As the Eleventh Doctor regenerates and becomes the Twelfth, he utters one of the most profound thoughts on personal development in television history: “We all change. When you think about it, we’re all different people all through our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good; you’ve gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.” (If you don’t watch Doctor Who, you should.) Becoming a different person means something a bit more literal for a Time Lord than for us humans, but the principle holds: each of us are different people over time.

You may initially reject that assertion. “Wait,” you say aloud to your computer screen, even though it can’t hear you, “that’s just not so. I’m the same person I’ve always been. I mean, I’m taller than I once was, and my face has changed a bit, the body is a little worse for wear, and don’t get me started on the amount of grey in my hair, but it’s still me.” And that’s all quite true. You are still you, regardless of those physical, superficial changes to your exterior form. But I’m not talking exteriors. I’m talking interiors, interiors you’ve redecorated time and time again over the course of a lifetime.

Who among us can, with any semblance of veracity, aver your desires, wants, feelings, thoughts, interests, &c. remain wholly unchanged since your earliest recollections of them? When you were four, for example, you wanted to be an astronaut and run about in your underpants. (OK, bad example; some of you still want that.) Do you still hate your vegetables, or do you suddenly find yourself ordering carrots when you go out? Sure, you wanted to be president, but then you noticed how rapidly the Commander in Chief seems to age while in office, and now you’d rather give it a miss. As a matter of fact, you’ve abandoned a thousand dreams about various vocations. Your tastes have changed numerous times — not just your taste in food, but in music, clothing (we all had a goth phase), movies, significant others, books, you name it.

You’ve done what you swore you’d never do — and loved it. You turned thirty, forty, fifty, with great aplomb. Your temper gained a longer fuse with different triggers. Your mind began analyzing different points of view and recognized their value and validity. You reformed your ways, gave up your vices. Or perhaps you grew cold, bitter, distant, arrogant, aloof, calculating, and hedonistic. Sometimes change is good; sometimes it’s bad; it’s always different.

So whether you’ve said it yourself or someone else has said it for you, the fact remains: you’re not the person you used to be.

Odds are, you’re not at present the person you will be in the future, either. We constantly change, constantly grow, constantly morph into a different person.

On the negative side, as comic books teach us, all it takes to turn us for the worse sometimes is one bad day. Some trauma with which we simply cannot cope can send us over the edge, make us a darker person.

To make us an entirely new creation of light and holiness and goodness, however, takes the power of the Holy Spirit. Whether they deliberately borrowed the term or not, the early writers of Doctor Who chose the same word to describe the Doctor becoming a new person as theologians use for the moment we become new creations in Christ: regeneration. Through regeneration, the Holy Spirit makes us a different person:

“You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Colossians 3:9b-10)

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone; the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24)

What does this mean for us? It means when we become Christians, we do away with our old sinful ways. We turn from addictions, chains, hurts, habits, and hang-ups. We instead bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We are no longer who we once were. We’re different people, new people, better people, forgiven people.

That’s the true gift of regeneration.

The Reluctant Political Blogger

I tried. I really did. I even solidly succeeded until now, a mere four weeks out from Election Day. The last thing the American people need right now is a thirty-year-old minister writing another political blog about the Christian view of this wretched campaign, but an article began circulating today from another blogger, and it demands a response. As you know, I have criteria for this sort of thing, and anything I write of this ilk must meet three requirements: 1) it needs to be said; 2) it needs to be said by me; 3) it needs to be said by me right now. This meets those criteria.

And so . . .

As much as I love political theology, I’m an abstract thinker. I like talking in generalities more than nuts-and-bolts specifics. That’s why I deeply enjoy reading theological critiques of political systems and ideologies but remain loathe to tell people how to vote at times. Sometimes the choice is clear, and I can unabashedly support a policy or candidate because of my interpretation of the Bible. Other times it’s so murky — and I take so seriously my role as teacher and its associated stricter judgment — that I can’t tell people to vote one way or the other without great reservations. I don’t want to endorse the wrong candidate or position and falsely lead others into error. (That’s true for everything I do, but particularly applicable here, in a realm of deep division and ambiguity.) Where the Bible is clear, we are bold; where it is silent, we are cautious. I fully believe Scripture can give us a proper answer to any proper question, but sometimes that’s more a matter of digging and induction than it is a thing of citing chapter and verse.

This is one of the former moments. And yet it’s a monumental decision to make. The future, the fabric of our country will depend on the candidate who makes it into the White House. Don’t get me wrong, though: any president has limited power, and so those possible futures also depend largely on literally hundreds of other people. But the president leads the way. The president, too, has checks on the power of those people, most notably in the veto and the appointment of Supreme Court justices. All of these factors must be considered when weighing our options and evaluating the (inevitably false) promises of the ones running for our land’s highest office. So let’s keep our heads about us and remember we trust in God, not the president, for the good of our nation.

Short of some delightful deus ex machina rolling around in the next twenty-eight days which will remove both major party candidates from the running, one of the two of them will be our next president, the next face and voice of the American people. I say “one of the two of them” because, well, let’s face it, this is America. Our first-past-the-post, zero sum game of a political system makes it nigh impossible for a third party candidate to win. Third party candidates are extremely important, however, because they help gauge the attitudes of the public. The more votes a 3PC gets, the more the other two parties think about the platform of said third party and why so many people support it. In this election, the Johnson-Weld ticket is garnering support simply because many see it as a more morally acceptable choice than Clinton-Kaine or Trump-Pence. (I don’t, but that’s because I find the social policies of libertarianism are biblically indefensible.) Votes of conscience aside, we will have either the next President Clinton or the first President Trump come January.

[Brief Aside: your vote is a vote for your candidate, regardless of probability of success. Don’t succumb to the bully’s tactic of “a vote for not(X) is really a vote for Y.” It’s not. Your vote is counted for your candidate. By this failed logic, any vote for not(Y) is a vote for X, and so everyone is actually voting for every other candidate on the ballot other than the bully’s preference.]

If, then, I cannot support the Libertarians as a biblically and morally acceptable candidate, who can I? No one, as sad and as terrifying as that is. I realize we vote for both candidates and parties; both are factors in how we decide to cast our ballots. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating here: Christ is nonpartisan. You will not see an elephant, nor a donkey, behind the throne of God. Policies on both sides are frankly appalling from a biblical viewpoint, and we thus cannot delude ourselves into saying Jesus votes Republican/Democrat/Labour/Tory/Monster Loony/Green/etc. We are free, then, to say we align with a majority of a party’s beliefs, and perhaps even Scripture does as well, and that majority suffices to secure our endorsement/affiliation. For some, party allegiance is enough to make them vote for anyone the party puts on the ticket. For others, like me, party is a consideration, but it ultimately comes down to the personal policies of the individual running under the party banner. Sometimes the opposing party’s candidate seems more theologically sound, and thus my vote goes to him/her.

In terms of this election, well, it’s rough. Democrats stand in opposition to God on such things as abortion and marriage. Republicans oppose God in their treatment of refugees and promotion of private business above clear public good. The candidates themselves make the decision no easier. On the one hand, we have a hateful, egotistical pathological liar, and on the other hand, there’s a hateful, egotistical pathological liar. One candidate has committed indefensible atrocities and promotes horrific policies; the other has said indefensible statement and promotes something akin to the early stages of a nascent fascism. Godlessness abounds on both sides. Most Americans — and virtually all Christians — speak of voting for a lesser of the two evils. I’ll leave that logic to your own conscience, but remember this: the lesser of two evils is still evil, and your vote is an endorsement of that evil.

I think the most common Christian argument I hear for Mr. Trump (I’ve only heard one for Mrs. Clinton) is that “The Donald” has the potential for good. This sort of utilitarian “greater good” argument typically refers to the nomination of future Supreme Court justices. It’s true that a Court populated by Clinton nominees would have disastrous consequences, literally resulting in untold numbers of deaths (via expanded abortion) and a massive push to privatize religion in every way. But is the possibility of a more conservative Court, the hope of staving off these things worth a guaranteed Trump White House? Is the damage he is also likely to potentially cause a worthwhile price to pay for the potential good he could do? I’m not one for utilitarianism myself, and I quite doubt the ends always justify the means. Since I rather lack the gift of prophecy, I can’t tell you what the man would do; I can’t even guarantee what Mrs. Clinton would do. All I can say is I personally don’t believe nebulous possible futures are a sufficient reason to vote for an evil candidate — and the more idyllic, the more utopian those futures seem to be, the stronger my skepticism grows.

The enraging article serving as the proximate impetus for this blog called Mr. Trump a Christian far above the likes of a pastor/writer I admire deeply. Mr. Trump may now be a baptized Christian; he may not. I can’t judge his soul. But until I see the fruit of the Spirit displayed in his life — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — I will have my doubts. (For the same reason, I am skeptical of Mrs. Clinton’s claims to biblical Christianity.) And to play the “holier than thou” game with a deeply devout Christian makes me fear for the souls of some of Mr. Trump’s followers as well. I’m not sure of the criteria for holiness they used, but they are flatly unbiblical.

Similarly I find it difficult to digest the comparisons made between either candidate and some of the more colorful biblical figures such as Samson, Jacob, and Simon Peter. Does God use imperfect men and women to accomplish His divine purposes? He has to if He want to involve humans, as there are no perfect men and women to carry His standard. But each biblical figure who did great things did so in the name and fear of God, proclaiming His holy work in power and humility. Can anyone tell me either candidate is doing the same — that they will do the same? No. You can’t. Because they don’t and they won’t, regardless of whatever evangelical leaders endorse them for their thirty pieces of silver. Frankly I consider both candidates to be evidence of God’s judgment upon this nation, wicked rulers, not a hero(ine) in the name of Christ.

I apologize if I’ve seemed harsher with Mr. Trump, but more Christians endorse him. They make arguments in his favor, whereas most Christians recognize Mrs. Clinton is impossible to endorse from an orthodox Christian paradigm.

Where does this leave us? Well, I’m not telling you who to vote for. I’m not saying a specific wunderKandidat will singlehandedly keep Christianity out of the shadows (because they can’t, and the Church is healthier when it is costly). But I do ask you to examine Scripture — all of it. Search it and get a feel for the will of God for the world. Take the gospel of Jesus Christ to heart and openly apply it to all facets of the public sphere, including this election. Discover how the Holy Spirit would have you vote to seek the good of this land, our nation of captivity.

And may God have mercy on us all when we go to the polls.

Theological Mongrelism

In my own words, I’m a theological mutt. I was raised in a Christian Church congregation with a Missionary Baptist pastor; I attended a Southern Baptist university; my M.Div. is from a nondenominational Wesleyan evangelical (read: United Methodist) seminary. For a time, I attended an Episcopal cathedral, and I was once three months away from becoming a Roman Catholic priest, having attended Mass for some time and fallen in love with it. At the end of the day, I returned to my roots, convinced of the doctrine of the Restoration Movement (although I took a detour through a Disciples of Christ congregation on my way back to the ICC/CoC branch of Restorationism). My faith journey is the church equivalent of “I’ve Been Everywhere.” A seminary friend dubbed me the most ecumenical man alive, and I once frequently answered to “Anglo-Baptist” and “Catholo-Baptist.” I’m a mix of many different breeds, and so I call myself a theological mutt.

But there’s much to be said for theological mongrelism. It gives you the sampler platter of denominations and worship styles. You get a feel for differences in dogma, and those discrepancies force you to reevaluate your personal beliefs. It’s impossible to live an unexamined faith amid so many different interpretations of the same. And why would you want to? Only the proverbial ostrich buries its head in the sand, and only stereotypically insane fundamentalists and patronizing Orthodox refuse to ever question their adiaphora. (Those are jokes.) Do we question the divinity of Christ or the efficacy of the atonement? Absolutely not. But what about weekly Communion? Entire sanctification? The role of the magisterium or polities in general?

Let’s talk about all of those things. Let’s find out what the Bible says and how pertinent passages have been historically interpreted. And if there isn’t Scripture addressing a concern, let’s reason together to formulate a Christian paradigm for it. In short, let’s pull from the best each denomination has to offer and go for it.

And I do believe each faith tradition has value. It may turn my stomach to realize there are over 3,000 distinct denominations in the world, but each of those 3,000+ groups brings something unique to the theological banquet. We may not agree in particulars, but we can recognize their wisdom in generals. For example, I wholeheartedly disagree with the distinctive Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification, but I deeply appreciate the emphasis on personal, scriptural holiness which stems from it. I don’t subscribe to transubstantiation, but I love the reverence of a Roman celebration of the Eucharist, an awe impossible if one did not truly believe one were in the presence of the literal body and blood of Jesus. We all should look at our brothers and sisters of other denominations and learn from them, appreciate their unique contributions to our faith.

Of course, the reverse is also true. If every denomination gets something right, we all also get something wrong. Most of these errors are precisely that: error, not heresy, a problem in adiaphora, not a misunderstanding of diaphora. Heresy we are quite correct to condemn. I can’t imagine a true Christian willing to believe in Arianism, for example, nor unitarianism, gnosticism, Montanism, polytheism, or that the Bible is a work of fiction. Minor things can be left alone; major things never can. And before we rebuke an entire faith tradition just for a minor issue about which we happen to disagree, let’s look at our own denominational dogma and see what error we may have secretly slipped into, shall we?

So while my call is to learn from each other, to become theological mongrels, we must do so judiciously. We can’t just accept something in toto without a certain level of biblically-based scrutiny. As The Incredibles might have said it, if you stand for everything, you stand for nothing. But there’s nothing wrong with adopting the beliefs of others if such beliefs are biblical (or at least not unbiblical). Maybe an ecumenical spirit, a listening ear of this nature will open the door to greater interdenominational dialogue and cooperation.

That’s the ultimate ecclesiological goal, isn’t it? To lay aside our differences, heal our schisms, and restore the integrity of the Church Catholic. It’s a pipe dream, and I know it, but it’s still a dream. We cling to our respective distinctives too tightly to ever recombine into a single denomination. But we are always one Church, a single body of all baptized believers, regardless of doctrinal disparities. We all share the same God, the same Christ, the same salvation, the same baptism (Eph 4:3-6). We all are charged with the same holy commission (Mt 28:18-20). We all strive to win the crown of eternal life and to see others join us in that race. We are truly “one brotherhood united in service and love.”

Therefore, sisters and brothers, let us be one even as God is one. Let us work together, worship together in spirit and in truth, and learn from each other.

Let’s commit a bit of theological mongrelism.

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.


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.