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The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is an international Christian ecumenical observance kept annually between January 18 and 25. It is actually an octave, which means the observance lasts for eight days.
The observance began in 1908 and was focused on prayer for the church unity. The basic idea, and the January dates, were suggested by Father Paul Wattson, co-founder of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars. Watson conceived of the week beginning on the Feast of the the Conversion of St. Paul and concluding on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Peter. The dates and ideas actually were a variant of the Protestant version of these Catholic celebrations. (Wattson was himself a former Anglican priest.) In the mid-1920’s Protestant leaders proposed an annual octave for unity leading up to Pentecost. (Many local communities also celebrate this time and offered joint prayers for unity.) Pope Benedict XVI “encouraged its observance throughout the entire Roman Catholic Church.”
What is interesting is that this observance began in Catholic circles but once it jumped boundaries it took new forms and meanings. Abbé Paul Couturier of Lyons, France, who has been called “the father of spiritual ecumenism,” (a model that has profoundly influenced me and one also openly embraced by Pope Francis) had a slightly different approach than Father Wattson. He advocated prayer “for the unity of the Church as Christ wills it, and in accordance with the means he wills.” By this Abbé Couturier enabled other Christians with differing views of the Petrine ministry to join in this movement of prayer. In 1935, he proposed naming the observance “Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” This proposal accepted by the Catholic Church in 1966. Abbé Couturier’s message influenced a number of Catholic leaders thus today this is the direction Catholics and Protestants take in their celebration of this week of prayer.
In the Chicago area there are a number of ways churches engage with this week. The Focolare and ACT3 Network, who both work for unity, have recently partnered this event in our area and this year the evening prayer service will be held in Wheaton. We wanted to put the event close to Wheaton College to invite students to attend, thus we will meet two blocks from the campus. All are invited and no registration is needed.
Many readers know that Fr. Thomas Baima is a close friend and a supporter of ACT3 Network. Tom and I go back more than a decade now in ecumenical work and inter-religious dialogue. Tom has one of the best minds, and some of the finest first-hand experience, in this field of dialogue. I turn to him quite often to discuss a myriad of issues.
Tom spoke a few weeks ago to the Muslim Society of Chicago at a large gathering at McCormick Place. The broad topic was “Inter-religious Dialogue.” An interfaith panel from many backgrounds spoke for nearly sixty minutes. Tom’s words come around the 12 minute mark on this video and ended at about 16 minutes. In this short address you can see him answering an important question: “What is the motive for dialogue between religions from a Christian perspective?”
He suggests that there is a common motive, namely the recognition of our shared humanity and shared belief in God. He believes this motive encourages tolerance and other societal goods. He calls the second motive particular. This motive allows us to learn from each other in our own respective ways while we still disagree about revelation and doctrine. This second motive allows us to know the other person as human and to respectfully engage in charity and good faith.
This presentation is not long but I encourage you to watch Fr. Baima’s four-minutes if you want to see how a Christian theologian enters into a Muslim interfaith context in love and how he retains a theology profoundly centered in the incarnation. This is a good appropriation of some of what I wrote yesterday.
In the light of the debates now raging among Christians regarding how to respond to people of other faiths Pope Francis gives us here a short video in which he expresses his heart and personal hope.
Many evangelicals will see this video and conclude something like the following: “Pope Francis believes all people are brothers and sisters and thus he believes all will be saved by God regardless of their life and faith. Therefore, it makes no real difference whether or not the church does evangelization and mission since ALL people who are sincere in their faith will be saved in the end.”
Am I right or am I wrong in the way in the way I state this conclusion?
I think I am right. I know this is how I would have heard this message twenty years ago. So, my next question is this: “Does this make me a pluralist (or liberal) who denies John 14:6 or sees no urgency for sharing the good news and making disciples of Jesus?”
The problem lies in the meaning of all the words and ideas presented here by my comments. The Catholic Church is neither pluralistic nor is it devoted to universalism. It confesses the Christian faith in God the trinity and in Christ the Son. It believes the core teaching of the historic Christianity. Pope Francis not only believes this as a devout Catholic leader but he believes it because he is a Spirit-filled “evangelical” preacher of the good news of Jesus. Search for his Spanish-speaking videos on YouTube and you find his preaching of the gospel. You can see and hear the gospel through this brother and feel his great passion to lead people into the personal knowledge of Christ. Those evangelicals in Latin America who know him testify to his making disciples by preaching the gospel for many years.
Thus, here is my conclusion: “Might it be that somehow we are not hearing one another in these debates about religions?” Or, perhaps, we are saying something like this: “We are quite sure (in a modernistic and philosophical way) that we know who really is denying the faith, thus we (I/you) know who is finally faithful.” We know the judgment before God judges!
I would like to suggest that Pope Francis is saying the following:
- We are all seeking God in our own way. We must respect one another and seek for love as the very basis of all life-changing faith and life together in our troubled world.
- There is truth in all expressions of faith. Regardless of how much, or how little, error there is in various claims to divine revelation there is some/much common truth. This varies among the great religions of the world.
- Religions are not “good and evil” per se. People are good and evil by their actions and by how they express whatever faith they have.
- We must respect others and not attack their faith claims (as if this is true biblical evangelism) even if we think that they have not yet heard the final revelation of God given to the world in his one and only Son, Jesus Christ.
- The world, in its present state of conflict and war, needs to see and hear people of various religions expressing love and respect for one another. Christians can and should take the lead in this matter.
- We are all “children of God” in the sense that God is our creator and to God we will all answer for our lives. He is the judge, not me and not you.
The greatest illustration of what I have in mind here occurs in Acts 17. Here we read (and please read the words slowly and carefully and note my italics in the text where both truths I am stressing are made):
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 At that point Paul left them. 34 But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
What Pope Francis is not saying:
- He is not saying that the biblical statements about Christians being “brothers and sisters in Christ” should be denied or rejected. The bond we have, which is rooted in the incarnation and experienced by the same Holy Spirit, is one of paternity and supernatural birth by the Holy Spirit.
- Christians know the One who reveals the Father perfectly and finally.
- Christian faith and baptism are unique to those who have received the light of God given to them in Jesus Christ.
- Christians are to share this good news of Christ with the whole world.
- Christians should not deny one iota of their confessional and biblically-rooted faith.
Finally, the questions in all of this debate come down to one: “How will we live our faith before a world that has gotten smaller and smaller and thus learn to truly love our neighbors, not just respond to other religions and religious people in fear? Can we totally embrace the love given to us in Christ without insisting that others are confused and in the dark and we are always in the right because we are in the light?” Humility and contextualization call for a better way forward. I am persuaded that it will be hard for us to find this way in our present atmosphere of terrorism and fear.
The truth has not changed one iota but the world surely has and many of us do not grasp what this actually means as we live in love with our neighbors. May God help us do better at this task in 2016. I believe the way forward is in respectful dialogue rooted in love. A great deal of everything else we have to say is worth deeper conversation and much better listening.
For further reading I suggest the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate.
The recent Urbana 2015 Conference, held in St. Louis, featured a number of great speakers and topics. One of our ACT3 board members, Scott Brill, is on staff with InterVarsity and sent me links to two plenary addresses I found immensely important. I share the first of these two messages in today’s blog post. Scott Brill was also responsible for staffing a Catholic room at Urbana to network with Catholic students who were in attendance. This Catholic presence is new to IVCF and something I wholeheartedly welcome. (Catholic staff have served with IVCF for some years now, though their number is still quite small.) Pray for many evangelical mission agencies who now work openly with Catholics and do not try to “convert” students to evangelicalism but to Christ in humble faith. This is a risky strategy and presents challenges when donors do not like this direction. ACT3 not only openly supports this direction but seeks to serve it, and ministries who are doing this, wherever possible.
Dr. Christena Cleveland, author of a wonderful book titled Disunity in Christ. She is a social psychologist with a hopeful passion for reconciling across cultural divisions. She is the first Associate Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School where she is also the faculty director of Duke’s Center for Reconciliation. Christena earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Her scholarly work includes integrating social psychological perspectives on intergroup and intercultural processes with current reconciliation dilemmas within the Christian church and the broader society. Her research examines how culture influences theological/ideological approaches to peacemaking and reconciliation; how social processes, such as identity and self-esteem, impede a group’s ability to reconcile with culturally-different groups; and how individual factors (e.g., professed theologies/ideologies) interact with social factors (e.g., the status of one’s social group) to allow certain individuals or groups to dominate others.
Christena has published her work in scholarly journals – such as Small Group Research for which she received a 2011 Best Article award – as well as magazines – such as Christianity Today, which named her as one of 33 millennials leading the next generation of Christian faith.
In her book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart(Intervarsity Press, 2013), she examines and offers research-based strategies to overcome the nonconscious cognitive, emotional, and identity processes that pull Christians into homogeneous groups, fuel inaccurate perceptions of culturally-different others, contribute to an “Us vs. Them” mentality, stimulate intergroup prejudice and hostility, and ultimately inhibit reconciliation. The book received a 2013 Leadership Journal Book Award. Christena is currently researching and writing The Priesthood of the Privileged, which investigates power and inequality in the church, and proposes methods for addressing and reducing this equality as a pathway to reconciliation.
A fifth generation minister, Christena comes from a long tradition of leadership in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) denomination, ranging from bishops to pastors to laypeople. She currently ministers in various ecumenical settings.
Christena is a lifelong Oakland A’s fan and holds a quality cup of tea in high regard. She lives in Durham, North Carolina. She has a wonderful web site and blog available through http://www.christenacleveland.com.
The world roils in bad news and the story of immense tragedies. These painful realities are quite real. But the great danger we Christians face in 2016 is to focus our attention on this “bad news.”
In his final public utterance of 2015, Pope Francis on Thursday, December 31, insisted that the horrors of the past year are often “weighed down by private interests, by an insatiable thirst for power, and by gratuitous violence.” But Francis stressed that the reality of true goodness should not be lost in 2016. Indeed, I believe this true goodness should be stressed, certainly not in a pollyannaish way, but in a distinctly Christian way. Christ has overcome evil and his peace has changed the world. During these twelve days of Christmas let us remember that the evil of sin remains, but only for the time being. (Sin too will finally be put down completely on the “Last Day!”) This is why we should not entertain false notions about world peace.
Pope Francis added, “How many great gestures of goodness, of love and solidarity, filled the days of this year, even if they never became items for the nightly news!” In an ad-lib comment he added, “It’s a good thing not to make news.”
Here is my point as Pope Francis underscored it in his final 2015 homily: “These signs of love should not and must not be obscured by the power of evil. Good always prevails, even if in certain moments it can appear weaker or hidden.”
Do you believe that good prevails even if in certain moments it can appear weak or hidden? If you believe that mankind is so entirely sinful in every aspect of our human nature then I am guessing that you do not. But if you believe that sin, though pervasive, does not have the last word then it is more than likely that you do believe good prevails.
I have learned that if “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) then the presence of God in this world is always a reflection of his nature, thus a manifestation of his love. This is true even in the face of tragic evil. The signs of love should not be “obscured by the power of evil.” Amen.
The late Christian civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “I believe the unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” As we come to the end of 2015 I have reflected upon this a great deal and applied it to my own life and work. We are about to enter what appears to be a year that will be filled with war, tumult and continued suffering. There will be a lot more bad news. And we are entering an election year in the U.S., a time when minds and hearts are taken away into profound partisanship.
I look ahead to 2016 praying to God that I will be armed with both “truth” and “unconditional love.” I do believe it is not “pie-in-the-sky” to adopt this stance toward all things. Let me elaborate.
Those who love me, and follow me via the social media, know that over the last six months of 2015 I wrote very few blogs. There were several reasons for this:
- I was working on a new book and this work required more of me than I expected.
- I grew weary of blogging and lost my purpose for why I was writing blogs.
- I fell into unexpected polemical patterns that in hindsight denied my God-given goals for this mission.
What do I mean by “polemical” in this third point? The word polemical refers to becoming disputatious, or strongly critical, especially when it comes to an adopted writing style. As much as I set out to avoid this style I easily fell back into it over time. Some of you know that I mastered this style in the late 1970s and 1980s and came to deep repentance about the division I caused by the 1990s. If you have not seen my story watch “Sanctuary,” an ABC Chicago program aired in March 2015. In fact, if you wish to understand me and my work there is no better way to see and understand this than by watching this video.
Let me be very clear. There is a proper place for disputation. We become lazy and anti-intellectual when we give up disputation altogether. But when this form marks a considerable portion of our writing and rhetoric it easily poisons relationships. I looked up the word polemical and found the following synonyms for this word: critical, hostile, bitter, virulent, vitriolic, caustic, cutting, acerbic, sarcastic, scathing, sharp, devastating. A few words that are used as synonyms are better. These include: trenchant, sharp and incisive. The latter are words that describe what I aspire to do in one sense thus I leave place for polemics but not for caustic, cutting and continually negative writing.
But here is my point – continual polemics is common to much of modern religious debate. Christians have broadly adopted this style and thus they have embraced a constant partisanship that threatens relationships and ruins close friendships.
My mission is rooted in what I have called missional-ecumenism. This mission requires careful thought and biblical care. It also requires deep attention to Paul’s admonition to “Make love your aim” (1 Corinthians 14:1). In the context of confusion and disputation in the church at Corinth, Paul admonished the church to “eagerly pursue and seek to acquire love as your great quest.”
Having devoted so much time to writing a book, now tentatively titled Costly Love, this truth of love has worked on me personally. With Richard Rohr I now believe, “Both God’s identity and our own True Self are Love.” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Mediation, Monday, December 28, 2015, adapted from Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, 2003). I am not a negative, disputatious person when I am the person that God has called me to be. When I fall into ways that do not value others, and promote my own knowledge of facts as “the truth,” I call back into the polemical way I do not desire to adopt.
So, looking ahead I plan to write more on this site in 2016. I will engage with issues and global concerns but my response will “make love my aim.” I will not fall for “pop-psychology” as a replacement for true religion, and I hope to be genuinely prophetic at times, but I also desire to steadfastly reject polemics. I am weary of it, frankly. In the last three days I have heard enough polemics from both the left and right to distress me. God has used this to awaken me to my own calling. With his help I hope to inform you and encourage you, and thus to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Dr. Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. In a recent article in First Things David Bentley Hart, who is Orthodox, says he finds the response of many Catholics to this pope “inexplicable.” Dr. Mirus explains why hypersensitivity and hysteria have no place in a truly Catholic response to the pope. He writes:
At the same time, there is a right way and a wrong way for a Catholic to respond to his fears. Any type of hypercriticism, hysteria or panic—especially when accompanied by accusations which go beyond a strict and necessary construction of the evidence—is, as I have already noted, not of God. This sort of anxiety, and the quick (and even petty) trigger finger that goes with it, always comes from the Devil. What comes from the Holy Spirit is interior peace, joy, generosity, and trust in God.
Mirus sees legitimate and illegitimate reasons for a sensitive or suspicious response to Pope Francis but provides some helpful insight into the larger questions that this response poses: http://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/articles.cfm?id=660.
Pope Francis just returned from his first trip to Africa a few days ago. Those of us who watch and pray for him were amazed once again at his courage, faithfulness and continued displays of pastoral mercy. Surely “mercy” does sum up what Francis says and does as pope. Thus it is not surprising really since he has declared the coming year to be a “Year of Mercy.” He recently said that he will make twelve big (“significant”) gestures, one each month.Each is mean to demonstrate God’s mercy. This is what the Catholic Church calls a Jubilee Year. This year was pre-launched last Sunday when Pope Francis opened the Holy Door of the cathedral in Bangui, Central African Republic. One of the admirable features of Catholic Church life is the way this biblical concept of jubilee can be used to capture the minds and hearts of the whole church over a span of time.
In a brief interview in Credere, the official jubilee weekly magazine in Italian, Francis said: “There will be many gestures, but on one Friday each month I will do something different.” The pope officially begins the Year of Mercy for the worldwide church next Tuesday when, as in Africa, he throws open the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica. At the same time next Tuesday (December 7) he will also celebrate a large outdoor Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). By the way, Francis has also invited the world to Rome for Pentecost 2017 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Catholic charismatic movement. God willing, I would like to be there with many of my brothers and sisters to pray.
Most Vatican watchers agree that it is not clear yet what type of grand gestures of mercy Francis is actually planning for this yearlong jubilee. Many Catholics hope that one of these gestures will include people who are in “irregular marriage situations” (a canonical term the pope loathes) and priests who have left the active ministry for various reasons. Robert Mickens, writing in Commonweal, asks: “Is Francis willing to find a way to apply God’s mercy so that it can heal these and other situations? If he does go down this road he will be opposed by some members of the church.” Francis himself said at the end of the last synod gathering—even bishops with “closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.” For those who do not understand the context or meaning here this is pretty significant stuff when it is carefully read. I ask, “Do many of our church leaders – evangelical, Catholic and Protestant – hide behind their church teachings and good intentions . . . to sit in the chair of Moses and judge?”
I am particularly interested that Pope Francis has specifically understood the danger of “fundamentalism” within the Catholic Church. (On his plane ride back from Africa he specifically referred to this danger by name!) Pope Francis said, “Fundamentalism is an illness found in all religions. We Catholics have some (fundamentalists). No, not some—a lot who believe they have the absolute truth and go around sullying others through calumny, defamation. . . ” he added.
My hope here is quite simple. I pray that the pope’s emphasis on mercy, which has been evident from Day One, will be used by God to preserve Catholics, and non-Catholics in my own evangelical circles, from falling prey to fundamentalist tendencies. These tendencies will likely grow stronger in the face of the acts of terrorism that have recently rocked the U.S. The world war has now clearly come to our cities and towns and none of us “feels” entirely safe any more. Now, how will the church respond? With mercy and love or fear and fundamentalism?
There are two things to note here. First, Francis uses the word “fundamentalist” in a very specific way. He is describing those who “believe they have the absolute truth and then go around sullying others through calumny [and] defamation.” Don’t be fooled by his words. He is not denying that God’s final revelation of truth is found in Christ and in Christ alone. He is THE truth! Francis is, after all, an orthodox Christian. But he is saying something extremely important. There is a huge chasm of difference between “fundamentalism” and the kind of gracious “orthodoxy” that is linked closely with God’s love in Jesus Christ. We who believe in Him “know” the truth and it is the truth “sets us free.” But that Truth is Jesus, not a system of concepts called THE FAITH. Second, the pope’s emphasis on “unity in reconciled diversity” (a term he borrowed from the German biblical theologian Oscar Cullman, and a reference which I have spoken about many times) offers all Christians a new way forward in the twenty-first century! We do not need to require that every Christian become a member of the same church to enter into God’s glorious gift of true unity. In this he often speaks of a unity we share in the martyr’s blood, a unity he spoke of so eloquently in Africa. Francis ended his interview with Credere by adding, “Each of us should say: ‘I’m a poor wretch, but God loves me as I am; so I should also love others in the same way.’” The great John Newton, the evangelical Anglican who wrote the world’s best-known hymn, Amazing Grace, could not have said this better. As an evangelical Protestant, who shares in this deep and real unity with multitudes of my Catholic brothers and sisters, I can only say a hearty and deeply moving, “Amen!”
Several years ago I shared the story of how I met Fr. Joseph F. Girzone (1930-2015). I had read Joe’s wonderful book, Jesus: A New Understanding of God’s Son (New York: Doubleday, 2009). I simply loved it. Frankly, it changed my life in many profound ways. I wrote my first ever review on Amazon and as a result someone showed it to Joe who then reached out to get to know me. Since this is the kind of thing I would do, and it is rarely done to me, I had an immediate desire to know this lovely man. Well, we began to chat on the phone and by email. The man who wrote the huge best-selling novel, Joshua (1983), was a friend. What a pleasant and divinely-orchestrated surprise. When I first encountered Joshua in the days of its immense popularity in the early 1980s I was so profoundly influenced by Puritanism that I considered a novel about Jesus a virtual sacrilege. (So much for a mind that was open!) So getting to know this unusual priest became an unexpected delight. I could tell you all the things about Joe that I came to love but this would be a full-blown tribute if I did.
It is safe to say that if you met Joe you almost instantly have liked him. He was gentle and kind. He was supportive and encouraging. But he could grow angry if he felt an injustice was done in the name of Jesus! He served as a parish priest for several decades and then in his fifties his physician told him his constitution could not handle the pressure. If he did not step back he would soon die. Joe took this as “a warning from God” and he stepped back. His bishop did not agree. Joe ended up, for a season at least, in a homeless condition. But God had a strange and loving plan. He showed Joe more of Jesus whom he dearly loved and this would frame his life and writing as time went by in the years that followed. When he finally wrote Joshua, which also became a popular film, he was able to make the Jesus of the ancient text come alive without compromising anything essential or orthodox. (Many critics felt otherwise but Joe knew his doctrine and history and remained orthodox in all the essential ways.) Joe’s larger ministry became the Joshua Foundation, which he established in 1995 as “an organization dedicated to making Jesus better known throughout the world.”
Joe and I eventually decided to meet in person. I flew into Albany, New York. He picked me up and took me out into the country where he had a large home on a mountain, appropriately called Joshua Mountain. There he still worked every day serving and answering mail and writing. While I was there he spoke to people in different parts of the world and continued to serve as a pastor to his “flock.” I spent three lovely days with him which truly bound us together as dear friends. When we exchanged notes they were always filled with love and encouragement.
In June of 2014, when I received the Luminosa Award for my work in Christian unity, given by the Focolare Movement at their center in Hyde Park, New York, Joe phoned the center that weekend to ask me to forgive him for not attending. He said, “John I can not drive anymore.” I said, “Joe, if I had known we would have gotten you here to be with me.” We exchanged emails but that was our last actual verbal conversation. Joe passed beyond the veil into the presence of Jesus on Sunday afternoon, November 29.
To my dear friend John Armstrong,
May you continue to radiate the beauty of Jesus that shines through you. What a joy and privilege it has been for me to be your host at Joshua.
Love, Joe Girzone.
That says it as well as anything I have right now. I look forward to seeing Joe again at the feet of the Lord we both dearly love. RIP my dear friend. I miss you already. I believe He will say, “Well done Joe, good and faithful servant.”