Living With a Sense of History

I entered college in the fall of 1990, in pursuit of a degree in History, planning to go on to law school afterward and eventually enter politics. After this most recent presidential election cycle, I certainly am grateful that the Lord guided my steps in another direction. During my freshman year I had a momentous encounter with the Holy Spirit, and in the midst of that I really did sense God “call me” into full-time ministry work. In the intensity and zeal of that season in my life I wanted very much to transfer from my secular liberal arts college in NYC to a “Bible college” that would train me for the ministry. After counseling with my father, I decided to continue in my course of study and eventually received my undergraduate degree in History.

I often wondered why, if I was going to end up spending my entire “professional life” in Christian ministry, God never led me to traditional pastoral training. The older I get, the more sense it makes. On one level, I’ve ironically benefitted from the lack of ecclesial and theological indoctrination that can take place in Bible college. I think it’s possible that I’ve been a bit more open-minded in ministry because of this. But on another level, I’m starting to see that my training in History has directly prepared me for this current season of ministry…

A little over ten years ago, Archbishop Veron Ashe said something to me that sort of pulled the rug out from my Pentecostal-Charismatic universe. He said, “You do realize that Christians have prophesied and spoken in tongues in every century since the Upper Room?” I realized that I was living in profound ignorance of the Church’s history, and that I was more connected to America (and her historical obliviousness) than I was to my spiritual-eternal family’s history. My disconnect from the historical (i.e. “catholic”) Church came from at least two phenomena: the Protestant Reformation and the Pentecostal movement. As a Protestant, I had been taught to fear anything that hinted at or even tolerated Roman Catholicism (ecumenism was compromise!). As a Pentecostal, I was convinced that our tribe was walking in the “Full Gospel” – the apex of Christian expression in the earth! Every good thing that God had been doing in Christian history was leading to us. (wink, wink)

Veron’s words challenged my assumptions about my world. Over the last many years, I’ve studied enough of the history of the Church and Western culture to reach a couple of key conclusions. First, I need a deeper sense of connectedness to the historical Church. After all, I’m here because on some level, they did their job! Accordingly, I need more humble curiosity, more inquisitiveness regarding the players and practices of the Church through the centuries – I need to fill-in my spiritual family tree. Secondly, I need to learn to embrace intellectual and maybe even psychological tension. In other words, openness to the past is not a rejection of the present. The incorporation of new practices does not necessarily entail the dismissal of existing ones. The inclusion of ancient practices does not necessarily suggest the expulsion of contemporary ones. And finally, being uncomfortable or uncertain is not a bad thing – it is inevitably what we experience when God is moving us into the next dimension of our walk with him.

So I’m grateful that my Father in heaven had a much better sense of what I needed than I did those many years ago! Many factors are pointing to the possibility that the Christian Church in America is in critical condition. The Christian consensus has all but evaporated from mainstream culture. Participation in and identification with the Church is at an all-time low. Biblical literacy in the pews and theological substance in the pulpit is seemingly less than stellar. Our most “influential” preachers are more in the vain of Normal Vincent Peale than they are Lewis, Tozer, or even Niebuhr.  A sense of cultural and ecclesial history is invaluable as we navigate some choppy waters. An openness of heart and mind to what the Spirit is saying to the Church is essential. Nostalgic (and dare I say, irrational) efforts to hold on to the Christian experience as we’ve known it do no favors to our children or our culture. A Christian faith that locates itself humbly and joyfully within the full spectrum of the Church’s history is an embodied answer to Jesus’ prayer that we would be one (John 17.21-23). But to get there we must be willing to let go of our fears and any sense of ecclesial superiority! Ultimately, we need to decide if we’re going to approach our faith in Jesus Christ as “settlers” or “pioneers”

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