Panem et Circenses

The Roman poet Juvenal once wrote in his Satire all the average citizen of the Empire cared for was “panem et circenses” — bread and circuses. No longer was the average Roman a hero, a legionnaire given to political involvement, promoting the security and prosperity of Rome via steel and ballot. Instead, the satirist laments, Roman citizens abandon their civic duties and their military heroism for others to handle, quite content to stay home as long as they’re fed (bread) and entertained (circuses).

Some 1900 years later, we in the West, particularly in America (heirs of Rome that we are), would once again agree with Juvenal’s assessment of things. Few volunteer for military service. Few vote. We rarely get excited over anything which might be remotely considered duty in any iteration. I’ve encountered people willing to do anything for money — except work. One individual asked my church for assistance after losing his job, received it, then came back later asking for more help, saying he now had two jobs but just didn’t want to go to them. (I declined to give aid that time.) So whether it’s going to vote, going to war, or going to work, we just don’t want to do it.

The same goes for any sort of commitment. The average age of marriage and having one’s first child has been steadily increasing for years for myriad reasons, but fairly recently the marriage rate itself has plummeted. Couples cohabitate for years and even have kids, but they never marry. Some cite financial reasons, but wouldn’t a truly committed couple take steps to make it work somehow? The overwhelming majority don’t even provide that much rationale; they just want benefits sans commitment. The attitude doesn’t stop there. Once married with children, many abandon both in messy divorces. Some divorces are valid, yes, but here I’m referring to the “I just can’t do what I want and be your spouse/parent” ones. And so spouses and children are abandoned. The reverse is also true: many adult children abandon their elderly parents, relegating them to a long-term care facility and never seeing them again because they don’t want the commitment of caring for them themselves.

So what do people seem to want? Bread and circuses, food and entertainment. Eliminate discomfort, and people won’t need to act; eliminate time for independent thought, and they won’t want to. How does this play out for us? Fast food restaurants. Chinese takeout. Delivery pizzas. Drugs. Drunkenness. Reality TV. Graphic movies. Pornography. Casual sex. Social media. Smartphones.

Panem et circenses.

And this happens inside the church, too.

It used to be that the people who comprised the church acted like the church. There was an evangelistic urgency, a missionary zeal. Parachurch organizations grew like wildfire. Christians organized into voting blocs, and clergy voiced their opinions on policy — and those voices were respected. (I can almost chalk up the silenced voice in the public sphere as a simple consequence of post-Christendom, but not quite.) Parishioners volunteered for everything. They sang. They served. They accepted their church as-is and stuck to it even when it did something they didn’t like, which it inevitably did.

Now, however, even self-professed Christians desire little more than bread and circuses from their churches. For years now, church programming has been driven by a consumeristic mentality. We advertise programs catered to every flight of fancy a “church shopper” might have. Our music abandoned its theological moorings and has become indistinguishable in content (and style) from the songs of secularism — because they keep people entertained. Children’s ministry becomes babysitting: kids are given only fun videos and snacks (at times literally bread and circuses) in lieu of biblical content and theological primers. And when someone is no longer fed or entertained they way they want to be, out the door they go, off to join the next church which might give them what they’re after.

We made these changes with dire consequences. Far from being a radically alternative community, a place in which the world has no place, the church has become yet another source of food and entertainment. Our message is the world’s (“you’re fine as you are”); our songs are the world’s (“hold me in your arms, person-who-is-never-named-in-this-song”), and our symbols are the world’s (coffee cups, not crosses — crosses are bloody and offensive). Some even drop the title of church altogether in their very names; I personally know of two simply called “The Creek.” Our architecture has turned sacred space into something identical to a warehouse on the outside. Even our most fundamental rituals — baptism, the Eucharist, and weddings/funerals — look like things the world does, use the same elements, or at the very least are downplayed or panned as optional to the Christian life (which is true only for marriage, unless celibacy just isn’t for you).

We entertain. We provide satisfying fluff. And we look like everyone else in the bread-and-circuses game. Is it any wonder people stopped coming to church? They can get exactly what we offer from a thousand other sources, any one of which will let them sleep in on Sunday morning.

It’s time to stop. Cut out the humanistic food. Close the curtains on entertainment qua entertainment. We need to look like Christ, not the Colosseum. We must look like the holy, not Barnum & Bailey. Food? The body and blood of Christ, broken and poured out for atonement for sins. Living water and baptismal fonts. The word of God proclaiming the Word of God. Selfless service to our neighbors. Public condemnation of sin and private corrections. Community. Grace. Heaven. Hell. Eternity. Trinity. Jesus.

Let’s put away the smoke, the light shows, the “required” ecstatic high. Abandon panem et circenses. Show people a risen Lord in all his majesty. That is something which will wake them from their dogmatic slumber. That is a love which cries out, which demands others love in return. Stop selling tickets to the circus and start proclaiming Christ.

Unapologetic

A conversation with another pastor after a revival meeting this week gave me the title of my first book (if no one’s stolen it already): Unapologetic Apologetics. (Coming to a bookstore near you, summer 2082).  My clergy brother told me my sermon reminded him we must never apologize for the gospel, never be sorry Jesus came and that our only salvation is in him. Even when the truth is hard for others to hear, we boldly proclaim it in love.

That got me thinking. I doubt any of us have ever told a lost soul, “I’m sorry Jesus loved you enough to die for you,” but it’s possible we’ve altered our message or apologized in other ways. One of the biggest ways the contemporary church seems to soften its message is the way we don’t talk bout sin — not even specific sins, but the general concept of sinfulness. “Sin” has become a dirty word, and many ministers avoid it altogether. I’m not fully convinced replacing “sin” with “mistake” or “failure” mitigates that much emotional distress, but I’m certain it does remove any inherent moral content associated with the misdeed. I can fail a chemistry exam, after all, or mistakenly conclude 2+2=3, but neither of those things has implicitly moral/ethical/theological implications. Stealing does. Lying does. They are sinful things, and they demand proper classification and nomenclature. If we don’t use the appropriate terminology, we’re saying these things aren’t as bad as they truly are. We’re not offering the full moral truth; we’re apologizing for giving someone a guilty conscience.

We also frequently apologize for Christianity’s exclusivity claims, increasingly abandoning them altogether in favor of an inclusive or pluralistic approach to other religions. It’s offensive to declare ours is the only true religion, that the Christian God is the one true God, and that Jesus is the only way to salvation. That’s offensive, it hurts, it’s “triggering,” it’s a myriad of other similar things. So people back down and apologize. “I didn’t really mean Jesus is the only Savior. I’m sorry if I called your religion false in any way.” We say we’re sorry for speaking the truth and allow other people to live lives which will take them and the demons they worship straight to hell.

We apologize for other things, too. Minor things. The Crusades, for example. I will never apologize for those, but even I’ll admit the Spanish Inquisition, while unexpected, was too far. I’ll even say the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and the murder of the Anabaptists during the Reformation deserve apologies.

But not exclusivity. Not the existence of sin and hell. These are realities, core parts of our faith, and I will never apologize for something the Bible says.

Christians, we must be bold. We cannot back down from the truths of our faith simply because the world disagrees with them. We knew it would: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). The cross of Christ has always been offensive. It has always impressed upon us the reality of our sin, always pointed us to a single atonement.

Never apologize for our faith. Be a stalwart defender of Christianity. Stand in the gap and boldly, lovingly tell the world about its Savior. For without this proclamation, we have no Church, no hope, no love for our neighbors.

The World of Gardeners

My grandfather always said he was “a big fan of Mama Nature.” And he was. He meticulously kept a variety of flowers and shrubs in immaculate condition. A range of fruit trees dominated one side of the hill behind his house, and a blackberry briar claimed the other. His garden was the biggest personal-use plot of land I’ve seen to this day. My other grandfather (and grandmother) worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Being outside, caring for nature runs in my blood.

Unfortunately, those genes never kicked in. I have a black thumb, killing every plant I’ve ever cared for, for any length of time. I’m allergic to oak pollen and dust. I hike in the fall when things are dying and dead.

I’m pretty I was cursed as a baby by a gypsy.

Regardless of a lack of personal talent in the area, I’m greatly concerned for our environment (one of the few passions I get from my father, a former environmental engineer and current environmental science teacher [his genes activated]). Without taking a stand on global warming — I leave that to your conscience — I still know a problem when I see one. And we have a problem — many problems. Oceans saturated with so much carbon dioxide they can’t absorb much more. Coral bleaching. Algae blooms extending for miles. Failure to invest in sustainable energies. Mismanagement of industrial waste. Rapidly dwindling landfill space. Products designed to break after so long. Other things crafted by an artificial timetable to go “out of style.” Species going extinct, resources being depleted, corporations destroying lands without reclaiming them, industrial farms . . .

Mama Nature can’t be too happy right now.

Of course, there is no Mother Nature. There’s only the created world and its Creator. But something tells me God isn’t too happy with things, either.

You see, when God created the heavens and the earth, He called it good. It was good — perfect, in fact. Nothing had yet marred it in any way. No sin, no natural disasters, nothing. No corporations had invented mountaintop removal. No chemicals yet spilled into the seas. It was perfect. And into this perfect world God placed humanity with a command: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28).

This is known as the creation (or dominion) mandate. Humans were made to conquer the world and rule it (muwahahaha!). It’s our purpose: to be caretakers and stewards of an entire planet. This is confirmed a few verses later in Genesis 2:15: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” We are to care for our world. We were created to be gardeners. Not warriors, not consumers. Gardeners.

Simply put, we can’t care for a dead garden.

Christians have always believed the creation mandate confers a duty to practice good stewardship of our natural treasures. It’s our job to exercise responsible use of water, land, plants, and animals. A few have objected over the years, saying that if the world is just going to burn anyway in accordance with 2 Peter 3:10, why bother saving it? The selfish answer is, of course, because we still live on it. We don’t know when Christ will return, so we don’t know how much longer we need to make things last. Theologically, we have the rest of Scripture. An explicit command to tend the garden, repeated arguments based on nature, an awareness of creation worshiping God even if we don’t . . . We must be good caretakers, good environmentalists.

How do Christians demonstrate care for the environment? Here’s a short list.

  1. Reduce, reuse, recycle. It still helps.
  2. Conserve water and electricity whenever possible. Unplug “energy vampires” when not in use. Take shorter showers. Buy energy efficient/high efficiency appliances and toilets.
  3. Write your politicians and advocate environmentally friendly legislation. Show the government we as Christians care about this issue, too.
  4. Pray. Always pray.

These are baby steps, but they’re a place to start. Every little bit helps, folks.

Let us worship God by taking care of His world.

Saint Stephen’s Option

There comes a time in every Christian’s life when we must decide how to move forward, how to be salt and light, how we will relate to the world around us. As I’ve outlined previously, theologians and ethicists categorize our options into a few different groups (and more abound than in my earlier post). Today, though, I want to skip the helpful nuances and present you with a black and white, heads or tails choice with precisely two options for our cultural engagement.

Option One: we give up. This choice is exactly as it sounds. We just give up, roll over, and call it a day. We admit we lost the war and adopt positions which mirror the secular-humanist philosophy of our unchurched peers. Marriage? Well, the law is the law, so let that one go. Open the doors of our worship spaces and let all gays, lesbians, and transgenders wed. Go a step further and unite them at our hands, invoking the blessings of a largely apathetic (if not outright non-existent) God upon the union. Abortion? It’s a clump of cells, barely alive, and certainly sub-human. Expel it from the uterus, crush its skull in the birth canal, just get rid of it. After all, you might be inconvenienced by having to care for a child, particularly if you’re not married. But if you’re not, that’s fine. Living together is the “in” thing, after all. Commitment is outdated, and since sex is only about your own pleasure (not even your partner’s, but yours) and has zero spiritual or mystic dimensions, have fun. Be yourself. Oh, and don’t fret about staying in your marriage if you’re already hitched. Marriage, like sex, is only about your personal happiness. Leave whenever you like for any reason whatsoever. I mean, some people just don’t get along, and it’s hard to make it work.

To support these changes, we’re going to need to give up a lot of other things, too. No more talk of sin. No cross, no atonement, as these require sin. Miracles are anti-science, so none of those. Oh, and let’s toss any theology argued from creation, as creation is a silly, antiquated idea from the mythic age; we’ll need to get rid of Paul, and the Pentateuch, some psalms, the last chapters of Job . . . well, honestly, the angry Old Testament God is pretty problematic (the concept of judgment is a bit woolly these days), so let’s only go with the New Testament with the aforementioned omissions. Be sure to skip Revelation, too, though, as there’s a lot about people not being saved, hell, and lakes of fire.

Really, Option One changes every facet of worship. Most (all, if we’re being careful with our lyrics) of our music would be inappropriate in such a setting. Sacraments convey a sense of “in” and “out,” so let’s skip those. Prayer might be a bit, well, pointless at this stage, so give that a miss, too. And since there’s really nothing left to preach, we may as well leave out a sermon. Someone can give a rousing talk or a self-improvement seminar, but leave sermonizing out of this.

As you can see, the first of our two options ends in simply closing the doors of the church. It would be superfluous (as so many think it now), unnecessary reinforcement of the cultural norms (as so many churches have already become). The church would stop being called out from among the world — the literal definition of the church — stop being weird, stop being alternative and counter-cultural.

In the spirit of fairness, I want to paint Option Two (remaining steadfast) with an equally exaggerated treatment. This second of our two possible choices is the opposite of the first. Instead of giving in, we redouble our commitment to our current positions. We declare sex belongs only in marriage and marriage is one man and one woman for life. We call abortion murder, the willful and deliberate taking of another human life. We preach sin, hellfire, judgment, and damnation. We sing songs about the cross of Christ and the atonement made to cover our personal sins. We teach stories of a creator God who loves us and disciplines us. We say “you shouldn’t do that” as well as “I encourage you in this,” whichever is appropriate at the time. We initiate believers by baptism and serve them the body and blood of Jesus Christ in our Supper. We promote peace and human flourishing, not hedonistic, individualistic self-destruction.

The truly radical part is how we can do all this while suffering for it. I never want to diminish the persecutions faced by my brothers and sisters in other countries, but even here we face insults, protests, and people crying out for our destruction. In the eyes of our culture, Christians are increasingly being painted as villains. But we endure it all. We don’t change our proclamation, opting instead to willingly face the consequences.

I call this the Saint Stephen Option. St. Stephen was one of the first deacons of the Church — and its first martyr. As his story goes in Acts 6-8:1, Stephen was seized for preaching the gospel. In his defense before the Sanhedrin, he simply recounted salvation history, ending with a vision of Jesus. He was stoned to death, his last words crying out to God to forgive his killers.

His is the example I propose we follow. I say we draw the line in the sand and hold to it. We don’t budge. We don’t jettison unpopular doctrines. We cling to them more than ever. We preach and teach the fullness of the gospel. We do so in love and because of love. If we are robbed or killed or spoken of evilly or forced from positions of influence or ignored entirely, we bear it in grace. We willingly suffer for proclaiming Christ and him crucified, realizing the salvation of souls is worth any sacrifice we may be called upon to make. It is our turn now; Saint Stephen has passed the baton to us. Our sacrifice, our blood will be the seed of the church. Future generations will say of us, “the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:38). But only if we hold the line.

Option One is untenable. Of these two, only the Saint Stephen Option will work. Only our continued witness to and critique of our culture will do it any good. Only if the Church maintains its status as an alternative community will it continue to exist at all.

The gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matthew 16:18). Don’t open the doors and let it inside freely.

Expressions of Memory

Late summer has a particular scent to it. It’s a smell of a core of heat gone cold around the edges, of a fire ready to go to embers, of an aridity struggling to hang on before the rains come. It’s the smell of green leaves and dust, of hot ashes and warming homes, of new endings and old beginnings. That scent brings up many memories for me. I spent twenty falls in a classroom — returned to school at the end of summer for two-thirds of my life. So this smell reminds me of starting over, of friendship, of facing the unknown while working hard to bring it to light. Overall, it’s a series of happy memories, and so the end of summer brings a smile to my face.

Memories are powerful things. Our entire lives can be changed simply by how we remember things. A bad memory, true or false, can determine our attitude about practically anything, really. Grudges, after all, are nothing more than a set of negative emotions held together by memory of a real or perceived slight. We don’t patronize a store or a restaurant based on our recollection of how it was years ago, heedless of anything which may have changed in the interim since that memory was made. On a practical level, memory can make or break you; consider students studying for their exams or a businessman bucking for a promotion. Their faculty of recall, their ability to remember the pertinent data determines their success or failure.

Of course, our identity relies upon memory, too. It’s impossible to live in relationship with other people if we forget who we are, who they are, or how we’re to act towards each other. You can’t perform your job if you can’t remember how. Your past decides the future inasmuch as it made you the person you are as you face the years ahead of you. This is what makes Alzheimer’s Disease and amnesia in its various iterations so particularly insidious (and one of my worst fears). They erode who you are.

One shouldn’t confuse memory with personhood or intelligence, however. Even the amnesiac and the demented are beloved human beings, people made in the imago Dei, people receiving the love of God. They do not cease being human just because their memory fails. By contrast, those of superior memory are not superior humans. Our current society places a premium on raw knowledge. We often mistake knowledge for intelligence, though. Knowledge is not intelligence any more than ignorance is stupidity. Someone may be able to recite an encyclopedia without understanding a word of it. Data must be assimilated, processed, manipulated — and that requires an intelligence beyond a simple capacity for memory.

Having a fantastic memory can be a problem in many ways, too. Remembering every detail of everything makes it difficult to move beyond past hurts. The pain is always fresh, the sharpness never dulled by time. Instead such slights are fully relived and re-experienced at will, and sometimes involuntarily. On the flip side, good memories can become idols. The remembered past, regardless of the accuracy of the remembrance, becomes the goal, the objective for the future. This is the fatal flaw of Jay Gatsby, so astonished Nick Carraway should believe one can’t repeat the past. We can’t, of course. The past has passed, and we can’t hope to recover it. But when memory dominates, when we try to recreate it instead of moving forward in new directions, we turn the past into a god instead of letting God be sovereign over our past.

This power of memory appears as a common motif in Scripture. God casts our sins “into a sea of forgetfulness.” “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” God “remembers” His promises to and covenants with His people. But the greatest instance of memory comes in anamnesis, in enacted memory — the memory we experience each time we celebrate the Table. The Eucharist is the ultimate expression of memory. It is the perfect obedience to the command to remember Christ. The Great Thanksgiving calls to mind the mighty acts of God’s redemptive work in history, of His salvific deeds recorded throughout time. When we proclaim the death of Jesus in bread and wine — and true proclamation it is — we remember the sacrifice of our Lord at Calvary. What’s more: we recreate it in effigy, in symbol, breaking the bread of his body and pouring out the cup of his blood. This enactment (not reenactment, for we do not sacrifice Christ anew each Lord’s Day) of memory is the ultimate remembrance. Here we remember Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Indeed, this shared memory, this common remembering, unites us to God and to each other — perhaps even for the first time.

Thus is the freedom and the tyranny of memory. The tyranny to unmake us, to hold us captive to the remembered past — and the freedom to recall and enact the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Rite Stuff

Once upon a time, back before the days of my deep theological reflection, before I had realized a calling in low church evangelicalism, I had dinner with a Roman Catholic bishop. I had met with the diocesan vocations director and formally begun discerning the call to the priesthood. I was issued a rosary blessed by Pope Saint John Paul II specifically for the discernment process, and the bishop wanted to meet with me and all the other discerners for food, prayer, and general fellowship. A month later — and three months away from the formal ceremony to sign on the dotted line, having been fast-tracked by the diocese and offered a potential place of study in Rome itself — I “discerned out” and returned to the Protestantism which birthed me.

My friends still call me Father Peters, though.

I dropped out for several reasons (and before you ask, mandatory clerical celibacy was not one of them), but there were two main things which made me want to “go home to Rome” in the first place. The first was a study of church history and historical theology, which convinced me contemporary Protestantism gets a few things wrong. The second — and the more influential, being guided by my heart more than my head for the only time in my life — was the Roman Mass itself. I visited a Roman Catholic church with a couple of friends and immediately and irrevocably fell in love with the eucharistic liturgy. The reverence, the congregational participation, the veneration, everything about it captured my heart at once. I fully admit I’m a “smells and bells” guy when it comes to liturgical worship. Now, speaking only in Latin or celebrating ad orientem may be a bit too sacerdotal for my taste — and orthopraxy, even in worship, must follow orthodoxy — but the rites and rituals of high church worship does it for me. It fits my personality.

I’m personally wired for such things. If I may say so myself, I have a gift for rites, for the ritualistic. It’s one reason I receive so many comments about my weddings and why I’ve already been booked for the funerals of those who may very well outlive me. It’s a talent, a knack I have.

We all possess a need for those sorts of things. Even if we worship in the low church style and receive Communion via “Jesus chiclets” and “Protestant shot glasses” as we do in my own denomination, we as individuals possess a need for ritual. I think we all realize this even outside of the church. After all, what are birthday parties? Graduation ceremonies? Quinceaneras? Bar mitzvahs? They’re rites of passage, ways to mark specific moments in time or special accomplishments in ritualistic ways. For example, someone once described a birthday party in these terms: “People gather around a sacrificial food after removing it from the fire. After chanting the required song of celebration, the object of celebration prays and extinguishes the ceremonial candles. The sacrificial food is portioned out, and gifts are brought to the celebrant.” Phrased differently, that’s, “Your friends and family take your birthday cake out of the oven and bring it to you. They sing ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ and you make a wish and blow out the candles. Everybody gets a piece and give you your birthday presents.” See? Ritual. (Don’t get me started on the liturgical garb we call “academic regalia.”) This stuff is everywhere, even in the most private moments of our lives. We invent it to make it so.

And we need to. These rites and rituals are critical for our life in community. They unite us. They create shared and common experiences. They act as benchmarks and guideposts, letting us know we’re at specific points in life while guiding us toward the next one. They reinforce what is important, remind us of what our cultural values are.

Rites function the same way in the church. You may be thinking, “My church doesn’t have any of this stuff.” Au contraire. Unless you wing it each and every Lord’s Day (which I cannot recommend), you follow a set order of worship — a prescribed ritual, if you will. Even if it’s “song-communion-song-prayer-reading-preaching-two more songs,” it’s still a liturgy, still ritualistic. You have a set way of observing the Table. A protocol for baptism. Outlines for funerals. Specific elements for a proper wedding. All of these are rites or rituals. All of these are specific things used as religious ceremonies and/or carried out in a pre-determined fashion towards a specific (religious) end.

These things don’t inherently detract from the proclamation of the gospel; instead, they enable and magnify it. No matter what the “religion is bad but Jesus is good” crowd may try to say, this sort of religious observance is implicitly an act of faith (more on those guys here). Baptism is considered the Christian rite of initiation, but very, very few have ever suggested we give it up because it’s a ritual. No serious reader of the Bible could look at Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and declare “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be abandoned! They’re ritualistic! They’re rites! Jesus never wanted us to do such ‘religious’ things!” I mean, he commanded them. Christ established these rites and bade us do them. What makes us think all such things are evil? How can they detract from the message of the gospel, of Christ and him crucified, when they are biblically pronounced proclamations of his death and a sharing in his resurrection? They are the gospel, enacted and visible words for all to see.

All rites and rituals should be so.

Every physical act of worship should be about Jesus, whether it’s the meet-and-greet or the benediction. Every ounce of our rituals points to the head of the church, Jesus Christ. We were created, wired to do such things. Let us do them in the name of the Creator, for the sake of the one who saved us and the Spirit who dwells within us.

In so doing, let us use these rites to teach the lost what it looks like to be saved.

The Panic Panic

Before I left for seminary, I was given a word of caution from a friend who was already there: “Every single guy here is panicking about not being married. Don’t do that.” At the time, I admit I thought it was an exaggeration. And, in fairness, it was — to a certain degree. It held much truth for many, though. Both prevailing opinion and the job market think it best for clergy to be married before serving the church in a ministerial role. The push to get an “MRS” over the “MDiv” resulted in a few fun jokes about seminary dating culture. My favorites were “The odds are good, but the goods are odd,” and, “There are three stages to seminary dating: talking, engaged, and married.”

Along with a handful of other friends, I graduated with M.Div. in hand and no work done towards the MRS. This is probably because 1) my course loads were crazy (self-imposed, largely, but crazy) and 2) I never panicked about it. I’m not one particularly given to panic anyway, and I applied the same attitude to dating and marriage. As a result of my laissez-faire attitude, I did lose a great many prospective employers — but God still put me where I needed to be. I’m routinely asked about my wife or how many children I have, as single pastors are truly anomalous in my ministry context, but I politely answer and shift the topic. No panic there.

It’s not just the pressure to marry which can induce panic in a person, though, is it? Work is the biggest stressor most people have. True on-the-job emergencies happen. Bosses can come down a bit too heavy-handedly. Uncertainty and confusion abound in a results-driven atmosphere. On the flip side, being unemployed causes just as much panic for some.

And then you come home from work, and an all-new set of panic triggers presents itself. Bills have to be paid, and your creditors don’t care about your hours being cut. Your spouse and children all have wants and needs, all requiring you to devote resources to them (including your own time). The dog had an accident on the couch again, little Billy poured bleach in the aquarium, no one bothered to put a new roll of toilet paper on the roller — oh, and by the way, your mother-in-law called, and she’ll be here tomorrow to spend a week with her grandbabies.

Panicking yet?

What about if I add an oil leak in your car? A failing report card? The church asking you to serve on a committee? (The horror!)

Panicking now?

Panic is a response to many things, even things other people may think nothing about (like parties or making phone calls). I suppose it’s a misapplication of the fight-or-flight instinct. You can’t do both at once, or perhaps they’re in overdrive and demand an immediate external, physical response to the psychological turmoil within. It could be the brain’s inability to process so many stimuli simultaneously. I really don’t know. All I know is sometimes panic sets in, takes over, and rules one’s life.

I don’t want to minimize the impact of panic and anxiety. Telling someone “just don’t think about it” has never helped. Never. Not a single person. Sometimes it requires counseling and medication to get a sense of panic under control. If you need that kind of help, please seek it. Please get the treatment you need to get well. There is no shame in this.

Even if you don’t suffer from panic attacks, and ceteris paribus, most of us have no reason to panic, regardless of the situation facing us. Yes, life is difficult and uncertain; as a character from a favorite movie once said, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Even in the pain and panic, however, we as Christians have hope. We know there’s light at the end of the tunnel because we know the light of the world. We know we will suffer, but we also know we will be delivered. We don’t worry or panic because God cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

This is the great truth Christ taught in the last pericope of Matthew 6. “Therefore I tell you,” Jesus says, “do not worry.” The Father knows our needs. He treasures us, values us above the rest of creation. When we seek God, He takes care of us. Worrying doesn’t help. Anxiety and panic serve no purpose. Our faith and trust in God sees us through. Our belief in His goodness and love should outweigh our belief in the world to overwhelm us. That is how we avoid panicking. Trust God to act in the right ways at the right moments, and do everything you can to be ready when He does. (This means, fellow single ministers, to look for a spouse [as God wills] without proposing on every first date.)

May the One who calmed the sea calm the storms which arise in the hearts of Men. Amen.

In Awesome Wonder

When you’re but a wee child, everything is new, mysterious, and wonderful. Nothing is mundane or ordinary. The eyes of a child can see the beauty and the tragedy in all things, regardless of what they are, and respond in awe. We all know this to be true, else phrases like “childlike wonder” wouldn’t exist. I suppose it’s a function of inexperience, of naivete, of innocence. Whatever it is, it’s, well, wonderful.

But children grow up. As we age, we seem to lose our senses of wonder and amazement. (If you don’t believe me, try to impress someone.) Adults think we’ve seen it all; nothing is new under the sun. We stop seeing some things entirely, letting our minds fill in the scenery around us — or at least I hope I’m not the only one who hears “a couple of years” every time I ask “How long has that been there.” Things fade into the background, become routine, and cease to make us gasp in amazement.

I wonder sometimes if that’s why worship is unattractive.

People leave the church, stop coming to worship, all the time. It’s currently estimated that around 70% (70!) of young adults who were raised in church no longer attend services. I can’t speak for all 70%, but I’m willing to bet that for a great many of them, worship became routine. Every week at the same time they gathered in the same place to sing the same songs, say the same prayers, hear the same sermons, eat the same bread and drink the same wine. It became boring, dull, and predictable. They never encountered a dynamic, living God, an all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present deity who did wild and wonderful things. The Savior of the Universe never did anything exciting, anything requiring imagination and demanding awe.

Recent trends in theology haven’t helped that. Instead of maintaining an emphasis on the mystical and the Other, we’ve focused on concrete rationalism. Apologetics is of inestimable value, don’t get me wrong, but when our corporate worship feels more like a lecture hall than a temple, we’ve misplaced our priorities. It’s true we must make an appeal to the mind, demonstrating a logically consistent and coherent faith. But aren’t we commanded to worship with heart, body, and soul as well? Does the body worship if it never has to do anything to participate in the service? Is the heart moved by data alone? Can a soul be impacted without the mysterious and the numinous?

Liturgical, “high church” worship leaves more room for mystery, true, but I believe it can and should be a part of any worship style. No matter the denomination or the order of service, the worshiper should experience a sense of awe, of wonder. The architecture of the building plays a part in this, as does the decor. The music can help, the prayers can help, the sermon can help. A proper celebration of the sacraments is one of the biggest contributing factors; who can truly grasp the provision of God’s grace through material things and not come away with a sense of wonder?

All of these things, though, should be presentations of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Songs, prayers, sacraments, and sermons all should point us to the crucified and risen Lord — and if they fail to do so, they can’t properly be termed Christian. Without the gospel, there is no worship. Without the gospel, there is no church.

Without the gospel, there is no mystery.

For what can be more mysterious than a God who was dead and yet lives? Than a God who put on flesh and became a perfect man while remaining fully divine? Than a God who loves us enough to do that? Than a single God existing in three Persons so He could do that?

Folks, that’s mysterious. And the proper response to mystery is wonder. Wonder, amazement, a sense of Something Beyond, something incomprehensible and fantastic and awesome. That’s who God is. And if we realize that’s the God we worship, then our praise will never be dull or routine again. Each Lord’s Day will have its own wonderment, its own special feeling of divinity. It will be something we yearn for, a thing longed for and sought after, a thing so different from the mundanity of life it arrests our senses, demands the fullness of body, mind, heart, and soul, and never permits us to simply sit idle and fill in the gaps by rote memory.

It will be something wonderful.

F.A.Q.: The Age of the Scam

A friend recently approached me with an idea for a post. His question was a good one, and a fairly common one. Well, common in that we all address it at some point, not so much in the “I get asked this every day” sort of way. Simply put, today’s topic is this: how are we to give to those in need at a time when everyone seems to be running a scam?

I think there are a few underlying assumptions to the question. First of all, no one should argue we simply tighten the pursestrings and stop giving completely. As long as there’s need in the world, Christians should give — and (spoilers!) there will always be need. As Christ says in Mark 14:7 (referencing Deuteronomy 15:11), “The poor you will always have with you.” Our broken, sin-ridden world will always contain poverty, always have the “have nots.” We, as followers of the Way, must do kingdom work, things which help usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth. Part of that work is sacrificially giving to anyone who asks, including our enemies: “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:40-42). That’s sacrificial giving; this is the command of Christ to all who give.

But the question is about more than just recognizing we need to give, isn’t it? There are two other key elements at play here. One is the recognition of a depraved world, and the other is a matter of stewardship, or, to put it another way, how I share and store my resources in ways that honor God.

Taking these two in order, then, presents us with the reality of sin. As I said before, sin is directly responsible for poverty; it is an evil condition which would not exist were it not for the fall of our first parents. (In case anyone misread that, let me repeat: poor people aren’t evil just because they’re poor; poverty itself is a societal evil resulting from systemic sin [and probably the personal sins of other people, too].) The real sins being addressed by a question about scams, though, are greed and deceit. Human beings can be so greedy, so selfish, so full of avarice, they lie and cheat their way into wealth. Some people asking for money are professional panhandlers. I distinctly remember one woman in Wichita who stood at her place every day, cardboard sign in hand, smoking cigarettes and wearing various rather fashionable outfits, any one of which would have taken me a while to pay for on a pastor’s salary. People play on the pity of others to rob their peers to support themselves. It happens.

That leads us to the final point, the heart of the question itself: if we are to give, but if some people wanting help are schmucks, how should I take care of the resources God has given me? The concept of stewardship appears as early as the creation mandates of Genesis 1-2. Humans were tasked with ruling the rest of the created order, to tend the garden and take care of the earth. We can’t do that if we destroy it all (one basis of the Christian argument for environmentalism and conservation). We instead care for these natural resources and use them wisely. Our wealth is no different and is subject to the same stewardship concerns. We must use wealth properly, both rightly (for the proper causes) and wisely (for the proper reasons). To that end, many churches have established set processess to manage their giving. Some have lengthy applications which are then checked against a database to see if someone has regularly requested aid and thus might be trying to bilk yet another church. Others have committees who meet with people at a specified time, utilizing group discernment in the process. Both are good models, and so are many others out there. In this way, the church protects herself and acts as a good steward of the treasure given by her members.

Individuals rarely have access to this kind of thing. Sometimes we have time to sit down with the person, hear his/her story, and listen to the Holy Spirit. If we can invest this kind of effort, we should. It enables us to check the story for consistency, ask appropriate questions, and pray over the person and the situation. With facts in hand, it’s easier to decide if they genuinely need help or if they’re trying to take advantage of you. Unfortunately, most of these requests don’t allow us that much time. People on off-ramps and at red lights require us to make snap judgments about them. Here are my personal guidelines for these situations (but if you know of a better way, let me know — I’m always open to suggestions).

  1. Don’t give money; directly address the need. If the person says they’re hungry, either take them out for a meal or buy food to bring back to them. If they need a place to stay, pay for a room for a night or give them a lift to a shelter. This way you can control how you money is spent and ensure it goes where it’s needed.
  2. Know the aid organizations in your area. For most things, aid programs exist to help specifically with that need. Familiarize yourself with what is available in your area and connect the person with those organizations. If a person says the program refused to help them — or if they’re unwilling to go there to seek aid — it should be a red flag for you.
  3. Try to get a read of the person. If you have to decide whether or not to help immediately, make sure you know who you’re dealing with as best you can. Is the person in obvious need given their general state (appearance, attitude, etc.), or do they give a different impression (like the woman in Wichita)? Trust your gut.
  4. Always pray. Always. The Holy Spirit will direct you, whether you have two seconds or two hours. Always ask God about what to do in each circumstance.
  5. When in doubt, give anyway. If I personally can’t discern what to do, I give and pray God will move them to use the gift properly. Some will call me naive or a “soft touch” for this, but I ultimately place my faith in God that if I give both shirt and coat, He can handle it from there.

Again, if you know of better approaches, please let me know!

Those guidelines apply more to people than organizations. If a group sends you a letter wanting money, laugh all the way to the paper shredder. Wait. No. Do your research first. Check out their website. Read their profile at Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau, or a similar watchdog site. Ask others if they know anything about them. Pray. Then do what you believe God wants you to do.

Sadly, even the most cautious of us will get burned eventually, whether we ever know it or not. That doesn’t mean we stop our charity, though. It means we resolve to give even though people cheat us. That gives me my final rule about giving in the age of the scam:

Love them like Jesus.