I suppose I’ve come full circle.
Growing up in a holiness church in southern Mississippi, I believed we Nazarenes, we Wesleyan-holiness folk, were odd.
We didn’t smoke or drink or cuss or chew or dip—but neither did the local Baptists, Pentecostals, or most Methodists. So our don’ts had enough company to keep us from standing out too much. However, we went a little farther than them when it came to avoiding movies, the carnival, card playing, the Sunday paper, and bowling alleys, where I hear people did horrible things.
But my local church went even a few rungs higher on the odd-ometer.
• We had a lady who earnestly requested prayer for the life situations of soap opera characters.
• Our Sunday school superintendent thought we could build attendance by hosting chitlin’ fries. (If you don’t know what part of the animal I’m talking about, you are truly blissful in your ignorance.)
•Some of our folk brought their guitars to church on Sundays, hoping to be asked to sing a special that day. (Our congregation was the original outtake reel for American Idol.)
•And the supreme sacrifice as a Christian teen was to opt out of attending the school prom.
My education in Nazarene institutions has pretty much corrupted me in terms of my oddness. I’ve been liberated—as have most of you. I’ve been to movies, carnivals, played cards with a real, fifty-two-card deck, subscribed to the Sunday paper, bowled, and yes, even square danced with my wife once upon an uncoordinated time—which actually left me grateful for a church dedicated to the homogeneous unit of people who have no rhythm.
For several decades now, I’ve not felt that odd.
But I think I’ve come full circle, and I’m beginning to feel odd again. This time, however, the separationist ethics of an ultra-conservative, southern Mississippi holiness church are not to blame. What is making me feel odd is the way Wesleyans think and live.
Two Sides of Being Odd
On one side, I find a post-Christian world that doesn’t get us at all.
When I go to the worldly, higher-education gatherings of the public university leaders in Tennessee, they look at me quizzically when I talk about the sanctity of human life, the meaning of our sexuality, the practice of Sabbath, fasting from technology, training students to live among the poor, required covenants of conduct for Christian university students, an alcohol-free campus, questioned use of power, abstinence, and reducing athletic scholarships. I can see it in their eyes. Odd.
And I haven’t even used words like Lent, Advent, eschatology, or incarnational. I certainly haven’t said the H-word (holiness)!
Then, there is the other side.
I go to a small church somewhere in the southeast. I talk about social justice, immigrants and refugees, war, politics and power, a theology of money, accountability for leaders, a biblical eschatology, the way Wesleyans read the Bible, and how global warming might be a better explanation of the tornado that decimated Tuscaloosa, Alabama, than the wrath of God on the Crimson Tide. And they look at me and wonder where I came from. And how I became so odd.
How the World Reacts
The world has many reactions to odd—amused, threatened, intrigued, opposed, defensive, ignorant, confused, angry. We trained theologians never quite know what we might face out there.
Erik, my son-in-law, pastors a church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that Denise and I attend. It is an interesting assortment of people:
• Adrian in her wheelchair, disabled and difficult to understand but reaching out for people;
• Chris, the recovered addict who was given the Distinguished Service Award;
• The couple who run a remarkable international ministry to eliminate intestinal worms in children of developing countries;
• A few PhDs.
There are about 150 of us total. We’re a group of people whom nobody but Jesus could have ever gotten in the same room.
Erik is a seminary graduate. He called me one day and said, “I need you to tell me if I’m still sane.” On that particular day, he had been blasted over being emergent because they were participating in a community garden. He was called a theological liberal at the town ministerial association because he wouldn’t sign a unity statement based on a mechanical-dictation theory of Scripture. He was told to squelch the opinion of a Vanderbilt Divinity School congregant who thought maybe the Palestinians had a point in regard to land in Israel. During our phone call, he wanted to know if he missed something in one of his seminary classes that would have prepared him for a day like this.
The simple truth is that you will never be given the opportunity to bear witness if you confront discipleship issues by picking a fight with everyone who finds you odd.
Erik is, in my relatively prejudiced opinion, one of the best young pastors I know. He is trying to do good pastoral work in a changing world. He is willing to ask people to consider what discipleship looks like today. And he was asking about his sanity. I think he was just feeling odd. I predict we will all have those days if we are not already having them.
Did John Wesley Ever Feel Odd?
Do you think jokes about his Oxford Holy Club got under his skin? Do you think he ever walked away from a coal mine questioning his sanity? Do you think he ever looked at Charles and asked if they could just sing the old songs everybody already knew instead of the newest one Charles had adapted from the London bars?
Do you think he ever spent a whole day straddling the back of a horse, reading his Bible, and finding nothing helpful in 1 Chronicles? Do you think he felt a little weird the day he ascended his father’s tombstone and preached to the crowd that barred him from his father’s former pulpit? I wonder if Wesley felt odd.
How do we deal with being treated as odd by those inside and outside the church?
Being Wesleyan is like standing in the middle of a two-lane highway with cars barreling toward you at seventy miles per hour in the pagan-world lane, and from the opposite direction they are driving toward you at seventy miles per hour in the religious-fundamentalism lane. And you stand in the middle of the road, handing out the gospel as Wesleyans understand it, hoping they will slow down enough to give you a hearing or take your tract, but wondering which lane might actually be intentionally aiming for you.
The simple truth is that you will never be given the opportunity to bear witness if you confront discipleship issues by picking a fight with everyone who finds you odd. Being defensive will consume your life. You will be Facebook fodder. You will be called liberal, emergent, new age, unorthodox, not fully committed to inerrancy, probably Catholic, and most likely Democrat.
But maybe the best path forward is the choice to be odd. Wesleyans preach a doctrine of perfect love—the kind of perfection that is still maturing in Christlikeness toward ultimate redemption.
The Face of Perfect Love
For me, this doctrine has a face. I know the ultimate face of perfect love is Jesus, but in my lifetime, I’ve seen that reflection in the face of Dr. William Greathouse, former president of Trevecca Nazarene University and Nazarene Theological Seminary.
My introduction to him was in the men’s room in the Miami Convention Center during the 1972 General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene. I was a rising junior in college at Trevecca. I didn’t know him personally, and he wasn’t in the restroom that day. He was ascending in the vote tally for the role of general superintendent of the denomination.
And then we took a break. So I went to the restroom and, there, received an education on the dangers of this man—he had actually built a church gymnasium and attached it to the sanctuary! And, to top it off, he was the president of the “cemetery” where all the preacher boys lost the fire in their belly and came out wanting to teach theology in liberal schools.
I didn’t know all this stuff about him before that day in the men’s room, but I learned quickly from my fellow churchmen.
Later that afternoon, his vote tally plummeted.
Two years later, I became a student at the seminary. I sat in his classes on Romans and John Wesley—held in the chapel because we couldn’t fit in any of the classrooms. He taught me how to lead congregational singing—not by waving my hands in rhythm but by rearing my head back, raising my hands half-mast, and singing from the bottom of my heart to the glory of God. He located me theologically in the mainstream of orthodox Christian faith. He was generous in spirit. He challenged shallow thinking and sloppy discipleship.
Maybe the best path forward is the choice to be odd.
I became his reader, and we sat on his office floor and read student papers out loud to each other and discussed them. One day, I asked him about 1972. He spoke with loving regard, a forgiving spirit, and a peace that surpasses theological differences.
He was the person I called when I had a tough decision to make. After I moved to Nashville, we talked often. I think I heard his whole commentary on Romans on the phone before it went to print. He leaked Paul when he talked. In his wake is a generation of holiness leaders who have serious work to do for the sake of Christ’s church. Knowing him, I believed the doctrine of perfect love and the experience that he testified to.
At his funeral, we sang the grand hymns he selected—so many they couldn’t be sandwiched into the few song slots in the service. So, at the end, we sang five or six of them in a row. “Arise, My Soul, Arise,” “For All the Saints,” the “Gloria Patri.” The funeral director wheeled the casket out, ushered the family out, and tried to get the crowd to file out. But we were just getting to the second song. From the platform I looked out on a sea of odd holiness pastors and people who weren’t about to budge until we sang the last note.
It was a glorious moment, the end of an era, the death of a saint, and, for me, the face of perfect love.
Now it’s our turn to be odd.
• To be that odd person who stands between a pagan world and religious fundamentalism and loves people like God loves people.
• To be that odd person whose way of reading the Bible is, well, different from how lots of other Christians read the Bible.
• To be that odd person who speaks the truth in love and embodies the peace-making ways of Jesus.
• To be that odd person who welcomes people into the circle when their beliefs and practices could not be further from the call we issue.
• To be that odd person who believes that God’s future is good news for all the wrong people.
• To be that odd person who gives money away, welcomes the stranger, and fasts from a cell phone from time to time.
• To be that odd person who even loves enemies.
It is our turn to be odd because the doctrine of perfect love looks better on a face than on a page.