Tuesday, June 03, 2008

True Evangelism is Inseparable from a Life Lived Faithfully

I believe that the Truth is far bigger than any human set of ideas about the Truth, any faith community, any tradition, any religious institution. While I believe that anyone who actually denies Jesus (the Messiah) has got it wrong, it seems undeniable to me that many people from non-Christian faiths are further along in the service of our Father, greater in the Kingdom of Heaven, than most who profess to be Christians. I believe that the Spirit that was made visible to us in Jesus, and which speaks to us and wants to live in us today, speaks to all men and women in their hearts and offers to all the chance to turn their lives over to the Living Christ and become servants in the Kingdom of Heaven. I don't think that this offer is limited by the religious beliefs that a person professes.

Certainly, religious beliefs can be useful, but faith is the key. Faith means putting our trust in God, granting the Living Spirit of Christ absolute sovereignty in our lives. We can talk until we are blue in the face about the meaning of the atonement or how we asked Jesus into our hearts, but if we are not living lives that bear fruit of repentance - if we are not walking as children of light - our beliefs are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, considering that there are people who do not think that they believe in God who in fact obey God. (See Matthew 21:28-32.) The primary question, it seems to me, ought to be: Are we living our lives unreservedly in the hands of God? Most Christians' lives give testimony to the fact that we have not made the decision to go all the way for Christ, even while some non-Christians clearly have.

I believe it was Thomas Kelly who wrote that many are willing to go halfway for God - they are willing to make sacrifices, change careers, do good in the world. But most men and women are unwilling to go the other half, which consists in surrendering everything, our very selfhood: dying to the self. Now, I think that it is arguable as to whether most professing Christians even go much of the first half. But it seems self evident that very few people, of any faith, go the second half. The state of our world testifies to our massive failure in this regard!

So, I do believe that people of different beliefs can enter the Kingdom of God, while most Christians seem to refuse to. This has presented difficulties for me, lots of material for wrestling, as I have considered how my own personal identity relates to my work in the world. Is a part of "dying to self" giving up any particular set of religious beliefs? Does being present to God in every moment require a relinquishment of all ideas, as Zen Buddhism would hold? I'm not sure. But I think that a lot of my wrestling has to do with the fact that I am not yet fully embedded in a covenantal religious community, a church in the first century sense of the term. I refer not to a meeting/church community, which I do have, but to a more tightly knit brotherhood/sisterhood.

I long to come together with other valiant ministers who share my call to be a city on a hill, a light that cannot be hidden, calling out to the Seed of God in all people, incarnating Christ among the poor and witnessing to the living presence of Christ already in and among the marginalized and dispossessed. I think my questions about identity - for instance, why be a Friend when I could "just be a Christian," or why be a Christian when I could just be a child of God? - might diminish once I come into covenant community with other soldiers in the Lamb's war who are heeding the call to give everything, their whole lives, their very souls, to God's struggle to liberate all life from the bondage we find ourselves enmeshed in.

I am fairly clear that the next step for me is to head back to Great Plains Yearly Meeting and begin carrying out traveling ministry in the Great Plains region, visiting widely dispersed meetings and hopefully meeting a lot of new friends along the way. I hope that as I undertake this mission that God will raise up other valiant Friends who will feel the call to labor alongside me. I am praying to the Father for more laborers for the field, as well as companions with whom to share our journeys, our struggles, our hope, and Communion.

For as much thinking as I have done about "evangelism" in the past year or so, I've about come to the conclusion that the ultimate point is simply to be what God created me to be, and to come together with others who are also heeding that fundamental call. Evangelism is inseparable from a life lived in faith. Those of us who make the choice to live up to the hope that is in us will so shine before others that they will see how our lives glow with the Spirit of Jesus, and they will give praise to God. And maybe some of them will get the courage to let the Light shine through their lives, either working alongside us, as the disciples who set down their nets and followed Jesus, or within the communities where they came from, as with the healed demoniac whom Jesus sent back to testify to his own people.

6 comments:

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hmm. I think you read Matthew 21:28-32 differently from me. It seems to me to be speaking of people who were initially sinners, but went to see John the Baptist at the Jordan, heard his call to repentance and took it seriously — not about people who don't believe, and do God's will anyway. Not that I deny your point, but it's not at all clear to me that this is what your scripture passage is talking about.

I think there is a lot of "denying the self" in the teachings of Zen, especially Rinzai Zen, but there is much less taking up the path of the Cross. One of the lessons Zen has to offer a student of comparative religion is the fact that the one is not necessarily the same as the other. (Shûsaku Endô's novel Silence addresses that issue.) Of course, an obsession with the path of the Cross is not necessarily healthy. But one of the great impacts that exposure to Western Christianity has had on modern Zen is that it has strengthened the commitment of Zen leaders to bear visible witness to their faith in foreign lands, and to sacrifice their own wealth and health and safety for the physical welfare of others.

I'm just speaking personally here, but it seems to me that those who choose to be "just a Christian" and not a committed member of a religious body are not really following the path that Christ called his disciples to. He called them, after all, to live a life in community with other disciples; his teachings turn again and again to how we are to behave with a fellow disciple (in context, "neighbor" or "brother" means fellow-member-of-the-covenanting-community). As for being "just a child of God", a major point of Paul's letters seems to be that we become children of God "by adoption", which is to say, by accepting the name and the family traits of God; and we don't take the family traits of God if we don't live by the example of such as Christ and Paul himself. That too casts us right back into commitment to community.

Being "just a Christian" or "just a child of God" seems to me to be a modern American delusion, born of the mistaken idea that humans are in essence individuals. We aren't. If humans are raised from early childhood in isolation from other humans, like the feral children raised by wolves in India, or the children that King James I had raised in isolation to see if they'd naturally speak Hebrew, they grow up retarded, with their brains severely reduced in physical mass, and with the ability to reason consciously and to speak atrophied and mostly beyond recovery. We humans cannot come into ourselves without the stimulus and aid of our conspecifics (which is true of raptors, interestingly, as well). To be truly Christian seems to me a similar thing; it doesn't happen without the aid of a modeling community that can teach and challenge us to respond as exemplary Christians in the midst of the endless challenges of life.

I fear the great danger of the "city on the hill" vision is that it inspires American Christians to exalt themselves (the "hill" part of the thing), rather than to learn to be healthy participants in community (the "city" part). We end up with an embarrassment on a hill. It might be worth remembering that Christ himself lived so low that not a single pagan author of his generation recorded his existence. And yet I can't think of a single thing about Christ's example that embarrasses me.

Mike Wine said...

Appreciate Micah's post and Marshall's comment! The one slight disagreement I have is in the use of "selfhood" as a synonym for 'self' as used in the NT. When Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, it is a call to give up the transient and the selfish for the greater good, e.g. I deny myself extramarital affairs so that I might fully celebrate our marriage. Part of your (Micah's) confusion may stem from allowing the eastern religious views of 'self denial' to obscure Jesus' intention. That is, Jesus does NOT call us to deny our 'selfhood'...the essence of who we are. When we Biblically 'deny ourselves', we actually enrich our selfhood, as new creatures in Christ. Though the language is very similar, the meaning (Jesus vs. Zen) is quite different. Jesus reaffrims our selfhood in His call for self-denial, that is the denial of selfishness. The eastern religionns, for all their many good points, are wrong in their call for denial of selfhood. This too easily becomes a denial of life rather than an affirmation of it in Christ. Mike

Julian said...

yo, Micah, thanks for your message (or post, as it were). When we keep sight of what we're trying to be faithful to (is it God, Jesus, Jesus' teachings of "be kind to the poor, be kind to the rich, be kind to your friends, be kind to your enemies"?) and speak to that of God in everyone, the spiritual rewards are great. God is doing work through Christians and non-Christians alike, and God is doing work through the most-devoted folks and the folks that only let his (her?) power speak through them every once in a while. As for me, I'll continue to challenge myself to be more faithful and challenge others to be more faithful, and if all we all get most of the time is some painfully slow but steady progress in the right direction, I can accept that.

Rich in Brooklyn said...

Micah,

I haven't met you yet and really hope I do some day.
For that matter, I haven't even met Marshall yet ,either, and really hope I do some day. I just haven't travelled much in the past several years and so have missed out on some chances to connect in person with folks whose written ministry has inspired me.
That said, I want to take the risk of pointing out something in your post that raised a kind of warning flag for me, something that you may want to think about as a potential spiritual challenge. You say "I long to come together with other valiant ministers...". I may be missing some nuance that would come clear if I read some other post that I may have missed, but it sounds like you're pretty clear that you, Michah, can already be counted as a "valiant" minister.
It may be true that you are indeed "valiant", and/or that you will prove to be so when the occasion arises. I still think that it can be spiritually dangerous to start thinking of oneself this way. It's an occupational hazard of all people trying to be faithful to a challenging vocation, but one that, with humility and prayer, I think it must be possible to avoid. Certainly Paul the apostle recommended doing so (See Romans 12:3).

It occurs to me that I may be out of order in raising this issue on a public forum rather than one-to-one. If you think so, please feel free to let me know, and also to delete this comment.

Yours in Friendship,

- - Rich Accetta-Evans
Brooklyn Quaker

aphor said...

Blah blah blah is not Zen. Zen is no mind. No mind is no self/other and no self/other is no self/God.

If God *IS*, then no mind *IS* God. Go to a quiet place and once there ring a bell. Let it ring, and listen to the ring fade quieter and quieter and quieter. The sound of the bell is not God. When you have let go of not God, God will appear.

So: God is all powerful, and created all things, therefore everything you can experience is a working expression of God. Where is the will of God not at work? Turn your back to this and sit. Concentrate your mind on receiving the direct experience of being with God and let go of doctrines and words. The mind is a poor quality out of focus lens, but if you stop down your aperture and become very still the holiness of everything around you will become a very crisp.

michaeldavidjay said...

How would you feel about sharing your ministry outside the sphere of influence of GPYM, but within the geographical area? I am talking with a core group about starting a rather informal unprogramed worship group in Hutchinson... we are cautious about looking at affiliations right now (both GPYM and EFCMAYM), but any advice would be helpful.

It is both difficult to believe, and no surprise at all to see you ready to minister and travel. Difficult, because I last saw you at Quaker Haven many years ago, no surprise because you had a thirst for understanding Gods heart then. I see that Christ has taught you a lot about mercy and living in love

God bless you in everything
Michael Jay