Monday, July 27, 2009

I Am the Sinner

A good story draws you in. It gets you involved. It provokes your passions and emotions. It moves you from spectator to participant.

Part of making that move from spectator to participant usually involves our identification with certain characters in the story. We have to be able to relate to someone within the story. The good story teller helps us to feel that character's pain and joy, to know what it is like to be in their situation, even bringing us to see ourselves in them.

Most often we find ourselves identifying with the heroes in the story; sometimes a tragic hero but the hero nonetheless. We identify with the good and honorable characters who inspire us because we believe that we must have that same good within us somewhere; that we would have their courage or their perseverance if we faced the same odds.

But it takes an especially gifted story teller to cause us to identify with the bad guy or evil villain in a story. Who reads a comic book and identifies with Doc Oc more than Spider-man? Or more darkly, who reads about the Holocaust and sees themselves in the Nazi guard rather than the Holocaust survivor? The same is true as we read the stories of scripture. As you read the stories of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels, how often do you come away from those passages thinking "Wow, I'm really just like the Phariesees." We have erected all kinds of defenses that keep us from seeing ourselves in the evil characters of a story. We hold them at arm's length seeing in them as something other and different from us...

...unless a story teller is gifted enough to find away around those initial defenses and show us a true pictures of ourselves that we can't deny. This is precisely what the prophet Nathan does in 2 Samuel 12. (Read the whole story in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:15. You can read just Nathan's parable to David here.) Nathan tells a story which gets around David's defenses and justifications of his sin and allows him to clearly see the injustice of what he has done with Bathsheba. God's word to David through Nathan cuts through David's skewed perception of himself and allows David to see himself as God sees him. Immediately upon seeing the situation clearly, David does the only acceptable thing, he repents.

The irony is that even as we read this story; even as we hear Nathan's story deconstruct David's defenses we probably have not allowed our own walls of security to be torn down. Which character in the story did you see yourself in the most; Nathan or David? Do you imagine that you are the one who brings God's word to others or the one who needs to repent? As a pastor, there is no question that I identify with Nathan. I certainly want to imagine that I am one who always speaks God's word bolbly and prophetically to those who need to hear it, even it is someone in a position of power and influence. But as a pastor, I must also know that too often I am the one in power to whom God's word needs to be boldly and prophetically spoken. I am the one who needs God's word to pierce all my defenses. I am the sinner who needs to repent.

Of course, when we stop to think about it we know that in the Chuch we are always both. We must repent of our own sin and we must also speak God's word to the sin of our world. We are saved sinners, wounded healers, rescued rescuers. We are both Nathan and David. May God send the Church Nathans to show us where we have been as blind as David. May God lead us to repentance like David's so that we might fulfill our prophetic role like Nathan.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Faithful in the Small Things

I have big dreams for our church. I’m pretty sure all of us do. We want our church to grow in size and maturity. We want to see God impacting our town in tremendous ways through us. We long to see vibrant ministries for all ages and to encounter story after story of transformed lives. We want God to do amazing things with us and through us. And it is good for us to want that. If we didn’t want God to do an incredible work through us, then something would be wrong. We should be a church with big dreams for the future since we serve a God who can do immeasurably more than all we can ask or even imagine.

As I’ve thought about some of these big dreams lately, it seems that God keeps reminding me that we must first be faithful in the small things. We can’t get so caught up in all that we hope God will do through us in the future that we miss what he is doing through us and in us right now. While we want our church to grow and impact our community for Christ, we can’t forget that our impact begins with the people right next to us. Reaching out to our community is not something that is going to suddenly happen all at once through a giant event or crusade. It begins with taking that visitor at our church out to lunch or faithfully discipling the children in your Sunday School class or starting up a friendly conversation with that neighbor or co-worker.

At the ordination service at our district assembly, Dr. J.K. Warrick spoke from John 6 where Jesus uses one little boy’s meager lunch of just a few loaves of bread and a few fish to feed a crowd of thousands. Of course, what this little boy had wasn’t enough to feed the crowd. Nevertheless, he was faithful and trusted Jesus with the little that he did have and because he placed all he had in the hands of Jesus it was enough. God isn’t asking us to do anything extraordinary. He’s just asking us to give all that we have. He is asking us to be faithful with the small things and watch what he can do when we put it in his hands. At the end of the day, living out the gospel is still ultimately about loving those around us with the love of Jesus. It is about doing the small things well. May we be a church that has big dreams about what God can do when we are truly faithful in the small things of everyday life.

“A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling his disciples to him, he said to them ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.’”

Mark 12:42-44

“His master said to him ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’”

Matthew 25:23

“In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”

Mother Teresa

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Article X

Below I have posted the revision of our tenth article of faith in the Church of the Nazarene recently adopted by the General Assembly in Orlando, Florida. It must now be ratified by two thirds of the districts around the world. If that happens, then these changes will appear in the 2013 version of our manual.

Brackets indicate a deletion. Underlining indicates an addition.

X. Christian Holiness and Entire Sanctification
13. We believe that [entire] sanctification is [that] the [act] work of God[, subsequent to regeneration, by] which transforms believers into the likeness of Christ. It is wrought by God’s grace through the Holy Spirit in initial sanctification, or regeneration (simultaneous with justification), entire sanctification, and the continued perfecting of the Holy Spirit culminating in glorification. In glorification we are fully conformed to the image of the Son.
We believe that entire sanctification is that act of God, subsequent to regeneration, by which believers are made free from original sin, or depravity, and brought into a state of entire devotement to God, and the holy obedience of love made perfect.
It is wrought by the baptism with or infilling of the Holy Spirit, and comprehends in one experience the cleansing of the heart from sin and the abiding, indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, empowering the believer for life and service.
Entire sanctification is provided by the blood of Jesus, is wrought instantaneously by grace through faith, preceded by entire consecration; and to this work and state of grace the Holy Spirit bears witness.
This experience is also known by various terms representing its different phases, such as “Christian perfection,” “perfect love,” “heart purity,” “the baptism with the Holy Spirit,” “the fullness of the blessing,” and “Christian holiness.”
14. We believe that there is a marked distinction between a pure heart and a mature character. The former is obtained in an instant, the result of entire sanctification; the latter is the result of growth in grace.
We believe that the grace of entire sanctification includes the divine impulse to grow in grace as a Christlike disciple. However, this impulse must be consciously nurtured, and careful attention given to the requisites and processes of spiritual development and improvement in Christlikeness of character and personality. Without such purposeful endeavor, one’s witness may be impaired and the grace itself frustrated and ultimately lost.
Participating in the means of grace, especially the fellowship, disciplines, and sacraments of the Church, believers grow in grace and in wholehearted love of God and neighbor.

In my opinion, the revision of this article represents a major step forward in our expression of one of our core doctrines as Nazarenes. I think the wording is a little more wholistic than the previous wording in that it sets entire sanctification within a larger understanding of holiness. I also appreciate that this revision more explicitely connects holiness to the idea of being Christ-like. Additionally, the final sentence is an important step in the right direction (though it could be a little smoother grammatically for the sake of clarity). I see it as a significant return to our Wesleyan roots to affirm that holiness is nurtured by the means of grace in general and the sacraments in particular.

However, I also think that this article could continue to be improved in a couple of ways.

1) I would like to see the third paragraph, about the baptism or infilling of the Holy Spirit, completely eliminated. To say that we are baptized or in-filled with the Holy Spirit only once we are entirely sanctified seems to imply that we did not receive the Holy Spirit when we first believed which is certainly not a biblical idea. The book of Acts records repeatedly that believers received the Holy Spirit upon their conversion. In Galatians, Paul asks the church there if having begun with the Spirit they are now being perfected by the flesh? Paul's point is that the Spirit has been with these believers since they became believers. John Wesley even stated that while some in the Methodist movement used this language to describe entire sanctification, it was not really accurate in its depiction of God's work and Wesley himself avoided the phrase for that reason.

2) I would like to see the language of "instantaneous act" reconsidered. In the second paragraph, entire sanctification is desribed as an "act" of God, implying a single crisis event. Again in section 14 it is said that a pure heart is obtained in an instant while a mature character is the result of growth in grace. In my view, the emphasis on entire sanctification as an instantaneous, distinct second work of grace comes from two things. One is that this was simply the experience of a lot of good Nazarenes. Many people experienced entire sanctification in a clearly distinguishable moment in their life separate from their initial conversion. I think the other reason this language is important is because it reminds us that entire sanctification is not the same thing as simply maturing as a human being. It is something that God does in us with our cooperation. But it is not something that just occurs naturally if we are a Christian long enough. This is important and is an emphasis that should not be lost. However, I think that there are ways that we can talk about that without having to put everyone in the box of having to experience a distinct second act of God that is somehow qualitatively different from others acts of God in our lives. It may well be that it takes three or four or five distinct acts of God for us to continue on the path of maturing holiness. Furthermore, it is difficult to find scripture that supports the idea that there must be this distinct second act. Scripture certainly urges us onto perfection/maturity and expects that is not something we do on our own but do only through God's grace but it does not insist that this happen in a distinct second work of grace. I think that we can find ways to talk about God's continuing work of grace to make us holy and entirely sanctified without insisting that it always be a decisive two step process.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Entangled in Sin's Web

You wouldn't think that shirking a little responsibility would lead to murder but that is the tragic progression of events in 2 Samuel 11.

Up to this point in the story of David he has been an incredible, examplary character. Over and over again, David places a radical faith and trust in God. David's faith has been so tremendous that he has become the very model of what it means to be the ruler of God's people. But even David is not immune to the power of sin.

This tragic story begins innocently enough. David's first error is so small that you might dismiss it as an inconsequetial introductory remark at the beginning of 2 Samuel 11. "Then it happened in the spring at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem." As king, it was David's responsibility to lead his men into battle, a task which David had successfully accomplished so many times before. But this time David shirks his responsibility, sending others to risk their lives while he remains safe and comfortable in the capital city.

Of course, this is something we've all done. At some point or another along the way, we've all abandoned some responsibility, small or great, that we've known was rightfully ours to address. Often, this irresponsibility seems innocent enough at the time. But it is this simple abdication on the part of David that allows him to be on his roof when Bathsheba is bathing. Now David's apathy quickly turns to lust and his lust quickly becomes adultery and an abuse of his kingly authority. David uses Bathsheba has an object to satisfy his needs and sends her back home.

Then come those fateful words. Bathsheba sends word to the king: "I am pregnant." Now David can not hide his sin. Everyone will know that Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, was gone to war at the time of this child's conception. People will ask questions. Word will get out. David has to do something to save his reputation. So the king calls for Uriah to come home from the battlefield and spend a night with his wife. David thinks he has the situation under control; he's devised the perfect cover up.

But David hasn't taken into consideration the kind of principled man that Uriah is; the kind of principled man that David used to be. Uriah refuses to enjoy the comforts of home as long as the rest of the king's men and the ark of the Lord are still on the battlefield. The irony is almost too much to bear; Uriah refuses to sleep with his own wife out of respect for the king who has called him home in an attempt to cover up his affair with Uriah's wife.

Once David sees that his plan has failed, his entanglement in this growing web of sin only grows greater. Uriah will meet the fate that so many principled individuals meet in the midst of unprincipled politics. He unwittingly carries his own death sentence with him in the form of a letter from David to Joab, the commander of the army, in which Joab is instructed to see to it that Uriah is killed in battle. Joab, ever David's obedient and unquestioning servant, follows his orders and sees to it that Uriah (along with several of his fellow soldiers) are killed by sending them into a stratgically suicidal position on the battlefield.

So often I watch the news and am amazed at how incredibly stupid, irresponsible, insensitive, unjust, and downright immoral our politicians can be. It seems to be the exception rather than the rule to find a public figure who is truly honorable. But then passages of scripture like this one remind me how simply and innocently these kind of things begin because the same, powerful sinful nature that is at work within them is at work within me as well. No, I haven't committed adultery or murder and there is something to be said for that. I'm not saying that our politicians or other public figures should be let off the hook because they are really no worse than any of the rest of us. They have been entrusted with a tremendous responsibility and they should face the appropriate consequences when they break that trust.

What I am saying is that when I am being truly honest with myself I know that the same motivations that led to David's tremendous sin are motivations that threaten to control my existence as well. I often have the desire to ignore my responsibilities or to consider certain tasks below me or to abuse what power I have for my own benefit. I too am tempted to treat people like objects rather than people. I too suffer from the infectious desire to look good, to have people think well of me, to avoid public humiliation, and to always be in control of my surroundings. I may not have committed adultery and murder but there is little doubt that all of those forces which led to David's adultery and murder reside somewhere deep in the recesses of my soul as well.

This is what we mean when we talk about original sin, when we talk about all of humanity being sinful. It does not mean that we are all horrible people who are just constantly sinning in everything that we do, although on certain days that may not seem to far from the truth either. It means that even in the many good things we may do there is still a certain part of our nature that is bent in on itself and our own selfish desires. If it were not for the grace of God those powerful desires would so overwhelm us that we would have no choice but to become more and more entangled in sin's web as David is in this story.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hesed: A Place at the King's Table

Hesed. Loyalty, loving-kindness, faithfulness, unfailing commitment; all English words used in an attempt to capture the meaning of hesed. It's got to be one of the most important words in the Old Testament. 2 Samuel 9 is a story about hesed.

Long before David had become king, he had made a promise to his close friend Jonathan. David promised Jonathan that he would always show hesed to Jonathan's descendants (1 Samuel 20:15). This was no small promise because as David was making this promise, he was in competition for the throne with Jonathan's father, Saul, the current king of Israel. To put it simply, despite Jonathan and David's friendship, David and Jonathan's descendants were bound to be political rivals as competing claimants of the throne of Israel. Nevertheless, David binds himself to Jonathan with this promise.

In 2 Samuel 9, David has completed his rise to power as the king of all Israel and Judah. While the narrator of 2 Samuel makes it clear that David was not responsible for the deaths of his political enemies, David's rise to power has still been a violent and bloody affair in which all others with a claim to the throne have been killed. Now David wants to know if there are any descendants of Jonathan to whom he might show hesed as he had promised.

It turns out there is one. He is lame in both feet. His name is Mephibosheth.

It is worth noting the order of Ziba's (David's servant) description of Mephibosheth here. We come to know Mephibosheth's disability before we even know his name. Is this because we always tend to see someone's handicap before we see them as a person? Or is it to assure David that Mephibosheth is not a real military or political threat? Or are we to hear an echo of David's own story in the description of Mephibosheth? When David is first introduced in 1 Samuel 16, like Mephibosheth, he is regarded as a "left-over" of a boy, too young to be considered important, whose name is not even mentioned until he has been anointed by Samuel. Perhaps, we are to hear some mixture of all three of these story lines intertwined together in a complicated mess of good and less honorable intentions as so often happens in real life.

In the end, David keeps his promise to Jonathan and summons Mephibosheth to his royal court. Mephibosheth must have thought this was a summons to his death. As the last living relative of David's political opponents, surely the only reason he would be summoned by the king would be for his execution. But David's covenant with Jonathan completely reverses the parameters of David's relationship to Mephibosheth. Instead of being executed, Mephibosheth is given land and servants and a place at the king's table. This is hesed: a loyalty and faithfulness so great that it relativizes all the other conditions of a relationship.

Of course, David's hesed to Jonathan through Mephibosheth is just a faint image of God's hesed to us. Like Mephibosheth before David, we come before God broken and powerless. We have no claim on this king. He owes us nothing. There is no reason that he should be generous to us... except that he has bound himself to us. And that simple fact changes everything. God has covenanted with us, he has promised us redemption and he is a God who keeps his promises no matter the costs. He is a God of hesed.

Monday, July 6, 2009

My General Assembly Top 10 Moments

The 27th General Assembly of the International Church of the Nazarene, the major legislative body of our denomination which meets every four years, was held last week in Orlando, Fl. I had the tremendous privilege of attending thanks to the generosity of the church where I pastor. Here were some of the highlights of the event from my perspective.

10. Lack of "Concerned Nazarenes". There is a group that calls themselves "concerned nazarenes" whose concern is over what they consider to be the heresies of the emergent church movement influencing the Church of the Nazarene. If you are not familiar with the emergent movement, I've written a little bit about it here and you can learn more about it at emergent village. Leading up to General Assembly, it sounded as if there might be a significant group of concerned Nazarenes who would make their voices heard at General Assembly. There were indeed "concerned nazarenes" present, easily identified by the polo shirts they had embroidered with the name of their group. However, it became quickly apparent that they were a very small minority among those present at assembly. While I still consider these concerned individuals to be my brothers and sisters in Christ and do not in anyway wish to exclude them from the fellowship of our denomination, I am glad to know that their voice is not the dominant one in our denomination. The emergent movement raises some valid criticisms of the modern day Church in North America and those of us in the Church of the Nazarene would do well to take those criticisms seriously as we follow Jesus.

9. Dr. Middendorf's Sermon. On our first night at assembly, Dr. Middendorf preached a relatively simple and straightforward message from Philippians 3:7-11. While there was nothing radical or surprising about his message, it was good to hear one of our General Superintendents affirm that one of our highest expressions of Christ's resurrection power at work within us is when we as a church practice solidarity with the suffering and broken in our world.

8. Workshops. There was a vast array of workshops about a variety of topics to choose from in the week leading up to assembly. It was encouraging to participate with fellow Nazarenes from around the world in considering how we can better live out our calling as the Church. I wrote in detail about one of those workshops here.

7. Cocoa Beach. Ok, so it would be dishonest if I didn't list going to the beach as one of my favorite activities of the past week and a half. On the very last day of our stay in Orlando, after all the business was concluded we were able to take a trip to Cocoa beach and had a great time there. There are some pictures here as well as some other pictures of Hannah throughout the time we were in Orlando.

6. Seeing Friends. One of the great things about going to the biggest event in our denomination is that we got to see a lot of friends from seminary and college and the churches we grew up in. It was great to catch up with some friends and colleagues in ministry that we hadn't seen in a while.

5. Dr. Diehl's honesty and transparency. Dr. Diehl spoke about healing in his sermon on Saturday night and had a time for people to come forward to be anointed for healing at the end of the service. So often messages about healing are completely unrealistic and disingenious in that they focus solely on miraculous stories of physical healing without acknowledging the real pain and suffering that continue to exist in our world. Dr. Diehl spoke confidently about God's ability to heal us in all kinds of ways, not just physically. But this confidence was given an uncommon depth and grace when he also spoke of the loss of his son to cancer just a year ago. Dr. Diehl was inspiringly honest about his hopes for his son when God began to speak to him about having a healing service at General Assembly. He believed that he would be able to call his son up on stage in that service at assembly as a powerful witness to the fact that God heals. Instead, Dr. Diehl's son lost his battle with cancer. Dr. Diehl's openness before a crowd of thousands was a powerful reminder that often we have to trust that God's healing power extends even beyond the grave.

4. The Revision of Article X. For the past two years, the Board of General Superintends had been working on a significant revision of our tenth article of faith on Entire Sanctification, an important part of our identity as Nazarenes. Unfortunately, I was not able to see the whole revision since the resolution was submitted too late to be printed for guests and therefore only the delegates got to see it in its fullness. However, what I did see of it looks very promising. It seemed to articulate a more wholistic understanding of holiness and entire sanctification. I hope to see the revised article in its entirety in just a few weeks at District Assembly since two thirds of the districts in the church must now ratify the change after having been adopted by the General Assembly.

3. International Church Committee Resolution. The ICC proposed major revisions to our Manual to help our church become more truly global in its mission and polity. Due to the fact that the Church of the Nazarene began primarily as a North America denomination, our organizational structures and modes of thought are still very North American in many ways despite our reality of being a global church. Allowing large sections of the manual to be regionalized will aid our church in becoming a more truly international denomination on every level. Nazarene Communications Network has a good summary of the ICC resolution here.

2. Sharing Communion with thousands of fellow Nazarenes. Sunday morning was by far the largest worship service during our time in Orlando. I haven't seen officials numbers for attendance but the enormous room of the convention center we were in was packed. It was a unique experience to have the opportunity to share in the Lord's Supper with that many brothers and sisters in Christ in one place at one time.

1. The Election of Eugenio Duarte to the office of General Superintendent. Easily the most exciting experience of this General Assembly was being present on Tuesday morning for the election of our first General Superintent from outside the United States. When the ballot was read and everyone realized that Eugenio had recieved enough votesto be elected, the enitre room exploded with cheers and applause. Fellow delegates from his home region of Africa immediately swarmed him and began to lift him up on their shoulders. Some were even running to him with the flag of his homeland of Cape Verde. This was a moment when the Church refused to be held captive by the constraints of its past and took a bold step forward into a new and hopeful future as a truly global denomination.

We also elected David Graves and Stan Toler to the Board of General Superintendents along with Duarte. These three join the three remaining generals; Jesse Middenorf, Jerry Porter, and J.K. Warrick. Other notable events of this General Assembly included the opening service Wednesday night when delegates from around the world entered carrying the flags of their nations, the announcement that Nazarene Youth Congress 2011 will be in Louisville, KY, the election of our first Nazarene Missions International President from outside the U.S. (Jennifer Brown of Jamaica), and the participation of international delegates in the Nazarene Youth International Convention via videoconferencing.

You can view a complete list of actions taken by the assembly on various resolutions at this link.