ACT3 Network Story Video (1)

For more than a year I have desired to present a well-done video that shares the vision of ACT3 Network as clearly as possible. Given the time span that people will give to viewing such a video online this presentation needed to be designed to run for less than five minutes. It also needed to feature some of our ACT3 friends, our “big” story and my personal vision for missional-ecumenism. Finally, we have produced this new video. I am genuinely excited about it and the potential it has to help our mission. When you now go to our website you will see this film on the homepage.

Today I introduce you to this new ACT3 Network Story video. I will tell you more about this video, and how it can be used to read the flame of missional-ecumenism, over the next few days. Please watch it if you are interested and then share it with your friends as widely as possible.

Please allow the Spirit to lead you as you watch. We need donors and friends who will help us make this vision “viral.” To this end please pass this link to the video along to your friends who share a vision of unity in diversity (John 17:21).

Special thanks are in order for a dear friend who donated all the money we needed to make this new video. Also, thanks for the incredible work of my new friend, Tim Frakes. Tim is a superb videographer, as you will readily see. He is also a wonderful Christian who really got deeply involved in this project above and beyond the time we planned. He was a delight to work with at every stage and I highly recommend him to you. Finally, thanks for every friend who took precious time to be interviewed. Many who were interviewed are not on film in this new ACT3 Network Story. But their interviews will appear over the course of the coming months and help us reach many more people with our message. More about all this tomorrow.

Posted in ACT 3, Evangelism, Film, Missional Church, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | 9 Comments/Likes

Truth Is First a Person: Learning the Missional-Ecumenical Paradigm

Fr. BaimaDuring our recent Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation at Mundelein Seminary we had a presentation designed for the public that took place on the opening night. I intend to post this entire event in video format as soon as possible. I think we should have this video by the end of November, or sooner. It will be a well-made film and include questions and answers. (If you missed the same event in 2013 the video of that dialogue is also on our website.)

One of the respondents in this particular dialogue was my co-chair, and very good friend, Fr. Thomas A Baima. Baima is the Dean of the Graduate School of Theology. A professor in the Department of Systematic Theology, Father Baima is Vicar for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is nationally recognized as an specialist in these fields. Fr. Baima is one of the best missional thinkers that I know personally. In his response to the evening presentations he made several noteworthy statements, several of which I now share with you.

As Christians, we are standing at a moment in history, at the juncture between the modern and the post-modern, between the rational and romantic, where positivism restricts truth to the observable and measurable and romanticism restricts truth to the intuitive and emotional. This fracture gives way to the deconstruction of truth into mere “truth claims” with support solely from “culturally specific narratives.” Any attempt at a meta-narrative is greeted with hostility.  The new evangelization must first overcome this hostility before proclamation can be heard.

The great [Catholic] minds of the 20th century, Balthasar, Congar, Danielou, de Lubac, Ratzinger and Wojtyla have shown us that Truth is first of all a person, Jesus Christ. Propositions are important, but they come later. Before all else, as Cardinal Dulles has noted, is a personal adult encounter with Jesus Christ in the Church. 

UnknownI cannot imagine any two quotations that better reflect my missional-ecumenism paradigm than these. Note clearly, if you remain suspicious of a genuine Catholic call to “personal adult encounter with Jesus Christ” what Fr. Baima says by quoting the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, himself an adult convert. Dulles was converted from unbelief to Christ as a Protestant and then, a few years afterward, entered the Catholic Church. He was one of the truly great theological minds of the twentieth century. I first read Dulles at Wheaton when I was assigned to read his classic book, Models of the Church. I still recommend this book highly. It is an imperative read for missional-ecumenists who wish to engage with the reality of the visible church seriously.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Biblical Theology, Evangelism, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Roman Catholicism, The Church, The Future | 4 Comments/Likes

The Palestinian-Israel Debate Among Evangelicals and Why It Matters (Part Two)

10509610_10152989938635760_6272610025872651556_n-1My point yesterday about the assumptions of many Christian writers who defend Zionism, and attack younger evangelicals for their liberal views on this issue, is made quite well by Luke W. Moon’s final sentence in his article I cited: “American evangelicals should think very hard about whether they want to give up the opportunity to be a blessing to the nation that blessed us with Jesus Christ.” Wow! If we do not support the modern secular state of Israel then we are missing out on the opportunity to bless the Jews!!!

My response to this sentence is really quite simple: “Are you kidding me?”

I write as one who freely dialogues with rabbis, has some great relationships with Jews and really does believe that the modern state of Israel should exist politically. I also support the broad-based support for Israel against terrorism and extremism. I also write as one who believes that the history of Christianity reveals a tragic response to the Jews that has been anything but consistent with regards to the teaching of Christ, who was himself a Jew.

My problem in this particular debate, however, is that I have not baptized this important dialogue, or my support for the secular state of Israel, with Zionism. This is especially true when it comes to the religious versions of Zionism that link this movement to prophetic Scripture!

What exactly is Zionism?

Zionism is a nationalist movement of Jews and Jewish culture that has supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the Land of Israel. The particular kind of Zionism that Luke Moon, and other evangelicals like him, supports is a distinctly religious variety that supports the Jews in upholding their Jewish identity, opposes the assimilation of Jews into other societies and advocates the return of Jews to the Land of Israel as a (the) means for Jews to be a majority in their own nation, and thus to be liberated from discrimination, exclusion, and persecution that have historically occurred throughout the Jewish diaspora. These various forms of Zionism emerged in the late 19th century in central and eastern Europe as a national revival movement. Soon after this emergence most leaders of the movement associated their main goal with creating a state in Palestine, then an area controlled by the Ottoman Empire.

What I find disingenuous on the side of pro-Zionists like Luke W. Moon is their almost cavalier way of linking Zionism with the Bible as if there was no need for distinctions and nuances within this debate. I am not a Zionist. But I am also not anti-Israel or anti-Jewish. I am deeply engaged with the greater inter-religious process of Jewish-Christian ecumenism. I believe that we have made great strides, especially in learning how to read the New Testament better because of our openness to particular Jewish insights into the writings of Jesus and Paul.

One excellent example of this very point is The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford, 2011), an NRSV Bible with notes from Jewish scholars under the editorship of Professor Amy-Jill Levine, professor at Vanderbilt University, and Marc Zvi Brettler, professor of biblical studies at Brandeis University, This exciting collection of Jewish reflections on the New Testament is a treasure and it fosters fresh insights in biblical studies that can encourage peace and understanding. The world of biblical interpretation is better because of this serious work.

But back to Luke W. Moon and this evangelical debate. What we really need here is more honesty and less emotional appeal. Every such article ought to include a “seal” saying: “Be careful, this article reflects the broad presuppositions of a certain group of Christians who have a definite historical and interpretative agenda.”

My personal problem is that I do not think we can be peacemakers in the Middle East by only heeding the agenda of Zionism, at least not the Zionism of an extremely religious variety which is promoted (or assumed) by so many American Christians. Luke W. Moon may be one voice for this cause but he is not alone. Christian Zionism is alive and well within evangelical churches and institutions but thankfully it is shrinking in influence over time. This is why Luke Moon wrote his article and why I bothered to bring it to your attention.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Biblical Theology, Current Affairs, Israel, Personal, Politics, Religion, The Future | 7 Comments/Likes

The Palestinian-Israel Debate Among Evangelicals and Why It Matters (Part One)

A growing divide between evangelical Christians, regarding the state of Israel and the Palestinian problem, has arisen in recent years. This debate, and the subsequent divide that grows out of it, is prompted by very passionate voices on both sides. Many conservative churches and leaders support Israel without equivocation. As I understand what has happened this support often comes without serious questions about whether or not injustice has taken place on the part of Israel. Others, often with a more progressive political agenda, support the Palestinian cause, sometimes in ways that reject the whole notion of Israel’s existence and future.

1237880_497673997002383_9782664491885697_nAn example of this growing divide recently came to my attention via a Christian political publication called Faith & Freedom (Fall 2014). Author Luke W. Moon, the co-director of the Philos Project on Christian engagement with Israel, contributed an article to this issue titled: “The Latest Threat to Evangelical Support for Israel.” By the title you can readily see the author’s intent. He argues, and it seems rightly, that only a small percentage of evangelical leaders actually challenge “support for Israel.” He then reasons that this small percentage of evangelicals “wields outsized influence” within the current debate.

Luke Moon specifically challenges the witness of Lynne Hybels on this issue. Lynne is the wife of Pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church and an author and speaker herself. Putting Lynne Hybels in the center of this article reveals a great deal about Moon, and his own agenda. Let me explain.

Luke Moon lists several evangelicals who have spoken out on the “Israel-Palestinian” issue who also have spiritual roots at Willow Creek Community Church. Two of the persons he names work directly with World Vision, which of course draws more fire. Here is Moon’s conclusion: “World Vision makes no secret of its distaste for Zionism, both Jewish and Christian.” In 2011 World Vision started the Palestinian Christian Engagement Initiative (PCEI). The purpose of this initiative, at least according to Luke Moon, was to bring together “Palestinian churches in order to address the problem of Palestinian Christian emigration.” Moon argues that the primary reason Christians are leaving the Middle East in large numbers is the fault of Islam, not Israel. Moon adds that “since 1967 the number of Christians in Israel has increased while the number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza has plummeted.”

Moon also goes after my friend Professor Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He says that Burge has dedicated “much of his work to formulating a biblical argument against supporting Israel.” Moon attacks Burge for his view that the “kingdom” of God in the teaching of Jesus is not about support for the ethnic descendants of Abraham in the modern land of Israel. What follows is a selective, but generally accurate, series of claims about evangelicals and Palestinians. Moon’s words should, in my view, make everyone pause: “Such words (i.e., like those of Gary Burge and others) tickle the ears of many evangelicals.” What a sad place to take an honest debate. Moon reasons that no one is against peace but the real problem is that this pro-peace stance is linked to “an anti-Zionist narrative” which tempts evangelicals to not support Israel. Now he has touched the real issue I think. Moon makes an extremely accurate point here when he says that the divide on this particular issue is sharply felt among older and younger evangelicals.

But here is what Moon, and those who argue for similar Zionist views, so often fail to tell you:

  1. The divide between evangelicals along age lines is the result not only of different political views. Moon is reasoning that older Christians are faithful and conservative while younger Christians are more liberal and progressive. But the real difference is that the generations have a very different understanding of Israel’s role within the Bible itself. Support for Zionism is often, though not entirely, the result of nearly a hundred years of dispensational influence within the church and the wider culture of conservatism.
  2. To not support Zionism is seen, by writers such as Luke Moon and similarly convinced Christians, as an attack upon the integrity of the covenant and God’s special love for the Jews.
  3. The secular state of Israel is generally believed to be the modern fulfillment of ancient prophetic Scriptures. This confusion underlies the entire debate if the truth is admitted on every side.
Posted in Biblical Theology, Current Affairs, Israel, Kingdom of God, Politics | 19 Comments/Likes

Nature’s God: The Origins of the American Republic and Why It Matters (Part Two)

Unknown-4Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic is, at least to my mind, one of the most interesting, readable and important books I have read in 2014. I could hardly put it down. It reads easily and demonstrates quite convincingly most, though not all, of the author’s claims.

Stewart argues that the ideas which directly shaped the American revolution were largely ancient, pagan and continental (i.e., European not English). The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, and the natural divinity of the Dutch Jewish heretic Benedict de Spinoza (photo at right), largely shaped the views of most of our American founders.Unknown-5

Stewart draws deeply from a study of European philosophy, without becoming bogged down in ideas that you cannot comprehend. He shows how the philosophical ideas of the founders were shaped by thinkers that were anathema to the clergy of the time. These American revolutionaries hated the idea of God’s law and rejected supernatural revelation.

When you read the Declaration of Independence you should ask questions: “What is meant by Nature’s God?” “What does the term self-evident mean?” The question that deeply interests me is this: “What did they mean by the pursuit of happiness?” I have always understood this phrase to mean: “the freedom to live your convictions and earn a living, etc.” When each of these terms is understood on its own terms, within the actual context of the philosophical ideas behind them, you soon realize that these words were anything but Christian. And these were not simply Thomas Jefferson’s radical ideas but those of almost all of the leaders of the time.

The term “nature’s God” provides a good example of my point. This is language which means, in both its origins and context, the god who is nature. It is radical monism and leads to a view that says god=nature! I know that comes as a shock to many who read these words but if you doubt them read Stewart. Then go back and read the best material you can find about the Revolution and the founders’ ideas. Read them critically and look for the clues. Understand them in their own context. Do not let modern Christian popularizers foster the myth of our founding ideas without learning the truth. In this case the truth is far more interesting than the myth.

nast-anticatholicIn addition to this deeply flawed view of American history regarding our true origins, there is the view that the founders and framers held of Catholics. Their hatred for all things Roman Catholic left a spiritual blight on America that has only recently begun to recede. What became a “Protestant Nation” early in the 1800s was very definitely an anti-Catholic one up to and well beyond the Civil War. (One could argue that this was there case to right up the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960!)

Finally, the myth about America’s “Christian” origins is ludicrous to serious historians. More importantly, it is down right dangerous to the renewal of the church and firm belief in the gospel, not the gospel of America. Friends, I am not making this up in order to attack conservative Christians. Quite the opposite. As a confessional Christian who believes in Jesus Christ as Lord I want to see the church reject myths that clearly hold us back from a deep renewal of the Spirit. I sincerely, and now more passionately, believe these “myths” about Christian America’s origins harm the work of true mission.

Unknown-3When I finished reading Stewart I asked one question: “How did a nation founded on such radical ideas evolve into one that did become a great culture in which Christian faith and Christian churches could flourish?” I believe the answer is complicated but in short there are two parts to it. First, the revivals in the early 1800s played a huge role in recovering the gospel and the practice of true faith. Second, the freedoms granted to us by these radical thinkers left a door open for Christians to do mission freely and though our story is mixed, at best, we evangelized quite well in this free land where our various expressions of faith were freely permitted. My deepest concern now is that we no longer evangelize well and the philosophical ideas that inform our system of law and government will not sustain us unless the righteous live by faith in the Son of God (cf. Romans 1:16-17). Only then will our good works bring glory to God.

We are presently living in a time when the radical ideas of our founders are actually becoming more prominent than most of us realize. This is why the Tea Party gets the narrative of our nation right on one level but profoundly wrong on another. The Tea Party gets right the fact that “the people” are the government and that they alone have the “unalienable right” to overthrow a government that they believe is not the government of the true sovereign, the people. Both liberal and conservative voices now contend that the Tea Party does, in a simplistic and at times distorted way, represent the founders ideals. In reality, neither conservative nor liberal voices are precisely right in how they use this narrative. The truth is that the founders believed that the people had the right to directly control their own destiny and political direction and if this direction was not consistent with their own rights then they had every reason to overthrow their government because it was not a government “of the people.”

The reality is this – a nation founded on such revolutionary ideas cannot stand unless there is something more transcendent to hold it together. On the whole we have several generations who now think this “glue” is themselves! So far the republic still works. Time will tell how well it can work.

Posted in America and Americanism, American Evangelicalism, Church History, Culture, Current Affairs, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Renewal, The Church, The Future | 26 Comments/Likes

Nature’s God: The Origins of the American Republic and Why It Matters (Part One)

Unknown-3The American patriots who were directly responsible for the founding of our nation were considered, by almost all orthodox Christian ministers at the time, to be “radicals” and “atheists.” So goes the essential claim of philosopher/author Matthew Stewart in his exciting new book, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (W.W. Norton, New York, 2014). His claim is, at least to my historical mind, beyond reasonable doubt. What is more intriguing to me is why and how we have lost our collective awareness of the real philosophical and religious origins of our nation.

The standard narrative goes something like the following as I understand it:

American was founded by deeply religious men. Some of these men were deists but even these deists respected Christianity. For this reason they favored it, at least in terms of the dialogue about the nation’s political and religious future. Most of the framers and founders were members of churches and most all of them were honest, Bible-believing, orthodox Christian men. Yes, they used ideas they borrowed from men like John Locke but even Locke’s ideas were essentially consistent with Christian political and social thought. 

These founders were holy men who prayed for their new nation, prayed over their work in creating this nation (The Declaration and Constitution, etc.) and personally committed America to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. They did not write the name of Jesus into their documents but this does not negate the presence or reality of Christ in all these developments once you understand what these men really believed. They desired to allow others (non-Christians) to live in peace in a just and Christian society but their purpose was to frame a godly, Christ-honoring nation. 

The first presidents were all Christians, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson. Each man swore allegiance to God on a Bible and each believed the Christian Scriptures as the Word of God. Prayer was a part of their lives, thus the nation’s origin. And American ideas of freedom were built upon piety, prayer and the Bible. 

Thus we are, at least in this (limited) sense, a Christian nation!

What if I told you that I do not believe anything essential to this mythical story?

Many will scream “heretic” and dismiss me as a liberal. Some already believe that so now I have simply proved it to be so.

The odd thing about this reaction is that if you go back with me in time to the decades leading up to the American Revolution, and then read the major and important writings from the first few decades following the War of Independence and the formation of the new nation, you would agree with me. I would have been seen as an orthodox Christian in my understanding of the nation and its philosophical origins in 1800.

Let me give you one striking conclusion that I had never realized so powerfully until I  read Stewart’s most readable book. The first five presidents of the United States were not Christians! (Yes, George Washington expressed piety and went to church but his own private writings suggest, as do some of his personal actions, that he was not an orthodox Christian in the most liberal sense of the term “orthodox.”) These presidents understood that a significant number of American citizens were Christians, and quite a few more acknowledged the Christian religion in formal ways, but most were not Bible-believing, confessional, orthodox Christians.

What happened then if the founders were not Christians? The best answer is this – after the formation of the nation in 1789 the spirit of atheism (which is at heart deism as Stewart argues so eloquently) prevailed in morals and ideas. This was especially true among the leaders of the country. (Yes, there are a few noteworthy exceptions to this sweeping conclusion!) What then happened began at Yale in 1801, when President Timothy Dwight challenged his almost entirely skeptical and unbelieving student body to debate him about the power and authority of the Bible, is “the rest of the story” (and one not told by Stewart). What happened is that a genuine revival broke out and swept across America’s colleges, changing the tenor, morals and direction of the nation in a new way. But prior to this awakening religion was mostly a formal prop for radical ideas that are only remotely connected to historic Christianity.

The ideas that inspired the founders were neither British nor Christian. They were largely pagan, ancient and Epicurean. The ideas this nation was built upon would have been directly challenged by the apostle Paul if I understand him at all. More about this tomorrow.

Posted in America and Americanism, American Evangelicalism, Church History, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Affairs, History, Ideology, Religion, Renewal, The Church | 23 Comments/Likes

The Moravian Daily Texts and My Contemplative Practice in 2014

1533855_571338782944849_238247196_nA dear friend, Gerald Stover (PA), gave me a lovely gift at the Luminosa Award ceremony in June. I have used this gift, The Moravian Daily Texts, regularly in 2014.

Most historians agree that the Moravian Church, which began as a renewal movement within the Catholic Church, was started through the work of a Catholic priest named Jan Hus (the English is John Hus) in the early fifteenth century. The Moravian movement was a reaction to some of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Hus wanted to return the Church in Bohemia (the homeland of my wife’s family line) and Moravia to the practices of early Christianity. His reforming efforts sought a liturgy in the language of the people, the allowance of the lay people to receive both the bread and the cup during communion, and the elimination of Papal indulgences and the idea of purgatory.

Interestingly, some (but not all) of these practices were altered, five centuries later at Vatican II. The Moravian movement gained royal support and a certain independence for a while, even spreading across the border into Poland. Eventually the movement was forced to be subject to the governance of Rome. The Moravians thus became the earliest Protestant Church, rebelling against the authority of Rome some fifty years before Luther. The best known Moravian, after Jan Hus,was the nobleman Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, who was born in 1700 in Dresden, Saxony (in the east of modern-day Germany). Zinzendorf was brought up in the traditions of Pietism and studied law at university in accordance with the wishes of his family. His main interests were, however, in the pursuit of his religious ideas. In 1722 he left the court in Dresden to spend more time establishing a model Christian community. Out of a deep personal commitment to helping the poor and needy, Zinzendorf agreed to a request (from an itinerant carpenter named Christian David) that persecuted Protestants from Moravia should be allowed to settle on his lands. Among those who came were members of the Bohemian Brethren who had been living as an underground remnant in Moravia for nearly 100 years.

It was out of this community begun by Zinzendorf that much of the modern missions movement developed. The courage and faithfulness of these Moravians became a model to the entire church. Today Moravians still exist, though their numbers are not large. They have also become a major partner in global ecumenism.

The Moravian Daily Texts was first published in Herrnhut, Saxony, in 1731. The title page quoted a passage from Lamentations and promised a daily message from God that would be “new every morning.” This text was the outgrowth of a true renewal movement that began in August of 1727. What is unique about this simple little book is that it grew out of a context where each morning and evening refugees from Bohemia and Moravia came together to “consciously place their lives in the context of God’s Word.” Count Zinzendorf then gave, on May 3, 1728, a “watchword” for the next day. This “Losung,” or watchword, was meant to accompany the people through the whole day. There were thirty-two houses in Herrnhut and each day one or more persons delivered this watchword to help the people through the day.

So The Moravian Daily Texts has coupled the words of a hymn with a biblical text but then added a doctrinal text as well. The texts thus grew out of an oral tradition which mixed God’s word with human response. This is, in my estimation, what makes this little book unique.

My reading for yesterday, October 23, cited Job 33:13-14: Why do you complain to him that he responds to no one’s words? For God does speak—now one way, now another–though no one perceives it.” The Moravian Daily Texts then says, in comment on this word, “No prayer is made by us alone, the Holy Spirit pleads, and Jesus, on the eternal throne, for sinners intercedes.” Each day of the week has a special focus and on Thursday it was the nation and the world.

The same daily reading also quotes from Matthew 16:3 where our remonstrates with listeners for not being able to “discern the signs of the times.” (This text has nothing to do with a unique form of prophetic hermeneutics, but rather with missional living and knowing the times in which we uniquely live out our faith!)

The reading for yesterday ended by urging the Father to teach us to pray so that we have “wisdom to accept the answers that you [God] provide.” It adds, “Open the eyes of our hearts that we may see all the blessings and solutions you have placed before us.”

I use many tools to pray and guide my day. I seek to become more contemplative with every passing year. Such a simple reading helps me immensely. Yesterday I focused throughout the day on asking God to open the eyes of my heart in order to “accept the blessings and solutions” he placed before me. This simple method gave me a way to settle my heart on one central concern in prayer throughout my whole day.

Whatever tool(s) you use to seek to get your heart quiet, meditate on the Word of God, and take this with you throughout your day. One of the reasons for the power and impact of the Moravians has always been the way in which they did this in close connection with the Spirit’s work in expanding Christ’s mission into the world. For me this is another way to live as a missional-ecumenist.

Thank you Gerald Stover for this little gift. It has remained in sight and not out of mind. It has proven to be a most wonderful tool for me during this year. It also reminds me of the great catholicity of the global church.

Posted in Books, Church History, Discipleship, Missional Church, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Prayer, Renewal, Spirituality | 12 Comments/Likes

Mother Antonia Brenner: “Prison Angel” (1926-2013)

UnknownJust a little over a year ago Antonia Brenner died (1926-2013) in Tijuana, Mexico. I had never heard of this amazing woman until a few weeks ago when I discovered some things that she wrote. I then read her story for the first time.

Born Mary Clarke this amazing woman was known over the last
thirty years of her life as Mother Antonia Brenner. She never took formal orders as a Catholic. Brenner died in La Mesa prison in Tijuana, Mexico. So why is she remembered so warmly by many who miss her a year after her death? The answer is one that glorifies the gospel.

Mother Antonia voluntarily entered a Mexican prison where she spent the last thirty years of her life. She committed no crime. In fact she received a call from God while she was living in Beverly Hills. She abandoned a luxurious lifestyle, took religious vows and walked into a dark and harsh prison to spend the rest of her life serving others for Christ.

Mother Antonia, born December 1, 1926,  as Mary Clarke, lived a very different life before she met Jesus. Born into an Irish-Catholic family, Mary Clark was raised in the exclusive community of Beverly Hills, California. Her father became a very successful businessman and provided well for his family.Unknown-1

Twice married and divorced, she raised seven children. In 1969 Jesus appeared to her in a dream. When she awoke she was determined to devote her life to the service of Jesus in love. While she had been going through her second divorce a priest had invited her to help him in his prison ministry at La Mesa. This overwhelmed mega-prison housed eight thousands inmates!

Mother Antonia had visited the prison for years and performed small acts of charity that she felt God called her to undertake in obedience to her faith. But after her divorce she felt called to do more with the remainder of her life. No religious order would accept a fifty-year-old twice-divorced woman, which begs for serious dialogue about why such a broken woman would not be welcomed with open arms. Mary Clarke sowed her own habit, took private religious vows and received permission to enter the prison and remain in the women’s section. She says, “I felt as if I was home.” She walked freely throughout the prison ministering to murderers, gang members, and desperate criminals of all types. Many called her the “Prison Angel.” To most she was simply “Mama.”

Mother Antonia Brenner’s life can be summed up in a statement she wrote:

Happiness does not depend on where you are. I live in prison. And I have not had a day of depression in 25 years. I have been upset, angry. I have been sad. But never depressed. I have a reason for my being.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments/Likes

Christian Unity Week @ Judson University, Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to listen.

Posted in ACT 3, Biblical Theology, Christ/Christology, Current Affairs, Discipleship, Love, Missional-Ecumenism, Orthodoxy, Personal, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | 5 Comments/Likes

Christian Unity Week @ Judson University, Part Two

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

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

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

Click here to listen.

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