This blog is meant to be an encouragement to you as you journey through your day. If you have a question about the life of faith, please feel free to email me. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I welcome the conversation.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Thinking Theologically

It has been several years since the following was published in one of our denominational magazines. I thought it might be helpful to think on it again.

In Nazarene polity, tradition, and current practice, the local church pastor has many roles. One of the most important is “theologian-in-residence.” The pastor is called to frame the conversation of his or her parish, to clearly communicate how the community of faith thinks about God, the world, the Church, and persons, making sure the congregation’s lived-out practice fits with our theology.

This task not only involves what is said in sermons, but also in such details of congregational life as the choice of VBS curriculum, compassionate ministry, age-group programming, evangelism, and participation with other congregations. Our lived-out theology provides guidance in how we treat one another, how we deal with conflict and broken relationships, and how we lead others to Christ.

This pastoral task requires intensive training, and is the reason education for ordination includes significant coursework in biblical studies and theology. Our Wesleyan perspective calls us to a unique place in today’s faith conversations—we are neither fundamentalist nor liberal, and the tension inherent in this via media requires pastors who know and can clearly communicate what we believe as Nazarenes.

One of the most important ways the pastor serves as theologian-in-residence is through purposeful conversations. In my church, my friends have heard me say certain phrases so many times, that they repeat them as measures of whether a ministry or program fits with our theology.

“We believe God is working in everyone’s life, all the time.”

“We are here to make evident the kingdom of God in our community.”

“Creating an environment where God’s love can be experienced.”

“Showing people they belong before we can teach them what to believe or how to behave.”

“Holiness is demonstrated through loving relationships.”

“God does not waste a consecrated life.”

“We demonstrate Kingdom priorities in the way we treat people.”

“How we live Monday through Saturday is just as important as how we worship on Sunday.”

None of these are earth shattering in their creativity. They are just simple statements that help our congregation think and reflect theologically as we do life together as a community of faith.

Sometimes there is a temptation to do things simply because other churches are doing them, or because we have always done them, or because they elicit an emotional response, or because they seem to work.

While none of those reasons are necessarily wrong, they should not be the primary rationale for beginning or continuing a ministry. We should not organize our youth group solely to draw the most kids to our events, nor should we plan programs just to fill up a calendar. Our goal is Christlikeness, and busier people are not necessarily holier people (another one of our favorite phrases).

The pastor’s role as theologian is essential as the congregation reflects on the reasons why we do what we do and works together in creating an environment where what we believe and how we live as a community of faith are in harmony.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Epistle of James #16 - "This doesn't apply to me"

In the beginning of chapter 5, James returns to a topic he introduced in chapter 1 – the temptations and dangers of wealth. In 5:1-6, he offers a practical commentary on the many teachings of his brother Jesus on the topic:

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

“According to John Wesley, wealth is dangerous because it can corrupt and lead to sin. Whatever our level of income, desiring more than is necessary is morally destructive. Riches lure us from sharing with those in need and toward exploiting and isolating the poor for selfish financial gain. The dangers of wealth also harm the rich by leading into a false sense of moral superiority, a distorted understanding of divine favor, and to the destruction and negligence of those in need. These traits are in absolute opposition to God’s character and God’s expectations of God’s people.” – Wesley Study Bible

A question comes immediately come to mind: How much is necessary – how much is “enough?” In a culture that exalts excess, that teaches consumerism as a form of patriotism, and makes coveting a positive attitude, how can we learn the difference between what we really need and what we want?

One of the challenges of this passage is that we are called to live in it, not just analyze it. If we think “I’m not rich, therefore this doesn’t apply to me,” we will set it aside and never learn what it has to say to us.  Instead, let’s live in it for awhile. Ask yourself this question – “What if this does apply to me? How can I live differently because of the truth found here?”

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Epistle of James #15 - "Godly Sorrow"


For the contemporary reader, the fourth chapter of James strikes us as odd, especially verses 8-9: "Come near to God, and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom." 

What is that all about? Aren't we supposed to be happy, full of joy and praise?

The answer is in verse 10: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up."

One of the growth areas of the deeper spiritual life is the realization that we have caused pain to God and others. Early on we focus on what others have done to us - and we take on the role of the victim. Then we celebrate the freedom we experience in Christ. But there comes a time when the reality of our sin, and the toll it has taken, must be faced. It is a stark reality. Yes, we have sinned, and what we have done should cause us great sorrow. Godly sorrow. The only answer is to humble ourselves before the Lord.

Grace and peace,

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Epistle of James #14 - More About Words, and Relationships


As we read James' letter, what becomes clear is that James sees the answer to persecution and life's difficulties in the way we treat each other. Our relationship with God, and our relationship with one another, are the best guard against being defeated by the stuggles of life.

This means that we really need each other - and how we treat one another really matters. At the end of chapter 4, (which we will be considering this Sunday), James continues his theme of humility. When we are tempted to believe that we should be in charge, that we are competent to run our own affairs, and that we know best - it is then that we are tempted to move God off the throne of our lives. Instead, pray, seek the discernment and wisdom of others, and read God's word.

One of the amazing things concerning this truth, is that when we make sure God is in control of our lives, we find ourselves in better relationships with God's people. Yes, there will still be disagreements, but we will treat one another appropriately when we are not so concerned with proving that we are the most competent, the smartest, or the one who should be in charge. After all - that position is already occupied.

Grace and peace,

Friday, August 4, 2017

Epistle of James #13 - Sowing Peace


"Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness"  - James 3:18

I love the commentary on this verse from the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible:

"Godly teachers and mature believers seek a harvest of righteousness from what they say and do. The image here of "sowing peace" suggests that righteousness becomes visible in persons who work for peace and live by peaceful rules. This line recalls Jesus' Beatitude" Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9). Self-promoting leaders work against righteousness, lacking as they do what verse 13 mentions as   a "good life" and the "gentleness born of wisdom from above." Just as true faith shows itself in good works, true wisdom shows itself in unselfish, godly conduct."

Grace and peace,

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Epistle of James #12 - More about Wisdom


"The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere." James 3:17

As we talked yesterday in our groups, following worship, several shared that they knew folks who had exactly the kind of wisdom described in this verse. They also knew folks who, while clearly Christians, seem to have exactly the opposite kind of life. 

They are not pure, they are not peace-loving, they are not considerate, they are not submissive, they are not full of mercy and good fruit, nor are they impartial and sincere. 

We are called to love these folks, just as much as we are called to love those who bless us with their God-given wisdom. We are called to pray for them, and even, when possible, take opportunity to ease their pain. 

However, and this is what James wants to make clear, we are not called to follow them, or listen to their divisive rancor. We must carefully choose what voices we listen to. Seek the voice of God, and the voice of those who are also listening to that same voice. How do we know? That is when we return to James 3:17.

Grace and peace,

Friday, July 28, 2017

Epistle of James #11 - The Big Picture

The big picture presented by the Epistle of James is that our faith is evidenced by the way we live. We most often think of this in terms of our individual Christian lives, but, as we know, the Christian life is best understood as "life together." So, what does this life of faith expressed through action look like.

One helpful perspective is that of the 3Ts: Table, Towel, and Talk.

Table - We gather together for the Lord's Supper. We gather together in fellowship. Everyone comes, and everyone comes as equals. As it has been often said, "the ground is level at the foot of the cross." The same can be said for our gatherings at the Table. We come and fellowship. This is where it is best demonstrated, "See how they love one another."

Towel - We serve. We serve one another. We look after one another. And while our focus is looking after the needs of the other - and not primarily focusing on our own needs - when necessary we gratefully receive the help and service of others to meet our needs. (This is hard for me.) And what we learn about service inside the fellowship, we take into the world. When John Wesley said "The world is my parish," he was referring to our shared responsibility to bless and care for people everywhere. So, we pick up our towel and serve.

Talk - Jay McGehean did a great job last Sunday helping us think about how the Spirit can help us "tame the tongue." Our responsibility is to bless and not curse, to say words that lift up God and others, and not bring them down. Sometimes, this means explicitly talking about Jesus and faith. Most times it simply means using our words in ways that are kind, helpful, and encouraging. 

Grace and peace

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Epistle of James #10 - Speaking of Wisdom


There are several great and important lists in the New Testament. 

There are lists of spiritual gifts - skills and abilities given by the Holy Spirit so that we can do the work of the Church and kingdom. Such lists are found in various places, and none of them are meant to be exclusive.

There is the wonderful list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 4. Here the Apostle Paul compares the work of sin with the evidence of holiness, and gives us a wonderful outline of the Holy Spirit's work in transforming us into the people of God. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Galatians 4:22-23) This fruit is the outward evidence of the inward reality of a changed heart in Christ.

In James 3, we are given another list, that is a companion with the lists of spiritual gifts and the fruit of the Spirit. Here we are told what true Godly wisdom looks like. In much the same way as Paul compares the fruit of the Spirit to the works of sin, James compares holy wisdom to that which is called wisdom in the world, but in reality is evidence of a carnal heart. "But the wisdom that comes from God is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere." James 3:17)

These lists serve different purposes. The lists of spiritual gifts help us understand how and where we can serve the church and others. The list of the fruit of the Spirit helps us to know how we are growing, and guides us as we purposely use spiritual practices and disciplines to train and grow mature. 

This final list, the list of the attribute of Godly wisdom and maturity, helps us to be wise as we choose whom we shall follow. As Christians we will be tempted to follow those who seem wise in the ways of the world, what James describes as "wisdom that does not come from above, but is unspiritual and of the Enemy. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and every evil practice." (James 3:15-16) As folllowers of Christ, we must only follow those who demonstrate the wisdom and maturity that comes from God. 

Grace and peace,

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Epistle of James #9 - Every Single Day

July 17, 2017


The central claim of the Epistle of James is that the reality of our spiritual vitality is demonstrated in the everyday-ness of life. Our innermost character and commitments (what John Wesley called our "tempers") are on display for all the world to see. 
And, according to James, it is impossible to put on a show. Eventually, our reality will be revealed. This is especially shown in our speech, but also in in whether we produce selfish ambition, quarrels, double-mindedness and pridefulness; or do we produce peace and humility. Thus, it is not worth the effort to work really hard to try to be good enough. Instead, allow God's Spirit to change us from the inside out.

By the way, if you are ready to hear a really great message concerning our talk - don't miss this Sunday. Jay McGehean is preaching, and I got a glimpse at his notes. Good stuff - and I am already challenged to let God be the Lord of my tongue. Don't miss it!

Grace and peace,

Epistle of James #8 A Special Opportunity

July 11, 2017


Walking alongside someone who is suffering can be really difficult. Empowered by the Spirit, we can bring into their life a moment of peace. However, it is not easy, and for many it does not come naturally.

In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen speaks of this:

"To enter into solidarity with a suffering person does not mean that we have to talk with that person about our own suffering. Speaking about our own wounds is seldom helpful to someone who is in pain. A wounded healer is someone who can listen to a person in pain without having to speak about his or her own wounds. When we have lived through a painful depression, we can listen with great attentiveness and love to a depressed friend without mentioning our experience. Mostly it is better not to direct a suffering person's attention to ourselves. We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole being. That is healing." 

Grace and peace,

Epsitle of James #7 - Looking Forward

July 7, 2017


The people to whom James was writing were tempted to look backwards. In the past, they had seen Jesus. In the past they had seen miracles and healings and thousands fed and cheering crowds. In the past there was a resurrection.

That was all in the past.

The present is filled with persecution and fear and conflict.

James' task, as leader of the church in Jerusalem, is to help them look to the future. To look, not with fear, but with opportunity.

There is always a temptation to look backwards. Churches are especially tempted toward this. We must always remember the past, build on it. But we are called to live in the present, and move forward.

For James, this meant learning to live like Jesus. And learning to live in community, with one another. And to keep focused on mission.

That sounds like a great idea.

Grace and peace,

Epistle of James #6 Rich and Poor

july 6, 2017


These days - and honestly, for most days in the history of the Church - we are tempted to honor the rich as potential patrons and givers to our programs and ministries. We are also tempted to see the rich as somehow better. We value hard work, and assume not only that the rich are where they are because they deserve it, but that the poor are so because they also deserve their place.

James says the poor are rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, and the rich are in big trouble. (Certainly, he is referencing the same concern for the rich that Jesus had when he offered the beautiful hyperbole of the camel  getting through the eye of a needle - told in Matthew, Mark and Luke.) Further, James makes a strong appeal for Christians to avoid divisive distinctions between social classes, and that class lines should not determine the way believers relate to each other.

The insistence is that the Christian faith levels all believers, allowing no pride of place by the rich over the poor. More importantly, followers of Christ should not make wealth their goal, for it brings with it a variety of troubles. Those who are rich, and those who are poor, must give primary attention not to the gaining or keeping of wealth, but growing in the Spirit.

Grace and peace,

Epistle of James #5

June 29, 2017

I appreciate this note in the Wesley Study Bible regarding The Epistle of James:

"For many faith and works are two aspects of Christian living that seem to be in opposition to each other. But not for Wesley! For him, faith and good works are united in God's love. God expresses God's love for us in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ; and we, in turn, express our response to God's love through our good deeds, particularly toward those in need. Wesley identifies God's love in action as 'works of mercy' and 'works of piety.' Works of piety are personal practices that enrich our personal Christian journey, while works of mercy are our systematic practice of loving our neighbor through our deeds and through our identification with our neighbor. Faith and works represent the core of the Christian life - a holistic understanding of life addressing both personal and social aspects." - Wesley Study Bible, p. 1501

I have sometimes felt as if my Christian life was "out of alignment," and regularly hear from others that they feel the same way. For whatever reason, and there are many possible causes, things just don't seem right. One of the best ways to change this situation is to adjust our acts of piety - prayer, fasting, devotional reading, worship, communion. times with other believers, and our acts of mercy - committing ourselves to helping those in need. These are the tools God has given us for life in the Spirit.                  

Grace and peace,

Epistle of James #4 A Practical Guide

June 27, 2017

The Sermon on the Mount - Jesus' core teaching on how to live the kingdom life in the real world, found in Matthew 5 - 7, is challenging stuff. It taxes us with its high standards, so much so that the Church through the ages has often been tempted to claim that it is unattainable, even with the help of the Holy Spirit.

The Epistle of James is a practical commentary and guide on the Sermon on the Mount. Here the brother of Jesus breaks down the call to holiness in such a way that it can make sense to us, one bite at a time. While no less demanding, it is a bit easier to chew.

One such place is found in James 1:27. Here James, addressing the necessity of doing the word and not just hearing it, reminds us of the entirety of the teachings of all of Scripture when he writes, "Religion that God accepts as pure and righteous is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself form being polluted by the world."

That statement rings in harmony, not just with the words of Christ, but also the cries of the Old Testament prophets. It is the constant refrain of those who have, through history, called God's children to live in the heart of the Father. In the day James wrote this, orphans and wdows were the most powerless of persons. They had no status, and were subject to scorn, mistreatment, and rejection. They had no protection, unless others stood up for them. 

This offers us a very contemporary application. We too are called to protect the most vulnerable: the elderly, the poor, the unborn, the marginalized and outcast. As we consider each and every aspect of our lives - including how we vote and how we use our resources, we must consider how our actions and choices impact the most vulnerable. Questions of the best way to help are valid, and differences of opinion can be debated, but our concern for the least of these must be central as we live out our faith as holiness people.

Grace and peace,

Epsitle of James #3 - Disciplining our Desires

June 20, 2017

One of the helpful resources I use for my own spiritual life is the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible. The study notes on the Epistle of James are expansive and deep.

Here, in the study notes, is a statement concerning the passage we discussed this past Sunday, from James 1.

"Temptation is a human problem that can be rightly managed with a disciplined will and an attitude of anticipated good. We can stand up to forces that converge to press us down; we can indeed endure the pressure and win against it. Being "tried" or "tempted" can make us feel so terribly vulnerable, so individually exposed, but we can maintain stability by realizing that the outcome is not determined by what happens to us , but what happens within us. Trusting God's resourcefulness gets us through such extreme times, because faith determines the real outcome. For believers, faith affects everything, and this wisdom (v. 5) must inform our consciousness and form our character. We mature through dealing with what faith must endure." 

We are not left alone. We have one another, and we have the Holy Spirit.

Grace and peace,

The Epistle of James #2 - Each Day

June 15, 2017 
The eighteenth century Christian writer William Law said, "If we are to be new people in Christ, then we must show our newness to the world. If we are to follow Christ, it must be in the way we spend each day."

The Epistle written by James offers us the practical guidelines to do just that. When we read Jesus' great moral teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5-7, we may think, "How can I live this way?" Jesus' brother James helps us. 

Many have said similar words to those stated by President George W. Bush, "We judge ourselves by our best intentions, and others by their worst actions." If we are to be true followers of Christ, making a difference in the world, our intentions must be pure. But those who know us best must also be able to report that our worst actions are fewer, and are less bad. And our actions are becoming more consistent with our intentions. We will never be perfect, but we are to strive to move in that direction - and the Epistle of James helps.

Grace and peace,

Epistle of James - #1

This is the first of several brief devotional thoughts as we study the Epistle of James this summer at Avon Grove.

June 13, 2017  The problems with James
In this brief letter written by James, the brother of Jesus, we are faced with some real problems. James presents faith in Christ as a set of specific practices, that lead us to live in a way different than much of the culture around us. However, in much of the contemporary church, being a Christian is often presented as a technique for happiness and prosperity - a helpful way of getting what we want. In James, Christians suffer because they follow Jesus. 
In some  of the contemporary church, following Jesus is understood as entitling us to places of power and privilege, and this plays out politics and society. There is no place for that in James. 
In much of the church, salvation is something that you believe or feel, In James, salvation is when you walk and talk like Jesus.
The letter sent by the brother of Jesus to fellow disciples calls us to a lived out faith, in intentional community, in which we show love and grace while following Jesus. And it may lead us in places we didn't expect.

Grace and peace,