the chain going.

The comments on Facebook and Twitter and the faculty’s letter have all shown that to be the case.  With that understanding in mind, President Alexander’s apology about the way in which Tom Oord was terminated seemed a bit misunderstanding of that truth.  The issue right now is not about Tom but about a severe lack of trust between a faculty and an administration.  It now involves the very structures and covenants on campus.

With that said, I have very much appreciated the confessional community surrounding NNU.  Several times on the “Support Tom Oord” page we have posted our own apologies, clarified our own mistakes and even prayed a liturgical confession together.

And in that spirit of confession, I know that I too am a leader of an institution, albeit a much smaller one and God uses situations like this to ask me, “what dry tinder am I piling up?  What gasoline am I pouring?  And how can I disperse and water it all down?”  Those are good questions every leader should ask, particularly before something sparks a wildfire.

And so being fully aware that even lately I have been guilty of actions that have turned my communities into piles on tinder, I close by praying the prayer of confession:

Almighty God, our heavenly father,
we have sinned against you and against each other,
in thought and word and deed,
through negligence, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault.
We are truly sorry
and repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, who died for us,
forgive us all that is past;
and grant that we may serve you in newness of life;
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

What Happened This Week

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On Sunday night I heard a rumor and joined a Facebook group only to see if it was true.  I thought joining the group was an innocent enough gesture, just showing support for a friend and former professor who had been unfairly treated.

As the week unfolded it became apparent I had done so much more than join a Facebook group.  What had happened and is happening is so much more than a mistreated professor.

I wrote a blog expressing some frustration on Tuesday.  Actually, that blog kind of wrote itself.  I went into a really rare writer’s trance and emerged out of it having all ready posted it.  I reread what I wrote and noticed a few grammatical errors and awkward phrases which reveal the overwhelming passion I felt at that moment.  That passion has not subsided.

When I posted the blog, I felt like it would be fairly popular but I had no idea how popular.  As of right now 5200 people have seen the link on Facebook and it has been viewed 1500 times.

I want to pause a minute and say “Thank you” to all of you for hearing my voice and thank you to those who have given me positive feedback and helped me know I am not alone.  In cases like these social media is certainly a means of grace.

That last sentence is not being widely recognized right now.  There are a few voices in this particular crisis who have leveled frustration at Facebook claiming the social media service has blown things out of proportion.  And I agree that 10 years ago, this local situation at NNU may not have started quite the firestorm.  But that is all the more reason we need forums like Facebook.  There were very real misdeeds being done and if social media helped expose them and right the wrongs than I am all the happier.

With that said, how do you follow up your most successful post ever?  How do we move forward after the last 7 days as a church, as a people, as a denomination?

I don’t know but I do take heart in the voices who have called us to prayer and fasting.  I have found my prayer life deepened by this tragedy, as if we really do serve a loving and wooing God who in the midst of trials and tragedies beckons us to come into God’s presence.

With that said, what we did this week and what we do next week are incredibly important.  Love really is on the line here.  This is a moment when as a denomination we can choose to treat each other better and hold each other (even our leaders) accountable or to turn a blind eye and so let the list of victims increase.

To illustrate how love is on the line, I want to share my story of being a student of Tom Oord.

I first heard his name in the Christian fundamentalist high school that I graduated from.  It was our Old Testament teacher who hated the very name, “Tom Oord” and had grievances with all of NNU’s faculty.  He made us memorize the books of the Old Testament (and I am still grateful) but stopped there and instead taught us all the “heresies” being taught by NNU.  He regularly tested us on those heresies, even beginning his tests with a question, “Is this test an attack on Tom Oord?”

One student circled “yes” and got detention, even though that student knew the truth.  My high school teacher hated his enemies and the hate dripped off of him.  He regularly got red in the face and yelled about the evils of wrong thinking.

So when I started attending NNU, even though I was called to be a pastor, I avoided the Christian Ministry department like the plague, declaring a business major.  Unfortunately, they made me take a Bible class.  In that class we were actually required to read the Old Testament.  In 2 years of “Old Testament” classes at my high school I had never once opened the Bible.

A year later I took Sophomore theology and we read Scripture there too.

But it wasn’t until my junior year that I met Tom Oord.  Tom knew people disagreed with him but never demonized them.  He would often say in class, “some disagree with me and here is why” and he would represent their opinions in the best light.  A few times he even talked me into going with them instead of him!  He never got red in the face or angry.  He knew his way around the Scriptures and seemed to quote large texts with great love for God’s written word.  This love spilled out of Tom at every turn.

I had never seen a fundamentalist actually love Scripture and it was Tom who really taught me that love is a verb (with all due respect to that lousy DC Talk song).  It is not an expression or a feeling.  You have to show it.

And Tom, along with his colleagues, helped me actually show my love for Scripture, a love that continues to inform my love for others.  It is not enough to claim Scripture’s authority, you have to read it and delight in it and use Scripture as a means of delighting in God and others.  That is how Scripture is used at NNU and that is how I have endeavored to use Scripture since then.

So with Tom and all of our friends in this great movement, I plan to live a life of love because they will know we are Christians by our love!

Why The Church Scares Me Half To Death

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Have you ever met someone that was instantly the most awesome person you ever met?  They said the right thing at the right time.  They told the funniest jokes but with appropriate tact.  They dressed in the most fashionable ways and liked all the right hobbies.  Compliments poured out of their mouth at every turn and they even volunteered at orphanages and animal shelters.

Then you met their spouse.  .  .who was all right but less than awesome.  But you figured, I will hang out with the spouse if it means getting to know this incredible person all the more.

That is kind of like how it is with Christ and the Church.

But then again, have you ever met someone that was instantly the most awesome person you ever met and then you met their spouse and their spouse was the meanest, most cruel, vindictive person ever?  They regularly drove away well meaning people.  They hated everybody who wasn’t them?  They held extremely controversial political views that they were willing to share, more like yell, at everybody they met?  And then as you got to know them you discovered they moonlighted as a hooker on the weekend, selling their body and soul to the highest bidder?

That is actually how it is with Christ and the Church.

I love Jesus.  I just spent a couple of months getting to know Jesus more in the Gospel of Mark and I am planning on spending the next couple months getting to know the Risen Jesus in the last chapters of all four gospels.  I want to hang out with Jesus.  I want to love Jesus more and be more like this awesome God who has found me in empty tombs and on roads to Emmaus and hilltops in Galilee.

But Jesus’ bride, the church, scares me half to death.

Last week as I journeyed with Jesus to the cross, a professor was terminated at one of our institutions.  This professor was often called Dr. Love as he has written some of the best works out there on theologies and philosophies of love.  He also holds controversial philosophical views, views that I value but ultimately disagree with.  Since the university hired him, there has been a growing group of reformed fundamentalists who have issued all kinds of threats to the university for having him on faculty.

According to official announcements the threats to the university had nothing to do with the termination.  Instead the university needed more money for capitol improvements and marketing.  If I take that announcement at face value, which many are not, it is still quite troubling.  Our university cares more about buildings and raising money than we do about quality professors.

This flows out of a trend in all universities (public and private) to turn higher education into a glorified pyramid scheme.  Over the last 30 years higher education tuition has skyrocketed, fundraising has never been easier and professional sports have poured millions into the coffers.  All this time, faculty wages have remained flat while administrative costs (buildings and executive positions) have skyrocketed.  It seems like higher ed is now a market that raises money so that it can raise money so that it can hire people to raise more money.  As a whole the market has forgotten it is there to educate students, not to raise money and build bigger buildings and win football games.

Our private Christian universities have learned that the best fundraising strategy is to claim that we are not as heartless as the secular universities.  We care about our students.  We focus on giving them quality education.  We like our low student to faculty ratios.  And yet here we are, eliminating faculty to increase our pyramid scheme.

To make it worse, the professor was notified while on vacation in Hawaii.  My father works for a failing technology company who has had scores and scores of layoffs in the last ten years.  In my father’s very dark, somber work place, everybody is afraid to take vacations because they are afraid that the minute they leave town, they will be axed.  I used to take great comfort that at least we respected each other, even our enemies, enough that the church would never do that.  Now I am afraid to take a vacation.

And this latest flare up in the church is only one in a long line.  At another institution, a chaplain was demoted one week, suspended the next.** The spark that lit that fire was a very humble sermon asking people to think about their love for a very violent movie in light of Jesus’ call to peace.  What scares me is that it was a sermon I very well could have preached.

Right before that a friend of mine was forced to resign his pastorate because he asked hard questions about the role patriotism plays in our worship.

Before that a friend of mine was forced to leave our denomination in Wyoming due to ideological differences concerning women in ministry.

Before that another friend was driven out not for any particular ideological “flaw” but just because he was a student of our university and seminary so it was assumed there must be an ideological flaw.

Before that another friend was forced out due to ideological differences with district leadership.

I do not know the full stories in any of these situations, but I do know my friends.  Even if they did make one or two lousy judgment calls (which I am sure some of them did) grace means we should not banish them from our communities.

And all of this makes me wonder, am I next?  It seems like in the Church of the Nazarene, my kind is being killed off quite vehemently.  When will the church’s violent and vindictive sword find me?  What honest mistake or ideological view will it be?  And what will be the price for my family, for my friends, for my soul?

The Church of the Nazarene started as a big tent church.  Every line in our early Manuals was a testament to our willingness to debate, dialog and compromise when needed.  We have always loved and welcomed conservative fundamentalists and progressive liberals.  We have been proud that both could worship under the same tent and engage in fierce but loving dialog with those who think differently.  This means, I have several friends who are very conservative and slightly fundamentalist and I love them and rejoice they are a part of this denomination.  I value their input and opinions and want them to stick around because I love them.

But when members of the conservative fundamentalist group suddenly turn violent and vindictive and start waging ideological wars against those who think differently from them and when they score huge victories through sacrificing the careers and livelihoods of my dear friends I fear for my life.

This isn’t new.  In fact, I remember that one day I was awake in church history class and learned that in the early 17th century, the Calvinists, threatened by Arminian views, banished and executed any followers of Jacob Arminius.  I find hope that it didn’t work because there are still faithful Arminians around today.  Moreover, this event was one skirmish in the middle of centuries of Christians actually killing each other over silly ideological differences.  And I even guess that the fact that today we are just terminating positions and not people is a sign of progress.

Or maybe I am just looking for a bit of that Resurrection hope that says if ever the church should decide it needs my blood displayed on a cross for all to see, at least my Savior hung there first and at least there is the glory of an empty tomb waiting for those whom the mob lynches.

**(I previously wrote that the chaplain above had been terminated, i.e. relieved of all positions, but have since learned he retained his chaplaincy.  I apologize for the mixup.  I thought I had that on good authority.)

The Sanctity of Kindred Conversationsed

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Over the last month I have been transitioning to a new ministry assignment (as is obvious by anybody who read the last, like, 8 posts).  As is often the case, the time of transition has given rise to much reflection.  A lot of that reflection has happened as I have spoken with kindred spirits, people who more or less share my occupation, calling and worldview.

Now, I am a proud member of the Wesleyan/Holiness tribe.  More than many things, I take great pride in the push of our movement to insist our members befriend those who are fundamentally different from us.

After all the Wesleyan/Methodist movement really got going when John Wesley began befriending and journeying with those much poorer than him in 18th century England.

One hundred years later, Phineas Bresee, the founder of the Church of the Nazarene, moved to Los Angeles and grew acquainted with several homeless and poverty stricken families.  The Church of the Nazarene was so named because Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a Biblical city known for poverty.

That same Jesus taught us that the call to love does not stop at family but travels through our neighbors on its way down through the least and lonely until it finds it telos in its enemy.

With that said, a couple times in my life I have become dear friends with those who are fundamentally different than me.  They grew up in different parts of the country, have different skin colors, a different socio-economic status and vastly different testimonies than my own.  I cherish those friendships.

But this post is not about that.  It is about the other side of the spectrum, the friendships I have with those who are very similar to me in rank and culture and worldview.  I feel that sometimes our tradition has gotten so caught up in advocating for love towards those different, we have forgotten to acknowledge that a very profound grace is at work when we sit down to coffee or dinner with similar souls.

For the last 3 years I have been surrounded by those who are just very different than me.  Kindred spirits have been hard to find.  Admittedly, I have matured a lot as I have journeyed through an entirely different world.  However, that journey came with a great amount of loneliness.

As I emerged out of that lonely life, the conversations I have had in transition have been means of grace.

A few weeks ago I sat down with one of my mentors and discussed things as trivial as the length of worship services.  We shared our similar discovery that short sermons have a profound rhetorical effect.  Just last week I put that to the test by limiting one of my sermons to 700 words (the length of Lincoln’s inaugural).  I will write about that later.

Around the same time I met with a peer on the district and we gossiped (healthily) about the successes and failures of common friends, our shared desire to see churches planted and the frustrations of pastoring broken people who attempt to break us.

Right before that I met with a pastor who spent many years working among military members.  As I have just moved into a military community, the advice was valuable.

A week later I was again sitting down to coffee and soup with two dear friends who share my concern for missional churches that serve neighborhoods.

Then I met with a much older mentor and we shared our strikingly similar visions with each other.

I write all this in order to acknowledge what I think we sometimes forget:  There is a very real power at work when we have conversations with kindred souls.  I do not think that power is evil or anti-Christ.  Instead, these conversations remind us that even though we are lonely, we are not alone.  After all, the God who calls us also calls people like us to join us.

But do not despair, my Wesleyan friends.  I still very much believe our kindred conversations must be offset by the call to enter into loving relationship with our enemies and with those who have nothing in common with us.  After all, God’s love does not prop up love for one over/against love for the other.

But I also write all this as a form of giving thanks to the God who continues to empower us to love each other, those kindred and those different, in ever increasing ways.

I pray that this new season with be full of grace filled conversations that breathe life into your death and friendship to outlast your loneliness.