Greg Moser: A Lutheran Pastor Speaks on Christian Unity (Part 2)

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, Unity of the Church | 2 Comments/Likes

Greg Moser: A Lutheran Pastor Speaks on Christian Unity

Rev. Greg Moser is the pastor of Lutheran Church of the Master in Carol Stream, Illinois. He is my pastor, my friend and a member of the ACT3 Network board. Here he speaks on the power and importance of Christian unity.

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, Unity of the Church | 4 Comments/Likes

Pope Francis and the Faith of Non-Christians

UnknownOn Friday, September 25, Pope Francis visited Ground Zero in New York City to pay respect for life and to pray for healing and peace. Many Christians have expressed dismay that the pope did not mention the name of Jesus at this occasion. Some have specifically stated that he actually proved that he was a religious pluralist who does not believe that Jesus Christ is the true Savior of the world. This entire debate is often absent both the context and the content of his actual words and actions. The pope’s entire address can be read here:

Pope Francis said:

I feel many different emotions standing here at Ground Zero, where thousands of lives were taken in a senseless act of destruction. Here grief is palpable. The water we see flowing towards that empty pit reminds us of all those lives which fell prey to those who think that destruction, tearing down, is the only way to settle conflicts. It is the silent cry of those who were victims of a mindset which knows only violence, hatred and revenge. A mindset which can only cause pain, suffering, destruction and tears.

I went to this site last July (2014). I have never read words that better reflect precisely how I felt at Ground Zero when I looked at the two huge pools of water in the pit where the Twin Towers once stood. What Pope Francis decried was not Islam, and rightly so, but rather “a mindset which knows only violence, hatred and revenge.” This distinction is immensely important for peacemakers. And it is immensely important that we not connect this act of terror and murder to Islam.

Today I shared the day with a friend who is a priest. My friend was there in the underground museum with the pope on that Friday. He expressed to me the sense of awe that he felt in that incredible place. If you’ve been there you know this scene and you have a hard time explaining what you feel in anything remotely like propositions. You are struck by awe and a sense of silence overwhelms you.

Unknown-2At the end of his remarks Pope Francis said:

This can only happen if we uproot from our hearts all feelings of hatred, vengeance and resentment. We know that that is only possible as a gift from heaven. Here, in this place of remembrance, I would ask everyone together, each in his or her own way, to spend a moment in silence and prayer. Let us implore from on high the gift of commitment to the cause of peace. Peace in our homes, our families, our schools and our communities. Peace in all those places where war never seems to end. Peace for those faces which have known nothing but pain. Peace throughout this world which God has given us as the home of all and a home for all. Simply PEACE. Let us pray in silence.

After a moment of silence the pope concluded with these words:

In this way, the lives of our dear ones will not be lives which will one day be forgotten. Instead, they will be present whenever we strive to be prophets not of tearing down but of building up, prophets of reconciliation, prophets of peace.

So far as I can tell those Christians who criticize the pope for these kinds of remarks, and for his presence with representatives of major religions in this ceremony, offer two major reasons:

  1. He is standing in complete (or subtle) agreement in matters of faith and practice by standing with other religious leaders.
  2. He is compromising his role as a Christian shepherd by not using Jesus’ name in his words and prayer. Unknown-1

I find both of these criticisms unconvincing for three reasons:

  1. The Catholic Church has already agreed (cf. Vatican II) on a great deal of common concern between religions. The decree Nostra Aetate did not give away the Christian faith but rather recognized that there are elements of truth in all faiths that can be expressed in good will. Nostra Aetate is clearly not teaching that all roads lead to Christ but rather than all truth comes from God and whatever truth each religion possesses thus comes from God. This will not please those who want to hear that every religion is “the doctrine of demons” or that non-Christian faiths are totally and entirely false. There is room for continued dialogue about how this works in practice and how it lines up with Scripture.  I freely grant this room for continued discussion. But this much is clear, at least if you read the teaching of the Catholic Church correctly, the pope is not compromising his confidence in Christ as the Lord and Savior of the world.
  2. The pope is not giving away his role as a Christian pastor but rather he is underscoring his role as a Christian peacemaker because of the teaching of Jesus who blessed “peacemakers.” Further, he is living by the Golden Rule and showing how a Christian should respond in the face of great human evil when they are in a religious context where all grieve together. If you read The Joy of the Gospel you will readily see that Pope Francis is a very strong preacher of the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.
  3. Finally, Pope Francis appropriately serves the whole of humanity in the name of Christ and God’s mercy, not condemnation. His very presence, as the Bishop of Rome, puts him in a unique position where the world already knows that he is the servant of Christ and his people. There is a time and a place under heaven for everything and in this context to overtly preach as an evangelist would be unfaithful to the spirit and love of Jesus. I realize proof-texting will lead to a different conclusion but this is precisely why proof-texting is dangerous to the gospel. Pope Francis clearly understands this and his words and actions reveal it consistently. I thus cannot accept these kinds of criticisms made about this address and the prayer Pope Francis offered in this public context.
Posted in ACT 3, Current Affairs, Evangelism, Interfaith Relations and Dialogue, Islam, Jesus, Personal, Pope Francis, Religion, Roman Catholicism | 6 Comments/Likes

Jimmy Carter: A Full Life

Jimmy-Carter-headshotLike so many I have had a mixture of feelings and responses to President Jimmy Carter over the years. It seems to me that most critics, left and right, have freely attributed to him the label of “poor president” or “political failure.” I wonder what history, long after his death, will actually say. Many thought that Harry Truman was a failure until after his death. Maybe Carter’s legacy will meet a similar fate but I have my doubts. If a president is known for his legislative accomplishments then Carter will always be seen as mediocre at best. Among conservatives he is loathed and even seen as the definition of failure and disappointment. (This was true at least until we elected President Barack Obama, who is now classed as lower than Jimmy Carter ever was by the same critics.)

It is ironic, perhaps, that Jimmy Carter is the only U.S. president I actually met in person. (It was brief and not memorable.) I have been to most of the presidential libraries and museums and read a great deal of American history. Presidents fascinate me thus Jimmy Carter truly fascinates me. Who is/was he? What did he do? Why is he seen as such a failure? What did he do that was memorable, if anything? Why did he make some of the decisions he did and what are his personal Christian beliefs. And then, why does he live the way he does right up to age 90?

a-full-life-9781501115639I heard an interview with President Carter a few months ago on NPR. Carter was promoting his new memoir, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015). Shortly after this interview I went to my local library and got on a waiting list to read the book. Now that I’ve finished it I am profoundly grateful for having had the opportunity to read this fine book. I will share a few reasons:

  1. President Carter is a very smart man, something that he is rarely given credit for at all. He understood international relations quite superbly and was a true champion of human rights (and religious freedom), the latter a cherished doctrine from mid-twentieth century. He was called “inconsistent” and “hypocritical” by some. I find his grasp of international issues, especially regarding the Middle East, to be superb and thus satisfying to my way of thinking about these complicated issues.
  2. President Carter is humble and willing to allow the reader to see into his soul and his process of decision-making without simply painting a rosy-picture that makes him look great. He admits some of his mistakes but like all of us he does so with caveats.
  3. President Carter loves his wife and family and is a man at peace with God and people. He still engages in some political issues, especially those touching upon civil rights and foreign policy. But he is best known for his good work on fair elections, serving the poor and building Habitat Homes. His work via the Carter Center is impressive to me as well. My visit there was most rewarding. Some have called him our best “former president.” I think this label fits but it is quite often a backhanded compliment.
  4. Jimmy Carter is a truly decent man who struggled with aspects of politics because he was never a cut-throat politician. He was too personally decent. Put simply, I like him for all of this and would love to talk to him in person. As I read this book I felt like I did sit down and talk with him. By the way, most readers know that Carter defeated President Gerald R. Ford. Did you know that the two of them became good friends in the years afterward. This is a marvelous story.
  5. Jimmy Carter’s faith is deep and real. Say what you will but only a completely unfair critic would question his love for Christ and the gospel. Multitudes still flock to hear him teach the Bible and he is said to be a superb teacher. I understand this his views on issues vary from those of some conservative folks but he is a serious and earnest Christian and a knowledgeable Bible teacher. No other president in American history comes close.
  6. The most moving part of the book is seen in a story that occurred when Carter had lost his first election for governor of Georgia. He was emotionally drained and spiritually despondent. His sister, a charismatic evangelist, told him to go on a Southern Baptist mission to Pennsylvania that summer. He did and his faith was restored by witnessing to people door-to-door. The next summer he went to Massachusetts. As he saw people come to know Christ he was moved very deeply. In this context he tells the story of a Cuban-born Baptist minister who he was paired up with in leading people to Christ. I will not tell you more except to say that this story so perfectly captures the thesis of my next book, Our Love Is Too Small, that I included it in the final two pages. (Carter would love my book, or so I think.) I love his spirit and his clear, deep love for Christ, both of which are revealed so profoundly in this memoir. He is loving, wise and non-judgmental in the best way. This does not mean that he does not criticize conservative Christians at some weak points.
  7. People sometimes wonder if Jimmy Carter, while he was president, ever shared his personal faith with world leaders and told them the good news. The answer is yes and the stories he shares are truly interesting. Again, I was pleasantly surprised.

You may have despised this man as president. You may think he did a lot to hurt America. I do not agree. But I want to leave that aside for the moment. I tell you simply that here is a good man who loves God and who sought the kingdom in every part of his long life. I pray for him now as he battles with cancer. May God bless President Jimmy Carter, our brother in Jesus Christ. He did a lot of good for Christ and his kingdom. He will finally answer to God, not to you and me. But then this is true for us all.

Posted in America and Americanism, Books, Civil Rights, Current Affairs, Ethics, History, Leadership, Personal, Spirituality, The Church | 30 Comments/Likes

Reading Maya Angelou

IMG_5286I owe a debt of profound gratitude to my friend Vill Harmon (second from left in this photo with my good friends and two ACT3 board members). Vill is the secretary in the office of Ecumenical and Interreligious for the Archdiocese of Chicago. In July (2015) Vill and I shared a conversation about our background, especially in terms of race and the South. Vill is African-American, and a great friend. I have come to cherish her advice and joyful spirit. When Vill encourages me to think about my past, and the present issue of race in America, I try to listen. In July she told me I should read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), written by the famous Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Annie Johnson; April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014). (Maya’s first name came from her brother Bailey when she was a child.)

9780812980028Maya Angelou was an author, poet, dancer, actress, and singer. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry. She was also credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over fifty years. She read several of her poems at the inauguration of President Clinton, appropriately so because Maya grew up in rural Stamps, Arkansas. Ms. Angelou received dozens of awards and more than fifty honorary degrees yet when all is said and done she is best known for her seven autobiographies. These seven books all focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. I had never read any of her highly-acclaimed books until I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Random House). In this amazing story she tells of events that shaped her life up to age of seventeen. The book brought Maya Angelou international recognition and acclaim, especially after Oprah Winfrey became her fan. I now understand why. Her’s is an utterly amazing story of growing up poor and black in the South. It is also very well written. At times you cry, at others you will laugh aloud. It is prose that moves the soul.

I personally knew poor black people in the South in my 1950s childhood, or I thought I knew them. Yet I never understood their plight and culture as I now do after reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I also understand why Vill told me to read the book. My depth of understanding has been profoundly altered by it. And my desire to become a more skilled “reconciler” has been powerfully shaped by this book.

thMaya Angelou became a poet and writer after a series of occupations as a young adult, including fry cook, prostitute, nightclub dancer and performer and cast member for a famous opera. She also became coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a journalist overseas. She was an actor, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. In 1982, she earned the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Maya was at first timid about getting involved in Civil Rights but she worked with both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. In the early 1990s, she made numerous lecture appearances each year thereafter into her eighties.

It was with the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that Maya Angelou publicly discussed aspects of her personal life not previously known. This personal material makes her book unique and heart-changing. She soon became a spokesperson for black people and women. Her works are now seen by many as a defense of Black culture. Sadly, several attempts have been made to ban her books from some U.S. libraries. As is always the case this only made her work even more highly valued. Some have called Maya Angelou’s major works autobiographical fiction. For the life of me I do not see why. What she did, and this was new at the time in American writing, was to challenge the common structure of the autobiography. She did this by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre in a previously undeveloped way in American literature. Wikipedia says, “Her books center on themes such as racism, identity, family, and travel.” Quite true!

I will not say more about her life and written corpus since you can discover all that I’ve written online. The Wikipedia article, from which I’ve drawn a great deal of what I wrote above, is quite full. It seems to me to be pretty accurate with all the sources you want.

What I wish to say about this book is quite simple. If you want to understand race in America, especially in the context of family and poverty, you should read this classic memoir/autobiography. It will move you deeply if you have an ounce of compassion at all. I can never think about my childhood in middle Tennessee (my mother and father were both from rural Arkansas) in the same “innocent” way again. Maya Angelou opened my eyes but she also reached into my heart. I only regret that it took me this long to finally read her most famous book. I expect I will read more of her work very soon. Thank you Vill Harmon, my good friend. I am so glad you urged me to read this book last summer. My copy is going back to the Carol Stream Library today. I expect I’ll soon read another of her books very soon. I hope some of you will try this one and see what it does to your heart as a lover of Christ and an agent of reconciliation. If we are to grasp the lives we lead we must know people and read books like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Posted in Books, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Affairs, Freedom, History, Marriage & Family, Personal, Race and Racism | 6 Comments/Likes

Fr. René Constanza on Christian Unity, Part 2

Posted in ACT 3, Current Affairs, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, Personal, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Unity of the Church | 3 Comments/Likes

Fr. René Constanza on Christian Unity, Part 1

Fr. René Constanza is a Paulist priest serving in Austin, Texas. He is also a good friend. Fr. René has participated in all three of our Catholic-Evangelical Conversations in Chicago over the last three years. This young man is a dedicated minister and true servant of Christ who prays for the unity and works with me for this purpose.

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Unity of the Church | 5 Comments/Likes

One of the Most Joyful Weeks in My Remembrance

1024x1024As I sit this evening at my computer I am  amazed. For five days every newscast and commentator has responded the visit of Pope Francis to America with such joy and positive energy. From every perspective, including the most non-religious journalists and broadcasters, people have talked about the pope but in doing so they have talked a great deal about Jesus, the Bible and the joy of the gospel. I have never heard so much public talk about matters of profound truth and faith in my lifetime, except perhaps at the funerals of President Kennedy (1963) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968). We have seen pictures of Pope Francis with prisoners, in a seminary speaking to bishops and students about the two greatest works of a shepherd (prayer and the preaching the gospel), praying at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York with representatives of world religions, speaking before the United Nations, speaking before Congress, meeting with the Speaker of the House, meeting with the President and then this evening leaving our shores after being with the Vice-President on the way to the airport in Philadelphia. Since Tuesday evening, when the pope landed in Washington, the 24/7 news cycle has been about Pope Francis for what seems like 85% of the time. Whether you agree with everything that Pope Francis said or did, or for that matter did not do, you cannot help but pause and honestly say, “The entire tone of events and reporting truly changed for the last five days!” One African-American Protestant commentator on CNN, just this afternoon, referred to past biblical and historical revivals and wondered if we might see another revival in America. I am praying for this revival. I have done so for forty-five years. I believe we need it but I also believe it cannot be a sectarian movement for one group of Christians.

I retire this evening full of joy and hope. I rest with prayers for our nation and hope for our future. This is not because the pope came here but because an amazing man of faith came and left his mark on our society. Lives will be changed. What comes now is to be seen but seed was sown and good was done in the power of Christ. Let the critics have their time (they will take it) but I rejoice. I thank God for my brother, Jorge Bergoglio.

I am persuaded of one central point as the pope returns to Rome tonight. If God mercifully pours out the Holy Spirit in our time it will/must include Catholics as well as Protestants. It will/must include the Orthodox and the Pentecostals, the mainline and the evangelicals. It will go beyond our divisions and bring us to deep and growing unity in Christ. And this revival will allow Christians to converse with people of all faiths without rancor and condemnation but in Christ’s love. After all, the world will know that we are Christians, and that God is love, when we love one another (John 13:34-35, 15:12, 17; 17:21-23).

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Current Affairs, Jesus, Love, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Pope Francis, Protestantism, Religion, Renewal, Roman Catholicism, Television, The Church, Unity of the Church | 14 Comments/Likes

Christ Our Peace: The Radical Concept of Christian Unity (Guest Blog)

photo-48For He himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16)

What a radical concept Christian unity is! The fact that in Christ, we are one! 

This heavenly reality certainly does not appear to be true when we look around the world. We all come from various backgrounds and cultures, life experiences, and we have our own denominational distinctions. Each person sees the world very differently, and because of this, we are inherently prone to disagree with and distance ourselves from those who are culturally, denominationally, and ethnically distinct from us.

Yes, it is easier to worship with people who look like us, act like us, and have the same theological beliefs as us. But as Christians we are called to go beyond this place of comfort to see and value Christ in our neighbor.

Paul acknowledges the difficulty of extending Christian fellowship by exhorting us to “earnestly endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). The Greek word here implies a “full effort of the whole man, involving his will, sentiment, reason, strength, and total attitude”(Karl Barth). This striving forward is not simply an outward action of embracing the other, but is first and foremost an inward examination of our hearts.

When you look at your brother or sister, do you see Jesus? What might be hindering your view?

From my experience, one of the chief hindrances to Christian unity is my need to be right. This places walls between me and my brothers and sisters, resulting in a self-righteous attitude. At the end of the day, only God knows those who are His, and so the “right” answer is Jesus’ work and righteousness, extended to all.

During Unite Boston’s 10 Days initiative, we had the opportunity to step outside our comfort zones to get to know our brothers and sisters from various denominations and backgrounds. As we did this, we learned to respect those that disagreed with us. We learned to be confident in the fact that the fellowship of the saints goes beyond a uniform doctrine to involve a unity of Spirit (Eph 4:3) and the inward spiritual rebirth of those who confess faith in Jesus as Lord. We also learned to value the breadth of Christian traditions, rather than promoting a particular expression as having greater spiritual authority over another. Indeed, the deep, difficult work of Christian unity is to respect and honor those with whom we have significant disagreements.

When we step back, we realize that the one and only thing that makes us one is our revelation of Jesus. It is what Jesus did in his incarnation, sacrifice and resurrection that has reconciled us to God and to one another, thus forming an inseverable and eternal peace. It’s as we all gaze at Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross that we are one.
Jesus, we confess our tendency to exclude rather than to include, to judge rather than to honor, and to assert our position rather than to love unconditionally. Lord, have mercy.

Guest Author: Kelly Steinhaus is the Team Leader of Unity Boston and my friend. She is investing her life and labor in building teams of unity in the greater Boston area.

Posted in Missional-Ecumenism, Unity of the Church | 6 Comments/Likes

The Third Annual Catholic-Evangelical Conversation

“From September 1st to the 5th, the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein Illinois was the site for the Third Annual Evangelical and Catholic Conversation.  Along with the University, the conversation is sponsored by the Archdiocesan Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and ACT-3, a network of relational partnerships between churches, missions and leaders in missional ecumenism.  Father Thomas A. Baima, Dr. John Armstrong, Dr. Craig Higgins and Pastor Norberto Saracco were the principal organizers.  Participants include Catholics and Evangelicals from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Italy, Guatemala, England, South Korea and Argentina.  They discussed Pope Francis’ call for dialogue, fraternity and action which he lays out in Evangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel) and heard two presentations.  Fr. Thomas Baima delivered the keynote address on the biblical basis for a common understanding of the Church.  Dr. Craig Higgins presented a response. Additionally, Dr. John Armstrong and Pastor Norberto Saracco led the group in discussing experiences of positive relations between Evangelicals and Catholics in their various countries.”

“This project is part of a larger effort called “missional ecumenism.”  This effort operates alongside of the official dialogues between churches.  It is also different from the unofficial dialogues between theologians.  Missional Ecumenism is based on the idea that while there are still theological issues between the different churches and ecclesial communities which need to be resolved before full communion is possible, nevertheless, the fraternity we share through faith and baptism is sufficient to allow us to work together at presenting the Gospel to the world around us.”

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Current Affairs, Evangelism, Gospel/Good News, Missional Church, Missional-Ecumenism, Pope Francis, Roman Catholicism | 5 Comments/Likes