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Focus 40

  • Written by Nathan Willowby
  • Published: 11 March 2014

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)



So why do we participate in Focus 40? I think it is good to regularly ask ourselves why we are doing what we are doing. So why are we oining hundreds of other churches in focusing on Extreme Living from March 12th through Easter Sunday (4/20)? Are we trying to be more "high church"? Do we feel left out of Lenten Fish Fries here in Milwaukee? Did Pastor Nathan recently discover the lost pamphlet of F. G. Smith that describes the importance of a pre-Easter intentional fast as part of a robust understanding of sanctification? In reality, I don't know all that went into the people at Church of God Ministries organizing Focus 40 a few years ago. Maybe it was an attempt to offer a Lent alternative that fits the ethos of the Church of God more than some of the other Lenten traditions. Maybe it was because many congregations were starting to expand their Easter preparation beyond Holy Week and this offered a way for the Church of God to do something in a more cohesive manner? Whatever the initial motivation, the Focus 40 has been an annual time for Church of God congregations to join together in an intentional season of seeking after God's will and activity in one certain area. Last year, the emphasis was "Extreme Love." This year, the emphasis is "Extreme Living."

In a recent "Dean's Report," Duke Divinity School dean, Richard Hays articulated the importance of tradition for theological vision. He noted the difference between trying to repeat tradition and recoveringthe tradition for the present situation. I think the embrace of a larger preparation season for Easter is a good example of us exercising theological imagination and vision. Yes, you can certainly go online to the Anderson University Library website and access Gospel Trumpet articles from the late 1800s that will make the case against the "Romish" and "works righteousness" of Lent, but the practice of the church to view the season before Easter as a special time of reflection and preparation remains something that is available to us to recover. As I mentioned in the sermon on 3/9, we use different language here than you will find for Lent in many other "high church" contexts, but let's not be so afraid of other traditions as to miss an opportunity to think more deeply about Christ's invitation for us to "have life, and have it to the full." Extreme Living is all about learning to hear and follow the Holy Spirit's guidance instead of listening to the cacophony of negative, idolatrous, and prideful words from the bandits who seeks to "steal and kill and destroy" the true and good lives that Christ offers us.

In keeping with our tradition--we can also test this idea of a 40 day preparation by what we find in Scripture. On that front, I am very confident that we have a good precedent. 40 days is a common biblical period for preparation and testing. Consider this list of 40s: 40 days and nights of rain for the flood, 40 days of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Israel had 40 years of wandering before they entered the promised land, Elijah ate one meal that sustained him for 40 days, Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai with God (Twice!), Israel's spies searched Canaan for 40 days, Ezekiel lay outside the temple for 40 days, Jesus was on earth after the resurrection for 40 days.

I invite you to join so many others in this season of preparation. Consider a regular fast of something. Meat, chocolate, coffee, or candy are good old fashioned standbys. Maybe you want to try a technology fast... an NCIS fast, a "sports on tv" fast, a lunch fast, a no food after 6 fast... Whatever it is, make an effort to spend saved time or money on something that flows from God in the direction of "Extreme Living." Check out this page for resources. There are daily devotions, daily podcasts, weekly family devotions, a prayer calendar, and a few other items. Remember--we are called to follow the Good Shepherd instead of all the other "hired hands" who will lead us astray and abandon us when we are most vulnerable (see John 10).

Why and What?

  • Written by Nathan Willowby
  • Published: 10 March 2014

This month, I will address several questions relating to why we do certain things as part of our worship and congregational life leading up to Easter. As of tonight, the plan is to address: Why do we join the Church of God Focus 40? Why do we have Maundy Thursday Services? What are the Biblical Stations of the Cross? Why do we wash feet?

I'll post the blog about why we are participating with the Focus 40 on Monday. But for those who are joining us on the journey to seek to learn the Good Shepherd's voice, here is a link to the daily podcasts:

Avoiding Us vs. Them

  • Written by Nathan Willowby
  • Published: 25 February 2013

"A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush." That was a circulating sentiment during the 2000 presidential election. I can remember one of my good friends telling me about his voting experience (he was an outspoken Republican) and joking that he almost voted for Nader since he heard the saying so often in the days before the election.

I recently read a haunting book by Ephraim Radner, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church. I found this book challenging but ultimately very helpful in identifying the ways in which the Christian Church has failed throughout the centuries. I even thought to myself--I wonder if this is the kind of book that D. S. Warner would have written if he was alive today and had studied a lot of historical theology. (For example, Warner wrote about the problem of the divisions in the church as ultimately sinful and Radner repeatedly includes the phrase, "division is murder.") Unfortunately, Christians have given Radner plenty of examples to illustrate and demonstrate the sins of the church. And yet, there was something bothering me throughout the first part of this book. Perhaps, he was just hitting a sore spot with me by critiquing William Cavanaugh--a theologian whom I find very compelling--but the outcome was what bothered me the most. Radner is not the first writer who has led me to this feeling. I remember having the same thoughts while reading Nathan Kerr's book, Christ, History, and Apocalyptic. This is a thought that I had while reading these two books (and others too): "I really like what you are going for, but why do you have to cut down these other alternatives that don't seem to me to be the real problem?"

Back to the Radner/Cavanaugh example. Radner is concerned that Cavanaugh oversells his thesis in The Myth of Religious Violence. I think Cavanaugh is well aware that there has been too much religious violence. He instead wants us to quit using a problematic category of religion to describe some violence as religious, and thus irrational, and other violence secular, and thus rational. The further along that I read in Radner's book, the more I appreciated what he was trying to do--but I still think Cavanaugh's book should be read more charitably. Put differently, I'm not convinced that "a vote for Cavanaugh is a vote for Radner's enemy"--(denial that the church has sinned in being complicit and active in violence).

I refuse to limit the world to Us vs. Them. It leads down a bad road. I think we should strive more often for creativity in the face of situations and drawing charitably on a variety of insights. Certainly, we can only engage "them" if we know who we are and have a foundation of Christian identity and understanding of our lord and savior, but we should try not to fear everything that is not exactly like us. We might just find ourselves with the good Samaritan instead of the dangerous one.

Interesting Reading

  • Written by Nathan Willowby
  • Published: 06 June 2013

I came across an interesting question that was posed by an author who put together a comprehensive bibliography of the resources relating to the Wesleyan Holiness Movement. In the section about the Church of God (Anderson), of which we are a part, he said this...

“Though unplanned, the stabilizing role of the Gospel Trumpet Company…can scarcely be overestimated. Its presence (and that of its successor Warner Press) in Anderson from 1906 to 1996 gave an authoritative voice to the movement. It remains to be seen whether the group, which reported 2,353 churches and 234,311 members in the United States in 1998, can flourish without it.” (Charles Edwin Jones, The Wesleyan Holiness Movement: A Comprehensive Guide (Revised), 274).

An interesting question and observation in a month when our General Assembly will vote whether to ratify a newly selected General Director--an occasion that naturally leads to questions regarding the future direction of our movement.

The Virtue of Memory

  • Written by Nathan Willowby
  • Published: 15 February 2013

A friend sent me a link to an article today. His email subject heading said, "memory is more than a theological virtue." A subject line like that reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Memory of Old Jack, by Wendell Berry in which you might expect a theological lesson. However, if you clicked the first link, you might be wondering what an article about Michael Jordan's birthday has to do with theology or virtues, but the author (Michael Wilbon) demonstrates a wonderful point about our tendency to forget the past in favor of the most recent. Especially for those of us here in Milwaukee, I appreciated Wilbon's reference to Oscar Robertson's season when he averaged a triple-double.

A different friend and I were recently devising our own list of the best 10 NBA players. When he didn't want to include Oscar Robertson, I accused him of having no sense of history. Certainly, we shouldn't allow our history to enslave us to flawed understanding and approaches in the church, but a lot of times, it takes a sense of history to truly understand the opportunities and challenges that are before us.

Memory helps us to hold things in perspective. It can serve to provide us with hope in the midst of despair (because we remember a similar challenge that we, a friend, or our congregation overcame). Memory is also a source of wisdom, oftentimes enabling us to see a situation in such a way that the benefits and dangers are on the table when a community decides how to proceed. Memory can also help us to appreciate what is happening in the present. If there is nothing to which we are comparing the present, it is hard to really know if things are going well or not. So, just like Wilbon said--let's be careful or a lack of memory might just lead to a situation that reaches out and reminds us, "just how dumb it is to forget."


Notes from the pastors of Crossroads Church of God