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 Ant 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 and made to feel it was odd for even thinking I would have one. 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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Do not let your heart be troubled

This quarter, I’m teaching a couple classes and leading a couple students through independent directed readings.  One student is focused on transformative Christology and the other student on global Methodist/Wesleyan theologies.  I’m teaching a class on Practices of Christian Worship and a class on Theologies of the Holy Spirit. This is a lot of ground to cover but all feeds into a shared direction: God’s work in this world and our response to it.

This can be an invigorating journey of discovery, but far too often, theology and worship, all the information about faith, can be troubling. We wrestle with difficult questions and we make things more difficult as we burden ourselves and feel the burdens others put on us.  Each week in my class on the Holy Spirit, I write a reflection, in which I give a pastoral/spiritual perspective on the themes of the class.

This week, the lectures focus on pneumatology in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox perspectives, along with early church. That’s a lot of material, much of which is new to students. It’s easy for them to lose heart.  In my reflection, I encourage them to keep at it, staying in tune with the Spirit as they study the Spirit. 

Here’s what I wrote:

 Psalm 143 and John 14-16

Chapter and verse divisions in the Bible can be very useful. We can find passages easier and help others find them. Yet, they also cause problems in interpretation. We tend to see chapters as separate chunks of a story or a textbook. Our brains are wired to see division as separation. In the best way, the divisions are like a jigsaw puzzle full of separate pieces.  There’s a way everything fits together, and we can see the picture before it’s done, but it’s not our picture and the pieces don’t fit any which way we can think of.  There’s a pattern, a goal.

More often, though, we treat the chapter and verse divisions in the Bible in another way, like Legos that come with an instruction sheet.  Yes, we can follow the instructions to build a castle or space ship, but once that’s done, we can take everything apart and build what we want.  Like Legos, verses can be set off by themselves, picked up and used to meet our goals.  We say we’re using the Bible, we look like we’re relying on Scripture, which sounds lofty and authoritative.  We may even sound extra committed to Scripture.

But when troubles come, we scatter.  We lose hope, we lose heart, we try to achieve through more work, more zeal, unsure of what God wants so we do that which seems a good thing to do. All while quoting Scripture.  Our lives are filled with chaos. We spread chaos.  We are troubled. We spread trouble. All while proclaiming a form of righteousness.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells the disciples.  A good encouragement.  We want Jesus to take away our troubles. Sometimes the troubles come from persecution or inner suffering. But sometimes the troubles are caused by our own pursuit of chaos.

A potent reminder when we put aside the chapter divisions and see where this fits into the context of the Gospel of John. At the end of John 13 we read:

“Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will have denied me three times.

Seeing John 14:1 in this context affects the meaning.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says.  Peter tells Jesus he will go where Jesus goes, that he will lay down his life for Jesus. But Jesus knows better.

Peter had chaos. Jesus has truth.

Peter offers a sacrifice. Jesus wants obedience.

Peter offers passion, Jesus seeks faithfulness.

But Jesus also shows grace. He launches into a wonderful testimony about God’s work, bringing in a Trinitarian discussion that is often overlooked. Do not be troubled, Jesus says, for this is what is going to happen.

“We don’t know the way,” Thomas says.

“Show us the Father,” Philipp asks.

Jesus gathers these themes together and points to the work of the Spirit who is the guide to truth and understanding.

This is important for many reasons. Not least because we often try to turn the Spirit into a dancing bear, adding flavor to an event.

The Spirit is not a dancing bear.

Another tendency is to assume the Spirit’s work is subjective, subject to our whims and assumptions. We then treat the Spirit like a genie who performs on command and grants us wishes, making us seem more important in a given setting. We can all be princesses and princes when the genie works!

The Spirit is not a genie.

Or on the other side, people can feel so distant from the Spirit’s work they think the only access is through gurus: specially trained elites who harness the expression and wisdom of the Spirit in God’s special locations. This is like turning the Spirit into an object of art, analyzed and discussed, but not living.

We turn the Spirit’s work into a subjective idealization of our own selves or make the Spirit so objective that it is like a marble statue set in place.

Both versions lead us into troubles.

Don’t be troubled, Jesus says.

The Spirit is the one sent to use, to teach and guide us. And not just us.

We see that the Spirit isn’t new to us, but indeed the Spirit has been at work in this way since Pentecost.

The Spirit has been working in familiar contexts and radically unfamiliar contexts, in different languages, in worse circumstances, in better circumstances, leading towards an understanding of God that transcends in one time or place.

Do we listen?

Do we learn from this manifold testimony?

Are our hearts troubled?

Do we see that the Spirit seeks many different people, in different ways, and is leading us together into the presence of Christ?

Jesus tells us these things so that we might have peace.  Peace in understanding that the work of God is certain.

God isn’t a genie nor a marble statue.

God is a living God, with a particular mission, calling us to be oriented in this mission in light of the Spirit’s particular work in us, shaping us and guiding us, leading us beyond our subjectivity into being obedient participants in this mission.

How is your heart troubled this day?

What is God calling you to do?

What resources is God offering to bring your heart peace and lead you to pressing onward towards the prize in Christ Jesus?

Orthodoxy–right understanding–isn’t about embracing chaos or frenzy. It isn’t about controlling God or making God an object of study that we’ll be tested on at some, undetermined, later date.

Orthodoxy is about right understanding of God’s work and our situation so that we may walk in the way of peace and hope and life and love.

This is the Spirit’s work and we are invited into this work, to embrace this peace and truth and love in all that we do and everywhere we go.

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Reflecting and Inviting as Spring Quarter Begins

This is the first week of Spring quarter. Each week in my theology and church history classes I begin with a reflection, a devotional type writing intended to help focus students.  The topics of the week are usually pretty dense and often difficult. But that doesn’t mean the issues we’re discussing are somehow irrelevant. It takes practice and training to swim in deep waters. Worth doing because there’s a beauty to be found, a wonder that is both new and familiar.

This quarter I’m teaching, again, a class on the Holy Spirit.  I thought I’d post my reflections each week so you can get a sense of not only the topics of the week but also how I’m providing a pastoral connection.

Theology isn’t separate from pastoral work, nor is it mean to be isolated in stodgy conference rooms or alienating prose. Theology involves learning about who God is and what God has done.

It can be complicated (would one really want a simplistic God?), but it doesn’t have to be alienating. The core message of Christianity is, after all, that God entered into this world and shares with people of all backgrounds, inviting them into a new hope, the depths of new life.  Theology should always begin, then, with an invitation, a way for people to find their voice in the conversations.

So, here’s the reflection that begins the first week of my theology classes:

As we enter into this course, it’s worthwhile to consider the task at hand in light of Scripture. Our present task is the study of theology, theo-logos, the words about God.  Here at the beginning, consider the words of Colossians 1:3-29:

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow-servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.*

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before himprovided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.

I’ve highlighted some phrases that stood out to me.  Green text emphasizes some of what God has done: the content of theology.  Red text points to our role, or task, or responsibility, some a gift from God, some a call for us: the tasks of theology.

As we begin this course, I invite you to do two things:

  1. Consider your own calling, why you’re here in seminary, what your particular task is these days and where you may be in the future.  Read this passage again and see if any words or phrases stand out.  It may be helpful to write down your thoughts, keeping a journal for these intro musings, so that the academic content stays connected with your sense of purpose and calling in being here at Fuller.
  2.  I encourage you to spend some time praying over the next 11 weeks, and listen to God’s response. Let us begin together by praying for one another, so that the words about God are oriented by words to God and words from God.


Posted in academia, Fuller, teaching | Comments Off on Reflecting and Inviting as Spring Quarter Begins


If our ecclesiology has been co-opted by the systems, then we cannot find liberation by revision within the systems as they are currently expressed. That perpetuates the system. It is thus important to assess the theological issues that led to such a pattern and determine if these need revision or transformation.

~Patrick Oden, Hope for the Oppressor (forthcoming)

Note, that if our ecclesiology has been co-opted, so too has our theological and ministerial education.

Posted in spirituality, theology | Comments Off on co-opted

The Gospel

“Paul had always believed that the One God would at the last put the whole world right.  The Psalms had said it; the prophets had predicted it; Jesus had announced that it was happening (though in a way nobody had seen coming). Paul declared that it had happened in Jesus–and that it would happen at his return. In between those two, the accomplishment of the putting-right project first in cross and resurrection and then in the final fulfillment at Jesus’s return, God had given his own spirit in the powerful and life-transforming word of the gospel. The gospel, incomprehensibly foolish to Greeks and blasphemously scandalous to Jews, nevertheless worked powerfully in hearts and minds. Listeners discovered that it made sense and that the sense it made transformed them from the inside out. This is the great ‘evangelical’ reality for which Paul and his letters are famous.

Our problem has been that we have set that powerful gospel reality in the wrong framework. The Western churches have, by and large, put Paul’s message within a medieval notion that rejected the biblical vision of heaven and earth coming together at last.  The Middle Ages changed the focus of attention away from ‘earth’ and toward two radically different ideas instead ‘heaven’ and ‘hell,’ often with a temporary stage (‘purgatory’) before ‘heaven.’ Paul’s life-changing and world-transforming gospel was then made to serve this quite different agenda, that is, that believing the gospel was the way to escape all that and ‘go to heaven.’ But that was not Paul’s point. ‘You have been saved by grace through faith,’ he writes in Ephesians. ‘This doens’t happen on your own initiative; it’s God’s gift. It isn’t on the basis of works, so no one is able to boast.’ As it stands, that statement can easily be fitted into the going-to-heaven scheme of thought, but a glance at the wider context will show that Paul has very different ideas…”

NT Wright, Paul: A Biography

Posted in eschatology, God We Wouldn't Expect, quotes, Scripture | 1 Comment

Grace in Sutherlin

After driving for about 6 hours, leaving right after church, we decided to have dinner at Taco Bell.

We needed a break and something more than quick business at a rest stop. Had about three and a half more hours to go until we arrived at Amy’s mom’s house and I’d been driving for about 4 hours.

In late afternoon, we drove through the shocking scene of the fires from last summer. Acres upon acres of devastation north of Lake Shasta. The forests started returning when we got into Oregon but we started losing light.

At dusk we drove through Grant’s Pass. We kept going. For another little while at least, until Roseburg. That’s the end of the twists and turns and ups and downs, and around the time we usually switch drivers.

How about Denny’s, I asked, as we drove through Roseburg.

Amy has a thing against Denny’s, so it was more of a joke than a suggestion.

We drove through Roseburg without anything grabbing our attention.

There was another town only a bit farther, smaller and more set up for those just wanting to eat a little, gas up, and get back on the road.

Saw Taco Bell listed among the dining choices on the handy blue next exit sign. Vianne likes burritos and Taco Bell has at least a passing resemblance to those. I was tired of driving and there wasn’t another town too close. This was it. We exited, made a left, and wound our way into the parking lot.

It’s next to a Subway that has an empty store front on one side of the building, making it look like the Subway isn’t yet finished. It has been that way for at least a few years.

We’d been to that Taco Bell before, don’t let me fool you. I like Taco Bell too, I’ll admit. I also like Mexican food. They’re not the same.

It was a nice dinner, a welcomed break. My mom texted, “How’s the journey?” just as we were getting a table, after we had ordered. I responded, “Good! Stopped in Sutherlin for dinner!”

We ended up staying in Sutherlin for a couple more hours, at at an even less appealing place, on the side of I5.

Amy took over driving as we left Taco Bell. We stopped for gas at Shell. Going to Shell means using a rewards card, don’t you know, for those times we don’t have a handy Costco for cheaper prices.

Remembered to stay in the car. Time to start getting used to Oregon again.

“Fill it with regular,” Amy said to the attendant, handing him our credit card. He goes to the pump, puts the card in, pushes the appropriate buttons, puts the nozzle in the car, hands the card back. Same as you and I do in most every other state, but in Oregon, it’s a specialized job not allowed to civilians. The gas tank fills up, the nozzle clicks off, wait a minute or two, the attendant is back with a receipt. Off we go!

Amy started the car up. There was a curious little flash on the dash board. I didn’t see it, but Amy says the battery light and another light flashed quick. They didn’t stay on, so no worries. Right? Amy was more worried and rightfully so, but we kept on. Places to go and a grandmother to see, after all. Wanted to get to Canby before it got too late.

We got on I5 (which is what they call the 5 in Northern California and Oregon), and the dash lights flickered a bit, and the battery light flashed on, then off, then on. I saw it and it was more troubling as it didn’t quite stop.

Then the headlights shut off. Everything else stayed on. The radio, the interior lights, the engine, the windows, the little lights on the shifter, all working fine. The car ran great. It was just now dark in front of us, thick with clouds and no significant settlement for quite a while.

“Should I pull over?” Amy asked, rightfully concerned.

“Yes! Pull over,” I answered, hiding my concern a lot less. Not really panic, but definitely not suave confidence.

We pulled over to the side of the freeway. Fortunately, it was a nice wide shoulder. The kids were now getting concerned.

I got out. A fuse? Something else? Lights going out but everything else running wasn’t something I’d dealt with. I’d just replaced the headlights a month before. Both out at once? Amy and I traded places.

I tried the ignition. The car turned on great! Tried the lights. Funky flashing and flickering on the panel and now the radio, but no headlights. Can’t drive on I5 at night without headlights. Not with kids at least.

I turned the car off, opened the hood, checked what I thought to check, which is me basically looking for something out of the ordinary. The battery was new, and all the cables looked fine. I also checked the oil. Our year of Subaru Outbacks doesn’t have a helpful oil light and it doesn’t have a volt gauge. Low oil is signified by a seemingly random flash of other warning lights on the panel, and, of course, your engine eventually seizing up.

So, that came to mind. We had plenty of oil and there wasn’t anything obviously amiss with the engine.

We had just paid about $1700 to fix our front and rear drive shaft assembly among other things, so maybe something to do with that? Our finances were stretched very thin and I didn’t want it to be anything big. I wanted to see something easy.

But why the lights? Didn’t make sense. We pay AAA every year, and so I gave them a call.

“We’re stuck on I5” I told the very helpful operator. “About a mile north of Sutherlin,” I added. “I can see the Motel 6 sign,” I added some more.

They must hire operators who are skilled in both crisis management and organization. They’re always very friendly and helpful. “Help is on the way,” she said.

About 40 minutes later, I called back, wondering about the help. Usually it’s quicker, and I hadn’t heard anything. “They’ve not gotten in touch?” she asked. Nope. She put me on hold, and then said, they’ll arrive soon.

I was impatient. Vianne was starting to get really nervous and even had some tears. Amy was calm and encouraging, as frustration started to build up in me.

Oliver was sound asleep.

Amy spoke words of faith and hope and peace. I needed that, needed a calming presence as I felt the responsibility weighing down on me.

I had a thought. How about the high beams? I turned the ignition. Car came right on! Turned on the lights. Nothing, except the panel flashing. Switched to high beams. They came on! I got to thinking we could make it to Canby even still, then get the car repaired the next day.

What should I do? I felt a rising panic and chaos. I decided to give it a try. Merged back into traffic, the lights stayed on, but the panel started flickering again, more nervous, more chaos, peace fled entirely.

I can’t do it, I told Amy. I don’t trust it.

She called AAA and told them we were about a mile farther down the freeway than originally said.

Waited a fair bit longer. I felt the frustration, discouragement, irritation, all the cues of impatience and chaos poking at me. Amy had a lot of peace. Vianne was nervous. Oliver was still asleep.

I kept fighting the urge to turn the car back on and just go, just go, get back going, push pass my caution. Be bold! Grace whispered to me, and had just enough momentum that it blunted the impatience, and I waited. Finally, I saw the flashing lights of a tow truck approach and then pull over in front of us.

Chaos had taken over the evening. We were stuck on I5 with a broken car, a mystery problem, financially strapped because of our recent bills, financially uncertain because of a very tenuous job situation in 2019. Lord I don’t believe. Help my unbelief!

I got out, waited by the front of the car for the AAA tow truck driver to get out and come over. It was a familiar scene. I’d done this quite a few times before. Cars are a weak area in my menagerie of faith issues, since I’ve run into a lot of breaking down and falling apart.

Indeed, had two major repairs around Christmas 2017–one for our Subaru and one for our Civic–which tapped our finances for much of the year. Added to this, my old Honda Civic stopped running in November, and we got tired of throwing more money we didn’t have at it, so were now down to one car.  We thought it was dependable.

She said hello as she got near. Every other tow truck driver I’ve had were men. So, this was a change. I shared what was going on with the car.

Grace began to abound.

She was a voice of calm. There we were on the side of I5, chatting about possible issues, and as we talked I felt more and more peace. Usually I’m impatient about trying to sort out possible solutions when the obvious isn’t working. But, she was so nice, and suggested we check the fuses again, try a few other things.

She was flummoxed, and yet it was a peaceful flummoxed, not the kind I had. All things are possible when you have a large tow truck and have seen much worse situations on much worse nights.

Nothing worked, she called her husband who is a mechanic, and he suggested some things, but it wasn’t those. I asked if we could make it to Canby. She nor he wanted to venture an opinion about that possibility, though it didn’t seem an absolute negative.

I decided to give in. Canby was outside our 100 mile limit, so that was right out. I had originally told the AAA operator we would go to Motel 6 (it was within view! or at least was until I made things slightly worse) and find a mechanic in the morning.

In our wait, in experiencing a moment of grace, I thought I’d look for a nearby Holiday Inn Express. These are handy places, serving us well in times of stressful long roadtrips and occasional business trips.

We have had a membership there for a while (more points!), and they have dependable rooms, breakfast and other amenities. Not much more in cost than Motel 6. If you can’t afford a hotel, you might as well not afford a somewhat nicer hotel and get some points for the bother.

We transferred the kids, car seats, and other items into the four (or five) person cab of the tow truck. Vianne was distraught but is always adventurous, so getting into the big truck perked her up.

Oliver stayed asleep.

The 10 mile drive back to Roseburg was, grace-fully, actually pleasant. The tow truck driver–whose name and company escapes me since when I should have paid attention I still had a lot of chaos bouncing around my head–was extremely nice, and we chatted about Oregon and California and things she’d seen and cars she’d rescued.

Got to the Holiday Inn. Amy had called ahead about a room. They had a lot, so we weren’t too nervous. But, you know, at this time of year, it can be difficult to get a room at an inn. I’ve read about that happening.

Took a bit of time to check in since as we got there another family had just arrived at the front desk, and they had some complications to sort out.

Amy, and the kids, waited in the car.

I got a room. The tow truck driver drove to the edge of the relatively empty parking lot, lowered the ramp, backed the car onto the asphalt. We said our very heart-felt thanks, and then good-byes. Grace abounded from her the moment she pulled over to help on I5. I really want to hunt down that company and say even more thanks.

I reparked the car. It ran great, just no lights.

We unloaded the kids and unloaded what we needed. Not too easy since we didn’t expect just a quick overnight. And we hoped that’s all it would take on this eve of Christmas eve.

View from our hotel

My experiences, though, had me uncertain, and quietly faithless. Things that start well end poorly in far too many of my memories.

And this trip had started well, and now we had encountered the poorly.

Though that tow truck driver was sure nice and we found a good hotel to stay at.

Even better than I expected. Third floor room, two queen beds, and all the rooms faced one way and had a balcony, which overlooked the Umpqua river. That’s a nice view! Weather was cloudy but not rainy, and I’ll take that anytime I’m in Oregon.

After getting settled, we fell asleep. It was about 10. I slept great for about 4 hours, woke up around 2:30, then my thoughts started, then my uncertainty blossomed, and chaos entered my soul. I pulled out my phone and started looking for a mechanic, since it seemed something I needed to do.

Had a few listings, and one stood out. Five stars on Yelp. That’s a good sign. The reviews were helpful and it happened to be less than a mile away, just across the bridge and a couple blocks. I felt a lot of peace, decided that’s the place I’d risk (I’ve had bad mechanics before), and fell back to sleep.

We woke up around 7:00, we got some breakfast at the nice buffet, then went back to the room. I had a surprising amount of peace, and had burgeoning hope.

Waiting room at the mechanic

When it turned 8, I called the mechanic, they answered on the first ring, and were happy to help. I drove the car over (it ran great! just no lights).

Decided to wait as they diagnosed it. Took about 40 minutes for them to get to it. But they had a problem to fix. Overcharging alternator.

I’d had bad alternators, but when that happened the car doesn’t run and definitely doesn’t get started. Bad alternator meant “no charging” to me. I’ve not had too much charging. But I was a bit stuck, gave them the go ahead, then googled the issue.

Usually googling a problem makes things worse, but this time it actually described what we were dealing with.

My mom called me (she doesn’t call that often) to check in. I gave her the update. Then started the walk back to the hotel.

It was a misty, cloudy, but not rainy day to walk through an older part of Roseburg, across the Umpqua River, back into our hotel. Vianne and Oliver were in the indoor pool, and Amy was calmly reading a book nearby. The kids were thrilled. They love to swim.

The car wouldn’t be ready until 2 and the desk clerk said it would be entirely fine to have a late check out set for 2.

Good mechanic. Indoor pool. Food to eat. A room with a view and the freedom to stay for the day. Kind driver, kind staff.

Grace abounded again and again.

View of our hotel from the bridge over the Umpqua river, as I walked back from the mechanic

Had a nice morning of it, decided to go to lunch. The only place within walking distance? Denny’s.

Fate had its way.

I ordered a nice breakfast for lunch, and Amy ordered a Cobb salad. Vianne had chicken fingers. Oliver wanted a cheeseburger and a side salad.

When the plates came, we all were pleased, except for Oliver. He was bordering on ecstatic. It was a big salad, with everything he likes (tomatoes, lettuce, etc.)

Vianne has always loved eating and food. Oliver has been much more laid back about it all. Until the time we had Denny’s in Roseburg. I have never seen him enjoy his meal more.

He ate it up, every bite a moment of joy. The salad fulfilled his dreams and the cheeseburger his hopes (“It’s so cheesy!”). All the bother might have been worth it just to see his joy upon feasting on salad and a cheeseburger at Denny’s.

Car got fixed a little before the expected time. I walked back over. It was raining a bit now, but I didn’t mind. All is well, and a walk in the rain across the river does a soul good.

The cost was less than expected, so good, but a new alternator, new headlights, one new taillight, and labor isn’t cheap.  Somehow, I still had peace.  A lot of peace.  I may have even been cheery.

Everyone was very friendly, and to get it diagnosed and back on the road in a few hours on Christmas eve was beyond welcomed.

The car started right up, and even as it started it sounded a lot healthier, no longer having that burst of extra gusto it had been starting with for the previous week. I didn’t tell the mechanics about that, but they apparently fixed it by replacing the alternator.

Back on I5. This time the car kept running. We drove to Canby, getting there for dinner.

We didn’t get there in time for the Christmas eve service, but truth be told, we had our own Christmas eve service. Grace abounded in a time of frustration, peace came through when we were stuck and dependent on others. As the time in Oregon continued, we experienced more and more grace at each step.

Oregon Coast in late December

Lord, thank you for helping my unbelief. I thank you for your grace, for your hope, for your bounty that you showed us during what might have been a very discouraging time. Thank you for bringing people of kindness our way, for the generosity and encouragement.

Thank you for the hope you brought us on Christmas eve. Thank you for the grace we experienced that started in Sutherlin and carried us into the new year. We had a great time in Oregon, feeling rested and excited about what you will do in the midst of our continuing questions about 2019.

The weather in Oregon continued to be great, by the way. We even had some sun and relatively warm weather when we visited the coast. Vianne got to experience her happy place again, by dancing in the Pacific.

Amy and I celebrated our 10 year anniversary with a quick getaway to a hotel in Washington.

Amy Oden

It was just off of I5 and we had a 3rd floor balcony that looked right out over the Columbia River.

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Filled with the Spirit

This past Sunday, I preached on the topic of the Holy Spirit, seeing how the work of the Spirit in the Old Testament leads into how we understand the work of the Spirit in the New Testament. Which leads in what it means for us as a specific community of those “filled with the Spirit.”

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on ordination

As part of my ordination examination, I was asked to provide a further response about ordination. Indeed, while I was affirmed in almost every way, the lingering question at the table was whether my calling included the particular element of ordination. This arose because I was not as forthright about ordination in how I talked about my self and my calling. (Now I’m over-using the word “ordination” a lot in this first paragraph — it’s hard to find balance in life)

In this short supplemental response [originally sent to the examination board and which I am now posting here], my goal is to discuss ordination in more depth, both how I understand it and how I see it as fitting into my calling.

Ordination is a expression of commitment. It is a commitment of a person to a particular denomination and a commitment of the denomination to that person. It is thus not to be entered into lightly by either side. More than a simple job agreement, ordination is a shared commitment in light of Christ’s calling.

It is a testimony that this person speaks in a way that reflects the denomination and a testimony that the denomination trusts what this person will speak, ordaining him or her into a public pastoral ministry. As a public pastoral ministry, an ordained minister is giving the task of edification, formation, and outreach, a shepherd to those who have been saved and a messenger to those who need salvation, as well as responsible for the pragmatic functions of a church community.

My calling in life is to serve the body of Christ. This is a calling affirmed throughout my life and in how God has shaped opportunities and formed my development. It is a calling that involves a passion to help others experience fullness in Christ, wherever their starting point, and to help them express this fullness in the ways God leads them.

I am a teacher, and exhorter, able to write and speak in ways that reach a variety of audiences. In both training and gifting, I am led to express God’s life into and for this world.

In my 20s, I explored this calling in light of church ministry, utilizing my seminary training to help develop a members class, to develop and lead a young adults ministry, to organize and plan special events like a multisensory Stations of the Cross that transformed our sanctuary to a walk through the crucifixion narrative.

I was excited about this ministry and felt validated by those I was ministering with and those I was learning from. However, my calling was discouraged by some others in leadership, who were themselves dealing with significant dysfunction.

My attempts to respond in light of faithful Christian dialogue were rebuffed and having no recourse to denominational support (it was an independent church) I did not have other roads open. Ordination was an interest but not an opportunity at this time.

Over the next years, I realized I needed to deepen my understanding and experience of faith, and turned to a season of writing, reading, praying, seeking God with all my being.

This transformative season addressed my frustrations and reinvigorated my love for the church, resulting in two very pastoral oriented books which were published by Barclay Press: It’s a Dance: Moving with the Holy Spirit and How Long? A Trek Through the Wilderness.

I entered into PhD work with a dedicated interest in ecclesiology and church history, better grounding my understanding of why the church is the way it is and what it is called to be.

I am critical of many aspects about the church, but I love the church, and see it as an expression of God’s radical work in this world.

In short, the church is my passion. In a season where I was discouraged in participation, it was like my soul was torn from me. In finding my way back in the leading of the Spirit, I have specialized in church life, adding to a lifetime of church experiences and ministry experience.

My dissertation (now published book) is titled The Transformative Church and expresses a dynamic transformative ecclesiology that understands the expressions of the church in a holistic way, in which people become in the church who they are called to be throughout the whole of their lives.

This has a theoretical basis, since I focus on the work of Moltmann, but also extremely practical expression, as my use of missional writings throughout emphasizes.

This interest in the theoretical intersecting the practical continues in my work at Fuller, where in addition to teaching classes on theology and church history, I also teach a class on Practices of Christian Worship (indeed this very quarter) and a class on Practices of Christian Community (next quarter).

These all feed into each other, informing and shaping how I teach, how I pray, how I lead.

This has not entirely addressed the “why” of ordination for me, of course. In the process of the last few years, it has become clear that I am led to teach in a variety of settings. I am not content with simply teaching in a seminary environment, though I am happy to have this as a vocation.

I also am passionate about revitalizing catechesis, teaching Christians about the faith in a planned developmental approach.

I have been affirmed in my preaching, leading, and teaching. I have been affirmed in and value the opportunities of pastoral counseling. While I get these in academic teaching, teaching at a seminary does not provide a constant community in which to develop deeper relationships and conversations.

While I have the chance to write and research in academic ways, academia does not give the chance to explore how all this translates into transformative living in accordance with the calling of Christ in a particular time and place.

In content, in passion, in interest, in hope, then, my calling resonates with ordained ministry. Whether I work full time as a minister and part time teaching in a classroom, or whether I work full time as a professor and part time as a minister, both sides benefit from each other.

My academic work utterly needs continued orientation within church ministry life, and my church ministry calling needs the continued reflection and deepening that is part of my academic life. I do not see these as separate callings but as an integrated calling with different expressions.

The question for me is not whether I am called to contributing to the church and God’s missio in this world. These are part of my core self. The question, as I see it, is if the Wesleyan Church, can use one such as me at some place in its many ministries. If so, then I am excited to be a part and to be a minister in a way that participates to, from, and within the church.

Posted in academia, church, theology, Transformative Church | 1 Comment