The Spirituality of Designer Religions (Monte Wilson)

DSC00542You can’t read a magazine or watch TV without hearing some rock star or movie actor gushing on and on about being a “spiritual person.” Same goes for Facebook, where people post such profound bon mots as, “I am not religious. I am spiritual.” Maybe it’s just me but this always leaves me wondering: You’re spiritual? To what spirit are you referring? It begs the question, doesn’t it?

“Being spiritual” doesn’t say enough for me to have even the slightest clue as to what you are describing or asserting about your beliefs. If we have a Buddhist, a Baptist, and a believer in Brahman, each saying he is spiritual, aren’t they all saying something categorically different? And if a word can mean so many different things to different people, why confuse your listeners with such an amorphous word?

Why, indeed.

While there are probably more reasons than I can imagine, I believe that most all of them can be traced back to two.

When I say that I am spiritual, I am letting you know that I believe in something higher than myself, but am not suggesting – the pantheon of gods forbid—that my spirituality is superior or higher or nobler than your spirituality. Well, unless, that is, your “spirituality” includes what you believe are divinely given moral codes with which I disagree: then you are “religious.” My spirituality makes no base and disgusting judgments about the behavior of others because doing so is my one sacred prohibition.

Okay. There are some behaviors upon which my spirituality demands I call down hell and damnation.

It always baffles me when people go on and on about the horrific nature of God’s Ten Commandments, only to discover that they actually have created far more sacrosanct laws than we find on Moses’ two tablets. They sit there telling me how restrictive The Ten Commandments are, how morally reprehensible or barbaric it is, and then, when I light up a cigar or order a 24 oz porterhouse or they hear about my stash of banned light-bulbs I am still using or my belief in a free market economy or of the one hundred other sacred cows of theirs that I am goring by my behavior, they want me stoned or shunned…or at least have my right to vote taken away.

Which brings me to the second reason. By referring to myself as being “spiritual and not religious,” I get to believe and behave however I choose. Is that cool, or what? There are no dogmas, no codes of behavior, and no traditions, other than those I create for myself. Maybe I’ll take a little from Buddha, a smidgen from Hinduism, and something from Jesus about loving others, and, Voila: I have my self-created designer religion that demands nothing of me other than what I want it to.

Why not just say, “I have designed my own religion”? I can’t say that because it would make me sound like I have a god-complex. Then what about professing that I practice syncretism: a combination of various beliefs and practices taken from many religions that were chosen according to what makes me feel good about myself, fits my personality, and supports my chosen cultural mores.  O. Wait a minute. Those are basically saying the same thing, aren’t they.

Guest Author

Monte E. Wilson

Monte Wilson trains individuals, teams, and organizations to develop personal and team effectiveness. His work has taken him around the globe and for 40 years he has trained thousands of international leaders in the fields of communication and persuasion, education, and non-profit organizations. As a Corporate Trainer and Life Coach, he has specialized in working across cultural lines throughout the world to establish and sustain successful businesses, both large and small. ESPN, ABC, United Technologies and Best Buy.

As an authority on leadership development, Monte has worked with men and women across five continents, teaching them how to reinvent themselves, their communities and their organizations.

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2015

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Discipleship, Leadership, Spirituality | Leave a comment

Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (A Review)

DanToday’s guest writer is Dan Brennan, author of the important book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women.

Where was I to find love? Where was I to give love?

If Scripture and the Christian tradition were right that I shouldn’t

try to find a husband, surely the apparent corollary couldn’t also be

right—that I was therefore cut off from any deep, meaningful

form of intimacy and communion. Could it?”

Wesley Hill

 

As an evangelical who has significant interest in the connection between sexuality and friendship, I was eagerly awaiting the delivery of Wesley Hill’s Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. He did not disappoint.

Although Hill writes from the perspective of a gay celibate, he writes as an evangelical who seeks to integrate a post-Freudian view of sexuality with friendship. To be clear, Hill doesn’t use that phrase. That comes from take. In my own language, some of the distinctive features of a post-Freudian sexuality are that it 1) affirms we are all spiritual-sexual beings, 2) expands the meaning of sexuality beyond genital engagement, and 3) embraces friendship love in relational sexuality.

Friendship love has two different dimensions for Christians in a post-Freudian world. Evangelicals are just beginning to explore the friendship love within marriage. That’s the first dimension. What does spiritual friendship mean in marital sexuality? The second dimension focuses on the question of what it means for two sexual persons to love one another wholeheartedly not as romantic partners but as friends. Hill’s book centers on this dimension exploring the meaning of friendship love as a gay celibate.

For gays who are committed to a traditional sexual ethic, the friendship love in the first dimension is not an option. However, what about friendship love in the second dimension? Gays living within the current evangelical sexual milieu are faced with a rigid two-choice dilemma: seek the almost impossible task of changing their orientation or face a life destined for despairing loneliness.

Hill’s book courageously offers gay celibates a breakthrough out of that evangelical gridlock by boldly claiming friendship love in the second dimension. In popular evangelical sexuality, the message for evangelical gays is so strong: they have no choice other than this two-choice dilemma. This evangelical gridlock is a powerful narrative precisely because it is comprised of a number of mini two-choice dilemmas presented as gospel truth. In contrast, Spiritual Friendship explores how friendship offers gay celibates authentic, life-giving, life-affirming choices beyond those dilemmas. We’ll look at three such dilemmas for this post.

Unfulfilled or Neutered?

In this courageous book, Hill dares to forge in the midst of the evangelical world a sexually safe space for gay celibates to enjoy friendship as gays without neutering their sexuality. In so doing Hill has to challenge conservative evangelicals who have uncritically accepted a When Harry Met Sally ethic as heterosexual gospel. If the sex part always gets in the way of friendship between two sexual beings, then evangelical gays are consigned to a haunting two-choice dilemma with no authentic alternative.

Can gay men be profoundly and authentically sexual as celibates and friends? Suddenly, evangelicals who enthusiastically endorse a When Harry Met Sally sexual ethic are faced with their own reductionistic corner into which they have painted themselves. Hill wants us to think deeply about authentic love in friendship without neutering sexuality.

For gay Christians and heterosexual Christians who hold to the When Harry Met Sally ethic, only romantic love/marriage provides an authentic way out of loneliness. Matthew Vines, the author of God and the Gay Christian, sets up this dilemma with his insistence that marriage for gays is the path out of loneliness. When I heard him speak, he immediately dismissed friendship for gays as a serious and authentic alternative to loneliness.

Hill deftly and daringly leads us deep into the heart of the landscape of sexual beings seeking authentic spiritual closeness in friendship as celibates. Sex is not the only place for sexual beings to experience the fullness of God’s presence; friendship, too, offers authentic fullness with no neutering of our sexuality.

Slippery Slope or Integrity?

As I stated earlier, evangelical gridlock poses a number of two-choice dilemmas. Gay celibates aren’t stuck with the narrow dilemma: slippery slope or integrity. Both choices are undesired alternatives for gay celibates. Of course, it’s immediately apparent that sliding down the slippery slope into gay sex is not a virtuous path for gay celibates.

Evangelicals typically cannot conceive of life-giving intimacy between two friends where romantic attraction may arise with no choice for marriage. But simplistic evangelical accounts for sexual integrity are also undesirable for gay celibates. In popular evangelical sexual ethics, integrity means staying sexually pure in the eyes of God.

For many evangelicals this would mean gay celibates could never enter into deep intimacy with someone to whom they could be physically attracted. In many popular straightforward evangelical books on sexuality, the message is to run away just as fast you can. Some even conflate sexual attraction and lust. This kind of integrity, of course, dooms the gay celibate to life-long shallow relationships.

Hill rejects those narrow two-choice dilemmas for gay celibates. “My being gay,” he writes, and saying no to gay sex may lead me to be more of a friend to men, not less.”

Unconsummated Love or Distant Intimacy? 

A sexuality centered on body parts coupled with a When Harry Met Sally sexual ethic pressures evangelical gay celibates to another narrow two-choice dilemma: unconsummated love or distant intimacy. Either choice is undesirable for gay celibates.

There is no deep peace when two individuals who are committed to celibacy desire an intimacy that leaves them just short of a consummated love. For evangelicals deep love and sexuality mean consummated love. Wholehearted love in evangelical sexuality translates into would-be, could-be, ought-to-be consummated lovers.

Distant intimacy for gay celibates would also be a frustratingly undesirable alternative. Contemporary evangelicals regard this kind of intimacy as the only kind of friendship connection that is appropriate. For straight evangelicals, friends can be left behind when romance enters the picture. Evangelical sexuality conflates romance and deep intimacy between two adults as the only road to fulfilling, generative, and longlasting love.

According to evangelical sexual scripts, friends don’t have to work at deepening intimacy. There is no expectation among evangelicals for two friends to intentionally pursue deep intimacy over the long haul. Distant intimacy between friends is what passes for meaningful connection with friendship lite expectations. Nor is there any expectation for romantic couples to share a life of intentional deep intimacy with celibates or with any others beyond the couple.

Hill peers into both the theology of friendship and the history of spiritual friendship; he wants evangelicals not to be stuck with these undesirable options of fragmentation. He does not gloss over the difficulties and challenges of nurturing a spiritual closeness within intimate friendship; nor does he run scared.

For Christians (progressive or conservative) who anxiously need to keep friendship as a distant intimacy in order to keep their sexual scripts, Hill’s book might not be good news. But for those who embrace a post-Freudian view of sexuality, the integration of the freedom of friendship with sexuality offers twentyfirst century Christians many “patterns of the possible” (the title of one his chapters).

While it may appear to the casual observer that sexuality is all about sex, a post-Freudian shift posits that there is much more meaning to sexuality than just sex. It is this shift toward a holistic meaning of sexuality that gives celibate gays like Hill a strong hope that deep intimacy of shared life between friends holds great promise.

The conversation of integrating sexuality and friendship advances another step in the evangelical world in Spiritual Friendship. Friendship no longer takes a back seat to the connection between deep intimacy and sexuality.

Guest Author

Dan Brennan has been married to his best friend, Sheila for thirty three years and has one adult son, Jonathan. He is a blogger, and author of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women. Dan has been researching sexuality and friendship for the past decade. In his day job, he oversees quality control for a large limousine company in the Chicago area.

Posted in Culture, Current Affairs, Friendship, Sexuality, The Church | Leave a comment

Are We Ignoring Domestic Violence?

20138370-domestic-violence-and-abuse-as-a-abstractThe growing problem of domestic violence has come under profound scrutiny in recent months because the problem has surfaced quite often in the world of professional sports. Sports Illustrated, which has a great knack for solid journalism and good writing, has done some remarkably insightful reporting on the problem in several recent issues.

In the April 13, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated, in a column called “Say What?,” the magazine reports that Dallas radio broadcaster Tim Cowlishaw asked female Dallas Cowboys fans to call into his program to complain about the team’s signing of defensive end Greg Hardy. Hardy, a talented and needed defender, recently had charges of domestic violence against him dropped. Cowlishaw writes that, “We got [only] three callers, and [they were] fully in support of it [signing him].” Cowlishaw added, “Cowboys fans want to get that next victory more than they care about moral implications.”

Before you castigate sports in general, or even Dallas in particular, think about this again. 20134666-illustration-depicting-a-set-of-cut-out-printed-letters-arranged-to-form-the-word-abuseWide-scale cultural shifts are not created by sports but they are reflected within it because s[ports puts issues on the center stage of life as we know it in our broader society. The fact that a solid football player’s signing trumps domestic violence is not shocking to me once you realize that domestic violence is not alarming to most people. From what I have seen this includes many Christians who are offended by other sins that are easier to criticize and single out but take a pass on domestic abuse. I am quite certain that significant numbers of the perpetrators of domestic violence are present within our churches. Thus I would also guess many pastors and leaders are loathe to take a strong stand against this serious issue and many fail to deal with it aggressively when this response is called for in specific instances. (I know some great exceptions and have encouraged pastors in this work.) Sadly, I know churches that counsel women to put up with violence rather than abandon their abusive husband. Something is terribly wrong with this picture. Are we reflecting culture or shaping it?

Posted in Culture, Current Affairs, Marriage & Family, The Church | Leave a comment

What a Classic Movie Can Teach Us About the Church

Quiet ManToday’s Guest Blogger is Dr. Dave Lescalleet

Every year our family watches the 1952 classic movie The Quiet Man as a way to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day.  This film, because of its Ireland location, is more and more associated with this national holiday.  The story, set in the 1920’s, stars John Wayne as retired American boxer Sean Thornton who returns to the village of Inisfree, Ireland, where he was born, in the hopes of finding peace and quiet but in the process finds love.  The beautiful and equally talented Maureen O’Hara plays the female lead as Mary Kate Danaher.  The feisty Danaher, quickly falls in love with the affable Thornton and easily proves his equal, giving as good as she gets.

The Quiet Man is a ‘fish out of water’ story as Wayne’s Thornton must not only integrate himself into the odd but endearing community of Inisfree, but along the way learn their old Irish customs and how they do life together.  To say that this is one of my all-time favorite films is an understatement.  From the rich characters to the enduring love story to the lush Irish scenery that only Director John Ford could deliver (he won an Oscar for his work), The Quiet Man, winning 2 Academy Awards and being nominated for eight total, continues to stand the test of time some 60+ years later.

But this year, when we sat down to watch, I was struck by something I had not really considered in the past many viewings.  From the beginning to the very end, The Quiet Man not only demonstrates a reverence and respect for the Christian Church and her clergy, but in many ways offers subtle lessons on the role that the Church must play in the life of any community.  Here are four lessons that The Quiet Man teaches us about the Christian Church.

1. The Church is central to everyday Life and not just on Sunday

Almost from the opening credits, we see the importance that the Church plays in the comings and goings of those who live in the village of Inisfree.  Father Peter Lonegan (played by the understated Ward Bond) is not only introduced the moment that Sean Thornton arrives, but also serves as the narrator of the film throughout its entirety.  What better way to demonstrate the role of The Church ‘between the Sunday’s’ than to offer Father Lonegan as the voice through which the story is told?

But he isn’t the only one.  Although the village of Inisfree is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the Protestant voice is equally loud.  The Reverend Mr. Playfield and his wife Elizabeth are portrayed as a gracious couple who come along side the outsider American just a few days after he gets settled.  Being the sports enthusiast that he is, Rev. Playfield serves as confidant to the boxer Sean and also as a marriage counselor when Sean’s marriage hits a rocky patch.

In fact, with most of the scenes in The Quiet Man we see the Church, represented through Father Lonegan and Reverend Mr. Playfield, as overwhelmingly present in the life of this small community.  The lesson is simple:  Life together in the community of Inisfree just would not exist apart from the Christian Church.  The rhythms of day to night and night to day are seen around and through what happens with the Church.  From the weekly mass where Sean is rebuked for playing ‘patty-fingers’ in the holy water, to the Celtic crosses that dot the Irish countryside, to the church bells playing off in the distance that signal it is time for church, The Quiet Man portrays a tight-knit community that is steeped in church activity.  Church is not an ‘add-on’ for the people of Inisfree; it is integral from the womb to the tomb (we are even treated to a somewhat humorous ‘death scene’ where once again the Church is ever present).

2.  The Church must always deal with tyrants

There are some who take exception with The Quiet Man’s portrayal of Christianity because we see Father Lonegan along with The Reverend Mr. Playfield and his wife Elizabeth, conspiring to trick (i.e. lie) to Will Danaher so that he’ll allow his sister, Mary Kate, to marry Sean.  I disagree.  I immediately saw their deception in the same vein as a number of examples that we find in Scripture.  For instance, in the book of Exodus, we read that Pharaoh demanded that all male Hebrew babies be killed and we are told that the Hebrew midwives lied to Pharaoh in order to save the infants (Ex. 1:17).  Later on in the book of Joshua we are told about Rahab the prostitute who risked her own life by lying and hiding God’s covenant people from the King of Jericho (Joshua 2).  Over in I Samuel 16:2 we read about the prophet Samuel who feared the power of tyrant King Saul, and it was God Himself who told Samuel to lie to Saul and was the one who provided the prophet with a deceptive strategy.

We see God’s people, when faced with tyrants, resorting to deception and lying, and they are blessed because of it.  In this movie, we see the same thing.  Wil Danaher (played by Victor McLaglen who earned an Oscar nomination for his part) is a tyrant that won’t allow his sister to marry the American and for no other reason than his sinful spite for Sean.  But through the clever deception of Father Lonegan and Rev. Playfield, the tyrant is overcome and Sean and Mary Kate are allowed to wed (Spoiler alert:  Only because of the clergys’ deception does Wil Danaher himself get restored to the community and find love in the end as well.).  This leads to the third lesson found within The Quiet Man.

3.  Marriages work best within The Church

One of the sweetest (and funniest) scenes is when Sean and Mary Kate have a ‘set-to’ over finances resulting in their not speaking to one another.  Mary Kate seeks out Father Lonegan, while Sean counsels with Rev. Playfield.  What I loved most about this scene was not only seeing both husband and wife immediately seeking out the church for answers, but also the counsel that both clergy offered to each spouse.

When Mary Kate went to Father Lonegan he did not try to ‘fix’ Sean.  Instead he rebuked Mary Kate for her sinful insolence to her husband.  When Sean went to Rev. Playfield, the good pastor explained why the Irish ‘marriage dowry’ customs were good (i.e. Mary Kate was right to be angry) and that Sean should honor his wife and try and see it from her perspective.  In the end we not only see husband and wife growing in their understanding of one another, but also in their love for one another.  This is something that happened only within the context of the Church.  Oh that couples today would seek out pastoral counsel just as quickly.  Oh that pastors would be as wise and longsuffering with their parishioners as Father Lonegan and Rev. Playfield.

4.  The Church Must Work Together

As a member of the fraternity of pastors, I’m always touched in the way The Quiet Man portrays the care and concern that the Roman Catholic Lonegan has for the Protestant Playfield, and vice-versa.  We see this notably in the film a couple of ways.  The first is when the two clergy, representing the Roman Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians conspire together against Wil Danaher’s sinful behavior (as mentioned above).  It serves as a beautiful example of Catholics and Protestants working together to defeat tyranny for the good of marriage and the health of their community.

But in the end we also see The Church working across denominational boundaries when Father Lonegan rallies the entire community of Inisfree to the aid of Rev. Playfield.  The Protestant population of Inisfree is very small (we are told in the movie that only 2 or 3 people show up for Protestant services).  The rest of Inisfree are members of Father Lonegan’s Roman Catholic Parish.  With Rev. Playfield’s Bishop coming to visit, there is concern that Rev. Playfield and his wife will be re-assigned to another part of Ireland.  Father Lonegan goes to work instructing his large Catholic parish to come along side Rev. Playfield, ‘Good man that he is,’ and to ‘cheer like good Protestants.’  When the Bishop comes through the town, he is obviously very impressed with the ‘Protestant’ love that the citizens have for their dear Rev. Playfield and the implication is that no pastoral changes will be necessary.  It is one of the most beautiful scenes of simple ecumenism between Catholics and Protestants that arguably has ever appeared on film.

I’m confident that on my next viewing of The Quiet Man I’ll see something else that I failed to see previously or mention in this post.  But perhaps even better than my pointing out something new, is your taking time to watch The Quiet Man yourself; I can’t think of a better film portraying The Christian Church than this one.  I think when you watch it you’ll agree and when you do, you’ll ‘Cheer like good Protestants!’ (and Catholics!). Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Lescalleet (Dave)Today’s Guest Writer

Since 2006, Dr. Dave Lescalleet has served as the lead pastor of City Church in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is a graduate of Southern Illinois University, Whitefield Theological Seminary (M.Div), and Knox Theological Seminary (D.Min).  At Knox he consulted formally with Dr. John H. Armstrong as an advisor on his doctoral writing project. In addition to his pastoral work, Dr. Lescalleet also serves as a chaplain for Christus Spohn Hospital and is actively involved in helping churches prepare for transition in pastoral leadership.  You can follow Dave on various social media. You can also learn more about his vocation through his website at pastortransition.com and his personal blog: Corpus Christian. You can find David and his church at https://www.citychurchcc.com and his Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/dave.lescalleet.

Posted in Church Tradition, Culture, Current Affairs, Film, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | Leave a comment

Christianity East & West: An Evangelical Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Dialog (Video)

Several years ago ACT3 staged a dialogue on unity and diversity between two Orthodox theologians and two Protestant evangelical theologians. This Sunday evening event was hosted by First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Greetings were given by Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth, an Orthodox priest who served as chairman of the ACT3 board for a number of years. I moderated the conversation. This is the first time we’ve made this older resource available for wider usage.

This dialogue runs for nearly two hours so you might want to mark it for use when you have the time to watch it. There are some real gems within the discussion we had on this evening.

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Missional-Ecumenism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, The Church, Unity of the Church | Leave a comment

Cardinal Francis George (1937-2015): My Personal Tribute to My Friend

220px-Cardinal-Francis-George_110516_photoby_Adam-BielawskiChristian charity is a virtue that is widely recognizable. Where the church goes compassion and care for the poorest and weakest follows. Missionaries and Christian teachers have opened hospitals, cared for orphans, the widows and the poor. Where the Christian faith has advanced universities and day care have followed. Churches, from the beginning, have given to those in dire need with no expectation of direct response. One mark of the Christian faith is caritas, or love. In fact, the word caritas (Latin) means love.

But Pope Benedict XVI taught us that there is a somewhat less recognizable form of love for others that can rightly be called “intellectual charity.” Mother Teresa, respected in India and beyond, for her deep commitment to “material charity” said, “We are not social workers, we are brides of Jesus Christ.” She thus makes it clear that though material charity is important to Christian love “intellectual charity” is even more important.

The danger of material charity is that we reduce the other to a mouth to feed, a body to clothe, a need to be met, and we miss the great capacity that they have to be opened to the knowledge of the Father. In a recent appeal the Catholic News Agency Zenit said intellectual charity is “to enable every person to say with the same personal feeling of a St. Paul: ‘He loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20.’” The zeal for eternal life leads us to value the other, to serve them with humility and to regard the other person as better than ourselves.

I thought of this when I reflected on the passing of my friend Cardinal George last week. He was a model of true charity, both in caring for the weak and the poor and in showing respect for the other. He possessed and demonstrated genuine love for the mind and heart of his friends, even for his enemies.

Francis Eugene George, OMI (January 16, 1937 – April 17, 2015), a native of Chicago, was the eighth Archbishop of Chicago (1997-2014). Cardinal George was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1998. He served as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 to 2010. On September 20, 2014, Pope Francis accepted Cardinal George’s resignation and appointed Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Spokane, Washington, to succeed him as Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. In this unusual circumstance, George was permitted to remain as the incumbent archbishop until Cupich was installed to succeed him on November 18, 2014.

For many years Cardinal George suffered from cancer, having been initially diagnosed in 2006. He died from the disease last Friday. His funeral mass will take place this Thursday, April 24, at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago.

George contracted polio at age 13. The effects of this disease caused him real difficulty throughout his long life but he was a fighter who overcame and served with great joy.  Due to his disability, he was rejected by a well-known Catholic prep school in Chicago and instead enrolled at St. Henry Preparatory Seminary in Belleville (IL), a high school seminary of the Missionaries  Oblates of Mary Immaculate. This led to his joining the Missionary Oblates on August 14, 1957, thus the OMI after his name. He continued his studies at the Oblates novitiate before entering Our Lady of the Snows Seminary in Pass Christian, Mississippi. He eventually lived and studied in Canada and Rome. He earned a Masters’ Degree in theology and philosophy as well as a Ph.D. in theology and philosophy, all of which leads me to my own tribute to my friend.

ACT3-Armstrong-George-032612My book, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church (Zondervan, 2010), was given to Cardinal George in the spring of 2011. A friend read a front-page story about George in the Chicago Sunday Tribune and saw a reference to his desire to see more conversation with evangelicals about ecumenism. (George was well-known for his work in ecumenism.) This friend found a way to get a copy of my book to the Cardinal. I thought, at the time, he’ll never see it much less read it.

In the summer of 2011 an email came to me from Cardinal George inviting me to visit with him at his residence. In August I made that visit. At the end of a delightful hour, an hour in which I observed “intellectual charity” as I had rarely seen it, I asked him, “Cardinal George, if I can secure Wheaton College for an evening would you come and sit down with me for a public dialogue on my book?” He agreed and plans began. We had that meeting, as many of you know, on Monday, March 26, 2012. The event was taped and you can watch it on the ACT3 Network website.

ACT3-Armstrong-George-032612What was most remarkable about that evening was not the stimulating discussion we had, which was refreshing and honest. What was memorable, at least to me, was seeing the Cardinal around others and talking to him before a crowd of 1,200-plus people. He was clearly the intellectual giant I expected him to be. But he was much more. He was a humble gentleman who loved deeply and it showed very clearly.

This was not the last time we shared time together. We had several private visits in the years following. And we shared a public moment at the first Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation in Mundelein in 2013. In every instance he not only knew me but asked about specific things in my life and told me of his prayer for me. He watched what I was doing in ecumenism and celebrated it, encouraged it and prayed for it as a friend to me and servant of Christ. What I saw in him is “intellectual charity.” He could have bested me in every way with his mind but he used his great intellect with charity and served me so that he could serve our Lord Jesus Christ! It is this that I remember today about my friend.

Rest in peace dear brother. You will be missed by all who knew you. You were loved by thousands of people, not just because you were a giant in our midst but because you loved so deeply. Your love for me had a profound impact upon my life and our dialogue at Wheaton that night was the “turning point” in my work, opening doors that I never expected to open in my life and ministry. I am eternally in your debt my dear friend.

Posted in ACT 3, Current Affairs, Death, Leadership, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Unity of the Church | Leave a comment

Aaron Niequist on the Power of Christian Unity

Last week I shared some dynamic material from the ministry of my friend Aaron Niequest. Today you can hear Aaron on the power and importance of Christian Unity. His voice is one of a growing number of younger leaders who understand the importance of missional-ecumenism.

Posted in ACT 3, The Church, Unity of the Church | Leave a comment

The Killing That Stunned America: April 14, 1865

assassination1One hundred-and-fifty years ago on this day America was emerging from its long nightmare, a war between the states that we call the American Civil War. More Americans died in this four-plus year conflict than in all other military operations in our entire history put together. During this great ordeal brother killed brother and entire families were torn apart. Towns and cities were devastated across the South. Though slavery was formally and legally ended what followed was another one-hundred plus years of “virtual” (economic and social) slavery that created major problems we are still unable to solve as a free people. We have, if I read present events correctly, never fully recovered from this time. We are defined by race (itself an artificial and unscientific distinction) as much as any modern and free society in the world.

As a son-of-the-South I can tell you that the memory of this Civil War abided in my own family heritage as something that we understood as deeply life-changing. (I can still remember hearing the War referred to as: “The Way of Northern Aggression.” If you think about it calmly this is what it was to the people who defended the right of their states to self-government and the defense of slavery!) For my wife’s family the Civil War had little or no consequence since her parents were the children of immigrants from Bohemia. They didn’t even arrive in America until the beginning of the twentieth century. Like so many I met in the Midwest, when I moved here in 1969, she has a hard time understanding why Southerners remembered this War with such deep emotion.

Thus on April 14th one of the most stunning and impactful events in America’s history took place. Ironically it was Good Friday in 1865 when our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Booth, a rather well-known  actor and rabid Confederate supporter, hated the president. Booth had developed previous schemes for killing the president but on this date 150 years ago he succeeded. America would never be the same because of what he did.

willieclarkbedroomGrowing up in the deep South I memorized the Gettysburg Address in grammar school. I also heard a great deal about President Lincoln. Most of what I heard was positive. (Times had changed by the 1950s, at least within the public education system in terms of how we learned about Lincoln.) But I also heard the quiet hostility against Lincoln. He is still hated by some Southerners and many of them are Christians. While I think I understand this bitter anger I reject it without qualification. I see Lincoln as the greatest president in American history hands down. I remain amazed at the contribution that he made to our modern life and liberty. He may not have been the savior of the African-American, as presented in so much myth, but he was a man of the people and for the people who loved the union. And Lincoln never hated the South. Had he lived we can only guess what might have been the fate of both the South and the African-American. Because he died on this day dreams of peace and liberty were destroyed on so many levels.

I noted above that I believe the nation has never fully recovered from this infamous day in history. I do not think I have made an overstatement. The present race crisis that we face is an elongation of our greatest national evil. We sanctioned nothing short of an “African-American Holocaust” through our system of chattel slavery. You might think this statement is overly dramatic yet most historians now believe our acceptance of slavery led to the death of between 10-15 million Africans. These men and women had been purchased and shipped to this land with the full force of law and Christian support. Modern attempts at reconstructing what likely happened have led me to this conclusion about the carnage and death that followed. (I have visited all of the major museums in America dealing with slavery and civil rights and the best, by-far, is in Memphis,Tennessee. This recently revamped museum is on the site where Martin Luther King, Jr. was slain on April 4, 1968.)

I majored in U. S. history in completing my B.A. degree. It astounds me that I never heard this subject taught, by Christians or anyone else, in a way that factored into our thinking the true consequence of centuries of slavery and its impact on us all. (African-American slavery has little in common with ancient slavery, especially that of the first century.) American slavery was, in my judgment, the most God-forsaken institution ever created by vile men. There is not a single reasonable way that you can make this institution look compassionate or humane. No way! I have read and heard the Southern arguments for Christians who loved their slaves and who practiced a compassionate system rooted in biblical thought. I have known ministers, and Southern-sympathizers of all, kinds, who try to defend this institution by quoting the Bible. This is unadulterated, devious bunk. I will not try, at least here, to prove this point. It is self-evident to readers who will read the accounts of the slaves and study the horrors with the evidence we now have at hand for all to see and read. Any study of the institution, and of how it was practiced, will lead a fair-minded reader to this same conclusion. Were their slave owners who loved their slaves? Of course there were. Did some Christians show love to their slaves? No doubt. But the system, the attitudes and the race conflicts that this all created trouble our society right down to this day. This Holocaust has drained us and now the results threaten to undo our civil society but we still live in denial as a people.

150411-time-mag-cover_f9afa8ff4839ef43d8c5f4893a7d4e09On this day, the day when Abraham Lincoln was killed, I wonder if we (especially we who confess that we are Christians) will make a point of reading more extensively about the great evil of slavery? Will we read the writings of the slaves themselves for a starting point? I wonder if we will consider Jim Crow again and the stress that this race-enforced evil inflicted on generations of our own brothers and sisters? And I wonder if we are willing to see how complicit and wrong the Christian Church was in this entire historical context? There is no excuse, and I mean no excuse, for the slavery this country embraced. And there is no good explanation for one hundred-plus years of Jim Crow laws. And there is still no excuse for the present society we have created that has advanced the almost complete breakdown of African-American culture and the family. I am not placing blame on you personally. I am asking that each one of us asks this question: “If there is any connection between today (2015), and that of April 14 in 1865, then what should we do to live the gospel and work for the restoration of the true ideal of liberty that promises equality and dignity before God and one another?” Is it too much to ask that white Christians begin a serious inquiry into the ills our nation brought upon us and our children over the course of nearly four hundred years of this collective history of how we dealt with African-Americans in our midst? Yes, black lives matter! It is time that we honestly face up to this as something more than a great slogan.

Posted in America and Americanism, American Evangelicalism, Church History, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Affairs, Race and Racism, The Church, The Future | 1 Comment/Like

Facebook & Twitter: My Life Course Corrections (2 of 2)

ArmstrongFamily 220Yesterday I wrote about my personal journey in using the social media. In particular I wrote about Facebook and Twitter. I am not an expert on these media resources by any stretch. I do know how they have impacted my personal life. As a result of reflecting upon these social media resources I shared in that previous blog post how I will make changes beginning this week.

I will continue to blog. I will post my own material on this (my) blog site. I will also publish material from guest bloggers who hold various viewpoints and who are in my network of friends and Christian leaders. These will not be mere links to public sites and news feeds but articles and opinions that I post on my blog site with my knowledge and oversight. Generally, I will post only once a day. My sense of frequency feels like I will post 3-5 times a week. Most posts will be 300-500 words, some longer. It depends on the content and time I have to write. I will link all of these blog posts to a Facebook page, maybe a “fan page” though I hate that designation. Here people can respond if they would like. It is highly unlikely that I will respond to each comment as a matter of my daily routine. I explained why yesterday.

I may, over time and with further careful thought, stop blogging. Blogging is, at least for me, a task I still (generally) enjoy. I believe it has some ongoing (and more permanent) value. But when this writing drains me, and actually keeps me from my more important writing, such as the book I am currently writing, then I will not blog. I believe I am called to write and publish books, not to be a daily blogger. I blog because it allows me to reflect on my immediate ideas as I am digesting them.

I write this because I want to clarify my calling and ACT3 ministry priorities. These are:

  1. To write published material in my books, to edit books contributed to by others as well, to offer my contributions (chapters) to books, and to write serious journal articles, magazine articles, and other occasional pieces for print and Internet use. I am currently working to find the right agent to work with me in some of my writing ventures in order to organize what I do and then to wisely choose who will publish my work. I resisted this decision for years, being very old-school, but this is how the modern world of publishing works. Pray for me as I seek to know what is right for me and ACT3 in this area of writing and publishing.
  2. To speak on missional-ecumenism in every context where my gifts and vision are welcomed and received with some evidence of interest and openness. This includes planning and leading ACT3 Unity Factor Conversations in various locations.
  3. To plan and work on major video resources that reach, teach and inspire vision for missional-ecumenism. I will be filming in early may for a Reformation series and I am currently preparing a plan for a major video series on ecumenism and mission. These projects reach far more people than almost anything else I do.
  4. To continue to plan and stage public dialogues between me, and a Catholic partner/theologian, so that more people can see and experience the unity and diversity evangelicals and Catholics share in Christ’s love.
  5. To preach the Word of God in contexts where I think I can do some good. These will mostly be conference settings. My preaching as a guest in a local church on Sundays is virtually non-existent. I believe this development (which is a radical departure from the decade of the 1990s) was the Lord’s doing since my life has changed so much since 1998. I see more clearly where I can now do the most good and I am older. I can see that a lot of my energy is best devoted to meeting with one person or a small group of people.
  6. To continue to teach as an adjunct in mission and evangelism at Wheaton College Graduate School and to teach as a guest lecturer in other seminary and college contexts.
  7. To meet with other Christian leaders, young and old (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox), who share my vision or who might desire to understand this vision better and help me spread it as far and wide as possible. I do this over coffees, lunches, dinners, etc. I visit various cities to continue this relationship development that leads to supporting and helping local networks do missional-ecumenism.
  8. I serve one other mission (Acton Institute) as a senior advisor. Because of this role I visit seminaries and meet with presidents, deans and faculty. I am not sure if this will continue into next year but it currently remains a vital part of my work.
  9. To represent and support all my ACT3 partners. You can see these friends and ministries on our home page at ACT3 Network.
  10. To cultivate new ACT3 partners in order to grow a humble and incarnational presence for our vision.
  11. To chair the Lausanne Committee’s Catholic-Evangelical Conversation, which meets annually and is becoming more global. Next meting: September 2-5, 2015. Mark September 3 for an evening public event which we hope to live stream.
  12. To continue to serve on the Plan Committee for the National Workshop on Christian Unity in order to build a strong, contributing Ancient-Future Faith Evangelical partnership within this historic ecumenical presence in the United States. (This is the only annual workshop completely devoted to Christian unity.) The NWCU takes place next week in Charlotte, NC.
  13. Most importantly, I continue to seek to nurture my own soul and to love and serve my wife and family. I have two adult married children (and two teenage grand-daughters) who live within twenty-minutes. My son leads an impressive ministry to reach children in public schools. I think this is one of the most important ministries I have encountered. (I admit my bias!) I hope you will see this work at Crossroads Kids Club. I am privileged to support my children, and their spouses, in every way that I can. Even more important to me is the truest love of my life, Anita. If the social media takes away time that I can spend with her then it has seriously become a hindrance to the one relationship that matters most in my life. There are times when this has happened and my attention is drawn to my computer and time is lost to her and my family that I have missed.

I have often said that when I die I’d like for my legacy to not be my books, my events or my honors but my truest and dearest friends. I treasure unhurried time with my real friends. I hope that some will say, when I am done, “John was my friend! He cared for me, he prayed for me and he invested his time in me out of love.” If this happens then I succeeded. For this to happen I must follow these priorities which I believe frame my life and mission.

Posted in ACT 3, Current Affairs, Friendship, Leadership, Love, Marriage & Family, Missional Church, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, Personal, Renewal, The Christian Minister/Ministry, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church, Web/Tech, Weblogs | 1 Comment/Like

Facebook & Twitter: My Life Course Corrections (1 of 2)

UnknownLike so many of you who are reading this blog post I have been on-again and off-again with Facebook and the social media. Recently I embraced them and began to devote more time to interact with friends and acquaintances via this means. As of today I am taking a “leave of absence” to rest from this medium. I want to rethink what I do with these resources over the next few weeks. One thing I am sure of, I do not need to be a “presence” in this world of social media. I do not criticize those who use this medium for its many good purposes but I have had to take personal inventory over the past few months. Here are my thoughts.

I find several reasons for using Facebook and Twitter that have encouraged and benefited me (and I hope some of you):

  1. I have come to know some readers (who I have not personally met yet) who pray for me and sincerely care for me as a person. Some of these friends I feel as if I know quite well even though we’ve never met face-to-face. You know who you are and there are several hundred of you. There may be more than I know actually.
  2. This social medium has allowed me to reconnect with old (real life) friends from my past. This is clearly one of the greatest benefits I’ve discovered here. These include friends from my childhood, from high school, from college and even some blood relatives that I have not seen for years. This has been a wonderful outcome. In a few cases it has even led to talking to one another and meeting again or for the first time.
  3. The medium also allows me to “think about some issues” in a public forum. I am a public person and thus I want to engage in public dialogue.
  4. Reading what others say, in their heart-felt response to my posts, or in posting their own ideas against my own, is often invigorating. I like this give and take when it is done respectfully. Many do it well.
  5. It is a legitimate way to find different opinions, solid news and resource material I enjoy. The Internet provides global information at the touch of a keyboard without having to buy anything or go anywhere. This is an incredible blessing to any person who wants to learn and grow intellectually and even spiritually.

But I have also found there are some significant negatives that have impacted my life because of Facebook and Twitter.Unknown-1

These negatives include:

  1. Using this medium takes far too much of my time. I would say I sometimes spend 45—60 minutes a day reading and responding to Facebook posts and people. (My guess is that some readers spend three or four times this amount of time using the social media.) I often use my iPhone to respond to posts and comments even while I am trying to do something else at the same time. This is a habit that I did not want to develop so I am stopping it. Reading posts, and comments about posts, in such unguarded moments invites an immediate response. Generally that response is not one that I’ve had the time to think enough about before I wrote it. Many times I have regretted this response. It violates everything I understand about speech from the Proverbs.
  2. I am honestly weary of political comments and continual ideological agendas  that are promoted via Facebook posts and comments. To give just one example, the hatred for President Obama is palpable on Facebook. The discussion of race is another toxic subject. If I didn’t believe that racism was a serious problem the social media has underscored for me just how much it remains one of our greatest challenges as a culture. If you have hundreds of conservative people responding on Facebook it is even more obvious. Yes, I have a viewpoint about each of these public debates. I have political views but I am willing to continue to listen and rethink each of them. Truthfully, neither political party represents my views. (I hang up on all political calls and trash all mailings that come to be in the postal form.) My best guess is that neither party will ever appeal to me in my lifetime. (And the “third party” movements often have even less appeal with their strident and militant extremes!) Contrary to what some write in their FB comments about my point of view (POV) I am not a liberal. But I am not a conservative either. (I am not even sure what these labels mean anymore so  I reject them as useless in my daily discourse.) But reading Facebook comments, often from the same people every day (and generally people that I do not know), about political and religious viewpoints, does not change my mind. Worse yet, reading these comments does not help me to be a better person. After reading people’s comments you soon know they have a strong POV and you expect that every time they use this medium they will promote this same POV. Some writers, so far as I can tell, have never posted one positive comment about anything that I write. They seem to troll sites like mine to find something to disagree with and then they pounce promoting their POV again and again. Honestly, and I do not wish to be unkind, some writers are so predictable that I have stopped reading these responses. I see their name and skip their comments. I feel sure there are readers on my wall who feel the same about me and what I write but for the life of me I do not know why they bother reading what I write. While there is truth to some of these responses (there is truth to be discovered in every criticism to be completely fair) the social medium feeds several false notions: (1) You really do know me; (2) You clearly understand my thoughts when you clearly do not. All of this leads to a general poisoning of all social contexts. My circle of friends includes people from many perspectives and backgrounds. These include non-Christians, some of whom are very good friends. I also have friends who are liberal, conservative, gay, straight and otherwise. I desire to promote love and broad social tolerance. I do not desire to invest in attempts to dialogue with people who do not know how to dialogue and disagree. Occasionally good dialogue happens on my Facebook wall but more times than not it breaks down. (When this happens you will see me stop responding!) Some readers seek to capture my wall as the place where they can spread broadly ignorant, or even hateful, speech. I know you can delete comments but in some cases you make things worse when you do if your wall is publicly available.
  3. I honestly wonder, “Who spends all this time on the social media and why?” What real life do such people have who are online so much? I cannot answer that (I am not judging others only myself) but for me time spent on Facebook means time lost to other things; in particular my everyday important relationships. In most cases I miss other things because of this medium; e.g. listening to great music, enjoying the simple things in my life, engaging in the relaxing things that I do for pleasure (without interruption), the time to read, etc. Unplugging has proven to be a life-changing choice for some friends. I am going on a temporary retreat to determine if I will unplug completely or completely reconfigure how I use this medium.
  4. Real friends, even social friends I’ve never met in person (some of whom have become real friends much as happened via letter writing in a bygone era), do not need to know where I am or what I am doing 99.9% of the time. Folks, I am not that important. Neither are you! The allure of this medium can pull you into this stuff even when you tell yourself that you do not intend to do it. (At least it did this for me. My bad!) Again, some use this to simply share their coming and going with real friends and this is valuable. I do not judge.
  5. It is hard to cultivate civility on Facebook. I believe this is for reasons that are related to all that I’ve said above. I am committed to writing and contributing to the church and community by using my gifts. I will still write blogs because they can be read and shared and responded to. You can make comments which I can monitor before they are made public. Blogs can also be read and commented upon without the immediate need to respond, as is the allure of Facebook. Blogs also are accessed and read months and years after a Facebook “hot button” post has gone dark, which seems to happen in about 48-72 hours at most.
  6. My primary work, even at age 66, is to lead a mission: ACT3 NetworkThis is my passion and my divine calling. My purpose is to “empower leaders and churches for unity in Christ’s mission.” This mission is supported by the prayers and financial gifts of people. Without gifts it will not succeed. We do not need large sums of money but we do need support. To my knowledge the social media, and Facebook in particular, has done virtually nothing to support this mission. While some of our best donors follow me on Facebook, and even comment on my wall, most of them support this work because they know me, believe in me and earnestly believe this mission is important enough to invest their money in it. With the limited time that I have (and I am not a fundraiser) I need to devote more of my efforts to those who truly support this mission and want to help me advance this mission. If you want to understand me, and this mission, then go to ACT3 and watch the ABC Chicago 7 broadcast that is there with the title: “Sanctuary.” There is no better way to understand me, what I do and why I do it. In addition, I believe the most important thing I write, and I do this once a week via email, is my ACT3 Weekly. I share prayer requests and an article of 600-800 words that is widely appreciated. Again, the medium is calmer and more reflective and those who subscribe are generally friends.

So, I will keep my public Facebook page set to share my blogs when they post. For now this will remain a public place but I cannot interact daily with people daily. I will not post articles from other writers or links to other posts which include my comments above the post, pro or con. These posts take the largest amount of my time and then get the most negative response of the kind that I have referred to above. Last week my posts about the same-sex debate generated more of this response than anything I’ve posted in months. What this tells me is that people want to respond to “hot button” issues. Rarely does this actually change minds or foster unity. The only context in which I’ve seen this actually happen is inside a circle of love and true friendship. Facebook cannot be used for this as a public forum. I do think responsible use can generate interest and draw new friends, which I hope my work has done.

I may eventually keep a Facebook page that is private. It would be designed only for real friends. It would allow me to share personal requests and prayer with a large degree of privacy. It would not be a public page that everyone can access or read. I can also create an ACT3 page that is public. I will think about this decision for a season and consult with those who advise me and help me advance the mission of ACT3. My guess is that the end result will be far less time on Facebook and Twitter and more time invested in what I truly love – mission, family and friends.

Posted in ACT 3, Culture, Current Affairs, Friendship, Personal, Social Networking, Web/Tech | 2 Comments/Likes