Christian Unity Week @ Judson University, Part Three

IMG_4199We ended Christian Unity Week at Judson University on Friday, October 10. The final message was given by one of my dearest friends on earth – Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth. Fr. Ellsworth, pastor of Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Warrenville, Illinois, has been my friend since the 1980s. He came to Wheaton, from a pastorate in Kent, Ohio, to serve as senior pastor of the First Baptist Church. We have shared many times of ministry, and growing friendship, over the last twenty-five plus years.

Fr. Ellsworth and I have built a relationship over meals, prayer, conversations about theology and church, as well as special family events. We have celebrated birthdays, weddings and times of grief. We have given unique gifts to one another that we both value deeply. The intimacy of our friendship is something I treasure very, very profoundly. When Fr. Ellsworth began his private journey toward the Orthodox Church some years ago I knew of his direction long before it was made public. We entered into much healthy and engaging dialogue. Both of us learned a great deal. When we were together, and I made it known to a group of friends, that I was not going to follow my friend into the Orthodox Church some wondered if our relationship would last. At this point Fr. Ellsworth was the chairman of the ACT3 board of directors. It could have been a tense moment but it was not.

The night we openly discussed our friendship I will never forget what Wilbur said to the people present. “Some of you will say John and I cannot be best friends in the future because we will not be in the same church communion and the differences will be too great. They will drive us apart.” He concluded, “I have only two words for you: watch us!”

I remember this like it was yesterday. It became the guiding Spirit-given word for a relationship that is stronger than ever before. We often laugh about our journey and pray even more. Though I cannot be communed in Fr. Ellsworth’s congregation, since I am not Orthodox, this is not a personal point of pride or argumentation. It remains a sadness but it does not truly separate us as Christian friends.

As all four of us reflected on the Christian Unity Week at Judson – Fr. Baima, Fr. Ellsworth, Chaplain Lash and I all agreed: “This worked so well because we took the time to build a great level of trust and love between us. This was not simply about three ministers coming in and preaching during a unity week. It was about three dear friends serving Christ together!”

This is my greatest take-away: friendship is where we should always go if we want to love and seek unity in Christ.

Fr. Ellsworth’s excellent sermon on Luke 24 can be heard in the link below.

Click here to listen.

Posted in ACT 3, Biblical Theology, Christ/Christology, Current Affairs, Discipleship, Love, Missional-Ecumenism, Orthodoxy, Personal, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | 4 Comments/Likes

Christian Unity Week @ Judson University, Part Two

IMG_4165On Wednesday, October 8, I introduced Fr. Thomas Baima to the Judson University community. I do not know if Judson has ever had a Roman Catholic priest speak as a primary preacher in their chapel but on this gorgeous fall day it happened. The anticipation and prayer was palpable to me. A lot had gone into this service behind the scenes, including dialogue over many months, a meal that we all shared together, and much planning about details and liturgy. Music was provided by my friend Aaron Niequist as well. Aaron is a fellow-traveler and shared in the Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation in September.

This particular chapel began on a very sad note. A great trial touching the entire Judson family was shared with the students at the beginning. But we proceeded by asking God to meet with us in our prayers and worship. Fr. Baima ended by offering a rich and pastoral response on behalf of the Judson community through his closing prayer.

Many have said to me, for an entire lifetime, “I have never heard a Catholic priest preach the gospel, and show what evangelism is and what it means to the life of the church.” Well, this happened at Judson. Fr. Baima opened up Matthew 28:16-20 and reflected on the text as a Catholic who is faithful to his own ecclesial standing. This is an excellent sermon. I hope you will listen to this second message from Christian Unity Week at Judson.

Click here to listen.

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Current Affairs, Discipleship, Evangelism, Gospel/Good News, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Unity of the Church | 7 Comments/Likes

Christian Unity Week @ Judson University, Part One

IMG_4148I noted a few days ago, on this blog, that I helped to facilitate a Christian Unity Week at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois. Each of the three days in chapel, during the week of October 6-10, we had a service that reflected different aspects of the Christian tradition. And in these three chapels we had the three great traditions of the church represented: Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox.

On Monday, October 6, I began the week by preaching from John 17:21. I tried to show the students and faculty that we are all part of the one body of Christ. We might not share in visible unity in one church but we are brothers and sisters and thus in Christ we are one. This oneness is a reality even if we refuse to live it. But we can live it if we are empowered by God to see our oneness while we still admit our differences. We can live in a reconciled diversity while we seek for greater understanding of both doctrine and practice. Indeed, this is the only way we can and should pursue living the oneness Jesus promised to us.

IMG_4152My sermon, preached at Judson on Monday, October 6, is in the link below. An excellent introduction to the entire week is given by Judson chaplain Chris Lash (in photo with me in the chapel narthex) on the audio below. I hope you will take the time to listen. Encourage others to listen as well. This was, I humbly submit, an amazing display of unity in a most unexpected context. The Spirit reigned in grace and love as we met to worship our Lord Jesus Christ.

The other two sermons, preached on Wednesday and Friday, will be posted over the next two days.

Click here to listen.

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Discipleship, Missional-Ecumenism, Protestantism, The Church, Unity of the Church | 11 Comments/Likes

God, the Ebola Crisis and the American Response

You cannot escape it even if you try. The Ebola outbreak dominates the news cycle day-after-day right now. So long as this virus impacts even one American millions of Americans will keep on watching this endless reporting. Once it dies down, at least in terms of being a threat to the US, then we will soon forget about it. Meanwhile West Africans will die by the thousands. I am not cynical about this at all. I simply think that this is the way news goes on day-by-day inside the bubble of life here in the US.

If you’ve ever traveled abroad you will soon realize just how America-centric we are in terms of what interests us. News of the world fills one page in most daily newspapers in the US. It only makes the TV news if it impacts Americans directly. (The one exception happens when a great tragedy strikes some part of the globe and then it will be mentioned once or twice and forgotten.) In Europe the news reporting covers a bit of local interest, the world at large and then America. We have this almost in reverse and now cable news makes it even more obvious.

UnknownIt has been estimated, and this number rises daily, that $430 million is needed to fight Ebola. (The estimate is from the World Health Organization.) Our president tried to get America interested in this crisis a few weeks ago as a humanitarian issue. It only became a cause for real alarm when an African came into this country and died from Ebola. Then a Dallas health care worker treating him got the virus. At this point the news got huge play in America. Now it is the lead in almost every news hour. (I do not watch cable reporting at all but I cannot escape the story just because I move around, checking the Internet and seeing newspapers, TIME magazine, etc.)

Did you know that Ebola is not a guaranteed death sentence? Do you know that it can be stopped in Africa if we really wanted to stop it?

On August 21 Dr. Kent Brantly, a Samaritan’s Purse heath care worker in Africa, addressed reporters by saying, “Today is a miraculous day. I am thrilled to be alive . . . God saved my life.” Brantly was discharged that day from Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Only days before Nancy Writebol, a fellow American who was infected in Liberia, was also released after dealing with the Ebola virus. Both are virus-free and thus they are likely immune to the virus. There is no vaccine or cure for the Ebola virus but both patients received a drug that is in the early stages of development. Emory physicians say they learned a great deal by treating these two Americans and this can help us fight the virus in West Africa.

The problem is that most Americans are not deeply concerned about West Africa. We are caught up with fears for ourselves and America. I suppose that makes sense, at least on one level, but it reflects what is so wrong with how we hear the news and respond to global pandemics and the great trials of our neighbors on the other hand.

Now the Ebola crisis has taken an entirely new turn. It has been politicized. And just in time for the elections. Listen to the reporting. Read the columns. Pay attention to our political leaders, at least some of them. You’d think President Obama was the cause of this danger if you believe some of them. (This makes no sense at all but one former GOP presidential candidate used the crisis to blame the President in particular.) Some have linked this crisis to Benghazi and one popular Christian talker on TV and radio says there may be a medical conspiracy in all this. (Are you kidding? I wish I was.) And still another popular talker said that the president may see this virus as punishment for how we treated the slaves. This, he tells his audience, is why he will not lead us to ban all travel to West Africa, both in or out.

Some elected leaders have even suggested we quarantine entire countries. I heard a great deal of this on the radio yesterday because I was in my car for several hours while driving to Wisconsin. A quarantine sounds sensible, for about thirty seconds. If you work the idea out logically it is down right silly. Just think about this – a quarantine would prohibit American health care workers, nurses, soldiers and Christian missionaries from doing what they can do to actually stop the virus at its source. If this ban happens the epidemic will only grow and spread whether we like it or not. Any solution that does not solve the problem inside of Africa is simply ridiculous. It also lacks any sense of responsibility for our neighbors, both near and far. I think Christians should know better.

I have two thoughts about all of this. First, Christians serving in West Africa, along with other health care workers of any or of no faith, are the real heroes. Let us pray for them and help them reach the dying and stop this virus. Stop the political stuff and work to save lives, period! Second, I have little doubt that if this crisis came from Germany or Belgium the conversation would be very different. Because it centers on the extremely poor people of West Africa we care so much less.

Could it be that God had nothing to do with this virus? Perhaps God’s role is to call us to respond in love in order to reveal to the world that we care precisely because he cares? This is a novel idea to some. And could it be that the consumerist and self-centered church in America needs to wake up from its moral sleep and stop getting its worldview from the talk show hosts and cable news channels? This might actually allow our love to grow and our view of the world to shift towards the least and the lost.

Posted in Culture, Current Affairs, Death, Divine Providence, Ethics, Love, Personal, Politics, Television, The Church | 15 Comments/Likes

How Should We Respond to Pope Francis and the Present Ecumenical Open Window?

When Pope Francis was first presented to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square in 2013 he said, “Pray for me.” This was not window dressing. It was a deeply earnest request to us all. Shortly after this introduction my friend Norberto Saracco, who I wrote about yesterday, wrote an article for the Lausanne Movement about Pope Francis. In this article Norberto explains how we should pray for his friend Jorge, the man the world now knows as Pope Francis. Unknown-1Today I post Norberto’s 2013 article on how we should respond to Pope Francis and his request for our prayer.

I first met Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, today Pope Francis, in 2001.  That year has a special place in the memory of all Argentinians: in the month of December we were forced to face the worse economic and social crisis in our history.  Concurrently, the National Council of Evangelicals and the Argentine Catholic Episcopacy were meeting for the first time in order to work on a new law for religious equality.

After the opening devotional, Cardinal Bergoglio spoke, saying, “We can’t be in here working on this new law while outside our people are convulsed and desperate.”  He continued with a new proposal for the meeting, saying, “Let’s plan to do something together.  Let’s gather all our resources for the service of the people.”

Two years later, as a consequence of a visit by Professor Matteo Calisi, a key figure in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, we began a process to regularly bring together evangelical pastors and laypeople with Catholic priests.  This resulted in the formation of CRECES (the Renovated Communion of Evangelicals and Catholics in the Holy Spirit).  Our purpose was: “To proclaim Jesus Christ.”  Cardinal Bergoglio has totally supported this initiative.

An important highlight of the CRECES movement was the Third Encounter in June 2006.  After expressing his joy upon seeing the multitude of evangelicals and Catholics in what he called “a reconciled diversity,” and sharing a brief message, Cardinal Bergoglio asked, as was his custom, that we pray for him.  Those of us who were on the platform gathered around him.  The photograph of the kneeling Cardinal surrounded by pastors laying their hands on him had an unexpected impact.  A Catholic magazine published the photo on its cover with the large headline, “APOSTATE!”

Nevertheless, and in spite of internal pressures, the support of the Cardinal and his personal relationship with evangelical pastors continued to grow.  He promoted several retreats between priests and pastors in which he personally participated, and he encouraged the joint distribution of Bibles, as well as evangelistic efforts and anything that promoted unity between Christians and exalted Jesus Christ.

Two years ago, we evangelical pastors were invited to a Pentecost Sunday mass in the central cathedral.  After finishing his homily, Cardinal Bergoglio addressed the crowd, telling how Catholics had persecuted evangelicals.  He concluded by publically asking pardon.

We continued meeting for prayer several times a year, whether in his office or in one of ours.  We grew to know him as a man of great wisdom and deep spirituality.  I called him the day before he left for Rome.  At the end of our conversation, he asked, as he always did: “Pray for me.”


The Catholic Church is passing through one of its worst moments: child abuse scandals, corruption in the Vatican with hints of connections to the Mafia, crisis in the vocational ministries, massive losses of the faithful, and other issues face it.  Francis knows that he has accepted the challenge of becoming Pope in order to bring about deep changes.

In the early days of his papacy he has given some interesting signals.  Now he has the challenge of moving beyond gestures into the reality of actions.  It will not be easy.  Both the moving on of the previous Pope and the election of a new Pope continue to cause worldwide commotion for various reasons, not necessarily religious.

It falls on us as men and women of faith to try to discern the times, to understand how the Lord of history is moving in the election of Francis and what He is saying.  Let us look at a few signs:

1 Upsurge of religious fervour.  In many cases this reflects a chauvinistic attitude and in other cases is an expression of popular religion that is not necessarily Christian.  But it also certainly expresses a hunger and thirst for God.  Millions of people on our continent live in a spiritual desert, and they are seeking God.

2 The power of personal testimony.  The impact of Francis comes, not from his discourses (although his words are both powerful and meaningful), but from his life.  People are talking about what he did, not what he said.  What appear to be devastating arguments from his accusers melt before the testimony of his life.

3 The power of love.  His gestures of respect and good will toward President Christina Kirchner of Argentina have led to reconciliation and broken the fiery spirit of confrontation that has dominated our society.

4 The value of poverty.  Francis’s poverty is not poverty in the sense of a lack of goods that leads to misery, but poverty as an attitude of life that gives to one’s neighbor, lives with simplicity, and prioritizes the weakest among us.


While it is certain that many things separate us as evangelicals from the Catholic Church, both in matters of doctrine and of practice, I sense that God is speaking to us in the election of Francis and in what is happening as a result:

• God is calling us to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ with more fervour and passion.  People are desperately seeking God.  This is a time of announcement, proclamation, and mission.

• God is calling us to live the gospel.  We have crafted a false, hedonist, superficial, emotional gospel.  Just as our lives have not changed, neither has our society, in spite of the proliferation of churches.  We have fastened our sights on religious marketing strategies that have engorged our churches but not extended the Kingdom of God.  We need to emphasize the transforming power of the gospel, and this only happens as we teach our people to obey God’s word.

• God is calling us to radically live out His love, by loving and accepting our neighbour, selflessly offering our service, and becoming instruments of reconciliation.

• God is calling us to a life style that honours His gospel.  Some are preaching a false gospel of prosperity and consumerism.  Many of our leaders have become priests of the god Mammon, the god of riches.  This is a ‘gospel’ that exalts the worse aspects of human nature: egotism, ambition, and vanity.  It is time to return to the simplicity of the gospel.

The challenge is huge.  Because of this, God is calling into unity those of us who believe in Jesus Christ and intend to be faithful to him, be we Catholics or evangelicals.  It is not to an institutional unity, but a unity in the holiness of God’s word, in the power of the Holy Spirit and in mission.  Pope Francis has before him the difficult tasks of cleansing the church, ridding her of idolatry, putting her on a path toward holiness, and preaching Jesus Christ. He cannot do it alone, and because he has asked it of us, let us pray for him.

Rev. Dr. J. Norberto Saracco is the former Lausanne International Deputy Director for Latin America.  Norberto is a Pentecostal pastor and scholar, and founder and director of International Faculty of Theological Studies (FIET) in Argentina.

Posted in Current Affairs, Evangelism, Missional-Ecumenism, Roman Catholicism, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | 3 Comments/Likes

New Possibilities in the Quest for Visible Unity

Dr. J. Norberto Saracco is a leading Pentecostal pastor in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Norberto has been a leader in the global ecumenical movement and deeply involved in the Lausanne Movement. He serves on the Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation committee that I chair and through this work we have become good friends. He was a presenter at our recent meeting in Mundelein. (This address and video will soon be available on our website.)

Norberto is also a very close friend of UnknownJorge Bergoglio, who the world now knows as Pope Francis. Norberto, and the former Cardinal, shared many platforms and public prayer meetings together. They have also spent many times together in private, both before Begoglio became Pope Francis and since. Together they have witnessed to the power of Christian unity in the Spirit. With this in mind I share a guest post today by presenting Norberto’s words from a previously published article.

In February of 2006 Norberto gave a presentation that originally appeared on the website of the World Council of Churches. Today I publish this article because I find the content timeless. It is as important now as it was back in 2006. In fact, I think it is more important in the light of what God has done, and is doing, in the world of Christian ecumenism.

New Possibilities in the Quest for Visible Unity
A Contribution from the Evangelical Churches of Latin America

You belong to the same church as me,

If you stand at the foot of the cross.

If your heart beats in time with to my heart,

Give me your hand. You are my brother, my sister.

For decades the words of that chorus have been sung by millions of evangelicals throughout Latin America. It has been a sort of theme song in meetings and activities at which brothers and sisters of different denominations met. Its ecumenical theology is simple: if you are at the foot of the cross, you belong to the same church as I do; if your heart beats in time with my heart, you are my brother, my sister.

That simple statement reduces centuries of ecumenical discussion to the barest minimum, but it also glosses over our real divisions.

Diversity and plurality, values which are a legacy from our Protestant history, have drifted towards fragmentation and polarization. These have been features of the life of the evangelical churches and, for the Pentecostals, almost a measure of their spirituality!

However, today it is different. In recent years, it has been the evangelical churches, and particularly the Pentecostal churches, that have worked hardest in the quest for the visible unity of the church. The strengthening of the National Alliances and Federations of Churches, the establishment of Pastoral Councils in thousands of cities, and joint mission and evangelism projects are only some examples of this. We know that it is not the same in all places and that there is still much to be done, but it would be wrong not to acknowledge the truth of this.

For the evangelical churches, unity comes out of their faithfulness to the Word of God and and out of mission. In the Lausanne Covenant, it is put like this: “We affirm that the visible unity of the church in the truth is the will of God. Evangelism is also an invitation to unity, since unity strengthens our witness, just as disunity is a denial of our gospel of reconciliation.”

For evangelical churches, unity is not based on the recognition of a hierarchical authority, nor on dogmas, nor on theological agreements, nor on alliances between institutions. We have to accept that that way of doing ecumenism has gone as far as it can. We know one another better than ever before, we have said to one another all that we have to say, and we understand exhaustively the causes of our divisions. What is the next step to be? The ecumenical agenda must disentangle itself from the past and become open to the ecumenism of the future. In a dynamic and lively church, like the church in Latin America, there is an ecumenism of the People of God, which declares, like the song I mentioned to begin with, that if you and I are at the foot of the cross, then we belong to the same church, so, give me your hand, let us walk together, you are my brother, my sister. I admit that this ecumenical simplicity may be disturbing, but its sole aim is to help an ecumenism that has come to a standstill to break out of its inertia.

Why can we not listen to the millions of Christians who have no understanding of our divisions? In recent decades, we have in fact witnessed the weakening of denominational structures. There has been a globalization of religious experience. The lines of authority, loyalty and spirituality cut across the different denominations. We cannot ignore the dangers in this new situation, but we must also ask, Will this not be, perhaps, the breath of the Spirit? Will it not be that God is creating something new without our being aware of it?

We are being asked, how can the evangelical churches relate to the fellowship of churches which belongs to the World Council of Churches?

When the question is asked in that way, the diversity among the evangelical churches and the diversity among the WCC member churches make an answer impossible.

I can, however, suggest some possible ways how they can relate to one another

1. We need to regard one another honestly with mutual respect and appreciation. In the past, we evangelical churches in Latin America have (in inverted commas) “evangelized” by exposing the weaknesses of the Catholic Church. Today it is different. In the 1970s we were also not able to understand the struggle of our brothers and sisters who, at that time, were risking their lives by being witnesses to Jesus Christ, his justice and his truth. Since then, we have, more than once, publicly and privately, repented of this. Unity becomes, however, difficult when our brothers and sisters treat us as sects, when they regard Pentecostals as a threat, and see in the growth of evangelical churches an advance of the pro-war right. Unity cannot be built on misrepresentation and prejudice.

2. We need to understand that the religious map of the world has changed and that the map of Christianity has also changed. The centre of gravity of the church has moved from the North to the South. The fact that this Assembly is taking place in this city of Porto Alegre is not a coincidence. We, the Christians from this part of the world, therefore have this not-to-be-missed opportunity to make our unity in Christ visible in our day-to-day commitment to mission. Our impoverished peoples, our pillaged lands and our societies in bondage to sin present us with a challenge. An ecumenism of mission is possible in so far as Jesus Christ is proclaimed as Saviour and Lord and the gospel presented in its entirety. We believe that the centrality of Jesus Christ points up the difference between the mission of the church and religious compassion. We need to be clear. Latin America needs Jesus Christ and we should come together in mission to declare that truth.

3. We need to accept our diversity as an expression of the grace of God that itself takes many forms. There are different ways of being church and in recent times that diversity has multiplied. It would be a good ecumenical exercise to find out what are the limits to diversity that we are prepared to accept. But we need to accept one another without reservation, without dividing churches into first-class and second-class. It needs to be an acceptance without ecclesiological word-play (communities of faith, ecclesial communities, churches, and so on), which is an attempt to conceal our inability to acknowledge others as part of the one church.

4. Allow me to end with a question. Suppose we were to give the Spirit a chance? We have used oceans of ink and tons of paper in writing about unity. That has not been a waste of time, effort or money. But it has brought us as far as we can go. Is not this the time for a new Pentecost? Only a Spirit-filled church will see racial, sexual, economic and ecclesiastical barriers come down. Only Spirit-filled lives will stop calling “impure” or “unclean” what God has called holy, and stop regarding as sacrosanct what is “unclean”.

The unity of the church will be a work of the Spirit, or it will not be at all.

Rev. Dr. J. Norberto Saracco is the former Lausanne International Deputy Director for Latin America.  Norberto is a Pentecostal pastor and scholar, and founder and director of International Faculty of Theological Studies (FIET) in Argentina. As noted above he also serves on the Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation committee.

Posted in ACT 3, Current Affairs, Love, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Roman Catholicism, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | 7 Comments/Likes

Send Me

Send Me
Use me, God, in thy great harvest field,
Which stretches far and wide like a vast sea.
The gatherers are so few; I fear the precious yield
Will suffer loss. Oh, find a place for me!
A place where best the strength I have will tell.
It may be one the older toilers shun;
Be it a wide or narrow place,’tis well
So that the work it holds be only done.

- Christina Rossetti

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments/Likes

ISIS and the Importance of Christian-Muslim Relations in the US (Guest Blog)

tom_ryanThe recent 9/11 anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. also brought with it, especially in light of the present actions of ISIS/ISIL , memories of the backlash against Muslim and even Sikh communities on our own continent. Those memories underline how important it is to build relationships with people of other faiths — especially in our efforts to help those who are the victims of such violence and to seek together the common goal of peace.

The Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said as much when it reasserted their commitment to dialogue with other religions and Muslims in particular in a statement released August 19. The committee listed tensions between Christians and Muslims in different parts of the world as a primary reason for reaffirming the need for dialogue.

“We understand the confusion and deep emotions stirred by real and apparent acts of aggression and discrimination by certain Muslims against non-Muslims, often against Christians abroad,” the bishops wrote. “Along with many of our fellow Catholics and the many Muslims who themselves are targeted by radicals, we wish to voice our sadness, indeed our outrage, over the random and sometimes systematic acts of violence and harassment—acts that for both Christians and Muslims threaten to disrupt the harmony that binds us together in mutual support, recognition, and friendship.”

For their part, national and North American Muslim organizations have been at pains to let citizens in general know where they stand. The Institute for Islamic and Turkish Studies condemned the atrocities being carried out by ISIL/ISIS in Syria and Iraq:  “Islam is a religion of peace.  It forbids the injury of Innocents, in particular women, children, the elderly, and even of crops, trees, natural resources, and property.”

The US Council of Muslim Organizations also spoke out: “USCMO roundly condemns this group and rejects its ideology and actions. The terror organization ISIS, does not speak or act on behalf of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. In fact, they have killed so many Muslims indiscriminately. Their actions are reprehensible, inhumane and completely contravene all aspects and tenets of Islam.”

USCMO also underlined that it “states in the Qur’an that the taking of one life is the equivalent of the killing of all humankind, and the saving of one life is equivalent to the saving of all humankind. Islam abhors and rejects the murder, mayhem and terror being spread by this group of criminal individuals.”

The USCMO also appeals to the general public to avoid spreading Islamophobia by using the actions of ISIS to characterize and demonize all Muslims, globally and here in the United States.

The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), a non-profit organization based in Tunisia, has been bringing together the best minds in academia, as well as in the Muslim community of North America. In its Aug 29 Press Release it said that “these inhumane acts by ISIS are a clear indication that the terrorist group is morally bankrupt and that their tactics undermine fundamental Islamic legal and ethical pronouncements on the sanctity of human life and protection of non-combatants.”

CSID believes that failed policies in supporting the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people in the face of brutal dictatorship contributed to the rise and expansion of extremist groups such as “the Islamic State.”

“The signals must be clear; only inclusive democracy coupled with full respect for human rights offers a path forward,” states CSID. “Democratization should not be sacrificed in the name of stability, of economic development or of defending the rights of any particular group at the expense of another.”

The Islamic Society of North America published a brochure about religious extremism and terrorism to clarify some key issues. In it terrorism is defined as any act of indiscriminate violence that targets innocent people, whether committed by individuals, groups or states.

It reminds followers of its own community that in 2005, Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA), an Islamic juristic body, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) on July 28th, 2005 which affirmed its long standing position on this issue, and was unequivocal in its condemnation of terrorism by stating: “Islam strictly condemns religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives. There is no justification in Islam for extremism or terrorism.”

Stating that it was issued “following the guidance of our scripture, the Qur’an, and the teachings of our Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him”, the religious ruling confirmed the following salient principles: [1] All acts of terrorism, including those targeting the life and property of civilians, whether perpetrated by suicidal or any other form of attacks, are haram (forbidden) in Islam. [2] It is haram for a Muslim to cooperate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or prohibited violence.

ISNA’s brochure addresses Muslim responsibilities in counter terrorism and religious extremism by saying “We must take whatever steps we can to combat these scourges.”

These steps, it says, include encouraging every mosque and Islamic education entity across the country to endorse the 2005 Fatwa. Educating Muslims, especially leaders and imams, about relevant Islamic teachings, societal concerns and responsive initiatives relating to terrorism and religious extremism. Holding leaders responsible for un-Islamic teaching. Organizing youth outreach programs. Reaching out to our neighbors and interfaith institutions to create better understanding and cooperation.

“In the interest of justice and positive change,” ISNA says, “we also request our neighbors and friends from other faiths to support us in this effort by speaking out against the recent backlash and widespread demonization of Islam and Muslims. Islamophobic statements and actions punish and victimize the entire global community of Muslims for the actions of a few, and hinder our efforts to provide a moderate voice, and promote mutual understanding and peace.”

“The vicious cycle of violence in our interconnected world has to be broken, and we must work together to do so through mutual understanding and constructive dialogue, rather than allowing those who would divide us through hate to achieve their goals,” declares ISNA. “It is the only hope for bringing about real and genuine mutual respect, justice, and peace.”

Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC

Posted in America and Americanism, Current Affairs, Freedom, Friendship, Interfaith Relations and Dialogue, Religion, The Future | 7 Comments/Likes

Same-Sex Marriage Dividing a Local Parish

On the same day that I read the Associated Press report that I referenced yesterday regarding the new Pew Research about same-sex marriage there was another report from Great Falls, Montana. This story struck me as one filled with profound pain and difficulty.

Church PictureRoman Catholic Bishop Michael Warfel of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings conducted a meeting with about 300 parishioners from St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Lewistown on Saturday, September 20. There is a huge controversy inside the St. Leo congregation. Fr. Samuel Spiering, the priest at St. Leo’s, has decided to prohibit a gay couple from receiving the Eucharist unless they take three steps. First, they must legally divorce. Second, they must live separately. And third, they must write a statement affirming that marriage is between a man and a woman. The 300 people from the parish who met with their bishop were said to be evenly divided about the counsel of their priest. (Note: This is not an urban center where large numbers of gays might live in communities.)

The same-sex couple, in this particular instance, involves a man who is 66 and his 73-year old partner. Both have attended St. Leo since 2003 and both sang in the church choir. One is the church organist. The men have been in a “committed” relationship for over thirty years according to various reports and were legally married in Seattle in a civil ceremony in May 2013.

So how does the church, generally speaking, address this problem? I cannot speak for the Catholic Church in particular, though I have some understanding of how this can be addressed canonically and pastorally at the same time. I can speak broadly about the issue and believe that we have here a clear case of “the 900-pound gorilla in the room.”

I am persuaded that there are three concerns for the church in this matter. First, there is a political issue. What is the right response morally and what role does the church have within the culture regarding the debate over marriage? We are clearly divided at many points as touching this issue of the political. Some will fight against same-sex marriage for years to come. Others will focus much more on the issue of what the church can and cannot do morally and shift the focus there rather than upon the cultural debates.

But what I am deeply concerned about is that there are two other important areas of concern for the church as we face this issue in the years ahead. There is the issue of pastoral practice and then the issue of missional church. Both seem to have been lost to most conservatives who stand strongly against same-sex marriage. In reading the story of division at St. Leo’s I sense that both of these are missing from the debate. Let me explain.

Whether you agree with same-sex marriage or not the church must have a pastoral response to real people. This involves caring for them where they are, loving them with the love of Christ and shepherding them with private and public care. This does not mean there is no place for moral courage or personal confrontation about sin. It does mean this must be done in a proper context, with deep concern for the person(s) involved. Pastoral care is never about the political. I care for people who hold many views about many things that are very different from my own moral and spiritual standards.

The third concern I have in these debates is missional. The church is to be a colony of heaven in the midst of the world. It is to be a community of love where people can feel safe, seek help and find community. The mission is to corporately reflect Christ’s grace and love to the world so that people will see us living in relational unity so powerfully that they will conclude that surely the Father who sent the Son into the world to save it is love (cf. John 17). I rarely hear a good discussion about the missional implications of the church’s response to the same-sex issue. Most of what I hear sounds like a harshly discordant note in terms of what the world hears us say about grace and forgiveness. We have reduced the church’s mission to being a moral force in the culture, not a hospital and lighthouse for sinners who want to find their way home to the Father.

I believe more and more younger Christians will push the church to deal with the pastoral and missional issues related to this contentious issue. I do not have simple and easy answers for what this looks like but I am sure that we will never know until we consider all three of these concerns in addressing the same-sex issue inside the church. No issue more threatens to redefine us, and impact our mission negatively at the same time, as this one.

Posted in Culture, Current Affairs, Discipleship, Ethics, Gospel/Good News, Homosexuality, Missional Church, Personal, Renewal, Roman Catholicism, Sexuality, The Church, The Future | 29 Comments/Likes

Has the Political Support for Same-Sex Marriage Leveled Off?

imagesHas American political support for same-sex marriage leveled off in recent months? A recent Pew Research Center poll says: “Yes.” After years of continual and dramatic growth for the support of same-sex marriage this growth may have slowed, if not stopped. The poll’s authors caution that it is too soon to make definitive conclusions about this new data. To give but one example of the data, since February this new poll reveals that support for (legal) same-sex marriage has declined from an approval of 54% to 49%. The percentage of those opposed during the same period went from 39% to 41%.

The same survey showed that religious influence in America was also declining. Yet most who were surveyed saw this decline as a negative. Interestingly, about half of the respondents said churches and houses of worship should speak out more openly on public issues. And nearly half of all respondents said businesses should be allowed to deny service to same-sex couples if the owners have religious objections.

I think the most amazing number from this new Pew Research was connected to the percentage of Americans who considered same-sex relationships to be sinful. The number was previously 45% but in this new poll it has reached 50%. I’d love to know what “sinful” means to those who answered in this way.

The culture-wide effort to redefine marriage has plainly become a broad-based mass movement over the last decade. Only a decade ago 30% accepted same-sex marriage. Today 19 states legally approve of such marriage. In the Pew poll the percentage of people who said they were undecided about gay marriage increased from 7% to 10%.

For those who oppose same-sex marriage these numbers could be seen as a new reversal in a growing trend. But the chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute noted that it is very challenging to interpret this kind of data. He added that “the fundamentals beneath the trend remain very solid in the generational breaks that are driving this. The long-term curve on this trend doesn’t show any retreat.” My sense of the debate says this is a sound observation.

I am not a scientific researcher thus I have no idea how to rightly read this data. What I do know is that those among us who are under 40 support same-sex marriage in very high numbers. And most people who are post-65, like me, oppose this social and legal trend. But we are aging and passing away. The trend to embrace same-sex marriage (at least legally) seems likely to grow all the more regardless of this new data. The only trend that might result in a reversal of any consequence might come from a wide-scale moral awakening within the culture. No one can predict such an awakening.

Posted in Current Affairs, Ethics, Homosexuality, Marriage & Family, Missional Church, Politics, Religion, The Church, The Future | 6 Comments/Likes