Our culture values, as Richard Foster wrote so many years ago, money, sex, and power. And, in fact, the three often go together. A Hollywood mogul may make buckets of money and have the power to make or break a career and because of the two be able to get sexual favors from actors. writers. and the like. We talk about powerful politicians (or about the more powerful financiers and party bosses behind the politicians) or businessmen and businesswomen or generals or the military-industrial complex. We are also well-aware of the scandals that have resulted from the misuse of power.
The above is why I am concerned when Christians get into the power game. This happens when we look up to a pastor who appears “successful,” whose church can obviously spend lots of money on worship or web platforms, who demands absolute allegiance or else . . . People boast that that go to pastor x’s church. Christianity Today’s podcast series “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” shows what can happen. But one sees the same in a number of books, blog posts, and articles that came out in 2021. (It seems to have been a good year for taking a hard look at such things.) This can happen when people go to charismatic conferences advertised as “powerful” or with a “powerful healing evangelist” or that it will have “anointed” (read powerful) worship or will feature the “powerful prophetic ministry of . . .” It can use a substitute for the power word and people get the message. This will start a global awakening or will destroy powerful demonic holds over nations (and is therefore more powerful itself). People go to “schools” to get this type of power, whether it be prophetic, healing, or apostolic (that is in itself a power term, for it implies authority over a number of churches, not missionary activity as one sees in its origin). Powerful phenomena happen and the more that happen, the more significant the conference or church service.
Now there are several issues this raises. First, seeking power, spiritual or financial or influential gets one into the culture’s methodology or, as Foster put it, money sex and power. That means that one is using the culture’s methods to try to gain spiritual ends (or admiring the use of those methods). Second, it puts one at risk of misuse of money and sexual exploitation of others. More than one megachurch pastor has fallen into one or both of these traps and the same has been true of more than one charismatic community or organization. They are at risk of becoming a TACO, a totalist, aberrant, Christian organization (the subject of the doctor thesis of a friend of mine some decades ago), one that is controlling to the point of abuse, whether it be spiritual, emotional, or sexual (and sometimes also physical).
Third, and most importantly, it breaks with the Christian spiritual tradition. While Jesus is pictured as exercising power in the coming age, in his life he is portrayed as not exercising the power of this age, but instead serving others. We do not find him kicking any of his disciples out, not even Judas. Nor do we see this in the letters of Paul or the other New Testament writers. Paul, in fact, boasts in his weakness and critiques those who want status in the surrounding culture or to be seen as powerful by the church. Down through the ages these has been a tradition of giving up power and focusing on service. There have, of course, been exceptions when the church became corrupt, but I am talking about those we refer to as saints, as the examples of those who. embodied the Christian spiritual tradition. Many, while from noble birth or having significant positions in the church, cared for the poor and tended the sick. Others were noted for selling luxuries of their state in life. Gregory the Great described himself as “servant of the servants of God” and that tradition continued in those who embodied his spirituality right down to at least Pope Benedict XVI who was noted for a simple lifestyle and a reluctance to seek or even exercise power (other than teaching and leading by example) right down to and through his retirement. Men and women with known healing gifts did not speak about them and often moved to areas where they were unknown to avoid fame – most of such people we only know about through others who wrote about their gifts. I think of Br. André scrubbing the floor when someone came to him asking for healing for a family member. He did not look up from his scrubbing the floor, but just said something like, “Go home. They are well.” In other words, it is humility that is a Christian virtue, not telling of the great things one has done. It is “not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing.” It is sacrificing one’s life for others (as not a few did quite literally and others by caring for plague victims). All of this is inimical to seeking, holding onto, or exercising power over others (unless it is a necessary part of one’s office and one does it humbly and reluctantly).
So flee power, if you can, and embrace humble service. Beware of advertisements that boast of this conference or institution is great, powerful, “anointed” or “world shaking” or the like. That will protect us from the dangers of power and allow us to live in the freedom of the children of God who identify with Jesus who gave his life for others.
The biggest highlight of this year was a replanned visit by all three of our children from Canada on Judy’s birthday in October. (Originally, the trip had been planned for May 2020 and, of course, the border had closed.) Below is a picture of us five on our back porch – from left to right it goes Elaine, Ian, Gwen, Judy and Peter. Gail Einkauf, my cousin Robert’s wife, had come over and taken our pictures and put them all in an album for my birthday. We had a great time being together for that week – meanwhile their spouses were back in Canada keeping the home fires burning and taking care of all our nine grandchildren. We praise God for our family and are appreciating them more because Covid-19 has made our visits almost impossible. We are so thankful for Zoom.
Moving to the beginning of the year, in January, I, Judy continued teaching Ian’s two children a course via Zoom since they have been home-schooled because of Covid-19. That was a joy to spend an hour per week with each child over Zoom. As September rolled around, I’ve begun to teach Adana, the 10-year-old, a course on women in the Bible, looking at their virtues with encouragement to imitate them.
The February deep freeze was quite an experience for us Texans – the loss of power (and also water) as well as freezing rain and snow. We were well cared for during this time, for the Dominican Sisters brought us 5-gallon buckets of water, blankets and anything else which we needed to survive.
We also enjoyed several retreatants and visitors during the year. That possibility is a highlight of living in a former convent with multiple bedrooms and large enough kitchen and dining room.
I (Judy) was also overjoyed to find a Spiritual Director – a Dominican Sister of a different order aged 81 – to help me with my spiritual Journey. To do spiritual direction with others, I felt a real need to have a director myself. The privilege of continuing to do spiritual direction with people on two days every week has given me great joy and purpose this year.
I have struggled with my health, especially since my knee replacement in Oct 2020, experiencing breathlessness and very little energy to carry out life’s duties. So, after a series of doctors, I ended up at a sleep clinic and discovered that I have severe sleep apnea. The CPAP machine has made a huge difference in my energy level.
A joy of the year for me was having the privilege of attending my aunt’s 100th birthday party.
In June, Peter and I were invited to come to near Columbus, OH, to tape our spiritual journey stories for the Coming Home program. This allowed us to reflect on God’s goodness over the years. While it aired the end of September, it, and our written stories, are still available here.
Judy has begun to get more involved in our local parish, teaching (with Peter) in the RCIA program and getting involved in the Seniors’ Group, so she has been getting to know people.
A surprising development happened in November when Peter responded to Facebook post about a woman who had severely damaged her ankle in a freak accident and needed a place to stay (with husband and children) during what is turning out to be months of treatment. So, we have the privilege of providing hospitality and prayer. Please join us in praying for Rebekah’s healing (and the trauma this is for the family).
Meanwhile Peter has continued his ministry as chaplain for the Dominican Sisters in the Priory just over the rise from us and as resident priest for the Austin Byzantine Catholic Community in central Austin. He has found that he has had to retire from teaching and most writing to have enough time for prayer (he is thankful for the fully equipped chapel in the house) and keeping the household running, as well as helping some in local churches. He does lead a cell group for the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. It is for him a semi-monastic life.
As December rolls around, we are so very grateful for God’s great gift of Jesus, coming into our world as a baby boy to bring us salvation and we look forward to his second coming with hope.
May you have a blessed Christmas and a joyful New Year,
Judy and Peter
Peter and Judy
Our mailing address remains: 723 W University Ave, Ste 110-#263, Georgetown, TX 78626, although our physical address is 5499 E State Highway 29, Georgetown, TX 78626
Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the church,” which implies that the church did not exist before Pentecost, except in, perhaps, nascent form. The phenomena associated with Pentecost are then said to be characteristic of the church. And often there is even a strong contrast between Jesus, who proclaimed the kingdom, and the post-Easter church, which Jesus did not foresee. This, I submit is an exegetical error.
When we look at scripture, as Gerhard Lohfink pointed out decades ago, it is clear that Jesus was forming the church long before Pentecost. Let us look at some characteristics.
Initiation: Jesus led a movement, calling disciples who followed him around Galilee and to Jerusalem. At least the first of these were associated with the Baptist movement, according to the Fourth Gospel, as was Jesus, for he was baptized by John. We do not know how long he was around John before his baptism. Again, the Fourth Gospel narrates (John 4) that Jesus continued a version of the baptistic movement, although his disciples did the baptizing. The synoptics know nothing of this initiation rite for followers of Jesus, but Matt 28 indicates that a continuation of baptism as an initiation rite was part of the final instructions given to the the band of disciples.
Structure and Leadership: while Jesus called some of his disciples personally, the group seems to have been a bit amorphous in the beginning. That changed when Jesus designed the Twelve as his official emissaries. They are sent out to do what Jesus did: preach, heal, exorcise. They are sent out depending on God alone for their needs, just as Jesus appears to have done. Within this group there was a further structure, the Three who were made witnesses to some of the most important events in the ministry of Jesus. It was one of these Three who, in the presence of the other eleven, was said to have made the core confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. According to Matthew 16, Jesus in return gave him pre-eminence: “You are Rock and upon this Rock I will build my Church.” It is, at any rate, clear that Simon Peter, whether due to this pronouncement or due to his character, seems to have been something of a spokesperson for the Twelve or the Twelve and whatever other disciples were around. There is evidence that Jesus promised the Twelve rule when the kingdom was established.
Other Structures; Luke has two other structures within the community. One was that of the Seventy or Seventy-Two who were sent out to widen the missional work of the Twelve – certainly they are symbolic of the nations, but whether or not they actually went into non-Jewish lands is a matter of debate. Certainly some of the sayings of Jesus see the Twelve and other disciples as getting into trouble not only with Jewish but also with Gentile authorities. Luke 8 also refers to a group of women who followed Jesus, caring for the needs of at least the core group, in some cases using their own funds to do so. Of course, it is these women who followed Jesus to the cross and then were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Their stated function would mean that they would also have been present at the Last Supper – indeed, they would have cooked the supper.
That Jesus could say “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God” indicates that he saw his group of disciples as a fictive family, a family that took precedence to the blood family. And, of course, a number of his parables speak of future rewards of those members of the group who remain faithful. But it is a group.
Other Rites: the community not only had a function of proclamation and, of course, of formation (people listened to and learned from Jesus and experienced Jesus), but they learned to pray from Jesus, and to pray as a community, assuming that the Matthew form of the Our Father is pre-resurrection, since it is communal, not individual. They would have celebrated Jewish festivals with Jesus, but it was the last festival, the Last Supper, that Jesus reportedly told them to continue as the central act of community worship. It was associated with the Passover and took at least some meaning from the Passover, but scholars are divided as to whether or not it was a transformed Passover meal or not, partly due to the differences between the Johannine and Synoptic accounts. Then there was the distinctive ethic that Jesus taught, which would have identified the members of the community as much as a Pharisee could have been identified by his way of life or even by that way of life have indicated whether he belonged to the school of Hillel or the school of Shammai. I use “he” because it was the men who functioned in public, but presumably while the actors of Jewish women were mostly inside the dwelling, the women who followed Jesus were marked out by that very lifestyle as part of the community.
My point is that Jesus had a functioning community before the crucifixion. While the crucifixion event temporarily shattered the community, we find the core leaders gathered together in that upper room before Easter. The crucifixion had not ended the church, we might say, but it had raised a lot of questions about the meaning of Jesus. It was the place for what we would now call theological reflection on Jesus, even if most reports indicated that it was the resurrected Jesus who gave the final keys to interpretation.
What, then, was the function of Pentecost? The Fourth Gospel at least indicated that the Spirit had come upon at least the leaders of the Church while Jesus was still present. They had been given the authority to bind and loose, to make rules and to make judgments, i.e. leadership roles, even before that (in Matthew). Gathered in the upper room they had presumably worshipped using the Psalms (one suspects that they were not yet going to the prayer services in the Temple) and quite likely celebrated the Eucharist, since we later hear that they originally had the custom of doing this daily. Of course, it would not have been in its more developed forms, but is it not likely that the broke bread and drank wine, repeating the words of Jesus. What happened at Pentecost? What happened at Pentecost was that they burst out of the upper room on mission.
The end of Luke indicates that they are to remain in Jerusalem until . . . Until “power from on high” comes. That means that when the power came they would be leaving the central place of worship (for a Jew, and they were all Jews) and the locus of David kingship to “go into all the world.” They use the time to restore the full number of leaders, with Peter taking decisive leadership. Then comes the day when people from around the world – Jews and prosylytes – gather in Jerusalem. The Spirit comes upon them in power, signified in the flames, and they go out to the people from “all the world” equipped linguistically to address each in their own language. And the rest of Luke has the Spirit thrusting the church from Jerusalem to the core of the empire, to Rome. Pentecost is the birth of mission, not the birth of the Church. Pentecost is the starter’s gun propelling the runners forward from the starting blocks or out of the starting gate. And every time the linguistic gifts are mentioned in Acts the Church is crossing some missional boundary, the Spirit giving the indication that this boundary crossing is him.
Paul mentions the Spirit in a number of places, but particularly 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 has been associated with Pentecost. Again notice that the “gifts” are gifts for ministry. They are outward focused not inward focused. They enable the Church to fulfill their missional task. Most healings, even the healings of Jesus, are missional – they reach outside the body of the disciples, outside the church, or they have that effect (see Luke’s comments on Aeneas and Dorcas, who both seem to be part of the church – the whole village or town turns to Jesus as a result). The linguistic gifts obviously helped cross cultural boundaries and proclaim the good news. And one can see the same in most of the other gifts. They are not status symbols; they are not marks that one is a Christian (love may be such a mark, but not the gifts), they are not, for the most part, permanent characteristics of a person, but rather the Spirit of God giving the tool necessary for the next act of mission or to meet the situations brought up by mission.
Now a book could be – and books have been – written about these topics. I already mentioned Lohfink, to note one rather old book. I write this simply to be clear about one point: Pentecost is not the birth of the Church; the Church was born and doing fine in the upper room before Pentecost. Pentecost is the propelling of the Church out of the upper room into mission. And it is in mission directed by Jesus and dependent on the Spirit that one both finds the need for the gifts of the Spirit that we associate with Pentecost and that those gifts find their proper context.
I recently was part of Catholic – Charismatic (=neo-Pentecostal)/Pentecostal Novena to the Holy Spirit. I was part of it mainly because John Michael Talbot was speaking in one online session (there was a talk each day before the prayers), unfortunately that was a session that I missed.
Now not only do I have nothing against ecumenical activities, I am very much for them. They played a part in my spiritual journey. I teach for an evangelical institution, I have many friends in various Protestant denominations, and view my own Protestant background as contributing to my spiritual health and present situation. Furthermore, Pope Francis has encouraged ecumenical contact, not just with the Orthodox, but also with Pentecostals, not to mention his visits to Islamic and other leaders. What I am interested in in this blog post is a type of historical amnesia and contextual warping that I admit was very much part of my past and probably part of my present as well and which warped both this novena and many ecumenical activities.
I grew up Plymouth Brethren, a group that had started out as an ecumenical movement in the post-Napoleonic-wars British Isles. They correctly discerned that the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist was the center of first century worship. They felt that the various liturgies were what were holding Christians apart. So, they proposed meeting around “the [Eucharistic] elements” in “primitive simplicity,” i.e. without formal leadership and allowing the Holy Spirit to direct the service (in the beginning, the movement was open to any spiritual gifts being exercised: “It is the duty of Christian men in these last days to seek the renewal of the gifts of the Spirit.” After the early 1830’s they were still open to “leadings of the Spirit” in life and liturgy, but argued that the gifts of 1 Cor 12 has ceased, even if historically speaking they were present under other terminology). Of course, their historical-cultural amnesia was in not realizing that the early Church met in a context that included (1) Greco-Roman meal customs, (2) Passover liturgy, (3) synagogue service-of-the-word patterns, and (4) Temple prayer liturgies using the Psalms, among other influences. The Holy Spirit led the Church into all truth, for sure, and the Holy Spirit was, according to Acts, the impulse behind her cross-cultural missional activity, but the Holy Spirit apparently did not feel any need to jettison all elements of the liturgical and customary structure surrounding the Last Supper. Needless to say, the denominational leaders of the clergymen (there were women, but they would not have been part of church structures) meeting “in this way,” took a dim view of their ignoring of both New Testament and intermediate history and forced those involved over which they had influence to choose either the new “assembly” or their place in their denomination. As a result, a new denomination (which, of course, did not consider itself a denomination) was born.
This present initiative (in common with similar initiatives – I am just using the example I participated in) shared with the Plymouth Brethren the desire to bracket the differences among the neo-Pentecostals, Catholic or Protestant, involved, and meet together more or less on the basis of a shared perception (common interpretive tradition and common language and experience) of the Holy Spirit as experienced in Pentecost, a type of “primitive simplicity.” They cited Pope Francis who had suggested “getting together for a gelato,” in other words, for human contact, for ecumenism from the ground up, bracketing the issues between them that theologians were dealing with. Notice that Pope Francis did not mention the core Christian gathering, the Eucharist, but a human activity with no obvious theological ramifications, i.e. eating “a gelato” together. And, of course, Lumen Gentium does note that our “separated brethren” are, due to their baptism, members of the one Church and in many cases live some aspects of the faith better than Catholics (Pope Francis himself was friendly with and apparently influenced by the late Luis Palau). Getting together for a novena to the Holy Spirit, i.e. for prayer, seemed relatively safe, although in the prayers and in the talks theological positions were expressed that I am sure some needed to ignore. And the novena style with some prayers repeated daily (e.g. the Lord’s Prayer, Apostles’ Creed and the Gloria) was surely foreign to non-Catholic neo-Pentecostal ecclesial communities. Still, this was a long way from the Fundamentalist excoriation of Billy Graham for merely having Catholic clergy on the platform of some of his “crusades.” It was also naïve for both the Protestants and the Catholics that I heard to speak as if this was the beginning of the unification of the church, for Pope Francis is Jesuit-trained and uses language carefully, even if he seems off-the-cuff, which means that once we get past gelato to working together theologically there is work to do. Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals are a small segment of the Catholic Church and the Protestant world. And Lumen Gentium does not give the equality to “separated brethren” that at least some of the speakers claimed. [To cite a personal “for instance,” before I, as an Episcopal priest, resigned my orders and was received by the Catholic Church I had come to realize that I did not have valid orders in Catholic eyes (I had read the appropriate papal document) and that the Episcopal Church was an “ecclesial structure” or “ecclesial community,” not a church, since there can only be one Church; but I was nevertheless treated by those receiving me as if I were a priest (e.g. with the honorific “Father”) and part of a church. Their graciousness, however, was just that and they still received me as a layman without any promise of later ordination.]
However, the real amnesia came in other comments. A connection was made between a nun urging Pope Leo XIII to call for prayer for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the Pope’s praying the Venite Creator Spiritus on January 1, 1901 (a prayer that is not uncommon in liturgies) and what is viewed as the start of the Pentecostal movement near Topeka, Kansas, that same day. There was no reference to the Topeka event as an expression of healing-holiness-adventist fervor that had been going on in the USA for something like 20 years and had spawned at least two denominations already (with a variety of Pentecostal denominations about to add to that number). There was no mention of the fact that far from unifying Christians the Pentecostal movement was separatist, insisting that one was not “in” unless one spoke in tongues (and it was strongly anti-Catholic – as I remember my reading, the first Pentecostal missions went to Catholic countries and went out without language training, depending on the Spirit given them the proper “tongues”). And there was also no mention of the fact that the “tongues” expressed that first evening were considered actual languages (which would be true to the biblical texts); in fact, the first woman to receive the gift claimed others told her she was speaking “Bohemian.” This is unlike the ecstatic “tongues” of the neo-Pentecostal movement of the 1960’s and later in mainline ecclesial communities and the Catholic Church (although there are isolated cases in which an actual language was spoken, almost always in cross-cultural situations).
A second type of amnesia was that of more distant history. The Pentecostal movement originally (which often today requires a “tongues” experience of pastors as a once-off qualification, but otherwise is often like other conservative evangelicals) and neo-Pentecostal movements in general see themselves as repeating the Acts narrative (understood without Luke’s purpose). There is no reference to intervening history, even in the speakers from the Catholic Church. Of course, scriptures tended to be used as proof-texts without reference to the wider context of the books in which they occur and that is a (in the Catholic Church) pre-Vatican II approach. That is also the approach to doing “theology” that I had in a Protestant seminary in the late 1960’s. In that “intervening history” quite a few major Catholic figures, such as John Chrysostom, mention the gift of tongues and apply it to the spread of the gospel to people of many languages (which, of course, is what the biblical term means). Augustine cites the “groanings” of the Spirit that are beyond words (from Rom 8) and then mentions some men were specially gifted to understand such groanings and express them in human language and that that is the origin of the collects in the liturgy. In other words, many aspects of the various biblical passages are picked up in the tradition, and I heard no reference to any of it in the novena speakers, for the interpretative template of 20th century experience had created an amnesia.
Perhaps, more importantly, there are a host of Holy Spirit inspired revivals in church history, some more local, some more widespread. They did not, of course, require a crisis experience characterized by speaking in ecstatic utterances, for the requirement of crisis experiences for either conversion or “Holy Spirit filling” is a product of the 1880’s onward, but they are characterized by various gifts of the Holy Spirit (in the sense of the Pauline lists). Catherine of Siena could read the souls and thoughts of others. Francis of Assisi started what became a worldwide proclamation movement that saw many miracles of various types. John of the Cross would write about spiritual experiences (which he views as sensual yet, when God-given, a step in the right direction) and both their value and their ability to be counterfeited, as does Teresa of Avila in a less systematic way (and, of course, the two of them renewed and revived Carmelite spirituality, forming the touchstone of that movement until this day). St Philip Neri was known for his healing gifts, his joy, and his fervent prayer – as well as his ascetic lifestyle. Of course, there were others in the East, such as John Chrysostom, to mention only one. And there were those in the north who evangelized or renewed the church in the Germanic world. Some, like Ignatius of Loyola, did have dramatic conversions or callings. Others, like Francis of Assisi had a series of steps in their conversion or calling narratives. My point is twofold: there are numerous incidences of Holy Spirit generated revival, renewal, or evangelism through all of church history. (I have only referred to the ones I have been reading about recently.) The other side of the coin is that while we can see the various spiritual gifts of 1 Cor 12 at work, the movements look different from one another. Francis of Assisi eventually became a deacon, but started off as a layman. Philip Neri was a priest. Some others were bishops. Catherine of Siena was a woman who was not cloistered as, for instance Clare of Assisi was. Some revivals or renewals were more local, while others took in whole countries and others sent out missionaries to the far ends of the world. The one thing they have in common is that they tend to play down references to miracles and visions and the like; in fact, it is usually followers or later biographers who mention them, not the person himself or herself (although Tersa of Avila did so when ordered to for the benefit of the Inquisition). Even Jonathan Edwards who defended various Spirit-phenomena in the New England revival then went on to make it clear that they were no mark of that the revival was a real work of the Spirit – things like holiness and changes lives were the mark of genuineness.
In fact, as Paul (in 1 Cor 12 – 14) makes love far more important than gifts that some may have (and probably usually have on a temporary basis) and as he in 2 Cor 12 only mentions his visionary experience because he feels “forced,” the ones considered most spiritual through history stressed such things as love, joy, peace, long-suffering, lack of anger, etc. as the marks of the Spirit and mostly kept silent (or tried to) about visions, ecstasies, prophecies, healings, and the like as something that needed testing or which were occasional private experiences or which were gifts needed for a particular mission. They sound like Jonathan Edwards: the genuine marks of a move of the Spirit are moral. The other things may be from the Spirit or may not be, they can be counterfeited or real, they can be corrupted or, with appropriate maturity can lead to growth in Christlikeness. This, of course, fits with Jesus, who tells people he heals to be silent (when he is dealing with single cases) and never advertises.
So, something happens in Topeka and Azuza St and Arkansas in the 1901 – 1906 period. It is not something absolutely new, not something that has not happened since the first century, but one more in a series of revivals and renewals down the ages. The Holy Spirit had not “come back,” but – to the extent that it was genuine (and as all revivals is was a mixed works, as Jonathan Edwards points out for the revival of his day) – it was another in a series. Likewise, the spread of Pentecostal theology and practice to mainline and Catholic groups was good, but it was also very North American in style and origin. Yet at the same time the Holy Spirit was at work in Europe, for example, but with a more contemplative shape to the renewal. The Holy Spirit was at work in East Africa in the Anglican Church, with miracles of all types, but without tongues (the so-called East African revival).
That means that if the Holy Spirit does a work of revival in our time (as the neo-Pentecostal movements seem to be dying out or in some cases getting rather weird) it will probably not be a fourth wave of what happened in 1901 (the third wave being the interdenominational movement of the 1980’s and later that was identified with John Wimber, which did not have Pentecostal theology or an emphasis on glossalalia) but something different. And it may be in China or Africa and not in North America. It will not look exactly like Acts, for Acts served the purpose of initial cross-cultural beginnings, as Luke points out. But it will have characteristics that are common to the various revivals and moves of the Holy Spirit down the ages. And we may only notice it if we are well-read enough to get over our historical amnesia and notice that what is going on here or there looks like this that happened there then and this other thing that happened in this other place at another time, but of course not exactly the same. However, those involved will likely not be talking about what is going on, first because they are too busy and second because humility is a mark of the true action of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost closes the Easter season and a grand celebration. But it is more than a celebration: it is the beginning of cross-cultural mission and the rule of Jesus over the nations.
Pentecost has often been seen as the birth of the church, often in contrast with the message of Jesus. Phrases such as “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and we ended up with the church” express this contrast. That, however, overlooks the evidence. As Gerhard Lohfink pointed out in Jesus and Community, the gospels all present Jesus as gathering a community. He and many of his followers had been followers of John the Baptist, having been baptized into the John the Baptist movement. At least the fourth gospel indicates that Jesus and his core disciples baptized others, initiating them into the movement. Certainly, Jesus invited some people to join the group with his characteristic “follow me,” while others either asked to join or just followed without formal acceptance. There was organization within the movement, for all gospels refer to the Twelve whom Jesus selected as official representatives. Luke, of course, adds another group of 70. And Peter emerged as the spokesperson for the group. Thus, it is no surprise that the movement regrouped around Peter after experiencing the resurrection of Jesus, but as yet they had no mission beyond the renewal of Israel around the figure of Jesus. Pentecost is not the formation of the church, but the thrusting out of the church into mission.
John claims that within his life Jesus had used a water festival in Jerusalem in which the people prayed for rain to anticipate this pouring out into mission. In the middle of the feast Jesus says,
“If any one thirst, let him come to me and let the one who believes in me drink.”
This unpolished translation picks up the balance of the two lines and leads to Jesus’ (or perhaps John’s) explanation: “”as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” That is, picking up on John 2 in which Jesus presents himself as the New Temple and then on the waters of the temple garden in Eden, which water the earth, and the idealized temple in Ezekiel, from which water flows to “heal” the Dead Sea and the Araba, Jesus paints a picture that will be fully realized in the end of Revelation when the new Jerusalem is the community of God on earth and in the midst of this city-temple is the throne of the God from which flows a river that nourishes trees with leaves that are for the healing of the nations. In fact, all nations will go to this temple-city. So Jesus, as that Temple, is calling people to come to him and drink the water that is or will be flowing from him, that water that brings life, not just to Israel but also to the nations.
This is presented differently in Acts 2. The community is gathered in prayer with Peter functioning as leader. But that is inward or vertical. There is no outward. Luke is, perhaps, about the inward in that it is organized around a movement from Galilee to Jerusalem, while Acts is organized around the outward in that it is organized around movement from Jerusalem to Rome. Then the Spirit, perhaps seen as bringing the presence of Jesus as ruler, comes and three things happen. First, there is wind, the meaning of “spirit” in Greek (and Hebrew), like the creative wind sweeping over the chaos in Genesis 1. The Spirit has come. But then there are tongues of fire, perhaps, as an early homily on this passage indicated, bringing purification, or (and both meanings could easily be intended) perhaps indicating the Spirit setting tongues on fire, i.e. indicating the incendiary action of the outward thrust. The people begin speaking, but in other languages, which is no accident, for this happens just when Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims from the nations around the (to them) known world. The nations have come to the Temple, getting along as best as they can in Greek, and they hear God coming to them speaking their languages. There is a reversal of Babel, it is true, in that rather than language being confused and splintered when a unified people sought a diabolical goal or storming heaven now a disunified people seeking the good goal of the true God are spoken to by a single ethnic group (Galileans) speaking their language and are called into the new community. But there is also God’s using human beings to cross ethnic and cultural divides with the good news by giving them the necessary linguistic tools. Whenever speaking in foreign languages is indicated in Acts it is in a context of crossing such divides and not only facilitates communication, but indicates that God has crossed the divide ahead of them.
Interestingly enough, Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 will indicates that he spoke in (to hm) foreign languages more than all the others, but then he preached the good news from the eastern end of the Mediterranean all the way around to (what is today) northwestern Greece. In fact, the gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 are basically outwardly directed, just as most healings in the New Testament are either the healings of those not yet committed to the Jesus movement or have evangelistic effects (as in the case of Dorcas and Aeneas in Acts 8) – perhaps to be read as an evangelistic purpose. This is a far cry from the idea of “tongues” as ecstatic speech turned inward towards the personal spiritual experience of the practitioner, something that is not found in the New Testament (nor in the Patristic Church). Rather than healing meetings made up mostly of believers, we find healings happening as the Spirit directs in evangelism, outside the community.
We could, of course, continue going through Acts and the letters of Paul, but we trust that the meaning of Pentecost is by now clear. Pentecost is the Spirit empower the Church, which was at the time focused inwardly and vertically, to go outward and bring healing to the nations, equipping it to cross cultural and ethnic boundaries. The debates in Acts are the debates occasioned by the crossing of such boundaries: are Samaritans (with their dialectical differences), are a centurion’s friends, are gentiles from various nations people out of which the growing church can be formed without their coming into the original ethnicity, that of Palestinian Judaism? The Pauline corpus agrees with what is depicted narratively in Acts, namely that while all in the church are children of Abraham, those who were not born such as made such by God without ethnic conversion. The focus is on Christ as Lord, but Christ acts through the Spirit in his people to gather the nations into one people.
In my previous blog post, Presidential Fallout, I reflected on the effects of the last presidential campaign and election on the church and particularly on the evangelical and Pentecostal/ neo-Pentecostal parts of the church. I want to reflect further on the latter, asking what it was that could turn what was often a renewal from God (at least in some people’s lives) into something that often drives people from the church. Basically, my answer is twofold: (1) forgetting the tried and true ways of spiritual renewal and ministry found in church history and (2) seeking the power of God and the gifts of the Spirit rather than seeking God himself and letting him grant whatever gifts whenever he wishes.
I want to express how I developed these conclusions by presenting my own narrative:
We got involved with a German charismatic movement in 1975. There were no “power people,” no special initiation event (e.g. “baptism in the Holy Spirit”) – it was contemplative and in the context of a quiet seeking the Lord some of the named (and unnamed) gifts of the Spirit manifested. We were thankful for the results, of course, both for personal spiritual refreshment and for our joy in a work of God when my boss was healed of what doctors expected to be a deadly cancer. Yet we did not pay a lot of attention to phenomena, for our eyes were fixed on Jesus.
Over the years after our return to the USA we were involved in a variety of healing and ministry movements, including neo-Pentecostal versions, which often mixed with older movements. We were involved in Camps Farthest Out and The Order of St Luke the Physician. My first Eucharist as an Episcopal priest was a tiny healing Eucharist in a large church (and, yes, someone was healed); my one ordination gift was an oil stock that had been used in Episcopal healing ministry for something like 40 years plus before being passed on to me in 1979. We knew Baptists like Roland Brown and Catholics-in-Exile like Francis MacNutt. I doubt we had “experienced it all,” but we had experienced a lot.
But what were we looking for? We were seeking closeness to God but, other than those times that God directed us to this or that, we were seeking it affirmation of that closeness in concrete experiences, in seeing healing, in experiencing this or that gift. And that is also what the early Pentecostals sought – the gifts and the power to assure them of the presence of the Spirit – and the later neo-Pentecostal movement in mainline and Catholic churches.
In 1985, I believe, an interdenominational pastor’s renewal fellowship to which I belonged invited John Wimber and a team to come to Vancouver, BC. What struck me was (1) that Wimber was not the show, so to speak, when it came to healing but that he got prayer teams praying for people and walked off the platform, while the prayer teams drew in others around them, so that at the end of the conference it was mostly the conferees who were praying rather than the team, and (2) that Wimber saw events like that conference and healing prayer in churches as “clinic” with the real “stuff” happening in the street as people prayed for or ministered to people in the course of their daily lives. That sounded a lot like Acts and the purpose behind the manifestations of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12. It also struck me that the music was intimate and contemplative, especially if Wimber himself shifted to the keyboard.
A team from Anaheim came to my church the Sunday after the conference, and I had forgotten that it was Pentecost. Well, it was Pentecost that day in more ways than one. However, what I remember is the words of one humble member of the Vineyard team in a Q&A time: “Seek the Lord, seek the Lord, seek the Lord; and when are finished then seek him some more.” The various signs and wonders were simply tools the Lord hands one as one seeks him and his will and goes about sharing his love in the world at his direction.
The wisdom of that focus would come out in the next months. On the one hand, “powerful” charismatic “ministers” showed up in our church, “called by the Lord,” to “help.” They drifted in, and, wisely, the elders did not give them a platform (had they stayed long enough and humbly proved themselves it would have been another matter) and happily they were “called elsewhere.” We also realized that some of them were inspired by a dark spirit, not the Holy Spirit. Others were emotionally or spiritually wounded. That was a lesson learned. When there is a public move of the Spirit of God it attracts all sorts of counterfeits, including, as St John of the Cross notes in Ascent of Mt Carmel, the devil’s counterfeits.
Then there were some in the church who experienced the initial “wave” of the Spirit who sought ever new power experiences, what I now recognize as the instability that St Benedict, Jean-Claude Nolt, and Joseph Ratzinger talked of (the latter two under the term “acedia”). Various communities, sometimes parts of churches that had been part of inviting Wimber, sometimes home communities, started inviting “power ministers” and members of my church got involved. I often went to these events, for, while I was not drawn to the loud music (often poorly played in the smaller venues), anti-intellectual comments (not being educated was held up as a qualification for ministry), and poor exegesis of scripture, I also realized that one must go with an open mind and experience such events from within if one is to really understand them. After all, the Spirit sometimes comes in strange guises. Furthermore, it was where my friends and congregants were going, so I needed to know what they were experiencing. I always went forward if pastors and leaders were called forward for prayer and at times I was prayed over in small groups. I did have quiet experiences with God, but basically independent of what the “power minister” was trying to do – they were spontaneous, not directed. After one meeting in which a lot of people were falling (i.e. “slain in the Spirit” as the lingo goes) a week later I talked to four I knew well asked about the experience and its effects. One was indeed significantly changed for the positive with lasting effects, two felt it had affected them positively that evening but with little long-term change, and for one it “was just an experience.” Apparently, the ministry was less than infallible. But, I was where I needed to be, inside, participating, and reflecting later. However, this raised my level of concern about seeking power, or powerful experiences, or gifts versus seeking God in all humility and only asking for gifts as needed for particular acts of charity that one felt God was leading one to perform. I did not see much humility in those meetings.
The other issue that arose was “the prophetic.” While in my understanding of Scripture so-called “words of knowledge” are actually a form of prophetic speech, in seeking “the prophetic” people were looking at full-time “prophets” as models and seeking much more intense forms of prophecy, either prophecy given to groups directing what they should do or prophecy given to individuals directing what they should do. Later there would develop “strategic spiritual warfare” that was over cities and nations, often without the knowledge of said cities or nations, and which sought through performative prophetic speech to influence the course of history. But that would start in the 1990’s. We saw that leading up to and in the Jericho Marches of November – December 2020.
There was some quite responsible prophetic ministry that seemed to build up and impel people to a deeper relationship with Jesus and some quite abusive ministry that seem to build up the “prophet” or the leader the prophet was associated with or that seemed to try to control a person, church, or leader. I certainly heard of “prophets” who crossed sexual boundaries themselves. The end result in my church was that, after I had moved away to another city, the church blew apart, so to speak, with a number of wounded individuals. The cause was “prophetic” leadership. Eventually, the remnant of the church merged with a quite traditional evangelical community that needed a building. While this happened before my eyes, even if at a distance, it is also generally true that the rise and fall of charismatic covenant communities and churches because of controlling leaders or leaders who transgressed financial, sexual, or personal boundaries does litter the church landscape. I choose not to name the groups or the leaders. What I will say is that some of them had quite a positive effect upon me and my family, sometimes before they “went off the rails,” sometimes because they were at a distance and sometimes after the original leader “crashed and burned” (often without that being public knowledge) but before the church or community or organization started its decline.
The problem was, and continues to be, that of seeking the Lord versus seeking power or experiences or influence in society (the in case of those who want decree the results of elections or the rise and fall of cities or countries or the end of pandemics or any number of other things). My friend at that conference in Vancouver was right: it is about seeking the Lord. John Wimber was right, It is about drawing near to God and “doing the stuff” (proclaiming the good news, feeding the poor, and praying for the sick) with eyes and ears open to “see what God is doing” and then joining in as he invites one with the manifestation of particular acts of the Spirit being more of an “of course, God gives the needed gift when a person is doing his work in his way at his direction.” Gifts, power, experiences are not sought in themselves.
Of course, that is also the teaching of the Christian spiritual tradition. Paul rarely talks about his spiritual experiences, and when he does, he mentions that he felt forced to do so and did so unwillingly (see 2 Cor 11 – 12, but that is also going on in 1 Cor 12 – 14). What he talks about readily is suffering, humiliation, and the like. He sought Jesus, and he found him crucified, knowing that being joined to the crucified Christ meant that after Paul’s own death he would be joined to the resurrected Christ.
When one follows the story into church history one finds that the most honored (today) spiritual leaders did not talk about their own spiritual exploits, but about the miracles and the like done by others. (Although others sometimes talked about them.) They did not seek honored positions, but often had to be virtually forced to be bishops and the like (e.g. Augustine of Hippo). Sometimes they left a place of honor and authority, when they could, and retreated to a monastery for their remaining days. They wanted to seek God alone.
The neo-Pentecostal movement is, as was the Pentecostal movement in its roots, Adventist – they were the revival of the last days. But that means that they fail to see that the Spirit has been working through people over the generations, people who were humble. I think of St André Bessette (1845 – 1937) in Montreal (a porter in the Congregation of the Holy Cross), whose healing prayers were sought and who was sometimes found scrubbing floors (one of his duties) and who would not even look up at the one requesting he pray for someone, but simply say (from his recollected inner self) “He or she is well” and go on with his work. And it was just as he said.
I think of “Blessed Solanus Casey (d. 1957), a priest who served in Detroit, Michigan. He was known for helping to heal the sick and burdened through the intercession of Jesus Christ. As a member of the Franciscan Capuchin Friars, he did small, humble tasks in his monastery but would often spend his afternoons performing the Anointing of the Sick for ill parishioners. Fr. Solanus had great compassion for the sick, and through his compassion and personal holiness services, healed many people.”
These examples could be multiplied down the ages, but they have a common theme. They all were humble. They all served quietly. They all developed their closeness to God over years of classical spiritual disciplines, normally in a community setting. They all simply obeyed God and prayed or spoke as God told them (in the case of Blessed Solamus Casey using the approved form of liturgical prayer). They did not have an impartation from some other power minister nor necessarily a peak experience, let alone a peak experience that they talked about. They usually functioned outside of rallies or conferences or even church gatherings. And most would have been unknown had someone else not felt it necessary to write about them.
They (and while I have named two Catholics, there were others in Protestant traditions that I could name, such as the Rev Roland Brown, whom I met, but in Germany, not his actual residence of Chicago, and who would be unknown to me had not his translator in Germany (where he taught on prayer) published his talks. But they were charismatic men (and women) – although they would have rejected that term as setting themselves off from others too much – before, during, and I am sure after the neo-Pentecostal movement that were every bit as filled with the Spirit – without the hype.
The fact is that when the church or a church leader became involved with power, whether it be political (as Dante saw clearly in the end of the Purgatorio in the Divine Comedy) or miraculous/ spiritual power, they were (and are) at risk. Some handled it well, being as humble as bishops or abbots as they were before they were chosen for high position. Others were corrupted by money, honor, power (political or charismatic), or the pleasures that the former could give them access to.
Basically, St John of the Cross put it well especially in his Ascent of Mt Carmel and in his Dark Night of the Soul: if one is seeking God with a mind fixed upon him and in obedience to his guidance, one will have “sensual experiences” stemming from the Spirit. These could be an ecstatic experience during worship or in private prayer, a miracle as one prayed for others, or a great number of conversions when one preached. One experienced God’s presence in an outward way. St John of the Cross’s instruction is to acknowledge God’s grace and then put such experiences into the “dark night of forgetfulness.” Do not pay much attention to them. Do not seek them. If you seek them, realize that the devil can counterfeit them and deceive you. Rather, putting them behind you in forgetfulness, continue to seek God in worship, prayer, fasting, and all humility. Indeed, as one goes on in the spiritual life, to assist one to progress, God will lead one into the “dark night of the senses” in which he withdraws such experiences so one will not become attached to them (this precedes the “dark night of the soul,” which only those God chooses enter).
I chose St John of the Cross because he happens to be my most recent reading and one of my favorites. Any number of others could have been chosen. The fact is, that those who are truly spiritually great are only accidentally famous – they did not seek fame, they did not want to start a ministry, they simply wanted to humbly serve and obey God. Instead of seeking prominence, they, like St. Thomas Aquinas, when asked by God about what he wanted as a reward for his devoted service, answer, “Nothing but you, Lord, nothing but you.”
While the more I worked on this the more I realized that it would take a book or two to say all I want as carefully as I want, I present this second part of my last blog for what it is, my reflections to date.
In a previous post I discussed one aspect of the fallout from the recent Presidential election, namely the damage it had done to the so-called Pro-Life movement due to the latter’s tending to become (at least in its vocal extremer versions) one more political force and due to its overlooking life issues in the politicians it was supporting. Of course, there was more to it than that, but I tried to at least outline them in the previous post. In this post I want to focus on the issues the election raised for the evangelical and neo-Pentecostal movements.
First, some definitions. By the evangelical movement I mean those Christian ecclesial groups, individuals, and institutions that find their roots in the evangelical and fundamentalist movements of the mid-twentieth century. The roots of many of the parts of the movement go back far further, especially to the awakenings and advent fervor in the last decades of the nineteenth century. By the neo-Pentecostal movement I mean those Christian ecclesial groups, individuals, institutions, and ministries that are characterized not only by a practice of the “gifts of the Spirit” found in 1 Cor 12, but also by a significant stress on the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” that includes “speaking in tongues.” This definition is important, for there were charismatic practices and experiences going far back in the Christian spiritual tradition (e.g. see St John of the Cross’ Ascent of Mt Carmel) including healing-holiness movements of the end of the nineteenth century, the prayer and healing movements of the 1930’s (in mainline churches in the USA), and so forth. There were also different forms of post-neo-Pentecostal charismatic teaching and experience, such as that in the Vineyard movement (starting in the 1980’s), at least at its beginnings, in the Rufer Bewegung in Germany, in the healing ministry of Francis and Judith MacNutt and so forth. Charismatic and neo-Pentecostal are not identical, although many of the charismatics in mainline and Catholic communities can be more clearly defined as neo-Pentecostals within their various denominations.
What evangelicals and neo-Pentecostals have in common is an emphasis on crisis experience. Crisis experience can be found in John Wesley’s experience of his “heart being strangely warmed” and also in his later stress on crisis sanctification, a second work of grace. But Wesley did not use means other than preaching and prayer to induce the crisis. Neither did Jonathan Edwards in the United States in a very different theological context. Indeed, he argued that the more ecstatic experiences, while to be expected, were not sure mark of God’s revival. The first one known for his use of means, by which I mean the deliberate use of practices to induce the crisis experience, was Charles Finney in the late 1800’s. This was developed later though such mean as Billy Sunday and Billy Graham, on the one side, and in the Pentecostal movement on the other. (The Christian and Missionary Alliance was certainly concerned with conversion, spirit-filling, and sanctification, but so far as I know did not have the same emphasis on “means,” at least until cross-fertilized from later developments. Likewise the early Plymouth Brethren taught in the late 1820’s that “it is the duty of Christian men to seek the restoration of the gifts of the Spirit,” which at least suggests the possibility of a crisis experience, but did not suggest the use of means.). Thus, for many evangelicals, unless one has had the born-again experience, one is not “saved,” and for most neo-Pentecostals unless one has experienced the “baptism in the Holy Spirit (as evidenced in speaking in tongues” one is not “spirit filled.” Also, both tended to hold up high profile leaders, such as the evangelists Billy Graham and Billy Sunday and the various high profile neo-Pentecostal leaders with their healing and prophecy conferences. Finally, while the evangelical movement in particular was not at all uniform in their respect, both tended to stress apocalyptic expectations, although the influence of prophetic interpretation in the more dispensationalist mode (I knew Hal Lindsey’s early work while still a youth, for example) varied widely.
What has, then, happened in this past Presidential election? Essentially it has been the fracturing of the evangelical movement and the discrediting of the neo-Pentecostal movement. First, a number of high-profile evangelical leaders were quite open in their support of Donald Trump with some of them (e.g. Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr) using Messianic terms for him, such as “God’s anointed.” He was often compared with Cyrus in Isaiah. This was usually connected to Mr. Trump’s stance on abortion that he developed during the 2016 election cycle and his, or his party’s, opposition to LBGTQ rights. This focus on moral issues was in continuity with Jerry Falwell Sr’s Moral Majority support of previous candidates and administrations because of selective interest in certain ethical issues, although the senior Falwell did have a difference in that he has a great concern for the poor and did seem to believe in objective truth and so would quietly abandon stances that he later realized to be wrong-headed (e.g. his opposition to integration in his church and his approval of apartheid in South Africa). The modern supporters of Mr. Trump were more likely to believe in unproved conspiracy theories and in the idea that the moral concerns that others had with that administration were “false news” or part of a “media conspiracy,” i.e. there was no means of dialogue and arguing for truth. It seemed that the post-modernism in the air had seeped into the thinking of the masses.
But, despite some 81% of self-identified evangelicals voting for Mr. Trump, there was another part of the evangelical movement that was of a different mind. First, they were concerned with different ethical issues, not to the exclusion of a concern with abortion, but with an equally great concern for other life issues. Second, they were outraged at the Messianic language being used for a flawed man with a checkered background and no known religious practice or concerns that mirrored those of Jesus for the poor, the alien, and the sick. This outrage included the use of biblical texts out of context in support of partisan politics. This was especially concerning when, in the polarized climate, the language became apocalyptic. Thus, the result has been a number of evangelical leaders and the like denouncing those supporting Mr. Trump and his allies, especially those using the stronger language. Now the split existed more quietly throughout of the Trump administration, but the election brought it to a head and tipped others into the dissenting camp. One sees this in, for example, some of the articles in Christianity Today and in the post-election statement signed by what must be the majority of the faculty of Wheaton College, both premier evangelical institutions. (I suspect that some of the others taking positions or making statements that I have seen online would prefer to remain lower profile so I will not “call them out.”) What is also notable is that while these make clear that the pro-Trump statements of the various leaders and groups “is not us” and in some cases was “idolatrous” or “blasphemous,” they are also quick to repent of their own attitudes of complicity in the past. Post-election others who were had backgrounds in or were sympathetic to the evangelical movement have made statements disassociating themselves,
Recently Barna pointed out that there are significant losses among megachurches, most of which are evangelical or neo-Pentecostal, especially among the young, with something like 30+ per cent becoming “nones.” The overall numbers of those who profess no religion in our society is something like 27% and rising. Another statistic that is a bit older is that evangelical churches are retaining only 17% of their youth. The evangelical movement has always appealed to the Bible as the single standard of truth and unity. When there is splintering, as one sees in the multiple denominations (not to mention the independent groups which are denominations unto themselves), all claiming to be “biblical,” this certainly shakes foundations for some. Many others are shaken by the perceived contradiction between the Bible and science (which is really there for some groups, but not for others – it depends on their hermeneutic). It is another divisive influence when allegiance not just to America but also to a particular political party seems to trump allegiance to other Christians. It is especially true when it is leaders that are conflicting. (I might add that one of the attractions of the Catholic Church for me was that it did not owe allegiance to any country.) Of course, as an evangelical I had long realized that hermeneutics rather than the text of the Bible itself was the deciding difference among groups. And often the decisive hermeneutic was that of the leader. I once interviewed at Liberty Baptist University (it was exploratory in order to determine whether I was right in assuming that an application would or would not be useful). One thing I was told that any theological, interpretive, or ethical issue that others in the institution differed with would be referred up the chain and ultimately the president, who was then Jerry Falwell Sr., would decide and that would be it. That, I can add from my present perspective, is an authority that the Pope does not have in the Roman Catholic Church (he does indeed proclaim truth, but it is in conjunction with the Magisterium, both present and over the history of the Church). But that vesting of authority in an individual leader and his interpretation of Scripture is not unusual (especially if the leader is the founder of the movement or church). Therefore, it is impossible to get a unified voice, much less an official unified voice, although there are various coalitions in evangelicalism that attempt that. Thus, the recent election with some declaring that Mr. Trump was “God’s anointed” and that the election was rigged and others disputing both assertions can only lead to a further fractioning of evangelism and further disillusionment of the youth (and some not so young). Since my “tribe” from my youth through my years in the Episcopal Church is evangelicalism and since it is the group in which I still have professional memberships and, more importantly, friends, this fractioning is not something about which I write gladly.
The neo-Pentecostals have related issues that is causing disillusionment. While they share with and overlap with the evangelical movement in their commitment to Scripture, they also expect or hope for a direct experience of God, specifically in the prophetic word (I focus on this, although other spiritual gifts might be included). Again, it is individual leaders who come to the fore, for while in theory any person “moving in the Spirit” could receive a prophetic word, in practice it is the certain “anointed leaders” that are listened to and who attract large groups to their meetings to hear such “anointed teaching/prophecy.” While this may at the beginning have been limited to the individual or church level, it has over the last quarter century become “strategic level spiritual warfare,” global, in which the leaders, often in small groups, prophesy over cities or nations. Some of these words are viewed as performative – they bring about what is spoken (which does happen among Old Testament prophets in some instances). Some of the leaders are viewed as Apostles. One sees this in some loose coalitions such as the New Apostolic Reformation. (The mark of much of the neo-Pentecostal movement is independence, the Protestant principle taken to its logical end. Pentecostal denominations have tended to move closer to evangelicalism in their practices and in their structures, while neo-Pentecostal communities are more often independent but, since independence is quite lonely, they often group with like-minded leaders in loose alliances such as Global Awakening or the New Apostolic Reformation. Since they are loose alliances, it is also easy to disassociate if key leaders have public failures.)
A number of these leaders prophesied, first that Mr. Trump would win, and, when that was not supported by the ballot counts, that nevertheless Mr. Biden would never be inaugurated. (Whether or not they accepted the unsupported conspiracy theories that circulated around Mr. Trump in a sense does not matter. They declared that God had said these things would happen.) The initial setback of the election was a trial of faith. Thus, one saw two different Jericho Marches, the last just before the assault on the Capitol by a group with significant overlaps in language, use of religious symbols, personnel and the like with those that did storm the Capitol. These events, complete with shofars as in the Jericho narrative in Joshua, encircled the Capitol and the Supreme Court with marchers first calling on God to get Trump elected and then calling on God to change the outcome. In both cases there was plenty of proclaiming that Mr. Biden would not win. In other words, there were words that at least some felt were performative. There should be no surprise that, as already noted, there was some overlap between the peaceful Jericho March and those who assaulted the Capitol the next day – after all, that is what happened in Joshua. But in this case the walls did not fall. After that fiasco there were further prophesies that although the electoral votes had been counted on January 6, God would see to it that Mr. Trump was the one inaugurated on January 20.
In 1956 Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter published a classical sociological study on cognitive dissonance theory entitled When Prophecy Fails. It concerned a group that prophesied and prepared for the end of the world at a certain date and their behavior when that did not happen. Some were disillusioned and left, and some reinterpreted the prophecies and in one form or another continued. We will certainly see both of those reactions. We will not see the sanctions on false prophets of Deut 13 and 18, but we will see many people disillusioned with the prophetic movement in general and for some with Christianity as well. We have already seen at least one or two of the leaders in speaking such prophetic words resign their ministries. (For how long, one does not know.) But we will also almost certainly see a goodly number of the leaders “reinterpret” their prophecies (perhaps after a period of silence) and their followers accept the rationalizations. Power is addictive. And being in the “in group,” the group that “knows” and the group of whom God specially approves because of their “faith” is equally addictive. (For a more secular example see C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength.)
What we have definitely seen is charismatic groups that never supported such types of prophecy distancing themselves from such prophets and their communities. For instance, I have seen Vineyard leaders cite John Wimber’s teaching that one should always be tentative about prophecy, “I believe that the Lord is saying . . .” with the expectation that one is “putting it out there” so others can “discern.” (It is true that after a flirtation with the so-called Kansas City Prophets, Wimber in particular and Vineyard in general distanced itself from them, moving back to his roots.) Other charismatic movements were never tempted to get on board, for they are more contemplative in character. The word “false prophet” has certainly appeared on the internet. What is clear is that this has caused scandal to many and likely has split the already-dying neo-Pentecostal movement (there are other more humble and contemplative healing and prayer movements that some are joining – I have seen this in postings on the internet, among other places – and some will leave the faith). I feel sad for those who have had honorable lives and ministries in the movement. But at the same time, I realize that revivals of various times come and go. The next revival is not just like the previous one. Benedictines have had several revivals, as have Franciscans, but none is just like what St Francis himself or St Benedict started. They have moved on to correct abuses that have crept in by doing what God is doing in their “today,” not clinging on to the past. And as time passes, each revival movement itself needs revival. Furthermore, we need to realize that both evangelicals and neo-Pentecostals (and I know that they overlap) are actually a minority in the body of Christ.
It is painful when one sees groups and individuals that nourished one at a certain time, that one knew and loved, and that one still has connections to facture and weaken over this flirtation with power, whether political or “charismatic.” They were courted by the administration and in turn felt that they were influencing the administration. They have ended up compromised and, I believe, like viewed with suspicion by the present administration that would rightly see them not as religious, but as political. This, as Dante pointed out at the end of the Purgatorio, is what happens when the Church allies with the state. And God has his own ways of purgation of that leaven. There is a lot of pain involved also for those who were not involved in the excesses but are involved in the institutions and communities. Hopefully they will learn to abandon themselves to divine providence and in that will find peace.
This post has been too long in some ways and too brief in others. I realized while writing it that to fully explore many of its aspects one needed a large book. I have neither time nor inclination for that. That job will be done by others, I am sure, when the present situation is viewed more in retrospect. Meanwhile, I will turn back to ministry and prayer.
The recent rather contested presidential election in the United States raises all types of issues, which have certainly been discussed by many, but I am particularly interested in its implications for the Christian community, specifically the Church itself and certain ecclesial groupings. I am organizing my musings under two headings: the so-called Pro-Life movement in the church and the neo-Pentecostal movement. Both are found in both the evangelical world and the Church itself. And in both cases, there has been possible, perhaps probable, injury to those bodies.
When it comes to the Pro-Life movement, let me first make it clear that I abhor abortion and find it morally unacceptable. There are situations in which it may be necessary, such as in ectopic pregnancies when there is a grave risk of death to both mother and child (in fact, I have a friend who was precisely in that situation and would have died had there not been surgical intervention). In other words, I agree with the Church’s position, which is also commonly held by many evangelical groups, although some might say that only the mother’s life need be in grave danger if the pregnancy continued. But I do have three issues with how this concern is prosecuted.
First, there is little attempt to connect the anti-abortion issue to other issues of life with the exception of euthanasia, and even then the connection does not seem to have penetrated the popular mind. We saw that in the postings, publications, and demonstrations surrounding the election – abortion for many was the only issue. There is no connection made between these issues of life and the issue of armed conflict and the issue of the death penalty and the like. In other words, it is not so much Pro-Life as anti-abortion. Now that may be a practical, political move that allows for greater coalition building, but it leaves the movement largely silent when the life issue concerns reasoning moral agents. That is, the Church (and by and large evangelicals as well now) teaches that a child dying before birth is an innocent soul that God takes to himself (the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which acknowledges original sin, is not clear on how this happens, only that God does it in his grace). The idea of limbo infantum for unbaptized infants is not current Catholic teaching and never was its dogmatic teaching. But in war, capital punishment, oppression that leads to starvation, etc. the people who die are, for the most part, above the age of reason and therefore at least at risk of hell, however conceived. There may be the hope that God will reach out in grace and “get through” to them, perhaps just before death, but there is no certainty of this. In some ways this makes the counting of numbers misleading, for how many blessed souls does it take to outweigh one possibly damned soul? (I say “possibly” because we are not the judge and can never really know if any given person is damned.) One wonders if this selectivity is due to emotional factors, due to strategic factors (how to hold the movement together), or due to political factors. But it is there.
Second, there is little awareness that the issue is a philosophical and pastoral problem. That is, I can show scientifically that a zygote has human chromosomes, etc. and is a living human animal distinct from the mother who surrounds it (or the father whose sperm contributed half of the chromosomes). What I cannot show is that that zygote (or any other stage of fetal development) is body and soul, a human being in the full sense. In fact, scientifically I cannot argue that a human being at any stage is so qualitatively different than an ape or a pig (I remember the dissection of fetal pigs in high school biology) or any other animal. And the reason is that there is no scientific test that will demonstrate the presence of a soul, which is what makes human beings qualitatively different – not a higher animal, but qualitatively different from all animals. The Nazi’s could kill so many human beings because they philosophically dehumanized most of them (some they killed as enemies of the state or on similar criminal charges, but most of their killing was of “inferior” races, i.e. of people they considered subhuman). Nor is it sufficient to cite a Bible verse or two to prove the soul is present from conception (which is what evangelicals would wish), for, first of all, that would mean that the issue is a religious issue not a scientific issue, and, second, biblical texts are not clear on when in gestation the developing child gets a soul. This was made clear to me when I was in seminary during a time when evangelicals were first discussing the issues of contraception and birth control. Towards the end of my seminary time a book came out edited by Walter Spitzer and Carlyle Saylor called Birth Control and the Christian: A Protestant Symposium on the Control of Human Reproduction. The article on abortion was written by the dean of my seminary, perhaps the most eminent evangelical theologian of the day. He argued that the soul developed along with the body and thus the seriousness of abortion did as well – one might do it for relatively simple reasons in the first two or three weeks and should have the gravest of reasons (e.g. both mother and child will die unless we abort the child) as one comes close to birth. I certainly did toy with such an argument for decades, for I respected this godly theologian and followed his reasoning (which began with the argument that the soul, like the body, came from both mother and father and developed). It was only when I accepted the Catholic position that each soul was created by God and was fully present from conception, doing so on the basis of scripture as interpreted by tradition (the earliest church documents we have cite abortion as a reason to refuse baptism unless the person has credibly repented), philosophically undergirded by developing philosophical reflection, and clearly taught by the Magisterium, that my degree of concern with early term abortion changed; that is, I became as concerned about early abortions as about later abortions. (In a sense the Church also developed on this point, for while it had, as I wrote above, always rejected from baptism those who procured abortion and excommunicated anyone who returned to such ways, in the criminal codes of the Middle Ages a difference was made between whether the unborn child was alive or quick or whether it was before quickening, abortion before quickening being a much less serious offense for one had not killed a – in their thinking – live child and after quickening being a much more serious offense for one had killed a live child). My point is that it was a theological shift or faith shift that was the basis of my change of thinking. It would be interesting to follow evangelical thought on this topic, for at some time it too appears to have shifted. The issue here, however, is that one deals with philosophical or theological errors and the practices that follow from them with conversion not punishment; at least one does if one does not live in a society in which church and state are fused and the consensus of society strongly supports the church’s position, so one must willfully reject it. We live in a post-Christian era and in a state that explicitly established the separation of church and state. Furthermore, law in scripture can limit evildoing, especially if the evildoers are a minority, but cannot solve the root problem.
Another aspect of the philosophical issue is that the abortion issue is systemically linked to a raft of issues in society. Charles Camosy’s Resisting Throwaway Culture lays some of this out. One can also look at the issue in the light of the history of philosophy and see that as the Renaissance brought back Greco-Roman modes of thought, as the Enlightenment developed, and with the philosophy of Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre, and Foucault, one has lost the societal consensus that is necessary for a legal solution. Instead, legal solutions are playing whack-a-mole until the can be targeted only at societal deviants. One is trying to kill weeds by mowing them – the roots are left untouched and will sprout again. For example, look at Plough Quarterlyissue 26 What Families are for to see how society is giving negative attitudes towards child raising, children, and dependent adults, which is another symptom of the same complex that offers abortion as a solution to undesired pregnancies.
That brings up the pastoral aspect in that most legal solutions proposed are fairly much one-size-fits-all in assigning guilt and do not recognize that both moral theology and pastoral practice point out that, especially in the case of the woman involved in the abortion, degrees of moral guilt vary in ways that legal solutions cannot resolve. The women vary in their awareness of the state of the fetus (how many have accepted the “it is just a lump of tissue” argument) and the degree of pressure they are under (some are threatened with death, some with abandonment, some with social ostracism, and some simply are not ready for a child now – I might add that the book Peyton Place (a 1956 book by Grace Metalious) gives an example of such pressure, although in that case it was to send the woman secretly to a home where she would have to give the child up for adoption – the point is that the pressure issue is not new). Moral theology (which is applied in the confessional) shows that the degree to which a person is a free moral agent changes the degree to which they are culpable, i.e. the gravity of the offense. To give a different example, a woman forced into marriage (say, a literal “shotgun wedding”) has not (in Catholic law) contracted a valid marriage and will not be held to her vows – the Church would declare her marriage null when presented with the case – even though she objectively spoke the proper vows. This is a big issue, too big to discuss here, but trying to handle it in law is like trying to do microsurgery with a butter knife. One ends up with some justice and a lot of injustice.
Third, the final issue I want to discuss is about how the goal of preventing abortion is often being pursued by church men and women through political and legal means rather than prayer and spiritual gifts (preaching, evangelism, prophecy rightly understood, etc.). This is clear when church openly advocates only laws against abortion, sometimes with demonstrations and letters to politicians. But this is also clear when churchmen strongly state that a practicing Christian must vote for this or that candidate or party. While the latter action is prohibited in Catholic canon law (which is why the United States Council of Catholic Bishops puts out guidance for voting in terms of principles, not in terms of party or candidate recommendations) and while a few priests and bishops ignore that part of canon law, it is an important issue, for what advocating for parties or candidates does is turn the Church from the moral conscience of the nation into another political agent complete with demonstrations, slogans, and sometimes worse. On the one hand, it almost always means that the church representative ignores the sins of the candidate while ignoring the right actions of his or her opponent, and, on the other hand, the action becomes power against power; the Church or ecclesial organization appearing to be one more political army. Power against power is the devil’s game using the devil’s means – death (even if it is a political death, although some Christians threaten politicians with not just death but hell), anger, and the threat of death. Jesus did not beat the devil by “blowing him away” but by dying for our sins. Such playing of the power game became most clear in the Jericho Marches the preceded the inauguration of the present President. The very name indicates the marshalling of power and, in the end, the destruction of the “enemy” (as a recent article in the “Sightings” blog pointed out).
There is also the issue of the dubious means used, such as the various cognitive distortions, including black-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking, the triangling of people or groups in or out in order to gain power, the polarizing speech, even to the point of being hate speech, and the demonization of the “other side.” Even the sacraments have been used in power politics in which individuals and clerics intrude into the pastoral relationship of a parishioner with their pastor and bishop and without being privy to any of what has been said to or by the Catholic (and if they were, as it would likely have been in the confessional, they ought not to share it) they publicly pressure the bishop or pastor (or some other priest whose mass the person is attending but who does not have a pastoral relationship with the person) to withhold the sacraments or take some other action. Certainly Sirach 19 would urge them to be more cautious, for they are acting on hearsay or their interpretation of public statements, and James 4:11-12 would urge them not to ask God to move off his throne so that they can judge. There are Church channels for reporting abuse, of course, but one had better have a clear case. Furthermore, the Church moves slowly and carefully (and may know more than the complainant) – it is more willing to err on the side of mercy and it is unlikely to be swayed by open letters published in the press. What such politicization of the sacraments and pastoral relationship does is give scandal to the Church and perhaps problematize the pastoral relationship. I might add that I have known several people who prayer with and/or spiritually advised several Presidents. I would not think of asking them about the content of their interactions. I was thankful to God that those people had those relationships and I did pray for them, that God would give them wisdom, insight, grace, and mercy for the good of the soul of that President and for the common good of the people of God. But such discretion is lacking is those politicizing the faith – they seem to want only condemnation (or perhaps undue exaltation). If this is true, about such James does not speak well.
Now I do want there to be an eventual outlawing of abortion, one that focuses on providers once society has overwhelming agreement that abortion is morally wrong. But unless the church wants to be another political power block (in which case do not scream “persecution” when one is treated as a hostile political power block), a power block playing by this world’s rules, it must follow the way of the Church of the first few centuries. That Church made clear internally that it would discipline abortion. But externally, while some apologists do point to the unreason of Greco-Roman abortion and infanticide, the church basically dealt with the situation by three strategies: caring for women in need (for instance, if one was cast out due to a pregnancy), rescuing newborns who had been exposed (and bringing them up at the Church’s expense), and converting the world. Then, when the Church was indeed the conscience of the Roman Empire abortion was outlawed as was crucifixion and torture (this would return with the rediscovery of classical Greek and Latin literature, but that is another story). In other words, it seems to me that the proper strategy, one that uses the tools of the Spirit rather than the tools of the world, puts conversion first (and that does go on in some parts of the pro-life movement as do various aspects of caring for women who have aborted, such as Rachel’s Children) and legal tools second to “mop up” after the culture has been converted.
At the outset of this blog post I promised to tackle a second major issue, but realize that this blog post is already too long and should be book length to properly document and work through everything. Accept it as a brief outline rather than the full-length book! But I shall tackle that second issue in my next blog post.
But to summarize, when I today (January 22) am praying for the legal protection of the unborn, I realize that I am praying for a radical widespread conversion and cultural transformation that would be expressed in new social structures (perhaps even a new Constitution), among them laws against murder, laws providing adequate financial support for single mothers (for example) and their children so as to make abortion an option for which there was no pressure, and, yes, laws protecting the unborn against abortion itself.
This year Judy started our annual Advent newsletter, so our greetings start with her voice and then with mine.
Davids 2020 Advent Greetings
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended,
That her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
The uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms,
He will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
Isaiah 40: 1-5, 8b, 10a, 11
The above words are ones that I have had to hold onto as this unusual year 2020 has unfolded!
I began the year with a two-month bout of pneumonia/strand B flu which included days in ICU in the hospital, 5 ½ weeks of fever, sleeping in a Recliner at night and coughing 24/7 for a lot of that time. My cardiologist asked me if I had had Covid-19. In May, I had an antibody test done and it did not turn up Covid-19 but I still wonder if I did not have it before anyone here in Georgetown was testing for it (antibodies would probably not have shown up 5 months later). At any rate, I was very ill. A very bright spot in that is that my sister, a professional nurse, came and nursed me for a week when I got out of the hospital. My Good Shepherd cared for me in an amazing way.
Then came lockdown on March 15th for Covid-19. Oh, my, had our world turned upside down?
We did our first personal retreat here in our home for someone the first week of March before it all began and that was great. I anticipated doing many retreats here and then came the lockdown. Ouch! Many things were canceled!
Easter was a highlight because Peter did the services at the Priory and I got to attend: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil as well as Easter Sunday morning service. The Bishop considered us at the Priory to be one big family – so Peter continued as usual (and we do not use masks “within the bubble” or “family”). Then the Sisters sent us home with a delicious homemade breakfast on Easter which we enjoyed immensely. So, worshipping our good Lord was NOT shut down. And the Sisters began doing our grocery shopping for us.
Our children’s visit in May was canceled – which was a real downer. They all three were coming, (without their families) because Ian was turning 40, Gwen was turning 47 and it was Mother’s Day – so we were going to celebrate. We comforted ourselves saying that maybe they could come in July for Elaine’s 50th birthday but Canada closed her border, so that was canceled, since they all live in Canada.
The Sisters hired a new maintenance man from New York City and he has sold his house there and brought his wife here and bought a new home in Georgetown. The plus in all this is that we befriended them and found out that Teri is a nationally-known quilter and she inspired me to pull out a quilt which I had begun when our first grandchild was about to be born. You guessed it: I had never finished the quilt and with Teri’s encouragement, I finished piecing it together and she is quilting it for me, 23 years after I began the quilt. It will be sent to my daughter in hopes that she will become a grandmother some day, a real plus of Covid-19.
In the summer, I had a mole removed from under my chin, which turned out to be Melanoma; so a second more extensive surgery had to be done. Then I was declared cancer free. Praise God for His grace to me.
Then came the Fall and we had our yearly physical, and it seems as if we have been dealing with health issues ever since. Among these things was a full left knee replacement for me and two cataract surgeries for Peter. I wonder if I have ever done anything so hard as the rehab for the knee replacement: the pain has been intense. But I was released yesterday from the last physiotherapy session and told that I had done well. My sister, my childhood friend, Carolen, and a friend, Mary from Houston all volunteered to come and help after the knee surgery, so I had help for two solid weeks afterwards. Praise our good Lord for His healing and help. We are finding lots of new doctors in the Georgetown area as a result of our issues.
Peter’s brother’s trip to see us with his wife and sister-in-law (for the two brothers’ birthdays and Thanksgiving) had to be canceled in November.
I have done lots of Spiritual Direction over the telephone – except for January/February and October/November but I am going full blast again. Of course, it is all on the phone or FaceTime because of Covid-19. I have found the Lord’s grace during this year to be tangible and His healing power indeed real in my own life. I am very grateful that His LOVE was not shut down during COVID-19. We are so grateful for how the Good Shepherd has taken care of us.
We love watching deer out our windows here in Georgetown and the many birds, armadillos, skunks and other wildlife. This is a contemplative setting which is conducive to prayer. We are grateful for this location.
Now Peter will add a few events that were important during this year for him:
My physical issues have been small in comparison to Judy’s, so there is nursing Judy when she was ill or taking over the work in the house, but mostly following a routine of prayer and ministry. I did have this rather quickly developing cataract in each eye (wondered why I felt a bit dizzy in the morning mass in the Priory) – it was not there in January, but by October there they were in each eye (I had my eyes rechecked because of two near accidents with cars that I did not see). I am looking forward to having better sight (and cheaper glasses) than I ever have. Judy was another matter, as she explains above. Likewise, she does not take to the “hermit” life as easily as I – although she does have her spiritual directees and occasional retreatants and, when well, goes to St Helen Catholic Church (since March, well masked and distanced). Otherwise, I am her “pastor” – I say mass for her in the chapel here, using the Ordinariate liturgy. I love what God is doing with me here and look forward to further closeness to Him.
There are obviously problems with the church. Whether it is Protestant or Catholic, Evangelical Protestant or Mainline Protestant, the retention rate of youth is something like 15 – 17%. Catholic worry that their losses are going to Protestant churches, particularly large evangelical ones, while Protestants worry their their losses are either going to Mainline Protestant churches, such as Anglican or Episcopal Churches, or, simply dropping out of church altogether. Surveys show that the “nones” are now about 25% of society and the “spiritual but not religious” are a larger percentage than that. And everyone is looking for solutions.
The Protestant world has the best developed Church Growth movement, so their solutions are being brought into the Catholic world as well as being applied in the Protestant world. Perhaps the key is to fix the service (or the mass) by making it more entertaining or enticing: the sermon/homily should be improved and the music is key (which usually means that it should be modern). Multimedia displays are certainly important. And then one should have a vibrant youth ministry. Of course, these solutions leave out the average church, for the average church is a small church without the resources for such fixes. Furthermore, there research shows that the two most significant reasons why people join a (Protestant) church is (1) that they are greeted warmly at the door (and especially if the greeter recognizes them the second week) and (2) they feel safe in leaving their children in the children’s ministry (safe was the term used, not that they felt that their children would have an encounter with Jesus). Relationship and safety are key, while sermons and music are somewhere down the line.
Still, that makes life difficult for Catholic Churches, for many of them have little formal greeting and less chit-chat. The idea is that once one enters the church one is silent and spends time in prayer and adoration before the mass begins. It is certainly important that one feels that one’s children are safe, if one has any, but CCC only runs part of the year and usually one brings the children into the mass and sits with them. When it comes to music, it is true that beauty is an important aspect of church along with the good and the true, but music is not so much the focus of the mass as Jesus is. Certainly the point is not to have a great choir or band, but to participate in the music and thereby be part of the mass. When it comes to the homily, it is clearly the place for good catechesis, but the average priest has at least one homily to write daily and sometimes two or more, unlike the typical evangelical pastor who has two or three per week and can spend 6 to 8 hours per sermon. I am all for doing homilies well (I have taught homiletics, so I am invested in this), but few Catholic priests have the time for long preparations. If they are invested in something other than multiple masses (with funerals and the like), they are spending time in prayer: liturgy of the hours, among other things. I worked as a biblical scholar for 40 years, so I could and can look at the reading, know the issues in the passage, and “see” an outline: rare is the priest who has such advantages. But on the other hand, the typical Protestant pastor spends something like 15 minutes per week in prayer (other than prayer during services). Many Catholics have tried to focus on relationship with priests dressing informally much of the time and trying to be “one of the people” (especially in the post-Vatican II world, which misunderstood Vatican II).
Catholics often try to import the evangelical Protestant crisis mentality by calling for the faithful to have a “personal encounter” with Jesus. Now there is an authentic Catholic or historic way to encourage this, but that is more a process of increasing devotion that will probably have moments of special awareness of the presence of Jesus. The “asking Jesus into your heart” thing is an induced crisis only known since the time of Charles Finny and not known at all in the New Testament (check out the 10 evangelistic “sermons” in Acts or Paul’s gospel in Rom 10:8b-10, for example). Protestants are finding that without spiritual direction the “crisis” wears off the further it recedes into the past. They are exploring Catholic spirituality which is more process oriented and developmental with crisis experiences happening only when it is felt that God sovereignly intervenes. The two camps seem to be passing each other in the night. Meanwhile, the people keep falling away.
What I note is that some of the most creative thinkers are calling for a different approach. Perhaps the priest should start thinking of himself as a monastic, as a man of prayer. He can do that more easily because he is celibate. So there is a call to return to prayer, refocus on celibacy, dress traditionally so people can see that the man is a priest, and to focus on the holiness expected of priests. This is what one will find in the works of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Robert Cardinal Sarah, and a host of others. The anonymous work In Sinu Jesu calls on priests to spend significant time in adoration, to be priests, men of prayer and the altar rather than administrators or engaging in other ministries – or rather these other ministries should take a second place to the primary ones of prayer and the ministry of the word, as it is put in Acts, with the Mass being the source and summit of all prayer.
The other approach is to turn from “dumbed down” Catholicism to clear, honest, thoughtful Catholicism, an approach found in Word on Fire Ministries. But this also calls the priest to an engagement with theology in a spiritual way. Thomas Aquinas did have a good head, but in the end he was a Dominican friar, for his head was subordinated to and in the service of his devotion to Christ. It is no accident that a number of great saints are part of those studied by Word on Fire.
The above are miscellaneous thoughts for difficult times. What is clear is that the solution to problems in the church is not primarily Protestant Church Growth strategies that are not working for most Protestant Churches. It is certainly not watering down truth so that what one believes and what one seeks ethically is less important than whether it is meaningful to one, makes one feel good. It may indeed be that the reachable solution for Catholics is godly priests, priests who know that they are at their roots monks, and that their focus is prayer. This is not without its hardships, but it would seem to be in tune with renewal movements down the ages and points towards a unity of liturgy and life with the priest leading the way by example.