So I’ve started a blog. The Campus Ministry side finally got me into it, so figured I’d do a personal one too. It will, most likely, be very occasional in nature, but we’ll see.
This first post (eventually) explains the site address – “OakMapleWillowMesquite” This listing of trees is one of the best, I’m pretty sure original to me (although influenced by multiple sources) insights I’ve ever had.
It’s a good chunk of a paper I wrote for a required Evangelism class at Saint Paul School of Theology and about as concise an explanation of who I am theologically as I’ve ever come up with. Blessings on your journey!
Evangelism is sharing good news. For most of my life, however, I did not encounter it that way. I had encountered evangelism as a form of seeking control and power; of telling people what to think and declaring in no uncertain terms that those who failed to behave and believe exactly as the evangelist outlined were going to Hell. As a billboard along the interstate puts it: “Accept Jesus Christ or Regret it Forever!” Until a few years ago, most of my encounter with anything called “evangelism” had been sharply negative, judgmental and fear based. It had led me to leaving church altogether.
As I tentatively made my way back, first out of social convenience and later out of a rebirth of faith, I was encouraged when I read Brian McLaren’s sentiment about evangelism: “that the word is so bastardized that I can hardly bear to use it.” Yet, McLaren seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of the word in much of his work. In More Ready than you Realize, he equates evangelism with conversation “about things that really matter” and defines good evangelists as “people who engage others in good conversation about relevant and profound topics such as faith, values, hope, meaning, purpose, goodness, beauty, truth, life after death, life before death, and God” and who “live unselfishly.” Here was a definition I could embrace. I particularly like his emphasis on life before death.
paper (blog entry) will explore my journey towards a new understanding of the word evangelism and a growing embrace of thinking of myself as one called to practice it. My definition of evangelism is sharing what I have found and been given. Both aspects are important as they indicate that our faith journey is something we are actively engaged in, yet ultimately all we “find” is a gift not of our own making. As a Christian, that means I am engaged in sharing the grace and love as revealed in the incarnation, life, ministry, teaching, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the presence of the Holy Spirit. The goal of this sharing is to help others see that they too are called to find their path, to experience and then share the good news of the grace and love of God in a way that honors the diversity and creativity of God. Evangelism begins in service and hospitality as our paths intersect and continues in conversation about those things that really matter seeking always to share and learn, never to coerce.
God is essentially relationship. Love describes the mystery of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit each unique but united in perfect union. Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the Cappadocian Fathers who were instrumental in working out the Doctrine of the Trinity and the form of Christianity endorsed at the Council of Chalcedon expressed, with “trembling both in tongue and mind… [that] they are divided undividedly…and united in division.” He also emphasized the limits of our understanding by emphasizing that God simply is – noting that terms of time like was and will be “belong to our divided time and transitory nature.” He is saying that our categories and our finite understanding do not limit God. The Trinity is thus a reminder that we do not and cannot fully understand God.
God is both transcendent, beyond all things, beyond both time and space; and yet immanent, with us in personal relationship. That personal relationship is revealed in the incarnation of the Logos in the person of Jesus and experienced in the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is, at its most basic, the Christian meta-narrative. It is the experience of the universal in a particular story or set of stories that shape all of Christian life, even as those of us who share these stories have disagreements and differing emphases.
In his consideration of religious diversity, Dr. Thomas Thangaraj writes: “We humans have our own distinctive ways of organizing our lives in this world, and hence our religions need to be and are distinctive and different. We are different from one another; but we are not distant from one another. That is why “we and they” should be combined with “together.” We find ourselves together in this world today.”
Our differences matter, and yet I think we best honor our Creator when we can find ways to live together in unity; in ways that respect and celebrate rather than blur or eliminate our differences. I consider myself a Christian Pluralist. This means that I recognize that there differences in our paths and perceptions and that those differences matter. It means I affirm multiple paths lead to the divine but that I place myself within the Christian path as the way I am called to journey towards God. I often express my understanding of pluralism by asking people to consider an Oak tree. Focus on what it is to be an Oak.
Now consider a Maple,
now a Willow,
and now a Mesquite.
All are trees. Explain to me the one true way to be a tree. Consider that even two trees of the same type, growing side by side, will have a different experience of air, light, soil and water. They are the same, and yet different. God intends diversity.
My growing faith is rooted in the 1st chapter of John, Philippians 2, Colossians 1 and Luke 15, The eternal Logos became flesh, the “image of the invisible God” “humbled himself” and did so precisely to call and welcome the prodigals home. But notice how each of these passages approaches the mystery of God’s presence and love with different lenses and descriptions. My faith and my approach to ministry does not merely blend them together but celebrates the insights of each. Yet there was a time when I refused to hear this good news myself. When I had turned away and hardened my heart. Those called to other paths have been instrumental in helping me to recognize my own and, thus, my journey has been deeply shaped by my encounter with traditions outside Christianity even as I have rarely strayed far from its banks.
Most particularly my encounter with an Osage drum keeper during a time when I called myself agnostic. As he shared his people’s understanding of the sacred symbol of the drum and the duty and honor of being drum keeper, I encountered God. My heart, as Wesley would say, was strangely warmed. I am clearly not called to be a drum keeper, I am not of that people or path, yet Truth was revealed in a way that led me to question and explore my own relationship with God. Many years later, after I was comfortably back within the Christian fold and had initially laughed off a suggestion that I might become a pastor, my encounter with this man came back vividly to me and I was asked, I believe by God, what might have happened to me if the drum keeper had kept his call and tradition to himself? Would I have ever opened my heart to God? How dare I keep what I had found and what I had been given, to myself. This day marked not only a major shift in my life journey, but in my understanding of evangelism. The drum keeper had in no way tried to make me be like him. Indeed, he would have rejected my attempt to do so. He sought only respect and understanding – yet his sharing of his path illuminated mine.
Another crucial moment in my journey came shortly after I had begun attending church again, but was very actively questioning that. I undertook a wide reading of scriptures from many traditions and I encountered the following passage: “Then we revealed to you this scripture, truthfully, confirming previous scriptures, and superseding them. You shall rule among them in accordance with GOD’s revelations, and do not follow their wishes if they differ from the truth that came to you. For each of you, we have decreed laws and different rites. Had GOD willed, He could have made you one congregation. But He thus puts you to the test through the revelations He has given each of you. You shall compete in righteousness. To GOD is your final destiny – all of you – then He will inform you of everything you had disputed.”
The words are a translation Sura 5:48 of the Qur’an. This passage suggest God intends diversity. It comes near the end of a long passage that is basically a screed against the “People of the Book,”, that is both Jews and Christians, and how they have failed to understand and uphold their covenants. It is a warning to its audience to focus first on upholding their own, lest they repeat the same error. Because of my understanding of God’s grace, I affirm that in the end, all will return to God and then that which we have disputed will be made plain. I encounter the transcendent God in these words and in the people who have shared and discussed them with me, most notably the late Dr. Nabil Seyam, who was, until his tragic death in 2006, the director of the Islamic Society of Wichita and a tireless worker for peace and interfaith cooperation. In encountering this passage and the example of Dr. Seyam and the pastors, rabbis and clerics committed to Inter-Faith service, I found a way to embrace my own path as a Christian while rejecting exclusive claims.
Those from other traditions have offered me light that has illuminated my path and I recognize the source of their light, even as we have different terminology, stories and practices. My call is to similarly share, that I might light another’s path and help them find their way. Our differences matter, and they are intentional. Our task is not to make each other into our image, rather it is to recognize God’s image and help one another become more fully human, revealing more of the likeness of our creator, serving one another in love.
My journey has also been shaped by those in whom I encounter primarily darkness and division instead of grace and love. Sadly most of these persons I have encountered have also claimed the name Christian. My struggle is to find ways to disagree with those I must disagree with while not falling into the trap of becoming that which I am fighting against. I agree with the statement “to consign persons to hell, even in one’s imagination, is to pervert the meaning of the gospel and to presume a judgment that is Christ’s alone.” As tempting as it is to draw hard lines – to count those who hate and divide as beyond God’s love – that is exactly what they are doing. It is a temptation to power and control instead of love and humility. It is to forget the grace I have been given those times when I have erred. The key is to remember mystery, remember the example of Christ humility, and remember that however sure I am of my ideas and opinions they pale in comparison to the eternity of God and the diversity of creation.
Given this, I believe that sharing the good news does not mean making people think, act or even speak like us. It does mean authentically living out the grace we have been given in a way that invites others to explore it and encounter the divine. St. Francis is reputed to have said “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary, use words.” The church as an intentional Christian community is “called to reach out to the world not out of a desire to offer “help” but as a response to and a participation in the salvation it has been given.” This means that each of us as individuals are to walk our journey, focused primarily on serving and conversation, not controlling and dictating right answers. It means that our journey will bring us into contact with others and their paths. Many of our paths will be closely aligned and we can walk together. Some will differ enough that there are intersections. I am utterly convinced that our tasks at these intersections is to share what we have found, receive what we find helpful from others, and to wish each other well as our journey continues.
This is not foreign to the Christian scriptures. For example: At the end of the Gospel of John, Peter has been brought back into communion with Christ, redeemed threefold to match his earlier threefold denial. Yet, apparently not content with that redemption, he looks at the beloved disciple and asks what his fate is. Jesus responds “What is that to you? Follow me.” Our journeys are not separate. We are called to live and grow in community and fellowship, but that does not mean controlling or defining another’s path. Within the Christian meta-narrative there are many stories that embrace our differences.
 Brian McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 12.
 McLaren, 14.
 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations. trans. Sr. Nonna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008), 163.
 Thomas Thangaraj, Relating to People of Other Religions: What Every Christian Needs to Know (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 88.
 Christopher Eshelman, I believe this phrasing is my own work. I made it up during a discussion years ago and have yet to encounter an exact or strongly similar source although I am sure it was in part inspired by The Trees by the band RUSH and by Tolkien’s Ents. I have used it previously at SPST on moodle and in papers.
 During a Minority Studies elective class I took at Wichita State my sophomore year (1987). Sadly the instructor has since passed away and I have been unable to definitely track down who the drum keeper who shared with us was.
 Qur’an Sura 5:48
 Elaine A. Heath, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 50. Summarizing the mystic Balthasar’s understandings.
 Commonly attributed, although it cannot be documented in his writings. See http://www.appleseeds.org/St-Fran_Preach-Gospel.htm last accessed 4/13/2010.
 Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 168.
 John 2:15-23