The Rev. Rob Renfroe, president of Good News
By Rob Renfroe –
Welcome to the mission field! That may sound strange to those of you living within the United States, but it’s true, and it’s important for us to understand that we are living on a mission field. That reality should impact how we see ourselves and how we relate to those around us.
Because of the First and Second Great Awakenings and later revivals, our culture in this country has been greatly impacted by the Christian faith. Since the founding of the colonies, Christians in the United States enjoyed what you could refer to as “home field advantage.” From that time until the 1960s Christian beliefs and values were held by most of our citizens. There were skeptics in every time period, even some of our founding fathers, who did not affirm the Christian faith. But their views were a minority opinion with little impact on the masses and their beliefs. Most people, even many of those who were not professing Christians, viewed the church as an important part of American life and respected its moral teachings.
That has been changing and it will continue to change. According to Gallup research, “U.S. church membership was 73 percent when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70 percent for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century.” In 2020, church membership among Americans fell below 50 percent.
We now live in a culture that rejects traditional morality, openly attacks a belief in God, and condemns traditional Christians as judgmental bigots. Christians no longer have home field advantage in the U.S. Barring a miracle, we Bible-believing Christians will find ourselves more and more objects of ridicule, discrimination, and possibly persecution.
“The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference,” reports Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones. “Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8 percent in 1998-2000 to 13 percent in 2008-2010 and 21 percent over the past three years.”
It’s important to understand that those of us who follow Jesus are not just people with a mission. We are people living on a mission field – and that should change how we see the people around us.
Go to a mission field and you don’t expect people to think or act like Christians. India, China, the Middle East. You know people there have different beliefs and different values. You expect them to see the world differently than you do. It doesn’t offend you that they do not believe or behave like Christians. In fact, you are moved by compassion for them, and you look for ways to help them come to know the truth of the Gospel.
That’s how we should see our current reality in the U.S. More and more people have never been in a church. Many have never heard enough about Jesus to accept him or reject him. What they “know” about Christians is what the culture has told them through movies, television shows, and the progressive websites and blogs they read. Of course, their values and their sexual ethics and where they look for happiness and meaning are different from those of us who know Jesus. Of course, they’re skeptical of our message and our motives.
Our unchurched neighbors and friends are deeply loved by God. Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). They are lost from God and from his ways. A lost world has told them who they are, what to value, and how to live. And along the way, they have become lost from all that God desires for them.
The right response to people who are lost is not anger but compassion. The mission is not to condemn them, but to rescue them. We don’t wash our hands of them; we open our hearts.
Having our heartfelt values rejected in the public square is painful. We can become angry and bitter. We can resemble the old man who yells in frustration at the neighbor’s kids who are tearing up his yard, “Get off my lawn.” But when we understand we are on a mission field, we will not feel angry or threatened when we find people around us who believe and act differently. We will feel genuine concern, and we will pray for them and ask God to show us how to reach them.
The Apostle Paul lived his life on the mission field because during his lifetime that’s what the whole world was. Look how he told Timothy to respond to nonbelievers, even those who opposed him.
“The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
When I was in India, I visited a Hindu temple where I watched as a mother had her two sons kneel with her and offer a plate of fruit to an idol of one of their deities, Hanuman, whose features so resemble a monkey that Hindus refer to him as “the Monkey God.” I watched them worship a competitor, a rival to my Lord Jesus Christ. I saw their lips moving, asking Hanuman for blessing and protection and life. I did not feel anger towards that mother or her sons. My heart broke for them. They are lost in a lost world, seeking life and knowing of no better place to look for what they desperately need.
When you’re on a mission field, you don’t get angry at people for who they are or how they live. You weep for them. You feel compassion for them. You pray for them.
Whether they are Hindus in India, the people of Paul’s day who were without Christ, or those in our time who oppose the Gospel and reject all we believe, Paul tells us we must be “kind,” “not resentful” towards such people. We are to engage with them “gently” and never be quarrelsome.
We are on a mission field. The people who may bother us – how they look, what they think, who they have sex with, the values they live by – they need Jesus.
And the right response is not anger or revulsion – the right response is compassion and concern. Remember you are on a mission field and that will be much easier to do.
By Maggie Ulmer –
People come to faith in all kinds of ways. God will use anything and everything if it permits him access to the human heart. I know of a young man raised in a Christian family who adopted the moral and ethical frameworks of Christianity, yet he remained largely untouched by conviction in the existence of God until he read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Something about Lewis’ arguments broke down the internal intellectual structure he had made against God. The young man was consumed with deep certainty that there was, in fact, a God – and Jesus Christ was this God. Another woman I know came to faith because she finally allowed a Christian friend to pray for her, and she experienced supernatural assurance of God’s love for her, which led her to accept Christ as her Lord. The common element in these two instances, and I would argue in most cases, is an honest openness to truth.
Some of us actively research the claims of Jesus, like Lee Strobel famously does in The Case for Christ, and some of us seem to trip into a life of faith, but every follower of Jesus has a moment of encounter like Moses. We see something strange, decide to investigate, and then realize we’re standing on holy ground. As a result of his willingness to “go and see,” every part of Moses’ life is changed and he became the executor of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from bondage. An inverse refrain, “Come and see,” is spoken throughout the Gospel of John as the disciples are gathered to Christ, with the same transformative intention. The invitation is an appeal to see, just as Moses did, and perceive the unfolding reality of Jesus. The divine grace that prepares the human heart to respond to Christ is “prevenient” or “preventing” grace. John Wesley describes these first moments of spiritual awareness as “the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will … All these imply some tendency toward life; some degree of salvation; the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God and the things of God” (“On Working Out Our Own Salvation”).
It’s hard to say why some see and some don’t. The Parable of the Sower illuminates the reality that the seeds of the gospel land on a variety of soils both prepared and unprepared to receive the good news. Many encountered Christ during his ministry but missed the truth of who he was. At the end of chapter 9 in the Gospel of Luke, Christ describes the cost of a life given to him; we see there are those Christ calls to follow him but they seem to hesitate, asking to tend to family matters before they do so. Christ’s response is definite, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
We shouldn’t read this statement as a permanent rejection of those who don’t “get it” the first time; it’s not that at all. Christ is simply saying that those who constantly meditate on the past, and on what is left behind, will miss the revelation happening before them. Those people are not yet ready to serve the purposes of God, but they could be, if they would turn and see the strangeness of Jesus. There are also those who claim to seek the truth of God but in reality have already decided what they believe for one reason or another, and in essence choose to remain in error. C.S. Lewis refers to this type of person as one who “has lost his intellectual virginity” (God in the Dock). Someone who has lost his or her intellectual virginity intentionally evades reason, sound argument, and evidence in an effort to protect a preferred intellectual narrative. Unfortunately this type of behavior among believers is sometimes coddled in the church. Kind-hearted ministry leaders will often cite the Parable of the Lost Sheep as a rationale for excusing this kind of mental dishonesty. But sheep who are in the church know exactly where their earthly and heavenly shepherds are. They aren’t lost; they’re in rebellion.
It’s tempting to be dismissive of those who reject God or find the teachings of Christianity primitive, and certainly there is no need to pour good teaching into those who delight in defiance and make mockery of faith. But what do we do when we love people who are unbelieving and perhaps even hostile to faith? How do we tell them that we long for them to know how desperately they are loved by the Lord, even as they reject him?
My own father was an avowed secular humanist. Over many years of debate and discussion with my spiritual step-mother, he became a barely tolerant and often lapsing agnostic. My own whole-hearted embrace of orthodox Christianity baffled him. He was a reader of Bultmann, Dawkins, Kant, Sartre, and others. When I was quite new in my faith, about 14, he once told me he felt my practice of Christianity was probably a harmless intellectual exploration and that it would make me a better person – after all, if one were to boil the whole of the Christian philosophy down to a phrase it would be, “Be nice.” I don’t share these things to malign my father. I love and admire him even in the midst of my profound frustration with him. Our many conversations over the years contributed to my ability to give a defense of my hope in Christ, and my daughterly love for him helped me do so (most of the time) kindly.
That being said, our skirmishes over faith weren’t always without injury. I remember losing my temper after one particularly contentious debate. I was a young woman and unable to answer one of his rebukes of Christianity. I felt confused and ashamed, as if I’d failed at something of great importance. In prayer that evening the Lord made very clear to me how badly I misunderstood my role as a witnessing Christian in my father’s life. The Lord showed me I could not convert my dad, or anyone else for that matter, by winning an argument. Furthermore, I would never win an argument to which my father had already determined the conclusion. I was devastated and felt completely helpless. But this moment illuminated two things that drove me to my knees on behalf of my father and in thanksgiving of God’s lovingkindness. First and most importantly, I remembered I did not save myself. I am not a Christian because I had the power or the cognitive insight to reveal God to myself, nor was my faith the result of being convinced by another human being. Without the prevenient grace of God I would not even be capable of understanding my need for him. The grace that prepared me to receive the come-and-see invitation was ultimately the result and work of God himself, and I should have no expectation of being able to accomplish that work in someone else. Second, I understood that if God was correcting me, that must mean he would teach me the better way to witness to my dad and others who struggle in doubt and reject faith. The Lord showed me that the best approach includes steadfast prayer for the hearts of unbelievers and simple, gentle invitations rooted in humble remembrance of my own rescue. Constant abiding in the presence of Christ creates the opportunity to extend his invitation to others. It may sound silly, but I remind myself often that I am someone’s burning-bush, and so are you! We carry the Spirit of God in us; we are purified but not burned up. We are a strange sight in this cacophony of powers and principalities. What a privilege it is to invite someone onto the holy ground of our transformed lives!
For many years after that last failed debate I did not bring up religion with my father. But I did pray for him. Not long before he died I sat next to his sick bed. He was no longer able to read, so I read aloud to him from a book he had become increasingly fascinated with, the book of Ruth. After reading the first chapter of Ruth to him for a third time he finally asked in exasperation, speaking of Ruth: “Why would she do that? Why would she leave everything she knows for her mother-in-law, who can’t give her anything?” I began to flounder for an answer when a childhood memory came to mind and, without fully understanding why, I asked him if he also remembered it.
When I was young, Dad took my sister and me on a camping trip up and down the Pacific Coast Highway when I was about 9 years old. My favorite parts of the trip were the times when we would drive at night. I sat in the front seat of the rambling Chevy conversion van and dad and I would talk about “serious things.” One such evening we drove with the windows down along the coast. I could hear the ocean and smell the salt mixed with the Monterey pine trees, the air was the perfect temperature, the sky was clear, and the stars and the moon were bright enough to throw shadows through the trees onto the road. In that moment I was overcome by a deep, and expansive love and I stuck my arms and head out the window of the moving van and shouted: “I love everything!” Upon flopping back into my seat I asked my dad: “Who is God?”
As I retold the story, Dad smiled. He admitted my question had caught him off guard and he remembered fumbling for an answer, not knowing what to say. Then I asked him if he remembered what happened the next day.
After getting a late start, Dad only drove a couple hours before pulling onto the shoulder of the highway near a scenic view of the ocean to make lunch. It wasn’t long after settling back into our seats to resume our journey that we realized the van was stuck. The combination of the soft sandy soil of coastal California, the early morning rain, and our parking location at the bottom of a steep incline meant the ground was saturated with moisture and gave no resistance to the spinning rear wheels of the van. No matter what Dad tried, he couldn’t get the van unstuck. At this point, with no motorists stopping to help, Dad was faced with the possibility of trekking down Route 1 with his young daughters in tow. I remember my Dad pounding the steering wheel and muttering under his breath; it was unusual for him to lose his cool. But no sooner had he done so than a battered, primer-white hatchback came zipping around the curving highway and pulled directly in front of us. The driver was a young man. He and Dad spoke for a few moments through Dad’s driver-side window.
I remember hearing the gloppy suction sound the stranger’s work boots made in the mud as he walked to the back of his car and proceeded to pull a heavy chain from the trunk to hook to the front of Dad’s Chevy. In a few moments we were free from the muddy shoulder. Disobeying Dad’s instructions to stay in the car while he spoke with our good-samaritan, I scrambled out of the van and stood next to my father while he profusely thanked the stranger. Dad took some cash out of his wallet and offered it to the man as a show of gratitude, but the young man waved his hand, turning the money down, and simply said, “Don’t thank me, thank Jesus Christ.”
Then the man looked at me and playfully tapped me on the nose, turned, got in his car and drove away.
The weight of what I was asking Dad to consider, that the God of the universe would answer the question of a nine-year-old girl, hung in the air between us. I had made that connection before this moment, but what I didn’t expect was that my father would begin to choke back tears and tell me that when we were stuck on the side of the road and he pounded the steering wheel with his fists, he had said a prayer. It was a short, defensive, angry prayer, but prayer nonetheless. “Well,” he asked, “where are you?”
My father did not know that our God is an incarnational God. A God who is with us. A God who does not require us to know all of the answers. A God who prepares a path to our hearts for himself even before we know him. A God who works through simple invitations. Dad believed he was alone and that he had to fix everything on his own, and that his value was of his own making. But something about that moment caused him to make the smallest appeal to the slightest possibility that there could, maybe, perhaps, be a God who could come rescue him and his daughters out of a ditch.
Why would God do that?
Why would a gentile sinner who has no place among God’s people cling to a woman who is rejecting her and say: “Where you go, I will go?” Why would the God of all creation who has no need for any of us, cling to us as we reject him and say, “ Where you go I will go?”
It’s a simple answer. It’s because he loves us.
Maggie Ulmer is Resource Director for Spirit & Truth Managing Editor of Firebrand, and one of the hosts of Plain Truth: A Holy Spirited Podcast. This article first appeared at Firebrand (firebrandmag.com) and is reprinted here by permission.
Just a glimpse of the beauty found at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Photo by Steve Beard.
By Tara Beth Leach –
Somewhere in the mid-1990s, when I was a new Christian, I came across a popular bronze statue by Dean Kermit Allison. The sculpture was called “Born Again,” and it depicted a man shedding his old self with a bronze layer of skin, and his new self was being born anew as a radiant, glassy, crystal version. I remember staring at that statue mesmerized and in tears. I was the statue, I thought. Newly in love with Jesus and recently beginning my life in Christ, God was doing a radiant new thing in my life. But today, that statue seems more prophetic, and it tugs at my heartstrings as I long for the church of the future.
I pray that the church would begin to see, acknowledge, and name the bronze layers that are saturated with worldly beliefs and behaviors and flee from them. I pray that the church would know that we have not been destroyed – it’s not too late. I pray that we would reclaim, be renewed and revived, and allow the work of the Spirit to birth something new and radiant. Like the bronze statue, may the layers of our own systems that have hurt and harmed others begin to peel away, and may the lamp of truth, love, and righteousness be placed firmly on its pedestal and shine in all of its illuminating beauty. Not beauty for the glory of ourselves but for the glory and majesty of our King and Creator. May we shine in such a way that instead of hard lines in the sand being drawn, those who once felt excluded are now drawn to the radiant light of the church.
But birthing isn’t easy work. It’s painful, it’s laborious, it’s long, and it literally brings blood, sweat, and tears. On the early morning of April 17, 2010, I woke up at 6 a.m. to discover that my water had broken. Fortunately, I wasn’t feeling any pain yet, so I decided I could take a shower, put on makeup, and grab breakfast on the way to the hospital. By the time my husband and I arrived at Panera to pick up some breakfast on the way, the labor pains began to kick in. I’ll also confess that I had no idea that when the water breaks, it isn’t just a one-time occurrence; rather, it keeps on coming. This was rather problematic standing in line for my bagel. After a minute or two of waiting in line, I turned to Jeff with my lips curled and my teeth together and said, “We have to go now!”
By the time we got to the hospital, I was in full-blown labor. Before having Caleb, I thought of myself as a tough woman with high pain tolerance. Turns out, labor was much more painful and difficult than any friend or textbook or Lamaze class could have prepared me for.
At one point during labor, my husband and parents were in the hospital room having a good old time, sharing, eating, laughing, and watching Ghostbusters on TV. I was angry that I was suffering and they were enjoying the moment. My husband came over to me with an angelic and peaceful look on his face, gently put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Hey, babe, I was thinking that the next baby …” Before he could even finish his sentence, I angrily interrupted him with what probably seemed like demon eyes and the voice of his worst nightmares, “Next baby? Next baby? You think I’m going to go through this again? There will be no next baby!”
Perhaps the scariest and most challenging moment came during what many call transitional labor, which is the stage between active labor – labor pains that are a few minutes apart – and actually having to push for delivery. It’s intense, and the only way for any sort of relief is to push and potentially scream. I did both. The nurses and my family surrounded me saying things like, “Breathe. Keep your eye on the prize! Caleb is coming! Breathe. Keep your eye on the prize! Focus! Caleb is coming!”
Breathe. Keep your eye on the prize. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Dear church, creation is groaning. The labor pains can no longer be ignored. It’s time to push and birth something new, something radiant, something wrapped in love, truth, and grace.
There is nothing glorious about labor; there is nothing easy about pushing. It hurts. It’s hard. But push we must. That is, we must repent, we must name, we must rid ourselves of toxic systems, and we must abandon the imagination of the principalities and powers of this world. Let us push, breathe, keep our eyes on Jesus, press in, lean in, and reclaim the radiant vision that comes alive in Scripture.
A Call to Radiance. In Matthew 5, Jesus steps on a mount and begins to teach. His prophetic words are drenched in love and wrapped in vision. It was a sermon unlike any other that has now found its home in what we call the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In it, Jesus shares his dreams for the already-but-not-yet people of God in Christ. He paints a vivid vision of how the people of God are to live, love, act, and care for one another. His words are no doubt piercing, and they likely make us squirm at times, but what Jesus proclaims is an illuminating and radiant vision for the bride of Christ.
Jesus’ words are no mere suggestion; rather, they are passionate and piercing commands for the people of God to live into no matter where they live. That is, those who are citizens of the kingdom of God.
Following Jesus’ declaration of those who make the list of the blessed life, Jesus calls the church to lean into the radiant vision of the church. He calls us salt and light.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).
Like other popular passages of Scripture, we sometimes miss out on the fullness of what Jesus is calling us to. Often we read this passage through the lens of I instead of we and then interpret it as, “I should do more good deeds.” However, this prophetic declaration of Jesus should push and pull the church into the radiant church it was meant to be. While one star is certainly something to behold, a sky full of sparkling stars is stunning. Our witness is corporate, found within congregations and communities. Our witness is a collective presence and voice and light rather than individuals.
This passage isn’t a random call to do good things; rather, we are called to lean into the missional imagination of the triune God – that is, the imagination that unfolds beginning in the book of Genesis.
In the first eleven chapters of Genesis, the problem of sin, brokenness, darkness, and evil is rather glaring. Murder, betrayal, division, pride, and havoc, even from Mother Nature, are just a few examples. However, we don’t observe a planless God scrambling to heal God’s broken creation, and neither do we observe God lashing out in anger. Instead, we discover a redemptive God who moves in with acts of love and grace.
Jesus is the Brightest Star. Somewhere on the margins of Bethlehem, a child is born. A bright star attracted magi from the East who wanted to see the astonishing light for themselves. Right in the middle of chaos, decay, darkness, and oppression, this child moves into the neighborhood filled with chaos and he shines. The new Israel, the second Adam, fully divine and fully human, prophet and priest, and the fulfillment of all of Israel’s history, reveals the very heartbeat and character of God. And we discover just how serious God is about keeping this covenant.
This King, after living a perfect life of love, healing, revelation, and wonders, meets his death on a cross. And there on the cross, the end of an evil era collides with the nails, the crown of thorns, and the body broken. And every spring the church gathers together to proclaim the good news, “He’s not dead! He’s alive!” We join the chorus of angels and the sermon of Mary at the tomb, “He’s alive!” The King is raised to new life, and the floodgates burst forth. We discover the promises to Abram are now fulfilled, and we are the stars in the sky. No longer is ethnic Israel the only recipient of God’s blessing; the dividing wall has been destroyed, and Jews and Gentiles, men and women, and slaves and free persons are all one in Christ. The re-creation of a people of God is expanded to all who are in Christ. The apostle Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And the apostle Peter says, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).
We are Called to Shine. Paul says to the Philippians, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky” (Philippians 2:14-15). We are the stars in the sky – shining in all of our radiant glory as the love of God bursts forth. We – all who are in Christ – are the royal priesthood and God’s special possession. And the news only gets better! In Christ, we begin to reflect God’s glorious image as Paul says, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit”(2 Corinthians 3:18).
We are heirs of God’s promises to Abraham, and we are included in God’s blessed people. And just as God called Abraham to faithfulness and obedience, God also called the church. As children of Abraham and sons and daughters of the King, we’ve distorted the story of the perfect gospel to be a ticket to heaven – or else.
But the radiant gospel is about a people leaning into and reflecting the goodness of God to an embattled world. The radiant gospel is about the people of God in Christ extending the table and gathering as an alternative community in a world gone awry. We are to embody the power of blessing – that in the middle of a chaotic, prideful, sinful, decaying, embattled, broken world, we would embody the promises of Abraham and live the vision of Jesus as salt and light. As a covenant community in Christ, we don’t just randomly do salt-and-light kind of things; rather, we are salt and light. As salt and light, we are called to mediate the goodness, light, love, and holiness of God. What a radiant call God has entrusted to God’s people.
Tara Beth Leach is a pastor at Christ Church of Oak Brook in the western suburbs of Chicago. She previously served as senior pastor of First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena (“PazNaz”) in Southern California. Adapted from Radiant Church by Tara Beth Leach. Copyright (c) 2021 by Tara Beth Leach. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60559. www.ivpress.
A Professor Emeritus of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, Dr. William J. Abraham was the Albert Cook Outler
Professor of Wesley Studies from 1995 until his retirement in May 2021. He joined the Perkins faculty in 1985 as the McCreless
Associate Professor of Evangelism and the Philosophy of Religion. Photo courtesy of Southern Methodist University/H. Jackson.
On Thursday, October 7, United Methodism lost a remarkable scholar who exercised his theological and spiritual gifts with wit and precision. Dr. William J. Abraham was one of the theologian pillars of the church – not just in Methodism, but in broader ecumenical circles, as well. He was a herculean force for traditional Wesleyan theology from his outpost at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. Abraham’s death was unexpected. He was 73.
Like so many others within United Methodism, we were stunned and saddened by the news of the passing of the man we simply called Billy. Those of us at Good News have considered him a friend and co-laborer in the work of renewal within our denomination – even during those times when we had a hard time fully interpreting his distinct and endearing Irish accent.
Twenty-five years ago, Billy’s address at the Confessing Movement gathering in Atlanta was the featured cover story for Good News. He had just published a book entitled Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in The United Methodist Church. “We have simply forgotten our doctrinal heritage and hence have ignored its rich treasures and reserves,” he told the assembly in Atlanta.
For the magazine, we picked up on the other image he discussed. Our cover title was “Healing our Doctrinal Dyslexia.” Abraham believed United Methodism’s theological crisis was that the children of Wesley – decades later – were looking at the same material (our theological heritage) and seeing and proclaiming divergent messages. (In his honor, we have republished the essay on the pages that follow.)
“As anyone suffering from dyslexia knows, the crucial problem is that one sees the relevant marks on the page but the marks are ingested in a distorted fashion,” he said. “In the case of doctrinal dyslexia, what happens is analogous to this condition. In our case what has happened is that we have turned inside out and upside down the crucial material on doctrine in the Book of Discipline. We have displaced the actual standards of doctrine laid out in the Constitution by concentrating on the highly speculative material laid out in the section on our theological task.”
After his conversion in his teen years through the ministry of the Methodist Church in Ireland, Billy began his theological training. “In the early stages of my own intellectual and spiritual journey, Wesley was pivotal for me,” he writes in his fascinating book, Wesley for Armchair Theologians. Mysteriously, once he began his theological training, “Wesley suddenly went dead on me. I found him not so much archaic as surreal.”
Ironically, Billy’s interest in Wesleyan theology pivoted while he was on a sickbed: “Happily, listening to some purloined audiotapes on Wesley by Albert Outler during a bad dose of the flu arrested this journey away from Wesley.” He found himself a great proponent of the core message. “Wesley’s theology is an intellectual oasis lodged within the traditional faith of the church enshrined in the creeds,” he wrote.
Abraham would go on to become the Albert C. Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology. He would often speak warmly about his appreciation for Dr. Outler, his scholarship, and his love for both Christ and the Church. Nevertheless, Abraham unflinchingly critiqued Outler’s proposed “quadrilateral.” It gives too much leeway to mistakenly believe that Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are of equal value in interpreting divine revelation.
“The consequence is that our identity is now shaped by an interesting but dubious exercise in religious theory of knowledge. On pain of denying our tradition, we are forced to confess adherence to a piece of clever epistemology [how do we know] which was worked out in the 1960s and which is at odds both with Wesley and with the clear content of the constitutional standards of doctrine,” he believed. “In these circumstances the great classical doctrines of the faith, to which Wesley wholeheartedly adhered, are treated as optional alternatives to be received, rejected, remade, or reimagined at will. We have idolized a piece of philosophical speculation and are now reaping the consequences. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves torn asunder by conflicting doctrinal proposals.”
Professor Abraham continued: “As a pedagogical device, the quadrilateral indeed has merit. Anyone who is a teacher can testify to this. However, as a formal proposal in the field of religious knowledge, the quadrilateral is an absurd undertaking, for only an omniscient agent could seriously undertake to run our proposals through the gamut of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Only God could use the quadrilateral and, thankfully, God does not need it.” Vintage Billy.
His message twenty-five years ago still resonates. “The quadrilateral is much like a kaleidoscope. Each time you shake Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, a different configuration emerges,” he said back then. “The result is doctrinal chaos and incoherence. Even Albert Outler, the great architect of the Methodist quadrilateral, was disturbed by its misuse, and late in life expressed reservations about its logic.”
In the forward to The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism by Dr. James V. Heidinger II, Billy voices his curiosity about Outler’s perspective from the vantage point of eternity. “It would be great to sit in on a seminar with Outler and Wesley and other great heroes and heroines of our tradition,” he wrote. “The workers die but the work goes on, as Wesley once noted. There are eighty-two million descendants of John Wesley across the globe so Methodism is not going to disappear any day soon. The big question is what place United Methodism will have in that future.”
Looking forward. Billy Abraham was not an early proponent of dividing United Methodism. His mind, however, did change. He would come to believe that it was the most logical and peaceful option available. Speaking in front of renewal leaders back in 2014, his message is worth recalling today.
“If we are driven to separation then we should lift our heads high and not be drawn into a parochial reaction against the current networks who would take us into moral and theological heresy if not apostasy. We should be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” he told the Methodist Crossroads gathering. “Beyond the current crisis, we should imagine a whole new reiteration of our Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren identity and heritage. I envisage the creation of a new form of global Methodism. Let’s call it the Global Methodist Church. This would gather up the majority who have stood firm across the years and across the world and then reach out to other Methodist and Wesleyan bodies as time and energy permit.”
Abraham continued: “We need be in no hurry but we should be urgent in seeking the guidance of the Spirit to become over the next several generations an industrial-strength version of Methodism that would stretch across the world. We would also look to a whole new ecumenical future with former and newer partners willing to reach out afresh in mission and witness.”
In conclusion, Billy said, “To achieve this we will need great patience with one another. Even where we stand totally together the chemistry can be difficult to endure. This task is much too big for any one person or any one group. We must resolutely stand together and work to continue the life of United Methodism beyond its current incarnation. We can and should have a vision of a global Methodism that is substantial, bold, generous, and irrepressible.”
Writing in A Firm Foundation in 2017, Billy issued a rousing challenge for those looking to experience a fresh chapter of Wesleyanism. “We know that we have come to a crossroads in United Methodism, and we have rightly taken our stand on the moral faith of the Scriptures and of the Church through the ages,” he wrote. “It is time to move on and work for a fully faithful commitment to Christ and to find fresh expressions for the tradition we inhabit. We leave to Providence those who disagree with us.”
As a churchman, he knew the path ahead was going to be filled with challenges. “We need a combination of firmness and flexibility; of impatience and patience; of fear and confidence; and of divine wisdom and human ingenuity. Above all we need to get our act together in mission and evangelism. … The road ahead will at times be extremely difficult and even treacherous; the destination, however, will open up a new day for a fresh expression of classical Methodism and of the Evangelical United Brethren tradition.”
Within the legacy of his ministry is his wholehearted devotion to sharing his work with believers outside the United States. He knew that the historical Wesleyan message travels well beyond North American borders. “What we need is a whole new configuration of United Methodism that will be missionary-oriented, open to the full working of the Holy Spirit, unapologetically orthodox, sacramentally robust, and committed to justice and the care of the needy,” he wrote in A Firm Foundation. “In the short term, we may be a minority in the United States; worldwide, we are likely to be a global majority.”
There have been many kind remembrances of Billy since his passing. They are all touching and well deserved. To his family we pass along our heartfelt condolences. We are grateful for his intellectual and spiritual witness. His passing has left us in mourning, but his life was lived with a vigor that his legacy will be remembered with great celebration. We honor Billy’s memory by serving the Christ he proclaimed and living out the Gospel revealed in the Scriptures Billy loved.
Upon his announced retirement from Perkins School of Theology, he also announced that he would be launching the Wesley House at Truett Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas (see page 22). We asked his long-time friend and colleague Dr. David Watson of United Theological Seminary to interview Billy for Good News readers in 2020. We leave you with Billy’s response to a question about parting advice.
“Be anchored in a discipline that requires rigorous standards of excellence; for me that has been analytic philosophy. Stand by the truth and work on it until it becomes essential to your identity,” Billy responded. “Never, ever be up for sale, as far as the revelation of God mediated in Scripture is concerned. Stay grounded in regular ministry in the church. Take the politics of institutions seriously; be street-smart. Know your critics better than they know themselves. Fast and pray as best you can!”
We will miss him. In his memory, we recall the passage from the Book of Revelation: “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them’” (14:30).
By Joe Henderson –
Melissa Stevens, inmate number G30701 to the Florida Department of Corrections, didn’t know anything about the Rev. Kris Schonewolf the first time they met. Until that point, it had been just another day at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida. Stevens was nearing the end of her sentence for grand theft auto by then. She was also turning to God to deal with the inner demons that had spent a lifetime trying to ruin her.
“In prison is where I really found God,” she said. “That’s when I began praying to him.”
She grew up Catholic on the south side of Chicago but admitted, “It was more for show. There was no substance to it all, and it was just something we did every Sunday. I had no concept who Jesus is.”
But when you ask Jesus into your life, as Stevens said she did in 1999, he takes you seriously. You can run from him, but as the line in the contemporary worship song “Reckless Love” by Cory Asbury proclaims, “He chases me down, fights ‘til I’m found …”
Jesus found her in Lowell, and Stevens prayed for someone who could nurture her new-found faith through prayer, the Bible, groups discussions, and so on. That’s when Schonewolf walked by, and Stevens recalled distinctly what happened next.
“A voice inside me said, literally, ‘That’s her,’” Stevens said. “Kris had a light in her; I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Schonewolf was at Lowell to run the Oasis, a prison outreach ministry of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. The program began in 2019 with the support of North Central District Superintendent Rev. June P. Edwards and Bishop Ken Carter. It is designed to shine the light of God into the darkness of incarceration.
“There were some unexpected roadblocks in the beginning — both with the Department of Corrections and then COVID-19. Yet, again, Kris never gave up,” the Rev. Edwards said.
“Now, she has the confidence of the staff and has developed both name recognition and acceptance among the women. Even though there are difficulties faced every day and unexpected changes in schedule, the women come for all of the offerings provided — worship, Bible studies, guitar lessons, crochet lessons, and the mentoring through the volunteers that write letters. Their lives are impacted in so many ways.”
Schonewolf said her approach is simple. “I just love them with the love of God,” she said. “They’re wounded, hurt, abandoned, and abused. But they are God’s daughters and deserve to be treated with respect.”
An abusive upbringing. Melissa Stevens’ life had been a nightmare until that point. Growing up, she had family members connected with the Chicago Mafia.
“It was nothing for me to walk outside with my mother and see feds taking pictures of us,” she said. She was molested and assaulted starting at age 6. By 14, she joined the Latin Kings gang and a year later had her first child.
“I had one failed marriage, and then another failed marriage. There were a lot of issues, adultery, assaults,” she said.
She went to jail in Illinois for selling drugs, and then it got worse. “I had nothing,” she said.
Not true. She had Jesus, even if she didn’t understand it at the time.
Jesus kept chasing her down.
She was in jail in Florida’s Bay County on another charge when Category 5 Hurricane Michael struck in 2018. The damage was incredible. Her prison had no running water for about a week, and inmates walked through raw sewage inside the building.
Stevens developed an infection in atrocious conditions and wound up in a coma. Doctors didn’t believe she would survive. But while in the coma, Stevens said Jesus gave her a vision.
“He took me to the middle of the earth to show me the abyss. Walked through a giant corridor, too high to see,” she said. “There was water on both sides. Shapes on both sides, but he protected me.
“Suddenly, I snapped back into my body. Doctors said there was no sign that I was going to come back.” But she did, and her life was about to take a turn from which there is no turning back.
God has huge plans for this girl. The Oasis is literally that, a place of refuge in despair of prison life. It’s a place where the inmates find worth in lives that once might have seemed worthless.
There are seven activities a week, each one about two hours long. They have movie nights three times a month, always with an upbeat theme.
“The women know I’m there for good,” the Rev. Schonewolf said. About 120 women weekly take advantage of the offerings.
“Kris would come in, and those girls would just light up. She had music and spiritual counseling,” Stevens said. “The way she talked about God, you had to listen.”
Stevens was already saved when Rev. Schonewolf met her, but that was just the start of the journey. Kris showed her what it means to be the hands and feet of Jesus. “I was able to work with her, mentor her, go one-on-one with her,” Schonewolf said.
The Rev. Edwards noticed that drive to take Christ’s love to those darkened places filled with damaged people. It’s what made Kris perfect for this task. “From the moment the possibility of this ministry was shared, Kris felt a strong sense that God was calling her to this work,” she said.
“Her spiritual gifts of prayer and healing and outreach, as well as her skills of administration and organization, lend themselves to this unique work. Early on, Kris shared this sense of call with me and never gave up.”
A lot of people gave up on Melissa Stevens. For years, maybe she even gave up on herself, but Jesus never did, and so he sent his servant, the Rev. Kris Schonewolf, to show her just that.
“I’ve prayed her through so much deliverance, spent dozens of hours with her, talked to and prayed with some of her children, watched God completely transform her, watched her struggle, prayed some more, wiped her tears, watched her lay hands on people for healing and deliverance,” she said.
“I watched her being delivered of demonic forces, been there when she had powerful visions from God, seen her preach powerfully. I’ve never believed in anyone’s story more. Yes, God has huge plans for this girl. I can see us doing ministry together when God arranges it.”
Now, look at the change in someone society might have cast away.
“Oasis did so much for me on so many levels. If it hadn’t been for that ministry, I couldn’t honestly tell you where I would be right now,” Stevens said.
“People ask me what my purpose is, and I have no idea at this point. It’s like when you’re packing your bags, and someone says, ‘Where are you going?’ When will you be back? I don’t know.”
The Rev. Kris Schonewolf
She is out of prison now, working full-time, trying to reunite with her nine children, and living a life of dedication to Jesus.
“I do communion every day. I get to witness to people on my job. I was praying for God to send people to me so I could talk about him. A guy came up and started talking to me about God, and it was like, all right,” she said.
“Whatever God’s purpose is for me, what his assignment is for me, he is revealing one little bit at a time. One thing I do know is that I will never stop talking about him until I draw my last breath. At the end of all of this, it’s all about God.”
Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church (flumc.org). Reprinted by permission. Find out more about this ministry at www.TheOasisLCI.org. You can also contact Rev. Schonewolf at PastorKrisLCI@comcast.net.
In 1948, the U.S. Postal Service issued this stamp to honor the four chaplains. Photo: United States Air Force.
By Steve Beard –
Some of the most emotional moments broadcast on television are when deployed military parents return unexpectedly to surprise their kids coming home from school, during a musical recital, or at a graduation. Sheer joy boils over and you can almost feel the tight squeeze of the bear hugs. Tears of happiness cascade down the faces of the unexpected with unreserved elation. In a perfect world, those moments would last forever.
A few years ago, I joined my family at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego to honor my grandfather, Harold L. DuVal, a veteran of World War II. For the families gathered at the site near the Pacific Ocean, it is a breathtaking experience. Those leaving flowers or touching plaques want to make sure that their loved ones are not forgotten. Walking the grounds gives a good opportunity to reflect on the service and sacrifice of men and women in uniform.
While Memorial Day in May is specially designated to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice during military service, Veterans Day in November is an opportunity to show gratitude for all current and former members of the Armed Forces.
February 3 is designated as a special day to honor four specific heroes from World War II (1939-1945) and recognize their acts of self-sacrifice during a fateful night off the coast of Greenland in an area the Navy dubbed as Torpedo Alley – a treacherous stretch of the North Atlantic filled with Nazi submarines. The U.S. Army transport ship U.S.A.T. Dorchester was a cruise ship that had been repurposed to serve during wartime. It carried more than 900 military personnel, merchant marines, and civilians.
At one o’clock in the morning on February 3, 1943, a German torpedo tore a massive hole in the ship. The ship went completely dark. Sleeping soldiers woke up in a whirl of disorientation. Survivor Michael Warish described the scene in No Greater Glory: “The lights went out, and steam pipes broke, and there was screaming. Then the bunks, three to five decks high, went down like a deck of cards. Shortly after, there was a very strong odor of gunpowder and of ammonia from the refrigeration system.”
Those who were awake scrambled to upper levels to reach a lifeboat. In Bloodstained Sea, survivor Walter A. Boeckholt remembered, “I was thrown against the ceiling and then landed on the floor. By the time I was recovering my senses, the ship was already tilting. I grabbed for the door, which hadn’t jammed as of yet, and walked out on deck, realizing I didn’t have my life preserver, I went back into the room to get it. As I returned to the deck, they all seemed to be yelling, crying, and trying to get to their lifeboats. Most of the lifeboats were frozen solid or broken in the process of trying to get them loose.”
On board were four chaplains, all lieutenants. Only a few months previous, the Rev. George L. Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Father John P. Washington (Roman Catholic), and the Rev. Clark V. Poling (Reformed Church in America) had become friends and ministerial colleagues during military chaplaincy training.
In the whirlwind of panic on the ship, the four chaplains from divergent faith traditions handed out life vests to the terrified young men. Refusing to take places on the lifeboats, they helped as many soldiers as they could to escape the sinking ship. As the supply of life vests ran out, each of the chaplains gave their own to four soldiers who were without.
Tragically, only two of the fourteen lifeboats were successfully deployed. The Dorchester sank in less than 20 minutes.
Witnesses report that the chaplains said prayers and sang hymns as they linked arms as the ship was sinking. “When she rolled, all I could see was the keel up there,” recalled Dorchester survivor James Eardley. “We saw the four chaplains standing arm-in-arm … like they were looking up to heaven, you might say. Then the boat took a nosedive. It went right down, and they went with it.”
Another survivor had a similar recollection. “As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything,” engineer Grady Clark testified. “The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the four chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”
Of the 902 passengers, only 230 survived.
There is no way to adequately measure what the efforts and sacrifices of the four chaplains meant on that night. Pfc John Ladd, a survivor, said that seeing their selfless actions was “the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” For nearly eight decades, the story has been a symbol of counterintuitive sacrifice, faith-based cooperation, and remarkable love.
Dating back to 1946, the comic book, Chaplains at War, tells the story of the four chaplains who sacrificed their lives for their fellow soldiers during the 1943 sinking of the Army transport ship Dorchester. It was on display at the Chapel of the Four Chaplains located at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Philadelphia, 2018. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Christopher Botzum.)
In 1944, the U.S. government posthumously awarded each chaplain the Distinguished Service Cross and a Purple Heart. In 1948, a postage stamp was released in their honor. In 1960, the U.S. Congress authorized the unique creation of the Four Chaplains’ Medal and awarded those four men posthumously with the recognition.
In 1988, a unanimous Act of Congress established February 3 as an annual “Four Chaplains Day.” There are numerous stained glass memorials, plaques, paintings, and sculptures to their courageous act found at places such as the Pentagon and West Point.
One of the deceased clergymen was the Rev. George L. Fox – the Methodist chaplain. Prior to the fateful night, he had valiantly served in World War I. As an Army ambulance driver, he gave his gas mask to a wounded French soldier. In addition to other commendations, Fox was honored with the French Croix de Guerre, or Cross of War. After the war, Fox became a Methodist minister. Despite having lung damage from World War I, Fox volunteered for service again after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “I have to go,” he told his wife. “I know what those boys are up against.”
For Fox and his fellow chaplains, devotion to God manifested itself as selfless service to those in need.
Floating in the freezing Arctic water after the explosion on the Dorchester, Private William B. Bednar heard “men crying, pleading, praying. I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”
“To take off your life preserver, it meant you gave up your life,” said survivor Benjamin Epstein in the Pioneer Press. “You would have no chance of surviving. They knew they were finished. But they gave it away. Consider that. Over the years I’ve asked myself this question a thousand times. Could I do it? No, I don’t think I could do it. Just consider what an act of heroism they performed.”
Amazing grace for survivors. Through the efforts of David Fox, the nephew of the Methodist chaplain on the Dorchester, the memory of the story of the Four Chaplains has been preserved. In 1996, Fox rented a video camera and attempted to interview as many Dorchester survivors as possible. He ended up meeting 20 of the 28 known survivors. According to Fox, the first sergeant of the ship, Michael Warish, reported that the four chaplains had a remarkable comradery: “These men were always together.”
“Remember, this was 1943. Protestants didn’t talk to Catholics back then, let alone either of them talk to a Jew,” Fox told America in WWII. “And yet here they were, always together, and they loved each other. The men said it didn’t matter which service they went to, that the chaplains always made them feel welcome and cared for. They were remarkable for 1943, way ahead of their time.”
Through contacts in Germany, Fox also reached out to the three remaining survivors of the German submarine U-223 that had fired the torpedo. “When I was interviewing the U-boat crew, they just would cry,” Fox recalled. “The men had never told their families this story. They realized that when they hit that ship, there were men dying. They cheered the first moment, and then it just got very silent, and they felt terrible after that. These were Germans – they were not Nazis – young boys, 17, 18, 19 years old, forced to do it or they would have been shot, pretty much like in the movie Das Boot. The U-boat crews did what they had to do, but they didn’t like it very much.”
Through a notable reconciliation effort by Fox and the Immortal Chaplains Foundation in 2000, survivors of the Dorchester met with the surviving crew of the German submarine. The men from U-223 had also known loss. The German submarine was sunk a year after the Dorchester attack.
Remarkably, two surviving German veterans arrived in Washington D.C. for a 2000 memorial ceremony and they wept openly after visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The small group of both the American and German survivors were invited to the nearby home of Theresa Goode Kaplan, the then 88-year-old widow of Rabbi Alexander D. Goode who had died on the Dorchester.
Kurt Röser, Ben Epstein, David Labadie, Senator Bob Dole, Dick Swanson, Walter Miller, and Gerhard Buske at the Reconciliation Ceremony with the Immortal Chaplains Foundation on February 14, 2000. Röser and Buske were aboard the U-boat; Epstein, Miller and Labadie are survivors of the Dorchester; and Dick Swanson was aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Comanche, which hunted the U-boat. Photo: Immortal Chaplains Foundation web archive.
“She shook the Germans’ hands, and accepted their expressions of regret for her husband and for her suffering,” reported The New Yorker. “When the room was silent, Gerhard Buske (U-223’s executive officer), produced a harmonica, raised his hands to his mouth, and blew out a slow, warbling rendition of ‘Amazing Grace.’ Everyone clapped. Then the room lapsed back into silence.”
Buske returned to the United States in 2003 to speak at a ceremony on the sixtieth anniversary of the Dorchester’s sinking. “We the sailors of U-223 regret the deep sorrows and pains caused by the torpedo,” he said. “Wives lost their husbands, parents their sons, and children waited for their fathers in vain. I once more ask forgiveness, as we had to fight for our country, as your soldiers had to do for theirs.”
Buske concluded by imploring the gathering to follow the example of the four valiant chaplains. “We ought to love when others hate; we ought to forgive when others are violent,” he said. “I wish that we can say the truth to correct errors; we can bring faith where doubt threatens; we can awaken hope where despair exists; we can light up a light where darkness reigns; that we can bring joy where sorrows dominate.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Readers can learn more about this story from the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation at www.fourchaplains.org.