My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part IV): From Religious Service Provider to Agent of Awakening

Read Part I of my convocation address here.
Read Part II of my convocation address here.
Read Part III of my convocation address here.

Paradigm Shift #3: Moving from Being a Religious Service Provider to an Agent of Awakening

The third storm, the COVID-19 pandemic, has disrupted one of the key features of Christian, and, indeed, human identity; namely, the life-giving power of gathered, human community reflecting the very nature of the communal nature of our triune God. On the one hand, we fully understand and embrace that the wearing of masks and keeping social distance is an expression of compassion for one another, and, in particular, our more vulnerable citizens as well as the well-being of our health care workers who serve on the front lines in this pandemic. Let me repeat, we affirm and resonate with this message. But, it is not the only message that Christians need to hear. Safety is a good value, but, for the Christian, it is not the ultimate value for us or, in our view, for a healthy society.

A culture that takes down diving boards from swimming pools because someone might get hurt is also a culture that will never send a man or woman to the moon. A culture that shines ultra-violet light on the bedsheets of 5-star hotels to show us what is lurking there is a culture that has lost touch with the real sufferings of this world. The church must get its hands dirty in the world. As I tell our new students every year, we are called to be street lights, not sanctuary lights. Millions around the world, and in our own land, struggle against what African theologian Akintude Akinade has called the “multi-headed Hydra” of poverty, illiteracy, ethnic tensions, colonialism, dictatorship, illness, disenfranchisement, and suffering. As a Christian, if my wife and I were to accept the prevailing culture’s hierarchy of values we would never have sent our daughter to live among the Alagwa in central Tanzania. She is five hours from any health care and even if she managed to get there, the clinic often has no attending staff and only meager medical supplies. It’s just too risky to bring the gospel to an unreached people’s group. As Christians we must understand that our culture is driven to make safety the highest good precisely because of their loss of the Eschaton and any eternal hope beyond the grave. If all you have is this life and the farthest extent of your vision is ninety years, then it is an expression of perfect cultural logic to end up where we are today as a society.

But our vision goes beyond the grave. Death has been defeated. We are an eschatological people. The early church understood, even in the face of immense dangers, that they stood in a sacred space, which is Jesus Christ. When Jesus saw the leper, he did not step back in fear, though it was the most infectious and transmittable disease of his day. He stepped forward, and touched the leper. COVID-19 is a call for us to reclaim the power of the gospel . . . not just the doctrines of it, but the spirit of it—to reoccupy that sacred space as we walk in confidence through the world, even as we wear masks and keep social distance. Fear is not a Christian virtue. We are not a people of fear, but of joy. For us, joy is an act of corporate resistance against despair. We walk through a COVID-19 world knowing that Jesus has the final word. He has defeated death, with all of its signatures: fear, disease, poverty, racism, etc. The world is a dangerous, risky place where we as Christians must learn again to walk into daily trusting the providence of God.

COVID-19 is, as noted earlier, a strangely wrapped gift of disruptive grace. It could be the very change agent to move us toward several important changes in how we understand ecclesiology. First, we should accept as a gift that we need to move from facility-focused ministry models to smaller, community-based churches. For too long we have nurtured and even promoted the idea of Christians commuting out of their own communities to attend large churches, many of whom have no meaningful connection to the communities they are in. For too long we have touted the size of a church as a measure of its health: the church with the most programs to meet our needs wins. However, what if COVID-19, racial unrest, and economic fragility call us to move toward smaller, community-based churches that serve as the primary agent of healing for the communities they are in? Second, what if COVID-19 breaks us from a Sunday-based ministry and gives way to a full-week engagement of the church in the world? Sunday morning gatherings for worship are wonderful, but we are not the church if our faith only finds a home one day a week. The church has always thrived the most when its members saw themselves as the church as they walked through the whole week in all of their various contexts. We must recapture our public witness, not just our private faith. Third, COVID-19 could have a transformative impact on how we understand seminary education. We have long lived and operated on the university model, which functions as a separate institution of learning that often is insulated from the churches we are pledged to serve. One of the most exciting ways Asbury is meeting this challenge is the launch of Asbury Global, which brings together our hybrid learning model, our online education, and our contextual sites that meet in local churches. It is not intended to replace our vibrant residential model, which emphasizes embodied communities of learning, but it supplements it by the whole of Asbury being reminded that we exist to serve the church and the church is a vital partner in the future of theological education.

I want to close with a story from my own family. My sixth great-grandfather was William Tennent. He was born in Scotland in 1673, went to the University of Edinburgh, as I later did, and migrated to the new world in 1718. In 1727 he founded a theological college known as the Log College, which provided pastors for the First Great Awakening (1730–1740). The Log College eventually became renamed the College of New Jersey and finally it was relocated in the first town that each merchant in the town would put up twenty dollars to support the university. A little town name Princeton rose to the challenge, and the rest is history.

William Tennent’s children all became part of what was known at that time as the New Lights, as opposed to the Old Lights. These were Great Awakening preachers and they were denouncing religious formalism, promoting revival, conversion experiences, direct experience with God, and pietism. These, of course, are themes we are familiar in the ministry of John Wesley, another one of the great streams of the Great Awakening.

William Tennent Jr. (my fifth great-grandfather) had just graduated from the Log College and was preparing to take his ordination exams. In those days, it was a deeply classical training and he was conversing in Latin with his theological tutor when suddenly, with a big heave and cry, he collapsed to the ground and died, though he was only twenty-six years old. In the eighteenth century there were four main ways to determine if someone was dead, and you are probably familiar with all four of these: pulse, death pallor, death dew, and rigor mortis.

William Tennent Jr. experienced all of this and so he was pronounced dead and the funeral was set for the next day. Later that day, another doctor came and examined the body and thought he felt a slight warmth underneath his armpits, so he called in another doctor. The other doctor examined him and couldn’t feel any warmth at all. This was a time before such things as EKGs, so he used the methods he had: no pulse, death pallor, stiff as a board . . . again, declared dead for the second time. The next day was the day of the funeral. People gathered for the funeral and just minutes before they were going to close the casket and bring him out for burial, another doctor said he wanted to examine him again. William Sr. (his father) and Gilbert (his brother) didn’t want to allow for it, because everyone had already gathered for the funeral and William Jr. had now been officially declared dead by two different doctors. But, there was a fifth test that was done—that was to shine a very bright light into someone’s eyes and see if their pupils restricted. They did this and the pupils remained dilated, but he saw at the last minute a little shimmer of the eye, and for just a second William Tennent’s body shivered, then fell dead again. They called off the funeral, took him out of the casket, wrapped the body in warm towels, and eventually he came to. He could not speak. He had to learn everything all over again over the next two years, though his Latin came back before his English. I am alive this morning because William Tennent woke up! Praise God. I was less than ten to fifteen minutes from not existing! If William Tennent Jr. had not woken up, I would not be here today, because he went on to get married, have a family (including my fourth great-grandfather), and serve a church for the next forty-three years until his actual death. I am here this morning five generations later because William Tennent Jr. woke up.

“Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you”

The culture has declared the church dead and has already called for our funeral service, but the God of resurrection is still at work. The culture is ready to close the casket on the church and declare that the Christian gospel is irrelevant to the needs of this world, but the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation and our God is still on the throne! The culture sees the church not as the solution to the culture’s dilemma, but part of the problem, but Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” This is our great hope. God is not finished with us and He has called us into the world, with all of its dangers and frightening problems that all seem unsurmountable. Be the agent of healing for our communities. Never forget the distinctive voice of God’s revelation to us. And, remember, even though Nebuchadnezzar heats up his furnace seven times hotter, God still has his Meshacks, Shadracks, and Abenegos who will not bow to the idols of this world. So, wake up, O church, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you! Get out of your caskets and get into the world—that’s why Asbury Seminary exists. Let us awaken to a new great awakening! Amen.

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part III): From Cultural Echo Chamber to the Distinct Voice of the Church

Read Part I of my convocation address here.

We come now to the second storm, that of racial unrest in our country. The tragic death of forty-six-year-old George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis on May 25th with his last words, “I can’t breathe” on his lips has highlighted a long-standing wound in our land, which should not be ignored. There is a deepening despair that has brought our black citizens in fifty-seven years from the hopeful phrase of MLK in 1963, “I have a dream” to the desperate plea “I can’t breathe.” Willie James Jennings, former professor from Duke Divinity School, now Yale, has called this wound a “diseased social imagination.” Its roots are in our hearts. But, while sin is personal, it is never satisfied to stay there. It longs to infect all our institutions and social arrangements. Sin is personal and systemic; it is private and public; it is internal and societal; it is individual and corporate.

There is nothing wrong with our participating in peaceful protests to demand attention to this deep wound in our society. We share many of the same frustrations and anger that have erupted in our streets. Our message is not one promoting the destruction of communities, but the rebuilding of communities on the foundation of reconciliation. This is why we must reclaim our Christian voice in the midst of this crisis of our day, which addresses this “diseased social imagination” in deeper and more transformative ways. My 2019 Convocation Address focused on the work of Alsdair MacIntyre, who rightly argues that our society has lost the moral foundation to produce true transformation and we are only left with what he calls “emotivism” where we just shout at one another. It is the loss of the Christian worldview which is the very gap between the stirring hopefulness of Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream” and the desperate plea of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.” It is a loss that the culture cannot name.

However, we have a message that is the only hope for our nation, or any nation, which seeks to honestly face up to a diseased social imagination. Our distinctive voice should not be silent. Four examples will be noted.

First, we affirm that Scripture teaches us that every person is created in the image of God. This is the great creational foundation stone that gives dignity and infinite value to all people everywhere.

Second, the Bible also teaches us that all of humanity, apart from Christ, is under the bondage of sin and needs to receive the grace of forgiveness. Apart from Christ, we are all “in Adam.” This is a universally shared experience because of the fall.

The culture does not recognize sin as sin, but only the effects of the sin nature, and seems unable to have the capacity to offer, or receive, forgiveness. We, as the people of God, know that we are the joyful recipients of the grace of God. Our culture needs to see forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace manifested in the church and offered freely to the world.

Third, as Wesleyans we believe in the power of Jesus Christ and His indwelling Spirit to transform and redirect hearts toward perfect love. His victory over death was also His victory over all sin, including the sin of racism, since He has “torn down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) and has created a new redeemed people, made up of every race, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). Our theology has enormous implications that are both private and public; internal and societal; individual and corporate.

Fourth, we believe that the new creation is coming when God will present us in complete unity as the spotless bride of Christ. The future to which we are headed is not one of division and hatred, but of shared unity around the glory of God and of His redemption that has made us all adoptive children. There is no greater diversity in unity than the vision of John in Revelation 7:9 of people from every tribe, people, and nation worshipping the Lord. The church has not always been faithful to this vision. Albert Tate, the African American lead pastor of the multi-racial Fellowship Church in Monrovia, California, made the insightful comment that the evangelical church was far better in envisioning a multi-racial multitude “standing before the throne” in the new creation (Rev. 7:9), than they were with the races of the world “sitting around the table” in the here and now. We clearly have important unfinished business as a Christian community. Some sectors of the church resisted the biblical vision during the years of racial segregation in our country. We have not always been prepared to accept the systemic ramifications of sin. We must be honest about this and ask forgiveness for this. A new window of opportunity is before us as a community, and God’s grace has provided the possibility of this new engagement framed by being true to the Christian message.

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part II): From Privatized Church to Public, Missional Agent of Healing

Read Part I of my convocation address here.

I hear in this hymn fragment a call to an awakening involving three paradigm shifts for the people of God, all related to the three disruptions we are facing.

Paradigm Shift #1: Moving from an Insulated, Privatized Church to the Church as a Public, Missional Agent of Healing

Miroslav Volf is a Croatian theologian who now serves as professor of theology at Yale University and formerly, where I first met him, of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek, Croatia. Volf’s award-winning book Exclusion and Embrace captures the violence of three cities. (1) Sarajevo in the grip of the Bosnian war and the birth of modern-day ethnic cleaning; (2) the Los Angeles race riots in the wake of the beating of Rodney King; and (3) the rise of modern-day neo-Nazis on the streets of Berlin. Those particular conflicts are not in the headlines today, but you could easily substitute them for the conflicts of our day. He argues that today’s cultural conflicts cannot be understood unless we first understand the impact of post-modernity on modern thought. He points out that post-modernity embraces an autonomous self, which turns away from the values and identities that connect us and, instead, focuses on social arrangements rather than people as social agents. Identity politics becomes a new form of tribalism, spawning endless conflicts and power struggles. Volf argues that we tend to shift moral responsibility away from ourselves as moral agents and, instead, shift blame onto socially constructed and managed agencies that allows us to escape from our own moral responsibilities. This is where Volf introduces his famous double exclusion.

Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans, even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the Crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion—without transposing the enemy from the sphere of the monstrous into the sphere of shared humanity and herself/himself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.

This is why the cross of Jesus Christ must be reclaimed as the central defining reality of Christian identity, because only there do exclusion and embrace meet. Christ does not exclude Himself from the company of sinners. He stands with the company of sinners at His baptism all the way to the cross. In that very refusal to exclude Himself from sinners, He freely embraces a world which has reviled and rejected Him. The arms of the cross create that sacred space, which alone makes forgiveness and true reconciliation possible. Volf goes on to say,

The difference between justice and forgiveness is this: to be just is to condemn the fault and, because of the fault, to condemn the doer as well. To forgive is to condemn the fault but to spare the doer. That’s what the forgiving God does.

But, this is not a cheap, “I forgive you.” This is not just justice, but actual reconciliation borne out of the full embrace of the pain of the other. The contemporary church in the West has insulated itself from the pain and suffering that is at the heart of the gospel and a crucified Savior. We need a wake-up call. We have embraced what Gregg Okesson in his book A Public Missiology calls a thin reading of Scripture and, therefore, we have been left with a thin Christian narrative, which has become, and I quote, “easy prey to the dominant narratives of this world, such as nationalism, tribalism, global capitalism, and progress.” I had the privilege of being in former Yugoslavia on many occasions in the 1990’s. I was in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Slovenia. The wars brought the entire economy to a halt, with little left but street bartering. Millions either had their home destroyed or became refugees. The church found the strength and grace to minister in the midst of a culture in great pain and the loss of hope written on their faces. I met dozens of men and women who were training for ministry in that context. My first trip there the Mostar Bible College met in a bombed-out building. I was inspired by their deep commitment to the hope of the gospel in the face of what seemed hopeless. The global economic downturn has unleashed despair and loss of hope, and every church in every community should relearn how to be a public outpost of grace, healing, and hope to their community. This is not the time to escape the world’s mess, but to wade into it and embrace it with the transforming power of the gospel! Your generation can awaken to this great call to be missional agents of healing.

Read Part III of my convocation address here.

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part I): Wake Up, O Sleeper!

The year 2020 will go down as one of the most momentous years in a generation. Some years are shy and unassuming and easily blend into the others. But, there are some years that stand out as defining markers, challenging our assumptions, calling us to lean in to what God might be saying to us, and summoning us afresh to new discoveries about who God has called us to be as His church in the midst of a fallen world. 2020 is such a year. This year will not be easily forgotten, nor should it. This year is not about “business as usual.” This year is not about “steady as she goes.” Three events have converged on this year with an almost hurricane force. First, the COVID-19 pandemic bringing with it disease, masking, social distancing, and a major disruption of our life together as a community. Second, the global economic downturn, which has unleashed untold despair and loss of hope around the world. And, thirdly, the stark reminder of the festering wound of racial injustices in our country, which has been represented to us in poignant and tragic ways. The question before us at Asbury Theological Seminary is this: What does it mean for Spirit-filled, sanctified men and women to “spread scriptural holiness” in our day? Or, to put it another way, What does the mission of Asbury seminary look like for our time—this time, for our generation, in the midst of the challenges of racial disparity, economic instability, and a global pandemic?

As your president, I submit to you on this solemn occasion of our ninety-seventh opening convocation at Asbury Theological Seminary that the 2020 disruptions should serve as a wake-up call to the church of Jesus Christ! “Wake up, O Sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” This verse is a little fragment of poetry right in the New Testament. The language of this hymn fragment draws upon themes in the Old Testament. Perhaps you hear echoes of that great text in Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.” Or, perhaps, you faintly hear Isaiah 26:19, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!”

Put them together and you begin to see something of the power of this fragment from what is surely one of the earliest Christian hymns. Since this fragment has been found attached to the earliest Eucharistic liturgies, some of the Church Fathers concluded that this verse should be viewed through a spiritual lens: You were dead in your trespasses and sins, but through the gospel you have been awakened.

Clement of Alexandria wrote that this admonition was about the church being awakened from heresy. He says “He awakens us from the sleep of darkness and raises up those who have wandered in error.”

Archelaus said that this text was the transition between the law of Moses and the light of the gospel. Moses, he writes, was the guardian of law until the sun came up in Jesus Christ.

Hippolytus saw it as referring to the final call of Jesus on the day of general resurrection at His second coming. “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you” is envisioned as the call that accompanies the great angelic trumpet at the return of Christ. He reminds us of that great truth that someday we are literally going to be raised from the dead. Like all good hymns, I am sure it has many facets of meaning. But, somehow, all of these meanings come together in harmonic resonance in a year like 2020.

Indeed, this verse just might be the call to the church of Jesus Christ in 2020 to awaken from our spiritual slumber. To realize afresh that He is Lord over death itself. It is a call to awake and rediscover afresh the power of the gospel for our time: the call to be a Spirit-filled church; a supernaturally empowered church. The wider culture has lost its way and is desperate for a word of hope in the midst of this crisis. But, the greater problem is that the church is asleep. The church must to awaken to the great harvest that is before us. Brothers and sisters, the crisis of a global pandemic, social unrest due to painful racial disparities, and economic fragility is nothing less than a call to a great awakening. This is our moment. This is our summons. This is our wake-up call!