In 1980 I was baptized at San Dimas Wesleyan Church by pastor George Jenewein. His signature is on my baptism certificate.

A very tiny bit more than 39 years later, I was ordained in The Wesleyan Church, and the signature on my pocket ordination certificate and one of the signatures on my official ordination certificate is Tim Kirkes, the current pastor of San Dimas Wesleyan Church (now called Hilltop Church), who is serving as the Pacific Southwest District of The Wesleyan Church.

I’ve done a lot of wandering in life, lived in a lot of different places, been a part of a lot of different communities. It’s been decades of not really knowing what the next year or even the next month would have in store.

That makes this recent realization all the more powerful for me. A journey that has gone many different places yet ties together my earliest statement of faith with my current calling.

I don’t have any profound interpretation other than it made me feel rooted in a way I rarely do and gives me even more hope that the journey is not in vain.

I look forward to the continued chapters.

Posted in history, ministry, missional, personal | Leave a comment

Christian Theology in a Pluralistic World

Christian Theology in a Pluralistic WorldVery excited Christian Theology in a Pluralistic World is finally out. I highly, highly recommend this as one of the best single volume texts on Christian theology for our era, engaging what it means to think theologically in light of contemporary trends, concerns, insights, and challenges.
Fully committed to historic Christian teachings while exploring how to think about these in light of a broad spectrum of traditions, global perspectives, other religions, and science.
We’ve been using a pre-publication version in my theology classes this past year and students have repeatedly given great feedback about it.
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Participation is an Invitation not an Obligation

Part of our whirlwind tour the last couple of weeks was visiting the church I attended and worked at for a number of years. The pastor, Grant Myles-Era, offered a wonderful sermon on participation in church and community.
He’s Fuller Seminary grad, and it shows in his thoughtful engagement with Scripture, theology, church history, and practical life.
As someone who is extremely frustrated by how leadership can often diminish or negate the gifts and personhood of those in the church–often while using lofty sounding goals–this was an especially encouraging message.
I love both his content and his heart, and am thrilled to see a church I threw so much of my heart, soul, strength, and hope into back on a healthy path.
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Happy 4th!

Without moments to celebrate unity and camaraderie, it makes it all the harder, even impossible, to talk about disagreements and past hurts. Celebrating our community at times is part of taking the issues we have more seriously not less.Odens on the 4th of July bike parade

It builds trust, it offers thanksgiving (a Biblical mandate), and it gets us out and about among the wonderfully diverse others who are celebrating.

That’s why I love how Christianity has long been in the business of redeeming not dismissing holidays of all sorts. Celebrate! Pray! Be the community you dream we can be!

The impulse to freedom is something to celebrate. The statements of human rights, the drive to give people a voice and a chance is a goal worth pressing on. We’re not celebrating a fixed land, a set of rulers or other outside force.

We’re celebrating an ideal and we’re celebrating each other, our friends, our neighbors, our families. We are the people, and it’s we who press on in shaping who we are to be today and who we are leading our children to be in the future.

I’m thankful for those who have given me and so many others, from so many different histories and places, a chance to work on this together.  I want to be someone who helps others find their freedoms, and their voices, and their callings. That’s why I celebrate today.

Happy 4th of July!

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the possible

Sometimes the challenge is to see that while a “yes” can make things a lot easier in the short term, a “no” can awaken more possibilities. Despair is seductive when feeling rejected, but stretching toward hope is like washing off the mud and looking to see there’s beauty on the horizon.

In his book on the Holy Spirit, Moltmann writes, “Faith awakens trust in the still unrealized possibilities in human beings—in oneself and in other people. So faith means crossing the frontiers of the reality which is existent now, and has been determined by the past, and seeking the potentialities for life which have not yet come into being. ‘All things are possible to him who believes’; and this being so, believers become what Musil calls ‘possibility people’.”

I want to be a possibility person.

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Today my parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

Through ups and downs they have shown me how love, commitment, hope can lead us into the presence of Christ.

Through struggles in seemingly every direction they have helped me to know Christ, see Christ, hear Christ, respond to Christ.

Though not ordained, they are the best ministers I know. They pray. They counsel. They spend their lives working with those who society (and the church) often ignores.

All without acclaim, following faithfully the calling to help others find their voice and find new hope.

They have shared their love of Scripture with us, how to wrestle in prayer. They have inspired me through their love of beauty, truth, and occasionally silliness.

They have spent their lives fighting strongholds and defending their family against injustice and frustrations, bearing the brunt of much I know and much I don’t know, giving me a model of how I want to contend for my family and future generations.

I wish I lived closer to them. I miss seeing them and celebrating with them and for them today.  I wish I had the resources to throw them a lavish party and tokens of thanks and value that marks how much I love, appreciate, respect them.

I don’t have those resources and life is filled with uncertainty.

What I do have is what I have received from them: a faith and a hope and a dogged persistence in seeking after the fullness of the Spirit’s work.

I have a commitment to family that has shaped a lot of my decisions, calling me away from frenzy and into trusting God’s provision.

I have a lot of thanks for them, a lot of love, an ever present hope to keep pressing on, because time and time again I have seen them overcome and seen how it blossoms.

Happy 50th Anniversary, Mom and Dad.

I love you and I so value who you are and who you help others to be.

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A Fuller Year

Amy commented the other day, “We have good summers, falls, and winters. The springs get us every year, though.” She said it with a smile, but it’s been true.  All sorts of plans and a good momentum gets derailed and we have to sort out a lot of parts and pieces to get back on track.  That my life seems to be always on the way, never settled, never secure, adds to this sense of both disruption and distrust. 

Because of family health and financial issues and my own odd decisions to pursue the impossible in a sense of calling, I look back on my life and it’s been about 35 years since I had what might be called stability.  I’m only 44, so that’s been the majority of my life.  Just about every year something either comes to an end or unexpectedly pops up. 

I’ve grown a decided distrust of leaders because almost every organization I’ve been a part of goes through a massive leadership change soon after my getting involved, and not because I’ve done anything!  It’s odd.  It’s also disorienting. 

For the last ten years, my life has had a yearly cycle of anxiety and possibility. Every year I’ve waited to see if I have a job, or funding, for the next year. 

It’s a decided wilderness kind of life.  I’m not complaining here, God has been good, and like the wilderness provided manna.

But it’s pretty disconcerting and frustrating too. 

We live in a society of striving and accomplishment. I have a good education, lots of letters that come after my name and a few bonus ones that come before. 

Even still, every year I wonder what will happen, and have to plan even without knowing how to plan or where.  It’s not supposed to be like this, I say when I start comparing my story with others. 

Last week my class on worship talked about confession. A student asked how we get confession going. I think it happens by risking vulnerability. Sharing in ways that break the ground and ease people into new habits.

That’s one of my goals for that class and that’s why I’ve been vulnerable in my own story there and elsewhere. 

I’ll confess now that after hearing in mid-March that my contract wasn’t getting renewed, I had to deal with a lot of frustration, discouragement, and anger.  A lot of work, non-stop effort, pouring myself out and the System got me. 

I didn’t give into it, though, and sought guidance in prayer and community, reaching out to those around me and digging into conversations with God.  Prayers abounded.

Things kept turning more frustrating. My old car wouldn’t start, and after pouring a lot of money into it, and trying out a few tricks of my own, we gave up on it.  Our other car required a lot of repairs too. Our savings were emptied just as we needed to be extra careful

Amy’s lifelong best friend had a turn for the worse with her cancer. April was, to say the least, rough for the Odens (and so many others). 

And of course we all got really bad colds too. 

All along, I prayed, we prayed, others prayed. Open up doors, God. Show us what to do.

The more I prayed the less possible things seemed, oddly enough.  I reached out to have discussions with church leaders, and was caught in frustrating conversations about personality types and templates, with complete disinterest in my story, my vision, my training. Very depersonalizing. 

I could go on, but all of it was boiling down to the fact there wasn’t a way forward with Fuller we could see but neither was there any other way.  And the more I prayed, the more I got a sense that I wasn’t supposed to look elsewhere, that I wasn’t supposed to make something work just to get something to work. 

The more I prayed the more my focus narrowed: don’t look elsewhere. Of course, in the past 5 years I’ve looked elsewhere a lot, and nothing else has worked out.  This time though, I felt called not even to indulge the frenzy of looking.

What am I supposed to do with that? It’s not ambitious. It certainly isn’t responsible.

I prayed, and all I heard was to trust, and I didn’t quite trust that.  I wavered. But I’ve learned enough to pray, and keep praying, and that prayer is indeed something.

So, even though I felt the anxiety and had doubt, I kept to what I was hearing.  I didn’t panic, and I didn’t give into frenzy.  But, I did have to manage the anxiety and fight off the encroaching depression, and as an introvert, I can get distant and silent as I need my batteries always charging. 

Teaching a class on worship and a class on the Holy Spirit is a good help, as I continued to read, continued to learn, continued to be encouraged by each of my student’s wrestling. I spoke a lot in lectures and they ministered to me in posts and responses.  We were also very encouraged by the support we got from some in our church and from friends and family near and far.

Thank you. But life kept getting rougher and rougher.

Amy’s best friend died of pancreatic cancer a week ago, leaving behind 2 young kids and a lot of questions. She was a woman of great faith, and yet it was a challenging reality. Even Jesus cries when encountering death

Amy was able to spend a week with her in the Portland area in mid-April, then came back with the kids, only to fly up again this last Friday for the funeral. As she was leaving, the anxiety hit her.  Everything in our life was discombobulated. 

Our church is dealing with issues, our families have their own bumps, we don’t know where we are going to live, or work, or… every direction.  And Amy had to speak and didn’t know how she was going to say the words without breaking apart mid-speech.  I prayed, we prayed, others prayed.  God be with us. Give us hope.  I took her to the airport, she was feeling the weight of it all. 

Later that morning, I received an email from Fuller, letting me know that they are renewing my contract for another year.  A complete change of course. Not a permanent solution, I’m still in that phase of year-to-year faith, but it’s an answer for the time being.

The unexpected surprise, the ability to catch our breath and not have to scramble to think about bills and costs and where we were going to live and how starting in June, came as my wife was landing in Portland. I called her.  We celebrated.

The impossibilities of Spring 2020 can wait a little while. 

God said to not panic, to not look elsewhere, to not get into frenzy. The decision had been made, though. God didn’t mind.

Prayer is not straightforward. A lot of people prayed for years for my wife’s friend. I prayed for healing and wholeness.  She died. But she lives in wholeness now. 

We prayed for answers, for relief, for guidance. God said wait. Others in my life panicked, throwing all sorts of tasks at me, and I got caught up in being responsible in following up with some of that.  Others in my life prayed and didn’t panic. Wait, they said. That’s the message I was getting.  That’s the message I listened to, but like Peter stepping off the boat, I admittedly sank a little. 

Grace abounds. Possibilities awaken. Prayer helps us to stay in tune and orients us in light of God’s work, not always like we expect, and sometimes not even as we want, but there’s a bigger story we’re a part of, and it’s a story worth telling along the way. 

As the theology division confirmed my appointment for the year this afternoon, Amy was on her way to the doctors for our daughter’s annual checkup. 

I was voted in unanimously, with kind words said and encouragement renewing my hopes. Meanwhile, on I5 the car overheated for Amy at just about the same time, and she had to get off the freeway, turn around, and take the car to the mechanic.

C’est la vie.  But life has some breathing space and rising hope and some better ability to address the frustrations. 

I think that’s a Biblical place to be.

Have a blessed week.

Posted in academia, Amy, family, Fuller | 4 Comments

Losing the Farm and finding the Mission

In the mid-1900s, my grandfather was a highly successful farmer. He grew tomatoes and a number of other crops in the Covina and West Covina area of Los Angeles county, a place with rich soil that can grow just about anything if you can get water to it.   When World War II hit, he was not drafted because he was helping feed the war effort and the country through his daily labors.

When a Japanese neighbor was detained and sent by declaration of Roosevelt to live in an internment camp, my grandfather farmed his land too, keeping their bills paid, and keeping their land from being sold off to greedy speculators. He wasn’t alone in doing that, it was the Christian thing to help your actual neighbor when they encounter injustice. He had also gone to Biola, and his faith was a driving factor in his life.

When the war ended, and the Japanese neighbors returned to their land along with everyone else returning home, my grandfather continued to farm his land, becoming one of the largest growers for Hunts. He did what was right and found bounty.

It was a lot of land and a lot of work, which he couldn’t do alone. The war effort and then the population boom meant there was an insatiable need for laborers to work the fields. In 1942, the same year that Japanese-Americans were interned, the US instituted a number of laws and agreements with Mexico called the bracero program.

Migrant workers would help with the crops. While they were needed because almost all the healthy young men were fighting the war or had been interned or otherwise taken away, these workers were often not treated well.

Not just in California, of course, as laborers are rarely treated with honor at home or away, and they were so desperate for work they were willing to move a long way from home simply to provide for their families.  People put up with a lot of injustice by oppressors when they need to eat and provide housing.

My grandfather got to know these men, and their families. He learned Spanish, and the more he worked alongside them (he was no absentee manager), he got to know their stories, their hopes, their sins, their dreams, their hurts.  He developed a heart for the braceros, started a church, and gave them places of participation and respect.

In the 1950s, a series of repeated weather events over the course of several years, caused my grandfather to lose his farm.

He could do all the work possible, do it as well and as efficiently as anyone, but weather is weather, and crops that are destroyed by hail or flood can’t just be replaced. It’s a loss. When the margins are thin, and the devastation comes in waves, the loss is too much.

He lost his farm, but along the way had found his mission. Rather than getting back into farming, he focused on his church, and started a training center, a Bible college, to train braceros in becoming ministers.

Because of my mom’s polio, he did not move to Mexico, instead starting the Instituto Evangelico in La Puente, California.  In addition to leading this, he and my grandmother made repeated trips to Mexico, establishing churches, training leaders, preaching the Gospel.  They knew him as Macario Mendoza.  That was the man he became in the pursuit of God’s mission. He became himself a migrant field worker of the Gospel.

Life in the fields gave him dark skin, and his commitment and facility with language gave him a native level fluency in Spanish.  When I was young, I think I assumed he was Mexican, inasmuch as I thought of it, which I didn’t really. My grandmother would often babysit me while she did the bookkeeping, and I have a lot of memories hanging out at the Institute, as we called it.

It was just life for me, hanging out in a Spanish speaking Bible college in La Puente. Not just there, it was part of my family culture. Homemade tamales and churros, Spanish just part of the background conversations, people with dark skin, and light skin, and skin in between, speaking different languages, and from different parts of the world, all sharing a mission.

By the time I was born, his ministry was his life. I didn’t really have a grandpa, truth be told, not in the way so many others did, since I only spent time with him on holiday afternoons in between his church events.

It bothered me for a while, but now realize how much he had committed his life to men and women the rest of society often ignored. He poured into that as he had previously poured into farming.

He was committed to his mission, to his ministry, to the braceros and their successors as laws and labels changed over the years.

At his funeral in February 2013, I didn’t have much to say, but there were many who did, almost all in Spanish, about how his life brought light and life to them.

Many of them even expressed sadness and apologies to us, knowing that he had focused all his energy elsewhere so that he didn’t have any left for grandkids or family.

I missed knowing him, missed having a grandpa, but hearing how his life was poured out in bringing fruit to their lives wasn’t just helpful for me, it is what continues to resonate.

He had lost the farm, but found a mission.  It wasn’t all easy and there were certainly missteps.  Some big missteps as the pressures of ministry grew and he was lured into wrong directions.

The way of ministry in those days encouraged minimizing family life and indulging all sorts of busyness. The need to pay bills and develop leaders caused my grandpa to indulge in what I now see as anxious frenzy, a frenzy which drove me farther away from connecting with him when I was beginning my own forays into ministry.

Everyone gets to the age where they have a lot of questions they’d ask their grandparents, only to find that it’s now too late. Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking especially about my grandpa and all that I’d ask him now and all that I’d like to share with him.  I’d like to know what it was like for him when he lost all his work and how he prayed to God when his farm was gone, even though he was a great farmer and loved farming with all his being.

I’d like to know what spurred him to start something new, how he gathered people in support, how he navigated all the politics and pressures.

I’d like to pray with him, just once not at a family meal, and ask him to pray for me.  Because I’ve lost my farm. I found out recently that I don’t have a job after June.  We’re not sure what we’re going to do.

Despite my best work, despite doing things as well as I possibly can and getting extremely positive results from teaching and writing, I don’t know where I’ll be working in July.

It wasn’t the weather, it was ‘budgets’ and I was among the vulnerable whose job was at the mercy of the privileged.  I’m not alone, to be sure, but getting booted tends to be a very isolating and anxiety inducing experience.  My grandpa certainly wasn’t the only one to lose his farm in that weather, but he had to carry the weight of the loss, the confusion of it all, and the need to find a new direction.  I’d like to ask him about that, since if I’m not mistaken he was about my age when he started the Institute.

Rather than indulging anxiety, I’m seeking faith, seeing how my experiences are calling me deeper and further into the mission the Spirit has given me. I have a PhD in theology, have 3 books published, one book coming out this year, and two books on contract. For some, these are markers to walk in ever more hallowed halls and converse with ever more esteemed people.

But I was told I don’t have a job. They weren’t obligated to keep me on, and so there isn’t a commitment to me or what I’m doing. It’s business.  I’m collateral damage.  The storm hit, then another.

I’ve lost the farm but haven’t quite found the mission.

Maybe I am called to teach and train pastors in Southern California. Maybe I’m called to start my own church and lead in other ways there. Both are in my genes. I’m seeing that more and more. It’s the where and the how that’s currently confusing.

Rather than seeing myself in isolation, I’m taking inspiration from my grandfather after he lost his farm and found his mission.  My parents have similar experiences, great loss in their early 40s thrusting them into new directions where they work with those society often ignores.  It’s not celebrated work, without a lot of acclaim by those with fancy titles and wearing fancy robes, but I think it’s the kind of work that the Spirit moves within.

I’m a Californian and have a family history of educated laborers, where loss and challenge seems a regular part of the story. My calling is to empower women and men for ministry, so that in the church and well outside the church, they express the fullness of the Spirit’s work in their life so their life resonates deeply and broadly with the work of Christ wherever they go.

Maybe I’ll stay in teaching and teach those who are in the mix of ministry. Maybe I’m being called to get into the mix myself. At this point, I don’t know and anxiety tugs at my heart and soul and mind each day to give up and shut up.

But I won’t give up.  This history, these experiences, this constant experience living on the edge of anxiety and hope has helped me become a better teacher and more creative writer.  I suspect, even am willing to risk everything in believing it, that God knows what he is doing and that I am called to press on in faith and diligence in the tasks before me.

I think my grandpa Merle, Macario Mendoza, would be proud if I keep doing this. And I look forward to the day we can compare stories of loss and faith and bountiful crops.

Posted in adventures, family | 7 Comments

The Enlivening Spirit

One of the big questions in in thinking about the Holy Spirit and Christian history is the direction of God’s work.

Where does God’s help come from?

Where do we see the emanating presence of God’s activity?

Where do we go to discover God?

In Exodus, we see God giving the Law to Moses, filling Moses with authority and wisdom, passing this on to Joshua. Later, judges are anointed to provide wisdom when needed, though we find the people often wandered astray.

The king, not God’s ideal, becomes a center of focus and God’s ordaining, though likewise without consistent faithfulness.

There is the Temple, which God filled with his presence. The ark of the covenant become a unifying symbol of God’s favor.

Even still, where did God’s help really come from?

From the centers of power and influence? Sometimes, not always.

Centers of power and control are where we seek validation and authority and influence.  We are, we might even say, addicted to leadership, if not the pursuit of it then at least the validation by it.

But God is not so limited. There is the gift of leadership, but it is God’s gift.  And when leaders abuse God’s mission, calling, values, dismissing his love and care for all people, then leaders find themselves countering God’s grace.  Which is not a healthy place to be.

Where does our help come from?

How we answer that says a great deal about our understanding of God and especially our understanding of the Spirit.

God is not limited to the powers of this world because God is not limited to the systems of this world. Jesus did not concede to the religious leaders, the political leaders, or the zealots in adapting his mission to meet their demands and expectations, to meet their assumptions about how peace and hope are found.

God guides in a different way, and this way is a way from below, where the Spirit works to enliven people where they are at and to find an identity that transcends that which the world provides.  We are more than conquerors because the kingdom we participate in is everlasting.

This is a message of hope and life and calling, pushing us to see past the immediate and to invest in God’s vision of this world and each other.

Are you discouraged? God’s Spirit is with you, leading you and not abandoning you.

Are you weak? God’s power can work even in death, where there is by definition no hope.

The resurrection means that God is not limited by what we see or hear or assume. This power of new life always among us gives us hope in even the darkest places, to live in a new way, caught up in neither anger nor despair.

In this hope we become bearers of light to others, resisting that which claims death, pushing against that which seeks to minimize or anonymize each person.

We are called by name and we can live in a new way in the midst of our present circumstances, knowing the Spirit who works from below and within, a fractal transformation that envelops the world in new life. This is not fully realized but it is in play, and we can choose which way we live for.

Where do you see the Spirit working in your life today?

Where is the Spirit working in your community?

What can you do to participate in this more fully?

How can you spend time to cultivate this life?

Let us live in the life of the Spirit who is with life and invites life to be fully awakened.

Let us enter fully into our present so that we begin to see that God doesn’t need the right election results or any other indications of power to do a magnificent work.

Let us be thankful that the Spirit works and works even among, especially among, those the world abandons or dismisses.

Let us be thankful because most of us are in this situation and God still, oddly enough, calls us to join in this amazing mission.

Where does our help come from? Where are you looking for help on this day?

Read: Isaiah 61; Psalm 104; 1 Thessalonians 1

This is a reflection that I wrote for my seminary class on Theology of the Holy Spirit. I provide academic lectures, assign very academic reading, so see these weekly reflections as a way of connecting the heart and the mind, encouraging students to think pastorally as they reflect intellectually.

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