You Are Witnesses

Preached this morning at Boonville Presbyterian Church.  The texts are Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11.

Growing up as an evangelical Christian in the southern United States, I got to experience a unique style of performance art that originated in churches.  It’s called the Testimony.

Here’s how it works:

Every so often, the pastor would invite certain members of the community to come before the church and share their stories of how they became Christians (or “got saved” as they used to say).  These were always exciting services.  We heard stories of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll that ended in disaster but rebounded with glorious tales of redemption at the last possible moment.

While there was never any official competition going on, you could always tell when two or more “Witnesses” were trying to outdo one another in their ability to testify.  Testimonies were typically evaluated according to three criteria: 1) the popularity/fame of the person who spoke, 2) the intense passion with which the story was told, and 3) the depths of depravity to which one stooped before embracing the light of salvation.

The most memorable testimony I ever heard came from a veteran named Clebe McClary.  He had been an officer in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.  During combat, he lost an eye and his left arm.  After returning to the States and enduring years of recovery, he became a motivational speaker, encouraging people to press on in life, despite their difficulties and setbacks.

Even though these testimonies can quickly become outlandish in their content and presentation, I still think they serve a useful purpose: they get ordinary people involved in telling their own stories of God’s presence in their lives.

Human beings love stories.  We tell stories around campfires, we sing songs about them, we write them down in books, we make movies about them, etc.  Story is how we communicate truth to one another.  Aesop told fables.  Jesus told parables.  Ask any religious person to tell you about his or her faith, and that person will probably tell you a story.

Our Scripture readings this morning from the book of Acts and the gospel of Luke come at a very critical turning point in the Christian story.  Now, the first thing you should know is that Luke and Acts, while they are separate books in our Bibles, actually form one complete story.  Most scholars agree that Luke and Acts were written by the same person, although the author’s name is never signed on the paper.  Likewise, we know that they were written to the same person, Theophilus.  Acts follows Luke in much the same way that Return of the Jedi follows The Empire Strikes Back in the original Star Wars trilogy.  We read this morning from the very end of Luke’s gospel and the very beginning of Acts.  At this moment in our story, traditionally referred to as The Ascension, two major shifts are happening.

The first shift is geographical:

Most of the action in Luke’s gospel follows Jesus from the beginning of his public ministry in far-away Galilee to the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem.  In the book of Acts, the action begins in Jerusalem and continues “to the ends of the earth”.  Acts ends with the Apostle Paul awaiting trial before Caesar in Rome.

The second shift is personal:

Luke’s gospel focuses primarily on the life of Jesus himself.  The story begins with Jesus’ birth and ends with his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.  The book of Acts focuses on the lives of Jesus’ followers in the years following his earthly ministry.  To be sure, Jesus is still central to the story (in a divine sense), but has taken a step back from the immediate action (in a human sense).  To put it another way, Jesus has become the director of the play, while the Apostles are the actors on the stage.  The story of Acts begins with Jesus’ ascension into heaven but doesn’t have a climactic end in the way you and I are used to thinking.  I like to think this is because the story hasn’t ended yet.  It goes on and on through the generations, right up until today.  As followers of Christ, you and I have become the actors on the stage at this point in history!

Twice in today’s readings, Jesus calls his followers “witnesses”.  What does that mean?  Who qualifies as a witness?  First, a witness is someone who experiences something important.  Second, a witness is someone who tells others what she or he has seen and heard.  In a courtroom, this is called a “testimony”.  Sound familiar?  It should.

As followers of Christ, you and I are witnesses to the things he has done.  In the Scriptures, we already have the testimony of Jesus’ earliest followers, who knew him in the flesh.  Two thousand years later, you and I haven’t had that opportunity.  We know Jesus by faith, not by sight.  Does that disqualify us from being witnesses?  I don’t think so.

I believe that you and I can find our testimony as witnesses by paying attention to what Jesus has done (and is doing) in our lives.  We can tell others what Jesus means to us.  For some of us, our testimony might look like a dramatic conversion story.  Maybe you have been “saved” from a life of self-destruction in a sudden way.  If so, I encourage you to tell that story sometime.  You never know when someone else might need to hear exactly what you have to say in order to make it through a crisis in their own life!

Those of us who haven’t had a dramatic conversion experience (including myself) still have a testimony to give.  Many of us have experienced spiritual growth slowly over a long period of time.  We may have had moments of sensing God’s presence with us in subtle ways.  Gradually, we have learned (and are still learning) to trust that loving presence in our lives.  If that’s you, I encourage you to tell your story as well.  It might not be as dull as you think.  Keep track of those little moments with God.  Write them down.  Like spare change in your couch cushions, they add up quickly!

Finally, some of you might be sitting there this morning and thinking, “I haven’t had any conscious experience of God in my life!  What’s my testimony?  How can I be a witness?”  Well, there’s no time like the present to start looking for an answer to that question.  If you want to have a deeper sense of God’s presence and activity in your life, you should ask for it in prayer.  God has a tendency to answer that kind of honest prayer, provided that we keep an open mind for the unexpected ways in which God’s answer might come.  If you would like to try an exercise in awareness, I suggest writing your life story in as much detail as you like.  Then read back over it at a later date, asking God to show you where and how God was present in the events of your life.  You might be surprised at what pops into your head as you begin to see old events in new ways!

You might not feel that your story is all that important, but I assure you: it is.  As witnesses, our testimonies are the means through which God intends to spread Good News and transform the face of this earth.  Jesus left this planet because he wanted to involve each one of us in the work of redeeming it.  By telling your story about what Jesus means to you, you are allowing God to keep the Gospel alive in you.

So, go forth from this place today in the power of the Holy Spirit, as witnesses of our Savior Jesus Christ.  Go to the very ends of the earth and testify to what you have seen and heard.  Tell the world what Jesus means to you and watch the story continue for another generation.  Amen.

Stackhouse Interview

Here is a link to an interview with Dr. John Stackhouse, one of my former professors at Regent College.

A unique voice among evangelicals, Stackhouse’s commitment to the ideological via media in religious public discourse is simultaneously challenging and encouraging.

The video is broken into several small clips on YouTube.

You can also follow Stackhouse’s blog by clicking on the link in my blogroll.

Serenity & Courage

Last week’s Bible Study at St. James Mission was on John 14:23-29, which can be read by clicking here.  Our discussion on the passage ended up following the contours of the Serenity Prayer, which we use in our weekly liturgy at the end of the Prayers of the People.

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you… Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  This reminds one of the first line of the prayer where one asks for “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”.  Many things conspire to rob us of our serenity.  Various stressors and crises impact our lives on a daily basis.  In time, our souls begin to feel like the surface of the moon: pock-marked with craters, holes, and scars from the relentless beating of the cosmos.

Living in peace is a hard thing to do.  The state of anarchy we witness on an international scale is a constant reminder of that fact.  However, one need not look as far as the headlines to see the difficulty of living in peace, but only to the constant drama one finds in families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools.  As Rodney King once said, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Just as destructive is the internal violence people do to themselves every time they look in a mirror:

  • “I’m not smart enough.”
  • “I’m not good enough.”
  • “I’m not pretty enough.”

Each one of us is our own worst critic.  Multi-billion dollar industries are built on the backs of people who are unable to accept themselves.  I believe that Christ, with his gift of peace, intends to liberate us from all forms of violence: international, interpersonal, and internal.

Embracing Christ’s blessing of peace does not constitute a quietistic escape from the harshness of reality.  It empowers us to face reality with renewed conviction and vigor.  The second line of the Serenity Prayer asks for the “courage to change the things I can.”

We can hold onto our serenity while acting courageously.  Our faith can give us the strength to stand up against evil and injustice in this world because we are certain of victory.  Christ has conquered sin and death, therefore any expression thereof is limited and temporary.  The darkness can oppose the light, but cannot overcome it.

Living as people of peace changes how we act, not whether we act.  We see the same facts as activists and analysts, but we see them differently.  Faith is the yeast that leavens the bread of action.  To borrow a phrase from a famous prayer, “Where there is hatred,” we are able to “sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”

I am reminded of the mug-shots of the Freedom Riders from the 1960s.  Many are scared but smiling.  Their faces radiate with serenity and courage.  They are among the most beautiful images I have ever seen.

I invite you to examine your self, community, and country for the changes that need to be made.  I invite you to face those challenges with courage and serenity, believing in the certain victory of Christ’s peace over all forms of injustice and violence.  Your action is only one small part of God’s greater action, and that action cannot fail.

Russell & Mary Jorgensen

Helen Singleton

Reformed and Feminist

Johanna W. H. van Wijk-BosReformed and Feminist: A Challenge to the Church (W/JKP: 1991).

Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos’ Reformed and Feminist: A Challenge to the Church is a semi-autobiographical introduction to feminist thought viewed through the lens of Protestant biblical scholarship.  Wijk-Bos argues that the study of the Judeo-Christian scriptures has something valuable to add to the process of women’s liberation and that the time has come for Christian churches to assist in the radical reform of patriarchal institutions.

In the first chapter, Wijk-Bos shares a considerable amount of detail from her own life-story in order to establish herself within her own context as a Dutch, reformed, and feminist woman working as a pastor and biblical scholar in the U.S.  The second chapter explores the concept of biblical authority as it emerged during the Protestant Reformation.  Wijk-Bos pays special attention to the particular developments of Calvinism in continental Europe during the 16th century.  In the next chapter, the author examines some of the particular hermeneutical issues that arise when one explores the biblical text from a feminist perspective.  Chapter four applies feminist hermeneutics to three particular texts from the Hebrew scriptures: the story of Jael (Judges 4:17-22), the story of the prophet’s widow (II Kings 4:1-7), and the story of Esther.  In the final chapter, Wijk-Bos issues a missional call for the Christian churches to address the heretofore ignored presence of women in the biblical texts, in our worshiping communities, and in society at large.  Wijk-Bos uses the story of Ruth as a biblical example of women working together for their mutual liberation (and that of society at large) from the bonds of patriarchy.

In this short book, Wijk-Bos offers an engaging and concise introduction to Christian feminist thought that is perfect for neophytes such as myself.  Her narrative tone helps the arguments impact the reader in a fresh way.  The autobiographical and biblical texts provide a mutual context for one another that helps the reader see old passages in a new way.  This book had my attention from beginning to end.  Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, I felt my heart burning within me as I read.  Wijk-Bos has simultaneously accomplished two very difficult tasks.  First, she has sparked my interest in feminist thought and has re-presented obscure biblical texts in a fresh and relevant way.  I highly recommend this book to feminists who wonder whether the Bible has any good news to offer women.  I also recommend it to Christians who are frustrated with their Bible and want to view it with a fresh pair of eyes.

The book can be purchased on Amazon.com by clicking here.

Love is our Resistance

There are moments in a pastor’s life… well, there are moments.

I must admit that I have trouble lending eloquent and poetic words to the experience of sitting with parents who have just lost a child.  Can any other event make you feel like the universe has gone so completely ass-backwards?

After receiving that phone call, I got into my car and drove to work at Utica College, where I lectured today on Albert Camus and the absurdity of existence.  Camus had the idea that life is meaningless, and that human beings regain their dignity by defiantly shaking their fist at the empty sky and continuing to live honorable and courageous lives in spite of life’s meaninglessness.

As a Christian, I share Camus’ defiant spirit, but not his faith in absurdity.  I choose to see this universe as meaningful because I believe it is founded and centered upon love.  Camus and others would have me believe that love, in reality, consists of an electro-chemical reaction in my brain that has been conditioned into a herd-instinct by eons of evolution.

I believe that love originates in the heart of the Trinity, which exists at the center of reality.  The universe and all who dwell in it are but ripples and refractions of that love, hovering over the waters of chaos and piercing the darkness saying, “Let there be light.”

Love  is defiant in the face of death and chaos.  It mourns with friends and marches on picket lines.  Love moves over to make room for the stranger on the bus and in society.  The act of love is a rebellion.

Whenever we tap into love through seemingly insignificant acts of human compassion, we unleash that power which forms the fundamental building blocks of all creation, dwarfing even the power of the atom.

Like Camus, I shake my fist at the universe, not because it is meaningless, but because it is meaningful.  I will continue to love as best I can, because I choose to trust its power beyond that of the bullet, the ballot, or the dollar.  I choose to believe that our small acts of love in the face of death have the power to transcend death because they are rooted in the Source of all life.

“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.  Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.  Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.  If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.” -Song of Solomon 8:6-7