The Short Story of a Journey in Progress
I emphasized the value of the stories we share in my last essay. In this essay I will have elements of story, including personal story. The best stories tell of journeys both literal and metaphorical, and my story is one of a theological nomad. In our current state of the American church, America herself, and the particular denomination in which I have found a home, I believe this is an important story to tell. Too often, I feel that the claims of scripture that God’s nature is unchanging causes us to assume that our understanding of God cannot change. But that is in itself an unfaithful view of the human beings depicted in scripture. It is especially unfair to the God many of us claim to follow.
I love the tradition in which my faith was born. I remember the countless Sunday School teachers, preachers, ministers, and others who instilled a lasting faith within me. I still nerd out reading and thinking about how that tradition came to be. Their love of the Church and attention to ecclesiology is probably why I speak of the Church and our shared responsibility to be accurate reflections of Jesus as communities of faith. But as I studied the Church in all her complexity, I felt a tug toward a journey. I sojourned with many expressions of the Church, but in my youth I did not venture very far from my non-instrumental churches of Christ background. Of course, the congregational structure leant itself to various expressions, even as there was calcification. My curiosity has always driven me to explore and imagine.
I first encountered an experiential difference in the Charismatic movement. I was within a Jesus People influenced former church of Christ for a few years while studying for ministry at Lipscomb University. I was working and worshipping within churches of Christ in the summers and the weekends, but during the week attended Bible studies and church within that expression. I learned to expect God to work in our lives and in the world during that time. But I was also reading the early Church mothers and fathers and studying Greek and I was increasingly uncomfortable with the narrow understanding of who was the Church.
My last paid ministry position was over thirty years ago in a Disciples of Christ congregation. Not too far from my roots, but definitely part of the American mainline tradition. They were our denominational “cousins” who had strayed in some minds. But it was at that church in the early nineties that I encountered a way to do faithful ministry with radical hospitality. That position stretched and challenged me to rethink what I had learned about church. While short, it was an important ministry and led to me walking away from ministry as I began a long journey as a theological nomad.
My wife Christi grew up Nazarene, but we met at Family Bookstore when I was discovering wider evangelicalism. Early on, we tried several churches, including churches of Christ, various forms of Baptist (including membership at a Free Will Baptist Church for a season), and the Church of the Nazarene (COTN). We eventually settled on a COTN close to us. We were there off an on through the times of four different pastors. But I was not completely sold on Wesleyan-Holiness theology or organized denominations. We were involved and full participants, but not members.
Throughout my nomadic journey, I had dark nights of the soul. It is hard to realize that the things you held dear are no longer what you believe. I empathize with the countless women and men going through deconstruction because I tore my faith down and rebuilt it several times. It can be frightening, refreshing, exciting, and faithful in equal measures. I don’t have a system for deconstructing because I know each person has unique experiences that shape who they are, what they believe, and what they doubt.
One particularly dark period led me to discover a truth about my nomadic journey. That truth turned everything on its head and became the smoldering embers leading to my eventual re-entry into ministry. Christi went through a very challenging period of health. She was so sick without understanding what the root cause and thus treatment could be. It took years for me to tell her how I struggled with faith and faithfulness to God during that period. I stood strong for her as I would sit in the dark when she was frightened by the illness. I prayed prayers even as I believed my prayers to be fraudulent. But Christi’s faithfulness in doubt and pain was stronger than my own doubts. She persevered like Job in the unknowing and pain. It was in this time that I learned that faith and doubt are not opposites, but so close that they are often the same thing. Funny enough, I found some answers in the cesspool of Reddit.
I encountered some younger Nazarenes in that wild, anonymous place. There is also an Anglican Bishop whose wisdom and writings helped me to see a way out of the darkness. Those Nazarenes were describing Wesleyan-Holiness theology and spirituality as a beautiful and inviting story of a God who lures us into relationship. Coupled with the Bishop’s sacramental descriptions of worship, stirred my imagination. I began investigating the denomination I was attending and even joined the now defunct NazNet online forum. I still have online friends from that time of searching and learning who stretch and challenge me. They helped me shed years of crusty theology and discover a way to describe my theological experience.
Some of those friends have shared deeply in my life and journey to ordination in the COTN. I also first encountered my friend Tom Oord on NazNet. It was there that the idea of a God who is love is also uncontrolling took hold. The open and relational theology within a Wesleyan-Holiness context led me to a faithful response to the call God had invited me into as a teenager. Through my subsequent study and imagination, I realized I did theology like I had played jazz. I was improvising with the various voices I heard on my journey. I believe this is what Wesley did as well. I explain a bit about that idea in another post linked here. I came to see my center and language of improvisation firmly in a Wesleyan-Holiness context. The wider Christian tradition informs that theology while I remain in a particularity.
My favorite theological podcast is Homebrewed Christianity because Tripp Fuller brings such a breadth of theological, academic, sociological, and other views to converse with one another. The ideas and people he invites us to engage with stir the imagination and show how we can do theology and faithfulness within traditions while being open to learning from others. That podcast is a microcosm of what I wish all theological discussion could be. Do many of us believe our centers are more meaningful to us? Of course, but that doesn’t make them the only, or even the best expression. Humility should rule the day when we talk about the things of God and faith. Take a journey through the Hebrew prophets and then the claims of the New Testament writers to get a feeling of how humility makes you rethink your entire view of God in light of an upheaval like the Christ event.
When we improvise, the beauty is in the possibilities. Where will the cooperative combo take us? We have theologians in Wesleyan-Holiness who have done this. In the twentieth century, people like Wynkoop conversed with process and other ideas as they invited us to reconnect with our Wesleyan streams. Grider had shifts based on experience. Tom Oord and Craig Keene often disagree about theological suppositions, but they converse and bring wisdom for us to work through. Randy Maddox, H Ray Dunning, Diane Leclerc, Brent Peterson, Tim Gaines, Zack Hunt, Nick Polk and others whom I have encountered stretch us and help us grow. These and others form my Community of Holiness in which I have improvisational conversations and grow. Ultimately, our faithfulness is in our response to God. As Aaron Simmons says, our faith is “risk with direction.”
This is why those groups who want to shrink our tent, enforce uniformity, or take us back to a kind of “Rosy Retrospection” cause so much havoc. Wesleyan-Holiness people are relational and willing to find commonality throughout history - when we are at our best that is. When we turn into enforcers and get seduced by right thinking over right relationship, we lose our way. Power, money, and fear can drive that seductive turn. But we are Wesleyan-Holiness people and our ancestor in this was someone who was willing to go against the grain in showing the transformative power of relationship in love.
As we watch many being torn apart by our current environment, Christi has asked me what happens if those who wish to narrow succeed. She has asked where we would end up or what our continued journey would look like. I’m not sure as I hope we do not become that which we are not. But what I know is that optimism says we can harmoniously converse with one another and make beautiful and unexpected music together like the great jazz combos. We just need to remember to trust one another and be willing to see each other as God sees us.
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