In Memoriam: The Epoch of Richard Harper

One of the great tragedies of life is that we can be living in the middle of an epochal moment and take it for granted, pretending the moment somehow will live forever or that the people with whom we share life will continue in their station unabated. We are prisoners of the present, even for those of us who are conscientious about the past. Yet at that moment when the past enters the present, through another epochal reminder, the tragedy of our forgetfulness comes pouring into our senses and we see clearly that we had the privilege of living through, and with, an epochal shift in life.

This week, I was reminded of an epochal shift, one marked not by a large impersonal universal event, but one marked by the impact of a life that had been shared with me for a few brief years.

You see, an epoch is a period that denotes change, and when I heard that Richard Harper had passed away, I quickly realized he had been an epochal moment in my life, a moment of subtle shaping, as a river shapes rock after years of continual flowing.

This is the beautiful tragedy of an epoch: even as we are witness to it, living through it, we are only aware of the change it has pressed into us when it is over.

When Richard came to Cleveland I had not long been out of seminary, graduating Mercer in 2008. As one trained to be a pastor, and Richard being a pastor, we had much in common. It was not hard for my 30-year-old self to befriend 70-year-old Richard and I could tell he was eager to take on another pupil. In a world lacking mentors, Richard embraced that role and felt it was his calling to stand alongside of young pastors.

Rather than reinforcing a cultural wall of separation between seniors and young people, the decades and generational differences seemed to be the magnetic ingredient that brought us together, connecting two pastors born 5 decades apart (He in 1938, myself in 1981) yet intimately interested in becoming all that God had created us to be. At the time, I was ignorant of this Epoch, but over the next several years I found myself as a part of a sort of ministerial dream team, surrounded by men of wisdom, meekness, understanding ministry, and an uncompromising commitment to Scripture.

Richard had a saying, and of course it was a literal Proverbial one, “Iron sharpens Iron, “hearkening back to old Hebrew Wisdom found in Proverbs 27.17.
He had a calling to not only shape others, to change others for the sake of the Gospel and with the Gospel, but also to be shaped by the Gospel and by others. He firmly believed that through one another God is making us into the people he was calling us to be.

With this conviction, we had a season of several years in which Richard led a team of pastors in the area through morning meetings. Sometimes the gatherings would consist of the team at our local Cleveland Nazarene Church, sometimes it would include us and Nazarene Ministers from the Chattanooga area, but always it was meant to be an occasion of iron sharpening iron, our hearts and thoughts tempering one another within the warm grinding of our words.

As we met, Richard would usually start us off with a topic or he would ask if anyone had anything that we wanted to discuss, and from there the fireworks would be organic. I can see Richard now, as he leans over the table, grinning ear to ear, talking about the ministry and putting a finer edge to a point he had perhaps never seen before. He was an animated speaker, an active listener, and a constant encourager. He wanted to include as many as possible in these groups in which we would discuss culture, salvation, sanctification, preaching, etc. You name it and we probably covered it in those meetings. Those meetings were gifts and they were started by Richard. He was the spirit of the meetings, and when he and Roberta moved to Jackson they ceased, but the indelible impression left on those of us who participated in them cannot be understated.

One of the things that made Richard a powerful role model and attractive to many, a person worth listening to, was his humble spirit and desire to grow spiritually. He was in love with God and he was in love with scripture. He was desirous that all would find themselves so in love and his life pointed you in that direction.

Contrary to the image of the older Christian curmudgeon who is set in their ways, only wants to fight culture wars, and has crystallized their own sense of doctrine and knows the meaning of every single Bible verse, his life was a deconstruction of this very image. In my early 30’s I had never met an older Nazarene pastor that was as humble in his spirit and as open about his quest to know more, and learn more, than Richard Harper. How much more wisdom and insight could he gain after nearly 50 years of walking with Jesus and being in ministry? Yet, he had not arrived. His singular focus was to know God more deeply and he encouraged everyone around him to dive deeper into that well of living water.

I have sat at the feet of Richard as he provided keen insights and heard him preach many sermons, but there is one lesson that stands out amongst them all: salvation and holiness is not a fixed moment in time; it is a daily deeper walk with Jesus. This is a lesson that is easy to comprehend, but it is quite another to see it lived. I believe Richard would like to think I remembered a thing or two he taught me, but I believe he would be most pleased that his life was the best example of all.

I am still lost in wonder that a man born in 1938 was not stuck in the era in which he grew up. He was conditioned by his life experiences, but he did not let vestiges of bygone theological and ministerial eras stagnate his spirit. Coming from an era in which many of his peers would have understood walking with God in a momentary and transactional way, even quite legalistically, Richard embodied what it means to be holy. For him, holiness did not mean he had arrived at the pinnacle of Christian experience; it very literally meant his heart was now receptive to hearing God speak more softly. Holiness was the fine tuning of the spirit, not its final formation. Richard understood sanctity as a constant quest, a constant submission to God, and he was transparent about the obstacles posed by his own humanity.

He had an active faith and as such was a walking saint, even though at the time I only knew him as Richard.

One of my fondest memories of Richard was when he was present on a morning I would be preaching. I would often stare into the congregational sea of faces, and there, on the left side of the church, would be Richard and Roberta sitting beside one another. He was often in deep thought considering my words, smiling in agreement, or maybe even considering how crazy I was. If it was the latter, he never let on. Afterward, he was the first one to meet me and I can hear his voice even now.

He would approach me with his perfectly manicured silver hair, Elvis-like in orientation, often wearing a tie, and holding in his holster a firm handshake, and he would extend his hand to mine and say “Wow. Wow. Wow. If we could only grasp the implications of that scripture! That was the truth! Great Job!”

The entire time Richard would be smiling, putting his hands on my shoulder, and affirming the Word I had been given. I was not deceived into believing that I was the second coming of Billy Graham, after all I still have a day job, but what these moments did for me was confirm my calling and my intuitions.

As a young minister with much to learn, Richard was there to offer words of encouragement and to grow along with me. I had many supporters in my ministerial team in Cleveland, but chief among them was Richard Harper. He undoubtedly thought better of me than he should have. He was a father figure, placed in Cleveland by God, iron placed to sharpen iron.

Earlier this week, I received an email from Richard’s account. I looked down in puzzlement wondering if Richard had set up a posthumous message in the event of his passing. He was one of the most thoughtful persons I had ever met, so this would have surprised me little. It was his son Scott, whom I think I have only met once, sending us a final email from Richard, bringing closure to an electronic correspondence that Richard would send his fellow pastors and friends from time to time.

In much the same way that Jesus would send the Holy Spirit in his absence, so Richard would send us what he called “one pagers,” in his absence. Though he had gone to Middle Tennessee to be with family, he would be present with us left behind in his “one pagers.” In these documents, Richard would extrapolate in detail the things he was learning, new “light” being shown to him by God, scripture he was considering and its implications. At the close of a “one pager” was always an encouragement to go further into faith, to step into a deeper part of Gods pool of refreshment. I did not respond to many of them, but I read them and often let Richards devotional time become mine.

As I read this final “one pager” written by Scott, I thought to myself, “This could have come directly from Richard…” It sounded just like him. What a powerful final thought given to us, by Richard, through his son.

So to Scott specifically, I want to say especially on this day…I mourn with you, but be encouraged, the apple does not fall far from the tree. You are his son. You carry him with you forever. Thank you for sharing him with all of us and thank you for these very fitting final words. I pray God’s peace be extended to you and your family in these coming days and years.

The Gospel of John notes there many more things that could have been written about Jesus if only there had been enough pages to contain them. Similarly, I am certain it would take many books to fill the pages with Richards 81 years of life. My words are but hints toward the fullness of the epochal change that has been left in the world because Richard live in it.

Today, the church and his family will bury some of the grace given to us known as Richard Harper. To use an image given to me by Scott, today the road will meet the heavens.

To Richard I say, “Thank you for being a friend, mentor, encourager, an example of Christ, and a model of what the Christian life should be. May God embrace you with his spirit, may his love consume you as you enter his rest and may that which you so vigorously pursued now burst in your sight!”

I was witness to the epoch Richard Harper. Richard was witness to the Epoch of Jesus. May we all live from this day forward as people who have encountered them both.

The Beauty of Love: Learning from Thomas Jay Oord

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As the events at Northwest Nazarene University continue to unravel in the coming weeks, I wanted to offer some positive words about my good friend Tom Oord, and perhaps introduce him to those who know the man of the books, but could also benefit from knowing the man behind them.

It was the year 2003 and I was a senior Religion major at Trevecca Nazarene University. I had worked hard, emerged from the cocoon of my theological raising, and spent the last 4 years of my life preparing for ministry. For my efforts, the Religion  Dept at TNU granted me the Systematic Theology Award for my graduating class. We had lots of smart folks in my class that year, folks whom I highly respect, so getting this award was a surprise even as it was an affirmation of how hard I had worked, how much I had read and the newly assimilated theology I was beginning to develop.

The award didn’t grant a person much, just bragging rights and a piece of paper with my theology professor’s signature (Dr. Henry Spaulding, now president of Mount Vernon Nazarene University). It also included a 25$ gift card to Cokesbury bookstore in downtown Nashville. My four years at TNU taught me to love books…making this 25$ almost as awesome as the award itself.

I’ll never forget the book I bought.

I perused the shelves and looked at all the textual options until I came across a book edited by a fellow Nazarene, a scholar with whom I had only began to become acquainted in my studies at TNU. The book was Tom Oord’s dual editorial with Bryan P. Stone, Thy Name and Nature is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue. This book absolutely peeked my interest. I had begun to really appreciate process theology at the time (at least as much as an undergrad religion major could) and was definitely interested in seeing how my Wesleyan roots might connect with this more progressive theological movement that placed a heavy emphasis on God’s relationship with creation, rather than God’s relationship above or in juxtaposition to it.

Tom’s article “A Process Wesleyan Theodicy: Freedom, Embodiment, and The Almighty God,” radically shaped the way I thought about Theodicy, a theme that was very important in his earlier work and continues to echo in his more direct explorations of Love. One could argue that this early essay is an issue that continues to motivate Tom as he continues to think about things like sin, death, evil, salvation and freedom in light of God’s name and nature of holy love.

As a young theology student I was really struggling with ideas central to the idea of God and our doctrine of such. One thing I came out of TNU clearly convinced of: classical theism and Greek Metaphysical theologies couched in the Bible didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I needed something more and I needed it to be more biblical and more Wesleyan.

Tom gave that to me.

He talked about how we as creatures are free and that God does not over-ride our freedom even to perform God’s will. He discussed the nature of evil and how God wishes to deal with evil through the almighty persuasion of human bodies to shape history and proclaim God’s goodness. The concept of “indirect bodily impact,” that God chooses to shape the world through us, not in spite of us, made a lot of sense methodologically and it was consistent with the ideas that God is holy, God is love, and we as creatures are free.

Most indicting in this essay is when Tom is busy being a great teacher and delineating differences of various theodicy’s employed in the church. Once he outlined multiple ways of talking about God’s absolute power in relation to conditional evil in the world, he gets to the crux of the matter. We can’t talk about God as being all-powerful in the traditional way of understanding that statement without God in some way being culpable for evil that God could otherwise prevent. If God is a God of perfect love, and that love is in some way intelligible, we must be able to speak in some way positively about that perfect love. He says it like this, “Because the God of accidental free-will theism fails to override or withdraw the freedom of such perpetrators, attributing perfect love to this God seems implausible.”

In other words, to have the power to prevent evil, and then not prevent it, makes one culpable for the action…and its hard to ascribe that sort of willful declension as loving.

He goes on to argue that God is not culpable for evil because God allows the world to be free and such freedom cannot be over-ridden by God. Thus God’s power must be understood in ways that are more relational and not coercive. This is where divine persuasion and love comes into the mix and Tom speaks of how scripture demonstrates to us God’s loving insistence to persuade humans to act, rather than coerce them to do. (a take that is also empirically verified in our daily lives)

This theodicy has proven indispensible to me as a Wesleyan thinker and pastor because it takes serious our Wesleyan insistence that God is love and God is relational…and that holiness is located in a relational holiness between God, world and others. Tom is simply trying to make theological and philosophical sense of how that might best work in a way that is methodologically responsible and also avoid creating a bastard theological hybrid between Wesleyanism and Calvinism, a marriage that never did make pretty babies.

In 2004, at the Wesleyan Theological Society’ meeting in Seattle, I met Tom Oord for the first time. I asked him some questions about this essay. He didn’t know me from Adam, but I remember the hospitality with which he engaged me and took me seriously. I followed that meeting up with emails and Tom always gave me thorough responses. He treated me as if I was one of his students, not the alum of a sister institution for which he had no time.

Since this first essay and meeting with Tom, I have learned that Tom is second to none in his support of young scholars in our tradition.

In 2009, I gave a paper at WTS in the science and theology section. Tom Oord was the head of that section and accepted my paper for presentation. Later in 2009, over some science and freedom discussions, Tom sent me a complimentary copy of his book Creation Made Free. The only caveat was he asked I write a review and get it published. I did so and that review appeared in the Review and Expositor: A Baptist Consortium Journal that same year. In 2011, I attended the Bible Tells Me So conference in Nampa, ID. After the conference, I noticed the intended publication from that conference did not include a particular essay that I found profoundly important on the relationship between the Academy and the Church. I wrote Tom. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but the essay was included in the final text. Later in 2011, I told Tom a fellow pastor and myself were going to read his text Defining Love. He sent me two copies, both signed, and even asked how the study went. In 2012, I asked Tom about proposing a paper on Arminius and Inter-religious Dialogue at the upcoming WTS in Nashville. I also wanted to get it published in the WTJ. After inquiring with Tom, he encouraged me to propose the paper, that it had a good chance of publication. In 2013, my first WTJ article appeared in the Spring 2013 Issue. And lastly, when I was applying to do Phd at Emory, Tom spent 45 minutes with me on the phone discussing a career in the academy.

Had it not been for Tom Oord, there is much I would not have learned from his multiple books, but there are also many chances I would not have been given in our tradition. Without his help, the doors of Wesleyan academia would probably have remained shut to me.

My seminary degree was done at a Bapstist institution. I have had multiple chances to publish in print and online, give papers and be a part of projects through my Baptist connections. I have had zero opportunity in my own tradition, except what has been granted by the hospitality of Tom Oord, the gifts he saw in me and the gift of his friendship. I never had him as a professor, but he has worked with me as if I was one of his students.

Our tradition needs teachers like Tom Oord.

We need scholars that provide us with a broad theological landscape and challenge us to think through our ideas not just with our existing ideas. We need scholars that will drop the proverbial Barthian Bomb on our theological playground and equip us with the tools to engage the world with responsible and mature reflection. We need teachers with whom we may not always agree, because in disagreeing, we may be given a stronger intellect if it leads to a more thorough discovery of the weaknesses of our position. We need folks like Tom Oord that aren’t content to just give us buzz words and pledge allegiance to the old guard, but really believe our theology of holy love is worth doing…but it must be done right and without trite. And lastly, we need scholars like Tom who will stand beside young scholars, encourage, equip and give them the opportunities they need to be the future teachers of the church…teachers who aren’t worried about the good ole boy Wesleyan or Nazarene club but sincerely want to shape the future through influencing young scholars.

I am thankful for the decade long history I have with Tom Oord. He has shaped me in ways he’ll never know…but I do know I am simply one among many to have been changed by his life and work.

I am thankful for the ministry and academics of Tom Oord. I am thankful for his friendship. And I am thankful for what is happening on NNU’s campus as some of the steps of recent days are being reconsidered. The truth is, despite everyone being worried about Tom’s future, the real future we should be worried about is ours. Administrations may think they are doing Tom a favor if they let him keep his post, but the reality is, We, our tradition, need Tom…perhaps even more than he needs us.

So Tom, thank you for who you are, what you stand for and all you do. Your efforts have not returned void.