Pope’s Address to the Focolare Movement

The Focolare Movement, which has had a very significant role in my journey over the past three years, gathered in Italy for their annual General Assembly last week. Pope Francis used the occasion to send a special address to the members of friends of the movement. I share the English translation and encourage you to get to know this work better and to pray for the Focolare. The members of the movement been an immense blessing to me personally.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters,Unknown

I greet you all, who form part of the General Assembly of Mary’s Work, and want to live it fully inserted in the “today” of the Church. In a special way, I greet Maria Voce, who was reconfirmed President for another six years. In thanking her for the words she addressed to me, also in your name, I express to her and to her closest collaborators cordial wishes for profitable work at the service of the Movement, which has grown in these years and has been enriched by new works and activities, also in the Roman Curia.

Fifty years after Vatican II, the Church is called to undertake a new stage of evangelization, witnessing God’s for every human person, beginning with the poorest and the excluded, and to make humanity’s journey toward unity grow with hope, fraternity and joy.

Mary’s Work – known by everyone with the name Focolare Movement – was born in the heart of the Catholic Church from a small seed that, in the course of the years, has given life to a tree which now spreads its branches in all the expressions of the Christian family and also among members of different religions and among many who cherish justice and solidarity together with the search for truth. Without a doubt, this Work flowed from a gift of the Holy Spirit – the charism of unity that the Father wishes to give to the Church and to the world to contribute to fulfill incisively and prophetically Jesus’ prayer: “that they may all be one” (John 17:21).

Our thought goes with great affection and gratitude to Chiara Lubich, extraordinary witness of this gift, who in her fecund existence took Jesus’ perfume to so many human realities and to so many parts of the world. Faithful to the charism of which it was born and of which it nourishes itself, the Focolare Movement finds itself today before the same task that concerns the whole Church: to offer, with responsibility and creativity, its particular contribution to this new stage of evangelization. Creativity is important; one cannot go forward without it. It is important! And, in this context, I would like to give three ideas to you, who belong to the Focolare Movement and to those that, in various ways, share its spirit and ideals: to contemplate, to go out, and to school.

First of all, to contemplate. Today we have more need than ever to contemplate God and the wonders of His love, to dwell in Him, who in Jesus came to pitch His tent among us (cf. John 1:14). To contemplate means, moreover, to live in the company of brothers and sisters, to break with them the Bread of communion and fraternity, to cross the Door together (cf. John 10:9), which introduces us in the heart of the Father (cf. John 1:18), because “contemplation that leaves others outside is a deception” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 281). It is narcissism.

Inspired by God in response to the signs of the times, Unknown-1Chiara Lubich wrote: “Behold the great attraction of modern times: to penetrate in the highest contemplation and to stay mixed among all, man beside man” (Spiritual Writings 1, 27). To realize this, it is necessary to widen one’s interiority to the measure of Jesus and of the gift of His Spirit, to make contemplation the indispensable condition for a solidaristic presence and an effective action, which is truly free and pure.

I encourage you to remain faithful to this ideal of contemplation, to persevere in the search for unity with God and in mutual love with brothers and sisters, drawing from the riches of the Word of God and of the Tradition of the Church the breath of communion and unity that the Holy Spirit has aroused for our time. And make a gift of this treasure to all!

The second word – very important because it expresses the movement of evangelization, is to go out. To go out as Jesus went out from the bosom of the Father to proclaim the Word of love to all, to the point of giving himself on the wood of the cross. We must learn from Him, from Jesus, “this dynamic of exodus and gift, of going out of oneself, of walking and sowing always again, always beyond” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 222), to communicate the love of God generously to all, with respect and, as the Gospel teaches us: “You received without pay, give without pay” (Matthew 10:8). This sense of gratuitousness: because the Redemption was accomplished in gratuitousness. The forgiveness of sins cannot be “paid.” Christ “paid” it once and for all! We must act the gratuitousness of the Redemption with our brothers and sisters. We must give what we have received with gratuitousness, freely. And gratuitousness goes together with creativity: the two go together.

To do this, we must become experts in that art that is called “dialogue” and that is not learned cheaply. We cannot be content with half measures, we cannot dally, but rather, with God’s help, we must aim high and widen our look! And to do this, we must “go forth to Him” with courage “outside the camp, bearing abuse for Him” (Hebrews 13:13). He awaits us in the trials and groaning of our brothers, in the wounds of society and in the questions of the culture of our time. One is sick at heart when, in face of a Church, of a humanity with so many wounds, moral wounds, existential wounds, war wounds, which we all feel every day, to see Christians beginning to engage in philosophical, theological and spiritual  “Byzantinisms,” what is useful instead is an outgoing spirituality. To go out with this spirituality: not to stay shut-in <a quattro mandate>. This is not good. This is “Byzantianism”! Today we have no right to Byzantine reflection. We must go out! Because – I have said it other times – the Church seems like a field hospital. And when one goes to a field hospital, the first task is to cure the wounds, not to analyse the dosage of cholesterol … that comes later. Is this clear?

And, finally, the third word: to school. In the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, Saint John Paul II invited the whole Church to become “house and school of communion” (cf. n. 43), and you took this order seriously. As the Gospel exacts, we must form new men and women and, necessary to this end, is a school of humanity to the measure of the humanity of Jesus.  In fact, He is the new Man that young people can look to at all times, that they can fall in love with, whose way they can follow to address the challenges that are before them. Without an adequate endeavor of formation of the new generations, it is illusory to think that a serious and lasting project can be carried out at the service of a new humanity.

In her time Chiara Lubich coined an expression which continues to be very timely: today – she said – “men-world” must be formed, men and women with the spirit, heart and mind of Jesus and, therefore, able to recognize and interpret the needs, the concerns and the hopes that shelter in every man’s heart.

Dear sisters and dear brothers, I hope that your Assembly will bear abundant fruits, and I thank you for your generous commitment. May Mary, our Mother, help you to walk always with confidence, with courage and with perseverance, with creativity, gratuitously and in communion with the whole Church, on paths of light and life traced by the Holy Spirit. I bless you and, please, I ask you to pray for me, because I need it. Thank you!

Posted in Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Roman Catholicism, The Church, The Future | Leave a comment

The Reformation of the Vatican – The Sad Case of Józef Wesołowski

JOSEF WESOLOWSKIVatican watchers, especially non-Catholics who love the Roman Catholic Church as I do, watch and pray for further reforms that are needed inside the Church. I was pleased to read this week of the Vatican putting Józef Wesołowski, its former nuncio (ambassador) to the Dominican Republic under house arrest on Tuesday, September 23.

Archbishop Józef Wesołowski was born in Nowy Targ, Poland, on 15 July 1948. He was ordained a priest in Kraków on 21 May 1972 by Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II. He was appointed as nuncio to Bolivia on 3 November 1999. On 6 January 2000 he was consecrated Titular Archbishop of Sléibhte by John Paul II. During the course of 2002 he was appointed as nuncio to the Central Asian countries of KazakhstanTajikistanKyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. On 24 January 2008 he was appointed nuncio to the Dominican Republic. In 2013 he was identified by a 13-year-old boy as the man who took sexual lurid photographs of him on his cell phone. He was removed from his nuncio position on August 26 last year via resignation.

According to various reports Józef Wesołowski liked to frequent areas of Santo Domingo where poor children worked in the streets. He paid for sexually suggestive poses and actions and then filmed them.  A criminal trial has begun against Wesolowski, the first time a high-ranking Vatican official has ever faced criminal charges for sexually abusing minors. Some will rightly say, “It’s about time.” I agree. But it has finally happened and I rejoice. Sad as these cases are the Vatican has clearly begun a well-thought-out campaign to deal with them more aggressively. Under the beloved John Paul II the Vatican quite clearly dragged its heels. (The reasons are quite complex but not excusable in the end.) Under Pope Benedict XVI there was improvement but much more action was needed by the church in dealing with sexual predators. Now the changes are becoming more significant and noteworthy. I think we must pray that they become a permanent part of the modern Catholic culture. The whole cause of Christ suffers when such cases are not dealt with by firm church discipline and civil law.

On 27 June 2014, the Vatican Press Office announced that the first stage of the canonical trial of Wesołowski Unknownended with his laicisation. A laicized cleric is forbidden to exercise ministerial functions under nearly all circumstances. In general, any exercise of his power to administer the sacraments is considered valid but illicit, except in extraordinary circumstances. On 23 September, the Vatican opened a hearing toward criminal proceedings against Wesołowski. Because of his health, he remains under house arrest for the duration of his trial rather than under more restrictive detention. On Tuesday, the Vatican City State’s separate criminal curate opened a preliminary hearing into the case and ordered this house arrest.

I have commented infrequently about these abuse cases. The reasons for my reticence are several. First, I do not know enough about canon law to explain the Catholic Church’s response adequately. Second, I am not a Catholic. Third, I believe the culture of protect and reassign is deadly to the church’s pastoral and missional work. I wanted to see positive proof of significant change. I now think we have that in this particular case. This does not undo the wrongs of the past but it is the only response to the past that is correct. There must be repentance followed by a correction of the errors.

I know that the general public expects a higher standard of moral discipline from the all churches, Catholic or otherwise. It seems to me that the Catholic view of the priesthood has presented some significant hurdles for pursuing a full and complete investigation that leads to serious action against prelates who have violated children. I am very pleased that Pope Francis has acted to reform this process. It appears that Pope Benedict hoped this would happen under a new pope. Now we are finally seeing the fruit of this much-needed reform. It is overdue, to say the least. We should all pray it impacts the church globally for the good of all Christians, thus for our common witness to the world.

Posted in Culture, Current Affairs, Ethics, Pastoral Renewal, Personal, Renewal, Roman Catholicism, The Church, The Future | Leave a comment

ACT3 September Forum on Friendship in Diversity

act3logoOn Tuesday, September 2, 2014, ACT3 hosted its first fall evening forum. Our subject was Christian diversity and deep friendship. I invited an Orthodox priest, Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth, and a Catholic author and editor, Tom Masters, to join me for a dialogue about how we share deep friendship and still remain committed to very different Christian traditions: Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox.

Fr. Ellsworth was a Baptist minister for decades before entering the Orthodox Church about seven years ago. He has been my friend for decades and is the former chairman of the ACT3 Network board of directors. He now pastors Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Warrenville, Illinois. Mr. Tom Masters is a life-long Catholic, a former teacher and the editorial director of New City Press, the publishing house of the Focolare a lay-Catholic movement I have shared a great deal with in recent years. Tom currently serves on the ACT3 board.

I, as most of you already know, am an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). I do not currently pastor a stated congregation but remain in good standing with my Reformed denomination. I am a lifelong Protestant and deeply committed to a Reformed understanding of the church and the way in which salvation is mediated to those who believe in Christ. Yet I am also a practicing ecumenist who seeks to develop deeper friendships with my brothers and sisters from the entire Christian Church.

So I came up with the idea of a friendly dialogue which would allow us to talk to one another and then answer questions from the audience. The dialogue is nearly 90 minutes long. Click here to listen.

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, Orthodoxy, Personal, Protestantism, Reformed Christianity, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Unity of the Church | Leave a comment

Love Alone Is Eternal (Part Eleven)

UnknownOne of the greatest contemporary spiritual writers I have happily encountered in the last few years is Carlo Carretto (1910-1988). Carretto was a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, the order inspired by the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld. Through his best-selling Letters from the Desert, and more than a dozen other books, Carlo Carretto gave to Christians a joy-filled spirituality centered deeply in God’s love. Carretto showed us that it was possible to live a contemplative life in the midst of a very busy, modern world.

One of Carlo Carretto’s most moving reflections, which includes translations of his original Italian, reflects the sense of where I hope you will go with me as we discover that our love is too small.

Like God

If we are not capable during our lifetime of falling in love with God, we are lost.

Without love we are incomplete, immature, bored, missing paradise.

We would be doubtful and formulate the following equation: love of God equals peace, joy, bliss, fecundity, exultation, paradise; lack of love equals war, sadness, loneliness, sterility, death, hell . . .

“You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).

The requirements of the kingdom are the same requirements of love, which, by its very nature, sees us or makes us all equal.

The love of God complex us to become like God, similar to God, with the just that follow God.

There is no way out.

Since God loves the light , we too should love the light.

Since God forgives, we too must forgive.

Since God dies for love, we too should be ready to die for love.

To build the kingdom means precisely to work and act to become similar to God, following Christ as a model.

The kingdom is not built by our chatting, but rather by our acting.

The kingdom advances every time we carry our a concrete deed in response to love, which is God.

Every time I feed the hungry,

Every time I visit the imprisoned,

Every time I clothe the naked,

Every time I forgive the enemy,

Every time I share my belongings,

Every time I console the afflicted,

Every time I pray for the living and the dead.

Moreover, since love calls for equality, we shall love God with the same power of God’s love for us.

Which is, in one word, paradise (Joseph Diele, ed. Daily Reflections of Carol Carretto. New Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1996, 112-13). Unknown-1

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Love Alone Is Eternal (Part Ten)

Most of us realize that life is more than our limited experience of day-to-day activity. We believe there is a God we believe that it is he who sustains the world. We further believe that it is God who made us. But moments of wonder and transcendence do not mean that we know God really loves us. Explaining the world, and especially our own lives, without a personal, sustaining and loving God seems impossible. The alternative is an accident, or worse yet, pure fate!

When John says “God is love” we are prone to think, “That’s really nice.” Then a dozen popular and cheerful songs flood our minds about love, sweet love, what the world needs a little more of we say. We conceive of someone who cheers us up by being sunny and happy. But the biblical writers didn’t sing these kinds of songs or conceive of this kind of sunny personality. They surely didn’t have these ideas in mind when they spoke of God being love. Love, for the biblical writers, is the will to do good for another person, even at great cost to one’s own person. The God who is Trinity is a God who is passionately committed to the good of the other. The God who is Father, Son and Spirit is such a loving God. The Father shares an eternal loving relationship with the Son and is passionate about his well-being. The Son has this same love for his Father. And the Spirit overflows in love for the Father and the Son and is equally committed to whatever is good for them.

Love is the perfection of God’s being. “This means it is not something temporary or accidental to him. All of his being is love. To speak of God apart from his love is to speak of someone other than God” (Kelly M. Kapic, with Justin Borger. God So Loved, He Gave: Entering the Movement of Divine Generosity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010, pegs 18-19).

The Great Imperative

All true and healthy relationships must be grounded in love or they will not endure to the end. There are many ways to command attention, even to create allegiance, but there is only one way to bind ourselves to one another relationally in the deepest possible way and it is divine love.

UnknownChiara Lubich understood divine well when she said:

God-love, believing in his love, responding to his love by loving, these are the great imperatives today. This is the essential thing that today’s generation has been waiting for. Without it the world is heading for destruction, like a train off the tracks, Discovering, or rather, rediscovering that God is Love is today’s greatest adventure (Essential Writings, 56).

The great imperative is this – we are to love the One who is Love. God’s immense, infinite, tender, immortal and all holy love calls us to love. We love many things. But let us love the One who does not die.

In a June 1944 letter, written during the ravages of war on the ground and in the sky over Northern Italy a young, unmarried, school teacher discovered this life-changing truth. This young woman wrote a personal letter about her discovery of God’s love. She spoke of this discovery as an infusion of “light” and “love.” Through this infusion of the Spirit the love of God became present in her life as she’d never known. She wrote extensively of this love to a friend.

You have been blinded with me by the fiery brilliance of an Ideal that exceeds all things and contains all: by the infinite love of God! It is he, he my God and your God, who has established a bond between us that is stronger than death . . . . It is Love who has called us to love! It is love who has spoken to the deaths of our hearts and told us: “Look around you. Everything in the world passes away. Every day sees its evening, and how quickly each evening comes . . . Love that which does not die! Love the one who is love!” Love, love, love. People are created to love. Yes there is suffering in the world, but for the one who loves, suffering is nothing; even martyrdom is a song! Even the cross is a song. God is love! Every suffering is a sure test of love, its unmistakable divine seal. . . . Therefore we cannot let any sorrow in our lives go by without accepting it and desiring it, so as to prove to God, who is infinite love, our own little but steadfast love! Let’s leave out hearts with just one desire: to love! Let’s let out minds be intent on confronting our every thought with the infinite and immense love of God (Marisa Cerini, God Who is Love in the Experience and Thought of Chiara Lubich. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 1992, 15-16).

God is love. This is the “name of the one who is” (Pope John Paul II). Think about this for a moment – the name of the God who is, the one who is the holy creator and redeemer, is Love. A modern theologian, grasping for expressing this truth, concludes:

God, whose essence is life and love . . .  for this reason can be the God of human beings and the God of history. . . . that love is the ultimate purpose of every reality. This Christian conception of reality is so revolutionary in interpreting what is real, that it is difficult to imagine something greater (cited by Marisa Cerini in God Who Is Love in the Experience and Thought of Chaira Lubich, 18, translated into English from a 1974 article by a European theologian published in a German theological quarterly).

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S. Truett Cathy: RIP – What Can the Church Learn from the Same-Sex Debate?

Unknown-3Last Thursday I noted the passing of the controversial Irish Presbyterian minister, Rev. Ian Paisley. In the same Sunday newspaper (September 14) there was also mention of the passing, at the age of 93, of S. Truett Cathy. Cathy, as many will know by the mention of his name, is the founder and billionaire who built the famous restaurant chain, Chick-fil-A. The chain is known for many reasons, one of which is that it is closed on Sunday. The other, at least in the images and thoughts of millions who view the popular culture, is the amazingly funny commercials that are aired on television with cows telling us why we should “Eat More Chikin.”

Cathy opened his first restaurant in an Atlanta suburb in 1946. His boneless chicken sandwich would propel the franchise to more than 1,800 outlets in 39 states. By 2013 the company said that its annual sales topped $5 billion. The company is family-owned thus it is the Cathy family who seem poised to continue to hold to the core values that their father promoted. Cathy’s personal fortune is said to have been in excess of $6 billion, putting him annually on the Forbes magazine list of the wealthiest Americans. The company listed him as chairman emeritus on its website since he had left day-to-day operations to the younger leaders in the family some years ago.

Unlike Ian Paisley, who I wrote about yesterday, S. Truett Cathy never publicly altered his stance on several “hot-button” issues. This was especially true with regard to the same-sex marriage debate which he actively spoke about. But what the press often failed to notice was how much the company had changed its tone and direction under the influence of his sons.

UnknownDan Cathy, the chief operating officer of the company, got involved in a much-ballyhooed controversy about same-sex marriage in 2012. This controversy, which spilled over into political contexts such as the Chicago City Council. Some members of the council sought to stop the chain from opening a restaurant in the city. Related stories about the company were still making news even last week in California.

The larger controversy about Chick-fil-A, and same-sex marriage debate in particular, has slowly died down. But the virtually uncovered story over the last few years was sadly missed by most outlets when a leading LGBT spokesman was invited to spend personal time with Dan Cathy in 2013. Thankfully, this story was reported by the Huffington Post. The video is well worth seeing.

I get the sense that the younger Cathy leaders are committed to approaching this controversial issue with a different approach even if their views (morally and politically) remain the same as those of their father. To some extent this shift is similar to the wide-scale generational movement that we are seeing among many Christians who are growing weary of this being “the” political hot-button issue that creates the biggest hill to die on in the culture.

As I look at this hugely contentious issue among Christians I am reminded that for us, and for our churches, this issue really has three major components: (1) Political, (2) Pastoral, and (3) Missional.

Unknown-2I do believe there is a political side to this issue. This issue is not unimportant. But I am profoundly convinced that the Christian Right has lost this battle politically. What concerns me is whether or not conservative Christians can move on to the two much more important issue, namely the pastoral and missional. Can we learn how to love and care for people of same-sex orientation and practice? And, even more importantly, can we learn how to live in a radically changing culture as God’s people who love the world and also live in it missionally? The global figure who most represents the way forward for the church is none other than Pope Francis. He is calling us to the second and third response in a powerful and pastoral way. I wonder who is listening. The Catholic Church will not embrace marriage between same-sex partners as sacrament for very compelling and deeply Christian reasons. But the pope is seeking to show us a far better way to engage with a world that starves to hear good news, not ecclesial judgment.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Culture, Current Affairs, Evangelism, Gospel/Good News, Love, Marriage & Family, Missional Church, Personal, Politics, Roman Catholicism, Sacraments, The Future | Leave a comment

Rev. Ian Paisley: RIP

UnknownI was reading the “Notable Deaths” page in my Sunday newspaper (September 14) and came across the news of the passing of the famous Irish Presbyterian minister, Ian Paisley. The AP report said: “Paisley [was] the Protestant firebrand who devoted his life to thwarting compromise with Catholics in Northern Ireland only to become a pivotal peacemaker in his twilight years.” Paisley was 88 when he passed away last Friday.

Ian Paisley was bigger than life in so many ways. (He was a big man and his voice and size could intimidate you very quickly!) I never heard Paisley preach in person but I listened to him a number of times via audio tape, online audio and television. He was a marvelous orator.

Oddly enough I was browsing in a Christian bookstore in suburban Toronto (Ontario) about twenty years ago when I heard this distinctive voice and turned to see if it really was Ian Paisley. It was the real Ian Paisley in the flesh. My first instinct was to draw back and avoid him. (Like I noted, he could intimidate one very easily.) But I went up to him and introduced myself (as best I recall now). We had a very brief chat. He even told me to buy a particular book he had in his hands from the store shelves. He was personally warm, even charming. Mutual friends, who knew him quite well, have told me of this side of Ian Paisley since I met him. So I read things by him and about him after I met him. I followed his life the last few decades and was utterly amazed when he became a pivotal peacemaker” in his “twilight years.”

The Wikipedia entry on Paisley begins with these words:

Ian Richard Kyle Paisley, Baron Bannside, (6 April 1926 – 12 September 2014) was a Unionist politician and Protestant religious leader from Northern Ireland.

He became a Protestant evangelical minister in 1946 and would remain one for the rest of his life. In 1951 he co-founded the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church and was its leader until 2008. Paisley became known for his fiery speeches and regularly preached and protested against Catholicismecumenism and homosexuality. He gained a large group of followers who were referred to as ‘Paisleyites.’

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, himself a devout Catholic Christian (and more recent convert), said of Rev. Paisley: “Ian was a man of deep convictions. The convictions never changed. But his appreciation of the possibilities of peace gradually, and with much soul-searching, did.”

Paisley was, if he was anything, the definition of strident. He was also courageous and intensely interesting. He had a great laugh that could disarm you once you got beyond his bombastic public side. Ironically, Paisley was one of the few strongly Reformed ministers that I think was ever invited to preach at Bob Jones University. I am inclined to think that this underscores how much the leadership at BJU appreciated his stridency and courage.

I could share stories about Paisley that would make you cringe. I could also tell you things I knew about Ian Paisley that would make you appreciate his humanity, warmth and genuine expressions of love for Christ. But this is not the time or place. What I can say is that his latter years give me immense hope. Sometimes men who age do so very gracefully. Some have said they grow weak and compromise. I think some begin to “see” more clearly that being a “peacemaker” is truly part of following Christ and must become as important as being courageous and convictional. Perhaps this is why Paisley’s passing spoke to my own life. I was never a strident fighter but I was not a convictional peacemaker in my earlier years. I took immense encouragement in seeing the elderly Ian Paisley seek peace in Northern Ireland. That took, so far as I am concerned, as much courage as it took to stand so strongly for his views for so many decades. It felt like betrayal to some of his best friends. I understand this and relate to it deeply.

I have come full circle at this point to the words used by the Associated Press to describe this larger-than-life man. AP said Paisley was a Protestant “firebrand” who “devoted his life to thwarting compromise with Catholics.” Unknown-1I can handle both of those in their right place. I can even respect, at least to some degree, such views if they are honestly situated within a context of a courageous love that truly pursues peace and justice. Paisley seems to have discovered this very late in his life. That gives me great joy and hope. Enemies can become friends! Firebrands can become peacemakers! Anti-Catholics can learn how to listen to Catholics with respect and love!

Paisley’s overall narrative is not a model for me, at least not in terms of his lifelong legacy. Yet his last years bring me immense hope when I see how men like him, who seem impossible to get along with relationally, can and do change. The Spirit is always working, especially in the most broken among us. This means that people like some of you will change. But most of all this includes me. As I look back over the fifteen years or so of my thirties, and my early forties, I often feel like “the chief of sinners” when it comes to rhetorical flourishes that divided Christian from Christian over doctrine and political conflict. At times I still live with intense regret about this part of my life. What I must do is continually seek the Spirit’s grace to love more deeply because God never stopped loving and changing me. I was thus profoundly thankful, when I read the Paisley obituary, that the Spirit never stopped working in the life of Ian Paisley, a really big and intimidating Irish Presbyterian. My guess is that Ian Paisley will be most remembered, and this will be with profound joy by many who knew him, for his latter years of life. This also means, if I am right, that for the largest portion of his public life, the years in which he lived in constant militant conflict, his work will come to nothing truly lasting. I say this because “faith, hope and love” abide but the only one that truly abides forever is love.

imagesReflecting on Ian Paisley’s life makes me ask: “Can people of profound conviction become convictional peacemakers who are filled with grace and truth?” I think Ian Paisley did exactly this in his last years. I also think that if he could speak to us now he would point all of us to his Savior and tell us that his last years were the most important ones in all his years of service for Christ and his kingdom. Rev. Ian Paisley, warrior and peacemaker, RIP.

Posted in Current Affairs, Death, Ideology, Love, Personal, Politics, Protestantism, Reformed Christianity, The Church, Unity of the Church | 2 Comments/Likes

Love Alone Is Eternal (Part Nine)

256690_w185In this series of posts called “Love Alone Is Eternal” I earlier referred to what one writer calls “the art of unknowing.” This idea is taken from the title of a classic medieval book, The Cloud of Unknowing. This anonymous work comes from the fourteenth century but it expresses something about the Christian faith that was more widely known in the Christian East for centuries.

In the East “dogma” is never understood as doctrine which explains or defines the truth. Dogma defines or explains what is not true. It was used, as we saw earlier, to explain heresy and error. Simply put, this means that in order to understand the mystery of the faith we must let go of errors and rest in the Truth, who is not a series of dogmas but a divine person.

In The Cloud of Unknowing the author makes a statement that shall guide me throughout this book. “But now, you put a question to me asking, ‘How shall I think about him, and what is he?’ And to this, I can only answer, ‘I do not know.’”

I cannot resolve the problems that you will have in coming to “see” that God is, in his essence and nature, love. I will offer some insights, stories, poems and ideas. But I cannot resolve all the problems. You will have doubts if you employ rational arguments and carry on internal debates.

Such debates will only confirm our reason’s illusion that Truth is subject to judgment. It we refuse to accept our unknowing and search for some “high” or even esoteric knowledge that would explain it all, and forever do away with our doubts, our thinking may become more complicated and confused. We may get lost in a morass of speculation and mind-boggling interpretations, theories and fantasies. We may “solve” the Mystery but lose our rationality and our faith (Irma Zaleski, Who Is God?, 75-76).

We must face our doubts. Name them one by one. And then let go of each one of them by falling into the mystery of Truth. We must, as Irma Zaleski says so eloquently, shout at our doubts: “I don’t know!” These doubts are not a sign of confusion or unbelief. They are a sign of Truth, Truth that is wider and deeper than all our human thinking and explaining. “Doubt, like all products of thought, is irrelevance to faith” (Irma Zaleski, Who Is God?, 76).  This struggle can actually help us to embrace the limits of our thought, and thus doubt can be the very place where we grow in our hearts by “unknowing.”

The greatest danger of all – to faith, hope and love – is to presume that we can understand God. Doubt acts as a governor on faith to help us face down our arrogant presumptions, to lead us to admit just how little we really know. The Zen masters are right when they say that doubt has a way of helping us to “begin again.” Our Christian ancestors understood this very well. We moderns have forgotten it. I hope you will recover it.

 

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Love Alone Is Eternal (Part Eight)

The Old Testament regularly sounds this theme, especially in what we call the wisdom literature (e.g. Job 27:3; 33:4; 34:14-15; Ps. 104:29-30). God upholds the creation through his Spirit. Even the natural processes of everyday life on our planet are credited by Jesus to the direct agency of his Father when he speaks of his Father providing sunshine and rain, feeding the birds and providing the beauty of the flowers (Matt. 5:45; 6:25-30; 10:29-30).

Extreme forms of immanence lead to pantheism, the belief that every creature is not only a manifestation of God, but is identical with God. A similar problem, and one that became more popular in the last century, is panentheism. Panentheism literally means “all-in-God” and posits the idea of God as an eternally animating force that interpenetrates every part of nature and yet timelessly extends beyond it. Unlike pantheism this thinking about God maintains a better Creator-creation distinction but it tends toward believing that the cosmos exists within God, thus it denies, in some way at least, the creation-Creator distinction required by a proper emphasis upon transcendence.

The simple way to say this is to affirm that God is both distant (transcendent) and near (immanent). He really is actively present and working in all things (cf. Romans 8:28-30). Yet he is “beyond” our universe. This means that we should always conceive of God as very near while we should never put him inside the world in such a way that he does not remain exalted over it and outside of it!

The Wonders of Creation

The vast majority of people who have ever lived have claimed some kind of belief in sacred mystery – God. It is sometimes argued, by modern secular writers, that the reason for this belief is that all pre-moderns were taught to think this way and people have simply found their beliefs confirmed by life experience. The conviction of the reality of God, or sometimes of multiplicity of gods as in Hinduism, is a common human characteristic it seems. Even moderns still believe in higher numbers than some would have us to believe. Throughout history a basic trait of all cultures has been a belief in divine transcendence.

Some reason that creation provides a strong argument for order and wonder, thus for the Creator. We are experiencing a revival of this type of “wonder” today. It is coming in a spiritual version of “back to nature.” Millions of young people in the West say they believe in God and experience him/her in a hike in the woods or rafting down a great river. But is this experience of “wonder” proof of God? Certainly not. These glorious experiences in nature feed what I believe is an internal sense of mystery, or divine wonder. We all share in this but this is not proof of God. And it is especially not proof that “God is love.”

Unknown-4Anthony de Mello expressed what I am trying to say by telling a simple Hindu story of what truly seeing the power of nature meant.

“Excuse me,” said an ocean fish. “You are older than I, so can you tell me where to find this thing they call the ocean?”

The ocean,” said the older fish, “is the thing you are in now.”

“Oh, this? But this is water. What I’m seeking is the ocean,” said the disappointed fishy as he swam away to search elsewhere (Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1982, 12).

If you pressed the Hindu storyteller to explain the moral of this story he would likely say the disappointed fish must come to know that he is not to look for something. Instead, he must look at the reality that is constantly surrounding him. This is how it is with our search for God. This is what Paul meant when he quoted ancient pagan poets who said: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is a vast ocean and we cannot explain him so much as can simply knowing that he is and wonder.

People of faith believe, in one way or another, that God is the ultimate reality. They structure their lives, in various religious and non-religious ways, around the reality of God. Humans cannot be forced or coerced into such faith. We can only receive the witness given to faith and believe it or not believe it. Proof of God’s existence is tenuous, especially to skeptics. Proof of a personal, loving God– who is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is impossible to prove. Yet people who have come to know Christ are right when they structure their entire life around this truth: “God is love.”

 

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Moses: A Man Powerful in Word & Deed

In concluding a sermon series on the faith of our ancient fathers the Lutheran Church of the Master in Carol Stream (IL) completed a summer series with the story of Moses on August 24. I preached the last sermon in this series on Moses which included the story of the exodus of the children of Abraham from Egypt and the subsequent formation of the nation through the giving of the covenant and law at Sinai. It is hard to get much of this great story into thirty minutes but I did my best. The text for this sermon is Exodus 1:8–2:10.

Listen to the sermon here.

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