August 2012


In the midst of what is honestly a rather mediocre movie is a scene that has remained embedded in my memory ever since the only time I’ve watched it. Well I’ve gone back and seen this particular clip a time or two, the rest of the movie was “meh” so I haven’t sat through the whole thing again. The movie is Red Planet, starring Val Kilmer, Carrie Ann Moss, Benjamin Bratt and The Mentalist…er, I mean Simon Baker. (I had to be sure that I wasn’t confusing it with the movie Mission to Mars, since they were released about the same time. Ya know, kinda like Armageddon and Deep Impact were released the same summer, only the two movies about Mars were far less memorable.) Since there isn’t a good set of clips that tells everything you need to know, let me set up the scene for you…

Like most other movies that have their setting on “Mars,” this was set in the future when earth was running out of space and resources needed to sustain the life of our planet’s inhabitants. After a prior mission had gone to Mars to set up a large greenhouse of sorts to establish life through vegetation so that oxygen could begin to be introduced on Mars, the plot of the film involves the second mission, which involved the first humans to check up on the project and its progress. As the majority of the group took a smaller shuttle to the surface from the larger craft, which remained in orbit around Mars, they ran into some difficulty and realized that they would be in need of the oxygen that was present in the greenhouse. As they are moving toward the location of the greenhouse, they see the reflections of the sun against the shiny frame from a distance and their hearts immediately grew with excitement. However, their joy quickly turned to dread as they drew nearer and discovered that the greenhouse had been utterly destroyed and the frame was all that was left. To their knowledge and by the evidence of lifelessness before their eyes, they were without oxygen and thus, without hope of making it out alive. Some interesting things happened when they discovered this, including a fight that breaks out where one man gets thrown from a cliff to his quick demise. But the rest decide to just sit there and allow their oxygen tanks to run out and the question is asked right before this clip of what symptoms they would be experiencing as they were going to suffocate to death by lack of oxygen…

What happens next is Kilmer’s character realizes that he’s able to breathe Mars’ air and he quickly tells his colleagues that they can take off their masks and keep living. That raised the question of mystery: where did this air come from? And the rest of the movie is their search for where there might be some green things and life on the planet, which they discover not too long thereafter.

The metaphor always gripped me of the sufficiency of what was unseen in the air around them. We’re sometimes told of another world, another kingdom which is breaking in and invites us to participate, but there is sometimes difficulty in trusting the grace of what (or Who) is not seen. Earlier today, I was with a group of men praying over a friend and his daughter. One man asked that God’s grace would “flood” their lives. I began thinking about the issue of breathing and the impossibility of doing so underwater. Why would we pray for this? But I soon remembered the message of trusting that God would enable us to breathe in this new life. And my mind was brought back to this scene in the movie.

As far as they knew, the world in which they were stuck was full of aridity and lifelessness, or at the very least, an atmosphere to which their lungs could not possibly adapt. In one act of desperation (or perhaps it was mere luck or accident), one person took the leap and discovered that there was life in the midst of a seemingly lifeless world…that there was hope in the midst of a seemingly hopeless world. (Hitting near home yet?) And that unlocked the door for the search of where this was coming from. The goal became, in a sense, “Let’s get to the source of this Life.” That’s part of what I understand when thinking about the Kingdom of God: now & not yet; already inaugurated but still waiting to fully realized until the end; and hence, this search marks the race of kingdom living. Or, as I recall Robert Mulholland in chapel once paraphrased the request in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”: “Nurture us today for kingdom living.” Lord of heaven and earth, enable me to breathe in your life as your kingdom continues to come on earth as it is in heaven.

Advertisements

Many readers of this blog, friends of mine in person and on facebook, and followers from twitter are aware of the educational journey I have been on for the past 3+ years in pursuit of a PhD in Wesley Studies at Nazarene Theological College (NTC), whose degrees are conferred by the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Several of my classes in seminary at Asbury, from which I graduated in 2006, centered upon the theology of the atonement, and this drove me to investigate the doctrine of the atonement in the theology of John Wesley.  In January 2009, after a couple of years getting acquainted to fatherhood in the arrival of Sam into our family, discerning the specific topic I wanted to pursue in my doctoral research, and applying and being accepted into NTC’s PhD program, I began fully investigating this issue, focusing in particular on how Wesley’s atonement theology stood in line or at odds with the diverse theological tradition of the Church of England, in which he was raised, ordained, and remained faithful as clergyman until his death.

View of one of the buildings on NTC’s campus. It’s truly a beautiful place and community in which to study! (Photo credit: http://www.nazarene.ac.uk)

Well, it is with a great deal of sadness but also a great sense of peace that I announce that my pursuit of this degree has come to an end. Although the crayons started making a few subtle marks on the wall a little over a year ago, it really didn’t become fully evident that the end was near until a couple of months ago.

As my family and I moved back to the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church for me to re-enter my calling for pastoral ministry, my hope was that I would continue in the program, getting research done when possible at home and continuing my visits to Manchester for 4 weeks per year until I could conclude, which was to be by May of 2014. But as financial resources/assistance began to run dry, as I could tell that time was running short, and even as my attention to the research and desire to make the time kept deteriorating, which was easily noticed by Carrie, she point-blank asked me as we were going to bed one night in early July: “So, are you going to finish your PhD?”

The weight of the question hit me like a load of bricks and after a very long pause where I felt like I was holding my breath, Carrie asked if I was still awake and still thinking about the question. I chuckled a little, said “Yes, I’m still awake” and then began weeping. Here I was in a home (parsonage) that was still quite new, in a community I hardly knew at all, away from most of my dear friends who have been alongside of me during this entire educational journey. Of course, I knew I didn’t have to answer the question right then and there in the middle of the night, but I already had the suspicion that the time had come for me to shut the door on this dream/wish I had been pursuing. Since my district superintendent was on leave for the month of July and I didn’t want to make a decision that might have some bearing on my ordination process, I decided to devote my prayers for the remainder of the month for God’s clear direction, my calling and investigating the desires of my heart. Carrie and I asked a few close friends to join us in these prayers, which they did.

During that time, my suspicions were confirmed and I began making the necessary appointments and having conversations with the folks who needed to be made more aware or would be directly affected by such a decision. These conversations took place over the course of the month of August. What was great about all of these meetings and discussions was that everyone wanted to make sure that I wasn’t being forced out of this against my wishes by external forces like financial limitations, travel/time-off restrictions, or limited accessibility to the research resources that would be needed to support the argument(s) I was seeking to make. But what was also communicated to me was that they had my support regardless of the decision I made as I was seeking the will of God in doing what was best for me and my family. To everyone reading this who offered that support either explicitly or implicitly, I deeply feel your prayerful encouragement and advocacy as I have gone through this sort of grieving process on the closure of this endeavor I was pursuing.

Two main questions have risen to the surface in the wake of my decision to withdraw from the PhD program and pursuit: 1. What should/can I do with the research and writing I have done to date in the program? 2. What, if anything, is next on the educational front?

With regard to the former, one of my causes for hesitating on this decision was the fear that the work I’ve done in researching and writing on the atonement in the past few years would go to waste if I didn’t go on and complete the dissertation/thesis. I don’t want that to be the case, but want to contribute to the field of Wesleyan theology or to find a way to adapt the writing to make it accessible more for a lay and/or pastoral audience. To that end, I’m going to spend some time in organizing the work into something cohesive to submit it to a scholarly journal for hopeful publication or develop a primer or short book on the atonement from a Wesleyan theological perspective.

The answer to the second question depends on what directions are given to me by the Board of Ordained Ministry as I apply for provisional membership in pursuit of ordination as elder. To be ordained as an elder in The United Methodist Church, the Book of Discipline requires the ordinand complete a Master of Divinity (MDiv) or its equivalent. My masters degree at Asbury Seminary was a Master of Arts in Theological Studies and was a few hours shy of a full MDiv. So it all will depend on how I respond to the questions as I am interviewed by the Board of Ordained Ministry and their evaluation of my transcripts as to what additional coursework would be deemed necessary so that my education would qualify as the “equivalent” of MDiv. So both you and I will have to stay tuned on this front.

Thanks for reading! And if you have suggestions or questions, please comment or ask me!

John Wesley saw the practice of preaching as “offering Christ” and proclaiming Christ in all his offices: Prophet, Priest, and King. Watch this short video, produced by Seedbed, where Michael Pasquarello, preaching professor at Asbury Seminary, expands on the importance of preaching for the early Methodists. I hope that in my preaching and in my living, I am offering Christ to those around me.

Seven Minute Seminary: John Wesley and Preaching – YouTube.

The last couple of weeks have been rather busy as I’ve been preparing for speaking at revival services at Post Oak UMC, and an additional service at another church near Camden that invited me to speak on one night of their revival. So that’s why it’s been a little bit since my last post.

At Post Oak’s revival, I wanted to open the window a little bit into the world of what’s been driving my research throughout my graduate and postgraduate journeys as I have been investigating the doctrine of the atonement, in particular from a Wesleyan/Methodist perspective. So I decided to do a series on some of Jesus’ statements from the cross recorded in the Gospels. Jesus’ dying words have been significant in uncovering the mystery and story of our salvation as it has been achieved through the Incarnation, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Cover of Adam Hamilton’s ‘Final Words from the Cross,’ which was a very quick read, but beneficial in offering pastoral words that convey the significance of Jesus’ dying words. I heartily recommend this book. Photo credit: sony.com

In the statements he uttered and shouted from the cross, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness, of hope and promise, of provision and encouragement to care for others, of his own need, of bold faith and empathy with the human condition in our times of feeling abandoned, of victory, and ultimately of submission to the will of his Father. These words are moving for us as the speak not only of Christ’s work for us, but also of his work in us, enabling us to offer the same words to those around us as we follow our crucified Messiah.

What I found particularly interesting is the timing of this series and how it coincided quite well in expanding the content of my message  on the Sunday morning on the day the revival started. My message last Sunday was based on the Lectionary reading from Ephesians 4-5, with the key verse being 5:1, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children.”

While most impersonators in comedy sketches today focus their energy on perfecting the tone, accent, and appearance of the famous persons they are imitating, the type of imitation of God that St. Paul encourages us in is in having the same attitudes and feelings, actions, and even words of God. That is, if we are beloved children of God, we imitate God by saying what God says. Again, the Holy Spirit enables us to imitate Christ in our suffering by offering the words of forgiveness, hope, encouragement, pain, thirst, victory, and submission to God.

“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ…” Ephesians 3:18 (Photo credit: soulgrit.wordpress.com)

In the midst of St. Paul’s letter to the churches in and around Ephesus, Paul lifts up this glorious prayer that his audience would have the ability to know the immensity of Christ’s love. The four dimensions are illustrated in the depiction of the cross and I really like the way that John Wesley expounded on these dimensions in his Notes on the New Testament. Here’s how Wesley described it:

What is the breadth of the love of Christ – Embracing all mankind. And length – From everlasting to everlasting. And depth – Not to be fathomed by any creature. And height – Not to be reached by any enemy.”

Love’s breadth (or width) – or as Wesley elaborated, Christ’s love is one that is “embracing all mankind.” There is no nation, group, family – no person – who is beyond God’s love. Now on the surface everyone reading this may not have too much difficulty nodding in agreement with that, but let that general statement be applied to people who you find difficult to like or love: no terrorist, no immoral dictator, no dirty politician, no IRS agent, no murderer, no adulterer, no addict, no dead beat dad, no one…is beyond the love of God. When Paul speaks of the immensity of the breadth or width of Christ’s love, we get a vision of just how generous God is in giving his love. Even the deranged mind of a cannibal named Jeffrey Dahmer was able to taste and know God’s love and forgiveness.

Love’s length – or as Wesley elaborated, Christ’s love is “from everlasting to everlasting.” In the Gloria Patri that is often sung reminds us of God’s glory and that his love has existed “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.” Michael W. Smith wrote a song “Never been unloved.” He listed off the many adjectives that could be true if spoken of his life when Smith wrote, “I have been unfaithful … unworthy … unrighteous … unmerciful … unreachable … unteachable … unwilling … undesirable … unwise … undone by what I’m unsure of unbroken … unmended … uneasy … unapproachable … unemotional … unexceptional … undecided … unqualified … unaware … unfair … unfit …” But even though he’s found himself described by these “un-“s he recognizes that “it’s because of you [Jesus] and all that you went through, I know that I have never been unloved.” There has never been a time and never will be a time that you have not or will not be unloved, friend!

Love’s depth – or as Wesley said, Christ’s love is so deep as “not to be fathomed by any creature.” Perhaps, though difficult, we can grasp that God loves everyone and that he has always loved everyone and always will…but the “depth” language is where we really have the most difficulty and are faced with the impossibility of grasping it. If you go diving into the depths of the sea, the deeper you go, the less you can see because the light of the sun diminishes the deeper you go. The Apostles’ Creed says that we believe Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried.” Buried. The darkness is where we bury things. We don’t talk about them. They’re down deep and we don’t want to bring them up. Christ’s love is deep enough to dig it out and redeem it. He had to die and be buried to dig us out of death.

Love’s height – or as Wesley said, Christ’s love is so much as “not to be reached by any enemy.” The height of Christ’s love is that he doesn’t leave us in the depths. Christ’s love is a victorious one for it does not permit sin and death to have the final word. Otherwise love is weak and grace is cheap, as if Christ were to say “I love you but you can stay there in darkness.” If we only knew the depths of Christ’s love but not the height, then we’re just allowing Jesus to polish the chains to hold us in bondage.

Let’s jump in to the ocean of God’s endless love in Christ and maybe together we can grasp more and more just how broad and long and deep and high Christ’s love really is.