My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part IV): Deeper Ecumenism in Our Public Witness

In the first of this four-part blog series, I identified one of the central problems we face today in our society; namely, the inability to frame a proper moral argument. Our challenge is far beyond simply knowing what is right or wrong. We have slipped even further to the point where we are not even sure if moral categories exist independently of our own personal perspectives. Part one of this series explored this problem in some detail. The next two blog entries focus on the first two of three “solutions” or “ways forward” in addressing this problem. The first was to better understand the power of embodying the “means of grace” as a part of our public witness to the world. The second addressed the need to emphasize the formation of our minds, not just our hearts. We have a lot of sloppy thinking in our Wesleyan movement and it is time we recognize this and work to address it. Today we examine a third solution as we move forward.

The third shift which this generation calls for is the need to embrace a deeper ecumenism in our public witness. We must transcend the divides which have long characterized our understanding of our place in the Christian world. We know of the classic divides between Roman Catholic and Protestant; between Protestant mainline liberals and Protestant mainline conservatives, between evangelicals and fundamentalists, between charismatic and non-charismatics, between Reformed and Arminian, and between liturgical and non-liturgical, to name a few. These are the categories which have largely defined how we position ourselves within the body of Christ. So you come to Christ and slowly your identity becomes formed to mainline, or evangelical, or fundamentalist, or Pentecostal, or charismatic, or Arminian, etc. Brothers and sisters, without diminishing the importance of these distinctions, we must recognize how they are influenced, sometimes heightened, sometimes diminished, as we collectively find our new place in an increasingly post-Christian setting.

When I first went to North India there was at that time only one church for every 3,000 villages. So, naturally, we were quite generous with whatever Christians we found. Now, North America and Western Europe are the fastest growing mission fields in the world. This calls for fresh alignments and a deeper shared commitment, even while we hold to our cherished distinctives. This is not a call to some kind of generic Christianity, but a deep commitment to historic faith which recognizes that some of the boundaries which have divided Christians play out differently when the church finds itself in a culture increasingly hostile to malformed perceptions of what it even means to be a Christian at all.

Many churches across the whole spectrum of Christian identity have become co-opted in different ways by the surrounding culture. Our observations are too shallow if we think that only the “other Christians” have been co-opted, but not our group. In this re-assessment we as Wesleyans may have an advantage because we occupy as part of our DNA a conciliar tradition which has never been easily pigeon-holed into evangelical or mainline, or charismatic or non-charismatic, liturgical or non-liturgical, etc. Our distinctive Wesleyan identity will of course remain vital, but that very identity allows us fresh opportunities for new forms of engagement. But surely we must understand that an increasingly post-Christian culture no longer has a clue what it means to be a Baptist, or a Charismatic, or a Roman Catholic. In Kentucky, a drive from Wilmore to Lexington will bring you past dozens of churches, which says a lot of things to you, but seems confusing to the world. More importantly, the world finds it difficult to discern the basic Christian message is.

Historically, 17th century pietism, although it was birthed within Lutheranism, eventually had a profound impact on so much of what Protestantism as a whole now embraces. It created some very powerful alignments across the church. The holiness movement of the 19th century did give birth to several new denominations, but the deeper story of the holiness movement is far broader, as it ushered in a deeper appreciation for the consecrated life, sanctification, and holy living across much of the Protestant landscape. The 20th century neo-evangelical movement was neither birthed in, nor housed in any single denomination, but was a movement of theological cohesion which brought fresh alignments across 40 different denominations ranging from Assemblies of God to Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Evangelical Presbyterians to the Free Methodists, to the Wesleyans to the Presbyterian Church in America to the Salvation Army, all members of the National Association of Evangelicals. In short, the evangelical movement had a profound uniting influence across the whole Christian landscape.

Today, we need to find new forms of alignment with all those committed to historic Christian faith, the defining creeds of the faith, and the ecumenical consensus of the patristic fathers. Christians committed to historic Christianity who find themselves on the periphery of a mainline church, or within the Roman Catholic communion, and so forth, must find one another and strengthen one another. There are tens of millions of Christians around the world who are prepared to stand together for the historic faith, the authority of Scripture, the centrality of Christ, and our shared mission to serve the world and proclaim the gospel. We should not see ourselves as some fragile group on the fringes. Rather, we should see ourselves as part and parcel of the grand body of Christ which reaches around the world and across all time. We do not yet know what this will look like, but the categories which have long defined us are no longer fully suitable for the cultural and ecclesiastical terrain which we now face. The field of play has changed and we need to better understand the cultural space we newly occupy.

This past summer, for the first time in history, the New York Yankees played the Boston Red Sox in London. They realized too late in the process that a soccer field was not suitable to play baseball. But, they were already committed to the series. For example, British soil is too slick when wet to play baseball. Furthermore, the lights for a soccer field were too low to survive baseballs flying through the air. To rectify these conditions, 345 tons of dirt and clay had to be brought across the Atlantic by a company called DuraEdge from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. The lights had to be wrapped in chicken wire so they would not be destroyed. These are just a few examples of the changes which had to happen to make a soccer field suitable for baseball.

Today, we can no longer ignore that we are trying to play Christianity on a cultural field which is alien to the Christian faith. We must, symbolically speaking, bring in 345 tons of catechesis and protect things once thought assumed, if we are to flourish. We have a steep, uphill climb if we are to establish vibrant Christian communities who embody the means of grace, who have learned to think Christianly, and who better understand the role of the wider church as we face this challenge together. Christians have faced similar challenges in our long and checkered history, and, in the long run, the church of Jesus Christ will flourish once again, because Christ himself promised us that He will build His church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Thanks be to God for that.

My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part III): The Mind as a Neglected Sphere of Spiritual Formation

This is the third part in this series taken from my Fall convocation message to the Asbury Theological Seminary community. In the first part I explored the problem we face with the loss of the ability to frame a moral argument in our culture, and sadly, within the church itself. I then went on to propose three “shifts” in our actions to address this problem. Today’s article highlights the second shift.

The next major shift which we need to be attentive to is the neglected sphere of the mind as one of the focal points of holistic spiritual formation. In a post-Christendom, increasingly post-Christian world, faith exists only in a diminished, domesticated, privatized form with its locus in the heart. Even we, at times, get lulled into the notion that spiritual formation is only a matter of the heart. When we look back over church history and think about explosive, divisive moments in our story one quickly thinks about the Great Schism of 1054 which marks the separation of the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church. One might think about the year 1517 which marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Certainly these are momentous events in the history of the church. But, perhaps we have failed to recall the importance of the split or separation between theology and spirituality that occurred at the end of the 13th century. Before 1300 all of the great theologians of the church, whether Chrysostom, or Gregory of Nyssa, or Augustine, or Bernard of Clairvaux, were formed by spiritual disciplines and, yet, were at their core theologians. Clairvaux, for example, was the chief writer in drawing up the synodal statues at the Council of Troyes. He was famous for his theological debates with Peter Abelard, and yet he was also founding monasteries and giving us lectio divina. After 1300 none of the great masters of spirituality, Meister Eckhart (died 1328), Teresa of Avila (died 1582), Blaise Pascal (died 1662), or Thomas Merton, were academic theologians.

The division of theology and spirituality as two separate disciplines has ended up harming both. One of the restorations embodied by the Wesleyan vision is that great nuptial embrace which forms the head and the heart. Charles Wesley captured it in his hymn, the fifth verse which declares, “unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety: learning and holiness combined, and truth and love, let all men see . . . ” It is a singular tribute to the holistic Wesleyan vision that the late Thomas Oden, one of the premier theologians of our movement, also produced books such as Kerygma and Counseling and Contemporary Theology and Psychotherapy. John Wesley is sometimes wrongly accused of not being a “real” theologian because he was also interested in the disciplines which give rise to authentic spirituality. Yet, beloved, this was not a weakness of Wesley, but his very genius; he reunited what had been divided for over 300 years.

As the world is drawn to our wholeness and they ask us for the reason, we need to be able to give a well-reasoned defense for the hope that is within us. We cannot currently do this because we ourselves have gradually become tentative about the Christian proclamation. Divine revelation and self-disclosure has been, in our day, downgraded to nothing more than “our personal perspective,” or “what works for us.”

Christian ministers must embody afresh the deep commitment that central to formation is the formation of the mind; learning to think well about things and having the courage to articulate it. We must engage with the world’s ways of thinking about things, and respond with a thoughtful Christian alternative. We must recognize the powerful catechesis which unintentionally takes place in the wider culture which affirms a whole array of non-Christian assumptions. Therefore, we must counter that catechesis with a deep commitment to Christian discipleship which reclaims our distinctive voice in a myriad of competing voices and the loss of a moral center. We must reclaim the hard work of discipleship and forming the heart and the mind to occupy the newly emerging cultural landscape. We must reclaim the patristic tradition of the Apologists who engaged with rigorous fervor the intellectual climate of their day. Our struggles over same sex marriage and gender re-assignment are just two vivid examples of how much homework we have to do. We are experiencing the rise of a new Gnosticism. This challenge will force us to go back and do the difficult work articulating a Christian theology of the body and deeply understanding how these challenges relate to the grand theological life of the church. Many books have been released by people claiming to be Wesleyan leaders. However, their encouragement to abandon long-standing Christian views of the body, and of marriage, and the centrality and uniqueness of Jesus Christ are largely theologically empty and tepid. The church should roll up its sleeves and determine to do better, if for no other reason than to rescue our movement from perpetual public embarrassment.

Indeed, there is a whole spectrum of work to be done along many lines, and a myriad of other challenges, and it cannot be done until we fully give ourselves to the formation of the mind. Without this, we will end up like the schoolboy who refused to do his homework and then wonders why he failed the exam. The culture is testing us and we must do our homework in order to have coherent answers for the moral quagmires of our time. We must also recognize the many distractions which keep us from articulating the gospel in compelling and confident ways. The once congenial world of Christendom and broad shared cultural assumptions is now clearly in the rear view mirror and we must rise to the new realities we are facing.

Our next article will focus on the third solution to this quagmire we are in.

My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part II): Embodying the Means of Grace

I began this series by posing the central problem we face in our cultural moment, namely, the inability to frame a moral argument. Today, in Part II, I propose the first of three solutions to this problem.

John Wesley understood that there are times when you cannot “make an argument” to the surrounding culture. But, precisely when a culture cannot hear an argument, it cannot easily dismiss someone who quietly embodies it. The embodiment of truth, wholeness, and human flourishing is one of the most powerful testimonies to God’s existence in the world.

As Christians, we begin by remembering that moral values are intrinsic to persons, not to things. So when we talk about kindness, faithfulness, generosity, fairness, justice, etc. those are not simply values which are hanging out there in disembodied space, but are embodied in God himself and then in us as persons, created as those created in the image of God. Ethics, therefore, is personal, flowing from the very nature of God who created us in his image and made us image bearers in the world. Even Aristotle knew that there must be some external fixed point, the so-called “Unmoved Mover” or “First cause,” which later Aquinas identified as God in Aristotelian ethics. In classical Scholastic theology the Latin phrase described God as the norma normans sed non normata–the norm of norms which cannot be normed, i.e. an objective being who is objectively outside the material universe, but has personally entered it in the person of Jesus Christ as the full embodiment of truth and righteousness.

Even Aristotle understood that when we do not embody the virtues, there will be a gap between our lives and genuine human flourishing. In that gap is where we find depression, anxiety, fear, rage, and so forth. In the recent tragic shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California on July 28th someone, in the midst of the shooting, screamed the question to the active shooter: “Why are you doing this?” to which he reportedly replied, “Because I am very angry.” Active shooters leading to tragic deaths, as we have seen recently in Dayton and in El Paso, are just one of many signs that we are not flourishing as a culture. Therefore, as Christians, when we embody the virtues and the means of grace, we will flourish as a community. This is why Paul says in Philippians 2 that we are to be “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life . . . ” (Phil. 2:15, 16a). What does it avail us if we win a nasty political fight over the definition of marriage if our own actual marriages are falling apart?

Wesley taught that God has provided many ways, or “means” of grace, which enable us to grow and to incorporate the life of Christ within us on a daily basis. Wesley defined means of grace as “outward signs, words or actions, employed by God, and appointed to this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey . . . prevenient, justifying or sanctifying grace” (John Wesley, Sermon no. 16). Wesley suggests, for example, that the public reading of Scripture, receiving the Eucharist, prayer, obedience to God’s Word, denying oneself, and works of piety are all given to us by God as ways of promoting sanctification in our lives.

But, for our purposes here, I want us to see the means of grace not only in personal terms, i.e. helping us to mature spiritually and grow in personal holiness, but also we must see the larger missional power, the public witness, of the embodied means of grace when embodied by the church. If the world meets someone who is prayerful, who does works of piety—selflessly serving the poor, or on Sunday doesn’t just sleep in, but puts themselves and their families in the midst of the baptized community of those who follow Jesus, it has a powerful effect. It is missional. G. K. Chesterton famously said that even “those who reject the doctrine of the incarnation are different for having heard of it.” The very idea that God became one of us has a powerful force upon the human psyche. It challenges our imaginations and forces someone to reassess God’s whole relationship with the world. In the same way, a church which embodies the means of grace invades the imagination and forces the society to consider that there just might be a loving God who rules and reigns the universe, and has a true transformational influence on those who belong to him. If we are not ourselves transformed by the gospel, then the world has every right to simply see us as merely using religion as demagogues or charlatans serving a political agenda. We lose our witness when we embody so much of the brokenness which the world is experiencing.

Brothers and sisters, authentic embodiment is the necessary foundation for public proclamation. Our culture is very uneasy with strong moral statements. In today’s climate, ethical statements come across as inherently judgmental. To love someone today means, in the wider culture, to affirm whatever it is someone happens to say or believe. Likewise, to disagree with someone in today’s emotive climate is almost defacto to say that we do not love that person. This climate is actually yet another sign of our inability to frame a moral argument, because we now live in a culture of self-invention (i.e. nothing extrinsic to yourself can be used as a standard for evaluation of a right or wrong course of action). Richard Dawkins, the zoologist who has gained fame as an outspoken atheist, voices, without realizing it, the culture of self-invention when he refers to our existence as a “blind, unconscious process which Darwin discovered . . . and which has no purpose.” This new view seeks to separate the created order from any moral framework. Camille Paglia, the popular author and activist, wrote, “Fate, not God, has given us this flesh. We have absolute claim to our bodies and may do with them as we see fit.” Thus, we now live in a cultural climate where all meaning is subjective and is an arbitrary extension of human autonomy.

This culture of self-invention is unleashing objective, observable chaos, and the decline of human flourishing. The polls cited earlier prove that the wider culture is aware of it, but they have no idea why it has happened or what can be done to address it. This presents a huge opportunity for the church to embody the means of grace and thereby to truly embody human flourishing in such a profound way that the world will take notice. We were not designed for immorality. Brokenness is always, even unknowingly, attracted to wholeness. There is an inherent attraction to embodied holiness, order, light, and human flourishing. Therefore, we must understand that embodying the means of grace is not just about our personal spiritual growth, but is actually missional and a powerful embodiment of our public witness to the world. Indeed, it is the absolute prerequisite for gaining a cultural permission slip to, once again, engage in a moral argument.

This is why every reader of this article should consider becoming part of a Wesleyan band of discipleship (see http://discipleshipbands.com) so as micro-communities, we can more effectively learn how to embody the very presence of Christ in our midst.

My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part I): A Way Forward for Our Time

Every year, as President of Asbury Theological Seminary, I have the privilege of delivering a major address to the entire community which formally marks the kick off of a new academic year. I am going to be sharing this message (with some adaptations) with you in four parts. The first part is a diagnosis of one of the deepest problems we face in society, and the remaining days I will propose three solutions, or ways forward.

Since 2002, The Gallup polling group has been issuing an annual report regarding American perceptions of the moral climate in the country. Gallup tracks attitudes about 19 moral issues, ranging from abortion, to doctor-assisted suicide, to extra-marital affairs, as well as general perceptions about the overall moral climate.1 This year American overall perceptions about the moral climate of our country have slipped to its lowest point. In the Gallop Poll, more than 4 in 5 people (81%) now rate the state of moral values in the United States as only fair or poor.

A recent PEW study also asked Americans about their perceptions regarding the moral climate of the country. An astonishing 77% of Americans believe that the moral climate in the country is not only in decline, but they are either “very worried” or “fairly worried” about what this means for the future of our country.2 Studies have been conducted in other countries around the world with similar findings.

The decline in the moral fabric of our country is a serious concern for us all. However, it may not be the biggest challenge we face. Could it be that our dilemma as a nation is actually deeper than even our friends at Gallop or PEW fully recognize? Our problem, more fundamentally, has been the loss of moral categories and, therefore, the loss of a proper moral argument.

One of the more insightful philosophers who has thought about our situation is the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his classic work, After Virtue. He argues that while there is plenty of evidence of declining morals in Western society, the more profound challenge is the inability to even frame a moral argument.3 We no longer have sufficient shared assumptions as a culture to reach any kind of consensus on moral questions, whether based on a broad Judeo-Christian ethic found in Holy Scripture, or even Aristotle’s account of virtues and human flourishing, in his Nicomachean Ethics. Therefore, with the loss of any foundation for moral argument, the only path for contemporary society is to find new ways to accommodate endless human preferences within an increasingly fractured society.

This loss of a moral framework means that, despite the ongoing use of moral language in various cultural arguments, there can be no final resolution, or what MacIntyre calls a “terminus” point.4 He cites various common moral debates within society, demonstrating that because there is no shared moral framework in these national conversations, they end up not being “conversations” at all, with pros and cons evaluated based on a shared moral framework. Rather, they end up as staged shouting matches where we just yell at one another. MacIntrye calls this descent of ethics into shouting in the 21st century Western world “emotivism.” He describes emotivism as the point you reach when “all morals are nothing but expressions of [personal] preference” or “expressions of attitudes or feelings.”5 Chastity, for example, was long held to be a shared virtue in our society. However, MacIntyre argues that chastity “in a world uninformed by either Aristotelian or biblical values will make very little sense to the adherents of the dominant culture.”6

Consider the sheer force of moral questions which are posed to our society today: Is it morally permissible for the state to execute someone for a crime? Are State Lotteries morally acceptable? What is the definition of marriage? Do we have a moral obligation to protect someone who flees a murderous regime and arrives at our border seeking asylum? Is profiling a legally-permissible method of law enforcement? Is it permissible to utilize the services of a doctor to end your own life? Should race be a determinative factor in college admissions? Should insurance companies pay for gender re-assignment surgery? Are reparations for past sins a form of just resolution? This list goes on and on. These are just a few of the questions which have presented themselves to our culture in recent years, and we know how these questions play out.

Quite tragically, our deepest moral questions today are “resolved” not through moral argumentation on either side at all, but through the exertion of my will over your will by means of power. This is probably best exemplified in our culture by the now all-too-familiar 5-4 vote on the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the church has not been immune to this loss of moral argumentation. Similar will-to-power votes have happened in churches under conflict. A recent, well publicized example of this can be seen in the 438 to 384 vote on human sexuality at the General Conference of the United Methodist denomination this past February. While I was pleased that the church stood for historic orthodoxy, I was disappointed that despite over two years of special study on the topic the church never engaged in anything remotely close to a proper moral argument where a case was laid out biblically, historically, exegetically and pastorally, etc. Instead, we only got what all moral argument has become in our day, namely, what MacIntyre calls the “clash of antagonistic wills.”7 This is the deeper malaise which I am highlighting; not merely the decline of morals, but the collapse of the very categories which might make any kind of moral argument possible. We are actually not simply in a crisis of moral epistemology, i.e. how do we know whether something is right or wrong, or the meaning of moral sentences and how they interact one with another which is the hard work of ethicists (that has always been with us). Rather, more profoundly, we are in a crisis of moral ontology. Moral ontology asks whether or not morals objectively exist independently of us. Or, as some might claim, are morals merely mental and societal constructs with no objective foundation? It seems, as a society, the retreat of the Christian worldview has left us in a deep mire, with no objective foundation for the very concept and framework of morality.

Certainly, part of the mission of Asbury Theological Seminary is to recognize the inherent problems with emotivism as a moral solution in our culture, but also to resist the temptation to simply accept this collapsed moral state and engage in some form of power politics, some Christianized version of Nietzsche’s “will to power.”8

Beloved, this is not some esoteric article which has nothing to do with your ministry. This challenge lies at the heart of what you are facing in your lives and ministries, because what goes on in the halls of congress, or the floor of your denominational national meetings, is also going on in Sunday School rooms and homes and schools and in the workplace across America and, in various degrees, around the world.

In future installments, I will explore solutions for addressing this dilemma.

1. Jeffrey M. Jones “Americans Hold Record Liberal Views on Most Moral Issues,” (Poll conducted, May 3-7, 2017 with 1,011 randomly selected adults 18 or older. www.news.gallup.com (May 11, 2017).
2. Kim Parker, Rich Morin and Juliana Menasce Horowitz, “Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts” www.Pewsocialtrends.org (March 21 2019).
3. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 2007).
4. MacIntyre, 6.
5. MacIntyre, 12. The early chapters of MacIntyre’s book is dedicated to demonstrating the flaws in emotivism as a philosophical theory to provide moral guidance in a society. For example, in the early 20th century many people felt that racism was morally justified and it required a proper moral argument to convince the wider society that it was “right” to at least begin to dismantle the moral scourge of racism. The resurgence of racism in our own time reveals the deeper tragedy that the moral argument upon which the fight against racism was waged has become eroded and there is no longer a sufficient moral framework for addressing an issue as important as racism.
6. MacIntyre, 232.
7. MacIntyre, 9. McIntyre demonstrates the vast difference between the statements, “this is good” or “this is right” from statements like “I approve of this” or “I think this is best.”
8. Nietzsche’s so-called “genealogy of morals”, as it turns out, is not traced back far enough. The source of all morals is God’s own being, grounded in his existence as pure love and holiness.

Remembering Our Roots

I recently returned from ten days of preaching at Indian Springs Holiness Camp Meeting in Georgia. It is one of hundreds which will take place across this nation during the summer. If you have never experienced a Camp Meeting, then you should attend one because it is a vital reminder of an important chapter in the history of Christianity in the USA. Camp Meetings were one of the leading avenues of renewal, revival, and, interestingly, partaking of the Eucharist, during the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840). A typical format would be people coming and living in tents or makeshift shelters for ten days of preaching and revival. These gatherings were called “camp meetings” or “protracted meetings.” The setting was originally a simple “brush arbor,” but as the meetings became an annual event, they began to construct permanent open air “tabernacles.” Itinerant evangelists would come and preach the gospel and call for repentance. There would be a time of singing and worship.

One of the most influential Camp Meetings on the frontier occurred from August 6 to August 13, 1801 at Cane Ridge, Kentucky which drew as many as 20,000 people. Cane Ridge exemplified the Camp Meeting “standard” with three additional features: the altar, the mourning bench, and the communion table. The altar was the place where you came for prayer to receive Christ or receive special ministry. The mourning bench was a place to sit and travail before God if you were under conviction. Finally, at the climax of the Camp Meeting, communion would be offered since many avoided taking communion during the year for fear that they were not spiritually prepared.

In our tradition, the Camp Meetings grew out of the holiness movement. In these meetings, there would be a special emphasis on the second work of grace and the doctrine of holiness and sanctification. As with all great awakenings, there were hundreds of new hymns which were written to give expression to the vibrancy and theology of their experience. We sometimes forget that, for them, these were contemporary, popular songs written in a style which reflected the exuberance and joy of the gathering. Songs like, “The Comforter has Come,” “Higher Ground,” and “Down at the Cross” are a few examples of the hundreds written during the 19th and early 20th century. Francis Asbury was a great supporter of the Camp Meeting format, because he believed that it was well suited to provide an atmosphere for spiritual transformation.

As noted earlier, this year I was an evangelist (along with Dave Ward and Chris Bounds) at Indian Springs Holiness Camp Meeting. We preached for ten days in the main Tabernacle. In addition, Joe Dongell taught a Bible study each morning. There were other leaders and evangelists who preached and ministered in a large youth Tabernacle, a “tweens” Tabernacle (middle school), and the Glenn Tabernacle (children). There was also a vibrant nursery. Hundreds of people lived on the grounds during those ten days, and others come in from the surrounding area for the meetings. Every service concluded with an altar call, and hours were spent each day praying alongside people for salvation, sanctification, healing, or other needs on their spiritual journey.

It is difficult for those who have not been a part of these kind of meetings to fully appreciate how deep and vibrant this tradition is. The whole tenor of the event is one of joy and fellowship, yet wrapped in the larger envelope of the seriousness of why we had gathered. Very few gatherings in America today feature the kind of transgenerational experience of a Camp Meeting. It is not unusual for four generations of a family to be living in one of the cabins during the encampment. The spontaneous choirs which come forward to provide special music regularly included children as young as 8 or 9, all the way up to men and women in their 80’s—all singing with a full heart. The deep “belonging” that a Camp Meeting produces is perhaps best illustrated by an experience I had in the “tweens” tabernacle. I casually asked two thirteen-year-old girls how many years they had been coming to Indian Springs Camp Meeting. They both beamed and one said “thirteen” while the other, at the same time, said “fourteen.” At that point, the one thirteen-year-old turned to the other thirteen-year-old and said, “how can you have come here for fourteen years when you are only thirteen years old?” The other responded, with a smile, “because I first came here inside my mother’s womb!” That fairly well sums up the power and formation of a Camp Meeting. There are few gatherings of people left where the primary and driving “identity” is that of repentance, renewal, and the deeper life.

Henry Clay Morrison, the founder of Asbury Theological Seminary, preached at Indian Springs for fifty years. No single person has ever preached more sermons at Indian Springs than Morrison. There is a granite monument on the campus of the campground to commemorate his lifelong contribution to Indian Springs. In 1942, Morrison died in Kentucky. He did not die at his residence on the campus of the seminary, but at a camp meeting after preaching. What a legacy and a heritage for us to remember as we seek, in our own way, to raise the “banner” of holiness in our own day.

Sevenfold Prayer

The greatest privilege of my life is the sacred calling to help in the training of men and women for places of Christian ministry. Asbury Theological Seminary is brimming with dedicated Christ followers who are training to serve Christ within the context of historic faith and, in particular, within the grand Wesleyan stream of the church. I have served Asbury for a decade now, so I have had the joy of seeing around 1,500 graduates walk across the stage, receive their diploma, and go forth to serve the church.

One of the great traditions at Asbury is a special chapel just for new students. Each Fall we receive over 500 new students, so it is quite a ceremony seeing so many of them packed into Estes Chapel, eager to begin their journey. I preach a sermon titled, “Scholars on Fire,” which has become a standard way of framing who we are and what defines us as members of the Asbury community. However, the real climax of the service is not the sermon, but what happens at the conclusion. We set up a large “Christ the King” cross at the center of the chapel. This is one which displays Jesus on the cross as the ascended Lord. The new students are asked to gather around and literally take hold of the cross as if their lives depended on it. Then several of our key leaders such as Jessica LaGrone, our Dean of the Chapel, Donna Covington, our Vice President of Formation, and Nicole Sims, our Director of Community Formation take turns praying for these students. I also join them in that prayer. Then, years later at the end of their seminary journey, we have a special chapel just for the graduates. They once again gather around the cross at the end of the service and lay hold of it as they had done when they arrived, and we commission them for service to Christ and his church.

This year I prepared a special sevenfold prayer which I prayed over them at the service which takes place the evening before graduation. The prayer I prayed this year is reproduced here. While it was written for graduates, it is a prayer which is fitting for any Christian who wants to serve Christ wholeheartedly. This is my prayer not only for them, but for myself, and for each of you.

May the Triune God fill every part of your being, which once was occupied by sin;

May your heart be fully re-directed towards holy love, where once was only the tyranny of the mis-directed heart;

May your mind be fully awakened to the light of the gospel, where once dwelled only the shadows of doubt, and the clouds of fear.

May the gravity of holy love be stronger than the gravity of the self-oriented life;

May all the means of grace flow abundantly in your life, so that the journey of your life may truly be the upward call of God in Christ Jesus;

May all you have learned in this course of study become another altar from which Jesus Christ is praised, the church strengthened, and the grand mission of the gospel extended!

May your hands and feet be linked seamlessly with your heart and mind; so that your whole life will be a sacrifice of praise, and an expression of God’s covenant love and mercy to a lost and dying world.

Amen.

Thoughts As the United Methodist Church Prepares for General Conference 2020

The church has always been misunderstood and maligned by the unbelieving world. But it is an added pain to live with both a broken world and a broken, hurting church. Leonard Ravenhill once said, “there is no greater tragedy than a sick church in a dying world.” The United Methodist church is hurting and sick. It is one of the few things that people across the various divisions all seem to agree upon. When the United Methodist Church, or any church, is walking through this kind of travail, it is important, in the words of the liturgy, to “lift up your heart” and regain clarity on a few points which have become obscured in all of the discussions.

Is the Church of Jesus Christ “exclusionary”?

It is common for voices within the so-called “progressive” wing to declare those who adhere to historic orthodoxy (whether doctrines such as the uniqueness and sole sufficiency of Jesus Christ for salvation, or historical ethical positions such as defining marriage as between one man and one woman for life) as being exclusionary. It has been said so often in recent blog articles and sermons and full page ads in local newspapers that it requires a response. This assessment has become exacerbated in recent weeks in the wake of the ChurchNext conference hosted by Adam Hamilton. Previously, we had three distinct “groups” within the United Methodist Church: traditional, centrist, and progressive. Now that the One Church Plan has been voted down at the 2019 General Conference, many centrists are abandoning the position of “let’s agree to disagree and respect that both views are honorable” to a firm alignment with the progressive cause which seeks to silence and shame those who adhere to the global and historic position of the church regarding the definition of marriage. Central to their agenda is the narrative that the church around the world is exclusionary.

However, it is important to remember that the church of Jesus Christ is the most diverse, inclusive, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic movement in the history of the world. More people, from more countries, speaking more distinct languages belong to the church of Jesus Christ than any other movement, whether religious or secular. The church of Jesus Christ is growing faster and becoming even more diverse today than at any time in the history of the world. The United Methodist Church is the outlier, not the center, of Christian global vitality. The very idea that the church is becoming exclusionary is a false narrative.

Second, the reason the church is able to take root and flourish around the world is because we share a common faith in Christ, a common commitment to the Word of God, including a shared ethic as set forth in the New Testament. The progressives within the United Methodist Church stand on neither historic nor biblical grounds by trying to introduce a unique set of ethical guidelines for one particular movement within the grand body of Christianity. Indeed, the very reason for the church’s diversity is that its message is not rooted in any one culture or people, but reflects the universal truths of divine revelation. The meager attempts by a few in our midst to try to demonstrate that this new ethic is actually consistent with Scripture have failed the most basic test of understanding Greek words; namely, the consistent way they are used by the authors and readers of the New Testament. In other words, original meaning is the gold standard, and recent attempts to narrow these meanings to conform to modern sentiments has no lexical support. (When you hear these new interpretations, you might want to ask, “Does Danker or Bauer support that?” [NT], or “Does Brown, Driver Briggs support that?” [OT]).

The word “inclusive” refers to the universal gift of salvation which is extended to all peoples in all the earth. The gospel, properly understood, is inclusive. However, the word is now being used to embrace the idea that we should be morally inclusive of a wide range of ethical positions within the church regarding human sexuality and gender identity. All peoples from all cultures throughout all times have come to Christ and submitted to the teaching of the New Testament. That’s what it means to be part of the church. Everyone is invited, but those who do come, must come to Christ on his terms, not ours.

Are those who uphold the biblical and historic view of marriage unleashing irreparable harm on people, particularly those within the LGBTQ community?

It is truly remarkable how a position which has been clearly held and affirmed by the church of Jesus Christ for the 2,000 years of our existence as a movement can, almost overnight, become regarded as hateful, harmful, and exclusionary. It is painful to be a United Methodist Christian and hold to a position which continues to be the official position of our denomination, but be held in such open contempt and shame by many even in leadership. The United Methodist Church has explicitly affirmed biblical marriage between one man and one woman for life since the union between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. From the 1972 General Conference onward, this position has been challenged. The General Conference has voted down a range of proposals to redefine marriage a dozen times over the years, and a thirteenth time at the recent General Conference in 2019. It is a safe bet that fresh challenges will be put forth in 2020 and it will be voted down a fourteenth time. I am not sure how many times it takes for a “no” to be heard, but we will eventually find out. We are probably getting close to that point now. But, several points need to be made. First, there has been no change in the United Methodist Discipline since the beautiful double affirmation of 1972 which declared all people of infinite worth but also affirmed the longstanding Christian position that homosexual behavior is incompatible with Christian faith. In short, there was nothing “new” in our actual position before or after the most recent General Conference in 2019. The only change has been an attempt to legislatively hold pastors and bishops accountable to a Discipline that they had already sworn before God to uphold. That is embarrassing. But, as it relates to the actual position of the church, no change to the position of the church has been made. So if there is “harm” it is not a new harm, but the harm which is inherent in this position for those who disagree. Which brings me to the second point.

There is an underlying assumption that the church must never hold a position which causes someone any pain or discomfort. This has been called the post-modern “tyranny of niceness.” This says that the church, above all else, must never say anything that offends someone, because it may cause them pain. However, I am reminded of Søren Kierkegaard in his Attack Upon Christendom, where he declared, “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon us, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything.”[1] So, when someone says that the message of the church has caused “harm” we should not put our heads down and apologize. Rather, we should say, “Yes, the gospel both blesses and bruises us all.” Every true Christian has been bruised by the demands of discipleship, the call to die to self, and to live holy lives, “taking up our cross to follow him.” We are all asked to give up our greed, our propensity to gossip, our jealousy, our disordered affections, our anger, and so forth. It is a long list which eventually encompasses every one of us with all the various sins we have a propensity to commit. Are we born this way? Yes, we are. It is known as the Fall. We are all members of a race full of sinners. There are no exceptions. Our hearts are deceitful and we need redemption. The list of our sins is quite long. But, no one gets a “pass” which allows their particular sin to be called holy, while all others have to lay theirs down. The gospel nails us all to the cross with Christ. But, once that happens, it raises us up with Christ and gives us new power for holy living. He rightly orders our affections. He takes away our greed and self-orientation. In short, those of us who have been bruised by the gospel, are now being blessed by the gospel. And the blessing is always greater than the bruising. Whenever God says “no” to us, it always feels like “harm” and “hurt.” But God’s “no” is always his deeper “yes” since the way of righteousness is always the path of human flourishing. Wesley’s phrase that we are to “do no harm” (cited endlessly) has nothing whatsoever to do with dismantling the call to holiness and the pain which we all must accept when our lives pass through the cross of Jesus Christ. This point, of course, provides no license for any Christian to speak in a hateful or mean way to anyone. We must be clothed with kindness, but we must also be resolute in defending the integrity of the biblical witness.

What lies ahead? In a recent pastoral letter from the Council of Bishops it appears that the bishops are searching for legislation which creates a “new way of embodying unity.” This probably means some form of restructuring or de-structuring which will allow for an amicable separation. I think the bishops are right to open this door and we should spend the next year focused on that, rather than simply repeating the pain and trauma of the 2019 General Conference. The progressive clergy, in contrast, are unleashing a widespread plan of resistance which will defy the Discipline. We should not dismiss this as an idle threat. We will be publicly and regularly shamed at every turn. This will be done in the hope that sufficient numbers of traditionalists will leave the church in disgust and the “progressives” will finally have the denomination they have been advocating for over these many years. However, the math just doesn’t work. Because of the growth of the church outside North America and the precipitous decline in the more “progressive” regions of North America, the 2020 General Conference will likely have even stronger traditional delegations than we have seen in many years. In 2016, and even 2019, there was widespread hope by traditionalists that we would be given a gracious exit plan. However, now there is no reason for traditionalists to exit the denomination as there would have been had the One Church Plan prevailed. Instead, the momentum has shifted and the United Methodist Church is clearly moving from being just another dying mainline Protestant denomination to becoming a vibrant member of the growing global Wesleyan movement. It was an astute observation that the day of the 2019 General Conference vote was the moment the United Methodist Church decided to move from being a mainline church to becoming a global church. Our focus now should be the legislative work necessary to present an “amicable separation” plan which creates two separate denominations. The names will have to be decided, but they will be some form of a Progressive Methodist Church and some form of a Global Methodist Church.

Throughout this process, let us take seriously the Council of Bishops call for “a season of deep listening.” But that deep listening should be first and foremost to the text of Scripture, the vibrancy of the global church and the never-dimming message of our Wesleyan heritage, rooted in the gospel and the call to holiness.

[1] Walter Lowrie, trans., Kierkeegard’s Attack Upon Christendom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), 258.

When Was the Last Time You Heard a Worship Song Like Psalm 94?

Andrew Peterson is one of the most gifted contemporary Christian artists of our day, and you should thank God for him. What I like about Peterson’s work is that his worship lyrics are theologically strong, and he is willing to bring to the church neglected doctrines, which is one of the great gifts of rightfully designed worship. One of his songs titled, Rise Up, actually highlights God as Judge, who pays back evil and sets things right. A portion of the lyrics goes:

If a thief had come to plunder when the children were alone;
If he ravaged every daughter and murdered every son;
Would not their father see this? Would not his anger burn?
Would he not repay the tyrant in the day of His return?
Await, await, the day of His return.

                        Chorus

‘cause He will rise up in the end, He will rise up in the end;
I know you need a Savior, He is patient in his anger, and He will rise up in the end.

Peterson’s song Rise Up sounds a bit like the opening words of Psalm 94:

“O LORD, the God who avenges, O God who avenges, shine forth. Rise up, O Judge of the world pay back to the proud what they deserve.” When was the last time you heard a worship song like that? You see, for us, the word “vengeance” is a disquieting word. We are explicitly told in the Old Testament to not take vengeance. Jesus himself repeats this admonition in the Gospels. So, we don’t know what to do with actions which are the prerogative of God but which we are called to avoid. We have lost that whole category in our theology: Things that God does, that we are commanded not to do.

You see, we have been shaped by what I call the WWJD theology: What Would Jesus Do? In the 1990’s this became the most popular bracelet worn by Christians. The phrase is rooted, I think, in Roman Catholic piety of the imitatio Christi – imitation of Christ and Thomas a Kempis’ classic book, The Imitation of Christ. This later became popularized by Charles Spurgeon who was the first to pose it as an actual question, “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD). Later, it became a popular bracelet, screen saver, and bumper sticker. I wouldn’t spend five minutes criticizing the bracelet, but I will spend one minute criticizing it. The danger of the bracelet is that it assumes that whatever Jesus is doing, we should be doing. That, of course, is mostly good advice, but it does neglect the notion that there are some things Jesus does which we are not to do. There are certain divine prerogatives which He reserves only for himself. One of these is vengeance. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”, is a famous text from Deuteronomy 32:35. It is quoted in Hebrews 10:30 which calls us show restraint in the face of a world of unbelief. People trample the Son of God and disdain his redemptive work, but we are to patiently wait for divine retribution. It is quoted by Paul in Romans 12:19 where Paul says, “do not repay evil for evil” (v. 17), “do not take revenge, but leave room for God’s wrath” for it is written, “vengeance is mine, I will repay” says the Lord. Therefore, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”

These texts resonate with Jesus’ own words, “judge not, lest you be judged” or “pray for those persecute you” or “turn the other cheek” and so forth. But, the reason that we can live like that is not because there is no place for vengeance, but that it is a divine prerogative. Our “turning the other check” is not a doctrine of Christian niceness, it is a doctrine of Christian patience. God will, in fact, judge the world and he will set things right. It is actually our hope in that divine action which enables us to turn cheeks and to wait patiently and to leave room for the wrath of God.

Psalm 94 is a song which highlights the brokenness of the world and, like so many Psalms, boldly describes the presence of the wicked in the world. Did you know of the 150 Psalms only 26 make no reference to the wicked or enemies. 124 Psalms mention them.

Psalm 94 is representative of this theme: They are full of boasting words and arrogance (vs. 4). They crush or oppress your people (vs. 5). They slay the foreigner and the widow (vs. 6). They murder the fatherless (vs. 6). Then the Psalm asks the big question “who will rise up for me against the wicked?” “Who will take a stand for me against evildoers?” In other words, who will set things right? Who will vindicate us in the face of these atrocities? The Psalm gives the answer in the closing verse of the Psalm (vs. 23): “He will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; the Lord our God will destroy them.”

Brothers and sisters, I commend you to not neglect this part of your theology. Jesus Christ is coming again. He will come with fire and fury. Make room in your theology for 2 Thessalonians 1 when Paul writes, “God is just. He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen with the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord . . .

It goes on, but I think you get the point. This is why the Apostles’ Creed states with boldness: “He is coming again to judge the living and the dead.” There are some things which God does which we cannot do, and should not do, and don’t know enough to do. There is nothing wrong with wearing a WWJD bracelet on your wrist, as long as you have, at least, symbolically, another bracelet WWWND—What Would We Not Do. We are not to take vengeance. It is not our prerogative to set things right in the final sense. It is not our prerogative to judge the unbelieving world. These are divine prerogatives. But, make no mistake about it, it will happen. God will judge the world. He will vindicate the faith of his saints. He will set things right. And it is precisely that hope which enables us to walk through this world with love and mercy, even to our enemies.

Why Did Jesus Put Mud on a Man’s Eyes?

Joaquin Phoenix plays the role of Jesus in the newly released film, Mary Magdalene. It is one of these new, now predictable, “Jesus films” which takes its cues from one of the Gnostic gospels rather than the actual Gospels of the New Testament. This so-called Gospel is known as the Gospel of Mary and was discovered in 1896. This is no longer surprising or shocking. Once Dan Brown gave us The Da Vinci Code, we were off to the races.

However, what is shocking is what happened during the filming of one of those moments of the film which is actually found in the canonical Gospels. It is the account of Jesus healing the blind man and using mud and spittle, which he places on the man’s eyes and he is healed (See, John 9:6). The scene was largely intended to follow the biblical account, except that they have Jesus healing a woman rather than a man. Nevertheless, the actor Joaquin Phoenix refused to do what the script called him to do. Here are his own words (with the profanity omitted): “I thought: I’m not going to rub dirt in her eyes. Who the f*!# would do that? It doesn’t make any sense. That is a horrible introduction to seeing.”

This is where we realize that Joaquin Phoenix should never play the role of Jesus, even in a second-rate Gnostic film. We have all heard the stories about how the lead characters in films spend many months, sometimes over a year, learning and studying the character they are intending to portray. Daniel Day Lewis spent months pouring himself into the literature of the 19th century, reading hundreds of Lincoln’s correspondences, so that he could portray Lincoln in the award winning Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln (the film was eventually nominated for twelve academy awards). More recently, you may have seen the new film, The Best of Enemies, which portrays the unlikely reconciliation which happened between a civil rights’ leader and the head of the Ku Klux Klan. It is a powerful story of redemption based on the true story of C.P. Ellis (the Klan leader) and Ann Atwater, a well-known civil rights activist. Both actors spent many months carefully studying the civil rights movement and what it was like to live through the desegregation of the school systems. The film will likely win some significant awards.

This will not happen with Mary Magdalene. If Joaquin Phoenix had spent even a few weeks studying the Gospels, and in particular, the account of the mud on the man’s eyes, he would have recognized how symbolic this act was in the ministry of Jesus. In Genesis, we learn that we were created from dirt and dust: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” In John 9 Jesus’ healing of the blind man is highly symbolic of Jesus’ entire ministry of bringing light into the world. The coming of Jesus is like the dawn of a new creation. Jesus re-enacts the original creation account by placing mud on his eyes and then speaking the word to him, just as the first creation where God takes dust and then speaks/breathes His word into us that we might live. Jesus is the Lord of the “new creation” and the use of dirt in the healing account is central to our understanding of what is going on.

Rather than a profanity-laced dismissal of the stupidity of Jesus, Phoenix might have taken his cue from other notable actors who take time to enter into and understand the world of the character they are portraying. If this incident is any indication, that likely didn’t happen. While some films make the rounds for a season but quickly fade into obscurity, it’s the ones that invest serious attention to the world’s they are portraying that endure the test of time. Erring in this way, Mary Magdalene is likely to soon be forgotten.

Great Wesleyan Distinctives, Part II

In these challenging days, there is a part of us which wants to just throw in the towel and go and join some independent, Bible-believing church and put our pain in the rear view mirror. But the deeper impulse is to remember our heritage and to keep on faithfully preaching the gospel right where God as planted you. The early church did not have a “strategy” for transforming the pagan 1st Century Roman Empire—they simply kept winning more and more people to faith and that, over time, transformed the entire culture and society.

Last month I began a four-part series on rebuilding our Wesleyan heritage. The last segment focused on the Wesleyan view of grace. This month we will focus on the Wesleyan view of community. In the last two segments we will examine the Wesleyan view of holiness and the Wesleyan view of the world.

Wesley had the distinct advantage of living over 200 years after the Reformation. This allowed him to view the Reformation from a distance and to see not only the great strengths of the Reformation, but, frankly, the trajectories in certain areas which were not helpful—even revealing crucial areas the Reformation had neglected. So, just as he embraced the restoration of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith but saw that grace was far more expansive than that, we see a distinctive Wesleyan contribution regarding how we understand the cross. The Reformers rightfully positioned us as condemned sinners needing salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. However, over time it became clear that even committed Christians were viewing the cross from the perspective of a solitary condemned sinner who needed to flee to the cross to be saved. Wesley saw that we must not only look forward to the cross as individual, condemned sinners, but we must also look back on the cross from the New Creation along with all the saints who have gone before us. To put it bluntly, the cross not only draws condemned sinners to justification, but it also empowers justified sinners into a corporate life of holiness as the church, the people of God. This not only gives Wesley a doctrine of assurance, but it is the basis for his whole understanding of ecclesial catechesis.

Wesley was committed to a form of community catechesis which is remarkably distinct. For Wesley, catechesis is not merely learning the correct answers to doctrinal questions, or saying “yes” to a particular Christian formula for salvation. For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life within the context of the church. Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model (this was catechesis after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost which brought you into the mystery of the church), but he united the idea with the community model of the early Celtic Christians.

Later Wesley developed the entire “class system” which put all believers into small discipleship bands. The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care. They would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins. Members in sin would be disciplined. They would also be instructed in the Apostolic faith. They would worship together and go forth to serve the poor (see The Class Meeting: Recovering a Forgotten and Essential Small Group Experience for an excellent contemporary treatment of the class meeting and how it can be adapted to our own time).

The community emphasis for Wesley is not a technique or program the way we understand such things today, but an insight into the very rhythms of faith and practice which re-orients us to the Triune God. Wesley never distanced himself from the Christocentric emphasis of the Reformation. However, he longed for us to see that salvation was the work of the Triune God! The ultimate community to which the church and family conforms and reflects is, of course, the blessed community of the Trinity. Remember, it was the Puritans who said “God in himself is a sweet society.” The Father creates us, calls us and send us; the Son translates God to us in human terms, redeems us, and embodies the mission of God in the world; the Spirit catechizes the church into the realities of the New Creation, sanctifies us, endows us with discernment and God’s wisdom, and empowers us for effective mission in the world.