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

Spiritual Imprinting

Do you remember when you “got saved”? Was it at a church service where a preacher asked the now infamous “if you were to die in a car crash on your way home from this service, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” question? Were you young and impressionable? Were you “of age” yet in the midst of a personal crisis which made you desperate for answers? Were you afterward “on fire for the Lord”…constantly sharing your faith and showing up for church every time they opened the doors?

In my (Pentecostal) tradition conversion experiences like these were the norm. Almost everyone I knew either “asked Jesus into their heart” as a child or were truly rescued by an awakening of faith while they were in the throes of adult brokenness. Youth and trauma make us vulnerable in very unique ways, and when this vulnerability encounters religion, the effects can be, well…complicated. Whether we started following Jesus at 8 or 48, to the extent that experience aligns with Jesus’ call to be born again, we were suddenly spiritual newborns in some mysterious way.

In the animal kingdom there’s a phenomenon known as imprinting, which is when a newborn – by virtue of actually being a newborn – learns in an instinctive, rapid and deep way. This often involves the acquisition of behavioral characteristics from its parent. (a brief visit to Wikipedia will get you up to speed, lol!) And this is where I’m headed with this: I wonder to what extent we “imprint” on the parent church or pastor that facilitates our “new birth experiences.” 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.

Continue reading

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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