A Response to “Sin and the Historian”

I am in the final weeks (six, to be exact) of my very long undergraduate period.  One of my current classes is a U.S. History class.  It is one that I should have taken care of years ago . . . but . . . well, I didn’t.  So here we are now, wrapping things up!

In this class, one of the ongoing assignments is to read articles as a weekly devotional and write a response to the article.  Last week’s article was titled “Sin and the Historian“, written by John Fea.  (Click on the title of the article in the previous sentence to read it.)  I really enjoyed reading the article and found much value in it.  However, it was written from a different theological perspective than my own.  So in my response, I reframed what was being considered.  My response is what follows:

Fea concludes his article with this question: “What if we taught and wrote history as if human depravity mattered?” (par. 8).  As a Wesleyan theologian, I feel compelled to turn the question around on him: What if we taught and wrote history as if prevenient grace mattered?  Certainly, I was put on guard early on when he alludes to himself as a Calvinist: “This article is must reading for all Christian academics, whether you are a Calvinist or not” (par. 1).

There is, indeed, much that I agree with in his article.  I never support the whitewashing of history.  One of the things I love about Scripture is that all the great men and women of faith are still flawed.  Scripture never hides their sins.  I believe that this should be the case with history, as well.  We can respect what men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington contributed in the founding of the United States while at the same time lamenting the fact that they were slave owners.

Still, I would rather look at history through the lens of prevenient grace.  Doing so requires us to acknowledge the flaws of historical figures.  We do not dwell on the flaws, though.  Instead, we can look at those things and see how God is working grace through them.  Fea writes, “History certainly teaches us that we live in a broken world that will not be completely fixed on this side of eternity” (par. 4).  This is true.  All will not be set right until the Kingdom of God is fully consummated.  However, the Kingdom of God is a present reality, and as the Kingdom of God advances through the Holy Spirit working in God’s people, God is currently in the process of making all things new.  Let us rejoice in this good while at the same time not being afraid to acknowledge and learn from the mistakes of history.

Reflections On The Eve Of Commencement

Tommy: “You know, a lot of people go to college for seven years.”

Richard: “I know. They’re called doctors.”

Tommy Boy

On May 21, 1997, I participated in the commencement ceremonies at Lander Valley High School, six days before my eighteenth birthday.  Tomorrow, I will be participating in the commencement ceremonies of Northwest Nazarene University’s College of Adult & Graduate Studies, 21 days before my 38th birthday.  Such moments make a person reflective.

It’s been quite the journey!  It has only taken me 20 years to complete my four-year degree.  J  Maybe I can complete my Master of Divinity, another four-year degree, in half that time.  In full disclosure, though, I haven’t quite completed my BA yet.  I have two classes that I will be taking in the fall to wrap things up.

It has been a LONG journey.  Immediately after completing high school, I began attending Central Wyoming College in Riverton, WY.  It was a very formative year.  I received more opportunities and grew as a musician more than I ever have before.  However, at the end of the year, it became clear to me that it was time to transition to something else.

I was quiet about such things at the time, but as a child, I knew that God was preparing me for and calling me to ministry.  As a teenager, I lost focus of my calling and considered other options.  Professional percussionist?  Sounds great to me!  Or maybe an attorney?  At CWC, my instructors encouraged me to consider Music Ed instead of just Music.  After all, everybody needs something to “fall back” to.  In my late teens, though, my calling was renewed, and I decided to move on.

I took the fall semester of 1998 off, and I began attending Northwest Nazarene College in January 1999.  Socially, these early months at NNC were pretty rough, though I tried to hide it.  I am an extreme introvert (30 points on the “I” side of the Introvert-Extrovert spectrum of Myers Briggs!), and transferring in midyear as a sophomore did not provide me with the regular social activities that new freshman usually receive.  Still, I pressed forward and began to figure out my new setting and make new friends.  My intent at the time was to complete degrees in both music and youth ministry.  As I had already completed a year as a Music major at CWC, though, it seemed to me to make the most sense to focus on Church Music first.

I continued at NNC, and then NNU (university status arrived in the fall of 1999) through June 2000.  Without going into details, I had a really dark emotional experience lasting several months in the fall of 1999.  As I emerged from the dark night of my soul, I began to focus on rebuilding a social life.  I developed closer relationships with my fellow Music majors (and others associated with the Music Department).  However, my studies took a significant hit.  Due to both the decline of my GPA and some financial aid paperwork that was never submitted (needing completed by someone other than me), leaving me with $3000 due directly to NNU (not counting my student loans), I determined during the Hallelujah Brass tour to Australia and Papua New Guinea that when I returned to the U.S., I would need to do something else for a while.

In July 2000, I moved to Denver and spent close to two years doing office work.  During this stage, I attended a non-denominational church with my sister and her family.  I connected with the youth pastor, who was two years older than me, and was given the opportunity to help with the youth ministry.  This was the most formative stage of my youth ministry preparation, and I learned a lot from him, the teens, and the other adult sponsors.

In June 2002, I moved to Casper, WY.  I was offered the opportunity to serve that church as their youth pastor.  This hands-on experience, now not as just a helper but as someone entrusted to lead the ministry, was yet another significant period of growth.  After a little over two years on staff with Casper First Church of the Nazarene, though, I needed to step away from “professional” ministry for a while.  I resigned in September 2004, though I remained very active in that church for the following five years that I continued to live in Casper.

Needing work, I began applying at all the office opportunities that I could find.  Nothing panned out, though.  As my severance neared depletion, I decided to go ahead and apply at both Pizza Hut and Dominos.  Pizza Hut called me back the next day (and Dominos the day after).  The idea of becoming a delivery driver was very humiliating for me at that stage of my life.  However, I did not see any other options.  And boy, was I wrong!  The five years I spent at Casper E. 2nd Street Pizza Hut were five of the best years of my life!

I loved working for Casper First Church.  However, once I began working at Pizza Hut, I came upon this realization: Working for a church, it becomes difficult to connect with people outside of the church.  And, in a moment of honesty that I suppose could get me in trouble, I kinda like non-churched people more than I like churched people.  Now, if you are one of my fellow churched people, don’t hear me wrong.  I love you and cherish who you are in my life.  However, when working a secular job with non-churched people, I discovered that there is a sort of honestly and openness that is often missing among people in churches.  People in churches seem to think that they need to present themselves in a certain way to other people, and even more so when those other people are pastors.  The honesty and openness that I experienced with my Pizza Hut coworkers was good for my soul.

In the fall of 2006, I decided that it was time to resume my formal ministerial preparation, so I began taking online classes from Nazarene Bible College.  In June 2008, I received my first District Minister’s License in the Church of the Nazarene.  In June 2009, I was invited to begin praying about moving to Victor, MT and joining the staff at the Bitterroot Valley Church of the Nazarene.  In mid-August, I made a visit to the Bitterroot, and shortly thereafter, I accepted the call to go there.  I began my assignment as youth/associate pastor in Victor in November 2009.  In addition to serving the Bitterroot Valley Church, it has been an honor directing the Rocky Mountain District teen camp, serving at the RMD NYI President, and being a part of the NW Field NYI Council.

Upon moving to Victor, it did not take me long to realize that I would not be able to continue the pace of my education that I had been maintaining.  Relocating 10 hours from where I had been living to an entirely new ministry setting with a bunch of people that I didn’t know did not afford me the time to both become connected in my new setting and complete my education.  Thus, I stepped away from NBC and only very slowly worked on my educational requirements for ordination.  However, in the fall of 2014, I was made aware of a great opportunity to complete my BA through NNU’s Christian Ministry Online program at a 35% discount.  So in January 2015, I once again resumed my formal education.  This is what I am now completing.

The journey has been difficult.  Even over these last two years of my 20-year journey, I have had both successes and failures.  There have been moments that I have been near despair, ready to quit it all again.  However, there have also been moments when professors have told me things like, “Your work is exquisite.”  These moments have helped encourage me to keep pushing forward.  With both the Lord’s guidance and a ton of grace from my professors, I have navigated these difficult circumstances and found my way through.

So, what is next?  Honestly, I do not know.  I absolutely love my church and the Bitterroot Valley.  I have absolutely no desire to leave.  If God lets me stay here the rest of my life, I would be content.  However, I should acknowledge that often at moments like these, God uses them as pivot points to lead to something new.  So . . . we’ll see.  I would like to continue my formal and complete an M.Div. (hopefully in only four years), but I need some space first.

In concluding, I want to acknowledge just a few of the many people who have helped me along.  I will undoubtedly forget to name many.  The reality is that each and every person I have ever connected with has had a profound influence on my life, so I will begin by offering a generalized, “Thank you” for each of you who has been a part of my life.  I love you all more than words can ever express.  You mean the world to me.

Of course, the most important acknowledgement is to the Triune Godhead.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are my all in all.  God created and sustains me.  Jesus took flesh upon Himself, provided the means of my reconciliation, went to the cross for my atonement, and was victorious over death, enabling me to live a new life.  As I look at Jesus, who is fully human and fully God, I see what God created me in God’s image to be like as well.  Likewise, I know that through Jesus, God fully experienced all the pains and sorrows of life that I experience, and more.  Through the Holy Spirit, God is making me new, drawing me into God’s new creation, and empowering me to be incarnational in the lost and broken world, extending to them the love, compassion, and reconciliation that Christ has extended to me.

I would not be who I am today without my family.  My grandparents, parents, sister, brothers, nieces and nephews all mean the world to me.  Thank you so much for who you are!  This is where I will mention my beloved canine companion, Natasha, as well.  I honestly do not know how I would maintain anything resembling sanity without the peace she brings to my life.  God truly created God’s creatures to live symbiotically together!  We humans need our animal companions.

From there, I must acknowledge my many friends from school growing up in Lander, from CWC and NNU, and those who I have met in other settings.  Adam, Tim, Kevin, Scott, Levi, Johnny, April, and so many more of you, thank you for being my friends over the years.  I owe a great deal of gratitude to John Bekken and Kelly Dehnert, two men that extended to me many opportunities to develop my musical knowledge and skills throughout high school and my first year of college.  Likewise, I must acknowledge Dr. Jim “Doc” Willis, who was the head of the Music Department at NNC/U when I attended on campus.  When I went through the darkest period of my life, Doc extended me opportunities that helped me to find a new focus.  And in connection with that, I should acknowledge my friends Jodi and John (and others), fellow NNU music majors, who helped me to recover from my darkness by extending to me their love and acceptance.

I no longer have any connection with them, by my coworkers at Merrill Lynch (my office job in Denver) meant the world to me.  Certainly, there were moments of frustration, but for the most part, I truly enjoyed going to work with those great people.  Also from the Denver stage of my life, I need to thank the youth pastor who mentored me, Shane Rayford, along with the senior pastor of that church at the time, Richard DuBose, the other adult sponsors, and the great teens I got to work with.  Our trip to California and back, along with other experiences I had as a part of Meadowbrook Church, will forever have fond places in my memory.

I do not know how I can begin to acknowledge all the dear people who were a part of my life in Casper.  Thank you so much, Tom and Cindy Lance, for extending me the opportunity to be a part of your church and family.  If you were one of my teens, whether when I was actually on staff or when I was a volunteer, thank you for letting me be a part of your life.  A special thank you goes to Joe Evans, who was both one of my students and one of my closest friends.  (And the other person who contributed to the recording of several songs I wrote something like 11 years ago.)  You were the one person with whom I shared most openly about another difficult period of my life.  Thank you for listening to me through all the tears!  And then there is my Pizza Hut family.  Thank you, Darrell Chambers and Barb Goff for extending me the opportunity to work with you.  Thank you, Kaci, Amanda, Tracie, Brad, Heather, James, and all the other wonderful people I worked with there.  You all mean more to me than I can ever say.  Beyond my “jobs”, I also want to extend a huge thanks to the many people I connected with through Casper College’s Baptist Collegiate Ministries.  Thank you, Josiah, Hilary, Steve, Nick, Rob, and many other people.  I may disagree with my Baptist friends on some theological matters, but I enjoyed our time together.

And that brings me to the Bitterroot.  Thank you, Pastor John, for inviting me to join your team!  Thank you, Jeremy, Angie, and all the Faust’s.  You moved too soon!  Your friendship means more to me . . . well, I suppose it’s getting old by now for me to say, but really, you mean more to me than I can ever say.  Sticking with the Capen clan, thank you Rob, Julie, and Krista for your support and always extending to me your wonderful hospitality.  Thank you, Allred’s, Weidkamp’s, O’Bannon’s, Widder’s, any anyone else whom I may have for gotten that has made me a part of their family at various times.  Another thank you to the Allred’s for joining me on many youth ministry adventures and loaning me your children for many movie adventures.  Thank you to all the other teens and parents who have been a part of my ministry in Victor.  And thank you to all the others who are a part of the BitNaz family: the Neville’s, the Lindsay’s, the House’s, the Herbert’s, the Gouin’s, and so many others.  It is a joy being a part of your church!

Thank you to my Church of the Nazarene family beyond the Bitterroot.  Thank you, Ken Osso, for being such a great friend and mentor!  Thank you, Mike Holien, Joe Arnold, Andy Maendl, and Loris & Denny Friesen, for your friendship and working alongside me in RMD NYI.  Thank you to all the many people who have participated in SuperCamp, REJOICE, Bible Quizzing, Nazarene Youth Conference, and other district youth events.  Thank you, Coach Bill Carr and Janet, for your leadership of our district and allowing me to be a part of it.  Thank you to all the members of the Ministerial Credentials Board for your support and encouragement.  Thank you to Rich Vasquez and the Northwest Field NYI team.  I love working with you all!  Thank you, Dr. Joe Gorman and everyone else who is a part of NNU’s School of Theology and Christian Ministries for your support, patience, encouragement, and all the grace you have extended me through my ups and downs.

I know that I’m missing people.  But again, if we have ever met, in whatever capacity, I extend my thanks to you.  I would not be who I am today without the role you played in my life.

Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

What Is Holiness?

I wrote the following for a case study assignment in my Ministry Capstone class.  There is certainly more that can and should be included, but this fit the parameters of the assignment.  If anyone wants to explore the Wesleyan / Nazarene perspective of holiness further, I highly recommend the book Discovering Christian Holiness by Dr. Diane Leclerc.

Simply put, holiness is the restoration of our full humanity.  As we are made holy, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to love God fully with our hearts, souls, and minds and our neighbors as ourselves.  This love restores us to how God created us and compels us to be people of compassion and justice.

Contrary to what people often think, it is not human nature to be selfish.  This is not how God created us.  Genesis 1:27 says, “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”  As beings created in God’s image, our nature is to be holy, just as God is holy.  Selfishness is the antithesis of how God created us.  This selfish nature is the result of the brokenness that has gripped humanity since the Fall, but it is not humanity in its true nature.

Because of the Fall, brokenness has become the reality of human existence.  Each person is at odds with each other, God, nature, and even themselves.  Holiness brings restoration to brokenness, though, and those fractured relationships are restored.  This restoration cannot be earned.  It comes through grace.  Prevenient grace draws us to God, saving grace restores our relationship with God, and sanctifying grace renews the image of God in us.  This grace is freely available to those who choose to respond to it.  This response, though, is not a work that people do.  Rather, it is an acceptance of the work that Christ already did in His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Once a person makes a decision to live as a follower of Christ, he or she gains access to the Holy Spirit.  Jesus told His disciples, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth.  He won’t speak on his own, but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come” (John 16:13).  Paul explains, “People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit” (Romans 8:5).  The Holy Spirit transforms the way that people lived under brokenness and empowers them to live as God created them to live.

The best way to understand the created nature of humanity is to look at Christ.  In the incarnation, God is revealed to humanity in the clearest possible way that humanity can perceive.  “In these final days, though, [God] spoke to us through a Son . . . The Son is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:2-3).  Even more than revealing God to us, though, because Jesus is both fully human and fully God, Jesus reveals to us the way that humanity was meant to live as beings created in God’s image.  People can look at Jesus and see how God intended them to live.  “I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do” (John 13:15).

Our calling to be holy, to be like Jesus, is most fully realized in Jesus’ commandment to love.  He told His disciples, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other.  Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other” (John 13:34).  Likewise, Jesus explained to one of the religious leaders in His day that love is the essence of all that the Jews had been commanded in the Hebrew Scriptures.  “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind . . . You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).  Jesus explains that our completeness, our holiness, is made known in our love for others.  And we are not called to love just those who are our friends, neighbors, and family.  We are even called to love our enemies.  “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you . . . If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?  Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? . . . Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:44, 46, 48).

We are conformed to Christ’s image, we are made holy, partially through the means of grace.  These means include the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.  They also include spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, meditation, fasting, solitude, and simplicity.  As we step away from the noises and distractions of the world that surround us and focus on God’s gentle voice, we draw closer to Christ and are shaped into the sort of people that He would have us be.  It is good to do good things, but we also need to take time to just sit at the feet of Jesus.  Being in His presence, as the spiritual disciplines lead us, helps to shape us, just as it did Mary, the sister of Martha.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  One thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the better part.  It won’t be taken from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

Though we are conformed to Christ’s image through the means of grace, being conformed to Christ’s image will lead us to become people of compassion and justice.  Compassion and justice were primary themes of Jesus’ ministry.  Upon beginning His ministry, He gave the following sermon in His hometown: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.  He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’ . . . Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it” (Luke 4:18-20).  Jesus calls us, too, to join him in this ministry of compassion and justice: “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat.  I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear.  I was sick and you took care of me.  I was in prison and you visited me . . . I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).

Holiness, then, is being conformed to Christ’s image.  That conformity comes through grace, and it restores us to our true humanity.  When our humanity is restored, we will be people who live following the example of Christ and showing His love and compassion to the lost and broken world.  As the Holy Spirit works in and through us, the Kingdom of God will be expanded, and God will be all in all.

Joining Christ In His Incarnational Mission

I love the incarnation!  To think that the immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing God who created the entire cosmos in its vastness loves our broken species enough to take it upon Himself and walk alongside us on our tiny planet blows my mind!  Those who came before Jesus’ incarnation were at a disadvantage.  Though God spoke “through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways” (Hebrews 1:1), they did not have the advantage of actually having God-in-the-Flesh to look at.  We are so privileged today!  We have the stories of Jesus’ life contained in Scripture as an example to us of how God intends us to live, and we have access to the Holy Spirit, who enables us to be restored to God’s image and actually live out that life.

Today’s Epistle Reading from the Ashes to Fire devotional highlights another important aspect of the incarnation.  The full reading is Hebrews 2:11-18, but I want to focus in on verse 17: “Therefore, he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way.  This was so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, in order to wipe away the sins of the people.”  Did you get that?  Jesus had to be made like us so that He could become merciful.  The Message paraphrase puts verses 17-18 like this: “That’s why he had to enter into every detail of human life.  Then, when he came before God as high priest to get rid of the people’s sins, he would have already experienced it all himself—all the pain, all the testing—and would be able to help where help was needed.”

This passage highlights an aspect of the incarnation that might not be as obvious to us as the aspect of revealing God to humanity.  Yes, in the incarnation, God is made known to humanity in the clearest possible way that humanity can understand.  And yes, in the incarnation, we can look at Jesus and see what it means to live life as a creature created in God’s image.  But even further, the incarnation enabled God to fully connect with the plight of humanity.  Through Jesus’ sufferings, the brokenness of humanity was fully experienced by God.  As such, we can be assured that God truly does understand all of our troubles, and we can be confident in God’s offer of redemption and restoration.

The incarnation is not just Jesus’ calling, though.  Prior to sharing with the Philippians the Christ hymn, which contains a beautiful explanation of the incarnation, Paul tells them, “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.  Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.  Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5).  Just as Jesus took upon Himself humanity that we might know God better through Him, so too are we called to reach out to the broken world, that they might come to know God through Christ being revealed in us.

Being incarnational is about so much more than inviting people to church.  Rather than expect them to come to where we are, we need to go to where they are.  We need to experience life as they experience it.  We need to walk alongside them in their context.  As we do so, we will come to know their situations better, and we will be better equipped to represent Christ to them.

During this season leading up to Easter, let us commit ourselves to being Christ to the broken world.  May we represent God in all of our interactions with others, and may we seek out others in their brokenness, just as Christ sought us out.