Monday, June 29, 2009

General Assembly Update

I thought this update might be too long for a facebook status.

As of Monday night, we haven't elected any new General Superintendents yet but we are getting close to electing the first new one of this assembly and more importantly there seems to be a good chance we will elect our first GS from outside of the U.S. As I stated in my earlier status, 64% of our members live outside the U.S. but our leadership has been slow in reflecting this reality with less than half our GA delegates coming from outside the U.S. and no general from outside the U.S. It is extremely important that our church elect leaders from other parts of the world who understand their own culture where God is moving in new and exciting ways.

At the conclusion of business tonight, Eugenio Duarte was the leading vote getter. I found a short article in Holiness Today about him here. He already has 400+ votes and only needs about 250 more to be elected.

The second most votes went to Gustavo Crocker. Read about him here.

John Bowling, the president of Olivet Nazarene University, received the third most votes. It was a significant drop off from there.

There will have to be many more ballots cast before we have three new GS's but things are looking promising.

Perhaps even more importantly, the assembly passed the resolutions of the International Church Committee. This was a committee designed to help the Church of the Nazarene consider how it's church polity and organizational structures need to adapt to our international constintuency. The committee concluded that minor revisions to our organization and polity were no longer sufficient to adequately address the needs of our global denomination. The assembly adopted the committee resolution that Manual sections 100 - 384 be reviewed and re-written so that we can be a truly global denomination and no longer built around a North American framework. Some are saying that this is the most significant legislation of the assembly and it's adoption alone makes this GA an enormous success. I urge you to read more about the work of the ICC here.

Good things are happening here in Orlando. It makes me excited and hopeful for the future of our church. Hopefully, I'll be able to share with you tomorrow that we have elected our first General Superintendent from one of the international delegations.

Shepherd of Sheep to Shepherd of a People

In 2 Samuel 5, the elders of Israel come to David asking him to be their king. Up to this point, David has only been king over Judah but now Abner and Ish-bosheth, the two most likely kings of Israel, have both been killed. Now David is the most reasonable option for Israel and they covenant with him to be their king.

This passage describing the coronation of David as king over all Israel and Judah is widely recognized as the end of one phase of David's story; namely, the story of his rise to power. This story began back in 1 Samuel 16 when Samuel anointed David to be king even though he was a young boy. However, as the many chapters between that story and this story show, Samuel's anointing of David did not mean an immediate rise to power. After all, David was unknown and Saul was still king. In those chapters are story after story of David trusting God and refusing to force his own schedule or agenda. For example, David more than once has an opportunity to kill Saul, his political opponent, but he refuses to do so leaving it up to God to make him king as he promised. In fact, the story clears David of any culpability in the death of any of his enemies. While this certainly does not remove the blood and violence from the story of David's rise, it does show that David did not take his anointing into his own hands. He trusts God to fulfill his promises and this chapter of 2 Samuel records that God was faithful to those promises.

This is a continous struggle for us as the Church. God has promised us many things and we take those promises to heart and are passionate about seeing them fulfilled. But often we forget that they are God's promises to keep, not an agenda given to us to put in place. God calls us to be obedient and to trust him, not to make his plans happen for him. Does God want his Church to grow? Of course! But he wants it to grow through the work of his Spirit and the faithful Christ-likeness of his Church, not through some marketing gimmick. Does God want justice in our world? Yes, painfully so! But not by traditional means of power and might but by his Spirit and the mercy of his people. David's rise to power as king is a reminder to us that God does not need us to make his kingdom come; he only needs us to live faithfully in anticipation of it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Postmodernism and Wesleyanism

"If you died tonight and found yourself at the gate of heaven and Jesus asked you 'Why should I let you into my heaven?'what would your answer be?"

If you've been aroud the Church for a while then you've probably heard this question or one like it before. While it is difficult to nail down the exact differences between modernity and postmodernity in this major cultural shift that is taking place in our culture, this question does a pretty good job of summing up the modern approach to evangelism in particular and Christianity in general. It is designed to encourage someone to think about their eternal destination and thereby lead them to a decision for Jesus. It represents a form of Christianity in which the central question is "How do I get to heaven?"

I attended a workshop here at General Assembly today entitled "Postmodern and Wesleyan?" in which the presenters discussed what Christianity in our Wesleyan heritage as Nazarenes might look like in a postmodern age. I found the most insightful part of this workshop to be when the presenters offered postmodern alternatives to the opening question above. A question like:

"If you were to live for another 40 years, what kind of legacy would you want to leave behind?"

or even better...

"If you believed in a God who was working and active in our world, wouldn't you want to be a part of that redepmtive work?"

These questions represent a Christianity that is not solely focused on heaven or hell but what God is doing now, in this life. As a result, they resonate much more closely with a postmodern generation and, in my opinion are much closer to Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God come to earth. Its not that heaven isn't important. It's just that Christianity shouldn't be boiled down to a ticket to heaven. We believe in a lot more that that. Our hope runs much deeper and wider than that.

In fact, thinking about the way that God works in our world (i.e. inhabiting our flesh through Jesus and continuing to inhabit our lives through the Holy Spirit) should remind us that while certain evangelism techniques might help us present the gospel more concisely, those techniques should never be about a gimmicky, used-car-salesman, kind of offer designed to get someone to agree with our cognitive beliefs about Jesus despite their better judgment. As the Church, we've got to stop looking for short cuts, easy answers, and magic bullets. We've got to stop trying to find the formula that will automatically turn everyone we meet into a Christian and start actually speanding time with people, loving people, building long-lasting relationships, and showing others what it means to be a community centered around the crucified and risen Lord and shaped by his Spirit. After all, that's the example that Jesus himself gave us.

Monday, June 15, 2009

More than an Underdog

Who sends a kid into a war zone with a sling shot?

The story of David and Goliath is one of the most well known stories of the Bible. And like many biblical stories that become absorbed into the mindset of our larger culture, it's popularity causes it to become trivialized to a certain degree. A reference to the story of David and Goliath has become short-hand for refering to a victorious underdog. I hear it often in sports when a small market team comes out of nowhere to challenge the perennial champions for the title. Commentators quikcly pose the question "Will David take down the mighty Goliath?" Usually, this means that the "David" team will have to out-hustle and out-smart their more talented "Goliath" of an opponent.

While I was personally dissapointed last night when a certain sports Goliath (the L.A. Lakers) wasn't defeated, as Christians and regular readers of scripture we should recognize that the story of David really has nothing to do with him being an underdog, at least not in the way we normally use that term. Yes, David is undersized, too young and inexperienced, and seemingly helpless with his sling and a lack of proper weaponry. But the point of the story is not that David conjurs up some inner drive to succeed by which he out-works or out-smarts the more powerful Goliath. The point is that David puts his trust in God and not in himself.
Of course, this trust appears naive and idealistic to those whose perceptions of reality have been shaped by the rigors and horrors of "the real world." So Saul attempts to conform David's view of reality to his own by dressing him up in respectable armor and weapons, the things in which Saul trusts. After trying on the king's armor David refuses, knowing that it is God who will decide this battle.

And so, a boy armed with trust, five stones, and a sling goes where a whole army of seasoned warriors dared not go. One stone is all it takes. The battle has barely begun and it is over. The giant is taken down by one well placed stone.

There are so many battlefields in our world; all kinds of metaphorical ones and sadly too many literal ones as well. Often its seems that the Church feels like it only has two choices in these battles; either to cower from the things that threaten us as the Israelite army did or to go into the battle with the weapons of the world as Saul wanted David to. Both of those options fail because they fail to account for God's presence. But there is a third option; stepping onto the battlefield with trust in God as our only real weapon.

Of course, that's risky. It leaves us vulnerable to the giant enemy standing in front of us and backed by an army that is supposed to be on our side but doesn't exactly have a lot faith in the odds of our success. But, of course, this is the path that Jesus walked; publicly challenging the God-mocking giants of his day while even his closest followers wondered why he hadn't taken up the more conventional weapons of revolution. And for a time it appeared that his trust had been too naive and idealistic and that the giant had won but even after death his trust was vindicated because God has the power to raise those who trust in him to new life.

In a world of tanks and nuclear weapons, a world of injustice and political games, a world where so many lines have been drawn deeply in the sand, what would it mean for us to be a people who stand between opposing armies and challenge the giants of our world, armed with only our trust in God and a sling?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Youth Revolution

Sedition. Treason. Revolution. An unknown, unimportant, left-over of a boy.

By the beginning of the 16th chapter of 1 Samuel, God himself and Samuel both regret having made Saul king over Israel. Saul has failed as the shepherd of this people. But God speaks to Samuel, indicating to him that the time of morning for Saul is over because God is about to do something new. God tells Samuel to prepare to anoint one of the sons of Jesse the Bethlemite as Israel's next king. Samuel response to God's command (When Saul hears of it, he will kill me! v.2) takes seriously the dangerous political implications of what God is asking him to do. There is already a king in Israel; to anoint another one while Saul is still alive is nothing short of open rebellion against the powers that be. God doesn't discount this reality, recognizing the danger of what he is asking Samuel to do. But God does give Samuel an "out", telling Samuel to go to Bethlehem under the guise of offering a sacrifice. (Is God encouraging an act of deception here in order to bring about the revolution he desires?)

Samuel arrives in Bethlehem and the elders of the town know something is up. They ask Samuel if he comes in peace. They figure that the presence of a big shot like Samuel in a small town like theirs can only mean trouble; either he is there working for Saul or he is there in opposition to Saul. Either way, the elders figure it can't be good for Bethlehem. But Samuel reassures them by repeating the line God gave him about being there to offer sacrifice sees to it that Jesse and his family are in attendance. Immediately upon their entrance, Samuel sees Jesse's son Eliab and thinks that his work is done; surely this must be the next king of Israel. But God tells Samuel to pass over Eliab and Abinadab and Shammah and all seven of Jesse's sons who are present. Has Samuel got the wrong house? Did he misunderstand God's instructions? Are there no other sons?

It turns out there is one son remaining but he is the youngest, the runt of the litter. You could even translate Jesse's description of this son as a "left-over". His own father considered him so unimportant that he didn't even bother to bring him before Samuel the king-maker. Samuel instructs Jesse to go get his left-over boy and he says that they will all wait while he retrieves him. And so the mighty Samuel, the town elders, and the older brothers come to a stand still because of this young boy who has yet to even be named in the story. The power and influential are made to wait for the young, lowly shepherd to come in from the field. Such is the kingdom of God.

Upon this young boy's entrance into the story, it seems that even the narrator can not contain his excitment over his main character. He says that the boy had beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance, even though it has already been stated that this was not God's criteria for choosing his annointed. His good looks are only a sort of added bonus to the kind of heart that God desires which this boy also possesses. Immediately upon seeing the boy, God tells Samuel to get up and anoint him and he does so. Right there in front of all those who should be more powerful than he is, David is anointed as king of Israel and filled with the Holy Spirit and it is only then that he is finally named within the story.

In the life of an unknown, left-over, nearly nameless, young boy the seeds of God's revolution and a new kingdom are planted. There are none too young or unimportant for the kingdom of God. The Church today finds itself in a situation similar to Samuel's. We can mourn over the failures of past or current leaders. We can accept a dim future because seeking new leaders is too dangerous and risky. Or we can be obedient to God and begin looking for those that God has already chosen among the younger generations to lead the way into a new future.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Pictures of Spiritual Formation

I'm not a photographer but I love taking pictures.

I remember a video we watched in Dr. Hardy's Spiritual Formation class at NTS where a professional photographer spoke about his trade. Like a lot of things in my life, I don't remember hardly any of the details of that video we watched and yet somehow it still had a deep and lasting influence on my life. I think it had an impact because it freed me to starting thinking about spiritual disciplines in ways that I had not up that point. That was several years ago now and there have certainly been a lot of changes in the way that I think about my spiritual life since then but from this vantage point it seems clear to me that that video and that class were instrumental in opening up a new path in my spiritual life even though I may not have realized it at the time. I think it is safe to say that I now regard picture taking as an important spiritual discipline in my life. While I have never taken a single class or workshop on photography and don't have any of the tehcnical skills that a professional has, I have found that photography cultivates in me some of the same characteristics that are important for ministry.

When I go for a walk with my camera, most of the time is spent simply waiting. It is rare that I am looking to take a picture of anything specific. I usually just go somewhere I think I am likely to see something interesting and wait to see what presents itself. Often I go for long periods without finding anything that catches my eye. Nevertheless, I continue to watch and listen and it is when I am most patient that I usually see the most interesting things. So often in ministry, it is tempting to try to fast forward everything; whether in our own spiritual lives or the life of our congregation. But there is much grace in simply being present in the moment and waiting faithfully to see where God is working rather than forcing our own agenda.

Keeping an eye out for possible pictures has also taught me to see beauty in seemingly ordinary surroundings. It is easy to take a quick glance around and think that there is nothing worth photographing. But in reality, viewed in a certain way, almost anything can make an interesting picture. Often its just about framing a picture just right; putting a subject in its proper context or separating it from the distractions that surround it. Often I see certain potential in a subject but I have to work to position myself so as to find the right light, an original angle, or a unique perspective from which to view that subject. So many things about the Church are so ordinary. Most Sundays, nothing that we would describe as "miraculous" takes place. In fact, if you've been around the Church long enough you know that there are parts of church life that can be down right ugly. It is in those times that it helps to be able to see the beauty of God's creation and redemption in each of us even if at that particular moment our sinful nature is showing our less photogenic side. There is much beauty in the midst of our brokenness, in our imperfect fellowship with one another, in ordinary things like bread and juice, if only we will allow God to open our eyes to see it.

There is also something spiritually wholesome about walking around in solitude with a lense constantly pointed away from myself. As a pastor, it is a regular part of my job to have everyone looking at me and listening to me. It doesn't take much imagination to see how that kind of attention could lead to a certain level of neurosis for just about anyone. No matter how loving, gracious, and considerate your congregation might be (all very much characteristics of my congregation) it is difficult to not feel a certain level of pressure in that kind of position. Sometimes the self-examining questions become overwhelming. Am I leading this congregation in the right direction? Am I paying enough attention to this ministry or this group of people? Am I working hard enough? Am I trusting the Spirit? Am I spending enough time with my family? Have I got my priorities straight? I suspect that for anyone who takes their responsibility as a minister to heart, it is easy for these kinds of questions to spin out of control. Most often, these pressures do not come from the congregation. They come from a recognition of the tremendous responsibility we have been given as ministers. I have found that when those inwards doubts mount, there are few things more beneficial than finding solitude behind an instrument which is designed for the specific purpose of focusing on other things. As I look around for things to photograph, I am reminded of the plain truth that I am not the center of the world or my church or even my own existence. There is a whole world that goes on just fine apart from my work within it. No doubt, I am called to a life of responsibility and faithful obedience but the very essence of that obedience is to be an instrument which points away from myself and toward someone much greater than myself. The irony of solitude, practiced as a spiritual discipline, is that this time alone reminds us that we are not alone and therefore gives us perspective on our role within the community of faith.

A couple days ago, Jess, Hannah, and I went out to Weldon Springs, our nearby state park, together ...of course, bringing the camera along as well. There are four trails there, all of which offer tremendous scenery. I derive a unique kind of joy from taking Hannah out on these trails, pointing out different things to her along the way and watching her take in the world around her; sometimes quietly observing new things, other times squealing with delight at a favorite familiar sight. I wonder if God derives a similar type of joy when I go on walks with him and wait to see what part of his creation he will point out to me. Perhaps, for more than any other reason, photography has become a spiritual discipline for me because it distills this faith journey down to one of its simplest forms; walking hand in hand with my Father as he shows me the beauty of his world and my place in it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Vision That Transforms

In Isaiah 6, the prophet Isaiah has a tremendoues encounter with God.  Everything about this vision emphasizes God's glory and majesty.  God is seated on a throne, lofty and exalted, the train of his kingly robe filling the entire temple.  Majestic, six-winged creatures stand guard at God's throne covering their faces with two wings because God is too holy to look upon, covering their feet with two wings as a euphemism for hiding their nakedness before God, and using two wings to fly.  These magnificent creatures cry out "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.  The whole earth is full of his glory."  The temple shakes and fills with smoke.  That's enough to cause just about anyone to tremble.  

Enter Isaiah.  Upon seeing this spectacular vision of God, he knows that he is in trouble.  As a mere, unclean human being, he can not survive the overwhelming holiness of this God.  However, Isaiah is not destroyed by the vision but is cleansed and tranformed by it.  Isaiah is right to say that he is unclean and can not stand before God but rather than allowing that to destroy Isaiah, one of the heavenly messengers intercedes to make Isaiah clean.  Now, Isaiah is not only cleansed but also sent on a mission.  (Although, as we read on in Isaiah 6, we find it is a rather depressing and confusing mission but that is another blog post for another day.)  This vision of God transforms Isaiah's whole life.  

This is what we need as well; a vision of God that will transform us.  Of course, our vision of God may not be as dramatic as Isaiah's but we need a true vision nonetheless.  For Christians, that true vision of God is centered in the doctrine of the Trinity which is celebrated on this first Sunday after Pentecost known as Trinity Sunday.  The doctrine of the Trinity gives us a true vision of God by reminding us that God is:

Involved in our history and our world.  After all, there would be no doctrine of the Trinity if the Father had not sent the Son and the Spirit into his creation to engage it and redeem it.  The historical life of Jesus and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, by which God revealed himself as Triune, show us that our God is a missional God who is actively about the work of redemption and making our world new.  

Relational in the very essence of his being.  Our God is a God of relationships.  This is true not only because he wants to be in relationship with us but because God is contanstly in relationship.  Even God does not exist alone and isolated as an individual since God exists as three persons.  There is no God apart from the relationships that exist between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

Characterized by holy and sacrifical love.  We see this most clearly in the person of Jesus as he willingly bears the cross.  However, this is not only a characteristic of the Son but of the Father and the Spirit as well.  None of the three persons dominates the other
 two but each has their own role in the Godhead and continually points to the other two.  Even though it is the Father who sends and may therefore be interpreted as being "in charge", Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane shows that the Son is free in his obedience to the Father.  Each person of the Trinity sacrificially makes room for the other two to exist freely while also being so bound in relationship to the other two that there is really only one God and not three.  

Just as Isaiah's vision informed his prophetic identity and mission, so also our vision of the triune God must inform our identity and mission as the Church.  We must be an iconic image of the Holy Trinity.  We are called to be a missional people, sent to engage our world.   We must recognize that we have been built for relationship; relationships characterized by holy and sacrificial love.  We must make room for others to exist freely with us, emptying ourselves of all power and position so that we might become inseparably bound in relationship with those who are different from us and as a result become intertwined as one body, the Body of Christ.  Inasmuch as we succeed in doing that, we will 
have succeeded in reflecting the love of the God that we serve and being the people that God has called us to be.