By Rob Renfroe —
This editorial will be a bit different. It’s an invitation to play a game titled “Name that Bishop.” Bishops in The United Methodist Church play a critical role. They not only provide administrative oversight and vision for their episcopal areas, they are also charged in the Book of Discipline “to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church.”
Before we begin our game, it’s worth noting that several of our best-known traditionalist bishops are retiring in 2022. Scott Jones (Texas Annual Conference), Mark Webb (Upper New York Conference Annual Conference), and James Swanson (Mississippi Annual Conference) have announced they will retire this year.
It’s also worth stating that the leaders of all the traditionalist renewal groups, including Good News, believe that after this year The United Methodist Church will never again elect a thoroughly orthodox bishop in the United States. With the mass departure of traditional churches which has already begun, the votes simply will not be there in the future to elect bishops like Jones, Webb, and Swanson.
So, back to our little game. I’ll give you the quote and you try to “name that bishop.” Some are newly retired, others still very active. All of them influential in the future of the Post-Separation UM Church and in guarding its doctrines.
Writing about Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15, this UM bishop stated that Jesus had to “come around” to see her as a genuine person and treat her as she deserved because he first judged her according to her gender and ethnicity. The bishop continued, “Like you and me, he (Jesus) didn’t have his life figured out. He was still growing, maturing, putting the pieces together about who he was and what he was supposed to do. We might think of him as the Rock of Ages, but he was more like a hunk of clay, forming and reforming himself in relation to God.” Then this bishop gives us a stern warning about Jesus: “too many people make an idol out of him.”
Who was this bishop who said Jesus was prejudiced, didn’t know who he was well into his ministry, and that he could be an idol, i.e., a false god? Karen Oliveto, bishop for the Mountain Sky Area. Now, can you name the bishop who admonished her for teaching that Jesus can be a false god? You can’t because none of those charged with guarding our doctrine condemned or corrected her heretical teaching about our Lord Jesus.
Name the UM bishop who wrote the following about General Conference 2019: “We prayed for openness to different points of view, unity, communion, gracious listening, holy conferencing, empathetic feelings, and generosity of spirt. It didn’t work. At some point I shifted my own prayers to, ‘Lord, please melt the hardened hearts and smite everyone who intends to vote against the One Church Plan.’” The One Church plan allowed every pastor to determine if he or she would marry gay couples and it permitted every annual conference to determine whether to ordain practicing gay persons. If you disagreed with that policy, this bishop believes you have a hardened heart. The difference, in his mind, is not that you hold to 2000 years of Christian teaching and to what the Bible very clearly seems to state. The problem is not simply a disagreement among good people. The problem is your bad heart, and this bishop prayed for God to smite people like you.
Who was this bishop? Will Willimon, one of our most read and most influential bishops for the past twenty years. Can you name the bishop who called on him to rethink how he framed this message or soften his thoughts about literally millions of good United Methodists who love Jesus, attend church, go on mission trips, and care for the poor in their communities? Of course, you can’t because none did.
Which bishop stated it wasn’t your heart but your head that needed fixing if you disagreed with liberalizing the church’s position on sexual ethics? After stating that persons with a traditional sexual ethic were guilty of homophobia, this bishop went on to state that traditionalists possess an “inability to incorporate the value of reason in their thinking.” You’re simply lacking mentally if you agree with the historic Christian Church and you disagree with him. Which bishop made this statement? Robert Hoshibata, the recently retired bishop of the Phoenix Area.
Can you name which bishop challenged him that our episcopal leaders really shouldn’t call our members mentally defective? No, you can’t, and you can’t because – well, you know why.
Can you name the bishop who demeaned an entire continent of faithful United Methodists? After what this bishop viewed as a disappointing General Conference, she wrote: “Delegates from Africa once again proclaimed that their anti-homosexual stand was what U.S. missionaries taught them. I sat there wondering when our African delegates will grow up. It has been 200 years since U.S. Methodist missionaries began their work of evangelization on the continent of Africa; long enough for African Methodists to do their own thinking about this concern and others.” Disagree with what this first-world bishop believes, and you are juvenile in your thinking. You need to grow up. The world has moved on past what you were taught, past what the Bible states. You need to get with it and believe what post-modern western bishops and pastors believe. Who was this bishop? Minerva Carcaño, bishop over the California-Nevada Annual Conference.
Certainly, something that could be seen as colonialist or even racist would be condemned in a public statement by other bishops. Can you name just one who called upon Carcaño to retract her statement that was terribly unfair and hurtful to our African sisters and brothers? I’ll answer that for you. No, you can’t.
Which bishop was recently quoted in a newspaper article as saying, “And while I believe in our traditional, orthodox faith that’s rooted in the scriptures, I have also always believed that we have to adapt our doctrine and our scriptures to changing life circumstances that people have.” I mean if enough people are experiencing something or if circumstances today are different than they were when the Bible was written, that’s a pretty good reason to adapt our scriptures from what they originally stated and meant, right? We should keep up with the times and let human experience override what has been given to us in the Bible. I mean which would you trust – an old book written by people who don’t know nearly as much as we do or the ever-changing experiences and circumstances of fallen, sinful human beings?
Who made this statement? Ken Carter, the episcopal leader for the Florida and Western North Carolina Annual Conferences, and the president of the Council of Bishops from 2018-2020. And which bishop spoke out against – well, by now you know the next question and you know the answer.
If you have been told that you can “#stayumc” and your traditional views will be respected, you need to hear what our bishops really believe about you and your beliefs. Not what they say when they’re trying to keep your church and your people and your money in the UM Church. But what they say when they are being honest. These bishops who are to provide vision for the church, guard our doctrines, and determine who your next pastor will be, they have told you what they think. Disagree with a liberalized sexual ethic and you have a bad heart, you possess a weak mind, and you need to grow up. If you believe Jesus was not a hunk of clay working out his bigotries and coming to grips with his own identity, you might be guilty of idolatry. And at least one UM bishop has been honest enough to state that he has prayed that God might smite people like you. And all the rest remained silent when these things were said. If you believe these bishops and others elected to replace retiring traditionalist bishops will never send a liberal pastor to your church to “help” you become “a real Methodist church,” you have much more faith than I do.
Welcome to the post-separation UM Church. If you have ears to hear, it’s not hard to perceive where it’s headed and just how welcome you and your traditional beliefs will be.
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president of Good News.
By Steve Beard —
Richard Griffin, a former member of the royal security detail to Queen Elizabeth II, tells a delightful story about walking with the monarch near her beloved Balmoral Castle in Scotland and meeting two American tourists. “It was clear from the moment we first stopped that they hadn’t recognized the Queen … and the American gent was telling the Queen where they came from, where they were going next, and where they’d been to in Britain. Then he asked, ‘And where do you live?’” Queen Elizabeth responded in classic British understatement, “Well, I live in London but I have a holiday home just the other side of the hills.”
When asked how often she had visited Balmoral, she told them 80 years. “Well, if you’ve been coming up here for 80 years,” said the tourist, “you must’ve met the Queen.”
“Well I haven’t,” the monarch replied, “but Dicky here meets her regularly.” Knowing he could playfully respond to their question of what she was like, Griffin said, “She can be very cantankerous at times, but she’s got a lovely sense of humor.”
Wowed by his connection to royalty, the tourists asked Queen Elizabeth to take a picture of them with Mr. Griffin. After she played photographer, they also took a picture with her. As they waved farewell to the unsuspecting tourists, the monarch mischievously said, “I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he shows those photos to his friends in America, and hopefully someone tells him who I am.”
Even for those unfamiliar with the pomp and grandeur inextricably linked to a constitutional monarchy, the royal funeral proceedings for the Queen painted an elegant portrait of a treasured monarch – a woman with unmatched dignity who died at a venerable 96 years old and served in public life for seven decades.
Queen Elizabeth lived a truly extraordinary life. She was well known for her steadfast leadership through difficult times and overseeing a post-colonial dynasty. Courteous and whipsmart, she arguably met with more international leaders during her lifetime than any other person in history.
Before she was outfitted with a crown and royal scepter, she volunteered to work in filthy coveralls as “Inductee No. 230873” in the women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II wielding a monkeywrench as she did greasy engine work on heavy transport trucks. She even trained on military motorcycles.
The Queen was famous for doting on her Corgi dogs, which she personally fed, as well as her deep passion for horse racing. She is said to have kept a racing form on her desk next to the stack of newspapers. More importantly, however, she will be remembered for her dedication to service.
“The pattern for many leaders is to be exalted in life and forgotten after death,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said in his eulogy at Westminster Abbey. “The pattern for all who serve God – famous or obscure, respected or ignored – is that death is the door to glory.”
To a congregation of world leaders, Welby observed, “Jesus – who in our reading does not tell his disciples how to follow, but who to follow – said: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ Her Late Majesty’s example was not set through her position or her ambition, but through whom she followed.”
According to Reuters, 500 of the funeral guests were presidents, prime ministers, foreign royal family members and dignitaries. “People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer,” said Welby. “But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.”
Through ceremony, hymns, Bible verses, and prayers, the guests from the four corners of the earth heard about a woman who was devoted to her faith. Welby’s on-point message about servant leadership was coupled with the Queen’s faith in Christian hope. “Christ rose from the dead and offers life to all, abundant life now and life with God in eternity,” he said. “We will all face the merciful judgement of God: we can all share the Queen’s hope which in life and death inspired her servant leadership.”
The Anglican worship service included a famous hymn written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” He was the author of over 6,500 hymns and co-led the Methodist movement within the Church of England with his brother, John. In the grand crescendo, Wesley poetically concludes: “Changed from glory into glory/ till in heav’n we take our place/ till we cast our crowns before thee /lost in wonder, love and praise.”
Of course, Wesley’s mention of the crown was known to the Queen. Without flamboyant fanfare or posturing, she was England’s most reliable churchgoer. As a heartfelt believer, she knew that whether one lived in a palace or lived on the dole, God’s love was not restrained by title or status.
At her funeral, the Imperial State Crown – handcrafted with thousands of precious stones collected throughout history by British royalty – sat atop a pillow on the Queen’s coffin as it made its 20-mile trek from Westminster Abbey to St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. It was the unmistakable symbol of her royal office.
A few years ago, Queen Elizabeth candidly described the bejeweled crown as “unwieldly.” It literally takes agility to manage the crown’s weight. It has 2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, four rubies, and 269 pearls. Thankfully for her, she only had to wear it on rare occasions.
During the service of committal at St. George’s Chapel, the crown, orb, and scepter were removed from the Queen’s casket and placed on the High Altar – deeply symbolic that they were merely on loan.
“Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed,” the Queen once shared in her Christmas address. “God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general (important though they are) – but a Savior, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships, and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.”
In another message 30 years prior, she poignantly proclaimed: “Christ not only revealed to us the truth in his teachings. He lived by what he believed and gave us the strength to try to do the same – and, finally, on the cross, he showed the supreme example of physical and moral courage.”
For those of us who watched the proceedings, it was a grand spectacle with Scripture-laden ritual, ornate costumes, bagpipes and bells, cannons and loyal soldiers. It may have been one of the most widely-watched events in history.
Although the Queen was able to be incognito with the pair of American tourists near Balmoral Castle, the heavens produced a photogenic bright and colorful rainbow over Windsor Castle as the Union Jack was lowered to half-mast on the afternoon the Queen’s death was announced. It was truly a fitting farewell to a regal woman.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Photo: Queen Elizabeth II during a ceremony at the HMS Ocean in Devonport to rededicate the ship in 2015. Photo: defenceimagery.mod.uk
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 Andrew Miller —
For generations, hymnals were the primary tool of worship for churches across denominations. Every few decades, denominational leaders would undertake the task of updating their tradition’s hymnal, containing in it not just hymns to be sung during worship services, but also liturgical readings, sacramental rites, and common prayers. In our modern, and increasingly digital, way of doing church, hymnals have largely become outdated and fallen into disrepair – considered by some to be too outmoded for use by many churches today.
Contrary to that belief, the traditional hymnal is still an invaluable resource and testimony to the gospel and our human longings to be in communion with the triune God. A hymnal that’s true to its name is able to serve congregations in a number of ways that no app, bumper video, or welcome packet ever could – by providing a lasting canon of worship, a rich devotional resource, additional worship aids, and structure for the church year and liturgical calendar.
For these reasons and more Seedbed Publishing has created a first of its kind pan-Wesleyan hymnal meant to fill the need for an updated collection of hymns.
Our Great Redeemer’s Praise: A Hymnal for All God’s People is an 800-page, comprehensive collection of hymns, prayers, liturgical elements, and service music for various occasions that incorporates numerous original hymns by John and Charles Wesley – more than any other hymnal in the last century.
Jonathan Powers and Julie Tennent have been leading the team compiling the hymnal for more than two years. Julie provides decades of liturgical and theological knowledge to this project, and Jonathan is Assistant Professor of Worship Studies and the Associate Dean of the School of Mission and Ministry at Asbury Theological Seminary. They took time to sit down and answer some essential questions about the purpose of Our Great Redeemer’s Praise and explain its timely release.
What was the spirit driving the development of a new hymnal for the church?
Julie: God’s people are always in need of trustworthy songs to sing in worship, and the Wesleys believed this fervently. This hymnal brings together hymns from Wesley’s rich theological reservoir, the holiness and charismatic movements, our African American heritage, the gospel era, contemporary favorites, as well as classic traditional hymns from throughout the history of the church. The result is that it provides a shared worship core that will strengthen the church for “knowing its own voice” amidst the cacophony of cultural voices that continually bombard its very existence.
Jonathan: Hymnals are a testimony of God’s beauty, goodness, and grace. One of the purposes of this hymnal is to hold together the old and the new, offering to future generations songs and testimonies that we see are worth hanging onto for years to come. Also, we wish to continue to stay true to the Wesleys’ original vision of a hymnal that provides a canon of song that presents God’s message of love and salvation specifically from a Wesleyan theological perspective. By bringing together hymns from various traditions represented in the Wesleyan theological heritage, this hymnal allows for both the diversity and unity of the Wesleyan voice in worship.
Julie: If there was ever a time that the church needed to be fortified to know who we are as God’s people, and who God is in our midst, it is now. It is a common adage that what people sing will become what that people believe. The Wesleys understood this deeply, and ensured that the church of their day would sing hymns that were both doctrinally sound and experientially compelling in nature. The need in our day to do the same is absolutely essential.
Jonathan: One pragmatic reason this is a good time for the release of a new hymnal is the fact that it has been decades since many denominations last published or updated their hymnal. Between the new songs that have been written and old songs that have been rediscovered, especially thanks to technological advancements over the past few decades, there is a need for new hymnals.
Who is this hymnal for?
Julie: This hymnal is for the whole church – the Wesleyan traditions of the church certainly, but the entire English-speaking church more widely.
Jonathan: This hymnal is for all Christians who testify to the great love of God, know the amazing grace of Jesus Christ, and enjoy the wondrous fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
Do you think a hard copy printed hymnal has enduring value in an all-digital era?
Julie: Absolutely! There are so many benefits of a hard copy printed hymnal that the digital form can never replace. A hymnal provides responsive readings, historic creeds, sacramental liturgies, and indexes that help to introduce previously unknown hymns to the church.
Jonathan: Yes, a hard copy hymnal is an embodied reality! This hymnal will always be this hymnal. There is something beautiful and meaningful to that. Moreover, a hymnal is something you can hold, something you can give, and something you can receive.
What do you feel is the best feature(s) of this new hymnal?
Julie: This hymnal simultaneously gives a collective voice to the wide expressions of the Wesleyan traditions by gathering hymns together in one place from across that full spectrum, while also grounding those hymns in the deeper encompassing foundation of the Apostles’ Creed, which is held in common by all branches of the Christian church.
Jonathan: There are so many good, important, and valuable features to this hymnal, but my favorite is the fact that the hymnal is full of so many Wesley texts. When including texts by both John and Charles, there are one hundred Wesley hymns represented in the hymnal. Some have not been published in a hymnal for quite some time, while others have become popular favorites.
Are there parts of the hymnal that are unique from other hymnals out there?
Julie: Absolutely! In addition to the organizational structure of the Apostles’ Creed, there are two other unique features in this hymnal. First, the entire collection of twelve hymns (one hymn for each article of the Apostles’ Creed) that were written by Samuel Stone as a pastoral catechesis for his congregation have been included. At a time when the church is in danger of losing its grounding in orthodox faith, this is a powerful resource to reclaim. Second, the foundation of the Psalms for Christian worship is acknowledged by the inclusion of a sampling of metrical psalms for singing.
Jonathan: I would add that this hymnal brings together songs from across the ages and across traditions like no other I have seen. Hard work was done to ensure all of the major Wesleyan denominations are represented well in the hymnal. Likewise, the dates of the hymns included in the hymnal range (not including the psalms and canticles) from the first century to the twenty-first century. You could easily find a Charles Wesley hymn on one page facing a Chris Tomlin song on the other. A fourth-century text could be side-by-side with a modern hymn written by Hillsong or the Gettys. A camp meeting song may fall right next to a spiritual from the AME Zion.
If you could offer any encouragement to churches who may be on the fence about purchasing new hymnals, what would it be?
Julie: My challenge to those churches would be a question: How will you pass on the faith once and for all delivered to the saints? Beyond the Scriptures themselves, the hymns that we sing are the primary means of passing on the faith to the next generation (as well as grounding our own faith in the historic orthodoxy of those who have faithfully gone before us). I encourage every church to consider the value of a codified treasury of worship that has stood the test of time, and that preserves the sung legacy of our faith to be passed on.
Jonathan: As a kid, when I wasn’t reading my Bible in church, I often was reading a hymnal. And to be honest, many times this is what I did during the sermon! I owe a lot of my formation and education in general to hymnals. Beyond this perhaps the best encouragement I can give to a church on why they should purchase a hymnal is because it shows that you take worship seriously. Investing in a hymnal is investing in your people.
What is the teaching or catechetical value of a hymnal?
Julie: Hymns bring together the heart and mind. For the mind, they provide catechesis in doctrine and theology; they teach us literal phrases and content of Scripture and thus form us to think theologically and to be conformed to the mind of Christ. But they also stir the soul; they form and transform the orientation of the heart as we sing and thus compel us to deeper piety and devotion, and to acts of love and mercy in our living. They weave together both the truth and beauty of God in a powerful life-force infused by the Holy Spirit in our midst.
Jonathan: “Show me how you worship and I’ll tell you what you believe.” The statement acknowledges that the words said and the actions done in worship are of utmost importance since they foster a vision of the triune God and cultivate a congregation’s understanding of God. The same can be said of singing – “Show me what you sing and I will tell you what you believe.”
Through the act of singing, the church itself becomes an embodiment of the liturgical and theological truths contained within a hymnal.
Andrew Miller is director of publishing at Seedbed. To learn more to visit: https://www.ourgreatredeemerspraise.com/
Since 2005, the Rev. Nicky Gumbel has been the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton church in London – the largest congregation in the Church of England. He is also the popular leader of the Alpha course currently being utilized in 30,000 churches of all denominations – including Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, and Pentecostal – in 130 countries.
Gumbel, 66, announced his retirement from the congregation that he and his wife Pippa have been part of for 46 years. “I believe the best is yet to come – for you, for the church, for all of us,” he said in his farewell sermon. He said that he and Pippa will continue their work with Alpha and – in association with new HTB leader, the Rev. Canon Archie Coates – encouraging and resourcing the more than 125 church congregations that HTB has planted through its partnership with dioceses across the Church of England and the Church in Wales. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood,” he preached in his sermon from Acts 20:28. “This is not our church. This is God’s church.”
Good News Media Service. Photo: The Rev. Nicky Gumbel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, in 2003. Photo by Steve Beard.