Excerpts from my upcoming new book (Summer 2017), Kenotic Leadership and the Movement that Changed America (working title), that looks at the imitation of Christ in the life and leadership of Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist church in America.
(A condensed version of this subject is covered my chapter “The Leadership of Francis Asbury” in Leadership the Wesleyan Way [2016, Emeth Press].)
Francis Asbury: “It is for holiness my spirit mourns. I want to walk constantly before God without reproof.”
The Christian life was a call to the complete yielding out of love to the call of God and a full, willing obedience to go where God led, no matter how hard the circumstance. This theological understanding was foundational to Asbury’s life. His motive for coming to America was “to live to God, and to bring others so to do.” Asbury believed that in carrying out the office of bishop the way he did, he was being faithful to the primitive vision of the apostolic office and to his own calling to serve in America. His sole object was the kingdom and church of God.
Asbury molded his life around a wholehearted pursuit of the sanctified life. This was his ultimate goal for himself, for his preachers, and for the Methodist movement. First and foremost, Asbury pursued a holy walk with God in his own life. His leadership rose out of his relationship with God. He sought to draw others in to what he had experienced. The wholehearted embrace of holiness meant yielding his life totally to God.
Asbury’s theology shaped how he viewed the world, the Church, himself, and his followers. It gave rise to his attitudes, values, sense of purpose, and responses to others; governed his views of conflict, sacrifice, love, and ministry; and guided his decision-making, planning, and vision for the Methodist Episcopal Church. The theological paradigm of optimistic grace and free salvation for all, holiness, and sanctification forms the core of the mimetic value of obedience in Asbury’s leadership.
Higher education is facing, to paraphrase Dickens and Thomas Paine, the best and worst of times, the times that try institutions’ souls. These are the worst of times because of the great challenges facing higher education: escalating costs of tuition, facilities, books and resources, and personnel; increased competition and decreasing enrollment pools; aging adult populations; rising freshmen populations increasingly unprepared for the academic and intellectual demands of college; a near-decade long recession; mounting obstacles in secondary education – lack of funding, falling graduation rates, teacher shortages, growing achievement gaps; a shrinking middle class; and an increasingly polarized political environment. Globalization, immigration, religious pluralization, and technologization put strains on both public and private higher education unlike any ever known.
But for all those logistical and operational challenges, the gravest danger is ideological. These are the times that try the soul, mission, and integrity of institutions. A battle of ideas is being waged for the hearts and minds of our children; nowhere is that battle more pronounced than on university and college campuses, even Christian ones. We are on the frontlines of this cultural collision between truth and its counterfeit. A collision in which the academy is no longer a place of the free exchange of ideas and critical thinking but is characterized by safe spaces, the “snowflake rebellion,” microaggressions, marriage and transgender equality, LGBTQ rights and their identity crises, the intolerance of the new age of tolerance, and, for Christian schools, the even more problematic reduction of Christian theology to one dimensional, self-referential proclamations of love and social justice.
The battle for the mind of the academy is not new. Mission drift has long been a threat to Christian schools. It is no accident that most of the oldest institutions in U.S. history were founded as religious schools whose mission was to ground society’s leaders in the knowledge and practice of God’s divine truth. In 1692, Harvard University’s original motto was Veritas Christo et Ecclesia, or Truth for Christ and the Church, a philosophy occasionally still found in the original seal on certain buildings around the campus. But by the 20th century the motto had been reduced simply to: Veritas, a quest for truth and meaning unanchored to any objective source.
Harvard represents a long list of many significant educational institutions whose beginnings were rooted in a biblical, Judeo-Christian worldview and mission. Yet virtually none of those institutions today bear any theological resemblance to their origins. Their unmooring and drift has often been imperceptible, like the proverbial boiling of the frog. Now, though, the forces against Christian truth, religious liberty, and genuine human freedom rooted in the imago dei are swift and powerful currents. Far too many Christian schools, including conservative evangelical ones and even those in the wider Wesleyan tradition are being swept away from their historical and theological anchors. Indeed, too many campuses have become centers for progressive propaganda and indoctrination.
All of this, in short, points to a pervasive loss of the Christian mind. Harry Blamires reminds us that the most vital task in “reconstituting the Christian mind will be to reestablish the status of objective truth as distinct from personal opinions.” If we ‘unhook’ our Christian worldview from the discussion of spirituality in the marketplace or the classroom, we help perpetuate the discouragement of free intellectual inquiry . In effect, we become theistic existentialists who say that although (for us) truth is rooted in God, it’s validity to the non-Christian world is only determined by its personal value to the individual, not by its nature as divine reality. For a Christian thinker, student, scholar, or professor, this is intellectually dishonest.
As Christian, if we decide we are only going to talk about values and not religious belief, in order to “engage” with those from a non-Christian worldview, we prevent the conversation from moving to the very place we think we are taking it. Indeed, we can and must talk plainly, honestly, and winsomely about our Christian faith while at the same time cultivating an atmosphere of honest intellectual freedom and a respectful listening to others.
This has happened in history and is needed again. Eugene Peterson, pointing to the effect that the Monastic movement and the Protestant Reformation had on human history, said that “Christianity can and will have a considerable impact on culture when it involves thinking at the most fundamental levels…Those who hope to see Christianity affect culture in America and elsewhere must work toward the development of a strong public Christian mind (italics mine)”. . We have no reason to be either afraid of talking “Christian” in the classroom or marketplace.
Too many Christian universities and faculty are increasingly reluctant to face the challenge of remaining truly Christian. The wide path involves either blending or hiding; blending in with the majority silencing the voices of the past, relegating them to the halls of archives and choosing generic spirituality masquerading as “relevance”; or cloistering and hiding away as we become increasingly indifferent and inconsequential, privately holding onto the truth but afraid to let that voice be heard or let its light shine for fear of public scorn, rebuke, attack, or, God forbid, closure.
The narrow, harder way is to be a lighthouse and a beacon to culture, proclaiming truth, offering liberty, and modeling transformation. As Dr. Everett Piper, our president here at Oklahoma Wesleyan, has time and again noted, only institutions that genuinely believe in divine objective truth can be places of truly higher education’s noble ideals of freedom, liberty, critical inquiry, and justice. Our culture is morally adrift and in desperate need of the freedom and power of the classical, Christian liberal arts anchored in a true north of the laws of nature and nature’s God.
No group of people are more significant in that endeavor than our faculty. The recovery effort of Christian higher education begins with the “mind” of the faculty. And it’s not just Blamers or Peterson that beckon us to the recovery of a Christian mind. The medieval Scholastics like Aquinas and Anselm were driven by this sense of “faith seeking understanding,” that God and his nature could be discovered and worshipped using the highest faculty of human reason and intellect.
As Christian professors, we do not live in the tension between faith and intellect. Rather, we can embody for our students a life of integrity in which our minds are in pursuit of divine truth which is revealed and lived out in wisdom and practice. We are called to love God not just with our heart and soul, but with our mind. We find in that, as as thousands of years of history before us, God’s truth is robust and strong enough to not only hold up to the scrutiny of human reason and inquiry, but is the only, ultimate ideal which can fully satisfy and make sense of reality.
So, dear faculty, engaging your students with the full measure of Christian truth as it permeates all disciplines and all subjects is and can be an act of worship and adoration to the God who created and revealed all truth.
 Sirico, R. (2002). The Soul of Liberty. Grand Rapids, MI: The Acton Institute. p. 34.
 Peterson, M. (2001). With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame. p. 206.
Leadership the Wesleyan Way releases July 1 from Emeth Press. Find out more about the book at http://leadershipbook.bryaneasley.com, including a list of contributors and table of contents. We hope to have purchase information and links available soon.
Some wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem, asking to find one who had been born King of the Jews. This was a gutsy question, considering they’ve come into the capital city of Herod the Great, who has been King over the Jews for more than thirty years. But the magi know that Herod, who had been put on the throne by the Romans, is an Edomite of Arab descent and, as such, is an illegitimate king. So they come and ask this powerful king, where is the one born the true king of the Jews, for we have come to worship him? Not surprisingly, King Herod, by nature already paranoid and suspicious, was deeply disturbed and angry.
But who were these men? From the east. There is only one clear and obvious place this could be. If you leave Jerusalem and head east, you cross Arabia and come to Babylon, to the land of the Persians.
They are wise men, magi, or mages, astrologer-philosophers and advisors to the royal court. Persia was the home of Zoroastrianism, a somewhat monotheistic religion anchored in astrology and mysticism. As men of great intellect and insight, the magi sought to discover the destiny of their kings in the movement of heavenly bodies. Now a divinely appointed star in the heavens had brought them to Jerusalem to worship the king of the Jews.
But how did they know about this infant king? Why would they care, much less undertake the arduous trek along the trade highway to come worship a foreign king in a foreign land? How did they know and why did they care?
To find the answer, let’s load up on the iPad of our mind a video clip of history and journey back over 500 years. Here we find a Jewish man who has risen to a position of great influence and prestige. Darius the Mede, King of Babylon, has just promoted Daniel to be a ruler over the whole kingdom. Daniel was second only to the king himself.
Over the preceding years in the Babylonian court, Daniel had gained a great reputation as a wise man, a mage, in his own right. He was not a disciple of Zoroaster, but instead devoted to Yahweh. He was not a reader of the stars, but an interpreter of dreams. And so Daniel did time and time again what none of the king’s other wise men could ever do. The One who made the stars was the One who gave him the insights into the dreams of kings. And it was this One to whom Daniel knelt in prayer every day. His insight came not through his intellect, which was great, but through his great love and devotion to God.
Other men grow jealous of Daniel’s success. Plotting and intrigue were afoot in the court and one day Daniel found himself facing a difficult choice: stop praying to Yahweh and bend a knee only to the king or face certain death. When Daniel heard the news, he went to his house and, exactly as he he had done every other day, got down on his knees before God. Before nightfall, he was in the lions’ den.
The next morning, King Darius, a friend of Daniel, is relieved to find Daniel alive and unharmed. And so he issues another decree that “everyone throughout my kingdom should tremble with fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God and he will endure forever!”
But this wasn’t Daniel’s first experience with such stark choices and dramatic consequences. Let’s slide our video back just a bit more to Daniel’s youth. Here we see four young Hebrew men, handsome, highly intelligent, skillful, and bursting with potential. The Babylonian custom in conquering other nations was to bring the brightest and best young people back and raise them as scholars and leaders for Babylonian society. It’s how you cultivate the cream of the crop from across your empire. Daniel, along with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are chosen for such privileged preparation. They are to be given the best accommodations, the best education, the best food and clothing, the full riches and pleasures of the king’s court.
Daniel, however, resolves that they will remain pure and not defile themselves with privileges and pleasures of the king. As a result, God gives the young men great learning and skill in literature, wisdom, and knowledge. When the time comes for them to be tested before Nebuchadnezzar, he finds them ten times better than all his other wise men. They are given positions of leadership and influence, Daniel in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, and the other three throughout Babylon.
Like with Darius, though, political and spiritual opposition arises. A decree is passed, the people are assembled and ordered to worship before a ninety-foot tall golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel is apparently elsewhere at the time, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down to the statue. They are hauled before the king and threatened with instant execution if they will not bow. But again they refuse, so they are thrown into the blazing hot furnace. There, as you may know, God miraculously protects and delivers them. Nebuchadnezzar, seeing this powerful divine intervention, brings them out of the fire and promotes them to an even higher place of authority in the province. He then issues another decree declaring the supremacy of the God of the Jews and proclaiming praises of the Most High God! Just as Darius will later, Nebuchadnezzar also now bows before Yahweh.
In these two snapshots, four young adult men, perhaps not much older than many of you here, stood strong and tall in the face of a culture that demanded they give in to the appetites of the flesh and bow down in worship to a false god, even while everybody around them was rushing and clamoring to do just that. Can you imagine how hard this was? How easy it would have been to just give in, to go along, to rush forward with the tide of culture and social pressure. Imagine the temptations in their hearts and minds: We are special, were are elite, we are the gifted. We deserve the opportunities, we ought to have the privileges and riches being offered to us.
What conversations might they have had? Do you think they realized what was at stake? Hey, guys, if we don’t bow down here, we will lose this opportunity for a great future, we will lose our place of influence, we will lose our positions or power. We could lose our scholarships. We could lose our place on the team. We could lose our friends. We could be mocked or killed! All we have to do is say yes to culture. It’s easier to conform, to just go along with the crowd. Especially when you are at the top. But Daniel, Shedrach, Meshach, and Adednego stood firm, they stood tall, they stood alone.
How did they do it? It was not the superiority of their intellect, not their skills in debate or their persuasive rhetoric. It was not their creativity or passion. It was not their GPA or SAT scores. They could stand tall because of their love and devotion to God. They could stand tall because their intellectual gifts had been surrendered to the God who had given them.
And because these Jewish young men living in the midst of a hostile culture stood tall, the kings of Babylon and Persia bowed before the God of the universe. Five centuries later, wise men from this same land, bearing in their history and cultural heritage this story of Daniel, would see a star, rightly interpret its meaning, and come seeking to bow down in worship before the baby they recognized to be the true king of the earth.
When culture demands you bend your knee to idols — and it is — or that you proclaim as true that which is false — and it is — or that you celebrate and cheer while society rushes headlong into destruction, how will you stand? It will be only because of your love and devotion to God; only if you have an intimate walk with Jesus, only because your your absolute reliance and trust in him, that you will be able to stand.
We are facing a watershed moment in our nation’s existence. Some of you may sense that just as your parents and I do. If our culture is to be saved, it will be only God who delivers. But if it happens, how will it come to pass?
It will come because young men and women like you, handsome and beautiful each in your own way, talented, gifted in intellect and intelligence, bursting with creativity, passion and skill choose to live first and foremost out of love and devotion to God.
Pursue intelligence, persuasive speech, wisdom, and knowledge! By all means, pursue these. Develop these gifts! But anchor that in a deep and abiding love of God. Do not pursue the one without the other. The Apostle Paul was himself a brilliant scholar and thinker, trained by some of the best Greek minds of his day. Remember his words from 1 Corinthians 13: if we have the wisdom, intellect, or great powers of persuasion but are without love, we are merely harsh, clashing, clanging metal noise, we are nothing, we are useless.
Your intellect can make you great, but it will not make you good.
You may win debates and have the right ideas, but that does not mean you are righteous.
Your resume and academic accomplishments can give you a great career, but they will not guarantee you godly character.
Instead, “fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Follow the example of Paul and “count everything as loss for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus as your Lord.” Love God not only with your mind, but with all your soul and heart.
If you possess great talent, gifts, and intellect, but are not living out of a deep love of God, like Nebuchadnezzar, you will in time come to expect and demand that others bow down before you.
But if you will surrender your talent, gifts, and intellect to God and pursue a love of him above all else, you will be ready and able to stand strong in the onslaught of a hostile culture. When you and other young men and women like you will stand strong in your love of God, through you, just as with Daniel and his friends, cultures, nations, and kings will someday bow before the King of all Kings.
Written as a brief reflection for the final 2015 issue of Oklahoma Wesleyan’s Connect:ED faculty newsletter.
As I write this, I am sitting in my daughter’s room at St. Francis Children’s Hospital here in Tulsa. She was admitted yesterday with a severe eye infection requiring several days of antibiotics. For the fifth time in the last 18 months, I have again been deeply touched by the ministry of the nurses and doctors who serve in these hospitals. They treat my daughter like family. They are kind, patient, loving, and servant-hearted. They have brought her Christmas gifts, changed bedding, and hunted down a favorite pudding flavor. Above all, they have been great sources of encouragement and hope.
Some of those who serve in this hospital or those like it all across Oklahoma and even Kansas are OKWU graduates. I am yet again aware of the effects on society that your ministry as adjunct faculty and Christian educators makes every day. Whether it be in the life of the senior pastor leading a small rural congregation, the store manager at the local Home Depot, the pediatric or emergency nurse, the assistant principal at the nearby middle school, or the young professional seeking training in apologetics in order to connect to non-believing coworkers: these are the real people whose lives you are helping shape. And they, in turn, are touching countless numbers of other lives every day. Week by week, the influence of Oklahoma Wesleyan ripples across the world quietly by powerfully. There are times when that influence is very public, like when Dr. Piper’s post that OKWU is a university and not a daycare recently went viral. We are grateful for the publicity and exposure those events afford us, but the long-term measure of OKWU’s vision is in the day-by-day work of our students and alumni wherever they are.
So, today, I am looking at our work not through the eyes of a dean or professor but of a father who deeply loves his hurting, suffering daughter. At this Christmas season, we remember that God is also a father looking with compassion upon a groaning, broken creation that he loves. Out of that deep love for us, he incarnated himself, he embedded himself into our circumstances, he identified with us in our humanness, he did what we could not do for ourselves: he closed the distance between us and himself.
As we celebrate Christ’s birth and real presence in our world, let’s take time to see our work as adjunct professors as an expression of God’s incarnation in the lives of our students. Look for opportunities to engage them as real people with real lives. Find ways to identify with them in their calling, their passions, their fears, and even their life challenges. Share those burdens as they struggle to balance work, family, and education. Be a listening ear as they face the stress of falling behind on assignments because of sick kids or problems at work. Be flexible and gracious in allowing opportunities to handle these challenges. But at the same time, point them to a better future. Challenge them to see the possibilities of who they can become as a result of attaining their education. Set the standards for quality high and then push them toward that with love, encouragement, and firm gentleness. For when you do — when you become incarnate in the lives of your students and help them become the best they can be in the midst of the messiness of life — they become vessels well-equipped and ready to embrace the challenges of the world into which they are called to serve.
As I sit and watch my sick daughter be ministered to by her nurse through excellent professional training wedded to deeply compassionate humanity, I am watching the reality of God made flesh at work in the world. Because God was man, we can love and truly serve others as God does. Because God was man, he can work through our lives to heal, encourage, or equip others. In Jesus, God dwelt among us as one of us. In the Holy Spirit, God dwells in us and works through us for the redemption of creation. So, this Christmas, live and teach out of the incarnation of a loving, good, compassionate Father who wants nothing but the best for his children. Let’s let that reality characterize the way we approach our teaching ministry to our adult students!
Merry Christmas and may you know the rich presence of Jesus this week,
Previous Parts: 1 | 2
“In the breaking of bread, fellowship is restored
and the one that has denied, rejected, and fled
is invited once again into the participation of the divine life.”
There they are, Peter and these weary, defeated disciples. Maybe in their minds, former disciples.
“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says.
In these words, through the offering of a meal, the Savior offers the restoration of fellowship and human dignity. To quote the late great Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Burning coals. Bread and fish. A meal together with Jesus.
We’ve been here before. Whether or not John the Gospel writer intended the symbolism, it is obvious and powerful.
- Peter’s denial in the evening courtyard around the fire.
- The miracle of supernatural provision in the feeding of five thousand.
- The Passover meal in the Upper Room
That last Passover meal: maybe Peter’s last good memory of himself before it all fell apart. If that was the Last Supper, this is the Last Breakfast. And, as has every act of corporate communion since, there on that foggy beach, breakfast plays the role of the Eucharistic feast. In the breaking of bread, fellowship is restored and the one that has denied, rejected, and fled is invited once again into the participation of the divine life.
The Return of the King
There is a sense in which Peter’s redemption is incomplete until this moment. The resurrection itself remained a great mystery to these disciples. There hangs over the whole diorama here an air of bewilderment and confusion. Jesus is alive! The wonder, the awe – what does it mean? Who is he, an apparition? Thomas wonders. Even today, the resurrection by itself is incomplete without the appearance in the flesh of the risen Lord. It is not enough to us or to Him that He rose – He has come back to be with us.
Jesus didn’t merely rise. He returned. That changes everything.
He promises his disciples in the early hours just before his arrest: “I will not leave you alone!” He is not just alive but is living, walking, talking, loving, and eating with his disciples. Here Peter is restored to His teacher, lover and Lord. Thomas Oden has said that “nothing is more characteristic of the church’s essential identity and self-offering than bathing and feeding.” Every person needs a bath and a meal. Jesus, the Divine Word of God’s goodness to his world, offers a meal. What a picture of the divine Savior! John the Revelator, the one recounting this beautiful scene, speaks of this portrait of salvation in the form of Christ standing at the door and knocking. “And if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” Says Jesus to the humbled and shamed leader, to the rock of His church, “Come and have breakfast with me.”
Our salvation and redemption is ultimately to bring us into the joyful and very real presence of Jesus the Christ, Blessed Son of God, to share from His table, see his face, and converse with Him freely and without shame. For Peter, this is the prelude to Pentecost but it is the beginning again of his life. The direction and depth of his life is set on a new trajectory and we are the legacy of his obedience.
Fifty-two years of my own life’s history came together right here in this chapel a little over one week ago. In 1952, Gordon, a 37-year old dairy farmer and father of 6 heard the call of God in his own life and entered into the ministry. With his own hands he built the church building for the local congregation he began in their small Oklahoma farm town. Eight years later, Rev. W. Talmadge Johnson ordained Gordon as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene.
On a Friday night in 2004, I knelt at an altar and Dr. W. Talmadge Johnson — the son of the man who ordained my grandfather — laid his hands on my head, ordaining me as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene. As he stood before me and the entire congregation, he recounted for us his own memory of watching his father all those years ago bring my grandfather and his entire extended family into the church. As I listened, my mind was consumed with the words of the liturgy we had just spoken moments earlier, words that I could imagine my own father and his father before him having heard: “As a priest, you are to lead the people of God in worship, to administer the holy sacraments, and to be an instrument of God’s benediction in the church.”
More than five decades ago, my grandfather, Gordon Easley, heard those words coming to him, words of benediction, words of God’s good news. He responded with his life, family, and vocation and today I am a product of that legacy. In my own home, I am a priest raising up a fifth, perhaps sixth generation of men and women that know and follow God. That’s the power of the presence and the call of Jesus Christ in one life.
An instrument of God’s benediction: Vessels, conveyors, incarnate messengers of God’s goodness and freedom and redemption. People need to hear the good words of God, words of release, fulfillment, restoration and redemption. This is the climactic moment of the post-resurrection story, I believe. This account of Jesus’ appearance is unique; it is much more personal and conversational. In this story, the Word made Flesh is the bearer of the words of redemption and restoration. God’s redemption can never be detached from the person who brings it. Marhsall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” The Apostle John said, “The Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That divine Person who now lives among us is our hope of both the now and the yet to come.
Several years ago, my son Jacob and I stood by the graveside casket of my great-Aunt Thelma listening to the wind and the singing of the gathered mourners. I closed my eyes, felt the wind tugging at my hair, felt the warm grasp of a four year old’s little hand in mine, smelled the sweet mesquite and sage in the wind and thought of the goodness of that moment. There was real comfort and joy present right then. I could see it in the eyes and tears of my grandfather and his three siblings, all in their late 80’s – they all walked with Jesus and had for many, many years. The soaring strains of my father’s violin and the words of the hymn floated through the warm, prairie air, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!” The promise of hope, words of good news – words of benediction even in the face of death.
Jesus is God’s blessed Word of goodness to his world, a Benediction showing up as a person to people mired in the dismal and often disappointing patterns of life. His face, his actions, his words of invitation transform those circumstances and change us! We are likewise called, as men and women bearing the mantle of divine ordination as leaders to be vessels of God’s good words to His world. We see, hear, and follow, even as we invite others to see, hear, and follow us.