February 6th, 2014
Last Saturday about a couple dozen of us spent the morning discussing the privileges and pitfalls of being public with our faith in witness. We were able to have a frank conversation in a safe setting about a topic we know is central to our identity, yet too often finds its way drifting to the periphery, if not off the reservation entirely.
One idea that resonated with many of us was this idea of placing ourselves in contexts where interactions with those who don’t identify with Christ become more possible and natural. Mike Rasmussen shared his varied experiences as a church planter who lived out that role by simply being a neighbor–and neighborly wherever he found himself (at the gym, the library, the grocery store).
Well, an account of another recent experience like that came across our online desk this week–and from some of our own, Mark and Rachel Kull. I asked them to elaborate for us on a conversation with a young woman in another state which began somewhat awkwardly but developed into a mutually-encouraging moment. The interaction offers, I think, a window into the nature of both our cultural moment and being present to our world in witness. Read on:
We were in Boise, ID last weekend. “So what do the two of you do?” I asked the 20-something couple sitting across the table from me. We were at a family dinner following the funeral of the young man’s grandfather. His grandfather had been instrumental in founding several Baptist churches in Boise, as well as a Bible school, and is known to all as a man of deep faith. At the funeral his grandson had given a loving speech memorializing his grandfather.
“We’re both students,” said the young wife. “He studies health sciences and I’m studying communications. I’ll graduate in May.”
“What do you plan to do with your communications degree?” I asked.
“I’ve been specializing in mediation and conflict resolution. I’d like to use my communication skills to help people come to a good conclusion when they’re having disagreements. I think we spend entirely too much time and money in the legal system in this country and for what? We just decide settlements, we don’t really resolve conflicts.”
I nodded. Aha. Here was something I know a little bit about! “You might be really interested in the Peacemakers Ministry. It’s based in Montana, and was begun about 20 years ago by a Christian lawyer who thought the exact same thing that you just said. He also thought that Christians ought to be at the head of the line when it comes to helping people resolve conflict in the world. He and his ministry have designed a whole system of mediation and peacemaking tools to help everyone from lay people to business professionals. Have you heard of them?”
“No, I haven’t,” she said. “And, actually, I’m not Christian at all. I’m probably as far away from being Christian as you could possibly be.”
She and her husband smiled at each other, and I tried to keep my dismay from showing on my face. At first I thought I’d heard her wrong. Really? When her husband’s grandfather had been so strong in his faith? How does that happen? Well, too late now. Can this conversation been saved? I regrouped and tried again, “Well, even if you’re not Christian, I think you would find that a lot of the principles taught by Peacemakers are applicable for people of all persuasions. Their goal is to help resolve conflicts. ” It sounded a little lame to me, but it was the best I could do at the moment.
To my relief, she nodded in agreement. “And I always love hearing what other people use that works when it comes to doing that.”
Well, that was good. She didn’t seem upset or even like she wanted to stop talking to me. Her husband went to get dessert, but we carried on. She talked about how everyone in the United States seems to think they’re right about everything. And how everyone thinks it’s their right to express the only correct opinion about everything. But she wishes that we all would listen more carefully to what each other is saying, and not just try to convince others of our own ‘rightness’, at whatever cost. She didn’t say anything I disagreed with, and it was cool to feel like we were building a bridge, even when I feared I’d started out by dynamiting the pilings.
Then she told me that she’s a “fourth-generation-post-modern-feminist.”
I’d never heard that expression.
I wasn’t even sure what those words meant when all grouped together. So I asked for an explanation.
“Well, first-generation feminists burned their bras and hated all men. Second-generation feminists still didn’t trust men much but they didn’t burn their bras. Third-generation feminists began thinking that not all men were bad, and they made some progress in equal rights for women. Fourth-generation feminists say, “I am a woman. I can do any job you ask me to do; only I may do it differently from a man. But that doesn’t mean I do it badly, I just do it differently. And that should not keep me from having the job.” As I listened to her, I thought “Well, I don’t know about the post-modern part (and she never did explain that), but I guess I’m also a fourth-generation feminist!” I’ve never thought of myself in those terms before. We had such a good time talking together. For about 45 more minutes. Her husband found his mom (my friend) and told her, “Renee’s been talking to Rachel for nearly an hour! It’s amazing!
What was amazing to me was how much I had in common with this 20-something-fourth-generation-post-modern-feminist. And that I discovered it by being willing to pursue a conversation that seemed doomed at the start. I don’t think I convinced Renee of anything; but somewhere in the process I realized that wasn’t my purpose. My purpose was to focus and listen carefully for whatever God wanted to communicate to Renee through me during those 45 minutes. At the end of our conversation she told me how great it had been to talk together. It didn’t feel like a shut door, so I’m hoping there will be more opportunities to keep communicating in the future. After all, that is her major.
No conversation can (or should) become a template for speaking publicly about faith in Christ, but there are items here worth noting. For one, while it’s perhaps problematic to infer too much from this young woman’s comments, she to some degree reflects a popularly and firmly held belief that all claims of authoritative speech should be viewed with deep suspicion. The aversion to people’s insistence that they are “right” or that one constituency has the “correct opinion” was evident in this woman’s responses to Rachel. In a pluralistic culture with widely diverse perspectives coming more sharply into view, the respect for alternative outlooks has not only deepened but has over time confronted the very notion that any one perspective might provide greater insight into reality than another–to say nothing of any one idea providing a supreme window into the nature of reality. The lesson in that observation is that witness in a modern world may often require comment about why the idea of truth remains a viable category, even if it must be held with “gentleness and respect.”
Secondly, their conversation could have devolved into an awkward silence once they’d revealed their differing metaphysical positions. But a shared conviction in conflict-resolution built a bridge that not only sustained the conversation but also established a measure of credibility in one another’s points of view. It’s those points of contact with people who don’t identify with Jesus that Christians have to find, affirm, and then employ as a way of introducing the gospel. For all her ostensible objection to Christianity, this young woman’s purported respect for both alternative perspectives and conflict-resolution created a space for Rachel to articulate something true about Jesus. Rachel didn’t have to force the issue; the opportunity arose naturally only after unearthing a valued belief in her conversationalist. Tim Keller (groupie alert) exemplifies an almost instinctual but surely learned discipline of identifying a belief shared by those both inside and outside the church, and then showing how that belief taken to its fullest expression in some sense “requires” trust in what the gospel promises. Last Thursday, in fact, he began a series of live online lectures each making a case for the gospel, and then inviting some substantive Q&A from an audience composed mostly of skeptics. (Listen to the Q&A especially and then I ask you: what sorts of questions do you think we’re most likely to hear in our neck of the woods?) You can both watch last Thursday’s lecture and sign up for a reminder to view subsequent Thursday night events by clicking on the “Watch on Livestream” icon below.
Finally, Rachel’s conversation allows us all to see that presence to our world–public faith–is about an interest in the person–not merely their position. I’d venture to guess that Rachel’s interest in ascertaining a precise definition of a “fourth-generation feminist” was as crucial to the conversation as identifying a point of contact. It’s an abortive effort at public presence if it reduces the person to a posture. Rachel’s sincere curiosity in how this young woman understood herself ennobled Renee’s dignity–a dignity, as our faith teaches, derived from being made in the image of God.
This was a conversation for which Rachel did not prepare, and yet also one for which her entire life prepared her. We learn from those conversations we hear as well as the ones we have ourselves. I asked those who attended last Saturday’s seminar to share their experiences of public presence in witness. May I ask you the same?
Last Sunday we continued looking to the Psalms for fodder for our own improvisational prayers by listening to the lament of Psalm 42-43. One point we inferred from the question the Psalmist poses to himself was that our encounters with despair are an invitation to investigate, insofar as we’re able, what lies beneath. Not only might querying reveal at times disproportionate affections but also a greater complexity to the source of our sorrows. Despite history’s best efforts as reducing them to uptight churchmen, the Puritans actually exhibited both subtlety and prescience in their diagnoses and care of men’s souls. You can read a helpful summary of their insights here.
This Sunday we’ll listen to King David’s (in)famous penitential prayer in Psalm 51. We may never have had our most egregious and regretful sins published for all to see, but we’ve all felt a kind of desperation to recover in relationship what we’ve lost through violation of the love within it. Two images come to my mind as I think about this Psalm–one from a film you may have seen, the other from a moment of unexpected public candor between two celebrities familiar with public embarrassment for personal weakness.
The clip is from the film which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1986, Roland Joffe’s The Mission about Jesuit missionaries sent to South America in the mid 18th century to evangelize the Guarani tribes. Robert DeNiro plays a mercenary named Rodrigo Mendoza who’d helped enslave countless Guarani. After killing his own half-brother for finding him in the arms of Mendoza’s fiancee, Mendoza turns to the missionaries for guidance in his despair, eventually entering into their order. As an act of penance for his ways, Mendoza chooses the following demonstration of arduous contrition:
The Roman Catholic doctrine of Penance attests to both the worth and the necessity of demonstrable acts of personal sorrow for sin. The doctrine argues that not only is “serenity” to be found through making tangible amends for sin, but also that one’s status before God is restored to a state of grace lost on account of sin. The Reformers may have looked with suspicion on the former for its insinuation that sin might be atoned for through personal action–and the latter likely with outright denunciation for the notion that we may, through our sin, undo the divine grace of justification. I won’t wade into those debates here except to suggest that Mendoza’s tears reveal that not even he believes his efforts–their sincerity and zeal notwithstanding–could compensate for all he’d done to offend. Only grace, here mediated through a knife blade, could cut loose his burden.
Far more jovial but no less poignant is Robert Downey Jr’s (my kids only know him as Ironman) extending grace while seeking restoration for his friend and troubled soul, Mel Gibson. (HT: mbird.com) As you’ll hear, Downey speaks as one who knows personally what Gibson had recently experienced, and in some small way illustrates one idea we’ll hear in the sermon this Sunday.
Whether in art or real life, the solution to sin will always be tied to an atonement wrought by grace.
As we announced last week, we’re going to be devoting one of our Sunday Night Fellowship’s to a time of guided corporate prayer, beginning this Sunday, February 9th, at our regularly scheduled time of 6-8, at the home of Mark and Rachel Kull (923 Zeb, Dallas, 75211). We’ll gather around some light refreshments, hear a brief reflection from Mark 1:39 to frame our time, and then proceed to pray back to God a couple of the Psalms we’ve recently considered. Then we’ll turn to prayers for each other, our church, our vision, and our world. If you find the whole notion of public praying a bit unnerving, just come and listen as you pray silently. Our point in praying at all is to take God at His word when He instructs us to pray. Our point in praying together is not only to follow the example of the church, but to gain the vigor for praying that comes with community.
Things we’d ask you to pray for this week:
- for David and Joy Noack in the loss of David’s father Raymond last Saturday; his service was held this last Tuesday
- for Neal Peterson’s upcoming hip replacement surgery next week
- for our inaugural time of corporate prayer–that it will bind us together as it solidifies our corporate concern for all the concerns we’ll intercede for
- for all the ways the Lord might help us to be faithfully present to Him, one another, and wherever we find ourselves
See you Sunday at 9:30,