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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Distinctive



You're going to have to give me a break on the word count here.  Article X is 499 words, on its own, without commentary...

And as another caveat, I have taken many bits and pieces of conversations with other theologians and sort of put them together here in an attempt to come up with something that is both true to our Nazarene heritage and easily understandable by the average person who is seeking wisdom regarding holiness.  I'm going to refrain from citing them, because I may have taken them out of context, and I do not, in any way, wish to create a problem for any of these friends of mine.  If they want to take credit for their own words, they may do so.  It's hard to know that, even jokingly, more than one source said something to the effect of, "Be careful, and don't discuss this with a credentials board or a General Superintendent".  Well, I'll take the fall if there is one to be taken.  People need to understand this.    

It's our "distinctive doctrine"... and we start and end so well.  Because of the importance of holiness and sanctification to the identity of the Church of the Nazarene, with whom I do identify, myself; I want to be very careful not to tear this article of faith apart.  More than that, I want to bring out some possible points for discussion, because there are many things that are stated here that are confusing to many people.  My desire, always, is to come to conclusions that make us more redemptive, more like the people that God intended us to be.  The Greek "telos" translated to "perfection", in fact, means precisely this.  And so, understanding holiness matters... a lot...  

X. Christian Holiness and Entire Sanctification

10. We believe that sanctification is the work of God which transforms believers into the likeness of Christ. It is wrought by God’s grace through the Holy Spirit in initial sanctification, or regeneration (simultaneous with justification), entire sanctification, and the continued perfecting work of the Holy Spirit culminating in glorification. In glorification we are fully conformed to the image of the Son.

We believe that entire sanctification is that act of God, subsequent to regeneration, by which believers are made free from original sin, or depravity, and brought into a state of entire devotement to God, and the holy obedience of love made perfect.

It is wrought by the baptism with or infilling of the Holy Spirit, and comprehends in one experience the cleansing of the heart from sin and the abiding, indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, empowering the believer for life and service. Entire sanctification is provided by the blood of Jesus, is wrought instantaneously by grace through faith, preceded by entire consecration; and to this work and state of grace the Holy Spirit bears witness.

This experience is also known by various terms representing its different phases, such as “Christian perfection,” “perfect love,” “heart purity,” “the baptism with or infilling of the Holy Spirit,” “the fullness of the blessing,” and “Christian holiness.”

10.1. We believe that there is a marked distinction between a pure heart and a mature character. The former is obtained in an instant, the result of entire sanctification; the latter is the result of growth in grace.

We believe that the grace of entire sanctification includes the divine impulse to grow in grace as a Christlike disciple. However, this impulse must be consciously nurtured, and careful attention given to the requisites and processes of spiritual development and improvement in Christlikeness of character and personality. Without such purposeful endeavor, one’s witness may be impaired and the grace itself frustrated and ultimately lost.

Participating in the means of grace, especially the fellowship, disciplines, and sacraments of the Church, believers grow in grace and in wholehearted love to God and neighbor.

(Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Malachi 3:2-3; Matthew 3:11-12; Luke 3:16-17; John 7:37-39; 14:15-23; 17:6-20; Acts 1:5; 2:1-4; 15:8-9; Romans 6:11-13, 19; 8:1-4, 8-14; 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1; Galatians 2:20; 5:16-25; Ephesians 3:14-21; 5:17-18, 25-27; Philippians 3:10-15; Colossians 3:1-17; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; Hebrews 4:9-11; 10:10-17; 12:1-2; 13:12; 1 John 1:7, 9)

(“Christian perfection,” “perfect love”: Deuteronomy 30:6; Matthew 5:43- 48; 22:37-40; Romans 12:9-21; 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 13; Philippians 3:10-15; Hebrews 6:1; 1 John 4:17-18

“Heart purity”: Matthew 5:8; Acts 15:8-9; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:3

“Baptism with the Holy Spirit”: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Malachi 3:2-3; Matthew 3:11-12; Luke 3:16-17; Acts 1:5; 2:1-4; 15:8-9

“Fullness of the blessing”: Romans 15:29 “Christian holiness”: Matthew 5:1-7:29; John 15:1-11; Romans 12:1-15:3; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Ephesians 4:17-5:20; Philippians 1:9-11; 3:12-15; Colossians 2:20-3:17; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 4:7-8; 5:23; 2 Timothy 2:19-22; Hebrews 10:19-25; 12:14; 13:20-21; 1 Peter 1:15-16; 2 Peter 1:1-11; 3:18; Jude 20-21)

I said it before...  we start well...

"We believe that sanctification
is the work of God
which transforms believers
into the likeness of Christ."
We end well...

"Participating in the means of grace,
especially the fellowship, disciplines, and sacraments of the Church,
believers grow in grace
and in wholehearted love to God and neighbor."

Maybe we should stop there.  Maybe those two statements are enough.  But we don't stop there, so some explanation must be made for words like initial sanctification, regeneration, justification, entire sanctification, and glorification.  That's a lot of "-ations"...  We have created a lot of steps toward holiness.  Some of them are described as crisis moments, while others are a part of a process of living.  To those who don't know the lingo, it can be overwhelming.  "Wait...  I thought I did that... and that... and that..."  But what does God do?  And to whom does God offer this grace? 

In looking for a parallel in Scripture, perhaps the best we can do is to take the alternative phrase, "Baptism of the Holy Spirit".  At least we have a reference to such a thing, historically, at Pentecost (Acts 2), and then later in Acts 10 and Acts 19 as the Holy Spirit comes on believers who have received water baptism but have not yet received the Holy Spirit.  Whether we want to consider this a second work of grace, I don't know.  However, what is clearly apparent is that it is another work of grace.  Perhaps not ironically, that has been a bit of a theme here in relationship to the sacraments.  God is often working among us, and God's work in and through our lives definitely comes in the form of grace.  Perhaps holiness is even sacramental.

The baptism of the Holy Spirit should mark a beginning, as it does in Acts, as opposed to an ending.  It is not the point at which we "arrive".  It is the point at which the Holy Spirit arrives and then we act, explicitly, in love of God, ourselves, and others. This is not the pinnacle of our faith journeys.  Instead, it is the very beginning of our ministry.  We often have this upside-down view of holiness in which we give God control of our personal decisions, and then God is able to make us do the things we were always intended to do.  It's as if we embrace coercion at the expense of love, when what we should really be doing is embracing love and working together with God as opposed to working against God.  Free will is beautiful like that.  The Holy Spirit enables us and empowers us to join God in God's work in the world.  From this point, we are a sent people.  Holiness is dangerous (see the lives of the apostles for examples).  It is not about safety and isolation.  It is about transparency and exposure.  It is about sharing the gospel message, which is good news.  And, interestingly, this baptism of the Holy Spirit always seems to happen in community.  It's not about personal holiness.  There is no such thing as personal holiness.  Yes.  I just said it.  We can't "do" holiness alone.  I'm not sure why we even try.  Who would we be loving? 

But wait.  There's more.  As if it isn't difficult enough to accept that holiness takes place within community, what about systemic holiness?  What do we do when the systems are broken?  And they are broken.  Let's just forget our tendency toward sin as an individual responsibility for a moment.  What if we stood against the systemic sin that is so prevalent and said, "enough!"  What if we took responsibility for things like racism, sexism, and oppressive structures in our institutions, governments, and even churches?  What if we allowed the Holy Spirit to break into those areas of our lives?  What if we really did become activists, because as I recently heard in a sermon by Jeanette and Gabriel Salguero, there is really no such thing as a Christian who is not an activist.  What do we think it really means to care for the least of these (more on this in an upcoming post, soon)?  Because this also matters.  A lot...

Just one more thought.  I'd really rather not point out the red flags in this article, but I am disturbed by the concept of frustrating grace, itself.  Can grace be frustrated?  I'm not so sure.  I think this idea is what has led many holiness people to live afraid of an "in again - out again" kind of salvific relationship.  At best, I think this leads to a harnessing of egregious sinful actions.  At worst, I think it leads to a life of fear that is paralyzing and makes it difficult to act in holiness and love toward others, because such interactions might cause us to stumble.  In such a discussion, I think two very important questions must be raised.  First, if this sanctifying grace can, indeed, be frustrated and lost, would that not propel the person who lost such grace back into a state of God's prevenient grace, which will continue to draw him or her back to God?  And second, which sins would be most frustrating to grace?  Because I tend to think that those sins of omission and complacency might be just as perilous as others, making hiding our heads in the sand of individual holiness a very precarious position to take. 

L.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Full Circle

Expectation: I thought this job was going to be cool.

I never set out to share current stories on this blog, especially on Mondays.  This was supposed to be a place where people could learn from my old experiences.  No kidding.  But this week has been crazy.

Actually, let me expand on that a little bit.  The past three weeks have been crazy.  During that time, my family has participated in the national quiz, Nazarene Youth Conference, Phil's ordination, our last day at our now previous local church, and campmeeting/family camp.  Somehow, I thought it was a bright idea to enroll in Advanced Biblical Exegesis during this summer term, and now that the class is half over, I think I have finally read all of the directions for assignments and found the links to feedback on the nine papers that I have submitted while riding in the van, sitting at hotel desks, and falling asleep on my keyboard, in the kitchen, at two o'clock in the morning.  I'm not complaining.  I love this life.  I just can't figure out what I was thinking when I signed up for all of this.

It started out quite simple, really.  I was reminded of this when one of the adult worship services ended early and I had a few minutes of downtime while I waited for the morning children's camp to get out and Ian to appear.  Phil, Seth, Miah, and I sat down for just a moment in the chapel, and one of the children's workers made a joke about how the last people there were expected to straighten the chairs.  He was kidding, but I know what it is to lead children's ministry, to be exhausted, and to find that when everyone has vacated the building there are still so many tasks to be done.  I told him that we would be happy to straighten the chairs. 

He said, "really?"  We got up and began working on the task. 

I don't know if you know this or not, but if you have someone who wants to volunteer in youth ministry, and there is really nothing for them to do, you ask them to set up the chairs.  It's the job that nobody wants to do.  It's the job that you delegate, even if you are abysmally horrible at delegating.  I mean, no one can really mess up the chairs that badly, can they?  I have set up a lot of chairs in my life. 

Even Miah, who is only five, knew that this was not a lucrative assignment. 

"I don't want to do this, Mommy.  Why are we doing this?"

Well, there's a teachable moment if ever I had one.  So, looking in the face of my preschooler I said, "We're doing this, because it will help the children to worship when they come in tonight".  Miah jumped up and started straightening whole rows of chairs at lightning speed, with a smile on her face.

At first, I thought it would be hard to share this story without seeming prideful.  I have been accused of that in recent days.  But then I considered how ludicrous that sounded.  You can think I'm patting myself on the back if you want, but the truth is that when I stop to think about the fact that I am a woman with multiple degrees, theologically trained, straightening chairs with my baby at a children's camp; there is no pride in that.  There is humility.  We all need humility.  I need humility.

It was a theme of sorts for this week.

As another example, Phil was asked if he could serve as an usher.  Near the end of the week, the volunteer who had asked for his help took a few minutes to ask who he was, where he came from.  As the story came out that Phil is a pastor, the usher recruiting volunteer was slightly horrified, because he tries really hard to not ask pastors to help in this capacity.  Why?  Aren't we called to be servant leaders?  Oh wait, perhaps being an usher is another one of those jobs that we delegate to people who can do nothing else?  Something isn't ringing quite right here.

Well, an ongoing conversation has been happening at our house over the course of the past few months.  We have been looking for the things that only we can do, which is sort of funny in its own right, because there probably isn't really anything that only we can do.  I was reminded of this, again, as I read a blog post, today, about how God's plans for us are much less rigid and individualized than we often realize.  But this is probably another topic for another day.

As we straightened chairs and collected offerings, this week, and then as we sat down at the same Dairy Queen that has been standing on a corner of downtown for all the years we've been here and all the years we've been away; something hit me like a ton of bricks.  I wrote these thoughts down on a napkin, because that's really the only appropriate way to save ideas that come to you over ice cream...

We can do the things that nobody wants to do, and why would we do anything else?  That's it. 

These are not the kinds of things that will lead to power or prestige.  They won't come with paychecks attached or provide any sort of career advancement.  But they are the things that won't get done if we don't do them.  It's not because other people aren't capable.  Let's be real - anyone can straighten chairs or pass a plate (or bucket in this case).  It's because other people are not willing.

Well, I'm willing.  Here I am.  Here we are.  Bring it on.

L.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Toast to Love



The following is the last in a series of guest posts for
Sacramental Saturday.
This post was written by Dr. Eric Severson
whom I met through the GTOE program at NNU,
when I took his course, "Philosophical Foundations of Ministry".
I have never worked so hard or learned so much in one class!
Eric shared this wedding ceremony with my cohort, during that class,
and it was widely agreed that this was the most profound
writing about love within marriage that any of us had come across.
He has graciously agreed to allow me to share his work here,
for which I am very thankful.
I have redacted the names of the reader, bride, and groom
for the sake of protecting their privacy.

Song of Songs 2:

"I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens. As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.  He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.  Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.  O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!  I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!  The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.  My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.  My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.  The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards-- for our vineyards are in blossom." My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies. Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains." 

Few ideas have captivated human imagination as intensely and repeatedly as the concept of love. Songs, sonnets, treatises, poems and books have been repeatedly dedicated to the experience and practice of love. The passage read by [reader] from the Song of Songs is a glorious example of this – and I will come back to that passage in a moment. As I reflect momentarily on love, and particularly on a delightful occasion and incarnation of love in the relationship between [Bride and Groom], I am also reminded of a banquet narrated by Plato in his dialogue Symposium – a philosophical classic to which I regularly subject my students.

The context for Plato’s Symposium is a banquet held in honor of love.  Rather than spend the night in heavy drinking, or being entertained by musicians, a group of friends gather around a table and decide that they will take turns raising their glasses and making toasts to love.  The night becomes a contest of speeches, as each philosopher attempts to outdo the others in a description of perfect love.

One toast proposes that the highest form of love is the sacrificial love between soldiers, whose selfless care for one another intermixes with intense pride and commitment.  Phaedra, one of the first to raise his glass, proposes this as the height of love: a soldier who stands fast to the death for his companion on the battlefield.  Other toasts follow, praising the virtues of love between a student and a teacher, the love of a doctor for a patient, and even the tragedy of love eternally unrequited.  One after another, the sages of Athens toast to one or another manifestation of love.

I cannot help but think of this scene at weddings, where people often raise glasses to toast the beauty of love on display in the intense and wonderful moment in which two lives become one.  We frequently read St. Paul’s toast to love, a rousing and poetic passage in First Corinthians in which he proposes that without love we are nothing, and that among the greatest of human endeavors – faith, hope and love – love is most certainly the greatest.

But these toasts – Plato’s and perhaps even Paul’s – are poor fits for this occasion.  A wedding celebrates quite specifically an event between two people; a promise and covenant that instantly stretches across the spans of both lifetimes, from birth to death, and envelops both partners in an identity irrevocably bound together.  A wedding is an act of worship, as two lives turn themselves over to an unknown future that stretches ahead of them.  For Plato, and perhaps even Paul, marital love is not the highest love.  No toast presented at the table of Athens, to the love between spouses, is given much credence, and Paul is notoriously skeptical about marriage in general.

When we come to weddings, to this wedding, do we mark and celebrate an inferior form of love? Is the love shared between this man and this woman a shadow of something much more perfect and beautiful, concealed by the flesh and blood to which we are confined?  Or is there for this occasion an even higher toast to love, nominated by neither Plato nor Paul?

This is the brazen nature of my reflections on marriage today – to raise the glass one more time, alongside infinite poets and priests and princes, and hazard a toast.  For my resource I turn to the poetry of a woman who lived three thousand years ago, a Shulamite woman whose toast to love is immortalized in the Song of Songs.  This toast, as ancient as any that we have on record, is also remarkably unique.  The Shulamite woman toasts not to a beloved that she possesses, or to an experience she grasps and seizes in the present.  Her toast is to a love that burns like a fire that does not consume, a love that has its principle focus on a future that is given over to her beloved. The Shulamite woman, in her erotic and poetic testament to love, speaks of a love that is not the satiation of a need, or the achievement of an emotion.  In its highest form, love is not generated out of lack or need but out of abundance and overflow; it is a love that is greater than any lack or need that either spouse can generate, a love whose source can therefore only be thought of as grace.

In refrain, the wisdom of the Song of Songs repeats: “do not awaken love until it so desires.”  Love is not grasping or holding or seizing or owning.  Love is patience extraordinaire, patience to the point of absurdity.  The Shulamite woman delights in a love that flourishes even as she waits, calls for him to make haste, but delights even in the desire that flourishes in waiting.  She writes: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.”

Love, as I read of it in the Song of Songs, is not just confined to what we know or expect from those we call beloved.  Love, defined here in the poetry of early history, is a commitment to the infinite mystery of what one's beloved may become.  Such love does not constrain the beloved but thrives on the liberating loss of self-interest. Such love is unhinged from the central need to bind the other to the self.  In other words, love is the joyful forfeiture of the future.  If I were to toast to love, I would toast to that which dances out into a future that is no longer constrained by knowledge or predication or anticipation. Love, in its highest form, is a release of any vision for what my beloved may be, and a deep trust in whatever this unforeseeable, impossible future may hold.

Love, in this sense, redeems time.  Locked in a present that is wounded and crippled by selfish desire and lack, love is no more than a brief respite in an economy of struggle and possession.  But true love turns upside down the past and the future, or more precisely, forfeits these modalities of time.  Love is forgiveness.  Love is hope in the impossible.  By releasing the past and future from my possession and my knowledge, love heals and makes the impossible come to pass.  To love truly is to give away my time – not pieces of it, but the whole.

As I reflect on love in light of this wedding, this marriage, the union of two of my dearest friends, I am stirred by how these two lives already bear testament to the love celebrated by the Shulamite woman and her beloved.  These two people stand before us in a profound forfeiture of any vision for what their new spouse may become. Their love is already a wonder, an impossibility, a glimpse at something that transforms time itself.  In this moment, as they wed, the past and future are transformed.  Their yesterdays, full of pains and joys, are now the past that deliver them to this holy union.  The future is now a future given over to this marriage.  The present is a beautiful dance of waiting and hoping and believing in something that cannot be contained by any expectation.  And for this reason love is holy, the very embodiment of holiness, the appearance of that which is greatest among all events in human existence.

Love, I suggest, is asymmetrical. True love stumbles over itself to give more than it receives, to love more than it is loved, to forgive more than it is forgiven.  Love, in its highest form, is embodied in persons such as these – [Bride and Groom] – whose lives are given over into a mutual dance of selfless commitment and persistent sacrifice and forgiveness.

So in these moments, in the holy moment of marriage, may your past be transformed and healed and your future radically opened. May you stumble over one another always in a dance that is never about breaking even, or fairness, or equality.May you wait, may you flourish even in waiting, and may you thrive in the awkward and unpredictable dance that we dare to call love.