The Surprising Satisfaction Of The Sacraments

I served as a minister in the Free Church tradition for more than thirty-five years, first as a Baptist then as a non-denominational evangelical then as a Mennonite. For all of those years, I believed and taught that the benefit to be derived from baptism and communion (also called “the Lord’s supper,” but never “the Eucharist”) was in their value as powerful symbols of “spiritual” truths.

Baptism (1)Baptism symbolized a believer’s faith in Christ as Savior and Lord and the personal commitment to follow Him as a faithful and obedient disciple. Communion symbolized the sacrifice of Christ in His crucifixion—His broken body (the bread) and His shed blood (the wine, or more likely grape juice). Both these practices represented something else. They were beneficial to the degree that a Christian knew what they stood for. They mainly functioned as “object lessons,” pointing to a spiritual reality but without value in and of themselves.

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Better Together

I’m an introvert. That is not news to anyone who knows me well, but it may surprise many who know me only through my public ministry. As an introvert, I don’t mind spending time alone. Many of those who know me best think that is a good thing. 🙂

Whereas extroverts (also spelled “extraverts”) thrive on social interaction and are energized by being with people, introverts like me find socializing, except with a small Introversion and Extroversionnumber of very close friends, stressful and energy-depleting. And yet it is an absolutely essential element in most public ministry, especially the pastorate.

When I was in seminary, I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for the first time. The MBTI is a questionnaire which measures personal preferences in the way individuals perceive the world and make decisions. One component of personality type which the instrument evaluates is the propensity toward introversion or extroversion. When my faculty advisor was reviewing with me the assessment of my responses to the MBTI questions, he looked at the results then at me and said, “Hmmm. An introvert in an extrovert’s job. Are you prepared for that?”

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Prudent Politics

I am, by nature, an advocate. I tend to develop convictions thoughtfully, and then, having arrived at a conclusion, I want to encourage those with whom I agree and convince my opponents of the error of their ways. I have made a few enemies as a result of yielding to that tendency, especially when convictions which I developed later in life required the amendment, if not the abandonment, of positions I had earlier held.

Seven years ago I underwent a dramatic transformation of my political views. Almost overnight I changed my mind about a host of issues concerning which, I had previously assumed, my positions were set in stone. I was first eligible to vote in the general election of 1972. For thirty-three years I had consistently cast my vote for candidates representing one particular political party (except for 1980, when I voted for the third party candidate, and 1984, when I sat out the election and didn’t vote at all). All of that changed in 2005.

I’m not going to tell you, at least not in this post, how I changed politically—not the old positions that I abandoned nor the new viewpoint that I embraced nor the factors that influenced the change (although I know what they were, and I may address that in a future blog post). I mention my political transformation for two reasons. First, my experience is evidence that you can indeed “teach an old dog new tricks.” (I was 55 years old in 2005.)

More importantly, however, I draw attention to my political “conversion” to introduce the real point of this post. Once it became clear to me that I needed to rethink some of my earlier points of view, positions I had maintained and advanced with evangelistic fervor, my first inclination was to promote my newfound convictions with equal enthusiasm. Fortunately, the one truly beneficial characteristic of growing older, i.e. wisdom, kicked in. I was not only older, I had grown a bit wiser over the years as well.

I’m not proposing that the change in my political perspective is, itself, a product of my increasing wisdom. (I believe it is, but that is a case I will need to make at a later time.) I’m suggesting that the wisdom and maturity that accompany growing older have tempered my youthful exuberance.  As much as I wanted to share my newfound “enlightenment” with my still-benighted friends in order to persuade them to change their ways, the better part of wisdom called for self-restraint and patience.

I had come to the conclusion that some of my earlier views were wrong. I had not considered the issues carefully enough. I had not taken time to hear the voices of people who, although they advocated political positions which I found objectionable, were nonetheless as equally committed to Christ as I was. I had to repent of my arrogance and intransigence and admit that the perspective with which I had been brought up might not be the only one a citizen of the Kingdom of God could support. Coming to that recognition, I felt both liberated and admonished. I recognized that, if I had been wrong before, I might be wrong again. I don’t think I am, but I hold my convictions more gingerly now. Temperance and a bit of humility have replaced doctrinaire self-confidence.

In private conversation, under particular circumstances, I can be as forceful and aggressive in the advocacy of my political points of view as I ever was, even though I have undergone dramatic changes in my thinking. But in public, I have determined that, particularly in the current political climate, it is better to maintain a more discreet, more prudent approach.

I spent several hours earlier today reading the official platforms of both political parties. I find much in both of them to applaud. I find much in both of them with which I take exception. That is what prompted me to write the comment which I posted on my Facebook wall today:

The values of the Kingdom of God do not align with either political party. The King of Kings is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. He would find Himself in prophetic tension with both parties. Political ideology should not be a mark of Christian orthodoxy, whether from the right or the left.

I am a person of deep convictions in many areas. I believe firmly that my faith in Christ and my devotion to the Kingdom of God have a direct and practical impact on the way I relate to the culture and society of which I am a part. I believe Christians should care about the “public square,” should involve themselves in the political process, and should know why they hold the convictions that they do. I also believe that there is seldom a single point of view on any issue that can be regarded as the correct position which must be embraced by all true Christians.

One of my very best friends, a Christian brother whom I have known for more than thirty years, holds political convictions which, in many cases, reflect the opposite end of the political spectrum from my own positions. We recognize our differences. From time to time we actually broach them in one of our frequent telephone conversations. But they have not presented an insurmountable barrier to our friendship, and they have not posed an impediment to our common commitment to Christ and His Kingdom.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that about all those who have known me both before and after my political “conversion.” Many have criticized my change of heart as a departure from the true faith. One even suggested that the clerical collar I now wear is too tight and impedes the flow of oxygen to my brain. (If only he knew that most of those who wear this collar, among my colleagues anyway, would share his disdain for my politics.)

I publish this post in the hope that, during these final three months of a seemingly interminable election season, we Christians can tone down the rhetoric a bit and give one another the benefit of the doubt. I may differ with you on some political issues, but if we both acknowledge the lordship of Christ, I am not your enemy. We may be convinced that those with whom we disagree are wrong. If they are fellow-believers, however, we must never regard them as evil.

My grandfather used to tell me not to judge another man’s actions or motives until I had walked a mile in his shoes. After more than six decades of life, I have learned that almost nothing is as simple as the loudest voices, of both proponents and critics, would have us believe. In future posts, I’ll attempt to illustrate how that plays out in the shouting matches between fervent advocates of opposing political viewpoints.

In the meantime, I hope we can be more civil and less caustic, more prudent and less strident.  If we can’t, we may shore up our respective bases and generate a chorus of “Amens” from the choir we’re preaching to. But in the process we may succeed only in further alienating those who have not yet come to faith in Christ. Too many of them already believe that Christians are narrow-minded and mean-spirited. And when you consider how we speak of those with whom we disagree, even within the household of faith, can you blame them?

[And now a postscript. Some of the most astute among the readers of this blog may already be thinking, “Hmmmm. He had a dramatic political conversion seven years ago. Wasn’t that about the same time he transitioned from Anabaptism to Anglicanism? I wonder if there is a connection?”

I can assure you there is virtually none. The timing is purely coincidental. The factors which ultimately influenced my identification with Anglicanism had been taking shape in my thinking for several years before I first visited a liturgical church. The factors which influenced the changes in my political perspective emerged rather suddenly, in conjunction with a course I was teaching at the time. These experiences came about exclusive of each other. Neither was dependent upon nor occasioned by the other. But thanks for asking.]

Everywhere And Nowhere At The Same Time

In the Anglican tradition, every Sunday morning immediately following the sermon, the congregation rises to its feet as the celebrant says something like, “Now let us together confess our faith using the ancient words of the historic Nicene Creed.” Near the end of that recitation, we make the following declaration:

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

I know what that statement intends to convey. All people everywhere, throughout all of Church history, who have confessed Jesus as Lord, are members of what Paul called “the church which is (Christ’s) body.” Irrespective of denominational characteristics or doctrinal distinctives, and despite the plethora of groups and alliances which identify themselves as one type of “church” or another, the creed affirms that all Christ-followers belong to a single entity, under the headship of Christ, known in creedal terms as “one holy catholic (universal) and apostolic Church.”

We would surely not be surprised, however, if a non-Christian attended a Christian worship service for the first time and responded to that assertion in the Creed with a quizzical expression and questions like, “Really? What does that mean? One Church? Really?”

For most of the first half of its history, roughly 1000 years, the Church was fairly united despite being spread over a wide expanse of territory in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Then came the “Great Schism” which separated the church into Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) divisions in 1054. The Western church suffered further division in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It had barely recovered from that when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, and the Protestant Reforma- tion was born.

From that decisive moment, I submit, the most common method of dealing with conflict and disagreement in the Church has been to divide into factions with the proponents of the various points of view going their own separate ways. The result has been a continuous series of splits and splinters among the people of God on a scale that extends from worldwide communions to local congregations. Since the Protestant Reformation, Christians have mainly dealt with their differences by separating from one another, and the multiplied thousands of denominations and sects and alliances, all claiming to be a faithful representation of the true Church, are the result.

This preference for separation must break God’s heart. On the night before He was crucified, Jesus petitioned His Father in heaven on behalf of those who would come to faith through the witness of the Apostles. Here is what He said in His “High Priestly Prayer,” which John recorded for us in the seventeenth chapter of his Gospel—

20 “My prayer is not for (these apostles) alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

The purpose for this post is not to explore the issues which have caused all these divisions in the Body of Christ. Nor am I devoting any more than this line to acknowledging that divisions are sometimes sadly unavoidable. What I want to offer in this post is a way of looking at my own spiritual pilgrimage as a reflection of my anguish over this deplorable situation and my own feeble effort to address it.

Two recent incidents provided the impulse for this perspective. Last Saturday I spent time with some new friends whom I met as a result of initial contact occasioned by this blog. This couple recounted a pilgrimage in many ways similar to my own. Like me, they have been drawn into the liturgical tradition from a more mainstream Free Church background. We are not looking for the “next new thing” because we are unstable and hard to please. We are serious in our pursuit of authentic faith, and we recognize that the multiple splits and divisions among Christians over the centuries mean that no single tradition represents the complete fullness of truth and spiritual reality.

At least twice in a two-hour conversation I heard the husband say, “I have a passion for the unity of the church.” I knew exactly what he meant. I have a similar passion. There may be little that we can do as individuals to overcome centuries of discord within the church and break down the barriers to fellowship and communion which have been built and reinforced over the years. But by our example we can testify to the value inherent in virtually all  Christian traditions.

Our journeys are not a repudiation of traditions we have forsaken but an embracing of new elements of truth and practice which have enriched our experience as believers by complementing what we experienced within and among those communities of faith which we once called home.

And then, a second incident which helped prompt this post. On Sunday I came upon a Facebook post by one of my former students. She and her husband, also a former student, have recently moved to Southeast Asia where they will be working in Bible translation. She had shared the link to my last blog post on her Facebook wall with the introduction, “My former professor, Mr. Kouns, and a bit of his journey.”

Below the link to my blog post, she wrote a bit more in the form of a comment. Here is part of what she wrote.

I’ve thought a lot about this professor of ours, and his journey. The churches here in (this part of the world) tend to be on the Charismatic side of life, and in church this morning I got this crazy, almost humorous, picture of Mr. Kouns adding yet another dimension to his eclectic list. What would a Charismatic Anglican Anabaptist look like? Yeah, that would be a new one! Why does it seem that God calls some of us to fit everywhere and no where at the same time? This world is not our home….

What she didn’t know then, but will now learn, is that I have deep roots in the charismatic community. In 1987, I spent an entire week at the Vineyard Church in Anaheim, CA, with Jon Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement and a leading advocate for charismatic gifts, particularly in the area of healing. I did not emerge from that experience as a convinced charismatic, but I came to appreciate that perspective in a new and fresh way.

My former student referred to the traditions I have identified with over the course of my pilgrimage as my “eclectic list.” I know what she meant, but I object slightly to the use of the term “eclectic.” To me that suggests a cafeteria-line approach to discipleship where one simply partakes of those items that he finds most appealing—a smorgasbord of spirituality, if you will. That is not my experience at all.

My exposure to a wide variety of Christian traditions has resulted in my conviction that there is far more to unite us as believers than to divide us. In a world where it is easier to fight than to work things out through negotiation, compromise, and “preferring one another,” my pilgrimage across denominational lines and through a variety of traditions may seem eclectic and unstable. I can testify, however, that I have been enriched and, indeed, humbled by the experience, and I am grateful to God for blessing me with the opportunity to benefit from the good things within the Body of Christ that I would have missed if I had not been willing to explore possibilities and expand my horizons.

My pilgrimage continues. I fully expect to die an Anglican. An Anglican with strong Anabaptist convictions. An Anabaptist-Anglican with deep appreciation for the power of God which energizes the charismatic community. An Anabaptist Anglican with charismatic sensibilities who reads Calvinists and Arminians, conservatives and liberals, young-Earth creationists and theistic evolutionists. I don’t agree with all of them. But this “eclectic list” gives me hope that, at least in the Kingdom to come, the prayer of our Lord for unity within the Church will finally be answered.

Soli Deo Gloria.