Journey of a Sane Evangelical: Interview with Pastor Geoff DeFranca, Part I

It’s a little more than 700 years BCE, in the tiny tribal nation of Judah. Resting in what is now the southern part of Palestine, Judah comprised slightly less than half of the Promised Land – the land, according to the Hebrew Bible, once known as Canaan and promised by god (known as YHWH, correct pronunciation unknown) to the twelve tribes of Israelites. It’s been over five hundred years since the Bible describes the nomadic Israelite tribes as having conquered this fertile land, and neither Judah, nor its sister country Israel currently comprising the other portion of the Promised Land, is a regional power. Throughout this turbulent period, Judah was forced to make alliances either with or against the mighty pagan Assyrians from the northern part of what is now Iraq.

Throughout much of the history of civilization, it is in such times of uncertainty and weakness that prophets are demanded, and it is when they are required that they are most likely to appear.

prophet_isaiah

Enter Isaiah. Few biographical details of his life are known, but later Rabbinic literature claims he was of royal lineage in the esteemed tribe of Judah, perhaps a direct descendant of the original Judah, son of Isaac, from whom both the tribe and the nation itself derive their name. Wikipedia suggests he may perhaps be considered the most patriotic of the major prophets described in Judeo-Christian scripture.

His name can roughly be translated to mean “Jah (Yah or Yahweh or YHWH) is salvation.” If you think that sounds like something Bob Marley would have said, you’re right on the money.

The rabbis say the prophet was pacing around in his study when he had his most important vision. Those of you with Bibles can find this in Isaiah 6, but for the rest of everyone I’ll provide a brief recap. Pacing around in his study, the whole world drops away from him and he finds himself in the middle of heaven. To be more specific, he finds himself looking straight at god himself, sitting on a throne. There are intense and mighty angels with six wings flying around singing songs to honor the deity.

Understandably, he becomes distressed at all of this. Sure, he’s a prophet and all, but even prophets aren’t supposed to look directly at god, and he starts mumbling and stuttering all over the place about how he doesn’t belong there. “Man, I’m in major trouble,” he says. “I’m a filthy little human, like all the others, and I’m not supposed to be seeing all of this.”

One of the angels stops singing and flies over, putting a red-hot coal up to Isaiah’s lips to get him to shut up – only the coal doesn’t burn him, and the angel tells him that now it’s all good.

That’s when Jah speaks: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”

“I will,” Isaiah responds immediately. “Send me.”

When I asked Geoff DeFranca, head pastor at evangelical Community Chapel in Nashua, for his favorite Old Testament passage, this was the first that came to mind – and almost certainly the one that most precisely represents his view on life and his relationship with the divine.

communitychap

Geoff is not a stranger to me. Since his appointment as new head pastor to Community Chapel, a Church of the Nazarene, back in fall of 2002, he and his wife Kathleen have been close family friends. Community Chapel is where my family attends church; accordingly, it is where I attended as a child and where my parents still attend. For the last decade I’ve seen the DeFrancas at family birthday dinners, at family vacation, and even on major holidays like Easter and Christmas. In 2008, when my father and I wanted to feed the poor at a Nashua soup kitchen on Christmas Day, he adopted the cause and rounded up something like thirty additional volunteers from the church. He and my dad meet socially on a regular basis. Back in 2002, my mother was the office administrator for the church, and she has since become an associate pastor, which means Geoff is also her boss. In fact, he officiated at my first wedding.

I say all this not merely out of a vague obligation to full disclosure but to say that I chose Pastor Geoff DeFranca to represent the Evangelical Protestant community not in spite of the fact that I know him personally (or out of sheer laziness) but because of it. I had been strongly encouraged by a close and wise friend to select a “crazy evangelical” – he actually had one in mind, offering to put me in touch – and I’ll admit that close to 40% of me was inclined in that direction.

After all, it can be so easy.

But I guess that’s just the thing. If you want to laugh about the crazy things American evangelicals say and do, or become scared by their influential changes to textbooks in Texas, there is always the Google. Ultimately, though, that’s not the aim of this Wizard of Monadnock interfaith series. Of course, neither is being a salesman of a particular religion. My position is that the crazies can only teach us what to laugh at and what to fear. For information we may all find useful, one way or another, I am forced to turn to the sanest evangelical I know outside of my immediate family.

I’ll restate what I said before: I do not agree with everything I am presenting. None of what follows should be interpreted as an endorsement, either from me personally or in my capacity as Wizard. The purpose, though, is to look at a spiritual tradition and ask objectively whether there is anything there we might apply to our own existence in any beneficial manner. The answers you derive will be your own. In preview, though, those of you who are religious already will find strong and consistent theology. Those of you who are non-Christian but nevertheless explore the spiritual are likely to find a way of looking at the world that is sincere and worthy of consideration. Those of you who are avidly anti-religious and seek no philosophical insights may yet gain the most, as this provides an exclusive opportunity to glimpse into the mind of an American Evangelical Protestant and find out just how it is that they think.

*           *           *

“I believe,” Geoff says to me over coffee along 101A in Amherst, “we are called to live prophetic lives that point to what God intends to do – [which is to] make all things right.” To him, this isn’t some vague theological idea. His Christian faith, instead, is based in consideration of concrete human relationships. “I don’t know a single Christian who found their way to Christ in a vacuum.”

A native of New Jersey, he joined the Navy at nineteen, serving for the next five years partially in various countries around the globe and partially in California, where he met his future wife. He’d been raised Catholic but became turned off by many aspects of that system and ultimately “wanted nothing to do with religion.”

It was in 1981, about halfway through his naval stint, when it seemed to him that god and religion were suddenly all over the place. He was in Greece at the time. His roommate was vocally religious and he even found himself at an event dancing with a girl who actually preached to him while they danced. Some people handed him a Bible, made him pay for it, and told him to come to Bible study. Twelve years ago today – October 31, a date he considers, along with the day of his wedding, one of the most significant in his life – he “came to Jesus.” He prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer”, which in most evangelical traditions is a crucial and necessary step in which a person asks god forgiveness for the wrong things he or she has done in life and officially requests a personal relationship with Jesus, Son of God.

He went on to “explore a relationship with god in a very crude way”, shifting away from what he describes as “self-destructive behavior.” He notes that many new Christians are encouraged to begin their scriptural journey with the fourth gospel, that of John, but he began with Matthew, known as the most Jewish-centric of the four. Finding the structure of the Jewish perspective compatible with the structure familiar from his Catholic background, this was the jumping-off point of an exploration he sees as being at odds with a Catholic child in which no one encouraged him to read and grapple with the Bible on his own. Encountering the famous Sermon on the Mount (check it out if you have the time – it’s one of the most frequently quoted and, frankly, best passages in the entire Bible), he found “a picture of what life can be with God in Christ.” It was a picture no one had painted for him before, and he wanted more.

This type of conversion or salvation experience is often described by evangelicals as the culmination of every faith story, the make-or-break moment that decides whether or not they will spend eternal life after death in heaven or hell. To Geoff, life isn’t so easily-defined in befores and afters, blacks and whites. “If salvation is only a transaction to secure eternal well-being,” he told me, “then my role on Earth is compromised.” His faith, he stresses, is “a life project, not something that happens once and then ‘happily ever after’.”

In the 15th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus is shown describing the loving relationship possible between humans and the divine, God the Father, with he – God’s Son – as conduit. He uses the analogy of a vine, all its branches utterly dependent upon the single ultimate stem for the fullness of existence and life. It should be noted that this is a fairly common spiritual notion across many divergent traditions. In the specific details – how the branches connect with the stem, the particular characteristics and/or identity of the stem, etc. – they may differ, but on a broader conceptual level, there is some agreement on this broader point. Jesus says all of this “that your joy may be complete.” He goes on to make his point more concrete. “Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends….I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have learned from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

The italics are mine, of course, and it is of that last part Geoff says, “Those words struck me in my young adult life as if they were spoken directly to me. I did not seek this calling or mission [as a pastor]. I sense God was inviting me to it.” He makes reference to the second half of verse 5:6 in the book of Galatians, which reads, “[T]he only thing that counts is faith working through love.”

It is in the combination of the divine invitation found in John with the summary above from Galatians that the essence of Geoff’s theology and faith can best be expressed. “That connects this calling to the sense that I am on a mission with god to follow Jesus Christ and reveal His love for and to the world.”

*           *           *

If only from both the gentle confidence and consistency in his answers, it’s clear that DeFranca possesses a very clear vision of the mission to which he’s been invited, the relationship he has with the divine, and a certain ideal world condition that represents the intent of god – but I need the details of his clarity to become clear to me. “What was Jesus doing here?” I ask him.

“He came to reveal and establish the presence of the Kingdom of God among us and declare it to be at hand. What is the kingdom? It’s not geographical.” He references the late contemporary theologian Dallas Willard, who believed the Kingdom of God was something to be experienced here and now and not just shuffled off into the corner of afterlife. “It should be taken to mean wherever God’s rule and intent is in effect….In this life, while we complete our roles ‘imperfectly,’ and while the ultimate culmination is later [after death], while we are here, we can still point people toward God’s intent.”

geoff

Put in the most simple possible terms, what this looks like can be expressed in the Golden Rule (found in Matthew 7:12) – do unto others what you would have them do to you. Indeed, DeFranca would describe this as the simplest and easiest truths for ordinary people to apply to their lives.

People loving people, people treating other people well, that’s the intent of the divine.

“Christianity is fundamentally about relationships,” he says, “whether it’s the relationship within the Trinity [the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit], the relationship between a person and Jesus, or the relationship between a person and another person.”

In contrast to Calvinist theology, which is the doctrine espoused by Baptists and many other evangelical denominations, the Nazarene church is part of the Wesleyan tradition. Calvinism is pretty easy to explain – since god knows the future, all of the outcomes have already been worked out. Some of us are going to be saved and go to heaven, and we’re called “the elect.” The rest of everybody will not seek or receive salvation and will be damned to hell. If we receive salvation, however, it is proof of our “election” into heaven, and that can never be taken away. It’s a crude summary, but that’s basically how it goes.

In contrast, no one ever knows what Wesleyanism is – even I, though I have a basic understanding of what it means and a vague idea of how it works as a theology, have found myself in the past entirely unable to explain it. I relay this sentiment to DeFranca, who laughs, and I ask him to now provide me the quick explanation the world sorely lacks.

At its heart, he says, Wesleyan theology is about “communicating to the world not merely salvation that ‘purchases fire insurance’ [in other words, keeping one safe from hell], but that transforms a person into being like Christ.” The doctrine centers around the ability of every person to respond to god by freely accepting or rejecting him, a notion directly at odds with the predestination of Calvinists. “I see God as inviting us into a life whereby He wants to restore us to the right relationship with life – the image of Christ-likeness that God desires. It’s not just about sin.” He reiterates that it’s also not just about what happens after we die. “It’s broader than God looking for certain good behavior or even worship. It’s about man’s relationship with everything.”

STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO OF MY INTERVIEW WITH PASTOR DEFRANCA, DUE OUT TOMORROW: COUNTER-CULTURE CHRIST

Special thanks to Geoff DeFranca for his time and candid answers. Interview has been lightly edited for clarity. All direct Biblical quotes found above, as always on the Wizard of Monadnock, are from the New Revised Standard Version. 

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