Who Makes the Rules? : Brendan Arnold

For your stay-at-home enjoyment this month, our blog post is brought to us by NazToo-er Brendan Arnold. Brendan is Associate Minister at Restoration Community Church and a student at Trevecca. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jessica, and their two kids. For fun, Brendan enjoys running sound, working on computers, and getting in arguments on Naz2.

            I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we decide what the rules are. “We” in this case being the peculiar community of the Christian church. Christians throughout history have had a strange relationship with the rules; we love to make, debate, and break the rules. Sometimes we say these rules are directly handed down from God, sometimes we say the rules are what we hear God tell us in our hearts, sometimes we say there are no rules, — only love. Depending on when and where we grow up, we inherit various rules for being a Christian person, and various assumptions about how important those rules are and where they come from.

            But I want to focus on that question of how we decide the rules. Because I don’t think it’s something we think about very much. And when we don’t think about things often, we tend to just go with the flow, without really assessing if the course we’re on is best. I think the default answer for many people is essentially fundamentalism. And being fundamentalist about where the rules come from doesn’t mean one is necessarily a fundamentalist overall. I know quite a few people who don’t see themselves as “fundamentalist Christians” (and I agree with them) who would still probably give a fundamentalist answer about where the rules come from.

            The fundamentalist answer is an easy one. Something along the lines of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me,” is much easier than trying to critically think through the various issues surrounding Christian rules. It takes work to think about where our rules come from, where our scriptures come from, how we know any of that, how sure we can be in that knowledge. And the point of this post isn’t to criticize fundamentalism. I, personally, am not a fundamentalist, but I know many devout, loving Christians who are. Fundamentalism in its various forms has been an answer for many people in the church. And that’s one answer to the question of, “Where do the rules come from?” It’s an answer many of us probably grew up with. I certainly did.

            But if we move away from fundamentalism, if we decide that the rules for being a Christian are not just directly handed down to us from God, then what? I think for many people, the first option that comes to mind looks something like the guy in that Little Caesar’s commercial who immediately rips off his shirt and screams, “There’s no rules!!!” Especially for those who grew up with fundamentalist logic drilled into them at a young age, it can seem like the logical consequence of removing a fundamentalist rationale for Christian morality, ethics, action, etc. is some sort of anarchy. And while I’ve personally seen this more as a straw man argument from fundamentalists (and at times I’ve even made these arguments to myself to keep myself inline with the fundamentalism I grew up with), I do believe there are people who truly believe this. I think a lot of people function this way, even if they haven’t consciously thought it through. I hear echoes of it in the kind of “relationship over religion” language which is sometimes popular. The idea that our faith is somehow “just between us and Jesus.” Again, the point of this post isn’t to dismantle such a position, but I will say that the communal nature of the church seems to make such “personalized” views of Christianity pretty problematic.

            What I actually want to do, however, is propose a “third way” between the extremes of fundamentalism and anarchy. A mentor of mine, Steve Hoskins, referred to the church in Acts as “council-ors,” and I think he’s onto something. I’ll say more about what I mean, but first, I want to let you know where I’m coming from: I believe that God is real, and that he really acted in history, and I believe God’s action is most clearly revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I believe that the Bible is the attempt of a particular community, the people of God, to wrestle with the experience of encountering God’s action at various times and places. I believe that the Bible collects those diverse experiences and attempts to understand them and pass them on to future generations of the People of God. I believe that those diverse, human explanations of God’s work are the result of various “councils” at different times: sometimes those councils had different answers.

            That last point is what I’m driving toward here. I think it’s easy to prove this was the case in the New Testament and beyond. In Acts 15, the Apostles meet to discuss issues of Gentile believers and circumcision. The church has had numerous councils, importantly those that formed the Creeds. But I think you can see this process play out in the background of the Old Testament as well. If you closely examine the different lists of laws in the Old Testament, (say, in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), you will see lots of similarity, and lots of repetition. But interestingly, there are differences that pop up as well. It’s as if the community giving us these laws, these sets of rules, are updating things for their own time. Perhaps a law did not go far enough to protect the innocent before, or a new issue has risen. I won’t bore you with too many details here, but I think these differences are significant, and I think they point to a way forward for the church today.

            If we are not going to be fundamentalist, but think there should be rules to guide us as we live out our faith, perhaps we should see ourselves as “council-ors.” Perhaps we pray, learn, study, and discern all we can as individuals, and then meet together and decide the rules as a community. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is truly at work among us and will guide us as we do so, and perhaps this will allow us to come up with better rules than if we went with the simplicity of fundamentalism or anarchy.

            As our society changes, especially in the face of rapid technological advancement, the church will find itself facing many obstacles, and having many debates about what the rules should be, and how much they should matter. I think the church will do well to face these issues as a council — a body of equals who discuss the issues in depth and decide how to move forward — guided by the Holy Spirit and the work of church councils before us.

End the Stigma: Lois Haley

This month’s post comes to us from Lois Haley, who says: Hello everyone in NazToo land, my name is Lois Haley. I am located outside of Portland, Oregon in a lovely town called Scappoose. My husband and I have been married for 3 almost 4 years now and during that time we have been foster parents to 9 kids (not all at the same time, 2 at the most at one time). I currently work at JOANN fabrics and love my job there. I am working to finish my bachelors degree in Behavioral Health Sciences with an emphasis in Trauma. No clue what I will actually do with it but it is a start. My dream is to help people that have been impacted by trauma. In my free time I love to be crafty, I love to sew and create things. 

First off I am completely honored to be asked to write this blog post. I was asked to write this post because a certain admin wanted to hear more of my story since we’ve started to become friends *cough*Taryn*cough*.

I am not an ordained elder or graduate from a Nazarene university. I did briefly attend Northwest Nazarene University (NNU) but was asked to leave after mental health issues arose, I’ll get into that later. Being asked to write this feels like an honor that I am not worthy of, but to save the arguments from Taryn, I accepted. There are triggering topics of abuse, self harm, overdosing, and mental health crises. 

 I was born and bred Nazarene in the same church, though as of this writing I am not attending but have not given up my membership due to some background workings of potentially starting a church plant. I was baptized in the Nazarene church, received my membership when I turned 15, and was excited to vote in annual meetings. I attended 2 district assemblies as a delegate, and Mission convention as well. I went to kids camps, teen camps, attended NYC’03, attended Caravans from Papoose to Adventurers, was on the teen quiz team, and later a quiz coach. I felt I was a typical Nazarene, I loved the church and what it stood for. Looking back on it, I threw myself into the church because it was a safe and stable place.

Growing up I was a victim of child abuse from my biological father, the emotional scars of which are still there and I am working through them now as an adult. My parents divorced when I was young, and I witnessed domestic violence between my parents. My mom was then a single mom taking care of two young girls. Some of the church members did help and provided for us – they provided scholarships for me to attend camps, because my mom could not cover the cost, and they would help us with Christmas gifts and the like.

Looking back, I can notice a trend of the church not knowing what to do when mental health events happened. When I was eleven my biological father died. Oh man, that messed me up mentally, all those issues about his abuse towards me now going unresolved. For his first birthday after he died I was able to fly to my aunt’s home in Anchorage to spend some time away from all the shit going on. During my stay there one day I had a fall from 7ft loft and later was a victim in a hit and run car accident. Sadly I did not have medical treatment until I arrived back home, nothing was broken physically but something was triggered in my body, fibromyalgia, but at that time we did not know it. My mom commented later that I was never the same after that. Something also came out that we were not expecting, depression. Here I was an eleven almost twelve year old wanting to kill myself. How did the church respond? They did nothing. When my mom had breast cancer how did they respond? Food trains, drivers to her chemo and radiation appointments. Did we have drivers to our grief group, or meals delivered, or even rides to my mental health appointments? No.

Going around during youth group asking for prayer requests and asking to have prayers for my mental health, I remember one fellow student remarking, “I would have never thought you had depression.” This would have been back in the early 2000’s when mental health was still an unspoken taboo. Here I am, asking for support from my peers, and not feeling like I am receiving any, or that they believe me. 

Fast forward a few years, and I was given the opportunity to attend NNU, freshly out of high school and first time living away from home. I was not prepared at all. Depression hit me again, and, well, my grades were horrific. I came home at Christmas break and was put on an antidepressant. I went back to classes with hope and a new medicine, with the dream that the medicine will help, as well as accessing counseling on campus. Unfortunately the medicine did not help; in fact, it made things much worse. 

In my darkest time at NNU, I self-harmed by cutting myself and the next week I overdosed on Tylenol. I was in the emergency room within an hour of taking them because I told my counselor and they came with me to the emergency room. If you have never had the experience of needing to drink charcoal, count yourself lucky. And don’t ever mix charcoal with cola; it doesn’t make it better. After going through the procedures of the emergency room and talking with the State’s traveling mental health provider, he and I both deemed it best that I would be admitted to a mental health unit for observation for a 72 hour hold, at least. What happened from there: I was transferred by police officers – supposed to be handcuffed but I was willing to go so they did not handcuff me – to another local hospital with a mental health unit. I was admitted and thought I had hit the lowest point in my life. But that came later when I was forced to withdraw from NNU. I was crushed. I had worked so hard to attend NNU – my dream – and now I was being forced to withdraw because of my mental health. I am thankful in hindsight for this.  

So how did the church respond to this mental health situation? I was 600+ miles from home and my mom’s vehicle most likely would not have made the drive there and back. Luckily, the youth pastor at the time was able to use the church van and bring my mom to help pack me up and take me home. After coming home I dealt with full blown anxiety attacks, even while at church, a safe place for me. No one helped me with getting to my daily appointments, or brought my family food. It was like after this great event no one knew what to do. 

Fast forward to 2019, my husband and I are foster parents and our daughter is dealing with her own mental health issues and was in the hospital for a month, and residential treatment for the next 4 months where we would drive at least two times a week for visits/therapy appts, as a whole our church did not respond or help us. In previous events with my sister and her family people dropped everything and supported her with gift cards to the cafe or gas cards, meal trains etc. We did not receive any of this, inside I was crushed.  Luckily I have such a great support system and some great friends who reached out to us and saw our need. After much discretion between my husband and I we decided to leave our church, the church I was born into, grew up in, and got married in, the church I poured myself into, knew more of the history and inner workings of than some of the board members, because we did not have the support we thought we were going to receive during this difficult time. 
Something needs to change. I have found an online resource that seems to be appropriate for our context. For Community and Faith Leaders. My own thoughts on what would be helpful when I was younger is having someone invest into me and be a mentor and being open and honest about their struggles with mental health issues. As for when I’m an adult, I tend to isolate myself from people, but having someone to text or talk to has been the most beneficial knowing that someone cares. 

I hope this post challenges our collective response to those in need of support during some of the dark times in their lives.

The Next Right Thing: Gerron Showalter

I’ve known Gerron Showalter for more than 35 years. If you had told me 35 years ago, when Gerron was a goofy teenager (maybe he wasn’t even a teenager yet) and I was a goofy student at Trevecca, that we’d both be Nazarene pastors someday, well, I would probably just laughed at the idea. And yet, here we are. Gerron writes: Hi, I’m Gerron. I’ve been in the group (NazToo) for a while. I grew up in Nashville and went to Trevecca Nazarene. I’m married to Jennifer Showalter. She’s just about the best thing that’s happened to me. We have two amazing girls, Emma and Henley, and a dog that’s pretty cool, too. Currently, my wife and I serve at Port Orange Church of the Nazarene in Port Orange, FL. I love the St. Louis Cardinals, running (ok, walking) half marathons, Duke basketball, malted milk balls from Southern Season Store, Denver Broncos, all things Disney, watermelon milkshakes from Cookout, the writings of Henri Nouwen (Return of the Prodigal Son was transformational for me), playing poker, Blue Bell ice cream, and a few other things.

2020. I remember laughing at Conan O’Brien when he and Andy would tell us what things will be like in the year 2000. It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 20 years since those skits.

Time flies by. There’s no denying it. As I have been doing my end-of-year evaluation of where my time has been spent, I’ve been keenly aware of how easily I am distracted…by other people’s emergencies that they push onto me, by my lack of motivation, by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, by good ideas that often squeeze out the best ideas.

Last year was a great year, don’t get me wrong. But I wonder how much of my time was spent doing things on the “Well, I guess this is what I’m doing today” list when I really should have been more focused on the “This will bring life to somebody today” list.

To that end, my January began by using a planner notebook. Yes, that’s right. Although I love tech items and would prefer to quickly type things into my iPhone, I am practicing the art of writing things down by hand (and, I’ve got to tell you, I think it kind of sucks but I’m not going to give up just yet).

I think a lot of what has driven this decision comes from two main places: (1.) a song from the movie Frozen 2 called The Next Right Thing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6g1yQV0dIY), and (2.) a podcast that I’ve listened to for years with the same title, The Next Right Thing (https://emilypfreeman.com/next-right-thing-podcast/). Both address the problem of what to do when you feel stuck; when you’re dealt a bad hand; when you feel like your life is Groundhog’s Day. When you stand paralyzed by simply not knowing what to do next.

So I asked for one main thing for Christmas. It was called the Full Focus Planner (https://fullfocusstore.com). It’s a planner on steroids (so, I guess it’s technically banned from MLB and other competitive events). It helps with short range and long range planning, with the intention of creating rhythms that will help a person achieve the large goals by determining the smaller “next right thing” goals in the daily routines. It’s a macro/micro type of thing.

I thought I’d share a few of my long range goals for 2020. Some of these are goals that will happen by the end of the year. Others are goals that I hope will happen daily or weekly throughout the entire year.

UNPLUG ONE FULL DAY/WEEK

If you’re like me, unplugging is a difficult thing to do. Someone always needs you. Work, spouse, friends, church members…people and things contantly pull at us. Whether it’s the phone or the computer, I’m amazed at how much time is spent looking at a screen. My phone notified me the other day that I had reduced my screen time by 10%, but I was still looking at my stupid phone for close to four hours a day. That’s ridiculous. And, yes, I see the irony in looking at my phone for it to tell me how often I look at my phone.

My goal this year is to take a full sabbath once a week. I usually try to have a day off (out of the office and not working on church things), but I rarely take a full day off to simply BE. To be with my family. To be with a book. To be at home resting. I’m hoping this year is a year of change.

READ TWO BOOKS A MONTH (1 FICTIONAL; 1 ON LEADERSHIP)

I slipped into a poor rhythm last year. I read a lot…but I didn’t have focused reading. I read my Bible. I read as I prepped for sermons. I read Facebook posts (big mistake, FYI. People are nuts). Although I read a lot of things, I didn’t read many things that added value to my personal life. I didn’t read a lot of things from start to finish, allowing myself to process through an entire book. 

I’m hoping to read more this year with the object of my reading being squarely focused on my personal growth or enjoyment. I have many friends that have read dozens of books in a month. I read from dozens of books. That’s not the same thing. I knew it. I just ignored it. Not this year!

SPEND 30 MIN EACH WEEK TEACHING MY GIRLS TO PLAY AN INSTRUMENT

Both of my girls love music. Both Emma and Henley dabble in piano, guitar, and ukulele. They are constantly asking me to teach them something new. I have some ability with each of these instruments, but I often push them off and tell them that I’ll work with them later. 

Not cool. They’re actually begging to spend time with their dad. I know this is a phase that will end soon enough. Why am I not taking full advantage?! I can be a real bonehead sometimes.

So I spoke with each of them and told them to come up with a specific time each week where we can work on music and hang out. It will be on my calendar and I’ll view it as something that can’t be squeezed out for other events. I’ve already started this and have loved it! 

AND SO IT BEGINS

There are other goals that I have for this year.

Jen and I are praying about two church plants that we would love to see happen through our church one the next three years.

I have a weight goal for the year.

I have a church goal of 20 baptisms this year (which would be more in one year than in the past 5 years combined).

We want to host a dinner event each month, just inviting friends into our house with the intention of simply connecting with people.

I want to memorize the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety.

There are more, but you get the idea.

My hope is that 2020 is one of great intentionality. I hope to care less about what I accomplish and more about living my life on purpose. Some days will be easy. Other days may feel like my plans have to take a backseat to everyone else’s. It’s my hope that as I focus, plan, and execute each day to its fullest, my year will be lived in the sweet spot of working hard, growing deep, and finding beauty in the journey.

Peace, y’all. Find your next right thing. Get focused. And buckle up, because it’s gonna be a great year!

Being Known: Ryan L. Kuehl

The first blog post of the new year, and of the new decade, comes from NazTooer Ryan Kuehl. Ryan is the pastor of Calvary Church of the Nazarene, in Crestwood, IL. He’ll tell you more about himself below. Happy New Year!

Just a quick bio: I am currently the bi-vocational pastor of a small church in the south suburbs of Chicago. During the week I am an adult special needs instructor/teacher for a nearby school called Elim Christian Services. Henri Nouwen is by far my favorite author because his work was often informed by the special needs communities he was immersed in. My love of cats means that St. Gertrude is my favorite saint. I have two of them, Dixie and Daisy. Gardening helps me maintain a level of peace and sanity so enduring winters in Illinois can be a challenge. I grow food so that I can give it away. Basketball may wear out my two surgically repaired knees but it brings me joy to be around early 20 something young men and showing off what skills I do have left. My loving wife Lori puts up with me in all of my oddities. She is a crocheter of all things yarn. She also helps act as a filter so that I don’t say inappropriate stuff from the pulpit since I did not come with a factory installed filter. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. I was invited into NazToo years ago by my dear friend Scott Christensen who has for years been instrumental in helping me think in ways very much out of the box in comparison to my first 20 years on this spinning globe. Very blessed by him and others in this lifelong venture!

Twenty years ago, I was an introverted college student preparing for ministry who was terrified at the prospect of having to preach messages to people 20, 30, 40, and 50 years older than myself. The internal thought at that time was basically, “What in the world do I have to say to these people that they haven’t already heard numerous times from other people who can say it much better?” Feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt have long been companions along the path of life but I have managed over the years to find ways to tell those voices to shut up long enough for me to write. When last month’s post came out by Thomas Jay Oord and I knew I was on the schedule for January I had to chuckle and those internal voice companions chuckled with me. The immediate thought was much the same as 20 years ago: What do I have to offer up to this group that they couldn’t get from virtually anyone else who could say it much better? Fortunately, today I woke up at 3am and those companions weren’t awake yet and so my mind was busy and productive enough to get me out of bed to get this started. So here we go.

Being Known

Just the other day I had my 2-year pastoral review and one of the comments by a board member was that they were impressed by my fluidity when it came to relating to people of all ages and a variety of backgrounds. It was probably one of the greatest compliments anyone could ever give me because finding ways to relate to people is so important to me and it has been for a long time. Mostly because I routinely feel like I don’t belong and don’t fit in and so I know how much that feeling sucks when people can’t relate to you. And so I find myself working as hard as I can to find a way to relate to the people I meet in the hopes that somehow someway they know they are beloved and belong.

When I was in the 7th grade a good friend of mine committed suicide and the few days that followed were some of the most alone days I’ve ever had in my life. The deep sense that nobody knew how I was feeling was supported by the fact that literally everyone was asking, “How are you doing?”. Being in the midst of trying to process such a tragic situation meant that I didn’t have the words to even attempt to tell them. “How are you doing?” wasn’t a question that brought me comfort. While the people asking me that question genuinely intended to communicate to me that they cared and that I could come to them to share, it only made me feel more alone in my grief that I could not put into words.

My friend was buried on a Friday morning and it just so happened to be a Good Friday. In the midst of everything in my world being flipped upside down, the fact that it was Easter week was not something that remotely entered into my thought processes until Friday afternoon when I was alone in my room with those thoughts and feelings I could not articulate for those people unable to relate to me in my sadness. When it did dawn on me that it was Good Friday my internal thought was, “This is the worst day of my life. What possibly could be ‘good’ about this day?” In that moment the prevailing sense of aloneness that had been looming for days was immediately gone. The realization/revelation in that instant that I was not alone in my grief was the gift of a God who knew full well how suffering felt. A God who knew how loss felt. A God who knew how death felt. A God who knew how I felt even though I hadn’t been able to articulate it in human words. I wept in that moment not because the grief was lifted but because there was relief in the midst of it. Knowing that you are known by the God of the universe is a priceless treasure in a world where it is all too easy to be unknown by others.

One of the lifelong struggles that I deal with has been the deep desire to be known by others and conflicting desire for privacy. On the one hand I imagine that it would be absolutely freeing to be fully known by another person or group of persons, but on the other hand the fear of rejection has always been strong enough to make me either proceed slowly with caution or hide my story altogether. For years I chose the latter.

Not long after I graduated from Olivet in 2001 with the goal of entering into full time ministry my life quickly veered off track. Welcome to the real world of life and consequences! I found myself in a relationship I had no reason to be in and a few months later had the sense enough to get out of it, but that wasn’t the end of the situation. When I got the news a couple months later that a baby was on the way, ministry was a dead deal. The only pastors I had ever known up to that point had pristine life stories. I had never known a pastor with a baby mama story so I thought that was it for me and the call I felt I had on my life. For months after getting the news I was once again back to being scared and very very alone. I didn’t even tell my parents until just a couple weeks before my daughter’s arrival. Later on, when I started dating Lori, who is now my wife of 15 years, I had to do the task of sharing my story with her and then with her family. And then that was it. I didn’t want anyone else to know my story. I would go to Sunday School and church and I would feel alone because I was surrounded by people who didn’t know me or what I was going through and who never asked the kind of questions that indicated they wanted to know me in any real and substantive way.

And that’s how it went for the good part of 7 years. Alone and unknown by most of the people in my life. And then I get a call from some guy I had only met once before because our wives wanted to have dinner together. He was calling because he was wanting to start a small group where people actually lived life together in more meaningful ways then he had experienced in regular church gatherings. As he described the small group he was wanting to be apart of, it was simultaneously the thing I most wanted and the thing I most feared. I told him I would talk with my wife and we would let him know later. The question I asked my wife was, “Are we ready to really do this?” We did end up being apart of that group and the rest of that story was transformational. The bar was set high from the onset in regard to being real and genuine and transparent. It was reassuring to hear other people willing to share their stories which helped me in sharing mine. It was an absolute honor and sacred privilege to be allowed entry into the inner rooms of people’s lives in a way I had never experienced before.

It is only because of that small group experience and the small group experiences later on when I helped start and lead small groups at my church that I was later on able to endure the district licensing process in the Church of the Nazarene. Having to go through the kinds of questioning that the licensing process entails is still intimidating but I’ve been able to practice transparency while sitting on couches in living rooms with people who consistently displayed the grace of Christ. Over the past 2 and a half years I have also been surprised time and again with a tiny and fairly conservative leaning congregation that called me to be their pastor. Still working on the transparency thing there for sure. My hope is that my willingness to be vulnerable and accessible would be contagious. There are always limits to being transparent but most people can be more transparent then they already are. I still regularly hear people say, “You’re not like any pastor we’ve had before.” I think that’s a good thing so I’m going to keep doing that.

All of that leads me to why I very much appreciate what happens here in this #aINT group. While I do really wish that it were possible to interact with the members of this group in a different context that involved coffee and a couch, I am happy that there is still a level of true openness and transparency that is non-existent in more churchy contexts. I am always very excited when there is the opportunity to meet a fellow NazToo member in the real world so that I can put a human voice to the typed words. I wish that it were possible to get to know each and every one of y’all and hopefully this helps some of you get to know me just a little bit better. I’m just your ordinary run of the mill gardening cat daddy pastor with a baby mama story who is known at the recreation center as Scoop. Because every pastor needs a baller name.

Peace and Blessings!

Pastor Scoop

The Finally Impenitent: Thomas Jay Oord

I couldn’t be more pleased about this month’s blog post, brought to us by one of NazToo’s many resident theologians, Thomas Jay Oord. Tom is also a philosopher and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies, as well as a best-selling and award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty-five books. A twelve-time Faculty Award winning professor, Oord teaches at institutions around the globe. He is the director of the Center for Open and Relational Theology. Oord is known for his contributions to research on love, open and relational theology, science and religion, and the implications of freedom and relationships for transformation.

“The finally impenitent are hopelessly and eternally lost.”

The Manual of the Church of the Nazarene includes these ominous words. The phrase “the finally impenitent” precedes the denomination, however. And other Christian groups currently include these words in their belief statements.

“Impenitent” refers to those who do not repent from sin to embrace God’s ways of love. “Hopeless and eternally lost” can be interpreted variously. Many consider the phrase a reference to eternal conscious torment in hell. But being “lost” can mean other things, and biblical writers use the word in various ways.

Finally?

I’ve been thinking about the word “finally.” How and when are the impenitent “finally” unrepentant?

I suspect most people think “finally” comes at a person’s death. But this raises many questions.

Do those who have near-death experiences have more than one “finally?” Are those pronounced dead but are later revived spared of “finally?”

Might “finally” come before our bodies die? Can one become finally impenitent at age 5? 12? 25? 55? 99?

Do we get another chance in the afterlife? Is purgatory the process of coming to a “finally impenitent” moment?

Does God Give Up?

Even more important is this question: Would an everlastingly loving God decide some people are “finally impenitent?”

Does God say, “Well, I’ve given her 44,837 chances to repent? This next one is the final chance?”

Does God say, “He’s done so many unrighteous acts that I will not resurrect him?” Or “I’ll resurrect her but then annihilate after judging her?”

I have come to believe the God who “gives up” on anyone cannot be a God of steadfast love. This God does not always forgive. This God does not always turn the other cheek.

A God who annihilates or sends some to eternal conscious torment is not a God of perfect love.

Universalism?

The phrase “finally impenitent are hopelessly and eternally lost” does not rule out universalism or the ultimate redemption of all things.

“Universalism” comes in many forms. Most think of it in terms of a sovereign God accepting all creatures (and all creation?) into eternal bliss/ heaven. This accepting God annihilates no one and sends no one to hell. No matter what we’ve done, the universalist view says God forgives, and we enjoy everlasting life beyond bodily death.

(For an accessible defense of universalism, see Jesus Undefeated, by Keith Giles. For a much less accessible case for universalism, see That All Shall Be Saved, by David Bently Hart. For a strong biblical appraisal, see Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, by Brad Jersak.)

The usual views of universalism have major problems.

First, they ignore the freedom of those who do not want to be with God for eternity. The common view of universalism says, “You may want something else, but you have to embrace the ways of heaven and love… even if you don’t want to.”

Second, if God has the power to force some into eternal bliss against their will, this God would have the power to prevent evil. The God who can control later has the power to control now and thereby prevent the genuine evil we experience. And yet we endure genuine evil.

Third, if eternal life in heaven is inevitable for all – no matter what we do – how does what we do matter? Our lives and choices have no ultimate significance if God will rescue us all despite ourselves.

Fourth, what real incentive might we have for avoiding evil, fighting corruption, fighting climate change, etc. if none of these efforts ultimately matter? If God sends everyone to eternal bliss, what’s the point of self-sacrifice in the present?

A Better Way

I think there’s a better way to interpret “the finally impenitent will be hopelessly and eternally lost.”

This better way says God never gives up calling us to love. God never gives up while we live in these bodies. And God never gives up in the afterlife. God’s steadfast love endures forever!

It also says, therefore, that God does not annihilate or send anyone to hell. God never acts to kill or torment.

This better way also says God doesn’t force anyone into a relationship of loving bliss. God always calls, empowers, and inspires us to love. But we can resist, refuse, or not cooperate. And God won’t – in fact, can’t – force us to accept and express love.

Natural negative consequences come from saying no to love. Those natural negative consequences aren’t divinely imposed, as if God spanks us from time to time. Instead, natural negative consequences are simply the destruction that comes from failing to cooperate with God’s life-giving love.

Relentless Love Eschatology

I call the better way I’ve briefly laid out, “Relentless Love Eschatology.” I’ve explained it in various academic presentations. Find an accessible presentation of it in the final chapter of my book God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils (SacraSage 2019).

Relentless Love Eschatology says God steadfastly loves now and after we die. God’s love always empowers and calls us to respond in love. God literally loves everyone and everything forever!

Those who cooperate with God enjoy the abundant life that loving God, others, and self provides. Those who don’t cooperate experience the natural negative consequences of saying no to love.

Our mode of existence in the afterlife will differ from our existence now. The Bible and theologians offer diverse speculations about the nature of this existence. But they agree that our future state of existence will not endure the evils, death and destruction that affect our present bodies.

So…

Will Anyone Be “Finally Impenitent?”

Relentless Love Eschatology says God never forces anyone to salvation. So theoretically at least, some may never repent. And God won’t force them.

This isn’t classic universalism.

Because God never gives up on anyone, however, it’s also possible everyone will eventually repent. Resisting may be possible, but God’s relentless love may finally persuade all to embrace love. We have hope but not a guarantee all will be saved.

Is it likely everyone and every choosing creature — the whole world — will eventually cooperate with God? Or should we assume at least one chooser — if not more — will be finally impenitent?

John Wesley seemed to think the whole world would repent. I close with Wesley’s words:

“In the same manner as God has converted so many to himself, without destroying their liberty, he can undoubtedly convert whole natures or the whole world. And it is as easy for him to convert a whole as one individual soul.” (General Spread of the Gospel)

Knitting a New Sweater: Michelle Knotts Gill

I (Steve) am so pleased that this month our blog post is brought to us by a friend I’ve known since we were both students at Trevecca Nazarene College (as it was known then). Michelle graduated from Trevecca, when it was still just a college, with a degree in Accounting.  She is married to her high-school sweetheart and  fellow Trevecca grad, Murphy.  She’s followed him to Georgia, Texas, Indiana, Michigan , and finally back home to Nashville, TN.  She was a reluctant (at best)  pastor’s wife.  Her greatest blessing and accomplishment is her son Daniel.  She’s living the introvert’s dream working from home.  Her reading list is long and will never be completed.  She and Murphy have started a ministry for LGBTQ people who have been pushed out of church called The Vibrant Edges.  She loves all things PBS and BBC and football (Titans, Tennesee, Vandy, Auburn, MSU).

I was a compliant child. I didn’t break the rules. If you told me something, I didn’t question it. That seems a lifetime ago and it would surprise many who have only known me the last five years or so. There are so many things I never questioned. I’m not sure how I came to start questioning. Mid-life crisis? Maybe. I really don’t know. I think it was a gradual thing. I pulled on a thread one day. Then I found another, and I pulled it. Before I knew it, my sweater had unraveled. I’m learning to knit now out of necessity.

I grew up in the evangelical church. I was treated to a special kind of trauma by attending Nazarene church camp and being treated to an annual showing of A Thief in the Night. If you didn’t grow up in the 70’s or 80’s, the premise is the rapture came and you screwed up and now everyone but you is in heaven. Don’t you wish you had been better? I guess maybe I was scared into compliance. Questioning was never part of being a believer. If you question that’s doubt and that isn’t going to get you to Heaven. I came out of the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” camp.

It worked alright for many years, except I generally felt I wasn’t trying hard enough or really investing enough effort to please God. I was a child of divorce before it was common. My dad left the evangelical church and my mom. He drank (yes, alcohol) and smoked and I was convinced he was going to hell. It broke my heart. And it was impressed upon me over my growing up years that I was my responsibility to “bring him back into the fold.” And I also needed to convert all my friends. I was an evangelical failure. I was not winning souls for Jesus and I got guilted about it frequently. In 2011, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. There was a huge cloud hanging over our time together before he passed. I had to convince him to pray the prayer so he wouldn’t go to hell. But I couldn’t do it. I really was going to have the talk about his soul with him, but something stopped me. I think it may have been that I was starting to pull on that first thread. He was a good man and he believed in the Divine. He didn’t attend church or follow the manual rules, but told me that he was at peace. I believed that. When he passed away, I too was at peace. I do not believe he is being tormented eternally. That belief did not square with anything I was taught in all my spiritual formation.

I had become good friends with some “unchurched” people. They were queer. They were also really, truly good people. When my friend Kate told me she was getting married to her partner, my Nazarene upbringing kicked in. Uh-oh, she’s going to hell. Why is it, then, that I am happy for her? I looked at church polity on the subject and came away with the conclusion that God is kind of a jerk because he creates people who are queer and then he tells them that because they are queer, they don’t get to participate in life and marriage and family like the people who he created to be straight. Then I start reading things about context and translation and those few verses don’t really seem to mean what I’ve been told they mean. And what about that Ethiopian eunuch? And why didn’t Jesus mention it? My sweater was becoming quite a mess.

When I really thought about atonement theory, it just seemed off. Why does God send his son to save us from the wrath of Himself? Why did Jesus come? Was it incarnation or to pay our debt and save us from his Father? Was he crucified because I would fail God 2000 years later or because he called out oppressive systems? Was he a gruesome blood sacrifice to a vengeful God or was he showing the ultimate love and being the ultimate peacemaker? How is it that God is good and yet he hates us because we somehow got born with sin because Adam disobeyed? Jesus said if we’ve seen him, we’ve seen the Father. My picture of the Father (thanks to some really bad theology) looked nothing like Jesus. His parables over and over contradicted the picture of a wrathful God of judgement and separation. There goes another thread.

Richard Rohr writes, “Much of Christian history has manifested a very different god than the one Jesus revealed and represented. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but this ‘cultural’ god sure doesn’t. Jesus tells us to forgive ‘seventy times seven’ times, but this god doesn’t. Instead, this god burns people for all eternity. Many of us were raised to believe this, but we usually had to repress this bad theology into our unconscious because it’s literally unthinkable. Most humans are more loving and forgiving than such a god. We’ve developed an unworkable and toxic image of God that a healthy person would never trust.” Now there’s a big pile of tangled yarn in my floor.

So, now I’m starting over on my sweater. My unraveling of this sweater has taken me outside our tribe and now I have joined the ranks of former Nazarene NazToons. I still love my tribe and the good things it does in the world. I had to step outside the tribe, partially because I married an ordained elder who also unraveled his sweater and the tribe said “no” to him. But I think I had to step away because before I started tugging on strings, I noticed that sweater didn’t fit well and it was itchy. I am certain of a few things, much fewer things than I used to be. God is love. Questions are good. Grace is scandalous. This song is where I find my heart these days: God Is. . .

They Might Like to Hear How You Got this Way: Gloria Coffin

This month’s post is brought to us by one of the oldest–that is, one of the earliest–members of NazToo, Gloria Coffin. Pastor Gloria has a strong affinity for the community of spiritual worshipers beyond the limits of traditional religious beliefs. When asked, “Where is your church?,” she responds with a secret smile, and says, “I carry my church with me everywhere I go.” A public speaker, writer, editor, ordained minister, teacher and obsessive Facebook devotee, she defines herself as an “Identity Support Coach” who is convinced that self-worth, healthy boundaries and universal respect can change the world. The recipient of a full scholarship (Bay Path University) in her senior year pursuing a BA in Psychology, Counseling Foundations, she feels incredibly fortunate to have the love and encouragement of family members who always make her proud.

Screen Shot 2019-09-30 at 3.43.06 pmIt was going to be an extremely hot weekend in Alabama where I was speaking Sunday morning from my role as Director of Pastoral Care for a not-so-traditional ministry of our Wesleyan Holiness denomination. Saturday was supposed to be relaxing except for setting up our booth in the sweltering heat at the outdoor stadium and sitting there to answer routine questions. Always anxious to engage pleasantly and calmly, I believed my bases were covered.

I was prepared for Sunday with the usual Powerpoint discussion demonstrating compliance with the church and explaining the acceptability of a more loving welcome within that context. I slept well Friday night.

By midday Saturday, I was still feeling confident, although not terribly pleased with the salty perspiration pouring from my eyes and drenching my carefully selected outfit. There was more than one reason I lived in the northeast! Even so, things seemed to be heading in the right direction for the next morning. Thankfully my sunburns tend to tan overnight!

What I had not anticipated was the late afternoon suggestion from the lead pastor and event organizer. He thought those in attendance “would like to hear how you got this way. Where did your advocacy for this marginalized segment of our population begin?” In the hours following that question, the colorful reels of my life played backwards in my head.

First, I generalized. I’m not a fan of inequality. Injustice makes me crazy. I’ve worked part time with a variety of misunderstood and sidelined groups, although each one had initially revealed a mortifying deep-seated bias of my own.

Next, I recalled the people I met along the way. I knew the effect of spoken and unspoken values. I recognized how society and religion’s rules, mostly in the form of barriers to participation, reflected subjectivity and lack of information.

Finally, I watched with my mind’s eye as scene followed scene, reminding me of the convoluted paths the marginalized often have to take. Not only had I observed the damage to individuals’ wholeness when doors were only opened to the “acceptable,” those who fit the right description as crafted by panels of their peers, but I had also experienced such inequities firsthand.

With that, the reels began to crinkle from signs of age. As color faded to black and white, retracing my journey revealed the impact of similar travesties on loved ones from my youth and childhood. How, indeed, did I “get this way?” When did it begin? Was it nature or was it nurture?

Eddy M’s contorted body would not follow his mind’s directions, his speech sounded incoherent to most, but he delighted in attending the church of my youth. On any given Sunday morning when Daddy and I exited the car parked in the church lot, Eddy would already be limping and twisting his way as quickly as he could in our direction. He never seemed to understand he could have saved himself the effort by waiting for us. Maybe when he saw our car arrive, he was just too excited to exhibit restraint. At some point along the brick and cobblestone walkway to the front doors, we would all reach a proper space for greetings. With his arm bent at the elbow, Eddy would grimace to push his hand into the air and force the sound of something deep and grunting from his throat. I began to recognize it as the equivalent of a drawn out, “Hi-i,” and my father’s name. Often people in the church, old as well as young, made fun of Eddy M. My father, however, always stopped walking to carry on a conversation with the man most others cast off as awkward, intrusive and, that horrid word, “retarded.”

I thought my father was right up there with God. He never spoke a negative word about anyone, was a dedicated family man who worked three jobs so his wife and two daughters could live as if money was no object while he inserted cardboard into his cowboy boots to cover the holes in the soles. Unassuming in social contexts, he was always early for his assigned task as usher at the back of the church. He lived what was called a clean life. He was a good man.

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An avid outdoorsman, he was highly esteemed as Explorer boy scout leader at the church, annually taking the scouts and a few young girls on climbs up Katahdin, the highest mountain in the state and an impressive stretch of the Appalachian Trail. There were always boys hanging around who looked up to him. I usually rode with Daddy to the campground when he transported the scouts and their gear for outdoor weeks of building fires and finding their way in the woods with a compass. It was a treat to be his daughter. When parents and siblings of scouts would chuckle, “All [they] ever talk about is ‘Your father this, your father that,’” it was clearly a credit to his intention to influence and guide youth who appreciated the outdoors and needed someone to show them the wise and healthy way to enjoy it most.

It was not only boys who benefitted from my father’s interest and investment of time. Girls from our youth group still remember the arrangements he made to attend Pioneer Girls, the church’s female scouting equivalent, to teach them backpacking, knot tying and survival techniques before showing them in an outdoor setting how to build their own fires and put up a tent, the tricks to tightly rolling a sleeping bag or making sharp corners in a bedroll on a cot. Always after the demonstration came the words, “Now you can do it,” revealing his intention to encourage and empower. My father placed equal value on every person he met. He believed in their potential. When it came to the world around him, he treated all of nature with the same intrinsic reverence.71247472_929590510733358_8795024215301423104_n

Eddy M. especially wanted to be part of the scouting program. With my father as leader, he was always welcome and assigned achievable tasks to go with the role of assistant. Daddy’s down-to-earth, unpretentious approach to leadership, his all-inclusive compassion for humanity, and his gentle strength of character were impossible to miss, enabling him to succeed in his desire to encourage others. No one assigned achievable tasks better than my father!

It was no surprise to me when Daddy came through the kitchen door one day and told my mother he had been asked to serve on the church trustee board, a responsibility in tune with his own interests and a position he considered a great honor. As he stopped to ponder something I thought must be really important, we waited for the rest of the story. His eyes were serious and his face was stern. Finally, he spoke thoughtfully, “I am going to have to tell them I smoke,” referring to the habit he never hid but did not advertise.

I knew of others in special roles who did not comply with church conduct requirements, but there never seemed to be any consequences related to their participation. Some kept their activities a secret while others were obvious, but there was no doubt in my mind the ethical man standing in front of me would never accept the position without acknowledging his shortcoming, even though he knew he could keep it to himself. He did the right thing. My father was a good man.

In the following days I watched as my father was not only dropped from the trustee board’s invitation list but was also removed from serving as an usher. I could not believe they discarded a man who only wanted to serve his church and the people with integrity, to share wisdom and knowledge on the trustee board and to offer parishioners a warm personal welcome, addressing each one by name and helping them find just the right seat. What no one had seen coming was the decision to remove him as leader of the Explorer troop, cutting him off from oversight of his greatest work, guiding youth to become leaders as they journeyed to adulthood.

Suddenly I realized retracing my story was going to be far more enlightening to me than sharing my ministry message could possibly be for the guests. Awake all night replaying one tape after another, I watched as similar circumstances drove my primary focus to love my neighbor as myself and to always speak up when faced with injustice. I recalled as a young mother joining the Church of the Nazarene, convinced I would be free to continue sharing from a spirit of unconditional love. It was an absolute confidence based on the church’s historical affirmation of the quote attributed to St. Augustine, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

There are moments when life changes and we are never the same. That weekend in Alabama was one of those moments.

 

 

 

Nothing ever stays the same: Ryan Dunbar

September’s blog is brought to us by long-time NazToo-er Ryan Dunbar, who writes of himself: Hey Y’all,  my name is Ryan Dunbar. I’m from South Carolina but often am told I don’t sound like a Southerner or act anything like a typical Southerner. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not, to be honest. I’m in my late twenties and share my home with my fiancé, Will and our three girls. Everyone always asked me if I really ever wanted a son and to be honest I don’t know what I would do with one. I wouldn’t trade my girls for anything. To make an income I’ve worked in pharmaceutical manufacturing for about 6 years. I’m currently working in a microbiology lab at a company that focuses on sterile compounding of medicines on the US drug shortage list. We also make our own medicines, all of which are respiratory-focused. In my free time, that isn’t shared with the family, I often enjoy thrift shopping, taking nature walks, reading on various subjects and most recently collecting records and cassette tapes. Many of you know me as a photographer. I haven’t mentioned that because I am currently on hiatus from that and have gotten severely burned out. But when I do photograph it’s usually done with black and white film and a camera much older than myself. I’m particularly a fan of Kodak Brownie Box Cameras. Lastly, to close, a fun fact about me that a lot of people don’t know is that at one time I was an urban explorer and got followed around by a news crew while I explored an old cotton mill. Even though my interests have changed a lot over time, I can definitely say my life isn’t really ever that boring. I’m always willing to try most anything at least once.

I’ll jump right into it.  In 2014 (might have been part of 2015 also), I thought almost daily that I heard the voice of God directly. You know like some sort of thing out of the Old Testament. I could have been Moses or Abraham for all I knew. I remember constantly waking up in the middle of the night to write what I thought were some sort of prolific divinely inspired messages. I’m telling you, at the time, the stuff I was writing was the best thing since sliced bread. I remember super early morning phone calls and extremely late night ones as well, to pastors I knew, to tell them the “Good News” that I had been divinely given. In my mind they wanted so desperately to be called at 6 am on a Sunday morning to hear what I had to say. I mean, of course they wanted to, right? I truly believed for a better part of a year that this was completely normal.

You might not think what I have written above was that bad, but have I mentioned that I stayed in a God-inspired bliss 24/7? You could have told me your mom died and nothing would phase me because God had been good to me. Have I mentioned that every word I spoke had to tell someone about Jesus in some way? Have I mentioned the one time I was invited to preach at a church and even though I thought it was the best thing ever, looking back at it—I made a complete fool of myself? I could go on and on with all the over the top and extreme things I did to prove to people that God had divinely called me like I WAS SURELY the next great thing, similar to Peter or Paul or someone of that likes. But overnight, like a light bulb had blown out, every desire for God disappeared. I fell into a deep depression. It finally hit me; even though for almost a year I was on top of the highest mountain, life around me was falling completely apart. I had been regularly meeting with a trusted friend during this time. During one of these meetings he finally told me something that really opened my eyes. To summarize our conversation, he basically told me that in his mind I had gone beyond loving Jesus and wanting to serve Him to something in his mind of a different level and something he had never witnessed. I am not speaking of something good. But actually quite the opposite.

It wasn’t until a number of months later I would finally be told by a doctor I had experienced what psychiatry called psychosis. I believe I was actually hospitalized when this conversation occurred. Hospitalization, in addition to erratic behavior, and extremely quick changing moods would actually become the pattern over the next year or so for me. I eventually gained a small pharmacy of pills during this time. Thankfully I had stellar insurance that paid the bill for all of my guinea pig attempts at finding a remedy to my problems.

Things have changed a lot for me over the last several years. I mean a whole hell of a lot. If you know me at all, you could probably attest to that fact. I’m not going to write out all the specific details of what’s happened because this blog post is not about that. With all the changes I have experienced, one thing that’s never changed (or come back really) is my desire to again live the Christian life. Switching gears, that’s what this whole thing is about. That’s the entire point of what you are reading. So to be honest if you are disappointed, you might wanna just stop reading. However if you give a damn about what I have to say, I’m glad to know you care just a little and are still with me. Some of you probably feel sorry for me, or want to say a prayer for my soul, but here’s the thing. Please don’t. I’m ok. Truly, I am. I’m about something new now and I’m happy with where things are going.

So why did I leave?  Let’s talk about that. I didn’t leave because of hypocrites, or politics or even because of my sexual orientation (which a lot of people would assume). I left because, simply put, I don’t believe in the Christian faith. It’s not a case of “I need to surrender or pray harder.” It’s a case of I simply do not believe in what the Bible teaches. To be frank I have no desire. So with that said, no, I am not an atheist. In my personal opinion atheism is just plain out sad and takes away so much value to life and the mysteries of it. Not to offend; this is just my personal feeling. I guess you would consider me one of those “spiritual but not religious” types. I found this path, actually, years ago. I was always a very curious child and teenager; I guess I just never knew until I entered my mid-twenties exactly what “spiritual but not religious” meant. One of my first real remembrances of it for me was the use of meditation to tap into the subconscious. I’ve spent countless hours laying in a dark room listening to theta wave music, lost somewhere deep in my own mind. If you’ve never experienced this, I highly suggest it. The things you can realize about yourself and the world around you truly are amazing. I can also remember a time when I walked deep into the woods.69459909_739599656495017_8415930842475397120_n

I came across a stream with a lot of rocks in it. Well, I decided to take my shoes off and sit right on a massive rock and dip my feet in the water. For me, being surrounded by nature while listening to the sounds around me, and feeling the coolness of the water, put me much closer to something I call divine than sitting in a pew ever did. I truly believe that when we spend time with nature we become part of that universal energy that flows through everything.

Lastly, I want to address something else. I want to talk about where am I going from here. The answer, simply, is I do not know. For some that’s not ok, but for me it is. People always talk about spiritual journeys and I am truly embarking on one. The thing with not following a specific religion is that there is so much freedom to explore anything and everything you want to. The sky is truly the limit. Even though I may not know exactly where I am going on the journey, one thing I do know is that it’s somewhere safe, it’s somewhere free and it’s somewhere that I can just be me. Do you realize the world of anxiety I lived in when I was in a church? Do you know how often I felt I was going to hell because I had sinned? Do you know how many times I felt I had to cry my eyes out on an altar to correct a wrong just to get some relief? I no longer experience these things and that within itself, to me, is truly the best reason I left the church.

To close I’ll leave you with this. The path that I’m on is not for everyone. It’s not going to be. We each walk a personal journey when it comes to our faith or chosen belief system. For me this is what I have chosen because it works. All I know for sure is this: I am happier. I am healthier. And lastly, I am freer than I ever was walking a path I knew was not ever going to be for me.

Why Do We Do What We Do? : Candice Birr

August’s blog comes from NazTooer Candice Birr, who writes of herself:

Hello! My name is Candice, and I’m NazToo! I grew up playing tug of war between Nazarene churches and Roman Catholic ones. I’ve been to Olivet Nazarene University (Twice!) and ultimately graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Special Education. I currently teach in a self-contained elementary classroom with a focus on Communication skills. I’m a mom, wife, teacher, and well… I guess that’s about it. I do my best to live by the golden rule, as paraphrased by my husband, “Don’t be a jerk!” and to follow Jesus’ example (it’s a work in progress). Challenges include: raising a teenage boy, being married to an asexual satanic atheist (loooong story, but a great marriage!), and relating to family members on the other side of the “Great Divide” of ideologies.

CandiceHello! It has been a long time since I’ve written a blog — even just for myself. There has been so much “heavy stuff” going on that it seems that I’ve been too weighed down to even type unless I’m running on a strong emotion, like anger, indignation, fear, or disappointment. In fact, it seems like those are the primary emotions I’ve been feeling lately, and somehow they manage to creep in and even dampen the moments of happiness and hope.

But, here I am, writing for you all. I wondered what to write about: Should I go back to my personal blog and just copy/paste/edit? Should I address politics? Theology? Share my vision of Heaven? I had no idea. My brain has been seriously overwhelmed with school readiness stuff. Oh, did I mention I was a teacher? I am. I teach a self-contained special education class that has students that have significant struggles with communication. Many of my students have very little verbal language. Planning for my classroom takes a lot of time, energy, patience, and research. So much research!! Then I had it, what I wanted to share with you all. Something that came to mind that I just can’t shake. So, this blog is less about telling you something, and more about inviting you all to follow me down a rabbit hole.

Most of my students communicate non-verbally; that is, they use their whole body to communicate. They also use “behaviors.” So many people see a child doing something they see as “wrong” and think it is a willful and intentional attempt to aggravate them. It just isn’t true. People use the phrase “attention-seeking” a lot for behaviors they consider to be negative. But everyone needs attention; it’s a normal and necessary part of being human — social interaction. In many cases, the individual just doesn’t know how to get what they need/want, or how to express an emotion. We have to teach them. We all learn from others, it’s just that some of us need a little more intensive instruction.

The truth is, all people operate on a behaviorist base. Like it or not, it’s proven over and over to be part of our underlying architecture. For adults, it simply evolves, and instead of a cartoon or a candy bar, we do our work or less desired activities for a paycheck, or because we prefer the way the house feels when it’s clean, etc. At its core, the things we do have a purpose, even if that purpose is just that we enjoy it.

Teachers often use something called an FBA (Functional Behavior Assessment) to determine the reason (Function) for a particular behavior. There are four main categories or functions that behaviors fall into. Sometimes they bleed into each other, and sometimes the same behavior is displayed to serve multiple functions, especially if the individual has limited options for communication. Let’s look at those categories:

  1. Social: This is the one that correlates with “Attention seeking” mentioned before. This is behavior that is driven by a need for interaction, connection, social reinforcement. This could include social standings such as respect, power, etc.
  2. Tangibles: The individual is trying to get something. Usually a physical item or the means to acquire them. Such as a particular toy, or money.
  3. Escape/Avoidance. This is when an individual is using the behavior to escape or avoid doing the activity or work that they find undesirable, too hard, or uncomfortable. It can also be to escape or avoid the consequences or expected consequences of a previous behavior.
  4. This is when it just feels good. They get some satisfaction from the behavior itself or from something they receive as a result of the behavior.

That’s it. Almost all human behaviors can be traced back to one of these functions. They get more complex as we get older, but they are still there. Why did God make us this way? Well that’s a theological question for someone else to answer 😉 Now let’s look at how, as teachers, we address these behaviors and the underlying functions (bear with me, it has connections to bigger stuff, I promise!).

We often use something called “planned ignoring” for many of the functions. But planned ignoring is not the same as just ignoring the behavior. Ignoring a behavior does one of two things in the long term: the individual continues to engage in the behavior knowing that eventually someone will give in, or they cease attempting to communicate completely because they discover that it has no effect. To ignore something effectively, we first teach the behavior we want to see. We aren’t trying to only stop the behavior, we want to replace it with an acceptable one, such as teaching a student to ask instead of grab, wait for a turn instead of taking something from someone. You have to teach the preferred behavior first, and honor it ALWAYS, for a long time. Teaching “no” is an entirely different lesson! Other strategies include:

  1. Positive behavior supports, or “catching them being good.” Offering extended social reinforcement in response to the behaviors we like. Complimenting others around them for adhering to the social norms that are expected. Providing a reward that is socially based, such as recognition, leadership opportunities, etc, as a reward for using the replacement behavior.
  2. Teaching how to ask, teaching when and where are acceptable times and places to ask for the item. Restricting access to the item and using the item as a reward for doing an undesired activity or work (such as saving up money for it). Teaching how to wait for a turn. Offering similar items or alternatives. Offering a more acceptable item that meets the same benefit (what they like about the item) such as another toy that makes noise, but at a more acceptable volume.
  3. Escape/Avoidance. When this is about work, it usually indicates that the individual either does not know how to do it, or thinks it is too hard. So lowering expectations, adjusting the workload, or showing them how to do it again are common strategies. When it’s about a situation/sensory issue, we teach how to use headphones, how to ask for a break, how to safely avoid the situation (You don’t have to play with her, play over here, but we don’t leave the room).
  4. This one comes up a lot with nose picking!! We teach about privacy for some things. We teach replacement behaviors for others. Instead of, say, hitting or throwing something to release energy, we squeeze something made for squeezing. If we don’t like water on our hands, we learn to use wipes or to wash our hands really quickly and efficiently.

So now that you have a basic understanding, here is the scenario that prompted my shift in perspective:

Racism.

What is the function? I didn’t do any research except to observe as a teacher would. But I have come up with some possibilities.

  1. There is a social stigma to being racist. The word itself evokes an immediate denial and attempt to turn it on the other person. To accept the word, or even admit to behaviors associated with the word, breaks you off from the general social contract. On the other hand, it opens doors into some specific groups that often portray themselves as elite or exclusive, which is a social reward. It is also, as we know now, fairly ingrained. Which means that all of us are likely to exhibit those behaviors to some degree or another at some point.
  2. It can be about the pursuit of money or “security” — the ability to access tangibles like food and shelter regularly. We can trace the money and find that racism pays well. Look at our for profit prisons. Also, look at the way racism is propagated by those who make money from it: by implying that the “other” would block or inhibit your own access to security and tangibles in the form of taking your job, taking your spot in a college, maybe even taking your very tangible life. This, I think, is where fear becomes a big factor.
  3. Confronting and working through big, deeply ingrained issues like racism (or many others) is hard work. Very hard, uncomfortable work. Often without a clearly defined path. There is no 5-step program to deprogramming racist behaviors that doesn’t also force you to confront the fears of #2. It’s uncomfortable. But mostly, it’s a lot of hard work for a very, very delayed reward. It’s hard enough for a student to wait until the end of the day for a reward; we are asking people to do very hard work for a reward that they may not even get to experience or see in their lifetime. That’s a tough sell. If they can escape the work/consequences part, or if they can avoid it all together, they probably will. Most of us who have faced it, were forced into it by some circumstance in our life, or because we wanted something else (like God’s approval) enough to do the work. And ultimately, for some people it is just too hard. We may have to adjust the expectations, aim lower and work up. That’s hard to hear for people who already had to do the hard work. But like I tell my students, fair isn’t everyone getting the same, it’s everyone getting what they need to be successful. The end goal is the same, but maybe we need to add some shorter steps along the way and not show them the whole thing at once. It can be overwhelming and seem insurmountable for many, causing them to believe that it can’t be done and giving up.
  4. I don’t think being/saying/doing racist things makes anyone particularly happy or joyful. I do think, however, that the bravado that often goes with it, the posturing, etc, can do a lot to block or cover up the fears from #2. We can all agree I think that not feeling afraid feels better than feeling afraid. Being successful feels good. If the institutions that continue to feed racism are also helping them be successful, it would be very hard to let go of. The acts themselves may not bring pleasure, but the results of the privilege it produces can be very reinforcing.

This could be true for any of the issues we face today. Abortion, LGBTQIA issues, theology, religion, science, politics, etc. Anything that involves human behaviors can be broken down like this. The question, of course, is how do we address it. In a classroom, the teacher can control and manipulate the environment. They can restrict access, they can teach the preferred behavior one to one. They can practice “asking” 100 times in an afternoon so they can reinforce it 100 times. But any teacher will tell you, it only takes one time of the “negative” behavior being reinforced to undo the whole afternoon. When we talk about adults, about large groups like a nation — the solutions seem so . . . insufficient. Looking at it like this though, it does change my perspective. It changes my approach. Maybe I can’t address it like I would as a teacher, but I still look for ways to reinforce the behaviors I want to see. I can still look for opportunities to address the underlying issues. It gives me the insight I need to determine how I might best compromise, how to the “lower the expectation” just enough. It helps me think about what sorts of things people need or want, and how I can support them getting those things in another way – successfully — before I ask them to give up the way they know worked. I have to have an alternative behavior, the reinforcers at hand, and modifications ready before I go in to address the behavior itself. Is there a way to cut off the benefit/reinforcement so that they have to seek another way to get it?

People are communicating, the question is, what can we do to meet the needs and wants they are expressing?

So help me out. Think of a behavior that really bugs you about the “opposition” or the “other side” (regardless of which “side” you are on). See if you can fit it into a category. Watch them, listen to them, and see if you can place it. Then see if you can find a way to meet that need or want in a way that is acceptable to your wants/needs. If not, can you determine how to reduce its effect on you? What are you seeking? Is there a way you can obtain it that is acceptable to them? It will probably, ultimately, require compromise. But I think this concept could help us put a structure in place to make that easier. So, there you go. I even left you with an assignment. The teacher in me just couldn’t help it.

 

 

The Irruption of Difference – A Story of Salvation from Privilege: Bruce Balcom

I’ve enjoyed reading fellow NazToo-er Bruce Balcom’s writing since we were on the satff of Trevecca’s student newspaper many (so many) years ago, and am very happy that he has contributed this month’s blog. Bruce is a lawyer who works assisting people in affordable housing for the State of Tennessee. He has a BA in history and an MA in religious studies from Trevecca and a JD from Vanderbilt. He is married with three adult children and two wonderful old dogs. He loves poker, cigars and a good ale and he’s Nazarene too.

As I write this it is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. I had no idea what those were when they happened. I suppose being only 5 years old at the time might excuse that, though I’m guessing there were plenty of people who knew exactly what these were. Anyhow, I thought I would tell a story that could very well have as its source or inspiration those very riots. Without them, or something like them, I wonder if it could have ever been told. It is why I have always loved history, the stories that change things, that sometimes give light to who we are, and why we are the way we are.

Life is a story. Everyone has one, and in every story there are important dates or events that define that story, change it permanently. Those moments when, looking back, your story changed in irrevocable and dramatic ways. At this point this particular story is a part of mine, for good or ill, it is part of who I am. For me March 5, 1979 was a big date, when we moved from Massachusetts to Florida. Nothing in my life would be as it is today but for that move. Others include August of 1983, when I enrolled at Trevecca, and September of 2002 when I accepted my job working for my current employer. To cover all these moments, and the tale that is spun from them is simply too long to tell in this space. This particular chapter of my story will not deal with any of the significant events already mentioned, but rather the event from August of 1992. We’ll get back to that, but first some background is in order.

Foundational to this tale are those things beyond my control, the accidents of birth that form who we are at our earliest days. For me one such accident is being born into a family that was third generation Nazarene on both sides. I have never not considered myself Christian, or identified with any other family than Nazarene. My mother was a nurse, by the time I knew this she was working for a hospital in Lowell, MA. My dad was a plant manager for a company that made heat extruded tubing for electrical wiring. I was born a white protestant, cis male in a middle class suburb. The penultimate child of privilege (I mean we weren’t wealthy, but otherwise I checked all the boxes). I didn’t meet a person my age who was also a person of color until 7th grade. He was the son of a medical doctor who was a Colonel in the air force.

We were raised to follow the holy trinity: no smoking, drinking or dancing. We obeyed the commandment to never swear. So we could say “butt” or “crap,” but not “ass” or “shit.” These rules were enforced through the usual methods: a spanking, or perhaps the liberal application of soap to the mouth. We were, however, permitted to call someone “retard” or compare a boy unflatteringly to a female (though not the “swear word” terms like “bitch” or anatomically descriptive words), or to question someone’s sexual identity. The fact that young boys might engage in name calling is hardly remarkable, but what is was the complete lack of concern by any adult in our lives over the use of such terms.

As a considerably older, but still quite young, man at Trevecca I recall talking about gender identity (though we didn’t have that term), but not in the truly judgmental way that seems to have become so prevalent today in certain circles. One conversation in the dorm sticks out. A suitemate and I were talking about guys hitting on other guys, I really don’t have any recollection why, and he mentioned a guy we both knew at Trevecca who was “weirded out” at the thought. He pointed out first how this guy was a serious weightlifter, a man’s man so to speak, but the thought of another man hitting on him could make him literally physically ill. Apparently, the story goes, this guy had a guy hit on him and he went to the bathroom and vomited. This seemed a strange reaction to me, and my friend agreed. Why wouldn’t you merely say you were flattered but happened to be attracted to women? I still cannot fathom this reaction, or understand where it comes from.

By this time of course, the church had been taking a stand against “homosexuality” and it was clear by what they taught that Christians didn’t participate in that sort of “lifestyle.” I was one of the more “moderate” folks for that time, feeling that people ought not to be persecuted for being homosexual, even if they were engaging in sexual activity (how very enlightened of me, condescending prick). However, the church taught it was wrong, so I toed the party line for a time. And therein I committed grievous sin against my brothers and sisters, and I was, like the religious leaders of Israel when confronted with Jesus, blinded by my privilege and encased in a womb of self-righteousness. Who then could save me from this body of sin?

Fast forward to August of 1992, one of those important moments I spoke of earlier. We purchased our first home. We moved in right before I started law school. Our next door neighbor was a single guy about our age. He was one of those neighbors you dream of having. He was willing to help out, friendly and really great with our kids. After he installed a pool, he told us to bring the kids over any weekday afternoon we wanted. My kids learned to swim there. We had great conversations about life and politics, among other topics. We learned that he had inherited the property from his aunt, who he had cared for as she died from cancer. He knew we were Christians, and I think he became surprised that we were so friendly to him and didn’t try to constantly proselytize him (read a bit further and his surprise makes a hell of a lot of sense).

He felt comfortable enough with us to share his story with us. As a young man in high school he had done all the things you would expect, including dating girls. Somehow he couldn’t seem to feel anything about them, instead feeling attracted to boys. He had lived that life in secret, afraid of the judgment that he saw so often follow being openly true to one’s self. He wanted what anyone does, a mutual, loving relationship. He despised the “scene” he found in the “community” (his words, not mine). He trusted us with this deeply personal story. Somehow we accepted all of this, not even feeling like we needed to add anything but our continued friendship. I look back and see God’s redemption in this. Not for him, but for me. I had needed Michael for me to overcome my sin.

Living daily with him as our neighbor, and our dear friend, changed us forever. It shattered my privilege, irrupting it. I was saved by my friendship with him, not in some abstract sense, but in the literal way human beings in relationship save one another. I was the Christian, the one with a master’s degree in religion, and I was riven with the worst sort of sin, blindly judging others, setting myself up as God. Michael saved me from my privilege. That didn’t mean I was all better, far from it, but, much like salvation in the Christian sense, it did set me on a new course, one which was loving, and willing to get into the messy details of real life, particularly mine.

I can never repay Michael for his redemptive love for us as new neighbors, his willingness to not prejudge us for who we were. The wonder of this is that he didn’t want anything from us but our friendship, which he still has to this day. What he gave me in his friendship was my redemption from myself. The only thing I can do is live into that change the best I know how.

So back to the Stonewall Riots. Sometimes seminal events happen and you never even realize it. Sometimes history changes you in ways you can never see. Sometimes you need a Michael in your life to save you from yourself.