Christ Came Down At Christmas

At the close of the First World War, Prince Edward of Britain visited a hospital that was caring for thirty-six of Britain’s greatest war heroes. The Prince was taken first to a ward of twenty-four men. Before leaving, he asked, “Are there not others?” The nurse responded in the affirmative, but she had questioned whether or not the Prince wanted to see those who were more seriously wounded. Demanding to see them all, he was taken to another room of eleven men. The Prince was stunned at the awful condition of these noble defenders to the Crown. He was moves to tears as he offered each and deepest appreciation for his noble service.

Again upon leaving the room the Prince remarked that if he had counted right, there was still one more. The nurse remonstrated rather strongly about seeing the last one since that veteran was in isolation and his condition was so critical. The Prince demanded a visit. The nurse protested that the situation of the man might truly be unbearable to the royal visitor. Edward would not be dissuaded and was soon standing by the bedside of the dying hero. He was not prepared, however, for what he saw. The brave soldier had taken the worst of a fiery explosion. Much of his body had been either blown or burned away. His face was disfigured beyond recognition. The stench of death lay heavy in the room. The Prince shuddered as a wave of horror swept over his soul from what he saw.

However, after a moment to regain himself, the Prince leaned over the bed, and calling the soldiers name, told him who he was. The old warrior’s eyes twitched; and the stub of an arm on the right side of his body jumped in an effort to salute. Prince Edward stooped down in the tenderest tones poured out the deepest thanks on behalf of his country. Then stooping lower, he kissed the disfigured brow of the dying soldier. This was a condescending moment for the noble Prince of the English throne.

There is a greater One, however, who has stooped far lower to plant the kiss of redemption upon the execrable and wretched brow of lost humanity. Oh what incomparable condescension! The King of Glory came down. He wrapped himself in the fading garment of our humanity and pitched his fleshy tent in silence on straw in a stable under a star. Why did he come? He came to save! How would he save? By identifying completely with our humanity, yet remaining the sinless Son of God.

You see, God had created man but he had never been a man. He had watched men toil, but he had never blistered his own hands with a carpenter’s tool. He had never felt the onslaught of the tempter, or had his soul been pierced with the sorrows of life. He had seen men sink into the hopeless depths of the grave, but He had never felt the cold grip of death or spread His omnipotent shoulders on the bottom of a sepulcher. But He would yield Himself to be judged and unjustly condemned at Pilate’s bar, so that we might be acquitted at the tribunal of heaven. He took our place and was crucified as a despicable wretch, so that rebellious sinners might be reconciled to God and sent forth as kings and priests. He suffered the sting of death, yet He broke the bars of the grave so that we might cry, “O death where is thy sting? Oh grave where is thy victory?”

Why did Christ come down? He came down that His mysterious Incarnation might reunite us to God; that His Atonement would purchase our justification; that his death would become the spring of our eternal life; that His resurrection would be the pledge of our glory; and His ascension the triumph of our souls!

Hallelujah! Christ came down at Christmas!

Grace was in her steps . . . Heaven in her eyes

Motherhood was God’s idea. He purposefully created women to carry, give birth to, nurse, nurture, teach, and tenderly love their children in a way unique to women. It was His plan that a bond of unconditional love be forged between mother and child that would bridge any divide, face down any storm and last for eternity. I am blessed to not only have had a wonderful mother of my own but several wonderful “mothers” in my life.

My Mother

Clara Mae Avery 1923-1995

My mother was a simple, hardworking homemaker who loved her children. She was a genuine saint who loved God until it showed.  She was ever present, always encouraging, never demeaning, faithful in prayer and always ready to laugh. Mother taught me so much about practical Christianity. She also instilled a sense of confidence in me that was far beyond my capacity to perform. The following two quotes capture some of what she meant to me and what she did for me.

“I learned more about Christianity from my mother than from all the theologians in England.” (John Wesley)

“When I was a child my mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk, you’ll be the pope.’ Instead I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.” (Pablo Picasso)

Her Mother and Mine

Virginia Vernon 1918-2012

My mother-in-law had one of the most gentle, selfless and soft spoken personalities of any women I ever knew – yet that softness covered a frame of pure unbendable steel.  Granny was a sharecropper’s daughter, a mother of eight (three in diapers at one time) a pastor’s wife, a missionary stateswoman, well read, a fantastic speller, a caregiver (eleven years to an invalid husband), a long term widow and all the while her children’s loving mother. She faced the normal trials of life plus: open heart surgery, Parkinson’s, a broken hip (that left her bedfast for ten years) partial blindness and much loneliness. Yet I never, ever heard her complain or whine! She never lost her sense of humor – even at age 94. She was a great role model!

Their Mother

Rebecca Ruth (Vernon) Avery

My wife and the mother of my children is almost an exact replica of her mother. She is witty, selfless, others oriented, extremely well read, hardworking, holds confidences (and her tongue), lives for her family, is prayerful and supportive. She has a very single devotion to her faith, her family and her husband. Watching her in action as she raised our two sons was a joy. She read to them and later with them – constantly. She taught them to read and write before they ever attended school. Their achievements today must largely be credited to the lessons they learn at her knee.

Other Mothers

Dot Brown, Mary Stetler

My mother suffered a massive stroke the night before I was installed as president of GBS. My parents had traveled to Cincinnati with me to share in this special day but mother never made it to the Hilltop. She lived only six months after the stroke. After her death, two godly women became “mothers” to me. Dot Brown, a retired nurse and my first Dean of Women, was one of those rare discerning saints who always seem to have the right piece of advice at just the right time. Her counsel and support were priceless. And then there was Mary Stetler. Mary Stetler came to me shortly after my mother died and said, “I know you have lost the woman that prayed for you every day. I want you to know I am going to pray for you now” – and she has!

No one can take the place of your own dear mother but I am so grateful for the wonderful mothers God has providentially placed in my life. So to them and to all of the wonderful mothers who will read this, I honor you with a quote from   John Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Grace was in all her steps, heaven in her eye, in every gesture dignity and love.” Happy Mother’s Day!


The Bible Says…

– November 2011

The Bible Says . . .

When my boys were very small I would often give them their “Saturday night bath.”  This weekly ritual involved a long warm soak, a robust scrubbing and a vigorous shampoo – leaving them squeaky clean.  The boys loved the playful soak, tolerated the scrubbing, but became quite agitated when I would reach for the shampoo.  It may have had something to do with the fact that I used such copious amounts that rinsing it out of their hair became an experience close to drowning. One Saturday night all was going well until I reach for the bottle of shampoo.  My older son, who obviously had had enough, stood up in the front of the tub pointed his finger at me and with evangelistic fervor shouted, “The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not wash a little boy’s hair with shampoo’!”  My son had a remarkable grasp of the authority of scripture, yet at the tender age of three he had not yet acquired an exact understanding of how to use it – or more accurately how not to use it for his own designs and purposes.

A less—than—careful use scripture is a slippery slope for both men and movements.  Most religious traditions, including our own Conservative Holiness Movement, have not escaped this pitfall.  As the Aldersgate Forum’s Call to Biblical Fidelity states, “we have often focused on issues and made demands which we cannot legitimately establish from the Scriptures. As a result, trivial notions and speculations at times have marred our witness”.  The CHM has, for the most part, comprised a group of people who have placed a very high value on scripture.  Our willingness to live out many unpopular biblical values is a testimony to this.  However, we have not always had an equally high commitment to the careful exegesis of scripture which is crucial to preserving Biblical fidelity.

Webster has defined fidelity as “the quality of being faithful; of accuracy in detail; exactness.”  The dictionary adds an interesting modern analogy to explain fidelity: “the degree to which an electronic device (as a record player or radio) accurately reproduces the original sound.”  With this in mind we can define Biblical fidelity.

Biblical fidelity then is to reproduce faithfully and accurately the thoughts, meaning and intent of scripture in both our preaching and practice.

                Every tradition, including the CHM, works in a sub-culture of its own. These subcultures gravitate toward certain theological, cultural and religious biases that inevitably serve as lens through which scripture is viewed and applied to Christian living. For the most part this is healthy and normative.  It is not, however, without problems. For all Biblical and theological biases must be held in check by an unyielding commitment to be both honest and faithful to the Biblical text. If this does not happen Biblical fidelity is compromised or even lost.

Are there any particular ways the CHM needs to be more careful?  Yes. Let me offer a few that I believe are especially applicable to the CHM.

  1. The CHM must be careful not to practice eisegesis instead of exegesis.  Eisegesis is an interpretation of scripture that expresses the interpreter’s own views rather than the text’s true meaning (exegesis). When we impose our own theological, cultural or personal views on a text, despite knowing that faithful scholarship will not support our interpretation, we compromise the truth and fail to honor God’s word. The CHM must regularly remind itself that scripture is the standard by which we test all other truth claims, not the other way around.
  2. The CHM must be careful not to blur the line between Biblical principle and religious tradition.  Tradition is a valuable part of our Christian life. Traditions may certainly be taught in our homes and churches, but they should be taught as traditions, not as divine revelation. Traditions must never be confused with God-given commands or given the same authority and weight as scripture.  When this confusion occurs the end result can be a church that has replaced the authority of God’s Word with the deadening weight of traditionalism or, worse, just trivia.
  3. The CHM must be careful not to misinterpret “questions” as “questioning” and inadvertently discourage honesty!   It is impossible to respect the God’s Word too highly, but it is possible to respect it wrongly.   We must let people know that it is not irreverent to see difficulties in the Biblical text and allow them to think hard and honestly about how these difficulties can be resolved. You have not truly studied the Bible until you have asked hard questions of it.   However, in some people’s minds asking hard questions is the same as “posing problems,” and we have been discouraged all our lives from finding problems in the Bible. Let me assure you, the Bible can handle scrutiny. Honesty is a vital part of Biblical fidelity.  God would rather have honest disagreement from one committed to His Word than forced affirmation of something we don’t really believe or understand.
  4. The CHM must be careful not to allow the externalization of Biblical standards to substitute for the internalization of Biblical character.   The Bible was not written to be a curiosity shop from which we pick and choose certain things to obey in our lives like one might pick and choose an article of clothing.  Rather, it was written to transform us from the inside out!  One can know and honor the Bible in visible ways (especially those that make us look spiritual in our setting), yet fail to demonstrate the character it commands. One can be meticulous, even legalistic, about his tithe and yet fail ever to develop the spirit of generosity. One can dress modestly and still have a sensuous  spirit. Sheer knowledge of the Bible doesn’t make one godly.  The mere application of a few visible commands doesn’t mean we have cultivated holy character.   One can read the Bible daily, acquire significant amounts of Biblical knowledge, adopt standards of dress and behavior– yet have no straight-line correspondence between that and real Christlikeness.

It would be helpful for all of us to remember that the “sounds” our lives make on earth reach heaven either as the scratchy, tinny, garbled clanging of carnality, or as harmonic, melodious, pleasant reproductions of Christlikeness.  Our success at being like Jesus will be determined by not only knowing with a high degree of accuracy what the Bible says, but also by honestly living it out.

Spiritual Roots

– December 2011

Spiritual Roots

No one possesses a faith that is self-made.  Each of us are indebted to the whole body of Christ for our understanding of scripture and our view of Christian living.  We have all benefited immensely from great spiritual truths that have been developed over the centuries, shaped by revival, purified by reformation and tested by experience.  We stand on the shoulders of men and movements who have forged for us what we now know as our spiritual heritage.   To unwittingly sever ourselves from these spiritual roots is tragic.  To knowingly do so may well be treacherous. Yet many Christians sell their spiritual birthright as thoughtlessly as they sell their unwanted household junk.

What these yard sale saints can’t see is not hidden to historical scholars. They tell us that movements, religious or otherwise, can only maintain vitality and significance as long as they retain a clear understanding of their historical identity. A religious movement’s identity is determined by their dogma, doctrine, traditions, ideals, values, and culture – all of which have been developed over the centuries.  These are the things that tell us who we are and answer the question of why we exist.  Without them, no movement can affirm a clear mission or cast a uniting vision.

The Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement issued in the October Revivalist pleads for a commitment to historic roots and continuity in Article II. This involves both a renewed commitment to classical Christianity and a renewed understanding of our spiritual heritage as passed down to us through the Methodist Holiness Tradition.   This call is not rooted in a sentimental hankering for the past.  Nor is it some nostalgic desire to re-create methods and means that have long since served their usefulness –that’s what museums do!  It is, however, recognition that we lose something vitally important for our future when we become disconnected from our past.

This appeal to the CHM is particularly urgent for two reasons.  First, the CHM is going through a time of transition. Second, the CHM is too often afflicted with a form of historical amnesia – we have long term memory loss.  Our memory only reaches back about 60 years to the days when we separated from our mother churches.  What happened then is clearly a vital part of our heritage but it is far from all of it.  Nor can that separation point be the sole place from which we draw our identity.  If it is, then we lose the wealth of hundreds of years of rich holiness history.  We also lose important “family traits” and “traditions” that may serve us well in our contemporary struggles. The CHM faces questions today and will certainly face more in the tomorrows that will not be adequately answered without drawing on the wisdom and life experiences of our fore-fathers.  We need our heritage – all of it!

As the CHM seeks to develop a fuller understanding of its historical identity, it is helpful to examine the family tree. We are Christian, we are Reformation Protestants, we are Arminian, we are Arminian/Anglican, and we are Methodist.  From there the branch divides into Wesleyan Methodist, Free Methodist, Pilgrim Holiness and Nazarene.  From there the branches further divide into a dozen denominational groups and a host of independent churches that self-identify as the Conservative Holiness Movement.

The CHM is, for the most part, Wesleyan in its theological opinions, especially in its commitment to the doctrine of entire-sanctification.   However, it can be quite diverse in many other ways.  There is significant variation in views relating to the sacraments, lifestyle practices, social issues (e.g. divorce and remarriage) and church government.  The CHM does find common ground in their opposition to: immodest worldly attire, short hair on women, and the wearing of jewelry. These common ground issues have become the “street level” means of identifying the movement.  As important as these things may be, there are some other very important “family traits” that ought to be front and center when people think of the CHM.  Identity markers that I would love to see become our ”street level” means of identity.  Traits that can clearly be found in our spiritual roots – in particular our Methodist Holiness Heritage!

The early Methodists found their reason for existence and their vision for the future in Wesley’s call “to reform a Nation, and in particular the church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” Responding to that call led them to reap a harvest of souls for God’s kingdom and ultimately altered the religious landscape of England and early America for almost a century.  However, it must be noted that this breathtaking, forward looking, mission statement worked only in a context.  And that context was the theological content and spiritual character of what Methodism truly was.  You could call it their DNA or their family traits. Let’s examine five of those traits.

First, they were known for a distinctive theological understanding of God.  One of the best ways to understand the impact of their theology is to look at how those early Methodists lived it out. Francis Asbury, the founder of American Methodism is a good example to observe. When Asbury arrived in America there were only a few hundred Methodists, but by 1860 one out of every three Americans was a Methodist.  Asbury crossed the Allegheny Mountains on horseback 60 times, slept in 10,000 different cabins and homes, preached 60,500 sermons in 45 years (a little more than one a day), and became more recognizable than George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.  By the end of the 18th century, Methodism had determined the nature of religious culture in America thus setting the stage for the next 100 years.

Why did he and countless hundreds of other Methodist circuit riders do what they did?  It was their theology that motivated them!   Their theology taught them that every man had infinite worth.  They believed that God not only wanted to save every man but that every man could be saved!  To better understand this you need to remember that Calvinism was the prevalent theology of the day and a core component of Calvinism was election.   When the average Calvinist walked down the street he would think, “It is possible that I might even see one of God’s elect today.”  When a Methodist walked down the street he would think, “Every man I see today is one of God’s elect and it is my job to tell him!”

Second, they were known for their optimism of grace.  I am not sure if grace shaped their eschatology or their eschatology shaped their concept of grace but what I do know is that the early Methodists believed so powerfully in the transforming grace of God that they were convinced that they would transform the church, the nation and the world – ushering in the millennial reign!  The optimism of grace drove Methodist circuit riders farther and faster than new invention could drive the feet of commerce.

Third, they were known for a distinctive view of spiritual experience.  The early Methodists believed that every man could be saved, that every man could know they were saved and that every man could be saved to the uttermost!  The doctrine of assurance gave new converts stability and peace.  The doctrine of entire sanctification gave believers victory over sin and power to live a holy life.  Methodism took people out of their “sinning religion” and taught them that they could walk in complete obedience to God!  With such peace, hope and victory, it’s no wonder that the Methodist were known for their exuberant singing and loud shouting!

Fourth, they were known for their distinctive view of the Church and Evangelism. They were flexible and innovative.  They didn’t need a proper church with stained glass windows and comfortable pews. They preached in the highways and byways, in fields and near mines, on the frontier and in the city ghettos.  They introduced a new style of worship to accommodate the large numbers of unconverted people in their congregations. Worship scholars refer to it as “frontier worship”.  It is now the primary worship style we still use today. They operated missions for the down and outer, cottages for the unwed mothers, orphanages for the destitute, camp meetings for the masses, class meetings for the newly converted and circuits for rural churches. They founded training schools, colleges and universities. No aspect of their society was left untouched by the gospel.  Those early Methodist did whatever was necessary to obey the command to “preach the gospel to every creature”.

Fifth, they were known for their stewardshipThe early Methodists looked right through the world that was around them and saw a Kingdom.  It was to that Kingdom and ultimately to its King that they gave their solemn allegiance and perfect love.  Many freely denied themselves the comforts of home, family and marriage to give their lives in His service.  The rank and file who did build homes and raise up families were so well known for their rejection of this worlds values and ostentation that the very name Methodist was spoken in derision and scorn by those who loved to parade their fashion and display their wealth. It was not what could be gained in this world but what could be invested in the world to come that motivated these people called Methodists.

These are a few of the “family traits” of a people and a movement that history says “owned the 19th century”! I see some of these same traits being manifested today in the underground church in China where 20,000 people are converted every day.  It has yet to be decided who will own the 21st century, but I believe it will be owned by the people who have looked long enough and deep enough into the past to see how God will work in the future.  You can figure it out too but you will need to dig deep into your spiritual roots!

Deuteronomy – “Remember”

–April of 2008

Deuteronomy – “Remember”

The first five books of the Bible are often referred to as the “Books of Moses.”  Deuteronomy stands at the end of this Pentateuch as the “grand summation”—the final words of Moses to the children of Israel. His words carry a remarkable recounting of yesterday’s journeys, tomorrow’s conquests and the promises of God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that tie it all together. As in any good speech, there will be a key word or thought that encapsulates the whole.  This oration can be summarized in one word: Remember!

Moses took them down the path of historical memory so that by remembering they might not repeat.  How could they ever forget God’s love as long as they could remember the plagues of Egypt, the miracle of the Red Sea, the supernatural provision of manna, quail, water and raiment?  How could they ever forget God’s justice as long as they could remember the ground opening up and swallowing Korah and his rebels?  How could they ever doubt God’s promise to give them the land and His power to fulfill that promise if they would only remember Jericho!  But as soon as the Israelites crossed Jordan, conquered Canaan, built cities, grew strong and prosperous, they promptly did just that – they forgot God!

Nothing, apparently, bothers God more than the simple act of being forgotten.  And nothing, apparently, aids the forgetting process more than personal success and material prosperity. As soon as the Israelites became comfortable in houses of their own and grew plump from crops they had grown, they ceased to care for the alien and the poor.  As soon as they had won enough battles for the surrounding nations to fear them, they placed their trust in their own armies and chariots instead of the God who drowned Pharaoh’s army in the sea.  And by the time that Solomon had made Israel a global standard bearer of wisdom and excellence; had made silver as common as stones in the streets of Jerusalem,  Israelites from Dan to Beersheba were bowing before images of wood and gold saying, “these be thy gods oh Israel.”

How does one keep from forgetting God?  Moses speaks to that in the most famous words of the whole book. “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might”.  It is God’s love for Israel that delivered them from Egypt, but it is only a heart of love for God that will keep Egypt out of their hearts.  It is only a heart of love for God that can understand that His commands have been given to us for our good!  It is only a heart of love for God that will refuse to allow any thing, legitimate or otherwise, to compete for our devotion to God and God alone.

In the final analyses, it is only a heart of love for God that keeps us from forgetting Him and what He has done for us.  It is impossible to forget the one that you love with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Obviously, we all know that loving and forgetting are mutually exclusive!  Unless, of course, we have already forgotten!