Category Archives: Church

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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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

Collar Questions

This past weekend was filled with the sorts of moments that leave a life-long mark on one’s soul. My ordination as a priest into the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches and the Order of St. Anthony was the culmination of more that 15 years of journeying deeper into the life of God and his Church. I felt a unique and deep sensitivity to that mysterious “cloud of witnesses” as I was welcomed into apostolic succession…the faces of Bishop Veron Ashe, Reverend Paul Mathiesen, and Jack O’Rourke came to mind. My ordination on Saturday was followed-up with an “installation” as an “ambassador priest” here at Salem Tabernacle, and it was in that Sunday night service that my Bishop, Ed Gungor, placed a collar on my neck. The value of that collar as a sign and symbol to me and our church was explained. My calling to expose people to the riches of the broader, historic Church and to work for the unity of that very Church (John 17) was also made quite clear.

I understand that these events in particular, and this journey in general, is bound to raise meaningful questions, and I’d like to engage some of them in this format (despite its limitations). Over the course of this year, I’ve come to embrace the value of questions as opportunities to not only come to a better understanding of truth, but to grow closer to the people asking those questions. So…here’s one question that has come up: “What do I tell my (Pentecostal, evangelical, “low-church”) family members when they hear about your ordination or come to a service and see you wearing a collar?”

I want to provide a “lowest common denominator” sort of answer to this, all the while acknowledging that it is more complex than what I’m about to say. Continue reading

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?” Continue reading