Category Archives: Culture

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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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

This is not easy…but it is necessary

In the wake of a provocative sermon…(you can listen to it here)

So this past Sunday was easily the most challenging in my 20+ years of ministry. I knew that I had to say some vulnerable things, some controversial things, some incomplete things, some…things. For only the second time in my life, I wrote out the sermon in a manuscript form. I knew that if I didn’t write things down I’d forget to say things that needed to be said, while simultaneously saying more than my usual fare of unnecessary things. As I predicted, the sermon did NOT offer a clear and tidy summary of the events of last week. It did stir some deep feelings in the hearts of some precious people, and I’ll forever be grateful for and humbled by the fact that they were willing to share their feelings with me. My prayer is that by writing this post, I will provide a pathway forward deeper into the darkness of America’s sin, so that while we’re there we can be a source of light and hope. This is not about backtracking or toning down what I preached on Sunday, but adding layers of complexity and understanding to it. Let the praying commence!

I think I’ll number a list of some of the issues that have come up in the last 48 hours…

  1. There are times when it’s healthy, appropriate and godly to walk away from a Sunday gathering with a deep sense of discomfort. Generally I do feel that the worship gathering should produce a people who are truly happy because they have been reminded of the fact that their God is the Lord! (Psalm 144.15) Yet at the same time, the realities of our broken world and our confused souls require a different response. In those moments, to leave church comforted is dishonest and probably selfish. We’re the people who are called to “weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12.15) If we couldn’t stir up tears on Sunday but we at least left feeling uneasy, that’s a spiritual gift – embrace it. (Amos 6 comes to mind…)

 

  1. These message was meant to address different ethnic groups differently because, generally speaking, their needs are different. We must not ever presume that the “black” or “white” experience in America is monolithic. People and cultures are amazingly complex and with that complexity comes a figurative kaleidoscope of perspectives. With that fact in view, however, there are some lowest common denominators that need to be addressed. My call to white Christians is going to be more authoritative and pointed because…I’m white. We are most inclined to listen vulnerably to people who are like us, who give us a sense of safety. I cannot imagine a context in which I could’ve even entertained the idea of “white privilege” if Cornell West was presenting it. However, when Pastor Tim Keller presented it, I could listen sincerely. I wish that wasn’t the case, but that’s my story, and I don’t think I’m the exception. White saints need to be a source of “oil and wine” right now to the black community. That probably looks like doing a whole lotta listening. Like inviting people who don’t look like us out for coffee and getting to know them. Like listening to public voices that challenge our thinking and genuinely listening to them. Does the African American community need “pointed” talk? Maybe. Some of my fellow pastors who are African American seem to think so, but my response to that possibility is prayer not pontification.

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William Willimon’s “The Culture is Overrated”

Seems to be much in-line with Bonhoeffer and a much-needed critique of popular evangelicalism…

Musings and Observations by Vernon Caston

William H. Willimon – Dean of chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University.

When I recently asked a group of pastors what areas they wanted help with in their preaching, most replied, “To preach sermons that really hit my people where they live.”

At one time I would have agreed this was one of the primary purposes of Christian preaching—to relate the gospel to contemporary culture. Now I believe it is our weakness.

In leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear we may have fallen in. Most of the preaching in my own denomination struggles to relate the gospel to the modern world. We sought to use our sermons to build a bridge from the old world of the Bible to the modern world; the traffic was always one way, with the modern world rummaging about in Scripture, saying things like, “This relates to me,”…

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