Witness – part 2

In my last post, I did my best to dance around the idea that “witnessing” – understood as the act of articulating and arguing for the theological/philosophical claims of Christianity – is not something that all believers are called to do. Yes, we should study and grow in our knowledge of the faith. We should not be afraid of being embarrassed by losing debates or looking ignorant in the eyes of secular culture. But the evangelist-proper, the man or woman who is apt to make compelling arguments for the truth of the gospel, is probably a more specific spiritual gifting/calling, not a universal assignment. OK. Major paradigm shift there. And one that I hope not only alleviates a whole lot of illegitimate guilt, but energizes us to consider exactly what a universal Christian witness could look like “on the ground.”

I’m very comfortable suggesting that all Christian witness begins in behavior. Early on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it explicitly clear that his followers’ being a bright city on a hill is metaphorical talk for highly visible good works that cause people to glorify our Father in heaven. So this is where we begin, this issue that exposes almost all of us as not quite as serious about our faith as we may like to think we are. Do we speak and (re-)act in ways that echo the life of Christ? Do we (re-)present the life of the Kingdom Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount? This Kingdom life is a strange, counter-intuitive existence! No critical spirits. No lustful looks. No need to be respected. No insistence on one’s own rights. Oh and the blessing of enemies. The praying for those who harm us. The refusal to be satisfied with a good action (fasting, praying, giving), but rather, the insistence on the right motivation. All this leaves us with a picture of life that is not “natural” to us, but in our dark world, even an incremental embodiment of it will stick out…

And this is where most witness-as-articulation should come in: responding to the inevitable questions that a life which is faithful to the teachings of Jesus will raise. Hence 1 Peter 3.15b-16, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” When was the last time someone “demanded an accounting” of your hopeful, yet odd, way of being human? Yeah. I can’t remember either. We can increasingly enter into this Kingdom-life by doing a couple of things…

  • study Jesus regularly and closely in the Gospels.
  • pray without ceasing…the psalms, the Book of Common Prayer, explosive extemporaneous prayer, etc.
  • practice silence and solitude, even if it’s five minutes to start and end the day.
  • commit to fellowship with other believers who will provoke you to love and good deeds (Heb 10.24).

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Be Witnesses (sermon follow-up)

“I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

– Isaiah 49.6b

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

– Matthew 5.14-16

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

– Acts 1.8

So this past weekend I preached a message that was intended to significantly alter our paradigm for evangelism and Christian witness. It was wonderful to be able to dig into this during “Epiphanytide,” the season of the Church calendar that celebrates the fact that the gospel has been revealed to the Gentiles – that we “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2.13b)

Two thoughts came to mind as I prayed about this topic of evangelism. First, in my experience and tradition, evangelism is the act of articulating the explicit theological and philosophical claims of Christianity in order to persuade people to surrender their lives to Jesus Christ as their “Lord and Savior” (hello, “Sinner’s Prayer”!). We do this because we have been convinced that if someone dies without sincerely praying the “prayer of salvation” they will spend eternity in the unspeakable anguish of the darkest, hottest hell. Secondly, evangelism (in this vain) has been presented as the responsibility of everyone who calls themselves a Christian. We love our neighbors by warning them that “the bridge is out” up ahead, and doing so boldly.

I wonder if this understanding of “evangelism” is the standard in evangelical and charismatic circles. If so, it presents several challenges that came to mind as I prepared to preach to my congregation communicate to my faith community on this subject. For starters, most believers don’t feel comfortable or capable of engaging in the intellectual enterprise of gospel-articulation, especially in our increasingly post-modern, pseudo-philosophical, pluralistic culture. Let’s be honest, this is “missionary” work and we need to learn the language if we hope to be effective. Not everyone has the time or ability to become fluent in the language of theology, philosophy, and metaphysics. Secondly, if we take the call to preach the gospel seriously on a personal level, we will almost certainly live with a tremendous amount of guilt because of our inevitable failure to be faithful to that calling. Thirdly, many “outsiders” have been repelled by the Christian faith because they’ve encountered this sort of “witnessing” and it leaves them feeling like a project more than a person (see Dave Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons’ work in unChristian). And finally, this sort of “evangelism” tends to reduce Christianity to mere mental assent, moralism, and escapism, when in fact it is a call to join God’s family, to have his image restored in us, and to partner in his work of restoring the world.

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Loving God

The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to love God (see Deuteronomy 6 and Luke 11). Assuming we’re straight on the whole “who is God?” issue, I think it could be helpful to consider what love is and how we can actually direct this toward the God of the universe. I also can’t help but wonder if love is something that we are capable of doing in degrees (think: dimmer switch) or if it’s more binary (conventional light switch)…? You see, when it comes to loving God, maybe the issue is not a matter of loving him “better” (dimmer switch all the way up), but rather, a matter of loving him more consistently and pervasively.

I think we’re all aware of the fact that the New Testament was originally written in Greek and the Greek language has more than one word for love. The one Greek word used most commonly to refer to our love for God and neighbor is agapaō and it has a host of meanings. For instance, Thayer’s lexicon says that when used in reference to a master (I’m guessing we’re all OK with the idea of God as our master…), agapaō “involves the idea of affectionate reverence, prompt obedience, grateful recognition of benefits received.” I’d like to suggest that these three phrases are on some level, interconnected.

“affectionate reverence” is not the same as plain old “reverence.” It suggests a personal dimension, that there’s been some sort of interaction that makes this reverence more than simply the acknowledgement of superiority. This is more than an imposed reverence, but an emotional desire to honor someone. Curious stuff. Emotional affection isn’t something I typically associate with the notion of revering someone.

“prompt obedience” is not what we 21st century Americans normally associate with love, at least not consciously. The “affectionate” idea mentioned above is very much linked to common understandings of love – maybe it is the understanding of “love.” But suggesting that love is defined by our willingness to obey is almost certainly not what we think of when we think of “love.” Oh, and toss in the idea that this obedience is “prompt” and it feels more like military school than love.

“grateful recognition of benefits received” is the most easily recognizable notion, as much of our love is grounded in the sense that our lives are better because of the object of our love. Heck, this is even how we’ve come to say we love pizza – our lives are better because pizza is in it. On the more serious side, this reminds me of the famous text in 1 John 4.19, “We love because he first loved us.” There is a reciprocal dimension to love.

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What is the “Daily Office”?

In February 2003, our church hosted a guest speaker named Mar Enoch, and as he took the pulpit he prayed these words: Father we honor you and we adore and bless your name. For this is the chief end of man – that we may glorify you and enjoy you all the days of our lives. And so we join our voices with the unending hymn of praise sung by angels and archangels, principalities, powers, thrones, dominions; the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim who, covering their faces and feet flying to one another, singing and declaring that you are holy. The heavens and the earth are filled with your glory, and so we cry “Hosanna in the highest!”

And he went on…

This exceptional preacher also went by the name Veron Ashe, and at the time, he was an archbishop in the Mar Thoma Syriac Orthodox Church. He delivered the words of this prayer with deep feeling and emotion, but that wasn’t what arrested me – it was the words! The beauty and depth and theological substance were overwhelming. The sense that these words had been prayed in ancient times by men who were forerunners in faith and were now part of the great cloud of witnesses was also quite real.

My tradition frowned upon written prayers. They were never really considered as an option for several reasons. They were for people who didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, who didn’t know how to talk with him like a friend speaks with a friend. Written prayers were for folks who weren’t filled with the Spirit. Written prayers were also an “us vs. them” line of demarcation: the liberals and Catholics read their “prayers” but we prayed ‘em! Our prayers were sincere and personal and “anointed.” And the honest fact is, often times they were. But our prayers were often other things as well: rambling, awkward, theologically errant and emotionally indulgent. Hey – you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and then you have…the facts of life (R.I.P. Alan Thicke).

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When Christmas Falls on Sunday (don’t throw tomatoes!)

I love the Christmas season. A quick glance at my music library reveals 56 different artists and 1.2 days of continuous Christmas music. Oh, and most of this music is old. I’m not a fan of most contemporary Christmas music. I like Tchaikovsky and the Boston Pops. My favorite Christmas artist is Bing Crosby though, and I’m sure that a big part of this is due to my deep, DEEP sense of nostalgia. I grew up listening to Bing with my grandparents (who were actual Christmas elves). Like most families, we have our own Christmas traditions that go back many years, and every time we re-enact them, I feel a meaningful connection with family members who are no longer with us. “Christmas in Killarney” seems to bring my Irish grandfather right back (?) from heaven into the room with me…

Of course, Christmas is about more than music. Certain routines, foods, decorations, and movies are an integral part of making Christmas feel like Christmas. This is because traditions are a crucial part of what it means to be human. They combine some sort of waiting (Christmas music wouldn’t be special if we listened to it throughout the year) AND some significant repetition. If you didn’t repeat it, it wouldn’t be a tradition.

But “tradition” is not an ultimate good. Part of being human – alive! – is this sense of being dynamic and flexible. Corpses are stiff. When tradition becomes an absolute that cannot be touched under any circumstances, I think we need to consider that rather than making us human, these traditions are actually diminishing our humanity. Continue reading