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When Clergy Leave a Denomination

It seems like a lot of pastors are leaving one denomination for another these days. The exodus isn’t limited to any specific denomination but this phenomena is somewhat new to my tribe, the Church of the Nazarene. It is probably magnified by the availability of social media as a tool for “making an exit”. While it may be an over-generalization, the exiting clergy are younger, seminary-educated, and mostly white. Their reasons are more complex than I can address in a single blog. However, I had one of those “ah-ha” moments recently that opened me to think in different ways about this.

I am indebted to Harold Ivan Smith, Shawna Songer Gaines, Michael Christenson, and Tim Green for tipping over the first domino in this meandering trail of thought. In other words, we are headed to the topic mentioned above but will take a few detours to get there. We were hosting a webinar a few weeks ago on “When Prosperity Gospel Complicates Thorough Bereaving”. I highly recommend it. (Free People Size 6 Blue Purple Sequin Siren Mini Dress Ruffle Ti)  Harold Ivan presented an excellent paper addressing the death of several leaders in the prosperity gospel movement in America, and how their death unsettled the faith of their followers (who believed in healing formulae, name-it-and-claim-it faith pronouncements, and other practices). When your preacher says that “God is bigger than COVID” and “COVID won’t keep us from worshipping together”, and then dies from COVID, what do you do? The paper was not a critique of prosperity gospel theology but rather an attempt to address the unsettledness of a life-altering, faith-altering loss.

The discussion led to Pastor Shawna and Psychologist Michael talking about the folly of trying to correct someone’s theology in a funeral sermon or in grief counseling. To confront what someone has deeply believed in the context of loss, may do even worse damage. Following the death of their leaders, many prosperity gospel proponents actually doubled down on their faith, taking a defensive posture when challenged by “another theology”. The wiser pastoral move may be to recognize that someone is grieving, and potentially in one of the early Kubler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, or depression. A more pastoral approach, rather than correcting their theology or critiquing their assumptions, may be to ask leading questions, offer silent presence, and to listen carefully… at least in the moment.

This got me to thinking about a lot of other grief that we are facing in our congregations: people whose nationalist faith believes that Trump was the God-ordained president, people who detect the collapse of white dominance in the face of racist awareness, people who fear the demise of law and order, people who have no categories for the sexual orientation discussion going on, people who react to the black church revival of woke language, people who champion gay marriage, people who watch too much slanted news, people who have bought into conspiracy theories. And the list goes on, and on, and on.

Over the past two years, there has been sufficient upheaval in our culture to unsettle the faith of people whose world has not turned out as their faith wished it to. In reaction to this “loss”, there is deep grief. People are in denial, thus the openness to conspiracy theories, fake news, alternate expressions of the truth, and huddling with like-minded folk. People are angry, thus the octane of social media posts, shaming, attacking leaders, and demanding consent. People are bargaining with the leaders of churches, denominations, colleges, businesses, etc. to “see it my way or watch the door close behind me on my way out”. People are depressed and it is showing up in lethargy, absence, loss of passion, resignation, and suicide.

Sadly, many leaders have assumed that these divisive issues can be corrected by head-on sermons, blog-critiques, debates, and social media posts. I have certainly taken my sermonic shots at correcting bad theology… and then wondered why people grew even more defensive of their position rather than discovering new truth. I am beginning to realize that they are grieving. The process of having your faith shattered does not immediately open you to a new theological foundation for your life. Maybe we need to intentionally sit with people longer in their grief before we start dismantling their faulty faith propositions.

Which leads me, finally, to pastors leaving denominations. Again, the issues are more complex than this simple blog, but maybe there is a connection to grief. Young theologians/pastors come fresh from an exciting education declaring a gospel that can turn the world upside down. I was that young pastor once. Imagine, along with me, that same young pastor today. For seven educational years, he/she lived in the context of thinking and studying daily the kingdom of God and the person of Christ. The church is created in their mind and heart before the first paycheck is drawn from a local congregation. She/he has powerful tools of ministry – preaching, holy conversation, writing, reading the saints, public prayer. In a world of podcasts, he/she is exposed daily to thinkers and practitioners who are leading the church into newness. As this pastor encounters a world of prosperity gospel, racist systems, sexual confusion, Christian nationalism, religious power addiction, conspiracy theory, and whatever else, the pastor is sure that he/she can preach, talk, and write their way to changing minds. When opposition arises, she/he just gets louder, assured that their rightness will be vindicated by God in the caving of resistance. What the pastor never imagines is that they are giving their people, who are grieving the unsettling of their own faith, ample practice at denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. After a few years of doing this, the pastor begins to experience the loss of theological hopes and dreams. The pastor slowly enters the world of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. The pastor is grieving a loss and does not know what to name it.

I see signs of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression in the attempts of clergy to change their denomination by posting in social media. As this is resisted, the final act of courage seems to be an announced exit from the church they could not change. And, yes, sometimes we need to walk away.

Please hear me, bad theology needs correcting. Social issues need careful Biblical thinking. The church has plenty personal and corporate sin. This is not a defense of “hanging in there”, “mouthing the company mantra”, or “ignoring the elephant in the room”. Change is needed. But what I am suggesting is that we need to recognize the grief existing among us, whether we know it or not. We need pastors who can name the grief and live into it with our people. The loss of a collapsing faith is a necessary part of the journey toward the last phase of grief – acceptance. Only then is there an openness to considering the gospel in new light.

The pastor who walks someone through his or her grief may be the person trusted to help rebuild faith. And, rather than championing a solution to bad church theology via posting, posturing, and preaching, we might start seeing people through eyes that love the grieving, even when they don’t know they’re grieving. I suppose what I am suggesting is that pastors (those who can grasp this), stay and do the hard grief work among their people rather than leaving. There are exits that make sense. But there are also exits that are trying to short-circuit grief.

With no shame toward any, eyes open to grieve my own church, and love for the people of God, I humbly offer these thoughts.

Blessings,

Dan Boone

Footnote: The Lily Foundation has identified a concerning pattern of young pastors leaving the ministry (not just moving to a different denomination) in the first 5 years of congregational service. They established a grant which Trevecca Nazarene University applied for and received. Over the coming 5 years, Trevecca will be engaging with young clergy in three pastoral settings: small congregations under 100, diverse congregations, and church plants. The aim of this program is to serve pastors in ways that enable them to sustain their calling. Dr. Mary Smitt is the leader of Thriving in Ministry. 

Commencement, COVID, and Moses

Remarks given at Trevecca Nazarene University Commencement on May 7 and May 8, 2021.

I’ve found a close friend in the Old Testament character Moses. God gave him a job that he didn’t feel qualified for. He told Moses from the bowels of a burning bush, “Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go.” Moses tried his best to get out of the assignment, making all kind of excuses to God. But in the end, Moses surrendered to the call. But he did ask one essential question. “And when Pharaoh asks who sent me, what do I say?” God gave him an interesting answer. “Tell Pharaoh that the conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ has sent you”. Now that’s not exactly what our Bibles say, but it is what it means. The name that God gave Moses was Yahweh, or ‘the one who was and is and will be’. Or to put it another way, tell Pharaoh that the one who has always been present, who is now present, and who will always be present has sent you. At the core of Moses’ work is a God known by presence.

So Moses goes, does as God asked, and by mighty miracles delivers an enslaved people from Egypt. Had I been Moses, I would wanted to have taken my curtain call on the other side of the Red Sea and walked off into the sunset. Not so with Moses. His toughest challenges were still ahead. 40 years of wandering in a wilderness not equipped to support a traveling band of nomads. They needed water, food, encampment, social order, medicine, wise ears to hear their disagreements, and a leader who could stomach their constant griping. 

This is why Moses has become my dear friend. Leading a university through a year of COVID is a lot like leading the Israelites through the wilderness. Providing education for 4000 people when ‘gathering’ is compromised requires resources and skills that aren’t simple. And did you know that humans have different opinions about masks and social distancing and safety protocols? About whether you go face to face or stay remote, whether you open up sports competition or don’t, and whether you get vaccinated or don’t. Like Moses, I’ve learned that you can’t please everybody. And 40 years in the COVID wilderness tests the fabric of any community. For all of us, this has been a wearying year. I think I understand why Moses hit the rock.  

But in the text that was read today, things have reached a tipping point. The people have wearied of the wilderness and turned against God. They fashioned for themselves a new handmade god, a golden calf. And when Moses returns to camp he finds them dancing around the god and worshipping it. Moses is done with them. And it seems that God is too. Listen to Moses’ language – “these people that you gave me”. Not my people but your people. Moses is ready to wash his hands and walk away. And God seems ready to do the same. God will just start over again with Moses. “My presence will go with you Moses (singular) and I will give you rest”. God is telling Moses that he will start all over with him and create a people. These people can just die in the desert. If they want to follow a golden calf, they are free to. At this point, we find one of the most powerful divine-human exchanges in all of scripture. Moses contemplates the reality of existence without the presence of God and says this: “If your presence does not go with us (plural), do not lead us forward from here. For how else will it be known that we have found favor in your sight? Your presence is what distinguishes us from all the peoples on the earth.”

Did you get that? The presence of God is what makes us the people of God. Presence is our uniqueness. This is why this God became flesh and dwelt among us. This is why this God says, “I will not leave you or forsake you”. This is why this God says, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age”.  This is why our scriptures end in Revelation with God announcing, “My home is among you. I will dwell with you and be your God and you will be my people”. 

Commencements are high moments of platitude. Go make your mark. Go stand out. Go make a difference. Go succeed. Go show the world that you are unique. Go be what no one has ever been before. Go prove that you are better than everybody else. 

I don’t know about all of that. I think it may be too much for a fragile human to shoulder as a life expectation. Because even Moses, when given the choice to be an exalted individual or to travel through the wilderness in community, chose to petition God to “go with us, be present in us and through us”. I think the option is clear. We can build our own golden calf god and go it alone. Or, we can live in messy community and reflect the image of God.

Maybe the uniqueness that the world most needs to see today is not the lone individual making their distinctive mark but people who travel in communities of witness. My deep belief is that the presence of God is the glue that holds us together. 

You are seeing the same thing I am seeing – the unraveling of our social fabric. We are splintering into tribes: Republican/Democrat, black/white, rich/poor, mask/no mask, vaccine/no vaccine, for/against. Our culture is legitimizing the cancellation of people who think differently than we do. Tribes are powering up on each other. Enemy-making has become the sport of social media. Shaming our fellow humans has become the art of excluding them. Like a people wandering in a wilderness not equipped to sustain thriving life, we are turning on each other, fashioning our golden calves, and declaring that we will not travel with “those people”.  

David Brooks, NY Times columnist, writes about simple people who live in communities where they work with their neighbors to address to address human needs – needs like child care, mentoring teens, supporting special needs children, helping a single mother, preparing food, loving the elderly. He calls these people weavers because they are binding neighbors together around human need. They are the presence of God in their space. 

My dream for Trevecca, and my daily practice as its president, is that this place be a place where the presence of God makes a distinct difference in how we do life together. I aspire to form the kind of community that the world needs us to export through our graduates. We will have the hard conversations, ask the tough questions, air our differences, debate our findings and theories but not in a way that divides us. We are all made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect. We will speak to each other with grace and kindness. We will talk face to face about differences rather than launching drive-by bloggings stained with shame. We will see each other as neighbor rather than enemy. We will sacrifice our personal preference for the common good. We will lay down our life for our brother and sister. We will use any power that we have to serve those who have less and to help them stand on their feet. And in living this way, we will be weavers, a unique community in a bitterly divided world. But we are not capable of this on our own. It is the presence of God among us that empowers us to be uniquely neighborly. 

So I charge you, the graduating class of 2021 to move into your world as an expression of the presence of a God who creates communities of respect, reconciliation, peace, justice, and grace. Be the God-filled glue that allows people to come together in all their differences. Be weavers of a human tapestry in your work and neighborhood. Find your way into relationships that are messy and challenging. Stand in the middle of the people and call them to dignity.

A few weeks ago, a 3-year-old girl was killed by gun violence in North Nashville. As I watched the coverage, I saw a mother from that community rise to call her neighborhood, her people, her community to deep repentance. It was not shaming or enemy-making but the plea of a woman who wants her community to be a place where little children can grow up and thrive. She named the irresponsible behaviors. She called on everyone to step up. People like her are what the world needs right now. Will you be that person for a community yet to be formed around you?

On MLK Day

I’m reading John Meacham’s book, His Truth is Marching On. It is the story of John Lewis, U.S. Congressman from Georgia and Civil Rights leader. His commitment to nonviolence in the pursuit of human dignity rises from the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The gospel story of Jesus forms and shapes a moment calling for change in America.  

Lewis studied at American Baptist College in Nashville in the late 1950s. This same college was a temporary home for Trevecca in the early ’40s when we had no campus and little prospects of a future. While a student there, Lewis became a leader in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins and was beaten and arrested. He wrote the following “rules” for his fellow nonviolent protesters.  

  • “Don’t strike back or curse back if abused. 
  • Don’t laugh out loud. 
  • Don’t hold conversations with floor workers. 
  • Don’t leave your seats until your leader has given you instruction to do so.  
  • Don’t block entrances to the store and aisles. 
  • Be friendly and courteous at all times. 
  • Sit straight and always face the counter. 
  • Report all serious incidents to your leader. Refer all information to your leader in a polite manner. 
  • Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King. 
  • Remember love and nonviolence, may God bless each of you.” 

As the protestors sat at the segregated lunch counters, angry white responders poured hot coffee on them, burned them with cigarettes, punched them, spit on them, cursed them, and threatened them. When police arrived, they arrested the people sitting quietly at the counters, taking them to jail for disturbing the peace and inciting violence. They found in their suffering a fellowship with Jesus, who was arrested in a garden and eventually charged with political insurrection because he was “no friend of Caesar’s.”  

I wonder if evangelical Christians today need to sit at the feet of the early Civil Rights leaders. While our situation is different from theirs on many levels, we may need to revisit the Sermon on the Mount to find the courage embedded in a nonviolent response. The Sermon on the Mount may extricate us from the pagan beliefs that have infiltrated our faith. We have been infected by belief in American exceptionalism, the idea that we are, like Israel, God’s chosen favorites among the nations. We have been infected by Christian nationalism, the merger of political power and faith in a way that justifies any response to the opposition. We have been infected by the pursuit of political power on the right and left, suggesting that this is the ultimate victory and is synonymous with the kingdom of God coming to earth. All of these are about winning, gaining power, and crushing opposition. 

If Jesus walked among us today, I wonder if he would recognize us as his followers. Do we bless when persecuted, mourn for our world, hunger and thirst for God to set things right, pray for those who curse us, turn the other cheek, love the enemy, walk the second mile, deal with the beam in our own eye, perform our righteous deeds in secret, reconcile with our brother/sister, seek first the kingdom of God, refrain from judging, walk the narrow road, bear good fruit, and build our house on the solid rock? Can we accept social media bashing without responding unkindly? Can we accept the suffering of being lumped and labeled with others who do not represent us? Can we speak truth that meets the standard of God’s truth? Can we love our enemies? Can we suffer and lose with joyful hope in God? Can we lament our own complicity in the condition of our culture without pointing fingers at everybody else? Can we stop being defensive and strategize reconciliation?  Can we live the radically different life of love that marks us as children of our Father in heaven?

As I read Meacham’s biography of John Lewis, I am reminded that the kingdom of God takes shape in the flesh and blood followers of Jesus. On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I habitually read King’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.” This year I plan to add Matthew 5-7. I find myself longing to be identified as a follower of Jesus, not a person consumed by a political posture.

With great grace upon all,
Dan Boone

The Gift of 2020

I usually work my way through things by writing.

This practice forces me to gather the experiences of my body, stroll them through my brain, and force them down my arms into my fingers, making computer keys create a screen image of what I am thinking, feeling and living. I have written very few reflections or thoughts about 2020. I’ve just been absorbing it. 

The self-centered individualist tendencies we are born with cause us to do whatever it takes to fix the things that trouble us most. We tend to think primarily about ourselves. Even with a robust experience of the sanctifying grace of God, which redeems us from self-centeredness and restores us in the likeness of Jesus, I must admit that the old self still screams loudly when life gets complicated. I’ve struggled with this, as have many of my Christian friends whose posts and blogs reveal more than they might admit.

There has been a lot of self-protection: my stimulus check, my candidate, my read on the election, my mask rights, my conspiracy theories, my racial thoughts, my tribe, my government critique, my opinion about worship gatherings, my pro/con vaccine theory, my tribe. The old self still screams loudly when life gets complicated.

In many ways, Trevecca has been God’s gift to me through this pandemic. The weight of caring for employees and 4,000 students has gotten me up every morning with work to do. This work has been humbling because fixing a pandemic is far beyond my human capacity. I’m reminded of something that Anne Lamott once said about prayer … that life boils your long-winded prayers down to one simple expression: “Help me, help me, help me. Thank You, thank You, thank You.”

I don’t feel very profound as a college president these days. But I do feel grateful. 

My family has a motto: “Life is wrapped up in who we loved, who loved us, and what we built together.” This motto has little room for self-absorption because love lifts us out of our tiny controlled kingdoms and enmeshes us in the lives of others. At the core of the faith that has been handed down to me is the belief that humans are made in the image of God, capable of loving relationships that build families and friendships, which become communities of worship, caring, and service, which enable institutions, economies, and governments to function for the common good. It begins with the recognition that we are radically loved by God in ways we have never deserved. As the beloved of God, we are enabled to love others—or we can just sink into self and get all we can get. If we love and belong to communities that love us back, we find the capacity to build something. Denise and I have spent our lives loving our family and friends, being loved back by them, and trying to build something together—a church, a college, a city, a world. 

That’s why Trevecca Nazarene University has been God’s gift to me through the 2020 pandemic. We are building something together that matters. And our strength comes from being loved by God. Now I don’t want to avoid the stark realities of this pandemic and all the challenges it has brought our community.  We’ve had our fair share of tests, twists and turns. This is why from the very beginning we rooted our response to the pandemic in the upward call to love our neighbor. You cannot do this and be preoccupied with self or convenience. It’s also why we decided to face the pandemic with a community covenant rather than a regulatory penalty system. As a university that is committed to maturing whole persons rather than backfilling individual brains, we see this moment in time as a character formation opportunity.

Let me testify to the strength and character of the people I am privileged to serve. We asked our employees and cabinet members to make financial sacrifices in their personal and professional lives by changing departmental budgets during the pandemic. To date, not one single complaint. We ran a clinic, tested students, contact traced and quarantined our way through fall semester while offering the option of face-to-face or remote for almost every class. Our student leaders took on the task of creating a culture of protocol compliance while keeping campus life as active as possible. The character they demonstrated gives me hope for our future world. A task force met weekly under the direction of a selfless provost and each member brought their best to the table for the sake of the community. We laughed together, grieved together and worked tirelessly together. A team of people in our finance office worked to distribute government funds to our neediest students, to establish an equitable refund for spring room and board and to keep students on track to graduation. Our leaders came together to provide free online instruction for 20,000-plus K-12 teachers, teaching them the tools and technologies of remote instruction. They also created a website to help parents of remote-learning students. A board of trustees demonstrated compassion, lent wisdom, and kept us on mission. A group of campus leaders hunkered down and gave serious thought to what we look like on the other side of the pandemic, resulting in new programs, new facilities, and stronger community partners. We worked with our sponsoring denomination and a local friend to provide emergency funding to DACA students whose families had lost jobs, needed food, and could not pay their rent. We housed and fed international students who could not return to their homes over the Christmas break. I do not say these things to inflate egos. I love these people and I pray that they recognize they have sown seeds that will enlarge their souls, connecting them with their friends and neighbors in eternal ways, building something that matters.  

Being in the middle of all this has been my salvation from shrinking into my own fearful skin, becoming smaller and missing the gift of 2020. Because life is wrapped up in who you love, who loved you, and what you built together.

Christian Choices for a Son of the South

Do I vote red or blue? Do I stand with the fearful “religious” right or the angry “liberal” left? Do I get my daily dose of reality from Fox News or CNN? Do I listen to Candace Owens or Black Lives Matter? Do I speak out or keep silent?

Choices. The heat of this day seems to demand a choice. Pick your side.

I cannot erase my own past. I am a son of the South who grew up in Mississippi during the days of Elvis, Martin Luther King and Archie Manning. My high school was integrated my junior year. Keith Moses and Darryl Nobles were my first African American classmates. Our high school principal, Julian Prince, took quite a public pounding.  He reflects on those years in his book Balancing the Scales: A Turbulent Age of Mississippi History During School Integration. His experience is summarized in this Associated Press article.

I also grew up in a holiness denomination, the Church of the Nazarene. While the Bible was the book we memorized and quoted, our interpretation of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus never led us to civil rights protests. It did keep us from the cruelty and violence of the KKK.  And it did introduce compassion and civility to interracial relationships. Not enough for today, but quite radical for the culture of the 1960s.

Many who are reading this post grew up in a very different world than I did. I’m not writing to you. If I were, I would start at a different place. If you’d like to understand where my reflection comes from, two readings will give you a deeper look. One is a Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper article recommended to me by Andy, my Mississippi cousin who is now a New Testament scholar and champion of racial reconciliation. Read it ErgoWear EW1084 FEEL GR8 Thongs Color Night Blue.

The other is an article by Rod Dreher, another fellow Son of the South, which you can read here. On this given day, I woke up, read these two articles and then listened to a phenomenal sermon by our pastor on the story of Barnabas, the son of encouragement whose Pentecost experience led him to share his wealth with the needy of Jerusalem. My mind is in a highly reflective gear this morning. I am trying to connect my past to the present.

The temptation of many Christian sons of the South is to pull a few examples from our memory and use them as proof that we were not then, nor are we now, racist. I have some of those stories. I’ll spare you. This kind of defensive posturing is not helpful. Rather, I find myself wrestling with a haunting feeling, possibly a mixture of shame and guilt, that “good Christian people like us” did not do more back then—or since then. As I watch the apologies of whites to blacks, I hear many defenses from those who choose not to say “I’m sorry.” Their statement, “I didn’t do anything wrong and I have nothing to apologize for,” seems to be the end of the matter for them. I understand where this comes from. In the South, you could demonstrate personal morality of the highest order and still do nothing about social sin. We were taught to own up to what we had personally done, to take responsibility for our behavior. It was a mark of maturity. You take your licks, not someone else’s.

But southern culture never taught us the meaning of corporate sin. It would take a move of God to bring us to our knees in confession of our cultural sins. It would take the Christ who was essentially lynched for the sin of all to convince us that we too are stained by the sin of humanity.

Why have I apologized to my black friends? Because Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us OUR trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespassed against us.” This prayer recognizes that sin is much larger than what I have done individually. This prayer recognizes that I pray as a member of the human race, even as a son of the South. Sin is present in political systems, power bases, self-promoting cultures and human valuing. In the same way that I pray for God to forgive our nation for aborting an unborn life or warehousing the elderly poor or incarcerating the traumatized child, I pray for God to forgive us for the sin of racism. And if I can utter that prayer to God, why not express the same confession to my black brother? Christians confess on behalf of the world that we live in. Confession begins in the house of the Lord and then goes out looking to right the wrong in the wider world.

My concern for today is that the current octane of anger will not achieve the kind of just, reconciled, merciful society that the kingdom of God imagines. If raw anger were a vaccine for racial injustice, the world would be cured. Many think we have two options regarding our anger: act it out or swallow it down whole. Speak up or shut up.

The first destroys others, the second destroys its carrier. The practice of corporate confession of sin suggests a third option: we take it to God. By taking our anger, our feelings, our emotions, our memories, our prejudices, our cultures to God and confessing them openly and honestly, a miracle occurs. God is the only demolition expert I know who can take the octane of raw anger and transform it into righteous energy.

In this present moment in our history, this righteous energy in the predominantly white church must be focused on working to change polices that deny justice to our Black brothers and sisters. If we cannot say publicly that black lives have not mattered in this society—certainly not as much as white lives—and take concrete steps to repair this breach, we have stopped short of anything that can be called a gospel response. Without this, I think any talk of reconciliation/peace is an illusion. Nothing will change. I think this is how most African-American churches in this country will see it because they know that in the biblical tradition justice and peace are joined at the hip.

So what is my role in all of this? In 1 Peter 2:9, the people of God are called a royal priesthood. The role of a priest is to bear the sins of the people to God and to offer the same people the forgiveness of God for their sins. My anger over racial injustice leads me to confession on behalf of the human race that I belong to. I cannot separate myself from my fellow sons of the South but I can certainly be a priest in prayer for them/us. Then I can work for righteous action.

Could I be wrong? I certainly am. I will never see perfectly in this complexity. “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13: 9-13 NRSV)

Now there’s a choice I can make.


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Racism and Rooftop Experiences

Imagine that you are Simon Peter, the Jewish zealot, on the Day of Pentecost.

Everything you have learned from your religious roots suggests that the covenant between God and humans requires one to become a Jew to experience the acceptance of God. Your culture has engrained within you the privilege of Jewishness. Some of this, you understand about yourself. Some of this is beyond your self-knowledge. For you, all non-Jews, people not-like-you, are in a different category. You call them all “Gentiles”, which is also a synonym for “sinner”. They are outsiders, unclean persons, profane reprobates. Their only path to salvation is to become what you already are, a Jew.

And then, on the Day of Pentecost, a fine Jewish feast, a miracle of speaking and hearing occurs.  You are among your fellow Jews from all over the known world and suddenly, fire falls from heaven. Little shoots of fire rest on human heads. The Jews in the room, including you, begin to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus. But the languages being spoken/heard are not the typical Jewish languages but rather the languages of the Gentiles. The upper room sounds like an assembly of nations with one exception. Interpreters are not needed.

You are the public spokesperson for this strange event. You convince the amazed spectators that these people are not drunk, but rather, are filled with the Holy Spirit. You liken this to the promise of the prophet Joel and connect it to the promise of the crucified, risen Jesus.

And a movement of repentance ensues.  

A while later, on a preaching mission, you find yourself on a rooftop in Joppa praying. You fall into a trance. A divine voice commands you to kill and eat unclean animals, food that you have always religiously avoided. You protest. You have never eaten unclean animals. The voice challenges your characterization of this food: “What God has called clean, you must not call unclean.” You are puzzled as to what this is about. As you sit on the roof contemplating this strange command, three Gentiles show up in front of the house. They are calling your name. The Holy Spirit tells you that these are God-sent messengers and you are to go with them. You learn that these men are servants of a Gentile named Cornelius. God had appeared to him, given him your location in Joppa, and told him to listen to whatever you had to say. So you travel with them to his home, share the message of Jesus, and witness the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles gathered in Cornelius’ home … in the same way that the Spirit had been given to the Jews gathered in the upper room.

Something transforming is happening inside you as you begin to understand these strange experiences—Gentile languages used to declare the resurrection of Jesus, divine voices declaring the unclean food clean, the Holy Spirit given to Gentiles just as the Holy Spirit was given to Jews. Your world, your cultural understandings, your exclusions and inclusions, your prejudices are all turned upside down. You utter the words that you never thought a Jew like you would say, “I now understand that God shows no partiality.”

Imagine that you are white, on the day that George Floyd was murdered.

If it required the miracle of Pentecost to open one of Jesus’ closest followers to the reality that God cherishes every life equally, that Jesus died for every person equally, that the invitation to life is issued to every person equally, and that God is not partial to any race—what is needed for you to become part of the solution to the deeply entrenched sin of racism?

The Holy Spirit reveals to us our sin, our prejudice, our racism, our cultural blind spots, our exclusiveness, and all our stubborn categorizations. Where a lost world hardens us in these practices, God’s Spirit softens us. If we resist the Spirit, our hearts get harder, our eyes get blinder, our ears get deafer, and our categories get smaller.

As the Spirit-filled followers of Jesus, we have work to do in a world of brutality, murder, and racism. To be empowered for this work, sanctification is required. God’s love drives out sin and fills us with the power of reconciling love. The Holy Spirit compels us to go into the world as servants of the humble Jesus.

Observing humans, I have seen very few of us experience deep change because of shame, angry blaming, social media ranting, or even threat. These tactics only harden us in our defensiveness. While we work in the public square for justice, reconciliation, and peace, we believe the human heart is the original site of the racism that takes shape in institutions, policies, and cultures. If we are to be like Jesus, it begins with the work of the Holy Spirit in the core of our being. There, we confess that we are blind to our own blindness, needing the Holy Spirit to show us who we are, and to help us repent, and to forgive us. Only then, are we forgiven, enlightened, and empowered, as was Simon Peter, to become the difference this world needs.

Peter could have taken a defensive, religious posture that day on the roof. And he would have missed the miracle that God was up to. As we reflect on Pentecost, it is right for us to humbly ask, “What is God saying to me in the death of George Floyd?”

Postscript

I have found it hard to write about this. I’m not sure that another white institutional voice is what the world needs. I have tried to amplify other voices. One that I admire is a recent Trevecca graduate, Jeremiah Eliphaz Wright. Another is a reflection by Christine Youn Hung.

And finally, on Facebook, I recently shared an experience written by Deltha Katherine Harbin and a reflection from police officer Bobby Sr Walker.

Hedge Religion

I’m not sure I’ve ever lived in a time like this. A tornado ripped through our state leaving death, injury, and destruction. A COVID-19 virus has found its way to our neighborhood. A stock market plunge is rearranging our economy. Human contact is on hold. Health care systems are overwhelmed. The elderly are afraid. College students are at home, taking classes online. Small businesses are counting the cash on hand which will determine employment for real people.

Across the years, I’ve been in the trenches where humans deal with darkness. And the haunting thing about these trenches is the questioning that comes.

  • Why does a virus create such fear?
  • Why can’t someone find a cure?
  • How do we cope with human isolation?
  • Why do the elderly have to die alone, separated from those who have loved them their whole lives?
  • Why did the tornado take the path it did?
  • Why was a whole family swept away?
  • Why did my friend, my loved one, die?

We all have our questions. You have yours, I have mine. We are wired to want answers. God made us this way. It’s why books about suffering become best sellers:                 

  • When Bad Things Happen to Good People
  • Where is God When It Hurts
  • When God Doesn’t Make Sense
  • The Problem with Pain.

Many of us who are followers of God wish there were simple answers because we’ve been cornered by doubters who nail us with their questions:

  • Why does God?
  • How can God?
  • Where was God?

And we cannot explain why. We float our guesses, but it doesn’t stop the questions. Nor does God pipe in with much help. There is an awkward silence.

Suffering strips away the veneer of life. We learn that we are not as secure as we thought. Suffering changes the way we see the world, and it shatters certain kinds of faith. We talk about God, or don’t talk about God, in ways different from before.

Job understands. If you come to his story wanting simple answers, prepare to be disappointed. God is silent for most of the book. God will speak in the end … though not convincingly enough to settle the matter. We mutter our questions in the dark … because we face a terrifying power, a wind we could not direct or control, a disease we can’t take a pill to cure. These forces blew through our protective hedges and are obliterating everything in their path.  

That’s what happened to Job. A whirlwind came crashing down on him. According to the story, it was God who moved the protective hedge and let it happen.

The story begins with God bragging about Job—upright, blameless, devout, the greatest man among the people of the East, a righteous man. This is Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and Saint Francis of Assisi all rolled into one. This is not just a nice guy; this is the most righteous man on all the earth. And God is the one saying all these good things about him.

God said to Satan, “Have you noticed my friend Job? There’s no one quite like him—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil.”

Satan retorted, “So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart? Why, no one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does—he can’t lose! But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.”

God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him.”


Then Satan left the presence of God.

(Job 1:8-12, The Message)

God accepts Satan’s challenge. I’m not sure I’d want God betting on me. But God believes Job’s righteousness is deeper than trinkets and treasures. God decides to give Job the terrible dignity of proving that his integrity runs deeper than what he gets from God. Right off the bat we are given to understand that God is not about utilitarian religion—religion for reward. To serve God for reward, insurance, or a protective hedge is to fall short of knowing God as God wishes to be known. This makes God into a power that we appease to get the goodies.  God refuses to let such a claim stand. Satan says Job is righteous because God has built a hedge around him. God says no. Let’s see.

We read the account from an earthly perspective of our suffering. We ask the usual questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? What are the causes behind human suffering? But these are not the main question of the book. The story of Job is told in answer to a simple question. Why is Job righteous? Is Job’s trust in God linked to a divine hedge of protection? And what will Job do if the hedge is removed? How will he speak of God, to God, about God? What will become of his integrity?

So God removes the hedge. I wish I didn’t have to say this … but it is true. In our biblical story, God is sovereign. Satan cannot operate without permission. God is free to do as God pleases without needing permission from anyone. God removes the hedge. God allows Job’s suffering. The Old Testament man was correct in understanding that, ultimately, both good and evil and come from the hand of God—by cause or permission.

We’ve done our human best to protect ourselves from catastrophe—security alarms, insurance policies, neighborhood watch, health checkups, nest eggs, air bags, steel bars, passwords, identity protection, armed forces hand washing, social distancing, and sheltering at home. And most of the time, our hedges hold. We are mindful to have good, thick hedges. As Christians, we half-believe that by serving God, our families will be protected. We’d like to believe that being in church every week gives us a better chance at escaping calamity. But I can assure you that better people than us lost their homes in the tornado or have tested positive for COVID-19.  

We know the righteous are not shielded from suffering. Too many among us have gotten the test results back, buried children, lost jobs, and had our hearts broken. We know that ‘hedge religion’ is not foolproof. But we wish it were. And if it were, Satan would be right. We do it for what we get back in return.

God removed the hedge around Job.

And the Sabeans raided Job’s oxen.

Lightning struck Job’s sheep and shepherds.

The Chaldeans stole Job’s camels.

A tornado killed Job’s children. 

In rapid-fire order, he was reduced to nothing.

His business – gone.

His possessions – gone.

His children – gone.

Job’s response was orderly … appropriate.

“Job got to his feet, ripped his robe, shaved his head, then fell to the ground and worshiped:

‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth. God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed.’

Not once through all this did Job sin; not once did he blame God.” 

(Job 1:20-22, The Message)

God is winning the wager. The hedge is gone, and Job has not cursed God. He is grieving, yet he clings to his integrity.

In chapter 2, God is bragging again. This cannot be good for Job.

One day when the angels came to report to God, Satan also showed up. God singled out Satan, saying, “And what have you been up to?”

Satan answered God, “Oh, going here and there, checking things out.”

Then God said to Satan, “Have you noticed my friend Job?

There’s no one quite like him, is there—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil? He still has a firm grip on his integrity! You tried to trick me into destroying him, but it didn’t work.”

Satan answered, “A human would do anything to save his life. But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away his health? He’d curse you to your face, that’s what.”

God said, “All right. Go ahead—you can do what you like with him. But mind you, don’t kill him.”

(Job 2:1-8, The Message)

Does Job’s integrity end at his own skin? Is he the kind of God-follower who can handle anything exterior but collapses when it gets under his own hide? Satan strikes again. The hedge does not hold. Job’s body becomes vulnerable to disease. The only thing left guarded is his life.

Satan left God and struck Job with terrible sores. Job was ulcers and scabs from head to foot. They itched and oozed so badly that he took a piece of broken pottery to scrape himself, then went and sat on a trash heap, among the ashes.

(Job 2:7-8, The Message)

We want to ask, “How can God let this happen to a good man like Job?” But heaven is asking, “How will Job speak of God now?” The issue is his righteousness, his wholeness, his internal coherence. This is what holds Job together when his world is coming apart.

His wife said, “Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you? Curse God and be done with it!”

He told her, “You’re talking like an empty-headed fool. We take the good days from God—why not also the bad days?”

Not once through all this did Job sin. He said nothing against God.

(Job 2:9-10, The Message)

Many have followed the advice of Job’s wife. They demanded an answer and didn’t get one. They felt cheated, abandoned by God. And they turned and walked away. Job gives the pious answer. “I didn’t complain when goodness came from God’s hand, so why should I complain when trouble comes from the same hand?” Be careful not to paint Job too stoically. Within a few chapters, he will be questioning God, yelling at God, trying to sue God, and accusing God. But for now, he sits on the ash heap of suffering with the other cursed folk.  Another biblical character whose name also begins with J will suffer in a similar place.

Job’s friends come. Like good friends, they sit with him for seven days in silence. Quite remarkable, if you ask me. Most friends of religious persuasion burst through the door blabbing some pious explanation. Job’s friends sit and say nothing. And then Job speaks.

“Obliterate the day I was born. Blank out the night I was conceived!
Let it be a black hole in space.
May God above forget it ever happened.
Erase it from the books!
May the day of my birth be buried in deep darkness,
shrouded by the fog, swallowed by the night.
And the night of my conception—the devil take it!
Rip the date off the calendar, delete it from the almanac.
Oh, turn that night into pure nothingness—
no sounds of pleasure from that night, ever!…
And why? Because it released me from my mother’s womb
into a life with so much trouble.”

(Job 3:1-10, The Message)

Finally, it’s getting to him. After cursing the night of his conception and theday of his birth, he asks questions – all beginning with the word whyWhy didn’t I die at birth? Why did loving arms even rock me? Why did I ever see the light of day? Why does God bother to keep such miserable people alive? But then he asks the most piercing question of them all.

What’s the point of life when it doesn’t make sense, when God blocks all the roads to meaning? Instead of bread I get groans for my supper, then leave the table and vomit my anguish. The worst of my fears has come true, what I’ve dreaded most has happened. My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed.
No rest for me, ever—death has invaded life.

(Job 3:23-26, The Message)

Job prefers never to have been born at all, or to have died a stillborn death. He prefers an unconscious grave to this earthly existence. There are things that can hurt so badly that we wish we’d never been born. Job is there. It is the honest eruption of a suffering soul whose seven days on the ash heap have finally led to questions. Something has shattered inside Job. His trust in God is now brought into the conversation. He has progressed from chapter 1: “God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed” (1:21) to chapter 2: “He said nothing against God” (2:10) to chapter 3: “My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed. No rest for me, ever—death has invaded life” (3:25-26).

The world can never be the same again. He can never speak of God the same way again. What form of righteousness will rise from this ash heap? What does shattered faith look like? How do hedge-less people talk about God? Is there a future in God for those who suffer innocently?

Satan watches. God still trusts Job. Job wants to die…or at least to get some answers. This is what makes the story of Job so hard for us to grasp. It is different from other parts of the Bible. We are more at home in the Proverbs where you build a religious hedge of wisdom around yourself and it protects you. You have a deal with God. You do certain actions and it will result in certain consequences.

The fool and his money are soon parted.

The one who sows wicked deeds reaps wicked consequences.

The one who cares for a tree will eat its fruit.

Cause and effect.

You reap what you sow.

You get what you deserve.

We believe this. We want our children to believe this. We want to build a hedge around them. We want them to wise up and listen to us because we know the consequences of their bad choices. We know where the moral boundary lines are drawn. We know what people ought and ought not to do.

And besides, it’s scriptural. The Proverbs are a fine collection of cause and effect hedge religion.  Deuteronomy is also a narrative masterpiece of this theology. Obey God and you will inherit the land, produce bountiful crops, drink from choice wells, and have lots of kids. But disobey God and you’ll get drought, blight, enemies pestering you, childlessness, and poverty aplenty. Cause and effect religion – good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. God as much as guarantees it in Proverbs and Deuteronomy. And then something happens that makes no sense. We did good and got bad. Or even worse, the guy that did bad got good.

Job wrestles with the fact that God may not be as cut-and-dried as he thought. Job has lost his business, his possessions, his kids, his social standing, his reputation, and his health…all in short order. God removed the hedge. He’s sitting atop an ash heap scraping sores and wrestling with cause and effect religion.  Maybe God has a dark side, mysterious, wildly free. Maybe suffering is loosed in this world indiscriminately.

Job’s friends come to help. They had lived where Job had lived, like Job had always lived…until now. They haven’t suffered. But they’ve come to fix their pal Job. After listening to Job lament, they begin. They offer scripture, the tried and true texts of cause and effect religion. It’s all they know.  In their view, the only explanation for Job’s plight is that Job has sinned – big time. He is reaping what he has sown. “Repent Job, change your wicked ways! God will be good to you if you do!”

But Job, being the man of integrity that he is, knows he has done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this type of treatment from God. He says so. His friends don’t believe him. Their theology has only one explanation for this calamity. Sin.

Job’s friends scare me. I’m afraid I might look in the mirror and see one of them. I can be so sure about God’s ways and God’s doings. I have my theology down pat, tightly woven, no loopholes, airtight. I can explain to you why things happen to certain people. “I saw it coming three years ago.” “I knew she was a flirt and this would come back to haunt their marriage.” “I can tell you his problem – he’s too liberal.”

We’re so sure. We know about people, don’t we, friends of Job? And if they’ll give us half a chance, we can fix them. We know how. Our formula works. Pray this prayer. Read this book. Go to this seminar. See this counselor. Memorize these verses. Listen to this preacher.

Job refuses to be fixed by the religion of his friends. He refuses because his authentic experience does not fit their hedge religion. They think he sinned. He knows that personal sin has nothing to do with this. He calls them names – windbags, sorry comforters. He says to them,


I didn’t ask you for one red cent –
nor did I beg you to go out on a limb for me.
So why all this dodging and shuffling?
Confront me with the truth and I’ll shut up,
show me where I’ve gone off the track.
Honest words never hurt anyone,
but what’s the point of all this pious bluster?
You pretend to tell me what’s wrong with my life,
but treat my words of anguish as so much hot air.
Are people mere things to you?
Are friends just items of profit and loss?
Look me in the eyes!
Do you think I’d lie to your face?
Think it over – no double-talk!
Think carefully – my integrity is on the line!
Can you detect anything false in what I say?
Don’t you trust me to discern good from evil?”

(Job 6:14-30, The Message)

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin wrote a God-anointed book in the last days of his battle with the cancer that claimed his life. He wrote, “Whenever we are with people who suffer, it frequently becomes evident that there is very little we can do to help them…. The reason this is so frustrating is that we like to be ‘fixers’. We want not only to control our own destiny, but also that of others.” I think Cardinal Bernardin was right. If we can’t fix our friends with our answers, will our answers fix us when the time comes? Dare we admit that we have no control over our own future? The security of our hedge is in question.

Let’s be kind to our fixer friends. Their hedge religion has gotten them where they are. They are enjoying their health, homes, jobs, business success, educational attainments, and reputable friends. They accept all this as a gift of God – which it is. They believe it to be the wink of God’s approval on their righteousness.

Do you realize that Job’s friends are betting with Satan? They believe Job was good because God protected and blessed him. If Job will repent to get back in God’s good graces, he’ll be restored and get his stuff back. But God has given Job the terrible dignity of proving them all wrong.

Who are you cheering for? I think we want Job’s friends to be right. Could it be that sometimes, most of the time, cause and effect religion is right? Could it be that Proverbs and Deuteronomy explain life most of the time? Could it be that this is a good way to raise children, work, eat, study, run a business, and live? Job’s friends are partly right. There are consequences for behavior, rewards for discipline, and punishments for sin. This is the way of God.

But it doesn’t always explain every situation. God is more than a vending machine who dispenses what we deserve. Suffering is a reality in our world and there are few answers that satisfy.  

Job actually wishes his friends were right. Because then, the solution would be easy – an apology from God. When it dawned on God that Job had not committed grievous sins, God would come down with a sheepish grin on his face and say, “Job old buddy, old pal, I owe you an apology. I wasn’t paying attention the other day and some nasty stuff got labeled with the wrong address and I’m here to make it up to you because I know you did nothing to deserve this. You’ve been a faithful and loyal servant and I’m going to see to it that nothing like this ever happens to you again. I’ve fired your Guardian Angel.”

But we never hear God say oops.

The language of Job toward God in chapters 3-37 is blunt, brutal, and accusatory. Repeatedly, the friends try to reel him in and change his mind about why this has happened to him. But Job is not buying it. Interestingly, at the end of the story (Job 42:7-8), God says that Job spoke well of God while the friends didn’t. They said all the religious words. Job, on the other hand, accused God of breaking his promise, said God was hounding him like a hunter, accused God of destroying the good right along with the bad, challenged God to a debate, portrayed God as wildly free with diplomatic immunity from any law, and dared God to appear in court and defend himself. Job banged on heaven’s doors until his knuckles were bloody, demanding God to answer for the suffering he had experienced. But no one came to the door.

And in the end, God said, “Job spoke well of me.” Apparently, the essence of faith is wrestling with God. The word Israel means those who wrestle with God. Job is doing quite well for himself given his paltry health and pitiful handicap. He is wrestling with the side of God that he does not understand. Ash heap theology shoots holes in hedge religion. God hides and won’t appear in court to defend himself, so Job calls him out. And according to our story, God is pleased with this. 

I find myself wondering about the conversations in Gethsemane and on the cross. Maybe the essence of faith is wrestling with God. Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, wrote in his Memoirs, “I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against his injustice, protested his silence, and sometimes his absence, but my anger rises up within faith, and not outside it. Prophets and sages rebelled against the lack of divine interference in human affairs during the times of persecution. Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah teach us that it is permissible for a man to accuse God, provided it be done in the name of faith in God. Sometimes we must accept the pain of faith so as not to lose it. And if that makes the tragedy of the believer more devastating than that of the unbeliever, so be it.”

A Prayer
Give us a holy uncertainty about our wrong certainties.
Deliver us from fixing each other with answers that are non-answers.
May we be led by suffering to the heart of God,
revealed most clearly on a cross,
where God came to us on the ash heap
and there died in our place.
Amen.

Fostering the Creative Connection

Before becoming the President of Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, I spent 20 years in the trenches of pastoral ministry on a university campus. Some of my friends have accused me of leaving holy work for the dark side of university administration. To the contrary, my love of the local church has deepened. I still believe that the local church is the hope of a broken world.

One of the things I wish we could do better is creating worship gatherings that are formative. Believing that we are story-formed people, I have written extensively on worship as an enacted story, plotted in tandem with the biblical story to be preached on a given Sunday morning. As a pastor, the creative connection between the preaching pastor and the planner of the worship event was often disjointed.

Now I’m taking it one step further.

Trevecca has created a fully online master’s degree in worship and leadership which launches this January. I have written and filmed the lectures for the first class. It is an in-depth review of a way to form sermons and services side-by-side.

Get a taste for the first class by watching this video.

After watching the video, you may want to consider enrolling in the program. Here’s a brief description of what you can expect:

  • The curriculum integrates a study of worship with coursework from our respected master’s program in organizational leadership. Students will deepen their understanding of theology while also improving their leadership capabilities.
  • Examples of topics covered include worship ministry dynamics and relationships; worship in the Old and New Testament; spiritual formation; church leadership and contemporary issues in worship; personal leadership and development; organizational culture and change; strategic thinking; conflict management; and leading and building teams.
  • The program is 100 percent online, with books and materials delivered to your front door. You’ll never step foot on campus! Finish the program in 18 months with a master’s degree in hand.
  • Graduates will develop an e-portfolio curated throughout the program that can be used when applying for a new ministry position.
  • The degree also equips students with the academic credentials needed to teach worship and/or leadership at the undergraduate level. Or, students can become qualified to serve in an executive pastor role.

As a pastor-at-heart, I will always be looking for ways to improve the worship experiences of our people. I believe this program will help you lead such an endeavor. Learn more about the Master of Arts in worship and leadership.

Exploring The Worship Plot

This week, Trevecca Nazarene University launched a new master’s degree program in worship and leadership. I’m passionate about this degree and the ways it will help churches and their worship to deepen their worship. In light of the announcement about this new program, I’m sharing a few excerpts from my book on worship, The Worship Plot.

I love spontaneous moments in response to the Spirit of God. But I also think it is important for us to listen to the story of our creative God. In the Beginning, the Spirit hovered over a dark, formless chaos. Then God went to work. The Result was order, structure, and story. The order did not confine God; it unleashed God. The structure did not inhibit God; it revealed God. The story did not limit God; it narrated God.

In worship, the creating Spirit of God is as work sustaining the life of a people. The structure of worship is conducive to life in the Spirit. The story of God and humans is being told and acted out, much like a play combines words and actions to produce compelling drama. 

In my book, The Worship Plot, I suggest five acts for the drama of worship. 

  1. Entrance. A play starts with an exposition that sets the time and place of the story. The Entrance does something similar for worship. The opening act of the worship plot locates us. We gather at a certain time—on Sundays—because God has called us together. We enter a certain space—God’s presence. Gathering remind us who we are and whose we are. This Sabbath pattern is our distinguishing habit. 
  2. The Bad News. Just as a first act in a play raises a conflict that intensifies during the second, so goes the unfolding of the worship plot. If it really sinks in that we are gathered in the presence of the Holy God, we instantly identify with Isaiah: “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LordAlmighty” (Isa. 6:5, NIV). That’s another way of saying, “What’s a person like me doing in a place like this?” This leads to Act II of our drama, confession of the Bad News, the admission that our lives aren’t all we hope they would be, or all that God has desired for us. 
  3. The Good News. This is the climax of our drama, the turning point for the better—the Good News. The Bible is full of good news. “I have heard your cry.” “And the father ran out to meet him.” “Get up. Take your mat. Go home” (see Exod. 3; Luke 15; Matt. 9). Every one of these statements is made to people living with bad news. Good news can be delivered as scripture, sermon or song. It is the moment in the service when we declare to troubled people that God is with us doing something redemptive. It is the story of Father, Son, and Spirit acting in loving aggressiveness toward troubled humans. We grow numb under worship that drones on and one about sin in a dark world. The worship plot must get for Bad News to Good News, from sin to grace, from death to life. 
  4. Response of the People. The Good News opens us and makes us capable of response. Like the falling action in the fourth act of a play, our response to the Good News should draw us to an outcome where we are better off than we were before. The Good News even suggests what our response might be. The possibilities are many: repent of sin, be baptized, sing a song, give money, volunteer to serve, dedicate an infant, share the Lord’s Supper, testify, offer words of encouragement to fellow worshipers, be silent, break bread. These are real, bodily responses to the Good News. We believe that hearing is not enough; we must do something. 
  5. Blessing. Another world for blessing is benediction, which means “to say good words.” This act of the worship plot takes only a minute or two, but it is the needed conclusion. It’s the denouement of the drama, where we heart that we are better off than we were. A pastor lifts his or her hands and pronounces blessings on the people who have gathered in God’s presence, been honest about their Bad News, received the Good News, and responded to grace. These people are now ready to be sent into the world where Jesus has already gone. They will serve the people of the world, empowered by the grace they have received This closing blessing is a gift. It gives boldness to the beaten-down. It whispers grace to the weak. It invades our damaged self-esteem with words that say God values us. The grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit go with us all. 

Style divides. Story makes us one. 

The Worship Plot

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Master’s of Worship and Leadership

Trevecca Nazarene University is launching a new master’s program in January 2020 for worship leaders. The Master of Arts in Worship and Leadership will allow worship leaders to deepen their theological and historical understanding of worship while also honing leadership skills that will deepen their ministries and open new opportunities. Read more.

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Thinking about getting married? Try these date suggestions.

​This blog post is for people in a relationship that could conceivably progress to marriage.  As a college president, I work in the middle of people who are pondering key relationship questions such as, How do I know if this is the one?

When Denise and I are asked that question, we resort to the old staple: You just know. But I’ve come to believe that that answer works only in retrospect (after the fact). If marriage works out great, then We just knew. If it doesn’t, then we messed up in the critical moments of discerning the relationship. Dating couples deserve a better answer than You’ll know.

So here is my considered wisdom for a generation trying to get the marriage decision right. I’m suggesting 10 “must-do” dates that will likely reveal something about the person you are getting serious with.  And if that person has no interest in going on most or all of these dates with you, well, that might tell you something, too.

The Assisted Living/Nursing Home Date

Buy some cut flowers and choose a random nursing home. Go to the community room and engage. Start asking the residents questions about their lives. Then listen. Observe your date. Do he or she care? Is there a genuine interest? Can he or she be comfortable in the presence of dementia? Does this person know how to respect the story of a stranger? Following the visit, as with each of the dates below, go to a coffee shop and talk about what you encountered. 

The Escape Room Date

You’ve probably already done this. This date gives you the chance to see your date under pressure. How does he or she treat people who are slowing them down? Does this person engage in the pursuit? How task-driven is he or she? Is this more about relationships, fun, or winning? What is driving them?

The Church Date

Hopefully, this is not a new thing for either of you. If you are a devoted follower of Jesus, dating and marrying someone who does not find life in Christ—think carefully about this. But do go to church together. I’d suggest you try something off the beaten path. Go to a small church that sings old songs and is five funerals away from closing. Does your date dismiss the faith of these people? Is this a joke? What is his or her capacity for finding meaning in practices and people who are older?

The Baby Sitting Date

Hopefully, there will be a messy diaper during the evening. Can your date deal with messy? How is the division of labor handled? Do you see initiative or avoidance? What kind of parent is peeking through? Does time pass fast or slow?

The Animal Shelter Date

You can watch for compassion here. You’ll also see whether sentimental feelings cloud solid judgment. If you have to talk your date out of adopting an animal on the spot, you may be dating a person whose judgment is ruled by sympathetic feelings. Look for middle ground in your date –compassion/love for God’s creations but also responsible decisions. If your date leaves a small donation, that’s a great sign.

Game Night Date

Chose games that are competitive, solo winner/loser, and in line with the interests of your date. Observe how your date handles winning and losing. Experiment with good-natured trash talk. Can he or she laugh when it isn’t going their way? Can they take teasing? How competitive is your date? If this were an important issue at stake, and one of you would lose and the other win, is this the person you’d want by your side?

The Veteran’s Home

Go tell aging soldiers that you appreciate what they did on behalf of your freedom. Listen to their stories. How does your date react to the cost of war? How does he or she express gratitude to those who have suffered? What does he or she do in the face of PTSD, amputations, shattered memories?

The Formal Date

Wear a suit. Wear a fancy dress. Eat somewhere fairly expensive. Go to a classical concert or a noted theatrical performance. Does your date wilt or waltz? Do you see enough self-esteem or gumption to engage the setting rather than being intimidated by it? Can he or she navigate settings that are new and different? Is this fun? Even if your financial tastes do not gravitate in this direction, you will observe the willingness of your date to explore new settings and experiences. Maybe you prefer to marry a homebody, but if you want get out a lot, this date will tell you whether your potential marriage partner is up to it. 

The Volunteer Project

Find a sweaty, dirty, difficult work project. The more challenging, the better. Help pick up trash in an urban housing neighborhood. Join a Habitat for Humanity team. Unload trucks for the local food bank. Work at a soup kitchen or aid a mission. Does your date work hard? Is he or she counting the minutes until they can get back on their cell phone or the couch? Are they more interested in selfies than the tasks at hand? Does he or she take interest in and engage with the people doing this kind of thing? Does your date care about other people or are they just placating you by being there?

The Family Picture Album Date

Pack a picnic lunch and go to the park. Find a shade tree. Bring your family pictures—all the way back to great grandparents if you can. Tell each other the stories of your relatives. Ask questions. Listen carefully enough to repeat the narratives. Then, go to your date’s home and sit with their family and tell them what you heard. How do these family dynamics work? Is there respect, open communication, appreciation of the family that raised him or her, loving regard and laughter? If this is as awkward as wearing your clothes backward, you may want to think carefully about the relationship.

With each of these dates, you are taking another step on your journey. The question is simple: Do we keep going, pause or stop? As you share life together on these unique dates, ask yourself if this is the person you want to experience life with. Listen to your head and your heart. Don’t be swept to the altar by a tide of romantic hope or surface-based information. Seek depth. Go there thoughtfully.

One last note. All of this assumes that you actually date. Many college students have seen so many broken marriages that they are afraid to commit, even to a date. I’ve written about this in a chapter titled “If Dating is Dead” in my book Human Sexuality II: A Primer for Christians.

If you want to know if this is “the one,” try some of these dates. And even as you observe your date, listen to your own heart. It is telling you something. And maybe you’ll just know.