The Armenian Genocide Remembered

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion on 301 CE, although the presence of Jesus followers dates back to the first century, where we learn in extra biblical literature that two of Jesus’ disciples, Bartholomew and Thaddeus, who traveled to Armenia sometime between 60-70 CE. Since it’s inception, this church has been an oppressed church, spending much of their Christian existence in hiding, persecution, or in suffering.

The Armenian people have lived in the modern day Turkish region for some 3,000 and were an independent nation, although control over their region had many empires who came into and went out of power and control of that area. In the 15th century, the Armenian people were swallowed up and absorbed into a very powerful empire called the Ottoman empire.

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The Ottoman empire was a Muslim empire, and they allowed the Armenians to maintain some of their identity as orthodox Christians, but were also treated as subservient subjects and had many economic, political, and social obstacles that kept them from thriving, but they thrived none-the-less. Armenians were known to be better educated and wealthier than their Turkish neighbors somehow, which slowly led to resentment of the Armenian people. There was also a fear among the Ottoman empire that the Armenians would be more loyal to a Christian government, particularly to their neighbor, Russia.

Over the next few centuries the Ottoman empire began to lose power and in the late 19th century, the Armenians had a strong voice and were fighting for civil rights among their people. This angered the Turkish Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, who was fanatically committed to the Ottoman empire and demanded loyalty to it and was committed to silence the Armenian voice again.

In 1894 and in 1896, many Armenian villages were attacked and hundreds of thousands of Armenians were slaughtered. This was the first organized ‘silencing’ that gave rise to young militant Turks who were committed to removing the “pesky” Armenians. In 1908 Turkey had a regime change. These were the young reformed Turks who wanted a more modernized Turkey, which eventually was realized by the Armenians, that a modern Turkey meant a Turkey without Armenians. These “pesky” successful Armenians (despite opposition) just kept thriving and this was a threat to Turkish leadership.

Then in 1914, Turkey entered World War I on the side of Germany, and at the same time the Ottoman empire declared a holy war against Christians (namely Armenian Christians), because they saw them as traitors. The Armenians had sided with Russian military during this time, and then the dam broke.

On April 24th, 1915, genocide of the Armenian people began. This day in history, 100 years ago, marks the day when Turkish military arrested and slaughtered hundreds of Armenia’s top leaders and thinkers. Then they focused on the institutional removal of all Armenians from that region. They were forced out of their homes, sent on mass marches into the desert that led them to slaughter.

Many Armenians died by being stripped naked while being forced to walk in the desert for days with no food or water until they died. If they resisted, they were shot and killed. The method of murder ranged from anything one could think of; they drowned people in rivers, threw them off cliffs, crucified them and burned them alive, smoked them out in buildings, etc.

Stories like these were shared in a small meeting that myself and a handful of other friends had with Armenian friends in Scottsdale. We share a time of refreshments and a short movie with them before we had a chance to hear their family stories of pain and loss at the hands of Turkish rulers. Children were kidnapped and converted to Islamic faith, women were raped and forced to be sex slaves, and Turks moved into the abandoned homes of the Armenians.

This went on until the early 1920’s. Many sources vary in the final number of Armenians who were slaughtered during the genocide, but most agree that over 1.5 million were killed, and many more were deported and never allowed to enter their homeland again.

To this day, the Turkish government still does not acknowledge this genocide nor do they admit that these events actually happened as stories tell them. Many Armenians and social justice advocates speak out against the Turkish government, but it has not changed the fact that it is still illegal in Turkey to talk about what happened to Armenians during during that era.

To add to the injustice, American news outlets and politicians have also been reluctant to use the word “genocide” to describe what the Turks did to the Armenians. The United States of America has still not formally recognized what happened to the Armenians as genocide out of fear of losing Turkey as an ally. Some ground has been gained to honor the families of this genocide and to recognize what has happened, but we still have a long ways to go.

I write this post to honor my friends who have taught me how to suffer and not die from the pain and to bring awareness to grave injustices that still go on in the name of keeping allies. Many Orthodox Christians being killed in the present day in the Middle East are Armenians, and the silence of this event allows other dictators and terrorists organizations to think they are capable of such great evil without proper consequences and accountability. There is no doubt that Adolf Hitler learned from the Ottoman empire  on how to systematically slaughter a whole people group and justify it.

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This is Father Zacharia, he was exiled from Turkey and is now the first Armenian priest in Arizona. He and the other leaders and parishoners at St. Apkar in Scottsdale are godly people who have welcomed us into their lives as friends.

We must speak out against the silencing of all evil, terrorism, dictators, and work to eradicate such evil in this world. The first step is to recognize this still goes on today even though we don’t see it as clearly as we can see other types of genocide in hind sight. Your voice matters. Retell these stories. Get to know survivors of genocide from various nations. Open up your world view and become friends with refugees and immigrants who most likely live next door or around the corner from where you live.

Today, I want to honor the Armenian people group and thank them for not giving up and continuing the legacy of their people through story telling no matter the cost. I pray you would have the courage to tell the unspeakable stories in your life and to stand for those who have been silenced for too long. I pray that through this story you may have the courage to fight for those being oppressed in your world and to stand and fight for those who can’t stand or fight on their own. We need communities of courageous healers in the days to come, and want to invite all who have ears to hear and eyes to see, to commit to a new way of living that fights and stands and pleads for those who need allies.

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Missional Ecumenism and the First-Century Church

Missional Ecumenism has been a big discussion over the last century of church life. If this phrase is new to you, in it’s simplest form, it means unity of the body of Christ around the mission of God. The word “ecumenism” comes from the Greek word oikoumene, which means “the whole inhabited earth.”

This ecumenical vision is both the mission to reconcile “the visible Church of every era” which is referred to as being ‘one body’ (Ephesians 4:1-4) and God’s mission to reconcile the “whole inhabited earth” (Matthew 24:14) as the concern of all who are God’s children (Genesis 12:1-3).

Unity of the body of Christ is always about mission. The mission of God is always about unity. One could also take the words “ecumenism” and “unity” and replace it in some way with the word “reconciliation,” which is the heart behind the whole gospel; Christ reconciling all things to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).

This reconciliation is wrought by men and women, who through faith in Christ Jesus, live a beatitudes kind-of-life, embracing the poverty of their own spirit, mourning over their sin and sin done against others and themselves, restraining their power to be used for good, and ultimately, working up a hunger and thirst for justice and goodness. This will lead to a life of mercy, purity, peacemaking, and in most cases, a life of persecution.

For a good example of what the beatitudes kind-of-life look like in story form, we could turn to the letter to Philemon, where the reality of reconciliation is employed in all it’s beauty, and missional ecumenism is seen from the very beginning of this Jesus movement.

In this letter we learn of a problem. Philemon had a run away slave named Onesimus, who fled his home, left Colossae and somehow ended up in Ephesus. We don’t know if Onesimus knew of Paul from Philemon, or if he was on the run, and heard Paul preaching while Paul was under house arrest in Ephesus. But somehow, he heard the gospel, received Christ, and became a disciple of Paul there in Ephesus, and falls head over heels in love with Jesus. Paul clearly sees the renewal that took place in this run away slaves life and wants to disciple him by having he and Philemon eventually live out a picture of the gospel; reconciliation.

It’s clear that Paul has in mind reconciliation with his letter to Philemon, because he urges Philemon to not just allow Onesimus back into his community, but to receive him as a brother, a partner in the gospel!

Go ahead, check it out for yourself. Grab a Bible and read Philemon real quick, it’s a brief one-page letter.

Did you see it? The gospel of reconciliation? Paul is crystal clear, he wants nothing less than the unity of two enemies who are now both unified under the Messiah, and one brother is to give the other brother emancipation papers. “Free him Philemon!”

In this letter, we read overtones of the Exodus narrative which was behind all of Paul’s letters and interpreted through Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul now wants Philemon to embrace the new exodus that Christ gave him (Philemon), and extend a new exodus to Onesimus. “Live out the gospel Philemon! Let Onesimus go free!”

We need to know that the punishment for a run away slave was likely crucifixion in this case. After all, if slaves run away without punishment, then who’s to say other slaves won’t follow suit unless somehow puts the hammer down. And what of Philemon if he goes along with it? What will other slave owners say? Will they try to harm Philemon? Paul is asking a lot, but if we continue to look at this passage, we see that Paul may be offering a lot as well.

This is why Paul also mentions, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (Philemon 18)

Notice Paul says to charge the cost of Onesimus’ offense to his account, which would mean whatever Onesimus would be given, or maybe whatever would be blamed on Philemon for releasing a run away slave, blame it on Paul. So Paul may be saying, “If he deserves the cross, then I’ll take it for him!” Or, “If you might receive punishment for releasing him, let the town know it’s on me, I’ll receive your punishment.” Paul is displaying the ministry of reconciliation here, he’s displaying Christ’s sacrifice in a tangible way.

Clearly after reading Philemon in this context, Paul has a much bigger view of reconciliation than we have after a casual reading of this text. Paul has an entirely different perspective. Indeed Philemon and Onesimus are a part of the new creation in Christ.

For Philemon to be able to receive Onesimus back, he had to think more of him than himself (poverty of spirit). He had to mourn over what he lost, what he’s going to lose in the community if he doesn’t punish Onesimus, and how he may  have wanted revenge or punishment against Onesimus. He would’ve had to restrain his cultural power and offer freedom, and this would surely fuel his hunger and thirst for more justice in areas of oppression elsewhere.

The cross of Christ is busting out of this letter to Philemon as Paul is able to say to Philemon, whatever he owes you, put it to my account, I will pay for his offense. This is the ministry of reconciliation that we are being gifted with as followers of Jesus, and this is what God is asking of us to live out for our sake and for His name’s sake.

The purpose of life in Christ was always and will always be a mission of ecumenism, being reconciled to Christ, and laboring to be reconciled to one another. The former empowering the latter. This is at the core of being the church. May we not allow other things to become more important than this reality that Christ prayed for in John 17; that they may all be one… so that the world will believe.

To Easter… and Beyond!

My kids have grown up with the movie Toy Story that has the two lovable and imaginative characters, Buzz Lightyear and Woody. I have to admit, every time I watch one of the Toy Story movies and hear Buzz say, “To infinity… and beyond!”, I secretly hope that the movie creators would create a narrative that would take us up into a daydream with Buzz about what it’s like to actually go to “infinity and beyond.”

I think if we’re honest with ourselves and could break out of our hollow modern shells that has squashed the fairy tales, myths, and legends, we would all long to go to that place Buzz is talking about. To get away from the grind, to fly to a place far away, to be a hero in another realm, to slay the dragon, and take that adventure you’ve always wanted. We were made for more, and that’s where these longings could teach us something about God’s narrative.

In the biblical narrative, “infinity and beyond” came to us, invited us into that narrative, gave us a home called earth, and asked us to fill this place with purpose and meaning that is from “infinity and beyond.” You see, we live in an era that has honored science, reason, rational thinking, medicine, and the like, and the cost on our society has been a decapitation of the supernatural, and the Christian world has embraced it more than most people.

Sure there is Christian language about the supernatural and even a charismatic approach to prayer and the like, but the world to many Christians is still divided into the sacred and the profane, the material and the immaterial, the natural and the supernatural, and in many ways we do not have a context for merge both worlds, to give a fuller meaning to life as we know it. This is where Ash Wednesday comes to mind.

Ash Wednesday is a day for the many Christian denominations to ‘kick off’ if you will, the journey towards Easter. Originally, Ash Wednesday got its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches that were blessed on Palm Sunday of the previous year, and then placing them on the heads of participants, while an officiant recites something like this: “Turn from your sin, be faithful to the Gospel, and remember from dust were you made, and to dust you shall return.”

In the biblical narrative, the use of ashes were mostly used to show that someone is either grieving from a tragedy or showing remorse for sin, and it serve as an external sign of repentance (2 Samuel 13:19; Job 42:3-6; Jeremiah 6:26). Ash Wednesday is a day of remembrance, but it’s so much more to me. It’s a day to tangibly remember we broke trust with God. We ate a natural piece of forbidden fruit and brought upon natural and supernatural consequences, thus we need natural and supernatural help.

Ash Wednesday is reminding us that in humanity, we are stuck to the natural realm and do not have the ability to restore supernatural realities. In comes Jesus the Christ, and Ash Wednesday is definitely all about Jesus. It’s all about placing our sin in front of us, remember who were are and not placing the weight of salvation on ourselves, because we can’t restore the supernatural. It’s about preparing our hearts to see with both eyes wide open, the death and the resurrection of Jesus.

In the very natural act of confessing and receiving ashes on our foreheads, we are re-enacting the garden narrative with Adam and Eve and accepting our fate of death and separating, but not without hope. We lament on Ash Wednesday and we fast over the 40 days (or so) of the Lenten season to prepare our bodies, minds, and hearts, to receive in a fresh new way every year, supernatural help that could only come from Jesus, the ultimate natural supernaturalist!

Jesus, the new Adam, invites his people into a new realm called righteousness in a world that will never be fully righteous. Even though Ash Wednesday is not an official sacrament of the church, it is very much an invitation into a supernatural world in a very natural kind of way. It is an invitation to go up to the mountain of mercy and receive something from God that no one or nothing in this natural world could ever offer to you.

Jesus, in the biblical narrative, was conceived supernaturally, but born of naturally to a virgin named Mary. He grew naturally in favor with man and supernaturally with God. He was sinless, offered a new way to be human, dismantled the religious life that missed God and therefore suffered under Pontius Pilate by the will of God, but the desire of the religious leaders. He was crucified, he died, and was buried naturally. On the third day, Jesus rose again supernaturally, showed himself to over 500 witnesses, then ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of power of God the Father. From there, he will one day return to restore natural order supernaturally, as he will lovingly judge the living and the dead and give to each man what they longed for.

Jesus offers a supernatural life now, in this very natural realm, and asks that those who have received this mercy and become family with him, live in such a way that brings greater purpose and meaning to what he has created. Ash Wednesday is a way to take Jesu by the hand, and follow him to a realm outside of time and space, and meet with him so that you are never the same naturally or supernaturally. We were created for more than what our eyes have seen and our brains can comprehend. We were created to live with both eyes open to the natural and the supernatural world and to see the beauty, the joy, the color, the smells, the tastes, the feelings, of what the supernatural world has breathed into the natural realm.

It ought not to remain a divide between the material and the immaterial realms. Jesus, the immaterial God became material, and restored what man broke in Eden. Jesus is the restoration of shalom, the Eucharistic life, the life of divine thankfulness invites freely all who would have eyes to see and ears to hear, the taste of a new kind of food that will restore what was lost in the garden through the forbidden fruit being carelessly eaten.

So this lenten season, may you ascend the hill, and through your fasting, your confession of what’s really true about you, your turning from sin, and believing that the natural and supernatural realms aren’t mutually exclusive, may you learn to live today in the natural realm with a natural supernatural savior. He is waiting for you to close the gap and believe that there is more to life than just rationale, reason, and boring parties. He’s longing for you so say like Buzz, “To Easter and beyond!” where the mysterious  resurrection is a divine reality for all who believe, today!

Eugene Peterson’s Isaiah 58: A Necessary Word for Western Christendom

“Shout! A full-throated shout!
Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
face my family Jacob with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
law-abiding, God-honoring.
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’
“Well, here’s why:
“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
a fast day that I, God, would like?
“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’
“If you get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.
“If you watch your step on the Sabbath
and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage,
If you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy,
God’s holy day as a celebration,
If you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’
making money, running here and there—
Then you’ll be free to enjoy God!
Oh, I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all.
I’ll make you feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob.”
Yes! God says so!

Deaths and Resurrections

The narratives of life are many and messy most of the time and they follow certain story lines. Two of the most dominant parts of any narrative are the deaths that take place and then the resurrections that happen thereafter. This is what we pay for when we go see movies, these plot lines that ultimately take us to the point of death or near death, and then we get to see the story turn and a type of resurrection happens. Deaths and resurrections.

From a Christian worldview (at least ‘Christian’ in the sense of those who actually follow Jesus) we know that this theme is birthed from within us, that is, we all have this longing to be resurrected from a death, a loss, from pain. And within this same worldview we know that this longing is actualized in what Christ Jesus did for all of us, when we were still his enemies. Jesus’ death and resurrection secure reconciliation for those who trust in Christ, but it also gives purpose and meaning to various forms a sufferings, deaths, as the ultimate purpose in life isn’t to dodge pain, but to be resurrected and reconciled to the truest source of life out of our pain, the life of life, Jesus.

But on this side of redemption, it seems that there too few resurrections and too many deaths. Yes, I can hear the cliche Christianese response say, “But death where is your victory, death where is your sting!” And to that I’d say, that phrase isn’t completely true until the final days when Christ returns and the final resurrection of the dead takes place. This Christianese response has pervaded Christian religious mumbo jumbo so much that we live in a culture that has numbed ourselves from truly dying (or feeling the sting of death, or at least giving acknowledgement to it) that our resurrections are weak and fabrcarted with emotions and words, false lights, void of power and transformation that comes from the life of life.

Today, I feel death all around me and I’m grateful for friends who know how to face the reality of death and grieve properly so when the resurrection actually comes, it’s real and tangible, and Jesus’ life and presence are more beautiful than they were before. Life sucks at times and brings you to the point of death, indeed it will even kill us in more ways that just physical death. But when the life of life shows up, the life that didn’t just shine light into our darkness, but the life that shined light out from the darkness our darkness. It’s then that we realized that Jesus sits with us in our pain and loss and deaths, and offers a life that life is really all about.

The life of life, shining the light of all lights out of dark backgrounds so that we can actually see him, because when fabricated lights are always around us, we lose the dark backdrop that allows us to see Jesus on this side of redemtpion. Deaths are many today, and resurrections are few and far between, but I live in the hope of the true resurrection that it will not always be that way. That good will win, evil will be destroyed forever, Satan and all those who prey on the weak will reap their pay in full, and that all that has been lost will be recovered through the resurrection. This narrative I so utterly believe in and long for when it’s complete.

When Dreams Are Fading

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Switchfoot has a song called “Sooner or Later (Søren’s Song)”, which is more or less a prayer of Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813 – November 11, 1855), who was a nineteenth century Danish philosopher and theologian. Much of Søren’s work and thoughts were criticized while he was alive, but after he passed, many people realized his contribution to the break down of rationalism that was overtaking the institutional church of his day.

It seems to me that much of Søren’s work desired to bring together the spiritual and material realms, as the Christian “religion” had pitted the “material” against the “spiritual”, which had deprived the material life (eating, drinking, pleasure, etc.) of having any meaning or value. In other words, the good Christian was boring and unable to enjoy the better parts of God’s material world. Friedrich Nietzsche’s keen but sad critique of Christians of his day was that their religion made them boring.

This is where the lyrics of this song come in. Søren longed for more and was honest about his struggle with faith. I struggle with faith, the boring and taxing parts of it. The suffering for doing good, and the regret of my actions. The loss of a reality that movies told me life was like when I was a child. The let down that Christendom handed me when I entered adulthood and the formula for joy was a disappointment. The struggle is everywhere and the desire to hold on to hope is relentless for those who are willing to be honest.

Søren wanted more than a rational understanding of faith, and so do I. He longed for an experience of faith, of God; a faith that haunted him, met him in the mundane every day, followed him, swallowed him, consumed him; so do I. I’m convinced that anything less than the divine invading the material realm in every part of life will lead to a major disappointment in any spiritual journey. Here’s the lyrics to this Switchfoot song from the album, New Way to be Human (1999):

“Sooner Or Later (Søren’s Song)”

Come back and haunt me
Follow me home
Give me a motive
Swallow me whole

They say I’ve lost it
What could I know
When I’m but a mockery?
I’m so alone

Sooner or later you’ll find out
There’s a hole in the wall

Today is ours
Condemned to be free
Free to keep breathing
Free to believe

I look to find you
Down on my knees
Oh God, I believe!
Please help me believe

Sooner or later they’ll find out
There’s a hole in the wall
Sooner or later you’ll find out
That you’ll dream to be that small

I’m a believer, help me believe

I gave it all away and lost who I am
I threw it all away
With everything to gain
And I’m taking the leap
With dreams of shrinking
Yeah, dreams of shrinking

There’s much to leave open ended about this song and I do not want to draw too many conclusions, but one I must is that this longing to experience God for Søren, I believe, was a desire to enter into the presence of God in a different dimension than what was offered to him through the “religion” of Christianity.

That “hole in the wall” metaphorically refers to an entrance, an invitation if you will, into the dimension where a Kingdom utterly different than ours exists. And the entrance is small, so small that we have to shrink, become lowly, humble enough to receive a new set of lenses and senses, new wine skins if you will, to see and experience the God of this universe.

Søren’s prayer was honest, much like the father of the epileptic son in Mark 9, who believed, yet asked Jesus to help him in his unbelief. Jesus invited the father to enter into a new dimension of faith, faith that would redeem a broken part of his material realm, but for some, only to leave that person once again wanting more because life breaks down.

The material realm is so wonderful in so many ways, until it breaks down. Betrayal. Loss. Pain. Abuse. Neglect. Anger. Bitterness. Failure. Broken dreams. Broken bodies. At that point, we long to separate from the material either from our religion of choice, or through other false stories of salvation such as various chemicals or sex.

So we begin to live in this dualism. We love the material realm until it breaks down, and then we long to be in another realm, spiritually or imaginatively. We need the God of this universe to penetrate our material reality in every way so that our dual understanding of life and faith is shattered and we begin to embrace that every moment is a sacrament waiting to be noticed, not necessarily celebrated all the time, but noticed.

This is the beginning of experiencing God in a new dimension. This is the beginning of becoming small enough to enter the hole in the wall, to walk in to the real realm that is fully divine and spiritual, and fully material and fully good. This is the beginning of rightly understanding pain and loss, and joyfully receiving good meals and drinks with friends. This is the beginning of not giving up when life is unbearable and has broken you down. This is the beginning of learning to have fun and laugh and to have extended time of silence that heals and restores.

This is the beginning of experiencing the life of life, who is God, revealed to us through Jesus, the suffering servant who grew in stature and favor with God and man. This is the beginning of receiving the whole gospel that says God will never abandon you, and will relentlessly act in such a way for you to truly know him and hunger for him more than anything else. The life that God offers is his Son, the light that has always shone, not from the beauty into the dark, but out of the darkness pointing towards the beauty; reconciliation with God through faith in the Son who sines light out of darkness.

So today, I cry out with Søren for the faith to believe and to experience the light and life of God, and for it to shine with all of it’s brightness into my dark life, into this dark world, so that on the days of hopelessness, myself and many others may not abandon post and cause more pain to others and ourselves on this journey to the heavenly realm that will be our reality here on earth one day.

If this light in not true and is not experienced in our material world, then to what are we witnesses of? What have we to offer if we have not seen and touched with our hands? Where will we call others who are hopeless to? What can we offer?

Come back and haunt me. Follow me home. Give me a motive. Swallow me whole. Make of me a living liturgy that encounters the Eucharist today. Let me touch your body. the hands that were wounded with holes. Let me see and taste of your blood that was spilled in the darkness so that light would be shone for all. Give us something to truly be a witness of in the midst of despair.

The Ancient Catholic Church

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I am committed to this thing called ‘ecumenism’. It’s a funny word, I know, and it has multiple meanings depending on the context one hears it. In it’s simplest form, for me, ecumenism is referring to any inter-denominational movement towards unity or concerted cooperation among Christian denominations, including Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. I’m not here to define clearly my view of ecumenism, which would be a good post for another day. As I have thought and prayed and connected outside of theological ‘tribes’ that I’m usually comfortable with, I have wrestled with what the word “catholic” means, and particularly, what did it originally mean when referring to the church.

Justo González, in his fantastic work of retelling The Story of Christianity (volume I), ends his 8th chapter with a small closing entitled, “The Ancient Catholic Church”. The context of the chapter is a discussion of the 2nd and 3rd century church’s “deposit of the faith”, which would be how the church would refute false testimonies about their lifestyle, their doctrine, and their traditions. Creeds, the canon of Scripture, and the apostolic succession were all a part of determining “the rule of faith” for followers of Jesus.

González mentions that the first time the phrase “Catholic church” is used among Christians, it was used to identify Christians in the 2nd century apart from Gnostics and Marcionites (google the meaning of those sects if you’re curious). The Catholic church was not only the church that was connected to apostolic successors (Christians who were discipled by an apostle in the 1st century or by a disciple of someone who was an apostle; see the first comment from Matt Marino for a brief background of the episcopal collegiality and why apostolic succession was so important in their apologetic), but it was also the church that was connected to the network of bishops or church leaders who desired to stay true to the rule of faith and who were approved as godly leaders by apostolic successors.

Many people may think of the word catholic as referring to the Roman Catholic church, and some creedal Protestants and Orthodox would understand the word catholic to mean “universal” in terms of being the “one” church of God. However, the ancient church in the 2nd century first used the word catholic to mean “according to the whole”, or “according to all the bishops and church leaders” who were interconnected by creeds, apostolic succession, and the canon of Scripture, to preserve the truth of the gospel.

González goes on to say that the ancient church understood this title to refer to “both its universality and the inclusiveness of the witness on which it stood… the total witness of all the apostles and all the evangelists.” This “Catholicity” among the church would be it’s claim to a true witness of Christ Jesus and his gospel. This was what kept the teaching of the person and divinity of Christ truthful, or orthodox, or catholic. 

The irony of this story is that after many centuries of church growth and polity, arguments and discussions about what the word catholic really meant began to be centered on “the person and authority of a single apostle–Peter”, more so than the authority “according to the whole”.

Now I’m not here to pick on any Catholic forms of authority, but I wanted to tell this story to draw our attention back to the ancient church’s desire to hear the collective voice of the whole, which provided a type of shared leadership that formed organically before it was institutionalized in the 4th century.

There is much we can learn from the ancient, or the first Catholic church, and their desire to have a collective voice together, protected by creeds, apostolic successors, and Scripture. There is much division among the body of Christ today, and there is no one answer, but there are on ramps to this movement for us today.

One on ramp that I am reminded of today is that we need to work really hard in each city to connect the whole body as much as we are able to, and begin dialogues and prayer gatherings, trusting once again the “forgotten” God of the Protestants, the Holy Spirit, to be the one to preserve the purity of the church and for Christian leaders stop living in fear of “going down the slippery slope” of universalism or theological liberalism if they were to embrace those who differ from them theologically.

God preserves his church and his people. We are to be so utterly confident in that truth that we can be free to reach across tribal boundaries and trust that Jesus’ people are in more corners of our cities than we ever imagined, and that if we were to be courageous enough to go to those places and extend a hand of friendship, that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 would begin to reverse some of the curse we see in modern day Christendom.

Ecumenism is an important endeavor for the bride of Christ, and for many, it will mean that you may lose friends and favor among some of your “Christian” circles. So be it. Be courageous and confident in the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus the Christ, to begin friendships and gatherings with those who claim to follow Jesus. Give God’s Spirit a chance to surprise you and sift through the junk of all of differing theologies.

I will close with the words of Pope Francis at a vespers prayer in St. Paul (Rome) last Sunday: “To plumb the depths of the mystery of God, we need one another, we need to encounter one another, and to challenge one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversities and overcomes conflicts.”