• COVER STORY

    The Way We Work: A Conversation with Dan Boone on Vocation and Sabbath-keeping

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RECOGNIZING THAT POLITICS IS NOT SOMETHING "YOU CAN DISCUSS IN POLITE COMPANY," TIM AND SHAWNA GAINES HAVE NONETHELESS OFFERED A RESOURCE FOR OPENING OURSELVES UP TO THE POLITICAL MEANING OF OUR FAITH IN CHRIST. THIS MEANING TRANSCENDS THE POLITICS OF OUR DAY, AND HAS PROFOUND CONSEQUENCES FOR OUR ENGAGEMENT WITH THEM. I HAD THE PRIVILEGE TO ASK THE AUTHORS ABOUT THEIR LATEST BOOK, KINGS AND PRESIDENTS: POLITICS AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD.

PASTORS AND LEADERS HAVE DEALT WITH (AND HAVE BEEN DEALT) A LOT OF DAMAGE GRAPPLING WITH POLITICAL ISSUES. WHAT MOVED YOU TO WRITE THIS BOOK? HOW DID IT COME ABOUT?

It was born out of our pastoral concern to cast a distinctly Christian vision of politics for our congregation. We sensed that in the minds of our people, a “Christian” approach to politics meant choosing one party over another, Democrat or Republican. We wanted to suggest that the Christian tradition isn’t subsumed under a party platform, but contains resources to offer a totally different way of thinking about politics. The resulting sermon series resonated with our congregation, and several people suggested we turn it into a book. We hope it will be of use to churches, small groups, classes—anyone wondering about how we might faithfully engage in this political season.

YOU REFUSE TO BE DRAWN IN TO THE DUALISM THAT CHARACTERIZES AMERICAN POLITICS (LIBERAL/CONSERVATIVE, RIGHT/LEFT, ETC.). BUT YOU DO MAKE USE OF A DIFFERENT DUALITY, THAT BETWEEN "THE WORLD OF KINGS" AND "THE WORLD OF THE KINGDOM." WHY IS THIS DISTINCTION IMPORTANT?

The world of kings takes dualisms for granted. The world of the kingdom isn’t really interested in the same dynamics of conflict or power. It’s a totally different approach.

YOU WARN THE READER UP FRONT THAT SCRIPTURE IS NOT A SET OF "INSTRUCTIONS" FOR POLITICS, BUT IT IS "INSTRUCTIVE." TELL US ABOUT THAT.

It’s difficult to simply pick up the political world found in the Bible and drop it into contemporary society. We hope that approaching Scripture as instructive will give Christians a way to allow Scripture to live and breathe, even if it’s talking about kings while we are electing presidents and prime ministers. 

EACH OF YOUR CHAPTERS IS BUILT AROUND A PASSAGE FROM 2 KINGS. YET YOU MAKE THE CASE THAT FAITH IN CHRIST IS A POLITICAL REALITY. SO WHY 2 KINGS?

This Old Testament book, 2 Kings, is so much fun to read, mainly because it places such dramatic stories in stark contrast to one another and asks, “Do you see the difference between these worlds? Which one do you live in? Which one offers a truer hope?” The stories are funny, tragic, bizarre, and heartbreaking. But they all demonstrate the unexpected ways that God works.


TIMOTHY L. P. HAHN is a student at Nazarene Theological Seminary.

KINGS AND PRESIDENTS: POLITICS AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS NOW AVAILABLE THROUGH NPH.COM, AMAZON, AND OTHER BOOK DISTRIBUTION OUTLETS.

Brenda Salter McNeil became a Christian when she was an undergraduate student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Part of a group of African-American students who studied the Bible together, she knew of other groups of Christians on campus as well. “But none of them came together,” she says.

Ten years later, as a graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary, she worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Occidental College in Los Angeles and noticed the same thing. “There were students of color who prayed and held Bible studies in their dorm rooms,” she remembers. They didn't join her InterVarsity student group, however.

That’s when Salter McNeil began to ask a question that has captured her personal and professional attention for two decades: What is it about race, ethnicity, and diversity that so baffles the church?

Through her ministry at InterVarsity, as a Seattle Pacific University faculty member, and as an author, speaker, consultant, and the president of Salter McNeil and Associates, she has continued to seek answers in the effort to transform universities, churches, and Christian organizations into reconciling communities where people of all cultures gather at the table.

“At InterVarsity,” she says, “we had to go back to the drawing board and ask: How do we train our staff to be more culturally competent so they can engage the campus in all its ethnic diversity with the gospel of Jesus Christ?”

In 2011, she joined the Seattle Pacific faculty as an associate professor and director of reconciliation studies. She says, “One of the reasons I'm at Seattle Pacific is that I believe my purpose in life is to raise up the next generation of Christian leaders who become practitioners of reconciliation.” Salter McNeil was named by Christianity Today as one of fifty “women to watch” for her work in shaping the church and culture. Her latest book, Roadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice, to be published by Intervarsity Press, is due out in January 2016. 

HOW DO YOU DEFINE RECONCILIATION?

I see reconciliation as an ongoing spiritual process that involves forgiveness, repentance, and justice, that restores broken relationships and systems to the way God intended them to be.

Many people say that the phrase "racial reconciliation" is an oxymoron. They say you can't reconcile something that was never together in the first place. And, from a sociological perspective, that's true. There has never been a time when race relationships in this country have been good. It started with slavery and the mistreatment of Native Americans. We've got a difficult past.

What we're trying to restore, or reconcile, is not the way we were but the way God intended us to be. This is not tangential to being a Christian. This is not an elective that you get to choose just because you happen to be interested in the subject.

This is something that Christianity was all about from the very beginning. God always intended that this would reach every tribe and every nation.

WHAT IS THE BIBLICAL MANDATE FOR RECONCILIATION?

It's all through Scripture that God intended the expression of the image of God to be a multifaceted representation. In the Old Testament, when God says, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth,” missiologists call that the cultural mandate because culture would form just by the very act of encountering different environmental climates. There would be certain foods that would grow here that wouldn't grow there. People would eat certain things here that they wouldn't eat there. They would have to wear certain clothes in certain places. That's culture. So what missiologists, and I, believe is that God called us to be culturally diverse, even from the beginning, in Genesis.

And so, on the day of Pentecost, when the church is born, and everybody from every nation under heaven is gathered, and they hear the word of God being proclaimed in languages from all these multiple nations, that isn't by accident. That is God reaffirming, “It's my intent that the whole earth be blessed. It's my intent that people from every tribe, every language, and every ethnic group be part of this family of God.”

That is the mandate. That's what Jesus died to come and bring back together. That's the vertical and the horizontal truth of the cross, that in Jesus Christ we were reconciled back to God, and we were reconciled back to each other. If we don't preach both of those things, we're not preaching the cross.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DIVERSITY AND RECONCILIATION?

Diversity is bringing together people from various backgrounds who have different stories, who have been shaped by numerous cultures (rural and urban, national and international, and so on).

There is something good to be said about making sure diverse people have the opportunity to interact with one another because you can't develop intercultural skills and sensibilities if you don't know anybody who comes from a different culture than yours. That's one of the reasons we need diversity on university campuses.

But just because you bring a lot of people together doesn't necessarily mean they learn how to relate well to each other. Companies and organizations can go after diversity. But diversity doesn't necessarily mean we've become a community of people who know each other, who advocate for each other, who identify and share stories with each other, who feel like we're connected to each other.

That kind of connection is what Jesus came to bring. Jesus is the person who says through communion, “When you do this, remember me. Remember that I came to create a new household of God, a new humanity, one humanity that includes all of this diversity. I came and died for that.”

Our goal is to create a family who comes together through the blood of Jesus Christ and who one day will worship at the throne, as in Revelation 7:9, and who will be a testimony to the image of God for all eternity.

We may never see it in our lifetime, but that's the mission of the church. We've been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. That's not a political message. That's not a sociological message. That's a Christian message.

IT SEEMS LIKE OUR SOCIETY, INCLUDING THE CHURCH, IS MORE DIVIDED THAN EVER. HOW CAN WE FIND HEALING FROM THESE DIVISIONS?

People's religious beliefs and their political beliefs have become married in an unhealthy way. And we have used those beliefs as dividing issues to polarize and demonize each other.

We have got to reexamine our culture and figure out when culture is bleeding into faith. We need to study Scripture, listen to sermons, and read books with people who are not just like us. We can't help but see things through our cultural lens because it's the only lens we know. But if we don't seek different perspectives, we keep creating homogenous communities of folks who limit what the gospel means to them. The only way to get out of our cultural silos is to understand that the church needs the voices we don't hear from, even if we disagree with them, to expand our views and the possibility of seeing a fuller picture.

HOW CAN WE INTENTIONALLY MAKE ROOM AT THE TABLE FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE DIFFERENT FROM US?

We've got to ask ourselves who is not at the table, and we've got to feel frustrated, eager, and anxious to find them.

Think of a puzzle. Imagine that each person carries a piece of a puzzle that's the full image of God. If we had thirty-six or thirtyseven pieces of a forty-piece puzzle put together, we wouldn't just look at the thirty-seven pieces and be satisfied. We would be under the table, saying, “What happened to those pieces?” We'd be shaking the box because we wouldn’t feel finished. We'd focus on those pieces that are not there.

I can't be a credible witness of reconciliation with only my limited perspective. And if more of us started thinking that way, more of us would start searching for who is not at the table.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE CULTURALLY COMPETENT?

It means having the attitude, knowledge, and skills to interact meaningfully with people who have been shaped by or who are from other cultural backgrounds.

I don't know if one person is ever completely competent. I might become more competent with Latino culture, but Brazilian culture is different from Mexican culture, and Mexican culture is different from Puerto Rican culture. So I need an attitude of humility, of teachability, of being able to be trustworthy.

As far as knowledge, there are certain things I ought to know that show I'm informed about other cultural backgrounds. I should know about the incarceration rate and how race impacts that. I should know what redlining is, and I should understand how white flight changes communities.

YOU’VE WRITTEN A NEW BOOK, ROADMAP TO RECONCILIATION: MOVING COMMUNITIES INTO UNITY, WHOLENESS AND JUSTICE, PUBLISHED BY INTERVARSITY PRESS. WHAT BROUGHT ABOUT THE IDEA FOR THIS BOOK, AND WHAT IS THE MAIN IDEA YOU HOPE TO CONVEY TO READERS?

This is the book I wish I had as an emerging reconciler. There are many who have been doing reconciliation work but don’t have a resource for how to define what it is, or to get guidance on how to do it. This book provides direction, tools, and guidance.

The book’s central thesis is that reconciliation is a journey and that we need a model to provide equipping, direction, and clarification. This model provides landmarks along the way to create language and direction to guide individuals, groups, and organizations on this journey. One distinct idea this book offers is the broadening of the reconciliation conversation from individuals to leaders who are taking groups through the journey of reconciliation.


BRENDA SALTER McNEIL is associate professor of reconciliation  studies at Seattle Pacific University and the president of  Salter McNeil and Associates.

Note: Most of this interview is adapted from the Spring 2013 issue of Response, a magazine published by Seattle Pacific University.  Used with permission.

Alan Hirsch, a native South African, is a prominent thought leader and conceptual architect for missional Christianity. He seeks to reimagine the church as a dynamic missionary force faithful to its first-century roots. His books, particularly The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, unpack ideas and concepts that help congregations reach secular people with a life-altering gospel.

Hirsch has spoken at Olivet Nazarene University and was a keynote speaker at Mission 2015, a mission and evangelism event for Nazarenes in the United States and Canada. In that event, Hirsch, who is a short and bearded man, described himself as a hobbit, but he is really a wizard at knowing how the church needs to change in order to be more faithful to God’s mission in the world.

WHY DO WE NEED TO RETHINK OUR UNDERSTANDING OF CHURCH?  

During the Protestant Reformation, the church was central to society and stood in a privileged place. That has changed, especially in the West. What is needed is to recalibrate our understanding of the church as institution and become a missionary agency in society.

We have to be willing to take a hard look at what blocks our capacity to be missional—and get the church into the world. I believe the church is essential, but as a historical and cultural entity, the church ought to be adaptive. What we’ve failed to do in Europe or in the West is fundamentally alter the way we think of ourselves. We don’t even realize that the way we think of ourselves is not the original form. The original form was a movement, which is much more adaptive and fluid than what we experience now. The church ought always to be reforming, according to the will of God.

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO THOSE WHO ARE NEW TO THE MISSIONAL CONVERSATION?

One of the great rediscoveries of the last century is the doctrine of missio dei, which is the idea that God is a missionary God. If you think about it, the Father sending the Son demonstrates the word missio, right? The Father sends the Son, the Son himself is sent and is sending, and they both send the Spirit. The Spirit embodies a missionary spirit, which is intrinsic to who God is, and that Spirit empowers the church to extend that vision into the world. Our faithfulness to the local church, traditional or not, is measured by our capacity to extend the mission. If you receive the Christian message, that makes you a messenger—a person of good news. Being traditional or contemporary doesn’t matter as long as we align ourselves to the eternal purposes of God.

HOW DO WE KNOW WHEN WE ARE FAITHFUL TO THE MISSIONAL IDEAL?

The best way is to ask, “What is my effect on those outside the church?” What would the world be like if we lived consistent with God’s will? Some people who look at the church don’t see an alternative society that’s worth living for. Second, I would look at a church’s budget. The majority of money, even in healthy churches, is spent on the inside. Even though most churches want to do mission, they seldom get around to it because of their own self-dynamics. In every Western setting, the church is on the decline, not because people fail to believe in or love God, but because they no longer believe in the church. That’s the big issue. We need to allow the mission of God to determine our understanding of church. It’s not that we create the mission. God’s already in mission in the world. Our job is to join God.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A PLATEAUED OR DECLINING CHURCH?

Look at the early church or modern China, both having few resources, yet every believer carried within them the potential for world transformation. If you were the last believer in the world, the only one, I assume God could create the church out of you alone. The Holy Spirit is capable of using you. Look at the metaphor of the seed: With a seed, we have the potential for a tree and then a forest. The only conclusion you can draw is that people with less capacity, less education, and fewer resources manage to pull it off. The answer is not more resources but empowering people to become who God intends them to be. Discipleship is the key, but it’s not a short-term solution.

WHAT ARE KEY PRACTICES NEEDED TO CREATE A MISSIONAL MOVEMENT?

First, get together with others who are in tune with the need for change. God is activating and awakening people across the Western world to the calling of the church. Find those people and compare notes. Get a good book, read and discuss it together, and get under the hood of the way we think about church. We’ve got to think differently about ourselves and give space to do that, Bible in hand. As leaders, we need to get new imaginations and develop good processes for change.

You can’t take a one-model-fits-all approach and then impose that on a big scale. We have to learn how to contextualize the church in different settings and be brave enough to unpack what that means and what it takes. Also, I would say we need the reintegration of a five-fold ministry (which is the development of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers found in Ephesians 4) to save a missional ministry for a missional church.

All five expressions are needed to be the kind of church envisioned in Ephesians 4:12-16, which is a church that’s not tossed around by every wind of doctrine, not whimsical, not capricious. Rather, it is connected, mature, achieving the fullness of Christ, and connected to Christ overall. You can’t do it without the five-fold ministry of Ephesians 4, so we need to find our way back to that.

The church is a sign, symbol, and foretaste of the kingdom of God, and I think justice, mercy, evangelism, witness—all these things fit within that fabric. The gospel is the gospel of the King and the kingdom, and the two are bound together. The gospel is much bigger than we’ve made it. More than planting churches, we need to plant the gospel.

WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY FROM YOUR WORK?

The biggest secret weapon in God’s hands is God’s people. When everyone is in the game and gets to play, we can change the world. And we become a good people. We have to be willing to take the journey of what it means to be a movement again, to be the kind of church Jesus intended us to be. The church Jesus intended is for world transformation, and we have all the capacities Jesus has given us to get the job done. So let’s do whatever we can to activate God’s people into the equation, and then the magic can all happen again.

This interview is part of a series accompanying videos here.


ALAN HIRSCH is the founding director of Forge Mission Training Network and a prominent author and speaker on the missional church.


This interview, which was adapted and condensed, was previously published in the Winter 2015 issue of Grace and Peace Magazine. Used by permission.

How does one live a holy life in an unholy job? If God is supposed to grant us the desires of our hearts, why are some of us stuck in unbearable working environments? We’ve heard about holiness in the marketplace; now who can tell us what that looks like? If you’ve ever asked any of those questions, Dan Boone wants to help you find the answers. His latest book, The Way We Work: How Faith Makes a Difference on the Job, explores ways to turn servitude into servanthood. The Table recently asked Dan why he thinks it’s a message we need to hear. For many years, Dan served as a pastor; and since 2005 he has been the president of Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville, Tennessee. An effective communicator and speaker, he is the author of several books, most notably, Charitable Discourse: Talking About the Things That Divide Us, published in 2011 by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City.

The plot of the 1939 film classic, The Wizard of Oz, revolves around the experience of Dorothy when she is suddenly plucked from the comfortable familiarity of a rural Kansas farm and thrown by a violent wind storm into a peculiar, unsettling land of surprises where trees talk, horses change color, and monkeys fly.  

It is a fearful thing to find ourselves in an unfamiliar place. The church steps out of its doors today into just such a situation—a world where most people do not recognize its authority or find any familiarity or comfort within its fellowship. For those of us within the church, we stand, like Dorothy, gazing out on this foreign landscape, seeking ways to find a return to relevance and meaning within society.

We have all noticed the changes. They affect not only our attendance but also our esteem. There are large numbers of people who simply don’t attend church anymore—not even on Easter and Christmas. Many of those who don’t attend were raised in the church, and this bewilders us and hurts us deeply.

The demographics of our neighborhoods are changing and changing again. Neighborhoods that once were filled with “people like us” are changing ethnically, socioeconomically, and generationally, and we find ourselves with little imagination for what the church could look like in such a diverse environment.

The economy is changing and affecting churches in drastic ways. Many congregations are sitting in buildings they can no longer afford, and many pastors are finding themselves in a position that makes it necessary to be bivocational.

Our place in society has changed. Where the church was once at the center of society, with a voice of influence, now we find ourselves decidedly on the margins. Our voice on moral issues is not even heard amidst the cacophony of alternative voices that seem to undermine everything for which we have stood.

The church is in the Land of Oz, and we have clear choices to make in this new land.

SEEKING THE WIZARD

Whenever we are in a situation of massive change, the first solution we seek is usually some kind of wizard. Like Dorothy and the friends she collects along the way, we tend to put all of our hope in getting to the expert who can set this right. We look around us for someone with the expertise to fix the situation, to pull a lever or push a magic button that will settle things down again. Ron Heifetz calls this "technical change."1 Technical change or technical leadership occurs when there is a perfect pairing between the problem and the solution. My computer is not working, but the Information Technology staff at my work can get it working again. My car dies on the highway, but I call the number on a card in my wallet, and AAA sends a tow truck and takes it to a certified mechanic who can repair it so that the problem no longer exists. It may be inconvenient, but it can be fixed!

The church in the Land of Oz naturally scans the horizon for someone with a technical solution— maybe it’s a new pastor whom we think will know more what to do than the last one did; maybe it’s a church we could copy—a church that is managing to achieve amazing numerical growth even in the midst of all this crazy change. A quick fix is our first fixation.

One of the most important lessons of the Land of Oz is that the wizard is a hoax. All of the bells and whistles of the wizard are just bells and whistles. They don’t get us any closer to a technical solution. In a time of discontinuous change, like we are experiencing in the Land of Oz, there isn’t anyone who has technical answers. The keys that those trained for ministry received in college or seminary don’t fit the locks in this new land. We can keep blaming each other for this, or we can acknowledge that a tornado has shifted everything. The sooner the curtain gets pulled on the wizard, the better. The church needs to abandon its search for technical fixes and acknowledge the nature of this place where we have landed.

DO SOMETHING—ANYTHING!

A second reaction of the church becomes a tendency when it begins to dawn on us that there are no technical answers. We realize that we really don’t know what to do as the church in the Land of Oz. Our conversations seem to go in circles, till someone makes a suggestion of a new program or takes some action steps that make us feel busy and productive. Instead of wringing our hands, it just feels so much better to fill them with something to do—even if we know deep down that we are still missing something. Heifetz calls this kind of response to change “work avoidance.”2 When faced with overwhelming change and doubt, we tend to get very busy. We don’t know how to reach the neighborhood, so we start a non-profit and hand out school backpacks and give out food—none of these bad things in themselves. We do a lot of things “for” and “to” our neighbors. The situation we are in cannot be fixed, but that doesn’t stop us from becoming fixers in the lives of those around us. In fact, the more we can fix, the better we will feel.

In work avoidance, everyone on the journey with us has a different idea of what fixes we need to be making.

The Dorothys among us just want to get back to Kansas; they just want the change to go away, to return to a happier time and place.

The Scarecrows among us just think we need smarter answers, so they read books and quote blogs in our meetings. They look for training events that might make the difference.

The Tin people suggest more compassion, but the kind of compassion that shows up in work avoidance usually effectively keeps others at a professional distance from us while giving us a sense of false accomplishment.

The Lions suggest that we just need courage, and they are right; we do. However, in work avoidance we are in survival mode, and the courage to do the right thing is all but impossible to come by when we are giving priority to our own survival.

The trouble in work avoidance is that all of our smarts and compassion and courage are aimed at getting us to the world that was, rather than the world that is. The yellow brick road that we follow in work avoidance seems appealing because it leads us out of the Land of Oz—or at least out of the discomfort of feeling lost here.

The trouble with work avoidance as a strategy is that it does nothing more than distract us from the real task that must be ours in the Land of Oz—the task of adaptive change.

ADAPTIVE CHANGE3

When the wizard flies off in the hot air balloon, Dorothy and her companions realize that the changes they have been seeking all along are not outside of themselves; they are changes in their own selfunderstanding. They need to reach deep inside themselves and change there if they are ever to be able to go home again or find intellectual resources, compassion, or courage. Adaptive change is that change which happens within us. It is the hardest work we could do. It means examining our cherished assumptions, choosing to correct them, and living with tension for a while because such deep level changes inside of us take time.

The church in the Land of Oz is the church in exile. Like the Israelites of old when they found themselves in Babylon, the church has to rethink her relationship to her deeply-ingrained understandings of what is important, to her neighbors, to her purpose, to her definitions of success. The church in Oz must make room for adaptive change—for rediscovering parts of her calling that have been neglected or altogether forgotten.

It would be nice if the world stopped for adaptive change, but the truth is that it doesn’t. We have to do adaptive change while the witch is threatening to stuff a mattress with us, while evil monkeys are flying around our heads seeking to attack, while a field of poppies tries to lure us to sleep. If adaptive change is what we need, we must be so acutely aware of our need for such change that we can resist all of these other distractions and make space for this difficult work.

Adaptive change means getting off the yellow brick road. We don’t need to go somewhere else to be the church. We’ve tried that strategy for too long. Rather, we can acknowledge that if we ourselves are willing to change, we might learn to be the church right here where we have been placed. We can realize that God is calling us to be a light in the Land of Oz, and that abandoning Oz for Kansas would mean forfeiting the call we have been given.

Adaptive change means ceasing to seek out the wizard. A first step for us must be admitting that there is no one out there who knows exactly how to be the church in the context where we are placed. Any programs or strategies others have tried successfully have been developed for their place, and copying them keeps us from using our own imaginations and encourages us to ignore our neighborhoods. Adaptive change means deciding to be the church where we are. Unlike Dorothy, the church in exile must decide that it isn’t going home again. It must set its course for God’s new future—a future we are called to live into and embody right here where we are planted—in the land of Oz.

Who knows? Maybe we have come to the Kingdom for such a time as this.


KATHRYN MOWRY serves as associate professor of mission and Christian education at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee.


1Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994), 73-76.

2Ibid., 37.

3Ibid., 35-37.

Our church served communion recently, and the servers this time weren’t the ministers on the church staff, or the elders, or the church board. They were members of a group that comes every Sunday from a facility that is helping them stay sober and out of trouble. It was unconventional. And it was beautiful.

As I stood in line, waiting my turn to receive elements that connect me to a meal served two thousand years ago, I remembered another unconventional scene that occurred when I was in Washington, DC, with several college students for a journalism conference. The site was near Dupont Circle, long before it became a trendy hotspot for young professionals. Back then it was filled with homeless people, drug dealers, and cops.

The students and I went to dinner at a Chinese restaurant where the cook piled way too much food into the Styrofoam platters. We had a fun meal together, and none of us could finish what we had ordered. We didn’t want to take the containers back to the hotel. Our rooms didn’t have refrigerators, and we were leaving the next morning.

When it was clear that we were not going to eat any more food, one of the students gathered up the containers and closed them. I assumed she was being a servant type and was going to throw them away. She must have good parents, I thought. I’ll tell them they raised her well. She got some plastic bags and utensils from an employee without our noticing. Then we headed back to the hotel.

By the time we got to Dupont Circle, it was dark and much, much more crowded. My parental instincts kicked in, and I made sure I could see each student. Then I saw the one who had cleared our table approach some of the locals and hand them containers of food. They gathered around her, and she patiently distributed the elements. It was over in minutes.

The rest of us stood in awe as we witnessed this act. Out of our excess, she provided grace and mercy and relief for others. I had been a little fearful because we were among disadvantaged strangers; many of us have grown up being taught to stay away from strangers in general, but especially those who appear so desperate for help that they may be willing to harm others to achieve some sort of relief (whether that be money for food or a coat for warmth). This young woman, however, saw it differently. Give us this day our daily bread, some of them might have prayed.

What that student did stuck with me.

A little while ago I was sitting at a window table in a restaurant in San Diego, and I saw a young couple on a bench outside the restaurant. They appeared to be living on the street. They had a torn piece of cardboard, and I watched them write something on it. Then they turned the cardboard around and set it in front of them on the sidewalk.

It said: “Just hungry.” I asked the waiter for a container and utensils for the food I couldn’t finish. When I left the restaurant and gave it to the couple, they looked like they could devour the meal in seconds. They were the age of my own adult kids. Or former students.

The writer Ron Hansen said in his book, A Stay Against Confusion, that when he had his first Communion experience in church, he wondered what changes would occur when he took the wafer and cup. “Would I be a Superman, a holy man, a healer? Would homework now be easier? Would I be a wiz? Or would I be jailed in piety, condemned to sinlessness, obedience and no fun?”1

What he discovered was, “I was still me; there would be no howls of objection, no immediate correction or condemnation, no hint that I was under new management, just the calming sense that whoever I was was fine with Jesus. It was a grace I hadn’t imagined.” 2

OUT OF OUR EXCESS, SHE PROVIDED GRACE AND MERCY AND RELIEF FOR OTHERS.

Tony Campolo doesn’t remember thinking about the theological meaning of communion when he was a young boy at church, but he remembers that “there was some kind of mysterious blessing in the air. I was aware that something special, something with inklings of the supernatural, was happening.”3

He remembers a particular time when he was about six, and the minister quoted a verse condemning people if they took the elements “unworthily.” The plate with the small pieces of bread was passed to a crying woman sitting in front of the Campolo family. She waved the plate away and lowered her head, apparently out of shame.

Campolo’s Sicilian father leaned over the woman’s shoulder and, in his broken English, sternly said, “Take it, girl. It was meant for you. Do you hear me?” She nodded her head, took some bread, and ate it.

“I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind,”4 he writes. He has known ever since then that communion is a special gift from God.

Many of us grew up in traditions where communion is designed to make us feel guilty about how we don’t measure up to Christ; the focus is on our sin, our distance from God—which is pretty much the opposite of the point. At my church growing up we were offered communion about twice a year, and it seemed like the purpose was to see how depressed we could get. But that took the focus away from God and put it on ourselves.

What if we looked at everyday meals as potentially Eucharistic experiences? If you’ve seen the movie Babette’s Feast, you know that a meal prepared in love can look very much like the final meal Jesus shares with his followers. The meal in that story changes the perspective of the people in the community. It becomes a sacred moment, and they are all different as a result of sharing the elements. One of the reasons to share a meal is to acknowledge that God is our provider. In her book Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor says that if we look at everything around us as coming from God, then there will always be manna, just the way it was provided to Moses and the Israelites in exile. A can of beans or grits can be manna. “It is not what it is that counts but who sent it, and the miracle is that God is always sending us something to eat,”5 she writes. Which is another way of saying that God is constantly revealing his presence in the world. Are we paying attention? Sharing a meal together can be one way to see it.

When two travelers on the road to Emmaus discuss the death of Jesus, and Jesus joins them, they do not recognize him. In fact, they are almost insulting to him, saying he must be the only one in town who has not heard about the events of Jesus’ death and the disappearance of his body after the third day. It is significant in the story that Jesus acts as if he is going to keep traveling until they insist that he stay and eat with them. They show him hospitality. When he asks God’s blessing and breaks the bread, they finally recognize him. Not until they have a meal together do they realize Jesus is in their midst.

It is no coincidence that Jesus calls himself the Bread of Life, or that he tells the woman at the well that he can provide her with water that will quench her thirst. It’s no coincidence that he changes the nature of the wedding at Cana by turning water into wine, and that he feeds five thousand with one basket of bread and fish. It is no coincidence that he insists on eating with people whom the intellectuals call “unclean.” It is no coincidence that he says the kingdom of God is like a giant banquet table to which everyone is invited. It is no coincidence that, in his last meal with his followers before his death, he is present as a servant, a sacrifice, a teacher, a host, and Lord.

WHAT IF WE LOOKED AT EVERYDAY MEALS AS POTENTIALLY EUCHARISTIC EXPERIENCES?

And it is no coincidence that, after his resurrection, he has breakfast with his disciples and teaches them to feed and love others. He provides what we need and more, and we usually experience the “more” when we eat together.

I wondered what we all looked like at my church that day as we approached the reformed man who offered us the elements. What did he see?

My hope is that he saw us the same way he may have seen himself—standing in front of God with a sign that said, “Just hungry.”


DEAN NELSON directs the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. His book about seeing the sacraments in everyday life is God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World, published by Brazos Press.

This interview has an accompanying video here.


1 Ron Hansen, A Stay Against Confusion (New York: Perennial, 2002), 233.

2 Ibid., 234.

3 Tony Campolo, Letters to a young Evangelical (New York: Perseus, 2006), 70.

4 Ibid., 71.

5 Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997), 10.

Children, Worship, and the Life of the Church

Recently, I ran across a picture on Facebook that had gone viral. A woman visited a parish and took a picture of a bulletin insert for parents that recognized the complexities of having children in services of worship. The insert told parents not to worry when their children grew restless (“God put the wiggle in children”), exhorted them to participate in the service so their children could see them worshiping, granted permission to get up and leave if needed, and expressed encouragement to return when they were able. As a parent of young children and a very active four-yearold, I breathed a sigh of relief. For a few moments, the embarrassment and exasperation I feel each Sunday, as I try to get my kids to sit quietly through the parts of the service when they are in the sanctuary, slipped away. I shared the picture on my own page, and the comments flooded in: Thank you for posting! I needed to hear this! Our church needs something like this in our bulletin/ pews. Commenters tagged pastors, and parents had hope that they could attend church without being embarrassed by their disruptive children.

The popularity of this post, and ones like it, serve as a reminder to me that we are never quite sure what do with children in the church. We obviously want children to be in church, but we are always afraid that their presence will disturb the serious work that happens as the church gathers each week in worship. This bulletin insert had one other important note: “Remember that the way we welcome children in church directly affects the way they respond to the church, to God, and to one another. Let them know that they are at home in this house of worship.” This reminder is, perhaps, the most important.

Research conducted by sociologists like Christian Smith and organizations like the Barna Group has awakened us to the fact that young people are leaving the church in large numbers. Many of the reasons for this exodus are rooted in the experiences that these young people have had in church. There are a lot of things to be learned from the research coming out today, but two in particular are important for parents and congregations alike. First, the job of raising a Christian is one for the entire congregation, not just the parents. Our churches are generally set up in such a way that our children have little interaction with those in our congregation besides their parents, and this is something that desperately needs to change. Second, what children and youth experience at church is important. Congregations cannot stagger haphazardly through the years of childhood and adolescence, crossing their fingers that young people will turn out okay on the other side. Instead, pastors, faculty, church boards, and congregations must begin to think intentionally about how the life of their congregation shapes a child’s understanding of church and his or her place in it.

REMEMBER THAT THE WAY WE WELCOME CHILDREN IN CHURCH DIRECTLY AFFECTS THE WAY THEY RESPOND TO THE CHURCH, TO GOD, AND TO ONE ANOTHER.

If these two things are true, what can parents and congregations do today that will make a difference in the faith formation of the youngest among us? 

FOR PARENTS:

1. Don’t be afraid to let your children experience church. As that Facebook post reminds us, allowing children in our services of worship can be messy and noisy business. They don’t really care that we are supposed to be quiet with our heads bowed for prayer, or that loudly skipping down the aisle to communion may not be the best church etiquette. And so the presence of children in our services of worship can bring noise at inopportune times, moments of unintended comic relief, and a less pious atmosphere than we may want. But the benefits of allowing our children to join in the work of the church in worship week after week far outweigh the negatives. The opportunity to experience the church at work can shape and form them as people of faith in ways that we cannot always predict. Do not let your fear of being embarrassed by their behavior keep you from allowing your children to participate in one of the most important activities of the Christian life.

2. Talk to your children about what you experience at church. As nice as it would be, the baptism or dedication of our children does not magically gift them with the ability to know what happens in a church service and why. As a parent, do not be afraid to explain to your children what happens during worship, and why you choose to participate in what is happening. During the call to worship, I may lean down to tell my children, “This reminds us why we are to worship God and invites us to join in worship today.” Or, I may run my finger along the lines of the hymn so my child can know what we are singing. I may take a moment to tell them what we are singing and what it says about God. It is easier for them to engage what is happening if they know what is happening (to the best of their ability), and a little of why we are doing it. When our kids know why we participate in worship, it helps them to participate themselves.

3. Allow other people in your congregation to be a vital part of your child’s life. One of the greatest indicators of whether a child or teen will stay in the church is a strong mentoring relationship with someone other than the parent. We only see the people in our congregation a few times a week (sometimes just once), so it is often hard for others in our congregation to participate in the life and formation of our children in a significant way. But, just as it is important for our children to know what their parents experience at church, it is important for them to know other people of faith and have the opportunity to interact with them in significant ways. This may happen with a Sunday school teacher, a children’s volunteer or pastor, or an older member who may serve as a surrogate grandparent for those who live far away from family. Find people in your church who are interested in investing in your children, and find ways to make it happen.

4. Let your children ask the hard questions, and don’t be afraid to ask for help answering them. I must admit that, as our children have gotten older, I have been a little nervous about the questions they might ask about their faith (and I am an ordained elder!). I have been afraid that if I found myself unable to answer their questions, my children won’t be sure about their faith. But the reality is that asking questions, and especially the hard ones, is important to the faith formation of children. And the good news is that we don’t have to answer all the questions on our own. In much the same way that I might answer my child when she asks a science question I don’t know and say, “I’m not sure; let’s find the answer together,” I can do the same with questions of faith. My prayer is that there are pastors, Sunday school teachers, mentors, and friends who can help answer those tough questions. I also hope that, when I say, “I don’t know,” my child will understand that you don’t have to have all the answers to be a Christian. She begins to understand that there are difficult questions and issues that people of faith struggle with, sometimes even for their whole lives.

REMEMBER THAT THE WAY WE WELCOME CHILDREN IN CHURCH DIRECTLY AFFECTS THE WAY THEY RESPOND TO THE CHURCH, TO GOD, AND TO ONE ANOTHER.

FOR CONGREGATIONS:

1. Don’t believe the lie that our young people are the church of tomorrow. “Our youth are the church of tomorrow” is a phrase that comes up often, generally when a pastor (or an NYI president) is trying to get the church to invest money in the youth program. I wonder if our children and youth might understand their relationship to the church differently if, instead, we understood them to be, and talked about them as, the church today. This kind of talk becomes a reminder for them and for us that what they do today matters; the ways they are involved in ministry, both inside and outside the church, matters; the way God is at work in their lives today matters. In this way, we no longer simply hope that our youth someday transform into passionate and committed church members, but we are taking steps from the very beginning to help them understand what it means for them, at the ages of four and eight and thirteen and seventeen, to be a part of God’s kingdom work right where they are. Our young people are not the church of tomorrow; they are a vital part of the church today.

2. Be intentional about the ways you allow children to participate in the life of your congregation. Who doesn’t love it when the preschool class stands on the platform in a service and begins to sing “Jesus Loves Me” with hand motions? Or who can begin to imagine not participating when the youth band leads the music worship on a Sunday evening? The church needs to find ways to involve our young people not just on special occasions but on a regular basis. Our young people are active members in the first quarter of our worship service—singing, listening to Scripture readings, passing the peace of Christ. They also participate in communion and come to bear witness to baptisms and dedications. And each week they lead the entire congregation in the Lord’s Prayer and take the offering. Over the past several months, they worked together to create a church library, and they take turns serving as the library staff to help people in the congregation check out books. If you talked to any one of the youth in our congregation, they would tell you they are important to the life of our church. They lead, they have opportunities to be creative, they take part in bearing witness to God’s work in our lives. Each of these serves as a way that God is at work in their lives, and the church gets to participate as they are formed as people of faith. Are there places in your church where your children and youth can be active and engaged in central activities of the congregation? I encourage you to find a few and begin to get them involved.

3. Let children take the long path of finding answers to their faith questions. We have all heard the stories about the young child—and perhaps some of us even were that young child— who raises a hand in response to every question asked by the Sunday school teacher and, when called on, enthusiastically answers, “Jesus!” Most of the time when children ask questions (and sometimes before they ever do), we are too quick to give them answers. What would it look like if we gave our children time to sit with tough questions, to think about what they have heard and experienced in the church and in the world,
and to take time to think about the answers before we hand the answer to them? It is worthwhile to allow our young people the opportunity to think and reason through their questions, and to begin to understand that sometimes we have questions that do not have easy answers. This longer path to answers will serve them well as they grow, develop, and continue to mature in their relationships with God.

4. Find ways to be supportive of parents as they care for their children. Anyone who has spent time with children knows that raising them is a hard job. Those who have the amazing opportunity to raise children know that helping them develop as people of faith is a seemingly impossible task. The church must find ways to support parents and caregivers as they nurture the children and youth in their homes. The most important place to begin is to recognize that it is not the parent alone who is tasked with raising a child of faith; it is also the job of the church. And the church who acknowledges this is a church who comes alongside a family and says, “You are not alone; we are all in this together.” One way to do this that may seem simple to you but might mean the world to the parents in your congregation is to host a Parents’ Night Out, perhaps once a quarter or so, and have kids spend the evening at church while parents get the chance to have date night or gather with friends without kids underfoot. You might go one step further and ask some of the singles, non-parent couples, or empty-nesters to invite young children to sit with them during a portion of the service, in order to allow parents to fully participate in worship that morning.

The church is called to faithfully steward the gifts we have received, and our children and youth are certainly some of the most important of those gifts. We should not take the responsibility to love and nurture them in the faith lightly. It is time that we, as parents and congregations, thoughtfully consider that the work of the church can include its youngest members. May God be faithful to guide us.


HEATHER GERBSCH DAUGHERTY serves as associate chaplain at Trevecca Nazarene University.

Hail!” I cried. And, almost as quickly as the hail had come upon us, it turned to big droplets of rain. The six of us scrambled to find our waterproof gear, each of us hurriedly covering our hiking backpacks with tarps to ensure that our bedding and tents and extra clothing stayed dry. We needed to keep going in order to reach our destination by nightfall. My sister was in front of me, and as we walked, I noticed something attached to the outside of her bag. “Is that your pillow?” I asked Kristina. It was soaked. She cussed a little.

The day had started early. In fact, we’d driven through the night in order to get to Zion National Park early enough to get a permit for backpacking. And, while the first half of the day had been picturesque, we were now faced with a decision. In a circle, in the rain, none of us knew exactly what to do.

“I think we should find a cave,” someone said.

“We can’t go too far off the trail,” someone else replied.

“Maybe we can hide under some trees.”

“Or set up shelter here.”

“Maybe we should turn back.”

“How would we feel if we turned back now? After all our preparation?” Hutch asked. He was trying to rally us. He was the leader, after all, the person who had been backpacking the most times and whose pack was the heaviest. We looked up to him.

“Well, we can’t just set up here. We need to be by the river in order to have access to water,” Kristina said, raindrops dripping from the front of her hat. This had been the plan. We were all so nervous about not having enough water, as if we were trekking the Sahara.

“I don’t think we need the water so much,” Hutch replied. “I think we’re good on water.”

For some reason, though, we couldn’t let that go— the idea of camping out by the river, with our portable stove heating the expensive instant coffee that we’d all brought way too much of, and which, of course, required water. We’d been planning this for so long. We’d spent so much money at REI.

“I think,” said my husband, Scott, in perhaps one of the wisest moments of the trip, “we’re going to have to change the narrative of our vacation. I won’t feel bad if we turn back. We tried. We really, really tried. But maybe it’s time we accept that this won’t turn out the way we thought it would.” I nodded so vehemently that I think I pulled a muscle. Maybe an “Amen!” slipped out. I don’t know. I was cold.

But that was the turning point, and the weekend became something drastically different after we finally acknowledged that what we had planned was just not working. So we hiked four hours back the way we came, went out to dinner, and called around to see if we could get a hotel room instead. Everything was booked. The final death knell in our middle-of-nowhere nature dreams.

CHANGING THE STORY IS A GOOD LESSON FOR CHRISTIANS TO LEARN OVER AND OVER AGAIN.

We left Zion and headed to Las Vegas instead. Now. Don’t let the symbolism of those names deter you. Stay with me. Instead of a weekend of backpacking, we ended up at the Bellagio, one of the most famous hotels in the world. Someone knew someone who ran the spa there, and the six of us spent the weekend in pools, saunas, showers, and overall luxury. We set up camp near the water after all. We let the valet cart our dirty backpacks up to our room, we divvied up the fluffy pillows, and we wore our hiking boots through casinos with ceilings painted to look like the clear blue sky. None of us used much of our new equipment, but we did order up a carafe of hot water from room service and broke out the instant oatmeal. We changed the narrative, and we got luxury bathrobes as our reward.

Changing the story is a good lesson for Christians to learn over and over again. It’s how we are called to live: In the world, but not of it. Again and again, Jesus taught us to revise our narratives: This is how the world, or the law, or common sense, will tell you how to live, but now I’m telling you something else. Something new.

When I was introduced to the liturgical year probably ten years ago, I had a hard time getting on board. Words like Advent and Lent were not in the Bible. They sounded suspicious to my Protestant ears. But when I started practicing it, I realized that the liturgical year was nothing more than an intentional way to refocus my life on the story of Jesus—using that narrative as my guide instead of the competing narratives that abound: individualism, materialism, excess, power, self-sufficiency, self-protection, overindulgence.

In a way, I’d always been practicing this Christian year, even if unintentionally. As a teenager, during the know-it-all years, I wondered, especially during Advent, why we always heard the same stories in church: Yes, stable. Yes, wise kings. Yes, angels and donkeys and virgins and stars. Check, check, check, check. It was all there. If you read the biblical account word for word, even if you read it in the hard-to-understand language of King James, you still get the same, sparse story. Rarely did I feel that I learned something new about what happened in Bethlehem that night, even if people dressed up in bed sheets and improvised the language in an attempt to make the story come to life. There isn’t some detail that you’ve somehow simply overlooked for ten years. Usually. The story we know is the story that’s in the Bible. Even people who don’t regularly attend church seem to know this story.

But the practice of living out the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time is different from simply knowing the details. This is the kind of story that should be written so firmly onto our hearts that it becomes part of us. It should be tattooed there, set as a seal, knitted into our very fabric, or any other metaphor that suggests permanence and unchangeability.

This is our story, after all. Just as the Israelites told and retold the story of how God brought them out of slavery and into the Promised Land, Christians get to tell the story of Emmanuel, God with us. We get to tell the story of a baby aking born in a manger, a baby a king who would become a Savior, who would die on a cross and rise up three days later and change the entire game. This is the Messiah who has been promised to us since the beginning. This is an epic story of love and loss and redemption and freedom, and we are characters. We tell it not only that others would hear and believe, but we tell it to ourselves too. This is how our God saved us from slavery and oppression. This is how our God led us to the Promised Land. This is why the historical church has celebrated a liturgical year for so long.

It’s easy to believe that, at Christmastime, most of America gets a little softer toward the whole Jesus thing. They may say, “Happy holidays” instead of, “Merry Christmas,” but they also watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and attend performances of Handel’s Messiah. Some even take their families to church, and the story of Christ’s birth is somehow in the cultural air. I always remember the first time of the season, sometime around mid-October, when I’m shopping and suddenly hear a sacred hymn piped throughout the store: “O Holy Night” or “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Anything with “O” in it, actually. Holy words in a place and a moment so utterly unholy— well, maybe not unholy, but at least a-holy—and I am stopped in my tracks, every year, my hands on a bag of Doritos or, obviously, something more healthy: quinoa or, like, chia seeds: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth" (John S. Dwight).

Still, no matter how many hymns you hear at Wal-Mart, the culture does not understand Advent. It clumsily makes the Christmas season loud and busy, it tells you to work harder so you can buy better stuff, which will make your children happier and your spouse nicer. The culture tells you that you should be jolly and that you should hurry up and be jolly. It sings merrily of Christ’s birth as you wait in line to buy the newest video game for your nephew.

None of this is really all that bad, in and of itself. But it is the wrong story.

The word Advent, which refers to the four weeks leading up to Christmas, literally means “coming” or “arrival.” That definition grounds the season for me. We are given an apt metaphor when we think about Mary during the very first Advent season. The image of a pregnant woman hasn’t changed much since Mary lumbered atop that donkey for the long trip to Bethlehem. We, like Mary, wait for this baby King. It feels cumbersome and awkward. It feels long. It feels as if things will never, ever change.

If you’ve ever been pregnant, you know that preparation for the baby takes a little bit of effort. And when I say “a little bit,” I mean it is a huge, royal pain in the abdomen. And ankles. And lower back. You have a restricted diet, restricted physical activity and movement, restricted breathing. Even your conversation becomes suddenly restricted, as hardly anyone has anything to talk to you about anymore other than your being pregnant. You are rewarded for all this restriction with a monumental increase in the number of trips you must take to the bathroom every day and in the amount of heartburn you must endure.

It is all a wonderful miracle.

But pregnancy taught me a lot about waiting on an arrival, which, in turn, taught me a lot about Advent. It forced my body to slow down. Like, literally. Very slow. It asked me to be stiller than I was before, and to take more naps. It begged me to set limits.

Good preparation, we all know, is hard work. But rather than being active work, Advent work is in the quiet moments of waiting and remembering. We try to be still and hear the whispers of his name. The hope of Advent is not a fingers-crossed, lotteryplaying, wishful-thinking sort of hope. We know the end of the Christmas story, after all. Unlike ancient Israel, we don’t have to wonder about when or how the Messiah will come.

Instead, we wait in hope for him to come again. We remember that he will probably confound our expectations, as he did before: Even while Israel waited on some conquering warlord atop some mighty white steed, a baby saved them instead.

All we can do is pray that our hearts are attentive and open. We intentionally change our plans and go to the spa. We remember that the narrative we live is not the same narrative that the culture around us lives. We choose to let go of the busyness that beckons us. We light candles and revel in the strangeness that one of our most popular hymns, one of our truest songs, is called “Silent Night.” We sing it, even though the blinking LED lights and the obnoxious commercials and the motorized toys do their best to drown it out.

They don’t, of course.

They can’t.

This interview has an accompanying video here.


KATIE SAVAGE is the author of Grace in the Maybe: Instructions on Not Knowing Everything About God, published by Howard Books in 2013. She attends Santa Monica (CA) Church of the Nazarene, where her husband, Scott, is the pastor.

Is Grief Worth Having For the Whole Family

One of the summer’s biggest films has proven to be the latest Pixar offering, Inside Out. The film proved to be a hit not just because it’s a return to form for the once groundbreaking animation studio. Inside Out shows us why we need grief, a truth our culture and our faith try desperately to ignore, to our detriment.

Inside Out introduces us to eleven-year-old Riley, who’s just moved with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco. We spend most of the film inside Riley’s head, where we meet the five chief emotions that govern her (and everyone else’s) life. These emotions—Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger—literally run Riley’s world. The emotions are fantastic, in large part due to the outstanding voice acting from the likes of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, and Bill Hader. The “world of the mind” Inside Out establishes is creative, fun, and packed with gags. Everything the film sets up in the first act— the train of thought, the memory dump, the dream studio—all pays off masterfully, often in surprising ways.

WE ARE SO AFRAID OF SADNESS THAT WE'VE SHUT OURSELVES OFF FROM THE GIFT OF GRIEF.

The five emotions reflect contemporary personality theory, embodied so simply that a child can understand. And, just as we’re getting a handle on Riley and her internal world, that world is turned upside down by an apocalyptic (for an eleven-year-old) event: Her family moves across the country. Riley loses everything that grounded her—her friends, her hockey team, and, in a way, even her family (her dad’s preoccupation with the business he moved to start clearly takes much more of his time than Riley is accustomed to). The moving truck that contains the majority of their possessions has, for reasons Riley never fully understands, been delayed, leaving her to adjust to her new house without her clothes, her keepsakes, or even her bed.

Throughout all of this, Riley's mom repeatedly praises her for being “her happy girl,” and through the personification of Joy, we see that Riley has thoroughly internalized this demand. She feels as though she must be positive all the time, and there’s no room in Riley’s world for Sadness (at one point, Joy looks at Sadness and admits, “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do”).

Replace “moving across the country” with any tragedy, and you can probably relate to Riley’s experience. The death of a loved one. The end of a relationship you fought for but that just didn’t work. An estranged family member. The loss of a job. In these times, we can’t imagine how else to be but sad, yet our culture is deeply uncomfortable with grief. Like Riley, we don’t have permission to be sad; our grief makes everyone else uncomfortable.

In the end, however, Sadness is Riley’s only hope. Joy is so focused on getting back to the control room that when Bing Bong, Riley’s old imaginary friend, breaks down, Joy can’t help. Bing Bong is grieving the loss of Riley’s childhood because, as she has grown up, he has become less and less relevant. And, much like Riley’s cross-country move, there’s no going back. Riley might remember Bing Bong fondly from time to time, but he’ll never again hold the place in her life he once did. That’s not good or bad. It’s just reality—the price of Riley’s maturation.

But just because something is real doesn’t mean it can’t be sad. So, when Sadness sits with Bing Bong, when she embraces him and says, “I know how you feel,” her shared grief enables Bing Bong to continue with their mission.

Joy finds the same to be true when she reviews one of Riley’s core memories. The memory shows Riley’s old hockey team, the Prairie Dogs, cheering and celebrating Riley. Sadness recalls that memory as the day Riley’s team lost the big game because Riley didn’t score the goal. When Joy rewinds the memory further, it turns from golden joy to blue sadness. She watches as Riley grieves the loss, convinced she’s done with hockey, only to be comforted by her parents then celebrated by her team.

Joy exclaims, as revelation washes over her, “Sadness leads to Joy!”

And so they return to the control room just in time for Sadness to guide Joy back to her family. Riley apologizes to her parents for being unable to be happy for them and confesses her grief to them. Instead of judgment or disappointment, they gather her into their arms and whisper the magic words: “I’m sad too.” Riley forms a new core memory, one that’s both golden joy and blue sadness.

In a culture that doesn’t know how to lament, we need to be told that it’s okay to be sad. We are so afraid of sadness that we’ve shut ourselves off from the gift of grief. We’ve convinced ourselves that joy is the opposite of sadness, that we have to be happy all the time, and that sadness makes us weak.

But while many a relationship has been planted in the soil of joy, they only become strong as they weather adversity together. A marriage, a friendship, a community that has not suffered together is not strong. The gift in the center of grief is the feeling of a sympathetic embrace, of the kind words that whisper, “Me too.”

IN CHOOSING TO GRIEVE, WE LEARN TO WORSHIP THE GOD WHO GRIEVES WITH US.

This is the gift of the cross too—that God did not remain in heaven, leaving us to the consequences of human evil. Rather, God abandoned heaven to become one of us, to share our joys and our sorrows. To take upon himself the consequences of the human condition. What was his cry of dereliction if not a cry of solidarity? When Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is whispering to us, “Me too.”

The church has sometimes ignored the resources our tradition has available. The book of Psalms is filled with songs of lament. One of every three psalms was written to be sung by a grieving people. Can you remember the last time you sang one sad song in church? Doubtful; most hymns and contemporary worship songs are positive. Not that there’s anything wrong with fun, positive songs (twothirds of the psalms fit better in that category!). But is it any surprise that we don’t know how to grieve well when we ignore the very texts designed to help us find holy rhythms for our grief?

The church year can also provide space for us to grieve. Both Advent and Lent are seasons of fasting and repentance. Choosing to create space to grieve during these seasons (and following them intentionally with seasons of feasting) teaches us how to grieve and how not to become trapped in our grief. In choosing to grieve, we learn to worship the God who grieves with us. We learn the gift of saying, “Me too.” We learn the gift of grief, that sadness leads to joy, that Sunday always follows Friday, that death does not have the final word.

This interview has an accompanying video here.


JR. FORASTEROS serves as teaching pastor at the Rowlett (TX) Catalyst Community Church of the Nazarene.

They sat there staring at me, some crossing their arms, some raising their eyebrows, some even shaking their heads in emphatic disagreement. We were in the women’s Sunday school classroom and had just finished the last chapter of the devotional book we’d been studying. A discussion on what we were going to study next brought on a whirlwind of options as ladies called out some of their favorite devotional writers. As the chatter died down and there was a lull in the conversation, I threw out a wacky suggestion: "What if we use the Bible . . . and just the Bible?

Cue the aforementioned crossed arms, raised eyebrows, and head shaking. It was as if I’d just proposed that we all sprout wings and fly to the moon.

I have been teaching women’s Sunday school for half a dozen years now. I enjoy it immensely. I have a passion for seeing people grow spiritually, especially in community. I imagine God’s delight in observing his children gathering to learn more about their heavenly Father and falling deeper and deeper in love with him.

However, something troubled me a little. I rarely saw anyone fall deeper and deeper in love with God’s Word. I often heard comments about how a particular devotional book had been so inspiring, or how the sharing time during group meetings really touched participants, but people usually kept a respectful distance from the Bible itself. Personal time with God was limited to reading a quick snippet online from a devotional website. Or someone would share their excitement over a motivating book from the latest trendy author they had been reading.

IT WAS LIKE HAVING A GRAND SPIRITUAL POTLUCK, WHERE WE EACH BROUGHT TO THE TABLE ALL THE GOLDEN NUGGETS THE LORD LAID IN OUR LAPS DURING THE WEEK.

We’ve become so accustomed to being spoon-fed as Christians. Pastors, teachers, small group leaders, and authors mash up our spiritual food for us so we can swallow and digest it more easily. I have nothing inherently against devotional books, Bible study guides, or spiritual self-help books. Undeniably, there is great material out there that reveals the heart of God in fresh ways and describes practical ways we can respond to that revelation as Christ followers. I too have had pivotal moments in my spiritual life because of these writings. But I bemoan the fact that a thorough study of the Bible by itself is rarely endeavored by laypeople, and remains a practice that is predominantly undertaken by members of the clergy or those studying to be such.

I was determined to help the women in my Sunday school class forge a new path that would lead us to hunger for the Bible and be enamored of the ordinances, statutes, and precepts found therein. What if reading the Bible, and just the Bible, would take our relationship with God to a whole new level? They decided to go for it. And the results have been amazing!

We chose to study the book of Ephesians over the course of several months, meticulously poring over every word, verse, and chapter. I printed out individual copies of the entire text in large font, double-spaced, and with margins wide enough to write in. We learned how to look up the original Greek meanings of key words using online, interlinear tools. We used multiple translations and compared them to one another. We cross-referenced verses and did word studies. We assigned homework. Every woman was expected to thoroughly study that week’s passage at home, praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and revelation. Rather than let a devotional book guide her thinking, she gave room for the Spirit to show her truths that uniquely applied to her specific season of life.

The really exciting stuff, however, took place in class on Sunday mornings. During our group sessions, the Bible sprang to life as the women began to share their discoveries. It was like having a grand spiritual potluck, where we each brought to the table all the golden nuggets the Lord laid in our laps during the week. I can’t fully describe to you the swell of joy in my heart as I watched these women feed each other with love and encouragement. No one left hungry. Everyone left feeling blessed and satisfied.

The Word has truly come alive for us. One particular women, who has gone to church her whole life, admitted that her Bible used to collect dust on a shelf from week to week. Whenever she tried studying the Bible on her own, she felt bored at best, frustrated at worst. Now, she says, she looks forward to opening it and seeing what the Lord will reveal to her each day. She shared that a whole new world was opened up to her when she learned how to read the Bible. She realized that in all the years she had faithfully attended church, no one had taught her how to do that. Her story was familiar to the other women in the class because, to a varying degree, most of them felt the same.

But everything has changed. We feel excited and empowered by this new approach to studying God’s Word. Jesus said to his disciples, “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (Matthew 13:16). We see and hear the Scriptures differently now. I don’t know if we could ever go back to the way things used to be. As we progressed through Ephesians, I felt a sense of accomplishment as the women perused Scripture like experienced scholars. We found great delight in handling the Word of God and digging up one discovery after another in the text. But I again had a nagging feeling that something was amiss. I realized we were coming dangerously close to worshiping the Bible and not the God behind the Bible. I decided to set aside some time during our study for what I called God’s love notes. During this portion, I played soft music and encouraged the class to write what they felt God revealing to them through the passages we had just studied. I encouraged the women to write in first person, as if God were talking directly to them, using Scripture as a guide. For example, after studying Philippians 3:15-21, I wrote the following words:

"Christine, my beloved, you lament on your weaknesses and imperfections. You dwell on your sinfulness, and you despise yourself. I am here to tell you that you are loved and treasured. I have a plan for you—a plan to save you from yourself. A plan to transform your lowly body so that it will be like my glorious body. Lean on me, and my understanding— even my understanding of who you are. It is by my strength, not yours, that this will be accomplished."

After we finish writing our love notes from God, we share them. During this time, tears often flow, and we feel compelled to carry each other’s burdens, to be stretcherbearers for one another, and to pray for each other. As a result, we have experienced such a sweet intimacy with the Lord and a closeness with each other that is like nothing else.

God has honored our desire to encounter him directly, through his Word. We’re not surprised by this anymore. We have found the words of the prophet Isaiah to be true:

"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11)."

The Word of God is not just a book, and we are not just a Sunday school class. We are a community of disciples. We are a spiritual sisterhood. We don’t need to be spoon-fed anymore. We have learned to feed ourselves—and each other.

This story has an accompanying video here.


CHRISTINE HUNG is the pastor of spiritual formation at Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Monterey Park, California. She is passionate about discipleship and has served extensively as a small group coordinator, Sunday school teacher, youth leader, and worship team member. Christine also serves on her church’s teaching team and is a speaker at women’s events and retreats.

When I go to a restaurant with friends, sometimes we say, “Let’s eat Chinese style,” which is not necessarily a suggestion that we go for Asian food. What we mean by that phrase is, “Let’s all order something different, put everything in the middle of the table, and share.” In Western cultures, which tend to be highly individualistic, each person orders their own complete, self-contained meal. But in Asian cultures, which value community, we order as a group, and we all share in the bounty. Everyone gets a taste of everything.

At its best, group Bible study is like a shared meal in which we feast not on physical food but on the Word of God. We come with eager anticipation, having spent significant time preparing our hearts and minds to engage the Scriptures and the God who inspired them. When we come together, we understand that we are not only there to feed ourselves but also to feed each other. We don’t just eat off our own plates. We also get to sample what others have brought to the table. As we share personal insights, celebrate each other’s growth, and pray together, the whole body of Christ is nourished and strengthened.

I thought my Dad prayed “Bless it to our body’s juice,” which didn’t make any sense to me as a young kid sitting at our kitchen table waiting for him to finish the grace prayer so we could eat. As I got older I finally discovered that he was asking God to bless the food to our body’s use, not juice. This was one of many lessons I learned as a young pray-er, borrowing words, phrases, and expressions from others while also trying to find my own voice in conversation with God.

Many things shape our prayers—what we hear others say, words of Scripture, prayer songs, and the events of our lives. These are important resources to assist us in growing as pray-ers, for praying is never something we can do by relying only on ourselves. We need others—God and a community of faith—to learn how to pray.

The Christian church year is a helpful resource for keeping us anchored in God’s story (the mighty acts of God in Scripture) and in the journey of God’s people (the testimonies of Israel and the church in Scripture) by providing us with a unique way to mark time. It covers a twelve-month period like the calendar year, but instead of being divided into months, it is divided into the seasons of Jesus' life and ministry. Typically starting in late November, the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany recount the coming of Christ into the world. In spring, the seasons of Lent and Easter recount Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. These are followed by the season of Pentecost, which recounts the coming of the Holy Spirit and birth of the Church as Christ’s ongoing witness in the world.1

With specific regard to the seasons of Advent and Christmas, observing the Christian church year can help us believers in our praying. Advent this year began on Sunday, November 29, and ends on Christmas Eve. It is a season of longing, expectation, and preparation for God’s coming into our world. The Christmas season begins Christmas Eve and ends on January 5—hence, the twelve days of Christmas. It is a time for celebrating God’s coming into our world in the form of his Son, Jesus.

Advent prayers have a different feel from some of our traditional Christmas prayers. At Christmas we rejoice in the gift of God’s Son, Jesus. During Advent, however, we take time to pay attention to all the reasons why we need that gift. At Christmas, we celebrate what we have. During Advent, we become painfully aware of what we do not yet have. Can you see why it might be tempting to pass over Advent and get right to Christmas? It feels so much better to sing “Joy to the World” than “Come, Thou Longexpected Jesus,” yet both songs express important truths about what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we affirm both the already—Jesus has already come, we have already received God’s grace, God’s world is already being transformed; and the not yet—Jesus has not yet returned, we have not yet received all God’s grace, God’s world is not yet fully transformed. At Christmas we pray already prayers; during Advent we pray not yet prayers. During Advent we are invited to voice prayers of longing and anticipation.  

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free. From our fears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in Thee.2

We are not yet all that God has created us to be, either as people growing in grace or as a church being formed and shaped into the image of Christ. Advent reminds us to ask for more, to seek and find, to not rest until our hearts find their complete rest in God.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6).

For what do you long? For what do you hope? Share these with Jesus in prayer. When you do, you will discover (and be found by) a God whose love and wisdom are deeper and broader than you’ve known.
Dear Desire of ev'ry nation, Joy of every longing heart!3

You may already know from experience that getting in touch with and giving expression to your longings can be painful. There is an element of suffering in anticipation of something for which our hearts ache. When we long for God and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we open ourselves to feel the suffering of the world that touches the loving heart of God.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear4

Suffering is a natural part of Advent. Consider what the Gospels tell us about Joseph and Mary prior to Jesus' birth: Their engagement is almost broken off, and they find themselves unexpectedly homeless while Mary is great with child. This theme of suffering continues in the events sparked by Jesus' birth—the slaughter of innocent children and Mary and Joseph becoming a refugee family as they flee to Egypt.

During Advent, we are invited to join our prayers with our personal suffering and with the suffering of those in our world who seem helpless and hopeless— especially orphans, widows, refugees, and immigrants, and all the victims of war.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer Our spirits by Thine advent here. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death's dark shadows put to flight. O come, Desire of nations; bind In one the hearts of all [hu]mankind; Bid thou our sad divisions cease, And be thyself our King of Peace5

Christmas is a celebration of the coming of this King of Peace, a King who was born as an infant. Think about it. For God to accomplish what God wanted, Jesus had to be born—that is, go through the normal, natural, human birthing process. As you pray through Advent, ask God this question: What do you want to birth in me this season? God’s desire is for Christ to be born in you again and again, ever fresh and ever new so that, as the apostle Paul put it, “All of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

It covers a twelve-month period like the calendar year, but instead  of being divided into months, it is divided into the seasons of Jesus'  life and ministry.

Like Jesus’ mother, Mary, you are a Christ-bearer. Whether male or female, you are pregnant, in a spiritual sense, with the very life of God. You do not own Jesus; you cannot control or manipulate Jesus; but Jesus lives in you and desires to be made known to the world through you.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us; abide with us, Our Lord, Emmanuel.6 

Emmanuel—God with us. This is what praying through Advent is all about. As we bring our longings and sufferings to God in prayer, open to whatever God might want to birth in and through us, we discover (and are found by) God’s gracious presence. Now, that is something to celebrate! And celebrate is exactly what we do as Christmas finally comes:

Joy to the world! The Lord is come; Let earth receive her King. Let ev'ry heart prepare Him room, And heav'n and nature sing.7

This interview has an accompanying video here.


DOUG HARDY is professor of spiritual formation and director of the Doctor of the Ministry programs at Nazarene Theological Seminary.


1 For more information about the Christian church year, visit http://www.crivoice. org/chyear_resources.html.  

2  Charles Wesley, 1744, "Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus."

3 Ibid.

4 John M. Neale, trans. stanzas 1-2, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

5 Henry S. Coffin, trans. stanzas 3-4, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

6 Phillips Brooks, 1868, "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

7 Isaac Watts, 1719, "Joy to the World."

When Jeran McConnel stepped away from her dream of becoming a teacher, she wasn’t sure what would come next. Her passion for adventure and creativity was something she thought could flourish in a classroom, but when she returned to the United States after a stint living in Yemen, teaching opportunities were scarce.

It was that same passion for adventure that drove Jeran and her husband, Lonnie, to take their two children, pack their things, quit their jobs, and move to Yemen in the first place. In the disorienting aftermath of 9/11 and the ensuing cultural confusion between the United States and the Middle East, Jeran and Lonnie longed to see healing in the rifts that had fractured the relationship between cultures. “We didn’t really go with the intention of being missionaries or anything,” Jeran says. “We just wanted people in a Muslim country to get to know some Christians in personal ways, to know that Christians aren’t horrible people.” The couple took jobs teaching as a way of being present with those who probably have as many misunderstandings of Christians as Christians have of them.

But when their time in Yemen came to a close and the McConnels came back to the U.S., the same opportunities to teach were not there. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” Jeran confessed. “I went into education for the creative aspect, but when that didn’t work out, I had to do something.” Nothing she had prepared to do with her life seemed to be an option.

All the while, she was cooking. Desserts, entrees, other creative concoctions. “I’d love to get the recipe for this,” her friends would say after sitting down at the McConnel family table to receive some of Jeran’s hospitality. “Honestly, it was just easier to put my recipes on my blog, rather than try to write them out individually,” she says. “If someone asked for a recipe, I could just tell them, ‘It’s on the blog!’” It wasn’t long before she received encouragement from those who saw the potential for her blog as something more than a pragmatic vehicle for recipe distribution.

The flair for creativity she once thought belonged in a classroom instead began to find vital expression through publishing resourceful ideas for a simple, beautiful life on her blog, Oleander and Palm. Quickly, others began to take notice as well. Design, clothing, and furniture companies began to contact Jeran, asking her to review their products and endorse them on her blog. “My favorite was when The Land of Nod contacted me and asked if they could give me whatever I wanted to make over a room in our house and send a photo crew to do a shoot in it for their catalogue, so of course I said yes.”

Opening a studio came next. In a downtown loft above a popular coffee shop, Jeran maintains a small space of creativity and collaboration. It was a risk she was willing to take because the possibilities of what could be created there were so numerous. “Creativity and risk often go together,” she says.

Beyond the Do It Yourself projects, design tips, and lifestyle tidbits you’ll find on Oleander and Palm, you’ll also detect a sense of purpose behind Jeran’s work. All of the creativity that comes through her ongoing projects is simply an outgrowth of a creativity of the most ultimate kind. “Creativity comes from God,” she’ll tell you matter-of-factly, but with a sense of awe. “I mean, where else could it come from? I have this desire to create and be creative, but it’s not something I have to force. That desire ultimately comes from God.”

It is that same God, for Jeran, who calls her to a life of creativity that summons beyond the mundane, who calls her to a life of adventure that reframes risk as a series of actions taken in faithful trust. “Life as a Christian is an adventure,” she’ll tell you. “Because, if you lived a completely safe life, when would you ever need faith? That’s why we want to give our kids international experiences, or take our three-year-old on mission trips to Skid Row with our church. Faith invites the possibility of risk, the possibility of adventure—and all of that is wildly creative.”

That approach to faith comes flowing through Jeran’s work these days. It’s not so much that she’s hoping others will simply adopt her design tips as much as that they will come to know the source of her creative impulse. “I want people to know I’m a Christian,” she says of her work. “I want my life to be an example. I want people to see Jesus in who I am and what I do. I don’t want it to be a question mark.” Of course, there are the monthly memory verse prints that she provides for free on the blog, but there are other ways that Jeran’s adventurous faith influences the creative work she does every day. “I’m fairly picky with what I endorse,” she says, laughing, although she isn’t joking. Jeran doesn’t allow money to be factor when she’s choosing which brands and companies to support. More important than how much they want to pay her is whether Jeran feels the companies and their products are consistent with who she is as a person of faith.

I WENT INTO EDUCATION FOR THE CREATIVE ASPECT, BUT WHEN THAT DIDN'T WORK OUT, I HAD TO DO SOMETHING.

With those kinds of financial considerations on the line, one might question what causes her to make choices like that. What in her life has caused her to even want to turn down lucrative business deals because they don’t fit an adventurous life of faith? Why would someone take such a successful enterprise and risk its ongoing success for the sake of helping others in some way? When you drill down to it, a lot of what has formed Jeran’s desires for the purpose her work will serve has to do with decisions she made long ago. “Just getting up and going to church every week is a big deal. But years ago we made the decision that we were going to be the kind of people who took at least one day a week to worship such a creative God. We made that decision then, so we don’t have to make that decision every Sunday morning now.” That decision has been a catalyst, a kind of spiritual calisthenic, that informs not only what Jeran does with her business but also what she wants to do with her business. “A lot of what my message is deals with living a beautiful life that is also simple,” she says, “and a lot of that comes from joining in a community of worship every week.”  

In that sense, faith is much more than a set of propositions with which Jeran agrees. Rather, faith is a practiced life, a life of tending to habits, of making conscious decisions to spend intentional time in worship with a community of believers, and those practices have become a far more beautiful thing than a set of boundaries—a collection of shoulds and should-nots. Faith has become a source of coming to know the creative, adventurous pattern that characterizes the Christian life. “If I’m not consistent in my work,” Jeran says, “I won’t see the fruits of my labor, and something similar is happening with the way I worship. If I’m not consistent with my worship, it won’t form who I am and how my faith impacts my work.”  

There probably aren’t any shortcuts around the kind of formation Jeran seeks and expresses. There is probably no replacement for her years-ago decision to be the kind of person who undertakes the practice of worshiping each week in a community of believers. Philosophers, psychologists, and theologians have been exploring the kinds of connections that are evident in Jeran’s life for some time. What they are finding places a strong connection between the practices of worship and the way we are formed to desire. Philosophy professor James K. A. Smith contends that nearly every practice we involve ourselves in—what he calls “cultural liturgies”—has formative power. “Every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all kinds of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person,” he writes. The basic point behind Smith’s argument is that the things we determine to do over and over again form us into the kinds of people we become, and form the kinds of things we desire. When Jeran made the decision that she wouldn’t have a faith of mere intellectual agreement, as in, “I agree with those ideas about God,” but, rather, decided that her faith would be marked by ongoing commitments, like worshiping regularly, she also determined that her desires for her work would be deeply marked by her faith.

The way in which she has been formed by those ongoing commitments has become clear in her life and work. It’s clear in the way her desires have been formed toward a different outcome than simply the largest income possible. It’s clear in the way she understands that creativity springs from a creative God who was and is willing to risk for the sake of redeeming creation. It’s clear in the way her own creativity comes about as she leads a life of adventurous faith that isn’t satisfied with being safe.

“After all,” Jeran says, “If Christianity isn’t an adventure, you’re probably not doing it right.”

This story has an accompanying video here.


JERAN McCONNEL is a lifestyle and design blogger who publishes regularly at oleanderandpalm.com. She lives in California with her adventurous husband and three children.

TIMOTHY R. GAINES serves as assistant professor of Religion at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee.

It was a silent night. Actually, it had been many nights of deafening silence. God’s people, the Israelites, were under an incredible amount of oppression from the ruling government and king. I imagine many prayers went something like this: “How long, oh, Lord? How long will we wait for the days of King David to return?” In the midst of the silence and oppression, the people of God were filled with longing, expectation, and hope. The promise of a King was on the horizon. An angel of the Lord appeared to Mary, a very poor and devout Jewish girl, and promised that she would bear God’s Son.

“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her (Luke 1:28-38, NIV).

Imagine the questions that swirled in her mind intertwined with anxiety and joy.

When I was pregnant with my firstborn, Caleb, I could not wait to meet him. I often lay awake in the middle of the night with questions flooding my mind. What would he look like? Would his eyes be blue like my husband’s or brown like mine? I wanted to know him; I wanted to look him in the eyes, see him smile, hear his cry, and know his laugh. What would be his favorite food? I could not wait for my eyes to meet his for the very first time.

In the same way, when Mary lay awake in the middle of the night, did she wonder what his laugh would sound like? As she felt his tiny kicks, did she wonder what color his eyes would be or if he would have curly hair or straight? Did Mary have the same question that most expecting mothers have: How will this baby change my life?

You’ve heard it said, “A baby changes everything.”

When I was expecting my firstborn, I refused to believe that my life would change. But it seemed like every time I ran into an older and wiser mother, she looked at my round tummy, then compassionately looked in my eyes and said, “A baby changes everything, you know.”

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

Not me. I wanted to believe that I would still have my normal life, that I could still live a life of spontaneity, go to the gym when I wanted, go to the grocery store when needed, and get all the sleep in the world. Although I was overjoyed to be a mother, I didn’t want to believe I would have to alter my life so drastically.

But on April 17, 2010, a blue-eyed baby boy was born. That incredible baby boy, Caleb, changed everything.

And I wonder, when Mary lay awake at night, feeling the tiny kicks in her tummy, did she know that her baby would change everything? Did she know she would give birth to the one who would bring deliverance to God’s people?

Did she know her baby would be fully human but also fully divine? He would laugh, cry, and be angry; but he would also heal the blind, teach with authority, and raise the dead. He would live among the poor, love the sick and the sinners, ride a donkey, fish on a boat, and hang out with all the wrong people. Did she know she would witness the cross, the grave, and the resurrection? Did she know she would give birth to the almighty God, the Bread of life, the Bright and Morning Star, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Light of the world, and Emmanuel?

Whether she fully knew, she said yes, and that baby did change everything.

Yes, a baby does change everything; but this baby changed it all. He changed her. He changed history. He changed the world.

Incredibly, the ripple effect of this baby born in Bethlehem is an experienced reality today. In Christ, the brokenhearted find healing, and the oppressed find liberation. It is because of the life, death, and resurrection of this baby born in Bethlehem that humanity finds purpose, meaning, freedom, and transformation. In Christ, the stay-at-home mothers and fathers who feel stuck in the daily grind of routine are empowered to love their children and families in a fresh and new way. In Christ, the Wall Street executives are compelled to use their resources in world-changing ways. In Christ, the lonely shut-ins find companionship, peace, and comfort in the loving embrace of the Spirit.

The good news for Christmas is that this baby, King Jesus, is still alive and active in our world today, and the mission of God continues. The question, then, is this: Who will join him in his mission? Will you join him in his mission of ministering to the shut-in and sharing the good news with the stay-at-home mother or father? Will you join him in his mission of feeding the hungry, caring for the widow and the widower, and seeking reconciliation at all costs? Whether you are willing to see, our King is alive, active, and moving in mysteriously profound ways in our world. He is on a mission; he always will be. Will you join?


TARA BETH LEACH serves as pastor of women's ministry at Christ Church in Oak Brook, Illinois, and is a graduate student at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois.

My eight-year-old daughter recently drew down on my son with a small bow and arrow. It wasn’t real enough to do much damage, but she was mad enough to fuel a rocket.

Ordinarily, my kids get along pretty well. On good days, they play all sorts of games together; on bad, they at least tolerate each other’s presence. But that’s when school is in session. From day 3 of summer onward, all bets are off.

I’d never put it together until a friend recently shared on Facebook her own family’s summertime experiences. She pointed out that during the school year, kids have plenty of like-minded friends—of their own choosing—to spend the bulk of their time with. They can find other kids who play like they do, think like they do, and act like they do. But in the summer, all there is . . . is family.

From fall to spring, my kids could build their own little fiefdoms: miniaturized sovereign nations with solemn and binding expectations on their tiny citizenship; a circle of like-minded comrades who can be counted on to know what the best game to play is—always. Come June, though, their playmates are of a different variety: those they didn’t choose but who somehow were thrust upon them by divine lottery. Brothers, sisters, occasionally cousins: Family consists of friends we might never have chosen for ourselves.

And you know what? It’s really—really—good for us.

Church is like that. To become part of a local church body is to be adopted into an awkward, raucous, sometimes embarrassing, but still loving, extended family. Suddenly we find ourselves colliding into relationships with people we would never in a million years have chosen for our friends. There’s the uncle who doesn’t realize how loudly he’s talking; the cousin with the clinically weird political views; the sister who never seems to leave.

Oh sure, we come across these same people—and much more—online, but those we can dismiss with the click of a button. Relationships are as shallow on the internet as they are easy to come by. Don’t like what you’re hearing? Skip to the next song. Don’t like what you’re reading? Just find that tiny little X in the corner of your browser. But in the church, each relationship is like gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe: hard to remember how it got there, and nearly impossible to get rid of once firmly attached.

Am I seriously saying all this to sell you on going to church? Why, yes; yes, I am. In fact, this is where the story of my pre-adolescent children taking a run at attempted murder comes into play.

The impossibility, the madness, the sheer, ever-loving frustration of long-term companionship with another human being is simultaneously the most difficult and most holy part of being alive. There is no greater adventure, no truer pilgrimage, no higher calling than to learn what it is to love, and to love well.

LOVE IS A SKILL ACQUIRED, NOT INBORN.

This kind of love is not on the spectrum of amiability and common interest: It’s not simply a sense of pleasant compatibility, cranked to eleven. That’s just pseudo-friendship with people who remind you of yourself. Anybody can do that. Love—real, raw "haul you off your self-satisfied haunches" love is what happens when you place yourself in committed positions of vulnerable relationship with people whom you’ve given permission to get under your skin. And that’s the most important thing you can do with your life.

Love is a skill acquired, not inborn. And the church is love’s stomping ground. In the church—the myriad-gifted body of Christ—we find all kinds. Every type of person on God’s green earth is called to gather there, which means the hard work of love is ripe for the flourishing. It’s like how family members can drive one another crazy, yet somehow the undercurrent of love’s abiding grace flows beneath every offense (even if we sometimes have to dig down pretty deep underground to find the river).

The church is the framework in which love is learned; it is the one system running obstinately contrary to the flippant or abusive patterns of the world, even while being horribly infected by those same patterns. Is it perfect? Of course not! If it were, it wouldn’t be love we learn there. Love requires commitment in the face of risk, not boredom in the face of comfort. Maybe that’s why Jesus teaches us to stretch love until it wraps even around our enemies—because love doesn’t rest; it always strives, always endures, always perseveres. That’s what we’re biologically wired to do with our natural families, and it’s what we’re divinely called to struggle toward with our enemies. The church—gathered in flesh, for all it’s worth—is what bridges the gap between the two.

My kids managed to not kill each other that early summer day. After much weeping, a little fingerpointing, and a hug or two, all was set to right. In these small and stumbling ways, they’re learning the paths at the foothills of forgiveness, patience, maturity, and— yes—love.

They’re doing this in the relative safety of their immediate family, but we must remember that Jesus expands our family by giving us to one another to care for. “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” he asks, on what I imagine to be the third day of summer vacation. Then he points to his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

May it be so for you, and for the church you come to call family.


TARA THOMAS SMITH serves as co-lead pastor at Winamac (IN) Church of the Nazarene.

The Motions of Grace, The Hardness of The Heart; External Circumstances. – Blaise Pascal, The Pensées, 507

Philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote his thoughts about the Christian faith on pieces of scrap paper—whatever he could put his hands on. After his death, these notes and essays were gathered into a collection that has endured for generations, called The Pensées. One notable and salient insight is encapsulated in the above elevenword phrase. To Pascal, God’s transforming grace is constantly moving around us, but our ability to apprehend and respond to this divine initiative is aided or hindered by our heart’s condition and life’s circumstance.

Over the last several years, deep cultural and social change has profoundly altered the religious landscape in the United States and Canada, affecting perceptions about the value and efficacy of Christian faith and the church. Such upheaval is foreboding to many who are troubled by what they perceive. As hearts grow heavy, discouragement, anger, and confusion can numb us to the wooing of God’s restoring and sustaining presence.

We live in a culture where the church is no longer at the center of society, as it used to be, and no longer seems to be at the center of many believers’ lives. The pull of competing activities and commitments has intensified along with perceptions that the modern church is out of step and unable to speak meaningfully into the complex problems we face. This is not a new position for the Christian faith. The church has often worked from the margins throughout its history, and has often done its best work from that position.

WESLEY UNDERSTOOD SOMETHING WE WOULD DO WELL TO REMEMBER - THAT IN JESUS CHRIST, THE KINGDOM OF GOD HAS BEEN INAUGURATED AND LIFE HAS BEEN GRACED.

What has been most troubling for many members of the body of Christ has been the church’s inability to reinvent and reimagine itself in changing and challenging circumstances. Do we hang onto timehonored ideas and structures or do we seek innovation? Are we able to distinguish between the things that need to change and the things that must not change for a vital and robust faith to continue from generation to generation? While the message stays the same, methods must change in order to reach and keep new people.

Fortunately, our WesleyanHoliness heritage can help. John Wesley’s ministry in England took place during a time of great social upheaval and the rise of industrialization, which brought scores of rural poor to the cities. Wesley coupled a clear proclamation of the gospel message with an emphasis on missional Christianity, while developing innovative structures to reach people and disciple them into authentic faith. Wesley understood something we would do well to remember—that in Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God has been inaugurated and life has been graced. The more we open ourselves up to God and the means of grace made available in corporate worship, preaching, fellowship, and the sacraments, the more we see the motions of grace at work in our world.

As we contemplate grace, Thomas Langford reminds us that grace leads to awe. Why? Because grace is about extravagance—an extravagance rooted in the cross and in the redemptive work of Christ. Such grace incites awe and wonder, as God’s Holy Spirit brings new life, new opportunities, and enlarged imaginations. It is the sort of grace that can meet any challenge and conquer any fear. It understands that while we may come from different places, different backgrounds, and different points of view, we can be reconciled, unified, and restored through the power made available through the death and resurrection of Christ.

It is because of this optimism of grace that we have developed The Table Magazine as a resource for your Christian journey. It is our hope that you and your church may be a means of grace to each other and to a world in need. May you experience “grace upon grace” as you read these pages and share their contents with others.


BRYON K. McLAUGHLIN Executive Editor, The Table Magazine

 

What does spiritual growth look like? If you're like me, you would love to grow in your faith, but find time elusive. Between work and home, a lot goes on. Sometimes spiritual stuff slips through the cracks. I imagine two gardens—a secular garden and a spiritual garden, representing different areas of our lives. In the secular garden are our jobs and families, our leisure time and education, and our dreams and goals. In the other garden is all the spiritual stuff. We have a limited amount of time and energy, and it takes time away from our secular garden to go to church and read our Bibles. Anything we invest in one garden steals from the other. So the sacred and secular are in conflict within us. We mostly choose to focus on the secular garden and feel guilty about neglecting the spiritual stuff. God can probably take care of himself. While we like church, our hearts are really in the secular stuff. Maybe we love our jobs, or we're just crazy about our kids. Maybe we have a hobby that we can't wait to work on. Do you know that tension between sacred and secular, between God and the rest of your life? No wonder most of us have given up growing spiritually. It's too hard. We simply don't have the time to invest in a healthy, whole spiritual life. So we settle for whatever we have.

For those of us in the secular garden, who feel guilty because God's over there and our hearts are captivated here, I've got some good news: This idea that some things are sacred and others are secular is a faulty supposition. Reality is not divided into “sacred” places where God is and “secular” places where God is not. We all have one life—one garden—and we can find God there. In fact, God calls us, not out of our "secular" worlds, but right in the midst of our everyday lives. Growing spiritually doesn't mean abandoning where we are to find God in some sanctuary.

Growing spiritually means learning to hear and respond to God's call anywhere. If we're going to embrace this good news, if we're going to learn to find God where we are, we have to stop dividing our world. We must embrace the whole world the way God does.

The ancient hymn preserved in Colossians 1:15-17 reminds us that God created everything and in him, everything holds together. Yet, many of those who think of God as Creator also see him as distant and cold, uninvolved in the day-to-day operations of our little blue ball. According to Scripture, however, God not only creates, but sustains. Reality continues forward at God’s constant, continual invitation and will. This is why the psalmist marvels at God's presence: God is involved intimately with creation. There is no part of the world where God is not present, no moment not God-breathed, no creature or person unloved by him. The core of existence is mutual, self-giving love. You were created to love and to be loved. This is the message of Psalm 137: God knows us fully and loves us unconditionally. The same God who spoke the universe into being, who spins the galaxies on their axes, whose breath sparked the stars to burn—this same God calls us to join in this life-giving love that is the very essence of the Trinity.

We assume that learning to hear God's call is difficult because we believe that he is distant, hidden from us. Discerning a calling is difficult, a task few are up for. We think, “Leave it to the spiritual giants, those who are attuned to the things of God.” We believe growing means leaving our loves to do our duties, probably something we don't want to do. Is it any wonder we imagine that our calling is difficult to discern?

But according to Scripture, God wants us to know him. He has given us life so that we might search for him and find life. His calling is not a buried treasure or an unobtainable goal, but hidden in plain sight. Our desire for creation is from God and, ultimately, leads us back to him. And this desire is the key to our calling. Our loves are the path to his calling on our lives. This is why discovering God’s call is not as difficult as we may think. When we discover what we love, we are ready to follow God’s call on our lives.

How does all that work? After all, we all have desires that aren't good. It doesn't take a genius to see how some desires can lead to dangerous places. Christians have long used a process of discernment to determine which of our desires lead to life and which lead to death. It begins with our relationship with God, by asking him to teach us how to see our desires. The psalmist asks God to search and test him. We ask God to teach us how to love. We meet with others on the journey who help guide us by their experiences and the lessons they've learned. And then, we do what seems right.

“Do what seems right.” That sounds like what our culture tells us: “Do what feels good. You deserve this.” But doing what feels good in the moment isn’t always what promotes growth. We know that, but we convince ourselves that we can’t know what is right; that our desires are untrustworthy; that God is there and we are here, and that means that doing what’s right is difficult.

But God is not distant. He is near. He is with us, making us new. That means we can do what seems right. We can trust our renewed, restored instincts. This is the spiritual practice of discerning our loves, of learning how to align our hearts with the loving God at the core of reality.

What does it mean to grow? It means we discern our loves, and then we act. Growing doesn’t just happen from learning more information. We must act on God’s call. Growing into the person God is calling you to become doesn't mean abandoning your life or your loves. It doesn’t require stepping out of the secular garden into the sacred. Growth begins by realizing everything is sacred. Everything is a good gift to us from a God who is nearer to us than we dare imagine; a God hiding in plain sight whom we might seek and discover. This God wants us to find our calling. Do you want to grow? Act. Do what seems right, and answer God’s call.


JR. FORASTEROS serves as teaching pastor at the Rowlett (TX) Catalyst. Church of the Nazarene

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