Ernie McDougal’s Easter Sermon

My friend Ernie McDougal preached the Easter Sunrise service at Little United Methodist Church in Little, West Virginia. I wanted to share what he had to say here. Especially since I’m in an academic MDiv program, it is easy to get so “head-based” in my studies that I can wander from the heart of my faith. Whenever theories about Christianity take the place of relationship with Jesus, I know I’m going off-track. It’s good when a friend can preach a reminder; even better when it’s on Easter Sunday. Here’s what he had to say about John 20:1-18, and the empty tomb:

What does it mean to you? For Mary it meant joy. The joy of knowing that her Lord is alive. The story of Jesus appearing to Mary is said to fulfill the promise made by Jesus in John 16:20-22:

“Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

I believe this to be true, but, I also believe that it is perfect example of how lost and hopeless we are without Jesus. You see for me, the empty tomb and the story of Jesus appearing to Mary means hope for me. The way that I read that story, and imagine Mary feeling, is exactly the way I felt about life before Jesus found me. I’m not saying that every moment of every day of my life was pure hopelessness and misery. If I stood up here and said that I would be a liar because I had many happy experiences as a child, an adolescent, and as an adult. I’m talking about when I had truly gone too far, past the point of no return, and was truly lost and could not find a way out of the darkness. I was lost and hopeless, like Mary in garden, when she thought the man that she was convinced was her Lord had truly perished upon that cross and been taken from her. To top it off, now someone had even taken his body from the tomb in which he had laid to rest. She was lost without him, weeping in mourning of her Lord. Then suddenly, her Lord was standing right in front of her and her tears turned to joy. I still get lost from time to time, but, the difference is that I know now that even when I have no idea where to turn, I can always turn towards Jesus and he will be there, right in front of me.

The fact that Mary found an empty tomb that morning also means that I am never alone. Many people fear death and what awaits them “on the other side.” Do I fear death? Not knowing how it will happen is a little scary but, then again, knowing might be even scarier. If you really consider that concept for a minute you get what I mean. However, no matter how scared or not I am of dying, I know that even in the event of leaving my physical body behind and literally entering into the Kingdom I am still not alone. In fact, Jesus has already been there and prepared a way for me. Not only has he prepared a way, he has also prepared a place for me. He will stand with me before the Father and nothing else will be required of me.

Jesus’ ascent and return to the Father enables the disciples to share fully in his relationship with God. What is true of Jesus’ relationship with God (“my Father”, “my God”) is now true of the disciples’ relationship with God (“your Father,” “your God”). Those who believe have become children of God (John 1:3).

You see, for me, the empty tomb means that I am not empty. I have all that I need, now and forever. The empty tomb is the world for me without Jesus, just an empty tomb. When Jesus arose and found me I was standing there lost, alone, and so afraid I was no longer living life. I was like Mary at first, I didn’t know who had found me. Then I heard him speak and the darkness became light, my tears became joy and I forgot my anguish; because I had been brought forth, resurrected with him. The empty tomb means HE LIVES. The empty tomb means I LIVE.

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The Necessity of Spiritual Healing for Justice Activists

activists-awareness-belief-1799245

Christians who take Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats seriously understand that we are called to serve “the least of these” in love. In addition to individual acts of mercy, many have come to understand that providing aid to “the least” means addressing the systems of inequality that skew our collective resources toward “the most” instead. This leads to various expressions of justice activism.

I am by no means a fervent activist. While I have attended some protests, I am more likely to express my convictions through volunteering, letter writing, phone calls, donations, conversations, and prayer, and service. Yet I know members of my seminary, friends, and those in local activist communities give more of themselves and take much greater risks. And I know activist efforts take a toll. My friends have suffered compassion fatigue, burnout, and shame and guilt at not being able to offer more when community demands are pressing. Working for justice takes a physical and emotional toll. It takes a spiritual toll as well. Continue reading

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SPS Day Three

Friday night I stopped by the student reception following the evening plenary. I got to say hello and meet fellow students but folded early. Saturday was the final day of the conference and just as packed with interesting papers and exciting connections. There was an early conversation I’m sorry I missed called #pentecostalsisterstoo: Pentecostal responses to #MeToo. Apparently it was a continuation from a conversation started last year in response to #MeToo for women in Pentecostal contexts. All were welcome. I heard from a couple of women who attended that it was a powerful space for honest sharing.

The final plenary was delivered by Mark Cartledge, SPS President. His presentation was “Being Human and Sex Trafficking: A Theological Response in the Light of Pentecost.” Cartledge noted that he had never heard a Pentecostal theological response to human trafficking; instead, Pentecostals are assumed to fall under the North American evangelical umbrella response. As a British Anglican clergymen, he found this regrettable and inaccurate. He touched on the problematic nature of American evangelical attitudes to this issue, but most of his time was spent detailing a richer ecclesial response rooted in the Lukan understanding of Pentecost. He provided thoughtful insights.

The student caucus luncheon followed. This was a valuable time for making connections with students like myself pursing their Master’s degrees as well as those in PhD programs. Many schools were represented. From the Methodist family, I saw students from Duke, Iliff, and Asbury (though not UMC, I gather it is a common school for Methodists). I spoke to one Duke student about the attitude on campus following St. Louis. We shared the pain our friends were going through and discussed how it might be addressed at SPS next year.

I will conclude with some wisdom that was shared, both among women and students pursuing academics in the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions:

Find your voice and use it.

Find your people and be with your people.

There are some people you cannot persuade. Stop wasting your energy on them and focus on working together with those who will listen.

Do something creative that is not school related–anything that gets your brain to change gears. Playing an instrument. Crocheting. Coloring is easy and fun.

Find a balance between productive anger and alienating anger. You cannot stay long enough to make change in your churches and institutions if you push back so hard you get thrown out of them.

SPS was an amazing time. Thank you again to MTSO for providing a grant for me to attend. I hope to go back next year if I can!

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SPS: Day Two

Day Two of the conference began with the Women’s Caucus breakfast. This was a space for women to connect, share our experiences, and learn from one another. We also got a chance to find out who was in each interest group (Biblical Studies, Christian Ethics, Ecumenical Studies, History, Missions/Intercultural Studies, Philosophy, Practical Theology, Religion and Culture, and Theology). Only two other women were in my interest group (Theology). This is a rich field for the development of women’s voices in this tradition.

The afternoon plenary was delivered by Robert Berg. He spoke on the reception history of the phrase “All Men Are Created Equal” in differing times and circumstances. He noted how the Pentecostal understanding of this phrase in the United States changed between 1917 and 1945. Early Pentecostalism was aligned with the “peace churches” as part of their theology; it was only later on that this shifted. Understanding reception history allows for a different understanding of this phrase today.

After the plenary the interest groups gathered to talk about directions for presentations for 2020. I joined with the Theology group to discuss next year’s theme: “This is My Body: Addressing Global Violence Against Women.” I followed this with a talk on Pentecostal Pneumatology, then the evening plenary. Kimberly Alexander’s topic was “Receiving the Spirit in the Early Pentecostal Body: Sanctification, Spirit Baptism, and the Lamb Slain for All Sinners.” She focused on people’s written accounts of their embodied experiences of receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit across different times. Early Methodist accounts were included. I found some interesting crossovers with Dr. Lobody’s Spiritual Autobiography in the Methodist Tradition class. In fact, Dr. Alexander even called early Methodists proto-Pentecostals! As a Methodist seminary, it is important for us at MTSO to remember we share common roots with today’s Pentecostal and charismatic tradition. It is interesting to study the turns that path has taken.

So much for Day Two. Tomorrow I’ll cover Day Three. Take care!

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SPS Conference: Day One

My incredible seminary, the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, graciously provided me with a student enrichment grant to attend the annual conference of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. Thank you, MTSO, for supporting students in our vocational journeys! This year the conference was held at the Marriott in College Park, Maryland, from February 28th to March 2nd. Estrelda Alexander was our host. She is the author of numerous texts on the Pentecostal movement, including Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African American Pentecostalism. This year’s theme was Reception History: Receiving Scripture in the Pentecostal and Charismatic Traditions.

I appreciated that all of the academic material is presented from an ecumenically informed and engaged Pentecostal and charismatic perspective. In my experience, this tradition is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. So I hope to provide some insights into this branch of the Christian family while sharing what I learned. The conference was three days packed full of papers, worship, prayer, and connecting with other charismatic and Pentecostal traditions across a wide spectrum. There were breakout sessions throughout the day along with a plenary session on Thursday and Saturday, and two on Friday. Of course I experienced much more than I can cover here. If you want to hear more, please ask!

On Thursday I arrived in time to attend an afternoon session. I got to hear a fascinating paper by Anna Droll, a PhD student from Fuller Theological Seminary. She spoke on the role of dreams and visions in early Pentecostalism and how these phenomena are understood scripturally by segments of the global church today. Then I got to hear Skyler Reidy from USC speak on the experience of embodied sanctification in Southern California in the period preceding and including Azusa Street. I am especially interested in embodied spirituality, so I found his work fascinating. In the early evening breakout session, Rodolfo Estrada III spoke on what it means to be “born of the Spirit” in the Age of Trump. He noted that many Christians have placed native birth in the U.S. ahead of our new birth in the Spirit and noted the scriptural problems with and sinfulness of this understanding.

The evening plenary session begin with a time of praise and worship. Then the talk was delivered by Lisa Bowens, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Bowens spoke on African American Pauline Hermeneutics, specifically the ways in which African American Pentecostals have taken the writings of Paul and appropriated them for their own liberation. She brought her analysis into the present, talking about the injustice of how black bodies are treated and how African American Pentecostals are using Paul’s words to speak back against these abuses. When I asked if churches were using scripture to engage with the Black Lives Matter Movement, she admitted that that is an ongoing conversation in the churches she is acquainted with, but it is a conversation.

Those are the highlights from Day One! Stay tuned for Day Two tomorrow!

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Atonement and Sexual Assault Victims: Redemption for the Sinned Against

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The spate of recent headlines about sexual abuse and victimization in the Church have made clear the prevalence of these crimes. The revelation of decades of abuse by Southern Baptist pastors and complicity by denominational leaders is only the most recent example. Willow Creek Community Church is still addressing the reverberations of trauma surrounding accusations of harassment against women. Sexual abuse is rampant outside the church as well. According to statistics compiled by the Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network (RAINN), one in six women in the United States “has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).”[1] Much-needed discussion surrounding prevention and accountability in leadership is beginning to take place. Churches must also address how they treat women who have been sexually abused, both within and without the church.

In addition to these needed reforms, Christians must examine how our underlying theology may continue to damage victims rather than offer redemption. If what is preached from the pulpit, embodied in song and worship, and internalized by the congregation does not offer a message of hope and healing for those who have been most cruelly abused, it is not the good news of Jesus Christ. In particular, our understanding of atonement—how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus brings us into reconciliation with God—must be examined carefully.

Elaine Heath details how women who have suffered sexual abuse have been unable to find their churches’ conceptions of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) salvific. According to the presentation of PSA that I and many other Pentecostals and evangelicals in North America were raised with, Jesus takes on the punishment that we rightfully deserve as sinners by dying on the cross, thereby appeasing God’s wrath toward us. In naming the pain this view of God causes toward women who are sexually abused, Heath vulnerably names herself as a survivor:

“Many of us survivors have been steeped in the theory of penal substitutionary atonement…. Yet the logic never rang true or trustworthy or acceptable to us. Even when we sang the hymns and taught Sunday school and said the penal substitutionary formula about salvation, we were appalled. We knew that with all our human faults we would never subject our children to torture and murder in order to pay off someone’s offense. Could we be more loving and forgiving than God?… We had to leave the church because we could not stay in a religion that was built on punishment, wrath, and abuse. The God of that religion was exactly like our offenders, and we had to get away.”[2]

Clearly this understanding of the cross has not been “good news” for these victimized women. For those abused by clergy, not only is their connection to self and God broken, but they are robbed of a saving message in Christ to heal the brokenness. PSA is not only rooted in wrath and punishment; it is one-sided as well. There is freedom for the sinner. But what about the sinned against?

No council has ever declared PSA or any other atonement theory the sole explanation for the mystery of how Jesus’ death reconciles us toward God. Throughout Christian history, theologians have offered models that speak in life-giving ways to those from differing times and places. Those who have been abused can live more fully into the promise of new life in Christ when they can embody visions that heal rather than exacerbate their pain. Andrew Sung Park offers one such model.

Park, a Korean-American theologian, incorporates the concept of han into his understanding of atonement. Sin against a person results in “frozen energy,” a sense of helplessness. The states of sin and han are not mutually exclusive; sinners and the sinned against may experience both and perpetuate them in a vicious cycle.

According to Matthew 8:17, in his ministry of healing Jesus “took our infirmities and bore our diseases,” rather than our sin or iniquity. To Park, this represents his bearing of our han.[4] In Park’s soteriology, the Holy Spirit who had been present with Jesus throughout his life was also crucified and resurrected with him. This “wounded and resurrected Holy Spirit”[5] is the Paraclete who is now with us. Because the Holy Spirit underwent the crucifixion and resurrection with Jesus, she understands the depths of unjust suffering. Through the resurrection, the Paraclete becomes a “wounded healer,” tasked “to comfort the comfortless, to advocate for the rights of victims, to uplift the discouraged, to help the helpless, and to teach people about Jesus’ instruction.”[6] Because she underwent victimhood with Jesus on the cross, the Paraclete “knows our own unknowable and indescribable hurts of han, and heals them in us as we open ourselves to the Paraclete.”[7] She “makes victims well by empowering them also to become wounded healers.”[8] In their healing, victims move from a state of frozen immobility to regenerated beings, trusting in God and awakened to Jesus’ redemption for them.

This vision is also robustly Pentecostal. Rather than a model that makes atonement solely an exchange between Father and Son, the Holy Spirit plays a pivotal role. She both participates in the death and resurrection of Jesus and brings his healing into our lives as we open ourselves to him. In this view, sexual assault victims find not pain but healing through the cross. They are freed in the life of the Spirit to share the healing they have experienced outward, to all creation.

[1] Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network, “Scope of the Problem: Statistics,” https://www.rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem. Data from National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey (1998).

[2] Elaine A. Heath, We Were the Least of These: Reading the Bible with Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), 130.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Andrew Sung Park, Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 43.

[5] Ibid., 62.

[6] Ibid., 67.

[7] Ibid., 68.

[8] Ibid., 67.

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