Helping the Poor Isn’t Biblical. . .But Serving Them Is!

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I spent five years of my ministry among the poor.  The first three were as an authority figure in a homeless shelter.  The next two were as a rural pastor in one of the poorer counties in the country.  It was with weeping but with a deep sense of calling that I left those settings to move to a wealthy suburb to pastor mostly wealthy people where I have now been for two years.

It will come as no surprise to any of you that the number one thing I have learned is that the wealthy are clueless when it comes to poverty.  And it isn’t their fault.  Our society is built to separate the poor from the rich at every level.  Our culture has named politicians who do not know the poor as our poverty experts.  Our TV shows, novels, movies and songs all confirm our deepest stereotypes about poor people.  We have been brainwashed to believe on a very deep level that the poor are worthless sinners.

We are taught that those with money  are perfect in every way.  Those without money are flawed.  The “have’s” are godly.  The “have-nots” are worthless.  The rich are smart.  The poor are dumb.  The wealthy work really hard.  The poor are lazy.  Even if we consciously know this to be untrue, we (and yes, even I) still act in ways that show we do believe it.

As long as we don’t know the names of the poor, it is easy to continue to believe these things.  One of the great ironies of our hypocrisy is that we claim to know everything about the poverty but very few of us can even tell you their names and the names of their children and their favorite ice cream and sporting team!

In the last few decades, the Evangelical church has discovered a very clever way of baptizing this ignorance.  We have very casually changed one of Scripture’s most important words.  Scripture tells us to “serve the poor.”  We have interpreted that as “help the poor.”  Over the last couple weeks I have done a survey of Scripture’s most prominent poverty passages and books (The Good Samaritan, James 1, Joel, Hosea, Job etc.) and have discovered that “help” is not there nor is it implied.  But through that little four letter word “help” a lot of evil has entered into our thinking and tainted our otherwise loving acts of service.

The word “help” implies I am the rescuer.  It means I am here to save you.  The word “help” confirms our biased suspicions that I have IT all together and you have none of IT together.  I am the knight on the white steed.  You are the damsel in distress.  I am worthwhile and you are worthless.  Lucky for you God sent me here to show you how to be like me.

With that thinking in mind, it is not surprising that there are tons of books on “helping” the poor.  Ironically, all those books begin with telling us that Jesus was wrong.  The first chapters of those books explain that “We know that Jesus said, ‘Give to everybody who asks of you’ but God surely wouldn’t want you to do that.  What if they spend the money on drugs?  What if they waste your gift?  You don’t want YOUR money going to drugs do you?  We know Jesus said God shows kindness to the wicked (Luke 6:35) and gives rain to the just and the unjust (Matthew 6:45) but you shouldn’t do that.  What if they ruin your rain or take advantage of you?  Jesus doesn’t want you to be taken advantage of.  It’s not like he was taken advantage of and crucified or anything!  So Jesus was wrong and we wrote our book to tell you the true way that God wants you to ‘help the poor.’  Step 1: Ignore everything Jesus said.”

Then they go on to talk about “tough love” which is neither patient nor kind nor biblical.  But it turns the impoverished poor people into responsible, white, American capitalist citizens!

The problem with “tough love” is that it doesn’t come from Scripture but from Darwinism, and a very archaic Darwinism at that.  It comes from the idea that only the fit and the strong survive.  So it is my job to help you become fit so that you can survive.   I have to be tough because the theory of evolution only chooses the tough!  So I can save you by teaching you to save yourself so that we can continue thriving and evolving.

That ancient form of Darwinism isn’t even alive in science any more but we have sure preserved it in the church. And it is not Biblical.  In Scripture the fit do not survive.  They perish.  The righteous and the faithful, those who call on the name of the Lord survive and thrive.  The crucified criminals are saved.  The poor and the down and the out and the beggar at Lazarus’ gate survive and thrive.  The wealthy, the fit, the pretty only are saved as they empty themselves of all but love and admit their own horrific sinfulness and wretchedness and fall on the throne of grace.  Of course, that is how the poor are saved as well but it is so much easier for them to do.

We do not help the poor.  But we do serve them.  We do wash their feet.  We do associate with them (Romans 12:16).

And we do this as a means of allowing God to help us and to save us from our pride and our arrogance and our wretchedness.

So what’s the difference between helping and serving?  Let me give a few examples:

Helping says, “Can I tell you why what you are doing is wrong?”

Serving says, “What do you need me to do for you today?”

Helping lectures.

Serving listens.

Helping gives money to a local service organization.

Serving spends money to take the poor out to eat.

Helping invites them to your self help event, or easier still, just gives them a self help book.

Serving enters their home and laughs with them around a dinner table.

Helping gives them a list of criteria by which they can be accepted.

Serving accepts and associates with them regardless.

Helping tells them your personal success story as if it could be easily replicated.

Serving tells them about this gracious God who gives to all who ask.

And finally,

Helping doesn’t care about their name.

Serving learns their name.

In closing here is a quote from Soong Chan Rah’s book “Prophetic Lament” which helps me incredibly as I try to purify myself from my suburban wretchedness and associate anew with the lowly:

I was listening to the speaker before me when he dropped this little gem: “It’s not about a handout, but a hand up.”  Actually it’s not about either.  A handout means you think you are better than me and you’re handing me something.  A hand up means you think you’re better than me and you’re trying to lift me up from a bad place to your wonderful place.  Actually if it’s a choice, I would rather have the hand out.  If you’re going to be condescending, I might as well get a direct benefit out of it instead of being told I need to become like you.  Forget the handout or the hand up.  Just reach a hand across.  Let’s be equals and partners.  I don’t need you to rescue me, just like you don’t think you need rescuing by me.  My rescuer is a Jewish carpenter.”

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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.

The Sermon I Should Have Preacher: The Gospels

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This is an ongoing blog series where upon completing a sermon series, I mention a few things I myself learned that may or may not have made it into the final draft of the series.

Last year when I was planning my sermon series for the 2016 calendar year, I decided to spend the Fall talking about practical holiness.  As I began putting together those sermons, I hit a wall very early on.  The problem was that I could not talk about practical holiness without first helping my congregation develop a fuller understanding of the mystery that is the gospel.  Therefore, a 12 week sermon series on holiness as described in Romans 12-16 became a six week series on “What is the Gospel?” followed by another six weeks in Romans 12-16.

I finished my first six weeks in the gospel last Sunday.  I very roughly structured the series on the five (or six) major atonement theories.  I tried to pick one passage per theory that I thought defended that particular theory well.  So very roughly the six sermons went like this:

2 Cor. 5: The Gospel and Ministry of Reconciliation

Romans 1: The Satisfaction Theory

Ephesians 2: Ransom Theory

Colossians 2: “Christus Victor” And the overthrow of the Rulers and Authorities of our World. (This is the only one online currently and you can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJbo9DCG4WY)

Romans 8: Recapitulation Theory

1 John 4: Moral Influence Theory

With those in mind, after spending the last couple months doing some deeper thinking about the core of our Christian faith and revisiting both the the events of Jesus’s life and how the epistles interpret them, here are some things I learned.  These are not things I knew all ready but things I genuinely realized.

  1. Yes the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition has major qualms about the “wrath of God” and maybe rightly so.  But unfortunately for us God’s wrath is all over the epistles.  Even Jesus in the gospels does his fair share talking about it.  With that said, I still don’t believe God was so angry that God needed to watch a Quentin Tarantino (or even, *cough* a “Mel Gibson”) movie to suddenly be okay with it all.  But God is angry at the sinfulness of the world and Jesus came as a solution to it.  There is no way to be biblical and not to address the wrath of God.
  2. The epistles don’t concentrate on the cross nearly as much as we do today.  In fact, in most of the epistle passages listed above almost all the events of Jesus’ life are mentioned or alluded to in some way.  The incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost and Jesus’ second coming all appear together almost all of the time.  In the epistles the gospel is not about the cross but about the entire “Christ event.”  If we want to talk about salvation in a biblical way we must talk and give equal emphasis to all of them.
  3. With that said, I was surprised at how often Pentecost and the Holy Spirit itself comes up in talking about the gospel.  The good news according to the epistles is not just about forgiveness on the cross but about the release of the Holy Spirit into the world to equip and enable us to live holy lives.
  4. The ransom theory is extremely difficult to defend in any biblical way.  Going in I knew that the Old Testament provided very little evidence that Satan somehow controlled the entire cosmos.  But I was sure the New Testament at the very least alluded to it.  I was wrong.  The New Testament does not in any way teach it.  Ephesians 2 comes the closest but it doesn’t even mention Satan by name.  It talks about the “ruler of the prince of the air” which was actually a title for Caesar.

So those are some thoughts about the gospel.  They are things I genuinely learned in the last couple months.  I hope to do this from here on out with all my sermon series.  I also hope to back date one to the minor prophets which I spent the summer preaching through.

In completely unrelated news this here blog post is apparently my 200th!!!  Here is a picture of an anniversary cake to celebrate.

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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.

Conversations on Holiness

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I want to begin by apologizing.  A few weeks ago, amid the chaos and stress of moving, I managed to put up a review of the book “Renovating Holiness.”  In that review, I promised to post a follow up.  The last two weeks have been so crazy that I have not yet had time to do so until now.  So I am sorry.

However, things have calmed a bit and I have had some time to think more about holiness and its renovation.

If you recall, I described the book “Renovating Holiness” as the introduction to conversations happening all over the world.  These conversations have been going on for decades  but “Renovating Holiness” gives you everything you need to know in order to enter these conversations intelligently.

As such, I encouraged people to not only read the essays but to use them to lead conversations in Sunday School classes, book studies, worship services and the like.

So, for the sake of follow up, here are some of the more crucial conversations that Renovating Holiness addresses which I think deserve priority.  Each one will also include a suggestion for where to discuss it.

1: What does the Bible really say about holiness?

Location: Sermons (and maybe Bible Studies)

Almost every Renovating Holiness essay dealt with exegetical frustration of some kind.  As a tradition, we have not always read Scripture well and the essays outline the ways we have fallen short.

Part of the confusion certainly flows from Leviticus where both eating pork and committing adultery are impure (so I can eat pork but not cheat on my wife? or can’t do either? or now can do both? or now cheat on my wife but not eat pork?).  Another part of the confusion comes from trying to figure out just what “baptism of the Holy Spirit” means and how and where Acts illustrates it.

With that said, pulpits are a great place to give a more honest and complex reading of the Bible.  For the pastor who ventures into it, the essays on the Bible in Renovating Holiness serve as great commentaries.

2: How should we preach and teach holiness?

Location: Colleges and Seminaries

After (or rather, as) you wade through the exegetical issues, you naturally will have to figure out what metaphors, language and logic structures to use from the pulpit.  Once again there are several essays that offer much guidance and they can serve as useful tools for those training for ministry.

3: How do we live holy lives?

Location: Everywhere a Holy church gets together.

Awhile back someone in a Facebook group asked, “what are the markers for a Holy life.  How do we really see someone is holy?”  The responses all fled to the abstract, things like “pure, love, merciful, righteous, kindness, gentleness.”  Those words are all well and good but they all beg the question, “okay, what does love look like?  What does mercy look like?  What does it mean to be kind?  How do we see it?”

These questions are at the very center of the doctrine of Holiness.  We should seek to answer them whenever we get together.  Does kindness involve recycling?  Does it involve abstaining from alcohol?  Does it involve reducing your carbon footprint or paying to repair your neighbor’s huge diesel truck?  Do I give 10% or 90?  What causes do I give too?  Who do I vote for in National elections?  Do I even vote at all?  These are the practical questions we must wrestle with constantly.

In that Spirit, I would recommend we stay away from paltry descriptions like, “finds a way to recycle dirty diapers.”  Instead we should maybe point to the very concrete examples of saints who have lived among us.  In those conversations we might not say, “Holiness is recycling,” but instead, “Holiness is my prayer warrior grandma.”  “Holiness is not abstaining from or drinking alcohol.  It is my uncle who was an abusive drunk but now buys his wife flowers every week.”

4: Do we really want a new legalism?

Location: Small group Bible studies

I have noticed that younger Christians tend to be more legalistic than their Baby boomer parents.  They aren’t legalistic about things like dancing and alcohol but if you eat meat around them they will assure you of your un-sanctified state.  If you don’t recycle they will cast you out of the “holy” community and if you drive your car when you could have walked get ready for the seat of judgment!

Holiness does have something to do with things like physical exercise and creation care.  However, these rather judgmental, bicycle riding, vegetarians pretend to hate legalism.  They loathe how legalistic their parents were and then they breathe out harsh and angry judgments in their very next breaths.  It is a little bit hypocritical.

And, not surprising, some of them wrote essays for Renovating Holiness.

I am certainly in favor of a return from “antinomianism” (a theological word for “no ethic at all”) to some sort of community covenant of conduct.  The conduct should include socially responsible practices and take into account the preservation of God’s gorgeous creation.

But as we talk about what “shalts” and “shalt nots” we commit too, I hope we can dial down our judgmental rhetoric and create an inclusive covenant that invites others in, instead of fencing them out, even if “they” are our Christian parents who drive SUVs, eat steak every night and hasn’t touched alcohol since they disinfected an open wound 10 years ago.

5: How do we move forward?

Location: Everywhere.

Recently a panel was formed to discuss the Church of the Nazarene’s stance on drinking alcohol.  It was caused in part by the complaints of Millenials about that legalistic and Biblically unsubstantiated claim from the 1950s that said alcohol contaminated the purity of the body of Christ.

The panel dealt with that concern, not by moving forward but by rewinding the clock even further to the 1890s.  The panelists reclaimed our social gospel ethic whereby we abstained for the benefit of the alcoholics among us.  We have a great historical reason for our stance on alcohol and today alcohol is still destroying many families but history is, well, history.

The problem isn’t that we stopped in the 1950s when we should have stopped in the 1890s.  The problem is that we stopped at all.  The conversations need to always be about how we move forward as a church and as a tradition, not back.  Therefore, the last section of essays in Renovating Holiness bring the book wonderfully home.

After all, by my reading of Revelation, the Holy People living in the Holy Jerusalem with our Holy God lies before us, not behind us.  Let us keep charging forward toward that city with our wonderful watch word and song, “Holiness Unto the Lord.”

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Renovating Holiness

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“That was the day we eradicated eradication.”

That line was the conclusion to a story a much older pastor was telling during a meeting I attended last Fall.  He was talking about a time when all the pastors on his district got together and talked about holiness, particularly the Nazarene doctrine of “entire sanctification.”

When he said, ” we eradicated eradication,” I thought, “They must have been thorough as I have no idea what eradication is!”  And I have both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree from Nazarene institutions and am a Senior Pastor.

Of course, I did some brain searching and with great effort remembered that day 10 years ago in “holiness class” where I was taught that “eradication” referred to the old Holiness Movement idea that upon receiving the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” God completely eradicated the sinful nature and made it possible to live a completely sinless life.

I will pause for a few moments while you laugh at that ridiculous idea……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..before pointing out that 50 to 100 years ago most Nazarenes believed it.  And now you probably can’t find more than 10 who do and they will all be over 70 years old.

This is just one example of the ways that the defining doctrine of the Church of the Nazarene, “Entire Sanctification” has been redefined over the last decades.  Its original formulation proved too high minded and optimistic for the pessimism that gripped the Western nations in the latter half of the 20th century.  Moreover, as the Church of the Nazarene globalized we struggled to articulate our ideas in different cultures.  It seems that the further away from California 1900 AD we got, the less sane our doctrine sounded.

Therefore over the last decades there have been countless conversations which sought to reexamine, redefine and reexplain holiness to a global church and a cynical constituency.  These conversations have happened everywhere from large auditoriums to tiny Sunday School classes and from as close as your local pulpit to as far away as an underground church in China.

The editors of “Renovating Holiness” sensed that these conversations are increasing in number so last year they set out to help the global conversation along by asking over 100 leaders from all the world areas to weigh in on their recent conclusions regarding holiness.  More than that, they are probably the first editors of their kind to prioritize younger voices over older ones.  The result is that the majority of essays are written by people under the age of 35.  (I should take this moment to note that I was one of them.)

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The project was nothing short of momentous and would not have been possible before the internet age.  Now for the first time voices from many world areas and many generations weigh in on why holiness is important and what vocabulary and conceptual changes need to be made in order to keep it viable.

Due to the sheer amount of contributors it is impossible to write a critique that would hold true for every essay.  For example, a few essays come dangerously close to saying nothing while a few others say entirely way too much.  Most though, are succinct and readable, adding their 1200 words to the conversation in an effective way.

The book is also hard to critique because its goal was not meant to finish a conversation or to posit timeless and unassailable theological truths.  Instead the essayists want to introduce readers to the conversations that are happening all across the world and to invite the readers to join them.

With that said, I do not entirely agree with every essay and opinion but it was those places of disagreement that proved the value of the book.  The reality is that I am not having the same conversations about holiness in Elgin, OR that some are having in inner city LA or a village in Africa.  Hearing those voices both agree and disagree with me is a great gift.

This makes “Renovating Holiness” a wonderful contribution to the church and a must read for anybody who wishes to discuss “holiness” as coherently and contextually as possible.

Therefore I would recommend not only reading the essays but using them to begin and lead discussions about Holiness wherever possible.

Hopefully within a week I will follow up this post with another one about what discussions are worth prioritizing and where the conversations should happen.

Until then, may God, God’s very self, the God of peace sanctify you through you and through and may your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless before the coming of our Lord.

Lessons Learned From Answering “Why?”

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My daughter turns 3 on Thursday.  This brings to a close a wonderful year full of growing and learning.  Last year she had mastered the words “no,” “daddy” and “mommy.”  Now she is an expert at the English language, even beginning to read it.

Last Summer we went through the “no” phase where every hour was littered with the infamous two letter “n” word.  During that phase she tried all kinds of tones and volumes, sometimes screaming, “NO!”, other times lengthening the word to “NNNNNOOOO!” and still other times whispering, “nah.”

Then we went through the “mine” phase where she laid claim to all the objects of our house.

After that her vocabulary broadened and she flled our days with, “let me do it!”

Then last November came, “why” and this phase is not going away.

“Can you please close the door?”

“Why?”

“It is time to go home.”

“Why?”

“Stop strangling your brother with a blanket!”

“Why?”

And so I am learning what every parent learns around this time, that a lot of our lives are not well philosophically thought out.  This has become evident during the 3rd round of “why” when I find myself resorting to a one word answer, “BECAUSE!”  Of course, that is not an answer at all, just a cop out.

It is unclear whether she is genuinely curious about why I do not want her to strangle her brother or if she just wants to keep doing it and knows that the one word, “why” will prolong the enjoyment.

At other times I try to figure out if she knows how annoying the question is and if she is asking it to infuriate me.  Regardless, 2 year olds do tend to be evil geniuses.

Still, I have become fascinated with how many times the answer to her “why?” lies in my personal comfort or preserving the comfort of others.

For example, earlier today we walked in our house and, with full hands, I said, “Can you please close the door for me?”

“Why?”

“Because if we don’t close the door it will let all the heat out and living in a cold house is uncomfortable.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t like the cold!”

A few days ago we had a similar conversation.

“Can you please clean up your toys?”

“Why?”

“Because I really don’t like messes.  They make me frustrated and uncomfortable and angry.”

“Why?  Why do I have to pick up my toys?”

“Because I told you I don’t like messes and also because your mom hates them as much as I do and I don’t like it when mommy gets mad.”

Or consider this conversation:

“Stop hitting your brother?”

“Why?”

“Because hitting people is mean.  It hurts them and we don’t like it when other people get oowies.”

“Why?”

I don’t know if there is actually anything lying under the surface of these conversations but thinking about them has made me wonder a lot about comfort.

Is the impetus of most of my actions the creation or preservation of comfort, either for myself or others?  Is this a bad thing?  Is the chief end of love providing for the comfort of others, or even yourself?

Be that as it may, my children are growing up in an incredibly comfortable world.  They have 3 times as many toys as the average child.  They have a warm house, good food and lots of hugs and kisses from relatives and church friends.  They have coats to keep them warm.  They have parks to play at and coats to wear if the temperature is below average.  They have warm beds and plenty of clothing.  More than that, through the internet, my wife and I have access to thousands of research studies that let us know just exactly how to increase and preserve the comfort of my children.

And I don’t know how much of this is a good thing.

Meanwhile I am reading a great book called “Renovating Holiness” that was just released this week.  The book is a compilation of essays that seek to begin new conversations on Christian Holiness.  Not surprisingly, the essays talk more about love than they do holiness because most of the contributors (myself included) believe holiness is rooted in the love of God, neighbor, enemy and all that is in between.

But I have been mindful as I read through the essays how much our theologies of love takes us back to comfort.  In the book there are upper class hipsters arguing that the 1st world hasn’t done enough to make the 3rd world comfortable.  There are internationals arguing against the evils of apartheid, slavery, terrorism and the like by making the case that those evils made people less comfortable.  And there is my essay on alcohol that considers drinking in light of how comfortable and uncomfortable alcohol makes people.  I argue that alcohol decreases comfort for addicts but for casual drinkers it increases it.  Then I call both to a holy community where their love for each other respect the comfort of both.  Now, I did not use the word comfort in my essay and I don’t think the word appears in the book.  Yet my daughter’s questions have made me realize comfort really is at the heart of the matter.

And I like comfort.  I am a big fan of warm blankets and soft beds and comfy couches.  I hate stuffy noses, headaches and sore muscles.  I like feeling water run down the back of my throat, especially first thing in the morning.  Hot showers are just short of heaven, especially after cold runs.  Caramel Brulee Lattes and Pumpkin Spice Lattes are even closer.

But is holiness really helping other people experience this level of comfort?  At its heart, is love really about forgoing a warm shower or an expensive latte so that someone else can have one?

I think, probably, yes.

But I am not quite so sure I could tell you “why?”