By Rob Renfroe —
Over the last few months I have had the privilege of speaking to more than a dozen churches and conferences in six different states and once to brothers and sisters in Europe, the Middle East, and the Philippines via social media. What I enjoy most are the conversations I have with individuals after my presentation is completed.
Different locations and cultures, but there are similar themes that emerge as we talk. There is always sadness that we are at a place where division is necessary. But there is also great excitement about the future as we look forward to re-envisioning what an orthodox Wesleyan movement can be and do for a lost world. What took me by surprise at first, but now I’ve come to expect, are those persons who believe they should wait before making the decision to stay or go.
Some tell me that there’s no reason to leave right now because “nothing has changed.” What they usually mean is that our official UM doctrines are still orthodox and biblical. On the face of it, that’s a true statement, but it’s not a good description of reality. We presently have pastors who preach that Jesus was not resurrected from the dead or that the resurrection doesn’t matter and that Jesus did not die for our sins. We have seminaries that teach Jesus is just one of many ways to God and one that has even created curricula for persons wanting to be ordained in the Unitarian-Universalist denomination that denies the Trinity and the deity of Christ. We now have a commissioned candidate for ministry who preaches in drag and is celebrated by centrist pastors as being a gifted communicator of the Gospel. We just elected a second bishop who is married to a spouse of the same sex. No bishop charged with teaching and enforcing our doctrines has ever spoken out publicly against any of these false teachings and practices.
Believing that “nothing has changed” because our written doctrines have not been altered is a strange way of looking at reality. It would be like having a peace treaty with a neighboring country that’s dropping bombs on your territory and saying, “But nothing has changed; they haven’t rescinded the treaty.” It doesn’t matter what’s on paper if it’s not being followed or enforced. Nothing has changed? Everything has changed. Compare where we are to what Wesley preached. To where we were when the UM Church began in 1968. To what the Bible teaches. “Nothing has changed” is the last thing you can say about where the UM Church is now.
Others tell me they can stay because centrist leaders have told them that traditionalists will always be accepted and they will never have to accept a progressive pastor. There’s so much wrong with that statement that it’s hard to know where to start.
First, centrist leaders on a national level have never kept the agreements they have made with traditionalists. In Portland they agreed with us that the UM Church could not stay together and we needed to work together for a respectful separation. But they came to General Conference 2019 with a plan that went back on that commitment. They agreed that the special called 2019 GC would settle our differences over sexuality once and for all – until they didn’t get their way and then they condemned the UM Church and ignored the decisions of the General Conference. Most recently they have reneged on their commitment to the Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation through Separation after helping to create it and pledging to support it. For those still unconvinced, the recent actions of the Arkansas Annual Conference should be telling. At a special called conference held November 19, the conference refused to approve the disaffiliation of three churches which had fulfilled every requirement for leaving the denomination. Each of these three churches had made their way through the arduous pathway created by the Arkansas AC and had passed a motion to leave by more than two-thirds. Still centrists and progressives there refused to honor their decision. So, when centrists state that no traditional church will ever be made to do anything they find disagreeable, they already have. There’s little reason any serious person should trust what centrist leaders promise about the future.
Second, every UM Church will one day have a progressive pastor. In November our five U.S. jurisdictions elected thirteen new bishops. Not one was a traditionalist. The UM Church in the United States will never again elect a traditionalist bishop. And you can be sure few, if any, traditionalists will ever again seek ordination in the UM Church. Why would a young person looking at forty years of ministry join a denomination that despises his or her views – which one of our recently elected bishops described as “a virus which will make the church sick.” You may have a traditional pastor now, but the well is drying up, and the day will come when there will be no one to appoint to your church but a liberal pastor with a progressive theology.
Most importantly, I believe, is not whether traditionalists will be accepted, but what they will have to accept if they remain. In the future, traditionalists will be in a denomination that allows its pastors to preach that Jesus’ death did not make atonement for our sins and that he is just one of many ways to God or that permits its pastors to pray to God as “the Great Queer One,” as future UM pastors did at UM Duke Divinity School recently. If you remain in the UM Church, give your time and your money and lend your name to the UM Church, you will be supporting all of this. You will be aiding a church that promotes sin and allows its leaders to deny our most important Christian beliefs. Will you be accepted as a traditionalist in the UM Church over time? Probably not. But more importantly, you will have to accept a church that undermines the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Still others tell me they are remaining in hopes that something similar to the Protocol will be passed in 2024, something that is more fair and less costly for churches than the present exit path they are being offered by their conference. I can certainly understand this desire. Many bishops are abusing their power and adding exorbitant fees for churches that wish to disaffiliate. But there’s no reason to believe that General Conference 2024 will bring any relief. Literally thousands of traditional churches will have left the denomination by 2024, meaning there will be fewer traditional delegates at the next General Conference to fight for a better deal. Centrists and progressive leaders have stated they will not support the Protocol. Do you believe they will offer a more generous pathway than before for exiting churches now that they have the upper hand? Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline that churches are using now to depart goes away at the end of 2023. There is absolutely no reason to believe that waiting until 2024 will be advantageous for churches wanting to leave in the future.
Finally, some have said they will remain to “be a witness” within the UM Church. If God is calling you to be a Jonah, by all means, be faithful and stay. We traditionalists have tried to be a witness for the past fifty years. Those within the UM Church who have had ears to hear have heard. Those who don’t have not. If God has called you to stay, do so. But please make certain it’s God calling you to do the hard ministry of staying, not your desire to avoid the hard work of leaving.
What I find wherever I speak are good people who love Jesus, who are committed to the Gospel, and who care deeply about their church. It is a privilege to be with them, to listen to their concerns and hear their stories. I also discover that good people can be in different places when it comes to leaving. But I am convinced the UM Church is on a pathway that will take it far from the orthodox Christian faith and from proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and the Lord of all. If you feel called to remain in such a denomination, then stay. If not, the time to leave is now. Do not remain because leaving is difficult.
This moment is about the Gospel. This moment is about Jesus, lifting him up and proclaiming his glory. This moment is about doing the hard things required to be faithful. Do not take comfort in misleading promises or false hopes. The time is now.
By Kimberly Constant —
Ezekiel stood, looking out across a valley filled with bones that stretched as far as he could see. Bones that were brittle. Bleached by the relentless sun and worn down by the ravages of time. Bones which represented the once proud nation of Israel, now seemingly without hope. Devastating reminders of what had been a community of God’s own formation, tasked to make his glory known. Now bearing silent witness to the devastating reality of the downfall of God’s covenant people because of their sin. As Ezekiel surveyed the wreckage, with God at his side, God posed a weighty question, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Can these bones live? Perhaps it’s a question that we find ourselves pondering. As a new year dawns, it is natural for many of us to think about fresh starts. New beginnings. To look with expectant hope to a future in which we long to find better days. But sometimes, we face more of the same seemingly endless challenges of the past. Illness, debt, broken relationships, dwindling faith, all of which have us staring into our own valley of bones. Perhaps, mourning the loss of what once was, we look into a new year filled with terrifying unknowns and wonder if there are some situations which might be beyond hope. Maybe in this season of fresh starts and new beginnings some of us wonder if revival is possible. Can God really breathe new life into something that seems as far beyond the point of resuscitation as a valley filled with bones?
In reading Ezekiel’s vision, recounted to us in chapter 37 of the biblical book that bears his name, we might ask why Ezekiel himself didn’t pose this question to God, instead of the other way around. Didn’t Ezekiel wonder? Surely, as one of God’s prophets he knew the words of those who preceded him, which spoke to the promise of rebirth. That the exile of God’s people, both a physical separation from the land of promise and a spiritual separation from the God of promises, would not last forever. At least for a remnant. Could it be that the thought did not enter his mind? Maybe as Ezekiel looked out across that valley of death, what lay before him seemed like a heartbreaking indication that indeed all hope was lost for the majority of Israel. That if a remnant would arise, certainly it would not be from this pile of death.
So, in the silence of the moment, as God and Ezekiel took in the sorrow and despair of that valley of bones, God asked the question that Ezekiel either couldn’t or wouldn’t ask. A question for which only God could supply the answer. Ezekiel said as much, “My Lord God, you know.” Some translations insert a word of emphasis, “My Lord God, you alone know.” Can these bones live? You tell me, God. For any answer in the affirmative would require a miracle that only you can provide.
But the truth is that God had been asking and answering that question since the formation of our world. Marshalling out of nothing a universe of such brilliance and complexity that scientists and poets through the ages have found no shortage of material for exploration and invocation. Forming and fashioning that universe through the power of his voice; his words constructing light and space and time. Creatures and environments and the pinnacle of it all, us.
God had asked and answered this question over and over again. In his provision of coverings for the shame and sin of Adam and Eve in the garden. In the olive branch delivered by the dove to Noah as he waited for the waters to recede. In the words of Joseph to his brothers upon their discovery that he had not just survived their cruel actions but had become their means of salvation from a vicious famine, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” God asked and answered this question when he brought the people out from slavery in Egypt. When he assembled them at the foot of Mt. Sinai and formed them into a nation bound to him by a covenant of holiness. And later when they complained. When they worshipped the golden calf. When they bought into the fear in the eyes of ten of the spies returning from their scouting mission in Canaan. God asked and answered this question when he brought down the walls of Jericho yet brought out from the destruction the Canaanite prostitute Rahab and her family as a reward for her courageous faith.
God asked and answered this question for Ruth and Naomi when they had lost everything. For David in the wilderness as he fled from Saul. For Elijah as he prayed for death to relieve his loneliness and pain. For Mordecai and Esther as they faced the eradication of their people. God asked and answered this question for the nation of Israel each time it assembled itself to renew the covenant, repentant for the sin of the past and expectant for a future of obedient faithfulness. God asked and answered this question through the promises of his prophets. That indeed restoration would follow judgement. Indeed, hope need not die even in the face of terrible suffering. For not only would a remnant return to rebuild a devastated Jerusalem, but God would also send a righteous ruler. A king, a prophet, a priest to usher in a new beginning. To restore what had been lost. Not just for Israel. But for all. And although Ezekiel could not see nor understand the implications of some of these prophecies, we know that God asked and answered this question once and for all from a cross and an empty tomb and a throne seated at his right hand.
Can these bones live? The answer is always yes for those who cry out to God. God’s grace and mercy remain an ever-present gift for us, ready to be received at any moment, not just at the turn of a new year. Ours for the taking if we will repent. If we will turn from pursuing our own will and desires and turn towards the path of God. God asked Ezekiel the question not because God needed him to supply the answer. God wanted Ezekiel to be part of the solution. To serve as God’s mouthpiece once more and to prophesy to those dead people. Ezekiel had a part to play in reviving what seemed forever lost.
So, God said, “Prophesy. Tell these bones to hear my word. They will live. And they will know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel, to his credit, didn’t run away in terror or laugh in utter incredulity. He didn’t question his abilities or ask God to send someone else. Ezekiel spoke to that pile of death and God breathed life into the broken remnants of his people. What arose was something truly magnificent, an exceedingly great army. Warriors strengthened and brought to life by God. The hope of Israel renewed and restored from the grave of its demise.
Many of us might feel as if we, too, are staring into an abyss of bones. The remnants of our own hopes and dreams. The remains of marriages, friendships, jobs, even of our churches, many of which have experienced something akin to divorce in this last year. Many of us might feel as if we’ve lost our moorings. As the secular world increasingly dismantles any notion of fundamental morality, we might feel as if our way of life is becoming more and more of a fringe movement. Perhaps we’ve endured scorn and ridicule, even cancellation, for the beliefs that define us as Christians. As the people of God perhaps we wonder where do we go now? Can God still breathe new life when and where it seems impossible?
God stands beside us and poses the very same question he asked of Ezekiel, “People of God, can these bones live?” Even as we ask ourselves, can we find our way forward through a world filled with so much anger and pain? Can we find our way forward through the disdain of society that wants nothing to do with God, let alone an understanding of moral and ethical absolutes? Can we find our way forward in new or changing denominations? Can we as God’s people find our way forward through the valley of bones that lay before us?
To that God says, prophesy. Speak to the bones. Prophesy to the breath. Proclaim the truth. The hope and the life available through Jesus Christ. The peace and comfort to be found in the Gospel. Speak of the love of God so great that there is nothing that can separate us from that love. Not even death. And then, and then my friends, we will live.
The story of the Bible is a story book-ended by beginnings. From the beginning of our universe and our creation as human beings, born from the dust of the earth, imprinted with the image of God, and imbued with his life-giving and sustaining breath. To the beginning of a new creation, at the end of days, when we will live in the very presence of God in resurrection bodies that testify to God’s ability to revive and restore. In fact, the story of the Bible is one of continual beginnings arising from what looked like endings. It’s a story of hundreds of fresh starts. Made possible because we are loved by a God whose power is limitless.
But it is a story that needs telling. God calls each of us to play a part in spreading the hope of new beginnings. We as God’s people must be willing to speak God’s word into the darkest corners of the world. Into places where it looks as if there is no one to hear; no one who cares. Even if they laugh. Even if they scream. Even if they threaten. Even if they do their worst. Prophesy. Speak to the breath of the one who can do the impossible. For from the disasters of the present, God can and will call forth his people into a time of greater unity, a time of resolute purpose. Not just a people, but an army of spiritual warriors. Where we might see nothing but old bones, a hopeless wasteland, painful endings, God envisions a fresh explosion of life.
As we march into 2023 let us remember that sometimes what comes from brokenness is even more beautiful than that which came before. From Jesus’s birth came his ministry, from his ministry came the cross, from the cross came the empty tomb, from the empty tomb a throne. Indeed, because of Jesus’ victory, we can endure. Indeed, we will live.
Kimberly Constant is a Bible teacher, author, and ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. You can find out more about Rev. Constant at kimberlyconstantministries.com.
Art: Francisco Collantes (1599-1656). Vision of Ezekiel. Public domain.
By Walter Fenton, Global Methodist Church –
United Methodist Bishop Mark J. Webb, the former leader of the UM Church’s Upper New York Episcopal Area, has resigned from the episcopacy and withdrawn from the denomination. Webb has joined the Global Methodist Church.
The GM Church’s Transitional Leadership Council (TLC) announced it has hired Webb as a bishop in the GM Church. Its Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline provides that UM Church bishops may be received as bishops in the GM Church to serve until the latter’s convening General Conference; Bishop Webb has been received in this capacity. Initially, he will serve as one of the general superintendents of the GM Church and will not be appointed to a specific residential area.
“I am humbled to be a part of a fresh expression of Methodism that seeks to capture and live the fullness of our Wesleyan DNA and equip individuals and congregations to boldly and urgently live out God’s call to offer the good news of Jesus Christ to a desperate world,” said Webb regarding his new role with the GM Church. “I’m also grateful for the leadership and gifts faithfully offered by so many in the formation of this movement and look forward to becoming a part of all that God is doing and will do in and through the Global Methodist Church.”
Webb served as the bishop of the Upper New York Annual Conference of the UM Church for over 10 years. Prior to his role as a bishop, he pastored three local churches and served as a district superintendent in Pennsylvania for 23 years. His clergy colleagues elected him as a delegate to General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2004, 2008, and 2012. He received the Harry Denman Evangelism Award in 2002, and in 2018 he was named as one of the top 100 leaders by the John C. Maxwell Transformational Leadership Award.
“We are honored to have Bishop Webb join us and to immediately assume leadership responsibilities in the Global Methodist Church,” said Cara Nicklas, Chairwoman of the TLC. “His humble spirit, his courageous witness, and above all, his fidelity to the core confessions of the Wesleyan expression of the Christian faith are inspiring. I am confident his creative leadership will contribute to the growing health and vitality of our Church.”
A graduate of Shippensburg University (Shippensburg, Pennsylvania) with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, Bishop Webb also holds a M. Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, Kentucky) and a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from the University of Connecticut (Storrs, Connecticut). He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary (Dayton, Ohio).
“What has impressed me most serving under and alongside Bishop Webb has been his keen ability to use his gifts of leadership and discernment to cast vision and work with others to implement that vision in often complicated situations,” said the Rev. Steven Taylor, Lead Pastor of Panama UM Church (Panama, New York). “He unapologetically proclaims that hope and salvation are found only in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”
Former United Methodists who have already transitioned to the GM Church and United Methodist hoping to follow them have long regarded Bishop Webb as a courageous and gracious leader, willing to speak up on their behalf. He was very warmly received at the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s 2022 Global Gathering in Indiana, where he offered the closing devotion and served as the celebrant for Holy Communion.
“The entire staff is excited to welcome Bishop Webb to the team and is looking forward to working with him,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, the GM Church’s Transitional Connectional Officer. “His experience, and the gifts and graces he brings to us will bless and increase the GM Church for years to come. We praise and thank God for his willingness to serve among us during the denomination’s critical transitional period.”
Just launched on May 1, 2022, hundreds of local churches in Africa, Europe, the Philippines, and the United States have already aligned with the Global Methodist Church, and many more are hoping to do so over the next few years.
“Many people are coming to the Global Methodist Church with a passion to follow Jesus and be the Church, but also with a deep weariness and pain from past experiences and struggles. We are a broken and wounded people, called to offer Jesus to a broken and wounded world. We will need to help one another heal,” said Bishop Webb. “We must choose to trust and encourage one another, while fully depending upon the power of God’s Spirit in this new journey. I strive to give thanks for the formation my past provides, but I also know that the Gospel message invites me to lay the past behind and focus on the vision and hope God is birthing today. The battles of yesterday are no longer our battles. There will be new struggles, but I know God will be faithful, and I trust that God has already equipped us to be faithful to the glory of God and for the increase of His Kingdom.”
Bishop Webb lives in Lititz, Pennsylvania and is married to Jodi. They have two sons, Tyler, who is married to Lyndsay and Benjamin, who is married to Mary.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer. Link to original story HERE.
Photo: Bishop Mark Webb, formerly of the Upper New York Conference, gives the closing devotional at the May 7 Global Gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. (Photo by Sam Hodges, UM News.)
By Jessica LaGrone —
My friend Ryanne is a colorful Christian. Her home is colorful. She often paints a wall or ceiling or the whole front porch on a whim, based on some color that has drawn her fancy. Her family is colorful. Her children’s skin colors are a glorious variety of hues. Her language is sometimes a little colorful. As she stands yelling at her four kids and two dogs (and yardful of chickens, to boot) from her multicolored porch, she sometimes uses words that attract attention and occasional alarm from her aging neighbors. She stands out in her neighborhood, and pretty much everywhere else, which is clearly the way Ryanne likes it.
She especially stands out when she and her kids pull into the church parking lot on Sundays, her ancient station wagon covered in bumper stickers that range from humorous and whimsical to edgy and political, surrounded by all the matching minivans. It can be hard at first to tell who the adult is in this brood. Ryanne is shorter than her oldest and matches him in cropped hair and faded jeans. She looks a little more like a teen headed to detention than a mother of four on her way to worship. Her church attire is a special T-shirt – one of her favorites to wear to church has “I love Jesus, but I cuss a little” printed across the front. “Just because I don’t dress like a church lady doesn’t mean I don’t believe like one,” she laughs.
Does someone whose life seems so messy fit into the orderly picture of God’s good creation? Do we need to be a people of sterile, ordered lives to be a people of God?
Honestly, Ryanne has one of the most solid faiths of anyone I’ve ever met. Her house and car might look a little odd, but she and Jesus are tight. He was with her when the child support was late again. When the electricity was about to be turned off. When her middle kid wanted to go live with his dad. When her daily life was as torn and beat-up as the old carpet on her back porch, where we sat as she told me how Jesus helped her put the pieces back together.
Just because he made her whole again didn’t mean he ironed her personality flat.
Order and chaos. One mistake we make when we talk about order and chaos is to assume God’s call to order is a sentence to bland uniformity. He didn’t tidy up the vast expanse of creation expecting us to fall marching into line. Looking around at the world he made, we can see that his creativity is unmatched. Whether or not we wear it on our T-shirts, all of us are a little colorful, made up of stories and opinions pasted over a bit with life and humor and politics that would entertain some and shock others.
But God’s idea of order in this vast universe wasn’t meant to keep the riffraff out, to place plastic covers on the couches, or to send uniform Christian soldiers trooping into churches dressed up and combed up and polished into essentially the same model with a slightly different minivan.
The design of order in creation was never meant to decree uniformity. Creation by separation was never meant to make clubs of those who belong and outcasts of those who don’t. There’s no sign or secret handshake that Christians have to give in order to be truly accepted. The mark of a life lived faithfully with Christ isn’t some outwardly visible thing that shows up in our homes, our dress, or the shape of our family portraits in the church directory. It doesn’t matter if you wear a suit or a faded T-shirt. Those are only outward appearances, after all, and God looks at the heart.
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton’s take on the discipline and order found in the Christian life was that “the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”
When God, on the first three days of creation, laid out one environment after another, creating space to swim and fly, to run and walk, to breathe and sing and dance, he was preparing a space ordered for the things that would come to live in it. When he looked out at each created space and named it “good,” surely part of the goodness was the intended purpose – the goodness to come, as wild things, humanity included, would enjoy this place to its fullest.
Room for play. There is something appealing about order, about pristine gardens and manicured lawns. Why risk letting anyone in to mess it up? If order is the highest value, then why allow play? Put up signs on the field that read, “Keep Off the Grass!” Fertilize it to green perfection. Manicure the heck out of it. Mow it in careful parallel stripes and guard it from pests, especially those big enough to run and kick a soccer ball.
What does it say about God that he didn’t put a plastic cover on the couch of creation? That he didn’t put up a “Keep Off the Grass” sign and shake his fist every time we came near?
We’ve bought into the lie that there are only two options: to either keep everyone off the field so they won’t mess it up, or to let it all go to seed, to descend into a wild space overtaken by weeds. The creation story paints a shocking alternative. God took the dark, empty chaos and made a beautiful space. Then instead of hiding it away, he decided to share it with us, knowing that our footprints would mess the field but that our play would be the ultimate fullness, the thing he made it all for.
Sometimes we tell ourselves the lie that the life God loves is a sterile, empty picture of life where there’s no room for human error. But anything that doesn’t allow room for human error doesn’t allow room for humans, and the whole point of the creation recipe culminates in putting humans in the environment to flourish in their relationship with God and each other. A place for God’s children to bring their imperfect and chaotic selves into his presence to commune with him is just the glorious chaos he ordered. A creation empty of messy inhabitants would be a different kind of chaos – the chaos of puritanical sterility, lacking the vulnerability that always comes when we open ourselves to sharing life and space with others.
Signs of Life. When life comes pouring in, all kinds of accompanying miracles and mayhem come with it, even in places we wouldn’t expect. That’s exactly what happened when Dr. Bill Thomas became the new medical director at Chase Memorial Nursing Home in New Berlin, New York.
Upon his arrival, Thomas found a tidy, well-run facility. The staff members were focused on keeping patients safe and comfortable in their last years of life, and they were doing it well. But Thomas noted that while the environment was quiet and safe, the light had gone out in many people’s eyes. The excellent job the caregivers had done in providing order and minimizing risk had also succeeded in producing a dead calm.
Dr. Thomas began to wonder what it would look like not just to keep patients alive, but to give them a reason for living. He wanted Chase to feel like a real home, not an institution. He found the inspiration for what was missing when he went home at night to his own household: plants, animals, and children – untidy, unpredictable, and utterly alive.
The plan Thomas formulated and presented to the administration was called, appropriately, the Eden Alternative. If you’ve been imagining the Garden of Eden as a serene and tranquil paradise, you might not have pictured every kind of creature bursting onto the scene with all of their predatory and procreative instincts revved up and ready to go. As the old Lucky Strike cigarette ad used to quip, “Nature in the raw is seldom mild.”
Dr. Thomas first proposed removing all the artificial plants and adding live plants in every room of the facility. He wanted to pull up the back lawn and plant vegetable and flower gardens. Then he proposed housing one dog and two cats on each of the home’s two floors. He was going to have to lobby the forces at the state capitol for waivers to work around the rules and regulations that stipulated no more than a single pet per nursing home. But the menagerie was only getting started. Thomas proposed a flock of laying hens and a colony of rabbits on the grounds. A hundred parakeets in cages would be brought into living areas and residential rooms.
Oh, and he wanted the staff to bring their kids to work so they could spend time around the residents too, and he proposed opening an after-school program for the community.
Surprisingly, the administration signed off on the proposal – mostly because they assumed Thomas would never get the approval he needed from the authorities to put his plan in action. How wrong they were. Dr. Thomas was awarded not only the grant money he needed to accomplish the plan but also all the waivers needed for the rules he wanted to bend. Now they were going to have to see if it all worked.
The residents at Chase Nursing Home had been existing in a state empty of light and life. The staff’s efforts to produce a calm, safe environment added up to an empty existence that actually accelerated the end of life for many residents rather than giving them something to keep living for. This little corner of creation had order but no fullness. It was formed, but not filled. But all that was about to change.
The prescribed dose of what Dr. Thomas had gleefully called “total pandemonium” arrived so quickly that no one was really prepared for the consequences. A greyhound named Target and a lapdog named Ginger were both getting settled amicably on their separate floors, figuring out how to share space with two cats each. Staff members’ children were dropped off at the door by their school buses each afternoon. The back lawn was dug up and transformed into a garden and a playground next to the rabbit pen and chicken coop. Things were getting a bit crowded.
And then, in the midst of it all, the birds arrived. One hundred parakeets, all delivered on one day in one truckload – with the birdcages nowhere to be seen. The staff locked all one hundred birds in the center’s hair salon until the cages arrived later the same day – some assembly required. Through the glass picture windows of the hair salon, the residents gathered, watching and laughing as the staff spent hours assembling birdcages and chasing the loose parakeets all over the hair salon, grabbing at feathers and ducking as birds flapped around their heads. “Glorious chaos” had arrived.
(You can read about the Chase transformation in greater detail in Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Metropolitan Books, 2014).
The pandemonium caused by all these changes was not all humorous. I can tell you personally from years of helping to stage live nativity scenes in the back parking lot of our church each December: when you get live children and live animals together, there’s no telling what’s going to happen. The staff pushed back at times on their new duties. Some felt that if money could be spent on animals, then someone should be hired to care for them all. But gradually, someone else did begin to take over the animals’ care – namely, the residents.
Many of the elderly residents agreed to host a pair of parakeets in their rooms. They helped water the hundreds of new indoor plants and demanded a say in the planting of the flower and vegetable gardens. Residents who had previously been nonambulatory said they’d take one of the dogs outside for a walk. Light began to dawn in people’s eyes. Even some of those with advanced forms of dementia seemed to take joy in the burgeoning life and noise around them. They could recognize birdsong, run their fingers through a pet’s fur, turn their head when a child ran shrieking down the hall.
Over the first two years of Chase’s Eden Alternative, researchers watched the center’s vital signs carefully. Their study found that the number of medicines being prescribed at Chase fell by half, especially those prescribed for agitation. The number of deaths fell by 15 percent. The immeasurable changes were even easier to witness: life came back into residents’ eyes, and the number of smiles grew daily. Instead of simply waiting for death, they were jolted back to life as it ran and chirped, hopped, and grew all around them.
God’s vision of order is not one where chaos is ironed flat, but a place where good things run wild in each of our lives, as holy and messy as the day is long.
Jessica LaGrone is the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. She is a member of the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church. LaGrone is the author of numerous books. This article is excerpted from her latest book, Out of Chaos: How God Makes New Things from the Broken Pieces of Our Lives. Photo: Shutterstock.
By David F. Watson —
In Nazareth, there is a large church built over the traditional site of Mary’s house. It is called the Church of the Annunciation. Tradition holds that the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary here: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).
Mary, of course, wishes to know how this will happen since she is a virgin. Gabriel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (1:35). Mary responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38).
The Word Became Flesh Here. Within the Church of the Annunciation there is an altar that sits atop the site where this event is thought to have taken place. It bears a remarkable inscription: Verbum caro hic factum est, or, in English, “The Word became flesh here.” There is a stunning particularity to this claim. The Word became flesh here – amidst the stone, wood, smoke, fire, and flesh of an ancient village. God is the God of all times and places, but his redemptive work began at a particular time and in a particular place, through the obedience of a particular young woman who responded in faith over fear.
This very claim has so vexed Christianity’s cultured despisers that it has come to be called the “scandal of particularity.” In the midst of so many claims to truth and revelation in our world, how dare we say that the perfect union of God and humanity by which the redemption of all creation took place happened here, and nowhere else? But there it is, carved in stone: Verbum caro hic factum est. It happened, Christians insist. It happened here.
The particularity of this event matters. Today, Nazareth is a busy city of over 75,000 people, but in the first century it was an obscure village with a population of probably less than 500. Nathaniel asks Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). God did not choose Rome or Alexandria or Athens, these cities of renown and high culture, in which to become flesh. God chose a backwater village on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire as the staging ground for the redemption of the world. He did not need the power of Rome, the literary culture of Alexandria, the philosophy of Athens. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
God does not see as humans see (1 Samuel 16:7). Our vision is obscured by sin in its various manifestations: pride, selfish ambition, the elevation of sensory pleasure, and greed, to name a few. Perhaps this is why we humans have such a hard time accepting this Jesus, born of a virgin, hailing from Nazareth, a carpenter raised by a carpenter, a wandering preacher who had no place to lay his head, loved, hated, worshiped, and betrayed. He did not provide a form of government or a manifesto but spoke in pictures about the kingdom of God. He told his followers they must take up the cross, that they would be hated on his account, and he himself was executed upon the cross, the “slave’s punishment.” After he rose from the dead, he entrusted the news of his resurrection to two women, one of whom he had freed from seven demons. He went back to those obscure few who followed him in his ministry and then left his mission in the hands of fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots.
It is unsurprising that so many have rejected this Jesus. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are his ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8). Within the last three centuries, many have tried to tell us that the significance of Jesus is not that God became human, that within Jesus is a union of divine and human, or that through his death and resurrection we are forgiven and free from sin. Rather, they have said, Jesus was a supremely wise person, along the lines of Socrates or Confucius. They might suggest that Jesus had an acute “God consciousness.” His spiritual sensitivity and perceptiveness toward the will of God gave him insights much like those wise sages who have existed across the centuries. We should listen to what he taught and live accordingly, rather than focusing on these ancient myths of incarnation, atonement, and resurrection.
This purveyor of wisdom, a sage among sages, even a politically radical Jesus, is a safe, manageable, comprehensible figure. He is here to make us wiser people, to improve our lives, to reform society. If his words seem strange to us, don’t worry. It is easy enough to shape his teachings into the values we already affirm, and myriad authors stand at the ready to help us do so.
Such a Jesus is simply too weak, too cerebral, too bound by the narrowness of modernity to do us any good. Jesus did not come first and foremost to teach us. He came to save us, and his teaching serves the end of salvation. Flannery O’Connor once said of the resurrection of Christ, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.” I would say the same thing of the incarnation. If it’s just a symbol, metaphor, or myth, then so was my baptism. A wise sage cannot save us from sin and death. Only the incarnate God can do that. The real Jesus does not simply want to make us wise, but holy. The real Jesus will not simply reform society, but renew all of creation. The real Jesus offers us not just a better life, but new life.
The Incarnate God and New Life. Perhaps part of the problem is that we do not accurately perceive the need for new life in Christ. According to Ligonier Ministries’ recent report called “The State of Theology,” 43 percent of evangelical Christians in the U.S. agree with the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” Put differently, almost half of all evangelicals reject the doctrine of the incarnation. Equally significant, however, is that 65 percent of evangelicals believe that everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God. In other words, they reject the doctrine of original sin.
If we drill down into the doctrines of the incarnation and original sin very far, it becomes apparent that they are closely connected. Let’s start with Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Another way of putting this is to say that, even though Christ did not sin, he took on full humanity, which means he took on sinful human nature. Because he did this, we can take on righteousness, which is an aspect of God’s nature. Put still another way, in Christ, God took on what is evil in us so that we might take on what is perfect in him.
As Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “What is not assumed is not healed.” God has redeemed us – healed us from the corruption of sin and death – by uniting fallen humanity and perfect deity in one person, Jesus Christ. Christ did not sin, but was perfectly obedient to the Father, and he took upon himself what we deserve (death) so that we might receive what only he deserves (righteousness and eternal life). If there is some aspect of human life that God did not take on in Jesus Christ, that aspect of our life is still fallen. But Christ was truly and fully human, even while he was truly and fully divine. We can thus experience full salvation, both forgiveness of our sins and freedom from the power of sin.
One might ask why the all-powerful God could not simply wave away our sin and its consequences, rather than actually becoming human, living a perfect life, dying on the cross, and then rising from the dead. Such a scenario would involve what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” If God were simply to dispense with sin as if blowing on a dandelion, the unavoidable conclusion would be that sin really doesn’t matter. But you and I know that isn’t true. Sin has consequences. We see and feel them every day. Lies, violence, exploitation, betrayal – these kinds of actions cause us pain because they are violations of creation’s moral order. They are the opposite of love, and to say that God has wrath in the face of these sins is another way of saying that God is love. The destruction of his beloved creatures through the corruption of sin and its consequences is intolerable. Were it tolerable, if God simply did not care, it would mean that God does not love us.
Yet God does love us, and so he must deal with sin and its consequences. There are many ways in which God could have dealt with sin. He could simply have willed us out of existence. He could have consigned us wholesale to eternal punishment. The wrath of God is nothing with which to be trifled. But God is love – pure, unselfish, eternal love. So rather than imposing upon us the just consequences of our sin, God took these consequences upon himself, and in so doing, he set us free.
Creation and New Creation. John’s gospel teaches us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-4, 14).
Everything was created through the Word. Life and light came into being through the Word. And this very Word, the source of all things, also became the source of redemption for us. As Athanasius put it, “[T]he renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.” The creative Word of God is the agent of the new creation.
What is not assumed is not healed, but God assumed our full humanity so that we can be healed fully of sin and death. It is the greatest act of love imaginable, given by a perfect God to the broken, the undeserving, the sinful, the selfish – in other words, to all of us. If we but say yes to God, we can be healed. And God wants to heal us. God wants us in the new creation. That is why he became one of us.
David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of several books, including Scripture and the Life of God (Seedbed), and lead editor of Firebrand (firebrandmag.com). Illustration: The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a realist painter and the son of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Public domain.
By David Wilkinson
The first images from the James Webb Telescope were astonishing. A patch of the universe showing objects from which the light started its journey over 13 billion years ago and the distorted shapes of galaxies whose light had been magnified by the gravitational presence of dark matter. Then there was a region of star formation which showed in dramatic relief the dust and molecular hydrogen cloud which is a maternity hospital for newly born stars. And then, if that is not enough, a planet around a distant star with the indication of water molecules in its atmosphere, one of the things necessary for the emergence of life.
Even as someone with a PhD in theoretical astrophysics, the sheer beauty was as jaw-dropping as the multi-billion dollar and three-decade long project which had built, launched, and assembled the telescope to operate one million miles above the earth. And as a Christian this sense of awe naturally turned into worship “as the heavens declare the glory of God.”
However, these pictures of the universe do not lead everyone to belief in a Creator. Science is a complicated business both in its process and its interpretation. While NASA has chosen some awe-inspiring and intriguing first photographs, the hard work of scientists will continue in the background. Science does have its wow moments, but a lot of the time it is tedious, tough, and frustrating. It is about experiments which don’t work, about papers that are rejected by journals, about colleagues who don’t do what you think they should be doing, and about proposals that are never funded!
The long delays of the Webb Telescope, its ballooning budget, and even press conferences which don’t go smoothly illustrate this. Yet scientists continue for the wow moments which show us that the universe is even more spectacular than we thought it was, and for that sense that science is progressing to a tighter description of the reality around us.
The interpretation of science is also complicated, not least in its relationship to belief in God. The media has had many voices who see science and Christian faith as incompatible. Celebrity scientists such Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design, Lawrence Krauss arguing that the Universe came from nothing, and, of course, Richard Dawkins, have all argued that science demolishes the “God delusion.” They argue that science says one thing about the origin of the Universe and the Bible says something different and you have to choose which is correct. Then some say science is all about fact but Christianity is just about faith, implying that faith is a kind of blind belief which bypasses the mind and reasonable argument.
As a scientist and a Christian, I find such voices naïve and somewhat simplistic. That science and the Bible describe the origin of the Universe in different ways does not immediately mean that one is right and one is wrong. Such a conflict model is far too easy and not true to the nature of science and the nature of the Bible.
If I ask why is the kettle boiling I can have two answers. One because heat energy increases the velocity of the water molecules to a point where bubbles form. Two, because I desperately need a cup of tea. One describes the mechanism, the other describes the purpose. Therefore “the Universe came about through a quantum fluctuation leading to a Big Bang,” and “the Universe is the creation of a sovereign God” are for me complementary descriptions of the same reality. Both are true but different.
However, what about the fact/faith opposition? This assumes that science and Christian faith explore the world in completely different ways and are therefore incompatible. But science is a subtle interplay of observations and models, involving human judgment of data and assessment of models. It is based on observations but it is more than that. It thrives on questions but it also involves faith, that is, actions which arise from trust in the evidence.
To launch the Webb Telescope is a huge act of faith. Christianity has some parallels here. I became a Christian because as I read the gospel accounts of Jesus and saw him at work in the life of Christians, I was confronted with evidence which needed to be interpreted. My Christian faith is an outworking of trust in that evidence and the interpretation that this cannot be explained in any other way than this was God in the space-time history of the universe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
As both a scientist and a Christian, faith involves questions, some of which I continue to struggle with, but questions which have always led me to further excitement about both science and Jesus.
The science that will flow from the Webb Telescope will allow us to learn more of the origin of the Universe and perhaps whether we are alone in the Universe. In all of this I don’t want to believe in a “god of the gaps” who simply is rolled in to fill gaps of ignorance. The God whom I believe in is far greater, sustaining all of the physical laws throughout the billions of years of the Universe. The Bible understands that the whole Universe is the result of God’s working and sustaining.
It is fascinating that science does not answer all of the questions. First, “why is there something rather than nothing” is not only a question about mechanism it is also a question about purpose and meaning – the why question behind the Universe’s existence.
Second, where do the scientific laws themselves come from? If the Universe emerges as a quantum fluctuation leading to a Big Bang, we need to ask where quantum theory itself comes from? Where does the pattern of the world come from and how is it maintained? This is not a “god of the gaps” argument, as science itself assumes these laws in order to work. There is a long tradition stretching back to Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) who saw the laws of the Universe as the work of the divine lawgiver. “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being…,” Newton wrote in 1687. “The Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of His dominion He is wont to be called Lord God.” German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was “carried away by unutterable rapture” as the correlation between orbital periods and mean diameters, which showed that the planets moved in elliptical orbits, was disclosed.
Third, why is the Universe intelligible? In 1936, Albert Einstein said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Yet why should this be the case, that the mathematics of our minds resonates with the mathematics of the Universe. Some scientists, including the noted British physicist/clergyman John Polkinghorne, suggest that the natural answer is that there exists a Creator God who is the basis of the order in the Universe and the ability of our minds to understand it.
None of these insights prove to me the existence of God. My own belief in the existence of God and understanding of God’s nature comes from the Christian claim that God revealed himself into the space-time history of the universe supremely by becoming a human being in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is from that perspective that I welcome any scientific work on the story of the universe. For me science is a gift from God. As Kepler believed, being made in the image of God allows us to “think God’s thoughts after him.” It is also to be filled with awe at God’s work and to worship this God who creates with such extravagance and joy. So I give thanks for the Webb Telescope, the thousands of scientists and engineers who built it, maintain it, and then interpret its observations. And I look forward to the new questions, puzzles, and insights that it will give us.
David Wilkinson is Principal of St John’s College, Durham University in Durham, England. He is author with Dave Hutchings of God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse (Monarch, 2020). Professor Wilkinson is a British Methodist minister, theologian, astrophysicist, and academic. He is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, has a PhD in astrophysics, and is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Image: NASA: “What looks much like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by … NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth. Called the Cosmic Cliffs, the region is actually the edge of a gigantic, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324, roughly 7,600 light-years away. The cavernous area has been carved from the nebula by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely massive, hot, young stars located in the center of the bubble, above the area shown in this image.” Photo: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl.