I attended a day long evangelism workshop yesterday and learned quite a bit. One person was bold enough to give her testimony about when and how she accepted Jesus as her personal savior. That’s a bit unusual for us non-evangelically minded Episcopalians. I’ve known this woman for years and know her faith to be real and deeply held, and her intentions without guile. But I also know that, for many people, accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior has become a formula for the one correct way to become a Christian. Case in point; I got an e-mail just recently from an occasional reader who knows that I am an Episcopal priest and wanted to know the story of how I came to accept Jesus as my personal savior. I doubt if it occurred to her that there was any other question to ask of a Christian. I have some problems with that.
For one thing, I’m uncomfortable with the individuality of the language: it’s just me and Jesus. Don’t need anyone else. For another, I dislike the implication of ownership: “my personal savior,” as if Jesus belonged to me as something I own. Finally, the idea of accepting Jesus as my personal savior seems, at least to me, to put the burden of my salvation on my back, and I’ve got enough to carry without adding that.
When my occasional reader asked for the story of how I came to accept Jesus as my personal savior I wrote back, “I didn’t.” I was brought up in the Church. I cannot remember a time when God in Christ was not a part of my life. There was never a question of whether I accepted him as my personal savior. It’s a question that didn’t even make sense. But there were plenty of questions about whether, and to what extent, I was willing to be a part of his community of followers. Maybe that sounds like splitting hairs, but if so, I think they are hairs worthy of being split. It’s one thing to have a personal savior. It’s another to become a member of a community of disciples who faithfully trust that this Jewish carpenter is so uniquely the presence of God among us that he really is the way, the truth and the light, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. Becoming a follower of Jesus must always put us into the company of other followers. Moreover, following implies a journey. Being on that journey brings to my mind the multitude of conversations that have to be taking place among all the others walking with us. I’m in conversation with you the reader right now, but at another time I might be deep in conversation Erasmus or Augustine or some guy named Ralph. We can (but maybe are not required to) each have a very personal, even intimate, relationship with Jesus, but it can never be singular, nor can it involve any form possessiveness that might imply our ownership of that intimacy.
That leaves plenty of room for Jesus to be the one in charge of what avenues of access to God are open or closed, acceptable or unacceptable, and I don’t recall that Jesus ever asked our advice on the matter. One can most certainly be very authentic in one’s testimony about how Jesus became their personal savior. I may have my own problems with that statement, but I won’t deny it as a genuine statement of faith. What I will object to is any claim that it is the only acceptable statement of faith, the only and necessary entrance ticket required by some heavenly gate usher.
P.S. If you ever get a chance to hear Victoria Heard, Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, speak on evangelism, do it. Her workshop, “How to Share your Faith without Spooking your Friends” is excellent.
Holy but not magic. I wonder how often these two words get used interchangeably? Many of the street people I used to work with in NYC had been through a variety of 28 day gospel mission sobering up sessions where they learned that if they really and truly accepted Jesus as their personal savior their addictions would be cured and life would become good. Becoming a believing Christian held out the promise of a magical cure. Maybe that’s not exactly what was taught, but that’s what was learned. It was learned well. The carrot of Christ was always just a few steps ahead of them, always promised but seldom reached. That’s a dramatic image, but I see the same way of thinking and believing acted out in the words of ordinary every day Christians who imbue faith, the right kind of faith, with what can only be understood as magical powers. It creates several big problem for Christian evangelism.
First, it makes it very difficult to share the faith with a skeptical public that has little time for that sort of naïve childishness. Second, mere magic robs our faith of its “numinous mysterium, tremendum, fascinans”, replacing that with something more akin to professor Albus Dumbledore. Third, it tears to shreds the idea of miracle.
It has been said that modern humanity has lost its sense of enchantment. Perhaps, but the popularity of enchantment based entertainment tells me that modern humanity is hungry for it as long as it is rooted in human(ish) design and control. Skeptics may express disdain for the naïve magical thinking of some Christians, but that’s only because they put it on a par with their own magical pretending, which their pretended rational skepticism knows to be mere entertainment.
Christianity is not about magic. it is about the holy. It is about the unknowable God being made known through God’s self-revelation in the words of prophets and the flesh of Jesus Christ. It is about the ground of all being in love so pure that it frightens mere mortals. It is about that love pouring out and dwelling with humanity and all creation in ways that entice, seduce, inspire, draw and guide. It is about holy mystery that cannot be solved but only lived into. It is a mystery that draws us through our own time and place into God’s eternal time and place.
Christianity is also about miracles, and that’s where things get sticky. Magic is about the human mastery of nature such that it can be manipulated with a word or gesture. Miracle is about God engaging in the lives of human beings in wholly unexpected ways that can, and sometimes do, violate what we think we know about the “laws of nature.” Unfortunately, there have been and continue to be some Christians who believe, and practices that declare, that God can be induced to produce a miracle through the right kind of faithful prayer or ritual. That’s magical thinking and it’s wrong. The power of God to enter into our lives in miraculous ways cannot be limited, nor can it be manipulated. It can be faithfully and hopefully requested but not induced. My own experience is that God most often works through subtle guidance and coincidence. Your experience may be different. In any case, keeping magic and miracle separated by a goodly distance is serious business.
As Christians we are about the holy not the magical.
Jesus said that he is the bread of life. No doubt John intended a strong Eucharistic symbolism, and I don’t think there is anything more important than that, but I also think there is something additional. It begins with a question: What is the source of foundational nutrition? Most cultures that are close to the land have a food that is symbolic of life itself, most often not bread. Whatever it might be, it is a food so basic to that culture that life cannot be imagined without it. Jesus as the bread of life is a perfectly understandable and instantly understood metaphor in those cultures. John goes on to make it not just a powerful metaphor but a claim on the reality of Jesus as the one on whom life itself depends and through whom life comes.
We Americans, and, for that matter, all of the OECD nations, have a hard time apprehending the power of John’s message because we have nothing that is culturally representative of life itself. Blessed with an abundance of inexpensive food in many varieties, there is not one that is the “bread of life.” To be sure there are foods that have powerful symbolic meaning for ethnic heritage and pride, but not as the very stuff of life itself.
However, what we cannot claim as a culture or nation, we can claim as individuals. I imagine that in each of us is something symbolic of life itself, something so basic that life cannot be imagined without it. Whatever that is, it is that which provides the foundational nutrition for our lives. I guess that was what Jung was after and sometimes thought he found. That’s what the advertising industry is after, what motivates fear driven politics, and probably what makes it so difficult for us to ‘sell’ the idea of Jesus as the bread of life to the skeptics that have occupied my thinking about evangelism. It’s why I’m inclined to believe that the best any national church evangelism program can do is to raise awareness and no more than that. I’m inclined to think that for Anglicans, and probably for most churches of the Reformation, real evangelism works best one-on-one or in very small groups. It works best when we take the time to get to know the other well enough to recognize that which is his or her own personal symbolic bread of life.
We’ve had programs that were supposed to do that. Alpha was a program that got its start as a grass roots phenomena back in England and became very popular in the U.S. and Canada. It lost its way when it got packaged and merchandised with videos looking a bit too much like theological “Sham-Wow” commercials. Most of the people who attended congregation sponsored Alpha gatherings were already members of the congregation with a few strangers strong-armed into coming for the free meal and fellowship. As I think about it, they were more like AmWay parties than anything else. I wonder if that’s where the idea came from?
But I digress. For the time being I think I’ll stick to preaching and teaching with the aim of encouraging the formation of disciples who can be all but unconscious of their effectiveness as evangelists just in the ordinary ways they go about their daily lives.