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.

Why I’m Not Done With the Church: MB Boesch

June brings us an uplifting and challenging post that comes to us courtesy of NazToo-er MB Boesch, who says of herself, “I am currently serving as the Associate Pastor of New Hope Community Church of the Nazarene in Chandler, AZ. I have a passion for my call to preach, and I have been searching for a lead pastorate for the past year. I also work for an inner-city ministry in Phoenix, AZ, and I am a full time seminary student at NTS. My husband, James, and I live with our dog, Dobby, and our cats, Yzma and Kuzco.”

Over the past ten years, I have lost count of how many times I have said to myself, “I am done with the Church.”

I was done at the first church that I called “home” when I realized that the only form of discipleship I ever saw there consisted of a scare tactic that convinced everyone to seek God in obedience more out of a fear of going to hell than anything else. I was done when a rumor that was spread about me made its way to church leadership and I was told that I was no longer welcomed at this particular church. I was done when I became just another face in the crowd on a Sunday morning. I was done when I received rejection after rejection from churches as I attempted to find some sort of ministerial position.

I’ve been done when I have seen the hurtful ways that Scripture has been taken out of context and used as a reason not to love others. I’ve been done when I have seen the Church fail to welcome the LGBTQ community. I’ve been done when I have witnessed firsthand just how much power there is in the idolatry of patriotism. I’ve been done when over and over again, I have listened to churches list off everything that they are against instead of showing and telling what the Kingdom is for. It seems that the longer I have been with the Church, the more consistently I have found myself in tears over the damage she has caused.

I’ve been done with the distorted, perverted portrayal of Christ and the Kingdom of God that the Church seems to have become.

Even so, here I stand. No matter how many times the Church has hurt me personally and deeply; no matter how many hours I have spent trying to comfort my loved ones after they have been deeply hurt as well; no matter how many times I have helplessly witnessed the Church hurt people I have never even met, here I continue to stand. Sometimes I stand broken and bruised, but I remain with the Church. Sometimes I stand weeping for what she has done and who she has become, but I remain with the Church. Sometimes the hurt is so deep and powerful that I cannot even remain standing and must instead fall to my knees in lament and prayer, but I remain with the Church.

The majority of my friends are either non-Christians or non-churchgoing-Christians, and I oftentimes find myself in conversation with these friends where they are asking me why I continue to stay with the Church. Recently, a dear friend of mine who identifies as an Agnostic said to me, “Your faith is strong enough that I don’t think you need the Church.” When I graduated from college, my husband and I actually went through a period of months where we began to ask ourselves if we even wanted to continue the search for a church to call home. We had many conversations about whether or not we even wanted to stay with the Church.

Honestly, the Church has hurt me and the people that I have loved often enough and deeply enough that I have had more than enough reason to have left at this point. Even so, I remain with the Church. Why?

Because I do need the Church. I am homeless without the Church. And ultimately, I do not believe that I have the right to criticize the Church unless I am a part of it – nor can I hope to personally witness and participate in the reform of the Church unless I am a part of it.

Before I go on, allow me to clarify and explain that the Church I am referring to is not the broken institution that takes Scripture out of context to attack others. The Church I am referring to is not the institution that is better known for what it is against than what it stands for. It is not the Church that is controlled by the powers and principalities of this world.

No; the Church that I need – the Church that is my home – is the Church that cannot be established, maintained, or reformed without the work of the Holy Spirit. In his commentary on First Corinthians, Richard Hays says, “The Church is not merely a human organization; rather, it is brought into being by the power of the Holy Spirit, which binds believers into a living union with the crucified and risen Lord.” This is the Church that I think we all so desperately need.

The Church that I need is the community of people who really have no business being together, but somehow, by the grace of God, we belong together. It is the community where, only by the grace of God, all things are made new. It is the community where regardless of our individual identities, we are all given the same identity by the power of the Holy Spirit through our baptism. It is where we all come together to feast at the same Table regardless of our backgrounds, status, age, jobs, appearance, or anything else. I need this community. I need this Church. And so do you.

The church that so many of us have abandoned at this point is in the business of condemnation and harm, but the Church of the Holy Spirit is in the business of healing and reconciliation. The church that we have abandoned is interested in using the Gospel as a means of exclusion, but the Church of the Holy Spirit uses the Gospel as an invitation to the inclusivity of the Kingdom of God. The church that we have abandoned divides its members into categories of “us” and “them”, but in the Church of the Holy Spirit, there is only us.

I desperately need this Church. I desperately need this community of accountability, prayer, and encouragement. I need to know that I have a home, and by the grace of God, I find that home in the Church.

This is why I am so thankful that no matter how many times I have been done with the church, the Church has never been done with me. It is why I continue to remain with the Church. I believe that the Spirit is already actively involved in the reformation of the Church even if we do not immediately see the results. For some of us, we may never see the results of reformation; but as long as the Church cannot exist without the Spirit, the powers and principalities will never prevail against the Church. That is good news.

A Poet, Too: Ted Voigt

I’m happy to announce that May 2019 brings us our first poetic blog post–well, the first one to contain poetry in the strictest sense. It is brought to us by NazTooer Ted Voigt. Ted and Sarah Voigt live in Wicklow, Ireland with their two kids, Abigail and Simon.  They have worked for the Nazarene Church in various capacities since 2006 and currently hold the title of “Missionary.”  Ted is @jtvink on twitter and instagram. He is an enneagram 9. His first book of poetry, “Pages Called Holy” is available on Amazon.

It was an honor to be asked recently to guest blog, and I was delighted with myself until I sat down to think about what I could possibly say to you folks.  My social media use these days is primarily a mode of listening and learning from the experience of others, and I struggle to see the ways in which my voice is needed in “the conversation.” I’m not sure what I have to add that isn’t being said a thousand ways already. I could talk about my experience as a Nazarene Missionary to Ireland, working in an evangelical context within a larger context of 1,600+ years of christianity.  I could talk about my views of the Nazarene church as an organization, the bright spots and dark corners we’ve wandered through in our time here. I could talk about being raised in the UMC, the formational role of liturgy and corporate worship in my younger years.  I could talk about the time I spent in Antarctica working with climate scientists, or my years learning group dynamics and team building and the role of adventure and retreat in spiritual formation. Some of those would make an okay blog post, but I’m not writing about those things at the minute.  

Instead, I want to share a passion of mine, which is poetry.  If you’re not sure what to make of poetry, if you don’t think you really “get” it or you think you’re not “smart enough” let me first say, you’re not alone, but also, that’s ok.  You don’t have to get it. You don’t even have to be smart. You wouldn’t react that way to a complicated melody or a technically challenging painting; you enjoy them. Or you don’t!  I think this is the key to enjoying poetry; if you don’t like a poem, move on. Just as you don’t have to love every song you hear, or you don’t have to sit pondering ever painting in the gallery, you certainly don’t have to love every poem that you read.  If you don’t enjoy a poem, move on, but don’t stop trying, and don’t forget to go back sometime. That T.S. Elliot from high school might mean more to you now than it did then.

If you need to start somewhere, I always recommend Billy Collins.  His poem Introduction to Poetry is both a fabulous poem as well as a great description of how I experience reading poetry:  water skiing across it. Am I missing some deeper meanings? Maybe. Sometimes. But that’s life, you can’t get everything.  If you like that, keep reading his stuff, he’s great. I’ll also recommend a guy I recently found called Scott Cairns, his Idiot Psalms are so, so good, and his poem Possible Answers to Prayer has become a kind of meditation for me.  

And now, after I apologize for a paragraph about poetry in which I mention only two white American men, a crime for which I do honestly owe the universe some penance, I offer a few pieces I’ve been working on.  I hope you like them, but maybe you won’t, that’s ok too. Just don’t give up on poetry!

Moonmoon

Somewhere in space

they say there’s a moon

with its own, smaller moon.

a moonmoon

they call it,

a satellite of a satellite

a celestial body attracted

to the wrong kind of body

a lunar love triangle

orbits tangled

gravity making fools

of us all

because who hasn’t fallen

into the wrong earth’s influence

objects mooning

over objects obliquely

looping in ovals, bravely into space

but pulled back in by a

moon

or a planet

or a star

or a smile.

Memes of grace

May this be the age

when the prevenient goes viral

when our outward signs are pixelated and

the sanctuary wifi will amplify memes of grace

may our children

as indigenous disciples

of digital connectivity

lead us forward

to like and share the peace of Christ and also with your friends

and also with your followers

and also make public.

No Telling

Beneath shoes, crumbled

bits of boulders and

cliffs mix with

what’s left of the great

carved high crosses of Downpatrick.

Tough to know now,

as you walk through the grove,

which bits of granite

once told a story

and which only listened.

An apostle’s foot

or deposit of quartz

a crown of thorns

or cluster of feldspar

no telling.

Once eternally etched

preaching a

gospel of granite to

illiterate masses

now scattered

the grinding

beneath feet

their only sermon.

A Share in Self Care: Elizabeth Criscuolo

April’s post comes from NazTooer Rev. Elizabeth Criscuolo. Elizabeth is the Senior Pastor at Schenectady First Church of the Nazarene. She has a background in mediation, having worked with a non-profit center, ACCORD, in the Binghamton area for 4 years as the Training, Volunteer, and Small Claims Program Coordinator. She currently serves as a mediator for the New York State Court System through Mediation Matters in Albany. She received her B.A. from Eastern Nazarene College in 2006 and her Master of Divinity from Nazarene Theological Seminary in 2011. Elizabeth also has a background as a certified CASA and Restorative Justice Facilitator. She has led trainings that specialize in conflict resolution, de-escalation tactics, and positive communication techniques. She and her husband were both born and raised in Fairfield County, Connecticut. They have two dogs, Trooper and Tucker, that keep them busy, and are both competitive bowlers.

Congregational Church (Easton, CT)

I was raised in Easton, CT, a small suburban town that has many characteristics of Stars Hallow from Gilmore Girls.  The house I grew up in was built by my great Grandfather who was a well known mason during his working years.  It is an affluent area that prides itself on Christmas tree farms, apple orchards, and pumpkin patches.  I went to the tiny “church on the hill” as everyone in town referred to it, it was a congregational church built at the end of the 1700’s.  The church and town are rich with historical stories from the Civil War, Industrial Revolution, and the Underground Railroad.  This town was an incredible place to grow up and I count myself very fortunate to have lived in such a place.

Silverman’s Farm (Easton, CT)

When I was 14 years old I started dating a guy who wanted me to go to his youth group at a Methodist Church about 20 minutes away in Stratford, CT. That is where I met the women who would change my life. Silverman’s Farm, Easton, CT Pastor Julia Yim was a young Korean woman in her early 30’s and had just been transferred to Stratford, CT from a Korean Church in Flushing, NY. She was amazing! I had never met someone with so much energy, love, and pure joy. It was through her ministry that I was born again and within that same year felt the call to become a pastor. From that point on she did everything within her power to disciple me, love me, and empower me to pursue the call God had placed on my life.

Fast forward to me at 19 years old, I had just ended my sophomore year at Eastern Nazarene College and was back home for the summer. My best friend and her boyfriend were determined to have me meet their friend, Gabriel (which I wasn’t crazy about doing). Finally, we “somehow happen to end up at his house” one night (I was set up!). I tried to fight it, but there was no chance. I went inside his house and it changed my entire life once again. We met in 2004, married in 2008, and have been laughing together and loving each other since. He has been an important source of support, love, and motivation continuously. Even moving half way across the country to KC, MO so that I could attend NTS and graduate with my M.Div.

He has always spoken words of encouragement and positivity into my life, but there was a problem… Often times I could not do that for myself. I was used to being too hard on myself, not living up to my own expectations, and being overly critical of everything I did. Criticism was used to push you further and make you better in my family, and so naturally I felt the need to do that to constantly do that to myself.

So now that you have a tiny glimpse into who I am I will get to what I want to talk about most in this blog post: self care. After NTS I received a job offer to be an Associate Pastor of a church in Binghamton, NY. I was so excited at the chance to move closer to home, but even more excited at my very first position as a pastor. I was ready to apply all that I had learned in the past 9 years of life! I had been hired as the Associate Pastor with an emphasis on Young Families Ministry. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that that was where we were supposed to be and was so excited that Gabriel and I would get to start a family with all of these other young families who were having this baby boom in the church. I put my heart and soul into everything I did there trying to create more moments for connections with young families, and ways for us to connect with families in the community. Eventually we wound up having several new young families join our church because of the amount of outreach our families were doing through the young families ministry, it was so exciting! I was in a constant state of GOING and DOING, there was so much enthusiasm and anticipation wrapped up in it all. I felt like everything was going so smoothly and so well, I had even given myself room to not be overly critical of what I was doing because I knew that this was my first rodeo. The honeymoon period was a long one, perhaps somewhere around 1.5 years, and I am incredibly grateful for that.

The excitement of ministry and trying to have a baby was all thrilling until one day it wasn’t. When I realized we had been trying to have a baby for well over a year and I still wasn’t pregnant. I started to think about all these other women in the play groups talking about trying and getting pregnant within 4-8 months, and here I was wondering what was going on with all that.

There was immense moments of panic: what if I didn’t have a baby… how would I continue to be the young families pastor (and not have any kids)? What if I could never have a baby? How would the church see us if we didn’t have children? Is this going to impact how I connect to others in the church with kids? What if everything I thought my future was going to be would never happen? And the questions got deeper and darker and harder as my fears began to overwhelm me. I began to feel somewhat isolated from the other young families as I came to the realization that this might not happen for us.

I was still in ministry, working hard to meet the needs of families there, and still putting in 100%, but I started to notice that my connection to them wasn’t as strong as what they had with each other. I started to beat myself up and criticize myself (As strange as that might sound) for not having kids and for not going into debt to try anything and everything to try to have a baby. Because that’s what I should have been doing, right? Spending thousands and thousands of dollars on adoption, fertility treatments, and the like. That’s what everyone suggested as the remedy, although no one ever offered to pay for it. I was at a point where I felt stuck.

We felt lonely. We felt sad. We felt isolated. We felt friendless.

One day Gabriel and I found ourselves at a bowling alley in town. Just figured we would go and have a little time out together and the guy behind the counter started talking to us about joining a summer league. I looked at the guy like he was nuts, because I don’t even think I broke 100 during my 3 games that day (for those unfamiliar with bowling, 300 is a perfect game, and it is typical for open bowlers to bowl under 100 or thereabouts). Gabriel was convinced we should do it, and once again my life was changed for forever. We started bowling in the summer of 2014 and began to meet people who would impact our lives in the most beautiful and meaningful way.

As we immersed ourselves into the bowling community I began to realize that this was a community filled with all different kinds of people. Older people, younger people, people with money, people with limited money, people who worked, people who were unemployed, people who were physically fit, people with addiction, people with kids, people without kids, people who were divorced, people who were depressed, all sorts of people (not much unlike the church). And actually it didn’t really matter what kind of person you were as long as you were there to lace up those bowling shoes, get onto the approach, and give your best attempt at putting 10 in the pit (a strike).

Gabriel, Jaymo, Dina (her family owns the center we bowled in most), and me

These people who had no idea who we were accepted and loved us right where we were and never questioned it for a moment.  The connections we made with these people were unlike we had ever shared with any other community group, and it truly is unexplainable.  We were home.  We had finally found a place where we felt rest and comfort.

Some more bowling buddies. This was at our going-away party prior to moving to Schenectady, NT (Brooke, Ryan, Me, and Kevin). The had a live band, food, and well. . . bowling of course ❤

It was a sanctuary.  It was our weekly respite.  It was so much fun! And as we began to settle in more and more we began to live life with friends at the bowling alley in deeper ways.  We started staying after league to all practice together, started going out to dinners, even started competing in tournaments with them, and eventually having some of them over to the house for video games and dinner.

Gabriel bowling the National USBC Tournament in Syracuse 2018. He will be bowling the National USCB Tournament 2019 in Las Vegas in a few weeks.

As we entered into these amazing relationships I started to notice that we quickly became the ones people would come and talk to when they were going through divorce, going through addiction, dealing with depression, sick in the hospital, and all because they knew Gabriel and I loved and cared about them.  We noticed that our space of self care had quickly become an easy way for us to be filled up but also where we could pour back out.  It never became a drain and I noticed that because I always felt I could pour back out onto them when I needed to.  Whenever I needed to vent, cry, or get aggressive with the pins there were multiple people around me to listen. 

When we walk into any local house (bowling alley), we would be met with tons of hugs and lots of love.

Final standings for my first win in a tournament

Bowling was and still is our resting place.  A place for us to connect with each other and with friends.  It is our place of self care, where we let loose, and feel free to just be.  It has become a passion and now also a competitive piece of our lives (I won my very first tournament, The Schenectady USBC Women’s 2019 Championship just a few weeks ago), but it has and always will be about the people who allowed us to just be Liz and Gabe.

I want to be sure to emphasize that this is not to put any negative light on our first church, they loved and cared for us well, we needed to have something outside of that to connect with each other (for fun and some sort of release) and other people. 

SELF CARE PART II:

The second part of my act of self care has been a more recent one. Recently I became the lead pastor of Schenectady First Church of the Nazarene. I decided after hearing/reading painful statistics about lead pastors who struggle with depression, fatigue, disconnection, burn out, and much more I decided to be proactive and intentional almost from the moment I stepped in as the lead pastor. I decided it was time to hit the gym.

Part of going to the gym 4-5 days a week was also to learn to love myself. I have always had insecurities about myself, being bullied as a young girl and several other things from my life, and I decided part of what working out needed to be was me owning who I was and learning to love myself better. I will spare you the ugly details of things I used to think about myself but I will say this: YOU NEED TO LOVE AND CARE FOR YOURSELF BECAUSE YOU ARE WORTH IT! I kept coming back to the scripture: love your neighbor as yourself. I decided I could love people better if I could learn to love myself better, and here I am doing it through what I can only attribute to God giving me this time, strength, and opportunity.

Since December 10th, 2018 I have been going to the gym 4-5 days a week. I currently just finished my 16th week of working out. I am down 19” and 22 pounds. I have never felt stronger, more empowered, or loved myself more.

This is my before and after picture. The left is me on November 2nd, 2018, and the right is me on March 15, 2019, getting ready to bowl an all day St. Patrick’s Day bowling tournament with new bowling friends in the Schenectady area.

Conclusion:

Wherever you are in your life, it is definitely the right time to learn to love yourself. I haven’t perfected this, by any means, but I am well on my way to owning my uniqueness (as many would call it.. hehe), loving my body, and putting myself in a thriving community of friends who show care in ways I have always wanted and now realize that every human deserves (even those of us who are always trying to be that for everyone else). 

If I had to give some words of wisdom or advice I would say this: Don’t wait until tomorrow to care for yourself or show love to yourself.  When you look at the whole picture it may seem impossible but take it one very small step at a time and celebrate all the little decisions you make for your care and for loving yourself. 

Becoming Myself in a Rather Fight-y Community: Tyler Brinkman

March 2019 is a good month, because it brings us a post by Tyler Brinkman. Tyler is a current student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary pursuing an M.Div with a concentration in History, Theology, and Ethics; he enjoys teaching all the Anabaptists about Nazarene polity, and he tries to bring up the ‘real presence’ of the Eucharist as much as possible. His intellectual interests include theological anthropology, eschatology, neurobiological effects of trauma, and, well, pretty much anything in the humanities–and some of the sciences. He continues to be proud of his illustrious athletic career on his high school’s walking team until his career ended when he failed the requisite sports physical. Mostly, he’s just thankful for his wife, Crystal, who helps him to not lose his wallet, keys, books, and sanity.

I am excited that Steve asked me to write the blog post this month. I think I offered it to him early last year, and he said he had my name written down already. So I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to write something. Occasionally, I would think about what I would write when given the opportunity. And even now when I am writing this post (and when I’m supposed to have it done two days from now), I am unsure what I should write about.

But I am Nazarene. I’m one of those 5th-generation Nazarene types whose whole extended family are Nazarene. It is the spiritual soil in which I was nurtured, and I am forever thankful. It gave me tools to survive. I struggled a lot as a teenager; things were… difficult. Way too difficult. I had too much stress and responsibility, and I was constantly afraid that I was going to fail and the people around me would get hurt. And even if I were to fail others and they DIDN’T get hurt – well, I was still a bad person who deserved to be punished. This was my belief for a very, very long time. But thanks be to God – God called me to ministry.

I know it sounds weird to say – particularly for someone who has never actually been paid staff at a church. I’ve been a lay leader, and I’ve been a leader with a local ministry license. But I’ve been called; it’s just taking a seemingly too long time to get there. See, I was first called to ministry when I was 16; I was at a summer camp– TiP (Talent Identification Program) which was a 3 week program for “gifted students” (whatever that means) at Duke University. I do not think it is merely coincidental that I was called to ministry at a place of higher education; I have always grown the most spiritually from my participation in communities of learning. But it was there that God spoke to me saying “Go give hope to people who don’t have it.” Immediately, I was enthralled by that calling, but I had no idea where it would lead me. I still have no idea where that calling will lead me, and I am exceptionally glad about that. That calling – to give hope – helped keep me alive in times when I didn’t think I was going to make it. Times of despair when relationships were exploding, imploding, and just generally being broken. But that vision of hope is what gave me the hope I needed to keep fighting.

I often defined myself by what I was fighting – fighting depression, anxiety, mental health stigma, and just being a contrarian in general. This was how I saw myself, and that’s still true. But there is more stability. I’m still pretty fight-y, but I am not nearly as angry. NazToo helped teach me that I can be good even if I’m not great. It helped teach me that I am really kinda good at all this theology stuff I love to study, and it helped teach me how utterly ignorant of so, so many things I am – of how much there is still to learn. It helped give me confidence in the midst of some rough depression after I lost my job. The two times I’ve been able to get to hang out with a number of NazToo people – once at General Assembly and once at the 2018 Wesleyan Theological Society conference – I’ve gotten to meet so many good and wonderful friends for the first time. I remember telling some people before I even left to go to that conference “I’m going to meet them for the very first time, but it’s going to be a reunion.” And that’s what it was.

I have always found I have learned about myself in and through my relationships with others. That is still true today, and I have learned so much about myself through this wonderful band of freaks, weirdos, and ragamuffins. Even though I learned a lot about gut bacteria and microbiomes, church iconography, what movies have the best Christ figures, democratic socialism, and so many other topics – knowing myself is what I have learned most of all. I have learned, and I am continuing to learn how to understand what it means that I am loved by God. How do I make sense theologically, spiritually, intellectually, existentially that I, Tyler Brinkman, am loved by God? These are not the abstract questions of a seminary student; they are the most profound questions which have haunted and shaped the whole course of human history. I am not deluded to think my answers are unique or really encapsulate the totality of how we find our identity in God.

I was chatting with a dear friend just a few weeks ago about this very topic. She teaches me about grace and kindness every time we meet and interact through her words and actions, and we were talking about how we find our identity totally in being a beloved child of God. Can we even really claim any other kind of identity? I wanted to end by sharing what I said in response to that question. I was only able to come to these tentative, seeking, questioning conclusions through this little community on-the-outskirts. So this is a “Thank You” to NazToo for helping me to believe what I have always proclaimed. This is what I said:

“I agree with you that we are all God’s beloved, and God’s unconditional love is constantly poured out on all people – individually and corporately. What I would encourage you to think is how God’s love is constant, but not static, and that God never loves us abstractly.

Rather than saying God’s love is unchanging, I want to say that the love of God is always perfectly changing. This is not to say that God loves us in different degrees or in different ways. But rather than there is within the love of God an inherent movement, a dynamism. I think of the Trinity and perichoretic union of the three persons: God in Godself gives Godself to Godself – eternally. It is a divine dance, and it is this dance which constitutes the love which God is. But it isn’t static. There is genuine movement, but the love of God is so vast and so deep that in all that eternal pouring out God’s love will ever be diminished or depleted. In the same way, God’s love (which is God) is poured out in an infinite number ways to meet whatever our needs are in the moment. The identity of God is found in God’s love – God is Love. God’s identity is grounded in that Trinitarian union, and, in Christ, God identifies with us. We are taken up into the identity of God.

In the same way, we demonstrate the love of God by continuing to pour out our love for God, God’s people, and God’s creation. So we too find our identity in what we love. We aren’t defined by our actions, experiences, beliefs or words. In reality, I don’t think humans are ever ‘defined’ at all, at least not totally. But I think we can say that we are, in part, constituted by what we love and how we love. I think this works because, in the act of love, we open ourselves up to God, God’s people, and God’s creation. In loving, we take these people into our hearts and into our lives. I think of Crystal; I am who I am today because of Crystal. Not to say she’s responsible for everything I think, do, say (I would never wish to lay such a curse on her!), but rather that she opens herself up to me so I can become a part of her and she is a part of me. I think this is what it means when it says ‘the two will become one flesh’ (Which I don’t think is solely limited to marriage).

With this, I think we can find our identity primarily in the Love of God while also saying that what and how we love shapes who we are.

Because God’s love is never abstract. I think turning identity and/or humanity into an abstraction is an act of violence to human personhood. In the end, it tends to be oppressive for marginalized communities – just look at the denial of racism under the guise of ‘colorblindness.’ You said, ” I think of myself as a daughter, a sister, a mom, a wife. I think I’m somewhat creative. I try to be kind. However, all of that could be taken away”. I think you’re right in that those identities are provisional. But I also want to say that you will always be a daughter, a mother, and a sister as long as you are alive. Even the death of those beloved ones cannot rob you from being a daughter, sister, and mother. But what if instead of saying God unconditionally loves you regardless of who you are, we say God loves you exactly as you are? God loves you as a mother. God loves you as a daughter. God loves you as a sister. God loves you as a pastor. God loves you as an American (clearly God’s love is undeserved!) God loves you as a friend, a woman, your personality, your sense of humor, your kindness, your peacemaking, your hair, body, and eyes. God loves those things specifically about you. God takes joy in those things. So rather than diminishing your identity as you are actually in the world, God’s love affirms who you are in the concrete – the person found in the every-day drudgeries of life: The frustrated pastor, the exasperated mother; the one who can only do eyeliner on one eye a time.

I think this matters because of this: I am not an abstraction. God loves me in my whiteness, in my ignorance, in my Americanism, in my marriage, in my familial relationships (in which I include close friends). God loves me not because of those things nor in spite of those things, but God does love me as I am those things. But the concrete reality of my existence oftentimes turns me into an abstraction. Sometimes I feel that in reality that I, as myself, cannot connect with people. Instead I have to play the role of somebody else for the sake of affection and familiarity. This is exhausting.

I feel most comfortable in myself and my relationships when I am embracing the concrete identity of who I am. And I feel most secure and loved in my relationships when I am loved as myself – the unabridged, sometimes insightful, typically frustrating, occasionally angering person. I cling to those relationships because they are life-giving to me. But I do have a couple of relationships where I can do that. It is in those where I find myself best able to open myself up to others and wherein I find myself in others. This doesn’t mean we are defined by others; it means that we find our identity in God in the world.

These relationships are where I experience the greatest joy, the greatest contentment. It is where I feel like I best embody the embracing and love of God towards myself and others. As I’ve continued this journey – the less I’ve come to hate myself, be disgusted with myself, and generally been more at peace.

In short, it’s where I experience the greatest belovedness.”