I went to Phoenix last week for three reasons: to see members of my family that live there, to preach at Living Streams church, and to meet a delegation from the Vatican.
I wanted to share some reflections about that third item.
For ten years, I pastored a church in Central Phoenix. So I have many friends there, including some of the city’s church leaders. They were the ones who had invited me to a special meeting with Roman Catholic bishops Olmstead and Nevares; and, a Vatican delegation. The reason for the meeting was to discuss Pope Francis's request that Roman Catholic leaders meet with their Evangelical and Pentecostal counterparts.
The pope’s stated intention for such encounters is that Roman Catholics will experience a renewal in the Holy Spirit. He also believes that praying together will encourage healing between our communities.
During my Phoenix years, I worked extensively to create those kinds of connections among Christians. So I wouldn’t have missed that meeting for the world.
After arriving at Living Streams, where the meeting was held, pastor Mark Buckley welcomed us, Gray Kinneman outlined the meeting's purpose and then introduced Bishop Olmstean who read a letter from the Pope, specifically addressing the people in our meeting.
Here are some brief quotes from Pope Francis’s much longer letter.
“When people persecute the flowers of Jesus, they do not distinguish between the believers who are Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Evangelical, Pentecostal or Roman Catholic. Evil views us all the same. As a result, in many places of the world, our brothers in Christ have experienced an ecumenism of blood. They suffer in a unity that evil already acknowledges. We must persevere in prayer until this unity becomes a reality for us as well.
Please pray for me that I will be guided by the Lord to do what I can to bring healing and unity to His church.”
After the bishop read the pope’s letter, he introduced two Italians, one Pentecostal pastor and one Roman Catholic. The Pentecostal leader gave his testimony about how he had reluctantly entered into these discussions, and he had been shocked to see how intense some of the Roman Catholic leaders were about the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Vatican delegate added this:
“A few years back, some Anglican priests got a few of us Roman Catholic priests together in a room and told us that we needed the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They laid hands on us and I was gloriously filled with the presence of God. I was so overjoyed, I went and pounded on the door of a Pentecostal pastor in our town. I shouted out to him – “I have been filled with the Spirit!”
He told me to come back some other time!
That hurt my feelings. Then I remembered how, just a few years ago, we had bitterly persecuted Evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. I realized it would take a lot of love, repentance and forgiveness to reconcile us after such serious crimes against our brothers. So we have continued to move forward in prayer and to do all we can to mend fences.
In the meantime, God has been doing some wonderful new things.
The pope had already been meeting with Pentecostal leaders in Argentina each month before he became pope. Since then, he has only deepened his conviction that it will take a genuine encounter with the Holy Spirit to bring reconciliation and restoration to the church. Intuitional structures certainly cannot do it. We are in desperate need of God. For that we need your prayer.”
I was overjoyed sitting in that room with the group of pastors I had known for twenty years. I couldn’t help but remember that fifteen years ago, a radio talk show host had denounced me on his show for ‘hobnobbing with Catholics.” A few weeks after that, had Henry Blackaby not come to my rescue in a minster’s breakfast, a group of Evangelical leaders would have joined the talk show host in publicly offering me the ‘left foot of fellowship.” Praying with Catholics just wasn’t done. It would not be tolerated.
External pressures were not the only impediment to forming friendships with Catholics. I had been a missionary kid in Latin America. I had witnessed first hand the kind of persecution this Vatican official had just publicly acknowledged.
I have had to work through a lot of internal pressure to form real friendships with Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, and even when meeting with types of Christians more familiar to us in our part of the world.
Furthermore, I am not a fan of the old Ecumenical movement. That movement seemed, to me anyway, based on the idea that our disagreements are not very important anyway, so lets just get along and be good social workers. The most disappointing partners in that movement were actually Protestants, who seemed ready at the drop of a hat to surrender every doctrinal belief they had ever professed for the sake of unity. In such discussions, it was actually the orthodox and the Catholics that won my respect.
Even so, our differences must be faced. The question is, “how?”
I believe the pope is right. The way forward is prayer and spiritual renewal. God’s Spirit softness our hearts and opens the Word. In our Phoenix meeting for example, a major connection occurred when Gary Kinneman offered a brief reflection on Ephesians. His insight into the work of the cross in reconciliation resonated with everyone.
In my last blog, I wrote about Joel Osteen. I said that the things for which we often fault Joel are the fruit of Evangelicalism’s continual movement away from Word and Sacrament. We have gotten cute. Trendy. Cool. Savvy. Marketable.
And spiritually anorexic.
With all due respect, this brand of Evangelicalism has little to offer Roman Catholicism. In fact, I believe Catholic theology and sacramental structure is healthier and is more likely to survive into the future than the demythologized, secular, worship-as-pep-rally approach of contemporary Evangelical churches. But I do not say that they are not churches or that the people who attend them are not Christians.
Relationship allows us to critique, and helps us profit from the critique. Without relationship, it is no longer critique. It is merely criticism.
When I read John MacArthur’s book, Strange Fire, I actually agreed with much of what he said about the faults of Charismatic Christianity. Then I went to YouTube to watch his diatribe. I discovered that McArthur was not sure I was even a Christian. So I realize that he thinks he is taking a stand for the truth, but what it feels like is that he is just standing on me. It’s difficult to have a healthy conversation in that position.
Prayer, reading the Word together, eating lunch, carrying one another’s burdens – doing such things over time gradually forms relationships that allow us to tackle the difficult issues that divide us.
As the Vatican delegate acknowledged this week, persecution – even verbal abuse – simply doesn’t work. The wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God.
So then abides these things; faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.”
It never fails.