A Pastor’s Dilemma: When I Disagree With My Heroes

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John Wesley is my patron saint.  I have spent hours of my life reading his sermons, letters and journal entries.  Those hours double, maybe even triple, when you include the amount of things I have read about Wesley.  I am even reading a book now that is a collection of devotionals from Wesley’s writings.  Furthermore, I have written well over 20 papers about Wesley.  I have spoken about Wesley in several sermons, almost all of them and now I am even writing one more blog post about him.  I also sing John’s brother’s (Charles) hymns and spend hours searching the internet to find obscure Charles’ poems that help inform my understanding of Wesleyan theology.  To top it all off, I go to weekend conferences that are named after John Wesley!

I am proud to call myself Wesleyan/Arminian, with ultra emphasis on the Wesleyan.  I am a proud heir of his ministry and theology.

But I disagree with John Wesley.  First of all, I think he was kind of mean, maybe meaner than a Christian should be.  I had a seminary professor who said, “you would love to hear Wesley preach but don’t go out for coffee with him.”  The implication was that Wesley was not easy to get along with.

It was probably because of that meanness that John Wesley also had a lousy marriage.  Rumor has it he didn’t know his wife even died until months after the fact.  Lying behind that practice, or lack thereof, he had a pretty low view of marriage in general.  He wrote several letters to the betrothed, begging them not to go through with their weddings so that they can remain single and free for Jesus.  (Okay, I admit there are days when I do wonder if he has a point there.)

Wesley also said things about the use of Scripture that I am not sure I agree with and he also seemed to highly prioritize the penal substitution view of the atonement, which I highly de-emphasize.

Once in awhile people in my tradition will get into a theological or political debate and one person will pull out a Wesley quote that somehow pertains to the debate topic.  This person will do so with a smug satisfaction, as if by just mentioning Wesley they have won the debate.  When they do that, I always wonder if they are promoting Wesley’s words to the level of Scriptural infallibility, as if everything Wesley said was somehow divinely inspired and inerrant in every way.

And Christians don’t do this with just John Wesley.  Calvinists do it with Calvin.  Lutherans do it with Luther.  Some of us do it with Augustine (with whom I disagree on almost everything) or Irenaeus (whom I like a lot).  A lot of us do it with C.S. Lewis or A.W. Tozer.  We even do it with the living, people like Pope Francis, Timothy Keller, Scot McKnight, James Dobson, etc.  And, very disturbingly, a lot of Christians have begun doing it with Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, even Ronald Reagan and the like.  We have this list of so called “authorities” and when we get into debates we name drop as if to say, “This person is God and they are right about everything and therefore you are wrong!”

I don’t think it works like that.  In fact, I wonder if what lies behind the “appeal to authority” is a misplaced faith.  Put another way, I wonder if we are promoting our heroes to the level of deities.  When we go further and use the very slippery adjective “biblical” to describe their works, I am wondering if we are trying to say that their writings were infallible and inerrant and should be added to the words of Scripture as a sort of 3rd or “Newer than New” testament.

For this reason I am always a bit relieved when I find something questionable written or said by my heroes.  Now that does not mean I am right and they are wrong.  Indeed they may be and probably are more accurate but the very fact I disagree with them means I am not worshiping them or elevating their works to the level of the Scriptures.

In fact, I might take one more step and argue that unless you do find something with which you disagree than you are, by de facto, claiming that this author is God and their works are sacred Scriptures.

And I am not sure we want to do that as faithful Christians.

That was just a thought for a January Monday morning.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Man From Oudewater

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I am Wesleyan/Arminian.

It might surprise you to know that four word sentence is rife with interpretive possibilities.  The truly uninformed think the last word indicates I am from a country somewhere in Africa called Armenia, even though Armenia is actually in Eastern Europe.

The slightly more informed know the sentence implies some sort of belief in human free will at the expense of an all controlling God.

The little bit more informed think that the emphasis should lie on Wesleyan and not Arminius because, as we all know, John Wesley died without any of Jacob Arminius’ books in his library.

The even more informed would argue back that Wesley had plenty of books written by Arminians.  Therefore the 18th century Wesley owes much to the 16th century Arminius.

My friend Rustin E. Brian is even more

Click to buy from Amazon (and please, please do!)

informed than that.  Luckily, he wrote a short book to bring the rest of us nitwits up to speed.  Sadly, before reading about the man from Oudewater I was one of those who thought the connection with Arminius was tenuous at best.  I thought that if our tradition had a “Great Grandfather” it would probably be Thomas Cranmer, or even Martin Luther.  I mentioned this to a Wesleyan scholar at a conference awhile back who disagreed and that quite vehemently.  I think an hour later he asked one of my former seminary professors what he had been teaching us!

In remembrance of that embarrassing incident, I eagerly snatched up Brians’ book about Jacob Arminius and read it in a couple sittings.  After all, if the scholars of our tradition are saying Arminius is important, I better know my stuff!  Brian’s book was the perfect primer, an albeit really short one.

It turns out Jacob Arminius actually lived a much less impressive life than I had supposed.  Despite underplaying his role in my tradition, I had somehow assumed he died with an international following, several published works to his name and as a martyr for his cause.  It turns out he spent most of his ministry as a pastor and only the last few years as a professor.  He died of sickness at a fairly young age.  He was not burned at the stake or beheaded for his beliefs like I had previously assumed.

But due to one of history’s great ironies, his name has had a far more fascinating history than his life.  It has become synonymous in Protestant circles with “free will” though we should alter that to “freed will.” Arminius’ theology has also become a critical component to theodicy conversations as his framework retains God’s power while not sacrificing God’s love.  Arminius’ name has also been valuable in carving out a middle road through all the Christian traditions, making those of us who bear his name a catch all for anybody seeking a different road.

Yet what I appreciate most about Arminius’ biography, or at least Brian’s reading thereof, is that Arminius’ theology was what it was because Jacob was a pastor first.  John Wesley was too, for the record.  And I am too, as is Brian.

In fact, in late college and all throughout seminary I struggled and prayed with whether or not to apply for PhD programs and seek a faculty position at a university.  At that point I was proving myself to be an adequate teacher and writer.  I was an okay student, a B+/A- one, which one novel cleverly characterized as the black sheep of academia.  On top of that my professors were wonderful people who had a life changing impact on me, a pastoral impact no less.  It was those same professors who advised that academia was a brutal place with low wages and long hours with high expectations.  It was not a job for the weak or uncalled.

In the end I chose the pulpit but not because I don’t value the input of ivory towers.  Most days my entire ministry rests upon the conclusions of those who spend their days doing nothing but studying Scripture.  Their contributions are invaluable and they need all the time in the world to think through them.  However, their contributions are worthless without pastors whose feet are on the ground and whose hearts are among the people.  The great contributors of our tradition have been pastors who spent the morning studying and the afternoons and evenings ministering.

Therefore, I am grateful to call Jacob Arminius my great grandpa and to be one of many who continue the work he began in local parishes.  I am grateful too for my esteemed colleague, Rusty Brian who continues that work in his local parish and write books like these as an extension of his ministry.

Now off to work I go!

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.