“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” – Ephesians 4:15 (NIV)
Several Domestic Updates ago, I wrote to you about “The Art of Double-Listening” [https://americananglican.org/featured/the-art-of-double-listening/ ] and shared with you about a wonderful spiritual conversation I had with a fellow attorney traveling next to me on a flight to Cleveland. I shared my faith, and he shared his faith and his questions with me. After we exchanged business cards, we continued to text each other, and I expressed the hope that there might be more opportunities to share with him in the future.
Well, God is good! My newfound friend and his wife texted me an invitation to come down and address the Sunday morning “interfaith discussion group and gathering” in their planned community on Sunday, February 16. Ground rules included “no proselytizing,” respecting all other faiths, and bringing a message that would be inspiring and meaningful—addressing a significant issue that people deal with—and to provide ample time for response and question and answer from the audience.
When I received the invitation, I was reminded of a conversation I had last year at Gafcon Dubai with an Anglican bishop in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. He shared with me how he always accepted invitations by Imams and other religious leaders to participate in interfaith gatherings and dialogues precisely because it gave him an opportunity to share about Jesus Christ and his unique claims as savior and lord of all, and to illustrate comparisons and differences with other faiths. I therefore gladly accepted my own invitation and saw it as an open door to share in that same spirit and with the same conviction.
My friend from the flight called me up on Saturday to advise me that at least one person in the inter-faith group had looked me and the American Anglican Council up for more information. Not surprisingly, they discovered that our Biblical positions on a number of moral issues today, including human sexuality and marriage, are at odds with the consensus of those in the interfaith group I would be addressing. He and his wife wanted to make sure I was prepared in case the matters came up.
With some trepidation I drove an hour and a half to this beautiful planned community south of Atlanta in the countryside, praying all the way. The community is affluent, and it emphasizes health, conservation, sustainability, tolerance, caring relationships, and a focus on education and the arts. By their own admission, the political and moral leanings of the community are predominantly “left of center.” In my conversations during and after our gathering, I certainly found that to be the case.
Here are my take-aways from my experience “truthing in love,” which is a good phrase for how we should speak to those outside the body of Christ and in the increasingly secular culture in which we live:
People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.
Isn’t this exactly what good missionaries practice when they go into a different culture? You have to start by loving people, getting to know them, listening to their stories and caring about them. Without this Christ-like commitment, all evangelism tools and programs are doomed to fail. This is the very question we pose in our Revive! Workshops and our evangelism video series: Do we really care about people who do not yet know Jesus Christ?
I’ve been convicted lately about how to care: by asking people to share with me about themselves, listening carefully to their stories—attentively listening, not just waiting until they are done so that I can make a point. In the words of St. Francis, seeking to understand rather than to be understood and to love rather than be loved. I was surprised that the interfaith group had a very set liturgy, even though they probably would not like that term. It was different than our Anglican liturgy, to be sure: no prayers to any god, only intentions and invitations to “good thoughts” about named needs. I demonstrated respect for them by entering into their “liturgy” without praying to any other gods or violating my conscience. I know this respect was much appreciated.
Always point people to Jesus.
My friend and his wife specifically asked me to come and share about how my “calling” changed from being an Orange County DA Prosecutor to being a pastor. Their specific invitation grew out of the conversation we had on the plane. Of course, that opened the door to share about how Christ first spoke to me in a significant way: a sexual assault crime I was prosecuting, during which I thought, “how will another win help this victim, a little boy and his mother?” This story of my initial encounter with Truth led me to share more about how Christ spoke to me over the course of my life in many different ways, up through the call that led to my becoming a pastor.
I believe the LORD also put it on my heart to share with this group the important lessons I’ve learned through conflict and failure in ministry, a teaching based on the seven last words of Christ during his crucifixion. I introduced those words as a “dying declaration”—credible precisely because under the pain of death they revealed his true state of mind and heart. In a group like this there was bound to be a lawyer, and I believe the Holy Spirit inspired this “hook” to open the crowd up to hear more about leadership in the context of Jesus. At the discussion’s conclusion, the facilitator asked, “Phil, what is the practical take-away you want to leave us with?” My answer to them was that living and leading according to these seven last words of Jesus requires a different kind of character than any of us can summon in his own strength. I then posed a concluding question: What might you need to experience such an inner transformation? Will you consider Jesus as that way?
Prepare by praying fervently.
I already mentioned my constant prayer before the meeting. I had also asked the rectors of the two Anglican churches where I worship and serve to pray for me and to ask their congregations to pray for me. I asked for the AAC intercessors to pray for me as well. Why? Because often people who do not yet know Jesus need a “spiritual earthquake” beneath their feet, which only prayer will bring, before they can turn to Jesus (see Acts 16:25-30, the conversion of the Philippian jailer and his family).
Truth with love, humility, and humor opens doors.
Self-effacing humor is disarming. The promise in James 4:10: “Humble yourselves before the LORD and he will lift you up,” shows me that it’s okay. So I don’t hesitate to share about my own foibles and failures, especially when they give me an opportunity to share about my need to turn to Christ for help. I was able to share with humor about some leadership decisions I have made in the past, in order to share how Christ has redeemed me and those situations.
I needed these open doors for this crowd. Sharing about sin in our lives is not easy, but I was able to communicate truth in a way that would keep them from unnecessarily reacting viscerally to the word sin. A paraphrase that helped is “habits, hurts, and hang ups.” It was a way of communicating with empathy without sacrificing the truth. In this mixed audience of agnostics, atheists, and the de-churched, I saw nods of self-awareness and recognition of those very dynamics in their own lives.
During the discussion, I was challenged to state why I held my positions on issues like homosexuality and marriage. I shared the “iceberg analogy”: sexuality is only among the surface issues. Deeper issues lie beneath the surface that threaten to sink us, just like an iceberg, including whether or not we can trust the clarity and authority of the Bible as our ultimate moral compass, and whether the Christian gospel itself is “come as you are and stay as you are” or “come as you are, and let Jesus transform you.”
By speaking truth with love, in humility, and with humor whenever possible, doors opened for more questions. During the brunch that followed, I was invited to answer questions about abortion, theodicy (“how can a good and all-powerful God allow evil and suffering in the world?”), anti-Semitism in the history of the Church, and the trustworthiness of the Bible for morality. In the end, many thanked me for sharing my faith so boldly. An attorney there approached me and shared her desire to integrate law and faith; I gave her my card. More than a few people asked if I might come back.
In the book, The Message of Ephesians, John Stott wrote about “speaking the truth in love” and explained that it isn’t the best way of translating Paul’s words. “Literally,” Stott wrote, “it means ‘truthing (aletheuontes) in love’ and includes the notions of ‘maintaining’, ‘living’ and ‘doing’ the truth…Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth.” Over the last few years, working within the Anglican Church at so many different levels, I have felt like salt inside a saltshaker, spending most of my time with leaders inside the Church and not getting out into the world as much as I could. I thank God for the lessons he is teaching me on truthing in love for the sake of those around me, and for pouring me out more and more into the world and out of the saltshaker!
How about you? How has God given you the chance to “truth in love” and is there anyone around you who needs to receive it?