Thursday, February 26, 2015

Let's Be Honest

I have some problems. We all do, of course, but I have some particular problems. I tend to be pretty obsessive-compulsive. I've not been diagnosed, mind you, but I'm sort of worried about the result were I to ask. Related to this, I've got a bit of a perfectionist streak. Sometimes these quirks can join forces to be a real problem, occasionally paralyzing.

If I think about a decision (and, boy do I think - it's taken me 18 months to replace a pair of shoes, and that is not at all an exaggeration), really mull it over and choose what I think it best, then I'm ok with failure. I might replay it over and over for a while to try and learn from the mistake for the future, but I'm generally ok. If I make the wrong choice without having spent time considering it, I will dwell on it for days - even something very simple.

There's a lot of guilt in my life. Mentally, intellectually, I completely understand it's unearned. I recognize people make mistakes and no one's perfect, and all that stuff. It just doesn't feel that way in the moment. I tend to respond with self-loathing or abject rage, at the very least a strong sense of embarrassment.

I've been seeing a counselor lately, to try and weed through these various threads connecting my past and my actions and my thoughts and emotions. It's been helpful. Of course this process also brings with it a fair bit of introspection. I've always spent a lot of time thinking about why I do things. Now I spend even more.

This week I've been thinking about the tension that exists growing up in the Church of the Nazarene and our particular ways of speaking about holiness. (For those who don't know, holiness is, pretty much, the reason our denomination exists.) My upbringing was pretty typical of an evangelical holiness tradition. We were taught people should be saved, basically intellectual assent to the idea of Jesus as God and savior of the world. Beyond that, though, there's also this thing called sanctification, a miracle working of God's Holy Spirit that cleanses one of a propensity to sin - not that you become perfect, but given a choice, you're capable of choosing good. This new life is called holiness.

There are a lot of intricacies that go into the explanation of this process for our tribe - something I have no desire or time to go into here - but this was the basic outline of my understanding of life and faith. This sanctification part was always kind of mysterious to me. I got that it didn't make you sinless or perfect, but that there was some real change wrought supernaturally in a person. Something noticeable and real.

I'm not sure I ever really bought into that kind of thing until it happened to me. Shortly after college I was pretty directionless. I'd never planned for my life after college and I felt pretty purposeless. I was listening to a band rehearsing some worship music and was simply struck by a feeling of hopelessness - an emotional/spiritual rock-bottom, as if my attempt to run my own life had finally and completely run its course. I spent close to an hour just weeping and admitting to myself and God that I could not do life on my own. I needed someone else to make the decisions. When the night was over, I felt different. I was changed. A lot of things changed. Parts of my personality were forever altered. I was different. I believe that.

But it wasn't the kind of different I expected from my upbringing. It was a different different.

Part of that experience, or shortly thereafter, was a calling to preach. Within 18 months, I'd gotten married and we'd moved to Kansas City where I was attending seminary. This was a great experience and a real chance to explore exactly what all of this meant. I got to reading scripture more closely. I got to read John Wesley (the guy from whom all of this particular take on holiness descends). I made a lot of discoveries.

Most importantly, I saw how John Wesley described "entire sanctification." It wasn't all that different from how I'd been taught. I found, however, that Wesley never claimed sanctification for himself; beyond that he guessed perhaps no more than a handful of people in all of England (where he lived) had ever been entirely sanctified, and, if so, they only maintained it for a few weeks. This was quite different from what I'd been taught. In fact, the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene, to this day, requires a testimony of entire sanctification even for service on a local congregational governing board.

Throughout the process of my schooling and training I underwent annual interviews for a minister's license and, ultimately, for ordination. I think there were eight interviews total. Holiness came up in a lot of them. I don't think I ever claimed to be sanctified (although early on I may have checked the box out of habit). I relayed pretty much everything I've included here and those boards were satisfied I met the requirement.

The more I look at it though, the more it seems my experience lines up much more with what Wesley called salvation. He was a long-time priest before he had what he called a salvation experience. Intellectual assent was not enough for him. This moment of transformation, when your heart and will are turned away from self-interest and towards God, Wesley called that becoming a Christian. That's pretty similar to the way it was described in my seminary theology classes, too. Dr. Tom Noble, one of the greatest and smartest men I've ever known, told us that if one's will is not aligned with God's, then you're probably not yet saved.

Dr. Nobel is also the only person I've met who was actually able to describe what a second work, beyond that salvation experience might look like. He knows what he believes about sanctification and how it differs from salvation. I'll be honest, I believe he knows what he's talking about, but I was never able to understand it - and I've spent a lot of time trying.

I've had that experience I was always taught I needed, but it certainly didn't feel like what they said. Oh, sure, there have been times, sometimes quite extended periods, where I've felt like I was supposed to - like I could make the right decision, even if it was difficult and succeed at doing it over and over again. But that hasn't been my experience at all times.

I'll admit it. Sometimes I know the good I ought to do and I don't do it. That's sin (almost word for word from the Bible).

While I'm fairly certain a few people can exist on that plane of holiness, the way I was taught, I'm fairly confident that most of the people in our denomination required to testify to that experience probably aren't - at least not all the time.

Don't get me wrong. I believe in holiness. I believe God can and does change us, as we allow, over time into people more like Christ, people who think less about themselves and more towards the needs of others, people who love unconditionally and are willing to suffer with those who suffer. It's part of this crisis/process debate we Nazarenes have been having for some time. It's not difficult to see the process and it's not difficult to see the crisis, but it's awfully difficult to see how this works out practically.

This standard of holiness is sort of used and not used when it's convenient. As adults we sort of understand the practical nature of grace and responsibility. Life is messy and things aren't always cut and dry. It makes sense rationally. But that rational part of my brain is having a hard time dealing with the part of my brain raised with the notion of perfection as the goal. We Nazarenes do a good job of clarifying our terminology - sin doesn't quite mean what most people take it to mean, and neither does perfection. I get that, too. But I didn't always get it. Those early lessons are hard to overcome.

Now I'm not blaming my psychological issues solely on theology - there is a lot of other personal stuff that goes along with it - at the same time, it sure doesn't help. If a person believes perfection is the expectation, then they are never good enough and always a failure. It seems as though people feel that way enough on their own, without (even unintentional) religious practice reinforcing it. The gospel really tells people the opposite: we are all good enough; we are all loved and valuable and important; even if we fail and fall short we are still loved.

That doesn't absolve us of responsibility or exempt us from facing the consequences of our actions, but it does speak to our fundamental value as people.

I'm not sure my tribe has done a very good job of forming ourselves around that idea. The very holiness we talk about so much is really only possible once we get over the notion that we can get it all right. We've always been very good about making that clear for people... until they're sanctified, then there's an expectation that those days are over. Like I said, it may very well work that way for some people - it hasn't for me, and I'm guessing I'm not alone.

It's strange that I've felt nervous writing this whole time. It's not a big deal to admit I'm not perfect, or at least it shouldn't be - but, as an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, it sort of feels like it is. Even by that definition which exempts unintentional mistakes from perfection, I'm still not perfect. I choose selfishly all the time, to the detriment of my family and friends. I do so willingly, sometimes even knowing it's wrong when I do it.

I recognize how that fits theologically and I can put it within the framework outlines above. I know how it works within notions of holiness - I am definitely more Christ-like now than I was last week or last year, let alone a decade ago. I'm just not as good as I always believed I should be. I don't think I'm as good as the Manual of my denomination expects me to be.

I know we're often a gracious people. I've experienced it time and again. We're certainly better at dealing with people honestly than we've been in the past. But what we say, in writing, and what we do, in practice, don't really line up that well with each other. It's harmed me in the past. I know it's harmed others. I suspect this implied expectation of perfection has been behind a lot of trouble our denomination has had in recent years. We're just not able to cut each other slack because we've always held this notion of perfection up as right to rule - the most holy people are the ones in charge, so the ones in charge must, at least, appear holier than everyone else.

I know that's not who we are at our core, but it's sure who we appear to be.

I'm not sure if or how long it might take to get over these mental blocks in my head constantly telling me I need to be perfect, that preventable mistakes are wrong and make me less valuable. I doubt I'm alone in battling these lies. But perhaps it's time to just admit we're human.

When I tell people what exactly we mean by holiness, I often say we believe that we can live the kind of life God intends for us to live right here and right now - we don't have to wait for heaven. I believe that. I'm just less and less convinced that life looks like one without error. I suspect it's more likely a life in which love and grace can be expected at all times.

I know we don't live in a world where that's true, but perhaps we should be able to be part of a Church where it is.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Swiper the Fox

So, after all the drama of the past week (and ongoing), I thought I'd just calm it down a little. My daughter watches Dora, as, I imagine, do lots and lots of little kids (and, since the show debuted fifteen years ago, not so little kids). I'm sure they put less effort into planning this show than I do thinking about it, but Dora continues to amaze me in the ways in subtly disseminates some pretty awesome social lessons. On this day, it's Swiper the Fox.

Swiper is, as you might have guessed, a fox. He generally shows up to swipe things. He takes stuff and hides it nearby, thus requiring Dora (with help from kids watching at home) to find it. Sometimes Swiper is slow and Dora's mild rebuke, "Swiper, no swiping" helps him come to his senses and give up his klepto-quest.

Ostensibly, Swiper is a villain. But there are no villains on Dora. They're very good about separating people from what they do. Dora and her crew readily admit swiping is wrong, they continually reject Swiper's actions, but they never seem to reject him. He gets invited to parties, he gets cards like other people. When there are special cookies for everyone, Swiper's right on the list. There are no "good guys" and "bad guys" in Dora's world.

It would be easy for us to laugh and say, "what a wonderful childhood fantasy." I could even see some people upset we're not preparing these kids for the real world (as if this is the job of cartoon monkeys, et al). I find the opposite true. It's a beautiful depiction of the world as it is. Our society tends to send the message of "good guys" and "bad guys," because it serves the interests of power, but, in reality, we're all people. As much as we don't want to admit it, that makes us all essentially the same. The very best of our actions are possible from any of us; so are the very worst.

There are no bad people, just people doing bad things. Yes, our actions shape us and change us, but they only do so in how we respond to things. They change our actions and our inclinations. They don't change us. Deep down, we're still the same people, even if our humanity is lost beneath the effects of a lifetime of evil.

Obviously, Dora's world is far more simplistic than the real world. She doesn't face the sort of existential challenges that exist in ours, but her world does offer some picture of what the world could be. I say that with gospel hope. My faith tells me the future is a world in which we're all loved and valued as the humans we are. At some point, we may reach a world where bad actions are removed, but until then, we're still called to treat people like people.

Swiper gets to participate in the world of Dora, despite his propensity to swipe. He takes and hides and is cruel for no real reason, yet he's treated as one with a specific place in the system. That is not to say we need evil to emphasize good, but simply that all are welcome, all are included, all are loved. Exclusion comes from our own choice; it's not forced on us - at least in the world as it should be.

Dora might be seen as foolish. She continues to treat Swiper well, even as his presence tends to be bad news. She approaches him as if the past is no indication of the future (the story is a bit different when he approaches her, but then again, the challenge is only to his actions, not Swiper himself). I admire the lesson Dora is teaching my daughter. If we really believe that love will win, that love can change the world, it's something worth being foolish for. Dora gets that. I hope my daughter will, too.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

NPH Follow Up

Well, the good people on the Interim NPH Board have made public their entire report to the Nazarene General Board. It goes into pretty specific detail about the process of "merger" with NPH, the election and dismissal of Gerald Smith as President and the financial ramifications of the process. It also comes with recommendations for improvement in the future. Many of these recommendations are common sense or standard practice for most businesses and organizations, but at least they're out there for review and attention.

I've been following all of this with interest for a while. I have my own connection to this whole thing through time I spent working at Nazarene headquarters during seminary. The other day I put together a post, explaining the narrative as I knew it, and asking for the General Board to be open and honest in moving forward. Even through all the conversations and documents, even in rumors and stories I'd never heard anyone claim Smith had asked for $1.8m outright in exchange for the gift. That was shocking. Even more shocking is the indication in this report that his request was granted. Now this money was to be paid from Premier profits, which didn't exist, so he may never have received these funds. In any event, the mere acquiescence to this exchange is beyond troubling.

This report is a wonderful start. I'm not sure how NPH could be more open and honest with the public about its happening, nor do I think they could be any more gracious in challenging the denomination to perform better in the future. Still, we need something more. The General Board must respond to this. There must be a similar investigation into the Board itself and the operations of Nazarene headquarters. We need the same candor and honesty from the Board of General Superintendents and the other leaders involved in this process. The NPH report is only one part of the whole.

We're passed the point of exacting punishment. That's not exactly the Christ-like thing to do anyway. Those who made mistakes at NPH are gone. I don't know if there is a need to remove others in denominational leadership, mostly because we don't really know who played what role. I tend to think this has more to do with the system than the individuals. If the system is broken, it doesn't matter what individuals we plug into it, we're only asking for trouble. I do believe a report like this can spur us to the change we need, but our General Board needs to respond in kind. It needs to be done with the kind of grace, candor, and transparency that NPH has modeled for us. It's been a while since NPH was out in front leading the Church of the Nazarene, but perhaps this report can be the beginning of a return to such leadership.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

NPH and the Nazarene General Board

I don't know what to say here, honestly. The Nazarene General Board is meeting next week. This is the governing body for my denomination. Leaders will come from literally all over the globe to give guidance to this crazy tribe called The Church of the Nazarene. One of the most important issues they'll have to face is how to deal with the sordid happenings at Nazarene Publishing House over the last year.

I've put a summary together of the history of this particularly difficult situation - you can read it here.*

NPH is back running again, much smaller than it was before and with a still tenuous future. They've got a new, streamlined board, one without the typical close ties to denominational hierarchy. They will present a report to the General Board. From what I've been told, this report will be kept private, perhaps only presented in Executive Session. I hope, hope, hope, I've heard wrong.

This sort of privacy is what got NPH into trouble in the first place. Handling things behind closed doors has been a long tradition in the Church of the Nazarene and we've really paid a price for it. Furthermore, while that sort of behavior may have been the norm within all sorts of corporate structures in the past, it's just not true anymore. People need transparency.

I recognize a lot of good, well-meaning people made some terrible mistakes in all this mess. More public statements and transparency will make their regret and embarrassment more pronounced. It's honorable to want to protect them as much as possible. But the truth is, those mistakes have been made already. We know what they were (at least we've got a pretty good idea of it). I'm well beyond the point of anger at any one person. I don't want anyone fired. I want our broken system fixed.

We don't have any sort of whistle-blower policies in place at our denominational headquarters. People who know of problems are afraid to bring them to light. That has to change. We've operated on relational trust more than hard facts, where things get done by handshakes and connections. That works, to some extent, when you're small and insular - but it's not going to work anymore.

The structure we have in place no longer serves the best needs of the denomination. The Board of General Superintendents exercises far more power in practice than they have by polity - that's dangerous for even the most holy of people.

I've been told decisions about the future of NPH and how to handle the problems of the past year will be left in the hands of the General Board. They'll decide what is made public and what is kept behind closed doors. I'm a little skeptical, to be honest, since the BGS and the General Secretary typically set the agenda for these proceedings and have been less than open during this process. I hope the General Board will make the choice for transparency. We've got some dirty laundry in the family. It's sad, but true. It's time for us to lay it out in the light of day so we can heal and move on.

In the narrative summary linked above, I put forth a request for some sort of Truth and Reconciliation type procedure, whereby those involved can explain their part in the NPH matter and be forgiven. People don't need to be raked over the coals. No one expects our leaders to be perfect. The Church of the Nazarene is full of love and forgiveness. We simply need to know what exactly happened, why it happened, and how we're going to prevent it from happening again.

I don't need to agree with the direction my denomination's leaders go, in fact, I probably disagree more than I agree. I don't need to agree, but I do need to trust. I need to trust that our leaders, our structure, and our process is functioning ethically and efficiently and, most importantly, in the mode of Christ. I'm just not convinced of that.

It pains me to say it, but it's true. The NPH affair involved massive monetary losses, but the response has been mostly an attempt to smooth over the problems, not fix them. This might be the largest scale issue we've faced, but it's certainly not the first. Without changes in structure and process, clearly outlined, with means of accountability, it's difficult to believe the same problems won't creep up again.

I don't expect the General Board to make huge changes. It is responsible to wait for the General Assembly, but we need some signal that it's being taken seriously. Having the NPH report presented in private is the exact opposite of what's needed. I hear that NPH report might contain some unflattering opinions about the actions and attitudes of the denominational administration towards NPH. That could be difficult to hear, but those grievances need to be aired.

If we really are the family we so often claim to be - I've seen first hand how Nazarenes from around the world can meet and find common acquaintances within minutes, an impressive feat for a denomination of 2+ million - we need to be willing to have the tough discussions, live with disagreements, work together. But to do so, we all need to be in on the conversation. Yes, we elect representatives to run things, but we don't elect them to shield us from reality.

If anyone has survived in the Church of the Nazarene for any length of time, it's because we love this denomination and the holiness ethic around which it's built. We want to be a strong force for good in the world. No one wants to see us weakened. We love the Church of the Nazarene. We love the publishing house that's supported and nurtured it for so many years. We love our elected leaders, who execute some of the most difficult responsibilities imaginable. And because of that great love, this just can't be left alone. We can't sweep another problem under the rug and hope for the best next time.

Let's put it all on the table, cry and grieve together, forgive and forge a new path to better enable us to be the people God's called us to be in the future.

*This narrative was shaped and formed by a lot of conversations over a long period of time. It's been amended and adjusted considerably over time. Much of the documentary evidence forming the outline of this narrative can be found linked from this page. I may still have some things wrong. I would love to be in conversation about where this narrative can be further refined to better reflect the reality of the situation.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

My Best Friend's Funeral by Roger W Thompson

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

My Best Friend's Funeral is a memoir. The real subject, though, is tough to pin down. It's about two friends, Roger and Tim, who found each other and the beginning of adolescence, and shared an unbreakable bond, through thick and thin, until one, Tim, was taken away, in a car accident at the age of thirty-three.

The funeral in the title is Tim's - and it's set up as a framing device for Roger to process his life and figure out how to find purpose and meaning. There's more to the memoir, though. It's a story of a kid who loves his dad, then loses him to drugs and death. It's about being a teenager and figuring out your place in the world. It's about surfing and skating. Then it's about being an adult and finding your place in the world all over again.

It's a Christian memoir, but only barely - in a good way. There's no insider language, no evangelism. Faith is central to life for these characters, but church is tangential. The purpose sought and found is more universal. This is a memoir about life. It's exceedingly accessible and it's very, very real. There are no cliches or easy answers. It's a story, very well written, about one guy and what he figured out about life.

It's mostly a narrative and although you know throughout where it's going to end up, you don't know how and you're waiting in anticipation for why the narrative is so important to begin with. I'm sure I missed out on a good chunk of the value not having shared the same experience of loss, but it's a darn good story nonetheless.

I'm not sure the end pays of as well as the reader would like (but again, I'm likely missing something important in fully appreciating the journey). It's a good book. Well worth checking out.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”